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"A minute, Mr. Geoffrey! I'm half-unclad!"
"Devil take it!" Geoffrey cried. "I don't care if you're starkers, Mrs. Ramage! Open this door! Open it in the name of Jesus!" She stood only a second, then went to the door, unbarred it, and threw it open. Geoffrey's look did more than stun her, and again she heard the dim thunder of black thoughts somewhere back in her head.
Geoffrey stood on the threshold of the housekeeper's cottage in an odd slanting posture, as if his spine had been warped out of shape by long years carrying a peddler's sack. His right hand was pressed between his left arm and left side. His hair was in a tangle. His dark-brown eyes burned out of his white face. His dress was remarkable for one as careful - dandified, some would have said - about his clothing as Geoffrey Alliburton usually was. He wore an old smoking jacket with the belt askew, an open-throated white shirt, and a pair of rough serge pants that would have looked more at home upon the legs of a itinerant gardener than upon those of the richest man in Little Dunthorpe. On his feet were a pair of threadbare slippers.
Mrs. Ramage, hardly dressed for a court ball herself in her long white nightgown and muskrat's-nightcap with the untied curling ribbons hanging around her face like the fringe on a lampshade, stared at him with mounting concern. He had re-injured the ribs he had broken riding after the doctor three nights ago, that was obvious, but it wasn't just pain that made his eyes blaze from his whitened face like that. It was terror, barely held in check.
Mr. Geoffrey! What - "
"No questions" he said hoarsely. "Not yet - not until you answer one question of my own. "
"What question?" She was badly frightened now, her left hand clenched into a tight fist just above her munificent bosom.
"Does the name Miss Evelyn-Hyde mean anything to you?" And suddenly she knew the reason for that terrible thundery feeling that had been inside her ever since Saturday Night. Some part of her mind must already have had this gruesome thought and suppressed it, for she needed no explanation at all. Only the name of the unfortunate Miss Charlotte Evelyn-Hyde, late of Storping-on-Firkill, the village just to the west of Little Dunthorpe, was sufficient to bring a scream tearing from her.
"Oh, my saints! Oh, my dear Jesus! Has she been buried alive? Has she been buried alive? Has my darling Misery been buried alive?" And now, before Geoffrey could even begin to answer, it was tough old Mrs. Ramage's turn to do something she had never done before that night and would never do again: she fainted dead away.
Geoffrey had no time to look for smelling salts. He doubted if such a tough old soldier as Mrs. Ramage kept them around anyway. But beneath her sink he found a rag which smelled faintly of ammonia. He did not just pass this beneath her nose but pressed it briefly against her lower face. The possibility Colter had raised, however faint, was too hideous to merit much in the way of consideration.
She jerked, cried out, and opened her eyes. For a moment she looked at him with dazed, uncomprehending bewilderment. Then she sat up.
"No," she said. "No, Mr. Geoffrey, say ye don't mean it, say it isn't true - "
"I don't know if it is true or not," he said. "But we must satisfy ourselves immediately. Immediately, Mrs. Ramage. I can't do all the digging myself, if there's digging that must be done. . . " She was staring at him with horrified eyes, her hands pressed so tightly over her mouth that the nails were white. "Can you help me, if help is needed? There's really no one else. "
"My Lord," she said numbly. "My Lord Mr. Ian - "
" - must know nothing of this until we know more!" He said. "If God is good, he need never know at all. " He would not voice to her the unspoken hope at the back of his mind, a hope which seemed to him almost as monstrous as his fears. If God was very good, he would find out about this night's work. . . when his wife and only 1ove was restored to him, her return from the dead almost as miraculous as that of Lazarus. IN "Oh, this is terrible. . . terrible!" she said in a faint, fluttery voice. Holding onto the table, she managed to pull herself to her feet. She stood, swaying, little straggles of hair hanging around her face among the muskrat-tails of her cap.
"Are you well enough?" he asked, more kindly. "If not, then I must try to carry on as best I can by myself. " She drew a deep, shuddering breath and let it out. The side-to-side sway stopped. She turned and walked toward the pantry. "There's a pair of spades in the shed out back," she said. "A pick as well, I think. Throw them in your trap. There's half a bottle of gin out here in the pantry. Been here untouched since Bill died five years ago, on Lammas-night. I'll have a bit and then join you, Mr. Geoffrey. "
"You're a brave woman, Mrs. Ramage. Be quick. "
"Aye, never fear me," she said, and grasped the bottle of gin with a hand that trembled only slightly. There was no dust on the bottle - not even the pa0try was safe from the relentless dust-clout of Mrs. Ramage - but the label reading CLOUGH amp; POOR BOOZIERS was yellow. "Be quick yourself. " She had always hated spirits and her stomach wanted to sick the gin, with its nasty junipery smell and oily taste, back up. She made it stay down. Tonight she would need it.
