Radenth 3, 1013
Clarice advanced up the steps of the cottage and rapped smartly at the door. She wasn’t nervous anymore. Once upon a time, making a house call at a humble cottage like this would make her even more on edge than it would make the house’s occupants. She could scarcely concentrate on her patients, so worried was she about inadvertently offending their families, saying or doing something that would make it clear just how out of place she was in this world.
But that was when she was closer in mind to Lady Clarice de Ganis, who had never set foot in a dwelling less grand than a merchant’s home, than she was to Lady Clarice Ferreira. After her marriage, so many doors had opened for her. Her father would have never countenanced her making house calls on — well, anybody, really. Freddy not only allowed it; he clearly would have thought it odd if she didn’t.
So Clarice had no call to be nervous about this visit. About her new lady’s maid and nurse, Katherina, however, who had only started in Clarice’s employ at the beginning of the week, who had never been with Clarice on a house call?
Well, there was something to be nervous about.
The door opened, and a worried freckled face peeked out. “Doctor!” gasped Ailís Porter in what was clearly relief, then, stumbling, “I mean — m’lady. Come in, come in!”
“Good morning, Goodwife Porter,” Clarice replied as she entered, choosing to ignore the stumble. Did it really matter if she was called “doctor” or “lady”? Was either title more respectful than the other? “Lady” was higher-ranked — but “doctor” had to be earned. She’d spent long enough in the Ferreiras’ world to know that there was something to be said for things earned. “This is my nurse, Katherina di Alessandro. Would you mind if she helps me look Josie over?”
“Oh–no, o’ course not,” mumbled Goodwife Porter. She smiled nervously, but she wouldn’t meet Clarice’s eyes as she spoke.
Why was that? Was it because she was afraid Clarice would charge her more, now that she had a nurse with her? That was silly, but Clarice had been in practice long enough to realize she must have missed a vital course in Camford: Maximizing Obfuscation and Confusion in Billing Practices. Still, she didn’t have to feed herself or Colin or Freddy with her practice, so she could afford to be straightforward.
“And how is Josie today?” asked Clarice.
Goodwife Porter looked up, something between fear and relief warring in her eyes. “Oh–oh, she ain’t coughin’ so much! But … she’s still awful tired, an’ she’s got a bit o’ a fever left.”
“Is it an ague?” asked Katherina, glancing at Clarice.
She might have been wondering why a simple ague, even in a child as young as Josie, merited a house call. “That seems to be how it started,” Clarice replied. “But … well, the patient is … let’s just say, there’s some potentially troubling history.” She turned back to Goodwife Porter. “And how is her breathing?”
“Last I checked, she was breathin’ … well, all right. Not as bad as …” Goodwife Porter shuddered. Clarice just wished she knew which troubling episode it was that produced that reaction. How sad, that there should be a choice of them. “But not as good as she could be. That salve ye sent over were really helpful, thank’ee, m’lady.”
“Thank Katherina. She made it.”
Goodwife Porter turned to Katherina with a smile born half of surprise and half of gratitude. “Thank–thank’ee.”
Katherina looked surprised, but the only reply she made was to nod and reply, “You’re welcome.”
And with that, Clarice asked Goodwife Porter, “Might we see Josie now, please?”
“Aye, o’ course!” She led the way to the winding stairs and up them; then, once they were upstairs, she held open the curtain that led into the children’s room. The three of them proceeded inside without a further word.
As soon as she was in, Clarice made a beeline for the bed. “Josie?” she murmured. “Josie, it’s Doctor Clarice. Can you open up your eyes for me?”
The mop of red curls shifted; Josie lifted her head and blinked a couple of times. “Hullo, Doct–” She stopped, eyes suddenly wide, breath caught.
“Cough if you need to. But remember to cover your mouth,” Clarice answered.
Josie followed those instructions, which was a relief to Clarice — it gave her a chance to listen to Josie’s coughing without making the girl nervous. What she heard was somewhat encouraging. The worst of the wetness was gone — Katherina’s salve must have drawn off some of the excess phlegm. But the fact that the little girl had to cough so soon after waking up was not the best sign.
