An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 128

   

He had employed Mrs. Figg, a nearly spherical black woman, as cook, on the assumption that she could not have gained such a figure without having both an appreciation of good food and the ability to cook it. In this assumption he had been proved right, and not even that lady’s uncertain temperament and taste for foul language made him regret his decision, though it did make him approach her warily. Hearing his news, though, she obligingly put aside the game pie she was making in order to assemble a tea tray.

He waited to take this back himself, meaning to give William and Dottie a little time alone together. He wanted to hear everything—for of course everyone in Philadelphia knew about Burgoyne’s disastrous meeting at Saratoga, but he particularly wanted to find out from William what John Burgoyne had known or understood beforehand. According to some of his military acquaintances, Sir George Germain had assured Burgoyne that his plan had been accepted and that Howe would march north to meet him, cutting the American colonies in half. According to others—several of Howe’s staff among them—Howe had never been apprised of this plan in the first place, let alone consented to it.

Was this arrogance and presumptuousness on Burgoyne’s part, obstinacy and pride on Howe’s, idiocy and incompetence on Germain’s—or some combination of all three? If pressed, he’d place his wager on this last possibility, but was curious to know how deeply Germain’s office might have been involved. With Percy Beauchamp vanished from Philadelphia, leaving not a wrack behind, his further movements would have to be observed by someone else, and Arthur Norrington was likely to communicate his own findings to Germain rather than to Grey.

He carried the loaded tray carefully back, to find William on the sofa in his shirtsleeves drinking tea, his hair unbound and loose on his shoulders.

Dottie was sitting in the wing chair before the fire, holding her silver comb on her knee, and with a look on her face that nearly made Grey drop the tray. She turned a startled face on him as he came in, so blank that it was clear she barely saw him. Then something changed and her face altered, like one coming back in a twinkling from somewhere leagues away.

“Here,” she said, rising at once and reaching for the tray. “Let me have that.”

He did, covertly glancing between the two young people. Sure enough, Willie looked odd, too. Why? he wondered. They had been excited, thrilled, exuberantly affectionate with each other a few moments before. Now she was pale but trembling with an inner excitement that made the cups rattle in their saucers as she began to pour out tea. He was flushed where she was pale, but not—Grey was almost sure—with any sort of sexual excitement. He had the look of a man who … well, no. It was sexual excitement, he thought, intrigued—he had, after all, seen it often and was a keen observer of it in men—but it wasn’t focused on Dottie. Not at all.

What the devil are they up to? he thought. He affected to ignore their distraction, though, and sat down to drink tea and hear Willie’s experiences.

The telling calmed William a little. Grey watched William’s face change as he talked, sometimes haltingly, and felt a deep pang at seeing it. Pride, yes, great pride; William was a man now, a soldier, and a good one. But Grey had also a lurking regret for the disappearance of the last traces of Willie’s innocence; the briefest look at his eyes proved that had gone.

The accounts of battle, politics, Indians, all had the opposite effect on Dottie, he saw. Far from being calmed or happy, she grew more visibly agitated by the moment.

“I was about to go to visit Sir William, but I think I’ll go see Henry first,” Grey said at last, rising and brushing toast crumbs from the skirts of his coat. “Do you want to come with me, Willie? Or the both of you, for that matter? Or would you rather rest?”

They exchanged a look in which complicity and plotting were so evident that he blinked. Willie coughed and stood up, too.

“Yes, Papa. I do want to see Henry, of course. But Dottie has just been telling me how grave his state is—and about your intent to get an army surgeon to deal with it. I was … thinking… I know an army surgeon. A most excellent fellow. Very knowing, and wonderfully gentle in his manner—but quick as a snake with his blade,” he hastened to add. His color had risen remarkably, saying this, and Grey viewed him with fascination.

“Really,” Grey said slowly. “He sounds an answer to prayer. What is his name? I could ask Sir William—”

“Oh, he’s not with Sir William,” Willie said hastily.

