Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 21

   

His niece Dottie was in sober Quaker garb, but the soft blue of much-laundered indigo was surprisingly flattering to her English-rose coloring—and she was in amazing fine looks. She nodded to Colonel Smith and set down her tray upon his desk, before glancing over his shoulder at the prisoner. Her blue eyes widened in shock, and Grey grinned at her over the colonel’s shoulder. Denzell must have warned her, but he supposed he must look a literal fright, with a grotesquely swollen face and a fixed and glaring crimson eye.

She blinked and swallowed, then said something low-voiced to Smith, with a brief questioning gesture in Grey’s direction. He nodded impatiently, already taking up his own spoon, and she wrapped a thick rag around one of the steaming cans on the tray and came across to Grey’s cot.

“Dear me, Friend,” she said mildly. “Thee seems much injured. Dr. Hunter says thee may eat as much as is comfortable, and he will attend thee later to put a dressing on your eye.”

“Thank you, young woman,” he said gravely, and, glancing over her shoulder to be sure Smith’s back was turned, nodded at her. “Is it squirrel stew?”

“Possum, Friend,” she said. “Here, I brought thee a spoon. The stew is boiling; be careful.” Putting herself carefully between him and Smith, she placed the rag-wrapped can between his knees and rapidly touched the rags, then the links of his fetters, her eyebrows raised. A horn spoon was produced from the pocket tied at her waist—and a knife with it, which was slipped under his pillow, quick as any conjurer could have managed it.

Her pulse was beating fast in her throat, and perspiration gleamed at her temples. He touched her hand once, softly, and picked up the spoon.

“Thank you,” he said again. “Tell Dr. Hunter I look forward to seeing him again.”

THE ROPE WAS horsehair and the knife dull, and it was very late and with innumerable small cuts stinging his hands and fingers that Grey rose cautiously from the cot. His heart was pounding; he could feel it thumping briskly behind his injured eye and hoped the eye itself was not going to explode under the impact.

He bent and picked up the tin chamber pot and used it; Smith was a very sound sleeper, thank God; if he roused at all, he would hear the familiar noise, be reassured, and—presumably—fall back asleep, subconsciously ignoring any further small noises as being Grey resettling himself.

Smith’s breathing didn’t change. He had a small, buzzing snore like a bee working in a flower, a tidy, busy sound that Grey found mildly comical. He lowered himself to his knees, slowly, between the cot and Smith’s pallet, fighting a momentary insane impulse to kiss Smith on the ear—he had sweet, small ears, very pink. This vanished in an instant, and he crept on hands and knees to the edge of the tent. He’d threaded the rags and the gauze with which Denzell Hunter had packed his eye through the links of his fetters but still moved with the utmost caution. Being caught would be bad for him; it would be disastrous for Hunter and Dottie.

He’d been listening intently to the sentries for hours. There were two guarding the colonel’s tent, but he was fairly sure that both were presently near the front flap, warming themselves at the fire; hot as the day had been, this late at night the forest’s blood ran cold. So did his.

He lay down and squirmed as quickly as he could under the edge of the tent, clinging to the canvas to minimize any shaking of the tent itself—though he’d taken pains to jerk on his rope every so often through the evening, so that any shifting of the structure might be put down to his normal movements.

Out! He allowed himself one deep gulp of air—fresh, cold, and leafy—then rose, clutching the padded fetters close against his body, and walked as silently as possible away from the tent. He mustn’t run.

He had had a short, sharp, whispered argument with Hunter during the latter’s evening visit, seizing the brief moment when Smith had left the tent to visit the latrine. Hunter had insisted that Grey hide in his wagon; he was going into Philadelphia, everyone knew that, there would be no suspicion, and Grey would be safe from patrols. Grey appreciated Hunter’s desire to rescue him, but he couldn’t possibly put the doctor—let alone Dottie—at risk, and risk it would be. In Smith’s place, the first thing he would do was prevent anyone from leaving, the second, search the camp and everything in it.

“There’s no time,” Hunter had said, briskly tucking in the end of the bandage he had wrapped around Grey’s head, “and thee may be right.” He glanced over his shoulder; Smith would be back any minute. “I’ll leave a bundle of food and clothing in my wagon for thee. If thee chooses to make use of it, I’m glad. If not, God go with thee!”

