An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 34

   

“Now, Ian,” I said, and went back to work. With the flickering light from the mirror, it was a little easier to see what I was doing, and I got to grips with the tooth almost at once. This was the tricky part, though; the tooth was badly cracked, and there was a good chance that it might fracture when I twisted it, rather than draw cleanly. And if that should happen …

But it didn’t. There was a small, muffled crack! as the roots of the tooth parted from the jawbone, and I was holding the tiny white thing, intact.

The child’s mother, who had been watching intently, sighed and relaxed a little. The little girl sighed, too, and settled in the chair. I checked again, but her pulse was fine, though her breathing was shallow. She’d likely sleep for—

A thought struck me.

“You know,” I said to the mother, a little hesitantly, “I could draw one or two more teeth without hurting her. See …” I moved aside, motioning her to look. “These”—I touched the overdue baby canines—“ought to be drawn at once, to let the teeth behind take their places. And you see these front teeth, of course…. Well, I’ve taken the upper bicuspid molar on the left; if I were to take the same tooth on the right, I think that perhaps her teeth would shift a bit, to fill the empty space. And if you could persuade her to press with her tongue against those front teeth, whenever she thought of it …” It wasn’t orthodontia by any means, and it did carry some increased risk of infection, but I was sorely tempted. The poor child looked like a cannibal bat.

“Hmmmm,” said the mother, frowning into her daughter’s mouth. “How much will you give me for them?”

“How much … you want me to pay you?”

“They’re fine, sound teeth,” the mother replied promptly. “The tooth-drawer down to the harbor ’ud give me a shilling apiece. And Glory’ll need the money for her dowry.”

“Her dowry?” I repeated, surprised. The mother shrugged.

“No one’s likely to take the poor creature for her looks, now, are they?”

I was obliged to admit that this was likely true; her deplorable dentition quite aside, calling the child homely would be a compliment.

“Marsali,” I called. “Have you got four shillings?” The gold in my hem swung heavily round my feet, but I couldn’t make use of it in this situation.

Marsali turned from the window, where she’d been keeping an eye on Henri-Christian and the girls, startled.

“Not cash money, no.”

“It’s all right, Auntie. I’ve some money.” Ian put down the mirror and dug in his sporran, emerging with a handful of coins. “Mind,” he said, fixing the woman with a hard eye, “ye’d no get more nor thruppence each for sound teeth—and likely no but a penny for a child’s.”

The woman, nothing daunted, looked down her nose at him.

“There speaks a grasping Scotchman,” she said. “For all you’re tattooed like a savage. Sixpence each, then, you penny-pinching miser!”

Ian grinned at her, displaying his own fine teeth, which, if not entirely straight, were in excellent condition.

“Going to carry the wean down to the quay and let yon butcher rip her mouth to shreds?” he inquired pleasantly. “She’ll be awake by then, ken. And screaming. Three.”

“Ian!” I said.

“Well, I’m no going to let her cheat ye, Auntie. Bad enough she’s wantin’ ye to draw the lassie’s teeth for nothing, let alone pay for the honor!”

Emboldened by my intervention, the woman stuck out her chin and repeated, “Sixpence!”

Marsali, attracted by the altercation, came to peer into the girl’s mouth.

“Ye’ll not find that one a husband for less than ten pound,” she informed the woman bluntly. “Not lookin’ like that. A man would be feart of bein’ bitten when he kissed her. Ian’s right. In fact, ye should be payin’ double for it.”

“Ye agreed to pay when ye came in, no?” Ian pressed. “Tuppence to have the tooth drawn—and my aunt made ye a bargain at that, out of pity for the wean.”

“Bloodsuckers!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s true what they say—you Scots ’ud take the pennies from a dead man’s eyes!”

Plainly this wasn’t going to be settled in a hurry; I could feel both Ian and Marsali settling down to an enjoyable session of tag-team haggling. I sighed and took the mirror out of Ian’s hand. I wouldn’t need it for the canines, and perhaps by the time I got to the other bicuspid, he’d be paying attention again.

