An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 48

   

He and Brianna had been sitting below that very window at the time, but he glanced reflexively at the window beside him, which reflected only the domestic scene of which he was a part. The man in the glass looked wary, shoulders hunched in readiness to lunge at something. He got up and drew the curtains.

“Here,” he said abruptly, sitting down and reaching for Mandy. She came into his arms with the slow amiability of a tree sloth, sticking her wet thumb in his ear in the process.

Bree went to fetch them cups of cocoa, returning with a rattle of crockery, the scent of hot milk and chocolate, and the look of someone who’s been thinking what to say about a difficult matter.

“Did you … I mean, given the nature of the, er, difficulty … did you maybe think of asking God?” she said, diffident. “Directly?”

“Yeah, I did think of that,” he assured her, torn between annoyance and amusement at the question. “And yes, I did ask—a number of times. Especially on the way to Oxford. Where I found that.” He nodded at the bit of paper. “What is it, by the way? The shape, I mean.”

“Oh.” She picked it up and made the last few folds, quick and sure, then held it out on the palm of her hand. He frowned at it for a moment, then realized what it was. A Chinese fortune-teller, kids called them; there were four pockets showing, and you put your fingers in them and could open the thing in different combinations as questions were asked, so as to show the different answers—Yes, No, Sometimes, Always—written on the flaps inside.

“Very appropriate,” he said.

They fell silent for a moment, drinking cocoa in a silence that balanced precariously on the edge of question.

“The Westminster Confession also says, God alone is Lord of the conscience. I’ll make my peace with it,” he said quietly, at last, “or I won’t. I said to Dr. Weatherspoon that it seemed a bit odd, having an assistant choirmaster who couldn’t sing—he just smiled and said he was wanting me to take the job so as to keep me in the fold while I thought things over, as he put it. Probably afraid I’d jump ship else, and go over to Rome,” he added, as a feeble joke.

“That’s good,” she said softly, not looking up from the depths of the cocoa she wasn’t drinking.

More silence. And the shade of Jerry MacKenzie, RAF, came and sat down by the fire in his fleece-lined leather flight jacket, watching the play of light in his granddaughter’s ink-black hair.

“So you—” He could hear the little pop as her tongue parted from her dry mouth. “You’re going to look? See if you can find out where your father went? Where he might … be?”

Where he might be. Here, there, then, now? His heart gave a sudden convulsive lurch, thinking of the tramp who’d stayed in the broch. God … no. It couldn’t be. No reason to think it, none. Only wanting.

He’d thought about it a lot, on the way to Oxford, between the praying. What he’d say, what he’d ask, if he had the chance. He wanted to ask everything, say everything—but there really was only the one thing to say to his father, and that thing was snoring in his arms like a drunken bumblebee.

“No.” Mandy squirmed in her sleep, emitted a small burp, and settled back against his chest. He didn’t look up, but kept his eyes fixed in the dark labyrinth of her curls. “I couldn’t risk my own kids losing their father.” His voice had nearly disappeared; he felt his vocal cords grinding like gears to force the words out.

“It’s too important. You don’t forget having a dad.”

Bree’s eyes slid sideways, the blue of them no more than a spark in the firelight.

“I thought … you were so young. You do remember your father?”

Roger shook his head, the chambers of his heart clenching hard, grasping emptiness.

“No,” he said softly, and bent his head, breathing in the scent of his daughter’s hair. “I remember yours.”

FLUTTERBY

Wilmington, colony of North Carolina

May 3, 1777

I COULD SEE AT ONCE that Jamie had been dreaming again. His face had an unfocused, inward look, as though he were seeing something other than the fried black pudding on his plate.

Seeing him like this gave me an urgent desire to ask what he had seen—quelled at once, for fear that if I asked too soon, he might lose some part of the dream. It also, truth be told, knotted me with envy. I would have given anything to see what he saw, whether it was real or not. That hardly mattered—it was connection, and the severed nerve ends that had joined me to my vanished family sparked and burned like shorted-out electrical cables when I saw that look on his face.

