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Authors: Diana Gabaldon

Tags: #Historical

The Custom of the Army

By Diana Gabaldon

(in chronological order)


Dragonfly in Amber


Drums of Autumn

The Fiery Cross

A Breath of Snow and Ashes

An Echo in the Bone

The Outlandish Companion


(in chronological order)

Lord John and the Hellfire Club (novella)

Lord John and the Private Matter

Lord John and the Succubus (novella)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

Lord John and the Haunted Soldier (novella)

The Custom of the Army (novella)

Lord John and the Hand of Devils (collected novellas)

The Scottish Prisoner

Plague of Zombies (novella)

The Custom of the Army
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

2012 Doubleday Canada E-book Edition

Copyright © 2010 by Diana Gabaldon
Introduction, notes, and chronology copyright © 2012 by Diana Gabaldon

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher—or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.

Doubleday Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.

This novella was originally published in
, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, published by Tor Books in 2010.

eISBN: 978-0-385-67923-7

Cover design: Marietta Anastassato

Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited

Visit Random House of Canada Limited’s website:



One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is that the best parts aren’t made up. This particular story came about as the result of my having read Wendy Moore’s excellent biography of Dr. John Hunter,
The Knife Man—
and my having read at the same time a brief facsimile book printed by the National Park Service, detailing regulations of the British Army during the American Revolution.

I wasn’t
for anything in particular in either of these books; just reading for background, general information on the period, and the always alluring chance of stumbling across something fascinating, like electric eel parties in London (these, along with Dr. Hunter himself—who appears briefly in this story—are a matter of historical record).

As for British Army regulations, a little of that stuff goes a long way; as a novelist, you want to resist the temptation to tell people things just because you happen to know them. Still, that book too had its little nuggets, such as the information that the word “bomb” was common in the eighteenth century, and that (in addition to merely meaning “an explosive device”) it referred also to a wrapped and tarred parcel of shrapnel shot from a cannon (though we must be careful not to use the word “shrapnel,” as it’s derived from Lt. Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery, who took the original “bomb” concept and developed the “shrapnel shell,” a debris-filled bomb filled also with gunpowder and designed to explode in mid-air after being fired from a cannon; unfortunately, he did this in 1784, which was inconvenient, as “shrapnel” is a pretty good word to have when writing about warfare).

Among the other bits of interesting trivia, though, I was struck by a brief description of the procedure for courts-martial: “
The custom of the army is that a court-martial be presided over by a senior officer and such a number of other officers as he shall think fit to serve as council, these being generally four in number, but can be more but not generally less than three.… The person accused shall have the right to call witnesses in his support, and the council shall question these, as well as any other persons whom they may wish, and shall thus determine the circumstances, and if conviction ensue, the sentence to be imposed

And that was it. No elaborate procedures for the introduction of evidence, no standards for conviction, no sentencing guidelines, no requirements for who could or should serve as “council” to a court-martial—just “the custom of the army.” The phrase—rather obviously—stuck in my head.

The Custom of the Army

All things considered, it was probably the fault of the electric eel. John Grey could—and for a time, did—blame the Honorable Caroline Woodford, as well. And the surgeon. And certainly that blasted poet. Still … no, it was the eel’s fault.

The party had been at Lucinda Joffrey’s house. Sir Richard was absent; a diplomat of his stature could not have countenanced something so frivolous. Electric-eel parties were a mania in London just now, but owing to the scarcity of the creatures, a private party was a rare occasion. Most such parties were held at public theaters, with the fortunate few selected for encounter with the eel summoned onstage, there to be shocked and sent reeling like ninepins for the entertainment of the audience.

“The record is forty-two at once!” Caroline had told him, her eyes wide and shining as she looked up from the creature in its tank.

“Really?” It was one of the most peculiar things he’d seen, though not very striking. Nearly three feet long, it had a heavy, squarish body with a blunt head, which looked to have been inexpertly molded out of sculptor’s clay, and tiny eyes like dull glass beads. It had little in common with the lashing, lithesome eels of the fish market—and certainly did not seem capable of felling forty-two people at once.

The thing had no grace at all, save for a small thin ruffle of a fin that ran the length of its lower body, undulating as a gauze curtain does in the wind. Lord John expressed this observation to the Honorable Caroline and was accused in consequence of being poetic.

“Poetic?” said an amused voice behind him. “Is there no end to our gallant major’s talents?”

Lord John turned, with an inward grimace and an outward smile, and bowed to Edwin

“I should not think of trespassing upon your province, Mr. Nicholls,” he said politely. Nicholls wrote execrable verse, mostly upon the subject of love, and was much admired by young women of a certain turn of mind. The Honorable Caroline wasn’t one of them; she’d written a very clever parody of his style, though Grey thought Nicholls had not heard about it. He hoped not.

