THE FALSE FUNERAL.
I never liked my uncle’s business, though he took me when my father died, and brought me up as his own son. The good man had no children. His wife was long dead; and he had an honest old woman for a housekeeper, and a flourishing business in the undertaking line, to leave to some body; but he did not leave it to me, and I’ll tell you the reason.
When I had been about five years with him, and had grown worth my salt, as he used to say, a death occurred in our neighborhood, which caused greater lamentation than any we had heard of since my apprenticeship began. The deceased gentleman was a Mr. Elsworthy. The family had been counted gentry in their day. I should have said my uncle lived in York, and all the world knows what Yorkshire families are. Well, the Elsworthys were of good family, and very proud of it, tho’ they had lost every acre of an old estate which had belonged to them time out of mind. I am not sure whether it was their grandfather’s dice and cock-fighting. or their father’s going surety for a friend, who did something wrong in a government office that brought them to this poor pass; but there was no house in all York where candles went further, and tea leaves were better used up. There was a mother, two sisters, and a cousin who lived with them. The mother was a stately old lady, never seen out of the black brocade. The sisters were not over young or handsome, but they dressed as fine as they could. The cousin was counted one of the prettiest women in Yorkshire, but she walked with a crutch, having met with an accident in her childhood. Master Charles was the only son, and the youngest of the family; he was a tall, handsome, dashing young man, uncommonly polite, and a great favorite with the ladies. It was said there was some red eyes in the town when the story got wind that he was going to be married to the Honorable Miss Westbay. Her father was younger brother to the Earl of Harrowgate, and had seven girls beside her, without a penny for one of them; but Miss Westbay was a beauty, and the wonder was that she had not got married long ago, being nearly seven years out, dancing, singing, and playing tip-top pieces at all the parties. Half-a-dozen matches had been talked of for her, but somehow they broke down one after another. Her father was rather impatient to see her off; so were her sisters, poor things, and no wonder, for grow up as they might, not one of them would the old man suffer to come out till the eldest was disposed of, and at last there seemed something like a certainty of that business. Young Mr. Elsworthy and she struck up a courtship. He was fascinated–isn’t that the word?–at an assize ball, paid marked attentions at the bishop’s party, and was believed to have popped the question at a picnic, after Lord Harrowgate, the largest share holder in the North Eastern Bank, got him promoted from a clerkship to be manager. It’s true he was some years younger than Miss Westbay, and people said there had been some thing between him and his pretty cousin; but a Lord’s niece with beauty, accomplishments, and a serviceable connection does not come in every young man’s way; so the wedding-day was fixed for the first of January; and all the milliners were busy with the bride’s bonnets and dresses.
It was just a month to come, and everybody was talking of the match, when Mr. Elsworthy fell sick. At first they said it was a cold; then it turned to a brain fever; at last the doctor gave no hopes of his recovery, and within the same week Mr. Elsworthy died. The whole neighborhood was cast into mourning. A promising young man, in a manner the only dependence of his family, newly promoted to a station of trust and influence, and on the eve of marriage, everybody lamented his untimely death, and sympathized with his bereaved relations, and his intended bride. I think my uncle lamented most of all. None of his customers, to my knowledge, ever got so much of his sorrow. When he was sent for in the way of business, it struck me that he stayed particularly long. The good man could talk of nothing but the grief of the afflicted family–how the mother went into fits and the sisters tore their hair– how the cousin talked of wearing mourning all her days–and how it was feared that Miss Westbay, who insisted on seeing him, would never recover her senses. The country papers gave expressions to the public grief. There was a great many verses written about it. Nobody passed the house of mourning without a sigh, or a suitable remark. My uncle superintended the making of the coffin, as I had never seen him do to any other; and when the workmen were gone home, he spent hours at night finishing it by himself.
The funeral was to set out for the family vault in the Minster church, at Beverly, about three o’clock in the afternoon. It was made a strictly private affair, though hundreds of the towns men would have testified their respect for the dead by accompanying it all the way. The members of the family, in two mourning coaches, and the undertaker’s men, were alone allowed to follow poor Elsworthy to his last resting place, and the coffin was not to be brought till the latest hour. My uncle had got it finished to his mind, but evidently did not wish me to look at his work. He had a long talk with Steele and Stoneman, two of his most confidential assistants in the workshop, after hours, and they went away looking remarkably close. All was in train, and the funeral to take place the next day, when, coming down his own stairs they were rather steep and narrow, for we lived in one of the old houses of York my uncle slipped, fell, and broke his leg. 1 thought he would have gone mad when the doctor told him he must not attempt to move, or mind any business for weeks to come, and I tried to pacify him by offering to conduct the funeral with the help of Steele and Stoneman. Nothing would please the old man; I never saw him so far out of temper before. He swore at his bad luck, threw the pillows at his housekeeper, ordered me to bring him up the key of the workshop, and kept it fast clutched in his hand. I sat up with him that night. In a couple of hours he grew calm and sensible, but could not sleep, though the house was all quiet, and the housekeeper snoring in the corner. Then he began to groan, as if there was something worse than a broken leg on his mind, and
“Tom,” said he, ” haven’t I always been kind to you?”
“No doubt of it, uncle,” said I.
“Well, Tom, I want you to do me a great service–a particular service, Tom, and I’ll never forget it to you. You know Mr. Elsworthy’s funeral comes off to-morrow at three, and they are very high people.”
“Never fear, uncle; I’ll take care of it as well as if you were there yourself.”
