A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 52


“Good,” said Ian, with obvious approval.

I felt a small lurch of the stomach. I disliked Donner, distrusted him, and to be honest, really didn’t feel that his death would be a great loss to humanity, by and large. But he was a fellow traveler; did that impose any obligation on our part to help him? More importantly, perhaps—did he have any more information that he hadn’t told us yet?

“Mr. Townsend has gone to Campbelton,” the butler added, offering the tray to Ian. “To ask Mr. Farquard to attend to the case promptly, as he is bound for Halifax, and wishes to give his witness at once.” Farquard Campbell was a justice of the peace—and likely the only thing approaching a judge within the county, since the Circuit Court had ceased to operate.

“They won’t hang him before tomorrow, though, I don’t suppose,” Brianna said. She didn’t normally drink whisky, but had taken a glass now; the encounter had shaken her, too. I saw she had turned the ring around upon her finger, rubbing the big ruby absentmindedly with her thumb.

“No,” said Ian, looking at her suspiciously. “Ye dinna mean to—” He glanced at me. “No!” he said in horror at the indecision he saw on my face. “Yon fellow’s a thief and a blackguard, and if ye didna see him burning and killing wi’ your own eyes, Auntie, ye ken well enough he did it. For God’s sake, let them hang him and have done!”

“Well . . .” I said, wavering. The sound of footsteps and voices in the hall saved me answering. Jamie and Duncan had been in Cross Creek; now they were back. I felt an overwhelming flood of relief at sight of Jamie, who loomed up in the doorway, sunburned and ruddy, dusty from riding.

“Hang who?” he inquired cheerfully.

JAMIE’S OPINION WAS the same as Ian’s; let them hang Donner, and good riddance. He was reluctantly persuaded that either Brianna or I must talk to the man at least once more, though, to be sure there was nothing further he could tell us.

“I’ll speak to the gaoler,” he said without enthusiasm. “Mind, though”—he pointed a monitory finger at me—“neither of ye is to go anywhere near the man, save Ian or I am with ye.”

“What do you think he’d do?” Brianna was ruffled, annoyed at his tone. “He’s about half my size, for heaven’s sake!”

“And a rattlesnake is smaller yet,” her father replied. “Ye wouldna walk into a room with one of those, only because ye outweigh him, I hope?”

Ian snickered at that, and Brianna gave him an elbow, hard in the ribs.

“Anyway,” Jamie said, ignoring them, “I’ve a bit of news. And a letter from Roger Mac,” he said. He pulled it out of his shirt, smiling at Bree. “If ye’re no too distracted to read it?”

She lit up like a candle and grabbed it. Ian made a teasing snatch at it, and she slapped his hand away, laughing, and ran out of the room to read it in privacy.

“What sort of news?” I asked. Ulysses had left the tray and decanter; I poured a tot into my empty glass and gave it to Jamie.

“Someone’s seen Manfred McGillivray,” he replied. “Slàinte.” He drained the glass, looking contented.

“Oh, aye? Where?” Ian looked less than pleased at this news. For myself, I was thrilled.

“In a brothel, where else?”

Unfortunately, his informant had not been able to supply the exact location of said brothel—having likely been too drunk at the time to know precisely where he was, as Jamie cynically observed—but had been reasonably sure that it was in Cross Creek or Campbelton. Also unfortunately, the sighting was several weeks old. Manfred might well have moved on.

“It’s a start, though,” I said, hopeful. Penicillin was effective, even against more advanced cases of syphilis, and I had some brewing in the winter kitchen, even now. “I’ll go with you, when you go to the gaol. Then after we’ve spoken with Donner, we can go look for the brothel.”

Jamie’s look of contentment lessened appreciably.

“What? Why?”

“I dinna think Manfred would be still there, Auntie,” Ian said, patently amused. “I doubt he’d have the money, for one thing.”

“Oh, ha ha,” I said. “He might have said where he was staying, mightn’t he? Besides, I want to know whether he was showing any symptoms.” In my own time, it might be ten, twenty, or even thirty years after the appearance of the initial chancre before further syphilitic symptoms developed; in this time, though, syphilis was a much more fulminant disease—a victim could die within a year of infection. And Manfred had been gone for more than three months; God knew how long since he had first contracted the infection.

