A Trail of Fire (Page 16)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(16)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Not a great deal you could do under those circumstances, was there?’

‘I didn’t try,’ Carruthers said bluntly.

‘I see,’ Grey said.

‘Do you?’ Carruthers gave him a crooked smile.

‘Certainly. I take it Siverly is still in the army, and still holds a command? Yes, of course. He might have been furious enough to prefer the original charge against you, but you know as well as I do that under normal circumstances, the matter would likely have been dropped as soon as the general facts were known. You insisted on a court-martial, didn’t you? So that you can make what you know public.’ Given Carruthers’s state of health, the knowledge that he risked a long imprisonment if convicted apparently didn’t trouble him.

The smile straightened, and became genuine.

‘I knew I chose the right man,’ Carruthers said.

‘I am exceeding flattered,’ Grey said dryly. ‘Why me, though?’

Carruthers had laid aside his papers, and now rocked back a little on the cot, hands linked around one knee.

‘Why you, John?’ The smile had vanished, and Carruthers’s grey eyes were level on his. ‘You know what we do. Our business is chaos, death, destruction. But you know why we do it, too.’

‘Oh? Perhaps you’d have the goodness to tell me, then. I’ve always wondered.’

Humour lighted Charlie’s eyes, but he spoke seriously.

‘Someone has to keep order, John. Soldiers fight for all kinds of reasons, most of them ignoble. You and your brother, though . . .’ He broke off, shaking his head. Grey saw that his hair was streaked with grey, though he knew Carruthers was no older than him.

‘The world is chaos and death and destruction. But people like you – you don’t stand for that. If there is any order in the world, any peace – it’s because of you, John, and those very few like you.’

Grey felt he should say something, but was at a loss as to what that might be. Carruthers rose and came to Grey, putting a hand – the left – on his shoulder, the other gently against his face.

‘What is it the Bible says?’ Carruthers said quietly. ‘Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied? I hunger, John,’ he whispered. ‘And you thirst. You won’t fail me.’ The fingers of Charlie’s secret moved on his skin, a plea, a caress.

The custom of the army is that a court-martial be presided over by a senior officer and such a number of other officers as he shall think fit to serve as council, these being generally four in number, but can be more but not generally less than three. The person accused shall have the right to call witnesses in his support, and the council shall question these, as well as any other persons whom they may wish, and shall thus determine the circumstances, and if conviction ensue, the sentence to be imposed.

That rather vague statement was evidently all that existed in terms of written definition and directive regarding the operations of courts-martial – or was all that Hal had turned up for him in the brief period prior to his departure. There were no formal laws governing such courts, nor did the law of the land apply to them. In short, the army was – as always, Grey thought – a law unto itself.

That being so, he might have considerable leeway in accomplishing what Charlie Carruthers wanted – or not, depending upon the personalities and professional alliances of the officers who composed the court. It would behoove him to discover these men as soon as possible.

In the meantime, he had another small duty to discharge.

‘Tom,’ he called, rummaging in his trunk, ‘have you discovered Captain Stubbs’s billet?’

‘Yes, me lord. And if you’ll give over ruining your shirts, there, I’ll tell you.’ With a censorious look at his master, Tom nudged him deftly aside. ‘What you a-looking for in there, anyway?’

‘The miniature of my cousin and her child.’ Grey stood back, permitting Tom to bend over the open chest, tenderly patting the abused shirts back into their tidy folds. The chest itself was rather scorched, but the soldiers had succeeded in rescuing it – and Grey’s wardrobe, to Tom’s relief.

‘Here, me lord.’ Tom withdrew the little packet, and handed it gently to Grey. ‘Give me best to Captain Stubbs. Reckon he’ll be glad to get that. The little ’un’s got quite the look of him, don’t he?’

It took some little time, even with Tom’s direction, to discover Malcolm Stubbs’s billet. The address – insofar as it could be called one – lay in the poorer section of the town, somewhere down a muddy lane that ended abruptly at the river. Grey was surprised at this; Stubbs was a most sociable sort, and a conscientious officer. Why was he not billeted in an inn, or a good private house, near his troops?

By the time he found the lane, he had an uneasy feeling; this grew markedly, as he poked his way through the ramshackle sheds and the knots of filthy, polyglot children that broke from their play, brightening at the novel sight, and followed him, hissing unintelligible speculations to each other, but who stared blankly at him, mouths open, when he asked after Captain Stubbs, pointing at his own uniform by way of illustration, with a questioning wave at their surroundings.

He had made his way all the way down the lane, and his boots were caked with mud, dung, and a thick plastering of the leaves that sifted in a constant rain from the giant trees, before he discovered someone willing to answer him. This was an ancient Indian, sitting peacefully on a rock at the river’s edge, wrapped in a striped British trade blanket, fishing. The man spoke a mixture of three or four languages, only two of which Grey understood, but this basis of understanding was adequate.

