While superficially the most attractive option, that last one could easily be as dangerous as the others, resulting in the deaths of mother and child.
I’d tried an external version the week before, and managed—with difficulty—to induce the child to turn head-down. Two days later, it had turned right back, evidently liking its supine position. It might turn again by itself before labor started—and it might not.
Experience being what it was, I normally managed to distinguish between intelligent planning for contingencies and useless worrying over things that might not happen, thus allowing myself to sleep at night. I’d lain awake into the small hours every night for the last week, though, envisioning the possibility that the child wouldn’t turn in time, and running through that short, grim list of alternatives in futile search for one more choice.
If I had ether … but what I’d had had gone when the house burned.
Kill Lizzie, in order to save the new child? No. If it came to that, better to kill the child in utero, and leave Rodney with a mother, Jo and Kezzie with their wife. But the thought of crushing the skull of a full-term child, healthy, ready to be born … or decapitating it with a loop of sharp wire—
“Are ye no hungry this morning, Auntie?”
“Er … no. Thank you, Ian.”
“Ye look a bit pale, Sassenach. Are ye sickening for something?”
“No!” I got up hastily before they could ask any more questions—there was absolutely no point in anyone but me being terrorized by what I was thinking—and went out to fetch a bucket of water from the well.
Amy was outside; she had started a fire going under the big laundry kettle, and was chivying Aidan and Orrie, who were scrambling round to fetch wood, pausing periodically to throw mud at each other.
“Are ye wanting water, a bhana-mhaighstir?” she asked, seeing the bucket in my hand. “Aidan will fetch it down for ye.”
“No, that’s all right,” I assured her. “I wanted a bit of air. It’s so nice out in the mornings now.” It was; still chilly until the sun got high, but fresh, and dizzy with the scents of grass, resin-fat buds, and early catkins.
I took my bucket up to the well, filled it, and made my way down the path again, slowly, looking at things as you do when you know you might not see them again for a long time. If ever.
Things had changed drastically on the Ridge already, with the coming of violence, the disruptions of the war, the destruction of the Big House. They’d change a great deal more, with Jamie and me both gone.
Who would be the natural leader? Hiram Crombie was the de facto head of the Presbyterian fisher-folk who had come from Thurso—but he was a rigid, humorless man, much more likely to cause friction with the rest of the community than to maintain order and foster cooperation.
Bobby? After considerable thought, Jamie had appointed him factor, with the responsibility of overseeing our property—or what was left of it. But aside from his natural capabilities or lack thereof, Bobby was a young man. He—along with many of the other men on the Ridge—could so easily be swept up in the coming storm, taken away and obliged to serve in one of the militias. Not the Crown’s forces, though; he had been a British soldier, stationed in Boston seven years before, where he and several of his fellows had been menaced by a mob of several hundred irate Bostonians. In fear for their lives, the soldiers had loaded their muskets and leveled them at the crowd. Stones and clubs were thrown, shots were fired—by whom, no one could establish; I had never asked Bobby—and men had died.
Bobby’s life had been spared at the subsequent trial, but he bore a brand on his cheek—”M,” for “Murder.” I had no idea of his politics—he never spoke of such things—but he would never fight with the British army again.
I pushed open the door to the cabin, my equanimity somewhat restored.
Jamie and Ian were now arguing as to whether the new child would be a sister or brother to little Rodney or a half sibling.
“Well, no way of telling, is there?” Ian said. “Nobody kens whether Jo or Kezzie fathered wee Rodney, and the same for this bairn. If Jo is Rodney’s father, and Kezzie this one’s—”
“It doesn’t really matter,” I interrupted, pouring water from the bucket into the cauldron. “Jo and Kezzie are identical twins. That means their … er … their sperm is identical, as well.” That was oversimplifying matters, but it was much too early in the day to try to explain reproductive meiosis and recombinant DNA. “If the mother is the same—and she is—and the father is genetically the same—and they are—any children born would be full sisters or brothers to each other.”
“Their spunk’s the same, too?” Ian demanded, incredulous. “How can ye tell? Did ye look?” he added, giving me a look of horrified curiosity.
