Authors: Diana Gabaldon
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
“Your father?” Cutter said, squinting. “That’s Lord John Grey, is it?”
“Er … yes,” William replied cautiously. “Do you … know him?”
Before Cutter could reply, the door of a nearby tavern opened, and William’s father came out.
William smiled in delight at this timely appearance, but quickly erased the smile as the sergeant’s gimlet gaze fixed on him.
“Don’t you be a-grinnin’ at
like an ’airy ape,” the sergeant began, in dangerous tones, but was interrupted by Lord John’s clapping him familiarly on the shoulder—something none of the three young lieutenants would have done if offered significant money.
“Cutter!” Lord John said, smiling warmly. “I heard those dulcet tones and said to myself, why damn me if it isn’t Sergeant Aloysius Cutter! There can’t be another man alive who sounds so much like a bulldog that’s swallowed a cat and lived to tell about it.”
Dobson mouthed at William, but William merely grunted briefly in response, unable to shrug, as his father had now turned his attention in his direction.
“William,” he said, with a cordial nod. “How very punctual you are. My apologies for being so late; I was detained.” Before William could say anything or introduce the others, though, Lord John had embarked upon a lengthy reminiscence with Sergeant Cutter, reliving high old times on the Plains of Abraham with General Wolfe.
This allowed the three young officers to relax slightly, which, in Dobson’s case, meant a return to his earlier train of thought.
“You said that red-haired poppet’s a friend of your father’s?” he whispered to William. “Find out from him where she’s staying, eh?”
“Idiot,” hissed Osborn. “She isn’t even pretty! She’s long-nosed as—as—as Willie!”
“Didn’t see as high as her face,” Dobson said, smirking. “Her tits were right at eye-level, though, and
“Shh!” Osborn stamped on Dobson’s foot to shut him up as Lord John turned back to the young men.
“Will you introduce me to your friends, William?” Lord John inquired politely. Rather red in the face—he had reason to know that his father had acute hearing, despite his artillery experiences—
William did so, and Osborn and Dobson both bowed, looking rather awed. They hadn’t realized who his father was, and William was at once proud that they were impressed, and mildly dismayed that they’d discovered Lord John’s identity—it would be all over the battalion before supper tomorrow. Not that Sir Peter didn’t know, of course, but—
He gathered his wits, realizing that his father was taking leave for them both, and returned Sergeant Cutter’s salute, hastily but in good form, before hurrying after his father, leaving Dobby and Osborn to their fate.
“I saw you speaking to Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie,” Lord John said casually. “I trust they are well?” He glanced down the quay, but the MacKenzies had long since disappeared from view.
“Seemed so,” Willie said. He was
going to ask where they stayed, but the impression the young woman had made on him lingered. He couldn’t say if she was pretty or not; her eyes had struck him, though—a wonderful deep blue with long auburn lashes, and fixed on him with a flattering intensity that had warmed the cockles of his heart. Grotesquely tall, of course, but—what was he thinking? The woman was married—with children! And red-haired, to boot.
“You’ve—er—known them long?” he asked, thinking of the startlingly perverse political sentiments that evidently flourished in the family.
“Quite some time. She is the daughter of one of my oldest friends, Mr. James Fraser. Do you recall him, by chance?”
William frowned, not placing the name—his father had thousands of friends, how should he …
“Oh!” he said. “Not an English friend, you don’t mean. Was it not a Mr. Fraser that we visited in the mountains, that time when you fell sick of the—of the measle?” The bottom of his stomach dropped a little, remembering the sheer terror of that time. He had traveled through the mountains in a daze of misery; his mother had died only a month before. Then Lord John had caught the measle, and William had been sure that his father was about to die likewise, leaving him completely alone in the wilderness. There hadn’t been room for anything in his mind but fear and grief, and he retained only a jumble of confused impressions from the visit. He had some dim recollection that Mr. Fraser had taken him fishing and been kind to him.
“Yes,” his father said, with a sidelong smile. “I’m touched, Willie. I should have thought you might recall that visit more because of your own misadventure than mine.”
