Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 68

   

Jamie stood leaning on the fence, exchanging pleasantries as other tenants wended their ways homeward, until the untidy figure of MacNab was out of sight over the crest of the hill. He straightened, gazing down the road, then turned and gave a whistle. A small figure in a torn but clean smock and stained kilt crept out from under the haywagon.

“Weel, then, young Rabbie,” said Jamie genially. “Looks as though your father’s given his permission for ye to be a stable lad after all. I’m sure as you’ll be a hard worker and a credit to him, eh?” Round, bloodshot eyes stared up dumbly out of the dirty face, and the boy made no response at all, until Jamie reached out, and grasping him gently by the shoulder, turned him toward the horse trough.

“There’ll be some supper waiting ye in the kitchen, laddie. Go and wash a bit first, though; Mrs. Crook’s a picky woman. Oh, and Rabbie”—he leaned down to whisper to the lad—“mind your ears, or she’ll do ’em for ye. She scrubbed mine for me this morning.” He put his hands behind his ears and flapped them solemnly at the boy, who broke into a shy smile and fled toward the trough.

“I’m glad you managed it,” I said, taking Jamie’s arm to go in to supper. “With little Rabbie MacNab, I mean. How did you do it, though?”

He shrugged. “Took Ronald back of the brewhouse and fisted him once or twice in the soft parts. Asked him did he want to part wi’ his son or his liver.” He glanced down at me, frowning.

“It wasna right, but I couldn’t think what else to do. And I didna want the lad to go back wi’ him. It wasn’t only I’d promised his grannie, either. Jenny told me about the lad’s back.” He hesitated. “I’ll tell ye, Sassenach. My father whipped me as often as he thought I needed it, and a lot oftener than I thought I did. But I didna cower when he spoke to me. And I dinna think young Rabbie will lie in bed with his wife one day and laugh about it.”

He hunched his shoulders, with that odd half-shrug, something I hadn’t seen him do in months.

“He’s right; the lad’s his own son, he can do as he likes. And I’m not God; only the laird, and that’s a good bit lower down. Still…” He looked down at me with a crooked half-smile.

“It’s a damn thin line between justice and brutality, Sassenach. I only hope I’ve come down on the right side of it.”

I put an arm around his waist and hugged him.

“You did right, Jamie.”

“Ye think so?”

“Yes.”

We strolled back toward the house, arms about each other. The whitewashed farm buildings glowed amber in the setting sun. Instead of going into the house, though, Jamie steered me up the slight rise behind the manor. Here, sitting on the top rail of a fenced field, we could see the whole of the home farm laid out before us.

I laid my head on Jamie’s shoulder and sighed. He squeezed me gently in response.

“This is what you were born to do, isn’t it, Jamie?”

“Perhaps, Sassenach.” He looked out over the fields and buildings, the crofts and the roads, then looked down, a smile suddenly curving the wide mouth.

“And you, my Sassenach? What were you born for? To be lady of a manor, or to sleep in the fields like a gypsy? To be a healer, or a don’s wife, or an outlaw’s lady?”

“I was born for you,” I said simply, and held out my arms to him.

“Ye know,” he observed, letting go at last, “you’ve never said it.”

“Neither have you.”

“I have. The day after we came. I said I wanted you more than anything.”

“And I said that loving and wanting weren’t necessarily the same thing,” I countered.

He laughed. “Perhaps you’re right, Sassenach.” He smoothed the hair from my face and kissed my brow. “I wanted ye from the first I saw ye—but I loved ye when you wept in my arms and let me comfort you, that first time at Leoch.”

The sun sank below the line of black pines, and the first stars of the evening came out. It was mid-November, and the evening air was cold, though the days still kept fine. Standing on the opposite side of the fence, Jamie bent his head, putting his forehead against mine.

“You first.”

“No, you.”

“Why?”

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what, my Sassenach?” The darkness was rolling in over the fields, filling the land and rising up to meet the night. The light of the new crescent moon marked the ridges of brow and nose, crossing his face with light.

“I’m afraid if I start I shall never stop.”

