An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 20

   

“You remember that other line I told you?” I asked him. “When we came back to Lallybroch from Edinburgh, after I … found Jamie again. Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Ian raised a brow, looked from me to Jamie, and shook his head.

“Nay wonder ye’re sae fond of her, Uncle. She must be a rare comfort to ye.”

“Well,” Jamie said, his eyes fixed on his work, “she keeps takin’ me in—so I suppose she must be home.”

THE WORK FINISHED, Ian and Rollo took the filled shot pouches back to the cabin, while Jamie stamped out the fire and I packed up the paraphernalia of bullet-making. It was growing late, and the air—already so fresh it tickled the lungs—acquired that extra edge of cool liveliness that caressed the skin as well, the breath of spring moving restless over the earth.

I stood for a moment, enjoying it. The work had been close, and hot, despite being done in the open, and the cold breeze that lifted the hair off my neck was delightful.

“Have ye got a penny, a nighean?” said Jamie, next to me.

“A what?”

“Well, any sort of money will do.”

“I don’t think so, but …” I rummaged in the pocket tied at my waist, which by this point in our preparations held nearly as large a collection of improbabilities as did Jamie’s sporran. Among hanks of thread, twists of paper containing seeds or dried herbs, needles stuck through bits of leather, a small jar full of sutures, a woodpecker’s black-and-white-spotted feather, a chunk of white chalk, and half a biscuit, which I had evidently been interrupted while eating, I did in fact discover a grubby half-shilling, covered in lint and biscuit crumbs.

“That do you?” I asked, wiping it off and handing it over.

“It will,” he said, and held out something toward me. My hand closed automatically over what turned out to be the handle of a knife, and I nearly dropped it in surprise.

“Ye must always give money for a new blade,” he explained, half smiling. “So it kens ye for its owner, and willna turn on ye.”

“Its owner?” The sun was touching the edge of the Ridge, but there was still plenty of light, and I looked at my new acquisition. It was a slender blade, but sturdy, single-edged and beautifully honed; the cutting edge shone silver in the dying sun. The hilt was made from a deer’s antler, smooth and warm in my hand—and had been carved with two small depressions, these just fitting my grip. Plainly it was my knife.

“Thank you,” I said, admiring it. “But—”

“Ye’ll feel safer if ye have it by you,” he said, matter-of-fact. “Oh—just the one more thing. Give it here.”

I handed it back, puzzled, and was startled to see him draw the blade lightly across the ball of his thumb. Blood welled up from the shallow cut, and he wiped it on his breeches and stuck his thumb in his mouth, handing me back the knife.

“Ye blood a blade, so it knows its purpose,” he explained, taking the wounded digit out of his mouth.

The hilt of the knife was still warm in my hand, but a small chill went through me. With rare exceptions, Jamie wasn’t given to purely romantic gestures. If he gave me a knife, he thought I’d need it. And not for digging up roots and hacking tree bark, either. Know its purpose, indeed.

“It fits my hand,” I said, looking down and stroking the small groove that fit my thumb. “How did you know to make it so exactly?”

He laughed at that.

“I’ve had your hand round my c**k often enough to know the measure of your grip, Sassenach,” he assured me.

I snorted briefly in response to this, but turned the blade and pricked the end of my own thumb with the point. It was amazingly sharp; I scarcely felt it, but a bead of dark-red blood welled up at once. I put the knife into my belt, took his hand, and pressed my thumb to his.

“Blood of my blood,” I said.

I didn’t make romantic gestures, either.

FIRESHIP

New York

August 1776

IN FACT, WILLIAM’S news of the Americans’ escape was received much better than he had expected. With the intoxicating feeling that they had the enemy cornered, Howe’s army moved with remarkable speed. The admiral’s fleet was still in Gravesend Bay; within a day, thousands of men were marched hastily to the shore and reembarked for the quick crossing to Manhattan; by sunset of the next day, armed companies began the attack upon New York—only to discover the trenches empty, the fortifications abandoned.

