Wilder Perkins: Hoare and the Passed Master

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Wilder Perkins Hoare and the Passed Master
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    Hoare and the Passed Master
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Wilder Perkins

Hoare and the Passed Master


The call did not come from the cart halted on the moonlit bridge just ahead of Bartholomew Hoare, but from beneath the bridge. There was a swinging golden light down there, a swinging golden light as if from a lantern. Hoare drew rein to listen. The call came again.

Hoare had been looking forward to his own bed in his quarters at the Swallowed Anchor in Portsmouth, but a consuming curiosity had always been his bane.

Below, a bulky figure held a lantern in one hand while holding up a naked body with the other by a sling passed below its armpits. The body's gray-white head hung at an unnatural angle, the huge wound in its throat grinning like an extra mouth.

"Who is he?" Hoare whispered. He had lost the use of his vocal cords ten years ago and had whispered ever since.

"Haven't the remotest idea, my good man." The fat man lugged the corpse up the slope below. "What difference does it make?"

"Well, where are you taking him?"

"Up to my cart, you ninny. You needn't whisper; he can't hear you. He's dead, you know. The bugger's heavy. Come along now; take his feet."

Hoare obeyed orders, dismounted, and hitched his horse to the cart's starboard quarter. Clambering carefully down the bank, he picked up the corpse by its bare feet, holding them to either side of him like the handles of a wheelbarrow. At the handling, the body expelled a vile reek of corruption.

"Mind his head, idiot! Can't you see it's as good as dropping off already without your tossing him about like that? I'm damned if I'll lose a perfectly good head just because you're not up to your job. No help, no pay."

Light dawned-inside Hoare's own head at least.

"You mistake my identity, sir," he whispered. "I am no resurrection man; I am a lieutenant in the Royal Navy as you could tell if you were to let your light shine upon me."

The fat man did so. "Oh Lord," he said.

"And I presume that you, sir," Hoare went on, "are a surgeon who has just acquired a body to anatomize."

The fat man shrugged resignedly. "You have me out, sir. But while you decide how to dispose of me, would you mind…" He gestured with his lantern.

By its fitful light Hoare inspected the body he was helping to carry.

The victim had been middle-aged or even elderly. The body was stout and soft-the figure of a powerful man gone to seed. A tattoo across the chest, blurred with time, showed a man-o'-war under full sail and the motto "'Tis to glory we steer."

This put another complexion on the affair. To connive in supplying a medico with a strange body to anatomize was one thing, but when the body was that of a fellow naval man, it was another.

Hoare dropped the corpse's feet.

"I cannot overlook this, sir. This is a British sailor."

"Oh Lord," the fat man said again. "What shall I do, then?"

"Carry on up the hill to begin with," Hoare said as he picked up the legs again. "Then we shall discuss the situation. Meanwhile, whom have I the honor of assisting?"

"Dunworthy, sir," said the fat man. "Dr. Samuel Dunworthy, of Durley Street. By Bishops Waltham, you know."

Bishops Waltham meant no more to Hoare than Durley Street did.

"Physician and surgeon, sir," Dunworthy went on. As Hoare knew, physicians held themselves as gentry, fit to dine above the salt unlike mere surgeons, who were addressed as mister instead of doctor and fed in the servants' hall, if at all. As the nearly mute Hoare knew all too well, naval surgeons generally deserved no better.

"Hoare," he whispered in reply.

"There is no need to be insulting, sir," said Dr. Dunworthy over his shoulder. "I am as much a gentleman as you."

"I referred to my name, sir, not your profession," Hoare said.

"I do beg your pardon, sir," the doctor said. "Now, if you'll just give our friend here a heave… a one-a two-and a three! There we are."

"Now, sir," Hoare said, "perhaps you will explain yourself." He backed off into the darkness and-just in case-groped his larboard horse pistol from its holster on the hack's saddle.

Dr. Dunworthy sighed.

"To start in medias res, sir, I found my cadaver under the bridge, just where the message told me it would be."

"Do you still have the message?"

Dr. Dunworthy handed Hoare a piece of crumpled paper. "I am engaged, sir, in certain original inquiries relating to the interconnection of various glands: the adrenal, pineal, thyroid, and salivary glands and the testicles, to be precise. I am in hopes of establishing a hitherto undiscovered connection between them, and of presenting my discovery before the Royal Academy. In fact, my preliminary lecture on the subject just the other night, here at Bishops Waltham, was well attended.

"My studies involve anatomization of the human corpus. Mere animal substitutes such as sheep or pigs simply will not do. To this end I have made connection with several-er-suppliers of cadavers. As we both know, of course, this is unlawful. But the interests of science, I am convinced, must take…"

"Please come to your point, doctor. It grows late."

"Well then. I found the message under my front door just a few hours ago. It did not originate with any of my usual sources, for those are barely literate."

"What do you usually do with the remains?"

"Bury them, of course, sir, with a prayer. What else?"

Hoare saw that it would take Dr. Dunworthy a long, long time to spin his yarn to its bitter end. He interrupted again.

"How far are we from Darley Street?"

"Durley Street, sir. By Bishops Waltham. A mere half hour's easy drive. The road forks to the left just ahead. Then we take another left, and our second right, and there we are."

"Excellent." Hoare climbed into the seat beside Dunworthy. "It is too late now for me to make Portsmouth tonight. I shall accompany you there and prevail upon you to provide me with sustenance and a bed." He realized that, as he too often did, he was imitating the speech of his vis-a-vis in his own whisper. More than once he had been accused of mockery.

"It will be a pleasure, sir." The doctor's voice was grudging. He slapped the reins on his pony's haunches. The animal woke with a start and began to plod forward. Hoare marked the route as they went; he knew he must return to the scene in daylight.

"Give me the use of your glim," Hoare ordered, and the doctor complied. By its light he examined the message. In block letters, written on rather fine paper, the message was brief enough:

"ive a corpus for you," it read, "if you come to the plaice marked on the map. Bring the usual."

Hoare agreed with Dr. Dunworthy's observation; the brisk, clear hand was that of a literate person.

"What's the usual?" he asked.

"Five pounds, sir," the doctor replied in a whisper. "That's the going rate for a cadaver hereabouts. I heard the other night that it's half that in London-the law of supply and demand, I suppose."

Dunworthy must have realized he had been copying Hoare's whisper. In a normal voice he went on: "I still have the sum by me, for there was no one to whom I might hand it. So I am ahead, I suppose, by one cadaver." The thought appeared to cheer him up.

"Why do you whisper, sir? There's no need, as I told you."

"An old war wound, if you must know," Hoare said.

At the Glorious First of June '94, where he was first in Staghound, 38, a spent musketball had crushed his larynx, leaving him unable to speak above a painful croak. Since any deck officer must be able to hail the main masthead in a full gale, Staghound's captain had regretfully put him ashore with a letter of high commendation.

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