The Anatomy Inspector
A Twisted Tale
Copyright 2016 Roger Wood
Published by RogerWood at Shakespir
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Table of Contents
The Anatomy Inspector
THERE WAS SOMETHING ABOUT MR EDWARD STAPLETON. Something different. I was tempted to use the hackneyed phrase something not quite right but that would be unfair. There was nothing untoward about Mr Stapleton in terms of physiognomy or manner. He was always courteous, neat, proper in all things. He spoke to colleagues and acquaintances as he came across them. He did not avoid company, nor did he seek it out. He contributed generously to charitable causes but should you enquire about his personal wellbeing he would recoil, the patient smile twist into a wince, murmur “As ever, as ever” in that breathless way of his and scurry away with head down and shoulders hunched. Generally, he preferred to watch the world from the sidelines, watching with a lopsided smile that was compassionate, wise and yet at the same time remote, detached, and ever so slightly sad. It cannot be denied: Mr Edward Stapleton was – and always had been, so far I could discover – a man apart.
I notice I have slipped into the imperfect tense. Again, that does Mr Stapleton a disservice. It implies that I speak from memory when the fact is I saw him only yesterday, strolling in the garden of the Inner Temple, as upright and as singular as ever. He tipped me his hat as I passed but we did not exchange pleasantries. I could not countenance chitchat given what I now know about that distinguished gentleman. Don’t get me wrong. I have not chanced upon some horrible secret. What I know, I know because Mr Stapleton told me. An honest, unembroidered answer to an innocent, much regretted inquiry on my part. What he told me is horrible – truly appalling – but it is and never was a secret. Mr Stapleton’s friends knew it at the time. A generation of legal professionals before me knew it either directly or at second hand. Indeed practitioners should know the case of Edward Stapleton because – though you will find no mention in the authorities – it changed the law of England.
I remember the first time I saw him. It must have been thirty years ago. I was newly called to the bar and spent my days at Westminster Hall in hope of a brief. I was one of many such and realise now that patrolling the Hall is the last leg of the juristic education, a period of familiarisation, of getting to recognise the seniors in their various robes and wigs as they parade in and out of the Court of Queen’s Bench, sweeping past the wet-behind-the-ears hoi polloi without so much as a sideways glance yet revelling in the knowledge that ribs are being nudged, his name whispered, his place in the hierarchy established. It was on such a day that I first spotted Edward Stapleton, gliding along the ill-lit passage at the rear of the Hall. He wore no robe, no wig, nothing to mark him out – save that robed judges, some of the most senior in the land, stepped aside to grant him free passage, some even offering a quick nodded bow as he passed.
I asked my friend and fellow novice: “I say, Richards old son, who’s that singular old cove over yonder?” Even then – I remember it with certainty – I instinctively chose the adjective singular.
“Oh lor’,” said Richards, “that’s His Nibs Stapleton, that is. Her Majesty’s Inspector of Anatomy for the City of London.”
“And that’s a job, is it?”
“A senior post?”
“I assume so.”
“It must be, surely, for their Honours to bow and scrape in his presence the way they do.”
“You saw it with your own eyes, Tumbley old lad, and that’s the best evidence there is.”
My friend knew no more. I felt no need or desire to delve further. The matter dropped, time passed, and it was not until I was established on the circuit, with pupils of my own trailing in my wake like new-hatched goslings, that I saw the singular Stapleton again.
I was appearing for the defence in a manslaughter case at the Bailey. In those days Tommy Chambers was still Common Serjeant, though I believe he was already Sir Tommy. As you probably know, Tommy Chambers was the fount of all knowledge regarding the Bar and those called thereunto. He was less sound – I don’t believe I am letting cats out of any bag when I say this – concerning the law itself. In any event, my chap having rightly been found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years’ hard, His Lordship invited me to join him for dinner at the Middle Temple. I seized the opportunity – in those days I still hoped to take silk and a wink in the appropriate direction from Sir Tommy Chambers would do my chances no harm at all. So I decked myself in my best and toddled round to the Temple after dark. I expected to join the Great Man presiding in Great State in the Great Hall. Instead I was directed to his rooms overlooking Fountain Court. I found my way with difficulty – why is it that every edifice connected with the law seems to come with inbuilt gloom? – and was groping my way along the second floor corridor when a door just few feet further down opened and a figure stepped out. A figure of middle height, on the slender side, very straight of back. In the lamplight escaping from within I saw a face clean-shaven, unlined, eyes pale and frank, a semblance of a smile tending downwards and to the left. His hair, worn short and clipped level with the tops of his ears, was largely devoid of colour, neither white nor grey, a ghost of gold perhaps. He havered, no doubt startled. I heard a short intake of breath. Then he tipped his hat, stood aside and said, in a voice no more than a murmur, yet a voice you knew would carry a mile, “You must be Sir Thomas’s guest. Do go in.” I did. He went. I found Tommy Chambers in his braces and shirt front, two shop-bought pies steaming on the table. Then I realised—-
“That gentleman just now—-“
“You know him?”
“Not as such but … evidently, Your Lordship, you…”
“Oh yes. Known him for years. We were at Clare together.”
