“I am not going to die,” I said crossly, “unless it’s from heat exhaustion. Take some of this bloody stuff off me!”
Marsali, who had been tearfully pleading with me not to expire, looked rather relieved at this outburst. She stopped crying and sniffed hopefully, but made no move to remove any of the cloaks, coats, blankets, and other impedimenta in which I was swaddled.
“Oh, I canna do that, Mother Claire!” she said. “Da says ye must be kept warm!”
“Warm? I’m being boiled alive!” I was in the captain’s cabin, and even with the stern windows wide open, the atmosphere belowdecks was stifling, hot with sun and acrid with the fumes of the cargo.
I tried to struggle out from under my wrappings, but got no more than a few inches before a bolt of lightning struck me in the right arm. The world went dark, with small bright flashes zigging through my vision.
“Lie still,” said a stern Scots voice, through a wave of giddy sickness. An arm was under my shoulders, a large hand cradling my head. “Aye, that’s right, lie back on my arm. All right now, Sassenach?”
“No,” I said, looking at the colored pinwheels inside my eyelids. “I’m going to be sick.”
I was, and a most unpleasant process it was, too, with fiery knives being jabbed into my right arm with each spasm.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said at last, gasping.
“Finished, are ye?” Jamie lowered me carefully and eased my head back onto the pillow.
“If you mean am I dead, the answer is unfortunately no.” I cracked one eyelid open. He was kneeling by my berth, looking no end piratical himself, with a bloodstained strip of cloth bound round his head, and still wearing his blood-soaked shirt.
He stayed still, and so did the cabin, so I cautiously opened the other eye. He smiled faintly at me.
“No, you’re no dead; Fergus will be glad to hear it.”
As though this had been a signal, the Frenchman’s head poked anxiously into the cabin. Seeing me awake, his face broke into a dazzling smile and disappeared. I could hear his voice overhead, loudly informing the crew of my survival. To my profound embarrassment, the news was greeted with a rousing cheer from the upper deck.
“What happened?” I asked.
“What happened?” Jamie, pouring water into a cup, stopped and stared over the rim at me. He knelt down again beside me, snorting, and raised my head for a sip of water.
“What happened, she says! Aye, what indeed? I tell ye to stay all snug below wi’ Marsali, and next thing I ken, ye’ve dropped out of the sky and landed at my feet, sopping wi’ blood!”
He shoved his face into the berth and glared at me. Sufficiently impressive when clean-shaven and unhurt, he was considerably more ferocious when viewed, stubbled, bloodstained, and angry, at a distance of six inches. I promptly shut my eyes again.
“Look at me!” he said peremptorily, and I did, against my better judgment.
Blue eyes bored into mine, narrowed with fury.
“D’ye ken ye came damn close to dying?” he demanded. “Ye’ve a bone-deep slash down your arm from oxter to elbow, and had I not got a cloth round it in time, ye’d be feeding the sharks this minute!”
One big fist crashed down on the side of the berth next to me, making me start. The movement hurt my arm, but I didn’t make a sound.
“Damn ye, woman! Will ye never do as you’re told?”
“Probably not,” I said meekly.
He turned a black scowl on me, but I could see the corner of his mouth twitching under the copper stubble.
“God,” he said longingly. “What I wouldna give to have ye tied facedown over a gun, and me wi’ a rope’s end in my hand.” He snorted again, and pulled his face out of the berth.
“Willoughby!” he bellowed. In short order, Mr. Willoughby trotted in, beaming, with a steaming pot of tea and a bottle of brandy on a tray.
“Tea!” I breathed, struggling to sit up. “Ambrosia.” In spite of the stifling atmosphere of the cabin, the hot tea was just what I needed. The delightful, brandy-laced stuff slid down my throat and glowed peacefully in the pit of my quivering stomach.
“Nobody makes tea better than the English,” I said, inhaling the aroma, “except the Chinese.”
Mr. Willoughby beamed in gratification and bowed ceremoniously. Jamie snorted again, bringing his total up to three for the afternoon.
“Aye? Well, enjoy it while ye can.”
This sounded more or less sinister, and I stared at him over the rim of the cup. “And just what do you mean by that?” I demanded.
“I’m going to doctor your arm when you’re finished,” he informed me. He picked up the pot and peered into it.
“How much blood did ye tell me a person has in his body?” he asked.
“About eight quarts,” I said, bewildered. “Why?”
He lowered the pot and glared at me.
“Because,” he said precisely, “judging from the amount ye left on the deck, you’ve maybe four of them left. Here, have some more.” He refilled the cup, set down the pot, and stalked out.
“I’m afraid Jamie’s rather annoyed with me,” I observed ruefully to Mr. Willoughby.
“Not angry,” he said comfortingly. “Tsei-mi scared very bad.” The little Chinaman laid a hand on my right shoulder, delicate as a resting butterfly.
I sighed. “To be perfectly honest,” I said, “yes, it does.”