Jamie looked distinctly unenthused about the idea of searching for brothels; Ian seemed rather more interested.

“I’ll help look,” he volunteered. “Fergus can come, too; he kens a great deal about whores—they’d likely talk to him.”

“Fergus? Fergus is here?”

“He is,” Jamie said. “That was the other bit of news. He’s payin’ his respects to my aunt at the moment.”

“Why is he here, though?”

“Well, ye heard the talk at the barbecue, aye? About Mr. Simms, the printer, and his troubles? It seems they’ve got worse, and he thinks of selling up, before someone burns his shop to the ground and him in it. It struck me that perhaps it would suit Fergus and Marsali, better than the farming. So I sent word for him to come down, and maybe have a word wi’ Simms.”

“That’s a brilliant idea!” I said. “Only . . . what would Fergus use for money to buy it?”

Jamie coughed and looked evasive.

“Aye, well. I imagine some sort of bargain might be struck. Particularly if Simms is anxious to sell up.”

“All right,” I said, resigned. “I don’t suppose I want to know the gory details. But Ian—” I turned to him, fixing him with a beady eye. “Far be it from me to offer you moral advice. But you are not—repeat, not—to be questioning whores in any deeply personal manner. Do I make myself clear?”

“Auntie!” he said, pretending shock. “The idea!” But a broad grin spread across his tattooed face.



IN THE EVENT, I let Jamie go alone to the gaol to make arrangements for seeing Donner. He had assured me that this would be simpler without my presence, and I had several errands in Cross Creek. Besides the usual salt, sugar, pins, and other household goods needing replenishment, I urgently needed more cinchona bark for Lizzie. The gallberry ointment worked to treat malarial attacks, but was not nearly so effective as Jesuit bark in preventing them.

The British trade restrictions were having their effect, though. There was, of course, no tea to be found—I had expected that; there had been none for nearly a year—but neither was there any sugar, save at an exorbitant price, and steel pins were not to be found at all.

Salt, I could get. With a pound of this in my basket, I made my way up from the docks. The day was hot and humid; away from the slight breeze off the river, the air was motionless and thick as treacle. The salt had solidified in its burlap bags, and the merchant had had to chip off lumps of it with a chisel.

I wondered how Ian and Fergus were coming with their researches; I had a scheme in mind regarding the brothel and its inhabitants, but first, we had to find it.

I hadn’t mentioned the idea to Jamie. If anything came of it, that would be time enough. A side street offered shade, in the form of a number of large elms that had been planted so as to overhang the street. I stepped into the welcome shadow of one of these, and found myself at the edge of the fashionable district—about ten houses, all told—of Cross Creek. From where I stood, I could see Dr. Fentiman’s fairly modest abode, distinguished by a small hanging shingle decorated with a caduceus. The doctor was not in when I called, but his servant, a neat, plain young woman with badly crossed eyes, admitted me and showed me to the consulting room.

This was a surprisingly cool and pleasant room, with large windows and a worn canvas cloth on the floor, painted in blue and yellow chequers, and furnished with a desk, two comfortable chairs, and a chaise longue on which patients might recline for examination. He had a microscope standing on the desk, through which I peered with interest. It was a fine one, though not quite so good as my own, I thought with some complacency.

I was possessed of a strong curiosity about the rest of his equipment, and was debating with myself as to whether it would be an abuse of the doctor’s hospitality to snoop through his cupboards, when the doctor himself arrived, borne on the wings of brandywine.

He was humming a little tune to himself, and carrying his hat under one arm, his battered medical case in the crook of the other. Seeing me, he dropped these carelessly on the floor and hastened to grasp me by the hand, beaming. He bowed over my hand and pressed moistly fervent lips to my knuckles.

“Mrs. Fraser! My dear lady, I am so pleased to see you! You are in no physical distress, I trust?”

