How Still We See Thee


or, A Tale from Jimmy the Chimney Sweep
Being a Christmas Ghost Story by Gene Breshears


The only thing colder than a wet London sidewalk on Christmas Eve, is the 'eart of a fish-eyed old codger who's too cheap to spare a half-farthing for a crippled beggar. Not that I'm crippled or a beggar, mind. Me folks brought me up to earn me own keep. Chimney sweepin's honest work, though dangerous and dirty. I was to meet one of my reg'lar customers, Dr. Dewhurst, at Victoria station that night, to help him with a large parcel he was expectin'. He'd promised me a pound for me trouble, so I was willin' to wait, despite the cold.

I was talkin' with One-arm Jack, who was beggin' near the Buckingham Road entrance, when the fish-eyed gentleman dressed in a fine top coat came along. Jack held out his cup and launched into his tale of bein' wounded in battle. The codger growled, "It's not my business."

"But, sir–" Jack began to plead his case more fervently.

But the man would have none of that. "It's enough for a man to see to his own business and not interfere with others," he snapped. "Be grateful you survived, get about your business, and leave me to mine." And with that he stomped off.

"Get about my business?" Jack muttered. "And what does mister high-and-mighty think that might be?" Jack glared at the right sleeve of threadbare coat.

"Don't give him another thought," I suggested. "Like me granddad used t' say, better an honest miser than a bloke who pretends to be generous, then 'olds you indebted afterward."

Foot traffic was brisk, despite the cold weather, most of the crowd was in good cheer, and seemed willing to share a little with Jack and the others workin' the corner.

I spied Dr. Dewhurst's carriage pulling round the corner from Vauxhall Bridge Road, and hurried over to meet him.

"Oh, good, there you are Johnny," the doctor said as he pulled his scarf up to his chin. "Beastly weather tonight. Was that thunder I heard on the way here?"

"There was an enormous flash of lightning earlier," I answered.

The doctor shook his head as if in disbelief. "Thunder, lightning, and snow. Quite a rare combination."

I nodded. "Witch's weather, me granddad used to say."

"Did he now? I wasn't familiar with that bit of folklore. No matter," he walked toward the station doors. "Come along, Johnny, let us see if Mr. Tackleton has arrived."

"Mr. Tackleton?" I asked, following along.

"Mr. Caleb Tackleton," Dr. Dewhurst explained, "of St. Andrews College is to meet us and hand over the parcel."

"Right then," I replied, trying to keep up with the doctor in the crowd.

"Ah, here he is now," the doctor said, stepping up to a gentleman purchasing a newspaper. "Tackleton, how good to see you."

I nearly gasped aloud when Mr. Tackleton turned around, for he was none other than the fish-eyed man.

"Dewhurst, how good to see you at last," he said, not sounding a bit happy. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming."

"Dreadfully sorry about that, Tackleton," the doctor replied. "I trust you have the package?"

"Of course," Mr. Tackleton replied coldly. "It awaits us at the freight office."

Dewhurst nodded earnestly. "Very good, very good." He gestured toward me. "I brought young Johnny to help with the loading."

Tackleton fixed his cold, lifeless eyes on me. "He looks rather small for the job."

"I'm stronger than I look," I said in my own defense.

"Strong and wiry," Dewhurst agreed. "And great fortitude as well."

Tackleton looked me up and down. "It is your problem if he's inadequate," he said at last. "This way." He led us off through the crowd.

The parcel was actually a large steamer trunk, a bit taller than me and quite heavy. Dr. Dewhurst rented a small cart onto which I loaded the trunk while he and Mr. Tackleton concluded their business. Then we wheeled the whole affair out to the street, where the doctor's coachman and I wrestled it into the fancy four-wheeled carriage.

Dr. Dewhurst then presented me with a gold sovereign. I was thanking him for the prompt payment when he said, "I was hoping that you could help us with the unloading, as well. I would be willing to pay another pound, and have you driven back home afterward."

I glanced up at the coachman, who was climbing into the driving seat. When the doctor had first offered me a pound to help with this errand, I had assumed he needed me for both the loading and unloading. After all, a whole pound is quite a lot to pay for a simple toting job. "I don't think you'd want to send such a fine-looking carriage into Southwark this time o' night, doctor," I said. "But if 'e'd drive me back as far as Vauxhall bridge, then I can get meself 'ome from there."

"Very good," the doctor said. "Climb aboard and let's be off!"

