Author: P Hana

Page 125


“Why, that perverted little beast!”

Jamie laughed at my indignation.

“Aye, well, that’s about what the crew thinks, too. Of course, he canna get quite the same effect wi’ a European woman, but I gather he…tries, now and then.”

I began to understand the general feeling of hostility toward the little Chinese. Even a short acquaintance with the crew of the Artemis had taught me that seamen on the whole tended to be gallant creatures, with a strong romantic streak where women were concerned—no doubt because they did without female company for a good part of the year.

“Hm,” I said, with a glance of suspicion at Mr. Willoughby. “Well, that explains them, all right, but what about him?”

“That’s what’s a wee bit complicated.” Jamie’s mouth curled upward in a wry smile. “See, to Mr. Yi Tien Cho, late of the Heavenly Kingdom of China, we’re the barbarians.”

“Is that so?” I glanced up at Brodie Cooper, coming down the ratlines above, the filthy, calloused soles of his feet all that was visible from below. I rather thought both sides had a point. “Even you?”

“Oh, aye. I’m a filthy, bad-smelling gwao-fe—that means a foreign devil, ye ken—wi’ the stink of a weasel—I think that’s what huang-shu-lang means—and a face like a gargoyle,” he finished cheerfully.

“He told you all that?” It seemed an odd recompense for saving someone’s life. Jamie glanced down at me, cocking one eyebrow.

“Have ye noticed, maybe, that verra small men will say anything to ye, when they’ve drink taken?” he asked. “I think brandy makes them forget their size; they think they’re great hairy brutes, and swagger something fierce.”

He nodded at Mr. Willoughby, industriously painting. “He’s a bit more circumspect when he’s sober, but it doesna change what he thinks. It fair galls him, aye? Especially knowing that if it wasna for me, someone would likely knock him on the head or put him through the window into the sea some quiet night.”

He spoke with simple matter-of-factness, but I hadn’t missed the sideways looks directed at us by the passing seamen, and had already realized just why Jamie was passing time in idle conversation by the rail with me. If anyone had been in doubt about Mr. Willoughby’s being under Jamie’s protection, they would be rapidly disabused of the notion.

“So you saved his life, gave him work, and keep him out of trouble, and he insults you and thinks you’re an ignorant barbarian,” I said dryly. “Sweet little fellow.”

“Aye, well.” The wind had shifted slightly, blowing a lock of Jamie’s hair free across his face. He thumbed it back behind his ear and leaned farther toward me, our shoulders nearly touching. “Let him say what he likes; I’m the only one who understands him.”

“Really?” I laid a hand over Jamie’s where it rested on the rail.

“Well, maybe not to say understand him,” he admitted. He looked down at the deck between his feet. “But I do remember,” he said softly, “what it’s like to have nothing but your pride—and a friend.”

I remembered what Innes had said, and wondered whether it was the one-armed man who had been his friend in time of need. I knew what he meant; I had had Joe Abernathy, and knew what a difference it made.

“Yes, I had a friend at the hospital…” I began, but was interrupted by loud exclamations of disgust emanating from under my feet.

“Damn! Blazing Hades! That filth-eating son of a pig-fart!”

I looked down, startled, then realized, from the muffled Irish oaths proceeding from below, that we were standing directly over the galley. The shouting was loud enough to attract attention from the hands forward, and a small group of sailors gathered with us, watching in fascination as the cook’s black-kerchiefed head poked out of the hatchway, glaring ferociously at the crowd.

“Burry-arsed swabs!” he shouted. “What’re ye lookin’ at? Two of yer idle barsteds tumble arse down here and toss this muck over the side! D’ye mean me to be climbin’ ladders all day, and me with half a leg?” The head disappeared abruptly, and with a good-natured shrug, Picard motioned to one of the younger sailors to come along below.

Shortly there was a confusion of voices and a bumping of some large object down below, and a terrible smell assaulted my nostrils.

“Jesus Christ on a piece of toast!” I snatched a handkerchief from my pocket and clapped it to my nose; this wasn’t the first smell I had encountered afloat, and I usually kept a linen square soaked in wintergreen in my pocket, as a precaution. “What’s that?”

“By the smell of it, dead horse. A verra old horse, at that, and a long time dead.” Jamie’s long, thin nose looked a trifle pinched around the nostrils, and all around, sailors were gagging, holding their noses, and generally commenting unfavorably on the smell.

Maitland and Grosman, faces averted from their burden, but slightly green nonetheless, manhandled a large cask through the hatchway and onto the deck. The top had been split, and I caught a brief glimpse of a yellowish-white mass in the opening, glistening faintly in the sun. It seemed to be moving. Maggots, in profusion.

“Eew!” The exclamation was jerked from me involuntarily. The two sailors said nothing, their lips being pressed tightly together, but both of them looked as though they agreed with me. Together, they manhandled the cask to the rail and heaved it up and over.

Such of the crew as were not otherwise employed gathered at the rail to watch the cask bobbing in the wake, and be entertained by Murphy’s outspokenly blasphemous opinion of the ship’s chandler who had sold it to him. Manzetti, a small Italian seaman with a thick russet pigtail, was standing by the rail, loading a musket.