“Oh, one of Burgoyne’s men?” The paroled soldiers of Burgoyne’s defeated army had all—with exceptions like William—marched to Boston, there to embark for England. “Well, I would of course like to have him, but I doubt we can send to Boston for him and have him come in a timely fashion, given the time of year and the likelihood—”

“No, he’s not in Boston.” Willie exchanged another of those looks with Dottie. She caught Grey watching them this time, went red as the roses on the teacups, and looked sedulously at her toes. Willie cleared his throat.

“In fact, he is a Continental surgeon. But Washington’s army has gone into winter quarters at Valley Forge—that’s no more than a day’s ride. He will come if I go in person to ask him, I am sure of it.”

“I see,” Grey said, thinking rapidly. He was sure that he didn’t see the half of it—whatever “it” was—but on the face of things, this did seem an answer to prayer. It would be a simple matter to ask Howe to arrange an escort and a flag of truce for Willie, as well as a guarantee of safe passage for the surgeon.

“All right,” he said, making up his mind on the moment. “I’ll speak to Sir William about it this afternoon.”

Dottie and Willie gave identical sighs—of relief? What the devil? he thought yet again.

“Right, then,” he said briskly. “Come to think, you’ll wish to wash and change, Willie. I’ll go to Howe’s headquarters now, and we’ll see Henry this afternoon. What is the name of this famous Continental surgeon, that I may have Sir William write a pass for him?”

“Hunter,” said Willie, and his sunburned face seemed to glow. “Denzell Hunter. Be sure to tell Sir William to write the pass for two; Dr. Hunter’s sister is his nurse—he’ll need her to come along and help.”

TWENTY-TWENTY

December 20, 1777

Edinburgh

THE PRINT ON THE PAGE sprang into focus, clear and black, and I exclaimed in startlement.

“Ah, close, then?” Mr. Lewis, the spectacle-maker, twinkled at me over his own spectacles. “Try these.” He gently removed the trial spectacles from my nose and handed me another pair. I put them on, examined the page of the book before me, then looked up.

“I had no idea,” I said, amazed and delighted. It was like being reborn; everything was fresh, new, crisp, and vivid. I had suddenly reentered the half-forgotten world of fine print.

Jamie stood by the shop’s window, book in hand and a handsome pair of steel-rimmed square spectacles on his long nose. They gave him a most unaccustomed scholarly air, and he looked for a moment like a distinguished stranger, until he turned to look at me, his eyes slightly magnified behind the lenses. He shifted his gaze over the top of them and smiled at sight of me.

“I like those,” he said with approval. “The round ones suit your face, Sassenach.”

I had been so taken with the new detail of the world around me that it hadn’t even occurred to me to wonder what I looked like. Curious, I got up and came to peer into the small looking glass hung on the wall.

“Goodness,” I said, recoiling slightly. Jamie laughed, and Mr. Lewis smiled indulgently.

“They are most becoming to you, ma’am,” he said.

“Well, possibly,” I said, warily examining the stranger’s reflection in the glass. “It’s just rather a shock.” It wasn’t really that I’d forgotten what I looked like. It was just that I hadn’t thought about it in months, beyond putting on clean linen and not wearing gray, which tended to make me look as though I’d been inexpertly embalmed.

I had on brown today, an open jacket of brown velvet the color of ripe cattails, with a narrow grosgrain ribbon in gold down the edges, over my new gown—this a heavy coffee-colored silk with a close-fitted bodice and three lace-edged petticoats to show at the ankle. We would not be long in Edinburgh, owing to the exigencies of getting the brigadier to his final resting place and Jamie’s eagerness to be away to the Highlands—but we did have business to conduct here. Jamie had said firmly that we could not appear as ragamuffins and had sent for a dressmaker and a tailor as soon as we reached our lodgings.

I stood back a little, preening. In all honesty, I was surprised to find how well I looked. During the long months of traveling, of retreat and battle with the Continental army, I had been reduced to my basic essence: survival and function. What I looked like would have been entirely irrelevant, even had I had a mirror.

In fact, I’d subconsciously expected to find a witch in the glass, a worn-looking woman with wild gray hair and a fierce expression. Possibly a long hair or two sprouting from the chin.

