Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 116

   

“I can’t,” I said. “There weren’t any dates on it. Just your name—and mine.”

“Yours?” His eyes popped open.

I nodded again, feeling my throat tighten at the memory of that granite slab. It had been what they call a “marriage stone,” a quarter-circle carved to fit with another in a complete arch. I had, of course, seen only the one half.

“It had all your names on it. That’s how I knew it was you. And underneath, it said, ‘Beloved husband of Claire.’ At the time, I didn’t see how—but now, of course, I do.”

He nodded slowly, absorbing it. “Aye, I see. Aye well, I suppose if I shall be in Scotland, and still married to you—then maybe ‘when’ doesna matter so much.” He gave me a shadow of his usual grin, and added wryly, “It also means we’ll find Young Ian safe, for I’ll tell ye, Sassenach, I willna set foot in Scotland again without him.”

“We’ll find him,” I said, with an assurance I didn’t altogether feel. I put a hand on his shoulder and stood beside him, watching Scotland slowly recede in the distance.

By the time evening set in, the rocks of Scotland had disappeared in the sea mists, and Jamie, chilled to the bone and pale as a sheet, suffered himself to be led below and put to bed. At this point, the unforeseen consequences of his ultimatum to Fergus became apparent.

There were only two small private cabins, besides the Captain’s; if Fergus and Marsali were forbidden to share one until their union was formally blessed, then clearly Jamie and Fergus would have to take one, and Marsali and I the other. It seemed destined to be a rough voyage, in more ways than one.

I had hoped that the sickness might ease, if Jamie couldn’t see the slow heave and fall of the horizon, but no such luck.

“Again?” said Fergus, sleepily rousing on one elbow in his berth, in the middle of the night. “How can he? He has eaten nothing all day!”

“Tell him that,” I said, trying to breathe through my mouth as I sidled toward the door, a basin in my hands, making my way with difficulty through the tiny, cramped quarters. The deck rose and fell beneath my unaccustomed feet, making it hard to keep my balance.

“Here, milady, allow me.” Fergus swung bare feet out of bed and stood up beside me, staggering and nearly bumping into me as he reached for the basin.

“You should go and sleep now, milady,” he said, taking it from my hands. “I will see to him, be assured.”

“Well…” The thought of my berth was undeniably tempting. It had been a long day.

“Go, Sassenach,” Jamie said. His face was a ghastly white, sheened with sweat in the dim light of the small oil light that burned on the wall. “I’ll be all right.”

This was patently untrue; at the same time, it was unlikely that my presence would help particularly. Fergus could do the little that could be done; there was no known cure for seasickness, after all. One could only hope that Jared was right, and that it would ease of itself as the Artemis made its way out into the longer swells of the Atlantic.

“All right,” I said, giving in. “Perhaps you’ll feel better in the morning.”

Jamie opened one eye for a moment, then groaned, and shivering, closed it again.

“Or perhaps I’ll be dead,” he suggested.

On that cheery note, I made my way out into the dark companionway, only to stumble over the prostrate form of Mr. Willoughby, curled up against the door of the cabin. He grunted in surprise, then, seeing that it was only me, rolled slowly onto all fours and crawled into the cabin, swaying with the rolling of the ship. Ignoring Fergus’s exclamation of distate, he curled himself about the pedestal of the table, and fell promptly back asleep, an expression of beatific content on his small round face.

My own cabin was just across the companionway, but I paused for a moment, to breathe in the fresh air coming down from the deck above. There was an extraordinary variety of noises, from the creak and crack of timbers all around, to the snap of sails and the whine of rigging above, and the faint echo of a shout somewhere on deck.

Despite the racket and the cold air pouring in down the companionway, Marsali was sound asleep, a humped black shape in one of the two berths. Just as well; at least I needn’t try to make awkward conversation with her.

Despite myself, I felt a pang of sympathy for her; this was likely not what she had expected of her wedding night. It was too cold to undress; fully clothed, I crawled into my small box-berth and lay listening to the sounds of the ship around me. I could hear the hissing of the water passing the hull, only a foot or two beyond my head. It was an oddly comforting sound. To the accompaniment of the song of the wind and the faint sound of retching across the corridor, I fell peacefully asleep.

The Artemis was a tidy ship, as ships go, but when you cram thirty-two men—and two women—into a space eighty feet long and twenty-five wide, together with six tons of rough-cured hides, forty-two barrels of sulfur, and enough sheets of copper and tin to sheathe the Queen Mary, basic hygiene is bound to suffer.

By the second day, I had already flushed a rat—a small rat, as Fergus pointed out, but still a rat—in the hold where I went to retrieve my large medicine box, packed away there by mistake during the loading. There was a soft shuffling noise in my cabin at night, which when the lantern was lit proved to be the footsteps of several dozen middling-size cockroaches, all fleeing frantically for the shelter of the shadows.

