The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 135

   

The old woman’s face was bleak, but the line of her mouth softened, speaking the names of her vanished girls.

“I’m sorry, Aunt.” Bree spoke softly. She bent her head to kiss the knuckles of the hand she cradled, knobbed with age. Jocasta tightened her hand a little in acknowledgment, but did not mean to be distracted from her story.

“Hector Cameron gave me this,” Jocasta said, touching the ring. “And he killed them all. My children, my daughters. He killed them for the Frenchman’s gold.”

The shock of it took my breath and hollowed my stomach. I felt Jamie go still behind me, and saw Duncan’s bloodshot eyes go wide. Brianna didn’t change expression. She closed her eyes for a moment, but still held on to the long bony hand.

“What happened to them, Aunt?” she said quietly. “Tell me.”

Jocasta was silent for a few moments. So was the room; there was no sound save the hiss of beeswax burning, and the faint asthmatic wheeze of her breath. To my surprise, when she spoke again, it wasn’t to Brianna. Instead, she lifted her head and turned again toward Jamie.

“You know about the gold, then, a mhic mo pheathar?” she said. If he found this a strange question, he gave no sign of it, but answered calmly.

“I have heard something of it,” he said. He moved, coming round the bed to sit beside me, closer to his aunt. “It has been a rumor in the Highlands, ever since Culloden. Louis would send gold, they said, to help his cousin in his holy fight. And then they said the gold had come, yet no man saw it.”

“I saw it.” Jocasta’s wide mouth, so like her nephew’s, widened further in a sudden grimace, then relaxed. “I saw it,” she repeated.

“Thirty thousand pound, in gold bullion. I was with them the night it came ashore, rowed in from the French ship. It was in six small chests, each one so heavy that only two at a time could be brought, else the boat would sink. Each chest had the fleur-de-lis carved on the lid, each one bound with iron bands and a lock, each lock itself sealed with red wax, and the wax bore the print of King Louis’s ring. The fleur-de-lis.”

A sigh ran through us all at the words, a collective breath of awe. Jocasta nodded slowly, blind eyes open to the sights of that night long past.

“Where was it brought ashore, Aunt?” Jamie asked softly.

She nodded slowly, as though to herself, eyes fixed on the scene her memory painted.

“On Innismaraich,” she said. “A tiny isle, just off Coigach.”

I had been holding my breath. Now I let it out, slowly, and met Jamie’s eyes. Innismaraich. Island of the Sea-people; the silkies’ isle, it meant. We knew that place.

“There were the three men trusted with it,” she said. “Hector was one, my brother Dougal was another—the third man was masked; they all were, but of course I kent Hector and Dougal. I didna ken the third man, nor did any of them speak his name. I knew his servant, though; a man named Duncan Kerr.”

Jamie had stiffened slightly at Dougal’s name; at the name of Duncan Kerr he froze.

“There were servants, too?” he asked.

“Two,” she said, and a faint, bitter smile twisted her mouth. “The masked man brought Duncan Kerr, as I said, and my brother Dougal had a man with him from Leoch—I kent his face, but not his name. Hector had me to help him; I was a braw, strong woman—like you, a leannan, like you,” she said softly, squeezing Brianna’s hand. “I was strong, and Hector trusted me as he could trust no other. I trusted him, too—then.”

The noises from outside had died away, but a breeze through the broken pane stirred the curtains, uneasy as a ghost that hears its name called from a distance.

“There were three boats. The chests were small, but heavy enough that it took two persons to carry one between them. We took two chests into our boat, Hector and I, and we rowed away, into the fog. I could hear the splash of the others’ oars, growing fainter as they drew away, and then lost in the night.”

“When was this, Aunt?” Jamie asked, his eyes intent on her. “When did the gold come from France?”

“Too late,” she whispered. “Much too late. Damn Louis!” she exclaimed, with a sudden fierceness that brought her upright in her seat. “Damn the wicked Frenchman, and may his eyes rot as mine have! To think what might have been, had he been true to his blood and his word!”

Jamie’s eyes met mine, sidelong. Too late. Had the gold come sooner—when Charles landed at Glenfinnan, perhaps, or when he took Edinburgh, and for a few brief weeks held the city as a king returned—what then?

The ghost of a smile touched Jamie’s lips with ruefulness, and he glanced at Brianna, then back at me, the question asked and answered in his eyes. What, then?

“It was March,” Jocasta said, recovering from her outburst. “A freezing night, but clear as ice. I stood upon the cliff and looked far out to sea, and the path of the moon lay like gold on the water. The ship came sailing in upon that golden path, like a king to his coronation, and I did think it a sign.” Her head turned toward Jamie, and her mouth twisted abruptly.

“I did think I heard him laughing, then,” she said. “Black Brian. Him who took my sister from me. It would have been like him. But he was not there; I suppose it was only the barking of the silkies.”

I was watching Jamie as she spoke. He didn’t move, but like magic, the reddish hairs on his forearm rose, glinting like wires in the candlelight.

