Marietta, or the Two Students/Chapter 2
Chapter II: The Body-Snatchers
The location of our tale is Boston, and the scenes of the first chapter passed in Marshall street, a short one, leading from Union to Hanover street, its date is, 1842.
On Commercial street at this date, near one of the principal wharves, stood a large and rather antique block of buildings with granite front, many of which, had formerly been occupied as trading warehouses, but now on account of their dilapidated condition, were used for other purposes.
Some were used merely as places of storage, while others were occupied as dwelling houses by the more indigent class of laborers, and those who procured a livelihood by no visible means, and yet continued to exist.
One of these tenements, more black and frowning in its external appearance than its neighbors, and which stood near the water, was the residence of several individuals with whom in due time we will make the reader acquainted.
From the first floor to the attic, the interior presented unquestionable evidence of neglect and decay, while but a very few of the apartments could possibly, to all appearance afford accommodation to human beings, they having long ago been abandoned to the exclusive jurisdiction and occupation of rats and mice, or whatever other genus of animals found them convenient and commodious.
Let us enter, beginning at the first door on the left, and see what is passing within. The apartment in which you find yourself was once used as a victualing cellar, and the large board which had announced the gratifying fact to the public, now faded and cracked in an hundred places, is used as a kind of bar to secure the door upon the inside.—Everything here speaks of poverty and wretchedness. There are no chairs, and the deficiency is supplied by a rude bench and blocks, which had the peculiar hues of long use. You are looking for a table; there is none; that remnant of a counter there serves the purpose of one.
You observe two persons. The one is very tall, and nearly or perhaps quite sixty years of age. Did you ever look upon such a ghastly visage—such a hollow corpse-like cheek—such a thin, sharp nose—such deeply sunken eyes—such a grim deformity for a mouth, whose lips hug closely the toothless gums, and such a frightful distance from the nether lip to the apex of the chin—or did you ever gaze upon such a low, horribly wrinkled forehead, or greyer and more closely matted locks than his?
You never did. Nor would you, were you to look into the grave; for there is not another such face in the universe living or dead, as that old man’s. There is not a single lineament of his sharp, colorless features that you can contemplate with pleasure.
A skeleton by some ingenious device of satan, or some one else—invested with a scant covering of skin, might bear some resemblance to him; and this is aught that we have any knowledge of that would. Observe his shrunken body, and long limbs. Is it possible there is life there? Are we indeed in the presence of a mortal? Or one of the many who upon a day, many, very many years ago, stepped out of their graves, and were seen abroad? No; ’tis not one of those, but a wreck of a human being. He is called Gaunt; and is a “body-snatcher.”
The other person in physical conformation, differs from him materially; being quite short, very stout, and muscular in form, with features exceedingly coarse and large, full of daring and hardihood. Every part of him is indicative of strength; and he breathes an air of defiance and recklessness. Like his companion, his dress is dark, and of a very ordinary quality, fitting but indifferently.
We will introduce this gentleman as Mr. Thick, he follows for a livelihood the same respectable branch of business as the former. Having given this brief description of these two characters, we will notice the manner in which they are employed. The latter arises from the bench upon which he has been sitting, and after confering a moment with his companion, opens a small door which communicates with a room in the rear of the one in which they now are, and equaling it in every respect so far as filth and wretchedness is concerned. He opens a large chest, which sits in an obscure corner of the apartment, and with some little effort, takes from it a sack which contains apparently some heavy material. The door is cautiously secured by Gaunt, and they hesitate a few moments before proceeding, as if to assure themselves that they are entirely free from interruption. They now undo the fastenings of the sack, then reversing it, a human body in its grave-dress falls heavily and with a startling dull sound to the floor. Now they commence disrobing it, throwing each piece of that last habit upon the few embers that are glowing upon the broken hearth stone. While—emiting a nauseating fileuvia,—they are devoured by the scorching element.
The work is soon done, and the body of what was but a short time since a strong man in the very prime of life, is before them in perfect nudity. They contemplate it with the greatest apparent satisfaction; examining like connoisseurs the well rounded limbs, full chest, and muscular development.
“A stout fellow was this,” said Thick, regarding his friend with a satisfied air; there must have been great power in these large muscles and finely formed hands.” “You say truly, but he’s tame enough now Thick, although I would take my oath that a few days ago he would have been more than a match for you.”
“A good subject. I never saw a better, Gaunt.”
“I agree with you that I never saw a better : but the young girl we sold to that pale student Levator, how much handsomer to look upon.”
“Right, Gaunt, for once. I never beheld anything in the shape of death, so fair. That female, she must have been very beautiful when living.”
“I don’t think that would follow as a natural consequence. Many homely persons make a handsome corpse.”
“I would like to see you after you are dead, Gaunt, if what you say is true.”
“I should look quite respectable, I assure you.”
“Die then by all means for your own credit, and the sake of your friends.”
“That must be a great change, though, which makes you a respectable man. I can think of only one greater : that which makes you honest. But to speak to the point, what are we to receive for this corpse.”
“All we can get, which should not be a trifle. We have risked much to get it; our reputation.”
“A great hazard for us both, by G—,” replied Gaunt, laughing in a manner that fully explained all he felt in regard to the absurdity of the idea.
“And the risk of detection is not all, Gaunt, the labor must also be reckoned in the account beside the intrinsic value of the body.”
“And look! Gaunt, as I performed most of the labor, I shall be entitled as a matter of course, to the largest share of the money.”
