Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/Chapter 33

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

CHAPTER XXXIII

The Ghouls

When Hunter arrived at the house shortly afterwards he first began to shout and bully because the gable had not been begun; then, on hearing of the accident, he blamed the men for using the rope; and finally after Philpot's body had been removed to the mortuary, he had a long private talk with Crass. The result of his confidential investigations proved that Philpot had no relatives, that his life was insured for ten pounds and that the money was to be paid to the old woman with whom he lodged. Crass and Hunter came to the conclusion that it was probable that she would be very glad to be relieved of the trouble of attending to the business of the funeral, and that Crass, as a close friend of the dead man and a fellow-member of the Insurance Society, was the most suitable person to take charge of the business for her. Of course, they would not be able to do much until after the inquest, but they could get the coffin made; and as Hunter knew the mortuary keeper there would be no difficulty about getting in for a minute to measure the corpse.

This matter having been arranged, Hunter departed to order a new rope, and shortly afterwards Crass, having made sure that everyone would have plenty to do while he was gone, quietly slipped away to see Philpot's landlady.

The new rope was brought to the house about one o'clock, and this time the ladder was raised without any mishap. Harlow was put on to paint the gable, but his nerve was so shaken that he was allowed to have Sawkins to stand by and hold the ladder all the time. Everyone felt nervous that afternoon, and they all went about their work in an unusually careful manner.

While Bert was painting the gate of the side entrance he was accosted by a solemn looking man who asked him about the accident. The solemn stranger was very sympathetic and enquired what was the name of the man who had been killed, and whether he was married. Bert informed him that Philpot was a widower, and that he had no children.

'Ah, well, that's so much the better, isn't it?' said the stranger, shaking his head mournfully. 'It's a dreadful thing, you know, when there's children left unprovided for. You don't happen to know where he lived, do you?'

'Yes,' said Bert, mentioning the address and beginning to wonder what the solemn man wanted to know for, and why he appeared to be so sorry for Philpot, since it was quite evident that he was quite a stranger to him.

'Thanks very much,' said the man, pulling out his pocket book and making a note in it. 'Thanks very much, indeed. Good afternoon.' And he hurried off.

'Good afternoon, sir,' said Bert, and turned to resume his work. Crass came along the garden path just as the mysterious stranger was disappearing round the corner.

'What did he want?' said Crass, who had seen the man talking to Bert.

'I don't know exactly. He was asking about the accident, and whether Joe left any children, and where he lived. He must be a very decent sort of chap, I should think. He seems quite sorry about it.'

'Oh, he does, does he?' said Crass, with a peculiar expression. 'Don't you know who he is?'

'No,' replied the boy. 'But I thought p'raps he was a reporter of some paper.'

''E ain't no reporter. That's old Snatchum, the undertaker; 'e's smellin' round after a job; but 'e's out of it this time, smart as 'e thinks 'e is.'

The accident was a constant topic of conversation among the men. They said that it was all very well for Hunter to talk like that about the rope, but he had known for a long time that it was nearly worn out. Newman said that only about three weeks previously, when they were raising a ladder at another job, he had shown the rope to him, and Misery had replied that there was nothing wrong with it. Several others besides Newman claimed to have mentioned the matter to Hunter, and he had made the same sort of reply in each case. But when Owen suggested that they should attend the inquest and give evidence to that effect, they became suddenly silent, and Newman afterwards pointed out to Owen that by doing so he could not bring Philpot back again and would only do himself a lot of harm. He would never get another job at Rushton's, while many of the other employers would 'mark' him as well.

'So if you say anything about it,' concluded Newman, 'don't bring my name into it.'

Owen was bound to admit that all things considered it was right for Newman to mind his own business. He felt that it would not be fair to urge him or anyone else to do or say anything that would injure their own prospects.