“I did not,” I said severely. “I didn’t have to. I know these things.”
“Oh, aye,” he said, nodding with respect. “Of course ye would. I forget sometimes what ye are, Auntie Claire.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, exactly, but it didn’t seem necessary either to inquire or to explain that my knowledge of the Beardsleys’ intimate processes was academic, rather than supernatural.
“But it is Kezzie that’s this one’s father, no?” Jamie put in, frowning. “I sent Jo away; it’s Kezzie she’s been living with this past year.”
Ian gave him a pitying look.
“Ye think he went? Jo?”
“I’ve not seen him,” Jamie said, but the thick red brows drew together.
“Well, ye wouldn’t,” Ian conceded. “They’ll ha’ been gey careful about it, not wantin’ to cross ye. Ye never do see more than one of them—at a time,” he added, offhanded.
We both stared at him. He looked up from the chunk of bacon in his hand and raised his brows.
“I ken these things, aye?” he said blandly.
AFTER SUPPER, the household shifted and settled for the night. All the Higginses retired to the back bedroom, where they shared the single bedstead.
Obsessively, I opened my midwifery bundle and laid out the kit, checking everything over once more. Scissors, white thread for the cord. Clean cloths, rinsed many times to remove all trace of lye soap, scalded and dried. A large square of waxed canvas, to waterproof the mattress. A small bottle of alcohol, diluted fifty percent with sterile water. A small bag containing several twists of washed—but not boiled—wool. A rolled-up sheet of parchment, to serve in lieu of my stethoscope, which had perished in the fire. A knife. And a length of thin wire, sharpened at one end, coiled up like a snake.
I hadn’t eaten much at dinner—or all day—but had a constant sense of rising bile at the back of my throat. I swallowed and wrapped the kit up again, tying the twine firmly round it.
I felt Jamie’s eyes on me and looked up. He said nothing, but smiled a little, warmth in his eyes, and I felt a momentary easing—then a fresh clenching, as I wondered what he would think, if worst came to worst, and I had to—but he’d seen that twist of fear in my face. With his eyes still on mine, he quietly took his rosary from his sporran, and began silently to tell the beads, the worn wood sliding slowly through his fingers.
TWO NIGHTS LATER, I came instantly awake at the sound of feet on the path outside and was on my own feet, pulling on my clothes, before Jo’s knock sounded on the door. Jamie let him in; I heard them murmuring together as I burrowed under the settle for my kit. Jo sounded excited, a little worried—but not panicked. That was good; if Lizzie had been frightened or in serious trouble, he would have sensed it at once—the twins were nearly as sensitive to her moods and welfare as they were to each other’s.
“Shall I come?” Jamie whispered, looming up beside me.
“No,” I whispered back, touching him for strength. “Go back to sleep. I’ll send, if I need you.”
He was tousled from sleep, the embers of the fire making shadows in his hair, but his eyes were alert. He nodded and kissed my forehead, but instead of stepping back, he laid his hand on my head and whispered, “O blessed Michael of the Red Domain …” in Gaelic, then touched my cheek in farewell.
“I’ll see ye in the morning then, Sassenach,” he said, and pushed me gently toward the door.
To my surprise, it was snowing outside. The sky was gray and full of light and the air alive with huge, whirling flakes that brushed my face, melting instantly on my skin. It was a spring storm; I could see the flakes settle briefly on the grass stems, then vanish. There would likely be no trace of snow by morning, but the night was filled with its mystery. I turned to look back, but could not see the cabin behind us—only the shapes of trees half shrouded, uncertain in the pearl-gray light. The path before us looked likewise unreal, the trace disappearing into strange trees and unknown shadows.
I felt weirdly disembodied, caught between past and future, nothing visible save the whirling white silence that surrounded me. And yet I felt calmer than I had in many days. I felt the weight of Jamie’s hand on my head, with its whispered blessing. O blessed Michael of the Red Domain …
It was the blessing given to a warrior going out to battle. I had given it to him, more than once. He’d never done such a thing before, and I had no idea what had made him do it now—but the words glowed in my heart, a small shield against the dangers ahead.
