An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 90

   

“What are you doing, madam!” he exclaimed. “That is my best blade!”

“Yes, that’s why I propose to use it,” I said. “After I wash it.”

Stactoe was a small man with close-cropped, bristly gray hair; he was also two or three inches shorter than I, as I discovered when I stood up and faced him, eyeball to eyeball. His face went a shade or two redder.

“You will ruin the temper of the metal, subjecting it to boiling water!”

“No,” I said, keeping my own temper—for the moment. “Hot water will do nothing but clean it. And I will not use a dirty blade on this man.”

“Oh, won’t you?” Something like satisfaction glimmered in his eyes, and he clutched the blade protectively to his bosom. “Well, then. I suppose you’ll have to leave the work to those who can do it, won’t you?”

Guinea Dick, who had remained to watch after delivery of the bottle, had been following the progress of the argument with interest and, at this point, leaned over and plucked the knife from Stactoe’s hand.

“Him captain says her does for Joe,” he said calmly. “Her does.”

Stactoe’s mouth fell open in outrage at this gross insult to his rank, and he lunged at Dick, grabbing for the blade. Dick, with reflexes honed by tribal warfare and years of British seamanship, swung the blade at Stactoe with the obvious intent of removing his head. He would likely have succeeded, save for Denzell Hunter’s equally good reflexes, which sent him leaping for Dick’s arm. He missed but succeeded in knocking the big Guineaman into Stactoe. They clutched each other—Dick dropping the knife—and staggered to and fro for an instant before both overbalanced and crashed into Ormiston’s cot, sending patient, rum bottle, hot water, Denzell Hunter, and the rest of the instruments sprawling across the stone floor with a clatter that stopped every conversation in the building.

“Oooh!” said Mrs. Raven, deliciously shocked. This was turning out even better than she had expected.

“Denny!” said an equally shocked voice behind me. “What does thee think thee is doing?”

“I am… assisting Friend Claire in her surgery,” Denzell said with some dignity, sitting up and patting round the floor in search of his spectacles.

Rachel Hunter bent and picked up the errant spectacles, which had slid across the stones, and restored these firmly to her brother’s face, while keeping a wary eye on Lieutenant Stactoe, who was slowly rising from the floor, much in the manner of a hot-air balloon, visibly swelling with rage.

“You,” he said in a hoarse voice, and pointed a small, trembling finger at Dick. “I shall have you hanged for assaulting an officer. I shall have you, sir”—swinging the accusatory digit toward Denzell Hunter—“court-martialed and broke! As for you, madam—” He spat the word, but then stopped dead, momentarily unable to think of anything sufficiently terrible with which to threaten me. Then, “I shall ask your husband to beat you!” he said.

“Come ’n’ tickle me, darlin’,” a slurred voice said from the floor. I looked down, to see a leering Mr. Ormiston. He had kept hold of the rum bottle during the wreck, continued to employ it afterward, and, face suffused with rum, was now making random pawing motions in the vicinity of my knee.

Lieutenant Stactoe made a noise indicating that this was the frozen limit, if not well beyond, and, hastily bundling up his fallen instruments, he marched off, bristling with knives and saws, dropping occasional small objects in his wake.

“Did thee want me, Sissy?” Denzell Hunter had got to his feet by this time and was righting the fallen cot.

“Not so much me as Mrs. Brown,” his sister said, a dry note in her voice. “She says it is her time, and she wants thee. Right. Now.”

He snorted briefly, and glanced at me.

“Mrs. Brown is an hysteric, in the literal meaning of the term,” he said apologetically. “I think she cannot deliver for another month yet, but she suffers false labor on a regular basis.”

“I know her,” I said, suppressing a smile. “Better you than me, mate.” Mrs. Brown was an hysteric. Also the wife of a colonel of militia and therefore—she thought—well above the services of a mere midwife. Hearing that Dr. Denzell Hunter had worked with Dr. John Hunter, who was accoucheur to the Queen!—obviously, my services could be dispensed with.

“She is not bleeding, nor her water broke?” Denzell was asking his sister in a resigned voice. Guinea Dick, totally unperturbed by the recent conflict, had restored the bedding to the cot and now squatted, lifted all fifteen stone of Mr. Ormiston as if he were a feather bed, and deposited him and his bottle gently thereon.

