The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 136

   

Cameron was wealthy, even then, and canny enough to have kept his coach and horses, rather than giving them to the Stuart cause. Canny enough, too, not to carry two chests of French gold in his flight.

“He took three bars of the gold from one of the chests, and gave them to me. I hid them under the seat of the coach; he and the groom carried the chests awa to the wood—I didna see where they buried them.”

It was midday of April 18, when Hector Cameron boarded his coach, with his wife, his groom, his daughter Morna, and three bars of French bullion, and headed hell-for-leather south toward Edinburgh.

“Seonag was married to the Master of Garth—he declared early for the Stuarts; he was killed at Culloden, though of course we didna know it then. Clementina was widowed already, and living with her sister at Rovo.”

She took a deep breath, shuddering slightly, unwilling to relive the events she recounted, unable to resist them.

“I begged Hector to go to Rovo. It was only ten miles out of the way—it would have taken no but a few hours—but he wouldna stop. We could not, he said. Too big a risk, to take the time needed to fetch them. Clementina had two children, Seonag the one. Too many people for the coach, he said; it would slow us too much.

“Not to bring them away, then, I said. Only to warn them—only to see them once more.”

She paused.

“I kent where we were bound—we had talked of it, though I didna ken he had things in such readiness.”

Hector Cameron had been a Jacobite, but was also a keen judge of human affairs, and no man to throw his own life after a lost cause. Seeing how matters were falling out, and fearing some disaster, he had taken pains to engineer an escape. He had quietly put aside a few bags of clothing and necessities, turned what he could of his property into money, and secretly booked three open passages, from Edinburgh to the Colonies.

“Sometimes, I think I canna blame him,” Jocasta said. She sat bolt upright, the light of the candles gleaming from her hair. “He thought Seonag wouldna go without her husband, and Clementina wouldna risk her bairns at sea. Perhaps he was right about that. And perhaps it would have made no difference to warn them. But I knew I shouldna see them again. . . .” Her mouth closed, and she swallowed.

In any case, Hector had refused to stop, fearing pursuit. Cumberland’s troops had converged upon Culloden, but there were English soldiers on the Highland roads, and word of Charles Stuart’s defeat was spreading like ripples near the edge of a whirlpool, moving faster and faster, in a vortex of danger.

As it was, the Camerons were discovered, two days later, near Ochtertyre.

“A wheel came off the coach,” Jocasta said with a sigh. “Lord, I can see it now, spinning down the road by itself. The axletree was broke, and we’d no choice but to camp there by the road, while Hector and the groom made shift to mend it.”

Repairs had taken the best part of a day, and Hector had grown more and more edgy as the work went on, his anxiety infecting the rest of the party.

“I didna ken then what he’d seen at Culloden,” Jocasta said. “He kent weel enough that if the English took him, it was all up wi’ him. If they didna kill him on the spot, he’d be hangit as a traitor. He was sweating as he worked, and more wi’ fear than with the heat of his labor. But even so . . .” Her lips pressed tight for a moment, before she went on.

“It was nearly dusk—it was spring, dusk came early—when they got the wheel back on the coach, and everyone got back aboard. The coach had been in a wee hollow when the wheel flew off; the groom urged the horses up a long slope, and just as we reached the crest of the hill, two men with muskets stepped out from the shadows into the road ahead.”

It was a company of English soldiers, Cumberland’s men. Arriving too late to join in the victory at Culloden, they were inflamed by news of it—but frustrated at not sharing in the battle, and only too ready to wreak what vengeance they could on fleeing Highlanders.

Always a quick thinker, Hector had sunk back in the corner of the coach at sight of them, his head bent and a shawl pulled over it, pretending to be an aged crone, sunk in sleep. Following his hissed instructions, Jocasta had leaned out of the window, prepared to pose as a respectable lady traveling with her daughter and mother.

The soldiers had not waited to hear her speech. One yanked open the door of the coach, and dragged her out. Morna, panicked, had leapt out after her, trying to pull her mother away from the soldier. Another man had grabbed the girl, and dragged her back, so that he stood between Jocasta and the coach.

“Another minute, and they meant to have ‘Grannie’ out on the ground as well—and then they would find the gold, and it would be all up wi’ all of us.”

A pistol shot startled all of them into momentary immobility. Leaning from the coach’s open door, Hector had fired at the soldier holding Morna—but it was dusk and the light was poor; perhaps the horses had moved, jostling the coach. The shot struck Morna in the head.

“I ran to her,” Jocasta said. Her voice was hoarse, her throat gone dry and thick. “I ran to her, but Hector jumped out and seized me. The soldiers were all standing, staring with the shock. He dragged me back, into the coach, and shouted to the groom to drive, drive on!”

She licked her lips and swallowed, once.

“‘She is dead,’ he said to me. Over and over, ‘She is dead, you cannot help,’ he said, and held me tight when I would have thrown myself from the coach in my despair.”

