Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 126

   

Marsali snorted, giving me a sideways glance.

“Aye,” she said dryly. “Never think I dinna appreciate the value of a grannie. And when ye leave, Grannie Janet will go, too.”

“Do you think so?” I hadn’t thought of that. “But Jenny loves you and your children—Fergus is as much a son to her as any of the boys she bore.”

“Well, that’s maybe true,” she admitted, with a brief smile that showed me the radiant fifteen-year-old who had married Fergus on a Caribbean beach twelve years before. “But Young Ian’s her youngest, ken? And she’s had too little of him. Now he’s wed, she’ll want to be nearby, to help wi’ his bairns when they come. And ye ken Rachel will go where Ian does—and Ian will go where Da does.”

That was a shrewd assessment, I thought, and gave her a brief nod of agreement and respect.

She sighed deeply and, sitting down in her nursing chair, took up the topmost item in the brimming mending basket, the threaded needle still sticking up from the garment where she’d last put it down. I had no desire to abandon the conversation and, pulling out a stool, sat down beside her and plucked one of Germain’s stockings out of the basket. The workbasket, with its housewife, thread balls, and darning egg, was set beside the mending, and I deftly threaded my own needle, feeling pleased that I could still do that without putting on my spectacles.

“What about Fergus?” I asked bluntly. Because plainly Fergus was the crux of the matter, where Marsali was concerned.

“Aye, that’s the rub,” she said frankly. “I’d go, and happy, but ye ken how it was for him when we stayed on the Ridge.”

I did, and grimaced slightly, stretching the heel of the stocking over the darning egg.

“It’s been dangerous in the city, this last year,” she said, and swallowed at the memory. “Couldna tell ye how many times the soldiers came to arrest him; they broke up the shop, more than once, when they couldna find him. And the Loyalists would come and paint slogans on the front wall sometimes. But the danger didna trouble him—so long as it didna threaten me and the bairns.”

“And sometimes even if it does,” I muttered. “And I don’t mean just Fergus. Bloody men.”

Marsali sniffed with amusement.

“Aye. But the thing is—he is a man, no? He’s got to feel he’s worth something. He needs to be able to care for us, and that’s a thing he can do—and do well—here. I canna see how he’d make a decent living in the mountains.”

“True,” I admitted reluctantly. It was a hot day, and stifling in the kitchen, with the cauldron simmering over the hearth. Flies or no flies—and there were an ungodly number of flies in Philadelphia—I got up to open the back door. It wasn’t noticeably cooler outside, though at least the fire under the big washtub hadn’t yet been lit; the girls were still filling it, trudging to and fro from the well with their buckets.

Henri-Christian was nowhere in sight, but had presumably been scrubbed; a filthy black cloth lay crumpled on the doorstep. I stooped to pick it up and saw a folded bit of paper lying on the ground beside the step. It had no direction on it but looked purposeful, so I picked it up and took it back inside.

“Still,” Marsali said, barely waiting for me to sit down. “I’m thinkin’ that even if we canna go to the Ridge, it might be as well if we were to go. There must be places in the South that could use a printer, even if they’re none sae big as Philadelphia.”

“Well, there’s Charleston,” I said doubtfully, “and Savannah. They’re just as hot and ghastly in the summer as Philadelphia is, but the winters are milder, I suppose.”

She shot me a brief look over the shift she was mending, then set it down on her lap, as though having come to a decision.

“It’s no the weather that troubles me,” she said quietly. And, bending, she groped under the pile of shirts and stockings, emerging with a handful of grubby notes and frayed letters. Handling these gingerly, as though they carried some disease, she placed them on my knee.

“Any printer in these days gets such things poked under his door,” she said, watching my face as I read through the first few. “Especially if ye take a stand. We didn’t, for as long as we could, but after a time, ye just canna stand in the middle o’ the road any longer.”

This was said with a simplicity and acceptance that brought tears to my eyes. The more so with the content of the anonymous notes—for they were all unsigned and in a variety of hands, though some were plainly written by the same person—making it quite clear what the price of standing on the Rebel side might be.

