The Custom of the Army (Page 9)

The Custom of the Army (Lord John Grey #2.75)(9)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

“What do you mean?”

“The … the killing. Not … battle. Not an honorable thing. Farmers. Women …” Grey saw Stubbs’s heavy throat move, swallowing. “I—we—for months now. Looting the countryside, burning farms, villages.” He sighed, broad shoulders slumping. “The men, they don’t mind. Half of them are brutes to begin with.” He breathed. “Think … nothing of shooting a man on his doorstep and taking his wife next to his body.” He swallowed. “ ’Tisn’t only Montcalm who pays for scalps,” he said in a low voice. Grey couldn’t avoid hearing the rawness in his voice, a pain that wasn’t physical.

“Every soldier’s seen such things, Malcolm,” he said after a short silence, almost gently. “You’re an officer. It’s your job to keep them in check.” And you know damned well it isn’t always possible, he thought.

“I know,” Malcolm said, and began to cry. “I couldn’t.”

Grey waited while he sobbed, feeling increasingly foolish and uncomfortable. At last, the broad shoulders heaved and subsided. After a moment, Malcolm said, in a voice that quivered only a little, “Everybody finds a way, don’t they? And there’re not that many ways. Drink, cards, or women.” He raised his head and shifted a bit, grimacing as he eased into a more comfortable position. “But you don’t go in much for women, do you?” he added, looking up.

Grey felt the bottom of his stomach drop but realized in time that Malcolm had spoken matter-of-factly, with no tone of accusation.

“No,” he said, and drew a deep breath. “Drink, mostly.”

Malcolm nodded, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

“Drink doesn’t help me,” he said. “I fall asleep, but I don’t forget. I just dream about … things. And whores—I—well, I didn’t want to get poxed and maybe … well, Olivia,” he muttered, looking down. “No good at cards,” he said, clearing his throat. “But sleeping in a woman’s arms—I can sleep then.”

Grey leaned against the wall, feeling nearly as battered as Malcolm Stubbs. Pale green aspen leaves drifted through the air, whirling round them, settling in the mud.

“All right,” he said eventually. “What do you mean to do?”

“Dunno,” Stubbs said, in a tone of flat resignation. “Think of something, I suppose.”

Grey reached down and offered a hand; Stubbs got carefully to his feet and, nodding to Grey, shuffled toward the alley’s mouth, bent over and holding himself as though his insides might fall out. Halfway there, though, he stopped and looked back over his shoulder. There was an anxious look on his face, half embarrassed.

“Can I … The miniature? They are still mine, Olivia and the—my son.”

Grey heaved a sigh that went to the marrow of his bones; he felt a thousand years old.

“Yes, they are,” he said, and, digging the miniature out of his pocket, tucked it carefully into Stubbs’s coat. “Remember it, will you?”

Two days later, a convoy of troop ships arrived, under the command of Admiral Holmes. The town was flooded afresh with men hungry for unsalted meat, fresh baked bread, liquor, and women. And a messenger arrived at Grey’s quarters, bearing a parcel for him from his brother, with Admiral Holmes’s compliments.

It was small but packaged with care, wrapped in oilcloth and tied about with twine, the knot sealed with his brother’s crest. That was unlike Hal, whose usual communiqués consisted of hastily dashed-off notes, generally employing slightly fewer than the minimum number of words necessary to convey his message. They were seldom signed, let alone sealed.

Tom Byrd appeared to think the package slightly ominous, too; he had set it by itself, apart from the other mail, and weighted it down with a large bottle of brandy, apparently to prevent it escaping. That, or he suspected Grey might require the brandy to sustain him in the arduous effort of reading a letter consisting of more than one page.

“Very thoughtful of you, Tom,” he murmured, smiling to himself and reaching for his penknife.

In fact, the letter within occupied less than a page, bore neither salutation nor signature, and was completely Hal-like.

Minnie wishes to know whether you are starving, though I don’t know what she proposes to do about it, should the answer be yes. The boys wish to know whether you have taken any scalps—they are confident that no red Indian would succeed in taking yours; I share this opinion. You had better bring three tommyhawks when you come home.

Here is your paperweight; the jeweler was most impressed by the quality of the stone. The other thing is a copy of Adams’s confession. They hanged him yesterday.

The other contents of the parcel consisted of a small washleather pouch and an official-looking document on several sheets of good parchment, this folded and sealed—this time with the insignia of George II. Grey left it lying on the table, fetched one of the pewter cups from his campaign chest, and filled it to the brim with brandy, wondering anew at his valet’s perspicacity.

Thus fortified, he sat down and took up the little pouch, from which he decanted into his hand a small, heavy gold paperweight, made in the shape of a half-moon set among ocean waves. It was set with a faceted—and very large—sapphire, which glowed like the evening star in its setting. Where had James Fraser acquired such a thing?

He turned it in his hand, admiring the workmanship, but then set it aside. He sipped his brandy for a bit, watching the official document as though it might explode. He was reasonably sure it would.

He weighed the document in his hand and felt the breeze from his window lift the pages a little, like the flap of a sail just before it fills and bellies with a snap.

Waiting wouldn’t help. And Hal plainly knew what it said, anyway; he’d tell Grey eventually, whether he wanted to know or not. Sighing, he put by his brandy and broke the seal.

I, Bernard Donald Adams, do make this confession of my own free will …

Was it? he wondered. He did not know Adams’s handwriting, could not tell whether the document had been written or dictated—no, wait. He flipped over the sheets and examined the signature. Same hand. All right, he had written it himself.

He squinted at the writing. It seemed firm. Probably not extracted under torture, then. Perhaps it was the truth.

“Idiot,” he said under his breath. “Read the goddamned thing and have done with it!”

He drank the rest of his brandy at a gulp, flattened the pages upon the stone of the parapet, and read, at last, the story of his father’s death.

The duke had suspected the existence of a Jacobite ring for some time and had identified three men whom he thought involved in it. Still, he made no move to expose them until the warrant was issued for his own arrest, upon the charge of treason. Hearing of this, he had sent at once to Adams, summoning him to the duke’s country home at Earlingden.

Adams did not know how much the duke knew of his own involvement but did not dare to stay away, lest the duke, under arrest, denounce him. So he armed himself with a pistol and rode by night to Earlingden, arriving just before dawn.

He had come to the conservatory’s outside doors and been admitted by the duke. Whereupon “some conversation” had ensued.

I had learned that day of the issuance of a warrant for arrest upon the charge of treason, to be served upon the body of the Duke of Pardloe. I was uneasy at this, for the duke had questioned both myself and some colleagues previously, in a manner that suggested to me that he suspected the existence of a secret movement to restore the Stuart throne.

I argued against the duke’s arrest, as I did not know the extent of his knowledge or suspicion, 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 Victor 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 demeanor might be.

Dangerous, evidently. Gerard Grey, Duke of Pardloe, had also come armed to the meeting. According to Adams, the duke had withdrawn his 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 missfire, 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 spoiled 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 that. If there is any order in the world, any peace—it’s because of you, John, and those very few 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.

Nearly two weeks later, 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.

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