Misery came to the house about eleven o'clock on Saturday and informed several of the hands that as work was very slack they would get their back day at pay time. He said the firm had tendered for one or two jobs, so they could call round about Wednesday and perhaps he then might be able to give some of them another start. Owen was not one of those who were 'stood off,' although he had expected to be on account of the speech he had made at the beano, and everyone said that he would have got the push sure enough if it had not been for the accident.

Before he went away, Nimrod instructed Owen and Crass to go to the yard at once to help Payne finish off the coffin.

As it was such a cheap job there was no time to polish it properly, so Crass proceeded to give it a couple of coats of spirit varnish, and while he was doing this Owen wrote the plate, which was made of very thin zinc lacquered over to make it look like brass:

JOSEPH PHILPOT
Died
September 1st, 19—
Aged 56 Years

·······

The inquest was held on the following Monday morning, and as both Rushton and Hunter thought it possible that Owen might attempt to impute some blame to them, they had worked the oracle and had contrived to have several friends of their own put on the jury. There was, however, no need for their alarm, because Owen could not say that he had himself noticed, or called Hunter's attention to, the state of the rope; and he did not wish to mention the names of the others without their permission. Crass and the other men gave evidence that it was a pure accident. None of them had noticed that the rope was unsound. Hunter also swore that he did not know of it, none of the men had ever called his attention to it; if they had done so he would have procured a new one immediately.

Philpot's landlady and Mr Rushton were also called as witnesses, and the end was that the jury returned a verdict of accidental death, and added that they did not think any blame attached to anyone.

As the witnesses passed out of the room, Hunter followed Rushton with the hope of being honoured by a little conversation on the satisfactory issue of the case; but Rushton went off without taking any notice of him, so Hunter returned to the room where the court had been held, to get the coroner's certificate authorising the interment of the body. This document is usually handed to the friends of the deceased or to the undertaker acting for them. When Hunter got back to the room he found that during his absence the coroner had given it to Philpot's landlady, and when he hastened outside to ask her for it the woman was nowhere to be seen.

Crass and the other men were also gone. They had hurried off to return to work, and after a moment's hesitation Hunter decided that it did not matter much about the certificate. Crass had arranged the business with the landlady and he could get the paper from her later on. Having come to this conclusion he dismissed the subject from his mind.

That evening, after having been home to tea, Crass and Sawkins met by appointment at the carpenter's shop to take the coffin to the mortuary, where Misery had arranged to meet them at half-past eight o'clock. Hunter's plan was to have the funeral take place from the mortuary, which was only about a quarter of an hour's walk from the yard; so to-night they were just going to lift in the body and get the lid screwed down.

It was blowing hard and raining heavily when they set out, carrying the coffin, covered with a black cloth, on their shoulders. They also carried a small pair of trestles.

On their way they had to pass the 'Cricketers' and the place looked so inviting that they decided to stop and have a drink, just to keep the damp out, and as they could not very well take the coffin inside with them, they stood it up against the wall outside, Crass remarking with a laugh, there was not much danger of anyone pinching it. Just as they finished drinking the two half-pints there was a loud crash outside, and rushing out they found that the coffin had blown down and was lying bottom upwards across the pavement, while the black cloth that had been wrapped round it was out in the middle of the muddy road. Having recovered this, they shook off as much of the dirt as they could, and once more wrapping it round the coffin resumed their journey to the mortuary, where they found Hunter waiting for them engaged in earnest conversation with the keeper. The electric light was switched on, and they saw that the marble slab was empty.

'Snatchum came this afternoon with a handtruck and a corfin,' explained the keeper. 'I was out at the time, and the missis thought it was all right, so she let him have the key.'

Hunter and Crass looked blankly at each other.

'Well, this takes the biskit!' said the latter as soon as he could speak.

'I thought you said you had settled everything all right with the old woman?' said Hunter.

'So I did,' replied Crass; 'I seen 'er on Friday, and I told 'er to leave it all to me to attend to, and she said she would. I told 'er that Philpot said to me that if ever anything appened to 'im I was to take charge of everything for 'er, because I was 'is best friend. And I told 'er we'd do it as cheap as possible.'

