The Scarlet Ribbon

The Scarlet Ribbon

by Derry O'Dowd

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781845887292
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 4.80(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Derry O'Dowd is the pen name for the writing team of Katy O'Dowd and her father Michael O'Dowd. Katy is a journalist and editor who has written for newspapers, magazines, and online for more than 15 years, including Time Out, Associated Newspapers, Comic Relief, and the Times. Michael is chair of the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Ireland.

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The Scarlet Ribbon


By Derry O'Dowd

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Derry O'Dowd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7356-7


CHAPTER 1

To bring away the afterbirth

Pour the oil of juniper into a glass of fine Spanish wine. Three dozen drops should be sufficient to excite the internal muscles and thus help to expel the placental cake and other remnants of the birth. Get the woman to drink it all.

Quinn Household Recipes and Remedies Book


DUBLIN, 1737

'You had no right to call for Surgeon Stone,' hissed the midwife, wringing her hands in agitation, plump cheeks flushed with anger. 'Physician Ryan will be most displeased!'

'Oh do be quiet, O'Grady. Can you not see how much pain and distress she is in? The purge has done nothing but make her soil herself; the afterbirth is still stuck within her. And what do I care for the pompous Ryan?' midwife Hayes whispered back, looking at the prosperous banker's young wife laying bloody and bruised on the tousled bed.

As O'Grady readied herself to make a scandalised retort, Mrs Butler moaned softly, and the midwives rushed to her side.

'My baby,' she moaned. 'My baby. Oh I should never have looked on the neighbour's child with his poor little face all but disfigured by a birthmark when I was pregnant; I knew it was a bad portent! I could not help myself, I put my hand to my cheek in shock and so my own child must suffer the same fate; she in turn will be marked on her face at the place where I put my hand to mine. This is my punishment.' And she turned her face to the wall and began to weep.

Midwife Hayes hitched up her skirts and knelt on the fine flagstone floor by the woman, taking her hand, talking to her softly as she would to a child, while her colleague looked on from the foot of the bed.

'Now my dear, look at me,' she pushed Mrs Butler's lank fair hair from her clammy forehead and looked into her wide blue eyes, glassy with tiredness after the lengthy labour. 'That is nothing but a fancy, like the way you wanted candied violets throughout your confinement; a fancy of the mind towards superstition as is the wont of pregnant ladies. Your daughter is safely with us and suckling contentedly on her wet-nurse with not a blemish nor mark in sight. Your emotions and actions while pregnant had no effect on the baby you carried. She is fine, but your afterbirth is firmly lodged. You just have a little more work to do and all will be well. Close your eyes and try to rest, good girl.'

As the midwives waited for the surgeon they lit more candles and banked up the fire, replaced the soiled sheets with clean ones and had more fresh water and linen fetched to the birth chamber, tongues silent, eager not to be overheard arguing as they could forfeit their fees.

A knock at the door disturbed them from their reveries and Midwife Hayes' face broke into a smile of welcome as she saw the grey-haired surgeon and his tall young assistant enter the room.

She rushed to fill them in on all that had happened, and O'Grady, annoyed at being left as an onlooker, quietly left the room to go downstairs and fetch the physician.

'James, help me if you please,' asked Surgeon Stone, and James Quinn nodded silently, waiting to be told what to do and pushing a tumbled dark curl away from his eyes.

Stone made his way to the side of the bed to speak to Mrs Butler. 'Now, my dear, we are here to offer whatever help we may. There is no cause for worry or alarm. Midwife Hayes here will hold your hand while James and I come to your aid.'

'Will it hurt?' asked Mrs Butler in a small voice, working the sheets around her fingers, her face as pale as the bedding she lay on.

'We will be our most gentle, I promise you.'

He bent down and felt her forehead before straightening up.

'Midwife Hayes, where is Mrs O'Grady?'

'I don't know, sir,' she replied, bewildered.