I was in some danger of being overwhelmed by the fumes of alcohol on his breath, but kept as cordial a countenance as possible, unobtrusively wiping my hand upon my gown, whilst assuring him that I was entirely well, as were all the members of my immediate family.

“Oh, splendid, splendid,” he said, plumping down quite suddenly upon a stool and giving me an enormous grin, revealing tobacco-stained molars. His oversize wig had slid round sideways, causing him to peer out from under it like a dormouse under a tea cozy, but he seemed not to have noticed. “Splendid, splendid, splendid.”

I took his rather vague wave as invitation and sat down, as well. I had brought a small present in order to sweeten the good doctor, and now removed this from my basket—though in all truth, I rather thought he was so well-marinated as to require little more attention before I broached the subject of my errand.

He was, however, thrilled with my gift—a gouged-out eyeball, which Young Ian had thoughtfully picked up for me following a fight in Yanceyville, hastily preserved in spirits of wine. Having heard something of Doctor Fentiman’s tastes, I thought he might appreciate it. He did, and went on saying, “Splendid!” at some length.

Eventually trailing off, he blinked, held the jar up to the light, and turned it round, viewing it with great admiration.

“Splendid,” he said once more. “It will have a most particularly honorable place in my collection, I do assure you, Mrs. Fraser!”

“You have a collection?” I said, affecting great interest. I’d heard about his collection.

“Oh, yes, oh, yes! Would you care to see it?”

There was no possibility of refusal; he was already up and staggering toward a door at the back of his study. This proved to lead into a large closet, the shelves of which held thirty or forty glass containers, filled with alcoholic spirits—and a number of objects which could indeed be described as “interesting.”

These ranged from the merely grotesque to the truly startling. One by one, he brought out a big toe sporting a wart the size and color of an edible mushroom, a preserved tongue which had been split—apparently during the owner’s lifetime, as the two halves were quite healed—a cat with six legs, a grossly malformed brain (“Removed from a hanged murderer,” as he proudly informed me. “I shouldn’t wonder,” I murmured in reply, thinking of Donner and wondering what his brain might look like), and several infants, presumably stillborn, and exhibiting assorted atrocious deformities.

“Now, this,” he said, lifting down a large glass cylinder in trembling hands, “is quite the prize of my collection. There is a most distinguished physician in Germany, a Herr Doktor Blumenbach, who has a world-renowned collection of skulls, and he has been pursuing me—nay, absolutely pestering me, I assure you!—in an effort to persuade me to part with it.”

“This” was the defleshed skulls and spinal column of a double-headed infant. It was, in fact, fascinating. It was also something that would cause any woman of childbearing age to swear off sex immediately.

Grisly as the doctor’s collection was, though, it offered me an excellent opportunity for approaching my true errand.

“That is truly amazing,” I said, leaning forward as though to examine the empty orbits of the floating skulls. They were separate and complete, I saw; it was the spinal cord that had divided, so that the skulls hung side by side in the fluid, ghostly white and leaning toward each other so that the rounded heads touched gently, as though sharing some secret, only separating when a movement of the jar caused them momentarily to float apart. “I wonder what causes such a phenomenon?”

“Oh, doubtless some dreadful shock to the mother,” Doctor Fentiman assured me. “Women in an expectant condition are fearfully vulnerable to any sort of excitement or distress, you know. They must be kept quite sequestered and confined, well away from any injurious influences.”

“I daresay,” I murmured. “But you know, some malformations—that one, for instance?—I believe are the result of syphilis in the mother.”

It was; I recognized the typical malformed jaw, the narrow skull, and the caved-in appearance of the nose. This child had been preserved with flesh intact, and lay curled placidly in its bottle. By the size and lack of hair, it had likely been premature; I hoped for its own sake that it had not been born alive.

“Shiphi—syphilis,” the doctor repeated, swaying a little. “Oh, yes. Yes, yes. I got that particular little creature from a, um . . .” It occurred to him belatedly that syphilis was perhaps not a topic suitable to discuss with a lady. Murderer’s brains and two-headed children, yes, but not venereal disease. There was a jar in the closet that I was reasonably sure contained the scrotum of a Negro male who had suffered from elephantiasis; I noticed he hadn’t shown me that one.

