An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 150

   

“It’s all right now,” I said softly, rubbing her thin back. “I’m here. You can sleep.”

MARSALI SLEPT the rest of the day and all through the night. I was tired from the journey but managed to doze in the big chair by the kitchen fire, Henri-Christian cradled in my lap, snoring heavily. He did stop breathing twice during the night, and while I got him started again with no difficulty, I could see that something had to be done at once. Consequently, I had a brief nap in the morning and, having washed my face and eaten a bit, went out in search of what I’d need.

I had the most rudimentary of medical instruments with me, but the fact was, tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy didn’t really require anything complex in that line.

I wished that Ian had come into the city with me; I could have used his help, and so could Marsali. But it was dangerous for a man of his age; he couldn’t enter the city openly without being stopped and questioned by British patrols, likely arrested as a suspicious character—which he most assuredly was. Beyond that… he’d been afire to look for Rachel Hunter.

The task of finding two people—and a dog—who might be almost anywhere between Canada and Charleston, with no means of communication other than the foot and the spoken word, would have daunted anyone less stubborn than a person of Fraser blood. Agreeable as he might be, though, Ian was as capable as Jamie of pursuing a chosen course, come hell, high water, or reasonable suggestions.

He did, as he’d pointed out, have one advantage. Denny Hunter was presumably still an army surgeon. If so, he was obviously with the Continental army—some part of the Continental army. So Ian’s notion was to discover where the closest part of the army might be just now and begin his inquiries there. To which end he proposed to skulk round the edges of Philadelphia, creeping into taverns and shebeens on the outskirts, and, by means of local gossip, discover where some part of the army presently was.

The most I had been able to persuade him to do was to send word to Fergus’s printshop telling us where he was bound, once he’d discovered anything that gave him a possible destination.

In the meantime, all I could do was say a quick prayer to his guardian angel—a most overworked being—then have a word with my own (whom I envisioned as a sort of grandmotherly shape with an anxious expression) and set about doing what I’d come to do.

I now walked through the muddy streets, pondering the procedure. I had done a tonsillectomy only once—well, twice, if you counted the Beardsley twins separately—in the last ten years. It was normally a straightforward, quick procedure, but then again, it wasn’t normally performed in a gloomy printshop on a dwarf with a constricted airway, a sinus infection, and a peritonsillar abscess.

Still… I needn’t do it in the printshop, if I could find a better-lighted place. Where would that be? I wondered. A rich person’s house, most likely; one where candle wax was squandered profligately. I’d been in many such houses, particularly during our time in Paris, but knew no one even moderately well-to-do in Philadelphia. Neither did Marsali; I’d asked.

Well, one thing at a time. Before I worried any more about an operating theater, I needed to find a blacksmith capable of fine work, to make the wire-loop instrument I required. I could, in a pinch, cut the tonsils with a scalpel, but it would be more than difficult to remove the adenoids, located above the soft palate, that way. And the last thing I wanted was to be slicing and poking round in Henri-Christian’s severely inflamed throat in the dark with a sharp instrument. The wire loop would be sharp enough but was unlikely to damage anything it bumped into; only the edge surrounding the tissue to be removed would cut, and then only when I made the forceful scooping motion that would sever a tonsil or adenoid neatly.

I wondered uneasily whether he had a strep infection. His throat was bright red, but other infections could cause that.

No, we’d have to take our chances with the strep, I thought. I had set some penicillin bowls to brew, almost the moment I arrived. There was no way of telling whether the extract I might get from them in a few days was active or not—nor, if it was, just how active. But it was better than nothing, and so was I.

I did have one undeniably useful thing—or would, if this afternoon’s quest was successful. Nearly five years ago, Lord John Grey had sent me a glass bottle of vitriol and the pelican glassware necessary to distill ether using it. He’d procured those items from an apothecary in Philadelphia, I thought, though I couldn’t recall the name. But there couldn’t be many apothecaries in Phila delphia, and I proposed to visit all of them until I found what I was looking for.

