Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 59

   

“Yes. He’s with the Twenty-sixth. Randy bugger, always after women.”

“And you aren’t?” Ban wasn’t a close friend, but William had been out on the randan with him once or twice in London. He didn’t drink much, but he didn’t need to; he was the sort of man who always seemed a little intoxicated.

Tarleton laughed, face flushed with the heat and red-lipped as a girl.

“Yes. But Harkness doesn’t care about anything but women. Known him to have three at once, in a brothel.”

William considered that one for a moment.

“All right. I can see a use for two, maybe . . . but what’s the third one for?”

Ban, who was maybe four years older than William, gave him the sort of pitying look reserved for virgins and confirmed bachelors, then ducked back, laughing, when William punched him in the arm.

“Right,” William said. “That aside, I’m looking for a wainwright or a cooper. Any close by?”

Tarleton straightened his helmet and shook his head.

“No, but there’s bound to be one or two in that mess.” He gestured negligently at the train of baggage wagons. “Which regiment are you with, these days?” He frowned at William, seeming to realize that something was amiss with his dress. “Where’s your sword? And your gorget?”

William gritted his teeth—and they really did grit, there being so much coarse dust in the air—and apprised Tarleton of his situation in the minimum number of words. He didn’t mention where or under what circumstances he had lost his gorget, and with a brief salute of farewell to the colonel, reined round and went down the column again. He was breathing as though he’d run the length of London Bridge, and pulses of electricity were running down his arms and legs, jolting at the base of his spine.

His anger over his situation had been rekindled by his conversation with Tarleton and—unable to do any bloody thing about any of it—turned his mind to what he wanted to do to Harkness, should he meet the 26th Light Dragoons. He touched his chest by reflex, and his sudden urge to do violence changed at once to an equally sudden rush of desire that made him light-headed.

Then he recalled his original errand, and hot blood washed through his face. He rode more slowly, calming his mind. Harkness could wait. The Endicotts couldn’t.

Thought of the family pained him—and not only because he was ashamed of letting himself be distracted from their difficulty. But in recollecting them now, he realized that for those few moments with the Endicotts, concerned with their troubles, he’d forgotten. Forgotten the burden he’d been carrying like a pound of lead in his chest. Forgotten who he really was.

What would Anne Endicott have done, if she knew? Her parents? Even . . . well, no. He smiled, despite his disquiet. He didn’t think Peggy Endicott would mind if he told her he was secretly a cutpurse or a cannibal, let alone a—

Everyone else he knew, though . . . The Endicotts were only one Loyalist family who’d welcomed him into their home, and he’d not taken proper leave of any of those who chose to stay in Philadelphia, too ashamed to see them, knowing the truth.

He looked back over his shoulder; the Endicotts were barely visible, now sitting in the grass in a companionable circle, sharing food of some kind. He felt a keen pang at the sight of their companionability. He’d never be part of a decent family, couldn’t ever marry a woman even of such modest origins as Anne Endicott.

Her father might well be ruined, might have lost his wealth and business, the family might descend into poverty—but they would remain who they were, firm in their courage and the pride of their name. Not him. His name didn’t belong to him.

Well . . . he could marry, he grudgingly admitted to himself, making his way gingerly through a group of camp followers. But only a woman who wanted nothing but his title and money would have him, and to wed under such circumstances, knowing that your wife despised you . . . and to know that you passed the taint of your blood to your sons . . .

This morbid train of thought stopped abruptly with the appearance of a small group of artisans, trudging beside a large wagon that undoubtedly held their tools.

He came down on them like a wolf on a flock of startled sheep and ruthlessly cut out a fine, fat wainwright, whom he persuaded by threats and bribery to mount behind him and thus carried his prey back to the Endicotts.

With his spirit soothed by their gratitude, he turned northward again, toward the head of the army, camp, and his supper. Absorbed in thoughts of roast chicken and gravy—he ate with Clinton’s staff, and thus ate very well—he didn’t notice at once that another horseman had come up alongside him, matching his pace.

