We walked east along Fishbait Lane, before plunging south between two rows of tall soot-covered houses. We passed down ever-narrowing thoroughfares, through seedy courts, and past lodging houses festooned with grubby washing. There were people everywhere, though as we drew closer to the water the costers and cabmen, shopkeepers and street sellers gave way to more unusual people and faces. To our left I saw a Chinaman, a thick white scar across his forehead; to our right a Lascar with one eye, and beside him a tall black man with a Dutch sailor’s cap on his head and a cage of small green birds in his arms. A group of blue-faced men passed by, their skin stained with the indigo they unloaded all day; the hands and faces of others glowed yellow from hours spent amongst saffron and spices.
“You fit in perfectly,” said Will.
I grinned. I knew he was referring to the port-wine birthmark that covered my eyes and nose. As a child I had hated it. I had not grown to love it—I could never do that—though I had, in time, grown used to it. Always it had set me apart—that and the fact that I hid my woman’s body beneath a man’s apparel. But it had made me what I was. It had given me the confidence to accept the stares of strangers, and its ugly mask had helped to conceal my identity, allowing me to achieve freedoms and liberties beyond the compass of most women’s lives. I was grateful to it for that, at least. And yet now that we had neared the Thames, now that we were surrounded by all manner of different colored skins, the birthmark that always marked me out had grown less singular. Will was right; no one looked at me here.
“So, who is this Aberlady fellow?” he said. “You’ve never mentioned him before.”
“We sat our examinations together, though he is a few years older than I. I’ve not seem him for some time. Three was no address to the note he sent, so I can only assume he’s still working on the Blood.”
“The Seaman’s Floating Hospital. It’s named the Golden Fleece, though it’s known more colloquially as the Blood and Fleas. The place has certainly seen plenty of both.”
“Is there an infirmary in this city that is not both bloody and pestilent?” Will took the note from me. “‘Come quickly or all is lost.’ You don’t know what worries him?”
“No,” I said. “And as I know him to be a confirmed atheist I’m troubled all the more by his choice of words.”
“The paper is of the cheapest kind,” said Will, rubbing the letter distastefully between his finger and thumb. “It has no watermark or distinguishing features. And what’s this stuff here?” There was a scattering of dry specks, yellow and rust-brown in color, caught in the letter’s folds. Will tipped them carefully into his hand. “Sawdust?”
I nodded. “I think he wrote this in the operating theater. I presume on board the Blood.”
“Why not write it at his desk?”
“Precisely. Even worse, the force of his handwriting and the angle of the pen suggests—” I plucked the letter from Will’s fingers and held it close to my eye “—suggest to me that he was kneeling on the floor.”
“You think he was ill? Or wounded?”
“He makes no mention of it—”
“He only ever drank tea.”
I shrugged. “Crouched out of sight? Hiding? I’m hoping we’ll soon find out.” I said no more. Those desperate words, that fearful hand, the bloody sawdust clinging to the rough nap of such cheap paper—all troubled me. But most unsettling of all was the final sentence, scrawled across the page above a signature I hardly recognized as the mark of a rational and lucid man: “Come now, Jem, but come ready to face the devil.”
We emerged onto the waterfront from a narrow stinking thoroughfare known as Cat’s Hole. To the west were the London Docks, warehouses, and wharves, and Tulip’s Basin. To the east not one hundred yards away were the Seaman’s Dispensary and the waterfront mortuary. On the river opposite, at the edge of the stretch of water known as the Pool of London, was the Seaman’s Floating Hospital. She lay out on the Thames, at the very heart of the city of ships that crowded the riverside from London Bridge to Limehouse Reach, her smoking chimneys just visible through the thicket of masts and rigging. I had always been of the opinion that there was not a more dilapidated hospital than St. Saviour’s Infirmary in the whole city—with the exception of the Blood and Fleas. As a former naval frigate her decks had once been loaded with cannons. Thirty years ago these had been replaced by hospital beds, so that she rode high in the water, her sides black and sticky-looking, bellying out like the bloated carcass of a great drowned beast. Here and there bits of her tarry paint had fallen away, allowing the rank weeds of the riverside to colonize the softening wood beneath. Her gun ports had been transformed into windows—the apertures of which might be closed off with wooden shutters, though many of these were propped open, revealing the murky glass beneath. Some of the windows were standing ajar, though nothing but blackness was visible within. We looked up as a trap door opened in the bow and a stream of lumpy brown liquid was discharged into the waters below.
