Author: P Hana

Page 139


All right, then, which way? Toward the mountain; it was the only thing I could see above the sea of mangroves. I pushed my way through the branches as fast as I could, ignoring the ripping of my skirts and the increasing pull of each wave on my legs. The wind was coming from the sea behind me, pushing the waves higher. It blew my hair constantly into my eyes and mouth, and I wiped it back again and again, cursing out loud for the comfort of hearing a voice, but my throat was soon so dry that it hurt to talk.

I squelched on. My skirt kept pulling loose from my belt, and somewhere I dropped my shoes, which disappeared at once in the boiling foam that now washed well above my knees. It didn’t seem to matter.

The tide was midthigh when the rain hit. With a roar that drowned the rattle of the leaves, it fell in drenching sheets that soaked me to the skin in moments. At first I wasted time vainly tilting my head back, trying to direct the rivulets that ran down my face into my open mouth. Then sense reasserted itself; I took off the kerchief tucked around my shoulders, let the rain soak it and wrung it out several times, to remove the vestiges of salt. Then I let it soak in the rain once more, lifted the wadded fabric to my mouth, and sucked the water from it. It tasted of sweat and seaweed and coarse cotton. It was delicious.

I had kept going, but was still in the clutches of the mangroves. The incoming tide was nearly waist-deep, and the walking getting much harder. Thirst slaked momentarily, I put my head down and pushed forward as fast as I could.

Lightning flashed over the mountains, and a moment later came the growl of thunder. The wash of the tide was so strong now that I could move forward only as each wave came in, half-running as the water shoved me along, then clinging to the nearest mangrove stem as the wash sucked back, dragging my trailing legs.

I was beginning to think that I had been over-hasty in abandoning Captain Leonard and the Porpoise. The wind was rising still further, dashing rain into my face so that I could barely see. Sailors say every seventh wave is higher. I found myself counting, as I slogged forward. It was the ninth wave, in fact, that struck me between the shoulder blades and knocked me flat before I could grasp a branch.

I floundered, helpless and choking in a blur of sand and water, then found my feet and stood upright again. The wave had half-drowned me, but had also altered my direction. I was no longer facing the mountain. I was, however, facing a large tree, no more than twenty feet away.

Four more waves, four more surging rushes forward, four more grim clutchings as the tide-race sought to pull me back, and I was on the muddy bank of a small inlet, where a tiny stream ran through the mangroves and out to sea. I crawled up it, slipping and staggering as I clambered into the welcoming embrace of the tree.

From a perch twelve feet up, I could see the stretch of the mangrove swamp behind me, and beyond that, the open sea. I changed my mind once more about the wisdom of my leaving the Porpoise; no matter how awful things were on land, they were a good deal worse out there.

Lightning shattered over a surface of boiling water, as wind and tide-race fought for control of the waves. Farther out, in the Mouchoir Passage, the swell was so high, it looked like rolling hills. The wind was high enough now to make a thin, whistling scream as it passed by, chilling me to the skin in my wet clothes. Thunder cracked together with the lightning flashes now, as the storm moved over me.

The Artemis was slower than the man-of-war; slow enough, I hoped, to be still safe, far out in the Atlantic.

I saw one clump of mangroves struck, a hundred feet away; the water hissed back, boiled away, and the dry land showed for a moment, before the waves rolled back, drowning the black wire of the blasted stems. I wrapped my arms about the trunk of the tree, pressed my face against the bark, and prayed. For Jamie, and the Artemis. For the Porpoise, Annekje Johansen and Tom Leonard and the Governor. And for me.

It was full daylight when I woke, my leg wedged between two branches, and numb from the knee down. I half-climbed, half-fell from my perch, landing in the shallow water of the inlet. I scooped up a handful of the water, tasted it, and spat it out. Not salt, but too brackish to drink.

My clothes were damp, but I was parched. The storm was long gone; everything around me was peaceful and normal, with the exception of the blackened mangroves. In the distance, I could hear the booming of the big black birds.

Brackish water here promised fresher water farther up the inlet. I rubbed my leg, trying to work out the pins-and-needles, then limped up the bank.

The vegetation began to change from the gray-green mangroves to a lusher green, with a thick undergrowth of grass and mossy plants that obliged me to walk in the water. Tired and thirsty as I was, I could go only a short distance before having to sit down and rest. As I did so, several of the odd little fish hopped up onto the bank beside me, goggling as though in curiosity.

“Well, I think you look rather peculiar, too,” I told one.

“Are you English?” said the fish incredulously. The impression of Alice in Wonderland was so pronounced that I merely blinked stupidly at it for a moment. Then my head snapped up, and I stared into the face of the man who had spoken.

His face was weathered and sunburned to the color of mahogany, but the black hair that curled back from his brow was thick and ungrizzled. He stepped out from behind the mangrove, moving cautiously, as though afraid to startle me.

He was a bit above middle height and burly, thick through the shoulder, with a broad, boldly carved face, whose naturally friendly expression was tinged with wariness. He was dressed shabbily, with a heavy canvas bag slung across his shoulder—and a canteen made of goatskin hung from his belt.

