Chapter Twenty-Eight: Numbing

It was evening.  The candlelight flickered across the table.  At dinner, William was in unusual spirits as he ate.  He put down his spoon, dabbed at his beard with the napkin from his lap, then cleared his throat.

“How do you feel about going into Boston for a day or two next month?”  He glanced over at me, hopeful.

I looked up at him from my soup.  “Why?”

“For a lecture in obstetrical anesthesia.”

“Oh, really?”  I wondered if this was a veiled attempt to bring up starting a family.  I would see how the conversation would proceed.  I took another silent sip of the oyster soup.

“I thought you might be interested in the topic.  Apparently, it is so controversial that all of the traditional backers balked.  I overheard the discussion at the club between Cornelius Felton, the university president, and Jack Waterhouse, of the medical faculty in Boston.  I do not believe that Cornelius wants the lectures to occur.  There is a part of me that delights in making that man miserable.  So, I wrote a check to Mr. Waterhouse.  We will bring anesthesia to Massachusetts!”  He said this with a flourish of his hand.  He smiled broadly.

“But Dr. Morton has already demonstrated anesthesia.  Several years ago, in fact!”  Everyone knew of the story of the huge neck tumor removed from Mr. Gilbert Abbott at Massachusetts General Hospital.  It had been all over the papers and had occurred before I had left for Edinburgh myself.

“Not in childbirth, my dear!  Dr. Brierly is from Edinburgh, where Dr. Simpson has been administering chloroform and ether during childbirth for years.”  He seemed quite proud of himself.

But, my heart stopped suddenly.  I was not sure if I had heard the name right.  No, it had to have been him. 

Deep within my chest I felt a heavy sinking, as if a rock had just dropped onto my diaphragm, my fingers and lips numb.  “You are doing what?”

“I am sponsoring a lecture series at the college,” he said patiently.

“Yes, but who is speaking?”  I could not breath.

“A Dr. Brierly on obstetrical anesthesia.” He shrugged, then squinted suspiciously at me.

I was not mistaken! Did he not know? Did he not remember?  Was he testing me? Did he know but now was planning to show me off as his trophy?

“I see.”  It was difficult to keep my tone even and impassive.

Did I really want to go to Boston, then?  Difficult question, really.  But I knew what my answer would be, what it had to be. 

“Well, then certainly, I would be happy to accompany you, dear!” 

I sat down my spoon, a tiny clank rang against the china.  My appetite had left me. I worked hard to not betray any emotion.

We finished dinner conversing about the rest of his day. 

When I had retired to my room, I sat at the mirror brushing my hair and examining my features.  Why did I feel so much older?  It had been three years, only, since I had last seen Mr. Brierly.  I had finally stopped thinking about him every day and now this?  Why? Dr. Brierly.  I was running through in my mind the things I needed in order to make sure I was in the best presentable condition possible when I was startled by a gentle tapping at the door.  Not tonight, please, God.  Not tonight of all nights when I longed to give my thoughts over to another man.  My hands shook as I put down the brush.

“Yes, come in,” I said softly.  I could see William enter the room in his dressing gown behind me via his reflection in the mirror.  He looked almost sheepish, imploring.  I knew he was trying to be kind to me, but I hated him for it.  Most days I longed for him to simply take control, but he was too timid to do that.  Tonight, I just wanted to get it over with so that I could get back to my secret sadness.

Chapter Two: Society

The year of 1846, my friend Jane had her coming out in Cambridge society and in short order had a large compliment of suitors.  She spared no details of the parties and balls that she attended in her large collection of new gowns of Parisian silks and Italian laces.  She listed the attributes and drawbacks of all of the young men that sought her.  Some were too tall, some too short or too fat.  One had an odd high pitched laugh that grated on the nerves.  I was overcome with envy, listening to her exploits.  Tales of candlelight, mirrored ballrooms and fine crystal, military officers in full regalia…all left me breathless and dreamy. 

