Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 61

   

“I love you, a nighean,” he said, very softly, his breath warm on my skin.

“I love you,” I answered just as softly, taking the ribbon from his hair and loosening his plait between my fingers. I pressed his head closer to me, not in invitation, but out of the sudden urgent need to keep him close to me, to protect him.

He kissed my breast and turned his head, laying it in the hollow of my shoulder. He took one deep breath, one more, and then was asleep, the relaxing weight of his body against me both protection and trust.

“I love you,” I said, almost soundless, my arms wrapped tight about him. “Oh, dear God, I love you.”

IT MIGHT HAVE been the sense of overwhelming fatigue, or the smell, the mingling of alcohol and unwashed bodies, that made me dream of the hospital.

I was walking down the little hall beyond the men’s ward at the hospital where I’d done my nurse’s training, the tiny bottle of morphia grains in my hand. The walls were dingy gray; so was the air. At the end of the hall was the alcohol bath where the syringes were kept.

I lifted one out, cold and slippery, careful not to drop it. But I did drop it; it slid from my hand and shattered on the floor, spraying glass shards that cut my legs.

I couldn’t worry about that; I had to get back with the morphine injection—men were calling out behind me, desperate, and somehow it was the sound of the operating tent in France back there, men moaning, screams and hopeless sobbing, and my fingers shook with urgency, groping in the cold steel bath among glass syringes that rattled like bones.

I pulled one out, gripping it so tightly that it, too, broke in my hand, and blood ran down my wrist, but I wasn’t conscious of pain. Another, I must have another; they were in dreadful pain and I could stop it, if only . . .

Somehow I had a clean syringe and had got the top off the tiny bottle of morphia grains, but my hand was shaking, the grains spilling like salt; Sister Amos would be furious. I needed tweezers, forceps; I couldn’t grasp the tiny pellets with my fingers and, in a panic, shook several of them into the syringe, a whole grain, not the quarter grain called for, but I had to get to the men, had to stop their pain.

Then I was running back down the endless gray hall toward the cries, shards of glass glinting among the red blood drops on the floor, both as bright as dragonfly wings. But my hand was growing numb, and the last syringe fell from my fingers before I reached the door.

And I woke up with a jolt that seemed to stop my heart. I gulped smoke and the fug of beer and bodies, not knowing where I was.

“Jesus, Sassenach, are ye all right?” Jamie, startled out of sleep, rolled up onto his elbow above me, and I came back into the present with as much of a jolt as my awakening had been. My left arm was numb from the shoulder down, and there were tears on my cheeks; I felt the coolness on my skin.

“I . . . yes. Just a . . . a bad dream.” I felt ashamed to confess it, as though it were his privilege alone to suffer nightmares.

“Ah.” He lowered himself beside me with a sigh and gathered me to him with one arm. He ran a thumb over my face and, finding wetness, blotted it matter-of-factly with his shirt. “All right now?” he whispered, and I nodded, thankful that I needn’t talk about it.

“Good.” He stroked the hair off my face and rubbed my back gently, the circles of his hand growing gradually slower until he fell asleep again.

It was deep night, and a deep sleep lay upon the room. The whole of it seemed to breathe in unison, snores and gasps and grunts all fading into something like the waves of a receding tide, rising and falling and bearing me with them, safely back into the depths of sleep.

Only the pins and needles of feeling returning to my dead arm kept me from it, and that only momentarily.

I could still see the blood and the shards of glass and heard against the susurrus of snores the crash of falling crystal, saw the bloody smudges on the wallpaper at Number 17.

Dear Lord, I prayed, listening to Jamie’s heart under my ear, slow and steady. Whatever happens, let him have a chance to talk to William.

TAKEN AT A DISADVANTAGE

WILLIAM LED HIS HORSE down among the rocks to a level place where both of them could drink. It was midafternoon, and after a day spent riding to and fro along the column in the blazing sun, he was parched as a piece of last year’s venison jerky.

His present horse was Madras, a cob with a deep chest and a steady, stolid disposition. The horse waded purposefully into the stream, hock-deep, and sank his nose into the water with a blissful snort, shivering his coat against the cloud of flies that appeared instantly out of nowhere whenever they stopped.