“Vous êtes Anglaise?” he asked, repeating his original question in French. “Comment ça va?”

“Yes, I’m English,” I said, croaking. “May I have some water, please?”

His eyes popped wide open—they were a light hazel—but he didn’t say anything, just took the skin bag from his belt and handed it to me.

I laid the fish knife on my knee, close within reach, and drank deeply, scarcely able to gulp fast enough.

“Careful,” he said. “It’s dangerous to drink too fast.”

“I know,” I said, slightly breathless as I lowered the bag. “I’m a doctor.” I lifted the canteen and drank again, but forced myself to swallow more slowly this time.

My rescuer was regarding me quizzically—and little wonder, I supposed. Sea-soaked and sun-dried, mud-caked and sweat-stained, with my hair straggling down over my face, I looked like a beggar, and probably a demented one at that.

“A doctor?” he said in English, showing that his thoughts had been traveling in the direction I suspected. He eyed me closely, in a way strongly reminiscent of the big black bird I had met earlier. “A doctor of what, if I might ask?”

“Medicine,” I said, pausing briefly between gulps.

He had strongly drawn black brows. These rose nearly to his hairline.

“Indeed,” he said, after a noticeable pause.

“Indeed,” I said in the same tone of voice, and he laughed.

He inclined his head toward me in a formal bow. “In that case, Madame Physician, allow me to introduce myself. Lawrence Stern, Doctor of Natural Philosophy, of the Gesellschaft von Naturwissenschaft Philosophieren, Munich.”

I blinked at him.

“A naturalist,” he elaborated, gesturing at the canvas bag over his shoulder. “I was making my way toward those frigate birds in hopes of observing their breeding display, when I happened to overhear you, er…”

“Talking to a fish,” I finished. “Yes, well…have they really got four eyes?” I asked, in hopes of changing the subject.

“Yes—or so it seems.” He glanced down at the fish, who appeared to be following the conversation with rapt attention. “They seem to employ their oddly shaped optics when submerged, so that the upper pair of eyes observes events above the surface of the water, and the lower pair similarly takes note of happenings below it.”

He looked then at me, with a hint of a smile. “Might I perhaps have the honor of knowing your name, Madame Physician?”

I hesitated, unsure what to tell him. I pondered the assortment of available aliases and decided on the truth.

“Fraser,” I said. “Claire Fraser. Mrs. James Fraser,” I added for good measure, feeling vaguely that marital status might make me seem slightly more respectable, appearances notwithstanding. I fingered back the curl hanging in my left eye.

“Your servant, Madame,” he said with a gracious bow. He rubbed the bridge of his nose thoughtfully, looking at me.

“You have been shipwrecked, perhaps?” he ventured. It seemed the most logical—if not the only—explanation of my presence, and I nodded.

“I need to find a way to get to Jamaica,” I said. “Do you think you can help me?”

He stared at me, frowning slightly, as though I were a specimen he couldn’t quite decide how to classify, but then he nodded. He had a broad mouth that looked made for smiling; one corner turned up, and he extended a hand to help me up.

“Yes,” he said. “I can help. But I think maybe first we find you some food, and maybe clothes, eh? I have a friend, who lives not so far away. I will take you there, shall I?”

What with parching thirst and the general press of events, I had paid little attention to the demands of my stomach. At the mention of food, however, II’ it came immediately and vociferously to life.

“That,” I said loudly, in hopes of drowning it out, “would be very nice indeed.” I brushed back the tangle of my hair as well as I could, and ducking under a branch, followed my rescuer into the trees.

As we emerged from a palmetto grove, the ground opened out into a meadow-like space, then rose up in a broad hill before us. At the top of the hill, I could see a house—or at least a ruin. Its yellow plaster walls were cracked and overrun by pink bougainvillaeas and straggling guavas, the tin roof sported several visible holes, and the whole place gave off an air of mournful dilapidation.

“Hacienda de la Fuente,” my new acquaintance said, with a nod toward it. “Can you stand the walk up the hill, or—” He hesitated, eyeing me as though estimating my weight. “I could carry you, I suppose,” he said, with a not altogether flattering tone of doubt in his voice.

“I can manage,” I assured him. My feet were bruised and sore, and punctured by fallen palmetto fronds, but the path before us looked relatively smooth.

The hillside leading up to the house was crisscrossed with the faint lines of sheep trails. There were a number of these animals present, peacefully grazing under the hot Hispaniola sun. As we stepped out of the trees, one sheep spotted us and uttered a short bleat of surprise. Like clockwork, every sheep on the hillside lifted its head in unison and stared at us.

Feeling rather self-conscious under this unblinking phalanx of suspicious eyes, I picked up my muddy skirts and followed Dr. Stern toward the main path—trodden by more than sheep, to judge from its width—that led up and over the hill.

It was a fine, bright day, and flocks of orange and white butterflies flickered through the grass. They lighted on the scattered blooms with here and there a brilliant yellow butterfly shining like a tiny sun.