Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Biographical Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson: Weir of ... online

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silence around the rural church. The Resurrec-
tion Man — to use a by-name of the period — was
not to be deterred by any of the sanctities of cus-
tomary piety. It was part of his trade to despise
and desecrate the scrolls and trumpets of old tombs,
the paths worn by the feet of worshippers and
mourners, and the offerings and the inscriptions
of bereaved affection. To rustic neighbourhoods,
where love is more than commonly tenacious, and
where some bonds of blood or fellowship unite
the entire society of a parish, the body-snatcher,
far from being repelled by natural respect, was
attracted by the ease and safety of the task. To

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THE BODY-SNATCtfER 391

bodies that had been laid in earth, in joyful ex-
pectation of a far different awakening, there came
that hasty, lamp-lit, terror-haunted resurrection of
the spade and mattock. The coffin was forced, the
cerements torn, and the melancholy relics, clad in
sackcloth, after being rattled for hours on moon-
less by-ways, were at length exposed to uttermost
indignities before a class of gaping boys.

Somewhat as two vultures may swoop upon a
dying lamb, Fettes and Macfarlane were to be let
loose upon a grave in that green and quiet resting-
place. The wife of a farmer, a woman who had
lived for sixty years, and been known for nothing
but good butter and a godly conversation, was to
be rooted from her grave at midnight and carried,
dead and naked, to that far-away city that she
had always honoured with her Sunday's best; the
place beside her family was to be empty till the
crack of doom ; her innotent and almost venerable
members to be exposed to that last curiosity of the
anatomist.

Late one afternoon the pair set forth, well
wrapped in cloaks and furnished with a formid-
able bottle. It rained without remission — a cold,
dense, lashing rain. Now and again there blew
a puff of wind, but these sheets of falling water
kept it down. Bottle and all, it was a sad and
silent drive as far as Penicuik, where they were
to spend the evening. They stopped once, to hide
their implements in a thick bush not far from the
churchyard, and once again at the Fisher's Tryst,
to have a toast before the kitchen fire and vary

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392 THE BODY-SNATCHER

their nips of whisky with a glass of ale. When
they reached their journey's end the gig was
housed, the horse was fed and comforted, and the
two young doctors in a private room sat down to
the best dinner and the best wine the house af-
forded. The lights, the fire, the beating rain upon
the window, the cold, incongruous work that lay
before them, added zest to their enjoyment of the
meal. With every glass their cordiality increased.
Soon Macfarlane handed a little pile of gold to
his companion.

" A compliment/' he said. " Between friends

these little d d accommodations ought to fly

like pipe-lights."

Fettes pocketed the money, and applauded the
sentiment to the echo. " You are a philosopher,"
he cried. " I was an ass till I knew you. You

and K between you, by the Lord Harry ! but

you '11 make a man of met"

" Of course, we shall," applauded Macfarlane.
" A man ? I tell you, it required a man to back
me up the other morning. There are some big,
brawling, forty-year-old cowards who would have

turned sick at the look of the d d thing; but

not you — you kept your head. I watched you."

"Well, and why not?" Fettes thus vaunted
himself. " It was no affair of mine. There was
nothing to gain on the one side but disturbance,
and on the other I could count on your gratitude,
don't you see?" And he slapped his pocket till
the gold pieces rang.

Macfarlane somehow felt a certain touch of

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THE BODY-SNATCHER 393

alarm at these unpleasant words. He may have^
regretted that he had taught his young companion
so successfully, but he had no time to interfere,
for the other noisily continued in this . boastful
strain :

" The great thing is not to be afraid. Now,
between you and me, I don't want to hang —
that 's practical ; but for all cant, Macfarlane, I
was born with a contempt. Hell, God, Devil,
right, wrong, sin, crime, and all the old gallery
of curiosities — they may frighten boys, but men
of the world, like you and me, despise them.
Here 9 s to the memory of Gray ! "

It was by this time growing somewhat late.
The gig, according to order, was brought round
to the door with both lamps brightly shining, and
the young men had to pay their bill and take the
road. They announced that they were bound for
Peebles, and drove in that direction till they were
clear of the last houses of the town; then, ex-
tinguishing the lamps, returned upon their course,
and followed a by-road toward Glencorse. There
was no sound but that of their own passage, and
the incessant, strident pouring of the rain. It was
pitch dark ; here and there a white gate or a white
stone in the wall guided them for ,a short space
across the night; but for the most part it was at
a foot pace, and almost groping, that they picked
their way through that resonant blackness to their
solemn and isolated destination. In the sunken
woods that traverse the neighbourhood of the
burying-ground the last glimmer failed them, and

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394 THE BODY-SNATCHER

it became necessary to kindle a match and reillu-
mine one of the lanterns of the gig. Thus, under
the dripping trees, and environed by huge and
moving shadows, they reached the scene of their
unhallowed labours.

