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The wind had come up; I heard it rushing through the trees outside, and the glass window rattled in its frame.
“We’d better close the shutters,” I said, getting up to do so. The surgery window was the largest in the house, and thus endowed with both external and internal shutters—both to protect the precious expanse of glass panes from bad weather and potential attack, and to insulate the room against the creeping cold.
As I leaned out with the shutter hook in my hand, though, I saw a tall black figure hastening toward the house, skirts and cloak flying in the wind.
“You and your little dog, too,” I murmured, and risked a glance at the forest, in case of flying monkeys. A blast of cold air rushed past me into the surgery, rattling glassware and flipping the pages of the book that I had left open on the counter. Luckily I’d taken the precaution of removing the copyright page…
“What did you say?” Fanny had followed me and stood now in the surgery door, Bluebell yawning behind her.
“Mrs. Cunningham’s coming,” I said, leaving the shutters open and closing the window. “Go and let her in, will you? Put her in the parlor and tell her I’ll be right there; perhaps she’s come for the slippery elm powder I promised her.”
So far as Fanny was concerned, Mrs. Cunningham probably was the Wicked Witch of the West, and her manner in inviting the lady inside reflected as much. To my surprise, I heard Mrs. Cunningham declining to sit in the parlor, and in seconds, she was in the door of the surgery, windblown as a bat, and pale as a pat of fresh butter.
“I need…” But she was sagging toward the floor as she spoke, and fell into my arms before she managed a whispered, “help.”
Fanny gasped, but grabbed Mrs. Cunningham round the waist, and together we bundled her onto my surgery table. She was clutching her black shawl tight with one hand, holding on like grim death. She’d been gripping it against the wind so hard that her fingers had locked with cold, and it was a job to get the shawl loose.
“Bloody hell,” I said, but mildly, seeing what the trouble was. “How did you manage to do that? Fanny, get me the whisky.”
“Fell,” Mrs. Cunningham rasped, beginning to get her breath back. “Tripped over the scuttle, like a fool.” Her right shoulder was badly dislocated, the humerus humped and elbow drawn in against her ribs, the apparent deformity adding a lot to the witchy impression.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, looking for a way to ease her bodice off so I could reduce the dislocation without tearing the cloth. “I can fix it.”
“I wouldn’t have staggered two miles downhill through buggering brambles if I didn’t think you could,” she snapped, the warmth of the room beginning to revive her. I smiled and, taking the bottle from Fanny, uncorked it and handed it to Elspeth, who put it to her lips and took several slow, deep gulps, pausing to cough in between.
“Your husband… knows… his trade,” she said hoarsely, handing the bottle back to Fanny.
“Several of them,” I agreed. I’d got the bodice loose, but couldn’t free the strap of her stays and instead severed it with a Gordian stroke of my scalpel. “Hold her tight round the chest, please, Fanny.”
Elspeth Cunningham knew exactly what I was trying to do, and gritting her teeth, she deliberately relaxed her muscles as far as she could—not all that far, under the circumstances, but every little bit helped. I supposed she must have seen it done on ships—that had to have been the source of the language she was using while I maneuvered the humerus into the correct angle. Fanny snorted with amusement at “grass-combing son of a buggering sod!” as I rotated the arm and the head of the humerus popped back into place.
“It’s been a long time since I heard language like that,” Fanny said, her lips twitching.
“If you have to do with sailors, young woman, you acquire both their virtues and their vices.” Elspeth’s face was still white and shone like polished bone under a layer of sweat, but her voice was steady and her breath was coming back. “And where, might I ask, did you hear language like that?”
Fanny glanced at me, but I nodded and she said simply, “I lived in a brothel for some time, ma’am.”
“Indeed.” Mrs. Cunningham drew her wrist out of my grasp and sat up, rather shaky, but bracing herself with her good hand on the table. “I suppose whores must also have both virtues and vices, then.”
“I don’t know about the virtues,” Fanny said dubiously. “Unless you count being able to milk a man in two minutes by the clock.”
I had taken a nip of the whisky myself, and choked on it.
“I think that would be classed as a skill, rather than a virtue,” Mrs. Cunningham told Fanny. “Though a valuable one, I daresay.”
“Well, we all have our strong points,” I said, wanting to put a stop to the conversation before Fanny said anything else. My relationship with Elspeth Cunningham had warmed—but only to a certain degree. We respected each other, but could not quite be friends, owing to the mutual but unacknowledged realization that at some point, political reality might oblige my husband and her son to try to kill each other.
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Excerpt from GO TELL THE BEES THAT I AM GONE, Copyright © Diana Gabaldon 2021. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and repost this excerpt elsewhere; instead share the link to this blog post. Thank you.
And many thanks to Beve Danforth Mills for the lovely bee photo!
This excerpt (aka “Daily Lines”) was posted on my official Facebook page on Saturday, October 22, 2021.