Dreadnought Page 23

“Ah.” Mrs. Gaines said it with a happy snap. “And I’m not mistaken, am I? I recognize it now, the cross you carry. It’s not so different from our own. You’re a medical woman, yes?”

Mercy grinned, having not heard it put that way before. “I’m a nurse. I have a letter from the Robertson Hospital, anyway.”

“Please, won’t you come on inside? I have a small proposal for you.”

“A proposal?”

“Certainly. An exchange of services, if you will. Come on, Nurse—or, Mrs. . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Lynch. I’m Mercy Lynch,” she said. It occurred to her that she hadn’t given anyone her Christian name since she’d taken to the road, though her own motivations in the matter were unclear, even to herself.

“Nurse Lynch. Yes, indeed. Come in, and let me get you some tea.”

“But, ma’am, I’m awful run down. I’ve had . . . too much excitement these last few nights. It’s a humdinger of a story. I don’t know if you’d even believe me, if I told you. But I’m so worn out.”

Mrs. Gaines said cheerfully, “Tea will take the edge off of that! I’ll set a kettle on. Here, make yourself comfortable at the table there, in our kitchen area.” With a broad sweep of her arm, she indicated a room beyond an open doorway. “I’d see you to the dining area, but it’s been cleaned up and sorted for the night, and besides, right now most of the people living here are men—single men, many of them all torn up from the war. We tend to leave the proper dining area for them. The other ladies and I take our victuals back here.”

She seized a kettle as promised, filled it with water, and set it to boil while Mercy took a seat at a low wood table set with benches on either side. She dropped the satchel beside her left thigh. As the stove heated and the water within the kettle warmed, Mrs. Gaines sat down across the table from Mercy and continued. “You see, it’s as I said: Here at this mission we help the men who’ve fallen down on their luck, as well as those who’ve taken to alcohol or other vices. It’s our good Christian duty. But right now, our doctor is out at the front, having been called there by none other than General Jackson himself, and we’re . . . shall we say . . . between replacements right now. My own nursing skills are minimal at best, and I think I do myself too much credit to even say that much. It’s a pity, too, because we have a handful of fellows here in various stages of . . . oh, I can’t say what! It’s surpassing strange, is all I know. They seem to be dying of . . . not a disease, precisely. But I’d love a professional’s opinion on the matter, and if you wouldn’t mind giving them an hour of attention, I’d be more than happy to see you settled in one of our officer’s suites upstairs.”

Mercy didn’t take long to think about it. It’d take her a couple of hours to find someplace else to stay for the night, likely as not, and the kettle was nearly boiling. She didn’t know what a Salvation Army officer’s suite was, but if it came with a bed and a basin, she’d chalk it up as a lucky find.

“All right, Mrs. Gaines. I expect I won’t get a better offer tonight, anyhow.”

“I expect you won’t.” She winked, and pulled the kettle from the stove. “Not in this part of town, at any rate.”

“It didn’t seem so bad,” Mercy said, eyeing the china cup. “There’s a nice restaurant down the street.”

“The Cormorant? Yes, it’s a good place with good food, if you can afford it. The neighborhood is beginning to gentrify, in bits and pieces, and the restaurant is pulling more than its fair weight. It’s helped by its proximity to the train station, I imagine, and the river isn’t so awful far away, either.”

When the tea was finally ready to sip, Mercy sipped more extensively than Mrs. Gaines, who was happy to provide most of the chatter.

It turned out that Mrs. Gaines was originally of Maryland, which satisfied Mercy’s curiosity about her somewhat un-​Tennessee-​like accent; and that she was also widowed without any children. She’d been visiting distant cousins in England when she’d learned of the Salvation Army and its intent, and she’d been intensely eager to begin a chapter back in her own land. How she’d wound up in Memphis remained a bit of a veiled mystery, but Mercy didn’t pry.

When the tea had been drunk and the china washed and put away, Mrs. Gaines led Mercy back through the building with a lamp in hand to augment the few that had been placed on the walls but turned down low on account of the hour.

“This once was a Catholic school,” whispered Mrs. Gaines. “It’s suited our purposes well, since it was laid out for dormitories and classrooms. This way, and up these stairs, if you please. I’m afraid we’ve had to isolate the sicker men from the others,” she said as she pulled a ring of iron keys out of a pocket in her suit.

Mrs. Gaines took a particularly pointed key, jammed it into the lock, turned it, and retrieved it. Then she added, “Please don’t think less of us for the restraints.”

