They met again at breakfast. She recognized the smell of the drink in his cup from the room that morning. “Coffee?”
“Yes,” he smiled, “a habit I acquired in Constantinople.” As he set the cup down he added, “two things for which we have to be thankful to our Mahometan brothers: they rescued Science from the Dark Ages and they gave us coffee.”
The conversation led to the night before, and Bernice decided to relate her dream. “Lady Masveh’s imagination is contagious,” he quipped. “Now it is you who will compete with Mr. Andersen’s fame.”
“Have you heard such stories from the local people?”
“Several. Some similar, but none as detailed, at least not in this land.” Bernice’s eyes bid him to continue. “Well,” he spoke with his words as well as the motion of his hands, “the concept that human blood is corrosive to such creatures is seldom mentioned. But when you think about it, it is a most clever safeguard for the human race. They could never wage war on us and win.” He smiled again. “Of course, Menghini of Bologna proved almost a hundred years ago that the blood contains iron. That must be the connection you made.”
“And the words they used, the names they seemed to fear, Gammadim, Gibborim?”
“There I cannot help you, doctor. From the way you pronounce the words, I suppose a Jewish publisher I know in London could decipher them for you; doubtless they are a forgotten bit of Scripture lessons you had in your childhood. As far as I know, besides iron there is only one other thing the secret commonwealth is supposed to fear: mortals that can sense their presence.”
Bernice pondered his words and then glanced at him with curiosity. To her unasked question, he answered, “Like you, doctor, I read a great deal.”
“What do you know about Lady Masveh, Señor?”
“An enigma,” he paused at the return of a memory, and then he continued, “an extraordinary woman with unusual skills… that can be most helpful in certain investigations. You do well to heed her words; do not believe everything you see. Beyond that, I know little of her background. She chooses not to reveal it. I ask no questions.
“If you are asking, can she be trusted? The answer is: completely. But if you are asking if I believe she is anything other than mortal,” he smiled, “my dear doctor, I have yet to meet angel or demon that does not walk on mortal legs. However, for certain professions, and you can guess their nature, there is an advantage to portraying yourself as more than human. It keeps adversaries guessing, enemies out of balance.”
Bernice considered his words, the ones he uttered as much as the ones he did not; and she made a mental note to search for the meaning of those unknown words. But in the meantime, surely the Spaniard had a real task for her.
He answered her question with a question about her experience with postmortem examinations. She acknowledged that at Blackwell’s Women’s Medical College she had only had access to French Auzo-manikins for the anatomy studies. But she had spent a year at the New England Female Medical College where she was allowed to participate in one dissection. Her experiences in Africa completed the rest of her training.
“Then doctor, that is the nature of the favor I must ask of you, a postmortem examination” At her reaction he immediately added. “No, this is not an inquiry into a suspicious death. We know precisely how this man died; I was there. I need to understand the nature of a wound, on his head, a wound that I have seen before.”
“Over two weeks have passed since your first telegram. We will have to contend with the body’s state of decay.” She stood up. “Where is it?”
“The body is in France. The head is downstairs.” The Spaniard’s casual manner made that macabre reply almost humorous. At her look he explained. “I keep an ample store of ice in the subterranean chambers under the manor. It is wrapped in sackcloth, and buried in a pile of crushed ice, suspended on a wooden grill inside a hollow in a large wall of ice. It’s been there since March. It should be well preserved.”
The Doctor paused for a second to collect her thoughts. “We will then have to account for the effect of the temperature on the tissues.”
“Yes, I anticipated that possibility. I consigned to the same state the head of a butchered heifer slain about the same time. It may provide you with a reference. It was healthy in every way.”
The Spaniard had thought of everything and supplied every need. A room downstairs had been turned into a modern surgery. Bernice inspected it as they waited for their subjects to thaw partially in a large bath of warm water. One of the chemist’s shelves on the wall even contained bottles of carbolic acid and ether, two modern medical discoveries that would not be needed that day. Ten kerosene lamps at the focal points of bent polished mirrors, provided portable light as strong as daylight.
Bernice had tended severe wounds and burns in Africa. She had had more than one of her patients die in her arms. Her training and the natural fortitude of her intellect had always allowed her to separate the physical work on the patient from the person. But there was a different feeling here, something disturbed her in a way that she had never felt before.
The guillotined man had a distinctive face, almost handsome. The tumor on the right cheekbone, and a scar on his upper lip, were not enough to disfigure it. “Who was this man? Do I have the legal right to do this?”
“I assure you, Dumollard met his deserved fate. He and his wife murdered at least a dozen young women.”
