An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 149

   

But there was a further sense of loss—and a further nagging guilt—in the fact that I could not be there when Ian died, that I had had to leave him for the last time knowing that I would not see him again, unable to offer comfort to him, or to be with Jamie or his family when the blow fell, or even simply to bear witness to his passing.

Young Ian felt this, too, to an even greater degree. I often found him sitting near the stern, staring into the ship’s wake with troubled eyes.

“D’ye think he’s gone yet?” he asked me abruptly on one occasion when I’d come to sit beside him there. “Da?”

“I don’t know,” I told him honestly. “I’d think so, on the basis of how ill he was—but people do sometimes hang on amazingly. When is his birthday, do you know?”

He stared at me in bafflement. “It’s in May sometime, near Uncle Jamie’s. Why?”

I shrugged and pulled my shawl tighter against the chill of the wind.

“Often people who are very ill, but are near their birthday, seem to wait until it’s passed before dying. I read a study of it once. For some reason, it’s more likely if the person is famous or well known.”

That made him laugh, though painfully.

“Da’s never been that.” He sighed. “Right now I wish I’d stayed for him. I know he said to go—and I wanted to go,” he added fairly. “But I feel bad that I did.”

I sighed, too. “So do I.”

“But you had to go,” he protested. “Ye couldna let poor wee Henri-Christian choke. Da would understand that. I know he did.”

I smiled at his earnest attempt to make me feel better.

“He understood why you needed to go, too.”

“Aye, I know.” He was silent for a bit, watching the furrow of the wake; it was a brisk day and the ship was traveling well, though the sea was choppy, dotted with whitecaps. “I wish—” he said suddenly, then stopped and swallowed. “I wish Da could ha’ met Rachel,” he said, low-voiced. “I wish she could meet him.”

I made a sympathetic sound. I remembered all too vividly the years during which I had watched Brianna grow, aching because she would never know her father. And then a miracle had happened—but it wouldn’t happen for Ian.

“I know you told your da about Rachel—he told me you had and was so happy to know about her.” That made him smile a little. “Did you tell Rachel about your father? Your family?”

“No.” He sounded startled. “No, I never did.”

“Well, you’ll just have to—what’s wrong?” His brow had furrowed, and his mouth turned down.

“I—nothing, really. It’s only, I just thought—I never told her anything. I mean, we—didna really talk, aye? I mean, I said things to her now and then, and her me, but just in the ordinary way of things. And then we—I kissed her, and… well, that was all about it.” He made a helpless gesture. “But I never asked her. I was just sure.”

“And now you’re not?”

He shook his head, brown hair flying in the wind.

“Oh, no, Auntie; I’m as sure of what’s between us as I am of… of…” He looked about in search of some symbol of solidity on the heaving deck, but then gave up. “Well, I’m surer of how I feel than I am that the sun will come up tomorrow.”

“I’m sure she knows that.”

“Aye, she does,” he said, in a softer voice. “I know she does.”

We sat for a bit in silence. Then I stood up and said, “Well, in that case—perhaps you ought to say a prayer for your father and then go and sit near the bow.”

I HAD BEEN in Philadelphia once or twice in the twentieth century, for medical conferences. I hadn’t liked the place then, finding it grubby and unwelcoming. It was different now, but not much more attractive. The roads that weren’t cobbled were seas of mud, and streets that would eventually be lined with run-down row houses with yards full of rubbish, broken plastic toys, and motorcycle parts were now edged with ramshackle shanties with yards full of rubbish, discarded oyster shells, and tethered goats. Granted, there were no black-suited feral policemen visible, but the petty criminals were still the same, and still visible, despite the very obvious presence of the British army; red coats swarmed near the taverns, and marching columns went past the wagon, muskets on their shoulders.

It was spring. I’d give it that much. There were trees everywhere, thanks to William Penn’s dictum that one acre in five should be left in trees—even the avaricious politicians of the twentieth century hadn’t quite succeeded in deforesting the place, though probably only because they couldn’t figure out how to make a profit at it without being caught—and many of the trees were in bloom, a confetti of white petals drifting over the horses’ backs as the wagon turned into the city proper.

