“But what about the Customs officer who was killed on the road?” I asked sharply. I couldn’t repress a small shudder, at memory of that dreadful face. “Who did that? There were only five men among the smugglers who could possibly have done it, and none of them are Englishmen!”
Tompkins rubbed a hand over his mouth; he seemed to be debating the wisdom of telling me or not. I picked up the brandy bottle and set it by his elbow.
“Why, I’m much obliged, Missus Fraser! You’re a true Christian, missus, and so I shall tell anyone who asks!”
“Skip the testimonials,” I said dryly. “Just tell me what you know about the Customs officer.”
He filled the cup and drained it, sipping slowly. Then, with a sigh of satisfaction, he set it down and licked his lips.
“It wasn’t none of the smugglers done him in, missus. It was his own mate.”
“What!” I jerked back, startled, but he nodded, blinking his good eye in token of sincerity.
“That’s right, missus. There was two of ’em, wasn’t there? Well, the one of them had his instructions, didn’t he?”
The instructions had been to wait until whatever smugglers escaped the ambush on the beach had reached the road, whereupon the Customs officer was to drop a noose over his partner’s head in the dark and strangle him swiftly, then string him up and leave him, as evidence of the smugglers’ murderous wrath.
“But why?” I said, bewildered and horrified. “What was the point of doing that?”
“Do you not see?” Tompkins looked surprised, as though the logic of the situation should be obvious. “We’d failed to get the evidence from the printshop that would have proved the case of sedition against Fraser, and with the shop burnt to the ground, no possibility of another chance. Nor had we ever caught Fraser red-handed with the goods himself, only some of the small fish who worked for him. One of the other agents thought he’d a clue where the stuff was kept, but something happened to him—perhaps Fraser caught him or bought him off, for he disappeared one day in November, and wasn’t heard of again, nor the hiding place for the contraband, neither.”
“I see.” I swallowed, thinking of the man who had accosted me on the stairs of the brothel. What had become of that cask of crème de menthe? “But—”
“Well, I’m telling you, missus, just you wait.” Tompkins raised a monitory hand. “So—here’s Sir Percival, knowing as he’s got a rare case, with a man’s not only one of the biggest smugglers on the Firth, and the author of some of the most first-rate seditious material it’s been my privilege to see, but is also a pardoned Jacobite traitor, whose name will make the trial a sensation from one end of the kingdom to the other. The only trouble being”—he shrugged—“as there’s no evidence.”
It began to make a hideous sort of sense, as Tompkins explained the plan. The murder of a Customs officer killed in pursuit of duty would not only make any smuggler arrested for the crime subject to a capital charge, but was the sort of heinous crime that would cause a major public outcry. The matter-of-fact acceptance that smugglers enjoyed from the populace would not protect them in a matter of such callous villainy.
“Your Sir Percival has got the makings of a really first-class son of a bitch,” I observed. Tompkins nodded meditatively, blinking into his cup.
“Well, you’ve the right of it there, missus, I’ll not say you’re wrong.”
“And the Customs officer who was killed—I suppose he was just a convenience?”
Tompkins sniggered, with a fine spray of brandy. His one eye seemed to be having some trouble focusing.
“Oh, very convenient, Missus, more ways than one. Don’t you grieve none on his account. There was a good many folk glad enough to see Tom Oakie swing—and not the least of ’em, Sir Percival.”
“I see.” I finished fastening the bandage about his calf. It was getting late; I would have to get back to the sickbay soon.
“I’d better call someone to take you to your hammock,” I said, taking the nearly empty bottle from his unresisting hand. “You should rest your leg for at least three days; tell your officer I said you can’t go aloft until I’ve taken out the stitches.”
“I’ll do that, missus, and I thank you for your kindness to a poor unfortunate sailor.” Tompkins made an abortive attempt to stand, looking surprised when he failed. I got a hand under his armpit and heaved, getting him on his feet, and—he declining my offer to summon him assistance—helped him to the door.
“You needn’t worry about Harry Tompkins, missus,” he said, weaving unsteadily into the corridor. He turned and gave me an exaggerated wink. “Old Harry always ends up all right, no matter what.” Looking at him, with his long nose, pink-tipped from liquor, his large, transparent ears, and his single sly brown eye, it came to me suddenly what he reminded me of.
“When were you born, Mr. Tompkins?” I asked.
He blinked for a moment, uncomprehending, but then said, “The Year of our Lord 1713, missus. Why?”
“No reason,” I said, and waved him off, watching as he caromed slowly down the corridor, dropping out of sight at the ladder like a bag of oats. I would have to check with Mr. Willoughby to be sure, but at the moment, I would have wagered my chemise that 1713 had been a Year of the Rat.
MOMENT OF GRACE
Over the next few days, a routine set in, as it does in even the most desperate circumstances, provided that they continue long enough. The hours after a battle are urgent and chaotic, with men’s lives hanging on a second’s action. Here a doctor can be heroic, knowing for certain that the wound just stanched has saved a life, that the quick intervention will save a limb. But in an epidemic, there is none of that.
