An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 86

   

“Thee understands, Friend William,” Hunter said, lowering his voice, “that in order to become skilled in the arts of surgery, it is necessary to learn how the human body is constructed and to understand its workings. Only so much can be learned from texts—and the texts upon which most medical men rely are … well, to be blunt about it, they are wrong.”

“Oh, yes?” William was only half attending to the conversation. The other half of his mind was evenly divided among his assessment of the road, a hope that they might reach somewhere habitable in time to procure supper, and an appreciation of the slenderness of Rachel Hunter’s neck on the rare occasions when she rode in front of him. He wanted to turn round and look at her again, but couldn’t do it so soon, in all decency. Another few minutes…

“… Galen and Aesculapius. The common conception is—and has been for a very long time—that the ancient Greeks had written down everything known regarding the human body; there was no need to doubt these texts or to create mystery where there was none.”

William grunted. “You should hear my uncle go on about ancient military texts. He’s all for Caesar, who he says was a very decent general, but he takes leave to doubt that Herodotus ever saw a battlefield.”

Hunter glanced at him in surprised interest. “Exactly what John Hunter said—in different terms—regarding Avicenna! ‘The man’s never seen a pregnant uterus in his life.’” He smacked a fist upon his pommel to emphasize the point, and his horse jerked its head, startled.

“Whoa, whoa,” said Hunter, alarmed, sawing on the reins in a way calculated to have the horse rearing and pawing in moments. William leaned over and neatly took the reins out of Denzell’s hands, giving them slack.

He was rather glad of the brief distraction, as it kept Hunter from discoursing further about uteruses. William was not at all sure what a uterus was, but if it got pregnant, it must have to do with a woman’s privates, and that was not something he wished to discuss within the hearing of Miss Hunter.

“But you said your association with Dr. John Hunter was disturbing,” he said, handing Hunter back the reins and hastening to change the subject before the doctor could think of something more embarrassing to mention. “Why was that?”

“Well… we—his students—learned the mysteries of the human body from … the human body.”

William felt a slight clench of the belly.

“Dissection, you mean?”

“Yes.” Hunter glanced at him, concerned. “It is a distasteful prospect, I know—and yet, to see the marvelous fashion in which God has ordered things! The intricacies of a kidney, the amazing interior of a lung—William, I cannot tell thee what revelation it is!”

“Well… yes, I see it must be,” William said guardedly. Now he could reasonably glance back, and did so. Rachel had straightened, stretching her back, head tilted so that her straw hat fell back, the sun on her face, and he smiled. “You… er… where did you get the bodies to dissect?”

Dr. Hunter sighed.

“That was the disturbing aspect. Many were paupers from the workhouse or the street, and their deaths were most pitiable. But many were the bodies of executed criminals. And while I must be pleased that some good came of their deaths, I could not but be appalled at those deaths.”

“Why?” William asked, interested.

“Why?” Hunter blinked at him behind his spectacles, but then shook his head, as though shaking off flies. “But I forget thee is not one of us—your pardon. We do not condone violence, Friend William, and surely not killing.”

“Not even criminals? Murderers?”

Denzell’s lips compressed, and he looked unhappy, but shook his head.

“No. Let them be imprisoned or put to some useful labor. But for the state to commit murder in its turn is a dreadful violation of God’s commandment; it implicates all of us in the commission of this sin. Does thee not see?”

“I see that the state, as you call it, has responsibility for its subjects,” William said, rather nettled. “You expect constables and judges to see that you and your property are secure, don’t you? If the state has that responsibility, surely it must have the means of carrying it out.”

“I do not contest that—imprison criminals, if necessary, as I say. But the state has no right to kill people on my behalf!”

“Has it not?” William said dryly. “Have you any idea of the nature of some of the criminals who are executed? Of their crimes?”

“Has thee?” Hunter gave him a raised brow.

