An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 52

   

11:30. I stopped writing for some little time, to stand and watch the Sky. The Lights of the Aurora come and go, but I think they have gone altogether now; the Sky is black, the Stars bright but tiny by contrast with the vanished brilliance of the Lights. There is a vast Emptiness in the Sky that one seldom senses in a City. Despite the Clangor of the Bells, the Bonfires in the Square, and the Singing of People—there is a Procession of some kind going on—I can feel the great Silence beyond it.

The Nuns are going in to their Chapel. I leaned out of my Window just now to watch them hurrying along, two by two like a marching Column, their dark Gowns and Cloaks making them look like small Pieces of the Night, drifting among the Stars of their Torches. (I have been writing a long Time, you must forgive the Fancies of an exhausted Brain.)

This is the first Christmas I have spent with no Sight of Home or Family. The First of many, no doubt.

I think of you often, Papa, and hope you are well and looking forward to roast Goose tomorrow with Grandmama and Grandpapa Sir George. Give my Love to them, please, and to Uncle Hal and his family. (And to my Dottie, especially.)

A very merry Christmas from your Son, William

PostScriptum: 2:00 a.m. I went down after all, and stood at the Back of the Chapel. It was somewhat Popish, and there was a great Deal of Incense, but I said a Prayer for Mother Geneva and for Mama Isobel. When I emerged from the Chapel, I saw that the Lights have come back. Now they are blue.

THE BOSOM OF THE DEEP

May 15, 1777

My dears,

I hate Boats. I despise them with the utmost Fiber of my Being. And yet I find myself once more launched upon the dreadful Bosom of the Sea, aboard a Craft known as the Tranquil Teal, from which Absurdity you may deduce the grim Whimsy of her Captain. This Gentleman is a Smuggler of mixed Race, evil Countenance, and low Humor, who tells me, straight-faced, that his name is Trustworthy Roberts.

JAMIE PAUSED TO DIP his quill, glanced at the receding shore of North Carolina, and, observing it to rise and fall in an unsettling manner, fixed his eyes at once upon the page he had tacked to his lap desk to prevent its being borne away by the stiff breeze that filled the sails above his head.

We are in good Health, he wrote slowly. Putting aside the notion of seasickness, upon which he did not propose to dwell. Ought he to tell them about Fergus? he wondered.

“Feeling all right?”

He looked up to see Claire, bending to peer at him with that look of intent but cautious curiosity she reserved for people who might at any moment vomit, spurt blood, or die. He’d already done the first two, as a result of her having accidentally put one of her needles into a small blood vessel in his scalp, but hoped she didn’t distinguish any further signs of his impending demise.

“Well enough.” He didn’t want even to think about his stomach, for fear of inciting it, and changed the subject in order to avoid further discussion. “Shall I tell Brianna and Roger Mac about Fergus?”

“How much ink have you got?” she asked, with a sidelong smile. “Yes, of course you should. They’ll be very interested. And it will distract you,” she added, squinting slightly at him. “You’re still rather green.”

“Aye, thanks.”

She laughed with the cheerful callousness of the good sailor, kissed the top of his head—avoiding the four needles protruding from his forehead—and went to stand by the rail, watching the wavering land recede from view.

He averted his gaze from this distressing prospect, and returned to his letter.

Fergus and his family are also well, but I must tell you of a puzzling occurrence. A man who calls himself Percival Beauchamp …

It took him most of a page to describe Beauchamp and his baffling interest. He glanced up at Claire, wondering whether he should also include the possibility of Beauchamp’s relationship to her family, but decided against it. His daughter certainly knew her mother’s maiden name and would notice it at once. He had no further useful information to provide in that respect—and his hand was beginning to ache.

Claire was still at the rail, one hand on it for balance, her face dreaming.

She had tied back the mass of her hair with ribbon, but the wind was whipping strands of it out, and with hair and skirts and shawl streaming back, the cloth of her gown molded to what was still a very fine bosom, he thought she looked like a ship’s figurehead, graceful and fierce, a protective spirit against the dangers of the deep.

He found that thought obscurely comforting, and returned to his composition in better heart, despite the disturbing content he had now to confide.

Fergus elected not to speak with Monsieur Beauchamp, which I thought wise, and so we presumed this to be the end of the Matter.

