SUMMARY. — This is the story of three generations of an Irish family. In the small, crumbling village of Castlerampart, the most prominent man is Theodore Coniffe, the village landlord. He is as penny-pinching as his wife Katherine is vain. Their two daughters, Theresa and Sara, grow up to be young ladies of property, if not of good looks. While they are still in their teens, Katherine dies in giving birth to her third daughter, Lily. The older girls assume the responsibility of Lily’s upbringing and she becomes the timid Cinderella of the household. She is sixteen years younger than Theresa, and the bossing she receives from her oldest sister threatens to drain the youth from Lily’s not very robust character.
The household is upset when a young lawyer appears in the village. Old Theodore sees in Cornelius Galloway a potential son-in-law. Cornelius divides his attention between Theresa and Sara, but on an enchanted evening it is to Lily, the sixteen-year-old, that he proposes. After their honeymoon, the newlyweds drive home in their new coach (bought at Theodore’s expense), an extravagance which at first nettles and then tickles the old man. Cornelius is a spender. He buys a spirited mare and rides to hounds with the local gentry. He starts to build a new house outside town, but his career is cut short when, in the fifth month of his marriage, he is killed in the hunting field.
by MARY LAVIN
AFTER the death of her husband, Lily’s authority was gone; she was dependent now in a way that she had never been before. Theresa found relief for her old resentment in glossing over the brief marriage as if it had never been. The privacy of Lily’s room was no longer respected. The sisters went in and out once more without knocking, and Mary Ellen was instructed to take away the second pillow, which wasn’t needed any more.
And once, when Theresa was particularly irritated, she said that Lily might just as well take off her ring, that it was only a mockery. “You might as well give up putting on airs as a married woman when you have no more to show for yourself than a band of gold on your finger. It makes me sick to hear people calling you Mrs. Galloway. Mrs. Galloway! You’re as much Lily Coniffe as if that bragging peddler had never darkened the door.”
Even Sara referred to her sister once or twice as Miss Lily. It was quite by accident, of course, but accidents that happen too frequently are indistinguishable from habits.
And Theodore, although he was not hard enough to be unkind to Lily, was not kind enough to prevent Theresa from deputizing for him in that respect. One day, however, when Theresa made some reference to Miss Lily, Theodore surprised her by pulling her up short.
“Give her her proper name,” he said.
“I forgot,” said Theresa.
“Well, you’d better not forget again,” said Theodore. “In a month or two more it will look very strange to be calling her by her maiden name. You’d better take her to see the doctor.”
Birth and Death. In the common pageant of human history, how monotonously these mummers appear. And when a man’s life is over, how few are the scattered incidents that will remain in the memories of those who survive him. They are not much more detailed than the brief records that would inevitably remain in the archives of town hall and church. Little remains of what the heart experienced in the indistinguishable moments. The story of each day is lost in the story of the parish. The story of the parish is lost in the national story; and even that great story is lost, itself, in the immensity of the great story of the universe, until, like the leaf on the stem, the stem on the bough, and the bough on the tree, all, all,— leaf, stem, bough, and tree, — are lost at last in the immensity of the forest in which each had yet played its indispensable part.
From servants’ gossip, young Gabriel Galloway will hear snatches of remarks about the past; but from the fragments of this gossip, how simple the lives of those who went before him will seem! The incidents will fit together with such order that they will seem like the incidents in a penny novelette. They will not give him any help in unraveling the complexities of his own life. They will not provide any deposit of experience from which he can supplement his own inexperience. They will only serve to accentuate the confusion of his own life. The pattern does not show up well until the carpet is worn.
AT EIGHT o’clock every morning, Mary Ellen went into Master Gabriel Galloway’s room and woke him up with a big, slobbery kiss that Master Gabriel — aged six — was at pains to wipe off with the corner of the rough blanket while Mary Ellen fussed about the room, gathering his clothes together and sousing the big pale-yellow sponge into the ewer on the washstand until it came out a dirty brown color, dripping water all over the floor. With this Mary Ellen would “freshen up his face for the day,”
But on the day of his grandfather’s funeral she wakened him by letting the blind slap up against the wet glass of the window and throwing back the coverings from his shivering body.
“Wake up, Gabriel. It’s nearly time for the hearse to arrive. Wake up, Gabriel. It will take a long time to get you into that new suit of yours. It’s my belief it’s too tight in the waistband.”
And before his eyes had become clear and properly opened he was sitting on the side of the bed, gripping the cold brass rail, while Mary Ellen forced his legs into the tight trousers and passed the cold braces over his head to slap hard against his back.
“Here’s your shirt,” Mary Ellen said, and she thrust the fresh linen with its icy gloss into Gabriel’s hands, while she caught up his foot and, turning her back upon him, with the foot under her arm, like a smith with a horse-hoof, drew the stiff new boot onto his foot and tied the laces so tightly that the tin eyelets dug into his flesh through the stockings.
