Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 151

   

“My daughter told me about it,” he whispered in reply, laying glass and paper on the ground. “She read it in a book.”

“That’s—” William stopped abruptly, and so did his heart. He’d forgotten. “Your . . . daughter. You mean—I have a sister?”

“Aye,” Fraser said briefly. “Ye’ve met her. Come on.” He reached through the hole in the glass, undid the catch, and pulled on the window frame. The window swung open, with an unexpected loud screech of unoiled hinges.

“Shit!” William said, under his breath.

Fraser had said something that William assumed was the equivalent sentiment in Gaelic, but he didn’t waste time. He shoved William back against the wall and, with a hissed “Stay there!”, faded into the night.

William plastered himself against the wall, heart hammering. He could hear rapid footsteps clattering down the wooden steps from the veranda, then muffled thumps on the damp ground.

“Who’s there?” the guard shouted, as he rounded the house. Seeing William, he shouldered his musket and took aim. And Fraser came out of the dark mist like an angry ghost, grabbed the boy by the shoulder, and laid him out with a rock slammed into the back of his skull.

“Hurry,” he said, low-voiced, jerking his chin toward the open window as he lowered the guard’s limp body to the ground. William wasted no time but heaved himself into the house, squirming across the sill to land almost soundlessly, squatting on the carpet of what must be a parlor, to judge from the dim outlines of the furniture. An unseen clock ticked accusingly, somewhere in the darkness.

Fraser hoisted himself into the open window frame and paused for a moment, listening. But there was no sound in the house save the ticking clock, and he hopped lightly down inside.

“Ye dinna ken whose house this is?” he whispered to William, looking round.

William shook his head. It must be an officer’s billet, but he had no idea who the officer might be—probably the major in charge of disciplinary matters. Presumably Campbell had lodged Jane here as an alternative to putting her in the camp’s stockade. Thoughtful of him.

His eyes had adapted quickly; there was a dark oblong a few feet away—the door. Fraser saw it, too; his hand rested on William’s back for an instant, pushing him toward it.

There was an oval lozenge of glass set into the front door, and enough light came through it to show them the painted canvas floorcloth running down the hall, its diamond pattern black in the colorless light. Near the door, a pool of shadow hid the foot of the staircase, and within seconds they were creeping up the stairs, as quickly and as quietly as two very large men in a hurry could go.

“This way.” William was in the lead; he motioned to Fraser as he turned to the left. The blood was beating in his head, and he could scarcely breathe. He wanted to tear off the clinging mask and gulp air, but not yet . . . not yet.

Jane. Had she heard the guard call out? If she was awake, she must have heard them on the stair.

The landing was windowless and very dark, but there was a faint glow of candlelight under Jane’s door—he hoped to God it was Jane’s door. Running a hand down the doorframe, he felt the knob, and his hand closed round it. It was locked, naturally—but in trying the knob, the heel of his hand brushed the key, still in the lock.

Fraser was behind him; he could hear the man’s breathing. Behind the door of the next room, someone was snoring in a reassuringly regular sort of way. So long as the guard stayed out long enough . . .

“Jane,” he whispered as loudly as he dared, putting his lips to the crack between the door and its jamb. “Jane! It’s me, William. Be quiet!”

He thought he heard a swift intake of breath from the other side of the door, though it might have been only the sound of his own blood racing in his ears. With infinite care, he pulled the door toward him and turned the key.

The candle was standing on a small bureau, its flame flickering wildly in the draft from the open door. There was a strong smell of beer; a broken bottle lay on the floor, brown glass a-glitter in the wavering light. The bed was rumpled, bedclothes hanging half off the mattress . . . Where was Jane? He whirled, expecting to see her cowering in the corner, frightened by his entrance.

He saw her hand first. She was lying on the floor by the bed, beside the broken bottle, her hand flung out, white and half open as though in supplication.

“A Dhia,” Fraser whispered behind him, and now he could smell the cut-steel reek of blood, mingled with beer.

He didn’t remember falling on his knees or lifting her up in his arms. She was heavy, limp and awkward, all the grace and heat of her gone and her cheek cold to his hand. Only her hair was still Jane, shining in the candlelight, soft against his mouth.