William waved a couple of insects away from his own face and took off his coat for a moment’s relief from the heat. He was tempted to wade in, too—up to his neck, if the creek was deep enough—but . . . well . . . He looked cautiously over his shoulder, but he was well out of sight, though he could hear the sounds of the baggage train on the distant road. Why not? Just for a moment. It wasn’t as though the dispatch he was carrying was urgent; he’d seen it written, and it contained nothing more than an invitation for General von Knyphausen to join General Clinton for supper at an inn with a reputation for good pork. Everyone was wringing with sweat; dampness would be no telltale.

He hastily shucked shoes, shirt, stockings, breeches, and smalls, and walked naked into the purling water, which barely reached his waist but was wet and cool. He closed his eyes in blissful relief—and opened them abruptly a half second later.

“William!”

Madras flung up his head with a startled snort, showering William with droplets, but he barely noticed in the shock of seeing two young women standing on the opposite bank.

“What the devil are you doing here?” He tried to squat a little lower in the water without being conspicuous about it. Though a dim voice in the back of his mind wondered aloud why he bothered: Arabella–Jane had already seen anything he had. “And who’s that?” he demanded, jerking his chin at the other girl. Both of them were flushed as summer roses, but he thought—he hoped—it was the result of the heat.

“This is my sister, Frances,” Jane said, with the elegance of a Philadelphia matron, and gestured to the younger girl. “Curtsy to his lordship, now, Fanny.”

Fanny, a very lovely young girl with dark curls peeping out under her cap—what was she, eleven, twelve?—bobbed him a sweet curtsy, blue-and- red-calico petticoats outspread, and dropped long lashes modestly over the big, soft eyes of a young doe.

“Your most humble servant, mademoiselle,” he said, bowing with as much grace as possible, which, judging from the expressions on the girls’ faces, was probably a mistake. Fanny clapped a hand over her mouth and went much redder from the effort not to laugh.

“I am charmed to meet your sister,” he said to Jane, rather coldly. “But I fear you take me at something of a disadvantage, madam.”

“Yes, that’s a piece of luck,” Jane agreed. “I couldn’t think how we were to find you in that moil, and when we saw you ride past like the fiend was after you—we’d got a ride on a baggage wagon—I didn’t think we’d ever catch you. But we took the chance, and . . . voilà! Fortuna favet audax, you know.” She wasn’t even trying to pretend she wasn’t laughing at him!

He scrabbled for some cutting rejoinder in Greek, but the only thing that came to his inflamed mind was a humiliating echo from his past, something his father had said to him on the occasion when he’d accidentally fallen into a privy: “What news from the underworld, Persephone?”

“Turn your backs,” he said curtly. “I’m getting out.”

They didn’t. Gritting his teeth, he turned his own back on them and deliberately climbed the bank, feeling the itch of four interested eyes focused on his dripping backside. He grabbed his shirt and wrestled his way into it, feeling that even that much shelter would enable him to carry on the conversation in a more dignified manner. Or maybe he’d just tuck his breeches and boots under his arm and leave without further chat.

The sound of heavy splashing whilst he was still enveloped in the folds of his shirt made him whirl round, head popping free just in time to see Madras lunge up out of the creek on the girls’ side, lips already reaching for the apple Jane was holding out to him.

“Come back here, sir!” he shouted. But the girls had more apples, and the horse paid no attention whatever—nor did he object when Arabella–Jane took his reins and looped them casually round the trunk of a young willow.

“I noticed that you didn’t ask how we came to be here,” she said. “Doubtless surprise has deprived you of your usual exquisite manners.” She dimpled at him and he eyed her severely.

“I did,” he said. “I distinctly recall saying, ‘What. The. Devil. Are. You. Doing. Here.’”

“Oh, so you did,” she said, without a blush. “Well, not to put too fine a point on the matter, Captain Harkness came back.”

“Oh,” he said, in a slightly different tone. “I see. You, um, ran away, then?”

Frances nodded solemnly.

William cleared his throat. “Why? Captain Harkness is doubtless with the army. Why would you come here, of all places, instead of staying safe in Philadelphia?”