“Wait!” Grey seized Hunter by the sleeve, making his fetters rattle. “How will I know which wagon is yours?”

“Oh.” Hunter coughed, seeming embarrassed. “It . . . has a, um, sign painted on the tailboard. Dottie purchased it from—Now, you must take care, Friend,” he said, abruptly raising his voice. “Eat generously but slowly, take no alcohol, and be careful in moving. Do not stand up too quickly.”

Colonel Smith came in and, seeing the doctor present, came over to inspect the patient himself.

“Are you feeling better, Colonel?” he inquired politely. “Or are you still suffering from the need to burst into song? If so, might I suggest you do so now and get it out of your system, before I retire for the night?”

Hunter—who had of course heard “Die Sommernacht” the night before—made a small noise in his throat but managed to take his leave without losing control.

Grey grinned to himself, recalling Smith’s glower—and imagining what the colonel might look like in a few hours, when he woke to discover that his songbird had flown. He made his way around the edge of the camp, avoiding the picket lines of mules and horses—easy to detect by the smell of manure. The wagons were parked nearby: no artillery, he noted.

The sky was overcast, a sickle moon glimmering uneasily between racing clouds, and the air held the scent of impending rain. Fine. There were worse things than being wet and cold, and rain would hamper pursuit, if anyone discovered his absence before daylight.

No abnormal sounds from the camp behind him; none he could hear above the noise of his own heart and breathing. Hunter’s wagon was easy to find, even in the flickering dark. He’d thought by “sign” that the doctor meant a name, but it was one of the barn signs that some of the German immigrants painted on their houses and sheds. He smiled when the clouds parted, revealing this one clearly, and he saw why Dottie had chosen it: it was a large circle, in which two comical birds faced each other, beaks open in the manner of lovebirds. Distlefink. The word floated into his head; someone, somewhere, had told him the name of that sort of bird, saying it was a symbol of good luck.

“Good,” he said under his breath, climbing up into the wagon. “I’ll need it.”

He found the bundle under the seat, where Hunter had told him, and took a moment to remove the silver buckles from his shoes, tying the flaps together instead with a length of leather lacing that had evidently been meant for his hair. He left the buckles tucked under the seat, put on the shabby coat, which smelled strongly of stale beer and what he thought was old blood, and peered at the knitted cap, which held two journeycakes, an apple, and a small canteen of water. Turning back the edge of the hat, he read by the fitful moonlight, LIBERTY OR DEATH, in bold white letters.

HE WASN’T HEADED in any particular direction; even had the sky been clear, he wasn’t sufficiently familiar as to be able to chart his direction by the stars. His only goal was to get as far away from Smith as possible, without running into another militia company or a patrol of Continentals. Once the sun was up, he could orient himself; Hunter had told him that the main road lay south–southwest of the camp, about four miles away.

What the public might make of a man strolling down the main road in fetters was another question, but not one he needed to answer just now. After walking for an hour or so, he found a sheltered spot among the roots of an enormous pine tree and, taking out the knife, hacked off his hair as best he could. He stuffed the shorn locks well back under a root, rubbed his hands in the dirt, and then applied them vigorously to hair and face before donning his Phrygian cap.

Thus suitably concealed, he heaped a thick blanket of fallen dry needles over himself, curled up, and went to sleep to the sound of pattering rain in the trees above, once more a free man.

NAMELESS, HOMELESS, DESTITUTE, AND VERY DRUNK INDEED

HOT, DISHEVELED, AND still thoroughly out of temper from his encounter with Richardson, William made his way back through the crowded streets. One more night in a decent bed, at least. Tomorrow he’d leave Philadelphia with the last few companies of the army, following Clinton north—and leaving the remaining Loyalists to fend for themselves. He was torn between relief and guilt at the thought but had little energy left to consider them.

He arrived at his billet to find that his orderly had deserted and had taken with him William’s best coat, two pairs of silk stockings, a half bottle of brandy, and the seed-pearl-encrusted double miniature of William’s mother, Geneva, and his other mother, her sister, Isobel.

