Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 129

   

She stopped and sighed. I sat quietly, waiting. When she resumed, it was haltingly, as though she had trouble choosing her words.

“I canna remember my father. I was only three when the English took him away. But I was old enough when my mother wed—wed Jamie—to see how it was between them.” She bit her lip; she wasn’t used to calling Jamie by his name.

“Da—Jamie, I mean—he’s kind, I think; he always was to Joan and me. But I’d see, when he’d lay his hand on my mother’s waist and try to draw her close—she’d shrink away from him.” She gnawed her lip some more, then continued.

“I could see she was afraid; she didna like him to touch her. But I couldna see that he ever did anything to be afraid of, not where we could see—so I thought it must be something he did when they were in their bed, alone. Joan and I used to wonder what it could be; Mam never had marks on her face or her arms, and she didna limp when she walked—not like Magdalen Wallace, whose husband always beats her when he’s drunk on market day—so we didna think Da hit her.”

Marsali licked her lips, dried by the warm salt air, and I pushed the jug of water toward her. She nodded in thanks and poured a cupful.

“So I thought,” she said, eyes fixed on the stream of water, “that it must be because Mam had had children—had us—and she knew it would be terrible again and so she didna want to go to bed with—with Jamie for fear of it.”

She took a drink, then set down the cup and looked at me directly, firming her chin in challenge.

“I saw ye with my Da,” she said. “Just that minute, before he saw me. I—I think ye liked what he was doing to you in the bed.”

I opened my mouth, and closed it again.

“Well…yes,” I said, a little weakly. “I did.”

She grunted in satisfaction. “Mmphm. And ye like it when he touches ye; I’ve seen. Well, then. Ye havena got any children. And I’d heard there are ways not to have them, only nobody seems to know just how, but you must, bein’ a wisewoman and all.”

She tilted her head to one side, studying me.

“I’d like a babe,” she admitted, “but if it’s got to be a babe or liking Fergus, then it’s Fergus. So it won’t be a babe—if you’ll tell me how.”

I brushed the curls back behind my ear, wondering where on earth to start.

“Well,” I said, drawing a deep breath, “to begin with, I have had children.”

Her eyes sprang wide and round at this.

“Ye do? Does Da—does Jamie know?”

“Well, of course he does,” I replied testily. “They were his.”

“I never heard Da had any bairns at all.” The pale eyes narrowed with suspicion.

“I don’t imagine he thought it was any of your business,” I said, perhaps a trifle more sharply than necessary. “And it’s not, either,” I added, but she just raised her brows and went on looking suspicious.

“The first baby died,” I said, capitulating. “In France. She’s buried there. My—our second daughter is grown now; she was born after Culloden.”

“So he’s never seen her? The grown one?” Marsali spoke slowly, frowning.

I shook my head, unable to speak for a moment. There seemed to be something stuck in my throat, and I reached for the water. Marsali pushed the jug absently in my direction, leaning against the swing of the ship.

“That’s verra sad,” she said softly, to herself. Then she glanced up at me, frowning once more in concentration as she tried to work it all out.

“So ye’ve had children, and it didna make a difference to you? Mmphm. But it’s been a long while, then—did ye have other men whilst ye were away in France?” Her lower lip came up over the upper one, making her look very much like a small and stubborn bulldog.

“That,” I said firmly, putting the cup down, “is definitely none of your business. As to whether childbirth makes a difference, possibly it does to some women, but not all of them. But whether it does or not, there are good reasons why you might not want to have a child right away.”

She withdrew the pouting underlip and sat up straight, interested.

“So there is a way?”

“There are a lot of ways, and unfortunately most of them don’t work,” I told her, with a pang of regret for my prescription pad and the reliability of contraceptive pills. Still, I remembered well enough the advice of the maîtresses sage-femme, the experienced midwives of the Hôpital des Anges, where I had worked in Paris twenty years before.

“Hand me the small box in the cupboard over there,” I said, pointing to the doors above her head. “Yes, that one.

“Some of the French midwives make a tea of bayberry and valerian,” I said, rummaging in my medicine box. “But it’s rather dangerous, and not all that dependable, I don’t think.”

“D’ye miss her?” Marsali asked abruptly. I glanced up, startled. “Your, daughter?” Her face was abnormally expressionless, and I suspected the question had more to do with Laoghaire than with me.

“Yes,” I said simply. “But she’s grown; she has her own life.” The lump in my throat was back, and I bent my head over the medicine box, hiding my face. The chances of Laoghaire ever seeing Marsali again were just about as good as the chances that I would ever see Brianna; it wasn’t a thought I wanted to dwell on.

“Here,” I said, pulling out a large chunk of cleaned sponge. I took one of the thin surgical knives from the fitted slots in the lid of the box and carefully sliced off several thin pieces, about three inches square. I searched through the box again and found the small bottle of tansy oil, with which I carefully saturated one square under Marsali’s fascinated gaze.

