A Trail of Fire (Page 19)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(19)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

I argued against the duke’s arrest, as I did not know the extent of his knowledge or suspicions, and feared that if placed in exigent danger himself, he might be able to point a finger at myself or my principal colleagues, these being Joseph Arbuthnot, Lord Creemore, and Sir Edwin Bellman. Sir Edwin was urgent upon the point, though, saying that it would do no harm; any accusations made by Pardloe could be dismissed as simple attempts to save himself, with no grounding in fact – while the fact of his arrest would naturally cause a widespread assumption of guilt, and would distract any attentions that might at present be directed toward us.

The duke, hearing of the warrant, sent to my lodgings that evening, and summoned me to call upon him at his country home, immediately. I dared not spurn this summons, not knowing what evidence he might possess, and therefore rode by night to his estate, arriving soon before dawn.

Adams had met the duke there, in the conservatory. Whatever the form of this conversation, its result had been drastic.

I had brought with me a pistol, which I had loaded outside the house. I meant this only for protection, as I did not know what the duke’s demeanour might be.

Dangerous, evidently. Gerard Grey, Duke of Pardloe, had also come armed to the meeting. According to Adams, the duke had withdrawn his own pistol from the recesses of his jacket – whether to attack or merely threaten was not clear – whereupon Adams had drawn his own pistol in panic. Both men fired; Adams thought the duke’s pistol had misfired, since the duke could not have missed, at the distance.

Adams’s shot did not miss fire, nor did it miss its target, and seeing the blood upon the duke’s bosom, Adams had panicked and run. Looking back, he had seen the duke, mortally stricken but still upright, seize the branch of the peach tree beside him for support, whereupon the duke had used the last of his strength to hurl his own useless weapon at Adams before collapsing.

John Grey sat still, slowly rubbing the parchment sheets between his fingers. He wasn’t seeing the neat strokes in which Adams had set down his bloodless account. He saw the blood. A dark red, beautiful as a jewel where the sun through the glass of the roof struck it suddenly. His father’s hair, tousled as it might be after hunting. And the peach, fallen to those same tiles, its perfection spoilt and ruined.

He set the papers down on the table; the wind stirred them, and by reflex, he reached for his new paperweight to hold them down.

What was it Carruthers had called him? Someone who keeps order. You and your brother, he’d said. You don’t stand for it. If the world has peace and order, it’s because of men like you.

Perhaps. He wondered if Carruthers knew the cost of peace and order – but then recalled Charlie’s haggard face, its youthful beauty gone, nothing left in it now save the bones and the dogged determination that kept him breathing.

Yes, he knew.

Just after full dark, they boarded the ships. The convoy included Admiral Holmes’s flagship, the Lowestoff, three men of war: the Squirrel, Sea Horse, and Hunter, a number of armed sloops, others loaded with ordnance, powder and ammunition, and a number of transports for the troops – 1,800 men in all. The Sutherland had been left below, anchored just out of firing range of the fortress, to keep an eye on the enemy’s motions; the river there was littered with floating batteries and prowling small French craft.

He travelled with Wolfe and the Highlanders aboard Sea Horse, and spent the journey on deck, too keyed up to bear being below.

His brother’s warning kept recurring in the back of his mind – Don’t follow him into anything stupid – but it was much too late to think of that, and to block it out, he challenged one of the other officers to a whistling contest – each party to whistle the entirety of ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’, the loser the man who laughed first. He lost, but did not think of his brother again.

Just after midnight, the big ships quietly furled their sails, dropped anchor, and lay like slumbering gulls on the dark river. Anse au Foulon, the landing spot that Malcolm Stubbs and his scouts had recommended to General Wolfe, lay seven miles downriver, at the foot of sheer and crumbling slate cliffs that led upward to the Heights of Abraham.

‘Is it named for the Biblical Abraham, do you think?’ Grey had asked curiously, hearing the name, but had been informed that in fact, the cliff top comprised a farmstead belonging to an ex-pilot named Abraham Martin.

On the whole, he thought this prosaic origin just as well. There was likely to be drama enough enacted on that ground, without thought of ancient prophets, conversations with God, nor any calculation of how many just men might be contained within the fortress of Quebec.

With a minimum of fuss, the Highlanders and their officers, Wolfe and his chosen troops – Grey among them – debarked into the small bateaux that would carry them silently down to the landing point.

The sounds of oars were mostly drowned by the river’s rushing, and there was little conversation in the boats. Wolfe sat in the prow of the lead boat, facing his troops, looking now and then over his shoulder at the shore. Quite without warning, he began to speak. He didn’t raise his voice, but the night was so still that those in the boat had little trouble in hearing him. To Grey’s astonishment, he was reciting ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’.

Melodramatic ass, Grey thought – and yet could not deny that the recitation was oddly moving. Wolfe made no show of it. It was as though he were simply talking to himself, and a shiver went over Grey as he reached the last verse.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike the inexorable hour.

‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave,’ Wolfe ended, so low-voiced that only the three or four men closest heard him. Grey was close enough to hear him clear his throat with a small ‘hem’ noise, and saw his shoulders lift.

