"It is quite all right. In truth, I did not expect to return so early. However, I do need your help right away. Would you please unb.u.t.ton my dress for me?"
"Certainly, my lady." Moving to stand behind her mistress, Emma went to work on the tiny b.u.t.tons immediately. "Did you have a pleasant evening?"
"I will tell you all about it later, Emma, but right now I am running terribly late."
"You are going out again?" She sounded only a tad bit less appalled than Thornton.
"Yes," Mary replied without elaborating on why or where she might be off to. "Emma?" she then asked in a very serious tone. "Have you ever tied a cravat before?"
Emma paused for a moment as if wondering whether or not this might be a test of some sort. "Only once or twice when my brother asked me to," she replied, opting for an honest response as she pushed the last b.u.t.ton through the tight b.u.t.tonhole. "There," she said. "All done."
"Good." Mary stepped quickly out of her dress and hurried back over to the trunk. She began pulling out a variety of clothes, all of them in somber tones of brown and gray. Removing her petticoat and chemise, she stepped deftly into a pair of tight breeches while Emma looked on in horror, her face growing paler by the second.
"My lady. . .this really is not very. . .ahem. . .appropriate. You cannot possibly mean to leave the house dressed like. . .like that," Emma stammered.
"That is precisely what I mean to do. Now, hand me that shirt over there." She pointed to a rumpled piece of white fabric that lay bunched together on the floor. With just enough hesitation to mark her disapproval, Emma did as she was told.
"I suppose I ought to ready myself as well," Emma said as she handed Mary the shirt.
"No need, Emma; I'm going alone."
"But. . .but. . .but. . ." Emma looked clearly perplexed. "You can't!"
"I can and I will." Mary gave Emma a hard stare. "More importantly, I must."
"Consider your reputation, my lady, and your safety. Whatever this urgent matter might be, I would never forgive myself if anything were to happen to you."
Mary couldn't help but smile at Emma's loyalty. "I appreciate your concern, but this is something that I must do alone." The hapless maid looked ready to protest yet again. "Please trust me, Emma. You can lecture me as much as you like when I return."
"You may count on it, my lady," Emma responded, her eyes filled with worry. But she must have understood that time was of the essence, because she didn't dally any further. Instead, she quickly sprang to a.s.sistance, helping her mistress prepare for this mad endeavor.
Rummaging through the trunk for Mary's boots, Emma retrieved them just as Mary finished b.u.t.toning up her shirt. Having squeezed her mistress into the tight pair of brown Hessians, Emma made short work of tying the most solemn cravat that Mary had ever seen. "Good Lord, Emma! Is your brother perhaps a cleric?"
"Yes," Emma replied, sounding somewhat surprised by the question. "He is a rector. How did you know?"
"Just a hunch," Mary said and grinned. She patted Emma affectionately on the arm and looked about the room with a searching eye. "Now, where on earth is my hat?"
"Right here," Emma told her, handing her a conical riding hat that had once belonged to Mary's father. She eyed it skeptically. "Not exactly de rigueur, is it?"
"It does not have to be," Mary replied. "It just has to hide my hair, that is all."
Five minutes later, she was running down the front steps of her house, grabbing the reins of a gray-speckled mare from a startled groom, and climbing nimbly into the saddle with the confidence of someone who was not a stranger to riding. She kicked her heels against the horse's flanks, spurring him toward Bedford Square.
Ryan watched from beyond the shadows, uncertain of whether to follow the young man who'd just ridden off or remain behind and watch the house instead. What on earth was Lady Steepleton up to?
The soft rustling of fabric being teased by the breeze, accompanied by the precise click of approaching footsteps, caught his attention. He turned to find a cloaked figure, dressed entirely in black from head to toe, striding toward him with long, even steps. A hood was pulled down over his head, and over his mouth and nose he wore a black scarf, concealing his most prominent features entirely from view.
"What do you want?" Ryan asked in a confident tone, his fingers curling firmly around the smooth metal of the pistol he held concealed in his pocket.
The stranger chuckled ever so slightly at the question, but it was enough to send a chill down Ryan's spine. "That very much depends on what your little friend wants."
"Explain yourself, sir," Ryan demanded, his voice conveying the tone of a man who was not to be trifled with.
There was another eerie chuckle. "Am I to understand that you, Mr. Summersby, the very man who has been sent to protect the marchioness, has no idea of why she might be in trouble?"
"I do not suppose that you are about to enlighten me," Ryan said. He tightened his grip on his pistol while his eyes bored into the stranger's with enough vehemence to make Lucifer shudder.
But the stranger seemed not to notice. "I would not dream of spoiling the fun for you," he replied. There was a slight pause. "But know this: if she starts looking for answers to questions that do not concern her or investigating matters that ought to be left untouched, then there are those who will seek to silence her."
