An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 147

   

Grey was not superstitious but was of a practical turn of mind and had taken a careful note of the dowser’s location of the ball he had found. He explained this, and with Hunter’s reluctant assent, took out a small ruler and triangulated the spot on Henry’s sunken belly, dabbing a bit of candle black on the place to mark it.

“I think we are in readiness,” Denzell said, and, coming close to the bed, put his hands on Henry’s head and prayed briefly for guidance and support for himself, for endurance and healing for Henry, and ended in acknowledging the presence of God among them. Despite his purely rational sentiments, Grey felt a small lessening of the tension in the room and sat down opposite the surgeon, with the snakes in his belly calmed for the moment.

He took his nephew’s limp hand in his and said calmly, “Just hold on, Henry. I won’t let go.”

IT WAS QUICK. Grey had seen army surgeons at work and knew their dispatch, but even by those standards, Denzell Hunter’s speed and dexterity were remarkable. Grey had lost all sense of time, absorbed in the erratic clenching of Henry’s fingers, the shrill keen of his screaming through the leather gag, and the doctor’s movements, quickly brutal, then finicking as he picked delicately, swabbed, and stitched.

As the last stitches went in, Grey breathed, for what seemed the first time in hours, and saw by the carriage clock on the mantel that barely a quarter of an hour had elapsed. William and Rachel Hunter stood by the mantelpiece, out of the way, and he saw with some interest that they were holding hands, their knuckles as white as their faces.

Hunter was checking Henry’s breathing, lifting his eyelids to peer at his pupils, wiping the tears and snot from his face, touching the pulse under his jaw—Grey could see this, weak and irregular but still pumping, a tiny blue thread beneath the waxen skin.

“Well enough, well enough, and thanks be to the Lord who has strengthened me,” Hunter was murmuring. “Rachel, will thee bring me the dressings?”

Rachel at once detached herself from William and fetched the neat stack of folded gauze pads and torn linen strips, together with a glutinous mass of some sort, soaking green through the cloth that bound it.

“What is that?” Grey asked, pointing at it.

“A poultice recommended to me by a colleague, a Mrs. Fraser. I have seen it to have laudable effects upon wounds of all kinds,” the doctor assured him.

“Mrs. Fraser?” Grey said, surprised. “Mrs. James Fraser? Where the de—I mean, where did you happen to encounter the lady?”

“At Fort Ticonderoga” was the surprising answer. “She and her husband were with the Continental army through the battles at Saratoga.”

The snakes in Grey’s belly roused abruptly.

“Do you mean to tell me that Mrs. Fraser is now at Valley Forge?”

“Oh, no.” Hunter shook his head, concentrated on his dressing. “If thee will please lift him a little, Friend Grey? I require to pass this bandage underneath—ah, yes, exactly right, I thank thee. No,” he resumed, straightening up and wiping his forehead, for it was very warm in the room, with so many people and a blazing fire built up in the hearth. “No, the Frasers have gone to Scotland. Though Mr. Fraser’s nephew was sufficiently kind as to leave us his dog,” he added, as Rollo, made curious by the smell of blood, now rose from his spot in the corner and poked his nose under Grey’s elbow. He sniffed interestedly at the splattered sheets, up and down Henry’s naked body. He then sneezed explosively, shook his head, and padded back to lie down, where he promptly rolled onto his back and relaxed, paws in the air.

“Someone must remain with him for the next day or so,” Hunter was saying, wiping his hands on a rag. “He must not be left alone, lest he cease breathing. Friend William,” he said, turning to Willie, “might it be possible to find a place for us to stay? I should be near for several days, so that I may call regularly to see how he progresses.”

William assured him that this had already been taken care of: a most respectable inn, and—here he glanced at Rachel—quite near at hand. Might he convey the Hunters there? Or take Miss Rachel, if her brother should be not quite finished?

It was apparent to Grey that Willie would like nothing better than a ride through the snow-sparkling city alone with this comely Quaker, but Mrs. Woodcock put a spoke in that wheel by observing that, in fact, it was Christmas; she had not had time or opportunity to make much of a meal, but would the gentlemen and lady not honor her house and the day by taking a glass of wine, to drink to Lieutenant Grey’s recovery?