Mr. Willoughby smiled and patted me gently. “I help,” he said consolingly. “Later.”
In spite of the throbbing in my arm, I was feeling sufficiently restored to inquire about the rest of the crew, whose injuries, as reported by Mr. Willoughby, were limited to cuts and bruises, plus one concussion and a minor arm fracture.
A clatter in the passage heralded Jamie’s return, accompanied by Fergus, who carried my medicine box under one arm, and yet another bottle of brandy in his hand.
“All right,” I said, resigned. “Let’s have a look at it.”
I was no stranger to horrible wounds, and this one—technically speaking—was not all that bad. On the other hand, it was my own personal flesh involved here, and I was not disposed to be technical.
“Ooh,” I said rather faintly. While being a bit picturesque about the nature of the wound, Jamie had also been quite accurate. It was a long, clean-edged slash, running at a slight angle across the front of my biceps, from the shoulder to an inch or so above the elbow joint. And while I couldn’t actually see the bone of my humerus, it was without doubt a very deep wound, gaping widely at the edges.
It was still bleeding, in spite of the cloth that had been wrapped tightly round it, but the seepage was slow; no major vessels seemed to have been severed.
Jamie had flipped open my medical box and was rootling meditatively through it with one large forefinger.
“You’ll need sutures and a needle,” I said, feeling a sudden jolt of alarm as it occurred to me that I was about to have thirty or forty stitches taken in my arm, with no anesthesia bar brandy.
“No laudanum?” Jamie asked, frowning into the box. Evidently, he had been thinking along the same lines.
“No. I used it all on the Porpoise.” Controlling the shaking of my left hand, I poured a sizable tot of straight brandy into my empty teacup, and took a healthy mouthful.
“That was thoughtful of you, Fergus,” I said, nodding at the fresh brandy bottle as I sipped, “but I don’t think it’s going to take two bottles.” Given the potency of Jared’s French brandy, it was unlikely to take more than a teacupful.
I was wondering whether it was more advisable to get dead drunk at once, or to stay at least half-sober in order to supervise operations; there wasn’t a chance in hell that I could do the suturing myself, left-handed and shaking like a leaf. Neither could Fergus do it one-handed. True, Jamie’s big hands could move with amazing lightness over some tasks, but…
Jamie interrupted my apprehensions, shaking his head and picking up the second bottle.
“This one’s no for drinking, Sassenach, that’s for washing out the wound.”
“What!” In my state of shock, I had forgotten the necessity for disinfection. Lacking anything better, I normally washed out wounds with distilled grain alcohol, cut half and half with water, but I had used my supply of that as well, in our encounter with the man-of-war.
I felt my lips go slightly numb, and not just because the internal brandy was taking effect. Highlanders were among the most stoic and courageous of warriors, and seamen as a class weren’t far behind. I had seen such men lie uncomplaining while I set broken bones, did minor surgery, sewed up terrible wounds, and put them through hell generally, but when it came to disinfection with alcohol, it was a different story—the screams could be heard for miles.
“Er…wait a minute,” I said. “Maybe just a little boiled water.…”
Jamie was watching me, not without sympathy.
“It willna get easier wi’ waiting, Sassenach,” he said. “Fergus, take the bottle.” And before I could protest, he had lifted me out of the berth and sat down with me on his lap, holding me tight about the body, pinning my left arm so I couldn’t struggle, while he took my right wrist in a firm grip and held my wounded arm out to the side.
I believe it was bloody old Ernest Hemingway who said you’re supposed to pass out from pain, but unfortunately you never do. All I can say in response to that is that either Ernest had a fine distinction for states of consciousness, or else no one ever poured brandy on several cubic inches of his raw flesh.
To be fair, I suppose I must not absolutely have lost consciousness myself, since when I began noticing things again, Fergus was saying, “Please, milady! You must not scream like that; it upsets the men.”
Clearly it upset Fergus; his lean face was pale, and droplets of sweat ran down his jaw. He was right about the men, too—several faces were peering into the cabin from door and window, wearing expressions of horror and concern.
I summoned the presence of mind to nod weakly at them. Jamie’s arm was still locked about my middle; I couldn’t tell which of us was shaking; both, I thought.
I made it into the wide captain’s chair, with considerable assistance, and lay back palpitating, the fire in my arm still sizzling. Jamie was holding one of my curved suture needles and a length of sterilized cat-gut, looking as dubious over the prospects as I felt.
It was Mr. Willoughby who intervened, quietly taking the needle from Jamie’s hands.
“I can do this,” he said, in tones of authority. “A moment.” And he disappeared aft, presumably to fetch something.
Jamie didn’t protest, and neither did I. We heaved twin sighs of relief, in fact, which made me laugh.
“And to think,” I said, “I once told Bree that big men were kind and gentle, and the short ones tended to be nasty.”
“Well, I suppose there’s always the exception that proves the rule, no?” He mopped my streaming face with a wet cloth, quite gently.