A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 33

   

“Birds, is it?” The notion seemed to affront Mrs. Bug, who put down her knitting and sat up straight. “Our Fergus speaks bird-tongue, does he? Well, ye just go and fetch the mannie this minute. Yon Frenchman can mind his own birds!”

Looking rather taken aback at this vehemence, Jamie allowed me to usher him out into the hallway and as far as the front door. Safely out of earshot, he stopped.

“What’s to do wi’ the lass?” he demanded, low-voiced, and darted a glance back toward the surgery, where Malva’s clear, high voice had taken up her reading again.

I told him, as well as I could.

“It may be nothing; I hope so. But—she wants Fergus. She says he’s been keeping away, feeling guilty for what happened at the malting floor.”

Jamie nodded.

“Well, aye, he would.”

“He would? Why, for heaven’s sake?” I demanded in exasperation. “It wasn’t his fault!”

He gave me a look suggesting that I had missed something patently obvious to the meanest intelligence.

“Ye think that makes a difference? And if the lass should die—or mischief come to the child? Ye think he’d not blame himself?”

“He shouldn’t,” I said. “But rather obviously he does. You don’t—” I stopped short, because in fact he did. He’d told me so, very clearly, the night he brought me back.

He saw the memory cross my face, and the hint of a smile, wry and painful, showed in his eyes. He reached out and traced the line of my eyebrow, where a healing gash had split through it.

“Ye think I dinna feel that?” he asked quietly.

I shook my head, not in negation, but in helplessness.

“A man’s wife is his to protect,” he said simply, and turned away. “I’ll go fetch Fergus.”

THE LAMINARIA HAD BEEN accomplishing its slow, patient work, and Marsali was beginning to have occasional contractions, though we had not really got down to it, yet. The light was beginning to fade when Jamie arrived with Fergus—and Ian, met on the way.

Fergus was unshaven, covered with dust, and plainly hadn’t bathed in days, but Marsali’s face lighted like the sun when she saw him. I didn’t know what Jamie had told him; he looked grim and worried—but at sight of Marsali, he went to her like an arrow to its target, gathering her to him with such fervor that Malva dropped her book on the floor, staring in astonishment.

I relaxed a little, for the first time since I had entered Marsali’s house that morning.

“Well,” I said, and took a deep breath. “Perhaps we’ll have a little food, shall we?”

I left Fergus and Marsali alone, while the rest of us ate, and returned to the surgery to find them with heads close together, talking quietly. I hated to disturb them, but it was necessary.

On the one hand, the cervix had dilated very appreciably, and there was no sign of abnormal bleeding, which was a tremendous relief. On the other . . . the baby’s heartbeat was skipping again. Almost certainly a cord problem, I thought.

I was very conscious of Marsali’s eyes, fixed on my face as I listened through my stethoscope, and I exerted every ounce of will in order to let nothing show.

“You’re doing very well,” I assured her, smoothing tumbled hair off her forehead and smiling into her eyes. “I think perhaps it’s time to help things along a little.”

There were assorted herbs that could assist labor, but most of them were not things I’d use, were there any danger of hemorrhage. At this point, though, I was uneasy enough to want to get things moving as quickly as possible. Raspberry-leaf tea might be a help without being so strong as to induce major or abrupt contractions. Ought I add blue cohosh? I wondered.

“The babe needs to come quickly,” Marsali told Fergus, with every appearance of calm. Obviously, I hadn’t been as successful in hiding my concern as I’d thought.

She had her rosary with her, and now wound it round her hand, the cross dangling. “Help me, mon cher.”

He lifted the hand with the rosary, and kissed it.

“Oui, cherie.” He crossed himself then, and set to work.

Fergus had spent the first ten years of his life in the brothel where he’d been born. Consequently, he knew a great deal more about women—in some ways—than any other man I’d ever met. Even so, I was astonished to see him reach for the strings at the neck of Marsali’s shift, and draw it down, exposing her br**sts.

Marsali didn’t seem at all surprised, merely lying back and turning slightly toward him, the hump of her belly nudging him as she did so.