While something of a disappointment to William, who had hoped for a chance of direct and physical revenge, this development pleased General Howe inordinately. He moved, with his staff, into a large mansion called Beekman House and set about solidifying his hold upon the colony. There was a certain amount of chafing among senior officers in favor of running the Americans to ground—certainly William favored that notion—but General Howe was of the opinion that defeat and attrition would shred Washington’s remaining forces, and the winter would finish them off.

“And meanwhile,” said Lieutenant Anthony Fortnum, looking round the stifling attic to which the three most junior staff officers had been consigned, “we are an army of occupation. Which means, I think, that we are entitled to the pleasures of the post, are we not?”

“And what would those be?” William inquired, looking in vain for a spot in which to put the weathered portmanteau that presently contained most of his worldly goods.

“Well, women,” Fortnum said consideringly. “Certainly women. And surely New York has fleshpots?”

“I didn’t see any on the way in,” Ralph Jocelyn said dubiously. “And I looked!”

“Not hard enough,” Fortnum said firmly. “I feel sure there must be fleshpots.”

“There’s beer,” William suggested. “Decent public house called Fraunces Tavern, just off Water Street. I had a good pint there on the way in.”

“Has to be something closer than that,” Jocelyn objected. “I’m not walking miles in this heat!” Beekman House had a pleasant situation, with spacious grounds and clean air—but was a good way outside the city.

“Seek and ye shall find, my brothers.” Fortnum twisted a side-curl into place and slung his coat over one shoulder. “Coming, Ellesmere?”

“No, not just now. I’ve letters to write. If you find any fleshpots, I shall expect a written report. In triplicate, mind.”

Left momentarily to his own devices, he dropped his bag on the floor and took out the small sheaf of letters Captain Griswold had handed him.

There were five of them; three with his stepfather’s smiling half-moon seal—Lord John wrote to him promptly on the fifteenth of every month, though at other times, as well—one from his uncle Hal, and he grinned at sight of that; Uncle Hal’s missives were occasionally confusing, but invariably entertaining—and one in an unfamiliar but feminine-looking hand, with a plain seal.

Curious, he broke the seal and opened the letter to discover two closely written sheets from his cousin Dottie. His eyebrows went up at that; Dottie had never written to him before.

They stayed up as he perused the letter.

“I will be damned,” he said aloud.

“Why?” asked Fortnum, who had come back to retrieve his hat. “Bad news from home?”

“What? Oh. No. No,” he repeated, returning to the first page of the letter. “Just … interesting.”

Folding up the letter, he put it inside his coat, safely away from Fortnum’s interested gaze, and took up Uncle Hal’s note, with its crested ducal seal. Fortnum’s eyes widened at sight of that, but he said nothing.

William coughed and broke the seal. As usual, the note occupied less than a page and included neither salutation nor closing, Uncle Hal’s opinion being that since the letter had a direction upon it, the intended recipient was obvious, the seal indicated plainly who had written it, and he did not waste his time in writing to fools.

Adam is posted to New York under Sir Henry Clinton. Minnie has given him some obnoxiously cumbersome Things for you. Dottie sends her Love, which takes up much less room.

John says you are doing something for Captain Richardson. I know Richardson and I think you shouldn’t.

Give Colonel Spencer my regards, and don’t play Cards with him.

Uncle Hal, William reflected, could cram more information—cryptic as it often was—into fewer words than anyone he knew. He did wonder whether Colonel Spencer cheated at cards or was simply very good or very lucky. Uncle Hal had doubtless omitted purposely to say, because if it had been one of the latter alternatives, William would have been tempted to try his skill—dangerous as he knew it was to win consistently against a superior officer. Once or twice, though … No, Uncle Hal was a very good cardsman himself, and if he was warning William off, prudence suggested he take the warning. Perhaps Colonel Spencer was both honest and an indifferent player but a man to take offense—and revenge—if beaten too often.

Uncle Hal was a cunning old devil, William thought, not without admiration.

Which was what worried him, rather, about that second paragraph. I know Richardson … In this instance, he understood quite well why Uncle Hal had omitted the particulars; mail might be read by anyone, and a letter with the Duke of Pardloe’s crest might attract attention. Granted, the seal didn’t seem to have been tampered with, but he’d seen his own father remove and replace seals with the greatest dexterity and a hot knife, and was under no illusions on that score.

