Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/A noctuary of terror
A NOCTUARY OF TERROR.
Once more is the drawer opened; once more are the papers in my hand. The ink of my firm youthful writing has grown pale, and the paper discoloured, for I have not cared for many a long year to open a roll so fraught with painful recollections.
My present narrative is founded upon these rough notes now before me: they were hastily and briefly written down at the time, and too truly chronicle events to which I was myself a witness.
To proceed. Date back thirty-five years. I was a medical student; my friends in the country had placed me in a neighbouring city for the purposes of education. No authorised schools of surgery or anatomy at that date existed in provincial towns, and the earlier years of the student’s life were passed in the acquisition of general preliminary information, and in attendance upon the local hospital or dispensary, previous to his visiting London to complete his education. Still, however, in the principal provincial cities and towns, anatomical study was privately carried on; the great importance of this particular branch of professional education having led at an early period to the establishment of rooms for dissection, and the delivery of lectures on anatomy. In the town in which I resided, one of the leading surgeons rented rooms over the cathedral cloisters for the purpose. These antique apartments, part of the monkish fabric of the cathedral, had been fitted up for lectures and dissections. The narrow casements overlooked an ancient burying ground full of the decaying memorials of mortality. The time-worn Gothic carvings, the silent quadrangle with its spreading yew-tree, the dark shadows in the cloistered arches beneath the rooms, gloomy even in the summer daylight, gave a funereal character to the whole locality; and the nature of the studies carried on above becoming generally known, in spite of our precautions, the place was regarded with peculiar aversion by the common people.
In the present day, the advance of education, and the wise provisions of an anatomical bill passed some years since to regulate medical schools and to supply them with subjects, have much lessened these extreme prejudices of the public at large, and have entirely remedied very great evils. The practice of disinterring bodies, and the sentence of the law, which formerly doomed the murderer to death and dissection, accounted for the strong feeling of horror and indignation with which human dissection was universally regarded. People became so alarmed, that watchers with loaded firearms were frequently placed over the graves of recently deceased persons by their friends. Still the practice of disinterment went on, and a sufficient number of bodies was obtained, though with great difficulty, to supply the necessities of the schools. It seems now extraordinary that such a system should have ever existed, or that any young men of education could have been found to engage in the revolting work. But the danger and mystery of these night expeditions excited in youthful minds a daring spirit of adventure, and there were always plenty of volunteers ready to undertake them. It was not this spirit of enterprise, however, that alone actuated the student and urged him to a fatiguing and dangerous duty,—heavy toil in the lone churchyard at midnight, with the certainty of the roughest treatment from the populace if discovered. Higher motives impelled him; the attainment of anatomical knowledge, and the consideration and esteem of teachers and comrades always accorded to the hardworking and the resolute.
It was, then, on a wild, stormy night in December, 1825, that a party of students agreed to meet at the dissecting rooms, and to start from thence at midnight on an expedition to a neighbouring churchyard, three miles distant from the town. The party consisted of Balfour, young Fletcher, and myself. Qualified by my greater experience, I was the leader; Balfour was my second, and Fletcher was to procure a gig for our conveyance. I agreed to join Balfour at the rooms an hour before we started, in order to prepare a dissection which we had been unable to get ready before, and which it was necessary to complete for the morning lecture. Balfour was the son of a dissenting minister in the town, and had been carefully brought up. He was a hardworking, attentive student, but of a reserved and gloomy disposition. He seldom joined in the amusements of young men of his age, and consequently, though generally respected, he was not popular with his comrades. He was a heavily built, strong fellow, with a resolved and not unpleasant countenance, though his smile was somewhat sinister. A man of hitherto proved courage, I always felt that I could rely upon him in emergency. It had been raining and blowing hard all the day: the evening closed stormily in clouds, and showed no prospect of improvement. I arrived at the rooms the first, and, groping up the dark circular staircase, was glad to find that the fire I had made up when I left in the afternoon was burning brightly.
