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[-323-] 

CHAPTER CVI.

THE GRAVE-DIGGER 

THREE days after the events related in the preceeding chapter,- and at that hour in the cold wintry morning when the dawn breaks in fitfu1 gleams through a dense atmosphere of a dark neutral dye, - a labouring-man, with a shovel and pickaxe upon his shoulder, entered one of the cemeteries in the immediate vicinity of Globe Lane.
    This cemetery was only partly enclosed by houses; on the remaining sides there was a low wall.
    The soil was damp; and a nauseous odour, emanating from it, impregnated the air. When the sun lay for several days upon the place, even in the depth of winter,- and invariably throughout the summer,- the stench was so intolerable that not a dwelling in the neighbourhood was seen with a window open. Nevertheless, that sickly, fetid odour penetrated into every house, and every room, and every inhabited nook or corner, in that vicinity; and the clothes of the poor inmates smelt, and their food tasted, of the damp grave!
    The cemetery was crowded with the remains of mortality. The proprietors of the ground had only one aim in view - namely, to crowd the greatest possible quantity of corpses into the smallest space. But even this economy of room did not prevent the place from being so filled with the dead, that in a given quantity of the soil it was difficult to say whether earth or decayed human remains pre-[-324-]dominated. Still the cemetery was kept open for interments; and when there was no room for a newcomer, some recently-buried tenant of a grave was exhumed to afford the required space.
    In one part of the ground was a rude brick-building, denominated a Bone-House. This hovel was provided with a large fire-place; and seldom did a day pass without smoke being seen to issue from the chimney. On those occasions, - when the furnace was lighted, - the stench from the cemetery was always more powerful than at other times.
    Some of the poor inhabitants of the adjoining houses had remonstrated with the parochial authorities on the subject of this nuisance being tolerated; but the only reply the applicants could obtain was, "Well, prefer an indictment at the session., if you don't like it!"
    The idea of men in the receipt of eight or ten shillings a week preferring an indictment! Such a process is only accessible to those possessed of ample means; for the legislature has purposely rendered law, - that is, the power of obtaining justice, enforcing rights, or suppressing nuisances, - a luxury attainable only by money. The poor, indeed! who ever thought of legislating for the poor? Legislate against them, and it is all well and good: heap statute upon statute - pile act upon act - accumulate measure upon measure - encumber the most simple forms with the most intricate technicalities - diversify readings and expand in verbiage until the sense becomes unintelligible - convert the whole legal scheme into a cunning web, so that the poor man cannot walk three steps without entangling his foot in one of those meshes of whose very existence he was previously unaware, and whose nature he cannot comprehend even when involved therein ;- do all this, and you are a wise and sound statesman; for this is legislating against the poor - and who, we repeat, would ever think of legislating for them?
    But to continue.
    The grave-digger entered the cemetery, and cast a glance around him.
    That glance well expressed the man's thoughts; for he mentally asked himself, "Whose grave must I disturb now to make room for the new one?"
    At length he advanced towards a particular spot, considered it for a moment, and then struck his spade into the soil, as much as to say, "This will do."
    The place where he had now halted was only a few yards from the Bone-House. Taking a key from his pocket, he proceeded to unlock the door of that building.
    Entering the Bone-House he took from amongst a quantity of implements in one corner, a long flexible iron rod similar to those which we have already described as being used by the body-snatchers.
    Returning to the grave, he thrust the rod into the ground. It met with a little resistance from some substance a little harder than the soil; but the man pushed it downwards with a strong arm; and it sank at least twelve feet into the ground.
    Satisfied with this essay of the nature of the spot, the grave-digger drew back the rod; and from the deep but narrow aperture thus formed, issued a stench more pestiferous than that which ever came from the lowest knacker's yard.
    The man retreated rapidly to the Bone-House; that odour was too powerful even for one who had passed the greater portion of his life in that very grave-yard. 
    He now proceeded to light a fire in the Bone- House; and when be saw the huge logs which he heaped on the grate, blazing brightly, he covered  them with coke. The current of air from the open door fanned the flames, which roared up the chimney; and the grave-digger felt invigorated and cheered by the genial warmth that issued from the ample grate.
    After lingering for a few minutes in the Bone House, the grave-digger returned to the spot which he had previously marked for excavation.
    Baring his brawny arms to the very shoulders, he now set himself vigorously to work to dig the grave which was to receive a new-comer that after-noon.
