Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 143

   

I talked to her while I made my examinations, soothingly, and after a little she began to answer me, though still in whispers. She was thirteen. Yes, Mr. Bradshaw had took her to his bed. She hadn’t minded. He said his wife was mean to him, and she was—all the slaves knew it. Mr. Bradshaw had been nice to her, gentle-like, and when she fell pregnant, he’d taken her from the laundry and put her to kitchen work, where she’d have good food and wouldn’t have to break her back with the heavy linens.

“He was sad,” she said softly, looking up at the ceiling while I wiped away the filthy trickle between her legs. “When the baby died. He cried.”

“Did he,” I said, in what I hoped was a neutral voice. I folded a clean towel and pressed it between her legs, throwing the wet one she’d been wearing into my bucket of vinegar and water. “When did the baby die—how long ago, I mean?”

She frowned, the expression barely rippling the pure young skin of her forehead. Could she count? I wondered.

“Be some time before the sausage-makin’,” she said uncertainly.

“In the fall, then?”

“Yessum.”

And it was mid-December now. I poured water over my dirty hand and dribbled a bit of soap into my palm. I really must try to get a nailbrush, I thought.

Mrs. Bradshaw had come back but hadn’t come in; I’d pulled the curtains over the front window, but her shadowed outline was plain on the cloth, the jaunty feathers in her hat stuck up like a silhouette cowlick.

I tapped my foot thoughtfully, then shook myself into order and went to open the door.

“I might be able to help,” I said without preamble, startling the woman.

“How?” She blinked at me, and, taken unawares, her face was open, troubled but without the pinched look she’d worn earlier.

“Come inside,” I said. “It’s cold out here in the wind,” and guided her in, a hand on her back. She was very thin; I could feel the knobs of her spine, even through her coat and stays.

Sophronia was sitting on the table, hands folded in her lap; when her mistress came in, she bent her head, looking at the floor again.

I explained the nature of the difficulty, so well as I could—neither of them had any grasp of internal anatomy at all; it was simply a matter of holes to them. Still, I managed to get the general point across.

“You know that a wound can be stitched, to hold the skin together while it heals?” I said patiently. “Well, this is much the same kind of thing, but made much harder by the wounds being inside and the tissues being very thin and slippery. It would be very difficult to mend—I’m not sure I can do it—but it is at least possible to try.”

It was—just. In the late nineteenth century, a physician named J. Marion Sims had more or less invented the entire practice of gynecological surgery, in order to address exactly this condition. It had taken him years to develop the techniques, and I knew them—had done the procedure more than once. The catch was that you really needed good, solid anesthesia in order to have a chance of success. Laudanum or whisky might answer for cruder, swifter operations, but for painstakingly delicate surgery like this, the patient had to be completely unconscious and immobile. I would have to have ether.

I had no idea how I was going to make ether, living in a small rented house with a number of people whom I really didn’t want to risk blowing to bits. And the thought of what flammable ether could do—had done—made me break out in a cold sweat. But seeing the faint hope rise in both their faces, I made up my mind to do it.

I gave Sophronia a small jar of beeswax ointment for the skin of her thighs and told them to come back in a week; I would know then whether it was possible. I saw them out, and as they went away down the street, Mrs. Bradshaw reached out unconsciously and touched Sophronia’s shoulder in a brief caress of reassurance.

I took a deep breath and resolved that I would find a way. Turning to go inside, I glanced the other way down the street and saw a tall young man whose lean ranginess struck me with a sense of instant recognition. I blinked once, and imagination promptly clothed him in scarlet.

“William!” I called, and, picking up my skirts, ran after him.

HE DIDN’T HEAR me at first, and I had time for doubt—but not much; the set of head and shoulders, that long, decisive stride . . . He was thinner than Jamie, and his hair was a dark chestnut, not red, but he had his father’s bones. And his eyes: hearing me at last, he turned, and those dark-blue cat eyes widened in surprise.

“Mother Cl—” He cut the word off, his face hardening, but I reached out and took his big hand between my own (rather hoping that I had got all of the slime off).

