The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 214

   

“We didna mind so much,” Jamie said. His eyes were open, but fixed on whatever he was seeing in the summer dim of memory. “It was better to be outside than in. And yet, by the evening, we would be so droukit wi’ fatigue that we could barely set one foot before the other. It was like walking in a dream.”

Both guards and men were numb with exhaustion, by the time the work of the day was done. The groups of prisoners were collected, formed up into a column, and marched back toward the prison, shuffling across the moorland, stumbling and nodding, drunk with the need to fall down and sleep.

“We were still by the quarry, when they set off; we were to load the wagon wi’ the stone-cutting tools and the last of the blocks, and follow. I remember—I heaved a great block up into the wagon bed, and stood back, panting wi’ the effort. There was a sound behind me, and I turned to see Sergeant Murchison—Billy, it was, though I didna find that out ’til later.”

The Sergeant was no more than a squat black shape in the dim, face invisible against a sky the color of an oyster’s shell.

“I wondered, now and then, if I wouldna have done it, had I seen his face.” The fingers of Jamie’s left hand stroked his wrist absently, and I realized that he still felt the weight of the irons he had worn.

The Sergeant had raised his club, poked Jamie hard in the ribs, then used it to point to a maul left lying on the ground. Then the Sergeant turned away.

“I didna think about it for a moment,” Jamie said softly. “I was on him in two steps, wi’ the chain of my fetters hard against his throat. He hadna time to make a sound.”

The wagon stood no more than ten feet from the lip of the quarry pool; there was a drop of forty feet straight down, and the water below, a hundred feet deep, black and waveless under that hollow white sky.

“I tied him to one of the blocks and threw him over, and then I went back to the wagon. The two men from my group were there, standing like statues in the dim, watching. They said nothing, nor did I. I stepped up and took the reins, they got into the back of the wagon, and I drove toward the prison. We caught up to the column before too long, and all went back together, without a word. No one missed Sergeant Murchison until the next evening, for they thought he was down in the village, off-duty. I dinna think they ever found him.”

He seemed to notice what he was doing, then, and took his hand away from his wrist.

“And the two men?” I asked softly. He nodded.

“Tom Christie and Duncan Innes.”

He sighed deeply, and stretched his arms, shifting his shoulders as though to ease the fit of his shirt—though he wore a loose nightshirt. Then he raised one hand and turned it to and fro, frowning at his wrist in the light.

“That’s odd,” he said, sounding faintly surprised.

“What is?”

“The marks—they’re gone.”

“Marks . . . from the irons?” He nodded, examining both his wrists in bemusement. The skin was fair, weathered to a pale gold, but otherwise unblemished.

“I had them for years—from the chafing, aye? I never noticed that they’d gone.”

I set a hand on his wrist, rubbing my thumb gently over the pulse where his radial artery crossed the bone.

“You didn’t have them when I found you in Edinburgh, Jamie. They’ve been gone a long time.”

He looked down at his arms, and shook his head, as though unable to believe it.

“Aye,” he said softly. “Well, so has Tom Christie.”

PART NINE

A Dangerous Business

96

AURUM

IT WAS QUIET IN THE HOUSE; Mr. Wemyss had gone to the gristmill, taking Lizzie and Mrs. Bug with him, and it was too late in the day for anyone on the Ridge to come visiting—everyone would be at their chores, seeing that the beasts were fed and bedded down, wood and water fetched, the fires built up for supper.

My own beast was already fed and bedded; Adso perched in a somnolent ball in a patch of late sun on the window ledge, feet tucked up and eyes closed in an ecstasy of repletion. My contribution to the supper—a dish Fergus referred to elegantly as lapin aux chanterelles (known as rabbit stew to the vulgar among us)—had been burbling cheerfully away in the cauldron since early morning, and needed no attention from me. As for sweeping the floor, polishing the windows, dusting, and general drudgery of that sort . . . well, if women’s work was never done, why trouble about how much of it wasn’t being accomplished at any given moment?

I fetched down ink and pen from the cupboard, and the big black clothbound casebook, then settled myself to share Adso’s sun. I wrote up a careful description of the growth on little Geordie Chisholm’s ear, which would bear watching, and added the most recent measurements I had taken of Tom Christie’s left hand.

Christie did suffer from arthritis in both hands, and had a slight degree of clawing in the fingers. Having observed him closely at dinner, though, I was nearly sure that what I was seeing in the left hand was not arthritis, but Dupuytren’s contracture—an odd, hooklike drawing-in of the ring and little fingers toward the palm of the hand, caused by shortening of the palmar aponeurosis.

Ordinarily, I should have been in no doubt, but Christie’s hands were so heavily callused from years of labor that I couldn’t feel the characteristic nodule at the base of the ring finger. The finger had felt wrong to me, though, when I’d first looked at the hand—in the course of stitching a gash across the heel of it—and I’d been checking it, whenever I caught sight of Tom Christie and could persuade him to let me look at it—which wasn’t often.

