"Yes!" Ca.s.sandra exclaimed. "It is all very exciting."
"That will do, Ca.s.sie," Isabella chided her daughter. "Mary could have been seriously injured."
"But she was not, Mama," Ca.s.sandra countered. "She is perfectly fine, a bit pale perhaps but. . .oh, I wish something like that would happen to me. My life is perfectly dull, you know."
Isabella gave her daughter an admonishing look. "I think perhaps you ought to worry more about your shawl, my dear; the tip of it is trailing in your coffee."
With an exasperated grimace, Ca.s.sandra began dabbing at the stain that was rapidly spreading its way along the edge of her silk wrap.
"I hope you know that we are all eager to support you in whatever way possible, Lady Steepleton," Lord Willowbrook said as he caught Mary's eye from across the table. "To think that this villain had the audacity to enter your bedchamber while you were sleeping. . .Well, I certainly hope that he is apprehended as soon as possible."
"Here, here," Bryce chimed in. "I would like to see the b.a.s.t.a.r.d swing for this."
"Well," Percy remarked, "I am not sure if that is likely to happen, old chap. After all, he did not hurt anyone. However, I am confident that Ryan will do his best to sort out this mess. Is that not so, Ryan?"
Ryan glanced across at Percy in annoyance. He knew that he'd made an unforgivable mistake and that the Messenger should never have been able to gain access to Mary's bedroom. But he hadn't thought that they might actually be followed all the way to Whickham Hall. "Considering that there are no fewer than two agents from the Foreign Office under this very roof, not to mention the foreign secretary himself, I must agree with your a.s.sessment of the situation, Percy. It certainly is quite a mess."
"Hm, I suppose you are right," Percy conceded with a tight smile. "None of us expected this to happen. We were not at all prepared."
"And the journals?" Mr. Croyden asked, adding some cheese and a couple of sausages to his ham. "Were all of them taken?"
"I am afraid so," Mary lied. She still had the one that Ryan had taken to his room, but n.o.body was going to know about that except for the two of them.
"Well"-Mr. Croyden sighed with a large measure of regret-"I don't suppose there is much to be done then."
"Not to worry," Mary rea.s.sured him. "We do not need the journals in order to help you. If you like, I can even have a word with the surgeon you decide on using and explain the procedure to him."
"Thank you," Mr. Croyden muttered. "That is very kind of you."
"Well, it is the least I can do after everything that has happened. I am sorry I did not trust you when you asked to look at the journals yourself, If I ever find them, you will be the first to know."
Her uncle nodded in appreciation. "I would be most grateful for that. I know my brother and I were not particularly close in later years, but he was my older brother, and I. . .well. . .I hope you understand how important those journals are to me."
"I believe I do," Mary said as she met his gaze. "Because I feel precisely the same way."
"Any luck?" Mary asked as she watched Ryan leaf through yet another volume of Westminster Hospital's medical records. They'd already spent the last few hours going over each of the fat books that now lay stacked on one side of the table, a compilation of every surgical procedure the hospital had performed over the past decade.
"Not yet," Ryan replied as he turned the page. The top right corner stuck, so he carefully pried it loose with his fingers. "And we have already gone back seven years. Maybe we should just start from the beginning; we must have missed it."
"No," Mary told him stubbornly. "Let us continue until we have gone as far back as 1806. Then we can start over."
Ryan sighed as he continued scanning the text. Most of it appeared to have been scrawled in a hurry with little attention to graceful handwriting. That was part of the reason it was taking so long: most of the notes were almost impossible to discern.
Ryan turned the pages a few more times, his sense of hope diminishing a little more with each time. But then, suddenly, there it was, the entry he'd been searching for. "I found it," he gasped.
Mary rushed to his side, looking over his shoulder at the book that was laid out on the table in front of Ryan. She peered down at the text: "1808: Eliza Blackburn arrived at the hospital," she remarked. "She was pregnant, just as my father's entry says. Apparently, she was concerned about the welfare of her baby, said she had not felt it move in a couple of days. A physician examined her. . .let me see. . ."
"Dr. Nigel Clemens," Ryan muttered. "I know him quite well; in fact, I spoke with him just recently at the Glendale ball."
"So did I," Mary told him. "Lord Woodbridge introduced us. I was with your father at the time, after our. . .well. . .after our falling out." She placed her hand on Ryan's shoulder as her thoughts returned to the evening they'd spent at Glendale House. "Your father seemed to be well acquainted with him," she said before returning her attention to the text. "According to this, Clemens dismissed Eliza after examining her, recommending that she return home and get plenty of rest. She died a week later. . .from puerperal fever."
