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Late in the evening of Thursday, 16 February 1786, the Last Supper was nearing its end. The new Apostle had taken the oaths, signed the membership book and swallowed the contents of the sacred glass presented by the late Morton Frostwick, to the accompaniment of whoops, cheers and catcalls. Now it was time for the toasts that preceded the grand climax of the ceremony.
“No heeltaps, gentlemen,” Jesus commanded from the head of the table. “All rise. I give you His Majesty the King.”
The Apostles shuffled to their feet, many with difficulty. Four chairs fell over and someone knocked a bottle off the table.
Jesus raised his glass. “The King, God bless him.”
“The King, God bless him,” bellowed a chorus of voices in return, for the Apostles prided themselves on their patriotism and their attachment to the throne. Each man drained his glass in one. “God bless him!” repeated St. Matthew at the far end of table, and his passionate exhortation ended in a hiccup.
Jesus and the Apostles sat down and the buzz of conversation resumed. The tall, long room was brightly lit with candles. A shifting pall of smoke hung above the table. A great fire blazed in the hearth beneath the marble chimneypiece. The curtains were drawn. The mirrors between the windows caught the flames, the sparkle of silver and crystal, and the glitter of the buttons on the gentlemen’s coats. All the Apostles wore the same livery—a bright green coat lined with buck silk and adorned with prominent gilt buttons down the front and on the cuffs.
“How long do I wait?” said the young man at the right hand of Jesus.
“Be patient, Frank. All in good time.” Jesus raised his voice. “Recharge your glasses, gentlemen.”
He poured wine into his neighbor’s glass and his own. He watched the other men obeying him like sheep.
“One more toast,” he murmured in Frank’s ear. “Then we have the ceremony. And then the sacrifice.”
“Pray tell me,” Frank said, resting his elbow on the table and turning towards Jesus. “Does Mrs. Whichcote know I am to be sanctified tonight?”
“Why do you ask?”
Frank’s face had grown very red. “I—I merely wondered. Since I am to spend the night here, I thought perhaps she must know.”
“She does not,” Jesus said. “She knows nothing. And you must tell her nothing. This is men’s business.”
“Yes, of course. I should not have asked.” Frank’s elbow slipped and he would have toppled from his chair if Jesus had not steadied him. “A thousand apologies. But you’re a lucky dog, you know, she’s so very lovely—oh damnation, pray do not take it amiss, Philip, I should not have said that.”
“I was not listening.” Jesus stood up, ignoring Frank’s desire to continue apologizing. “Gentlemen, it is time for another toast. All rise. I give you damnation to the Great Whore of Babylon, his foulness of Rome, Pius VI, and may he rot in hell for all eternity along with his fellow Papists.”
The Apostles drained their glasses and burst into applause. The toast was traditional, and dated back to the earliest days of the Holy Ghost Club. Jesus had no personal animosity towards Papists. In fact his own mother had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, though she had laid aside her religion at the time of her marriage and adopted her husband’s, as a good wife should.
He waited until the clapping and cheering had subsided. “Be seated, gentlemen.”
Chairs scraped on polished boards. St. James sat down but caught only the edge of his chair, which sent him sprawling on the floor. St. John rushed behind the screen at the far end of the room and could be heard being violently sick. St. Thomas turned aside from the company, unbuttoned and urinated into one of the commodes placed conveniently nearby.
There was a faint tapping on the door behind Jesus’s chair. Only Jesus heard it. He stood up and opened the door a few inches. The footboy was outside, candle in hand, and his eyes large with fear.
“What?” Jesus demanded.
“If it please your honor, the lady below would be obliged if she might have a private word.”
Jesus shut the door in the boy’s face. Smiling, he sauntered back to the table and rested his arm along the back of St. Peter’s chair on the left of his own. He bent down and spoke into St. Peter’s ear. “I shall be back directly—I must make sure that all is ready. Let them toast their inamoratas if they grow impatient.”
“Is it time?” Frank said. “Is it time?”
“Nearly,” Jesus said. “Believe me, it will be worth the wait.”
