An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 163

   

“Oh?” said Jamie curiously. “Why?”

BRED IN THE BONE

I … UH … IF you’ll excuse me for a moment…” I backed slowly to the door of my room and, seizing the knob, whipped inside and shut the door, leaving Willie to recover himself in decent privacy. And not only Willie.

I pressed myself against the door as though pursued by werewolves, my blood thundering in my ears.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I whispered. Something like a geyser rose up inside me and burst in my head, the spray of it sparkling with sunlight and diamonds. I was dimly aware that it had come on to rain outside, and dirty gray water was streaking the windowpanes, but that didn’t matter a bit to the effervescence inside me.

I stood still for several minutes, eyes closed, not thinking anything, just murmuring, “Thank you, God,” over and over, soundlessly.

A tentative rap on the door jarred me out of this trance, and I turned to open it. William stood on the landing.

His shirt still hung open where he’d torn it, and I could see the pulse beat fast in the hollow of his throat. He bowed awkwardly to me, trying to achieve a smile but notably failing in the attempt. He gave it up.

“I am not sure what to call you,” he said. “Under the—the circumstances.”

“Oh,” I said, mildly disconcerted. “Well. I don’t think—at least I hope that the relationship between you and me hasn’t changed.” I realized, with a sudden dampening of my euphoria, that it very well might now, and the thought gave me a deep pang. I was very fond of him, for his own sake, as well as for his father’s—or fathers’, as the case might be.

“Could you bring yourself to go on calling me ‘Mother Claire,’ do you think? Just until we can think of something more… appropriate,” I added hastily, seeing reluctance narrow his eyes. “After all, I suppose I am still your stepmother. Regardless of the … er… the situation.”

He turned that over for a moment, then nodded briefly.

“May I come in? I wish to talk to you.”

“Yes, I suppose you do.”

If I hadn’t known both his fathers, I would have marveled at his ability to suppress the rage and confusion he had so clearly exhibited a quarter of a hour ago. Jamie did it by instinct, John by long experience—but both of them had an iron power of will, and whether William’s was bred in the bone or acquired by example, he most assuredly had one.

“Shall I send for something?” I asked. “A little brandy? It’s good for shock.”

He shook his head. He wouldn’t sit—I didn’t think he could—but leaned against the wall.

“I suppose that you knew? You could scarcely help but notice the resemblance, I suppose,” he added bitterly.

“It is rather striking,” I agreed, with caution. “Yes, I knew. My husband told me”—I groped for some delicate way of putting it— “the, um, circumstances of your birth some years ago.”

And just how was I going to describe those circumstances?

It hadn’t exactly escaped me that there were a few awkward explanations to be made—but caught up in the alarms of Jamie’s sudden reappearance and escape and the giddiness of my own subsequent euphoria, it somehow hadn’t occurred to me that I would be the person making them.

I’d seen the little shrine he kept in his room, the double portrait of his two mothers—both so heartbreakingly young. If age was good for anything, surely it should have given me the wisdom to deal with this?

How could I tell him that he was the result of an impulsive, self-willed young girl’s blackmail? Let alone tell him that he had been the cause of both his legal parents’ deaths? And if anyone was going to tell him what his birth had meant to Jamie, it was going to have to be Jamie.

“Your mother…” I began, and hesitated. Jamie would have taken the blame solely upon himself rather than blacken Geneva’s memory to her son, I knew. I wasn’t having that.

“She was reckless,” William said, watching me closely. “Everybody says she was reckless. Was it—I suppose I only want to know, was it rape?”

“God, no!” I said, horrified, and saw his fists uncurl a little.

“That’s good,” he said, and let out the breath he’d been holding. “You’re sure he didn’t lie to you?”

“I’m sure.” He and his father might be able to hide their feelings; I certainly couldn’t, and while I would never be able to make a living playing cards, having a glass face was occasionally a good thing. I stood still and let him see that I told the truth.

