Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 61)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(61)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Cool pottery touched his mouth, and he gulped, half choking.

“Slow, me lord,” Tom said, moving the cup away, and put a hand behind his head to steady him. “Slow as does it. That’s it, now. Lap it like a dog, now, just a bit at a time.”

He lapped, urgent for more, trying to will the water into the parched tissues of his mouth and throat, tasting the faint silver of blood from a cracked lip. For a brief period of ecstasy, nothing existed save the bliss of drinking water. The cup was drawn away, though, and Tom lowered his head gently to the pillow, leaving him blinking at the ceiling, panting shallowly.

He’d ignored the pain in his chest and arm for the sake of water, but now realized that he could not draw a full breath. The left side of his body seemed encased in something solid, and he recalled quite suddenly hearing someone say that his arm had been blown off.

He jerked, trying to raise his head to look, and reached across his body with his right hand.

“Oh, Jesus!” Colored lights danced before his eyes and a cold sweat broke out on his body—but his left arm was there, thank God. It was still attached, though plainly not in good shape. He tried wiggling the fingers, which proved a mistake.

“Don’t move, me lord!” Tom sounded alarmed. “You mustn’t. Doctor says as it could kill you, if you move!”

He didn’t doubt it. The pain was back, grimly sitting on his chest, driving the breath out of him, trying patiently to stop his heart.

He lay still, eyes closed and teeth gritted, breathing in sips of air. He could smell pigs, ripe and near at hand. It must be one of the farmhouses near the may.

“Tom. What…happened?”

“They said the gun blew up, me lord. But the battle’s won,” he added, though Grey didn’t really care at the moment. “Mr. Brett nearly drowned in the dyke, but Mr. Tarleton fished him out.”

There were other people in the room now, he didn’t know how many. Voices, murmuring gravely. Tom was babbling nonsense in his ear, in a patent attempt to keep him from hearing what was being said. He raised his right hand, but let it fall, too exhausted to try to shush Tom. Besides, he thought he didn’t really want to hear what they were saying.

The voices stopped and went away. Tom fell silent, but stayed by him, dabbing sweat from his face and neck, now and then wetting his lips with water from the cup.

He could feel the fever starting. It was a sly thing, barely noticeable by contrast with the pain, but he was aware of it. He felt that he should fight, concentrate his mind to drive it back, but felt too tired to do anything but go on breathing, one short, shallow gasp at a time.

Perhaps he fell asleep, perhaps his attention only wandered. He was aware all at once that the voices were back, and Hal with them.

“All right, John?” Hal’s hand took hold of his sound right arm, squeezing.

“No.”

The hand squeezed harder.

“You see, my lord?” Another voice came from his other side. He cracked one eye open, far enough to see an earnest cove with a long face and a stern mouth, this downturned in displeasure at Grey’s state—or perhaps his existence. The name popped into his mind, sudden as if the face had acquired a label—Longstreet. Mr. Longstreet, army surgeon.

“Shit,” he said, and closed his eyes. Hal squeezed him again, evidently thinking this remark a response to the pain.

Another of the voices loomed up at the foot of the bed, this one speaking German. Burly sort in a green uniform, jabbing his finger at Grey in a definite sort of way.

“…must amputate, as I said.”

He was barely lucid enough to hear this, and flapped the uninjured arm in a feeble attempt at defense.

“…rather die.” Hoarse and cracked, it didn’t sound like his voice, and for a moment, he wondered who’d said that. Hal was scowling at him, though, attention momentarily diverted from the doctor.

The lining of his mouth stuck to his teeth, and he worked his tongue in a frantic effort to generate enough saliva to speak. His body convulsed in the effort and he reared up from the bed, fire roaring up the left side of his body.

“Don’t…let ’em,” he said to his brother’s swimming face, and fell back into darkness, hearing cries of alarm.

The next time he came round, it was to find himself bound to a bedstead. He checked hastily, but his left arm was still amongst those present. It had been splinted and wrapped in bandages and it hurt amazingly, much worse than the last time he’d been awake, but he wasn’t inclined to complain.

He was mildly surprised to hear that the surgeons were all still arguing—in German, this time. One of them was insisting to Hal that it was futile, as “he”—Grey himself, he supposed—was undoubtedly going to die. Another—Longstreet, he thought, though he also spoke in German—was insisting that Hal must leave the surgeons to their work.

“I’m not leaving,” Hal said, close by. “And he isn’t dying. Are you?” he inquired, seeing that Grey was awake.

“No.” Some kind soul had wetted his lips again; the word came out in a whisper, but it was audible.

“Good. Don’t,” Hal advised him, then looked up. “Byrd, go and guard the door. No one is to come in here until I say so. Do you understand?”

“Yes, me lord!” The hand on Grey’s shoulder lifted and he heard Tom Byrd’s boots hurrying across the floor, the opening and closing of the door.

