The Funeral*

Morris Cox

     It was the fear of giving away to an outburst of temper at such a time that held Mrs. Royston in check, lest it should betray her. Not that she would have admitted any guilt. The young man had died in a tragic accident: he had been sleeping in a moored boat which had somehow come adrift and taken him over the Fall. She could hardly be responsible for that. The trouble was that she was not his mother. She was the second Mrs. Royston, rather frustrated and not a little bewildered by recent circumstances and events in her life.

     Her mind was hooking her bodice while she stood by her dressing-table. Without warning, Mrs. Royston gave a wail and dropped into a chair, burying her face in her hands. The table rocked and several bottles fell over. The maid picked them up before venturing to console her mistress, who then forestalled her as she whispered brokenly, ‘My hair ... my hair ... you have done it much too tightly!’

     Mr. Royston had another son, very different in character from Hillian, the deceased. Hillian was gentle and considerate, but Rudolph was surly and rough. Knowing she was safe with Hillian, Mrs. Royston had been the more often in his company, yet despite her fear of Rudolph she was, perhaps, the more fond of him. Only yesterday ... But there was no time to think of that now. With an effort she pulled herself together and stood up again while the maid resumed her concentration on the brass hooks and eyes. Poor Hillian lay already in his elm shell and outer lead coffin, comfortable on his tufted mattress and pillow which was lined and ruffled with superfine cambric: and his cambric winding-sheet was beautifully worked.

     At none o’clock the hearse and four coal-black horses arrived, followed by two mourning coaches and fours with their magnificent esquire’s plumes and twenty-three plumes of ostrich feathers softly nodding. the undertaker’s men dismounted and were taken into the kitchen quarters and given coffee and sandwiches. After a brief exchange of greetings and expressions of sympathy, Mr. and Mrs. Royston and the guests took their last look at the corpse: so tastefully laid out, so pale, like alabaster, that dear face with its clean fair hair. Miss Macrian, the housekeeper, sister of the first Mrs. Royston, had served the young man devotedly since his earliest years. as she now regarded that cold, bloodless face, a long chain of frustration and bitter memory dragged at her vitals and entangled her throat. Mrs. Royston, however, tended to grow calmer as she beheld the older woman’s distress. The atmosphere of that room slightly disgusted her, as though some mad domestic had laid out a litter of kitchen garbage on the carpeted floor, excusing himself solely on the grounds of its formal arrangement.

     Returning from their refreshment, two of the undertaker’s men set to work and closed the coffin, soldering on the lid with its beautifully engraved inscription-plate. When the corpse eventually left the house on the shoulders of the bearers, it was complete in its massive oak case panelled with best brass nails and four pairs of brass handles and grips and lid ornaments. Covered with a pall of crimson velvet, this made a magnificent appearance.

     The drive was now full of shadowy, slow-moving people: the attendant with black silk headband, two mutes with black hatbands and gloves, fourteen footmen, pages, feather-men and coachmen with their truncheons, wands and other paraphernalia...

     The coffin was pushed gently into the hearse and shut in...

     Mr. Royston had provided crape, scarves, hatbands, and gloves for the visitors, who now took their places in the rear coach. Presently Mr. Royston in his five-inch hatband, Mrs. Royston wearing plain, lustreless silk, trimmed with crape, Rudolph, her remaining step-son, Miss Macrian and her brother, and Newcome Ellis, the family doctor, came out and entered the leading coach.

     The sun was shining brightly and the day promised to be rather hot. The horses in their velvet covers tossed their plumed heads, champed their bright bits and pawed the gravel. A fine white foam clung about their black muzzles and now and again a soft, crisp flake fell gently to the ground. Soon everyone was in position and the procession moved off at a slow pace. As it left the drive, servants within the house began to raise the blinds.

     The carriage rocked as it turned on to the slope of the road. Mrs. Royston found herself almost opposite to her step-son, Rudolph. At last she began to feel sufficiently safe behind her black veil. and with her husband and relatives so near, to venture the recollection of any thoughts she pleased. One would never have known, to look at Rudolph, that barely four years separated her age from his! It was not her fault that she, an orphan, had become first the ward and then the wife of her father’s dearest friend. She was not to blame if her husband, old enough to be her father, had been naïve enough to ask her to mother his two sons, almost her own age! Certainly, the behavior of the young men had been faultless enough, that of the deceased Hillian in particular. Until last night ... or had it been a dream?

