An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 151

   

Not that it mattered that much, I told myself. The room could have been blazing with sun, and I still couldn’t have seen a thing in the inner reaches of Henri-Christian’s throat. Marsali had a small mirror with which to direct light, and that would perhaps help with the tonsils—the adenoids would have to be done by touch.

I could feel the soft, spongy edge of one adenoid, just behind the soft palate; it took shape in my mind as I carefully fitted the wire loop around it, handling it with great delicacy so as not to let the edge cut either my fingertips or the body of the swollen adenoid. There was going to be a gush of blood when I sliced through it.

I had Henri-Christian braced at an angle, Marsali holding his inert body almost on his side. Denzell Hunter kept his head steady, clamping the pad soaked in ether firmly over his nose. I had no means of suction other than my own mouth; I’d have to turn him quickly after I made the cut and let the blood run out of his mouth before it ran down his throat and choked him. The tiny cautery iron was heating, its spade-shaped tip thrust into a pan of hot coals. That might be the trickiest part, I thought, pausing to steady myself and steady Marsali with a nod. I didn’t want to burn his tongue or the inside of his mouth, and it would be slippery….

I twisted the handle sharply and the little body jerked under my hand.

“Hold him tight,” I said calmly. “A little more ether, please.”

Marsali’s breath was coming hard, and her knuckles were white as her face. I felt the adenoid separate cleanly, come adrift, and scooped it between my fingers, pulling it out of his throat before it could slip down into his esophagus. Tilted his head quickly to the side, smelling the sheared-metal smell of hot blood. I dropped the severed bit of tissue into a pan and nodded to Rachel, who pulled the cautery iron from its coals and put it carefully into my hand.

I still had my other hand in his mouth, keeping the tongue and uvula out of the way, a finger on the site of the ex-adenoid, marking my place. The cautery iron seared a white line of pain down my finger as I slid it down his throat, and I let out a small hiss but didn’t move my finger. The scorched scent of burning blood and tissue came hot and thick, and Marsali made a small, frantic noise but didn’t loosen her hold on her son’s body.

“It is well, Friend Marsali,” Rachel whispered to her, clasping her shoulder. “He breathes well; he is not in pain. He is held in the light, he will do well.”

“Yes, he will,” I said. “Take the iron now, Rachel, if you will? Dip the loop in the whisky please, and give me that again. One down, three to go.”

“I HAVE NEVER seen anything like it,” Denzell Hunter said, for perhaps the fifth time. He looked from the pad of fabric in his hand to Henri-Christian, who was beginning to stir and whimper in his mother’s arms. “I should not have believed it, Claire, had I not seen it with my own eyes!”

“Well, I thought you’d better see it,” I said, wiping sweat from my face with a handkerchief. A sense of profound well-being filled me. The surgery had been fast, no more than five or six minutes, and Henri-Christian was already coughing and crying, coming out of the ether. Germain, Joanie, and Félicité all watched wide-eyed from the doorway into the kitchen, Germain keeping tight hold of his sisters’ hands. “I’ll teach you to make it, if you like.”

His face, already shining with happiness at the successful surgery, lit up at this.

“Oh, Claire! Such a gift! To be able to cut without giving pain, to keep a patient quite still without restraint. It—it is unimaginable.”

“Well, it’s a long way from perfect,” I warned him. “And it is very dangerous—both to make and to use.” I’d distilled the ether the day before, out in the woodshed; it was a very volatile compound, and there was a better than even chance that it would explode and burn the shed down, killing me in the process. All had gone well, though the thought of doing it again made me feel rather hollow and sweaty-palmed.

I lifted the dropping bottle and shook it gently; more than three-quarters full, and I had another, slightly larger bottle as well.

“Will it be enough, does thee think?” Denny asked, realizing what I was thinking.

“It depends what we find.” Henri-Christian’s surgery, despite the technical difficulties, had been very simple. Henry Grey’s wouldn’t be. I had examined him, Denzell beside me to explain what he had seen and done during the earlier surgery, which had removed a ball lodged just under the pancreas. It had caused local irritation and scarring but had not actually damaged a vital organ very badly. He hadn’t been able to find the other ball, as it was lodged very deeply in the body, somewhere under the liver. He feared that it might lie near the hepatic portal vein and thus hadn’t dared to probe hard for it, as a hemorrhage would almost certainly have been fatal.

