The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 124

   

“Dr. Fentiman!”

Brianna disappeared with a ferocious rustling of willow branches, and he heard the hurrying thump of slippered feet on earth as she ran toward the house, Phaedre in her wake.

Roger got to his feet, and paused for a moment, hand on his fly-buttons. The temptation was strong; it wouldn’t take more than a minute—less, probably, in his present condition. But no, Bree might need him to deal with Fentiman. The thought of the Doctor using his gory instruments on Jemmy’s soft flesh was enough to send him crashing through the willows in hot pursuit. The lists of Venus would have to wait.

HE FOUND BREE and Jemmy in Jocasta’s boudoir, the center of a small knot of women, all of whom looked surprised—even mildly scandalized—at his appearance. Disregarding the raised eyebrows and huffing noises, he forged his way through the skirts to Brianna’s side.

The little fella did look bad, and Roger felt a clutch of fear in the pit of his stomach. Christ, how could it happen so fast? He’d seen Jem at the wedding only a few hours before, curled up pink and sweet in his makeshift cradle, and before that, being his usual raucously genial self at the party. Now he lay against Brianna’s shoulder, flush-cheeked and heavy-eyed, whimpering a little, with a slick of clear mucus dribbling from his nose.

“How is he?” He reached out and touched a flushed cheek gently, with the back of his hand. God, he was hot!

“He’s sick,” Brianna said tersely. As though in confirmation, Jemmy began to cough, a dreadful noise, loud but half-choked, like a seal choking on its fish. The blood surged into his already flushed face, and his round blue eyes bulged with the effort of drawing breath between the spasms.

“Shit,” Roger muttered. “What do we do?”

“Cold water,” one of the women standing beside him said, authoritatively. “Put him altogether under a bath of cold water, then make him drink more of it.”

“No! Heavens, Mary, you’ll kill the child.” Another young matron reached out to pat Jemmy’s quivering back. “It’s the croup; my lot have had it now and again. Sliced garlic, warmed and put to the soles of his feet,” she told Brianna. “That works well, sometimes.”

“And if it doesn’t?” another woman said, skeptical. The first woman’s nostrils pinched, and her friend butted in helpfully.

“Johanna Richards lost two babes to the croup. Gone like that!” She snapped her fingers, and Brianna flinched as though the sound were one of her own bones cracking.

“Why are we havering so, and a medico to hand? You, girl, go and fetch Dr. Fentiman! Did I not say so?” One of the women clapped her hands sharply at Phaedre, who stood pressed back against the wall, eyes fixed on Jemmy. Before she could move to obey, though, Brianna’s head shot up.

“No! Not him, I won’t have him.” She glared round at the women, then shot Roger a look of urgent entreaty. “Find Mama for me. Quick!”

He turned and shoved past the women, fear momentarily assuaged by the ability to do something. Where was Claire likely to be? Help, he thought, help me find her, help him be all right, directing the incoherent prayer toward anyone who might be listening—God, the Reverend, Mrs. Graham, Saint Bride, Claire herself—he wasn’t particular.

He thundered down the front stair to the foyer, only to meet Claire hurrying across it toward him. Someone had told her; she gave him one quick look, asked, “Jemmy?” with a lift of her chin, and at his breathless nod, was up the stairs in a flash, leaving a foyer full of people gaping after her.

He caught her up in the hall above and was in time to open the door for her—and to receive an undeserved but much appreciated look of gratitude from Bree.

He stood back out of the way, catching his breath and marveling. The moment Claire stepped into the room, the atmosphere of worry and near-panic changed at once. There was still an air of concern among the women, but they gave way without hesitation, standing back respectfully and murmuring to one another as Claire headed straight for Jemmy and Bree, ignoring everything else.

“Hallo, lovey. What is it, then, are we feeling miserable?” She was murmuring to Jem, turning his head to one side and feeling gently under his flushed chubby jowls and behind his ears. “Poor thing. It’s all right, sweetheart, Mummy’s here, Grannie’s here, everything will be just fine. . . . How long has he been like this? Has he had anything to drink? Yes, darling, that’s right. . . . Does it hurt him to swallow?”

She alternated between comforting remarks to the baby and questions to Brianna and Phaedre, all delivered in the same tone of calm reassurance as her hands touched here and there, exploring, soothing. Roger felt it working on him, too, and drew a deep breath, feeling the tightness in his own chest ease a bit.

Claire took a sheet of Jocasta’s heavy notepaper from the secretary, rolled it into a tube, and used it to listen intently to Jemmy’s back and chest as he made more of the choking-seal noises. Roger noticed dimly that her hair had fallen down somehow; she had to brush it out of the way to listen.

“Yes, of course it’s croup,” she said absently, in answer to a half-questioning diagnosis offered diffidently by one of the bystanders. “But that’s only the cough and the difficult breathing. You can have croup by itself, so to speak, or as an early symptom of various other things.”

“Such as?” Bree had a death grip on Jemmy, and her face was nearly as white as her knuckles.