“Here, a bhalaich.” A hand touched his shoulder, and he turned without thought.

Fraser had pulled the mask down around his neck, and his face was serious, intent. “We havena much time,” he said softly.

They didn’t speak. They straightened the bedclothes in silence, put a clean quilt over the worst of the blood, and laid her on it. William wetted his kerchief from the ewer and cleaned the spatters of blood from her face and hands. He hesitated for a moment, then tore the kerchief violently in two and bandaged her torn wrists, then crossed her hands on her breast.

Jamie Fraser was by him then, with a fugitive gleam from the blade of his knife.

“For her sister,” he said, and, bending, cut a lock of the shining chestnut hair. He put this into the pocket of the ragged breeches and went quietly out. William heard the brief creak of his footsteps on the stair and understood that he had been left to make his farewell in privacy.

He looked upon her face by candlelight for the first time, and the last. He felt emptied, hollow as a gutted deer. With no notion what to say, he touched one black-bound hand and spoke the truth, in a voice too low for any but the dead to hear.

“I wanted to save you, Jane. Forgive me.”

LAST RITES

JAMIE CAME HOME just before dawn, white-faced and chilled to the bone. I wasn’t asleep. I hadn’t slept since he’d left with William, and when I heard his step on the creaking stairs, I scooped hot water from the ever-simmering cauldron into the wooden mug I had ready, half filled with cheap whisky and a spoonful of honey. I’d thought he’d need it, but I hadn’t had any idea how much.

“The lassie had cut her wrists wi’ a broken bottle,” he said, crouching on a stool by the fire, a quilt draped over his shoulders and the warm mug cupped between his big hands. He couldn’t stop shivering.

“God rest her soul and forgive her the sin of despair.” He closed his eyes and shook his head violently, as though to dispel his memory of what he’d seen in that candlelit room. “Oh, Jesus, my poor lad.”

I’d made him go to bed and crawled in to warm him with my body, but I hadn’t slept then, either. I didn’t feel the need of it. There were things that would need to be done when the day came; I could feel them waiting, a patient throng. William. The dead girl. And Jamie had said something about the girl’s young sister. . . . But for the moment, time was still, balanced on the cusp of night. I lay beside Jamie and listened to him breathe. For the moment, that was enough.

BUT THE SUN rose, as it always did.

I was stirring the breakfast porridge when William appeared, bringing with him a mud-smeared young girl who looked like a lightning-blasted tree. William didn’t look any better but seemed less likely to fall to bits.

“This is Frances,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice, putting a large paw on her shoulder. “These are Mr. and Mrs. Fraser, Fanny.” She was so fine-boned that I half-expected her to stagger under the weight of his hand, but she didn’t. After a stunned moment, she realized the introduction and gave a jerky nod.

“Sit down, sweetheart,” I said, smiling at her. “The porridge is almost ready, and there’s toasted bread with honey.”

She stared at me, blinking dully. Her eyes were red and swollen, her hair lank under a tattered cap. I thought she was so shocked that she was unable to comprehend anything. William looked as though someone had hit him on the head, stunning him like an ox bound for slaughter. I looked uncertainly at Jamie, not knowing what to do for either of them. He glanced from one to the other, then rose and quietly took the girl into his arms.

“There, a nighean,” he said quietly, patting her back. His eyes met Willie’s and I saw something pass between them—a question asked and answered. Jamie nodded. “I’ll care for her,” he said.

“Thank you. She . . . Jane,” William said with difficulty. “I want to—to bury her. Decently. But I think I can’t . . . claim her.”

“Aye,” Jamie said. “We’ll see to it. Go and do whatever ye need to do. Come back when ye can.”

William stood a moment longer, red-rimmed eyes fixed on the girl’s back, then gave me an abrupt bow and left. At the sound of his departing footsteps, Frances gave a small, despairing howl, like an orphaned puppy. Jamie wrapped her closer in his arms, holding her snug against his chest.

“It will be all right, a nighean,” he said softly, though his eyes were fixed on the door through which William had gone. “Ye’re at home now.”

