A Grave Mistake
Short Story by Carrie Martin
The doors of an alehouse fling open, wafting pipe smoke and sweet malt. Four disheveled lads pour out, drunk as emperors. A British soldier struts after them, immaculately dressed in his red coat and black hat. He jingles a pouch of coins, and pats one of the lads on the back.
"Evenin'," I say with a nod and a tip of my flat-cap, keeping my head down, out of the dim light of the alehouse doors.
They mumble a greeting as they stumble after the soldier like rats with the Pied Piper. Off to the next alehouse to get yet more blathered and sign their lives away.
I'd kill for a tankard myself, but I can't stop tonight.
I duck into an alleyway—a shortcut to the edge of the city—hands fisted inside my pockets, arming myself against scrappers or thieves. Or worse.
A rat scuttles past my feet, black eyes glistening, tail slithering. And then something shuffles up ahead. Something bigger than a rat, coming from the deepest, darkest shadows of the alleyway. I jump to a standstill and brace for a fight, my poor heart racing. But it's a girl who steps out before me: dampened, frizzy locks erupting from her bonnet, her face gaunt and mottled with scars.
I exhale loudly and relax some. My imagination is running riot—and is it any wonder at this late hour, with the ghastly work I have agreed to?
"Fancy some fun, Mister?" says the waif of a girl, thrusting out her bony chest. Her smile is a grimace of wrecked teeth.
It sickens my heart to see such a sorry creature. She can't be much older than my own son.
"Here, lass," I say, handing her two pennies from my pocket. "Grab yourself a bed for the night, somewhere safe."
She stares at those pennies in her hand and her eyes well with tears. "Thank you, Sir." Then she scurries away, skirt flapping, back into the heart of this soulless city.
I'd better hope tonight pays off or the wife will have my guts for garters for giving money away when the rent is past due. But if Caleb is right—what he said in the Coal Hole tavern where I met him, drowning my sorrows—I'll have a guinea by the morrow, enough to survive for a month.
I continue on, out the alleyway and over the empty road. The drizzle is letting up but it's dark as death now the city is behind me, sweeping fields ahead. Skeleton trees line the road, shivering in the wind. And here, the church and cemetery, surrounded by a great stone wall. Tucked between the wall and wrought iron gate is a smart-suited figure with shoulder-length hair and a cocked hat. Right where he said he'd be.
"Aye, Owen. I thought you'd gotten cold feet," says Caleb, springing up to shake my hand with a glove that is smooth as skin and cuffed with fur.
"Sorry Caleb. Took a bit for the wife to drop off." I can't have Edna knowing about this. I told her I'd sort it, and I will. I'll just have to get creative with the truth, is all.
Caleb jangles the lock on the gate, and soon there is a flame growing bigger and brighter, the swish of a black cloak as the groundskeeper appears before us like a ghost. Scraggly hair pokes out of his knitted cap. His beady eyes and crooked nose glow wickedly behind the burning rag he holds on a stick. He inserts his key into the lock and creaks open the gate, just enough to let us squeeze through to the church grounds.
"Alright, Russell," says Caleb.
Russell grunts in response as he locks up again, entirely ignoring my presence. There are no introductions, which suits me fine. I hope I never see Russell again.
"Let's get this over with, shall we," says Russell in a voice as gruff as his manner.
Caleb gives me a raised eyebrow, an amused smile, as Russell swooshes around and starts up the path, lighting the way for us to follow. It seems to take forever with his slow, bowlegged gait. It gives me too much time to think, to worry, to see the gravestones of crosses and angels looming in the darkness. I can almost hear the dead whispering their disapproval, restless beneath them.
We wrap round the church entrance and tower, and stop at a small wooden extension. Russell opens the door and illuminates the inside of a tool shed with his burning rag.
"Grab that wheelbarrow," Caleb tells me.
I tip the heavy thing upright, onto its legs and front wheel. Caleb sets to work filling it with various bits of equipment: shovel, rope, canvas sack and sheet. Then he takes a second shovel and a metal rake, and we head back outside into the freezing night.
The gravestones are plainer down this grassy side, and squished together in rows like teeth. Crows caw unhappily in the trees above us, shaking the branches as they flap furiously away into the surrounding fields.
"Here he is," says Caleb, stabbing his shovel into a rectangle of soil—the cemetery's most recent burial.
