Part Two: The Madness Chapter Twenty-One
Up until the moment Hudson Greathouse went into the barn and began to saddle a second horse for Matthew, this one a lean gray stallion far more spirited than the placid Suvie, the young clerk had thought this so-called errand was another of Greathouse's rather irritating jokes. But as Matthew soon came to realize, the joke was on him; with shovels bound up and tied to the saddle of Greathouse's own horse, they were on their way to exhume a corpse.
The sun was warm, the air still, the summer birds singing, and the insects awhirr in the gilded shafts of light spilling through the boughs. Matthew struggled to keep his horse in control. The beast was much stronger than Suvie, headstrong as well, and kept wanting to veer off the road. "What's this creature's namei" Matthew asked toward Greathouse's back.
"Buck," came the reply. "He's a fine animal. Just let him have his head, he'll do all right."
"He wants to leave the road!"
"No, he wants to pick up his pace. You're holding him back like an old woman." Greathouse suddenly urged his mount into a canter and said, "Come on, I want to get there before tomorrow!"
Matthew just had to press Buck's sides with his knees to cause the horse to nearly leap forward, an action for which Matthew was totally unprepared and almost unseated into a tangle of green briars. He hung on, resisted the urge to pull the horse back to a more comfortable speed-and somewhat doubted Buck would heed him, anyway-and soon he was travelling neck-to-neck with Greathouse's horse instead of nose to tail.
They followed the road through a wilderness of thick-trunked trees that Matthew thought could never be felled by a hundred axemen working a hundred days. Redbirds fluttered in the high branches and a fox skittered across the road as the horses approached. after a while, Greathouse settled his horse back into an easy trot and Matthew did the same with Buck. a stone wall soon appeared along the left side of the road, and knowing the Ormond farm must be within a mile or so, Matthew said, "What's this abouti We're not really going to dig up a grave, are wei"
"We didn't bring shovels to knock apples out of the trees."
"But whyi What's so urgent about this particular corpsei" He got no answer, so he tried another tack. "I told you everything Mr. McCaggers told me. There's nothing more to see. anyway, I don't think it's proper to disturb the dead."
"I won't tell if you won't. There's the turn ahead."
Greathouse took the next road to the left and Matthew kept up with him, or rather had no choice as he had begun to suspect Buck had been trained to follow Greathouse no matter who thought they guided the reins. "Listen," Matthew persisted, "I'm not used to this kind of thing. I mean...what's the point of iti"
Greathouse abruptly drew his horse up, causing Buck to stop almost immediately as well. "all right," Greathouse rumbled, with a nod. "I'll tell you why. The way you described the murder set me to remembering something. I can't tell you what that is. Not yet. and I'm going to insist that you not mention anything of this to Mrs. Herrald, either. Just help me dig, that's all I'm asking."
Matthew caught a note in the man's voice that he'd not heard before. It was not exactly fear, though there was indeed an element of that, as it was more abhorrence. Of whati Matthew wondered. The corpsei Surely not just that, for it was likely Greathouse had seen-and created-his share of them. No, this was something else entirely. Something that went deep, and was yet to be revealed.
Greathouse continued on, and so Buck followed with Matthew along for the ride. In another few minutes a more narrow track turned off again to the left and this was the route they took to the Ormond farm.
It was a well-worked plot consisting mostly of apple and pear trees, along with plantings of corn, turnips, beans, and a few rows of tobacco. as the two riders approached a farmhouse of brown stones that sat beside a barn and animal corral, chickens squawked and fluttered for shelter and a half-dozen hogs looked up inquisitively from their pen. From the barn appeared a burly man wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, a brown shirt, and gray trousers with patches on the knees. accompanied by a barking cinnamon-colored dog, he came out to meet his visitors as a wide-hipped woman opened the farmhouse's door and two small children peered around her skirts.
"Mr. Ormond!" Greathouse called as he reined his horse. "It's Hudson Greathouse."
