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The Devil's Breath
A DR. THOMAS SILKSTONE MYSTERY
By TESSA HARRIS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Tessa Harris
All rights reserved.
Oxfordshire, England, in the Year of Our Lord 1783
At first the horror of it stayed the bury man's tongue. Staggering out of his cottage as dawn broke he did not shout or scream, but grunted like a half-wit, his arms paddling in the filmy light of the deserted street. As he zigzagged across the road the good people of Brandwick could be forgiven for thinking he was in the grip of strong liquor. He had certainly been full of it the last anyone had seen of him after the casting out.
It was only when the baker, rising early to fire his oven, saw him and went over to him that Joseph Makepeace began to cry out. The sounds he made were unformed, staccato. His arms jabbed at the air, pointing toward his home. His tongue may have been stopped but his eyes spoke; to anyone who looked into them they told of an unutterable terror—too awful for words. His body began to shake violently as his chest, loaded with breath, heaved and pitched like a storm-tossed barque.
Hearing the commotion, some of the villagers lifted their latches and opened their windows. Some came to their doors. Some of them wondered if the devil himself had entered Joseph Makepeace. After the events of the previous evening, there were many who thought the prospect not just possible, but likely. They had gathered in the marketplace to watch the laying on of hands. Evil was abroad, living in his fiendish children, and needed to be banished. There they had witnessed the boy and girl judder and jerk and scream in front of the clergyman. Foul oaths spewed from the girl's mouth. She had lifted her shift, opened her legs. But the Reverend Lightfoot had called upon the Lord. Hymns were sung, prayers were said and he had seen to it that Beelzebub was cast out of Joseph Makepeace's children. Could it be that the devil had now taken refuge in the father? they asked themselves.
Talk of such unaccountable happenings was becoming commonplace. The world was growing a more fearful place by the day. For the past two months, the village and the surrounding area had been held in the grip of a great fog that had blanketed the earth one night and poisoned people and plants alike. What any of them would not give to see a cloud, white and billowing, or a chink of blue sky, just a square the size of a shepherd's smock. That would be enough to reassure them that all would soon return to the usual pattern of things. Yet still this great mysterium covered the countryside and the rivers, infecting everything that it touched just as surely as the devil spread his spore. With the strange haze came the signs; the bloodred sun from dawn to dusk, the raging storms and the balls of fire in the firmament. And with the signs and portents came a mounting sense of impending doom.
The times tested every man's mettle. At first neighbors had helped each other, sharing bread and duties. Then, as more men doubled over in the fields and as more children began to cough and wheeze, some began to question. They all knew their Bible. They all knew that God sent the Ten Plagues to the Egyptians: He changed the water of the Nile into blood—were the rivers not now running with poison? He sent swarms of flies—there were flies that tormented both beast and man. He destroyed crops. Was the corn not withered and brown in the harvest fields? Worst of all, He killed the firstborn. Were not all the fine young men dropping like stones as they labored? The signs were there for anyone to read. These were times not seen since Moses himself walked the land and each day brought a new terror.
The baker put his hand on Joseph Makepeace's shoulder, but it only served to agitate. He was soon joined by the blacksmith and the watchman and together they tried to steady him.
"Be calm, Joseph!"
"What ails you?"
"Best fetch the vicar."
But Joseph Makepeace just stared at the men, too shocked to speak, so they led him back to his cottage to see whether some terrible fate had befallen his household. Inside they saw an upturned flagon of gin on the rush mat and a blanket by the hearth. They exchanged knowing glances. He had been too drunk to take to his own bed that night. But it was only when they opened the door into the back room that they saw the children. The baker turned away and retched and the blacksmith stood transfixed. It was the watchman, stout and worldly, who steeled himself to stoop for a closer look.
The girl was lying facedown across her pallet. Her long hair was streaked dark red. Her brother was by her side; his skull smashed like a marrow. Nearby lay their father's shovel, its blade smeared with blood.
