An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 155

   

“None,” I said blankly. I heard what he said but took no meaning from the words.

“He is dead,” Lord John said softly, and let go of my arm. “He is gone.”

From the kitchen came the smell of burning porridge.

JOHN GREY STOPPED walking because he had come to the end of the street. He had been walking up and down the length of State Street since sometime before dawn. The sun was high now, and sweat-damp grit irritated the back of his neck, mud and dung splashed his stockings, and each step seemed to drive the nails in his shoe sole into the sole of his foot. He didn’t care.

The Delaware River flowed across his view, muddy and fish-smelling, and people jostled past him, crowding toward the end of the dock in hopes of getting on the ferry making its slow way toward them from the other side. Wavelets rose and lapped against the pier with an agitated sound that seemed to provoke the people waiting, for they began to push and shove, and one of the soldiers on the dock took down his musket from his shoulder and used it to shove a woman back.

She stumbled, shrieking, and her husband, a bantam-rooster of a man, bounced forward, fists clenched. The soldier said something, bared his teeth and made a shooing motion with the gun, his fellow, attracted by the disturbance, turned to see, and with no more than incitement than that, there was suddenly a heaving knot of people at the end of the dock and shouts and screams ran through the rest, as people toward the rear tried to get away from the violence, men in the crowd tried to press toward it, and someone was pushed into the water.

Grey took three steps back and watched as two little boys rushed out of the crowd, their faces bloated with fright, and ran off up the street. Somewhere in the crowd, he heard a woman’s high call, distraught: “Ethan! Johnny! Joooooohnnny!”

Some dim instinct said he should step forward, raise his own voice, assert his authority, sort this. He turned and walked away.

He wasn’t in uniform, he told himself. They wouldn’t listen, would be confused, he might do more harm than good. But he wasn’t in the habit of lying to himself, and dropped that line of argument at once.

He’d lost people before. Some of them dearly loved, more than life itself. But now he’d lost himself.

He walked slowly back toward his house in a numb daze. He hadn’t slept since the news had come, save in the snatches of complete physical exhaustion, slumped in the chair on Mercy Woodcock’s porch, waking disoriented, sticky with sap from the sycamores in her yard and covered with the tiny green caterpillars that swung down from the leaves on invisible strands of silk.

“Lord John.” He became aware of an insistent voice, and with it, the realization that whoever was speaking had called his name several times already. He stopped, and turned to find himself facing Captain Richardson. His mind went quite blank. Possibly his face had, too, for Richardson took him by the arm in a most familiar manner and drew him into an ordinary.

“Come with me,” Richardson said in a low voice, releasing his arm, but jerking his head toward the stair. Faint stirrings of curiosity and wariness made themselves felt through the haze that wrapped him, but he followed, the sound of his shoes hollow in the wooden stairwell.

Richardson closed the door of the room behind him and began speaking before Grey could gather his wits to begin questioning him regarding the very peculiar circumstances William had recounted.

“Mrs. Fraser,” Richardson said without preamble. “How well do you know her?”

Grey was so taken aback by this that he answered.

“She is the wife—the widow”—he corrected himself, feeling as though he had stuck a pin into a raw wound—“of a good friend.”

“A good friend,” Richardson repeated, with no particular emphasis. The man could scarcely look more nondescript, Grey thought, and had a sudden creeping vision of Hubert Bowles. The most dangerous spies were men whom no one would look at twice.

“A good friend,” Grey repeated firmly. “His political loyalties are no longer an issue, are they?”

“Not if he’s truly dead, no,” Richardson agreed. “You think he is?”

“I am quite sure of it. What is it you wish to know, sir? I have business.”

Richardson smiled a little at this patently false statement.

“I propose to arrest the lady as a spy, Lord John, and wished to be certain that there was no … personal attachment on your part, before I did so.”

Grey sat down, rather abruptly, and braced his hands on the table.

“I—she—what the devil for?” he demanded.

Richardson courteously sat down opposite him.

