An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 73

   

There were a good many present—many more than he was used to—and he didn’t at first notice Lionel Menzies. The headmaster was across the room, frowning in concentration, listening to something a tall bloke in shirtsleeves was saying to him, leaning close. Roger hesitated, not wanting to break in upon their conversation, but the man talking to Menzies glanced up, saw Roger, returned to his conversation—but then stopped abruptly, gaze jerking back to Roger. To his throat, specifically.

Everyone in lodge had stared at the scar, whether openly or covertly. He’d worn an open-collared shirt under his jacket; there was no point in trying to hide it. Better to get it over with. The stranger stared at the scar so openly, though, as almost to be offensive.

Menzies noticed his companion’s inattention—he could hardly not—and, turning, saw Roger and broke into a smile.

“Mr. MacKenzie,” he said.

“Roger,” Roger said, smiling; first names were usual in lodge, when they weren’t being formally “brother so-and-so.” Menzies nodded and tilted his head, drawing his companion into introduction. “Rob Cameron, Roger MacKenzie. Rob’s my cousin—Roger’s one of my parents.”

“I thought so,” Cameron said, shaking him warmly by the hand. “Thought you must be the new choirmaster, I mean. My wee nephew’s in your infants’ choir—that’ll be Bobby Hurragh. He told us all about ye over supper last week.”

Roger had seen the private glance exchanged between the men as Menzies introduced him and thought that the headmaster must also have mentioned him to Cameron, likely telling him about his visit to the school following Jem’s Gaelic incident. That didn’t concern him at the moment, though.

“Rob Cameron,” he repeated, giving the man’s hand a slightly stronger squeeze than usual before releasing it, this causing him to look startled. “You work for the Hydro, do you?”

“Aye. What—”

“Ye’ll ken my wife, I think.” Roger bared his teeth in what might—or might not—be taken for a genial smile. “Brianna MacKenzie?”

Cameron’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. He realized this and closed it abruptly, coughing.

“I—uh. Yeah. Sure.”

Roger had sized the man up automatically as he’d grasped his hand, and knew if it came to a fight it’d be a short one. Evidently, Cameron knew it, too.

“She, uh …”

“She told me, aye.”

“Hey, it was no but a wee joke, right?” Cameron eyed him warily, in case Roger meant to invite him to step outside.

“Rob?” said Menzies curiously. “What—”

“What’s this, what’s this?” cried old Barney, bustling up to them. “Nay politics in lodge, lad! Ye want to talk your SNP shite to brother Roger, take it roond to the pub later.” Seizing Cameron by the elbow, Barney towed him off to another group across the room, where Cameron at once settled into conversation, with no more than a brief glance back at Roger.

“SNP shite?” Roger asked, brows raised at Menzies. The headmaster lifted one shoulder, smiling.

“Ken what auld Barney said. Nay politics in lodge!” It was a Masonic rule, one of the most basic—no discussion of religion or politics in lodge—and probably the reason Freemasonry had lasted as long as it had, Roger thought. He didn’t care much about the Scottish National Party, but he did want to know about Cameron.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Roger said. “Our Rob’s a political, though, is he?”

“My apologies, brother Roger,” Menzies said. The look of humorous good nature hadn’t deserted him, but he did look somewhat apologetic. “I didn’t mean to expose your family’s business, but I did tell my wife about Jem and Mrs. Glendenning, and women being what they are, and my wife’s sister living next door to Rob, Rob got to hear about it. He was interested because of the Gàidhlig, aye? And he does get carried away a bit. But I’m sure he didn’t mean to be seeming too familiar with your wife.”

It dawned on Roger that Menzies had hold of the wrong end of the stick regarding Rob Cameron and Brianna, but he didn’t mean to enlighten him. It wasn’t only the women; gossip was a way of life in the Highlands, and if word got round about the trick Rob and his mates had played on Bree, it might cause more trouble for her at her work.

“Ah,” he said, seeking for a way to steer the conversation away from Brianna. “Of course. The SNP’s all for resurrecting the Gàidhlig, aren’t they? Does Cameron have it himself?”

