An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 49

   

It had happened twice already. They’d called upon the commanders of Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Chambly, and in both instances Randall-Isaacs had presented their credentials, mentioning casually that William was the son of Lord John Grey. Whereupon the official welcome had warmed at once into a long, late evening of reminiscence and conversation, fueled by good brandy. During which—William now realized—he and the commanders had done all the talking. And Randall-Isaacs had sat listening, his handsome, high-colored face aglow with a flattering interest.

Huh, William thought to himself. Having worked it out, he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. On the one hand, he was pleased with himself for having smoked what was going on. On the other, he was less pleased to think that he was desirable mainly for his connections, rather than his own virtues.

Well, it was useful, if humbling, to know. What he didn’t know was exactly what Randall-Isaacs’s role was. Was he only gathering information for Richardson? Or had he other business, unspoken? Often enough, Randall-Isaacs had left him to his own devices, saying casually that he had a private errand for which he thought his own French adequate.

They were—according to the very limited instruction Captain Richardson had given him—assessing the sentiments of the French habitants and English settlers in Quebec, with an eye to future support in case of incursion by the American rebels or attempted threats and seductions by the Continental Congress.

These sentiments so far seemed clear, if not what he might have expected. The French settlers in the area were in sympathy with Sir Guy, who—as governor general of North America—had passed the Quebec Act, which legalized Catholicism and protected the French Catholics’ trade. The English were disgruntled by the same act, for obvious reasons, and had declined en masse to answer Sir Guy’s calls for militia assistance during the American attack on the city during the previous winter.

“They must have been insane,” he remarked to Randall-Isaacs, as they crossed the open plain before the citadel. “The Americans who tried it on here last year, I mean.”

They’d reached the top of the cliff now, and the citadel rose from the plain before them, peaceful and solid—very solid—in the autumn sun. The day was warm and beautiful, and the air was alive with the rich, earthy smells of the river and forest. He’d never seen such a forest. The trees that edged the plain and grew all along the banks of the St. Lawrence grew impenetrably thick, now blazing with gold and crimson. Seen against the darkness of the water and the impossible deep blue of the vast October sky, the whole of it gave him the dreamlike feeling of riding through a medieval painting, glowing with gold leaf and burning with a sense of otherworldly fervor.

But beyond the beauty of it, he felt the savagery of the place. Felt it with a clarity that made his bones feel transparent. The days were still warm, but the chill of winter was a sharp tooth that bit harder with each day’s twilight, and it took very little imagination for him to see this plain as it would be a few weeks from now, cloaked in bitter ice, whitely inhospitable to all life. With a ride of two hundred miles behind him, and an immediate understanding of the problems of supply for two riders on the rugged journey north in good weather, combined with what he knew of the rigors of supplying an army in bad weather …

“If they weren’t insane, they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing.” Randall-Isaacs interrupted his thoughts, he, too, drawing up for a moment to look over the prospect with a soldier’s eye. “It was Colonel Arnold who led them here, though. That man is certainly insane. But a damned good soldier.” Admiration showed in his voice, and William glanced curiously at him.

“Know him, do you?” he asked casually, and Randall-Isaacs laughed.

“Not to speak to,” he replied. “Come on.” He spurred up, and they turned toward the citadel gate. He wore an amused, half-contemptuous expression, though, as if dwelling on a memory, and after a few moments, he spoke again.

“He might have done it. Arnold, I mean; taken the city. Sir Guy hadn’t any troops to speak of, and had Arnold got here when he planned to, and with the powder and shot he needed … well, it would have been a different story. But he chose the wrong man to ask directions of.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Randall-Isaacs looked suddenly wary, but then seemed to shrug internally, as though to say, “What does it matter?” He was in good humor, already looking forward to a hot dinner, a soft bed, and clean linen, after weeks of camping in the dark forests.

“He couldn’t make it overland,” he said. “Seeking a way to carry an army and its necessities north by water, Arnold had gone looking for someone who had made the hazardous trip and knew the rivers and portages,” Randall-Isaacs said. “He’d found one, too—Samuel Goodwin.”

