Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 136

   

“Saw again,” I said urgently, discarding the knife. “Hold steady! Both pieces.” There was no more than a thin section of bone remaining; the spongy bone of the marrow showed, blood flowering slowly from the cut surface. I put no pressure on the saw; the last thing I wanted was to crack the bone in some awkward way. It wasn’t working, though, and I looked back toward the line of tools, desperate to find something else.

“Rasp,” Jamie said, his voice rough with strain. He nodded toward the table. “There.”

I seized the rasp, a rat-tailed thing, drenched it with brandy, and, turning it sideways, filed through the last bit of bone, which parted gently. With a ragged edge, but intact, not shattered.

“Is he breathing?” I asked. I was having trouble breathing myself, and couldn’t sense the patient’s vital signs—save to notice his heart was beating, because blood was pulsing slightly out of the smaller vessels—but Arnold nodded, his head bowed, intent on Tench’s face.

“He’ll do,” he said, his voice firm and loud, and I knew he was speaking as much to Tench as to me. Now I could feel the stir in the upper leg, a violent reflexive urge to move, and Jamie leaned hard on it. My fingers brushed the discarded lower leg, the flesh horribly flaccid and rubbery, and I snatched them back, wiping them convulsively on my apron.

I swiped the bloody apron then across my face and pushed back loosened bits of hair with the back of my hand. It was shaking; they both were.

What the bloody hell are you shaking now for? I thought irritably. But I was, and it took much longer than it should have to cauterize the last few small bleeders—adding the ghastly smell of roasting flesh to everything else in the room; I thought even General Arnold might throw up—stitch the flaps, bandage the wound, and, at last, loosen the tourniquet.

“All right,” I said, and straightened up. “Now . . .” But if I said anything else, I didn’t hear it. The room revolved slowly round me and dissolved into a flicker of black and white spots, and then everything went black.

THE SECOND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS

TENCH LIVED.

“I should have known you would,” I said to him. “If you were determined enough to survive all night in the river, plainly a mere amputation wouldn’t slow you down.”

He hadn’t enough strength to laugh—the journey by litter to Chestnut Street had left him white-faced and gasping—but he did twitch his mouth enough to qualify his expression as a smile.

“Oh . . . I’ll live,” he managed. “Wouldn’t . . . give ’em . . . the satis . . . faction . . . of dying.” Worn out by this, he closed his eyes, chest heaving. I wiped his face gently with my handkerchief, patted his shoulder, and left him to rest.

I had had the litter bearers take him upstairs, to what had been my bedroom, and I closed the door behind me now with a queerly mixed feeling of triumph and depression.

I had spent the morning with Mrs. Figg and the housemaid, Doreen, packing away what remained of Lord John’s furnishings—for many had already been shipped to New York—and rearranging the house to serve as a temporary surgery. Even if we were to leave for North Carolina soon—and the sooner the better—I did have to have someplace to put Tench where he could be looked after in conditions approaching comfort and hygiene. And the patients I had been seeing at the printshop could certainly be taken care of more conveniently here.

At the same time . . . being here again brought back echoes of the numb despair I had lived with all those weeks of believing Jamie dead. I thought the bustle of work and the clean sweep of furnishings would perhaps obviate that distant sense of drowning, but at the moment it was an uneasy swirl around my ankles.

Mental oppression was not the only debilitating condition connected with the new situation. Leaving Number 17 to return to the Shippen house, I had been followed in the street by a gang of young men. Mostly boys, but some big fellows of sixteen or seventeen, big enough to make me uneasy with their glances.

Still more uneasy when they began to draw up close to me, taking a quick step to whisper, “King’s whore!” in my ear before falling back, or to try to tread on the hem of my skirt, sniggering.

I thought I had seen one or two of them in the mob when I’d brought Hal here. Perhaps they’d followed me then and, finding that I was married to Lord John, assumed I was a turncoat, a traitor to the Rebel cause. Or possibly, I thought, stiffening my spine, they were just troublemaking pipsqueaks.

