An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 35


“You’re looking for someone? A Frenchman?” I lifted the bowl of bloodstained teeth and began to pick through it, affecting nonchalance.

“A man named Claudel. He was born in Paris—in a brothel,” he added, with a faint air of apology for using such an indelicate term in my presence. “He would be in his early forties now—forty-one or -two, perhaps.”

“Paris,” I repeated, listening for Marsali’s footfalls on the stair. “What leads you to suppose that he’s in North Carolina?”

He lifted one shoulder in a graceful shrug.

“He may well not be. I do know that roughly thirty years ago, he was taken from the brothel by a Scotsman, and that this man was described as of striking appearance, very tall, with brilliant red hair. Beyond that, I encountered a morass of possibilities …” He smiled wryly. “Fraser was described to me variously as a wine merchant, a Jacobite, a Loyalist, a traitor, a spy, an aristocrat, a farmer, an importer—or a smuggler; the terms are interchangeable—with connections reaching from a convent to the Royal court.”

Which was, I thought, an extremely accurate portrait of Jamie. Though I could see why it hadn’t been much help in finding him. On the other hand … here Beauchamp was.

“I did discover a wine merchant named Michael Murray, who, upon hearing this description, told me that it resembled his uncle, one James Fraser, who had emigrated to America more than ten years ago.” The dark eyes were less humorous now, fixed intently upon me.

“When I inquired about the child Claudel, though, Monsieur Murray professed complete ignorance of such a person. In rather vehement terms.”

“Oh?” I said, and picked up a large molar with serious caries, squinting at it. Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ. I knew Michael only by name; one of Young Ian’s elder brothers, he had been born after my departure and had already gone to France by the time I returned to Lallybroch—there to be educated and taken into the wine business with Jared Fraser, an elderly and childless cousin of Jamie’s. Michael had, of course, grown up with Fergus at Lallybroch and knew bloody well what his original name was. And apparently had detected or suspected something in this stranger’s demeanor that had alarmed him.

“Do you mean to say that you came all the way to America, knowing nothing except a man’s name and that he has red hair?” I asked, trying to seem mildly incredulous. “Goodness—you must have considerable interest in finding this Claudel!”

“Oh, I do, madame.” He looked at me, smiling faintly, head on one side. “Tell me, Mrs. Fraser—has your husband red hair?”

“Yes,” I said. There was no point in denying it, since anyone in New Bern would tell him so—and likely had already, I reflected. “So do any number of his relations—and about half the population of the Scottish Highlands.” This was a wild overstatement, but I was reasonably sure that Mr. Beauchamp hadn’t been combing the Highlands personally, either.

I could hear voices upstairs; Marsali might be coming down any minute, and I didn’t want her walking into the midst of this particular conversation.

“Well,” I said, and got to my feet in a decided manner. “I’m sure you’ll be wanting to talk to my husband—and he to you. He’s gone on an errand, though, and won’t be back until sometime tomorrow. Are you staying somewhere in the town?”

“The King’s Inn,” he said, rising, as well. “If you will tell your husband to find me there, madame? I thank you.” Bending low, he took my hand and kissed it again, then smiled at me and backed out of the shop, leaving a scent of bergamot and hyssop mingled with the ghost of good brandy.

A GOOD MANY merchants and businessmen had left New Bern, owing to the chaotic state of politics; with no civil authority, public life had come to a standstill, bar the simplest of market transactions, and many people—of both Loyalist and rebel sympathies—had left the colony out of fear of violence. There were only two good inns in New Bern these days; the King’s Inn was one, and the Wilsey Arms the other. Luckily, Jamie and I had a room in the latter.

“Will you go and talk to him?” I had just finished telling Jamie about the visit of Monsieur Beauchamp—an account that had left him with a deep crease of concern between his brows.

“Christ. How did he find out all that?”

“He must have begun with a knowledge that Fergus was at that brothel, and started his inquiries there. I imagine it wouldn’t have been difficult to find someone who’d seen you there, or heard about the incident. You’re rather memorable, after all.” Despite my own agitation, I smiled at the memory of Jamie, aged twenty-five, who had taken temporary refuge in the brothel in question armed—quite coincidentally—with a large sausage, and then escaped through a window, accompanied by a ten-year-old pickpocket and sometime child-whore named Claudel.