“Now your tie,” said Mary Ellen. “Now your clean handkerchief.” And as one jerk superseded another, the desire to exclaim at one pinch was superseded by the desire to exclaim at another — so rapidly indeed that he was standing on the floor by the rose-patterned ewer and basin before he had exclaimed at all; and then the big yellow sponge dripping with icy sparkles of water was dabbed into his face and he dared not open his mouth for fear of swallowing a mouthful.
“You’re ready now,” said Mary Ellen, and hearing a horse in the street she ran to the window. “You’re ready now, and not a crumb too soon. The hearse is coming down the street. Hurry now and keep your eyes downcast. Let the people see you’re sorry for your poor grandfather, the Lord have mercy on him!” Taking his hand, she led him to the door, and catching him by the shoulders, directed him ahead of her to the stairs.
The lower hall was crowded with people, as it had been on the previous morning, but the fact did not surprise Gabriel this time; and coming slowly down the stairs he made a careful investigation of everything within the direct range of his glance. Mary Ellen’s iron grip upon his shoulders limited the area of this glance by keeping him faced rigidly forward, but here and there among the vaguely familiar faces of the people in the hall Gabriel saw many kindly and very familiar faces. Packy Hand was standing near the big knob at the end of the banisters, and Murty Rod leaned against the jamb of the cross-door between the hall and kitchen. Mr. Finnerty and Mrs. Finnerty were staring up at him as he descended.
Murty’s face was usually round and shining, as if made for smiling, but this morning it wore a forced appearance of solemnity; and as with people whose lives are spent mostly under the influence of one emotion, his expression had the temporary look of one who is merely making a grimace. On seeing Gabriel, Murty Rod’s grimace of solemnity relaxed, and his eyes twinkled as if he might at any moment burst into his habitual smiles, but he kept his cheek muscles in rigid control and the smile traveled no farther than his twinkling eyes. Gabriel smiled back and descended another step.
This brought him on a level with Packy Hand, and as Gabriel stared into his long, dull face Packy’s wide lips twitched in an unmistakable grin. Gabriel grinned back and, impelled by Mary Ellen, took another step downwards, but this time his eye had taken in the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Finnerty and Mr. and Mrs. Molloy; and divining suddenly that he would have to smile at each face in turn, he lowered his eyes and began to devote all his attention to his feet.
Just as Gabriel stretched out his neatly booted foot for the last step of the stairs there was a sudden surge in the crowd in the back dining room, and this in turn caused the people in the hall to surge nearer to the stairs. Down on Gabriel’s small foot came the back of Murty’s heel and then, quick as the wind, down came Mary Ellen’s broad palm over his mouth to anticipate his yell of pain.
“Come back up here,” said Mary Ellen, and she dragged him up three or four steps of the stairs he had just descended. Packy Hand and Murty stepped up on the step that Gabriel had vacated, in order to leave space in the hall for the people who were streaming out of the back room. Gabriel put up a hand and pulled Mary Ellen’s palm away from his mouth.
“ Don’t cry, like a good boy,” said Mary Ellen, bending over him. “ Your poor mother and your aunts are taking their leave of your grandfather.”
The last person came out of the back room and the door was closed. The hall was darkened except for the faint blue and green and red rays that came from a panel of colored glass in the door.
Packy Hand turned around in the small space at his disposal. “Why don’t you bring in the boy to have a look at the corpse?”
“Hush,” said Mary Ellen, and over his head Gabriel could feel that a mimic conversation was being carried on in gestures and motions of the face. A great fear clutched him. He gripped Mary Ellen’s hand, but as Packy Hand shrugged his shoulders and turned back to his original position, he felt safe once more.
AFTER a few moments of silence, the door of the back parlor was opened again. His mother and his aunts came out. His aunt Theresa was dressed almost the same as usual, but his aunt Sara and his mother looked so strange and dismal in their black clothes that once again Gabriel felt a vague terror assail him.
As his mother passed through the crowd in the hall, dabbing her pale face with a small wet handkerchief, Gabriel tugged at Mary Ellen’s hand and was about to plead with her to take him after his mother, when there was a sudden noise in the room behind the closed door. A chair was pushed back, something fell, and all at once there was a stir among the people in the hall. Packy Hand straightened himself up. Marty blew his nose. Mr. Finnerty took off his gloves and shoved them into his pocket. The door was thrown open and there, in full sight of the doorway, Gabriel saw the long, thin end of a yellow coffin with gleaming brass handles tied with bows of black ribbon.
“The bearers! Will the bearers please step this way now.” A small, thin man with a bleached face, who wore a soiled white apron, was standing at the door.