Under clouds that still raced east to west, blacker shapes against a black sky, and a moon that was now settling toward the horizon, the pony-trap sped toward the churchyard. It was now Mrs. Ramage who drove, cracking the whip over the bewildered Mary, who would have told them, if horses could talk, that this was all wrong - she was supposed to be dozing in her warm stall come this time of night. The spades and the pick chattered coldly one against the other, and Mrs. Ramage thought they would have given anyone who had seen them a proper fright - they must look like a pair of Mr. Dickens's resurrection men. . . or perhaps one resurrection man sitting in a pony-trap driven by a ghost. For she was all in white - had not even paused long enough to gather up her robe. Her nightgown fluttered around her stout, vein-puffed ankles, and the tails of her cap streamed wildly out behind her.
Here was the church. She turned Mary up the lane which ran beside it, shivering at the ghostly sound of the wind playing along the eaves. She had a moment to wonder why such a holy place as a church should seem so frightening after dark, and then realized it was not the church. . . it was the errand.
Her first thought upon coming out of her faint was that My Lord must help them - hadn't he been there in all things, through thick and thin, never wavering? A moment later she had realized how mad the idea was. This was not a matter of My Lord's courage, but of his very sanity.
She hadn't needed Mr. Geoffrey to tell her so; the memory of Miss Evelyn-Hyde had done that.
She realized that neither Mr. Geoffrey nor My Lord had been in Little Dunthorpe when it had happened. This had been almost half a year ago, in the spring. Misery had entered the rosy summer of her pregnancy, morning sickness behind her, the final rising of her belly and its attendant discomfort still ahead, and she had cheerfully sent the two men off for a week of grouse-shooting and card-playing and footballing and heaven alone knew what other masculine foolishness at Oak Hall in Doncaster. My Lord had been a bit doubtful, but Misery assured him she would be fine, and nearly pushed him out the door. That Misery would be fine Mrs. Ramage had no doubt. But whenever My Lord and Mr. Geoffrey left for Doncaster, she wondered if one of them - or perhaps both - might not return on the back of a cart, toes up.
Oak Hall was the inheritance of Albert Fossington, a schoolmate of Geoffrey's and Ian's. Mrs. Ramage quite rightly believed that Bertie Fossington was mad. Some three years ago he had eaten his favorite polo pony after it had broken two legs and needed to be destroyed. It was a gesture of affection, he said. "Learned it from the fuzzy-wuzzies in Capetown," he said. "Griquas. Wonderful chaps. Put sticks and things in their smoochers, what? Some of "em look like they could carry all twelve volumes of the Royal Navigation Charts on their lower lips, ha-ha! Taught me that each make must eat the thing he loves. Rather poetic in a grisly sort of way, what?" In spite of I such bizarre behavior, Mr. Geo
ffrey and My Lord retained a great affection for Bertie. (I wonder if that means they'll have to eat him when he's dead? Mrs. Ramage had once wondered after a visit from Bertie during which he had tried to play croquet with one of the housecats, quite shattering its poor little head), and they had spent nearly ten days at Oak Hall this past spring.
Not more than a day or two after they left, Miss Charlotte Evelyn-Hyde of Storping-on-Firkill had been found dead on the back lawn of her home, Cove o'Birches. There had been a freshly picked bunch of flowers near one outstretched hand. The village doctor was a man named Billford - a capable man by all accounts. Nevertheless, he had called old Dr. Shinebone in to consult. Billford had diagnosed the fatal malady as a heart attack, although the girl was very young - only eighteen - and had seemed in the pink of health. Billford was puzzled.
Something seemed not at all right. Old Shinny had been clearly puzzled as well, but in the end he had concurred with the diagnosis. So did most of the village, for that matter - the girl's heart had not been properly made, that was all, such things were rare but everyone could recall such a sad case at one time or another. It was probably this universal concurrence that had saved Billford's practice - if not his head - following the ghastly denouement. Although everyone had agreed that the girl's death was puzzling, it had crossed no one's mind that she might not be dead at all.
Four days following the interment, an elderly woman named Mrs. Soames - Mrs. Rainage knew her slightly - had observed something white lying on the ground of the Congregational church's cemetery as she entered it to put flowers on the grave of her husband, who had died the previous winter. It was much too big to be a flower petal, and she thought it might be a dead bird of some sort. As she approached she became more and more sure that the white object was not just lying on the ground, but protruding from it. She came two or three hesitant steps closer yet, and observed a hand reaching from the earth of a fresh grave, the fingers frozen in a hideous gesture of supplication. Blood-streaked bones protruded from the ends of all the digits save the thumb.