It was a wild night. The crazy leaden casements shook noisily in the eddying gusts of the heavy gale that far above our heads swept round the cathedral tower. The skeletons suspended by hooks from the ceiling moved and creaked in the frequent draughts. The dried anatomical preparations contained in cases ranged round the room, stood out in the waving gloom, and as the candle flared in the wind, glanced with grinning teeth from their glazed sepulchres. In the centre of the apartment, stretched upon a board and covered with a sheet, lay a subject for dissection. It was the body of a quarryman recently killed by a fall from the rocks. The dim light of the candle rested upon the solemn folds of the white drapery, and gave a statuesque character to the form.
As I sat in the gloom waiting the arrival of my comrade, a succession of strange thoughts and fancies passed through my mind. I speculated upon the probable aspect of the face concealed beneath the sheet—Was it not horribly distorted by the nature of the death—a fearfully sudden death—rendering a wondrous living tissue of organisation, in an instant, effete and worthless—a man yesterday, and to-day knowing more of heaven or hell than all the philosophers upon earth. Now only serving as a subject for dissection, while inheriting an immortality! Well, he is at all events dead, yet when did he die?—is the last act of expiration the death? Certainly not. A smouldering vitality exists in the great nervous centres for some time afterwards, and persons apparently dead have been restored to life by galvanism and artificial respiration when the pulse and the breathing had long ceased. This brought suddenly to my mind stories I had heard of people hastily conveyed to anatomical theatres who were rescued from supposed death by the stimulus of the surgeon’s knife.
The idea grew horribly vivid until I fancied that I saw the shrouding-sheet, that enveloped the body, slightly move. Though I felt that this was but the effect of an excited imagination, to reassure my mind I rose, walked to the table, removed the covering, and looked steadily upon the face of the dead. There was nothing to alarm in the wan effigy. The characters of mortality were there engraven in lines not to be mistaken, and I gazed upon the fixed and peaceful outline of what had been a vigorous, half-savage, toiling athlete, with a strange and deep interest. Young as I was, my eyes had often before rested upon the sublime and touching spectacle of death; but I never remember to have been impressed more deeply. In life, the rough, reckless, uneducated rock-blaster, his facial developments indicative alone of mere animal existence. In death, how great the contrast—how solemn; how elevated the lines; how beautiful the repose:—
More fair than life is thy pale image, Death.
The face-convulsing passions of the mind,
They pass away upon the ebbing breath,
And leave nor earthly Pain nor Tear behind
To break the shadow of thy deep repose.
Angelic lines, unmoving, firm, and pure,
In solemn curves Death’s majesty compose,
Sharp cut, as if for ages to endure.
’Tis very strange, that the immortal soul,
So darkly housed behind life’s prison-bars,
In haste to ’scape mortality’s control,
And join the kindred light beyond the stars,
Thus roughly shakes the tenement of life,
Yet leaves no impress of the passing strife!
It was now eleven, the quarter bells chimed out from the cathedral, followed by the heavy toll of the hour, taken up in succession by more distant belfrys, whose drowsy voices were borne far away upon the sweeping storm.
A step on the stairs: enter Balfour more serious and dour in aspect than usual. Wrapped in a rough-coat and muffler, he did not speak until he had removed and shaken his drenched garments.
“Balfour, this is a capital night for us; we shall have no witness to our proceedings in this howling storm.”
“Do you think so?” he replied. “For all that, there are busy fiends who love the darkness and the storm. Come, get to work, we have no time to lose; already eleven o’clock has struck, and I see,” turning reproachfully towards me, “the dissection for to-morrow’s lecture is not yet even begun. Come, to work!”