This was generally agreed to as a capital idea, and Grey volunteered to sit with his nephew while the wine and glasses were being fetched.

With so many people suddenly gone, the room felt much cooler. Nearly cold, in fact, and Grey drew both sheet and coverlet gently up over Henry’s bandaged stomach.

“You’ll be all right, Henry,” he whispered, though his nephew’s eyes were closed, and he thought the young man might be asleep—hoped he was.

But he wasn’t. Henry’s eyes slowly opened, his pupils showing the effect of the opium; his creased lids showed the pain that the opium could not touch.

“No, I won’t,” he said, in a weak, clear voice. “He got only one. The second ball will kill me.”

His eyes closed again, as the sound of Christmas cheer came up the stairs. The dog sighed.

RACHEL HUNTER PUT one hand to her stomach, another to her mouth, and stifled a rising eructation.

“Gluttony is a sin,” she said. “But one that carries its own punishment. I think I may vomit.”

“All sins do,” her brother replied absently, dipping his pen. “But thee is not a glutton. I saw thee eat.”

“But I am like to burst!” she protested. “And, besides, I cannot help but think of the poor Christmas those we left at Valley Forge will make, by comparison with the… the… decadence of our meal tonight.”

“Well, that is guilt, not gluttony, and false guilt at that. Thee ate no more than would constitute a normal meal; it is only that thee hasn’t had one in months. And I think roast goose is perhaps not the uttermost word in decadence, even when stuffed with oysters and chestnuts. Now, had it been a pheasant stuffed with truffles, or a wild boar with a gilded apple in its mouth …” He smiled at her over his papers.

“Thee has seen such things?” she asked curiously.

“I have, yes. When I worked in London with John Hunter. He was much in society and would now and then take me with him to attend a case and sometimes to accompany him and his wife to some grand occasion—most kind of him. But we must not judge, thee knows, most particularly by appearance. Even one who seems most frivolous, spendthrift, or light-minded yet has a soul and is valuable before God.”

“Yes,” she said vaguely, not really attending. She pulled back the curtain from the window, seeing the street outside as a white blur. There was a lantern hung by the inn’s door that cast a small circle of light, but the snow was still falling. Her own face floated in the dark glass of the window, thin and big-eyed, and she frowned at it, pushing a straggle of dark hair back under her cap.

“Does thee think he knows?” she asked abruptly. “Friend William?”

“Does he know what?”

“His very striking resemblance to James Fraser,” she said, letting the curtain fall. “Surely thee does not think this coincidence?”

“I think it is not our business.” Denny resumed scratching with his quill.

She heaved an exasperated sigh. He was right, but that didn’t mean she was forbidden to observe and to wonder. She had been happy—more than happy—to see William again, and while his being a British soldier was no less than she had suspected, she had been extremely surprised to find him an officer of high rank. Much more than surprised to learn from his villainous-looking Cornish orderly that he was a lord, though the little creature had been uncertain what kind.

Yet surely no two men could look so alike who did not share blood in some close degree. She had seen James Fraser many times and admired him for his tall, straight dignity, thrilling a bit at the fierceness in his face, always feeling that niggle of recognition when she saw him—but it wasn’t until William suddenly stepped out before her at the camp that she realized why. Yet how could an English lord be in any way related to a Scottish Jacobite, a pardoned criminal? For Ian had told her something of his own family history—though not enough; not nearly enough.

“Thee is thinking of Ian Murray again,” her brother observed, not looking up from his paper. He sounded resigned.

“I thought thee abjured witchcraft,” she said tartly. “Or does thee not include mind reading among the arts of divination?”

“I notice thee does not deny it.” He looked up then, pushing his spectacles up his nose with a finger, the better to look through them at her.

“No, I don’t deny it,” she said, lifting her chin at him. “How did thee know, then?”

“Thee looked at the dog and sighed in a manner betokening an emotion not usually shared between a woman and a dog.”

