He burst out laughing, but didn’t let go. I stole a glance at Jocasta, who stood only a few feet away; she seemed engrossed in conversation with a new arrival, but experience had taught me just how sharp her ears were.
“How old are you?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at him and trying to retrieve my hand without unseemly struggle.
“Five-and-twenty, ma’am,” he answered, rather surprised. He patted at the star-shaped patch near his mouth with a finger of his free hand. “Am I looking indecently haggard?”
“No. I merely wished to be sure I was telling you the truth in informing you that I am old enough to be your mother!”
This news appeared not to distress him in the slightest. Instead he raised my hand to his lips and pressed them fervently upon it.
“I am enchanted,” he breathed. “May I call you Maman?”
Ulysses stood behind Jocasta, dark eyes intent on the guests coming up the lighted walk from the river—he leaned forward now and then to whisper in her ear. I removed my hand from Wylie’s grasp by main force, and used it to tap the butler on the shoulder.
“Ulysses,” I said, smiling charmingly at Wylie, “would you be so kind as to ensure that Mr. Wylie is seated near me at dinner?”
“Indeed, madame; I will attend to it,” he assured me, and returned at once to his surveillance.
Mr. Wylie bowed extravagantly, professing undying gratitude, and allowed himself to be propelled into the house by one of the footmen. I waved pleasantly after him, thinking how much I should enjoy sticking a fork into him, when the time came.
I couldn’t tell whether it was the luck of the draw, or considerate planning, but I found myself between Mr. Wylie and the Quaker, Mr. Husband, with Mr. Hunter—the other non-Gaelic speaker—across the table from me. We formed a small island of English in the midst of a sea of swirling Scots.
Jamie had appeared at the last moment, and was now seated at the head of the table, with Jocasta at his right hand. For the dozenth time, I wondered what was going on. I kept a sharp eye on him, a clean fork by my plate, ready for action, but we had reached the third course with no untoward occurrence.
“I am surprised to find a gentleman of your persuasion in attendance at such an occasion, Mr. Husband. Does not such frivolity offend you?” Having failed to divert my attention to himself during the first two courses, Wylie now resorted to leaning across me, the action bringing his thigh casually into contact with mine.
Hermon Husband smiled. “Even Quakers must eat, Friend Wylie. And I have had the honor to enjoy Mrs. Cameron’s hospitality on many occasions; I should not think to refuse it now, only because she extends it to others.” He switched his attention back to me, resuming our interrupted conversation.
“Thou asked of the Regulators, Mrs. Fraser?” He nodded across the table. “I should recommend thy questions to Mr. Hunter, for if the Regulators might be said to enjoy the benefits of leadership, it is to this gentleman that they look.”
Mr. Hunter bowed at the compliment. A tall, lantern-jawed individual, he was more plainly dressed than most of those in attendance, though not a Quaker. He and Mr. Husband were traveling together, both returning from Wilmington to their homes in the backcountry. With Governor Tryon’s offer in mind, I wanted to find out whatever I could about matters in that area.
“We are but a loose assembly,” he said modestly, putting down his wineglass. “In truth, I should be reluctant to claim any title whatever; it is only that I am fortunate enough to have a homestead so situated that it is a convenient meeting place.”
“One hears that the Regulators are mere rabble.” Wylie dabbed at his lips, careful not to dislodge his patch. “Lawless, and inclined to violence against the duly authorized deputies of the Crown.”
“Indeed we are not,” Mr. Husband put in, still mildly. I was surprised to hear him claim association with the Regulators; perhaps the movement wasn’t quite so violent and lawless as Wylie implied. “We seek only justice, and that is not a quantity that can be obtained by means of violence, for where violence enters in, justice must surely flee.”
Wylie laughed, a surprisingly deep and masculine sound, given his foppery.
“Justice apparently should flee! That is certainly the impression I was given by Mr. Justice Dodgson when I spoke with him last week. Or perhaps he was mistaken, sir, in his identification of the ruffians who invaded his chambers, knocked him down, and dragged him by the heels into the street?” He smiled engagingly at Hunter, who flushed dark red beneath his weathered tan. His fingers tightened about the stem of his wineglass. I glanced hopefully at Jamie. No sign of a signal.
“Mr. Justice Dodgson,” Hunter said precisely, “is a userer, a thief, a disgrace to the profession of law, and—”
I had for some little time been hearing noises outside, but had put these down to some crisis in the cookhouse, which was separated from the main house by a breezeway. The noises became clearer now, though, and I caught a familiar voice that quite distracted me from Mr. Hunter’s denunciations.
“Duncan!” I half rose from my seat, and heads nearby turned inquiringly.
There was a sudden confusion of movement out on the terrace, with shadows jerking past the open French windows, and voices calling, arguing and exhorting.
Conversation in the dining room fell silent, and everyone looked to see what was happening. I saw Jamie push back his chair, but before he could rise, an apparition appeared in the doorway.
It was John Quincy Myers, the mountain man, who filled the open double door from top to bottom and side to side, resplendent in the same costume in which I had first met him. He leaned heavily upon the doorframe, surveying the assemblage through bloodshot eyes. His face was flushed, his breathing stertorous, and in one hand he held a long glass bottle.
