Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 82

   

“A body, you mean,” I said bluntly. I had realized, of course, that the distinct possibility that Jamie and Mr. Harding would find the body of the one-eyed seaman was the reason Jamie had told Ian to accompany me.

The boy nodded, looking ill at ease. His skin had faded to a sort of rosy tan, but was still too dark to show any paleness due to emotion.

“I don’t know,” I said. “If the fire was a very hot one, there may be nothing much left to find. But don’t worry about it.” I touched his arm in reassurance. “Your uncle will know what to do.”

“Aye, that’s so.” His face brightened, full of faith in his uncle’s ability to handle any situation whatever. I smiled when I saw his expression, then realized with a small start of surprise that I had that faith, too. Be it drunken Chinese, corrupt Customs agents, or Mr. Harding of the Hand in Hand Assurance Society, I hadn’t any doubt that Jamie would manage.

“Come on, then,” I said, as the bell in the Canongate Kirk began to ring. “It’s just on two now.”

Despite his visit to Father Hayes, Ian had retained a certain air of dreamy bliss, which returned to him now, and there was little conversation as we made our way up the slope of the Royal Mile to Henderson’s lodging house, in Carrubber’s Close.

It was a quiet hotel, but luxurious by Edinburgh standards, with a patterned carpet on the stairs and colored glass in the street window. It seemed rather rich surroundings for a Free Church minister, but then I knew little about Free Churchmen; perhaps they took no vow of poverty as the Catholic clergy did.

Showed up to the third floor by a young boy, we found the door opened to us at once by a heavyset woman wearing an apron and a worried expression. I thought she might be in her mid-twenties, though she had already lost several of her front teeth.

“You’ll be the lady as the Reverend said would call?” she asked. Her expression lightened a bit at my nod, and she swung the door wider.

“Mr. Campbell’s had to go oot the noo,” she said in a broad Lowland accent, “but he said as how he’d be most obliged to hae yer advice regardin’ his sister, mum.”

Sister, not wife. “Well, I’ll do my best,” I said. “May I see Miss Campbell?”

Leaving Ian to his memories in the sitting room, I accompanied the woman, who introduced herself as Nellie Cowden, to the back bedroom.

Miss Campbell was, as advertised, staring. Her pale blue eyes were wide open, but didn’t seem to be looking at anything—certainly not at me.

She sat in the sort of wide, low chair called a nursing chair, with her back to the fire. The room was dim, and the backlighting made her features indistinct, except for the unblinking eyes. Seen closer to, her features were still indistinct; she had a soft, round face, undistinguished by any apparent bone structure, and baby-fine brown hair, neatly brushed. Her nose was small and snub, her chin double, and her mouth hung pinkly open, so slack as to obscure its natural lines.

“Miss Campbell?” I said cautiously. There was no response from the plump figure in the chair. Her eyes did blink, I saw, though much less frequently than normal.

“She’ll nae answer ye, whilst she’s in this state,” Nellie Cowden said behind me. She shook her head, wiping her hands upon her apron. “Nay, not a word.”

“How long has she been like this?” I picked up a limp, pudgy hand and felt for the pulse. It was there, slow and quite strong.

“Oh, for twa days so far, this time.” Becoming interested, Miss Cowden leaned forward, peering into her charge’s face. “Usually she stays like that for a week or more—thirteen days is the longest she’s done it.”

Moving slowly—though Miss Campbell seemed unlikely to be alarmed—I began to examine the unresisting figure, meanwhile asking questions of her attendant. Miss Margaret Campbell was thirty-seven, Miss Cowden told me, the only relative of the Reverend Archibald Campbell, with whom she had lived for the past twenty years, since the death of their parents.

“What starts her doing this? Do you know?”

Miss Cowden shook her head. “No tellin’, Mum. Nothin’ seems to start it. One minute she’ll be lookin’ aboot, talkin’ and laughin’, eatin’ her dinner like the sweet child she is, and the next—wheesht!” She snapped her fingers, then, for effect, leaned forward and snapped them again, deliberately, just under Miss Campbell’s nose.

“See?” she said. “I could hae six men wi’ trumpets pass through the room, and she’d pay it nay more mind.”

I was reasonably sure that Miss Campbell’s trouble was mental, not physical, but I made a complete examination, anyway—or as complete as could be managed without undressing that clumsy, inert form.

“It’s when she comes oot of it that’s the worst, though,” Miss Cowden assured me, squatting next to me as I knelt on the floor to check Miss Campbell’s plantar reflexes. Her feet, loosed from shoes and stockings, were damp and smelled musty.

I drew a fingernail firmly down the sole of each foot in turn, checking for a Babinski reflex that might indicate the presence of a brain lesion. Nothing, though; her toes curled under, in normal startlement.

“What happens then? Is that the screaming the Reverend mentioned?” I rose to my feet. “Will you bring me a lighted candle, please?”

