Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 126

   

“They rolled me on my face and hit me,” Bonnet continued matter-of-factly. “When I came to myself again, I was in the bottom of a fishing boat. The fisherman left me on the shore near Peterhead and said he would advise me to find a new ship—he could see, he said, I was not meant for the land.”

He held up the cigar and tapped it gently with a finger to loosen the ash.

“At that,” he said, “they did give me my wages; when I came to look, the shilling was in my pocket. Ah, they were honest men, sure.”

Roger leaned against the rail, gripping its wood as the single solid thing in a world gone soft and nebulous.

“And did you go back to the land?” he asked, and heard his own voice, preternaturally calm, as though it belonged to someone else.

“Did I find them, ye mean.” Bonnet turned and leaned back against the rail, half facing Roger. “Oh, yes. Years later. One at a time. But I found them all.” He opened the hand that held the coin, and held it cupped thoughtfully before him, tilting it back and forth so the silver gleamed in the lantern light.

“Heads you live, and tails you die. A fair chance, would yez say, MacKenzie?”

“For them?”

“For you.”

The soft Irish voice was as unemphatic as it might be were it making observations of the weather.

As in a dream, Roger felt the weight of the shilling drop once more into his hands. He heard the suck and hiss of the water on the hull, the blowing of the whales—and the suck and hiss of Bonnet’s breath as he drew on his cigar. Seven whales the fill of a Cirein Croin.

“A fair chance,” Bonnet said. “Luck was with you before, MacKenzie. See will Danu come for you again—or will it be the Soul-Eater this time?”

The fog had closed over the deck. There was nothing visible save the glowing coal of Bonnet’s cigar, a burning cyclops in the mist. The man might be a devil indeed, one eye closed to human misery, one eye open to the dark. And here Roger stood quite literally between the devil and the deep blue sea, with his fate shining silver in the palm of his hand.

“It is my life; I’ll make the call,” he said, and was surprised to hear his voice calm and steady. “Tails—tails is mine.” He threw, and caught, clapped his one hand hard against the back of the other, trapped the coin and its unknown sentence.

He closed his eyes and thought just once of Brianna. I’m sorry, he said silently to her, and lifted his hand.

A warm breath passed over his skin, and then he felt a spot of coolness on the back of his hand as the coin was picked up, but he didn’t move, didn’t open his eyes.

It was some time before he realized that he stood alone.

PART NINE

Passionnément

40

VIRGIN SACRIFICE

Wilmington, the Colony of North Carolina, September 1, 1769

This was the third attack, of whatever Lizzie’s sickness was. She had seemed to recover after the first bad fever, and after a day spent regaining her strength, had insisted she was able to travel. They had got no more than a day’s ride north of Charleston, though, before the fever struck again.

Brianna had hobbled the horses, and made a hasty camp near a small creek, then made trip after trip through the night, scrabbling up and down a muddy bank in the dark, carrying water in a small canteen to dribble down Lizzie’s throat and over her steaming body. She wasn’t afraid of dark woods or lurking animals, but the thought of Lizzie dying in the wilderness, miles from any sort of help, was terrifying enough to make her want to head straight back to Charleston as soon as Lizzie could sit a horse.

By morning, however, the fever had broken, and though Lizzie was weak and pale, she had been able to ride. Brianna had hesitated, but finally decided to press on toward Wilmington, rather than turn back. The urge that had driven her all this way now had a sharper spur; she had to find her mother, for Lizzie’s sake as well as her own.

Brianna hadn’t appreciated her size for most of a life spent looming in the back row of class pictures, but she had begun to feel the advantages of height and strength as she grew older. And the longer she spent in this miserable place, the more advantageous they seemed.

She braced one arm against the bed frame as she eased the chamber pot out from under Lizzie’s frail white buttocks with the other hand. Lizzie was scrawny but surprisingly heavy, and no more than half conscious; she moaned and twitched restlessly, the twitch suddenly springing into the full-fledged convulsion of a chill.

The shivering was beginning to ease a little now, though Lizzie’s teeth were still clenched hard enough to make the sharp bones of her jaws stand out like struts beneath her skin.

Malaria, Brianna thought, for the dozenth time. It must be, to keep coming back like this. A number of small pink welts showed on Lizzie’s neck, reminders of the mosquitoes that had plagued them ever since the Phillip Alonzo drew within sight of land. They had made landfall too far south, and wasted three weeks in meandering through the shallow coastal waters to Charleston, gnawed incessantly by bloodsucking bugs.

“There now. Feeling a little better?”

Lizzie nodded feebly, and tried to smile, succeeding only in looking like a white mouse that had taken poisoned bait.

“Water, honey. Try a little, just a sip.” Brianna held the cup to Lizzie’s mouth, coaxing. She felt a strange sense of déjà vu and realized that her voice was the echo of her mother’s, both in words and tone. The realization was oddly comforting, as though her mother somehow stood behind her, speaking through her.