In fact, the canines were simple; baby teeth, almost without roots, and ready to fall—I could probably have tweaked them out with my fingers. One quick twist each and they were out, the gums barely bleeding. Pleased, I dabbed the sites with a whisky-soaked swab, then considered the bicuspid.

It was on the other side of the mouth, which meant that by tilting the girl’s head back, I could get a bit of light without using the mirror. I took Ian’s hand—he was so engaged in argument that he barely noticed—and put it on the girl’s head to hold it back and steady, then carefully insinuated my pliers.

A shadow crossed my light, vanished—then came back, blocking it utterly. I turned in annoyance, to find a rather elegant-looking gentleman peering through the window, a look of interest on his face.

I scowled at him and motioned him aside. He blinked at me, but then nodded apology and stepped aside. Not waiting for any further interruption, I crouched, got hold of the tooth, and twisted it free with a lucky wrench.

Humming with satisfaction, I dribbled whisky over the bleeding hole, then tilted her head to the other side and pressed a swab gently over the gum, to help drain the abscess. Felt a sudden extra slackness in the wobbly little neck and froze.

Ian felt it, too; he broke off in the middle of a sentence and shot me a startled look.

“Untie her,” I said. “Quick.”

He had her loosed in an instant, and I seized her under the arms and laid her on the floor, her head flopping like a rag doll’s. Ignoring startled exclamations from Marsali and the girl’s mother, I tilted back her head, swiped the swab out of her mouth, and, pinching shut her nose with my fingers, sealed my mouth to hers and started resuscitation.

It was like blowing up a small, tough balloon: reluctance, resistance, then, finally, a rise of the chest. But chests don’t yield like rubber; the blowing didn’t get easier.

I had the fingers of my other hand on her neck, feeling desperately for a carotid pulse. There … Was it? … Yes, it was! Her heart was still beating, though faintly.

Breathe. Pause. Breathe. Pause … I felt the tiny gush of exhalation, and then the narrow chest moved by itself. I waited, blood pounding in my ears, but it didn’t move again. Breathe. Pause. Breathe …

Again the chest moved, and this time continued to rise and fall under its own power. I sat up on my heels, my own breath coming fast and a cold sweat misting my face.

The girl’s mother was staring down at me, her mouth half open. I noted dimly that her own dentition wasn’t bad; God knew what her husband looked like.

“She’s—is she … ?” the woman asked, blinking and glancing back and forth between me and her daughter.

“She’s fine,” I said flatly. I stood up slowly, feeling light-headed. “She can’t go until the whisky’s worn off, though; I think she’ll be all right, but she might stop breathing again. Someone needs to watch her ’til she wakes. Marsali … ?”

“Aye, I’ll put her in the trundle,” Marsali said, coming to look. “Oh, there ye are, Joanie—will ye come and keep an eye on this poor wean for a bit? She needs to lie down on your bed.”

The children had come in, red-cheeked and giggling, with a hatful of small coins and buttons, but seeing the girl on the floor, hurried over to look, too.

“Hoopla,” Henri-Christian remarked, impressed.

“Is she deid?” Félicité asked, more practically.

“If she was, Maman wouldna be asking me to watch her,” Joanie pointed out. “She’s no going to sick up in my bed, is she?”

“I’ll put a towel down,” Marsali promised, squatting to scoop the little girl up. Ian beat her to it, lifting the child gently.

“We’ll just charge ye tuppence, then,” he said to the mother. “But we’ll give ye all the teeth for free, aye?”

Looking stunned, she nodded, then followed the crowd into the back of the house. I heard the thunder of multiple feet going up the stairs, but didn’t follow; my own legs had gone to water, and I sat down quite suddenly.

“Are you all right, madame?” I looked up to find the elegant stranger inside the shop, looking curiously at me.

I picked up the half-empty bottle of whisky and took a substantial swallow. It burned like brimstone and tasted like charred bones. I made wheezing noises and my eyes watered, but I didn’t actually cough.

“Fine,” I said hoarsely. “Perfectly fine.” I cleared my throat and wiped my eyes on my sleeve. “Can I help you?”

A faint look of amusement crossed his features.

