“It’s not budging, sir.”
“Pull harder, man!”
The removal of boots by a manservant can prove to be no easy task.
And the young Advocate, Edward Kane, was being assisted in that process – not without difficulty, it must be said – by a certain Mr Horse.
Mr Horse was something of a singular character. Raised in the slums of London’s East End, he had served, while still in his teens – and with distinction – at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. And it was there that he had acquired the nickname “Mr Horse” – reputedly bestowed by the Duke of Wellington himself.
Kane and Horse had met when Kane had assisted Mr Horse in what Horse had termed “a bit of bother” at an earlier juncture. After that, Kane had retained Horse as his manservant. Thus it was that Horse served as Kane’s general factotum, servant, cook and – where necessary – his Cockney guardian angel.
The young Advocate, being a person of no great means, had secured a small set of furnished rooms at the top of a tenement building in Edinburgh’s Old Town. This was not a fashionable part of the city. The dwelling comprised a sitting room, with the dining table that also served as Kane’s work desk; a small bedroom for Kane; a lavatory; a pantry with a sink; and a small recess, where Mr Horse slept at night.
The conditions could not be described as commodious, but the accommodation was inexpensive and served for the time being, as Kane eked out a young Advocate’s existence on a trickle of paid instructions.
The Advocate’s boots finally removed from reluctant feet and the kettle placed firmly on the fire to provide a nice cup of strong tea, the conversation turned to supper. Mr Horse had already laid the table. Kane raised his eyebrows in hopeful expectation. Any prospect of roast duck was soon dashed.
“Well, Mr K, I was talking to the butcher today, and he says that since you ain’t paid nothing for a good three weeks, there’s no more grub until you do. Sorry, sir.”
“But, Mr K, I had a few scraps of mutton left over from yesterday, sir, so I’ve cooked us a nice mutton stew, and we can pour that over yesterday’s bread.”
Kane sat down at the table, placed a napkin on his lap, bowed his head and, silently, said grace. Being the son of a clergyman, old habits die hard. He was then treated to the sight of Mr Horse emerging from the pantry with a very large pot and sploshing a quantity of the questionable stew into the bowl before him.
And as he ate, he told Horse all about his new – in fact, his only – case. Horse chewed on a piece of yesterday’s bread and listened intently. When the narrative had finished, Horse shook his head: “Sounds like the little monkey got what he deserved, sir. What with him carrying on, and the like.”
“His mother says that he was not that kind of boy.”
“You hear that a lot from mothers Mr K. Usually when their boys are in the Calton Jail.”
Kane nodded as he chewed on a particularly stubborn piece of mutton.
Horse continued: “And what does the body say, Mr K?”
Kane looked up and narrowed his eyes: What does a dead body ever say?
“I mean, sir, are there marks and so forth on the body that tell us what happened?”
Kane – mouthful of mutton – shook his head to indicate that he didn’t know.
Horse thought for a moment: “Then I suppose we’d best go and have a look at it, don’t we? The body, I mean. First thing tomorrow. But knowing your delicate stomach, Mr K, best to do that before breakfast, eh?”
It’s odd – but true – that some people seem unexpectedly and ridiculously happy at their work. Gravediggers have been known to whistle while they work. Street sweepers have been witnessed humming the tunes of Rossini in the course of their arduous toil.
Such an individual was Dr Alistair Stanton. Dr Stanton was a Police Surgeon. His daily tasks would include removing bullets, dressing stab wounds – and examining dead bodies.
The lucky (living) recipient would often hear him ‘bum-bum-bum’ cheerfully under his breath as he dressed or incised the offending area. And he was the physician who had examined the recently-departed child, Johnny Campbell.
The first thing that Edward Kane noticed on entering the Royal Infirmary “dead-room” was the strong odour: bleach, was it? Something chemical. But hiding underneath the smell of the bleach, another pungent odour, something that Kane could not quite identify. Something almost sweet. Sweet as a decaying flower is sweet.
Kane wrinkled his nose and looked at Horse.
“It’s Death, Mr Kane. The sweet smell of Death. I knows it well from the fields of Waterloo.”
Kane removed the scented handkerchief from his pocket and held it against his nose.
Horse smiled: “You wouldn’t have survived Waterloo, would you sir?”
The rhetorical question was interrupted by the entrance of Dr Alistair Stanton. So cheerful was the good doctor, that he might have been welcoming them to a convivial social gathering.
“Come in, gentlemen, come in. Please sit down. Now – how can I be of assistance here?”
Kane explained that he had been instructed by the mother of the child, the late Johnny Campbell, aged eleven years, and that they were looking at the cause of death.
“Of course, of course, wee Johnny Campbell,” smiled the doctor, “by all accounts a cheeky wee chappie...”
“Not according to his mother, Dr Stanton.”
“Of course – what else would one expect of a mother.” The good doctor smiled. It was said as more of an obvious statement than a question.
Kane had slept badly that night, in squeamish anticipation of the task before him. But he decided now to grasp the thistle:
“We thought, perhaps...that it might be instructive to examine the body...”
Stanton gave a good-natured laugh: “You’ll forgive me, Mr Kane, for remarking that a lawyer attempting to examine a body would be the equivalent of a physician attempting to persuade a jury not to put a noose around his client’s neck. What on earth would you hope to achieve, sir?”