The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 141

   

“No, Madam.” He looked shocked at the thought. “Of course not.”

She nodded, and turned her blind eyes toward Jamie, then toward me.

“So ye see,” she said simply. “It was Duncan’s cup.”

Duncan looked startled, then uneasy, as the implications of what she had said sank in.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Ach, no. Couldna be.” But tiny droplets of sweat had begun to form a dew across the weathered skin of his jaw.

“Did anyone offer ye a drink day before yesterday, a charaid?” Jamie asked, leaning forward intently.

Duncan shrugged helplessly.

“Aye, everyone did!”

And of course they had. He was, after all, the bridegroom. He had accepted none of the proffered refreshment, though, owing to the digestive upset occasioned by his nerves. Nor had he noticed particularly whether any of the drinks on offer had been served in a silver cup.

“I was that distracted, Mac Dubh, I shouldna have noticed if anyone had been offering me a live snake in his hand.” Ulysses plucked a linen napkin from the tray and offered it unobtrusively. Blindly, Duncan took it and wiped his face.

“So . . . you think that someone was trying to harm Duncan?” The astonishment in Roger’s voice might not have been strictly flattering, but Duncan appeared not to take it amiss.

“But why?” he said, bewildered. “Who could hate me?”

Jamie chuckled under his breath, and the tension round the table relaxed slightly. It was true; while Duncan was intelligent and competent, he was of so modest a disposition that it was impossible to conceive of his having offended anyone, let alone driven them into a murderous frenzy.

“Well, a charaid,” Jamie said tactfully, “it might not just be personal, ken?” He caught my eye, and made a wry grimace. More than one attempt had been made on his own life, for reasons having to do only with who he was, rather than anything he had done. Not that people hadn’t tried to kill him occasionally for things he’d done, as well.

Jocasta appeared to have been thinking along the same lines.

“Indeed,” she said. “I have been thinking, myself. Do ye not recall, nephew, what happened at the Gathering?”

Jamie lifted one eyebrow, and picked up a cup of tea.

“A good many things happened there, Aunt,” he said. “But I take it ye mean what happened with Father Kenneth?”

“I do.” She reached up a hand automatically, as Ulysses set a fresh cup into it. “Did ye not tell me that yon Lillywhite said something about the priest being prevented from performing ceremonials?”

Jamie nodded, closing his eyes briefly as he took a mouthful of tea.

“Aye, he did. So, ye think it was maybe your marriage with Duncan he meant? That was the ‘ceremonial’ to be prevented?”

My headache was growing worse. I pressed my fingers between my brows; they were warm from the teacup, and the heat felt good on my skin.

“Wait just one minute,” I said. “Are you saying that someone wanted to prevent your aunt’s marriage to Duncan, and succeeded in doing so at the Gathering, but then couldn’t think of any way of preventing it now, and so tried to murder Duncan, in order to stop it?” My own voice echoed the astonishment on Duncan’s features.

“I’m no saying so, myself,” Jamie said, eyeing Jocasta with interest, “but I gather that my aunt is suggesting as much.”

“I am,” she said calmly. She drank off her tea, and set down the cup with a sigh. “I dinna wish to rate myself too high, nephew, but the fact is that I have been courted by this one and that one, ever since Hector died. River Run is a rich property, and I am an auld woman.”

There was a moment’s silence, as everyone absorbed that. Duncan’s face reflected an uneasy horror.

“But—” he said, stuttering slightly, “but—but—if it was that, Mac Dubh, why wait?”

“Wait?”

“Aye.” He looked around the table, seeking understanding. “See you, if someone meant to stop the marriage at the Gathering, well and good. But it’s been four months since then, and no one’s lifted a hand against me. I mostly ride alone; ’twould have been a simple matter, surely, to lay for me on the road as I went about my business, and put a bullet through my head.” He spoke matter-of-factly, but I saw a small shiver pass through Jocasta at the notion.

“So why wait until almost the hour of the wedding itself, and in the presence of hundreds of people? Aye, well, it’s a point, Duncan,” Jamie admitted.

Roger had been following all this, elbows propped on his knees, chin resting in his hands. He straightened up at this.

“One reason I can think of,” he said. “The priest.”

Everyone stared at him, eyebrows raised.

“The priest was here,” he explained. “See, if it’s River Run that’s behind all this, then it isn’t only a matter of getting Duncan out of the way. Kill him, and our murderer is right back where he started—Jocasta’s not married to Duncan, but she isn’t married to him, either, and no way to force the issue.

“But,” Roger raised a finger, “if the priest is here, and all set to perform a private ceremony . . . then it’s simple. Kill Duncan—in a manner that might suggest suicide or accident—and then swoop up to Jocasta’s suite, and force the priest to perform the marriage at gunpoint. The servants and guests are all occupied with Duncan, no one to make objections or interfere. There’s the bed to hand—” He nodded at the big tester, visible through the doorway into the bedroom. “Take Jocasta straight there and consummate the marriage by force . . . and Bob’s your uncle.”

