Authors: Frances Hardinge
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
She now had a shrewd idea what the zealous doctor had actually paid for at the auction. Everyone else might be aghast by the thought of a grave-robber roaming the countryside, but if she was right the doctor was horrified that the man had been caught before he could deliver the dozen bodies he had promised so that they could be hidden in the clocks. He seemed to have quite forgotten that he had passengers, and gave them not even a glance as they dismounted.
‘Just take my things to the tavern, will you, blossom?’ Mistress Bessel gave Mosca a purposeful little pat on the arm. ‘And I’ll call in on dear Eponymous and give him my respects.’
As her mistress sailed off in search of the debtors’ prison, Mosca sighed and set about dragging Mistress Bessel’s travel trunk across the market square to the tavern. By the time she re-emerged from the inn, Mistress Bessel had vanished, and the doctor was in feverish discussion with a red-nosed young man in a pie-shaped hat.
‘But . . . is there no chance of looking around the chapel? Just a brief glance?’ The doctor seemed quite frantic.
‘It’s haunted.’ The pie-hatted man spoke with the slow, deferential tone of one telling his social better something for the seventh time. ‘A wild and restless ghost, the vexed spirit of one of those pour souls dug up by that ghoul they took to the Assizes. Nobody can go in without it attacking them and trying to drag them to hell with it. Nothing to be done but give Goodman Postrophe as many mellowberries as we can and leave it to him.’ Goodman Postrophe was the Beloved responsible for squirting mellowberry juice into the eyes of any dead that tried to return to their erstwhile homes, so that they were blinded and could not find their way.
The doctor hesitated, then his eyes took on a pitiable glimmer of hope.
‘You say . . . a ghost? And you – you have seen this ghost?’
‘Oh, I saw it and more, sir!’ The pie-hatted man straightened proudly. ‘It would have had me if I hadn’t fought it off. It was just after the, um, the quiet folks in the sacks had been taken off to be buried again, and I was alone in the chapel, when I heard this dreadful flutterin’ like grave clothes in a wind, and then I looked round and it flew at me, this horrible white shape trailing its grave-shift. And I could tell it was trying to speak to me, but all that came out was this horrible garglin’. Then again, what would you expect, sir? Anyone buried decent has that band o’ cloth tied under its chin to keep its cap on. How could the poor creature open its mouth to make itself understood?’
‘Did you see its face?’ The doctor was craning his head to one side, perhaps in an attempt to see whether the pie-hatted man’s head was bulging strangely.
‘There was no time for that, sir. One minute it was swooping at me, then it grabbed hold of me and tried to drag me to hell with the might of a hurricane.’
‘You actually felt it?’ The doctor seemed fascinated.
‘Well, yes, sir. You don’t think my nose is this colour naturally, do you?’ The feature in question did indeed seem to be unusually raw-looking.
‘It . . . tried to drag you to hell . . . by your nose?’
‘Yes, but I struggled with all my might and mettle, all the time flaring my nostrils as hard as I could to shake it off, and at last the wight let go with this ghostly, despairing . . . honking noise.’
Mosca froze, and stared hypnotized at the proud ghost-fighter’s nose. There was a series of dents and marks near the bridge of the nose that looked rather familiar, a little but not quite like teeth-marks. She had never heard of a ghost honking or biting its victims on the nose, but she could think of one creature who would do so at the drop of a feather. She needed to act quickly, before anybody else came to the same conclusion.
‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, sir, I’d better go and pray so that my nose don’t turn black and fall off.’ The younger man deferentially touched his knuckle to his forehead and trotted away, dragging his ghostly adventure behind him like a rich but invisible cape.
The doctor stared after his retreating form.
‘Confound the fool,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Why hide all his eggs in one basket? I suppose they did find
of them. It must say
And to Mosca’s consternation, he turned and started reading the posters on the side of the courthouse. Until this moment it had not occurred to her that with the arrival of Mistress Bessel and the doctor, Mosca was now no longer the only person who could read the poster advertising Epony-mous’s crimes.
Mosca felt once again as if she was tiptoeing between dominoes, but this time the dominoes were house-high and could press her like a flower if she let them fall on her. And topple they would, in the slightest breeze. Catastrophe was inevitable, as soon as someone linked Clent to the poster outside his cell, or investigated the ghost properly . . . or as soon as it occurred to Skellow to look for his intended murder victim in the town where he had first kidnapped her.