“I have, yes. The Governor of Newgate Prison is an acquaintance—another acquaintance—of my father’s; I have sat at table with him and heard stories that would take the curl out of your wig, Dr. Hunter. If you wore one,” he added.

Hunter responded to the jest with a fleeting smile.

“Call me by my name,” he said. “Thee knows we do not hold by titles. And I admit the truth of what thee says. I have heard—and seen—more terrible things than you have likely heard at your father’s table. But justice lies in God’s hand. To do violence—to take a life—is to violate God’s command and do grievous sin.”

“And if you are attacked, injured, you may not fight back?” William demanded. “You may not defend yourselves? Your families?”

“We rely upon the goodness and mercy of God,” Denzell said firmly. “And if we are killed, then we die in the firm expectation of God’s life and resurrection.”

They rode in silence for a moment before William said conversationally, “Or you rely upon the willingness of someone else to commit violence for you.”

Denzell drew a deep, instinctive breath, but thought better of whatever he had meant to say. They rode in silence for some time, and when they spoke again, it was of birds.

IT WAS RAINING WHEN they woke next day. Not a quick thunder-shower, here and gone, but a heavy, remorseless sort of rain that looked set to pour steadily all day. There was no point in staying where they were; the rocky overhang under which they had sheltered for the night lay directly exposed to the wind, and the rain had already dampened the firewood sufficiently as to cause their breakfast fire to yield much more smoke than heat.

Still coughing intermittently, William and Denny loaded the pack mule while Rachel bound up a bundle of the least-damp sticks in canvas. If they found shelter by nightfall, they might at least be able to start a fire to cook their supper, even if the rain continued.

There was little conversation. Even had they been so inclined, the rain beat so heavily upon trees and ground and upon their hats that anything said had to be half shouted to be heard.

In a state of sodden but dogged determination, they rode slowly north by northeast, Denny anxiously consulting his compass when they reached a crossroad.

“What think thee, Friend William?” Denny took off his spectacles and wiped them—to little effect—on the skirt of his coat. “Neither road runs precisely as we might wish, and Friend Lockett did not mention this crossroad in his instruction. That one”—he pointed at the road that crossed the one they were set upon—“appears to run north, while this one is due east. At the moment.” He glanced at William, his face oddly naked without his spectacles.

A farmer named Lockett and his wife had been their last contact with humanity, three days before. She had given them supper, sold them bread, eggs, and cheese, and her husband had set them on the road—toward Albany, he said; they should run across an indication of the Continental army somewhere between here and there. But he hadn’t mentioned a crossroad.

William gave the muddy ground a glance, but the crossroad itself lay in a low spot and was nothing more now than a small lake. No clues to traffic—but the road they were on seemed substantially wider than the smaller one crossing it.

“This one,” he said firmly, and nudged his horse squelching through the lake to the other side.

Now it was late afternoon, and he was beginning to be worried about his decision. Had they been upon the right road, they should—said Mr. Lockett—encounter a small hamlet called Johnson’s Ford by the end of the day. Of course, the rain had slowed them, he told himself. And while the countryside looked as vacant and writhingly verdant as ever, villages and farmsteads did pop up as suddenly as mushrooms after a heavy rain. In which case, they might encounter Johnson’s Ford at any moment.

“Maybe the place has dissolved.” Rachel leaned out from her saddle to call to him. Rachel had nearly dissolved herself, and he grinned, in spite of his worry. The rain had beaten the brim of her straw hat down, so that it hung limp as a duster around her head; she was obliged to lift the front of it in order to peer out, like a suspicious toad under a harrow. Her clothes were soaked through, as well, and as she was wearing three layers of everything, she resembled nothing so much as a large, untidy bale of wet laundry, forked steaming from the kettle.

Before he could reply to her, though, her brother sat up straight in his saddle, showering water in all directions, and pointed dramatically down the road.

“Look!”

William jerked his head round, assuming that their destination was in sight. It wasn’t, but the road was no longer empty. A man was walking briskly toward them through the mud, a split burlap sack shielding his head and shoulders from the rain. In the current state of desolation, anything human was a sight to gladden the eyes, and William spurred up a little to hail the fellow.