He knelt on a stool beside the bed, and placing a hand tenderly but absently on the bulge, bent his head toward Marsali’s breast, lips slightly pursed. Then he appeared to notice me gaping at him, and glanced up over her belly.

“Oh.” He smiled at me. “You have not—well, I suppose you would perhaps not have seen this, milady?”

“I can’t say that I have.” I was torn between fascination and a feeling that I should avert my eyes. “What . . . ?”

“When the birth pangs are slow to start, suckling the woman’s br**sts encourages the womb to move, thus to hasten the child,” he explained, and brushed a thumb unconsciously over one dark-brown nipple, so that it rose, round and hard as a spring cherry. “In the brothel, if one of les filles had a difficulty, sometimes another would do such service for her. I have done it for ma douce before—when Félicité came. It helps; you will see.”

And without more ado, he cupped the breast in both hands and took the nipple into his mouth, sucking gently, but with great concentration, his eyes closed.

Marsali sighed, and her body seemed to relax in the flowing way that a pregnant woman’s does, as though she were suddenly boneless as a stranded jellyfish.

I was more than disconcerted, but I couldn’t leave, in case anything drastic should happen.

I hesitated for a moment, then pulled out a stool and sat down on it, trying to be inconspicuous. In fact, though, neither of them appeared to be at all concerned with my presence—if they were even aware of me anymore. I did, however, turn away a little, so as not to stare.

I was both astonished and interested by Fergus’s technique. He was entirely right; suckling by an infant does cause the uterus to contract. The midwives I had known at L’Hôpital des Anges in Paris had told me that, too; a newly delivered woman should be handed the child at once to nurse, so that the bleeding would slow. None of them had happened to mention use of the technique as a means of inducing labor, though.

“In the brothel, if one of les filles had a difficulty, sometimes another would do such service for her,” he’d said.

His mother had been one of les filles, though he had never known her. I could imagine a Parisian prostitute, dark-haired, likely young, groaning in labor—and a friend kneeling to suckle her tenderly, cupping tender, swollen br**sts and whispering encouragement, as the boisterous noises of satisfied customers echoed through the floors and walls.

Had she died, his mother? In childbirth with him or a subsequent child? Throttled by a drunken client, beaten by the madame’s enforcer? Or was it only that she hadn’t wanted him, hadn’t wished to be responsible for a bastard child, and thus she had left him to the pity of the other women, one of the nameless sons of the street, a child of no one?

Marsali shifted on the bed, and I glanced to see that she was all right. She was. She had only moved in order to put her arms about Fergus’s shoulders, bending her head to his. She had left off her cap; her yellow hair was loose, bright against the sleek darkness of his.

“Fergus . . . I think I’m maybe going to die,” she whispered, her voice barely audible above the wind in the trees.

He released her nipple, but moved his lips delicately over the surface of her breast, murmuring. “You always think you will die, p’tite puce, all women think it.”

“Aye, that’s because a good many of them do, too,” she said a little sharply, and opened her eyes. He smiled, eyes still closed, the tip of his tongue flicking gently against her nipple.

“Not you,” he said softly, but with great assurance. He passed his hand over her stomach, first gently, then with more strength. I could see the mound firm itself, suddenly drawing up round and solid. Marsali drew a deep, sudden breath, and Fergus pressed the heel of his hand against the base of the mound, hard against her pubic bone, holding it there until the contraction relaxed.

“Oh,” she said, sounding breathless.

“Tu . . . non,” he whispered, still more softly. “Not you. I will not let you go.”

I curled my hands in the stuff of my skirt. That looked like a nice, solid contraction. Nothing horrible seemed to be happening as a result.

Fergus resumed his work, pausing now and then to murmur something ridiculous to Marsali in French. I got up and sidled cautiously round toward the foot of the bed table. No, nothing untoward. I cast a quick look at the counter, to be sure all was in readiness, and it was.

Perhaps it would be all right. There was a streak of blood on the sheet—but it was only a bit of bloody show, quite normal. There was still the child’s worrying heartbeat, the possibility of a cord accident—but I could do nothing about that now. Marsali had made her decision, and it was the right one.

