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The Irish Healer
By Nancy Herriman
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2012 Nancy Herriman
All rights reserved.
At sea, 1832
My name is Rachel Dunne. I am not a murderer."
Rachel tightened her grip on the ship's wooden rail, as if she might choke into silence the echo of her own voice. Better to focus on the receding sight of Ireland's blue-green hills, seek to memorize every bounding stream, every wisp of misty fog, every rubble-walled farmer's field, than to remember. For who knew how long—if ever—it would be before she saw her beloved homeland again.
"Oh, Mother," she murmured over the slap of the paddle wheels and the hiss of the steam, the scree of persistent seagulls skimming the boat's wake. "How did it come to this?"
This parting, this going. Deoraiocht. This exile.
Mother was not there to answer Rachel's question; they could only afford ship's passage for one, and Rachel was the one who had to leave. Mother and the rest had stayed behind in Carlow to mend the damage Rachel had never meant to cause. Restore the honor of the Dunne name in a town already prone to dislike them for their English ways. Once Rachel had been a healer, but she could not heal the scar upon her family No more than she'd been able to heal poor Mary Ferguson, who had died so quickly and so quietly even Rachel had been at a loss to explain the how and the why.
I would never harm the ill. I am a banaltradh ...
A healer. If the thought didn't hurt so much, Rachel might laugh. She had vowed never to let herself be a healer again.
Against the cool spray of the sea, Rachel knotted her fringed shawl around her neck, the charcoal wool warming her skin while her thoughts chilled her soul, and wrapped her arms about her waist. Cove of Cork dwindled, its pale stucco and limestone homes that snaked along the hillside becoming indistinct, its proud fleet of yachts bobbing at anchorage transformed into specks of white upon the cerulean blue waters. Two islands, bristling with storehouses, obliterated the last of the view The paddle-steamer chugged past the looming stone forts that guarded the mouth of the bay, Forts Camden and Carlisle, names Mrs. O'Rourke had helpfully supplied when they'd set out. Next, according to Rachel's traveling companion, would be the lighthouse guarding the shoals, white-splashed with waves, and then the Irish Sea.
Mother's birthplace, but an alien land to Rachel.
She reached into the pocket hidden deep within the folds of her brown kersey skirts. Her fingers closed around the muslin bag tied with a grosgrain ribbon to keep the contents intact—dried leaves of mint, pennyroyal, and gentian. Mother had pressed the sachet into Rachel's hand when they'd parted in Carlow, a final gift as Rachel had readied to climb onto the post chaise bound for Cork Harbor. Her mother's soft green eyes had brimmed with tears, tears she'd kept at bay to stop the twins, clinging to Mother's skirts, from crying. Poor Sarah and Ruth. Too young to understand what was happening. And Nathaniel, trying hard to be the man of the family, straight-backed and sober, but at fourteen not truly ready for the role.
Rachel clutched the bag. The mixture of herbs was meant to help Rachel should she feel faint or dizzy. If she had not fainted in a stifling Carlow courtroom with her fate in jeopardy, however, she would not faint now. Lifting it to her nostrils, she inhaled, the aroma pungent and sweet. Right then, she would rather the herbs had been dried heather from the knoll beyond their house, or the lavender her mother used to scent the linens. Or maybe snippings from the peppery scarlet nasturtiums that grew by the kitchen door. The aromatic bits of her life.
"Ho! Stop now!" A proper English gentleman, coat collar turned up to graze his whiskers, shouted at a scrum of boys quick to turn the quarter-deck into a play field. They shouted back a string of Gaelic curses and chased each other along the length of the planking.
"Don't let those hooligans bother you, miss," the man said.
"They do not bother me, sir. I have a brother who is just as high-spirited."
His gaze made a quick assessment of Rachel's status as a lady. He could not fail to note her serviceable dress, well-worn shawl, and Irish-red hair—and find her lacking. "Heading for England for work, I presume?"
"I have a situation with a physician in London." She shuddered anew at the thought. At the irony After all she had been through, to find herself in service to a medical man.
"You do?" The gentleman's tone curled upward with a cynical lift.
Rachel lifted her chin. "I do."
"Hm." He cocked a disbelieving eyebrow and shook his head. "What next."
The man tapped the brim of his hat and hastened off, his attitude a foretaste of the reception Rachel expected she would receive in London.
The boys taunted him as they tossed the bundled rags they were using as a ball over his head. They brushed past Rachel, boisterous, laughing. Seemingly untroubled that the sliver of earth they had called home probably all their lives was inching out of reach.
Rachel faced the dwindling shoreline. Then I should be untroubled like they are. For what good does it do me to mourn what I have lost?
Rachel looked down at the bag she clutched and felt hope for the first time in weeks. Months, actually Slowly she unwound the ribbon and tucked it in her pocket. Turning the bag upside down, she released the dried leaves, flecks of slategreen caught by the wind. She dropped the bag after them.
