Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 26

   

Jamie shrugged, amused.

“I should rather live poor but virtuous, myself.” He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Besides, I think your auntie wouldna like it much if I was to forsake her embraces for a reptile’s.”

The black man, listening to this from his position in the bow, shook his head and spoke without looking round.

“Any man what gone frig with an alligator to get rich, he’s done earnt it, you ask me.”

“I rather think you’re right,” I said, with a vivid memory of the Governor’s charming, toothy smile. I glanced at Jamie, but he was no longer paying attention. His eyes were fixed upriver, intent on possibility, both book and alligator forgotten for the moment. At least he’d forgotten to be sick.

The tidal surge caught us a mile above Wilmington, allaying Ian’s fears for our speed. The Cape Fear was a tidal river, whose daily surge carried up two-thirds of its length, nearly as far as Cross Creek.

I felt the river quicken under us, the boat rising an inch or two, then beginning slowly to pick up speed as the power of the incoming tide was funneled up the harbor and into the river’s narrow channel. The slave sighed with relief and hoisted the dripping pole free of the water.

There would be no need for poling until the surge ran out, in five or six hours. Then we would either anchor for the night and catch the fresh surge of the next incoming tide, or use the sail for further progress, wind allowing. Poling, I was given to understand, was necessary only in case of sandbars or windless days.

A sense of peaceful somnolence settled over the craft. Fergus and Ian curled up in the bow to sleep, while Rollo kept guard on the roof above, tongue dripping as he panted, eyes half closed against the sun. The Captain and his hand—commonly addressed as “you, Troklus,” but whose name was actually Eutroclus—disappeared into the tiny cabin, from which I could hear the musical sound of liquid being poured.

Jamie was in the cabin, too, having gone to fetch something from his mysterious crate. I hoped it was drinkable; even sitting still on the stern transom with my feet dangling in the water, and with the small breeze of movement stirring the hair on my neck, I could feel sweat forming wherever skin touched skin.

There were indistinct murmurs in the cabin, and laughter. Jamie came out and turned toward the stern, stepping delicately through the piles of goods like a Clydesdale stallion in a field of frogs, a large wooden box held in his arms.

He set this gently on my lap, shucked off his shoes and stockings, and sat down beside me, putting his feet in the water with a sigh of pleasure at the coolness.

“What’s this?” I ran my hand curiously over the box.

“Oh, only a wee present.” He didn’t look at me, but the tips of his ears were pink. “Open it, hm?”

It was a heavy box, both wide and deep. Carved of a dense, fine-grained dark wood, it bore the marks of heavy use—nicks and dents that had seasoned but not impaired its polished beauty. It was hasped for a lock, but there was none; the lid rose easily on oiled brass hinges, and a whiff of camphor floated out, vaporous as a jinn.

The instruments gleamed under the smoky sun, bright despite a hazing of disuse. Each had its own pocket, carefully fitted and lined in green velvet.

A small, heavy-toothed saw; scissors, three scalpels—round-bladed, straight-bladed, scoop-bladed; the silver blade of a tongue depressor, a tenaculum…

“Jamie!” Delighted, I lifted out a short ebony rod, to the end of which was affixed a ball of worsted, wrapped in rather moth-eaten velvet. I’d seen one before, at Versailles; the eighteenth-century version of a reflex hammer. “Oh, Jamie! How wonderful!”

He wiggled his feet, pleased.

“Oh, ye like it?”

“I love it! Oh, look—there’s more in the lid, under this flap—” I stared for a moment at the disjointed tubes, screws, platforms and mirrors, until my mind’s eye shuffled them and presented me with the neatly assembled vision. “A microscope!” I touched it reverently. “My God, a microscope.”

“There’s more,” he pointed out, eager to show me. “The front opens and there are wee drawers inside.”

There were—containing, among other things, a miniature balance and set of brass weights, a tile for rolling pills, and a stained marble mortar, its pestle wrapped in cloth to prevent its being cracked in transit. Inside the front, above the drawers, were row upon row of small, corked bottles made of stone or glass.

“Oh, they’re beautiful!” I said, handling the small scalpel with reverence. The polished wood of the handle fit my hand as though it had been made for me, the blade weighted to an exquisite balance. “Oh, Jamie, thank you!”

“Ye like them, then?” His ears had gone bright red with pleasure. “I thought they’d maybe do. I’ve no notion what they’re meant for, but I could see they were finely made.”

I had no notion what some of the pieces were meant for, but all of them were beautiful in themselves; made by or for a man who loved his tools and what they did.

“Who did they belong to, I wonder?” I breathed heavily on the rounded surface of a lenticular and brought it to a soft gleam with a fold of my skirt.

“The woman who sold it to me didna ken; he left behind his doctor’s book, though, and I took that, as well—perhaps it will give his name.”

Lifting the top tray of instruments, he revealed another, shallower tray, from which he drew out a fat square-bound book, some eight inches wide, covered in scuffed black leather.

