The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 130

   

“It is none of your concern, I assure you.” Fentiman bristled like a banty rooster, drawing himself upright. Rather grandly, he presented me with his arm.

“Come, Mrs. Fraser. You need not be exposed to the insulting gibes of this puppy.” He glared at Wylie, red-eyed. “Allow me to escort you back to your husband.”

Wylie’s face underwent an instant transformation at the word “puppy,” turning a deep, ugly red. So early in the morning, he was wearing neither paint nor powder, and the blotches of fury stood out like a rash on his fair skin. He seemed to swell noticeably, like an enraged frog.

I had a sudden urge to laugh hysterically, but nobly suppressed it. Biting my lip instead, I accepted the doctor’s proffered arm. He came up roughly to my shoulder, but pivoted on his bare heel and marched us away with all the dignity of a brigadier.

Looking back over my shoulder, I saw Wylie still standing under the willow tree, staring after us. I lifted my hand and gave him a small wave of farewell. The light sparked from my gold ring, and I saw him stiffen further.

“I do hope we’ll be in time for breakfast,” Doctor Fentiman said cheerfully. “I believe I have quite recovered my appetite.”

51

SUSPICION

THE GUESTS BEGAN TO DEPART after breakfast. Jocasta and Duncan stood together on the terrace, the very picture of a happily united couple, bidding everyone farewell, as a line of carriages and wagons made its slow way down the drive. Those folk from downriver waited on the quay, the women exchanging last-minute recipes and bits of gossip, while the gentlemen lit pipes and scratched themselves, relieved of their uncomfortable clothes and formal wigs. Their servants, all looking considerably the worse for wear, sat openmouthed and red-eyed on bundles of luggage.

“You look tired, Mama.” Bree looked rather tired herself; she and Roger had both been up ’til all hours. A faint smell of camphor wafted from her clothes.

“Can’t imagine why,” I replied, stifling a yawn. “How’s Jemmy this morning?”

“He’s got a sniffle,” she said, “but no fever. He ate some porridge for breakfast, and he’s—”

I nodded, listened automatically, and went with her to examine Jemmy, who was cheerfully rambunctious, if runny-nosed, all in a slight daze of exhaustion. It reminded me of nothing so much as the sensation I had had now and then when flying from America to England. Jet lag, they called it; an odd feeling, of being conscious and lucid, and yet not quite solidly fixed within one’s body.

The girl Gussie was watching Jemmy; she was as pale and bloodshot as everyone else on the premises, but I thought her air of dull suffering derived from emotional distress rather than hangover. All the slaves had been affected by Betty’s death; they went about the chores of clearing up after the wedding festivities in near-silence, their faces shadowed.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her, when I had finished looking in Jemmy’s ears and down his throat.

She looked startled, then confused; I wondered whether anyone had ever asked her that before.

“Oh. Oh, yes, Madam. Surely.” She smoothed down her apron with both hands, clearly nervous at my scrutiny.

“All right. I’ll just go and have a look at Phaedre, then.”

I had come back to the house with Dr. Fentiman and turned him over to Ulysses, to be fed and tidied up. I had then gone directly to find Phaedre, taking time only to wash and change my clothes—not wanting to come to her so visibly smeared with her mother’s blood.

I had found her in Ulysses’s pantry, sitting numb and shocked on the stool where he sat to polish silver, a large glass of brandy by her side, undrunk. One of the other slaves, Teresa, was with her; she breathed a short sigh of relief at my appearance and came to greet me.

“She’s none sae weel,” Teresa muttered to me, shaking her head with a wary glance back at her charge. “She’s no said a word, nor wept a drop.”

Phaedre’s beautiful face might have been carved of fruitwood; normally a delicate cinnamon, her complexion had faded to a pale, ligneous brown, and her eyes stared fixedly through the open door of the pantry at the blank wall beyond.

I put a hand on her shoulder; it was warm, but so motionless that she might have been a stone in the sun.

“I am sorry,” I said to her, softly. “Very sorry. Dr. Fentiman came to her; he did all that he could.” That was true; no point in giving an opinion of Fentiman’s skill—it was irrelevant now, in any case.

No response. She was breathing; I could see the slight rise and fall of her bosom, but that was all.

I bit the inside of my lower lip, trying to think of anything or anyone that might possibly give her comfort. Jocasta? Did Jocasta even know of Betty’s death yet? Duncan knew, of course, but he might have chosen not to tell her until after the guests had left.

“The priest,” I said, the idea occurring suddenly to me. “Would you like Father LeClerc to—to bless your mother’s body?” I thought it rather too late for Last Rites—assuming that Phaedre knew what those were—but I was sure that the priest would not mind offering any comfort he could. He had not left yet; I had seen him in the dining room only a few moments since, polishing off a platter of pork-chops garnished with fried eggs and gravy.

A slight tremor went through the shoulder under my hand. The still, beautiful face turned toward me, dark eyes opaque.

“What good will that do?” she whispered.

“Ah . . . well . . .” Flustered, I groped for a reply, but she had already turned away, staring at a stain in the wood of the table.