“William,” I said, panting just a bit, but smiling up at him. “You can call me what you like, but I’m no less—and no more—to you than I ever was.”

His severe look softened a little at that, and he ducked his head awkwardly.

“I think I must call you Mrs. Fraser, mustn’t I?” He detached his hand, though gently. “How do you come to be here?”

“I might ask the same of you—and perhaps with more reason. Where’s your uniform?”

“I’ve resigned my commission,” he said, a little stiffly. “Under the circumstances, there seemed little point to my remaining in the army. And I have business that requires somewhat more independence of movement than I should have as one of Sir Henry’s aides.”

“Will you come and have something hot to drink with me? You can tell me about your business.” I’d rushed out without my cloak, and a chilly breeze was fingering me with more intimacy than I liked.

“I—” He caught himself, frowning, then looked at me thoughtfully and rubbed a finger down the long, straight bridge of his nose, just as Jamie did when making up his mind. And just as Jamie did, he dropped his hand and nodded briefly as though to himself.

“All right,” he said, rather gruffly. “In fact, my business may be of some . . . importance to you.”

Another five minutes saw us in an ordinary off Ellis Square, drinking hot cider, rich with cinnamon and nutmeg. Savannah wasn’t—thank God—Philadelphia, in terms of nasty winter weather, but the day was cold and windy, and the pewter cup was delightfully warm in my hands.

“What does bring you here, then, Willie? Or should I call you William now?”

“William, please,” he said dryly. “It’s the only name I feel is rightfully mine, for the moment. I should like to preserve what small dignity I have.”

“Mmm,” I said noncommittally. “William it is, then.”

“As for my business . . .” He sighed briefly and rubbed a knuckle between his brows. He then explained about his cousin Ben, Ben’s wife and child, then Denys Randall, and finally—Captain Ezekiel Richardson. That name made me sit up straight.

He noticed my reaction and nodded, grimacing.

“That’s what I meant when I said my business might have some relevance to you. Pa—Lord John said that it was Richardson’s threatening to arrest you as a spy that caused him to, er, marry you.” He flushed a little.

“It was,” I said, trying not to recall the occasion. In fact, I recalled only snatches of those empty, glaring days when I’d believed Jamie to be dead. One of those snatches, though, was a vivid recollection of standing in the parlor of Number 17, holding a bouquet of white roses, with John beside me and a military chaplain with a book before us—and, standing on John’s other side, grave and handsome, William in his captain’s uniform and shining gorget, looking so like Jamie that I felt for a dizzying instant that Jamie’s ghost had come to watch. Unable to decide whether to faint or to run out of the room shrieking, I’d simply stood frozen, until John had nudged me gently, whispering in my ear, and I’d blurted out, “I do,” and collapsed on the ottoman, flowers spilling from my hands.

Caught up in the memory, I’d missed what William was saying and shook my head, trying to focus.

“I’ve been searching for him for the last three months,” he said, putting down his cup and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “He’s an elusive scoundrel. And I don’t know that he’s in Savannah at all, for that matter. But the last hint I had of him was in Charleston, and he left there three weeks ago, heading south.

“Now, for all I know, the fellow’s bound for Florida or has already taken ship for England. On the other hand . . . Amaranthus is here, or at least I believe so. Richardson seems to take an inordinate interest in the Grey family and its connections, so perhaps . . . Do you know Denys Randall yourself, by the way?”

He was looking at me intently over his cup, and I realized, with a faint sense of amusement mingled with outrage, that he had thrown the name at me suddenly in hopes of surprising any guilty knowledge I might have.

Why, you little scallywag, I thought, amusement getting the upper hand. You need a bit more practice before you can pull off that sort of thing, my lad.

I did in fact know something about Denys Randall that William almost certainly didn’t know—and that Denys Randall himself might not know—but it wasn’t information that would shed any light on the whereabouts and motives of Ezekiel Richardson.