"Yes sir, I recall ye." The farmer had a long dark beard and eyebrows as thick as wooly caterpillars. He eyed the shovels. "Plannin' to dig up your own turnipsi"
"Not exactly. This is my associate Matthew Corbett. May we step downi"
That civility done, Greathouse waited until the dog had calmed down and was content to lope around sniffing at everyone's shoes before he continued. "It's been brought to my attention," he said, "that a body was discovered on your property."
Ormond regarded the ground and pressed a stone with the toe of his boot. He said in a slow, thick voice, "True enough."
"and it was buried beside the riveri"
"Where it come up." He lifted his gaze and took stock of the shovels again. "Oh, Mr. Greathouse! I wouldn't want to be doin' what you've got a' mind."
"Mr. Corbett and I are not what you might call constables, in the strictest sense," Greathouse explained, "but we are representatives of the law. I feel it's my duty-our duty-to examine the corpse."
Speak for yourself, Matthew thought. The sun seemed terribly warm, and more brutal than bright.
"Not much left," said Ormond.
"We'd still like to look."
Ormond drew in a long breath and let it slowly leak out between his teeth. "I'd best put the dog in the house. Come on, Nero! Come on, boy!"
Greathouse unbound the shovels from his saddle and gave one to Matthew, who took it as if it were a venomous reptile. When the dog was put away and the wife and children also behind the closed door, Greathouse and Matthew walked with Ormond along a wagon track that led across the orchard.
"Nero found him," Ormond said. "Heard the dog barkin' up a fury, thought he'd treed a bobcat. Thank the Lord my children didn't go runnin' down there. I went to town that very afternoon, walked right into City Hall and asked for the biggest constable they've got."
Matthew might have made an inner comment about this statement, but he was too fixated on the river he'd begun to see beyond the trees.
"They said they couldn't handle him. Gettin' him from here to town, I mean," Ormond went on. "So I said just bury him. The coroner wrapped him up with a bedsheet and that big slave put him under. He's over this way here."
They came out from the orchard and there was the shimmering blue expanse of the river winding between the forested banks. Ormond led them about forty yards farther to a mound of dirt with a headstone of three ash-colored rocks. "Washed up there, he was." Ormond stood on a flat boulder and pointed down the hillside to a dead tree that had uprooted and fallen into the water. "Hung in those branches."
"Who has the next property upriveri" Greathouse was already at work moving aside the rocks.
"Farmer by the name of Gustenkirk. Good enough fella, keeps to himself. Wife and family, four children. Got a wooden leg."
"and the next property after thati"
"another farm. Fella's name is Van Hullig. I spoke to him once, on the road to town. Older man, in his sixties. He can hardly speak anythin' but Dutch. after that, I guess there are some more farms 'til you get to the ferry crossin' and you're almost to the end of the island."
"The body might have been carried across the river," Matthew said as Greathouse got his shovel ready for the first blow against earth. He looked out upon what seemed a vast unbroken wilderness on the Jersey shore. "Mr. McCaggers said the young man died from a fall. Shattered his skull and broke his neck. That would suggest a more severe cliff than a sloping hillside."
"We'll see." Greathouse struck hard with the shovel and removed the first scoop of dirt. He worked so methodically, his head lowered to the task and his eyes fixed on the grave, that Matthew felt shamed at just standing there. Matthew realized the body was coming up whether he liked it or not, so he stepped forward, clenched his teeth, and started digging.
"Gents," said Ormond uneasily, after a moment or two, "I've had my say over this fella, whoever he was, and I wish him God rest. You toss a care if I go back to worki"
"Go ahead. We'll put him back down when we're done." Greathouse had spoken without a pause in his shoveling.
"Thank you kindly." Ormond hesitated. a whiff of decay had soured the air. "You want to wash afterward, I'll get you some soap and a bucket of water," he said, and then he turned and walked quickly back toward the orchard.
Within another few thrusts of the shovel, Matthew wished he'd brought a handkerchief and a bottle of vinegar. The smell of corruption was rising from the earth. Matthew had to walk away and breathe fresh air if there was any to be found. He felt sickened and in fear of showing his lunch, but damned if he'd do that in front of Greathouse. He realized he was made stronger by his determination not to appear weak before the man.
