I checked that my supplies and suture needles were ready, took a deep breath, and nodded to my troops.
Myers’s penis, embarrassed by the attention, had already retreated, peeping shyly out of the bushes. With the patient’s long legs raised and spread, Ulysses himself delicately cupping the baggy scrotum away, the hernia was clearly revealed, a smooth swelling the size of a hen’s egg, its curve a deep purple where it pressed against the taut inguinal skin.
“Jesus, Lord!” said one of the drivers, eyes bulging at the sight. “It’s true—he’s got three balls!”
A collective gasp and giggle ensued from the spectators, but I was too busy to correct misapprehensions. I swabbed the perineum thoroughly with pure alcohol, dipped my scalpel in the liquid, passed the blade back and forth through the flame of a candle by way of final sterilization, and made a swift cut.
Not large, not deep. Just enough to open the skin, and see the loop of gleaming pinkish-gray intestine bulging down through the tear in the muscle layer. Blood welled, a thin, dark line, then dribbled down staining the blanket.
I extended the incision, swished my fingers thoroughly in the disinfecting bowl, then put two fingers on the loop and pushed it gently upward. Myers moved in a sudden convulsion, nearly dislodging me, and just as suddenly relaxed. He tightened again, buttocks rising, and my assistants nearly lost their grip on his legs.
“He’s waking up!” I shouted to Jamie, above the various cries of alarm. “Give him more, quick!” All my doubts about the use of alcohol as an anesthetic were being borne out, but it was too late to change my mind now.
Jamie grasped the mountain man’s jaw, and squeezing open his mouth, dribbled whisky into it. Myers choked and spluttered and made noises like a drowning buffalo, but enough of the alcohol made it down his throat—the huge body relaxed. The mountain man subsided into mumbling immobility and then into long, wet, snuffling snores.
I had managed to keep my fingers in place; there was more bleeding than I would have liked, but his struggles had not brought the herniated loop back down. I snatched a clean cloth soaked in brandy and blotted the site; yes, I could see the edge of the muscle layer; scrawny as Myers was, a thin layer of yellow fat lay under the skin, separating it from the dark red fibers below.
I could feel the movement of his intestines as he breathed, the dark wet warmth of his body surrounding my gloveless fingers in that strange one-sided intimacy that is the surgeon’s realm. I closed my eyes and let all sense of urgency, all consciousness of the watching crowd drop away.
I breathed in slowly, matched my rhythm to the audible snores. Above the reek of brandy and the faintly nauseating aromas of food, I could smell the earthy odors of his body; stale sweat, grimed skin, a small tang of urine and the copper scent of blood. To another, they would have been offensive, but not to me, not now.
This body was. No good, no bad, it simply was. I knew it, now; it was mine.
They were all mine; the unconscious body in my hands, its secrets open to me; the men who held it, their eyes on me. It didn’t always happen, but when it did, the sensation was unforgettable; a synthesis of minds into a single organism. And as I took control of this organism, I became part of it, and lost myself.
Time stopped. I was acutely aware of each movement, each breath, the tug and pull of the catgut sutures as I tightened the inguinal ring, but my hands did not belong to me. My voice was high and clear, giving directions instantly obeyed, and somewhere far away, a small watcher in my brain observed the progress of the operation with a remote sense of interest.
Then it was done, and time began again. I took a step back, breaking the link, and feeling slightly dizzy at the unaccustomed solitude.
“Done,” I said, and the hum from the spectators erupted into loud applause. Still feeling intoxicated—had I caught drunkenness by osmosis from Myers?— I turned on one heel and sank into an extravagant low curtsy, facing the dinner guests.
An hour later, I was drunk on my own merits, the victim of a dozen toasts in my honor. I managed to escape briefly, on the excuse of checking on my patient, and staggered upstairs to the guest room where he lay.
I paused on the gallery, clinging to the banister while I steadied myself. There was a loud hum of conversation and laughter from below; the party was still going strong, but had dissolved into small groups scattered over the parquet of the foyer and salon. From this perspective, it looked like a honey-comb, fuzzy wigged heads and gauze-winged dresses bobbing to and fro across the six-sided tiles, buzzing busily over glasses filled with the nectar of brandywine and porter.
If Jamie had wanted a diversion, I thought muzzily, he couldn’t have asked for better. Whatever had been going to happen had been effectively forestalled. But what was it—and for how long could it be prevented? I shook my head to clear it—with indifferent results—and went in to see my patient.
Myers was still blissfully and deeply asleep, breathing in long, slow exhalations that made the cotton bed-drapes quiver. The slave Betty nodded at me, smiling.
“He’s fine, Mrs. Claire,” she whispered. “Couldn’t wake that man with a gun, I don’t think.”
I didn’t need to check his heart; his head was turned, and I could see the huge vein that ran down the side of his neck, throbbing with a pulse slow and heavy as a hammer blow. I touched him, feeling his skin cool and damp. No fever, no signs of shock. The whole of his enormous person radiated peace and well-being.