This is where words failed me and I lost confidence in the ability of my legs to support me. I looked at Tommy Chambers in all his glory – portly, balding, what hair he had snow white, fringing his great round skull the same way a ridiculous Dutch beard decorated his hairless jowls. Sixty if he was a day. Yet his university pal looked no more than half that. And, come to think of it, that day years ago at Westminster Hall, when I had been a tender youth, Edward Stapleton had seemed older than I but not by very much. Now I daresay I could have passed for his father.
Tommy, the shrewd judge, said, “You’re doing the sums, aren’t you, Tumbley?”
I confessed, “I’m struggling to make ‘em add up, sir.”
“Yes,” Tommy said. “It’s a bad business to be sure.”
Tommy pretended to miss my meaning. “To the matter in hand, eh Tumbley? I invited you here to ask a favour. A friend of mine – a colleague – a member of my Party – has committed an indiscretion with a young fellow works at the Post Office. Collars were felt. The Charleys insisted on prosecuting and I wondered if, possibly… I mean, you have expertise in these matters…”
“Yes. Of course, sir. Happy to assist.” I’m doing him a favour, I thought. Surely that entitles me to push my luck? And I did, though not in the way I had planned earlier. Instead I blurted out, “Regarding Mr Stapleton, sir. There has to be a story. There’s obviously a story—-“
Tommy sighed. “Indeed, but it’s not mine to tell.” His eye caught the bowls on the table. “Pie?” he offered.
“No thank you, sir.” I indicated my full dress rig-out. “I’m dining at the Savoy as it happens.”
He knew this was a snub. In other circumstances he would doubtless have hurled wrath down upon me until my ears bled. In these circumstances, however, in this place, given the nature of our discussions … He wiped his fingers on his absurd chin whiskers. “Ned Stapleton might be willing to tell you himself. He makes no secret of what happened. I could no doubt arrange an interview…”
“I’d be most grateful, sir.” And I meant it.
Tommy nodded. “You’re sure I can’t interest you in the pie?”
“Steak and kidney, is it? Well, I daresay I could manage a forkful. Or two.”
IT IS THE FIRST RULE OF CROSS-EXAMINATION, a lesson learned at the pupil-master’s gartered knee. Never ask a question to which you do not know the answer. I would modify that slightly in light of what I discovered pursuant to my supper with the Common Serjeant. Tumbley’s Tenet (as amended): Never ask a question to which you would rather not know the answer.
To return, meanwhile, to the supper itself. Tommy unwound as we ate. A bottle of port was produced and emptied. Given his certainty that Stapleton would agree to meet me, His Lordship felt entitled to tell me what little he knew from his own experience at the time.
The time, it transpired, was 1831, the year my parents married, three years before I was born.
“We had known each other at school, in that offhand sort of way that boys do when they are a year apart. And yes, before you ask, Tumbley, it was Stapleton who was a year ahead of me. Likewise at University. We attended the same college and roomed on the same staircase but again Ned was ahead. He preferred Ned in those days because, believe it or not, the august Anatomy Inspector was something of a lad. Indeed it was his wildness that enabled me to catch up somewhat, and in due course we found ourselves pounding the paving stones at Westminster Hall together, both adrift in the same beginners’ boat. His people were richer than mine but I had not squandered my limited funds on my pleasures. I could just about afford to wait for the decent briefs to come whereas Ned had to take what he could get. Three years of indulgence were his saviour in one sense, his very real downfall in another. Several of his erstwhile fellow roisterers found themselves unable to meet their obligations and, hearing that Ned had been called to the Bar, called on him for advice. Debt factoring is scarcely what you might call an honourable business but there’s money in it and Ned, having a personal insight into the temperament of his clients, soon made a name for himself. His services were in demand. Significant debtors sought him out; debauched wastrels with significant connections were sent his way. It was one of the latter who did for poor Ned.
“A bastard son of the bastard son of a very important person indeed found himself lodged in the Debtors’ Quad at Newgate. Consultations were held in the very highest circles. The name of Stapleton was suggested. A carriage of impressive dimensions drew up in the street below Ned’s rooms. A liveried servant who carried himself like an Austrian archduke descended from the carriage and ascended Ned’s rather rickety staircase. Instructions were given, a warrant handed over – a warrant from which hung a seal we would all recognise. The following morning the carriage returned to convey Ned to his client in Newgate.
“The carriage and Ned’s commission were, as you can imagine, the talk of the Temple. We all knew Ned and were pleased for him. Though the name and title of the carriage-owner were never spoken, we all had an idea who it was. If we were even half-right our friend’s success was assured. A Mastership in Chancery at the very least. But then…” Sir Tommy’s jowls quivered. He ran the tip of his tongue over dry lips. “Then news came that our friend was ill. Gaol fever. Some of us wanted to visit. His mother, who was over from India, would not allow it. I confess I was glad – glad that she refused visitors, that is, not that… Gaol fever, Tumbley. In those days a death sentence…”
His voice trailed off. He clearly could not finish his account. So I stepped in: “Are you telling me, sir, that Stapleton died?”
He inclined the great bald dome. I saw the spots of age of his pate.
“But clearly, sir—-“ I persisted.
