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Authors: Tessa Harris

The Dead Shall Not Rest

BOOK: The Dead Shall Not Rest
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Books by Tessa Harris
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To Philip and Reinhilde
Author’s Notes and Acknowledgments
I first encountered Charles Byrne in 1998 at Tate Britain art gallery, in London. His image, or rather a silhouette of a clay model of his skeleton, formed part of an installation by Christine Borland, whose work was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize that year. To the side was a small, leather-bound volume, open at a page that gave a tantalizing glimpse into the extraordinary story of Charles Byrne, known as the Irish Giant, and his tormentor, the aptly named Dr. John Hunter.
For almost fifteen years I have wanted to tell Charles’s story, first in the form of a screenplay. Hilary Mantel’s excellent but totally different novel,
The Giant, O’Brien,
was published after I had written my film script, and for another five years my own version of the story remained in limbo until it was optioned by a production company. The project was shelved after a year.
Now, however, I am so thankful to have the opportunity to bring Charles Byrne’s story to a wider audience with this, the second in the series of the Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mysteries. While
The Dead Shall Not Rest
is essentially a novel, I have not changed the names of the three main protagonists because their stories and characters are so extraordinary, I did not want to detract from them. Charles Byrne, Dr. John Hunter, and Count Josef Boruwlaski were all real, and to a great extent I have remained, as far as is possible, faithful to their recorded characters, appearances, and actions. There is one important exception, however. There is no evidence to suggest that the count betrayed Charles Byrne and was instrumental in the treatment of his corpse. Boruwlaski went to live in Durham, in the north of England, and died at the age of ninety-seven. The very unsavory characters of Howison, Crouch, and Hartnett were also real.
For the purposes of dramatic unity I have compressed the action that occurred over the course of fourteen months, from April 1782 to Charles Byrne’s death in 1783. For unity of place, I have confined the action to Hunter’s home in Leicester Square, although he did not move there until 1783. Charles Byrne did not lodge with the count (who had lodgings in Jermyn Street, opposite John Hunter, for a time) but in Cockspur Street.
For readers whose interest in this period has been awakened, I can recommend no finer book on Dr. John Hunter than Wendy Moore’s
The Knife Man
As ever, I am grateful to Dr. Kate Dyerson for the benefit of her medical knowledge. My thanks also go to Patsy Pennell, Katy Eachus, and Beverley Vine for their help. Finally, my gratitude goes to my agent, Melissa Jeglinski, and to my editor, John Scognamiglio, and the team at Kensington Books, for their belief in me.
—England, 2012
If I have seen further it is by standing on the
shoulders of giants.
—Sir Isaac Newton,
from a letter to Robert Hooke, 1675
Chapter 1
London, England,
in the Year of Our Lord 1782
eath was not sleeping in St. Bride’s churchyard that night. She was wide awake and watching, in readiness. She knew her peace was about to be disturbed. She had only claimed what was rightfully hers. Dust to dust, was it not written? But there were those who wished to rob her of her precious new treasure. Fresh flowers had been laid on one of her graves, snowdrops and primroses, and she understood the prospect of new flesh was too much of a temptation for some. So she watched and she waited.
Dr. Thomas Silkstone had been there only a few hours before. The child they had laid to rest was one of his patients. Just eight years old, Evelina had suffered corruption of the flesh. A bad fall meant that a surgeon had no choice but to amputate her leg, but infection had already crept in and invaded her whole body when her distraught parents had brought their rag of a daughter to him. In life her pretty face had been twisted with pain and her flaxen hair soaked with sweat. But now that the peace of death had descended on her, it seemed as though she was merely asleep. She looked just as his own dear sister had looked when she passed at a similar age all those years ago in his native Philadelphia.
Evelina’s parents, Mary and Peter Chepp, were good, honest citizens. Evelina was their third daughter, and their second child to die before the age of ten. They had brought her to him when her blood was already poisoned. All he could do was dress the bloodied stump, clean it with oil of thyme and alum, and keep down the girl’s fever. But to no avail. The passing of any of his patients always affected Thomas, even though he knew it should not. It was all part of the circle, the endless round of birth and death that physicians dealt with daily. But when it was a child called before its time, it was all the more heartrending.
