A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 18

   

A peek over his shoulder indicated that he was somewhere in the Psalms, though.

“At your convenience, then, Mistress Fraser,” Christie said politely.

If he wasn’t to be unconscious, I needed a bit of extra preparation. Manly fortitude was all very well, and so was Biblical inspiration—but there are relatively few people capable of sitting motionless while having their hand sliced into, and I didn’t think Thomas Christie was one of them.

I had a plentiful supply of linen strips for bandaging. I rolled back his sleeve, then used a few of the strips to bind his forearm tightly to the little table, with an additional band holding back the clawed fingers from the site of operation.

Though Christie seemed rather shocked at the notion of drinking liquor while reading the Bible, Jamie—and, just possibly, the sight of the waiting scalpels—had convinced him that circumstances justified it. He had consumed a couple of ounces by the time I had him properly secured and his palm thoroughly swabbed with raw alcohol, and was looking significantly more relaxed than he had upon entering the room.

This sense of relaxation disappeared abruptly when I made the first incision.

His breath rushed out in a high-pitched gasp and he arched upward out of the chair, jerking the table across the floor with a screech. I grabbed his wrist in time to prevent his ripping the bandages away, and Jamie seized him by both shoulders, pressing him back into the chair.

“Now then, now then,” Jamie said, squeezing firmly. “You’ll do, Tom. Aye, you’ll do.”

Sweat had popped out all over Christie’s face, and his eyes were huge behind the lenses of his spectacles. He gulped, swallowed, took a quick look at his hand, which was welling blood, then looked away fast, white as a sheet.

“If you’re going to vomit, Mr. Christie, do it there, will you?” I said, shoving an empty bucket toward him with one foot. I still had one hand on his wrist, the other pressing a wad of sterilized lint hard onto the incision.

Jamie was still talking to him like one settling a panicked horse. Christie was rigid, but breathing hard, and trembling in every limb, including the one I meant to be working on.

“Shall I stop?” I asked Jamie, giving Christie a quick appraisal. I could feel his pulse hammering in the wrist I grasped. He wasn’t in shock—quite—but plainly wasn’t feeling at all well.

Jamie shook his head, eyes on Christie’s face.

“No. Shame to waste that much whisky, aye? And he’ll not want to go through the waiting again. Here, Tom, have another dram; it will do ye good.” He pressed the cup to Christie’s lips, and Christie gulped it without hesitation.

Jamie had let go of Christie’s shoulders as he settled; now he took hold of Christie’s forearm with one hand, gripping firmly. With the other, he picked up the Bible, which had fallen to the floor, and thumbed it open.

“The right hand of the Lord is exalted,” he read, squinting over Christie’s shoulder at the book. “The right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly. Well, that’s appropriate, no?” He glanced down at Christie, who had subsided, his free hand clenched in a fist against his belly.

“Go on,” Christie said, voice hoarse.

“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord,” Jamie went on, his voice low but firm. “The Lord hath chastened me sore, but he hath not given me over unto death.”

Christie seemed to find this heartening; his breathing slowed a little.

I couldn’t spare time to look at him, and his arm under Jamie’s grasp was hard as wood. Still, he was beginning to murmur along with Jamie, catching every few words.

“Open to me the gates of righteousness. . . I will praise thee, for thou hast heard me. . . .”

I had the aponeurosis laid bare, and could clearly see the thickening. A flick of the scalpel freed the edge of it; then a ruthless slice, cutting hard down through the fibrous band of tissue . . . the scalpel struck bone, and Christie gasped.

“God is the Lord which has showed us light; bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar. . . .” I could hear a tinge of amusement in Jamie’s voice as he read that bit, and felt the shift of his body as he glanced toward me.

It did look rather as though I had been sacrificing something; hands don’t bleed as profusely as head wounds, but there are plenty of small vessels in the palm, and I was hastily blotting away the blood with one hand as I worked with the other; discarded wads of bloodstained lint littered the table and the floor around me.

