An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 105

   

“No. The printer is Fraser’s son, but is adopted. He took the boy from a brothel in Paris more than thirty years ago.” A trickle of sweat ran down the side of Percy’s neck, and he wiped it away. The warmth of the day had made his cologne blossom on his skin; Grey caught the hint of ambergris and carnation, spice and musk together.

“Amelie was, as I said, Claude’s older sister. In her teens she was seduced by a much older man, a married nobleman, and got with child. The normal thing would have been for her simply to be married hastily off to a complaisant husband, but the nobleman’s wife died quite suddenly, and Amelie made a fuss, insisting that since he was now free, he must marry her.”

“He was not so inclined?”

“No. Claude’s father was, though. I suppose he thought such a marriage would improve the family fortunes; the comte was a very wealthy man, and while not political, did have a certain… standing.”

The old Baron Amandine had been willing to keep things quiet in the beginning, but as he began to see the possibilities of the situation, he became bolder and threatened all kinds of things, from a complaint to the King—for old Amandine was active at court, unlike his son—to a lawsuit for damages and an application to the Church for excommunication.

“Could he actually have done that?” Grey asked, fascinated despite his reservations about Percy’s veracity. Percy smiled briefly.

“He could have complained to the King. In any case, he didn’t get the chance. Amelie disappeared.”

The girl had vanished from her home in the middle of one night, taking her jewels. It was thought that perhaps she had intended to run away to her lover, in the hope that he would give in and marry her, but the comte professed complete ignorance of the matter, and no one came forward to say that they had seen her, either leaving Trois Flèches or entering the Paris mansion of the Comte St. Germain.

“And you think she somehow ended in a Paris brothel?” Grey said incredulously. “How? And if so, how did you discover this?”

“I found her marriage lines.”

“What?”

“A contract of marriage, between Amelie Elise LeVigne Beauchamp and Robert-Francoise Quesnay de St. Germain. Signed by both parties. And a priest. It was in the library at Trois Flèches, inside the family Bible. Claude and Cecile are not very religiously inclined, I’m afraid,” Percy said, shaking his head.

“And you are?” That made Percy laugh; he knew that Grey knew precisely what his feelings regarding religion were.

“I was bored,” he said without apology.

“Life at Trois Flèches must have been tedious indeed, if it forced you to read the Bible. Did the sub-gardener quit?”

“Did—oh, Emile.” Percy grinned. “No, but he had a terrible bout of la grippe that month. Couldn’t breathe through his nose at all, poor man.”

Grey felt again a treacherous impulse to laugh, but restrained it, and Percy went on without a pause.

“I actually wasn’t reading it; I have all of the most excessive damnations memorized, after all. I was interested in the cover.”

“Heavily bejeweled, was it?” Grey asked dryly, and Percy gave him a look of mild offense.

“It has not always got to do with money, John, even for those of us not blessed with such substance as yourself.”

“My apologies,” said Grey. “Why the Bible, then?”

“I will have you know that I am a bookbinder of no mean repute,” Percy said, preening a little. “I took it up in Italy as a means of making a living. After you so gallantly saved my life. Thank you for that, by the way,” he said, with a direct look whose sudden seriousness made Grey look down to avoid his eyes.

“You’re welcome,” he said gruffly, and, bending, carefully induced a small green caterpillar that was inching its way across the polished toe of his boot to inch onto his finger.

“Anyway,” Percy went on, not losing a beat, “I discovered this curious document. I had heard of the family scandal, of course, and recognized the names at once.”

“You asked the present baron about it?”

“I did. What did you think of Claude, by the way?” Percy had always been like quicksilver, Grey thought, and he hadn’t lost any of his mutability with age.

“Bad cardplayer. A wonderful voice, though—does he sing?”

“Indeed he does. And you’re right about the cards. He can keep a secret, if he likes, but he can’t lie at all. You’d be amazed at how powerful a thing perfect honesty is, in some circumstances,” Percy added reflectively. “It almost makes me think there might be something in the Eighth Commandment.”

