An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 11

   

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Wassis?” Mandy echoed faithfully, rushing over and scrambling up on the chair to see.

“It’s a letter from your grandda,” Brianna replied, not missing a beat. She put a hand casually on the letter, obscuring most of the postscript, and pointed with the other at the last paragraph. “He sent you a kiss. See there?”

A huge smile lighted Jem’s face.

“He said he wouldn’t forget,” he said, contented.

“Kissy, Grandda,” Mandy exclaimed, and bending forward so her mass of black curls fell over her face, planted a loud, “MWAH!” on the letter.

Caught between horror and laughter, Bree snatched it up and wiped the moisture off it—but the paper, old as it was, was tough. “No harm done,” she said, and handed the letter casually to Roger. “Come on, what story are we reading tonight?”

“Aminal Nursy Tales!”

“An-i-mal,” Jem said, bending down to speak distinctly into his sister’s face. “An-i-mal Nur-ser-y Tales.”

“Okay,” she said amiably. “Me first!” and scampered madly out the door, giggling, followed by her brother in hot pursuit. Brianna took three seconds to seize Roger by the ears and kiss him firmly on the mouth, then released him and set off after their offspring.

Feeling happier, he sat down, listening to the uproar of toothbrushing and face-washing above. Sighing, he put the notebook back in the drawer. Plenty of time, he thought. Years before it might be needed. Years and years.

He folded up the letter with care, and standing on tiptoe, put it on the highest shelf of the bookcase, moving the little snake to guard it. He blew out the candle then, and went to join his family.

Postscriptum: I see I am to have the last Word—a rare Treat to a Man living in a House that contains (at last count) eight Women. We propose to leave the Ridge so soon as the Climate thaws, and to go to Scotland, there to procure my printing Press, and return with it. Travel in these times is uncertain, and I cannot predict when—or if—it will be possible to write again. (Nor do I know whether you will receive this Letter at all, but I proceed in necessary Faith that you will.)

I wished to tell you of the Disposition of the Property which was once held in trust by the Camerons for an Italian Gentleman. I think it unwise to carry this with us, and have therefore removed it to a Place of safety. Jem knows the Place. If you should at some Time have need of this Property, tell him the Spaniard guards it. If so, be sure to have it blessed by a Priest; there is Blood upon it.

Sometimes I wish that I might see the Future; much more often, I give thanks to God that I cannot. But I will always see your Faces. Kiss the Children for me.

Your loving father,

JF

THE CHILDREN WASHED, toothbrushed, kissed, and put to bed, their parents returned to the library, a dram of whisky, and the letter.

“An Italian gentleman?” Bree looked at Roger, one brow raised in a way that brought Jamie Fraser so immediately to mind that Roger glanced involuntarily at the sheet of paper. “Does he mean—”

“Charles Stuart? He can’t mean anyone else.”

She picked the letter up and read the postscript for perhaps the dozenth time.

“And if he does mean Charles Stuart, then the property …”

“He’s found the gold. And Jem knows where it is?” Roger couldn’t help this last taking on the tone of a question, as he cast his eyes toward the ceiling, above which his children were presumably asleep, wrapped in virtue and cartoon pajamas.

Bree frowned.

“Does he? That isn’t exactly what Da said—and if he did know … that’s an awfully big secret to ask an eight-year-old boy to keep.”

“True.” Eight or not, Jem was very good at keeping secrets, Roger thought. But Bree was right—her father would never burden anyone with dangerous information, let alone his beloved grandson. Certainly not without a good reason, and his postscript made it clear that this information was provided only as a contingency in case of need.

“You’re right. Jem doesn’t know anything about the gold—just about this Spaniard, whatever that may be. He’s never mentioned anything like that to you?”

She shook her head, then turned as a sudden puff of wind from the open window blew through the curtains, breathing immanent rain. Bree got up and went hastily to close it, then trotted upstairs to close the windows there, waving at Roger to see to those on the ground floor. Lallybroch was a large house, and unusually well provided with windows—the children kept trying to count them, but never came up with the same number twice.

