An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 69

   

“Only if there’s a good deal of whisky in it.” He leaned his head back against the bulkhead, closing his eyes. There was a hint of color in his cheeks, though his forehead shone with sweat.

“Brandy do you?” I needed tea—minus alcohol—badly myself, and headed for the ladder, not waiting for his nod. I saw him reach for the wine bottle as I set foot on the lowest rung.

There was a brisk wind blowing up above; it swirled the long cloak out around me as I emerged from the depths, and whooshed up my petticoats in a most revivifying fashion. It revivified Mr. Smith—or, rather, Mr. Marsden—too, who blinked and looked hastily away.

“Evening, ma’am,” he said politely, when I’d got my assorted garments back under control. “The colonel doing well, I hope?”

“Yes, he’s—” I broke off and gave him a sharp look. “The colonel?” I had a slight sinking sensation.

“Yes’m. He’s a militia colonel, isn’t he?”

“He was,” I said with emphasis.

Smith’s face broke into a smile.

“No was about it, ma’am,” he said. “He’s done us the honor to take command of a company—Fraser’s Irregulars, we’re to be called.”

“How apt,” I said. “What the devil—how did this happen?”

He tugged nervously at one of his earrings, seeing that I perhaps wasn’t as pleased by the news as might be hoped.

“Ah. Well, to tell the truth, ma’am, I’m afraid it was my fault.” He ducked his head, abashed. “One of the hands aboard the Pitt recognized me, and when he told the captain who I was…”

The revelation of Mr. Marsden’s real name—in combination with his adornments—had caused considerable uproar among the motley crew presently on board the Asp. Sufficiently so that he had been in some danger of being thrown overboard or set adrift in a boat. After a certain amount of acrimonious discussion, Jamie had suggested that perhaps Mr. Marsden could be persuaded to change his profession and become a soldier—for a number of the hands aboard the Asp had already proposed to leave her and join the Continental forces at Ticonderoga, portaging the goods and weapons across to Lake Champlain and then remaining as militia volunteers.

This found general approbation—though a few disgruntled persons were still heard to mutter that a Jonah was a Jonah, didn’t matter if he was a sailor or not. “That being why I thought I best make myself scarce below, if you see what I mean, ma’am,” Mr. Marsden concluded.

It also solved the problem of what to do with the imprisoned hands from the Pitt and the displaced seamen from the Teal; those who preferred joining the American militia would be allowed to do so, while those British seamen who preferred the prospect of life as prisoners of war could be accommodated in this desire at Fort Ticonderoga. About half the men from the Teal had expressed a decided preference for employment on land, after their recent seagoing adventures, and they also would join the Irregulars.

“I see,” I said, rubbing two fingers between my brows. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, Mr…. Marsden, I must be going and making a cup of tea. With a lot of brandy in it.”

THE TEA HEARTENED ME, sufficiently to send Abram—found drowsing by the galley fire in spite of having been ordered to bed—to take some to Jamie and Captain Stebbings while I made the rounds of my other patients. They were mostly as comfortable as might be expected—that is, not very, but stoic about it, and in no need of exigent medical intervention.

The temporary strength lent me by tea and brandy had mostly ebbed by the time I made my way back down the ladder into the hold, though, and my foot slipped off the final rung, causing me to drop heavily onto the deck, with a thump that elicited a startled cry from Stebbings, followed by a groan. Waving away Jamie’s raised brow, I hurried over to check the patient.

He was very hot to the touch, his full face flushed, and a nearly full cup of tea lay discarded near him.

“I tried to make him drink, but he said he couldna swallow more than a mouthful.” Jamie had followed me, and spoke softly behind me.

I bent and placed my ear near Stebbings’s chest, auscultating as best I could through the layer of blubber covering it. The chicken-bone tube, momentarily unplugged, gave only a modest hiss of air and no more than a trace of blood.

“So far as I can tell, the lung’s expanded at least partially,” I said, addressing Stebbings for form’s sake, though he merely stared at me, glassy-eyed. “And I think the bullet must have cauterized a good deal of the damage; otherwise, I think we’d be seeing much more alarming symptoms.” Otherwise, he’d be dead by now, but I thought it more tactful not to say so. He might easily be dead soon, in any case, from fever, but I didn’t say that, either.

