Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 131

   

If not for the headache, it could be simple gastroenteritis—but not with this many men stricken. Something very contagious indeed, and I was fairly sure what. Not malaria, coming from Europe to the Caribbean. Typhus was a possibility; spread by the common body louse, it was prone to rapid spread in close quarters like these, and the symptoms were similar to those I saw around me—with one distinctive difference.

That seaman didn’t have the characteristic belly rash, nor the next, but the third one did. The light red rosettes were plain on the clammy white skin. I pressed firmly on one, and it disappeared, blinking back into existence a moment later, as the blood returned to the skin. I squeezed my way between the hammocks, the heavy, sweating bodies pressing in on me from either side, and made my way back to the companionway where Captain Leonard and two more of his midshipmen waited for me.

“It’s typhoid,” I told the Captain. I was as sure as I could be, lacking a microscope and blood culture.

“Oh?” His drawn face remained apprehensive. “Do you know what to do for it, Mrs. Malcolm?”

“Yes, but it won’t be easy. The sick men need to be taken above, washed thoroughly, and laid where they can have fresh air to breathe. Beyond that, it’s a matter of nursing; they’ll need to have a liquid diet—and lots of water—boiled water, that’s very important!—and sponging to bring down the fever. The most important thing is to avoid infecting any more of your crew, though. There are several things that need to be done—”

“Do them,” he interrupted. “I shall give orders to have as many of the healthy men as can be spared to attend you; order them as you will.”

“Well,” I said, with a dubious glance at the surroundings. “I can make a start, and tell you how to be going on, but it’s going to be a big job. Captain Raines and my husband will be anxious to be on our way.”

“Mrs. Malcolm,” the Captain said earnestly, “I shall be eternally grateful for any assistance you can render us. We are most urgently bound for Jamaica, and unless the remainder of my crew can be saved from this wicked illness, we will never reach that island.” He spoke with profound seriousness, and I felt a twinge of pity for him.

“All right,” I said with a sigh. “Send me a dozen healthy crewmen, for a start.”

Climbing to the quarterdeck, I went to the rail and waved at Jamie, who was standing by the Artemis’s wheel, looking upward. I could see his face clearly, despite the distance; it was worried, but relaxed into a broad smile when he saw me.

“Are ye comin’ down now?” he shouted, cupping his hands.

“Not yet!” I shouted back. “I need two hours!” Holding up two fingers to make my meaning clear in case he hadn’t heard, I stepped back from the rail, but not before I saw the smile fade from his face. He’d heard.

I saw the sick men removed to the afterdeck, and a crew of hands set to strip them of their filthy clothes, and hose and sponge them with seawater from the pumps. I was in the galley, instructing the cook and galley crew in food-handling precautions, when I felt the movement of the deck under my feet.

The cook to whom I was talking snaked out a hand and snapped shut the latch of the cupboard behind him. With the utmost dispatch, he grabbed a loose pot that leapt off its shelf, thrust a large ham on a spit into the lower cupboard, and whirled to clap a lid on the boiling pot hung over the galley fire.

I stared at him in astonishment. I had seen Murphy perform this same odd ballet, whenever the Artemis cast off or changed course abruptly.

“What—” I said, but then abandoned the question, and headed for the quarterdeck, as fast as I could go. We were under way; big and solid as the Porpoise was, I could feel the vibration that ran through the keel as she took the wind.

I burst onto the deck to find a cloud of sails overhead, set and drawing, and the Artemis falling rapidly behind us. Captain Leonard was standing by the helmsman, looking back to the Artemis, as the master bawled commands to the men overhead.

“What are you doing?” I shouted. “You bloody little bastard, what’s going on here?”

The Captain glanced at me, plainly embarrassed, but with his jaw set stubbornly.

“We must get to Jamaica with the utmost dispatch,” he said. His cheeks were chapped red with the rushing sea wind, or he might have blushed. “I am sorry, Mrs. Malcolm—indeed I regret the necessity, but—”

“But nothing!” I said, furious. “Put about! Heave to! Drop the bloody anchor! You can’t take me away like this!”

“I regret the necessity,” he said again, doggedly. “But I believe that we require your continuing services most urgently, Mrs. Malcolm. Don’t worry,” he said, striving for a reassurance that he didn’t achieve. He reached out as though to pat my shoulder, but then thought better of it. His hand dropped to his side.

“I have promised your husband that the navy will provide you accommodation in Jamaica until the Artemis arrives there.”

He flinched backward at the look on my face, evidently afraid that I might attack him—and not without reason.

“What do you mean you promised my husband?” I said, through gritted teeth. “Do you mean that J—that Mr. Malcolm permitted you to abduct me?”

“Er…no. No, he didn’t.” The Captain appeared to be finding the interview a strain. He dragged a filthy handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow and the back of his neck. “He was most intransigent, I’m afraid.”