I whirled round to face them, gripping my parasol. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but no physical weapon would have been of use against so many. Even a twelve-year-old boy was likely stronger than I was at the moment.

“What do you want?” I demanded, using the memory of my matron’s voice, whipcrack and steel—or at least I hoped I could still do that.

Some of the little warts blinked and took a step back, but one of the bigger ones took a step toward me, grinning. It took all my control not to recoil.

“I don’t know, hinnie,” he said, looking me up and down with a lazy insolence. “What does a Loyalist lady have that we might want?”

“A swift poke in the eye is all I can offer you,” I informed him crisply, with a meaningful pointing of my parasol. “Apparently I’m walking too slowly and blocking your progress, gentlemen. Do go on ahead of me.” Holding his eye with a menacing stare, I stepped into the street and gestured with my parasol, indicating that they should pass on.

That made some of them giggle, but the big fellow flushed a nasty pink that made his adolescent pimples fluoresce. I stepped back farther into the street, in an imitation of politeness, but actually in hopes of attracting some attention.

I was lucky: a rag-and-bone cart was coming down the road, the horse’s hooves clopping on the cobbles, and I moved still farther, blocking the way. The carter, aroused from semi-somnolence, half-stood, peering out from under his hat.

“What the devil are you idle buggers a-doing in the road? Get your fat arses out my way!” He raised his whip in a menacing fashion, and the boys, who had started to advance on me, quickly retreated.

The carter stood up all the way, took off his hat, and bowed to me.

“Good day, your ladyship; I hopes I sees you well. Can I offer you a ride, mayhap?” He was speaking in jest; I didn’t think he actually knew I had recently been a ladyship. He was certainly surprised when I swept up my skirts and mounted his cart, though.

“Home, James,” I said, furling my parasol, “and don’t spare the horses.”

The recollection made me smile a little, but the smile faded at the thought that the louts who had accosted me certainly lived somewhere nearby. I mightn’t be as lucky a second time. And at that thought, a wave of cold terror washed over me and I felt a band of soreness across my middle, the chafing and bruising from hours spent tied facedown across a horse’s back, being carried helpless to—

“Stop that!” I said sharply to myself. “Stop it at once. I won’t have it.” They were teenaged boys. I wasn’t afraid of . . . But the first man to rape me had been about sixteen; he’d been apologetic about it. I stepped into a narrow alley between two buildings and threw up.

I’d managed to function. I got back to the Shippens’ house and collected my things, then returned to the printshop to eat lunch and pack up the rest of my herbs and medicines; Fergus and Germain would bring them to Chestnut Street on their afternoon delivery round.

No one had molested me on the way back to Chestnut Street. I could have asked Jenny to come with me, but pride prevented me. I would not let simple-minded fear stop me doing what needed to be done.

But how long can you keep doing it? And what’s the point?

“There’s always a point,” I muttered. “It’s someone’s life. That’s a point.”

A life that could be snatched away, thrown away, frittered on a battlefield . . . How many men had died that way? And it didn’t stop, it didn’t get better. . . . This was an early war, for God’s sake. An endless chain of wars lay between my lives: the Revolution here, the Great War at the other end—and constant slaughter in between.

The summer was dying; the air was beginning to have a hint of freshness in the mornings, but in midafternoon it still hung thick and heavy. Too heavy to draw a full breath.

I stood for a moment outside Number 17, feeling unequal to going in and dealing with things. After a moment, I turned down the path that led round the side of the house, out to the tiny garden at the back, and sat down on the bench there, among the roses, feeling most unwell.

I DON’T KNOW how long I had been sitting there, head in my hands, listening to the loud buzzing of bees. But I heard footsteps coming down the path and managed to lift my head.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?” It was Jamie, the large box of medicines and bandages in his arms. And from the look of alarm on his face, it was reasonably obvious that I didn’t look all right. I couldn’t muster the energy to try to look all right.

“I just—thought I’d sit down,” I said, flapping a hand helplessly.

