A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 32

   

“Am I, then?” He didn’t seem either surprised or put out to hear this.

“You can be,” I said, and felt somewhere in the marrow of my bones the popping sound of Arvin Hodgepile’s neck breaking. It was a warm afternoon, but gooseflesh rippled suddenly up my arms, and then was gone.

“Have I the devious nature, d’ye think?” he asked seriously.

“I don’t know, quite,” I said with some dubiousness. “You’re not a proper twister like he was—but that may be only because you’ve a sense of honor that he lacked. You don’t use people like he did.”

He smiled at that, but with less real humor than he’d shown before.

“Oh, but I do, Sassenach,” he said. “It’s only I try not to let it show.”

He sat for a moment, his gaze fixed on the little cherrywood snake that I held, but I didn’t think he was looking at it. At last, he shook his head and looked up at me, the corner of his mouth tucking wryly in.

“If there is a heaven, and my grandsire’s in it—and I take leave to doubt that last—he’s laughing his wicked auld head off now. Or he would be, if it weren’t tucked underneath his arm.”

34

THE EXHIBITS IN THE CASE

AND SO IT WAS that several days later, we rode into Brownsville. Jamie, in full Highland regalia, with Hector Cameron’s gold-knurled dirk at his waist and a hawk’s feather in his bonnet. On Gideon, who had his ears laid back and blood in his eye, as usual.

By his side, Bird-who-sings-in-the-morning, peace chief of the Snowbird Cherokee. Bird, Ian told me, was from the Long Hair clan, and looked it. His hair was not only long and glossily anointed with bear fat, but most resplendently dressed, with a high tail twisted up from the crown of his head and dropping down his back, ending in a dozen tiny braids decorated—like the rest of his costume—with wampum shell beads, glass beads, small brass bells, parakeet feathers, and a Chinese yen; God knew where he’d got that. Slung by his saddle, his newest and most prized possession—Jamie’s rifle.

By Jamie’s other side, me—Exhibit A. On my mule Clarence, dressed and cloaked in indigo wool—which played up the paleness of my skin and beautifully highlighted the yellow and green of the healing bruises on my face—with my necklace of freshwater pearls about my neck for moral support.

Ian rode behind us with the two braves Bird had brought as retinue, looking more like an Indian than a Scot, with the semicircles of tattooed dots that swooped across his tanned cheekbones, and his own long brown hair greased back from his face and tied in a knot, a single turkey quill thrust through it. At least he hadn’t plucked his scalp in the Mohawk fashion; he looked sufficiently menacing without that.

And on a travois behind Ian’s horse rode Exhibit B—the corpse of Lionel Brown. We’d put him in the springhouse to keep cool with the butter and eggs, and Bree and Malva had done their best, packing the body with moss to absorb liquids, adding as many strongly aromatic herbs as they could find, then wrapping the unsavory package in a deer’s hide, bound with rawhide strips in the Indian fashion. Despite this attention, none of the horses was enthusiastic about being anywhere near it, but Ian’s mount was grimly acquiescent, merely snorting loudly every few minutes and shaking his head so his harness rattled, a lugubrious counterpoint to the soft thump of hooves.

We didn’t talk much.

Visitors to any mountain settlement were cause for public notice and comment. Our little entourage brought folk popping out of their houses like winkles on pins, mouths agape. By the time we reached Richard Brown’s house, which doubled as the local tavern, we had a small band of followers, mostly men and boys.

The sound of our arrival brought a woman—Mrs. Brown, I recognized her—out onto the crudely built stoop. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she rushed back into the house.

We waited in silence. It was a cool, bright autumn day, and the breeze stirred the hair on my neck; I’d worn it pulled back, at Jamie’s request, and wore no cap. My face was exposed, the truth written on it.

Did they know? Feeling strangely remote, as though I watched from somewhere outside my own body, I looked from face to face among the crowd.

They couldn’t know. Jamie had assured me of it; I knew it, myself. Unless Donner had escaped, and come to tell them all that had happened during that final night. But he hadn’t. If he had, Richard Brown would have come to us.

All they knew was what showed on my face. And that was too much.

