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Chapter 4 - The Physician's Quest by A.J. Hall

“… and I can’t expect the old gentleman will be at all happy about that!” Mrs Hudson finished triumphantly.  

Sherlock blinked. He had been lost in his thoughts, trying to trace a path through the whorls and layers of treachery that encompassed the realm. He had not even heard Mrs Hudson’s return from the market, let alone whatever convoluted narrative she had just delivered herself of.  

His eyes ranged round, looking for some inspiration to shape his response. She had unpacked her basket; a pair of pullets and a bunch of spring greens lay side by side on the scrubbed wood of the table.

Pullets. The respectable poor lived lives so far removed from the grandees of the Court that many sau them as a separate species, incomprehensible save to the specialist student. Once Sherlock had been of similar mind. That, though, had been before he first encountered Sancta Maria inter Prata. Now he could read their rituals and observances as if born to it.  

In this world chickens existed for eggs and, at the end of their egg-laying lives, for broth. To kill chickens young enough to be roasted or poached was an Event; it happened only to mark rites of passage – a son coming of age, a daughter betrothed – or major festivals of the Church.

“Mrs Hudson!” he said, gesturing towards the fowl, raising his eyebrows. To his fascination, she pinked up like a girl at her first dance.  

“Well, and why shouldn’t I treat you? After all, without you, I’d not have it to spend at all, and they don’t put pockets in shrouds.”

By this point in his life Sherlock would never make any categorical statement as to what they put in shrouds; he’d seen too many oddities, ranging from contraptions to prevent the dead walking to equally ingenious devices to allow a prematurely buried body to draw attention to its plight. Nevertheless, he sensed that debating the specific point with Mrs Hudson would be ill-advised. 

“That’s hardly –”

“Besides,” Mrs Hudson interrupted, “Mrs Turner’s coming down to share them – I could hardly avoid asking her, not with that girl of hers with her eyes out on stalks, watching me buy them. Glad of a chance to get out of the castle, I don’t doubt. As I said, the old gentleman hasn’t been in the best of tempers lately. But at least she’ll be able to tell us a bit more about this Colonel Moran who Mr Ronald’s so thick with, having seen him at close quarters, so to speak.”

Moran. The name hit him like a hammer-blow. How had it failed to penetrate his stupor earlier?  And how had he failed to recognise the man’s handiwork when he’d examined David’s body in the cellar?  The bolt had struck precisely between the shoulder-blades, deviating less than a little finger’s width to left or right, and buried itself deeper than any normal weapon should have been able to achieve at that extreme range.

A weapon specially designed for the job. Its quarry, the noblest game of all.

That being so, who else would the Pretender have asked to take the shot but the finest marksman in all Gondal?  Especially since Moran had been insanely devoted to the Pretender since the latter had been a mere boy.

But if Moran’s presence in a hidden eyrie overlooking the Reaching Beck Bridge was all too explicable, his being in Sancta Maria inter Prata, exercising some sort of unwholesome influence over the young squire, was anything but. The natural urge of an assassin was to leave the scene as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. If Moran had returned, it had to be for a compelling reason.

He tried to make his voice sound no more than ordinarily inquisitive.

“How long did you say that’s been going on, again?”

“Well, that’s the odd thing. This Moran turned up out of nowhere less than a week ago. Been fighting in France – or was it the Rhineland?  Somewhere foreign, anyway. Probably made his own town too hot to hold him. Mrs Turner told me he looked the sort. She’s going to be keeping a watchful eye on her girls. Anyway, he put up at the inn, and it just so chanced that that night Mr Ronald had been out for a walk – he’s a great one for rambling round the district, I doubt there’s a blade of grass within twelve miles of the church he’d not recognise – and stopped at the inn for a mug of ale before going on up to the castle.”

Saw a strange horse in the inn stable and couldn’t resist the temptation of making the acquaintance of someone from outside his own narrow circle. Predictable. Especially to a man accustomed to stalking and trapping his prey.

“A mug of ale and a game of cards, by any chance?”  

