An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 130

   

“It’s going to be rather a wrench, going back to no tea,” I observed, pouring out for everyone. “I don’t suppose we’ll get any in America for another, what—three or four years?”

“Oh, I wouldna say that,” Jamie said judiciously. “Depends where we go back to, aye? Ye can get tea fine in places like Philadelphia or Charleston. Ye only need to ken a good smuggler or two, and if Captain Hickman’s no been sunk or hanged by the time we go back…”

I put down my cup and stared at him.

“You don’t mean you aren’t planning to go ho—to go back to the Ridge?” I had a sudden empty feeling in the pit of my stomach, remembering our plans for the New House, the smell of balsam fir, and the quiet of the mountains. Did he really mean to move to Boston or Philadelphia?

“No,” he said, surprised. “Of course we shall go back there. But if I mean to be in the printing trade, Sassenach, we shall need to be in a city for a time, no? Only ’til the war is over,” he said, encouraging.

“Oh,” I said in a small voice. “Yes. Of course.” I drank tea, not tasting it. How could I have been so stupid? I had never once thought that, of course, a printing press would be pointless on Fraser’s Ridge. In part, I supposed, I simply hadn’t really believed he would get his press back, let alone thought ahead to the logical conclusion if he did.

But now he had his Bonnie back, and the future had suddenly acquired a disagreeable solidity. Not that cities didn’t have considerable advantages, I told myself stoutly. I could finally acquire a decent set of medical instruments, replenish my medicines—why, I could even make penicillin and ether again! With a little better appetite, I took a Scotch egg.

“Speaking of smugglers,” Jamie was saying to Ian, “what is it ye have in your coat? A present for one of the ladies at Madame Jeanne’s?”

Ian gave his uncle a cold look and removed the small package from his pocket.

“A wee bit o’ French lace. For my mam.”

“Good lad,” Jamie said with approval.

“What a sweet thought, Ian,” I said. “Did you—I mean, was Madame Jeanne still in situ?”

He nodded, putting the package back into his coat.

“She is. And verra eager to renew her acquaintance wi’ you, Uncle,” he added, with a slightly malicious grin. “She asked would ye care to come round this evening for a bit of entertainment.”

Jamie’s nose twitched as he glanced at me.

“Oh, I think not, Ian. I’ll send a note saying we shall wait upon her tomorrow morning at eleven. Though ye’re free to take up her invitation yourself, of course.” It was clear that he was only teasing, but Ian shook his head.

“Nay, I wouldna go wi’ a whore. Not ’til it’s settled between Rachel and me,” he said seriously. “One way or the other. But I shallna take another woman to my bed until she tells me that I must.”

We both looked at him in some surprise across the teacups.

“You do mean it, then,” I said. “You feel… er… betrothed to her?”

“Well, of course he does, Sassenach,” Jamie said, reaching for another slice of toast. “He left her his dog.”

I ROSE LATE and leisurely next morning, and as Jamie and Ian were likely to be some time about their business, I dressed and went shopping. Edinburgh being a city of commerce, Jamie had been able to convert our stock of gold—still quite a lot of it left—to bank drafts and cash, as well as to make arrangements for deposition of the cache of letters we had accumulated since Fort Ticonderoga. He had left a fat purse for my use, and I proposed to spend the day shopping, as well as collecting my new spectacles.

It was with these perched proudly on my nose and a bag containing a selection of the best of the herbs and medicines available from Haugh’s Apothecary that I returned to Howard’s hotel at teatime, with a rare appetite.

My appetite received a slight check, though, when the hotel’s majordomo stepped out of his sanctum, wearing a slightly pained expression, and asked if he might have a word, madam?

“We do appreciate the honor of General Fraser’s… presence,” he said apologetically, conducting me to a small, cramped stairwell leading to the basement. “A great man, and a very fine warrior, and of course we are cognizant of the heroic nature of the … er… the manner of his death. It’s only that… well, I hesitate to mention it, madam, but a coal-man this morning mentioned a… smell.”