Jamie was flipping to and fro, picking out random bits of Scripture, but Christie was with him now, speaking the words along with him. I stole a hasty glance at him; his color was still bad, and his pulse thundering, but the breathing was better. He was clearly speaking from memory; the lenses of his spectacles were fogged.

I had the hindering tissue fully exposed now, and was trimming away the tiny fibers from the surface of the tendon. The clawed fingers twitched, and the exposed tendons moved suddenly, silver as darting fish. I grabbed the feebly wiggling fingers and squeezed them fiercely.

“You mustn’t move,” I said. “I need both hands; I can’t hold yours.”

I couldn’t look up, but felt him nod, and released his fingers. With the tendons gleaming softly in their beds, I removed the last bits of the aponeurosis, sprayed the wound with a mixture of alcohol and distilled water for disinfection, and set about closing the incisions.

The men’s voices were no more than whispers, a low susurrus to which I had paid no attention, engrossed as I was. As I relaxed my attention and began to suture the wound, though, I became aware of them again.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . .”

I looked up, wiping perspiration from my forehead with my sleeve, and saw that Thomas Christie now held the small Bible, closed and pressed against his body with his free arm. His chin jammed hard into his chest, his eyes tight closed and face contorted with pain.

Jamie still held the bound arm tight, but had his other hand on Christie’s shoulder, his own head bent near Christie’s; his eyes, too, were closed, as he whispered the words.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. . . .”

I knotted the last suture, clipped the thread, and in the same movement, cut through the linen bindings with my scissors, and let go the breath I’d been holding. The men’s voices stopped abruptly.

I lifted the hand, wrapped a fresh dressing tightly around it, and pressed the clawed fingers gently back, straightening them.

Christie’s eyes opened, slowly. His pupils were huge and dark behind his lenses, as he blinked at his hand. I smiled at him, and patted it.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” I said softly. “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

24

TOUCH ME NOT

CHRISTIE’S PULSE WAS a little rapid, but strong. I set down the wrist I had been holding, and put the back of my hand against his forehead.

“You’re a bit feverish,” I said. “Here, swallow this.” I put a hand behind his back to help him sit up in bed, which alarmed him. He sat up in a flurry of bedclothes, drawing in his breath sharply as he jostled the injured hand.

I tactfully affected not to notice his discomposure, which I put down to the fact that he was clad in his shirt and I in my nightclothes. These were modest enough, to be sure, with a light shawl covering my linen night rail, but I was reasonably sure that he hadn’t been anywhere near a woman in dishabille since his wife died—if then.

I murmured something meaningless, holding the cup of comfrey tea for him as he drank, and then settled his pillows in comfortable but impersonal fashion.

Rather than send him back to his own cabin, I had insisted that he stay the night, so I could keep an eye on him in case of postoperative infection. Intransigent as he was by nature, I didn’t by any means trust him to follow instructions and not to be slopping hogs, cutting wood, or wiping his backside with the wounded hand. I wasn’t letting him out of sight until the incision had begun to granulate—which it should do by the next day, if all went well.

Still shaky from the shock of surgery, he had made no demur, and Mrs. Bug and I had put him to bed in the Wemysses’ room, Mr. Wemyss and Lizzie having gone to the McGillivrays’.

I had no laudanum, but had slipped Christie a strong infusion of valerian and St. John’s wort, and he had slept most of the afternoon. He had declined any supper, but Mrs. Bug, who approved of Mr. Christie, had been plying him through the evening with toddies, syllabubs, and other nourishing elixirs—all containing a high percentage of alcohol. Consequently, he seemed rather dazed, as well as flushed, and made no protest as I picked up the bandaged hand and brought the candle close to examine it.

The hand was swollen, which was to be expected, but not excessively so. Still, the bandage was tight, and cutting uncomfortably into the flesh. I snipped it, and holding the honeyed dressing that covered the wound carefully in place, lifted the hand and sniffed at it.

I could smell honey, blood, herbs, and the faintly metallic scent of fresh-severed flesh—but no sweet whiff of pus. Good. I pressed carefully near the dressing, watching for signs of sharp pain or streaks of vivid red in the skin, but bar a reasonable tenderness, I saw only a small degree of inflammation.

