Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 141

   

I poked gingerly through the pile of remnants. Marsali’s cauldron had survived unscathed, though covered with soot. A few pewter plates, one half melted—the wooden ones had all burned—and a stack of Bibles, rescued from the front room by some pious soul. A line of washing had been hung out across the alley; what clothes were on it had all survived, though a couple of Fergus’s shirts and Joanie’s pinafore had been badly singed. I supposed boiling with lye soap might get the stink of fire out of the clothes, but I doubted that any of the family would wear them again.

Clarence, having finished his hay, was methodically rubbing his forehead against the top rail of his gate, making it rattle and thump.

“Itchy, are you?” I scratched him, then poked my head out of the stable. Jamie was still in conversation with Mr. Phillips at the mouth of the alley, though, and I went back to my explorations.

Under a pile of smoke-stained playscripts I found Marsali’s small chiming clock, somehow miraculously intact. It had stopped, of course, but emitted one small, sweet silver bing! when I picked it up, making me smile.

Perhaps that was a good omen for the journey. And, after all, even if Jamie and I—and Rachel and Ian—were to set out at once for Fraser’s Ridge, there was no chance of reaching the mountains of North Carolina before snow had closed the passes for the winter. It would be March, at the earliest, before we could turn inland.

I sighed, clock in hand, envisioning the Ridge in springtime. It would be a good time to arrive, the weather good for planting and building. I could wait.

I heard Jamie’s steps come down the cobbled alley and stop. Stepping to the open front of the stable, I saw that he’d paused at the place where Henri-Christian had died. He stood unmoving for a moment, then crossed himself and turned.

The solemnity left his face as he saw me, and he held up a small leather bag, smiling.

“Look, Sassenach!”

“What is it?”

“One of the Phillips boys found it, scavenging about, and brought it to his father. Hold out your hands.”

Puzzled, I did so, and he tilted the bag, decanting a small cascade of surprisingly heavy dark-gray chunks of lead—the type for a complete set of . . . I picked one out and squinted at it. “Caslon English Roman?”

“Better than that, Sassenach,” he said, and, plucking the letter “Q” from the pile in my hand, he dug his thumbnail into the soft metal, revealing a faint yellow gleam. “Marsali’s hoard.”

“My God, it is! I’d forgotten all about it.” At the height of the British occupation, when Fergus had been obliged to leave home to avoid arrest, sleeping in a different place each night, Marsali had cast a set of type in gold, carefully rubbing each slug with grease, soot, and ink, and had carried the pouch under her apron, in case she and the children should be likewise forced to flee.

“So did Marsali, I expect.” His smile faded a bit, thinking of the causes of Marsali’s distraction. “She’d buried it under the bricks of the hearth—I suppose when the army left. Sam Phillips found it when they were pulling down the chimney.” He nodded toward the charred spot where the printshop had stood. The chimney had been damaged by the wall falling in, so a number of men had taken it down, neatly stacking the bricks, most of which were intact despite the fire and could be sold.

I poured the type carefully back into the pouch and glanced over my shoulder at Clarence.

“I suppose a goldsmith could make me a set of really big acupuncture needles. Just in case.”

SQUID OF THE EVENING, BEAUTIFUL SQUID

Charleston, Royal Colony of South Carolina

LORD JOHN AND HIS niece, Dorothea, ate that night at a small ordinary near the shore, whose air was redolent with the luscious scents of baked fish, eels in wine sauce, and small whole squid, fried crisply in cornmeal. John inhaled deeply with pleasure, handed Dottie to a stool, and sat down himself, enjoying the moment of gustatory indecision.

“It’s that moment when you can convincingly imagine the delightful prospect of eating everything the establishment has to offer,” he told Dottie. “Momentarily untroubled by the knowledge that one’s stomach has a limited capacity and thus one must, alas, choose in the end.”

Dottie looked a little dubious, but, thus urged, she took a deep sniff of the atmosphere, to which the scent of fresh-baked bread had just been added as the serving maid came in with a great loaf and a dish of butter with a four-leafed clover—this being the name of the establishment—stamped into its oleaginous surface.