My legs go weak. My breath catches. I lower the wheelbarrow and read the headstone.
Bartholomew Augustus Riseborough
Died April 1st 1795
Aged 33 years
I'm not a churchgoer, not really, but I sign the cross now, Lord help me. I picture my wife and son, in this grave instead of Mr. Riseborough. That's why I'm here. That's why I must do this. What choice do I have?
Caleb must sense my reluctance for he whips out a flask and tucks it in my hand. "Get some of this down you."
"What is it?" I ask.
"Never mind what is it, just drink it," he says.
Russell watches with his beady eyes, silent behind his flickering glow.
I swig back at least half the flask, ignoring the sickly sweet, bitterly strong taste. It burns down my esophagus and into my belly, warms and numbs me from head to toe. "Gorblimey, that's harsh."
I offer the flask to Russell but he shakes his head, so I return it to Caleb who happily downs the whole lot.
"Bourbon whiskey that. The good stuff," says Caleb, wiping his lips. Then he lays the sheet at the head of the grave, and shows me where to dig with the spade of his shovel. "You just want to uncover the top half, stick it on the sheet. Then we can snap the lid open and hoist the body out."
I grab the other shovel and set to work, scooping up the wet soil and tossing it onto the sheet.
"That's it," says Caleb approvingly as he matches me shovel for shovel. Then, with a smile, "Hell of a mouthful, his name. Fancy being called that all your life."
"I had an uncle Bartholomew once, if you don't mind," says Russell, his thick wiry eyebrows dipped in an angry V.
"And were his other names long-winded and pompous too?" says Caleb.
Russell's eyes get even beadier, if such a thing is possible.
I'm full of boozy adrenaline, sick to my stomach with what I'm about to do, but I cannot help but laugh. "It's certainly the sort of name you'd associate with a man of means. Though you'd expect more of a headstone than this, if that were so."
"Oh, he had money, all right," says Russell. "He was a merchant banker. A banker who didn't get round to writing his own bloody will. Can you believe that? It was his missus that chose this for him. Didn't shed a single tear at his funeral, either. Didn't even look that distraught, though I saw her dab her eyes a time or two."
"I'd be doing a jig on his grave if I was inheriting what she is," says Caleb, leaning on his shovel handle and catching his breath. "Might have to try bumping into her sometime. Aye, wouldn't that be something." He smirks and starts digging again.
"You've got the looks and the clothes to impress a lady, I'll give you that." I'd be stomping on dough in that damp, drafty cellar for weeks to afford an outfit so grand—when there was flour to be had. There's only so much chalk and alum you can add to a loaf, and the boss had to let me go. "How come you're all dandied-up for digging, anyway?"
"Because it's risky enough carting a body around at night, but nobody thinks twice when you're dressed all important, like. Aye, I'm not just a pretty face, me. And what a body we've got here... A man, young enough, no visible diseases, practically handed to us on a platter. Doesn't get any better than this."
I wonder what sort of cut Caleb is paying Russell to risk his job and squeeze out the competition for us on a find like this. But it's impolite to ask, so I just keep shoveling.
"You won't have to dig far," says Russell. "The dead are piling up in this city, what with this rotten winter and all the pox. We're having to bury them on top of each other."
Now I really do feel sick. He has a way with words, our Russell.
"Remember what I said yesterday," says Caleb, taking another break to address me. "It's just a body, a shell, and there's no point it going to waste, feeding the maggots. So long as we take nothing they owned—no jewelry, no clothes, no shoes—it's not even illegal. You can't own a corpse, see. And they just can't get enough of them, these anatomy students. Even with all the hangings in the gallows of late."
"It's a mad world is this," I say, shaking my head as I scoop another shovelful. "Men hanged for pinching bread but not for this. Makes no sense to me."
Caleb points his shovel at me. "Exactly!" he says, and resumes his shoveling with gusto. "It's all right for them, sitting pretty at the top, making laws to suit them as they go. Using us up and spitting us out, then killing us off when we're knackered and desperate. It's never them that hang, is it? Well, they'll not get the better of me. I'll not break my back to make another man rich, and I won't end up in the gallows!"
Maybe he's right, and morality is nothing more than words on paper, made not of heart but of mind. Then guilt and shame are self-inflicted, pointless things, and who is to say what is right? Do the rich sleep soundly in their beds while the necks of poor folk choke in their noose, simply because they have written it so?