“From a prostitute?” I inquired sympathetically. “Yes, I suppose such misfortunes must be common among such women.”

To my annoyance, he slithered away from the desired topic.

“No, no. In fact—” He darted a look over his shoulder, as though fearing to be overheard, then leaned near me and whispered hoarsely, “I received that specimen from a colleague in London, some years ago. It is reputed to be the child of a foreign nobleman!”

“Oh, dear,” I said, taken aback. “How . . . interesting.”

At this rather inconvenient point, the servant came in with tea—or rather, with a revolting concoction of roasted acorns and chamomile, stewed in water—and the conversation turned ineluctably toward social trivia. I was afraid that the tea might sober him up before I could inveigle him back in the right direction, but luckily the tea tray also included a decanter of fine claret, which I dispensed liberally.

I had a fresh try at drawing him back into medical subjects, by leaning over to admire the jars left out on his desk. The one nearest me contained the hand of a person who had had such an advanced case of Dupuytren’s contracture as to render the appendage little more than a knot of constricted fingers. I wished Tom Christie could see it. He had avoided me since his surgery, but so far as I knew, his hand was still functional.

“Isn’t it remarkable, the variety of conditions that the human body displays?” I said.

He shook his head. He had discovered the state of his wig and turned it round; his wizened countenance beneath it looked like that of a solemn chimpanzee—bar the flush of broken capillaries that lit his nose like a beacon.

“Remarkable,” he echoed. “And yet, what is quite as remarkable is the resilience a body may show in the face of quite terrible injury.”

That was true, but it wasn’t at all the line I wished to work upon.

“Yes, quite. But—”

“I am very sorry not to be able to show you one specimen—it would have been a notable addition to my collection, I assure you! But alas, the gentleman insisted upon taking it with him.”

“He—what?” Well, after all, I had in my time presented various children with their appendixes or tonsils in a bottle, following surgery. I supposed it wasn’t entirely unreasonable for someone to wish to retain an amputated limb.

“Yes, most astonishing.” He took a meditative sip of claret. “A testicle, it was—I trust you will pardon my mentioning it,” he added belatedly. He hesitated for an instant, but in the end, simply couldn’t resist describing the occurrence. “The gentleman had suffered a wound to the scrotum, a most unfortunate accident.”

“Most,” I said, feeling a sudden tingle at the base of my spine. Was this Jocasta’s mysterious visitor? I had been keeping off the claret, in the interests of a clear head, but now poured a tot, feeling it needed. “Did he say how this unfortunate incident transpired?”

“Oh, yes. A hunting accident, he said. But they all say that, don’t they?” He twinkled at me, the end of his nose bright red. “I expect it was a duello. The work of a jealous rival, perhaps!”

“Perhaps.” A duello? I thought. But most duels of the time were fought with pistols, not swords. It really was good claret, and I felt a little steadier. “You—er—removed the testicle?” He must have, if he had been contemplating adding it to his ghastly collection.

“Yes,” he said, and was not too far gone to give a small sympathetic shudder at the memory. “The gun-shot had been seriously neglected; he said it had occurred some days previous. I was obliged to remove the injured testicle, but fortunately preserved the other.”

“I’m sure he was pleased about that.” Gun-shot? Surely not, I was thinking. It can’t be . . . and yet . . . “Did this happen quite recently?”

“Mmm, no.” He tilted back in his chair, eyes crossing slightly with the effort of recall. “It was in the spring, two years ago—May? Perhaps May.”

“Was the gentleman named Bonnet, by chance?” I was surprised that my voice sounded quite casual. “I believe I had heard that a Stephen Bonnet was involved in some such . . . accident.”

“Well, you know, he would not give his name. Often patients will not, if the injury is one that might cause public embarrassment. I do not insist in such cases.”

“But you do remember him.” I found that I was sitting on the edge of my chair, claret cup clenched in my fist. With a little effort, I set it down.

“Mm-hmm.” Damn, he was getting sleepy; I could see his lids begin to droop. “A tall gentleman, well-dressed. He had a . . . a most beautiful horse. . . .”

