The Duncans’ house when I arrived had an air of neglected abandon, a sense of disorder that extended through the house itself. There was no answer to my knock, and when I pushed the door open, I found the entry hall and parlor scattered with books and dirty glasses, mats askew and dust thick on the furniture. My calls produced no maidservant, and the kitchen proved to be as empty and disordered as the rest of the house.
Increasingly anxious, I went upstairs. The bedroom in front also was vacant, but I heard a faint shuffling noise from the stillroom across the landing.
Pushing open the door, I saw Geilie, sitting in a comfortable chair, feet propped on the counter. She had been drinking; there was a glass and decanter on the counter, and the room smelled strongly of brandy.
She was startled to see me, but struggled to her feet, smiling. Her eyes were slightly out of focus, I thought, but she certainly seemed well enough.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Aren’t you ill?”
She goggled at me in amazement. “Ill? Me? No. The servants have all left, and there’s no food in the house, but there’s plenty of brandy. Will ye have a drop?” She turned back toward the decanter. I grabbed her sleeve.
“You didn’t send for me?”
“No.” She stared at me, wide-eyed.
“Then why—” My question was interrupted by a noise from outside. A far-off, rumbling, muttering sort of noise. I had heard it before, from this room, and my palms had grown sweaty then at the thought of confronting the mob that made it.
I wiped my hands on the skirts of my dress. The rumbling was nearer, and there was neither need nor time for questions.
THOU SHALT NOT SUFFER A WITCH TO LIVE
The drab-clad shoulders ahead of me parted on darkness. My elbow struck wood with a bone-numbing thump as I was shoved roughly over a threshold of some sort, and I fell headlong into a black stench, alive and wriggling with unseen forms. I shrieked and thrashed, trying to free myself from entanglement with innumerable scrabbling tiny feet and an attack by something larger, that squealed and struck me a hard blow on the thigh.
I succeeded in rolling away, though only a foot or two before I hit an earthen wall that sent a shower of dirt cascading down on my head. I huddled as close to it as I could get, trying to suppress my own gasping breath so that I could hear whatever was trapped in this reeking pit with me. Whatever it was, was large, and breathing hoarsely, but not growling. A pig, perhaps?
“Who’s there?” came a voice from the Stygian black, sounding scared but defiantly loud. “Claire, is it you?”
“Geilie!” I gasped and groped toward her, meeting her hands likewise searching. We clasped each other tightly, rocking slightly back and forth in the gloom.
“Is there anything else in here besides us?” I asked, glancing cautiously around. Even with my eyes now accustomed to the dark, there was precious little to be seen. There were faint streaks of light coming from somewhere above, but the tenebrous shadows were shoulder-high here below; I could barely make out Geilie’s face, level with my own and only a few inches away.
She laughed, a little shakily. “Several mice, I think, and other vermin. And a smell that would knock a ferret over.”
“I noticed the smell. Where in God’s name are we?”
“The thieves’ hole. Stand back!”
There was a grating sound from overhead and a sudden shaft of light. I pressed myself against the wall, barely in time to avoid a shower of mud and filth that cascaded through a small opening in the roof of our prison. A single soft plop followed the deluge. Geilie bent and picked up something from the floor. The opening above remained, and I could see that what she held was a small loaf, stale and smeared with assorted muck. She dusted it gingerly with a fold of her skirt.
“Dinner,” she said. “Hungry, are you?”
The hole above remained open, and empty, save for the occasional missile flung by a passerby. The drizzle came in, and a searching wind. It was cold, damp, and thoroughly miserable. Suitable, I supposed, for the malefactors it was meant to house. Thieves, vagrants, blasphemers, adulterers…and suspected witches.
Geilie and I huddled together for warmth against one wall, not speaking much. There was little to say, and precious little either of us could do for ourselves, beyond possess our souls in patience.
The hole above grew gradually darker as the night came on, until it faded into the black all around.
“How long do you think they mean to keep us here?”
