Outlander, p.58
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       Outlander, p.58
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  HARD LABOR

  A few days later, near sunset, I was on the hill behind the house, digging up the tubers of a small patch of corydalis I had found. Hearing the rustle of footsteps approaching through the grass, I turned, expecting to see Jenny or Mrs. Crook come to call me to supper. Instead it was Jamie, hair spiked with dampness from his predinner ablutions, still in his shirt, knotted together between his legs for working in the fields. He came up behind me and put his arms around me, resting his chin on my shoulder. Together we watched the sun sinking behind the pines, robed in gold and purple glory. The landscape faded quietly around us, but we stayed where we were, wrapped in contentment. Finally, as it began to grow dark, I could hear Jenny calling from the house below.

  “We’d better go in,” I said, reluctantly stirring.

  “Mmm.” Jamie didn’t move, but merely tightened his hold, still gazing into the deepening shadows, as though trying to fix each stone and blade of grass in memory.

  I turned to him and slipped my arms around his neck.

  “What is it?” I asked quietly. “Must we leave soon?” My heart sank at the prospect of leaving Lallybroch, but I knew that it was dangerous for us to stay too much longer; another visit from the redcoats could happen at any time, with much more sinister results.

  “Aye. Tomorrow, or the day after, at latest. There are English at Knockchoilum; it’s twenty miles from here, but that’s only two days’ ride in fine weather.” I started to slither off the fence, but Jamie slid an arm under my knees and lifted me, holding me against his chest.

  I could feel the heat of the sun still in his skin, and smell the warm dusty scent of sweat and oat grass. He had been helping with the last of the harvesting, and the smell reminded me of a supper the week before, when I knew that Jenny, always friendly and polite, had finally accepted me fully as a member of the family.

  Harvesting was grueling work, and Ian and Jamie were often nodding by the end of supper. On one occasion, I had left the table to fetch a brose pudding for dessert, and returned to find both of them sound asleep, and Jenny laughing quietly to herself amid the remains of supper. Ian lay slumped in his chair, chin resting on his chest, breathing heavily. Jamie had laid his cheek on his folded arms and sprawled forward across the table, snoring peacefully between the platter and the peppermill.

  Jenny took the pudding from me and served us both, shaking her head at the slumbering men.

  “They were yawning so much I wondered, ye know,” she said, “what would happen if I stopped talking. So I kept quiet, and sure enough, two minutes later they were out, the both of them.” She smoothed Ian’s hair tenderly off his forehead.

  “That’s why there’re so few babies born in July here,” she said, with a wicked cock of the eyebrow at me. “The men can’t keep awake long enough in November to start one.” It was true enough, and I laughed. Jamie stirred and snorted next to me, and I laid a hand on the back of his neck to soothe him. His lips curved at once in a soft, reflexive smile, then relaxed into sleep once more.

  Jenny, watching him, said, “That’s funny, that is. I’ve not seen him do that since he was quite small.”

  “Do what?”

  She nodded. “Smile in his sleep. He used always to do it, if ye came by and petted him in his cradle, or even later, in his trundle. Sometimes Mother and I would take it in turns to stroke his head and see could we make him smile; he always would.”

  “That’s odd, isn’t it?” I experimented, running a hand gently down the back of his head and neck. Sure enough, I was rewarded at once by a singularly sweet smile that lingered for a moment before the lines of his face relaxed once more into the rather stern expression he presented when asleep.

  “I wonder why he does that,” I said, watching him in fascination. Jenny shrugged and grinned at me.

  “I imagine it means he’s happy.”

  * * *

  In the event, we did not leave next day. In the middle of the night, I was wakened by low conversation in the room. Rolling over, I saw Ian bending over the bed, holding a candle.

  “The babe’s on its way,” said Jamie, seeing me awake. He sat up, yawning. “A bit early, Ian?”

  “Ye never know. Small Jamie was late. Better early than late, I reckon.” Ian’s smile was quick and nervous.

  “Sassenach, can ye deliver a child? Or had I best go for the midwife?” Jamie turned to me, questioning. I didn’t hesitate in my answer.

  I shook my head. “Get the midwife.” I had seen only three births during my training; all conducted in a sterile operating room, the patient draped and anesthetized, nothing visible save the grotesquely swelling perineum and the suddenly emergent head.

  Having seen Jamie on his way to fetch the midwife, Mrs. Martins, I followed Ian up the stairs.

  Jenny was sitting in a chair near the window, leaning comfortably back. She had put on an old nightgown, stripped the bed and spread an aged quilt over the feather mattress, and was now just sitting. Waiting.

  Ian hovered nervously over her. Jenny smiled too, but with a distracted, inward look, as though listening to something far off, which only she could hear. Ian, fully dressed, fidgeted about the room, picking things up and putting them down, until Jenny at last ordered him to leave.