We work for a while in silence, to the mesmerizing beat of slice-thump-slice-slice-thump-thump. Wind whips wetness at us from the church roof and trees, sending shadows dancing and darting beneath Russell's ever-shrinking flame. Soil piles higher and higher upon the sheet as we get lower and lower into the grave. We dig till I'm sweating beneath my clothes, my breath puffing out in great clouds. My bad knee is seizing up, my back aching, when finally I strike something flat and hard with my shovel.
"I think I've hit the—"
I'm interrupted by a muffled but roaring moan, coming from the casket. The three of us freeze in horror—me, bent over the casket. An icy chill creeps up my spine. My heart pounds wildly. The dead man has risen to wreak vengeance upon us for disturbing his grave!
An almighty fit of bashing and banging ensues. I grip my shovel for dear life.
"Heeelp! Get me out of here!" roars the dead man.
"My God, he's alive," says Russell, the first to come to his senses. And oh, but I am a fool.
"Quickly, clear the muck off and snap the wood," says Caleb.
We scrape and fling the remaining soil every which way, revealing the shiny wood beneath. Caleb jams his shovel under the lid of the casket. I get beside him, do the same, and we push down with all our weight to wedge it open. The top half of the casket cracks apart, and there's Mr. Riseborough, wriggling and struggling with the shroud he's been wrapped in. Only his face is visible under that white sheet, and he's staring up at us with bulging round eyes, his mouth absurdly agape.
All at once his face retracts into an expression of mere confusion, his gentlemanly composure restored. In his posh accent he says, "What the bloody hell... Who are you?"
"Your saviours. That's who we are," says Caleb, and swings the rope down to him.
Mr. Riseborough frees his arms from the shroud, and we hoist him out of that muddy hole, grunting and cursing, until he's on the ground. Then we unravel the rest of him, uncovering his three-piece suit and buckled shoes, and pull him to his feet. He thanks us profusely as he straightens his wonky poodle-like wig and swats at the mud on his fancy suit.
Russell's got the burning rag in Mr. Riseborough's long-nosed face, and we're gawking at him, wondering what the hell happens next. But Mr. Riseborough isn't interested in us. He's too busy frowning at his gravesite, squinting and leaning in to read the common-man's headstone with his name on it. Russell moves his flame over the stone, highlighting the heartless engraving.
"I don't understand," says Mr. Riseborough. "I'm as fit as a fiddle. How is it that I was presumed dead and buried in such an undignified manner? How could my wife let this happen?"
"You should've got your will written then," says Russell. "Spelt out exactly what you wanted."
"I didn't think it necessary, what with my good health, no children and only a wife to consider. I presumed she would take care of... Oh, I feel quite nauseous."
Then Mr. Riseborough unleashes an almighty belch, the likes of which I've never heard from a gentleman. It stinks to high heaven of something vaguely familiar. He puts a hand to his chest. "I do beg my pardon."
Russell jerks backward as if he's been shot, while I subtly turn from the fumes. But Caleb—God knows what he's up to—he leans in to get a good sniff.
"It's no wonder you're feeling sick, Bartholomew," says Caleb. "You've a stink of almonds on your breath. That's cyanide is that."
"Cyanide? What?" Realization dawns on Mr. Riseborough's face. "I thought that cup of tea tasted odd, but we had just hired a new maid, and so I didn't think much about it. But who..." He glances back at the headstone, clenches his hands into fists. "My wife! But how did she get away with it?"
Russell smiles slyly, as if he knew the answer all along.
"The question is, what are you going to do about it now?" says Caleb.
Mr. Riseborough acknowledges this with a slight nod, then paces back-and-forth aside his grave, hands clasped behind his back, furrowing and un-furrowing his brow. He stops suddenly, throws his arm in the air, and says, "How would you like to earn yourselves ten guineas each?"
"It's not illegal, is it?" I ask.
"Not at all."
And then he explains...
It's past midnight and I'm at the pillared entrance of a huge window-spotted brick house, yanking and ringing the bell. Caleb and Russell are with me, grinning like idiots. And there in the wheelbarrow, hidden in the sack, is the lumpy, curled-up shape of Mr. Riseborough.
Silently he lies in wait—a little surprise for his "loving" wife.
Perhaps Mrs. Riseborough will drop dead herself when she sees him.
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