A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 42

   

For the better part of two years, apparently.

“I kent I couldna wed her,” he explained earnestly. “Meine Mutter would never . . .” He trailed off, assuming the look of a startled rabbit hearing hounds in its immediate vicinity. “Gruss Gott!” he said. “My mother!”

I’d been wondering about that particular aspect of the affair myself. Ute McGillivray wasn’t going to be at all pleased to hear that her pride and joy, her only son, had contracted a disreputable disease, and furthermore, one which was about to lead to the breaking of his carefully engineered engagement and very likely to a scandal that the entire backcountry would hear about. The fact that it was generally a fatal disease would probably be a secondary concern.

“She’ll kill me!” he said, sliding off his stool and rolling his sleeve down hastily.

“Probably not,” I said mildly. “Though I suppose—”

At this fraught moment came the sound of the back door opening and voices in the kitchen. Manfred stiffened, dark curls quivering with alarm. Then heavy footsteps started down the hall toward the surgery, and he dived across the room, flung a leg across the windowsill, and was off, running like a deer for the trees.

“Come back here, you ass!” I bellowed through the open window.

“Which ass is that, Auntie?” I turned to see that the heavy footsteps belonged to Young Ian—heavy, because he was carrying Lizzie Wemyss in his arms.

“Lizzie! What’s the matter? Here, put her on the table.” I could see at once what the matter was: a return of the malarial fever. She was limp, but shivered nonetheless with chill, the contracting muscles shaking her like jelly.

“I found her in the dairy shed,” Ian said, laying her gently on the table. “The deaf Beardsley came rushin’ out as though the devil was chasing him, saw me, and dragged me in. She was on the floor, wi’ the churn overturned beside her.”

This was very worrying—she hadn’t had an attack for some time, but for a second time, the attack had come upon her too suddenly for her to go for help, causing almost immediate collapse.

“Top shelf of the cupboard,” I said to Ian, hastily rolling Lizzie on her side and undoing her laces. “That bluish jar—no, the big one.”

He grabbed it without question, removing the lid as he brought it to me.

“Jesus, Auntie! What’s that?” He wrinkled his nose at the smell from the ointment.

“Gallberries and cinchona bark in goose grease, among other things. Take some and start rubbing it into her feet.”

Looking bemused, he gingerly scooped up a dollop of the purplish-gray cream and did as I said, Lizzie’s small bare foot nearly disappearing between the large palms of his hands.

“Will she be all right, d’ye think, Auntie?” He glanced at her face, looking troubled. The look of her was enough to trouble anyone—the clammy color of whey, and the flesh gone slack so that her delicate cheeks juddered with the chills.

“Probably. Close your eyes, Ian.” I’d got her clothes loosened, and now pulled off her gown, petticoats, pocket, and stays. I threw a ratty blanket over her before working the shift off over her head—she owned only two, and wouldn’t want one spoiled with the reek of the ointment.

Ian had obediently closed his eyes, but was still rubbing the ointment methodically into her feet, a small frown drawing his brows together, the look of concern lending him for a moment a brief but startling resemblance to Jamie.

I drew the jar toward me, scooped up some ointment, and, reaching under the blanket, began to rub it into the thinner skin beneath her armpits, then over her back and belly. I could feel the outlines of her liver distinctly, a large, firm mass beneath her ribs. Swollen, and tender from the way she grimaced at my touch; there was some ongoing damage there, certainly.

“Can I open my eyes now?”

“Oh—yes, of course. Rub more up her legs, please, Ian.” Shoving the jar back in his direction, I caught a glimpse of movement in the doorway. One of the Beardsley twins stood there, clinging to the jamb, dark eyes fixed on Lizzie. Kezzie, it must be; Ian had said “the deaf Beardsley” had come to fetch help.

“She’ll be all right,” I said to him, raising my voice, and he nodded once, then disappeared, with a single burning glance at Ian.

“Who was it ye were shouting at, Auntie Claire?” Ian looked up at me, clearly as much to preserve Lizzie’s modesty as from courtesy to me; the blanket was turned back and his big hands were smoothing ointment into the skin above her knee, thumbs gently circling the small rounded curves of her patella, her skin so thin that the pearly bone seemed almost visible through it.