“But it never occurred to him that Goodwin might be a Loyalist.” Randall-Isaacs shook his head at this naïveté. “Goodwin came to me and asked what he should do. So I told him, and he gave Arnold his maps—carefully rewritten to serve their purpose.”

And serve their purpose they had. By misstating distances, removing landmarks, indicating passages where there were none, and providing maps that were pure figments of imagination, Mr. Goodwin’s guidance succeeded in luring Arnold’s force deep into the wilderness, obliging them to carry their ships and supplies overland for days on end, and eventually delaying them so badly that the winter caught them, well short of Quebec City.

Randall-Isaacs laughed, though there was a tinge of regret about it, William thought.

“I was amazed when they told me he’d made it after all. Aside from everything else, he’d been swindled by the carpenters who made his ships—I do believe that was sheer incompetence, not politics, though these days it’s sometimes hard to tell. Made with green timbers and badly fitted. More than half of them came apart and sank within days of launching.

“It had to have been sheer hell,” Randall-Isaacs said, as though to himself. He pulled himself up straight then, shaking his head.

“But they followed him. All his men. Only one company turned back. Starving, half naked, freezing … they followed him,” he repeated, marveling. He glanced sideways at William, smiling. “Think your men would follow you, Lieutenant? In such conditions?”

“I hope I should have better sense than to lead them into such conditions,” William replied dryly. “What happened to Arnold in the end? Was he captured?”

“No,” Randall-Isaacs said thoughtfully, lifting a hand to wave at the guards by the citadel gate. “No, he wasn’t. As to what’s happened to him now, God only knows. Or God and Sir Guy. I’m hoping the latter can tell us.”

JOYEUX NÖEL

London

December 24, 1776

MOST PROSPEROUS MADAMS WERE stout creatures, Lord John reflected. Whether it was only the satisfaction of appetites denied in their early years, or was a shield against the possibility of a return to the lower stations of their trade, almost all of them were well armored in flesh.

Not Nessie. He could see the shadow of her body through the thin muslin of her shift—he had inadvertently roused her from her bed—as she stood before the fire to pull on her bed-sacque. She bore not an ounce more upon her scrawny frame than she had when he’d first met her, then aged—she’d said—fourteen, though he’d suspected at the time that she might be eleven. That would make her thirty-odd. She still looked fourteen. He smiled at the notion, and she smiled back, tying her gown. The smile aged her a bit, for there were gaps among her teeth, and the remainder showed black at the root. If she was not stout, it was because she lacked the capacity to become so; she adored sugar, and would eat an entire box of candied violets or Turkish Delight in minutes, compensating for the starvation of her youth in the Scottish Highlands. He’d brought her a pound of sugar plums.

“Think I’m that cheap, do ye?” she said, raising a brow as she took the prettily wrapped box from him.

“Never,” he assured her. “That is merely by way of apology for having disturbed your rest.” That was improvisation; he had in fact expected to find her at work, it being past ten o’clock at night.

“Aye, well, it is Christmas Eve,” she said, answering his unasked question. “Any man wi’ a home to go to’s in it.” She yawned, pulled off her nightcap, and fluffed her fingers through the wild mass of curly dark hair.

“Yet you seem to have some custom,” he observed. Distant singing came from two floors below, and the parlor had seemed well populated when he passed.

“Och, aye. The desperate ones. I leave them to Maybelle to deal with; dinna like to see them, poor creatures. Pitiful. They dinna really want a woman, the ones who come on Christmas Eve—only a fire to sit by, and folk to sit with.” She waved a hand and sat down, greedily pulling the bow from her present.

“Let me wish you a happy Christmas, then,” he said, watching her with amused affection. She popped one of the sweetmeats into her mouth, closed her eyes, and sighed in ecstasy.

“Mmp,” she said, not pausing to swallow before inserting and masticating another. From the cordial intonation of this remark, he assumed her to be returning the sentiment.

