An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 41

   

“Perhaps we’ll eat elsewhere tonight.”

“Phaedre said Mrs. Symonds had baked ham with mustard and raisin sauce at noon. There might be some left. Are you all right?” I asked again. The room was cold, but his face and breast were sheened with sweat.

“Oh, aye,” he replied, sitting up and rubbing his hands vigorously through his hair. “That sort of dream, I can live with.” He shoved his hair out of his face and smiled at me. “Ye look like a milkweed puff, Sassenach. Were ye sleeping restless, too?”

“No,” I told him, getting up and pulling my shift on before groping for my hairbrush. “It was the restless part before we fell asleep. Or do you not remember that bit?”

He laughed, wiped his face, and got up to use the chamber pot, then pulled his shirt on.

“What about the other dreams?” I asked abruptly.

“What?” He emerged from the shirt, looking quizzical.

“You said, ‘That sort of dream, I can live with.’ What about the ones you can’t live with?”

I saw the lines of his face shiver like the surface of water when you’ve thrown a pebble into it, and on impulse, reached out and clutched his wrist.

“Don’t hide,” I said softly. I held his eyes with mine, keeping him from raising his mask. “Trust me.”

He did look away then, but only to gather himself; he didn’t hide. When he glanced back at me, it was all still there in his eyes—confusion, embarrassment, humiliation, and the vestiges of a pain long suppressed.

“I dream … sometimes …” he said haltingly, “about things that were done to me against my will.” He breathed through his nose, deep, exasperated. “And I wake from it with a cockstand and my balls throbbing and I want to go and kill someone, starting with myself,” he ended in a rush, grimacing.

“It doesna happen often,” he added, giving me a brief, direct look. “And I never … I would never turn to you in the wake of such a thing. Ye should know that.”

I tightened my grip on his wrist. I wanted to say, “You could—I wouldn’t mind,” for that was the truth, and once I would have said it without hesitation. But I knew a great deal more now, and had it been me, had I ever dreamed of Harley Boble or the heavy, soft-bodied man and wakened from it aroused—and thank God I never had—no, the last thing I would ever have done would be to take that feeling and turn to Jamie, or use his body to purge it.

“Thank you,” I said instead, quietly. “For telling me,” I added. “And for the knife.”

He nodded, and turned to pick up his breeks.

“I like ham,” he said.

I REGRET …

Long Island, colony of New York

September 1776

WILLIAM WISHED he could speak to his father. It wasn’t, he assured himself, that he wanted Lord John to exert any influence; certainly not. He just wanted a bit of practical advice. Lord John had returned to England, though, and William was on his own.

Well, not precisely on his own. He was at the moment in charge of a detachment of soldiers guarding a customs checkpoint on the edge of Long Island. He slapped viciously at a mosquito that lighted on his wrist, and, for once, obliterated it. He wished he could do the same to Clarewell.

Lieutenant Edward Markham, Marquis of Clarewell. Otherwise known—to William and a couple of his more intimate friends—as Chinless Ned, or the Ponce. William swatted at a crawling sensation on his own prominent jaw, noticed that two of his men had momentarily disappeared, and stalked toward the wagon they had been inspecting, bellowing their names.

Private Welch appeared from behind the wagon like a jack-in-the-box, looking startled and wiping his mouth. William leaned forward, sniffed his breath, and said briefly, “Charges. Where’s Launfal?”

In the wagon, hastily concluding a bargain with the wagon’s owner for three bottles of the contraband brandywine that gentleman was seeking to illicitly import. William, grimly slapping at the man-eating hordes of mosquitoes that swarmed out of the nearby marshes, arrested the wagoneer, summoned the other three men of his detail, and told them off to escort the smuggler, Welch, and Launfal to the sergeant. He took up a musket then and stood in the middle of the road, alone and ferocious, his attitude daring anyone to try to pass.

Ironically, though the road had been busy all morning, no one did try for some time, giving him opportunity to refocus his bad temper on the thought of Clarewell.