“A bit more tea, Doctor Fentiman?” I urged a fresh cup upon him, willing him to stay awake. “Do tell me more about it. The surgery must have been quite delicate?”

In fact, men never like to hear that the removal of testicles is a simple matter, but it is. Though I would admit that the fact of the patient’s being conscious during the whole procedure had likely added to the difficulty.

Fentiman regained a bit of his animation, telling me about it.

“. . . and the ball had gone straight through the testicle; it had left the most perfect hole. . . . You could look quite through it, I assure you.” Plainly he regretted the loss of this interesting specimen, and it was with some difficulty that I got him to tell me what had become of the gentleman to whom it belonged.

“Well, that was odd. It was the horse, you see . . .” he said vaguely. “Lovely animal . . . long hair, like a woman’s, so unusual . . .”

A Friesian horse. The doctor had recalled that the planter Phillip Wylie was fond of such horses, and had said as much to his patient, suggesting that as the man had no money—and would not be capable of riding comfortably for some time, in any case—he might think of selling his animal to Wylie. The man had agreed to this, and had requested the doctor to make inquiry of Wylie, who was in town for the Court Sessions.

Doctor Fentiman had obligingly gone out to do so, leaving his patient cozily tucked up on the chaise with a draught of tincture of laudanum.

Phillip Wylie had professed himself most interested in the horse (“Yes, I’ll wager he was,” I said, but the doctor didn’t notice), and had hastened round to see it. The horse was present, but the patient was not, having absconded on foot in the doctor’s absence—taking with him half a dozen silver spoons, an enameled snuffbox, the bottle of laudanum, and six shillings, which happened to be all the money the doctor had in the house.

“I cannot imagine how he managed it,” Fentiman said, eyes quite round at the thought. “In such condition!” To his credit, he appeared more distressed at the notion of his patient’s condition than his own loss. He was a terrible drunkard, Fentiman, I thought; I’d never seen him completely sober—but not a bad doctor.

“Still,” he added philosophically, “all’s well as ends well, is it not, my dear lady?”

By which he meant that Phillip Wylie had purchased the horse from him for a price sufficient to more than compensate for his losses, and leave him with a tidy profit.

“Quite,” I said, wondering just how Jamie would take this news. He had won the stallion—for it must of course be Lucas—from Phillip Wylie in the course of an acrimonious card game at River Run, only to have the horse stolen by Stephen Bonnet a few hours later.

On the whole, I expected that Jamie would be pleased that the stallion was back in good hands, even if they weren’t his. As for the news about Bonnet . . . “A bad penny always turns up,” had been his cynical opinion, expressed when Bonnet’s body had failed to be discovered after Brianna had shot him.

Fentiman was openly yawning by now. He blinked, eyes watering, patted about his person in search of a handkerchief, then bent to rummage in his case, which he had dropped on the floor near his chair.

I had pulled out my own handkerchief and leaned across to hand it to him, when I saw them in the open case.

“What are those?” I asked, pointing. I could see what they were, of course; what I wanted to know was where he’d got them. They were syringes, two of them, lovely little syringes, made of brass. Each one was composed of two bits: a plunger with curled handles, and a cylindrical barrel, drawn out at the narrowed end into a very long, blunt-tipped needle.

“I—why—that is . . . ah . . .” He was terribly taken aback, and stammered like a schoolboy caught sneaking cigarettes behind the toilets. Then something occurred to him, and he relaxed.

“Ears,” he declared, in ringing tones. “For cleansing ears. Yes, that is what they are, indubitably. Ear clysters!”

“Oh, are they really?” I picked one up; he tried to stop me, but his reflexes were delayed, and he succeeded only in grabbing at the ruffle of my sleeve.

“How ingenious,” I said, working the plunger. It was a little stiff, but not bad at all—particularly not when the alternative was a makeshift hypodermic composed of a leather tube with a rattlesnake’s fang attached. Of course a blunt tip wouldn’t do, but it would be a simple matter to cut it to a sharp angle. “Where did you get them? I should like very much to order one myself.”

