An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 159

   

“Bon jour, madame,” he said, with a polite bow, and Mrs. Hempstead smiled, despite her bedraggled tiredness. Her husband had been killed at Paoli, and she eked out a bare living for her three children by doing laundry for English officers. Fergus augmented her income in return for food and shelter. Her house had been taken by her husband’s brother, but he had graciously allowed her and her family to sleep in the barn—one of three or four such bolt-holes Fergus employed in turn.

“There was a man looking out for you, sir,” she said in a low voice, coming to give him a cup of water.

“Aye?” He kept himself from glancing round; if the man was still here, she would have told him. “Did you see this man?”

She shook her head.

“No, sir. ’Twas Mr. Jessop he spoke to, and Jessop told Mrs. Wilkins’s youngest, who came by and said to my Mary. Jessop said he was a Scotch man, very tall, a fine-looking man. Thought he might have been a soldier once.”

Excitement sprang up in Fergus’s breast, hot as the porridge.

“Had he red hair?” he asked, and Mrs. Hempstead looked surprised.

“Well, I don’t know as how the young’un said. Let me ask Mary, though.”

“Do not trouble yourself, madame. I will ask myself.” He swallowed the rest of the porridge, nearly scalding his throat, and handed back the cup.

Small Mary, carefully questioned, did not know whether the tall Scotch man had red hair; she hadn’t seen him, and Tommy Wilkins didn’t say. He had, however, told her where Mr. Jessop had seen the man, and Fergus, thanking Mary with his best Gallic courtesy—which made her blush—made his way into the city, heart beating fast.

RACHEL JERKED HER arm, but the old man merely tightened his grip, his thumb digging hard into the muscle below her shoulder.

“Let me go, Friend,” she said calmly. “Thee has mistaken me for someone else.”

“Oh, I think not,” he said politely, and she perceived him to be a Scot. “Yon dog is yours, is he not?”

“No,” she said, puzzled and beginning to be vaguely alarmed. “I am but minding him for a friend. Why? Has he eaten one of thy chickens? I will be pleased to pay thee for it….” She leaned away, groping with her free hand for her purse, gauging the possibilities of escape.

“Ian Murray is the name of your friend,” he said, and she was now genuinely alarmed to see he did not phrase this as a question.

“Let me go,” she said, more strongly. “Thee has no right to detain me.”

He paid no attention to this but looked intently into her face. His eyes were ancient, red-rimmed, and rheumy—but sharp as razors.

“Where is he?”

“In Scotland,” she told him, and saw him blink with surprise. He bent a little to peer directly into her eyes.

“Do you love him?” the old man asked softly—but there was nothing soft about his tone.

“Let go!” She kicked at his shin, but he stepped aside with an adroitness that surprised her. His cloak swung aside as he moved, and she caught the gleam of metal in his belt. It was a small ax, and with the sudden memory of the dreadful house in New Jersey, she jerked back and shrieked out loud.

“Hush!” the old man snapped. “Come with me, lass.” He put a large, dirty hand over her mouth and tried to pull her off her feet, but she struggled and kicked and got her mouth free long enough to scream again, as loudly as she could.

Startled exclamations, as well as the sound of heavy boots, came rapidly toward her.

“Rachel!” A familiar bellow reached her ears, and her heart bounded at the sound.

“William! Help me!”

William was running toward her, and some distance behind him were three or four British soldiers, muskets in hand. The old man said something in Gaelic, in tones of absolute amazement, and let go of her so suddenly that she staggered back, tripped on the torn hem of her petticoat, and sat down hard in the road.

The old man was backing away, but William was roused; he charged the old man, ducking his shoulder, clearly meaning to knock him off his feet. The old man had his ax in his hand, though, and Rachel screamed, “William!” at the top of her voice. But it was no good. There was a flash of light on metal and a sickening thud, and William lurched sideways, took two ungainly steps, and fell.

“William, William! Oh, Lord, oh, Lord…” She couldn’t get to her feet but crawled to him as fast as she could, moaning. The soldiers were shouting, roaring, running after the old man, but she had no attention to spare for them. All she saw was William’s face, ghastly pale, his eyes rolled up in his head so the whites of them showed, and the blood running dark, soaking his hair.

