A brief outbreak of domestic chaos ended with all the adults seated on the benches at table and the children in their own huddle by the hearth with their wooden bowls and spoons. Despite the heat of the evening, the fragrant steam of onions, milk, seafood, and fresh bread enveloped the table in a brief enchantment of anticipation.
The men sat down last, their murmured talk stopping well short of the table, and I gave Jamie a brief, questioning look. He touched my shoulder as he sat down beside me, saying, “Aye, later,” under his breath, and nodded at the hearth. Pas devant les enfants, then.
Fergus cleared his throat. A small sound, but the children instantly stopped talking. He smiled at them, and their heads bowed over earnestly clasped hands.
“Bless us, O Lord,” he said in French, “and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.”
“Amen,” everyone murmured, and talk washed over the room like the tide coming in.
“Are ye bound back to the army soon, Ian?” Marsali asked, tucking a damp lock of blond hair back into her cap.
“Aye,” he replied, “but not Washington’s army. No yet, anyway.”
Jamie leaned across me to raise a brow at him.
“Ye’ve turned your coat, then?” he said. “Or just decided the British pay better?” There was a wry edge to this; he’d not seen a penny of pay and told me frankly that he didn’t expect to. Congress wasn’t swift about paying anyone, and a temporary general who’d resigned his commission was likely at the bottom of their list.
Ian closed his eyes in momentary bliss, chewing an oyster, then swallowed and opened them, wiping a dribble of milk from his chin.
“No,” he said equably, “I’m takin’ Dottie up to New York to see her da and Lord John.”
That stopped all adult conversation dead, though the children continued to chatter by the hearth. I saw Jenny dart her eyes at Rachel, who looked composed, though considerably less blissful than she had before. She’d known about it, though; there was no surprise on her face.
“Why’s that, then?” Jamie asked, in a tone of mild curiosity. “She’s not decided Denzell doesna suit her, I hope? For I doubt he’s taken to beating her.”
That made Rachel laugh—briefly, but out loud, and the company relaxed a bit.
“No,” she said. “I believe Dottie to be pleased in her marriage; I know my brother is.” The smile lingered in her eyes, though her face grew serious as she glanced at Ian, then turned to Jamie.
“Her eldest brother has died. He was a prisoner of war, held in New Jersey. Her brother Henry received news yesterday confirming his death, but Henry cannot bear the strain of so long a journey yet, especially with the roads so dangerous, and Dottie feels she must go to her father.”
Jenny gave her a sharp look, which sharpened a bit further as she turned it on Ian.
“The roads bein’ so dangerous,” she repeated, with a mild tone that matched Jamie’s and fooled no one. Ian grinned at her and took a fresh chunk of bread, which he dunked in his stew.
“Dinna fash, Mam,” he said. “There’s a wee band o’ folk I ken, traveling north. They’re agreeable to going by New York. We’ll be gey safe wi’ them.”
“What sort of folk?” Jenny asked suspiciously. “Quakers?”
“Mohawk,” he said, the grin widening. “Come out wi’ me and Rachel after supper, Mam. They’d be that pleased to meet ye.”
I could honestly say that, in all the time I’d known her, I’d never before seen Jenny Murray gobsmacked. I could feel Jamie vibrating with suppressed hilarity next to me, and had to look down into my bowl for a moment to regain my own composure.
Jenny was made of stern stuff, though. She took a long moment, took a longer breath, pushed Rollo’s nose out of her lap, and then said calmly, “Aye. I’d like that. Pass me the salt, Fergus, aye?”
In spite of the general amusement, I hadn’t forgotten what Rachel had said about Dottie’s brother Benjamin, and I felt a twist of surprisingly acute pain, as though someone had knotted a length of barbed wire round my heart. “Do you ever make bargains with God?” If Hal had offered such a bargain, evidently God had declined it. Oh, God, Hal . . . I’m sorry.
“I’m so sorry to hear about Dottie’s brother,” I said, leaning forward to talk to Rachel. “Do you know what happened?”
She shook her head briefly, and the firelight, now behind her, cast shadow on her face from the curtain of dark hair.