The others could see that the watchman's arm was trembling as he stretched forward to turn the girl over. They flinched when she flopped to one side, her eyes wide open and her skin as white as milk. The watchman closed his own eyes, as if trying to blink away the sight, but when he opened them again a second later, he saw faces peering in at the window. A woman shrieked and ran off. The men, three of them, merely gawped.
"Away with you," he shouted. "Be gone!"
"Who could do such a thing?" asked the baker, fighting back the tears. He turned to see Joseph Makepeace, crouched in the corner of the room, whimpering, with his arms cradling his head. "Who did this, Joseph? Tell me it were not you!" He marched over to him and aimed a fist at his face, but Makepeace's arms flew up just in time and took the blow.
"Leave him be!" shouted the watchman. "He's not done this. He was too far in his cups last night to stir."
"'Tis the work of the devil," the blacksmith reflected, his eyes fixed on the bloody flagstones.
The watchman clicked his tongue and shook his head. "Stop your foolish talk, will ye? We need to do something."
"What?" the other two chorused.
"Go and fetch Dr. Silkstone."
"The doctor from the Colonies?" asked the baker.
The watchman nodded. "He'll find out who killed these two. God rest their souls."CHAPTER 2
It had all begun when the first portent came, two months earlier. It happened just after the church bells had tolled noon in the county of Lincolnshire, one hundred and fifty miles to the northeast of Brandwick as the crow flies. The sound carried over the gentle wold, mingling with the song of the skylarks above. It signified to the laborers in the surrounding harvest fields it was time to break. A small platoon of men, armed with scythes, had advanced across three acres of barley, leaving a carpet of jagged stalks in their wake. Behind them came the women, sickles in hand, gathering up the fallen sun-ripe stems.
At the sound of the bells, they put down their tools and walked over to the field gate where one of the women was opening a keg of small beer. Filled jugs in hand, the men settled themselves down in the shade of the stooks they had cut that morning. The June sun was strong and their throats were corn-dust dry.
The knife-grinder collected the scythes to sharpen as they rested. While some of the reapers used a whetstone to hone their dull blades, others relied on his skill to peen out the edges. The young man, his dark head swathed in a bright red scarf tied at the nape of his neck, had driven his anvil into the top of a fence post by the wooden gate and had been doing a brisk trade since the early morning. His mule stood patiently nearby in the hedgerow's dense shade, whisking away with his tail the black harvest flies that dotted the air.
The men drank so long and hard that it was the women who noticed first. One of them, younger than the others, had climbed on the wagon at the top end of the field to hand down hunks of bread and cheese. She was gathering up the baskets when she happened to glance beyond the wold toward the salt marshes. A great flat expanse of open country lay before her, stretching as far as the coast, and the sight of it barely registered at first. She had even continued to busy herself with the task in hand before she realized what she had seen. She looked up again a few seconds later and there it was—a thin bank of gray mist lying low across the horizon. A frown settled on her freckled brow.
"Sea fret's coming in," she called down to the other women below.
They all knew it was bad news. At least a day's work would be lost once the heavy fog that rolled in from the coast had settled on the ripe barley crop.
An older woman hitched up her skirts. "Let's see," she said, holding out her arm to be helped up. She, too, now looked out across the flatlands toward the marshes from the wagon's vantage point. After a moment's deliberation she was satisfied the girl was right.
"Best tell Mr. Bullimore," she said, adding: "He'll not be pleased."
The younger woman hastily clambered down and broke into a trot as she headed toward the cluster of men who sat around drinking.
"Where's our grub then, wench?" shouted one of them. "We're hungry as hawks." The others cheered and whistled, but she ignored their childish taunts and walked straight up to the foreman who sat with his back against a stook, swatting away the harvest flies.
"Mr. Bullimore, sir," she began breathlessly.
The foreman looked up at her, shielding his eyes from the sun's glare.
"What is it, Hester?"
"There's a sea fret coming, sir."
Bullimore, a broad man in his middle years, rolled his eyes and scrambled to his feet. He turned to the east. The heat made the barley fields shimmer like burnished gold. He strained his eyes, squinting in the bright light.
"I see no fret, woman," he chided.