“Hmph!” she said, disconcerted. “Well, what if I do think of him? Is that not my business, either? To wonder how he does, what his family in Scotland makes of him? Whether he feels he has come home there?”

“Whether he will come back?” Denny took off his spectacles and rubbed a hand over his face. He was tired; she could see the day in his features.

“He will come back,” she said evenly. “He would not abandon his dog.”

That made her brother laugh, which annoyed her very much.

“Yes, he will likely come back for the dog,” he agreed. “And if he comes back with a wife, Sissy?” His voice was gentle now, and she swung round to the window again, to keep him from seeing that the question disturbed her. Not that he needed to see to know that.

“It might be best for thee and for him if he did, Rachel.” Denny’s voice was still gentle but held a warning note. “Thee knows he is a man of blood.”

“What would thee have me do, then?” she snapped, not turning round. “Marry William?”

There was a brief silence from the direction of the desk.

“William?” Denny said, sounding mildly startled. “Does thee feel for him?”

“I—of course I feel friendship for him. And gratitude,” she added hastily.

“So do I,” her brother observed, “yet the thought of marrying him had not crossed my mind.”

“Thee is a most annoying person,” she said crossly, turning round and glaring at him. “Can thee not refrain from making fun of me for one day, at least?”

He opened his mouth to answer, but a sound from outside took her attention, and she turned again to the window, pulling back the heavy curtain. Her breath misted the dark glass, and she rubbed it impatiently with her sleeve in time to see a sedan chair below. The door of it opened and a woman stepped out into the swirling snow. She was clad in furs and in a hurry; she handed a purse to one of the chair-bearers and rushed into the inn.

“Well, that is odd,” Rachel said, turning to look first at her brother, and then at the small clock that graced their rooms. “Who goes a-visiting at nine o’clock on Christmas night? It cannot be a Friend, surely?” For Friends did not keep Christmas and would find the feast no bar to travel, but the Hunters had no connections—not yet—with the Friends of any Philadelphia meeting.

A thump of footsteps on the staircase prevented Denzell’s reply, and an instant later the door of the room burst open. The fur-clad woman stood on the threshold, white as her furs.

“Denny?” she said in a strangled voice.

Her brother stood up as though someone had applied a hot coal to the seat of his breeches, upsetting the ink.

“Dorothea!” he cried, and in one bound had crossed the room and was locked in passionate embrace with the fur-clad woman.

Rachel stood transfixed. The ink was dripping off the table onto the painted canvas rug, and she thought she ought to do something about that, but didn’t. Her mouth was hanging open. She thought she ought to close it, and did.

Quite suddenly she understood the impulse that caused men to engage in casual blasphemy.

RACHEL PICKED UP her brother’s spectacles from the floor and stood holding them, waiting for him to disentangle himself. Dorothea, she thought to herself. So this is the woman—but surely this is William’s cousin? For William had mentioned his cousin to her as they rode in from Valley Forge. Indeed, the woman had been in the house when Denny performed the operation on—but then, Henry Grey must be this woman’s brother! She had hidden in the kitchen when Rachel and Denny came to the house this afternoon. Why… Of course: it was not squeamishness or fear but a wish not to come face-to-face with Denny, and him on his way to perform a dangerous operation.

She thought somewhat better of the woman for that, though she was not yet disposed to clasp her to her own bosom and call her sister. She doubted the woman felt so toward her, either—though in fact, she might not even have noticed Rachel yet, let alone have conclusions about her.

Denny let go of the woman and stood back, though from the look on his glowing face, he could hardly bear not to touch her.

“Dorothea,” he said. “Whatever does thee—”

But he was forestalled; the young woman—she was very pretty, Rachel saw now—stepped back and dropped her elegant ermine cloak on the floor with a soft thud. Rachel blinked. The young woman was wearing a sack. No other word for it, though now that she looked, she perceived that it had sleeves. It was made of some coarse gray fabric, though, and hung from the young woman’s shoulders, barely touching her body elsewhere.

“I will be a Quaker, Denny,” she said, lifting her chin a little. “I have made up my mind.”

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