At this point, Roger caught sight of Jocasta’s dropped jaw and Duncan’s stunned look, and it occurred to him that this was not merely an interesting academic proposition. He blushed crimson, and cleared his throat.

“Ah . . . I mean . . . it’s been done.”

Jamie coughed, and cleared his own throat. It had been done. His own bloody-minded grandfather had begun his social rise by forcibly wedding—and promptly bedding—the elderly and wealthy dowager Lady Lovat.

“What?” Brianna swiveled round to stare at Roger, obviously appalled. “That’s the most . . . but they couldn’t get away with something like that!”

“I expect they could, really,” Roger said, almost apologetically. “See, hen, possession is a lot more than nine-tenths of the law when it comes to women. Marry a woman and take her to bed, and she and all her property are yours, whether she likes it or not. Without another male relative to protest, it’s not likely a court would do a thing.”

“But she does have a male relative!” Brianna flipped a hand toward Jamie—who did have a protest to make, but probably not along the lines Brianna had expected.

“Aye, well, but. Witnesses,” he objected. “Ye canna do something like that, without ye have a witness to say it was a valid marriage.” He cleared his throat again, and Ulysses reached for the teapot.

Old Simon had had witnesses; two of his friends, plus the two attendants of the dowager. One of whom had later become Jamie’s grandmother, though I did trust less force had been involved in that transaction.

“I can’t see that that’s a difficulty,” I said, brushing crumbs off my bosom. “Obviously, this wasn’t a one-man show. Whoever the intending bridegroom is—and mind, we don’t even know there is one, but for the sake of argument—anyway, whoever he is, if he exists, plainly he has accomplices. Randall Lillywhite, for one.”

“Who wasna here,” Jamie reminded me.

“Hm. That’s true,” I admitted. “But still, the principle holds.”

“Yes,” Roger said stubbornly, “and if he does exist, then the chief suspect is Lieutenant Wolff, isn’t he? Everyone knows he’s made more than one try to marry Jocasta. And he was here.”

“But pie-eyed,” Jamie added, dubiously.

“Or not. As I said, Seamus and his boys were surprised that anyone could be that drunk so early on, but what if it was a sham?” Roger glanced round the table, one eyebrow lifted.

“If he were only pretending to be reeling drunk, no one would pay attention to him or treat him later as a suspect, and yet he could manage to be in position to poison a cup of punch, give it to Betty with instructions to give it to Duncan, then slip away and hang about, ready to nip upstairs the moment word came that Duncan had collapsed. And if Betty then offered it to Duncan, who refused it—well, there she was, with a full cup of fresh rum punch in her hand.”

He shrugged.

“Who could blame her for stealing away into the kitchen garden to enjoy it?”

Jocasta and Ulysses snorted simultaneously, making it reasonably clear what they thought of the blameworthiness of Betty’s action. Roger coughed and hurried on with his analysis.

“Right. Well. But the dose didn’t kill Betty. Either the murderer miscalculated or . . .” Another bright thought occurred to Roger. “Perhaps he didn’t intend the drug to kill Duncan. Maybe he only meant to render him unconscious, and then tip him quietly into the river. That would have been even better. Ye can’t swim, can you?” he asked, turning to Duncan, who shook his head in a dazed sort of way. His one hand rose, mechanically massaging the stump of his missing arm.

“Aye. So a nice drowning would have passed for accident, no worry.” Roger rubbed his hands together, looking pleased. “But then it all went wrong, because the maid drank the drugged punch, not Duncan. And that’s why she was killed!”

“Why?” Jocasta was looking quite as dazed as Duncan.

“Because she could identify the man who’d given her the cup,” Jamie put in. He nodded, lounging thoughtfully back in his chair. “And she would have, the minute folk started in on her about it. Aye, that’s sense. But of course he couldna make away with her by violent means; the risk of being seen coming or going to the attic was too great.”

Roger nodded approval at this quick appreciation.

“Aye. But it would have been no great trick to get your hands on ground glass—how many goblets and tumblers were floating through this place during the day? Drop one on the bricks and grind the shards under your heel, and there ye are.”

Even that might not have been necessary; there had been shattered glass all over the paths and the terrace, after the post-wedding celebrations. I had dropped one glass myself, when surprised by Phillip Wylie.

I turned to address Ulysses.

“There’s still the problem of how the ground glass was administered. Do you know what Betty was given to eat or drink, Ulysses?”

A frown rippled over the butler’s face, like a stone thrown into dark water.

“Dr. Fentiman ordered her a syllabub,” he said slowly. “And a bit of porridge, if she were awake enough to swallow. I made up the syllabub myself, and gave it to Mariah to take up to her. I gave the order for porridge to the cook, but I do not know whether Betty ate it, or who might have carried it.”

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