Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 122

   

I probed for the gallbladder, just in case, wondering as I did so just what I would do, should it prove to be an acute attack of cholecystitis or an inflamed appendix. I could envision the cavity of the belly in my mind, as though it lay open in fact before me, my fingers translating the soft, lumpy shapes beneath the skin into vision—the intricate folds of the intestines, softly shielded by their yellow quilting of fat-padded membrane, the slick, smooth lobes of the liver, deep purple-red, so much darker than the vivid scarlet of the heart’s pericardium above. Opening that cavity was a risky thing to do, even equipped with modern anesthetics and antibiotics. Sooner or later, I knew, I would be faced with the necessity of doing it, but I sincerely hoped it would be later.

“Breathe in,” I said, hands on his chest, and saw in my mind the pink-flushed grainy surface of a healthy lung. “Breathe out, now,” and felt the color fade to soft blue. No rales, no halting, a nice clear flow. I reached for one of the thick sheets of vellum paper I used for stethoscopes.

“When did you last move your bowels?” I inquired, rolling the paper into a tube. The Scot’s thin face turned the color of fresh liver. Fixed with my gimlet eye, he mumbled something incoherent, in which the word “four” was just distinguishable.

“Four days?” I said, forestalling his attempts to escape by putting a hand on his chest and pinning him flat to the table. “Hold still, I’ll just have a listen here, to be sure.”

The heart sounds were reassuringly normal; I could hear the valves open and close with their soft, meaty clicks, all in the right places. I was quite sure of the diagnosis—had been virtually from the moment I had looked at him—but by now there was an audience of heads peering curiously round the doorway; Innes’s mates, watching. For effect, I moved the end of my tubular stethoscope down farther, listening for belly sounds.

Just as I thought, the rumble of trapped gas was clearly audible in the upper curve of the large intestine. The lower sigmoid colon was blocked, though; no sound at all down there.

“You have belly gas,” I said, “and constipation.”

“Aye, I ken that fine,” Innes muttered, looking frantically for his shirt.

I put my hand on the garment in question, preventing him from leaving while I catechized him about his diet of late. Not surprisingly, this consisted almost entirely of salt pork and hardtack.

“What about the dried peas and the oatmeal?” I asked, surprised. Having inquired as to the normal fare aboard ship, I had taken the precaution of stowing—along with my surgeon’s cask of lime juice and the collection of medicinal herbs—three hundred pounds of dried peas and a similar quantity of oatmeal, intending that this should be used to supplement the seamen’s normal diet.

Innes remained tongue-tied, but this inquiry unleashed a flood of revelation and grievance from the onlookers in the doorway.

Jamie, Fergus, Marsali, and I all dined daily with Captain Raines, feasting on Murphy’s ambrosia, so I was unaware of the deficiencies of the crew’s mess. Evidently the difficulty was Murphy himself, who, while holding the highest culinary standards for the captain’s table, considered the crew’s dinner to be a chore rather than a challenge. He had mastered the routine of producing the crew’s meals quickly and competently, and was highly resistant to any suggestions for an improved menu that might require further time or trouble. He declined absolutely to trouble with such nuisances as soaking peas or boiling oatmeal.

Compounding the difficulty was Murphy’s ingrained prejudice against oatmeal, a crude Scottish mess that offended his aesthetic sense. I knew what he thought about that, having heard him muttering things about “dog’s vomit” over the trays of breakfast that included the bowls of parritch to which Jamie, Marsali, and Fergus were addicted.

“Mr. Murphy says as how salt pork and hardtack is good enough for every crew he’s had to feed for thirty year—given figgy-dowdy or plum duff for pudding, and beef on Sundays, too—though if that’s beef, I’m a Chinaman—and it’s good enough for us,” Gordon burst in.

Accustomed to polyglot crews of French, Italian, Spanish, and Norwegian sailors, Murphy was also accustomed to having his meals accepted and consumed with a voracious indifference that transcended nationalities. The Scots’ stubborn insistence on oatmeal roused all his own Irish intransigence, and the matter, at first a small, simmering disagreement, was now beginning to rise to a boil.

“We knew as there was meant to be parritch,” MacLeod explained, “for Fergus did say so, when he asked us to come. But it’s been nothing but the meat and biscuit since we left Scotland, which is a wee bit griping to the belly if ye’re not used to it.”

“We didna like to trouble Jamie Roy ower such a thing,” Raeburn put in. “Geordie’s got his girdle, and we’ve been makin’ our own oatcake ower the lamps in the crew quarters. But we’ve run through what corn we brought in our bags, and Mr. Murphy’s got the keys to the pantry store.” He glanced shyly at me under his sandy blond lashes. “We didna like to ask, knowin’ what he thought of us.”

“Ye wouldna ken what’s meant by the term ‘spalpeens,’ would ye, Mistress Fraser?” MacRae asked, raising one bushy brow.

While listening to this outpouring of woe, I had been selecting assorted herbs from my box—anise and angelica, two large pinches of horehound, and a few sprigs of peppermint. Tying these into a square of gauze, I closed the box and handed Innes his shirt, into which he burrowed at once, in search of refuge.

