An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 104

   

For now. The unwelcome thought buzzed in before he could clap the teacup over it. He couldn’t avoid it for long; it kept coming back.

He understood Henry’s reluctance to undergo another surgery. And there was the lingering fear that he might be too weak to withstand it. But at the same time, he could not be allowed to remain in his present state; he would simply dwindle and die, once illness and pain had drained the last of his vitality. Not even the fleshly attractions of Mrs. Woodcock would hold him, once that happened.

No, the surgery must be done, and soon. In Grey’s conversations with Dr. Franklin, the old gentleman had made him acquainted with a friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who he claimed was a most prodigious medical man. Dr. Franklin urged Grey to visit him, should he ever find himself in the city—had given Grey a letter of introduction, in fact. He was on his way to pre sent this, in hopes that Dr. Rush might either be practiced in surgery or be able to refer him to someone who was. Because, whether Henry wanted it or not, it had to be done. Grey could not take Henry home to England in his present state, and he had promised both Minnie and his brother that he would bring their youngest son back, were he still alive.

His foot slipped on a muddy cobble, and he let out a whoop and pitched sideways, arms pinwheeling for balance. He caught himself and shook his clothes back into order with a good assumption of dignity, ignoring the giggles of two milkmaids who had been watching.

Damn it all, she was back. Claire Fraser. Why? … Of course. The ether, as she called it. She’d asked him for a carboy of some sort of acid and had told him that she required it to make ether. Not as in the ethereal realm but a chemical substance that rendered people unconscious, so as to make surgery… painless.

He stopped dead in the middle of the street. Jamie had told him about his wife’s experiments with the substance, with a full account of the amazing operation she had performed on a young boy, he rendered completely senseless as she opened his abdomen, removed an offending organ, and sewed him back together. After which the child was right as a grig, apparently.

He walked on more slowly, thinking furiously. Would she come? It was a laborious journey to almost anywhere from Fraser’s Ridge. Not such a terrible trip from the mountain to the shore, though. It was summer, the weather was good; the journey could be made in less than two weeks. And if she would come to Wilmington, he could arrange for her to be brought to Philadelphia on whatever naval vessel was available—he knew people in the navy.

How long? How long might it take her—if she would come? More sobering thought: how long did Henry have?

He was pulled from these troubling reflections by what appeared to be a small riot proceeding down the street in his direction. A number of people, most of them drunken to judge by their behavior, which involved a good deal of shouting and pushing and waving of handkerchiefs. A young man was beating a drum, with much enthusiasm and no skill, and two children bore between them an outlandish banner, striped red and white but with no legend upon it.

He pressed back against a house, to give them room to pass. They did not pass, however, but instead hauled up before a house on the opposite side of the street and stood there shouting slogans in English and German. He caught the shout of “Liberty,” and someone blew a cavalry charge upon a trumpet. And then he caught the shout of “Rush! Rush! Rush!”

Good God, it must be the house he was seeking, that of Dr. Rush. The mob seemed good-humored; he supposed they did not mean to drag the doctor out for a dose of tar and feathers, this being a notable form of public entertainment, or so he had been told. Cautiously, he approached and tapped a young woman on the shoulder.

“I beg your pardon.” He had to lean close and shout into her ear to be heard; she whirled and blinked in surprise, then caught sight of his butterfly waistcoat and broke into a broad smile. He smiled back.

“I am seeking Dr. Benjamin Rush,” he shouted. “Is this his house?”

“Yes, it is.” A young man beside the young woman heard him and turned, his eyebrows shooting up at sight of Grey. “You have business with Dr. Rush?”

“I have a letter of introduction to the doctor from a Dr. Franklin, a mutual—”

The young man’s face broke into a huge grin. Before he could say anything, though, the door of the house opened and a slender, well-dressed man in his thirties came out onto the stoop. There was a roar from the crowd, and the man, who must surely be Dr. Rush himself, held out his hands to them, laughing. The noise quieted for a moment, the man leaning out to talk with someone in the crowd. Then he ducked into the house, came out again with his coat on, came down the steps to a roar of applause, and the whole mob moved off again, banging and bugling with renewed fervor.