Clarence felt the hysteria that quivered under my skin like a pool of mercury; he stamped, once, and shook his head as though wanting to dislodge flies in his ears.

The door opened, and Richard Brown came out. There were several men behind him, all armed.

Brown was pale, unkempt, with a sprouting beard and greasy hair. His eyes were red and bleared, and a miasma of beer seemed to surround him. He’d been drinking heavily, and was plainly trying to pull himself together enough to deal with whatever threat we represented.

“Fraser,” he said, and stopped, blinking.

“Mr. Brown.” Jamie nudged Gideon closer, so he was at eye level with the men on the porch, no more than six feet from Richard Brown.

“Ten days past,” Jamie said levelly, “a band of men came upon my land. They stole my property, assaulted my daughter who is with child, burnt my malting shed, destroyed my grain, and abducted and abused my wife.”

Half the men had been staring at me already; now all of them were. I heard the small, metallic click of a pistol being cocked. I kept my face immobile, my hands steady on the reins, my eyes fixed on Richard Brown’s face.

Brown’s mouth began to work, but before he could speak, Jamie raised a hand, commanding silence.

“I followed them, with my men, and killed them,” he said, in the same level tone. “I found your brother with them. I took him captive, but did not slay him.”

There was a general intake of breath, and uneasy murmurs from the crowd behind us. Richard Brown’s eyes darted to the bundle on the travois, and his face went white under the scabby beard.

“You—” he croaked. “Nelly?”

This was my cue. I took a deep breath and nudged Clarence forward.

“Your brother suffered an accident before my husband found us,” I said. My voice was hoarse, but clear enough. I forced more air into it, to be heard by everyone. “He was badly injured in a fall. We tended his injuries. But he died.”

Jamie let a moment of stunned silence pass, before continuing.

“We have brought him to you, so that you may bury him.” He made a small gesture, and Ian, who had dismounted, cut the ropes that held the travois. He and the two Cherokee pulled it to the porch and left it lying in the rutted road, returning silently to their horses.

Jamie inclined his head sharply, and swung Gideon’s head around. Bird followed him, pleasantly impassive as the Buddha. I didn’t know whether he understood enough English to have followed Jamie’s speech, but it didn’t matter. He understood his role, and had carried it out perfectly.

The Browns might have had a profitable sideline in murder, theft, and slavery, but their chief income lay in trade with the Indians. By his presence at Jamie’s side, Bird gave clear warning that the Cherokee regarded their relationship with the King of England and his agent as more important than trade with the Browns. Harm Jamie or his property again, and that profitable connection would be broken.

I didn’t know everything Ian had said to Bird, when asking him to come—but I thought it quite likely that there was also an unspoken agreement that no formal inquiry would be made on behalf of the Crown into the fate of any captives who might have passed into Indian hands.

This was, after all, a matter of business.

I kicked Clarence in the ribs and wheeled into place behind Bird, keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the Chinese yen that glinted in the middle of his back, dangling from his hair on a scarlet thread. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to look back, and clenched my hands on the reins, digging my fingernails into my palms.

Was Donner dead, after all? He wasn’t among the men with Richard Brown; I’d looked.

I didn’t know whether I wanted him to be dead. The desire to find out more about him was strong—but the desire to be done with the matter, to leave that night on the mountainside behind once and for all, all witnesses safely consigned to the silence of the grave—that was stronger.

I heard Ian and the two Cherokee come into line behind us, and within moments, we were out of sight of Brownsville, though the scent of beer and chimney smoke lingered in my nostrils. I pushed Clarence up beside Jamie; Bird had fallen back to ride with his men and Ian; they were laughing at something.

“Will this be the end of it?” I asked. My voice felt thin in the cold air, and I wasn’t sure he’d heard me. But he did. He shook his head slightly.

“There is never an end to such things,” he said quietly. “But we are alive. And that is good.”

PART FIVE

Great Unexpectations

35

Laminaria

SAFELY RETURNED from Brownsville, I took firm steps to resume normal life. And among these was a visit to Marsali, who had returned from her refuge with the McGillivrays. I’d seen Fergus, who had assured me that she was well recovered from her injuries and feeling well—but I needed to see for myself.

