Authors: Tim Bowling
Tags: #Historical, #General, #Fiction, #Literary
He climbed stiffly out of his wagon and approached a Rebel surgeon who was busy directing stretcher-men. Clearing his throat loudly, he said, “Pardon me, sir. Horace Greaver, embalming surgeon, at your service.”
The willow-thin man looked up, his eyes dark as bruises on a transparent apple. He glared a few seconds, then turned back to a soldier trembling on the ground.
“I realize, sir,” Greaver went on, offended by being disregarded but not wanting to let the offence interfere with business, “that you are engaged in your most important and honourable duties. If you could just direct me to your embalming surgeon?”
To Greaver's amazement, the Rebel snapped up like a branch released. His nostrils flared whitely.
“We do not have suchÂ .Â .Â .Â such
in the Army of Northern Virginia.” He melted back toward the earth.
Gardner removed a handkerchief and mopped the sweat from his brow. As always, a cluster of flies hovered around his hands. He did not know how to proceed. The Rebel's unexpected scorn, as much as his information, had left him both impressed and winded. But when he concentrated on the lost profitâa colonel, fully preserved!âhe felt dizzy. He tried to explain.
“I am sure, doctor, that the families of the South are anxious to have the bodies of their loved ones returned to them. In my wagon, I have the beautifully preserved corpses of three of your officers, and I am willing, for a fair price, to put them into the hands of whoever is responsible for seeing that the soldiers of your army are returned to their homes.”
It hardly seemed possible to Greaver, but the Rebel's face flushed. His jaw worked rapidly but no words came out. Then he put two fingers into his mouth and whistled, short and sharp.
In the near distance, a group of Rebel soldiers turned at the sound. Greaver quickly understood the surgeon's intention. With haste, he returned to the wagon, climbed in, puffing heavily, and snapped the reins. He did not look back, but he could imagine the lead balls sinking into his flesh, almost feel the blood draining from his vessels.
But no sounds followed him. After five minutes, reassured that there was no pursuit along the dusty turnpike, he slowed the horse to an amble and began to calculate his chances of getting payment directly from the Southern families. How would he manage it? No doubt they'd be willing to pay, Rebels not being so different than Northerners in their customs of death. But how could he collect? Or, for that matter, be sure to get the bodies shipped with a guarantee of delivery? If only he had access to the president, Greaver was sure that Mr. Lincoln would do everything in his power to see that the embalmed Rebels made it home safely. But not all embalming surgeons were treated equally; some, like Dr. Holmes, had influential contacts. Greaver, on the other hand, was left solely to his own devices. And he had to face the hard facts: the truce had turned into a debacle of lost profit. A colonel! And he'd spent two hours injecting him too. A lovely job, all to no avail.
Now Greaver stood in the comfortless shade afforded by a thin tarp, injecting a couponed Union private through the armpit, and encouraged only by the fact he'd paid that mad soldier nothing for the colonel's corpse. Still. Waste! This particular loss gnawed at him like a maggot in a festering wound. Of course, there was still considerable profit to be made from the Union officers aloneâhe would do well from this battle, very well indeedâbut the loss rankled, as if he'd been the victim of a confidence man. But that soldier had been too mad to play tricks. No. Greaver could not deny it: what truly bothered him was that he, a graduate of the two-year diploma in surgery, had not known that the Rebels had no embalmers.
He drew in a deep breath of decay, pulled at the soldier's cheek, found it satisfactorily stiff, and decided to suture the incision. As he did so, he heard horses rapidly approaching.
Tomkins emerged from the tent, twirling the waxed ends of his moustache.
“Officers,” he said. “I fear, doctor, that this does not augur well.”
Greaver grunted and stepped away from the table. He whisked a few flies away, put one hand over his thick lenses, and watched the three horses draw near. Just beyond them, as if pulled in their wake, came a wagon much like his own. One of his competitors, no doubt, sniffing out an opportunity. But Greaver knew he had nothing to be concerned about from the officers. The president himself favoured sending embalmed soldiers home. Even soÂ .Â .Â .Â even so, he knew that Tomkins possessed a rare instinct for trouble, which was why he'd vanished into the tent, withdrawing like a damned snake into its hole. Greaver grumbled and covered the corpse with a blanket. If Tomkins wasn't so useful, Greaver had a mind to tell him that his services were no longer required.
