Two men stood on a small hill overlooking the open grave. The tall man was old and bent, much like the gnarled tree that shared the hill. Like the short man with him, he wore a threadbare black frockcoat and a tattered top hat held on by a silver gray satin scarf tied under his chin to fight the wind. The short man had a dark burgundy scarf. The tall man held a violin in his left hand and a bow in his right. He looked around the cemetery from his vantage point and sighed.
“It’s a cold one today.” Church bells in the distance and the wind responded. The short man did not.
The tall man, being tall, looked down onto the top of the short man’s hat. He tapped it with his bow. The short man stood resolute, holding onto the frame of a bass drum nearly as tall as he was. “Farnum’s Inconsolable Mourners” was painted in large fading letters on the head of the drum, along with the well-beaten likeness of a corpse in a coffin. The likeness, being in the center of the drum, was now battered to the point that it was possibly a child, or a grandmother, or a Christmas pudding.
“What’s the name of this one, then?” Asked the tall man to the top of the short man’s hat. The short man, who was also old, but round and lumpy, reached into the pocket of his frockcoat and produced a letter.
He unfolded it and read in a reedy thin voice: “Little Miss Mary Morton.”
They were silent for a while. “How little?” asked the tall man.
The short man referred to his paper again. “Eleven,” he said. “And we’ve been paid twice the normal price in advance. This one is surely Providence, as we’ve gotten food in our stomachs and we’ve paid our creditors. No gates of Debtor’s Prison anymore. We’ll not have to sell our instruments for another season yet, thanks to it.”
The tall man sighed again and plucked at a string. “Why is it always cold for a child’s funeral, then?” he asked.
“It’s not,” replied the short man.
“It is,” stated the tall man flatly to the top of the short man’s hat.
“No. Remember just this past six days? Master Thomas Cuthbert? Died of the Creeping Miasma? It was as pleasant a day as you could ask, and he was only eight.”
“It was a cold pleasant,” said the tall man dryly.
“What’s pleasant is the holes are smaller,” said a voice from inside the grave.
“What’s that, Alphonse?” called the tall man.
A round head rose out of the grave. It was ruddy and bulbous like a potato and it wore a red cap. “I said it might be cold for a child’s funeral, but at least the holes are smaller. Less digging and my shoes don’t get wet, as they do in a rich man’s grave. A rich man means a sore back and wet feet. Rich men, they like a big box. Arrive at Heaven’s Gates in a style befitting their purse, like taking the grandest carriage to the theater, though I don’t suppose St. Peter would be much impressed by a big box and let them in at the head of the line and give them the finest seats, much to their disappointment. A fine big box requires a fine big hole, and deep as well. Water seeps in and my feet get wet. No, I’m happiest for a child’s funeral. Dry feet and quicker to the pub! But it is a cold one today Mr. Farnum, as you say. Here, you and Mr. Cranshaw share a bit of this to ward off the Devil’s own chill.” And the man in the grave with the potato’s head handed the tall man up a bottle. “A day such as this and you might catch your own death and I’d be standing in your hole next,” he added.
“You’re a good man, then, Alphonse,” said the tall man taking the bottle. He was Mr. Farnum. He took a drink from the bottle and handed it to the short man, whose name was Mr. Cranshaw.
“Give us a jig, then Mr. Farnum,” called Alphonse, still standing in the grave. “Just to warm us and pass the time afore the honored guests arrive?”
“I’m sure, Alphonse,” said Mr. Farnum sternly, “that dancing a jig in a grave on a funeral day is both frowned upon by Good Lord Jesus, and quite flirtatious to the bad side of Lady Luck. We’ll have no jigs until this evening in the pub.”
“You have a good point there, then, Mr. Farnum.” And Alphonse clambered up out of the hole.
They watched a wagon trundle up the rutted path toward them followed by a stylish new black carriage. The driver of the wagon pulled his horses to a stop where the path was closest to them and clambered down with another man who was riding with him. The carriage also stopped and passengers began to climb out. The wagon driver unrolled a paper as he walked up to Mr. Farnum.
“Would this be for Miss Morton?” he asked, looking down into the freshly dug square hole and removing his cap.
“It would be, unless you are in greater need of it.”
“Not I, and what’s more, she’s come to claim it, sadder be the day.” The driver bowed his head for a moment, then he and the other man unloaded a tiny black coffin so beautifully polished that Mr. Farnum and Mr. Cranshaw could see themselves in the wood. They gently placed the coffin on the ground next to the grave.