“Shark,” he explained with a gleam of teeth beneath his mustache, seeing me watching him. “Very good to eat.”

“Ar,” said Sturgis approvingly.

Such of the crew as were not presently occupied gathered at the stern, watching. There were sharks, I knew; Maitland had pointed out to me two dark, flexible shapes hovering in the shadow of the hull the evening before, keeping pace with the ship with no apparent effort save a small and steady oscillation of sickled tails.

“There!” A shout went up from several throats as the cask jerked suddenly in the water. A pause, and Manzetti fixed his aim carefully in the vicinity of the floating cask. Another jerk, as though something had bumped it violently, and another.

The water was a muddy gray, but clear enough for me to catch a glimpse of something moving under the surface, fast. Another jerk, the cask heeled to one side, and suddenly the sharp edge of a fin creased the surface of the water, and a gray back showed briefly, tiny waves purling off it.

The musket discharged next to me with a small roar and a cloud of black-powder smoke that left my eyes stinging. There was a universal shout from the observers, and when the watering of my eyes subsided, I could see a small brownish stain spreading round the cask.

“Did he hit the shark, or the horsemeat?” I asked Jamie, in a low-voiced aside.

“The cask,” he said with a smile. “Still, it’s fine shooting.”

Several more shots went wild, while the cask began to dance an agitated jig, the frenzied sharks striking it repeatedly. Bits of white and brown flew from the broken cask, and a large circle of grease, rotten blood, and debris spread round the shark’s feast. As though by magic, seabirds began to appear, one and two at a time, diving for tidbits.

“No good,” said Manzetti at last, lowering the musket and wiping his face with his sleeve. “Too far.” He was sweating and stained from neck to hairline with black powder; the wiping left a streak of white across his eyes, like a raccoon’s mask.

“I could relish a slab of shark,” said the Captain’s voice near my ear. I turned to see him peering thoughtfully over the rail at the scene of carnage. “Perhaps we might lower a boat, Mr. Picard.”

The bosun turned with an obliging roar, and the Artemis hauled her wind, coming round in a small circle to draw near the remains of the floating cask. A small boat was launched, containing Manzetti, with musket, and three seamen armed with gaffs and rope.

By the time they reached the spot, there was nothing left of the cask but a few shattered bits of wood. There was still plenty of activity, though; the water roiled with the sharks’ thrashing beneath the surface, and the scene was nearly obscured by a raucous cloud of seabirds. As I watched, I saw a pointed snout rise suddenly from the water, mouth open, seize one of the birds and disappear beneath the waves, all in the flick of an eyelash.

“Did you see that?” I said, awed. I was aware, in a general way, that sharks were well-equipped with teeth, but this practical demonstration was more striking than any number of National Geographic photographs.

“Why, Grandmother dear, what big teeth ye have!” said Jamie, sounding suitably impressed.

“Oh, they do indeed,” said a genial voice nearby. I glanced aside to find Murphy grinning at my elbow, broad face shining with a savage glee. “Little good it will do the buggers, with a ball blown clean through their f**king brains!” He pounded a hamlike fist on the rail, and shouted, “Get me one of them jagged buggers, Manzetti! There’s a bottle o’ cookin’ brandy waitin’ if ye do!”

“Is it a personal matter to ye, Mr. Murphy?” Jamie asked politely. “Or professional concern?”

“Both, Mr. Fraser, both,” the cook replied, watching the hunt with a fierce attention. He kicked his wooden leg against the side, with a hollow clunk. “They’ve had a taste o’ me,” he said with grim relish, “but I’ve tasted a good many more o’ them!”

The boat was barely visible through the flapping screen of birds, and their screams made it hard to hear anything other than Murphy’s war cries.

“Shark steak with mustard!” Murphy was bellowing, eyes mere slits in an ecstasy of revenge. “Stewed liver wi’ piccalilli! I’ll make soup o’ yer fins, and jelly yer eyeballs in sherry wine, ye wicked barsted!”

I saw Manzetti, kneeling in the bows, take aim with his musket, and the puff of black smoke as he fired. And then I saw Mr. Willoughby.

I hadn’t seen him jump from the rail; no one had, with all eyes fixed on the hunt. But there he was, some distance away from the melee surrounding the boat, his shaven head glistening like a fishing float as he wrestled in the water with an enormous bird, its wings churning the water like an eggbeater.

Alerted by my cry, Jamie tore his eyes from the hunt, goggled for an instant, and before I could move or speak, was perched on the rail himself.

My shout of horror coincided with a surprised roar from Murphy, but Jamie was gone, too, lancing into the water near the Chinaman with barely a splash.

There were shouts and cries from the deck—and a shrill screech from Marsali—as everyone realized what had happened. Jamie’s wet red head emerged next to Mr. Willoughby, and in seconds, he had an arm tight about the Chinaman’s throat. Mr. Willoughby clung tightly to the bird, and I wasn’t sure, just for the moment, whether Jamie intended rescue or throttling, but then he kicked strongly, and began to tow the struggling mass of bird and man back toward the ship.