    Throwing the earth up on either side, he had digged to a depth of about two feet, when his spade encountered a coffin. He immediately took his pickaxe, broke the coffin to pieces, and then separated with his shovel the pieces of wood and the human bones from the damp earth. The coffin was already so soft with decay that the iron rod had penetrated through it without much difficulty; and it therefore required but little exertion to break it up altogether.
    But the odour which came from the grave was now of the most nauseating kind - fetid, sickly, pestiferous - making the atmosphere heavy, and the human breath thick and clammy, as it were - and causing even that experienced grave-digger to retch as if he were about to vomit.
    Leaping from the grave, he began to busy himself in conveying the pieces of the broken coffin and the putrid remains of mortality into the Bone-House. where he heaped them pell-mell upon the fire.
    The flesh had not completely decayed all away from the bones; a thick, black, fatty-looking substance still covered those human relics; and the fire was thus fed with a material which made the flames roar and play half up the chimney.
    And from the summit of that chimney came a smoke-thick, dense, and dark, like the smoke of a gasometer or a manufactory, but bearing on its sable wing the odour of a pestilence.
    The man returned to the grave, and was about to resume his labour, when his eyes caught sight of a black object, almost embedded in the damp clay heaped up by the side. He turned it over with his spade: it was the upper part of the skull, with the long, dark hair of a woman still remaining attached to it. The grave-digger coolly took up the relic by that long hair which perhaps had once been a valued ornament; and, carrying it in this manner into the Bone-House, threw it upon the fire. The hair hissed for a moment as it burnt, for it was damp and clogged with clay ; then the voracious flames licked up the thin coat of blackened flesh which had still remained on the skull; and lastly devoured the bone itself.
    The grave-digger returned to his toils; and at a depth of scarcely one foot below the coffin thus exhumed and burnt, his shovel was again impeded for a moment - and by another coffin!
    Once more was the pickaxe put into requisition a second coffin was broken up; another decomposing, but not entirely decomposed, corpse was hacked,. and hewed, and rent to pieces by the merciless implement which was wielded by a merciless arm ;- and in a few moments, the fire in the Bone-House burnt cheerfully once more, the mouth of the chimney vomiting forth its dense and pest-bearing breath, the volume of which was from time to time lighted with sparks and flakes of fire.
    Thus was it that this grave-digger disposed of the old tenants of the cemetery in order to make room for new ones.
    [-325-] And then fond, surviving relations and friends speak of the last home and the quiet resting-place of the deceased: they talk with affectionate reverence of those who sleep in the grave, and they grow pathetic in their eulogies of the tranquil slumber of the tomb!
    Poor deluded creatures! While they are thus engaged in innocent discourse, - a discourse that affords them solace when they ponder upon the loss which they have sustained, - the last home is invaded - the quiet resting-place is rudely awakened with sacrilegious echoes - the sleep of the grave is disturbed by the thunder of a pickaxe - and the corpse is snatched from the tranquil slumber of the tomb to he cast into the all-devouring furnace of the Bone-House.
    The grave-digger proceeded in his task; and a third coffin was speedily encountered. Each successive one was more decayed than that which had preceded it; and thus the labour of breaking them up diminished in severity.
    But the destination of one and all was the same - the fire of the Bone-House.
    No wonder that the cemetery continued to receive so many fresh tenants, although the neighbours knew that it must be full :- no wonder that the stench was always more pestiferous when the furnace of the Bone-House was lighted!
    And that man - that grave-digger performed his task - his odious task - without compunction, and without remorse: he was fulfilling the commands of his employers - his employers were his superiors - and "surely his superiors must know what was right and what was wrong!"
    And so the grave-digger worked and toiled - and the fire in the Bone-House burnt cheerfully - and the dark, thick smoke was borne over the whole neighbourhood, like a plague-cloud.
    Two hours had passed away since the man had commenced his work; and he now felt hungry.
    Retiring to the Bone-House, he took a coffee-pot from the shelf, and proceeded to make some coffee, the material for which was in a cupboard in a corner of the building. Water he took from a large pitcher, also kept in that foul place; and bread he had brought with him in his pockets.
    He drew a stool close to the fire; and, when the coffee boiled, commenced his meal.
    The liquid cheered and refreshed him ; but he never once recollected that it had been heated by flames fed with human flesh and bones!
    While he was thus occupied, he heard footsteps approaching the Bone-House; and in a few moments Mr. Banks, the undertaker, appeared upon the threshold.
    "Mornin', sir," said the grave-digger. " Come to have a look at the size of the grave, s'pose? You've no call to be afeard; I'll be bound to make it big enow."
    "I hope it won't be a very deep one, Jones," returned the undertaker. "Somehow or another the friends of the blessed defunct are awerse to a deep grave."
