The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 12

   

She had finished wiping down the stools, boxes, and other impedimenta for the morning surgery, and straightened up, a small frown between her brows.

“Do you remember the woman you saw yesterday? The one with the retarded little boy?”

“Not something you’d forget,” I said, as lightly as possible. “Why? Here, can you deal with this?” I gestured at the folding table I used, which was stubbornly declining to fold up properly, its joints having swollen with the damp.

Brianna frowned slightly, studying it, then struck the offending joint sharply with the side of her hand. It gave way and collapsed obediently at once, recognizing superior force.

“There.” She rubbed the side of her hand absently, still frowning. “You were making a big thing of telling her to try not to have any more children. The little boy—was it an inheritable condition, then?”

“You might say that,” I replied dryly. “Congenital syphilis.”

She looked up, blanching.

“Syphilis? You’re sure?”

I nodded, rolling up a length of boiled linen for bandaging. It was still very damp, but no help for it.

“The mother wasn’t showing overt signs of the late stages—yet—but it’s quite unmistakable in a child.”

The mother had come simply to have a gumboil lanced, the little boy clinging to her skirts. He’d had the characteristic “saddle nose,” with its pushed-in bridge, as well as a jaw so malformed that I wasn’t surprised at his poor nutrition; he could barely chew. I couldn’t tell how much of his evident backwardness was due to brain damage and how much to deafness; he appeared to have both, but I hadn’t tested their extent—there being exactly nothing I could do to remedy either condition. I had advised the mother to give him pot liquor, which might help with the malnutrition, but there was little else to be done for him, poor mite.

“I don’t see it so often here as I did in Paris or Edinburgh, where there were a lot of prostitutes,” I told Bree, tossing the ball of bandages into the canvas bag she held open. “Now and then, though. Why? You don’t think Roger has syphilis, do you?”

She looked at me, openmouthed. Her look of shock was obliterated by an instant flood of angry red.

“I do not!” she said. “Mother!”

“Well, I didn’t really think so,” I said mildly. “Happens in the best of families, though—and you were asking.”

She snorted heavily.

“I was asking about contraception,” she said, through her teeth. “Or at least I meant to, before you started in with the Physician’s Guide to Venereal Disease.”

“Oh, that.” I eyed her thoughtfully, taking in the dried milk stains on her bodice. “Well, breast-feeding is reasonably effective. Not absolute, by any means, but fairly effective. Less so, after the first six months”—Jemmy was now six months old—“but still effective.”

“Mmphm,” she said, sounding so like Jamie that I had to bite my lower lip in order not to laugh. “And exactly what else is effective?”

I hadn’t really discussed contraception—eighteenth-century style—with her. It hadn’t seemed necessary when she first appeared at Fraser’s Ridge, and then it really wasn’t necessary, she being already pregnant. So she thought it was now?

I frowned, slowly putting rolls of bandage and bundles of herbs into my bag.

“The most common thing is some sort of barrier. A piece of silk or a sponge, soaked with anything from vinegar to brandy—though if you have it, tansy oil or oil of cedar is supposed to work the best. I have heard of women in the Indies using half a lemon, but that’s obviously not a suitable alternative here.”

She uttered a short laugh.

“No, I wouldn’t think so. I don’t think the tansy oil works all that well, either—that’s what Marsali was using when she got pregnant with Joan.”

“Oh, she was using it? I thought perhaps she’d just not bothered once—and once is enough.”

I felt, rather than saw her stiffen, and bit my lip again, this time in chagrin. Once had been enough—we just didn’t know which once. She hunched her shoulders, though, then let them fall, deliberately dismissing whatever memories my thoughtless remark had conjured.

“She said she’d been using it—but she might have forgotten. It doesn’t work all the time, though, does it?”

I slung the bag of surgical linens and dried herbs over my shoulder and picked up the medical chest by the leather strap Jamie had made for it.

“The only thing that always works is celibacy,” I said. “I suppose that isn’t a satisfactory option in the present case?”

She shook her head, her eyes fixed broodingly on a cluster of young men visible through the trees below, taking turns at pitching stones across the creek.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” she said, and bent to pick up the folding table and a pair of stools.

I looked round the clearing, considering. Anything else? No worry about leaving the campfire, even if Lizzie fell asleep; nothing on the mountainside would burn in this weather; even the kindling and firewood we had stored at the end of our lean-to the day before were damp. Something was missing, though . . . what? Oh, yes. I put down the box for a moment and knelt to crawl into the lean-to. I dug about in the jumble of quilts, coming out finally with my tiny leather medicine pouch.

I said a brief prayer to St. Bride and slipped it round my neck and down inside the bodice of my dress. I was so much in the habit of wearing the amulet when I set out to practice medicine that I had almost ceased to feel ridiculous about this small ritual—almost. Bree was watching me, a rather odd look on her face, but she said nothing.

