The Bone Magician, Page 2F. E. Higgins
And he knew what sort lived in them, the sort who spent their money on frivolous things, for idle amusement to alleviate their boredom. And this money was not worked for. God forbid that those perfumed men over the water with their frilled cuffs and silken breeches might have to do a day’s honest toil. And as for their good ladies, with their noses in the air and their skirts so wide they couldn’t fit though a door, well, by all accounts, daily they took their ease, drinking tea, drawing and singing. No, their wealth in the main was inherited but that was no guarantee it was come upon honestly. Money wasn’t the only thing the rich inherited. The duplicity of generations was in their blood. Perhaps they didn’t commit the same crimes as took place nightly over the river – the rich liked to keep their hands clean – but they still stole from their fellow man and murdered, just in a more sophisticated way and usually with a polite smile on their faces.
‘It might be a fine thing to live over the river,’ thought Pin, ‘but I wonder, is it better to be in a beautiful house looking at an ugly one, or to be in an ugly house looking at a beautiful one?’
Yes, he thought, as he descended carefully to the sticky black mud below, life on this side is harsh and dirty and noisy, but for all its unpleasantness, there was an honesty of sorts among the southerners. You knew what they were from looking at them. They couldn’t hide it beneath fine clothes and words.
The tide was out but on the turn. Pin made his way as quickly as he could to the water’s edge. It was not unusual to find sailors’ trinkets in the mud, fallen from the ships, but tonight Pin was in a hurry and wasn’t looking. He took from his pocket a small two-handled glass phial and removed the cork. Holding one handle delicately between thumb and forefinger, he dipped it just under the surface and dragged it along until it was full of the dark water. Then he corked it carefully and ran back to the steps.
The smell of the Foedus was renowned far and wide but, exposed to something on a daily basis, a person can get used to most things. It was a rare day in Urbs Umida that the stench was so bad people actually remarked upon it. There is a theory that over time native Urbs Umidians developed a sort of immunity to the smell. This theory might also account for their apparent ability to eat rotting food with impunity. If you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it. For Pin, however, this was not the case. He had a sensitive nose and was acutely aware of the most subtle changes in the river’s odour.
By the time Pin reached the churchyard it was snowing heavily. He passed through the gates, head down, narrowly avoiding a young girl who was coming out. She held up her pale hands in fright. Pin caught the faintest scent as he brushed past her, sweeter than one would have expected, and felt moved to mumble an apology before going on through.
As a place of burial St Mildred’s was almost as old as the City itself. Like a bottomless pit, it held far more people below than was indicated by the headstones above. This was not as difficult as it sounded for the earth was unusually wet and acidic. These factors combined to speed up the process of decomposition considerably. Given that the churchyard was on a hill, all these decaying juices seeped underground down the slope into the Foedus. Just one more ingredient to add to her toxic soup. It was not unknown for bodies to be skeletal within a matter of months – a phenomenon that was often talked about in the Nimble Finger Inn by those in the know.
But Pin wasn’t thinking of rotting bodies as he made his way between the uneven rows of headstones. He walked purposefully until he reached a small unmarked wooden cross. It was leaning to the left and he tried to right it with some difficulty for the earth was frozen solid. A small posy of dried white flowers, stiff with the cold, lay at the base of the cross and he picked them up before hunkering down in the snow.
‘Well, Mother,’ he said softly, ‘I haven’t been for a while, and I’m sorry about that, but Mr Gaufridus is keeping me busy. I’m working again tonight. You know, I’d rather do that than spend a night at Barton Gumbroot’s. He’s a sly one, always asking about Father. Is he coming back? Did he really do it? I don’t know what to say.’
Pin paused after each question, almost as if expecting an answer, but none was forthcoming. So he sat there shivering, oblivious to the thickening snowflakes, turning the flowers over and over in his hand.
