An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 51

   

“Your Frenchman didn’t come here,” Nessie had told him, licking sugar off her fingers. “But he went to Jackson’s regular, when he was in town. He’s gone off now, though; back to France, they say.”

“Jackson’s,” he’d said slowly, wondering. He didn’t patronize bawdy houses himself—bar Nessie’s establishment—but he certainly knew about Jackson’s and had been there once or twice with friends. A flash house, offering music on the ground floor, gaming on the first floor, and more private diversions higher up. Very popular with mid-echelon army officers. But not, he was certain, a place catering to Percy Beauchamp’s particular tastes.

“I see,” he’d said, calmly drinking tea, feeling his heart beat in his ears. “And have you ever come across an officer named Randall-Isaacs?” That was the part of his letter he hadn’t told Hal; Denys Randall-Isaacs was an army officer known to frequent Beauchamp’s company, both in France and in London, his informant had said—and the name had gone straight through Grey’s heart like an icicle.

It might be no more than coincidence that a man known to associate with Percy Beauchamp had taken William on an intelligencing expedition to Quebec—but damned if he thought it was.

Nessie had lifted her head abruptly at the name “Randall-Isaacs,” like a dog hearing the rustle of something in the brush.

“Aye, I have,” she said slowly. There was a blob of fine sugar on her lower lip; he wished to wipe it off for her, and in other circumstances would have. “Or heard of him. He’s a Jew, they say.”

“A Jew?” That startled him. “Surely not.” A Jew would never be allowed to take a commission in the army or navy, no more than a Catholic.

Nessie arched a dark brow at him.

“Perhaps he doesna want anyone to know,” she said, and, licking her lips like a cat, tidied away the blob of sugar. “But if not, he ought to stay awa’ from kittle-hoosies, that’s all I can say!” She laughed heartily, then sobered, hunching her bed-sacque over her shoulders and staring at him, dark-eyed in the firelight.

“He’s got summat to do wi’ your wee lad, the Frenchie, too,” she said. “For it was a girl from Jackson’s told me about the Jewish cove and what a shock it was to her when he took his breeches off. She said she wouldn’t’ve, only his friend the Frenchie was there, too, wanting to watch, and when he—the Frenchie, I mean—saw she was put off, he offered her double, so she did it. She said when ye came right down to it”—and here she grinned lewdly at him, the tip of her tongue resting against the front teeth she still had—“it was nicer than some.”

“Nicer than some,” he muttered distractedly to himself, only half-noticing the wary glance cast toward him by the only other ferry passenger hardy enough to stay abovedecks. “Bloody hell!”

The snow was falling thickly over the Channel, and now swept nearly horizontal as the howling wind changed direction and the ship gave a sickening lurch. The other man shook himself and went below, leaving Grey to eat brandied peaches with his fingers from a jar in his pocket and stare bleakly at the oncoming coast of France, visible only in glimpses through low-lying clouds.

December 24, 1776

Quebec City

Dear Papa—

I write you from a Convent. Not, I hasten to explain, one of the Covent Garden variety, but a real Roman Convent, run by Ursuline Nuns.

Captain Randall-Isaacs and I arrived at the Citadel in late October, intending to call upon Sir Guy and discover his Opinion of the local Sympathies regarding the American Insurrection, only to be told that Sir Guy had marched to Fort Saint-Jean, to deal personally with an Outbreak of said Insurrection, this being a Sea Battle (or so I suppose I must call it), which took place upon Lake Champlain, this a narrow Body connecting with Lake George, which perhaps you will know from your own Time here.

I was much in favor of going to join Sir Guy, but Captain Randall-Isaacs was reluctant in consideration of the Distance involved and the Time of Year. In Fact his Judgment was proved sound, as the next Day brought freezing Rain, this giving way shortly to a howling Blizzard, so fierce as to darken the Sky so that you could not tell Day from Night, and which buried the World in Snow and Ice within Hours. Seeing this Spectacle of Nature, I will admit that my Disappointment at missing an Opportunity to join Sir Guy was substantially allayed.