“Mis—” Memory rushed over him, succeeded by a flood of heat, hotter than the humid summer air. “Thanks very much! I’d managed to expunge that from my memory, until you mentioned it!”
His father was laughing, and making no attempt to hide it. In fact, he was convulsed.
“I’m sorry, Willie,” he said, gasping and wiping his eyes with a corner of his handkerchief. “I can’t help it; it was the most—the most—oh, God, I’ll never forget what you looked like when we pulled you out of that privy!”
it was an accident,” William said stiffly. His cheeks burned with remembered mortification. At least Fraser’s daughter hadn’t been present to witness his humiliation at the time.
“Yes, of course. But—” His father pressed the handkerchief to his mouth, his shoulders shaking silently.
“Feel free to stop cackling at any point,” William said coldly. “Where the devil are we going, anyway?” They’d reached the end of the quay, and his father was leading them—still snorting like a grampus—into one of the quiet, tree-lined streets, away from the taverns and inns near the harbor.
“We’re dining with a Captain Richardson,” his father said, controlling himself with an obvious effort. He coughed, blew his nose, and put away the handkerchief. “At the house of a Mr. Bell.”
Mr. Bell’s house was whitewashed, neat, and prosperous, without being ostentatious. Captain Richardson gave much the same sort of impression: of middle age, well-groomed and well-tailored, but without any notable style, and with a face you couldn’t pick out of a crowd two minutes after seeing it.
The two Misses Bell made a much stronger impression, particularly the younger, Miriam, who had honey-colored curls peeping out of her cap, and big, round eyes that remained fixed on William throughout dinner. She was seated too far away for him to be able to converse with her directly, but he fancied that the language of the eyes was sufficient to indicate to her that the fascination was mutual, and if an opportunity for more personal communication should offer later … ? A smile, and a demure lowering of honey-colored lashes, followed by a quick glance toward a door that stood open to the side porch, for air. He smiled back.
“Do you think so, William?” his father said, loudly enough to indicate that it was the second time of asking.
“Oh, certainly. Um … think what?” he asked, since it was after all Papa, and not his commander.
His father gave him the look that meant he would have rolled his eyes had they not been in public, but replied patiently.
“Mr. Bell was asking whether Sir Peter intends to remain long in Wilmington.” Mr. Bell, at the head of the table, bowed graciously—though William observed a certain narrowing of his eyes in Miriam’s direction. Perhaps he’d best come back to call tomorrow, he thought, when Mr. Bell might be at his place of business.
“Oh. I believe we’ll remain here for only a short time, sir,” he said respectfully to Mr. Bell. “I collect that the chief trouble is in the backcountry, and so we will no doubt move to suppress it without delay.”
Mr. Bell looked pleased, though from the corner of his eye, William saw Miriam pout prettily at the suggestion of his imminent departure.
“Good, good,” Bell said jovially. “No doubt hundreds of Loyalists will flock to join you along your march.”
“Doubtless so, sir,” William murmured, taking another spoonful of soup. He doubted that Mr.
Bell would be among them. Not really the marching type, to look at. And not that the assistance of a lot of untrained provincials armed with shovels would be helpful in any case, but he could hardly say so.
William, trying to see Miriam without looking directly at her, instead intercepted the flicker of a glance that traveled between his father and Captain Richardson, and for the first time, began to wonder. His father had distinctly said they were dining with Captain Richardson—meaning that a meeting with the captain was the point of the evening. Why?
Then he caught a look from Miss Lillian Bell, who was seated across from him, next his father, and ceased thinking about Captain Richardson. Dark-eyed, taller and more slender than her sister—but really quite a handsome girl, now he noticed.
Still, when Mrs. Bell and her daughters rose and the men retired to the porch after dinner, William was not surprised to find himself at one end with Captain Richardson, while his father engaged Mr. Bell at the other in a spirited discussion of tar prices. Papa could talk to anyone about anything.
“I have a proposition to put before you, Lieutenant,” Richardson said, after the usual cordialities had been exchanged.
