I was very much ashamed to admit to myself that my chief fear, though, was that something would happen during delivery that would require me to remain with mother and/or child for a prolonged period. I could not, by my oath as a physician—and what I conceived my responsibilities to be—abandon a patient in dire need of me.
But I would not abandon Jamie. I knew beyond all doubt that he was going into battle, and soon. He wasn’t going without me.
A slight noise jerked me out of my hypothetical moral quandary. Dottie had started unpacking and had dropped an amputation saw. She stooped to pick it up and said something under her breath in German that I thought was probably a bad word—John always swore in German; perhaps it was a family habit.
Thought of John added another layer of guilt to my complicated feelings—though the logical part of my brain firmly rejected this as undeserved. Still, the worry for him couldn’t be rejected so easily, though I did my best to tuck it away for the present.
“You needn’t stay up, Dottie,” I said. “I can take care of matters here. Nothing’s going to happen immediately, regardless—I can make up the surgical kits.”
“No, that’s all right,” she said, and then yawned involuntarily, gaping so widely that she startled herself and clapped a hand belatedly over her mouth. “Oh, dear. I do beg your pardon, Mrs. Fraser.” That made me smile; she had John’s elegant manners—perhaps Hal did, too, when he wasn’t engaging in undiluted bastardliness.
“Actually,” she said, fixing me directly with her striking gaze, “I’m pleased to have a chance to talk with you in privacy.”
“Oh?” I said, squatting to put a hand on Mrs. Peabody’s belly. I wasn’t feeling any movement from the baby, but they usually did go quiet if labor was impending. I could have used my stethoscope to listen for a fetal heartbeat, but it was in one of the boxes or bags that Ian and the orderly had carried off somewhere. Besides, whatever I heard or didn’t would make no difference to the immediate protocol.
“Yes.” Dottie sat down on a packing case as though it were a throne—like all the Greys I’d met, she had excellent posture. “I want to know the correct way of performing sexual intercourse.”
“Oh. Erm . . .”
She glanced down at Mrs. Peabody.
“And whether there is any way of preventing . . . er . . .”
“Pregnancy. To be sure.” I cleared my throat. I rather thought the sight of Mrs. Peabody would have put most young women off the idea of childbearing—if not sex—altogether. Dorothea Grey, though, was plainly a young woman of blood and iron.
“Don’t mistake me, Auntie,” she said earnestly. “Or do I mean Friend Claire? I do want children—want them terribly. But if there is any choice about giving birth on a battlefield or a moving ship, say—”
I seized on this last, in part to give myself time to compose something coherent in the way of advice. I’d rather thought Rachel might want to talk about such things at some point, having no mother, but . . .
“A ship? Are you thinking of going home to England, then?”
She grimaced in a way that brought her father vividly before me, and I nearly laughed but fortunately didn’t.
“I don’t know. I dearly want to see Mama again, of course, and Adam . . . and my . . . well, actually, I doubt I should see any of my friends again.” She waved a hand, dismissing the friends. “Not that there aren’t any Quakers in society, but they’re all very rich, and we won’t be.”
She bit her lip, but in a way indicating calculation rather than chagrin.
“If I can contrive to make Denny marry me here, so that we arrived in England as husband and wife already, it would be a simple matter to find a London meeting that would welcome us. Whereas here—” She flung out a hand toward the hum of the camp around us. “His involvement in the war would always stand in his way, you see?”
“Even after the war is over?”
She gave me a patient look, too old for her face.
“Papa says that wars take three generations to fade from the ground where they’re fought. And from what I’ve seen, Friends have quite long memories, as well.”
“He might just have a point.” Mrs. Peabody had begun to snore wetly, but I felt no sense of contraction. I rubbed a hand through my hair and braced my back more comfortably against one of the packing crates set against the wall. “All right. Perhaps . . . a little basic anatomy, to begin with.”
I really had no idea how much—if anything—a nobly born young woman might have been told, or found out by other means, so began with female reproductive anatomy, starting with the womb—for surely she knew what that was—and leading outward, part by part.
