Her mother would be scandalized. Her father would be amused, but perhaps also scandalized. If either of them were alive, instead of dead of Spanish flu, she would not
But Cat could not find it in her heart to set her course differently.
The charm-hot water in the bathing-tub rippled as she stretched a foot up, her toes spreading as she relieved them of the pressure of being crammed into a point-toe boot all day. Her charing-charm was skinwarm, resting quiescent against her breastbone.
Rather too late for that, though. Her face scrunched up, and she slid down farther in the rude copper tub.
Robbie was all she had left, other than her sufficiency. There was his inheritance, the bulk of their parents’ estate; but she had been left quite enough to do as she pleased for the rest of her life, or to make a fine marriage if she wished. Her father’s arrangements, as befitted a practical man of the Barrowe-Browne clans, had been most thorough.
She could perhaps wish Robbie were as practical. He might not have gone haring off into the Westron Wastes seeking adventure, if…
She moved again, restlessly. It would simply spoil her bath if she continued in this manner, and after today’s events she rather thought she deserved a small bit of relaxation.
A globe of heat from the stove downstairs drifted into the narrow, closet-sized water-room. It hesitated, but Cat’s fingers flicked, and she brought it down to meld with the bathwater’s trembling surface, sighing with pleasure as it hissed. The water sent up trails and curls of steam as she shifted carefully again.
There was little pleasure to be had in her reflections, however. Mr. Tilson was a brute, but he was also a figure of some importance in the town. Mrs. Granger, almost apoplectic at the thought of Ladies Of A Certain Class sitting at desks reserved for the children of the hame, was a far greater worry. It was such women who were the keepers of Reputation, and Cat’s had perhaps taken rather a beating.
Still, what was she to do? Allowing Mr. Tilson’s threats to set her course was unworthy of a Barrowe-Browne. And Cat could not hie herself into the saloon and hold reading classes
At least the sheriff had not made any trouble. Rather, he seemed to have quite an interest in the literacy of the saloon girls. Perhaps he was…involved? Miss Tiergale had clung to his arm, certainly. This was the Wild Westron; perhaps such things were not frowned upon.
In any case, he was a man, and could do as he pleased.
No, she could not. Yet certain things that were impossible in Boston—for example, smashing a brute in his pig face with a stick—were possible here. Not only possible, but unavoidable.
What else was unavoidable?
A chartershadow, in a pawnshop. She imagined a fading, balding man, his body twisted by misuse of mancy. In novels, the chartershadow was always a villain, and those who went to him paid a price far greater than mere mancy or Reputation. Of course, one could not take novels as a foundation for one’s actions.
Chartershadows were dangerous. Her fingers rested against her charing-charm, and its delicate ridges and whorls were as familiar as her own breathing. A shadow could perhaps break a charing, and where would she be then? Vulnerable to any stray mancy, at the mercy of whoever wished to ill-charm her…
She must merely plan carefully. And take measures to defend herself, should she wish to go gallivanting about after dark here in the wilderness.
Cat cocked her head. Slippered feet in the hallway, brushing oddly as if the person attached to them staggered. She smoothed away the frown rising to her face and gathered herself, rising gingerly from the tub’s depths and sighing a little as cool air hit her wet skin.
She had just barely wrapped a drying-cloth about herself when Li Ang appeared. The Chinoise girl’s face was contorted, and her fingers sank into the doorframe as a shudder wracked her. Great pearls of sweat stood out on her caramel skin, and her dress held large sweat stains under her arms. Her belly, held before her like a fruit, suddenly looked…odd. Flattened, almost.
The girl gabbled something in Chinoisie. She bent forward, her face contorting even further, a mask of suffering.
“Good God,” Cat breathed, just as there was a gushing patter. The fluid hit the floor, and Li Ang made a small, hopeless noise as her feet were bathed in the hot flood.
The Chinoise girl was having her baby.
And just at that moment, a series of knocks thundered against the front door.
* * *
It was certainly not respectable to throw open the door while clad only in a flannel wrapper, her hair soaked and clinging. Li Ang made another long groaning noise overhead, and the cottage answered with a groan of its own.
She had managed to get the girl onto the bed in Cat’s own room and bolted downstairs, her bare feet slapping the floor so hard it stung.
“Help!” she choked, as she flung the door open and saw the garden, dipped in dusky purple. And there, at the gate, was a familiar hat and broad shoulders in a dun coat.
A sharp prickle of annoyance—what business did he have here after today? She quickly strangled it, and cleared her throat. “I say, Mr. Gabriel!
He was suddenly right in front of her, and Cat almost stumbled back. He caught her arm, work-roughened fingers sinking in, grinding on the fresh bruise of Mr. Tilson’s grasp. She flinched, and his hand loosened. Would men never tire of shaking her about so?
“Slow down.” His pale gaze flicked behind her. “All’s well, miss. I’m here.”
It was odd, but instead of improper, the words were…comforting. Certainly he was dependable, in his own rather rude fashion. “It’s Li Ang,” she managed. “She’s having her…I mean, she is with…She is in labor, sir. Fetch a midwife. A doctor!”
“Hm.” He nodded. “I see. I’d get Doc Howard, but he don’t hold with no Chinee. Listen to me.” He tipped his hat back with two fingers, looking down at her. “I’ll fetch help. You bar this door and the kitchen door, too. Make her as comfortable as you can. Boil water, and get clean cloths. We’ll need a lot of linen, and a lot of boiled water. Or at least, so I’ve heard midwives say. Don’t you open this door until I come back. You’ll know it’s me; I’ll shout fit to raise the dead.
“Don’t you worry about that now. For right now, go on up and tell Li Ang that nobody’s going to take her baby.” With that, he backed up, reaching for the door. “
“Nobody is going to take her—”
Another long groan from overhead, spiraling up into a hoarse cry.
The girl was up there alone, and in pain. Cat bit her lip, working the pump handle to fill the huge black kettle. She set it on the stove, stammered a boiling-charm—it took her two tries to remember an applicable one from Miss Bowdler’s first book—and ran for the hall.
She halted, staring at the exact spot where Jack Gabriel had stood. He hadn’t looked surprised or ruffled in the least. Come to think of it, he hadn’t looked ruffled since she’d met him. Such phlegm might be maddening, but it was also strangely consoling. If he said he was going to bring help, then help he would bring, and as soon as possible too.
Cat climbed the stairs on trembling legs. Clammy and damp—she should find more appropriate attire before Mr. Gabriel returned.
Li Ang’s next groan spiraled into a scream, and Cat put aside the shaking…and ran.