  “Go downstairs and rouse Mrs. Crook, Ian,” she said, smiling to ease the dismissal. “Tell her to get things ready for Mrs. Martins. She’ll ken what to do.” She drew in her breath sharply then, and put both hands on her distended abdomen. I stared, seeing her belly draw up suddenly tight and round. She bit her lip and breathed heavily for a moment, then relaxed. Her belly had resumed its normal shape, a slightly pendant teardrop, rounded at both ends.

  Ian put a hand hesitantly on her shoulder, and she covered it with her own, smiling up at him.

  “Then tell her to feed ye, man. You and Jamie will be needing a bit to eat. They say the second babe comes faster than the first; maybe by the time you’re done wi’ breakfast, I’ll be ready for a bite myself.”

  He squeezed her shoulder tightly, and kissed her, murmuring something in her ear before turning to go. He hesitated in the doorway, looking back, but she waved him firmly away.

  It seemed a very long time before Jamie arrived with the midwife, and I grew more nervous as the contractions grew stronger. Second babies were said to be faster, as a rule. What if this one decided to arrive before Mrs. Martins?

  At first, Jenny carried on light conversation with me, only pausing to bend forward slightly, holding her stomach, as the contractions tightened their grip. But she quickly lost the urge to talk, and lay back, resting quietly in between the increasingly powerful pains. Finally, after one that almost bent her double in her chair, she rose to her feet, staggering.

  “Help me walk a bit, Claire,” she said. Unsure what was the proper procedure, I did as she said, grasping her tightly under the arm to help her stand upright. We made several slow circuits of the room, pausing when a contraction struck, going on when it eased. Shortly before the midwife arrived, Jenny made her way to the bed and lay down.

  Mrs. Martins was a reassuring-looking person; tallish and thin, she had wide shoulders and muscular forearms, and the sort of kind, down-to-earth expression that invited confidence. Two vertical creases between her iron-grey brows, always visible, deepened when she was concentrating.

  They stayed shallow as she made her preliminary examination. Everything normal so far, then. Mrs. Crook had produced a pile of clean, ironed sheets for our use, and Mrs. Martins took one of these, still folded, and pushed it under Jenny. I was startled to see the dark stain of blood between her thighs, as she raised herself slightly.

  Seeing my look, Mrs. Martins nodded reassuringly.

  “Aye. Bloody show, it’s called. It’s all right. It’s only when the blood is bright red, and a terrible lot all at once, that ye worry. There’s nothing wrong.”

  We all settled down to wait. Mrs. Martins talked quietly and comfortingly to Jenny, rubbing the small of her back, pressing ha
rd during the contractions. As the pains became more frequent, Jenny began to clamp her lips together and snort heavily through her nose. Often, there was a deep, faint groan as the full force of the pain came on.

  Jenny’s hair was soaked with perspiration by this time, and her face bright red with the strain. Watching her, I realized fully why it was called “labor.” Giving birth was bloody hard work.

  Over the next two hours, little progress appeared to be made, except that the pains grew obviously stronger. Able at first to answer questions, Jenny quit responding, lying panting at the end of each contraction, face fading from red to white in a matter of seconds.

  She clamped her lips through the next one, beckoning me to her side as it eased.

  “If the child lives…” she said, gasping for air, “and it’s a girl…her name is Margaret. Tell Ian…name her Margaret Ellen.”

  “Yes, of course,” I soothed. “But you’ll be able to tell him yourself. It won’t be long, now.”

  She only shook her head in determined negation, and clenched her teeth as the next pain came. Mrs. Martins took me by the arm, steering me away.

  “Dinna mind it, lassie,” she said matter-of-factly. “They always think they’re goin’ to die about now.”

  “Oh,” I said, mildly relieved.

  “Mind ye,” she said, in a lower voice, “sometimes they do.”

  Even Mrs. Martins seemed a trifle worried as the pains went on, with no appreciable progress. Jenny was tiring badly; as each pain eased, her body went slack, and she even dozed off, as though seeking escape in small intervals of sleep. Then, as the remorseless fist grasped her once again, she would wake fighting and groaning with effort, writhing to the side to curl protectively over the rigid lump of the unborn child.

  “Could the child be…backward?” I asked, in a low voice, shy about suggesting such a thing to an experienced midwife. Mrs. Martins seemed not at all offended by the suggestion, though; the lines between her brows merely deepened as she looked at the straining woman.

  When the next pain eased, Mrs. Martins flung back the sheet and nightgown, and went rapidly to work, pressing here and there on the huge mound with quick, skilled fingers. It took several tries, as the probing seemed to incite the pains, and examination was impossible during the relentlessly powerful contractions.

