Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 132

   

“Well…” Mr. Overholt looked profoundly uneasy. “There is a small quantity of dried figs, ten pound of sugar, some coffee, a quantity of Naples biscuit, and a large cask of Madeira wine, but of course we cannot use that.”

“Why not?” I stared at him, and he shuffled his feet uneasily.

“Why, those supplies are intended for the use of our passenger,” he said.

“What sort of passenger?” I asked blankly.

Mr. Overholt looked surprised. “The Captain did not tell you? We are carrying the new governor for the island of Jamaica. That is the cause—well, one cause”—he corrected himself, dabbing nervously at his bald head with a handkerchief—“of our haste.”

“If he’s not sick, the Governor can eat salt beef,” I said firmly. “Be good for him, I shouldn’t wonder. Now, if you’ll have the wine taken to the galley, I’ve work to do.”

Aided by one of the remaining midshipmen, a short, stocky youth named Pound, I made a rapid tour of the ship, ruthlessly dragooning supplies and hands. Pound, trotting beside me like a small, ferocious bulldog, firmly informed surprised and resentful cooks, carpenters, sweepers, swabbers, sailmakers, and holdsmen that all my wishes—no matter how unreasonable—must be gratified instantly, by the captain’s orders.

Quarantine was the most important thing. As soon as the tween-decks had been scrubbed and aired, the patients would have to be carried down again, but the hammocks restrung with plenty of space between—the unaffected crew would have to sleep on deck—and provided with adequate toilet facilities. I had seen a pair of large kettles in the galley that I thought might do. I made a quick note on the mental list I was keeping, and hoped the chief cook was not as possessive of his receptacles as Murphy was.

I followed Pound’s round head, covered with close-clipped brown curls, down toward the hold in search of worn sails that might be used for cloths. Only half my mind was on my list; with the other half, I was contemplating the possible source of the typhoid outbreak. Caused by a bacillus of the Salmonella genus, it was normally spread by ingestion of the bacillus, carried on hands contaminated by urine or feces.

Given the sanitary habits of seamen, any one of the crew could be the carrier of the disease. The most likely culprit was one of the food handlers, though, given the widespread and sudden nature of the outbreak—the cook or one of his two mates, or possibly one of the stewards. I would have to find out how many of these there were, which messes they served, and whether anyone had changed duties four weeks ago—no, five, I corrected myself. The outbreak had begun four weeks ago, but there was an incubation period for the disease to be considered, too.

“Mr. Pound,” I called, and a round face peered up at me from the foot of the ladder.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Mr. Pound—what’s your first name, by the way?” I asked.

“Elias, ma’am,” he said, looking mildly bewildered.

“Do you mind if I call you so?” I dropped off the foot of the ladder and smiled at him. He smiled hesitantly back.

“Er…no, ma’am. The Captain might mind, though,” he added cautiously. “’Tisn’t really naval, you know.”

Elias Pound couldn’t be more than seventeen or eighteen; I doubted that Captain Leonard was more than five or six years older. Still, protocol was protocol.

“I’ll be very naval in public,” I assured him, suppressing a smile. “But if you’re going to work with me, it will be easier to call you by name.” I knew, as he didn’t, what lay ahead—hours and days and possibly weeks of labor and exhaustion, when the senses would blur, and only bodily habit and blind instinct—and the leadership of a tireless chief—would keep those caring for the sick on their feet.

I was far from tireless, but the illusion would have to be kept up. This could be done with the help of two or three others, whom I could train; substitutes for my own hands and eyes, who could carry on when I must rest. Fate—and Captain Leonard—had designated Elias Pound as my new right hand; best to be on comfortable terms with him at once.

“How long have you been at sea, Elias?” I asked, stopping to peer after him as he ducked under a low platform that held enormous loops of a huge, evil-smelling chain, each link more than twice the size of my fist. The anchor chain? I wondered, touching it curiously. It looked strong enough to moor the Queen Elizabeth, which seemed a comforting thought.

“Since I was seven, ma’am,” he said, working his way out backward, dragging a large chest. He stood up puffing slightly from the exertion, and wiped his round, ingenuous face. “My uncle’s commander in Triton, so he was able to get me a berth in her. I come to join the Porpoise just this voyage, though, out of Edinburgh.” He flipped open the chest, revealing an assortment of rust-smeared surgical implements—at least I hoped it was rust—and a jumbled collection of stoppered bottles and jugs. One of the jars had cracked, and a fine white dust like plaster of Paris lay over everything in the chest.

“This is what Mr. Hunter, the surgeon, had with him, ma’am,” he said. “Will you have use for it?”

“God knows,” I said, peering into the chest. “But I’ll have a look. Have someone else fetch it up to the sickbay, though, Elias. I need you to come and speak firmly to the cook.”

As I oversaw the scrubbing of the tween-decks with boiling seawater, my mind was occupied with several distinct trains of thought.

