The Salted Orchard Part VIII
(Read Part VII here.)
Some weeks passed. Anwell Cusack sat up in bed, the heavy blankets wrapped tightly around his neck and shoulders but coming short down at his knees. He wrapped these in sheets to his feet. He coughed deep and hollow and wet, as though the air had to explode out of his lungs to pass through the film of thick mucus that blocked up his throat and windpipe and saturated the alveoli. There was no more pain in the coughs, and after each there was some satisfaction that he had moved the fluid, but then he breathed fast and deep and still felt the muck that would not dislodge but would have to be thinned with mullein tea and broth.
“You take this, Mr. Cusack,” said Fiona Hammond as she walked into the room and set down a small wooden tray. “It’s bitter and you’ll want to spit it up.”
She looked at him. The broad span of his forehead was pallid and flourished with swirls of hair stuck to it with damp. “I think you’re coming through at last. How do you feel?”
He took a sip from the cup and winced. It was not mullein, which had a dark, pleasant flavor that hinted of chocolate. “Ugh. Pardon me, ma’am. It’s a strong brew.”
“It will do you a world of good. Mrs. Wyndham gave it to me, and I should be grateful to her for it.”
“That I am, Mrs. Hammond. Tell her so. And all the others if you haven’t said it enough. I’ll tell them myself soon.”
He asked to be moved out of the room for the remainder of the day. He had been in there for nine days, though he was in a fever for a time and wouldn’t have known his surroundings. She helped him move to a chair in the sitting room, where he might look out the window and see some of the country.
You tragic fool, he whispered as he sat alone in the dim, unlit room. The illness had given him some distance, and he was not overwhelmed by dread any longer. If he could be gone for nine days and she lived still, his part was smaller than he imagined. The possibility even that he had no part at all began to seep in.
But how fervent he was that first day! He had called a meeting of her neighbors soon after his first sitting with Mrs. Hammond. He rallied them together in the Hammonds’ garden, speaking to them as he might have spoken to his crew, strong-throated, full in his knowledge and ardent in his task. “Murder is coming!” he cried, and the fear and dread fell over all and distorted the grey sky of winter to something more sinister. He recounted all, even the tale of the inn a few towns away. He was bleak knowing visited to the innocent, whom then knowing were cast out of paradise. They watched that day and thereafter for the devil nobleman.
When he did not come that first day, Cusack waited for him in the night, quiet in the dark as Mrs. Hammond slept finally after watching with him. Cusack sat against the wall in the sitting room and heard her sobs through the door. He watched the front door and the windows, and when the sounds of Mrs. Hammond’s weeping died away, he listened for her breathing. Once, it stopped, and he opened the door to see her. She had turned away toward the window and her breathing was barely heard. He left the door open.
He did not sleep until well into the afternoon the next day, when Mrs. Hammond had finished her movements outside and would stay at home for the rest of the night. A man was posted on each the east and west sides of her house and for Mrs. Hammond’s company came an old neighbor, a busy old girl, the type dormant and small until a crisis arrived, at which she awakened to full activity, sage and matronly and the biggest person in the room. This woman, Mrs. Denmare, made supper for Cusack and afterward put him right into bed. It wasn’t her pushing but his confidence in her that took him finally to sleep.
He woke later that night, after only six hours, and found the house dark and still. Mrs. Denmare was gone. He walked carefully about in the darkness and felt the dread come heavy upon him. He made no noise as he opened the door to Mrs. Hammond’s room. She lay still and he watched for the rising of her breast. It came and then again and he was satisfied. He watched a moment longer and then moved back away, leaving the door open again. Outside, he met the posted men and relieved them.
On like this for days, with little sleep and unstopping vigilance, never leaving or even moving, penned into their small space, awaiting their certain visitor and staying ready for it. Shoulders tensed and tongues silent, smiles and laughter absent and the woman’s mourning overshadowed by the overdue event. Cusack helped her by chopping firewood and performing maintenance on the cottage, always with an eye to the road and Gabe Hammond’s pistol near.