He shrugged, looking mildly embarrassed.

“Well, aye, perhaps. But to discover quite so much …” He scratched his head, thinking. “As to speaking with him—not before I speak to Fergus. I think we might want to know a bit more about this Monsieur Beauchamp, before we make him a present of ourselves.”

“I’d like to know a bit more about him, too,” I said. “I did wonder whether … Well, it’s a remote possibility, the name isn’t all that uncommon—but I did wonder whether he might be connected in some way with a branch of my family. They were in France in the eighteenth century, I know that much. But not much more.”

He smiled at me.

“And what would ye do, Sassnenach, if I discover that he’s really your six-times-great-grandfather?”

“I—” I stopped abruptly because, in fact, I didn’t know what I’d do in such a circumstance. “Well … probably nothing,” I admitted. “And we probably can’t find that out for sure in any case, since I don’t recall—if I ever knew—what my six-times-great-grandfather’s first name was. I just—would be interested to know more, that’s all,” I finished, feeling mildly defensive.

“Well, of course ye would,” he said, matter-of-fact. “But not if my asking might put Fergus in any danger, would ye?”

“Oh, no! Of course not. But do you—”

I was interrupted by a soft knock on the door that struck me dumb. I raised my brows at Jamie, who hesitated a moment, but then shrugged and went to open it.

Small as the room was, I could see the door from where I sat; to my surprise, it was filled with what appeared to be a deputation of women—the corridor was a sea of white caps, floating in the dimness like jellyfish.

“Mr. Fraser?” One of the caps bobbed briefly. “I am—my name is Abigail Bell. My daughters”—she turned, and I caught a glimpse of a strained white face—“Lillian and Miriam.” The other two caps—yes, there were only three, after all—bobbed in turn. “May we speak with you?”

Jamie bowed and ushered them into the room, raising his eyebrows at me as he followed them in.

“My wife,” he said, nodding as I rose, murmuring pleasantries. There was only the bed and one stool, so we all remained standing, awkwardly smiling and bobbing at one another.

Mrs. Bell was short and rather stout, and had probably once been as pretty as her daughters. Her once-plump cheeks now sagged, though, as though she had lost weight suddenly, and her skin was creased with worry. Her daughters looked worried, too; one was twisting her hands in her apron, and the other kept stealing glances at Jamie from downcast eyes, as though afraid he might do something violent if gazed at too directly.

“I beg your pardon, sir, for coming to you in this bold way.” Mrs. Bell’s lips were trembling; she had to stop and compress them briefly before continuing. “I—I hear that you are looking for a ship bound to Scotland.”

Jamie nodded warily, plainly wondering where this woman had learned of it. He’d said everyone in the town would know within a day or two—evidently he’d been right about that.

“Do ye ken someone with such a voyage in view?” he asked politely.

“No. Not exactly. I … that is … perhaps—it is my husband,” she blurted, but the speaking of the word made her voice break, and she clapped a handful of apron to her mouth. One of the daughters, a dark-haired girl, took her mother gently by the elbow and drew her aside, standing up bravely to face the fearsome Mr. Fraser herself.

“My father is in Scotland, Mr. Fraser,” she said. “My mother is in hopes that you might find him, when you go there, and assist him to return to us.”

“Ah,” Jamie said. “And your father would be … ?”

“Oh! Mr. Richard Bell, sir, of Wilmington.” She curtsied hastily, as though further politeness would help to make her case. “He is—he was—”

“He is!” her sister hissed, low-voiced but emphatic, and the first sister, the dark one, gave her a glare.

“My father was a merchant in Wilmington, Mr. Fraser. He had considerable business interests, and in the course of his business he … had reason to have contact with various British officers, who came to him for supplies. It was entirely a matter of business!” she assured him.

