Chapter 1: Prologue: In Which We Meet Some, Though Not All, of Our Principal Characters, and Learn Some, Though Not All, of Their Motives and Desires
“Rudyard! Where’s Mother’s engagement ring?”
In fact, the ring after which Antigone Funn was asking had only most recently belonged to her mother. Before that it had belonged to her father’s mother, and then her father’s father’s mother, and so on and so on, twisting back in that peculiar zig-zag created when every eldest son in a family gives the same ring to his fiance in each generation. Mother to son to woman-who-will-be-mother to son to—but I’m getting off-topic. The point is that, despite being one woman destined to never properly “own” this ring, Antigone was hell-bent on determining its location.
Her brother was less than accommodating in this task, however. “Ring? What? What ring?”
“The ring, Rudyard, the ring that’s been in our family since fifteenth century, the ring that’s been kept in the family safe-box since Mother died, the ring that wasn’t there when I went to do my weekly appraisal of said box!”
“Oh that ring. Well, it, ah….er….”
It was at that moment that Antigone remembered several vague remarks and snatches of conversation between herself and her brother over the last several months. Her expression softened. “You took it out, didn’t you? For Miss Crusoe.”
Rudyard seized upon that suggestion like a man grabbing for a life-line. “Yes, exactly! Knew you’d approve, and now we know where the important family heirloom is, so there’s no reason to keep on—“
“What did she say?”
“Ah. Erm. Well.”
“You have asked her, haven’t you?”
“…..Not as such.” Rudyard caught his sister’s disapproving eye. “Well it’s been rather difficult to find the right moment!”
“But you work with her day in and day out!”
“Exactly! Not such an easy thing to slip into our normal interactions—lift that coffin, pick up some flowers, marry me—some things should not be orders, Antigone!”
“Then don’t make it one. Tell her you need to have a conversation as soon as there’s a moment.”
“But that will make her even more nervous! She’ll think she’s about to be sacked and by the time we’re supposed to be talking about it she’ll be quaking in her boots!”
Antigone considered, in her mind, the figure of Georgina Crusoe, Funn Funerals’ general assistant for the past six months. The scenario her brother described did not, to her, seem particularly likely.
She sighed, and placed a hand on Rudyard’s shoulder. “Rudyard. You have to do something or nothing will get done.”
“I know, I know, it’s just….do you really think this is a good idea?”
“Well do you love her?”
“Yes! Obviously, or I wouldn’t be worrying about this! She’s wonderful, Antigone, I don’t have to tell you that. But that’s just the problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“Am….am I good enough for her? Can I really assume that I have enough to offer?”
“Now none of that. You’re the owner of an established business which sits alone in a vital niche on this island. You may not be a prince, but you’ll always be able to offer her stability.”
“I suppose that’s true….but what if she just doesn’t like me?”
“All you can do about that is find out.”
“Now talk to her. And soon.” Antigone paused. “Or I’ll make you put the ring back.”
Meanwhile, in a small cottage elsewhere in the village of Piffling Vale, the lady under discussion was hanging up her jacket and sniffing out what her grandmother was making for supper.
“How was work today, Love?”
“Alright. I did have to talk Mr. Funn out of double-stuffing a coffin, but that was easy. I know how to talk people out of bad ideas. And apart from that it was quiet.”
“Oh? And speaking of Mr. Funn….”
“Well has he said anything yet or hasn’t he.”
“Well of all the cheek! Are you sure you were right about the way he’s been looking at you?”
“Of course I’m sure! I know how to tell when someone’s in love with me, Nana.”
“And you do want him to ask you?”
“Yes….yes, I think I do.”
“Then doesn’t it worry you that he doesn’t?”
Georgie shook her head. “He’s just nervous. Give it time and he’ll work up the nerve, and I can wait. I know how to wait for things. And I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t work around to it eventually. So, what’s for supper?”
Chapter 2: Chapter One: In Which Progress is Nearly Made, Before a Rude Interruption by Progress of a Different Kind
A little over a week after these conversations took place, Funn Funerals was having a busy day. After an only moderately disastrous service for old Mr. Stanley, Rudyard and Georgie had just enough time to stop back at the funeral home proper to drop off a few things and pick up another few things before heading over the check on old Mr. Ascii for the sixteenth day in a row. This would normally only have counted as “fairly busy”, and therefore not been unbearably stressful, were it not for the mounting tension that both Rudyard and Georgie felt in the air.
