An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 83

   

He was eager to see what the packet contained—but not so eager that he did not notice the marks in the cloth, deep lines where string had once been tied round it. And tied very recently. He glanced up at Rachel Hunter, who looked away, chin high, but with color rising in her cheeks. He cocked an eyebrow at her, then bent his attention to the packet.

Opened, it contained a small sheaf of paper continentals; a worn pouch containing the sum of one guinea, three shillings, and tuppence in coin; a much-folded—and refolded, if he was any judge—letter; and another, smaller, bundle, this one still tied. Setting aside this and the money, he opened the letter.

Cousin,

I hope to find you in better health than when last seen. If so, I will leave a horse and some funds to assist your travels. If not, I will leave the money, to pay either for medicine or your burial. The other thing is a gift from a friend whom the Indians call Bear-Killer. He hopes that you will wear it in good health. I wish you luck in your ventures.

Your ob’t. serv.,

Ian Murray

“Hmm!” William was baffled by this. Evidently Murray had business of his own and could not or did not wish to stay until William was able to travel. Though somewhat disappointed—he would have liked to talk further with Murray, now that his mind was clear again—he could see that it might be better that Murray did not mean them to travel together.

It dawned upon him that his immediate problem was solved; he now had the means to resume his mission—or as much of it as he could. He could at least reach General Howe’s headquarters, make a report, and get new instructions.

It was remarkably generous of Murray; the horse had looked sound, and the money was more than enough to see him comfortably fed and lodged all the way to New York. He wondered where on earth Murray had got it; by his looks, the man hadn’t a pot to piss in—though he had a good rifle, William reminded himself—and he was plainly educated, for he made a decent fist of writing. What could have caused the odd Scottish Indian to take such interest in him, though?

Bemused, he reached for the smaller bundle and untied the string. Unwrapped, the contents proved to be the claw of a large bear, pierced and strung on a leather thong. It was old; the edges were worn, and the knot in the leather had hardened so far that it would plainly never be untied again.

He stroked the claw with a thumb, tested the point. Well, the bear spirit had stood him in good stead so far. Smiling to himself, he put the thong over his head, leaving the claw to hang outside his shirt. Rachel Hunter stared at it, her face unreadable.

“You read my letter, Miss Hunter,” William said reprovingly. “Very naughty of you!”

The flush rose higher in her cheeks, but she met his eye with a directness he was unaccustomed to find in a woman—with the marked exception of his paternal grandmother.

“Thy speech is far superior to thy clothes, Friend William—even were they new. And while thee has been in thy right mind for some days now, thee has not chosen to say what brought thee to the Great Dismal. It is not a place frequented by gentlemen.”

“Oh, indeed it is, Miss Hunter. Many gentlemen of my acquaintance go there for the hunting, which is unexcelled. But naturally, one does not hunt wild boar or catamounts in one’s best linen.”

“Neither does one go hunting armed only with a frying pan, Friend William,” she riposted. “And if thee is a gentleman in truth—where is thy home, pray?”

He fumbled for an instant, unable to recall at once his alter ego’s particulars, and seized instead on the first city to come to his mind.

“Ah—Savannah. In the Carolinas,” he added helpfully.

“I know where it is,” she snapped. “And have heard men speak who come from there. Thee doesn’t.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” he said, amazed.

“I am.”

“Oh.” They sat gazing at each other in the half light of the gathering storm, each calculating. For an instant, he had the illusion that he was playing chess with his grandmother Benedicta.

“I am sorry for reading thy letter,” she said abruptly. “It was not vulgar curiosity, I assure thee.”

“What, then?” He smiled a little, to indicate that he bore no animus for her trespass. She didn’t smile back, but looked at him narrowly—not in suspicion, but as though gauging him in some way. At last she sighed, though, and her shoulders slumped.

“I wished to know a little of thee, and of thy character. The companions who brought thee to us seem dangerous men. And thy cousin? If thee is one like them, then—” Her teeth fixed briefly in her upper lip, but she shook her head, as though to herself, and continued more firmly.