Matthew heard the noise of Greathouse's shovel sliding into something soft. He grimaced and tried mightily to steel his insides. If anything flooded up, he'd be ruined for corn soup and ham for a long time to come.
"You can stay there if you like," Greathouse said, not unkindly. "I can finish it alone."
and I'll never hear the end of it if I stand here, Matthew thought. He said, "No, sir," and he walked back to the hole and what lay within.
It appeared to be simply a dirty wrapping of bedsheets, without human form. about five feet, five inches in length, Matthew figured. Death and the river would have stolen the young man's height as well as weight. It came to him that the smell of rot was not unlike that of ancient mud at the river's bottom, a heavy dark layer of accumulated matter that had settled year after year, covering all secrets with slime. He cursed the day he'd walked up those stairs to McCaggers' realm.
"all right." Greathouse put his shovel aside. "Wasn't buried very deeply, but I suppose he didn't care. You readyi"
"I am." Not, Matthew thought.
Greathouse took the knife from its sheath at his back, bent down and began cutting the cloth away from where he thought the head must be. Matthew bent down as well, though his face felt burned by the reek of decay. Shadows passed over him and when he looked up he saw crows circling.
as Greathouse worked with his knife, Matthew noticed something odd about the winding-sheet. In it were perhaps a dozen or more small holes, ragged around the edges as if musket balls had gone through.
One layer was cut away, and then another. at this depth the sheet took on a yellowish-green stain. River stain, Matthew thought. That's what it was, of course.
Greathouse kept cutting, and then he took hold of the sheet and gave a slow but steady pull. a section of mottled cloth ripped and fell away, and there exposed to the sun was the dead man's face.
"ah," Greathouse said quietly, more of a gasp, or a sickened statement on the cruelty of men.
Matthew's throat seemed to close up and his heart stuttered, but he forced himself to look and not turn away.
There was no possibility of ascertaining what this man's features had been in life. Gray flesh still clung to the bone of chin and cheeks, yes, but it was not enough to form a face. The forehead was smashed inward, the nose caved, the eyes pale sockets with some kind of dried yellow matter in their depths. On the scalp was a thatch of light brown hair. as a final mockery of the life that had been, a cowlick stuck up stiff and dry at the back of the head. The mouth was open, showing broken teeth and the interior flesh and tongue that was a bloodless and terrible waxy white, and it was this sight, this last gasp that had pulled in river and mud and the secretive slime, that made Matthew go cold beneath the burning sun and turn his face toward the wilderness.
"I'm going to cut some more of the sheet away," said Greathouse, his voice strained. He began to work with the knife again, his hand careful and reverent to the deceased.
When the sheet had been cut open and pulled aside, the shriveled victim lay in all the horror of murder, his knees pulled up in a frozen attitude of prayer and his thin arms crossed upon the chest, a gesture of Christian burial that Matthew presumed Zed had done after the cords were cut. The body was dressed in a shirt that might have been white at one time, but was now a miasmic hue of gray, green, and splattered black. The shirt was unbuttoned, probably by McCaggers for inspection, and both Matthew and Greathouse could clearly see four of the stab wounds-three in the chest and one at the base of the neck-which were vivid purple against the spoiled-milk color of the flesh. The body wore breeches whose color and fabric had turned to something nearly like mud, and on the feet were brown boots.
Matthew had to put his hand up to his mouth and nose, for the smell of this was horrendous. He saw movement in a nearby tree; a few of the crows had landed and were waiting.
"There's part of the cord." Greathouse carefully pulled at it, finding too late that it was sealed by decomposition to the chest when a long piece of skin peeled off like soft cheese. It was a thin but tough little piece of rope, frayed on both ends. "You see the marks around the wrists where he was boundi"
"Yes," Matthew said, though he didn't bend over to look too closely. One thing he did note, however. "The left hand. The thumb's missing."
