Ring of Stone
Rose Gwynn is determined to study as a physician in 1796 in England, a time when women were barred from medical school. When she prevails in assisting the local doctor, Rose uncovers a shocking secret that will threaten Dr. Nelson’s livelihood. Servant Catern Tresidder returns to the Cornish village to confront the man who raped her and committed murder. After Rose’s sister is betrothed to this brutal earl, Catern struggles with her demons to warn Rose of the truth. Rose’s attraction to a man far beneath her further complicates her situation. Three people fight society’s dictates to either face ruin or forge a happy ending. Through it all, the ancient stone circle near Rose’s house holds the key to her family’s past, and is positioned through the myths of Cornwall to save her sister’s life.
Rose threw open her trunk lid, scrabbled through petticoats, stays and stockings, and searched until her fingertips touched leather. Her precious possession was still there, safe. She lifted the heavy book and ran a hand over the tooled cover of the New Haven County Medical Society, 1788. The journal, published eight years before, had traveled with her from South Carolina.
She stared around the tiny room that looked out over the front of the house. The chamber might prove noisier and less enviable, but she’d have her own domain to contemplate the wisdom—as if she’d had a choice—of venturing into the wilds of Cornwall. Her skin prickled. Books would do her little good if everything else failed.
Her sister Claudia glided in through the open door, her light, corn silk hair loosened and her plump mouth in a frown.
“Poor, Mother. She’s already vexed over the house not being in a city. But Father takes her laments easily, thank goodness.” Claudia touched the post of the tester bed. “I do think it’s unfair she gave you this room. You’re the oldest and should have the larger chamber.”
A hired man shuffled down the corridor behind her. He stopped to leer at Claudia before moving on with a trunk clasped in his arms.
At eighteen—only two years younger than Rose—Claudia’s creamy complexion and sweet expression attracted men like ants to molasses. Her lavender travelling habit accentuated her slender figure. The male occupants of the coach had gawped at her for most of their journey from Plymouth.
Rose stood, stepped over and shut her bedroom door. “Don’t fret about it, sister. Mother put you in the favored place to remind me of my stubbornness. And my sharp tongue always manages to get me into trouble. I’ll survive, I daresay.” She shrugged it off, though life would be simpler if she and Mother had a better relationship.
She grasped Claudia’s soft, childlike hand, and pulled her to the window. Sporadic raindrops dripped dusty lines down the leaded panes. Under a sullen sky, the north coast of Cornwall appeared a desolate backcountry compared to the sultry vigor of Charleston.
“I hope the map was correct and this house is only a quarter mile from Lankyp. If we could slip away from our parents, I’d enjoy a brisk walk.” Rose stood on tiptoe and stretched her back; every muscle and vertebra ached after the jostling coach. “We’ll live among our forebears, who were so recently our enemies.”
“I worry we’ll be resented in such a small village.” Claudia hunched her narrow shoulders. “This is all such an alarming change. Perhaps a city would have been better.”
Rose put her arm around her sister. “Why wouldn’t they admire you, or any of us? We aren’t rebellious colonials anymore.” She stifled more misgivings about this undertaking. America had signed Jay’s treaty the previous year to end the hostilities with England. Unfortunately, England now warred with a France, a country seething in its own revolution.
“Father is at least happy to revisit his roots. I pray he can keep Mother calm.”
“I’m still surprised she gave in to Father’s request to live near where his ancestors came from, since none of them are left alive.” Rose stared out at the rocky hills and trees. Their father’s now deceased great uncle had recommended him for a bank manager’s position and the family reeled from shock when he’d accepted. “I wonder if any of his mysterious tales about this land are true.”
“Father does enjoy his stories. We’ll have to make an extra effort not to be ill-mannered with the local people.” Claudia trailed a finger down the glass. Her blue eyes, the same color as Rose’s, flashed. “Does he realize what you intend to do here? Mother will continue to oppose you. What if—”
“All in good time. I’ll try not to barge into any schemes too quickly.” Rose laughed to mask her tension, and the lie. She struggled against everyone to gain respect for her interests, a wearing prospect. “No one will stop me from pursuing my need to learn and hopefully, in the future, to even practice.”