“I’ve never met him,” I said, quite truthfully, and held up my cup toward the serving maid for more cider. “I used to know his mother, Mary Hawkins; we met in Paris. A lovely, sweet girl, but I’ve had no contact with her for the last . . . thirty . . . no, thirty-four years. I assume from what you tell me that she married a Mr. Isaacs—you said he was a Jewish merchant?”

“Yes. So Randall said—and I can’t see why he’d lie about it.”

“Nor can I. But what you do know—you think,” I corrected, “is that while Denys Randall and Ezekiel Richardson have heretofore appeared to be working together, now they aren’t?”

William shrugged, impatient.

“So far as I know. I haven’t seen Randall since he warned me about Richardson, but I haven’t seen Richardson, either.”

I could sense his rising desire to be up and off; he was drumming his fingers softly on the tabletop, and the table itself shuddered slightly when his leg bumped it.

“Where are you staying, William?” I asked impulsively, before he could go. “In—in case I do see Richardson. Or hear anything of Amaranthus, for that matter. I am a doctor; a lot of people come to see me, and everyone talks to a doctor.”

He hesitated, but then gave another shrug, this one infinitesimal. “I’ve taken a room at Hendry’s, on River Street.”

He stood, tossed some money on the table, and extended a hand to help me up.

“We’re staying at Landrum’s, one square over from the City Market,” I said on impulse, rising. “If you should—want to call. Or need help. Just in case, I mean.”

His face had gone carefully blank, though his eyes were burning like match flames. I felt a chill, knowing from experience the sort of thing that was likely going on behind such a façade.

“I doubt it, Mrs. Fraser,” he said politely. And, kissing my hand in brief farewell, he left.

GIGGING FROGS

December 22, 1778

JAMIE TOOK A FIRM grip of the back of Germain’s shirt and beckoned with his free hand to Ian, who held the torch.

“Look out over the water first, aye?” Jamie whispered, lifting his chin at the black glitter of the submerged marsh. It was broken by clumps of waist-high cordgrass and smaller ones of needlerush, bright green in the torchlight. This was a deep spot, though, with two or three of what the natives of Savannah called “hammocks,” though plainly they meant “hummock”—wee islands, with trees like wax myrtle and yaupon holly bushes, though these, too, were of a spiky nature, like everything else in a marsh save the frogs and fish.

Some of the spikier inhabitants of the marsh, though, were mobile and nothing you wanted to meet unexpectedly. Germain peered obediently into the darkness, his gigging spear held tight and high, poised for movement. Jamie could feel him tremble, partly from the chill but mostly, he thought, from excitement.

A sudden movement broke the surface of the water, and Germain lunged forward, plunging his gig into the water with a high-pitched yell.

Fergus and Jamie let out much deeper cries, each grabbing Germain by an arm and hauling him backward over the mud, as the irate cottonmouth he’d nearly speared turned on him, lashing, yawning mouth flaring white.

But the snake luckily had business elsewhere and swam off with a peeved sinuosity. Ian, safely out of range, was laughing.

“Think it’s funny, do ye?” said Germain, scowling in order to pretend he wasn’t shaking.

“Aye, I do,” his uncle assured him. “Be even funnier if ye were eaten by an alligator, though. See there?” He lifted the torch and pointed; ten feet away, there was a ripple in the water, between them and the nearest hammock. Germain frowned uncertainly at it, then turned his head to his grandfather.

“That’s an alligator? How d’ye ken that?”

“It is,” Jamie said. His own heart was pounding from the sight of the cottonmouth. Snakes unnerved him, but he wasn’t scairt of alligators. Cautious, yes. Scairt, no. “See how the ripples come back from the island there?”

“Aye.” Germain squinted across the water. “So?”

“Those ripples are coming toward us side on. The one Ian’s pointing at? It’s coming at a right angle—right toward us.”

It was, though slowly.

“Are alligators good to eat?” Fergus asked, watching it thoughtfully. “A good deal more meat on one than on a frog, n’est-ce pas?”

“They are, and there is, aye.” Ian shifted his weight a little, gauging the distance. “We canna kill one of those wi’ spears, though. I should have brought my bow.”

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