“She has been passing seditious materials to and fro all over Philadelphia for the last three months—possibly longer. And before you ask, yes, I’m sure. One of my men intercepted some of the material; have a look, if you like.” He reached into his coat and withdrew an untidy wad of papers, these looking to have passed through several hands. Grey didn’t think Richardson was practicing upon him, but took his time in deliberate examination. He put down the papers, feeling bloodless.

“I heard that the lady had been received at your house, and that she is often at the house where your nephew abides,” Richardson said. His eyes rested on Grey’s face, intent. “But she is not a … friend?”

“She is a physician,” Grey said, and had the small satisfaction of seeing Richardson’s brows shoot up. “She has been of—of the greatest service to me and my nephew.” It occurred to him that it was likely better that Richardson did not know how much esteem he might hold for Mrs. Fraser, as if he thought there was a personal interest, he would immediately cease to give Grey information. “That is ended, though,” he added, speaking as casually as possible. “I respect the lady, of course, but there is no attachment, no.” He rose then, in a decided manner, and took his leave, for to ask more questions would compromise the impression of indifference.

He set off toward Walnut Street, no longer numb. He felt once more himself, strong and determined. There was, after all, one more service he might perform for Jamie Fraser.

“YOU MUST MARRY me,” he repeated.

I’d heard him the first time, but it made no more sense upon repetition. I stuck a finger in one ear and wiggled it, then repeated the process with the other.

“You can’t possibly have said what I think you said.”

“Indeed I did,” he said, his normal dry edge returning.

The numbness of shock was beginning to wear off, and something horrible was beginning to crawl out of a small hole in my heart. I couldn’t look at that and took refuge in staring at Lord John.

“I know I’m shocked,” I told him, “but I’m sure I’m neither delusional nor hearing things. Why the bloody hell are you saying that, for God’s sake?!” I rose abruptly, wanting to strike him. He saw it and took a smart step back.

“You are going to marry me,” he said, a fierce edge in his voice. “Are you aware that you are about to be arrested as a spy?”

“I—no.” I sat down again, as abruptly as I’d stood up. “What… why?”

“You would know that better than I would,” he said coldly.

In fact, I would. I repressed the sudden flutter of panic that threatened to overwhelm me, thinking of the papers I had conveyed secretly from one pair of hands to another in the cover of my basket, feeding the secret network of the Sons of Liberty.

“Even if that were true,” I said, struggling to keep my own voice level, “why the bloody hell would I marry you? Let alone why you would want to marry me, which I don’t believe for an instant.”

“Believe it,” he advised me briefly. “I will do it because it is the last service I can render Jamie Fraser. I can protect you; as my wife, no one can touch you. And you will do it because…” He cast a bleak glance behind me, raising his chin, and I looked around to see all four of Fergus’s children huddled in the doorway, the girls and Henri-Christian watching me with huge, round eyes. Germain was looking straight at Lord John, fear and defiance plain on his long, handsome face.

“Them, too?” I asked, taking a deep breath and turning to meet his gaze. “You can protect them, too?”

“Yes.”

“I—yes. All right.” I rested both hands flat on the counter, as though that somehow could keep me from spinning off into space. “When?”

“Now,” he said, and took my elbow. “There is no time to lose.”

I HAD NO MEMORY whatever of the brief ceremony, conducted in the parlor of Lord John’s house. The only memory I retained of the entire day was the sight of William, standing soberly beside his father—his stepfather—as best man. Tall, straight, long-nosed, his slanted cat-eyes resting on me with uncertain compassion.

He can’t be dead, I remembered thinking, with unusual lucidity. There he is.

I said what I was told to say and then was escorted upstairs to lie down. I fell asleep at once and didn’t wake until the next afternoon.

Unfortunately, it was still real when I did.

DOROTHEA WAS THERE, hovering near me with concern. She stayed with me through the day, trying to coax me to eat something, offering me sips of whisky and brandy. Her presence was not exactly a comfort—nothing could be that—but she was at least an innocuous distraction, and I let her talk, the words washing over me like the sound of rushing water.