“Oh, aye, the screamin’.” Miss Cowden hastened to oblige, lighting a wax taper from the fire. “She do shriek somethin’ awful then, on and on ’til she’s worn herself oot. Then she’ll fall asleep—sleep the clock around, she will—and wake as though nothin’ had happened.”

“And she’s quite all right when she wakes?” I asked. I moved the candle flame slowly back and forth, a few inches before the patient’s eyes. The pupils shrank in automatic response to the light, but the irises stayed fixed, not following the flame. My hand itched for the solid handle of an ophthalmoscope, to examine the retinas, but no such luck.

“Well, not to say all right,” Miss Cowden said slowly. I turned from the patient to look at her and she shrugged, massive shoulders powerful under the linen of her blouse.

“She’s saft in the heid, puir dear,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Has been for nigh on twenty year.”

“You haven’t been taking care of her all that time, surely?”

“Oh, no! Mr. Campbell had a woman as cared for her where they lived, in Burntisland, but the woman was none so young, and didna wish to leave her home. So when the Reverend made up his mind to take up the Missionary Society’s offer, and to take his sister wi’ him to the West Indies—why, he advertised for a strong woman o’ good character who wouldna mind travel to be an abigail for her…and here I am.” Miss Cowden gave me a gap-toothed smile in testimony to her own virtues.

“The West Indies? He’s planning to take Miss Campbell on a ship to the West Indies?” I was staggered; I knew just enough of sailing conditions to think that any such trip would be a major ordeal to a woman in good health. This woman—but then I reconsidered. All things concerned, Margaret Campbell might endure such a trip better than a normal woman—at least if she remained in her trance.

“He thought as the change of climate might be good for her,” Miss Cowden was explaining. “Get her away from Scotland, and all the dreadful memories. Ought to ha’ done it long since, is what I say.”

“What sort of dreadful memories?” I asked. I could see by the gleam in Miss Cowden’s eye that she was only too ready to tell me. I had finished the examination by this time, and concluded that there was little physically wrong with Miss Campbell save inactivity and poor diet, but there was the chance that something in her history might suggest some treatment.

“Weel,” she began, sidling toward the table, where a decanter and several glasses stood on a tray, “it’s only what Tilly Lawson told me, her as looked after Miss Campbell for sae long, but she did swear it was the truth, and her a godly woman. If ye’d care to take a drop of cordial, mum, for the sake o’ the Reverend’s hospitality?”

The chair Miss Campbell sat on was the only one in the room, so Miss Cowden and I perched inelegantly on the bed, side by side, and watched the silent figure before us, as we sipped our blackberry cordial, and she told me Margaret Campbell’s story.

Margaret Campbell had been born in Burntisland, no more than five miles from Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth. At the time of the ’45, when Charles Stuart had marched into Edinburgh to reclaim his father’s throne, she had been seventeen.

“Her father was a Royalist, o’ course, and her brother in a government regiment, marching north to put down the wicked rebels,” said Miss Cowden, taking a tiny sip of the cordial to make it last. “But not Miss Margaret. Nay, she was for the Bonnie Prince, and the Hielan’ men that followed him.”

One, in particular, though Miss Cowden did not know his name. But a fine man he must have been, for Miss Margaret stole away from her home to meet him, and told him all the bits of information that she gleaned from listening to her father and his friends, and from her brother’s letters home.

But then had come Falkirk; a victory, but a costly one, followed by retreat. Rumor had attended the flight of the Prince’s army to the north, and not a soul doubted but that their flight led to destruction. Miss Margaret, desperate at the rumors, left her home at dead of night in the cold March spring, and went to find the man she loved.

Now here the account had been uncertain—whether it was that she had found the man and he had spurned her, or that she had not found him in time, and been forced to turn back from Culloden Moor—but in any case, turn back she did, and the day after the battle, she had fallen into the hands of a band of English soldiers.

“Dreadful, what they did to her,” Miss Cowden said, lowering her voice as though the figure in the chair could hear. “Dreadful!” The English soldiers, blind with the lust of the hunt and the kill, pursuing the fugitives of Culloden, had not stopped to ask her name or the sympathies of her family. They had known by her speech that she was a Scot, and that knowledge had been enough.

They had left her for dead in a ditch half full of freezing water, and only the fortuitous presence of a family of tinkers, hiding in the nearby brambles for fear of the soldiers, had saved her.

“I canna help but think it a pity they did save her, un-Christian thing it is to say,” Miss Cowden whispered. “If not, the puir lamb might ha’ slippit her earthly bonds and gone happy to God. But as it is—” She gestured clumsily at the silent figure, and drank down the last drops of her cordial.

Margaret had lived, but did not speak. Somewhat recovered, but silent, she traveled with the tinkers, moving south with them to avoid the pillaging of the Highlands that took place in the wake of Culloden. And then one day, sitting in the yard of a pothouse, holding the tin to collect coppers as the tinkers busked and sang, she had been found by her brother, who had stopped with his Campbell regiment to refresh themselves on the way back to their quarters at Edinburgh.

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