Heir of a very influential family, and one with intimate ties to Lord North, Chinless Ned had arrived in New York a week before William and likewise been placed on Howe’s staff, where he had nestled cozily into the woodwork, smarming round General Howe—who, to his credit, tended to blink and stare hard at the Ponce, as though trying to remember who the devil he was—and Captain Pickering, the general’s chief aide-de-camp, a vain man, and one much more susceptible to Ned’s enthusiastic arse-creeping.

As a result, Chinless had been routinely bagging the choicer assignments, riding with the general on short exploratory expeditions, attending him in meetings with Indian dignitaries and the like, while William and several other junior officers were left to shuffle papers and kick their heels. Hard cheese, after the freedoms and excitements of intelligencing.

He could have stood the constraints of life in quarters and army bureaucracy. His father had schooled him thoroughly in the necessity of restraint in trying circumstances, the withstanding of boredom, the handling of dolts, and the art of icy politeness as a weapon. Someone lacking William’s strength of character, though, had snapped one day and, unable to resist the possibilities for caricature conjured up by a contemplation of Ned’s profile, had drawn a cartoon of Captain Pickering with his breeches round his ankles, engaged in lecturing the junior staff and apparently ignorant of the Ponce, emergent headfirst and smirking from Pickering’s arse.

William had not drawn this bit of diversion—though he rather wished he had—but had been discovered laughing at it by Ned himself, who—in a rare show of manliness—had punched William in the nose. The resultant brawl had cleared the junior officers’ quarters, broken a few inconsequent items of furniture, and resulted in William, dripping blood onto his shirtfront, standing to attention in front of a cold-eyed Captain Pickering, the scurrilous cartoon laid out in evidence on the desk.

William had, of course, denied authorship of the thing but declined to identify the artist. He’d used the icy-politeness thing, which had worked to the extent that Pickering had not in fact sent William to the stockade. Merely to Long Island.

“Frigging fart-catcher,” he muttered, glaring at an approaching milkmaid with such ferocity that she stopped dead, then edged past him, eyeing him with a wide-eyed alarm that suggested she thought he might explode. He bared his teeth at her, and she emitted a startled squeak and scuttled off so fast that some of her milk slopped out of the buckets she carried on a yoke across her shoulders.

That made him repentant; he wished he could follow her and apologize. But he couldn’t; a pair of drovers were coming down the road toward him, bringing in a herd of pigs. William took one look at the oncoming mass of heaving, squealing, spotted hog flesh, tatter-eared and mud-besmeared, and hopped nimbly up onto the bucket that served as his command post. The drovers waved gaily at him, shouting what might be either greetings or insults—he wasn’t sure they were even speaking English, and didn’t care to find out.

The pigs passed, leaving him amid a sea of hoof-churned mud, liberally scattered with fresh droppings. He slapped at the cloud of mosquitoes that had regathered inquisitively round his head, and thought that he’d had just about enough. He’d been on Long Island for two weeks—which was thirteen and a half days too long. Not quite long enough yet to make him apologize to either Chinless or the captain, though.

“Lickspittle,” he muttered.

He did have an alternative. And the longer he spent out here with the mosquitoes, the more attractive it began to look.

It was far too long a ride from his customs outpost to headquarters to make the journey twice each day. In consequence, he’d been temporarily billeted on a man called Culper and his two sisters. Culper wasn’t best pleased; his left eye began to twitch whenever he saw William, but the two elderly ladies made much of him, and he returned the favor when he could, bringing them the odd confiscated ham or flask of cambric. He’d come in the night before with a flitch of good bacon, to have Miss Abigail Culper inform him in a whisper that he had a visitor.

“Out a-smoking in the yard,” she’d said, inclining her bonneted head toward the side of the house. “Sister wouldn’t let him smoke in the house, I’m afraid.”

He’d expected to find one of his friends, come to bear him company or perhaps with news of an official pardon that would bring him back from exile on Long Island. Instead, he’d found Captain Richardson, pipe in hand, meditatively watching the Culpers’ rooster tread a hen.

“Pleasures of a bucolic life,” the captain remarked, as the rooster fell off backward. The c**k staggered to his feet and crowed in disheveled triumph, while the hen shook her feathers into order and resumed pecking as though nothing had happened. “Very quiet out here, is it not?”