Toward evening, the men came back—Lord John and Willie. I heard them downstairs. Dottie went down and I heard her talking to them, a slight rise of interest in her voice, and then her steps on the stairs, quick and light.

“Aunt,” she said, breathless. “Are you well enough to come down, do you think?”

“I—yes, I suppose so.” Slightly taken aback at being called “Aunt,” I rose and made vague tidying motions. She took the brush from my hand, twisted up my hair, and, whipping out a ribboned cap, tucked my hair tenderly under it. I let her, and let her convey me gently downstairs, where I found Lord John and William in the parlor, both of them a little flushed.

“Mother Claire.” Willie took my hand and gently kissed it. “Come and look. Papa has found something he thinks you will like. Come and see it,” he repeated, drawing me gently toward the table.

“It” was a large wooden chest, made of some expensive wood, banded in gold. I blinked at it and put out a hand to touch it. It looked rather like a cutlery safe but much bigger.

“What… ?” I looked up to find Lord John standing beside me, looking somewhat abashed.

“A, um, present,” he said, deprived for once of his smooth manners. “I thought—I mean, I perceived that you lacked somewhat in the way of… equipment. I do not wish you to abandon your profession,” he added gently.

“My profession.” A chill was beginning to spread up my spine, along the edges of my jaw. Fumbling a little, I tried to raise the lid of the chest, but my fingers were sweating; they slipped, leaving a slick of moisture gleaming on the wood.

“No, no, this way.” Lord John bent to show me, turning the chest toward himself. He slipped the hidden catch, lifted the lid, and swung the hinged doors open, then stood back with something of the air of a conjurer.

My scalp prickled with cold sweat, and black spots began to flicker at the corners of my eyes.

Two dozen empty gold-topped bottles. Two shallow drawers below. And above, gleaming in its velvet bed, the pieces of a brass-bound microscope. A medical chest.

My knees gave way and I fainted, welcoming the cool wood of the floor against my cheek.

THE PATHS OF DEATH

LYING IN THE TANGLED HELL of my bed at night, I searched for the way to death. I longed with every fiber of my being to pass from this present existence. Whether what lay on the other side of life was undreamed glory or only merciful oblivion, mystery was infinitely preferable to my present inescapable misery.

I cannot say what it was that kept me from a simple and violent escape. The means, after all, were always to hand. I had my choice of pistol ball or blade, of poisons ranging from swiftness to stupor.

I rummaged through the jars and bottles of the medicine chest like a madwoman, leaving the little drawers ajar, the doors hanging open, seeking, scrabbling in my haste, ransacking knowledge and memory as I did the chest, knocking jars and bottles and bits of the past to the floor in a jumble.

At last I thought I had them all and, with a shaking hand, laid them one by one by one on the tabletop before me.

Aconite. Arsenic …

So many kinds of death to choose from. How, then?

The ether. That would be the easiest, if not quite the surest. Lie down, soak a thick pad of cloth in the stuff, put the mask over my nose and mouth, and drift painlessly away. But there was always the chance that someone would find me. Or that, losing consciousness, my head might fall to one side or I’d suffer convulsions that would dislodge the rag, and I would simply wake again to this aching void of existence.

I sat still for a moment, and then, feeling dreamlike, reached out to pick up the knife that lay on the table, where I had carelessly left it after using it to cut flax stems. The knife Jamie had given me. It was sharp; the edge gleamed raw and silver.

It would be sure, and it would be fast.

JAMIE FRASER STOOD on the deck of the Philomene, watching the water slide endlessly away, thinking about death. He had at least stopped thinking about it in a personal manner, since the seasickness had—at long, long last—abated. His thoughts now were more abstract.

To Claire, he thought, death was always the Enemy. Something always to be fought, never yielded to. He was as well acquainted with death as she was but had perforce made his peace with it. Or thought he had. Like forgiveness, it was not a thing once learned and then comfortably put aside but a matter of constant practice—to accept the notion of one’s own mortality, and yet live fully, was a paradox worthy of Socrates. And that worthy Athenian had embraced exactly that paradox, he reflected, with the ghost of a smile.

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