“Could you sit up for me, Josie? I need to take your pulse.”
Josie swung her thin little legs over the bed and obediently held out her hand. Clarice took it and felt the pulse. It was strong and steady — but that was no surprise. Except for when she was very ill, there was never a problem with Josie’s pulse.
As soon as she was done taking the pulse, Clarice pushed some of Josie’s bangs to the side and felt her forehead. It was just as her mother had said: the fever was greatly reduced from the worst of the illness, but not quite broken.
Clarice stood up, smiling down on Josie to keep the little girl at her ease. She had been so shy when her mother first brought her into Clarice’s surgery, clinging to Goodwife Porter and barely letting Clarice look her in the eye, let alone touch or examine her. She was much better now, much more comfortable around Clarice, but in a way, that was worse. Clarice sometimes preferred the children who were scared of her in her starched white apron and careful bun. It meant she hadn’t seen them very often.
“Well, Josie,” said Clarice, “why don’t you tell me how you’re feeling?”
“Better,” Josie replied. “Can I go outside soon?”
Clarice heard something like a gasp from Goodwife Porter, but she didn’t turn around. “Well … do you feel up to that, Josie?”
“I …” She bowed her head. “Mama’s gonna say no.”
“Why do you think that is, Josie?”
“She’s gonna say I’m too sick.”
“And do you think she’s right?”
In reply, Josie only shivered and cast a sidelong glance at the blankets, clearly wondering how to smuggle most of her body beneath them.
“You feel cold still, don’t you?”
Staring at her lap, Josie nodded.
“And when I touch your head, you still feel warm. That means you have a fever, Josie. It’s not a good idea to go playing outside when you have a fever.”
“I hate fevers,” Josie muttered, crossing her arms in front of her chest and pouting. But the pout was merely a disguise, and a thin one at that. A good doctor always observed her patients, and it would take a far worse doctor than Clarice not to notice how Josie’s lower lip was quivering.
“Oh, baby–” started Goodwife Porter, then stopped, fearful eyes darting to Clarice. Clarice waved her hand, asking — practically begging, really — her to continue.
“No–nobody likes bein’ sick, baby,” Goodwife Porter continued, stepping closer to Josie. She ran a hand through those thick, heavy curls. “But … but sometimes we gotta be. An’ that’s all there is to it.”
“But nobody else gets sick as much as I do!” Josie protested, blinking away something that looked like tears.
“Oh, baby …” But Goodwife Porter couldn’t say anything more, and she turned away, one hand over her mouth. Clarice watched her long enough to see Katherina smile at her in a way that was meant to be reassuring, but probably wouldn’t do much good.
Clarice was a doctor, and Colin had only been sick once, and not very seriously at that, but there was very little that could reassure a mother whose child was ill. And Clarice had no idea how she would reassure a mother whose child was ill as often as Josie was.
Josie, however, might be easier, so Clarice turned to her instead. “While that’s true right now — I think that you will be better very soon.”
“Really?” gasped Josie.
“Oh, yes. You’re not coughing as much any more, are you?”
Josie shook her head.
“And your fever doesn’t feel so bad?”
“I still gots one, though,” Josie murmured.
“That’s true, but hopefully it will be gone very, very soon. You see, your body has too much phlegm inside your chest, and your other humors are trying to increase to help it balance out. Once it does, your fever will break and you should be all better.”
“Can’t ye jest take the f-f-fem out o’ me chest?” asked Josie, smiling hopefully.
“Oh, I wish I could,” replied Clarice. “But you see, that’s what Katherina’s salve is helping you to do.”
“Kather …” Josie started, then looked around Clarice at Katherina. She made a sound very like a squeak and ducked her head.
“Katherina is my nurse,” Clarice said quickly. “She helps me make people better. You don’t have to be afraid of her, Josie.”
“She’s seein’ me in me shift,” Josie murmured.
“Oh, I’ve seen lots of people in their shifts,” Katherina answered. “And I’ve seen some people in even less than that!”
Josie gasped. “Really? Why come?”