Roger supposed he could go and count them himself one day and settle the matter, but was reluctant to do this. The house, like most old houses, had a distinct personality. Lallybroch was welcoming, all right; large and gracious, comfortably rather than grandly built, with the echoes of generations murmuring in its walls. But it was a place that had its secrets, too, no doubt of that. And hiding the number of its windows was quite in keeping with the sense he had of the house as being rather playful.

The windows in the kitchen—now equipped with modern refrigerator, Aga cooker, and decent plumbing, but still with its ancient granite counters stained with the juice of currants, the blood of game and poultry—were all closed, but he went through it nonetheless, and through the scullery. The light in the back hall was off, but he could see the grating in the floor near the wall that gave air to the priest’s hole below.

His father-in-law had hidden there briefly, during the days after the Rising, before being imprisoned at Ardsmuir. Roger had gone down there once—also briefly—when they had bought the house, and had come up out of the dank, fetid little space with a complete understanding of why Jamie Fraser had chosen to live in a wilderness on a remote mountaintop, where there was no constraint in any direction.

Years of hiding, of duress, of imprisonment … Jamie Fraser was not a political creature, and he knew better than most what the true cost of war was, whatever its presumed purpose. But Roger had seen his father-in-law now and then rub absently at his wrists, where the marks of fetters had long since faded—but the memory of their weight had not. Roger had not the slightest doubt that Jamie Fraser would live free, or die. And wished for an instant, with a longing that gnawed his bones, that he might be there, to fight by his father-in-law’s side.

The rain had started; he could hear the patter of it on the slate roofs of the outbuildings, then the rush as it came on in earnest, wrapping the house in mist and water.

“For ourselves … and our posterity,” he said aloud, but quietly.

It was a bargain made between men—unspoken, but understood completely. Nothing mattered but that the family be preserved, the children protected. And whether the cost of it was paid in blood, sweat, or soul—it would be paid.

“Oidche mhath,” he said, with a brief nod in the direction of the priest’s hole. Good night, then.

He stood a moment longer in the old kitchen, though, feeling the embrace of the house, its solid protection against the storm. The kitchen had always been the heart of the house, he thought, and found the warmth of the cooker as much a comfort as the fire on the now-empty hearth had once been.

He met Brianna at the foot of the stairs; she’d changed for bed—as opposed to sleep. The air in the house was always cool, and the temperature had dropped several degrees with the onset of rain. She wasn’t wearing her woolies, though; rather, a thin nightgown of white cotton, deceptively innocent-looking, with a small red ribbon threaded through it. The white cloth clung to the shape of her br**sts like cloud to a mountain peak.

He said as much, and she laughed—but made no objection when he cupped his hands around them, her ni**les against his palms round as beach pebbles through the thin cloth.

“Upstairs?” she whispered, and leaning in, ran the tip of her tongue along his lower lip.

“No,” he said, and kissed her solidly, quelling the tickle of the touch. “In the kitchen. We haven’t done it there, yet.”

He had her, bent over the ancient counter with its mysterious stains, the sound of her small grunts a punctuation to the rush of wind and rain on the ancient shutters. Felt her shiver and liquefy and let go, too, his knees trembling with it, so he fell slowly forward, clutched her by the shoulders, his face pressed into the shampoo-fragrant waves of her hair, the old granite smooth and cool beneath his cheek. His heart was beating slow and hard, steady as a bass drum.

He was naked, and a cold draft from somewhere raised gooseflesh down his back and legs. Brianna felt him shiver and turned her face to his.

“Cold?” she whispered. She wasn’t; she glowed like a live coal, and he wanted nothing more than to slide into bed beside her and ride out the storm in snug warmth.

“I’m fine.” He bent and scooped up the clothes he had thrown on the floor. “Let’s go to bed.”

The rain was louder upstairs.

“Oh, the animals went in two by two,” Bree sang softly, as they climbed the stairs, “the elephants and the kangaroos …”

Roger smiled. You could imagine the house an ark, floating on a roaring world of water—but all snug within. Two by two—two parents, two kids … maybe more, someday. There was plenty of room, after all.

With the lamp put out and the beating of rain on the shutters, Roger lingered on the edge of sleep, reluctant to surrender the pleasure of the moment.

