An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 39

   

He cleared his throat.

“Yes. Well. It, er, seemed to me that some … something should be done. Some formal observance of your—your passing.” He looked up then, gray eyes direct. “I could not abide the thought that you—all of you,” he added, but it was clearly an afterthought, “should simply vanish from the earth, with no formal marking of the—the event.”

He took a deep breath, and a tentative sip of the cider.

“Even if a proper funeral had been held, there would be no point in my returning to Fraser’s Ridge, even if I—well. I could not. So I thought I would at least make a record of the event here. After all,” he added more softly, looking away again, “I could not lay flowers on your grave.”

The whisky had steadied me a bit, but also rasped my throat and made it difficult to talk when hampered by emotion. I reached out and touched his hand briefly, then cleared my throat, finding momentarily neutral ground.

“Your hand,” I said. “How is it?”

He looked up, surprised, but the taut lines of his face relaxed a bit.

“Very well, I thank you. See?” He turned over his right hand, displaying a large Z-shaped scar upon the palm, well healed but still pink.

“Let me see.”

His hand was cold. With an assumption of casualness, I took it in mine, turning it, bending the fingers to assess their flexibility and degree of movement. He was right: it was doing well; the movement was nearly normal.

“I—did the exercises you set me,” he blurted. “I do them every day.”

I looked up to find him regarding me with a sort of anguished solemnity, his cheeks now flushed above his beard, and realized that this ground was not nearly so neutral as I’d thought. Before I could let go his hand, it turned in mine, covering my fingers—not tightly, but sufficiently that I couldn’t free myself without a noticeable effort.

“Your husband.” He stopped dead, having obviously not thought of Jamie at all to this point. “He is alive, too?”

“Er, yes.”

To his credit, he didn’t grimace at this news, but nodded, exhaling.

“I am—glad to hear it.”

He sat in silence for a moment, looking at his undrunk cider. He was still holding my hand. Without looking up, he said in a low voice, “Does he … know? What I—how I—I did not tell him the reason for my confession. Did you?”

“You mean your”—I groped for some suitable way of putting it—“your, um, very gallant feelings toward me? Well, yes, he does; he was very sympathetic toward you. He knowing from experience what it’s like to be in love with me, I mean,” I added tartly.

He almost laughed at that, which gave me an opportunity to extricate my fingers. He did not, I noticed, inform me that he wasn’t in love with me any longer. Oh, dear.

“Well, anyway, we aren’t dead,” I said, clearing my throat again. “What about you? Last time I saw you …”

“Ah.” He looked less than happy, but gathered himself, changing gears, and nodded. “Your rather hasty departure from the Cruizer left Gover nor Martin without an amanuensis. Discovering that I was to some degree literate”—his mouth twisted a little—“and could write a fair hand, thanks to your ministrations, he had me removed from the brig.”

I wasn’t surprised at that. Driven completely out of his colony, Governor Martin was obliged to conduct his business from the tiny captain’s cabin of the British ship on which he had taken refuge. Such business perforce consisted entirely of letters—all of which must be not only composed, drafted, and fair-copied but then reproduced several times each. A copy was required first for the governor’s own official correspondence files, then for each person or entity having some interest in the subject of the letter, and, finally, several additional copies of any letters going to England or Europe must be made, because they would be sent by different ships, in hopes that at least one copy would make it through, should the others be sunk, seized by pirates or privateers, or otherwise lost in transit.

My hand ached at the mere memory of it. The exigencies of bureaucracy in a time before the magic of Xerox had kept me from rotting in a cell; no wonder they had freed Tom Christie from durance vile as well.

“You see?” I said, rather pleased. “If I hadn’t fixed your hand, he’d likely have had you either executed on the spot or at least sent back to shore and immured in some dungeon.”

“I am duly grateful,” he said, with extreme dryness. “I was not, at the time.”

Christie had spent several months as de facto secretary to the governor. In late November, though, a ship had arrived from England, bearing orders to the governor—essentially ordering him to subdue the colony, though offering no troops, armament, or useful suggestions as to how this might be managed—and an official secretary.

“At this point, the governor was faced with the prospect of disposing of me. We had … become acquainted, working in such close quarters …”

“And as you were no longer quite an anonymous murderer, he didn’t want to yank the quill out of your hand and hang you from the yardarm,” I finished for him. “Yes, he’s actually rather a kind man.”

“He is,” Christie said thoughtfully. “He has not had an easy time of it, poor fellow.”

I nodded. “He told you about his little boys?”

“Aye, he did.” His lips compressed—not out of anger, but to control his own emotion. Martin and his wife had lost three small sons, one after another, to the plagues and fevers of the colony; small wonder if hearing of the governor’s pain had reopened Tom Christie’s own wounds. He shook his head a little, though, and returned to the subject of his deliverance.

“I had … told him a bit about … about my daughter.” He picked up the barely touched cup of cider and drank half of it off at a swallow, as if dying of thirst. “I admitted privately to him that my confession had been false—though I stated also that I was certain of your innocence,” he assured me. “And if you should ever be arrested again for the crime, my confession would stand.”

“Thank you for that,” I said, and wondered with still greater uneasiness whether he knew who had killed Malva. He had to have suspected, I thought—but that was a long way from having to know, let alone having to know why. And no one knew where Allan was now—save me, Jamie, and Young Ian.

Governor Martin had received this admission with some relief, and decided that the only thing to do in the circumstances was to put Christie ashore, there to be dealt with by the civil authorities.

“There aren’t any civil authorities anymore,” I said. “Are there?”

He shook his head.

“None capable of dealing with such a matter. There are still gaols and sheriffs, but neither courts nor magistrates. Under the circumstances”—he almost smiled, dour though the expression was—“I thought it a waste of time to try to find someone to whom to surrender myself.”