“Who—oh. Manfred McGillivray,” I said, suddenly recollecting. “Damn! The blood!” I leapt up and wiped my hands hurriedly on my apron. Thank God, I’d corked the vial; the blood inside was still liquid. It wouldn’t keep long, though.

“Do her hands and arms, would you please, Ian? I’ve got to manage this quickly.”

He moved obligingly to do as I said, while I hastily spilled a drop of blood on each of several slides, dragging a clean slide across each one to make a smear. What sort of stain might work on spirochetes? No telling; I’d try them all.

I explained the matter disjointedly to Ian, as I pulled stain bottles out of the cupboard, made up the solutions, and set the slides to soak.

“The pox? Poor lad; he must be nearly mad wi’ fright.” He eased Lizzie’s arm, gleaming with ointment, under the blanket and tucked it gently round her.

I was momentarily surprised at this show of sympathy, but then remembered. Ian had been exposed to syphilis some years before, after his abduction by Geillis Duncan; I hadn’t been sure that he had the disease, but had dosed him with the last of my twentieth-century penicillin, just in case.

“Did ye not tell him ye could cure him, though, Auntie?”

“I hadn’t the chance. Though I’m not absolutely sure that I can, to be honest.” I sat down on a stool, and took Lizzie’s other hand, feeling for her pulse.

“Ye’re not?” His feathery brows went up at that. “Ye told me I was cured.”

“You are,” I assured him. “If you ever had the disease in the first place.” I gave him a sharp look. “You’ve never had a sore on your prick, have you? Or anywhere else?”

He shook his head, mute, a dark wave of blood staining his lean cheeks.

“Good. But the penicillin I gave you—that was some that I’d brought from . . . well, from before. That was purified—very strong and certainly potent. I’m never sure, when I use this stuff”—I gestured at the culturing bowls on the counter—“whether it’s strong enough to work, or even the right strain. . . .” I rubbed the back of my hand under my nose; the gallberry ointment, had a most penetrating smell.

“It doesn’t always work.” I had had more than one patient with an infection that didn’t respond to one of my penicillin concoctions—though in those cases, I had often succeeded with another attempt. In a few instances, the person had recovered on his own before the second brew was ready. In one instance, the patient had died, despite applications of two different penicillin mixtures.

Ian nodded slowly, his eyes on Lizzie’s face. The first bout of chills had spent itself and she lay quiet, the blanket barely moving over the slight round of her chest.

“If ye’re no sure, then . . . ye’d not let him marry her, surely?”

“I don’t know. Jamie said he’d speak to Mr. Wemyss, see what he thought of the matter.”

I rose and took the first of the slides from its pinkish bath, shook off the clinging drops, and, wiping the bottom of the slide, placed it carefully on the platform of my microscope.

“What are ye looking for, Auntie?”

“Things called spirochetes. Those are the particular kind of germ that causes syphilis.”

“Oh, aye.” Despite the seriousness of the situation, I smiled, hearing the note of skepticism in his voice. I’d shown him microorganisms before, but—like Jamie—like almost everyone—he simply couldn’t believe that something so nearly invisible was capable of harm. The only one who had seemed to accept the notion wholeheartedly was Malva Christie, and in her case, I thought the acceptance was due simply to her faith in me. If I told her something, she believed me; very refreshing, after years of assorted Scots looking at me with varying degrees of squiggle-eyed suspicion.

“Has he gone home, d’ye think? Manfred?”

“I don’t know.” I spoke absently, slowly moving the slide to and fro, searching. I could make out the red blood cells, pale pink discs that floated past my field of view, drifting lazily in the watery stain. No deadly spirals visible—but that didn’t mean they weren’t there, only that the stain I had used might not reveal them.

Lizzie stirred and moaned, and I looked round to see her eyes flutter open.

“There, lass,” Ian said softly, and smiled at her. “Better, is it?”

“Is it?” she said faintly. Still, the corners of her mouth lifted slightly, and she put a hand out from under her blanket, groping. He took it in his, patting it.

“Manfred,” she said, turning her head to and fro, eyes half-lidded. “Is Manfred here?”