The passengers from the carriage gathered beside the coffin. A fine gentleman, much taken with his own importance by the look, in a long gray coat with brocade lapels and a matching top hat and a black cane with a silver head seemed to be in charge. With him was the vicar in his funeral vestments, carrying his Bible, a large heavy woman in a bonnet and shawl with the jowls of a tavern dog and a rather severe look, and a frail little girl with large dark-ringed eyes and pale skin in a bright new dark blue satin and velvet dress and matching ribbons in her long blonde hair. The girl clutched a ragged doll in her tiny hands.
“Would you be Mr. Farnum, of Farnum’s Inconsolable Mourners?” asked the important looking gentleman.
“I am,” replied Mr. Farnum with a bow. “This is Mr. Cranshaw, my esteemed associate.” Mr. Cranshaw drew himself up and offered a salute.
“My client, Capitan Morton, has engaged your services to provide…” The important gentleman paused and referred to a letter he carried in his silver-gloved hand, “I quote: ‘Funeral music of such a nature as to create deep and memorable sadness and melancholy for all in attendance and an air of profound grief and loss in the funeral gathering in general, as befitting such a ceremony and occasion, complete with professional weepers, criers and wailers.’ Or so says your handbill.”
“Indeed,” replied Mr. Farnum cradling his violin in his hands, “your client will be most satisfied I assure you, though I am unhappy to report that a plague of good fortune and prosperity coupled with bountiful harvests and general well-being has swept the surrounding towns and countryside, which has led to the loss of the women we had previously employed to weep, cry and wail. They’ve gone off to raise children I’m afraid.”
“Aye, its hard times for professional grief. I’m told they’re employing gypsies and Turks as wailers in the city,” added Mr. Cranshaw. “As we have neither gypsies nor Turks, we’re currently forced to do without.”
“Nevertheless, I can assure you, our music alone will suffice to render the gathered into a state of finest dark blue depression and an oppressive feeling of loss. No one shall feel they can go on another day,” added Mr. Farnum quickly. “And I’m sure Alphonse here, the good man in charge of internment and excavation, can give us a few well-placed hardy sobs throughout the proceedings.”
“It would be a pleasure.” Said Alphonse, offering the gentleman a muddy hand and removing his cap.
“Unfortunate,” said the gentleman, looking annoyed. “However, there seems to be nothing to be done about it. I am Capitan Morton’s Solicitor. I have brought the vicar to officiate. This is Mrs. Stock, the governess.” Said the Solicitor, gesturing to the large scowling woman.
The vicar looked nervous. “We’re pressed for time. Shall we begin?”
Mr. Farnum brought his violin to his chin and Mr. Cranshaw gave his bass drum a muffled strike, and they began to play a most somber tune.
“Boo hoo!” offered Alphonse loudly and dramatically, clutching his cap in his hands and screwing up his face in an attempt to cry. The Vicar nervously opened his Bible, the Solicitor removed his hat and adopted a stoic pose, and Mrs. Stock continued to scowl. The frail little girl walked up to the coffin, struggled to remove the lid, which reveled it to be empty, stepped inside and sat down precisely as one might sit in a row boat on the river, placing her doll beside her and primly smoothing her dress over her legs.
“Oh, boo hoo!” continued Alphonse emotively with his eyes closed. Mr. Farnum and Mr. Cranshaw stopped playing rather abruptly. The Solicitor took no notice and continued in his stoic pose. Mrs. Stock continued to glower. The vicar wiped the sweat off his brow and looked about.
The wind blew and somewhere a crow called out, otherwise it was all silent. Mr. Farnum removed the violin from his chin and looked down at the girl sitting amid the silver satin ruffles in the coffin. She smiled up at him. After another long moment he asked: “Excuse me miss. Who are you?”
The girl stood up inside the coffin, straightened her dress, and gave her best posture, “Please, sir. My name is Mary Morton, and this is my funeral. Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.” And she gave a small curtsy.
“Boo hoo!” Called out Alphonse in oblivious grieving rapture. Mr. Cranshaw nudged him with his elbow. Mr. Farnum blinked down at Mary.
“Is there some issue, Mr. Farnum?” asked the Solicitor. “I understood this would not be a lengthy ceremony and we are under the pressure of time. Capitan Morton is a busy man, after all.”
“There do seem to be some irregularities, yes.” Replied Mr. Farnum. The assembled stood for a moment looking at one another. “It is customary, for example, for at least one of the gathered host to be amongst the non-living, as it were. A soul transmigrated to the Great Beyond. No longer of this mortal coil. Unless I’m mistaken, we have none such in attendance.”
“A technicality,” said the Solicitor.