Still, he was feverish; it would bear watching. I took a fresh length of bandage and wound it carefully over the dressing, finishing with a neat bow at the back of the hand.

“Why do you never wear a proper kerch or cap?” he blurted.

“What?” I looked up in surprise, having temporarily forgotten the man attached to the hand. I put my free hand to my head. “Why should I?”

I sometimes plaited my hair before bed, but hadn’t tonight. I had brushed it, though, and it floated loose around my shoulders, smelling pleasantly of the hyssop and nettle-flower infusion I combed through it to keep lice at bay.

“Why?” His voice rose a little. “Every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.”

“Oh, are we back to Paul again?” I murmured, returning my attention to his hand. “Does it not occur to you that that man had rather a bee in his bonnet when it came to women? Besides, I’m not praying at the moment, and I want to see how this does overnight, before I risk any prophesying about it. So far, though, it seems—”

“Your hair.” I looked up to see him staring at me, mouth curved downward in disapproval. “It’s . . .” He made a vague movement round his own clipped poll. “It’s . . .”

I raised my brows at him.

“There’s a great deal of it,” he ended, rather feebly.

I eyed him for a moment, then put down his hand and reached for the little green Bible, which was sitting on the table.

“Corinthians, was it? Hmm, oh, yes, here we are.” I straightened my back and read the verse: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” I closed the book with a snap and set it down.

“Would you care to step across the landing and explain to my husband how shameful his hair is?” I asked politely. Jamie had gone to bed; a faint, rhythmic snoring was audible from our room. “Or do you expect he knows that already?”

Christie was already flushed from drink and fever; at this, an ugly dark red washed him from chest to hairline. His mouth moved, opening and closing soundlessly. I didn’t wait for him to decide on something to say, but merely turned my attention back to his hand.

“Now,” I said firmly, “you must do exercise regularly, to make sure that the muscles don’t contract as they heal. It will be painful at first, but you must do it. Let me show you.”

I took hold of his ring finger, just below the first joint, and keeping the finger itself straight, bent the top joint a little inward.

“Do you see? Here, you do it. Take hold with your other hand, and then try to bend just that one joint. Yes, that’s it. Do you feel the pull, down through the palm of your hand? That’s just what’s wanted. Now, do it with the little finger . . . yes. Yes, that’s very good!”

I looked up and smiled at him. The flush had faded a little, but he still looked thoroughly nonplussed. He didn’t smile back at me, but glanced hastily away, down at his hand.

“Right. Now, put your hand flat on the table—yes, that’s the way—and try to raise your fourth finger and little finger by themselves. Yes, I know it isn’t easy. Keep trying, though. Are you hungry, Mr. Christie?”

His stomach had given a loud growl, startling him as much as me.

“I suppose I might eat,” he mumbled ungraciously, scowling at his uncooperative hand.

“I’ll fetch you something. Keep trying those exercises for a bit, why don’t you?”

The house was quiet, settled for the night. Warm as it was, the shutters had been left open, and enough moonlight streamed through the windows that I didn’t need to light a candle. A shadow detached itself from the darkness in my surgery, and followed me down the hallway to the kitchen—Adso, leaving off his nocturnal hunt for mice, in hopes of easier prey.

“Hallo, cat,” I said, as he slithered past my ankles into the pantry. “If you think you’re having any of the ham, think again. I might go as far as a saucer of milk, though.” The milk jug was white earthenware with a blue band round it, a squat, pale shape floating in the darkness. I poured out a saucer and put it down on the floor for Adso, then set about assembling a light supper—aware that Scottish expectations of a light meal involved sufficient food to founder a horse.

“Ham, cold fried potatoes, cold fried mush, bread and butter,” I chanted under my breath, shoveling it all onto a large wooden tray. “Rabbit dumpling, tomato pickle, a bit of raisin pie for pudding . . . what else?” I glanced down toward the soft lapping noises coming from the shadows at my feet. “I’d give him milk, too, but he wouldn’t drink it. Well, we might as well keep on as we’ve started, I suppose; it will help him to sleep.” I reached for the whisky decanter and put that on the tray, as well.