An army patrol was set up on the main road into the city; they had stopped us, demanding passes from the driver and his two male passengers. I had put on a proper cap, didn’t meet anyone’s eye, and murmured that I was coming in from the country to tend my daughter, who was about to give birth. The soldiers glanced briefly into the large basket of food I had on my lap, but didn’t even look at my face before waving the wagon on. Respectability had its uses. I wondered idly how many spymasters had thought of using elderly ladies? You didn’t hear about old women as spies—but then again, that might merely indicate how good they were at it.

Fergus’s printshop was not in the most fashionable district but not far off, and I was pleased to see that it was a substantial red-brick building, standing in a row of solid, pleasant-looking houses like it. We had not written ahead to say I was coming; I would have arrived as soon as the letter. With a rising heart, I opened the door.

Marsali was standing at the counter, sorting stacks of paper. She glanced up as the bell above the door rang, blinked, then gaped at me.

“How are you, dear?” I said, and, putting down the basket, hurried to put up the flap of the counter and take her in my arms.

She looked like death warmed over, though her eyes lit with a passionate relief upon seeing me. She nearly fell into my arms and burst into uncharacteristic sobs. I patted her back, making soothing sounds and feeling somewhat alarmed. Her clothes hung limp on her bones, and she smelled stale, her hair unwashed for too long.

“It will be all right,” I repeated firmly for the dozenth time, and she stopped sobbing and stood back a bit, groping in her pocket for a grubby handkerchief. To my shock, I saw that she was pregnant again.

“Where’s Fergus?” I asked.

“I dinna ken.”

“He’s left you?!” I blurted, horrified. “Why, that wretched little—”

“No, no,” she said hurriedly, almost laughing through her tears. “He’s not left me, not at all. It’s only he’s in hiding—he changes his place every few days, and I dinna ken just which one he’s in right now. The weans will find him.”

“Why is he in hiding? Not that I need to ask, I suppose,” I said, with a glance at the squat black printing press that stood behind the counter. “Anything specific, though?”

“Aye, a wee pamphlet for Mr. Paine. He’s got a series of them going, ken, called ‘The American Crisis.’ ”

“Mr. Paine—the Common Sense fellow?”

“Aye, that’s him,” she said, sniffing and dabbing. “He’s a nice man, but ye dinna want to drink with him, Fergus says. Ken how some men are sweet and loving when they’re drunk, but some get fou’ and it’s up wi’ the bonnets o’ bonnie Dundee and them not even Scots for an excuse?”

“Oh, that sort. Yes, I know it well. How far along are you?” I asked, changing the subject back to one of general interest. “Shouldn’t you sit down? You oughtn’t to be on your feet for a long time.”

“How far… ?” She looked surprised and put a hand involuntarily where I was looking, to her slightly swollen stomach. Then she laughed. “Oh, that.” She burrowed under her apron and removed a bulging leather sack she had tied around her waist.

“For escaping,” she explained. “In case they fire the house and I have to make a run for it wi’ the weans.”

The sack was surprisingly heavy when I took it from her, and I heard a muffled clicking down at the bottom, beneath the layer of papers and children’s small toys.

“The Caslon Italic 24?” I asked, and she smiled, shedding at least ten years on the spot.

“All except ‘X.’ I had to hammer that one back into a lump and trade it to a goldsmith for enough money for food, after Fergus left. There’s still an ‘X’ in there, mind,” she said, taking back the bag, “but that one’s real lead.”

“Did you have to use the Goudy Bold 10?” Jamie and Fergus had cast two full sets of type from gold, these rubbed in soot and covered with ink until they were indistinguishable from the many sets of genuine lead type in the type case that stood demurely against the wall behind the press.

She shook her head and reached to take the bag back again.

“Fergus took that wi’ him. He meant to bury it somewhere safe, just in case. Ye look fair fashed wi’ travel, Mother Claire,” she went on, leaning forward to peer at me. “Will I send Joanie down to the ordinary for a jug o’ cider?”

