Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 150

   

Lord John stood up and, without asking, went back to the bar for another pair of drinks. William looked at the gently steaming cup set before him and then at his father.

“You think you bloody know me, don’t you?” he said, but with true affection in his voice.

“Yes, I do think that, William,” said his father, in the same tone. “Drink your drink.”

William smiled and, rising, clapped his father on the shoulder.

“Maybe you do, at that. I’ll see you in the morning, Papa.”

LAST RESORT

IWAS LYING IN bed beside Jamie, drowsily wondering on what grounds I could induce Mrs. Weisenheimer to collect her urine for me. She suffered from gallstones, for which the most effective herbal treatment I had was bearberry. Fortunately, Mr. Jameson had some of the dried leaf in stock. One had to be careful in using it, though, because it contained arbutin, which hydrolyzed to hydroquinone—a very effective urinary antiseptic, but dangerously toxic. On the other hand . . . it was an effective skin lightener, if applied topically.

I yawned and decided that it wasn’t worth the bother of making Jamie come to the surgery and talk to Mrs. Weisenheimer in German about her urine. He’d do it if I asked, but I’d never hear the end of it.

I dismissed the idea and rolled over, cuddling against Jamie, who was peacefully asleep on his back, as usual, but who half-woke at my touch, patted me clumsily, curled round me, and fell soundly asleep again at once. Ninety seconds later, there was a knock at the door.

“Ifrinn!” Jamie shot bolt upright, rubbed a hand roughly over his face, and threw back the covers. Groaning, I followed suit less athletically, crawling out of bed and groping blindly for my knitted slippers.

“Let me go. It’s probably for me.” At this hour of the night, a knock at the door was more likely someone with a medical emergency than one involving salt fish or horses, but given the military occupation of the city, one never knew.

One certainly hadn’t anticipated opening the door to find William standing on the other side of it, looking pale and feral.

“Is Mr. Fraser at home?” he said tersely. “I need his help.”

FRASER HAD DRESSED at once, taken up a belt with a sheathed dirk and a leather bag upon it, and fastened this round his waist without question. He was wearing Highland dress, William saw, a much-worn, faded plaid. He gathered up a fold of it around his shoulders, nodding toward the door.

“We’d best go down to my wife’s surgery,” he said softly, nodding toward the thin wall, the laths clearly visible through its plaster. “Ye can tell me there what’s to do.”

William followed him through the rain-slicked streets, water like cold tears on his cheeks. Inside, he felt parched and dry, cracked leather wrapped around a core of solid terror. Fraser didn’t speak on the way but clutched him once by the elbow, pushing him into a narrow space between two buildings, just as an army patrol came round the corner. He pressed hard against the wall, shoulder to shoulder with Fraser, and felt the man’s denseness and warmth as a shock.

In the back of his mind was the memory of having been small and lost in the fog on the fells of the Lake District. Cold and terrified, he’d fallen into a rocky hollow and lain there, frozen, hearing ghosts in the mist. And then the overwhelming relief of Mac’s finding him, of the enveloping warmth of the groom’s arms.

He shoved the memory impatiently aside, but a lingering sense of something that wasn’t quite hope remained when the last of the boots trampled out of hearing and Fraser slid from their hiding place, beckoning him to follow.

The small surgery was cold and dark, smelling of herbs and medicines and old blood. There was a sweetish smell, too, strange but familiar, and after a moment’s disorientation, he realized that it must be ether; he’d smelled it on Mother Claire and Denzell Hunter when they’d operated on his cousin Henry.

Fraser had locked the door behind them and found a candlestick in the cupboard. He handed this to William, took a tinderbox from the same cupboard, and set the candle alight with a brisk efficiency. The wavering light shone up into his face, and the boldness of his features sprang into view: long straight nose and heavy brows, broad cheekbones and the fine deep modeling of jaw and temple. It was damnably queer to see the resemblance so marked and so close, but at the moment William actually found it an odd comfort.

Fraser set the candlestick on the table and motioned William to one of the two stools, taking the other.

