Authors: Catherine Johnson
Many thanks to my wonderful daughter, Harry,
who loved this from the start and helped the book along.
And to my son, Ad, for my first ever visit to the Hunterian, where this story began
r Charles Finch closed his eyes and winced as the knife dug into his skin. He bit down hard on the handkerchief and tried to think of good things: his daughter, Loveday, entering the vanishing cabinet with a flourish; the crowd at the Alhambra, Paris, cheering, on their feet. The heat from the footlights, the smell of tallow and rouge. A crescendo of applause.
The sting of the knife seared into his reverie. He wanted to turn his head, to get up off the table, but the surgeon’s boy held him down tight, his head wedged sideways. He heard the blade close to his ear, slicing his flesh, pulling it back. He bit down harder. He must think himself away from this, from here, but the smell of cumin and coriander from the market outside reminded him this was not Paris.
The surgeon swore. Charles Finch’s Turkish was passing fair but the word was unknown to him. The tone, however, was universal. Perhaps he would bleed to death and Loveday would never see him again. He pictured her face – furious, outraged. Redder than her hair.
He would not die.
He opened his eyes. Through the window the warm autumn sun winked on the water of the Bosphorus. The surgeon wiped the blade on a cloth. A drop of red blood dropped heavily to the floor.
“I make a space for the rubies.” The doctor’s English was perfect. “There will be a man in London with the young sultan.”
Charles Finch tried to nod.
“Do not move. It will be over soon. He will cut them out when you arrive. No one must know, Mr Finch. Not one living soul, not even the ambassador – not anyone save your man at the Ottoman Embassy.”
“How will I—?”
“You will be contacted when the time is right.” The doctor stepped back, scrutinizing his work. “Then the young sultan returns alive and in secret and the Empire stands strong.” He paused. “You cannot fail. Too much is at stake.”
There was a scraping. Metal on bone. Charles Finch gritted his teeth. The money would enable them to live in a decent house – not Paris, the revolution was far too dangerous, but in London, with a garden. Loveday would never want for anything.
He imagined telling her about this a year or two from now. The secret audience, the palace surgeon, the rubies carried under his skin. She would think he had made the whole lot of it up.
At the edge of his vision he saw the surgeon’s boy unwrap the rubies, flashing brighter and deeper red than his own glistening blood. The surgeon saw him looking.
“Do not think of vanishing with the rubies, Mr Finch,” he warned, his voice as cold as his knife. Charles Finch removed the cloth from his mouth.
“The valide sultan may be acting alone but her influence extends far beyond the harem. You would do well to remember that.” The surgeon selected a fine needle and threaded it as carefully as the best Savile Row tailor.
“I would never…”
“Good.” The surgeon bent over him and looked him in the eye. “The valide sultan trusts you completely. She must have her reasons. You carry the fate of our empire with these, sir. I have heard that men with your colouring are delicate. I told Ali Pasha I would have preferred another, not a … a foreigner, perhaps, to act as courier.” He paused again and smiled a thin, unpleasant smile. “Mr Finch, whatever you do, do not fall ill or die before you reach London.”
“I assure you, I have no—” Charles Finch gave a sharp intake of breath as the needle pierced his skin and the surgeon pulled the thread taut. He felt his skin tighten, then the pain as the needle pierced and pulled a second time. Charles Finch closed his eyes again.
Surgeon’s Operating Theatre
St Bartholomew’s Hospital
31 October 1792
he room was packed. Students and interested observers all crammed onto the benches that were set out around the room, and behind them even more stood, squeezed into any available space. The air was thick with the smell of tobacco and damp wool – the rain outside was unforgiving.
On the table lay a boy – a few years younger than himself, Ezra thought – white with fear. His leg, a mangled twist of flesh all shades from dark blood red to livid scarlet speckled with bright white splintered bone was strapped hard into place. The leather fastenings dug into his skin above his knee, almost as tight as the tourniquet. Two porters were holding his arms, keeping his upper body still.