In spite of Jamie’s apprehensions, the Christies had been ideal tenants so far, living quietly and keeping largely to themselves, aside from Thomas Christie’s schoolmastering, at which he appeared to be strict but effective.

I became aware of a looming presence just behind my head. The sunbeam had moved, and Adso with it.

“Don’t even think of it, cat,” I said. A rumbling purr of anticipation started up in the vicinity of my left ear, and a large paw reached out and delicately patted the top of my head.

“Oh, all right,” I said, resigned. No choice, really, unless I wanted to get up and go write somewhere else. “Have it your way.”

Adso could not resist hair. Anyone’s hair, whether attached to a head or not. Fortunately, Major MacDonald had been the only person reckless enough to sit down within Adso’s reach while wearing a wig, and after all, I had got it back, though it meant crawling under the house where Adso had retired with his prey; no one else dared snatch it from his jaws. The Major had been rather austere about the incident, and while it hadn’t stopped him coming round to see Jamie now and then, he no longer removed his hat on such visits, but sat drinking chicory coffee at the kitchen table, his tricorne fixed firmly on his head and both eyes fixed firmly upon Adso, monitoring the cat’s whereabouts.

I relaxed a bit, not quite purring myself, but feeling quite mellow. It was rather soothing to have the cat knead and comb with his half-sheathed claws, pausing now and then in his delicate grooming to rub his face lovingly against my head. He was only really dangerous if he’d been in the catnip, but that was safely locked up. Eyes half-closed, I contemplated the minor complication of describing Depuytren’s contracture without calling it that, Baron Depuytren not having been born yet.

Well, a picture was worth a thousand words, and I thought I could produce a competent line drawing, at least. I did my best, meanwhile wondering how I was to induce Thomas Christie to let me operate on the hand.

It was a fairly quick and simple procedure, but given the lack of anesthesia and the fact that Christie was a strict Presbyterian and a teetotaller . . . perhaps Jamie could sit on his chest, Roger on his legs. If Brianna held his wrist tightly . . .

I gave up the problem for the moment, yawning drowsily. The drowsiness disappeared abruptly, as a three-inch yellow dragonfly came whirring in through the open window with a noise like a small helicopter. Adso sailed through the air after it, leaving my hair in wild disarray and my ribbon—which he appeared to have been quietly chewing—hanging wet and mangled behind my left ear. I removed this object with mild distaste, laid it on the sill to dry, and flipped back a few pages, admiring the neat drawing I had done of Jamie’s snakebite, and of Brianna’s rattlesnake hypodermic.

The leg, to my amazement, had healed cleanly and well, and while there had been a good bit of tissue sloughing, the maggots had dealt with that so effectively that the only permanent traces were two small depressions in the skin where the original fang marks had been, and a thin, straight scar across the calf where I had made an incision for debridement and maggot-placement. Jamie had a slight limp still, but I thought this would cure itself in time.

Humming in a satisfied sort of way, I flipped back farther, idly browsing through the last few pages of Daniel Rawlings’ notes.

Josephus Howard . . . chief complaint being a fistula of the rectum, this of so long a standing as to have become badly abscessed, together with an advanced case of Piles. Treated with a decoction of Ale Hoof, mixed with Burnt Alum and small amount of Honey, this boiled together with juice of Marigold.

A later note on the same page, dated a month later, referred to the efficacy of this compound, with illustrations of the condition of the patient before and after administration. I raised a brow at the drawings; Rawlings was no more an artist than I was, but had succeeded in capturing, to a remarkable degree, the intrinsic discomfort of the condition.

I tapped the quill against my mouth, thinking, then added a careful note in the margin, to the effect that a diet rich in fibrous vegetables should be recommended as an adjunct to this treatment, useful also in preventing both constipation and the more serious complications thereof—nothing like a little object lesson!

I wiped the quill, laid it down, and turned the page, wondering whether Ale Hoof was a plant—and if so, which one—or a suppurative condition of horses’ feet. I could hear Jamie rustling about in his study; I’d go ask him in a moment.

I nearly missed it. It had been jotted on the back of the page containing the drawing of Mr. Howard’s fistula, evidently added as a casual afterthought on the day’s activities.

Have spoke with Mr. Hector Cameron of River Run, who begs me come examine his wife’s eyes, her sight being sadly affected. It is a far distance to his plantation, but he will send a horse.

That bit overcame the soporific atmosphere of the afternoon at once. Fascinated, I sat up and turned the page, looking to see whether the doctor had in fact examined Jocasta. I had—with some difficulty—persuaded her to allow me to examine her eyes once, and I was curious as to Rawlings’ conclusions. Without an ophthalmoscope, there was no way of making sure of the cause of her blindness, but I had strong suspicions—and I could at least rule out such things as cataracts and diabetes with a fair amount of certainty. I wondered whether Rawlings had seen anything I had missed, or whether her condition had changed noticeably since he had seen her.

Bled the smith of a pint, purged his wife with senna oil (10 minims), and administered 3 minims of same to the cat (gratis), I having observed a swarming of worms in the animal’s stool.

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