The Custom of the Army (Page 6)

The Custom of the Army (Lord John Grey #2.75)(6)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

“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 smelled 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 away 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. 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, 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 waggons 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, the sudden, charming smile Grey 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 Grey 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 terrorize 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 seized. “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 offenses, claiming that the pay chest 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 company adjutant. 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.”

“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 gray 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.”

Humor 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 gray, though he knew Carruthers was no older than himself.

“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 who 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.