"I have your strength, Mother. I do not need herbal remedies when your love bolsters my spine." Rachel watched the speck of cream fabric until it was dragged underwater by the churn of the float-boards. "I shall do very well in London, and someday we shall be reunited. I promise you that."
Because to do anything less was to fail, and she never wanted to fail again.CHAPTER 2
London, three days later
Well, Edmunds?" asked Hathaway, leaning across the bed to prop up his patient, too weak, too faint to sit up on her own.
Resting his ear against the circular ivory ear plate, James Edmunds moved the stethoscope down the woman's hunched back. Her breathing was shallow, rapid, and he could hear the thickness in her lungs. No sound in the low portion of the left lung at all, the tissue hepatized into a useless mass. Or much of the right lung, for that matter. She wheezed as she struggled to drag in air and expelled a shuddering cough. Acute pneumonia.
"Well, Dr. Edmunds?" echoed Mr. Bolton from the spot he'd taken up by the window. The family's surgeon tapped his fingers against his elbows. "Are you finished with that contraption?"
"It's a stethoscope, not a contraption."
"It's a bit of wood tubing and a bunch of poppycock, is what it is."
"What color has her sputum been?" James asked Hathaway, ignoring Mr. Bolton's ridicule.
"When it comes up at all, it's rusty."
Blood. No surprise.
James set aside the stethoscope and released the woman's linen shift, the color of the material not much different than the gray pallor of her flesh. With Hathaway's steady help, he lowered her onto the stack of thick feather pillows. A relation—aunt? cousin?—sobbed quietly in the corner of the bedchamber. There would be more tears to come.
Separating the cedar stethoscope into its three pieces, James nestled them in their velvet-padded box and closed the lid. He caught Hathaway's watchful gaze and shook his head.
"No," his young colleague mouthed, face falling.
"Can I get back to my leeches, Dr. Edmunds?" Mr. Bolton asked impatiently. The creatures squirmed in their bottles near his feet. "The only cure for her condition. Draw out the congestion in her lungs."
"You've had them on her since yesterday" The inverted-Y bite marks were still evident on her back. "If they haven't worked by now ..." James wouldn't finish that sentence.
He swept back the woman's hair, a blonde the honeyed color of demerara sugar, her cheeks flushed from the fever that was burning her alive. He recalled seeing her at some social function long ago, in a teal silk gown with her hair dressed in pearls and feathers, smiling, charming everyone. Even Mariah had commented on her poise and her beauty All of that lost, now.
In her half-conscious state, she muttered incoherently, drawing her relative to the bedside, who soothed, "Hush, my dear."
The older woman looked around the edge of her lacetrimmed cap at James. He saw the question form on her face, the one he had been expecting. The eight years he had spent doctoring hadn't taught him how to respond with cool indifference, like his father had always done. Instead, James only felt disheartened, the loss another chink out of his armor of confidence.
Soon, though, very soon, he would never have to face that question again.
"Doctor?" The relation's eyes, puffy and red-rimmed, begged him for a hopeful answer.
"I must consult with Dr. Hathaway, ma'am. He is her physician and will speak with you in a few minutes." James pressed her hand, the only reassurance he could offer, and stood, setting the stethoscope box inside his medical bag. "No more leeches, Mr. Bolton. If you agree, Dr. Hathaway."
"Whatever you say," Hathaway concurred.
"What?" The surgeon scoffed, drawing himself up to his not-insignificant height. "What am I doing here if you two are not going to listen to me?"
James snapped the medical bag closed and leveled an even gaze at the man. "I am sure I don't know, Mr. Bolton."
Nodding a good-bye, he left the bedchamber before the surgeon could compose a retort. Hathaway strode out behind James and shut the door.
"So the situation is bad," said Hathaway.
"Let's walk over there, away from the door." James inclined his head toward the far end of the hall, steeped in dark and a quiet so profound it was as if the entire house held its breath in anticipation of James's verdict. "It's definitely advanced pneumonia. She might only have another day."
"Dash ... But I did everything I could think of." Hathaway scrubbed his tired hands through his hair. "She has two small children, you know, and she's only four-and-twenty. My age."
Cold tension spasmed along James's neck. Four-and-twenty had been Mariah's age as well. He pushed the memories back before they could rise, ugly like distorted fungi in a damp, dark corner. The memories of his ultimate failure.
"Edmunds, you all right?" Hathaway asked. "You've turned a funny shade."
"I'm fine." James waved away the query, letting the cool hush of the hallway still the tumult in his soul. Hard to believe more than three years had passed and the shock—and guilt—could still strangle. "No need to worry about me. Concentrate on your patient. She needs your full attention."
"I don't like to admit this, but I'm at a loss what to do next. Nothing, I suppose."
"All you can do is provide some comfort. A scruple of niter for the fever, keep her cool and quiet, laudanum for the pain." He glanced over at the door. "And get Bolton out of there. She can't handle any more blood loss."
Hathaway nodded briskly. "I just wish I had your fortitude, Edmunds. I've never lost a patient before, you know? I don't know what to do."
James felt his gut clench. He had precious little advice to offer. Show a bold front, lad. His father's favorite words. "Pray."