Grey muttered something about “more honored in the breach,” but then coughed and begged that Percy might continue.

“He didn’t know about the marriage contract, I’m sure of it. He was genuinely staggered. And after a certain amount of hesitation—‘bloody, bold, and resolute’ may be your watchwords, John, but they are not his—he gave his consent for me to dig into the matter.”

Grey ignored the implied flattery—if that’s what it was, and he thought it was—and carefully deposited the caterpillar onto the leaves of what looked like an edible bush.

“You looked for the priest,” he said with certainty.

Percy laughed with what sounded like genuine pleasure, and it occurred to Grey with a small shock that of course he knew Percy’s mind, and Percy his; they had been conversing, through the veils of statecraft and secrecy, for many years. Of course, Percy had likely known to whom he was talking, and Grey hadn’t.

“Yes, I did. He was dead—murdered. Killed in the street at night while hurrying to give the last rites to a dying parishioner, such a terrible thing. A week after the disappearance of Amelie Beauchamp.”

This was beginning to rouse Grey’s professional interest, though the private side of him was still more than wary.

“The next thing would have been the comte—but if he was capable of killing a priest to keep his secrets, it would have been dangerous to approach him directly,” Grey said. “His servants, then?”

Percy nodded, mouth quirked at one corner in appreciation of Grey’s acuity.

“The comte was dead, too—or he disappeared, at least; he had a reputation as a sorceror, oddly enough—and he died a good ten years after Amelie. But I looked for his old servants, yes. I found a few of them. For some people, it really is always about money, and the assistant coachman was one of those. Two days after Amelie disappeared, he delivered a carpet to a brothel near the Rue Fauborg. A very heavy carpet that had about it a smell of opium—which he recognized, because he had at one point transported a troupe of Chinese acrobats who came to entertain at a fete at the mansion.”

“And so you went to the brothel. Where money…”

“They say water is the universal solvent,” Percy said, shaking his head, “but it isn’t. You could plunge a man into a barrel of freezing water and leave him for a week, and you would accomplish much less than you might with a modest quantity of gold.”

Grey silently noted the adjective “freezing,” and nodded to Percy to continue.

“It took some time, repeated visits, different attempts—the madam was a true professional, meaning that whoever had paid her predecessor had done so on a staggering scale, and her doorkeeper, while old enough, had had his tongue torn out at an early age; no help there. And of course none of the whores had been there when the infamous carpet was delivered, that being so long before.”

He had, however, patiently traced the families of the present whores—for some occupations run in families—and managed after months of work to discover an old woman who had been employed at the brothel and who recognized the miniature of Amelie that he had brought from Trois Flèches.

The girl had indeed been brought to the brothel, in the middle stages of pregnancy. That had not mattered particularly; there were patrons with such tastes. A few months later, she had been delivered of a son. She had survived childbirth but died a year later, during a plague of influenza.

“And I could not begin to tell you the difficulties of finding out anything about a child born in a Paris brothel forty-odd years ago, my dear.” Percy sighed, employing his handkerchief again.

“But your name is Perseverance,” Grey noted with extreme dryness, and Percy glanced sharply at him.

“Do you know,” he said lightly, “I believe you are the only person in the world who knows that?” And from the expression in his eyes, that was one too many.

“Your secret is safe with me,” Grey said. “That one, at least. What about Denys Randall-Isaacs?”

It worked. Percy’s face shimmered like a pool of quicksilver in the sun. In half a heartbeat, he had the perfect blankness back in place—but it was too late.

Grey laughed, though without humor, and stood up.

“Thank you, Perseverance,” he said, and walked away through the grassy graves of the nameless poor.

That night, when his household was asleep, he took pen and ink to write to Arthur Norrington, to Harry Quarry, and to his brother. Toward dawn, he began, for the first time in two years, to write to Jamie Fraser.