“A female physician, that’s so hard to imagine—and such a great responsibility.” Claudia smiled fleetingly. “I envy your eagerness for knowledge.”
“Well, I don’t have to concentrate on a gracious disposition.” Rose winked and rubbed her sister’s shoulder. “But it’s a shame that cleverness in women is not deemed an asset.”
“Sadly, you’re right. I only hope you’ll be content in your choices.” Claudia eyed her with concern, then kissed her cheek. She reopened the door and slipped out to the corridor. “I’d better start to unpack.”
“People find contentment in different forms,” Rose whispered. Would she be happy in her constant forcing of her will on others in her quest to be taken seriously? Her mind buzzed with ideas. Cooking and embroidery shrank in importance next to searching for ways to improve health.
She dug her fingers into the trunk again, past smooth silks and taffetas, but found no other books. In the chaos of packing, she must have put them in her other trunk. Dropping the lid with a thud, she left the room and walked down the stairs of the newly leased house the land agent had called Avallen—a name that meant apple tree, he’d explained. Smoky flames of candlelight wavered in sconces as she passed.
Mother stood in the front hall among their baggage like a bastion of displeasure. “I doubt this ‘Lankyp’ has anything worth offering as far as shops or society, Mr. Gwynn.” The line between her eyes deepened on her fine-boned face. “How will our daughters meet eligible men if we remain in this forsaken place?”
“Please don’t worry, my dear. Bodmin isn’t that far. My position with Pennwith and Seaton will provide opportunities.” Father’s mischievous smile stretched his broad cheeks further. Medium-tall, his egg-shaped body filled his buff coat and breeches. He scooted a tea table into the parlor. “Enjoy the adventure. Consider it an unsuspecting terrain for you to conquer.”
“We had enough adventure dodging French warships, Father.” Rose breathed in the musty scent of the house as she approached. The wide oak floor groaned beneath her feet. “Where is my green trunk? I want to check on my medical books.”
“Dare I hope they are lost in the ocean?” Mother gave her best long-suffering look. “You know I say that for your own good, Rose.” She bent to inspect a torn trunk strap. A strand of blonde hair fell across her still smooth cheek. “More importantly, where are the servants I was promised?”
The two young men hired from the village carried more trunks upstairs, leaving the stink of pipe tobacco and body odor in their wake. The arranging of furniture scraped across the floor above.
Rose relaxed when she saw her green trunk hauled in on their next trip. She could soon forget this disruption and immerse herself once more in the fascinating details of medicine.
“You see, your treasures are safe.” Father pressed her shoulder. “I may not agree with your interests, Rosenwyn, but I try to appreciate them.”
“Thank you, Father. And I try to appreciate my impossible name: Rosenwyn Gwynn.” Rose patted his hand. The name was Cornish, yet came out an absurd rhyme, even if it meant “fair rose.” She’d never be the fair one and was resigned to sharing her father’s square face and stubborn chin. Claudia’s oval prettiness reflected their mother’s.
“Don’t forget, you had the opportunity to change it to Mrs. Grey.” Mother sniffed as she directed the returning men to carry a barrel of dishes to the kitchen, the blue silk ribbons on her straw hat wavering. “I wish you had thought more clearly about your future.” She touched a gloved finger to her forehead. “Oh, this has been a trying day. I have such a headache.”
“Suffocating in a dreary marriage was not the opportunity I deserved.” Rose stiffened her shoulders then forced a pensive smile. “Barley water is good for headaches, or leeches applied to the forehead. I could bleed you, perhaps?”
“Don’t speak of such things, they are highly improper.” Mother opened a hat box and plucked at the crumpled lace on a bonnet. “It’s time for you to stop this nonsense. You will put your talents toward a decent marriage. I won’t have you embarrassing me here as you did in Charleston.”
