the devil's ribbon

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  • 8/4/2019 The Devil's Ribbon


  • 8/4/2019 The Devil's Ribbon


    This is a work of ction. All of the characters, organizations, and

    events portrayed in this novel are either products of the authors

    imagination or are used ctitiously.


    An imprint of St. Martins Publishing Group.

    . Copyright 2011 by D. E. Meredith. All rights

    reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information,

    address St. Martins Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

    ISBN 978-0-312-55769-0

    First Edition: November 2011

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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    The skin is cold and often damp, the tongue abby and

    chilled like a piece of dead meat. The patient speaks in aplaintive 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 medi-

    cal journals, underlying words which reminded him not of the

    symptoms of cholera, but of his father whod 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.



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    Yes, but it wasnt enough, hed replied bitterly, as theyd

    stood among the handful of people whod gathered by the newly

    dug graveside, watching as the cofn was lowered, knowing

    prayers were a comfort to some. Hed stared at the Hampshireearth 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 selfalimentary canal, entry point?

    Sphincter muscle? Exit? See Mr. Farrs work, London Medical Ga-

    zette, page 12Broad Street Pumphow 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 pitys sake . . .ere, I say . . .

    Not more bodies, he thought. It was midnight and hed onlyjust nished cutting the last lot, making the cholera count what

    twenty? He checked his notesyes, twentywhich wasnt

    enough to call it an epidemic yet, which was good news for Infec-

    tious Diseases, but for him? Well, thought Hatton, that was a moot


    The harsh voice came again

    Dont lift the cover. Wheel it over there. There, I say. Leavethe bodies by the water pump. Fussy devil? You aint heard the

    like. Hell ave your guts for garters, if anyone touches that pad-


    Hattons 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. Im going. Outside, in the moonlit yard,

    an arc of stars framed a paltry gang of body collectors who weregathered in a round with torches in their hands. Hatton snatched

    one of the torches. For pitys sake, put the damn ames out. Then

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    . .

    for heavens sake clean yourselves up a bit. Theres 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 headat the youths disheveled appearance. Monsieur Roumande has

    a mountain of work for you, so hurry yourself. Where have you

    been anyway? Youve 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, thats your job,isnt it? said Hatton, cross, because hed

    done a fteen- hour stretch already. Get the corpses into the

    mortuary, quickly, then its hot water and carbolic for the lot of

    you. No hands anywhere near the mouth, until youre 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 ofsweat from his neck, because the air in the morgue was uncom-

    fortable and fetid, but it wasnt much better out here, he thought.

    St. Barts Hospital had been built as a sanctuary for the sick on

    the ancient meadows of Smitheld, a holy place of medieval

    monks and healers, but the smooth elds 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 milliondisemboweled pigs, the split carcasses of cattle. But it was a different

    sort of death tonight that demanded Professor Hattons attention.

    Back in the cutting room, Albert Roumande wobbled pre-

    cariously 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 dienera word meaning only servant of the

    morguehis work covered all matters of sanitation, odor con-trol, preserving and pickling, the procurement of newfangled in-

    struments, knife sharpening and bookkeeping. Added to which,

    being a man of rare intellect and an avid reader of everything

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    from The Lancetto 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 remarkabledexterity as he announced, If the summer keeps up at this tem-

    perature, well soon be awash with corpses. But where and how

    to store them without buckets of ice? He scratched his head.

    Thatll be the next problem. The heat is choking the city, but

    at least weve 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 Ive gota treat for you.

    The boy wiped his hands on his apron and beamed, A treat?

    For me, monsieur?

