An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 160

   

I drifted slowly through the crowd in the ballroom, admiring the ladies’ dresses, many of them imported from Europe, most of the rest modeled on such imports with such materials as could be obtained locally. The brilliant silks and sparkling embroidery were such a contrast to the homespuns and muslins I was accustomed to see that it seemed surreal—as though I’d found myself in a sudden dream. This impression was heightened by the presence among the crowd of a number of knights, dressed in surcoats and tabards, some with helms tucked under their arms—the afternoon’s entertainment had included a mock jousting tournament—and a number of people in fantastic masks and extravagant costume, whom I assumed would later be part of some theatrical presentation.

My attention drifted back over the table where the gaudier viands were displayed: the peacock, tail feathers spread in a huge fan, occupied pride of place in the center of the table, but it was flanked by an entire roast boar on a bed of cabbage—this emitting a smell that made my stomach growl—and three enormous game pies, decorated with stuffed songbirds. Those reminded me suddenly of the King of France’s dinner with the stuffed nightingales, and my appetite vanished at once in a puff of nausea and grief recalled.

I shifted my gaze hastily back to the peacock, swallowing. I wondered idly how difficult it might be to abstract those diamond eyes and whether someone was keeping an eye on them. Almost certainly so, and I looked to see if I could spot him. Yes, there he was, a uniformed soldier standing in a nook between the table and the huge mantelpiece, eyes alert.

I didn’t need to steal diamonds, though, I thought, and my stomach curled a little. I had them. John had given me a pair of diamond earrings. When the time came for me to leave …

“Mother Claire!”

I had been feeling pleasantly invisible and, startled out of this delusion, now glanced across the room to see Willie, his disheveled head sticking out from the red-crossed tabard of a Knight Templar, waving enthusiastically.

“I do wish you could think of something else to call me,” I said, reaching his side. “I feel as though I ought to be swishing round in a habit with a rosary at my waist.”

He laughed at that, introduced the young lady making goo-goo eyes at him as Miss Chew, and offered to get us both an ice. The temperature in the ballroom was rising eighty, at least, and sweat darkened not a few of the bright silks.

“What an elegant gown,” Miss Chew said politely. “Is it from England?”

“Oh,” I said, rather taken aback. “I don’t know. But thank you,” I added, looking down at myself for the first time. I hadn’t really noticed the gown, beyond the mechanical necessities of getting into it; dressing was no more than a daily nuisance, and so long as nothing was too tight or chafed, I didn’t care what I wore.

John had presented me with the gown this morning, as well as summoning a hairdresser to deal with me from the neck up. I’d shut my eyes, rather shocked at how enjoyable the man’s fingers felt in my hair—but still more shocked when he handed me a looking glass and I saw a towering confection of curls and powder, with a tiny ship perched in it. Full-rigged.

I’d waited ’til he left, then hurriedly brushed it all out and pinned it up as simply as I could. John had given me a look, but said nothing. Concerned with my head, though, I hadn’t taken any time to look at myself below the neck, and was vaguely pleased now to see how well the cocoa-colored silk fit me. Dark enough that it might not show sweat stains, I thought.

Miss Chew was watching William like a cat eyeing up a fat, handsome mouse, frowning a little as he stopped to flirt with two other young ladies.

“Will Lord Ellesmere be remaining long in Philadelphia?” she asked, eyes still on him. “I believe someone told me that he is not to go with General Howe. I do hope that is the case!”

“That’s right,” I said. “He surrendered with General Burgoyne; those troops are all on parole and are meant to go back to England, but there’s some administrative reason why they can’t embark just yet.” I knew William was hoping to be exchanged, so that he could fight again, but didn’t mention it.

“Really,” she said, brightening. “What splendid news! Perhaps he will be here for my ball next month. Naturally, it will not be quite so good as this one”—she arched her neck a little, tilting her head toward the musicians who had begun to play at the far end of the room—“but Major André says he will lend his skill to paint the backdrops so we may have tableaux, so it will be—”

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted, “did you say Major André? Major … John André?”