A faint scent of ether floated in the dark air of the hallway as I made my way back toward the stairs. I sniffed suspiciously—had Adso tipped over the bottle? No, it wasn’t strong enough for that, I decided, just a few wayward molecules seeping around the cork.

I was simultaneously relieved and regretful that Mr. Christie had refused to let me use the ether. Relieved, because there was no telling how it might have worked—or not. Regretful, because I would have liked very much to add the gift of unconsciousness to my arsenal of skills—a precious gift to bestow on future patients, and one I should very much have liked to give Mr. Christie.

Beyond the fact that the surgery had hurt him badly, it was very much more difficult to operate on a conscious person. The muscles were tensed, adrenaline was flooding through the system, heart rate was vastly speeded up, causing blood to spurt rather than flow. . . . For the dozenth time since the morning, I envisioned exactly what I had done, asking myself whether I might have done better.

To my surprise, Christie was still doing the exercises; his face was sheened with sweat and his mouth set grimly, but he was still doggedly bending the joints.

“That’s very good,” I said. “Do stop now, though. I don’t want you to start bleeding again.” I picked up the napkin automatically and blotted the sweat from his temples.

“Is there someone else in the house?” he asked, irritably jerking his head away from my ministrations. “I heard you speaking to someone downstairs.”

“Oh,” I said, rather embarrassed. “No, just the cat.” Prompted by this introduction, Adso, who had followed me upstairs, leapt onto the bed and stood kneading the covers with his paws, big green eyes fixed on the plate of ham.

Christie turned a gaze of deep suspicion from the cat to me.

“No, he is not my familiar,” I said tartly, scooping up Adso and dumping him unceremoniously on the floor. “He’s a cat. Talking to him is slightly less ridiculous than talking to myself, that’s all.”

An expression of surprise flitted across Christie’s face—perhaps surprise that I had read his mind, or simple surprise at my idiocy—but the creases of suspicion round his eyes relaxed.

I cut up his food with brisk efficiency, but he insisted upon feeding himself. He ate clumsily with his left hand, eyes on his plate and brows knotted in concentration.

When he had finished, he drank off a cup of whisky as though it were water, set down the empty cup, and looked at me.

“Mistress Fraser,” he said, speaking very precisely, “I am an educated man. I do not think ye are a witch.”

“Oh, you don’t?” I said, rather amused. “So you don’t believe in witches? But there are witches mentioned in the Bible, you know.”

He stifled a belch with his fist and regarded me fishily.

“I did not say I do not believe in witches. I do. I said ye aren’t one. Aye?”

“I’m very much obliged to hear it,” I said, trying not to smile. He was quite drunk; though his speech was even more precise than usual, his accent had begun to slip. Normally, he suppressed the inflections of his native Edinburgh as much as possible, but it was growing broader by the moment.

“A bit more?” I didn’t wait for an answer, but poured a solid tot of whisky into his empty cup. The shutters were open and the room was cool, but sweat still gleamed in the creases of his neck. He was clearly in pain, and wasn’t likely to sleep again without help.

He sipped it this time, watching me over the rim of the cup as I tidied up the supper leavings. In spite of whisky and a full stomach, he was increasingly restive, shifting his legs beneath the quilt and twitching his shoulders. I thought he needed the chamber pot, and was debating whether I ought to offer to help him with it, or simply leave promptly so he could manage by himself. The latter, I thought.

I was mistaken, though. Before I could excuse myself, he set down his cup on the table and sat up straight in bed.

“Mistress Fraser,” he said, fixing me with a beady eye. “I wish to apologize to ye.”

“What for?” I said, startled.

His lips pressed tight.

“For . . . my behavior this morning.”

“Oh. Well . . . that’s quite all right. I can see how the idea of being put to sleep must seem . . . quite peculiar to you.”

“I dinna mean that.” He glanced up sharply, then down again. “I meant . . . that I . . . could not keep myself still.”

