Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 30

   

I found Young Mr. Bartram—he was about forty, but so called to distinguish him from his elder brother—in the center of the gardens, sitting under the shade of an immense creeper that covered half the porch of his house, a sketchbook open on the table before him, making careful drawings of a handful of pale, leggy roots that lay on a napkin.

“Ginseng?” I asked, bending to peer at them.

“Yes,” he said, not taking his eyes off the delicate line of his pen. “Good morning, Lady John. You’re familiar with the root, I see.”

“It’s fairly common in the mountains of North Carolina, where I . . . used to live.” The casual sentence caught in my throat with a sudden unexpectedness. Out of nowhere, I smelled the woods on Fraser’s Ridge, pungent with balsam fir and poplar sap, heavy with the musty scent of wood ears and the tang of wild muscats.

“Yes, indeed.” Reaching the end of his line, he set down his pen, removed his spectacles, and looked up at me with the bright face of a man who lives for plants and fully expects the world to share his obsession. “These are Chinese ginseng; I want to see whether I might be able to persuade it to grow here—” He waved a hand toward the encompassing acres of lush garden. “The Carolina variety languishes, and the Canadian ginseng stubbornly refuses even to try!”

“How very perverse of it. Though I expect it’s too hot,” I observed, taking the stool he gestured me to and setting down my basket on the floor. My shift was sticking to me, and I could feel a large splotch of spreading wetness between my shoulder blades, where my hair dripped sweat down my back. “They like cold weather.”

The vivid memory of the woods had blossomed into a visceral longing for the Ridge, so immediate that I felt the ghost of my vanished house rise around me, a cold mountain wind thrumming past its walls, and thought that, if I reached down, I could feel Adso’s soft gray fur under my fingers. I swallowed, hard.

“It is hot,” he said, though he himself looked as dry as one of the roots on the table, dappled with shade from his vine. “May I offer you some refreshment, Lady John? I have some iced negus in the house.”

“I’d love it,” I said, meaning it. “But—iced?”

“Oh, we have quite a large icehouse by the river, Sissy and I,” he said proudly. “Let me just tell her . . .”

I had had sufficient forethought as to bring a fan with me and now pulled this out of my basket. The sense of longing had turned suddenly into a new—and wonderful—realization. We could go home. Jamie had been released from service with the Continental army in order to see his cousin’s body back to Scotland. He’d meant, when we returned, to go back to North Carolina, reclaim his printing press, and take up arms on behalf of the revolution via the pen rather than the sword.

That plan had vanished, along with the rest of my life, when he’d been reported drowned. But now . . . A thrill of excitement ran through me and must have shown on my face, for Mr. and Miss Bartram both blinked at me as they came out onto the porch. They were twins, and while their faces bore only a faint similarity of feature, they often shared the same expression and were doing so presently, both looking slightly bewildered but pleased.

I could barely keep myself from sharing my wonderful thought with them, but that wouldn’t do, and I managed to sip the negus—port mixed with hot water, sugar, and spices, then chilled to a cold—truly cold!—water-beaded delight—and engage in civil admiration of the ongoing improvements to Bartram’s Garden, these being already famous for their beauty and variety. Old Mr. Bartram had been planning and planting and extending them for fifty years, and his children had evidently inherited the family mania, as well as the gardens.

“. . . and we’ve improved the river path, and we’ve just put up a much bigger potting shed,” Sissy Bartram was saying eagerly. “So many customers wanting potted vines and flowers for their drawing rooms and conservatories! Though I don’t know . . .” Her eagerness faded a little, and she made a moue of doubt. “With all this kerfuffle—war is so bad for business!”

Mr. Bartram coughed a little. “It does depend on the sort of business,” he said mildly. “And I’m afraid we shall have a much increased demand for the medicinals.”

“But if the army is leaving . . .” Miss Bartram began hopefully, but her brother shook his head, his face growing sober.

“Does thee not feel it in the air, Sissy?” he said softly. “Something is coming.” He lifted his face, as though scenting something on the heavy air, and she reached to put a hand on his arm, silent, listening with him for the sound of distant violence.

