The next morning, I found my mother sitting alone in the dining room. She had changed clothes. She looked tired and much, much older than she had appeared last night. The table was bare. No food had been prepared. I asked her how Emma had faired.
“She is as good as dead,” she said flatly.
I sank into a chair.
“The baby?” I asked.
She looked up at me, surprised. “You knew?”
“Yes.” She asked for no further explanation and I did not offer any.
“Where is she?”
“She is at the Royal Infirmary.” She had a vacant stare. I was not sure what that meant. Did she now know the truth, or was it simply from exhaustion? “They did not want to take her, saying servants should be cared for in the home of their employer. But money…I had to pay money. Then they said that she was with child…that she tried to kill the child.”
“Mother, that is not true!” She turned tired eyes to me. She knew. Even if she had not been told, she knew.
No more words passed between us that morning. We sat in silence for maybe a quarter of an hour until I finally stood and took leave. I dressed and asked John to take me to the infirmary. The early morning chill caused me to shiver despite the cloak. We took the carriage. It had not yet been cleaned, there was blood on the cushion and a large spot on the floor.
This was my first experience at a hospital. Generally, admissions only occurred on one day of the week. However this being an emergency, Emma had been accepted once payment had been guaranteed.
I was met with an unpleasant odor at the door of the imposing stone edifice. I had smelled it once before in the anatomy theater, the smell of rotting flesh. I could hear moans and screams. Suffering. I shuddered. There were many, many wards and I was not sure how to find Emma. I stopped a dour faced, dark haired woman in her 40’s dressed in a white apron with a starched white cap who seemed to be in charge and asked her where I could find Emma. When she stared at me blankly, I told her that she had been brought in the night before with bleeding. Awareness rose on her face, followed by disdain.
“Come with me,” she said curtly, followed by “Quickly!” over her shoulder when I did not immediately follow her.
I sprung into action and followed her up a set of stairs and around a corner. She walked quickly. I was out of breath by the time she stopped. It opened upon a large ward full of women. Four rows of beds. The room was dark, the windows small. Some women appeared almost dead. Some were writhing in pain. In the shadows of the far corner, I could see Emma. When I arrived at her bedside, I could see that she, too, suffered. She did not recognize me. She was in pain, writhing, feverish. I lifted the sheets (at least they were clean) and saw that she was still bleeding. Fresh rags had been placed between her legs but they had been soaked through with bright red blood.
“Can you give her something for the pain?” I asked the nurse.
“Whatever for?” She replied, dubious.
“For the pain!” I did not like this woman.
“Madame, I do not know how you have made the acquaintance of this girl, but she has tried to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy by artificial means and must therefore suffer the consequences to their fullest. No laudanum, doctor’s orders.”
I stood dumfounded.
“But she did no such thing!”
“She was bleeding profusely. There is little doubt. She is unmarried and young. She is a servant and probably realized that she would be destitute. She is sentenced to death by law, but God will exact the price before man.” She seemed to relish this fact.
The woman in the next bed retched. I grabbed the footboard to steady myself as I could feel bile rising into my own throat. Recognizing that I may soon join in the vomiting, the woman hurriedly excused herself. I took deep breaths, attempting to calm myself and looked around for a chair. I found an unoccupied worn stool a few beds down and maneuvered it so that I could sit with Emma.
A short, wiry man of about forty with black hair and a dark angry cloud that hung over him appeared at the entrance of the ward with an entourage of half a dozen nurses and orderlies and began making the rounds. Sometimes he would percuss. Sometimes he would use a foot long wooden tube at one ear, pressed to the chest or abdomen to listen to the heart or lungs. Often, he raised his voice with profanity and one of the nurses would scurry off with a frightened look in her eye, returning a few moments later with an ointment or tincture. I had not planned to stay long, but now resolved to wait until he had made his way to Emma. She let out another agonizing groan and shifted in the bed, her eyes open but unseeing.
Forty-five minutes later, the doctor was at the retching woman’s bed. Another round of profanity. Another scurry. After the appropriate medication had been administered, he turned and began to leave the ward. The entourage followed.
Confused, I called out, “Excuse me!” He stopped, paused as if considering, then slowly turned back to me. Half a dozen frightened pairs of eyes turned to him.
“I…I beg your pardon. Were you going to see her?” I indicated Emma’s body.
“Certainly not!” He exclaimed indignantly. The entourage winced.
I stood, dumbfounded. Then realization dawned upon me. “There is someone else that will be seeing her, then?”
“Absolutely not.” He turned to go.
I felt the anger well up again. I stood. “And why not, sir?”
Without even turning to look me in the eye, he replied, “She should never have been admitted. We only take treatable, lawful cases here. She is not salvageable.” He took a step.
“Has anyone examined her? Or is everyone simply making assumptions of her clinical status based on suppositions about her private life?”
At that, he turned back to me, bristling. “She did not have an abortion? Who are you to turn her into a saint? She is pregnant. There is no father. She is bleeding. There is no more to be said on the matter.”
“She is employed by me!”
He laughed at me, then. Not a laugh of mirth, but rather a laugh of ridicule. “You are not but a few years older than she. I highly doubt that you are solely responsible for her income.”
“My father did this to her, sir.” A look of shock crossed his face and then washed over the faces of the entourage. My desire to be right, to win the argument, had clouded my judgment and it had just slipped out. I clasped a hand to my mouth and cringed. I could not undo it so I decided to drive the point home. “She refused to get the abortion.” No mention of who arranged it or why I would know. “So, examine her for the love of God or I can assure you that YOU will be the one damned for eternity, not her!” I wished the flames of hell to bore into him from my eyes and turn his worthless, tiny body into ash.
For whatever reason…perhaps it was my calling down divine condemnation upon his head…his face softened a bit. He walked over to me, standing close enough that I could smell his unpleasant, fetid breath.
“Fine,” he sighed. “I will examine her.”
He began rolling up his sleeves and called for a fresh washbasin. There was a scurry and one appeared. He sat down on the stool I had vacated and lifted the bedsheet, placing his hands between Emma’s legs. Without actually looking, he moved his hand and arm further up, exploring the area. Her eyes registered her pain, but nothing more. No embarrassment. Nothing. The doctor’s hand paused and the color drained from his face. He withdrew, covered in blood, and stood to wash in the basin.
“Well?” I demanded.
“She has a placenta previa.” I knew what this meant. I had watched another woman die while attending births with my mother. The placenta grows over the lower portion of the uterus, covering the cervical opening and birth canal. The only way to give birth with a complete previa is to tear through the placenta and most likely bleed to death. There had been rare occasions that I had heard from the midwives of the placenta being delivered intact with the baby, but generally the medical attendant would try to push aside the placenta and turn the baby to put pressure on the placenta to prevent bleeding. But Emma was far from term. There would be no baby. How Then could her life be saved? “We could attempt a Cesarean, to remove the products of conception but the pain would be great and she would still likely not survive, particularly given the tremendous amount of blood loss she has already suffered. A dilation and curettage would be impossible due to the position of the placenta. And the fever…” He toweled off and rolled down his sleeves. “In short, there is nothing to be done but to make her comfortable.”
He took his leave more humbly this time, not that I could enjoy any satisfaction in that fact at this point. At the very least, however, orders were given for treatment of her pain and it would now merely be a matter of time. I stayed with her, holding her hand until it was over so she would not die alone in this place.