“Come along!” the young man bellowed in his ear. “There’ll be free beer!”

Which is how Lord John Grey found himself in the taproom of a prosperous tavern, celebrating the first anniversary of the publication of the Declaration of Independence. There were political speeches of an impassioned, if not very eloquent, variety, and it was in the course of these that Grey learned that Dr. Rush was not only a wealthy and influential rebel sympathizer but a prominent rebel himself; in fact, as he learned from his newfound friends, both Rush and Dr. Franklin turned out to have signed the seditious document in the first place.

Word spread through the people round them that Grey was a friend of Franklin’s, and he was much hailed in consequence, eventually being conveyed by insensible degrees through the crowd until he found himself face-to-face with Benjamin Rush.

It wasn’t the first time Grey had been in close proximity to a criminal, and he kept his composure. This was plainly not the time to lay his nephew’s situation before Rush, and Grey contented himself with shaking the young doctor by the hand and mentioning his connection with Franklin. Rush was most cordial, and shouted over the noise that Grey must come to call at his house when they both should be at leisure, perhaps in the morning.

Grey expressed his great willingness to do so and retired gracefully through the crowd, hoping that the Crown would not manage to hang Rush before he had a chance to examine Henry.

A racket in the street outside put a momentary stop to the festivities. There was considerable shouting and the thump of projectiles striking the front of the building. One of these—which proved to be a large, muddy rock—struck and shattered a pane of the establishment’s window, allowing the bellows of “Traitors! Renegados!” to be heard more clearly.

“Shut your face, lickspittle!” shouted someone inside the tavern. Globs of mud and more rocks were hurled, some of these coming through the open door and broken window, along with patriotic shouts of “God Save the King!”

“Geld the Royal Brute!” shouted Grey’s earlier acquaintance in reply, and half the tavern rushed out into the street, some pausing to break legs from stools to assist in the political discussion which then ensued.

Grey was somewhat concerned lest Rush be set upon by the Loyalists in the street and attacked before he could be of use to Henry, but Rush and a few others whom he took to be prominent rebels, as well, hung back from the fray and, after taking brief counsel, elected to leave through the tavern’s kitchen.

Grey found himself left in the company of a man from Norfolk named Paine, a malnourished, ill-dressed wretch, large of nose and vivid of personality, possessed of strong opinions on the subjects of liberty and democracy and a most remarkable command of epithet regarding the King. Finding conversation difficult, as he could not reasonably express any of his own contrary opinions on these subjects, Grey excused himself with the intention of following Rush and his friends out the back way.

The riot outside, having reached a brief crescendo, had proceeded to its natural conclusion with the flight of the Loyalists, and people now had begun to flow back into the tavern, borne on a tide of righteous indignation and self-congratulation. Among these was a tall, slender, dark man, who looked round from his conversation, met Grey’s eye, and stopped dead.

Grey walked up to him, hoping that the beating of his heart was not audible above the fading noise in the street.

“Mr. Beauchamp,” he said, and took Perseverance Wainwright by hand and wrist, in what might be taken for cordial greeting but was in reality firm detention. “A private word with you, sir?”

HE WOULD NOT bring Percy to the house he had taken for himself and Dottie. Dottie would not recognize him, for she had not even been born when Percy vanished from Grey’s life; it was merely the operation of the instinct which would have prevented him giving a small child a venomous snake to play with.

Percy, whatever his motive, did not suggest taking Grey to his lodgings, probably didn’t want Grey knowing where he was staying, in case he thought to abscond quietly. After a moment’s indecision—for Grey did not yet know the city—Grey agreed to Percy’s suggestion that they walk to the common called Southeast Square.

“It’s a potter’s field,” Percy said, leading the way. “Where they bury strangers to the city.”