“I went to his funeral, Tumbley. We all did.”
“Nevertheless, with all due respect, the fact remains—-“
“He came back to us. Three months or so after the funeral he was back on the circuit. Ned Stapleton – there could be no mistake. We all hurried round to see for ourselves. In appearance, manner, temperament, the same old Ned. But not the same at all. Oh no, not by a long chalk.”
We sat there, in the pool of sallow gaslight, amid the debris of our pies, and neither of us spoke for a considerable time. Finally Sir Tommy recovered his voice. “You’re sure you want to hear the rest, Tumbley? From the horse’s mouth? It has to be from him, you understand, because he is the one who experienced it firsthand. From anyone else … well, there would be no credibility. So, what do you say, Tumbley? Yeah or Nay?”
I admitted, “I don’t know what to say.”
“I’ll speak to Stapleton. He’ll send round his card. If you chose not to follow through, I assure you he won’t be offended. As for me, my most earnest recommendation is that you don’t.”
I did, of course. Who wouldn’t? I dealt with Tommy’s friend and colleague. Palms were greased, favours called in and obligations incurred. The debased fool admitted public indecency, paid his fine, and took a long rehabilitative sea-cruise. A week or so thereafter a card floated onto my doormat. E S Stapleton, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Anatomy (District of Westminster) would be pleased to receive me – should I wish to call – any weekday evening after eight. The address followed, a highly respectable address, not far from the church of St Clement Danes. I took an early supper – Stapleton did not strike me as a trencherman – at Cavalino’s on the Strand, and presented myself at the Inspector’s door at eight-fifteen one bright summer evening in August. The weather, it struck me later, could not have been less suited to the account I was about to hear.
The house was substantial, the household less so. Mr Stapleton kept only a maid, evidently because his needs were so few. The room I was shown into was lined floor to ceiling with books. Mr Stapleton had not accepted gas into his home and it would seem read his library by candlelight only. He sat with his back to the window – curtains closed, despite the fact that it was still light outside – in a high-backed green-leather armchair. A small three-legged table sat by his right elbow. The only other furniture in the room was a second chair, without arms and upholstered in needlework that had long since faded. I assumed this was for me, and seated myself on it whether or not. There was no clock to be seen, no ticking to be heard. Unusual, I thought, but then again – if what Sir Tommy had told me was true – understandable, I supposed.
He spoke, his voice the rustle of leaves I had heard at Fountain Court. “Refreshment, Mr Tumbley?”
“Good of you, sir. I’ll have—-“ I would have a small glass of sherry, apparently, and three Garibaldi biscuits on a plain white side plate, for that is what the maid deposited in my lap. Mr Stapleton favoured water biscuits and what I could only assume was plain water. The liquid in his glass was clear and colourless, and Mr Stapleton did not strike me as a gin-bibber.
He moistened his lips and began. “What do you know of the Anatomy Act, Mr Tumbley?”
“I know it exists. I assume it is the act under which you hold your office. Other than that—-“
“Quite so. Why should you know more? A young fellow like you…” I remind my reader that, at the time of this interview, I was nearer fifty than forty. Mr Stapleton meanwhile waxed nostalgic. “It was bitterly fought at the time. A matter of principle for the bishops, a matter of science for the surgeons. Parliament threw it out altogether the first time round. But then… You realise, I suppose, that I was the original appointee under the act?”
I admitted I hadn’t realised. At the same time I was working my recollection, trying to decide when the Anatomy Act had come into force. Before my time, obviously, well before. What had Tommy Chambers said about his and Stapleton’s age when … when what happened to Stapleton … well, happened?
While I was recollecting, the Inspector had lit a candle. In its pathetic glow I saw that he was smiling, that sad, lopsided smile. Perhaps it was the way the candlelight happened to fall on his face but it reminded me of my father’s face, after his seizure. Hanging loose, as if the muscles had lost connection or snapped. My father had never recovered his speech, however, whereas the voice of Edward Stapleton was as clear as freshly melted snow.
“Sir Thomas informs me you wish to hear the story of my—-“ The smile broadened. I saw a fleeting flash of the roistering lad Sir Tommy recalled. “I was going to say the story of my life. Hah! There is nothing less interesting on God’s earth than the story of my life. What you want to know, Mr Tumbley, is the story of my death!”
He chuckled drily, the wheeze of bellows with perished leather. He leant his head against the antimacassar on the back of his chair and started to talk. Here, to the best of my remembrance, is tale he told me. For the sake of the pedants among you, I am confident that my recollection is well nigh perfect. Try as you might, the tale of Edward Stapleton is not easily forgotten.
MY FATHER WAS IN THE INDIAN SERVICE (he began), my mother the daughter of an Ayrshire Presbyterian importer of calico. I was their only child. You can imagine, therefore, that I was not accustomed to the society of people my own age or race until I came to England to prepare myself for university. Those were high times to be young, Mr Tumbley, and to be à la Indien was all the rage. London had just opened its first curry parlour and the Prince Regent was popularising the use of shampoo. I found myself accepted with open arms, swept up in a social whirl, welcome at any salon, a coup for every hostess. My allowance was unequal to my needs. I begged my parents for more, and they sent as much as they could. I prevailed upon my Scottish grandfather, who grudgingly undertook to support me provided I passed every examination in my chosen career of the law. They do such things differently in Scotland, I understand. Their way involves such things as exams. In England, as I daresay you know, Mr Tumbley, knowledge is an advantage in the law but by no means a prerequisite. Many young men are called to the bar on the basis of their talent, but many more are called on account of their address book. Over a career, the theory goes, the talented are socialised, the ignorant educated. I like to think I was not entirely without merit, though I cannot deny that I prospered on the backs of my less fortunate friends.
