The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 140

   

I stooped and picked it up, the feel of the knife’s handle reminding me suddenly and vividly of the blade I had used to open her mother’s body. For a disorienting moment, I was no longer on the lawn before the house, but in the dark confines of the shed, the scent of death heavy in the air and the proof of murder gritty in my hand.

Then reality readjusted itself, and the green lawn was covered with flocks of doves and sparrows, foraging peacefully for crumbs at the feet of a marble goddess, bright with sun.

Jamie was saying something.

“. . . . go and wash and rest a bit, Sassenach?”

“What? Oh . . . no, I’ll come with you.” I was suddenly anxious to have this business done with, and go home. I had had enough society for the moment.

WE FOUND JOCASTA, Duncan, Roger, and Brianna all together in Jocasta’s sitting room, digging into what looked like a substantial, if very late, breakfast. Brianna cast a sharp look at Jamie’s ruined clothes, but said nothing, and went back to sipping tea, her eyebrows still raised. She and Jocasta both wore dressing gowns, and while Roger and Duncan were dressed, they looked pale and scruffy after the adventures of the night. Neither had shaved, and Duncan sported a large blue bruise on the side of his face where he had hit the hearthstone in falling, but he seemed otherwise all right.

I assumed that Roger had told everyone about our tête-à-tête with Phillip Wylie, and the disappearance of Lucas. At least no one asked questions. Duncan silently shoved a platter of bacon in Jamie’s direction, and there was no sound for a bit save the musical tinkling of cutlery on plates and the sloshing noises of tea being drunk.

At last, replete and feeling somewhat restored, we sat back and began hesitantly to discuss the events of the day—and night—before. So much had happened that I thought perhaps it might be best to try to reconstruct events in a logical sort of way. I said as much, and while Jamie’s mouth twitched in an annoying manner that suggested he found the notion of logic incompatible with me personally, I ignored this and firmly called the meeting to order.

“It begins with Betty, don’t you think?”

“Whether it does or not, I suppose that’s as good a starting point as any, Sassenach,” Jamie agreed.

Brianna finished buttering a final slice of toast, looking amused.

“Carry on, Miss Marple,” she said, waving it at me before taking a bite. Roger made a brief choking noise, but I ignored that, too, with dignity.

“Fine. Now, I thought Betty was likely drugged when I saw her, but since Dr. Fentiman stopped me examining her, I couldn’t be positive. But we are reasonably sure that Betty did drink drugged punch, is that right?” I looked round the circle of faces, and both Bree and Jamie nodded, adopting solemn expressions.

“Aye, I tasted something in the cup that wasna liquor,” Jamie said.

“And I talked to the house slaves after I left Da,” Brianna added, leaning forward. “Two of the women admitted that Betty tipples—tippled—from the dregs of drinks at parties, but both of them insisted she was no more than what they called ‘cheerful’ when she helped serve rum punch in the drawing room.”

“And I was in the drawing room then, with Seamus Hanlon and his musicians,” Roger confirmed. He glanced at Bree and squeezed her knee gently. “I saw Ulysses make the punch himself—that was the first time during the day that you made it, Ulysses?”

All heads swiveled toward the butler, who stood closed-faced behind Jocasta’s chair, his neat wig and pressed livery a silent reproach to the general air of exhausted dishevelment.

“No, the second,” he said softly. “The first was all drunk at breakfast.” His eyes were alert, if bloodshot, but the rest of his face might have been chiseled from gray granite. The household and its servants were his charge, and it was clear that he felt recent events to be a mortifying personal reproach to his stewardship.

“Right.” Roger turned back toward me, rubbing a hand over his stubbled face. He might have snatched a nap since the confrontation with Wylie in the stable, but he didn’t look it.

“I didn’t take any notice of Betty myself, but the point is, I think I would surely have noticed, if she were drunk and reeling at that point. So would Ulysses, I expect.” He glanced over his shoulder for confirmation, and the butler nodded, reluctantly.

“Lieutentant Wolff was drunk and reeling,” Roger added. “Everyone noticed that—they all remarked how early it was for anyone to be in that condition.”

Jocasta made a rude noise, and Duncan bent his head, hiding a smile.

“The point being,” Jamie summed up neatly, “that the second lot of rum punch was served out just past midday, and I found the woman flat on her back in the dung heap, steamin’ with drink and a punch cup beside her, nay more than an hour later. I’ll no say it couldna be done, but it would be quick work to get mortal in that span of time, especially if it was all done wi’ dregs.”

“So we assume that she was indeed drugged,” I said. “The most likely substance being laudanum. Was there some available in the stillroom here?”

Jocasta caught the lift of my voice and knew the question was addressed to her; she straightened up in her chair, tucking a wisp of white hair back under her ribboned cap. She seemed to have recovered nicely from the night before.

