“The Custom of the Army”
Copyright 2008 Diana Gabaldon
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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 communiques consisted of hastily dashed 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 pen-knife.
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 new ring; 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 wash-leather pouch, and an official-looking document on several sheets of good parchment, this folded and sealed–this time with the seal 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 a gold ring into his hand. It was set with a faceted–and very large–sapphire, that glowed like flame in the palm of his hand. Where had Fraser acquired such a thing? he wondered.
He turned it in his hand, admiring the workmanship, but didn’t put it on. Not yet. Instead, he put it back into its pouch, and tucked this carefully into the inner pocket of his coat. 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 wind [through the window, from the tent flap] lift it 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, 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 god-damned 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.