“I’m glad ye did.” He set down the box on the yellowing grass and came to crouch in front of me, examining my face. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” I said, and without warning began to cry. Or, rather, to leak. There was nothing of the sobbing, convulsive, racking nature of weeping; tears were just streaking down my cheeks without my approval.

Jamie nudged me over a little and sat down beside me, wrapping his arms around me. He was wearing his old kilt, and the smell of the dusty wool fabric, worn thin with age, made me utterly dissolve.

He tightened his grip and, sighing, pressed his cheek to my head and said small, tender things in Gaelic. And in a little time, the effort to understand them gave me a tenuous grip on myself. I drew a deep breath and he released me, though he kept an arm around me for support.

“Mo nighean donn,” he said softly, and smoothed hair out of my face. “Have ye got a hankie?”

That made me laugh. Or rather emit a sort of strangled giggle, but still . . .

“Yes. At least, I think so.” I groped in my bosom and withdrew a sturdy square of much-laundered linen, on which I blew my nose several times and then wiped my eyes, trying to think what on earth to offer as an explanation for my disordered state—of mind, as well as body. There wasn’t any good way to begin, so I just began.

“Do you ever—well, no. I know you do.”

“Likely,” he said, smiling a little. “What do I do?”

“See the . . . the void. The abyss.” Speaking the words reopened the rent in my soul, and the cold wind came through. A shudder ran through me, in spite of the warmth of the air and Jamie’s body. “I mean—it’s always there, always yawning at your feet, but most people manage to ignore it, not think about it. I’ve mostly been able to. You have to, to do medicine.” I wiped my nose on my sleeve, having dropped my handkerchief. Jamie pulled a crumpled hankie out of his sleeve and handed it to me.

“Ye dinna mean only death?” he asked. “Because I’ve seen that often enough. It hasna really scairt me since I was ten or so, though.” He glanced down at me and smiled. “And I doubt ye’re afraid of it, either. I’ve seen ye face it down a thousand times and more.”

“Facing something down doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid of it,” I said dryly. “Usually quite the opposite. And I know you know that.”

He made a small sound of agreement in his throat and hugged me gently. I would normally have found this comforting, and the fact that I didn’t merely added to my sense of despair.

“It’s—it’s just . . . nothing. And so much endless nothing . . . It’s as though nothing you do, nothing you are, can possibly matter, it’s all just swallowed up . . .” I closed my eyes, but the darkness behind my eyelids frightened me and I opened them again. “I—” I raised a hand, then let it fall.

“I can’t explain,” I said, defeated. “It wasn’t there—or I wasn’t looking at it—after I was shot. It wasn’t nearly dying that made me look in, see it yawning there. But being so . . . so bloody frail! Being so stinking afraid.” I clenched my fists, seeing the knobby bones of my knuckles, the blue veins that stood out on the backs of my hands and curved down my wrists.

“Not death,” I said at last, sniffing. “Futility. Uselessness. Bloody entropy. Death matters, at least sometimes.”

“I ken that,” Jamie said softly, and took my hands in his; they were big, and battered, scarred and maimed. “It’s why a warrior doesna fear death so much. He has the hope—sometimes the certainty—that his death will matter.”

“What happens to me between now and then doesna matter to anyone.”

Those words swam out of nowhere and struck me in the pit of the stomach, so hard that I could barely breathe. He’d said that to me, from the bottom of despair, in the dungeon of Wentworth Prison, a lifetime ago. He’d bargained for my life then, with what he had—not his life, already forfeit, but his soul.

“It matters to me!” I’d said to him—and, against all odds, had ransomed that soul and brought him back.

And then it had come again, stark and dire necessity, and he’d laid down his life without hesitation for his men and for the child I carried. And that time I had been the one who sacrificed my soul. And it had mattered, for both of us.

It still mattered. And the shell of fear cracked like an egg and everything inside me poured out like blood and water mingled and I sobbed on his chest until there were no more tears and no more breath. I leaned against him, limp as a dishcloth, and watched the crescent moon begin to rise in the east.

“What did you say?” I said, rousing myself after a long while. I felt groggy and disoriented, but at peace.

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