An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 129

   

Andrew Bell’s shop was, luckily, still standing. The door was closed against the draft, but a small bell rang over it to announce our presence, and a middle-aged gentleman in shirtsleeves and apron looked up from a basket of slugs he was sorting.

“A good morning to you, sir. Ma’am,” he said cordially, nodding to us, and I saw at once that he was not a Scot. Or, rather, not born in Scotland, for his accent was the soft, slightly drawling English of the Southern colonies. Jamie heard it and smiled.

“Mr. Richard Bell?” he asked.

“I am,” said the man, looking rather surprised.

“James Fraser, your servant, sir,” Jamie said politely, bowing. “And may I present my wife, Claire.”

“Your servant, sir.” Mr. Bell bowed in return, looking rather bewildered but with perfect manners.

Jamie reached into the breast of his coat and withdrew a small bundle of letters, tied with a pink ribbon.

“I’ve brought ye word from your wife and daughters,” he said simply, handing them over. “And I’ve come to see about sending ye home to them.”

Mr. Bell’s face went blank, and then all the blood drained out of it. I thought he was going to faint for a moment, but he didn’t, merely grasping the edge of the counter for support.

“You-you—home?” he gasped. He had clutched the letters to his breast, and now brought them down, looking at them, his eyes welling. “How—how did she … My wife. Is she well?” he asked abruptly, jerking up his head to look at Jamie, sudden fear in his eyes. “Are they all right?”

“They were all bonny as doves when I saw them in Wilmingon,” Jamie assured him. “Verra much desolated by your absence from them, but well in themselves.”

Mr. Bell was trying desperately to control his face and his voice, and the effort reduced him to speechlessness. Jamie leaned over the counter and touched him gently on the arm.

“Go and read your letters, man,” he suggested. “Our other business will wait.”

Mr. Bell’s mouth opened once or twice, soundless, then he nodded abruptly and, whirling round, blundered through the door that led to the back room.

I sighed, and Jamie glanced down at me, smiling.

“It’s good when something comes right, isn’t it?” I said.

“It’s no made right yet,” he said, “but it will be.” He then pulled his new spectacles out of his sporran and, clapping them onto his nose, flipped up the counter flap and strode purposefully through.

“It is my press!” he exclaimed accusingly, circling the enormous thing like a hawk hovering over its prey.

“I’ll take your word for it, but how can you tell?” I came cautiously after him, keeping back my skirts from the ink-stained press.

“Well, it’s got my name on it, for the one thing,” he said, stooping and pointing up at something under it. “Some of them, anyway.” Leaning upside down and squinting, I made out Alex. Malcolm carved on the underside of a small beam.

“Apparently it still works all right,” I observed, straightening up and looking round the room at the posters, ballads, and other examples of the printing and engraving arts displayed there.

“Mmphm.” He tried the moving parts and examined the press minutely before reluctantly admitting that, in fact, it seemed in good condition. He still glowered, though.

“And I’ve been paying the wee bugger all these years, to keep it for me!” he muttered. He straightened up, looking balefully at the press. I had in the meantime been poking about the tables near the front wall, which held books and pamphlets for sale, and picked up one of the latter, which was titled at the top Encyclopedia Britannica, and below this, “Laudanum.”

Tincture of opium, or liquid laudanum, otherwise called the thebaic tincture, is made as follows: take of prepared opium two ounces, of cinnamon and cloves, each one drachm, of white wine one pint, infuse them a week without heat, and then filter it through paper.

Opium at present is in great esteem, and is one of the most valuable of all the simple medicines. Applied externally, it is emollient, relaxing, and discutient, and greatly promotes suppuration: if long kept upon the skin, it takes off hair, and always occasions an itching; sometimes it exulcerates it, and raises little blisters, if applied to a tender part: sometimes, on external application, it allays pain, and even occasions sleep: but it must by no means be applied to the head, especially to the sutures of the skull; for it has been known to have the most terrible effects in this application, and even bring death itself. Opium taken internally removes melancholy, eases pain, and disposes of sleep; in many cases removes hemorrhages, provokes sweating.

