The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 134

   

“Shall we get him onto the bed, then?”

Duncan was beginning to stir and groan. He coughed and gagged a little, but fortunately didn’t throw up. Jamie and Major MacDonald got him up, limp arms about their shoulders, and conveyed him to the big four-poster, where they laid him down with complete disregard for the quilted silk coverlet.

With a faint atavistic sense of housewifeliness, I tucked a soft green velvet pillow under his head. It was filled with bran, but crackled faintly under my hand and gave off a strong scent of lavender. Lavender was good for headache, all right, but I wasn’t sure it was quite up to this.

“Where is Phaedre?”

Ulysses had guided Jocasta to her chair, and she sank back in its leather depths, looking suddenly exhausted and old. The color had left her face along with her rage, and her white hair was coming down in straggles round her shoulders.

“I sent Phaedre to bed, Auntie.” Bree had come in, unnoticed in the scrum, and had resisted removal by the Major. She bent over Jocasta, touching her hand with solicitude. “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of you.”

Jocasta put her own hand over Bree’s in gratitude, but sat up straighter, looking puzzled.

“Sent her to bed? Why? And what in God’s name is burning?” She jerked bolt upright, alarmed. “Are the stables afire?” The wind had changed, and the night air was streaming in through a broken pane above the window seat, heavy with the scent of smoke and a faint, dreadful smell of burned flesh.

“No, no! The stables are fine. Phaedre was upset,” Bree explained, with some delicacy. “The shed by the kitchen garden seems to have burned down; her mother’s body . . .”

Jocasta’s face went quite blank for a moment. Then she drew herself up, and an extraordinary look came into her face, something almost like satisfaction, though with a tinge of puzzlement.

Jamie was standing behind me. He evidently saw it, too, for I heard him give a soft grunt.

“Are ye somewhat recovered, Aunt?” he asked.

She turned her face toward him, one eyebrow lifted in sardonic reply.

“I shall be the better for a dram,” she said, accepting the cup that Ulysses set deftly into her hands. “But aye, nephew, I’m well enough. Duncan, though?”

I was sitting by Duncan on the bed, his wrist in my hand, and could feel him coming toward the surface of consciousness, eyelids fluttering and fingers twitching slightly against my palm.

“He’s coming round,” I assured her.

“Give him brandy, Ulysses,” Jocasta commanded, but I stopped the butler with a shake of my head.

“Not quite yet. He’ll choke.”

“Do ye feel yourself equal to telling us what happened, Aunt?” Jamie asked, with a noticeable edge to his voice. “Or must we wait for Duncan to come to himself?”

Jocasta sighed, closing her eyes briefly. She was as good as all the MacKenzies at hiding what she thought, but in this case, it was evident at least that she was thinking, and furiously, at that. The tip of her tongue flicked out, touching a raw spot at the corner of her mouth, and I realized that she must have been gagged as well as bound.

I could feel Jamie behind me, seething with some strong feeling. Near as he was, I could hear his stiff fingers drumming softly on the bedpost. Much as I wanted to hear Jocasta’s story, I wanted even more to be alone with Jamie, to tell him what I had discovered, and to find out what had happened in the darkness of the kitchen garden.

Outside, voices murmured in the hall; not all the guests had dispersed. I caught muffled phrases—“quite burnt up, nothing left but the bones,” “. . . stolen? Don’t know . . .” “. . . check the stables,” “Yes, completely burned . . .” A deep shiver struck me, and I gripped Duncan’s hand hard, fighting a panic that I did not understand. I must have looked odd, for Bree said softly, “Mama?” She was looking at me, brow creased with worry. I tried to smile at her, but my lips felt stiff.

Jamie’s hands settled on my shoulders, large and warm. I had been holding my breath without realizing it; at his touch, I let it out in a small gasp, and breathed again. Major MacDonald glanced curiously at me, but his attention was at once deflected by Jocasta, who opened her eyes and turned her face in his direction.

“It is Major MacDonald, is it not?”

“At your service, Mum.” The Major made an automatic bow, forgetting—as folk often did—that she could not see him.

“I thank ye for your gallant service, Major. My husband and I are most indebted to ye.”

The Major made a politely dismissive sound.

“No, no,” she insisted, straightening up and brushing back her hair with one hand. “Ye’ve been put to great trouble on our account, and we must not impose further on your kindness. Ulysses—take the Major down to the parlor and find him proper refreshment.”

The butler bowed obsequiously—I noticed for the first time that he was dressed in a nightshirt over unbuckled breeches, though he had clapped his wig on his head—and ushered the Major firmly toward the door. MacDonald looked ludicrously surprised and not a little disgruntled at being given the push in this civilized fashion, he having quite obviously intended to stay and hear all the gory details. Still, there was no graceful way of resisting, and he made the best of it, bowing in a dignified manner as he took his leave.