Sir Thomas, I gather, has given you the circumstances in which I contracted my illness. He, I know, blames my client. Myself, I blame the squalor of the English penal system. We claim to be civilising the world yet even to this day we keep minor offenders and those whose only sin is to have run out of funds in conditions that would outrage the keeper of a flea circus.
Typhus is a coquette among diseases. It lets you go about your business for several weeks, passing the contagion to your colleagues, friends and family. I was fortunate, I suppose, in that I had few of the former, a surprisingly low number of true friends, and no family whatever here in London. To begin with I thought I had caught cold. My head and my joints ached. I sneezed and sweated a good deal. Then I broke out in spots. Another whimsicality in the modus operandi of typhus is that the rash tends to spare the visible parts – the face, the hands. Thus one can fasten one’s cuffs, take to wearing a higher collar and continue to walk the streets promulgating the poison.
There is, of course, a price to be paid – eventually. For me it began with a sudden acute sensitivity to light. One morning, not an especially sunny one, I stepped out from my lodgings in Angel Street, glanced up at the sky as one does, and … It was as if that shaft of watery sunlight was a weapon that speared me through the eye and pierced right through to the back of my brain. I swear I felt it thud against the inside of my cranium. I fell. Passers-by – old ladies with tiny spaniels – helped me back up. They asked what the matter was. I could not find words. I daresay they assumed I was the victim of strong spirits, which in point of fact have never been my vice. They helped me negotiate the door back into my lodgings, for I dared not open my eyes for fear I was blind. But once in that shadowy space at the foot of those benighted stairs I was again free of pain and able to see.
For a time I tried to arrange my affairs so that I only ventured forth at night. Clients, I found, do not like an attorney who keeps the same nocturnal round that they do. Soon there was no business to drag me out of doors and I was glad of it. Within a week of that first lightning bolt I found even lamp light too strong for my comfort. It is, as you may have surmised, the one symptom of my disease that has persisted to the present.
The next, which I suppose continues to an extent, was loss of appetite. I could not face the prospect of eating. My neck had seized up to the extent that I could not move my head at all, and I had some fevered fancy that my gullet had also ceased working. When the woman I paid to meet my domestic needs protested I dismissed her forthwith. I kept to my rooms thereafter, sweltering day and night, assailed by all manner of wild notions, not eating nor sleeping. At some point – I don’t know when – I took to my bed and resolved to either die or recover. That was how Doctor McCulloch found me.
My former housekeeper had taken my boorish behaviour as a symptom of my illness and had contacted my grandfather in Ayrshire who, as a matter of strict fact, was her actual employer. He sent his personal physician, McCulloch, post-haste from Kilmarnock. This was before the advent of the railway, so Lord knows how long it took him to reach London. All I knew – or believed I knew – was that he was there, in my room, peering down at me under the most extravagant set of eyebrows… I should tell you that by this point my whole body was seized solid as a pocket-watch in sand. All I saw was an area of perhaps three feet square directly above my pillow. Thus what I saw was the face of my housekeeper, tears coursing across her sunken cheeks. Then she was abruptly snatched away, which confused me. Then those eyebrows, a thicket of gorse-coloured hair set low on the forehead, a nose like a coal shovel, and lips that writhed and grimaced almost silently. That was the first I knew that my hearing was affected like every other physical function. I wasn’t totally deaf – it was like listening with my head under water. I heard sounds, but they were muffled, virtually indecipherable, and seemed to reach me from a great distance. On that basis I concluded that the owner of the weather-beaten face floating over me was mumbling to himself. Grumbling was probably nearer the mark, knowing McCulloch as I later came to. After a while he straightened, thereby moving to the extreme periphery of my field of vision. I saw him speaking, presumably to my housekeeper – giving instructions, I surmised. Moments passed, perhaps minutes. The woman must have gone about her errands for the next thing I knew he was leaning over me again, closer this time, too close I thought. He was talking at me, making every effort to be heard. This is what I believe he said:
“You’re not hearing right, is that it? Watch my lips. I’ll speak as loud as I decently can. Understood?”
Yes, I understood, but how could I convey my understanding? I had not spoken for a good while. I knew the faculty would fail me. I tried blinking. I rolled my eyes. It was good enough, evidently, because he nodded his massive head. He swooped even closer to my face – I blinked madly – but in truth his target was my right ear. He spoke therein. I heard him, not as the cliché has it as clear as a bell, but as if my head was inside the bell. His voice rang and boomed and resonated. He said to me, “You, my lad, are done for. If I were you, I’d prepare to meet my maker.”
