“Stand up,” I said, in my coldest voice, “and leave. Right now.”
He didn’t, of course, and I cursed my lack of forethought in not keeping a loaded pistol in the surgery. The saw might serve if he attacked me, but I knew better than to try attacking him.
Besides, what would you do with the body, if you killed him? the logical side of my mind inquired. He wouldn’t fit in the cupboard, let alone the hidey-hole.
“For the third—and last—time,” I said. “What do you bloody want?”
“Your help,” he said promptly. “I’d originally had it in mind to use you as an agent in place. You could have been very valuable to me, moving in the same social circles as the British high command. But you seemed too unstable—forgive me, ma’am—to approach immediately. I hoped that as your grief over your first husband faded, you would come to a state of resignation in which I might seek your acquaintance and by degrees achieve a state of intimacy in which you could be persuaded to discover small—and, at first, seemingly innocent—bits of information, which you would pass on to me.”
“Just what do you mean by ‘intimacy’?” I said, folding my arms. Because while the word in current parlance often meant merely friendship, he hadn’t used it with that intonation at all.
“You’re a very desirable woman, Mrs. Fraser,” he said, looking me over in an objectionably appraising way. “And one who knows her desirability. His lordship obviously wasn’t obliging you in that regard, so . . .” He lifted a shoulder, smiling in a deprecating fashion. “But as General Fraser has returned from the dead, I imagine you’re no longer susceptible to lures of that kind.”
I laughed and dropped my arms.
“You flatter yourself, Colonel,” I said dryly. “If not me. Look: why not stop trying to fluster me and tell me what you want me to do and why on earth you think I’d do it.”
He laughed, too, which lent some sense of individuality to his face.
“Very well. It may be difficult to believe, but this war will not be won on the battlefield.”
“Yes, I assure you, ma’am. It will be won by spying and by politics.”
“A very novel approach, I’m sure.” I was trying to place his accent; it was English but a rather flat sort of accent. Not London, not the north . . . educated, but not polished. “I assume you weren’t soliciting my assistance in the political line.”
“No, actually, I am,” he said. “If somewhat indirectly.”
“I suggest you try the direct approach,” I said. “My patient will be arriving very shortly.” The sounds outside had changed; apprentices and housemaids were going past in little groups, bound for work or daily marketing. Calls to and fro, the occasional giggle of a flirtation in passing.
Richardson nodded in acceptance.
“Are you aware of the Duke of Pardloe’s opinion of this war?”
I was somewhat taken aback by this. Foolishly, it hadn’t occurred to me that Hal might have one, outside the requirements of his service. But if ever I had met a man guaranteed to have opinions, it was Harold, Second Duke of Pardloe.
“What with one thing and another, I’ve never exchanged views with the duke on political matters. Nor with my—nor with his brother, for that matter.”
“Ah. Well, ladies often take no interest in things outside their own sphere of interest—though I rather thought you might have a . . . wider appreciation, shall we say?” He looked pointedly from my canvas apron and tray of instruments to the other appointments of my surgery.
“What about his politics?” I asked shortly, disregarding his implications.
“His Grace is a strong voice in the House of Lords,” Richardson said, playing with a frayed thread on the edge of his cuff. “And while he was at first very much in favor of the war, his opinions of late have been noticeably more . . . moderate. He wrote a public letter to the first minister in the fall, urging a consideration of reconciliation.”
“And?” I hadn’t the slightest idea where he was going with this and was growing impatient.
“Reconciliation is not what we want, ma’am,” he said, and, pulling the thread free, flicked it aside. “Such efforts will only delay the inevitable and interfere with the commitment of the citizenry that we desperately need. But the fact that His Grace shows this moderation of outlook is useful to me.”
“Jolly good,” I said. “Get to the point, if you please.”
He ignored this and proceeded about his exposition as though he had all the time in the world.
