Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 124

   

The cells were not large, and the men lay close together for warmth in the night. With no modesty save darkness, and no privacy save silence, it was impossible to remain unaware of the accommodation each man made to his own needs.

“I was in irons for more than a year, Sassenach,” he said. He lifted his arms, spread them eighteen inches apart, and stopped abruptly, as though reaching some invisible limit. “I could move that far—and nay more,” he said, staring at his immobile hands. “And I couldna move my hands at all without the chain makin’ a sound.”

Torn between shame and need, he would wait in the dark, breathing in the stale and brutish scent of the surrounding men, listening to the murmurous breath of his companions, until the stealthy sounds nearby told him that the telltale clinking of his irons would be ignored.

“If there’s one thing I ken verra well, Sassenach,” he said quietly, with a brief glance at Fergus, “it’s the sound of a man makin’ love to a woman who’s not there.”

He shrugged and jerked his hands suddenly, spreading them wide on the rail, bursting his invisible chains. He looked down at me then with a half-smile, and I saw the dark memories at the back of his eyes, under the mocking humor.

I saw too the terrible need there, the desire strong enough to have endured loneliness and degradation, squalor and separation.

We stood quite still, looking at each other, oblivious of the deck traffic passing by. He knew better than any man how to hide his thoughts, but he wasn’t hiding them from me.

The hunger in him went bone-deep, and my own bones seemed to dissolve in recognition of it. His hand was an inch from mine, resting on the wooden rail, long-fingered and powerful.…If I touched him, I thought suddenly, he would turn and take me, here, on the deck boards.

As though hearing my thought, he took my hand suddenly, pressing it tight against the hard muscle of his thigh.

“How many times have we lain together, since ye came back to me?” he whispered. “Once, twice, in the brothel. Three times in the heather. And then at Lallybroch, again in Paris.” His fingers tapped lightly against my wrist, one after the other, in time with my pulse.

“Each time, I left your bed as hungry as ever I came to it. It takes no more to ready me now than the scent of your hair brushing past my face, or the feel of your thigh against mine when we sit to eat. And to see ye stand on deck, wi’ the wind pressing your gown tight to your body…”

The corner of his mouth twitched slightly as he looked at me. I could see the pulse beat strong in the hollow of his throat, his skin flushed with wind and desire.

“There are moments, Sassenach, when for one copper penny, I’d have ye on the spot, back against the mast and your skirts about your waist, and devil take the bloody crew!”

My fingers convulsed against his palm, and he tightened his grasp, nodding pleasantly in response to the greeting of the gunner, coming past on his way toward the quarter-gallery.

The bell for the Captain’s dinner sounded beneath my feet, a sweet metallic vibration that traveled up through the soles of my feet and melted the marrow of my bones. Fergus and Marsali left their play and went below, and the crew began preparations for the changing of the watch, but we stayed standing by the rail, fixed in each other’s eyes, burning.

“The Captain’s compliments, Mr. Fraser, and will you be joining him for dinner?” It was Maitland, the cabin boy, keeping a cautious distance as he relayed this message.

Jamie took a deep breath, and pulled his eyes away from mine.

“Aye, Mr. Maitland, we’ll be there directly.” He took another breath, settled his coat on his shoulders, and offered me his arm.

“Shall we go below, Sassenach?”

“Just a minute.” I drew my hand out of my pocket, having found what I was looking for. I took his hand and pressed the object into his palm.

He stared down at the image of King George III in his hand, then up at me.

“On account,” I said. “Let’s go and eat.”

The next day found us on deck again; though the air was still chilly, the cold was far preferable to the stuffiness of the cabins. We took our usual path, down one side of the ship and up the other, but then Jamie stopped, pausing to lean against the rail as he told me some anecdote about the printing business.

A few feet away, Mr. Willoughby sat cross-legged in the protection of the mainmast, a small cake of wet black ink by the toe of his slipper and a large sheet of white paper on the deck before him. The tip of his brush touched the paper lightly as a butterfly, leaving surprising strong shapes behind.

As I watched, fascinated, he began again at the top of the page. He worked rapidly, with a sureness of stroke that was like watching a dancer or a fencer, sure of his ground.

One of the deckhands passed dangerously close to the edge of the paper, almost—but not quite—placing a large dirty foot on the snowy white. A few moments later, another man did the same thing, though there was plenty of room to pass by. Then the first man came back, this time careless enough to kick over the small cake of black ink as he passed.

“Tck!” the seaman exclaimed in annoyance. He scuffed at the black splotch on the otherwise immaculate deck. “Filthy heathen! Look ’ere, wot he’s done!”

The second man, returning from his brief errand, paused in interest. “On the clean deck? Captain Raines won’t be pleased, will he?” He nodded at Mr. Willoughby, mock-jovial. “Best hurry and lick it up, little fella, before the Captain comes.”