“The boy fell from a ladder?” Mr William McAdam, surgeon, tied on his leather apron.
The boy said nothing.
“Yes, sir,” Ezra McAdam said.
Ezra was sixteen, and had been apprenticed to Mr William since he could remember. He had the man’s surname, but that was simply because he had none of his own.
“He was sent up to fix the tiles – he’s a roofer, that’s his trade.” The boy on the table nodded, mute with fear.
Ezra passed Mr McAdam the skin knife and the flesh knife. He laid out the bone saw, freshly sharpened, and the artery hook; the wool for laying over the stump and the bandages for wrapping it after.
The boy’s lips moved soundlessly and a tear ran down the side of his cheek. Ezra could tell it was the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again.
“Gentlemen!” William McAdam addressed the room, one knife in each hand. “Your watches! I guarantee the fastest amputation ever performed anywhere in the world!”
The boy whimpered. The surgeon smiled down at him: a kindly, paternal smile.
Ezra felt every single soul in the room hold his breath.
Inside his head, he began to count.
The knives flashed. The skin was peeled back, the flesh pared away. The boy was screaming and screaming.
“Saw.” Mr McAdam stuck out a hand.
Twenty seconds, Ezra counted, that was good. Mr McAdam’s skill was faultless.
Ezra passed his master the saw and took the knives, wiped them clean of blood and flesh. Then there was the sound of sawing, bone resisting metal. One minute.
The boy on the table was suddenly silent – his head lolled sideways, passed out with pain. Ezra hoped to God he would regain consciousness eventually.
More sawing, the creak and brittle snap of a bone cut in two.
The mangled, bloody leg fell with a soft thud into a basket on the floor.
The surgeon stood back, wiping blood on his apron as the crowd applauded. He consulted his watch. “Two minutes and five seconds, gentlemen!” The crowd was on its feet. “I think you’ll find that unsurpassed! Ezra.” He waved a hand towards the stump. “Tidy this up.”
Ezra flapped the skin back over the stump and padded it with a generous amount of lamb’s wool. While the tourniquet was still in place there wasn’t an excess of blood. He bandaged tightly, swaddling the poor boy’s leg as if it were a baby, firmly, tucking the ends in – all the while imagining a life with only one leg. At least it was a life. And Mr William McAdam was the best in the business: with luck there’d be no necrotizing flesh or gangrene.
Ezra cleaned and packed up the surgeon’s instruments. Across the room Mr McAdam had done with glad-handing the crowd, directing the most eager to his anatomy lectures at his house on Great Windmill Street. “Every Tuesday and Thursday, the mysteries of the human body laid bare!”
Ezra smiled. His master was part showman, part genius. His Monday surgery at St Bartholomew’s was famous, and his skills unequalled. Ezra felt the scar on the left side of his face, traced it from his temple to the edge of his jawbone. It was almost invisible now, a slender ridge of lighter coloured skin. Mr McAdam’s stitches must have been so neat – and of course Ezra had been a child, just five years old, when the tumour had been removed.
Mr McAdam was talking with one of the hospital porters, a small man with the pale, sunlight-starved skin of one who spends his working life under moonlight. Ezra knew the man, a Mr Allen. His second home was the Fortune of War inn at Pye Corner, where the men who bought and sold dead bodies gathered. They called themselves resurrectionists, but on the street they were known as grave robbers, body snatchers or worse. Ezra looked down at the boy on the table again, brushed his hair from his face and felt for a pulse. He was still alive; Mr Allen hadn’t come for him. But when the poor lad came round – and he would, Ezra was sure he would – he would have to find another occupation. Tilers and roofers needed all their limbs.
Suddenly he realized Mr Lashley was watching him, right at his shoulder. Mr Lashley worked principally at St Bartholomew’s; he was a surgeon too, though not anywhere as good as Mr McAdam, and bitter for the knowledge of it.