فصل 01کتاب: کتاب قبرستان / فصل 1
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متن انگلیسی فصل
How Nobody Came to the Graveyard
THERE WAS A HAND IN the darkness, and it held a knife.
The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.
The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.
He flexed his fingers. The man Jack was, above all things, a professional, or so he told himself, and he would not allow himself to smile until the job was completed.
His hair was dark and his eyes were dark and he wore black leather gloves of the thinnest lambskin.
The toddler’s room was at the very top of the house. The man Jack walked up the stairs, his feet silent on the carpeting. Then he pushed open the attic door, and he walked in. His shoes were black leather, and they were polished to such a shine that they looked like dark mirrors: you could see the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full.
The real moon shone through the casement window. Its light was not bright, and it was diffused by the mist, but the man Jack would not need much light. The moonlight was enough. It would do.
He could make out the shape of the child in the crib, head and limbs and torso.
The crib had high, slatted sides to prevent the child from getting out. Jack leaned over, raised his right hand, the one holding the knife, and he aimed for the chest…
…and then he lowered his hand. The shape in the crib was a teddy bear. There was no child.
The man Jack’s eyes were accustomed to the dim moonlight, so he had no desire to turn on an electric light. And light was not that important, after all. He had other skills.
The man Jack sniffed the air. He ignored the scents that had come into the room with him, dismissed the scents that he could safely ignore, honed in on the smell of the thing he had come to find. He could smell the child: a milky smell, like chocolate chip cookies, and the sour tang of a wet, disposable, nighttime diaper. He could smell the baby shampoo in its hair, and something small and rubbery—a toy, he thought, and then, no, something to suck—that the child had been carrying.
The child had been here. It was here no longer. The man Jack followed his nose down the stairs through the middle of the tall, thin house. He inspected the bathroom, the kitchen, the airing cupboard, and, finally, the downstairs hall, in which there was nothing to be seen but the family’s bicycles, a pile of empty shopping bags, a fallen diaper, and the stray tendrils of fog that had insinuated themselves into the hall from the open door to the street.
The man Jack made a small noise then, a grunt that contained in it both frustration and also satisfaction. He slipped the knife into its sheath in the inside pocket of his long coat, and he stepped out into the street. There was moonlight, and there were streetlights, but the fog stifled everything, muted light and muffled sound and made the night shadowy and treacherous. He looked down the hill towards the light of the closed shops, then up the street, where the last high houses wound up the hill on their way to the darkness of the old graveyard.
The man Jack sniffed the air. Then, without hurrying, he began to walk up the hill.
Ever since the child had learned to walk he had been his mother’s and father’s despair and delight, for there never was such a boy for wandering, for climbing up things, for getting into and out of things. That night, he had been woken by the sound of something on the floor beneath him falling with a crash. Awake, he soon became bored, and had begun looking for a way out of his crib. It had high sides, like the walls of his playpen downstairs, but he was convinced that he could scale it. All he needed was a step… He pulled his large, golden teddy bear into the corner of the crib, then, holding the railing in his tiny hands, he put his foot onto the bear’s lap, the other foot up on the bear’s head, and he pulled himself up into a standing position, and then he half-climbed, half-toppled over the railing and out of the crib.
He landed with a muffled thump on a small mound of furry, fuzzy toys, some of them presents from relations from his first birthday, not six months gone, some of them inherited from his older sister. He was surprised when he hit the floor, but he did not cry out: if you cried they came and put you back in your crib.
He crawled out of the room.
Stairs that went up were tricky things, and he had not yet entirely mastered them. Stairs that went down however, he had discovered, were fairly simple. He did them sitting down, bumping from step to step on his well-padded bottom.
He sucked on his nummer, the rubber pacifier his mother had just begun to tell him that he was getting too old for.
His diaper had worked itself loose on his journey on his bottom down the stairs, and when he reached the last step, when he reached the little hall and stood up, the diaper fell off. He stepped out of it. He was only wearing a child’s nightshirt. The stairs that led back up to his room and his family were steep, but the door to the street was open and inviting….
The child stepped out of the house a little hesitantly. The fog wreathed around him like a long-lost friend. And then, uncertainly at first, then with increasing speed and confidence, the boy tottered up the hill.