Packy Hand stepped forward, pushing his way with ceremonious discourtesy. The lobes of Murty ‘s ears grew fiery red and he looked uncertainly at Mary Ellen, who nodded her head vigorously at him and motioned him to go forward after Packy. Mr. Finnerty was hemmed in on either side, but he coughed discreetly and room was made for him at once. With the activity of the bearers, restraint was lifted from the entire gathering, and people began to warm their feet by stamping first one foot and then another upon the hard flags of the hallway; heads leaned together in hurried conference, and from near the hall floor a gust of cold air came streaming inward as the door was opened and people began to shuffle out onto the pavement, their voices, which were freed upon the air, coming back with guilty echoes into the dark house.
“Make way, please,” said Mary Ellen, and Gabriel was swept along with the crowd into the cold, wet street, which was lined with black carriages, down the sides of which the rain streamed, and in front of which stood patient horses with dull black trappings.
Right in front of the hall door stood the hearse, with glittering windows of cut glass, which even in the cold, wet light of early morning showed a tendency to catch the watery gleams and cast them back with prismatic rays. The hearse was drawn by four black horses whose trappings were black and silver and from whose silver headplates vast plumes of black feathers drooped. The horses stood remarkably still, but occasionally they shook their heads, and when they did this the great feather plumes released a shower of silver raindrops.
Gabriel was fascinated, He wanted to stand and stare at the great glass carriage, but Mary Ellen hurried him away from it and catching him under the armpits, hoisted him into one of the dark wooden cabs. It was the first mourning coach and stood exactly behind the hearse, to proceed in that order when the funeral procession started. Gabriel was placed on the seat with its back to the horses, which meant that he would travel backwards all the way, but as soon as this fact was borne in upon his mind he climbed down and took his place on the opposite seat, facing forwards.
He had not effected the change a moment too soon, because his two aunts and his pale-faced mother appeared again in the doorway of the house and coming straight towards the first coach slipped into it and took their places. Theresa Coniffe, as the eldest, was the first to step into the carriage, and as she chose the seat facing forward, this meant that she and Gabriel shared it, while his mother and his aunt Sara sat together on the opposite seat. For a moment Gabriel regretted his change, but it soon occurred to him that he had not chosen too badly, for, sitting bolt upright, with her frame rigidly posed, her arms dug into her sides to maintain its strict rigidity, Theresa Coniffe could not see anything that was not within the direct orbit of her glance, and without taking up an entirely new posture she could hardly see him at all. That she wouId not alter her posture he knew almost for certain, because one of the things that his aunt Theresa complained against most frequently was the fidgeting of others.
“Stop fidgeting, Sara! Stop fidgeting, Lily!” she said a thousand times a day, and even Gyp the terrier had been seen to stay his short tail in the middle of a wag when Miss Theresa cast a glance in his direction.
GABRIEL felt that he had chosen his place well, if it were for nothing more than that he had the chance of smiling back at his sadly smiling mother.
“You are a very good boy,” said his mother, leaning across and patting his knee. “I’m glad there are no tears.”
“What did you expect?” said Theresa. “Did you expect him to cry? Why should he cry! Our father is gone to Heaven. He led a good life and a long one. He has gone to his rest. I don’t see why anyone should cry.” Without moving her head she darted a sharp glance at the red-eyed Sara. Sara felt that she had been addressed directly.
“I know poor Father is gone to his reward,” she said, “but I cannot help thinking how much we will miss him around the house.”
“It’s not like you, Sara,” said Theresa, “to put your own happiness before the happiness of others. Father is much better off where he is than ever he was in this life. Indeed we will all be better off when we are laid in our coffins. What is this world? Nothing!”
Gabriel listened without much attention to the beginning of this discussion, but towards the end he became very attentive. Up to now he had been able to keep away all thoughts of his grandfather, but as Theresa Coniffe spoke, the men were lifting the coffin into the hearse ahead of them, and through the window at the side he got a rapid glimpse of the yellow varnished wood.
A moment before, his mother had patted his knee because he was a good boy and did not cry, and now, a moment afterwards, he was going to do that very thing. His aunt Theresa would be glad. She would blame his mother for his disgrace. She would say that his mother had put the idea into his head. And the more he resolved against crying, the more miserable he became and the nearer he was to doing so. Behind his eyes the tears were bright and feverish. Behind his tightly pressed lips a gale of hoarded breath threatened to burst forth. In his throat his grief was like a piece of glass. In another minute he would disgrace his dear mother. Gabriel stared at her in a frantic appeal for forgiveness even before he transgressed.
But as he lifted his eyes to his mother, expecting to find an anxious anticipation of his tears in her gaze, he was surprised to see her smiling at him — so surprised that he let out his tortured hoard of breath; and before he realized it the danger was over.
Gabriel smiled at his mother, and his mother smiled back at him. Outside the carriage, people were still sorting themselves into groups, and Mr. Finnerty was allotting them places in the other carriages. The coffin had been placed in the hearse and the men were busy piling up wreaths of lilies and yellow and white chrysanthemums upon the coffin lid. Gabriel felt more and more reassured. Several times he looked out of the window and several times he looked back at his beautiful pale mother and smiled secretively at her.