Bernice performed most of the work, at times directing the Spaniard when more than one pair of hands could be used to advantage. The wound visible above the left temple had sliced all the way into the skull. There was no point in shaving the scalp. She cut along the base of the temporal bone plate and around the upper suture of the occipital bone and denuded the cranium.
The first surprise was the evidence that this had not been the first time such an operation had been performed. There were signs of a surgeon’s work, scars on the skin that covered the front of the skull. Scrubbing the bone at that spot revealed an almost invisible fissure, a circle cut into the bone just above the glabella. The wound at the temple had none of that subtlety. It was the result of a single thrust, as from a knife, directed precisely at the same spot from the side, from behind the temporal line and above the squamosal suture.
She disassembled the skull carefully, starting from the nape to minimize the effects of her examination on the area in question. Eventually she had the brain exposed and could study the strange circular cut on the skull from the inside of the frontal bone plate. The periphery of the cut was lined by a thin callus, indicating that healing had been taking place. There was no visual change in the dura or other evidence of hemorrhaging of the brain at the cut.
Mild pressure tore the callus and dislodged the disk. As her first look had led her to suspect, the incision in that circle of bone had been made at an angle, tilted inwards at the periphery, leaving a disk of bone that could have been lifted out and replaced with a nearly perfect fit.
“I have never seen a trephine that can cleave this fine a line in bone, much less one that does it inclined inwards.”
Santiago studied the edge with a loupe. “Maybe a tool augmented by chemical means. A watch spring saw, kept constantly wet with camphorated oil of turpentine, will cut through the most fragile glass. Or perhaps it was etched with an acid, like an eggshell. Can you tell how long ago this… operation was performed?”
“Probably less than two months before death, the callus over the cut was not fully calcified.”
Bernice set aside the bone disk and proceeded to inspect the brain itself. To remove the uncertainty introduced by the prolonged exposure to the freezing temperatures, they operated together on the heifer’s head and set the exposed brains side by side. Indeed there was a difference in the consistency of the brain tissue. After further examination the Doctor paused.
“What was your observation of the physiological state of this man at the time of death?”
“Vigorous. He was loudly cursing his captors to the last moment.”
“Have you read about the tsetse fly?” Santiago’s uncertain nod led her to explain her experience.
“It evidently carries a germ that it injects at the site it draws blood, a germ that multiplies rapidly and is deadly to cattle, horses, and dogs. When an animal that has succumbed to the illness is opened, the cellular tissue under the skin has the appearance of having been filed with air bubbles or soap. The fat has become oily and all the muscles flabby, the heart even becoming so soft that fingers may be made to meet through it.
“That is the way I would describe this man’s prefrontal cortex.”
“From the operation?” He pointed at the circular hole.
“No, there is no evidence of direct physical damage at that site. The only clear physical trauma is that to the left of the frontal cortex, and that can all be assigned to whatever caused the wound above the temple. That was done after death. The pathological state I speak of already existed, starting at the frontal lobe and suffusing inwards into the locus niger in the crus cerebra, perhaps even farther. The puzzle is, how could this man have walked about with such extensive damage? There is some sort of mineral residue on the surface of the frontal lobe that may give a clue to the source of the malady.”
“This damage, what would it do to the man’s behavior?”
“Much has been written about the connection of specific parts of the brain to the personality, but I believe none of it, in spite of the revival by the Phrenological Fowlers from America. Nevertheless, there is the well documented case of Phineas Gage.
“I believe it was in 1848. He was a foreman on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in Vermont. An accidental explosion shot a tamping iron, over an inch thick and almost four feet long, through his skull, entering through the side of his face, behind the left eye and exiting at the top of the head. The left frontal lobe of his brain was surely destroyed. Yet the man survived.
“Understand, that was very localized damage. Still, his mind was radically changed from that of a gentle, quiet, and clever, though uneducated businessman to an unstable, vulgar, and fickle individual. Acquaintances reported that all concern for fellow man appeared to have left him as well as his ability to hold to his decisions. He would devise many plans for his future and no sooner were those fleshed out than he would abandon them for others appearing more profitable.”
“A kind of folie circulaire?” The Spaniard recalled aloud the term used by a French doctor. “Severe oscillations between mania and melancholy,” he explained. “I have encountered it before.”
Bernice leaned on the table against a weariness that was suddenly weighing her down physically. That pause allowed her to feel again the foreboding that had colored the beginning of the operation. Inexplicably, she found her fingers ensuring that the dead man’s eyes were closed. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and shut her eyes against fragments of unrelated thoughts and memories intruding on the task at hand. “Is there more to be done?”
“The mineral residue; how well versed are you at chemistry, doctor?”
