The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 74


A good long time, evidently. I heard Jamie snort and cough as he went in, and did my best to breathe through my mouth as I followed. Even so, the smell was enough to knock a ferret over. Beyond the reek of the goods, there was an outhouse smell from somewhere; stale urine and a ripe fecal stench. Rotting food, too, but something else besides. My nostrils twitched cautiously as I tried to inhale no more than a few molecules of air for analysis.

“How long has Mr. Beardsley been ill?” I asked.

I had picked out a distinct stench of sickness amid the general fetor. Not only the ghost of long-dried vomit, but the sweet smell of purulent discharge and that indefinable musty, yeast-rising odor that seems to be simply the smell of illness itself.

“Oh . . . thome time.”

She shut the door behind us, and I felt a sudden surge of claustrophobia. Inside, the air seemed thick, both from the stench and from the lack of light. I had a great impulse to rip down the coverings from both windows and let in a little air, and clenched my hands in the fabric of my cloak to keep from

doing it.

Mrs. Beardsley turned sideways and scuttled crablike through a narrow passage left between the stacks of goods. Jamie glanced at me, made a Scottish noise of disgust in his throat, and ducked under a jutting bundle of tent poles to follow her. I made my way cautiously after, trying not to notice that my foot fell now and then on objects of an unpleasant squashiness. Rotten apples? Dead rats? I pinched my nose and didn’t look down.

The farmhouse was simple in construction; one big room across the front, one behind.

The rear room was a striking contrast to the squalid clutter of the front. There was no ornament or decoration; the room was plain and orderly as a Quaker meeting hall. Everything was bare and spotless, the wooden table and stone hearth scrubbed to rawness, a few pewter utensils gleaming dully on a shelf. One window here had been left uncovered, glass intact, and the morning sun fell across the room in pure white radiance. The room was quiet and the air still, increasing the odd feeling that we had entered a sanctuary of some sort from the chaos of the front room.

The impression of peace was dispelled at once by a loud noise from above. It was the sound we had heard earlier, but close at hand, a loud squeal filled with desperation, like a tortured hog. Jamie started at the sound, and turned at once toward a ladder at the far side of the room, which led upward to a loft.

“He’th up there,” Mrs. Beardsley said—unnecessarily, as Jamie was already halfway up the ladder. The squealing noise came again, more urgently, and I decided not to fetch my medicine box before investigating.

Jamie’s head appeared at the top of the ladder as I grasped it.

“Bring a light, Sassenach,” he said briefly, and his head vanished.

Mrs. Beardsley stood motionless, hands buried in her shawl, making no effort to find a light. Her lips were pressed tight together, her plump cheeks mottled with red. I pushed past her, seized a candlestick from the shelf, and knelt to light it at the hearth before hastening upward.

“Jamie?” I poked my head above the edge of the loft, holding my candle cautiously above my head.

“Here, Sassenach.” He was standing at the far end of the loft, where the shadows lay thickest. I scrambled over the top of the ladder and made my way toward him, stepping gingerly.

The stench was much stronger here. I caught the gleam of something in the dark, and brought the candle forward to see.

Jamie drew in his breath, as shocked as I was, but quickly mastered his emotion.

“Mr. Beardsley, I presume,” he said.

The man was enormous—or had been. The great curve of his belly still rose whalelike out of the shadows, and the hand that lay slack on the floorboards near my foot could have cupped a cannonball with ease. But the flesh of the upper arm hung slack, white and flabby, the massive chest sunken in the center. What must once have been the neck of a bull had wasted to stringiness, and a single eye gleamed, frantic behind strands of matted hair.

The eye widened, and he made the noise again, his head straining upward urgently. I felt a shudder go through Jamie. It was enough to raise the hair on the back of my own neck, but I disregarded it, pushing the candlestick into Jamie’s hands.

“Hold the light for me.”

I sank to my knees, too late feeling the liquid ooze through the fabric of my skirt. The man lay in his own filth, and had been lying so for quite some time; the floor was thick with slime and wet. He was nak*d, covered by no more than a linen blanket, and as I turned it back, I glimpsed ulcerated sores amid the smears of ordure.

It was clear enough what ailed Mr. Beardsley; one side of his face sagged grotesquely, the eyelid drooping, and both the arm and the leg on the near side of his body splayed limp and dead, the joints left knobby and weirdly distorted by the falling away of the muscle around them. He snuffled and bleated, tongue poking and slobbering from the corner of his mouth in his vain but urgent attempts at speech.

“Hush,” I said to him. “Don’t talk; it’s all right now.”

I took the wrist to check his pulse; the flesh moved loosely on the bones of his arm, with not the slightest twitch of response to my touch.

“A stroke,” I said softly to Jamie. “An apoplexy, you call it.” I put my hand on Beardsley’s chest, to offer the comfort of touch.

“Don’t worry,” I said to him. “We’ve come to help.” I spoke reassuringly, though even as I said the words, I wondered what help was possible. Well, cleanliness and warmth at least; it was nearly as cold in the loft as it was outside, and his chest was chilly and pebbled with gooseflesh among the bushy hair.