‘Gentlemen,’ Wolfe said, lifting his voice as well, ‘I should rather have written those lines than have taken Quebec.’

There was a faint stir, and a breath of laughter among the men.

So would I, Grey thought. The poet who wrote them is likely sitting by his cosy fire in Cambridge eating buttered crumpets, not preparing to fall from a great height or get his arse shot off.

He didn’t know whether this was simply more of Wolfe’s characteristic drama. Possibly – possibly not, he thought. He’d met Colonel Walsing by the latrines that morning, and Walsing had mentioned that Wolfe had given him a pendant the night before, with instructions to deliver it to Miss Landringham, to whom Wolfe was engaged.

But then, it was nothing out of the ordinary for men to put their personal valuables into the care of a friend before a hot battle. Were you killed or badly injured, your body might be looted before your comrades managed to retrieve you, and not everyone had a trustworthy servant with whom to leave such items. He himself had often carried snuffboxes, pocket-watches or rings into battle for friends – he’d had a reputation for luck, prior to Crefeld. No one had asked him to carry anything tonight.

He shifted his weight by instinct, feeling the current change, and Simon Fraser, next to him, swayed in the opposite direction, bumping him.

‘Pardon,’ Fraser murmured. Wolfe had made them all recite poetry in French round the dinner table the night before, and it was agreed that Fraser had the most authentic accent, he having fought with the French in Holland some years prior. Should they be hailed by a sentry, it would be his job to reply. Doubtless, Grey thought, Fraser was now thinking frantically in French, trying to saturate his mind with the language, lest any stray bit of English escape in panic.

‘Ce n’est rien,’ Grey murmured back, and Fraser chuckled, deep in his throat.

It was cloudy, the sky streaked with the shredded remnants of retreating rain-clouds. That was good; the surface of the river was broken, patched with faint light, fractured by stones and drifting tree-branches. Though even so, a decent sentry could scarcely fail to spot a train of boats.

Cold numbed his face, but his palms were sweating. He touched the dagger at his belt again; he was aware that he touched it every few minutes, as if needing to verify its presence, but couldn’t help it, and didn’t worry about it. He was straining his eyes, looking for anything – the glow of a careless fire, the shifting of a rock that was not a rock . . . nothing.

How far? he wondered. Two miles, three? He’d not yet seen the cliffs himself, was not sure how far below Gareon they lay.

The rush of water and the easy movement of the boat began to make him sleepy, tension notwithstanding, and he shook his head, yawning exaggeratedly to throw it off.

‘Quel est ce bateau?’ What boat is that? The shout from the shore seemed anticlimactic when it came, barely more remarkable than a night bird’s call. But the next instant, Simon Fraser’s hand crushed his, grinding the bones together as Fraser gulped air and shouted ‘Celui de la Reine!’

Grey clenched his teeth, not to let any blasphemous response escape. If the sentry demanded a password, he’d likely be crippled for life, he thought. An instant later, though, the sentry shouted, ‘Passez!’ and Fraser’s death-grip relaxed. Simon was breathing like a bellows, but nudged him and whispered ‘Pardon,’ again.

‘Ce n’est f**king rien,’ he muttered, rubbing his hand and tenderly flexing the fingers.

They were getting close. Men were shifting to and fro in anticipation, more than Grey checking their weapons, straightening coats, coughing, spitting over the side, readying themselves. Still, it was a nerve-racking quarter-hour more before they began to swing toward shore – and another sentry called from the dark.

Grey’s heart squeezed like a fist, and he nearly gasped with the twinge of pain from his old wounds.

‘Qui êtes-vous? Quels sont ces bateaux?’ a French voice demanded suspiciously. Who are you? What boats are those?

This time, he was ready, and seized Fraser’s hand himself. Simon held on and leaning out toward the shore, called hoarsely, ‘Des bateaux de ravitaillement! Taisez-vous – les anglais sont proches! Provision boats! Be quiet – the British are nearby! Grey felt an insane urge to laugh, but didn’t. In fact, the Sutherland was nearby, lurking out of cannon shot downstream, and doubtless the frogs knew it. In any case, the guard called, more quietly, ‘Passez!’, and the train of boats slid smoothly past and round the final bend.

The bottom of the boat grated on sand, and half the men were over at once, tugging it further up. Wolfe half-leapt, half-fell over the side in eagerness, all trace of sombreness gone. They’d come aground on a small sandbar, just off-shore, and the other boats were beaching now, a swarm of black figures gathering like ants.

Twenty-four of the Highlanders were meant to try the ascent first, finding – and insofar as possible, clearing, for the cliff was defended not only by its steepness but by abatis, nests of sharpened logs – a trail for the rest. Simon’s bulky form faded into the dark, his French accent changing at once into the sibilant Gaelic as he hissed the men into position. Grey rather missed his presence.

He was not sure whether Wolfe had chosen the Highlanders for their skill at climbing, or because he preferred to risk them rather than his other troops. The latter, he thought. Like most English officers, Wolfe regarded the Highlanders with distrust and a certain contempt. Those officers, at least, who’d never fought with them – or against them.