Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 157

   

“The hell it is,” he said, aloud, shamed but defiant. It was ungrateful, he knew. And wrong, forbye. But there it was, and no use to lie either to God or to himself about it.

“The hell it is,” he repeated, louder. “And if I am damned for what I’ve done—then let it be! She is my daughter.”

He stood still for a moment, looking up, but there was no answer from the stars. He nodded once, as though in reply, and went on down the hill, the wind cold behind him.

49

CHOICES

November 1769

I opened Daniel Rawlings’s box, and stared at the rows of bottles filled with the soft greens and browns of powdered root and leaf, the clear gold of distillations. There was nothing among the bottles to help. Very slowly, I lifted the covering that lay over the top compartment, over the blades.

I lifted out the scalpel with the curved edge, tasting cold metal in the back of my throat. It was a beautiful tool, sharp and sturdy, well balanced, part of my hand when I chose it to be. I balanced it on the end of my finger, letting it tilt gently back and forth.

I set it down, and picked up the long, thick root that lay on the table. Part of the stem was still attached, the remnants of leaves hanging limp and yellow. Only one. I had searched the woods for nearly two weeks, but it was so late in the year that the leaves of the smaller herbs had yellowed and fallen; it was impossible to recognize plants that were no more than brown sticks. I had found this one in a sheltered spot, a few of the distinctive fruits still clinging to its stalk. Blue cohosh, I was sure. But only one. It wasn’t enough.

I had none of the European herbs, no hellebore, no wormwood. I could perhaps get wormwood, though with some difficulty; it was used to flavor absinthe.

“And who makes absinthe in the backwoods of North Carolina?” I said aloud, picking up the scalpel again.

“No one that I know of.”

I jumped, and the blade jabbed deep into the side of my thumb. Blood spattered across the tabletop, and I snatched the corner of my apron, wadding the cloth hard against the wound in reflex.

“Christ, Sassenach! Are ye all right? I didna mean to startle ye.”

It didn’t hurt a great deal yet, but the shock of sudden injury made me bite my lower lip. Looking worried, Jamie took my wrist and lifted the edge of the wadded cloth. Blood promptly welled from the cut and ran down my hand, and he clamped the cloth back in place, squeezing tight.

“It’s all right; just a cut. Where did you come from? I thought you were up at the still.” I felt surprisingly shaky, perhaps from the shock.

“I was. The mash isna ready for distilling yet. You’re bleeding like a pig, Sassenach. Are ye sure you’re all right?” I was bleeding badly; besides the splashes of blood across the table, the corner of my apron was soaked with dark red.

“Yes. I probably severed a tiny vein. It’s not an artery, though; it will stop. Hold my hand up, will you?” I fumbled one-handed with the strings of my apron, seeking to free it. Jamie undid it with a quick yank, wrapped the apron round my hand, and held the whole clumsy bundle up over my head.

“What were ye doing with your wee knife?” he asked, eyeing the dropped scalpel, where it lay alongside the twisted cohosh root.

“Ah…I was going to slice up that root,” I said, waving weakly at it.

He gave me a sharp look, glanced across to the sideboard, where my paring knife lay in plain sight, then looked back at me with raised brows.

“Aye? I’ve never seen ye use one of these”—he nodded at the open array of scalpels and surgical blades—“save on people.”

My hand twitched slightly in his, and he tightened his grip on my thumb, squeezing hard enough to make me catch my breath in pain. He loosened his grip, then looked intently into my face, frowning.

“What in heaven’s name are ye about, Sassenach? Ye look as though I’d surprised ye about to commit murder.”

My lips felt stiff and bloodless. I pulled my thumb out of his grasp and sat down, holding the wounded digit against my bosom with my other hand.

“I was…deciding,” I said, with great reluctance. It was no good to lie; he would have to know, sooner or later, if Bree—

“Deciding what?”

“About Bree. What was the best way to do it.”

“To do it?” His eyebrows shot up. He glanced at the open medicine case, then at the scalpel, and a look of sudden shocked comprehension washed over his face.

“You mean to—”

“If she wants me to.” I touched the knife, its small blade stained with my own blood. “There are herbs—or this. There are awful risks to using herbs—convulsions, brain damage, hemorrhage—but it doesn’t matter; I don’t have enough of the right kind.”

“Claire—have you done it before?”

I looked up, to see him looking down at me with something I had never seen in his eyes before—horror. I pressed my hands flat on the table, to stop them trembling. I didn’t do as well with my voice.

“Would it make a difference to you if I had?”

He stared at me for a moment, then eased himself down on the bench opposite, slowly, as though afraid he might break something.

“Ye havena done it,” he said softly. “I know it.”

“No,” I said. I stared down at his hand, covering mine. “No, I haven’t.”

I could feel the tension go out of his hand; it relaxed, curling over mine, enfolding it. But my own lay limp in his grasp.