So saying he uncovered the body, and proceeded to flex the arm across the chest the more readily to dissect the upper and back part of the extremity, at the same time that he secured it with a chain hook to the other side of the table. The limb was thus put forcibly upon the stretch, and the subject drawn over on its side. Balfour, seating himself opposite the arm, commenced the work. I was on the other side engaged in reading aloud the anatomical description of the parts we were preparing, when, during a pause, the hook which had secured the arm in the direction before mentioned, slipped its hold, and the hand, suddenly freed from its bondage, swung with an increased momentum given by the turning body, and struck Balfour a violent blow upon the face. With a fearful shriek—the more startling from his habitual composure—Balfour sprung to his feet, like Richard in the tent-scene; with hair erect, blanched face, and large drops of perspiration gathering on his brow, he staggered back, shouting:
“Oh, God! the man’s alive!”
I dashed at him, horror-struck myself, not at what had occurred—for I saw how it had happened—but at the abject terror of my companion, appalling to the last degree. Clasped together we hustled each other into a corner of the room, giving, in our passing struggles, a sharp gyration to the suspended skeletons. I shook him violently, exclaiming:
“He is not alive; he is dead—dead!”
But Balfour, half death-struck himself, still gasped: “Alive!—alive!”
“No, no, no,” I repeated; “he is dead!”
At length he drew a deep breath, and sunk down in the corner whimpering:
“And yet it is impossible, that half-dissected body cannot be alive.”
“My good fellow,” said I, “this is mere childish delusion—what is the matter with you? are you well? Here, take some brandy.”
He seized the flask and drank deeply; then, with a strong effort, he rose, walked to the fire, sat down with his back to the dissecting-table, and said nothing.
The whole scene was very ghastly. Balfour’s firmness in all times of trial, heretofore, made his present abject fear the more unnatural and shocking; no doubt, to a man of his serious mind and ordinary gloomy disposition, with a temperament prone to superstition, the impression of an incident so sudden and appalling was the more powerful in its effect.
We sat in silence.
“Balfour,” I said at last, “we must put off our expedition for this night; it is blowing and raining hard, and you are not in a fit state to encounter fatigue and exposure.”
“Why do you talk thus?” he replied, looking up doubtfully; “do you think that I am afraid?”
“Not at all, my friend; but this circumstance that has so startled you may perhaps make you—” Here I hesitated, not caring to say what I thought, so I stopped abruptly. “Wilder,” said Balfour angrily, seizing me by the arm, “have I ever quailed in this most horrible, but, to us, righteous task?—have I ever shrunk from my duty, that you thus insinuate?”
“Never, Balfour; you have always stood by me like a man, and I would rather have you for my lieutenant than any other of the students, and that you know right well; but we will not go to-night for all that.”
He started up, and with sudden energy, exclaimed, “I will go, even if I go alone, even should the dead arise to oppose me—Wilder, say not one word more;” and he struck his fist violently on the table, setting the skeletons and window-frames trembling and clattering in the pause of the storm, which was now subsiding.
At this moment we heard the sound of wheels, and the old clock tolled twelve.
“Here is the gig and we not ready,” I exclaimed.
I was glad to see Balfour eagerly seize and put on his grave clothes. I followed his example. We then collected all the requisite tools, tooth-pick, shovel, elevator, &c., and descended to the street groping along in the dark.
“A wild night, lads,” said the cheerful voice of young Fletcher, a youth of seventeen, who, accustomed to drive, was chosen as our charioteer. “I have had the greatest work to get the trap; I should never have come round old Higgins if it had not been for Nancy. He declared that we were going to commit a dead robbery, and that somebody would swing for it one of these days, and Nancy actually kissed me because she had it in her mind that I should be surely nipped up by them awful spectres. At last, however, I got off, and here I am all right and tight.”
“Jack,” said I, “can you see, and is the horse steady? It is awkward work driving in such a black night as this.”
“Be easy, my dear friend, I could drive you to the devil if required.”
“Well,” added Balfour, “I believe it is not unlikely that you may do so.”
