An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 36

   

“Yes,” said Miriam, but I didn’t miss the uncertain look that passed between Mrs. Bell and Lillian.

“What, exactly, did Mr. Forbes say about me?” Jamie asked. All three of them went pale, and his eyebrows went up.

“What?” he repeated, with a definite edge. He said it directly to Mrs. Bell, whom he had instantly identified as the weakest link in the family chain.

“He said what a good thing it was that you were dead,” that lady replied faintly. Whereupon her eyes rolled up into her head and she slumped to the floor like a bag of barleycorn.

FORTUNATELY, I HAD got a bottle of spirits of ammonia from Dr. Fentiman. This roused Mrs. Bell promptly into a sneezing fit, and her daughters helped her, gasping and choking, onto the bed. The wine fortunately arriving at this juncture, I served liberal helpings to everyone in sight, reserving a sizable mugful for myself.

“Now, then,” Jamie said, giving the women the sort of slow, penetrating look intended to cause miscreants to go weak in the knees and confess everything, “tell me where ye heard Mr. Forbes say about my being dead.”

Miss Lillian, settled on the bed with a protective hand on her mother’s shoulder, spoke up.

“I heard him. In Symond’s ordinary. While we were still in Wilmington—before we came here to live with Aunt Burton. I’d gone to get a pitcher of hot cider—it was sometime in February; it was still very cold out. Anyway, the woman—Faydree, she’s called—she works there, and went to draw and heat the cider for me. Mr. Forbes came in while I was there, and spoke to me. He knew about Father, and was sympathetic, asking how we were managing … then Faydree came out with the pitcher, and he saw her.”

Forbes had, of course, recognized Phaedre, whom he’d seen many times at River Run, Jocasta’s plantation. Expressing great surprise at her presence, he had inquired for an explanation and received a suitably modified version of the truth—in which Phaedre had apparently made much of Jamie’s kindness in securing her freedom.

I gurgled briefly in my mug at this. Phaedre knew exactly what had happened to Neil Forbes’s ear. She was a very quiet, soft-spoken person, Phaedre, but not above sticking pins in people she didn’t like—and I knew she didn’t like Neil Forbes.

“Mr. Forbes was rather flushed—perhaps it was from the cold,” Lillian said tactfully, “and he said, yes, he understood that Mr. Fraser had always had a great regard for Negroes…. I’m afraid he said that rather nastily,” she added, with an apologetic look at Jamie. “And then he laughed, though he tried to pretend he was coughing, and said what a pity it was that you and your family had all been burnt to cinders, and no doubt there would be great lamentations in the slave quarter.”

Jamie, who had been taking a swallow of wine, choked.

“Why did he think that?” I demanded. “Did he say?”

Lillian nodded earnestly.

“Yes, ma’am. Faydree asked him that, too—I think she thought he was only saying it to upset her—and he said he’d read it in the newspaper.”

“The Wilmington Gazette,” Miriam put in, plainly not liking her sister to be hogging the limelight. “We don’t read newspapers, of course, and since Daddy … well, we seldom have callers anymore.” She glanced down involuntarily, her hand automatically pulling her neat apron straight, to hide a large patch on her skirt. The Bells were tidy and well-groomed, and their clothes had originally been of good quality but were growing noticeably threadbare round the hems and sleeves. I imagined that Mr. Bell’s business affairs must have been substantially impaired, both by his absence and by the interference of war.

“My daughter had told me about the meeting.” Mrs. Bell had recovered herself so far as to sit up, her cup of wine clasped carefully in both hands. “So when my neighbor told me last night that he had met you by the docks … well, I didn’t know quite what to think, but supposed there had been a stupid mistake of some kind—really, you cannot believe anything you read these days, the newspapers are grown quite wild. And my neighbor mentioned that you were seeking passage to Scotland. So we began to think …” Her voice trailed off, and she dipped her face toward her wine cup, embarrassed.

Jamie rubbed a finger down his nose, thinking.

“Aye, well,” he said slowly. “It’s true that I mean to go to Scotland. And of course I should be pleased to inquire after your husband and assist him if I can. But I’ve no immediate prospect of obtaining passage. The blockade—”

“But we can get you a ship!” Lillian interrupted eagerly. “That’s the point!”

