Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 123

   

She got a grip on the seaman’s blouse, and as Roger watched, she began to climb the man’s body, dragging him backward as she struggled to reach the child, screaming as she clawed the man’s back, digging handfuls of cloth and flesh.

The man roared and swatted at her, trying to dislodge her. The ladder was fixed, but the seaman, one-handed and pulled off balance, swayed wildly, his look of rage turning to alarm as his feet slipped on the rung.

Reflex alone made Roger lunge forward, grabbing the child like a rugger ball as the seaman threw his arms out in a last effort to save himself. Entangled like lovers, man and woman fell backward together into the open maw of the hatchway. There was a crash and more screams from below, then the sudden, momentary silence of shock. Then the outcries began again, below, and a muttering babble around him.

Roger righted the child, trying to stop its whimpering with awkward pats. It seemed curiously loose-jointed in his arms, and it felt hot, even through its layers of clothes. Light flashed over Roger as the bosun lifted his lantern high, looking at the child with distaste.

“Hope you have had the pox, MacKenzie,” he said.

It was wee Gilbert, the lad with sore eyes—but two days had made such a change that Roger scarcely recognized him. The boy was thin as a wraith, the round face gone so thin that the skullbones showed. The fair, dirt-smudged skin had gone, too, submerged under a mass of suppurating pustules so thick that the eyes were mere slits in the lolling head.

He had barely time to register the sight before hands plucked the small, burning body from him. Before he could grasp the sudden emptiness in his arms, there was another splash to port.

He swung toward the rail in vain reflex, hands curled in fists of shock, but then turned back as a new roar came from the hatchway behind.

The passengers had recovered from the surprise of the attack. A rush of men boiled up the ladder, armed with anything they could seize, and fell upon the seamen at the top, bearing them down with sheer frenzy.

Someone cannoned into Roger and he fell, rolling to the side as a stool leg thudded into the deck near his head. He got to his hands and knees, was kicked in the ribs, shied and was pushed, heaved back against obstruction, and with a moment’s opportunity, threw himself blindly at a pair of legs, having no idea whether he fought crew or passengers, fighting only for room to stand up and breathe.

The stink of sickness rolled out of the hold, a sweet, rotting smell that overlaid the usual harsh reek of ripe bodies and sewage. The lanterns swung with the wind, and light and shadow cut the scene to pieces, so that here showed a face, wild-eyed and shouting, there an arm upraised, here a nak*d foot, only to vanish in the darkness and be replaced at once by elbows and knives and thrusting knees, so the deck seemed awash in dismembered bodies.

So strong was the confusion that Roger felt dismembered himself; he glanced down, feeling numbness in his left arm, half expecting to find the limb struck off. It was there, though, and he raised it by reflex, fending off an unseen blow that jarred through bone.

Someone grasped his hair; he jerked free and swung round, elbowed someone hard in the ribs and swung again, hitting air. He found himself momentarily standing clear of the fight, gasping for breath. Two figures crouched before him, in the shadow of the rail; as he shook his head to clear it, the taller stood up and launched itself at him.

He reeled backward under the impact, clutching his attacker. They struck the foremast and fell together, then rolled over and over, hammering each other in blind earnest. Caught in the web of noise and blows, he paid no mind to the disjointed words that panted in his ear.

Then a boot struck him, and another, and as he loosed his hold on his opponent, two crewmen kicked them apart. Someone seized the other man and pulled him upright, and Roger saw the flash of the bosun’s lantern held high, revealing the face of the tall fair-haired passenger—Morag MacKenzie’s husband, green eyes dark and wild with fury.

MacKenzie was the worse for wear—so was Roger, as he discovered when he passed a hand across his face and felt his split lip—but his skin was clear of pustules.

“Good enough,” said Hutchinson briefly, and the man was thrust unceremoniously toward the hatchway.

His comrades gave Roger a rough hand up, and then left him swaying, dazed and ignored, as they finished their work. The resistance had been short-lived; though armed with the fury of despair, the passengers were weakened by six weeks under hatches, by sickness and scanty food. The stronger had been clubbed into submission, the weaker forced back, and those sick of pox—

Roger looked out at the rail and the path of the moon’s aisle, serene on the water. He grabbed the rail and vomited, retching till no more than bile came up, burning the back of nose and throat. The water below was black, and empty.

Drained and shaking from exertion, he made his way slowly across the deck. Those seamen he passed were silent, but from the battened forward hatchway, a single thin wail rose up, and up, an endless keen that drew no breath and knew no respite.

He nearly fell down the companionway into the crew’s quarters, went to his hammock, ignoring all questions, and wrapped his blanket over his head, trying to shut out the sound of the wailing—to shut out everything.

But there was no oblivion to be found in the suffocating woolen folds, and he jerked the blanket off, heart pounding, with a sensation of drowning so strong in his chest that he gulped air, again and again until he felt dizzy, and still breathed deep, as though he must breathe for those who could not.