It was a good horse, and we rattled along at a great pace between long lines of lamps through lonely streets, deserted, save by drowsy watchmen calling the hour, who raised their dim lanthorns to see what we were. Then came the straggling, half-lighted suburbs, and lastly the dark and open country through which we drove more slowly, though still at a steady trot, to the quiet churchyard at Hilton. The wind had much subsided; low, rolling clouds, opening here and there, showed a few faint stars; but the road where shadowed by trees would have been almost undistinguishable save for the glimmering pools left by the heavy rain. Part of our route lay between thick plantations of firs, whose giant arms waved to and fro, and croaked mournfully. Arrived within a quarter of a mile of our destination we drew up, arranged our tools in the most convenient way for carrying them, and then walked the horse gently till we came near the burying-ground. We now quitted the gig, which Fletcher drove back to the shadow of the fir trees, there to await our return. As I ascended with Balfour the path that led to the churchyard, we paused to look round, and assure ourselves that no one was following upon our steps. The low grounds we had just passed through, though for the most part shrouded in the darkness, were in places indicated by the uncertain course of the river that caught faint gleams of light from the parting clouds above. The distant city, like a shadowy monster with a thousand gleaming eyes, lay stretched upon the plain; while the river, flowing onward to the walls, held to its breast the inverted firmament of lamps quivering like fire-flies upon the surface of the rippling flood. The spires and other lofty buildings stood out here and there from the wide gloom in high relief, red with the reflected gleam of furnace fires. These restless flames, like those of Phlegethon extinguished never, gave off from their tall chimneys long lines of smoke, which carried the dusky radiance to the clouds themselves. There was something mysterious in these silent gleaming fires, apparently untended, yet holding an independent existence, when the rough master-minds and toiling hands that ruled them through the day had sunk weary to their rest.
The city gleam’d with light, but gave no sound;
She, with her hundred thousand sleepers, kept
Unbroken silence: in the gloom profound
A life in death, the illumined shadow slept.
We turned from this solemn spectacle to the solemn thing we were about to do. I never approached the dark sanctuary of death with more of awe and reverence than at this moment, though about to mock and desecrate that sanctuary by rifling it of its poor contents. The quiet church, the moaning wind, the feeble and struggling stars, all seemed to upbraid us for thus roughly breaking upon the deep slumber of the dead. The tender association we hold with the last resting-place, the flower-planted grave of the beloved, fell heavily upon a heart meditating the immediate commission of what seemed, in spite of philosophy, to be a crime, and which is certainly a deed most painful and revolting in the execution.
The shadow of the darkest night, which you inwardly hope may shroud the ghoul-like proceeding, is never profound enough. The disinterred body gleams with its own ghastly lustre. A faint phosphorescent nimbus seems to surround it, developing the characteristic outline of humanity, when it is so dark that you cannot see your hand before you. I do not know how it was, but at this moment I did not feel my usual cool steadfastness. I was fidgetty and anxious. Balfour’s alarm in the room had filled me with uneasiness, and, though he seemed recovered, he was still nervous and depressed. However, it was no time for retrospection; and, creeping along the side of the low wall to the deeper shadow of the church, we leaped the enclosure.
The moment I was in the ground all uncertainty passed from my mind, to be immediately succeeded by a deep sense of duty, and a firm purpose to execute it. I at once advanced to the spot marked in a visit of investigation the day before as the site of the recent grave. After having made the needful preliminary examination, and satisfied ourselves that we were correct, I let Balfour take the commencement of the work, while I removed a short distance from the grave to watch, and warn my comrade should anything occur to disturb us. It is far better to work than to watch on these occasions. The attention is absorbed in the exertion, and on that account I determined that Balfour should begin. As I stood in the drear yard, I looked about me more narrowly, to accustom my eye to the dim obscurity and to the various dark mis-shapen objects around. One decaying monument appeared like a crouching monster watching us, and it was not till I had approached to examine the object more closely that I could perfectly satisfy myself of its real nature. The evergreen trees and bushes that clustered in the opposite corner of the yard were darkly outlined against the dusky reddish light arising from the city, three miles off. As I stood listening on the watch, the ticking of the church-clock seemed to grow gradually louder in the intense silence. Presently I heard another sound, not unlike it, a soft tapping noise that I could not understand. It appeared, at times, to be very near me, and then to die away in the distance. The grating of the spade in the stony soil, which had been going on for some time, now ceased. I therefore returned to Balfour, to see what he was about, and to take my spell at the work, surrendering to him the watch. As I approached he spoke softly from the grave, in a nervous and excited way.
