An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 118

   

Grant tactfully affected to believe William had simply gone to relieve himself, and made no inquiries.

“An impressive gentleman,” he remarked casually. “The general’s kinsman, I mean. Wouldn’t think they were related to look at, would you?”

Caught up in dying hope and tearing grief, William had barely noticed Colonel Fraser before the latter had so suddenly given him the hat—and been too startled to notice much about him then. He shook his head in agreement, though, having a vague recollection of a tall figure kneeling down by the bed, the firelight touching the crown of his head briefly with red.

“Looks more like you than like the brigadier,” Grant added offhandedly, then laughed, a painful creak. “Sure you haven’t a Scottish branch in your family?”

“No, Yorkshiremen back to the Flood on both sides, save one French great-grandmother,” William replied, grateful for the momentary distraction of light conversation. “My stepfather’s mother is half Scotch—that count, do you think?”

Whatever Grant might have said in reply was lost, as the sound of a doomed soul came down to them through the gloom. Both men froze, listening. The brigadier’s piper was coming, with Balcarres and some of his rangers. The burial detail.

The sun had risen but was invisible, blocked by cloud and the canopy of trees. Grant’s face was the same color as the fog, pale, sheened with moisture.

The sound seemed to come from a great distance and yet from the forest itself. Then wails and ululating shrieks joined the piper’s lament—Balcarres and his Indians. Despite the chilling sounds, William was a little comforted; it would not be just a hasty field burial, undertaken without regard or respect.

“Sound like howling wolves, don’t they?” muttered Grant. He ran a hand down his face, then fastidiously wiped his wet palm on his thigh.

“Yes, they do,” said William. He took a firm stance and waited to receive the mourners, conscious all the time of the cabin at his back, its door standing silent, open to the mist.

GREASIER THAN GREASE

I HAD ALWAYS assumed that surrender was a fairly simple thing. Hand over your sword, shake hands, and march off—to parole, prison, or the next battle. I was disabused of this simpleminded assumption by Dr. Rawlings, who did indeed make his way across the lines two days later to speak to me about his brother. I’d told him everything I could, expressing my particular attachment to his brother’s casebook, through which I felt I’d known Daniel Rawlings. The second Dr. Rawlings—his name was David, he said—was easy to talk to and lingered for a while, the conversation moving on to other subjects.

“Gracious, no,” he said, when I’d mentioned my surprise that the ceremony of surrender had not occurred at once. “The terms of surrender must be negotiated first, you know—and that’s a prickly business.”

“Negotiated?” I said. “Does General Burgoyne have a choice in the matter?”

He seemed to find that funny.

“Oh, indeed he does,” he assured me. “I happen to have seen the proposals which Major Kingston brought over this morning for General Gates’s perusal. They begin with the rather firm statement, that having fought Gates twice, General Burgoyne is quite prepared to do it a third time. He’s not, of course,” the doctor added, “but it saves his face by allowing him to then note that he has of course noticed the rebels’ superiority in numbers and thus feels justified in accepting surrender in order to save the lives of brave men upon honorable terms. By the way, the battle is not officially over yet,” he added, with a faint air of apology. “General Burgoyne proposes a cessation of hostilities while negotiations are under way.”

“Oh, really,” I said, amused. “I wonder if General Gates is disposed to accept this at face value.”

“No, he’s not,” said a dry Scottish voice, and Jamie ducked his head and came into the tent, followed by his cousin Hamish. “He read Burgoyne’s proposal, then reached into his pocket and whipped out his own. He demands an unconditional surrender and requires both British and German troops to ground their arms in camp and march out as prisoners. The truce will last ’til sunset, at which time Burgoyne must make his reply. I thought Major Kingston would have an apoplexy on the spot.”

“Is he bluffing, do you think?” I asked. Jamie made a small Scottish noise in his throat and cut his eyes at Dr. Rawlings, indicating that he thought this an improper thing to be discussing in front of the enemy. And given Dr. Rawlings’s evident access to the British high command, perhaps he was right.