'Ah well, I don't suppose it matters much now there are three of us here. James, if you stand by me as I kneel and watch what I do.' So saying, the surgeon knelt by the side of the bed, pulled back the sheet and pressed his fingers onto Mrs Butler's belly.

She squirmed under the pressure and he apologised, his eyes making amends where words may have failed. He stood and made his way to the end of the bed, where he knelt down once more.

'James, come to me. Midwife Hayes, if you would stay by Mrs Butler and offer her whatever help you may.'

With everyone in place, Stone pulled the bedclothes up and then the birthing gown. He nodded to the midwife and she pressed the woman's hand. He pulled gently at the length of the grey birth cord that lay on the sheets between Mrs Butler's legs and she cried out in pain.

Still he pulled, and some of the afterbirth came away in his hand, with a great rush of blood. The screams ended abruptly as Mrs Butler gave way to a swoon.

'Damn!' swore the surgeon. 'I am going to have to put my hand up through the birth canal to get to the remainder of the placental cake. It is just as well she has fainted as this would be very distressing to her. Midwife Hayes, if you would be so kind as to keep holding her hand and talking to her gently even though she is not aware. James, wipe my forehead if you will, and there is blood in my eye.'

Stone eased his fingers up, until his entire hand was inside the woman and his face was a study of concentration as he tried to grasp the remains of the afterbirth and pull it away. The strain soon showed on him, and his hair became darker as he sweated freely.

'James,' he said, sitting back on his heels and removing his hand, wrist and forearm from the woman, 'I cannot reach it; you will have to try. I will guide you.'

The surgeon stayed kneeling by his pupil, nodding his encouragement, speaking softly, explaining what James needed to do, and casting glances at Mrs Butler who was still in a dead faint.

'I have it in my hand,' whispered James to Stone after a little time, and he pulled the bloody remains of the afterbirth through the woman's birth canal and onto the sheets.

'Thank God,' breathed Stone, 'she will recover.'

'Well, well, well,' came a furious voice from the door.

The three by the bed looked up in alarm, and saw Physician Ryan with Midwife O'Grady smirking by his side.

'Cover that woman with a sheet and get off your knees. You midwives get out of here. You may see to Mrs Butler when I am done talking to Stone and whoever this young man is.'

Ryan waited imperiously for the midwives to leave the room, the candlelight making the costly buttons on his jacket and waistcoat glow warmly, the black ribbon at the nape of his wig perfectly tied, a hand caressing the top of his gold-headed cane.

Once the door had been closed behind them, he faced Surgeon Stone, wrath written all over his face, the outside of his nostrils white with anger.

'It is just as well I have left Mr Butler in his study drinking cherry brandy to welcome his new child. He is a close friend and I promised that all would be well. And it was until you arrived here – who called you?' he barked.

'Does it matter?' asked Stone, pulling down the sleeves of his shirt. 'The purge had not worked and the afterbirth was still not delivered.'

'Do not presume to tell me my business, surgeon,' replied the physician, his face mottled with ill-suppressed rage. 'I administered a purging medicine, which would have worked had you waited.

'And who is this youngster, and why do I walk into a room to see him with his hand inside the privities of a most delicate woman? It is shocking that you would do this, shocking. A disgrace!'

'This is James Quinn, newly qualified surgeon and my assistant.'

'And tell me, Quinn,' said the physician, fixing the young man with a stare, 'how is it that I see you in such a position, ignoring the treatment of someone as myself ?'

James took a breath to answer, but Ryan continued, jabbing his finger into the soft material of the apprentice's blood-spattered shirt, 'This is unnecessary meddling with midwifery at its worst. Men should not tamper so; female midwives are allowed to do so, but men such as myself will not touch and defile a woman of fine birth – or any woman for that matter – as you have, but rather treat her with medicine!' the physician's voice quavered in anger.

'I was just assisting,' replied James.

