The Devil's Ribbon

A Hatton and Roumande Mystery (Volume 2)

Denise Meredith

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

“The skin is cold and often damp, the tongue flabby and chilled like a piece of dead meat. The patient speaks in a plaintive whisper, tosses incessantly from side to side and complains of intolerable weight or anguish. He struggles for breath, points out the seat of his agony. If blood is obtained at this point, it is black, oozes like jelly, drop by drop. Toward the close, the patient becomes insensible and with a rattle in the throat, dies quietly after a long convulsive sob.”
All was silent in the morgue, save the scratch of a nib, as Professor Hatton copied out a passage from one of his well-thumbed medical journals, underlying words which reminded him not of the symptoms of cholera, but of his father who’d died on a suffocating night, reminiscent of this one.
*   *   *
He was pale, when his sister Lucy had taken his hand. “You did everything you could, Adolphus.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t enough,” he’d replied bitterly, as they’d stood among the handful of people who’d gathered by the newly dug graveside, watching as the coffin was lowered, knowing prayers were a comfort to some. He’d stared at the Hampshire earth and the worms made violet by the spades, thinking if there was a God, then how could this happen.… again?
*   *   *
Bone-tired, Hatton shook away the bad memory and forced his wandering mind back to his work, which was money well earned but giving him the damnedest headache, as he wrote on a neat, square of paper, “Note to self—alimentary canal, entry point? Sphincter muscle? Exit? See Mr. Farr’s work, London Medical Gazette, page 12—Broad Street Pump—how does cholera travel?
Outside, there was a sudden sound of wheels on cobbles, the creak of a chain and a harsh voice crying in the dark, “Bring ’em over ’ere. For pity’s sake … ’ere, I say…”
Not more bodies, he thought. It was midnight and he’d only just finished cutting the last lot, making the cholera count what—twenty? He checked his notes—yes, twenty—which wasn’t enough to call it an epidemic yet, which was good news for Infectious Diseases, but for him? Well, thought Hatton, that was a moot point.
The harsh voice came again—
“Don’t lift the cover. Wheel it over there. There, I say. Leave the bodies by the water pump. Fussy devil? You ain’t heard the like. He’ll ’ave your guts for garters, if anyone touches that padlock.”
Hatton’s chief diener, Albert Roumande was on the far side of the mortuary, a question in his eye to which Hatton said, “I know, I know, Albert. I’m going.” Outside, in the moonlit yard, an arc of stars framed a paltry gang of body collectors who were gathered in a round with torches in their hands. Hatton snatched one of the torches. “For pity’s sake, put the damn flames out. Then for heaven’s sake clean yourselves up a bit. There’s a real risk of infection, here. Especially you! Have you learned nothing from us, lad?” The young man in question stood to attention, removing his cap in a quick show of deference, as Hatton shook his head at the youth’s disheveled appearance. “Monsieur Roumande has a mountain of work for you, so hurry yourself. Where have you been anyway? You’ve been gone hours already.”
Excusez-moi, but Monsieur Roumande said he needed me to visit Newgate, sir, and then go on to the Irish nests in the slums, where I heard the fever bell ringing. Shall I help shift the bodies, Professor?”
“Well, that’s your job, isn’t it?” said Hatton, cross, because he’d done a fifteen-hour stretch already. “Get the corpses into the mortuary, quickly, then it’s hot water and carbolic for the lot of you. No hands anywhere near the mouth, until you’re done with the cadavers and washed. Do you understand me, Patrice?”
The boy nodded, contritely.
“Very well, get on with it,” said Hatton, wiping a swathe of sweat from his neck, because the air in the morgue was uncomfortable and fetid, but it wasn’t much better out here, he thought. St. Bart’s Hospital had been built as a sanctuary for the sick on the ancient meadows of Smithfield, a holy place of medieval monks and healers, but the “smooth” fields had long become a market, and the market had long become a herding place for animals and a slaughterhouse for a thousand dead sheep, a million disemboweled pigs, the split carcasses of cattle. But it was a different sort of death tonight that demanded Professor Hatton’s attention.
Back in the cutting room, Albert Roumande wobbled precariously on a rickety chair, risking life and limb, but determined to hang up another posy of dried herbs to drive the scent of death away, because as chief diener—a word meaning only “servant of the morgue”—his work covered all matters of sanitation, odor control, preserving and pickling, the procurement of newfangled instruments, knife sharpening and bookkeeping. Added to which, being a man of rare intellect and an avid reader of everything from The Lancet to The London Medical Gazette, when it came to understanding the nuances of anatomy, in truth, he was barely a whisper away from Professor Hatton himself.
