The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 238

   

By the time we had reached it, I knew something was wrong. There was a sinister air of stillness about the house; no sound of scurrying servants, no music from the parlor, no scents of supper being fetched in from the cookhouse. Most peculiar of all, Ulysses was not there to greet us; our knocking went unanswered for several minutes, and when the door was at last opened, it was Phaedre, Jocasta’s body-servant, who appeared.

She had looked dreadful when I had last seen her, nearly a year before, after her mother’s death. She didn’t look much better now; there were circles under her eyes, and her skin looked bruised and drawn, like a fruit beginning to go bad.

When she saw us, though, her eyes lighted and her mouth relaxed in visible relief.

“Oh, Mr. Jamie!” she cried. “I been prayin’ for somebody to come help, ever since yesterday, but I thought for sure it would be Mr. Farquard, and then we maybe be in worse trouble, he such a man for the law and all, even if he is your auntie’s friend.”

Jamie raised an eyebrow at this rather confused declaration, but nodded reassuringly and squeezed her hand.

“Aye, lass. I dinna believe I’ve been an answer to prayer before, but I’ve no objection. Is my aunt . . . well?”

“Oh, yes, sir—she’s well enough.”

Withdrawing before we could ask further questions, she beckoned us toward the stair.

Jocasta was in her boudoir, knitting. She raised her head at the sound of feet, alert, and before anyone could say anything, asked “Jamie?” in a quavering voice, and stood up. Even at a distance, I could see that there were mistakes in the knitting, missed stitches and open runs; most unlike her usual fastidious needlework.

“Aye, it’s me, Aunt. And Claire. What’s amiss, then?” Crossing the room in two strides, he reached her side and took her arm, patting her hand in reassurance.

Her face underwent the same transformation of relief that we had seen in Phaedre, and I thought she might give way at the knees. She stiffened her spine, though, and turned toward me.

“Claire? Thank Blessed Bride ye’ve come, though how—well, never mind it for now. Will ye come? Duncan’s hurt.”

Duncan lay in bed in the next room, inert under a stack of comforters. At first, I was afraid he might be dead, but he stirred at once at the sound of Jocasta’s voice.

“Mac Dubh?” he said, puzzled. He poked his head up from the mound of covers, squinting to see in the dimness of the room. “What in God’s name brings you here?”

“Lieutenant Wolff,” Jamie said, a little caustically. “Is the name perhaps familiar to ye?”

“Aye, ye might say so.” There was a slightly odd tone to Duncan’s voice, but I paid it no mind, engaged in lighting candles and in excavating him sufficiently from the bedclothes to find out what the matter was.

I was expecting to find a knife or gunshot wound. At first examination, there was nothing whatever of the sort visible, and it took a few moments’ mental regrouping to discover that what he was suffering from was a broken leg. It was a simple fracture of the lower tibia, fortunately, and while undoubtedly painful, it seemed to be no great threat to his health.

I sent Phaedre to find some splinting materials, while Jamie, informed that Duncan stood in no great danger, sat down to get to the bottom of things.

“He has been here? Lieutenant Wolff?” he asked.

“Aye, he has.” Again the slight hesitation.

“Has he gone, then?”

“Oh, aye.” Duncan shuddered a little, involuntarily.

“Am I hurting you?” I asked.

“Oh, no, Mrs. Claire,” he assured me. “I was only—well . . .”

“Ye may as well tell me straight out, Duncan,” Jamie said, in a tone of mild exasperation. “I think it’ll no be a tale that improves wi’ keeping, aye? And if it’s the sort of tale I think, then I have a bittie story to tell to you, as well.”

Duncan eyed him narrowly, but then sighed, capitulating, and lay back on the pillow.

The Lieutenant had arrived at River Run two days before, but unlike his usual habit, had not come to the front door to be announced. Instead, he had left his horse hobbled in a field a mile from the house, and approached stealthily on foot.

“We only realized as much, because of finding the horse later, ye see,” Duncan explained to me, as I bound his leg. “I didna ken he was here at all, until I went out to the necessary after supper, and he leaped at me, out o’ the dark. I near died o’ fright, and then I near died of being shot, for he fired at me, and if I had had an arm on that side, I daresay he would have struck it. Only I hadna got one, so he didn’t.”

In spite of his disability, Duncan had fought back ferociously, butting the Lieutenant in the face, charging him, and knocking him backward.

“He staggered and tripped himself on the brick walk, and fell backward so as he hit his head a dreadful smackit.” He shuddered again at memory of the sound. “Like a melon hit wi’ an ax, it was.”

“Och, aye. So, was he killed at once, then?” Jamie asked, interested.

“Well, no.” Duncan had grown easier in his manner, telling the tale, but now began to look uneasy again. “Now, see, Mac Dubh, here’s the pinch of the matter. For I’d gone staggering, too, when I knocked him ower, and I stepped into the stone channel from the necessary and snapped my leg, and there I lay, groaning by the walk. Ulysses heard me callin’ at last, and came down, and Jo after him.”