“Hush! do you hear nothing? do you see nothing?”
My own attention had been drawn to the peculiar sounds before mentioned—soft intermitting sounds, like little footsteps patting on the ground. Balfour came stumbling up to me.
“It is horribly dark; what are these noises, so like heavy droppings of blood? Are they the echoes of the church-clock, or are there two ticking clocks to the tower? I hate this infernal thing! What is it? Why did you bring me here to be thus tormented?” And he wiped the perspiration from his brow with his muddy hand.
“Pooh, pooh! it is nothing at all, Balfour,” said I; “get back to the work again. I will go to the other side of the yard and see about it.”
I crossed the ground in the direction of the sounds, ankle deep in the rank wet grass that ever fattens on the rich loam of the churchyard, slipping over graves and low head-stones, to the imminent danger of my shins. When I drew near, I perceived the simple cause of our alarm: though the storm had ceased, large drops continued to fall from a spout at the top of the tower, and pattered on the flags below.
As I turned to go back, I jostled a dark figure standing close to me. In my first impulse I seized it by the throat, but was roughly shaken off by the more powerful Balfour. “Why the devil,” I angrily exclaimed, “do you thus dog me, sir; how infernally you have startled me—do get back to your work!” We returned sulkily and in silence. I took up the shovel and began to dig. Balfour presently touched me on the shoulder. “Wilder,” he said, “you were very angry with me just now; I ought not to have followed you; forgive me,—I am not quite myself to-night.” “All right, Balfour, go back to your watch; I quite understand.” Balfour, however, did not seem disposed to quit my vicinity. I took no notice at first, but kept vigorously at the work; then in a pause I said, “My good fellow, you must return to your post, you cannot hear anything so near me, and it is quite necessary to keep a sharp look out, though all may be perfectly quiet, and every thing promise success.” While I yet spoke, we were startled by a remarkable sound above our heads, apparently close to us. A low whistling in the air, very strange and even sweet, seemed to wander and play about us. “What—is—this—now?” gasped my companion; “What is it, I say?” and he seized me convulsively by the arm. I was myself astonished, and could in no way explain this new phenomenon; however, I said hastily, “Birds, night birds, chirping round us—nothing more. “Wilder,” said Balfour, slowly, in a hollow and altered voice, “God sees us, and vouchsafes us a warning—this may be a dreadful sin that we are engaged in, come, let us go.” I was much more alarmed at Balfour’s evidently growing disturbance of mind than at the cause, and did what I could to reassure him. The sounds, as I seized the spade, suddenly ceased, and pushing him from me, in another moment I was hard at work. I had scarcely thrown out a dozen shovelsful of earth, before Balfour rushed wildly up, and exclaimed, “By Heaven there is something in the churchyard—there—close to the verge of the enclosure!”
Instantly I jumped out of the grave, and with straining eyes looked in the direction he indicated. I could see nothing.
Balfour was evidently pointing to some moving object, and following it with his finger, while he muttered words which, in the agitation of the moment, I did not understand. We stood close together, our eyes directed towards the opposite boundary wall; there, the solemn bushes were waving slowly in the night air against the illumined sky, but no other moving thing could I perceive.