I was reasonably sure that the ball hadn’t damaged the gallbladder or bile duct, though, and given Henry’s general state and symptomology, I suspected that the ball had perforated the small intestine but had seared the internal entrance wound shut in its wake; otherwise, the boy would almost surely have died within days, of peritonitis.

It might be encysted in the wall of the intestine; that would be the best situation. It might be lodged actually within the intestine itself, and that wouldn’t be good at all, but I couldn’t say how bad it might be until I got there.

But we did have ether. And the sharpest scalpels Lord John’s money could buy.

THE WINDOW, after what seemed to John Grey to be an excruciatingly prolonged discussion between the two physicians, remained partly open. Dr. Hunter insisted on the benefit of fresh air, and Mrs. Fraser agreed with this because of the ether fumes but kept talking about something she called germs, worrying that these would come in through the window and contaminate her “surgical field.” She speaks as though she views it as a battleground, he thought, but then looked closely at her face and realized that indeed she did.

He had never seen a woman look like that, he thought, fascinated despite his worry for Henry. She had tied back her outrageous hair and wrapped her head carefully in a cloth like a Negro slave woman. With her face so exposed, the delicate bones made stark, the intentness of her expression—with those yellow eyes darting like a hawk’s from one thing to another—was the most unwomanly thing he had ever seen. It was the look of a general marshaling his troops for battle, and seeing it, he felt the ball of snakes in his belly relax a little.

She knows what she’s doing, he thought.

She looked at him then, and he straightened his shoulders, instinctively awaiting orders—to his utter amazement.

“Do you want to stay?” she asked.

“Yes, of course.” He felt a little breathless, but there was no doubt in his voice. She’d told him frankly what Henry’s chances were—not good, but there was a chance—and he was determined to be with his nephew, no matter what happened. If Henry died, he would at least die with someone who loved him there. Though, in fact, he was quite determined that Henry would not die. Grey would not let him.

“Sit over there, then.” She nodded him to a stool on the far side of the bed, and he sat down, giving Henry a reassuring smile as he did so. Henry looked terrified but determined.

“I can’t live like this anymore,” he’d said the night before, finally making up his mind to allow the operation. “I just can’t.”

Mrs. Woodcock had insisted upon being present, too, and after a close catechism, Mrs. Fraser had declared that she might administer the ether. This mysterious substance sat in a dropping bottle on the bureau, a faint sickly odor drifting from it.

Mrs. Fraser gave Dr. Hunter something that looked like a handkerchief, and raised another to her face. It was a handkerchief, Grey saw, but one with strings affixed to its corners. She tied these behind her head, so the cloth covered her nose and mouth, and Hunter obediently followed suit.

Used as Grey was to the swift brutality of army surgeons, Mrs. Fraser’s preparations seemed laborious in the extreme: she swabbed Henry’s belly repeatedly with an alcoholic solution she had concocted, talking to him through her highwayman’s mask in a low, soothing voice. She rinsed her hands—and made Hunter and Mrs. Woodcock do the same—and her instruments, so that the whole room reeked like a distillery of low quality.

Her motions were in fact quite brisk, he realized after a moment. But her hands moved with such sureness and… yes, grace, that was the only word… that they gave the illusion of gliding like a pair of gulls upon the air. No frantic flapping, only a sure, serene, and almost mystic movement. He found himself quieting as he watched them, becoming entranced and half forgetting the ultimate purpose of this quiet dance of hands.

She moved to the head of the bed, bending low to speak to Henry, smooth the hair away from his brow, and Grey saw the hawk’s eyes soften momentarily into gold. Henry’s body relaxed slowly under her touch; Grey saw his clenched, rigid hands uncurl. She had yet another mask, he saw, this one a stiff thing made of basket withes lined with layers of soft cotton cloth. She fitted this gently to Henry’s face and, saying something inaudible to him, took up her dropping bottle.

The air filled at once with a pungent, sweet aroma that clung to the back of Grey’s throat and made his head swim slightly. He blinked, shaking his head to dispel the giddiness, and realized that Mrs. Fraser had said something to him.

