As I wrote in a blog post recently, I like my heroes to be decent men, and I think readers like that too. We see a lot of so-called rakes and scoundrels in historical fiction, but before long we find that they have a motive to pretend bad behaviour, or their bad behaviour is a response to trauma.

Who is your favourite hero? What do you like about him? What does he need to change during the story to become the right hero for his heroine?

An emergency operation

In this excerpt, Ella saves Alex. He does the same for her on other occasions, of course, but I do love to redress the balance a little.

The operation would be performed in the outdoors, where the light was better. They were only a few yards from where the Maggie Belle was moored, and all going well, they would return there after the operation. Big Dan had agreed that they could travel on with the narrowboat if Ella was prepared to guarantee Alex was on the mend.

“I don’t wish to disoblige, Mrs Sedgewick, especially when you and himself have been so good to my Pat, but I don’t want a gentleman dying on my boat, and that’s a fact.”

The canal was the gentlest way to transport Alex to London, and Ella trusted Big Dan and didn’t want to start again with another boat. She paid his costs to stable Bess for another day, and a bit over for his trouble. If she was able to save Alex’s leg, they would be ready to travel on tomorrow. Not saving Alex was an intolerable thought, and she would not entertain it for a moment.

It was a cool day in late autumn, but fine and still. Alex was carried from the boat across the bridle path to the field where they had set up trestles on a borrowed door they had pressed into service to act as stretcher and operating table.

Barlow and Whitlock had returned to watch, and Mrs Manning had bullied them into washing so they could help hold Alex during the operation. Mrs Manning’s husband had also been an advocate of Alexander Gordon’s theories that contagion was minimised by cleanliness, something Ella’s father had taught her. She had seen the benefit many times when his patients and hers survived in greater numbers than those of other doctors.

With that in mind, she had boiled the lancets and probes Mrs Manning provided. The cloths they would use, too, had been freshly laundered in boiling water, and the door had been scoured with strong soap and then draped with a clean sheet.

They strapped Alex to the door to stop him moving, gave him a wooden block to bite on, washed his naked thigh and draped cloths around it to catch the fluids that would spill.

“I will be as quick as I can, Alex,” Ella said, and Alex smiled and told her, “I trust you, Ella.”

She could not think of that: could not consider she was about to cut into her nemesis, her saviour, her dear friend; could not remember the consequences if she failed. She said a quick prayer, and then, as her father had taught her, she took a deep breath and let it go, releasing with it all consciousness of the small crowd of watchers, of the still smaller crowd of helpers, of Alex as a person.

Before her was a leg. A thing of meat and bone and blood, and within it the enemy, the death-bringer. Finding the abscess, releasing the poison, that was her entire focus. The muscle of the thigh was simply something to be damaged as little as possible as she sliced into it to reach the poison beneath.

She had chosen the sharpest and most slender of the lancets, and with it she cut quickly and deeply. On another plane, someone gave a smothered, strangled scream and the thigh twitched, but not enough to deflect her blade from its path. There. Pus, a thick yellowy cream springing up the channel she had made mixed with the blood that tried to drown her view.

Of a sudden, her detachment deserted her, and she braced herself against the table, tightening her suddenly weak knees so she didn’t fall. Rotting flesh had an odour all its own; once smelled never forgotten. This was infection, but not rot. She was in time.

And time was of the essence. No indulging in vapours.