“You mean it has a name?” she exclaimed, charmed, when I got to the clitoris. “I’d always thought of it as just, you know . . . that bit.” Her tone of voice made it abundantly clear that I needn’t explain what that bit did, and I laughed.
“To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only structure of the human body that appears to have no function whatever save the pleasure of the owner.”
“But men . . . don’t they . . . ?”
“Well, yes, they do,” I said. “And very pleasurable they find theirs, too. But a penis is extremely functional, as well. You, er . . . do know how it . . . works? In terms of intercourse?”
“Denzell won’t let me touch his naked member, and I’m longing to see it at my leisure—not just the odd glimpse when he, well, you know.” Her eyes sparkled at the thought. “But I know what it feels like through his breeches. I was amazed, the first time it went stiff under my hand! However does it do that?”
I explained the concept of hydrostatic pressure as simply as possible, already seeing what was coming next. I cleared my throat and rose to my knees.
“I need to examine Mrs. Peabody for any sign of labor. And while we must be respectful of her privacy—so far as such a thing exists under these conditions”—for Dottie had snorted loudly—“since you’re assisting me here, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t observe what I’m doing, and I’ll explain it to you as we go. How things . . . work.”
She hummed with interest as I gingerly unveiled Mrs. Peabody’s nether regions, which were thickly forested but still identifiably—very identifiably—feminine.
“When the cervix—that’s the opening to the womb—when it begins to open in order for the baby to come out, there’s often some blood and mucus released, but it’s quite harmless. I don’t see any sign of it yet, though.” That heartened me.
“Oh,” said Dottie, rather faintly. But she leaned intently over my shoulder as I carefully inserted my freshly washed hand. “Oh!” Dottie said, in tones of extreme revelation. “That’s where it goes!”
“Well, yes, it is,” I said, trying not to laugh—and failing. “Denzell would have told you, I expect. Did you ask him?”
“No,” she said, sitting back a little on her heels but still watching closely as I put a hand on Mrs. Peabody’s abdomen and felt the cervix. Softened, but still firm. I began to breathe again.
“No?” I said, only half-attending.
“No.” She drew herself up. “I didn’t want to seem ignorant. Denny’s so—I mean, he’s educated. I can read, of course, and write, but only letters, and play music, but that’s useless. I bustle round after him and help where I can, of course, and he’s always so good about explaining things . . . but . . . well, I kept having this vision of our wedding night and him explaining it to me in just the same way he’d tell me how to suck the snot out of a child’s nose with a tube or hold the skin together so he could stitch a wound. And . . .” She made a graceful little moue, which had to be her mother’s legacy. “And I made up my mind it wasn’t going to be that way.”
“Very . . . um . . . commendable.” I withdrew my hand and wiped it, re-covered Mrs. Peabody, and checked her pulse again—slow, but strong as a tympani; the woman must have the heart of an ox. “How—er—how do you want it to be? Bearing in mind,” I hastened to add, “that this sort of thing is rather variable.” Another thought occurred to me. “Has Denzell ever . . . ? Though I don’t suppose you’d know.”
Her soft white brow wrinkled in thought.
“I don’t know; I never thought of asking him. I just assumed—well, I have brothers. I know they have, because they talk about it—whores, I mean—with their friends. I suppose I thought all men . . . but, come to think, perhaps Denny wouldn’t go to a prostitute. Do you think he might have?” Her brow furrowed a little, but she didn’t seem upset at the thought. Of course, it was probably commonly accepted in the Greys’ social circle that men, or soldiers at least, naturally would.
With very vivid memories of my own wedding night—and my stupefaction upon being informed that my bridegroom was a virgin—I temporized a bit.
“Possibly not. Now, being a medical man, plainly he must know the essential mechanics. But there is more to it than that.”
Her eyes grew brighter and she leaned forward, hands on her knees.
