1 Lights In The Graveyard
Lady Huntercombe was a thin woman with a pointed nose and a rather distrustful expression. She peered across the dining table at Nathaniel until he felt like a specimen in a glass jar. ‘So you are the famous Ghost Hunter of London?’ she remarked.
Nathaniel thought carefully before replying to this. On their walk to the house earlier that evening, his grandfather had explained that Lady Huntercombe was the real head of the household. ‘Her husband goes along with whatever she says. And she has a great deal of influence in high places,’ he added. ‘So watch what you say to her.’
‘Well, that’s what the newspapers called me,’ Nathaniel admitted. ‘I didn’t choose the name myself.’
‘But it’s true that you foiled the plans of that dreadful man, Mr Chesterfield, who had killed his wife and wanted to kill his step-daughter? And that you did so after seeing an apparition of some kind?’
‘Yes, that’s true,’ Nathaniel agreed.
No more extraordinary than this dinner party, Nathaniel felt like telling her. Four people at a table big enough to seat twenty with ease! Enough dishes for half a dozen meals! A whole tribe of servants bowing and scraping for all they were worth! It simply didn’t make sense. Yet for twelve months now, this had been his life – kitted out like a gentleman in the finest clothes, rubbing shoulders with the wealthiest people in the county. Bored to death. You can take the boy out of the gutter, he said to himself, but can you ever take the gutter out of the boy?
How he longed for the days when he had lived in the slums of the East End of London, trying to keep out of the landlady’s sight because there was no money to pay the rent, carrying trays of fish around Billingsgate Market all day in order to earn the price of a meat pie. He missed the sights and sounds, and even the smells of the city. ‘You’ll love the peace and quiet of the countryside,’ his friends had told him when he had first announced that he was moving out of London to live with his grandfather and he had smiled back and assured them that he was looking forward to it. But you could have too much peace and quiet and Nathaniel was beginning to feel about a hundred years old.
Lady Huntercombe turned to Nathaniel’s grandfather. ‘Mr Monkton, you should have brought your grandson to see us before. You mustn’t let him hide his light under a bushel. We are all so excited to hear about his adventures. Aren’t we, dear?’ She addressed this last remark to her husband.
‘What was that?’ Lord Huntercombe was a red-faced man with enormous side-whiskers and a nose so mottled and blotched from years of drinking fine wines, it looked like something that had been left under the sea and colonised by barnacles. He had at least two spare chins and his waistcoat buttons strained against the substantial bulge of his belly. He rested his clasped hands on that bulge like a man in prayer, while he considered whether or not he could manage the enormous slice of cake being offered by one of his servants.
‘I said we are most keen to hear about Nathaniel’s exploits,’ Lady Huntercombe repeated.
‘Oh yes, quite so.’ Lord Huntercombe agreed, reluctantly turning down the cake and settling for another glass of wine instead.
‘There’s really not much to tell you,’ Nathaniel said. ‘Mr Chesterfield was planning to murder his step-daughter, Sophie. And he probably would have succeeded but the ghost of his wife appeared to me one night and from then on she refused to leave me in peace until I managed to stop him. With a lot of help from my friends, of course.’
‘But you actually saw the ghost.’
‘She would like to keep me here as her pet,’ Nathaniel thought to himself, ‘to entertain her with stories of the supernatural, to show off to her friends.’ But he was nobody’s pet and though she continued to quiz him about the details of his adventure, his answers grew less and less informative until she was forced to abandon the subject altogether
‘That business in Harford Cemetery last week was a most shocking affair,’ Lord Huntercombe remarked. Apart from eating and drinking, his lordship’s interests were largely confined to shooting small animals. So whatever had happened in Harford Cemetery the previous week must have been very unusual indeed to have attracted his attention. Nathaniel pricked up his ears.
‘A very bad business indeed,’ his wife agreed. ‘What I want to know is what you’re going to do about it, Mr Monkton?’ she added, sternly.
‘What I’m going to do about it?’ Nathaniel’s grandfather replied.
‘Well, you are the magistrate for the area, after all.’
Mr Monkton sighed. ‘That is true, madam,’ he conceded, ‘but though I can sentence the villains when they are caught, there is very little that is within my power until that time.’
Lady Huntercombe shook her head. ‘It is not good enough Mr Monkton, not good enough at all. These villains must be put behind bars right away!’