The officers arrived, well striped and fine looking, one young and one old. They'd make attractive corpses someday, Greaver mused, nervously eyeing them as they dismounted. The third rider was very different. Small and darkly clothed, his tiny eyes darting above a pointed nose and tight mouth, he had the appearance of a wet otter and even seemed to slide off his horse. But the two officers turned in unison and briefly conferred with him. Then, soberly, they strode toward Greaver, their spines as upright as the sabres at their sides.
The horses nickered softly. From the near distance floated a high, tinkling sound, almost like cow bells. Except for the stench and corpses, it was all very bucolic. The senior officerâmore than a colonel but not a general: Greaver had not yet made a thorough study of the command insignia, just enough to know the top price when he saw itâhad a prominent cleft chin and heavy side whiskers. He was at least sixty. His voice had a pleasing gravity, and he stood very still.
“We have information that you have been embalming more than soldiers here. That you've been embalming civilians.”
If not for his admiration of the officer's tone and carriage, Greaver would have been stunned by the statement. As it was, it discomposed him enough that he shifted his weight from one foot to the other before replying.
“Sir, your information, I'm afraid, is inaccurate. That is to say, I'm willing to perform my services, as a general rule and at a very fair price, for anyone in need of them. But hereÂ .Â .Â .”
The embalmer looked slowly across the battlefield, his dramatic gesture grossly interrupted for him by the sight of the horse and wagon that had almost reached his tent.
Two men were seated on the board, the tinkling sound grew louder.
“Here I have not encountered a member of the public in such need.”
Greaver stared at the wagon. What competitors were these to ride so brazenly into his operations? His temples throbbed. He wanted to call out to Tomkins for assistance, but that would be as effective as calling to the bodies in the coffins.
The otterlike little man stepped forward. He was barely taller than a small boy but well into middle age. A few white whiskers showed in his trim beard. His air was both cool and tense, as if he knew what was going to happen but not how others would respond.
“The information is reliable,” he said. “You have had in your possession the body of a farmer named Orlett. Who brought it to you? And where is it now?” He pointed toward a stack of open coffins, the zinc reflecting the sun in daggers. “Here?”
“Gentlemen.” The throbbing in Greaver's temples moved behind his eyes. He touched his glasses delicately but did not remove them. The officers, motionless, glared. Greaver heard the wagon stop nearby, the clatter of men getting down. He could not define the greater threat. After all, the army wanted embalming surgeons. Hadn't he already done much service to the families of the brave men fallen in the nation's cause? Not as much as others, perhaps, but then, he had only begun. No, he could not perceive the officers as a threat. The otterlike man and the men from the wagon, on the other handâGreaver did not like them spying on his operations. No doubt they wanted to look at, perhaps even steal, a bottle of his special embalming solution.
“Gentlemen, I assure youÂ .Â .Â .” Greaver stepped to one side of the trio and started toward the wagon. The younger officer, red-mouthed, blue-eyed, stopped him by holding out one gloved hand.
Now Greaver grew indignant. Civilians indeed! Had he come to this battlefield, risking his own life, to use his skill on civilians? Why, he could have stayed safely in the city and done that.
“I assure you that I have preserved only soldiers, and many officers included, under this tarp. These hands”âhe held them outâ“have touched no one else.”
The officers and the little man bent their heads together in a cloud of whispers. Greaver seized the opportunity to look for the wagon men. To his dismay, only one appeared; what about the other? Greaver turned so quickly toward the table under which he kept his bottles of fluid that he became dizzy. He put his foot down hard to regain his balance, and the sound brought the three heads up.
Very dignified, the older officer said, “We will make a careful search.”
Despite himself, the embalmer almost smiled. That'll flush Tomkins out of his hole.
But the satisfaction was fleeting. An amused voice boomed out from behind him.
“Hello, Pinkerton. Are you finding a nest of spies among these corpses now?”