I persuaded him to drink some water and sponged his head and torso with more of it. The hatch cover had been left off, and it was reasonably cool in the hold, though the air didn’t move much down below. Still, I saw no benefit in taking him into the wind on deck, and the less he was moved, the better.

“Is that… my… cloak?” he asked suddenly, opening one eye.

“Er… probably,” I replied, disconcerted. “Do you want it back?”

He made a brief grimace and shook his head, then lay back, eyes closed, breathing shallowly.

Jamie was propped against the tea chest, head back, eyes closed, and breathing heavily. Feeling me sit down beside him, though, he raised his head and opened his eyes.

“Ye look as though ye’re about to fall over, Sassenach,” he said softly. “Lie down, aye? I’ll mind the captain.”

I saw his point. In fact, I saw two of them—and him. I blinked and shook my head, momentarily reuniting the two Jamies, but there was no denying that he was right. I’d lost touch with my body again, but my mind, instead of sticking to the job, had simply wandered off somewhere in a daze. I rubbed my hands hard over my face, but it didn’t help appreciably.

“I’ll have to sleep,” I explained to the men, all four of them now watching me with the perfect wide-eyed attention of barn owls. “If you feel the pressure building up again—and I think it will,” I said to Stebbings, “pull the plug out of the tube until it eases, then put it back. If either of you think you’re dying, wake me up.”

With no further ado, and feeling as though I were watching myself doing it, I eased down onto the planking, put my head on a fold of Stebbings’s cloak, and fell asleep.

I WOKE AN UNACCOUNTABLE time later and lay for some minutes lacking coherent thought, my mind rising and falling with the movement of the deck beneath me. At some point, I began to distinguish the murmur of men’s voices from the shush and bang of seagoing noises.

I had fallen so deeply into oblivion that the events prior to my falling asleep took a moment to recall, but the voices brought them back. Wounds, the reek of brandy, the rip of sailcloth tearing, rough in my hands, and the smell of the dye in the bright, wet calico. Jamie’s bloody shirt. The sucking sound of the hole in Stebbings’s chest. The memory of that would have brought me upright at once, but I had stiffened from lying on the boards. A sharp twinge of agony lanced from my right knee to my groin, and the muscles of my back and arms hurt amazingly. Before I could stretch them enough to struggle to my feet, I heard the captain’s voice.

“Call Hickman.” Stebbings’s voice was hoarse and low, but definite. “I’d rather be shot than do this anymore.”

I didn’t think he was joking. Neither did Jamie.

“I dinna blame ye,” he said. His voice was soft but serious, as definite as Stebbings’s.

My eyes were beginning to focus again, as the paralyzing ache in my muscles eased a little. From where I lay, I could see Stebbings from the knees down and most of Jamie, sitting beside him, head bowed on his own knees, tall form slumped against the tea chest.

There was a pause, and then Stebbings said, “You don’t, eh? Good. Go get Hickman.”

“Why?” Jamie asked, after what seemed an equal pause for thought—or perhaps only to gather strength to answer. He didn’t lift his head; he sounded almost drugged with fatigue. “Nay need to rouse the man from his bed, is there? If ye want to die, just pull that thing out of your chest.”

Stebbings made some sort of noise. It might have started as a laugh, a groan, or an angry retort, but ended in a hiss of air between clenched teeth. My body tensed. Had he actually tried to pull it out?

No. I heard the heavy movement of his body, saw his feet curl briefly as he sought a more comfortable position, and heard Jamie’s grunt as he leaned over to help.

“Someone… might as well get… satisfaction from me … dying,” he wheezed.

“I put yon hole in ye,” Jamie pointed out. He straightened up and stretched with painful care. “It wouldna please me overmuch to watch ye die from it.” I thought he must be well past the point of exhaustion, and plainly he was as stiff as I was. I must get up, make him go lie down. But he was still talking to Stebbings, sounding unconcerned, like a man discussing an abstruse point of natural philosophy.

“As for satisfying Captain Hickman—d’ye feel some sense of obligation toward him?”