A Death in the Family
It was almost two months ago now, back in early January, but Pin still remembered coming home that night as if it was only yesterday. He knew as soon as he went up the stairs that something wasn’t right. He could hear excited voices and exaggerated sobbing and when he reached the landing there was a small crowd gathered outside his room. He recognized some of their faces, the lady from the room next door, the chimney sweep from across the corridor, the washerwoman from downstairs. When Pin saw the looks on their faces he felt cold fear. He pushed through the crowd into the room to see a lifeless figure sprawled on the floor in front of the empty fireplace. A stout man in dark clothing was leaning over the body.
‘Father?’ Pin’s voice trembled.
The man looked up and asked officiously, ‘Are you Pin Carpue?’
‘And is this your father?’ He moved to one side and the face of the dead man was fully revealed. Pin swallowed hard and forced himself to look. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s my uncle, Uncle Fabian. But I do not care for him.’
‘You’re not the only one by the looks of things,’ said the man as he drew himself up to his full height and coughed self-importantly. He took out a small black notebook and a piece of charcoal. Pin now knew him to be Mr George Coggley, the local constable.
‘What happened to him?’ asked Pin.
‘Strangled, more’n likely,’ said Coggley. ‘His eyes are near out of his head. Where is your father, son?’
‘I don’t know,’ replied Pin cautiously. He looked around at the people all staring at him.
‘If you know where he is, you must tell me, otherwise you’ll be in trouble.’
‘Cos we reckons it’s ’im what done this,’ chipped in the washerwoman almost gleefully. ‘’E was seen runnin’ orf.’ She had never liked Pin or his father, the way they considered themselves above everyone else. As for his mother, who did she think she was, God rest her soul, coming over the Bridge to live here? There was no place for northerners on this side of the river. They just didn’t fit in.
‘Running away from the scene of a crime,’ admonished Constable Coggley. ‘He’s our man.’
‘I knew he’d come to a bad end,’ muttered someone else. ‘Allus the same wiv these people, ideas above ’is station, never done no one any good.’
Pin stood in the midst of the mumblings and accusations, speechless and bemused. Right now he hated them all, with their sly looks and snide remarks. He knew what they thought of his father. It was as plain as the crooked noses and squint eyes on their ugly faces. Pin had learned early that he was different. The children on the street teased him relentlessly, because his mother was from a wealthy family, because she spoke with the soft vowels of the north and not the harsh grating voices of the southerners. But what they resented most of all was that the Carpues claimed to be poor, just like the rest of them. What nonsense, they exclaimed! How could a lady with such manners and airs not have money? And what other reason would Oscar Carpue possibly have for marrying her? It didn’t help that Uncle Fabian kept turning up dressed in his finery (though his pockets were empty). Oscar had sent him away time and time again. ‘We have nothing for you,’ he said.
The torment had continued even after his mother’s death the previous year. After that people chose to resent the fact that Oscar Carpue wouldn’t share his inheritance with his neighbours. ‘I have no inheritance,’ he told them more than once. ‘I’m only a carpenter. We’re penniless.’
But he never convinced them, and now Fabian was dead, murdered, and once again fingers were pointing at Oscar Carpue. Pin spent the next week scouring the streets day and night, but there was
no sign of his father and no word from him. The week after that Pin had to leave the lodging house. Not only could he no longer afford it on his own, but neither was he welcome. He spent ten miserable days looking for work, finally taken on by Mr Gaufridus. Thus he was able to take a room at Barton’s, though it was his greatest desire to leave there . . .
Pin shivered, brought back to reality by a large snowflake that landed between his neck and the collar of his coat. The quarter-hour rang out and he jumped up.
‘I’ve got to go now, Mother,’ he said. ‘I can’t be late for Mr Gaufridus or he will find another boy to take my place. He says there are plenty out there willing and I believe him. People will do anything for money in this city. I won’t leave it so long next time, I promise.’