Fergus had resumed his suckling. I stepped quietly out into the hall, and swung the door half-closed, to give them privacy. If she did hemorrhage, I could be with her in a second.

I still had the jar of raspberry leaves in my hand. I supposed I might as well go ahead and make the tea—if only to make myself feel useful!

Not finding his wife at home, old Arch Bug had come up to the house with the children. Félicité and Joan were sound asleep on the settle, and Arch was smoking his pipe by the hearth, blowing smoke rings for a rapt Germain. Meanwhile Jamie, Ian, and Malva Christie seemed to be engaged in an amiable literary argument regarding the merits of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and . . .

“Ovid?” I said, catching the tail end of one remark. “Really?”

“So long as you are secure you will count many friends,” Jamie quoted. “If your life becomes clouded you will be alone. D’ye not think that’s the case for poor Tom Jones and wee Perry Pickle?”

“But surely true friends wouldnae abandon a man, only because he’s in some difficulty!” Malva objected. “What sort of friend is that?”

“Rather the common sort, I’m afraid,” I said. “Luckily, there are a few of the other kind.”

“Aye, there are,” Jamie agreed. He smiled at Malva. “Highlanders make the truest friends—if only because they make the worst enemies.”

She was slightly pink in the face, but realized that she was being teased.

“Hmp,” she said, and lifted her nose in order to look down it. “My faither says Highlanders are such fierce fighters because there’s sae little of any value in the Highlands, and the worst battles are always fought for the lowest stakes.”

Everyone dissolved in laughter at that, and Jamie rose to come to me, leaving Ian and Malva to resume their wrangle.

“How is it wi’ the lass?” he asked quietly, dipping up hot water from the kettle for me.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Fergus is . . . er . . . helping her.”

Jamie’s eyebrows went up.

“How?” he asked. “I didna ken there was much a man had to do wi’ that business, once he’s got it properly begun.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” I assured him. “I certainly was!”

He looked intrigued by this, but was prevented from asking further questions by Mrs. Bug’s demand that everyone leave off talking about wretched folk who get up to no good in the pages of books, and come sit down to eat.

I sat down to supper, too, but couldn’t really eat, distracted as I was by concern for Marsali. The raspberry-leaf tea had finished steeping as we ate; I poured it out and took it to the surgery—rapping cautiously on the door before entering.

Fergus was flushed and breathless, but bright-eyed. He could not be persuaded to come and eat, insisting that he would stay with Marsali. His efforts were showing fruit; she was having regular contractions now, though still fairly far apart.

“It will be fast, once the waters break,” Marsali told me. She was a little flushed, too, with a look of inward listening. “It always is.”

I checked the heartbeat again—no great change; still bumpy, but not weakening—and excused myself. Jamie was in his study, across the hall. I went in and sat with him, so as to be handy when needed.

He was writing his usual evening note to his sister, pausing now and then to rub the cramp from his right hand before resuming. Upstairs, Mrs. Bug was putting the children to bed. I could hear Félicité whining, and Germain attempting to sing to her.

Across the hall, small shufflings and murmurings, the shifting of weight and the creak of the table. And in the depths of my inner ear, echoing my own pulse, the soft, rapid beat of a baby’s heart.

It could so easily end badly.

“What are ye doing, Sassenach?”

I looked up, startled.

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Ye’re staring fit to see through the wall, and it doesna seem that ye like what ye’re looking at.”

“Oh.” I dropped my gaze, and realized that I had been pleating and repleating the fabric of my skirt between my fingers; there was a large wrinkled patch in the fawn-colored homespun. “Reliving my failures, I suppose.”

He looked at me for a moment, then rose and came behind me, putting his hands on the base of my neck, kneading my shoulders with a strong, warm touch.

“What failures?” he asked.

I closed my eyes and let my head nod forward, trying not to groan with the sensations of pain from knotted muscles and the simultaneous exquisite relief.

“Oh,” I said, and sighed. “Patients I couldn’t save. Mistakes. Disasters. Accidents. Stillbirths.”