As it was, I should have been too late in any Case, as the Engagement had already taken place, upon the 1st October. We did not learn the Particulars until mid-November, when some Hessian Officers from Baron von Riedesel’s Regiment arrived at the Citadel with News of it. Most likely you will have heard more official and direct Descriptions of the Engagement by the Time you receive this Letter, but there may be some Details of interest omitted from the official Versions—and to be frank, the Composition of such an Account is the only Employment available to me at present, as I have declined a kind Invitation from the Mother Superior to attend the Mass they hold at midnight tonight in observance of Christmas. (The Bells of the city’s Churches ring every quarter Hour, marking time through the Day and Night. The convent’s Chapel lies directly beyond the Wall of the Guesthouse in which I am lodged upon the highest Floor, and the Bell is perhaps twenty Feet from my Head when I lie in Bed. I can thus inform you faithfully that it is now 9:15 p.m.)

To particulars, then: Sir Guy was alarmed by the attempted Invasion of Quebec last Year, even though it ended in abject Failure, and had thus determined to increase his Hold upon the upper Hudson, this being the only possible Avenue by which further Trouble could come, the Difficulties of land Travel being so exigent as to prevent any but the most determined (I have a small Jar of spirits of Wine with which to present you, this containing a Deerfly measuring nearly two Inches in Length, as well as a Quantity of very large Ticks, these removed from my Person with the assistance of Honey, which smothers them if applied liberally, causing them to loose their Grip).

While the Invasion of last Winter did not succeed, Colonel Arnold’s Men determined to deny Sir Guy Access to the Lakes, and thus sank or burned all the Ships at Fort Saint-Jean as they withdrew, as well as burning the Sawmill and the Fort itself.

Sir Guy had therefore requisitioned collapsible Ships to be sent to him from England (I wish I had seen these!) and, ten of them arriving, went down to St. John to oversee their assembly upon the upper Richelieu River. Meanwhile, Colonel Arnold (who seems an amazing, industrious Fellow, if half what I hear of him is true) had been madly building his own Fleet of ramshackle Galleys and hog-beamed Sloops.

Not content with his Prodigies of collapsibility, Sir Guy also had the Indefatigable, a Frigate of some 180 tonnes (some Argument between my informants as to the number of Guns she carries; after a second Bottle of the convent’s Claret [the Nuns make it themselves, and from the Shade of the priest’s Nose, no little of it gets consumed here, too], Consensus was reached, with “a bloody Lot, mate,” always allowing for Errors of Translation, being the final Number), taken apart, hauled to the River, and there reassembled.

Colonel Arnold apparently decided that to wait any longer was to lose what Advantage of Initiative he might possess, and sallied out from his Hiding place at Valcour Island on 30 September. By Report, he had fifteen Craft, to Sir Guy’s twenty-five, these former all hastily built, unseaworthy, and manned by Landsmen who did not know a Binnacle from a Bunion—the American Navy, in all its glory!

Still, I must not laugh too much. The more I hear of Colonel Arnold (and I hear a great Deal about him, here in Quebec), the more I think he must be a Gentleman of Gall and Kidney, as Grandpapa Sir George is wont to say; I should like to meet him one day.

There is Singing outside; the habitants are coming to the Cathedral nearby. I don’t know the Music, and it’s too far to make out the Words, but I can see the Glow of Torches from my Eyrie. The Bells say it is ten o’clock.

(The Mother Superior says that she knows you, by the way—Soeur Immaculata is her Name. I should scarcely have been startled by this; told her that you know the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope, by which she professed to be much impressed, and begs you will convey her most humble Obeisance to His Holiness when next you see him. She kindly asked me to Dinner, and told me Stories of the taking of the Citadel in ’59, and how you quartered a number of Highlanders upon the Convent. How shocked the Sisters all were by their bare Legs, and sought a Requisition of Canvas that they might make the men Trousers. My Uniform has suffered noticeably through the last few Weeks of Travel, but I am still decently covered below the Waist, I am relieved to say. So was Mother Superior, no doubt!)

I return to my Account of the Battle: Sir Guy’s Fleet sailed south, intending to reach and recapture Crown Point, then Ticonderoga. As they passed Valcour Island, though, two of Arnold’s Ships sprang out upon them, firing in challenge. These then attempted to withdraw, but one (Royal Savage, they said) could not make Way against the Headwinds, and ran aground. Several British Gunboats swarmed her and captured a few Men, but were forced to withdraw under heavy Fire from the Americans—though not omitting to set Fire to the Royal Savage as they did so.

A great deal of Maneuvering then ensued in the Strait, and the Battle began in earnest about Midday, the Carleton and Inflexible bearing most of the Brunt of the Action, along with the Gunboats. Arnold’s Revenge and Philadelphia were badly hit by Broadsides, and the Philadelphia sank near Evening.