“Were he fiercely committed to one extreme or the other, he would be difficult to . . . influence. While I don’t know His Grace well, everything I know of him indicates that he values his sense of honor—”
“—almost as much as he values his family,” Richardson finished. He looked directly at me, and for the first time I felt a flicker of real fear.
“I have for some time been working to acquire influence—whether direct or otherwise—over such members of the duke’s family as are within my reach. With, say, a son—a nephew?—perhaps even his brother in my control, it would then be possible to affect His Grace’s public position, in whatever way seemed most advantageous to us.”
“If you’re suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, then I suggest you leave my sight this instant,” I said, in what I hoped was a tone of calm menace. Though I spoiled whatever effect there might have been by adding, “Besides, I have absolutely no connection with any of Pardloe’s family now.”
He smiled faintly, with no sense of pleasantry at all.
“His nephew, William, is in the city, ma’am, and you were seen speaking with him nine days ago. Perhaps you are unaware, though, that both Pardloe and his brother are here, as well?”
“Here?” My mouth hung open for an instant and I closed it sharply. “With the army?”
“I gather that in spite of your recent . . . marital rearrangement? . . . you remain on good terms with Lord John Grey.”
“Sufficiently good that I would do nothing whatever to deliver him into your bloody hands, if that’s what you had in mind.”
“Nothing so crude, ma’am,” he assured me, with a brief flash of teeth. “I had in mind only the transmission of information—in both directions. I intend no damage at all to the duke or his family; I only wish to—”
Whatever his intentions, they were interrupted by a tentative knock on the door, which then opened to admit Mrs. Bradshaw’s head. She looked apprehensively at me and suspiciously at Richardson, who cleared his throat, stood up, and bowed to her.
“Your servant, ma’am,” he said. “I was just taking my leave of Mrs. Fraser. Good day to you.” He turned and bowed to me, more elaborately. “Your most humble servant, Mrs. Fraser. I look forward to seeing you again. Soon.”
“I’ll just bet you do,” I said, but far enough under my breath that I doubted he heard me.
Mrs. Bradshaw and Sophronia edged into the room, coming close enough to Richardson on his way out that his face wrinkled up in involuntary revulsion at smelling Sophronia, and he cast a startled glance over his shoulder at me—this causing him to collide heavily with Rachel, hurrying in. He waltzed with her for a step or two, finally getting his balance and making his inelegant escape, pursued by my laughter.
This bit of slapstick had partially dispelled the uneasiness he’d brought to my surgery, and I put him firmly out of my mind. Sufficient to the day was the Richardson thereof, and I had work to do. It was with a sense of confidence that I took Sophronia’s small hand between my own and smiled at her downcast face.
“Don’t be worried, sweetheart,” I said. “I’m going to take care of you.”
WITH A MODERN hospital and equipment, I would have done the surgery transvaginally. Given my current resources, though, it would have to be abdominal. With Mrs. Bradshaw anxiously perched on a stool out of the way—she wouldn’t leave, and I hoped she wouldn’t faint—and Rachel carefully counting drops of ether under her breath, I took my best scalpel and cut into Sophronia’s fresh-scrubbed belly. The stretch marks left by her pregnancy were fading but still visible on her very young flesh.
I had makeshift stirrups, should I need them, made by nailing blocks of wood to the table at an angle, and I’d put a wadded towel between her thighs, soaked with the antibacterial lotion I’d scrubbed her with, an alcoholic extraction of crushed garlic mixed with a hot-water extract of lemon balm. It smelled pleasantly kitchen-like and did something to kill the sewage smell—as well as germs, I hoped.
The ether, though, was stronger than anything else, and within ten minutes of starting, I began to feel a slight swimming in my head.
“Mrs. Bradshaw,” I called over my shoulder. “Will you open the window, please? And the shutters?” I hoped we wouldn’t attract any spectators—but the need for fresh air was imperative.
The vesicovaginal fistula was luckily fairly small and in a reasonably easy position to reach. Rachel was holding a retractor for me with one hand, keeping the other on Sophronia’s pulse, and administering more ether every few minutes.