'Well, it seems to me as you've bungled it somehow,' said Nimrod gloomily. 'I ought to have gone and seen 'er myself. I was afraid you'd make a mess of it,' he added in a wailing tone. 'It's always the same; everything that I don't attend to myself goes wrong.'

An uncomfortable silence followed. Crass thought that the principal piece of bungling in this affair was Hunter's failure to secure possession of the coroner's certificate after the inquest, but he was afraid to say so.

'I can see 'ow it's been worked,' said Crass at last; 'there's one of the members of the club who works for Snatchum, and 'e's took it on 'isself to give the order for the funeral; but 'e's got no right to do it."

'Right or no right, 'e's done it,' replied Misery, 'so you'd better take the box back to the shop.'

Crass and Sawkins accordingly returned to the workshop, where they were presently joined by Nimrod.

'I've been thinking this business over as I came along,' he said, 'and I don't see being beat like this by Snatchum; so you two can just put the trestles and the box on a hand-cart and we'll take it over to Philpot's house.'

Nimrod walked on the pavement while the other two pushed the cart, and it was about half-past nine when they halted in a dark part of the street, a few yards away from the house and on the opposite side.

'I think the best thing we can do,' said Misery, 'is for me and Sawkins to wait 'ere while you go to the 'ouse and see 'ow the land lies. You've done all the business with 'er so far. It's no use takin' the box unless we know the corpse is there. For all we know Snatchum may 'ave taken it 'ome with 'im.'

'Yes; I think that'll be the best way,' agreed Crass, after a moment's thought.

Nimrod and Sawkins accordingly took shelter in the doorway of an empty house, leaving the handcart at the kerb, while Crass went across the street and knocked at Philpot's door. They saw it opened by an elderly woman holding a lighted candle in her hand; then Crass went inside and the door was shut. In about a quarter of an hour he re-appeared and leaving the door partly open behind him he came out and crossed over to where the others were waiting. As he drew near they could see that he carried a piece of paper in his hand.

'It's all right,' he said in a hoarse whisper, 'I've got the stifficut.'

Misery took the paper eagerly and scanned it by the light of a match that Crass struck. It was the certificate right enough, and with a sigh of relief Hunter put it into his notebook and stowed it safely away in the inner pocket of his coat, while Crass explained the result of his errand. It appeared that the other member of the Society, accompanied by Snatchum, had called upon the old woman and had bluffed her into giving them the order for the funeral and had put her up to getting the certificate from the coroner.

'When they brought the body 'ome this afternoon,' Crass went on, 'Snatchum tried to get the stifficut orf 'er, but she'd been thinkin' things over and was a bit frightened 'cos she knowed she'd made arrangements with me, and she thought she'd better see me first; so she told 'im she'd give it to 'im on Thursday, the day as 'e was goin to 'ave the funeral.'

'He'll find he's a day too late,' said Misery, with a ghastly grin. 'We'll get the job done on Wednesday.'

'She didn't want to give it to me, at first,' Crass concluded, 'but I told 'er we'd see 'er right if old Snatchum tried to make 'er pay for the other corfin.'

'I don't think he's likely to make much fuss about it,' said Hunter. 'He won't want everybody to know he was so anxious for the job.'

Crass and Sawkins pushed the hand-cart over to the other side of the road, and carried the coffin into the house, Nimrod going first.

The old woman was waiting for them with the candle at the end of the passage.

'I shall be very glad when it's all over,' she said, as she led the way up the narrow stairs, closely followed by Hunter, who carried the trestles, Crass and Sawkins bringing up the rear with the coffin. 'I shall be very glad when it's all over, for I'm sick and tired of answerin' the door to undertakers. If there's been one 'ere since Friday there's been a dozen after the job, not to mention all the cards what's been put under the door, besides the ones what I've had give to me by different people.'