Rudyard was nervous; Goergie could tell. He was tugging on his his lapels more often than he normally did, as well as rubbing the back of his neck and running his fingers through his hair. He was also touching—and reaching his hand into—his right trouser pocket an awful lot, which Georgie took as the biggest hint of what the cause of this nervousness might be (although that could not be taken for one hundred percent certain. She had mistakenly thought that it meant something last month when she noticed him frequently touching his top coat pocket, but in the end that just led to her being introduced to yours truly).
But nevertheless, she wasn’t particularly surprised when, after they had deposited the leftover supplies from the funeral, Rudyard turned to her and coughed. “Erm. Miss Crusoe….before we leave, I was hoping to speak with you for a moment. If you’re amenable.”
Georgie fought down a grin, turning it instead into a small turn of the mouth. “Certainly.”
Rudyard coughed again, and looked down at his hands. “I realize that the particular situation under which we have come to know each other may have been….less than ideal for the suggestion I am about to make, but—
But we shall never know exactly how Rudyard would have finished that sentence (or at least, never know which of the variants he had rehearsed in front of me the previous night he would have gone with) because at that exact moment, the doorbell rang.
Georgie scowled “Oh for—I’ll go and get that, then, shall I?”
Opening the door, Goergie found and extremely out of breath young boy, whom she had seen around the village once or twice. “I need….I’m s’posed….” he panted.
“Easy there, me lad. Deep breaths, deep breaths.”
By this point, Rudyard had followed her to the door. “What? What is it? Douglas, what’s going on?”
“It’s Mr. Stanley’s widow, sir. You remember how she fell in the grave?”
“Yes, yes, when the fight broke out over the contents of her husbands’ furniture shop, what of it?” With such a pivotal moment having been interrupted, Rudyard was inclined to be snappish.
“She’s dead, sir.”
This somewhat deflated Rudyard’s bad mood. “Oh indeed? Well, you may tell the surviving relatives that we can manage a service at six this evening.”
“Can….can we borrow your….” Douglas fell off, opting simply to point to Georgie.
“To…pick her up out of the grave?”
“What do you want to do that for? Leave her where she is and when the time comes we’ll only need to move her a few feet.”
Douglas knit his brow. “Do you really think that’s--”
“Young man, I m the professional here and I should hope I know what I’m doing. Good day to you!” And with that, Rudyard shut the door, turned, and strode off toward the door to the mortuary, Georgie on his heels. He gave three fast, sharp knocks. “Antigone!”
After a moment the door opened and Antigone’s face emerged. “Oh, this is wonderful, congratulations, Georgie I can’t tell you how much--”
Rudyard frantically shook his head and pulled a finger across his throat. “I just wanted to say, Antigone, that we’ll be needing to borrow your corpse-makeup kit.”
“What do you need my kit for? Won’t you be bringing Mr. Ascii here”
“This isn’t him. Stanley’s widow fell into the grave and died, and I don’t see a reason to bring her back here just to take her to the graveyard again.”
“…You’re just going to leave her to rot.”
“Only for about” Rudyard glanced over at the grandfather clock in the corner, “seven hours. She’ll hardly be soup by then.”
“Are you at least going to give her a coffin,, or simply shove the dirt over her and call it good?”
“Of course we’ll give her a coffin! Be a good break for Miss Crusoe, not having to carry a full one all the way to the graveyard.”
This time it was Antigone’s turn to scowl. “I suppose that is a good reason.” Then she leaned and hissed “And speaking of Miss Crusoe…”
“Do you think I’ve forgotten? I’ll be sure to get to it. But for now, I need you to bring me up that kit before she and I have to check on Mr. Ascii.”
“Yes, yes, fine, let me just--”
But it was at that moment that the doorbell rang again. When Georgie once more rushed to open it, she was greeted by a blond man wearing an excellent suit and a bright, friendly smile. “Hello!”, he cried, making to walk over the threshold.
“Hello,” replied Rudyard, rapidly coming up behind Georgie, “We’ve not met.”
“Indeed we haven’t, Sir.” the stranger replied, sticking out his hand. “Eric Chapman, newcomer to the village. I came by to introduce myself to the new competition.”
Rudyard failed to take Eric’s hand. “The new what?”