It's not often that I get to ride is carriage, and Dr. Dewhurst's was quite posh, with good leather seats and shiny brash handles and everything. Its roof was so high, the doctor could stand up inside without even scuffing the crown of his top hat on the leather lining. The widows had real shutters on them, and the seats were wide enough to fit three grown men in each one. I settled back into the seat, enjoying the soft, welcoming feel of it. The doctor sat across from me.

"How much do you know about ancient Egypt, my boy?" he asked.

"Is that some'ert in France?" I asked by way of reply.

The doctor laughed quite enthusiastically, thumping his cane. "For a short time Napoleon tried to make modern Egypt a colony, but they showed him the door. No, I'm speaking of the land of the pharaohs. Surely you are familiar with the biblical stories of Moses and Joseph. You know, Joseph with the coat of many colors?”

I nodded. "I have heard the story of Moses. I remember now that Egypt was the place he led his people out of."

"That's right," Dr. Dewhurst said with a nod. "Egypt was once a great empire which spread across the ancient world. And its kings were called ‘Pharaohs.' They were believed to be gods, and as the story of Moses clearly indicates, their court magicians and priests were well versed in the black arts."

"They were witches, then," I said.

The doctor tilted his head from side to side slowly. "One could call them that, yes. They were particularly concerned with the afterlife. The kings wanted to ensure that they were safely transported to a proper, kingly paradise when they died. So they spent many years and immense quantities of money building elaborate tombs for themselves. And when they died, their bodies were ritualistically mummified, so that the body would be preserved for all eternity."

“’Ow did they do that?" I asked.

"It was a very elaborate process, and unfortunately they did not leave behind very many descriptions of the procedure," the doctor explained. "We do know that they went to great lengths to remove all moisture from each and every tissue of the body. The flesh was also treated with various herbs and oils. We don't know for certain which of these substances was necessary for the mummification, and which were done for purely religious or aesthetic purposes."

"It sounds like an awful lot o' work," I said. "A bit more effort than salting pork or smoking fish. Did it really do the job?"

The doctor leaned forward, an eager gleam in his eye. "Beyond their wildest imaginings, I'd say. We have uncovered many of these bodies, perfectly preserved for thousands of years."

"You're putting me on," I said. "Thousands o' years?"

The doctor nodded. "Oh, yes. The bodies are rather delicate. The museum has had a few accidents when specimens became damp."

"What 'appened?"

The doctor sat back in his seat. "The whole point in removing moisture is to prevent decay. If the tissues are overly humidified, they will begin to rot."

I nodded slowly. "Oh, I see. How did they keep dry for thousands o' years, then?"

"Egypt is a land of deserts, my boy. The elaborate burial chambers were built in the hot, dry Sahara desert."

"Well that makes sense, doesn't it?" I said.

The doctor nodded. "Indeed it does."

A thought suddenly occurred to me, one that made my skin crawl. "That wouldn't be what's in the trunk, would it?" I asked. "One o' them mummer-fied kings?"

Dr. Dewhurst laughed again, this time so hard that he started coughing. Once he'd caught his breath, "Johnny, my dear boy, you have no idea what an astonishing suggestion that is! No. Of course not! Why, the mummies of pharaohs are both rare and hard to retrieve. They are hidden behind fiendishly clever traps, because the kings had much of their wealth buried with them." He shook his head and chuckled. "No, there is not a mummified pharaoh bundled up in my luggage compartment."

I relaxed and sank back into the seat. "I didn't think so," I said.

The doctor shook his head. "No. Ridiculous thought," he chuckled. "No, what I have managed to obtain is a minor functionary from an outer tomb."

"A mining what?" I asked, feeling the hair on my neck rising.

The doctor waved vaguely with one gloved hand. "If we have translated the inscription rightly, it is the mummified remains of an apprentice court magician."

At just that moment there was a deafening clap of thunder which shook the carriage. I was so startled, I sprang to my feet and reached for the door. I may very well have leaped from the carriage at the instant, had not the doctor grabbed my arm.

"Steady! Steady there, Johnny, my boy!"

"A court magician?" I asked. "We're traveling with the pickled corpse of a heathen warlock?"

The doctor's tone of voice softened. "That is a very colorful, though not entirely inaccurate, description of the situation, yes. I had no idea that it would disturb you so. I'm terribly sorry." His voice became even more soothing. "Why don't you sit down and catch your breath? Standing up in a moving carriage like that can make one light-headed."

I could feel my heart in my chest, fluttering like the wings of a pigeon fleeing from a cat, but somehow the doctor's words took the urgency out of my fear. I wanted to sit down. I wanted to run. I didn't move.