Mrs. Soames ran shrieking from the cemetery, ran all the way into Storping's high street - a run of nearly a mile and a quarter - and reported her news to the barber, who was also the local constable. Then she had collapsed in a dead faint. She took to her bed later that afternoon and did not arise from it for nearly a month. Nor did anyone in the village blame her in the least.
The body of the unfortunate Miss Evelyn-Hyde had been exhumed, of course, and as Geoffrey Alliburton drew Mary to a halt in front of the gate leading into Little Dunthorpe's C of E churchyard, Mrs. Ramage found herself wishing fervently that she had not listened to the tales of the exhumation. They had been dreadful.
Dr. Billford, shaken to within an inch of sanity himself, diagnosed catalepsy. The poor woman had apparently fallen into some sort of deathlike trance, much like the sort those Indian fakirs could voluntarily induce in themselves before allowing themselves to be buried alive or to have needles passed through their flesh. She had remained in this trance for perhaps forty-eight hours, perhaps sixty. Long enough, at any rate, to have awakened not to find herself on her back lawn where she had been picking flowers, but buried alive in her own coffin.
She had fought grimly for her life, that girl, and Mrs. Ramage found now, following Geoffrey through the gates and into a thin mist that turned the leaning grave markers into islands, that what should have redeemed with nobility only made it seem all the more horrid.
The girl had been engaged to be married. In her left hand - not the one frozen above the soil like the hand of a drowned woman - had been her diamond engagement ring. With it she had slit the satin lining of her coffin and over God knew how many hours she had used it to claw away at the coffin's wooden lid. In the end, air running out, she had apparently used the ring with her left hand to cut and excavate and her right hand to dig. It had not been quite enough. Her complexion had been a deep purple from which her blood-rimmed eyes stared in a bulging expression of terminal horror.
The clock in the church tower began to chime the hour of twelve - the hour when, her mother had told her, the door between life and death sways open a bit and the dead may pass both ways - and it was all Mrs. Ramage could do to keep herself from shrieking and fleeing in a panic which would not abate but grow stronger with each step; if she began running, she knew, she would simply run until she fell down insensible.
Stupid, fearful woman! she berated herself, and then amended that to: Stupid, fearful, selfish woman! It's My Lord ye want to be thinkin" of now, and not yer own fears My Lord. . . and if there is even one chance that My Lady - Ah, but no - it was madness to even think of such a thing. It had been too long, too long, too long.
Geoffrey had led her to Misery's tombstone, and the two of them stood looking down at it, as if mesmerized. LADY CALTHORPE, the stone read. Other than the dates of her birth and death, the only inscription was: LOVED BY MANY.
She looked at Geoffrey and said, like one awakening from a deep daze: "Ye've not brought the tools. "
"No - not yet," he responded, and threw himself full-length on the ground and placed his ear against the earth, which had already begun to show the first tender shoots of new grass between the rather carelessly replaced sods.
For a moment the only expression she saw there by the lamp she carried was the one Geoffrey had worn since she had first opened her door to him - a look of agonized dread. Then a new expression began to surface. This new expression was one of utter horror mingled with an almost demented hope.
He looked up at Mrs. Ramage, eyes staring, mouth working. "I believe she lives," he whispered strengthlessly. "Oh, Mrs. Ramage - " Suddenly he turned over onto his belly and screamed at the ground - under other circumstances it would have been comic. "Misery! MISERY! WE'RE HERE! WE KNOW! HOLD ON! HOLD ON, MY DARLING!" He was on his feet a moment later, sprinting back toward the pony-trap, where the digging tools were, his slippered feet sending the placid groumdmist into excited little roils.
Mrs. Ramage's knees unlocked and she buckled forward, near to swooning again. Of its own accord, seemingly, her head slipped to one side so her right ear was pressed against the ground - she had seen children in similar postures by the railway line, listening for trains.
And she heard it - low, painful scraping sounds in the earth - not the sounds of a burrowing animal, these; these were the sounds of fingers scraping helplessly on wood.
She drew in breath in one great convulsive gulp, re-starting her own heart, it seemed. She shrieked: "WERE COMING, MY LADY! PRAISE GOD AND PLEAD SWEET JESUS WE BE IN TIME - WE'RE COMING!" She began to pull half healed turves out of the ground with her trembling fingers, and although Geoffrey returned in almost no time, she had by then already clawed a hole some eight inches deep.