“I hadn’t realized that you were Friends, Mr. Bartram,” I said, to break the ominous quiet. Both of them blinked and smiled at me.

“Oh,” said Miss Bartram. “Father was read out of meeting some years ago. But sometimes the habits of childhood come back when you least expect them.” She lifted one plump shoulder, smiling, but with something regretful behind it. “I see you have a list, Lady John?”

That recalled me abruptly to my business, and the next hour was spent in busy exploration, discussion of the merits and drawbacks of various medicinals, the selection of dried herbs from the vast drying sheds, and cutting of fresh ones from the beds. With my sudden realization that we might return to the Ridge quite soon, and Mr. Bartram’s very acute observation about the impending demand for medicinals, I bought much more than I had originally intended, replenishing not only my usual stocks (including a pound of dried Chinese joint fir, just in case. What was I going to do with the bloody man?), but also a good quantity of Jesuit bark, elecampane, and even lobelia, plus the asafoetida and ginseng I’d promised Denny.

In the end, there was too much for my basket, and Miss Bartram said she would put it up into a package and have one of the assistant gardeners who lived in Philadelphia bring it into the city when he went home in the evening.

“Would you like to see the river path, before you go?” she asked me, with a quick glance skyward. “It’s not finished yet, of course, but we have some amazing things put in, and it is wonderfully cool at this time of day.”

“Oh, thank you. I really—wait. You wouldn’t have fresh arrowhead down there, would you?” I hadn’t thought to put that on my list, but if it was available . . .

“Oh, yes!” she cried, beaming. “Masses of it!” We were standing in the largest of the drying sheds, and the late-afternoon light falling through the boards striped the walls with bars of swimming gold, illuminating the constant rain of tiny pollen grains from the drying flowers. There was a scatter of tools on the table, and she plucked a wooden trowel and a stubby knife from the litter without hesitation. “Would you like to dig your own?”

I laughed with pleasure. The opportunity to grub around in the wet mud wasn’t an offer that most women would have made—especially to another woman dressed in pale-blue muslin. But Miss Bartram spoke my language. I hadn’t had my hands in the earth in months, and the mere suggestion made my fingers tingle.

THE RIVER PATH was lovely, edged with willow and silver birch that cast a flickering shade over banks of nasturtium and azalea and the floating masses of dark-green cress. I felt my blood pressure drop as we strolled, chatting of this and that.

“Do you mind if I ask you something about the Friends?” I asked. “I have a colleague who was read out of meeting—he and his sister—because he volunteered as a surgeon with the Continental army. Since you mentioned your father . . . I wondered, how important a thing is that? Belonging to a meeting, I mean?”

“Oh!” She laughed, rather to my surprise. “I imagine it depends upon the individual—everything does, really, as a Friend. My father, for instance: he was read out of meeting, for refusing to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ, but he went right on going to meeting; it made no particular difference to him.”

“Oh.” That was rather reassuring. “What if—what is a Quaker marriage like? Would one have to belong to a meeting in order to get married?”

She thought that interesting and made low humming noises for a bit.

“Well, a marriage between Friends is . . . between the Friends marrying. No clergyman, I mean, and no specific prayer or service. The two Friends marry each other, rather than it being considered a sacrament administered by a priest or the like. But it does need to be done before witnesses—other Friends, you know,” she added, a small crease forming between her brows. “And I think that there might be considerable objection if the Friends involved—or one of them—had been formally expelled.”

“How interesting—thank you.” I wondered how this might affect Denzell and Dorothea; even more, how it might affect Rachel and Ian. “Can a Friend marry a, er, non-Friend?”

“Oh, yes, of course. Though I think they would be put out of meeting as a result,” she added dubiously. “But there might be special consideration for dire circumstances. The meeting would appoint a committee of clearness to look into the situation, I suppose.”

I hadn’t got so far as worrying about dire circumstances, but thanked her, and the conversation went back to plants.