“I don’t see the force of that argument.”
“Here is the force of the argument,” replied Thick, quickly, holding up both his enormous fists in a very peculiar manner before Gaunt, “do you see it any better now.”
“Yes I understand,” replied Gaunt, stepping back to make a wider space between himself and Thick, “but it is not fair.”
Thick was about to apply his most cogent reasons in justification of the course he had marked out to pursue, when a knocking without interrupted the proceedings and put an end to the interesting process.
“Who’s there,” growled Thick, surlily placing himself against the door, while Gaunt was endeavoring with all his strength to drag the corpse into the adjoining room.
“Levator,” said a voice without, “let me in. I have business with you.” The bar is taken from the door, and the pale student whom we left an hour ago with the fair subject, enters, and the entrance is again barricaded as previously.
“Glad to see you, doctor”—(he always called him doctor when he wished to be obliged,) said Thick with an attempt to look very amiable, “I have one of the finest subjects you ever put the knife to—a full grown man—died suddenly—muscles well developed—do you good to look at it.”
“Is it a very recent one,” inquired the student.
“Quite—died three days since—buried yesterday—raised last night—a heavy fellow—much as I could do to drag him from the coffin—knife will go through it so smooth—can make a clean dissection—come and see.”
“Very good indeed,” replied Levator, looking attentively at the body. “It will answer my purpose admirably.—It is quite fresh—in an excellent state of preservation. What price do you set upon it, Mr. Thick.”
“That is exorbitant.”
“Not a cent less, doctor.”
“That is more than I have ever given.”
“You never had so good a subject.”
“It is a very fine one, Thick, and I will give you thirty.”
“Say five, doctor, and it is yours.”
“Not a farthing more.”
“What do you think, Gaunt,” said Thick thoughtfully, leaning towards that worthy person, “shall we, seeing it is our very good friend the doctor, conclude the bargain and consent to loose the other five, which the subject is really worth?”
The person to whom this question was dictated paused a short time as if deeply weighing the subject, and then nodded his head by way of assent, as a man would do in making a great sacrifice.
“The subject is yours, doctor, although I assure you, in good faith, that I would not hazard as much again for twice the sum.”
While saying this he tries to bear the air of a martyr, but still acts like one who has made a good bargain, or done a clever thing and is pleased.
“This piece of business is concluded, and now I have an affair on my hands in which I need your assistance.”
“Speak, we are ready,” cries Thick, who seems to act as spokesman, “It is probably to awake another sleeper.”
“Exactly the reverse.”
“What is that you say? Is it not to take a body from the earth that you want us?”
“You have heard correctly : it is to put one in.”
“To bury one, eh!”
“You recollect the last subject—the female.”
“That—mark my words—must be returned to the grave as you found it, tonight—without the least delay.”
Gaunt recoiled a step—opened his frightful mouth, fixed his eyes in a dubious manner on the young man, and gave other intimations of extreme astonishment, while Thick, looked at him with a puzzled air, and then laughed in a style peculiar to himself.
“Do you comprehend me fully?” continued Levator, firmly. “I wish the body of that young girl, that your sacrilegious hands dragged rudely from its resting place, carried back and placed precisely as you found it in the first instance. Am I intelligible?”
(Peremptorily.) “No remonstrances. I’ll not listen to them; you know my wishes and that is quite enough.”
“Had you not better wait until to—”
“No, I shall not ; It is impossible.—And see, here is your reward when you have faithfully performed your task.” ——(holding up some bank notes.)
“Ah! my senses are more acute now. I take your meaning more readily,” cried Thick, rubbing his hands with delight. “I will earth that body for you in no time.”
“Thick,” said Levator, sternly, laying his hand upon his shoulder and gazing so steadily into his eye that he shrunk from the scrutiny and looked doggedly at Gaunt; “Thick, there must be no jugglery about this transaction, everything must be as I direct. But should you attempt to deceive me—and you will not hesitate to if you think there is the least prospect of succeeding—you shall suffer the consequences, and they will not be light.”
“Pray what would you do,” gasped Thick, turning pale.
“Expose your nefarious trade.”
“There will be no occasion for that, doctor, we will perform our part of the contract faithfully, provided we make one.”
“Do you promise to do what I require for this sum?”
(Both.) “We do.”
“This very night?”
(Both.) “Aye, immediately.”
“Is the burial place far from this?”
“Across the Mystic. We shall take it over in a boat. We keep it for the business.”
“Very good; come with me.”
Taking a sack from the floor, and folding it into as small a space as possible, Gaunt thrust it beneath the folds of his coat, and with Thick followed Levator into the street, first taking the precaution to call an ugly looking female of advanced age, who soon made her appearance from an upper room, and whose province it appeared to be to guard the premises in the absence of the body-snatchers.
Groping his way through narrow lanes, dark courts, and unfrequented streets, his suspicious looking companions a short distance in the rear, Levator found himself once more in the apartment he had so recently left and again beside the body of that young girl whom even in death he loved to gaze upon. It was to him a kind of pleasure, but a melancholy one, and called up many thoughts which he had never before given being to. The body was no longer in a state of nudity, but dressed in its appropriate garb. Who had done it?—The answer is obvious—the pale student, for he revolted at the idea, familiar as he was with such scenes, of those rude men gazing with unhallowed eye upon it.
Thou wert right, Levator, quite right! harbor such delicate and refined feelings ever, and thou wilt repent it never.