Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 27

   

He stifled his immediate urge to leap off the wagon and stared hard at Ian, willing the lad not to speak. He didn’t, just goggled back with his eyes bulging out of his head and his face pale, as though he’d seen a ghost, and walked past, speechless.

“Jesus,” Jamie murmured under his breath, realizing. “He thinks he has seen my fetch.”

“Who thinks what?” asked the driver, though without much interest.

“I think I must get down here, sir, if ye’d be so civil as to stop? Aye, thanks.” Without thought of his back, he swung down off the wagon; it twinged, but there was no warning stab of pain down his leg—and if there had been, he would still have gone up the road as fast as he could, because he saw a small figure a little way ahead, running like a rabbit with its tail on fire. The figure was plainly female, it was accompanied by a large dog, and he had the sudden thought that it might be Rachel Hunter.

It was, and he just managed to catch her up, seizing her by the arm as she ran, petticoats kirtled up in her arms and feet hammering the dust.

“Come with me, lass,” he said urgently, grabbed her round the waist, and pulled her off the road. She uttered a stifled shriek—and then a much louder one, when she looked up and saw his face.

“No, I’m not dead,” he said hurriedly. “Later, aye? Step back on the road wi’ me now, or someone’s going to come see am I raping ye in the bushes. Ciamar a tha thu, a choin?” he added to Rollo, who was sniffing him industriously.

She made an odd gargling noise in her throat and continued to stare, but after an instant blinked and nodded and they were back on the road. Jamie smiled and acknowledged a man who had stopped in the middle of the road, dropping the handles of a barrow he was trundling. The man looked suspiciously at them, but Rachel, after a moment’s stunned bewilderment, waved at him with a ghastly smile, and he shrugged and picked up his barrow.

“Wh-what—” she croaked. She looked as though she might collapse or vomit, chest heaving and her face going scarlet and white and scarlet again. She’d lost her cap, and her dark hair was matted with sweat and sticking to her face.

“Later,” he said again, but gently. “What’s happened to Ian? Where are they taking him?”

Between wrenching gasps, she told him what had happened.

“A mh’ic an diabhail,” he said softly, and wondered for a split second what—or who—he meant by that. The thought vanished, though, as he looked up the road. Perhaps a quarter mile back, he could see the large, slow-moving knot of evacuees, a sprawling mass of slow wagons and trudging people, with the neat scarlet columns of soldiers splitting to flow round them, coming on now four abreast.

“Aye, then,” he said grimly, and touched Rachel’s shoulder. “Dinna fash, lassie. Get your breath and go back after Ian, but dinna get close enough that the soldiers take notice of ye. When he’s free, tell him the two of ye must come back to the city straightaway. Go to the printshop. Oh—and best leash the hound wi’ your sash. Ye dinna want him to eat anyone.”

“Free? But what—what are you going to do?” She’d got the hair out of her eyes and was calmer, though the whites of her eyes still showed all round. She reminded him of a young badger at bay, baring its teeth in panic, and the thought made him smile a little.

“I mean to have a word with my son,” he said, and, leaving her, strode purposefully up the road.

HE MADE OUT William at a considerable distance. The young man was standing at the side of the road, bare-headed, disheveled, and slightly battered, but evidently attempting to look collected; his hands were folded behind his back, and he appeared to be counting the wagons that passed him. He was alone, and Jamie hastened his step to reach the lad before anyone came along to talk to him; he needed privacy for his own conversation.

He was reasonably sure Rachel hadn’t told him everything about the recent stramash and wondered whether she herself had been partly the cause of it. She had said the trouble began just after she’d told William about her betrothal to Ian. Her account had been slightly confused overall, but he’d got the gist of it well enough, and his jaw tightened as he came up to William and saw the look on his face.

Christ, do I look like that in a temper? he wondered briefly. It was off-putting to speak to a man who looked as though he asked nothing more of the world than the chance to rend someone limb from limb and dance on the pieces.

“Well, rend away, lad,” he said under his breath. “And we’ll see who dances.” He stepped up beside William and took off his hat.

“You,” he said baldly, not wishing to call the lad by either title or name, “come aside wi’ me. Now.”