I TUCKED WILLIAM up in bed, despite his protests, and bade him stay there. I was reasonably sure the protests were for Rachel’s sake, since as soon as I had shooed her out the door, he allowed me to ease him back onto his pillow, his face pale and clammy under the bandage wrapped around his forehead.

“Sleep,” I said. “You’ll feel perfectly bloody in the morning, but you won’t die.”

“Thank you, Mother Claire,” he murmured, with the faintest of smiles. “You’re always such a comfort. Before you go, though …” Despite how ill he plainly felt, his hand on my arm was solid and firm.

“What?” I asked warily.

“The man who attacked Rachel. Do you have any idea who he might be?”

“Yes,” I said reluctantly. “From her description, he’s a man named Arch Bug. He used to live near us in North Carolina.”

“Ah.” His face was pale and clammy, but the deep blue eyes brightened a little with interest. “Is he mad?”

“Yes, I think so. He … lost his wife under very tragic circumstances, and I do believe it turned his wits to some degree.” I did in fact think this was true, and the months and months since that winter night on the Ridge, spent alone in the woods, walking endless roads, listening for the vanished voice of his dead wife … If he had not been mad to start with, I thought he would be now. At the same time, I wasn’t about to tell William the whole story. Not now, and possibly not ever.

“I’ll speak to someone,” he said, and suddenly gave a massive yawn. “Sorry. I’m … awfully sleepy.”

“You have a concussion,” I told him. “I’ll come and wake you every hour. Speak to whom?”

“Officer,” he said indistinctly, his eyes already closing. “Have men look for him. Can’t let him… Rachel.” Her name came out on a sigh as the big young body went slowly limp. I watched him for a moment to be sure he was soundly asleep. Then I kissed his forehead gently, thinking—with the same wrench of the heart with which I had kissed his sister at the same age—God, you are so like him.

Rachel herself was waiting on the landing, anxious and disheveled, though she’d made some effort to tidy her hair and cap.

“Will he be all right?”

“Yes, I think so. He has a mild concussion—you know what that is? Yes, of course you do. That, and I’ve put three stitches into his head. He’ll have an ungodly headache tomorrow, but it was a glancing wound, nothing serious.”

She sighed, slender shoulders drooping suddenly as the tension went out of them.

“Thank the Lord,” she said, then glanced at me and smiled. “And thee, too, Friend Claire.”

“My pleasure,” I said sincerely. “Are you sure that you’re all right? You should sit down and have something to drink.” She wasn’t hurt, but the shock of the experience had plainly marked her. I knew she wouldn’t drink tea, as a matter of principle, but a little brandy, or even water…

“I’m fine. Better than fine.” Relieved of her worry about William, she looked at me now, her face aglow. “Claire—he’s here! Ian!”

“What? Where?”

“I don’t know!” She glanced at the door to William’s room and drew me a little way away, lowering her voice. “The dog—Rollo. He smelled something and went off after it like a shot. I ran after him, and that’s when I ran into the poor madman. I know, thee will tell me he might chase anything, and he might—but, Claire, he has not come back! If he had not found Ian, he would have come back.”

I caught her sense of excitement, though I was afraid to hope as much as she did. There were other things that could prevent the dog coming back, and none of them was good. One of them was Arch Bug.

Her description of him just now had taken me aback—and yet she was right, I realized. Ever since Mrs. Bug’s funeral at Fraser’s Ridge, I had seen Arch Bug only as a threat to Ian—and yet, with Rachel’s words, I also saw the maimed, arthritic hands fumbling to pin a bird-shaped brooch to his loved wife’s shroud. Poor madman, indeed.

And a bloody dangerous one.

“Come downstairs,” I said to her, with another glance at William’s door. “I need to tell you about Mr. Bug.”

“OH, IAN,” SHE whispered, when I had finished my account. “Oh, poor man.” I didn’t know whether this last referred to Mr. Bug or Ian, but she was right, either way. She didn’t weep, but her face had gone pale and still.

“Both of them,” I agreed. “All three, if you count Mrs. Bug.”