He’d known it was Christmas Eve, of course, but had somehow put the knowledge of it out of his head during the long, cold hours of the day. It had poured all day, driving needles of freezing rain, augmented now and then by irritable bursts of hail, and he’d been chilled through since just before dawn, when Minnie’s footman had roused him with the summons to Argus House.

Nessie’s room was small but elegant, and smelled comfortably of sleep. Her bed was vast, hung with woolen bed curtains done in the very fashionable pink and black “Queen Charlotte” checks. Tired, cold, and hungry as he was, he felt the pull of that warm, inviting cavern, with its mounds of goose-down pillows, quilts, and clean, soft sheets. What would she think, he wondered, if he asked to share her bed for the night?

“A fire to sit by, and folk to sit with.” Well, he had that, at least for the moment.

Grey became aware of a low buzzing noise, something like a trapped bluebottle flinging itself against a windowpane. Glancing toward the sound, he perceived that what he had thought to be merely a heap of rumpled bedclothes in fact contained a body; the elaborately passementeried tassel of a nightcap trailed across the pillow.

“That’s no but Rab,” said an amused Scottish voice, and he turned to find her grinning at him. “Fancy it three ways, do ye?”

He realized, even as he blushed, that he liked her not only for herself, or for her skill as an intelligence agent, but because she had an unexcelled ability to disconcert him. He thought she did not know the shape of his own desires exactly, but she’d been a whore since childhood and likely had a shrewd apprehension of almost anyone’s desires, whether conscious or not.

“Oh, I think not,” he said politely. “I shouldn’t wish to disturb your husband.” He tried not to think of Rab MacNab’s brutal hands and solid thighs; Rab had been a chairman, before his marriage to Nessie and the success of the brothel they owned. Surely he didn’t also … ?

“Ye couldna wake yon wee oaf wi’ cannon fire,” she said, with an affectionate glance into the bed. She got up, though, and pulled the curtains across, muffling the snoring.

“Speak o’ cannon,” she added, bending to peer at Grey as she returned to her seat, “ye look as though ye’ve been in the wars yourself. Here, have a dram, and I’ll ring for a bit of hot supper.” She nodded at the decanter and glasses that stood on the elbow table and reached for the bell rope.

“No, I thank you. I haven’t much time. But I will take a drop to keep the cold out, thank you.”

The whisky—she drank nothing else, scorning gin as a beggar’s drink and regarding wine as good but insufficient to its purpose—warmed him, and his wet coat had begun to steam in the fire’s heat.

“Ye’ve not much time,” she said. “Why’s that, then?”

“I’m bound for France,” he said. “In the morning.”

Her eyebrows shot up, and she put another comfit in her mouth.

“ ’Oo ’don me tkp Kismus wi yrfmily?”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, my dear,” he said, smiling nonetheless. “My brother suffered a bad attack last night. His heart, the quack says, but I doubt he really knows. The usual Christmas dinner is likely to be somewhat less of an occasion than usual, though.”

“I’m that sorry to hear,” Nessie said, more clearly. She wiped sugar from the corner of her mouth, brow puckered with a troubled frown. “His lordship’s a fine man.”

“Yes, he—” He stopped, staring at her. “You’ve met my brother?”

Nessie dimpled demurely at him.

“Discretion is a madam’s most val-u-able stock in trade,” she chanted, clearly parroting the wisdom of a former employer.

“Says the woman who’s spying for me.” He was trying to envision Hal … or perhaps not to envision Hal … for surely he wouldn’t … to spare Minnie his demands, perhaps? But he’d thought …

“Aye, well, spying’s no the same as idle gossip, now, is it? I want tea, even if you don’t. Talking’s thirsty work.” She rang the bell for the porter, then turned back, one eyebrow raised. “Your brother’s dying, and ye’re goin’ to France? Must be summat urgent, then.”

“He’s not dying,” Grey said sharply. The thought of it split the carpet at his feet, a grinning abyss waiting to pull him in. He looked determinedly away from it.

“He … had a shock. Word was brought that his youngest son was wounded in America and has been captured.”

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