“We must leave here within a few days—my brother and myself. Thee told Denny that thee travels north; I wish that we may travel with thee, at least for a time.”

Whatever he’d been expecting, it wasn’t that. He blinked and said the first thing that came to his mind.

“Leave here? Why? The… er… the neighbors?”

She looked surprised at that.

“What?”

“I beg your pardon, ma’am. Your brother seemed to indicate that relations between your family and those who dwell nearby were… somewhat strained?”

“Oh.” One corner of her mouth tucked back; he could not tell if this betokened distress or amusement—but rather thought it was the latter.

“I see,” she said, and drummed her fingers thoughtfully on the table. “Yes, that’s true, though it was not what I—well, and yet it has to do with the matter. I see I must tell thee everything, then. What does thee know about the Society of Friends?”

He knew only one family of Quakers, the Unwins. Mr. Unwin was a wealthy merchant who knew his father, and he had met the two daughters at a musicale once, but the conversation had not touched upon philosophy or religion.

“They—er, you—dislike conflict, I believe?” he answered cautiously.

That surprisingly made her laugh, and he felt pleasure at having removed the tiny furrow between her brows, if only temporarily.

“Violence,” she corrected. “We thrive upon conflict, if it be verbal. And given the form of our worship—Denny says thee is not a Papist after all, yet I venture to suppose that thee have never attended a Quaker meeting?”

“The opportunity has not so far occurred, no.”

“I thought not. Well, then.” She eyed him consideringly. “We have preachers who will come to speak at meeting—but anyone may speak at meeting, upon any subject, if the spirit moves him or her to do so.”

“Her? Women speak in public, too?”

She gave him a withering look.

“I have a tongue, just as thee does.”

“I’d noticed,” he said, and smiled at her. “Continue, please.”

She leaned forward a little to do so but was interrupted by the crash of a shutter swinging back against the house, this followed by a spatter of rain, dashed hard across the window. Rachel sprang to her feet with a brief exclamation.

“I must get the chickens in! Close the shutters,” she ordered him, and dashed out.

Taken aback but amused, he did so, moving slowly. Going upstairs to fasten the upper shutters made him dizzy again, and he paused on the threshold of the bedroom, holding the doorjamb until his balance returned. There were two rooms upstairs: the bedroom at the front of the house, where they had put him, and a smaller room in the rear. The Hunters now shared this room; there was a truckle bed, a washstand with a silver candlestick upon it, and little else, save a row of pegs upon which hung the doctor’s spare shirt and breeches, a woolen shawl, and what must be Rachel Hunter’s go-to-meeting gown, a sober-looking garment dyed with indigo.

With rain and wind muffled by the shutters, the dim room seemed still now, and peaceful, a harbor from the storm. His heart had slowed from the exertion of climbing the stair, and he stood for a moment, enjoying the slightly illicit sense of trespass. No sound from below; Rachel must be still in pursuit of the chickens.

There was something faintly odd about the room, and it took him only a moment to decide what it was. The shabbiness and sparsity of the Hunters’ personal possessions argued poverty—yet these contrasted with the small signs of prosperity evident in the furnishings: the candlestick was silver, not plate or pewter, and the ewer and basin were not earthenware but good china, painted with sprawling blue chrysanthemums.

He lifted the skirt of the blue dress hanging on the peg, examining it curiously. Modesty was one thing; threadbareness was another. The hem was worn nearly white, the indigo faded so that the folds of the skirt showed a fan-shaped pattern of light and dark. The Misses Unwin had dressed quietly, but their clothes were of the highest quality.

On sudden impulse, he brought the cloth to his face, breathing in. It smelled faintly still of indigo, and of grass and live things—and very perceptibly of a woman’s body. The musk of it ran through him like the pleasure of good wine.

The sound of the door closing below made him drop the dress as though it had burst into flame, and he made for the stairs, heart hammering.

Rachel Hunter was shaking herself on the hearth, shedding drops of water from her apron, her cap wilted and soggy on her head. Not seeing him, she took this off, wrung it out with a mutter of impatience, and hung it on a nail hammered into the chimney breast.