Marsali had said there were two large apothecary’s shops in town, and only a large one would have what I needed to make ether. What was the name of the gentleman from whom Lord John Grey had acquired my pelican apparatus? Was he in Philadelphia at all? My mind was a blank, either from fatigue or from simple forgetfulness; the time when I had made ether in my surgery on Fraser’s Ridge seemed as distant and mythical as Noah’s Flood.

I found the first apothecary and got from him some useful items, including a jar of leeches—though I boggled a little at the thought of putting one inside Henri-Christian’s mouth; what if he managed to swallow the thing?

On the other hand, I reflected, he was a four-year-old boy with a very imaginative elder brother. He’d probably swallowed much worse things than a leech. With luck, though, I wouldn’t need them. I had also got two cautery irons, very small ones. It was a primitive and painful way of stopping bleeding—but, in fact, very effective.

The apothecary had not had any vitriol, though. He had apologized for the lack, saying that such things must be imported from England, and with the war… I thanked him and went on to the second place. Where I was informed that they had had some vitriol but had sold it some time previous, to an English lord, though what he wanted with such a thing, the man behind the counter couldn’t begin to imagine.

“An English lord?” I said, surprised. Surely it couldn’t be Lord John. Though, come to that, it wasn’t as though the English aristocracy was flocking to Philadelphia these days, save those members who were soldiers. And the man had said “a lord,” not a major or a captain.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained; I asked and was obligingly told that it was a Lord John Grey, and that he had requested the vitriol be delivered to his house on Chestnut Street.

Feeling a little like Alice down the rabbit hole—I was still a bit lightheaded from lack of sleep and the fatigues of the journey from Scotland—I asked the way to Chestnut Street.

The door to the house was opened by an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, dressed in a fashion that made it clear she was no servant. We blinked at each other in surprise; she plainly hadn’t been expecting me, either, but when I inquired for Lord John, saying I was an old acquaintance, she readily invited me in, saying that her uncle would be back directly, he had only taken a horse to be shod.

“You would think he’d send the boy,” the young woman—who gave her name as Lady Dorothea Grey—said apologetically. “Or my cousin. But Uncle John is most particular about his horses.”

“Your cousin?” I asked, my slow mind tracing the possible family connections. “You don’t mean William Ransom, do you?”

“Ellesmere, yes,” she said, looking surprised but pleased. “Do you know him?”

“We’ve met once or twice,” I said. “If you don’t mind my asking—how does he come to be in Philadelphia? I… er… had understood that he was paroled with the rest of Burgoyne’s army and had gone to Boston in order to sail home to England.”

“Oh, he is!” she said. “Paroled, I mean. He came here, though, first, to see his father—that’s Uncle John—and my brother.” Her large blue eyes clouded a little at the mention. “Henry’s very ill, I’m afraid.”

“I’m so sorry to hear it,” I said, sincerely but briefly. I was much more interested in William’s presence here, but before I could ask anything further, there was a quick, light step on the porch and the front door opened.

“Dottie?” said a familiar voice. “Have you any idea where—oh, I beg your pardon.” Lord John Grey had come into the parlor and stopped, seeing me. Then he actually saw me, and his jaw dropped.

“How nice to see you again,” I said pleasantly. “But I’m sorry to hear that your nephew is ill.”

“Thank you,” he said, and, eyeing me rather warily, bowed low over my hand, kissing it gracefully. “I am delighted to see you again, Mrs. Fraser,” he added, sounding as though he actually meant it. He hesitated for a moment, but of course couldn’t help asking, “Your husband… ?”

“He’s in Scotland,” I said, feeling rather mean at disappointing him. It flickered across his face but was promptly erased—he was a gentleman, and a soldier. In fact, he was wearing an army uniform, which rather surprised me.

“You’ve returned to active duty, then?” I asked, raising my brows at him.

“Not exactly. Dottie, have you not called for Mrs. Figg yet? I’m sure Mrs. Fraser would like some refreshment.”