The nurse’s voice slipped half an octave out of her usual range. “Restraints?”

Mrs. Gaines pleaded, “Just look at them, and you’ll see. And be careful. Don’t let them bite you.”

“Bite me?”

“Yes, bite. They do that sometimes, I’m afraid. But don’t worry—I’m convinced that their ailment is caused by a substance, and not some unaccountable microbe or spore. But the bites do hurt, and they are prone to inflammation. Again, I’d beg you not to judge our handling of the matter until you see for yourself.”

Finally, she opened the door. She leaned forward, setting the lamp on a shelf to the left of the doorframe, then picked up a candle to light a few other spots as well. The light did nothing to wash away the horror. In fact, the flickering gold, white, and red wobbly beams only added a more gruesome cast to the scene.

Four men lay restrained on pallets, each suffering from the same affliction. All were bone thin, with skin hanging from the peaks and joints of their skeletons like rags on a line, and all were boasting a set of cankerous sores around the mouth and the nose—and almost entirely across one poor man’s eyes. It was difficult to see from the diluted light in the windowless room, but it looked to Mercy like their skin had a yellowish tinge, as if the kidneys or liver were the root of the problem. It looked familiar—or, rather, it looked like the logical conclusion of something familiar.

“Wheezers,” she breathed.

Mrs. Gaines looked at her strangely but did not ask any questions yet.

One man moaned. The other three simply lay there, either sleeping or dying.

“That’s Irvin,” Mrs. Gaines said softly of the moaner. “He’s the one in the best condition. You might actually get a few words out of him. He’s more lucid than the rest.”

“And you took him in, like this? With the wounded veterans and alcoholics?” Mercy asked, keeping her voice low and hoping that by lowering her volume, she could diminish the reproach that filled the question.

“The symptoms were gentler when these men arrived. But things deteriorated so badly, so quickly; at first we thought we had a plague on our hands, but it became clear within a few weeks that the ailment is self-​inflicted.” Mrs. Gaines shook her head. “The best I can ascertain is that there’s some form of drug that’s becoming common out on the lines—making its way both north and south, amongst the foot soldiers. You know how they trade amongst themselves. They call it ‘sap,’ or sometimes ‘yellow sap,’ though I’ve heard other designations for it, too. Sick sand, grit, and . . . well, some of their names aren’t very polite.”

Mercy sat down beside Irvin. He did seem to be the least afflicted, though he still presented the very picture of death warmed over in a chamber pot. She’d seen it before, the hue of his skin and dull crust of his sores. But this went well beyond anything she’d encountered in the Robertson. This was something else, or something more extensive.

Mrs. Gaines hovered, wringing her hands. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”

Irvin’s head rolled slowly so that he looked at her, without really looking at her at all. He did turn his neck so that he faced her direction, but whether he was curious or simply delirious, it was hard to tell. His lids cracked open, revealing squishy, yellowish eyeballs that had all the life of half-​cooked egg whites.

“Maybe,” she replied. Then she said, “Hello there, Irvin.” She said it nervously, keeping an eye on his mouth, and the oversized teeth that dwelled therein. The warning about the bites had stuck with her like a tick.

It might have been a trick of Mercy’s imagination, but she thought the cadaverous lad nodded, so she took this as encouragement and continued. “Irvin, I’m going to . . . I’m going to examine you a little bit, and see if I can’t . . . um . . . help.”

He did not protest, so she brought the lamp closer and used it to determine that his pupils were only scarcely reacting to the light; and he did not flinch or fuss when she turned his head to the side to peer into the canal of his nearest ear—which was clotted like a pollen-​laden flower. She took a fingernail to the outermost crust of this grainy gold stuff and it chipped away as if it’d grown there like lichen on the side of a boat.

Mrs. Gaines did her best to keep from wrinkling her nose, and did an admirable job of at least keeping the heights of her discomfort to herself. She observed Mercy’s every move closely and carefully, without any kind of interference, except to say, “His ears have been leaking like that for days now. I don’t think it bodes well for him. I mean, you can see the other gentlemen have the same problem—it’s not mere wax, you can tell that for yourself.”

“No, not wax. It’s more like dried-​up paste.” She shifted the lamp, and Irvin obligingly leaned his head back, as Mercy directed. “And it’s all up his nose, too. Good Lord, look at those sores. They must hurt like hell.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

Prev Next