“I am not an expert.” She glanced around the room. “You have more equipment than many universities.”
“Alas, none of the skill.”
“To identify an arbitrary compound with no hint of its origin is almost a problem in aleatorial mathematics. I may be able to tell you what it does not contain.”
“We are looking for silica and potassium salts.”
Bernice performed the titrations. It was no surprise to find the Spaniard proven right. By the end of that work the operating room had become intolerably oppressive to her. Yet, Santiago knew she would have continued if there had been a need. His admiration of the woman never waned. He finally led her directly outside to a pumped well beyond the stables where they washed their hands and arms. There he left her to recover in the fresh air and sunlight while he disposed of the remains in the main kiln at one of the property’s outer buildings.
In that brief walk Santiago had to come to terms with the fact that he had been right about Dumollard. The faint scar he had noticed upon the man’s forehead and those tell-tale mannerisms in his demeanor had not been his imagination playing a cruel trick on him. The blast of heat that enveloped him, as he tossed his burden into the kiln, made him wish he could reduce all his problems to ashes as easily. Nevertheless, as always, he had contingency plans. Small comfort, he thought as he returned to Bernice, for it meant he had to send her away.
“What is next?” was her greeting upon his return.
“A tour of Anglesey, from the natural beauty of Llyn Alaw and the northern cliffs, south along the sandy beaches of the east, to the medieval majesty of Beaumaurice castle.”
“You do not intend to explain the meaning of this morning’s activities.”
The Spaniard’s answer was almost immediate, obviously premeditated. “It is best if I do not. My trust of you is implicit. My debt of gratitude is now even greater. But the office I exercise is much too dangerous. Our personal association must be casual and infrequent.”
He took a step away and continued, speaking about himself in the third person. “That Lord Hallowstone takes interest in the affairs of Doctor Livingstone and his missionaries in Africa is not noteworthy. In fact, his share in the growing worldwide commercial shipping industry, coupled with his partnerships in Portugal, demand it. That Santiago De Soray has social connections with anyone in the continent, that is a grave matter. It could put those persons in peril.”
“My life the last four years can be described many ways, Señor. Risk free is not one of them.”
“My dear doctor, the things I must do at times, well, you would find… distasteful, maybe even repulsive.”
That excuse too had been premeditated. Bernice found it patronizing. “I am glad you warned me before having me cut open the head of a decapitated murderer.”
“Believe me, doctor, you do not want to be involved in my affairs, not now.”
“Do tell. Surely the next task is truly passing gruesome. And you wish to spare me. What does it involve? I know! Perhaps we have to gnaw on the entrails of a living monkey.”
She was bristling. The fire in her eyes took him aback. He cursed in Spanish and ended in English, “in Heaven’s name woman, what do you want?”
“Heaven has nothing to do with it, Sir. You are dealing with the occult and you know it. You are waist deep in their miasma and you go about making your plans as if flesh and blood could stand against such principalities.”
“Flesh and blood have availed me well thus far.”
“Continue to delude yourself, save them the toil.”
“And who will stand against them if I do not?”
“This is a war to be waged with different weapons.”
“Weapons, ahh – yes, of course, good against evil. You think your Church, your God, will step in. I must disappoint you Miss Vedeen. If you are expecting good to triumph, don’t look to your religion. There’s no good there; believe me, I have all the evidence I need.”
He did not wait for her reply. “I know of a boy that was raised by monks, in a monastery, the north of Spain. You see, he was laid at the door of their cloister, abandoned. They cared for him. And they taught him all about religion and those wonderful stories of great men, David, Samson… name it, he knew them by heart. He longed to grow up to be like them in the real world.
“Out of that real world came another refugee, an exile from Germany, a professor, a learned man. He offered to school that child in mathematics and natural philosophy, even to work in the monk’s gardens, for the chance to live his life in peace. They received him too. Over five years he became mentor, confidante, like a father to that child.
“And then one day came the important men, leaders of the church, adorned in their crimson regalia, escorted by soldiers in leather and steel. Surely here stood the issue of the heroes of old; surely they would teach that child his destiny. And one day he would join them in their adventures full of peril and fame.
“But the next morning he realized those missions were not so grand or noble; nay they were base, for they were there with the authority of the Inquisition. Yes, you have heard of the Inquisition, the Church’s rod of iron, the bulwark against witches and worshippers of devils. They were there for the professor. His heinous crime: he had spoken with frankness once too many times to the farmer down the road; his guard on his tongue had slipped. You see, he was what they called an Anabaptist.