“I think him ready,” he announced, after scrutinizing the patient, who was now lying back, eyes closed, happily murmuring, “Just a little lower, dear, aye, that’s it, tha’s it…”

Denzell looked helplessly from Mr. Ormiston to his sister to me.

“I will have to go to Mrs. Brown, though I think it not pressingly urgent. Can thee wait a little while and I will do this for thee?”

“Her does it,” said Dick, glowering.

“Yes, her does,” I assured him, tying back my hair. “But what her is going to do it with is another question. Have you any instruments that I might borrow, Dr.—er, Friend Denzell?”

He rubbed his forehead, thinking.

“I have a decent saw.” He smiled briefly. “And I do not mind if thee wishes to boil it. But no heavy blade. Shall I send Rachel to ask one of the other surgeons?”

Rachel’s face closed a bit at this suggestion, and I thought that perhaps Dr. Hunter was not all that popular with the other surgeons.

I eyed Mr. Ormiston’s very solid leg, estimating the thickness of flesh to be cut, and put a hand through the slit in my skirt to the sheath of my knife. It was a good, sturdy knife, and Jamie had just sharpened it for me. A curved blade would be better, but I thought the length was sufficient…

“No, don’t trouble. I think this will work. If you would find your brother’s saw, Miss—er, Rachel.” I smiled at her. “And, Mrs. Raven, I’m afraid the water’s gone, would you—”

“Oh, yes!” she cried, and seizing the pan, clattered off, kicking one of Lieutenant Stactoe’s oddments on the way.

A number of people had been watching the drama of Mr. Ormiston’s foot, fascinated. Now that the lieutenant was gone, they began to sidle nearer, looking fearfully at Guinea Dick, who grinned genially at them.

“Can Mrs. Brown wait a quarter of an hour?” I asked Denzell. “It will be a little easier if I have someone who knows what they’re doing to support the leg while I cut. Dick can restrain the patient.”

“A quarter of an hour?”

“Well, the actual amputation will take a little less than a minute, if I don’t encounter any difficulties. But I’ll need a bit of time to prepare, and I could use your help in ligating the severed blood vessels afterward. Where has the rum bottle gone, by the way?”

Denzell’s dark brows were almost touching his hairline, but he gestured to Mr. Ormiston, who had gone to sleep and was now snoring loudly, the rum bottle cradled in his arm.

“I don’t propose to drink it,” I said dryly, answering his expression. I pulled the bottle free and poured a little onto a clean rag, with which I began to swab Mr. Ormiston’s hairy thigh. The lieutenant had fortunately left his jar of sutures, and the oddment Mrs. Raven had kicked was a tenaculum. I would need it to seize the ends of severed arteries, which had an annoying tendency to pop back into the flesh and hide, squirting blood all the while.

“Ah,” said Denzell, still at a loss but game. “I see. Can I… help?”

“If I might borrow your belt for a ligature?”

“Oh, yes,” he murmured, and unbuckled it without hesitation, looking interested. “I collect thee has done this before.”

“Many times, unfortunately.” I bent to check Mr. Ormiston’s breathing, which was stertorous but not labored. He’d downed nearly half the bottle within five minutes. That was a dose that would likely kill someone less inured to rum than a British seaman, but his vital signs were reasonably good, fever notwithstanding. Drunkenness was not by any means the equivalent of anesthesia; the patient was stunned, not unconscious, and would certainly come to when I began cutting. It did allay fear, though, and might dull the immediate pain slightly. I wondered whether—and when—I might ever be able to make ether again.

There were two or three small tables in the long room, these heaped with bandages, lint, and other dressing materials. I chose a good supply of relatively clean materials and returned with them to the bedside just as Mrs. Raven—panting and red-faced, anxious lest she had missed anything—arrived, water bucket sloshing. A moment later, Rachel Hunter returned, similarly panting from her hurry, with her brother’s saw.

“If you would not mind dousing the saw blade, Friend Denzell?” I said, tying a burlap sack round my waist to serve as an apron. Sweat was running down my back, tickling between my bu**ocks, and I tied a length of bandaging round my head bandanna-style, to keep the sweat from running into my eyes as I worked. “And scrub the stains there near the handle? Then my knife and that tenaculum, if you don’t mind.”