At the same time, a new and extraordinary sense of undefinable solicitude and anxiety, a sense of something to be feared, crept through me; and as I now felt certain that with a man in Balfour’s excited state, verging upon insanity, I could hope for no assistance, but must expect every embarrassment, I determined to give up all farther attempt, and to leave the churchyard at once. I was on the point of saying so, when my companion spoke again in broken shivering whispers. “Wilder, look yonder, do you not see it now? I see it distinctly in ghastly outline against the sky; mark how it glides along, slowly, very slowly—a terrible shadow streaked with light, where the shroud parts upon the breast. See, it stops, it beckons, it lures us to its haunt; oh, Wilder, stay not a moment, instantly let us go—not that way—not there—that is the grave, its grave—tread softly, softly, and with haste.” Then in the delirious ecstacy of his terror he suddenly shouted out in a loud clear voice, most appalling in the absorbing silence of the night, “Save me, oh God, for I come into deep water. Let not the pit shut her mouth upon me: save me! save me! I go to judgment.” And he made a step forward, as if to advance upon the mystic horror.
Now was my own concern infinitely increased, when I fancied that I myself could perceive through the gloom what resembled a slowly passing shadow, illumined below, and dark above the wall. The undefined sensation I had before experienced swelled into a deadly sense of sickly fear, as I followed with straining eyeballs a dim something that was stealing along the verge of the enclosure, in the direction of the dark evergreens, erect and human shaped. Had I not been infected by Balfour’s abject terror (for terror is an infectious disease), it is possible that my natural audacity would have made me dash at the figure to solve the dreadful mystery; but as it was, I stood, for the moment, benumbed, terror struck, and incapable of motion. As I gazed with dilated pupils, I saw the shadow wave what seemed an arm, but whether to beckon us onward, or to warn us to desist, I could not in the dim obscurity discern.
At this moment the air became filled with the same strange, sweet, whistling sounds we had before heard—above, below, around us, everywhere. My comrade fell heavily to earth in strong convulsions, and struggled violently in the loose mould, dashing it about in a fearful manner. I endeavoured at first to hold him in these spasms to prevent him from hurting himself, but in vain; so I let him wrestle it out, while I thrust my brandy-flask between his tightly-wedged teeth, and succeeded in getting some brandy into his mouth. I thought of running for Fletcher, but I feared to leave Balfour in his present state, lest, suddenly recovering, he should go raving mad to find himself alone, and apparently deserted; besides, what would become of the horse if Fletcher were to leave the gig. I do not know how it was—for I am sure my present situation was bad enough—but I felt in my anxiety for poor Balfour, and the constant attention I was compelled to give him, a relief from a worse and more prostrating feeling, that of a terror such as I had never understood before. I tried to be calm—determined not to turn my eyes in the direction of the late visitation, and to await, as steadily as I could, the restoration of my comrade to consciousness. The convulsions now nearly ceased, returning only at intervals and in a slight degree. Still he remained insensible. I had loosened his neckerchief and chafed his temples, sprinkling his face with spirit from my flask. After a brief period of intense anxiety, I found the pulse returning, and the breathing in a degree restored. I gently whispered to him that we were going away, and raising him upon his feet I led him with faltering steps towards the point of our entrance. In this way, with difficulty, we gained the boundary wall, and I lifted him over, holding him with one hand, and scrambling up with the other. At this moment the clock struck three, and the sounds rose faintly from the churches of the distant city. As I paused after my exertion, leaning against the wall, and still supporting my companion, the cool night breeze that bore the welcome sound of the bells upon its wings, fanned my heated brow with an ineffable sense of refreshment. My shortened breath grew deeper in the pure current of vital air, and my shaken frame became braced again. My judgment, which had never entirely deserted me, was restored to its full integrity with returning bodily strength. I felt excited, but equal to any emergency. It was clear that Balfour’s mind had not yet sufficiently recovered to enable him to comprehend his situation, nor did I, by any remark, attempt to lead him to a consciousness on this point. With the same slow advance we descended from the churchyard to the road. Here I left him and ran on to Fletcher. Jumping into the gig I told him to drive instantly back to where I had left Balfour.
“What is the matter?” whispered Fletcher; “have you seen the devil, or are you pursued?”
