Dragonfly in Amber (Page 28)

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2)(28)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

He reached into his capacious pocket once more, this time coming out with a small brass pin, some three inches in length, with a wide, flat head. One bony, thick-jointed hand tenderly explored the inside of the patient’s thigh near the groin, following the thin blue line of a large vein beneath the skin. The groping fingers hesitated, paused, palpated in a small circle, then settled on a point. Digging a sharp forefinger into the skin as though to mark his place, Monsieur Forez brought the point of the brass pin to bear in the same place. Another quick reach into the pocket of marvels produced a small brass hammer, with which he drove the pin straight into the leg with one blow.

The leg twitched violently, then seemed to relax into limpness. The vaso-constrictor administered earlier did in fact seem to be working; the ooze of blood from the severed tissues was markedly less.

"That’s amazing!" I exclaimed. "What did you do?"

Monsieur Forez smiled shyly, a faint rosiness staining his blue-shadowed cheeks with pleasure at my admiration.

"Well, it does not always work quite so well," he admitted modestly. "Luck was with me this time." He pointed at the brass pin, explaining, "There is a large bundle of nerve endings there, Sister, what I have heard the anatomists call a plexus. If you are fortunate enough to pierce it directly, it numbs a great deal of the sensations in the lower extremity." He straightened abruptly, realizing that he was wasting time in talk that might better be spent in action.

"Come, ma soeur," he ordered. "Back to your post! The action of the stimulant is not long-lasting; we must work now, while the bleeding is suppressed."

Almost limp, the leg straightened easily, the splintered ends of bone drawing back through the skin. Following Monsieur Forez’s orders, I now grasped the young man about the torso, while he maneuvered the foot and lower leg, so that we applied a constant traction while the final small adjustments were made.

"That will do, Sister. Now, if you will but hold the foot steady for a moment." A shout summoned an orderly with a couple of stout sticks and some rags for binding, and in no time we had the limb neatly splinted and the open wounds firmly dressed with pressure bandages.

Monsieur Forez and I exchanged a broad smile of congratulation over the body of our patient.

"Lovely work, that," I praised, shoving back a lock of hair that had come unbound during our exertions. I saw Monsieur Forez’s face change suddenly, as he realized that I wore no veil, and just then the loud bonging of the Vespers bell rang from the adjacent church. I glanced openmouthed at the tall window at the end of the ward, left unglassed to allow unwholesome vapors to pass out. Sure enough, the oblong of sky was the deep half-indigo of early evening.

"Excuse me," I said, starting to wriggle out of the covering gown. "I must go at once; my husband will be worried about me coming home so late. I’m so glad to have had the chance of assisting you, Monsieur Forez." The tall bonesetter watched this disrobing act in patent astonishment.

"But you…well, no, of course you are not a nun, I should have realized that before…but you…who are you?" he asked curiously.

"My name’s Fraser," I told him briefly. "Look, I must go, or my husband…"

He drew himself up to his full gawky height, and bowed with deep seriousness.

"I should esteem it a privilege if you would allow me to see you home, Madame Fraser."

"Oh…why, thank you," I said, touched at his thoughtfulness. "I have an escort, though," I said, looking vaguely around the hall for Fergus, who had taken over escort duty from Murtagh, when he was not needed to steal something. He was there, leaning against the doorjamb, twitching with impatience. I wondered how long he had been there—the sisters wouldn’t allow him into the main hall or the wards, always insisting that he wait for me by the door.

Monsieur Forez eyed my escort dubiously, then took me firmly by the elbow.

"I will see you to your door, Madame," he declared. "This section of the city is much too dangerous in the evening hours for you to be abroad with no more than a child for protection."

I could see Fergus swelling with indignation at being called a child, and hastened to protest that he was an excellent escort, always taking care to guide me by the safest streets. Monsieur Forez paid no attention to either of us, merely nodding in a stately manner to Sister Angelique as he steered me through the huge double doors of the Hôpital.

Fergus trotted at my heels, plucking at my sleeve. "Madame!" he said in a urgent whisper. "Madame! I promised the master that I would see you safely home each day, that I would not allow you to associate with undesirable—"

"Ah, here we are. Madame, you sit here; your boy may have the other seat." Ignoring Fergus’s yapping, Monsieur Forez picked him up and tossed him casually into the waiting carriage.