“Yes, sir,” William said respectfully. His curiosity had begun to rise. Richardson was a captain of light dragoons, but not presently with his regiment; that much he had revealed over dinner, saying casually that he was on detached duty. Detached to do what?
“I do not know how much your father has told you regarding my mission?”
“Ah. I am charged with the gathering of intelligence in the Southern Department. Not that I am in command of such operations, you understand”—the captain smiled modestly—“but a small part of them.”
“I … appreciate the great value of such operations, sir,” William said, groping for diplomacy,
“but I—for myself, that is to say—”
“You have no interest in spying. No, of course not.” It was dark on the porch, but the dryness of the captain’s tone was evident. “Few men who regard themselves as soldiers do.”
“I meant no offense, sir.”
“None taken. I am not, however, recruiting you as a spy—that is a delicate occupation, and one involving some danger—but rather as a messenger. Though should you find opportunity to act the intelligencer along your way … well, that would be an additional contribution, and much appreciated.”
William felt the blood rise in his face at the implication that he was capable neither of delicacy nor danger, but kept his temper, saying only, “Oh?”
The captain, it seemed, had gathered significant information regarding local conditions in the Carolinas, and now required to send this to the commander of the Northern Department—
General Howe, presently in Halifax.
“I will of course be sending more than one messenger,” Richardson said. “It is naturally somewhat quicker by ship—but I desire to have at least one messenger travel overland, both for safety’s sake and for the sake of making observations
. Your father speaks very highly of your abilities, Lieutenant”—did he detect a hint of amusement in that dry-as-sawdust voice?—
“and I collect that you have traveled extensively in North Carolina and Virginia. That is a valuable attribute. You will appreciate that I do not wish my messenger to disappear into the Dismal Swamp, never to be seen again.”
“Ha-ha,” said William, politely, perceiving this to be meant as a jest. Clearly, Captain Richardson had never been near the Great Dismal; William had, though he didn’t think anyone in his right mind would go that way a-purpose, save to hunt.
He also had severe doubts regarding Richardson’s suggestion—though even as he told himself that he shouldn’t consider leaving his men, his regiment … he was already seeing a romantic vision of himself, alone in the vast wilderness, bearing important news through storm and danger.
More of a consideration, though, was what he might expect at the other end of the journey.
Richardson anticipated his question, answering before he could speak.
“Once in the north, you would—it being agreeable—join General Howe’s staff.”
Well, now, he thought. Here was the apple, and a juicy red one, too. He was aware that Richardson meant “it being agreeable” to General Howe, rather than to William—but he had some confidence in his own capabilities, and rather thought he might prove himself useful.
He had been in North Carolina only a few days, but that was quite long enough for him to have made an accurate assessment of the relative chances for advancement between the Northern Department and the Southern. The entire Continental army was with Washington in the north; the southern rebellion appeared to consist of troublesome pockets of backwoodsmen and impromptu militia—hardly a threat. And as for the relative status of Sir Peter and General Howe as commanders …
“I would like to think on your offer, if I might, Captain,” he said, hoping eagerness didn’t show in his voice. “May I give my answer tomorrow?”
“Certainly. I imagine you will wish to discuss the prospects with your father—you may do so.”
The captain then deliberately changed the subject, and within a few moments, Lord John and Mr.
Bell had joined them, the conversation becoming general.
William paid little heed to what was said, his own attention distracted by the sight of two slender white figures that hovered ghostlike among the bushes at the outer edge of the yard. Two capped white heads drew together, then apart. Now and then, one turned briefly toward the porch in what looked like speculation.
“ ‘And for his vesture, they cast lots,’ ” his father murmured, shaking his head.
“Never mind.” His father smiled, and turned toward Captain Richardson, who had just said something about the weather.
Fireflies lit the yard, drifting like green sparks among the damp, lush growth of plants. It was good to see fireflies again; he had missed them, in England—and that peculiar softness of the southern air that molded his linen to his body and made the blood throb in his fingertips. Crickets were chirping all around them, and for an instant, their song seemed to drown out everything save the sound of his pulse.