To celebrate turning in the layout copy I’m posting the first chapter.
The Resurrection Men.
THE VICAR intoned the familiar words from the Book of Common Prayer while the family mourned their loss. She died quickly, almost overnight, and now being placed in the family crypt.
FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear sister here departed, we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
That night, the four resurrection men met the verger in the dark churchyard. They carried shaded lanterns and intended to retrieve the ‘vile body’ before it became too vile for their client to use. They wore scarves over their faces to mask their identity. Grave robbing, while technically just a misdemeanour, was a serious offense so they made sure to leave nothing to chance. Still, the money they earned was good, and the likelihood that they would be caught was small.
Elias, the verger, pocketed the four crowns the oldest resurrection man had given him. Then he led them to the Patterson family crypt and put the key in the lock on the barred, iron gate and gave it a turn. He pushed on the gate, and as it creaked open, he turned and said to the resurrection men, “She was just put in here this morning. Should be fresh.”
“That’s what the doctor wants.”
“Take care, this hasn’t been a quiet one.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought I’d heard noises.” They all listened and other than the distant “goo-de-who” of an owl it was quiet.
“Elias, you daft bugger. You’ll have us jumping out of our skins. Which one is it?”
Elias led them to the newest coffin. There hadn’t been time to etch a metal plaque for its occupant. A temporary paper label attached to the top said, Cecelia Jane Garth 1790-1810. Resting in Peace with the Lord.
He pointed, “That’s her. The poor lass, she was just engaged to a rich suitor. She faded so quickly, and even Sir William Knighton couldn’t save her. One day she was happy, and then she was gone.”
Then he anxiously looked at the four resurrection men, “Do I have to watch?”
“Nay, man. Not if you don’t want. Why don’t you keep an eye out for the curate?”
Elias stood at the door to the crypt and kept watch while the resurrection men pulled the coffin off its shelf and lowered it to the floor. They opened it and gazed at the contents.
“Aye, Dad,” the youngest said, “She was a beauty. Pity to anatomize her.”
“That’s how we stand the nonsense, Lad. Up with her, and careful. The doctor wants them unblemished.”
“She’s not stiff, and a touch warm.”
“Maybe she’s not as fresh as Elias said. Starting to rot mayhaps.” The senior resurrection man turned to the verger and said, “Elias, are you sure this is the one?”
Elias looked, “That’s her. Miss Cecelia Garth. God rest her soul.”
The four resurrection men stretched her body on the hard ground of the crypt. It was wrapped in a winding sheet for burial, with ties to bind her legs and arms together. A bandage around her head held her mouth shut. Then they put rocks in the casket, resealed it, and replaced it in the crypt. In the process, the paper label ended up on the inside of the casket.
Then they carried her out of the crypt and into the dark churchyard.
The gate creaked again as Elias shut it. There was a faint gasp at the same time as he turned the key in the lock.
“Did you hear that, Da?” the youngest resurrection man asked, shocked at the noise.
Elias said, “That’s what I mean. She hasn’t been a quiet corpse.”
Jonas, the eldest resurrection man, spat and then said, “What a lot of superstitious buggers you are. It’s just the wind.”
Together they carried the body to a waiting cart. It was tied to the kissing gate at the church, and the sorry looking excuse for a horse waited patiently to take up his labours. Since the body had been a beautiful young woman, they carefully laid it in the back. They pulled a blanket over it and then covered that with straw. It wasn’t often they encountered the watch, but it was just as well to be prepared. They hopped onto the cart, and Jonas held the horse. They clumped off into the night at the fastest pace the horse could manage.
Elias pulled the four crowns from his pocket and carefully examined them. The pound they summed to, equivalent to almost half a month’s work was a welcome addition to his meagre wages.
He said, “Just hope I don’t get caught,” to the wind that was whistling in from the dark of the night. He pulled the gate to the graveyard shut with a loud creak, then latched and locked it. The noise seemed to echo forever in the distance so he listened for the footsteps that would presage a hue and cry. All he heard was that bloody owl.
“Dad,” the youngest resurrection man said, “where are we bound?”
“We’ll drop these two lads off at the Red Lion. Then you and I shall take the young miss to her final destination.”
“Jonas, you said.”
“Now shut your gob. I’ll pay thee. No reason to risk us all getting run in by the watch. Now is there?”
“Reckon not. Still, we should be there when you meet the anatomist. How do we know you’re not trimming us over the price?”
“Listen Lads, the less you know, the safer you are and the safer he is. The safer we all are. I’m only taking my boy because I need his muscle. Gettin’ old. ‘Sides which, he’s family and we’ll both hang together, any road.”
“It’s not a hanging offense, is it?”
“No, but it’s a fine and prison if we’re caught.” While not technically a death sentence, a long stay in prison wasn’t exactly good for the health. Scanty, poor quality food and the lack of light or ventilation in a crowded building tended to eliminate prison overcrowding.