Her hair fell down her back, wet-tailed and shining, dark against the pale cloth of her jacket.

“The chickens are all safe, I trust?” He spoke, because to watch her unawares with her hair down, the smell of her still vivid in his nose, seemed suddenly to be an unwarrantable intimacy.

She turned round, eyes wary, but made no immediate move to cover her hair.

“All but the one my brother calls the Great Whore of Babylon. No chicken possesses anything resembling intelligence, but that one is perverse beyond the usual.”

“Perverse?” Evidently she perceived that he was contemplating the possibilities inherent in this description and finding them entertaining, for she snorted through her nose and bent to open the blanket chest.

“The creature is sitting twenty feet up in a pine tree, in the midst of a rainstorm. Perverse.” She pulled out a linen towel and began to dry her hair with it.

The sound of the rain altered suddenly, hail rattling like tossed gravel against the shutters.

“Hmmph,” said Rachel, with a dark look at the window. “I expect she will be knocked senseless by the hail and devoured by the first passing fox, and serve her right.” She resumed drying her hair. “No great matter. I shall be pleased never to see any of those chickens again.”

Seeing him still standing, she sat down, gesturing him to another stool.

“You did say that you and your brother proposed to leave this place and travel north,” he reminded her, sitting down. “I collect the chickens will not make the journey with you?”

“No, and the Lord be praised. They are already sold, along with the house.” Laying the crumpled towel aside, she groped in her pocket and withdrew a small comb carved from horn. “I did say I would tell thee why.”

“I believe we had reached the point of learning that the matter has something to do with your meeting?”

She breathed deeply through her nose and nodded.

“I said that when a person is moved of the spirit, he speaks in meeting? Well, the spirit moved my brother. That is how we came to leave Philadelphia.”

A meeting might be formed, she explained, wherever there were sufficient Friends of like mind. But in addition to these small local meetings, there were larger bodies, the Quarterly and Yearly Meetings, at which weighty matters of principle were discussed and actions affecting Quakers in general were decided upon.

“Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is the largest and most influential,” she said. “Thee is right: the Friends eschew violence, and seek either to avoid it or to end it. And in this question of rebellion, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting thought and prayed upon the matter, and advised that the path of wisdom and peace plainly lay in reconciliation with the mother country.”

“Indeed.” William was interested. “So all of the Quakers in the Colonies are now Loyalists, do you mean?”

Her lips compressed for an instant.

“That is the advice of the Yearly Meeting. As I said, though, Friends are led of the spirit, and one must do as one is led to do.”

“And your brother was led to speak in favor of rebellion?” William was amused, though wary; Dr. Hunter seemed an unlikely firebrand.

She dipped her head, not quite a nod.

“In favor of independency,” she corrected.

“Surely there is something lacking in the logic of that distinction,” William observed, raising one brow. “How might independency be achieved without the exercise of violence?”

“If thee thinks the spirit of God is necessarily logical, thee know Him better than I do.” She ran a hand through the damp hair, flicking it over her shoulders with impatience.

“Denny said that it was made clear to him that liberty, whether that of the individual or of countries, is a gift of God, and that it was laid upon him that he must join in the fight to gain and preserve it. So we were put out of meeting,” she ended abruptly.

It was dark in the room, with the shutters closed, but he could see her face by the dim glow from the smothered hearth. That last statement had moved her strongly; her mouth was pinched, and there was a brightness to her eyes that suggested she might weep, were she not determined not to.

“I collect this is a serious thing, to be put out of meeting?” he asked cautiously.

She nodded, looking away. She picked up the discarded damp towel, smoothed it slowly, and folded it, plainly choosing her words.

“I told thee that my mother died when I was born. My father died three years later—drowned in a flood. We were left with nothing, my brother and I. But the local meeting saw to it that we did not starve, that there was a roof—if one with holes—over our heads. There was a question in meeting, how Denny might be ’prenticed. I know he feared that he must become a drover or a cobbler—he lacks somewhat to be a blacksmith,” she added, smiling a little despite her seriousness. “He would have done it, though—to keep me fed.”

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