“I knew you would, Tom,–I knew you would. I could trust you with the hearsing of an earl’s coffin ; and for managing mutes, I don’t know your equal. But there’s something more to be done. Come over besides me, Tom; that old woman don’t hear well at the best, and she’s sleeping now and no mistake. Will you promise me”–and his voice sunk to a whisper–“that, whatever you hear or see, you’ll make no remark to any living, and be as cautious as you can about the body? There’s foul play,” said he, for I began to look frightened; “but maybe this leg’s a judgment for taking on such a business. Howsomever, I’m to have three hundreds pounds for it; and you’ll get the half, Tom, the full half, if you’ll conduct it properly, and give me your solemn promise. I know you’ll never break.”
“Uncle,” said I, “I’ll promise, and keep it too; but you must tell me what it is.” “Well, Tom,” and he drew a long breath “its a living man you’re going to put in that coffin in the workshop! I’ve made it high and full of air holes; he’ll lie quite comfortable. Nobody knows about it but Steele and Stoneman and yourself; they’ll go with you. Mind you trust no one else. Don’t look so stupid, man; can’t you understand? Mr. Elsworthy didn’t die at all, and never had brain fever; but he wants to get off with marrying Miss Westbay, or something of that sort. They’re taking a queer way about it, I must say; but these genteel people have ways of their own. It was the cousin that prepared my mind for it in the back parlor; that woman’s up to anything. I stood out against having a hand in it till I heard that the sexton of Beverly Church was a poor relation of theirs. The key of the coffin is to be given to him; it will be locked, and not screwed down, you see; and when all’s over at the vault–it will be dark night by that time, for we don’t move till three, and these December days are short–he’ll come and help Mr. Elsworthy out, and smuggle him off to Hull with his son the carrier. There’s ships enough there to take him anywhere under a feigned name.”
“Could he get off from the marriage no easier?” said I, for the thought of taking a living man in a hearse, and having the service read over him, made my blood run cold. You see I was young then.
“There’s something more than the marriage in it, though they didn’t tell me. Odd things will happen in my business, and this is one of the queerest. But you’ll manage it, Tom, and get my blessing, besides your half of the three hundred pounds; and don’t be afraid of anything coming wrong with him, for I never saw any man look so much like a corpse.”
I promised my uncle to do the business and keep the secret. A hundred and fifty pounds was no joke to a young man beginning the world in an undertaking line; and the old man was so pleased with what be called my senses and understanding, that before falling asleep, close upon daybreak, he talked of taking me into partnership , and the jobs we might expect from the Harrowgate family; for the dowager-countess was near fourscore, and two of the young ladies were threatened with decline. Next day early in the afternoon, Steele, Stoneman, and I were at work, The family seemed duly mournful; I suppose on account of the servants. Mr. Elsworthy looked wonderfully well in his shroud; and if one had not looked closely into the coffin, they never would have seen the air-holes. Well, we set out, mourning-coaches, hearse and all, through a yellow fog of a December day. There was nothing but sad faces to be seen at all the windows as we passed; I heard them admiring Steele and Stoneman for the feeling hearts they showed; but when we got on the Beverly road, the cousin gave us a sigh, and away we went a rattling pace; a funeral never got over the ground at such a rate before. Yet it was getting dark when we reached the old Minister, and the curate grumbled at having to do duty so late. He got through the service nearly as quick as we got over the miles. The coffin was lowered into the family vault; it was more than half filled with Mr. Elsworthy ‘s forefathers, but there was a good wide grate in the wall, and no want of air. It was all right. The clerk and the clergyman started off to their homes; mourning-coaches went to the Crown Inn, the ladies were to wait till the sexton came let them know he was safe out—the cousin would not go home without that news–and I slipped him the key at the church-door, as he discoursed to us all about the mysterious dispensations of Providence.
My heart was light going home, so were Steele and Stoneman’s. None of us liked the job, but we were all to be paid for it; and I must say the old man came down handsomely with the needful, not to speak of Burton ale; and I was to be made his partner without delay. We got the money, and had the jollification; but it wasn’t right over, and I was just getting bed, when there was a ring at our door bell, and the housekeeper came to say that Dr. Parks wanted to see me or my uncle. What could want and how had he come back so soon? Parks was the Elsworthy’s family doctor, and the stranger at the funeral; he went in the second mourning coach, and I left him talking to sexton. My clothes were thrown on, and I down stairs in a minute, looking as sober as could; but the doctor’s look would have sobered any man. “Thomas,” said he, “this has turned out a bad business; and I cannot account it; but Mr. Elsworthy has died in earnest. When the sexton and I opened the coffin, we found him cold and stiff. I think he died from fright for such a face of terror I never saw. It wasn’t your uncle’s fault; there was no doubt he had air enough; but it can’t be helped; the less said about it, the better for all parties. I am going to Dr. Adams to take him down with me to Beverly. The sexton keeps poor Elsworthy, to see if anything can be done; and Adams is the only man we could trust; but I know its of no use.”
The doctor’s apprehensions were well founded–Mr. Elsworthy could not be recovered; and after trying everything to no purpose they laid him down again in the coffin with air holes. The ladies came back, and we kept the secret; but in less than six months after, a rumor went abroad of heavy forgeries on the North Eastern Bank. On investigation they proved to be over fifty thousand, and nobody was implicated but the deceased manager. His family knew nothing about it; being all ladies, they were entirely ignorant about banking affairs; but they left York next season, took a handsome house at Scarborough, and were known to get money regularly from London. They never employed any doctor but Parks; and his medical management did not appear to prosper, for they never were well and always nervous; not one of them would sleep alone or without a light in the room; and an attendant from a private asylum had to be got for the cousin. I don’t think the matter ever left my uncle’s mind; he never would undertake an odd job after it; and all the partnerships in England would not have made me continue the business, and run the risks of another false funeral.
Altoona [PA] Tribune 30 August 1860: p. 1
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.