Then come the long days of constant watching and battles fought on the field of germs—and with no weapons suited to that field, it can be no more than a battle of delay, doing the small things that may not help but must be done, over and over and over again, fighting the invisible enemy of disease, in the tenuous hope that the body can be supported long enough to outlast its attacker.
To fight disease without medicine is to push against a shadow; a darkness that spreads as inexorably as night. I had been fighting for nine days, and forty-six more men were dead.
Still, I rose each day at dawn, splashed water into my grainy eyes, and went once more to the field of war, unarmed with anything save persistence—and a barrel of alcohol.
There were some victories, but even these left a bitter taste in my mouth. I found the likely source of infection—one of the messmates, a man named Howard. First serving on board as a member of one of the gun crews, Howard had been transferred to galley duty six weeks before, the result of an accident with a recoiling gun-carriage that had crushed several fingers.
Howard had served the gun room, and the first known case of the disease—taken from the incomplete records of the dead surgeon, Mr. Hunter—was one of the marines who messed there. Four more cases, all from the gun room, and then it had begun to spread, as infected but still ambulatory men left the deadly contamination smeared in the ship’s heads, to be picked up there and passed to the crew at large.
Howard’s admission that he had seen sickness like this before, on other ships where he had served, was enough to clinch the matter. However, the cook, shorthanded as everyone else aboard, had declined absolutely to part with a valuable hand, only because of “a goddamned female’s silly notion!”
Elias could not persuade him, and I had been obliged to summon the captain himself, who—misunderstanding the nature of the disturbance, had arrived with several armed marines. There was a most unpleasant scene in the galley, and Howard was removed to the brig—the only place of certain quarantine—protesting in bewilderment, and demanding to know his crime.
As I came up from the galley, the sun was going down into the ocean in a blaze that paved the western sea with gold like the streets of Heaven. I stopped for a moment, just a moment, transfixed by the sight.
It had happened many times before, but it always took me by surprise. Always in the midst of great stress, wading waist-deep in trouble and sorrow, as doctors do, I would glance out a window, open a door, look into a face, and there it would be, unexpected and unmistakable. A moment of peace.
The light spread from the sky to the ship, and the great horizon was no longer a blank threat of emptiness, but the habitation of joy. For a moment, I lived in the center of the sun, warmed and cleansed, and the smell and sight of sickness fell away; the bitterness lifted from my heart.
I never looked for it, gave it no name; yet I knew it always, when the gift of peace came. I stood quite still for the moment that it lasted, thinking it strange and not strange that grace should find me here, too.
Then the light shifted slightly and the moment passed, leaving me as it always did, with the lasting echo of its presence. In a reflex of acknowledgment, I crossed myself and went below, my tarnished armor faintly gleaming.
Elias Pound died of the typhoid four days later. It was a virulent infection; he came to the sickbay heavy-eyed with fever and wincing at the light; six hours later he was delirious and unable to rise. The next dawn he pressed his cropped round head against my bosom, called me “Mother,” and died in my arms.
I did what had to be done throughout the day, and stood by Captain Leonard at sunset, when he read the burial service. The body of Midshipman Pound was consigned to the sea, wrapped in his hammock.
I declined the Captain’s invitation to dinner, and went instead to sit in a remote corner of the afterdeck, next to one of the great guns, where I could look out over the water, showing my face to no one. The sun went down in gold and glory, succeeded by a night of starred velvet, but there was no moment of grace, no peace in either sight for me.
As the darkness settled over the ship, all her movements began to slow. I leaned my head against the gun, the polished metal cool under my cheek. A seaman passed me at a fast walk, intent on his duties, and then I was alone.
I ached desperately; my head throbbed, my back was stiff and my feet swollen, but none of these was of any significance, compared to the deeper ache that knotted my heart.
Any doctor hates to lose a patient. Death is the enemy, and to lose someone in your care to the clutch of the dark angel is to be vanquished yourself, to feel the rage of betrayal and impotence, beyond the common, human grief of loss and the horror of death’s finality. I had lost twenty-three men between dawn and sunset of this day. Elias was only the first.
Several had died as I sponged their bodies or held their hands; others, alone in their hammocks, had died uncomforted even by a touch, because I could not reach them in time. I thought I had resigned myself to the realities of this time, but knowing—even as I held the twitching body of an eighteen-year-old seaman as his bowels dissolved in blood and water—that penicillin would have saved most of them, and I had none, was galling as an ulcer, eating at my soul.
The box of syringes and ampules had been left behind on the Artemis, in the pocket of my spare skirt. If I had had it, I could not have used it. If I had used it, I could have saved no more than one or two. But even knowing that, I raged at the futility of it all, clenching my teeth until my jaw ached as I went from man to man, armed with nothing but boiled milk and biscuit, and my two empty hands.