She’d been right about the arrowhead: there were masses of it. She smiled happily at my amazement but then left me to my digging, assuring me that I might take some of the lotus and some Sweet Flag rhizomes, as well, if I liked. “And fresh cress, of course!” she added over her shoulder, waving a blithe hand at the water. “All you like!”

She’d thoughtfully brought along a burlap sack for me to kneel on; I spread it carefully, not to crush anything, and kirtled up my skirts out of the way as best I could. There was a faint breeze; there always is, over moving water, and I sighed in relief, both at the coolness and the sudden sense of solitude. The company of plants is always soothing, and after the incessant—well, you couldn’t call it sociability, exactly, but at least the incessant presence of people requiring to be conversed with, directed, hectored, scolded, conferred with, persuaded, lied to—that I had experienced over the last few days, I found the rooted silence, rushing stream, and rustling leaves balm to the spirit.

Frankly, I thought, my spirit could use a bit of balm. Between—or rather, among—Jamie, John, Hal, William, Ian, Denny Hunter, and Benedict Arnold (to say nothing of Captain Richardson, General Clinton, Colenso, and the whole bloody Continental army), the male of the species had been rather wearing on my nerves of late.

I dug slowly and peaceably, lifting the dripping roots into my basket and packing each layer between mats of watercress. Sweat was running down my face and between my br**sts, but I didn’t notice it; I was melting quietly into the landscape, breath and muscle turning to wind and earth and water.

Cicadas buzzed heavily in the trees nearby, and gnats and mosquitoes were beginning to collect in uneasy clouds overhead. These were luckily only a nuisance when they flew up my nose or hovered too close to my face; apparently my twentieth-century blood wasn’t attractive to eighteenth-century insects, and I was almost never bitten—a great blessing to a gardener. Lulled into mindlessness, I had quite lost track of time and place, and when a pair of large, battered shoes appeared in my field of view, I merely blinked at them for a moment, as I might at the sudden appearance of a frog.

Then I looked up.

“OH,” I SAID, a little blankly. Then, “There you are!” I said, dropping my knife and scrambling to my feet in a surge of joyous relief. “Where the bloody hell have you been?”

A smile flickered briefly across Jamie’s face, and he took my hands, wet and muddy as they were. His were large and warm and solid.

“In a wagon full of cabbages, most recently,” he said, and the smile took hold as he looked me over. “Ye look well, Sassenach. Verra bonny.”

“You don’t,” I said frankly. He was grubby, very thin, and he plainly hadn’t been sleeping well; he had shaved, but his face was gaunt and shadowed. “What’s happened?”

He opened his mouth to reply but then seemed to think better of it. He let go my hands, cleared his throat with a low Scottish noise, and fixed his eyes on mine. The smile had gone.

“Ye went to bed with John Grey, aye?”

I blinked, startled, then frowned at him. “Well, no, I wouldn’t say that.”

His eyebrows rose.

“He told me ye did.”

“Is that what he said?” I asked, surprised.

“Mmphm.” Now it was his turn to frown. “He told me he’d had carnal knowledge of ye. Why would he lie about such a thing as that?”

“Oh,” I said. “No, that’s right. Carnal knowledge is a very reasonable description of what happened.”

“But—”

“‘Going to bed,’ though . . . For one thing, we didn’t. It started on a dressing table and ended—so far as I recall—on the floor.” Jamie’s eyes widened noticeably, and I hastened to correct the impression he was obviously forming. “For another, that phraseology implies that we decided to make love to each other and toddled off hand in hand to do so, and that wasn’t what happened at all. Umm . . . perhaps we should sit down?” I gestured toward a rustic bench, standing knee-deep in creamy drifts of ranunculus.

I hadn’t had a single thought of that night since learning Jamie was alive, but it was beginning to dawn on me that it might quite possibly seem important to Jamie—and that explaining what had happened might be somewhat tricky.

He nodded, rather stiffly, and turned toward the bench. I followed, noting with some concern the set of his shoulders.

“Have you hurt your back?” I asked, frowning as I saw the care with which he sat down.

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