Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 148

   

“Rachel—do you want to look? Closely, I mean.” Sophronia had had ether within the last couple of minutes and was still deeply under; Rachel checked her color and breathing and then came round the table to stand beside me.

I didn’t think she’d be disturbed by the blood or the sight of organs, given the things she’d seen in military camps and battlefields. She wasn’t, but she was disturbed.

“That—” She swallowed and put a hand to her swelling stomach, very gently. “So beautiful,” she whispered. “How the body is made. How such things can be.”

“It is,” I said, her awe making me lower my own voice.

“To think of her poor infant, though . . . and she no more than a child . . .”

I glanced at Rachel and saw tears standing in her eyes. And I saw the thought cross her face, masked as it was: It could happen to me.

“Yes,” I said quietly. “Go back to the ether; I’ll close the incision now.” But as I dipped my hands again in the bowl of alcohol and water, something else occurred to me.

Oh, God, I thought, appalled at the thought. But . . .

“Mrs. Bradshaw,” I said. She was sitting with her head bowed, arms wrapped round herself against the chill, perhaps half asleep. When I spoke, though, her head came up sharply.

“Is it over?” she asked. “Does she live?”

“She does,” I said. “And, with luck, will continue to do so. But . . .” I hesitated, but I had to ask. And I had to ask this woman.

“Before I sew up the incision . . . I can—do a very minor procedure that will stop Sophronia from becoming pregnant again.”

Mrs. Bradshaw blinked.

“You can?”

“Yes. It’s a simple thing to do—but, once done, it can’t be undone. She’d never be able to have babies.” A fresh cloud of “ifs” had formed, buzzing anxiously over my shoulder.

She was thirteen. She was a slave. And had a master who used her. If she were to become pregnant again soon, she might well die during the labor and would almost certainly be seriously damaged. It might never be safe for her to bear a child—but it wasn’t safe for any woman, ever. And “never” is a very big word.

Mrs. Bradshaw had drifted slowly toward the table, her eyes twitching toward the exposed, half-draped body, then away, unable either to look or to stay away. I put out a hand, warding her off.

“Don’t come closer, please.”

“He was sad when the baby died. He cried.” I could still hear the sadness in Sophronia’s voice; she mourned her child. How could she not? Could I take away the possibility of another—forever—without even asking her what she felt about it?

And yet . . .

If she bore a child, it, too, would be a slave; it might be taken from her and sold. Even if not, it would likely live and die in slavery.

And yet . . .

“If she wasn’t able to bear children . . .” Mrs. Bradshaw said slowly. She stopped speaking, and I could see the thoughts crossing her white, pinched face; her lips had all but disappeared, so tightly were they pressed together. I didn’t think she was concerned with the fact that Sophronia’s value would be diminished if she couldn’t reproduce.

Would the fear of damage due to pregnancy stop Mr. Bradshaw from using the girl?

If she were barren, would he feel no hesitation?

“He didn’t hesitate because she was twelve,” I said, my words cold as pellets of ice. “Would the chance of killing her next time stop him?”

She stared at me in shock, mouth hanging open. She blinked, swallowed, and looked at Sophronia, limp and helpless, body gaping open on the blood-soaked towels, the floor around her thickly spattered with her fluids.

“I think thee cannot,” Rachel said quietly. She looked from me to Mrs. Bradshaw, and it wasn’t clear to whom she was speaking: perhaps both of us. She was holding Sophronia’s hand.

“She felt her child move within her. She loved it.” Rachel’s voice broke, and she choked a little. Tears welled and rolled down to disappear into her mask. “She wouldn’t . . . she . . .” She stopped, gulping a little, and shook her head, unable to go on.

Mrs. Bradshaw put a hand clumsily over her face, as though to stop me seeing her thoughts.

“I can’t,” she said, and repeated almost angrily, behind the shield of her hand, “I can’t. It isn’t my fault! I tried—I tried to do the right thing!” She wasn’t talking to me; I didn’t know if it was to Mr. Bradshaw or God.

The “ifs” were all still there, but so was Sophronia, and I couldn’t leave her any longer.

