The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 133

   

The lungs weren’t working nearly so well as the heart; my breath came short and hard, in gasps that I tried to stifle for fear of detection. What if they dragged Betty’s desecrated body from the shed? They wouldn’t know who had been responsible for the mutilation, but the discovery would cause the most fearful outcry, with resultant wild rumors and public hysteria.

A glow was visible now above the far wall of the kitchen garden; the roof of the shed was beginning to burn, fire-glow showing in brilliant thin lines as the pine shingles began to smoke and curl.

Sweat was prickling behind my ears, but my breath came a little easier when I saw the slaves standing by the far gate in a knot, bunched together in awed silhouette. Of course—they wouldn’t try to put it out, well caught as it was. The nearest water was in the horse troughs; by the time buckets were fetched, the shed would be well on its way to ashes. There was nothing near it that would burn. Best to let it go.

Smoke purled up in quickening billows, high into the air. Knowing what was in the shed, it was much too easy to imagine spectral shapes in the transparent undulations. Then the fire broke through the roof, and tongues of flame lit the smoke from below in an eerie, beautiful glow.

A high-pitched wail broke from behind me, and I started back, banging my elbow against the brick wall. Phaedre had come through the gate, Gussie and another female slave behind her. She ran through the garden, screaming “Mama!” as her white shift caught the light of the flames that now burst through holes in the shed’s roof, showering sparks.

The men by the gate caught her; the women hurried after, reaching for her, calling out in agitation. I tasted blood in my mouth, and realized that I had bitten my lower lip. I closed my eyes convulsively, trying not to hear Phaedre’s frantic cries and the antiphonal babble of her comforters.

A frightful sense of guilt washed over me. Her voice was so like Bree’s, and I could imagine so clearly what Bree might feel, were it my own body, burning in that shed. But there were worse things Phaedre might feel, had I not let loose the fire. My hands were shaking from cold and tension, but I groped for my bag, which I had dropped on the ground at my feet.

My hands felt stiff and dreadful, gummy with drying blood and lymph. I mustn’t—mustn’t—be found this way. I fumbled in the sack with my free hand, finally coming up by feel with a lidded jar, normally used to keep leeches, and the small wash bottle of dilute alcohol and water.

I couldn’t see, but felt blood crack and flake away as I opened my cramped fingers and gingerly scraped the contents of my hand into the jar. I couldn’t grip the cork of the bottle with my shaking fingers; finally I pulled it out with my teeth, and poured the alcohol over my open palm, washing the rest of the grainy residue into the jar.

The house had been roused now; I could hear voices coming from that direction. What was going on? Where was Jamie—and where were Bonnet and Phillip Wylie? Jamie had not been armed with anything save a bottle of holy water; were either of the others? I had heard no shots, at least—but blades made no noise.

I rinsed both hands hastily with the rest of the wash bottle, and dried them on the dark lining of my cloak, where the smears wouldn’t show. People were running back and forth through the garden, shadows flitting along the walkways like phantoms, mere feet from my hiding place. Why did they make no noise? Were they truly people, or shades, somehow roused by my sacrilege?

Then one figure shouted; another replied. I realized dimly that the running people made no sound on the bricks because they were barefoot and because my ears were ringing. My face was tingling with cold sweat, my hands far more numb than chill would account for.

You idiot, Beauchamp, I thought to myself. You’re going to faint. Sit down!

I must have managed to do so, for I came to myself a few moments later, sprawled in the dirt under the raspberry canes, half-leaning against the wall. The kitchen garden seemed full of people by now; jostling pale shapes of guests and servants, indistinguishable as ghosts in their shifts.

I waited for the space of a few breaths, to be sure I was recovered, then lurched awkwardly to my feet and stepped out onto the dark path, bag in hand.

The first person I saw was Major MacDonald, standing on the path watching the shed burn, his white wig gleaming in the light from the fire. I gripped him by the arm, startling him badly.

“What is happening?” I said, not bothering to apologize.

“Where is your husband?” he said in the same moment, peering round me in search of Jamie.

“I don’t know,” I said, all too truthfully. “I’m looking for him.”

“Mrs. Fraser! Are you all right, dear lady?” Lloyd Stanhope popped up by my elbow, looking like a very animated boiled egg in his nightshirt, his polled head startlingly round and pale without his wig.

I assured him that I was quite all right, which I was, by now. It wasn’t until I saw Stanhope and noticed that most of the other gentlemen present were in a similar state of dishabille that I realized the Major was fully clothed, from wig to buckled shoes. My face must have changed as I looked at him, for I saw his brows raise and his gaze run from my bound hair to my shod feet, as he quite obviously noticed the same thing about me.

“I heard shouts of ‘Fire!’ and thought someone might be hurt,” I said coolly, lifting the bag. “I’ve brought my medical kit. Is everyone all right, do you know?”

“So far as I—” MacDonald began, but then sprang back in alarm, grasping my arm and dragging me back, too. The roof gave way with a deep sighing noise, and sparks plumed high, showering down among the crowd in the garden.

