Friday, October 31, 2014
Damon Snow and the Nocturnal Lessons by Olivia Helling
Publication Date: October 2, 2014
Byrne dropped his hand. “The physician came today.”
“What did he have to say?” I asked. I made a face. “More leeches?”
I didn’t know how such learned men expected leeches to fix dyspepsia, but I had heard enough from Byrne’s rants that physicians were desperate to use them. And the maggots. Physicians had a fetish for letting bugs eat their patients, apparently. Medical nonsense. It was why I never serviced physicians, however well they paid.
“No. No leeches,” he said. “It’s too late for that.”
“Too late?” I asked. “But you have money.” I had known many people to die young because they could not afford even a surgeon. A real one, who had studied in a university and not the cowherd recently arrived from the country.
“Money doesn’t buy everything,” Byrne said. “It didn’t buy me a family.”
“If you had been as ardent about chasing fillies as you are colts,” I said and shrugged. He’d probably have a whole stable of children by now.
“I don’t care much for fillies,” Byrne said.
“Who does?” I shrugged again. “But that’s how you beget children.”
“I always thought I would have time,” he said.
“You still have time,” I said.
Byrne laughed, which turned into a harsh coughing fit. I rubbed his back through the thin cotton of his night gown.
“Doctor Morson said I wouldn’t last a year. Maybe two,” Byrne said.
“From dyspepsia?” I asked.
Byrne shook his head no. “It’s not dyspepsia.”
Oh. If Byrne didn’t wish to share, then I wouldn’t enquire further. “Well, I knew a boy who got roughed up pretty bad — I mean, I knew a boy who had been gravely injured. His — his abbot was flush enough to summon a surgeon. The surgeon said he wouldn’t last the night.”
“But then the boy lived for fifty years and died a happy old man surrounded by grandchildren,” Byrne finished.
“How many years do you think I have?” I asked. “He did outlive the prognosis, though. He made it a whole week before they called the coffin-maker.”
Byrne laughed again, as if he couldn’t help but laugh instead of cry. Tears ran from the corner of his eyes. He pressed his hand into his side again. “Are you trying to make me feel better or worse?”
“Better,” I said. “If he can live seven times longer, it should be easy for you. You can do a lot in seven years.”
“Not like this,” Byrne said. His hands trembled in his lap.
“It’s a lot of books to read,” I said. I glanced at the god forsaken book on the ground. “Not that one.”
Byrne laughed again. When his coughing fit rescinded, he whispered, “You must endeavour not to make me laugh, or I won’t have a year. It would be worth it, though.”
“Well, then what do you want to do?” I asked. The few people I had known with wasting sicknesses had not been afforded the luxury for such a question, except for something really simple. Apologising to their mother for the life they had lived, for one.
“I want to read something… hopeful,” Byrne said.
“Then the newspaper is out,” I said. “Everyone’s saying the French wars will ruin us.”
“Oh, let the French have Perceval,” Byrne said. “I’ve had three ships go down off the coast of Africa, thanks to his moral idiocy.”
“Yes, terrible that,” I said. “Can you believe him? Actually thinking that men shouldn’t be owned by another? Where is the profit? Well, besides with the former slaves, who would then get a fair wage for their work instead of the whip.”
Byrne sniffed. He looked to the fireplace on the other side of his bedroom. Small flames licked the blackened logs. Perhaps he had realised just how silly it was to complain to a molly about the loss of slave ships. Or perhaps he was just imagining keeping me in a collar, chained to his bed to do whatever he desired. Without pay.
“May I ask you something?” Byrne asked. I shrugged. I hoped it had nothing to do with politics. I cared little for what happened at Westminster, unless it involved a gift of coin and me on my knees. “Are you happy?”
I mouth opened and I almost laughed. “Halfway to the grave,” I said, “and you still find time to mock me.”
“How does that question mock you?” Byrne asked. His forehead furrowed, as if he actually had to think hard on my response.
“No, I am not happy,” I said. “I expect no one really is, not at the bottom of the barrel. Although, I’m not actually at the bottom. That place is reserved for those poor halfwits stuck in St Giles.”
“Damon’s Circles of Hell,” Byrne muttered. “How clever.”