First, I was mentally charting the necessary steps to take in combating the disease. Two men, far gone from dehydration and malaise, had died during the removal from the tween-decks, and now lay at the far end of the after-deck, where the sailmaker was industriously stitching them into their hammocks for burial, a pair of round shot sewn in at their feet. Four more weren’t going to make it through the night. The remaining forty-five had chances ranging from excellent to slim; with luck and skill, I might save most of them. But how many new cases were brewing, undetected, among the remaining crew?

Huge quantities of water were boiling in the galley at my order; hot seawater for cleansing, boiled fresh water for drinking. I made another tick on my mental list; I must see Mrs. Johansen, she of the milch goats, and arrange for the milk to be sterilized as well.

I must interview the galley hands about their duties; if a single source of infection could be found and isolated, it would do a lot to halt the spread of the disease. Tick.

All of the available alcohol on the ship was being gathered in the sickbay, to the profound horror of Mr. Overholt. It could be used in its present form, but it would be better to have purified alcohol. Could a means be found of distilling it? Check with the purser. Tick.

All the hammocks must be boiled and dried before the healthy hands slept in them. That would have to be done quickly, before the next watch went to its rest. Send Elias for a crew of swabbers and sweepers; laundry duty seemed most in their line. Tick.

Under the growing mental list of necessities were vague but continuing thoughts of the mysterious Tompkins and his unknown information. Whatever it was, it had not resulted in our changing course to return to the Artemis. Either Captain Leonard had not taken it seriously, or he was simply too eager to get to Jamaica to allow anything to hinder his progress.

I had paused for a moment by the rail, to organize my thoughts. I pushed back the hair from my forehead, and lifted my face to the cleansing wind, letting it blow away the stench of sickness. Puffs of ill-smelling steam rose from the nearby hatchway, from the hot-water cleansing going on below. It would be better down there when they had finished, but a long way from fresh air.

I looked out over the rail, hoping vainly for the glimpse of a sail, but the Porpoise was alone, the Artemis—and Jamie—left far behind.

I pushed away the sudden rush of loneliness and panic. I must speak soon with Captain Leonard. Answers to two, at least, of the problems that concerned me lay with him; the possible source of the typhoid outbreak—and the role of the unknown Mr. Tompkins in Jamie’s affairs. But for the moment, there were more pressing matters.

“Elias!” I called, knowing he would be somewhere within reach of my voice. “Take me to Mrs. Johansen and the goats, please.”

47

PLAGUE SHIP

Two days later, I had still not found time to speak to Captain Leonard. Twice, I had gone to his cabin, but found the young Captain gone or unavailable—taking position, I was told, or consulting charts, or otherwise engaged in some bit of sailing arcana.

Mr. Overholt had taken to avoiding me and my insatiable demands, locking himself in his cabin with a pomander of dried sage and hyssop tied round his neck to ward off plague. The able-bodied crewmen assigned to the work of cleaning and shifting had been lethargic and dubious at first, but I had chivvied and scolded, glared and shouted, stamped my foot and shrieked, and got them gradually moving. I felt more like a sheepdog than a doctor—snapping and growling at their heels, and hoarse now with the effort.

It was working, though; there was a new feeling of hope and purpose among the crew—I could feel it. Four new deaths today, and ten new cases reporting, but the sounds of groaning distress from the tween-decks were much less, and the faces of the still-healthy showed the relief that comes of doing something—anything. I had so far failed to find the source of the contagion. If I could do that, and prevent any fresh outbreaks, I might—just possibly—halt the devastation within a week, while the Porpoise still had hands enough to sail her.

A quick canvass of the surviving crew had turned up two men pressed from a county gaol where they had been imprisoned for brewing illicit liquor. I had seized on these gratefully and put them to work building a still in which—to the horror of the crew—half the ship’s store of rum was being distilled into pure alcohol for disinfection.

I had posted one of the surviving midshipmen by the entrance to the sickbay and another by the galley, each armed with a basin of pure alcohol and instructions to see that no one went in or came out without dipping their hands. Beside each midshipman stood a marine with his rifle, charged with the duty of seeing that no one should drink the grimy contents of the barrel into which the used alcohol was emptied when it became too filthy to be used any longer.

In Mrs. Johansen, the gunner’s wife, I had found an unexpected ally. An intelligent woman in her thirties, she had understood—despite her having only a few words of broken English, and my having no Swedish at all—what I wanted done, and had done it.

If Elias was my right hand, Annekje Johansen was the left. She had single-handedly taken over the responsibility of scalding the goats’ milk, patiently pounding hard biscuit—removing the weevils as she did so—to be mixed with it, and feeding the resulting mixture to those hands strong enough to digest it.

Her own husband, the chief gunner, was one of the victims of the typhoid, but he fortunately seemed one of the lighter cases, and I had every hope that he might recover—as much because of his wife’s devoted nursing as because of his own hardy constitution.

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