“I thought ye might be wanting a book, too, like the one ye kept in France,” he explained. “The one where ye kept the pictures and the notes of the people ye saw at L’Hôpital. He’s written a bit in this one, but there’s a deal of blank pages left at the back.”

Perhaps a quarter of the book had been used; the pages were covered with a closely written, fine black script, interspersed with drawings that took my eye with their clinical familiarity: an ulcerated toe, a shattered kneecap, the skin neatly peeled aside; the grotesque swelling of advanced goiter, and a dissection of the calf muscles, each neatly labeled.

I turned back to the inside cover; sure enough, his name was written on the first page, adorned with a small, gentlemanly flourish: Dr. Daniel Rawlings, Esq.

“What happened to Dr. Rawlings, I wonder? Did the woman who had the box say?”

Jamie nodded, his brow slightly creased.

“The Doctor lodged with her for a night. He said he’d come from Virginia, where his home was, bound upon some errand, and his case with him. He was looking for a man named Garver—she thought that was the name, at least. But that night after supper he went out—and never came back.”

I stared at him.

“Never came back? Did she find out what happened to him?”

Jamie shook his head, batting away a small cloud of midges. The sun was sinking, painting the surface of the water gold and orange, and bugs were beginning to gather as the afternoon cooled into evening.

“No. She went to the sheriff, and to the justice, and the constable searched high and low—but there was nay sign of the man. They looked for a week, and then gave up. He had never told his landlady which town it was in Virginia, so they couldna trace him further.”

“How very odd.” I wiped a droplet of moisture off my chin. “When did the Doctor disappear?”

“A year past, she said.” He looked at me, a little anxious. “Ye dinna mind? Using his things, I mean?”

“No.” I closed the lid and stroked it gently, the dark wood warm and smooth under my fingers. “If it were me—I’d want someone to use them.”

I remembered vividly the feel of my own doctor’s bag—cordovan leather, with my initials stamped in gilt on the handle. Originally stamped in gilt on the handle, that is; they had long since worn off, the leather gone smooth and shiny, rich with handling. Frank had given me the bag when I graduated from medical school; I had given it to my friend Joe Abernathy, wanting it to be used by someone who would treasure it as I had.

He saw the shadow drift across my face—I saw the reflection of it darken his—but I took his hand and smiled as I squeezed it.

“It’s a wonderful gift. However did you find it?”

He smiled then, in return. The sun blazed low, a brilliant orange ball glimpsed briefly through dark treetops.

“I’d seen the box when I went to the goldsmith’s shop—it was the goldsmith’s wife who’d kept it. Then I went back yesterday, meaning to buy ye a bit of jewelry—maybe a brooch—and whilst the goodwife was showing me the gauds, we happened to speak of this and that, and she told me of the Doctor, and—” He shrugged.

“Why did you want to buy me jewelry?” I looked at him, puzzled. The sale of the ruby had left us with a bit of money, but extravagance was not at all like him, and under the circumstances—

“Oh! To make up for sending all that money to Laoghaire? I didn’t mind; I said I didn’t.”

He had—with some reluctance—arranged to send the bulk of the proceeds from the sale of the stone to Scotland, in payment of a promise made to Laoghaire MacKenzie—damn her eyes—Fraser, whom he had married at his sister’s persuasion while under the rather logical impression that if I was not dead, I was at least not coming back. My apparent resurrection from the dead had caused any amount of complications, Laoghaire not least among them.

“Aye, ye said so,” he said, openly cynical.

“I meant it—more or less,” I said, and laughed. “You couldn’t very well let the beastly woman starve to death, appealing as the idea is.”

He smiled, faintly.

“No. I shouldna like to have that on my conscience; there’s enough without. But that’s not why I wished to buy ye a present.”

“Why, then?” The box was heavy; a gracious, substantial, satisfying weight across my legs, its wood a delight under my hands. He turned his head to look full at me, then, his hair fire-struck with the setting sun, face dark in silhouette.

“Twenty-four years ago today, I married ye, Sassenach,” he said softly. “I hope ye willna have cause yet to regret it.”

The river’s edge was settled, rimmed with plantations from Wilmington to Cross Creek. Still, the banks were thickly forested, with only the occasional glimpse of fields where a break in the trees showed plantings, or every so often, a wooden dock, half-hidden in the foliage.

We proceeded slowly upriver, following the tidal surge so long as it lasted, tying up for the night when it ran out. We ate dinner by a small fire on shore, but slept on the boat, Eutroclus having casually mentioned the prevalence of water moccasins, who—he said—inhabited dens beneath the riverbank but were much inclined to come and warm their cold blood next to the bodies of unwary sleepers.

I awoke soon before dawn, stiff and sore from sleeping on boards, hearing the soft rush of a vessel passing on the river nearby, feeling the push of its wake against our hull. Jamie stirred in his sleep when he felt me move, turned over, and clasped me to his bosom.

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