"You'll feel much better if you sit," the doctor said, much more sternly. "The storm has upset you, that's all. There's nothing to fear here, in the carriage."

I felt myself sitting down. I don't remember making the decision to do so, my body just seemed to do it of its own accord. But the doctor was right. As soon as I was back in the seat, I felt better, somehow. Less frantic to leave, certainly, and somehow safer.

"That's a good, lad," the doctor said, smiling as he pulled a snuff box from one of his pockets. "Things are always easier to deal with when one is sitting comfortably, I always say." He opened the snuff box and removed a pinch, but then, instead of taking it himself, he offered it to me. "This will clear your head right up and set your mind at ease."

I couldn't look away from his eyes. An unfamiliar, sweet scent filled my nostrils. And suddenly, I was very, very sleepy.

It was thunder that woke me, I don't know how many hours later. Wind shook the building, but I could hear the faint hiss of tallow candles burning nearby. A sharp smell, not unlike burning straw, tickled my nose. I slowly became aware of my ankles. Something hard and smooth was pressing into my ankles, and it hurt. And my shoulders and arms felt strange, as if an extremely large man were lifting me by grasping my wrists... except no hands seeming to be holding me. And I was very dizzy. Down and up kept changing places.

I blinked my eyes. There were candles. Many candles in an other dark room. I tried to focus. Something was moving in the darkness just beyond the candles. And the candles were wrong. They were hanging from the ceiling. No. They were burning from the bottom up?

I shook my head and took a deep breath. Everything spun around me. I couldn't make out what was happening.

And then there was another flash of lightning, following quickly by the thunder. And in that moment, when the light of the storm illuminated the room, I understood.

It wasn't the candles that were upside down. It was me. I was hanging from my ankles, like a side of beef, in a room full of candle stands, like a cathedral. Dr. Dewhurst was there. He had removed his hat, top coat, and coat. Over his waistcoat he wore a strange vest, not unlike the vestments of a priest, though with strange symbols embroidered on them. He was walking around and around in a circle beyond the candles. He had one of them fancy church smoke lamps hanging from a chain in his hand, swinging to and fro and filling the air with a greenish smoke, not unlike a priest in a proper church service.

I tried to speak, but my mouth was dry. A sound, sort of like a creaking door, came out of my throat. I coughed. I licked my lips and I tried again. "What? Where?" I asked.

The doctor continued walking purposefully around the room, murmuring something as he did. I twisted my head, trying to see if there was anyone else in the room.

That's when I saw the body. I'd heard the phrase, ‘skin and bones' hundreds of times, but I never really understood what it meant until then. It was laid out on a table below me. It looked like someone had taken a skeleton and stretched old parchment over it. The eyes were nothing more than slits in the stiff, yellowed skin, revealing deep hollows.

I whimpered. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I knew then that I was going to die. As surely as the sun comes up in the morning, my death was at hand. I didn't know what dark purpose the doctor had with the ghastly relic below me, but whatever it was, it would happen after I had breathed my last.

The doctor finished his incantation. I could hear the rustle of his clothing behind me. "There is no need to make a fuss, Johnny," he said. "How old are you? Thirteen?"

I took a breath and tried to answer in a firm voice. "Fifteen come May," I answered.

I could hear the sound of a razor being stropped sharp. "Fifteen!" he said. "As much as that! How many climbing boys live to that age? Not many. Less than half the boys apprenticed to chimney sweeps live to see their tenth birthday, let alone outlive their master and inherit the business." He stepped into my view, and I could see he was holding a long knife in his right hand. "It takes a strong and nimble lad to reach the ripe old age of fifteen in your line of work."

I didn't know what to say. So I kept my tongue.

"Yes, indeed," he went on. "It's a hard life for boys like you. Born with no advantages, no prospects. Cast into the cold world and expected to earn your keep or starve." He cocked his head to one side, as if he were studying me. "That you survived nearly to your fifteenth birthday is quite remarkable. You've managed to squeeze more than your share out of life, I'd wager."

"One man's fair share is another man's disappointment," I said. "Least, that's what me granddad used to say."

The doctor grinned. "I see there's still some vinegar left in you. That's good. You're strong where it counts. And that's precisely what Kharis needs. It will take all of your strength to waken him after such a long slumber."

I was confused. No small wonder, with all the blood rushing to my head and the thick smoke in the air. It took me a few moments to figure out what he was talking about. "That's why you're going t' kill me," I said. "To bring 'im back."

