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"I hope I'll not be disturber" ye, sair," this visitor said. He was twisting a cheap cloth cap restlessly in his hands, and in the light cast by the lamp Geoffrey held up, his face looked lined and yellow and terribly worried - frightened, even. "It's just that I didn't want to go to Dr. Bookings, nor did I want to disturb His Lordship. Not, at least, until I'd spoken to you, if ye take my meaning, sair. " Geoffrey didn't, but quite suddenly he did know one thing - who this late-coming visitor was. The mention of Dr. Bookings, the C of E Minister, had done it. Three days ago Dr. Bookings had performed Misery's few last rites in the churchyard which lay behind the rectory, and this fellow had been there - but lurking considerately in the background, where he was less apt to be noticed.
His name was Colter. He was one of the church sextons. To be brutally frank, the man was a gravedigger.
"Colter," he said. "What can I do for you?" Colter spoke hesitantly. "It's the noises, sair. The noises in the churchyard. Her Ladyship rests not easy, sair, so she doesn't, and I'm afeard. I - " Geoffrey felt as if someone had punched him in the midsection. He pulled in a gasp of air and hot pain needled his side, where his ribs had beers tightly taped by Dr. Shinebone. Shinebone's gloomy assessment had been that Geoffrey would almost certainly take pneumonia after lying in that ditch all night in the chilly rain, but three days had passed and there had been no onset of fever and coughing. He had known there would not be; God did not let off the guilty so easily. He believed that God would let him live to perpetuate his poor lost darling's memory for a long, long time.
"Are ye all "right, sair?" Colter asked. "I heard ye were turrible bunged up t'other night. "" He paused. "The night herself died. "
"I'm fine," Geoffrey said slowly. "Colter, these sounds you say you hear. . . you know they are just imaginings, don't you?" Colter looked shocked.
"Imaginings?" he asked. "Sair! Next ye'll be tellin me ye have no belief in Jesus and the life everlastin'! Why, didn't Duncan Fromsley see old man Patterson not two days after his funeral, glowin" just as white as marsh-fire (which was just what it probably was, Geoffrey thought, marsh-fire plus whatever came out of old Fromsley's last bottle)? And ain't half the bleedin" town seen that old Papist monk that walks the battlements of Ridgeheath Manor? They even sent down a coupler ladies from the bleedin" London Psychic Society to look inter that "un!" Geoffrey knew the ladies Colter meant; a Couple of hysterical beldames probably suffering from the alternate calms and monsoons of midlife, both as dotty as a child's Draw-It-Name-It puzzle.
"Ghosts are just as real as you or me, sair," Colter was saying earnestly. "I don't mind the idea of them - but these noises are fearsome spooky, so they are, and I hardly even like to go near the churchyard - and I have to dig a grave for the little Roydman babe tomorrow, so I do. " Geoffrey said an inward prayer for patience. The urge to bellow at this poor sexton was almost insurmountable. He had been dozing peacefully enough in front of his own fire with a book in his lap when Colter came, waking him up. . . and he was coming more and more awake all the time, and at every second the dull sorrow settled more deeply over him, the awareness that his darling was gone. She was three days in her grave, soon to be a week. . . a month. . . a year. . . ten years. The sorrow, he thought, was like a rock on the shoreline of the ocean. When one was sleeping it was as if the tide was in, and there was some relief. Sleep was like a tide which covered the rock of grief. When one woke, however, the tide began to go out and soon the rock was visible again, a barnacle-encrusted thing of inarguable reality, a thing which would be there forever, or until God chose to wash it away.
And this fool dared to come here and prate of ghosts!
But the man's face looked so wretched that Geoffrey was able to control himself.
"Miss Misery - Her Ladyship - was much 1oved, " Geoffrey said quietly.
"Aye, sair, so she was," Colter agreed fervently. He switched custody of his cloth cap to his left hand solely, and with his right produced a giant red handkerchief from his pocket. He honked mightily into it, his eyes watering.
"All of us sorrow at her passing. " Geoffrey's hands went to his shirt and rubbed the heavy muslin wrappings beneath it restlessly.
"Aye, so we do, sair, so we do. " Colter's words were muffled in the handkerchief, but Geoffrey could see his eyes; the man was really, honestly weeping. The last of his own selfish anger dissolved in pity. "She were a good lady, sair! Aye, she were a great lady, and it is a turrible thing the way His Lordship's took on about it - "
"Aye, she was fine," Geoffrey said gently, and found to his dismay that his own tears were now close, like a cloudburst which threatens on a late summer's afternoon. "And sometimes, Colter, when someone especially fine passes away - someone especially dear to us all - we find it hard to let that someone go. So we may imagine that they have not gone. Do you follow me?"