Mrs Hudson looked, for a moment, startled. “Now, that’s uncanny, Mr Verney. How could you have known?”

He shrugged. “I was young and green myself. Once. So I take it Mr Ronald won a bit on the first night; sportingly offered to give Moran his opportunity to take his revenge the next day, ended the second night slightly up again and won an embarrassingly largeamount on the third night. Cleaned Moran out, in fact. And, Mr Ronald being a nice boy, and gentlemanly convention not allowing him to forgive Moran his gaming debts, the only decent thing to do would be to offer him bed and board at the castle,  dressed up as some sort of sinecure post.”

Mrs Hudson’s lips were pinched, the customary twinkle missing from her eyes, her brow furrowed. “Listen, Mr Verney; you’ll not come out with anything of that kind before anyone else, will you?  Promise me?  And specially not Mrs Turner.”

He made his voice deliberately nonchalant. “Why not?  Afraid the diocesan examiner will have me taken up as a cunning man?”

“Well, and if he did, I’d not say he’d be wrong. There’s many a one suffered for sorcery on less grounds. But no.”

She took a deep breath. “You’re right about how it happened, and about the job – training the castle garrison, in case we get an incursion across the border over the summer, or so this Moran says.   But you aren’t the first to have hinted that the play fell too pat to be straight. Jem the tavern-keeper tried to have a word with Mr Ronald on the second night, but that fell on deaf ears –”

“The boy was winning. Easy to believe you’re being cheated when the cards run against you. Not the other way.”

Mrs Hudson nodded. “That’s what Jem said. After the third night – well, I met him the morning, after and that wasn’t a happy man, no, not at all. And I believe he’d tried to get into the castle, to say as much, but as I said, the old gentleman’s one to stand on his dignity and if a tavern-keeper turns up saying he has to speak face-to-face, and no, he’s not going to tell any flunkey what his business is with the master, well, he’s going to get sent away with a flea in his ear, isn’t he?”

“And then?”  There had to be a “then”. He knew his Sancta Maria inter Prata. Its winding old streets and picturesque, lime-washed buildings concealed depths of depravity which could tempt the palate of even the most jaded epicure of crime.

Mrs Hudson sucked in her breath and Sherlock recognised, beneath the conventional exterior, something of his own delight in an unfolding mystery.

“A barrel crashed on top of him in his own cellar the next day. Crushed his chest. He lingered a couple of days, but he didn’t know his own family, and I doubt he could have got two words out if he had.”  She leant forward, wagging her finger. “Now, of course everyone’s saying accident, ‘cept Theo the potman, who helped him stack the barrels, who says they were as solid as a rock, but then, of course he would, wouldn’t he?  But I don’t like it, Mr Verney. I’ve a good nose, and I say something smells.”

Indeed it did. Moran had found himself a perfect situation. On pretence of “training” he could lead the garrison’s men – and the Adair boy, who possessed such admirably detailed local knowledge – to quarter the countryside for any trace of Sherlock or David. So much was clear. But even Sherlock had not known this was his destination until Mycroft’s proclamation had tipped his hand, by which time Moran had already been spinning his games to entrap the young squire. What could possibly have brought the man here?

He coughed, and when the wheezing fit was over looked up at Mrs Hudson. “And did you find a physician in the market?”

She looked regretful. “Not one worthy of the mark. Isaac the German was pulling teeth, as ever – you should have heard the screams – but it’s about all he does do – and I’ve heard all you’ve had to say about the other regulars, too. No, the only new man was the oculist – he was here last week, too – and what would he know about coughs?”

Emotion spiked through him; so sharp he could hardly tell if it was joy or fear. Abruptly he was back in Gondal town, bathed in the after-glow of Shlessinger’s defeat, exchanging lazy wine-shop banter with John about the easiest way to penetrate enemy country in disguise. It had been a purely theoretical question at that point, of course.

“Obvious, isn’t it?”  John’s fair skin had been flushed with wine; the lamplight found unexpected gold glints in his sandy hair. “There are barber-chirugeons in every market in the three kingdoms. Most of them are self-taught bunglers. Easy enough to blend in. No-one would suspect a thing.”

