Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 14

   

“You’re not escaping,” he said definitely, and went out. Grey could hear a brief, heated discussion, conducted in low voices outside the tent, as to just what to do with him. A militia camp on the move had no facilities for prisoners. Grey amused himself by composing a mental entertainment in which Smith was obliged to share his narrow cot with Grey, in the interests of keeping his prisoner secure.

In the end, though, a corporal came in, carrying a rusty set of fetters that looked as though they had last seen use during the Spanish Inquisition, and took Grey to the edge of camp, where a soldier who had been a blacksmith in private life banged them into place with a stout hammer, using a flattish rock as an anvil.

He felt the oddest sensations, kneeling on the ground in the twilight, an interested group of militiamen gathered round in a circle to watch. He was forced to lean forward in a crouching posture, hands laid before him, as though he were about to be beheaded, and the hammer blows echoed through the metal, into the bones of his wrists and arms.

He kept his eyes on the hammer, and not only from fear that the smith would miss his aim in the growing dusk and smash one of his hands. Under the influence of intoxication and a growing, deeper fear that he didn’t want to acknowledge, he sensed the mingled curiosity and animus surrounding him and felt it as he would a nearby thunderstorm, electricity crawling over his skin, the threat of lightning annihilation so close he could smell its sharp odor, mixed with gunpowder and the heavy tang of the sweat of men.

Ozone. His mind seized on the word, a small escape into rationality. That’s what Claire called the smell of lightning. He’d told her he thought it was from the Greek ozon, the neuter present participle of ozein, meaning “to smell.”

He began to work his way methodically through the complete conjugation; by the time he’d finished, surely they would be done with it. Ozein, to smell. I smell . . .

He could smell his own sweat, sharp and sweet. In the old days, it was considered a better death, beheading. To be hanged was shameful, a commoner’s death, a criminal’s death. Slower. He knew that for a fact.

A final reverberating blow, and a visceral sound of satisfaction from the watching men. He was made prisoner.

THERE BEING NO shelter other than the brushy wigwams and scraps of canvas the militiamen rigged near their fires, he was escorted back to Smith’s big, threadbare tent, given supper—which he forced down, not much noticing what he ate—and then tethered to the tent pole with a long, thin rope run through the chain of his irons, with sufficient play as to allow him to lie down or use the utensil.

At Smith’s insistence, he took the cot and did lie down with a slight groan of relief. His temples throbbed with each heartbeat, and so did the entire left side of his face, which was now radiating small jolts down into his upper teeth, very unpleasant. The pain in his side had dulled to a deep ache, almost negligible by comparison. Luckily, he was so tired that sleep swamped all discomfort, and he fell into it with a sense of profound gratitude.

He woke in the full dark sometime later, slicked with sweat, heart hammering from some desperate dream. He raised a hand to push the soaked hair off his face and felt the heavy, chafing weight of the fetters, which he’d forgotten about. They clanked, and the dark figure of a sentry silhouetted in the fire glow at the entrance of the tent turned sharply toward him, but then relaxed as he turned over on the cot, clanking further.

Bugger, he thought, still groggy with sleep. Couldn’t even masturbate if I wanted to. The thought made him laugh, though fortunately it came out as a mere breath of sound.

Another body turned over, rustling, shifting heavily near him. Smith, he supposed, sleeping on a canvas bed sack stuffed with grass; Grey could smell the meadow scent of dry hay, faintly musty in the humid air. The bed sack was standard issue to the British army; Smith must have kept it, along with his tent and other equipment, changing only his uniform.

Why had he turned his coat? Grey wondered vaguely, peering at Smith’s humped shape, just visible against the pale canvas. Advancement? Starved as they were for professional soldiers, the Continentals offered rank as inducement; a captain in any European army might become anything from a major to a general in the blink of an eye, whereas the only means of achieving higher rank in England was to find the money to purchase it.

What was rank without pay, though? Grey was no longer a spy, but he had been one, once—and still knew men who labored in those dark fields. From what he’d heard, the American Congress had no money at all and depended upon loans—these unpredictable in amount and erratic in occurrence. Some from French or Spanish sources, though the French wouldn’t admit to it, of course. Some from Jewish moneylenders, said one of his correspondents. Salomon, Solomon . . . some name like that.