Gabriel was hidden from Theresa Coniffe, but suddenly her attention was drawn to her sister Lily, who was actually wrinkling her nose in a whimsical way to put her small son still more at his ease. Theresa’s cold lips opened: “I should imagine that a mourning coach would be the last place for smiling and face-making.”
Lily scarcely grasped the meaning of the words, but the cold tone of the voice penetrated her consciousness and the smile was arrested. She remained, however, with her sweet short upper lip slightly raised from her small girlish teeth, and she continued to stare at her son opposite her. It was upon Gabriel’s face, rather than upon her own mind, that the meaning of the words was finally recorded. She looked up, startled, at Theresa. Theresa drew her arms close to her black silk sides.
“I’m sure I don’t know how it will appear to the mourners to see the dead man’s daughter smiling and laughing and bobbing her head before the funeral has even left the death house!”
As quickly as tears had given place to smiles in Gabriel’s small pointed face, the smiles had fled from his mother’s face and the bright tears glittered in her eyes.
“ It seems tears are as easy as smiles with some people,”said Theresa, but having desired to wound Lily she had no sooner wounded her than she regretted it. Neither tears nor smiles came readily to her, and it was with a strange envy in her heart that she chided those to whom they did come readily.
TCIERESA CONIFFE looked out the window away from the three faces upon which she knew she had brought a sadder shadow than had death itself. For a moment she stared out longing for some interruption to come that might break the silence she had laid upon them all.
Then, determined to break it herself, with a sudden impetuosity she rapped on the glass of the carriage window with her hard, thin knuckles; and following quickly upon this, she loosed the strap that held the window up and let it fall open with a loud slap.
“What is the delay?” she called out, directing her words towards Mr. Finnerty, who still stood on the pavement with a wreath in either hand, but she attracted at the same time the attention of the entire cortege, to such an extent that even those who had entered their coaches put out their heads through the windows and stared up at the first coach.
Mr. Finnerty hastily disposed of the wreaths and ran over to the window of the cab.
“I think everything is ready now, Miss Coniffe. We will be ready to start in a few moments.” He lowered his voice. “The curate was delayed, I understand, but I see him coming down the street this moment. He’s coming at a good pace. He’s nearly tripping over his skirts. We’ll be off now in a half a minute, Miss Coniffe.’
And sure enough, in less than a minute, Mr. Finnerty approached the head of the cortege once more, and waving his hand downward two or three times, like a guard on the railway line signaling to the engine driver, he gave the driver of the hearse the intimation that he might proceed.
There was a slight tilt in the Coniffe carriage just then, and they began to move forward after the hearse. But it was only by looking out of the windows at the houses of Clewe Street as they were passed, one after another, that Gabriel was able to create a sense of motion which he hardly felt any other way, as the slow tread of the trained horses conveyed the cortege out of the town.
The cemetery was situated three miles outside the town, and situated at the crossroads. The crossroads was slightly sunk below the level of the surrounding country, although the cemetery itself was on an upward-sloping stretch of land that tended towards the far end to be a decided hill, crowned with a few solemn cypresses and a large wooden cross that could be seen for miles around. This rising ground obscured to a certain extent the fourth branch of the road, which ran under the hill and disappeared in an unusually woody patch of the country. The other roads were plain and hare and could be followed by the eye from the crossroads to the rim of the flat fields on the skyline. A carriage or a solitary stroller who set out upon one road could be followed by the eye from either of the other roads from the moment he came into sight at the crest of the skyline until he reached the crossroads.
On this cold, wet day, as the cortege of Theodore Coniffe stole out upon its sad, slack journey to the cemetery, the roads were bare, and over them, to emphasize their bleak and lonely emptiness, a cold, rain-laden wind was blowing.
The three sisters had taken out their cold beads, and as they passed them stiffly through their fingers their lips moved ceaselessly and even the necessity for the intake and output of breath did not interrupt that movement. Gabriel’s eyes closed. The pace was gentle, and underneath him the carriage swayed lightly on the straps by which it was slung from the traces. His eyes closed; his head drooped.
SUDDENLY there was a sharp sound of harness and tackle being jerked. The horses’ hoofs grated as if they were slipping on the wet road. The carriage jolted and came to a stop. Gabriel’s eyes flew open and the whispered prayers of the sisters ceased. There, framed in the window, was the somber face of Packy Hand.
“What is the meaning of this delay?” said Theresa Coniffe, beating her black-clad foot upon the flooring of the cab as an angry accompaniment to her words.
Packy gesticulated outside the glass and he said something which could not be heard. Theresa continued for a few minutes to tap her foot and then she shot out a hand and released the window strap, letting the window clap open again.