The carriage was a small open one, but elegantly equipped, with deep blue velvet seats and a small canopy to protect the passengers from sudden inclemencies of weather or slops flung from above. There was no coat of arms or other decoration on the equipage’s door; Monsieur Forez was not of the nobility—must be a rich bourgeois, I thought.

We made polite conversation on the way home, discussing medical matters, while Fergus sulked in the corner, glowering under the ragged thatch of his hair. When we pulled up in the Rue Tremoulins, he leaped over the side without waiting for the coachman to open the door, and sprinted inside. I stared after him, wondering what ailed him, then turned to take my farewell of Monsieur Forez.

"Really, it is nothing," he assured me graciously, in response to my profuse thanks. "Your residence lies along the path I take to my own house, in any case. And I could not have trusted the person of such a gracious lady to the Paris streets at this hour." He handed me down from the carriage, and was opening his mouth to say more, when the gate slammed open behind us.

I turned in time to see Jamie’s expression change from mild annoyance to startled surprise.

"Oh!" he said. "Good evening, Monsieur." He bowed to Monsieur Forez, who returned the salute with great solemnity.

"Your wife has allowed me the great pleasure of delivering her safely to your door, milord. As for her late arrival, I beg you will lay the blame for that on my own shoulders; she was most nobly assisting me in a small endeavor at L’Hôpital des Anges."

"I expect she was," said Jamie in a resigned tone. "After all," he added in English, raising an eyebrow at me, "ye couldna expect a mere husband to hold the same sort of appeal as an inflamed bowel or a case of bilious spots, could ye?" The corner of his mouth twitched, though, and I knew he wasn’t really annoyed, only concerned that I hadn’t come home; I felt a twinge of regret at having worried him.

Bowing once more to Monsieur Forez, he grasped me by the upper arm and hustled me through the gate.

"Where’s Fergus?" I asked, as soon as the gate was closed behind us. Jamie snorted.

"In the kitchen, awaiting retribution, I expect."

"Retribution? What do you mean by that?" I demanded. Unexpectedly, he laughed.

"Well," he said, "I was sittin’ in the study, wondering where in bloody hell you’d got to, and on the verge of going down to the Hôpital myself, when the door flew open, and young Fergus shot in and threw himself on the floor at my feet, begging me to kill him on the spot."

"Kill him? Whatever for?"

"Well, that’s what I asked him myself, Sassenach. I thought perhaps you and he had been waylaid by footpads along the way—there are dangerous gangs of ruffians about the streets, ye ken, and I thought losin’ you that way would be the only thing would make him behave so. But he said you were at the gate, so I came tearing along to see were ye all right, with Fergus at my heels, babbling about betraying my trust and being unworthy to call me master, and begging me to beat him to death. I found it a bit difficult to think, what wi’ all that going on, so I told him I’d attend to him later, and sent him to the kitchen."

"Oh, bloody hell!" I said. "Does he really think he’s betrayed your trust, just because I’ve come home a bit late?"

Jamie glanced aside at me.

"Aye, he does. And so he did, for that matter, letting ye ride in company with a stranger. He swears that he would ha’ thrown himself in front of the horses before he would let ye enter the carriage, save that you," he added pointedly, "seemed on good terms wi’ the man."

"Well, of course I was on good terms with him," I said indignantly. "I’d just been helping him set a leg."

"Mphm." This line of argument appeared to strike him as unconvincing.

"Oh, all right," I agreed reluctantly. "Perhaps it was a bit unwise. But he really did seem entirely respectable, and I was in a hurry to get home—I knew you’d be worried." Still, I was now wishing I had paid a little more attention to Fergus’s frantic mumblings and pluckings at my sleeve. At the time, I had been concerned only to reach home as soon as possible.

"You aren’t really going to beat him, are you?" I asked in some alarm. "It wasn’t his fault in the slightest—I insisted on going with Monsieur. Forez. I mean, if anyone deserves beating, it’s me."

Turning in the direction of the kitchen, Jamie cocked a sardonic eyebrow at me.

"Aye, it is," he agreed. "Having sworn to refrain from any such actions, though, I may have to settle for Fergus."