“Oh, that smells wonderful!” she said, her face lighting. “Might I have some, please? And a glass of cider?”

He was pleased to see her nibble hungrily at the bread and take a deep breath of the cider—which was aromatic enough to challenge even the squid, his own reluctantly final choice, though this was accompanied by a dozen fresh-shucked oysters to fill whatever crevices might remain. Dottie had chosen the baked hake, though she had only picked at it so far.

“I came down to the harbor this afternoon while you were resting,” he said, tearing off a wodge of bread to counteract the grated horseradish mixed with the oysters’ brine. “I asked about and found two or three small boats whose owners are not averse to a quick journey to Savannah.”

“How quick?” she asked warily.

“It’s little more than a hundred miles by water,” he said, shrugging in what he hoped was a casual manner. “Perhaps two days, with a good wind and fair weather.”

“Mmm.” Dottie cast a skeptical glance at the ordinary’s shuttered window. The shutters trembled to a blast of rain and wind. “It’s October, Uncle John. The weather is seldom predictable.”

“How do you know? Madam—might I have some vinegar for the squid?” The proprietor’s wife nodded, bustling off, and he repeated, “How do you know?”

“Our landlady’s son is a fisherman. So was her husband. He died in a gale—last October,” she finished sweetly, and popped the last bite of bread into her mouth.

“Such squeamish prudence is unlike you, Dottie,” he remarked, accepting the vinegar bottle from the proprietress and sousing his crisp squidlings. “Oh, God,” he said, chewing. “Ambrosia. Here—have one.” He speared one with his fork and passed it across to her.

“Yes. Well . . .” She regarded the squid-laden fork with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. “How long would it take to travel overland?”

“Perhaps four or five days. Again, with good weather.”

She sighed, lifted the squid to her mouth, hesitated, and then, with the air of a Roman gladiator facing an oncoming crocodile in the arena, put it into her mouth and chewed. She went white.

“Dottie!” He leapt up, knocking his stool over, and managed to catch her as she wilted toward the floor.

“Gah,” she said faintly, and, lunging out of his arms, bolted for the door, retching. He followed and was in time to hold her head as she lost the bread, cider, and the half-chewed squid.

“I’m so sorry,” she said a few moments later, as he emerged from the ordinary with a mug and a damp cloth. She was leaning against the most sheltered wall of the building, wrapped in his cloak, and was the color of spoiled suet pudding. “How disgusting of me.”

“Think nothing of it,” he said amiably. “I’ve done just the same for all three of your brothers, on occasion—though I somehow doubt from the same cause. How long have you known you were with child?”

“I became certain of it about five minutes ago,” she said, swallowing audibly and shuddering. “Dear Lord, I will never eat squid again.”

“Had you ever eaten squid before?”

“No. I never want to see another squid. Bother, my mouth tastes of sick.”

John, who was indeed experienced in such matters, handed her the mug of beer.

“Rinse your mouth with that,” he said. “Then drink the rest. It will settle your stomach.”

She looked dubious at this but did as he said, and emerged from the cup still pale but much improved.

“Better? Good. I don’t suppose you want to go back inside? No, of course not. Let me pay, and I’ll take you home.” Inside, he asked the landlady to make up a parcel of their abandoned supper—he didn’t mind eating cold fried squid, but he did want to eat; he was starving—and held this carefully to windward as they walked back to their lodgings.

“You didn’t know?” he asked curiously. “I’ve often wondered about that. Some women have told me they knew at once, and yet I’ve heard of others who somehow remained oblivious to their condition until the moment of birth was upon them, incredible as that seems.”

Dottie laughed; the cold wind had brought some of the color back to her cheeks, and he was relieved to see her spirits recovered.

“Do lots of women discuss their intimacies with you, Uncle John? That seems somewhat unusual.”

“I seem to attract unusual women,” he said, rather ruefully. “I also seem to have the sort of face that people feel compelled to tell things to. In another age, perhaps I should have been a confessor, if that’s the word. But returning to the point”—he took her elbow to guide her round a large pile of horse droppings—“now that you do know . . . what shall we do about it?”