Ryan looked at Mary in bewilderment. "How is that even possible?" he asked. "I thought puerperal fever was contracted only after the onset of labor."
"Hm. . .go back one page," Mary told him. "Who did Clemens treat before he treated Eliza?"
"A Georgina Hilton. . .she arrived at the hospital earlier in the day. She was in labor, and Clemens helped her deliver her baby. She too developed puerperal fever and died a few days later."
"And before that?" Mary asked with growing excitement.
"Before that it seems he carried out a postmortem on a woman who'd died the previous evening from. . .puerperal fever."
"I knew it!" Mary exclaimed. "No wonder my father was compelled to make a note of it: Clemens caused the death of both of these women. He probably failed to wash his hands after handling the corpse, and-"
"Hold on," Ryan told her. "How would the fact that he performed a postmortem have anything to do with the deaths of Georgina and Eliza?"
Mary stared at him for a moment. "They really don't teach you much in medical school, do they?" she said. "Remind me to lend you my copy of William Buchan's Domestic Medicine. There is a whole chapter in there on the importance of cleanliness, especially after handling the sick or that which may convey infection. My father was a huge advocate for his work and continuously tried to make the rest of the medical community see the truth in it."
Mary sighed as she slumped back down onto her chair. "They mostly chose to disregard his advice, though, claiming that Buchan's work was for housewives who were willing to believe anything. If I am not mistaken, one colleague of his argued that if washing your hands between each patient was so vital, then the medical schools would place more emphasis on it. And since they do not, then it really could not be of much importance at all."
Ryan frowned as he pushed the medical records aside and opened John Croyden's journal once more. He studied a few of the entries before looking up at Mary. "I think I have an idea as to what this is all about," he told her. Mary looked at him expectantly. "It seems to me that your father was conducting an investigation. He was cataloguing malpractice cases, and judging by this, some of these physicians have a lot to answer for. He paused. "If a good lawyer were to take them to court, some of them might very well hang for murder-the level of negligence is simply astounding."
Mary's mouth fell open. She stared at Ryan as she considered the implication of what he'd just said. It made perfect sense.
"That would certainly explain the threats," she told him quietly. "If some of the physicians my father was investigating found out about this. . .of course they would want to stop him from making his findings public."
Ryan nodded. "They want to destroy the evidence, Mary, all the records your father spent so many years compiling."
"But why would my father take on such a huge task on his own? To what end? So he could blackmail these people, threaten them in some way or cause a scandal? My father was not the sort of man who would do something like that."
"Perhaps not, but from what you have told me, he was the sort of man who would want to improve the survival rate of anyone in need of medical attention. So then, don't you think he just wanted to draw attention to the physicians and surgeons who were doing a careless job? He may simply have been hoping to have their licenses revoked." Ryan paused for a moment before continuing. "There are roughly ten men listed in here. If all the evidence against them were to be brought to light all at once, it might be enough to bring about a scandal that results in significant changes not only in patient care but in medical learning altogether."
"Then there is only one thing for us to do," Mary told him resolutely. "We have to figure out who the rest of these men are, and then we have to take our findings to the Mayfair Chronicle."
"Have you completely lost your mind, Mary? You will be stirring up a hornet's nest if you do that. Let us not forget that these men killed your father. They have pretty much threatened to do the same to you. I am sorry, but I cannot allow you to do this. You have to let this go."
"You cannot allow this?" Mary asked harshly, accepting the fight that Ryan offered her.
"Can't you see? You will be putting yourself in terrible danger-h.e.l.l, you are already in terrible danger!"
"Exactly," she shot back. "And if I do not find these men, if I do not see justice served, I will always be looking over my shoulder, wondering if I am safe-if our children are safe." She pouted her lips and gave him a sulky look.
"Oh, b.l.o.o.d.y h.e.l.l!" Ryan exclaimed. "Why the blazes did you have to bring our unborn children into this?"
"Because I cannot let this go. I am sorry, Ryan, but this is of enormous importance, not only to me, but to all the people who will one day end up under the knife of one of these butchers. Why, there are physicians and surgeons out there ordinary citizens trust with their lives, but who, it seems, are doing more harm than good. It is a doctor's duty to ensure that everything in his power is being done to help his patient; there is no room for arrogance or for denying that a mistake has been made. A surgeon's mistake is inexcusable. Refusing to fix it is unforgivable, and I will not stand silently by while these men continue to kill off their patients because they are too d.a.m.n stubborn to listen to reason.
