The Anatomy Of Ghosts
The Anatomy Of Ghosts
In memory of Don
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
Dr Johnson, 31 March 1778 (Boswell’s
Late in the evening of Thursday, 16 February 1786, the Last Supper was nearing its end. The new Apostle had taken the oaths, signed the membership book and swallowed the contents of the sacred glass presented by the late Morton Frostwick, to the accompaniment of whoops, cheers and catcalls. Now it was time for the toasts that preceded the grand climax of the ceremony.
‘No heeltaps, gentlemen,’ Jesus commanded from the head of the table. ‘All rise. I give you His Majesty the King.’
The Apostles shuffled to their feet, many with difficulty. Four chairs fell over and someone knocked a bottle off the table.
Jesus raised his glass. ‘The King, God bless him.’
‘The King, God bless him,’ bellowed a chorus of voices in return, for the Apostles prided themselves on their patriotism and their attachment to the throne. Each man drained his glass in one. ‘God bless him!’ repeated St Matthew at the far end of table, and his passionate exhortation ended in a hiccup.
Jesus and the Apostles sat down and the buzz of conversation resumed. The tall, long room was brightly lit with candles. A shifting pall of smoke hung above the table. A great fire blazed in the hearth beneath the marble chimneypiece. The curtains were drawn. The mirrors between the windows caught the flames, the sparkle of silver and crystal, and the glitter of the buttons on the gentlemen’s coats. All the Apostles wore the same livery – a bright green coat lined with buck silk and adorned with prominent gilt buttons down the front and on the cuffs.
‘How long do I wait?’ said the young man at the right hand of Jesus.
‘Be patient, Frank. All in good time.’ Jesus raised his voice. ‘Recharge your glasses, gentlemen.’
He poured wine into his neighbour’s glass and his own. He watched the other men obeying him like sheep.
‘One more toast,’ he murmured in Frank’s ear. ‘Then we have the ceremony. And then the sacrifice.’
‘Pray tell me,’ Frank said, resting his elbow on the table and turning towards Jesus. ‘Does Mrs Whichcote know I am to be sanctified tonight?’
‘Why do you ask?’
Frank’s face had grown very red. ‘I – I merely wondered. Since I am to spend the night here, I thought perhaps she must know.’
‘She does not,’ Jesus said. ‘She knows nothing. And you must tell her nothing. This is men’s business.’
‘Yes, of course. I should not have asked.’ Frank’s elbow slipped and he would have toppled from his chair if Jesus had not steadied him. ‘A thousand apologies. But you’re a lucky dog, you know, she’s so very lovely – oh damnation, pray do not take it amiss, Philip, I should not have said that.’
‘I was not listening.’ Jesus stood up, ignoring Frank’s desire to continue apologizing. ‘Gentlemen, it is time for another toast. All rise. I give you damnation to the Great Whore of Babylon, his foulness of Rome, Pius VI, and may he rot in hell for all eternity along with his fellow Papists.’
The Apostles drained their glasses and burst into applause. The toast was traditional, and dated back to the earliest days of the Holy Ghost Club. Jesus had no personal animosity towards Papists. In fact his own mother had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, though she had laid aside her religion at the time of her marriage and adopted her husband’s, as a good wife should.
He waited until the clapping and cheering had subsided. ‘Be seated, gentlemen.’
Chairs scraped on polished boards. St James sat down but caught only the edge of his chair, which sent him sprawling on the floor. St John rushed behind the screen at the far end of the room and could be heard being violently sick. St Thomas turned aside from the company, unbuttoned and urinated into one of the commodes placed conveniently near by.
There was a faint tapping on the door behind Jesus’s chair. Only Jesus heard it. He stood up and opened the door a few inches. The footboy was outside, candle in hand, and his eyes large with fear.
‘What?’ Jesus demanded.
‘If it please your honour, the lady below would be obliged if she might have a private word.’
Jesus shut the door in the boy’s face. Smiling, he sauntered back to the table and rested his arm along the back of St Peter’s chair on the left of his own. He bent down and spoke into St Peter’s ear. ‘I shall be back directly – I must make sure that all is ready. Let them toast their inamoratas if they grow impatient.’
‘Is it time?’ Frank said. ‘Is it time?’
‘Nearly,’ Jesus said. ‘ Believe me, it will be worth the wait.’
He straightened up. St Andrew asked Frank a question about the merits of water spaniels as gundogs, a temporary but effective distraction. Jesus left the room, closing the mahogany door behind him. The air was at once much cooler. He was on a square landing lit by two candles burning on a bracket next to a small uncurtained window. For a moment he put his head close to the glass and rubbed a circle in the condensation. It was too dark to make out much, but at the far end of the garden a lamp glimmered above the side door of Lambourne House.
He walked quickly downstairs. The pavilion stood at the bottom of the garden. Its plan was straightforward – the great room above filled the whole of the first floor; the stairs at one end linked it to a lobby on the ground floor, where there were two doors. One door led outside to the garden, the other to a narrow hall running the length of the building and giving access to the covered terrace beside the river and to several small rooms. The footboy, who had the absurd name of Augustus, was sitting on a bench in the lobby. He sprang to his feet and bowed. At a nod from Jesus, he opened the door to the hall. Jesus passed him without a word and closed the door in his face.
Candles in pairs burned on brackets along the walls, creating globes of light in the gloom. Jesus tapped on the second door along, and it opened from within.
Mrs Phear drew him inside. She stood on tiptoe and murmured in his ear, ‘The little weakling has failed