Duncan had told Jocasta what had happened, as Ulysses had gone to fetch a couple of grooms to help carry Duncan into the house. And then, between the pain of his broken leg and his habit of leaving difficulties to the butler to be resolved, had likewise left the Lieutenant.

“It was my fault, Mac Dubh, and I ken it well,” he said, his face drawn and pale. “I ought to have given orders of some kind; though in fact I canna think even now what I ought to have said, and I’ve had time and plenty enough to think.”

The rest of the story, pried out of him with some reluctance, was that Jocasta and Ulysses had evidently conferred on the matter, and concluded that the Lieutenant had gone beyond being a nuisance, and become an outright threat. And that being so . . .

“Ulysses killed him,” Duncan said baldly, then stopped, as though appalled afresh. He swallowed, looking deeply unhappy. “Jo says as how she ordered him to do it—and Christ knows, Mac Dubh, she might have done so. She’s no the woman to be trifled with, let alone to have her servants murdered, herself threatened, and her husband set upon.”

I gathered from his hesitance, though, that some small doubt about Jocasta’s part in this still lingered in his mind.

Jamie had grasped the main point troubling him, though.

“Christ,” he said. “The man Ulysses will be hangit on the spot, or worse, if anyone hears of it. Whether my aunt ordered it, or no.”

Duncan looked a little calmer, now that the truth was out. He nodded.

“Aye, that’s it,” he agreed. “I canna let him go to the gallows—but what am I to do about the Lieutenant? There’s the Navy to be considered, to say nothing of sheriffs and magistrates.” That was a definite point. A good deal of the prosperity of River Run depended upon its naval contracts for timber and tar; Lieutenant Wolff had in fact been the naval liaison responsible for such contracts. I could see that His Majesty’s Navy might just possibly be inclined to look squiggle-eyed at a proprietor who had killed his local naval representative, no matter what the excuse. I imagined that the law, in the person of Sheriff and magistrates, might take a more lenient view of the situation—save for the person of the perpetrator.

A slave who shed the blood of a white person was automatically condemned, regardless of provocation. It would make no difference what had happened—even with a dozen witnesses to testify to Wolff’s attack on Duncan, Ulysses would be doomed. If anyone found out about it. I began to understand the air of desperation that hung over River Run; the other slaves were well aware of what might happen.

Jamie rubbed a knuckle over his chin.

“Ah . . . just how did . . . I mean, would it not be possible to say that ye’d done it yourself, Duncan? It was self-defense, after all—and I’ve evidence that the man did come in order to murder ye, wi’ the notion of marrying my aunt then by force, or at least holding her hostage so as she might be threatened into telling about the gold.”

“Gold?” Duncan looked blank. “But there isna any gold here. I thought we’d got that straight last year.”

“The Lieutenant and his associates thought there was,” I told him. “But Jamie can tell you all about that, in a bit. What did happen to the Lieutenant, exactly?”

“Ulysses cut his throat,” Duncan said, and swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing in his own throat. “I should be pleased enough to say I’d done it, aye, only . . .”

Beyond the simple difficulty of cutting someone’s throat with only one hand, it was evidently all too apparent that the Lieutenant’s throat had been cut by a left-handed person—and Duncan, of course, lacked a left hand altogether.

I happened to know that Jocasta Cameron—like her nephew—was left-handed, but it seemed more tactful not to mention that at the moment. I glanced at Jamie, who raised both brows at me.

Would she? I asked silently.

A MacKenzie of Leoch? his cynical look said back.

“Where is Ulysses?” I asked.

“In the stable, most like, if he hasna already headed west.” Knowing that if anyone learned the truth of the Lieutenant’s death, Ulysses would be condemned at once, Jocasta had sent her butler to saddle a horse, with instructions to flee into the mountains, should anyone come.

Jamie drew a deep breath and rubbed a hand over his head, thinking.

“Well, then. I should say the best thing, perhaps, is for the Lieutenant to disappear. Where have ye put him for the moment, Duncan?”

A muscle near Duncan’s mouth twitched, in an uneasy attempt at a smile.

“I believe he’s in the barbecue pit, Mac Dubh. Covered over wi’ burlap, and piled with hickory wood, disguised as a pork carcass.”

Jamie’s brows went up again, but he merely nodded.

“Aye, then. Leave it to me, Duncan.”

I left instructions for Duncan to be given honeyed water and tea brewed with boneset and cherry bark, and went outside with Jamie to contemplate methods of disappearance.

“The simplest thing would be just to bury him somewhere, I suppose,” I said.

“Mmphm,” Jamie said. He lifted the pine torch he was carrying, frowning thoughtfully at the humped mound of burlap in the pit. I hadn’t liked the Lieutenant in the least, but it looked rather pitiful.

“Maybe. I’m thinkin’, though—the slaves all ken what’s happened. If we bury him on the place, they’ll ken that, too. They wouldna tell anyone, of course—but he’ll haunt the place, aye?”

A shiver ran up my spine, engendered as much by the matter-of-factness of his tone as by his words, and I pulled my shawl closer round me.

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