The Custom of the Army (Page 12)

The Custom of the Army (Lord John Grey #2.75)(12)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

“General Wolfe?” he said.

“The general …” the adjutant said, and swallowed thickly. “He was struck.”

Of course he was, silly ass, Grey thought uncharitably. Standing up there like a bloody target, what could he expect? But then he saw the tears standing in the adjutant’s eyes and understood.

“Dead, then?” he asked, stupidly, and the adjutant—why had he never thought to ask the man’s name?—nodded, rubbing a smoke-stained sleeve across a smoke-stained countenance.

“He … In the wrist first. Then in the body. He fell and crawled—then he fell again. I turned him over … told him the battle was won, the French were scattered.”

“He understood?”

The adjutant nodded and took a deep breath that rattled in his throat. “He said—” He stopped and coughed, then went on more firmly. “He said that in knowing he had conquered, he was content to die.”

“Did he?” Grey said blankly. He’d seen men die, often, and imagined it much more likely that if James Wolfe had managed anything beyond an inarticulate groan, his final word had likely been either “shit,” or “oh, God,” depending upon the general’s religious leanings, of which Grey had no notion.

“Yes, good,” he said meaninglessly, and turned toward the fortress. Ant trails of men were streaming toward it, and in the midst of one such stream he saw Montcalm’s colors, fluttering in the wind. Below the colors, small in the distance, a man in general’s uniform rode his horse, hatless, hunched and swaying in the saddle, his officers bunched close on either side, anxious lest he fall.

The British lines were reorganizing, though it was clear no further fighting would be required. Not today. Nearby, he saw the tall officer who had saved his life and helped him to drag Malcolm Stubbs to safety, limping back toward his troops.

“The major over there,” he said, nudging the adjutant and nodding. “Do you know his name?”

The adjutant blinked, then firmed his shoulders.

“Yes, of course. That’s Major Siverly.”

“Oh. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?”

Admiral Holmes, third in command after Wolfe, accepted the surrender of Quebec five days later, Wolfe and his second, Brigadier Monckton, having perished in battle. Montcalm was dead, too; had died the morning following the battle. There was no way out for the French save surrender; winter was coming on, and the fortress and its city would starve long before its besiegers.

Two weeks after the battle, John Grey returned to Gareon and found that smallpox had swept through the village like an autumn wind. The mother of Malcolm Stubbs’s son was dead; her mother offered to sell him the child. He asked her politely to wait.

Charlie Carruthers had perished, too, the smallpox not waiting for the weakness of his body to overcome him. Grey had the body burned, not wishing Carruthers’s hand to be stolen, for both the Indians and the local habitants regarded such things superstitiously. He took a canoe by himself and, on a deserted island in the St. Lawrence, scattered his friend’s ashes to the wind.

He returned from this expedition to discover a letter, forwarded by Hal, from Dr. John Hunter, surgeon and anatomist. He checked the level of brandy in the decanter and opened it with a sigh.

My dear Lord John,

I have heard some recent conversation regarding the unfortunate death of Mr. Nicholls, including comments indicating a public perception that you were responsible for his death. In case you shared this perception, I thought it might ease your mind to know that in fact you were not.

Grey sank slowly onto a stool, eyes glued to the sheet.

It is true that your ball did strike Mr. Nicholls, but this accident contributed little or nothing to his demise. I saw you fire upward into the air—I said as much to those present at the time, though most of them did not appear to take much notice. The ball apparently went up at a slight angle and then fell upon Mr. Nicholls from above. At this point, its power was quite spent, and, the missile itself being negligible in size and weight, it barely penetrated the skin above his collarbone, where it lodged against the bone, doing no further damage.

The true cause of his collapse and death was an aortic aneurysm, a weakness in the wall of one of the great vessels emergent from the heart; such weaknesses are often congenital. The stress of the electric shock and the emotion of the duello that followed apparently caused this aneurysm to rupture. Such an occurrence is untreatable and invariably fatal, I am afraid. There is nothing that could have saved him.

Your servant,

John Hunter, Surgeon

Grey was conscious of a most extraordinary array of sensations. Relief—yes, there was a sense of profound relief, as of waking from a nightmare. There was also a sense of injustice, colored by the beginnings of indignation; by God, he had nearly been married! He might, of course, also have been maimed or killed as a result of the imbroglio, but that seemed relatively inconsequent; he was a soldier, after all—such things happened.

