Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 139

   

“I don’t think you did. Under the circumstances, I suppose it would have been a reasonable assumption, though—were you knocked out?”

He nodded, eyes fixed on the floorboards.

“Aye. If I’d been able to look about, I should have known better, but my eyes were sealed shut wi’ the blood. It was all red and dim, so I supposed I was in purgatory and would just have to wait ’til someone came round to chastise me. After a bit, I supposed boredom was meant to be part of the punishment.” He glanced at the tiny coffin on its bench at the front of the room. Germain sat by it, one hand on its lid. He hadn’t moved at all in the last half hour.

“I’ve never seen Henri-Christian bored,” I said quietly, after a moment. “Not once.”

“No,” Jamie said softly, and took my hand. “I dinna suppose he ever will be.”

Gaelic wakes have their own rhythm. Fergus and Marsali came in quietly an hour or so later and sat together at first, holding hands near the coffin, but as more people came, the men gradually surrounded Fergus, absorbing him, much as a gang of phagocytes surround a microbe, carrying it along with them, and after a time, as happens normally in such situations, half the men were at one side of the room, talking quietly, and the others outside, unable to bear close quarters and exigent emotion but wanting to lend their presence and sympathy.

The women clustered, first near Marsali, hugging and weeping, then gathering in small clumps with their friends, drifting back to the tables to rearrange things or put out more bread or cakes. Josiah Prentice came with his fiddle, but left it in its case for the time being. Tobacco smoke from the pipes of the men outside drifted through the church in soft blue clouds. It tickled uneasily at the back of my nose, too reminiscent of the fire for comfort.

Jamie left me with a brief squeeze of the hand and went to speak to Ian. I saw them both look at Germain; Ian nodded and moved quietly to his nephew, putting both hands on his shoulders. Rachel hovered nearby, dark eyes watchful.

The bench beside me creaked, and Jenny sat down. Wordless, she put her arm about my shoulder, and equally wordless, I bent my head to hers and we wept for a bit—not only for Henri-Christian but for the babies we each had lost, my stillborn Faith, her infant Caitlin. And for Marsali, now joining us in this sorrowful kinship.

The night drew in, beer and ale were poured, some stronger drink was brought out, and the somber mood of the gathering lifted a little. Still, it was the wake of a child and a life cut short; there couldn’t be the sense of shared memory and laughter that there might be for a man who had lived a full life and whose friends had come to share in his death.

Josiah Prentice played his fiddle, but quietly, mixing laments with peaceful tunes and the occasional hymn; there wouldn’t be much singing tonight. I wished suddenly and fiercely that Roger were here. He would perhaps have known what to say, in a situation where there was nothing one could say. And even with his ruined voice, he would have known a song to sing, a prayer to offer.

Father O’Neill from St. George’s Church had come, tactfully overlooking the unorthodox Quaker marriage of a month before, and stood talking near the door with Fergus and a few other men.

“Poor wee child,” Jenny said, her voice roughened by tears but steady now. She was holding my hand, and I hers, and she was looking not at the coffin but at Fergus. “His bairns mean everything to him—and especially our wee man.” Her lips trembled, but she pressed them together and straightened her back.

“D’ye think Marsali’s breedin’?” she said, very softly, looking at Marsali, with Joan and Félicité clinging to her skirts, Joan’s head in her lap. Her mother’s hand rested on her hair, gently smoothing it.

“I do,” I said, as softly.

She nodded, and her hand twitched, half hidden in the folds of her skirt, making the horns against evil.

More people had come. The Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, and several delegates who did business with Fergus had come. Jonas Phillips and Samuel Adams were both there, chatting by the refreshments table. In a different frame of mind, I might have marveled at being in the same room with two signers of the Declaration of Independence, but, after all, they were only men—though I took it kindly that they’d come.

I looked for Germain every few minutes; now he was standing by the tables with Ian, drinking something from a cup. I blinked and looked again.

“Jesus H—I mean, good Lord. Ian’s giving Germain cherry bounce!”

Jenny glanced at Germain’s bright red lips, and a quiver of amusement ran through her.

“Canna think of anything better for the lad just now, can you?”

“Well . . . no.” I stood up, shaking out my skirts. “D’you want some?”

