Once reaching the coast, he had made his way to the waterfront, and tried there to pass himself off as a seaman, but failed utterly, as his fingers, so skillful with brush and ink, knew nothing of the art of knots and lines. There were several foreign ships in port; he had chosen the one whose sailors looked the most barbarous as being likely to carry him farthest away, and seizing his chance, had slipped past the deck guard and into the hold of the Serafina, bound for Edinburgh.
“You had always meant to leave the country altogether?” Fergus asked, interested. “It seems a desperate choice.”
“Emperor’s reach very long,” Mr. Willoughby said softly in English, not waiting for translation. “I am exile, or I am dead.”
His listeners gave a collective sigh at the awesome contemplation of such bloodthirsty power, and there was a moment of silence, with only the whine of the rigging overhead, while Mr. Willoughby picked up his neglected cup and drained the last drops of his grog.
He set it down, licking his lips, and laid his hand once more on Jamie’s arm.
“It is strange,” Mr. Willoughby said, and the air of reflection in his voice was echoed exactly by Jamie’s, “but it was my joy of women that Second Wife saw and loved in my words. Yet by desiring to possess me—and my poems—she would have forever destroyed what she admired.”
Mr. Willoughby uttered a small chuckle, whose irony was unmistakable.
“Nor is that the end of the contradiction my life has become. Because I could not bring myself to surrender my manhood, I have lost all else—honor, livelihood, country. By that, I mean not only the land itself, with the slopes of noble fir trees where I spent my summers in Tartary, and the great plains of the south, the flowing of rivers filled with fish, but also the loss of myself. My parents are dishonored, the tombs of my ancestors fall into ruin, and no joss burns before their images.
“All order, all beauty is lost. I am come to a place where the golden words of my poems are taken for the clucking of hens, and my brushstrokes for their scratchings. I am taken as less than the meanest beggar, who swallows serpents for the entertainment of the crowds, allowing passersby to draw the serpent from my mouth by its tail for the tiny payment that will let me live another day.”
Mr. Willoughby glared round at his hearers, making his parallel evident.
“I am come to a country of women coarse and rank as bears.” The Chinaman’s voice rose passionately, though Jamie kept to an even tone, reciting the words, but stripping them of feeling. “They are creatures of no grace, no learning, ignorant, bad-smelling, their bodies gross with sprouting hair, like dogs! And these—these! disdain me as a yellow worm, so that even the lowest whores will not lie with me.
“For the love of Woman, I am come to a place where no woman is worthy of love!” At this point, seeing the dark looks on the seamen’s faces, Jamie ceased translating, and instead tried to calm the Chinaman, laying a big hand on the blue-silk shoulder.
“Aye, man, I quite see. And I’m sure there’s no a man present would have done otherwise, given the choice. Is that not so, lads?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder with eyebrows raised significantly.
His moral force was sufficient to extort a grudging murmur of agreement, but the crowd’s sympathy with the tale of Mr. Willoughby’s travails had been quite dissipated by his insulting conclusion. Pointed remarks were made about licentious, ungrateful heathen, and a great many extravagantly admiring compliments paid to Marsali and me, as the men dispersed aft.
Fergus and Marsali left then, too, Fergus pausing en route to inform Mr. Willoughby that any further remarks about European women would cause him, Fergus, to be obliged to wrap his, Willoughby’s, queue about his neck and strangle him with it.
Mr. Willoughby ignored remarks and threats alike, merely staring straight ahead, his black eyes shining with memory and grog. Jamie at last stood up, too, and held out a hand to help me down from my cask.
It was as we were turning to leave that the Chinaman reached down between his legs. Completely without lewdness, he cupped his testicles, so that the rounded mass pressed against the silk. He rolled them slowly in the palm of his hand, staring at the bulge in deep meditation.
“Sometime,” he said, as though to himself, “I think not worth it.”
WE MEET A PORPOISE
I had been conscious for some time that Marsali was trying to get up the nerve to speak to me. I had thought she would, sooner or later; whatever her feelings toward me, I was the only other woman aboard. I did my best to help, smiling kindly and saying “Good morning,” but the first move would have to be hers.
She made it, finally, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a month after we had left Scotland.
I was writing in our shared cabin, making surgical notes on a minor amputation—two smashed toes on one of the foredeck hands. I had just completed a drawing of the surgical site, when a shadow darkened the doorway of the cabin, and I looked up to see Marsali standing there, chin thrust out pugnaciously.
“I need to know something,” she said firmly. “I dinna like ye, and I reckon ye ken that, but Da says you’re a wisewoman, and I think you’re maybe an honest woman, even if ye are a whore, so you’ll maybe tell me.”
There were any number of possible responses to this remarkable statement, but I refrained from making any of them.
“Maybe I will,” I said, putting down the pen. “What is it you need to know?”