Ryan could scarcely believe he was having this conversation. Mary, the plain, simple woman he'd met only a couple of hours earlier, had just been threatened on her life. "Are you one of them?" Ryan asked, contemplating whether or not he should just kill the man and be done with it.
"I am merely the Messenger," the man said as he bowed before Ryan in an exaggerated show of reverence, twirling his arm as he did so, his head almost reaching as low as his knees before he straightened himself again. Offering another slight chuckle, he then turned on his heel and strode away, calling over his shoulder, "Keep a watchful eye on her, Summersby, and all will be well."
Running a shaky hand through his hair, Ryan stared off into the darkness at the s.p.a.ce where the figure had just stood. There was nothing but emptiness now. He dropped his hands to his sides and threw another glance in the direction of her ladyship's front door. Clearly, this whole situation was far more involved than he would ever have thought imaginable.
"I must say that you look very pretty tonight, my lady. The cut of your gown is most flattering, and the emeralds look absolutely marvelous; they really bring out the green in your eyes."
Rosemary Dorset, the Viscountess of Arlington, gazed at herself in the full-length mirror and then glanced across at her maid. "Thank you, Lucy. It is entirely your doing, you know." She touched her hand against her forehead. Now, if only the unbearable headache that had been bothering her all day would go away so that she might be able to enjoy the evening with her husband. True, it would be only the two of them, but with his busy schedule, she always looked forward to their time together.
Lucy smiled at the compliment. "You are too kind, my lady," she said as she handed Rosemary her favorite bottle of perfume.
Rosemary reached for it, her hand closing tightly around the cold gla.s.s, just as a sharp pain tore through her midsection. She let out a quick gasp, squeezing her eyes together and pressing her hand against her belly as she doubled over in pain.
"My lady!" Lucy exclaimed, wrapping an arm about her mistress for support.
"Call my husband, Lucy, and hurry," Rosemary groaned as she sank onto her bedroom floor, tears welling in her startled eyes. "And tell Firth to send for Dr. Helmsley. I think the baby must be on its way."
It took less than an hour for Helmsley to arrive at the Arlington residence. He was greeted there by Lady Arlington's terrified husband. "Thank G.o.d you are here, Doctor. I have no idea what to do. I. . .She is not making any sense, and. . .oh G.o.d. . .help her, please help her!"
Helmsley took a firm grip of the viscount's lapels. "My lord, I know that this must be an extremely frightening experience for you, but you must get a hold of yourself; the servants are beginning to stare. Remember, you are the captain, and this is your ship. You will get through this storm one way or another."
Lord Arlington nodded in understanding. Having captained many an oceangoing vessel, Helmsley hoped his words would have the necessary effect. It seemed they did, for the viscount immediately transformed into a man of command, straightening his spine and rising to his full height of just over six feet. "This way, if you please," he said, leading Helmsley up the steep stairs that would take them to Lady Arlington's bedroom. Neither man spoke a word, the only sound being that of their feet treading softly upon the plush runner and the occasional sc.r.a.pe of Lord Arlington's wedding band as it rubbed against the banister.
As soon as he entered her ladyship's bedroom, Helmsley's throat tightened at what he saw. There, in the middle of her imposing canopy bed, her hair spread out about her head, lay the viscountess. She tossed her head jerkily from side to side, her eyes in constant motion as if they were searching for something. Her maid sat by her side, holding her hand in the hope of giving her mistress some small measure of comfort. Occasionally she would take a damp cloth and wipe the beads of sweat that were presently forming on her mistress's brow. "You must help her," the maid pleaded with a glimmer of hope in her eyes.
Helmsley steeled himself as he moved toward the bed, setting his bag on a nearby chair. "My lady?" he asked cautiously. "Can you hear me? I need for you to tell me how you are feeling-if you can."
A few seconds crept by before Lady Arlington's head stopped moving, her gaze suddenly fixed upon Helmsley. She looked momentarily confused. "I had no idea that there were two of you, Doctor. You must introduce me to your twin. Are you a doctor as well?" she asked, addressing the man only she could see.
Helmsley picked up a book that was lying on the bedside table and held it up before her. "How many books am I holding?" he asked.
"Two," she replied. "Though they do appear to be a bit fuzzy around the edges."
"And does it hurt anywhere?"
"Every now and again I feel an unbearable pain in my belly, almost as if. . ." She didn't manage to complete her sentence before a blank look captured her face. Her eyes stared off into the distance, as if she were deep in thought.