"I saw it from the cart, sir, as God is my witness, and so did Mistress Pickwell."
He eyed her skeptically. "Show me."
She led him to the wagon a few yards up the slope and he climbed onto it for a better view. There was no mistaking what he saw.
"By the ..."
The young woman clambered up to join him. There it was: a silvery ribbon that clung to the horizon, only now the clouds were more clearly defined than before. The fret was moving inland fast.
"'Tis a thick one all right," conceded the foreman, then, cupping his hands around his mouth, he called out to the men below: "Get back to work, lads. Fret's coming in!"
The reapers rose quickly and picked up their honed scythes with a renewed urgency. They understood that if there was no barley harvested, there would be lower pay.
"Put your backs into it," shouted Bullimore, striding down the slope toward them. "I reckon we've an hour at the most."
And so they began again, cutting the crack-dry stems of corn with great sweeps of their new-sharpened scythes. The women fell in behind, gathering the cut barley up in their arms in a wide embrace, before evening out the ears neatly to be twined by the boys.
As the men advanced through the crop, so the rabbits and hares scattered before them, running hither and thither. The harvest flies, too, rose in black columns above the barley and flew off. From out on the marsh, a curlew's plaintive cry sounded.
"Hurry, men," called Bullimore. He took off the kerchief he wore and mopped the sweat from his brow.
They made good progress. An hour later several dozen more stooks were standing sentinel. The boys had worked well, binding the stems tight, their young hands protected against the cutting twine by thick leather gauntlets. The barley heads sat drying in the sun, only by now it was losing its heat. The foreman had already noticed a change in the sky. He could read the clouds as if they were words on a page; wispy mares' tails signified fine weather, while mackerel scales warned of a storm, but this sky was quite alien to him. It was as if the words were written in a foreign language. There was something strange; something unsettling about this sky.
It was then that he suddenly felt a cool breeze pique the hairs at the back of his neck. The wind was changing direction. He shivered and saw the goose bumps rise on his arms. The wind was coming about, turning northwest. It could hasten the arrival of the fret. He estimated it would take another two hours at least to finish the field, but he suspected they had half an hour at the most before the fog reached them. He walked up the slope once more to check on its progress. Climbing onto the wagon again, he looked out toward the marsh. The sea of shimmering corn had been dulled by the change in the light, smudging the horizon, making it hard to differentiate between the two. He narrowed his eyes, focusing into the distance, but to his surprise it appeared that the advancing bank of mist had disappeared. He frowned. Were his eyes playing tricks on him? He looked away, then looked back. No, he could see no fret, just an odd haze. It seemed that the fog had been dissipated by the heat, or perhaps by the change in the wind direction. Either way, he breathed a deep sigh of relief. But wait. Now he sniffed the air. What was that smell? Instead of the musk-sweet scent of new-mown corn, he sensed something else; something acrid and bitter. It reminded him of the saltpeter they used to cure the pork mingled with charcoal from the smithy's forge, or perhaps even rotten eggs. He looked over to where the knife-grinder stood by the anvil. He'd heard tell of sparks from the clash of steel on stone setting light to stubble over at Fulstow last week, but he could see no smoke.
Jumping down from the wagon he turned his thoughts back to the men. He decided he would not tell them that the fret had lifted. He did not want to break their rhythm. It was amazing how quickly they could work when they put their minds, as well as their backs, into it.
Striding toward them again Bullimore saw the knife-grinder by the field gate. He was packing up his anvil and whetstone.
"And where might you be going?" he snapped as he drew near.
The young man cocked his head. "I be going the same way as the hares and the rabbits and the flies and the skylarks," he replied.
"But there's plenty more blades to sharpen afore we're through here," insisted Bullimore.
The grinder gave him an odd look. Then, realizing that he was the only person to know that the sea fret had now receded, the foreman softened his tone. Leaning toward the young man, he said quietly: "All's well, now." He reinforced this with a reassuring nod. "Fret's gone." But the grinder seemed unmoved and instead of gratefully receiving this information, lifted the corner of his fulsome lips in a smirk.