'Assisting!' shouted the physician, before lowering his voice as the woman on the bed stirred. 'You, sir, are no better than a barber-surgeon and should return to your business of cutting hair and lancing boils. Do not think this an end of the matter, sir. Stone, I wish you a good day. You may leave.'

CHAPTER 2

To make a Marriage Pie

Clean a suckling pig, a young calf and a callow deer. Slice the flesh nicely and put into a pie with oysters, salt, pepper, the yolks of twenty boiled eggs and a good serving of butter. Put in some water to keep it all nicely moist, and place it in the fire until you smell that it is cooked.

Quinn Household Recipes and Remedies Book


James Quinn had just negotiated the eel-slippery rain-soaked cobbles and turned the corner to the street where his parents' home stood, when a blur of chocolate brown stalled him and his horse.

James looked down and a pair of brown eyes regarded him, stubby tail wagging in rapturous welcome.

'James! Finn knew you were coming, he has been waiting all this time,' panted his sister Kate, looking most unladylike with her ruby embroidered skirts and sepia petticoats all rucked up with the effort of chasing the dog, pretty face flushed, hair in disarray.

James dismounted in one fluid movement, picked up the small dog, which proceeded to wet his face further with his tongue, and pulled his sister to him in a hug.

'Fine as it is to see you James, you smell,' she smiled up at him, pushing dark, wet tresses out of her eyes.

'Well hello, and look at who it is!' remarked Mother Quinn, not pausing for breath. 'And you, Kate Quinn, supposed to be a young lady, running in the street with your skirts up where people can see you! James, was there nowhere along the way to clean yourself up? And us with your dinner guests arriving soon to plan your wedding, well I don't know. Make sure to leave that dog out too, with the horse, till he dries.'

'Hello, Mother,' James smiled and hugged her.

He closed his eyes and let his shoulders relax, content in Mother Quinn's embrace. His back hurt, his buttocks hurt, his thighs hurt. He could smell himself too, a mixture of leather and horse. He ran a hand across the dark stubble that covered his jaw and smiled wryly.

It had been a weary couple of days for the man and his horse, and much land had been covered. From the finery of the streets of the better parts of Dublin where he had studied surgery, through the lush rolling countryside, and on to the coarse scrubby land of Connacht with its straw-coloured grasses and trees bent like arthritic old men trying to make their painful way home over the open, wind-swept plains.

The sky had been leaden from the start; blackened, relentless and unceasing it seemed in the task of soaking everything beneath.

Fragments of the argument with Physician Ryan tormented him as he travelled; worries about his mentor Surgeon Stone who wanted him to take on the role of man-midwife even though the physician had been so disdainful of the men involved with the process of birth. Stone's workload was too great for a man of his years and he had asked James to take on his man-midwifery tasks. Thoughts of his betrothed, Marguerite, who held his heart in the palm of her small hand. All three jostled for space so he felt that he might scream. But finally he had passed the fortified walls and came into sight of the bustling, prosperous coastal trading city of Galway that drew him closer to home.

His mother smiled at James and, taking his face between her hands, looked up into his eyes and kissed him. 'Now, away with you to freshen up. Your father is out seeing to a patient and our guests will be here soon.'

'Thank you, Mother, for the Quinn Household Recipes and Remedies Book. I know how long it has taken you to collect and put everything together.'

'Well now, son, you are welcome, but show me your thanks by doing as I say.'

James smiled as he turned away. He may be a grown man now, but he was always his mother's child first.

Once he had washed, James sat in his father's study, surrounded by the medical texts that Doctor Dara turned to for answers to perplexing questions. He remembered sitting here on his father's knee, demanding explanations of the curious drawings contained within the books, his father's deep chuckle and prediction that he, little James, would be a doctor too one day. The memory brought a smile to James's face.

'It is right that you are happy son, and happy I am to see you,' beamed Doctor Dara as he left the door to stride across the room to hug James.

His face, with copious unfashionable whiskers and kindly blue eyes behind spectacles, seemed a little more wrinkled than usual to his son. James banished the cloudy thought as he hugged his father back.

