Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 124

   

His eyes were slowly growing accustomed to the dark; even back here, a faint light seeped through from the distant hatch. A patch of white—her breast was bared, giving suck to the child. He could hear the small wet noises as it fed.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked, though he knew well enough. His stomach clenched tight, and not just because of the foul smell of the bilges. He squatted next to her, barely able to fit in the tiny space.

“I’m hiding!” she said fiercely. “Surely to goodness ye see that?”

“Is the child sick?”

“No!” She hunched herself over the baby, squirming as far away from him as she could get.

“Then—”

“It’s no but a wee rash! All bairns get them, my mither said so!” He could hear the fear in her voice, underneath the furious denial.

“Are you sure?” he said, as gently as he could. He reached a tentative hand toward the dark blotch she held.

She struck at him, awkwardly one-handed, and he jerked back with a hiss of pain.

“Jesus! Ye stabbed me!”

“Stay back! I’ve my husband’s dirk,” she warned. “I won’t let ye take him, I’ll kill ye first, I swear I will!”

He believed her. Hand to his mouth, he could taste his own blood, sweet and salt on his tongue. It was no more than a scratch, but he believed her. She’d kill him—or die herself, which was a great deal more likely if one of the crew found her.

But no, he thought. She was worth money. Bonnet wouldn’t kill her—only have her dragged on deck and forced to watch as her child was torn out of her arms and thrown into the sea. He remembered the dark shadows that dogged the ship, and shuddered with a cold that had nothing to do with the dank surroundings.

“I won’t take him. But if it’s the pox—”

“It’s not! I swear to Bride, it’s not!” A small hand shot out of the shadows and gripped him by the sleeve. “It’s as I tell ye, it’s no but a milk rash, I’ve seen it, man—a hundred times before! I’m the eldest o’ nine, I ken weel enough when a bairn’s sick and when he’s but teething!”

He hesitated, then made up his mind abruptly. If she was wrong, and the child had smallpox, she was likely already infected; to return her to the hold would be only to spread the disease. And if she was right—he knew as well as she that it didn’t matter; any rash would condemn the child on sight.

He could feel her quivering, on the brink of hysteria. He wanted to touch her in reassurance, but thought better of it. She wouldn’t trust him, and no wonder.

“I won’t give you away,” he whispered.

He was met by suspicious silence.

“You need food, don’t you? And fresh water. You’ll have no milk soon, without it, and then what of the bairn?”

He could hear her breathing, ragged and phlegmy. She was ill, but it needn’t be pox; all the hold passengers coughed and wheezed—the damp had got into their lungs early on.

“Show him to me.”

“No!” Her eyes shone in the dark, fearful as a cornered rat’s, and the edge of her lip lifted over small white teeth.

“I swear I will not take him from you. I need to see, though.”

“What will ye swear on?”

He groped his memory for a suitable Celtic oath, then gave up and said what was in his mind.

“On my own woman’s life,” he said, “and on the heads of my unborn sons.”

He could feel doubt, and then a small easing of the tension in her; the round knee pressed against his leg moved slightly as she relaxed. There was a stealthy rustling in the chains nearby. Real rats this time.

“I canna leave him here alone while I steal food.” He saw the faint tilt of her head toward the noise. “They’ll eat him alive; they’ve bitten me in my sleep already, the filthy vermin.”

He reached out his hands, conscious all the time of the sounds from the deck above. It wasn’t likely that anyone would come down here, but how long before he was missed above?

She still hesitated, but at last reached a finger toward her breast, and freed the child’s mouth with a tiny pop! It made a small sound of protest, and wriggled slightly as he took it.

He hadn’t held babies very often; the feel of the dirty little bundle was startling—inert but lively, soft yet firm.

“Mind his head!”

“I’ve got it.” Cradling the warm round skull in one careful palm, he duck-walked backward a step or two, bringing the child’s face into dim light.

The cheeks were splotched with reddish pustules, topped with white—they looked for all the world like pox to Roger, and he felt a tremor of revulsion in the palms of his hands. Immunity or not, it took courage to touch contagion and not flinch.

He squinted at the child, then carefully undid its wrappings, ignoring the mother’s hissed protest. He slid a hand under its dress, feeling first the soggy clout that hung between its chubby legs, and then the smooth, silky skin of chest and stomach.

The child didn’t really seem so sick; his eyes were clear, not gummy. And while the tiny boy seemed feverish, it wasn’t the searing heat he had felt the night before. The baby whined and squirmed, true, but he kicked with a fretful strength in the tiny limbs, not the weak spasms of a dying child.

The very young go quickly, Claire had said. You have no notion how fast disease moves, when there’s nothing to fight it with. He had some notion, after last night.

“All right,” he whispered at last. “I think you’re maybe right.” He felt, rather than saw, the easing of her arm—she had held her dagger ready.

He gingerly handed back the child, with a mingled sense of relief and reluctance. And the terrifying realization of the responsibility he had accepted.