He cast a glance at the horizon, where the sickle moon hung low and rising. “It’s nearly winter, and the nights are long, mo duinne.” He leaned across the fence, reaching, and I stepped into his arms, feeling the heat of his body and the beat of his heart.

“I love you.”

32

HARD LABOR

A few days later, near sunset, I was on the hill behind the house, digging up the tubers of a small patch of corydalis I had found. Hearing the rustle of footsteps approaching through the grass, I turned, expecting to see Jenny or Mrs. Crook come to call me to supper. Instead it was Jamie, hair spiked with dampness from his predinner ablutions, still in his shirt, knotted together between his legs for working in the fields. He came up behind me and put his arms around me, resting his chin on my shoulder. Together we watched the sun sinking behind the pines, robed in gold and purple glory. The landscape faded quietly around us, but we stayed where we were, wrapped in contentment. Finally, as it began to grow dark, I could hear Jenny calling from the house below.

“We’d better go in,” I said, reluctantly stirring.

“Mmm.” Jamie didn’t move, but merely tightened his hold, still gazing into the deepening shadows, as though trying to fix each stone and blade of grass in memory.

I turned to him and slipped my arms around his neck.

“What is it?” I asked quietly. “Must we leave soon?” My heart sank at the prospect of leaving Lallybroch, but I knew that it was dangerous for us to stay too much longer; another visit from the redcoats could happen at any time, with much more sinister results.

“Aye. Tomorrow, or the day after, at latest. There are English at Knockchoilum; it’s twenty miles from here, but that’s only two days’ ride in fine weather.” I started to slither off the fence, but Jamie slid an arm under my knees and lifted me, holding me against his chest.

I could feel the heat of the sun still in his skin, and smell the warm dusty scent of sweat and oat grass. He had been helping with the last of the harvesting, and the smell reminded me of a supper the week before, when I knew that Jenny, always friendly and polite, had finally accepted me fully as a member of the family.

Harvesting was grueling work, and Ian and Jamie were often nodding by the end of supper. On one occasion, I had left the table to fetch a brose pudding for dessert, and returned to find both of them sound asleep, and Jenny laughing quietly to herself amid the remains of supper. Ian lay slumped in his chair, chin resting on his chest, breathing heavily. Jamie had laid his cheek on his folded arms and sprawled forward across the table, snoring peacefully between the platter and the peppermill.

Jenny took the pudding from me and served us both, shaking her head at the slumbering men.

“They were yawning so much I wondered, ye know,” she said, “what would happen if I stopped talking. So I kept quiet, and sure enough, two minutes later they were out, the both of them.” She smoothed Ian’s hair tenderly off his forehead.

“That’s why there’re so few babies born in July here,” she said, with a wicked c*ck of the eyebrow at me. “The men can’t keep awake long enough in November to start one.” It was true enough, and I laughed. Jamie stirred and snorted next to me, and I laid a hand on the back of his neck to soothe him. His lips curved at once in a soft, reflexive smile, then relaxed into sleep once more.

Jenny, watching him, said, “That’s funny, that is. I’ve not seen him do that since he was quite small.”

“Do what?”

She nodded. “Smile in his sleep. He used always to do it, if ye came by and petted him in his cradle, or even later, in his trundle. Sometimes Mother and I would take it in turns to stroke his head and see could we make him smile; he always would.”

“That’s odd, isn’t it?” I experimented, running a hand gently down the back of his head and neck. Sure enough, I was rewarded at once by a singularly sweet smile that lingered for a moment before the lines of his face relaxed once more into the rather stern expression he presented when asleep.

“I wonder why he does that,” I said, watching him in fascination. Jenny shrugged and grinned at me.

“I imagine it means he’s happy.”

In the event, we did not leave next day. In the middle of the night, I was wakened by low conversation in the room. Rolling over, I saw Ian bending over the bed, holding a candle.

“The babe’s on its way,” said Jamie, seeing me awake. He sat up, yawning. “A bit early, Ian?”

“Ye never know. Small Jamie was late. Better early than late, I reckon.” Ian’s smile was quick and nervous.

“Sassenach, can ye deliver a child? Or had I best go for the midwife?” Jamie turned to me, questioning. I didn’t hesitate in my answer.