“Oh, don’t you?” Nicholls raised one honey-colored brow at him and glanced briefly but meaningfully at Miss Woodford. His tone was jocular, but his look was not, and Grey wondered just how much Mr. Nicholls had had to drink. Nicholls was flushed of cheek and glittering of eye, but that might be only the heat of the room, which was considerable, and the excitement of the party.

“Do you think of composing an ode to our friend?” Grey asked, ignoring Nicholls’s allusion and gesturing toward the large tank that contained the eel.

Nicholls laughed, too loudly—yes, quite a bit the worse for drink—and waved a dismissive hand.

“No, no, Major. How could I think of expending my energies upon such a gross and insignificant creature, when there are angels of delight such as this to inspire me?” He leered—Grey did not wish to impugn the fellow, but he undeniably leered—at Miss Woodford, who smiled, with compressed lips, and tapped him rebukingly with her fan.

Where was Caroline’s uncle? Grey wondered. Simon Woodford shared his niece’s interest in natural history and would certainly have escorted her.… Oh, there. Simon Woodford was deep in discussion with Dr. Hunter, the famous surgeon—what had possessed Lucinda to invite
Then he caught sight of Lucinda, viewing Dr. Hunter over her fan with narrowed eyes, and realized that she
invited him.

John Hunter was a famous surgeon—and an infamous anatomist. Rumor had it that he
would stop at nothing to bag a particularly desirable body—whether human or not. He did move in society, but not in the Joffreys’ circles.

Lucinda Joffrey had most expressive eyes. Her one claim to beauty, they were almond-shaped, clear gray in color, and capable of sending remarkably minatory messages across a crowded room.

Come here!
they said. Grey smiled and lifted his glass in salute to her but made no move to obey. The eyes narrowed further, gleaming dangerously, then cut abruptly toward the surgeon, who was edging toward the tank, his face alight with curiosity and acquisitiveness.

The eyes whipped back to Grey.

Get rid of him!
they said.

Grey glanced at Miss Woodford. Mr. Nicholls had seized her hand in his and appeared to be declaiming something; she looked as though she wanted the hand back. Grey looked back at Lucinda and shrugged, with a small gesture toward Mr. Nicholls’s ochre-velvet back, expressing regret that social responsibility prevented his carrying out her order.

“Not only the face of an angel,” Nicholls was saying, squeezing Caroline’s fingers so hard that she squeaked, “but the skin, as well.” He stroked her hand, the leer intensifying. “What do angels smell like in the morning, I wonder?”

Grey measured him up thoughtfully. One more remark of that sort, and he might be obliged to invite Mr. Nicholls to step outside. Nicholls was tall and heavily built, outweighed Grey by a couple of stone, and had a reputation for bellicosity.
Best try to break his nose first
, Grey thought, shifting his weight,
then run him headfirst into a hedge. He won’t come back in if I make a mess of him

“What are you looking at?” Nicholls inquired unpleasantly, catching Grey’s gaze upon him.

Grey was saved from reply by a loud clapping of hands—the eel’s proprietor calling the party to order. Miss Woodford took advantage of the distraction to snatch her hand away, cheeks flaming with mortification. Grey moved at once to her side and put a hand beneath her elbow, fixing Nicholls with an icy stare.

“Come with me, Miss Woodford,” he said. “Let us find a good place from which to watch the proceedings.”

“Watch?” said a voice beside him. “Why, surely you don’t mean to
, do you, sir? Are you not curious to try the phenomenon yourself?”

It was Hunter himself, bushy hair tied carelessly back, though decently dressed in a damson-red suit, and grinning up at Grey; the surgeon was broad-shouldered and muscular but quite short—barely five foot two, to Grey’s five-six. Evidently he had noted Grey’s wordless exchange with Lucinda.

“Oh, I think—” Grey began, but Hunter had his arm and was tugging him toward the crowd gathering round the tank. Caroline, with an alarmed glance at the glowering Nicholls, hastily followed him.

“I shall be most interested to hear your account of the sensation,” Hunter was saying chattily. “Some people report a remarkable euphoria, a momentary disorientation … shortness of breath or dizziness—sometimes pain in the chest. You have not a weak heart, I hope, Major? Or you, Miss Woodford?”

“Me?” Caroline looked surprised.

Hunter bowed to her.

“I should be particularly interested to see your own response, ma’am,” he said respectfully. “So few women have the courage to undertake such an adventure.”

“She doesn’t want to,” Grey said hurriedly.

“Well, perhaps I
,” she said, and gave him a little frown, before glancing at the tank and the long gray form inside it. She gave a brief shiver—but Grey recognized it, from long acquaintance with the lady, as a shiver of anticipation rather than revulsion.

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