Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 9

   

The thought was like the striking of one of Brianna’s matches. Just the word “bed” and he was aflame with fresh rage.

“Ifrinn!” he said aloud, and slammed his fist against the pommel. All the trouble to calm himself, and all to waste in an instant! God damn it—damn him, damn her, John Grey—damn everything!

“Mr. Fraser!”

He jerked as though shot in the back, and the horse slowed at once, snorting.

“Mr. Fraser!” came the loud, wheezy voice again, and Daniel Morgan came trotting up alongside on a small, sturdy bay, grinning all over his big scarred face. “Knew that was you, knew it! Ain’t no other rascal that size with that color hair, and if there is one, I don’t want to meet him.”

“Colonel Morgan,” he said, noting auld Dan’s unaccustomed uniform with the fresh insignia on the collar. “On your way to a wedding?” He did his best to smile, though the turmoil inside him was like the whirlpools off the rocks of Stroma.

“What? Oh, that,” said Dan, trying to look sideways down his own neck. “Pshaw. Washington’s a damned stickler for ‘proper dress.’ The Continental army got more generals than they got private soldiers, these days. An officer lives through more ’n two battles, they make him some kind of general on the spot. Now, gettin’ any pay for it, that’s a different kettle of fish.”

He tipped back his hat and looked Jamie up and down.

“Just come back from Scotland? Heard you went with Brigadier Fraser’s body—your kin, I suppose?” He shook his head regretfully. “Cryin’ shame. Fine soldier, good man.”

“Aye, he was that. We buried him near his home at Balnain.”

They continued together, auld Dan asking questions and Jamie replying as briefly as good manners—and his real affection for Morgan—would allow. They hadn’t met since Saratoga, where he’d served under Morgan as an officer of his Rifle Corps, and there was a good deal to say. Still, he was glad of the company, and even of the questions; they distracted him and kept his mind from catapulting him again into fruitless fury and confusion.

“I suppose we must part here,” Jamie said, after a bit. They were approaching a crossroads, and Dan had slowed his pace a bit. “I’m bound into the city myself.”

“What for?” Morgan asked, rather surprised.

“I—to see my wife.” His voice wanted to tremble on the word “wife,” and he bit it off sharp.

“Oh, yes? Could you maybe spare a quarter hour?” Dan was giving him a sort of calculating look that made Jamie instantly uneasy. But the sun was still high; he didn’t want to enter Philadelphia before dark.

“Aye, maybe,” he replied cautiously. “To do what?”

“I’m on my way to see a friend—want you to meet him. It’s right close, won’t take a moment. Come on!” Morgan veered right, waving at Jamie to follow, which, cursing himself for a fool, he did.

Number 17 Chestnut Street

I WAS SWEATING as freely as the duke was by the time the spasm eased enough for him to breathe without the positive-pressure exercise. I wasn’t quite as tired as he was—he lay back in the chair, exhausted, eyes closed, drawing slow, shallow—but free!—breaths—but close. I felt light-headed, too; it’s not possible to help someone breathe without doing a lot of it yourself, and I was hyperventilated.

“Here, a piuthar-chèile.” Jenny’s voice spoke by my ear, and it was only when I opened my eyes in surprise that I realized they’d been closed. She put a small glass of brandy in my hand. “There’s nay whisky in the house, but I expect this will help. Shall I give His Grace a dram, too?”

“Yes, you shall,” the duke said, with great authority, though he didn’t move a muscle or open his eyes. “Thank you, madam.”

“It won’t hurt him,” I said, drawing myself up and stretching my back. “Or you, either. Sit down and have a drink. You, too, Mrs. Figg.” Jenny and Mrs. Figg had worked nearly as hard as I had, fetching and grinding and brewing, bringing cool cloths to mop the sweat, spelling me now and then with the counting, and, by combining their not-inconsiderable force of will with mine, helping to keep him alive.

Mrs. Figg had very fixed notions of what was proper, and these didn’t include sitting down to share a dram with her employer, let alone a visiting duke, but even she was obliged to admit that the circumstances were unusual. Glass in hand, she perched primly on an ottoman near the parlor door, where she could deal with any potential invasions or domestic emergencies.