Rose’s respect frayed at the edges, yet she kept her voice even. “Why do we women have to sacrifice propriety to enrich our minds? Or subordinate ourselves to husbands, or any man.” That exposed another worry. If the village had no physician, she might be trapped in this remoteness as well as Mother. Her chest tightened.
“Leave her to her studying, my dear. It pleases her at the moment.” Father aimed a cajoling smile, his weapon of choice, toward Mother. “You know our Rose is an unusual sort of flower.”
“More of a weed, according to Mother,” Rose muttered to herself. Father also might have shed the burden of her support by now, but was too kindhearted to say so.
A back door slammed. Twelve-year-old Michael tramped down the hall, his chubby, freckled cheeks flushed. “The rain stopped and I explored in a meadow, and—”
“I thought you were upstairs. Why are you outside instead of assisting?” Mother then scrutinized Rose as if her wayward brother was her fault. “You left Claudia up there alone with all these rough men about?”
“I’ll go on up, dear.” Father started for the stairs. “To protect the princess.”
“Wait, Father. I think I found that stone ring you told us about.” Michael pulled off his bicorn hat, tousling sandy-brown hair.
“Ah, the one involved in the curse of my ancestors. I told you it was here. My great uncle assured me.” Father stroked his paunch that strained against the buttons of his frock coat.
“Mr. Gwynn.” Mother pinched his lapels then wagged a finger. “Please stop filling the children’s heads with foolish fables.” She nudged two hat boxes into her husband’s arms.
“If you wouldn’t mind, Mother, I’m in desperate need of fresh air…and exploring. I’d like Michael to show me the item. We won’t be long.” Before their habitual argument continued, Rose shuffled her brother past the front parlor, dining room, a flag-stoned kitchen and still room. The seventeenth century stone house was grand and spacious, hardly the hovel Mother had feared. Rose stepped outside into a cleansing smell of earth and tangy plants.
A pump stood near the back door and a well farther out. Two outbuildings sat several yards from the house, behind which a coppice of apple trees grew. A few green hills with shards of granite outcroppings rose beyond the orchard.
Bundled in her caraco jacket, she shivered in the damp coolness and rubbed her chin against the soft cotton fibers. “The area is beautiful, but the air is quite chilly for May.”
“Father said the woods are full of piskie imps and dangerous highwaymen.” Michael chuckled as he strode ahead.
“Smugglers are more likely to hide in these coastal inlets.” Dusk was descending, staining the sky a dark pewter, and she hesitated.
“Come this way, Rose. Or are you afraid of thieves and ghoulies?” Her brother scurried through tangled furze and twisted trees that spread over the grounds. Meadowsweet and bluebells splashed colors among them, dappled from the recent rain.
“I’ve always believed that boisterous boys should be stuffed down wells with heavy rocks in their pockets.” Rose stepped along the overgrown path that led down a slope, her skirt and petticoats brushing her ankles.
“You’d have to pull your nose from your books to catch me first.” Michael rushed down the slope. “I don’t know why you bother, only men can be doctors.”
“So everyone keeps reminding me. Why is change so frightening?” Rose bristled with the usual frustration. She followed carefully so as not to slip in the mud, inhaling more pungent smells in the waning light. Her brother could be a trial, but had an adventuresome spirit, a quality her mother and sister seemed to lack. “Don’t go too far. Wait for me.”
She reached a stream with moss-covered rocks. Michael scrambled up the bank on the other side. Rose snatched up and broke a tiny twig between her fingers, the bark abrasive against her skin—as abrasive as the temerity she’d need. A female could excel in a man’s occupation if given the chance, though she’d further alienate herself from her parents and any male hierarchy. She sighed, tossed the twig in the stream and watched the water eddy around it. Eyes closed a moment, she promised herself she would succeed, no matter the obstacles.
She hopped over the brook, hiked her skirts, and climbed the bank. Her brother’s thrashing footsteps faded. “Michael, I asked you to wait for me. We could easily get lost.”
High above her, tree branches rustled in the wind—and Michael disappeared into the foliage. Her heartbeat picked up. “Michael! It will be dark soon. How far is this ring?” The toes of her leather half boots dampened, she pushed her way through thick bracken that scratched her hands.