"The sea fret may be gone, but something much worse is on its way," he countered.
"What do you mean?" asked Bullimore, puzzled, but the young man turned his back on him and mounted his mule.
"There are signs, sir," he replied, settling himself in the saddle. "Smell the wind. Listen to the birds," he said, and he lifted his black eyes heavenward. The foreman listened.
"I hear nothing," he concluded after a moment.
The young man smiled. "Just so," he said, and he touched his forehead with his finger and kicked his mule. "Good luck to you, sir," he called as he headed off inland, away from the coast.
Bullimore looked grave. That smell was lingering in his nostrils. It was true, too, that the skylarks were no longer singing and the harvest flies that were such a plague to both man and beast seemed to have flown. But what of it? The threat of the sea fret had subsided. They could work until sundown—another seven hours. The cooler air was welcome. The breeze was picking up now. They would easily finish the field that day; perhaps even start on the next. He shrugged his broad shoulders, dabbed the cold sweat from his brow and began to walk toward his own scythe, which was propped against a sheaf nearby.
Excerpted from The Devil's Breath by TESSA HARRIS. Copyright © 2014 Tessa Harris. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I reall enjoy the Dr Silkstone novels. This one flowed really well. I had a very hard time putting it down. I had never heard of the great fog in England and this made this very interesting.
This might be my favorite in the series. Well written and intriguing. Great mystery but loved the fog and its history being intermingled into the story. Well written amd very enjoyable story!
Dr. Thomas Silkstone is a late 18th-century anatomist with a knack for solving mysteries. When a deadly fog envelopes the countryside and several deadly murders are committed, he has to figure out who or what is responsible before it's too late for them all. As if that's not enough, he's also on the trail of Lady Lydia Farrell's missing son. Unbeknownst to them all, Richard is being used as a pawn the battle to control Lydia's estates. This was a clean, relatively quick read that held my attention throughout. I figured out the culprit early than Dr. Silkstone, so the end wasn't terribly shocking. I didn't realize this book was the 3rd in a series until I started reading it, but I felt the author did a nice job filling in the information from the previous volumes where necessary. I liked it well enough to put those previous books in the series on my reading list.
Truly the Breath of the Devil Oxfordshire, England 1783 Tessa Harris returns once again to bring us the third installment in her Dr. Thomas Silverstone mystery series! Tessa brings forward a mysterious incident from the past to enlighten her readers along with suspense surrounding an unknown suspect (or suspects as it may be) responsible for four murders that draws her Dr. Silverstone to the forefront in gathering clues to not only solve the murders but also provide an answer to the strange phenomena which surrounds their small town of Oxfordshire with only his wits and the resources surrounding him in 1783 England. Thomas Silkstone a doctor in his own right, trained in America, although living in England these past nine years as apprentice to the renowned and highly respected anatomist Dr. Carruthers (who to Thomas’ great fortune had come to be not only his mentor but a very dear friend) was still looked upon as that “upstart doctor from the colonies” by all the locals. Considering that the events of late have also branded him with a reputation of using science to also solve murder cases that he unwittingly found himself embroiled in, to his credit not only performing post-mortems, but also searching out the clues as to the guilty party. Thomas, in preparing to leave London to visit the love of his life, the recently widowed Lady Lydia Farrell felt uneasiness come upon him that he could not explain. Thomas would not be deterred however, because he had made a promise and nothing would keep him from it. How soon he would find upon arriving at Boughton Hall the country estate of Lady Farrell, nestled in the small village of Oxfordshire that the events there would test all his training. While searching for clues to the missing child he has sworn to find, although feeling thwarted at every turn it is the sudden arrival of a mysterious acrid fog causing death and destruction to anything in its path; whether it be man, beast or vegetation; thick enough to block the light of day had settled in for a long stay. As Thomas attempts to try and alleviate the suffering and come up with an explanation the small shire also falls victim to two murders which once again becomes a call to action for the young anatomist to find the truth. A returning cast of endearing characters make this an outstanding series to follow! Readers can’t help but be compelled to find out how the good Doctor will solve the cases at hand!