Slowly she pulled her hand away from Brianna; she had needed support to begin her story, but needed none to finish it. Her hands folded into fists, pressed hard against the white linen of her shift, as though to stanch the bleeding of a desecrated womb.

“It had gone dark by then,” she said, and her voice was remote, detached. “I saw the glow of fires against the sky to the north.”

Cumberland’s troops were spreading outward, burning and pillaging. They reached Rovo, where Clementina and Seonag were with their families, and set the manor house afire. Jocasta never learned whether they had died in the fire, or later, starved and freezing in the cold Highland spring.

“So Hector saved his life—and mine, for what it was worth then,” she said, still detached. “And of course, he saved the gold.” Her fingers sought the ring again, and turned it slowly round upon its rod, so the stones caught the lamplight, glimmering.

“Indeed,” Jamie murmured. His eyes were fixed on the blind face, watching her intently. It struck me suddenly as unfair that he should watch her so, almost judging, when she could not look back, or even know how he looked at her. I touched him, and he glanced aside at me, then took my hand, squeezing it hard.

Jocasta put aside the rings and rose, restless now that the worst part of the story was told. She moved toward the window seat, knelt there, and brushed back the curtains. It was hard to believe her blind, seeing her move with such purpose—and yet this was her room, her place, and every item in it was scrupulously placed so that she could find her way. She pressed her hands against the icy glass and the night outside, and a white fog of condensation flared around her fingers like cold flames.

“Hector bought this place with the gold we brought,” she said. “The land, the mill, the slaves. To do him credit”—her tone suggested that she was not inclined to do any such thing—“the worth of it now is due in great part to his own work. But it was the gold that bought it, to begin with.”

“What of his oath?” Jamie asked softly.

“What of it?” she said, and uttered a short laugh. “Hector was a practical man. The Stuarts were finished; what need had they of gold, in Italy?”

“Practical,” I repeated, surprising myself; I hadn’t meant to speak, but I thought I had heard something odd in the way she spoke the word.

Evidently, I had. She turned around to face us, turning toward my voice. She was smiling, but a chill ran down my backbone at the sight of it.

“Aye, practical,” she said, nodding. “My daughters were dead; he saw no reason to waste tears upon them. He never spoke of them, and would not let me speak, either. He had been a man of worth once, he would be, again—not so easy here, had anyone known.” She breathed out, a heavy sound of stifled anger. “I daresay there are none in this land who even ken I was once a mother.”

“You still are,” said Brianna softly. “That much I know.” She glanced at me, and her blue eyes met mine, dark with understanding. I felt the sting of tears behind the smile I gave her back. Yes, that much she knew, as did I.

So did Jocasta; the lines of her face relaxed for a moment, fury and remembered despair displaced for a moment by longing. She walked slowly to where Brianna sat on her stool, and laid her free hand on Bree’s head. It rested there for a moment, then slid down, the long, sensitive fingers probing Brianna’s strong cheekbones, her wide lips and long, straight nose, tracing the small track of the wetness down her cheek.

“Aye, a leannan,” she said softly. “Ye ken what I mean. And ye ken now, why I would leave this place to you—or to your blood?”

Jamie coughed, breaking in before Bree could answer.

“Aye,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone. “So that is what ye told the Irishman tonight? Not all the story, to be sure—but that ye have no gold here?”

Jocasta’s hands dropped from Brianna’s face and she turned to face Jamie.

“Aye, I told them. Him. Told him that for all I kent, those chests were still buried in the wood in Scotland; he was welcome, I said, to go and dig there, and it suited him.” One corner of her mouth curled up in a bitter smile.

“He wasna inclined to take your word for it?”

She shook her head, lips pressed together.

“He wasna a gentleman,” she said again. “I canna say how it might have fallen out—for I sat near the bed, and I keep a wee knife beneath my pillow; I wouldna have suffered him to lay hands on me unscathed. Before I could reach for it, though, I heard footsteps in the dressing room.”

She waved a hand toward the door near the fireplace; her dressing room lay beyond, joining her bedroom to another—the room that had once been Hector Cameron’s, and was now presumably Duncan’s.

The intruders had heard the footsteps, too; the Irishman hissed something to his friend, then moved away from Jocasta, toward the hearth. The other fellow had come close then, and seized her from behind, a hand across her mouth.

“All I could tell ye from that was that the fellow wore a cap pulled low over his head, and he stank of liquor, as though he’d poured it over himself instead of drinking it.” She made a brief grimace of distaste.

The door had opened, Duncan had come in, and the Irishman had apparently leapt from behind the open door and clubbed him over the head.

“I dinna recall a thing,” Duncan said ruefully. “I came to bid Miss—that is, my wife—good night. I recall settin’ my hand upon the knob of the door, and next thing, I was lyin’ here wi’ my head split open.” He touched the lump tenderly, then looked at Jocasta with an anxious concern.

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