< previous chapter <  |  THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON  |  > next chapter >


[-125-]    

CHAPTER XLIV.

THE BODY-SNATCHERS

 THE Resurrection Man, the Cracksman, and the Buffer hastened rapidly along the narrow lanes and filthy alleys leading towards Shoreditch Church. They threaded their way in silence, through the jet-black darkness of the night, and without once hesitating as to the particular turnings which they were to follow. Those men were as familiar with that neighbourhood as a person can be with the rooms and passages in his own house.
    At length the body-snatchers reached the low wall surmounted with a high railing which encloses Shoreditch churchyard. They were now at the back part of that burial ground, in a narrow and deserted street, whose dark and lonely appearance tended to aid their designs upon an edifice situated in one of the most populous districts in all London.
    For some minutes before their arrival an individual, enveloped in a long cloak, was walking up and down beneath the shadow of the wall.
    This was the surgeon, whose thirst after science had called into action the energies of the body-snatchers that night.
    The Cracksman advanced first, and ascertained that the surgeon had already arrived, and that the coast was otherwise clear.
    He then whistled in a low and peculiar manner; and his two confederates came up.
    "You have got all your tools?" said the surgeon in a hasty whisper.
    "Every one that we require," answered the Resurrection Man.
    " For opening a vault inside the church, mind?" added the surgeon. interrogatively.
    "You show us the vault, sir, and we'll soon have out the body," said the Resurrection Man.
    "All right," whispered the surgeon; " and my [-126-] own carriage will be in this street at three precisely. We shall have plenty of time -there's no one stirring till five, and its dark till seven."    
    The surgeon and the body-snatchers then scaled the railing, and in a few moments stood in the churchyard.    
    The Resurrection Man addressed himself to his two confederates and the surgeon, and said, " Do you lie snug under the wall here while I go forward and see how we must manage the door." With these words  he crept stealthily along, amidst the tomb-stones, towards the church.    
    The surgeon and the Cracksman seated themselves upon a grave close to the wall; and the Buffer threw himself flat upon his stomach, with his ear towards the ground. He remained in this position for some minutes, and then uttered a species of low growl as if be were answering some signal which caught his ears alone.   
    "The skeleton-keys won't open the side-door, the Resurrection Man says," whispered the Buffer, raising his head towards the surgeon and the Cracksman.
    He then laid his ear close to the ground once score, and resumed his listening posture.
    In a few minutes he again replied to a signal; and this time his answer was conveyed by means of a short sharp whistle.
    "It appears there is a bolt; and it will take a quarter of an hour to saw through the padlock that holds it," observed the Buffer in a whisper.
    Nearly twenty minutes elapsed after this announcement. The surgeon's teeth chattered with the intense cold; and he could not altogether subdue certain feelings of horror at the idea of the business which had brought him thither. The almost mute correspondence which those two men were enabled to carry on together - the methodical precision with which they performed their avocations - and the coolness they exhibited in undertaking a sacrilegious task, made a powerful impression upon his mind. He shuddered from head to foot:- his feelings of aversion were the same as he would have experienced had a loathsome reptile crawled over his naked flesh.
    "It a all right now!" suddenly exclaimed the Buffer, rising from the ground. " Come along."
    The surgeon and the Cracksman followed the Buffer to the southern side of the church where there was a flight of steps leading up to a side-door in a species of lobby, or lodge. This door was open; and the Resurrection Man was standing inside the lodge.
    As soon as they had all entered the sacred edifice, the door was carefully closed once more. 
   We have before said that the night was cold: but the interior of the church was of a chill so intense, that an icy feeling appeared to penetrate to the very back-bone. The wind murmured down the aisle; and every footstep echoed, like a hollow sound in the distance, throughout the spacious pile.
    "Now, sir," said the Resurrection Man to the surgeon, " it is for you to tell us whereabouts we are to begin."
    The surgeon groped his way towards the communion-table, and at the northern side or the railings which surrounded it he stopped short.
    " I must now be standing," he said, "upon the very stone which you are to remove. You can, however, soon ascertain; for the funeral only took place yesterday morning, and the mortar must be quite soft."
    The Resurrection Man stooped down, felt with his hand for the joints of the pavement in that particular spot, and thrust his knife between them.    
    "Yes," he said, after a few minutes' silence " this stone has only been put down a day or two. But do you wish, sir, that all traces of our work should disappear?"
