Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 55

   

It had been past dark when we made it back to the printshop. I’d sent Germain at once to Jenny at Number 17 with word where I was but had gone to bed with Jamie before he came back. I wondered vaguely who else was at the house on Chestnut Street and what they were doing: was Hal still a captive, or had Young Ian decided to release him? If not, had Hal assassinated Denny Hunter, or had Mrs. Figg shot him?

Jamie had told me he’d left Ian in charge of the situation—or situations; there seemed to have been a great deal going on the day before. All of it seemed unreal and dreamlike, both the events I’d participated in and the ones Jamie had told me about on the ride back. The only vividly real recollection I had was of our conversation in the garden—and what followed it, in the potting shed. My flesh still felt the echoes.

Breakfast was plainly preparing below; besides the delectable scent of frying bacon, I could smell toasted yeast bread and fresh honey. My stomach gave a loud gurgle at this, and as though the sound had caused it, the ladder leading up into the loft began to shake. Someone was coming up, moving slowly, and in case it wasn’t Jamie, I seized my shift and pulled it hastily over my head.

It wasn’t. A pewter tray rose slowly into sight, laid with a plate piled with food, a bowl of porridge, and a pottery mug of something steaming; it couldn’t be tea and didn’t smell like coffee. As the tray levitated, Henri-Christian’s beaming face appeared below it; he was balancing the thing on his head.

I held my breath until he’d stepped off the ladder, and then, as he removed the tray from his head and presented it to me with a ceremonious little bow, applauded.

“Merveilleux!” I told him, and he grinned from ear to ear.

“Félicité wanted to try,” he told me proudly, “but she can’t do it with a full tray yet. She spills.”

“Well, we can’t have that. Thank you, sweetheart.” I leaned forward to kiss him—his dark wavy hair smelled of woodsmoke and ink—and took the mug. “What’s this?”

He looked at it dubiously and shrugged. “It’s hot.”

“So it is.” I cradled the mug in my hands. The loft had been warm the night before, the day’s heat trapped under the roof, but it had rained most of the night, and the chilly damp had come through the holes in the roof—four or five vessels placed under the leaks made a symphony of plinking sounds. “Where’s Grand-père?”

Henri-Christian’s face at once went bright red, his lips pressed tight together, and he shook his head vigorously.

“What?” I said, surprised. “Is it a secret?”

“Don’t you tell her!” Joanie’s shrill voice floated up from the shop below. “Grand-père said not to!”

“Oh, a surprise, is it?” I asked, smiling. “Well, perhaps you’d best go down and help your mama, then, so you don’t give it away by mistake.”

He giggled, hands pressed over his mouth, then reached up over his head, gave a convulsive leap, and flipped over backward, landing adroitly on his hands. He walked on them to the ladder, stocky little legs splayed to keep his balance, and for an instant my heart was in my mouth as he reached the edge and I thought he might try to go down the ladder upside down. He flipped over again, though, landing neatly on the top rung, and scampered out of sight like a squirrel, giggling all the way down.

Smiling, I plumped up the sparse bedding—we had slept on a flattened pallet of worn straw from the stable, which smelled rather strongly of Clarence, and on our half-dried cloaks, covered with a spare sheet and a ragged blanket, though Joanie and Félicité had given us one of their feather pillows, they sharing the other—and sat back against the wall, the tray perched on a keg of ink powder. I was surrounded by stacks of paper, these shielded by oilcloth from the leaks. Some of it was blank reams awaiting the press, some of it pamphlets, circulars, posters, or the guts of unbound books, awaiting delivery to customers or to the bookbinder.

I could hear Marsali’s voice below, back in the living quarters behind the shop, raised in maternal command. No male voices but Henri-Christian’s, though; Fergus and Germain must have gone out with Clarence the mule to make the morning deliveries of L’Oignon, the satirical newspaper started by Fergus and Marsali in North Carolina.

Normally, L’Oignon was a weekly paper, but there was a copy on my tray of the special edition for today, with a large cartoon on the first page, showing the British army as a horde of cockroaches, fleeing Philadelphia with tattered flags dragging behind them and trailing ribbon banners filled with speeches of futile threat. A large buckled shoe labeled General Washington was squashing some of the more laggard roaches.