“I’d only just come,” I said hastily, as Dottie leapt up and went out.

“Indeed,” he said, courteously repressing the why? that showed plainly on his face. He motioned me to a chair and sat down himself, wearing a rather odd expression, as though trying to think how to say something awkward.

“I am delighted to see you,” he said again, slowly. “Did you—I do not wish to sound in any way ungracious, Mrs. Fraser, you must excuse me—but… did you come to bring me a message from your husband, perhaps?”

He couldn’t help the small light that sprang up in his eyes, and I felt almost apologetic as I shook my head.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and was surprised to find that I meant it. “I’ve come to beg a favor. Not on my own behalf—for my grandson.”

He blinked at that.

“Your grandson,” he repeated blankly. “I thought that your daughter … oh! Of course, I was forgetting that your husband’s foster son—his family is here? It is one of his children?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Without more ado, I explained the situation, describing Henri-Christian’s state and reminding him of his generosity in sending me the vitriol and glass apparatus more than four years before.

“Mr. Sholto—the apothecary on Walnut Street?—told me that he had sold you a large bottle of vitriol some months ago. I wondered—do you by any chance still have it?” I made no effort to keep the eagerness out of my voice, and his expression softened.

“Yes, I do,” he said, and, to my surprise, smiled like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. “I bought it for you, Mrs. Fraser.”

A BARGAIN WAS struck at once. He would not only give me the vitriol but also purchase any other medical supplies I might require, if I would consent to perform surgery on his nephew.

“Dr. Hunter removed one of the balls at Christmas,” he said, “and that improved Henry’s condition somewhat. The other remains embedded, though, and—”

“Dr. Hunter?” I interrupted him. “Not Denzell Hunter, you don’t mean?”

“I do mean that,” he said, surprised and frowning a little. “You do not mean to say you know him?”

“I do indeed mean that,” I said, smiling. “We worked together often, both at Ticonderoga and at Saratoga with Gates’s army. But what is he doing in Philadelphia?”

“He—” he began, but was interrupted by the sound of light footsteps coming down the stair. I had been vaguely conscious of footsteps overhead as we talked but had paid no attention. I looked toward the doorway now, though, and my heart leapt at the sight of Rachel Hunter, who was standing in it, staring at me with her mouth in a perfect “O” of astonishment.

The next moment she was in my arms, hugging me fit to break my ribs.

“Friend Claire!” she said, letting go at last. “I never thought to see—that is, I am so pleased—oh, Claire! Ian. Has he come back with thee?” Her face was alive with eagerness and fear, hope and wariness chasing each other like racing clouds across her features.

“He has,” I assured her. “He’s not here, though.” Her face fell.

“Oh,” she said in a small voice. “Where—”

“He’s gone to look for you,” I said gently, taking her hands.

Joy blazed up in her eyes like a forest fire.

“Oh!” she said, in a completely different voice. “Oh!”

Lord John coughed politely.

“Perhaps it would be unwise for me to know exactly where your nephew is, Mrs. Fraser,” he observed. “As I assume he shares your husband’s principles? Just so. If you will excuse me, then, I will go and tell Henry of your arrival. I suppose you wish to examine him?”

“Oh,” I said, recalled suddenly to the matter at hand. “Yes. Yes, of course. If you wouldn’t mind…”

He smiled, glancing at Rachel, whose face had gone white at seeing me but who was now the shade of a russet apple with excitement.

“Not at all,” he said. “Come upstairs when you are at leisure, Mrs. Fraser. I’ll wait for you there.”

RATHER MESSY

I MISSED BRIANNA all the time, in greater or lesser degree depending upon the circumstance. But I missed her most particularly now. She could, I was sure, have solved the problem of getting light down Henri-Christian’s throat.

I had him laid on a table at the front of the printshop now, taking every advantage of such light as came in there. But this was Philadelphia, not New Bern. If the sky wasn’t overcast with clouds, it was hazed with smoke from the city’s chimneys. And the street was narrow; the buildings opposite blocked most of what light there was.

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