‘Un, deux, trois, in back,’ the ancient told him, pointing a thumb up the lane, then jerking this appendage sideways. Something in an aboriginal tongue followed, in which Grey thought he detected a reference to a woman – doubtless the owner of the house where Stubbs was billeted. A concluding reference to ‘le bon capitaine’ seemed to reinforce this impression, and thanking the gentleman in both French and English, Grey retraced his steps to the third house up the lane, still trailing a line of curious urchins, like the ragged tail of a kite.

No one answered his knock, but he went round the house – followed by the children – and discovered a small hut behind it, smoke coming from its grey stone chimney.

The day was beautiful, with a sky the colour of sapphires, and the air was suffused with the tang of early autumn. The door of the hut was ajar, to admit the crisp, fresh air, but he did not push it open. Instead, he drew his dagger from his belt and knocked with the hilt – to admiring gasps from his audience at the appearance of the knife. He repressed the urge to turn round and bow to them.

He heard no footsteps from within, but the door opened suddenly, revealing a young Indian woman, whose face blazed with sudden joy at beholding him.

He blinked, startled, and in that blink of an eye, the joy disappeared and the young woman clutched at the door-jamb for support, her other hand fisted into her chest.

‘Batinse!?’ she gasped, clearly terrified. ‘Que se passe-t-il?’

‘Rien,’ he replied, equally startled. ‘Ne vous inquiétez pas, madame. Le Capitaine Stubbs habite ici?’ Don’t perturb yourself, madame. Does Captain Stubbs live here?

Her eyes, already huge, rolled back in her head, and he seized her arm, fearing lest she faint at his feet. The largest of the urchins following him rushed forward and pushed the door open, and he put an arm round the woman’s waist and half-dragged, half-carried her into the house.

Taking this as invitation, the rest of the children crowded in behind him, murmuring in what appeared to be sympathy, as he lugged the young woman to the bed and deposited her thereon. A small girl, wearing little more than a pair of drawers snugged round her insubstantial waist with a piece of string, pressed in beside him and said something to the young woman. Not receiving an answer, the girl behaved as though she had, turning and racing out of the door.

Grey hesitated, not sure what to do. The woman was breathing, though pale, and her eyelids fluttered.

‘Voulez-vous un peu d’eau?’ he inquired, turning about in search of water. He spotted a bucket of water near the hearth, but his attention was distracted from this by an object propped beside it. A cradle-board, with a swaddled infant bound to it, blinking large, curious eyes in his direction.

He knew already, of course, but knelt down before the infant and waggled a tentative forefinger at it. The baby’s eyes were big and dark, like its mother’s, and the skin a paler shade of her own. The hair, though, was not straight, thick and black. It was the colour of cinnamon, and exploded from the child’s skull in a nimbus of the same curls that Malcolm Stubbs kept rigorously clipped to his scalp and hidden beneath his wig.

‘Wha’ happen with le capitaine?’ a peremptory voice demanded behind him. He turned on his heels, and finding a rather large woman looming over him, rose to his feet and bowed.

‘Nothing whatever, madame,’ he assured her. Not yet, it hasn’t. ‘I was merely seeking Captain Stubbs, to give him a message.’

‘Oh.’ The woman – French, but plainly the younger woman’s mother or aunt – left off glowering at him, and seemed to deflate somewhat, settling back into a less threatening shape. ‘Well, then. D’un urgence, this message?’ She eyed him; clearly other British officers were not in the habit of visiting Stubbs at home. Most likely Stubbs had an official billet elsewhere, where he conducted his regimental business. No wonder they thought he’d come to say that Stubbs was dead or injured. Not yet, he added grimly to himself.

‘No,’ he said, feeling the weight of the miniature in his pocket. ‘Important, but not urgent.’ He left then. None of the children followed him.

Normally, it was not difficult to discover the whereabouts of a particular soldier, but Malcolm Stubbs seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Over the course of the next week, Grey combed headquarters, the military encampment, and the village, but no trace of his disgraceful cousin-by-marriage could be found. Still odder, no one appeared to have missed the captain. The men of Stubbs’s immediate company merely shrugged in confusion, and his superior officer had evidently gone off upriver to inspect the state of various postings. Frustrated, Grey retired to the riverbank to think.

Two logical possibilities presented themselves – no, three. One, that Stubbs had heard about Grey’s arrival, supposed that Grey would discover exactly what he had discovered, and had in consequence panicked and deserted. Two, he’d fallen foul of someone in a tavern or back alley, been killed, and was presently decomposing quietly under a layer of leaves in the woods. Or three – he’d been sent somewhere to do something, quietly.

Grey doubted the first exceedingly; Stubbs wasn’t prone to panic, and if he had heard of Grey’s arrival, Malcolm’s first act would have been to come and find him, thus preventing his poking about in the village and finding what he’d found. He dismissed that possibility accordingly.