The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 137

   

“You are all right, yourself, mo chridhe? The bastards didna offer ye ill use?” He stretched out a hand to her, then, realizing that she could not see him, tried to sit up. He collapsed with a stifled groan, and she stood up at the sound, coming hurriedly to the bedside.

“Of course I am all right,” she said, crossly, groping until she found his hand. “Save for the distress of thinking myself about to be a widow for the fourth time.” She let out a sigh of exasperation and sat down beside him, smoothing back a swath of loosened hair from her face.

“I couldna tell what had happened; I only heard the thud, and a dreadful groan as ye fell. Then the Irishman came back toward me, and the creature holding me let go.”

The Irishman had informed her pleasantly that he did not believe a word of her claim that there was no gold at River Run. He was convinced that the gold was here, and while he would not dream of offering harm to a lady, the same inhibitions did not obtain with respect to her husband.

“If I didna tell him where it was, he said, he and his companion would set in to cut wee bits off Duncan, beginning with his toes, and advancing to his ballocks,” Jocasta said bluntly. Duncan hadn’t much blood in his face to begin with, but what there was drained away at this. Jamie glanced at Duncan, then away, clearing his throat.

“Ye were convinced he meant it, I suppose.”

“He’d a good sharp knife; he ran it across the palm of my hand to show me that he was in earnest.” She opened her free hand; sure enough, a hair-thin red line ran across the heel of it.

She shrugged.

“Well, I supposed I couldna have that. So I made pretense of reluctance, until the Irishman went to pick up one of Duncan’s feet—then I wept and carried on, in hopes that someone would hear, but the damned servants had gone to bed, and the guests were too busy drinking my whisky and fornicating in the grounds and stables to hear.”

At this last remark, Bree’s face flamed a sudden crimson. Jamie saw it and coughed, avoiding my eye.

“Aye. So then—”

“So then I told them at last that the gold was buried under the floor of the shed outside the kitchen garden.” The look of satisfaction returned briefly to her face. “I thought they would come upon the body and ’twould put them off their stride for a bit. By the time they’d nerved themselves to dig, I hoped I should have found some way to escape or to give the alarm—and so I did.”

They had bound and gagged her hastily and gone to the shed, threatening to return and resume operations where they had left off, should they discover she had been lying to them. They had made no great job of the gag, though, and she had soon succeeded in tearing it away and kicking out a windowpane, through which to shout for help.

“So I am thinking that when they opened the door to the shed and saw the corpse, they must have dropped their lantern in shock, and so set fire to the place.” She nodded in grim satisfaction. “A small price. I could but wish I thought they had gone up with it!”

“Ye dinna suppose they set the fire on purpose?” Duncan asked. He was looking a little better, though still gray and ill. “To cover any marks of digging?”

Jocasta shrugged, dismissing the notion.

“To what end? There was nothing to be found there, and they dug themselves to China.” She was beginning to relax a little, a normal color returning to her face, though her broad shoulders had begun to droop with exhaustion.

Silence fell among us, and I became aware that there had been rising noises downstairs for some minutes now; male voices and footsteps. The various search parties had returned, but it was apparent from the tired, disgruntled tones that no suspects had been apprehended.

The candle on the table had burned very low by now; the flame stretched high near my elbow as the wick reached its last inch. One of the candles on the mantelpiece guttered and went out in a fragrant wisp of beeswax smoke. Jamie glanced automatically at the window; it was still dark outside, but the character of the night had changed, as it does soon before dawn.

The curtains moved silently, a chilly, restless air breathing through the room. Another candle went out. A second sleepless night was telling on me; I felt cold all over, numb and disembodied, and the various horrors I had seen and heard had begun to fade into unreality in my mind, with nothing save a lingering strong scent of burning to bear witness to them.

There seemed no more to say or to do. Ulysses came back, sliding discreetly into the room with a fresh candlestick and a tray holding a bottle of brandy and several glasses. Major MacDonald reappeared briefly to report that indeed, they had found no sign of the miscreants. I checked both Duncan and Jocasta briefly, and then left Bree and Ulysses to put them to bed.

Jamie and I made our way downstairs in silence. At the bottom of the staircase, I turned to him. He was white with fatigue, his features drawn and set as though he had been carved of marble, his hair and beard stubble dark in the shadowed light.

“They’ll come back, won’t they?” I said quietly.

He nodded, and taking my elbow, led me toward the kitchen stair.

54

TÊTE-À-TÊTE, WITH CRUMBCAKE

SO EARLY IN THE YEAR, the kitchen in the cellar of the house was still in use, with the summer cookhouse reserved for messier or malodorous preparations. Roused by the commotion, all the slaves were up and working, though a few looked as though they would collapse into the nearest corner and go back to sleep at the first opportunity. The chief cook, though, was wide-awake, and it was clear that no one was sleeping on her watch.

The kitchen was warm and welcoming, the windows still dark, walls red with hearth-glow, and the air suffused with the comforting scents of broth, hot bread, and coffee. I thought this would be an excellent place to sit down and recuperate for a bit before toddling off to bed, but evidently Jamie had other ideas.