“Um . . . no,” I said, exchanging a quick glance of consternation with Ian. How much had she heard? “No, he was here, but he’s—he’s gone now.”

“Oh.” Seeming to lose interest, she closed her eyes again. Ian looked down at her, still stroking her hand. His face showed deep sympathy—with perhaps a tinge of calculation.

“Shall I maybe carry the lassie up to her bed?” he asked softly, as though she might be sleeping. “And then maybe go and find . . . ?” He tilted his head toward the open window, raising one eyebrow.

“If you would, please, Ian.” I hesitated, and his eyes met mine, deep hazel and soft with worry and the shadow of remembered pain. “She’ll be all right,” I said, trying to infuse a sense of certainty into the words.

“Aye, she will,” he said firmly, and stooped to gather her up, tucking the blanket under her. “If I’ve anything to say about it.”

46

IN WHICH THINGS

GANG AGLEY

MANFRED MCGILLIVRAY did not come back. Ian did, with a blackened eye, skinned knuckles, and the terse report that Manfred had declared a set intention of going off and hanging himself, and good riddance to the fornicating son of a bitch, and might his rotten bowels gush forth like Judas Iscariot’s, the traitorous, stinking wee turd. He then stamped upstairs, to stand silent over Lizzie’s bed for a time.

Hearing this, I hoped that Manfred’s statement was merely the counsel of temporary despair—and cursed myself for not having told him at once and in the strongest terms that he could be cured, whether it was absolutely true or not. Surely he wouldn’t . . .

Lizzie was half-conscious, prostrated with the burning fevers and shaking agues of malaria, and in no fit state to be told of her betrothed’s desertion, nor the cause of it. I would have to make some delicate inquiries, though, so soon as she was fit, because there was the possibility that she and Manfred had anticipated their marriage vows, and if so . . .

“Well, there’s the one thing about it,” Jamie observed grimly. “The Beardsley twins were making ready to track our poxed lad down and castrate him, but now they’ve heard he means to hang himself, they’ve magnanimously decided that will do.”

“Thank the Lord for small blessings,” I said, sinking down at the table. “They might really do it.” The Beardsleys, particularly Josiah, were excellent trackers—and not given to idle threats.

“Oh, they would,” Jamie assured me. “They were most seriously sharpening their knives when I found them at it and told them not to trouble themselves.”

I suppressed an involuntary smile at the image of the Beardsleys, bent side by side over a grindstone, their lean, dark faces set in identical scowls of vengeance, but the momentary flash of humor faded.

“Oh, God. We’ll have to tell the McGillivrays.”

Jamie nodded, looking pale at the thought, but pushed back his bench.

“I’d best go straightaway.”

“Not ’til ye’ve had a bite.” Mrs. Bug put a plate of food firmly in front of him. “Ye dinna want to be dealing wi’ Ute McGillivray on an empty stomach.”

Jamie hesitated, but evidently found her argument to have merit, for he picked up his fork and addressed himself to the ragoo’d pork with grim determination.

“Jamie . . .”

“Aye?”

“Perhaps you should let the Beardsleys track Manfred down. Not to hurt him, I don’t mean—but we need to find him. He will die of it, if he isn’t treated.”

He paused, a forkful of ragoo halfway to his mouth, and regarded me under lowered brows.

“Aye, and if they find him, he’ll die of that, Sassenach.” He shook his head, and the fork completed its journey. He chewed and swallowed, evidently completing his plan as he did so.

“Joseph’s in Bethabara, courting. He’ll have to be told, and by rights, I should fetch him to go with me to the McGillivrays’. But . . .” He hesitated, clearly envisioning Mr. Wemyss, that mildest and shyest of men, and no one’s notion of a useful ally. “No. I’ll go and tell Robin. May be as he’ll start searching for the lad himself—or Manfred may have thought better of it and run for home already.”

That was a cheering thought, and I saw him off with hope in mind. But he returned near midnight, grim-faced and silent, and I knew that Manfred had not come home.

“You told them both?” I asked, turning back the coverlet for him to crawl in beside me. He smelled of horse and night, cool and pungent.