I made no answer, but seizing the reins from him, as we approached the spot, I pulled up sharply, leaped from the gig, and found Balfour exactly where I had left him.
“Here, Fletcher, jump out and lend a hand to get him in.”
Fletcher now whispered: “Oh, the immaculate Balfour drunk, I perceive.”
“Be quiet, you know nothing about it; keep hold of him and remain where you are until my return; I will be with you in ten minutes.”
I hasted back to the churchyard, determined to ascertain, if possible, what it really was that had upset us so completely. As I climbed the wall I glanced in the direction of our recent terror, and leaping down, walked to the grave. Here I collected the tools that were scattered about, and seizing the elevator, which made a formidable weapon, I advanced, with a beating heart, to the other side of the graveyard. As I looked doubtfully round, the various dark objects in the enclosure seemed perfectly stationary. At last I arrived at the extreme end of the yard, and leaned against the wall for a few moments, for I felt a sudden faintness, and the darkness which enveloped me seemed so profound that I lost all idea of the direction to return in.
In a few minutes my faintness passed off, but it required the utmost resolution to enable me to enter the funereal shadows of the evergreens. I did enter though, and walked round and between what I found were cypress trees. No light burst from the gloom. All was bare and silent. I returned with much more trepidation than on my advance. I felt every moment as if about to be clasped from behind by a loathsome spectre. Exhausted, and wet with perspiration, I rejoined my comrades. Balfour remained in the same condition, and Fletcher exclaimed, “Thank God you are come! I have been dreadfully frightened with this living ghost. What is the matter with him, and what is it all about?”
I now hurriedly explained what had occurred, and told him to get home as fast as he could.
We drove rapidly back, entered once more the deserted streets, and reached the lecture-rooms in safety. I ran up the stairs to unlock the door, and, raking the embers of the nearly extinguished fire, lit a candle, and descended for Balfour. He seemed partially to comprehend that he was to leave the gig. Both assisting, we got him upstairs; and then Fletcher drove off to the stable. I now proceeded to examine more closely into Balfour’s condition. He was deathly pale; his pupils, widely dilated, were insensible to the action of light; his extremities cold. I laid him on the floor, bathed his face and head with cold water, and poured more brandy down his throat, until by degrees his consciousness partially returned. I was right glad when Fletcher’s springy step was heard upon the stairs. After nearly two hours of watchful care and continued endeavours, Balfour was much recovered; still there was an unpleasant, unearthly stare about his face, with a slight squint. At times he talked incoherently, alluding to some deadly sin he fancied he had committed, for which there was no hope of forgiveness. Dawn at last stole through the gloom, and dimmed our wasted, flaring candle. When the daylight was fully established, I sent Fletcher for a carriage, and putting Balfour into it, drove with him to his home. The family were not yet up, and directing the servant to get him to bed as quickly as possible, I hastened to Mr. Bromfield, our anatomical professor, and begged him to return with me as soon as possible. He attended to my request at once, and on the way I detailed to him the adventure. Mr. Bromfield listened attentively to my recital. He considered that Balfour’s unusual terrors were due to his having been unwell before we started; that I had myself been infected by my comrade’s fear, and that the whole thing was but the result of our disordered imaginations. I made no answer to these observations; and though I inwardly wished that the matter could be thus satisfactorily explained, I knew better. We now arrived at Balfour’s house. When Mr. Bromfield had seen and examined the patient, he expressed great alarm. He said: “There is much more in this than I at first thought. I consider him in immediate danger.” He remained with poor Balfour to see that the remedial measures which he had ordered were promptly carried out, and to break the matter to his friends. For my part, I returned in a sad and subdued state of mind, and felt more than half inclined never again to attempt these adventures. Fatigue and excitement had quite upset me, and truly glad I was to find myself once more in my own lodgings. I undressed and jumped into bed, but essayed in vain to sleep. Whenever I dozed off, the horrible scene with Balfour in the dissecting room came before me, or I fancied myself in the churchyard starting at every noise. At last I could bear these half-waking horrors no longer; so I determined to get up and go to lecture, for it was just ten o’clock, the hour for its commencement.