He stared at me in abject horror, jaw agape.

“I—er—I really do not think . . .” he protested feebly. Just then, in a perfect miracle of bad timing, his housemaid appeared in the doorway.

“Mr. Brennan’s come; it’s his wife’s time,” she said briefly.

“Oh!” Doctor Fentiman leapt to his feet, slammed shut his case, and snatched it up.

“My apologies, dear Mrs. Fraser . . . must go . . . matter of great urgency—so pleasant to have seen you!” He rushed out, case clutched to his bosom, stepping on his hat in his haste.

The maid picked up the crushed chapeau with an air of resignation, and punched it indifferently back into shape.

“Will you be wanting to leave now, ma’am?” she inquired, with an intonation making it clear that I ought to be leaving, whether I wanted to or not.

“I will,” I said, rising. “But tell me”—I held out the brass syringe on the palm of my hand—“do you know what this is, and where Doctor Fentiman got it?”

It was difficult to tell in which direction she was looking, but she bent her head as though to examine it, with no more interest than had it been a two-day old smelt offered her for sale in the market.

“Oh, that. Aye, ma’am, it’s a penis syringe. I b’lieve he had it sent him from Philadelphia.”

“A, um, penis syringe. I see,” I said, blinking a little.

“Yes, ma’am. It’s for treating of the drip, or the clap. The doctor does a deal of business for the men what goes to Mrs. Silvie’s.”

I took a deep breath.

“Mrs. Silvie’s. Ah. And would you know where Mrs. Silvie’s . . . establishment is?”

“Behind Silas Jameson’s ordinary,” she replied, giving me for the first time a faintly curious look, as though wondering what sort of blockhead didn’t know that. “Will you be needing anything else, ma’am?”

“Oh, no,” I said. “That will do nicely, thank you!” I made to hand her back the penis syringe, but then was struck by impulse. The doctor had two, after all.

“Give you a shilling for it,” I said, meeting the eye that seemed most likely to be pointed in my direction.

“Done,” she said promptly. She paused for a moment, then added, “If you’re going to use it on your man, best be sure he’s dead drunk first.”

MY PRIMARY MISSION was thus accomplished, but now I had a new possibility to explore, before mounting an assault on Mrs. Silvie’s house of ill-repute.

I had planned to visit a glassmaker and attempt to explain by means of drawings how to make the barrel and plunger for a hypodermic syringe, leaving up to Bree the problem of making a hollow needle and attaching it. Unfortunately, while the single glassblower operating in Cross Creek was capable of producing any manner of everyday bottles, jugs, and cups, a glance at his stock had made it obvious that my requirements were well beyond his capabilities.

But now I needn’t worry about that! While metal syringes lacked some desirable qualities of glass, they also had an undeniable advantage, insofar as they wouldn’t break—and while a disposable needle was nice, I could simply sterilize the entire item after each use.

Doctor Fentiman’s syringes had very thick, blunt-tipped needle ends. It would be necessary to heat them, and draw the tips out much further in order to narrow them. But any idiot with a forge could do that, I thought. Then to cut the brass tip at an angle and file the point smooth enough to puncture skin cleanly . . . child’s play, I thought blithely, and narrowly refrained from skipping down the sandy walk. Now, all I required was a good stock of cinchona bark.

My hopes of obtaining the bark were dashed, though, as soon as I turned into the main street and glimpsed Mr. Bogues’s apothecary’s shop. The door stood open, letting in flies, and the usually immaculate stoop was marred with such a multitude of muddy footprints as to suggest that some hostile army had descended upon the shop.

The impression of sacking and looting was furthered by the scene inside; most of the shelves were empty, scattered with remnants of dried leaf and broken pottery. The Bogueses’ ten-year-old daughter, Miranda, stood mournful watch over a small collection of jars and bottles and an empty tortoiseshell.

“Miranda!” I said. “Whatever has happened?”

She brightened at sight of me, small pink mouth momentarily reversing its downward droop.

“Mrs. Fraser! D’you want some horehound? We’ve nearly a pound of that left—and it’s cheap, only three farthings the ounce.”