“Are you all right, Rachel?” I asked, trimming back the edges of the fistula in order to get a decent field for stitching—the edges were flattened and macerated, and the tissue would shred and pull apart under any sort of pressure. I’d had some hesitation in asking her to help today; I would have asked Jenny, but she was suffering from what was called the catarrh, and sneezing and coughing were the last things I wanted in a surgical assistant.
“I am,” she answered, her voice slightly muffled behind her not-quite-sterile-but-at-least-boiled mask. She’d used one of Ian’s handkerchiefs for the purpose; it was an incongruously cheerful calico in dark-pink-and-white checks. Ian’s taste in clothing was strongly Mohawk.
“Good. Tell me if you feel at all dizzy.” I had no idea what I’d do if she did feel dizzy—perhaps Mrs. Bradshaw could take over the dropping bottle for a few minutes. . . .
I spared a quick glance over my shoulder. Mrs. Bradshaw sat on her stool, gloved hands clasped tight in her lap and her face pale as a sheet, but she sat firm.
“It’s going well so far,” I said to her, trying to sound as reassuring as possible through my own chaste white mask. The masks seemed to unnerve her, and she looked away, swallowing.
It really was going well, though. While it was Sophronia’s youth that had caused the problem, that also meant that her tissues were healthy, in good shape, and she had considerable animal vitality. If the surgery was successful, if there was little or no subsequent infection, she’d heal very quickly. If.
“Ifs” hover in the air above your head all the time when you’re doing surgery, like a cloud of gnats. For the most part, though, they keep a respectful distance, only buzzing dimly in the background.
“One down, one to go,” I murmured, and, dipping a wad of sterilized gauze into my cheese lotion, I daubed some—not without a qualm—over the newly stitched repair. “Onward.”
The bowel repair was easier—though more unpleasant. It was quite cold in the surgery—I hadn’t lit a fire, not wanting soot in the air—but I was sweating; beads of perspiration ran tickling down the side of my nose and down my neck from my bound-up hair.
I could feel the girl, though, the life of her echoing in my hands, her heartbeat strong and steady—there was a large blood vessel visible on the surface of the uterus, and I could see it pulsing. She’d been lucky in the one thing: the uterus hadn’t been perforated, and looked healthy. I couldn’t tell whether there was internal scarring, but when I cupped my hand gently over the organ, it felt normal to me. For a moment, I closed my eyes, feeling deeper, and found what I thought I needed. I opened them again, blotted the ooze of blood from the cut tissues, and reached for a fresh needle.
How long? Anesthesia complications were one of the nasty little flying “ifs,” and that one flew down and perched on my shoulder. I had no clock or pocket watch but had brought a small sandglass borrowed from our landlady.
“How long has it been, Rachel?”
“Twenty minutes.” Her voice was soft, and I looked up, but she was still steady, her eyes fixed on the open belly. She was nearly four months’ pregnant, her own belly slightly rounded. “Don’t worry,” I said to her briefly. “It won’t happen to you.”
“Surely it could?” she said, still more softly.
I shook my head.
“Not if I’m with you when you give birth.”
She made a small amused sound and picked up the dropping bottle again.
“Thee will be, I assure thee, Claire.”
Rachel was shivering slightly by the time I’d finished; I was wringing wet but feeling the glow of at least temporary victory. The fistulas were repaired, the leakage stopped. I irrigated the surgical field with saline solution and the organs glistened, the beautiful deep colors of the body unmarred by smears of fecal matter.
I paused for a moment to admire the neat compactness of the pelvic organs, all in their places. There was a tiny trickle of pale urine from the catheter, staining the towel with a faint yellow shadow. In a modern hospital, I would have left the catheter in during the healing, but it would be difficult to manage without a drainage bag, and the chances of irritation or infection from the device were likely greater than the possible benefits of leaving it. I eased it free of her body, watching. Within a few seconds, the flow of urine ceased, and I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
I had taken up a fresh needle threaded with silk, to close the incision, when something occurred to me.