Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 18

   

William, fortunate fellow, had both; he had served on Howe’s personal staff, his uncle was the colonel of a regiment, and his father was an influential diplomat, presently in Philadelphia. He had been released under an exceptional personal parole, as a favor to General Lord Howe, and sent to Lord John. He was, however, still part of the British army, merely precluded from actual fighting. And the army had any number of obnoxious chores that did not involve fighting; General Clinton had been delighted to make use of him.

Deeply galled by his situation, William had begged his father to try to have him exchanged; that would remove the conditions of his parole and allow him to resume full military duties. Lord John had been quite willing to do this, but in January of 1778 there had been a falling-out between General Burgoyne and the Continental Congress over the former’s refusal to provide a list of the surrendered soldiers. The Convention of Saratoga had been repudiated by the Congress, which then declared that it would detain the entire Convention army until the convention and the required list were ratified by King George—the Congress knowing damned well that the King would do no such thing, as such an act would be tantamount to acknowledging the independence of the colonies. The upshot of this was that there was at present no mechanism at all for the exchange of prisoners. Any prisoners.

Which left William in a deeply ambiguous position. Technically, he was an escaped prisoner, and in the highly unlikely event that he was recaptured by the Americans and discovered to be one of the Saratoga officers, he would promptly be marched off to Massachusetts to languish for the rest of the war. At the same time, no one was quite sure whether it was appropriate for him to take up arms again, since even though the convention had been repudiated, William had been given a personal parole.

Which had led to William’s present invidious situation, in charge of troops assisting the evacuation of Philadelphia’s richest Loyalists. The only thing he could think of that might be worse was driving a herd of swine through the eye of a needle.

While the poorer citizens who felt endangered by the proximity of General Washington’s militias were obliged to brave the dangers of the road, making their exodus by wagon, handcart, and foot, the wealthier Loyalists were allowed a safer and theoretically more luxurious removal by ship. And not one of them could be brought to understand that there was but one ship presently available—General Howe’s own ship—and very limited room aboard it.

“No, madam, I’m very sorry, but it’s quite impossible to accommodate—”

“Nonsense, young man, my husband’s grandfather purchased that tall clock in the Netherlands in 1670. It displays not only the time but also the phases of the moon and a complete table of tides for the Bay of Napoli! Surely you do not expect me to allow such an instrument to fall into the clutches of the Rebels?”

“Yes, madam, I’m afraid I do. No, sir, no servants; only the members of your immediate family and a very small amount of baggage. I’m sure that your bond servants will be perfectly safe following by—”

“But they’ll starve!” exclaimed a cadaverous-looking gentleman who was loath to part with his talented cook and a plumply voluptuous housemaid, who, if not talented at sweeping, obviously had other desirable abilities, these clearly on display. “Or be abducted! They are my responsibility! Surely you cannot—”

“I can,” said William firmly, with an appreciative sideways glance at the housemaid, “and I must. Corporal Higgins, please see Mr. Hennings’s bond servants safely off the quay. No, madam. I agree that the matched armchairs are quite valuable, but so are the lives of the people who will drown if the ship sinks. You may take your carriage clock, yes.” He raised his voice and bellowed, “Lieutenant Rendill!”

Rendill, face red and streaming, fought his way through the crowd of pushing, cursing, heaving, shrieking evacuees. Arriving in front of William, who was perched on a box in order to avoid being trampled or pushed into the water by the crowd, the lieutenant saluted but was rudely jostled by several people attempting to gain William’s attention and ended with his wig pushed over his eyes.

“Yes, sir?” he said gamely, pushing it back and elbowing a gentleman out of the way as politely as possible.

“Here’s a list of General Howe’s particular acquaintances, Rendill. Go on board and see if they’ve all made it—if they haven’t . . .” He cast an eloquent glance over the surging throng on the dock, surrounded by mountains of semi-abandoned possessions and trampled baggage, and thrust the list unceremoniously into the lieutenant’s hand. “Find them.”