“Competition!” Eric beamed, “I’m opening up my own undertakers’, and I figured that it would be the gentlemanly thing to come over here and make my presence known before properly opening up.”
“...What, to give us a running start?”
Eric looked confused. “Er, no. Just…to say hello, I suppose.” He coughed awkwardly under Rudyard’s continued stare, but then re-mustered his bright expression. “In any case, you must be Mr. Rudyard Funn, yes?” When Rudyard just barely managed a nod, Eric turned to Georgie. “And, would this be Mrs. Funn?”
For half a second, Georgie seriously considered lying. But in the end, “No,” she replied, “I’m Georgie Crusoe; I work here. Helping out.”
For some reason, Eric looked extremely pleased to hear this. “Well, it is a great, great pleasure to meet you, Miss Crusoe.” And, having failed to secure a handshake from Rudyard, he instead took Georgie’s hand and raised it towards his lips when—
“Who are you?” asked Antigone, who was suddenly right beside him.
“AAAAA! Oh, goodness, my name is, um,”
Rudyard rolled his eyes. “Antigone, this is Chapman; he has come to our island and thinks he can hone in on our business. Chapman, Antigone; she is my sister and also the best mortician in the world.”
“And why is he fondling my assistant?”
Caught between Rudyard’s narrowed gazed, Antigone’s owlish stare, and Georgie’s one raised eyebrow, Eric dropped her hand and shuffled back a few paces. “Well. Er. It’s…been…very nice to meet you all…but there are so many things to take care of in opening a new business…” he gave a little nervous chuckle, “so I’ll just…be going now…but I hope you’ll come around and see my establishment once its opened…goodbye then, Funns…Miss Crusoe…enjoy yourselves!” And with that he tipped his hat and walked back out of the door.
Silence held in the room for a long moment. Then, Rudyard said “Well, he was unpleasant.”
Antigone glared at the door, before turning to Georige. “Are you alright?”
“What? Why wouldn’t I be?” Antigone stared at her. “Oh, because of—nah, I’m fine.”
Antigone growled in her throat. “Who does he think he is? Coming in here announcing himself, telling us that he’s opening up shop on our island. Does he think we’ll just close up shop if he asks nicely enough? Or that we’ll take one look at him and realize there’s no hope?” She turned sharply to face her brother. “Rudyard, you’ve got to go and talk to the Mayor. Remind him of the position our business occupies in the island, steer him against this interloper.”
Rudyard shook, as if out of a reverie. “Right! Yes, of course.” Then, under his breath, he continued, “Teach him to go around kissing hands…”
And with that, Rudyard too grabbed his hat and strode purposefully toward the door. And one assumes that, lost as he was in fury at Eric Chapman’s general impertinence, he didn’t hear Georgie calling after him, “Sir, weren’t you saying something--” but the door was already shut.
Georgie sighed, and Antigone must have heard her. “Oh, that dreadful man! Come down to the mortuary; I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
At the Mayor’s office, Rudyard found that very Desmond Desmond sitting at his desk staring meaningfully off into space. “Mr. Mayor!”
Mayor Desmond jolted out of his thoughts with a start. “What? Oh, Mr. Funn, it’s you.”
“Yes, it is. Your worship--”
“Do you ever think about the future, Mr. Funn?”
“The future! It is upon us, Mr. Funn, as we speak. A young queen upon the throne--”
“She was crowned seven years ago”
“--and a bright new world of possibilities! This village must push forward into that future, or be left behind in the past!”
“I like the past. Everything good that has ever happened to me is there.”
But the Mayor wasn’t listening. “Which is why I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to hear that I have approved the opening of this island’s second funeral home!”
“I…well…it was about that I wanted to talk to you, actually. You see, I worry that all this buzz about the future could leave all the grand traditions and institutions of the past floundering in the dust.”
“What? Oh, surely not! Why, the healthy push and pull of a competitive market will drive both of your businesses to the peak of their potential! And with them, the Isle of Piffling itself!”
“Now none of that! We all know that change can be frightening, but as Mayor of this village, it is my responsibility to drive its people toward those things which frighten them, but which are required for their continued betterment!” He paused. “Or have you forgotten the day I had to call you down out of that tree?”