Menzies shook his head. “His parents were among those who didn’t want their kids to speak it. Now, of course, he’s keen to learn. Speak of that—” He broke off abruptly, eyeing Roger with his head to one side. “I had a thought. After we spoke the other day.”

“Aye?”

“I wondered, just. Would ye maybe think of doing a wee class now and then? Maybe only for Jem’s form, maybe a presentation for the school as a whole, if you felt comfortable about it.”

“A class? What, in the Gàidhlig?”

“Yes. You know, very basic stuff, but maybe with a word or two about the history, maybe a bit of a song—Rob said ye’re choirmaster at St. Stephen’s?”

“Assistant,” Roger corrected. “And I don’t know about the singing. But the Gàidhlig… aye, maybe. I’ll think about it.”

HE FOUND BRIANNA WAITING up, in his study, a letter from her parents’ box in her hand, unopened.

“We don’t have to read it tonight,” she said, putting it down, rising, and coming to kiss him. “I just felt like I wanted to be close to them. How was lodge?”

“Odd.” The business of the lodge was secret, of course, but he could tell her about Menzies and Cameron, and did.

“What’s the SNP?” she asked, frowning.

“The Scottish National Party.” He skinned out of his coat, and shivered. It was cold, and there was no fire in the study. “Came in during the late thirties, but didn’t get really going until quite recently. Elected eleven members to Parliament by 1974, though—respectable. As ye might gather from the name, their goal is Scottish independence.”

“Respectable,” she repeated, sounding dubious.

“Well, moderately. Like any party, they have their lunatic elements. For what it’s worth,” he added, “I don’t think Rob Cameron’s one of them. Just your average arsehole.”

That made her laugh, and the sound of it warmed him. So did her body, which she pressed against his, arms round his shoulders.

“That would be Rob,” she agreed.

“Menzies says he’s interested in the Gaelic, though. If I teach a class, I hope he doesn’t turn up in the front row.”

“Wait—what? Now you’re teaching Gaelic classes?”

“Well, maybe. We’ll see about it.” He found himself reluctant to think too much about Menzies’s suggestion. Maybe it was only the mention of singing. Croaking out a tune to guide the kids was one thing; singing alone in public—even if it was only schoolkids—was something else again.

“That can wait,” he said, and kissed her. “Let’s read your letter.”

June 2, 1777

Fort Ticonderoga

“Fort Ticonderoga?” Bree’s voice rose in astonishment, and she all but jerked the letter from Roger’s hands. “What on earth are they doing in Fort Ticonderoga?”

“I don’t know, but if ye’ll settle for a moment, we’ll maybe find out.”

She didn’t reply but came round the desk and leaned over, her chin propped on his shoulder, her hair brushing his cheek as she focused anxiously on the page.

“It’s okay,” he said, turning to kiss her cheek. “It’s your mum, and she’s in an especially parenthetical mood. She doesn’t normally do that unless she’s feeling happy.”

“Well, yes,” Bree murmured, frowning at the page, “but… Fort Ticonderoga?”

Dear Bree, et al—

As you’ve doubtless gathered from the heading of this letter, we are not (yet) in Scotland. We had a certain amount of difficulty on our voyage, involving a) the Royal navy, in the person of one Captain Stebbings, who attempted to press your father and your cousin Ian (it didn’t work); b) an American privateer (though her captain, one—and one of him is more than enough—Asa Hickman insists upon the more dignified “letter of marque” as the designation of his ship’s mission, which is essentially piracy but executed under the authority of the Continental Congress); c) Rollo; and d) the gentleman I mentioned to you earlier, named (I thought) John Smith, but who turns out to be a deserter from the Royal navy named Bill (aka “Jonah,” and I begin to think they are right) Marsden.

Without going into the details of the whole blood-soaked farce, I will merely report that Jamie, Ian, the damned dog, and I are all fine. So far. I’m hoping this state of affairs continues for the next forty-two days, that being when your father’s short-term militia contract expires. (Don’t ask. Essentially, he was saving Mr. Marsden’s neck, as well as providing for the welfare of a couple of dozen seamen inadvertently forced into piracy.) Once it does, we propose to leave promptly on whatever transport might be headed in the general direction of Europe, provided only that said transport is not captained by Asa Hickman. We may have to travel overland to Boston in order to do this, but so be it. (I suppose it would be interesting to see what Boston looks like these days. The Back Bay still being water and all, I mean. At least the Common will still be there, if sporting rather more cows than we were used to.)