“I beg your pardon?” He looked up at her, a great white bird with yellow eyes—and a gleaming talon that sprouted suddenly from her hand.

“I said,” she repeated calmly through her mask, “you might want to sit back a little farther. It’s going to be rather messy.”

WILLIAM, RACHEL, and Dorothea sat on the edge of the porch like birds on a fence rail, Rollo sprawled on the brick walk at their feet, enjoying the spring sun.

“It’s bloody quiet up there,” William said, glancing uneasily at the window above, where Henry’s room lay. “D’you think they’ve started yet?” He thought, but didn’t say, that he would have expected to hear Henry making a certain amount of noise if they had, despite Rachel’s description of her brother’s account of the marvels of Mrs. Fraser’s ether. A man lie quietly asleep while someone cut open his belly with a knife? All stuff, he would have said. But Denzell Hunter wasn’t a man who could be easily beguiled—though he supposed Dottie had somehow managed it. He gave his cousin a sideways glance.

“Have you written Uncle Hal yet? About you and Denny, I mean?” He knew she hadn’t—she’d told Lord John, perforce, but persuaded him to let her break the news to her father—but wanted to distract her if he could. She was white to the lips, and her hands had bunched the fabric over her knees into nests of creases. He still hadn’t got used to seeing her in dove and cream instead of her usual brilliant plumage—though he thought in fact that the quiet colors suited her, particularly as Rachel had assured her that she might still wear silk and muslin if she liked, rather than sacking material.

“No,” Dottie said, giving him a look that thanked him for the distraction, even while acknowledging that she knew what he was doing. “Or, yes, but I haven’t sent it yet. If all’s well with Henry, I’ll write at once with the news and add the bit about Denny and me at the bottom, as a postscript. They’ll be so overjoyed about Henry that perhaps they won’t notice—or at least won’t be as upset about it.”

“I rather think they’ll notice,” William said thoughtfully. “Papa did.” Lord John had gone quite dangerously quiet when told and had given Denzell Hunter a look suggesting swords at dawn. But the fact was that Denny had saved Henry’s life once and was now helping—with luck and Mrs. Fraser—to save it again. And Lord John was, above all, a man of honor. Besides, William thought that his father was actually relieved to finally know what it was that Dottie had been up to. He hadn’t said anything directly to William regarding William’s own role in her adventure—yet. He would.

“May the Lord hold thy brother in his hand,” Rachel said, ignoring William’s remark. “And mine and Mrs. Fraser, as well. But what if all should not go as we wish? Thee will still have to tell thy parents, and they may see news of thy impending marriage as adding insult to injury.”

“You are the most tactless plain-spoken creature,” William told her, rather irritably, seeing Dottie go whiter still at the reminder that Henry might die in the next minutes, hours, or days. “Henry will be fine. I know it. Denny is a great physician, and Mrs. Fraser… she’s … er…” In all honesty, he wasn’t sure what Mrs. Fraser was, but she scared him a little. “Denny says she knows what she’s doing,” he ended lamely.

“If Henry dies, nothing will matter,” Dottie said softly, looking at the toes of her shoes. “Not to any of us.”

Rachel made a small, sympathetic sound and reached to put her arm round Dottie’s shoulder. William added his own gruff clearing of the throat and for an instant thought the dog had done the same.

Rollo’s intent, though, was not sympathetic. He had lifted his head suddenly, and the hackles half-rose at his neck, a low growl rumbling through his chest. William glanced automatically in the direction the dog was looking and felt a sudden tightening of his muscles.

“Miss Hunter,” he said casually. “Do you know that man? The one down there, near the end of the street, talking to the butter-and-egg woman?”

Rachel shaded her eyes with her hand, looking where he nodded, but shook her head.

“No. Why? Is he what’s troubling the dog, does thee think?” She prodded Rollo in the side with her toe. “What’s amiss, then, Friend Rollo?”

“I don’t know,” William said honestly. “It might be the cat; one ran across the road just behind the woman. But I’ve seen that man before; I’m sure of it. I saw him by the roadside, somewhere in New Jersey. He asked me if I knew Ian Murray—and where he might be.”

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