An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 71

   

Arriving mud-caked and frozen, he had been greeted with suspicion, but the quality of his accoutrements and his title had gained him entrance, and he had been shown to a well-appointed parlor—with, thank God, an excellent fire—to await the baron’s pleasure.

He’d formed an expectation of the Baron Amandine on the basis of Percy’s remarks, though he thought Percy had likely been practicing upon him. He also knew how futile it was to theorize in advance of observation, but it was inhuman not to imagine.

In terms of imagining, he’d done a good job of not thinking of Percy during the last… was it eighteen years, nineteen? But once it became obvious that thinking of him was now a professional as well as a personal necessity, he was both surprised and disconcerted to find just how much he remembered. He knew what Percy liked and therefore had evolved a mental picture of Amandine in accordance.

The reality was different. The baron was an older man, perhaps a few years Grey’s senior, short and rather plump, with an open, pleasant face. Well dressed, but without ostentation. He greeted Grey with great courtesy. But then he took Grey’s hand, and a small electric shock ran through the Englishman. The baron’s expression was civil, no more—but the eyes held a look of interest and avidity, and despite the baron’s unprepossessing appearance, Grey’s flesh answered the look.

Of course. Percy had told Amandine about him.

Surprised and wary, he gave the brief explanation he had prepared, only to be informed that, hélas, Monsieur Beauchamp was not at home but had gone with Monsieur Beaumarchais to hunt wolves in Alsace. Well, there was one supposition confirmed, Grey thought. But surely his lordship would condescend to accept the hospitality of Trois Flèches, for the night at least?

He accepted this invitation with many expressions of unworthy thanks, and having doffed his outer clothes and replaced his seaboots with Dottie’s garish carpet slippers—which made Amandine blink, though he at once praised them exceedingly—he was propelled down a long corridor lined with portraits.

“We will take some refreshment in the library,” Amandine was saying. “Plainly, you are perishing of cold and inanition. But if you do not mind, allow me to introduce you en route to my other guest; we will invite him to join us.”

Grey had murmured acquiescence, distracted by the light pressure of Amandine’s hand, which rested on his back—slightly lower than was usual.

“He is an American,” the baron was saying, as they reached a door toward the end of the corridor, and his voice conveyed considerable in the way of amusement in that word. He had a most unusual voice—soft, warm, and somehow smoky, like oolong tea with a lot of sugar.

“He enjoys to spend some time each day in the solar,” the baron went on, pushing open the door and gesturing Grey ahead of him. “He says it keeps him in a state of robust health.”

Grey had been looking politely at the baron during this introduction, but now turned to speak to the American guest and so was introduced to Dr. Franklin, reclining comfortably in a padded chair, lit by a flood of sunlight, stark naked.

In the subsequent conversation—conducted with the greatest aplomb on the part of all parties—he learned that it was Dr. Franklin’s invariant practice to bathe in air every day when possible, as skin breathed quite as much as did lungs, taking in air and releasing impurities; thus the ability of the body to defend itself from infection was substantially impaired if the skin were constantly suffocated in insanitary clothing.

Throughout the introductions and conversation, Grey was acutely aware of Amandine’s eyes upon him, full of speculation and amusement, and of the cumbersome feel of his own insanitary clothing upon his doubtless suffocating skin.

It was an odd feeling, to meet a stranger and know that said stranger was already privy to his deepest secret, that he in fact—if Percy were not altogether lying, and Grey didn’t think he had been—shared it. It gave him a feeling of danger and vertigo, as though he leaned out from some sharp precipice. It also bloody excited him, and that alarmed him very much.

The American (now speaking pleasantly about an unusual geological formation he had seen on his journey from Paris; had his lordship noticed it?) was an elderly man, and his body, while in fair condition aside from patches of some purplish eczema about the lower limbs, was not an object of sexual consideration. Nonetheless, Grey’s flesh was tight on his bones, and not enough of his blood was in his head. He could feel Amandine’s eyes on him, frankly evaluating him, and recalled all too clearly the exchange with Percy regarding Percy’s wife and his brother-in-law the baron: Both, on occasion. Together? Had the baron’s sister accompanied her husband, or was she perhaps at home? For one of the few times in his life, Grey wondered seriously whether he might be a pervert.