She glanced at me in surprise, half-annoyed at my interruption. “Of course. He designed the costumes for the joust today and has written the play they will do later. Look, there he is, speaking with Lady Clinton.”

I looked where she pointed with her fan, feeling a sudden chill wash through me, despite the heat in the room.

Major André was the center of a group, men and women both, laughing and gesturing, plainly the focus of everyone’s attention. He was a handsome young man in his late twenties, his uniform tailored to perfection and his face vivid, flushed with heat and pleasure.

“He seems … very charming,” I murmured, wanting to look away from him, but unable to do so.

“Oh, yes!” Miss Chew was enthusiastic. “He and I and Peggy Shippen did almost all of the work for the mischianza together—he’s a marvel, always with such good ideas, and he plays the flute just delightful. So sad that Peggy’s father would not let her come tonight—quite unfair!” I thought there was an underlying tone of satisfaction to her voice, though; she was quite pleased not to have to share the limelight with her friend.

“Do let me present him to you,” she said suddenly, and folding her fan, slipped her arm through mine. I was taken entirely by surprise and couldn’t think of a way to extricate myself before I found myself towed into the group around André, with Miss Chew chattering brightly to him, laughing up at him, her hand familiarly on his arm. He smiled at her, then switched his gaze to me, his eyes warm and lively.

“I am enchanted, Lady John,” he said, in a soft, husky voice. “Your servant, madame.”

“I—yes,” I said abruptly, quite forgetting the usual form. “You—yes. Glad to meet you!” I pulled my hand out of his before he could kiss it, disconcerting him, and backed away. He blinked, but Miss Chew reclaimed his attention at once, and I turned away, going to stand near the door where there was at least a little air. I was covered in cold sweat and vibrating in every limb.

“Oh, there you are, Mother Claire!” Willie popped up beside me, two half-melted ices in his hands, sweating freely. “Here.”

“Thank you.” I took one, noting absently that my fingers were nearly as cold as the misted silver cup.

“Are you quite all right, Mother Claire?” He bent down to look at me, concerned. “You look quite pale. As though you’d seen a ghost.” He winced in brief apology at this clumsy reference to death, but I made an effort to smile back. Not a terribly successful effort, because he was right. I had just seen a ghost.

Major John André was the British officer with whom Benedict Arnold—hero of Saratoga and still a legendary patriot—would eventually conspire. And the man who would go to the gallows for his part in that conspiracy, sometime in the next three years.

“Had you better sit down for a bit?” Willie was frowning in concern, and I made an effort to shake off my cold horror. I didn’t want him offering to leave the ball to see me home; he was plainly having a good time. I smiled at him, barely feeling my lips.

“No, that’s all right,” I said. “I think … I’ll just step outside for some air.”

A BUTTERFLY IN A BUTCHER’S YARD

ROLLO LAY UNDER a bush, noisily devouring the remains of a squirrel he’d caught. Ian sat on a rock, contemplating him. The city of Philadelphia lay just out of sight; he could smell the haze of fire, the stink of thousands of people living cheek by jowl. Could hear the clop and rattle of people going there, on the road that lay only a few hundred yards away. And somewhere, within a mile of him, hidden in that mass of buildings and people, was Rachel Hunter.

He wanted to step out on the road, stride down it into the heart of Philadelphia, and begin taking the place apart, brick by brick, until he found her.

“Where do we begin, a cú?” he said to Rollo. “The printshop, I suppose.”

He’d not been there, but supposed it would not be hard to find. Fergus and Marsali would give him shelter—and food, he thought, feeling his stomach growl—and perhaps Germain and the girls could help him hunt for Rachel. Perhaps Auntie Claire could … Well, he knew she wasn’t a witch or a fairy, but there was no doubt at all in his mind that she was something, and perhaps she would be able to find Rachel for him.

He waited for Rollo to finish his meal, then rose, an extraordinary sense of warmth suffusing him, though the day was overcast and cool. Could he find her that way? he wondered. Walk through the streets, playing the children’s game of “warmer, colder,” growing steadily warmer as he approached her more closely, coming to her at last just before he burst into flame?