Our professor was there when I arrived. After the demonstration was over, he signed us to remain in our places; and having alluded with great feeling to Balfour’s alarming state, he went on to say:
“I know, gentlemen, the sad necessity which impels you in a stern sense of duty, to procure by your own exertions subjects for dissection, without which it is impossible that you should attain those high objects of professional ambition which a worthy student ever sets before him. Oh, who shall approach the holy tabernacle of human life framed after God’s own image, and dare to invade that mystical sanctuary with ignorant and unskilful hand? Who, in the red battle-field, shall dare to practise this noblest of all the arts, without a thorough understanding of the wonderful fabric he is to save, or to restore? Who, in the civil hospital, or in the sacred chamber of private life, may dare to enter, and not bear with him, in a well balanced mind, that store of practical knowledge which nothing save dissection—constant, laborious dissection—of the human body, and the unwearying study of post mortem appearances, can afford him? I say, if he hold not the attainment of this knowledge as the one great object of his life, let the student at once abandon his professional career, and seek elsewhere for a more congenial pursuit. Gentlemen, our studies need no excuse. I feel that all and each of you regard your comfort, your health, even your lives, as secondary to a sacred duty. In your hands, gentlemen, will by and by rest the grave responsibility of life and death,—a responsibility to be seriously yet cheerfully accepted by the well educated and practical surgeon. I, too, have a grave responsibility, not only as a surgeon, but as a teacher, and yet I must ask the students to suspend their important labours for a time. I feel it a duty, under present distressing circumstances, to require your promises not to engage for the present in any further attempt to procure subjects. The difficulties and dangers which beset the inquiring student in the prosecution of his anatomical researches are a great reproach to this enlightened age; but I entertain a confident hope that the representations of practical and scientific men may influence the Legislature, and that a better mode of supplying anatomical schools with subjects will speedily remedy the present evils we so much deplore.
“Gentlemen, the most perfect silence is necessary as to the events of last night. From the necessarily hurried manner with which the party left the churchyard, traces of their attempt may possibly draw the attention of the authorities, and lead to a public inquiry.”
Mr. Bromfield having finished his address, we all pledged ourselves in the way he required, and the meeting broke up.
Returning wearily to my lodgings I was startled by a placard, signed by the churchwardens of Hilton, which a man was in the act of posting up. It was as follows:—
Fifty Guineas Reward!
Whereas, late last night, or early this morning, some villain or villains, unknown, entered the churchyard of Hilton, and feloniously stole the body and the grave-clothes of a person therein buried, and have thus incurred the penalty of transportation: Any person giving information that may lead to the discovery of the offender, or offenders, shall receive Twenty Guineas reward upon his or their apprehension, and a further reward of Thirty Guineas upon conviction.
I do not know that the horrible witness of the night affected me more strangely than this announcement. The body gone and the grave clothes! I read and re-read the words until the very idea sickened me. The unearthly sounds we had heard, all now bore a fearful interpretation.
I turned away from the contemplation of this infernal placard, repeating unconsciously, “the body and the grave-clothes—the body and the grave-clothes!” Suddenly I started at full speed to Balfour’s. Judge of my alarm and distress when I found the street-door wide open, and the household in great confusion. Mr. Bromfield and Fletcher, with several neighbouring practitioners in the sick-room, drawn thither by strange reports of Balfour’s extraordinary state. As I entered the apartment, Balfour, a dying man, rose upright in his bed, and with the same ghastly expression he wore in the dissecting-room, pointed at me with outstretched arms, and exclaimed, in a voice that haunted my dreams for months afterwards:
“See, it comes again! The grave is opened! I am in the Valley of the Shadow of Death—it grows darker and darker—I—go——”
He gradually stiffened in this fearful attitude, and in a few minutes was a corpse. So ends my noctuary of terror.