“It seems the most likely possibility. Also . . .” Hal hesitated for a moment, but then his mouth firmed. “If I believed that Benjamin was dead, what might I be expected to do?”
“Go and make inquiries into his death,” Grey replied, suppressing the queasy feeling the notion induced. “Claim his body, at the least.”
Hal nodded. “Ben was—or is—being held at a place in New Jersey called Middletown Encampment. I’ve not been there, but it’s in the middle of Washington’s strongest territory, in the Watchung Mountains. Nest of Rebels.”
“And you’d be unlikely to undertake that sort of journey with a large armed guard,” John observed. “You’d go alone, or perhaps with an orderly, an ensign or two. Or me.”
Hal nodded. They rode for a bit, each alone with his thoughts.
“So you’re not going to the Watchung Mountains,” Grey said at last. His brother sighed deeply and set his jaw.
“Not immediately. If I can catch up with Richardson, I may find out what’s really happened—or not happened—to Ben. After that . . .”
“Do you have a plan for proceeding once we reach Philadelphia?” Grey inquired. “Given that it’s in the hands of the Rebels?”
Hal’s lips compressed. “I will have, by the time we get there.”
“I daresay. I have one now, though.”
Hal looked at him, thumbing a hank of damp hair behind his ear. His hair was carelessly tied back; he’d not bothered to have it plaited or clubbed this morning, a sure sign of his agitation. “Does it involve anything patently insane? Your better plans always do.”
“Not at all. We’re certain to encounter the Continentals, as I said. Assuming we aren’t shot on sight, we produce your flag of truce”—he nodded at his brother’s sleeve, from which the edge of the handkerchief was drooping—“and demand to be taken to General Fraser.”
Hal gave him a startled look.
“The same.” Grey’s knotted stomach clenched a little tighter at the thought. At both the thought of speaking to Jamie again—and the thought of telling him that William was missing. “He fought with Benedict Arnold at Saratoga, and his wife is friendly with the man.”
“God help General Arnold, in that case,” Hal murmured.
“And who else has a better reason for helping us in this matter than does Jamie Fraser?”
“Who indeed?” They rode for some time in silence, Hal apparently lost in thought. It wasn’t until they paused to find a creek and water the horses that he spoke again, water streaming down his face where he’d splashed it.
“So you’ve not only somehow married Fraser’s wife, but you’ve accidentally been raising his illegitimate son for the last fifteen years?”
“Apparently so,” Grey said, in a tone that he hoped indicated complete unwillingness to talk about it. For once, Hal took the hint.
“I see,” he said, and, with no further questions, wiped his face with the flag of truce and mounted up.
IT HADN’T BEEN a peaceful day. Apparently Jamie had somehow retained sufficient presence of mind last night to write a brief note—though he didn’t recall doing so—to La Fayette, explaining what had happened and confiding care of his troops to the marquis. This he had sent with Lieutenant Bixby, with instructions to notify the captains and militia commanders of his companies. After which, he’d forgotten everything but Claire.
Everything had not forgotten him, though. The sun was barely up before a stream of officers appeared at Mrs. Macken’s door, in search of General Fraser. Mrs. Macken took every arrival as being the possible bearer of bad news concerning her still-missing husband, and the reek of burnt porridge rose through the house, seeping into the walls like the smell of fear.
Some came with questions, some with news or gossip—General Lee was relieved of duty, was under arrest, had gone to Philadelphia, had turned his coat and joined Clinton, had hanged himself, had challenged Washington to a duel. A messenger arrived from General Washington with a personal note of sympathy and good wishes; another came from La Fayette with an enormous hamper of food and a half-dozen bottles of claret.
Jamie couldn’t eat, but gave the food to Mrs. Macken. He retained a couple of bottles of the wine, though, which he’d opened and kept by him through the day, taking occasional gulps to sustain him as he sponged and watched and prayed.
Judah Bixby came and went like a helpful ghost, appearing and disappearing, but always seeming to be there if something was needed.