“Oh, aye. But that’s naught to go by,” she objected. “Anyone might ha’ brought it; it’s no sae hard to come by, and ye have the price. I ken at least two women among the guests who take the stuff regular. I daresay they’d have brought a bit with them.”

I would have loved to know which of Jocasta’s acquaintances were opium addicts, and how she knew, but dismissed that point, moving on to the next.

“Well, wherever the laudanum—for the sake of argument—came from, it apparently ended up inside Betty.” I turned to Jamie. “Now, you said that it occurred to you when you found her that she might have drunk something—drugged or poisonous—intended for someone else.”

He nodded, following me closely.

“Aye, for why would someone seek to harm or kill a slave?”

“I don’t know why, but someone did kill her,” Brianna interrupted, a definite edge in her voice. “I can’t see how she could have eaten ground glass meant for someone else, can you?”

“Don’t rush me! I’m trying to be logical.” I frowned at Bree, who made a rude noise akin to Jocasta’s, but not as loud.

“No,” I went on, “I don’t think she can have taken the ground glass by accident, but I don’t know when she did take it. Almost certainly, it was sometime after you and Jamie took her up to the attic, though, and after Dr. Fentiman saw her the first time.”

Fentiman’s emetics and purgatives would have caused extensive bleeding, had Betty already ingested the glass—as indeed they did, when he returned to treat her renewed complaints of internal distress toward dawn.

“I think you’re right,” I told Brianna, “but just to be tidy—when you went to look round, Roger, you didn’t find any of the guests who looked as though they might be drugged?”

He shook his head, dark brows drawn together, as though the sunlight bothered him. I wasn’t surprised if he had a headache; the cotton-wool feeling had turned into a throbbing inside my own skull.

“No,” he said, and dug a knuckle hard between his brows. “There were at least twenty who were beginning to stagger a bit, but they all seemed just legitimately drunk.”

“What about Lieutenant Wolff?” Duncan asked at this point, to everyone’s surprise. He blushed slightly, seeing everyone’s eyes on him, but doggedly pursued his point.

“A Smeòraich said the man was drunk and reeling in the drawing room. Might he have taken the laudanum, or whatever it was, drunk the half, and given the rest to the slave there?”

“I don’t know,” I said dubiously. “If ever I saw anyone who could have achieved intoxication within an hour, purely on the basis of straight alcohol . . .”

“When I went to check the guests, the Lieutenant was propped up against the wall of the mausoleum with a bottle in his fist,” Roger said. “Mostly incoherent, but still conscious.”

“Aye, he fell down in the shrubbery later,” Jamie put in, looking dubious. “I saw him, in the afternoon. He didna look like yon slave woman, though, only drunk.”

“The timing is about right, though,” I said thoughtfully. “So it’s possible, at least. Did anyone see the Lieutenant later in the day?”

“Yes,” Ulysses said, causing everyone to swivel round to look at him again. “He came into the house during the supper, asked me to find him a boat at once, and left by water. Still very drunk,” he added precisely, “but lucid.”

Jocasta made a small puffing sound with her lips, and muttered, “Lucid, forbye,” under her breath. She massaged her temples with both forefingers; evidently she had a headache, too.

“I suppose that puts the Lieutenant out as a suspect? Or is the fact that he left so suddenly suspicious by itself?” Brianna, the only person present who seemed not to have a headache, dropped several lumps of sugar into her tea and stirred it vigorously. Jamie shut his eyes, wincing at the noise.

“Are ye no overlooking something?” Jocasta had been following all the arguments intently, a slight frown of concentration on her face. Now she leaned forward, stretching out her hand toward the low table with its breakfast things. She tapped her fingers lightly here and there to locate what she wanted, then picked up a small silver cup.

“Ye showed me the cup from which Betty drank, Nephew,” she said to Jamie, holding out the one in her hand. “It was like this, aye?”

The cup was sterling silver, and brand-new, the incised design barely showing. Later, when the metal began to acquire a patina, black tarnish would settle into the lines of the etching and cause it to stand out, but for the moment, the capital letter “I” and the small fish that swam around it were almost lost in the gleam of light off the metal.

“Aye, it was one like that, Aunt,” Jamie replied, touching the hand that held the cup. “Brianna says it was one of a set?”

“It was. I gave them to Duncan in the morning of our wedding day, as a bride-gift.” She set down the cup, but laid her long fingers across the top of it. “We drank from two of the cups, Duncan and I, with our breakfast, but the other four stayed up here.” She waved a hand behind her, indicating the small sideboard against the wall, where the platters of bacon and fried eggs had been placed. Decorated plates were propped upright along the back of the sideboard, interspersed with a set of crystal sherry glasses. I counted; all six of the silver fish cups were on the table now, filled with port, which Jocasta appeared to like with breakfast. There was no indication which of them had held the drugged liquor, though.

“Ye didna take any of these cups down to the drawing room on the wedding day, Ulysses?” she asked.

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