He straightened up. St. Andrew asked Frank a question about the merits of water spaniels as gundogs, a temporary but effective distraction. Jesus left the room, closing the mahogany door behind him. The air was at once much cooler. He was on a square landing lit by two candles burning on a bracket next to a small uncurtained window. For a moment he put his head close to the glass and rubbed a circle in the condensation. It was too dark to make out much, but at the far end of the garden a lamp glimmered above the side door of Lambourne House.
He walked quickly downstairs. The pavilion stood at the bottom of the garden. Its plan was straightforward—the great room above filled the whole of the first floor; the stairs at one end linked it to a lobby on the ground floor, where there were two doors. One door led outside to the garden, the other to a narrow hall running the length of the building and giving access to the covered terrace beside the river and to several small rooms. The footboy, who had the absurd name of Augustus, was sitting on a bench in the lobby. He sprang to his feet and bowed. At a nod from Jesus, he opened the door to the hall. Jesus passed him without a word and closed the door in his face.
Candles in pairs burned on brackets along the walls, creating globes of light in the gloom. Jesus tapped on the second door along, and it opened from within.
Mrs. Phear drew him inside. She stood on tiptoe and murmured in his ear, “The little weakling has failed us.”
The chamber was small and painted white like a cell. But it was snug enough because a coal fire glowed in the grate, the curtains were drawn and the shutters closed. The room was furnished simply with a little bed hung with white curtains, a table and two chairs. On the table stood a bottle of wine, another of cordial, two glasses and a bowl of nuts. On the mantelshelf was a candle, which provided the only light in the room apart from the fire.
“Failed?” Jesus said.
“Look for yourself.” Mrs. Phear wore a nun’s habit with a black wimple that framed and obscured her face. “Take the light.”
Jesus picked up the candle and went to the bed. The curtains were tied back. A girl lay on her back with her fair hair lying loose on the pillow. White cords attached her wrists and ankles to the four bedposts. She was dressed in a white nightgown with a loose neck. She must have been beautiful in life, he thought, the sort of girl you felt you could crush into a million fragments if you squeezed her hard enough.
He bent closer. She was young—perhaps thirteen or fourteen. Her skin was naturally very pale but her cheeks were red, almost purple. Her eyes were open and her lips widely parted. He held the candle nearer. There was froth on the lips, and a trickle of vomit at the corner of her mouth. Her eyes protruded from their sockets.
“God damn it.”
“It is such a waste,” Mrs. Phear said. “And I believe she was really a virgin, too.”
“The little bitch. Was ever anything so unlucky? What happened?”
The woman shrugged. “I made her ready for him. I went up to the house for more candles, and she asked me to put a nut or two in her mouth before I went. And when I came back she was as you see her. She’s still warm.”
Jesus straightened up, though his eyes lingered on the girl’s face. “It’s as if someone smothered her.” He looked quickly around the room.
“I locked the door behind me,” Mrs. Phear said in a flat voice. “She choked on a nut, that’s all. The footboy was in the lobby all the time and saw no one. Is he trustworthy?”
“He’s nothing but a child. He heard nothing?”
“The walls are thick.”
Candle in hand, Jesus moved about the room. Mrs. Phear waited, with hands folded and eyes cast down.
He pointed at the ceiling, to the great room above. “I cannot afford to disappoint Frank Oldershaw. Not him of all people.”
“I suppose he would not take the girl like that?”
“What? Dead?” He stared at Mrs. Phear.
“I told you, she’s still warm.”
“Of course he would not.”
“But would he notice?”
“Dear God, ma’am, yes—I think he would. He’s not so far gone. Besides, that’s where the sport of it is for them, the struggle. Believe me, that’s what they brag about afterwards in their cups. That and the blood on the sheet.”
“Are you sure it cannot be contrived?”
Jesus shook his head. “Not the struggle. And not with her face like that. I tell you, it would not answer.”
Mrs. Phear kneaded the hem of her cloak. “So do you tell him he must wait?”
“He’s mad for it, ma’am. He’s not used to being crossed. We cannot cool his ardor with a Barnwell drab even if we could lay our hands on one at this time. When can you find me another such as this?”
“In a month or so, perhaps. Even then it would not be easy. Not so soon after this.”
Jesus said, “He’s worth more than the others put together. But I cannot tell him she’s dead. I must say that she was terrified at the prospect before her, and stole away in the night.”