His hand trembled slightly as he set the note down. Beneath relief, gratitude, and indignation was a growing sense of horror.

I thought it might ease your mind … He could see Hunter’s face saying this; sympathetic, intelligent, and cheerful. It was a straightforward remark but one fully cognizant of its own irony.

Yes, he was pleased to know he had not caused Edwin Nicholls’s death. But the means of that knowledge … Gooseflesh rose on his arms and he shuddered involuntarily, imagining—

“Oh, God,” he said. He’d been once to Hunter’s house—to a poetry reading, held under the auspices of Mrs. Hunter, whose salons were famous. Dr. Hunter did not attend these but sometimes would come down from his part of the house to greet guests. On this occasion, he had done so and, falling into conversation with Grey and a couple of other scientifically minded gentlemen, had invited them up to see some of the more interesting items of his famous collection: the rooster with a transplanted human tooth growing in its comb, the child with two heads, the fetus with a foot protruding from its stomach.

Hunter had made no mention of the walls of jars, these filled with eyeballs, fingers, sections of livers … or of the two or three complete human skeletons that hung from the ceiling, fully articulated and fixed by a bolt through the tops of their skulls. It had not occurred to Grey at the time to wonder where—or how—Hunter had acquired these.

Nicholls had had an eyetooth missing, the front tooth beside the empty space badly chipped. If he ever visited Hunter’s house again, might he come face-to-face with a skull with a missing tooth?

He seized the brandy decanter, uncorked it, and drank directly from it, swallowing slowly and repeatedly, until the vision disappeared.

His small table was littered with papers. Among them, under his sapphire paperweight, was the tidy packet that the widow Lambert had handed him, her face blotched with weeping. He put a hand on it, feeling Charlie’s doubled touch, gentle on his face, soft around his heart.

“You won’t fail me.”

“No,” he said softly. “No, Charlie, I won’t.”

With Manoke’s help as translator, Grey bought the child, after prolonged negotiation, for two golden guineas, a brightly colored blanket, a pound of sugar, and a small keg of rum. The grandmother’s face was sunken, not with grief, he thought, but with dissatisfaction and weariness. With her daughter dead of the smallpox, her life would be harder. The English, she conveyed to Grey through Manoke, were cheap bastards; the French were much more generous. He resisted the impulse to give her another guinea.

It was full autumn now, and the leaves had all fallen. The bare branches of the trees spread black ironwork flat against a pale-blue sky as he made his way upward through the town, to the French mission. There were several small buildings surrounding the tiny church, with children playing outside; some of them paused to look at him, but most of them ignored him—British soldiers were nothing new.

Father LeCarré took the bundle gently from him, turning back the blanket to look at the child’s face. The boy was awake; he pawed at the air, and the priest put out a finger for him to grasp.

“Ah,” he said, seeing the clear signs of mixed blood, and Grey knew the priest thought the child was his. He started to explain, but, after all, what did it matter?

“We will baptize him as a Catholic, of course,” Father LeCarré said, looking up at Grey. The priest was a young man, rather plump, dark, and clean-shaven, but with a gentle face. “You do not mind that?”

“No.” Grey drew out a purse. “For his maintenance. I will send an additional five pounds each year, if you will advise me once a year of his continued welfare. Here—the address to which to write.” A sudden inspiration struck him—not that he did not trust the good father, he assured himself, only … “Send me a lock of his hair,” he said. “Every year.”

He was turning to go when the priest called him back, smiling.

“Has the infant a name, sir?”

“A—” He stopped dead. The boy’s mother had surely called him something, but Malcolm Stubbs hadn’t thought to tell Grey what it was before being shipped back to England. What should he call the child? Malcolm, for the father who had abandoned him? Hardly.

Charles, maybe, in memory of Carruthers …

“… one of these days, it isn’t going to.”

“His name is John,” he said abruptly, and cleared his throat. “John Cinnamon.”

“Mais oui,” the priest said, nodding. “Bon voyage, Monsieur—et voyez avec le Bon Dieu.”

“Thank you,” he said politely, and went away, not looking back, down to the riverbank where Manoke waited to bid him farewell.

The End