Second part of the opening chapter of the second Professor Gothick book, continued from last week's Wordy Thursday.
‘Oh gawd,’ he said, ‘I’m lying on a coffin!’
At that moment thunder and lightning crashed together in the heavens, and Jackson saw then what had caught his eye moments before. It was a brass nameplate set into the lid of the coffin. There was a strange name engraved on it. One word: ‘Batula’. But Skipper Jackson could not read and he was interested only in the fact that the nameplate was of brass and the coffin carved from expensive mahogany. All thoughts of rum had left his head.
‘There’s someone of quality lying in this,’ he thought. ‘Someone worth a posh casket. A fine lady p’raps. Still wearin’ ’er best gems.’
Jewellery, that was what was in Jackson’s head now. He had felt a momentary thrill of superstitious fear when he first saw what he had fallen upon, but Jackson had seen too much death while at sea to feel squeamish about a corpse. In fact, one of his first jobs as a sailor lad had been sewing into a canvas bag the body of a crewman who had fallen from the rigging before it was dumped in the ocean. He’d had to do that job on many occasions since – life on the old sailing vessels had been an uncertain one at best. Greed conquered any other scruples Jackson might have had and his only concern now was how to open the coffin. He wished then he hadn’t thrown away his umbrella, it might have served as a lever. A few moments scrabbling about, however, turned up a very flat stone, almost sharp at the edges. That would do!
Jackson prised the stone under the lid of the coffin and leant his weight upon it. An encouraging cracking came from the wood but then the stone slipped from his hand. The old sailor swore like only an old sailor can, and tried again. The screws fastening down the lid were good screws, and he failed a second time. Next he tried using another rock to bash against the flat stone, improvising a hammer and chisel affair. In this way he managed to split one of the screws and he had another go at using the flat stone like a lever.
This time the coffin lid gave way a good few inches, and Jackson got his hands under it and heaved. With a loud crack, the wood split from its brass screws and the lid was flung onto the pebbles. But Jackson cried out in pain. One of the split screws had caught his left hand and gashed it badly. Its palm and fingers were wet with blood.
‘I’ll be damned!’ he cursed. But there were more pressing matters than a hurt hand. He peered into the coffin. It was difficult to see in the dark but he was able to work out at least that the person inside it was not the ‘fine lady’ he had hoped it would be, but a gentleman.
‘C’mon,’ said Jackson, ‘where’s the lightning when yer need it?’
He didn’t have to wait long. Ribbon lightning snaked across the sky and for a few seconds Jackson was able to get a good look at his prize. A long, refined and very white face lay framed against rich crimson silk. Slender white hands with long tapering fingers were folded on its breast. On one of these fingers was a thick gold ring set with a blood red stone. That certainly caught Jackson’s eye. He was also struck with how shabbily the body had been dressed. Despite the richness of the casket and the obvious value of the gold ring, the body inside might as well have been that of a tramp. A knee-length brown coat fastened with a dozen buttons, some of which were missing, coarse trousers and a pair of clumpy old boots were its only attire. Jackson shrugged at the mystery, however. It was of no great interest – not compared to the ring.
In the impenetrable darkness which followed the lightning, he fumbled in the coffin. The hands felt startlingly cold against Jackson’s, even though his were almost blue from the rain and the bitter wind. They also felt very soft. He grabbed the ring and tugged and pulled and twisted it. It wouldn’t come off. He tugged and pulled and twisted it again. It wouldn’t come off.
‘Devil take me! Why haven’t I a knife?’ he complained.
The flat stone which had been so useful in opening the coffin was too blunt to cut off a finger. Then a happy thought struck Jackson. It would be fine for smashing out a few teeth. Rich people usually had gold fillings. Even a small amount of gold would be a fortune to destitute Skipper Jackson. The old man pushed his left hand between the cold, dead lips of the corpse. The teeth, he noticed, felt surprisingly long. And sharp. In the dark, he was unable to see how his blood had stained the corpse’s lips, nor how it had reddened the blue, dead tongue. He waited for another bolt of lightning to show him which teeth contained the little shiny nuggets of gold. It soon came. Crack! Thunder crashed about. The lightning flashed. A great blaze of sudden light.
Jackson peered down at the dead white face of the corpse. He could see no gold. What he saw was the corpse’s eyes. They were open. They glared into his own. They shone with an evil light, with intelligence and rage. And then the teeth – the too long, too sharp teeth – sank down upon his hand and Skipper Jackson screamed with agony and terror as his hot red blood gushed into the mouth of the corpse.