The ladder creaked heavily, and I turned to see the outline of Mrs. Beardsley’s fluffy head and heavy shoulders, silhouetted by the light from the kitchen below.

“How long has he been like this?” I asked sharply.

“Perhapth . . . a month,” she said, after a pause. “I could not move him,” she said, defensive. “He ith too heavy.”

That was plainly true. However . . .

“Why is he up here?” Jamie demanded. “If ye didna move him, how did he get here?” He turned, shedding the light of the candle over the loft. There was little here that would draw a man; an old straw mattress, a few scattered tools, and bits of household rubbish. The light shone on Mrs. Beardsley’s face, turning her pale blue eyes to ice.

“He wath . . . chathing me,” she said faintly.

“What?” Jamie strode over to the ladder, and bending down, seized her by the arm, helping her—rather against her will, it seemed—to clamber up the rest of the way into the loft.

“What d’ye mean, chasing you?” he demanded. She hunched her shoulders, looking round and homely as a cookie jar in her bundled shawls.

“He thtruck me,” she said simply. “I came up the ladder to get away from him, but he followed. I tried to hide back here in the thadows, and he came, but then . . . he fell. And . . . he could not get up.” She shrugged again.

Jamie held the candlestick near her face. She gave a small nervous smile, eyes darting from me to Jamie, and I saw that the lisp was caused by the fact that her front teeth were broken—snapped off at an angle, just beyond the gums. A small scar ran through her upper lip; another showed white in the hairs of one eyebrow.

A horrible noise came from the man on the floor—a furious squeal of what sounded like protest—and she flinched, eyes shut tight in reflexive dread.

“Mmphm,” Jamie said, glancing from her to her husband. “Aye. Well. Fetch up some water, ma’am, and ye will. Another candle and some fresh rags as well,” he called after her departing back as she hastened toward the ladder, only too glad to be given an excuse to leave.

“Jamie—bring back the light, will you?”

He came and stood beside me, holding the candle so it shed its glow on the ruined body. He gave Beardsley a dark look of mingled pity and dislike, and shook his head slowly.

“God’s judgment, d’ye think, Sassenach?”

“Not entirely God’s, I don’t think,” I said, my voice lowered so as not to carry to the kitchen below. I reached up and took the candlestick from him. “Look.”

A flask of water and a plate of bread, hard and tinged with blue mold, stood in the shadows near Beardsley’s head; orts and bits of gluey, half-chewed bread covered the floor nearby. She had fed him—enough to keep him alive. Yet I had seen great quantities of food in that front room as we passed—hanging hams, barrels of dried fruit and salt fish and sauerkraut.

There were bundles of furs, jugs of oil, piles of woolen blankets—and yet the master of those goods lay here in the dark, starved and shivering beneath a single sheet of linen.

“Why did she not just let him die, I wonder?” Jamie asked softly, eyes fixed on the moldy bread. Beardsley gargled and growled at this; his open eye rolled angrily, tears running down his face and snot bubbling from his nose. He flailed and grunted, arching his body in frustration, collapsing with a meaty thud that shook the boards of the loft.

“He can understand you, I think. Can you?” I addressed this remark to the sick man, who gobbled and drooled in a manner that made it clear that he understood at least that he was being spoken to.

“As to why . . .”

I gestured toward Beardsley’s legs, moving the candle slowly above them. Some of the sores were indeed compression sores, caused by lying helpless for a long time. Others were not. Parallel slashes, clearly made by a knife, showed black and clotted on one massive thigh. The shin was decorated with a regular line of ulcerations, angry red wounds rimmed with black and oozing. Burns, left to fester.

Jamie gave a small grunt at the sight, and glanced over his shoulder, toward the ladder. The sound of a door opening came from below, and a cold draft blew up into the loft, making the candle flame dance wildly. The door shut, and the flame steadied.

“I can make shift to lower him, I think.” Jamie lifted the candle, assessing the beams overhead. “A sling, perhaps, with a rope put over yon beam there. Is it all right to move him?”

“Yes,” I said, but I wasn’t paying attention. Bending over the sick man’s legs, I had caught a whiff of something that I hadn’t smelled in a long, long time—a very bad and sinister stink.

I hadn’t encountered it often, but even once would have been enough; the pungent smell of gas gangrene is strikingly memorable. I didn’t want to say anything that might alarm Beardsley—if he was capable of understanding—so instead, I patted him reassuringly and stood up to go and fetch the candle from Jamie for a better look.

He gave it to me, leaning close to murmur in my ear as he did so.

“Can ye do aught for him, Sassenach?”

“No,” I said, equally low-voiced. “Not for the apoplexy, that is. I can treat the sores and give him herbs against fever—that’s all.”

He stood for a moment, looking at the humped figure in the shadows, now quiescent. Then he shook his head, crossed himself, and went quickly down the ladder to hunt a rope.

I went slowly back to the sick man, who greeted me with a thick “Haughhh” and a restless thumping of one leg, like a rabbit’s warning. I knelt by his feet, talking soothingly of nothing in particular, while I held the light close to examine them. The toes. All the toes on his dead foot had been burned, some only blistered, others burned nearly to the bone. The first two toes had gone quite black, and a greenish tinge spread over the upper aspect of the foot nearby.