A Trail of Fire (Page 15)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(15)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Christ,’ he muttered, and turning himself stiffly over, pulled his coat over his head and sought sleep once again.

The Harwood tacked slowly upriver, with a sharp eye out for French marauders. There were a few alarms, including another raid by hostile Indians while camped on shore. This one ended more happily, with four marauders killed, and only one cook wounded, not seriously. They were obliged to loiter for a time, waiting for a cloudy night, in order to steal past the fortress of Quebec, menacing on its cliffs. They were spotted, in fact, and one or two cannon fired in their direction, but to no effect. And at last they came into port at Gareon, the site of General Wolfe’s headquarters.

The town itself had been nearly engulfed by the growing military encampment that surrounded it, acres of tents spreading upward from the settlement on the riverbank, the whole presided over by a small French Catholic mission, whose tiny cross was just visible at the top of the hill that lay behind the town. The French inhabitants, with the political indifference of merchants everywhere, had given a Gallic shrug and set about happily overcharging the occupying forces.

The general himself was elsewhere, Grey was informed, fighting inland, but would doubtless return within the month. A lieutenant-colonel without brief or regimental affiliation was simply a nuisance; he was provided with suitable quarters and politely shooed away. With no immediate duties to fulfil, he gave a shrug of his own and set out to discover the whereabouts of Captain Carruthers.

It wasn’t difficult to find him. The patron of the first tavern Grey visited directed him at once to the habitat of le capitaine, a room in the house of a widow named Lambert, near the mission church. Grey wondered whether he would have received the information as readily from any other tavern-keeper in the village. Charlie had liked to drink when Grey had known him, and evidently still did, judging from the genial attitude of the patron when Carruthers’s name was mentioned. Not that Grey could blame him, under the circumstances.

The widow – young, chestnut-haired, and quite attractive – viewed the English officer at her door with a deep suspicion, but when he followed his request for Captain Carruthers by mentioning that he was an old friend of the captain’s, her face relaxed.

‘Bon,’ she said, swinging the door open abruptly. ‘He needs friends.’

He ascended two flights of narrow stairs to Carruthers’s attic, feeling the air about him grow warmer. It was pleasant at this time of day, but must grow stifling by mid-afternoon. He knocked, and felt a small shock of pleased recognition at hearing Carruthers’s voice bid him enter.

Carruthers was seated at a rickety table in shirt and breeches, writing, an inkwell made from a gourd at one elbow, a pot of beer at the other. He looked at Grey blankly for an instant, then joy washed across his features, and he rose, nearly upsetting both.

‘John!’

Before Grey could offer his hand, he found himself embraced – and returned the embrace wholeheartedly, a wash of memory flooding through him as he smelt Carruthers’s hair, felt the scrape of his unshaven cheek against Grey’s own. Even in the midst of this sensation, though, he felt the slightness of Carruthers’s body, the bones that pressed through his clothes.

‘I never thought you’d come,’ Carruthers was repeating, for perhaps the fourth time. He let go and stepped back, smiling as he dashed the back of his hand across his eyes, which were unabashedly wet.

‘Well, you have an electric eel to thank for my presence,’ Grey told him, smiling himself.

‘A what?’ Carruthers stared at him blankly.

‘Long story – tell you later. For the moment, though – what the devil have you been doing, Charlie?’

The happiness faded somewhat from Carruthers’s lean face, but didn’t disappear altogether.

‘Ah. Well. That’s a long story, too. Let me send Martine for more beer.’ He waved Grey toward the room’s only stool, and went out before Grey could protest. He sat, gingerly, lest the stool collapse, but it held his weight. Besides the stool and table, the attic was very plainly furnished; a narrow cot, a chamber pot, and an ancient washstand with an earthenware basin and ewer completed the ensemble. It was very clean, but there was a faint smell of something in the air – something sweet and sickly, which he traced at once to a corked bottle standing at the back of the washstand.

Not that he had needed the smell of laudanum; one look at Carruthers’s gaunt face told him enough. Returning to the stool, he glanced at the papers Carruthers had been working on. They appeared to be notes in preparation for the court-martial; the one on top was an account of an expedition undertaken by troops under Carruthers’s command, on the orders of a Major Gerald Siverly.

Our orders instructed us to march to a village called Beaulieu, some ten miles to the east of Montmorency, there to ransack and fire the houses, driving off such animals as we encountered. This we did. Some men of the village offered us resistance, armed with scythes and other implements. Two of these were shot, the others fled. We returned with two wagons filled with flour, cheeses, and small household goods, three cows and two good mules.

Grey got no further before the door opened. Carruthers came in and sat on the bed, nodding toward the papers.

‘I thought I’d best write everything down. Just in case I don’t live long enough for the court-martial.’ He spoke matter-of-factly, and seeing the look on Grey’s face, smiled faintly. ‘Don’t be troubled, John. I’ve always known I’d not make old bones. This—’ He turned his right hand upward, letting the drooping cuff of his shirt fall back, ‘—isn’t all of it.’ He tapped his chest gently with his left hand.