     Mrs. Royston lifted her eyes to Rudolph as if for verification, but he did not see her look. Could he be the same person who had discovered her alone in her favourite spot by the ruined abbey as the sun went down in a blaze behind the broken east window? At first she had been ready to hasten home, but then (smiling inwardly at the recollection) had come the strained, stilted periods of their opening words: ‘Rudy, is it not a beautiful evening?’ -- ‘Indeed, yes.’ -- ‘Already the moon is visible. She revolves round the earth in an elliptical orbit and likewise accompanies the earth in its elliptical orbit round the sun: and by this compound motion her path is everywhere concave to the sun.’ -- ‘Indeed, yes. The moon, like the planets, is an opaque body and shines entirely by the light received from the sun, a portion of which is reflected to the earth!’ and so it went on for a while behind an armour of words that could not be maintained for long. ‘I believe that we understand each other, Rudy. Your father thinks me a child and that irks me a little. But with you it is different.’ Rudolph, who found difficulty in expressing his own feelings in words, put out his hand to take hers, but hesitated as she went on: ‘We have sustained a great loss.’ She was staring into the heart of the sunset, through the broken abbey window, when she added, ‘And your father, who believes you to be the greatest sufferer, assures me that I am the only one who can comfort you!’

     As Mrs. Royston sat stiffly in the carriage behind her veil, she carefully played that scene all over again. They were moving faster now, the iron tyres grinding the grit of the road ... but as she stood beside Rudolph, staring beyond him into the scarlet sunset, a small moth rose up from the ground and hovered by her cheek in a pale whirr of silence. ‘You know, Rudy,’ she said, ‘on that fatal day I had an appointment with Hillian at the boathouse?’ -- ‘Yes, I heard that you were out at the time. You were said to have witnessed the accident.’ -- ‘Indeed, I saw it all clearly. Hillian was lying asleep in the boat which was gliding slowly towards the Fall.’ Rudolph was staring hard at her, a faint smile on her mouth as she regarded several moths fluttering below them in the valley while she commented, ‘Moths are so quiet, and the feathers of owls are so soft and noiseless in flight, and the little rodents that go by night make no sound and betray no secrets!’ Rudolph, who saw the armour returning, grasped her quickly by the hand. ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘did you speak the truth when you inferred that you had not reached the rendezvous when you saw the boat adrift by the Fall?’ For a moment she did not reply. She looked him fully in the eyes before asking ‘Do you really want me to answer that question?’ He could not meet her gaze. His fingers were trembling around hers. In the silence she released her hand from his and turned and began to walk away. As he followed her, he took out his handkerchief and dabbed at a small eruption on his cheek that had started to exude a little pus. ‘Dear Nelly,’ he said lamely, perhaps hypocritically, ‘the loss of my brother would be unbearable to me but for your comfort and understanding.’

     In the carriage, Mrs. Royston again looked towards Rudolph. Her face did not betray anything of what she was thinking. He did not catch her eye. Had she dreamed what happened next? for as she had begun to stride quickly home in the evening light, confident in her power over him, she had suddenly halted with a startled scream, as an adder uncoiled at her feet. The reptile lifted its fat head rather sleepily, its bands of bright colour flashing, and gave a little hiss as it turned to make off. Rudolph, however, was beside her in an instant, his arms about her, while, with uncalled-for impetuosity, he drove at the reptile with his iron-shod heel. The adder instantly swung out and struck: but his gaiters saved Rudolph from what would have been a venomous bite. Persisting in his efforts, he eventually got the adder’s head under his heel, which he ground viciously into the dust. Panting and beside himself with what seemed to her unwarranted satisfaction, he had not noticed (although Mrs. Royston had) that the adder was pregnant with young. The slender body remained coiled about his leg, lashing in convulsive agony, but unheeded, as he held his youthful step-mother in his arms, now drawing her closer to him and bending over her and kissing her again and again on her slightly open mouth. Helpless in his powerful arms, her parasol fallen from her grasp: a spider running across the path to give the alarm: a bramble clutching his homespun jacket with its curved thorns and holding on, shrilling for help: ... Mrs. Royston at length disengaged herself and struck Rudolph hard on the face with her open hand ... or did she scream vainly at him, quite calmly, what it meant ... or did she turn her mind into an infinitude of space and wait, limp like a dead thing, for him to slake his passion and let her go?...

     And Mrs. Royston was thinking -- He did not appear to see the ground alive with little adders that suddenly broke out of their mother’s belly, (not helpless creatures as I would have expected, for they wriggled quickly for cover in the grass and between the stones...). But if only I dreamt that scene, Rudy will think it most unkind of me not to look at him a little and reassure him, and he so grieved at the loss of his brother, too! ... Something between a laugh and a sob drew her knuckles to her mouth and her hot eyes filled again with tears. Nobody took any notice. Tired of her own thoughts now, she transferred her attention to Miss Macrian, who sat directly opposite to her. Miss Macrian did not reveal the slightest chink in the metallic, black shell she had built around herself. She sat up stiff and straight, without a creak: no movement perceptible in her except the faint oscillation of a small feather in her bonnet. Her black-gloved hands were clasped among the folders of her black bombazine skirt: thought she was aware, for all her aloofness, that her thigh was laid affectionately on the seat beside that of her brother James. She had not seen her brother for some years and it had been a pity to plunge him into such misery almost immediately after his return home from abroad. James Macrian had a round, high-coloured face and small, fleshy lips, his rather thin hair being parted in the middle and glinting with a macassar oil. He wore a tight collar, a large black cravat and a solemn expression on his face that looked almost comically out of character. He pricked his little pointed eyes sidelong towards Rudolph, who was thinking, as he only half returned the stare, that James Macrian seemed a regular fellow and not half so simple as he pretended to be. He must get to know him better.