If it were her mother speaking, though, next would have come the orange-flavored St. Joseph’s aspirin, a tiny pill to be sucked and savored, as much treat as medicine, the aches and fever seeming to subside as quickly as the sweet tart pill dissolved on her tongue. Brianna cast a bleak glance at her saddlebags, bulging in the corner. No aspirin there; Jenny had sent a small bundle of what she called “simples,” but the chamomile and peppermint tea had only made Lizzie vomit.

Quinine was what you gave people for malaria; that’s what she needed. But she had no idea whether it was even called quinine here, or how it was administered. Malaria was an old disease, though, and quinine came from plants—surely a doctor would have some, whatever it was called?

Only the hope of finding medical help had kept her going through Lizzie’s second bout. Afraid to stop on the road again, she had taken Lizzie up in front of her, cradling the girl’s body against her as they rode, leading Lizzie’s horse. Lizzie had alternately blazed with heat and shaken with chill, and both of them had arrived in Wilmington limp with exhaustion.

But here they were, in the midst of Wilmington, and as far from real help as they had ever been. Bree glanced at the bedside table, lips tight. A wadded cloth lay there, dabbled with blood.

The landlady had taken one look at Lizzie and sent for an apothecary. Despite what her mother had said about the primitive state of medicine and its practitioners here, Brianna had felt a sudden instinctive surge of relief at sight of the man.

The apothecary was a decently dressed young man with a kindly air and reasonably clean hands. No matter what his state of medical knowledge, he was likely to know as much about fevers as she herself did. More important, she could feel that she wasn’t alone in caring for Lizzie.

Modesty prompted her to step outside when the apothecary drew down the linen sheet to make his examination, and it was not until she heard a small cry of distress that she flung open the door, to find the young apothecary, fleam in hand, and Lizzie, her face white as chalk, red blood streaming from a cut in the crook of her elbow.

“But it is to draw the humors, miss!” the apothecary had pleaded, trying to shield both himself and the body of his patient. “Do you not understand? You must draw the humors! If it is not done, hot bile will toxify within her organs and fill her body entirely, to her certain detriment!”

“It will be to your certain detriment if you don’t leave,” Brianna had informed him, through clenched teeth. “Get out of here this minute!”

Medical zeal disappearing in favor of self-preservation, the young man had picked up his case and left with what dignity he could, pausing at the foot of the stairs to shout dire warnings up at her.

The warnings kept echoing in her ears, between trips downstairs to fill the basin from the kitchen copper. Most of the apothecary’s words were simple ignorance—ranting about humors and bad blood—but there were some that came back with uncomfortable force.

“If you will not take heedful advice, miss, you may well condemn your maid to death!” he had called, indignant face upturned in the darkness of the stairwell. “You do not know how to care for her yourself!”

She didn’t. She didn’t even know for sure what Lizzie’s sickness was; the apothecary had called it an “ague,” and the landlady had talked of “seasoning.” It was quite common for new immigrants to fall ill repeatedly, exposed as they were to an unfamiliar array of new germs. From the landlady’s unguarded remarks, it seemed apparent that it was also quite common for such immigrants not to survive this seasoning process.

The basin tilted, slopping hot water over her wrists. Water was the only thing she had. God knew whether the well behind the inn was sanitary or not; better to use the boiling water from the copper and let it cool, even if it took longer. There was cool water in the pitcher; she dribbled a little between Lizzie’s dry, cracked lips, then eased the girl down on the bed. She washed Lizzie’s face and neck, pulled back the quilt and soaked the linen nightdress again, the tiny n**ples showing as dark pink points beneath.

Lizzie managed a small smile, eyelids drooping, then sank back with a tiny sigh and fell asleep, loose joints relaxing like a rag doll’s.

Brianna felt as though her own stuffing had been removed as well. She dragged the single stool over to the window and collapsed on it, leaning on the sill in a vain effort to get a breath of fresh air. The atmosphere had lain on them like a thick blanket all the way from Charleston—little wonder that poor Lizzie had crumpled under its weight.

She scratched uneasily at a bite on her own thigh; the bugs were not nearly as fond of her as they were of Lizzie, but she had suffered a few bites. Malaria wasn’t a danger; she had had the shots for that, as well as for typhoid, cholera, and anything else she could think of. But there was no vaccine for things like dengue fever, or any of a dozen other diseases that haunted the thick air like malevolent spirits. How many of those were spread by biting insects?

She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wooden frame, blotting trickles of sweat from her breastbone with the folds of her shirt. She could smell herself; how long had she been wearing these clothes? It didn’t matter; she had been awake for most of two days and two nights, and was too tired to undress, let alone make the effort to wash.

Lizzie’s fever seemed to have broken—but for how long? If it kept coming back, it was sure to kill the little maidservant; she had already lost all the weight she had gained on the voyage, and her fair skin was beginning to show a yellow tinge in sunlight.

There was no help to be found in Wilmington. Brianna sat up straight, stretching and feeling the bones of her back pop into place. Tired or not, there was only one thing to do. She had to find her mother, and as quickly as possible.

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