An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 153

   

The Company there gathered was mixt indeed; it ran the Gamut from the shabbiest of Coffee-house Philosophers to the most elegant Ornaments of Parisian Society, the Character common to them all being only a love of Talk. Some Pretentions to Reason and Intellect were made, to be sure, but not insisted on. I could not ask a fairer Wind for my maiden Voyage as a political Provocateur—and Wind, you will see, is a most apt Image in considering the Events of the Day.

After some inconsequent Babble over the refreshment Tables (had I been forewarned of Conditions here, I should have taken Care to stuff my Pockets surreptitiously with Cakes, as I saw more than one of my fellow Guests doing), the Company withdrew into a large Room and took Seats, for the Purpose of witnessing a formal Debate between two Parties.

The Matter under Debate was that popular Thesis, Resolved: that the Pen be mightier than the Sword, with Mr. Lyle and his Adherents defending the Proposition, M. Beaumarchais and his friends stoutly averring the Counter. The Talk was lively, with much Allusion to the Works of Rousseau and Montaigne (and not a little personal Disparagement of the Former, owing to his immoral Views on Marriage), but eventually Mr. Lyle’s Party prevailed in their arguments. I thought of showing the Society my Right Hand, as Evidence for the Counter-proposition (a Sample of my Penmanship must have proved the Case to the Satisfaction of All), but Forbore, being but an Observer.

I found Opportunity later to approach Monsieur Beaumarchais, and made such an Observation to him in Jest, by way of fixing his Attention. He was most imprest by sight of my missing Digit, and inform’d of the Occasion of it (or rather, what I chose to tell him), became most animated and insistent that I accompany his Party to the house of the Duchess de Chaulnes, whence he was obliged for Supper, as the Duke is known to have a great Interest in Matters pertaining to the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Colonies.

You will be wondering, no doubt, what Connexion exists between Aboriginal Savages and your most elegant Surgery? Have Patience for a few Lines longer.

The ducal Residence is placed in a Street with a sweeping Drive upon which I perceived several fine Carriages ahead of M. Beaumarchais’s. Imagine my Delight upon being informed that the Gentleman who descended just before us was none other than M. Vergennes, the Foreign Minister.

I congratulated myself upon my good Fortune in so soon encountering so many Persons suited to my Purpose, and did my best to ingratiate myself with them—to this End, telling Tales of my Travels in America, and borrowing in the Process not a few Stories from our Good Friend Myers.

The Company was most gratifyingly astonished, being particularly attentive to the Story of our Meeting with the Bear and with Nacognaweto and his Fellows. I made much of your valiant Efforts with the Fish, which much amused the Party, though the Ladies appeared most Shocked at my Description of your Indian Attire. Mr. Lyle, to the Contrary, was agog to hear more of your Appearance in leather Trouserings—I judged him by this a confirm’d Lecher and a Reprobate, a Judgement verified later in the Evening by a Passage I observ’d in the Hallway between Mr. Lyle and Mademoiselle Erlande, who I perceive to be most wanton in her own Conduct.

In any Case, this Story led Mr. Lyle to draw the Attention of the Company to my Hand, and urge me to tell them the Story which I had unfolded to him in the Afternoon, of how I came to lose my Finger.

Seeing that the Company had reached such a Pitch of Enjoyment—being well lubricated with Champagne, Holland Gin, and large quantities of Hock—that they hung upon my Words, I spared no Pains in weaving them a Tale of Horror calculated to leave them shivering in their Beds.

I had (I said) been taken Captive by the dreadful Iroquois while journeying from Trenton to Albany. I described in great Detail the frightful Appearance and bloodthirsty Habit of these Savages—which required no great Exaggeration, to be sure—and dwelt at Length upon the fearful Tortures which the Iroquois are wont to inflict upon their hapless Victims. La Comtesse Poutoude swooned at my recounting of the grisly Death of Father Alexandre, and the rest of the Party was much affected.

I told them of Two Spears, who I trust will not object to my Slandering his Character in a good Cause, the more so as he will never hear of it. This Chief, I said, being determined to put me to the Torture, caused me to be stripped naked, and most cruelly whip’d. With Thought of our good Friend Daniel, who has turned the same Misfortune to his Advantage, I raised my Shirt and Displayed my Scars. (I felt somewhat the Whore, but it has been my Observation that most Whores pursue this Profession from Necessity, and I comfort myself that it is much the same.) The reaction of my Audience was all that could be hoped, and I continued my Narrative, secure in the Knowledge that from this Point, they would believe Anything.