“All right,” I said quietly. “Go and sit down, Mrs. Bradshaw. I said I’d take care of her, and I will.”

My hands were cold, and the body under them was very warm, pulsing with life. I picked up the needle and put in the first suture.

WILL-O’-THE-WISP

SAPERVILLE? WILLIAM WAS beginning to wonder whether Amaranthus Cowden Grey actually existed or whether she was a will-o’-the-wisp created by Ezekiel Richardson. But if so—to what end?

He’d made careful inquiries after receiving Mrs. Fraser’s note yesterday; there really was a place called Saperville—a tiny settlement some twenty miles to the southwest of Savannah, in what his interlocutor had told him was “the piney woods,” in a tone of voice suggesting that the piney woods were next door to hell, both in terms of remoteness and uncivil conditions. He couldn’t conceive what might have made the woman—if she really did exist—go to such a place.

If she didn’t exist . . . then someone had invented her, and the most likely suspect for such a deception was Ezekiel Richardson. William had been decoyed by Richardson before. The entire experience in the Dismal Swamp still made him grit his teeth in retrospect—the more so when he reflected that, if not for that chain of events, neither he nor Ian Murray would have met Rachel Hunter.

With an effort, he dismissed Rachel from his mind—she wouldn’t stay out of his dreams, but he didn’t have to think about her while awake—and returned to the elusive Amaranthus.

In purely practical terms, Saperville lay on the other side of Campbell’s army, which was still encamped over several acres of ground outside Savannah, while billeting arrangements were made, housing built, and fortifications dug. A large part of the Continental forces that had opposed them had been neatly bagged up and sent north as prisoners, and the chances of the remnants causing trouble for Campbell were minuscule. That didn’t mean William could walk straight through the camp without attracting attention. He might not meet with anyone who knew him, but that didn’t mean no one would question him. And however innocuous his errand, the last thing he wanted was to have to explain to anyone why he had resigned his commission.

He’d had time, while Campbell was arraying his forces, to take Miranda out of Savannah and board her with a farmer some ten miles to the north. The army foragers might still find her—they certainly would, if the army remained in Savannah for any great time—but for the moment she was safe. All too familiar with military rapacity—he’d seized horses and supplies himself, many times—he wasn’t about to take her within sight of the army.

He drummed his fingers on the table, thinking, but reluctantly concluded that he’d best walk to Saperville, making a wide circle around Campbell’s men. He wasn’t going to find out about bloody Amaranthus sitting here, that was sure.

Resolved, he paid for his meal, wrapped himself in his cloak, and set off. It wasn’t raining, that was one good thing.

It was January, though, and the days were still short; the shadows were lengthening by the time he came to the edge of the sea of camp followers that had formed around the army. He made his way past a conclave of red-armed laundresses, their kettles all fuming in the chilly air and the scent of smoke and lye soap hanging over them in a witchy sort of haze.

“Double, double toil and trouble,” he chanted under his breath. “Fire burn and caldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, in the caldron boil and bake. Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog . . .” He couldn’t recall what came next and abandoned the effort.

Beyond the laundresses, the ground was choppy, the boggy spots interspersed with higher bits of ground, these crowned with stunted trees and low bushes—and quite obviously providing a footing, so to speak, for the whores to ply their own trade.

He gave these a somewhat wider berth and consequently found himself squelching through something that was not quite a bog, but not far off, either. It was remarkably beautiful, though, in a chiaroscuro sort of way; the fading light somehow made each barren twig stand out in stark contrast to the air, the swollen buds still sleeping but rounded, balanced on the edge between winter’s death and the life of spring. He wished for a moment that he could draw, or paint, or write poetry, but as it was, he could only pause for a few seconds to admire it.

As he did so, though, he felt a permanence form in his heart, a quiet sense that even though he had only these few seconds, he would have them forever, could come back to this place, this time, in his mind.

He was right, though not entirely for the reasons he supposed.