“I don’t think anything actually needs to be done for about eight months,” she said, and he gave her a look.

“You know what I mean,” he said. “I doubt you wish to establish residence in Charleston until after your child arrives. Do you wish to return to Philadelphia—or New Jersey, or whatever godforsaken place Denzell happens to be at the moment—or shall I make arrangements to proceed to Savannah and remain there for some time? Or—” Another thought struck him, and he altered the look to one of seriousness.

“Do you want to go home, Dottie? To England, I mean. To your mother?”

Her face went blank with surprise, which gave way to a look of longing that broke his heart. She looked away, blinking back tears, but her voice was steady when she turned back to him.

“No,” she said, and swallowed. “I want to be with Denzell. All other considerations aside,” she added, managing a smile, “he knows how to deliver a baby. His cousin William is accoucheur to the Queen, and Denny studied with him for a time.”

“Well, that will be helpful,” Grey agreed, rather dryly. He had himself delivered a child once—completely against his will—and still had nightmares about it.

It was just as well that Dottie didn’t want to return to England, though. He’d suggested the notion on impulse but now realized that it might be more dangerous than any of the other alternatives. Since France had entered the war, all English shipping would be at risk.

“I’m thinking that we ought to go to Savannah, though,” Dottie was saying. “We’re so close, I mean—and if Ben’s wife is there . . . she might need our help, mightn’t she?”

“Yes,” he agreed reluctantly. There was a familial obligation. And, after all, unless he did take up residence in Charleston for the next eight months, there seemed no alternative to Dottie’s traveling, in whichever direction. Still . . . the thought of her giving birth here, him responsible for finding midwives and nurses . . . and then she and the child would need to be transported . . .

“No,” he said, more definitely. “Amaranthus—assuming she does exist—will have to muddle on by herself a little longer. I’m taking you back to New York.”

THE OGLETHORPE PLAN

Late November

SAVANNAH, UNLIKE MOST American cities, had been carefully planned by its founder, a man named Oglethorpe. I knew this because Mrs. Landrum, the woman from whom we rented our room, had explained to me that the city was laid out according to “the Oglethorpe plan”—this spoken in portentous tones, for Mrs. Landrum was a relative of the aforesaid Oglethorpe and intensely proud of the city and its civic perfection.

The plan called for six wards—a ward being composed of four civic blocks—for business, and four “tything” blocks for houses, these arrayed around an open square. There were ten houses to a block, and the men of a tything trained together for militia duty.

“Though that’s not so important now as it used to be,” Mrs. Landrum explained to me. “The Indians are still a bother in the backcountry, but it’s years since they troubled to come into the city.”

I rather thought Indians were the least of it, but as Mrs. Landrum didn’t seem concerned about the war with the British, I didn’t bring it up. It was apparent from her references that as not only her family but everyone she knew were Loyalists, plainly this was the proper state of things, and pesky nuisances like this “rebellion, as they’re pleased to call it!” would soon be put down and we could get tea at a decent price again.

From my point of view, the most interesting thing about Mr. Oglethorpe’s plan—in the course of conversation, it was revealed to me that he’d founded not only Savannah but the whole Province of Georgia—was that each house of a tything was provided with a one-mile tract of farmland outside the city and a five-acre kitchen garden closer in.

“Really,” I said, my fingers beginning to itch at the thought of dirt. “Er . . . what do you plant?”

The upshot of this conversation—and many like it—was that I made an arrangement to help with the keeping of the kitchen garden in return for a share of “sass” (as Mrs. Landrum puzzlingly referred to green stuff like kale and turnips), beans, and dried corn, as well as a small plot where I could cultivate medicinal herbs. A secondary consequence of this amiable acquaintance was that Rachel and Ian, whose room was below ours, began referring to their unborn child as Oglethorpe, though this was politely shortened to “Oggy” whenever Mrs. Landrum was in hearing.

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