Rudyard scowled. That one incident from twenty-five years ago had hung over his relationship with Desmond Desmond ever since, rearing its head every time he tried to get the man to truly take him seriously. “Well. I can see that your mind is…made up. So if you will excuse me, I must be getting back to the sister and the young unmarried employee with a grandmother to support whose very lives depend upon the continued success of my business.”
“That’s the spirit!”
After a slow, dejected walk back home, Rudyard was just about to open the door to Funn Funerals when an already distinctive voice called out “Ahoy there!”
Rudyard froze, paused, and slowly turned around. “Chapman?”
The beaming face he was confronted with left no room for comfortable doubt. “Indeed. If I may be candid, Mr. Funn, I worry that we got off on the wrong foot. I would be greatly honored if you would come in and take a look at my premesis.”
“…A premesis which is just across the street from mine?”
Chapman laughed jovially. “That’s right! Mourner’s Row, they can call it.” Rudyard continued to stare, turning Chapman’s laugh into something more nervous. “Erm.”
Rudyard hesitated. On the one hand, he really didn’t want to spend even more time talking with Eric Chapman. On the other hand, it would probably be wise to get a firmer feel for this new enemy…
“I’ll pour you a cup of coffee.”
Entering the building, Rudyard found that Mr. Stanley’s simple old furniture shop had already been rendered unrecognizable under plush red velvet and tastefully-gilded wood. Rudyard glared around at it all, nursing his admittedly very good coffee. “Are you sure you haven’t opened a gentleman’s club by mistake?”
“What? Oh, the décor. Well, it has always been my opinion that what the bereaved need most is some comfort, not yet more gloom piled on top of their grief.”
Rudyard thought of the thick black curtains and ebony furnishings of his own establishment. “It is my experience, Mr. Chapman, that there is comfort to be had in finding that someone is willing to take your pain seriously enough to not try to jolly you out of it with flash and frippery.”
“Well, I suppose we shall see whether Piffling Vale agrees.”
Something in the corner caught Rudyard’s eye. “Is that a mechanical fluid remover?”
Chapman beamed. “Yes! I’ll be moving it down to the mortuary soon, of course.”
“Antigone’s been at me for ages to buy one of those” Rudyard mused, almost under his breath.
“Oh indeed? Well, you shall always be welcome to borrow it.”
Rudyard startled. “I don’t think that will be necessary, Chapman. Now,” he slurped down the rest of his coffee, all unheeding of the burns it left down his throat, “I really must be going. Always so much to do when you’re the…the senior funeral home in a community.”
“Well, then I hope I can manage to lighten your load a little. Enjoy yourself!”
Rudyard staggered back into Funn Funerals, just about managed to hang up his hat and coat in the correct spot, and then slumped down onto the floor as though somebody had cut his strings.
Georgie appeared beside him. “Sir?”
Rudyard stared sightlessly ahead of him. “We’re doomed.”
“Aw, don’t be like that. It’ll come out right before long.”
He stared feebly up at her. “Do you think so?”
“Of course I do!” She grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. “Look around this place.”
He did so, taking in all the corners and details; the cobwebs and gentle fading that was as familiar to him as his own jugular vein.
“This,” Georgie continued, “is a funeral home. It’s what a funeral home is supposed to be. And you and Antigone are what the people who run a funeral home are supposed to be—you’ve been raised to this all your lives. You are an essential element of this island. Getting rid of you would be like…like…like tearing down the Tower of London. No oiled-up smiling Johnny-Come-Lately could ever replace you, and this village is smart enough to realize that!”
Rudyard took a deep, shaky breath and then looked at Georgie with a fragile, but genuine smile. “Thank you, Geor—Miss Crusoe. You’re no doubt right—I hope you’re right—and in any case your confidence means a great deal.” There was a long, pregnant pause, and then Rudyard took a deep breath. “Now, I do believe I was saying earlier that--”
Dreading what could possibly be coming next, Rudyard opened the door, only to find “Douglas? What is it now?”
“Mrs. Ascii sent me, sir. It’s her husband: he’s dead!”
Rudyard nodded absently. “Yes, alright, tell her we’ll be there as soon as we can.” And with that he shut the door in Douglas’ round young face and wandered aimlessly into the parlor. “Right, yes, Mr. Ascii’s dead…” and then his eyes shot open “Oh my GOD, Mr. Ascii’s dead! Get the measuring kit, get everything, we’ve finally got him!”
