Chapter 3 - The Physician’s Quest by A.J. Hall
Mrs Hudson – that jewel among women – had lovingly preserved the tools of Mr Verney’s trade at the bottom of a cedarwood trunk, wrapped first in soft leather and then in protective canvas. Precious sticks of dried Indian ink; rarer coloured pigments; his slate, chalk, sanding pot, ruler and penknife and, last and best of all, almost a ream of the best rag paper emerged from the wrappings.
She had even placed a dozen white goose quills on the table below the window which gave the best light.
“Not that you’re to go wearing yourself out,” she warned, eying him suspiciously.
“Just a few practice essays, to get my fingers limber.”
“Hm.” She fidgeted, irresolute by the door, dressed in her best for market day. The sounds of a beaten drum and the cries of hucksters drifting in through the open shutters decided her. Life, excitement and movement was flooding into town, and she risked missing it. “Well, don’t overtire yourself. And I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for someone who might be able to treat that cough, trust me.”
The moment the door shut behind her he reached for the slate. He had carried the instructions in his head for days. The sooner they were consigned to writing the better, before time or death obliterated them. Important to get it right, though, and his resources were no longer so lavish he could afford to waste paper on false starts.
Whence came it? Of the old wolf’s last getting.
Where should it lie? In the halls of his fathers.
So much for the introduction; now for the meat.
Where was the sun? It swam on the water.
The vast bulk of the central massif to the west cast long shadows along the valleys well before the setting sun sank below the horizon. Only at sunrise did the sun appear to touch the water’s surface, and then only when seen across the rare tranquil stretches on this turbulent mountain river.
Where was the blossom? White on the thorn.
Images flooded his mind, more vivid and immediate than they had any right to be. He was back in the river, swirling downstream from the Reaching Beck Bridge, his hands clamped into David’s belt, the roaring waters tumbling and tossing them like dead twigs, the agony in his air-starved lungs bidding to tear his chest asunder.
The current slackened. His head broke the surface; he gulped great lungfuls of air. Pain spiked as his knee collided with some underwater obstacle. He floundered, found his feet, and staggered ashore on a shingle spit, dragging David’s body. A bare glance sufficed to extinguish the last flicker of hope.
The boy was dead. Most probably, he had been dead before he hit the water. The Pretender had outwitted them both – almost effortlessly, it seemed.
He knelt by the corpse, threw his head back and shouted his rage and frustration to the skies.
When he lowered his head his eye was caught by the great hawthorn tree on the far side of the river. It sparked some last flicker of defiance. He dragged David’s body back to the water’s edge and then – it was the hardest decision he had ever made – waded into the icy stream himself. Towing the corpse, he struck out towards the further bank, his lodestone that white explosion of blossom.
More pictures swirled through his mind, fast and fragmented.
Making landfall where the river had carved out a hollow in the bank, beneath the roots of a willow tree.
Stripping David naked with brutal efficiency, tying the clothes in a tight bundle, thrusting the body under the overhang.
Scouting through the underbrush towards the hawthorn tree, praying it had been planted to guard a house threshold – thorns and rowans often were – and thus he might find shelter there.
The jar as his foot collided, hard, against the remains of a perimeter wall, buried beneath creeping foliage.
Tracking the line of the ruins, coming ever closer to the thorn tree. Here, it was possible to discern more of the building which had once stood here; crumbled walls, part of a byre with a semi-intact roof, and then –
Set into the ground, hard against the remains of the wall, was a weathered slab of dressed stone, a shade under three feet by two, over-grown with brambles. In its very centre was a carving in shallow relief. His fingers traced its outline.
A Tudor rose, the badge of an extinct Royal house from the far side of Europe.
Someone had passed this way years ago, carrying his own hopes and fears. And he had carved a sign of allegiance and defiance into solid rock, to ensure that something of himself would remain, when his body had long ago mingled with this thin, dry, foreign earth.
A fugitive. A fellow.
He cleared the brambles away with one sweep of his boot, then knelt to trace round the slab’s cool stone edges. On the northerly of its shorter sides his questing fingertips found what they sought: a deeply indented groove.
He rocked back on his heels. Where next?
Well, he’d won one round by assuming his predecessor had thought like he did. Time for another throw.
Forcing his way through thigh-high nettles and tangled briars he found a half-ruined kitchen range set in a wrecked chimney breast, its iron bars weeping red rust tears onto the stone hearth. At a pinch he might be able to wrest one of those bars free, but his strength was ebbing and, in any event, the end might be too thick to slide into that precisely scooped groove in the slab. He needed – ah.
There was an alcove in the ruined chimney, behind the fireplace. His hand reached up and captured a sooty, sack-cloth wrapped bundle. He unwrapped it on the hearth. Craftsman’s tools, laid away long ago, first coated in goose-grease and then swathed in oil-soaked linen. Standing proud amid the bunch was a serious-looking iron crow, its flattened end the exact shape of the groove in the slab outside. It might be pitted with rust, but it was undoubtedly the right tool for the job.