Instead… well, it was still recognizably me. My hair—uncapped but covered by a small, flat straw hat with a dainty bunch of cloth daisies on it—was tied up behind. But flattering small wisps curled round my temples, and my eyes were a bright clear amber behind the new spectacles, with a surprising look of guileless expectancy.

I had the lines and creases of my age, of course, but on the whole, my face had settled peaceably on my bones, rather than running away in jowls and wattles down my neck. And the bosom, with just a discreet shadow showing the swell of my br**sts—the royal navy had fed us lavishly on the sea journey, and I had regained some of the weight I had lost during the long retreat from Ticonderoga.

“Well, not all that bad, really,” I said, sounding so surprised that Jamie and Mr. Lewis both laughed. I took off the spectacles with considerable regret—Jamie’s spectacles were simple steel-rimmed reading glasses, so could be taken at once, but my own pair would be ready, complete with gold rims, by the next afternoon, Mr. Lewis promised—and we left the shop to embark upon our next errand: Jamie’s printing press.

“WHERE’S IAN this morning?” I asked, as we made our way to Princes Street. He’d been gone when I awoke, leaving not a wrack behind, let alone any word of his whereabouts. “You don’t suppose he’s decided to run for it rather than go home?”

“If he has, I’ll track him down and beat him to a pudding, and he kens that perfectly well,” Jamie said absently, looking up across the park to the great bulk of the castle on its rock, then putting on his glasses—futiley—to see whether they made a difference. “Nay, I think he’s likely gone to the brothel.”

“At eleven o’clock in the morning?” I blurted.

“Well, there’s nay rule about it,” Jamie said mildly, taking off the glasses, wrapping them in his handkerchief, and putting them into his sporran. “I’ve been known to do it in the morning now and then. Though I doubt he’s bent on carnal knowledge just this minute,” he added. “I told him to go and see whether Madame Jeanne still owns the place, for if so, she’ll be able to tell me more, in a shorter space of time, than anyone else in Edinburgh. If she’s there, I’ll go and see her in the afternoon.”

“Ah,” I said, not really liking the notion of his going round for a cozy tête-à-tête with the elegant Frenchwoman who had once been his partner in the whisky-smuggling business but admitting the economy of the proposal. “And where would Andy Bell be at ten o’clock in the morning, do you suppose?”

“In bed,” Jamie said promptly. “Sleeping,” he added with a grin, seeing the look on my face. “Printers are sociable creatures, as a rule, and they congregate in taverns of an evening. I’ve never known one to rise wi’ the lark, save he’s got bairns wi’ the colic.”

“You’re proposing to roust him out of bed?” I asked, stretching my step to keep up with him.

“No, we’ll find him at Mowbray’s at dinnertime,” he said. “He’s a graver—he needs some light to work by, so he rises by noon. And he eats at Mowbray’s most days. I only want to see whether his shop’s burnt down or not. And whether the wee bugger’s been using my press.”

“You make it sound as though he’s been using your wife,” I said, amused at the grim tone of this last.

He made a small Scottish noise acknowledging the presumed humor of this remark while simultaneously declining to share in it. I hadn’t realized that he felt so strongly about his printing press, but after all, he’d been separated from it for nearly twelve years. Little wonder if his lover’s heart was beginning to beat at thought of being reunited with it at last, I thought, privately entertained.

Then again, perhaps he was afraid Andy Bell’s shop had burned down. It wasn’t an idle fear. His own printer’s shop had burned down twelve years before; such establishments were particularly vulnerable to fire, owing both to the presence of a small open forge for melting and recasting type and to the quantities of paper, ink, and similar flammable substances kept on the premises.

My stomach growled softly at thought of a midday dinner at Mowbray’s; I had very pleasant memories of our last—and only—visit there, which had involved some excellent oyster stew and an even better chilled white wine, among other pleasures of the flesh.

It would be a little time ’til dinner, though; laborers might open their dinner pails at noon, but fashionable Edinburgh dined at the civilized hour of three o’clock. Possibly we could acquire a fresh bridie from a street vendor, I thought, hastening in Jamie’s wake. Just to tide us over.

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