“I do not require to have a tooth drawn, which is probably good luck for both of us. However—may I?” He withdrew a slim silver flask from his pocket and handed it to me, then sat down. “I think it’s perhaps a little more fortifying than … that.” He nodded at the uncorked whisky bottle, his nose wrinkling a little.

I uncorked the flask, and the full-bodied scent of very good brandy floated out like a genie.

“Thank you,” I said briefly, and drank, closing my eyes. “Very much indeed,” I added a moment later, opening them. Fortifying, indeed. Warmth collected in my center and purled like smoke through my limbs.

“My pleasure, madame,” he said, and smiled. He was undeniably a dandy, and a rich one, too, with a good deal of lace about his person, gilt buttons on his waistcoat, a powdered wig, and two black silk beauty patches on his face—a star beside his left brow, and a rearing horse on his right cheek. Not a getup one saw often in North Carolina, especially not these days.

Despite the encrustations, he was a handsome man, I thought, perhaps forty or so, with soft dark eyes that glinted with humor, and a delicate, sensitive face. His English was very good, though it carried a distinct Parisian accent.

“Have I the honor of addressing Mrs. Fraser?” he asked. I saw his eyes pass over my scandalously bare head, but he politely made no comment.

“Well, you have,” I said dubiously. “But I may not be the one you want. My daughter-in-law is Mrs. Fraser, too; she and her husband own this shop. So if you were wanting something printed—”

“Mrs. James Fraser?”

I paused instinctively, but there wasn’t much alternative to answering.

“I am, yes. Is it my husband you want?” I asked warily. People wanted Jamie for a lot of things, and it wasn’t always desirable that they find him.

He smiled, eyes crinkling pleasantly.

“It is indeed, Mrs. Fraser. The captain of my ship said that Mr. Fraser had come to speak with him this morning, seeking passage.”

My heart gave a sharp leap at this.

“Oh! You have a ship, Mr…. ?”

“Beauchamp,” he said, and, picking up my hand, kissed it gracefully. “Percival Beauchamp, at your service, madame. I do—she is called Huntress.”

I actually thought my heart had stopped for a moment, but it hadn’t, and resumed beating with a noticeable thump.

“Beauchamp,” I said. “Beechum?” He’d pronounced it in the French way, but at this, he nodded, smile growing wider.

“Yes, the English say it that way. You said your daughter-in-law … so the Mr. Fraser who owns this shop is your husband’s son?”

“Yes,” I said again, but automatically. Don’t be silly, I scolded myself. It isn’t an uncommon name. Likely he hasn’t anything at all to do with your family! And yet—a French-English connection. I knew my father’s family had come from France to England sometime in the eighteenth century—but that was all I knew about them. I stared at him in fascination. Was there anything familiar about his face, anything I could match with my faint recollections of my parents, the stronger ones of my uncle?

He had pale skin, like mine, but then, most upper-class people did, they taking great pains to shelter their faces from the sun. His eyes were much darker than mine, and beautiful, but shaped differently, rounder. The brows—had my uncle Lamb’s brows had that shape, heavy near the nose, trailing off in a graceful arch … ?

Absorbed in this tantalizing puzzle, I’d missed what he was saying.

“I beg your pardon?”

“The little boy,” he repeated, with a nod toward the door through which the children had disappeared. “He was shouting, ‘Hoopla!’ As French street performers do. Has the family a French connection of some kind?”

Belated alarms began to go off, and unease rippled the hairs on my forearms.

“No,” I said, trying to iron my face into a politely quizzical expression. “Likely he’s just heard it from someone. There was a small troupe of French acrobats who passed through the Carolinas last year.”

“Ah, doubtless that’s it.” He leaned forward a little, dark eyes intent. “Did you see them yourself?”

“No. My husband and I … don’t live here,” I ended hurriedly. I’d been about to tell him where we did live, but I didn’t know how much—if anything—he knew about Fergus’s circumstances. He sat back, pursing his lips a little in disappointment.

“Ah, too bad. I thought perhaps the gentleman I am in search of might have belonged to this troupe. Though I suppose you would not have known their names, even had you seen them,” he added as an afterthought.

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