Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 133

   

“Ma’am, Ruthven says as somebody’s been a-drinking of the pure alcohol again.” Elias Pound popped up at my elbow, his round pink face looking drawn and wan, substantially thinned by the pressures of the last few days.

I said something extremely bad, and his brown eyes widened.

“Sorry,” I said. I wiped the back of a hand across my brow, trying to get my hair out of my eyes. “Don’t mean to offend your tender ears, Elias.”

“Oh, I’ve heard it before, ma’am,” Elias assured me. “Just not from a lady, like.”

“I’m not a lady, Elias,” I said tiredly. “I’m a doctor. Have someone go and search the ship for whoever it was; they’ll likely be unconscious by now.” He nodded and whirled on one foot.

“I’ll look in the cable tier,” he said. “That’s where they usually hide when they’re drunk.”

This was the fourth in the last three days. Despite all guards set over the still and the purified alcohol, the hands, living on half their usual daily ration of grog, were so desperate for drink that they contrived somehow to get at the pure grain alcohol meant for sterilization.

“Goodness, Mrs. Malcolm,” the purser had said, shaking his bald head when I complained about the problem. “Seamen will drink anything, ma’am! Spoilt plum brandy, peaches mashed inside a rubber boot and left to ferment—why, I’ve even known a hand caught stealing the old bandages from the surgeon’s quarters and soaking them, in hopes of getting a whiff of alcohol. No, ma’am, telling them that drinking it will kill them certainly won’t stop them.”

Kill them it did. One of the four men who had drunk it had died; two more were in their own boarded-off section of the sickbay, deeply comatose. If they survived, they were likely to be permanently brain-damaged.

“Not that being on a bloody floating hellhole like this isn’t likely to brain-damage anyone,” I remarked bitterly to a tern who alighted on the rail nearby. “As if it isn’t enough, trying to save half the miserable lot from typhoid, now the other half is trying to kill themselves with my alcohol! Damn the bloody lot of them!”

The tern cocked its head, decided I was not edible, and flew away. The ocean stretched empty all around—before us, where the unknown West Indies concealed Young Ian’s fate, and behind, where Jamie and the Artemis had long since vanished. And me in the middle, with six hundred drink-mad English sailors and a hold full of inflamed bowels.

I stood fuming for a moment, then turned with decision toward the forward gangway. I didn’t care if Captain Leonard was personally pumping the bilges, he was going to talk to me.

I stopped just inside the door of the cabin. It was not yet noon, but the Captain was asleep, head pillowed on his forearms, on top of an outspread book. The quill had fallen from his fingers, and the glass inkstand, cleverly held in its anchored bracket, swayed gently with the motion of the ship. His face was turned to the side, cheek pressed flat on his arm. Despite the heavy beard stubble, he looked absurdly young.

I turned, meaning to come back later, but in moving, brushed against the locker, where a stack of books was precariously balanced amid a rubble of papers, navigational instruments, and half-rolled charts. The top volume fell with a thump to the deck.

The sound was scarcely audible above the general sounds of creaking, flapping, whining rigging, and shouting that made up the background of life on shipboard, but it brought him awake, blinking and looking startled.

“Mrs. Fra—Mrs. Malcolm!” he said. He rubbed a hand over his face, and shook his head quickly, trying to wake himself. “What—that is—you required something?”

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” I said. “But I do need more alcohol—if necessary, I can use straight rum—and you really must speak to the hands, to see if there is some way of stopping them trying to drink the distilled alcohol. We’ve had another that’s poisoned himself today. And if there’s any way of bringing more fresh air down to the sickbay…” I stopped, seeing that I was overwhelming him.

He blinked and scratched, slowly pulling his thoughts into order. The buttons on his sleeve had left two round red imprints on his cheek, and his hair was flattened on that side.

“I see,” he said, rather stupidly. Then, as he began to wake, his expression cleared. “Yes. Of course. I will give orders to have a windsail rigged, to bring more air below. As for the alcohol—I must beg leave to consult the purser, as I do not myself know our present capacities in that regard.” He turned and took a breath, as though to shout, but then remembered that his steward was no longer within earshot, being now below in the sickbay. Just then, the ting of the ship’s bell came faintly from above.

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Malcolm,” he said, politeness recovered. “It is nearly noon; I must go and take our position. I will send the purser to you, should you care to remain here for a moment.”

“Thank you.” I sat down in the chair he had just vacated. He turned to go, making an attempt to straighten the too-large braided coat over his shoulders.

“Captain Leonard?” I said, moved by a sudden impulse. He turned back, questioning.

“If you don’t mind my asking—how old are you?”

He blinked and his face tightened, but he answered me.

“I am nineteen, ma’am. Your servant, ma’am.” And with that, he vanished through the door. I could hear him in the companionway, calling out in a voice half-cracked with fatigue.

Nineteen! I sat quite still, paralyzed with shock. I had thought him very young, but not nearly that young. His face weathered from exposure and lined with strain and sleeplessness, he had looked to be at least in his mid-twenties. My God! I thought, appalled. He’s no more than a baby!