    "My orders is to dig down sixteen feet and shore up the sides as I deepens," said Jones. " Don't you see that I shall throw the earth on wery light, so that it won't take scarcely no trouble to shovel it out agin; 'cos the next seven as comes to this ground must all go into that there grave."
    "Sixteen feet!" ejaculated the undertaker, in dismay. "It will never do, Jones. The friends of the dear deceased wouldn't sleep quiet in their beds if they thought he had to sleep so deep in his'n. It won't do, Jones - it won't do."
    "My orders is sich from the proprietors, sir," answered the grave-digger, munching and drinking at intervals with considerable calmness.
    "Now I tell you what it is, Jones," continued the undertaker, after a moment's pause, "not another grave will I ever order in this ground, and not another carkiss that I undertake shall come here, unless you choose to comply with my wishes concerning this blessed old defunct."
    "Well, Mr. Banks, there isn't a gen'leman wot undertakes in all Globe Town, or from Bonner's Fields down to Mile End Gate, that I'd sooner  obleege than yourself," said Jones, the grave-digger; "but if so be I transgresses my orders —"
    "Who will know it?" interrupted Banks. "You have whole and sole charge of the ground; and it can't be often that the proprietors come to trouble you."
    "Well, sir, there is summut in that —"
    "And then, instead of five shillings for yourself, I should not hesitate to make it ten —"
    "That's business, Mr. Banks. How deep must the grave be?"
    "How deep is it already?"
    "A matter of nine feet, sir," said Jones. 
    "Then not another hinch must you move," cried the undertaker, emphatically; "and here's the ten bob as an earnest."
    Mr. Banks accordingly counted ten shillings Into the hands of the grave-digger.
    "When's the funeral a-coming, sir?" asked Jones, after a pause.
    "At two precisely," replied Mr Banks.
    "Rale parson, or von of your men as usual?" continued the grave-digger, inquiringly.
    "Oh, a friend of mine - a wery pious, savoury, soul-loving wessel, Jones - a man that it'll do your heart good to hear. But, I say, Jones," added the undertaker, "you're getting uncommon full here."
    "Yes, full enow, sir; but I makes room."
     "I see you do," said Banks, glancing towards the fire: "what a offensive smell it makes."
    "And would you believe that I can scarcely support it myself sometimes, Mr. Banks?" returned Jones. " But, arter all, our ground isn't so bad as some others in London."
    "I know it isn't," observed the undertaker.
    "Now ain't it a odd thing, sir," continued the grave-digger, "that persons which dwells up in decent neighbourhoods like, and seems exceedin' proud of their fine houses and handsome shops, shouldn't notice the foul air that comes from places only hid by a low wall or a thin paling?"
    "It is indeed odd enough," said Mr. Banks.
    "Well, I knows the diggers in some o' the yard. more west," continued Jones, " and I've heard from them over and over agin that they pursues just the wery same course as we does here - has a Bone House or some such conwenient place, and burns the coffins and bones that is turned up."
    "I suppose it is necessary, Jones?" observed Mr. Banks.
    "Necessary, sir? in course it be," exclaimed the grave-digger. "On'y fancy wot a lot of burials takes place every year in London; and room must be made for 'em somehow or other."
    "Ah! I know something about that," said the undertaker. "Calkilations have been made which proves that the average life of us poor weak humans [-326-] creeturs is thirty-five years; so, if London contains a million and a half of people, a million and a half of persons dies, and is buried in the course of every thirty-five years. Isn't that a fine thing for them that's in the undertaking line? cause it's quite clear that there's a million and a half of funerals in every thirty-five years in this blessed city."
    "And a million and a half of graves or waults rekvired," said Jones. "Well, then, who the deuce can blame us for burning up the old 'uns to make room for the new 'uns?"
    "Who, indeed?" echoed Mr. Banks. "T'other day I had an undertaking, which was buried in Enon Chapel, Saint Clement's Lane, - down there by Lincoln's Inn, you know. The chapel's surrounded by houses, all okkipied by poor people, and the stench is horrid. The fact is, that the chapel's divided into two storeys: the upper one is the preaching place; and the underneath one is the burial place. There's only a common boarded floor to separate 'em. You go down by a trap-door in the floor; and pits is dug below for the coffins. Why at one end the place is so full, that the coffins is piled up till they touch the ceiling - that is, the floor of the chapel itself, and there's only a few inches of earth over 'em. The common sewer runs through the place; so, what with that and the coffins and carkisses, it's a nice hole."
    "Wuss than this?" said Jones.