    Learning and erudition, Patrice. Youve been with us for

    almost a fortnight now and you cant always be scrubbing and

    mopping. Put on some gloves, don a mask, and you can observe

    your rst cholera cutting. Is that permissible, Professor?Hatton nodded, happy to leave such matters to Albert Rou-

    mande. A man who excelled not only in all things to do with the

    running of the morgue, but whose sage advice was something

    Professor Hattonthe younger man, at thirty-vehad come

    to rely on. For example, on how to raise childrenWith love,

    Adolphus, nothing but love. On how to sharpen a knife,Al-

    ways, Professor. Against the blade. On matters of dissection, Ithink youve 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 Sciencecherry red on Prus-

    sian blueHatton carefully inspected an array of surgical in-struments, embossed with the doctors initialsARH esq.

    The smallest, I think, for the childs gut, Hatton said to the

    sliver of silver in his hand.

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    . .

    I agree with you, Professor, said Roumande, rolling back

    his sleeves. Here, Patrice, step up to the cadaver. See these scis-

    sors? They are typically used to separate the membranes out from

    the muscle. Each fold, each cavity may unlock a secret. Step for-ward, but touch nothing. Observe the organs carefully because

    later we shall expect you to draw them.

    Hatton prepared to delve in, to feel the esh rip against the

    blade, and the muscle melt against metal. Mufed 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 thenback again to her right breastbone. Roumande stood ready with

    a large pair of coal tongs, peering over the corpse and adding,

    A perfect skin ap, and the infection is clearly denoted by the

    telltale blood. It resembles crme de cassis, nest ce pas?

    The youth spluttered, Excusez-moi,monsieur. Sil vous plait.

    Please, wait . . . wait a moment, monsieur.

    I have him, Roumande crooked his arm around their ap-prentice. Here, steady now. Sit down for a moment, but what on

    earths the matter? Youve 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


    Its the black blood, like a witch or the devils . . .Cholera isnt the prettiest. Roumande patted Patrice on the

    back, and then turning to Hatton, said, The smalls will be more

    interesting for Mr. Farr, dont you think? And were in luck to-

    night for weve a couple of babes, here.

    Hatton didnt reply, his eyes still intent on the girl.

    Lost in thought, Adolphus? asked Roumande.

    Hatton shrugged, Youre right, Albert. We should concentrateon the smalls. He pointed his scalpel at the micelike shrouds.

    And Id wager those babies are twins.

  • 8/4/2019 The Devil's Ribbon


    My thoughts exactly, Professor. To compare the onset of fe-

    ver on cadavers of the same nature will perhaps be worth a few

    extra guineas for Mr. Farr? And I couldnt sleep tonight if we

    dissected the girl. She must have been a sight for sore eyes, beforethe 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, Theres a priest in Soho might

    be willing to bury her. Though where he puts them is a mystery,

    for they cant be buried in the connes of the city. Roumande

    turned to their apprentice. All cholera corpses by rights shouldbe 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 wasnt 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? Butbefore Hatton could say any of this, the lad spoke up, I know

    the priest. Its Father OBrian at the Sacred Heart in Soho who

    buries them. Special dispensation for Catholics, Professor, be-

    cause in death we dont like to be burned, monsieur.

    Professor Hatton lifted a handful of the dead girls red gold

    hair. Auburns curls, pallid lips, and lids of ash. Very well, take

    her to the priest, for shes at peace now. But mind yourself, Pa-trice. Weve strict rules for cholera cadavers. Theres still the curse

    of disease upon her, so tell no one what you have on the cart.

    Only the priest, Father OBrian, 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 ghting the sense ofloss which always overcame him after so many gone forever. In the

    winter, he would pull up his chair close to the huge stone grate.

  • 8/4/2019 The Devil's Ribbon


    . .

    A roaring re would warm his body, if not his soul. But this was

    summer. No re 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 ligree watch in Hattons fob pocket ticked.

    Perhaps twenty minutes passed before the professor found thewherewithal 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.

    Whats that, Professor? asked Roumande.

    Mr. Farr specically asked me to do the cholera work, and

    yet all my ndings must be checked by Dr. Buchanan, our hospi-tal director, but hes a physician and knows nothing of pathol-

    ogy. He simply wants to ingratiate himself with Mr. Farr and all

    those eminent gentlemen at the Board of Health.