“All right,” I said. “That’s about how much oil to use. If you haven’t any oil, you can dip the sponge in vinegar—even wine will work, in a pinch. You put the bit of sponge well up inside you before you go to bed with a man—mind you do it even the first time; you can get with child from even once.”

Marsali nodded, her eyes wide, and touched the sponge gently with a forefinger. “Aye? And—and after? Do I take it out again, or—”

An urgent shout from above, coupled with a sudden heeling of the Artemis as she backed her mainsails, put an abrupt end to the conversation. Something was happening up above.

“I’ll tell you later,” I said, pushing the sponge and bottle toward her, and headed for the passage.

Jamie was standing with the Captain on the afterdeck, watching the approach of a large ship behind us. She was perhaps three times the size of the Artemis, three-masted, with a perfect forest of rigging and sail, through which small black figures hopped like fleas on a bedsheet. A puff of white smoke floated in her wake, token of a cannon recently fired.

“Is she firing on us?” I asked in amazement.

“No,” Jamie said grimly. “A warning shot only. She means to board us.”

“Can they?” I addressed the question to Captain Raines, who was looking even more glum than usual, the downturned corners of his mouth sunk in his beard.

“They can,” he said. “We’ll not outrun her in a stiff breeze like this, on the open sea.”

“What is she?” Her ensign flew at the masthead, but seen against the sun at this distance, it looked completely black.

Jamie glanced down at me, expressionless. “A British man-o-war, Sassenach. Seventy-four guns. Perhaps ye’d best go below.”

This was bad news. While Britain was no longer at war with France, relations between the two countries were by no means cordial. And while the Artemis was armed, she had only four twelve-pound guns; sufficient to deter small pirates, but no match for a man-of-war.

“What can they want of us?” Jamie asked the Captain. Raines shook his head, his soft, plump face set grimly.

“Likely pressing,” he answered. “She’s shorthanded; you can see by her rigging—and her foredeck all ahoo,” he noted disapprovingly, eyes fixed on the man-of-war, now looming as she drew alongside. He glanced at Jamie. “They can press any of our hands who look to be British—which is something like half the crew. And yourself, Mr. Fraser—unless you wish to pass for French?”

“Damn,” Jamie said softly. He glanced at me and frowned. “Did I not tell ye to get below?”

“You did,” I said, not going. I drew closer to him, my eyes fixed on the man-of-war, where a small boat was now being lowered. One officer, in a gilded coat and laced hat, was climbing down the side.

“If they press the British hands,” I asked Captain Raines, “what will happen to them?”

“They’ll serve aboard the Porpoise—that’s her,” he nodded at the man-of-war, which sported a puff-lipped fish as the figurehead, “as members of the Royal Navy. She may release the pressed hands when she reaches port—or she may not.”

“What? You mean they can just kidnap men and make them serve as sailors for as long as they please?” A thrill of fear shot through me, at the thought of Jamie’s being abruptly taken away.

“They can,” the Captain said shortly. “And if they do, we’ll have a job of it to reach Jamaica ourselves, with half a crew.” He turned abruptly and went forward, to greet the arriving boat.

Jamie gripped my elbow and squeezed.

“They’ll not take Innes or Fergus,” he said. “They’ll help ye to hunt for Young Ian. If they take us”—I noted the “us” with a sharp pang—“you’ll go on to Jared’s place at Sugar Bay, and search from there.” He looked down and gave me a brief smile. “I’ll meet ye there,” he said, and gave my elbow a reassuring squeeze. “I canna say how long it might be, but I’ll come to ye there.”

“But you could pass as a Frenchman!” I protested. “You know you could!”

He looked at me for a moment, and shook his head, smiling faintly.

“No,” he said softly. “I canna let them take my men, and stay behind, hiding under a Frenchman’s name.”

“But—” I started to protest that the Scottish smugglers were not his men, had no claim on his loyalty, and then stopped, realizing that it was useless. The Scots might not be his tenants or his kin, and one of them might well be a traitor. But he had brought them here, and if they went, he would go with them.

“Dinna mind it, Sassenach,” he said softly. “I shall be all right, one way or the other. But I think it is best if our name is Malcolm, for the moment.”

He patted my hand, then released it and went forward, shoulders braced to meet whatever was coming. I followed, more slowly. As the gig pulled alongside, I saw Captain Raines’s eyebrows rise in astonishment.

“God save us, what is this?” he murmured under his breath, as a head appeared above the Artemis’s rail.

It was a young man, evidently in his late twenties, but with his face drawn and shoulders slumping with fatigue. A uniform coat that was too big for him had been tugged on over a filthy shirt, and he staggered slightly as the deck of the Artemis rose beneath him.

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