“RATHER LIKE EGG white mixed with a drop or two of civet. Theoretically good for the skin, though frankly—” I was saying, when I heard the sound of voices just outside the tent.
Rachel and Ian had returned, looking cheerful, flushed, and quite like young people who had just passed the last hour or two doing the sorts of things in which I’d been instructing Dottie. I saw her glance sideways at Rachel, then—very briefly—at Ian’s breeches. Her color went up a notch.
Rachel didn’t notice, her attention having fixed at once on Mrs. Peabody—well, everyone’s attention was fixed on Mrs. Peabody; it was really impossible to look at anything else. She frowned at the supine woman on the ground and then looked at me.
“An excellent question. He left a quarter of an hour ago to find water. There’s beer, though, if you’re thirsty.” I nodded at the neglected pitcher.
Ian poured a cup for Rachel, waited while she drank it, then refilled it for himself, eyes still fixed on Mrs. Peabody, who was emitting a remarkable variety of noises, though still out cold.
“Does Uncle Jamie ken where ye are, Auntie?” he asked. “He was lookin’ for ye just now. He said he’d put ye somewhere safe to sleep, but ye’d escaped. Again,” he added with a broad grin.
“Oh,” I said. “He’s finished with the generals for the night, then?”
“Aye, he went to make the acquaintance o’ some of the militia captains under him, but most had gone to sleep by then, so he went to join ye at the Chenowyths. Mrs. Chenowyth was a bit taken aback to find ye gone,” he added delicately.
“I just came out for a little air,” I said, defensive. “And then—” I gestured at the patient on the floor, who had now settled down to a rhythmic snore. Her color was looking better; that was heartening. “Er . . . is Jamie put out, do you think?”
Ian and Rachel both laughed at that.
“No, Auntie,” Ian said. “But he’s dead tired, and he wants ye bad.”
“Did he tell you to say that?”
“Not in precisely those words,” Rachel said, “but his meaning was plain.” She turned to Ian, with a quick squeeze of his arm. “Would thee go and find Denny, Ian? Claire can’t leave this woman alone—I think?” she asked, arching a brow at me.
“Not yet,” I said. “She doesn’t seem to be going into labor immediately”—I crossed my fingers against the possibility—“but she oughtn’t to be left alone in this state.”
“Aye, of course.” Ian yawned suddenly, widely, but then shook himself back into alertness. “If I come across Uncle Jamie, I’ll tell him where ye are, Auntie.”
He left, and Rachel poured another cup of beer, which she offered me. It was room temperature—and a warm room, at that—but refreshingly sour and strong. I hadn’t really thought I was tired, but the beer revivified me astonishingly.
Dottie, having checked Mrs. Peabody’s pulse and breathing, laid a ginger hand on the distended bulge of pregnancy. “Has thee attended a birth before, good-sister?” Dottie asked Rachel, being careful of her plain speech.
“Several,” Rachel replied, squatting down by Mrs. Peabody. “This looks somewhat different, though. Has she suffered some injur—oh!” The brewery reek hit her, and she reared back and coughed. “I see.”
Mrs. Peabody uttered a loud moan and everyone stiffened. I wiped my hands on my apron, just in case. She relaxed again, though, and after a few moments’ contemplative silence to see if Mrs. Peabody would do it again, Dottie took a deep breath.
“Mrs.—I mean, Friend Claire was just telling me some very interesting things. Regarding . . . er . . . what to expect on one’s wedding night.”
Rachel looked up with interest.
“I should welcome any such instruction myself. I know where the . . . um . . . parts go, because I’ve seen them go there fairly frequently, but—”
“You have?!?” Dottie gawked at her, and Rachel laughed.
“I have. But Ian assures me that he has more skill than the average bull or billy goat, and my observations are limited to the animal world, I’m afraid.” A small line showed between her brows. “The woman who cared for me after the death of my parents was . . . very dutiful in informing me of my womanly obligations, but her instructions consisted largely of ‘Spread thy legs, grit thy teeth, girl, and let him.’”