Slowly, the other eye opened. He said nothing, but the pair of blue orbs swiveled around, resting on me with an expression of such ferocious eloquence that I hastily withdrew the pickle.
The eyelids drooped slowly shut once more.
I surveyed the wreckage, frowning. He lay on his back, his knees drawn up. While the built-in berth provided more stability for the sleeper than the crews’ swinging hammocks, it was designed to accommodate the usual run of passengers, who—judging from the size of the berth—were assumed to be no more than a modest five feet three or so.
“You can’t be at all comfortable in there,” I said.
“I am not.”
“Would you like to try a hammock instead? At least you could stretch—”
“I would not.”
“The captain says he requires a list of the cargo from you—at your convenience.”
He made a brief and unrepeatable suggestion as to what Captain Raines might do with his list, not bothering to open his eyes.
I sighed, and picked up his unresisting hand. It was cold and damp, and his pulse was fast.
“Well,” I said after a pause. “Perhaps we could try something I used to do with surgical patients. It seemed to help sometimes.”
He gave a low groan, but didn’t object. I pulled up a stool and sat down, still holding his hand.
I had developed the habit of talking with the patients for a few minutes before they were taken to surgery. My presence seemed to reassure them, and I had found that if I could fix their attention on something beyond the impending ordeal, they seemed to do better—there was less bleeding, the postanesthetic nausea was less, and they seemed to heal better. I had seen it happen often enough to believe that it was not imagination; Jamie hadn’t been altogether wrong when assuring Fergus that the power of mind over flesh was possible.
“Let’s think of something pleasant,” I said, pitching my voice to be as low and soothing as possible. “Think of Lallybroch, of the hillside above the house. Think of the pine trees there—can you smell the needles? Think of the smoke coming up from the kitchen chimney on a clear day, and an apple in your hand. Think about how it feels in your hand, all hard and smooth, and then—”
“Sassenach?” Both Jamie’s eyes were open, and fixed on me in intense concentration. Sweat gleamed in the hollow of his temples.
“Go away,” he repeated, very gently, “or I shall break your neck. Go away now.”
I rose with dignity and went out.
Mr. Willoughby was leaning against an upright in the passage, peering thoughtfully into the cabin.
“Don’t have those stone balls with you, do you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, looking surprised. “Wanting healthy balls for Tseimi?” He began to fumble in his sleeve, but I stopped him with a gesture.
“What I want to do is bash him on the head with them, but I suppose Hippocrates would frown on that.”
Mr. Willoughby smiled uncertainly and bobbed his head several times in an effort to express appreciation of whatever I thought I meant.
“Never mind,” I said. I glared back over my shoulder at the heap of reeking bedclothes. It stirred slightly, and a groping hand emerged, patting gingerly around the floor until it found the basin that stood there. Grasping this, the hand disappeared into the murky depths of the berth, from which presently emerged the sound of dry retching.
“Bloody man!” I said, exasperation mingled with pity—and a slight feeling of alarm. The ten hours of a Channel crossing were one thing; what would his state be like after two months of this?
“Head of pig,” Mr. Willoughby agreed, with a lugubrious nod. “He is rat, you think, or maybe dragon?”
“He smells like a whole zoo,” I said. “Why dragon, though?”
“One is born in Year of Dragon, Year of Rat, Year of Sheep, Year of Horse,” Mr. Willoughby explained. “Being different, each year, different people. You are knowing is Tsei-mi rat, or dragon?”
“You mean which year was he born in?” I had vague memories of the menus in Chinese restaurants, decorated with the animals of the Chinese zodiac, with explanations of the supposed character traits of those born in each year. “It was 1721, but I don’t know offhand which animal that was the year of.”
“I am thinking rat,” said Mr. Willoughby, looking thoughtfully at the tangle of bedclothes, which were heaving in a mildly agitated manner. “Rat very clever, very lucky. But dragon, too, could be. He is most lusty in bed, Tsei-mi? Dragons most passionate people.”
“Not so as you would notice lately,” I said, watching the heap of bed-clothes out of the corner of my eye. It heaved upward and fell back, as though the contents had turned over suddenly.
“I have Chinese medicine,” Mr. Willoughby said, observing this phenomenon thoughtfully. “Good for vomit, stomach, head, all making most peaceful and serene.”
I looked at him with interest. “Really? I’d like to see that. Have you tried it on Jamie yet?”
The little Chinese shook his head regretfully.
“Not want,” he replied. “Say damn-all, throwing overboard if I am come near.”
Mr. Willoughby and I looked at each other with a perfect understanding.
“You know,” I said, raising my voice a decibel or two, “prolonged dry retching is very bad for a person.”
“Oh, most bad, yes.” Mr. Willoughby had shaved the forward part of his skull that morning; the bald curve shone as he nodded vigorously.
“It erodes the stomach tissues, and irritates the esophagus.”
“This is so?”