“I do,” she said, and got up with alacrity. “And maybe a wee bite, too. It’ll be a long night; we’ll need a bit to sustain us, aye?”

It felt better to be up and moving. The fog of grief still numbed sensation, and I didn’t look forward to its passing, but at the same time . . . I realized that I was hungry now.

The feeling in the room shifted gradually, from the first impact of shock and sorrow, to comforting support for the family, and now to more-general talk. Which was, I realized uneasily, beginning to focus on speculation as to what—or who—had caused the fire.

In the shock and grief of the event, none of us had spoken of it, but even through that numbing fog, the insidious question had hovered like a bat overhead: Why? How? And . . . who?

If anyone. Fire was a common plague in a time when every household had open hearths, and a printshop, with its type forge and its stock of inflammables, was still more vulnerable to simple accident. An open window, a stray breeze, loose papers blowing . . . a spitting ember from a badly smoored fire catching hold . . .

And yet.

The memory of the anonymous letter floated queasily on the surface of my mind. Your house is on fire and your children are gone . . .

And the young men who had followed me from Chestnut Street, their stealthy plucking and whispered taunts. God, could I have brought their enmity to Fergus’s door?

Jamie had come to stand by me again, steady and solid as a rock, and handed me a fresh cup of cherry bounce. It was like drinking very strong cough syrup, but it was undeniably bracing. Up to the point where you fell down insensible, at least. I saw that Germain had slid slowly down the wall; Rachel knelt next to him and eased him to the ground, then folded her shawl and put it under his head.

The cherry bounce was taking the place of the fog; I thought drunkenness was probably an improvement, on the whole.

“Mrs. Fraser?” A strange voice on my left drew my attention from bemused contemplation of the dark-red depths of my cup. A young man in shabby clothes was standing at my elbow, a small package in his hand.

“She is,” Jamie said, giving the young man a searching look. “Are ye needing a physician? Because—”

“Oh, no, sir,” the young man assured him, obsequious. “I was told to give this into Mrs. Fraser’s hand, that’s all.” He handed it to me and, with a short bow, turned and left.

Puzzled, and slow with fatigue, grief, and cherry bounce, I fumbled with the string, then gave up and handed the package to Jamie, who reached for his knife, failed to find it—for it had, of course, perished in the fire—and, with a flicker of annoyance, simply broke the string. The wrapping fell open to reveal a small leather purse and a note, folded but unsealed.

I blinked and squinted for a moment, then dipped a hand into my pocket. By a miracle, my spectacles had been downstairs, left behind in the kitchen when I took them off while chopping onions, and Jamie had retrieved them in his hurried foray into the burning house. The stylish handwriting sprang into reassuring clarity.

Mrs. Fraser,

I cannot think my Presence would be welcome and I would not intrude on private Grief. I ask nothing, neither Acknowledgment nor Obligation. I do ask that you would allow me to help in the only way that I can and that you will not reveal the Source of this Assistance to the younger Mr. Fraser. I trust your Discretion, as to the Elder.

It was signed simply, P. Wainwright (Beauchamp).

I raised my brows at Jamie and passed him the note. He read it, lips pressed tight together, but glanced at Marsali and the girls, now clustered with Jenny, talking to Mrs. Phillips, all of them crying quietly. Then across the room, to Fergus, flanked by Ian and Rachel. He grimaced very briefly, but his features set in resignation. There was a family to provide for; he couldn’t, for the moment, afford pride.

“Well, it probably wasn’t him, then,” I said, with a sigh, and tucked the little purse into the pocket under my skirt. Numbed as I was, I still felt a vague sense of relief at that. Whatever he might be, might have done, or might intend, I still rather liked the erstwhile Monsieur Beauchamp.

I had no time to consider Percy further, though, for at this point there was a stir among the people near the door, and, looking to see what had caused it, I saw George Sorrel come in.

It was apparent at a glance that the tavern owner had been availing himself of his own wares—possibly as a means of getting up his courage, for he stood swaying slightly, fists clenched at his sides, looking slowly round the room, belligerently meeting the stares that greeted him.