Upon my sixteenth birthday, it was announced that I would accompany my mother to Edinburgh, Scotland the following year for my coming out.  An odd choice one might think when if you could afford it families sent their daughters to London for the season, and yet my father had planned it in great detail in his mind.  There were no proper Scotsmen to whom to wed me located in any reasonable vicinity.  Edinburgh currently was the center of the intellectual world.  Where better to capture a future heir of sufficiently elevated breeding stock capable of carrying on his legacy than the land from which he came?  I was surprised that my father entrusted this pursuit to my mother, but he believed that he could not be spared from the business and felt that my mother would ultimately look after my best interest as her daughter, that best interest being securing a mate that could run the cotton mill and continue to provide a generous income for me. 

That same season, Jane settled on a handsome, dark haired young lieutenant named James Rush.  Her father could offer no objection, as the fellow was generally well liked, was the proper station, and had a substantial income from his family’s estate.  He was clearly besotted by her.  I was relieved to hear that she indeed loved him.  He had inherited a large estate just outside of Cambridge and thus, she would not be going far from me, leaving me overjoyed.  We spent many hours in the weeks that followed agonizing over the future events of the proposed wedding night, yet strangely very few hours agonizing over the future itself.  Neither of us had been given any instruction whatsoever aside from the raucous stories of the illustrious former governess.  Despite my mother’s clear grasp of the field she had offered no information to me, and it was with fear and trepidation that both of us looked toward that night.  Her wedding was a small, but elegant affair held in her home and attended by a select group of family and friends.  She was lovely in her white silk gown.  A light supper followed and then we said our good-byes, Jane whispering that she would tell me everything when she saw me next.  As she was bundled into the black, shiny carriage for the ride to her new home and the two dappled horses started out, Jane winked at me once then waved farewell through the window.

It was many weeks before I was able to see her again.  I traveled to her new husband’s estate by carriage for an afternoon tea at her invitation.  She had ceased to exist as Jane Smythe.  She was now Mrs. James Allen Rush.  Mr. Rush was away with the regiment and she pined for him throughout my brief visit.  By that time, it was well known that she was with child.  All conversation with her was about the impending arrival of the new little one and little else.  My curiosity about the wedding night, and my own fear of it, was not to be sated. 

My wardrobe for the upcoming season was slowly arranged under my mother’s most critical eye: new stockings, new corsets, new petticoats and crinolines.  Several traveling suits made for our voyage as well as a number of lovely ball gowns and day dresses.  New shoes and hats rounded out the ensembles.  Such finery held so much promise!  In a last push, my father insisted that I immerse myself in Scottish history.  I was forced to learn about William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary Queen of Scotts, the Highland Clearings… He bemoaned the fact that there was no good haggis to be had anywhere here, a fact that I must confess I was quite happy to hear once I had learned of its ingredients.

Our departure date was to be several weeks after Jane’s confinement and she sent a letter in her flowery hand requesting that I be present with her.  She would have a doctor in attendance, an idea foreign to me as all of the births I had witnessed had been to women too poor to afford such a thing.  James had been called away again she said in her letter, and it was not clear that he would be able to be present himself.  As mother and I packed for the few weeks we would spend with Jane, I was filled with dread.  I had not the heart to inform Jane of what was to come bringing this child into the world.  She had no one that could tell her of such things and had, I was afraid, entered into it with a substantial amount of ignorance and naiveté, despite the fact that her own mother had died doing the very same thing.  I was not sure if this was a blessing or a curse. 

When we arrived at the estate, the housekeeper showed us in.  I was greeted by a rather bloated, puffy version of my beautiful Jane who could only be described as blissfully happy despite her delicate condition.  We spent the next several days reading together and again enjoying each other’s company.  However conversation never could be swayed to the topic of my chief concern:  marital relations.  I had the distinct feeling that she did not wish to discuss it and could artfully direct the conversation in the opposite direction the instant I started to broach the subject without seeming too overt.  It had been almost two weeks since our arrival when I was stirred from sleep by a rather insistent knocking on the door of my bedchamber.  It was one of the maids informing me that Jane’s labor had begun and she was asking for me.  I quickly threw on a robe and followed behind the upheld lamp, led by the maid to the birthing room around the corner that had been set up with all of the necessities. 