Morag was cooing to the boy, cuddling him against her breast as she hastily rewrapped him.

“Sweet Jemmy, aye, that’s a good laddie. Hush, bittie, hush now, it’ll be all right, Mammy’s here for ye.”

“How long?” Roger whispered, laying a hand on her arm. “How long will the rash last, if it’s milk rash?”

“Maybe four days, maybe five,” she whispered back. “But it’s no but maybe twa more, and the rash will be different—less. Anyone can see then that it’s not the pox. I can come out, then.”

Two days. If it was pox, the child would be dead in two days. But if not—he might just manage. And so might she.

“Can you keep awake that long? The rats—”

“Aye, I can,” she said fiercely. “I can do what I must. Will ye help me, then?”

He drew a deep breath, ignoring the stench.

“Aye, I will.” He stood up, and gave her his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, she took it, and stood too. She was small, she barely reached his shoulder, and her hand in his was the size of a child’s—in the shadows, she looked like a young girl cradling her doll.

“How old are you?” he asked suddenly.

He caught the gleam of her eyes, surprised, and then the flash of teeth.

“Yesterday I was two-and-twenty,” she said dryly. “Today, I’m maybe a hundred.”

The small damp hand pulled free of his, and she melted back into the darkness.

39

A GAMBLING MAN

The fog gathered through the night. By dawn the ship rode in a cloud so thick that the sea below could not be seen from the rail, and only the susurrus of the hull’s passage indicated that the Gloriana still floated on water, not air.

There was no sun, and little wind; the sails hung limp, shuddering now and then with a passing air. Oppressed by the dimness, men walked the decks like ghosts, appearing out of the murk with a suddenness that startled one another.

This obscurity served Roger well; he was able to pass almost unseen through the ship, and slip unobserved into the hold, the small store of food he had kept back from his own meals concealed in his shirt.

The fog had gotten into the hold as well; clammy white tendrils touched his face, drifting out between the looming water casks, and hovered near his feet. It was darker than ever here below, gone from dusty-gold dimness to the black-brown of cold, wet wood.

The child was asleep; Roger saw no more than the curve of its cheek, still spattered with red pustules. They looked angry and inflamed. Morag saw his look of doubt and said nothing, but took his hand in her own and pressed it to the baby’s neck.

The tiny pulse went bump-bump-bump under his finger, and the soft creased skin was warm but damp. Reassured, he smiled at Morag, and she gave him back a tiny glimmer.

A month in steerage had left her thin and grimy; the last two days had stamped her face with permanent lines of fear. Her hair straggled lank around her face, caked with grease and thick with lice. Her eyes were bruised with tiredness, and she smelled of feces and urine, sour milk and stale sweat. Her lips were tight and pale as the rest of her face. Roger took her very gently by the shoulders, bent, and kissed her mouth.

At the top of the ladder, he looked back. She was still standing there looking up at him, the child in her arms.

The deck was quiet save for the murmur of helmsman and bosun, invisible at the wheel. Roger eased the hatch cover back in place, his heart beginning to slow again, the touch of her still warming his hands. Two days. Maybe three. Perhaps they would make it; Roger at least was convinced she was right, the child did not have pox.

There should be no occasion for anyone to go into the hold soon—a fresh water-cask had been brought up only the day before. He could contrive to feed her—if only she could stay awake long enough…the sharp ting of the ship’s bell pierced the fog, a reminder of time that no longer seemed to exist, its passage unmarked by any change of light or dark.

It was as Roger crossed toward the stern that he heard it; a sudden loud whoosh in the mist off the rail, very near at hand. The next instant, the ship trembled slightly underfoot, her boards brushed by something huge.

“Whale!” came a cry from aloft. He could see two men near the main-mast, dimly outlined in the fog. At the cry, they froze, and he realized that he, too, was standing rigid, listening.

There was another whoosh nearby, another farther off. The crew of the Gloriana stood silent, each man charting in his head the great exhalations, marking an invisible map on which the ship drifted through moving shoals, mountains of silent, intelligent flesh.

How big were they? Roger wondered. Big enough to damage the ship? He strained his eyes, vainly trying to see anything at all through the fog.

It came again, a thump hard enough to jar the rail under his hands, followed by a long, grating rasp that shuddered through the boards. There were muffled cries of fear from below; to those in the steerage, it would be right next to them, no more than the planks of the hull between them and rupture—a sudden smash and the frightful inrush of the sea. Three-inch oak planks seemed no more substantial than tissue paper against the great beasts that floated nearby, breathing unseen in the fog.

“Barnacles,” said a soft Irish voice from the mist behind him. Despite himself, Roger jumped, and a low chuckle materialized into Bonnet’s shadowed bulk. The Captain held a cheroot between his teeth, a spill from the galley fire illumining the lines and planes of his face, dissolute in red light. The rasping shudder came again through the boards.

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