“Yes, doctor, clearly a dangerous heretic. For if baptism only belongs to adults who choose it, if a man must be re-baptized for the sacrament to hold meaning, well then the whole Church, the whole world, is filled with unredeemed souls headed for Hell, all of them damned the same: peasants, kings, and popes.
“They took the man. The youth, barely fifteen, tried to stop them. Someone saved his life by knocking him senseless. That night, he arose and set out after them. But the world outside that cloister and its neighboring village was strange and unknown. It took him a week to find where they had taken him, a week during which his trial had been held, witnesses had accused, and his sentence carried out.
“When he found him in the public square, what was left of him was being tossed by the soldiers into a fresh fire of logs for utter destruction. Never had that young man felt such hatred. He cursed the commander of the soldiers and ran at him. The man, high on his horse, only nodded. And one of his soldiers raised his crossbow and fired.
“The pounding of the young man’s heart filled his world with peals of thunder. The air suddenly became thicker than water, impossible to breathe, holding fast all things within itself. The soldiers barely moved. The horses’ nostrils were petrified in mid snort. Only the bolt moved, straight, unerring, and as slow as a falling feather. The boy reached for it with all his strength, ramming his arm through that frozen reality, hearing through his bones the ripping of muscle. But he snatched it out of mid air.
“For the span of a heartbeat, motion returned to the world. His arm and chest felt as if they were on fire. And then he saw the shock of fear spread over the face of the man. The soldier started to shout something but the world succumbed again to that impossible stillness. The boy flung the bolt through the man’s neck.
“The other soldiers ran. The boy grew into a man who swore never to trust in the self-serving cowards that hide their bodies behind dark cassocks and their minds behind the utterings of fools.” The Spaniard took a swift breath that barely reined in the anger. “Oh, he learned soon enough that there is an evil greater than the Church out there. But only a fool would expect deliverance to come from the Church.”
Bernice’s heart was racing, her soul trembling with a mixture of anger and agony. She knew the words of the Spaniard were true, for, in the room below, her mind had once again been swept through by visions, deeds and voices from other times and other places and other people; memories that, once arrived, mercilessly insinuated themselves into her psyche, forcing themselves into the recondite corners of her being. She knew he spoke the truth; and she longed to reach out to that boy, long gone with the centuries.
The anger gave her the strength to stand and repress the tears. The anger was not directed at the Spaniard but at the fury that reigned supreme within his heart. Yet she knew it reigned there because he allowed it to. “Then, Señor, I believe you do not need me anymore.” She turned and walked back to the house.
Reason started to gird the seething rage within Santiago’s breast as the prospect of losing her forever became clearer and clearer with every step she took. He grasped the iron head of the well’s pump and leaned his weight on it for a moment. Could he have been wrong? A thought somewhere slipped to the forefront and whispered ‘don’t let her go, tell her all.’ “NO,” he roared with his whole body, the danger was too great; and he left the imprint of his hand on the mangled iron.
Angry steps took him beyond the old wall. From there he heard the sound of the carriage being driven to the front of the house, doors slamming, servants rushing to get her things. From the orchard he heard the horses whinny and the wheels turn in the gravel. At the entrance to the maze of roses he stood until the grinding of the wheels on the road vanished in the distance. He just stood there and let her go.
Breathing slower, deeper, he walked into the maze. He hadn’t been within its circles for many years. It had been built for someone else. The ruins were there as ancient and ageless as when he first found them. The anger, though controlled, was still with him as he paced around them. And then his eyes caught the green of a slender stem behind a stone. He bent down to pick it up. It was a rose, its petals wilting, its thorns marked with blood. The anger flared again, at himself.
He raced up the stone stairs. “Fernando!” He called out as he crossed the threshold.
Worthington was there immediately. “Sim, meu Capitão.”1
“Essa mulher impossível,” he waved his arms in frustration, “Ela é… clairvoyant.”2 He turned and paced back to the door, “La nécessité.”3 As he turned again he muttered to himself, “C’est folie de se prendre aux femmes, et aux bestes.”4
“On ne peut pas avoir le beurre, l’argent du beurre, et la crémière.”5 The manservant replied evenly.
The calmness of his faithful servant forced the Spaniard to stop. “Yes, the butter, we need the butter. But I will have the maid.” He looked out the door across his vast estate. She was long gone. “Você sabe o que fazer.”6
“Sim, meu Capitão.”
1Yes, my captain (Portuguese)
2That impossible woman — she is… clairvoyant (Portuguese and French)
3I need her (French)
4Tis madness to meddle with women and beasts (French)
5You cannot expect to keep the butter, the butter money, and the milkmaid (French)
6You know what to do (Portuguese)