That last word hung in the air, and his hands paused in their work for a moment, then resumed more strongly.

“There are times, surely, when there’s nothing ye could do? You or anyone. Some things are beyond the power of anyone to make right, aye?”

“You never believe that, when it’s you,” I said. “Why should I?”

He paused in his kneading, and I looked up over my shoulder at him. He opened his mouth to contradict me, then realized that he couldn’t. He shook his head, sighed, and resumed.

“Aye, well. I suppose it’s true enough,” he said, with extreme wryness.

“That what the Greeks called hubris, do you think?”

He gave a small snort, which might have been amusement.

“I do. And ye ken where that leads.”

“To a lonely rock under a burning sun, with a vulture gnawing on your liver,” I said, and laughed.

So did Jamie.

“Aye, well, a lonely rock under a burning sun is a verra good place to have company, I should think. And I dinna mean the vulture, either.”

His hands gave a final squeeze to my shoulders, but he didn’t take them away. I leaned my head back against him, eyes closed, taking comfort in his company.

In the momentary silence, we could hear small sounds across the hall, from the surgery. A muffled grunt from Marsali as a contraction came on, a soft French question from Fergus.

I felt that we really ought not to be listening—but neither of us could think of anything to say, to cover the sounds of their private conversation.

A murmur from Marsali, a pause, then Fergus said something hesitant.

“Aye, like we did before Félicité,” came Marsali’s voice, muffled, but quite clear.

“Oui, but—”

“Put something against the door, then,” she said, sounding impatient.

We heard footsteps, and the door to the surgery swung open. Fergus stood there, dark hair disheveled, shirt half-buttoned, and his handsome face deeply flushed under the shadow of beard stubble. He saw us, and the most extraordinary look flitted across his face. Pride, embarrassment, and something indefinably . . . French. He gave Jamie a lopsided smile and a one-shouldered shrug of supreme Gallic insouciance—then firmly shut the door. We heard the grating sounds of a small table being moved, and a small thump as it was shoved against the door.

Jamie and I exchanged looks of bafflement.

Giggles came from behind the closed door, accompanied by a massive creaking and rustling.

“He’s no going to—” Jamie began, and stopped abruptly, looking incredulous. “Is he?”

Evidently so, judging from the faint rhythmic creaks that began to be heard from the surgery.

I felt a slight warmth wash through me, along with a mild sense of shock—and a slightly stronger urge to laugh.

“Well . . . er . . . I have heard that . . . um . . . it does sometimes seem to bring on labor. If a child was overdue, the maîtresses sage femme in Paris would sometimes tell women to get their husbands drunk and . . . er-hmm.”

Jamie gave the surgery door a look of disbelief, mingled with grudging respect.

“And him with not even a dram taken. Well, if that’s what he’s up to, the wee bugger’s got balls, I’ll say that for him.”

Ian, coming down the hall in time to hear this exchange, stopped dead. He listened for a moment to the noises proceeding from the surgery, looked from Jamie and me to the surgery door, back, then shook his head and turned around, going back to the kitchen.

Jamie reached out and gently closed the study door.

Without comment, he sat down again, picked up his pen, and began scratching doggedly away. I went over to the small bookshelf, and stood there staring at the collection of battered spines, taking nothing in.

Old wives’ tales were sometimes nothing more than old wives’ tales. Sometimes they weren’t.

I was seldom troubled by personal recollections while dealing with patients; I had neither time nor attention to spare. At the moment, though, I had much too much of both. And a very vivid memory indeed of the night before Bree’s birth.

People often say that women forget what childbirth is like, because if they remembered, no one would ever do it more than once. Personally, I had no trouble at all remembering.

The sense of massive inertia, particularly. That endless time toward the end, when it seems that it never will end, that one is mired in some prehistoric tar pit, every small move a struggle doomed to futility. Every square centimeter of skin stretched as thin as one’s temper.

You don’t forget. You simply get to the point where you don’t care what birth will feel like; anything is better than being pregnant for an instant longer.

I’d reached that point roughly two weeks before my due date. The date came—and passed. A week later, I was in a state of chronic hysteria, if one could be simultaneously hysterical and torpid.