Geilie shifted, stretching her legs so that the small oblong of morning light from above shone on the striped linen of her skirt. Originally a fresh pink and white, it was now considerably the worse for wear.
“Not too long,” she said. “They’ll be waiting for the ecclesiastical examiners. Arthur had letters last month, arranging for it. The second week of October, it was. They should be here any time.”
She rubbed her hands together to warm them, then put them on her knees, in the little square of sunlight.
“Tell me about the examiners,” I said. “What will happen, exactly?”
“I canna say, exactly. I’ve ne’er seen a witch trial, though I’ve heard of them, of course.” She paused a moment, considering. “They’ll not be expecting a witch trial, since they were coming to try some land disputes. So they’ll not have a witch-pricker, at least.”
“Witches canna feel pain,” Geilie explained. “Nor do they bleed when they’re pricked.” The witch-pricker, equipped with a variety of pins, lancets, and other pointed implements, was charged with testing for this condition. I vaguely recalled something of this from Frank’s books, but had thought it a practice common to the seventeenth century, not this one. On the other hand, I thought wryly, Cranesmuir was not exactly a hotbed of civilization.
“In that case, it’s too bad there won’t be one,” I said, though recoiling slightly at the thought of being stabbed repeatedly. “We could pass that test with no difficulty. Or I could,” I added caustically. “I imagine they’d get ice water, not blood, when they tried it on you.”
“I’d not be too sure,” she said reflectively, overlooking the insult. “I’ve heard of witch-prickers with special pins—made to collapse when they’re pressed against the skin, so it looks as though they don’t go in.”
“But why? Why try to prove someone a witch on purpose?”
The sun was on the decline now, but the afternoon light was enough to suffuse our hutch with a dim glow. The elegant oval of Geilie’s face showed only pity for my innocence.
“Ye still dinna understand, do ye?” she said. “They mean to kill us. And it doesna matter much what the charge is, or what the evidence shows. We’ll burn, all the same.”
The night before, I had been too shocked from the mob’s attack and the misery of our surroundings to do more than huddle with Geilie and wait for the dawn. With the light, though, what remained of my spirit was beginning to awake.
“Why, Geilie?” I asked, feeling rather breathless. “Do you know?” The atmosphere in the hole was thick with the stench of rot, filth, and damp soil, and I felt as though the impenetrable earthen walls were about to cave in upon me like the sides of an ill-dug grave.
I felt rather than saw her shrug; the shaft of light from above had moved with the sun, and now struck the wall of our prison, leaving us in cold dark below.
“If it’s much comfort to ye,” she said dryly, “I misdoubt ye were meant to be taken. It’s a matter between me and Colum—you had the ill-luck to be with me when the townsfolk came. Had ye been wi’ Colum, you’d likely have been safe enough, Sassenach or no.”
The term “Sassenach,” spoken in its usual derogatory sense, suddenly struck me with a sense of desperate longing for the man who called me so in affection. I wrapped my arms around my body, hugging myself to contain the lonely panic that threatened to envelop me.
“Why did you come to my house?” Geilie asked curiously.
“I thought you had sent for me. One of the girls at the castle brought me a message—from you, she said.”
“Ah,” she said thoughtfully. “Laoghaire, was it?”
I sat down and rested my back against the earth wall, despite my revulsion for the muddy, stinking surface. Feeling my movement, Geilie shifted closer. Friends or enemies, we were each other’s only source of warmth in the hole; we huddled together perforce.
“How did you know it was Laoghaire?” I asked, shivering.
“ ’Twas her that left the ill-wish in your bed,” Geilie replied. “I told ye at the first there were those minded your taking the red-haired laddie. I suppose she thought if ye were gone, she’d have a chance at him again.”
I was struck dumb at this, and it took a moment to find my voice.
“But she couldn’t!”
Geilie’s laugh was hoarsened by cold and thirst, but still held that edge of silver.
“Anyone seein’ the way the lad looks at ye would know that. But I dinna suppose she’s seen enough o’ the world to ken such things. Let her lie wi’ a man once or twice, and she’ll know, but not now.”