“The doctor has been sent for, ma’am.” The maid nodded in the direction of my friend who was on her left side, groaning.  I quickly sat down on the bed and wrung out a fresh cloth in the water basin on the table beside us.  The cool cloth as it touched Jane’s neck caused her to open her eyes.  There was terror in them as she gasped for air and then closed them again, clutching at the bedclothes as the next contraction rolled over her.  She was burning up with fever.  It was then that I realized that there was an inordinate amount of blood on the sheets already.  My heart in my throat, I grasped her hand as my heart tightened. 

“Fetch my mother, now.” The maid left obediently.

My mother arrived a short time later, taking in the scene.  It was now five o’clock in the morning.

“How long has this been going on?” she asked the maid.

“Since shortly after retiring for the evening, ma’am.”

It was over an hour before the doctor arrived with his bag.  He was a thin, wiry man with wire-rimmed spectacles and a high, furrowed brow.  He discretely slipped his hand beneath the sheets, then pulled it away just as Jane arched her back and let out a blood curdling scream of agony.  He made eye contact with my mother and shook his head as he washed his hands in another basin and motioned for her to follow him out of the room.   I also came, leaving Jane with the maid at her side.

“The baby is no longer alive.  I don’t know how long it has been so, but it is likely to have been a number of days,” he said in a low voice.

“What do we do?”


My mother nodded understanding.

I was outraged.  “What do you mean, nothing?” I whispered harshly.

The physician turned to look down at me.

“There is nothing to be done.” He placed extra emphasis on the horrid word.

“Can you not do something to dull the pain?” Bless my mother for asking.

“I can give her some laudanum, but only a small amount.”

“She has fever.” I said simply, something inside me knowing what this meant.

“Yes.  The infection means that she will likely not survive this,” he replied simply.

Another loud moan pierced the silence from within.  I hurried through the door back to her side.  The moan was drawn out and the pain clearly left her breathless.  “Evelyn, something is wrong.  It’s not right,” she panted.  I nodded. 

My mother returned with a small bottle in her hand, the laudanum.  She dosed what seemed like a tiny aliquot into a spoon and placed it at Jane’s lips.  Jane grimaced at the taste of the bitter liquid, but seemed to rest a bit afterward.  A number of hours passed with Jane stirring every few minutes, moaning, then seeming to rest.

“Her husband must be sent for.”  My mother had said, rising from a nearby chair much earlier.  “I will see to the arrangements.”  She and the maid had not returned. 

I moved back to the bed, brushing back Jane’s hair from her damp forehead as she writhed again, clearly in pain.  The fire crackled in the grate.  The clock read midday.  I was helpless to ease her suffering aside from the laudanum.  Jane had failed to pass the stillborn body, and it still lay wedged, festering within her.  I longed to ask someone how long this could go on, but I was afraid to leave her alone.  What if she died alone in this room? 

Shortly before nightfall, James arrived.  I could hear what could only be his hurried footfalls on the stairwell, coming down the hallway, pausing for a few seconds with his hand hesitating on the door itself.  I stood as he entered and backed away from the bed.  His jaw was set as he strode across the carpeting, but I could see the shock dawning in his face as he took in the sallow remnants of the woman he loved, fading away before him.  What does a man do when faced with a love like this?  I now know that he falls to his knees at her bedside, his body shaking with great, silent sobs, and with his shoulders bowed with the weight of his grief takes her hand, pressing it to his cheek.  I stood there in the corner for some time transfixed, afraid to stir but at the same time feeling great volumes of guilt for witnessing such a private moment.   Jane groaned loudly and thrashed a bit, clearly not recognizing James through her pain.  There was a strangled sound that escaped from James’ lips at this, rousing me into action.  I stepped toward the bottle of laudanum.  My hands shook as I poured a large amount into the spoon and bent to press it to her lips, gently lifting her head.  When she had taken it, I poured another spoonful and gave it, too, and a third.  Finally, I stopped and backed away.  James stayed by her side, whispering soothing things to her as the minutes ticked by until she finally passed.