"First joint only. Looks like an old injury because the bone's grown smooth." Greathouse dared to touch it, and then his hand went toward one of the stab wounds. at first Matthew thought the man was going to probe one of those purple fissures with his fingers, which would have been the last straw on this hayload, but Greathouse's hand made a circle in the air. "I see four wounds, but I'm not going to turn him over to find out if your Mr. McCaggers was accurate in his count." He pulled his hand back and looked up at Matthew. His eyes were red-rimmed, as if hazed by thick and pungent smoke. "I want to tell you," he said, "that I've seen something like this before. I can't be for certain, and I ought not to speculate, but-"
Matthew gave a cry and stepped back, his eyes the size of one of Stokely's platters. He thought it must be the shimmer of heat, or the noxious vapors rising from the grave, but he imagined that the corpse had just given a quick tremble.
"What is iti" Instantly Greathouse was on his feet. "What's wrong with youi"
"He moved," Matthew whispered.
"He movedi" Greathouse looked back at the corpse to make sure, but a corpse was a corpse. "are you madi He's as dead as King James!"
They both stared at the body, and therefore they both saw the body give another fleeting tremble as if awakening from its Thanatostic slumber. The movement, Matthew realized in his dumbstruck terror, was more of a vibration than an action of muscle and sinew, which in the case of this unfortunate had turned to calf's-foot jelly.
Greathouse stepped nearer the grave. Matthew did not, but he heard what Greathouse did: a thin, faint chittering noise that made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.
Even as Greathouse realized what it must be and quickly reached for his shovel, the pale amber-colored roaches boiled from the cavity of the dead man's nose and out of the open mouth like an indignant army. They rushed back and forth in a frenzy over the eyeless face and more began to stream out of the knife wounds like yellow drops of blood. Matthew thought it must have been a jarring of the body or the unwelcome heat of the sun that had disturbed them from their dank banquet hall, and now he knew what had burrowed all those holes in the winding-sheet.
Greathouse began throwing the dirt back in like a man who has seen the devil's horns pushing up from the inferno. There was no time nor need for niceties, as the soul that had departed from this husk at the bottom of the hole had to be in a better place. Matthew came forward to help, and together he and Greathouse first covered over the face with its mask of swarming insects and then shoveled dirt upon the body until it was seen no more. When the grave was a mound again, Greathouse threw aside his shovel and without a word walked down the hillside to the river. He got on his knees where earth met water and splashed his face while Matthew sat on a boulder above and let the sun steam away the cold sweat that had burst up from his pores.
When Greathouse came back up the hill, he looked to Matthew to have aged five years in a matter of moments. His eyes were dark-shadowed, his jaw slack, even his gait tired and heavy. He stopped between Matthew and the grave, sliding a sideways glance at the dirt mound to make sure nothing was crawling out. at last he gave an almost imperceptible shudder and sat down on a rock a few feet to Matthew's left. "You did well," he said.
"as did you," Matthew answered.
"I'd have liked to have gone through the pockets."
"No," Greathouse said. "Not really. anyway, I'd bet my horse he was picked clean before his wrists were tied."
"I'm sure either Zed or Lillehorne inspected the clothes," Matthew said. "as much as was possible, I mean."
"Most likely," Greathouse agreed. He looked up at the crows, which had left the tree and were again circling. They cawed sharply a few times, like robbers cursing at being robbed.
Matthew also watched them go 'round. The sky seemed more starkly white now than pure blue, and the river tinged with gray. The afternoon heat had become oppressive. across the river the breeze blew through the forest and bent trees to its will, yet where the two men sat they neither heard the noise of the wind nor felt it, for on this bank the air was thick and motionless, still holding the smell of death.
Greathouse said, "I have seen two bodies like that before. Both in England. I can't be sure, of course, that what I'm about to tell you has come to pass. I could speculate that the man might have been killed by highwaymen for his money, or murdered by the enraged occupants of a tavern for cheating at cards, or some such reason that would not explain why he was bound." He rubbed his knuckles and stared off across the river. "I think...this may have been done by someone whom Mrs. Herrald and I know very well."