“But an important one,” said Mr. Farnum, fingering his bow.
“Sir,” said the Solicitor in a much annoyed voice, “a cursory look at this child proves beyond all reasonable doubt that she has the Creeping Miasma,” he gestured at Mary, who had resumed her nautical position in the bottom of the coffin and was now playing with her doll quietly. She was, indeed very pale and drawn and did not appear to be in any sort of fine health. She was, however, very much alive. “Indeed, the Capitan’s own physician, a man of high esteem within his profession, much consulted by members of court, trustworthy and of unbesmirched reputation and competence, has assured the Capitan that this is so. More over, he has told the Capitan that the child has not more than six weeks to live as a result, the Creeping Miasma being what it is. That unassailable prognosis was given eight weeks hence. The Capitan is a man who values punctuality. He has much to do, his business affairs being of capital importance and his time invaluable. As such I have been requested, indeed demanded, to bring this small matter to a conclusion so we may move on unencumbered.” And he resumed his stoic pose, hat in hand.
Mr. Farnum and Mr. Cranshaw looked at one another, unsure of what to do. “Be that as it may, and I assure you, I do not wish to cause either yourself or your client, who I am certain is amoungst the great movers and shakers of the realm, any distress and inconvenience. However, Lady Death is customarily afforded the place of honor for ceremonies such as this one. If, as you say, the good doctor has confirmed that she has, indeed, been given an engraved invitation to this affair, I think it only wise and proper to wait a bit longer for Her arrival, even if She has been perhaps unavoidably detained and is running late. So as not to be rude, I mean. I suspect she might not take kindly to having a party given in her honor begin without her, as it were. I would suspect that there would be untoward consequences for such things in the spiritual realm. A black and lengthy spate of the worst sort of luck, if nothing else.”
“I think if we bring this ceremony to a quick and satisfactory conclusion, the Reaper will be along in great haste,” said the Solicitor dryly. “Sir, I shall not argue this case any further. All the necessary arrangements have been made. Papers have been signed and all and sundry, yourselves included, I might remind you, have been paid, and quite handsomely I might add and in advance. I insist that we proceed.”
Mr. Farnum rubbed his chin and plucked a string on his violin nervously. He looked at the vicar, who was sweating profusely now and looked even more nervous and uncomfortable than Mr. Farnum. Mary had begun to sing a nursery song to herself in a clear healthy little voice. “Vicar. I know I am not as well versed in the Good Book as I ought, so I will lean on your good offices. Surely there is some sort of commandment or prescription or advice on such a thing as this in the Holy Scriptures? A ‘Thou shalt not’ perhaps? Or a parable about locusts or stoning? A passing comment by the good Lord Jesus? Did Holy Mother Mary not ever waive a disapproving finger at the burying of a child alive?” He looked beseechingly at the clergyman.
The vicar became greenish and he began to tremble slightly and wipe the sweat from his face with the corner of his vestments. “Um, yes, well, yes… Um…. Well, you see…” he stammered, “I have had this very conversation with the good Solicitor already. And, um, he proceeded to refer me to the Lord High Bishop for advice. The Lord High Bishop informed me that Capitan Morton has been quite generous to the parish, something about making good contrition in support of his immortal soul for sins committed in the Far East whist conducting his business. Very, very generous. Very.” The vicar shifted his weight from one foot to the other and he distractedly tore a few pages from his Bible and fanned himself with them. “Yes. Very generous. As such, the Bishop has given me a Holy Command to proceed with this funeral post haste.” He mopped his brow with the Bible pages.
Mr. Farnum blinked at the vicar for a moment, and decided to try another avenue: “My good woman!” he said to the governess, who had been frowning rather brownly the entire time, “Surely you have something to say about these proceedings? After all, you have been charged with the good care of this precious Angle of the Lord.”
“Pah!” spat the governess. “The quicker the better I say. You’ve no idea the burden ’twas lifted from my poor shoulders when I was told the snipe was dead. The Devil take her, and the quicker the better. Always wanting a story or a song or a visit to the park or a pony ride or a bit of bread. Always humming and singing and skipping up and down the halls. I don’t know how such a thing can be tolerated for another day. The quicker she’s under the ground the quicker the house can be back to order and the quicker I can get to the pub.”
Mary quietly sang: “…all fall down!” in a sweet voice and fell back into the satin lining of the coffin with a joyous little laugh and sat back up and began to softly hum another song to herself.
“You see!” cried the governess, “The brat is never done with such noise. Slap the lid on the box now, I say!”