The brush opened up and she reached a grassy clearing. Her little brother waved to her from part way across.
“Hurry along, Rose. You have to see this.”
She stepped into the grass, prepared to scold him.
At the edge of the verdant expanse jutted several large stones. One smaller stone in front formed an uneven circle, like a granite ring. It looked ancient, sinister, glinting in a low sun that sent shadows creeping across the meadow.
Michael rushed up, eyes gleaming, and motioned her forward. When they walked closer, she cringed in the biting wind. The stones perched near the edge of a cliff. Down the precipice, the ocean bashed against rocky crags, spraying foam and mist.
She thrust out her arm to shield her brother from the edge.
He held down his hat and turned toward the stone ring. “That’s the magic stone Father always told us about. The one that saved his ancestor from something terrible.”
Up to this moment, Rose had dismissed Father’s tales of his relatives as whimsy. She preferred to rely on the practical. “It certainly appears to resemble his story. Then that’s why he chose this house, much to Mother’s chagrin.”
“It’s the very same one. You heard him say so. I think I’ll climb through it.”
The wind whipped around the stone—an eerie moan seemed to trumpet through the hole.
She tensed and caught his arm as he moved away from her. “I don’t know if you should. Let’s come back tomorrow with Father.”
“What’s the matter with you, Rose?” Michael tried to wriggle from her grasp. “Are you now behaving ladylike as Mother insists? It won’t suit you.”
“I must agree with that.” Never timid before, she experienced an uncomfortable thrumming in her veins as she continued to examine the stone as if it were a bizarre anatomy lesson. She stiffened against the sensation, to no avail. “We have to go back to the house. Climbing around these cliffs is dangerous. Mother will be livid if you tumble over.” She pulled her brother along with her, swishing her skirts through the grass toward the trees. The wind swept across her shoulder blades like fingers crawling on her flesh.
* * *
Charlie slipped back behind the gorse bushes as the young woman and the stocky boy left the stone anomaly shaped by wind and rain. So this was part of the American family who were moving into the old house. Charlie brushed a hand over the thick warm fur of Paddy’s head. The dog raised his nose and wagged his bushy tail. The two continued to stroll along the rocky trail and dipped under a canopy of trees.
“I’ve heard their father will be a banker in Bodmin. But why did they move out here, miles away? These people’s intrusion unsettles me, Paddy.”
The red setter panted and barked—always attentive to his owner’s voice. Did the dog ever pine for him, his first master? Charlie often did, at night, in what seemed like endless moments of solitude.
Their feet crunched over twigs as the scent of white Campion sweetened the breeze. Sprigs of shy violets formed bursts of color, darkened to the shade of blood by the setting sun.
“I’ve just become used to the inhabitants here, and now strangers arrive. I fear that everything might change. You always take chances with new eyes and opinions. The excuses start again, the avoidance, the anxiety of having to lie. But I must finish what I started. I have a prominent position here and don’t wish to jeopardize it.” Charlie hurried their pace. “Let us run, old boy, it will ease my trepidation. If we’re fortunate, though it’s unkind to say so, these newcomers will find the village not to their liking and won’t stay long.”
* * *
Rose pinned her hair into a respectable coiffure. If she twisted a few curls forward, her honey-colored locks would soften her visage, but she brushed the tendrils flat and tied on her straw hat. She’d been in residence for two days and hadn’t seen anything but Avallen, crates, and trunks. Yesterday their recently hired housekeeper, Mrs. Chegwidden, informed her that the village did have a physician. He was a young man named John Nelson.
Rose smiled into the looking glass. A younger man might be more open to her requests. Their curmudgeon of a doctor in Charleston had rarely answered her prying questions. Every time he’d turned up his nose at her, she’d surged with the need to know more.
She knocked on her sister’s door. “I’m walking into Lankyp. Are you certain you don’t wish to go? Rearranging your room can always wait.”
After a soft “No,” Rose decided she’d go alone. She descended the stairs and reached the parlor just as Mother tossed a book into the fireplace.