“I didna ken ye knew my father,” he said, a faint edge to his voice. “But let that be for now, Aunt. It was March, ye say?”

She nodded.

“Too late,” she repeated. “It was meant to have come two months before, Hector said. There were delays . . .”

It had been too late. In January, after the victory at Falkirk, such a show of support from France might have been decisive. But in March, the Highland Army was already moving north, turned back at Derby from its invasion of England. The last slim chance of victory had been lost, and Charles Stuart’s men were marching then toward destruction at Culloden.

With the chests safe ashore, the new guardians of the gold had conferred over what to do with the treasure. The army was moving, and Stuart with it; Edinburgh was once more in the hands of the English. There was no safe place to take it, no trustworthy hands into which it could be delivered.

“They didna trust O’Sullivan or the others near the Prince,” Jocasta explained. “Irishmen, Italians . . . Dougal said he hadna gone to so much trouble, only to have the gold squandered or stolen by foreigners.” She smiled, a little grimly. “He meant he didna want to chance losing the credit for having got it.”

The three keepers had been no more willing to trust one another than the Prince’s advisers. Most of the night had been spent in argument in the bleak upper room of a desolate tavern, while Jocasta and the two servants slept on the floor, among the red-sealed chests. Finally, the gold had been divided; each man had taken two of the chests, swearing on his blood to keep the secret and hold the treasure faithfully, in trust for his rightful monarch, King James.

“They made the two servants swear as well,” Jocasta said. “They cut each man, and the drops of blood shone redder in the candlelight than the wax seals on the chests.”

“Did you swear, too?” Brianna spoke quietly, but her eyes were intent on the white-haired figure in the chair.

“No, I didna swear.” Jocasta’s lips, still finely shaped, curved slightly, as though amused. “I was Hector’s wife; his oath bound me. Then.”

Uneasy in possession of so much wealth, the conspirators had left the tavern before dawn, bundling the chests in blankets and rags to hide them.

“A pair of travelers rode in, as the last of the chests was brought down. It was their coming that saved the innkeeper’s life, for it was a lonely spot, and he the only witness to our presence there that night. I think Dougal and Hector would not have thought to do such a thing—but the third man, he meant to dispose of the landlord; I saw it in his eyes, in the crouch of his body as he waited near the bottom of the stair, his hand on his dirk. He saw me watching—he smiled at me, beneath his mask.”

“And did he never unmask, this third man?” Jamie asked. His ruddy brows drew together as though by sheer concentration he could recreate the scene she saw in her mind’s eye, and identify the stranger.

She shook her head.

“No. I asked myself, now and then, when I thought of that night, would I know the man again, did I see him. I thought I would; he was dark, a slender man, but with a strength in him like knife steel. Could I see his eyes again, I would be sure of it. But now . . .” She shrugged. “Would I ken him by his voice alone? I canna say, so long ago it was.”

“But he wasna by any means an Irishman, this man?” Duncan was still pale and clammy-looking, but had raised himself on one elbow, listening with deep absorption.

Jocasta started a little, as though she had forgotten his presence.

“Ah! No, a dhuine. A Scot by his speech—a Highland gentleman.”

Duncan and Jamie exchanged glances.

“A MacKenzie or a Cameron?” Duncan asked softly, and Jamie nodded.

“Or perhaps one of the Grants.”

I understood their half-voiced speculations. There were—had been—a staggeringly complex array of associations and feuds among the Highland clans, and there were many who would not—could not—have cooperated in an undertaking of such importance and secrecy.

Colum MacKenzie had negotiated a close alliance with the Camerons; in fact, Jocasta herself had been part of that alliance, her marriage to a Cameron chief the token of it. If Dougal MacKenzie was one of the men who had engineered the receipt of the French gold, and Hector Cameron another, it was odds-on that the third man had been someone from one of those clans, or from another trusted by both. MacKenzie, Cameron . . . or Grant. And if Jocasta had not known the man by sight, the odds on his being a Grant improved, for she would have known most high-ranking tacksmen of clans MacKenzie or Cameron.

But there was no time now to consider such things; the story was not finished.

The conspirators had separated then, each going by his own way, each with one-third of the French gold. Jocasta had no knowledge of what Dougal MacKenzie or the unknown man had done with their chests; Hector Cameron had put the two chests he brought away into a hole in the floor of his bedroom, an old hiding place made by his father to conceal valuables.

Hector meant to leave it there until the Prince had reached some place of safety, where he could receive the gold, and use it for the furtherance of his aims. But Charles Stuart was already in flight, and would not find a place to rest for many months. Before he reached his final refuge, disaster intervened.

“Hector left the gold—and me—at home, and went to join the Prince and the army. On the seventeenth of April, he rode back into the dooryard at sunset, his horse lathered to a froth. He swung down and left the poor beast to a groom, while he rushed into the house and bade me pack what valuables I could—the Cause was lost, he said, and we must flee, or die with the Stuarts.”

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