    Roumande shook his head, Its been a long night. Youre tired,

    Adolphus, and still upset about the girl.

    No, Albert. Its not just the girl. Our budget review is tomor-

    row 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. Its a disgrace. He nicked the wood; little shards were ying

    up. They come to the meeting laden down with chocolates,

    bottles of Cognac, cigars for Dr. Buchanan, but I shant doit. Theres no dignity in it, and anywayhe stabbed the desk,

    hardforensics isnt a priority at this hospital. Never shall be,

    never will be.

  • 8/4/2019 The Devil's Ribbon


    Roumande didnt answer, because Professor Hatton had been

    this way for a while nowthat is to say, peevish and irritable. Ever

    since their last proper case, which hadnt gone well. Roumande

    cursed the day that dandied policeman, Inspector Jeremiah Grey,had arrived at The Yard. And if Roumande closed his eyes, he

    could still hear the inspectors 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 youre our expert witness. So say it, damn you! Say it! Saythey are indeed the victims 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, Thats right, Hatton. Walkaway, just as that murderers done. You should have spoken up,

    you should have been denitive, you should have said some-

    thing, anythingnot stood there like a lemon. And tell me, Pro-

    fessor, what is all this forensics forif not to help me?

    Hatton had turned to face him, trying to remain calm, That

    was the rst time Id seen those ngers, and it appears your evi-

    dence came out of nowhere. Mr. Tescalini found them? Simplystumbled upon them? I really dont think so, and please, Inspec-

    tor, dont ever put me on the spot again like that. Its extremely


    Grey was wrestling with a sweet wrapper, shoving a bonbon

    into his mouth, as if his life depended on it, as he said, Cast dis-

    persions 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 . . .

    Im a policeman and my job is a simple oneto send the

  • 8/4/2019 The Devil's Ribbon


    . .

    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 inspectors last remarks, who, inturn, had ignored Professor Hatton for these last six months.

    It had been a bad day; a long, bad day for St. Barts.

    But work must carry on and so Roumande sighed and, turning

    back to Patrice, said, My ngers 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 collec-

    tion 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 thesharper 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. Youve

    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 andthe great stink rising off the river.

    Well, thats one line of thought, but its our belief that chol-

    era is, in fact, waterborne. The body count this summer is no

    epidemic, but it could easily become so. The professors work is

    to gather statistical data in relation to how cholera travels, ana-

    tomically speaking. But tell me, because Im curious. Before you

    came here, what did you know of the human body? You seem tohave a certain talent.

    The youth smiled, Thank you, monsieur. Coming from you,

    thats high praise indeed. Your reputation on the Continent is

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    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 bethe best, of course, then quickly added, but only for the sake

    of the cadavers. One must always remember, these corpses

    were once somebodys child. Never forget that.

    I wont, monsieur.

    Ive lived in Spitalelds for over twenty years and there was

    revolution in the air when I left in 32, as you well know. But Ive

    honed my skills here, in London, because the Metropolis is a sickcity, Patrice, the sickest city on earth. And a violent one, too.

    The apprentice nodded, I knew only a little of the dead, be-

    fore I came here, monsieur. In Paris, I worked as a body collec-

    tor, and before that, when I lived in Marseille, I had a job in the

    Jesuit hospital of St. Jeans, where I became accustomed to ca-

    davers, but I was nothing as grand as a diener.

    So youre from the South, then? I thought as much, saidRoumande, enjoying the opportunity for a lighthearted chat for

    once, and reminiscing about the old country. My great, great-

    grandfather was the rst diener in Paris, who learned his trade

    at the steps of the guillotine. Weve had assistants in the past,

    but theyve 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 adiener 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 sur-

    veying a horse at a country fair, weighing up the value of him.

    His dark curls and good looks were what Roumandes wife mightcall 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.

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