“What are you burning, Mother?”
“One of those pamphlets you’re always carting around. It’s dog-eared and full of awful descriptions. I found Michael reading it, and—”
“My pamphlet?” Rose dashed forward and snatched the book from the flames. She slapped it against her leg, scattering ashes. Hot sparks stung the back of her hand. “These pamphlets discuss important innovations on health in French clinics. How could you think of destroying them?” She patted down the singed edges.
“We don’t need any innovations from France. They murdered their king, their leaders, and each other, and that’s why they’re ill.” Mother glared at the gray ashes sprinkling her crimson Turkey rug. “Be careful! Look at the mess you’re making.”
Rose flipped the pages to remove any debris, and redirect her anger. “Please don’t ruin my possessions. These books increase my knowledge.”
“You need to drag your head from the clouds, my dear. As the daughter of a banker, you do not need to lower yourself to an occupation.” Mother huffed, hands on the hips of her salmon-colored round gown. “Your following around that old midwife in America was bad enough.”
“That wise old woman cared for the poor and the servants far beyond obstetrics. I respected her.” Observing the midwife’s skills had fueled Rose’s ambitions.
“No decent young lady would delve into such…indelicacies. No matter how contrary you enjoy being, eventually you will need a good husband to take care of you. Do you wish to end up a spinster?” Mother moved past her and ran a finger over a table near the window. “I must teach that new maid how to dust better. The girl seems quite the simpleton.”
“I’m not trying to be indecent. I only wish you would allow me to be who I am.” Rose had begged for this since she was thirteen. “It doesn’t make me an inadequate woman to search for more in my life. Many women have worked in the medical trade.”
“But only men are allowed to train as physicians. You know that, dear. I hate to see you disappoint yourself.” Mother pressed her arm, dismissing Rose’s desires like ice-cold soup. “Women of your status should be protected from unseemly ministrations.”
“I realize society’s barriers won’t crumble for me, but if people don’t push for changes, nothing will change. We feeble females would still be married off at age eleven to lascivious knights.” Rose bit her tongue to halt a gush of annoyance. “Please…don’t ever burn my books. Didn’t you have interests beyond being a wife and mother? Didn’t Grandmother encourage you in anything else?”
“I don’t wish to discuss my mother. But she believed in a substantial marriage above all else. Now I have work to do. This unpacking is endless.” Mother’s cheeks flushed as pink as her gown; she left the parlor.
Grandmother was eight years dead, and had always seemed to treat her daughter with a certain antagonism—a feeling Rose understood well.
With a groan she hurried the pamphlet upstairs and made a mental note to ask Father for a locked cabinet.
When she returned, Mother was nowhere to be seen. Their young maid Mary, a whey-faced girl with large dark eyes, was sweeping up the ashes in the parlor.
Rose refused to ask permission to leave. She opened the front door and strode down the hill, now glad to be alone.
Mother’s narrow-mindedness never surprised her, but she longed for a parent with more imagination. Unfortunately, her parent behaved like many matrons who treated their daughters like chattel to be disposed of through marriage.
Legs striding, arms swinging, Rose filtered her dismay into the energy it took to stroll through the beech trees along the narrow main road that ran before their house. A few birds twittered in irritation as she passed.
Cool spring air caressed her face, the atmosphere so different from the clammy marshes of South Carolina. Here you could breathe deeply, filling your lungs without clogging them with moisture. Still, she missed the piquant scents of jasmine and magnolia that once wafted in through her Charleston window.
In not quite a quarter of a mile, she slowed when the rush of a stream sounded to her right. A stone mill came into view. The mill’s wheel swooshed as it scooped up water and splashed it down as it turned.
Beyond that, the village spread out. She walked closer. Lankyp’s low buildings were of granite, stacked slate, or wattle and daub with a timber frame—crooked structures from a fairy story, Claudia would say.
Rose scrutinized this medieval little gem tucked in its narrow valley. Doubts about her place here quivered through her.
She nodded to a few passersby who stared, no doubt disturbed that she was without escort—or they were merely curious about the American outsider.