“Aye, that’ll do; lick it up. Quick, now!” The first man moved a step nearer the seated figure, his shadow falling on the page like a blot. Mr. Willoughby’s lips tightened just a shade, but he didn’t look up. He completed the second column, righted the ink cake and dipped his brush without taking his eyes from the page, and began a third column, hand moving steadily.

“I said,” began the first seaman, loudly, but stopped in surprise as a large white handkerchief fluttered down on the deck in front of him, covering the inkblot.

“Your pardon, gentlemen,” said Jamie. “I seem to have dropped something.” With a cordial nod to the seamen, he bent down and swept up the handkerchief, leaving nothing but a faint smear on the decking. The seamen glanced at each other, uncertain, then at Jamie. One man caught sight of the blue eyes over the blandly smiling mouth, and blanched visibly. He turned hastily away, tugging at his mate’s arm.

“Norratall, sir,” he mumbled. “C’mon, Joe, we’re wanted aft.”

Jamie didn’t look either at the departing seamen or at Mr. Willoughby, but came toward me, tucking his handkerchief back in his sleeve.

“A verra pleasant day, is it not, Sassenach?” he said. He threw back his head, inhaling deeply. “Refreshing air, aye?”

“More so for some than for others, I expect,” I said, amused. The air at this particular spot on deck smelled rather strongly of the alum-tanned hides in the hold below.

“That was kind of you,” I said as he leaned back against the rail next to me. “Do you think I should offer Mr. Willoughby the use of my cabin to write?”

Jamie snorted briefly. “No. I’ve told him he can use my cabin, or the table in the mess between meals, but he’d rather be here—stubborn wee fool that he is.”

“Well, I suppose the light’s better,” I said dubiously, eyeing the small hunched figure, crouched doggedly against the mast. As I watched, a gust of wind lifted the edge of the paper; Mr. Willoughby pinned it at once, holding it still with one hand while continuing his short, sure brushstrokes with the other. “It doesn’t look comfortable, though.”

“It’s not.” Jamie ran his fingers through his hair in mild exasperation. “He does it on purpose, to provoke the crew.”

“Well, if that’s what he’s after, he’s doing a good job,” I observed. “What on earth for, though?”

Jamie leaned back against the rail beside me, and snorted once more.

“Aye, well, that’s complicated. Ever met a Chinaman before, have ye?”

“A few, but I suspect they’re a bit different in my time,” I said dryly. “They tend not to wear pigtails and silk pajamas, for one thing, nor do they have obsessions about ladies’ feet—or if they did, they didn’t tell me about it,” I added, to be fair.

Jamie laughed and moved a few inches closer, so that his hand on the rail brushed mine.

“Well, it’s to do wi’ the feet,” he said. “Or that’s the start of it, anyway. See, Josie, who’s one of the whores at Madame Jeanne’s, told Gordon about it, and of course he’s told everyone now.”

“What on earth is it about the feet?” I demanded, curiosity becoming overwhelming. “What does he do to them?”

Jamie coughed, and a faint flush rose in his cheeks. “Well, it’s a bit…”

“You couldn’t possibly tell me anything that would shock me,” I assured him. “I have seen quite a lot of things in my life, you know—and a good many of them with you, come to that.”

“I suppose ye have, at that,” he said, grinning. “Aye, well, it’s no so much what he does, but—well, in China, the highborn ladies have their feet bound.”

“I’ve heard of that,” I said, wondering what all the fuss was about. “It’s supposed to make their feet small and graceful.”

Jamie snorted again. “Graceful, aye? D’ye know how it’s done?” And proceeded to tell me.

“They take a tiny lassie—nay more than a year old, aye?—and turn under the toes of her feet until they touch her heel, then tie bandages about the foot to hold it so.”

“Ouch!” I said involuntarily.

“Yes, indeed,” he said dryly. “Her nanny will take the bandages off now and then to clean the foot, but puts them back directly. After some time, her wee toes rot and fall off. And by the time she’s grown, the poor lassie’s little more at the end of her legs than a crumple of bones and skin, smaller than the size o’ my fist.” His closed fist knocked softly against the wood of the rail in illustration. “But she’s considered verra beautiful, then,” he ended. “Graceful, as ye say.”

“That’s perfectly disgusting!” I said. “But what has that got to do with—” I glanced at Mr. Willoughby, but he gave no sign of hearing us; the wind was blowing from him toward us, carrying our words out to sea.

“Say this was a lassie’s foot, Sassenach,” he said, stretching his right hand out flat before him. “Curl the toes under to touch the heel, and what have ye in the middle?” He curled his fingers loosely into a fist in illustration.

“What?” I said, bewildered. Jamie extended the middle finger of his left hand, and thrust it abruptly through the center of his fist in an unmistakably graphic gesture.

“A hole,” he said succinctly.

“You’re kidding! That’s why they do it?”

His forehead furrowed slightly, then relaxed. “Oh, am I jesting? By no means, Sassenach. He says”—he nodded delicately at Mr. Willoughby—“that it’s a most remarkable sensation. To a man.”

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