Roumande jumped down from the chair with remarkable dexterity as he announced, “If the summer keeps up at this temperature, we’ll soon be awash with corpses. But where and how to store them without buckets of ice?” He scratched his head. “That’ll be the next problem. The heat is choking the city, but at least we’ve someone committed to help us, at last.” He turned to their apprentice, Patrice. “But no peace for the wicked, eh? Go and get those cadavers onto the dissection slab, lad, and then I’ve got a treat for you.”
The boy wiped his hands on his apron and beamed, “A treat? For me, monsieur?”
“Learning and erudition, Patrice. You’ve been with us for almost a fortnight now and you can’t always be scrubbing and mopping. Put on some gloves, don a mask, and you can observe your first cholera cutting. Is that permissible, Professor?”
Hatton nodded, happy to leave such matters to Albert Roumande. A man who excelled not only in all things to do with the running of the morgue, but whose sage advice was something Professor Hatton—the younger man, at thirty-five—had come to rely on. For example, on how to raise children—“With love, Adolphus, nothing but love.” On how to sharpen a knife,Always, Professor. Against the blade.” On matters of dissection, “I think you’ve missed a bit, Professor.” And matters of the heart, “Like birds needs the sky, and stars need the moon, a man needs a wife, Adolphus…”
But tonight was not a night to contemplate matters of the heart. There was work to do. Standing under a sign which said Perfect Specimens for an Exacting Science—cherry red on Prussian blue—Hatton carefully inspected an array of surgical instruments, embossed with the doctor’s initials—ARH esq.
“The smallest, I think, for the child’s gut,” Hatton said to the sliver of silver in his hand.
“I agree with you, Professor,” said Roumande, rolling back his sleeves. “Here, Patrice, step up to the cadaver. See these scissors? They are typically used to separate the membranes out from the muscle. Each fold, each cavity may unlock a secret. Step forward, but touch nothing. Observe the organs carefully because later we shall expect you to draw them.”
Hatton prepared to delve in, to feel the flesh rip against the blade, and the muscle melt against metal. Muffled behind his calico mask, he said, “See here, as I draw the blade,” Hatton sliced the torso of a young Irish girl, creating a purple slit, a seeping Y, running through the skin down to the pelvis and then back again to her right breastbone. Roumande stood ready with a large pair of coal tongs, peering over the corpse and adding, “A perfect skin flap, and the infection is clearly denoted by the telltale blood. It resembles crème de cassis, n’est ce pas?”
The youth spluttered, “Excusez-moi, monsieur. S’il vous plait. Please, wait … wait a moment, monsieur.”
“I have him,” Roumande crooked his arm around their apprentice. “Here, steady now. Sit down for a moment, but what on earth’s the matter? You’ve seen umpteen dissections before.”
Patrice put his head between his legs and retched into a nearby bucket, wiping his mouth, “Excusez-moi, excusez-moi…”
“Is it the girl that upsets you? Or the fear of these infected bodies?”
“It’s the black blood, like a witch or the devil’s…”
“Cholera isn’t the prettiest.” Roumande patted Patrice on the back, and then turning to Hatton, said, “The smalls will be more interesting for Mr. Farr, don’t you think? And we’re in luck tonight for we’ve a couple of babes, here.”
Hatton didn’t reply, his eyes still intent on the girl.
“Lost in thought, Adolphus?” asked Roumande.
Hatton shrugged, “You’re right, Albert. We should concentrate on the smalls.” He pointed his scalpel at the micelike shrouds. “And I’d wager those babies are twins.”
“My thoughts exactly, Professor. To compare the onset of fever on cadavers of the same nature will perhaps be worth a few extra guineas for Mr. Farr? And I couldn’t sleep tonight if we dissected the girl. She must have been a sight for sore eyes, before the cholera took her.”
She was maybe fourteen, girlish yet womanly, on the cusp of life before she died, thought Hatton, as Roumande bent down to study the girl a little closer, saying, “There’s a priest in Soho might be willing to bury her. Though where he puts them is a mystery, for they can’t be buried in the confines of the city.” Roumande turned to their apprentice. “All cholera corpses by rights should be incinerated. The Board of Health insists upon it. And yet here lies the prettiest of creatures, an innocent and a Catholic, as well. Well, what do you think, Patrice? Do we burn her like meat?”