This last word was so discreet that he fairly hissed it into my ear as he ushered me off the stair and into the Howard’s coal cellar, where we had made arrangements for the general to repose in dignity until we left for the Highlands. The smell itself was not nearly so discreet, and I snatched a handkerchief from my pocket and clapped it to my nose. There was a small window high up in one wall, from which a dim, smeary light seeped into the basement. Beneath this was a wide chute, under which stood a small mountain of coal.

In solitary dignity, draped with a canvas, the general’s coffin stood well apart, lit by a solemn beam from the tiny window. A beam that gleamed from the small puddle beneath the coffin. The general was leaking.

“AND SAW THE skull beneath the skin,” I quoted, tying a turpentine-soaked rag about my head, just under my nose, “and breastless creatures under ground leaned backward with a lipless grin.”

“Apt,” said Andy Bell, giving me a sideways glance. “Your own, is it?”

“No, a gentleman named Eliot,” I told him. “As you say, though—apt.”

Given the agitation of the hotel staff, I thought I had better take steps without waiting for Jamie and Ian to return, and after a moment’s thought, had sent the bootboy on the run to inquire if Mr. Bell might like to come and observe something interesting in the medical line?

“The light’s wretched,” Bell said, standing on tiptoe to peer down into the coffin.

“I’ve called for a couple of lanterns,” I assured him. “And buckets.” “Aye, buckets,” he agreed, looking thoughtful. “What d’ye think, though, for what ye might call the longer term? It’ll be some days to get him intae the Highlands—maybe weeks, this time o’ year.”

“If we tidy things up a bit, I thought perhaps you would know a discreet blacksmith who might be able to come and patch the lining.” A seam in the lead foil lining the coffin had come apart, probably from the jostling involved in getting it from the ship, but it looked like a fairly simple repair—granted a blacksmith with a strong stomach and a low level of superstition regarding corpses.

“Mmm.” He had taken out a sketching block and was making preliminary drawings, light notwithstanding. He scratched his potatolike nose with the end of his silver pencil, thinking. “Could do that, aye. But there are other ways.”

“Well, we could boil him down to the bones, yes,” I said, a little testily. “Though I hate to think what the hotel would say if I asked for the lend of their laundry cauldrons.”

He laughed at that, to the undisguised horror of the footman who had appeared on the stairway, holding two lanterns.

“Ah, dinna fash yoursel’, sonny,” Andy Bell told him, taking the lanterns. “Naebody here but us ghouls.”

He grinned broadly at the sound of the footman taking the stairs three at a time, but then turned and eyed me speculatively.

“It’s a thought, aye? I could take him back tae my shop. Get him aff your hands, and naebody the wiser, sae heavy as your box there is. Mean to say, like, no one’s going to want to gaze upon the dear departed’s face once ye get him where he’s going, are they?”

I didn’t take offense at the suggestion, but shook my head.

“Putting aside the possibility of one or both of us being taken up as body snatchers, the poor man is my husband’s kinsman. And he didn’t want to be here in the first place.”

“Well, nae one does, surely?” Bell said, blinking. “No much help for it, though. The skull beneath the skin, as your man Eliot so movingly puts it.”

“I meant Edinburgh, not a coffin,” I clarified. Fortunately, my purchases from Haugh’s had included a large bottle of denatured alcohol, which I had brought down, discreetly wrapped in a rough apron procured from one of the housemaids. “He wanted to be buried in America.”

“Really,” Bell murmured. “Quaint notion. Ah, well. Two things I can think of, then. Repair the leak, and fill up the box wi’ a gallon or twa o’ cheap gin—well, it’s cheaper than what ye’ve got there,” he said, seeing my look. “Or… how long can ye stay in Edinburgh, do ye think?”

“We hadn’t meant to stay longer than a week—but we might stretch it a day or two,” I said cautiously, unbundling the bale of rags the majordomo had given me. “Why?”

He tilted his head back and forth, contemplating the remains by lantern light. An apt word, “remains.”

