His eyes were closed, and his skin was the color of old ivory. His head was turned slightly away from me, so that the cords of his neck stood out, but I couldn’t see any pulse in his throat. He was still warm, or at least the bedclothes were still warm. I sniffed the air, urgently. The room was fetid with the scent of onions and honey and fever-sweat, but no stink of sudden death.
I clapped a hand on the center of his chest, and he jerked, startled, and opened his eyes.
“You bastard,” I said, so relieved to feel the rise of his chest as he drew breath that my voice trembled. “You tried to die on me, didn’t you?”
His chest rose and fell, rose and fell, under my hand, and my own heart jerked and shuddered, as though I had been pulled back at the last moment from an unexpected precipice.
He blinked at me. His eyes were heavy, still clouded with fever.
“It didna take much effort, Sassenach,” he said, his voice soft and husky from sleep. “Not dying was harder.”
He made no pretense of not understanding me. In the light of day, I saw clearly what exhaustion and the aftereffects of shock had stopped me seeing the night before. His insistence on his own bed. The open shutters, so he could hear the voices of his family below, his tenants outside. And me beside him. He had, very carefully, and without saying a word to me, decided how and where he wanted to die.
“You thought you were dying when we brought you up here, didn’t you?” I asked. My voice sounded more bewildered than accusing.
It took him a moment to answer, though he didn’t look hesitant. It was more as though he was looking for the proper words.
“Well, I didna ken for sure, no,” he said slowly. “Though I did feel verra ill.” His eyes closed, slowly, as though he were too tired to keep them open. “I still do,” he added, in a detached sort of voice. “Ye needna worry, though—I’ve made my choice.”
“What on earth do you mean by that?”
I groped beneath the covers, and found his wrist. He was warm; hot again, in fact, and with a pulse that was too fast, too shallow. Still, it was so different from the deathly chill I had felt in him the night before that my first reaction was relief.
He took a couple of deep breaths, then turned his head and opened his eyes to look at me.
“I mean I could have died last night.”
He could, certainly—and yet that wasn’t what he meant. He made it sound like a conscious—
“What do you mean you’ve made your choice? You’ve decided not to die, after all?” I tried to speak lightly, but it wasn’t working very well. I remembered all too well that odd sense of timeless stillness that had surrounded us.
“It was verra strange,” he said. “And yet it wasna strange at all.” He sounded faintly surprised.
“I think,” I said carefully, keeping a thumb on his pulse, “you’d better tell me just what happened.”
He actually smiled at that, though the smile was more in his eyes than his lips. Those were dry, and painfully cracked in the corners. I touched his lips with a finger, wanting to go and fetch some soothing ointment for him, some water, some tea—but I put aside the impulse, steeling myself to stay and hear.
“I dinna really know, Sassenach—or rather, I do, but I canna think quite how to say it.” He still looked tired, but his eyes stayed open. They lingered on my face, a vivid blue in the morning light, with an expression almost of curiosity, as though he hadn’t seen me before.
“You are so beautiful,” he said, softly. “So verra beautiful, mo chridhe.”
My hands were covered with fading blue blotches and overlooked smears of buffalo blood, I could feel my hair clinging in unwashed tangles to my neck, and I could smell everything from the stale-urine odor of dye to the reek of fear-sweat on my body. And yet whatever he saw lit his face as though he were looking at the full moon on a summer night, pure and lovely.
His eyes stayed fixed on my face as he talked, absorbed, moving slightly as they seemed to trace my features.
“I felt verra badly indeed when Arch and Roger Mac brought me up,” he said. “Terribly sick, and my leg and my head both throbbing with each heartbeat, so much that I began to dread the next. And so I would listen to the spaces between. Ye wouldna think it,” he said, sounded vaguely surprised, “but there is a great deal of time between the beats of a heart.”
He had, he said, begun to hope, in those spaces, that the next beat would not come. And slowly, he realized that his heart was indeed slowing—and that the pain was growing remote, something separate from himself.
His skin had grown colder, the fever fading from both body and mind, leaving the latter oddly clear.
“And this is where I canna really say, Sassenach.” He pulled his wrist from my grip in the intensity of his story, and curled his fingers over mine. “But I . . . saw.”
“Saw what?” And yet I already knew that he couldn’t tell me. Like any doctor, I had seen sick people make up their minds to die—and I knew that look they sometimes had; eyes wide-fixed on something in the distance.
He hesitated, struggling to find words. I thought of something, and jumped in to try to help.
“There was an elderly woman,” I said. “She died in the hospital where I was on staff—all her grown children with her, it was very peaceful.” I looked down, my own eyes fixed on his fingers, still red and slightly swollen, interlaced with my own stained and bloody digits.