The snow covered the ground now in a thin blanket that hid dark earth and sprouting growth. Jo’s feet left crisp black prints that I followed upward, the needles of fir and balsam brushing cold and fragrant against my skirt, as I listened to a vibrant silence that rang like a bell.
If ever there were a night when angels walked, I prayed it might be this one.
IT WAS NEARLY an hour’s walk to the Beardsley cabin, in daylight and good weather. Fear hastened my footsteps, though, and Jo—I thought it was Jo, by his voice, was hard-pressed to keep up with me.
“How long has she been at it?” I asked. You could never tell, but Lizzie’s first labor had been fast; she’d delivered little Rodney quite alone and without incident. I didn’t think we were going to be that lucky tonight, though my mind couldn’t help hopefully envisioning an arrival at the cabin to find Lizzie already holding the new baby, safely popped out without difficulty.
“Not long,” he panted. “Her waters came all of a sudden, when we were all abed, and she said I best come fetch you at once.”
I tried not to notice that “all abed”—after all, he and/or Kezzie might have slept on the floor—but the Beardsley ménage was the literal personification of double entendre; nobody who knew the truth could think of them without thinking of …
I didn’t bother asking how long he and Kezzie had both been living at the cabin; from what Ian had said, they’d likely both been there all the time. Given the normal conditions of life in the backcountry, no one would have blinked at the notion of a man and his wife living with his brother. And so far as the general population of the Ridge was aware, Lizzie was married to Kezzie. She was. She was also married to Jo, as the result of a set of machinations that still caused me to marvel, but the Bearsdley household kept that fact quiet, on Jamie’s orders.
“Her pap’ll be there,” Jo said, breath pluming white as he pulled alongside me where the trail opened out. “And Auntie Monika. Kezzie went to fetch ’em.”
“You left Lizzie alone?”
His shoulders hunched defensively, uncomfortable.
“She said to,” he said simply.
I didn’t bother replying, but hastened my step, until a stitch in my side made me slow a little. If Lizzie hadn’t already given birth and hemorrhaged or had some other disaster while alone, it might be a help to have “Auntie Monika”—Mr. Wemyss’s second wife—to hand. Monika Berrisch Wemyss was a German lady, of limited and eccentric English but boundless courage and common sense.
Mr. Wemyss had his share of courage, too, though it was a quiet sort. He was waiting for us on the porch, with Kezzie, and it was clear that Mr. Wemyss was supporting his son-in-law, rather than the reverse. Kezzie was openly wringing his hands and jigging from foot to foot, while Mr. Wemyss’s slight figure bent consolingly toward him, a hand on his arm. I caught low murmurs, and then they saw us and turned toward us, sudden hope in the straightening of their bodies.
A long, low howl came from the cabin, and all the men stiffened as though it had been a wolf springing out of the dark at them.
“Well, she sounds all right,” I said mildly, and all of them exhaled at once, audibly. I wanted to laugh, but thought better not, and pushed open the door.
“Ugh,” said Lizzie, looking up from the bed. “Oh, it’s you, ma’am. Thank the Lord!”
“Gott bedanket, aye,” agreed Auntie Monika, tranquilly. She was on her hands and knees, sponging the floor with a wad of cloth. “Not so long now, I hope.”
“I hope not, too,” said Lizzie, grimacing. “GAAAAARRRRRGH!” Her face convulsed into a rictus and went bright red, and her swollen body arched backward. She looked more like someone in the grip of tetanus than an expectant mother, but luckily the spasm was short-lived, and she collaped into a limp heap, panting.
“It wasna like this, last time,” she complained, opening one eye as I palpated her abdomen.
“It’s never the same,” I said absently. One quick glance had made my heart leap; the child was no longer sideways. On the other hand … it wasn’t neatly head-down, either. It wasn’t moving—babies generally didn’t, during labor—and while I thought I had located the head up under Lizzie’s ribs, I wasn’t at all sure of the disposition of the rest.
“Let me just have a look here …” She was naked, wrapped in a quilt. Her wet shift was hanging over the back of a chair, steaming in front of the fire. The bed wasn’t soaked, though, and I deduced that she’d felt the rupturing of her membranes and made it to a standing position before her water broke.