“But you said you had sent a copy of your confession to the newspaper,” I said. “Weren’t you, er, received coldly by the people in New Bern?”

“By the grace of divine Providence, the newspaper there had ceased its operations before my confession was received by them, the printer being a Loyalist. I believe Mr. Ashe and his friends called upon him, and he wisely decided to find another mode of business.”

“Very wise,” I said dryly. John Ashe was a friend of Jamie’s, a leading light of the local Sons of Liberty, and the man who had instigated the burning of Fort Johnston and effectively driven Governor Martin into the sea.

“There was some gossip,” he said, looking away again, “but it was overwhelmed by the rush of public events. No one quite knew what had happened on Fraser’s Ridge, and after a time it became fixed in everyone’s mind simply that some personal tragedy had befallen me. People came to regard me with a sort of … sympathy.” His mouth twisted; he wasn’t the sort to receive sympathy with any graciousness.

“You seem to be thriving,” I said, with a nod at his suit. “Or at least you aren’t sleeping in the gutter and living off discarded fish heads from the docks. I had no idea that the tract-writing business was profitable.”

He’d gone back to his normal color during the previous conversation, but flushed up again at this—with annoyance, this time.

“It isn’t,” he snapped. “I take pupils. And I—I preach of a Sunday.”

“I can’t imagine anyone better for the job,” I said, amused. “You’ve always had a talent for telling everyone what’s wrong with them in Biblical terms. Have you become a clergyman, then?”

His color grew deeper, but he choked down his choler and answered me evenly.

“I was nearly destitute upon my arrival here. Fish heads, as you say—and the occasional bit of bread or soup given by a New Light congregation. I came in order to eat, but remained for the service out of courtesy. I thus heard a sermon given by the Reverend Peterson. It—remained with me. I sought him out, and we … spoke. One thing led to another.” He glanced up at me, his eyes fierce. “The Lord does answer prayer, ye know.”

“What had you prayed for?” I asked, intrigued.

That took him back a bit, though it had been an innocent question, asked from simple curiosity.

“I—I—” He broke off and stared at me, frowning. “You are a most uncomfortable woman!”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to think so,” I assured him. “And I don’t mean to pry. I just … wondered.”

I could see the urge to get up and leave warring with the compulsion to bear witness to whatever had happened to him. But he was a stubborn man, and he stayed put.

“I … asked why,” he said at last, very evenly. “That’s all.”

“Well, it worked for Job,” I observed. He looked startled, and I nearly laughed; he was always startled at the revelation that anyone other than himself had read the Bible. He got a grip, though, and glowered at me in something more like his usual fashion.

“And now you are here,” he said, making it sound like an accusation. “I suppose your husband has formed a militia—or joined one. I have had enough of war. I am surprised that your husband has not.”

“I don’t think it’s precisely a taste for war,” I said. I spoke with an edge, but something in him compelled me to add, “It’s that he feels he was born to it.”

Something flickered deep in Tom Christie’s eyes—surprise? Acknowledgment?

“He is,” he said quietly. “But surely—” He didn’t finish the thought, but instead asked abruptly, “What are you doing here, though? In Wilmington?”

“Looking for a ship,” I said. “We’re going to Scotland.”

I’d always had a talent for startling him, but this one took the biscuit. He had lifted his mug to drink, but upon hearing my declaration, abruptly spewed cider across the table. The subsequent choking and wheezing attracted a good bit of attention, and I sat back, trying to look less conspicuous.

“Er … we’ll be going to Edinburgh, for my husband’s printing press,” I said. “Is there anyone you’d like me to see for you? Deliver a message, I mean? You have a brother there, I think you said.”

His head shot up and he glared at me, eyes streaming. I felt a spasm of horror at the sudden recollection and could have bitten my tongue off at the root. His brother had had an affair with Tom’s wife while Tom was imprisoned in the Highlands after the Rising, and his wife had then poisoned his brother and subsequently been executed for witchcraft.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, low-voiced. “Forgive me, please. I didn’t—”

He seized my hand in both of his, so hard and so abruptly that I gasped, and a few heads turned curiously in our direction. He paid no attention, but leaned toward me across the table.

“Listen to me,” he said, low and fierce. “I have loved three women. One was a witch and a whore, the second only a whore. Ye well may be a witch yourself, but it makes nay whit o’ difference. The love of you has led me to my salvation, and to what I thought was my peace, once I thought ye dead.”

He stared at me and shook his head slowly, his mouth going tight for a moment in the seam of his beard.

“And here you are.”

“Er … yes.” I felt once more as though I should apologize for not being dead, but didn’t.

He drew a deep breath and let it out in a sigh.

“I shall have no peace while ye live, woman.”

Then he lifted my hand and kissed it, stood up, and walked away.

“Mind,” he said, turning at the door to look back at me over his shoulder, “I dinna say I regret it.”

I picked up the glass of whisky and drained it.

I WENT ABOUT THE REST of my errands in a daze—not entirely induced by whisky. I hadn’t any idea what to think of the resurrection of Tom Christie, but was thoroughly unsettled by it. Still, there seemed nothing, really, to do about him, and so I went on to the shop of Stephen Moray, a silversmith from Fife, to commission a pair of surgical scissors. Luckily, he proved an intelligent man, who appeared to understand both my specifications and the purpose behind them, and promised to have the scissors made within three days. Heartened by this, I ventured a slightly more problematic commission.

“Needles?” Moray knit his white brows in puzzlement. “Ye dinna require a silversmith for—”

“Not sewing needles. These are longer, quite thin, and without an eye. They have a medical purpose. And I should like you to make them from this.”

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