“Intransigent, eh? Well, so am I!” I stamped my foot on the deck, aiming for his toes, and missing only because he leapt agilely backward. “If you expect me to help you, you bloody kidnapper, just bloody think again!”

The Captain tucked his handkerchief away and set his jaw. “Mrs. Malcolm. You compel me to tell you what I told your husband. The Artemis sails under a French flag, and with French papers, but more than half her crew are Englishmen or Scots. I could have pressed these men to service here—and I badly need them. Instead, I have agreed to leave them unmolested, in return for the gift of your medical knowledge.”

“So you’ve decided to press me instead. And my husband agreed to this…this bargain?”

“No, he didn’t,” the young man said, rather dryly. “The captain of the Artemis, however, perceived the force of my argument.” He blinked down at me, his eyes swollen from days without sleep, the too-big jacket flapping around his slender torso. Despite his youth and his slovenly appearance, he had considerable dignity.

“I must beg your pardon for what must seem the height of ungentlemanly behavior, Mrs. Malcolm—but the truth is that I am desperate,” he said simply. “You may be our only chance. I must take it.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but then closed it. Despite my fury—and my profound unease about what Jamie was going to say when I saw him again—I felt some sympathy for his position. It was quite true that he stood in danger of losing most of his crew, without help. Even with my help, we would lose some—but that wasn’t a prospect I cared to dwell on.

“All right,” I said, through my teeth. “All…right!” I looked out over the rail, at the dwindling sails of the Artemis. I wasn’t prone to seasickness, but I felt a distinct hollowing in the pit of my stomach as the ship—and Jamie—fell far behind. “I wouldn’t appear to have a lot of choice in the matter. If you can spare as many men as possible to scrub down the tween-decks—oh, and have you any alcohol on board?”

He looked mildly surprised. “Alcohol? Well, there is the rum for the hands’ grog, and possibly some wine from the gun room locker. Will that do?”

“If that’s what you have, it will have to do.” I tried to push aside my own emotions, long enough to deal with the situation. “I suppose I must speak to the purser, then.”

“Yes, of course. Come with me.” Leonard started toward the companion-way that led belowdecks, then, flushing, stood back and gestured awkwardly to let me go first—lest my descent expose my lower limbs indelicately, I supposed. Biting my lip with a mixture of anger and amusement, I went.

I had just reached the bottom of the ladder when I heard a confusion of voices above.

“No, I tell ’ee, the captain’s not to be disturbed! Whatever you have to say will—”

“Leave go! I tell you, if you don’t let me speak to him now, it will be too late!”

And then Leonard’s voice, suddenly sharp as he turned to the interlopers. “Stevens? What is this? What’s the matter?”

“No matter, sir,” said the first voice, suddenly obsequious. “Only that Tompkins here is sure as he knows the cove what was on that ship—the big ’un, with the red hair. He says—”

“I haven’t time,” the captain said shortly. “Tell the mate, Tompkins, and I shall attend to it later.”

I was, naturally, halfway back up the ladder by the time these words were spoken, and listening for all I was worth.

The hatchway darkened as Leonard began the backward descent down the ladder. The young man glanced at me sharply, but I kept my face carefully blank, saying only, “Have you many food stores left, Captain? The sick men will need to be fed very carefully. I don’t suppose there would be any milk saboard, but—”

“Oh, there’s milk,” he said, suddenly more cheerful. “We have six milch goats, in fact. The gunner’s wife, Mrs. Johansen, does quite wonderfully with them. I’ll send her to talk with you, after we’ve seen the purser.”

Captain Leonard introduced me briefly to Mr. Overholt, the purser, and then left, with the injunction that I should be afforded every possible service. Mr. Overholt, a small, plump man with a bald and shining head, peered at me out of the deep collar of his coat like an undersized Humpty-Dumpty, murmuring unhappily about the scarcity of everything near the end of a cruise, and how unfortunate everything was, but I scarcely attended to him. I was much too agitated, thinking of what I had overheard.

Who was this Tompkins? The voice was entirely unfamiliar, and I was sure I had never heard the name before. More important, what did he know about Jamie? And what was Captain Leonard likely to do with the information? As it was, there was nothing I could do now, save contain my impatience, and with the half of my mind not busy with fruitless speculation, work out with Mr. Overholt what supplies were available for use in sickroom feeding.

Not a great deal, as it turned out.

“No, they certainly can’t eat salt beef,” I said firmly. “Nor yet hardtack, though if we soak the biscuit in boiled milk, perhaps we can manage that as they begin to recover. If you knock the weevils out first,” I added, as an afterthought.

“Fish,” Mr. Overholt suggested, in a hopeless sort of way. “We often encounter substantial schools of mackerel or even bonita, as we approach the Caribbean. Sometimes the crew will have luck with baited lines.”

“Maybe that would do,” I said, absently. “Boiled milk and water will be enough in the early stages, but as the men begin to recover, they should have something light and nourishing—soup, for instance. I suppose we could make a fish soup? Unless you have something else that might be suitable?”

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