    "Certainly! I would not for the world that the family of the deceased should learn that this tomb has been violated. Suspicion would immediately fall upon me; for it would be remembered how earnestly I desired to open the body, and how resolutely my request was refused."
    "We must use a candle, then, presently," said the Resurrection Man; "and that is the most dangerous part of the whole proceeding."
    "It cannot be helped, returned the surgeon," in a decided tone. " The fact that the side-door has been opened by unfair means must transpire in a day or two ; and search will then be made inside the church to ascertain whether those who have been guilty of the sacrilege were thieves or resurrection- men. You see, then, how necessary it is that there should remain no proofs of the violation of a tomb."
    " Well and good, sir," said the Resurrection Man. "You command - we obey. Now, then, my mates, to work."
    In a moment the Resurrection Man lighted a piece of candle, and placed it in the tin shade before alluded to. The glare which it shed was thereby thrown almost entirely downwards. He then carefully, and with surprising rapidity, examined the joints of the large flag-stone whirls was to be removed, and on which no inscription had yet been engraved. He observed the manner in which the mortar was laid down, and noticed even the places where it spread a little over the adjoining stones or where it was slightly deficient. This inspection being completed, he extinguished the light, and set to work in company with the Cracksman and the Buffer.
    The eyes of the surgeon gradually became accustomed to the obscurity; and be was enabled to observe to some extent the proceedings of the body. snatchers.
    These men commenced by pouring vinegar over the mortar round the stone which they were to raise. They then took long clasp-knives, with very thin and flexible blades, from their pockets ; and inserted them between the joints of the stones. They moved these knives rapidly backwards and forwards for a few seconds, so as effectually to loosen the mortar, and moistened the interstices several times with the vinegar. 
   This operation being finished, they introduced the thin and pointed end of a lever between the end of the stone which they were to raise and the one adjoining it. The Resurrection Man, who held the lever, only worked it very gently; but at every fresh effort on his part, the Cracksman and the Buffer introduced each a wedge of wood into the space which thus grew larger and larger. By these means, had the lever suddenly given way, the stone would not have fallen back into its setting. At length it was raised to a sufficient height to admit of its being supported by a thick log about three feet in length.
    While these three men were thus proceeding as expeditiously as possible with their task, the surgeon, although a man of a naturally strong mind, could not control the strange feelings which crept upon him, it suddenly appeared to him as if he beheld those men for the first time. That continuation of regular and systematic movements - that silent perseverance, faintly shadowed forth amidst the obscurity of the night, at length assumed so sin-[-127-]gular a character, that the surgeon felt as if he beheld three demons disinterring a doomed one to carry him off to hell!
     He was aroused from this painful reverie by the Resurrection Man, who said to him, "Come and help us remove the stone."
    The surgeon applied all his strength to this task; and the huge flag-stone was speedily moved upon two wooden rollers away from the mouth of the grave.
    "You are certain that this is the place?" said the Resurrection Man.
    "As certain as one can be who stood by the grave for a quarter of an hour in day-light, and who has to recognise it again in total darkness," answered the surgeon. " Besides, the mortar was soft —"
    "There might have been another burial close by," interrupted the Resurrection Man; "but we will soon find out whether you are right or not, sir. Was the coffin a wooden one?"
    "Yes! an elm coffin, covered with black cloth," replied the surgeon. "I gave the instructions for the funeral myself, being the oldest friend of the family."
   The Resurrection Man took one of the long flexible rods which we have before noticed, and thrust it down into the vault. The point penetrated into the lid of a coffin. He drew it back, put the point to his tongue, and tasted it.    "Yes," he said, smacking his lips, "the coffin in this vault is an elm one, and is covered with black cloth."
   "I thought I could not be wrong," observed the surgeon.
    The body-snatchers then proceeded to raise the coffin, by means of ropes passed underneath it. This was a comparatively easy portion of their task; and in a few moments it was placed upon the flag-stones of the church.
    The Resurrection Man took a chisel and opened the lid with considerable care. He then lighted his candle a second time; and the glare fell upon the pale features of the corpse in its narrow shell.
    "This is the right one," said the surgeon, casting a hasty glance upon the face of the dead body, which was that of a young girl of about sixteen.
    The Resurrection Man extinguished the light ; and he and his companions proceeded to lift the corpse out of the coffin.
    The polished marble limbs of the deceased were rudely grasped by the sacrilegious hands of the body-snatchers; and, having stripped the corpse stark asked, they tied its neck and heels together by means of a strong cord. They then thrust it into a large sack made for the purpose.