Nineteen. Just Brianna’s age. And to be suddenly thrust into command not only of a ship—and not just a ship, but an English man-of-war—and not merely a man-of-war, but one with a plague aboard that had deprived her suddenly of a quarter of her crew and virtually all her command—I felt the fright and fury that had bubbled inside me for the last few days begin to ebb, as I realized that the high-handedness that had led him to kidnap me was in fact not arrogance or ill-judgment, but the result of sheer desperation.

He had to have help, he had said. Well, he was right, and I was it. I took a deep breath, visualizing the mess I had left behind in the sickbay. That was mine, and mine alone, to do the best I could with.

Captain Leonard had left the logbook open on the desk, his entry half-complete. There was a small damp spot on the page; he had drooled slightly in his sleep. In a spasm of irritated pity, I flipped over the page, wishing to hide this further evidence of his vulnerability.

My eye caught a word on the new page, and I stopped, a chill snaking down from the nape of my neck as I remembered something. When I had wakened him unexpectedly, the captain had started up, seen me, and said, “Mrs. Fra—” before catching himself. And the name on the page before me, the word that had caught my attention, was “Fraser.” He knew who I was—and who Jamie was.

I rose quickly and shut the door, dropping the bolt. At least I would have warning if anyone came. Then I sat down at the captain’s desk, pressed flat the pages, and began to read.

I flipped back to find the record of the meeting with the Artemis, three days before. Captain Leonard’s entries were distinct from those of his predecessor, and mostly quite brief—not surprising, considering how much he had had to deal with of late. Most entries contained only the usual navigational information, with a brief note of the names of those men who had died since the previous day. The meeting with the Artemis was noted, though, and my own presence.

3 February, 1767. Met near eight bells with Artemis, a small two-masted brig under French colors. Hailed her and requested the assistance of her surgeon, C. Malcolm, who was taken on board and remains with us to assist with the sick.

C. Malcolm, eh? No mention of my being a woman; perhaps he thought it irrelevant, or wished to avoid any inquiries over the propriety of his actions. I went on to the next entry.

4 February 1767. I have rec’d information this day from Harry Tompkins, able seaman, that the supercargo of the brig Artemis is known to him as a criminal by the name of James Fraser, known also by the names of Jamie Roy and of Alexander Malcolm. This Fraser is a seditionist, and a notorious smuggler, for whose capture a substantial reward is offered by the King’s Customs. Information was received from Tompkins after we had parted company with Artemis; I thought it not expeditious to pursue Artemis, as we are ordered with all possible dispatch for Jamaica, because of our passenger. However, as I have promised to return the Artemis’s surgeon to them there, Fraser may be arrested at that time.

Two men dead of the plague—which the Artemis’s surgeon informs me is the Typhoide. Jno. Jaspers, able seaman, DD, Harty Kepple, cook’s mate, DD.

That was all; the next day’s entry was confined entirely to navigation and the recording of the death of six men, all with “DD” written beside their names. I wondered what it meant, but was too distracted to worry about it.

I heard steps coming down the passageway, and barely got the bolt lifted before the purser’s knock sounded on the door. I scarcely heard Mr. Overholt’s apologies; my mind was too busy trying to make sense of this new revelation.

Who in blinking, bloody hell was this man Tompkins? No one I had ever seen or heard about, I was sure, and yet he obviously knew a dangerous amount about Jamie’s activities. Which led to two questions: How had an English seaman come by such information—and who else knew it?

“…cut the grog rations further, to give you an additional cask of rum,” Mr. Overholt was saying dubiously. “The hands won’t like it, but we might manage; we’re only two weeks out of Jamaica now.”

“Whether they like it or not, I need the alcohol more than they need grog,” I answered brusquely. “If they complain too much, tell them if I don’t have the rum, none of them may make it to Jamaica.”

Mr. Overholt sighed, and wiped small beads of sweat from his shiny brow.

“I’ll tell them, ma’am,” he said, too beaten down to object.

“Fine. Oh, Mr. Overholt?” He turned back, questioning. “What does the legend ‘DD’ mean? I saw the Captain write it in his log.”

A small flicker of humor lighted in the purser’s deep-sunk eyes.

“It means ‘Discharged, Dead,’ ma’am,” he replied. “The only sure way for most of us, of leaving His Majesty’s Navy.”

As I oversaw the bathing of bodies and the constant infusions of sweetened water and boiled milk, my mind continued to work on the problem of the unknown Tompkins.

I knew nothing of the man, save his voice. He might be one of the faceless horde overhead, the silhouettes that I saw in the rigging when I came up on deck for air, or one of the hurrying anonymous bodies, hurtling up and down the decks in a vain effort to do the work of three men.

I would meet him, of course, if he became infected; I knew the names of each patient in the sickbay. But I could hardly allow the matter to wait, in the rather ghoulish hope that Tompkins would contract typhoid. At last I made up my mind to ask; the man presumably knew who I was, anyway. Even if he found out that I had been asking about him, it was unlikely to do any harm.

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