An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 38

   

I strolled casually along, hoping to spot the vessel that might be carrying us to Scotland, but saw nothing at anchor that looked in any way large enough for such a voyage. But of course—DeLancey Hall had said that we would need to embark on a small ship, perhaps his own fishing ketch, and slip out of the harbor to rendezvous with the larger ship at sea.

I sat down on a bollard to eat, drawing a small crowd of interested seagulls, who floated down like overweight snowflakes to surround me.

“Think again, mate,” I said, pointing a monitory finger at one particularly intransigent specimen, who was sidling toward my feet, eyeing my basket. “It’s my lunch.” I still had the half-burnt pamphlet Jamie had handed me; I flapped it vigorously at the gulls, who whirled up in a screech of alarm but then resettled round me, at a slightly more respectful distance, beady eyes all focused on the roll in my hand.

“Ha,” I said to them, and moved the basket behind my feet, just in case. I kept a good grip on my roll and one eye on the gulls. The other was free to survey the harbor. A British man-of-war was anchored a little way out, and the sight of the Union Jack flying from its bow gave me a peculiarly paradoxical feeling of pride and unease.

The pride was reflexive. I’d been an Englishwoman all my life. I’d served Great Britain in hospitals, on battlefields—in duty and with honor—and I’d seen many of my countrymen and women fall in that same service. While the Union Jack I saw now was slightly different in design to the one I’d lived with, it was identifiably the same flag, and I felt the same instinctive lift of the heart at sight of it.

At the same time, I was all too aware of the menace that that flag now posed to me and mine. The ship’s upper gunports were open; evidently some drill was being conducted, for I saw the cannon rolled rapidly in and out, in succession, blunt snouts poking out, then drawing in, like the heads of pugnacious gophers. There had been two men-of-war in the harbor the day before; the other had gone … where? On a particular mission—or merely cruising restlessly up and down outside the harbor mouth, ready to board, seize, fire upon, or sink any ship that looked suspicious?

I couldn’t think of anything that would look more suspicious than the ship belonging to Mr. Hall’s smuggling friend.

I thought again of the mysterious Mr. Beauchamp. France was still neutral; we would be a good deal safer in a ship flying French colors. Safer from the depredations of the British Navy, at least. As for Beauchamp’s own motives … I reluctantly accepted Fergus’s desire to have nothing to do with the man, but still wondered what on earth Beauchamp’s interest in Fergus could be.

I also still wondered whether he might have any connection to my own family of Beauchamps, but there was no way of knowing; Uncle Lamb had done a rudimentary family genealogy, I knew—mostly for my sake—but I’d paid no attention to it. Where was it now? I wondered. He’d given it to me and Frank when we married, neatly typed up and put in a manila folder.

Perhaps I’d mention Mr. Beauchamp in my next letter to Brianna. She’d have all our old family records—the boxes of ancient income-tax forms, the collections of her own schoolwork and art projects…. I smiled at the memory of the clay dinosaur she’d made at the age of eight, a toothy creature leaning drunkenly to one side, a small cylindrical object hanging from its jaws.

“That’s a mammal he’s eating,” she had informed me.

“What happened to the mammal’s legs?” I’d asked.

“They fell off when the dinosaur stepped on it.”

The memory had distracted me for a moment, and a bold gull swooped low and struck my hand, knocking the last remnant of my roll to the ground, where it was instantly engulfed by a shrieking crowd of its fellows.

I said a bad word—the gull had left a bleeding scratch across the back of my hand—and, picking up the pamphlet, flung it into the midst of the scrabbling birds. It hit one of them in the head, and the bird rolled over in a mad flutter of wings and pages that dispersed the mob, who all flapped off, yelling gull curses, leaving not a crumb behind.

“Ha,” I said again, with a certain grim satisfaction. With some obscure twentieth-century inhibition against littering—certainly no such notions existed here—I retrieved the pamphlet, which had come apart into several pieces, and tidied them back into a rough rectangle.