“Maggots,” he said succinctly. “They’ll do a nice, clean job of it, but they do take time. Still, if we can take most o’ the flesh off—hmm. Got a knife of any sort?” he asked.

I nodded, reaching into my pocket. Jamie had, after all, given me the knife because he thought I’d need it.

“Got maggots?” I said.

I DROPPED THE misshapen ball of lead into a saucer. It clinked and rolled to a stop, and we all looked at it in silence.

“That’s what killed him,” I said at last. Jamie crossed himself and murmured something in Gaelic, and Ian nodded soberly. “God rest him.”

I hadn’t eaten much of the excellent tea; the smell of corruption lingered at the back of my throat, in spite of the turpentine and the virtual bath I had taken in alcohol, followed by a real bath in the hotel’s tub with soap and water as hot as I could stand.

“So,” I said, clearing my throat. “How was Madame Jeanne?”

Jamie looked up from the bullet, his face lightening.

“Oh, verra bonnie,” he said, grinning. “She had a good bit to say about the state of things in France. And a certain amount to say about one Percival Beauchamp.”

I sat up a little straighter.

“She knows him?”

“She does indeed. He calls at her establishment now and then—though not in the way of business. Or rather,” he added, with a sidelong glance at Ian, “not in the way of her usual business.”

“Smuggling?” I asked. “Or spying?”

“Possibly both, but if it’s the latter, she wasna telling me about it. He brings in quite a bit of stuff from France, though. I was thinking that maybe Ian and I would go across, whilst the general’s doing whatever he’s doing—how long did wee Andy think it would take to make him decent?”

“Anything from three or four days to a week, depending on how, um, active the maggots are.” Ian and Jamie both shuddered reflexively. “It’s just the same thing that happens underground,” I pointed out. “It will happen to all of us, eventually.”

“Well, aye, it is,” Jamie admitted, taking another scone and ladling quantities of cream onto it. “But it’s generally done in decent privacy so ye havena got to think about it.”

“The general is quite private,” I assured him, with a shade of acerbity. “He’s covered in a good layer of bran. No one will see a thing, unless they go poking about.”

“Well, that’s a thought, isn’t it?” Ian chipped in, sticking a finger in the jam. “This is Edinburgh. The place has a terrible reputation for body snatching, because of all the doctors wanting them to cut up for study. Had ye best not put a guard on the general, just to be sure he makes it to the Highlands wi’ all his pieces?” He stuck the finger in his mouth and raised his brows at me.

“Well, in fact, there is a guard,” I admitted. “Andy Bell suggested it, for just that reason.” I didn’t add that Andy had made a bid for the general’s body himself—nor that I had told Mr. Bell in no uncertain terms what would happen to him if the general turned up missing.

“Ye said Andy helped ye with the job?” Jamie asked curiously.

“He did. We got on extremely well. In fact…” I hadn’t been going to mention the subject of our conversation until Jamie had had a pint or so of whisky, but the moment seemed opportune, so I plumped in.

“I was describing various things to him while we worked—interesting surgeries and medical trivia, you’ll know the sort of things.”

Ian murmured something under his breath about ghoulies of a feather, but I ignored him.

“Aye, so?” Jamie was looking wary; he knew something was coming but not what it was.

“Well,” I said, taking a breath, “the long and the short of it is that he suggested I write a book. A medical book.”

Jamie’s eyebrows had risen slowly, but he nodded at me to go on.

“A sort of manual for regular people, not for doctors. With principles of proper hygiene and nutrition, and guides to the common sorts of illness, how to make up simple medicines, what to do for wounds and bad teeth—that sort of thing.”

The brows were still up, but he kept nodding, finishing the last bite of scone. He swallowed.

“Aye, well, it sounds a good sort of book—and surely ye’d be the person to write it. Did he happen to ‘suggest’ how much he thought it might cost to have such a thing printed and bound?”

“Ah.” I let out the breath I’d been holding. “He’ll do three hundred copies, a maximum of a hundred fifty pages, buckram binding, and distribute them through his shop, in exchange for the twelve years’ rent he owes you for your printing press.”

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