He paused in conversation with the cook, just long enough for politeness, acquiring in the process not only an entire fresh crumb cake, dusted with cinnamon and soaked with melted butter, but a large jug of freshly brewed coffee. Then he made his farewells, scooped me up off the stool onto which I had thankfully subsided, and we were off again, into the cool wind of the dying night.

I had a very odd sense of déjà vu as he turned down the brick path toward the stables. The light was just the same as it had been twenty-four hours earlier, with the same pinprick stars just fading from the same blue-gray sky. The same faint breath of spring passed by, and my skin shivered in memory.

But we were walking sedately side by side, not flying—and overlaid on my memories of the day before were the unsettling odors of blood and burning. With each step I felt as though I were about to reach out to push through the swinging doors of a hospital; that the hum of fluorescent light and the subdued reek of medicines and floor polish were about to engulf me.

“Lack of sleep,” I murmured to myself.

“Time enough for sleep later, Sassenach,” Jamie replied. He shook himself briefly, throwing off tiredness as a dog shakes off water. “There’s a thing or two to be done, first.” He shifted the paper-wrapped cake, though, and took hold of my elbow with his free hand, in case I was about to fall facefirst into the cabbage bed from fatigue.

I wasn’t. I had meant only that it was the lack of sleep that was giving me the mildly hallucinatory feeling of being back in a hospital. For years, as an intern, resident, and mother, I had worked through long sleepless shifts, learning to function—and function well—despite complete exhaustion.

It was that same feeling that was stealing over me now, as I passed through simple sleepiness and out again, into a state of artificially heightened alertness.

I felt cold and shrunken, as though I inhabited only the innermost core of my body, insulated from the world around me by a thick layer of inert flesh. At the same time, every tiny detail of my surroundings seemed unnaturally vivid, from the delicious fragrance of the food Jamie carried and the rustle of his coat skirts, to the sound of someone singing in the distant slave quarters and the spikes of sprouting corn in the vegetable beds beside the path.

The sense of lucid detachment stayed with me, even as we followed the turn of the path toward the stables. A thing to be done, he’d said. I supposed that he did not mean he intended to repeat yesterday’s performance. If he proposed a more sedate form of orgy, though, involving cake and coffee, it seemed peculiar to hold it in the stable, rather than the parlor.

The side door was unbarred; he pushed it open, and the warm scents of hay and sleeping animals rushed out.

“Who is it?” said a soft, deep voice from the shadows inside. Roger. Of course; he hadn’t been among the mob in Jocasta’s room.

“Fraser,” Jamie replied, equally softly, and drew me inside, closing the door behind us.

Roger stood silhouetted against the dim glow of a lantern, near the end of the row of loose-boxes. He was wrapped in a cloak, and the light shone in a reddish nimbus round his dark hair as he turned toward us.

“How is it, a Smeòraich?” Jamie handed him the jug of coffee. Roger’s cloak fell back as he reached for it, and I saw him thrust a pistol into the waist of his breeches with his other hand. Without comment, he pulled the cork and lifted the jug to his mouth, lowering it several moments later with an expression of sheer bliss. He sighed, breath steaming.

“Oh, God,” he said fervently. “That’s the best thing I’ve tasted in months.”

“Not quite.” Sounding faintly amused, Jamie took the jug back and handed him the wrapped crumb cake. “How is he, then?”

“Noisy at first, but he’s been quiet for a bit. I think he may be asleep.”

Already tearing at the butter-soaked wrappings, Roger nodded toward the loose-box. Jamie took down the lantern from its hook and held it high over the barred gate. Peering under his arm, I could see a huddled shape, half-buried in the straw at the back of the box.

“Mr. Wylie?” Jamie called, still softly. “Are ye asleep, sir?”

The shape stirred, with a rustling of hay.

“I am not, sir,” came the reply, in tones of cold bitterness. The shape began slowly to unfold itself, and Phillip Wylie rose to his feet, shaking straw from his clothes.

I had certainly seen him appear to better advantage. Several buttons were missing from his coat, one shoulder seam was split, and both knees of his breeches hung loose, the buckles burst and his stockings drooping in unseemly fashion about his shins. Someone had evidently hit him in the nose; a trickle of blood had dried on his upper lip, and there was a splotch of crusty brown on the embroidered silk of his waistcoat.

Despite the deficiencies of his wardrobe, his manner was unimpaired, being one of icy outrage.

“You will answer for this, Fraser, by God you will!”

“Aye, I will,” Jamie said, unperturbed. “At your pleasure, sir. But not before I’ve had answers from yourself, Mr. Wylie.” He unlatched the gate of the loose-box and swung it open. “Come out.”

Wylie hesitated, unwilling either to remain in the box, or to come out of it at Jamie’s command. I saw his nostrils twitch, though; evidently he had caught scent of the coffee. That seemed to decide him, and he came out of the box, head held high. He brushed within a foot of me, but kept his eyes straight ahead, affecting not to see me.

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