ALH Anna Lee Huber

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The Anatomist's Wife
Chapter 3

    The chapel where Lady Godwin's body had been stored was located on the far western end of Gairloch Castle. It often bore the brunt of the ferocious winds coming off Loch Ewe in winter, blocking the rest of the castle from a direct blow. Being the coldest part of the estate, the western block was rarely used anymore, and at an hour past midnight, the rooms and hallways that were shrouded and dusty from disuse felt eerily vacant.
    I shivered as we marched down the corridor, grateful I had thrown a shawl over my shoulders before we set out. The lantern Mr. Gage carried barely peeled back the darkness around us, and certainly did nothing to heat the drafty hallway. Much as I had decided to dislike him, I found myself shifting ever closer to his body, trying to stay as close to the center of the circle of light as possible.
    I realized we could have waited until dawn to examine Lady Godwin's body. She would stay fresh enough in the chapel cellar. But I had decided it would be better to have the task over and done with. Procrastinating was not going to make it any easier, and I knew I would never get any sleep that night regardless. Mr. Gage had readily agreed, and I wondered if perhaps he felt the same way.
    The clatter of our footfalls echoed off the old stone, the only sound other than the creak of the swinging lantern. The silence unsettled me, but I somehow felt speaking would only make it worse. As if making conversation somehow demeaned the seriousness of our undertaking. Besides, what would we talk about? The weather? The party? It all just seemed foolish.
    I wrapped my shawl tighter around me. I didn't even really know Lady Godwin. In the week she spent at Gairloch, I had discovered she was a flirt and many of the men seemed to fancy her. After all, she was beautiful, but in the superficial way that wealthy ladies often are. I believe I'd only spoken two words to her during her stay, an "excuse me" as she nearly bumped into me in the hall one evening. And now I was about to view more of her than any of her gentlemen admirers had ever seen.
    The wooden chapel door appeared out of the darkness at the end of the hall, just steps before we would have crashed into it. Mr. Gage lifted the latch and pushed it open with a mighty shove. It groaned in protest, sending a shiver down my spine.
    I stepped past him, just to the edge of the light, and studied the shadowy interior of the church. Moonlight poured through the tall, arched windows, casting a hallowed glow across the pews. Two candelabras flanked the altar where a single golden cross stood in the center next to a stand propping up the Bible. The air smelled of damp and beeswax and the musty scent of a chamber that has been too long sealed. Philip and Alana attended Sunday services in the village, so the castle chapel was rarely used. I imagined the housekeeper, Mrs. MacLean, found it pointless to clean it weekly when it was used but once a year at Christmastime.
    Mr. Gage shut the door and dropped the wooden crossbar into place, locking us inside. He caught me watching him and shrugged. "Just taking precautions."
    My veins ran icy at the thought of someone with nefarious purposes following us here. Our desire for secrecy and privacy had been another advantage to conducting our examination of the body at night. But if the killer had been watching us, waiting to see what we would do . . .
    Something of the fear I felt must have shown on my face, for Mr. Gage lifted aside his coat to reveal a pistol tucked into the waistband of his trousers. It did not make me relax, but it did take away some of the breath-stealing panic. Perhaps I had underestimated Mr. Gage. If he had contemplated the danger we might be in and thought to bring a gun, maybe he wasn't so inexperienced.
    I followed him down the side of the chapel and into a small room to the right of the altar. Stacks of hymnals and extra candles covered a table, and a wardrobe, containing vestments, no doubt, stood in the corner. He passed these items without a glance and walked straight to a door in the back left corner. I watched over his shoulder as he jiggled the key, which Philip had given us, inside the lock. The door opened to reveal a stairway along the back wall of the chapel, leading downward. Rather than stumble along with the light at my back, I gestured for Mr. Gage to precede me. He took the stairs slowly, allowing me to easily keep up.
    I nearly turned around and fled back up the stairs when the stench of dried blood and perforated bowel rose up to fill my nostrils. As it was, I had to grip the banister tightly to keep from pitching forward. I had left the door open behind me, and I was acutely grateful for it. This place needed some fresh air; the impulse to retch was so strong. I wondered how Mr. Gage was holding up and wished I had thought to bring a cloth of some kind to wrap around my nose.
    The wooden stairs creaked loudly as we reached the bottom. I hoped they had been inspected recently. The thought of being trapped down here with Lady Godwin's corpse made me unsteady. I reached out blindly and clung to the support of the bottom post.
    Mr. Gage moved toward a table positioned near the center of the cellar, where the body was laid. A sheet had been thrown over the corpse, but the blood had soaked through. There had simply been too much of it. He set the bucket he was carrying in his other hand down on the packed earth floor, sloshing the water inside it. The glow of the lantern he still held cast his shadow across the floor and up the dirt wall behind him. Dislike or not, I was glad he was there with me.
    He turned back to look at me. "Are you all right?"
    How many times had someone asked me that this evening? I swallowed the bile I tasted at the back of my throat and released my grip on the stair post. "Of course," I replied. However, my voice lacked the certainty I had been aiming for.
    I crossed the room to set my bag down on another table, which was scattered with miscellaneous earthenware objects. The black portmanteau looked almost like a surgeon's satchel, but it carried far cruder instruments than the fine sterling-silver implements my husband had used. Two kitchen knives, a pair of pincers, several small vials for collecting any samples, towels, an apron, and an old pair of my kid-leather gloves, which would most certainly be ruined after this.
    I tossed my shawl aside, despite the fact that I was still shivering from the cold, and quickly tied the apron around my body. Fortunately, the sleeves of my Parisian-blue gown were already short, so I would not have to wrestle with them. As I pulled the worn gloves onto my fingers and fastened them, I focused on my breath. It was sawing in and out of me at a rapid pace, and I knew I had to slow it, and my racing heart, if I was going to make it through this without completely panicking or, worse, passing out. I had never fainted in my life, and the indignity of the idea of doing it in front of Mr. Gage did much to snap me out of my stupor.
    I stepped up to the table and stared down at the bloody sheet, trying to imagine I was back in my husband's private examining room. Sir Anthony had enjoyed the rush of performing his dissections as if he still stood in a crowded medical theater. He had rarely allowed an audience of any kind in those days while I stood behind him making sketches and taking notes. Later I understood why. But there had always been a showmanship to his movements, a pomposity to his voice, as if he was lecturing to an audience of hundreds. I had ignored the pretense and focused on the body before me, losing myself in capturing the beauty of the form, the harmony of the lines, the intricacies of its hidden mysteries. It was the only way I made it through those first few times. Looking down at Lady Godwin, I worried that none of the beauty that had so often called to me could be found on this table.
    I glanced up at Mr. Gage. He was studying the sheet in much the same way I was, with a mixture of curiosity and dread.
    "Are you ready?" I asked, pleased to hear how detached I sounded.
    He met my eyes, letting me know I was not alone in this, and nodded.
    Taking one last deep breath through my mouth, I steeled my nerves and reached out to slowly peel back the makeshift shroud.



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