An Examination of Mercy, it was titled, with a subtitle reading, Thoughts upon the Nature of Divine Compassion, its Manifestation within the Human Bosom, and the Instruction of its Inspiration to the Improvement of the Individual and Mankind. Possibly not one of Mr. Crupp’s bestselling titles, I thought, stuffing it into the end of my basket.

Which led me to another thought. I wondered whether Roger would see it in an archive someday. I rather thought he might.

Did that mean that we—or I—ought to be doing things on purpose to ensure our appearance in said record? Given that most of the things that made the press in any era were war, crime, tragedy, and other hideous disasters, I rather thought not. My few brushes with notoriety had not been pleasant, and the last thing I wanted Roger to find was a report of my being hanged for bank robbery, executed for witchcraft, or having been pecked to death by vengeful gulls.

No, I concluded. I’d best just tell Bree about Mr. Beauchamp and the Beauchamp family genealogy, and if Roger wanted to poke about in that, well and good. Granted, I’d never know if he found Mr. Percival in the list, but if so, Jem and Mandy would have a little further knowledge of their family tree.

Now, where was it, that folder? The last time I’d seen it, it had been in Frank’s office, sitting on his filing cabinet. I remembered it distinctly, because Uncle Lamb had rather whimsically drawn what I assumed to be the family coat of—

“I beg your pardon, madam,” a deep voice said respectfully behind me. “I see that you—”

Jarred abruptly from my memory, I turned blankly toward the voice, thinking vaguely that I knew—

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I blurted, leaping to my feet. “You!”

I took a step backward, stumbled over the basket, and nearly fell into the harbor, saved only by Tom Christie’s instinctive grab for my arm.

He jerked me away from the edge of the quay and I fell against his chest. He recoiled as though I were made of molten metal, then seized me in his arms, pressed me hard against himself, and kissed me with passionate abandon.

He broke off, peered into my face, and gasped, “You’re dead!”

“Well, no,” I said, stunned into apology.

“I beg—I beg your pardon,” he managed, letting his arms drop. “I—I—I—” He looked white as a ghost, and I rather thought he might fall into the harbor. I doubted that I looked much better, but I did at least have my feet under me.

“You’d better sit down,” I said.

“I—not here,” he said abruptly.

He was right. The quay was a very public place, and our little rencontre had attracted considerable notice. A couple of idlers were staring openly, nudging each other, and we were collecting slightly less-obvious glances from the traffic of merchants, seamen, and dock laborers going about their business. I was beginning to recover from the shock, enough to think.

“You have a room? Oh, no—that won’t do, will it?” I could imagine all too well what sorts of stories would be flying round town within minutes of our leaving the docks; if we left and repaired to Mr. Christie’s—I couldn’t think of him presently as anything but “Mr. Christie”—room …

“The ordinary,” I said firmly. “Come on.”

IT WAS ONLY A FEW minutes’ walk to Symonds’ ordinary, and we passed those minutes in total silence. I stole occasional glances at him, though, both to assure myself that he wasn’t a ghost and to assess his current situation.

The latter seemed tolerable; he was decently dressed in a dark gray suit, with clean linen, and if he was not fashionable—I bit my lip at the thought of Tom Christie being fashionable—he was at least not shabby.

Otherwise, he looked very much as I’d last seen him—well, no, I corrected myself. He actually looked much better. I’d last seen him in the extremity of exhausted grief, shredded by the tragedy of his daughter’s death and its subsequent complications. My last sight of him had been on the Cruizer, the British ship on which Governor Martin had taken refuge when he was driven out of the colony, almost two years ago.

At that point, Mr. Christie had declared, first, his intent to confess to the murder of his daughter—of which I was accused—secondly, his love for me, and thirdly, his intent to be executed in my place. All of which made his sudden resurrection not merely surprising but more than slightly awkward.

Adding to the awkwardness was the question as to what—if anything—he knew about the fate of his son, Allan, who had been responsible for Malva Christie’s death. The circumstances were nothing that any father ought to have to hear, and panic gripped me at the thought that I might have to tell him.