I didn’t, either; merely picked up my things and followed her across the clearing, stepping carefully round the boggiest spots. It wasn’t raining now, but the clouds sat on the tops of the trees, promising more at any moment, and wisps of mist rose from fallen logs and dripping bushes.

Why was Bree worrying about contraception? I wondered. Not that I didn’t think it sensible—but why now? Perhaps it was to do with the imminence of her wedding to Roger. Even if they had been living as man and wife for the last several months—and they had—the formality of vows spoken before God and man was enough to bring a new sobriety to even the giddiest of young people. And neither Bree nor Roger was giddy.

“There is another possibility,” I said to the back of her neck, as she led the way down the slippery trail. “I haven’t tried it on anyone yet, so I can’t say how reliable it may be. Nayawenne—the old Tuscaroran lady who gave me my medicine bag—she said there were ‘women’s herbs.’ Different mixtures for different things—but one plant in particular for that; she said the seeds of it would keep a man’s spirit from overwhelming a woman’s.”

Bree paused, half-turning as I came up beside her.

“Is that how the Indians see pregnancy?” One corner of her mouth curled wryly. “The man wins?”

I laughed.

“Well, in a way. If the woman’s spirit is too strong for the man’s, or won’t yield to it, she can’t conceive. So if a woman wants a child and can’t have one, most often the shaman will treat her husband, or both of them, rather than just her.”

She made a small throaty noise, partly amusement—but only partly.

“What’s the plant—the women’s herb?” she asked. “Do you know it?”

“I’m not positive,” I admitted. “Or not sure of the name, I should say. She did show it to me, both the growing plant and the dried seeds, and I’m sure I’d know it again—but it wasn’t a plant I knew by an English name. One of the Umbelliferae, though,” I added helpfully.

She gave me an austere look that reminded me once more of Jamie, then turned to the side to let a small stream of Campbell women go by, clattering with empty kettles and pails, each one bobbing or bowing politely to us as they passed on their way down to the creek.

“Good day to ye, Mistress Fraser,” said one, a neat young woman that I recognized as one of Farquard Campbell’s younger daughters. “Is your man about? My faither would be glad of a word, he says.”

“No, he’s gone off, I’m afraid.” I gestured vaguely; Jamie could be anywhere. “I’ll tell him if I see him, though.”

She nodded and went on, each of the women behind her pausing to wish Brianna happiness on her wedding day, their woolen skirts and cloaks brushing small showers of rainwater from the bayberry bushes that lined the path here.

Brianna accepted their good wishes with gracious politeness, but I saw the small line that formed between her thick red brows. Something was definitely bothering her.

“What?” I said bluntly, as soon as the Campbells were out of earshot.

“What’s what?” she said, startled.

“What’s troubling you?” I asked. “And don’t say ‘nothing,’ because I see there is. Is it to do with Roger? Are you having second thoughts about the wedding?”

“Not exactly,” she replied, looking wary. “I want to marry Roger, I mean—that’s all right. It’s just . . . I just . . . thought of something . . .” She trailed off, and a slow flush rose in her cheeks.

“Oh?” I asked, feeling rather alarmed. “What’s that?”

“Venereal disease,” she blurted. “What if I have it? Not Roger, not him, but—from Stephen Bonnet?”

Her face was flaming so hotly that I was surprised not to see the raindrops sizzle into steam when they struck her skin. My own face felt cold, my heart tight in my chest. The possibility had occurred to me—vividly—at the time, but I hadn’t wanted even to suggest such a thing, if she hadn’t thought of it herself. I remembered the weeks of watching her covertly for any hint of malaise—but women often showed no symptoms of early infection. Jemmy’s healthy birth had been a relief in more ways than one.

“Oh,” I said softly. I reached out and squeezed her arm. “Don’t worry, lovey. You haven’t.”

She took a deep breath, and let it out in a pale misty cloud, some of the tension leaving her shoulders.

“You’re sure?” she said. “You can tell? I feel all right, but I thought—women don’t always have symptoms.”

“They don’t,” I said, “but men most certainly do. And if Roger had contracted anything nasty from you, I’d have heard about it long since.”

Her face had faded somewhat, but the pinkness came back at that. She coughed, mist rising from her breath.

“Well, that’s a relief. So Jemmy’s all right? You’re sure?”

“Absolutely,” I assured her. I had put drops of silver nitrate—procured at considerable cost and difficulty—in his eyes at birth, just in case, but I was indeed sure. Aside from the lack of any specific signs of illness, Jemmy had an air of robust health about him that made the mere thought of infection incredible. He radiated well-being like a potful of stew.

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