With the crow’s leverage he eased the slab sideways, taking care not to damage the brambles, to expose a dark pit below. Then, he felt inside his jerkin for his tinderbox. The tinder, predictably, was sodden. He laid it on the slab to dry in the sun and spread David’s fine linen shirt and undergarments next to it. While they dried, he searched the woods for a branch of suitable thickness to use as a torch.
The overcast morning had ripened to a blazing afternoon; tinder and linens were dry when he returned. He tore David’s under-drawers to strips and wrapped them round the end of the branch. Armed with the makeshift torch he descended, cautiously, into the hole.
He found himself in a capacious, well-constructed cellar, no doubt used for storing wine and oil, when the ruin had been a working farm. Here, too, he saw the hand of the unknown fugitive. Stones had been strategically removed, making a practical ladder for descent and ascent. Better still, a stout stone shelf had been set into the wall about a foot below the opening. A little experimentation showed that it was precisely placed to offer support when one was raising or lowering the slab from within. Whoever had used this place as his refuge had had no intention of being trapped within it.
In feeling around the far end of the cellar, where part of the wall had tumbled, he happened across pure gold. Tucked in a corner was a sealed cask, which vouchsafed encouraging sloshing sounds when tipped on edge and proved to contain rancid olive oil, opaque with standing. Foul as it was, it was a gift of God.
Scouting around took longer than he had expected. When he emerged from the cellar already the shadows were lengthening. He needed to get a move on, before the onset of rigor made it impossible to move David’s body.
Single-handed, weary, the body a literal dead-weight, he found it a beast of a job. Clearly, he had been scandalously under-remunerating the porters and orderlies whom he’d casually required to shift corpses around for his convenience over the years. Even though the ruined farmhouse was barely a hundred yards from the water’s edge it seemed to take forever. More than once he dropped his burden and crouched, heart racing, as some sound or half-glimpsed movement made him fear the pursuers had caught up with them.
They made it, nevertheless, to the cellar.
There was a hollow in the flagged floor, probably worn by the dripping water of centuries. He filled it from the oil cask, twisted a strip of linen into a makeshift wick and lit it from the last sputtering flicker of his torch.
He balanced on the shelf and hooked the slab back into place with the iron crow.
Scarcely a moment too soon; as he did so he caught the sound of shouts, barked military orders and bodies forcing their way through the underbrush.
Trapped without hope of stirring while the pursuit swept past, he turned his attention to David. The boy looked heart-breakingly young in the soft lamplight, slumped in a heap like so many officer-cadets Sherlock had seen in his time, worn beyond endurance by their first experience of forced marches and short commons.
No sergeant-at-arms, no matter how stentorian his voice, would ever summon this officer-cadet to parade again.
The cross-bow bolt, striking between the shoulder-blades, had buried itself deep in the boy’s body. Sherlock’s probing finger could just reach its end. No hope of retrieving it and no sense in trying, either. Doubtless Corbisdale’s men were already spreading rumours that he, too, had gone to the rendezvous with a concealed dagger. Showing the boy had been slain from a distance would be a vital preliminary to clearing his name.
Which meant the corpse needed to be collected by the right people.
He carried the body – rigor was advancing, already the face and jaw were stiff – into the partially collapsed corner, and began moving more stones to hide it. Before long his hands were torn and bleeding. He worked on, doggedly.
His last act, before placing the final stone which would hide the body completely, was to work his own signet ring off his hand and place it on David’s. The boy had, after all, been his close kin. Whoever found him would know he had been claimed by his family at the last.
All that was left then was to wait. Eventually he fell into an uneasy doze. When he awoke, the lamp was out and he knew without shadow of doubt it was time. He emerged from his lair into the grey light of early morning.
Judging by the evidence, at least three different groups of soldiers had passed through in the night. Had he stayed in the open they could not have failed to catch him.
Still, the pursuit had gone, at least for the time being. He stood against the thorn tree, squinting eastwards, towards the sea.
The sun rose. He noted, almost mechanically, that at sunrise the thorn’s long shadow touched, just, the hearthstone of the ruined chimney. Then he marked the angle of shadow and hearth, and thought again.
Come death, war or treachery he would see his debt to David paid. He would ensure that, even if he lost this throw, when they were all dead and dust someone could find David, know who he had been, and see him restored to lie with his fathers in the Royal Chapel.
He fell to pacing. The sun was well above the horizon by the time he had finished. For the next few days, wandering in the wild, he recited the instructions to himself morning and evening, till at length he wondered if he would ever be free of their echo in his head.
Now, as he committed them to the slate in Mrs Hudson’s parlour, it felt as if a great weight had been rolled from his back.
Where was the shadow? Dark on the hearthstone.
How was it stepped?
North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one; all under the rose.
Who brings it home? He who –
He paused, struck by a sudden, unexpectedly painful recollection of sunlight slanting on blond-washed sandy hair, and a forehead crinkled in amused reproof. A swipe of a moistened thumb obliterated the half-written line. In its place he wrote the final couplet.
Who brings it home? The one who sees clearly.
Why must they bring it? For the sake of the land.
He blinked, feeling unutterably weary. Then he reached for the quill.