“I knew ye couldna do murder,” he said.

“I could. I have.” I didn’t look up at him, but spoke to the tabletop. “I killed a man, a patient in my care. I told you about Graham Menzies.”

He was silent for a moment, but held on to my hand, squeezing slightly.

“I think it isna the same,” he said at last. “To ease a doomed man to a death he wishes…it seems to me that that is mercy, not murder. And duty, too, perhaps.”

“Duty?” That did make me look at him, startled. The look of shock had faded from his eyes, though he was still solemn.

“Do ye not recall Falkirk Hill, and the night Rupert died in the chapel there?”

I nodded. It wasn’t something easily forgotten—the cold dark of the tiny church, the eerie sounds of pipes and battle far outside. Inside the black air thick with the sweat of frightened men, and Rupert dying slowly on the floor at my feet, choking on his blood. He had asked Dougal MacKenzie, as his friend and his chief, to hasten him…and Dougal had.

“It will be a doctor’s duty, too, I think,” Jamie said gently. “If you are sworn to heal—but cannot—and to save men pain—and can?”

“Yes.” I took a deep breath and curled my hand around the scalpel. “I am sworn—and by more than a doctor’s oath. Jamie, she’s my daughter. I would rather do anything in the world but this—anything.” I looked up at him and blinked, holding back tears.

“Don’t you think I haven’t thought about it? That I don’t know what the risks are? Jamie, I could kill her!” I pulled the cloth off my wounded thumb; the cut was still oozing.

“Look—it shouldn’t bleed like that, it’s a deep cut but not a bad one. But it does! I hit a vein. I could do the same to Bree and never know it, until she began to bleed—and if so…Jamie, I couldn’t stop it! She’d bleed to death under my hand, and there isn’t a thing I could do about it, not a thing!”

He looked at me, eyes dark with shock.

“How could ye think of doing such a thing, knowing that?” His voice was soft with disbelief.

I drew a deep, trembling breath, and felt despair wash over me. There was no way to make him understand, no way.

“Because I know other things,” I said at last, very softly, not looking at him. “I know what it is to bear a child. I know what it is to have your body and your mind and your soul taken from you and changed without your will. I know what it is to be ripped out of the place you thought was yours, to have choice taken from you. I know what it is, do you hear me? and it isn’t something anyone should do without being willing.” I looked up at him, and my fist clenched hard on my wounded thumb.

“And you—for God’s sake—you know what I don’t; what it’s like to live with the knowledge of violation. Do you mean to tell me that if I could have cut that from you after Wentworth, that you wouldn’t have had me do it, no matter what the risks? Jamie, that may be a rapist’s child!”

“Aye, I know,” he began, and had to stop, too choked to finish. “I know,” he began again, and his jaw muscles bulged as he forced the words. “But I know the one thing else—if I dinna ken his father, I ken his grandsire well enough. Claire, that is a child of my blood!”

“Your blood?” I echoed. I stared at him, the truth dawning on me. “You want a grandchild badly enough to sacrifice your daughter?”

“Sacrifice? It isna me that’s meaning to commit slaughter in cold blood!”

“You didn’t mind the angel-makers at the Hôpital des Anges; you had pity for the women they helped, you said so.”

“Those women had nay choice!” Too agitated to sit, he got up and paced restlessly back and forth in front of me. “They had no one to protect them, no way to feed a child—what else could they do, poor creatures? But it isna so, for Brianna! I will never let her be hungry or cold, never let aught harm her or the bairn, never!”

“That isn’t all there is to it!”

He stared at me, brows drawn down in stubborn incomprehension.

“If she bears a child here, she won’t leave,” I said unsteadily. “She can’t—not without tearing herself apart.”

“So you mean to tear her apart?” I flinched, as though he’d struck me.

“You want her to stay,” I said, striking back. “You don’t care that she has a life somewhere else, that she wants to go back. If she’ll stay—and better yet, if she’ll give you a grandchild—then you bloody don’t care what it does to her, do you?”

It was his turn to flinch, but he turned on me squarely.

“Aye, I care! That doesna mean I think it right for you to force her into—”

“What do you mean, force her?” The blood was burning hot in my cheeks. “For God’s sake, you think I want to do this? No! But, by God, she’ll have the choice if she wants it!”

I had to press my hands together to stop them shaking. The apron had fallen to the floor, stained with blood, reminding me much too vividly of operating theaters and battlefields—and of the terrible limits of my own skill.

I could feel his eyes on me, narrowed and burning. I knew that he was as torn in the matter as I was. He did indeed care desperately for Bree—but now I had spoken the truth, we both recognized it; deprived of his own children, living for so long as an exile, there was nothing he wanted more in life than a child of his blood.

But he couldn’t stop me, and he knew it. He wasn’t used to feeling helpless, and he didn’t like it. He turned abruptly and went to the sideboard, where he stood, fists resting on top of it.

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