The fog was thinner as you approached the top of the hill. The half-moon shone, not as bright as day, not by any means, but enough to see the graveyard, enough for that.
You could see the abandoned funeral chapel, iron doors padlocked, ivy on the sides of the spire, a small tree growing out of the guttering at roof level.
You could see stones and tombs and vaults and memorial plaques. You could see the occasional dash or scuttle of a rabbit or a vole or a weasel as it slipped out of the undergrowth and across the path.
You would have seen these things, in the moonlight, if you had been there that night.
You might not have seen a pale, plump woman, who walked the path near the front gates, and if you had seen her, with a second, more careful glance you would have realized that she was only moonlight, mist, and shadow. The plump, pale woman was there, though. She walked the path that led through a clutch of half-fallen tombstones towards the front gates.
The gates were locked. They were always locked at four in the afternoon in winter, at eight at night in summer. Spike-topped iron railings ran around part of the cemetery, a high brick wall around the rest of it. The bars of the gates were closely spaced: they would have stopped a grown man from getting through, even stopped a ten-year-old child… “Owens!” called the pale woman, in a voice that might have been the rustle of the wind through the long grass. “Owens! Come and look at this!”
She crouched down and peered at something on the ground, as a patch of shadow moved into the moonlight, revealing itself to be a grizzled man in his mid-forties. He looked down at his wife, and then looked at what she was looking at, and he scratched his head.
“Mistress Owens?” he said, for he came from a more formal age than our own. “Is that what I think it is?”
And at that moment the thing he was inspecting seemed to catch sight of Mrs. Owens, for it opened its mouth, letting the rubber nipple it was sucking fall to the ground, and it reached out a small, chubby fist, as if it were trying for all the world to hold on to Mrs. Owens’s pale finger.
“Strike me silly,” said Mr. Owens, “if that isn’t a baby.”
“Of course it’s a baby,” said his wife. “And the question is, what is to be done with it?”
“I daresay that is a question, Mistress Owens,” said her husband. “And yet, it is not our question. For this here baby is unquestionably alive, and as such is nothing to do with us, and is no part of our world.” “Look at him smile!” said Mrs. Owens. “He has the sweetest of smiles,” and with one insubstantial hand she stroked the child’s sparse blond hair. The little boy giggled with delight.
A chilly breeze blew across the graveyard, scattering the fog in the lower slopes of the place (for the graveyard covered the whole of the top of the hill, and its paths wound up the hill and down and back upon themselves). A rattling: someone at the main gate of the graveyard was pulling and shaking it, rattling the old gates and the heavy padlock and chain that held them.
“There now,” said Owens, “it’s the babe’s family, come to bring him back to the loving bosom. Leave the little man be,” he added, because Mrs. Owens was putting her insubstantial arms around the toddler, smoothing, stroking.
Mrs. Owens said, “He dun’t look like nobody’s family, that one.” The man in the dark coat had given up on rattling the main gates and was now examining the smaller side gate. It, too, was well-locked. There had been some vandalism in the graveyard the previous year, and the council had Taken Steps.
“Come on, Mistress Owens. Leave it be. There’s a dear,” said Mr. Owens, when he saw a ghost, and his mouth dropped open, and he found himself unable to think of anything to say.
You might think—and if you did, you would be right—that Mr. Owens should not have taken on so at seeing a ghost, given that Mr. and Mrs. Owens were themselves dead and had been for a few hundred years now, and given that the entirety of their social life, or very nearly, was spent with those who were also dead. But there was a difference between the folk of the graveyard and this: a raw, flickering, startling shape the grey color of television static, all panic and naked emotion which flooded the Owenses as if it was their own. Three figures, two large, one smaller, but only one of them was in focus, was more than an outline or a shimmer. And the figure said, My baby! He is trying to harm my baby!
A clattering. The man outside was hauling a heavy metal garbage can across the alley to the high brick wall that ran around that part of the graveyard.
“Protect my son!” said the ghost, and Mrs. Owens thought it was a woman. Of course, the babe’s mother.