"Besides," Mary added with a crooked smile, "if you do not help me, you know that I will try to work this out on my own, and to be honest, I am really not that good with a pistol, regardless of all the efforts your sister made to teach me."
He studied her for a moment as if he hoped to read her mind. "You are right," he finally told her. "As much as I hate to admit it, you are absolutely right: something has to be done, and there is no way that you are doing it on your own. But you have to promise me that you will be careful. Do not tell anyone about this, Mary; it could cost you your life."
"I understand," she said quietly as she reached for his hand. She gave it a light squeeze. "Thank you for helping."
"I will help you in any way that I can, Mary. After all, I. . ."
He was just about to open his heart to her but thought better of it. A more appropriate time would present itself once all of this was over. For now, they had a lot of work to do. "You have my word," he told her instead, before turning his attention back to the open journal in front of him. He wondered if she'd noticed that he'd been about to tell her something else, but she seemed too caught up in the situation at hand to have given it much thought. And since he very much doubted that she reciprocated his feelings, he'd just stopped from making a complete idiot of himself. After all, her reasons for marrying him were purely practical: she'd made that abundantly clear when he'd proposed.
Skimming his fingers along the open pages of the journal, Ryan pointed to a segment of the text. "Now, looking at this," he continued, "it appears as though your father referred to Dr. Clemens as Mr. Clemens when he added the initials at the end of his entry, perhaps in the hopes that n.o.body would make the connection."
"What are the other initials again?" Mary asked as she glanced down at her father's carefully written notes.
"Well, LT and SB seem to stand out quite a bit. In fact, each of them is mentioned about forty times."
"Good heavens, that is a lot. Do you suppose. . ." Mary stared at Ryan as if she suffered from amnesia and had just recalled her own name. "At the Glendale ball, when Woodbridge introduced me to Clemens, there was another gentleman there, a Sir Boswick, I believe."
"I think you mean Sir Bosworth," Ryan said, folding his arms on the top of the table and turning his head to look directly at her.
"Yes, that is right. Well, your father mentioned that he was involved in quite a scandal a few years back-something about a malpractice suit. Apparently, the whole thing was hushed up, and he eventually regained his reputation, but do you suppose that he might be the SB to whom my father is referring?"
"It is possible, I suppose, though I would have a difficult time believing it. I know the man quite well; he is a good friend of the family's. To think that he might have-"
"Ryan," Mary told him calmly as she cut him off, "Clemens seems equally unlikely, and yet we already know that he caused the death of at least two patients through his own negligence. We do not know enough about the rest of the patients that died at his hands, though I doubt my father would have mentioned them unless he was just as responsible for those. So we are looking for men who have gone to great lengths to hide their mistakes. They are not going to stand out among the crowd, I'm afraid."
"I believe you are right," Ryan said and sighed. "As for LT and VR, I am not sure who they might be; nothing really comes to mind. And then, of course, there is MH, who pops up just a couple of times. . .I"
"Oh, no," Mary gasped, looking suddenly quite ill. "Let me see that."
Ryan pa.s.sed her the journal and watched while Mary flipped back a few pages. Her index finger skimmed the writing until she found the date she was looking for. She read the entry in silence before sinking back against her chair. "It's Helmsley," she whispered on a breath of defeat. "MH is Mr. Helmsley, my father's closest friend. How could he. . ."
Ryan watched as her eyes began to glisten. He understood her feeling of betrayal, for she had known the man her whole life. "They were like brothers," Mary whispered. "I always thought he was a good physician, but. . ."
She glanced at the open page of her father's journal. "I remember the argument that he and my father once had about that very case." She nodded toward the book. "My father insisted that Jack was to blame for that man's death, a farmer who lost his leg after having it crushed beneath an overturned cart. Jack denied it, of course. He claimed that he did everything he could and that the farmer's family was to blame for not alerting him when the wound became infected. I just cannot believe that he might have had something to do with my father's death."
"Perhaps he didn't," Ryan told her in an attempt to offer comfort. "His initials only appear a few times when compared to the others, and you must not forget, you told me yourself that when Lady Arlington needed help, he called for you because he recognized his own limitations. It is possible that he has learned his lesson and has nothing to do with the threats against you."