The morgue wasn’t a democracy, thought Hatton to himself, and not all opinions mattered. Hatton was all for self-improvement, being of humble origins himself, but there were limits. And more to the point, was this dead child really worth the trouble? But before Hatton could say any of this, the lad spoke up, “I know the priest. It’s Father O’Brian at the Sacred Heart in Soho who buries them. Special dispensation for Catholics, Professor, because in death we don’t like to be burned, monsieur.”
Professor Hatton lifted a handful of the dead girl’s red gold hair. Auburns curls, pallid lips, and lids of ash. “Very well, take her to the priest, for she’s at peace now. But mind yourself, Patrice. We’ve strict rules for cholera cadavers. There’s still the curse of disease upon her, so tell no one what you have on the cart. Only the priest, Father O’Brian, do you hear? If we can give one of these poor children some dignity, so be it.”
*   *   *
An hour passed, as Hatton sat quietly, not fighting the sense of loss which always overcame him after so many gone forever. In the winter, he would pull up his chair close to the huge stone grate. A roaring fire would warm his body, if not his soul. But this was summer. No fire was lit. The cholera girl had been delivered to the priest and the lad was back at his station again, as Hatton shut his eyes, listening to Roumande, slipping in and out of French, with his “Oui! Attention! Do it like this” and “Mais, non! Non, non, non. Ecoute. Do it like that.”
They had worked together long enough for Roumande to know that the professor needed a pause for contemplation on life, and what it really meant when it ended.
The filigree watch in Hatton’s fob pocket ticked.
Perhaps twenty minutes passed before the professor found the wherewithal to stand up, brush himself down, move over to the chipped enamel sink, and peer at himself, noting the worn-out face of a solitary man.
“It irks me,” said Hatton, still looking in the mirror.
“What’s that, Professor?” asked Roumande.
“Mr. Farr specifically asked me to do the cholera work, and yet all my findings must be checked by Dr. Buchanan, our hospital director, but he’s a physician and knows nothing of pathology. He simply wants to ingratiate himself with Mr. Farr and all those eminent gentlemen at the Board of Health.”
Roumande shook his head, “It’s been a long night. You’re tired, Adolphus, and still upset about the girl.”
“No, Albert. It’s not just the girl. Our budget review is tomorrow at nine, remember?”
Roumande gave a shrug, but of course.
Moving over to his desk, and opening a drawer, Hatton found his favored chisel blade. “The usual squabbling at the trough, Albert. You should see the other doctors and their sycophantic ways. It’s a disgrace.” He nicked the wood; little shards were flying up. “They come to the meeting laden down with chocolates, bottles of Cognac, cigars for Dr. Buchanan, but I shan’t do it. There’s no dignity in it, and anyway”—he stabbed the desk, hard—“forensics isn’t a priority at this hospital. Never shall be, never will be.”
Roumande didn’t answer, because Professor Hatton had been this way for a while now—that is to say, peevish and irritable. Ever since their last proper case, which hadn’t gone well. Roumande cursed the day that dandified policeman, Inspector Jeremiah Grey, had arrived at The Yard. And if Roumande closed his eyes, he could still hear the inspector’s Welsh squeal ricocheting off the paneled walls of the Old Bailey and see his friend, Professor Hatton, head bowed in the witness stand, as the judge shouted, “Order in Court! Order in Court! I will have order in Court…” While Inspector Grey was a spit away, screaming like a girl, “But you’re our expert witness. So say it, damn you! Say it! Say they are indeed the victim’s digits in the biscuit tin, or step down, Professor Hatton.”
But Hatton was a man who understood Truth and could never testify to evidence he suspected had been planted, even if that meant a murderer walked free. After the case was dismissed and the accused found “not guilty,” Grey had waited for them, just outside the Court and seethed, “That’s right, Hatton. Walk away, just as that murderer’s done. You should have spoken up, you should have been definitive, you should have said something, anything—not stood there like a lemon. And tell me, Professor, what is all this forensics for if not to help me?”
Hatton had turned to face him, trying to remain calm, “That was the first time I’d seen those fingers, and it appears your evidence came out of nowhere. Mr. Tescalini found them? Simply stumbled upon them? I really don’t think so, and please, Inspector, don’t ever put me on the spot again like that. It’s extremely unprofessional.”
Grey was wrestling with a sweet wrapper, shoving a bonbon into his mouth, as if his life depended on it, as he said, “Cast dispersions on our methods if you like, but we found the tin, hidden in a bedpan and…”
Hatton shook his head, “Inspector with respect, I checked that room…”
“I’m a policeman and my job is a simple one—to send the guilty down and get results for my superiors, anyway I can. Not be left with egg on my face by a supercilious prig like you.”