Her Revolution had ended thirteen years before, when she was eight. She remembered vaguely three years before that, the attack on Charleston, the fire-bombs from the British ships. She inhaled slowly and continued her stroll, head held high.
She passed a rectory, a green grocer’s and butcher’s shop. At the corner, down a road marked Smithy’s Lane, was a stable and tavern with the sign, Pig & Whistle. A blacksmith’s smoky shop sat across from the inn, in the shadow of the rough-stoned mill.
Near the end of the main street, on the left, an arched stone bridge spanned a small creek. A weathered moorstone church with a tall, pinnacled tower loomed beyond. She approached the wrought iron gate between granite pillars that led to the churchyard. The gate’s bars glistened, dappled in morning dew. The air here smelled damp with decay.
A Celtic wheel-head cross sprouted like a mushroom from the yard’s grass. It formed a circle, much like the stone behind her house.
Rose stepped away from the gate, examining every groove and bump in the cross’s granite. Even with a slight prickle at the back of her neck, she found herself drawn to this relic of ancient history.
Opposite the church, as she’d been informed, the physician’s shingle hung over the door of a small white cottage with yellow shutters. Rose crossed the street, but a woman with a whining little boy in tow rushed past her and entered the doctor’s house.
Rose sighed. She’d save her visit for later, after her perusal of the lending library the housekeeper had also told her about.
The library, a timber-framed abode with blue shutters, sat a few buildings down from the doctor’s. She opened the door and stepped in.
Dim and musty, the long, narrow room held numerous shelves crammed with books. The lattice windows, shining pale diamonds on the opposite wall, let in little light.
The many books surprised her. She nearly laughed then reached out to touch them.
“Can I help you, m’dear?” An elderly, bird-like woman with a cloud of silver-white hair shuffled out from behind a tall desk. Her face was the color of parchment, her skin papery.
“Yes, I’m interested in the local history.” Since she lived here, and after seeing the ring, Rose was determined to know more about her past. “I’m Miss Rose Gwynn.”
“Oh, the new Americans, I warrant. Welcome to Lankyp. Everyone calls me Damawyn.” The woman’s smile was sweet, but her tone measuring. She peered at Rose through thick spectacles. “You’ve picked an odd place to settle, haven’t you?”
“My ancestors originated from somewhere near this village.” Rose smiled broadly to dismiss the woman’s implied disapproval. “I’m curious about their background.”
“’Tis local history you want?” The woman turned, went to a nearby shelf and pulled down two books. “These should do it for you for a start.” Damawyn handed them to Rose. “We have plenty of history here. Our Church of St. Nona dates back to the fifteenth century.”
“I was near the churchyard. The church is beautiful in an austere way.” Rose stroked the brown and green books, the rich feel of leather, volumes of information she’d absorb. “How old is the wheel-head cross?”
“It’s said to be far older than the church, perhaps sixth century. St. Patrick combined the sun worshiped by the ancient Druids with the cross of Christianity to make that form.” The woman pointed a bony finger to the right. “We’re on the edge of the Bodmin Moor, once called the Fowey Moor for the river that rises there. There’s much to see up there, if you’re interested.”
“I might walk up there, thank you.” Rose opened the top book, releasing a fusty smell. “Lankyp is a unique name. What does it mean?”
Damawyn’s eyes sparkled for the first time. “Lann means your church site, and usually with a saint’s name attached. The kyp is for St. Cuby, a bishop born in the fifth century. He was a nephew of St. Nona.”
“You’re very knowledgeable.” Rose glanced around again, though anxious to leave to visit the doctor. “I’m impressed by the large amount of books you have.”
“The current earl’s maternal grandfather donated his extensive library when he died several years past.”
“There’s an earl that lives nearby?”
Mother would be excited to learn about an aristocrat here among the rustics. She and Claudia might well be marched up for the earl’s inspection if he wasn’t married.
“He’s the Earl of Tideford.” The woman said it softly as if the information didn’t quite please her. “Who were your ancestors, m’dear?”