Arrived at the top landing the old woman opened a door and entered a small and wretchedly furnished room. Across the lower sash of the window hung a tattered piece of lace curtain. The low ceiling was cracked and discoloured. There was a rickety little wooden washstand, and along one side of the room a narrow bed was covered with a ragged grey quilt, on which lay a bundle containing the clothes that the dead man was wearing at the time of the accident. In the middle of this dreary room upon a pair of trestles stood a coffin covered with a white sheet, terrible in its silent pathetic solitude.

The old woman placed the candle on the mantelpiece, and withdrew, while the men laid the empty coffin on the floor by the side of the bed. Crass took two large screw drivers from the pocket of his overcoat and handed one to Hunter.

Sawkins held the candle while they unscrewed and took off the lid of the coffin they had brought with them.

'I think we shall be able to work better if we takes the other one orf the trussels and put it on the floor,' remarked Crass.

'Yes, I think so, too,' replied Hunter.

Crass took off the sheet and threw it on the bed, revealing the other coffin, which was very similar in appearance to the one they had brought. Hunter took hold of the head and Crass the foot and they lifted it off the trestles on to the floor.

''E's not very 'eavy, that's one good thing,' observed Hunter.

'' always was a very thin chap,' remarked Crass. The screws that held down the lid had been covered over with large-headed brass nails and these had to be wrenched off, the screws themselves were old ones, rusty and of odd sizes, and were screwed in so firmly that by the time half of them were drawn the two men were streaming with perspiration. After a while Hunter took the candle from Sawkins and the latter had a try at the screws.

'Anyone would think the dam things had been in there for a 'undred years,' remarked Hunter, savagely, as he wiped the sweat from his face and neck with his handkerchief.

Kneeling on the lid of the coffin and panting and grunting with the exertion, the other two continued to struggle with their task. Suddenly Crass uttered an obscene curse: he had broken off one side of the head of the screw he was trying to turn; and about at the same instant a similar misfortune happened to Sawkins.

After this, Hunter again took a screwdriver himself, and when they had got all the screws out with the exception of the two broken ones, Crass took a hammer and chisel and proceeded to cut off what was left of the tops of these. But even after this was done the two screws still held the lid on the coffin, and so they had to hammer the end of the blade of the chisel underneath and lever up the lid so that they could get hold of it with their fingers. It split up one side as they tore it off, and exposed the dead man to view.

Although the marks of the cuts and bruises were still visible on old Joe's face, they were softened by the pallor of death, and his features wore a placid, peaceful expression. His hands were crossed upon his breast, and lying there in the snow white grave clothes, almost covered in by the white frill that bordered the sides of the coffin, he looked like one in a profound and tranquil sleep.

They laid the broken lid on the bed, and placed the two coffins side by side on the floor as close together as possible. Sawkins stood at one side holding the candle. Crass, at the foot, took hold of the body by the ankles, Hunter at the other end seized it by the shoulders with his huge claw-like hands, which resembled the talons of some obscene bird of prey, and they lifted it out and placed it in the other coffin.

Whilst Hunter, hovering ghoulishly over the corpse, arranged the grave clothes and the frilling, Crass laid the broken cover on the top of the other coffin and pushed it under the bed out of the way. Then he selected the necessary screws and nails from the bag and they proceeded to screw down the lid. When they had lifted the coffin on to the trestles and covered it over with the sheet its appearance was so much like the other one that it caused the same thought to each of the three men. Suppose Snatchum were to come there and take the body out again? If he did so, and fetched it to the cemetery, they might be compelled to give up the certificate to him and then all their trouble would be lost.

After a brief consultation they resolved that it would be safer to take the corpse on the handcart to the yard and keep it in the carpenter's shop until the funeral, which could take place from there. Crass and Sawkins accordingly lifted the coffin off the trestles, and, while Hunter held the light, proceeded to carry it downstairs, a task of considerable difficulty owing to the narrowness of the staircase and the landing. However, they succeeded at last and placing it on the hand-cart, covered it over with the black wrapper.