    The body-snatchers then applied themselves to the restoration of the vault to its original appearance.
    The lid of the coffin was carefully fastened down; and that now tenantless bed was lowered into the tomb. The stone was rolled over the mouth of the vault; and one of the small square boxes previously alluded to, furnished mortar wherewith to fill up the joints. The Resurrection Man lighted his candle a third time, and applied the cement in such a way that even the very workman who laid the stone down after the funeral would not have known that it had been disturbed. Then, as this mortar was a shade fresher and lighter than that originally used, the Resurrection Man scattered over it a thin brown powder, which was furnished by the second box brought away from his house on this occasion. Lastly, a light brush was swept over the scene of these operations, and the necessary precautions were complete.
   The clock struck three as the surgeon and the body-snatchers issued from the church, carrying the sack containing the corpse between them.
    They reached the wall at the back of the churchyard, and there deposited their burden, while the Cracksman hastened to see if the surgeon's carriage had arrived.
    In a few minutes he returned to the railing, and said in a low tone, "All right!"
    The body was lifted over the iron barrier and conveyed to the vehicle.    The surgeon counted ten sovereigns into the hands of each of the body-snatchers; and, having taken his seat inside the vehicle, close by his strange freight, was whirled rapidly away towards his own abode.
    The three body-snatchers retraced their steps to the house in the vicinity of the Bird-cage Walk and the Cracksman and Buffer, having deposited the implements of their avocation in the corner of the front room, took their departure.
    The moment the Resurrection Man was thus relieved from the observation of his companions, he seized the candle and hastened into the back room, where be expected to find the corpse of Richard Markham stripped and washed.
    To his surprise the room was empty.
    "What the devil has the old fool been up to?" he exclaimed : then, hastening to the foot of the stairs, he cried, "Mummy, are you awake?"
    In a few moments a door on the first floor opened, and the old woman appeared in her night gear at the head of the stairs.
    "Is that you, Tony?" she exclaimed.   
    "Yes! who the hell do you think it could be? But what have you done with the fresh 'un?"
    "The fresh 'un came alive again —" 
    "Gammon! Where is the money? how much was there? and is his skull fractured?" demanded the Resurrection Man.
    "I tell you that he came to his senses," returned the old hag: "and that he sprung upon me like a tiger when I went into the back room after you was gone."
    "Damnation! what a fool I was not to stick three inches of cold steel into him!" ejaculated the Resurrection Man, stamping his foot. "So I suppose he got clear away - money and all ?- gone, may be, to fetch the traps!"   "Don't alarm yourself, Tony," said the old hag, with a horrible cackling laugh; "he's safe enough, I'll warrant it!"
    "Safe! where - where?"
    "Where his betters have been afore him," answered the Mummy.
    "What! - in the well in the yard?" exclaimed the Resurrection Man, in a state of horrible suspense.
    "No - in the hole under the stairs."
    "Wretch! - drivelling fool! - idiot that you are!" cried the Resurrection Man in a voice of thunder:    "you decoyed him into the very place from which he was sure to escape!"
    "Escape!" exclaimed the Mummy, in a tone of profound alarm.
   "Yes - escape!" repeated the Resurrection Man. " Did I not tell you a month or more ago that the wall between the hole arid the saw-pit in the empty house next door had given way!"
    "No -  you never told me! I'll swear you never told me!" cried the old hag, now furious in her turn. "You only say so to throw all the blame on me: it's just like you."
    "Don't provoke me, mother!" said the Resurrection Man, grinding his teeth. " You know that I told you about the wall falling down; and you [-128-]  know that I spoke to you about not using the place any more!"
    "It's false!" exclaimed the Mummy.
    "It's true; for I said to you at the time that I must brick up the wall myself some night, before any new people take the carpenter's yard, or they might wonder what the devil we could want with a place under ground like that; and it would be the means of blowing us!"
    "It a a lie! you never told me a word about it," persisted the old harridan doggedly.
    "Perdition take you!" cried the man. "The affair of this cursed Markham will be the ruin of us both!"
    The Resurrection Man still had a hope left: the subterranean pit beneath the stairs was deep, and Markham might have been stunned by the fail.
    He hastened to the trap-door, and raised it. The vivid light of his candle was thrown to the very bottom of the pit by means of the bright reflector of tin.
    The hole was empty.
    Maddened by disappointment - a prey to the most terrible apprehensions - and uncertain whether to flee or remain in his den, the Resurrection Man paced the passage in a state of mind which would not have been envied by even a criminal on his way to execution.

< previous chapter <  |  THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON  |  > next chapter >