“Oh–oh, lots of reasons.” Katherina glanced at Clarice, who nodded. She had learned a early on that the best way to gain a Porter child’s trust was to answer their questions, and to answer them as clearly and as honestly as you could.
“For, for one reason,” Katherina went on, “sometimes I’ve helped women have babies — and the women aren’t always wearing clothes when they do that. And the babies certainly aren’t!”
“They aren’t?” Josie asked, staring at her mother.
Goodwife Porter chuckled; she even smiled. “No, they’re not. Ain’t ye ever heard o’ someone walkin’ around in their birthday suit?”
“I …” Josie’s eyes went wide. “Is that what that means?”
“Aye, ’tis. What, yer papa ain’t told ye that yet?”
“Nooo …” Josie bit her lip. “But I never axed. I always thought it were a pretty dress or a nice tunic.” She frowned, clearly working that problem through still, then looked up at Clarice. “Doctor Clarice?”
“I’m gettin’ tired …”
Clarice took that as her cue to complete the rest of the examination, and to do it quickly. It didn’t take long. She already sensed that Josie was on the mend, and every touch and every look confirmed that. So it was not long before Josie snuggled back under the blankets, and Goodwife Porter was tucking her daughter in.
As soon as Josie had dropped back to sleep, the three women hurried out of the room.
Goodwife Porter didn’t even have time to close the curtain behind her before Katherina spoke. “I must say, Goodwife Porter, you have a very clean house.”
Clarice’s jaw fell — and then she realized that it was true. She spent so much time when she was in peasants’ houses trying to pretend that she didn’t notice the dirt that was unavoidable if you didn’t have servants to clean up after you all the time that she failed to realize when the dirt simply wasn’t there.
“Oh … thank’ee.” Goodwife Porter flushed.
“It must be hard, what with having … how many children do you have?” asked Katherina.
“Four. An’–” Goodwife Porter put a hand on her belly, but then her mouth shut.
Still, Clarice, as a good doctor, couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Oh?”
Goodwife Porter flushed and stared at her feet, but there was a smile there. “Well … it’s early days yet.”
Clarice nodded. If that was how Goodwife Porter felt about it … then that was certainly all that needed to be said.
“However,” Clarice said, “Katherina has a very good point. This is a very clean house. How on earth do you manage it?”
“Well, Nellie’s a good help, an’ …” Goodwife Porter chewed her bottom lip and looked over her shoulder. “It’s fer Josie …”
Clarice looked behind her to see Katherina nodding with a knowing look. Katherina had only been working for her a week — but it might be time to start thinking about a raise. Clarice hadn’t even noticed the house, but Katherina had already seen it and asked the necessary questions to get a bigger picture about Josie and her environment.
“I–I ain’t doin’ wrong, am I?” asked Goodwife Porter, wringing her hands together. “It’s jest … the dust … an’ soot from the fires …”
“Go on,” Clarice pressed.
“They makes Josie worse. I think. She–she already coughs an’ sneezes worse when there’s a lot o’ dust about. Last winter …” Goodwife Porter looked over her shoulder and shuddered.
Clarice nodded knowingly — it had been at the end of the winter that Goodwife Porter had gotten desperate enough to bundle Josie up, despite the cold, and drag her to the surgery. Clarice had hardly believed just how sick the little girl was, let alone that she had apparently been building up to that all winter.
And yet — she hung on. Josie might present a shy and retiring face to the world, but inside, that girl was a fighter. There was no other explanation.
“An’ she seems so much better when the house is clean an’ scrubbed …” Goodwife Porter chewed her bottom lip. “Is that wrong?”
“No,” Clarice said before she could think otherwise. She knew there were some influential authorities who were unsure about soap and water, who thought that the body needed a healthy coating of dirt in order to protect disease and illness. Clarice did not pretend to know if they were right. But she knew that Goodwife Porter was with her daughter all the time, and Clarice was not. If Goodwife Porter thought it helped, then it probably did help. If nothing else, she probably convinced Josie that it helped, and that would help.