The look on William’s face changed from incipient murder to the same look of startled horror Jamie had just surprised on Ian’s. Had matters been otherwise, he’d have laughed. As it was, he gripped William hard by the upper arm, pushed him off-balance, and had him into the shelter of a scrim of saplings before he could set his feet hard.

“You!” William blurted, wrenching loose. “What the devil are you doing here? And where is my—what have you—” He made a convulsive gesture of dismissal. “What are you doing here?”

“Talking to you, if ye’ll close your mouth for a moment,” Jamie said coldly. “Listen to me, lad, because I’m telling ye what you’re going to do.”

“You’re not telling me anything,” William began furiously, and cocked a fist. Jamie grabbed him by the upper arm again, and this time dug his fingers hard into the spot Claire had shown him, on the underside of the bone. William let out a strangled “Agh!” and started to pant, his eyes bulging.

“You’re going to catch up the men ye sent Ian with and tell them to set him free,” Jamie said evenly. “If ye don’t, I go down under a flag of truce to the camp where they’re taking him, introduce myself, tell the commander who you are, and explain the reason for the fight. Ye’ll be right there beside me. Do I make myself clear?” he asked, increasing the pressure of his fingers.

“Yes!” The word came out in a hiss, and Jamie let go suddenly, folding his fingers into a fist to hide the fact that they were trembling and twitching from the effort.

“God damn you, sir,” William whispered, and his eyes were black with violence. “God damn you to hell.” His arm hung limp and must have hurt, but he wouldn’t rub it, not with Jamie watching.

Jamie nodded. “Nay doubt,” he said quietly, and went into the forest. Once out of sight of the road, he leaned against a tree, feeling sweat stream down his face. His back felt cast in cement. His whole body was trembling, but he hoped that William had been too distrait to notice.

God, should it have come to blows, I couldna take him.

He closed his eyes and listened to his heart, which was thumping like a bodhran. After a little, he heard the sound of hooves on the road, a horse galloping, and, turning to peer through the trees, caught a glimpse of William thundering past, heading in the direction Ian had been taken.

THE GATHERING STORM

BY BREAKFAST ON Thursday, I’d come to the firm conclusion that it was the Duke of Pardloe or me. If I stayed in the house, only one of us would remain alive by sundown. Denzell Hunter must have come into the city by now, I reasoned; he’d call in daily at Mrs. Woodcock’s house, where Henry Grey was convalescing. A very kind and capable doctor, he could easily manage Hal’s recovery—and perhaps his future father-in-law would be grateful for his professional attention.

The thought made me laugh out loud, despite my increasing anxiety.

To Dr. Denzell Hunter

From Dr. C. B. R. Fraser

I am called away to Kingsessing for the day. I surrender His Grace the Duke of Pardloe to your most competent care, in the happy confidence that your religious scruples will prevent your striking him in the head with an ax.

Yours most sincerely,

C.

Postscriptum: I’ll bring you back some asafoetida and ginseng root as recompense.

Post-postscriptum: Strongly suggest you don’t bring Dottie, unless you possess a pair of manacles. Preferably two.

I sanded this missive, gave it to Colenso for delivery to Mrs. Woodcock’s house, and executed a quiet sneak out the front door before Jenny or Mrs. Figg should pop up and demand to know where I was going.

It was barely seven o’clock, but the air was already warming, gradually heating up the city. By noon, the pungent mix of animals, humans, sewage, rotting vegetable matter, resinous trees, river mud, and hot brick would be stifling, but for the moment, the faint scent lent a piquant touch to the gentle air. I was tempted to walk, but even my most utilitarian shoes weren’t up to an hour’s walk on country roads—and if I waited for sundown and the cooling evening to make my way back, I’d be remarkably late.

Neither was it a good idea for a woman to be alone on the roads, on foot. Day or night.

I thought I could manage the three blocks to the livery stable without incident, but at the corner of Walnut I was hailed by a familiar voice from a carriage window.

“Mrs. Fraser? I say, Mrs. Fraser!”

I looked up, startled, to see the hawk-nosed face of Benedict Arnold smiling down at me. His normally fleshy features were gaunt and lined, and his usually ruddy complexion had faded to an indoor pallor, but there was no mistaking him.