    "Of course it is," returned Banks; "'cause at all ewents this is out in the open air, while t'other's shut up and close. But I'll tell you what it is, Jones," continued the undertaker, sinking his voice as if he were afraid of being overheard by a stranger, "the people that lives in that densely-populated quarter about Saint Clement's Lane, exists in the midst of a pestilence. Why they breathe nothing but the putrid stench of the Enon burial-place, the Green Ground in Portugal Street, and the Alms-House burying ground down at the bottom of the Lane."
    "All that'll breed a plague von o'these days in the werry middle of London," observed Jones.
    "Not a doubt of it," said the undertaker. "But I haven't done yet all I had to say about that quarter. Wery soon after a burial takes place at Enon Chapel, a queer-looking, long, narrow, black fly crawls out of the coffin. It is a production of the putrefaction of the dead body. But what do you think? Next season this fly is succeeded by another kind of insect just like the common bug, and with wings. The children that go to Sunday-school at the Chapel calls 'em 'body bugs.' Them insects is seen all through the summer flying or crawling about the Chapel. All the houses that overlooks the Chapel is infested with rats; and if a poor creetur only hangs a bit of meat out of his window in the summer time, in a few hours it grows putrid."
    "Well, Mr. Banks, sir," said Jones, after reflecting profoundly for some moments, "it's wery lucky that you ain't one o'them chaps which writes books and nonsense."
    "Why so, Jones?"
    "'Cos if you was to print all that you've been tellin' me, you'd make the fortunes of them new cemetries that's opened all round London, and the consekvence would be that the grounds in London would have to shut up shop."
    "Very true, Jones. But what I'm saying to you now is only in confidence, and by way of chat. Why, do you know that the people round about the burying grounds in London - this one as well as any other - have seen the walls of their rooms covered at times with a sort of thick fatty fluid, which produces a smell that's quite horrid! Look at that burying place in Drury Lane. It a so full of blessed carkisses, that the ground is level with the first-floor windows of the houses round it."
    "Well, it's a happy thing to know that the world don't trouble themselves with these here matters," said Jones. "Thank God! in my ground I clears and clears away coffins and bodies both alike, as quick as I turns 'em up. Lord! what a sight of coffin nails I sells every month to the marine-store dealers; and yet people passes by them shops and sees second-hand coffin furniture put out for sale, and never thinks of how it got there, and where it come from."
    "Of course they don't," cried Banks. "What the devil do you think would become of a many trades if people always wondered, and wondered how they supported theirselves?"
    "You speaks like a book, Mr. Banks, sir," said Jones. "Arter all, I've often thought wot a fool I am not to sell the coffin-wood for fuel, as most other grave-diggers does in grounds that's obleeged to be cleared of the old 'uns to make room for the new 'uns. But, I say, Mr. Banks, sir, I've often been going to ask you a question about summut, and I've always forgot it; but talkin' of these things puts me in mind of it. What's the reason, sir, that gen'lemen in the undertaking line wery often bores holes right through the coffins?"
    "That's what we call 'tapping the coffin,' Jones," answered Mr. Banks; "and we do it whenever a body a going to remain at home two or three days with the coffin-lid screwed down, before the funeral takes place. Poor people generally buries on Sunday: well, p'raps the coffin's took home on Wednesday or Thursday, and then the body's put in and the lid's screwed tight down at once to save trouble when Sunday comes. Then we tap the coffin to let out the gas; cause there is a gas formed by the decomposition of dead bodies." * [* The products of ordinary combustion are sufficiently poisonous. The gases produced by the decomposition of the dead are partially soluble in water; and a fatty pellicle is instantly formed in large quantities. The wood, saturated with these dissolved gases, and used as fuel (a frequent occurrence in poor neighbourhoods, and in the vicinity of metropolitan graveyards), must diffuse, in addition to the exhalations constantly given off from bodies in vaults, and on the earth's surface, vast volumes of gaseous poison. Hence many of those maladies whose source, symptoms, and principle. defy medical experience either to explain or cure.]
    "Well, all that's a cut above me," said Jones. "And now I must get back to work —"
    "Not at that grave, mind," interrupted the undertaker. "It musn't be another hinch deeper."
    "Not a bit, sir - I ain't a goin' to touch it: but I've got another place to open; so here goes."
    With these words the grave-digger rose from his seat, and walked slowly out of the Bone-House.
    "At two o'clock, Jones, I shall be here with the funeral," said Mr. Banks.
    "Wery good, sir," returned Jones.
    The undertaker then left the burial-ground; and the grave-digger proceeded to open another pit.

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