“What did he do to you?” asked Mrs. Owens, but she was not certain that the ghost could hear her. Recently dead, poor love, she thought. It’s always easier to die gently, to wake in due time in the place you were buried, to come to terms with your death and to get acquainted with the other inhabitants. This creature was nothing but alarm and fear for her child, and her panic, which felt to the Owenses like a low-pitched screaming, was now attracting attention, for other pale figures were coming from all over the graveyard.
“Who are you?” Caius Pompeius asked the figure. His headstone was now only a weathered lump of rock, but two thousand years earlier he had asked to be laid to rest on the mound beside the marble shrine, rather than to have his body sent back to Rome, and he was one of the most senior citizens of the graveyard. He took his responsibilities extremely seriously. “Are you buried here?” “Of course she’s not! Freshly dead by the look of her.” Mrs. Owens put an arm around the woman-shape and spoke to it privately, in a low voice, calm and sensible.
There was a thump and a crash from the high wall beside the alley. The garbage can had fallen. A man clambered up onto the top of the wall, a dark outline against the mist-smudged streetlights. He paused for a moment, then climbed down the other side, holding on to the top of the wall, legs dangling, then let himself fall the last few feet, down into the graveyard.
“But my dear,” Mrs. Owens said to the shape, now all that was left of the three shapes that had appeared in the graveyard. “He’s living. We’re not. Can you imagine…”
The child was looking up at them, puzzled. It reached for one of them, then the other, finding nothing but air. The woman-shape was fading fast.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Owens, in response to something that no one else had heard. “If we can, then we will.” Then she turned to the man beside her. “And you, Owens? Will you be a father to this little lad?” “Will I what?” said Owens, his brow crinkling.
“We never had a child,” said his wife. “And his mother wants us to protect him. Will you say yes?”
The man in the black coat had tripped in the tangle of ivy and half-broken headstones. Now he got to his feet and walked forward more carefully, startling an owl which rose on silent wings. He could see the baby and there was triumph in his eyes.
Owens knew what his wife was thinking when she used that tone of voice. They had not, in life and in death, been married for over two hundred and fifty years for nothing. “Are you certain?” he asked. “Are you sure?” “Sure as I ever have been of anything,” said Mrs. Owens.
“Then yes. If you’ll be its mother, I’ll be its father.”
“Did you hear that?” Mrs. Owens asked the flickering shape in the graveyard, now little more than an outline, like distant summer lightning in the shape of a woman. It said something to her that no one else could hear, and then it was gone.
“She’ll not come here again,” said Mr. Owens. “Next time she wakes it’ll be in her own graveyard, or wherever it is she’s going.”
Mrs. Owens bent down to the baby and extended her arms. “Come now,” she said, warmly. “Come to Mama.”
To the man Jack, walking through the graveyard towards them on a path, his knife already in his hand, it seemed as if a swirl of mist had curled around the child, in the moonlight, and that the boy was no longer there: just damp mist and moonlight and swaying grass.
He blinked and sniffed the air. Something had happened, but he had no idea what it was. He growled in the back of his throat, like a beast of prey, angry and frustrated.
“Hullo?” called the man Jack, wondering if perhaps the child had stepped behind something. His voice was dark and rough, and there was an odd edge to it, as if of surprise or puzzlement at hearing himself speak.
The graveyard kept its secrets.
“Hello?” he called, again. He hoped to hear a baby cry or utter a half-word, or to hear it move. He did not expect what he actually heard, a voice, silky smooth, saying,
“Can I help you?”
The man Jack was tall. This man was taller. The man Jack wore dark clothes. This man’s clothes were darker. People who noticed the man Jack when he was about his business—and he did not like to be noticed—were troubled, or made uncomfortable, or found themselves unaccountably scared. The man Jack looked up at the stranger, and it was the man Jack who was troubled.
“I was looking for someone,” said the man Jack, slipping his right hand back into his coat pocket, so the knife was hidden, but there if he needed it.
“In a locked graveyard, at night?” said the stranger.
“It was just a baby,” said the man Jack. “I was just passing, when I heard a baby cry, and I looked through the gates and I saw him. Well, what would anyone do?”