That didn’t stop him from wondering just what Uncle Hal knew about Captain Richardson and why he was suggesting that William stop his intelligencing—for evidently Papa had told Uncle Hal what he was doing.

Further food for thought—if Papa had told his brother what William was doing, then Uncle Hal would have told Papa what he knew about Captain Richardson, if there was anything to the captain’s discredit. And if he had done that—

He put by Uncle Hal’s note and ripped open the first of his father’s letters. No, nothing about Richardson…. The second? Again no. In the third, a veiled reference to intelligencing, but only a wish for his safety and an oblique remark about his posture.

A tall man is always notable in company; the more so if his glance be direct and his dress neat.

William smiled at that. Westminster, where he’d gone to school, held its classes in one large room, this divided by a hanging curtain into the upper and lower classes, but there were boys of all ages being taught together, and William had quickly learned when—and how—to be either inconspicuous or outstanding, depending upon the immediate company.

Well, then. Whatever Uncle Hal knew about Richardson, it wasn’t something that troubled Papa. Of course, he reminded himself, it needn’t be anything discreditable. The Duke of Pardloe was fearless on his own behalf, but tended to excessive caution with regard to his family. Perhaps he only thought Richardson reckless; if that was the case, Papa would presumably trust to William’s own good sense, and thus not mention it.

The attic was stifling; sweat was running down William’s face and wilting his shirt. Fortnum had gone out again, leaving the end of his cot tilted up at an absurd angle over his protruding trunk. It did leave just enough floor space vacant as to allow William to stand up and walk to the door, though, and he made his escape into the outer air with a sense of relief. The air outside was hot and humid, but at least it was moving. He put his hat on his head and set off to find out just where his cousin Adam was billeted. Obnoxiously cumbersome sounded promising.

As he pressed through a crowd of farm wives headed for the market square, though, he felt the crackle of the letter in his coat, and remembered Adam’s sister.

Dottie sends her love, which takes up much less room. Uncle Hal was cunning, William thought, but the cunningest of devils has the occasional blind spot.

OBNOXIOUSLY CUMBERSOME fulfilled its promise: a book, a bottle of excellent Spanish sherry, a quart of olives to accompany it, and three pairs of new silk stockings.

“I am awash in stockings,” his cousin Adam assured William, when the latter tried to share this bounty. “Mother buys them by the gross and dispatches them by every carrier, I think. You’re lucky she didn’t think to send you fresh drawers; I get a pair in every diplomatic pouch, and if you don’t think that’s an awkward thing to explain to Sir Henry … Wouldn’t say no to a glass of your sherry, though.”

William was not entirely sure his cousin was joking about the drawers; Adam had a grave mien that served him well in relations with senior officers, and had also the Grey family trick of saying the most outrageous things with a perfectly straight face. William laughed, nonetheless, and called downstairs for a pair of glasses.

One of Adam’s friends brought three, helpfully staying to assist with disposal of the sherry. Another friend appeared, apparently out of the woodwork—it was very good sherry—and produced a half bottle of porter from his chest to add to the festivities. With the inevitability of such gatherings, both bottles and friends multiplied, until every surface in Adam’s room—admittedly a small one—was occupied by one or the other.

William had generously made free with his olives, as well as the sherry, and toward the bottom of the bottle raised a glass to his aunt for her generous gifts, not omitting to mention the silk stockings.

“Though I rather think your mother was not responsible for the book?” he said to Adam, lowering his empty glass with an explosion of breath.

Adam broke into a fit of the giggles, his usual gravity quite dissolved in a quart of rum punch.

“No,” he said, “nor Papa, neither. That was my own contribution to the cause of cutlural, culshural, I mean, advanshment in the colonies.”

“A signal service to the sensibilities of civilized man,” William assured him gravely, showing off his own ability to hold his liquor and manage his tongue, no matter how many slippery esses might throw themselves in his way.

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