While we were in Wilmington, though, I went down to the Docks one Evening to meet Mr. DeLancey Hall, our Liaison with Captain Roberts. Owing to the Presence of an English Man-of-war in the Harbor, the Arrangement was that we should repair discreetly aboard Mr. Hall’s fishing Ketch, which would transport us outwith the Harbor, whence we should rendezvous with the Teal, Captain Roberts disliking close Proximity to the British navy. (This is a fairly universal Response on the part of private and merchant Captains, owing both to the prevalence of Contraband aboard most Ships and to the Navy’s rapacious Attitude toward the Ships’ Crews, who are routinely abducted—pressed, they call it—and to all Intents and Purposes, enslaved for Life, save they are willing to risk Hanging for Desertion.)

I had brought with me some minor Items of Luggage, intending under the Pretext of taking these aboard to inspect both the Ketch and Mr. Hall more closely before entrusting our Lives to either. The Ketch was not at Anchor, though, and Mr. Hall did not appear for some Time, so that I began to worry lest I had mistaken his Instructions or that he had run afoul either of His Majesty’s Navy or some fellow Rapscallion or Privateer.

I waited until it had grown Dark, and was on the point of returning to our Inn, when I saw a small Boat come into the Harbor with a blue Lantern at its Tail. This was Mr. Hall’s Signal, and the Boat was his Ketch, which I assisted him to tie up to the Quay. He told me that he had some News, and we repaired to a local Tavern, where he said that he had been in New Bern the Day before, and there found the Town in an Uproar, owing to an infamous Assault upon the Printer, Mr. Fraser.

By report, he—Fergus—was making his Rounds of Delivery, and had just got down from the Mule Cart when someone sprang upon him from behind, thrusting a Sack over his Head, and someone else attempted at the same Time to seize his Hands, presumably with the Intent of binding them. Fergus naturally resisted these Attempts with some Vigor, and according to Mr. Hall’s Story, succeeded in wounding one Assailant with his Hook, there being a certain Amount of Blood to substantiate this Assumption. The wounded Man fell back with a Scream and uttered loud Oaths (I should have been interested to know the content of said Oaths, in order to know whether the Speaker might be French or English, but this Information was not included), whereupon Clarence (who you will remember, I think) became excited and apparently bit the second Assailant, this Man and Fergus having fallen against the Mule in their Struggle. The second Man was discouraged by this vigorous Intervention, but the first returned to the Fray at this Point, and Fergus—still blinded by the Sack but bellowing for Help—grappled with him, striking at him again with his Hook. Some Reports (says Mr. Hall) claim that the Villain wrenched the Hook from Fergus’s Wrist, while others claim that Fergus succeeded in striking him again but that the Hook became entangled in the Villain’s Clothing and was pulled off in the Struggle.

In any Event, people in Thompson’s Ordinary heard the Stramash and rushed out, whereupon the Villains fled, leaving Fergus somewhat bruised and most indignant at the loss of his Hook, but otherwise unharmed, for which God and St. Dismas (he being Fergus’s particular Patron) be thanked.

I questioned Mr. Hall as closely as I could, but there was little more to be learned. He said that public Opinion was divided, with many saying that this was an attempted Deportation and the Sons of Liberty were to blame for the attack, while some members of the Sons of Liberty indignantly denied this Accusation, claiming that it was the work of Loyalists incensed over Fergus’s printing of a particularly inflammatory Speech by Patrick Henry, and the Abduction was a Prelude to Tar and Feathers. Apparently Fergus has been so successful in avoiding the Appearance of taking Sides in the Conflict that both Sides are equally likely to have taken Offense and decided to eliminate his Influence.

This is, of course, possible. But with the Presence and Behavior of Monsieur Beauchamp in Mind, I think a third Explanation is more likely. Fergus declined to speak with him, but it would not have required a great deal of further Inquiry for him to learn that despite his Name and Scottish Wife, Fergus is a Frenchman. Surely most of the Inhabitants of New Bern know this, and someone could easily have told him.

I confess myself to be at a Loss as to why Beauchamp should wish to abduct Fergus, rather than simply come and confront him in Person to inquire whether he might be the Person for whom the Gentleman claimed to be searching. I must assume that he does not mean Fergus immediate Harm, for if he did, it would be a fairly simple Matter to have arranged to have him killed; there are a great many Men of no Attachment and mean Character drifting through the Colony these Days.