“We won’t ask him, will we?” Bree whispered. Her voice was drowsy, her soft weight warm all down the side of his body. “Jem?”

“Oh? No. Of course not. No need.”

He felt the prick of curiosity—who was the Spaniard? And the notion of buried treasure was always a lure—but they didn’t need it; they had enough money for the present. Always assuming the gold was still wherever Jamie had put it, which was a long shot in itself.

Nor had he forgotten the last injunction of Jamie’s postscript.

Have it blessed by a priest; there is blood upon it. The words melted as he thought them, and what he saw on the inside of his eyelids was not gold ingots but the old granite counter in the kitchen, dark stains sunk so far into the stone as to have become part of it, ineradicable by the most vigorous scrubbing, let alone an invocation.

But it didn’t matter. The Spaniard, whoever he was, could keep his gold. The family was safe.

PART TWO

Blood, Sweat, and Pickles

LONG ISLAND

ON JULY 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia.

ON JULY 24, Lieutenant General Sir William Howe arrived on Staten Island, where he set up field headquarters at the Rose and Crown Tavern in New Dorp.

ON AUGUST 13, Lieutenant General George Washington arrived in New York to reinforce the fortifications of the city, which the Americans held.

ON AUGUST 21, William Ransom, Lieutenant Lord Ellesmere, arrived at the Rose and Crown in New Dorp, reporting—somewhat late—for duty as the newest and most junior member of General Howe’s staff.

ON AUGUST 22 …

LIEUTENANT EDWARD MARKHAM, Marquis of Clarewell, peered searchingly into William’s face, offering him an unappetizingly close view of a juicy pimple—just ready to burst—on the former’s forehead.

“You all right, Ellesmere?”

“Fine.” William managed the word between clenched teeth.

“Only, you look rather … green.” Clarewell, looking concerned, reached into his pocket. “Want a suck of my pickle?”

William just about made it to the rail in time. There was a certain amount of jocularity going on behind him regarding Clarewell’s pickle, who might suck it, and how much its owner would be obliged to pay for said service. This, interspersed with Clarewell’s protestations that his aged grandmother swore by a sour pickle for the prevention of seasickness, and plainly it worked, for look at him, solid as a rock …

William blinked watering eyes and fixed his vision on the approaching shore. The water wasn’t particularly rough, though the weather was brewing, no doubt about it. It didn’t matter, though; even the gentlest of up-and-down motions on water, the briefest of journeys, and his stomach promptly tried to turn itself inside out. Every damned time!

It was still trying, but as there was nothing left in it, he could pretend it wasn’t. He wiped his mouth, feeling clammy despite the heat of the day, and straightened his shoulders.

They would drop anchor any minute; time he was going below and badgering the companies under his command into some kind of order before they went into the boats. He risked a brief glance over the rail, and saw the River and the Phoenix just astern. The Phoenix was Admiral Howe’s flagship, and his brother the general was aboard. Would they have to wait, bobbing like corks on the increasingly choppy waves, until General Howe and Captain Pickering, his aide-de-camp, got ashore? God, he hoped not.

In the event, the men were allowed to disembark at once. “With ALL POSSIBLE SPEED, gennelmun!” Sergeant Cutter informed them at the top of his voice. “We’re going to catch the rebel whoresons on the ’op, so we are! And WOE BETIDE any man what I see lollygaggin’! YOU, there … !” He strode off, forceful as a plug of black tobacco, to apply the spurs to a delinquent second lieutenant, leaving William feeling somewhat better. Surely nothing truly terrible could happen in a world containing Sergeant Cutter.

He followed his men down the ladder and into the boats, forgetting his stomach entirely in the rush of excitement. His first real battle was waiting to be fought, somewhere on the plains of Long Island.

EIGHTY-EIGHT FRIGATES. That’s what he’d heard Admiral Howe had brought, and he didn’t doubt it. A forest of sails filled Gravesend Bay, and the water was choked with small boats, ferrying troops ashore. William was half choked himself, with anticipation. He could feel it gathering among the men, as the corporals collected their companies from the boats and marched off in good order, making room for the next wave of arrivals.

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