“Do you think—did he say—” He stopped and swallowed, hard. “Did they love each other, do you think?”

“As much as they could, I think,” I said softly. “They hadn’t much time, only the one night.” I ached for him and would have liked so much to take him in my arms and comfort him. But he was a man, and a young one, fierce about his pain. He’d deal with it as he could, and I thought it would be some years—if ever—before he learned to share it.

“Yes,” he said, and pressed his lips together, as though he’d been going to say something else and thought better of it. “Yes, I—I see.” It was quite clear from his tone that he didn’t but, reeling under the impact of realization, had no idea what to ask next, let alone what to do with the information he had.

“I was born almost exactly nine months after my parents’ marriage,” he said, giving me a hard look. “Did they deceive my father? Or did my mother play the whore with her groom before she wed?”

“That might be a bit harsh,” I began.

“No, it isn’t,” he snapped. “Which was it?”

“Your fa—Jamie. He’d never deceive another man in his marriage.” Except Frank, I thought, a little wildly. But, of course, he hadn’t known at first that he was doing it…

“My father,” he said abruptly. “Pa—Lord John, I mean. He knew—knows?”

“Yes.” Thin ice again. I didn’t think he had any idea that Lord John had married Isobel principally for his sake—and Jamie’s—but didn’t want him going anywhere near the question of Lord John’s motives.

“All of them,” I said firmly, “all four of them; they wanted what was best for you.”

“Best for me,” he repeated bleakly. “Right.” His knuckles had gone white again, and he gave me a look through narrowed eyes that I recognized all too well: a Fraser about to go off with a bang. I also knew perfectly well that there was no way of stopping one from detonating but had a try anyway, putting out a hand to him.

“William,” I began. “Believe me—”

“I do,” he said. “Don’t bloody tell me any more. God damn it!” And, whirling on his heel, he drove his fist through the paneling with a thud that shook the room, wrenched his hand out of the hole he’d made, and stormed out. I heard crunching and rending as he paused to kick out several of the balusters on the landing and rip a length of the stair railing off, and I made it to the door in time to see him draw back a four-foot chunk of wood over his shoulder, swing, and strike the crystal chandelier that hung over the stairwell in an explosion of shattering glass. For a moment, he teetered on the open edge of the landing and I thought he would fall, or hurl himself off, but he staggered back from the edge and threw the chunk of wood like a javelin at the remnant of the chandelier with a burst of breath that might have been a grunt or a sob.

Then he rushed headlong down the stairs, thumping his wounded fist at intervals against the wall, where it left bloody smudges. He hit the front door with his shoulder, rebounded, jerked it open, and went out like a locomotive.

I stood frozen on the landing in the midst of chaos and destruction, gripping the edge of the broken balustrade. Tiny rainbows danced on walls and ceiling like multicolored dragonflies sprung out of the shattered crystal that littered the floor.

Something moved; a shadow fell across the floor of the hall below. A small, dark figure walked slowly in through the open doorway. Putting back the hood of her cloak, Jenny Fraser Murray looked round at the devastation, then up at me, her face a pale oval glimmering with humor.

“Like father, like son, I see,” she remarked. “God help us all.”

THE HOUR OF THE WOLF

THE BRITISH ARMY was leaving Philadelphia. The Delaware was choked with ships, and the ferries ran nonstop from the end of State Street across to Cooper’s Point. Three thousand Tories were leaving the city, too, afraid to stay without the army’s protection; General Clinton had promised them passage, though their baggage made a dreadful mess—stacked on the docks, crammed into the ferries—and occupied a good deal of space on board the ships. Ian and Rachel sat on the riverbank below Philadelphia, under the shade of a drooping sycamore, and watched an artillery emplacement being disassembled, a hundred yards away.

The artillerymen worked in shirtsleeves, their blue coats folded on the grass nearby, removing the guns that had defended the city, preparing them for shipping. They were in no hurry and took no particular notice of spectators; it didn’t matter now.