  At last she drew back, thinking, tapping one foot abstractedly as she watched Jenny writhe through two more of the spine-wrenching pains. As she jerked on the sheets, one of the strained linens parted suddenly with a rending tear.

  As though this had been a signal, Mrs. Martins started forward with decision, beckoning to me.

  “Lean her back a bit, lass,” Mrs. Martins instructed me, not at all disconcerted by Jenny’s cries. I supposed she had heard her share of screaming.

  At the next relaxation, Mrs. Martins plunged into action. Grasping the child through the momentarily flaccid walls of the womb, she heaved, trying to turn it. Jenny screamed and jerked my arms as another contraction started.

  Mrs. Martins tried again. And again. And again. Unable to keep from pushing, Jenny was wearing herself far past the point of exhaustion, her body struggling past the bounds of ordinary strength as it strove to force the child into the world.

  Then it worked. There was a sudden strange fluid shifting, and the amorphous bulk of the child turned under Mrs. Martins’s hands. All at once, the shape of Jenny’s belly was altered, and there was an immediate sense of getting down to business.

  “Now push.” She did, and Mrs. Martins dropped to her knees beside the bed. Apparently she saw some sign of progress, for she rose and hastily snatched a small bottle from the table where she had put it when she came in. She poured a small amount of what looked like oil on her fingertips, and began to rub it gently between Jenny’s legs.

  Jenny made a deep and vicious sound of protest at being touched as the next pain came on, and Mrs. Martins took her hand away. Jenny sagged into inertness and the midwife resumed her gentle massage, crooning to her patient, telling her everything was well, just to rest, and now…push!

  During the next contraction, Mrs. Martins put her hand on top of Jenny’s belly and pushed down strongly. Jenny shrieked, but the midwife kept pushing until the contraction eased.

  “Push with me on the next one,” the midwife said. “It’s almost here.”

  I put my hands above Mrs. Martins’s on Jenny’s belly, and at her signal, all three of us pushed together. There was a deep, victorious grunt from Jenny, and a slimy blob swelled suddenly between her thighs. She straightened her legs against the mattress and pushed once more, and Margaret Ellen Murray shot into the world like a greased pig.

  A little later, I straightened from wiping Jenny’s smiling face with a damp rag and glanced out the window. It was nearly sunset.

  “I’m all right,” Jenny said. “Quite all right.” The broad grin of delight with which she had greeted the delivery of her daughter had turned into a small, permanent smile of deep contentment. She reached up with an unsteady hand and touched my sleeve.

  “Go tell Ian,” she said. “He’ll be worrit.”

  To my cynical eyes, it didn’t look it. The scene in the study, where Ian and Jamie had taken refuge, strongly resembled a premature celebratory debauch. An empty decanter stood on the sideboard, accompanied by several bottles, and a strong alcoholic fume hung over the room like a cloud.

  The proud father appeared to have passed out, head resting on the laird’s desk. The laird himself was still conscious, but bleary-eyed, leaning back against the paneling and blinking like an owl.

  Outraged, I stamped over to the desk and gripped Ian by the shoulder, shaking him roughly and ignoring Jamie, who pushed himself upright, saying, “Sassenach, wait…”

  Ian was not quite unconscious. His head came up reluctantly, and he looked at me with a set, rigid face, eyes bleak and pleading holes. I realized suddenly that he thought I had come to tell him that Jenny was dead.

  I relaxed my grip and patted him gently instead.

  “She’s all right,” I said, softly. “You have a daughter.”

  He laid his head down on his arms again, and I left him, his thin shoulders shaking as Jamie patted his back.

  The survivors now revived and cleaned up, the Murray-Fraser families gathered in Jenny’s room for a celebratory supper. Little Margaret, tidied for inspection and swaddled in a small blanket, was given to her father, who received his new offspring with an expression of beatific reverence.

  “Hello, wee Maggie,” he whispered, touching the tiny button of a nose with one fingertip.

  His new daughter, unimpressed by the introduction, closed her eyes in concentration, stiffened, and urinated on her father’s shirt.

  During the brief bustle of hilarity and repair occasioned by this lapse of good manners, small Jamie succeeded in escaping from the clutches of Mrs. Crook and flung himself onto Jenny’s bed. She grunted slightly in discomfort, but put out a hand and gathered him in, waving at Mrs. Crook to let him be.

  “My mama!” he declared, burrowing into Jenny’s side.

  “Well, who else?” she asked reasonably. “Here, laddie.” She hugged him, and kissed the top of his head, and he relaxed, reassured, and snuggled against her. She gently pushed his head down, stroking his hair.

  “Lay your head then, man,” she said. “Past your bedtime. Lay your head.” Comforted by her presence, he put a thumb in his mouth and fell asleep.

  Given a turn to hold the baby, Jamie proved remarkably competent, cupping the small fuzzy skull in the palm of one hand like a tennis ball. He seemed reluctant to hand the child back to Jenny, who cuddled her against her breasts, crooning soft endearments.