“Quite so. It raises the blood pressure and strains the abdominal muscles, too. Can even tear them, and cause a hernia.”
“And,” I continued, raising my voice just a trifle, “it can cause the testicles to become tangled round each other inside the scrotum, and cuts off the circulation there.”
“Ooh!” Mr. Willoughby’s eyes went round.
“If that happens,” I said ominously, “the only thing to do, usually, is to amputate before gangrene sets in.”
Mr. Willoughby made a hissing sound indicative of understanding and deep shock. The heap of bedclothes, which had been tossing to and fro in a restless manner during this conversation, was quite still.
I looked at Mr. Willoughby. He shrugged. I folded my arms and waited. After a minute, a long foot, elegantly bare, was extruded from the bedclothes. A moment later, its fellow joined it, resting on the floor.
“Damn the pair of ye,” said a deep Scottish voice, in tones of extreme malevolence. “Come in, then.”
Fergus and Marsali were leaning over the aft rail, cozily shoulder to shoulder, Fergus’s arm about the girl’s waist, her long fair hair fluttering in the wind.
Hearing approaching footsteps, Fergus glanced back over his shoulder. Then he gasped, whirled round, and crossed himself, eyes bulging.
“Not…one…word, if ye please,” Jamie said between clenched teeth.
Fergus opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Marsali, turning to look too, emitted a shrill scream.
“Da! What’s happened to ye?”
The obvious fright and concern in her face stopped Jamie from whatever acerbic remark he had been about to make. His face relaxed slightly, making the slender gold needles that protruded from behind his ears twitch like ant’s feelers.
“It’s all right,” he said gruffly. “It’s only some rubbish of the Chinee’s, to cure the puking.”
Wide-eyed, Marsali came up to him, gingerly extending a finger to touch the needles embedded in the flesh of his wrist below the palm. Three more flashed from the inside of his leg, a few inches above the ankle.
“Does—does it work?” she asked. “How does it feel?”
Jamie’s mouth twitched, his normal sense of humor beginning to reassert itself.
“I feel like a bloody ill-wish doll that someone’s been poking full o’ pins,” he said. “But then I havena vomited in the last quarter-hour, so I suppose it must work.” He shot a quick glare at me and Mr. Willoughby, standing side by side near the rail.
“Mind ye,” he said, “I dinna feel like sucking on gherkins just yet, but I could maybe go so far as to relish a glass of ale, if ye mind where some might be found, Fergus.”
“Oh. Oh, yes, milord. If you will come with me?” Unable to refrain from staring, Fergus reached out a tentative hand to take Jamie’s arm, but thinking better of it, turned in the direction of the after gangway.
“Shall I tell Murphy to start cooking your luncheon?” I called after Jamie as he turned to follow Fergus. He gave me a long, level look over one shoulder. The golden needles sprouted through his hair in twin bunches, gleaming in the morning light like a pair of devil’s horns.
“Dinna try me too high, Sassenach,” he said. “I’m no going to forget, ye ken. Tangled testicles—pah!”
Mr. Willoughby had been ignoring this exchange, squatting on his heels in the shadow of the aft-deck scuttlebutt, a large barrel filled with water for refreshment of the deck watch. He was counting on his fingers, evidently absorbed in some kind of calculation. As Jamie stalked away, he looked up.
“Not rat,” he said, shaking his head. “Not dragon, too. Tsei-mi born in Year of Ox.”
“Really?” I said, looking after the broad shoulders and red head, lowered stubbornly against the wind. “How appropriate.”
THE MAN IN THE MOON
As his title suggested, Jamie’s job as supercargo was not onerous. Beyond checking the contents of the hold against the bills of lading to insure that the Artemis was in fact carrying the requisite quantities of hides, tin, and sulfur, there was nothing for him to do while at sea. His duties would begin once we reached Jamaica, when the cargo must be unloaded, rechecked, and sold, with the requisite taxes paid, commissions deducted, and paperwork filed.
In the meantime, there was little for him—or me—to do. While Mr. Picard, the bosun, eyed Jamie’s powerful frame covetously, it was obvious that he would never make a seaman. Quick and agile as any of the crew, his ignorance of ropes and sails made him useless for anything beyond the occasional situation where sheer strength was required. It was plain he was a soldier, not a sailor.
He did assist with enthusiasm at the gunnery practice that was held every other day, helping to run the four huge guns on their carriages in and out with a tremendous racket, and spending hours in rapt discussion of esoteric cannon lore with Tom Sturgis, the gunner. During these thunderous exercises, Marsali, Mr. Willoughby, and I sat safely out of the way under the care of Fergus, who was excluded from the fireworks because of his missing hand.
Somewhat to my surprise, I had been accepted as the ship’s surgeon with little question from the crew. It was Fergus who explained that in small merchant ships, even barber-surgeons were uncommon. It was commonly the gunner’s wife—if he had one—who dealt with the small injuries and illnesses of the crew.