An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 21

   

A general cry of “What book? What book? Let us see this famous book!” resulting, he was obliged to produce the prize of his collection of gifts—a copy of Mr. Harris’s famous List of Covent Garden Ladies, this being a lavishly descriptive catalog of the charms, specialities, price, and availability of the best whores to be found in London.

Its appearance was greeted with cries of rapture, and following a brief struggle over possession of the volume, William rescued it before it should be torn to pieces, but allowed himself to be induced to read some of the passages aloud, his dramatic rendering being greeted by wolflike howls of enthusiasm and hails of olive pits.

Reading is of course dry work, and further refreshment was called for and consumed. He could not have said who first suggested that the party should constitute itself an expeditionary force for the purpose of compiling a similar list for New York. Whoever first bruited the suggestion, though, was roundly seconded and hailed in bumpers of rum punch—the bottles having all been drained by now.

And so it fell out that he found himself wandering in a spirituous haze through narrow streets whose darkness was punctuated by the pinpricks of candlelit windows and the occasional hanging lantern at a crossroad. No one appeared to have any direction in mind, and yet the whole body advanced insensibly as one, drawn by some subtle emanation.

“Like dogs following a bitch in heat,” he observed, and was surprised to receive a buffet and shout of approbation from one of Adam’s friends—he hadn’t realized that he’d spoken aloud. And yet he had been correct, for eventually they came to an alley down which two or three lanterns hung, sheathed in red muslin so the light spilled in a bloody glow across the doorways—all welcomingly ajar. Whoops greeted the sight, and the body of would-be investigators advanced a-purpose, pausing only for a brief argument in the center of the street regarding the choice of establishment in which to begin their researches.

William himself took little part in the argument; the air was close, muggy, and fetid with the stench of cattle and sewage, and he was suddenly aware that one of the olives he had consumed had quite possibly been a wrong ’un. He was sweating heavily and unctuously, and his wet linen clung to him with a clasping insistence that terrified him with the thought that he might not be able to get his breeches down in time, should his inward disturbance move suddenly southward.

He forced a smile, and with a vague swing of the arm, indicated to Adam that he might proceed as he liked—William would venture a bit farther.

This he did, leaving the moil of riotous young officers behind him, and staggered past the last of the red lanterns. He was looking rather desperately for some semblance of seclusion in which to be sick, but finding nothing to his purpose, at length stumbled to a halt and vomited profusely in a doorway—whereupon, to his horror, the door swung open, revealing a highly indignant householder, who did not wait for explanations, apologies, or offers of recompense, but seized a cudgel of some kind from behind his door and, bellowing incomprehensible oaths in what might be German, chased William down the alleyway.

What with one thing and another, it was some time of wandering through pig yards, shacks, and ill-smelling wharves before he found his way back to the proper district, there to find his cousin Adam going up and down the street, banging on doors and hallooing loudly in search of him.

“Don’t knock on that one!” he said in alarm, seeing Adam about to attack the door of the cudgel-wielding German. Adam swung about in relieved surprise.

“There you are! All right, old man?”

“Oh, yes. Fine.” He felt somewhat pale and clammy, despite the sweltering heat of the summer night, but the acute inner distress had purged itself, and had the salutary side effect of sobering him in the process.

“Thought you’d been robbed or murdered in an alleyway. I’d never be able to look Uncle John in the face, was I to have to tell him I’d got you done in.”

They were walking down the alley, back toward the red lanterns. All of the young men had disappeared into one or another of the establishments, though the sounds of revelry and banging from within suggested that their high spirits had not abated, but merely been relocated.

“Did you find yourself decently accommodated?” Adam asked. He jerked his chin in the direction from which William had come.

“Oh, fine. You?”

“Well, she wouldn’t rate more nor a paragraph in Harris, but not bad for a sinkhole like New York,” Adam said judiciously. His stock was hanging loose round his neck, and as they passed the faint glow of a window, William saw that one of the silver buttons of his cousin’s coat was missing. “Swear I’ve seen a couple of these whores in camp, though.”