“Packy Hand, are you out of your senses! What are you doing in the middle of the road, delaying a man on the way to the clay? Have you gone out of your mind?”
While Theresa Coniffe was speaking, Packy Hand began to stamp his own great flat foot upon the road.
“It’s easy seen that the man that is dead is no longer alive,” said Packy at last. “ When a person came to ask a favor of Theodore Coniffe he was civilly received —let alone a person that came to confer a favor! I had better mind my own business, I suppose,” and there and then he turned on his heel and began to walk away.
But Theresa Coniffe put her head out of the window.
“Come back here, Packy Hand! It’s a poor man that won’t make allowances for the manners of those in trouble.”
Packy halted. “Miss Theresa, it’s easy to make excuses for a remark provoked by a situation; but when a remark comes from the character, there’s no use excusing it. You had a hard tongue when you were only a sass of a girl flipping jackstones in the air as if the devil was jerking your ellow.
Theresa Coniffe clenched her two hands. “ Did you put a stop to all these mourning coaches and a mourning hearse to pick a quarrel with your betters?”
“ I did not,” said Packy, “but I put a stop to it for another reason altogether. It has just been brought to my attention now that there is a man dead in the next town and that he is a native of this town!” He paused and stared at Theresa, but there was no change in her countenance. Packy pursed his lips. “ Does that convey nothing to you, Miss Coniffe?” he said at last.
“Nothing!” said Theresa.
“ Does it convey nothing to you. Miss Sara?”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t, Packy,” said Sara, clasping her bag tightly.
Packy turned back to Theresa.
“Will it convey anything to you if I develop the subject further and tell you that this man died two days ago and is due to be put under the clay this very morning?”
There was no reply.
“Will it convey anything to you if I tell you that they ’re bringing him back to his native town to be buried?”
There was no sign that his words conveyed any particular significance, although a vague dread of what that significance might prove to be had begun to show on the face of Sara.
“Ah! Times have changed,” said Packy. “There was a time when people would cut off their right hands to ease the suffering of the poor helpless dead.”
Theresa Coniffe stiffened.
“Say whatever you’re trying to say and be done with it!” she said, and she fixed him with her eye.
Packy Hand fixed Miss Coniffe with a still colder eye.
“Do you mean to say, Miss Coniffe, that you never heard tell that the last corpse into the cemetery must wait and guard the graves until the next corpse comes to take his place?”
“Packy Hand,” said Miss Coniffe, “if you stopped my father’s funeral to talk nonsense, you could have waited till we got to the grave, and even there I’d hardly have time to listen to you and your superstitions.”
“If I waited till then it might be too late.”
“What are you talking about?”
“If I waited till then, the other corpse might arrive before us; and if they planted him down before your poor father, your father’d be left to guard the grave. But if we get there first, the other poor man will have to take his chance.”
Miss Theresa was disturbed. She didn’t want to give in to Packy Hand’s superstition, but she was afraid to disregard it.
“What can we do?” she said in a somewhat softer tone.
“We can hurry the horses, ma’am.”
“ Hurry the horses! I was on the point of tapping on the glass a few minutes ago to tell the driver to slacken his pace. There are people hereabouts that would judge your affection for the departed by the pace of your horses towards the graveyard. If you went above a snail’s pace, they’d say you were glad to be rid of the one that was gone. I don’t want that to be said.”
Theresa Coniffe, although she was a thin woman, blocked the small window of the carriage, so that if the other three occupants had any opinions upon the matter they were not heard by Packy Hand. At this stage, however, Theresa Coniffe swung around, and Packy saw that Sara had made so bold as to pull her sister by the skirt.
“ Perhaps if Packy stepped to the window of each coach and explained the case, people wouldn ’t take it wrongly for us to hurry up the horses. After all, it would be a dreadful thing to be lying awake at night thinking of poor father’s spirit standing at the cemetery in the cold and the wet, waiting for the next corpse to arrive.”
“Father hated to be kept waiting,” said Theresa abstractedly.
“And there’s no one sick in the town.” said Sara, “and unless there’s a sudden death, or an accident — the Lord between us and all harm! — it may be months before there’s another coffin brought in through the cemetery gates.”
Miss Coniffe sat back helplessly in her seat.
“If you’re going to consider it, you ’d want to consider it quickly,” said Packy, and he pulled out a large silver watch, blackened and rusted, but ticking so loudly that Gabriel was emboldened to peer out at it under his aunt’s elbow. “We’ve lost time already,” said Packy.
How things might have been settled it is difficult to know, because at that moment Gabriel raised his eyes from the ticking watch on the flat of Packy Hand’s palm and glanced at the far edge of the horizon.
“Oh, look!” cried Gabriel. “More horses!”
Packy Hand swung around. Theresa Coniffe threw up her head like a horse, and Sara and Lily strained to see out through the small chink under Theresa’s elbow and over Gabriel’s head. There on the gray horizon was the funeral cortege of the man from the next town.