“It was worse, maybe,” she said, taking them back and stacking them tidily, “when the British were here. I thought it might stop when they left, but it didn’t.”

“I don’t imagine all the Loyalists left with them,” I said, taking a deep breath in order to control myself. I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach.

“Only the richer ones,” Marsali said cynically. “The ones who thought they’d be dragged from their homes or beaten and robbed, without the army to protect them. But it doesna mean the poorer ones dinna have the same opinions.”

“Why do you keep these?” I asked, handing them back with two fingers, as though holding them with tongs. “I think I’d throw them into the fire at once.”

“I did, at first,” she said, tucking the handful of nastiness carefully back into the bottom of the basket. “But I found I couldna forget what they’d said, and the words would come back to me at night and stop me sleeping.” She straightened, shrugged, and took up her needle again.

“I told Fergus, and he said the thing to do was to keep them and read them through several times a day, one after the other. Read them tae each other.” A brief, rueful smile touched her mouth. “So we did, after the bairns were asleep—we’d sit by the fire and take turns reading them. And he’d make fun o’ them, criticizing the grammar and the lack o’ poetry, comparing them one to another, and we’d rank them from best to worst . . . and then we’d put them away and go to sleep in each other’s arms.”

Her hand rested gently on the mound of mending, as though it were Fergus’s shoulder, and I smiled.

“Well,” I said, and, clearing my throat, produced the note I’d picked up on the step. “I have no idea whether this is another one for your collection—but I found it on the back step just now.”

She took it with a raised brow and looked it over, turning it to and fro.

“It’s cleaner than most,” she observed. “A decent rag paper, too. It’s maybe just a . . .” Her voice died away as she opened it and began to read. I could see that the writing inside was brief; within seconds, the blood drained from her face.

“Marsali.” I reached toward her, and she thrust the note into my hand and rose swiftly.

Ladybird, ladybird, the note read, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are gone.

“Henri-Christian!” Marsali’s voice was strong and urgent. “Girls! Where’s your wee brother?”

DAYLIGHT HAUNTING

I FOUND HENRI-CHRISTIAN in the first place I looked: down the street, playing with the two smallest Phillips girls. The Phillipses had ten children, and even Henri-Christian could blend into their household without causing much notice.

Some parents kept their children from coming anywhere near Henri-Christian—whether from fear that dwarfishness was catching, I supposed, or from the popular superstition that his appearance was the result of his mother having fornicated with the devil. I’d heard that one now and then, though everyone in the neighborhood knew better than to say it anywhere in the hearing of Jamie, Fergus, Ian, or Germain.

The Phillipses were Jewish, though, and apparently felt some kinship with a person whose differences set him apart. Henri-Christian was always welcome at their house. Their maid-of-all-work merely nodded when I asked whether one of the older children would walk home with him later, then went back to her washing; it was laundry day all over Philadelphia, and the humid atmosphere was aggravated by a score of steaming washtubs in the neighborhood, all fuming with the reek of washing soda.

I went back quickly to the printshop to tell Marsali where Henri-Christian was and, having relieved her fears, put on my wide-brimmed hat and announced my intent of going to buy some fish for supper. Marsali and Jenny, armed respectively with a laundry fork and a large paddle for clothes-stirring, gave me marked looks—both of them knew exactly how much I disliked doing laundry—but neither said anything.

I had of course been excused from housework while recuperating and, in all truth, was still not up to the labor of hoicking hot, sodden clothes about. I could have managed hanging out the washing, perhaps, but soothed my conscience on grounds that: 1) fish made an easy supper on laundry day, 2) I needed to walk regularly, in order to regain my strength, and 3) I wanted to talk to Jamie, alone.

The anonymous letter had upset me nearly as much as it had Marsali. It wasn’t like the other threats she had shown me: those were all specifically political, and while some were aimed at Marsali (for she had run the newspaper alone while Fergus was in hiding), they were of the run-of-the-mill “Rebel bitch” variety. I’d heard such epithets—along with “Tory whore!” and their German and Yiddish equivalents—commonly in the rougher parts of Philadelphia.