BATTLE OF BENNINGTON

General Burgoyne’s camp

September 11, 1777

THE SMOKE OF burnt and burning fields hung over the camp, had done so for days. The Americans were still withdrawing, destroying the countryside in their wake.

William was with Sandy Lindsay, talking about the best way to cook a turkey—one of Lindsay’s scouts having just brought him one—when the letter arrived. It was likely William’s imagination that a dreadful silence fell upon the camp, the earth shook, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain. But it was very shortly apparent that something had happened, nonetheless.

There was a definite change in the air, something amiss in the rhythms of speech and movement among the men surrounding them. Balcarres felt it, too, and stopped in his examination of the turkey’s outspread wing, looking at William with eyebrows raised.

“What?” said William.

“I don’t know, but it isn’t good.” Balcarres thrust the limp turkey into his orderly’s hands and, snatching up his hat, made for Burgoyne’s tent, William on his heels.

They found Burgoyne tight-lipped and white with anger, his senior officers in clusters round him, speaking to one another in low, shocked voices.

Captain Sir Francis Clerke, the general’s aide-de-camp, emerged from the press, head down and face shadowed. Balcarres caught at his elbow as he passed.

“Francis—what’s happened?”

Captain Clerke was looking noticeably agitated. He glanced behind him into the tent, then stepped aside and moved out of earshot, taking Balcarres and William with him.

“Howe,” he said. “He’s not coming.”

“Not coming?” William said stupidly. “But—is he not leaving New York after all?”

“He’s leaving,” Clerke said, his lips so tight it was a wonder he could speak at all. “To invade Pennsylvania.”

“But—” Balcarres darted an appalled look toward the entrance to the tent, then back at Clerke.

“Exactly.”

The true proportions of the disaster were revealing themselves to William. General Howe was not merely cocking a snook at General Burgoyne by ignoring his plan, which would be bad enough from Burgoyne’s point of view. By choosing to march on Philadelphia rather than coming up the Hudson to join Burgoyne’s troops, Howe had left Burgoyne essentially to his own devices, in terms of supply and reinforcement.

In other words, they were on their own, separated from their supply trains, with the disagreeable choice of continuing to pursue the retreating Americans through a wilderness from which all sustenance had been stripped—or turning round and marching ignominiously back to Canada, through a wilderness from which all sustenance had been stripped.

Balcarres had been expostulating along these lines to Sir Francis, who rubbed a hand over his face in frustration, shaking his head.

“I know,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, my lords—”

“Where are you going?” William asked, and Clerke glanced at him.

“To tell Mrs. Lind,” Clerke said. “I thought I’d best warn her.” Mrs. Lind was the wife of the chief commisary officer. She was also General Burgoyne’s mistress.

WHETHER MRS. LIND had exerted her undeniable gifts to good effect, or whether the general’s natural resiliency of character had asserted itself, the blow of Howe’s letter was swiftly encompassed. Whatever you want to say about him, William wrote in his weekly letter to Lord John, he knows the benefit of certain decision and swift action. We have resumed our pursuit of the Americans’ chief body of troops with redoubled effort. Most of our horses have been abandoned, stolen, or eaten. I have quite worn through the soles of one pair of boots.

In the meantime, we receive intelligence from one of the scouts to the effect that the town of Bennington, which is not too far distant, is being used as a gathering place for the American commissary. By report, it is lightly guarded, and so the General is sending Colonel Baum, one of the Hessians, with five hundred troops to capture these much-needed supplies. We leave in the morning.

Whether his drunken conversation with Balcarres was in part responsible, William never knew, but he had discovered that he was now spoken of as being “good with Indians.” And whether it was owing to this dubious capacity or to the fact that he could speak basic German, he found himself on the morning of August 12 deputed to accompany Colonel Baum’s foraging expedition, this including a number of dismounted Brunswick cavalry, two three-pounder artillery pieces, and a hundred Indians.

By report, the Americans were receiving cattle, funneled out of New England, these being collected in quantity in Bennington, as well as a considerable number of wagons, these full of corn, flour, and other necessaries.

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