'We can talk later, son, and you can tell me all your news, but now your future family are due to call.'

At that moment, father and son heard a hearty welcome.

'God be with you all!' boomed Thomas Lynch as he swept into the Quinn hallway accompanied by his wife and children.

'My Lord, it's hot,' Thomas complained and touched his lips to Mother Quinn's cheek. 'May I seek your permission, dear lady, to banish this wretched thing from my head? And so, here is my new soon-to-be son-in-law home,' he continued, removing his wig while he talked, as James came down the stairs and past the assembled family to the girl in silken dove-grey damask.

'Marguerite.' He had never loved anyone with such passion. 'Marguerite.' He took her gloved hand. 'Marguerite.' He gazed at her, taking in the simple pearls at her throat and ears, hair a dark profusion, brown eyes full and sparkling bright at the happiness of seeing him.

All he wanted to do was gather her to him and never let go, but a discreet cough from behind disturbed him from his reverie and he dropped her hand.

'Well, son,' said Doctor Dara, resting his arm on James's shoulder, 'let's eat and get your marriage details finalised – it's so much easier to plan on a full stomach, I find!'

'Later,' James whispered to Marguerite, 'when all of this is done, it will be just you and me, my love.'

The following day, James sat with his father in the study.

'I just don't know what to do,' he complained.

'Ah James, it is only a matter of a bad-tempered, disapproving, pompous, well-appointed man who lives in the past in the case of Ryan. He does not like to see a man doing what he perceives to be a woman's work.

'Without you Mrs Butler would surely have died. You can overcome people like Ryan. As for the other? Stone is a good man and would not recommend man-midwifery as a career for you if he felt you would not be up to the task. It is obvious he needs your help at cases, and in return he offers the chance for you to study at the renowned Hotel Dieu in Paris to learn the craft.'

Doctor Dara paused and saw his son's face, which looked confused and very young. He patted James's knee, 'All will be well, son. You can take a little time to decide, and we can talk further. And, now, here is a small gift for you.'

His father rose and took two leather-bound journals from the cupboard that sat in the corner of the room.

James took them and smiled, 'Thank you, Father, you truly are a mindreader; they are just what I need. I would like to record a copy of all my correspondence, medical notes and everyday observations, and these journals will be perfect.'

Dara sat again and leaned forward, speaking softly. 'James, I have some bad news, son. It's Liam, Liam O'Flaherty. He died this morning'.

The news was not unexpected but James was saddened. He had a sudden memory of sunny summers when Liam had brought him out in his boat to lift lobster pots.

'You knew he had a bad chest and was ailing for a long time. He began to cough up a lot of blood. His appetite went and he just faded away. No treatment could save him.' Dara paused and relit his pipe, the watery sunlight in the room painting everything a weak yellow. 'You might like to visit his family.'

James took his leave and looked back to see white smoke from the pipe curling around his father's head. He lifted his hand in farewell, but Dara was absorbed in thought as Finn slept at his stockinged, slippered feet.


James rode out through the city's fortifications, past the quays and genteel living, over the bridge and into the rows of poor thatched cottages and unkempt streets that made up the Claddagh fishing village.

Untended boats floated idly at anchor in the cove and swans kept guard like white angels on the grey water while the fishermen paid their last respects to Liam O'Flaherty.

James made his way to the O'Flaherty cottage and knocked at the rough wooden planks that made up the front half-door, bleached to a powdery white colour by the wind and rain that came often and suddenly in the area, its knots looking like sullen, unblinking eyes. The door was badly warped; it squeaked noisily and had to be opened forcibly.

The face of a pretty young girl on the cusp of her teenage years, with curling auburn hair and blue eyes looked out. He pulled her name out of his memory.

'Carissa?' James asked.

She nodded.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Scarlet Ribbon by Derry O'Dowd. Copyright © 2012 Derry O'Dowd. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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