I shook my head. “Get the midwife.” I had seen only three births during my training; all conducted in a sterile operating room, the patient draped and anesthetized, nothing visible save the grotesquely swelling perineum and the suddenly emergent head.

Having seen Jamie on his way to fetch the midwife, Mrs. Martins, I followed Ian up the stairs.

Jenny was sitting in a chair near the window, leaning comfortably back. She had put on an old nightgown, stripped the bed and spread an aged quilt over the feather mattress, and was now just sitting. Waiting.

Ian hovered nervously over her. Jenny smiled too, but with a distracted, inward look, as though listening to something far off, which only she could hear. Ian, fully dressed, fidgeted about the room, picking things up and putting them down, until Jenny at last ordered him to leave.

“Go downstairs and rouse Mrs. Crook, Ian,” she said, smiling to ease the dismissal. “Tell her to get things ready for Mrs. Martins. She’ll ken what to do.” She drew in her breath sharply then, and put both hands on her distended abdomen. I stared, seeing her belly draw up suddenly tight and round. She bit her lip and breathed heavily for a moment, then relaxed. Her belly had resumed its normal shape, a slightly pendant teardrop, rounded at both ends.

Ian put a hand hesitantly on her shoulder, and she covered it with her own, smiling up at him.

“Then tell her to feed ye, man. You and Jamie will be needing a bit to eat. They say the second babe comes faster than the first; maybe by the time you’re done wi’ breakfast, I’ll be ready for a bite myself.”

He squeezed her shoulder tightly, and kissed her, murmuring something in her ear before turning to go. He hesitated in the doorway, looking back, but she waved him firmly away.

It seemed a very long time before Jamie arrived with the midwife, and I grew more nervous as the contractions grew stronger. Second babies were said to be faster, as a rule. What if this one decided to arrive before Mrs. Martins?

At first, Jenny carried on light conversation with me, only pausing to bend forward slightly, holding her stomach, as the contractions tightened their grip. But she quickly lost the urge to talk, and lay back, resting quietly in between the increasingly powerful pains. Finally, after one that almost bent her double in her chair, she rose to her feet, staggering.

“Help me walk a bit, Claire,” she said. Unsure what was the proper procedure, I did as she said, grasping her tightly under the arm to help her stand upright. We made several slow circuits of the room, pausing when a contraction struck, going on when it eased. Shortly before the midwife arrived, Jenny made her way to the bed and lay down.

Mrs. Martins was a reassuring-looking person; tallish and thin, she had wide shoulders and muscular forearms, and the sort of kind, down-to-earth expression that invited confidence. Two vertical creases between her iron-grey brows, always visible, deepened when she was concentrating.

They stayed shallow as she made her preliminary examination. Everything normal so far, then. Mrs. Crook had produced a pile of clean, ironed sheets for our use, and Mrs. Martins took one of these, still folded, and pushed it under Jenny. I was startled to see the dark stain of blood between her thighs, as she raised herself slightly.

Seeing my look, Mrs. Martins nodded reassuringly.

“Aye. Bloody show, it’s called. It’s all right. It’s only when the blood is bright red, and a terrible lot all at once, that ye worry. There’s nothing wrong.”

We all settled down to wait. Mrs. Martins talked quietly and comfortingly to Jenny, rubbing the small of her back, pressing hard during the contractions. As the pains became more frequent, Jenny began to clamp her lips together and snort heavily through her nose. Often, there was a deep, faint groan as the full force of the pain came on.

Jenny’s hair was soaked with perspiration by this time, and her face bright red with the strain. Watching her, I realized fully why it was called “labor.” Giving birth was bloody hard work.

Over the next two hours, little progress appeared to be made, except that the pains grew obviously stronger. Able at first to answer questions, Jenny quit responding, lying panting at the end of each contraction, face fading from red to white in a matter of seconds.

She clamped her lips through the next one, beckoning me to her side as it eased.

“If the child lives…” she said, gasping for air, “and it’s a girl…her name is Margaret. Tell Ian…name her Margaret Ellen.”

“Yes, of course,” I soothed. “But you’ll be able to tell him yourself. It won’t be long, now.”