The Carleton continued firing until a fortunate Shot from the Americans severed the Line to her Anchor, causing her to drift. She was heavily attacked and a number of her Men killed or injured, the Butcher’s Bill including her Captain, a Lieutenant James Dacres (I have an uneasy feeling that I have met him, perhaps at a Dance last Season) and the senior Officers. One of her Midshipmen took Command and carried her to Safety. They said it was Edward Pellew—and I know I have met him, once or twice, at Boodles with Uncle Harry.

To resume: Another lucky Shot struck the Magazine of a Gunboat and blew it up, but meanwhile, the Inflexible was finally brought into play and battered the American Boats with her heavy Guns. The smaller of Sir Guy’s Craft landed Indians meanwhile upon the Shores of Valcour Island and the Shore of the Lake, thus cutting off this Avenue of Escape, and the Remnants of Arnold’s Fleet were thus obliged to retreat down the Lake.

They succeeded in slipping past Sir Guy, the Night being foggy, and took Refuge at Schuyler Island, some miles south. Sir Guy’s Fleet pursued them, though, and was able to draw within Sight of them the next Day, Arnold’s Boats being much hampered by Leakage, Damage, and the Weather, which had turned to heavy Rain and high Wind. The Washington was caught, attacked, and forced to strike her Colors, her Crew of more than a hundred Men being captured. The rest of Arnold’s Fleet, though, managed to get through to Buttonmold Bay, where, I understand, the Waters are too shallow to allow Sir Guy’s Ships to follow.

There Arnold beached, stripped, and set afire most of his Craft—their Flags still flying, as a Mark of Defiance, the Germans said; they were amused by this, but admired it. Colonel Arnold (or must we now call him Admiral Arnold?) personally set Fire to the Congress, this being his Flagship, and set off Overland, narrowly escaping the Indians who had been set to prevent him. His troops did reach Crown Point, but did not linger there, pausing only to destroy the Fort before withdrawing to Ticonderoga.

Sir Guy did not march his Prisoners back to Quebec, but returned them to Ticonderoga under a Flag of Truce—a very pretty Gesture, much admired by my Informants.

10:30. Did you see the aurora borealis when you were here, or was it too early in the Year? It is a most remarkable Sight. Snow has fallen all Day, but ceased near Sunset and the Sky has cleared. From my Window, I see a northern Exposure, and there is presently an amazing shimmer that fills the whole Sky, waves of pale blue and some green—though I have seen it to be red sometimes—that swirl like Drops of Ink spilt in Water and stirred. I cannot hear it at present, because of the Singing—someone is Playing a Fiddle in the Distance; it is a very sweet and piercing Tune—but when I have seen the Phenomenon outside the City, in the Woods, there is often a most peculiar Sound, or Sounds, that accompany it. Sometimes a sort of faint Whistling, as of Wind around a Building, though there is no Movement of the Air; sometimes a strange, high, hissing Noise, interrupted now and then by a Fusillade of Clicks and Cracklings, as though a Horde of Crickets were advancing upon the Listener through dry Leaves—though by the time the Aurora begins to be seen, the Cold has long since killed all Insects (and good riddance! We applied an Ointment used by the local Indians, which was of some help against stinging Flies and Mosquitoes, but does nothing to discourage the inquisitiveness of Earwigs, Roaches, and Spiders).

We had a Guide for our Journey between St. John and Quebec, a Man of mixed Blood (he had a most remarkable Head of Hair, thick and curly as Sheep’s Wool and the color of Cinnamon Bark) who told us that some of the native People think that the Sky is a Dome, separating Earth from Heaven, but that there are Holes in the Dome, and that the Lights of the Aurora are the Torches of Heaven, sent out to guide the Spirits of the Dead through the Holes.

But I see I have yet to finish my Account, though it is only to add that following the Battle, Sir Guy withdrew to winter Quarters in St. John, and likely will not return to Quebec until the Spring.

So now I come to the true Point of my letter. I rose Yesterday to discover Captain Randall-Isaacs had decamped during the Night, leaving me with a brief Note stating that he had urgent Business, had enjoyed my Company and valuable Assistance, and that I was to remain here until either his Return or the arrival of new Orders.

The Snow is deep, more may come at any Moment, and Business must be urgent indeed which could compel a man to venture any Distance. I am of course somewhat disturbed at Captain Randall-Isaacs’s abrupt Departure, curious as to what might have happened to cause it, and somewhat anxious as to his Welfare. This does not seem a Situation in which I would be justified in ignoring my Orders, however, and so … I wait.

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