“Sir Henry send you out to make a census, did he? Or do you just spend so much time with the camp followers you know them all by—”

He was interrupted by a change in the noise coming from one of the houses down the street. Shouting, but not of the genially drunken sort evident heretofore. This was ugly shouting, a male voice in a rage and the shrieks of a woman.

The cousins exchanged glances, then started as one toward the racket.

This had increased as they hurried toward its source, and as they came even with the farthest house, a number of half-dressed soldiers spilled out into the alleyway, followed by a burly lieutenant to whom William had been introduced during the party in Adam’s room, but whose name he did not recall, dragging a half-naked whore by one arm.

The lieutenant had lost both coat and wig; his dark hair was polled close and grew low on his brow, which, together with his thick-shouldered build, gave him the look of a bull about to charge. In fact, he did, turning and ramming a shoulder into the woman he’d dragged out, slamming her into the wall of the house. He was roaring drunk, and bellowing incoherent profanities.

“Fireship.”

William didn’t see who’d spoken the word, but it was taken up in excited murmurs, and something ugly ran through the men in the alley.

“Fireship! She’s a fireship!”

Several women had gathered in the doorway. The light behind them was too dim to show their faces, but they were clearly frightened, huddling together. One called out, tentative, stretching out an arm, but the others pulled her back. The black-haired lieutenant took no notice; he was battering the whore, punching her repeatedly in the stomach and br**sts.

“Hoy, fellow!”

William started forward, shouting, but several hands grasped his arms, preventing him.

“Fireship!” The men were beginning to chant it, with each blow of the lieutenant’s fists.

A fireship was a poxed whore, and as the lieutenant left off his bashing and hauled the woman under the light of the red lantern, William could see that indeed she was; the rash across her face was plain.

“Rodham! Rodham!” Adam was shouting the lieutenant’s name, trying to break through the crush of men, but they moved together, pushing him back, and the chant of “Fireship!” got louder.

Shrieks came from the whores in the doorway, and they crammed back as Rodham flung the woman down on the doorstep. William lunged and succeeded in breaking through the press, but before he could reach the lieutenant, Rodham had seized the lantern and, dashing it against the front of the house, flung blazing oil over the whore.

He fell back then, panting, eyes wide and staring as though in disbelief, as the woman leapt to her feet, arms windmilling in panic as the flames caught her hair, her gauzy shift. Within seconds, she was wrapped in fire, screaming in a high, thin voice that cut through the confusion of noise in the street and ran straight into William’s brain.

The men fell back as she staggered toward them, lurching, hands reaching—whether in a futile plea for help or in the desire to immolate them, as well, he couldn’t tell. He stood rooted to the spot, his body clenched with the need to do something, the impossibility of doing anything, the overwhelming sense of disaster. An insistent pain in his arm made him glance mechanically aside, to find Adam beside him, fingers digging hard into the muscle of his forearm.

“Let’s go,” Adam whispered, his face white and sweating. “For God’s sake, let’s go!”

The door of the whorehouse had slammed shut. The burning woman fell against it, hands pressed against the wood. The appetizing smell of roasting meat filled the close, hot confines of the alley, and William felt his gorge rise once more.

“God curse you! May your goddamned pricks all rot and fall off!” The scream came from a window above; William’s head jerked up and he saw a woman shaking a fist at the men below. There was a rumble from the men, and one shouted something foul in reply; another bent and seized a cobblestone and rising, flung it hard. It bounced against the front of the house below the window, and fell back, striking one of the soldiers, who cursed and shoved the man who’d thrown it.

The burning woman had sunk down by the door; the flames had made a charred spot on it. She was still making a faint keening noise, but had ceased to move.

Suddenly William lost his mind and, grabbing the man who had thrown the stone, took him by the neck and cracked his head against the doorpost of the house. The man stiffened and slumped, his knees giving way, and sat in the street, moaning.