"Jamie! You wouldn’t!" I stopped dead, yanking on his arm. "Jamie! Please!" Then I saw the smile hidden in the corner of his mouth, and sighed in relief.

"No," he said, letting the smile become visible. "I dinna mean to kill him—or even beat him, for that matter. I may have to go clout him over the ear a time or two, though, if only to save his honor," he added. "He thinks he’s committed a major crime by not following my orders to guard ye—I can hardly let it pass without some sign of official displeasure."

He paused outside the baize door to the kitchens to fasten his cuffs and rewind the stock about his throat.

"Am I decent?" he inquired, smoothing back his thick, unruly hair. "Perhaps I should go and fetch my coat—I’m not sure what’s proper for administering rebukes."

"You look fine," I said, suppressing a smile. "Very severe."

"Oh, that’s good," he said, straightening his shoulders and compressing his lips. "I hope I don’t laugh, that wouldna do at all," he muttered, pushing open the door to the kitchen stair.

The atmosphere in the kitchen was far from hilarious, though. At our entrance, the customary gabble ceased at once, and there was a hasty drawing up of the staff at one side of the room. Everyone stood stock-still for a moment, then there was a small stir between two kitchenmaids, and Fergus stepped out into the open space before us.

The boy’s face was white and tracked with tears, but he was not weeping now. With considerable dignity, he bowed, first to me and then Jamie, in turn.

"Madame, Monsieur, I am ashamed," he said, low-voiced but distinct. "I am unworthy to be in your employment, but still I beg that you will not dismiss me." His high-pitched voice quavered a little at the thought, and I bit my lip. Fergus glanced aside at the ranks of the servants, as though for moral support, and received a nod of encouragement from Fernand the coachman. Drawing a deep breath for courage, he straightened up and addressed Jamie directly.

"I am ready to suffer my punishment now, milord," he said. As though this had been the signal, one of the footmen stepped out of the rigid crowd, led the boy to the scrubbed plank table, and passing on the other side, took hold of the lad’s hands, pulling him half across the surface of the table and holding him so extended.

"But…" Jamie began, taken aback by the speed of events. He got no further before Magnus, the elderly butler, stepped gravely up and presented him with the leather strop used for sharpening the kitchen knives, laid ceremonially atop the meat platter.

"Er," Jamie said, looking helplessly at me.

"Um," I said, and took one step back. Eyes narrowed, he grabbed my hand, squeezing it tightly.

"No, ye don’t, Sassenach," he muttered in English. "If I have to do it, you have to watch it!"

Glancing desperately back and forth between his would-be victim and the proffered instrument of execution, he hesitated for a moment longer, then gave up.

"Oh, bloody f**king hell," he muttered under his breath in English, grabbing the strop from Magnus. He flexed the broad strap dubiously between his hands; three inches wide and a quarter-inch thick, it was a formidable weapon. Clearly wishing himself anywhere else, he advanced upon the prone body of Fergus.

"All right, then," he said, glaring ferociously round the room. "Ten strokes, and I don’t wish to hear a fuss about it." Several of the female servants blanched visibly at this, and clung to each other for support, but there was dead silence in the big room as he raised the strap.

The resultant crack at impact made me jump, and there were small squeaks of alarm from the kitchenmaids, but no sound from Fergus. The small body quivered, and Jamie closed his eyes briefly, then set his lips and proceeded to inflict the remainder of the sentence, strokes evenly spaced. I felt sick, and surreptitiously wiped my damp palms on my skirt. At the same time, I felt an unhinged urge to laugh at the terrible farce of the situation.

Fergus endured everything in total silence, and when Jamie had finished and stepped back, pale and sweating, the small body lay so still that I was afraid for a moment that he had died—of shock, if not from the actual effects of the beating. But then a deep shudder seemed to run over the small frame, and the boy slid backward and raised himself stiffly off the table.

Jamie leaped forward to grasp him by an arm, anxiously smoothing back the sweat-drenched hair from his forehead.

"Are ye all right, man?" he asked. "God, Fergus, tell me you’re all right!"

The boy was white to the lips, and his eyes were the size of saucers, but he smiled at this evidence of goodwill on the part of his employer, buck teeth gleaming in the lamplight.

