I’m not sure any of us who have come to know Edmund over the last few weeks could say he was a good man, but it would take a heart of stone to claim he entirely deserves what has befallen him.
So here we find him after the louche depravity of the ball, with a price having to be paid …
‘Do you know …?’ I could hardly ask, hardly bear to hear the answer. ‘Do you know who they were?’
‘What does it matter who they were?’ He grasped my hand, pulling me roughly to my feet. ‘Now they are empty vessels to be disposed of.’
And so began a night of the cruellest horrors.
Where Slatina found the tools required for that ghastly deed, I know not. All I recall of waiting for his return was how dim the crypt – for this was how I thought of it – grew on his leaving. The light quivered over stone and earth, cloth and flesh alike, as if one form of matter were no different from the next. This bewildered me. For how can a candle cast the same kindly light on those poor dead young women as it did on the dirt which had never sung or danced or blushed beneath another’s admiring gaze?
Slatina was gone a few minutes only, but the time – in truth blank and still and empty – seemed to my disordered senses swelled with dancing light, the hiss and spit of candle grease, a scratch of talons from some subterranean animal, scurrying about its secret business. And so it was with immense gratitude that I welcomed his return, for queer as my companion was, he was at least moving flesh, the blood still pulsing in his thick veins.
‘Rise up, Edmund,’ he exclaimed, handing me a spade. ‘For now you must dig yourself clean.’
I thought it an inappropriate, ungainly turn of phrase and almost said as much, but as the hours wore on it had some truth to it, for toiling over that heavy ground, my hands growing thick with sores, my body mired with dirt and sweat, so it seemed I passed through my own trial, a small penance for the two women dying beneath my home.
Time wore on. The going was as hard as the earth which was compacted with age, and indeed close to bedrock in places, and my body unused to anything more strenuous than a perusal of the morning papers.
Finally, a hole was dug just long and wide and deep enough to fit the bodies and to have perhaps two feet of dirt replaced on top of them. I put aside my spade and looked to Slatina. It struck me how odd a man he was, that for all his slight build, his frame more of an invalid than a man in full vigour, that he had matched my own digging – bettered it perhaps – and his face no more aglow than ususal, his colour as grey as the marble angels that watch and weep over the tombs of our lost beloved.
I gazed down at the bodies, suddenly at a loss for how to move them. It seemed an obscenity to grapple at their clothing, at their ankles, to haul them under the arms as if they had been found insensible in some low alleyway and were to be carried to gaol to sleep off an evening’s ale.
‘How … ?’
Without a pause, Slatina bent, slid his slight arms under those of the girl in pink. Her head lolled forward, chin resting on her chest. Sickened, I could not move, could only watch as he dragged her to the pit, as the heels of her dancing shoes carved into the dust. At the hole’s mouth he paused.
Still I stood, insensible.
‘Take up her legs.’
Finally, I moved. Enfeebled by terror and exhaustion I grabbed at the dress. Seemingly empty of limbs, the satin slipped through my hands. Horror shuddered through me like hooves pounding at my muscles, into my veins, beating at the meat of my heart. I steadied myself and tried once more. This time my hand met solid flesh.
How awful, how intimate, how degrading those moments were. The feel of that soft, solid, chill flesh beneath my hands, the pawing as the body slipped away from me and I had to grapple, to pinch at the thighs to stop her from falling, like some ghastly pantomime of seduction.
Then the poor child was in her grave, her head bumping to the earth with a heartstopping thud. Moving her sister felt an easier task, at least less unexpected, though I shudder to admit such a thing, as if anything so awful could be made easy. Then the two lay side by side once more, eternal companions, their hair blending at the temple, their hands almost touching as if they had reached out to one another but failed to secure a grip. We had dug the hole too short by an inch, perhaps two, which meant the legs could not lay straight, but must bend at the knee and slump to one side to fit. I hated to see them in such a way, a child’s dolls crammed into an ill-fitting box, but Slatina would not have us dig more and in truth, I had little strength remaining.
Again I paused, unable to bring myself to cover them with earth. Slatina put me to shame, lifting his spade, hefting the dirt as if completing no more taxing a task than planting roses in some blessed cottage garden. Reluctantly I joined him, watching the pink satin and the blue succumb to weighty brown, watching the slim fingers and arms, the necks and lace chokers with their horrid secrets vanish too. I confess to cowardice, to being unable to cover those dear, sweet faces, this also being a burden I left to the Moravian.
When we were done, filthy, blistered, staring at the square of disturbed ground, I tried to find some words, some sentiment of Christian pity, some talk of Heaven or Jesus or Redemption that might save their burial from feeling so utterly lost. But if God was in that place He did not speak to me or through me, or if He did then it was in a hushed tone too low for me to hear.
After a brief silence, Slatina took up his candlestick, rested the handle of his spade on his bony shoulder and said, ‘Shall we leave the ladies to their rest?’
I was exhausted beyond words, but the thought of those angels under the ground, kissing the earth with barely parted lips, sent such a sudden shiver of fear pulsating through me, that I hurried to snatch up my own candle, my own coat and spade and with Slatina striding ahead, the shadows chased me away to my chamber where I slept little and dreamed much.