She shook her head, in dismay rather than disagreement.

“Then that is why—” she said, but stopped.

“Why what?”

She grimaced a little, but glanced at me and gave a small shrug.

“Why he said to me that he was afraid I might die because I loved him.”

“Yes, I expect so.”

We sat for a moment over our steaming cups of lemon balm tea, contemplating the situation. At last, she looked up and swallowed.

“Does thee think Ian means to kill him?”

“I—well, I don’t know,” I said. “Certainly not to begin with; he felt terrible about what happened to Mrs. Bug—”

“About the fact that he killed her, thee means.” She gave me a direct look; not one for easy evasions, Rachel Hunter.

“I do. But if he realizes that Arch Bug knows who you are, knows what you mean to Ian, and means you harm—and make no mistake about it, Rachel, he does mean you harm”—I took a swallow of hot tea and a deep breath—“yes, I think Ian would try to kill him.”

She went absolutely still, the steam from her cup the only movement.

“He must not,” she said.

“How do you mean to stop him?” I asked, out of curiosity.

She let out a long, slow breath, eyes fixed on the gently swirling surface of her tea.

“Pray,” she said.

MISCHIANZA

May 18, 1778

Walnut Grove, Pennsylvania

IT HAD BEEN quite a long time since I’d seen a gilded roast peacock, and I hadn’t really expected to see another. Certainly not in Philadelphia. Not that I should have been surprised, I thought, leaning closer to look—yes, it did have eyes made of diamonds. Not after the regatta on the Delaware, the three bands of musicians carried on barges, and the seventeen-gun salute from the warships on the river. The evening had been billed as a “mischianza.” The word means “medley” in Italian—I was told—and in the current instance appeared to have been interpreted so as to allow the more creative souls in the British army and the Loyalist community free rein in the production of a gala celebration to honor General Howe, who had resigned as commander in chief, to be replaced by Sir Henry Clinton.

“I am sorry, my dear,” John murmured at my side.

“For what?” I asked, surprised.

He was surprised in turn; his fair brows went up.

“Why, knowing your loyalties, I must suppose that it would be painful to you, to see so much …” He made a discreet motion of the wrist, indicating the lavish displays around us, which were certainly not limited to the peacock. “ … so much pomp and extravagant expense devoted to—to—”

“Gloating?” I ended dryly. “I might—but I don’t. I know what will happen.”

He blinked at that, very much taken aback.

“What will happen? To whom?”

The sort of prophecy I possessed was seldom a welcome gift; in these circumstances, though, I took a rather grim pleasure in telling him.

“To you. The British army, I mean, not you personally. They’ll lose the war, in three years’ time. What price gilded peacocks then, eh?”

His face twitched, and he hid a smile.

“Indeed.”

“Yes, indeed,” I replied amiably. “Fuirich agus chi thu.”

“What?” He stared at me.

“Gaelic,” I said, with a small, deep twinge. “It means ‘Wait and see.’”

“Oh, I shall,” he assured me. “In the meantime, allow me to make known Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, of the British Legion.” He bowed to a short, wiry young gentleman who had approached us, an officer of dragoons in a bottle-green uniform. “Colonel Tarleton, my wife.”

“Lady John.” The young man bowed low over my hand, brushing it with very red, very sensual lips. I wanted to wipe my hand on my skirt, but didn’t. “Are you enjoying the festivities?”

“I’m looking forward to the fireworks.” He had foxy, clever eyes that missed nothing, and his ripe red mouth twisted at this, but he smiled and left it, turning to Lord John. “My cousin Richard bids me give you his best regards, sir.”

John’s air of pleasant cordiality warmed into genuine pleasure at that.

“Richard Tarleton was my ensign at Crefeld,” he explained to me before switching his attention back to the green dragoon. “How does he do these days, sir?”

They lapsed at once into a detailed conversation of commissions, promotions, campaigns, troop movements, and parliamentary politics, and I moved away. Not out of boredom, but rather out of tact. I had not promised John that I would refrain from passing on useful information; he hadn’t asked it. But delicacy and a certain sense of obligation required that I at least not acquire such information through him, or directly under his nose.

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