It seemed to Mosca that Grabely was swiftly becoming an excellent place to contemplate from a great distance.
‘Eponymous . . .’ murmured the doctor to himself as he frowned at the poster. ‘Now, where have I heard that name before?’
It was absolutely essential that Mosca say something, anything, to distract the doctor from his current train of thought, so that he would not remember Mistress Bessel speaking of visiting her ‘dear Eponymous.’ And then, quite suddenly, Mosca knew exactly what to say.
It was about half an hour later that Mosca entered the debtors’ prison and was shown into Clent’s cell. Slightly to her surprise, she noticed that he had apparently come by paper, quill and ink, and was scribbling away with every sign of bad temper.
She settled down cross-legged on the ground beside him.
‘. . . That woman is dead to all sense of loyalty,’ he muttered, ‘a rosy apple with pips of the purest poison. You would think that tender recollections might have caused her to pity my plight, but no – she was stone-hearted enough to tell me that if I would not write her some respectable-sounding references in a variety of different hands, she would bring a suit against me for the damage which your infernal goose did to her shop, and double my debts. Of course I asked if she could spare the pennies for ink or whether she wished me to write them in my own heart’s blood . . .’
He glanced up from his paper, and then, as he took in Mosca’s dishevelled and battle-scarred appearance, the expression of outrage melted from his face, to be replaced by something less readable. His gaze moved over the scratches on Mosca’s arms, the marks on her wrists.
Mosca stared at the floor, shrugged and sniffed. ‘Got grabbed,’ she said gruffly.
‘Beadles?’ Clent asked very quietly.
‘No, just . . . just somebody with ugly business, who needed a reader. A reader who wouldn’t be missed after.’ She could not quite keep the bitterness from her tone.
There was a silence, during which Clent watched his quill spread a blot on the paper without seeming to see it.
‘You can hardly imagine that your disappearance would go unnoticed—’
‘Saracen’d notice,’ snapped Mosca, ‘but what’s he going to do, put out a reward? And if I hadn’t ever come back, you’d notice, but you’d just think I’d run off.’
Clent stared at her for a long moment. Then he let out a long sigh.
‘It is true.’ His tone was weary and more than a little rueful. ‘When you did not come back last night –’ he closed his eyes and shook his head – ‘I
think you had run away, Mosca.’
And, Mosca’s conscience reminded her, she had been planning to do exactly that.
‘This . . . individual with the “ugly business”.’ Something seemed to have occurred to Clent. ‘Is he likely to keep looking for you? Is there a chance that he will return to this town to find you?’
Mosca bit her lip and nodded.
‘Then you cannot possibly stay in Grabely,’ Clent said simply, and his eyes shone with faint astonishment at hearing his mouth speak so plainly. He recovered almost immediately, and busied his hands and eyes with the folding of his newly written papers. ‘Why I should have imagined that I would need a secretary
, while my papers are in the hands of the petty constable and I have no accounts to speak of—’
‘That’s what I came here to tell you,’ interrupted Mosca. ‘I
Clent’s hands ceased to move. He did not look up, his head remaining bowed over his letters.
‘So are you,’ Mosca added. ‘Get up, Mr Clent.’
‘I got the money. You’re free.’
‘But . . .’ Clent’s face was a picture of incredulity. ‘How in the world did you find the funds?’
‘Well –’ Mosca’s countenance took on a demureness that did not seem to reassure him – ‘I had to sell something. I mean, the only thing I had left.’
Clent’s expression went through a number of different changes. Suspicion, wonder, astonishment and at last hope chased one another across his face like successive sunrises lighting an opulent and rolling landscape.
‘You have finally sold the goose?’ he asked in hushed tones.
‘No! Course not!’ Mosca was shrill with indignation. ‘I couldn’t do that!’
‘Ah. No. Of course not.’ Clent sighed wearily.
‘No. I sold you.’
‘WHAT?’ Clent instantly recovered enough of his composure and health to leap to his feet. ‘Did a cushion maker stuff your head with feathers? To what purpose are you delivering me from prison if you hand me straight into slavery?’