"Oh yes, milord," he gasped. "Am I forgiven?"

"Jesus Christ," Jamie muttered, and clasped the boy tightly against his chest. "Yes, of course ye are, fool." He held the boy at arm’s length and shook him slightly. "I dinna want to do that ever again, d’ye hear me?"

Fergus nodded, eyes glowing, then broke away and fell to his knees before me.

"Do you forgive me also, Madame?" he asked, folding his hands formally in front of him, and looking trustfully up, like a chipmunk begging for nuts.

I thought I would expire on the spot of mortification, but mustered sufficient self-possession to reach down and raise the boy to his feet.

"There is nothing to forgive," I told him firmly, my cheeks burning. "You’re a very courageous lad, Fergus. Why…er, why don’t you go and have some supper now?"

At this, the atmosphere of the kitchen relaxed, as though everyone had drawn a massive sigh of relief at once. The other servants pushed forward, babbling concern and congratulations, and Fergus was swept off to a hero’s reception, while Jamie and I beat a precipitous retreat back to our quarters abovestairs.

"Oh, God," Jamie said, collapsing into his chair as though completely drained. "Sweet bleeding Jesus. Mary, Michael, and Bride. Lord, I need a drink. Don’t ring!" he exclaimed in alarm, though I hadn’t made a move toward the bell rope. "I couldna bear to face one of the servants just now."

He got up and rummaged in the cupboard. "I think I’ve a bottle in here, though."

He had indeed, a nice aged Scotch. Removing the cork unceremoniously with his teeth, he lowered the level of the spirit by an inch or so, then handed the bottle to me. I followed his example without hesitation.

"Jesus Christ," I said, when I had recovered breath enough to speak.

"Yes," he said, taking the bottle back and taking another gulp. Setting the bottle down, he clutched his head, running his fingers through his hair until it stood on end in wild disarray. He laughed weakly.

"I’ve never felt so foolish in my entire life. God, I felt a clot-heid!"

"So did I," I said, taking my turn at the bottle. "Even more than you, I imagine. After all, it was all my fault. Jamie, I can’t tell you how sorry I am; I never imagined…"

"Ah, dinna worry yourself." The tension of the last half-hour released, he squeezed my shoulder affectionately. "You couldna have any idea. Neither did I, for that matter," he added reflectively. "I suppose he thought I’d dismiss him, and he’d be back in the streets…poor little bugger. No wonder he thought himself lucky to take a beating instead."

I shuddered briefly, remembering the streets through which Monsieur Forez’s carriage had traveled. Beggars dressed in rags and sores clung stubbornly to their territories, sleeping on the ground even on the coldest nights, lest some rival steal a profitable corner from them. Children much smaller than Fergus darted through the market crowds like hungry mice, eyes always watching for the dropped crumb, the unguarded pocket. And for those too unhealthy to work, too unattractive to sell to the brothels, or simply too unlucky—it would be a short life indeed, and far from merry. Little wonder if the prospect of being thrust from the luxury of three meals a day and clean clothes back into that sordid stew had been sufficient to send Fergus into paroxysms of needless guilt.

"I suppose so," I said. My manner of intake had declined from gulps to a more genteel sipping by this time. I sipped genteelly, then handed the bottle back, noting in a rather detached manner that it was more than half empty. "Still, I hope you didn’t hurt him."

"Weel, nay doubt he’ll be a bit sore." His Scots accent, usually faint, always grew more pronounced when he drank a lot. He shook his head, squinting through the bottle to judge the level of spirit remaining. "D’ye know, Sassenach, I never ’til tonight realized just how difficult it must ha’ been for my father to beat me? I always thought it was me had the hardest part of that particular transaction." He tilted his head back and drank again, then set down the bottle and stared owl-eyed into the fire. "Being a father might be a bit more complicated than I’d thought. I’ll have to think about it."

"Well, don’t think too hard," I said. "You’ve had a lot to drink."

"Och, don’t worry," he said cheerfully. "There’s another bottle in the cupboard."

15

IN WHICH MUSIC PLAYS A PART

We stayed up late with the second bottle, going over and over the latest of the abstracted letters from the Chevalier de St. George—otherwise known as His Majesty, James III—and the letters to Prince Charles from Jacobite supporters.