There was a long line of black coaches and at the head was the pale hearse that carried the coffin. They were so far away that they looked like a string of miniature coaches such as might ornament a mantelpiece or decorate the borders of a fancy plate. They were cut out against the gray sky and, although the distance between them and the Coniffe cortege was too great for the motion of the vehicles to be seen, the furious tilt of the carriages and the frenzied lift to the forefeet of the horses suggested at once that the other funeral was traveling at a great pace.
“Quick!” cried Theresa Coniffe. “Don’t let them get there before us. Quick!”
Packy Hand made a frantic signal to the coachman. He ran back to his own coach. There was a wild shaking of trappings and the flicking of whips on the wet flanks of the horses, and the cortege started again, with every possible ounce of speed.
Gabriel clutched the strap. The ladies on the opposite seat jolted together. Miss Theresa planted her feet apart to prevent such a contingency.
“Apart from the superstition,” she said, “I hope we get there first. I wouldn’t want to give anyone the satisfaction of saying that the Coniffes were kept waiting at the cemetery while they buried some man that nobody ever heard of until today.”
“Oh, I wish the horses could fly!” said Sara.
“The others are gaining ground,” said Lily. “Oh, poor Father! Poor Father!”
“Tap on the ceiling, Gabriel,” said Theresa, sticking a long black umbrella into his hands. “It will make the man hurry more.”
But no horse could hurry faster than the horses under the Coniffe coach, and no coach could travel faster upon its wheels than the coach they drew. Sara and Lily were thrown first to one side and then to another. First Lily knocked against the window on her side, then Sara against the window frame on her side, and then both of them were thrown towards the center of the coach and crashed into each other. They were jolted upwards one moment, nearly hitting the ceiling, and the next minute they were so jerked that they lost their grip on the leather seat and were almost flung across on top of the occupants of the other seat. Their hats were knocked back off their heads, leaving their foreheads bare, and were no sooner adjusted than they were knocked forward, nearly smothering their faces.
“Why can’t you keep control of yourselves?” said Theresa. “How will you look when we reach the grave! Straighten your hat, Sara. Lily, your hair is coming undone. You look more as if you were on your way to a fancy fair than to your father’s funeral.”
For Theresa, in some mysterious mastery of the principles of gravity, was rolled neither to right nor to left. She suffered neither jolt nor jerk. When the coach tilted to one side, Theresa tilted with it, so that although she slanted towards the road in the same proportion as the coach, she remained in exactly the same erect right angle to the seat upon which she sat. She might have been glued into an unalterable position like a toy occupant of a toy coach. Had the coach overturned, it might well be believed that she would still be sitting upon the seat with her legs up in the air, nothing altered in position except, perhaps, her sleek black skirts, which might fall back to display her froth of virgin petticoats.
Gabriel, who at first had jolted as impotently as his mother and his younger aunt, had not been long in noticing his older aunt’s mastery of the circumstances, and when his elbows had more than once come in contact with the wooden armrest, and the back of his head had knocked with a resounding crack against the wooden backing of the seat, he overcame his fear and dislike for Theresa and, wedging his arm with great difficulty between the rigid arm and rigid body of the tall, stiff woman beside him, anchored himself securely to her side and soon shared her equipoise, and was able to divide his time between watching the pitching and tossing of his mother and his aunt Sara and watching the rival funeral, which galloped nearer and nearer, the distance between the two funerals being diminished rapidly as the horses tore along the roads and as the roads themselves converged toward the crossroads.
THE graveyard gates were wrought iron, high-backed, and painted white. There were three gates, but the great center gate was never opened. The side gates were opened so frequently that they had a tendency to swing open of their own accord on a windy day, with a low wailing sound. Although the center gate would have been wide enough to permit the entry of a hearse, the mourners always paid a last tribute to the dead by taking the coffin out of the hearse at the gate and shouldering it to its place of burial. This tribute was so universally observed that the great gate had probably never been opened since the day it was hung upon its great white hinges.
On this gray day, however, when the gravediggers had ascertained that the graves they had dug the night before were still open and ready for the coffins, they came down to the gates to watch the roads for the funerals. From this distance they were best able to ascertain the number of followers behind the hearse, and Milo Grimes, the older of the gravediggers, was said to have a complete record of the number of coaches that followed every corpse that had been buried in the town in the last sixty-two years, both in the old graveyard behind the chapel and in this new cemetery at the crossroads. In fact he was known to parcel out his deference to the people of the town, not according to their money or social position, but according to the total of mourning coaches that had followed the corpses of their relatives to the grave.
“Which funeral do you figure will arrive first?” said Ned Fell, a thin, weedy youth who had been apprenticed to Milo a month before.