I saw the deepening flush rise up his cheeks again, and had a sudden pang of surprised sympathy. He was truly embarrassed.

I set down the tray and sat down slowly on the stool beside him, wondering what I could say that might assuage his feelings—and not make matters worse.

“But, Mr. Christie,” I said. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to hold still while having their hand taken apart. It’s—it’s simply not human nature!”

He shot me a quick, fierce glance.

“Not even your husband?”

I blinked, taken aback. Not so much by the words, as by the tone of bitterness. Roger had told me a bit of what Kenny Lindsay had said about Ardsmuir. It had been no secret that Christie had been envious of Jamie’s leadership then—but what had that to do with this?

“What makes you say that?” I asked quietly. I took his injured hand, ostensibly to check the bindings—in fact, merely to give me somewhere to look other than into his eyes.

“It’s true, aye? Your husband’s hand.” His beard jutted pugnaciously at me. “He said ye’d mended it for him. He didna wriggle and squirm when ye did it, now, did he?”

Well, no, he hadn’t. Jamie had prayed, cursed, sweated, cried—and screamed, once or twice. But he hadn’t moved.

Jamie’s hand wasn’t a matter I wanted to discuss with Thomas Christie, though.

“Everyone’s different,” I said, giving him as straight a look as I could. “I wouldn’t expect—”

“Ye wouldna expect any man to do as well as him. Aye, I ken that.” The dull red color was burning in his cheeks again, and he looked down at his bandaged hand. The fingers of his good hand were clenched in a fist.

“That’s not what I meant,” I protested. “Not at all! I’ve stitched wounds and set bones for a good many men—almost all the Highlanders were terribly brave about—” It occurred to me, that fraction of a second too late, that Christie was not a Highlander.

He made a deep growling noise in his throat.

“Highlanders,” he said, “hmp!” in a tone that made it clear he would have liked to spit on the floor, had he not been in the presence of a lady.

“Barbarians?” I said, responding to the tone. He glanced at me, and I saw his mouth twist, as he had his own moment of belated realization. He looked away, and took a deep breath—I smelled the gust of whisky as he let it out.

“Your husband . . . is . . . certainly a gentleman. He comes of a noble family, if one tainted by treason.” The “r”s of “treason” rolled like thunder—he really was quite drunk. “But he is also . . . also . . .” He frowned, groping for a better word, then gave it up. “One of them. Surely ye ken that, and you an Englishwoman?”

“One of them,” I repeated, mildly amused. “You mean a Highlander, or a barbarian?”

He gave me a look somewhere between triumph and puzzlement.

“The same thing, is it not?”

I rather thought he had a point. While I had met Highlanders of wealth and education, like Colum and Dougal MacKenzie—to say nothing of Jamie’s grandfather, the treasonous Lord Lovat to whom Christie was referring—the fact was that every single one of them had the instincts of a Viking freebooter. And to be perfectly honest, so did Jamie.

“Ah . . . well, they, um, do tend to be rather . . .” I began feebly. I rubbed a finger under my nose. “Well, they are raised to be fighting men, I suppose. Or is that what you mean?”

He sighed deeply, and shook his head a little, though I thought it was not in disagreement, but simply in dismay at the contemplation of Highland customs and manners.

Mr. Christie was himself well-educated, the son of a self-made Edinburgh merchant. As such, he had pretensions—painful ones—to being a gentleman—but would obviously never make a proper barbarian. I could see why Highlanders both puzzled and annoyed him. What must it have been like, I wondered, for him to find himself imprisoned alongside a horde of uncouth—by his standards—violent, flamboyant, Catholic barbarians, treated—or mistreated—as one of them?

He had leaned back a little on his pillow, eyes closed and mouth compressed. Without opening his eyes, he asked suddenly, “D’ye ken that your husband bears the stripes of flogging?”

I opened my mouth to reply tartly that I had been married to Jamie for nearly thirty years—when I realized that the question implied something about the nature of Mr. Christie’s own concept of marriage that I didn’t want to consider too closely.