He stayed outside in the daytime, watching and waiting, and she visited him as much as she could. She wanted the company, too, grounded as she was. She wanted to hear of her husband. Cusack spoke easy to her and always caught himself before he called her Fiona. He watched her feed the animals in the morning, sometimes through the window in the sitting room. He slipped very easily into this counterfeit domesticity.
But he abused himself. He spent long hours in the cold and staved off sleep and slept fitfully and insufficiently. After the first week, the other men showed their doubts about Cusack and this devil Winston, who had not come and would not and might not even exist. They showed no ill feelings toward Cusack, but he had lost them. He could not produce Winston. He could not resolve the affair and restore the harmony he had destroyed. They were kind to him, but they would not help. They tried to dissuade him from his task.
A heavy burden of faith then rested on poor Mrs. Hammond, who had lost her husband only a week before. When the villagers abandoned Cusack, it was up to Mrs. Hammond to support him, even as she fought the sucking vortex of grief and trauma that threatened to pull her in. Her life had abruptly changed its course, but for the time she would have to stand and stagnate, waiting for Cusack’s devil to come and kill her or be killed. While Cusack was there, she moved not at all, and so directed her energies to him.
He nearly destroyed himself at it, the way he watched and waited and never slept. He had never come back to full health from the time the affair had begun, with Hammond’s death, and he had never nursed the chill and the phlegmatic cough that were the souvenirs of his journey. Mrs. Hammond fed him well and made him teas, and her company was excellent for his spirit, though the conversation was rarely buoyant enough to overcome their sorrow—her loss and his guilt—and their anxiety.
So when Mrs. Hammond woke the morning of his tenth day with her and greeted him hunched over in his chair outside her door, blanketed and pale and stymieing his coughing so as not to wake her, and then coughing long and loud from a place low in the belly that doubled him up and put him on the floor, she ended his stewardship and became his nurse.
He was moved to the bed and for the first days he tried very willfully to raise himself up and resume his responsibility. Mrs. Denmare and Mrs. Hammond were nearly overpowered by him in spite of his flagging strength. But Mrs. Denmare’s will especially was equal to his, and soon he was resigned to his infirmity. And as quickly as that had happened did he fall to an intense fever that kept him alternately unconscious and delirious. This was a difficult time for Mrs. Hammond; in his derangement Cusack recounted gruesome details of her husband’s fate and fearful, superstitious descriptions of his murderer. She was also audience to a celebration of herself and a twisted, disturbing vision that Cusack held of his life there with her.
When he had come through his fever and showed cognizance, and was able to speak again and stay awake for long periods, he noted a change in Mrs. Hammond’s behavior. She was withdrawn from him. Kind still, and accommodating, but aloof, and unwilling to engage with him in anything other than courtesies. What idiot thing have I said, he wondered. His brain had been too hot and it festered before he went into the fever. He was becoming confused. The stress and the waiting had begun to overtax him when he was already of weak mind. He began also to experience sudden euphoria when he sat with Mrs. Hammond, which worked to remove him from the context of his presence there. That she made him happy or was beautiful could not be helped. But he fought it, too, amongst all the other things he was at war against, and it all exhausted him and was the reason for his coma. Now, restored, he had to deal with the consequences of his illness.
She was distrustful of him. Every passing day would be an injury to his credibility and his usefulness, until he was no longer a guardian but a pitiable and discomfiting guest. He would soon be a nuisance. That he had been truthful about the captain’s death she would not have doubted. And she showed her thanks for his bringing the news to her. Grateful, too, was she for the inconvenience he had suffered, and for his offer of protectorship. But whither the end? Winston had not come. He may never come.
But he could not gamble on a devil, especially when the prize was Fiona’s life. He had withstood all manner of hardship in his task; he could temper Fiona’s lost faith. Men have suffered worse, for less reasons than love, which in that minute he knew was what he had come for. Captain Hammond was lost. Cusack had seen his redemption in Fiona’s salvation from Winston, but now Winston had not come he knew what his part was. He had loved Fiona, though he never said it, never thought it. He had loved her when she was not his to love. He knew it love because she did not return it and he felt it still.
Cusack had weathered a ship full of murderers, a swim in the icy sea, a hellish ride, starvation, fatigue, and disease, all to be delivered to Fiona Hammond. Having declared his love for her, his situation worsened considerably.