     The carriage wheels continued to bite and crunch the gritty road, the horses’ hooves clopped sharply in the dust, the church bell tolled rather louder ... Then Rudolph saw himself striding down Oriel Street, Oxford, by Hillian’s side: past Corpus, past Merton Church and into Christchurch Broad Walk. There, with several friends, they got out a boat from Salter’s and rowed to Iffley. But it was incredible, the way Hillian laughed and discussed tailor’s duns without betraying any sign that later on he was going to drown... And Mrs. Royston was wondering whether Dr. Ellis could see her clearly from his position. Without turning her head, she could only see his black-gloved hands spread out on his short, podgy knees. She was in some fear of his bushy, red whiskers and rather baggy eyes ... Rudolph, however, was still thinking of Oxford. He was playing loo with Hillian and some friends at Magdalen, smoking cigars and drinking. Quite a lot of money changed hands during the evening behind the curtains in the lamplight, and several times Hillian gave Rudolph a curious look: once he inadvertently dropped his cigar out of his mouth and burned a hole in the leg of his flannel trousers. But there was no telling how much he suspected of his impending death...

     The procession now approached the church, where the priest and his clerks stood quietly waiting by the lych-gate with one or two angels to receive the corpse. Slowly, in dignified manner, they entered the churchyard, while the priest led the way, chanting, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die...’

     Rudolph’s knees felt scarcely able to support him as he left the carriage. A horror of entering the church took hold of him. Despite the heat of the day, he began to shiver, and as they entered the holy precincts, his limbs were trembling and sweat lay on his cold forehead and pinched, white nose. As he took his place in the pew beside his father and step-mother, he was afraid that his palsied limbs would be noticed. Two psalms were read: Rudolph felt that one would have been enough. The lesson which followed seemed interminable. Warm lights poured into the cool church through the stained-glass windows. Half hypnotically, the priest droned on. ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’

     Mrs. Royston fancied herself possessed of a long, attenuated arm, and in attempting to follow its distant groping, found herself by the river. But in spite of her long arm, she could not prevent the boat in which Hillian lay from slipping over the Fall. Too late! she cried into the hollow of her own skull. She began to rock a little and Dr. Ellis gave her a quick look. Her lips moved and she buried her face in her hands. Nobody heard her pitiful crying, ‘Why should drowning be so important? Why should a little thing like going over a fall be so terribly decisive? Why are we all so determined to grieve?’

     Dr. Ellis might well have been asking the same questions as he sat trying to counteract in himself what he considered to be quite superfluous emotion. To take his mind off the distressing scene, he was trying to work out some form of resuscitation apparatus that would be an improvement on the method of Marshall Hall, which merely consisted of holding the patient upside down to drain the water out and then turning him on his side to compress the thorax ... Moreover, black was the wrong colour for a hot day like this (the heat was absorbed), and it was not easy, under such conditions, to observe his favourite rule of keeping the head cool, the tongue clean and the feet warm ... As Dr. Ellis had entered the church, he remembered that he had seen Will Fergusson who had previously complained of diarrhoea. The doctor was wondering whether this treatment had proved efficacious; but if not, he would recommend the following draught: five drops laudanum, five drops diluted sulphuric acid, fifteen drops essence Jamaica ginger, one tablespoon brandy, to be taken in wineglass water. The priest was speaking. ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.’

     Rudolph was sighing involuntarily, but trying hard not to attract attention ... he had rowed so many times on the Isis and eaten so many Banbury cakes. But it was Hillian who had rowed in the Balliol Eight and helped win the torpid and the coveted ‘Head of the River’ two years running. Hillian had a lady friend, too, whom he found a seat on the college barge. Hillian had been rather flushed and confused when he asked Rudolph to sit beside his lady friend and entertain her. But still Hillian gave no sign of impending death ... The priest stood in his black scarf and gloves with which Mr. Royston had presented him. ‘Thou fool,’ he said, ‘that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die.’

