Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 12

   

“How is it with my sister?” he asked Fergus.

“Oh, well, milord, quite well!” The hearty tone of this assurance confirmed all Jamie’s suspicions.

“She’s having the child, no?” he demanded.

“No, milord! Certainly not!”

Jamie reached down and clamped a hand on Fergus’s shoulder. The bones felt small and fragile beneath his fingers, reminding him uncomfortably of the rabbits he had broken for Jenny. Nonetheless, he forced his grip to tighten. Fergus squirmed, trying to ease away.

“Tell me the truth, man,” Jamie said.

“No, milord! Truly!”

The grip tightened inexorably. “Did she tell you not to tell me?”

Jenny’s prohibition must have been a literal one, for Fergus answered this question with evident relief.

“Yes, milord!”

“Ah.” He relaxed his grip and Fergus sprang to his feet, now talking volubly as he rubbed his scrawny shoulder.

“She said I must not tell you anything except about the soldiers, milord, for if I did, she would cut off my cods and boil them like turnips and sausage!”

Jamie could not repress a smile at this threat.

“Short of food we may be,” he assured his protégé, “but not that short.” He glanced at the horizon, where a thin line of pink showed pure and vivid behind the black pines’ silhouette. “Come along, then; it’ll be full light in half an hour.”

There was no hint of silent emptiness about the house this dawn. Anyone with half an eye could see that things were not as usual at Lallybroch; the wash kettle sat on its plinth in the yard, with the fire gone out under it, full of cold water and sodden clothes. Moaning cries from the barn—like someone being strangled—indicated that the sole remaining cow urgently required milking. An irritable blatting from the goat shed let him know that the female inhabitants would like some similar attention as well.

As he came into the yard, three chickens ran past in a feathery squawk, with Jehu the rat terrier in close pursuit. With a quick dart, he leaped forward and booted the dog, catching it just under the ribs. It flew into the air with a look of intense surprise on its face, then, landing with a yip, picked itself up and made off.

He found the children, the older boys, Mary MacNab, and the other housemaid, Sukie, all crammed into the parlor, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Kirby, a stern and rock-ribbed widow, who was reading to them from the Bible.

“‘And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression,’” read Mrs. Kirby. There was a loud, rolling scream from upstairs, that seemed to go on and on. Mrs. Kirby paused for a moment, to allow everyone to appreciate it, before resuming the reading. Her eyes, pale gray and wet as raw oysters, flickered toward the ceiling, then rested with satisfaction on the row of strained faces before her.

“‘Notwithstanding, she shall be saved in childbearing, if she continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety,’” she read. Kitty burst into hysterical sobbing and buried her head in her sister’s shoulder. Maggie Ellen was growing bright red beneath her freckles, while her elder brother had gone dead-white at the scream.

“Mrs. Kirby,” said Jamie. “Be still, if ye please.”

The words were civil enough, but the look in his eyes must have been the one that Jehu saw just before his boot-assisted flight, for Mrs. Kirby gasped and dropped the Bible, which landed on the floor with a papery thump.

Jamie bent and picked it up, then showed Mrs. Kirby his teeth. The expression evidently was not successful as a smile, but had some effect nonetheless. Mrs. Kirby went quite pale, and put a hand to her ample bosom.

“Perhaps ye’d go to the kitchen and make yourself useful,” he said, with a jerk of his head that sent Sukie the kitchenmaid scuttling out like a windblown leaf. With considerably more dignity, but no hesitation, Mrs. Kirby rose and followed her.

Heartened by this small victory, Jamie disposed of the parlor’s other occupants in short order, sending the widow Murray and her daughters out to deal with the wash kettle, the smaller children out to catch chickens under the supervision of Mary MacNab. The older lads departed, with obvious relief, to tend the stock.

The room empty at last, he stood for a moment, hesitating as to what to do next. He felt obscurely that he should stay in the house, on guard, though he was acutely aware that he could—as Jenny had said—do nothing to help, whatever happened. There was an unfamiliar mule hobbled in the dooryard; presumably the midwife was upstairs with Jenny.

Unable to sit, he prowled restlessly around the parlor, the Bible in his hand, touching things. Jenny’s bookshelf, battered and scarred from the last incursion of Redcoats, three months ago. The big silver epergne. That was slightly dented, but had been too heavy to fit in a soldier’s knapsack, and so had escaped the pilfering of smaller objects. Not that the English had got so much; the few truly valuable items, along with the tiny store of gold they had left, were safely tucked away in the priest hole with Jared’s wine.

Hearing a prolonged moan from above, he glanced down involuntarily at the Bible in his hand. Not really wanting to, still he let the book fall open, showing the page at the front where the marriages, births, and deaths of the family were recorded.

The entries began with his parents’ marriage. Brian Fraser and Ellen MacKenzie. The names and the date were written in his mother’s fine round hand, with underneath, a brief notation in his father’s firmer, blacker scrawl. Marrit for love, it said—a pointed observation, in view of the next entry, which showed Willie’s birth, which had occurred scarcely two months past the date of the marriage.