“How appropriate,” Grey said, but Percy either didn’t hear or affected not to. It was some way, and they didn’t talk much, the streets being full of people. Despite the holiday aspects and the striped banners hung here and there—they all seemed to have a field of stars, though he hadn’t seen the same arrangement twice, and the stripes varied in size and color, some having red, white, and blue stripes, some only red and white—there was a frenetic air to the gaiety, and an edged sense of danger in the streets. Philadelphia might be the rebels’ capital, but it was far from being a stronghold.

The common was quieter, as might be expected of a graveyard. At that, it was surprisingly pleasant. There were only a few wooden grave markers here and there, giving such details as were known about the person interred beneath them; no one would have gone to the expense of placing gravestones, though some charitable soul had erected a large stone cross upon a plinth in the center of the field. Without conference, they headed for this object, following the course of a small creek that ran through the common.

It had occurred to Grey that Percy might have suggested their destination in order to give himself time to think on the way. Well enough—he’d been thinking, too. So when Percy sat down upon the base of the plinth and turned to him with an air of expectation, he didn’t bother with observations on the weather.

“Tell me about the Baron Amandine’s second sister,” he said, standing before Percy.

Percy blinked, startled, but then smiled.

“Really, John, you amaze me. Claude didn’t tell you about Amelie, I’m sure.”

Grey didn’t reply to that, but folded his hands beneath the tail of his coat and waited. Percy thought for a moment, then shrugged.

“All right. She was Claude’s older sister; my wife, Cecile, is the younger.”

“ ‘Was,’ ” Grey repeated. “So she’s dead.”

“She’s been dead for some forty years. Why are you interested in her?” Percy pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve to dab at his temples; the day was hot, and it had been a long walk; Grey’s own shirt was damp.

“Where did she die?”

“In a brothel in Paris.” That stopped Grey in his tracks. Percy saw it and gave a wry smile. “If you must know, John, I am looking for her son.”

Grey stared at him for a moment, then slowly sat down beside him. The gray stone of the plinth was warm under his bu**ocks.

“All right,” he said, after a moment. “Tell me, if you would be so good.”

Percy gave him a sideways glance of amusement—full of wariness, but still amused.

“There are things I cannot tell you, John, as you must surely appreciate. By the way, I hear that there is a rather heated discussion taking place between the British secretaries of state as to which of them shall make an approach regarding my previous offer—and to whom, exactly, to make it. I suppose this is your doing? I thank you.”

“Don’t change the subject. I’m not asking you about your previous offer.” Not yet, anyway. “I’m asking you about Amelie Beauchamp and her son. I cannot see how they may be connected with the other matter, so I assume they have some personal significance to you. Naturally, there are things you cannot tell me regarding the larger matter”—he bowed slightly—“but this mystery about the baron’s sister seems somewhat more personal.”

“It is.” Percy was turning something over in his mind; Grey could see it working behind his eyes. The eyes were lined and a little pouched but the same as ever; a warm, lively brown, the color of sherry-sack. His fingers drummed briefly on the stone, then stopped, and he turned to Grey with an air of decision.

“Very well. Bulldog that you are, if I don’t tell you, you will doubtless be following me all over Philadelphia, in an effort to discover my purpose in being here.”

This was precisely what Grey intended doing in any case, but he made an indeterminate noise that might be taken as encouragement before asking, “What is your purpose in being here?”

“I’m looking for a printer named Fergus Fraser.” Grey blinked at that; he hadn’t been expecting any concrete answer.

“Who is … ?”

Percy held up a hand, folding down the fingers as he spoke.

“He is, first, the son of one James Fraser, a notable ex-Jacobite and current rebel. He is, secondly, a printer, as indicated—and, I suspect, a rebel like his father. And, thirdly, I strongly suspect that he is the son of Amelie Beauchamp.”

There were blue and red dragonflies hovering over the creek; Grey felt as though one of these insects had flown suddenly up his nose.

“You are telling me that James Fraser had an illegitimate son by a French whore? Who happened also to be the daughter of an ancient noble family?” Shock did not begin to describe his feelings, but he kept his tone light, and Percy laughed.

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