The Occurrence is worrying, but there is little I can do about it in my present abject Position. I have sent Fergus a Letter—ostensibly regarding the Specifications of a printing Job—which lets him know that I have placed a Sum with a Goldsmith in Wilmington, which he may draw upon in case of Need. I had discussed with him the Dangers of his present Position, not knowing at the Time how dangerous they might actually be, and he agreed that there might be some Advantage to his Family’s Safety in his moving to a City where public Opinion is more strongly aligned with his own Inclinations. This latest Incident may compel his Decision, the more particularly as Proximity to ourselves is no longer a Consideration.

He had to stop again, as pain was radiating through his hand and up his wrist. He stretched the fingers, stifling a groan; a hot wire seemed to stab from his fourth finger up his forearm in brief electric jolts.

He was more than worried for Fergus and his family. If Beauchamp had tried once, he would try again. But why?

Perhaps the fact of Fergus’s being French was not sufficient evidence that he was the Claudel Fraser that Beauchamp sought, and he proposed to satisfy himself upon this point in privacy, by whatever means came to hand? Possible, but that argued a coldness of purpose that disturbed Jamie more than he had wished to say in his letter.

And in fairness, he must admit that the notion of the attack having been executed by persons of inflamed political sensibility was a distinct possibility, and perhaps of a higher probability than the sinister designs of Monsieur Beauchamp, which were both romantical and theoretical to a high degree.

“But I havena lived this long without knowing the smell of a rat when I see one,” he muttered, still rubbing his hand.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” said his personal figurehead, appearing suddenly beside him with an expression of marked concern. “Your hand!”

“Aye?” He looked down at it, cross with discomfort. “What’s amiss? All my fingers are still attached to it.”

“That’s the most that could be said for it. It looks like the Gordian knot.” She knelt down beside him and took the hand into hers, massaging it in a forceful way that was doubtless helpful but so immediately painful that it made his eyes water. He closed them, breathing slowly through clenched teeth.

She was scolding him for writing too much at once. What was the hurry, after all?

“It will be days before we reach Connecticut, and then months on the way to Scotland. You could write one sentence per day and quote the whole Book of Psalms along the way.”

“I wanted to,” he said.

She said something derogatory under her breath, in which the words “Scot” and “pigheaded” featured, but he chose to take no notice. He had wanted to; it clarified his thoughts to put them down in black and white, and it was to some degree a relief to express them on paper, rather than to have the worry clogged up in his head like mud in mangrove roots.

And beyond that—not that he required an excuse, he thought, narrowing his eyes at the top of his wife’s bent head—seeing the shore of North Carolina drop away had made him lonely for his daughter and Roger Mac, and he’d wanted the sense of connection that writing to them gave him.

“Do you think you will see them?” Fergus had asked him that, soon before they took leave of each other. “Perhaps you will go to France.” So far as Fergus and Marsali and the folk on the Ridge were concerned, Brianna and Roger Mac had gone to France to escape the oncoming war.

“No,” he’d said, hoping the bleakness of his heart didn’t show in his voice. “I doubt we shall ever see them again.”

Fergus’s strong right hand had tightened on his forearm, then relaxed.

“Life is long,” he said quietly.

“Aye,” he’d answered, but thought, No one’s life is that long.

His hand was growing easier now; while she still massaged it, the motion no longer hurt so much.

“I miss them, too,” she said quietly, and kissed his knuckles. “Give me the letter; I’ll finish it.”

Your father’s hand won’t stand any more today. There is one notable thing about this ship, beyond the captain’s name. I was down in the hold earlier in the day, and saw a good number of boxes, all stenciled with the name “Arnold” and “New Haven, Connecticut.” I said to the hand (whose name is a very pedestrian John Smith, though no doubt to make up for this distressing lack of distinction he has three gold earrings in one ear and two in the other. He told me that each one represents his survival from the sinking of a ship. I am hoping that your father doesn’t know this) that Mr. Arnold must be a very successful merchant. Mr. Smith laughed and said that, in fact, Mr. Benedict Arnold is a colonel in the Continental army, and a very gallant officer he is, too. The boxes are bound for delivery to his sister, Miss Hannah Arnold, who minds both his three small sons and his importing and dry-goods store in Connecticut, while he is about the business of the war.

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