HERE I HAD TO INTERRUPT. It is, after all, a question we have all considered. “How did it feel, sir, to be told you are about to die?”
He pondered a while, then: “In my case – in the condition I was then – it was a matter of supreme indifference.”
I nodded, thoughtfully. What else could I do? Personally, I would hope to go with regret, resignation, reluctance – anything, really, so long as it’s not apathy.
My moment of reflection gave him chance do the same. He asked: “I take it you are familiar with the reason we needed an Anatomy Act back then?”
I was. “On account of the Burkers, I believe.”
“Indeed. They were a thriving trade in London at that time. No one – no place of interment – was safe from their depredations. It made no difference if you laid in a pauper’s grave or a family mausoleum. Your loved ones could hire guards or set watchdogs, but the Burkers were so flush, so determined, they could bribe the former and dope the latter. The anatomists, of course, were complicit.”
A thought occurred. “I say!” I started. “You don’t maintain that this Scots fellow McCulloch—-?”
“I know so for a fact.”
“You don’t mean he certified death while you were still—-?”
“This was before certification was a requirement, but he certainly did declare life extinct. Whether he did so knowing that the spark still flickered, that I cannot say. In truth I doubt it, for he went to heroic lengths to keep me going, at least until my mother arrived.”
“How long does that take?”
“I have no idea. There are various routes, various rates. It is an extremely long time since I made the journey and I took the cheapest possible packet. Is it important?”
“No,” I admitted. “I just wondered.”
I ALSO WONDERED. Wondered why McCulloch went to such lengths to preserve the little life that remained to me. I had not eaten in an age. He spoonfed me broth and porridge. A spoonful was all I could take. He moistened my lips with cordial. I do not know the flavour. I had no taste, no sensation anywhere in my body. I breathed so shallowly that my sense of smell was fleeting and at best only really registered man-made, artificial scents.
I felt no pain or discomfort, which I suppose was a blessing. My muscles had wasted away to nothing. I could not move. Every so often McCulloch would raise my eyelids to study my pupils. For those few seconds I could see perfectly well, albeit in the limited frame I mentioned before. In those moments I felt a certain pleasure, coupled with a measure of dread that all too soon he would let my lids close again. And I retained that muffled vestige of hearing. After a while I realised why my ears were blocked. My head was sunk so deep into my pillows that my ears were covered. There was no way I could ask for an adjustment. In truth the muffling did not trouble me unduly. What did they have to say that was of any consequence to me?
One time my eyes were opened and I beheld my mother leaning over me. I knew she was not a dream – I had also lost the ability to dream, another defect that persists today. She looked older, weary, and naturally distressed. I heard her far-off voice saying my name. I tried to show that I recognised her, that I was pleased to see her, sorry to cause her such upset. My idea was to contract my pupils. Have you ever tried that, Mr Tumbley? I fancy it is impossible. Mankind professes to rule the world, to understand every process of life, but cannot consciously control the most miniscule of muscles.
I heard them talking many times thereafter. Only rarely could I determine what they were saying. It seemed to me they conversed in undertones. Presumably sparing the feelings I no longer had. On one occasion my mother raised her voice sufficient for me to hear her clearly. “Never!” she declared. “Do you hear me, sir? I will never allow—-“ Her voice faded. I did not hear what she would not allow. But I suspect I know. Then, sometime later – it might have been days or mere minutes – McCulloch lifted my lids, looked down upon me, inhaled deeply, lowered those thunderous brows and turned to my mother. “Madam,” he said. I heard him clearly. “Your son is gone.”
Then I felt something. Sheer, stark panic, Mr Tumbley. I wanted to scream. No, no – you are mistaken, you miserable quack. I’m here still. Listen! Feel my chest. Put a mirror to my mouth. I’m here! But, of course…
“I HAVE ASKED MANY TIMES SINCE,” Stapleton said. “’Is it possible for the breathing to be so suppressed that is imperceptible?’ The doctors tell me, ‘Such cases have been reported.’ ‘And likewise the pulse?’ I ask. ‘The pulse likewise,” they assure me. ‘But the eye,’ they add, ‘the eye is not only the mirror of the soul, it is the sure indication that life is or is not present.’ They say this with assurance, despite the proof positive standing before them. ‘There can be mistaking the cast of death.’”
“The fellow McCulloch mistook it,” I said, stating the obvious. “He should have been indicted for murder. Manslaughter at the very least!”
“Dr McCulloch escaped justice. Whether he faced a greater justice elsewhere…”
Did I discern a flicker of a smile? Impossible to say for certain. Stapleton’s features, even thrown into relief by the candlelight, seemed immobile.
“It was, of course, part of the reasoning for my appointment under the Act. That I would serve as a sort of living memento mori to the anatomists. They underestimated the resilience of the profession. McCulloch’s determination of death was an unfortunate oversight. What could one expect from a rural generalist? No London surgeon would have made the error. Indeed, far from consigning me to a premature and unnecessary death, the elite of metropolitan practice had saved me!”
This time there could be no mistake. That dry throaty crackle was definitely an expression of amusement. The face, however, remained frozen.