“Tell me, then,” he said calmly. “It’s safe here; no one will hear. I gather it’s a dangerous matter?”

“Life and death,” William said, and, with a deep breath, began.

Fraser listened with complete attention, his eyes fixed intently on William’s face as he talked. When he had finished, there was a moment of silence. Then Fraser nodded once, as if to himself.

“This young woman,” he said. “May I know what she is to you?”

William hesitated, not knowing what to say. What was Jane to him? Not a friend, nor yet a lover. And yet . . .

“She—I took her and her sister under my protection,” he said. “When they left Philadelphia with the army.”

Fraser nodded as though this was a perfectly adequate explanation of the situation.

“D’ye know that your uncle and his regiment are with the occupying army? That he’s here, I mean?”

“Yes. I spoke with my—with Lord John and Pardloe. They aren’t able to help. I—have resigned my commission,” he felt compelled to add. “That hasn’t anything to do with why they can’t help, only that I’m not subject any longer to military command myself.”

“Aye, I saw ye weren’t in uniform,” he said. He drummed the fingers of his right hand briefly on the tabletop, and William saw with surprise that the ring finger was missing, a thick scar down the back of the hand. Fraser saw him notice.

“Saratoga,” he said, with the flicker of something that might have been a smile in other circumstances.

William felt a small shock at the word, things unnoticed at the time suddenly returning to him. Himself kneeling through the night beside Brigadier Simon Fraser’s deathbed and a tall man on the other side, a white bandage on his hand, leaning down from the shadows to say something softly in the Scottish tongue to the brigadier, who replied in the same language.

“The brigadier,” he said, and stopped abruptly.

“My kinsman,” Fraser said. He delicately forbore to add, “And yours,” but William made that connection easily. He felt it as a distant echo of grief, a pebble dropped in water, but that could wait.

“Is the young woman’s life worth yours?” Fraser asked. “Because I think that consideration is likely what lies behind your—your other kinsmen’s”—the corner of his mouth twitched, though William couldn’t tell whether with humor or distaste—“failure to help ye.”

William felt hot blood rise in his face, anger supplanting desperation.

“They didn’t fail me. They couldn’t help. Are you saying that you will not help me, either, sir? Or can’t? Are you afraid of the venture?”

Fraser gave him a quelling look; William registered this but didn’t care. He was on his feet, fists clenched.

“Don’t bother, then. I’ll do it myself.”

“If ye thought ye could, ye’d never have come to me, lad,” Fraser said evenly.

“Don’t you call me ‘lad,’ you, you—” William choked off the epithet, not out of prudence but out of inability to choose among the several that sprang at once to his mind.

“Sit down,” Fraser said, not raising his voice but infusing it with an air of command that made it unthinkable—or at least uncomfortable—to disobey. William glared at him. His chest was heaving and yet he couldn’t draw enough breath to speak. He didn’t sit down, but he did uncurl his fists and stand still. At last he managed a jerky nod. Fraser drew a long, visible breath and let it out slowly, white in the chill of the dark little room.

“All right, then. Tell me where she is and what ye ken of the physical situation.” He glanced at the shuttered window, where oozing damp showed black between the slats as the rain seeped through. “The night’s not long enough.”

THEY WENT TO the warehouse where Fraser worked, down by the river. Fraser left William outside to keep watch, unlocked a man door at the side, and slid through it with no sound, reappearing a few minutes later dressed in rough breeches and a shirt that didn’t fit him, carrying a small burlap bag and two large black kerchiefs. He handed one of these to William and, folding the other diagonally, tied it round his face, covering nose and mouth.

“Is this truly necessary?” William tied on his own kerchief but felt slightly ridiculous, as though dressing up for some bizarre pantomime.

“Ye can go without if ye like,” Fraser advised him, taking a knitted wool cap out of the bag, tucking his hair up under it, and then pulling it down over his eyebrows. “I canna risk being recognized.”

“If you think the risk too great—” William began, an edge in his voice, but Fraser stopped him, gripping his arm.