“Shall we join the good doctor in his beneficial practice, my lord?”

Grey jerked his eyes away from Franklin, to see the baron beginning to peel off his coat. Fortunately, before he could think of anything to say, Franklin rose, remarking that he felt he had had sufficient benefit for the day. “Though of course,” he said, meeting Grey’s eyes directly, with an expression of the deepest interest—and not a little amusement, too, “you must not allow my departure to prevent your own indulgence, messieurs.”

The baron, impeccably polite, at once resumed his coat, and saying he would join them for un aperitif in the library, disappeared into the corridor.

Franklin had a silk dressing gown; Grey held it for him, watching the white, slightly sagging—but remarkably firm and unwrinkled—buttocks disappear as the American slowly worked his arms into the sleeves, remarking as he did so upon a touch of arthritis in his shoulder joints.

Turning and tying the sash, he fixed an open gray gaze upon Grey.

“Thank you, my lord,” he said. “I take it you were not previously acquainted with Amandine?”

“No. I knew his… brother-in-law, Monsieur Beauchamp, some years ago. In England,” he added, for no particular reason.

Something flickered in Franklin’s eyes at the name “Beauchamp,” causing Grey to ask, “You know him?”

“I know the name,” Franklin replied equably. “Is Beauchamp an Englishman, then?”

A number of astonishing possibilities had flashed through Grey’s mind at that simple remark “I know the name,” but an equally rapid evaluation of them decided him upon the truth as safest, and he merely said, “Yes,” in a tone indicating that this was simple fact, no more.

Over the next few days, he and Franklin had had a number of interesting conversations, in which the name of Percy Beauchamp was conspicuous by its absence. When Franklin returned to Paris, though, Grey was left both with a genuine liking for the elderly gentleman—who upon learning that Grey was bound for the Colonies in the spring had insisted upon giving him letters of introduction to several friends there—and a conviction that Dr. Franklin knew precisely what Percy Beauchamp was and had been.

“Beg pardon, sir,” said one of the Tartar’s hands, elbowing Grey un-gently out of the way and breaking his reverie. He blinked, coming back to find that his ungloved hands had turned to ice in the wind and his cheeks were numb. Leaving the sailors to their freezing task, he went below, feeling a peculiar small and shameful warmth at the memory of his visit to Trois Flèches.

3 May, 1777

New York

Dear Papa,

I have just received your Letter about Cousin Henry, and hope very much that you will be able to discover his Whereabouts and obtain his Release. If I can hear Anything of him, I will do my best to let you know. Is there anyone to whom I should address Letters to you in the Colonies? (If I hear of no Alternative, I shall send them in care of Mr. Sanders in Philadelphia, with a Copy for Safety to Judge O’Keefe in Richmond.)

I hope you will excuse my own sad Delinquency in corresponding. It does not—alas—stem from any press of urgent Activity on my Part, but rather from ennui and lack of anything of Interest about which to write. After a tedious Winter immured in Quebec (though I did considerable Hunting, and shot a very vicious Thing called a Glutton), I finally received my new orders from General Howe’s Aide-de-camp in late March, when some of Sir Guy’s people came back to the Citadel, and I returned to New York in consequence of them.

I never received any Word from Captain Randall-Isaacs, nor have I been able to hear anything of him since my Return. I fear very much that he may have been lost in the Blizzard. If you know his people, perhaps you would send them a Note with my Hopes for his Survival? I would do so myself, save that I am not sure where to find them, nor how to phrase my Sentiments delicately, in case they are also in Doubt of his Fate, or worse, are not in Doubt. You will know what to say, though; you always do.

I was somewhat luckier in my own Travels, having suffered only minor Shipwreck on my way downriver (we came to Grief during the Portage at Ticonderoga, being fired upon by a Party of American Sharpshooters from the Fort. No one was harmed, but the Canoes were peppered with Shot and some Holes were unfortunately not discovered before we put back into the Water, whereupon two of them sank abruptly), this followed by waist-deep Mud and the reemergence of carnivorous Insects when I took to the Roads. Since my Return, though, we have done little of interest, though there are constant rumors of what we may do. Finding that Inactivity chafes more in what you may call a civilized Setting (though none of the Girls in New York can dance at all), I volunteered to ride Dispatches, and have found some Relief in that.