“Oh, yes,” William said. “Your servant, sir.”

In fact, it was not. Miss Beulah Culper kept a half-dozen goats, who blatted day and night, though Miss Beulah assured William that they served to keep thieves out of the corncrib. One of the creatures at this point gave a wild braying laugh from its pen, causing Captain Richardson to drop his tobacco pouch. Several more of the goats commenced to utter loud mehs, as though jeering.

William bent and picked the pouch up, keeping his face tactfully blank, though his heart was pounding. Richardson hadn’t come all the way out to Long Island simply to pass the time.

“Christ,” Richardson muttered, with a look at the goats. He shook his head, and gestured toward the road. “Will you walk a bit with me, Lieutenant?”

William would, gladly.

“I heard a bit regarding your present situation.” Richardson smiled. “I’ll have a word with Captain Pickering, if you like.”

“That’s very kind of you, sir,” William said. “But I’m afraid I can’t apologize for something I haven’t done.”

Richardson waved his pipe, dismissing it. “Pickering’s got a short temper, but he doesn’t hold a grudge. I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you, sir.” And what do you want in return? William thought.

“There is a Captain Randall-Isaacs,” Richardson said casually, “who is traveling within the month to Canada, where he has some military business to transact. While there, though, it is possible that he will meet with … a certain person who may provide the army with valuable information. I have some reason to suppose that this person has little English, though—and Captain Randall-Isaacs, alas, has no French. A traveling companion fluent in that language might be … useful.”

William nodded, but asked no questions. Time enough for that, if he decided to accept Richardson’s commission.

They exchanged commonplaces for the remainder of the walk back, whereupon Richardson politely declined Miss Beulah’s invitation to take supper, and left with a reiterated promise to speak to Captain Pickering.

Should he do it? William wondered later, listening to Abel Culper’s wheezing snores below. The moon was full, and while the loft had no windows, he could feel its pull; he never could sleep when the moon was full.

Ought he to hang on in New York, in hopes either of improving his position, or at least of eventually seeing some action? Or cut his losses and take Richardson’s new commission?

His father would doubtless advise the former course of action; an officer’s best chance of advancement and notice lay in distinguishing himself in battle, not in the shady—and vaguely disreputable—realm of intelligencing. Still … the routine and constraints of the army chafed, rather, after his weeks of freedom. And he had been useful, he knew.

What difference could one lieutenant make, buried under the crushing weight of the ranks above him, perhaps given command of his own companies but still obliged to follow orders, never allowed to act according to his own judgment…. He grinned up at the rafters, dimly visible a foot above his face, thinking what his uncle Hal might have to say regarding the judgment of junior officers.

But Uncle Hal was much more than simply a career soldier; he cared passionately for his regiment: its welfare, its honor, the men under his command. William had not really thought beyond the immediate future in terms of his own career with the army. The American campaign wouldn’t last long; what next?

He was rich—or would be, when he achieved his majority, and that wasn’t far off, though it seemed like one of those pictures his father was fond of, with a vanishing perspective that led the eye into an impossible infinity. But when he did have his money, he could buy a better commission where he liked—perhaps a captaincy in the Lancers…. It wouldn’t matter whether he’d done anything to distinguish himself in New York.

His father—William could hear him now, and put the pillow over his face to drown him out—would tell him that reputation depended often on the smallest of actions, the daily decisions made with honor and responsibility, not the huge drama of heroic battles. William was not interested in daily responsibility.

It was, however, much too hot to stay under the pillow, and he threw it off onto the floor with an irritable grunt.

“No,” he said aloud to Lord John. “I’m going to Canada,” and flopped back into his damp and lumpy bed, shutting eyes and ears against any further wise counsel.

A WEEK LATER, the nights had grown chilly enough to make William welcome Miss Beulah’s hearth and her oyster stew—and, thank God, cold enough to discourage the damned mosquitoes. The days were still very warm, though, and William found it almost a pleasure when his detail was told off to comb the shore in search of a supposed smuggler’s cache that Captain Hanks had caught wind of.

Loading...