“Penny for your thoughts?” said a pleasant, half-familiar voice, and he turned to find himself looking into the smiling face of Denys Randall-Isaacs.

WILLIAM REGARDED Randall-Isaacs with something between annoyance and curiosity. The man had to all effects abandoned him in Quebec City a year and a half before and vanished, leaving him to spend the winter snowbound with nuns and voyageurs. The experience had improved both his French and his hunting abilities, but not his temper.

“Captain Randall-Isaacs,” he said in acknowledgment, rather coldly. The captain smiled sunnily at him, not at all put off by his tone.

“Oh, just Randall these days,” he said. “My father’s name, you know. The other bit was a courtesy to my stepfather, but as the old man’s passed on now . . .” He lifted one shoulder, leaving William to draw the obvious conclusion: that a Jewish-sounding surname couldn’t be an asset to an ambitious officer.

“Surprised to see you here,” Randall went on, chummy, as though they’d seen each other at a ball last month. “You were at Saratoga with Burgoyne, weren’t you?”

William’s hand tightened on the reins, but he patiently explained his peculiar status. For possibly the twentieth time.

Randall nodded, respectful.

“Certainly better than cutting hay in Massachusetts,” he said, with a glance at the marching columns they were passing. “Thought of going back to England, though?”

“No,” William said, somewhat startled. “Why? For one thing, I doubt I can, by the terms of parole. For another—why should I?” Why, indeed? he thought, with a fresh stab. He’d not even begun to think about what awaited him in England, at Helwater, at Ellesmere. In London, for that matter . . . oh, Jesus . . .

“Why, indeed?” Randall said, unconsciously echoing him. The man sounded thoughtful. “Well . . . not much opportunity for distinguishing yourself here, is there?” He glanced very briefly at William’s belt, bare of weapons, and away again directly, as though the sight was somehow shameful—which it was.

“And what is it you think I could do there?” William demanded, keeping his temper with some difficulty.

“Well, you are an earl,” Randall pointed out. William felt the blood rise up his neck, but couldn’t say anything. “You have a seat in the House of Lords. Why not use it to accomplish something? Take up politics. Doubt your parole says anything about that—and as long as you weren’t going back to rejoin the army, I shouldn’t think the travel itself would be a problem.”

“I’d never thought of it,” William said, striving for politeness. He couldn’t think of anything he’d less rather do than be political—unless it was be political while acting a sham.

Randall tilted his head amiably to and fro, still smiling. He was much as he’d been when William had seen him last: dark hair tied back without powder, good-looking rather than handsome, slender without being slight, graceful in movement, with a constant expression of sympathetic geniality. He hadn’t changed much—but William had. He was two years older now, much more experienced, and was both surprised and a little gratified to discover that he realized that Randall was playing him like a hand of bezique. Or trying to.

“I suppose there are other possibilities,” he said, guiding his horse around an enormous puddle of muddy urine that had collected in a dip in the road.

Randall’s horse had paused to add to it. Randall sat as composedly as one can in such a situation, but didn’t try to raise his voice over the noise. He picked his way out of the mud and caught William up before continuing the conversation.

“Possibilities?” He sounded genuinely interested, and probably was, William thought—but why? “What were you thinking of doing?”

“You recall Captain Richardson, of course?” William asked casually, but with an eye on Randall’s face. One dark brow rose a bit, but otherwise he showed no particular emotion at hearing the name.

“Oh, yes,” Randall replied, as casual as William. “Have you seen the good captain recently?”

“Yes, a couple of days ago.” William’s temper had abated, and he waited with interest to see what Randall might have to say to this.

The captain didn’t look taken aback, exactly, but his air of pleasant inconsequence had definitely sharpened into something else. William could actually see him wondering whether to ask bluntly what Richardson had wanted or to take another tack, and the perception gave him a small thrill.

“Is Lord John with Sir Henry?” Randall asked. That was enough of a non sequitur to make William blink, but there was no reason not to answer.

