Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 63

   

Port wine was brought—evidently the meal was being hosted by the marquis; I had the distinct feeling that the high command of the Continental army didn’t always eat this well. The men had largely avoided talking about the impending battle during the meal, but I could feel the subject looming like an approaching thunderstorm, bright-rimmed black clouds, excitingly shot with flickers of lightning. I began to rearrange my skirts and make gestures of incipient leave-taking, and saw Jamie, seated next to Lee across the table, notice and smile at me.

Lee noticed, too—he’d been gazing in an absent way at my décolletage—and broke off the anecdote he’d been telling Ian, seated on his other side.

“Such a pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” he said cordially. “Your husband obliges us extremely by allowing us the delight of your company. I—”

Lee stopped abruptly in mid-sentence—and mid-bite, staring at Rollo, who had unobtrusively moved closer and was now standing no more than a couple of feet from the general. Given the low bench on which Lee was sitting and Rollo’s size, this proximity placed them roughly eye-to-eye.

“Why is that dog looking at me like that?” Lee demanded, swinging round to glare at Ian.

“He’s waitin’ to see what ye drop next, I expect,” Ian said, chewing placidly.

“If I were you, sir,” Jamie put in politely, “I’d drop something quickly.”

IAN, ROLLO, AND I took our leave of the generals and went out into the dark to find our beds, escorted by an orderly with a lantern. Fires burned high all up and down the bank of the Delaware, and many of the boats on the river had lanterns or open fires as well, the lights reflecting in the water like shoals of glimmering fish.

“Do you know anything about the man who ate beside you?” I asked Ian, in my hesitant Gaelic. He laughed—he and Jamie always laughed when I spoke Gaelic—but lifted one shoulder in a negative shrug.

“I do not, but I will find out,” he said. “He is an Englishman, I can tell you that much.”

He used the word “Sassenach,” which gave me a mild shock. It had been a long time since I’d heard a Scot use that word in the way it was meant.

“Yes, he is. Do you think it makes a difference?” Technically, they were all still Englishmen—well, bar La Fayette, von Steuben, Kosciuszko, and similar oddities—but it was true that most of the Continental officers had been born and spent their lives in America. Lee hadn’t. Ian made a derisory Scottish noise, indicating that it did.

“But I hear that he was adopted into the Kahnyen’kehaka, too,” I objected.

Ian was silent for a moment, then took my arm, leaning close to speak in my ear.

“Auntie,” he said softly. “D’ye think I ever stopped bein’ a Scot?”

VESTAL VIRGINS

JAMIE AND I WERE billeted at the home of the Chenowyths, a pleasant—if understandably somewhat anxious—family whose home stood at the end of the single road that ran through Coryell’s Ferry. Mrs. Chenowyth was in her wrapper, but greeted me kindly with a candlestick and took me to a small bedroom at the back of the house—this showing the evidence of hasty evacuation by a number of young Chenowyths, these presumably now sharing their parents’ room, judging from the sounds of mixed heavy breathing.

The single bed was fairly large, though Jamie’s feet would still stick out by a good six inches. There was a washbasin and ewer full of fresh water; I picked this up carefully and drank from it; my throat was dry from too much French wine. I replaced the ewer and sat down on the bed, feeling rather strange.

Possibly it was the wine. Possibly it was the fact that the room had no windows, and Mrs. Chenowyth had thoughtfully closed the door behind her. It was a small room, perhaps ten feet by eight. The air was still and the candle’s flame burned high and steady, pure against the bricks of the wall. Perhaps it was the candle that brought to mind Uncle Lamb and the day he’d told me about vestal virgins, showing me a blue chalcedony carving from the temple of Vesta.

“Should a virgin betray her vows,” he’d said, waggling his eyebrows at me, “she’d be whipped, then sealed up alive in a small underground tomb, equipped with a table and chair, some water, and a single candle. And there she would die, when the air ran out.”

I’d considered that with a sort of morbid relish—I might have been ten—and then asked with interest just how a vestal might betray her vows. Which is how I learned what used to be called “the facts of life,” Uncle Lamb not being one to shirk any fact that wandered across his path, or mine. And while Uncle Lamb had assured me that the cult of Vesta had long since ceased operations, I had at that point resolved not to be a virgin, just in case. On the whole, a good resolution, though sleeping with men did have the most peculiar side effects.