A narrow jetty led out to her mooring, a spindly staircase zigzagging up the ship’s scrofulous flanks to the quarterdeck. Makeshift sheds clustered about the sawn-off masts like toadstools sprouting about the base of a severed tree. Between these, a series of washing lines had been strung, hanging with limp, grey bed linen. Her hull had been modified over the years, with hutch-like structures, balconies, and staircases crudely fixed to her greasy wooden sides. In stark contrast, new, freshly painted frigates bobbed in the water fore and aft, their hulls gleaming, their sails neatly furled. Rotten and swollen, blotched with patches of mold and scabrous with rude repairs, the Blood loomed between them in a grim memento mori.
“Do we have to shout ‘ahoy there’?” said Will.
I shaded my eyes and looked up. For a moment, up there on the deck, a figure was silhouetted against the sky—a man, tall and thin, but stooped, his black top coat loose on rounded shoulders. His hands gripped the rail like claws.
Behind us, on the yard-arm of one of the new frigates, a magpie croaked and hopped.
“One for sorrow,” muttered Will.
When we looked back the man had gone.Rotten and swollen, blotched with patches of mold and scabrous with rude repairs, the Blood loomed between them in a grim memento mori.
We climbed the flimsy steps that clung to the ship’s starboard side, the rope banister as brown and sticky as if it had ben fashioned from chewed tobacco. I found myself wondering how many diseased hands had gripped it, and I resolved to wash my hands as soon as I was able to. There was no one about, though from a hatch in the deck of the ship I could hear the familiar sounds of sickness—coughing, hawking, moaning. St. Saviour’s Infirmary had sounded the same. I missed the old place, though I had to admit that there were some things—coughing, hawking, and moaning amongst them—I would have been happy never to see or hear again.
The hatch, and thus the bowels of the ship and the hospital proper, were accessed by a steep wooden ladder-staircase. “Down there?” Will looked at the hatch, his expression appalled. “The place stinks like a latrine, even from up here.” Downstairs, I knew from experience, was far worse than Will could ever imagine. I was glad not to be destined for the ’tween decks that day.
I pointed to the quarterdeck. “Aberlady’s apothecary is in the former captain’s cabin, up there at the back—cramped, compared to St. Saviour’s, but spacious enough. Below it are his living quarters.”
Will started forward, his relief evident. “Then perhaps we should go up there directly—”
“You!” cried a voice. “You there! Where do you think you’re going?”
The deck towards the front of the ship—an area of the vessel Aberlady had always referred to as ‘the fo’csle’—had been roofed over to create a committee room, and a library cum consultants’ sitting room. It was from the latter that two men had appeared. Behind them, through the open door, I could see walls covered with books and a cluster of brocade-covered armchairs. A breath of warm fragrant air billowed out, heated by the fire that danced behind the door of a large round-bellied stove. The first man was old, tall, and gaunt, and recognizable as the fellow I had seen looking out at us before we boarded. His eyes were pale, greenish, and watery, like sputum, his greyish-colored skin covered with a powdery sort of eczema, so that he looked as though he had been fashioned from ash, and might crumble away to nothing if the wind blew. The other was much younger, small and red-faced above a cleric’s collar. Tiny oval spectacles sat crookedly on his nose, obscuring his gaze.
“Who are you?” It was the old man who spoke this time, his voice harsh as a crow’s.
I knew who he was, for I had met him before, though he had never deigned to speak to me.
“Dr. Sackville,” I said. “My name is Flockhart, and this is my friend Mr. Quartermain.” I held out my hand. His grip was firmer than I had expected. The parson’s was moist, as if he had been licking his palms. I explained that we were “just passing by” and hoped to see Mr. Aberlady. “I assume he’s still your apothecary?”
“Aberlady?” said Dr. Sackville. He glanced at hi companion. “We were just speaking of him. He is our apothecary, sir, but for how much longer I cannot say.”
“He is, at best indolent and, at worst, a danger to us all—when the fellow bothers to appear,” said the man who had introduced himself as “the Reverend Dr. Ambrose Birdwhistle.”
“A danger?” I said. “In what way, sir?”
Dr. Sackville shook his head. “Where might one begin—?”
“Perhaps with the snakes?” butted in the parson. “Or the scorpions? Not to mention he matter of his infidel’s views. He reads Ruskin, you know. To the patients!”
“Ah, the snakes,” Dr. Sackville chuckled. “Yes, the fellow’s certainly very fond of them. I’m surprised he’s abandoned them—the big one especially. He often brings it on deck when the sun’s out. Oils its skin with linseed and a cloth. The men enjoy it too—they all want a go.”