“We think we can get you to a ship,” Miriam corrected. She gave Jamie a considering, narrow-eyed sort of look, judging his character. He smiled faintly at her, acknowledging the scrutiny, and after a moment she returned the smile, grudging.

“You remind me of someone,” she said. Evidently, whoever it was, it was someone she liked, though, for she nodded to her mother, giving permission. Mrs. Bell sighed, her shoulders slumping a little in relief.

“I do still have friends,” she said, with a tinge of defiance. “In spite of … everything.”

Among these friends was a man named DeLancey Hall, who owned a fishing ketch, and—like half the town, probably—augmented his income with the odd bit of smuggling.

Hall had told Mrs. Bell that he expected the arrival of a ship from England, coming into Wilmington sometime within the next week or so—always assuming that it hadn’t been seized or sunk en route. As both ship and cargo were the property of one of the local Sons of Liberty, it could not venture into the Wilmington harbor, where two British warships were still crouched. It would, therefore, lurk just outside the harbor, where assorted small local craft would make rendezvous with it, unloading the cargo for surreptitious transport to shore. After which, the ship would sail north to New Haven, there to retrieve a cargo.

“And then will sail for Edinburgh!” Lillian put in, her face bright with hope.

“My father’s kinsman there is named Andrew Bell,” Miriam put in, lifting her chin a little. “He is very well known, I believe. He is a printer, and—”

“Wee Andy Bell?” Jamie’s face had lighted up. “Him who printed the great encyclopedia?”

“The very man,” Mrs. Bell said, surprised. “You do not mean to say you know him, Mr. Fraser?”

Jamie actually laughed, startling the Bells.

“Many’s the evening I’ve passed in a tavern wi’ Andy Bell,” he assured them. “In fact, he’s the man I mean to see in Scotland, for he’s got my printing press, safe in his shop. Or at least I hope he does,” he added, though his cheerfulness was unimpaired.

This news—along with a fresh round of wine—heartened the Bell women to an amazing extent, and when they left us at last, they were flushed with animation and chattering amongst themselves like a flock of amiable magpies. I glanced out the window and saw them making their way down the street, clustered together in hopeful excitement, staggering into the street occasionally from the effects of wine and emotion.

“We don’t only sing but we dance just as good as we walk,” I murmured, watching them go.

Jamie gave me a startled look.

“Archie Bell and the Drells,” I explained. “Never mind. Do you think it’s safe? This ship?”

“God, no.” He shuddered, and kissed the top of my head. “Put aside the question of storms, woodworm, bad caulking, warped timbers, and the like, there’s the English warships in the harbor, privateers outside the harbor—”

“I didn’t mean that,” I interrupted. “That’s more or less par for the course, isn’t it? I meant the owner—and this DeLancey Hall. Mrs. Bell thinks she knows what their politics are, but …” But the thought of delivering ourselves—and our gold—so completely into the hands of unknown persons was unsettling.

“But,” he agreed. “Aye, I mean to go and speak to Mr. Hall first thing tomorrow morning. And maybe Monsieur Beauchamp, as well. For now, though—” He ran a hand lightly down my back and cupped my bottom. “Ian and the dog willna be back for an hour, at least. Will ye have another glass of wine?”

HE LOOKED LIKE a Frenchman, Jamie thought. Which was to say, thoroughly out of place in New Bern. Beauchamp had just come out of Thorogood Northrup’s warehouse and stood in casual conversation with Northrup himself, the breeze off the water fluttering the silk ribbon that tied back his dark hair. Elegant, Claire had described him as, and he was that: not—not quite—foppish, but dressed with taste and expense. A good deal of expense, he thought.

“He looks like a Frenchman,” Fergus observed, echoing his thoughts. They were seated next to the window in the Whinbush, a middling tavern that catered to the needs of fishermen and warehouse laborers, and whose atmosphere was composed of equal parts beer, sweat, tobacco, tar, and aged fish guts.

“Is that his ship?” Fergus asked, a frown creasing his brow as he nodded toward the very trim black-and-yellow sloop that rocked gently at anchor, some distance out.