Everyone gasped and cried out, falling back. Then there came one of those brief, inexplicable pauses when everyone in a crowd falls suddenly silent at once. The fire was still burning, with a noise like crumpling paper, but over it I could hear a distant shouting. It was a woman’s voice, high and cracked, but strong for all that, and full of fury.

“Mrs. Cameron!” Stanhope exclaimed, but the Major was already making for the house at a run.

53

THE FRENCHMAN’S GOLD

WE FOUND JOCASTA CAMERON INNES on the window seat in her room, clad in her chemise, bound hand and foot with strips of bed linen, and absolutely scarlet-faced with fury. I had no time to take further note of her condition, for Duncan Innes, clad for the night in nothing but his shirt, was lying sprawled on his face on the floor near the hearth.

I rushed over and knelt by him at once, searching for a pulse.

“Is he dead?” The Major peered over my shoulder, evidencing more curiosity than sympathy.

“No,” I said briefly. “Get these people out of here, will you?” The chamber was crammed with guests and servants, all exclaiming over the newly freed Jocasta, expostulating, speculating, and generally making bloody nuisances of themselves. The Major blinked at my peremptory tone, but retired without demur to deal with the situation.

Duncan was certainly alive, and a cursory examination showed me no injury beyond a large lump behind one ear; evidently, he had been clubbed with the heavy silver candlestick which lay beside him on the floor. He had a nasty color, but his pulse was fairly good, and he was breathing evenly. I thumbed open his eyelids, one at a time, and bent close to check his pupils. They stared back at me, glazed, but the same size and not abnormally dilated. So far, so good.

Behind me, the Major was making good use of his military experience, barking orders in a parade-ground voice. Since most of those present were not soldiers, this was having a limited effect.

Jocasta Cameron was having a much greater one. Released from her bonds, she staggered across the room, leaning heavily on Ulysses’s arm, parting the crowd like the waves of the Red Sea.

“Duncan! Where is my husband?” she demanded, turning her head from side to side, blind eyes fierce. People gave way before her, and she reached my side in seconds.

“Who is there?” Her hand swept in a flat arc before her, searching for position.

“It’s me—Claire.” I reached up to touch her hand, guiding her down beside me. Her own fingers were chilled and trembling, and there were deep red marks on her wrists from the bonds. “Don’t worry; I think Duncan will be all right.”

She put out a hand, seeking to see for herself, and I guided her fingers to his throat, setting them on the big vein I could see pulsing at the side of his neck. She uttered a small exclamation and leaned forward, putting both hands on his face, tracing his features with an anxious tenderness that quite moved me, so at odds as it was with her normal autocratic mien.

“They struck him . . . is he badly hurt?”

“I think not,” I assured her. “Only a knock on the head.”

“Are you quite sure?” Her face turned toward me, frowning, and her sensitive nostrils flared. “I smell blood.”

With a small shock, I realized that while my hands were mostly clean, my fingernails were still heavily ringed with dark blood from the impromptu autopsy. I repressed the urge to curl my hands, instead murmuring discreetly, “That’s me, I expect; my courses.” Major MacDonald was glancing curiously in our direction; had he heard her?

There was a stir at the doorway, and I turned. To my immense relief, it was Jamie. He was disheveled, his coat was torn, and he sported what looked like the beginnings of a black eye, but otherwise appeared undamaged.

My relief must have shown on my face, for his grim look softened a little, and he nodded as he met my eye. Then it hardened again, as he saw Duncan. He dropped to one knee beside me.

“He’s all right,” I said, before he could ask. “Someone hit him on the head and tied up your aunt.”

“Aye? Who?” He glanced up at Jocasta, and laid a hand on Duncan’s chest, as though to reassure himself that Duncan was indeed still breathing.

“I havena the slightest notion,” she replied crisply. “If I had, I should have sent men to hunt the ill-deedie shargs down by now.” Her lips tightened into a thin line, and the high color surged back into her face at thought of the assailants. “Did no one see the rascals?”

“I think not, Aunt,” Jamie replied calmly. “With such a boiling in the house, no one kens what to look for, aye?”

I raised one eyebrow at him in silent question. What did he mean by that? Had Bonnet got away? For surely it must have been Bonnet who had invaded Jocasta’s chamber; boiling or no, there couldn’t be multiple violent criminals at large on the same night in a place the size of River Run.

Jamie shook his head briefly. He glanced at my hands, saw the blood under my nails, and raised an eyebrow of his own. Had I discovered anything? Had there been time for me to be sure? I nodded, and a slight shudder went over me; yes, I knew.

Murder, I mouthed to him.

He squeezed my arm in quick reassurance, and glanced over his shoulder; the Major had at last succeeded in pushing most of the crowd out into the hallway, sending the servants for restoratives and refreshments, a groom for the Sheriff in Cross Creek, the men out to search the grounds for possible miscreants, and the ladies down to the salon in a flutter of excited puzzlement. The Major closed the door firmly behind them, then came briskly over to us.

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