“The militia companies . . .” Jamie began, but then couldn’t think what he’d meant to ask concerning them. “Are they . . . ?”
“Most of them have gone home,” Bixby told him, unloading a basket full of beer bottles. “Their enlistment ends on the thirtieth—that’s tomorrow, sir,” he added gently, “but they mostly set off first thing this morning.”
Jamie let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding and felt a small measure of peace.
“I reckon it’ll be months before anyone knows was it a victory or not,” Bixby remarked. He drew the cork from one bottle, then another, and handed one to Jamie. “But it surely wasn’t defeat. Shall we drink to it, sir?”
Jamie was worn out with worry and praying, but managed a smile for Judah and a quick word of thanks to God for the boy.
Once Judah had left, a somewhat longer prayer on behalf of his nephew. Ian hadn’t returned, and none of Jamie’s visitors had had any word of him. Rachel had come back late the night before, white-faced and silent, and had gone out again at daybreak. Dottie had offered to go with her, but Rachel had refused; the two of them were needed to deal with the wounded still being brought in and those sheltering in the houses and barns of Freehold.
Ian, Jamie thought in anguish, addressing his brother-in-law. For God’s sake, have an eye to our lad, because I canna do it. I’m sorry.
Claire’s fever had risen fast during the night, then seemed to fall a little with the coming of the light; she was conscious now and then and capable of a few words, but for the most part she lay in a uneasy doze, her breath coming in shallow pants punctuated by sudden deep, tearing gasps that woke her—she dreamed that she was being suffocated, she said. He would give her as much water as she would take and douse her hair again, and she would drop back into fever dreams, muttering and moaning.
He began to feel as though he were living in a fever dream himself: trapped in endless repetitions of prayer and water, these broken by visitations from some vanished, alien world.
Perhaps this was purgatory, he thought, and gave a wan smile at memory of himself, waking on Culloden Moor so many years ago, his eyelids sealed with blood, thinking himself dead and grateful for it, even if his immediate prospect was a spell in purgatory—that being a vague, unknown circumstance, probably unpleasant but not one he feared.
He feared the one that might be imminent.
He had come to the conclusion that he couldn’t kill himself, even if she died. Even could he bring himself to commit a sin of that magnitude, there were people who needed him, and to abandon them would be a greater sin even than the willful destruction of God’s gift of life. But to live without her—he watched her breathe, obsessively, counting ten breaths before he would believe she hadn’t stopped—that would certainly be his purgatory.
He didn’t think he’d taken his eyes off her, and maybe he hadn’t, but he came out of his reverie to see that her own eyes were open, a soft smudged black in the white of her face. The light had faded to the final cusp of twilight and all color had washed from the room, leaving them in a luminous dusty haze that wasn’t daylight any longer but not yet night. He saw that her hair was nearly dry, curling in masses over the pillow.
“I’ve . . . decided . . . not to die,” she said, in a voice little more than a whisper.
“Oh. Good.” He was afraid to touch her, for fear of hurting her, but couldn’t bear not to. He laid a hand as lightly as he could over hers, finding it cool in spite of the heat trapped in the small attic.
“I could, you know.” She closed one eye and looked accusingly at him with the other. “I want to; this is . . . bloody horrible.”
“I know,” he whispered, and brought her hand to his lips. Her bones were frail, and she hadn’t the strength to squeeze his hand; her fingers lay limp in his.
She closed her eyes and breathed audibly for a little.
“Do you know why?” she said suddenly, opening her eyes.
“No.” He’d thought of making some jesting remark about her needing to write down her receipt for making ether, but her tone was dead serious, and he didn’t.
“Because,” she said, and stopped with a small grimace that squeezed his heart. “Because,” she said through clenched teeth, “I know what it felt . . . like when I . . . thought you were dead, and—” A small gasp for breath, and her eyes locked on his. “And I wouldn’t do that to you.” Her bosom fell and her eyes closed.
It was a long moment before he could speak.
“Thank ye, Sassenach,” he whispered, and held her small, cold hand between his own and watched her breathe until the moon rose.