Frank was physically more comfortable than I was, but in terms of nerves, there wasn’t much to choose between us. Both of us were terrified—not merely of the birth, but of what might come after. Frank being Frank, he reacted to terror by becoming very quiet, withdrawing into himself, to a place where he could control what was happening, by refusing to let anything in.

But I was in no mood to respect anyone’s barriers, and broke down in tears of sheer despair, after being informed by a cheerful obstetrician that I was not dilated at all, and “it might be several days—maybe another week.”

Trying to calm me, Frank had resorted to rubbing my feet. Then my back, my neck, my shoulders—anything I would let him touch. And gradually, I had exhausted myself and lain quiet, letting him touch me. And . . . and we were both terrified, and terribly in need of reassurance, and neither of us had any words with which to give it.

And he made love to me, slowly and gently, and we fell asleep in each other’s arms—and woke up in a state of panic several hours later when my water broke.

“Claire!” I suppose Jamie had called my name more than once; I had been so lost in memory that I had forgotten entirely where I was.

“What?” I swung round, heart pounding. “Has something happened?”

“No, not yet.” He studied me for a moment, brow creased, then got up and came to stand by me.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?”

“Yes. I—I was just thinking.”

“Aye, I saw that,” he said dryly. He hesitated, then—as a particularly loud moan came through the door—touched my elbow.

“Are ye afraid?” he said softly. “That ye might be wi’ child yourself, I mean?”

“No,” I said, and heard the note of desolation in my voice as clearly as he did. “I know I’m not.” I looked up at him; his face was blurred by a haze of unshed tears. “I’m sad that I’m not—that I never will be again.”

I blinked hard, and saw the same emotions on his face that I felt—relief and regret, mingled in such proportion that it was impossible to say which was foremost. He put his arms round me and I rested my forehead on his chest, thinking what comfort it was to know that I had company on this rock, as well.

We stood quietly for some time, just breathing. Then there came a sudden change in the surreptitious noises in the surgery. There was a small cry of surprise, a louder exclamation in French, and then the sound of feet landing heavily on the floor, together with the unmistakable splash of amniotic fluid.

THINGS DID MOVE quickly. Within an hour, I saw the crowning of a black-fuzzed skull.

“He’s got lots of hair,” I reported, easing the perineum with oil. “Be careful, don’t push too hard! Not yet.” I spanned the curve of the emerging skull with my hand. “He’s got a really big head.”

“I wouldna ever have guessed that,” said Marsali, red-faced and panting. “Thank ye for telling me.”

I barely had time to laugh, before the head eased neatly out into my hands, facedown. The cord was round the neck, but not tightly, thank God! I got a finger under it and eased it free, and didn’t have to say, “Push!” before Marsali took a breath that went to China and shot the infant into my middle like a cannonball.

It was like being suddenly handed a greased pig, and I fumbled madly, trying to get the little creature turned upright and see whether he—or she—was breathing.

Meanwhile, there were shrieks of excitement from Malva and Mrs. Bug, and heavy footsteps hastening down the hall from the kitchen.

I found the baby’s face, hastily cleared the nostrils and mouth, blew a short puff of air into the mouth, snapped a finger against the sole of one foot. The foot jerked back in reflex, and the mouth opened wide in a lusty howl.

“Bon soir, Monsieur L’Oeuf,” I said, checking hastily to be sure that it was indeed Monsieur.

“Monsieur?” Fergus’s face split in an ears-wide grin.

“Monsieur,” I confirmed, and hastily wrapping the baby in a flannel, thrust him into his father’s arms while I turned my attention to tying and cutting the cord, then tending to his mother.

His mother, thank God, was doing well. Exhausted and sweat-drenched, but likewise grinning. So was everyone else in the room. The floor was puddled, the bedding soaked, and the atmosphere thick with the fecund scents of birth, but no one seemed to notice in the general excitement.

I kneaded Marsali’s belly to encourage the uterus to contract, while Mrs. Bug brought her an enormous mug of beer to drink.