“Get out!” William bellowed. “All of you! Leave!” Fists clenched, he turned on the black-haired lieutenant, who, his rage all vanished, was standing motionless, staring at the woman on the stoop. Her skirts had vanished; a pair of blackened legs twitched feebly in the shadow.

William reached the man in one stride and took him by the front of his shirt, yanking him round.

“Go,” he said, in a dangerous voice. “Leave. Now!”

He released the man, who blinked, swallowed, and, turning, walked like an automaton into the dark.

Panting, William turned on the rest of them, but they had lost the thirst for violence as quickly as it had come upon them. There were a few glances toward the woman—she had gone still now—and shufflings, incoherent murmurs. None of them would meet another’s eye.

He was vaguely conscious of Adam by his side, trembling with shock but solidly beside him. He put a hand on his smaller cousin’s shoulder and held on, trembling himself, as the men melted away. The man sitting in the street got slowly to his hands and feet, half-rose, and lurched after his companions, caroming off the fronts of houses as he made his way into the dark.

The alley fell quiet. The fire had gone out. The other red lanterns in the street had been extinguished. He felt as though he had grown to the spot, would stand in this hateful place forever—but Adam moved a little, and his hand fell from his cousin’s shoulder and he found that his feet would carry him.

They turned away, and walked in silence back through the dark streets. They came by a sentry point, where soldiers on guard were standing round a fire, keeping casual watch. They were to keep order in the occupied city, the guards. The sentries glanced at them, but did not stop them.

In the light of the fire, he saw the tracks of wetness on Adam’s face and realized that his cousin was crying.

So was he.

TRANSVERSE LIE

Fraser’s Ridge

March 1777

THE WORLD WAS DRIPPING. Freshets leapt down the mountain, grass and leaves were wet with dew, and the shingles steamed in the morning sun. Our preparations were made and the passes were clear. There remained only one more thing to do before we could leave.

“Today, d’ye think?” Jamie asked hopefully. He was not a man made for peaceful contemplation; once a course of action was decided upon, he wanted to be acting. Babies, unfortunately, are completely indifferent to both convenience and impatience.

“Maybe,” I said, trying to keep a grip on my own patience. “Maybe not.”

“I saw her last week, and she looked then as though she was goin’ to explode any minute, Auntie,” Ian remarked, handing Rollo the last bite of his muffin. “Ken those mushrooms? The big round ones? Ye touch one and poof!” He flicked his fingers, scattering muffin crumbs. “Like that.”

“She’s only having the one, no?” Jamie asked me, frowning.

“I told you—six times so far—I think so. I bloody hope so,” I added, repressing an urge to cross myself. “But you can’t always tell.”

“Twins run in families,” Ian put in helpfully.

Jamie did cross himself.

“I’ve heard only one heartbeat,” I said, keeping a grip on my temper, “and I’ve been listening for months.”

“Can ye not count the bits that stick out?” Ian inquired. “If it seemed to have six legs, I mean …”

“Easier said than done.” I could, of course, make out the general aspect of the child—a head was reasonably easy to feel, and so were bu**ocks; arms and legs a bit more problematical. That was what was disturbing me at the moment.

I’d been checking Lizzie once a week for the past month—and had been going up to her cabin every other day for the last week, though it was a long walk. The child—and I did think there was only one—seemed very large; the fundus of the uterus was a good bit higher than I thought it should be. And while babies frequently changed position in the weeks prior to birth, this one had remained in a transverse lie—wedged sideways—for a worryingly long time.

The fact was that without a hospital, operating facilities, or anesthesia, my ability to deal with an unorthodox delivery was severely limited. Sans surgical intervention, with a transverse lie, a midwife had four alternatives: let the woman die after days of agonizing labor; let the woman die after doing a cesarean section without benefit of anesthesia or asepsis—but possibly save the baby; possibly save the mother by killing the child in the womb and then removing it in bits (Daniel Rawlings had had several pages in his book—illustrated—describing this procedure), or attempting an internal version, trying to turn the baby into a position in which it might be delivered.

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