The man at the tripod had suddenly come up, his long coat open, his full beard split at the bottom. The laughter in his eyes dazzled like the sunlight on zinc.
The little man scowled. He looked at the burly, jesting figure and spoke low. Greaver could not hear the words. But the heavily bearded man did not stop smiling as he nodded.
“Aye, I thought you'd have your eye on that business. But you weren't there, Alan. It was quite a sight. If it hadna been so dark at the timeÂ .Â .Â .” The bearded man paused and then made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “There's plenty of killing here as it is. One corpse, more or less, canna change the war. But listen, AlanÂ .Â .Â .” He gripped the other's elbow and put his great buffalo head very close. “I need to use the wire. I have to get more plates sent. Right away.”
The little man frowned. “I can't promise, Alex. If you haven't noticed, that was a great battle yesterday. Communication with the White House is of the highest priority.”
“But, Alan.” The bearded man's voice rose. “One message! Very short!”
The younger officer appeared from behind the stacked coffins and tapped Greaver's shoulder.
“Come with me,” he said.
Greaver followed, his head swivelling back, still drawn by the bearded man's passion, a passion Greaver understood and respectedâambition. The tremble in the voice, the fire in the eyes: fortunately, the man was not an embalmer. Greaver had figured out that the tripod was a part of a camera, that the reference to plates indicated photographyâhe knew a little about the latter, as he had considered having a carte de visite made for business purposes. Indeed, once these mistaken officers departed, perhaps the bearded man could be persuaded to take a portrait? Perhaps even of a body being prepared for the eternal rest? Ah, but the cost. It might be prohibitive. Especially with the Rebel officers not being sold yet.
But Greaver had to contend with the two Union officers first. They stood ramrod still, eyes as cold as somatic skin, looking down at the lid of a closed coffin.
Greaver walked up slowly, stopped, and unlooped his glasses. The day was too warm; he couldn't keep the sweat off his lenses.
“One moment, gentlemen.” He pulled out his handkerchief. A moment later, his glasses back on, the officers as motionless as what lay in the coffin, he read the words he'd written on the lid:
Colonel. Army of Northern Virginia
. Greaver straightened up. The silence was broken only by the cheeping of a bird. “Yes?”
“Open it,” the older officer said.
“I beg your pardon?”
The younger officer, equally serious, said, “Do you expect us to believe that you're in the habit of embalming the enemy?”
“But, gentlemenÂ .Â .Â .” Greaver shaded his eyes from the sun as he looked up at them. His hat gave little protection; he felt the greasy rim of it on his brow. The otterlike man sidled up. His shadow stuck leechlike to the others.
Greaver felt dizzy but managed to gather his thoughts and express them slowly. “If I was hiding a body, would I inscribe such words on the lid? That would be foolish. And I am not, gentlemen, a foolish man.”
“Do you mean to say,” the older officer said, “that there's really a Rebel colonel in this coffin?”
Greaver flushed, taken aback. It did look foolish, embalming enemy soldiers and not being able to trade them. He should have known better. But, after all, he was bound to take a few missteps in his first great battle. “Yes,” he said, thinking quickly, “I thought perhaps, during the truce, I could use the colonel to recover one of our fallen officers.”
“Very noble of you.” The younger officer wore an ugly sneer. His voice hardened even more. “Open it!”
Reluctantly, Greaver started for his tent to get a crowbar. Perhaps he could even pry Tomkins out of hiding with it, get him to do the work.
But the little man said, “That's all right. It won't be necessary.” He spoke once again in whispers that Greaver couldn't catch. The officers, stone-faced, finally nodded.
The older one said, “This Rebel officer, how did he come to you?”
Ah, of course. Greaver had known there was something suspicious about that tall soldier. Eagerly, he said, “A very tall soldier, not in my employ, you understand, brought him to me. I didn't trust him at all. The body was still warm.”
The air snapped around the three listeners.
“What time was this?” the little man said, taking a notebook out of his pocket.
“Let's see, let's see.” Greaver pulled at his lower lip. “Early in the afternoon of the day after the battle. That is, yesterday afternoon, gentlemen. Yes, just when the rain started. I remember the rain.”