“That’s not what I meant!” I burst out. “It isn’t Jamie she wants; the girl’s with child by Dougal MacKenzie.”
“What?!” She was genuinely shocked for a moment, and her fingers bit into the flesh of my arm. “How d’ye come to think that?”
I told her of seeing Laoghaire on the stair below Colum’s study, and the conclusions I had come to.
“Pah! She heard Colum and Dougal talking about me; that’s what made her blench—she’d think Colum had heard she’d been to me for the ill-wish. He’d have her whipped to bleeding for that; he doesna allow any truck wi’ such arts.”
“You gave her the ill-wish?” I was staggered.
Geilie drew herself sharply away at this.
“I didn’t give it to her, no. I sold it to her.”
I stared, trying to meet her eyes through the gathering darkness.
“There’s a difference?”
“Of course there is.” She spoke impatiently. “It was a matter of business, was all. And I don’t give away my customers’ secrets. Besides, she didna tell me who it was meant for. And you’ll remember that I did try to warn ye.”
“Thanks,” I said with some sarcasm. “But…” my brain was churning, trying to rearrange my ideas in light of this new information. “But if she put the ill-wish in my bed, then it was Jamie she wanted. That would explain her sending me to your house. But what about Dougal?”
Geilie hesitated for a moment, then seemed to come to some decision.
“The girl’s no more wi’ child by Dougal MacKenzie than you are.”
“How can you be so sure?”
She groped for my hand in the darkness. Finding it, she drew it close and placed it squarely on the swelling bulge beneath her gown.
“Because I am,” she said simply.
“Not Laoghaire then,” I said. “You.”
“Me.” She spoke quite simply, without any of her usual affectation. “What was it Colum said—‘I’ll see that she’s done rightly by’? Well, I suppose this is his idea of a suitable disposal of the problem.”
I was silent for a long time, mulling things over.
“Geilie,” I said at last, “that stomach trouble of your husband’s…”
She sighed. “White arsenic,” she said. “I thought it would finish him before the child began to show too much, but he hung on longer than I thought possible.”
I remembered the look of mingled horror and realization on Arthur Duncan’s face as he burst out of his wife’s closet on the last day of his life.
“I see,” I said. “He didn’t know you were with child until he saw you half-dressed, the day of the Duke’s banquet. And when he found out…I suppose he had good reason to know it wasn’t his?”
There was a faint laugh from the far corner.
“The saltpeter came dear, but it was worth every farthing.”
I shuddered slightly, hunched against the wall.
“But that’s why you had to risk killing him in public, at the banquet. He would have denounced you as an adulteress—and a poisoner. Or do you think he realized about the arsenic?”
“Oh, Arthur knew,” she said. “He wouldna admit it, to be sure—not even to himself. But he knew. We’d sit across the board from each other at supper, and I’d ask, ‘Will ye have a bit more o’ the cullen skink, my dear?’ or ‘A sup of ale, my own?’ And him watching me, with those eyes like boiled eggs, and he’d say no, he didna feel himself with an appetite just then. And he’d push his plate back, and later I’d hear him in the kitchen, secret-like, gobbling his food standing by the hutch, thinking himself safe, because he ate no food that came from my hand.”
Her voice was light and amused as though she had been recounting some bit of juicy gossip. I shuddered again, drawing away from the thing that shared the darkness with me.
“He didna guess it was in the tonic he took. He’d take no medicine I made; ordered a patent tonic from London—cost the earth too.” Her voice was resentful at the extravagance. “The stuff had arsenic in it to start; he didna notice any difference in the taste when I added a bit more.”
I had always heard that vanity was the besetting weakness of murderers; it seemed this was true, for she went on, ignoring our situation in the pride of recounting her accomplishments.
“It was a bit risky, to kill him before the whole company like that, but I had to manage something quickly.” Not arsenic, either, to kill like that. I remembered the fiscal’s hard blue lips and the numbness of my own where they had touched him. A quick and deadly poison.