She only shook her head in determined negation, and clenched her teeth as the next pain came. Mrs. Martins took me by the arm, steering me away.

“Dinna mind it, lassie,” she said matter-of-factly. “They always think they’re goin’ to die about now.”

“Oh,” I said, mildly relieved.

“Mind ye,” she said, in a lower voice, “sometimes they do.”

Even Mrs. Martins seemed a trifle worried as the pains went on, with no appreciable progress. Jenny was tiring badly; as each pain eased, her body went slack, and she even dozed off, as though seeking escape in small intervals of sleep. Then, as the remorseless fist grasped her once again, she would wake fighting and groaning with effort, writhing to the side to curl protectively over the rigid lump of the unborn child.

“Could the child be…backward?” I asked, in a low voice, shy about suggesting such a thing to an experienced midwife. Mrs. Martins seemed not at all offended by the suggestion, though; the lines between her brows merely deepened as she looked at the straining woman.

When the next pain eased, Mrs. Martins flung back the sheet and nightgown, and went rapidly to work, pressing here and there on the huge mound with quick, skilled fingers. It took several tries, as the probing seemed to incite the pains, and examination was impossible during the relentlessly powerful contractions.

At last she drew back, thinking, tapping one foot abstractedly as she watched Jenny writhe through two more of the spine-wrenching pains. As she jerked on the sheets, one of the strained linens parted suddenly with a rending tear.

As though this had been a signal, Mrs. Martins started forward with decision, beckoning to me.

“Lean her back a bit, lass,” Mrs. Martins instructed me, not at all disconcerted by Jenny’s cries. I supposed she had heard her share of screaming.

At the next relaxation, Mrs. Martins plunged into action. Grasping the child through the momentarily flaccid walls of the womb, she heaved, trying to turn it. Jenny screamed and jerked my arms as another contraction started.

Mrs. Martins tried again. And again. And again. Unable to keep from pushing, Jenny was wearing herself far past the point of exhaustion, her body struggling past the bounds of ordinary strength as it strove to force the child into the world.

Then it worked. There was a sudden strange fluid shifting, and the amorphous bulk of the child turned under Mrs. Martins’s hands. All at once, the shape of Jenny’s belly was altered, and there was an immediate sense of getting down to business.

“Now push.” She did, and Mrs. Martins dropped to her knees beside the bed. Apparently she saw some sign of progress, for she rose and hastily snatched a small bottle from the table where she had put it when she came in. She poured a small amount of what looked like oil on her fingertips, and began to rub it gently between Jenny’s legs.

Jenny made a deep and vicious sound of protest at being touched as the next pain came on, and Mrs. Martins took her hand away. Jenny sagged into inertness and the midwife resumed her gentle massage, crooning to her patient, telling her everything was well, just to rest, and now…push!

During the next contraction, Mrs. Martins put her hand on top of Jenny’s belly and pushed down strongly. Jenny shrieked, but the midwife kept pushing until the contraction eased.

“Push with me on the next one,” the midwife said. “It’s almost here.”

I put my hands above Mrs. Martins’s on Jenny’s belly, and at her signal, all three of us pushed together. There was a deep, victorious grunt from Jenny, and a slimy blob swelled suddenly between her thighs. She straightened her legs against the mattress and pushed once more, and Margaret Ellen Murray shot into the world like a greased pig.

A little later, I straightened from wiping Jenny’s smiling face with a damp rag and glanced out the window. It was nearly sunset.

“I’m all right,” Jenny said. “Quite all right.” The broad grin of delight with which she had greeted the delivery of her daughter had turned into a small, permanent smile of deep contentment. She reached up with an unsteady hand and touched my sleeve.

“Go tell Ian,” she said. “He’ll be worrit.”

To my cynical eyes, it didn’t look it. The scene in the study, where Ian and Jamie had taken refuge, strongly resembled a premature celebratory debauch. An empty decanter stood on the sideboard, accompanied by several bottles, and a strong alcoholic fume hung over the room like a cloud.

The proud father appeared to have passed out, head resting on the laird’s desk. The laird himself was still conscious, but bleary-eyed, leaning back against the paneling and blinking like an owl.

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