“I asked Robin to walk outside wi’ me, and told him. I hadna the nerve to tell Ute to her face,” he admitted. He smiled at me, snuggling under the quilt. “Ye dinna think me too much a coward, I hope, Sassenach.”

“No, indeed,” I assured him, and leaned to blow out the candle. “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

WE WERE ROUSED just before dawn by a thunderous pounding on the door. Rollo, who had been sleeping on the landing, shot down the stair, roaring threats. He was closely followed by Ian, who had been sitting up by Lizzie’s bed, keeping watch while I slept. Jamie leapt out of bed and, seizing a loaded pistol from the top of the wardrobe, rushed to join the fray.

Shocked and dazed—I had been asleep for less than an hour—I sat up, heart pounding. Rollo stopped barking for a moment, and I heard Jamie shout, “Who is it?” through the door.

This query was answered by a renewed pounding that echoed up the stairwell and seemed to shake the house, accompanied by an upraised feminine voice that would have done credit to Wagner in one of his more robust moods. Ute McGillivray.

I began to struggle out of the bedclothes. Meanwhile, a confusion of voices, renewed barking, the grate of the bolt being lifted—and then more confused voices, all much louder. I ran to the window and looked out; Robin McGillivray was standing in the dooryard, having evidently just dismounted from one of a pair of mules.

He looked much older, and somehow deflated, as though the spirit had gone out of him, taking all his strength and leaving him flabby. He turned his head away from whatever riot was taking place on the stoop, closing his eyes. The sun was just up now, and the pure clear light showed up all the lines and hollows of exhaustion and a desperate unhappiness.

As though he sensed me looking at him, he opened his eyes and raised his face toward the window. He was red-eyed, disheveled. He saw me, but didn’t respond to my tentative wave of greeting. Instead, he turned away, closing his eyes again, and stood, waiting.

The riot below had moved inside, and appeared to be progressing up the stairs, borne on a wave of Scottish expostulations and Germanic shrieks, punctuated by enthusiastic barking from Rollo, always willing to lend his efforts to further the festivities.

I seized my wrapper from its peg, but had barely got one arm into it before the door of the bedchamber was flung open, crashing into the wall so hard that it rebounded and hit her in the chest. Nothing daunted, she slammed it open again and advanced on me like a juggernaut, cap awry and eyes blazing.

“You! Weibchen! How you dare, such insult, such lies to say my son about! You I kill, I tear off your hair, nighean na galladh! You—”

She lunged at me and I flung myself sideways, narrowly avoiding her grab at my arm.

“Ute! Frau McGillivray! Listen to—”

The second grab was more successful; she got hold of the sleeve of my night rail and wrenched, dragging the garment off my shoulder with a rending noise of torn cloth, even as she clawed at my face with her free hand.

I jerked back, and screamed with all my strength, my nerves recalling for one dreadful instant a hand striking at my face, hands pulling at me. . . .

I struck at her, the strength of terror flooding through my limbs, screaming, screaming, some tiny remnant of rationality in my brain watching this, bemused, appalled—but completely unable to stop the animal panic, the unreasoning rage that geysered up from some deep and unsuspected well.

I hit out, hammering blindly, screaming—wondering even as I did so, why, why was I doing this?

An arm grabbed me round the waist and I was lifted off the ground. A fresh spurt of panic ripped through me, and then I found myself suddenly alone, untouched. I was standing in the corner by the wardrobe, swaying drunkenly, panting. Jamie stood in front of me, shoulders braced and elbows raised, shielding me.

He was talking, very calmly, but I had lost the capacity to make sense of words. I pressed my hands back against the wall, and felt some sense of comfort from its solid bulk.

My heart was still hammering in my ears, the sound of my own breathing scaring me, it was so like the gasping sound when Harley Boble had broken my nose. I shut my mouth hard, trying to stop. Holding my breath seemed to work, allowing only small inhalations through my now-functioning nose.

The movement of Ute’s mouth caught my eye and I stared at it, trying to fix myself once more in time and space. I was hearing words, but couldn’t quite make the jump of comprehension. I breathed, letting the words flow over me like water, taking emotion from them—anger, reason, protest, placation, shrillness, growling—but no explicit meaning.

