Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 136

   

My mind followed the same dizzying lines my feet had traveled earlier, seeing faces—faces contorted in anguish or smoothing slowly in the slackness of death, but all of them looking at me. At me. I lifted my futile hand and slammed it hard against the rail. I did it again, and again, scarcely feeling the sting of the blows, in a frenzy of furious rage and grief.

“Stop that!” a voice spoke behind me, and a hand seized my wrist, preventing me from slapping the rail yet again.

“Let go!” I struggled, but his grip was too strong.

“Stop,” he said again, firmly. His other arm came around my waist, and he pulled me back, away from the rail. “You mustn’t do that,” he said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

“I don’t bloody care!” I wrenched against his grasp, but then slumped, defeated. What did it matter?

He let go of me then, and I turned to find myself facing a man I had never seen before. He wasn’t a sailor; while his clothes were crumpled and stale with long wear, they had originally been very fine; the dove-gray coat and waistcoat had been tailored to flatter his slender frame, and the wilted lace at his throat had come from Brussels.

“Who the hell are you?” I said in astonishment. I brushed at my wet cheeks, sniffed, and made an instinctive effort to smooth down my hair. I hoped the shadows hid my face.

He smiled slightly, and handed me a handkerchief, crumpled, but clean.

“My name is Grey,” he said, with a small, courtly bow. “I expect that you must be the famous Mrs. Malcolm, whose heroism Captain Leonard has been so strongly praising.” I grimaced at that, and he paused.

“I am sorry,” he said. “Have I said something amiss? My apologies, Madame, I had no notion of offering you offense.” He looked anxious at the thought, and I shook my head.

“It is not heroic to watch men die,” I said. My words were thick, and I stopped to blow my nose. “I’m just here, that’s all. Thank you for the handkerchief.” I hesitated, not wanting to hand the used handkerchief back to him, but not wanting simply to pocket it, either. He solved the dilemma with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Might I do anything else for you?” He hesitated, irresolute. “A cup of water? Some brandy, perhaps?” He fumbled in his coat, drawing out a small silver pocket flask engraved with a coat of arms, which he offered to me.

I took it, with a nod of thanks, and took a swallow deep enough to make me cough. It burned down the back of my throat, but I sipped again, more cautiously this time, and felt it warm me, easing and strengthening. I breathed deeply and drank again. It helped.

“Thank you,” I said, a little hoarsely, handing back the flask. That seemed somewhat abrupt, and I added, “I’d forgotten that brandy is good to drink; I’ve been using it to wash people in the sickbay.” The statement brought back the events of the day to me with crushing vividness, and I sagged back onto the powder box where I had been sitting.

“I take it the plague continues unabated?” he asked quietly. He stood in front of me, the glow of a nearby lantern shining on his dark blond hair.

“Not unabated, no.” I closed my eyes, feeling unutterably bleak. “There was only one new case today. There were four the day before, and six the day before that.”

“That sounds hopeful,” he observed. “As though you are defeating the disease.”

I shook my head slowly. It felt dense and heavy as one of the cannonballs piled in the shallow bins by the guns.

“No. All we’re doing is to stop more men being infected. There isn’t a bloody thing I can do for the ones who already have it.”

“Indeed.” He stooped and picked up one of my hands. Surprised, I let him have it. He ran a thumb lightly over the blister where I had burned myself scalding milk, and touched my knuckles, reddened and cracked from the constant immersion in alcohol.

“You would appear to have been very active, Madame, for someone who is doing nothing,” he said dryly.

“Of course I’m doing something!” I snapped, yanking my hand back. “It doesn’t do any good!”

“I’m sure—” he began.

“It doesn’t!” I slammed my fist on the gun, the noiseless blow seeming to symbolize the pain-filled futility of the day. “Do you know how many men I lost today? Twenty-three! I’ve been on my feet since dawn, elbow-deep in filth and vomit and my clothes stuck to me, and none of it’s been any good! I couldn’t help! Do you hear me? I couldn’t help!”

His face was turned away, in shadow, but his shoulders were stiff.

“I hear you,” he said quietly. “You shame me, Madam. I had kept to my cabin at the Captain’s orders, but I had no idea that the circumstances were such as you describe, or I assure you that I should have come to help, in spite of them.”

“Why?” I said blankly. “It isn’t your job.”

“Is it yours?” He swung around to face me, and I saw that he was handsome, in his late thirties, perhaps, with sensitive, fine-cut features, and large blue eyes, open in astonishment.

“Yes,” I said.

He studied my face for a moment, and his own expression changed, fading from surprise to thoughtfulness.

“I see.”

“No, you don’t, but it doesn’t matter.” I pressed my fingertips hard against my brow, in the spot Mr. Willoughby had shown me, to relieve headache. “If the Captain means you to keep to your cabin, then you likely should. There are enough hands to help in the sickbay; it’s just that…nothing helps,” I ended, dropping my hands.

He walked over to the rail, a few feet away from me, and stood looking out over the expanse of dark water, sparked here and there as a random wave caught the starlight.