The doctor nodded. "That's it in a nutshell. Everything has a price. A life costs dearly, but a second life is even more expensive." He raised the knife. The tip of the blade reflected the candlelight, and the light seemed to pierce my brain, just as the blade would soon pierce my heart.

I felt all the heat drain out of my body. He was going to do it now! "There's no hagglin', then?" I asked, more out of a crazed desire to postpone the blow, just for another minute, than hope of a reprieve. My eyes never left the tip of the blade, now held above his shoulder.

He laughed. "My dear boy, one doesn't try bargaining with gods. One accepts what is offered, if one wants to avoid spending eternity in pain." He moved.

I tried to flinch away, to twist out of the knife's path. But it wasn't the knife that came at me. No, while all my attention had been focused on the blade in the doctor's right hand, it was his left hand that grabbed one of my arms. Then the knife came down. There was a searing flash of pain across my left wrist, and that was it.

He stepped back, holding the knife, now edged red with my blood, over his head. He opened his mouth and began chanting something I couldn't understand.

Blood was running down my hand, across my fingers, and dripping toward the corpse. The first drop fell impossibly slow. A dram of my life slipping away from me. When it struck dry flesh of the corpse, there was another flash of lightning and the thunder roared.

I thought it was a trick of my eyes at first, but the body moved. When the first drop of blood touch it, the chest lived. As the echoes of the thunderclap died away, I saw the chest falling, and could hear a dry sound like papers rustling.

A second drop landed on the corpse, and again its chest rose. Its mouth opened. I heard air being drawn into that ancient husk. Even over the sounds of Dr. Dewhurst's chanting, I could hear the breath of life entering the corpse.

Another drop of blood struck the corpse, and with this breath, I saw something move inside the hollow sockets of its eyes. My death was, indeed, buying him a second chance at life.

"Bloody hell," I muttered. "Earn your own bloody keep," I said, more emphatically. I pulled my arms up to my chest and clasped my right hand over the long gash in my left wrist.

The doctor was chanting more loudly.

I twisted and kicked. My ankles were chained together, and I could see that the chain hung from a hook in the rafter. It wouldn't be easy, but I'd gotten myself out of tighter spots in many a chimney flu.

I bent over double, and managed to grab hold of my own pant leg. The doctor's chant seemed to falter, just a bit. I reckon if he stopped chanting it would wreck his sorcery, but he didn't want me escaping, either. I pulled, ignoring the pain in my stiff muscles, trying not to think of how much blood was gushing out of my wrist.

I had gotten hold of the chain and was pulling myself up toward the hook. Both my hands were covered in blood, and kept slipping, but I knew if I lost my grip, it would be the end of me. I kept pulling. Higher, and higher.

The doctor's chant stopped abruptly. "Hear, now!" he shouted. "That isn't going to work, you bloody fool!"

I didn't have the spare breath to answer him. I was almost to the hook.

I heard him moving below me. First toward me, then to the left, then to the right, as if he were trying to decide how to reach me without disturbing the corpse.

I reached the hook.

"Bloody hell!" he shouted. I could hear him running to the far end of the room and shouting something—calling to someone elsewhere in the house.

I grasped the shank of the hook with one hand and pulled. I had to get my weight off the chain. I grabbed the link that was hanging on the hook with my other hand. I worked it up toward the point.

There was more shouting and the sounds of feet running upstairs.

My whole body was shaking with the effort. I could hear a roaring in my ears, and it seemed that all the color was draining from the world.

I got the link off the hook.

Suddenly I was floating. Wind ruffled my hair, and I had the strangest sensation of motion, without knowing where I was going, because everything had gone a pale grey.

And then I struck the altar, bounced off, and landed on the floor. I gasped, and my first breath was like fire in my lungs. I coughed and shook my head, trying to see past the bright flashes of light in my eyes. I rolled. I could hear the doctor's angry voice, though I couldn't understand him. It wasn't that he was speaking a foreign language, it was more like my ears couldn't distinguish words from each other, just as my eyes couldn't focus on shapes. I scrambled away from his voice, trying to put as much distance between me and him as possible.

The storm outside had gotten worse. I could hear shutters banging against the house. Lightning filled the room, and the thunderclap seemed to lift me from the floor and propel me toward the wall.

And over the shouting, and the thunder, and the wind, I heard something soft and sweet. The bells of the clock tower, chiming the hour. And church bells all over the city clanging and clanging, like the angels singing to the shepherds on the first Christmas eve. Somehow, I knew that the bells were calling me, but whether to salvation or my eternal rest, I didn't know. Either way, it would be a better end than being sacrificed by a witch. I followed the sound of the bells.