No one spoke for some time, but there was a great sense of peace in the room. The hot, still air carried that sense of odd camaraderie that binds people who have passed through a trial together—if only temporarily. I gradually became aware that the air was carrying noises, too, from the street outside. Groups of people moving hurriedly, shouts from the next block, and a rumble of wagons. And a distant rattle of drums.

Mrs. Figg was aware of it, too; I saw her head rise, the ribbons of her cap atremble with inquisitiveness.

“Baby Jesus, have mercy,” she said, setting down her empty glass with care. “Something’s coming.”

Jenny looked startled and glanced at me, apprehensive.

“Coming?” she said. “What’s coming?”

“The Continental army, I expect,” said Pardloe. He let his head fall back, sighing. “Dear God. What it is . . . to draw breath.” His breath was still short, but not very much constrained. He raised his glass ceremoniously to me. “Thank you, my . . . dear. I was . . . already in your debt for your . . . kind services to my son, but—”

“What do you mean, ‘the Continental army’?” I interrupted. I set down my own glass, now empty. My heart rate had calmed after the exertions of the last hour but now abruptly sped up again.

Pardloe closed one eye and regarded me with the other.

“The Americans,” he said mildly. “The Rebels. What else . . . would I mean?”

“And when you say, ‘coming . . .’” I said carefully.

“I didn’t,” he pointed out, then nodded at Mrs. Figg. “She did. She’s right, though. General Clinton’s . . . forces are with . . . drawing from Philadelphia. . . . I daresay Wa . . . Washington is . . . poised to rush in.”

Jenny made a small sputtering noise, and Mrs. Figg said something really blasphemous in French, then clapped a broad pink-palmed hand to her mouth.

“Oh,” I said, doubtless sounding as blank as I felt. I’d been so distracted during my meeting with Clinton earlier in the day that the logical consequences of a British withdrawal had not occurred to me at all.

Mrs. Figg stood up.

“I best go and be burying the silver, then,” she said in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “It’ll be under the laburnum bush by the cookhouse, Lady John.”

“Wait,” I said, raising a hand. “I don’t think we need do that just yet, Mrs. Figg. The army hasn’t yet left the city; the Americans aren’t precisely snapping at our heels. And we’ll need a few forks with which to eat our supper.”

She made a low rumbling noise in her throat but seemed to see the sense in this; she nodded and began to collect the brandy glasses instead.

“What’ll you be wanting for supper, then? I got a cold boiled ham, but I was thinking to make a chicken fricassee, William liking that so much.” She cast a bleak look at the hallway, where the bloody smudges on the wallpaper had now turned brown. “You think he’s coming back for his supper?” William had an official billet somewhere in the town, but frequently spent the night at the house—particularly when Mrs. Figg was making chicken fricassee.

“God knows,” I said. I hadn’t had time to contemplate the William situation, what with everything else. Might he come back, when he’d cooled down, determined to have things out with John? I’d seen a Fraser on the boil, many times, and they didn’t sulk, as a rule. They tended to take direct action, at once. I eyed Jenny speculatively; she returned the look and casually leaned her elbow on the table, chin in hand, and tapped her fingers thoughtfully against her lips. I smiled privately at her.

“Where is my nephew?” Hal asked, finally able to take note of something other than his next breath. “For that matter . . . where is my brother?”

“I don’t know,” I told him, putting my own glass on Mrs. Figg’s tray and scooping his up to add to it. “I really wasn’t lying about that. But I do expect he’ll be back soon.” I rubbed a hand over my face and smoothed my hair back as well as I could. First things first. I had a patient to tend.

“I’m sure John wants to see you as much as you want to see him. But—”

“Oh, I doubt it,” the duke said. His eyes traveled slowly over me, from bare feet to disheveled hair, and the faint look of amusement on his face deepened. “You must tell me how John . . . happened to marry you . . . when there’s time.”