“I do see,” he repeated, as though talking to the waves. “I had thought your distress due only to a woman’s natural compassion, but I see it is something quite different.” He paused, hands gripping the rail, an indistinct figure in the starlight.

“I have been a soldier, an officer,” he said. “I know what it is, to hold men’s lives in your hand—and to lose them.”

I was quiet, and so was he. The usual shipboard sounds went on in the distance, muted by night and the lack of men to make them. At last he sighed and turned toward me again.

“What it comes to, I think, is the knowledge that you are not God.” He paused, then added, softly, “And the very real regret that you cannot be.”

I sighed, feeling some of the tension drain out of me. The cool wind lifted the weight of my hair from my neck, and the curling ends drifted across my face, gentle as a touch.

“Yes,” I said.

He hesitated a moment, as though not knowing what to say next, then bent, picked up my hand, and kissed it, very simply, without affectation.

“Good night, Mrs. Malcolm,” he said, and turned away, the sound of his footsteps loud on the deck.

He was no more than a few yards past me when a seaman, hurrying by, spotted him and stopped with a cry. It was Jones, one of the stewards.

“My Lord! You shouldn’t ought to be out of your cabin, sir! The night air’s mortal, and the plague loose on board—and the Captain’s orders—whatever is your servant a-thinking of, sir, to let you walk about like this?”

My acquaintance nodded apologetically.

“Yes, yes, I know. I shouldn’t have come up; but I thought that if I stayed in the cabin a moment longer I should be stifled altogether.”

“Better stifled than dead o’ the bloody flux, sir, and you’ll pardon of my saying so,” Jones replied sternly. My acquaintance made no remonstrance to this, but merely murmured something and disappeared in the shadows of the afterdeck.

I reached out a hand and grasped Jones by the sleeve as he passed, causing him to start, with a wordless yelp of alarm.

“Oh! Mrs. Malcolm,” he said, coming to earth, a bony hand splayed across his chest. “Christ, I did think you was a ghost, mum, begging your pardon.”

“I beg yours,” I said, politely. “I only wanted to ask—who was the man you were just talking to?”

“Oh, him?” Jones twisted about to look over his shoulder, but the aptly named Mr. Grey had long since vanished. “Why, that’s Lord John Grey, mum, him as is the new governor of Jamaica.” He frowned censoriously in the direction taken by my acquaintance. “He ain’t supposed to be up here; the Captain’s give strict orders he’s to stay safe below, out o’ harm’s way. All we need’s to come into port with a dead political aboard, and there’ll be the devil to pay, mum, savin’ your presence.”

He shook his head disapprovingly, then turned to me with a bob of the head.

“You’ll be retiring, mum? Shall I bring you down a nice cup of tea and maybe a bit o’ biscuit?”

“No, thank you, Jones,” I said. “I’ll go and check the sickbay again before I go to bed. I don’t need anything.”

“Well, you do, mum, and you just say. Anytime. Good night to you, mum.” He touched his forelock briefly and hurried off.

I stood at the rail alone for a moment before going below, drawing in deep breaths of the clean, fresh air. It would be a good many hours yet until dawn; the stars burned bright and clear over my head, and I realized, quite suddenly, that the moment of grace I had wordlessly prayed for had come, after all.

“You’re right,” I said at last, aloud, to the sea and sky. “A sunset wouldn’t have been enough. Thank you,” I added, and went below.

49

LAND HO!

It’s true, what the sailors say. You can smell land, a long time before you see it.

Despite the long voyage, the goat pen in the hold was a surprisingly pleasant place. By now, the fresh straw had been exhausted, and the goats’ hooves clicked restlessly to and fro on bare boards. Still, the heaps of manure were swept up daily, and neatly piled in baskets to be heaved overboard, and Annekje Johansen brought dry armloads of hay to the manger each morning. There was a strong smell of goat, but it was a clean, animal scent, and quite pleasant by contrast with the stench of unwashed sailors.

“Komma, komma, komma, dyr get,” she crooned, luring a yearling within reach with a twiddled handful of hay. The animal stretched out cautious lips, and was promptly seized by the neck and pulled forward, its head secured under Annekje’s brawny arm.

“Ticks, is it?” I asked, coming forward to help. Annekje looked up and gave me her broad, gap-toothed smile.

“Guten Morgen, Mrs. Claire,” she said. “Ja, tick. Here.” She took the young goat’s drooping ear in one hand and turned up the silky edge to show me the blueberry bulge of a blood-gorged tick, burrowed deep in the tender skin.

She clutched the goat to hold it still, and dug into the ear, pinching the tick viciously between her nails. She pulled it free with a twist, and the goat blatted and kicked, a tiny spot of blood welling from its ear where the tick had been detached.

“Wait,” I said, when she would have released the animal. She glanced at me, curious, but kept her hold and nodded. I took the bottle of alcohol I wore slung at my belt like a sidearm, and poured a few drops on the ear. It was soft and tender, the tiny veins clearly visible beneath the satin skin. The goat’s square-pupilled eyes bulged farther and its tongue stuck out in agitation as it bleated.

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