Mr. Farnum looked at Mr. Cranshaw. They were both at a loss. They looked down at Mary, who stopped her humming and smiled up at them again. “Miss,” asked Mr. Farnum gently, “what do you know of why we are gathered here today?”
Mary again stood up and straightened her dress as if she were reciting a lesson in school. “Please, sir. Today is to be my funeral. I shall lie back in my pretty coffin and the lid shall be locked down, and I shall be lowered into the grave, and covered with earth, then I shall go to meet mother. Father has given me this fine new dress for the occasion. Do you like it?” Mary spun around displaying her dress.
“It is lovely.” Agreed Mr. Farnum and Mr. Cranshaw together.
“Thank you! You see, Father is a very important man,” continued Mary. “And, he is a scrupulous Capitalist and businessman as well. He brought me into his study some weeks ago and sat me down and explained it all to me. He entered into a rental agreement for mother some years ago, making regular payments for her in the form of dresses and parties and servants and carriages and trips to the theater and sweets and flowers and such. Or so father explained it. Be that as it may, when I was born, Father explained that I was an unexpected commodity. I came with neither invoice nor bill of sale. This vexed Father because it made my accounting most difficult. Mother died last year of the Creeping Miasma, and so ended her rental agreement with Father, but I remained.
“It was then that Father took to produce a pro forma. On one side of the ledger, which he keeps in a fine leather volume with my name embossed in the cover, are the expenses he has and will incur as a result of me. Such things as weekly food and water intake, clothing, minimal schooling, which Father explained was one area in which my gender was of benefit to him, as girls are in no real need of education beyond the basics, and such things. The list is quite detailed and lengthy I assure you. Father showed it to me. On the other side of the ledger are all incomes and benefits to Father associated with me, which was empty. I must confess he pressed me to provide any, either now or in the future, that he might have overlooked, and I could provide him with none to offset my expenses that he may have not already thought of. The pro forma, he explained, was carried out until I was eighteen and of suitable age to be married. At which time, Father explained, my gender was now of less benefit to him. He would be responsible for the costs of my wedding and the provision of a dowry to my groom and his family that would not reflect badly on Father’s position in the world, and that would indeed be a sore expense, he assured me, as Father is, after all, an important man. Beyond that, Father supposed I would be the type to bring children into the world, as such a thing is expected these days, and Father might well be held responsible for costs associated with my children at least to some minimal degree by social conventions, which he referred to in terms I may not repeat without penalty.
“He also explained that had I been born a boy, there would be certain assets that might more than offset the expenses to Father associated with my upkeep, such as pride and lineage, and I might have been considered an unexpected dividend in the end. However, since I was ill-fated to be born as a girl, I could claim no such position. It was all very clear in Father’s books.” Mary paused and looked down sadly.
“At the beginning of the springtime, I began to feel rather poorly and could no longer go on walks in the garden and was confined to my bed. My governess didn’t even need to lock the attic door, as I had neither the strength nor the desire to leave it. Father brought in his physician who explained that I had fallen under the sway of the Creeping Miasma, and I would be gone from this world in no more than six weeks, much to the relief of my governess and Father’s accounts. As the good Solicitor has explained, that was eight weeks past, now. Father had allotted money for only those six weeks for my food and water, so again he was greatly vexed by what he called my infernal stubbornness and God’s dawdling. In the weeks after the physician’s pronouncement, Father procured another bride, and he showed me in great detail the rental costs associated with her, which seemed to be greatly higher than Mother’s, and that, he said, it was good I was passing as both my upkeep and what he called her bed-rental were more than he wished to bear, though why he would be renting both her and her bed, I do not understand.
“I’ve tried to go without food for these past two weeks so as not to trouble Father further, and I am quite tired now. Father was kind enough to buy me this beautiful new dress for the occasion. You do like it, don’t you?” Mary asked of Alphonse.
“Beautiful, miss,” said Alphonse. “As pretty as on any corpse I’ve seen this season, to be sure.”
“Thank you!” said Mary, greatly pleased.
“The child explains the situation as clear as can be, sir. We shall have neither more discussion nor more delay. Feelings, emotions and such female tendernesses are of no use to the Capitan I can assure you, so he has not made any expense to purchase or cultivate any of his own. He does however understand society’s need for such frivolities at these sorts of affairs, as such you have been retained to provide such emotions in the Capitan’s stead. If you refuse to carryout the activities for which you have already been paid, I will be left with no other recourse than to demand a full refund and to see you in the courts. And we shall find another vendor of somber emotives to perform the ceremony.”
