“I asked, what’s entropy?”
“Oh,” I said, momentarily disconcerted. When had the concept of entropy been invented? Not yet, obviously. “It’s, um . . . a lack of order, a lack of predictability, an inability for a system to do work.”
“A system of what?”
“Well, there you have me,” I admitted, sitting up and wiping my nose. “Just an ideal sort of system, with heat energy. The Second Law of Thermodynamics basically says that in an isolated system—one that’s not getting energy from somewhere outside, I mean—entropy will always increase. I think it’s just a scientific way of saying that everything is going to pot, all of the time.”
He laughed, and despite my shattered state of mind, I did, too.
“Aye, well, far be it from me to argue wi’ the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” he said. “I think it’s likely right. When did ye last eat, Sassenach?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not hungry.” I didn’t want to do anything but sit still beside him.
“D’ye see the sky?” he said, a little later. It was a pure deep violet at the horizon, fading into a blue-black immensity overhead, and the early stars burned like distant lamps.
“Hard to miss,” I said.
“Aye.” He sat with his head tilted back, looking up, and I admired the clean line of his long, straight nose, his soft wide mouth and long throat, as though seeing them for the first time.
“Is it not a void there?” he said quietly, still looking up. “And yet we’re no afraid to look.”
“There are lights,” I said. “It makes a difference.” My voice was hoarse, and I swallowed. “Though I suppose even the stars are burning out, according to the Second Law.”
“Mmphm. Well, I suppose men can make all the laws they like,” he said, “but God made hope. The stars willna burn out.” He turned and, cupping my chin, kissed me gently. “And nor will we.”
The noises of the city were muted now, though even darkness didn’t stifle it entirely. I heard distant voices and the sound of a fiddle: a party, perhaps, from one of the houses down the street. And the bell of St. George’s struck the hour with a small, flat bong! Nine o’clock. And all’s well.
“I’d better go and see to my patient,” I said.
“ALAS, POOR YORICK!”
September 17, 1778
Middlebrook Encampment, New Jersey
TWO NIGHTS LATER, William stood at the edge of a dark wood, watching a lopsided rising moon shed its light over Middlebrook Encampment. His heart was thumping in his ears and he was breathing fast, his hands clenched around the handle of the spade he’d just stolen.
He’d been correct in his assessment of his welcome. He’d roughened his accent and, posing as a young immigrant from England interested in joining Washington’s troops, he’d been invited to join the Hamilton family for supper and given a bed for the night. The next day, he’d walked up to Middlebrook Encampment with the eldest Hamilton son, a man about his own age, where he’d been introduced to a Captain Ronson, one of the few officers still there.
One thing had led to another, and, by degrees, he had steered the conversation to the battle at Brandywine Creek and thence to British prisoners of war . . . and eventually he’d been taken to the small burying ground that lay before him now.
He’d been cautious about Ben, mentioning his name only casually among several others—family acquaintances, he’d said, that he’d heard had been at the battle. Some of the men he talked to hadn’t recognized the name at all; two or three said, oh, yes, the English viscount, prisoner, billeted with a family called Tobermory, very civil fellow, shame that he’d died. . . .
And one man, a Lieutenant Corey, had said the same thing but his eyes had flickered slightly when he said it. William was wise enough to abandon the subject at once—but brought up Captain Benjamin Grey with someone else, much later and out of hearing of Corey.
“Is he buried nearby?” he’d asked, with a decent assumption of casual concern. “I know his family. I should like to be able to write to them, tell them I’d visited, you know. . . .”
It had taken some effort; the burying ground was well outside the encampment, up on a little wooded knoll, and while some of the graves were neatly ranked, others had been dug hastily, and many were unmarked. His companion was not busy, though, and of a helpful complexion; he went and unearthed the adjutant’s ledger in which the dead were listed and, with some poking about, eventually led William to a flattened mound with a piece of lath stuck into it, on which GREY had been scratched with a nail.