“My relative’s name was Gwyntir,” Rose replied.
“Gwyntir? Are you certain that’s the name?” The woman grimaced, her eyes narrowing.
Rose felt a rush of coldness, as if a window had been thrust open then slammed shut. “That is the name my father told me. Perhaps I’ve mispronounced it.” She reached through her skirt slit into her inside pocket to change the subject. She handed the woman a list. “Can you request these medical books for me?”
“I suppose; probably from Bodmin or Truro.” Her tone wary, Damawyn peered closely at the paper, her spectacles sliding down to the tip of her nose. “For your husband, I expect. He’s studying to be a doctor?”
“I’m not married.” Rose fought the familiar impatience. “I’m studying myself. Do you manage the library, Mrs. Damawyn?”
“Only ‘Damawyn.’ It means grandmother. Now I manage the place.” The woman glared with obvious suspicion. “My husband was the librarian. But after he died I took over to help out. If you’ve no husband, then send your father down to pay the subscription fee.”
“The next time I’m in the village, I’ll pay the fee. Thank you for your help.” Rose clutched the books and left the library. Women always had to wait for men to clear their way, helplessly defined by who sired them or whom they married.
She straightened the skirt of her simple green walking dress and strode to the doctor’s cottage.
She stared up then touched the rough wood of the physician’s sign that squeaked back and forth on two small chains in the breeze. She sighed. How easy it was for the male species to grasp what they wanted. There were no restrictions, no preconceived notion of behavior. But envy would get her nowhere. She curled her fingers and rapped on the door.
After a few minutes, a pale, fair-haired young man answered.
“Good morning. Is Dr. Nelson in?” Rose smiled at this youth who had to be the doctor’s assistant, or a servant.
“I’m Dr. Nelson. How can I help you?” He stood straighter as if to make up for his lack of presence.
“I…am Miss Rose Gwynn. I know we haven’t been properly introduced, but I’d like to speak to you, if I may.” She tried not to stare. Dr. Nelson, with his delicate features and slight build, didn’t look old enough to have begun—much less finished—medical training.
“Please come in. You must be one of the daughters of the new tenants at Avallen.” He stepped back and she entered a polished hallway.
“That is correct. I’m the oldest and wanted to introduce myself.” Tall for a woman, she noticed that Nelson stood an inch or two shorter.
He showed her into a clean-smelling, small front parlor, which appeared to serve as a consulting office. Jars lined a shelved cupboard in an orderly fashion against the wall, each one labeled with a physic. On a table below sat a pestle and mortar, a wooden pill board, a pewter glyster, and wooden speculum.
“I look forward to meeting your parents,” Nelson said, as if he disapproved of her unscheduled visit. “Have you a particular ailment you wish to discuss?”
“I must confess that I’m very healthy and don’t require anything in that respect.” To refrain from running her fingers over the equipment, she smoothed the ruffle on her three-quarter sleeve.
“That’s good to hear. Please be seated. What can I do for you?” The doctor even sounded boyish. His kind, though somehow cautious, gray eyes, enhanced his frail handsomeness.
“Have you practiced here long?” Rose walked toward the bookcases instead of sitting. She’d intended to ease into her aspirations. However, surrounded by all she coveted infused her senses like a sip of liqueur.
“Over a year. Lankyp is my first practice.”
She perused his collection: De Morbis Cutaneis: A Treatise on Diseases of the Skin, by Daniel Turner, licentiate of the College of Physicians, 1731 edition. The Art of Surgery, also by Turner. But another book caught her eye. Without asking permission she lifted it out.
“The Female Physician, Containing All the Diseases Incident to that Sex, in Virgins, Wives, and Widows, 1724, by John Maubray.” She glanced over at Nelson, realizing she’d said this out loud. “I thought, foolishly I suppose, that it was about a female doctor, not a doctor of females.”
Nelson’s eyes widened for an instant. Then he looked away. “I don’t know of any recent treatises about women as doctors. They’ve been healers of a different sort.”