My hands fell upon a window latch. I managed to unlock it and as it flew open, the rain hit my face, the church bells became louder, and I felt a surge of returning strength.

My eyes were still not quite focusing, but I realized where I was. This was the attic of Dr. Dewhurst's home. Across the sill was the roof. If I could reach the roof, I would be safe. I would be where I belonged.

A hand grabbed my elbow. "Come back here!" the doctor's enraged shout filled my ear.

I looked up into his face, dark with rage. My heart sank, and my blood ran cold.

The corpse was behind him. Walking on its own legs, somehow, and glowing with a hellish light from within its desiccated flesh.

I screamed.

The doctor must have sensed that it wasn't him that had frightened me. He turned, and then he screamed, too.

I don't know how I slipped from his grasp, but somehow I scrambled out onto the roof. The shingles were slick with slush, and the wind was high, but roofs were my element. I moved as fast as I could away from the attic window.

I heard more screaming and a considerable amount of thumping inside, but I kept moving until I reached a corner, where I knew I could lower myself to a trellis, and thus descend to the ground.

When I reached the corner, I looked back.

The corpse was standing in the window, leaning out and looking this was and then. Its hands and mouth were covered in blood and gore. I understood immediately that it had killed the doctor, and probably the coachman as well. Something about it seemed predatory and desperate. As if two deaths were not enough to satisfy his hunger.

It grabbed the window frame, then immediately shrank back, as if the frame was a hot iron. It leaned out the window, but flinched with each gust of wind. It retreated into the house. I felt a surge of relief. It wasn't coming after me. I tore a strip of cloth from my shirt and wrapped it around the gash in my wrist. Then I began climbing down.

But I couldn't stop thinking about the corpse. Just because it didn't kill me, didn't necessarily mean all was right in the world. It was hungry. It needed blood. It would search for blood until it found it.

I clung to the wall for several seconds, turning this over in my mind. The doctor had brought this all on himself. And since the coachman had no doubt carried me into the house and helped hang me from the chain, he was as guilty as the doctor. But how many innocent people would it kill next, if left to its own devices?

It had to be destroyed. Somehow.

I clambered back onto the roof and made my way to the window. The sights that met my eyes when I peered around the frame will haunt me to my grave. The creature had not merely killed Dr. Dewhurst and his servant, it had consumed their entrails and all the fluids from them, leaving the dry husks like rags on the floor. My stomach churned and it was all I could do to keep my composure and stay silent at the window.

The corpse was searching the attic, hurling boxes and trunks about like a madman. I saw, just a few feet inside the window, the bloody chain, and I had an idea.

I gingerly stepped over the sill and made my way to the chain. Moving as slowly and quietly as I could, I gathered it up. I had almost gotten the entire chain looped in my hands, when the creature heard me.

It turned, the ghastly light from its eyes sweeping the room like a lantern's beam. When it saw me, the creature emitted a growl, like a small animal.

"Still 'ungry?" I called. I held up my bloody hand. "Care for another snack?"

It rushed toward me.

I dashed out onto the roof. As I suspected, the corpse hesitated at the window, afraid to step outside into the storm.

"Come on, you bloody coward," I teased as I played out a length of the chain and started swinging it.

It lunged at me, coming halfway out the window.

I threw the end of the chain hard, hitting the corpse across the shoulders. The chain wrapped around the body. Once. Twice.

It made a frightening, mewling noise and retreated quickly into the attic.

I dropped to the roof and let myself slide across the wet shingles. The slack ran out of the chain just before I reached the edge, and the corpse's weight was almost enough to bring my careening slide to a halt.

Almost.

The corpse was yanked out of the window by my momentum. Its mewling cry became almost a scream of pain as the full force of the freezing rain hit its skin.

I went over the edge of the roof. Fortunately, I caught hold of a rafter under the eave. I let go of the chain, which carried the corpse over the edge and all the way down to the thick layer of slush and mud below us.

Later that week the papers all carried the story of the grisly murders at the Dewhurst townhouse, and the ancient bones found in the yard outside. Many a time since that night I've thought about telling the police what happened. But I don't want to be locked away in the Bedlam Asylum, so I only tell the tale on a cold winter night, when the ale has been flowing freely.

And I always end it by quoting my granddad, who used to say, ‘Check the price, and check it again, before you seal a bargain.'



"How Still We See Thee" copyright © 2001 Gene Breshears.
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