“Oh, God,” said Rendill. “I mean . . . yes, sir. At once, sir.” And, with a hopeless air, he turned and began to swim through the crowd, doing a modified but vigorous form of br**ststroke.

“Rendill!”

Rendill obediently turned and made his way resignedly back into earshot, a stout red porpoise surging his way through shoals of hysterical herring.

“Sir?”

William leaned down and lowered his voice to a level inaudible to the press of people around them, then nodded at the piles of furniture and baggage heaped unsteadily all over the dock—many of them dangerously close to the edge.

“As you pass, tell the fellows on the dock that they should take no great pains to preserve those heaps of things from falling into the river, would you?”

Rendill’s perspiring face brightened amazingly.

“Yes, sir!” He saluted and swam off again, radiating renewed enthusiasm, and William, his soul slightly soothed, turned courteously to attend to the complaint of a harried German father with six daughters, all of them carrying what appeared to be their entire lavish wardrobes, anxious round faces peering out between the brims of their wide straw hats and the piles of silk and lace in their arms.

Paradoxically, the heat and incipient thunder in the air suited his mood, and the sheer impossibility of his task relaxed him. Once he’d realized the ultimate futility of satisfying all these people—or even one in ten of them—he stopped worrying about it, took what steps he could to preserve order, and let his mind go elsewhere while he bowed courteously and made noises of reassurance to the phalanx of faces pressing in upon him.

Had he been in a mood for irony, he reflected, there was plenty of it to go round. He was neither fish nor fowl nor good red beef, as the country folk said of an ambiguous cut of meat. Not a full soldier, not a free civilian. And, evidently, neither an Englishman nor an earl . . . and yet . . . how could he possibly not be an Englishman, for God’s sake?

Once he had regained enough of his temper to think, he had realized that he was still legally the Ninth Earl of Ellesmere, regardless of his paternity. His parents—his real parents—his theoretically real parents—had undeniably been married at the time of his birth. At the moment, though, that seemed to make matters worse: how could he go about letting people think and act as though he were the heir of Ellesmere’s ancient blood when he knew damned well that he was really the son of—

He choked that thought off, shoving it violently to the back of his mind. “Son of” had brought Lord John vividly to mind, though. He breathed deep of the hot, murky, fish-smelling air, trying to quell the sudden pang that came to him at thought of Papa.

He hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself, but he’d been looking through the crowd all day, scanning the faces in search of his fa—yes, dammit, his father! John Grey was as much his father now as he ever had been. Goddamned liar or not. And William was growing worried about him. Colenso had reported that morning that Lord John had not returned to his house—and Lord John should have returned by now. And if he had, he would have come to find William, he was sure of that. Unless Fraser had killed him.

He swallowed bile at the thought. Why would he? The men had once been friends, good friends.

True, war severed such bonds. But even so—

On account of Mother Claire? He recoiled from that thought, too, but made himself come back to it. He could still see her face, glowing in spite of the uproar, fierce as flame with the joy of seeing Jamie Fraser, and felt a prick of jealousy on behalf of his father. If Fraser felt similarly impassioned, might he . . . but that was nonsense! Surely he must realize that Lord John had only taken her under his protection—and done that for the sake of his good friend!

But, then, they were married . . . and his father had always been quite open regarding matters of sex. . . . His face grew even hotter, with embarrassment at the vision of his father enthusiastically bedding the not-quite-ex-Mrs. Fraser. And if Fraser had discovered that—

“No, sir!” he said sharply to the importunate merchant who—he realized belatedly—had just tried to bribe him to admit the merchant’s family to Howe’s ship. “How dare you? Begone, and think yourself fortunate that I have no time to deal with you as I ought!”

The man shuffled disconsolately away, and William felt a small pang of regret, but there was in fact little he could do. Even had he felt able to stretch a point in the merchant’s favor, once a bribe was offered, he had no choice.

Even if it were true, how would Fraser have discovered it? Surely Lord John wouldn’t have been foolish enough to tell him. No, it must be something else that was delaying Papa’s return—doubtless the muddle of people leaving Philadelphia; the roads must be choked. . . .