“I applaud your public-spiritedness,” said the stranger. “Yet if you managed to find this child, how were you planning to get out of here with it? You can’t climb back over the wall holding a baby.” “I would have called until someone let me out,” said the man Jack.
A heavy jingling of keys. “Well, that would have been me, then,” said the stranger. “I would have had to let you out.” He selected one large key from the key ring, said “Follow me.” The man Jack walked behind the stranger. He took his knife from his pocket. “Are you the caretaker, then?”
“Am I? Certainly, in a manner of speaking,” said the stranger. They were walking towards the gates and, the man Jack was certain, away from the baby. But the caretaker had the keys. A knife in the dark, that was all it would take, and then he could search for the child all through the night, if he needed to.
He raised the knife.
“If there was a baby,” said the stranger, without looking back, “it wouldn’t have been here in the graveyard. Perhaps you were mistaken. It’s unlikely that a child would have come in here, after all. Much more likely that you heard a nightbird, and saw a cat, perhaps, or a fox. They declared this place an official nature reserve, you know, thirty years ago, around the time of the last funeral. Now think carefully, and tell me you are certain that it was a child that you saw.” The man Jack thought.
The stranger unlocked the side gate. “A fox,” he said. “They make the most uncommon noises, not unlike a person crying. No, your visit to this graveyard was a mis-step, sir. Somewhere the child you seek awaits you, but he is not here.” And he let the thought sit there, in the man Jack’s head for a moment, before he opened the gate with a flourish. “Delighted to have made your acquaintance,” he said. “And I trust that you will find everything you need out there.” The man Jack stood outside the gates to the graveyard. The stranger stood inside the gate, and he locked it again, and put the key away.
“Where are you going?” asked the man Jack.
“There are other gates than this,” said the stranger. “My car is on the other side of the hill. Don’t mind me. You don’t even have to remember this conversation.”
“No,” said the man Jack, agreeably. “I don’t.” He remembered wandering up the hill, that what he had thought to be a child had turned out to be a fox, that a helpful caretaker had escorted him back out to the street. He slipped his knife into its inner sheath. “Well,” he said. “Good night.” “A good night to you,” said the stranger whom Jack had taken for a caretaker.
The man Jack set off down the hill, in pursuit of the infant.
From the shadows, the stranger watched Jack until he was out of sight. Then he moved through the night, up and up, to the flat place below the brow of the hill, a place dominated by an obelisk and a flat stone set into the ground dedicated to the memory of Josiah Worthington, local brewer, politician and later baronet, who had, almost three hundred years before, bought the old cemetery and the land around it, and given it to the city in perpetuity. He had reserved for himself the best location on the hill—a natural amphitheater, with a view of the whole city and beyond—and had insured that the graveyard endured as a graveyard, for which the inhabitants of the graveyard were grateful, although never quite as grateful as Josiah Worthington, Bart., felt they should have been.
There were, all told, some ten thousand souls in the graveyard, but most of them slept deep, or took no interest in the night-to-night affairs of the place, and there were less than three hundred of them up there, in the amphitheater, in the moonlight.
The stranger reached them as silently as the fog itself, and he watched the proceedings unfold, from the shadows, and he said nothing.
Josiah Worthington was speaking. He said, “My dear madam. Your obduracy is quite, is…well, can’t you see how ridiculous this is?”
“No,” said Mrs. Owens. “I can’t.”
She was sitting, cross-legged, on the ground, and the living child was sleeping in her lap. She cradled its head with her pale hands.
“What Mistress Owens is trying to say, sir, begging your honor’s pardon,” said Mr. Owens, standing beside her, “is that she dun’t see it that way. She sees it as doing her duty.” Mr. Owens had seen Josiah Worthington in the flesh back when they were both alive, had in fact made several pieces of fine furniture for the Worthington manor house, out near Inglesham, and was still in awe of him.
“Her duty?” Josiah Worthington, Bart., shook his head, as if to dislodge a strand of cobweb. “Your duty, ma’am, is to the graveyard, and to the commonality of those who form this population of discarnate spirits, revenants and suchlike wights, and your duty thus is to return the creature as soon as possible to its natural home—which is not here.” “His mama gave the boy to me,” said Mrs. Owens, as if that was all that needed to be said.