“Oh!” I said, and made a quick bob. “How nice to see you, General!”

My heart had sped up. I’d heard from Denny Hunter that Arnold had been appointed military governor of Philadelphia but hadn’t expected to see him so soon—if at all.

I should have left it there but couldn’t help asking, “How’s the leg?” I knew he’d been badly injured at Saratoga—shot in the same leg that had been wounded a short time before, and then crushed by his horse falling with him in the storming of Breymann Redoubt—but I hadn’t seen him then. The regular army surgeons had attended him, and from what I knew of their work, I was rather surprised that he was not only alive but still had two legs.

His face clouded a bit at that, but he continued to smile.

“Still present, Mrs. Fraser. If two inches shorter than the other. Where are you going this morning?” He glanced automatically behind me, registering my lack of a maid or companion, but didn’t seem disturbed by it. He’d met me on the battlefield and knew me—and appreciated me—for what I was.

I knew what he was, too—and what he would become.

The hell of it was that I liked the man.

“Ah . . . I’m on my way out to Kingsessing.”

“On foot?” His mouth twitched.

“Actually, I had it in mind to hire a gig from the livery stable.” I nodded in the general direction of Davison’s stable. “Just round the corner there. Lovely to see you, General!”

“Wait a moment, Mrs. Fraser, if you would . . .” He turned his head toward his aide, who was leaning over his shoulder, nodding toward me, and saying something inaudible. Next thing I knew, the carriage door popped open and the aide jumped down, offering me an arm.

“Do come up, ma’am.”

“But—”

“Captain Evans here says the livery is closed, Mrs. Fraser. Allow me to put my carriage at your service.”

“But—” Before I could think of anything to complete this protest, I was handed up opposite the general and the door firmly shut, Captain Evans hopping nimbly up beside the driver.

“I gather that Mr. Davison was a Loyalist,” General Arnold said, eyeing me.

“Was?” I said, rather alarmed. “What’s happened to him?”

“Captain Evans says that Davison and his family have left the city.”

They had. The carriage had turned in to Fifth Street, and I could see the livery stable, its doors hanging open—one of them pulled entirely off and lying in the street. The stable was empty, as was the stable yard—the wagon, the gig, and the small coach gone with the horses. Sold, or stolen. From the Davisons’ house, next to the stable, the tatters of Mrs. Davison’s lace curtains fluttered limp in a broken window.

“Oh,” I said, and swallowed. I darted a quick look at General Arnold. He’d called me “Mrs. Fraser.” Obviously, he didn’t know what my current situation was—and I couldn’t make up my mind whether to tell him. On impulse, I decided not to. The less official inquiry there was into events at Number 17 Chestnut Street, the better, whether the inquiry was British or American.

“I’m told the British kept quite a clamp on Whigs in the city,” he went on, looking me over with interest. “I hope you weren’t much troubled, you and the colonel?”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Not really.” I took a deep breath, groping for some means of diverting the conversation. “But I have been rather short of news—er, American news, I mean. Have there been any . . . remarkable developments of late?”

He laughed at that, but wryly.

“Where shall I start, madam?”

Despite my unease at meeting Benedict Arnold again, I was glad for his courtesy in offering me a ride; the air was thick with moisture and the sky white as a muslin sheet. My shift was moist with perspiration after only a brief walk; I would have been wringing wet—and likely on the verge of heatstroke—by the time I had walked as far as Kingsessing.

The general was excited, both by his new appointment and by the impending military developments. He was not at liberty to tell me what those were, he said—but Washington was on the move. Still, I could see that his excitement was much tempered by regret; he was a natural warrior, and sitting behind a desk, no matter how important and ornate, was no substitute for the bone-deep thrill of leading men into a desperate fight.

Watching him shift in his seat, hands clenching and unclenching on his thighs as he talked, I felt my uneasiness deepen. Not just about him, but about Jamie. They were quite different kinds of men—but Jamie’s blood roused at the scent of battle, too. I could only hope he wasn’t going to be anywhere in the vicinity of whatever battle might be impending.

Loading...