“But there have been women doctors throughout history.” She replaced the book and fingered the ones she carried. “I have tried to find information about such women.”
“Why are you interested in these things, may I ask?” His tone turned a little cold as he scrutinized her.
“That’s what I’ve come to discuss with you.” She scanned two other titles then faced him. “Since I was a little girl I’ve been interested in healing, practicing on cats and dogs, mostly. I set a dog’s leg, and he recovered quite well. I even treated our servants in America with poultices and syrups.
“I discovered a Lucretia Lester of Long Island who practiced midwifery for many years, but she was respected as a nurse and doctoress to the women she treated.” Rose sat in a Windsor chair before a large oak desk, the books in her lap.
“Women have long been respected as midwives.” Nelson sat at his desk. The size of the piece dwarfed him, and it displayed no personal items and no portraits hung on the walls.
He stared down at his hand and tapped a finger. “Of course, since the use of forceps started twenty years ago, which brought men into delivery rooms, midwives were relegated to rural communities or serving the poor.” He related this as if delivering a lecture. His stiff words pushed aside any friendliness.
Undaunted, Rose plunged on. “I also read an article in an old edition of the South Carolina Gazette about a Mrs. Grant who attended lectures by professors of Anatomy and Practice of Physick in Edinburgh. She had a certificate and practiced as a doctoress in Scotland.”
“I have heard of her. That was almost thirty years ago.” Nelson stared up again, his frown deep. “What do you hope to accomplish, Miss Gwynn?”
“You do know that women were allowed to be physicians in England until Henry VIII legislated to put a stop to it.” She pressed the history books against her thighs. “I believe it’s time that women were allowed back into the practice.”
“Do you intend to find a way to attend one of the medical colleges? I’m afraid that’s impossible.” His pale skin flushed as if he fought against a stronger emotion. “Being a physician has become a gentleman’s pursuit. Physicians must have licenses, and the surgeon or surgeon-apothecary is even more regulated now.” Nelson picked up a quill and scratched at his blotter.
She’d irritated him. However, she took it as a challenge. “But events are progressing all the time. I’ve kept abreast of current medical practices.” She leaned forward. “You are aware that Dr. Edward Jenner of Gloucestershire just developed the small pox vaccine. How exciting to have—”
“Too bad Jenner is a man and not a woman, which would strengthen your point.” Nelson looked weary for a moment, his gray eyes softer in his smooth face. “Of course I’m aware of such a spectacular discovery. He used inoculation with the related cow-pox virus to build immunity against the deadlier smallpox. Brilliant.”
“My point is, I imagine he had a lot of discouragement before his discovery. The cure for the dreadful scourge of our time.” Rose slid to the edge of the chair, her mouth almost too dry to speak. “What I was hoping is that you might lend me some of your books and offer me advice. What college did you attend? It was in London most likely.”
He stood abruptly, his chair scraping on the floorboards. “Miss Gwynn, I don’t think my books will help you. Or that your parents would appreciate me lending them to you.” He acted apologetic, yet hurried out into the front hall to snatch a coat and hat from a row of wall pegs. “I have to go and check on a patient on an outlying farm. I advise you to reconsider your idea. You might find it easier to delve into herbal healing.”
Rose stood. She’d expected this reaction, though he’d discussed far more with her than she might have anticipated on her first foray. She followed him, anxious to placate. “I’m sorry if I seemed too forward or wasted your time, Doctor.”
“Not at all. I just don’t wish to see you waste yours, Miss Gwynn.” Nelson’s voice held a tinge of regret before he held the door open for her. “We should speak no more of it.”
Her pulse skittered. She’d already alienated him with her brashness. “Perhaps we could talk again when you’re not so busy. I realize my enthusiasm…”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t elaborate on this subject. Enjoy your stay in Lankyp, and please come to see me if you suffer any ills.” He put on his hat and they stepped out to the street. He closed his door. “I give you good day.” The doctor nodded curtly and walked off.
“An eventful day…a beginning,” Rose replied as she dug her fingernails into the books’ edges. She swayed like a heron with its feet mired in mud.