“Oh. . . .” Claire seemed to be listening intently, but not to Bree. More to whatever was happening inside Jemmy, who had quit coughing and was lying exhausted against his mother’s shoulder, breathing thickly in steam-engine gasps. “Um . . . coryza—that’s only a common cold. Influenza. Asthma. Diphtheria. But it isn’t that,” she added hurriedly, looking up and catching a glimpse of Brianna’s face.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” Claire replied firmly, straightening up and putting aside her makeshift stethoscope. “It doesn’t feel at all like diphtheria to me. Besides, there isn’t any of that about, or I’d have heard. And he’s still being breast-fed; he’ll have immunity—” She stopped speaking abruptly, suddenly aware of the women looking on. She cleared her own throat, bending down again, as though to encourage Jemmy by example. He made a small whimper and coughed again. Roger felt it, like a rock in his chest.

“It isn’t serious,” Claire announced firmly, straightening. “We must put him in a croup tent, though. Bring him down to the kitchen. Phaedre, will you find me a couple of old quilts, please?”

She moved toward the door, shooing the women before her like a flock of hens.

Obeying an impulse that he didn’t stop to question, Roger reached for the baby, and after a instant’s hesitation, Brianna let him take him. Jemmy didn’t fuss, but hung listless and heavy, the limp slackness a terrible change from his normal India-rubber bounce. The baby’s cheek burned through the cloth of Roger’s shirt as he carried the little boy downstairs, Bree at his elbow.

The kitchen was in the brick-walled basement of the house, and Roger had a brief vision of Orpheus descending into the underworld, Eurydice close behind him, as they made their way down the dark back stair into the shadowy depths of the kitchen. Instead of a magic lyre, though, he bore a child who burned like coal and coughed as though his lungs would burst. If he didn’t look back, he thought, the boy would be all right.

“Perhaps a little cold water wouldn’t come amiss.” Claire put her hand on Jemmy’s forehead, judging his temperature. “Have you got an ear infection, sweetheart?” She blew gently into one of the baby’s ears, then the other; he blinked, coughed hoarsely, and swiped a chubby hand across his face, but didn’t flinch. The slaves were bustling round in a corner of the kitchen, bringing boiling water, pinning the quilts to a rafter to make the tent at her direction.

Claire took the baby out of Roger’s arms to bathe him, and he stood bereft, wanting urgently to do something, anything, until Brianna took his hand and clutched it hard, her nails digging into his palm.

“He’ll be all right,” she whispered. “He will.” He squeezed hard back, wordless.

Then the tent was ready, and Brianna ducked under the hanging quilt, turning to reach back for Jemmy, who was alternately coughing and crying, having not liked the cold water at all. Claire had sent a slave to fetch her medicine box, and now rummaged through it, coming up with a vial filled with a pale yellow oil, and a jar of dirty white crystals.

Before she could do anything with them, though, Joshua, one of the grooms, came thumping down the stairs, half-breathless with his hurry.

“Mrs. Claire, Mrs. Claire!”

Some of the gentlemen had been firing off their pistols in celebration of the happy event, it seemed, and one of them had suffered some kind of mishap, though Josh seemed uncertain as to exactly what had happened.

“He isna bad hurt,” the groom assured Claire, in the Aberdonian Scots that came so peculiarly from his black face, “but he is bleedin’ quite free, and Dr. Fentiman—well, he’s maybe no quite sae steady as he might be the noo. Will ye come, Ma’am?”

“Yes, of course.” In the blink of an eye, she had thrust vial and jar into Roger’s hands. “I’ll have to go. Here. Put some in the hot water; keep him breathing the steam until he stops coughing.” Quick and neat, she’d closed up her box and handed it to Josh to carry, heading for the stair before Roger could ask her anything. Then she was gone.

Wisps of steam were escaping through the opening in the tent; seeing that, he paused long enough to shed coat and waistcoat, leaving them in a careless heap on the floor as he bent and ducked into the darkness, vial and jar in hand.

Bree was crouched on a stool, Jemmy on her lap, a big white pudding-basin full of steaming water at her feet. A swath of light from the hearth fell momentarily across her face, and Roger smiled at her, trying to look reassuring, before the quilt dropped back into place.

“Where’s Mama? Did she leave?”

“Aye, there was some sort of emergency. It’ll be fine, though,” he said firmly. “She gave me the stuff to put in the water; said just to keep him in the steam until the coughing stops.”

He sat down on the floor beside the basin of water. It was very dim in the tent, but not totally dark. As his eyes adjusted, he could see well enough. Bree still looked worried, but not nearly so frightened as she’d been upstairs. He felt better, too; at least he knew what to be doing, and Claire hadn’t seemed too bothered about leaving her grandson; obviously she thought he wasn’t going to choke on the spot.

The vial contained pine oil, sharp and reeking of resin. He wasn’t sure how much to use, but poured a generous dollop into the water. Then he pried the cork out of the jar, and the pungent scent of camphor rose up like a genie from the bottle. Not really crystals, he saw; lumps of some sort of dried resin, grainy and slightly sticky. He poured some into the palm of his hand, then rubbed them hard between his hands before dropping them into the water, wondering even as he did so at the instinctive familiarity of the gesture.

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