YOU ASSUME, NATURALLY, that I would be terrified by my situation. I was startled. I panicked – but only for a matter of moments. After all, what sort of life did I retain? I was blind, intermittently deaf, and incapable of the slightest movement. I was by any standard on the very threshold of death. I remember wondering if I had in fact passed over. I was raised with an absolute faith in the afterlife. Was this it? If so, it wasn’t so bad. I was free of pain and my mind was as clear as it had ever been. Overall, I was intrigued to discover what happened next.
At some juncture the undertakers arrived. I heard muttered conversation, the voices all male. I was lifted from the bed and carried across the room. I didn’t feel the touch of hands upon my body, I certainly didn’t see the room passing by, yet I sensed the movement very clearly, first vertical, then horizontal. I have discussed it with professors of medicine. The general opinion is that the faculty of balance was involved. Something to do with the inner ear, as I understand it.
Evidently I was placed in my coffin. I heard the lid go on but no nailing. I very much hoped that didn’t suggest the possibility of embalming. I have always found that a ludicrous and sentimental practice. I mean, have you ever seen anything as pathetic and undignified as the desiccated remains of a mummified pharaoh? I was then carried downstairs, loaded onto a wagon of some kind, and processed through the streets to the mortuary. Again, all this I experienced through the inner ear. I confess I enjoyed it. It was a long time since I had experienced in any way the bustle and hum of a busy London street.
I lay undisturbed in what they like to call nowadays the chapel of rest. In my day it was simply a mortuary. No one tried to embalm me. No one even opened the coffin. I realised during that period something I had never considered during my illness. I had ‘died’ of an infectious disease. Contact with my remains, back then, was considered an unnecessary risk. The tang of carbolic was especially strong during my time there.
I have since established that I was pronounced dead around seven in the evening. I was taken to the mortuary the following day and buried the day after that. My mother and Dr McCulloch were the only mourners. Apparently my friends and colleagues had been warned off for fear of the typhus. Tommy Chambers likes to claim he was there but if he came at all I expect it was no further than the lych gate. It was a perfectly respectable graveyard – St Sepulchre’s, no less. I still own the grave, I fancy, though the churchyard is closed now and I will never again use it. But in those days you could lie in St George’s Chapel Windsor and not be safe from the Burkers. The failure of the Anatomy Act in Parliament had emboldened them. Bodysnatching was only ever a misdemeanour. Without an act to define it, was it even that?
They came for me on the third night of my supposed death. They knew I was fresh, reasonably young and supposedly quite clever. McCulloch had tipped them off, of course. The Burkers knew as well as any skilled surgeon that typhus dies with the body.
What is the sound of a spade cutting through earth when heard from below? We never hear it because we are always on the air side. I heard it, though, on the third night. To me it sounded like a razor being sharpened on a worn-out strop. It was metallic but also percussive. I had no idea what it was at first. Then I identified it and jumped to the conclusion that McCulloch had realised his mistake and sent the sexton to recover me.
Then I sensed the coffin jolt under the assault from above. I heard the lid crack and splinter and finally shatter. I sensed myself being hauled, bodily, from the grave. Again I was moved, though I could not make sense of how it was done. After many years of consideration I have concluded I was thrown like a sack over the shoulder of the strongest Burker, my rear parts by his cheek, my face hanging down by his backside. After a few moments of that I was spun over and dumped into what I think was a costermonger’s barrow. Again I passed through the streets of London, sensing every cobble and gutter. This time, though, the streets were silent, deserted.
The movement finally ceased. I heard conversation. Two men, one much older than the other.
“This is him,” the younger said. “The one we was sent for.”
“Show me the face.”
“Why, friend of yours, is he?”
“There are people here who will know him.”
“I wish ‘em joy of the reunion. But you keep me hanging round any longer, Jack, and I’ll take my custom elsewhere.”
Some grumbling ensued, then money changed hands with a clink that rang like a handbell in the night. I was dragged from the barrow and bundled into what I sensed was a substantial building. I was toted hither and thither – upstairs and along long passages. With only hearing and balance at my disposal I quickly lost any sense of place or position.
Finally I was laid on some sort of table. I heard the retreat of workmen’s boots, then the stealthy approach of soft-soled shoes, the footwear of gentlemen, professional men.
“I must say, McCulloch, you didn’t exaggerate the condition.”
I could hear clearly now. No pillow to muffle incoming sound. I lay wholly exposed. I heard the wheeze of breath, the tick of pocket-watches, the straining of stitching in trousers that were too tight. I heard murmurs of approbation, a nervous titter. I smelled cigar smoke, hair lotion, men’s feet in silken stockings.
“Well, gentlemen? Shall we begin?”
Now I knew panic, Mr Tumbley, panic as never before, not even when McCulloch pronounced me. Death is one thing – these villains were proposing dissection and dismemberment. I heard the production of surgical implements. I smelled an overpowering waft of alcohol. I heard coats removed, sleeves rolled. I sensed them crowd around me. I prayed with all my heart, not for rescue or reprieve, but for a simple everyday sneeze. A sneeze would save me, and if it gave my tormentors an apoplexy, so much the better.