I smiled. I remembered Aberlady’s fondness for his snakes—a nasty-looking stripy viper and a brown, muscular python. “That big one” had always been his favorite. It was hard to like the smaller, striped creature, with its fans and its vicious ways with the pigeons.
“Is he here?” I said.
“He is not,” said Dr. Birdwhistle. “We have not seen him for a week. We have sent ashore to look for him more than once, but he’s nowhere to be found. He turned to his companion. “I fear we may need to replace him altogether, Dr. Sackville, no matter how long he’s held the post. The ship has descended into complete misrule. There’s gambling below decks, sir, and worse, since Aberlady vanished. I’m afraid I really must take the matter before the Governors. ‘For what shall if profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ Mark, chapter eight, verse thirty-six—”
“Gentlemen, you find us perplexed and inconvenienced in equal measure by our apothecary’s disappearance,” said Dr. Sackville. “I have been away for a number of days or the matter would have been addressed before now, but I believe he has quite disappeared.” He turned to his companion. “I fear I cannot stop you, Dr. Birdwhistle. If you wish to bring the matter of Mr. Aberlady’s ‘infidel’s views,’ as you call them, to the governors then bring them you must, though perhaps it might be wise to find the fellow first. Perhaps if a matron might be engaged, too? She might at least be prevailed upon to help stop our nursing staff from running away.” He frowned at me. “Do we know one another, sir? Flockhart, you say? And Quartermain?” His lips twitched into the beginnings of a gleeful smile. “I remember now. You father, Flockhart—”
“Was murdered,” I said, irritated by his insinuating tone. “By the hangman at Newgate. I think you’ll find it was a member of your own profession who was responsible for what happened at St. Saviour’s, and to my father.”
“You do me an injustice, sir. I was about to say that your father was a good man—from what I knew of him. We are rather out of the way of things here on the river, and my private practice never me near to St. Saviour’s, but I knew of his reputation. I was sorry to hear of what happened.”
“Thank you,” I said. I felt myself blush to the roots of my hair. And yet, I could not help but feel that this was not what Dr. Sackville had intended to say at all, but that he had quickly changed his sentiments purely for the pleasure of seeing me discomfited. He was watching my embarrassment with something like relish. I cleared my throat. “But we are here about Aberlady—”
“Ah, yes,” he said, mildly. “Aberlady. Has he taken anything, Birdwhistle? Anything that might tell us where he’s done or for how long?”
“His quarters are as they usually are, and the apothecary is so untidy it’s hard to tell.”
“Might we see?” I asked.
Dr. Birdwhistle frowned. “I’m not sure it’s appropriate—”
“Come now, Birdwhistle,” said Dr. Sackville. “What harm can it do? Besides, should Aberlady fail to return, or—assuming you get your way—be turned out altogether, we may well need the assistance of men such as Mr. Flockhart. You carry on, sir. I’ll show these gentlemen around.”
The apothecary was low-ceilinged, tall enough for a man to stand up in but not tall enough to hang herbs up to dry, though the air on the river was too damp for such practices, and Aberlady generally bought what he needed from a wholesaler, or from the herb woman who came round with her cart. The stove was lit and the room was warm, and the place smelled strongly of rosemary and lavender—we were all of us sorely troubled with moths—along with the sweet, distinctive smell of licorice root. Beneath this I recognized the earthy scent of chickweed and cleavers, both excellent against the itch—another perennial problem in the close confines of ill-ventilated wards. There was a strong aroma of citrus too, from a crate of oranges and limes that stood beside the table—contraband, no doubt, for the docks were all around us.
It was a bright room, with astragalled windows looking out on three sides—at the ships that were moored alongside, at the shore, and out to the river—their ledges lined with a familiar array of bottles glittering with colored liquids. Beneath them were ranked rows of labeled drawers. I had the same in my own premises on Fishbait Lane. I tried to keep my shop tidy, as my father had always taught me. Here, however, the paraphernalia of the apothecary was spread out in such disorder and confusion that even Gabriel, a boy of the most slovenly habits, would be appalled.
I glanced around me. Aberlady was a knowledgeable and capable man. Despite his protestation that he was faced daily with the most banal of complaints, he was also keen, and dedicated to his work. I was surprised to see how disordered his remedies were, and how run down his stock of herbs and tinctures. What distractions had caused him to neglect his duties so badly?