“Do you mean to say you’d have any doubt upon a subject like that?” said Milo, looking at Ned as if by the question he had betrayed a lack of intelligence, and one that would come against him greatly in his future career. “The Coniffes have been noted in these parts during the last sixty years for the splendor of their turnout upon a day of mourning. Never will you see more wreaths than you’ll see on a Coniffe coffin. Never will you see a coffin with a better or brighter varnish. Never will you see more handsome handles. The pathway has to be scuffled fresh after a Coniffe funeral on account of the unnaturally big passage of people, and I’ve seen times when there were so many carriages after the hearse that they had no chance nor manner of turning in the road, and had to proceed straight on the way they were going until they got to a further crossroads two miles up the road and take the road back to the town by a roundabout way that sent them four miles out of their way and left them so late for the funeral feast that the women that were preparing it began to think the whole cortege, hearse and coffin, carriages and horses, people and wreaths, had ridden over the rim of the world.”
Ned Fell listened to this long stretch of eloquence and when it was finished he went over it again, taking it up point by point, and still he found no answer to his own question in it anywhere. After a while he spoke again.
“It seems to me an elegant funeral like that would take a long time making its way here. I’m thinking maybe the other corpse will be here first.”
“It’s easily seen you haven’t much understanding about funerals,” said Milo, “although I’ll admit you have a good grip on a spade for a beginner. The more coaches there are and the more wreaths, the more men and the more women with white handkerchiefs, the more necessity there is for that funeral to arrive first when there are two funerals on the one day, as in the present unfortunate case.”
“I don’t see how you make that out,” said Ned.
Milo looked at him suspiciously. “I hope you’re not one of these people that have to have a remark explained to such a point that there’s no life in it at the end? Can’t you see for yourself that while it’s easy for one small, unnoticeable hearse, with a few coaches, to pull up under a clump of trees near the gate and wait for their turn, a big turnout such as the Coniffes will have would look a fine foolish affair, stretching back from the gates to as-near-asno-matter to the town it left! Do you think they’d let a thing like that happen even though there’s only a parcel of women left in the place now to attend to such matters? ”
Ned’s face wore a worried expression, as if he was not yet satisfied and was about to argue upon some point, when Milo looked up and immediately slapped his thigh. “What did I tell you!” he shouted. “Here comes Theodore Coniffe!”
His old eyes, which could hardly read the name on his packet of snuff, had seen the hearse come out under the distant arch of the town gate, and after it he could see, clearly enough to count them, the mourning coaches, as they appeared one after another, a long somber fresco against the flat country.
Ned, greatly humbled, turned aside, refusing to take any further interest in the funeral and even beginning to whistle in order to drown the triumphal reckoning of Milo, who counted aloud as coach after coach came from under the arch, each one making the funeral fresco longer and more impressive, and counteracting in length for the reduction in size imposed on it by distance.
Twenty-seven, twenty-eight. There were only twentyeight coaches at the funeral of the stranger that was found dead in the boghole! Twenty-nine, thirty! There can hardly be more than thirty. Thirty-one! There’s thirty-one — thirfy-two. This is a record in the history of gravedigging. Thirty-three — is it possible there are more to come?”
But Milo’s reckoning of the coaches was interrupted at thirty-three by a pull at his sleeve. Ned was staring at the skyline where the Liscannor Road cut the fields with as straight a slash as the slash of a spade. He had seen a dark speck on the skyline, and although he would have enjoyed calling out in triumph at the sight of it, he was afraid of being mistaken.
“Isn’t that a funeral?” said Ned pointing. It was.
“God in Heaven, this is a terrible thing to happen. They’ll meet at the gates. It’s only a matter of tossing a bone, — knuckle to you, knuckle from you, — which of them reaches the crossroads first.”
“The Coniffes had a good start,”said Ned, in whom argumentativeness had been but an artificial affair destined to pass the time, and which faded immediately before a genuine interest in the snails’ race that had begun upon the horizon.
“They’re too far off to see what pace they’re making,” said Milo, “but there seems to be a great lift to the forefeet of the Liscannor horses.”
“Do you suppose,” said Ned, “that they can see each other as plain as we can see them?”
“I couldn’t say. I think it’s likely they’re not thinking of looking from side to side. The ones in the first coaches are likely to be blotchy-eyed with crying, and the general mourners in the back coaches are too busy telling yarns and smoking their pipes, and the women tittering and making eyes at those opposite them. They’ll not be looking out the windows, I’m thinking.”
“I think the Coniffes are keeping the gain they got at the start,” said Ned, and then before the last word had rightly disentangled itself from the woolly gray breath that accompanied it out of his mouth, he gave a loud, significant whistle.
“What’s that?” said Milo in alarm.
Ned put out a long, thin finger which a caking of black clay made even more sinister-looking.
“The Coniffe coach is stopping upon the road!”