Hunter wished them 'good-night' at the corner of the street, saying he would make the arrangements for the funeral as soon as possible the next morning, and would come to the job and let them know what time they would have to be in attendance to act as bearers. He had gone a little distance when he stopped and turned back to them.

'It's not necessary for either of you to make a song about this business, you know,' he said.

The two men said that they quite understood that: he could depend on their keeping their mouths shut.

When Hunter had gone Crass drew out his watch. It was a quarter to eleven. A little way down the road the lights of a public house were gleaming through the mist.

'We shall be just in time to get a drink before closing time, if we buck up,' he said, and with this object they hurried on as fast as they could.

When they reached the tavern they left the cart standing by the kerb, and went inside, where Crass ordered two pints of four ale, which he permitted Sawkins to pay for.

'How are we going on about this job?' enquired the latter after they had each taken a long drink, for they were thirsty after their exertions; 'I reckon we ought to 'ave more than a bob for it, don't you? It's not like a ordinary "lift in."'

'Of course it ain't,' replied Crass. 'We ought to 'ave about, say'—reflecting—'say 'arf a dollar each at the very least.'

''Ow are we goin' on about chargin' it on our time sheets? asked Sawkins, after a pause. 'If we just put a "lift in" they might only pay us a bob as usual.'

Crass smoked reflectively.

'I think the best way will be to put it like this,' he said at length: '"Philpot's funeral: one lift out and one lift in. Also taking corpse to carpenter's shop." 'Ow would that do?'

Sawkins said that would be a very good way to put it, and they finished their beer just as the landlord intimated that it was closing time. The cart was standing where they left it, the black cloth saturated with the rain, which dripped mournfully from its sable folds.

When they reached the plot of waste ground over which they had to pass in order to reach the gates of the yard, they had to proceed cautiously, for it was very dark and the lantern did not give much light. A number of carts and lorries were standing there, and the path wound through pools of water and heaps of refuse. After much difficulty and jolting, they reached the gate, which Crass unlocked with the key he had obtained from the office earlier in the evening. They then opened the door of the carpenter's shop and, after lighting the gas, brought in the coffin and placed it upon the trestles, and then locked the door behind them.

The next morning was a very busy one for Hunter, who had to see several new jobs started. They were all small affairs; most of them would only take two or three days from start to finish. Attending to this work occupied most of his morning, but all the same he managed to do the necessary business connected with the funeral, which he arranged to take place at two o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, from the mortuary, where the coffin had been removed during the day, Hunter concluding that it would not look well to let the funeral start from the workshop.

Although he had kept it as quiet as possible there was a small crowd of Philpot's old mates who happened to be out of work waiting outside the mortuary to see the funeral start, and amongst them were Bill Bates and the Semi-Drunk, who were both quite sober. Owen and Harlow were also there, having left off work early in order to go to the funeral. They were there too in a sense as the representatives of the other workmen, for Owen carried a large wreath which had been subscribed for voluntarily by Rushton's men.

Promptly at two o'clock the hearse and mourning coach drove up with Hunter, Crass, Slyme, Payne and Sawkins, the four bearers, all dressed in black with frock coats and silk hats. Although they were nominally attired in the same way, there was a remarkable dissimilarity in their appearance. Crass's coat was of smooth, intensely black cloth, having been recently dyed, and the crown of his hat was rather low, and curved outwards towards the top. Hunter's coat was a kind of rusty black serge, and his hat was very tall and straight, slightly narrower at the crown than at the brim. As for the others, each of them had a hat of a different fashion and date, and their clothes were rather rustier than Hunter's.

When the coffin was brought out and placed in the hearse, Hunter laid upon it the men's wreath, together with another he had brought himself, inscribed 'From Rushton and Company, with deep sympathy.'