It occurred to Grey, with complete calm and utter clarity, that it would be extremely convenient for a number of people—not least himself—if he were to die as a result of his injuries.

Percy? He felt no more than a dim ache at thought of Percy, but retained that odd clarity of thought. Most of all to Percy. Custis was dead. If he were to die, as well, there would be no one to testify at the court-martial, and such a charge could not be pressed without witnesses.

Would they let Percy go on that account? Probably so. His career would be finished, of course. But the army would vastly prefer to dismiss him quietly than to have the ballyhoo and scandal of a trial for sodomy.

“Do you suppose it was my fault, as he said?” he asked his father, who was standing beside the bed, looking down at him.

“I shouldn’t think so.” His father rubbed an index finger beneath his nose, as he generally did when thinking. “You didn’t force him to do it.”

“But was he right, do you think? Did he only do it because I couldn’t give him what he needed?”

The duke’s brows drew together, baffled.

“No,” he said, shaking his head in reproof. “Not logical. Every man chooses his own way. No one else can be responsible.”

“What’s not logical?”

Grey blinked, to find Hal frowning down at him.

“What’s not logical?” his brother repeated.

Grey tried to reply, but found the effort of speaking so great that he only closed his eyes.

“Right,” Hal went on. “There are fragments of metal in your chest; they’re going to remove them.” He hesitated, then his fingers closed gently over Grey’s.

“I’m sorry, Johnny,” he said, low-voiced. “I don’t dare let them give you opium. It’s going to hurt a lot.”

“Are…you under th-the im…pression that this is…news to me?”

The effort of speaking made his head swim and gave him a nearly irresistible urge to cough, but it lightened Hal’s expression a bit, so was worth it.

“Good lad,” Hal whispered, and squeezed his hand briefly, letting go then in order to fumble something out of his pocket. This proved, when Grey could fix his wavering gaze on it, to be a limp bit of leather, looking as though the rats had been at it.

“It was Father’s,” Hal said, tenderly inserting it between Grey’s teeth. “I found it amongst his old campaign things. Ancestral teeth marks and all,” he added, making an unconvincing attempt at a reassuring grin. “Don’t know for sure whose teeth they were, though.”

Grey munched the leather gingerly, just as pleased that its presence saved him the effort of further reply. The taste of it was oddly pleasant, and he had a brief memory of Gustav the dachshund, gnawing contentedly at his bit of beef hide.

The picture reminded him of other things, though—the last time he had seen von Namtzen and the bitter smell of the chrysanthemums, the still more bitter smell of Percy’s sweat and the night-soil bucket—he turned his head violently, away from everything. And then there was a looming presence over him, and he shivered suddenly as the sheet was lifted away.

His attention was distracted by a snicking sound. He turned his head and saw Hal checking the priming on the pistol he had just cocked. Hal sat down on a stool, set the pistol on his knee, and gave Longstreet a look of cold boredom.

“Get on, then,” he said.

There was a sudden chill as the dressing on Grey’s chest was lifted, and he heard the sharp-edged hiss of metal and the surgeon’s deep, impatient sigh. Hal’s fingers tightened, grasping his.

“Just hold on, Johnny,” Hal said in a steady voice. “I won’t let go.”

Chapter 30

A Specialist in Matters of the Heart

In early September, he returned to England, to Argus House. Once well enough to leave the field hospital at Crefeld, he had been sent to Stephan von Namtzen’s hunting lodge, where he had spent the next two months slowly recuperating under the tender care of von Namtzen, Tom Byrd, and Gustav the dachshund, who came into his room each night, moaned until lifted onto the bed, and then settled down comfortingly—if heavily—on Grey’s feet, lest his soul wander in the night.

Shortly after his return to England, Harry Quarry came to call, keeping up an easy flow of cordialities and regimental gossip that demanded little more of Grey than the occasional smile or nod in response.

“You’re tired,” Quarry said abruptly. “I’ll go, let you rest a bit.”

Grey would have protested politely, but the truth was that he was close to collapse, chest and arm hurting badly. He made to stand up, to see Quarry out, but his friend waved him back. He paused at the door, though, hat in hand.

“Have you heard much from Melton? Since you’ve been back, I mean?”

“No. Why?” Grey’s arm ached abominably; he could barely wait until Harry departed and he could have Tom put the sling back on.

“I thought he might have told you—but I suppose he didn’t want to hamper your recovery.”

“Told me what?” The pain in his arm seemed suddenly less important.

“Two things. Arthur Longstreet’s back in England; army surgeon—you know him?”

“Yes,” Grey said, and his hand went involuntarily to his chest, the left side of it crisscrossed with barely healed weals. Tom, seeing it, had remarked that he looked as though he’d been in a saber fight. “What—did he say why Longstreet’s here?” Why would Hal not have told him this?

“Invalided out,” Quarry replied promptly. “Shot through the lungs at Zorndorf; in a bad way, I hear.”