"Aye, sair!" Colter said eagerly. "But these sounds. . . sair, if ye heard them!" Patiently, Geoffrey said: "What sort of sounds do you mean?" He thought Colter would then speak of sounds which might, be no more than the wind in the trees, sounds amplified by his own imagination, of course - or perhaps a badger bumbling its way down to Little Dunthorpe Stream, which lay behind the churchyard. And so he was hardly prepared when Colter whispered in an affrighted voice: "Scratchin" sounds, sair! It sounds as if she were still alive down there and tryin" to work her way back up to the land o" the livin", so it does!"
Fifteen minutes later, alone again, Geoffrey approached the dinning-room sideboard. He was reeling from side to side like a main negotiating the foredeck of a ship in a gale. He felt like a man in a gale. He might have believed that the fever Dr. Shinebone had almost gleefully predicted had come on him at last, and with a vengeance, but it wasn't fever which had simultaneously brought wild red roses to his cheeks and tugged his forehead to the color of candlewax, not fever which made his hands shake so badly that he almost dropped the decanter of brandy as he brought it out of the sideboard.
If there was a chance - the slightest chance - that the monstrous idea Colter had planted in his mind was true, then he had no business pausing here at all. But he felt that without a drink he might fall swooning to the floor.
Geoffrey Alliburton did something then he had never done before in his whole life; something he clever did again. He lifted the decanter directly to his mouth, and drank from the neck.
Then he stepped back, and whispered: "We shall see about this. We shall see about this, by heaven. And if I go on this insane errand only to discover nothing at the end of it but an old gravedigger's imagination after all, I will have goodman Colter's earlobes on my watch chain, no matter how much he loved Misery. "
He took the pony-trap, driving under an eerie, not-quite-dark sky where a three-quarters moon ducked restlessly in and out between racing reefs of cloud. He had paused to throw on the first thing in the downstairs hall closet which came to hand - this turned out to be a dark-maroon smoking jacket. The tails blew out behind him as he whipped Mary on. The elderly mare did not like the speed upon which he was insisting; Geoffrey did not like the deepening pain in his shoulder and side. . . but the pain of neither could be helped.
Scratchin" sounds, sair! It sounds as if she were still alive down there and tryin" to work her way back up to the land of the livin'!
This by itself would not have put him in a state of near-terror - but he remembered coming to Calthorpe Manor the day after Misery's death. He and Ian had looked at each other, and Ian had tried to smile, although his eyes were gemlike with unshed tears.
"It would somehow be easier," Ian had said, "if she looked. . . looked more dead. I know how that sounds - "
"Bosh," Geoffrey had said, trying to smile. "The undertaker doubtless exercised all his wit and - "
"Undertaker!" Ian nearly screamed, and for the first time Geoffrey had truly understood that his friend was tottering on the brink of
madness. "Undertaker! Ghoul! I've had no undertaker and I will have no undertaker to come in and rouge my darling and paint her like a doll!"
"Ian! My dear fellow! Really, you mustn't - " Geoffrey had made as if to clap Ian on the shoulder and somehow that had turned into an embrace. The two men wept in each other's arms like tired children, while in some other room Misery's child, a boy now almost a day old and still unnamed, awoke and began to cry. Mrs. Ramage, whose own kindly heart was broken, began to sing it a cradle song in a voice cracked and full of tears.
At the time, deeply afraid for Ian's sanity, he had been less concerned with what Ian had said than how he had said it - only now, as he whipped Mary ever faster toward Little Dunthorpe in spite of his own deepening pain, did the words come back, haunting in light of Colter's tale: If she looked more dead. If she looked more dead, old chap.
Nor was that all. Late that afternoon, as the first of the village people had begun wending their way up Calthorpe Hill to pay their respects to the grieving lord, Shinebone had returned. He had looked tired, not very well himself; nor was this surprising in a man who claimed to have shaken hands with Wellington - the Iron Duke himself - when he (Shinebone, not Wellington) had been a boy. Geoffrey thought the Wellington story was probably an exaggeration, but Old Shinny, as he and Tan had called him as boys, had see, Geoffrey through all his childhood illnesses, and Shinny had seemed a very old man to him, even then. Always granting the eye of childhood, which tends to see anyone over the age of twenty-five as elderly, he thought Shinny must be a11 of seventy-five now.
He was old. . . he'd had a hectic, terrible last twenty-four hours. . . and might not an old, tired marl have made a mistake?