Ian had brought along my saddlebags, which he’d dumped in the corner of the room before going off with Rollo to find his own sleeping place. I got up and fumbled for my toothbrush and tooth powder, though it seemed quite surreal to be brushing my teeth on what might be the eve of battle. Not quite rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic . . . or at least I hoped not.

I knew that Washington and the marquis were going to survive whatever happened—and spared a thought for the strangeness of now thinking of them as men and not names. The large pores on George Washington’s nose as he’d bent over my hand, and the shadowed pits of old smallpox scars across his lower cheeks; the smell of him, starch and sweat, wine and wig powder—for he wore his wig, hot as it was—the sweetly nasty smell of dental decay . . . I picked up my toothbrush, reminded, and set to work with some vigor. He’d smelled of blood, too; I wondered why—bleeding gums, perhaps?

I wriggled my way out of gown, jacket, and stays and stood for a bit flapping my shift, in hopes of admitting a little air. It made the candle flicker but didn’t have much effect beyond that, so I blew the candle out and lay down.

I didn’t expect to sleep. Adrenaline had been jolting through me like the current in a faulty circuit ever since we’d left Philadelphia, but now it was settling down to a steady humming in my blood. The conversation over dinner had been fairly general, but the atmosphere had been electric with anticipation. Clearly, once Ian and I had left and the plates had been removed . . . It was as close as I had ever been to a council of war, and the vibrations of it were still tingling through me.

There was anxiety tingling, too, to be sure—there had been amongst the men, as well. But given a suitable outlet, anxiety can be transformed into very effective action, and that’s plainly what Washington and his generals were now doing, hammering out plans, assigning troops, drawing up strategies . . . I wished I was amongst them. It would be much easier than lying in the pitch dark, staring up into a boring infinity—nasty way to die, that.

I sat up, gulping air, and went hastily to the door. No sounds, no light seeping under the door. I patted round on the floor ’til I located my shoes and the puddle of my cloak and, swinging this over my shoulders, slipped out and made my way silently through the half-dark house, past the smoldering hearth and out.

The door was unbolted and on the latch; perhaps Mr. Chenowyth was out and expected back. I supposed there was some danger of my being locked out, but at this point spending the night in the midst of a military camp in my shift seemed preferable to sleeping—or, rather, not sleeping—in a tomb. Besides, I was sure that one of the small Chenowyths had wee’d in the bed fairly recently.

No one took any notice of me as I walked back along the road. The taverns and ordinaries were crammed full and spilling customers all over the road. Continental regulars in their blue and buff, swaggering about, the envy—they hoped—of the militiamen. Any number of women, too, and not all whores, by any means. But above all . . . air.

The heat of the day had largely gone, and while the air wasn’t cold by any means, it wasn’t stifling, either. Having escaped entombment, I reveled in the feeling of freedom—and what amounted to invisibility, for tall as I was, with my cloak on and my hair tied back in a plait for bed, I looked much like many of the militiamen in the dark; no one glanced twice at me.

The street and the camp beyond were electric; I recognized the feeling, and it gave me the oddest sense of dislocation—for I recognized it in its various forms from half of the battlefields I’d served near, from France in 1944 to Prestonpans and Saratoga. It wasn’t always this way; often the sense of the occasion was one of dread—or worse. I remembered the night before Culloden and felt a wave of cold wash through me so strongly that I staggered and nearly fell against the wall of a building.

“Friend Claire?” said a voice, in amazement.

“Denzell?” Half-blinded by a number of torches being borne past, I blinked at the shape that had manifested before me.

“What is thee doing out here?” he said, alarmed. “Is anything wrong? Is it Jamie?”

“Well, you could say it’s Jamie,” I said, getting back my composure. “But there’s nothing wrong, no. I was just getting a bit of air. What are you doing here?”

“I was fetching a pitcher of beer,” he said, and took me firmly by the arm, steering me down the street. “Come with me. Thee ought not be in the street with the fighting men. Those that aren’t drunk now will be shortly.”