"My lady?" Helmsley asked in an urgent voice, though he knew he wouldn't get a response. With no time to lose, he grabbed the book he'd been holding a moment earlier and jammed it into her mouth, just as her eyelids began to flutter. A second later, her eyes rolled back into her head, displaying only the whites, and her whole body began to convulse.
With both his lordship's and the frightened maid's help, they managed to hold her down until the spasms subsided. This was as bad as it got, Helmsley knew. Lady Arlington was eight and a half months pregnant with puerperal eclampsia, and he did not have the surgical experience required to save her or her child. There was only one thing for it: he needed help.
"My lord?" he said, turning to Lord Arlington. "A word if I may."
Although he was clearly uncertain about leaving his wife at such a moment, the viscount nodded his head and instructed the maid to call for help if she needed. He then followed Helmsley out into the hallway. "Will she die?" he asked with a note of anguish.
"There is a very real possibility that she might," Helmsley told him honestly. "Her condition is quite severe, and we are really not left with very many options, I am afraid."
"But there are options?" Lord Arlington asked hopefully.
"I cannot promise anything, but if you are willing to keep an open mind, then perhaps there might be one solution."
Lord Arlington turned a sharp gaze on Helmsley. "Do whatever you can. My mind is open to anything as far as my wife's and child's safety is concerned."
"Very well, my lord. Then I will send for someone to help us without further delay."
Mary burst into Lady Arlington's bedroom like a jack popping out of its box. "I came as soon as I could," she gasped, hurrying over to the bedside. She met Helmsley's gaze. "It is so good to see you again," she told him with a tight smile.
"You too," Helmsley replied, "though I do wish that it had been under different circ.u.mstances."
Lord Arlington looked not only shocked but extremely distressed. He addressed Helmsley in a clipped voice. "You brought a woman here to save my wife? That is your solution?"
"She is the best surgeon there is," Helmsley told him defensively. "I know how unorthodox this is, but you need to trust my decision if you want your wife and child to live."
The annoyance on the viscount's face was quite apparent. "What are you planning to do?" he asked Mary irritably.
Ignoring the frustrated viscount, Mary turned toward Helmsley instead. "What is your a.s.sessment of the patient, Doctor?"
"That she is showing severe signs of puerperal eclampsia. She has complained of abdominal pains and has had four seizures since I arrived on the scene roughly three hours ago."
Mary nodded thoughtfully as she looked over her ladyship's fragile body, noting the swelling that had occurred in both her wrists and ankles. "Can you confirm these seizures?" she asked Lord Arlington.
He nodded as if in a daze.
"Here is what we are going to do," she said in a sharp tone of authority. She looked across at the maid, who was still clutching her mistress's hand. "I will need a clean white sheet, a pot of boiling water, and plenty of towels. Have it all brought into the kitchen. Go."
The young woman didn't miss a beat. Jumping to her feet, she ran out of the door to set about her task as quickly as she could manage, visibly relieved to finally be of some a.s.sistance.
"Now then," Mary continued, turning her attention back to Lord Arlington, "we are going to have to move her downstairs to the kitchen. And to answer your question, I intend to give your wife a cesarean. Do I have your consent?"
"I. . .er. . .a cesarean?" Lord Arlington muttered, looking more confused than ever.
Mary sympathized, knowing full well that the speed with which she'd taken hold of the wheel must have completely thrown him. However, they had to hurry. She opted for complete honesty. "To put it bluntly, my lord, I will have to cut your wife open just below the navel, remove the child, then st.i.tch her back up again. If all goes well, she and the baby will both survive."
Lord Arlington stared at Mary with a look of unsurpa.s.sed horror. He began to shake his head, slowly at first and then with more vigor. "No," he said. "Absolutely not." He turned on Helmsley in anger. "What kind of a doctor are you? To bring a. . .a woman into my house who plans to. . .to cut open my wife like a butcher? No, I tell you, I will not allow it!" He was shaking.
Mary had expected this reaction Taking a deep breath to calm her own ragged nerves, she placed a soothing hand on Lord Arlington's arm. "I understand your distress, but you have to understand that this is the only chance your wife has of survival. If I do not perform the procedure, she will die."
"And you are sure of this?" His eyes were wide with fear and worry. "Absolutely and undeniably sure?"
"Yes," she said.
He let out an anguished sigh. His shoulders slumped as if he'd just accepted an unacceptable defeat. "And is this something that you have done before?" he asked her hesitantly.
Mary studied him for a brief moment. She'd watched her father do it once, but she'd never actually had the opportunity to do it herself. Of course, there was the possibility that Lady Arlington might not live through the surgery, but Mary knew that her chances of survival were nonexistent if she didn't go ahead with it. It had to be done, no matter what she had to say in order to convince her patient's husband. "Yes, I have," she lied. He still looked dubious, so she decided to add, "Quite successfully."