“But business in these dreadful times is never only business.” Mrs. Bell had got hold of herself, and came to stand shoulder to shoulder with her daughter. “They said—my husband’s enemies—they put it about that he was a Loyalist.”

“Only because he was,” put in the second sister. This one—fair-haired and blue-eyed—wasn’t trembling; she faced Jamie with a lifted chin and blazing eyes. “My father was true to his King! I for one do not think that is something to be excused and apologized for! Nor do I think it right to pretend otherwise, only to get the help of a man who has broken every oath—”

“Oh, Miriam!” said her sister, exasperated. “Could you not keep quiet for one second? Now you’ve spoilt everything!”

“I haven’t,” Miriam snapped. “Or if I have, it wasn’t ever going to work in the first place! Why should someone like him hel—”

“Yes, it would! Mr. Forbes said—”

“Oh, bother Mr. Forbes! What would he know?”

Mrs. Bell moaned softly into her apron.

“Why did your father go to Scotland?” Jamie asked, cutting through the confusion.

Taken by surprise, Miriam Bell actually answered him.

“He didn’t go to Scotland. He was abducted in the street and thrust onto a ship bound for Southampton.”

“By whom?” I asked, wiggling my way through the obstructing forest of skirts on my way to the door. “And why?”

I stuck my head out into the corridor and gestured to the boy cleaning boots on the landing that he should go down to the taproom and bring up a jug of wine. Given the apparent state of the Bells, I thought something to restore the social amenities might be a good idea.

I popped back inside in time to hear Miss Lillian Bell explaining that they didn’t actually know who had abducted her father.

“Or not by name, at least,” she said, face flushed with fury at the telling. “The villains wore hoods over their heads. But it was the Sons of Liberty, I know it!”

“Yes, it was,” Miss Miriam said decidedly. “Father had had threats from them—notes pinned to the door, a dead fish wrapped in a bit of red flannel and left upon the porch to make a stink. That sort of thing.”

The matter had gone beyond threats at the end of the previous August. Mr. Bell had been on his way to his warehouse, when a group of hooded men had rushed out from an alleyway, seized him, and carried him down the quay, then flung him bodily aboard a ship that had just cast off its hawser, sails filling as it drew slowly away.

I had heard of troublesome Loyalists being summarily “deported” in this manner, but hadn’t run into an actual occurrence of the practice before.

“If the ship was bound for England,” I inquired, “how did he end up in Scotland?”

There was a certain amount of confusion as all three Bells tried to explain at once what had happened, but Miriam won out once again.

“He arrived in England penniless, of course, with no more than the clothes on his back, and owing money for food and passage on the ship. But the ship’s captain had befriended him, and took him from Southampton to London, where my father knew some men with whom he had done business in the past. One of these advanced him a sum to cover his indebtedness to the captain, and promised him passage to Georgia, if he would oversee the cargo on a voyage from Edinburgh to the Indies, thence to America.

“So he traveled to Edinburgh under the auspices of his patron, only to discover there that the intended cargo to be picked up in the Indies was a shipload of Negroes.”

“My husband is an abolitionist, Mr. Fraser,” Mrs. Bell put in, with timid pride. “He said he could not countenance slavery, nor assist in its practice, no matter what the cost to himself.”

“And Mr. Forbes told us what you had done for that woman—Mrs. Cameron’s body slave,” Lillian put in, anxious-faced. “So we thought … even if you were …” She trailed off, embarrassed.

“An oath-breaking rebel, aye,” Jamie said dryly. “I see. Mr. Forbes—this would be … Neil Forbes, the lawyer?” He sounded faintly incredulous, and with good reason.

Some years before, Forbes had been a suitor for Brianna’s hand—encouraged by Jocasta Cameron, Jamie’s aunt. Bree had rejected him, none too gently, and he had taken his revenge some time later by having her abducted by a notorious pirate. A very messy state of affairs had ensued, involving Jamie’s reciprocal abduction of Forbes’s elderly mother—the old lady had loved the adventure—and the cutting off of Forbes’s ear by Young Ian. Time might have healed his external wounds, but I couldn’t imagine anyone less likely to have been singing Jamie’s praises.