David Rawlings tactfully changed the subject, opening the lid of the case he had brought with him.

“Is this the same as the case you had, Mrs. Fraser?”

“Yes, it is.” I had noticed it immediately but hadn’t liked to stare at it. It was somewhat more battered than my case, and had a small brass nameplate attached to it, but was otherwise just the same.

“Well, I was in no real doubt as to my brother’s fate,” he said, with a small sigh, “but that settles the matter entirely. The cases were given to us by our father, himself a physician, when we entered practice.”

I glanced at him, startled.

“You don’t mean to tell me—were you twins?”

“We were, yes.” He looked surprised that I hadn’t known that.

“Identical?”

He smiled.

“Our mother could invariably tell us apart, but few other people could.”

I stared at him, feeling an unusual warmth—almost embarrassment. I had, of course, built up a mental picture of Daniel Rawlings as I read his casebook entries. Suddenly meeting him face-to-face, as it were, gave me something of a turn.

Jamie was staring at me in bemusement, eyebrows raised. I coughed, blushing, and he shook his head slightly and, with another Scottish noise, picked up the deck of cards he’d come for and led Hamish out.

“I wonder—are you in need of anything particular in the medical line?” David Rawlings asked, blushing in turn. “I am quite short of medicinals, but I do have duplicates of some instruments—and quite a good selection of scalpels. I should be most honored if you would…”

“Oh.” That was a gallant offer, and my embarrassment was at once submerged in a tide of acquisitiveness. “Would you perhaps have an extra pair of tweezers? Small forceps, I mean?”

“Oh, yes, of course.” He pulled out the lower drawer, pushing a clutter of small instruments aside in search of the tweezers. As he did so, I caught sight of something unusual and pointed at it.

“What on earth is that?”

“It is called a jugum penis,” Dr. Rawlings explained to me, his color increasing noticeably.

“It looks like a bear trap. What is it—it can’t be a device for performing circumcision, surely?” I picked up the object, which caused Dr. Rawlings to gasp, and I eyed him curiously.

“It—er, please, dear lady…” He almost snatched the thing out of my hands, thrusting it back into his chest.

“What on earth is it for?” I asked, more amused than offended by his reaction. “Given the name, obviously—”

“It prevents nocturnal… er… tumescence.” His face by this time was a dark, unhealthy sort of red, and he wouldn’t meet my eye.

“Yes, I imagine it would do that.” The object in question consisted of two concentric circles of metal, the outer one flexible, with overlapping ends, and a sort of key mechanism that enabled it to be tightened. The inner one was sawtoothed—much like a bear trap, as I’d said. Rather obviously, it was meant to be fastened round a limp penis—which would stay in that condition, if it knew what was good for it.

I coughed. “Um… why, precisely, is that desirable?”

His embarrassment faded slightly into shock.

“Why… it… the… the loss of the male essence is most debilitating. It drains the vitality and exposes a man to all manner of sickness, as well as grossly impairing his mental and spiritual faculties.”

“Just as well no one’s thought of mentioning that to my husband,” I said.

Rawlings gave me a completely scandalized look, but before the discussion could assume even more improper proportions, we were fortunately interrupted by a stir outside, and he took the opportunity to shut his case and tuck it hastily back under his arm before coming to join me at the tent’s entrance.

There was a small parade crossing the camp, a hundred feet away. A British major in dress uniform, blindfolded, and so red in the face I thought he might pop. He was being led by two Continental soldiers, and a fife player was following them at a semi-discreet distance, playing “Yankee Doodle.” Bearing in mind what Jamie had said about an apoplexy, I was in no doubt that this was the unfortunate Major Kingston who had been selected to deliver Burgoyne’s surrender proposals.

“Dear me,” murmured Dr. Rawlings, shaking his head at the sight. “I am afraid this process could take some time.”

IT DID. A week later, we were all still sitting there, as letters made their stately way once or twice a day between the two camps. There was a general air of relaxation in the American camp; I thought things were probably still a little tense across the way, but Dr. Rawlings had not come back, so general gossip was the only way of judging the progress—or lack of it—of the surrender negotiations. Evidently General Gates had been bluffing, and Burgoyne had been astute enough to realize it.