     Rudolph’s pulse was now beating feebly, though it ran ever faster to try and catch up with the demands of his body ... and Rudolph was wondering what to say to the young lady Hillian had left in his charge. Rudolph felt awkward and shy, although he would have welcomed the opportunity to have had the young lady alone and so taken her in his arms and kissed her. The young lady wanted to know how the Eights were run, and while Rudolph explained, the poet Herrick was showing him how best to fondle her and sweetly disorder her dress without the need for carnal intercourse. With his mind thus divided, Rudolph endeavoured to make it clear to the young lady that as there was insufficient room on the river for two boats abreast, the custom was to row one behind the other ... but the priest was droning on and on, patiently expounding certain differences in the make-up of things, rather as follows: The flesh of man was not same flesh as that of birds and fishes: the glory of the sun was not the same glory as that of the moon, and the glory of one star was not the same glory as that of another star ... The doctor gave a little cough: the Scriptures were rather unscientific, of course. A corpse, according to the priest, is sown a natural body, but it is raised a spiritual body. One day someone was going to blow a trump. It was going to be the last trump ever to blow: but when it did blow, all the corruptible would rise, but not corruptible any more. The corruptible would have by this time put on incorruptibility, and the mortal immortality. But the doctor never could quite get this clear. In any case, his cogitation was interrupted by Rudolph, who suddenly pitched forward out of the young lady’s arms and fell face downwards on the deck of the barge with his brain blacked out. Here the young lady took Rudolph’s head between her knees while the poet Herrick explained the situation to the doctor; and Rudolph distinctly heard the lap of water against the side of the barge as he was carried into the vestry for treatment.

     The priest, however, had no attention but for the lesson, ‘O death, where is thy sting? O death, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God...’ etc.

     The party next stood by the open vault and Mr. Royston’s mask fell a little to one side, revealing beneath its self-effacing, characterless expression, something of the fearful gloom beneath. He knew that one day he must himself descend those same stone steps, and the tears welled in his eyes and dropped silently down his cheeks while the thought: At the first opportunity I must take Nelly away from all this ... The priest was intoning, ‘In the midst of life we are in death, of whom’, etc. ... The Isle of Wight would be the best place: happy associations: where we spent our honeymoon ... He wanted very much to take his wife’s hand just then, but he couldn’t know that she was worried and annoyed because Rudolph had fainted and not she. He appeared to be in a bad state of nerves, she thought, meaning Rudolph, and supposing she had rather exaggerated what he had done to her last night, he need not have fainted, as if to spite her...

     As the coffin was lowered into the vault, Miss Macrian began to sob: gently at first (she was pressing her clenched hands against her tight bosom) but then more loudly, until her stifled cries became most distressing to hear. Miss Macrian, although she had no proof, was certain that the young man had not been drowned accidentally. Her belief was that somebody had released the painter while Hillian slept in the boat and allowed him to drift to his death over the Fall ... The priest was chanting, ‘Lord have mercy on us.’ And Miss Macrian was burying the child of her sister, the late Mrs. Royston. Her fantasies over the years were now for her almost realities as though she herself had given birth to Hillian; but all her subsequent devotion to him and duty to her departed sister had been in vain! She broke down in earnest, the blind intensity of her emotion impervious to all piety as it tore and flapped hideously its tattered billows of misery ... while anyone with clairvoyant sight might have observed the wraith of Hillian gazing down at Rudolph as he lay on a bench in the vestry. And Rudolph might have been seen struggling in vain to rise out of his flesh and appeal to Hillian, who made no sign, but looked on with love and pity in his wide, shadowy eyes. Meanwhile Dr. Ellis, who had loosened the young man’s collar and sprinkled his face with water, was chafing his limbs. And the priest was saying, ‘Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen.’

     A cold miasma ascended from the vault. The party had borne the strain of emotion for so long, they were already edging towards the doors: instead of which everybody was listening patiently to the Collect. Miss Macrian was thrusting her handkerchief into her mouth in the endeavour to stifle her sobs. James Macrian, hot and embarrassed, wished he had never come and was praying for it all to end. Mr. Royston felt that if he did not soon get away from that gaping hole, he would involuntarily drop into it himself. But the priest was at last concluding. ‘The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore. Amen.’

     The bell gave another short peal. The service was over. A great, almost inaudible sigh enveloped the church, and someone ran hard to freedom and the cool air with a hand on his belly: instead of which the congregation walked slowly out of the church, solemn and dignified, and threaded their way through the groups of people standing there, all slightly murmuring in the quiet sunshine.

     As Mr. and Mrs. Royston reached their carriage, they saw a robin alight on the rear wheel with a leaf in its beak, and regard them inquiringly. Mr. Royston, as though answering an unspoken question, shook his head and pointed disconsolately towards the churchyard with his black-gloved hand. The robin few away.

* First published in the February, 1952 issue of WORLD REVIEW.