‘It’s not slavery,’ Mosca hastened to reassure him. ‘It’s science. There’s a doctor who likes to saw people’s heads open to see if their brains are squirming about like oysters. And he was hoping to buy lots of dead bodies from a bodysnatcher, but the snatcher got himself nabbed. So this doctor had lots of money and nothing to saw. But he cheered up when I told him about my uncle in the debtors’ prison who was perilous close to death because of a funny bulge behind his ear as big as a snuff box. And apparently this doctor only gets to cut holes in
people’s skulls when they’re of unsound mind and their relations give permission. So when I told him that you were seeing ghosts in your soup and unable to speak anything but rhyme he was pleased as punch.’
‘Poetry as a disease,’ whispered Clent. ‘Then let me have no cure, let me die of it – before your barber-surgeon can sharpen his tools. Is he waiting outside?’
‘No, everything’s all right, Mr Clent. He’s settling himself down to the biggest haunch of mutton you ever saw. He’ll be at his lunch for an hour at least. Gave me a promis’ry note to say he owes the bearer the money – says he’ll pay it off when he’s seen you. Only I jus’ gave the magistrate the note to pay the debts.’
Clent collapsed back on to his rough mattress with a thud.
‘An hour left,’ he murmured weakly. ‘The prime of my life treacherously sold by a little minx who probably didn’t even haggle. And what, pray, are your plans for me between now and the end of the mutton haunch? Have you auctioned my last hour to a press gang or a road-building crew?’
‘Actually, Mr Clent,’ Mosca suggested quietly, ‘I was thinking we could spend the time running away a lot.’
One last stop was required, however, before Mosca and Clent could shake the dust of Grabely from their feet.
The chapel stood a quarter of a mile from the town. Like many of the Grabely houses, it had tall, ragged slate walls, the lower jutting slates tufted with plumes of fleece left by passing sheep. Its windows were fist-sized holes stuffed with bottle-top-sized rounds of coloured glass, held in place by wire, all except for the biggest and highest window, a crude-edged, glassless opening in the rough shape of a heart.
‘Bet he got in through there,’ whispered Mosca to Clent.
The chapel now had a sentry, the red-nosed ghost-fighter she had encountered before.
‘Nobody can go in.’ He straightened and gripped his crook as if it was a halberd. ‘Vicious ghosts.’
‘Ah, but my friend –’ Clent took him companionably by the arm – ‘you overlook the power of Innocence to overcome the Unholy, the favour of the Beloved which falls upon every unthinking child so that no Sprite or Shadbaggle may . . .’
Mosca took advantage of the distraction to duck past the sentry, ignoring his cries of protest as she ran into the chapel. As she had hoped, his valour in the face of ghostly attack did not extend as far as risking a second encounter.
There was an odd smell in the chapel.
, Mosca told herself.
Damp and rat accidents.
She tried not to think of Dr Glottis’s ‘miasma’ or of lumpish shapes laid out on the stone slabs in blotched sacks. They were all gone now, anyway. Carried out to be buried.
No ghost could be seen among the low wooden benches that served for pews, just splintered wood and shards of porcelain. No ghost behind the statue of Goodlady Halepricket, She Who Keeps the Heads of Sheep from Getting Caught in Bushes, though it seemed that the Goodlady had recently lost a leg. No ghost behind the door, just a collection of shears, hooks and crooks, now flung into disarray.
‘Hey!’ Mosca risked a loud whisper. ‘It’s all right! It’s me!’
A fluttering, like the rippling of grave clothes in a breeze, and then a long, stealthy dragging sound. A white shape emerged from a hatch that Mosca assumed led down to a crypt. The plastered walls threw back an echo of the gargling, glugging noise it made in its throat as it approached, its outline shapeless and rumpled.
Mosca knelt down and pulled off the white cambric altarpiece that covered the figure. This instantly revealed a long, white, python-thick neck, a bulging bully-brow and a beak the colour of pumpkin peel. With a sense of relief that warmed her more than a dozen suppers, Mosca reached out and took the ‘ghost’ into her arms.
When she gingerly emerged from the chapel, the sentry’s reaction was less friendly.
‘What . . . it . . .’ He waved a disbelieving finger at Saracen. ‘It . . . it was that cadgebaggoting goose all along! Do you know how much damage—’
‘Calm yourself.’ Clent’s tone suddenly had a deep and rich resonance as if he was declaring prophecy. ‘In mere moments we will be gone, taking Grabely’s ghost away with us forever, and leaving you to choose your path. Sir, you stand on the threshold of two alternative futures. In one I see you the toast of every tavern as the slayer of a ten-foot-tall, tiger-toothed Titan of terror. In the other you will be forever remembered as the man bested by a young girl’s pet.’