“Lucky you came before another winter got at it,” his companion had remarked, pulling the lath out and examining it critically. He shook his head, reached into his pocket, and, fetching out a lead pencil, reinforced the name with strong, scrubbing strokes before pushing it back into the earth. “Maybe that will last a bit, in case the family should want to set up a stone.”
“That’s . . . very good of you,” William had said, his throat tight. “I’ll tell his family of your kindness.” But he couldn’t weep for a man he theoretically hadn’t known and so swallowed his emotions and turned away, finding something commonplace to talk about as they made their way downhill.
He had wept in private, later, leaning against the comforting bulk of the mare, whom he’d named Miranda. She wasn’t sprightly, but she was a good horse, and merely whuffed a little and shifted her weight to give him support.
He’d been stubbornly insisting to himself that there must be some mistake. Ben couldn’t be dead. This belief had been sustained by Uncle Hal’s complete refusal to believe the news. And it was plausible; whatever Ezekiel Richardson was up to, he meant no good to the Greys.
But here was Ben’s grave, silent and muddy, speckled with the first yellowing leaves of September. And all around him lay the decaying bodies of other men, some prisoners, some Continental regulars, some militia . . . equal, and equally alone in death.
He’d eaten dinner that night with the Hamiltons again, replying automatically to their conversation but concerned with his own misery—and the thought of the much greater misery to come when he had to return to New York and tell his father and Uncle Hal. . . .
William had taken leave of the Hamiltons next morning, consigning the remains of the deer to them, and was followed down the narrow road by their good wishes and hopes that they would see him again with General Washington, when the troops came back to Middlebrook to winter. He’d made it several miles down the mountain, dragging his spirit behind him, when he stopped to take a piss.
He’d been hunting once with Ben, and they’d stopped like this; Ben had told him a particularly scabrous joke, and he’d laughed so much that he couldn’t piss and Ben had pissed on his shoes, which made them both laugh harder, and . . .
“God damn it,” he said aloud, and, buttoning his flies, stamped back to Miranda and swung up into the saddle. “I’m sorry, owd lass,” he said, reining her head around to face uphill. “We’re going back.”
And here he was, wavering between the conviction that this was madness and the stark fact that there wasn’t anything else he could do besides go back to New York, and he wouldn’t do that until and unless he had no other choice. At least he might be able to salvage a lock of Ben’s hair for Aunt Minnie. . . .
That thought made him want to throw up, but he touched the knife at his waist, took a firmer hold of the spade, and made his way gingerly in among the graves.
The moonlight was bright enough to find footing but not to read most of the markers. He had to kneel and run his thumb over several before feeling the letters G-R-E-Y.
“Right,” he said out loud. His voice sounded small and choked, and he cleared his throat and spat—to the side, not on the grave. “Right,” he said again, more forcefully, and, standing, took up the spade and drove it into the earth.
He’d started close to what he thought should be the head, but dug in from the side—the thought of driving his spade down into Ben’s face made his flesh creep. The dirt was soft, damp with recent rain, but it was heavy work, and despite the coolness of the mountain night, he was soaked with sweat before he’d dug a quarter of an hour. If Ben had died of camp fever, as they said—and come to think, was that sensible? He hadn’t been held in the stockade with the enlisted men. As an officer, he’d been billeted with the Tobermorys. How had he come to catch camp fever? But still, if he had, then others would have died at the same time; it was a badly infectious sort of plague, he knew that much.
But if that were true, then a number of other men would have been buried at the same time, and buried hastily, to prevent contagion from the bodies. (Oh, there was a good thought: he might be opening a grave full of teeming pestilence. . . .) Anyway, if that were the case, the graves would be shallow ones.
This one was. His spade struck something harder than dirt, and he stopped abruptly, muscles quivering. He swallowed and resumed shoveling, more cautiously.
The body had been wrapped in a shroud of coarse burlap. He couldn’t see, but a ginger probing with his fingers told him as much. Squatting, he dug with his hands, unearthing what he hoped was the head. His stomach was clenched tight and he was breathing through his mouth. The stink was less than he’d expected, but still definitely there.
Oh, God. Ben . . . He’d been nursing the hope that the grave was empty.