“No.” The point had seemed so obvious that he’d banged his wine-cup down on the table, so hard that John’s head had jerked up in shock.  

“Why not?”

Primum non nocere. You couldn’t treat a patient with less than your full skill if your life depended on it. The moment you took up the knife you’d betray yourself to be exactly what you are; a physician of the first rank, wanting only experience.”

At the unlikely sound of a compliment on his lips John’s expression had been at once so startled and in its honest confusion so infinitely desirable that Sherlock had almost been undone. Desperate for any inspiration, anything to fill the yawning silence rather than utter his true thoughts (Disguise yourself however you might, do you think I’d not know you as my own?) his eye had lighted on a scholar sitting in the wine-shop’s far corner, holding his book at arms’-length and squinting.

“Oculist,” he’d blurted. “You should disguise yourself as an oculist.”

And then he’d had to make up some nonsense about salves and pink-eye and the ease of passing through hostile country with a skill which everyone respected, many needed and vanishingly few understood, all the time fighting against an inner howling emptiness, as if at a chance lost which would never come again. He’d not thought of the moment since save with excruciating embarrassment. In time, that had come to mean that he never thought of it at all. He’d hoped John, similarly, had forgotten.

And yet a travelling oculist had appeared in the town within days of the Reaching Beck Bridge disaster.

John knew of his connection to Sancta Maria inter Prata – he’d been avid in demanding Sherlock recount tales of past investigations. In a lesser man it might have looked like flattery; Sherlock knew better. But John’s very transparency created risks. In seeking for Sherlock he would probably commit every blunder in the book and raise the alarm all along the line. At least, for a tracker as acute and ruthless as Moran. 

He made up his mind. “Mrs Hudson, when I tried my practice drafting this afternoon, I found my eyes dimmed after but a few lines.   I’d not confide this to anyone but you – a scrivener lives by his vision, and if that vision is thought faulty his reputation shrivels – but I could sorely value his expert opinion. Privately. Can you find where he lodges?”

She paused, then nodded. “Yes. I’ll do that. But - “

Her voice tailed off. Her glance towards the fowl lying on the table spoke volumes.

He smiled; it was the hardest piece of acting he had ever performed. “Tomorrow, indeed, will do. After all, it will be all one to the oculist when he examines me. One patient is much like another, I dare say.”  

The wind changed overnight. Sherlock woke to overcast skies and a wind whistling down from the high slopes, where winter still lingered He lay beneath the goose-feather quilt Mrs Hudson had found for his bed (absurd, the way she persisted in treating him as some fragile bloom) hearing it rattling the bedroom shutters in their frames (green wood, fitted too early, warped. He should have words with the carpenter. How dare people cheat Mrs Hudson, merely because she was a widow with no man to watch over her interests?)

So. Today he would know.

He dressed with more than his usual care. As he donned each layer he sank deeper and deeper into Verney’s skin. Moran was out there, somewhere in the little town, waiting for him to make a mistake. Perhaps – who knew? – his mistake had already been made.  

He had hoped that John, being ignorant of his intentions, could not be comprised in his ruin. Even that hope, though, had been put to flight by Mycroft’s proclamation. Exile beyond the realm and outlawry within its borders. How – precise. How damnably precise. John had already taken voluntary exile from Gondal for Charis’ sake. Now, if he stood by Sherlock, he faced a second exile, not just from Gaaldine but from Charis, too.

How cruel of Mycroft, to force John to such a dilemma.  

How foolish of Sherlock, not to anticipate that cruelty.  

And who had John chosen, when put to it?

Mrs Hudson was out, something to be grateful for. He put the final touches to his disguise in her parlour, swathing neck and lower face with a scarf, pulling his hat down over his brows, at a rustic angle which would make any man the laughing-stock of the capital. He closed his eyes for a second, reaching deep inside himself. Verney.

Then he opened the door and stepped out into driving rain.