Glens of Stone, Day 19

The stranger re­laxed his grip and stood up, his face creased with a chill­ing smile

The Courier & Advertiser (Dundee Edition) - - SERIAL - By Roy Ste­wart

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.

Con­sul­ta­tion fee

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 . . .?”

Dis­com­fort

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.”

Blushed

“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.

Art­work: Mandy Dixon

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