His eyes lit upon me, and his face contorted into a fearful grimace of gratification.
“THERE ye are,” he said, in tones of the deepest satisfaction. “Said sho. Duncan wudd’n havit. Said yesh, Mishess Claire said gotter be drunk afore she cuts me. Sho I’m drunk. Drunk—” He paused, swaying dangerously, and raised his bottle high. “As a SKUNK!” he ended triumphantly. He took a step into the room, fell flat on his face, and didn’t move.
Duncan appeared in the doorway, looking a good deal the worse for wear himself. His shirt was ripped, his coat hung off his shoulder, and he had the beginnings of what looked like a black eye.
He glanced down at the prostrate form at his feet, then looked apologetically at Jamie.
“I did try to stop him, Mac Dubh.”
I extricated myself from my seat, and reached the body at the same time as Jamie, followed by a tidal wave of curious guests. Jamie glanced at me, eyebrows raised.
“Well, ye did say he must be unconscious,” he observed. He bent over the mountain man and thumbed back an eyelid, showing a slice of blank white eyeball. “I’d say he’s made a good job of it, myself.”
“Yes, but I didn’t mean dead drunk!” I squatted by the insensible form, and put a ginger two fingers over the carotid pulse. Nice and strong. Still…
“Alcohol isn’t a good anesthetic at all,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s a poison. It depresses the central nervous system. Put the shock of operating on top of alcohol intoxication, and it could kill him, easily.”
“No great loss,” said someone among the guests, but this caustic opinion was drowned in a flood of reproachful shushing.
“Shame to waste so much brandy,” someone else said, to general laughter. It was Phillip Wylie; I saw his powdered face loom over Jamie’s shoulder, smiling wickedly.
“We’ve heard a great deal of your skill, Mistress Fraser. Now’s your chance of proving yourself—before witnesses!” He waved a graceful hand at the crowd clustered round us.
“Oh, bugger off,” I said crossly.
“Ooh, hear her!” Someone murmured behind me, not without admiration. Wylie blinked, taken aback, but then grinned more broadly than ever.
“Your wish is my command, ma’am,” he murmured, and bowed himself back into the crowd.
I stood up, racked with doubt. It might work. It was a technically simple operation, and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes—if I encountered no complications. It was a small incision—but it did involve going into the peritoneum, with all the attendant risk of infection that implied.
Still, I was unlikely to encounter better conditions than I had here—plenty of alcohol for disinfection, plenty of willing assistants. There was no other means of anesthesia available, and I could under no circumstances do it with a conscious patient. Above all, Myers had asked me to do it.
I sought Jamie’s face, wanting advice. He was there, standing beside me, and saw the question in my eyes. Well, he’d wanted a diversion, damn it.
“Best do it, Sassenach.” Jamie eyed the prostrate form. “He may ne’er have either the courage or the money to get that drunk again.” I stooped and checked his pulse again—strong and steady as a carthorse.
Jocasta’s stately head appeared among the curious faces looming over MacNeill’s shoulder.
“Bring him into the salon,” she said briefly. Her head withdrew, and the decision was made for me.
I had operated under odd conditions before, I thought, rinsing my hands hastily in vinegar brought from the kitchen, but none odder than this.
Relieved of his nether garb, Myers lay tastefully displayed on the mahogany table, boneless as a roasted pheasant, and nearly as ornamental. In lieu of platter, he lay upon a stable blanket, a gaudy centerpiece in his quilled shirt and bear’s-claw necklace, surrounded by a garnish of bottles, rags, and bandages.
There was no time to change my own clothes; a leather butchering apron was fetched from the smoke shed to cover my dress, and Phaedre pinned up my long, frilled sleeves to leave my forearms bare.
Extra candles had been brought to give me light; candelabra blazed from sideboard and chandelier in a reckless expenditure of fragrant beeswax. Not nearly as fragrant as Myers, though; without hesitation, I took the decanter from the sideboard, and sloshed several shillings’ worth of fine brandy over the curly dark-haired crotch.
“Expensive way to kill lice,” someone remarked critically behind me, observing the hasty exodus of miscellaneous small forms of life in the wake of the flood.
“Ah, but they’ll die happy,” said a voice I recognized as Ian’s. “I brought your wee box, Auntie.” He set the surgical chest by my elbow, and opened it for me.
I snatched out my precious blue bottle of distilled alcohol, and the straight-edged scalpel. Holding the blade over a bowl, I poured alcohol over it, meanwhile scanning the crowd for appropriate assistants. There wouldn’t be any shortage of volunteers; the spectators were boiling with suppressed laughter and murmured comment, interrupted dinner forgotten in a rush of anticipation.
Two sturdy carriage drivers were summoned from the kitchen to hold the patient’s legs, Andrew MacNeill and Farquard Campbell volunteering to hold the arms, and Young Ian was set in place by my side, holding a large candlestick to cast additional light. Jamie took up his position as chief anesthetist by the patient’s head, a glass full of whisky poised near the slack and snoring mouth.