The homestead was in good order, I saw, but showing certain signs of dilapidation; a few shingles had blown off the roof, one corner of the stoop was sagging, and the oiled parchment over the single window had split partway up, the flaw hastily mended with rag stuffed through the hole. Small things, but things that should be dealt with before the snow came—and it was coming; I could feel the touch of it in the air, the brilliant blue sky of late autumn fading into the hazy gray of oncoming winter.

No one rushed out to meet me, but I knew they were home; there was a cloud of smoke and sparks from the chimney, and I thought tartly that at least Fergus seemed able to provide enough wood for the hearth. I called out a cheery “hallooo!” and pushed open the door.

I had the feeling at once. I didn’t trust most of my feelings at the moment, but that one went bone-deep. It’s the feeling you have, as a doctor, when you walk into an examination room and know that something’s very wrong. Before you ask the first question, before you’ve taken the first vital sign. It doesn’t happen often, and you’d rather it never did—but there it is. You know, and there’s no way round it.

It was the children that told me, as much as anything else. Marsali sat by the window, sewing, the two girls playing quietly close by her feet. Germain—uncharacteristically indoors—sat swinging his legs at the table, frowning at a ragged but treasured picture book Jamie had brought him from Cross Creek. They knew, too.

Marsali looked up when I came in, and I saw her face tighten in shock at sight of mine—though it was much better than it had been.

“I’m fine,” I said briskly, stopping her exclamation. “Only bruises. How are you, though?”

I set down my bag and cupped my hands round her face, turning it gently to the light. One cheek and ear were badly bruised, and there was a fading knot on her forehead—but she wasn’t cut, and her eyes looked back at me, clear and healthy. A good color to her skin, no jaundice, no faint scent of kidney dysfunction.

She’s all right. It’s the baby, I thought, and dropped my hands to her middle without asking. My heart felt cold as I cupped the bulge and lifted gently. I nearly bit my tongue in surprise when a small knee shifted in answer to my touch.

I was terribly heartened at that; I had thought the child might be dead. A quick glance at Marsali’s face muted my relief. She was strained between hope and fear, hoping that I would tell her that what she knew to be true wasn’t.

“Has the baby moved very much, these last few days?” I asked, keeping my voice calm as I went about fetching out my stethoscope. I’d had it made by a pewtersmith in Wilmington—a small bell with a flat end piece; primitive, but effective.

“Not so much as he did,” Marsali answered, leaning back to let me listen to her stomach. “But they don’t, do they, when they’re nearly ready to come? Joanie lay like the de—like a millstone, all the night before the waters broke.”

“Well, yes, often they do do that,” I agreed, ignoring what she’d nearly said. “Resting up, I suppose.” She smiled in response, but the smile vanished like a snowflake on a griddle as I leaned close and put my ear to the flattened end of the flared metal tube, the wide, bell-shaped opening over her stomach.

It took some time to pick up the heartbeat, and when I did, it was unusually slow. It was also skipping beats; the hair on my arms rippled with gooseflesh when I heard it.

I went on with the examination, asking questions, making small jokes, pausing to answer questions from the other children, who were crowding round, stepping on each other’s feet and getting in the way—and all the time, my mind was racing, envisioning possibilities, all bad.

The child was moving—but wrong. Heartbeat was there—but wrong. Everything about that belly felt wrong to me. What was it, though? Umbilical cord around the neck was thoroughly possible, and quite dangerous.

I pushed the smock further back, trying for a better listen, and saw the heavy bruising—ugly splotches of healing green and yellow, a few still with deep red-black centers that bloomed like deadly roses over the curve of her belly. My teeth sank into my lip at sight of them; they’d kicked her, the bastards. A wonder she hadn’t miscarried on the spot.

Anger swelled suddenly under my breastbone, a huge, solid thing, pushing hard enough to burst it.

Was she bleeding at all? No. No pain, bar tenderness from the bruises. No cramping. No contractions. Her blood pressure seemed normal, so far as I could tell.