He touched the cross lightly, then turned and ran quickly and nimbly through the graves and out of the churchyard, running all the way to Melancholy Lane, where he finally came to a breathless halt beneath a sign that read:
MASTER COFFIN MAKERS & UNDERTAKERS
In a city where merely to be born was considered the first step towards dying, it is fair to say that Goddfrey Gaufridus, coffin maker and undertaker, had a relationship with death that was closer than most.
Although the business of undertaking was generally considered profitable (customers were guaranteed), Goddfrey hadn’t always wished to deal so closely with the dead. At the age of fifteen Goddfrey was struck down by a mysterious illness, which rendered him incapable of speech or movement for nearly three months. He spent those three months lying on his back in bed. After a week his mother and father, realizing his was a condition that might be permanent, thought it best to carry on as normal.
Worn out by the torture of being able to do little other than think (and what thoughts he had in those drear months!) Goddfrey fell asleep one night and didn’t wake up. By the third day his mother was quite convinced that he was dead.
She asked Goddfrey’s father to the room and they stood over him for some ten minutes. ‘I believe he is gone,’ said Mr Gaufridus, and they called upon their neighbour to confirm this, the physician being too expensive, and then arranged the burial.
As was often the case at that time, and luckily for Goddfrey, the undertaker proved to be rather less than honest; he quietly sold the boy’s still unmoving body to the Urbs Umida School of Anatomy and Surgical Procedures and buried a sand-filled coffin. On the fifth day of his sleep, Goddfrey, fully rested by now, awoke to find himself flat out on the surgeon’s table in an exhibition theatre. A shining scalpel was suspended above his head and the surgeon was just about to plunge the blade into his chest (strangely enough it was the way the light reflected off the blade that made the greatest impression on Goddfrey and in later years similar flickering light brought back uncomfortable memories), and thus stimulated, Goddfrey summoned up every ounce of strength he had and managed to emit a whistle.
‘I think your corpse is alive,’ shouted one of the audience, a medical student who had just further confirmed his reputation for stating the obvious. Goddfrey was taken home to his grieving parents who, failing to understand how he made the transition from the grave to the surgeon’s table, nevertheless welcomed him with open arms. It wasn’t exactly the journey they had thought ahead of him, but they preferred not to think on it for too long, and within a couple of days he was back to his old self.
Well, not quite. The strange disease had one legacy: facial paralysis. Poor Goddfrey had only limited use of his facial muscles with the result that his expression (sleepy) was now constant. He could neither smile nor frown, laugh nor cry – at least not in a way that was immediately obvious – and he could only speak through gritted teeth.
After his narrow escape at the School of Anatomy, Goddfrey was determined that what had so nearly happened to him would not happen to anyone else. He became an apprentice to the local undertaker and took over the business when his master died. Over the next few years Goddfrey Gaufridus gained a reputation as a man who could be trusted not to bury the living. This was chiefly because he put a great deal of time and effort into ascertaining that his charges were most definitely dead in the first place.
This might sound a little odd, but it must be remembered that in Goddfrey’s day it was not as easy as you might think to determine that a person had actually departed this life for good. Apart from looking for breath on a mirror or listening to an often indeterminate heartbeat, there was little else a physician could do. Many times as he lay in his seemingly unconscious state had Goddfrey mused that if only someone had invented some mechanism, some sort of tool, that could indicate whether or not he was alive, then he would not have suffered as he did. He vowed that if he ever revived he would be that person.
So that is what he set out to do. But inventing and undertaking at the same time proved to be quite burdensome, so Goddfrey decided that he needed an assistant, and he put a small card in the window. Pin, by virtue of the fact that he could read – a skill passed on by his mother – was the only applicant for the job.
On the appointed day, Mr Gaufridus took Pin on a tour of the premises. The shop at street level had on display both the most expensive and the cheapest of Mr Gaufridus’s coffin models, readily distinguished one from the other by the gloss or lack of it on the wood and the fittings. In a large double-fronted cupboard he kept a selection of goods available to hire for the funeral, including palls, dark suits, veils and black gloves, horse plumes, invitation cards for the ceremony and a tray of funeral rings in the shape, naturally, of a skull.