Seeing that I wasn’t angry, she slid into the cabin and sat down on the stool, the only available spot.
“Weel, it’s to do wi’ bairns,” she explained. “And how ye get them.”
I raised one eyebrow. “Your mother didn’t tell you where babies come from?”
She snorted impatiently, her small blond brows knotted in fierce scorn. “O’ course I ken where they come from! Any fool knows that much. Ye let a man put his prick between your legs, and there’s the devil to pay, nine months later. What I want to know is how ye don’t get them.”
“I see.” I regarded her with considerable interest. “You don’t want a child? Er…once you’re properly married, I mean? Most young women seem to.”
“Well,” she said slowly, twisting a handful of her dress. “I think I maybe would like a babe sometime. For itself, I mean. If it maybe had dark hair, like Fergus.” A hint of dreaminess flitted across her face, but then her expression hardened once more.
“But I can’t,” she said.
She pushed out her lips, thinking, then pulled them in again. “Well, because of Fergus. We havena lain together yet. We havena been able to do more than kiss each other now and again behind the hatch covers—thanks to Da and his bloody-minded notions,” she added bitterly.
“Amen,” I said, with some wryness.
“Never mind.” I waved a hand, dismissing it. “What has that got to do with not wanting babies?”
“I want to like it,” she said matter-of-factly. “When we get to the prick part.”
I bit the inside of my lower lip.
“I…er…imagine that has something to do with Fergus, but I’m afraid I don’t quite see what it has to do with babies.”
Marsali eyed me warily. Without hostility for once, more as though she were estimating me in some fashion.
“Fergus likes ye,” she said.
“I’m fond of him, too,” I answered cautiously, not sure where the conversation was heading. “I’ve known him for quite a long time, ever since he was a boy.”
She relaxed suddenly, some of the tension going out of the slender shoulders.
“Oh. You’ll know about it, then—where he was born?”
Suddenly I understood her wariness.
“The brothel in Paris? Yes, I know about that. He told you, then?”
She nodded. “Aye, he did. A long time ago, last Hogmanay.” Well, I supposed a year was a long time to a fifteen-year-old.
“That’s when I told him I loved him,” she went on. Her eyes were fixed on her skirt, and a faint tinge of pink showed in her cheeks. “And he said he loved me, too, but my mother wasna going to ever agree to the match. And I said why not, there was nothing so awful about bein’ French, not everybody could be Scots, and I didna think his hand mattered a bit either—after all, there was Mr. Murray wi’ his wooden leg, and Mother liked him well enough—but then he said, no, it was none of those things, and then he told me—about Paris, I mean, and being born in a brothel and being a pick-pocket until he met Da.”
She raised her eyes, a look of incredulity in the light blue depths. “I think he thought I’d mind,” she said, wonderingly. “He tried to go away, and said he wouldna see me anymore. Well—” she shrugged, tossing her fair hair out of the way, “I soon took care of that.” She looked at me straight on, then, hands clasped in her lap.
“It’s just I didna want to mention it, in case ye didn’t know already. But since ye do…well, it’s no Fergus I’m worried about. He says he knows what to do, and I’ll like it fine, once we’re past the first time or two. But that’s not what my Mam told me.”
“What did she tell you?” I asked, fascinated.
A small line showed between the light brows. “Well…” Marsali said slowly, “it wasna so much she said it—though she did say, when I told her about Fergus and me, that he’d do terrible things to me because of living wi’ whores and having one for a mother—it was more she…she acted like it.”
Her face was a rosy pink now, and she kept her eyes in her lap, where her fingers twisted themselves in the folds of her skirt. The wind seemed to be picking up; small strands of blond hair rose gently from her head, wafted by the breeze from the window.
“When I started to bleed the first time, she told me what to do, and about how it was part o’ the curse of Eve, and I must just put up wi’ it. And I said, what was the curse of Eve? And she read me from the Bible all about how St. Paul said women were terrible, filthy sinners because of what Eve did, but they could still be saved by suffering and bearing children.”
“I never did think a lot of St. Paul,” I observed, and she looked up, startled.
“But he’s in the Bible!” she said, shocked.
“So are a lot of other things,” I said dryly. “Heard that story about Gideon and his daughter, have you? Or the fellow who sent his lady out to be raped to death by a crowd of ruffians, so they wouldn’t get him? God’s chosen men, just like Paul. But go on, do.”
She gaped at me for a minute, but then closed her mouth and nodded, a little stunned.
“Aye, well. Mother said as how it meant I was nearly old enough to be wed, and when I did marry, I must be sure to remember it was a woman’s duty to do as her husband wanted, whether she liked it or no. And she looked so sad when she told me that…I thought whatever a woman’s duty was, it must be awful, and from what St. Paul said about suffering and bearing children…”