“He’s all right?” she said, emerging after thirstily engulfing this. “Truly all right?”

“Well, he’s got two arms, two legs, and a head,” I said. “I hadn’t time to count the fingers and toes.”

Fergus laid the baby on the table beside Marsali.

“See for yourself, ma cher,” he said. He folded back the blanket. And blinked, then leaned closer, frowning.

Ian and Jamie stopped talking, seeing him.

“Is there something amiss, then?” Ian asked, coming over.

Sudden silence struck the room. Malva glanced from one face to another, bewildered.

“Maman?”

Germain stood in the doorway, swaying sleepily.

“Is he here? C’est Monsieur?”

Without waiting for answer or permission, he staggered forward and leaned on the bloodstained bedding, mouth a little open as he stared at his newborn brother.

“He looks funny,” he said, and frowned a little. “What’s wrong with him?”

Fergus had been standing stock-still, as had we all. At this, he looked down at Germain, then glanced back at the baby, then again to his firstborn son.

“Il est un nain,” he said, almost casually. He squeezed Germain’s shoulder, hard enough to elicit a yelp of startlement from the boy, then turned suddenly on his heel and went out. I heard the opening of the front door, and a cold draft swept down the hall and through the room.

Il est un nain. He is a dwarf.

Fergus hadn’t closed the door, and the wind blew out the candles, leaving us in semidarkness, lit only by the glow of the brazier.

36

WINTER WOLVES

LITTLE HENRI-CHRISTIAN appeared to be perfectly healthy; he was simply a dwarf. He was slightly jaundiced, though, with a faint gold cast to his skin that gave his round cheeks a delicate glow, like the petals of a daffodil. With a slick of black hair across the top of his head, he might have been a Chinese baby—bar the huge, round blue eyes.

In a way, I supposed I should feel grateful to him. Nothing less than the birth of a dwarf could have deflected the attention of the Ridge from me and the events of the past month. As it was, people no longer stared at my healing face or stumbled awkwardly to find something to say to me. They had quite a lot to say—to me, to each other, and not infrequently, to Marsali, if neither Bree nor I was in time to stop them.

I supposed they must be saying the same things to Fergus—if they saw him. He had come back, three days following the baby’s birth, silent and dark-faced. He had stayed long enough to assent to Marsali’s choice of name, and to have a brief, private conversation with her. Then he had left again.

If she knew where he was, she wasn’t saying. For the time being, she and the children remained at the Big House with us. She smiled and paid attention to the other children, as mothers must, though she seemed always to be listening for something that wasn’t there. Fergus’s footsteps? I wondered.

One good thing: she kept Henri-Christian always close to her, carrying him in a sling, or sitting by her feet in his basket of woven rushes. I’d seen parents who had given birth to children with defects; often, their response was to withdraw, unable to deal with the situation. Marsali dealt with it in the other way, becoming fiercely protective of him.

Visitors came, ostensibly to speak to Jamie about something or to get a bit of a tonic or a salve from me—but really in hopes of catching a glimpse of Henri-Christian. It was no surprise, therefore, that Marsali tensed, clutching Henri-Christian to her bosom, when the back door opened and a shadow fell across the threshold.

She relaxed a little, though, seeing that the visitor was Young Ian.

“Hello, coz,” he said, smiling at her. “Are ye well, then, and the bairn, too?”

“Verra well,” she said firmly. “Come to visit your new cousin, have ye?” I could see that she eyed him narrowly.

“I have, aye, and brought him a wee present, too.” He lifted one big hand, and touched his shirt, which bulged a little with whatever was inside it. “Ye’re well, too, I hope, Auntie Claire?”

“Hallo, Ian,” I said, getting to my feet and putting aside the shirt I’d been hemming. “Yes, I’m fine. Do you want some beer?” I was grateful to see him; I’d been keeping Marsali company while she sewed—or rather, standing guard over her to repel the less-welcome sort of visitor, while Mrs. Bug was tending to the chickens. But I had a decoction of stinging-nettle brewing in the surgery, and needed to check on it. Ian could be trusted to take care of her.

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