“I’ll speak to Mr. Murphy,” I promised the Scots. “Meanwhile,” I said to Innes, handing him the gauze bundle, “brew you a good pot of tea from that, and drink a cupful at every watch change. If we’ve had no results by tomorrow, we’ll try stronger measures.”

As if in answer to this, a high, squeaking fart emerged from under Innes, to an ironic cheer from his colleagues.

“Aye, that’s right, Mistress Fraser; maybe ye can scare the shit out o’ him,” MacLeod said, a broad grin splitting his face.

Innes, scarlet as a ruptured artery, took the bundle, bobbed his head in inarticulate thanks, and fled precipitously, followed in more leisurely fashion by the other smugglers.

A rather acrimonious debate with Murphy followed, terminating without bloodshed, but with the compromise that I would be responsible for the preparation of the Scots’ morning parritch, permitted to do so under provision that I confined myself to a single pot and spoon, did not sing while cooking, and was careful not to make a mess in the precincts of the sacred galley.

It was only that night, tossing restlessly in the cramped and chilly confines of my berth, that it occurred to me how odd the morning’s incident had been. Were this Lallybroch, and the Scots Jamie’s tenants, not only would they have had no hesitation in approaching him about the matter, they would have had no need to. He would have known already what was wrong, and taken steps to remedy the situation. Accustomed as I had always been to the intimacy and unquestioning loyalty of Jamie’s own men, I found this distance troubling.

Jamie was not at the captain’s table next morning, having gone out in the small boat with two of the sailors to catch whitebait, but I met him on his return at noon, sunburned, cheerful, and covered with scales and fish blood.

“What have ye done to Innes, Sassenach?” he said, grinning. “He’s hiding in the starboard head, and says ye told him he mustna come out at all until he’d shit.”

“I didn’t tell him that, exactly,” I explained. “I just said if he hadn’t moved his bowels by tonight, I’d give him an enema of slippery elm.”

Jamie glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the head.

“Well, I suppose we will hope that Innes’s bowels cooperate, or I doubt but he’ll spend the rest of the voyage in the head, wi’ a threat like that hangin’ ower him.”

“Well, I shouldn’t worry; now that he and the others have their parritch back, their bowels ought to take care of themselves without undue interference from me.”

Jamie glanced down at me, surprised.

“Got their parritch back? Whatever d’ye mean, Sassenach?”

I explained the genesis of the Oatmeal War, and its outcome, as he fetched a basin of water to clean his hands. A small frown drew his brows close together as he pushed his sleeves up his arms.

“They ought to have come to me about it,” he said.

“I expect they would have, sooner or later,” I said. “I only happened to find out by accident, when I found Innes grunting behind a hatch cover.”

“Mmphm.” He set about scouring the bloodstains off his fingers, rubbing the clinging scales free with a small pumice stone.

“These men aren’t like your tenants at Lallybroch, are they?” I said, voicing the thought I had had.

“No,” he said quietly. He dipped his fingers in the basin, leaving tiny shimmering circles where the fish scales floated. “I’m no their laird; only the man who pays them.”

“They like you, though,” I protested, then remembered Fergus’s story and amended this rather weakly to, “or at least five of them do.”

I handed him the towel. He took it with a brief nod, and dried his hands. Looking down at the strip of cloth, he shook his head.

“Aye, MacLeod and the rest like me well enough—or five of them do,” he repeated ironically. “And they’ll stand by me if it’s needful—five of them. But they dinna ken me much, nor me them, save Innes.”

He tossed the dirty water over the side, and tucking the empty basin under his arm, turned to go below, offering me his arm.

“There was more died at Culloden than the Stuart cause, Sassenach,” he said. “You’ll be coming for your dinner now?”

I did not find out why Innes was different, until the next week. Perhaps emboldened by the success of the purgative I had given him, Innes came voluntarily to call upon me in my cabin a week later.

“I am wondering, mistress,” he said politely, “whether there might be a medicine for something as isna there.”

“What?” I must have looked puzzled at this description, for he lifted the empty sleeve of his shirt in illustration.

“My arm,” he explained. “It’s no there, as ye can plainly see. And yet it pains me something terrible sometimes.” He blushed slightly.

“I did wonder for some years was I only a bit mad,” he confided, in lowered tones. “But I spoke a bit wi’ Mr. Murphy, and he tells me it’s the same with his leg that got lost, and Fergus says he wakes sometimes, feeling his missing hand slide into someone’s pocket.” He smiled briefly, teeth a flash under his drooping mustache. “So I thought maybe if it was a common thing, to feel a limb that wasn’t there, perhaps there was something that might be done about it.”

“I see.” I rubbed my chin, pondering. “Yes, it is common; it’s called a phantom limb, when you still have feelings in a part that’s been lost. As for what to do about it.…” I frowned, trying to think whether I had ever heard of anything therapeutic for such a situation. To gain time, I asked, “How did you happen to lose the arm?”

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