  At last we made our way to our own room, which seemed silent and empty in contrast to the warm family scene we had just left, Ian kneeling by his wife’s bed, hand resting on small Jamie as Jenny nursed the new baby. I was conscious for the first time of just how tired I was; it was nearly twenty-four hours since Ian had rou
sed me.

  Jamie closed the door quietly behind him. Without speaking, he came behind me and undid the fastenings of my gown. His hands reached around me and I lay back gratefully against his chest. Then he bent his head to kiss me and I turned, putting my own arms around his neck. I felt not only very tired, but very tender, and not a little sad.

  “Perhaps it’s as well,” Jamie said slowly, as though to himself.

  “What’s as well?”

  “That you’re barren.” He couldn’t see my face, buried in his chest, but he must have felt me stiffen.

  “Aye, I knew that long ago. Geillis Duncan told me, soon after we wed.” He stroked my back gently. “I regretted it a bit at first, but then I began to think it was as well; living as we must, it would be verra difficult if you were to get with child. And now”—he shivered slightly—“now I think I am glad of it; I wouldna want ye to suffer that way.”

  “I wouldn’t mind,” I said, after a long while, thinking of the rounded, fuzzy head and tiny fingers.

  “I would.” He kissed the top of my head. “I saw Ian’s face; it was like his own flesh was being torn, each time Jenny screamed.” My arms were around him, stroking the ridged scars on his back. “I can bear pain, myself,” he said softly, “but I couldna bear yours. That would take more strength than I have.”

  33

  THE WATCH

  Jenny recovered rapidly after Margaret’s birth, insisting on coming downstairs the day following the delivery. At the combined insistence of Ian and Jamie, she reluctantly refrained from doing any work, only supervising from the sofa in the parlor where she reclined, baby Margaret sleeping in her cradle alongside.

  Not content to sit idle, though, within a day or two she had ventured as far as the kitchen, and then the back garden. Sitting on the wall, the well-wrapped baby in a carrying sling, she was keeping me company as I simultaneously pulled dead vines and kept an eye on the enormous cauldron in which the household’s laundry was boiled. Mrs. Crook and the maids had already removed the clean wash to be hung and dried; now I was waiting for the water to cool sufficiently to be dumped out.

  Small Jamie was “helping” me, yanking out plants with mad abandon and flinging bits of stick in all directions. I called a warning as he ventured too near the cauldron, then raced after him as he ignored me. Luckily the pot had cooled quickly; the water was no more than warm. Warning him to keep back with his mother, I grasped the pot and tilted it away from the iron contrivance that held it and kept it from falling.

  I sprang back out of the way as the dirty water cascaded over the lip of the pot, steaming in the chilly air. Young Jamie, squatting beside me on his heels, splatted his hands joyfully in the warm mud, and black droplets flew all over my skirts.

  His mother slid down from the wall, yanked him up by the collar and dealt him a smart clout on the backside.

  “Have ye no sense, gille? Look at ye! There’s your shirt’ll have to go and be washed again! And look what ye’ve done to your auntie’s skirt, ye wee heathen!”

  “It doesn’t matter,” I protested, seeing the miscreant’s lower lip quiver.

  “Weel, it matters to me,” said Jenny, giving her offspring the benefit of a gimlet eye. “Say ‘sorry’ to your auntie, laddie, then get ye into the house and have Mrs. Crook give ye a bit of a wash.” She patted his bottom, gently this time, and gave him a push in the direction of the house.

  We were turning back to the mass of sodden clothes, when the sound of hoofbeats came from the road.

  “That’ll be Jamie back, I expect,” I said, listening. “He’s early, though.”

  Jenny shook her head, peering intently toward the road. “Not his horse.”

  The horse, when it appeared at the crest of a hill, was not one she knew, to judge from her frown. The man aboard, though, was no stranger. She stiffened beside me, then began to run toward the gate, wrapping both arms around the baby to hold it steady.

  “It’s Ian!” she called to me.

  He was tattered and dusty and bruised about the face, as he slid off his horse. One bruise on his forehead was swollen, with a nasty split that went through the eyebrow. Jenny caught him under the arm as he hit the ground, and it was only then I saw that his wooden leg was gone.

  “Jamie,” he gasped. “We met the Watch near the mill. Waiting for us. They knew we were coming.”

  My stomach lurched. “Is he alive?”

  He nodded, panting for breath. “Aye. Not wounded, either. They took him to the west, toward Killin.”

  Jenny’s fingers were exploring his face.

  “Are ye bad hurt, man?”

  He shook his head. “No. They took my horse and my leg; they didna need to kill me to stop me following.”

  Jenny glanced at the horizon, where the sun lay just above the trees. Maybe
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