“Does thee know where they are going?” Rachel asked.

“Aye, I do. Fergus says they’re going north, to reinforce New York.”

“Thee has seen him?” She turned her head, interested, and the leaf shadows flickered over her face.

“Aye, he came home last night; he’ll be safe now, wi’ the Tories and the army gone.”

“Safe,” she said, with a skeptical intonation. “As safe as anyone may be, in times like these, thee means.” She’d taken off her cap because of the heat and brushed the damp, dark hair back from her cheeks.

He smiled, but said nothing. She knew as well as he did what the illusions of safety were.

“Fergus says the British mean to cut the colonies in half,” he remarked. “Separate north from south and deal with them separately.”

“Does he? And how does he know this?” she asked, surprised.

“A British officer named Randall-Isaacs; he talks to Fergus.”

“He is a spy, thee means? For which side?” Her lips compressed a little. He wasn’t sure where spying fell, in terms of Quaker philosophy, but didn’t care to ask just now. It was a tender subject, Quaker philosophy.

“I shouldna like to have to guess,” he said. “He passes himself off as an American agent, but that may be all moonshine. Ye canna trust anyone in wartime, aye?”

She turned round to look at him at that, hands behind her back as she leaned against the sycamore.

“Can thee not?”

“I trust you,” he said. “And your brother.”

“And thy dog,” she said, with a glance at Rollo, writhing on the ground to scratch his back. “Thy aunt and uncle, too, and Fergus and his wife? That seems a fair number of friends.” She leaned toward him, squinting in concern. “Does thy arm pain thee?”

“Och, it’s well enough.” He shrugged with his good shoulder, smiling. His arm did hurt, but the sling helped. The ax blow had nearly severed his left arm, cutting through the flesh and breaking the bone. His aunt said he had been lucky, in that it had not damaged the tendons. The body is plastic, she said. Muscle would heal, and so would bone.

Rollo’s had; there was no trace of stiffness from the gunshot wound, and while his muzzle was growing white, he slid through the bushes like an eel, sniffing industriously.

Rachel sighed and gave him a direct look under dark, level brows.

“Ian, thee is thinking something painful, and I would much prefer thee tells me what it is. Has something happened?”

A great many things had happened, were happening all around them, would continue to happen. How could he tell her … ? And yet he couldn’t not.

“The world is turning upside down,” he blurted. “And you are the only constant thing. The only thing I—that binds me to the earth.”

Her eyes softened.

“Am I?”

“Ye ken verra well that you are,” he said gruffly. He looked away, his heart pounding. Too late, he thought, with a mixture of dismay and elation. He’d begun to speak; he couldn’t stop now, no matter what might come of it.

“I know what I am,” he said, awkward but determined. “I would turn Quaker for your sake, Rachel, but I ken I’m not one in my heart; I think I never could be. And I think ye wouldna want me to say words I dinna mean or pretend to be something I canna be.”

“No,” she said softly. “I would not want that.”

He opened his mouth but couldn’t find more words to say. He swallowed, dry-mouthed, waiting. She swallowed, too; he saw the slight movement of her throat, soft and brown; the sun had begun to touch her again, the nut-brown maiden ripening from winter’s pale bloom.

The artillerymen loaded the last of the cannon into a wagon, hitched their limbers to teams of oxen, and with laughter and raucous talk moved up the road toward the ferry point. When they were gone at last, a silence fell. There were still noises—the sound of the river, the rustle of the sycamore, and far beyond, the bellowings and crashings of an army on the move, the sound of violence impending. But between them, there was silence.

I’ve lost, he thought, but her head was still bent in thought. Is she maybe praying? Or only trying to think how to send me away?

Whichever it was, she lifted her head and stood up, away from the tree. She pointed at Rollo, who was lying couchant now, motionless but alert, yellow eyes following every movement of a fat robin foraging in the grass.

“That dog is a wolf, is he not?”

“Aye, well, mostly.”

A small flash of hazel told him not to quibble.

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