The heads, two small quarter-galleries on either side of the ship toward the bow, were nothing more than a pair of boards—with a strategic slot between them—suspended over the bounding waves eight feet below, so that the user was likely to get an unexpected dash of cold seawater at some highly inopportune moment. I suspected that this, coupled with a diet of salt pork and hardtack, likely caused constipation to be epidemic among seamen.

Mr. Warren, the ship’s master, proudly informed me that the decks were swabbed regularly every morning, the brass polished, and everything generally made shipshape, which seemed a desirable state of affairs, given that we were in fact aboard a ship. Still, all the holystoning in the world could not disguise the fact that thirty-four human beings occupied this limited space, and only one of us bathed.

Given such circumstances, I was more than startled when I opened the door of the galley on the second morning, in search of boiling water.

I had expected the same dim and grubby conditions that obtained in the cabins and holds, and was dazzled by the glitter of sunlight through the overhead lattice on a rank of copper pans, so scrubbed that the metal of their bottoms shone pink. I blinked against the dazzle, my eyes adjusting, and saw that the walls of the galley were solid with built-in racks and cupboards, so constructed as to be proof against the roughest seas.

Blue and green glass bottles of spice, each tenderly jacketed in felt against injury, vibrated softly in their rack above the pots. Knives, cleavers, and skewers gleamed in deadly array, in a quantity sufficient to deal with a whale carcass, should one present itself. A rimmed double shelf hung from the bulkhead, thick with bulb glasses and shallow plates, on which a quantity of fresh-cut turnip tops were set to sprout for greens. An enormous pot bubbled softly over the stove, emitting a fragrant steam. And in the midst of all this spotless splendor stood the cook, surveying me with baleful eye.

“Out,” he said.

“Good morning,” I said, as cordially as possible. “My name is Claire Fraser.”

“Out,” he repeated, in the same graveled tones.

“I am Mrs. Fraser, the wife of the supercargo, and ship’s surgeon for this voyage,” I said, giving him eyeball for eyeball. “I require six gallons of boiling water, when convenient, for cleaning of the head.”

His small, bright blue eyes grew somewhat smaller and brighter, the black pupils of them training on me like gunbarrels.

“I am Aloysius O’Shaughnessy Murphy,” he said. “Ship’s cook. And I require ye to take yer feet off my fresh-washed deck. I do not allow women in my galley.” He glowered at me under the edge of the black cotton kerchief that swathed his head. He was several inches shorter than I, but made up for it by measuring about three feet more in circumference, with a wrestler’s shoulders and a head like a cannonball, set upon them without apparent benefit of an intervening neck. A wooden leg completed the ensemble.

I took one step back, with dignity, and spoke to him from the relative safety of the passageway.

“In that case,” I said, “you may send up the hot water by the messboy.”

“I may,” he agreed. “And then again, I may not.” He turned his broad back on me in dismissal, busying himself with a chopping block, a cleaver, and a joint of mutton.

I stood in the passageway for a moment, thinking. The thud of the cleaver sounded regularly against the wood. Mr. Murphy reached up to his spice rack, grasped a bottle without looking, and sprinkled a good quantity of the contents over the diced meat. The dusty scent of sage filled the air, superseded at once by the pungency of an onion, whacked in two with a casual swipe of the cleaver and tossed into the mixture.

Evidently the crew of the Artemis did not subsist entirely upon salt pork and hardtack, then. I began to understand the reasons for Captain Raines’s rather pear-shaped physique. I poked my head back through the door, taking care to stand outside.

“Cardamom,” I said firmly. “Nutmeg, whole. Dried this year. Fresh extract of anise. Ginger root, two large ones, with no blemishes.” I paused. Mr. Murphy had stopped chopping, cleaver poised motionless above the block.

“And,” I added, “half a dozen whole vanilla beans. From Ceylon.”

He turned slowly, wiping his hands upon his leather apron. Unlike his surroundings, neither the apron nor his other apparel was spotless.

He had a broad, florid face, edged with stiff sandy whiskers like a scrubbing brush, which quivered slightly as he looked at me, like the antennae of some large insect. His tongue darted out to lick pursed lips.

“Saffron?” he asked hoarsely.

“Half an ounce,” I said promptly, taking care to conceal any trace of triumph in my manner.

He breathed in deeply, lust gleaming bright in his small blue eyes.

“Ye’ll find a mat just outside, ma’am, should ye care to wipe yer boots and come in.”

One head sterilized within the limits of boiling water and Fergus’s tolerance, I made my way back to my cabin to clean up for luncheon. Marsali was not there; she was undoubtedly attending to Fergus, whose labors at my insistence had been little short of heroic.

I rinsed my own hands with alcohol, brushed my hair, and then went across the passage to see whether—by some wild chance—Jamie wanted anything to eat or drink. One glance disabused me of this notion.

Marsali and I had been given the largest cabin, which meant that each of us had approximately six square feet of space, not including the beds. These were box-berths, a sort of enclosed bed built into the wall, about five and a half feet long. Marsali fitted neatly into hers, but I was forced to adopt a slightly curled position, like a caper on toast, which caused me to wake up with pins and needles in my feet.

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