These random musings were interrupted by a sound that made him stiffen. A woman’s laughter.

There were women in the camp, wives who had come along to war with their husbands. He’d seen a few when they took him across the campground, and one had brought his supper, glancing suspiciously up at him from under her cap. But he thought he knew that laugh—deep, gurgling, and totally unself-conscious.

“Jesus,” he whispered under his breath. “Dottie?”

It wasn’t impossible. He swallowed, trying to clear his left ear, to listen through the multitude of small sounds outside. Denzell Hunter was a Continental surgeon, and Dottie had—to her brother’s, cousin’s, and uncle’s horror—joined the camp followers at Valley Forge in order to help her fiancé, though she rode into Philadelphia regularly to visit her brother Henry. If Washington’s forces were moving—and very plainly they were—it was entirely possible that a surgeon might be anywhere among them.

A high, clear voice, raised in question. An English voice, and not common. He strained to hear but couldn’t make out the words. He wished she’d laugh again.

If it was Dottie . . . he breathed deep, trying to think. He couldn’t call out to her; he’d felt the avid hostility directed at him from every man in camp—letting the relationship be known would be dangerous for her and Denzell, both, and certainly wouldn’t help Grey. And yet he had to risk it—they’d move him in the morning.

Out of sheer inability to think of anything better, he sat up on the cot and began to sing “Die Sommernacht.” Quietly at first, but gathering strength and volume. As he hit “In den Kulungen wehn” at the top of his very resonant tenor voice, Smith sat up like a jack-in-the-box and said, “What?” in tones of utter amazement.

“So umschatten mich Gedanken an das Grab

Meiner Geliebten, und ich seh’ im Walde

Nur es dämmern, und es weht mir

Von der Blüte nicht her.”

Grey went on, reducing his volume somewhat. He didn’t want Dottie—if it was Dottie—coming to look, only to let her know he was here. He’d taught her this lied when she was fourteen; she sang it often at musicales.

“Ich genoß einst, o ihr Toten, es mit euch!

Wie umwehten uns der Duft und die Kühlung,

Wie verschönt warst von dem Monde,

Du, o schöne Natur!”

He stopped, coughed a little, and spoke into the marked silence before him, slurring his words a bit, as though still drunk. In fact, he discovered, he was.

“Might I have some water, Colonel?”

“Will you sing anymore if I give it to you?” Smith asked, deeply suspicious.

“No, I think I’m finished now,” Grey assured him. “Couldn’ sleep, you know—too much to drink—but I find a song settles the mind rem-remarkably.”

“Oh, does it?” Smith breathed heavily for a moment, but clambered to his feet and fetched the ewer from his basin. Grey could feel him repressing an urge to douse his prisoner with the contents, but Smith was a man of strong character and merely held the pitcher for him to drink, then put it back and resumed his own bed with no more than a few irritable snorts.

The lied had caused some comment in the camp, and a few musical souls took it as inspiration and began singing everything from “Greensleeves”—a very poignant and tender rendition—to “Chester.” Grey quite enjoyed the singing, though it was only by exercise of his own strong character that he refrained from shaking his fetters at the end of:

“Let tyrants shake their iron rods. And slavery clank her galling chains.”

They were still singing when he fell asleep again, to dream in anxious fragments, the fumes of applejack drifting through the hollow spaces of his head.

Number 17 Chestnut Street

THE BELL OF the Presbyterian church struck midnight, but the city wasn’t sleeping. The sounds were more furtive now, muffled by darkness, but the streets were still alive with hurrying feet and the sound of moving wagons—and, in the far distance, I heard a faint cry of “Fire!” being raised.

I stood by the open window, sniffing the air for smoke and watching out for any sign of flames that might spread in our direction. I wasn’t aware of Philadelphia having ever burned to the ground like London or Chicago, but a fire that merely engulfed the neighborhood would be just as bad from my point of view.

There was no wind at all; that was something. The summer air hung heavy, damp as a sponge. I waited for a bit, but the cries stopped, and I saw no red glimmer of flames against the half-clouded sky. No trace of fire save the cool green sparks of fireflies, drifting among the shadowed leaves in the front garden.