"You know who did thisi"
"I believe I know who may have been the...what would be the right wordi The originator of this method of operation. Meaning that he might not be physically present himself, but those who follow him may be close at hand."
"If you know," Matthew said, "you should go straight to the high constable."
"Well, there's the problem. I don't know for certain. and even if I went to Lillehorne, I doubt there's much he could do." Greathouse turned his gaze toward Matthew. "Have you ever heard of someone called Professor Felli"
"No. Should I havei"
Greathouse shook his head. "You wouldn't have, except if Nathaniel-Magistrate Powers, that is-happened to mention this individual."
Matthew frowned, completely lost. "What does the magistrate have to do with thisi"
"Nathaniel is in New York because of Professor Fell," came the reply. "He took his family out of England to guard their lives. He left a well-established and lucrative legal career in London, because the word had gotten to him that Professor Fell was angry at a prosecution case Nathaniel was making against one of his associates. No one makes Professor Fell angry and lives very long. Unless you put an ocean in between...and even then..." He trailed off.
"So you're saying this Professor Fell person is a criminali"
"a criminal," Greathouse repeated quietly, with a bitter smile that quickly slipped away. "London is a collection of huts. The Thames is a stream. Queen anne is a lady with a nice chair. Yes, Professor Fell is a criminal. No one knows his first name. No one knows really if 'he' is a man or woman, or if 'he' ever was a professor at any school or university. No one has ever given an age for him or a description, but I'll tell you this: you saw the workings of his mind, when you looked upon that body in the grave."
Greathouse was silent and Matthew was silent, waiting.
"There is an underworld you can't imagine. Not even the Gazette frames it accurately." Greathouse's eyes were dark; he stared at nothing, yet seemed to be seeing something that stirred fear and revulsion even in his heart of oak. "In England and in Europe. It's existed for...who can say how long. We know the names of the most vile elements. Gentleman Jackie Blue. The Thacker Brothers. augustus Pons. Madam Chillany. They're in the business of counterfeiting, forgery, theft of both state and private papers, blackmail, kidnapping, arson, murder for hire, and whatever else offers them a profit. For many years they've fought over territory. Over countries, as if fighting for the seats at a dinner table nearest the roast beef platter. Their gang wars have been brutal and bloody and have gotten them nowhere. But in the last fifteen years, all that began to change. Professor Fell emerged-from where we don't know-and has through guile, intelligence, and not a small amount of head-chopping-united the gangs into a criminal parliament."
Still Matthew made no response. He was focused solely on taking in what Greathouse had to say.
"How exactly Fell gained the leadership role, we don't know. We have had our informants, but the information is unreliable. More than one songbird disappeared from a cage thought to be perfectly secure. The first ended up stuffed into a trunk on a ship bound for aberdeen. The second-a woman-was found wrapped in burlap and weighed with stones in the Cherwell River. an unfortunate swimmer came upon her, a month or so after she'd vanished. You already know in what condition both corpses were found."
"Multiple stab wounds," Matthew reasoned. "Made by different blades."
"The man had been stabbed twenty-six times, the woman twenty-two. Then both their skulls were bashed in. The cords remained around their wrists, tied behind them. They were meant to be discovered, after a certain amount of time, as a show of power. We have a theory."
When Greathouse didn't immediately continue, Matthew prodded, "I'd like to hear it."
"Mrs. Herrald came up with it, actually. Judging from the fact that both victims were stabbed front and back, but no knife wounds were struck below the waist. She thinks Fell punishes the offenders or the disobedient by running them through a gauntlet, where everyone present gets a stab, so to speak. Maybe there's even a trial of some kind, before the spectacle begins. The guilty person-guilty for violating the code of silence or behavior-is made to run this gauntlet until they're nearly dead, and then their skulls are broken. I'd say that's a powerful method to secure loyalty, wouldn't youi"
Matthew said nothing.
