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I left them in the alley, hearing the old man ask as I hurried across the kitchen, “He is your boy?”
“He is my assistant,” came the doctor’s reply.
I set the water on to boil and then went down to the basement. I lit the lamps, laid out the instruments. (I wasn’t sure which he might need, but had a strong suspicion the old man’s delivery was not alive-I had heard no sounds coming from the old cart, and there didn’t seem to be great urgency to fetch the cargo inside… though this may have been more hope than suspicion.) Then I removed a fresh smock from the closet and rummaged under the stairs for the doctor’s rubber boots. They weren’t there, and for a moment I stood by the examination table in mute panic. I had washed them the week before and was certain I had placed them under the stairs. Where were the doctor’s boots? From the kitchen came the clumping of the men’s tread across the wooden floor. He was coming, and I had lost his boots!
I spied the boots just as the doctor and Erasmus began to descend the stairs. They were beneath the worktable, where I had placed them. Why had I put them there? I set them by the stool and waited, my heart pounding, my breath coming in short, ragged gasps. The basement was very cold, at least ten degrees colder than the rest of the house, and stayed that way year round.
The load, still wrapped tightly in burlap, must have been heavy: The muscles in the men’s necks bulged with the effort, and their descent was painfully slow. Once the old man cried for a halt. They paused five steps from the bottom, and I could see the doctor was annoyed at this delay. He was anxious to unveil his new prize.
They eventually heaved their burden onto the examining table. The doctor guided the old man to the stool. Erasmus sank down upon it, removed his straw hat, and wiped his crinkled brow with a filthy rag. He was shaking badly. In the light I could see that nearly all of him was filthy, from his mud-encrusted shoes to his broken fingernails to the fine lines and crevasses of his ancient face. I could smell the rich, loamy aroma of damp earth rising from him.
“A crime,” he murmured. “A crime!”
“Yes, grave-robbing is a crime,” said the doctor. “A very serious crime, Erasmus. A thousand-dollar fine and five years’ hard labor.” He shrugged into his smock and motioned for his boots. He leaned against the banister to tug them on. “We are coconspirators now. I must trust you, and you in turn must trust me. Will Henry, where is my tea?”
I raced up the stairs. Below, the old man was saying, “I have a family to feed. My wife, she’s very ill; she needs medicine. I can’t find work, and what use is gold and jewels to the dead?”
They had left the back door ajar. I swung it closed and threw the bolt, but not until I checked the alley. I saw nothing but the fog, which had grown thicker, and the horse, its face dominated by its large eyes that seemed to implore me for help.
I could hear the rise and fall of the voices in the basement as I prepared the tea, Erasmus’s with its high-pitched, semi-hysterical edge, the doctor’s measured and low, beneath which lurked an impatient curtness no doubt born of his eagerness to unwrap the old man’s unholy bundle. My unshod feet had grown quite cold, but I tried my best to ignore the discomfort. I dressed the tray with sugar and cream and two cups. Though the doctor hadn’t ordered the second, I thought the old man might need a cup to repair his shattered nerves.
“… halfway to it, the ground just gave beneath me,” the old grave-robber was saying as I descended with the tray. “As if I struck a hollow or pocket in the earth. I fell face-first upon the top of the casket. Don’t know if my fall cracked the lid or if it was cracked by the… cracked before I fell.”
“Before, no doubt,” said the doctor.
They were as I had left them, the doctor leaning against the banister, the old man shivering upon the stool. I offered him some tea, and he accepted the proffered cup gladly.
“Oh, I am chilled to my very bones!” he whimpered.
“This has been a cold spring,” the doctor observed. He struck me as at once bored and agitated.
“I couldn’t just leave it there,” the old man explained. “Cover it up again and leave it? No, no. I’ve more respect than that. I fear God. I fear the judgment of eternity! A crime, Doctor. An abomination! So once I gathered my wits, I used the horse and a bit of rope to haul them from the hole, wrapped them up… brought them here.”
“You did the right thing, Erasmus.”
“‘There’s but one man who’ll know what to do,’ I said to myself. Forgive me, but you must know what they say about you and the curious goings-on in this house. Only the deaf would not know about Pellinore Warthrop and the house on Harrington Lane!”
“Then I am fortunate,” said the doctor dryly, “that you are not deaf.”
He went to the old man’s side and placed both hands on his shoulders.
“You have my confidence, Erasmus Gray. As I’m certain I have yours. I will speak to no one of your involvement in this ‘crime,’ as you call it, as I’m sure you will keep mum regarding mine. Now, for your trouble…”
He produced a wad of bills from his pocket and stuffed them into the old man’s hands. “I don’t mean to rush you off, but each moment you stay endangers both you and my work, both of which matter a great deal to me, though one perhaps a bit more than the other,” he added with a tight smile. He turned to me. “Will Henry, show our caller to the door.” Then he turned back to Erasmus Gray. “You have done an invaluable service to the advancement of science, sir.”