I couldn’t stand not to know what he had dreamed, though in the usual manner of dreams, it was seldom straightforward.

“You’ve been dreaming of them, haven’t you?” I said, when the serving maid had gone out. We’d risen late, tired from the long ride to Wilmington the day before, and were the only diners in the inn’s small front room.

He glanced at me and nodded slowly, a small frown between his brows. That made me uneasy; the occasional dreams he had of Bree or the children normally left him peaceful and happy.

“What?” I demanded. “What happened?”

He shrugged, still frowning.

“Nothing, Sassenach. I saw Jem and the wee lass—” A smile came over his face at that. “God, she’s a feisty wee baggage! She minds me o’ you, Sassenach.”

This was a dubious compliment as phrased, but I felt a deep glow at the thought. I’d spent hours looking at Mandy and Jem, memorizing every small feature and gesture, trying to extrapolate, imagine what they would look like as they grew—and I was almost sure that Mandy had my mouth. I knew for a fact that she had the shape of my eyes—and my hair, poor child, for all it was inky black.

“What were they doing?”

He rubbed a finger between his brows as though his forehead itched.

“They were outside,” he said slowly. “Jem told her to do something and she kicked him in the shin and ran away from him, so he chased her. I think it was spring.” He smiled, eyes fixed on whatever he’d seen in his dream. “I mind the wee flowers, caught in her hair, and lying in drifts across the stones.”

“What stones?” I asked sharply.

“Oh. The gravestones,” he answered, readily enough. “That’s it—they were playing among the stones on the hill behind Lallybroch.”

I sighed happily. This was the third dream that he’d had, seeing them at Lallybroch. It might be only wishful thinking, but I knew it made him as happy as it made me, to feel that they had made a home there.

“They could be,” I said. “Roger went there—when we were looking for you. He said the place was standing vacant, for sale. Bree would have money; they might have bought it. They could be there!” I’d told him that before, but he nodded, pleased.

“Aye, they could be,” he said, his eyes still soft with his memory of the children on the hill, chasing through the long grass and the worn gray stones that marked his family’s rest.

“A flutterby came with them,” he said suddenly. “I’d forgot that. A blue one.”

“Blue? Are there blue butterflies in Scotland?” I frowned, trying to remember. Such butterflies as I’d ever noticed had tended to be white or yellow, I thought.

Jamie gave me a look of mild exasperation.

“It’s a dream, Sassenach. I could have flutterbys wi’ tartan wings, and I liked.”

I laughed, but refused to be distracted.

“Right. What was it that bothered you, though?”

He glanced curiously at me.

“How did ye ken I was troubled?”

I looked at him down my nose—or as much down my nose as was possible, given the disparity of height.

“You may not have a glass face, but I have been married to you for thirty-odd years.”

He let the fact that I hadn’t actually been with him for twenty of those years pass without comment, and only smiled.

“Aye. Well, it wasna anything, really. Only that they went into the broch.”

“The broch?” I said uncertainly. The ancient tower for which Lallybroch was named did stand on the hill behind the house, its shadow passing daily through the burying ground like the stately march of a giant sundial. Jamie and I had gone up there often of an evening in our early days at Lallybroch, to sit on the bench that stood against the broch’s wall and be away from the hubbub of the house, enjoying the peaceful sight of the estate and its grounds spread white and green below us, soft with twilight.

The small frown was back between his brows.

“The broch,” he repeated, and looked at me, helpless. “I dinna ken what it was. Only that I didna want them to go in. It … felt as though there was something inside. Waiting. And I didna like it at all.”

PART THREE

Privateer

CORRESPONDENCE FROM THE FRONT

October 3, 1776

Ellesmere

to Lady Dorothea Grey

Dear Coz—

I write in haste to catch the Courier. I am embarked upon a brief Journey in company with another Officer, on behalf of Captain Richardson, and do not know for certain what my Whereabouts may be for the immediate Future. You may write to me in care of your Brother Adam; I will endeavor to keep in Correspondence with him.