A cord accident was still possible—likely, even. But it could be a partially detached placenta, bleeding into the uterus. A ruptured uterus? Or something rarer—a dead twin, an abnormal growth . . . The only thing I knew for sure was that the child needed to be delivered into the air-breathing world, and as soon as possible.

“Where’s Fergus?” I said, still speaking calmly.

“I dinna ken,” she said, matching my tone of absolute calm. “He’s no been home since the day before yesterday. Dinna put that in your mouth, a chuisle.” She lifted a hand toward Félicité, who was gnawing a candle stub, but couldn’t reach her.

“Hasn’t he? Well, we’ll find him.” I removed the candle stub; Félicité made no protest, aware that something was going on, but not knowing what. In search of reassurance, she seized her mother’s leg and began determinedly trying to climb up into Marsali’s nonexistent lap.

“No, bébé,” Germain said, and clasped his sister round the waist, dragging her backward. “You come with me, a piuthar. Want milkie?” he added, coaxing. “We’ll go to the springhoose, aye?”

“Want Mama!” Félicité windmilled arms and legs, trying to escape, but Germain hoisted her fat little body into his arms.

“You wee lassies come with me,” he said firmly, and trundled awkwardly out the door, Félicité grunting and squirming in his grasp, Joanie scampering at his heels—pausing at the door to look back at Marsali, her big brown eyes wide and scared.

“Go on then, a muirninn,” Marsali called, smiling. “Take them to see Mrs. Bug. It will be all right.

“He’s a sweet lad, Germain,” Marsali murmured, folding her hands across her belly as the smile faded.

“Very sweet,” I agreed. “Marsali—”

“I know,” she said simply. “Might this one live, d’ye think?” She passed a hand gently over her belly, looking down.

I wasn’t at all sure, but the child was alive for the moment. I hesitated, turning over possibilities in my mind. Anything I did would entail hideous risk—to her, the child, or both.

Why had I not come sooner? I berated myself for taking Jamie’s and then Fergus’s word that she was all right, but there was no time for self-reproach—and it might not have mattered, either.

“Can you walk?” I asked. “We’ll need to go to the Big House.”

“Aye, of course.” She rose carefully, holding to my arm. She looked around the cabin, as though memorizing all its homely details, then gave me a sharp, clear glance. “We’ll talk on the way.”

THERE WERE OPTIONS, most of them horrifying to contemplate. If there was danger of a placental abruption, I could do an emergency cesarean and possibly save the child—but Marsali would die. To deliver the child slowly, via induction of labor, was to risk the child, but was much safer for Marsali. Of course—and I kept this thought to myself—induction of labor raised the risk of hemorrhage. If that happened . . .

I could perhaps stop the bleeding and save Marsali—but would be unable to help the infant, who would likely also be in distress. There was the ether . . . a tempting thought, but I reluctantly put it aside. It was ether—but I’d not used it, had no clear idea of its concentration or effectiveness, nor did I have anything like an anesthetist’s training that would allow me to calculate its effects in such a dicey situation as dangerous childbirth. For a minor operation, I could go slowly, judge the patient’s respiration, and simply back off if things seemed to be going wrong. If I were in the middle of a cesarean section and things went pear-shaped, there was no way out.

Marsali seemed preternaturally calm, as though she were listening to what was going on inside rather than to my explanations and speculations. As we came near the Big House, though, we met Young Ian, coming down the hillside with a clutch of dead rabbits, dangling by their ears, and she sharpened to attention.

“Ho, cousin! How is it, then?” he asked cheerfully.

“I need Fergus, Ian,” she said without preliminary. “Can ye find him?”

The smile faded from his face as he took in Marsali’s paleness, and my support of her.

“Christ, the bairn’s coming? But why—” He glanced up the pathway behind us, clearly wondering why we had left Marsali’s cabin.

“Go and find Fergus, Ian,” I cut in. “Now.”

“Oh.” He swallowed, suddenly looking quite young. “Oh. Aye. I will. Directly!” He began to bound off, then whirled back and thrust the rabbits into my hand. Then he leapt off the path and tore down the hillside, rocketing between trees and vaulting fallen logs. Rollo, not wishing to be left out of anything, flashed past in a gray blur and hurtled down the hillside after his master like a falling rock.