‘What is everyone talking about?’ Nathaniel asked.
‘Body snatchers!’ Lord Huntercombe informed him.
Nathaniel turned to his grandfather for an explanation.
‘Last Wednesday a man called Robert Pearce was buried in Harford Cemetery,’ his grandfather told him. ‘That same night, someone dug up his grave and stole his body.’
‘The same thing happened last month across the border in Hampshire.’ Lady Huntercombe chipped in. ‘On that occasion two bodies were taken. I don’t know what the world is coming to.’
‘But why would anyone want to steal a body?’ Nathaniel asked.
‘So that unscrupulous medical men can cut them up,’ his grandfather replied.’
When Nathaniel continued to look blank, his grandfather explained, ‘There have been many advances in medicine in recent years and those advances have come about because people have learned more about the human body. Much of that knowledge has come from the examination of dead bodies.’
‘Isn’t that a good thing?’ Nathaniel asked.
‘Most certainly. But because of the demand to know still more, a trade has sprung up in cadavers and that is certainly not a good thing.’
‘So people are digging up corpses to sell them?’ Nathaniel asked.
‘It’s monstrous,’ Lady Huntercombe agreed. ‘The distress caused to the families of the victims is indescribable. In my opinion, the army should be posted around our cemeteries.’
‘I think that might be taking things a little too far,’ Mr Monkton suggested. ‘I have no doubt that those responsible will be apprehended in due time.’
Lady Huntercombe looked far from satisfied with this reply but her husband soon began to tire of the subject and started to talk about a new horse he was thinking of buying.
Eventually, the meal was consumed and the company withdrew to the Drawing Room. Nathaniel glanced behind him as he left. The table was still laden with half-eaten food: a huge bowl of trifle, several different varieties of cake, fresh fruit, jugs of cream. He could easily imagine how much work had been involved in preparing that meal and how much would still have to be done before the servants could retire for the night. But he suspected that this was something to which Lord and Lady Huntercombe never gave the slightest thought. ‘His lordship cares more about the welfare of his horses and his hounds than he does about his servants,’ Nathaniel thought to himself. But that was how it was with the upper classes – or with most of them, anyway. They never thought about the lower orders unless they were absolutely forced to.
When the clock struck eleven, Mr Monkton decided that it was time to return home. Nathaniel, who had been trying hard to stifle a yawn for the last five minutes, willingly agreed.
‘You must come and see us again,’ Lady Huntercombe said, fixing her eyes on Nathaniel as he put on his coat.
Nathaniel did his best to smile back at her. But in his heart he thought to himself, ‘Not if I can help it!‘
‘I’ll just ring and tell the footman to bring the carriage round to the front entrance,’ Lord Huntercombe announced.
Mr Monkton shook his head. ‘Thank you for the offer, sir, but we came on foot and we will return in the same way. It is less than a mile to the village and the moon is full. The exercise will be good for us. What do you say, Nathaniel?’
Nathaniel nodded eagerly. After several hours of sitting around, making polite conversation with the Huntercombes, a moonlit walk through country lanes was just what he needed.
A few minutes later he and his grandfather had said farewell to their hosts and were breathing in the cool night air as they made their way towards the village where their house was situated.
Though he was in his sixties, Mr Monkton was a fit man and the two of them walked briskly along in companionable silence. Above them, ragged clouds raced across the sky, hiding the moon from time to time and plunging the world into pitch darkness. The sheer emptiness and the quiet of the countryside, especially at night time, was one of the things Nathaniel had found hardest to get used to since leaving the city. Even in the small hours, the streets of London were awash with drunken revellers, homeless beggars, ruthless criminals or just ordinary citizens who could not sleep. But out here in the country, the night belonged to the wild creatures, and mankind seemed like trespassers. It made him distinctly uneasy.
As they came within sight of the village, Nathaniel suddenly noticed lights moving about in the graveyard. Stopping in his tracks, he seized his grandfather’s arm and pointed them out.
‘Do you think it can be body snatchers?’ he whispered.
‘I don’t know,’ Mr Monkton replied, ‘but if it is, I’ll soon put a stop to them.’ He immediately set off in the direction of the churchyard gate.
‘It might be best to creep up, unnoticed,’ Nathaniel suggested, hurrying alongside him.