I was pleased to be in one place long enough to wash my clothes without risk of being shot, scalped, or otherwise molested. Beyond that, there were a good many casualties from the two battles who still required nursing.

I had been aware, in a vague sort of way, of a man lurking round the edges of our encampment. I’d seen him several times, but he had never come close enough to speak to me, and I’d put him down as likely suffering from some embarrassing ailment like clap or piles. It often took such men a good while to muster either the courage or the desperation to ask for help, and once they did, they’d still wait to speak to me privately.

The third or fourth time I noticed him, I tried to catch his eye, to induce him to come close enough so that I could arrange to examine him privately, but each time he slid away, eyes downcast, and disappeared into the anthill of seething militia, Continentals, and camp followers.

He reappeared quite suddenly toward sunset of the next day, while I was making a sort of pottage, using a bone—unidentifiable as to animal, but reasonably fresh, and with shreds of meat still clinging to it—given me by a patient, two wizened yams, a handful of grain, another handful of beans, and some stale bread.

“You are Mrs. Fraser?” he asked, in a surprisingly educated Lowland Scottish accent. Edinburgh, I thought, and had a faint pang at the memory of Tom Christie’s similar speech. He had always insisted upon calling me “Mrs. Fraser,” spoken in just that clipped, formal way.

Thoughts of Tom Christie vanished in the next instant, though.

“They call you the White Witch, do they not?” the man said, and smiled. It wasn’t in any way a pleasant expression.

“Some do. What of it?” I said, taking a good grip on my spurtle and staring him down. He was tall and thin, narrow-faced and dark, dressed in the uniform of a Continental. Why had he not gone to his regimental surgeon, in preference to a witch? I wondered. Did he want a love philter? He scarcely seemed the type.

He laughed a little, and bowed.

“I wished only to be sure I had come to the right place, madam,” he said. “I intended no offense.”

“None taken.” He was not doing anything noticeably threatening, other than perhaps standing too close to me, but I didn’t like him. And my heart was beating faster than it ought.

“You evidently know my name,” I said, striving for coolness. “What’s yours, then?”

He smiled again, looking me over with a careful air that struck me as one inch short of insolence—and a short inch, at that.

“My name doesn’t matter. Your husband is James Fraser?”

I had a sudden strong urge to dot him one with the spurtle but didn’t; it might annoy him but wouldn’t get rid of him. I didn’t want to admit to Jamie’s name and didn’t bother asking myself why not. I simply said, “Excuse me,” and, taking the camp kettle off the fire, set it on the ground and walked off.

He hadn’t expected that and didn’t follow me at once. I walked away fast, whisked round behind a small tent belonging to the New Hampshire militia and into a group of people gathered round another fire—militiamen, some with their wives. One or two looked surprised by my abrupt appearance, but all of them knew me and cordially made room, nodding and murmuring greetings.

I looked back from this refuge and could see the man, silhouetted by the sinking sun, standing by my own abandoned fire, the evening wind lifting wisps of his hair. It was no doubt my imagination that made me think he looked sinister.

“Who’s that, Auntie? One of your rejected suitors?” Young Ian spoke by my ear, a grin in his voice.

“Certainly rejected,” I said, keeping an eye on the man. I’d thought he might follow me, but he remained where he was, face turned in my direction. His face was a black oval, but I knew he was staring at me. “Where’s your uncle, do you know?”

“Oh, aye. He and Cousin Hamish are takin’ Colonel Martin’s money at loo, over there.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the Vermont militia encampment, where Colonel Martin’s tent rose, recognizable by a large tear in the top, which had been patched with a piece of yellow calico.

“Is Hamish good at cards?” I asked curiously, glancing toward the tent.

“No, but Uncle Jamie is, and he kens when Hamish will do the wrong thing, which is almost as good as him doing the right thing, aye?”

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