“Don’t worry,” I said, patting Marsali’s arm. “They’ll find him.”

“Oh, aye,” she said, looking after them. “If they shouldna find him in time, though . . .”

“They will,” I said firmly. “Come on.”

I SENT LIZZIE to find Brianna and Malva Christie—I thought I might well need more hands—and sent Marsali to the kitchen to rest with Mrs. Bug, while I readied the surgery. Fresh bedding and pillows, spread on my examination table. A bed would be better, but I needed to have my equipment to hand.

And the equipment itself: the surgical instruments, carefully hidden beneath a clean towel; the ether mask, lined with fresh thick gauze; the dropping bottle—could I trust Malva to administer the ether, if I had to perform emergency surgery? I thought perhaps I could; the girl was very young, and quite untrained, but she had a remarkable coolness about her, and I knew she wasn’t squeamish. I filled the dropping bottle, averting my face from the sweet, thick scent that drifted from the liquid, and put a small twist of cotton in the spout, to keep the ether from evaporating and gassing us all—or catching fire. I glanced hastily at the hearth, but the fire was out.

What if labor was prolonged and then things went wrong—if I had to do this at night, by candlelight? I couldn’t; ether was hideously inflammable. I shoved away the mental picture of myself performing an emergency cesarean section in the pitch-dark, by feel.

“If you have a moment to spare, this would be a bloody good time to have a look-in,” I muttered, addressing this remark collectively to Saints Bride, Raymond, and Margaret of Antioch, all presumably patrons of childbirth and expectant mothers, plus any guardian angels—mine, Marsali’s, or the child’s—who might be hovering about in the offing.

Evidently, someone was listening. When I got Marsali boosted up onto the table, I was terribly relieved to find that the cervix had begun to dilate—but there was no sign of bleeding. It didn’t remove the risk of hemorrhage, by any means, but it did mean the probability was much lower.

Her blood pressure seemed all right, so far as I could tell by looking at her, and the baby’s heartbeat had steadied, though the baby had stopped moving, refusing to respond to pokes and shoves.

“Sound asleep, I expect,” I said, smiling at Marsali. “Resting up.”

She gave me a tiny smile in return, and turned onto her side, grunting like a hog.

“I could use a bit of a rest, myself, after that walk.” She sighed, settling her head into the pillow. Adso, seconding this motion, leapt up onto the table, and curled himself into her br**sts, rubbing his face affectionately against her.

I would have slung him out, but Marsali seemed to find some comfort in his presence, scratching his ears until he curled up under her chin, purring madly. Well, I’d delivered children in much less sanitary surroundings, cat notwithstanding, and this was likely to be a slow process; Adso would have decamped long before his presence became a hindrance.

I was feeling a bit more reassured, but not to the point of confidence. That subtle feeling of wrongness was still there. On the way, I’d considered the various options available to me; given the slight dilatation of the cervix and the now-steady heartbeat, I thought we might try the most conservative method of inducing labor, so as not to put undue stress upon mother or child. If emergency intervened . . . well, we’d deal with that when and if we had to.

I only hoped the contents of the jar were usable; I’d never had occasion to open it before. Laminaria, said the label, written in Daniel Rawlings’s flowing script. It was a small jar of dark green glass, corked tight, and very light. When I opened it, a faint whiff of iodine floated out, but no scent of decay, thank goodness.

Laminaria is seaweed. Dried, it’s no more than paper-thin slips of brownish-green. Unlike many dried seaweeds, though, Laminaria doesn’t crumble easily. And it has a most astonishing capacity to absorb water.

Inserted into the opening of the cervix, it absorbs moisture from the mucous membranes—and swells, slowly forcing the cervix further open as it does so, thus eventually causing labor to start. I’d seen Laminaria used, even in my own time, though in modern times it was most frequently employed to assist in expelling a dead child from the uterus. I shoved that thought well to the back of my mind, and selected a good piece.