‘More than one doctor’s told me I have some gross defect of the heart. Don’t know, quite, if I have two of those, too—’ he grinned at Grey, the sudden, charming smile he remembered so well, ‘—or only half of one, or what. Used to be, I just went faint now and then, but it’s getting worse. Sometimes I feel it stop beating and just flutter in my chest, and everything begins to go all black and breathless. So far, it’s always started beating again – but one of these days it isn’t going to.’

Grey’s eyes were fixed on Charlie’s hand, the small dwarf hand curled against its larger fellow, looking as though Charlie held a strange flower cupped in his palm. As he watched, both hands opened slowly, the fingers moving in strangely beautiful synchrony.

‘All right,’ he said quietly. ‘Tell me.’

Failure to suppress a mutiny was a rare charge, difficult to prove, and thus unlikely to be brought, unless other factors were involved. Which in the present instance, they undoubtedly were.

‘Know Siverly, do you?’ Carruthers asked, taking the papers onto his knee.

‘Not at all. I gather he’s a bastard.’ Grey gestured at the papers. ‘What kind of bastard, though?’

‘A corrupt one.’ Carruthers tapped the pages square, carefully evening the edges, eyes fixed on them. ‘That – what you read – it wasn’t Siverly. It’s General Wolfe’s directive. I’m not sure whether the point is to deprive the fortress of provisions, in hopes of starving them out eventually, or to put pressure on Montcalm to send out troops to defend the countryside, where Wolfe could get at them – possibly both. But he means deliberately to terrorise the settlements on both sides of the river. No, we did this under the general’s orders.’ His face twisted a little, and he looked up suddenly at Grey. ‘You remember the Highlands, John?’

‘You know that I do.’ No one involved in Cumberland’s cleansing of the Highlands would ever forget. He had seen many Scottish villages like Beaulieu.

Carruthers took a deep breath.

‘Yes. Well. The trouble was that Siverly took to appropriating the plunder we took from the countryside, under the pretext of selling it in order to make an equitable distribution among the troops.’

‘What?’ This was contrary to the normal custom of the army, whereby any soldier was entitled to what plunder he took. ‘Who does he think he is, an admiral?’ The navy did divide shares of prize-money among the crew, according to formula – but the navy was the navy; crews acted much more as single entities than did army companies, and there were Admiralty courts set up to deal with the sale of captured prize-ships.

Carruthers laughed at the question.

‘His brother’s a commodore. Perhaps that’s where he got the notion. At any rate,’ he added, sobering, ‘he never did distribute the funds. Worse – he began withholding the soldiers’ pay. Paying later and later, stopping pay for petty offences, claiming that the paychest hadn’t been delivered – when several men had seen it unloaded from the coach with their own eyes.

‘Bad enough, but the soldiers were still being fed and clothed adequately. But then he went too far.’

Siverly began to steal from the commissary, diverting quantities of supplies and selling them privately.

‘I had my suspicions,’ Carruthers explained, ‘but no proof. I’d begun to watch him, though – and he knew I was watching him, so he trod carefully for a bit. But he couldn’t resist the rifles.’

A shipment of a dozen new rifles, vastly superior to the ordinary Brown Bess musket, and very rare in the army.

‘I think it must have been a clerical oversight that sent them to us in the first place. We hadn’t any riflemen, and there was no real need for them. That’s probably what made Siverly think he could get away with it.’

But he hadn’t. Two private soldiers had unloaded the box, and curious at the weight, had opened it. Excited word had spread – and excitement had turned to disgruntled surprise when instead of new rifles, muskets showing considerable wear were later distributed. The talk – already angry – had escalated.

‘Egged on by a hogshead of rum we confiscated from a tavern in Levi,’ Carruthers said with a sigh. ‘They drank all night – it was January, the nights are damned long in January here – and made up their minds to go and find the rifles. Which they did – under the floor in Siverly’s quarters.’

‘And where was Siverly?’

‘In his quarters. He was rather badly used, I’m afraid.’ A muscle by Carruthers’s mouth twitched. ‘Escaped through a window, though, and made his way through the snow to the next garrison. It was twenty miles. Lost a couple of toes to frostbite, but survived.’

‘Too bad.’

‘Yes, it was.’ The muscle twitched again.

‘What happened to the mutineers?’

Carruthers blew out his cheeks, shaking his head.

‘Deserted, most of them. Two were caught and hanged pretty promptly; three more rounded up later; they’re in prison here.’

‘And you—’

‘And I,’ Carruthers nodded. ‘I was Siverly’s second-in-command. I didn’t know about the mutiny – one of the ensigns ran to fetch me when the men started to move toward Siverly’s quarters – but I did arrive before they’d finished.’