“Well met, young sir,” said the man, peering up at William from his burlap refuge. “Where ye bound, this dismal day?” He lifted a lip in ingratiation, showing a broken dogtooth, stained with tobacco.

“Johnson’s Ford. Are we headed aright?”

The man reared back, as though astonished.

“Johnson’s Ford, you say?”

“I do, yes,” William said, with a certain amount of testiness. He sympathized with the lack of company in rural parts and the subsequent impulse of the inhabitants to detain travelers as long as possible, but this was not the day for it. “Where is it?”

The man shook his head back and forth in slow dismay.

“ ’Fraid ye’ve missed your turn, sir. Ought to’ve gone left at the crossroads.”

Rachel made a small, pitiable sound at this. The light was already failing, shadow beginning to pool round the horses’ feet. It was several hours’ ride back to the crossroad; they could not hope to reach it before nightfall, let alone make their way to Johnson’s Ford.

The man plainly realized this, as well. He smiled happily at William, revealing a wide expanse of brown gum.

“If so be as you gennelmen’ll help me cotch my cow and drive ’er home, the wife’d be pleased to offer ye supper and a bed.”

There being no reasonable alternative, William accepted this suggestion with what grace he could, and leaving Rachel sheltering under a tree with the animals, he and Denny Hunter went to assist with the cow-cotching.

The cow in question, a rawboned shaggy beast with a wild eye, proved both elusive and obdurate, and it took the combined talents of all three men to capture it and drag it to the road. Soaked to the skin and thickly plastered with mud, the bedraggled party then followed Mr. Antioch Johnson—for so their host had introduced himself—through the gathering shades of night to a small ramshackle farmhouse.

The rain was still pelting down, though, and any roof was welcome, leaky or not.

Mrs. Johnson proved to be a ragged slattern of uncertain age, with even fewer teeth than her husband and a sullen disposition. She glared at the dripping guests and turned her back rudely upon them, but did produce wooden bowls of a vile, congealed stew—and there was fresh milk from the cow. William noticed that Rachel took but a single bite of the stew, turned pale, removed something from her mouth, and set down her spoon, after which she confined herself to the milk.

He himself was much too hungry either to taste the stew or care what was in it—and, fortunately, it was too dark to examine the contents of his bowl.

Denny was making an effort to be sociable, though he was swaying with weariness, answering Mr. Johnson’s unending questions about their origins, journey, destination, connections, news of the road, and opinions and news regarding the war. Rachel attempted a smile now and then, but her eyes kept passing uneasily around their surroundings, returning again and again to their hostess, who sat in the corner, her own eyes hooded, brooding over a fuming clay pipe that hung from a slack lower lip.

Belly full and with dry stockings, William felt the labors of the day begin to catch up to him. There was a decent fire in the hearth, and the leaping flames lulled him into a sort of trance, the voices of Denny and Mr. Johnson fading into a pleasant murmur. He might have fallen asleep right there, had the rustle of Rachel rising to her feet to visit the privy not broken the trance, reminding him that he should check the horses and mules. He’d rubbed them dry as well as he could and paid Mr. Johnson for hay, but there was no real barn to shelter them, only a crude roof of branches perched on spindly poles. He didn’t want them standing all night in mud should the shelter be flooded.

It was still raining, but the air outside was clean and fresh, filled with the night scent of trees, grasses, and rushing water. After the fug indoors, William felt nearly light-headed with the fragrance. He ducked through the rain to the shelter, doing his best to keep the small torch he had brought alight, enjoying every breath.

The torch sputtered but kept burning, and he was glad to see that the shelter had not flooded; the horses and mules—and the wild-eyed cow—were all standing on damp straw, but not hock-deep in mud. The privy door creaked, and he saw Rachel’s slender dark shape emerge. She saw the torch and came to join him, drawing her shawl about her against the rain.

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