I DIDN’T REALIZE that Fanny was tongue-tied, until I took her to see Colonel Campbell. She hadn’t spoken at all until that point, merely shaking her head yes or no, making small motions of refusal or gratitude.

“You kilt my thither!” she said loudly, when Campbell rose from his desk to greet us. He blinked and sat back down.

“I doubt it,” he said, eyeing her warily. She wasn’t crying, but her face was blotched and swollen, as if someone had slapped her repeatedly. She stood very straight, though, small fists clenched, and glared at him. He looked at me. I shrugged slightly.

“The’th dead,” Fanny said. “The wath your prithoner!”

Campbell steepled his hands and cleared his throat.

“May I ask who you are, child? And who your sister is?”

“Her name is Frances Pocock,” I put in hastily. “Her sister was Jane Pocock, who I understand . . . died last night, while in your custody. She would like to claim her sister’s body, for burial.”

Campbell gave me a bleak look.

“I see that news travels fast. And you are, madam?”

“A friend of the family,” I said, as firmly as possible. “My name is Mrs. James Fraser.”

His face shifted a little; he’d heard the name. That probably wasn’t a good thing.

“Mrs. Fraser,” he said slowly. “I’ve heard of you. You dispense pox cures to the city’s whores, do you not?”

“Among . . . other things, yes,” I said, rather taken aback by this description of my medical practice. Still, it seemed to offer him a logical connection between Fanny and me, for he glanced from one of us to the other, nodding to himself.

“Well,” he said slowly. “I don’t know where the—er—the body has been—”

“Don’t oo call my thither ‘the body’!” Fanny shouted. “Her name ith Jane!”

Commanders, as a rule, aren’t used to being shouted at, and Campbell appeared to be no exception. His square face flushed and he put his hands flat on the desk, preparing to rise. Before he got the seat of his breeches clear of his chair, though, his aide came in and coughed discreetly.

“I beg pardon, sir; Lieutenant Colonel Lord John Grey wishes to see you.”

“Does he, indeed.” This didn’t seem to be welcome news to Campbell, but it was to me.

“You’re clearly busy, sir,” I said quickly, seizing Fanny by the arm. “We’ll come back later.” And without waiting to be dismissed, I more or less dragged her out of the office.

Sure enough, John was standing in the anteroom, in full uniform. His face was calmly pleasant and I saw that he was in diplomatic mode, but his expression altered the instant he saw me.

“What are you doing here?” he blurted. “And”—glancing at Fanny—“who the devil is this?”

“Do you know about Jane?” I said, grabbing him by the sleeve. “What happened to her last night?”

“Yes, I—”

“We want to claim her body, for burial. Can you help?”

He detached my hand, courteously, and brushed his sleeve.

“I can, yes. I’m here upon the same errand. I’ll send word—”

“We’ll wait for you,” I said hastily, seeing the aide frown in my direction. “Outside. Come, Fanny!”

Outside, we found a place to wait on an ornamental bench set in the formal front garden. Even in winter, it was a pleasant spot, with several palmetto trees popping out of the shrubbery like so many Japanese parasols, and even the presence of a number of soldiers coming and going didn’t much impair the sense of gracious peace. Fanny, though, was in no mood for peace.

“Who wath that?” she demanded, twisting to look back at the house. “What doth he want wif Jane?”

“Ah . . . that’s William’s father,” I said carefully. “Lord John Grey is his name. I imagine William asked him to come.”

Fanny blinked for a moment, then turned a remarkably penetrating pair of brown eyes on me, red-rimmed and bloodshot but decidedly intelligent.

“He doethn’t wook wike Wiyum,” she said. “Mither Fwather wooks a wot wike Wiyum.”

I looked back at her for a moment.

“Really?” I said. “I hadn’t noticed that. Do you mind not talking for a bit, Fanny? I need to think.”

JOHN CAME OUT about ten minutes later. He paused on the steps, looking around, and I waved. He came down to where we sat and at once bowed very formally to Fanny.

“Your servant, Miss Frances,” he said. “I understand from Colonel Campbell that you are the sister of Miss Pocock; please allow me to offer my deepest condolences.”

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