“That would be wonderful,” I said, still reeling a little from the revelations of the last few minutes. “Henri-Christian, though—how is he? Is he here?”

“Out back wi’ his friend, I think,” she said, rising. “I’ll call him in. He’s that wee bit tired, poor mite, from not sleepin’ well, and he’s got such a throat he sounds like a costive bullfrog. Doesna dampen him much, though, I’ll tell ye that.” She smiled, despite her tiredness, and went through the door into the living quarters, calling “Henri-Christian!” as she went.

“In case they fire the house.” Who? I wondered, feeling a chill. The British army? Loyalists? And however was she managing, running a business and a family alone, with a husband in hiding and a sick child who couldn’t be left alone while he slept? The horror of our situation, she’d said in her letter to Laoghaire. And that had been months ago, when Fergus was still at home.

Well, she wasn’t alone now. For the first time since I’d left Jamie in Scotland, I felt something more than the pull of grim necessity in my situation. I’d write to him this evening, I decided. He might—I hoped he would—leave Lallybroch before my letter reached him there, but if so, Jenny and the rest of the family would be glad to know what was going on here. And if by chance Ian was still alive… but I didn’t want to think of that; knowing that his death meant Jamie’s release to come to me made me feel like a ghoul, as though I wished for his death to come sooner. Though in all honesty, I thought Ian himself might wish it to be sooner rather than later.

These morbid thoughts were interrupted by Marsali’s return, Henri-Christian scampering beside her.

“Grandmère!” he shouted, seeing me, and leapt into my arms, nearly knocking me over. He was a very solid little boy.

He nuzzled me affectionately, and I felt a remarkable rush of warm joy at seeing him. I kissed and hugged him fiercely, feeling the hole left in my heart by Mandy and Jem’s departure fill up a bit. Isolated from Marsali’s family in Scotland, I had nearly forgotten that I still had four lovely grandchildren left and was grateful to be reminded of it.

“Want to see a trick, Grandmère?” Henri-Christian croaked eagerly. Marsali was right; he did sound like a constipated bullfrog. I nodded, though, and, hopping off my lap, he pulled three small leather bags stuffed with bran out of his pocket and began at once to juggle them with amazing dexterity.

“His da taught him,” Marsali said, with a certain amount of pride.

“When I’m big like Germain, Da will teach me to pick pockets, too!”

Marsali gasped and clapped a hand over his mouth.

“Henri-Christian, we dinna ever speak o’ that,” she said sternly. “Not to anybody. D’ye hear?”

He glanced at me, bewildered, but nodded obediently.

The chill I had felt earlier returned. Was Germain picking pockets professionally, so to speak? I looked at Marsali, but she shook her head slightly; we’d talk about it later.

“Open your mouth and stick out your tongue, sweetheart,” I suggested to Henri-Christian. “Let Grannie see your sore throat—it sounds very ouchy.”

“Owg-owg-owg,” he said, grinning widely, but obligingly opened up. A faint putrid smell wafted out of his wide-open mouth, and even lacking a lighted scope, I could see that the swollen tonsils nearly obstructed his throat altogether.

“Goodness gracious,” I said, turning his head to and fro to get a better view. “I’m amazed that he can eat, let alone sleep.”

“Sometimes he can’t,” Marsali said, and I heard the strain in her voice. “Often enough, he canna manage to swallow anything but a bit o’ milk, and even that’s like knives in his throat, poor bairn.” She crouched beside me, smoothing the fine dark hair off Henri-Christian’s flushed face. “Can ye help, d’ye think, Mother Claire?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, with much more confidence than I actually felt. “Absolutely.”

I felt the tension drain out of her like water, and, as though it were a literal draining, tears began to run quietly down her face. She pulled Henri-Christian’s head into her bosom so he couldn’t see her cry, and I reached out to embrace both of them, laying my cheek against her capped head, smelling the stale musky tang of her terror and exhaustion.

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