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White Linen

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“We have to get his fever down.” John spoke to Sara with the unreasoning trust of a man who appeared to believe she could conjure quinine pills and laudanum from leaves and dirt.

“I know, John. But…” Sara swung her hand out in one of the unladylike gestures that were becoming more and more natural to her. The sweep of her arm encompassed the woods in which they were lost, John’s bedraggled state, her own sadly tattered dress, their lack of medical items, and Laszlo lying on a bed of moss with his head in John’s lap, a doctor unable to heal himself.

Laszlo coughed, the sound rasping and painful, and put a hand to his chest. His eyes moved beneath the closed lids, his eyelashes fluttering, and he muttered something she couldn’t understand.

Sara dropped to her knees beside him. “Laszlo?”

He opened his eyes, and for a moment she thought he saw her. That he was coming out of the illness brought on by the cold and damp of sleeping in the woods overnight, on top of overwork and exhaustion and the guilt of being unable to save everyone.

But his flushed, sweat-dampened face told another story, and his glassy gaze went past her, through her, as if she was a ghost. He turned his head slightly, as if he was listening to someone speak. A chill ran down her spine when he nodded.

“Yes,” Laszlo said. His voice was hoarse, but what unnerved her more was his look of grim resignation. It was the look of a man who has been expecting bad news for years, and is almost relieved when it finally arrives. “Yes, of course I will.”

“Of course you’ll what?” John asked. He stroked a lock of wet hair away from Laszlo’s face. “What?”

“He’s delirious, John, he doesn’t know what—”

Laszlo’s sudden movement took them both by surprise. He reached upward, locked his hand around his own throat, and began to strangle himself.

The world swung sharply around Sara. The man lying before her was not Laszlo, but her father, in agony with half his face gone. How could you do this to yourself? How could you do this to me? How can you still be alive?

Someone was shouting. Her father couldn’t shout. He couldn’t speak. He could only make the most horrible noises, choking on his own blood—

“Laszlo! Laszlo, stop!”

The world swung back with a disorienting jolt. Laszlo was choking in his own grip. John had his palm on Laszlo’s forehead and was pulling at Laszlo’s wrist with his other hand. Sara, feeling dazed and cold and sick, reached out to help. Laszlo’s long fine fingers were shockingly strong, even in extremis.

“Hold his head,” said John.

Sarah cupped her hands around Laszlo’s head and held him still. His skin was damp and very hot. She could feel his pulse beating at his temples.

John pried his fingers loose and pinned his wrist to the ground. Sara pinned his other wrist, just in case. She’d never touched that hand before. The bone was prominent, the flesh wasted. Laszlo struggled, but the strength had gone out of him and he soon lay still and panting. The red welts around his throat were horribly reminiscent of those she’d seen on murder victims.

“Let me go,” he said. “I have to do this.”

“You’re sick,” said John. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

With a calm reasonableness that made Sara’s stomach turn, Laszlo said, “I know exactly what I’m doing. If I don’t kill myself, he’ll kill you. Ergo…

He shrugged, as if his death was of no consequence.

“Who’s ‘he?’” Sara asked. At the same moment, John said, “Laszlo, there’s no one here! You’re delirious. I’m not going to let you hurt yourself on the command of a fever dream.”

Laszlo began to cough painfully, gasping for breath in between, until John said, “Let go, Sara. I have to lift him—he can’t breathe.”

Sara released his wrist, and John pulled him up so Laszlo leaned against John’s chest, his head on John’s shoulder. His breathing eased, and he slipped back into unconsciousness.

With a cold clarity, Sara thought, He could die here. After all he’s been through, it won’t be a madman with a knife who snuffs out his life, it’ll be an inaccurate map, a damp night, and a chilly day. And there is nothing, no knowledge or science or cleverness or force of wanting, that any of us can do about it.

John cautiously laid Laszlo down again. His breathing remained steady, and John once again wrapped him in his own long coat and John’s jacket. But he’d had his coat all along, and it had done no good.

“Sara…” John’s eyes were even more pleading than his tone. As if there was something she could do. There was nothing, nothing—!

The strange thing about unreasoning trust was that it sometimes engendered a basis for itself. When she’d had scarlet fever as a child, they’d wrapped her in wet sheets. She’d hated it, but she’d lived, hadn’t she?

“Close your eyes,” she said. “And take off your shirt.”

Now that she finally had an idea, John eyed her as if she’d run mad. “At the same time?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Sara. “But I’m going to remove my underlinens, and I’d prefer not to have an audience.”

John immediately closed his eyes and unknotted his tie. Only when he’d begun to undo his buttons did he ask, rather plaintively, “Why…?”

“They wrap fevered people in wet sheets,” Sara called from the tree she’d retreated behind. “We don’t have sheets, but we do have cloth and a creek.”