“Yes, madam. I think we have room for you and your daughter,” he said to a young mother, very frightened-looking, with a baby clutched against her shoulder. He reached out and touched the infant’s cheek; she was awake, but not troubled by the crowd, and regarded him with soft brown long-lashed eyes. “Hallo, sweetheart. Want to go on a boat with your mummy?”

The mother gave a stifled sob of relief.

“Oh, thank you, Lord—it is Lord Ellesmere, is it not?”

“It is,” he said automatically, and then felt as though someone had punched him in the belly. He swallowed and his face burned.

“My husband is Lieutenant Beaman Gardner,” she said, offering the name in anxious justification of his mercy, and bobbed a short curtsy. “We’ve met. At the Mischianza?”

“Yes, of course!” he said, bowing, though he didn’t recall Mrs. Lieutenant Gardner at all. “Honored to be of service to a brother officer’s wife, ma’am. If you will be so good as to go on board directly, please? Corporal Anderson? Escort Mrs. Gardner and Miss Gardner on board.”

He bowed again and turned away, feeling as though his insides had been scooped out. Brother officer. My lord. And what would Mrs. Lieutenant Gardner have thought if she’d known? What would the lieutenant himself think?

He sighed deeply, closing his eyes for an instant’s escape. And when he opened them, found himself face-to-face with Captain Ezekiel Richardson.

“Stercus!” he exclaimed, startled into his uncle Hal’s habit of Latin denunciation in moments of extreme stress.

“Indeed,” Richardson remarked politely. “May I have a word with you? Yes, just so—Lieutenant!” He beckoned to the nearby Rendill, who was eyeball-to-eyeball with an elderly woman in black bombazine with no fewer than four small dogs yapping at her heels, these held by a long-suffering small black boy. Rendill made a quelling motion to her and turned to Richardson.

“Sir?”

“Relieve Captain Lord Ellesmere, please. I require a moment of his time.”

Before William could decide whether to object or not, Richardson had him by the elbow and was towing him out of the scrum and into the lee of a neat little sky-blue boathouse that stood on the riverbank.

William breathed deep with relief as the shade fell upon him but had by then gathered his wits. His first impulse had been to speak sharply to Richardson—followed perhaps by knocking him into the river—but wisdom spoke in his ear, advising otherwise.

It was at Richardson’s instigation that William had become for a short time an intelligencer for the army, collecting information in the context of various journeys and delivering this to Richardson. On the last of these missions, though, a journey into the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia, William had had the misfortune to become lost, be wounded, and suffer a fever that would certainly have killed him had Ian Murray not found and rescued him—in the course of the rescue informing William that he had almost certainly been gulled and sent not into the bosom of British allies but into a nest of Rebels, who would hang him should they discover who he was.

William was of two minds as to whether to believe Murray or not—particularly after the arrival of Jamie Fraser had made it patently clear that Murray was his own cousin but hadn’t felt it necessary to apprise him of the fact. But a deep suspicion of Richardson and his motives remained, and it was no friendly face that he turned on the man.

“What do you want?” he said abruptly.

“Your father,” Richardson replied, causing William’s heart to give a great thump that he thought must be audible to the other. “Where is Lord John?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” William said shortly. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday.” The day my bloody life ended. “What do you want with him?” he asked, not bothering with any semblance of courtesy.

Richardson twitched an eyebrow but didn’t otherwise respond to his tone.

“His brother, the Duke of Pardloe, has disappeared.”

“The—what?” William stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending. “His brother? Disappeared . . . from where? When?”

“Evidently from your father’s house. As to when: Lady John said that he left the house just after tea yesterday afternoon, presumably in search of your father. Have you seen him since then?”

“I haven’t seen him at all.” William felt a distinct ringing in his ears—probably his brains trying to get out through them. “What—I mean, I had no idea he was in Philadelphia. In the colonies at all, for that matter. When did he arrive?” Jesus, did he come to deal with Dottie and her Quaker? No, he can’t have, he couldn’t have had time . . . could he?

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