A moderate dose is commonly under a grain…

“Do you know what ‘discutient’ means?” I asked Jamie, who was reading the type set up in the form on the press, frowning as he did so.

“I do. It means whatever ye’re talking about can dissolve something. Why?”

“Ah. Perhaps that’s why applying laudanum to the sutures of the skull is a bad idea.”

He gave me a baffled look.

“Why would ye do that?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea.” I returned to the pamphlets, fascinated. One of them, titled “The Womb,” had some very good engravings of a dissected female pelvis and internal organs, done from varying angles, as well as depictions of the fetus in various stages of development. If this was Mr. Bell’s work, I thought, he was both a superb craftsman and a very diligent observer.

“Have you got a penny? I’d like to buy this.”

Jamie dug into his sporran and laid a penny on the counter, glanced at the pamphlet in my hand, and recoiled.

“Mother of God,” he said, crossing himself.

“Well, probably not,” I said mildly. “Certainly a mother, though.” Before he could reply to this, Richard Bell came out of the back room, red-eyed but composed, and seized Jamie by the hand.

“You cannot know what you have done for me, Mr. Fraser,” he said earnestly. “If you can indeed help me to return to my family, I—I—well, in fact, I do not know what I could possibly do to show my gratitude, but be assured that I will bless your soul forever!”

“I’m much obliged to ye for the thought, sir,” Jamie said to him, smiling. “It may be that ye can do me a small service, but if not, I shall still be most thankful for your blessings.”

“If there is anything I can do, sir, anything at all!” Bell assured him fervently. Then a faint hesitation came over his face—possibly a recollection of whatever his wife had had to say about Jamie in her letter. “Anything short of… of treason, I should say.”

“Och, no. Well short of treason,” Jamie assured him, and we took our leave.

I TOOK A SPOONFUL of the oyster stew and closed my eyes in ecstasy. We had come a little early, in order to get a seat by the window overlooking the street, but Mowbray’s had filled up fast, and the clishmaclaver of cutlery and conversation was almost deafening.

“You’re sure he’s not here?” I said, leaning across the table to make myself heard. Jamie shook his head, rolling a sip of the cold Moselle around his mouth with an expression of bliss.

“Ye’ll ken well enough when he is,” he said, swallowing it.

“All right. What sort of not-quite-treasonous thing are you planning to make poor Mr. Bell do in return for passage home?”

“I mean to send him home in charge of my printing press,” he replied.

“What, entrust your precious darling to a virtual stranger?” I asked, amused. He gave me a mildly dirty look in return, but finished his bite of buttered roll before answering.

“I dinna expect him to be abusing her. He’s no going to print a thousand-run of Clarissa on her aboard ship, after all.”

“Oh, it’s a her, is it?” I said, vastly entertained. “And what, may I ask, is her name?”

He flushed a little and looked away, taking particular care to coax a specially succulent oyster into his spoon, but finally muttered, “Bonnie,” before gulping it.

I laughed, but before I could make further inquiries, a new noise intruded on the racket, and people began to put down their spoons and stand up, craning to see out of the windows.

“That will be Andy,” Jamie told me.

I looked down into the street and saw a small knot of boys and idlers, clapping and cheering. Looking up the street to see what was coming, I beheld one of the biggest horses I had ever seen. It wasn’t a draft horse but an enormously tall gelding, close to seventeen hands, so far as my inexpert eye could judge.

On top of it was a very small man, sitting up straight and regally ignoring the cheers of the crowd. He came to a stop directly below us and, turning round, removed a wooden square from the saddle behind him. He shook this out, revealing it to be a folding wooden ladder, and one of the street children ran forward to hold the foot of it while Mr. Bell—for it couldn’t be anyone else—descended to the plaudits of passersby. He tossed a coin to the child who’d held the ladder, another to a lad who’d taken his horse’s head, and disappeared from view.

A few moments later, he came through the door into the main dining room, taking off his cocked hat and bowing graciously to the calls of greeting from the diners. Jamie raised a hand, calling “Andy Bell!” in a resonant voice that cut through the thrum of talk, and the little man’s head jerked in our direction, surprised. I watched with fascination as he came toward us, a slow grin spreading over his face.