A terrible, unspeakable mistake?
It was this thought more than any other which had seat him out on this cold and windy night, under a moon which stuttered uncertainly between the clouds.
Could he have made such a mistake? Part of him, a craven, cowardly part which would rather risk losing Misery forever than look upon the inevitable results of such a mistake, denied it. But when Shinny came in. . .
Geoffrey had been sitting by Ian, who was remembering in a broken, scarcely coherent way how he and Ian had rescued Misery from the palace dungeons of the mad French viscount Leroux, how they had escaped in a wagonload of hay, and how Misery distracted one of the viscounts guards at a critics moment by slipping one gorgeously unclad leg out of the hay and waving it delicately. Geoffrey had been chiming in his own memories of the adventure, wholly in the grip of his grief by then, and he cursed that grief how, because to him (and to Ian as well, he supposed), Shinny had barely been there.
Hadn't Shinny seemed strangely distant, strangely preoccupied? Was it only weariless, or had it been something else. . . something suspicion. . . ?
No, surely not, his mind protested uneasily. The pony-trap was flying up Calthorpe Hill. The manor house itself was dark, but - ah, good! - there was still a single light on in Mrs. Ramage's cottage.
"Hup, Mary!" he cried, and cracked the whip, wincing. Not much further, girl, and you can rest a bit!" Surely, surely not what you're thinking!!
But Shinny's examination of Geoffrey's broken ribs and sprained shoulder had seemed purely perfunctory, and he had spoken barely a word to Ian, in spite of the man's deep grief and frequent incoherent cries. No - after a visit which now seemed no longer than the most minimal sort of social convention would demand, Shinny had asked quietly: "Is she -?"
"Yes, in the parlor," Ian had managed. "My poor darling lies in the parlor. Kiss her for me, Shinny, and tell her I'll be with her soon!" Ian then had burst into tears again, and after muttering some half-heard word of condolence, Shinny had passed into the parlor. It now seemed to Geoffrey that the old sawbones had been in there a rather long time. . . or perhaps that was only faulty recollection. But when he came out he had looked almost cheerful, and there was nothing faulty about this recollection, Geoffrey felt sure - that expression was too out of place in that room of grief and tears, a room where Mrs. Ramage had already hung the black funerary curtains.
Geoffrey had followed the old doctor but and spoke hesitantly to him in the kitchen. He hoped, he said, that the doctor would prescribe a sleeping powder for Ian, who really did seem quite ill.
Shinny had seemed completely distracted, however. "It's not a bit like Miss Evelyn-Hyde," he said. "I have satisfied myself of that. " And he had returned to his caleche without so much as a response to Geoffrey's question. Geoffrey went back inside, already forgetting the doctor's odd remark, already chalking Shinny's equally odd behavior off to age, weariless, and his own sort of grief. His thoughts had turned to Ian again, and he determined that, with no sleeping powder forthcoming, he would simply have to pour whiskey down Ian's throat until the poor fellow passed out.
Forgetting. . . dismissing.
It's not a bit like Miss Evelyn-Hyde. I have satisfied myself of that.
Geoffrey did not know, but he intended to find out, no matter what the cost to his sanity might be - and he recognized that the cost might be high.
Mrs. Ramage was still up when Geoffrey began to hammer on the cottage door, although it was already two hours past her normal bedtime. Since Misery had passed away, Mrs. Ramage found herself putting her bedtime further and further back. If she could got put an end to her restless tossing and turning, she could at least postpone the moment at which she began it.
Although she was the most levelheaded and practical of women, the sudden outburst of knocking startled a little scream from her, and she scalded herself with the hot milk she had been pouring from pot to cup. Lately she seemed always on edge, always on the verge of a scream. It was not grief, this feeling, although she was nearly overwhelmed with grief - this was a strange, thundery feeling that she couldn't ever remember having before. It sometimes seemed to her that thoughts better left unrecognized were circling around her, just beyond the grasp of her weary, bitterly sad mind.
"Who knocks at ten?" she cried at the door. "Whoever it is, I thank ye not for the burn I've given m'self!"
"It's Geoffrey, Mrs. Ramage! Geoffrey Alliburton! Open the door, for God's sake!" Mrs. Ramage's mouth dropped open and she was halfway to the door before she remembered she was in her nightgown and cap. She had never heard Geoffrey sound so, and would not have believed it if someone had told her of it. If there was a man in all England with a heart stouter than that of her beloved My Lord, then it was Geoffrey - yet his voice trembled like the voice of a woman on the verge of hysterics.