I didn’t argue. His hand on my arm felt good, steadying me against the strange currents of the night that seemed to carry me willy-nilly into the past—and the future—and back again without warning.

“Where are Rachel and Dottie?” I asked, as we turned right at the end of the street and began to thread our way through the campfires and rows of tents.

“Rachel’s gone somewhere with Ian; I didn’t inquire. Dottie’s in our medical tent, dealing with a case of acute indigestion.”

“Oh, dear. What did she eat?”

He laughed softly. “The indigestion isn’t hers. A woman named Peabody, who came in complaining of colic pains. Dorothea said she would administer something appropriate, if I would go and fetch her some beer—it being not safe for her to venture to the ordinary alone.”

I thought I detected a small note of reproach in his voice, but I made an indeterminate “hmm” in response and he said no more about my wandering the streets en déshabillé. Possibly because he hadn’t noticed that I was en déshabillé, until we entered the Hunters’ big medical tent and I took my cloak off.

Denny gave me one brief, shocked look, coughed, and, picking up a canvas apron, managed to hand it to me without looking directly at me. Dottie, who was massaging the massive back of a very large woman seated hunched over on a stool in front of her, grinned at me over the woman’s capped head.

“How are you, Auntie. Restless tonight?”

“Very,” I replied frankly, putting on the apron. “This is Mrs. Peabody?”

“Yes.” Dottie smothered a yawn with her shoulder. “The indigestion seems to be better—I gave her gripe water and peppermint,” she added, to Denny. “But she’s complaining of pains in her back, as well.”

“Hmm.” I came over and squatted down in front of the woman, who appeared to be half asleep—until I caught a whiff of her breath, which was eighty proof, at least. I put my hand on her belly to see if I could feel the location of the trouble, when she coughed thickly in a way I’d heard all too often before, choked—and I leapt back just in time.

“Thank you for the apron, Denny,” I said mildly, brushing off some of the higher flecks of mud and vomit that had spattered on me. “I don’t suppose you brought a birthing stool with you?”

“A birthing stool. To a battle?” he said faintly, his eyes bulging slightly behind his spectacles as he looked at the woman, now swaying ponderously to and fro, like a large bell making up its mind whether to ring or not.

“I rather think it may be one,” I said, glancing round. “If she’s in labor. Can you find a blanket, Dottie? I think we’ll have to lay her on the ground; she’ll collapse the cot.”

It took all three of us to wrestle Mrs. Peabody—who relapsed comfortably into unconsciousness the moment we touched her—onto a blanket spread on the ground under the lantern. There was an almost instant insurgence of moths, as they came fluttering in, attracted not only by the light but by the assorted smells thickening the air.

Mrs. Peabody had lapsed not merely into unconsciousness but into what appeared to be an alcoholic coma. After a certain amount of discussion, we’d turned her onto one side, in case she should vomit again, and the position had allowed her belly to flow away from the rest of her corpulent body, so that it lay on the ground in front of her, gravid and sac-like. She looked like the queen of some order of social insect, ready to deliver in the thousands, but I refrained from mentioning this, as Dottie was still pale.

Denzell had recovered from the shock and was keeping an eye—or rather a hand—on her wrist, keeping track of her pulse. “Amazingly strong,” he said at last, letting go, and looked up at me. “Does thee think she is near her time?”

“I really hope not,” I said, looking down. “But there’s no telling without . . . er . . . closer examination.” I took a deep breath and a grip on my more generous instincts. “Would you like me to . . . er . . .”

“I’ll go and find clean water,” he said, springing to his feet and seizing a bucket.

Given that Dottie was engaged to Denny, I refrained from calling him a coward in her presence and merely waved him off in a reserved manner. Mrs. Peabody made me uneasy on a number of scores. I had no idea whether she might be about to go into labor, or, if she did, how her comatose state might affect it. The level of alcohol in her blood was certainly affecting the child’s; would a drunken newborn be able to breathe? It wouldn’t vomit, as there wasn’t anything in its stomach to vomit, but might it void its bowels in utero and aspirate the material? That was a remarkably dangerous thing to happen even in a modern hospital with a full delivery-suite staff attending—most of the babies who did that died of suffocation, lung injury, or infection.

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