Georgie glanced over at the clock. “Sir, it’s half past four already and we’re supposed to bury Mrs. Stanley at six. Can we really do it?”
Rudyard was already throwing on his coat. “Of course we can; come on!”
When they got to the Ascii residence, both out of breath, they were just a little too frazzled to notice the unfamiliar carriage already parked outside. Therefore, they were both shocked when, after breezing past Mrs. Ascii with the barest of hellos, they entered the bedroom to find none other than Eric Chapman standing over the bed. Rudyard stopped short, Georgie crashing into his back (which he might have spared a thought to appreciate, under different circumstances). “What are you doing here?”
By this point, Mrs. Ascii had come in behind them. “Well you see, Mr. Funn, Douglas wasn’t quite sure when you were going to arrive, so I told him to ask Mr. Chapman as well.”
Rudyard gathered his composure. “Ah, well, I suppose that makes a certain sense. But we’re here now, so I’m sure there’s no reason for Mr. Chapman to further trouble himself.”
Mrs. Ascii shifted uncomfortably. “Erm…well…in point of fact, Mr. Funn, I’ve decided to contract with Mr. Chapman for the service.”
“Well, with him having already brought his hearse, and seeming so ready, and I thought you might be busy with other customers…”
“We are never too busy for any death in Piffling, Mrs Ascii. Our establishment has been this island’s sole provider of funerary services for four hundred years and--” Rudyard caught himself and collected his breath, keenly aware that the last thing a funeral home (especially one that’s facing competition for the first time in its history) needs is a reputation for antagonizing grieving widows. “But…we of course do respect your right to make a different choice…and we wish you a meaningful mourning period.”
Mrs. Ascii smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Funn.”
Back outside, on their way to the graveyard, Rudyard rubbed his temples, fighting vainly against the headache he could feel building. “Six weeks we check on that man, and the day he finally drops just has to be the day when Satan himself arrives to smile the contract out from under our noses.”
Georgie put a hand on his arm. “It’s a flash in the pan, sir. Anyone can trade on novelty for a little while, but people will remember why they’ve stuck by you all these years. Remember, the Vicar likes you, and people rely on clerical advice when they’re grieving. By the way, what was it you were going to say earlier?”
But it was then that they heard an ominous sound, a terrible sound, a sound that chilled both of them to their very bones—the church bells striking six o clock.
They stared at each other for a moment before Rudyard broke the silence. “We have to get to the churchyard; run!”
“But we’re already late!”
“And we’ll only get later if we can’t get there!”
“But we’ve left Antigone’s portable kit back at the house!”
“No time for that, she’ll barely have decayed anyway, run!”
But when they got to the churchyard, they were met with the awful, inevitable sight: Eric Chapman standing over a freshly-dug grave just next to Mr. Stanley’s, lowering down a coffin which could reasonably contain one of only two people. And Rudyard and Georgie were both quite sure that they knew which one it was.
Reverend Nigel Wavering, who was apparently just about to deliver his speech, saw them approaching and waved them over. “I say, this is exciting, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” said Rudyard distantly.
“Well, this Mr. Chapman has only just arrived and he’s already put together a corker of an operation. Be fascinating to watch what he comes up with once he’s properly settled in! Oh! Can’t talk any longer; that’s my cue.”
And so Georgie and Rudyard were left comparatively alone, standing just off the mixed group of mourners and gawkers who had gathered to witness the first funeral Eric Chapman conducted in Piffling Vale. “Well,” said Rudyard flatly, “he’s poached two funerals from us in less than eight hours.”
He turned to face her. “We’re unlikely to get another. And it’s past six. You ought to be getting home.”
“Do you…remember what it was you wanted to say to me?”
Rudyard looked at the gaggle of increasingly-impressed onlookers. He looked at the Vicar, who seemed to be giving one of the more focused sermons he ever had. He looked at the soberly satisfied face of Eric Chapman. He thought of the Mayor’s insistence that Piffling be brought into the future, of Chapman’s instantaneous building of a beautiful establishment. He calculated how long Funn Funerals’ current savings would last. Then he looked back at the woman who, as early as that morning, he had been prepared to offer his life and livelihood. As early as that morning, that had felt like an offer that would be worth something.