Mr. Farnum did not know what to do. He first turned to Mr. Cranshaw, who made a tighter grip on his bass drum and his muffled mallet. He then turned to Alphonse.
“I cannot be sure, sir,” said Alphonse, “but I’d be willing to make a pretty wager that it’s bad luck to toss dirt on top of someone who can right around and toss it back, begging your pardon.”
“Oh, I promise not to do that, sir,” said Mary quickly. “I’ve been told tossing dirt is rude and unladylike.”
“Thank you,” said Alphonse with a bow.
“My pleasure,” said Mary with a curtsy.
That seemed to draw the discussion to a close. Mary smiled and lay back in the coffin, being careful to not wrinkle the new dress of which she was obviously proud. She closed her eyes and clutched her ragged little doll close to her chest, and Alphonse, with great uncertainty and greater gentleness, attached the lid. A rope was tied to it and Alphonse lowered it into the grave. Then everyone removed their hats, except the governess, and the Solicitor resumed his stoic posture and the vicar tumbled through the last rights and the Ashes to Ashes at a pace no one could remember having witnessed before or since, leaving out what Mr. Farnum was sure where several of the more poetic and important points in the process. Once finished, the vicar gave a shrill yelp and went running back down the hill towards the church. Mr. Farnum and Mr. Cranshaw retied their hats and Mr. Farnum took up his bow. Mr. Cranshaw struck the drum and Mr. Farnum began to play.
Possibly owing to the peculiarities of the day, it can certainly be said that never have Aleshire’s Requiem for solo violin, Selvidge’s Toccata, and Brunt’s “Flowers Everlasting” been played with greater emotion or sorrow. Even at this late point in Mr. Farnum’s career, this could be called his zenith. Halfway through Selvidge, the Solicitor began to openly weep, and three measures into “Flowers Everlasting” (a piece even then regarded as a bit overstuffed) fat tears began streaming down the governess’s doggy face. Mr. Farnum even took it to add a piece of his own he’d been working on; “As your spirit takes to the meadow” in E flat minor. The horse drawing the Solicitor’s carriage even looked to be crying.
When he was finished, the Solicitor gripped Mr. Farnum’s hand in both of his and blubbered out his gratitude and praise for Mr. Farnum’s playing, then he stumbled and staggered through his tears to his carriage. The governess had to be carried. Mr. Farnum, Mr. Cranshaw and Alphonse watched their carriage slowly make its way back towards town accompanied by the governess’s wailing and howling diminishing in the distance and the wind.
“To be sure, Mr. Farnum, that was the most beautiful playing I’ve heard.” Said Alphonse, daubing his eyes with his cap. “I hope you can do half as much at my passing.” And he took up his shovel and drove it into the brown hill of earth at the side of Mary’s grave.
Three weeks after Mary’s funeral Mr. Farnum and Mr. Cranshaw had just finished officiating over another burial. The gathered host was wiping away their tears and slowly moving back towards the church and the town. The new vicar closed his Bible and said a small prayer to himself. He’d come in recently to replace the old vicar, who had not been seen since Mary’s internment. Mr. Farnum and Mr. Cranshaw watched as Alphonse began shoveling dirt into the grave and whistling Mr. Farnum’s tune to himself.
“Times have gotten quite better of late,” said Mr. Cranshaw. “A regular ossuary and charnel field of late. Our profits are up and we’re no longer in danger of the stocks or of having to beat an escape in the dead of night. And we can eat regular again.”
“Indeed, I think our fortunes have taken a turn for the better,” agreed Mr. Farnum.
The crowd of mourners on the path back down the hill slowly parted and from between the stragglers stepped a small girl in a fine blue dress and a top hat tied to her blonde head with a blue satin ribbon. She carried a tambourine and was busily counting coins that had been dropped into it by the crowd as they passed.
“Five and seven today Mr. Farnum. Quite good!” said Mary with a smile holding up her take to them.
“Thanks to you, Mary,” said Mr. Farnum. “You’ve become quite proficient with your grief, though I still think you could sob a bit louder. There is nothing so heartbreaking as a girl in grief, after all. It’s off to the pub with us. Come in good time, Alphonse.”
And they happily followed the grieving collection of friends and family into town.
Jim Naremore is a new author coming out of the American Midwest. His first novel, “The Arts of Legerdemain as Taught by Ghosts” was recently release on Belle Lutte Press and was just awarded an Independent Publishers Book Prize for best first novel. His short fiction has appeared in The Offbeat, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Emrys Journal among several others. Jim writes to placate these strange people he finds wandering around in his head.
© 2016, Jim Naremore