"Or maybe there's no gauntlet," Greathouse said. "Maybe they just throw the victims into a room and the others set on them like wild dogs. But it's the cords, you see. Only the wrists are tied, not the ankles. The victims are meant to run, or stagger as the case may be. They are meant to know there is no escape, and that death will be a slow and painful process no matter how many times they run back and forth through the blades." Greathouse wore a sickened expression, as if he were imagining a torch-lit dungeon where firelight glinted off the knives and a shadow ran pleading for life amid other shadows pledged to murder. "We think there have been others, of course, but their bodies have either not been discovered yet or have been destroyed. Or it may be that by now Fell is on the cusp of creating what we think he desires: a criminal empire that spans the continents. all the smaller sharks-deadly enough in their own oceans-have gathered around the big shark, and so they have swum even here, up this river to wherever our young man in the grave was murdered for...whati an act of disobediencei a refusal to bow at the proper moment, or to polish the boots of someone his seniori Who can sayi He may have been an example. a lesson of the day, for a minor infraction." Greathouse ran the back of his hand across his mouth and sat slumped over, his shoulders sagging. He didn't speak for a while, as the crows cawed ever more faintly in the sky. at last he said, "I need to get out of here," and stood up.
On their way back through the orchard, carrying their dirt-smeared shovels with them, Matthew asked, "But you can't be sure about this, can youi You can't be sure that Fell is here. as you said, the man may have been killed by highwaymen."
"Yes, I did say that. and you're right, I can't be sure. Not absolutely sure, anyway. I'm just telling you what I'm thinking: this is the professor's method of vengeance, and whether he is here or not, someone very near is applying his...shall we say...teachings."
Before they reached the farmhouse, Greathouse stopped at the orchard's edge and caught Matthew's sleeve. "Don't mention that name to anyone, not just yet. This is between us, do you understandi"
"We've been expecting him or his compatriots to come to the colonies, sooner or later. That's one of the reasons Mrs. Herrald decided to make a permanent office in New York. I suppose I should've been prepared for it, but I wasn't." Greathouse's expression had changed since leaving the graveside. a few minutes before, he'd appeared almost pole-axed by this development, but now Matthew saw the color was back in his face and his eyes had that fierce old-bastardy look to them again. He was, in spite of himself, pleased to see the return. "On Monday morning I'll come to town and have a look at the property maps at City Hall," Greathouse declared. "We'll find out who owns the land up north of Van Hullig. I agree that the body might have been carried from the other side of the river, but we've got to start somewhere."
They used the soap and bucket of water Ormond offered to wash as best as possible the odor of human decay from their hands and faces, but the main use of the soap was to get its sharp green scent of pine oil up the nostrils. Greathouse thanked the farmer for his help and gave him a few small coins in appreciation. Before they mounted their horses, Greathouse opened his saddlebag, brought out his brown bottle of brandy, uncorked it, and offered the first drink to Matthew, who took down a swallow that on any other day would have set fire to his insides but on this afternoon just managed to make him feel not quite so cold. Greathouse quaffed a healthy swig, also perhaps to burn away some demons, and then swung himself up into the saddle.
The ride back to Mrs. Herrald's was done in silence. Matthew found himself actually using the reins and his knees more confidently, and though Buck gave an occasional whicker of indignation the horse seemed to appreciate the fact that his rider had taken firmer command. Matthew had figured that nothing could be worse today than what he'd already been through, not even a buck from Buck, so the devil with this horse thinking he was the master.
Matthew did note one thing, and tucked it away. From time to time Greathouse glanced back along the road they travelled, his eyes dark and darting, as if making sure that through the glare of afternoon sunlight and swirl of dust a creature to be feared was not even now bearing down on them, like a hydra of many heads, arms, and knives.
There was more to this story of Professor Fell, Matthew decided as he watched Greathouse check the road at their backs. I've only been told a part of it. There was still some grim-and perhaps personal-secret that Greathouse kept bound up inside himself as surely as with murderer's ropes. What that might be would have to wait for a safer hour.
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