They were both experienced in such affairs, and
powerful with the spade ; and they had scarce been
twenty minutes at their task before they were re-
warded by a dull rattle on the coffin lid. At the
same moment Macfarlane, having hurt his hand
upon a stone, flung it carelessly above his head.
The grave, in which they now stood almost to the
shoulders, was close to the edge of the plateau
of the graveyard; and the gig lamp had been
propped, the better to illuminate their labours,
against a tree, and on the immediate verge of the
steep bank descending to the stream. Chance had
taken a sure aim with the stone. Then came a
clang of broken glass; night fell upon them;
sounds alternately dull and ringing announced the
bounding of the lantern down the bank, and its
occasional collision with the trees. A stone or
two, which it had dislodged in its descent, rattled
behind it into the profundities of the glen; and
then silence, like night, resumed its sway; and
they might bend their hearing to its utmost pitch,
but naught was to be heard except the rain, now
marching to the wind, now steadily falling over
miles of open country.

They were so nearly at an end of their abhorred
task that they judged it wisest to complete it in
the dark. The coffin was exhumed and broken

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THE BODY-SNATCHER 395

open; the body inserted in the dripping sack and
carried between them to the gig; one mounted
to keep it in its place, and the other, taking the
horse by the mouth, groped along by wall and
bush until they reached the wider road by the
Fisher's Tryst. Here was a faint, diffused ra-
diancy, which they hailed like daylight; by that
they pushed the horse to a good pace and began
to rattle along merrily in the direction of the
town.

They had both been wetted to the skin during
their operations, and now, as the gig jumped
among the deep ruts, the thing that stood propped
between them fell now upon one and now upon
the other. At every repetition of the horrid con-
tact each instinctively repelled it with the greater
haste; and the process, natural although it was,
began to tell upon the nerves of the companions.
Macfarlane made some ill-favoured jest about the
farmer's wife, but it came hollowly from his lips,
and was allowed to drop in silence. Still their
unnatural burthen bumped from side to side; and
now the head would be laid, as if in confidence,
upon their shoulders, and now the drenching sack-
cloth would flap icily about their faces. A creep-
ing chill began to possess the soul of Fettes. He
peered at the bundle, and it seemed somehow larger
than at first. All over the country-side, and from
every degree of distance, the farm dogs accom-
panied their passage with tragic ululations; and
it grew and grew upon his mind that some un-
natural miracle had been accomplished, that some

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396 THE BODY-SNATCHER

nameless change had befallen the dead body, and
that it was in fear of their unholy burthen that
the dogs were howling.

" For God's sake," said he, making a great effort
to arrive at speech, " for God's sake, let 's have a
light!"

Seemingly Macfarlane was affected in the same
direction ; for, though he made no reply, he stopped
the horse, passed the reins to his companion, got
down, and proceeded to kindle the remaining lamp.
They had by that time got no farther than the
cross-road down to Auchenclinny. The rain still
poured as though the deluge were returning, and
it was no easy matter to make a light in such a
world of wet and darkness. When at last the
flickering blue flame had been transferred to the
wick and began to expand and clarify, and shed
a wide circle of misty brightness round the gig,
it became possible for the two young men to see
each other and the thing they had along with
them. The rain had moulded the rough sacking
to the outlines of the body underneath; the head
was distinct from the trunk, the shoulders plainly
modelled; something at once spectral and human
riveted their eyes upon the ghastly comrade of
their drive.

For some time Macfarlane stood motionless,
holding up the lamp. A nameless dread was
swathed, like a wet sheet, about the body, and
tightened the white skin upon the face of Fettes;
a fear that was meaningless, a horror of what
could not be, kept mounting to his brain. An-

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THE BODY-SNATCHER 397

other beat of the watch, and he had spoken. But
his comrade forestalled him.

" That is not a woman," said Macfarlane, in a
hushed voice.

" It was a woman when we put her in," whis-
pered Fettes.

" Hold that lamp," said the other. " I must see
her face."

And as Fettes took the lamp his companion un-
tied the fastenings of the sack and drew down the
cover from the head. The light fell very clear
upon the dark, well-moulded features and smooth-
shaven cheeks of a too familiar countenance, often
beheld in dreams of both of these young men. A
wild yell rang up into the night ; each leaped from
his own side into the roadway; the lamp fell,
broke, and was extinguished; and the horse, ter-
rified by this unusual commotion, bounded and
went off toward Edinburgh at a gallop, bearing
along with it, sole occupant of the gig, the body
of the dead and long-dissected Gray.



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Online LibraryRobert Louis StevensonThe Biographical Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson: Weir of ... → online text (page 24 of 24)