Glens of Stone, Day 19
The stranger relaxed his grip and stood up, his face creased with a chilling smile
Malcolm Porteous emerged from the meeting hall to see Kirsty make for the stairs. He quickened his steps to catch up with her but then realised the time was not right. His sister lay upstairs at death’s door; it was hardly the time to take Kirsty in his arms and declare his love for her. If only he’d taken courage weeks ago, they would be making marriage plans by now. Frustrated, he made for the door. He needed fresh air to clear his mind.
He was surprised to see a young woman making her way carefully across the cobbles towards him.
“Miss Forbes,” he greeted her. “What brings you here? Another invitation from Lady Catherine?”
“No, sir. I have a letter for your father. I must pass it to him in person,” the maid apologised when Malcolm offered to take it from her. “If you insist. He’s around somewhere – will you come in and wait?” But she declined, preferring to stay on the doorstep.
Malcolm found his father in the meeting hall. “What can her ladyship want?” John pondered. At the door he scanned the letter’s contents and his mouth tightened. “There’s no reply,” he said to Jean.
For a while Porteous stood deep in thought, then he made for the storeroom at the rear of the building, emerging with an oil lamp in his hand. He retraced his steps to the meeting room and exchanged the lamp in his possession for one on the window-sill.
The lamps looked identical; only the most observant would notice the subtle differences in colour.
Most members of Edinburgh’s medical profession were to be found in the taverns or coffee houses of their choice at set times daily. There they were visited by prospective patients to discuss diagnoses.
Dr Daniel Turner abided by the custom and was sitting in the World’s End tavern at noon, nursing a glass of brandy. He observed a man wending his way through the tables towards him.
The fellow was shabbily dressed and sporting an eye-patch together with heavy side-whiskers and a straggly beard. He seemed unlikely to have sufficient money to meet a consultation fee.
“Good day to you, sir,” the newcomer said, pulling out a chair. “Are you Doctor Turner?”
“I am.” Turner inclined his head. “Pray tell me what ails you.” “Nothing ails me, Doctor. I’m here to enquire after the health of one of your patients, Miss Alison Porteous.” The doctor raised his hand. “If you please, it is not my custom to discuss my patients with others.”
The man leaned in and grabbed one of the doctor’s wrists. “Perhaps you didn’t hear me?” The voice held menace. “I asked after Miss Porteous.”
“She is seriously ill,” Turner stammered, his mouth dry. “Typhus.” “So I understand. But she will recover.”
“If God wishes,” the doctor said. The grip on his wrist tightened. “That was not a question, Doctor, it was a statement. She will recover!”
Dr Turner stared at the stranger who threatened him. He couldn’t possibly be sure Alison Porteous would recover, as the man demanded. “But typhus is a scourge almost as bad as cholera!” A smile crossed the man’s face. “Miss Porteous is young and strong, Doctor. I trust you are attending her regularly?”
Turner sought the right words. “I’m a busy man, sir. I have numerous other patients to attend.” He forced a smile. “Besides, I have a lady constantly looking in on the girl. Surely that . . .?”
He jumped as the stranger’s free hand thumped the table. “Doctor, let me suggest three things to you,” the whispering voice said. “Firstly, that you replace the old hag of a nursewife attending Miss Porteous at present with someone more versed in the healing arts. Secondly, that you ensure you visit the girl each morning, noon and night. And lastly . . .”
He paused, increasing Turner’s discomfort. “Lastly, I would suggest that, should Miss Porteous fail to recover, you make preparations to leave the city hurriedly, for I will assuredly seek you out.”
So saying, the stranger relaxed his grip and stood up, his face creased with a chilling smile. From a pouch he extracted a small bag which he tossed on to the table. “Your fee, Doctor. I’m sure you’ll earn it well.” The man touched the brim of his tattered hat and was gone.
Turner sat completely still until his heartbeats slowed, then cautiously opened the bag. “Dear me,” he murmured as he counted out 20 golden coins.
Stepping into the street outside the tavern, Ewan Ogilvie set off on the long walk back to Duddingston, knowing he had done all in his power to ensure Alison Porteous received the best possible treatment.
Thomas McLean watched as Jean Forbes left her mistress’s house in the West Bow and made for John Dowie’s tavern in Liberton’s Wynd. He followed her inside as she pushed her way through the throng until she came to the smallest of the establishment’s rooms, known to patrons as the Coffin. There was room for only two tables and a few chairs, all unoccupied.
Waiting until she was seated, McLean advanced towards her, forcing a smile. “May I join you?”
Her face revealed her disappointment: a younger and more handsome man would have been more welcome. “Miss Forbes, isn’t it?” he said, taking a seat.
Surprised, the girl asked how he knew. “You were pointed out to me one day by a friend,” McLean said. “I’m thinking of coming to live here in Edinburgh and will be in need of a good cook and maidservant. I understand you’re one of the best maids hereabouts.”
“That’s kind of you to say so, sir.” Jean blushed furiously. Before McLean could continue, a serving girl appeared at their table. He raised an eyebrow when Jean ordered a tankard and small beef pie. “Doesn’t your mistress provide food, girl?” “Aye, she does, sir. But Dowie’s pies are famous and I’m awfy fond o’ them. Besides, well, Miss McLaurin keeps an eye on what I eat. If she had her way it would be gruel every day.”
“Ah,” McLean said, his voice laced with sympathy. “You don’t like this McLaurin woman much, do you?”
“No, sir, she’s an old besom, and she is not even my mistress. I work for Lady Catherine Gray. Miss McLaurin’s only her old nursemaid and companion, though she tries hard to rule the household.”
The serving girl appeared with the food and drink, for which McLean insisted on paying. As Jean ate, he coaxed her into describing her daily routine.
Flattered, her tongue ran away with her so that she told him not only of her duties but also what she knew of Lady Catherine, Miss McLaurin and even regular visitors to the house. At last McLean sat back, smiling.
“My, but they work you hard. And they even, you say, have you carry messages to and fro.”
“Aye. But I suppose there are worse jobs.” They parted on the understanding that they would meet two days later at the same time. “Remember,” McLean warned, “not a word. We don’t want your mistress suspecting she’s soon to lose her precious maid!”
More tomorrow. Glens of Stone was previously a serial in The People’s Friend. There’s more great fiction in The People’s Friend every week, £1.30 from newsagents and supermarkets.