But Mr Monkton was in no mood for caution. ‘Lady Huntercombe was right. I do represent the law in this part of the country,’ he told his grandson, ‘and if there’s wrong-doing of any kind, then it’s my job to see that it’s dealt with.’
That was all very well, Nathaniel thought to himself, but Lady Huntercombe did not have to confront criminals in a midnight graveyard. She was safe and sound in her own home. No doubt her maid was helping her get herself ready for bed at this very moment while her ladyship reeled off a list of tasks to be completed the following morning.
Mr Monkton opened the churchyard gate, stepped inside and called out in a loud voice, ‘You there! What do you think you’re doing?’
There was no sound except the distant hoot of an owl.
The moon chose that precise moment to go behind a cloud and it was difficult to make out anything but the vague shapes of the tombstones. Nevertheless, it was clear that the light was coming from the far corner of the churchyard, the area where the newer graves were dug. ‘We’d better go and investigate more closely!’ Mr Monkton declared.
They made their way uncertainly along the little path that wove erratically through the graves. Twice, Nathaniel stumbled on the uneven ground and barked his shins against unseen objects. Then suddenly, the moon emerged from behind the clouds and the churchyard was illuminated almost as brightly as by day. Three men were standing beside a newly-dug pile of earth. Two of them were intent on hauling up a coffin with ropes while the third held a lantern over the grave.
‘Stop that this instant!’ Mr Monkton declared.
The three men turned and looked at him. The one who was holding the lantern put it down on the ground. Calmly, and without taking his eyes off Mr Monkton for one moment, he reached into his pocket and brought out a pistol.
‘I suggest you go home and mind your own business, old man,’ he said, cocking the pistol and pointing it directly at Nathaniel’s grandfather.
‘This is my business,’ Mr Monkton declared. ‘I am the magistrate for this area.’
‘Then it aint your lucky day,’ replied the body snatcher.
After that, everything happened in slow-motion. The body snatcher’s finger squeezed the trigger of the pistol. There was a noise that seemed as loud as thunder to Nathaniel and a simultaneous flash of gunpowder. Then his grandfather crumpled to the ground clutching his chest.
‘Grandad!’ Nathaniel cried out, bending over his grandfather, hoping desperately that the old man was still alive.
His grandfather moaned.
Just then Nathaniel felt a shadow fall over him. Looking up, he saw that the body-snatcher was standing directly above him and the pistol was raised once more.
Nathaniel froze. ‘So this is how I die,’ he thought to himself for there was no mercy in the body snatcher’s eyes. The man’s face was gaunt and ugly, the skin pitted and scarred. One of his ears was terribly mutilated, as if it had been torn off by a wild animal. He seemed like the inhabitant of some other, more terrible world, a place without joy or pity where a human being was no more than a walking carcass, to be cut down and sold to the highest bidder.
‘Say your prayers, boy,’ the body snatcher said. His finger tightened on the trigger once more and Nathaniel wondered, briefly, if it would hurt very much when the bullet entered his body.
With a click, the hammer struck the firing pin but there was no explosion. The gunpowder had failed to ignite. Cursing, the man strode away and the two others followed quickly at his heels.
Only when they had gone did Nathaniel find that he could move again. He felt almost dizzy with relief.
‘Grandad, are you all right?’ he asked. But his grandfather made no reply. Nathaniel put out his hand to touch the old man and found that his jacket was soaked with blood. It was clear that he was gravely wounded.
Horrified, Nathaniel leapt to his feet. ‘Don’t die, grandad,’ he said. ‘I’m going to get help. I’ll be back as quickly as I can. Just please don’t die!’
He set off for his grandfather’s house, running as fast as he could. As he ran, he blamed himself for what had happened. He had been the one to point the lights out to his grandfather. ‘Why did I open my mouth?’ he asked himself. ‘I should never have let him go in there. I should have insisted that we went back to the house and got some help.’
But it was too late for all that now. His grandfather’s life was ebbing away in the cold, dark churchyard. He might even be dead already. The man who had offered him a chance to make something of his life! The man who had taken him in when his own father had abandoned him! ‘He gave me everything and all I did was complain!’ Nathaniel told himself.
At last he reached the house and hammered repeatedly on the door knocker. After what seemed like an age, James, the butler, opened the door. He stared at Nathaniel’s dishevelled figure in astonishment‘Come quickly!’ Nathaniel declared. ‘Mr Monkton has been shot!’