“There’s another difficulty,” Mrs. Phear said. “What do we do with—with that?”
Jesus turned and looked back at the white body on the white bed. Suddenly time accelerated. Event stumbled after event in a disorderly rush. He heard a raised voice outside and footsteps. The door handle turned. He tried to reach the door, to hold it shut, but the bed and the dead girl were in his way. Mrs. Phear whirled towards the sound with surprising speed but her skirt snagged on the corner of the table and the door was already opening before she had freed herself.
Frank Oldershaw was swaying on the threshold. His face was red and his waistcoat was unbuttoned. “Ah, there you are, Philip,” he said. “I am on fire, I tell you, I cannot wait another moment.” He caught sight of Mrs. Phear and her unexpected presence made him falter. But he was too drunk to stop altogether and the last few words tumbled from his mouth in a dying whisper. “And where have you hidden my sweet little virgin?”
This body was found in Jerusalem on the morning of Friday, 17 February. The sun had not quite risen. The college gardens were filled with a gray half-light, which made it possible to distinguish the broad outlines of things, but not their details. It was very quiet.
The man who discovered the corpse was called John Floyd. But he was known to everybody—sometimes even to his wife—as Tom Turdman. He was as brown as his name, and a finder of unwanted trifles, discarded memories and excreted secrets.
Jerusalem occupied eight or nine acres of ground. The college was surrounded on three sides by a high brick wall upon a medieval base of rubble and dressed stone, and on the fourth side by the principal buildings. The walls were topped with rows of spikes. Behind the chapel, the Long Pond stretched in a curve towards the southeast. It was fed by a stream that the friars had culverted under the walls long ago, before Jerusalem was even thought of. On the far side of the pond were the Fellows’ Garden and the Master’s Garden. Most of the town lay some way off on the other side of the irregular huddle of college buildings.
The only sounds were the clack of Tom’s overshoes, wooden pattens, and the trundling of the iron-rimmed wheels of his barrow on the flagged path. He visited four colleges: Sidney Sussex, Christ’s, Jerusalem and Emmanuel. He preferred to work in winter because he was paid by volume, not by the hour, and the smell obliged him to visit more frequently in the summer. He worked for a retired corn chandler whom the undergraduates called the merchant of shit. His employer derived a modest income from selling scholarly manure to farmers and gardeners.
This morning Tom was now so cold that he could hardly feel his hands. He had just emptied the Master’s privy, never a pleasant task, and wheeled his barrow along the flagged path at the back of the Master’s Lodge, which was unexpectedly productive. The path led to a gate, which the head porter, Mr. Mepal, had just unlocked for him, and then over the Long Pond by way of an intricately constructed wooden bridge. The barrow wheels rumbled like muffled thunder on the wooden planks. He turned left towards the little boghouse the bedmakers used, which was modestly tucked away on the far side of the college gardens.
The path ran close to the pond in the shadow of a great tree. In the greater gloom under the branches, Tom slipped on a patch of ice. He fell, measuring his length on the stones. The barrow toppled on to the frosty grass and discharged at least half of its stinking cargo on the bank. The shovel, which had been balanced on top, slithered into the water.
Panting with cold, he righted the trolley. He would have to clear as much as he could of the filth, and hope against hope that rain would wash the rest away before anyone noticed it. But the shovel was somewhere in the pond, and he could do nothing without it. Surely the water near the bank could not be very deep? He took off his brown coat and rolled the sleeves of his shirt above his thin, pointed elbows. He was about to plunge his hand into the water when he saw a large, dark object floating among the shards of thin ice a yard or two from the bank.
At first he thought a sheet or a shirt had fallen into the pond, for the east wind had blown strongly during the last few days, often coming in savage gusts. The following instant he thought of a more interesting idea—namely, that the floating thing was a cloak or gown discarded by a reveller during some drunken prank the previous evening. He had retrieved caps and gowns from cesspits on several occasions and either restored them to their owners or sold them to a dealer in secondhand academic dress.
Tom Turdman thrust his right arm into the freezing water. He whimpered as the cold hit him. To his relief, his fingers closed around the shaft of the shovel. All this time his mind was partly distracted by the risk of Mepal’s vengeful anger if he discovered what had happened, a risk that grew with every minute’s delay.