“A counsel of desperation,” I said shortly. “But in the meantime we must get you to bed. Mrs. Figg, is the back bedroom—”

“Thank you, Mrs. Figg,” the duke interrupted, “I shan’t be . . . requiring . . .” He was trying to struggle up out of the chair and hadn’t enough breath to talk. I walked up to him and gave him my best piercing head-matron look.

“Harold,” I said in measured tones. “I am not merely your sister-in-law.” The term gave me an odd frisson, but I ignored it. “I am your physician. If you don’t—what?” I demanded. He was staring up at me with a most peculiar expression on his face, something between surprise and amusement. “You invited me to use your Christian name, didn’t you?”

“I did,” he admitted. “But I don’t think anyone has . . . actually called me Harold since . . . I was three years old.” He did smile then, a charming smile quite his own. “The family call me Hal.”

“Hal, then,” I said, smiling back but refusing to be distracted. “You’re going to have a nice refreshing sponge bath, Hal, and then you’re going to bed.”

He laughed—though he cut it short, as he began to wheeze. He coughed a little, fist balled under his ribs, and looked uneasy, but it stopped, and he cleared his throat and glanced up at me.

“You’d think I was . . . three years old. Sister-in-law. Trying to send me . . . to bed without my tea?” He pressed himself gingerly upright, getting his feet under him. I put a hand on his chest and pushed. He hadn’t any strength in his legs and fell back into the chair, astonished and affronted. And afraid: he hadn’t realized—or at least had not admitted—his own weakness. A severe attack usually left the victim completely drained, and often with the lungs still dangerously twitchy.

“You see?” I said, tempering my tone with gentleness. “You’ve had attacks like this before, haven’t you?”

“Well . . . yes,” he said unwillingly, “but . . .”

“And how long were you in bed after the last one?”

His lips compressed.

“A week. But the fool doctor—”

I put a hand on his shoulder and he stopped—as much because he’d temporarily run short of air as because of the touch.

“You. Cannot. Breathe. Yet. On. Your. Own,” I said, separating the words for emphasis. “Listen to me, Hal. Look what’s happened this afternoon, will you? You had a fairly severe attack in the street; had that crowd on Fourth Street decided to set upon us, you would have been quite helpless—don’t argue with me, Hal, I was there.” I narrowed my eyes at him. He did the same back at me but didn’t argue.

“Then the walk from the street to the door of the house—a distance of some twenty feet—threw you straight into a full-blown status asthmaticus; have you heard that term before?”

“No,” he muttered.

“Well, now you have, and now you know what it is. And you were in bed for a week the last time? Was it as bad as this?”

His lips were a thin line and his eyes sparking. I imagined most people didn’t speak to a duke—let alone the commander of his own regiment—like this. Be good for him, I thought.

“Bloody doctor . . . said it was my heart.” His fist had uncurled and the fingers were slowly rubbing his chest. “Knew it wasn’t that.”

“I think you’re probably right about that,” I conceded. “Was this the same doctor who gave you smelling salts? Complete quack, if so.”

He laughed, a brief, breathless sound.

“Yes, he is.” He paused to breathe for a moment. “Though in . . . justice, he . . . he didn’t give me . . . salts. Got them . . . myself. For fainting . . . told you.”

“So you did.” I sat down beside him and took hold of his wrist. He let me, watching curiously. His pulse was fine; it had slowed and was thumping along very steadily.

“How long have you been subject to fainting spells?” I asked, bending to look closely into his eyes. No sign of petechial hemorrhage, no jaundice, pupils the same size . . .

“A long time,” he said, and pulled his wrist abruptly away. “I haven’t time to chat about my health, madam. I—”

“Claire,” I said, and put a restraining hand on his chest, smiling amiably at him. “You’re Hal, I’m Claire—and you aren’t going anywhere, Your Grace.”

“Take your hand off me!”

“I’m seriously tempted to do just that and let you fall on your face,” I told him, “but wait until Mrs. Figg finishes brewing the tincture. I don’t want you thrashing about on the floor, gasping like a landed fish, and no way of getting the hook out of your mouth.”

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