The wagon pulled up to the pub, and the two unnecessary resurrection men jumped down. Jonas passed them a crown each, “More for you tomorrow after I’ve been paid. Now keep your blubbers shut.”
An hour later, Jonas pulled the wagon up in front of the old tithing barn in Streatham and tied it to a hitching post. An ancient building left over from the dissolution of the Abbey under King Henry; the barn was a massive stone building with high narrow windows that discouraged the curious. The tall arched roof still kept the rain out, at least most of it. While it was far enough from the centre of the village to avoid prying eyes, it was also slowly falling into disrepair. Dr. Richard Craven used it for his private laboratory.
The massive door squeaked as he opened it and greeted them, “Jonas, what have you for me tonight?”
“Just what you wanted, a young woman, fresh.”
“Excellent. Now bring her inside.”
“You’ll be paying me now. Like we agreed?”
“Ten pounds. I have it here.” Dr. Craven pulled a note from his coat pocket.
“Ten, nay man, twenty.”
“Twenty? You said ten before.”
“Twenty or we take her straight back.” Twenty pounds was almost a year’s wages for a skilled labourer.
Dr. Craven was in no place to argue. He needed a woman to continue his studies, and there she was almost close enough to touch. She was just another cadaver, on her way to returning to the common clay.
“Twenty it is, you rogue.” He handed Jonas two banknotes.
Jonas nodded to his son, “Bring her lad.”
The boy uncovered their cargo and shouted, “she’s moved Da’. She’s moved.”
“Nonsense boy. Must have been shifted by the roads. Now stop yer yammering and bring her in.”
“Da’ alone, by myself?”
“She’s a light one. Not like some of them.”
Light or not, a body is hard to carry one handed. The boy staggered under the weight. He followed his father inside with the good doctor. Once there, he asked, “Dad, can you help?”
Together they laid her out on the cold stone floor.
Dr. Craven inspected the body, gave it a sniff, and then nodded. “She looks to be in good shape. Smells fresh. Did you want the winding cloths?”
“Of course, and it has been thirsty work. Bringing her here. Deuced thirsty.”
The doctor sighed, “I’ll get the brandy for you.”
Then he walked to the far end of the barn where he kept a small store of run French brandy. Jonas, a man with a nose for the spirits that was only matched by his capacity for imbibing them, followed him. The dark shadows hid the debris of the doctor’s studies, the prepared examples, the bottles of preserved organs, and the strange retorts of his research from their view. A chorus of squeaking rats from the cages at the far end of the building only added to the atmosphere. What little Jonas could see through the flickering candlelight was disturbing enough, even for a hardened resurrection man.
Jonas tugged on Dr. Craven’s sleeve, “You will take the brandy from the right cask, won’t you? Not one of these odd spirits and poisons?”
The doctor laughed, “Of course, I need a dram myself. It’s been a cold night.”
In the meantime, the boy undid the bandage that held the woman’s jaw shut tight. As he pulled it off her, her mouth opened and she gasped for air.
He ran to his father and the doctor, shouting, “I tell you, Doctor, she’s alive!”
Jonas and the doctor walked back to him, carrying a decanter of the brandy with them.
Dr. Craven said, “Can’t be, Lad. That must have been gas escaping from the body. They do that, you know, as they decompose.”
The elder resurrection man nodded, “I’ve seen it before, many times.”
“So have I Dad, but this wasn’t that. She gasped for breath when I undid the bandage.”
Dr. Craven said, “I’ll prove she’s dead. Put her on the table.”
The resurrection men lifted the body from the floor and put it on the examining table. It having once been a delicate young female, they were gentler with it than they were usually. The doctor gave his hands a quick rinse. Something he did more for superstition than any rational basis, and then he proceeded to examine the body.
“She is warmer than I’d expect. The decomposition must be advancing rapidly. I’ll need that ice.” He paused. It, no not it, she breathed. It was a gasp, a weak one at that, but a breath.
“Brandy!” He shouted, “and be quick about it, man. She’s alive.”
The youngest resurrection man ran for the decanter and returned as fast as he could. “Here, sir.”
The doctor took some and moistened the woman’s lips with it. She gasped again and stirred. “She’s cold, bring a blanket and a warm brick.” He immediately unwrapped the winding bandages from her body and untied the bindings on her legs and arms. “Come man, rub her legs. We must get the blood flowing.”
Between the warmth, the brandy, and the commotion, the woman’s eyes suddenly opened, and she sat up. She saw this handsome dark-haired man looking at her. His concern for her was evident in his face.
“Is this Heaven?”
“Close enough.” Then she lay back and closed her eyes again.
I’m also looking for reviewers for my nearly ready book “The Curious Profession of Dr. Craven”