He would have passed right by her, thinking she was a part of the bog, for she was curled over in a tight ball and the hood of her sad-colored cloak covered her head. But she made a tiny sound, a heartbroken whimper that stopped him in his tracks, and he saw her then, crouched in the mud at the foot of a sweet gum.

“Ma’am?” he said tentatively. She hadn’t been aware of him; she uncurled suddenly, her white face staring up at him, shocked and tear-streaked. Then she gulped air and leapt to her feet, throwing herself at him.

“Wiyum! Wiyum!” It was Fanny, Jane’s sister, alone, daubed with mud, and in a state of complete hysteria. She’d catapulted into his arms; he gripped her firmly, holding her lest she fly to pieces, which she looked very like doing.

“Frances. Frances! It’s all right; I’m here. What’s happened? Where’s Jane?”

At her sister’s name, she gave a wail that made his blood go cold and buried her face in his chest. He patted her back and, this failing to help, then shook her a little.

“Frances! Pull yourself together. Sweetheart,” he added more gently, seeing her swimming, red-rimmed eyes and swollen face. She’d been weeping for a long time. “Tell me what’s happened, so I can help you.”

“You can’t,” she blubbered, and thumped her forehead hard against his chest, several times. “You can’t, you can’t, nobody can, you can’t!”

“Well, we’ll see about that.” He looked around for someplace to sit her down, but there was nothing more solid than clumps of grass and spindly trees in sight. “Come on, it’s getting dark. We need to get out of this place, at least.” He set her firmly on her feet, took her arm, and compelled her to start walking, on the theory that one can’t be hysterical and walk in a straight line at the same time.

In fact, this seemed to be the case. By the time he’d got her back to the camp followers’ area, she was sniffling but no longer wailing, and she was looking where she was going. He bought her a cup of hot soup from a woman with a steaming cauldron and made her drink it, though a remnant thought of the fingers of birth-strangled babes made him forgo one for himself.

He handed back the empty cup and, seeing that Fanny was at least superficially calm now, towed her toward the hillock with trees, in search of a seat. She stiffened, though, as they approached, and pulled back with a little mew of fear.

Losing patience, he put a hand under her chin and made her meet his eyes.

“Frances,” he said in a level tone. “Tell me what the devil is going on, and do it now. Words of one syllable, if you please.”

“Jane,” she said, and her eyes began to overflow again. She dashed at them with her cloak-covered forearm, though, and, with a visible effort, managed to tell him.

“It wass a cuwwy.”

“A what? Oh, a cully, sorry. At the brothel, you mean. Yes?”

She nodded.

“He wass looking thu the gulls and s-saw J-Jane . . .” She gulped. “He wass a fwend of Captain Hahkness. He wass at da house when he—Captain Hahkness—died. He weckognized huh.”

A ball of ice formed in William’s entrails at her words.

“The devil he did,” he said softly. “What did he do, Fanny?”

The man—a Major Jenkins, she said—had seized Jane by the arm and dragged her off, Fanny running after them. He had taken her all the way into the city, to a house with soldiers standing outside. They wouldn’t let Fanny in, so she had stood outside in the street, terrified but determined not to leave, and after a time they had given up trying to drive her away.

The house with soldiers standing outside was very likely Colonel Campbell’s headquarters, William thought, beginning to feel sick. Presumably Jenkins had hauled Jane before some senior officer, if not Campbell himself, to denounce her for Harkness’s murder.

Would they even bother giving her a trial? He doubted it. The city was under martial law; the army—or, rather, Lieutenant Colonel Campbell—did as it saw fit, and he doubted very much that Campbell would give a whore accused of murdering a soldier the benefit of any doubt.

“Where is she now?” He forced himself to go on sounding calm, though he felt anything but.

Fanny gulped and wiped her nose on her cloak again. At this point, it scarcely mattered, but by instinct he pulled his handkerchief from his sleeve and handed it to her.

“Dey took her to anovver house. On de edge of da city. Dere’s a big tree dere, ousside. I tink dey’ll hang her, Wiyum.”

William was very much afraid they would. He swallowed the saliva that had collected in his mouth and patted Fanny’s shoulder.

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