I have executed your Commission to the best of my Ability, and will persevere in your Service. Give my Father and yours my best Regards and Respects, as well as my continuing Affection, and do not omit to keep a large Part of this last Quantity for yourself.

Your most obedient,

William

October 3, 1776

Ellesmere to Lord John Grey

Dear Father,

After due Thought, I have decided to accept Captain Richardson’s Proposal that I accompany a senior Officer on a Mission to Quebec, acting as Interpreter for him, my French being thought adequate to the Purpose. General Howe is agreeable.

I have not yet met Captain Randall-Isaacs, but will join him in Albany next Week. I do not know when we may return, and cannot say what Opportunities there may be to write, but I will do so when I can, and in the meantime beg that you will think fondly of

Your son,

William

Late October 1776

Quebec

WILLIAM WASN’T SURE quite what to make of Captain Denys Randall-Isaacs. On the surface, he was just the sort of genial, unremarkable fellow you found in any regiment: about thirty, decent with cards, ready with a joke, good-looking in a dark sort of way, open-faced, and reliable. He was a very pleasant traveling companion, too, with a fund of entertaining stories for the road and a thoroughgoing knowledge of bawdy songs and poems of the lower sort.

What he didn’t do was talk about himself. Which, in William’s experience, was what most people did best—or at least most frequently.

He’d tried a little tentative prodding, offering the rather dramatic story of his own birth, and receiving in turn a few spare facts: Randall-Isaacs’s own father, an officer of dragoons, had died in the Highlands campaign before Denys’s birth, and his mother had remarried a year later.

“My stepfather is a Jew,” he’d told William. “A rich one,” he’d added, with a wry smile.

William had nodded, amiable.

“Better than a poor one,” he’d said, and left it at that. It wasn’t much, as facts went, but it did go some way to explain why Randall-Isaacs was working for Richardson rather than pursuing fame and glory with the Lancers or the Welch Fusiliers. Money would buy a commission, but it would not ensure a warm reception in a regiment nor the sorts of opportunity that family connections and the influence spoken of delicately as “interest” would.

It occurred—fleetingly—to William to wonder just why he was turning his back on his own substantial connections and opportunities in order to engage in Captain Richardson’s shadowy ventures, but he dismissed that consideration as a matter for later contemplation.

“Amazing,” Denys murmured, looking up. They had reined in their horses on the road that led up from the bank of the St. Lawrence to the citadel of Quebec; from here, they could see the steep cliff face that Wolfe’s troops had climbed, seventeen years before, to capture the citadel—and Quebec—from the French.

“My father made that climb,” William said, trying to sound casual.

Randall-Isaacs’s head swiveled toward him in astonishment. “He did? Lord John, you mean—he fought on the Plains of Abraham with Wolfe?”

“Yes.” William eyed the cliff with respect. It was thick with saplings, but the underlying rock was crumbling shale; he could see the jagged dark fissures and quadrangular cracks through the leaves. The notion of scaling that height in the dark, and not only climbing it, but hauling all the artillery up the cliff-side with them … !

“He said the battle was over almost as soon as it started—only the one great volley—but the climb to the battlefield was the worst thing he’d ever done.”

Randall-Isaacs grunted respectfully, and paused for a moment before gathering his reins.

“You said your father knows Sir Guy?” he said. “Doubtless he’ll appreciate hearing the story.”

William glanced at his companion. Actually, he hadn’t said that Lord John knew Sir Guy Carleton, the commander in chief for North America—though he did. His father knew everyone. And with that simple thought, he realized suddenly what his true function on this expedition was. He was Randall-Isaacs’s calling card.

It was true that he spoke French very well—languages came easy to him—and that Randall-Isaacs’s French was rudimentary. Richardson had likely been telling the truth about that bit; always best to have an interpreter you can trust. But while Randall-Isaacs had exhibited a flattering interest in William, William became aware ex post facto that Randall-Isaacs was much more specifically interested in Lord John: the highlights of his military career, where he had been posted, whom he had served with or under, who he knew.

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