“No, he isn’t,” Jane said. “He was detained on business in Philadelphia. So we came away. Besides,” she added carelessly, “there are thousands of women with the army. He’d never find us, even if he was looking—and why should he be?”

That was reasonable. Still . . . he knew what the life of an army whore was like. He also had a strong suspicion that the girls had run out on their contract with the brothel; very few saved enough from their wages to buy their way out, and both of these girls were much too young to have made much money. To abandon the reasonable comfort of clean beds and regular meals in Philadelphia in order to accommodate filthy, sweating soldiers amidst mud and flies, paid in blows as often as in coin . . . Yet he was obliged to admit that he’d never been buggered by a vicious sod like Harkness and thus had no true basis for comparison.

“I expect you want money, to assist in your escape?” he said, an edge in his voice.

“Well, perhaps,” said Jane. Reaching into her pocket, she held up something shiny. “Mostly, I wanted to give this back to you.”

His gorget! He took an involuntary step toward her, toes squelching in the mud.

“I—thank you,” he said abruptly. He’d felt its lack every time he dressed, and felt even more the weight of his fellow officers’ eyes on the empty spot where it should rest. He’d been obliged to explain to Colonel Desplains what had happened—more or less—saying that he’d been robbed in a bawdy house. Desplains had chewed him bloody, but then had given him reluctant leave to appear without a gorget until he might get another in New York.

“What I—we, I mean—really want is your protection,” Jane said, doing her best to look winsomely earnest, and doing it damned well.

“You what?”

“I don’t think I should have any difficulty in making a living with the army,” she said frankly, “but ’tisn’t really what I want for my dear sister, that sort of life.”

“Er . . . no. I imagine not,” William said warily. “What else did you have in mind?” “Lady’s maid?” he wanted to suggest sarcastically, but in light of the return of his gorget, he refrained.

“I haven’t quite made up my mind,” she said, fastening her gaze on the ripples where the creek ran over rocks. “But if you could help us to get safely to New York—and maybe find us a place there . . .”

William ran a hand down his face, wiping away a layer of fresh sweat.

“Don’t want much, do you?” he said. On the one hand, if he didn’t give her some assurance of help, he wouldn’t put it past her to fling his gorget into the water in a fit of pique. And on the other . . . Frances was a lovely child, delicate and pale as a morning-glory blossom. And on the third hand, he hadn’t any more time to spare in argument.

“Get on the horse and come across,” he said abruptly. “I’ll find you a new place with the baggage train. I have to ride a dispatch to von Knyphausen just now, but I’ll meet you in General Clinton’s camp this evening—no, not this evening, I won’t be back until tomorrow. . . .” He fumbled for a moment, wondering where to tell her to find him; he could not have two young whores asking for him at General Clinton’s headquarters. “Go to the surgeons’ tent at sundown tomorrow. I’ll—think of something.”

IN WHICH I MEET A TURNIP

DURING THE NEXT DAY’S ride, we encountered a messenger, sent back from Washington’s command with a note for Jamie. He read this leaning against a tree, while I made an unobtrusive visit to a nearby clump of brush.

“What does he say?” I asked, straightening my clothes as I emerged. I was still rather awed that Jamie had actually spoken with George Washington, and the fact that he was frowning at a letter presumably written by the future Father of the Country . . .

“Two or three things,” he replied with a shrug, and, refolding the note, stuffed it into his pocket. “The only important bit o’ news is that my brigade is to be under the command of Charles Lee.”

“Do you know Charles Lee?” I got my foot into the stirrup and heaved myself into the saddle.

“I know of him.” What he knew appeared to be rather problematic, judging from the line between his brows. I raised my own; he glanced at me and smiled.

“I met him, ken, when I first met General Washington. I made it my business to learn a bit more about him since.”

“Oh, so you didn’t like him,” I observed, and he gave me a small snort.

“No, I didn’t,” he said, nudging his horse into a walk. “He’s loud and unmannerly and a sloven—I could see that much for myself—but from what I’ve heard since, he’s also jealous to the bone and doesna trouble to hide it verra well.”

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