“It’s the ship he travels in. Couldna say whether he owns it. Ye dinna ken his face, though?”

Fergus leaned into the window, nearly flattening his own face against the wavery panes in an attempt to get a better look at Monsieur Beauchamp.

Jamie, beer in hand, studied Fergus’s face in turn. Despite having lived in Scotland since the age of ten, and in America for the last ten years or more, Fergus himself still looked French, he thought. It was something more than a matter of feature; something in the bone itself, perhaps.

The bones of Fergus’s face were pronounced, with a jaw sharp enough to cut paper, an imperiously beaked nose, and eye sockets set deep under the ridges of a high brow. The thick dark hair brushed back from that brow was threaded with gray, and it gave Jamie a queer moment to see that; he carried within himself a permanent image of Fergus as the ten-year-old orphaned pickpocket he had rescued from a Paris brothel, and that image sat oddly on the gaunt, handsome face before him.

“No,” Fergus said at last, sitting back on the bench and shaking his head. “I have never seen him.”

Fergus’s deep-set dark eyes were alive with interest and speculation. “No one else in the town knows him, either. Though I have heard that he had made inquiries for this Claudel Fraser”—his nostrils flared with amusement; Claudel was his own birth name, and the only one he had, though Jamie thought likely no one had ever used it outside Paris or anytime in the last thirty years—“in Halifax and Edenton, as well.”

Jamie opened his mouth to observe that he hoped Fergus had been careful in his inquiries, but thought better of it, and drank his beer instead. Fergus hadn’t been surviving as a printer in these troublous times by having a lack of discretion.

“Does he remind ye of anyone?” he asked instead. Fergus gave him a brief look of surprise, but returned to his neck-craning before settling back, shaking his head.

“No. Should he?”

“I dinna think so.” He didn’t, but was glad of Fergus’s corroboration. Claire had told him her thought—that the man might be some relation of hers, perhaps a direct ancestor. She had tried to be casual about it, dismiss the idea even as she spoke it, but he’d seen the eager light in her eyes and been touched. The fact that she had no family or close kin in her own time had always struck him as a dreadful thing, even while he realized that it had much to do with her devotion to him.

He’d looked as carefully as he could, with that in mind, but saw nothing in Beauchamp’s face or carriage that reminded him much of Claire—let alone Fergus.

He didn’t think that thought—that Beauchamp might be some actual relation to himself—had crossed Fergus’s mind. Jamie was reasonably sure that Fergus thought of the Frasers of Lallybroch as his only family, other than Marsali and the children, whom he loved with all the fervor of his passionate nature.

Beauchamp was taking his leave of Northrup now, with a very Parisian bow, accompanied by a graceful flutter of his silk handkerchief. Fortuitous that the man had happened to step out of the warehouse just in front of them, Jamie thought. They’d planned to go and have a keek at him later in the day, but his timely appearance saved them having to go and look for him.

“It’s a good ship,” Fergus observed, his attention deflected to the sloop called Huntress. He glanced back at Jamie, considering. “You’re sure you do not wish to investigate the possibility of passage with Monsieur Beauchamp?”

“Aye, I’m sure,” Jamie said dryly. “Put myself and my wife in the power of a man I dinna ken and whose motives are suspect, in a wee boat on a wide sea? Even a man who didna suffer from seasickness might boggle at that prospect, no?”

Fergus’s face split in a grin.

“Milady proposes to stick you full of needles again?”

“She does,” Jamie replied, rather crossly. He hated being stabbed repeatedly, and disliked being obliged to appear in public—even within the limited confines of a ship—bristling with spines like some outlandish porcupine. The only thing that would make him do it was the sure knowledge that if he didn’t, he’d be puking his guts out for days on end.

Fergus didn’t notice his discontent, though; he was leaning into the window again.

“Nom d’nom …” he said softly, with such an expression of apprehension that Jamie turned on the bench at once to look.

Beauchamp had proceeded some way down the street, but was still in sight. He had come to a stop, though, and appeared to be executing a sort of ungainly jig. This was sufficiently odd, but what was more disturbing was that Fergus’s son Germain was crouched in the street directly in front of the man, and seemed to be hopping to and fro in the manner of an agitated toad.

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