“She died—she was dead, I could see her pulse had stopped, she wasn’t breathing. All her children were by her bedside, weeping. And then, quite suddenly, her eyes opened. She wasn’t looking at any of them, but she was seeing something. And she said, quite clearly, ‘Oooh!’ Just like that—thrilled, like a little girl who’s just seen something wonderful. And then she closed her eyes again.” I looked up at him, blinking back tears. “Was it—like that?”
He nodded, speechless, and his hand tightened on mine.
“Something like,” he said, very softly.
He had felt oddly suspended, in a place he could by no means describe, feeling completely at peace—and seeing very clearly.
“It was as if there was a—it wasna a door, exactly, but a passageway of some kind—before me. And I could go through it, if I wanted. And I did want to,” he said, giving me a sideways glance and a shy smile.
He had known what lay behind him, too, and realized that for that moment, he could choose. Go forward—or turn back.
“And that’s when you asked me to touch you?”
“I knew ye were the only thing that could bring me back,” he said simply. “I didna have the strength, myself.”
There was a huge lump in my throat; I couldn’t speak, but squeezed his hand very tight.
“Why?” I asked at last. “Why did you . . . choose to stay?” My throat was still tight, and my voice was hoarse. He heard it, and his hand tightened on mine; a ghost of his usual firm grip, and yet with the memory of strength within it.
“Because ye need me,” he said, very softly.
“Not because you love me?”
He looked up then, with a shadow of a smile.
“Sassenach . . . I love ye now, and I will love ye always. Whether I am dead—or you—whether we are together or apart. You know it is true,” he said quietly, and touched my face. “I know it of you, and ye know it of me as well.”
He bent his head then, the bright hair swinging down across his cheek.
“I didna mean only you, Sassenach. I have work still to do. I thought—for a bit—that perhaps it wasna so; that ye all might manage, with Roger Mac and auld Arch, Joseph and the Beardsleys. But there is war coming, and—for my sins—” he grimaced slightly, “I am a chief.”
He shook his head slightly, in resignation.
“God has made me what I am. He has given me the duty—and I must do it, whatever the cost.”
“The cost,” I echoed uneasily, hearing something harsher than resignation in his voice. He looked at me, then glanced, almost off-handed, toward the foot of the bed.
“My leg’s no much worse,” he said, matter-of-factly, “but it’s no better. I think ye’ll have to take it off.”
I SAT IN MY SURGERY, staring out the window, trying to think of another way. There had to be something else I could do. Had to.
He was right; the red streaks were still there. They hadn’t advanced any further, but they were still there, ugly and threatening. The oral and topical penicillin had evidently had some effect on the infection, but not enough. The maggots were dealing nicely with the small abscesses, but they couldn’t affect the underlying bacteremia that was poisoning his blood.
I glanced up at the brown glass bottle; only about a third full. It might help him hold his ground for a little longer, but there wasn’t enough—and it wasn’t likely to have sufficient effect, administered by mouth—to eradicate whatever deadly bacterium was multiplying in his blood.
“Ten thousand to ten million milligrams,” I murmured to myself. Recommended dosage of penicillin for bacteremia or sepsis, according to the Merck Manual, the physician’s basic desk reference. I glanced at Daniel Rawlings’ casebook, then back at the bottle. With no way of telling what concentration of penicillin I had, administration was likely still more efficacious than the combination of snakeroot and garlic Rawlings advised—but not enough to matter, I was afraid.
The amputation saw was still lying on the counter, where he had left it the day before. I’d given him my word—and he’d given it back.
I clenched my hands, a feeling of unutterable frustration washing over me, so strongly as almost to overwhelm my sense of despair. Why, why, why hadn’t I started more penicillin brewing at once? How could I have been so feckless, so careless—so bloody f**king stupid?
Why had I not insisted on going to Charleston, or at least Wilmington, in hopes of finding a glassblower who could make me the barrel and plunger for a hypodermic syringe? Surely I could have improvised something for a needle. All that difficulty, all that experimentation, to get the precious substance in the first place—and now that I desperately needed it . . .
A tentative movement at the open door made me turn round, struggling to get my face under control. I’d have to tell the household what was happening, and soon. But it would be better to choose my time, and tell them all together.
It was one of the Beardsleys. With their hair grown out and neatly trimmed to the same length by Lizzie, it was increasingly difficult to tell them apart—unless one was close enough to see their thumbs. Once they spoke, of course, it was simple.
“Ma’am?” It was Kezzie.
“Yes?” No doubt I sounded short, but it didn’t matter; Kezzie couldn’t distinguish nuances of speech.
He was carrying a cloth bag. As he came into the room, I saw the bag twitch and change shape, and a small shudder of revulsion came over me. He saw that, and smiled a little.
“This for Himself,” he said, in his loud, slightly flat voice, holding up the bag. “Him—old Aaron—said this works good. A big snake bite you, get you a little ’un, cut his head off, drink his blood.” He thrust out the bag, which I very gingerly accepted, holding it as far away from me as I could. The contents of the sack shifted again, making my skin crawl, and a faint buzzing noise issued through the cloth.