There was a large glob of opaque yellow-white honey melting slowly in the middle of the porridge; I stirred it in, poured a bit of cream over it, and settled down to enjoy breakfast in bed, along with an article noting the imminent entrance into Philadelphia of General Arnold, who was taking office as the military governor of the city, welcoming him and praising his military record and gallant exploits at Saratoga.

How long? I thought then, setting down the paper with a small shiver. When? I had the feeling that it had been—would be—much later in the war, when circumstance turned Benedict Arnold from patriot to traitor. But I didn’t know.

It didn’t matter, I told myself firmly. I couldn’t change it. And long before that happened, we would be safely back on the Ridge, rebuilding our house and our lives. Jamie was alive. Everything would be all right.

The bell over the shop door below rang, and there was an excited gabble as the children stampeded out of the kitchen. The soft rumble of Jamie’s voice floated up over the confusion of shrill greetings, and I caught Marsali’s voice among them, stunned.

“Da! What have ye done?”

Alarmed, I scrambled out of my nest and went on hands and knees to the edge of the loft to look down. Jamie stood in the middle of the shop, surrounded by admiring children, his loose hair spangled with raindrops, cloak folded over his arm—dressed in the dark blue and buff of a Continental officer.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I exclaimed. He looked up and his eyes met mine like those of a guilty puppy.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” he said apologetically. “I had to.”

HE’D COME UP to the loft and pulled the ladder up behind him, to prevent the children coming up. I was dressing quickly—or trying to—as he told me about Dan Morgan, about Washington and the other Continental generals. About the coming battle.

“Sassenach, I had to,” he said again, softly. “I’m that sorry.”

“I know,” I said. “I know you did.” My lips were stiff. “I—you—I’m sorry, too.”

I was trying to fasten the dozen tiny buttons that closed the bodice of my gown, but my hands shook so badly that I couldn’t even grasp them. I stopped trying and dug my hairbrush out of the bag he’d brought me from the Chestnut Street house.

He made a small sound in his throat and took it out of my hand. He threw it onto our makeshift couch and put his arms around me, holding me tight with my face buried in his chest. The cloth of his new uniform smelled of fresh indigo, walnut hulls, and fuller’s earth; it felt strange and stiff against my face. I couldn’t stop shaking.

“Talk to me, a nighean,” he whispered into my tangled hair. “I’m afraid, and I dinna want to feel so verra much alone just now. Speak to me.”

“Why has it always got to be you?” I blurted into his chest.

That made him laugh, a little shakily, and I realized that all the trembling wasn’t coming from me.

“It’s no just me,” he said, and stroked my hair. “There are a thousand other men readying themselves today—more—who dinna want to do it, either.”

“I know,” I said again. My breathing was a little steadier. “I know.” I turned my face to the side in order to breathe, and all of a sudden began to cry, quite without warning.

“I’m sorry,” I gasped. “I don’t mean—I don’t want t-to make it h-harder for you. I—I—oh, Jamie, when I knew you were alive—I wanted so much to go home. To go home with you.”

His arms tightened hard round me. He didn’t speak, and I knew it was because he couldn’t.

“So did I,” he whispered at last. “And we will, a nighean. I promise ye.”

The sounds from below floated up around us: the sounds of children running back and forth between the shop and the kitchen, Marsali singing to herself in Gaelic as she made fresh ink for the press from varnish and lamp-black. The door opened, and cool, rainy air blew in with Fergus and Germain, adding their voices to the cheerful confusion.

We stood wrapped in each other’s arms, taking comfort from our family below, yearning for the others we might never see again, at once at home and homeless, balanced on a knife edge of danger and uncertainty. But together.

“You’re not going off to war without me,” I said firmly, straightening up and sniffing. “Don’t even think about it.”

“I wouldna dream of it,” he assured me gravely, went to wipe his nose on his uniform sleeve, thought better of it, and stopped, looking at me helplessly. I laughed—tremulous, but it was a laugh nonetheless—and gave him the handkerchief I’d tucked automatically into my bosom when I fastened my stays. Like Jenny, I always had one.