No sneeze came. My prayers fell on deaf ears or went spinning off into the eternal abyss. Since that moment I have not wasted a fraction of a moment on religion. I have empirical evidence that faith goes unrewarded. They stripped my clothes from me, the suit in which I had been dressed for the grave sliced into rags and discarded. No one had seen me naked since my Hindu nurse in Calcutta. I was not embarrassed, I was shamed, they had shamed me. Again someone tittered. Had I but a hundredth of the vigour I had enjoyed in life I would have happily snapped his neck.
Someone said, “Very fine.” More a growl than a murmur. “Very fine indeed.”
What manner of monsters were these? I realised I was being touched, my skin appraised, what little flesh I had evaluated. I could not feel their touch, of course. I heard it – the squeak of my own skin. Then they set about me. It was, I suppose, a scientific process but it seemed to me no more disciplined than ravens falling upon a newborn lamb. And all the time snatches of conversation – no, smug gratification – filled my ears.
“You can still feel vestigial warmth. Feel it for yourself, Harrup.”
“It’s almost as if…”
“I say! You don’t suppose…?”
That was the trigger, apparently. I heard the shiver of surgical steel on skin much closer now, far too close. I smelt the iron scent of blood, my blood. So strong – because it was immediately beside and under my nostrils. They were working on my head, Mr Tumbley! Can you imagine?
I heard a sound of rending and splitting – separation. They were peeling off my face. My nose was covered with my own forehead. I could smell the inside of my eyelids. But I could see. I could see faces and whiskers and I saw the satisfaction on the face of the elderly gentleman who had removed mine.
I had long since ceased to think in any rational or ordered way. All I had now were flashes of insight. One such told me with absolute certainty that they would next take off the top of my skull. Reach inside and lay hands on my brain.
The idea was appalling beyond my capacity to convey. Whatever they had done so far was horrific but to actually manhandle the brain, the seat of everything that makes us who we are, that is the ultimate transgression.
Instinctively – without any hope of success – I put every last pathetic shred of energy that remained to me into trying to move my eye. Either eye would do. These barbarians were doctors, were they not? Surely they would see a muscle twitch and realise what that meant. And they did—-
—-to an extent.
“Did you see that?” one asked. “The medial rectus? I could have sworn—-“
“Vestigial animation,” another drawled. “Same as the warmth. Same phenomenon.”
Then a third voice, younger than the rest, almost a precocious schoolboy in tone. “I say! Would you chaps mind if I…?”
They did mind – “This is not one of your ruddy frogs, Scrivener” – but not too much. I heard several withdraw and one approach. The face that filled my vision was indeed younger than the others. He was clean-shaven, with a long narrow nose, a weak mouth and receding chin. His hair was dull, plastered to his bulbous skull with far too much oil. He struck me as earnest seeker after knowledge who would never have dreamed of doing what he was about to do had he even the suspicion of—-
But he had no such suspicion. And he did what he wanted to.
He focussed his eyes with such force that they almost crossed. His lips fluttered soundlessly. I deduced he was talking to himself, seeking to stiffen his resolve. I saw something fly across my field of vision, something attaching to a wire. Another flew in the opposite direction. I heard flesh compress somewhere between by eyes and my ears. I heard it again on the other side. The callow youngster disappeared from view. There was scuffling, some grumbling. Come on, come on – we haven’t got all night…
Then came an almighty thunk. I not only heard it, I felt it. I experienced every physical sensation I had ever known, all in the same instant. Every sense returned to me. I smelled the stench of the charnel house, heard the sizzle of blood where the wires were attached. I felt the pain – searing, livid pain – of every wound they had inflicted upon me. I saw half-a-dozen eminent surgeons reel back in horror as I sat bolt upright on the dissecting table, levered myself off, caught a foot in the loop of my exposed intestine and pitched forward towards them, all the time berating them, though they probably could not discern what I was yelling because of the flayed nose in my mouth, between my teeth: I’m alive, you fools! Alive!
I HELD UP MY HAND. Stapleton paused, granted me a moment, then enquired: “Do you wish me to stop?”
I shook my head emphatically. I wanted to hear him out, felt sure I needed to discover what happened next. After all, it couldn’t be any worse than that image in my head, of him, skinned and punctured, lurching about the anatomy theatre wearing his guts like a bloody skirt. He had recovered, obviously. I put it to him: “They made it right? They healed you?”
“Oh yes, they put me back together. Guthrie, when he was President of the Royal College, told me that surgeons had learned more from my restoration than they had ever learned from hacking up the dead. Fat lot of good it did most of those present. They were right to think that typhus dies with the body, but I hadn’t died, had I, and they had been elbow deep in my disease.”
“Still,” I ventured gamely. “Your mother must have been pleased.”
“My poor mother could not come to terms with my return. She did her best – nursed me devotedly until I was my own man again – but then she became distracted and had to be looked after in her turn. In the end my father sent a servant from India to escort her home. My grandfather bought me this house but never visited or corresponded thereafter. My family were people of faith, Mr Tumbley, and my continued existence contradicted everything they believed in. They did their duty, behaved honourably, but then…” His voice quavered. I sensed his grief. He sipped his water and resumed. “Likewise my friends and colleagues, those I had served before my illness. They moved mountains. They arranged for me to meet privately with the Lord Chancellor. The Act was reintroduced to the Commons. The College of Surgeons withdrew their objections and Royal Assent followed within the month. I was appointed the first Inspector. There have been others, perhaps as many as twenty, but only I continue. You have no doubt worked out how long I have served and what age I must now be. Perhaps it was the nature of the electrical shock I received. Perhaps it is the effect of the electricity on the typhus, or vice versa. I am a scientific experiment in progress, Mr Tumbley. Who knows how long it may continue?”