Jamie said something very unsuitable in a house of God under his breath in Gaelic, and started toward the door. Before he could reach it, though, Fergus had turned to see the cause of the stir and had spotted Sorrel.

Fergus was no more sober than Sorrel but was much more upset. He stiffened for an instant, but then pulled himself free of the grasping hands of his supporters and headed for Sorrel without a word, red-eyed as a hunting ferret and just as dangerous.

He hit Sorrel with his fist as the man was opening his mouth. Unsteady as they were, both of them staggered from the impact, and men rushed in to separate them. Jamie reached Sorrel and, grabbing his arm, jerked him out of the scrum.

“I suggest that ye leave, sir,” he said, politely, under the circumstances, and turned the man firmly toward the door.

“Don’t,” Fergus said. He was breathing like a train, sweat pouring down his chalk-white face. “Don’t go. Stay—and tell me why. Why have you come here? How dare you come here?” This last was uttered in a cracked shout that made Sorrel blink and take a step backward. He shook his head doggedly, though, and drew himself up.

“I came to—to offer Mrs. Fraser con-condol—to say I was sorry about her son,” he said sullenly. “And you ain’t a-going to stop me, either, you farting French son of a bitch!”

“You offer my wife nothing,” Fergus said, shaking with fury. “Nothing, do you hear? Who is to say you did not set the fire yourself? To kill me, to seize upon my wife? Salaud!”

I would have bet money that Sorrel didn’t know what a salaud was, but it didn’t matter; he went the color of beetroot and lunged at Fergus. He didn’t reach him, as Jamie managed to grab his collar, but there was a sound of rending cloth and Sorrel jerked to a stop, staggering.

There was a rumble through the room, men and women gathering in a thundercloud of disapproval. I could see Jamie drawing himself up and in, settling himself to haul Sorrel out before someone besides Fergus took a swing at him. A certain shuffling readiness suggested that a number of men had it in mind.

And then Rachel walked between the two men. She was very pale, though a red spot burned in each cheek, and her hands were clenched in the fabric of her skirt.

“Does thee indeed come to offer comfort, friend?” she said to Sorrel, in a voice that shook only a little. “For if that is so, thee ought to offer it to all of those who are met here for the sake of the child. Particularly to his father.”

She turned toward Fergus, reaching to put a careful hand on his sleeve.

“Thee will not see thy wife distressed further, I know,” she said quietly. “Will thee not go to her now? For while she is grateful for the presence of so many kind folk, it is only thee she wants.”

Fergus’s face worked, anguish and fury warring with confusion. Seeing him unable to decide what to do or how to do it, Rachel moved closer and took his arm, tucking her hand into the curve of his elbow, and compelled him to turn and to walk with her, the crowd parting in front of them. I saw the curve of Marsali’s blond head as she raised it slowly, her face changing as she watched Fergus come.

Jamie took a deep breath and released Sorrel.

“Well?” he said quietly. “Stay or go. As ye will.”

Sorrel was still panting a little but had himself in hand now. He nodded jerkily, drew himself up, and straightened his torn coat. Then he walked through the silent crowd, head up, to give his sympathies to the bereaved.

HALLOWED GROUND

IN SPITE OF THE neighbors’ generosity, there was very little to pack. Nor was there any reason to linger in Philadelphia. Our life there was ended.

There was—there always is—considerable speculation as to the cause of the fire. But after the outburst at the wake, a sense of flat finality had settled over all of us. The neighbors would continue to talk, but among the family there was an unspoken agreement that it made little difference whether the fire had been pure accident or someone’s ill design. Nothing would bring Henri-Christian back. Nothing else mattered.

Jamie had taken Fergus to make the arrangements for our travel: not because he needed assistance but as a way of keeping Fergus moving, lest he simply sit down by Henri-Christian’s small coffin and never rise again.

Things were both easier and harder for Marsali. She had children to care for, children who needed her badly.

Rachel and I packed what there was to pack, bought food for the journey, and dealt with the final details of leaving. I packed the bits and bobs of my surgery and, with mutual tears and embraces, gave the keys of Number 17 Chestnut Street to Mrs. Figg.

And in the early afternoon of the day following the wake, we borrowed a small cart, hitched up Clarence, and followed Henri-Christian to his grave.

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