"Very well then," Lord Arlington agreed, wiping his hand shakily across his perspiring forehead. "You have my consent."
Once in the kitchen, Mary took the white sheet that the maid had provided and spread it over the st.u.r.dy oak table that stood in the center of the room.
"Shall I lay her down?" Lord Arlington asked, eyeing the makeshift operating table.
"Not yet. We will need to get her out of that dress first," Mary said before turning to the maid and handing her a large pair of scissors. "Perhaps you can help with that."
"But it is one of her favorites," the maid protested.
"And it will not do her an ounce of good if she is not alive to wear it, now, will it?" Mary snapped. Time was of the essence, which was something that these people clearly did not seem to understand. She let out a sigh of relief when the maid followed her orders without further delay. "Just leave her chemise," she said.
Once this was done, Lord Arlington placed his wife on the table, grabbing one of the fresh towels and placing it across her pelvis to protect her modesty as much as possible. Her hair, soaked in her own sweat, was matted against her forehead, her eyelids fluttering ever so gently while her breath came in hoa.r.s.e and shallow bursts.
Opening her bag, Mary pulled out a pair of retractors, a clamp, a pair of forceps, and a scalpel, all of which she dropped into the pot of water that the maid had put to boil. Removing a bottle of brandy from her bag, she pulled out the stopper and tossed it to Helmsley. She then proceeded to pour a generous amount of the amber liquid over Lady Arlington's quivering belly. Some of it dribbled down her sides, pooling in the small s.p.a.ces where her body failed to touch the table. With the tip of a clean towel, Mary wiped away the excess before turning a keen eye on the rest of the group. "Now, I want each of you to spend the next couple of minutes washing your hands-thoroughly. Take your time and remember to make good use of the soap. I want the lather to reach all the way up to your elbows."
Lord Arlington stared at her as if she'd just turned green. "I hardly think that is necessary," he said. "After all, you yourself have said that we are short on time. Should we not then try to get this over with as quickly as possible, or do you really mean to prolong my wife's suffering while we stand about playing with water?"
"Lord Arlington," Mary told him sternly, "I take very little pleasure in your wife's suffering, and I a.s.sure you that I have no desire to prolong it more than necessary. However, since you do wish for me to explain myself to you, I will tell you this: while the majority of the physicians and surgeons in this country may be deaf to new ideas and innovative ways of thinking, I am not, and neither was my father."
The viscount responded with nothing but a blank stare. Clearly, she would have to elaborate, however reluctant she was to waste what little time they had in doing so.
"Forty seven years ago," she said, filling a washbasin with water and reaching for the soap, "a Scottish physician named William Buchan published a book that focused on personal hygiene. It was called Domestic Medicine, and although the original work was first sold in Edinburgh, it quickly grew in popularity and was reprinted in London only five years later." She paused for a moment as she dipped the soap in the water and started working it between her hands until foamy bubbles began to appear. She then looked up to see if the name of the book she'd just mentioned had registered with anyone but was greeted by yet another round of vacant gazes. Only Helmsley bore a knowing smile upon his face, for he had heard her speak of Buchan many times before. Returning her gaze to her hands, she said, "In this book of his, Buchan advises everyone to wash their hands after handling the sick or anything else that might have become contaminated. He also advises that we do so before we eat our meals or enter into company with others. His reasoning for doing so was that he believed we would run less risk of becoming infected ourselves or of conveying an infection to others. Unfortunately, however, his advice has been greatly ignored within the medical community."
Mary let out a lengthy sigh. "I don't presume to understand why it is of such monumental importance, my lord, I only know that it is. My father and I have always done it before a surgery, and I do believe that it is part of the reason why the mortality rate of our patients has always been far lower than that of other surgeons.
"So, if your wife's health is of any importance to you, then you will wash your hands without further complaint, and once you are done, you will refrain from touching anything else in this room unless I specifically give you permission to do so. Do I make myself clear?"
Lord Arlington stared back at her for only a fraction of a second before rushing over to the washbasin and grabbing the soap that she'd just now finished with. Mary caught Helmsley's eye. There was a very distinct smirk upon his face as he gave her a quiet nod of approval. Good. She'd hate having to waste time arguing with him as well.
When Lord Arlington returned to his wife's side a few minutes later, Mary looked at him and said, "I have taken the liberty of administering some laudanum. It should make it easier on her, but this is not going to be a painless procedure. I hope I can count on you to hold her down and keep her steady for me. Dr. Helmsley will help you while. . ." She turned to the maid. "I am terribly sorry, but I do not know your name."
"It is Lucy Pinksworth, my lady."
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