Who knows, indeed. What I do know is this. Thirty years have passed since the interview I have described here. The Queen-Empress, the wonder of the world, has turned eighty and has ruled for more than sixty years. Yet Edward Stapleton, who the registers of St Sepulchre’s in Holborn will show died before Victoria came to the throne, still walks the gardens of the Inner Temple – wearing blue spectacles now, which enable him to bear the sunlight – and tips his hat at the occasional rheumatic dotard who still remembers his history.
“The mention of the galvanic battery … recalls to my memory a well-known and very extraordinary case in point, where its action proved the means of restoring to animation a young attorney of London, who had been interred for two days. This occurred in 1831, and created, at the time, a very profound sensation wherever it was made the subject of converse.”
Edgar Allan Poe “The Premature Burial”
About Roger Wood
Roger Wood has graduated four times from three different English universities. He is a doctor of drama. For more information, read Roger’s Shakespir Interview at:
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Also by Roger Wood
PATASOLA, a tale of infatuation, possession and parasites set in beau monde Paris.
“I awoke this morning with the realization that I am losing my mind.”
Dr Gaston Daladier’s friend and patient, the famous author G, has died. He has left Daladier a legacy – journals which start the good doctor on a quest. He begins to wonder, has he caught G’s madness? Or is something else – something much more exotic – invading his dreams and corrupting his body?
RAZORBACK, a story of the weird and unnatural on the Yorkshire Wolds.
“If nobody tells you, how can you know?”
The arrival of the twins tore a massive hole in Stephen’s young life. Uprooted from London to a self-sufficient smallholding in Yorkshire, taken out of school, ignored by his mother, unable to bond with his submissive father, Stephen is truly alone. Then, just before he turns sixteen, his father falls ill and Stephen has to take on a man’s role in the wider world. And now, for the first time, his assumptions are challenged.
THE CARNACKI CONTINUUM
Based on characters created by the legendary pioneer of supernatural horror William Hope Hodgson.
THE SAIITII MANIFESTATION
“You could not call it a reunion, Jessop thought. A reunion was for formal associations whereas their gatherings had always been informal and sporadic. Outside the flat in Cheyne Walk they had scarcely known one another. Jessop, now he came to think of it, had no clear understanding of how they had come together in the first place. Now, of course, the flat was gone. Its lessee Jessop had not seen for the entire four years of war. Would he turn up tonight, he wondered – Carnacki – at Taylor’s yellow brick villa in Putney? To be honest, answering that question was Jessop’s sole motivation in accepting the invitation. It came on a postcard, the invitation, which Jessop considered a nice touch.”
“The words came so fast they overlapped, sometimes loud, sometimes no more than a whispered syllable. Flick recalled Neville’s question from earlier. Was this the voice of a man or a woman? She tried to determine. Impossible – the voice was neither male nor female. It was sexless, like a thought. Do thoughts have gender, she asked herself? Do men and women have different thoughts? Does this voice I am speculating in, inside my head, have identity of any kind?”
The Relict takes up the story where The Saiitii Manifestation left off. The heirs of those who vanished in Putney come together in Carnacki’s old flat in Chelsea. The portal opens, the invisible horde invades, and an answer – of a sort – appears.
Also includes Part 1 of WHH: Scenes from a short life of Carnacki creator William Hope Hodgson
A novella on Amazon Kindle
“THIS EDWARD IS NOT MY KING!”
Violent times breed violent men. In the third decade of the Fourteenth Century even kings can be murdered without consequences. The killers of kings rule in their stead, sleep with their queens, and suck the kingdom dry. Honourable men are driven into outlawry. Eustace Folville is an honourable man – but he ambushes and kills an Exchequer Baron. In the forests and the wastes an alternative outlaw society flourishes, with thugs and schemers and captains and even kings. James Cotterell is King of Peak, leader of the Savage Company. The Sheriff is powerless against such men. But there are men with greater power. The outcome, inevitably, is bloody.
We all know the legend. The question is, are these the real men and women behind the legend?
To learn more about Roger Wood and his work, please visit his website:
The Anatomy Inspector
"There was something about Mr Stapleton. Something different. No doubt about it, Mr Edward Stapleton was a man apart."
Having first seen Her Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy in Westminster Hall, Tumbley comes face to face with him twenty years later when he, Tumbley, is a successful barrister on the verge of taking silk and Stapleton is surprisingly unchanged. It's the first rule of cross-examination: Never ask a question you don't know the answer to. After an evening with the singular Mr Stapleton Tumbley thinks that should be amended slightly. Never ask a question you'd rather not know the answer to.
- ISBN: 9781370016679
- Author: Roger Wood
- Published: 2016-09-23 18:20:15
- Words: 8738