“Oh!” After a moment, John said, “My eyes are still shut.”

“I’ll tell you when to open them. It may be a while.”

Sara was infinitely grateful for all the layers of clothing she wore, no matter how difficult and time-consuming it was to disrobe without assistance. When she was finally done and once again dressed, she had an armful of white linen: a chemise and three petticoats. She’d agonized over her drawers, but ultimately decided that however voluminous, she couldn’t use them. She felt naked enough as it was with nothing under her dress but her drawers, bustle, and corset.

When she returned, she found Laszlo still unconscious and John sitting with his chest bared and his eyes closed, holding out his shirt like a statue of Dionysus proffering a bunch of marble grapes.

“You may open your eyes,” said Sara.

John did so. His gaze went straight to her chemise, then to her. She felt as if he could see through her dress to her nakedness beneath. Sara snatched the shirt from his hand, said, “You stay with Laszlo,” and hurried to the creek.

Sara knelt on the banks and splashed water on her face before she drenched the cloth. Her thoughts darted about erratically, from her own state of public undress to worry about Laszlo to fury at the mapmaker to the paradox of how cold could both kill and cure. Sometimes there were no thoughts, but only memories in vivid flashes. Laszlo’s fingers sunk deep into the delicate flesh of his throat. The reek of gunpowder and blood. Those awful choking sounds.

As she wrung out the chemise and petticoats and shirt—no, it was better to think of them simply as white linen—she imagined herself squeezing out her panic like water. She was calm, cool. Like water.

When she returned to the clearing, she found that John had already partially undressed Laszlo. The muscular smoothness of his upper body made his wasted arm far more noticeable. Commissioner Roosevelt’s words came back to her: “a broken wing.” She was almost glad Laszlo was unconscious. He’d have hated her seeing him like that.

John’s eyes met hers across Laszlo’s body. He held out his hand, and Sara thrust a piece of linen at him—it proved to be her over-petticoat—and they set to work swathing his body in the cold wet cloth. His skin was so hot that it almost immediately dried out the thin chemise she’d wrapped around his belly. Sara returned to the creek to wet it again, then folded it and laid it across his forehead.

Together they worked through the night, removing the linen as it dried, wetting it, and re-applying it. When the moon set, she stayed with Laszlo while John went to the creek; as John pointed out, his shoes were less likely than hers to turn his ankle in the dark.

Alone with a man lying heavy and limp in her arms, memories of her father came back to her. Deliberately, Sara bent her head to breathe in an odor that wasn’t gunpowder and blood. She inhaled a breath of fever-sweat, a trace of cologne, the muddy smell of creek-water, and the ghost of the lavender sachet with which she scented her linens.

Laszlo’s eyes opened, gleaming in the dark. “I’m cold.”

“We’re wrapping you in wet linens,” Sara said, though she didn’t expect him to understand her. “To bring down your fever.”

“Oh. Yes.” His voice sounded different than it had before, with an understanding different from that horrible false clarity of delirium. “Where’s John?”

“Dunking my chemise in the creek,” she admitted.

Laszlo chuckled, and then she felt him wince. “My throat…”

She could lie to him, but what was the purpose? He’d see his own fingerprints in the glass once they got out of the forest.

With a shock of relief, Sara realized that she now believed that they would get out of the woods. Laszlo’s skin had cooled beneath the wrappings. He was stronger than she’d believed.

“You tried to strangle yourself in delirium,” she said. “John had to pry your fingers off.”

“It’s impossible to strangle yourself to death,” Laszlo replied with unsettling surety. “You fall unconscious, and then your fingers release.”

“How very reassuring,” came John’s voice. She could see him as a moving shape of deeper darkness, and then he came into somewhat more focus as he settled down beside them. “How are you feeling?”

“Help me dress, John,” Laszlo ordered with a familiar arrogance. “Once the fever breaks, warmth is required.”

He did not, Sara noted, ask her to turn her back. The linens were more visible than anything else around, and she watched John unravel them. He passed them to her as he finished with them. Her chemise was soaking wet, but the petticoats were only damp. Too damp to put back on, though, as was John’s shirt.

“Share my coat.” Again, Laszlo was giving orders like a man who has never known disobedience. “We can’t have either of you becoming ill too.”

Sara hesitated, but only for a moment. She lay down under the shelter of Laszlo’s coat, keeping her back to them for the sake of her last vestiges of modesty. Laszlo’s chest warmed her back, and John put his arm around her shoulders, wrapping the coat securely around them all. She was slightly disconcerted to realize that she could tell them apart by touch alone. But it was warm beneath the coat, and she didn’t worry that any of them would fall ill from cold.

Sara tugged at the coat, pulling them all closer in, and they slept.