“No, Miss Crusoe. I’m afraid I’ve quite forgotten.” He tried to keep the sadness out of his eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Chapter 3: Chapter Two: In Which Multiple Contingents Hit Upon The Same Goal
Eric Chapman had been living and working on Piffling Vale for three months, and Funn Funerals was growing frantic. In all that time they had had only two clients, both of whom had booked with them before Chapman’s arrival—actually, there had been three pre-bookings in the ledger, but the third one had squirmed out of the agreement and gone to Chapman’s instead. Already attempts and flower monopolization, printed advertisements, and low-level sabotage had failed, serving only to damage a personal and business reputation that, Rudyard had been crushed to discover, was never as high as he thought it was to begin with. The Funns had been forced to adopt strict rationing policies just to continue affording Georgie’s wages. Normally, a business under such circumstances might be expected to regretfully let an employee go, but of course….
“I can’t believe you, Rudyard!”
“Another whole day wasted! And it’s not as if there was a great deal of occupation to distract you!”
“What am I supposed to do, Antigone? Get down on one knee and offer her all my worldly debts?”
“Of course not. Just tell her what you want. What she means to you.”
“Tell her that you can’t live without her, and that no matter how little you may have to your name, all of it will be bent towards her happiness if she accepts you.”
“Oh, yes, very impressive.”
“Tell her about how wonderful she is.”
“How she enters our dark old house every morning like Proserpina into the Underworld, carrying the warmth of the sun in her flaming hair, the rich soil in the freckles on her face, the healing winds and babbling brooks in her laughter, and the soft grass in her eyes.”
“Eyes….smiling….wanting to know what secrets lie under those simple work dresses....so sturdy and solid….wishing it were a hundred years ago when women washed clothes in stays alone…”
“No, wait, where am I, Hush!”
“….Anyway, the point is, all the flowery language in the world can’t make up for a failing business and a rapidly-plummeting name.”
“Of course it can! Ugh, men don’t know anything about romance.”
“But this is Miss Crusoe we’re talking about! What has she ever said or done to give you the impression that she responds to anything but pure and simple practicality?”
“Antigone….I think we may need to accept that Miss Crusoe is out of our reach now. And unless we can run Chapman out of town altogether, she probably always will be.”
“So we need to redouble our efforts at running Chapman out of town?”
Meanwhile, back at the Crusoe residence: “Sit down and eat your supper, Love.”
Georgie did cease her pacing and sit down, but did not begin eating, presumably being too busy creasing her brow and staring into the middle distance. “It just doesn’t make and sense,” she repeated for the fourth time that evening. “He was close. I know he was close. For flip’s sake, I saw him keep reaching into his pocket.”
“Ah, you can’t go by that alone. Remember how you met that mouse?”
“Yes but this was a different pocket. And he kept asking to talk to me alone--”
“Oh-ho, you may want to be careful with that one. There’s many a sorrowful tale that begins with a solitary proposal acted on too rashly.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot, Nana? I’d know better than to do anything like that, and besides, I really don’t think he’s that type. No, I think he was just trying to ask me, and yes, alright, we kept getting interrupted that day, but there’s been plenty of time since.”
“Ah, but didn’t something else significant happen on that day?”
“Well sure; that was the day Eric Chapman showed up, but what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Oh come now, Georgie, surely you understand that the established only Undertaker on an island might feel confident making offers that the owner of a failing Undertaker’s might not?”
Georgie’s confusion only deepened. “But why? I’m already dependent on the business’ success for my survival just by working for them! We might as well at least be together.”
“But he surely knows it’s a lot easier to find a new position than a new husband.”
“And leave them? Never!”
“Besides, he’s likely not thinking clearly. Men put so much stock in how much money they’ve got—why do you think people call good men ‘worthy’? A man in his position is like as not to be in a spiral of panic and shame far too deep to even think about looking for a wife. And I doubt he’ll crawl out of it as long as that Eric Chapman keeps drawing all the business.”
“So I’ll be cooling my heels for another three years….unless Eric Chapman goes out of business.”
“Could well be.”
Chapter 4: Chapter Three: In Which Plans and Preparations are Made for a Momentous Evening
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It was in the middle of another long day of pointless tidying at Funn Funerals when Georgie broke the silence with “Are you going to the auction tomorrow evening?”
Like unto a single unified owl, the twins looked up at her. “What auction?”
