Simon S carrow
With a last look back into the dimly lit room the midwife withdrew and closed the door behind her. She turned to the figure at the other end of the hall. Poor man, she thought to herself, unconsciously drying her strong hands in the folds of her apron. There was no easy way to tell him the bad news.The child would not last the night. That was clear enough to her, having delivered more babies into the world than she could remember. He had been born at least a month before his time.There had been only a flicker of life in the child when the lady had finally squeezed it from her womb with a piercing shriek of agony, shortly after midnight. The result had been a pasty thin thing that trembled, even after the midwife had cleaned it up, cut the cord and presented it to its mother swaddled in the clean folds of an infant's blanket. The lady had clasped the child to her breast, awash with relief that the long labour was over.
That was how the midwife had left her. Let her have a few hours of comfort before nature took its course and turned the miracle of birth into a tragedy.
She bustled towards the waiting man, skirt hems rustling across the floorboards, then bobbed quickly as she made her report.
'I'm sorry, my lord.'
'Sorry?' He glanced beyond the midwife, towards the far door. 'What's happened? Is Anne all right?'
'She's fine, sir, so she is.'
'And the child? Has it arrived?'
The midwife nodded. 'A boy, my lord.'
For an instant Garrett Wesley smiled with relief and pride before he recalled the midwife's first words. 'What's the matter, then?'
'The lady's well enough. But the lad's in a poor way. Begging your pardon, sir, but I don't think he'll last until the morning. Even if he does, then it'll be a matter of days before he meets his Maker. I'm so sorry, my lord.'
Garrett shook his head. 'How can you be sure?'
The midwife took a breath to restrain her anger at this slur on her professional judgement. 'I know the signs, sir. He ain't breathing properly and his skin's cold and clammy to the touch. The poor mite hasn't the strength to live.'
'There must be something that can be done for him. Send for a doctor.'
The midwife shook her head. 'There isn't one in the village, nor near it neither.'
Garrett stared back at her, his mind working feverishly. Dublin was where he would find the medical care he needed for his son. If they set off at once they could reach their house on Merrion Street before dusk fell, and send for the best doctor immediately. Garrett nodded to himself. The decision was made. He grasped the midwife's arm.
'Get downstairs, to the stable. Tell my driver to harness the horses and make ready to travel as soon as possible.'
'You're leaving?' She looked back at him, wide-eyed. 'Surely not, sir. The lady's still very weak and needs to rest.'
'She can rest in the carriage on the way to Dublin.'
'Dublin? But, my lord, that's…' The midwife frowned as she tried to imagine a distance further than she had travelled in her entire life. 'That's too long a journey for your lady, sir. In her condition. She needs rest, so she does.'
'She'll be fine. It's the boy I'm concerned for. He needs a doctor; you can't do any more for him. Now go and tell my driver to get the carriage ready.'
She said nothing, but just shrugged. If the young lord wanted to put the life of his wife at risk for the sake of a puny infant that was certain to die, then that was his decision. And he would have to live with the consequences.
The midwife bobbed, scurried over to the stairs and descended with a clumping of boots. Garrett shot a last look of disdain in her direction before he turned away and hurried down the hall to the room where his wife lay. He paused for an instant outside the door, concerned for her health in the difficult journey to come. Even now he wondered if he was following the best course of action. Perhaps that midwife was right after all, and the boy would die long before they could reach a doctor skilled enough to save him. Then Anne would have suffered for nothing the discomfort of the carriage's bumpy progress along the rutted road to Dublin. Worse still, it might place her health in jeopardy as well. One certain death if they stayed here. Two possible deaths if they made for Dublin. A certainty against a possibility. Put like that Garrett decided they must take the risk. He grasped the iron handle, thrust it down and pushed the door open.
The inn's best room was a cramped affair of clammy plastered walls with a chest, a washstand, and a large bed above which hung a plain cross. To one side of the bed was a table and on it rested a pewter candle stand. Three half-melted candles wavered ever so faintly from the draught of the door's movement. Anne stirred beneath the folds of the covers and her eyes flickered open.
'My love,' she murmured, 'we have a son, see.'
Easing herself up on the bolster she nodded gently to the bundle in the crook of the other arm.
'I know.' Garrett forced himself to smile back. 'The midwife told me.'
He crossed to the bed and lowered himself to his knees beside his wife, taking her spare hand in both of his.
'Where has she gone?'
'To give word for our carriage to be readied.'
'Readied?' Anne's gaze flickered towards the shutters, but there was no fringe of light around the edges. 'It's still dark. Besides, my love, I'm tired. So very tired. I must rest. Surely we can spare a day here?'
'No. The child needs a doctor.'
'A doctor?' Anne looked confused. She removed her hand from her husband's grasp and carefully drew back a fold of the soft linen cloth wrapped round the baby. In the warm glow of the candles Garrett saw the puffy features of the infant – eyes closed and lips still. Only the rhythmic flaring of the tiny nostrils indicated any sign of life. Anne stroked a finger across the wrinkled forehead. 'Why a doctor?'
'He's weak and needs the proper attention as soon as possible. The only place we can be sure of that is Dublin.'
Anne frowned. 'But that's a day's journey from here. At least.'
'Which is why I've given orders to ready the carriage.We must leave at once.'
'Hush!' He softly pressed a finger to her lips.'You mustn't exert yourself. Rest, my dear. Save your strength.'
He rose from the bed. Beyond the shutters there were sounds of stirring from down in the coach yard; one of the grooms cursing as the gates squeaked on rusty hinges. Garrett nodded towards the window. 'I must go. They'll need a firm hand to get us on the road in good time.'
Down in the inn's cobbled yard, two lanterns had been lit and hung from brackets outside the coach house. The doors had been wedged open and inside dim figures were harnessing the horses.
'Hurry up there!' Garrett called out as he crossed the yard.'We must leave at once.'
'But it's still night, my lord.' A man emerged from the servants' quarters, pulling on his overcoat, and Garrett dismissed his coachman's protest with a curt wave of his hand.
'We leave the moment my wife is dressed and ready to travel, O'Shea. See to it that our baggage is loaded. Now get those horses out here and harnessed to the carriage.'
'Yes, my lord.As you wish.'The coachman bowed his head, and strode into the stable. 'Come on, lads! Move, you idlers!'
Garrett's gaze flickered up to the window of his wife's room and he felt a pang of guilt at not being by her side. He glanced back towards the stable and frowned.
'Come on there, you men! Set to it!'
The carriage rumbled out of the yard in the last hour of darkness. Turning on to the roughly cobbled street of the village, the iron-bound wheels rattled harshly, shattering the silence of the night. On either side the dark mass of the houses packed along the length of the street were momentarily illuminated by the two carriage lanterns. Inside, the coach was lit by a single lamp fixed to the bulkhead behind the driver. Garrett sat with his arm around his wife and stared down at the still form of their son, cradled in her lap. The midwife was right. The baby looked weak and limp. Anne glanced at her husband, reading his concerned expression accurately.