“It’s for the best, lad,” Hutchinson had said to him with gruff sympathy, passing by as he puked his guts out over the rail. “Pox spreads like wildfire; none in that hold would live to make landfall, did we not take out the sick.”

And was this better than the slower death of scabs and fever? Not for those left behind; the wail went on and on, lancing the silence, piercing wood and heart alike.

Maimed pictures flashed in his mind, truncated scenes caught by the popping of invisible flashbulbs: the sailor’s contorted face as he fell into the hold; the little boy’s half-open mouth, the inside scabbed with pustules. Bonnet standing above the fray, with his face of a fallen angel, watching. And the dark hungry water, empty under the moon.

Something bumped softly, sliding past the hull, and he rolled into a shivering ball, oblivious alike to the sweltering heat in the hold, and the sleepy complaint of the man next to him. No, not empty. He had heard the seamen say that sharks never sleep.

“Oh, God,” he said aloud. “Oh, God!” He should have been praying for the dead, but could not.

He rolled again, squirming, trying to escape, and in the echo of the futile prayer found memory—the misplaced hearing of those few frantic words, panted in his ear during those moments of unthinking frenzy.

For the love of God, man, the fair-haired man had said. For the love of God, let her go!

He straightened and lay stiff, bathed in cold sweat.

Two figures in the shadow. And the open hatchway to the stores hold some twenty feet away.

“Oh, God,” he said again, but this time, it was a prayer.

It was the middle of the dogwatch next day before Roger found an opportunity to go down to the hold. He made no effort to avoid being seen; watching his shipmates had taught him quickly that in close quarters, nothing drew attention faster than furtiveness.

If anyone asked, he had heard a bumping noise, and thought perhaps the load had shifted. Close enough to the truth, at that.

He hung from the edge of the hatch by his hands; less chance of being followed if he didn’t put down the ladder. He dropped into the dark and landed hard, jarring his bones. Anyone down here would have heard that—and by the same token, if anyone followed him, he would be warned.

He took a moment to recover from the shock of landing, then began to move cautiously through the looming dim bulks of the stacked cargo. Everything seemed blurred round the edges. It wasn’t only the faint light, he thought; everything in the hold was vibrating very slightly, thrumming to the shiver of the hull beneath. He could hear it, if he listened closely; the lowest note in the ship’s song.

Through the narrow aisles between the ranks of crates, past the huge bellies of the serried water casks. He breathed in; the air was full of the smell of wet wood, overlaid by the faint perfume of tea. There were rustlings and creakings, plenty of odd noises—but no sign of any human presence. Still, he was sure that someone was here.

And why are you here, mate? he thought. What if one of the steerage passengers had taken refuge here? If someone lay hidden here, chances were good that they had the pox; Roger could do nothing for them—why bother to look?

Because he couldn’t not look, was the answer. He didn’t reproach himself for failing to save the pox-stricken passengers; nothing could have helped them in any case, and perhaps a quick death by drowning was not in fact more terrible than the slow agony of the disease. He’d like to believe that.

But he hadn’t slept; the events of the night filled him with such a sense of horror and sick futility that he could find no rest. Whether he could do anything now, or not, he must do something. He had to look.

Something small moved in the deep shadows of the hold. Rat, he thought, and turned reflexively to stamp on it. The movement saved him; a heavy object whizzed past his head and landed with a splash in the bilges below.

He put his head down and lunged in the direction of the movement, shoulders hunched against an expected blow. There was nowhere to run, and not much place to hide. He saw it again, lunged, and grabbed cloth. Jerked hard, and got flesh. A quick scuffle in the dark, and a cry of alarm, and he found himself pressing a body hard against a bulkhead, clutching the skinny wrist of Morag MacKenzie.

“What the hell?” She kicked at him, and tried to bite, but he ignored this. He got a good grip on the scruff of her neck and hauled her out of the shadows, into the dim brown light of the hold. “What are you doing here?”

“Nothing! Let go! Let me go, please! Please, I beg ye, sir—” Force not availing to free herself—she weighed perhaps half what he did—she turned to pleading, words pouring out in a half-whispered stream of desperation. “For the sake of your own mother, sir! Ye canna do it, please ye cannot let them kill him please!”

“I’m not going to kill anyone. For God’s sake, hush yourself!” he said, and gave her a small shake.

From the blackest shadows behind the anchor chain came the high, thin wail of a fretful baby.

She gave a small gasp and looked up at him, frantic.

“They’ll hear him! God, man, let me go to him!” Such was her desperation that she succeeded in wrenching herself free, and fled toward the sound, clambering over the great rusted links of the anchor chain, heedless of filth.

He followed, more slowly; she couldn’t get away—there was nowhere for her to go. He found them in the darkest spot, crouched against one of the ship’s knees, the huge angled timbers that framed the hull. There was barely a foot of clearance between the rough wood of the hull and the piled mass of the anchor chain; she was no more than a darker blot on the stygian blackness.

“I will not hurt you,” he said softly. The shadow seemed to shrink away from him, but she didn’t answer.

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