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I have heard people exclaim that they’d be better off dead – weary washerwomen on a midnight shift in the steam cellars, ragged beggars down by the Temple Bar, fine young ladies snubbed at a Hightown ball . . . But if they had seen what I saw on that cold and foggy night, they would have realized the foolishness of their words.
It was a sight that will haunt me till my dying day – after which, I fervently hope and pray, I shall remain undisturbed.
This was not something that could be said for the ghastly apparitions that stumbled through the swirling mists towards me. Some lurched haltingly, their arms dangling at their sides; others had their hands outstretched before them, as though their bony fingertips rather than their sunken eyes were guiding their lurching bodies through the curdled fog.
There was a wizened hag with a hooked nose and rat’s-nest hair. A portly matron, the ague that had seen her off still glistening on her furrowed brow . . . A sly-eyed ragger and a bare-knuckled wrestler, his left eyeball out of its socket and dangling on a glistening thread. A corpulent costermonger; a stooped scrivener, their clothes – one satins and frill, the other threadbare serge – smeared alike with black mud and sewer slime. A maid, a chimney-sweep, a couple of stable-lads; one with the side of his skull stoved in by a single blow from a horse’s hoof, the other grey and glittery-eyed from the blood-flecked cough that had ended his life. And a burly rivertough – his fine waistcoat in tatters and his chin tattoo obscured by filth. Glistening at his neck was the deep wound that had taken him from this world to the next.
I shrank back in horror and pressed hard against the cool white marble of the de Vere family vault at my back. Beside me – his body quivering like a slab of jellied ham – Sir Alfred was breathing in stuttering, wheezy gasps. From three sides of the marble tomb in that fog-filled graveyard, the serried ranks of the undead were forming up in a grotesque parody of a parade-ground drill.
‘They’ve found me,’ the old doctor croaked, in a voice not much more than a whisper.
I followed his terrified gaze and found myself staring at four ragged figures in military uniform, red jackets with gold braid at the epaulettes and cuffs, who were standing on a flat-topped tomb above the massed ranks. Each of them bore the evidence of fatal injuries.
The terrible gash down the face of one, that had left his cheekbone exposed and a flap of leathery skin dangling. The blood-stained chest and jagged stump – all that remained of his left arm – of the second figure, splinters of yellow bone protruding through the wreaths of grimy bandages. The rusting axe, cleaving the battered bell-top shako, which was embedded in the skull of the third. And the bulging bloodshot eyes of the fourth, the frayed length of rough rope that had strangulated his last breath still hanging round his bruised and red-raw neck – and a flagpole clutched in his gnarled hands.
As I watched, he raised the splintered flagpole high. Gripping my swordstick, I stared at the fluttering curtain of blood-stained cloth, tasselled brocade hanging in filthy matted strands along the four sides. At its centre was the embroidered regimental emblem – the Angel of Victory, her wings spread wide on a sky-blue field, and beneath, the words 33rd Regiment of Foot written in an angular italic script. The ghastly standard-bearer’s tight lips parted to reveal a row of blackened teeth.
‘Fighting Thirty-Third!’ he cried out, his voice a rasping whisper.
The corpses swayed where they stood, their bony arms reaching forward, with tattered sleeves hanging limply in the foggy air. I smelled the sourness of the sewers about them; that, and the sweet whiff of death. Their sunken eyes bored into mine.
We were surrounded. There was nothing Sir Alfred or I could do. The standard-bearer’s voice echoed hoarsely round the graveyard.
From the Hardcover edition.