And here I had thought that Dougal was confessing to an affair with Laoghaire. But in that case, while Colum might be disapproving, there would have been nothing to prevent Dougal marrying the girl. He was a widower, and free.
But an adulterous affair, with the wife of the fiscal? That was a different kettle of fish for all concerned. I seemed to recall that the penalties for adultery were severe. Colum could hardly smooth over an affair of that magnitude, but I couldn’t see him condemning his brother to public whipping or banishment. And Geilie might well consider murder a reasonable alternative to being burnt on the face with a hot iron and shut up for several years in a prison, pounding hemp for twelve hours a day.
So she had taken her preventive measures, and Colum had taken his. And here was I, caught up in the middle.
“The child, though?” I asked. “Surely…”
There was a grim chuckle in the blackness. “Accidents happen, my friend. To the best of us. And once it happened…” I felt rather than saw her shrug. “I meant to get rid of it, but then I thought it might be a way to make him marry me, once Arthur was dead.”
A horrible suspicion struck me.
“But Dougal’s wife was still alive, then. Geillis, did you—?”
Her dress rustled as she shook her head, and I caught a faint gleam from her hair.
“I meant to,” she said. “But God saved me the trouble. I rather thought that was a sign, you know. And it might all have worked nicely, too, if not for Colum MacKenzie.”
I hugged my elbows against the cold. I was talking now only for distraction.
“Was it Dougal you wanted, or only his position and money?”
“Oh, I had plenty of money,” she said, with a note of satisfaction. “I knew where Arthur kept the key to all his papers and notes, ye ken. And the man wrote a fair hand, I’ll say that for him—’twas simple enough to forge his signature. I’d managed to divert near on to ten thousand pound over the last two years.”
“But what for?” I asked, completely startled.
“What?” For a moment, I thought I had misheard. Then I decided that one of us was possibly a trifle unbalanced. And going on the evidence to hand, it wasn’t me.
“What do you mean, Scotland?” I asked cautiously, drawing away a bit. I wasn’t sure just how unstable she was; perhaps pregnancy had unhinged her mind.
“Ye needna fear; I’m not mad.” The cynical amusement in her voice made me flush, grateful for the darkness.
“Oh, no?” I said, stung. “By your own admission, you’ve committed fraud, theft, and murder. It might be charitable to consider that you’re mad, because if you’re not—”
“Neither mad nor depraved,” she said, decisively. “I’m a patriot.”
The light dawned. I let out the breath I had been holding in expectation of a deranged attack.
“A Jacobite,” I said. “Holy Christ, you’re a bloody Jacobite!”
She was. And that explained quite a bit. Why Dougal, generally the mirror of his brother’s opinions, should have shown such initiative in raising money for the House of Stuart. And why Geillis Duncan, so well equipped to lead any man she wanted to the altar, had chosen two such dissimilar specimens as Arthur Duncan and Dougal MacKenzie. The one for his money and position, the other for his power to influence public opinion.
“Colum would have been better,” she continued. “A pity. His misfortune is my own, as well. It’s him would have been the one I should have had; the only man I’ve seen could be my proper match. Together, we could…well, no help for it. The one man I’d want, and the one man in the world I couldn’t touch with the weapon I had.”
“So you took Dougal, instead.”
“Oh, aye,” she said, deep in her own thoughts. “A strong man, and with some power. A bit of property. The ear of the people. But really, he’s no more than the legs, and the cock”—she laughed briefly—“of Colum MacKenzie. It’s Colum has the strength. Almost as much as I have.”
Her boastful tone annoyed me.
“Colum has a few small things that you haven’t, so far as I can see. Such as a sense of compassion.”
“Ah, yes. ‘Bowels of mercy and compassion,’ is it?” She spoke ironically. “Much good it may do him. Death sits on his shoulder; ye can see it with half an eye. The man may live two years past Hogmanay; not much longer than that.”