“Henry had had a letter from their brother Adam. He’d had the news from someone on General Clinton’s staff, I think he said. All it said was that whoever had written the letter wished to express their regrets as to the death of Captain Benjamin Grey, a British prisoner of war who had been held at Middlebrook Encampment in New Jersey, and would General Clinton’s office please relay this sad news to the captain’s family. They’d thought it possible that he was dead—but this seems to put the matter beyond all doubt, alas.”
“Middlebrook Encampment is what they call the place in the Watchung Mountains where Washington took his troops after Bound Brook,” Fergus remarked with interest. “But the army left there in June of last year. Why would Captain Grey be there, I wonder?”
“Does an army travel wi’ its captives?” Jamie asked, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “Save if they’re taken when the army’s on the move, I mean.”
Fergus nodded, conceding the point, but seemed still to be pondering something. Marsali stepped in before he could speak, though, gesturing at Ian with her spoon.
“Speakin’ o’ why—why are your friends going north?” she asked. “Hasn’t anything to do wi’ the massacre at Andrustown, has it?”
Jenny turned toward her son, intent. A closed look came over Ian’s face, though he answered calmly enough.
“It does, aye. Where did ye hear o’ that?”
Marsali and Fergus shrugged in unison, making me smile involuntarily, in spite of my distress over Hal’s son.
“The way in which we hear most of the news we print,” Fergus amplified. “A letter from someone who heard of the matter.”
“And what do your friends have in mind to do about the matter?” Jenny asked.
“More to the point,” Jamie said, twisting to address Ian, “what do you have in mind to do about it?”
I was watching Rachel, on the other side of the table, rather than Ian, but I saw a look too faint to be called anxiety cross her brow, relaxing in the next instant when Ian replied flatly, “Nothing.” Perhaps feeling this too blunt, he coughed and took a gulp of beer.
“I dinna ken anyone who was there, and as I havena any intent to turn my coat and fight for the British wi’ Thayendanegea . . . Nay,” he finished, setting down his cup. “I’ll go as far as New York to see Dottie safe and then come back to wherever Washington might be.” He smiled at Rachel, his face shifting abruptly from its usual appealing half-homely expression to a startling attractiveness. “I need my scout’s pay, after all; I’ve a wife to support.”
“Ye must come and stay wi’ us, then,” Marsali said to Rachel. “While Ian’s gone, I mean.”
I hadn’t time to wonder exactly where she planned to put Rachel—Marsali was ingenious and would doubtless find a place—before Rachel shook her head. She wasn’t wearing a cap but wore her straight dark hair loose on her shoulders; I could hear the whisper of it against her dress as she moved.
“I shall go with Ian to fetch Dottie. Rollo and I will stay in camp with my brother until Ian returns. I can be useful there.” Her long fingers curled and flexed in illustration, and she smiled at me. “Thee knows the joy of useful occupation, Claire, I expect.”
Jenny made a nondescript noise in her throat, and Marsali snorted briefly, though without rancor.
“Indeed I do,” I said, my eyes on the slice of bread I was buttering. “And which would you rather find useful occupation in, Rachel—boiling laundry, or lancing the boils on Mr. Pinckney’s arse?”
She laughed, and the arrival of Henri-Christian with an empty bowl in his hands saved her replying. He set it on the table and yawned sleepily, swaying on his feet.
“Aye, it’s late, wee man,” his mother said to him, and, picking him up, cradled him in her arms. “Lay your head, a bhalaich. Papa will take ye up presently.”
More beer was fetched, the little girls collected the empty bowls and put them in the bucket to soak, Germain vanished outside into the gathering dusk for the last few minutes of play with his friends, Rollo curled up to sleep by the fire, and talk became general.
Jamie’s hand rested warmly on my thigh, and I leaned against him, laying my head briefly on his shoulder. He looked down at me and smiled, squeezing my leg. I was looking forward to the Spartan comfort of our pallet in the loft, the cooling freedom of shift and nakedness, and the sharing of whispers in the dark—but for the moment was more than content to be where I was.