“How–however, m’lady, I got a question.” Goodwife Porter gulped and took a deep breath before plunging ahead. “Josie — Josie an’ Jake are right close tergether. Barely more than a year apart. Do–d’ye think that might …?”
“That might … have something to do with Josie’s troubles?” Clarice leaned back, taken aback. A glance at Katherina showed her to be just as surprised and puzzled “I’ve … well, in my experience, I’ve not heard of that … certainly not with a child as old as Josie …”
“But, Goodwife Porter?”
Goodwife Porter pursed her lips together, then forced herself to say, “I–I were the same way. When I were little. Not–not strong. An’ me brother, Berach — he’s barely more than a year younger than I am … so I thought … an’ now I’m fine …”
“You had problems with your lungs, too?” Clarice asked. That put–a different light on things. If Goodwife Porter had had similar problems when she was young, maybe there was something …?
For a moment Goodwife Porter’s eyes lit with hope — then the light died. “N-no — at least … not more than anythin’ else …”
“What happened,” asked Katherina, “to help you get better, Goodwife Porter?”
Yes. That was the right question to ask. Clarice looked to Goodwife Porter, head cocked to one side, encouraging her to continue.
“Well — we was — we was poor back in Glasonland. Real poor. An’ there was scarce enough ter eat, an’ me … me father, well … he — he drunk a lot o’ the money we had. But–but when we came to Albion …”
Goodwife Porter’s eyes lit up, and for a moment — just a moment — Clarice saw her homeland through the eyes of a young child, a child who suddenly found in it enough to eat, and drink, and found a place to thrive.
“That–that ain’t what’s wrong with Josie, is it?” asked Goodwife Porter, the hope dying from her eyes.
“Well, Goodwife Porter, obviously you would know better than we would just what Josie gets to eat on a daily basis, and just how much of a chance she has to thrive …”
But it was a vain protest, and Clarice knew it. Something like defiance blazed on Goodwife Porter’s face. “Me kids ain’t–ain’t gonna know what I knew. Never. An’ Neil–he knows too, an’ he won’t stand fer it.”
“So then — I don’t think it’s possible that Josie has–has what you had,” Clarice replied. “Since you’ve been administering the cure to her since the very day she was born, and …” Clarice stopped, and shrugged.
Clarice hated this moment: the moment when she had to, in order to be honest, in order to do the best for her patient, tell the patient’s relatives something that would kill off what hope they had left. Josie wasn’t in that place yet, where there was cause to fear for her in the short term, but …
There was nothing good one could say about the chances of a child who fell ill as often and as severely as Josie did.
“However!” Clarice rushed to say. “Your — your daughter is a fighter, Goodwife Porter. She’s young, but she’s already fought off sicknesses that — that have killed older children, Goodwife Porter. It might be that she’ll only get stronger as she gets older …”
“Ye don’t know that.”
So it was too late for reassurance. Clarice was already losing — not her patient — but her patient’s mother. It was almost as bad, and, if possible, even more heartbreaking.
“There’s no reason to give up hope yet,” replied Clarice, perhaps a little more sternly than she intended. “Josie is not–not a strong girl — but she could be a resilient one. You keeping the house so clean is already helping her, I’m sure of it. Keep her out in the fresh air as often as you can. Let her run and play, if she can stand it. And keep using Katherina’s salve, even when she’s well. We’ll send over as much as you need.”
“But — but when winter comes again …” Goodwife Porter whispered. “She were so sick …”
“When winter comes again, Josie will be seven years old. There’s a world of difference between seven and three. Besides, you know more now than you did then …”
It was no use. Clarice could see Goodwife Porter’s jaw quivering, the bleakness in her eyes. She and Josie had the same eyes, Clarice realized. But they looked so different.
So Clarice did the only thing she could think of–she leaned forward and hugged Goodwife Porter, so quickly that the woman didn’t have time to protest.
“It’ll–” Clarice could not tell her that it would be all right. Not when it might not be. But she could say something else. “We will be with you every step of the way. We will do everything we can for Josie. This isn’t the end, Goodwife Porter. With–with any luck–this is only the beginning.”