“How is he?” Had I been less drunk, I would have been startled. As it was, I merely swayed round on my axis, to find Jamie standing behind me.
“He’s fine,” I said. “You couldn’t kill him with a cannon. Like you,” I said, and found myself leaning against him, arms around his waist, my flushed face buried in the cool folds of his linen. “Indestructible.”
He kissed the top of my head, smoothing back a few curls that had escaped from their dressing during the operation.
“Ye did well, Sassenach,” he whispered. “Verra well, bonnie lassie.”
He smelt of wine and candlewax, of herbs and Highland wool. I slid my hands lower, feeling the curves of his buttocks, smooth and free under his kilt. He moved slightly, the length of his thigh pressing briefly against mine.
“Ye need a bit of air, Sassenach—and we must talk. Can ye leave him for a time?”
I glanced at the bed and its stertorous occupant.
“Yes. As long as Betty will keep sitting with him to be sure he doesn’t vomit in his sleep and choke?” I glanced at the slave, who looked surprised that I should ask, but nodded willingly.
“Meet me by the herb garden—and take care not to fall down the stairs and break your neck, aye?” Lifting my chin, he kissed me quick and deep, and left me dizzy, feeling at once more sober and more drunk than before.
AN EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE
Something dark landed on the path in front of us with a soft plop! and I stopped abruptly, clutching his arm.
“Frog,” Jamie said, unperturbed. “D’ye hear them singing?”
“Singing” wasn’t the word that would have struck me about the chorus of croaks and grunts from the reedbeds near the river. On the other hand, Jamie was tone deaf, and made no bones about it.
He extended the toe of his shoe and gently prodded the squat dark shape.
“ ‘Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax,’ ” he quoted. “ ‘Brekekekex, ko-ax!’ ” The shape hopped away and disappeared into the moist plants by the path.
“I always knew you had a gift for tongues,” I said, amused. “Didn’t know you spoke frog, though.”
“Well, I’m no ways fluent,” he said modestly. “Though I’ve a fine accent, and I say it myself.”
I laughed, and he squeezed my hand and let it go. The brief spark of the joke faded, failing to kindle conversation, and we walked on, physically together but miles apart in thought.
I should have been exhausted, but adrenaline was still coursing through my veins. I felt the exultation that comes with the completion of a successful bit of surgery, to say nothing of a little standard alcoholic intoxication. The effect of it all was to make me slightly wobbly on my pins, but with an acute and vivid awareness of everything around me.
There was an ornamental seat under the trees near the dock, and it was to this that Jamie led me, into the shadows. He sank onto the marble bench with a deep sigh, reminding me that I wasn’t the only one for whom it had been an eventful evening.
I looked around with exaggerated attention, then sat down beside him.
“We’re alone and unobserved,” I said. “Do you want to tell me what the hell is going on now?”
“Oh, aye.” He straightened, stretching his back. “I should have said something to ye sooner, only I didna quite expect she would do such a thing.” He reached out and found my hand in the dark.
“It’s not anything wrong, exactly, as I told ye. It’s only that when Ulysses brought me the plaid and dirk and the brooch, he told me that Jocasta meant to make an announcement at the dinner tonight—to tell everyone that she meant to make me heir to…this.”
His gesture took in the house and fields behind us—and everything else: the river mooring, the orchard, the gardens, the stables, the endless acres of resinous pines, the sawmill and the turpentine camp—and the forty slaves who worked them.
I could see the whole thing unfolding as Jocasta had no doubt envisioned it; Jamie sitting at the head of the table, dressed in Hector Cameron’s tartan, wearing his blade and his brooch—that brooch with the Camerons’ unsubtle clan adjuration “Unite!”—surrounded by Hector’s old colleagues and comrades, all eager to welcome their friend’s younger kinsman into his place.
Let her make such an announcement, in that company of loyal Scots, well lubricated with the late Hector’s fine whisky, and they would have acclaimed him on the spot as the master of River Run, anointed him with boar’s fat and crowned him with beeswax candles.
It had been a thoroughly MacKenzie-like plan, I thought; audacious, dramatic—and taking no account of the wishes of the persons involved.
“And if she had,” he said, echoing my thoughts with uncanny precision, “I should have found it verra awkward to decline the honor.”
He sprang suddenly to his feet, too restless to stay still. Without speaking, he held out a hand to me; I rose beside him and we turned back into the orchard path, circling the formal gardens. The lanterns lit for the party had been removed, their candles thriftily snuffed for later use.
“Why did Ulysses tell you?” I wondered aloud.
“Ask yourself, Sassenach,” he said. “Who is master now, at River Run?”
“Oh?” I said, and then, “Oh!”
“Oh, indeed,” he said dryly. “My aunt is blind; who has the keeping of the accounts, the running of the household? She may decide what things should be done—but who is to say whether they are done? Who is always at her hand to tell her aught that happens, whose words are in her ear, whose judgment does she trust above all others?”