Rachel was talking across Marsali to Fergus, Marsali humming quietly to Henri-Christian, whose round dark head lolled on her bosom, his eyes almost closed. I looked carefully at Rachel, but it was much too soon to see any signs of pregnancy, even if—And then I stopped, startled, as my eye caught something else.
I’d seen Marsali through her pregnancy with Henri-Christian. And I was seeing a bloom on her cheeks now that wasn’t from the warmth of the room: a slight fullness of the eyelids, and a subtle softening and rounding of face and body that I might have recognized earlier, had I been looking for it. Did Fergus know, I wondered? And glanced quickly at the head of the table, to see him looking at Marsali and Henri-Christian, his dark eyes soft with love.
Jamie shifted a little beside me, turning to say something to Ian, on my other side. I turned, too, and saw that Ian’s eyes were also fixed on Marsali and Henri-Christian, with a look of wistfulness that smote me to the heart.
I felt his longing, and my own—for Brianna. Roger, and Jem, and Mandy. Safe, I hoped—but not here, and I swallowed a lump in my throat.
“You’d die for them, happily,” Hal had said, in the long night watch when I’d kept him breathing. “Your family. But at the same time you think, Christ, I can’t die! What might happen to them if I weren’t here?” He’d given me a wry and rueful smile. “And you know bloody well that you mostly can’t help them anyway; they’ve got to do it—or not—themselves.”
That was true. But it didn’t stop you caring.
IT WAS HOT and close in the loft, with the comfortable lingering scents of supper crammed in under the rafters, the more argumentative pungencies of ink, paper, buckram, and leather that had built up all day, and the faintly pervasive scent of mule straw underlying everything. I gasped at the impact as I stepped off the ladder and went at once to open the loading door that looked out onto the cobbled alley behind the shop.
A blast of Philadelphia rushed in, fluttering the stacks of paper: smoke from a dozen nearby chimneys, an acrid stink from the manure pile behind the livery stable down the street, and the intoxicatingly resinous scent of leaves and bark and brush and flowers that was William Penn’s legacy. Leave one acre of trees for every five acres cleared, he’d advised in his charter, and if Philadelphia had not quite met that ideal, it was still a particularly verdant city.
“God bless you, William,” I said, beginning to shed my outer clothes as fast as possible. The evening air might be warm and humid, but it was moving, and I couldn’t wait to let it move over my skin.
“That’s a kind thought, Sassenach,” Jamie said, stepping off the ladder into the loft. “Why, though? Is the lad in your mind for some reason?”
“Wh—oh, William,” I said, realizing. “I hadn’t actually meant your son, but naturally . . .” I fumbled to organize an explanation but gave it up, seeing that he wasn’t really attending. “Were you thinking of him?”
“I was, aye,” he admitted, coming to help with my laces. “Being wi’ the weans and the bairns, and all sae comfortable together . . .” His voice died away and he drew me gently to him, bent his head to mine, and let it rest there with a sigh that stirred the hair near my face.
“You wish he could be part of it,” I said softly, reaching up to touch his cheek. “Be part of the family.”
“If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride,” he said, and let go, with a wry smile visible in the glow from the kitchen below. “And if turnips were swords, I’d hae one by my side.”
I laughed, but my eye went to the stack of Bibles where he was accustomed to leave his sword. His dirk was there, his pistols, shot bag, and a scatter of oddments from his sporran, but no sword. I squinted to be sure I was seeing a-right, but I was.
“I sold it,” he said matter-of-factly, seeing the direction of my glance. “It’s one good thing to be said of war: ye can get a good price for a decent weapon.”
I wanted to protest, but didn’t. He wore weapons with a lifelong ease, to the point that his knives and guns seemed a part of him, and I didn’t like to see him diminished by the loss of any. But without an army commission, he likely wouldn’t need a sword immediately, and we did certainly need money.
“You can buy another when we reach Wilmington,” I said practically, returning his favor by unbuttoning his breeks. They slid off his lean hips and fell, puddling round his feet. “It would be lovely for William to know the truth about Bree and her family sometime. Will you tell him?”
“In the event that he ever comes within speakin’ distance of me without trying to kill me?” One corner of his mouth curled ruefully. “Aye, maybe. But I maybe wouldn’t tell him all the truth.”