“No. Why should he be?”

The brow lifted again.

“You didn’t know? The Duke of Pardloe’s regiment is in New York.”

“It is?” William was more than startled by that, but hastened to collect himself. “How do you know?”

Randall waved a well-manicured hand, as though the answer to this was irrelevant—as perhaps it was.

“Pardloe left Philadelphia this morning with Sir Henry,” he explained. “As the duke has recalled Lord John to duty, I thought—”

“He what?” William’s horse jerked his head and snorted at the exclamation, and William stroked the big neck, using the gesture to avert his face for a moment. His father was here?

“I stopped at his lordship’s house in Philadelphia yesterday,” Randall explained, “and a rather odd Scotchwoman—she must be his lordship’s housekeeper, I collect?—told me that his lordship had been gone for several days. But if you haven’t seen him . . .”

Randall raised his head, looking ahead. A haze of woodsmoke was already showing above the trees, cook fires, wash fires, and watch fires all marking the growing camp, their tang a pleasant spice in the nostrils. It made William’s stomach growl.

“Hup! Hup! At the double, quick . . . march!” A sergeant’s bellow came from behind them, and they pulled aside for a double column of infantry, who hadn’t needed the exhortation; they were eager for their dinner and the chance to lay down their arms for the night.

The pause gave William room for a moment’s thought: ought he to ask Randall to sup with him later, try to draw him out? Or get the hell away from the man as quickly as possible, using his need to wait on Sir Henry as excuse? But what if Lord John really was with Sir Henry right this moment? And bloody Uncle Hal—all he needed in the present circumstance!

Randall had evidently used the pause for thought, as well, and come to his own decision. He came up close beside William, and after a quick glance to be sure no one was near them, leaned close and spoke in a low voice.

“I say this as a friend, Ellesmere—though I grant you’ve no reason to trust me, I hope you’ll listen. Don’t, for God’s sake, engage in any enterprise that Richardson suggests. Don’t go with him anywhere, no matter what the circumstances. If you can avoid it, don’t even talk to him again.”

And with that, he reined his horse’s head around, spurred up abruptly, and was off down the road at a gallop, heading away from the camp.

SCROUNGING

GREY WOULDN’T MIND, if it weren’t for the headaches. The ache in his side had faded to something tolerable; he thought a rib might be cracked, but as long as he didn’t have to run, that wouldn’t be a problem. The eye, though . . .

The injured eye stubbornly refused to move but jerked in its socket, pulling against whatever obstruction held it—an orbicularis muscle? Was that what Dr. Hunter had called it?—in an attempt to focus with its fellow. This was painful and exhausting in itself but also led to double vision and crushing headaches, and he found himself often unable to eat when they halted, wanting only to lie down in darkness and wait for the throbbing to cease.

By the time they stopped to make camp on the evening of the second day of march, he could barely see out of his good eye, and his stomach was heaving with nausea.

“Here,” he said, thrusting his hot journeycake at one of his fellows, a tailor from Morristown named Phillipson. “You take it. I can’t, not just . . .” He couldn’t go on, but pressed the heel of his hand hard against his closed eye. Green and yellow pinwheels and brilliant flashes of light erupted behind his eyelid, but the pressure eased the pain for a moment.

“You save it for later, Bert,” Phillipson said, tucking the journeycake into Grey’s rucksack. He bent close and peered at Grey’s face in the firelight. “You need a patch for that eye,” he declared. “Keep you from rubbing at it, at least; it’s red as a whore’s stocking. Here.”

And with that, he took off his own battered felt hat and, whipping a small pair of scissors from his bosom, cut a neat round patch from the brim, rubbed a bit of spruce gum round the edge to make it stick, and then bound it carefully in place over the injured orb with a spotted handkerchief contributed by one of the other militiamen. All of them clustered round to watch, with the kindest expressions of concern, offers of food and drink, suggestions as to which company had a surgeon that might come to let his blood, and so on. Grey, in the weakness of pain and exhaustion, thought he might weep.

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