Looking bemused, he did, to interested murmurs from the crowd, who had plainly never witnessed such an outlandish proceeding, though Mr. Dick’s savage presence was keeping them at a safe distance.

“Does thee suppose the lieutenant would indeed have our friend here hanged?” Denzell whispered to me, with a nod at Dick. “Or could, come to that?”

“I’m sure he’d love to, but I really don’t think he can, no. Mr. Dick is an English prisoner. Can he have you court-martialed, do you think?”

“I suppose he might try,” Denzell said, seeming not perturbed at the prospect. “I enlisted, after all.”

“Did you?” That seemed odd, but he wasn’t the only Quaker I’d met on a battlefield, so to speak.

“Oh, yes. I think the army does not have so many surgeons that it can afford to hang one, though. And I doubt that being reduced in rank would much affect my expertise.” He smiled cheerfully at me. “Thee has no rank at all, if I am not mistaken, and yet I trust thee will manage.”

“God willing,” I said, and he nodded gravely.

“God willing,” he repeated, and handed me the knife, still hot from the boiling water.

“You might want to stand back a bit,” I said to the spectators. “It’s going to be messy.”

“Oh, dear, oh, dear,” said Mrs. Raven, with a tremulous gasp of anticipation. “How perfectly ghastly!”

THREE ARROWS

Mottville, Pennsylvania

June 10, 1777

GREY SAT UP suddenly, narrowly avoiding cracking his head on the low beam that passed above his bed. His heart was pounding, his neck and temples wet with sweat, and he had no notion for a moment where he was.

“The third arrow,” he said aloud, and shook his head, trying to match the words to the extraordinarily vivid dream from which he had so abruptly emerged.

Was it dream, memory, or something partaking of the nature of both? He had been standing in the main salon of Trois Flèches, looking at the very fine Stubbs hanging to the right of the baroque mantelpiece. The walls were crowded with pictures—hung above, below, crammed in without regard to subject or merit.

Was that how it had been? He remembered vaguely a sense of oppression at the abundance of ornament, but had the paintings truly crowded in so, portraits leering from above, below, faces in every direction?

In the dream, the Baron Amandine had stood to one side of him, the solid shoulder touching his; they were much of a height. The Baron was speaking of one of the paintings, but Grey could not remember what he was saying—something about the technique employed by the painter, perhaps.

On his other side stood Cecile Beauchamp, the baron’s sister, standing equally close, a bare shoulder brushing Grey’s. She wore powder in her hair and a perfume of jasmine; the baron, a feral cologne of bergamot and civet. He remembered—for surely dreams had no smell?—the mingling of the thick fragrances with the bitterness of wood ash in the stifling warmth of the room, and the faint feeling of nausea this mingling induced. Someone’s hand had cupped one of his bu**ocks, squeezed it familiarly, and then commenced to stroke it in an insinuating fashion. He didn’t know whose hand it was.

That hadn’t been part of the dream.

He lay back slowly on his pillow, eyes closed, trying to recapture the images from his sleeping mind. The dream had changed after that to something erotic, someone’s mouth on his highly responsive flesh; it was the sensations associated with this, in fact, that wakened him. He didn’t know whose mouth it was, either. Dr. Franklin had been somewhere in this dream, as well; Grey recalled the white bu**ocks, slightly sagging, still firm, as the man walked down a corridor in front of him, long gray hair straggling down a bony back, loose rolls of skin around the waist, talking with complete unconcern about the pictures, which lined the walls of the corridor, as well. It was a vivid recollection, charged with feeling. Surely he hadn’t—not with Franklin, even in a dream. But it was something to do with the paintings …

He tried to recall some of the paintings but was no longer sure what was real, what emerged from the bourne of dreams. There were landscapes… a thing purporting to be an Egyptian scene, though he took leave to doubt that the painter had ever set foot south of the Breton coast. The usual family portraits—

“Yes!” he sat up abruptly and this time did smack the crown of his head on the beam, hard enough that he saw stars and emitted a grunt of pain.

“Uncle John?” Dottie’s voice came clearly from the other bed, startled, and a rustling of bedclothes from the floor indicated that her maid had likewise wakened. “What’s happened?”

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