What I had done in the end was to give her a small dose of laudanum—an irony I resolutely ignored—and tell Teresa to put her to bed on the cot where she normally slept, in the dressing room off Jocasta’s boudoir.

I pushed open the door of the dressing room now, to see how she was. The small room was windowless and dark, smelling of starch and burnt hair and the faint flower fragrance of Jocasta’s toilet water. A huge armoire and its matching chiffonier stood at one side, a dressing table at the other. A folding screen marked off the far corner, and behind this was Phaedre’s narrow cot.

I could hear her breathing, slow and deep, and felt reassured by that. I moved quietly through the dark room, and pulled back the screen a little; she lay on her side, turned away, curled into a ball with her knees drawn up.

Bree had come into the dressing room behind me; she looked over my shoulder, her breath warm on my ear. I made a small gesture indicating that everything was all right, and pushed the screen back into place.

Just inside the door to the boudoir, Brianna paused. She turned to me suddenly, put her arms about me, and hugged me fiercely. In the lighted room beyond, Jemmy missed her and began to shriek.

“Mama! Ma! Ma-MA!”

I THOUGHT I ought to eat something, but with the smell of the attic and the scent of toilet water still lingering in the back of my sinuses, I had no appetite. A few guests still lingered in the dining room; particular friends of Jocasta’s, they would be staying on for a day or two. I nodded and smiled as I passed, but ignored the invitations to come and join them, instead heading for the stairs to the second floor.

The bedroom was empty, the mattresses stripped and the windows opened to air the room. The hearth had been swept and the room was cold, but blessedly quiet.

My own cloak still hung in the wardrobe. I lay down on the bare ticking, pulled the cloak over me, and fell instantly asleep.

I WOKE JUST BEFORE sunset, starving, with an oddly mixed sense of reassurance and unease. The reassurance I understood at once; the scent of blood and flowers had been replaced by one of shaving soap and body-warmed linen, and the pale gold light streaming through the window shone on the pillow beside me, where a long red-gold hair glinted in the hollow left by someone’s head. Jamie had come and slept beside me.

As though summoned by my thought, the door opened and he smiled in at me. Shaved, combed, freshly dressed, and clear-eyed, he seemed to have erased all traces of the night before—bar the expression on his face when he looked at me. Frowsy and ill-kempt as I was by contrast with his own neat appearance, the look of tenderness in his eyes warmed me, in spite of the lingering chill in the room.

“Awake at last. Did ye sleep well, Sassenach?”

“Like the dead,” I replied automatically, and felt a small internal lurch as I said it.

He saw it reflected on my face, and came swiftly to sit down on the bed beside me.

“What is it? Have ye had an evil dream, Sassenach?”

“Not exactly,” I said slowly. In fact, I had no memory of having dreamed at all. And yet, my mind appeared to have been ticking away in the shadows of unconsciousness, making notes and drawing its deductions. Prompted now by the word “dead,” it had just presented me with its conclusions, which accounted for the feeling of unease with which I had awoken.

“That woman Betty. Have they buried her yet?”

“No. They’ve washed the body and put it in a shed, but Jocasta wished to wait until the morning for the burial, so as not to trouble her guests. Some are staying on for another night.” He frowned slightly, watching me. “Why?”

I rubbed a hand over my face, less to rouse myself than to collect my words.

“There’s something wrong. About her death, I mean.”

“Wrong . . . how?” One eyebrow lifted. “It was a fearful way to die, to be sure, but that’s not what ye mean, is it?”

“No.” My hands were cold; I reached automatically for his, and he took them, engulfing my fingers with warmth. “I mean—I don’t believe it was a natural death. I think someone killed her.”

Blurted out that way, the words hung cold and stark in the air between us.

His brows drew together, and he pursed his lips slightly, thinking. I noticed, though, that he did not reject the idea out of hand, and that strengthened my conviction.

“Who?” he asked at last. “And are ye sure of it, Sassenach?”

“I have no idea. And I can’t be totally sure,” I admitted. “It’s only—” I hesitated, but he squeezed one of my hands lightly in encouragement. I shook my head. “I’ve been a nurse, a doctor, a healer, for a long time, Jamie. I’ve seen a dreadful number of people die, and from all sorts of things. I can’t quite put into words what it is here, but now that I’ve slept on it, I just know—I think—it’s wrong,” I ended, rather lamely.

The light was fading; shadows were coming down from the corners of the room, and I shivered suddenly, gripping his hands.

“I see,” he said softly. “But there’s no way ye can tell for sure, is there?”

The window was still half-open; the curtains billowed suddenly into the room with a gust of wind, and I felt the hairs rise on my arms with cold.

“There might be,” I said.

52

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

THE OUTBUILDING where they had put the body was well away from the house—a small toolshed outside the kitchen garden. The waning moon was low in the sky, but still shed light enough to see the brick path through the garden; the espaliered fruit trees spread black as spiderwebs against the walls. Someone had been digging; I could smell the cold damp of recently turned earth, and shivered involuntarily at the hint of worms and mold.

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