I glanced at him again. His face was deeply lined, but he was neither gaunt nor overtly haunted. He wore no wig, though his wiry salt-and-pepper hair was close-clipped as always, matching his neatly trimmed beard. My face tingled, and I barely kept myself from scrubbing my hand across my mouth to erase the feeling. He was clearly disturbed—well, so was I—but had got himself back under control, and opened the door of the ordinary for me with impeccable courtesy. Only the twitch of a muscle beside his left eye betrayed him.

I felt as though my entire body was twitching, but Phaedre, serving in the taproom, glanced at me with no more than mild interest and a cordial nod. Of course, she’d never met Thomas Christie, and while she’d doubtless heard about the scandal following my arrest, she wouldn’t connect the gentleman accompanying me with it.

We found a table by the window in the dining room, and sat down.

“I thought you were dead,” I said abruptly. “What did you mean, you thought I was dead?”

He opened his mouth to answer but was interrupted by Phaedre, who came to serve us, smiling pleasantly.

“I get you something, sir, ma’am? You wanting food? We’ve a nice ham today, roast taters, and Mrs. Symonds’s special mustard ’n raisin sauce to go along of it.”

“No,” Mr. Christie said. “I—just a cup of cider, if ye please.”

“Whisky,” I said. “A lot of it.”

Mr. Christie looked scandalized, but Phaedre only laughed and whisked off, the grace of her movement attracting the quiet admiration of most of the male patrons.

“Ye haven’t changed,” he observed. His eyes traveled over me, intense, taking in every detail of my appearance. “I ought to have known ye by your hair.”

His voice was disapproving, but tinged with a reluctant amusement; he had always been vociferous in his disapproval of my refusal to wear a cap or otherwise restrain my hair. “Wanton,” he’d called it.

“Yes, you should,” I said, reaching up to smooth the hair in question, which was considerably the worse for recent encounters. “You didn’t recognize me ’til I turned round, though, did you? What made you speak to me?”

He hesitated, but then nodded toward my basket, which I’d set on the floor beside my chair.

“I saw that ye had one of my tracts.”

“What?” I said blankly, but looked where he was looking and saw the singed pamphlet on Divine Compassion sticking out from under a cabbage. I reached down and pulled it out, only now noticing the author: by Mr. T. W. Christie, MA, University of Edinburgh.

“What does the ‘W’ stand for?” I asked, laying it down.

He blinked.

“Warren,” he replied rather gruffly. “Where in God’s name did ye come from?”

“My father always claimed he’d found me under a cabbage leaf in the garden,” I replied flippantly. “Or did you mean today? If so—the King’s Arms.”

He was beginning to look a little less shocked, his normal irritation at my lack of womanly decorum drawing his face back into its usual stern lines.

“Don’t be facetious. I was told that ye were dead,” he said, accusingly. “You and your entire family were burnt up in a fire.”

Phaedre, delivering the drinks, glanced at me, eyebrows raised.

“She ain’t looking too crispy round the edges, sir, if you pardon my mention of it.”

“Thank ye for the observation,” he said between his teeth. Phaedre exchanged a glance of amusement with me, and went off again, shaking her head.

“Who told you that?”

“A man named McCreary.”

I must have looked blank, for he added, “from Brownsville. I met him here—in Wilmington, I mean—in late January. He had just come down from the mountain, he said, and told me of the fire. Was there a fire?”

“Well, yes, there was,” I said slowly, wondering whether—and how much—to tell him of the truth of that. Very little, in a public place, I decided. “Maybe it was Mr. McCreary, then, who placed the notice of the fire in the newspaper—but he can’t have.” The original notice had appeared in 1776, Roger had said—nearly a year before the fire.

“I placed it,” Christie said. Now it was my turn to blink.

“You what? When?” I took a good-sized mouthful of whisky, feeling that I needed it more than ever.

“Directly I heard of it. Or—well, no,” he corrected. “A few days thereafter. I … was very much distressed at the news,” he added, lowering his eyes and looking away from me for the first time since we’d sat down.

“Ah. I’m sorry,” I said, lowering my own voice, and feeling rather apologetic—though why I should feel apologetic for not having been burnt up …

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