“I know,” I said instead, briefly, with a quick glance toward the open door. “Why?”

Christie opened his eyes, which were a little unfocused. With some effort, he brought his gaze to bear on me.

“Ye know why?” he asked, slurring a little. “Wha’ he did?”

I felt heat rise in my cheeks, on Jamie’s behalf.

“At Ardsmuir,” Christie said before I could answer, leveling a finger at me. He poked it at the air, almost in accusation. “He claimed a bit of tartan, aye? Forbidden.”

“Aye?” I said, in baffled reflex. “I mean—did he?”

Christie shook his head slowly back and forth, looking like a large, intoxicated owl, eyes fixed now and glaring.

“Not his,” he said. “A young lad’s.”

He opened his mouth to speak further, but only a soft belch emerged from it, surprising him. He closed his mouth and blinked, then tried again.

“It was an act of extra . . . extraordinary . . . nobility and—and courage.” He looked at me, and shook his head slightly. “Im—incompre . . . hensible.”

“Incomprehensible? How he did it, you mean?” I knew how, all right; Jamie was so bloody-mindedly stubborn that he would see out any action he intended, no matter whether hell itself barred the way or what happened to him in the process. But surely Christie knew that about him.

“Not how.” Christie’s head lolled a little, and he pulled it upright with an effort. “Why?”

“Why?” I wanted to say, Because he’s an effing hero, that’s why; he can’t help it—but that wouldn’t really have been right. Besides, I didn’t know why Jamie had done it; he hadn’t told me, and I did wonder why not.

“He’d do anything to protect one of his men,” I said instead.

Christie’s gaze was rather glassy, but still intelligent; he looked at me for a long moment, unspeaking, thoughts passing slowly behind his eyes. A floorboard in the hall creaked, and I strained my ears for Jamie’s breathing. Yes, I could hear it, soft and regular; he was still asleep.

“Does he think that I am one of ‘his men’?” Christie asked at last. His voice was low, but full of both incredulity and outrage. “Because I am not, I ass—ashure you!”

I began to think that last glass of whisky had been a grave mistake.

“No,” I said with a sigh, repressing the urge to close my eyes and rub my forehead. “I’m sure he doesn’t. If you mean that”—I nodded at the little Bible—“I’m sure it was simple kindness. He’d do as much for any stranger—you would yourself, wouldn’t you?”

He breathed heavily for a bit, glaring, but then nodded once and lay back, as though exhausted—as well he might be. All the belligerence had gone out of him as suddenly as air from a balloon, and he looked somehow smaller, and rather forlorn.

“I am sorry,” he said softly. He lifted his bandaged hand a little, and let it fall.

I wasn’t sure whether he was apologizing for his remarks about Jamie, or for what he saw as his lack of bravery in the morning. I thought it wiser not to inquire, though, and stood up, smoothing down the linen night rail over my thighs.

I pulled the quilt up a bit and tugged it straight, then blew out the candle. He was no more than a dark shape against the pillows, his breathing slow and hoarse.

“You did very well,” I whispered, and patted his shoulder. “Good night, Mr. Christie.”

MY PERSONAL BARBARIAN was asleep, but woke, catlike, when I crawled into bed. He stretched out an arm and gathered me into himself with a sleepily interrogative “mmmm?”

I nestled against him, tight muscles beginning to relax automatically into his warmth.

“Mmmm.”

“Ah. And how’s our wee Tom, then?” He leaned back a little and his big hands came down on my trapezius, kneading the knots from my neck and shoulders.

“Oh. Oh. Obnoxious, prickly, censorious, and very drunk. Otherwise, fine. Oh, yes. More, please—up a bit, oh, yes. Oooh.”

“Aye, well, that sounds like Tom at his best—bar the drunkenness. If ye groan like that, Sassenach, he’ll think I’m rubbing something other than your neck.”

“I do not care,” I said, eyes closed, the better to appreciate the exquisite sensations vibrating through my spinal column. “I’ve had quite enough of Tom Christie for the moment. Besides, he’s likely passed out by now, with as much as he’s had to drink.”

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