It was a simple thing to do, and once done, nothing to do but wait. And hope. The surgery was very peaceful, full of light and the sounds of barn swallows rustling under the eaves.

“I hope Ian finds Fergus,” Marsali said after a period of silence.

“I’m sure he will,” I replied, distracted by an attempt to light my small brazier using flint and steel. I should have told Lizzie to have Brianna bring matches. “You said Fergus hadn’t been home?”

“No.” Her voice sounded muffled, and I looked up to see her head bent over Adso, face hidden in his fur. “I’ve scarce seen him at all, since . . . since the men came to the malting floor.”

“Ah.”

I didn’t know what to say to this. I hadn’t realized that Fergus had made himself scarce—though knowing what I did of eighteenth-century men, I supposed I could see why.

“He’s ashamed, the wee French gomerel,” Marsali said matter-of-factly, confirming my supposition. She turned her face, one blue eye visible above the curve of Adso’s head. “Thinks it was his fault, aye? That I was there, I mean. Thinks if he was better able to provide, I shouldna have had to go and tend the malting.”

“Men,” I said, shaking my head, and she laughed.

“Aye, men. Not that he’d say what the trouble is, o’ course. Much better go off and brood about it, and leave me to hame wi’ three wild bairns!” She rolled her eyes.

“Aye, well, they do that, men,” said Mrs. Bug tolerantly, coming in with a lighted taper. “No sense at all to them, but they mean weel. I heard ye clickin’ away with that steel like a deathwatch, Mrs. Claire; why would ye no just come and fetch a bit o’ fire like a sensible person?” She touched the taper to the kindling in my brazier, which promptly popped into flame.

“Practice,” I said mildly, adding sticks to the infant flame. “I have hopes of eventually learning to light a fire in less than a quarter of an hour.”

Marsali and Mrs. Bug snorted in simultaneous derision.

“Bless ye, lamb, a quarter-hour’s no time at all! Why, often I’ve spent an hour and more, trying to catch a spark in damp tinder—in Scotland, ’specially, since nothing’s ever dry in the winter there. Whyever d’ye think folk go to such trouble, a-smooring the fire?”

This caused a spirited discussion of the best way in which to smoor a fire for the night, including an argument over the proper blessing to be said while doing so, and this lasted long enough for me to have coaxed the brazier into a decent glow and set a small kettle in it for tea-making. Raspberry-leaf tea would encourage contractions.

Mention of Scotland seemed to have reminded Marsali of something, for she raised herself on one elbow.

“Mother Claire—d’ye think Da would mind, if I was to borrow a sheet of paper and some ink? I’m thinkin’ it would be as well if I wrote to my mother.”

“I think that would be an excellent idea.” I went to fetch paper and ink, heart beating a little faster. Marsali was entirely calm; I wasn’t. I’d seen it before, though; I wasn’t sure whether it was fatalism, religious faith, or something purely physical—but women giving birth seemed very often to lose any sense of fear or misgiving, turning inward upon themselves and exhibiting an absorption that amounted to indifference—simply because they had no attention to spare for anything beyond the universe bounded by their bellies.

As it was, my lingering sense of dread was muted, and two or three hours passed in quiet peace. Marsali wrote to Laoghaire, but also brief notes to each of her children. “Just in case,” she said laconically, handing the folded notes to me to put away. I noticed that she didn’t write to Fergus—but her eyes darted toward the door every time there was a sound.

Lizzie returned to report that Brianna was nowhere to be found, but Malva Christie turned up, looking excited, and was promptly put to work, reading aloud from Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle.

Jamie came in, covered with road dust, and kissed me on the lips and Marsali on the forehead. He took in the unorthodox situation, and gave me the ghost of a raised eyebrow.

“How is it, then, a muirninn?” he asked Marsali.

She made a small face and put her tongue out, and he laughed.

“You haven’t seen Fergus anywhere, have you?” I asked.

“Aye, I have,” he said, looking slightly surprised. “D’ye want him?” This question was addressed to both Marsali and myself.

“We do,” I said firmly. “Where is he?”

“Woolam’s Mill. He’s been interpreting for a French traveler, an artist come in search of birds.”

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