I stood for a bit, letting my shoulders slump, letting go of my half-formed plans for emergency evacuation. I was exhausted but unable to sleep. Beyond the need to keep an eye on my unsettled patient, and the unsettled atmosphere beyond the quiet room, I was most unsettled in myself. I’d been listening all day, constantly on the alert for a familiar footstep, the sound of Jamie’s voice. But he hadn’t come.

What if he had learned from John that I had shared his bed on that one drunken evening? Would the shock of that, given without preparation or suitable explanation, be enough to have made him run away—for good?

I felt sudden tears come to my eyes and shut them, hard, to stem the flow, gripping the sill with both hands.

Don’t be ridiculous. He’ll come as soon as he can, no matter what. You know he will. I did know. But the shocked joy of seeing him alive had wakened nerves that had been numb for a long time, and while I might seem calm externally, on the inside my emotions were at a rolling boil. The steam was building up, and I had no way to release the pressure—save pointless tears, and I wouldn’t give way to those.

For one thing, I might not be able to stop. I pressed the sleeve of my dressing gown briefly to my eyes, then turned back resolutely into the darkness of the room.

A small brazier burned near the bed under a tented wet cloth, casting a flickering red glow on Pardloe’s sharp-cut features. He was breathing with an audible rasp and I could hear his lungs rattle with each exhalation, but it was a deep breathing, and regular. It occurred to me that I might not have been able to smell the smoke of a fire outside, had there been one: the atmosphere in the room was thick with oil of peppermint, eucalyptus . . . and cannabis. Despite the wet cloth, enough smoke had escaped the brazier to form a hanging cloud of purling wisps, moving pale as ghosts in the darkened air.

I sprinkled more water on the muslin tent and sat down in the small armchair beside the bed, breathing the saturated atmosphere in cautiously but with an agreeable small sense of illicit pleasure. Hal had told me that he was in the habit of smoking hemp to relax his lungs and that it seemed to be effective. He’d said “hemp,” and that was undoubtedly what he’d been smoking; the psychoactive form of the plant didn’t grow in England and wasn’t commonly imported.

I hadn’t any hemp leaves in my medical supply but did have a good bit of ganja, which John had acquired from a Philadelphia merchant who had two Indiamen. It was useful in the treatment of glaucoma, as I’d learned when treating Jamie’s aunt Jocasta, it relieved nausea and anxiety—and it had occasional non-medicinal uses, as John had informed me, to my private amusement.

Thought of John gave me a small internal qualm, to add to my anxiety over Jamie, and I took a deep, deliberate breath of the sweet, spicy air. Where was he? What had Jamie done with him?

“Do you ever make bargains with God?” Hal’s voice came quietly out of the half dark.

I must subconsciously have known he wasn’t sleeping, for I wasn’t startled.

“Everyone does,” I said. “Even people who don’t believe in God. Do you?”

There was the breath of a laugh, followed by coughing, but it stopped quickly. Perhaps the smoke was helping.

“Have you got such a bargain in mind?” I asked, as much from real curiosity as to make conversation. “You aren’t going to die, you know. I won’t let you.”

“Yes, you said that,” he replied dryly. After a moment’s hesitation, he turned on his side to face me. “I do believe you,” he said rather formally. “And . . . I thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome. I can’t let you die in John’s house, you know; he’d be upset.”

He smiled at that, his face visible in the brazier’s glow. We didn’t speak for a bit but sat looking at each other, with no particular sense of self-consciousness, both of us calmed by the smoke and the sleepy chirping of crickets outside. The sound of wagon wheels had ceased, but there were still people passing by. Surely I would know Jamie’s step, be able to distinguish his, even among so many. . . .

“You’re worried about him, aren’t you?” he asked. “John.”

“No,” I said quickly, but I saw one dark brow rise and remembered that he already knew me for a bad liar. “That is . . . I’m sure he’s quite all right. But I would have expected him home by now. And with so much commotion in the city . . .” I waved a hand toward the window. “You don’t know what might happen, do you?”

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