Hatton had shaken his head with disgust and then whistled down a carriage, ignoring the inspector’s last remarks, who, in turn, had ignored Professor Hatton for these last six months.
It had been a bad day; a long, bad day for St. Bart’s.
But work must carry on and so Roumande sighed and, turning back to Patrice, said, “My fingers grow thicker with each year and the professor has no time for sketching anymore. When it comes to the most important of our tasks, we need young blood. So come.”
Albert Roumande led the boy down a short passageway, to a room no bigger than a cell, whose walls were papered with a variety of anatomical sketches, and on a wooden table, a collection of pencils, quills, inks, and other sketching material plus a number of organs, displayed provocatively on white china plates. The “gallery,” as Roumande liked to call it, was lit by a single oil lamp. There was a scent of mold and old blood, masked by the sharper cut of turpentine.
Roumande pointed to a freshly cut lump; claret jelly in the morgue half-light. “The professor is keen to capture any unusual aspects to the alimentary canal and the sphincter muscle. You’ve heard of the theory of miasma, of course?”
The apprentice nodded, because frankly, who hadnt? That diseases like cholera were caused by the foul air of London and the great stink rising off the river.
“Well, that’s one line of thought, but it’s our belief that cholera is, in fact, waterborne. The body count this summer is no epidemic, but it could easily become so. The professor’s work is to gather statistical data in relation to how cholera travels, anatomically speaking. But tell me, because I’m curious. Before you came here, what did you know of the human body? You seem to have a certain talent.”
The youth smiled, “Thank you, monsieur. Coming from you, that’s high praise indeed. Your reputation on the Continent is second to none, which is partly why I came here. To learn from you, monsieur.”
Roumande was not without a modicum of vanity. Despite himself, he puffed his chest out a little as he said, “I strive to be the best, of course,” then quickly added, “but only for the sake of the cadavers. One must always remember, these corpses were once somebody’s child. Never forget that.”
“I won’t, monsieur.”
“I’ve lived in Spitalfields for over twenty years and there was revolution in the air when I left in ’32, as you well know. But I’ve honed my skills here, in London, because the Metropolis is a sick city, Patrice, the sickest city on earth. And a violent one, too.”
The apprentice nodded, “I knew only a little of the dead, before I came here, monsieur. In Paris, I worked as a body collector, and before that, when I lived in Marseille, I had a job in the Jesuit hospital of St. Jean’s, where I became accustomed to cadavers, but I was nothing as grand as a diener.”
“So you’re from the South, then? I thought as much,” said Roumande, enjoying the opportunity for a lighthearted chat for once, and reminiscing about the old country. “My great, great-grandfather was the first diener in Paris, who learned his trade at the steps of the guillotine. We’ve had assistants in the past, but they’ve been butchers. A few Irish, a couple of English, even the odd Negro, but none has had the artistry which we require. The apprenticeship is ten long years for a reason. The skill of a diener must be learned, honed, perfected. And you are how old, did you say?”
Patrice pulled his shoulders back, “I am almost eighteen,” he said proudly.
“Eighteen, eh?” Roumande looked at Patrice as if he was surveying a horse at a country fair, weighing up the value of him. His dark curls and good looks were what Roumande’s wife might call Byronic. A certain kind of male beauty, which at eighteen was fetching enough, but by forty or so would be long gone, turned to swarthy as Roumande had become.
“You’ll be nearly thirty by the time you qualify. But you’re still quite happy to wait?”
“I believe patience is a virtue, monsieur.”
“It is,” Roumande put his arm around the lad and drew him closer. “But in this trade, so is passion, dedication, and a flexibility of mind, which doesn’t care what polite Society thinks. If you stay with us, you’ll need to grow accustomed to taunts, because they call us scoundrels, body snatchers, the devil’s magicians. And when they’re not insulting us, the living would rather ignore us, as if we didn’t exist at all.”
He paused, as the murky chasm of the morgue closed in on them. “But beneath the cobbled streets, down each bend and turn of an alley, from unmarked graves come ghostly whispers from the dead. Close your eyes and listen. Well? Can you hear them whispering your name? Can you hear them calling you?”
The apprentice, his eyes closed, answered,
“Yes, monsieur. Je peux les entendre.”
Roumande, satisfied, said, “As I can. And it’s our work, and the work of Professor Hatton with his new science of forensics, to give the dead a voice that all the world can hear, by seeing everything, by missing nothing. So, open your eyes, Patrice, and draw.”

Copyright © 2011 by D. E. Meredith