“My dear woman…”
“I am not your dear woman,” said Mrs. Owens, getting to her feet. “Truth to tell, I don’t even see why I am even here, talking to you fiddle-pated old dunderheads, when this lad is going to wake up hungry soon enough—and where am I going to find food for him in this graveyard, I should like to know?” “Which,” said Caius Pompeius, stiffly, “is precisely the point. What will you feed him? How can you care for him?”
Mrs. Owens’s eyes burned. “I can look after him,” she said, “as well as his own mama. She already gave him to me. Look: I’m holding him, aren’t I? I’m touching him.”
“Now, see reason, Betsy,” said Mother Slaughter, a tiny old thing, in the huge bonnet and cape that she had worn in life and been buried wearing. “Where would he live?”
“Here,” said Mrs. Owens. “We could give him the Freedom of the Graveyard.”
Mother Slaughter’s mouth became a tiny O. “But,” she said. Then she said, “But I never.”
“Well, why not? It en’t the first time we’d’ve given the Freedom of the Graveyard to an outsider.”
“That is true,” said Caius Pompeius. “But he wasn’t alive.”
And with that, the stranger realized that he was being drawn, like it or not, into the conversation and, reluctantly, he stepped out of the shadows, detaching from them like a patch of darkness. “No,” he agreed. “I am not. But I take Mrs. Owens’s point.” Josiah Worthington said, “You do, Silas?”
“I do. For good or for evil—and I firmly believe that it is for good—Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will,” said Silas, “take a graveyard.” “And what of food, and the rest of it?”
“I can leave the graveyard and return. I can bring him food,” said Silas.
“That’s all very well you saying that,” said Mother Slaughter. “But you comes and you goes and nobody keeps track of you. If you went off for a week, the boy could die.”
“You are a wise woman,” said Silas. “I see why they speak so highly of you.” He couldn’t push the minds of the dead as he could the living, but he could use all the tools of flattery and persuasion he possessed, for the dead are not immune to either. Then he came to a decision. “Very well. If Mr. and Mrs. Owens will be his parents, I shall be his guardian. I shall remain here, and if I need to leave I shall ensure that someone takes my place, bringing the child food and looking after him. We can use the crypt of the chapel,” he added.
“But,” expostulated Josiah Worthington. “But. A human child. A living child. I mean. I mean, I mean. This is a graveyard, not a nursery, blast it.”
“Exactly,” said Silas, nodding. “A very good point, Sir Josiah. I couldn’t have put it better myself. And for that reason, if for no other, it is vital that the child be raised with as little disruption as possible to the, if you’ll forgive the expression, the life of the graveyard.” With that he strolled over to Mrs. Owens, and he looked down at the infant asleep in her arms. He raised an eyebrow. “Does he have a name, Mrs. Owens?” “Not that his mother told me,” she said.
“Well, then,” said Silas. “His old name won’t be of much use to him now, anyway. There are those out there who mean him harm. Suppose we pick a name for him, eh?”
Caius Pompeius stepped over and eyed the child. “He looks a little like my proconsul, Marcus. We could call him Marcus.”
Josiah Worthington said, “He looks more like my head gardener, Stebbins. Not that I’m suggesting Stebbins as a name. The man drank like a fish.”
“He looks like my nephew Harry,” said Mother Slaughter, and it seemed then as if the whole graveyard was about to join in, each inhabitant offering his or her own comparisons between the infant and someone long forgotten, when Mrs. Owens broke in.
“He looks like nobody but himself,” said Mrs. Owens, firmly. “He looks like nobody.”
“Then Nobody it is,” said Silas. “Nobody Owens.”
It was then that, as if responding to the name, the child opened its eyes wide in wakefulness. It stared around it, taking in the faces of the dead, and the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.
“And what kind of a name is Nobody?” asked Mother Slaughter, scandalized.
“His name. And a good name,” Silas told her. “It will help to keep him safe.”
“I don’t want trouble,” said Josiah Worthington. The infant looked up at him and then, hungry or tired or simply missing his home, his family, his world, he screwed up his tiny face and began to cry.
“Leave us,” said Caius Pompeius to Mrs. Owens. “We will discuss this further without you.”