The fort is under the command of one General Anthony Wayne, and I have the uncomfortable feeling that I have heard Roger mention this man, using the nickname “Mad Anthony.” I’m hoping this designation either does or will refer to his conduct in battle, rather than in administration. So far he seems rational, if harried.

Being harried is rational, as he is expecting the more or less imminent arrival of the British army. Meanwhile, his chief engineer, a Mr. Jeduthan Baldwin (you’d like him, I think. Very energetic fellow!), is building a Great Bridge, to connect the fort with the hill they call Mount Independence. Your father is commanding a crew of laborers at work on this bridge; I can see him just now, from my perch on one of the fort’s demilune batteries. He stands out, rather, being not only twice the size of most of the men but one of the few wearing a shirt. Most of them in fact work naked, or wearing only a clout, because of the heat and wet. Given the mosquitoes, I think this is a mistake, but no one asked me.

No one asked my opinion of the hygienic protocols involved in maintaining a proper sick bay and prisoner accommodations, either (we brought several British prisoners with us, including the aforementioned Captain Stebbings who should by all rights be dead, but somehow isn’t), but I told them anyway. I am thus persona non grata with Lieutenant Stactoe, who thinks he is a surgeon but isn’t, and therefore am prevented from treating the men under his care, most of whom will be dead within a month. Fortunately, no one cares if I treat the women, children, or prisoners, and so I am usefully occupied, there being a lot of them.

I have a distinct notion that Ticonderoga changed hands at some point, probably more than once, but have no idea who took it from whom, or when. This last point rather weighs upon my mind.

General Wayne has almost no regular troops. Jamie says the fort is seriously undermanned—and even I can see this; half the barracks are vacant—and while the occasional militia company comes in from New Hampshire or Connecticut, these normally enroll for only two or three months, as we did. Even so, the men often don’t stay their full term; there is a constant melting away, and General Wayne complains—publicly—that he is reduced to (and I quote) “Negroes, Indians, and women.” I told him that he could do worse.

Jamie says also that the fort lacks half its guns, these having been abstracted by a fat bookseller named Henry Fox, who took them two years ago and managed by some feat of persistence and engineering to get them all the way to Boston (Mr. Fox himself having to be conveyed in a cart along with them, he weighing in excess of three hundred pounds. One of the officers here, who accompanied that expedition, described it, to general hilarity), where they proved very useful indeed in getting rid of the British.

What’s somewhat more worrying than these points is the existence of a small hill, directly across the water from us, and no great distance away. The Americans named it Mount Defiance when they took Ticonderoga away from the British in ’75 (you remember Ethan Allen? “Surrender in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” I hear that poor Mr. Allen is presently in England, being tried for treason, he having rather overreached himself by trying to take Montreal on the same terms), and that’s rather apt—or would be, if the fort was capable of putting men and artillery on top of it. They aren’t, and I think the fact that Mount Defiance commands the fort and is within cannon-shot of it probably will not be lost on the British army, if and when they get here.

On the good side, it is almost summer. The fish are jumping, and if there was any cotton, it would probably reach my waist. It rains frequently, and I’ve never seen so much vegetation in one place. (The air is so rich with oxygen, I occasionally think I will pass out, and am obliged to nip into the barracks for a restorative whiff of dirty laundry and chamber pots (though the local usage is “thunder-mug,” and for good reason). Your cousin Ian takes foraging parties out every few days, Jamie and a number of the other men are accomplished fishermen, and we eat extremely well in consequence.

I won’t go on at great length here, as I’m not sure when or where I’ll be able to dispatch this letter via one or more of Jamie’s several routes (we copy each letter, if there’s time, and send multiple copies, since even normal correspondence is chancy these days). With luck, it will go with us to Edinburgh. In the meantime, we send you all our love. Jamie dreams now and then of the children; I wish I did.

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