Then I took a deep breath, wiped my face—I was surprised to find it wet—and suddenly everything snapped back to normal. I could hear, and understand.

Ute was staring at me, anger and dislike clear on her face, but muted by a lurking horror.

“You are mad,” she said, nodding. “I see.” She sounded almost calm at this point. “Well, then.”

She turned to Jamie, automatically twisting up untidy handsful of grizzled blond hair, stuffing them under her enormous cap. The ribbon had been torn; a loop of it dangled absurdly over one eye.

“So, she is mad. I will say so, but still, my son—my son!—is gone. So.” She stood heaving, surveying me, and shook her head, then turned again to Jamie.

“Salem is closed to you,” she said curtly. “My family, those who know us—they will not trade with you. Nor anyone else I speak to, to tell them the wicked thing she has done.” Her eye drifted back to me, a cold, gelid blue, and her lip curled in a heavy sneer under the loop of torn ribbon.

“You are shunned,” she said. “You do not exist, you.” She turned on her heel and walked out, forcing Ian and Rollo to sidestep hastily out of her way. Her footfalls echoed heavily on the stair, a ponderous, measured tread, like the tolling of a passing bell.

I saw the tension in Jamie’s shoulders relax, little by little. He was still wearing his nightshirt—there was a damp patch between his shoulder blades—and had the pistol still in his hand.

The front door boomed shut below. Everyone stood still, struck silent.

“You wouldn’t really have shot her, would you?” I asked, clearing my throat.

“What?” He turned, staring at me. Then he caught the direction of my glance, and looked at the pistol in his hand as though wondering where that had come from.

“Oh,” he said, “no,” and shook his head, reaching up to put it back on top of the wardrobe. “I forgot I had it. Though God kens well enough that I should like to shoot the besotted auld besom,” he added. “Are ye all right, Sassenach?”

He stooped to look at me, his eyes soft with worry.

“I’m all right. I don’t know what—but it’s all right. It’s gone now.”

“Ah,” he said softly, and looked away, lashes coming down to hide his eyes. Had he felt it, too, then? Found himself suddenly . . . back? I knew he had sometimes. Remembered waking from sleep in Paris to see him braced in an open window, pressing so hard against the frame that the muscles stood out in his arms, visible by moonlight.

“It’s all right,” I repeated, touching him, and he gave me a brief, shy smile.

“Ye should have bitten her,” Ian was saying earnestly to Rollo. “She’s got an arse the size of a hogshead of tobacco—how could ye miss?”

“Probably afraid of being poisoned,” I said, coming out of my corner. “Do you suppose she meant it—or no, she meant it, certainly. But do you suppose she can do it? Stop anyone trading with us, I mean.”

“She can stop Robin,” Jamie said, a certain grimness returning to his expression. “For the rest . . . we’ll see.”

Ian shook his head, frowning, and rubbed his knuckled fist gingerly against his thigh.

“I kent I should have broken Manfred’s neck,” he said with real regret. “We could ha’ told Frau Ute he fell off a rock, and saved a deal of trouble.”

“Manfred?” The small voice made everyone turn as one, to see who had spoken.

Lizzie stood in the doorway, thin and pale as a starveling ghost, her eyes huge and glassy with recent fever.

“What about Manfred?” she said. She swayed dangerously, and put out a hand to the jamb, to save herself falling. “What’s happened to him?”

“Poxed and gone,” Ian said curtly, drawing himself up. “Ye didna give him your maidenheid, I hope.”

IN THE EVENT, Ute McGillivray was not quite able to fulfill her threat—but she did enough damage. Manfred’s dramatic disappearance, the breaking of his engagement to Lizzie, and the reason for it was a fearful scandal, and word of it spread from Hillsboro and Salisbury, where he had worked now and then as an itinerant gunsmith, to Salem and High Point.

But thanks to Ute’s efforts, the story was even more confused than would be normal for such gossip; some said that he was poxed, others that I had maliciously and falsely accused him of being poxed, because of some fancied disagreement with his parents. Others, more kindly, did not believe Manfred was poxed, but said that doubtless I had been mistaken.