“Ye’ve a claim to my help,” he said, voice low and brusque. “For any venture ye deem worthy. But I’ve a family who have a claim to my protection. I canna leave them to starve if I’m taken.”

William had no chance to reply to this; Fraser had locked the door and was already walking off, beckoning impatiently. He did think about it, though, following the Scot through the mist that rose knee-high in the streets. It had stopped raining; that was one thing in their favor.

“For any venture ye deem worthy.” Not a word about Jane’s being a whore or about her being a confessed murderess. Perhaps it was that Fraser himself was a criminal and felt some sympathy on that account.

Or maybe it’s just that he’s willing to take my word that I have to do it. And willing to take the devil of a risk to help me.

But such thoughts could do no good now, and he put them out of his mind. They hurried on, soft-footed and faceless, through the empty squares of Savannah, toward the house by the hanging tree.

“I DINNA SUPPOSE ye ken which room is hers?” Jamie murmured to William. They were loitering under the big live oak, concealed not only by its shadows but by the long beards of Spanish moss that hung from its branches and the mist that drifted under them.

“No.”

“Wait here.” Fraser disappeared in that unnerving catlike way of his. Left to his own devices and further unnerved by the silence, William thought to explore the contents of the bag Fraser had left on the ground. These proved to be several sheets of paper and a stoppered vial of what—un-stoppered—proved to be treacle.

He was still puzzling over that when Fraser was back, as suddenly as he’d disappeared.

“There’s no but one guard on the house, at the front,” he said, moving close enough to whisper into William’s ear. “And all the windows are dark, save one upstairs. There’s a single candle burning; it must be hers.”

“Why do you think that?” William whispered back, startled.

Fraser hesitated for a moment, but then said, even more quietly, “I once spent a night expecting to be hanged the next morning. I wouldna have spent it in darkness, given the choice. Come on.”

It was a two-story house and, while fairly large, simply built. Two rooms on the upper floor at the back, two at the front. The shutters of the upper windows were open, and the glow of a candle flickered in the right-hand room at the back. Fraser insisted on circling the house—at a cautious distance, darting from bush to tree to bush—to be sure of the guard’s position. The man, armed with a musket slung across his back, was on the veranda that ran across the front of the house. Judging from his build, he was young, probably younger than William. And by his posture, which was careless in the extreme, he wasn’t expecting any trouble.

“I don’t suppose they thought a whore would have any friends,” William said under his breath, getting a brief Scottish grunt in return. Fraser beckoned and led him round the back of the house.

They passed a window that likely belonged to the kitchen; there were no curtains, and he could see the faint light of a smothered hearth deep inside, just visible through the shutters. There’d be a risk that one or more slaves or servants slept in the kitchen, though—and he was pleased to see that Fraser appeared to be going on that assumption. They moved around the next corner of the house, as quietly as possible.

Fraser pressed his ear to the shutters of a large window but appeared to hear nothing. He fitted the blade of his stout knife between the shutters and, with some difficulty, levered the bolt up out of its brackets. He gestured to William to come and lean hard on the shutter, to keep the bolt from falling suddenly, and with a joint effort composed of dumb-show and frantic gestures—that would likely have seemed comic to anyone not involved in performing it—they succeeded in getting the bloody shutters open without too much racket.

The window behind was curtained—all to the good—but a casement, with a thumb latch that wouldn’t yield to Jamie’s knife. The big Scot was sweating; he pulled his cap off for a moment to wipe his brow, then put it back on, and, taking the treacle from the bag, he un-stoppered the bottle and poured some of the sticky syrup into his hand. This he smeared over a pane of the casement and, taking a sheet of paper, pasted it onto the glass.

William could make no sense of this proceeding, but Fraser drew back his arm and struck the glass a sharp buffet with his fist. It broke with no more than a small cracking noise, and the shattered pieces were removed easily, stuck to the treacled paper.

“Where did you learn that one?” William whispered, deeply impressed, and heard a small chuckle of satisfaction from behind Fraser’s mask.

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