“Haven’t you heard?” In response to their shaken heads, “The Mayor’s decided to auction off his house, and a lot of what’s in it. He says he’s realized that, like a Vicar, a Mayor is meant to be a public servant, so if a Vicarage is normally built to house a Vicar and his family, and the Vicar hasn’t got a family, then it could certainly do to house both a Vicar and a Mayor, thus allowing the materials previously devoted to the needless maintenance of a mayoral lifestyle can be re-introduced to the community they were supposed to serve.” Her tone took on a mocking—albeit affectionate—quality as the quoted speech went on. “He’s even donating all the auction money Dr. Edgeware Says he needs “modern equipment and methods.”
“Is that so?” said Rudyard. “Well I’m sure that’s very noble of him, but if you mean to imply that we need to pick up cheap items at an auction, you are sorely mistaken. We may have found ourselves in a bit of a pinch, but the legacies of our ancestors remain, and we are not for the pawnbroker yet. There are better homes for another man’s old furniture than within our walls.” He paused. “Besides, we couldn’t afford anything anyway.”
“He’s also emptying out his larder in a big complementary spread. And word on the street is that nobody’s going to pay too much attention to how much food disappears into people’s mouths versus how much disappears into various transportable receptacles...”
“...For God’s sake why didn’t you open with that? Antigone, think, what sorts of things do we need?”
“...Right. And what sorts of things have we got that I can carry food back in?”
“Well, most of my embalming jars are gathering dust at the moment, and they’re always cleaned quite thoroughly between uses, but...”
“Right! I’ll need all of them, and perhaps the cashbox...”
“Why are you talking as if you’re going to go alone?”
“...Because it wouldn’t be very polite to ask Miss Crusoe to help me with an evening event without due notice?”
“But what about me?”
There was an uncomfortably long silence.
“Antigone….when was the last time you went outside?”
“Erm….well….no, I’m sure there was….look that’s not the point! If there’s to be a grand event with lots of food and everyone in the village is going to be there and you’re going to be there then I see no reason why I shouldn’t be there as well!”
“But what if you catch hay-fever again?”
“I was nine years old! And I got better after a week. And….and I want to get out of this house and go to the blasted party!”
The brotherly instinct that compelled Rudyard to protect Antigone warred with the brotherly instinct that compelled him to let her have things that would make her happy. In the end, both were superseded by the brotherly memory of how precisely she could bite in their childhood squabbles. “Oh very well. But the minute you start sniffling, I want you back at home!”
“Do you want my help getting ready tomorrow?” asked Georgie.
“Well like you’ve said, this is a big shindig, and the first one you’ve been to in quite some time.” She glanced over at Rudyard. “And I was planning on being there anyway. We could get ready together, and I could help you fix your hair, pick out jewelry, even put a little something or two on your face? If you’d like.”
Antigone’s eyes were wide. “W….E….Nng….”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you couldn’t do it yourself. If you’d rather not--”
“No! I mean, erm, that sounds delightful, yes, I would….love to have your assistance. Thank you.”
Georgie smiled so widely that both of the twins nearly fainted. “Wonderful! I’ll bring my evening dress over tomorrow morning; that way I won’t have to take the time to go back for it.”
The next day was just as uneventful as the past several had been, but rather than a miserable slog, the hours passed in a blur. At four-thirty in the afternoon, Georgie (quite redundantly) flipped the sign on the door to the “closed” position, pulled her best dress (green silk, peppered with glass beads) and pulled Antigone into her bedroom. “Alright, have you worked out what you want to wear?”
“Erm, yes. I think so, but….look, you’d better come up to the attic.”
They did so, and Georgie was immediately greeted by the sight of Antigone’s chosen gown.
It was gorgeous. The velvet undergown was black, and the dark purple satin overgown was covered with elaborate damask black lace. The ruffles at the ends of the sleeves were black, and the edges of the overgown were sewn with perfect fabric re-creations of white lilies. It was a work of art, a tribute to the stark beauty to be found in death and mourning. It was absolutely perfect for a woman of Antigone’s coloring and temperament.
Of course, it was also eighty years out of date.
“I don’t really have any nice dresses.” Antigone explained. “At least, not ones actually made for me. With never really going anywhere, I suppose there just never seemed to be much of a point. But there’s this—it was made for my grandmother as a thanks by some ridiculously high-class dressmaker after his cat happened to die while he was visiting Piffling for “rural inspiration” and Funn Funerals did the burial. I know it’s not exactly the latest fashion but it’s the nicest thing I have by far and I’ve checked and it does fit and….and….”