Thereafter (I said), two of the Indian Braves brought me fainting into the Chief’s Presence, and secured me extended flat upon a large Stone, whose Surface bore sinister Witness to previous Sacrifice conducted thereon.

A heathen Priest or Shaman then approached me, uttering hideous Cries and shaking a Stick decorated by many waving Scalps, which caused me to fear that my own Hair might prove of such Attraction by Virtue of its unusual Colour as shortly to be added to his Collection (I had not powder’d my Hair, tho’ from lack of Powder, rather than Forethought). This Fear was much enhanced when the Shaman drew forth a large Knife and advanced upon me, Eyes glittering with Malice.

At this Point, the Eyes of my Hearers were glittering as well, being enlarged to the size of Saucers by Reason of their Attention to my Story. Many of the Ladies cried out in Pity for my desperate Situation, and the Gentlemen uttered fierce Execrations of the foul Savages responsible for my Plight.

I told them then how the Shaman had driven his Knife straight through my Hand, causing me to lose Consciousness by Reason of Fear and Pain. I awoke (I continued) to find my fourth Finger sever’d completely, and Blood pouring from my wounded Hand.

But most horrifying of all was the sight of the Iroquois Chief, seated upon the carved Trunk of a giant Tree, tearing the Flesh from the severed Digit with his Teeth, as one might gobble the Meat of a Chicken’s Leg.

At this point in my narrative, La Comtesse swooned again, and—not to be outdone—the Honorable Miss Elliott launched into a full-fledg’d fit of the Hysterics, which fortunately saved me from having to invent the Means of my Escape from the Savages. Professing myself undone by the Memories of my Trials, I accepted a Glass of Wine (I was sweating pretty freely by this time), and escaped from the Party instead, assailed by Invitations on all Sides.

I am much pleased by the Effects of my first Foray. I am further uplifted by Reflection that should Age or Injury prevent my making a Livelihood by means of Sword, Plow, or Printing Press, I might still find useful Employment as a scribbler of Romances.

I expect Marsali will wish to know in great Detail the Appearance of the Gowns worn by the Ladies present, but I must beg her Forbearance for the Moment. I do not pretend not to have observ’d the Matter (though I might so protest, if I thought by so doing to relieve your Mind of Apprehensions concerning any supposed Vulnerability to the Wiles of Femininity. Knowing your suspicious and irrational Nature, my Sassenach, I make no such Protestations), but my Hand will not bear the Strain of recounting such Descriptions now. For the Moment, suffice it to say that the Gowns were of very rich Stuff, and the Charms of the Ladies inside them made most apparent by the Style.

My pilfered Candles are burning low, and both my Hand and my Eyes are so fatigued that I have Difficulty in deciphering my own Words, let alone in forming them—I can only hope you will be able to read the last Part of this illegible Epistle. Still, I retire to my inhospitable Bed in good Spirits, encouraged by the day’s Events.

Thus I bid you goodnight, with Assurance of my most tender Thoughts, in trust that you will have patience with and abiding Affection for

Your Ink-stain’d Wretch and Most Devoted Husband,

James Fraser

Postscriptum: Ink-stained Wretch, indeed, as I see that I have contriv’d to cover both my Paper and my Person with unsightly Blots. I flatter myself that the Paper is the more disfigured.

Postscriptum 2: I have been so absorbed in Composition as to forget my original Intent in writing: to say that I have booked Passage on the Euterpe, sailing from Brest in two Weeks’ Time. Should anything transpire to prevent this, I will write again.

Postscriptum 3: I yearn to lie beside you again, and know your Body complicit with mine.

ARMED WITH DIAMONDS AND WITH STEEL

BRIANNA CUT THE brooch apart with a steady hand and a pair of kitchen shears. It was an antique but not a valuable one—an ugly Victorian thing in the shape of a sprawling silver flower surrounded by writhing vines. Its only worth lay in the scatter of small diamonds that decorated the leaves like dewdrops.

“I hope they’re big enough,” she said, and was surprised at how calm her own voice sounded. She had been screaming inside her own head for the last thirty-six hours, which was how long it had taken them to make their plans and preparations.