"Easy for you to say."
"Not really" James started down the carpeted stairs, his coattails slapping against his medical bag in his haste to depart. "Do you have an attendant to sit with her? That might provide you some relief and let you clear your thoughts."
"I've been so busy lately, I haven't had the time to hire one."
James glanced over his shoulder at his colleague. He remembered when he'd been like Hathaway—young, fresh, throwing life aside to plunge into medicine headlong and heedless. After eight years, though, that eagerness was already burned out of him. "I would stay to help you, but I've a woman coming from Ireland any minute now, and I have to get back home and see her settled."
"You've decided to hire a replacement attendant?" They rounded the landing, Hathaway hurrying to keep up. "I thought you were quitting your practice and leaving London, heading at last for your little farm in Essex."
"I am looking for someone to fill in for Miss Guimond for the next month, but this Irish woman isn't a nurse. I've hired her for what is only a temporary situation. A favor for a family friend." James descended the final steps. "It doesn't mean I have changed my mind about giving up medicine."
Hathaway uttered a sound halfway between a laugh and a grunt. "Which I still cannot believe."
At times, neither could James.
They reached the entry hall, and Hathaway shook James's hand. "Thanks for helping me here and good luck to you. You're a good man and will be hard to replace."
A good man. Am I? "You think too highly of me, Hathaway."
James bade the other man farewell, and Hathaway headed back upstairs to deliver his bad news. The maid, waiting by the open front door, held out James's hat and gloves along with his discreetly bundled fee. A young child hid behind her skirts; James could see a tiny hand clutching the edge of the maid's apron.
"Here you are, sir," she said to James. She twisted to pat the child on the head. "Come now, little miss. Stop hiding behind my skirts there. The doctor here's been to see your mum. She'll be up and about soon enough."
The child shuffled out from hiding. She smiled shyly, a lass three or four years of age, her eyes, her hair ... James's chest constricted. The child was so like Amelia—nearly the same size, the same golden curls, blue eyes. In a day or so, the girl would be motherless too. Just like his daughter.
An impulse opened James's mouth to say hello, but he couldn't get the word to come out. Not when he could hardly breathe. Pulse tripping, he nodded to the girl and made a hasty escape.
A good man.
Dearest Lord. Help me believe it's still true.
* * *
"Here we are, dearie." Mrs. O'Rourke brandished a hand in the air above the steamer's railing, the thunk of the gangway upon the stone pier nearly drowning out her words. "Londontown."
Rachel stared at the masses of people churning on the wharf like chickens fighting over a fresh throw of feed. "Oh my heavens."
"Truer words were never spoken," concurred Mrs. O'Rourke.
They had steamed up the Thames for several hours, the city approaching like an advancing storm cloud. Buildings pressed against the riverbanks in such quantity they blocked out the view of the alleyways beyond, so thick Rachel could imagine their steamer was chugging through a tunnel of brick and stone. A tunnel jammed with drifting barges and scuttling wherries and blackened colliers, thick as fallen branches choking a weir.
And now this.
St. Katherine's Docks were the greatest collection of buildings and masted ships Rachel had ever seen in her life. Ever dreamed she would see. She'd tried to count the boats, tucked so tightly against each other it seemed a man could jump from one deck to the next without fear of getting wet, and lost track after two hundred and forty. At the water's edge, yellow brick warehouses six stories high surrounded the basin, bristling with pulleys at open windows, bales and barrels and wine casks stacked to the vaulted ceilings. Men and boys clambered everywhere, thousands of them. They scrabbled for space between loaded carts and wagons, crates of chickens waiting to be loaded onto the next boat out, sacks of flour and coffee. Deafening shouts bested the rattle of boat chains and the squeals of pigs being toted off ships, the clang of ships' bells and a band on a foreign steamer heartily blowing unfamiliar tunes. All of it a noisy sea of flesh and commerce writhing beneath a hazy, reeking, smoke-heavy sky.
And not a blade of grass or patch of heather to relieve the oppression.
"It is not like home, is it?" asked Rachel, her heart hammering. London will completely consume me. But wasn't that what she wanted it to do? Let it hide her from her past?
"Nothing is like home." Mrs. O'Rourke sniffled, wiping a coarse woolen sleeve beneath her nose. "Arra, you'll make me cry, you will. And here I've held it back all this while."
"I am sorry. I did not mean to upset you." Rachel tucked her carpetbag with its cracking leather handles against her hip and took her companion's arm. "Shall we go?"
Mrs. O'Rourke nodded. "'Tis nothing else for it."
Stiff-legged from three days spent in the cramped confines of steerage, they pushed their way into the throng tramping down the gangway and onto the teeming wharf. A dockworker knocked against Rachel and continued up the plank to become part of the stream of people moving on and off the steamer. If they didn't move speedily, they would either be run over or shoved into the oil-slicked water like so much garbage.
Excerpted from The Irish Healer by Nancy Herriman. Copyright © 2012 Nancy Herriman. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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