This was so far over the bloody limit of what could be borne that he didn’t even swear, merely sank down on the edge of the bed, closed his eyes, and breathed through clenched teeth until the pain in his stomach subsided. It left a raw-edged hollow. He’d had that miniature since he was born, was accustomed to bid it good night before he slept, though since he’d left home he did this silently.

He told himself it didn’t matter; he was unlikely to forget what his mothers looked like—there were other paintings, at home at Helwater. He remembered Mama Isobel. And he could see the traces of his real mother in his own face. . . . Involuntarily, he glanced at the shaving mirror that hung on the wall—the orderly had somehow overlooked that in his flight—and felt the hollow inside him fill with hot tar. He no longer saw the curve of his mother’s mouth, her dark wavy chestnut hair; he saw instead the too-long, knife-edged nose, the slanted eyes and broad cheekbones.

He stared at this blunt evidence of betrayal for an instant, then turned and stamped out.

“Fuck the resemblance!” he said, and slammed the door behind him.

He didn’t care where he was going, but within a few streets he ran into Lindsay and another couple of fellows he knew, all intent on making the most of their last evening in a semi-civilized city.

“Come along, young Ellesmere,” Sandy said, collaring him firmly and shoving him down the street. “Let’s make a few memories to see us through the long winter nights up north, eh?”

Some hours later, viewing the world through the bottom of a beer glass, William wondered rather blearily whether memories counted if you didn’t remember them. He’d lost count some time ago of what—and how many of what—he’d drunk. He thought he’d lost one or two or three of the companions with whom he’d started the evening, too, but couldn’t swear to it.

Sandy was still there, swaying in front of him, saying something, urging him to his feet. William smiled vaguely at the barmaid, fumbled in his pocket, and laid his last coin on the table. That was all right, he had more in his trunk, rolled up in his spare pair of stockings.

He followed Sandy outside into a night that seized and clung, the hot air so thick that it was hard to breathe, clogged with the smell of horse droppings, human ordure, fish scales, wilted vegetables, and fresh-slaughtered meat. It was late, and dark; the moon had not yet risen, and he stumbled over the cobbles, lurching into Sandy, a blacker smudge on the night before him.

Then there was a door, a blur of light, and an enveloping hot scent of liquor and women—their flesh, their perfume, the smell more befuddling than the sudden light. A woman in a ribboned cap was smiling at him, greeting him, too old to be a whore. He nodded amiably at her and opened his mouth, only to be mildly surprised by the fact that he’d forgotten how to talk. He closed his mouth and went on nodding; the woman laughed in a practiced way and guided him to a shabby wing chair, where she deposited him as she might leave a parcel to be called for later.

He sat slumped in a daze for some time, the sweat running down his neck under his stock and dampening his shirt. There was a fire burning in a hearth near his legs, a small cauldron of rum punch steaming on the hob, and the scent of it made him queasy. He had the feeling that he was melting like a candle but couldn’t move without being sick. He shut his eyes.

Some time later, he slowly became aware of voices near him. He listened for a little, unable to make sense of any words but feeling the flow vaguely soothing, like ocean waves. His stomach had settled now, and with his eyelids at half-mast, he gazed placidly at a shifting sand of light and shadow, pricked with bright colors, like darting tropical birds.

He blinked a few times, and the colors shimmered into coherence: the hair and ribbons and white shifts of women, the red coats of infantry, the blue of an artilleryman moving among them. Their voices had given him the impression of birds, high and trilling, squawking now and then, or scolding like the mockingbirds who lived in the big oak near the plantation house at Mount Josiah. But it wasn’t the women’s voices that caught his attention.

A pair of dragoons were lounging on the settee nearby, drinking rum punch and eyeing up the women. He thought they’d been talking for some time, but now he could make out the words.

“Ever buggered a girl?” one of the dragoons was saying to his friend. The friend giggled and flushed, shook his head, murmured something that sounded like, “Too dear for my purse.”

“What you want’s a girl that hates it.” The dragoon hadn’t moved his gaze from the women across the room. He raised his voice, just a little. “They clamp down, trying to get rid of you. But they can’t.”

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