“I think they’ll be fine,” Roger said, and she felt the tension under the calm of his own words. He was standing behind her, his hand on her shoulder, and the warmth of it was comfort and torment. Another hour, and he would be gone. Perhaps forever.

But there was no choice about it, and she went about the necessary things dry-eyed and steady.

Amanda, very weirdly, had fallen asleep quite suddenly after Roger and William Buccleigh had left in pursuit of Rob Cameron. Brianna had laid her in her bed and sat there watching her sleep and worrying until the men had returned near dawn with their horrifying news. But Amanda had waked as usual, sunny as the day, and apparently with no memory of her dream of screaming rocks. Neither was she bothered about Jem’s absence; she had asked once, casually, when he would be home and, receiving a noncommittal “Soon,” had gone back to her play, apparently contented.

She was with Annie now; they’d gone into Inverness to do a big shopping, with the promise of a toy. They wouldn’t be home until mid-afternoon, and by then the men would be gone.

“Why?” William Buccleigh had asked. “Why would he take your lad?”

That was the same question she and Roger had been asking themselves since the moment they discovered Jem’s loss—not that the answer was likely to help.

“Only two things it might be,” Roger had answered, his voice thick and cracked. “Time travel—or gold.”

“Gold?” Buccleigh’s dark green eyes had turned to Brianna, puzzled. “What gold?”

“The missing letter,” she’d explained, too tired to worry whether it was safe to tell him. Nothing was safe anymore, and nothing mattered. “The postscript my father wrote. Roger said you’d read the letters. The property of an Italian gentleman—you remember that?”

“I took no great notice,” Buccleigh admitted. “That’s gold, is it? Who’s the Italian gentleman, then?”

“Charles Stuart.” And so they’d explained, in disjoint fashion, about the gold that had come ashore in the last days of the Jacobite Rising—Buccleigh himself would have been about Mandy’s age then, Brianna thought, startled by the notion—to be divided for safety among three Scottish gentlemen, trusted tacksmen of their clans: Dougal MacKenzie, Hector Cameron, and Arch Bug, of the Grants of Leoch. She watched carefully, but he gave no sign of recognition at the name of Dougal MacKenzie. No, she thought, he doesn’t know. But that was not important now, either.

No one knew what had become of the two-thirds of the French gold held by the MacKenzies or the Grants—but Hector Cameron had fled Scotland in the last days of the Rising, the chest of gold under the seat of his carriage, and had brought it with him to the New World, where part of it had bought his plantation, River Run. The rest…

“The Spaniard guards it?” Buccleigh said, heavy fair brows knitted. “What the devil does that mean?”

“We don’t know,” Roger said. He was sitting at the table, head sunk in his hands, staring down at the wood. “Only Jem knows.” Then he had raised his head suddenly, looking at Brianna.

“The Orkneys,” he said. “Callahan.”

“What?”

“Rob Cameron,” he’d said urgently. “How old d’ye think he is?”

“I don’t know,” she’d said, confused. “Mid, late thirties, maybe. Why?”

“Callahan said Cameron went on archaeological digs with him in his early twenties. Is that far enough back—I mean, I only just now thought—” He had to stop to clear his throat and did so angrily before going on. “If he was into the ancient stuff fifteen, eighteen years ago—might he have known Geilie Duncan? Or Gillian Edgars, I suppose she still was then.”

“Oh, no,” Brianna said, but in denial, not disbelief. “Oh, no. Not another Jacobite nut!”

Roger had almost smiled at that one.

“I doubt it,” he’d said dryly. “I don’t think the man’s insane, let alone a political idealist. But he does belong to the SNP. They aren’t insane, either—but what’s the odds that Gillian Edgars would have been involved with them?”

There was no telling, not without digging into Cameron’s connections and history, and there was no time for that. But it was possible. Gillian—who’d later taken the name of a famous Scottish witch—had certainly been deeply interested both in Scottish antiquity and in Scottish politics. She might have crossed paths with Rob Cameron, easily. And if so …

“If so,” Roger said grimly, “God only knows what she might have told him, might have left him with.” A few of Geillis’s notebooks were in his study; if Rob had known her, he would have recognized them.

“And we bloody well know he read your da’s postscript,” he added. He rubbed his forehead—there was a dark bruise along his hairline—and sighed. “It doesn’t matter, does it? The only thing that matters now is Jem.”

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