Mrs. Owens waited outside the funeral chapel. It had been decreed over forty years before that the building, in appearance a small church with a spire, was a listed building of historical interest. The town council had decided that it would cost too much to renovate it, a little chapel in an overgrown graveyard that had already become unfashionable, so they had padlocked it, and waited for it to fall down. Ivy covered it, but it was solidly built, and it would not fall down this century.
The child had fallen asleep in Mrs. Owens’s arms. She rocked it gently, sang to it an old song, one her mother had sung to her when she was a baby herself, back in the days when men had first started to wear powdered wigs. The song went, Sleep my little babby-ohSleep until you wakenWhen you’re grown you’ll see the worldIf I’m not mistaken.Kiss a lover,Dance a measure,Find your nameand buried treasure…
And Mrs. Owens sang all that before she discovered that she had forgotten how the song ended. She had a feeling that the final line was something in the way of “and some hairy bacon,” but that might have been another song altogether, so she stopped and instead she sang him the one about the Man in the Moon who came down too soon, and after that she sang, in her warm country voice, a more recent song about a lad who put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and she had just started a long ballad about a young country gentleman whose girlfriend had, for no particular reason, poisoned him with a dish of spotted eels, when Silas came around the side of the chapel, carrying a cardboard box.
“Here we go, Mistress Owens,” he said. “Lots of good things for a growing boy. We can keep it in the crypt, eh?”
The padlock fell off in his hand and he pulled open the iron door. Mrs. Owens walked inside, looking dubiously at the shelves, and at the old wooden pews tipped up against a wall. There were mildewed boxes of old parish records in one corner, and an open door that revealed a Victorian flush toilet and a basin, with only a cold tap, in the other.
The infant opened his eyes and stared.
“We can put the food here,” said Silas. “It’s cool, and the food will keep longer.” He reached into the box, pulled out a banana.
“And what would that be when it was at home?” asked Mrs. Owens, eyeing the yellow and brown object suspiciously.
“It’s a banana. A fruit, from the tropics. I believe you peel off the outer covering,” said Silas, “like so.”
The child—Nobody—wriggled in Mrs. Owens’s arms, and she let it down to the flagstones. It toddled rapidly to Silas, grasped his trouser-leg and held on.
Silas passed it the banana.
Mrs. Owens watched the boy eat. “Ba-na-na,” she said, dubiously. “Never heard of them. Never. What’s it taste like?”
“I’ve absolutely no idea,” said Silas, who consumed only one food, and it was not bananas. “You could make up a bed in here for the boy, you know.”
“I’ll do no such thing, with Owens and me having a lovely little tomb over by the daffodil patch. Plenty of room in there for a little one. Anyway,” she added, concerned that Silas might think she was rejecting his hospitality, “I wouldn’t want the lad disturbing you.” “He wouldn’t.”
The boy was done with his banana. What he had not eaten was now smeared over himself. He beamed, messy and apple-cheeked.
“Narna,” he said, happily.
“What a clever little thing he is,” said Mrs. Owens. “And such a mess he’s made! Why, attend, you little wriggler…” and she picked the lumps of banana from his clothes and his hair. And then, “What do you think they’ll decide?” “I don’t know.”
“I can’t give him up. Not after what I promised his mama.”
“Although I have been a great many things in my time,” said Silas, “I have never been a mother. And I do not plan to begin now. But I can leave this place…”
Mrs. Owens said simply, “I cannot. My bones are here. And so are Owens’s. I’m never leaving.”
“It must be good,” said Silas, “to have somewhere that you belong. Somewhere that’s home.” There was nothing wistful in the way he said this. His voice was drier than deserts, and he said it as if he were simply stating something unarguable. Mrs. Owens did not argue.
“Do you think we will have long to wait?”
“Not long,” said Silas, but he was wrong about that.
Up in the amphitheater on the side of the hill, the debate continued. That it was the Owenses who had got involved in this nonsense, rather than some flibbertigibbet johnny-come-latelies, counted for a lot, for the Owenses were respectable and respected. That Silas had volunteered to be the boy’s guardian had weight—Silas was regarded with a certain wary awe by the graveyard folk, existing as he did on the borderland between their world and the world they had left. But still, but still… A graveyard is not normally a democracy, and yet death is the great democracy, and each of the dead had a voice, and an opinion as to whether the living child should be allowed to stay, and they were each determined to be heard, that night.