“I don’t.” That one came out short and sharp, though succeeded by a deep gasp for air.

“It’s a clean death,” Stebbings managed after a few more breaths. “Quick.”

“Aye, that’s what I thought,” Jamie said, sounding drowsy. “When it was me.”

Stebbings gave a grunt that might have been interrogative. Jamie sighed. After a moment, I heard the rustle of cloth and saw him move his left leg, groaning as he did so, and turn back the cloth of his kilt.

“See that?” His finger ran slowly up the length of his thigh, from just above the knee, almost to the groin.

Stebbings gave a slightly more interested grunt, this one definitely questioning. The drooping toes of his socks moved as his feet twitched.

“Bayonet,” Jamie said, casually flipping his kilt back over the twisting, runneled scar. “I lay for two days after, wi’ the fever eating me alive. My leg swelled, and it stank. And when the English officer came to blow our brains out, I was pleased enough.”

A brief silence.

“Culloden?” Stebbings asked. His voice was still hoarse, and I could hear the fever in it, but there was interest there now, too. “Heard… about it.”

Jamie said nothing in response but yawned suddenly, not bothering to smother it, and rubbed his hands slowly over his face. I could hear the soft rasp of beard stubble.

Silence, but the quality of it had changed. I could feel Stebbings’s anger, his pain and fright—but there was a faint sense of amusement in his labored breath.

“Going to … make me… ask?”

Jamie shook his head.

“Too long a story, and one I dinna care to tell. Leave it that I wanted him to shoot me, verra badly, and the bastard wouldna do it.”

The air in the little hold was stale but uneasy, filled with the shifting scents of blood and luxury, of industry and illness. I breathed in, gently, deep, and could smell the tang of the men’s bodies, a sharp copper savage smell, bitter with effort and exhaustion. Women never smelled like that, I thought, even in extremity.

“Revenge, then, is it?” Stebbings asked after a bit. His restless feet had stilled. His dirty stockings drooped and his voice was tired.

Jamie’s shoulders moved, slowly, as he sighed, and his own voice was nearly as tired as Stebbings’s.

“No,” he said, very softly. “Call it payment of a debt.”

A debt? I thought. To whom? To the Lord Melton who had declined to kill him, out of honor, who had instead sent him home from Culloden, hidden in a wagon filled with hay? To his sister, who had refused to let him die, who had dragged him back to life by sheer strength of will? Or to those who had died when he had not?

I had stretched myself enough now to be able to rise, but didn’t, yet. There was no urgency. The men were silent, their breathing part of the breathing of the ship, the sigh of the sea outside.

It came to me, quiet but sure, that I knew. I had glimpsed the abyss often, over someone’s shoulder as they stood on the edge, looking down. But I had looked once, too. I knew the vastness and the lure of it, the offer of surcease.

I knew they were standing now, side by side and each alone, looking down.

PART FOUR

Conjunction

A FLURRY OF SUSPICION

Lord John Grey to Mr. Arthur Norrington

4 February 1777

(Cipher 158)

My dear Norrington,

Pursuant to our conversation, I have made certain discoveries which I think it prudent to confide.

I paid a visit to France at the end of the year and, while there, visited the Baron Amandine. I stayed with the baron for several days, in fact, and had conversation of him on a number of occasions. I have reason to believe that Beauchamp is indeed concerned in the matter we discussed and has formed an attachment to Beaumarchais, who is thus likely similarly involved. I think Amandine is not himself concerned but that Beauchamp may use him as a front of some kind.

I requested an audience with Beaumarchais, but was denied. As he would normally have received me, I think I have poked a stick into some nest. It would be useful to watch that quarter.

Be also alert to any mention in the French correspondence of a company called Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie (I beg you will speak with the person handling the Spanish correspondence, as well). I cannot discover anything amiss, but neither can I discover anything solid regarding them, such as the names of the directors, and that in itself strikes me as suspicious.

If your duty allow, I should be pleased to hear of anything you learn concerning these matters.

Your servant, sir,

Lord John Grey

Postscriptum: If you can tell me, who is presently in charge of the American Department, with regard to correspondence?

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