Yesterday, however, I received Orders sending me back to Canada, there to join General Burgoyne’s Staff. Do I detect your fine Italian Hand in this, Papa? If so, thank you!

Also, I have seen Captain Richardson again; he came to my Rooms last Night. I had not seen him for nearly a Year, and was much surprised. He did not ask for an Account of our Journey into Quebec (not surprising, as the Information would be sadly out-of-date by now), and when I asked after Randall-Isaacs, only shook his Head and said he did not know.

He had heard I had an Errand to carry special Dispatches to Virginia, before going to Canada, and while of course Nothing must delay me in that Errand, had thought of asking me to do a small Service for him as I returned northward. Somewhat wary as a Result of my long Sojourn in the frozen North, I asked what this might be, and was told that it was no more than the Delivery of a cipher Message to a group of Loyalist gentlemen in Virginia, something that would be simple for me, owing to my Familiarity with the Terrain; the job would not delay me more than a Day or two, he assured me.

I said I would do it, but more because I should like to see some Parts of Virginia that I remember with fondness than because I should like to oblige Captain Richardson. I am somewhat wary of him.

Godspeed your travels, Papa, and please give my Love to my precious Dottie, whom I long to see. (Tell her I shot forty-two Ermine in Canada; she shall have a Cloak made of the Skins!)

Your most affectionate Reprobate,

William

PSALMS, 30

October 6, 1980

Lallybroch

BRIANNA’S ARRANGEMENT with the Hydro Electric Board provided for her working three days a week doing site inspections, overseeing maintenance and repair operations as required, but allowed her to stay at home doing reports, forms, and other paperwork the other two days. She was trying to decipher Rob Cameron’s notes regarding the power feed from the second turbine at Loch Errochty, which appeared to have been written with grease pencil on the remains of the bag that had held his lunch, when she became aware of sounds in the laird’s study across the hall.

She’d been vaguely conscious of a low humming for some time, but insofar as she’d noticed the sound had put it down to a fly trapped by the window. The hum had now acquired words, though, and a fly would not have been singing “The King of Love my Shepherd is,” to the tune of “St. Columba.”

She froze, realizing that she’d recognized the tune. The voice was rough as coarse-grit sandpaper, and it cracked now and then … but it went up and it went down, and it was, it really was, a song.

The song stopped abruptly in a fit of coughing, but after some heavy-duty throat-clearing and cautious humming, the voice started up again, this time using an old Scottish tune she thought was called “Crimond.”

“The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want.

He makes me down to lie.

In pastures green; He leadeth me

The quiet waters by.”

“The quiet waters by” was repeated once or twice in different keys, and then, with increased vigor, the hymn went on:

“My soul He doth restore again:

And me to walk doth make

Within the paths of righteousness,

Even for His Name’s own sake.”

She sat at her desk, shaking, tears running down her cheeks and a handkerchief pressed to her mouth so he wouldn’t hear. “Thank you,” she whispered into its folds. “Oh, thank you!”

The singing stopped, but the humming resumed, deep and contented. She got herself back under control and wiped the tears hastily away; it was nearly noon—he’d be coming in any time to ask if she was ready for lunch.

Roger had had considerable doubt about the assistant choirmaster’s position—doubt he’d tried not to let her see, and doubt she’d shared until he came home to tell her he’d been given the Children’s Choir as his main responsibility. Her own doubt had flown then; children were at once totally uninhibited about voicing the sorts of remarks regarding social oddity that their elders never would, and entirely accepting of such oddity, once they got used to it.

“How long did it take them to ask about your scar?” she’d asked, when he’d come home smiling from his first solo practice with the kids.

“I didn’t time it, but maybe thirty seconds.” He rubbed two fingers lightly over the ragged mark across his throat, but didn’t stop smiling. “Please, Mr. MacKenzie, what’s happened to your neck? Was ye hangit?”

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