The panic had begun to recede, as bafflingly as it had come. Jamie’s hands radiated a warmth that seemed to spread through my body, and my breath came easily again. I was able to focus my attention on my patient, who had got his eyes open, though he seemed to be regretting it.

“Och, mo cheann!” Duncan squinted against the glow of the lamp, focusing with some difficulty on my face, then rising to Jamie’s behind me. “Mac Dubh—what’s come amiss?”

One of Jamie’s hands left my shoulder, and reached down to tighten on Duncan’s arm.

“Dinna fash yourself, a charaid.” He glanced meaningfully at Jocasta. “Your wife is just about to tell us what has happened. Are ye not, Aunt?”

There was a slight but definite emphasis on the “not,” and Jocasta, thus put on the spot, pursed her lips, but then sighed and sat straight, plainly resigned to the unpleasant necessity of confidence.

“There is no one here but family?”

Being assured that there was not, she nodded, and began.

She had sent away her maid, and been on the point of retiring, she said, when the door from the hall had suddenly opened to admit what she thought were two men.

“I am sure there was more than one—I heard their footsteps, and breathing,” she said, frowning in concentration. “There might have been three, but I think not. Only one of them spoke, though. I think the other must have been someone I ken, for he stayed far away, quite at the end of the room, as though he were afraid I should recognize him by some means.”

The man who had spoken to her was a stranger; she was positive that she had never heard his voice before.

“He was an Irishman,” she said, and Jamie’s hand tightened abruptly on my shoulder. “Well enough spoken, but not a gentleman, by any means.” Her nostrils flared a little, with unconscious disdain.

“No, hardly that,” Jamie said, under his breath. Bree had started slightly at the word “Irishman,” though her face bore no more than a slight frown of concentration as she listened.

The Irishman had been polite, but blunt in his demands; he wanted the gold.

“Gold?” It was Duncan who spoke, but the question was plain on everyone’s face. “What gold? We’ve no money in the house save a few pounds sterling and a bit of the Proclamation money.”

Jocasta’s lips pressed tight. There was no help for it, though; not now. She made a small growling noise in her throat, an inarticulate protest at being compelled to give up the secret she had kept for so long.

“The Frenchman’s gold,” she said, abruptly.

“What?” said Duncan in bewilderment. He touched the lump behind his ear, gingerly, as though convinced it had affected his hearing.

“The French gold,” Jocasta repeated, rather irritably. “That was sent, just before Culloden.”

“Before—” Bree began, wide-eyed, but Jamie interrupted her.

“Louis’s gold,” he said softly. “That’s what ye mean, Aunt? The Stuarts’ gold?”

Jocasta uttered a short laugh, quite without humor.

“Once it was.”

She paused, listening. The voices had moved away from the door, though there were still noises in the hallway. She turned toward Bree, and motioned toward the door.

“Go and see that no one’s got his lug to the keyhole, lass. I havena held my peace these twenty-five years only to spill it to the whole county.”

Bree opened the door briefly, peered out, then closed it, reporting that no one was near.

“Good. Come ye here, lass. Sit by me. But no—first, fetch me the case I showed ye yesterday.”

Looking more than puzzled, Bree vanished into the dressing room, returning with a slender case of worn black leather. She laid it in Jocasta’s lap and settled onto a stool beside her aunt, giving me a look of faint concern.

I was feeling quite myself again, though a faint echo of that odd fear still rang in my bones. I nodded reassuringly to Bree, though, and bent to give Duncan a sip of watered brandy. I knew what it was now, that ancient distress. It was that phrase overheard, the words by chance the same that a small girl had once heard spoken, whispered in the next room by the strangers who had come to say her mother would not be coming back, that she had died. An accident; a crash; fire. Burnt to bones, the voice had said, filled with the awe of it. Burnt to bones, and the desolation of a daughter, forever abandoned. My hand trembled, and the cloudy liquid ran in a trickle down Duncan’s chin.

But that was long ago, and in another country, I thought, steeling myself against the riptide of memory.

And besides . . .

Jocasta drained her own cup, set it down with a small thump, and opened the case in her lap. A gleam of gold and diamonds showed inside, and she lifted out a slender wooden rod that held three rings.

“I had three daughters, once,” she said. “Three girls. Clementina, Seonag, and Morna.” She touched one of the rings, a wide band, set with three large diamonds.

“This was for my girls; Hector gave it to me when Morna was born. She was his, Morna—you know it means ‘beloved’?” Her other hand left the box and stretched out, groping. She touched Bree’s cheek, and Bree took the hand, cradling it between her own.

“I had one living child of each marriage.” Jocasta’s long fingers probed delicately, touching each ring in turn. “Clementina belonged to John Cameron; him I wed when I myself was little more than a child; I bore her at sixteen. Seonag was the daughter of Black Hugh—she was dark, like her sire, but she had my brother Colum’s eyes.” She turned her own blind eyes toward Jamie, briefly, then bent her head back, touching the ring with three diamonds again.

“And then Morna, my last child. She was but sixteen when she died.”

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