Margaret Skea

From By Sword and Storm – the third book in the Munro Scottish series. Here Maggie Munro has been allowed to study anatomy in Paris, but her fellow male students are less than pleased with her inclusion in the class and hope to drive her away. 

Maggie was waiting a few yards down a side passage, pressed into a window reveal to avoid being seen, when she heard the door of the dissection room opening, the laughter and snippets of conversation indicating the other students were spilling out. The bells had rung only once, for the quarter hour, while she’d waited, their examination of the corpse taking less time than she had feared, but all the better for her. It was obvious she was still the target of their humour, their satisfaction in thinking they had bested her, clear.

Anton’s voice was loudest. ‘We have suffered her presence long enough. Why should we have to share in our studies with a girl who is little more than a child? And a foreigner at that.’

A second voice, one she recognised as belonging to the smallest of the group, likely no older than herself. ‘I say we protest to the college authorities.’

Anton again. ‘I say we threaten the withdrawal of funds. If there is no money, the college will suffer. My family I’m sure will be willing to make their contribution dependent on the removal of Mam’selle Munro from our class.’

There was a chorus of agreement. ‘And mine.’ ‘Mine also.’

Maggie waited until she heard the click of the outer

door before heading back to the dissection room. A man was gathering up the organs spread around the corpse.

‘Wait. Please.’

He turned and she thought she saw a hint of sympathy in his eyes, though his voice was brusque. ‘I have a job to do and little enough time to do it.’

‘You saw how they excluded me. I need to examine the corpse, and if I cannot work with the others, I shall have to work by myself.’

‘Not my problem.’

‘A half-hour will be sufficient. I promise you.’

‘I have a job to do,’ he repeated. ‘And if I was to lose a half-hour every day, where would I be? I’d be out in the cold, that’s where. Frozen out of me own house by a wife who thought I cheated on her on me way home.’ He turned his back on her, lifted a kidney, gave it a cursory glance, set it to one side.

Maggie had another idea. ‘If you help me, I’ll help you in return, and between us I’m sure we can be finished in your normal time.’ She took a deep breath. ‘There will be much you know that I need to know.’

He humphed, but she sensed he weakened – flattery, she noted, with a glimmer of amusement, is a powerful weapon. ‘I would value your expertise.’

He took a step back, waved at the body. ‘You go ahead then. Look all you like. But if I’m made late today, I won’t help you again.’

‘Thank you.’ She examined the organs he had set

aside. ‘These are to be kept?’

He indicated the jars of specimens ranged around  the walls. ‘The interesting ones we keep. The others,’

he glanced down at the jumbled remains he had already dumped back into the body, ‘are buried with the corpse.’ Her surprise must have shown on her face, for he laughed and said, ‘Did you think we chopped them up and gave them to the Royal Menagerie to feed the lions?’

She coloured. ‘I didn’t think at all.’

‘Like most of the young popinjays that Monsieur Daumont suffers. If you wish to make something of your studies, I suggest you start by thinking.’

It was the ideal opening. ‘What makes the difference? Between an organ that is of interest and one that is not?’ ‘Disease, mostly. If you see enough of them, you’ll come to recognise the difference between a good ’un and

a bad ’un.’

‘And by good you mean bad?’ That brought a smile, and emboldened she picked up the lung M Daumont had removed and compared it to the one still in the body. ‘This flattening Monsieur Daumont pointed out. What is it? And why would it have caused a cough?’

‘Think about it.’ He paused, as if to give her time to make a suggestion, then jabbed at the squashed portion of lung. ‘When the air gets to here, it can’t get through properly, can it?’

‘I suppose.’

‘Suppose nothing. It’s but common sense.’ He poked at the opposite lung. ‘See the difference. Not that it’s what killed him.’ He took the lung out of her hand, put it back into the body. ‘Two a sou, these are. Not worth keeping.’ He grinned, and she saw that two of his front teeth were odd-sized and bound to those next to them by wire.

‘Like me teeth, do you?’ He clicked them together.

‘Perk of the job.  Salvaged last year. Cost a bit though,  to have me own rotten ones pulled and these wired in instead.’ He tapped the wire with his fingernail. ‘Gold, that is, only the best. Me wife wasn’t keen on the expense, but then she didn’t like the smell of me breath either. Toss up, I says, two new ’uns that in’t like kissing rotten fish, or an extra écu in the box.’ He blew a puff of breath in Maggie’s face. ‘Sweet as honey, me mouth is now, and me wife reconciled to the loss of the money.’ He clicked the teeth together again. ‘Better than rotten ones, in’t they? Even if they are a mite small.’ He brought his lips over his gums and mimed trying to chew, then displayed the teeth again. ‘Belonged to a child, see. Anybody much older and they’d likely ’ave been no better than me own.’ He opened the mouth of the corpse on the slab and poked at the blackened stumps. ‘Could do a decent trade in teeth, if folk would only die young enough.’

Maggie choked back a laugh, aware it wasn’t

amusement, instinct telling her she mustn’t betray any squeamishness or all hope  of  help  from  him  would be lost. The sun had moved round and was slanting in through the far end window. Mindful of the time and not wishing to risk his refusal to help her again, she said, ‘What else should I be looking at here?’

He pointed at the heart, a tube on one side swollen. ‘Valve’s enlarged, see? That’s what killed him, I reckon. If you mention that tomorrow to Monsieur Daumont  as a question mind, tentative-like, you’ll be all right.’ He winked at her. ‘Between us, we’ll put those flashy fellows in the shade. You’ll see.’

(c) Margaret Skea

From By Sword and Storm


Margaret Skea