"I'm not so sure," Mary muttered, her voice more miserable than ever. "But you can be quite certain that I intend to find out. Don't forget that I was repeatedly warned against continuing my practice-that I was told not to follow in my father's footsteps. Helmsley is the only physician I can think of who knew that I performed a cesarean on Lady Arlington. He cannot be trusted."
"Then don't trust him. But you still ought to consider the other names, because someone like Sir Bosworth, for instance, who, as unlikely as it seems, apparently caused an astonishing amount of fatalities, would have much more reason to see the journals destroyed. And let us not forget Mr. Clemens and whoever VR and LT might be."
"Perhaps you are right," Mary muttered.
She appeared to be considering something. "Do you know-I promised Lord Woodbridge that I would have him over for tea one day. He is the master of the Royal College of Surgeons; perhaps he can shed some light on who the rest of these men are."
"I think that might be a very good idea. In the meantime, I shall have a word with my father and Percy. With a little luck, all of this will be resolved within the next few days."
A short while later, as clouds obscured the afternoon sun, a large carriage pulled into a clearing just outside Gerrards Cross, drawn by four great horses. A gentleman wearing a black greatcoat got out, his booted feet leaving imprints in the spongy wet gra.s.s. Placing his beaver hat on top of his head, he strode brusquely toward the two men who awaited him.
"Mr. Croyden," the Raven remarked as he leaned his heavy frame against his cane. "I must say that I was very pleased to hear of your success. Your endeavors, and those of your son, are greatly appreciated."
"Thank you, my lord," Alistair replied as he handed over the box containing John Croyden's precious journals. He cast a nervous glance in his son's direction.
The tall, st.u.r.dy figure of the Messenger responded with a slight frown. His lips were drawn in a tight line, while his coal black eyes met those of the Raven's. "Unfortunately, one of the journals appears to be missing," he said, keeping his eyes trained on the man who'd employed him a little over a year ago. He didn't trust him further than he could throw him, no matter how highly his father spoke of him. The Messenger was no fool: he knew a callous villain when he saw one, and the orders he'd received from him until now spoke of a man who was ruthless enough to stab his own mother in the back. There was no telling what he might do, now that he knew they had failed him.
"And which volume is it that has gone missing, precisely?" the Raven asked them from between clenched teeth.
"The last one, my lord," Alistair replied with an excessive amount of regret.
The Messenger winced. He hated seeing his father reduced to a sniveling coward before this man. Still, the look of anger that shifted behind the Raven's murky eyes was far from lost on him. He braced himself for the onslaught he expected, but it never came.
Instead, the Raven merely glared at both of the men before him. "I see," he finally muttered. "What a pity."
"My sincere apologies, my lord," Alistair groveled. "I know how unacceptable this is, but you must not worry; we can easily retrieve the tenth volume for you. Right, Matthew?"
The Messenger said nothing in response to his father's claims. He merely nodded.
The Raven held up his hand. "That will not be necessary," he said with mild amus.e.m.e.nt flickering behind his dark gray eyes. "In fact, I would rather like to thank you for your a.s.sistance. You have been most helpful, both of you, but I think it is time for me to take matters into my own hands."
"But. . ." Alistair sputtered, a look of desperation creeping over his face. "I believe Lady Steepleton trusts me now. She doesn't think I had anything to do with the theft. I am sure she will let her guard down and-"
"And how do you plan to explain the sudden disappearance of your sarcoma?"
"That. . .that was your idea. . .I merely. . ." His voice trailed off as realization kicked in.
"She is a smart woman, Mr. Croyden. She will hardly be fooled by you forever, you know." The Raven began walking back toward his carriage, his boots sending a spray of water in all directions as he went. "Sooner or later, she will discover what you have been up to."
He stepped up and took his seat on the bench, placing the box beside him as he closed the door, locking it firmly in place. "And once she does," he told Alistair through the open window, "I have no desire for anything or anyone to lead her back to me."
A flock of birds in a nearby tree scattered at the sound of the two deafening shots that followed. Matthew and Alistair fell to the ground in quick succession, their bodies pressed firmly into the soggy ground, their startled eyes staring upward toward a heaven that neither man was likely to see.
Returning his pistol to the inside pocket of his coat with slow precision, the Raven tapped the roof of the carriage with his cane. His visit to Gerrards Cross had lasted long enough. It was time for him to return to London.
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