The sky was becoming paler. But the goddamned tree blocked so much of the light. He straightened up and stared at the thing in the water. If it was a cloak or gown, it held the possibility of substantial profit.
He held the shovel in his other hand and leaned low over the pond. He stretched his arm towards the thing that lay just beneath the swaying surface. Water seeped over the lip of one of the pattens and trickled into the cracked shoe beneath. He tried to hook the shadow with the shovel, but it danced away. He leaned out a little farther. The patten slipped in the mud.
With a shriek, Tom Turdman fell forward. The cold hit him like an iron bar. He opened his mouth to scream and swallowed pond water. His feet flailed, seeking the bottom. Weeds curled around his ankles. He could not breathe. He flung out his arms. He was now desperate to keep afloat, desperate to find a handhold. As he began to sink again, the fingers of his right hand closed around a bundle of rotting twigs, each of them with something unyielding at its core. At the same moment his feet sank into mud, and the mud seemed to receive him in its embrace and draw him deeper and deeper into it.
He did not know that he was screaming. By that time, Tom Turdman was beyond thinking, almost beyond feeling. But long before he discovered what he was holding, he knew that there was nothing living in whatever curled around his fingers. He knew that what he touched was dead.
Another town, and another stretch of water.
What John Holdsworth remembered most about the house by the Thames was the light. Pale and shimmering, it filled the rooms overlooking the river throughout the day. It was a fifth element poised somewhere between air, water and pale fire.
Georgie used to say it was ghost water, not light at all, and sometimes he believed he saw apparitions swaying and flickering on the walls. Once he roused the household with his screams, crying that a drowned lighterman from nearby Goat Stairs had come to drag him down to the bottom of the river. Later Holdsworth thought the drowned man had been a portent of what was to come, a prelude of sorts, for drowning ran like a watery thread through the whole sad affair.
In November 1785, Georgie slipped on a patch of ice when he was playing by Goat Stairs. As he struggled to right himself, he tripped over a rope attached to a bollard. Maria, his mother, saw the whole thing happen, saw the boy tumbling off the wharf. One moment he was there, a vigorous, shrieking little boy. The next moment he was gone.
The tide was high and he fell into the water, striking his head against the side of a coal barge. It was possible that it was the blow to the head that killed him. But the weather was rough that day. The heavily laden barge was rocking and heaving against the side of the wharf, and it was at least ten minutes before they got him out of the water. So it was not easy to say precisely how he died. His body had been ground between wharf and barge. It had sustained terrible injuries. But just possibly Georgie might have drowned before that. There was no way of knowing for sure.
Holdsworth preferred to think that his son had died at once, that the fall itself had killed him, perhaps with one of the blows to the head. He knew nothing of what had happened until it was over, until they came to fetch him from the shop in Leadenhall Street. He felt a guilty and intolerable gratitude that he had at least been spared the sight of his son falling to his death.
After that, nothing went right. How could it? Maria was unreachable in her grief. She refused to put up a headstone, saying that it would not be right, for Georgie could not be wholly dead. She spent most of her time praying in the house or beside the little mound in the burial ground. She gave what money she had to a woman who claimed to be able to see ghosts. The woman said she saw Georgie, that she talked to him, that he was happy and that he sent his love to his mama. She said that Georgie was now playing with lambs and with other children in a great green sunlit meadow, and the air was filled with the music of the heavenly choir.
Item by item, Maria sold her rings, most of her dresses and the better pieces of furniture. She fed the woman with more money. In return the woman told her over and over again that Georgie thought of his mama all the time, and sent her caresses and fond words, and that soon they would be together and God would never let them be parted again.
Sometimes Holdsworth did not know whether he was grieving for Georgie or angry with Maria. The two emotions were fused. He would have been within his rights to forbid his wife to see the woman, and to beat her if she disobeyed him. He had not the heart for it. He felt guilty enough already, for he had failed to save his son. Maria told him that Georgie had sent his love to Papa and said they would soon be together with the angels in God’s heaven. Holdsworth swore at her, and she did not tell him anything else.
- On Sale
- Jan 25, 2011
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Hachette Books