I COULD SEE the moon through the tiny window; we were in the attic of the house. It was the first breath of the new moon, but the whole of it was visible, a perfect ball of violet and indigo cupped in a sickle of light, luminous among the stars. “The new moon with the old,” country folk called it in England. On the Ridge, people called it “holding water.”
The fever had left me. It had also left me drained, light-headed, and weak as a newborn mouse. My side was swollen from hip to oxter, hot and tender to the touch, but I was sure this was only surgical trauma. There wasn’t any significant infection, only a little inflammation near the surface of the incision.
I felt rather like the new moon: the shadow of pain and death was still clearly visible to me—but only because the light was there to throw it into perspective. On the other hand, there were still small practicalities and indignities to be dealt with. I had to pee, and I couldn’t sit up by myself, let alone squat over a chamber pot.
I had no idea what time it was, though with the moon like that, it couldn’t be the middle of the night. The house was still, though—Lieutenant Macken had returned safely in late afternoon, bringing with him several other men, but they had been too exhausted for celebration; I could hear faint snoring from the floor below. I couldn’t disturb everyone by calling out for Loretta Macken’s assistance. With a sigh, I leaned gingerly over the side of the bed and cleared my throat.
“Sassenach? Are ye all right?” A segment of the darkness on the floor moved suddenly and resolved itself into a Jamie-shaped shadow.
“Yes. Are you?”
That got me the breath of a laugh.
“I’ll do, Sassenach,” he said softly, and I heard the rustle of his movement as he got his feet under him. “I’m glad ye feel well enough to ask. D’ye need water?”
“Er . . . rather the opposite, really,” I said.
“Oh? Oh.” He stooped, a pale blur in his shirt, to reach under the bed. “D’ye need help?”
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have waked you up,” I said, a little testily. “I didn’t think I could wait for Mrs. Macken or Dottie, though.” He snorted a little and got me under the arms, lifting me into a sitting position.
“Now, then,” he murmured. “It’s no like ye’ve not done this—and a good many worse things—for me.”
While this was true, it didn’t make matters easier.
“You can let go now,” I said.
“Perhaps leave the room?” “Perhaps not,” he said, still mildly, but with a tone indicating that his mind was made up on the subject. “If I let go, ye’ll fall on your face, and ye ken that perfectly well, so stop talkin’ and be about your business now, aye?”
It took some time—anything that put pressure on my abdomen, including the act of urinating, hurt remarkably—but the business was accomplished and I was eased back down onto the pillow, gasping. Jamie bent and picked up the chamber pot, clearly intending to hurl the contents out the window in customary Edinburgh fashion.
“No, wait!” I said. “Keep that ’til morning.”
“What for?” he asked cautiously. Clearly he suspected I might still be unhinged from fever and be contemplating some grossly irrational use of the pot’s contents, but he didn’t like to say so, in case I had something logical, if bizarre, in mind. I would have laughed, but it hurt too much.
“I need to check, once there’s light, to be sure there’s no blood,” I said. “My right kidney’s very sore; I want to be sure there’s no damage.”
“Ah.” He set the utensil down carefully and, to my surprise, opened the door and glided out, moving soft-footed as a hunting fox. I heard one squeak as he stepped on a stair tread, but nothing more until a glow betokened his return with a candlestick.
“Have a look, then,” he said, picking up the pot again and bringing it to me. “I kent ye’d just fret about it did ye have to wait for daybreak.”
He sounded resigned, but this small thoughtfulness brought me close to tears. He heard the catch in my breathing and leaned close, alarmed, bringing the light up to my face.
“Are ye all right, Sassenach? Is it bad, then?”
“No,” I said, and wiped my eyes hastily on a corner of the sheet. “No—it—it’s fine. I just—oh, Jamie, I love you!” I did give way to tears, then, snuffling and blubbering like an idiot. “I’m sorry,” I said, trying to get hold of myself. “I’m all right, there’s nothing wrong, it’s just—”