Patting and probing, he made out the rounded shape and took a deep breath, feeling for the edge of the shroud. Had it been stitched? No, the edge was loose.
He’d thought of bringing a torch but had dismissed the idea, not wanting to risk detection. On the whole, he was glad he hadn’t. He wiped dirt from his hands onto his breeches and peeled the burlap gently back, grimacing as it stuck to the skin beneath. It came loose with a grisly, rasping sound, and he nearly dropped it and ran. But he steeled himself and touched the dead man’s face.
It wasn’t as awful as he’d thought it might be; the body seemed largely still intact. How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot? What had the gravedigger said in reply—nine years? Well, then . . . He’d seen Hamlet with Ben and Adam, in London. . . .
William fought back an insane urge to laugh and felt gently over the dead features. The nose was broad and stubby, not Ben’s sharp beak—but no doubt the process of decay . . . He slid his fingers over the temple, thinking to see if a presentable lock of hair might—and stopped dead, not breathing.
The corpse was missing an ear. Bloody hell, it was missing both ears. He felt again, both sides, unable to believe it. But it was true—and the ears had been missing for some time; even with the nasty slack feel of the decaying flesh, the ridges of scar tissue were distinct. A thief.
William sat back on his heels and tilted up his head, letting out a huge breath. He felt dizzy, and the stars made little pinwheels in his vision.
“Jesus,” he breathed, flooded with relief, gratitude, and creeping horror. “Oh, Jesus, thank you! And, oh, Christ,” he added, looking down at the invisible stranger in Ben’s grave, “now what?”
A CRACKLING OF THORNS
September 18, 1778
IWAS HAVING A pleasantly incoherent dream involving autumn leaves and fireflies. The fireflies were red, rather than green, and were floating down through the trees like live sparks, and where they brushed against the yellow leaves, the edges browned and curled as the leaves caught fire. Smoke curled upward through the trees, lazy against an evening sky, pungent as tobacco, and I was walking underneath, smoking a cigarette with Frank . . .
I woke muzzily, thinking how nice it was to see Frank again, followed abruptly by Dreams don’t smell, do they? along with I don’t smoke, and then—
“Jesus! We’re on fire!” I sat up, panicked and wriggling to get out of the sheets. Smoke was already thick in the loft, drifting layers above my head, and Jamie was coughing, grabbing my arm and dragging me free before I could locate all my limbs.
“Quick,” he said, hoarse as a crow. “Dinna wait to dress, come down!”
I didn’t dress, but did seize my shift and pulled it over my head as I crawled toward the edge of the loft. Jamie had the ladder over the edge as I reached it and was already started down, shouting in a loud, cracked voice.
I could hear the fire. It rattled and crackled, and the ashy smell of burning paper and the stink of singed buckram was thick in the air.
“In the shop,” I gasped, catching up with Jamie in the kitchen. “It’s in the shop. The Bibles are burning—the typefoundry . . .”
“Get the weans.” He ran across the kitchen, shirttails flying, and slammed shut the door that led into the printshop, from which smoke was fuming in clouds. I ran the other way, into the room that served Fergus and Marsali as living and sleeping quarters, with a smaller loft above, where the children and Jenny slept.
That door was shut, thank God. The smoke hadn’t yet reached them. I flung it open, shouting, “Fire! Fire! Get up, get up!” and ran for the ladder to the loft, hearing Fergus swear behind me in French and Marsali’s confused “What? WHAT?”
My hands were sweating and slipped on the smooth wooden rails of the ladder.
“Jenny! Germain!” I bellowed—or tried to. Smoke was drifting here, too, high up under the roof, and I was coughing, my eyes and nose running.
There was one small bedstead, two little humps under the bedclothes. I ran to the bed, flinging back the covers. Joan and Félicité were curled together, Félicité’s nightdress rucked up to show her little bottom. I grabbed her by the shoulder, shaking her and trying to speak calmly.
“Girls, girls! You have to get up. Right now. Do you hear me, Joan? Wake up!”