Mr Gaufridus then led Pin downstairs to a basement room where other coffins in a variety of shapes and sizes and colours, and at varying stages of completion, stood against every available wall. In the middle of the room was a substantial workbench, scattered with hammers, nails, lathes and all manner of carpentry tools. The floor was covered with wood shavings and curls and sawdust. The walls were adorned with a huge array of brass and metal fixings, hinges, rims, name plates, handles and all the coffin paraphernalia you could think of.
All this looked perfectly normal to Pin and when Mr Gaufridus led him to another room, he could not be blamed for expecting more of the same.
‘Here we are,’ Goddfrey had said proudly, opening the door. ‘The Cella Moribundi. The waiting room of the dead.’
Pin stood in the doorway and looked in. The concept of a Cella Moribundi, a room where the dead lay before being buried, was by no means alien to him or any other Urbs Umidian. It was a long-held tradition in the City, of now unknown origin, that a body must lie for three days and nights before burial. There was a saying in Urbs Umida: ‘If in doubt, see three days out.’ Pin thought back to his mother’s death and the long hours he and his father had spent sitting with her corpse in their lodging house. They had not been able to afford Mr Gaufridus.
The room itself was smaller than the workshop and considerably cooler. In the centre there was a high table (vacant at that time) above which was suspended a peculiar mechanism consisting of strings and cogs, wheels and levers, and a recently oiled chain. There were numerous shelves and a set of narrow scientific drawers, displayed above which was a collection of what could only be described as instruments of torture.
‘What on earth is all this?’ asked Pin, looking around in amazement. This was unlike any Cella Moribundi he had ever heard of.
Goddfrey frowned, by which I mean his left and right eyebrows moved fractionally towards each other.
‘‘‘All this’’ as you put it, is the result of years of work on my part for the benefit of the living and the dead.’
Pin was hardly any more enlightened.
‘My dear boy,’ said Goddfrey through his gritted teeth, ‘imagine the most terrible thing you can and then think how it would be if it was ten times worse.’
Pin thought for a moment. ‘To fall in the Foedus and to swallow some of her w
ater,’ he said with a degree of prescience.
‘Hmm,’ murmured Mr Gaufridus, ‘that indeed is a terrible thing, but can you imagine something worse?’
Pin could – it involved Barton Gumbroot – and he told him, but it still wasn’t quite bad enough. Finally Mr Gaufridus leaned close and supplied the answer, in the form of a question.
‘Boy, can you imagine anything worse than being buried alive?’
Pin felt a shiver ripple down his spine and he shook his head. Mr Gaufridus appeared not to be watching because he continued unabated, circling the table and waving his arms about in a manner that was at odds with his expression.
‘Imagine waking from a peaceful sleep to find yourself in complete and utter darkness. You reach out for the candle that you know is on the table beside you, but your hand is halted in mid-air by something hard on every side. You try to move but you can barely turn over. Confusion sets in before the terrible realization that this isn’t a dream, that you aren’t in bed, but in your coffin.’
Pin’s teeth began to chatter. The temperature really was significantly lower in this room. Mr Gaufridus, however, showed no sign of stopping. Not a trace of emotion was evident on his face, but his eyes seemed to sparkle. There is no denying that he derived a strange sort of pleasure from reliving in part the nightmare of his youthful ordeal.
‘What agonies you would suffer, lying there, hardly able to move. Doubtless you would try to stay calm, to conserve the air, because you would still hope that someone was going to find you. But as the hours, the days passed by, you would realize that no one can hear your shouts, your screams, your sobs. Imagine knowing that only two fates await you – death by lack of oxygen or death by starvation. You would clutch at your throat, gasping for every breath. Then as the final hours went by you would be gripped by hunger that can never be sated and by a terrible thirst that cannot be quenched.’