Seeing that Harlow and Owen were the only occupants of the carriage, Bill Bates and the Semi-Drunk came up to the door and asked if there was any objection to their coming, and as neither Owen nor Harlow objected, they got in.

Meanwhile, Hunter had taken his position a few yards in front of the hearse, with the bearers two on each side. As the procession turned into the main road, they saw Snatchum standing at the corner looking very gloomy. Hunter kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, but Crass could not resist indulging in a jeering smile, which so enraged Snatchum, that he shouted out:

'It don't matter! I shan't lose much. I can use it for someone else!'

The distance to the cemetery was about three miles, so as soon as they got out of the busy streets of the town, Hunter got up on the hearse beside the driver, Crass sat on the other side, and two of the other bearers stood in the space behind the driver's seat, the fourth getting up beside the driver of the coach; and then they proceeded at a rapid pace.

About fifty yards from the cemetery gate, Hunter and the bearers resumed their former positions, and they passed up to the chapel at walking pace.

After a wait of about ten minutes the clergyman entered, and at once began to recite the usual office in a wholly unintelligible gabble.

If it had not been for the fact that each of his hearers had a copy of the words, for there was a little book in each pew, none of them would have been able to gather the sense of what the man was saying. His attitude and manner hardly suggested that he was addressing the Supreme Being. While he recited, intoned, or gabbled the words of the office, he was reading the certificate and some other paper the clerk had placed upon the desk, and when he had finished reading these, his gaze wandered abstractedly round the chapel resting for a long time with an expression of curiosity upon Bill Bates and the Semi-Drunk, who were doing their best to follow the service in their books. He next turned his attention to his fingers, holding his hand away from him nearly at arm's length and critically examining the nails.

From time to time as this miserable mockery proceeded the clerk in the rusty black cassock mechanically droned out a sonorous 'Ah-men,' and after the conclusion of the lesson the clergyman went out of the church, taking a short cut through the gravestones and monuments, while the bearers again shouldered the coffin and followed the clerk to the grave. When they arrived within a few yards of their destination they were rejoined by the clergyman, who was waiting for them at the corner of one of the paths. He put himself at the head of the procession with an open book in his hand, and as they walked slowly along, he resumed his reading or repetition of the words of the service.

He wore an old black cassock and a much soiled and slightly torn surplice. The unseemly appearance of this dirty garment was heightened by the fact that as he had not taken the trouble to adjust it properly, it hung all lop-sided, showing about six inches more of the black cassock at one side than the other.

He continued his unintelligible jargon while they were lowering the coffin into the grave, and those who happened to know the words of the office by heart were, with some difficulty, able to understand what he was saying:

'Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto Himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;—'

The earth fell from the clerk's hand and rattled on the lid of the coffin with a mournful sound, and when the clergyman had finished repeating the remainder of the service, he turned and walked away in the direction of the church. Hunter and the rest of the funeral party made their way back towards the gate of the cemetery, where the hearse and the carriage were waiting.

On their way they saw another funeral procession coming towards them. It was a very plain looking closed hearse with only one horse. There was no undertaker in front and no bearers walked by the sides.

It was a pauper's funeral.

Three men, evidently dressed in their Sunday clothes, followed the hearse. As they reached the church door, four old men who were dressed in ordinary everyday clothes, came forward and carried the coffin into the church, followed by the other three, who were evidently relatives of the deceased. The four old men were paupers, inmates of the workhouse, who were paid sixpence each for acting as bearers. It happened that just as they were taking out the coffin from the hearse Hunter's party passed by, and paused for a moment to watch.

The roughly made coffin was of white deal, not painted or covered in any way, and devoid of any fittings or ornament with the exception of a square piece of zinc tacked on the lid, upon which was roughly painted in black letters:

J.   L.

Aged 67.

It was Jack Linden's funeral, and his bearers were all re-tired working men who had come into their 'titles,' one of them being old Latham, the Venetian blind maker.