“Sit down,” I said, swallowing as I picked up the hairbrush. “I’ll plait your hair for you.”

He’d washed it this morning; it was clean and damp, the soft red strands cool in my hands and smelling—oddly—of French soap, scented with bergamot. I rather missed the scent of sweat and cabbage that had surrounded me all night.

“Where did you bathe?” I asked curiously.

“At the house on Chestnut Street,” he answered, a little tersely. “My sister made me. She said I couldna turn up to be a general smelling like a stale dinner, and there was a tub and hot water to spare.”

“Did she?” I murmured. “Um . . . speaking of Chestnut Street . . . how is His Grace, the Duke of Pardloe?”

“Gone before dawn, Jenny said,” he said, bending his head to aid in the plaiting. His neck was warm under my fingers. “According to Ian, Denny Hunter said he was well enough to go, provided that he took along a flask of your magic potion. So Mrs. Figg gave him back his breeches—wi’ some reluctance, I understand—and he went.”

“Went where?” I asked. His hair was more heavily traced with silver than it had been. I didn’t mind that; I minded that I hadn’t been there to see it slowly change, day by day.

“Ian didna ask him. But he said Mrs. Figg told the duke the names of some friends of Lord John’s—Loyalists that might be still in the city. And his son’s staying in a house here, no? Dinna be worrit on his account, Sassenach.” He turned his head to smile sideways at me. “His Grace is a man who’s hard to kill.”

“I suppose it takes one to know one,” I said tartly. I didn’t ask why Jamie had gone to Chestnut Street; Hal, Jenny, and all other concerns notwithstanding, I knew he wanted to know whether John had reappeared. Apparently not, and a small chill frosted my heart.

I was groping in my pocket for a ribbon with which to club his queue, when a fresh draft swept through the loft, lifting the oilcloth and fluttering the papers beneath. I turned to see the source of the breeze and beheld Germain, swinging off the pulley rope to come in by the shuttered doors through which bales and kegs could be lowered from the loft to wagons below.

“Bonjour, Grand-père,” he said, wiping a cobweb off his face as he landed and bowing to Jamie with great formality. He turned and bowed to me, as well. “Comment ça va, Grand-mère?”

“Fi—” I began automatically, but was interrupted by Jamie.

“No,” he said definitely. “Ye’re not coming.”

“Please, Grandda!” Germain’s formality disappeared in an instant, replaced by pleading. “I could be a help to ye!”

“I know,” Jamie said dryly. “And your parents would never forgive me if ye were. I dinna even want to know what your notion of help involves, but—”

“I could carry messages! I can ride, ye ken that, ye taught me yourself! And I’m nearly twelve!”

“Ye ken how dangerous that is? If a British sharpshooter didna take ye out of the saddle, someone from the militia would club ye over the head to steal the horse. And I can count, ken? Ye’re no even eleven yet, so dinna be tryin’ it on with me.”

Obviously, danger held no fears whatever for Germain. He shrugged, impatient.

“Well, I could be an orderly, then. I can find food anywhere,” he added, cunning. He was in fact a very accomplished scrounger, and I looked at him thoughtfully. Jamie intercepted my glance and glowered at me.

“Dinna even think about it, Sassenach. He’d be taken up for theft and hanged or flogged within an inch of his life, and I couldna do a thing to stop it.”

“Nobody’s ever caught me!” Germain said, his professional pride outraged. “Not once!”

“And they’re not going to,” his grandfather assured him, fixing him with a steely eye. “When ye’re sixteen, maybe—”

“Oh, aye? Grannie Janet says ye were eight when ye first went raiding with your da!”

“Lifting cattle’s no the same as war, and I wasna anywhere near the fighting,” Jamie said. “And your Grannie Janet should keep her mouth shut.”

“Aye, I’ll tell her ye said so,” Germain retorted, disgruntled. “She says ye got bashed on the head with a sword.”

“I did. And with luck ye’ll live to be an auld man with your brains unscrambled, unlike your grandsire. Leave us, lad, your grannie needs to put her stockings on.” He stood up and, lifting the ladder, slid it down from the loft and pushed Germain firmly onto it.

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