As Thomas watched the couple, standing forlornly together, overseeing the gravediggers lower the little coffin into the earth, his thoughts turned to another funeral. He recalled Lady Lydia Farrell at her mother’s interment. It had been a long and lonely winter without his beloved, with only her letters for comfort. Now that the weather was turning and spring was on its way, the coaches from London to Oxford would soon be running their daily service and he would return to Boughton to see her. He was just waiting for her word and he would be with her. Both of them agreed that it was best, out of respect for the dead and for the sake of their reputations, to keep their plans secret for the time being. If they were to announce their betrothal so soon after her late husband’s death, vicious tongues would wag once again. Thomas did not want Lydia to suffer more than she already had.
“We have paid both the undertaker and the sexton well,” Mr. and Mrs. Chepp told Thomas as the gravediggers smoothed over shovelfuls of soil, patting them into a mound. The doctor smiled and nodded reassuringly. He hoped that their monetary incentives were enough to keep the grave robbers at bay. All the same, he feared for their daughter’s safety even more than his own that night.
Now that winter had loosened its icy grip on the earth, the sack ’em up men could work with impunity. No corpse was safe. The dissecting rooms of London needed cadavers, and the anatomists did not care how they came by them or who they were. Feeding this insatiable appetite for the dead was a lucrative business for those with low enough morals and strong stomachs—and there were plenty of those—as Thomas knew only too well. He had been approached many times by such scoundrels, but had always sent them away. Once you did business with them, it was hard to break free. He had even heard of a surgeon who refused to play by their rules and woke to a rotting corpse on his doorstep the next day.
“Our Evelina will be safe,” repeated Mr. and Mrs. Chepp to Thomas as they left the graveside. “No one will steal our child.”
Now it was a late hour. The spring-guns were set around the churchyard wall, or so the sexton said. The night was moonless. A dog barked and the men appeared. There were four of them and they knuckled down to work as if they were smithies in a forge or infantrymen loading their rifles. Each knew his task and performed it efficiently. Two dug a hole down to the coffin where the head lay while the other two stretched out a canvas sheet to receive the displaced earth. They dug with short, flat, dagger-shaped pieces of wood so that the sound of iron striking stone did not alert anyone.
Within half an hour they had reached the small coffin. The lid came off effortlessly—the undertaker had seen to that—and they pulled out the girl’s body with ease. And there she was, pure and delicate, dressed in a flowing white shroud and with a garland of fresh flowers wreathed around her pretty head. Still they stripped her. Their own lives were worth more than a few grave-clothes and faded petals. They would not swing for stealing a shroud. So they bundled her, naked, into a sack. Carefully they reburied her grave-clothes and lowered the coffin back down, taking great care to smooth the surface all around. No one must know that the earth had already given up one of its newest and sweetest secrets.
The sexton, who had been watching proceedings, keeping lookout by the spring-guns which he had previously disarmed, nodded at the men. He saw them slip the sack over the wall and he knew his work was done.
All that remained was to take the booty—there were two other corpses on the cart—to Castle Street in Leicester Fields. The moon that had been so obligingly absent earlier now reappeared from behind a blanket of cloud, so that the road was easier to trace.
The cart pulled up in front of a large town house and one of the men alighted by a wooden gate. He tapped on it and a few moments later there came the sound of locks being unbolted before it creaked open. A swarthy guard appeared, lantern in hand, and nodded to the men, who were clearly expected. He returned inside and a few seconds later a drawbridge was lowered into the street and the cart was driven through. Once it was inside, the guard climbed on board. Bending down, he took a tape from around his neck and measured the length of each sack from top to bottom before opening all three of them, one after the other. Seemingly satisfied with their contents, he counted out a number of coins and handed them to the man, who signaled to the others to begin lugging the cargo off the cart and through the gate.
A few minutes later, their transaction complete, the men drove off. The guard looked up and down the street once more, making sure that no one had been privy to these unconventional business dealings, then cranked up the drawbridge once more.
BOOK: The Dead Shall Not Rest
5.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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