Georgie took a deep breath. “Do you have the right underthings to go with it?”
“Yes, and they fit too.”
Georgie looked at Antigone’s her wide grey eyes, full of stubborn pride and desperate hope. “Well then let’s get ready.”
Even with Antigone’s odd shaking every time Georgie’s hand brushed her skin, getting her into the dress wasn’t too difficult an affair. For some reason she couldn’t quite explain, Georgie was almost disappointed when Antigone opted to get into the appropriate undergarments behind a dusty old dressing screen, but at least she was able to be a help in putting on the gown proper. And of course in her case a change of underpinnings wasn’t needed, so it was just a matter of shucking off her day dress and—
“Are you alright?” she asked somewhat confusedly, in response to Antigone’s sharp intake of breath.
“What? Yes of course I am, hush, do you need any help in getting on your evening gown?”
“Well, it would be nice.”
But putting it on herself might have ended up being quicker, with how often Antigone’s grip on the fabric slipped. You might have mistaken her for three times her age with all those hand tremors. And yet, Georgie somehow found that she didn’t mind.
With both dresses on, they stood still for a moment, both cracklingly aware of how close the other one was, before Georgie broke the silence. “Hair! We still need to fix our hair.”
They did Georgie’s first, twisting most of it up with great effort and then pulling down a few curls to frame her face. “Wish I had something to put in my hair”, she reflected, half to herself.
Antigone started at that. “Oh! Come this way, come this way!”
After a little digging, Antigone proudly produced a fine oak box. “There’s generations of jewelry in here. Rudyard doesn’t want to pawn them yet. I don’t really want to either, of course, but with the way things are at the moment….but certainly you’re more than welcome to use some tonight!” She paused. “Most of it may not exactly be your, erm, style, but my great-grreat-aunt Marie never quite, erm, assimilated quite as much as people who marry into the family usually do, and she had some excellent stuff….”
Well then Marie, reflected Georgie to herself as she put on the necklace and hairpiece made of golden leaves, You loved a Funn without letting go of what you were before. See if you can’t lend me that same spirit, eh?
Then it was Antigone’s turn to have her hair fixed up. This turned out to be much more difficult than Georgie had anticipated, but Antigone was unsurprised.
“My hair can never hold any kind of shape. Mother said it was too thin. And that it lacked ambition.”
“Ah, but it’s like silk! Isn’t that what a lady’s hair is supposed to be like? And the rest of them manage. Besides, after all these years of wrangling my own cloud of wires into something decent, you wouldn’t think I’d have any trouble with yours.”
“What are you talking about? Of course your hair is easier to shape—it’s got more character. Once you’ve got it in place, it wants to stay there. Mine just wants to fall down.”
“Well it’s pretty down.”
“But I can’t wear it down to the auction, can I?”
But the day was saved by the memory of the headpiece that accompanied Antigone’s chosen gown. A simple bun, held together with as many pins as it took, was all that was necessary to prepare the head for the crown of ivory lilies, from which a black lace veil hung down all around the head. Then it was on with the accompanying amethyst jewelry (Not, Georgie noticed, set in silver like one might expect, but in some highly-polished black metal. Iron would hardly feel appropriate for an ensemble as grand as this, but what else could it be?)
Now both fully dressed, the ladies contemplated each other for a moment. “You look lovely.” Antigone said softly.
“So do you.”
Heading downstairs, they met Rudyard, whose concessions to the upcoming party consisted of brushed hair, a hat, and an extremely overlarge overcoat, presumably stuffed to the gills with empty embalming jars. “Miss Crusoe”, he said “You look lovely. Antigone, you….” His initial impression of Antigone’s ensemble died under Georgie’s gaze “….look striking. So then, shall we?”
As I sat in one of the coat’s many pockets, quietly admiring the small piece of red ribbon Rudyard had so kindly been willing to tie around my tail for me, even I couldn’t help but buzz with excitement for the evening ahead.
I LIVE! We're in the middle stretch now, which is always hard to pin down, and also I just got an Actual Professional Job, so who knows how that will effect my writing time, but I promise you we are not dead yet.
(Also the party preparations got away from me which is why they're their own chapter now)