Jamie smiled, as always, at sight of the words, and glanced up at the painting of himself, aged two, standing with Willie and Bran, the huge deerhound. All that was left of Willie, who had died of the smallpox at eleven. The painting had a slash through the canvas—the work of a bayonet, he supposed, taking out its owner’s frustration.

“And if ye hadna died,” he said softly to the picture, “then what?”

Then what, indeed. Closing the book, his eye caught the last entry—Caitlin Maisri Murray, born December 3, 1749, died December 3, 1749. Aye, if. If the Redcoats had not come on December 2, would Jenny have borne the child too early? If they had had enough food, so that she, like the rest of them, was no more than skin and bones and the bulge of her belly, would that have helped?

“No telling, is there?” he said to the painting. Willie’s painted hand rested on his shoulder; he had always felt safe, with Willie standing behind him.

Another scream came from upstairs, and a spasm of fear clenched his hands on the book.

“Pray for us, Brother,” he whispered, and crossing himself, laid down the Bible and went out to the barn to help with the stock.

There was little to do here; Rabbie and Fergus between them were more than able to take care of the few animals that remained, and Young Jamie, at ten, was big enough to be a substantial help. Looking about for something to do, Jamie gathered up an armful of scattered hay and took it down the slope to the midwife’s mule. When the hay was gone, the cow would have to be slaughtered; unlike the goats, it couldn’t get enough forage on the winter hills to sustain it, even with the picked grass and weeds the small children brought in. With luck, the salted carcass would last them through ’til spring.

As he came back into the barn, Fergus looked up from his manure fork.

“This is a proper midwife, of good repute?” Fergus demanded. He thrust out a long chin aggressively. “Madame should not be entrusted to the care of a peasant, surely!”

“How should I know?” Jamie said testily. “D’ye think I had anything to do wi’ engaging midwives?” Mrs. Martin, the old midwife who had delivered all previous Murray children, had died—like so many others—during the famine in the year following Culloden. Mrs. Innes, the new midwife, was much younger; he hoped she had sufficient experience to know what she was doing.

Rabbie seemed inclined to join the argument as well. He scowled blackly at Fergus. “Aye, and what d’ye mean ‘peasant’? Ye’re a peasant, too, or have ye not noticed?”

Fergus stared down his nose at Rabbie with some dignity, despite the fact that he was forced to tilt his head backward in order to do so, he being several inches shorter than his friend.

“Whether I am a peasant or not is of no consequence,” he said loftily. “I am not a midwife, am I?”

“No, ye’re a fiddle-ma-fyke!” Rabbie gave his friend a rough push, and with a sudden whoop of surprise, Fergus fell backward, to land heavily on the stable floor. In a flash, he was up. He lunged at Rabbie, who sat laughing on the edge of the manger, but Jamie’s hand snatched him by the collar and pulled him back.

“None of that,” said his employer. “I willna have ye spoilin’ what little hay’s left.” He set Fergus back on his feet, and to distract him, asked, “And what d’ye ken of midwives anyway?”

“A great deal, milord.” Fergus dusted himself off with elegant gestures. “Many of the ladies at Madame Elise’s were brought to bed while I was there—”

“I daresay they were,” Jamie interjected dryly. “Or is it childbed ye mean?”

“Childbed, certainly. Why, I was born there myself!” The French boy puffed his narrow chest importantly.

“Indeed.” Jamie’s mouth quirked slightly. “Well, and I trust ye made careful observations at the time, so as to say how such matters should be arranged?”

Fergus ignored this piece of sarcasm.

“Well, of course,” he said, matter-of-factly, “the midwife will naturally have put a knife beneath the bed, to cut the pain.”

“I’m none so sure she did that,” Rabbie muttered. “At least it doesna sound much like it.” Most of the screaming was inaudible from the barn, but not all of it.

“And an egg should be blessed with holy water and put at the foot of the bed, so that the woman shall bring forth the child easily,” Fergus continued, oblivious. He frowned.

“I gave the woman an egg myself, but she did not appear to know what to do with it. And I had been keeping it especially for the last month, too,” he added plaintively, “since the hens scarcely lay anymore. I wanted to be sure of having one when it was needed.

“Now, following the birth,” he went on, losing his doubts in the enthusiasm of his lecture, “the midwife must brew a tea of the placenta, and give it to the woman to drink, so that her milk will flow strongly.”

Rabbie made a faint retching sound. “Of the afterbirth, ye mean?” he said disbelievingly. “God!”

Jamie felt a bit queasy at this exhibition of modern medical knowledge himself.

“Aye, well,” he said to Rabbie, striving for casualness, “they eat frogs, ye know. And snails. I suppose maybe afterbirth isna so strange, considering.” Privately, he wondered whether it might not be long before they were all eating frogs and snails, but thought that a speculation better kept to himself.

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