I couldn’t tell whether he had some form of dwarfism or had merely suffered badly from malnutrition and scoliosis in his youth, but his legs were short in proportion to his upper body, and his shoulders crooked; he barely topped four feet, and only the crown of his head—this covered by a very fashionable wig—showed as he passed between the tables.

These aspects of appearance faded into insignificance, though, as he drew close and I perceived his most striking attribute. Andrew Bell had the biggest nose I had ever seen, and in the course of an eventful life, I had seen a number of prize specimens. It began between his eyebrows, curved gently down for a short distance as though nature had intended him to have the profile of a Roman emperor. Something had gone amiss in the execution, though, and to this promising beginning, something that looked like a small potato had been affixed. Knobbly and red, it took the eye.

It took quite a few eyes; as he drew close to our table, a young lady nearby saw him, gasped audibly, and then clapped a hand over her mouth, this precaution being quite insufficient to quell her giggles.

Mr. Bell heard her, and without breaking his stride, he reached into his pocket, withdrew an immense papier-mâché nose decorated with purple stars, which he clapped over his own, and, fixing the young woman with an icy stare, passed by.

“My dear,” Jamie said to me, grinning as he rose to his feet and extending a hand to the little engraver, “may I name my friend, Mr. Andrew Bell? My wife, Andy. Claire is her name.”

“Charmed, madam,” he said, removing the false nose and bowing low over my hand. “When did you acquire this rare creature, Jamie? And whatever would such a lovely lass want with a great, vulgar lout such as you, I wonder?”

“I lured her into marriage wi’ descriptions of the beauties of my printing press,” Jamie said dryly, sitting down and motioning to Andy Bell to join us.

“Ah,” said Andy, with a sharp look at Jamie, who raised his brows and widened his eyes. “Hmm. I see ye’ve been by the shop, then.” He nodded at my reticule, from which the top of the pamphlet I’d bought was protruding.

“We have,” I said hastily, pulling out the pamphlet. I didn’t think Jamie proposed to squash Andy Bell like a bug for having made free with his printing press, but his relationship with “Bonnie” was news to me, and I wasn’t sure quite how deep his sense of affronted proprietorship went.

“This is remarkably fine work,” I said to Mr. Bell, with complete sincerity. “Tell me, how many different specimens did you use?”

He blinked a little but answered readily, and we had a pleasant—if rather gruesome—conversation regarding the difficulties of dissection in warm weather and the effect of saline solution versus alcohol for preservation. This caused the people at the next table to end their meal rather hurriedly, casting veiled looks of horror as they left. Jamie leaned back in his chair, looking pleasant but fixing Andy Bell with an unwavering gaze.

The little engraver betrayed no particular discomfort under this basilisk stare and went on telling me about the response when he had published the bound edition of the Encyclopedia—-the King had somehow happened to see the plates of the “Womb” section and had ordered those pages to be torn out of the book, the ignorant German blatherskite!—but when the waiter came to take his order, he ordered both a very expensive wine and a large bottle of good whisky.

“What, whisky wi’ the stew?” blurted the waiter, astonished.

“No,” he said with a sigh, pushing back his wig. “Concubinage. If that’s what ye call it when ye rent the services of a man’s beloved.”

The waiter shifted his look of astonishment to me, then went bright red and, choking slightly, backed away.

Jamie fixed a narrow eye on his friend, now buttering a roll with aplomb.

“It’ll take more than whisky, Andy.”

Andy Bell sighed and scratched his nose.

“Aye, then,” he said. “Say on.”

WE FOUND IAN waiting at the small hotel, chatting with a couple of draymen in the street. Seeing us, he took his leave—and a small package, thrust surreptitiously under his coat—and came in with us. It was teatime, and Jamie ordered it to be brought up to our rooms, for the sake of discretion.

We had lashed out, rather, in the matter of accommodations, and had taken a suite of rooms. The tea was now laid out in the parlor, an appetizing array of grilled finnan haddie, Scotch eggs, toast with marmalade, and scones with jam and clotted cream, accompanying an enormous pot of strong black tea. I inhaled the fragrant steam from the table and sighed with pleasure.

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