The old man seemed more interested in the advancement of his fortunes, for he was staring openmouthed at the cash in his still-quivering hands. Dr. Warthrop urged him to his feet and toward the stairs, instructing me not to forget to lock the back door and find my shoes.
“And don’t lollygag, Will Henry. We’ve work to last us the rest of the night. Snap to!”
Old Erasmus hesitated at the back door, a dirty paw upon my shoulder, the other clutching his tattered straw hat, his rheumy eyes straining against the fog, which had now completely engulfed his horse and cart. Its snorts and stamping against the stones were the only evidence of the beast’s existence.
“Why are you here, boy?” he asked suddenly, giving my shoulder a hard squeeze. “This is no business for children.”
“My parents died in a fire, sir,” I answered. “The doctor took me in.”
“The doctor,” Erasmus echoed. “They call him that-but what exactly is he a doctor of?”
The grotesque, I might have answered. The bizarre. The unspeakable. Instead I gave the same answer the doctor had given me when I’d asked him not long after my arrival at the house on Harrington Lane. “Philosophy,” I said with little conviction.
“Philosophy!” Erasmus cried softly. “Not what I would call it, that be certain!”
He jammed the hat upon his head and plunged into the fog, shuffling forward until it engulfed him.
A few minutes later I was descending the stairs to the basement laboratory, having thrown the bolt to the door and having found my shoes, after a moment or two of frantic searching, exactly where I had left them the night before. The doctor was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, impatiently drumming his fingers upon the rail. Apparently he did not think there was enough “snap” in my “to.” As for myself, I was not looking forward to the rest of the evening. This was not the first time someone had called at our back door in the middle of the night bearing macabre packages, though this certainly was the largest since I had come to live with the doctor.
“Did you lock the door?” the doctor asked. I noticed again the color high in his cheeks, the slight shortness of breath, the excited quaver in his voice. I answered that I had. He nodded. “If what he says is true, Will Henry, if I have not been taken for a fool-which would not be the first time- then this is an extraordinary find. Come!”
We took our positions, he by the table where lay the bundle of muddy burlap, I behind him and to his right, manning the tall rolling tray of instruments, with pencil and notebook at the ready. My hand was shaking slightly as I wrote the date across the top of the page, April 15, 1888.
He donned his gloves with a loud pop! against his wrists and stamped his boots on the cold stone floor. He pulled on his mask, leaving just the top of his nose and his intense dark eyes exposed.
“Are we ready, Will Henry?” he breathed, his voice muffled by the mask. He drummed his fingers in the empty air.
“Ready, sir,” I replied, though I felt anything but.
I slapped the instrument handle-first into his open palm.
“No, the big ones, Will Henry. The shears there.”
He began at the narrow end of the bundle, where the feet must have been, cutting down the center of the thick material, his shoulders hunched, the muscles of his jaw bunching with the effort. He paused once to stretch and loosen his cramping fingers, then returned to the task. The burlap was wet and caked with mud.
“The old man trussed it tighter than a Christmas turkey,” the doctor muttered.
After what seemed like hours, he reached the opposite end. The burlap had parted an inch or two along the cut, but no more. The contents remained a mystery and would remain so for a few more seconds. The doctor handed me the shears and leaned against the table, resting before the final, awful climax. At last he straightened, pressing his hands upon the small of his back. He took a deep breath.
“Very well, then,” he said softly. “Let’s have it, Will Henry.”
He peeled away the material, working it apart in the same direction as he had cut it. The burlap fell back on either side, draping over the table like the petals of a flower opening to welcome the spring sun.
Over his bent back I could see them. Not the single corpulent corpse that I had anticipated, but two bodies, one wrapped about the other in an obscene embrace. I choked back the bile that rushed from my empty stomach, and willed my knees to be still. Remember, I was twelve years old. A boy, yes, but a boy who had already seen his fair share of grotesqueries. The laboratory had shelves along the walls that held large jars wherein oddities floated in preserving solution, extremities and organs of creatures that you would not recognize, that you would swear belonged to the world of nightmares, not our waking world of comfortable familiarity. And, as I’ve said, this was not the first time I had assisted the doctor at his table.
But nothing had prepared me for what the old man delivered that night. I daresay your average adult would have fled the room in horror, run screaming up the stairs and out of the house, for what lay within that burlap cocoon laid shame to all the platitudes and promises from a thousand pulpits upon the nature of a just and loving God, of a balanced and kind universe, and the dignity of man. A crime, the old grave-robber had called it. Indeed there seemed no better word for it, though a crime requires a criminal… and who or what was the criminal in this case?
Upon the table lay a young girl, her body partially concealed by the naked form wrapped around her, one massive leg thrown over her torso, an arm draped across her chest. Her white burial gown was stained with the distinctive ochre of dried blood, the source of which was immediately apparent: Half her face was missing, and below it I could see the exposed bones of her neck. The tears along the remaining skin were jagged and triangular in shape, as if someone had hacked at her body with a hatchet.