This was different. It had the whiff of a refined and intelligent malice, and I suddenly felt the presence of Jack Randall at my shoulder, so strongly that I came to an abrupt halt and spun round.

The street was busy, but there was no one behind me. No glimpse of a red coat anywhere, though there were Continental officers here and there, in blue and buff.

“Bugger off, Captain,” I said, under my breath. Not quite far enough under: I got a wide-eyed look from a round little woman selling pretzels from a tray round her neck. She glanced over her shoulder to see to whom I was speaking, then turned back to me with a look of concern.

“You are all right, madam?” she said in a heavy German accent.

“Yes,” I said, embarrassed. “Yes, quite all right. Thank you.”

“Take this,” she said kindly, handing me a pretzel. “I think you are hungry.” And waving away my fumbling attempt at payment, she went off down the street, wide hips rolling, waving a stick of pretzels stacked like quoits and shouting, “Brezeln! Heiße Brezeln!”

Feeling suddenly dizzy, I leaned against the front of a building, closed my eyes, and bit into the pretzel. It was chewy, fresh, and rimed with salt, and I discovered that the woman had been right. I was hungry. Starved, in fact.

The pretzel hit my stomach and then my bloodstream, imparting an instant sense of stability and well-being, and the momentary panic I’d felt evaporated so quickly that I could almost believe it hadn’t happened. Almost.

It hadn’t happened in some time. I swallowed the last bit of pretzel and, after checking my pulse—strong and steady—set off again toward the river.

I walked slowly; it was midday, and any great exertion would leave me drenched with sweat and very likely light-headed again. I ought to have brought my walking stick but had recklessly decided to do without it. I hated feeling infirm.

I hated feeling . . . that, even more. The sudden sense of threat, irrational fear . . . violation. Flashback, the military called it—would call it—in my time. It hadn’t happened to me since Saratoga, though, and I’d almost forgotten about it. Almost.

Completely explainable, of course: I’d been shot, come close to dying, was still physically weak. The last time, I’d been in the dark in the forest near a battlefield, alone, lost, and surrounded by violent men. No wonder it had happened then; the situation was much too close to what it had been when I’d been abducted and assaulted—

“Raped,” I said out loud, firmly, to the extreme startlement of a pair of gentlemen passing by. I paid no attention to them. No point in trying to avoid either the word or the memory. It was over; I was safe.

Before that . . . the first time I’d been overtaken by that sense of threat, it was at River Run, in the course of a party. But a party where the sense of imminent violence was palpable. On that occasion, Jamie had been nearby, thank God. He’d seen that I was spooked—literally, he assumed—and had given me a handful of salt with which to lay the ghost that haunted me.

The Highlands always had a practical answer, whether the difficulty was keeping a fire smoored for the night, having your cow run dry, or being haunted.

I touched the corner of my mouth with my tongue, found a stray salt crystal from the pretzel, and nearly laughed. I looked over my shoulder for the woman who’d given me succor, but she’d vanished.

“Just as an angel should, I suppose,” I murmured. “Thank you.”

There was probably a charm for it in the Gàidhlig, I reflected. There were dozens, probably hundreds. I knew only a few, mostly those concerned with health (they gave my Gaelic-speaking patients reassurance), but picked the one that seemed most suitable to the situation and strode firmly along, my feet solid on the cobbles, chanting:

“I trample on thee, thou seizure,

As tramples whale on brine,

Thou seizure of back, thou seizure of body,

Thou foul wasting of chest.”

And then I saw Jamie, coming up from the docks, laughing at something Fergus was saying, and the world dropped back into place around me.

JAMIE TOOK ONE look at me, took my arm, and steered me into a small coffeehouse around the corner on Locust Street. At this hour of the day, it was all but deserted, and I attracted relatively little attention. Women did drink coffee—when any was to be had—but they mostly drank it at home, in company with friends or at small parties and salons. And while there were grander coffeehouses in London and Edinburgh that women might now and then frequent, the Philadelphia coffeehouses tended to be male preserves of business, gossip, and politics.

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