“You could help, ye know,” he said reproachfully to Rollo. He’d tried getting Rollo to backtrack to her at once when the dog had found him, but the dog had been so berserk with joy at Ian’s return that there was no speaking to him. That was a thought, though—if they somehow ran across her trail, Rollo might take it up, now that he was more sober-minded.

He smiled crookedly at that thought; the bulk of the British army was encamped at Germantown, but there were thousands of soldiers quartered in Philadelphia itself. As well ask the dog to follow the scent of a butterfly through a butcher’s yard.

“Well, we won’t find her, sitting here,” he said to Rollo, and stood up. “Come on, dog.”

LADY IN WAITING

I WAS WAITING FOR THINGS to make sense. Nothing did. I had lived in John Grey’s house, with its gracious stair and crystal chandelier, its Turkey rugs and fine china, for nearly a month, and yet I woke each day with no idea where I was, reaching across an empty bed for Jamie.

I could not believe he was dead. Could not. I shut my eyes at night and heard him breathing slow and soft in the night beside me. Felt his eyes on me, humorous, lusting, annoyed, alight with love. Turned half a dozen times a day, imagining I heard his step behind me. Opened my mouth to say something to him—and more than once really had spoken to him, realizing only when I heard the words dwindle on the empty air that he was not there.

Each realization crushed me anew. And yet none reconciled me to his loss. I had, with shrinking mind, envisioned his death. He would so have hated drowning. Of all ways to die! I could only hope that the sinking of the ship had been violent, and that he had gone unconscious into the water. Because otherwise … he couldn’t give up, he wouldn’t have. He would have swum and kept swimming, endless miles from any shores, alone in the empty deep, swum stubbornly because he could not give up and let himself sink. Swum until that powerful frame was exhausted, until he could not lift a hand again, and then …

I rolled over and pressed my face hard into my pillow, heart squeezing with horror.

“What a bloody, bloody waste!” I said into the feathers, clenching handfuls of pillow in my fists as hard as I could. If he’d died in battle, at least … I rolled back over and shut my eyes, biting my lip until the blood came.

At last my breathing slowed, and I opened my eyes on darkness again, and resumed waiting. Waiting for Jamie.

Some time later, the door opened, and a slice of light from the hallway fell into the room. Lord John came in, setting a candle on the table by the door, and approached the bed. I didn’t look at him, but knew he was looking down at me.

I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. Or, rather, looking through it to the sky. Dark, full of stars and emptiness. I hadn’t bothered to light a candle, but I didn’t curse the darkness, either. Only looked into it. Waiting.

“You are very lonely, my dear,” he said, with great gentleness, “and I know it. Will you not let me bear you company, for a little time at least?”

I said nothing, but did move over a little and did not resist when he lay down beside me and gathered me carefully into his arms.

I rested my head on his shoulder, grateful for the comfort of simple touch and human warmth, though it didn’t reach the depths of my desolation.

Try not to think. Accept what there is; don’t think about what there is not.

I lay still, listening to John breathe. He breathed differently than Jamie, shallower, faster. A very slight catch in his breath.

It dawned on me, slowly, that I was not alone in my desolation or my loneliness. And that I knew all too well what had happened last time this state of affairs had become obvious to both of us. Granted, we were not drunk, but I thought he couldn’t help but remember it, as well.

“Do you … wish me to … comfort you?” he said quietly. “I do know how, you know.” And, reaching down, he moved a finger very slowly, in such a place and with such exquisite delicacy that I gasped and jerked away.

“I know you do.” I did have a moment’s curiosity as to how exactly he had learned, but was not about to ask. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the thought—I do,” I assured him, and felt my cheeks flush hotter. “It’s—it’s only—”

“That you would feel unfaithful?” he guessed. He smiled a little sadly. “I understand.”

There was a long silence then. And a sense of growing awareness.

“You wouldn’t?” I asked. He lay quite still, as if asleep, but wasn’t.

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