Milo could not deny that this was so. The motion which it had been difficult to discern while it was in process became apparent as having previously existed as soon as it ceased.
“What in the name of pick and shovel is the matter with these people?” said Milo.
“The other funeral is gaining,” said Ned, transfering his allegiance to the cortege which, if not the most advanced, was for the moment in a superior position.
“What are you thinking of!” said Milo, shaking his fist in the direction of the distant Coniffe cortege.
“The Coniffe hearse is continuing on its way, anyhow,” said Ned. “It is nearly halfway to the gates.”
Old Milo looked at the lonely traveling hearse. “I don’t know but that makes things worse instead of better. To think of poor Theodore traveling on his own, and his family gossiping on the road. I never heard tell of the like to happen in the best and longest of my days. I declare but I can’t look on a sight so distressful! ” And turning around he began to walk back up the center of the cemetery. He had not gone three steps, however, when Ned gave a shout.
“They’ve started again! " Old Milo, even then, did not have the heart to turn around. “They’re moving forward,” said Ned, and something in his voice heartened Milo to look around. He began to retrace his steps slowly. Ned Fell began to leap into the air and beat his fists together over his head.
“They’re traveling!” he said. “The Coniffes are traveling. They must have seen the others. Oh, man! There ‘s a race for you! They’re moving. They’re galloping. They’re catching up on the hearse!”
Old Milo ran forward to the cemetery wall.
“A chariot race!” he shouted, slapping his sides. “Oh, man, but it’s a pity old Theodore himself has to lie with his eyes closed while a sight like this is to be seen. He ‘s the man would like the spirit of this.”He put up his hands and formed them into binoculars through which he could stare at his object undistracted by any extraneous tree or bush or briar. Once only did he lower his hands to gesture frantically in the direction of the other funeral. “Are the others gaining? he cried, but in his anxiety for the Conifles he dared not take his eyes from them.
“They are putting up their pace,” said Ned.
“Come on, Theodore!" shouted Milo at once, raising himself on his toes.
“Come on, Liscannor!” shouted Ned, and in lus excitement he stood up on a grave mound near the wall.
Old Milo saw him out of the corner of his eye. “Get down off that grave. Don’t you know better than to stand on a consecrated grave?”
Ned got down, but his face wore a very sulky expression. “I don’t see what harm I was doing. I only wanted to see the sport.” He looked at old Milo’s tall frame, which measured six feet six inches. “ We can ’t all be as tall as trees!”
The subtle flattery appeased Milo’s ire for the dignity of the departed. He darted a glance at the headstone over the grave to refresh his memory of the occupant.
“Matthew Scrapes!” he read out, and then to Ned’s astonishment he went over and began to pace the length of the grave edge with his big muddy boots. “Six foot!” he commented and put his fingers to his forehead to help himself in some mental calculation he was making. “I think it would be all right for you to stand hereabouts,” be said, marking with the toe of his boot a space about two feet from one end.
“ What difference does it make where I stand? Isn ’t it all the one grave?” said Ned grudgingly.
“Well, you see,” said Milo, “poor Matthew, God rest him, was never over four feet five. It was always a source of scourge to his wife, the poor woman, God rest her too. She was a tall woman herself, and you could see it was a great mortification for her to have to walk up the aisle of a Sunday with him where everyone could measure to an inch the difference between them. He only came up to the bend of her shoulder. But when he died she was determined to rectify his deficiency and she gave orders to me, here on this spot in the pouring rain the evening I was digging his grave, that I was to make it a good long grave. I might dig it as narrow as ever I pleased, so narrow we’d have to wedge the coffin down into it with spades, and I might dig it so deep that I ’d reach water, but I was to be sure to dig it the length of a tall man.
“It was just as well I gave in to the whimsicalities of the woman, because when poor Matthew arrived for his burial he was encased in as long a coffin as you’d see in a year’s planting. She wasn’t taking any chances, so she gave orders to the undertaker to be generous with his measuring tape when he was making the coffin. So you see,” he said, “ it would be no disrespect for the dead if you were standing on the foot of the mound, because there’d be nothing under you at that point but earth and just earth.”
OLD MILO had for the moment forgotten the object for which Ned had desired a higher eminence than that allotted to him by his own legs, but Ned had not forgotten, and as soon as the superior judgment had been pronounced upon grave-standing he sprang up on the green mound of Matthew’s plot and, waving his hands wildly, took up his interest in the racing funerals.
“There’s something happening! There is something happening!” he shouted out, with such a fury of excitement that before Milo could control his shameful lower members, which had been respectful of the dead for over sixty years, he himself had scrambled up onto the green mound beside Ned with such frenzied indiscrimination that he stood directly on the spot corresponding with poor Matthew’s middle. And from there he made no effort to move, for something strange indeed was happening to the Coniffe cortege. The third coach of the galloping cortege had detached itself from its galloping followers and was drawing out onto the right side of the road.