Those who believed him to be poxed were divided as to how he had achieved that condition, half of them convinced that he had got it from some whore, and a good many of the rest speculating that he had got it from poor Lizzie, whose reputation suffered terribly—until Ian, Jamie, the Beardsley twins, and even Roger took to defending her honor with their fists, at which point people did not, of course, stop talking—but stopped talking where any of her champions might hear directly.

All of Ute’s numerous relatives in and around Wachovia, Salem, Bethabara, and Bethania of course believed her version of the story, and tongues wagged busily. All of Salem did not cease trading with us—but many people did. And more than once, I had the unnerving experience of greeting Moravians I knew well, only to have them stare past me in stony silence, or turn their backs upon me. Often enough that I no longer went to Salem.

Lizzie, beyond a certain initial mortification, seemed not terribly upset at the rupture of her engagement. Bewildered, confused, and sorry—she said—for Manfred, but not desolated by his loss. And since she seldom left the Ridge anymore, she didn’t hear what people said about her. What did trouble her was the loss of the McGillivrays—particularly Ute.

“D’ye see, ma’am,” she told me wistfully, “I’d never had a mother, for my own died when I was born. And then Mutti—she asked me to call her so when I said I’d marry Manfred—she said I was her daughter, just like Hilda and Inga and Senga. She’d fuss over me, and bully me and laugh at me, just as she did them. And it was . . . just so nice, to have all that family. And now I’ve lost them.”

Robin, who had been sincerely attached to her, had sent her a short, regretful note, sneaked out through the good offices of Ronnie Sinclair. But since Manfred’s disappearance, neither Ute nor the girls had come to see her, nor sent a single word.

It was Joseph Wemyss, though, who was most visibly affected by the affair. He said nothing, plainly not wishing to make matters worse for Lizzie—but he drooped, like a flower deprived of rain. Beyond his pain for Lizzie, and his distress at the blackening of her reputation, he, too, missed the McGillivrays, missed the joy and comfort of suddenly being part of a large, exuberant family, after so many years of loneliness.

Worse, though, was that while Ute had not been able to carry out her threat entirely, she had been able to influence her near relatives—including Pastor Berrisch, and his sister, Monika, who, Jamie told me privately, had been forbidden to see or speak to Joseph again.

“The Pastor’s sent her away to his wife’s relatives in Halifax,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “To forget.”

“Oh, dear.”

And of Manfred, there was no slightest trace. Jamie had sent word through all his usual avenues, but no one had seen him since his flight from the Ridge. I thought of him—and prayed for him—daily, haunted by pictures of him skulking in the woods alone, the deadly spirochetes multiplying in his blood day by day. Or, much worse, working his way to the Indies on some ship, pausing in every port to drown his sorrows in the arms of unsuspecting whores, to whom he would pass on the silent, fatal infection—and they, in turn . . .

Or sometimes, the nightmare image of a bundle of rotting clothes hanging from a tree limb, deep in the forest, with no mourners save the crows who came to pick the flesh from his bones. And despite everything, I could not find it in my heart to hate Ute McGillivray, who must be thinking the same thoughts.

The sole bright spot in this ruddy quagmire was that Thomas Christie, quite contrary to my expectations, had allowed Malva to continue to come to the surgery, his sole stipulation being that if I proposed to involve his daughter in any further use of the ether, he was to be told ahead of time.

“There.” I stood back, gesturing to her to look through the eyepiece of the microscope. “Do you see them?”

Her lips pursed in silent fascination. It had taken no little effort to find a combination of staining and reflected sunlight that would reveal the spirochetes, but I had succeeded at last. They weren’t strongly visible, but you could see them, if you knew what you were looking for—and despite my complete conviction in my original diagnosis, I was relieved to see them.

“Oh, yes! Wee spirals. I see them plain!” She looked up at me, blinking. “D’ye mean seriously to tell me that these bittie things are what’s poxed Manfred?” She was too polite to express open skepticism, but I could see it in her eyes.

“I do indeed.” I had explained the germ theory of disease a number of times, to a variety of disbelieving eighteenth-century listeners, and in the light of this experience had little expectation of finding a favorable reception. The normal response was either a blank stare, indulgent laughter, or a sniff of dismissal, and I was more or less expecting a polite version of one of these reactions from Malva.

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