It was late autumn when the daybreak was long in coming. Although the sky was still dark, cars could now be heard starting up further down the hill, and as the living folk began to drive to work through the misty night-black morning, the graveyard folk talked about the child that had come to them, and what was to be done. Three hundred voices. Three hundred opinions. Nehemiah Trot, the poet, from the tumbled northwestern side of the graveyard, had begun to declaim his thoughts on the matter, although what they were no person listening could have said, when something happened; something to silence each opinionated mouth, something unprecedented in the history of that graveyard.
A huge white horse, of the kind that the people who know horses would call a “grey,” came ambling up the side of the hill. The pounding of its hooves could be heard before it was seen, along with the crashing it made as it pushed through the little bushes and thickets, through the brambles and the ivy and the gorse that had grown up on the side of the hill. The size of a Shire horse it was, a full nineteen hands or more. It was a horse that could have carried a knight in full armor into combat, but all it carried on its naked back was a woman, clothed from head to foot in grey. Her long skirt and her shawl might have been spun out of old cobwebs.
Her face was serene, and peaceful.
They knew her, the graveyard folk, for each of us encounters the Lady on the Grey at the end of our days, and there is no forgetting her.
The horse paused beside the obelisk. In the east the sky was lightening gently, a pearlish, pre-dawn luminescence that made the people of the graveyard uncomfortable and made them think about returning to their comfortable homes. Even so, not a one of them moved. They were watching the Lady on the Grey, each of them half-excited, half-scared. The dead are not superstitious, not as a rule, but they watched her as a Roman Augur might have watched the sacred crows circle, seeking wisdom, seeking a clue.
And she spoke to them.
In a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells she said only, “The dead should have charity.” And she smiled.
The horse, which had been contentedly ripping up and masticating a clump of thick grass, stopped then. The lady touched the horse’s neck, and it turned. It took several huge, clattering steps, then it was off the side of the hill and cantering across the sky. Its thunderous hooves became an early rumble of distant thunder, and in moments it was lost to sight.
That, at least, was what the folk of the graveyard who had been on the hillside that night claimed had happened.
The debate was over and ended, and, without so much as a show of hands, had been decided. The child called Nobody Owens would be given the Freedom of the Graveyard.
Mother Slaughter and Josiah Worthington, Bart., accompanied Mr. Owens to the crypt of the old chapel, and they told Mrs. Owens the news.
She seemed unsurprised by the miracle. “That’s right,” she said. “Some of them dun’t have a ha’porth of sense in their heads. But she does. Of course she does.”
Before the sun rose on a thundering grey morning the child was fast asleep in the Owenses’ fine little tomb (for Master Owens had died the prosperous head of the local cabinetmaker’s guild, and the cabinetmakers had wanted to ensure that he was properly honored).
Silas went out for one final journey before the sunrise. He found the tall house on the side of the hill, and he examined the three bodies he found there, and he studied the pattern of the knife-wounds. When he was satisfied he stepped out into the morning’s dark, his head churning with unpleasant possibilities, and he returned to the graveyard, to the chapel spire where he slept and waited out the days.
In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months—of years—of work. And the business of the evening had started so promisingly—three people down before any of them had even had a chance to cry out. And then… Then it had all gone so maddeningly wrong. Why on earth had he gone up the hill when the child had so obviously gone down the hill? By the time he had reached the bottom of the hill, the trail had gone cold. Someone must have found the child, taken it in, hidden it. There was no other explanation.
A crack of thunder rang out, loud and sudden as a gunshot, and the rain began in earnest. The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move—the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town.
He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.
Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. Time to tie up this last piece of unfinished business. Time to cut the final thread.
It was not until the police sirens sounded and first a police car, then an ambulance, then an unmarked police car with a siren blaring, sped past him on their way up the hill that, reluctantly, the man Jack turned up the collar of his coat, put his head down, and walked off into the morning. His knife was in his pocket, safe and dry inside its sheath, protected from the misery of the elements.
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