Cadbury's Coffin

Excerpt

He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.
                             William Blake
 

1       An Oak Tree Topples 

          The night makes infants of us all. It is in the late and faltering hours before the cock crows, before dawn blesses us to rest again, that we are most afraid, and never more alone. We do not sleep, nor dare to dream. Seconds shuffle. Minutes plod. The tick of a clock, the warmth of a pillow, the nearness and dearness of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers--these console us not. The darkness diminishes us. Sealed in sheets as in a grave, we seem small and   weak and helpless. We hear things. We see things. We wait, for what we must not imagine. We hang, somewhere between that which has been and that which will be, by a slender thread
          For it is then we know that our lives are but a brief recess after night, before another endless night. It is then we know, young and old alike, that one day we will die.
          Minnie Pumpley lay in her bed, listening. It was three or four o’clock in the morning, and time for him to be up and about, to unsettle everyone. He slept by fits and starts, as the elderly were wont to do, and more by day than by night; and he had begun of late to rise in the wee hours and ramble. This was dangerous. In the dark he could tumble headlong down the circling staircase. He could kill himself  And so, over his objections, they had moved him downstairs, turning his library, off which there was a bathroom, into a bed-sitting room. Now he might prowl as he pleased, disturbing though it       was to others. Little did he care. But his “rambling” as Minnie called it, was only one of his new and unpleasant practices. Mentally he was quick and shrewd as ever--his clerks came regularly to the mansion to report to him on production and profits at the works, and woe to them if their accounting were incomplete. Temperamentally, however, he had become cantankerous, even vile. He crabbed about his new false teeth, of porcelain mounted on a vulcanized rubber base, and often refused to wear them--then crabbed at her for preparing meats he could not chew. He pinched her backside on the opportunity, then cackled with glee. He was frequently mean to his pets.  He objected to bathing beyond once a week and last week hurled a bar of soap from the tub through a windowpane. In the past he had taken care to use the cuspidors, but more then seldom recently she had caught him lifting a corner of an oriental rug, spitting tobacco juice on the parquet floor beneath, and dropping the corner to conceal it. This, in her opinion, was downright nasty.
          Minnie Pumpley sighed, turned in her bed, and listened to the squeak of springs, to the mumbles in the room next to hers, to the brush of tree branches against brick wall. Then she heard him.  Unless one were accustomed to the sounds downstairs, they would give a body the shakes. He was up, having groaned himself out of bed in nightcap and shirt and bare feet. Thump-thump-thump went his canes, one in each hand, as he doddered into the parlor. Now he would ramble from room to room talking to himself, peering out windows, accepting and rejecting the attentions of his pets, thumping, thinking. What did old men think about in the night?  Death? Money? Their heirs? What the Hereafter held in store for them? Would they not tot up the deeds of their days, and pray the good outweighed the bad?
          Eli Stamp heard him, too. Eli was afflicted with lumbago, rheumatic pain in the lower back. Each time he changed position in his bed, the pain roused him; his sleep was consequently fitful, alternating between dream and drowse, past and present. It was he whose mumbles had been audible to Mrs. Pumpley in the room next to his.
          He listened. His hearing was not what it once had been, but the thump-thump-thump of canes downstairs recalled to him the staccato of soldiers’ makeshift crutches on a wooden trestle bridge.  He puzzled why it had not yet snowed. This was late November, almost December. They should have had a foot of snow by now; the boy should have been tied to a shovel like a pup. He dozed again.
In his dream he heard the boom of cannon, the whine of grapeshot through thickets in the Wilderness, and the thump of wounded comrades’ crutches as they limped from battle across a bridge in Virginia.
          Verbena Huttle heard him, too. At fifteen she was a sound sleeper, but even the blissful oblivion of youth was not impervious
to the high-pitched yowl which started from the dining room, rang through the kitchen, and quavered, finally, up the narrow crooked stairway to her small bedroom on the other side of Eli Stamp’s. He had struck a cat with a cane. How many cats enjoyed his hospitality no one could tell; she had counted nineteen once, sixteen once, twenty-one another time. He welcomed strays. He insisted they be fed and given the run of the place, be let out by day and gathered again into his fold at dusk. There were children to him. And they showed their gratitude by promenading with him at night, purring in chorus as he talked to himself, twining and rubbing his bare, spindly legs. When this demonstration resulted in his loss of balance, and he feared falling, he would brace himself with one cane and flail at them with the other. Usually he missed the mark, and would punish them with oaths; but occasionally his aim was true, and one of them, it did not matter which, would bear the full brunt of his displeasure. Childless he might have been in real life, but if spoiled these creature substitutes, who mewled and swilled milk by the gallon and clawed upholstery to shreds, that was his right. Certainly no one could claim he spared the rod.
          Verbena Huttle disliked the nights she slept in the mansion.  Her bed was comfortable enough, and she had it to herself rather than sharing it, as she did at home, with two bratty sisters. But she dreaded the middle of these mansion nights--the fingering of his canes along the floors, the protests of his pets, the whimper of wind in the gables and about the chimneys as it seemed to beg for entrance. She shivered. She hugged herself.
          It was the outcry of another cat which waked young Joshua Overland. His bed was a straw tick in a cubbyhole at the head of the stairway from the kitchen. He simply could not accustom himself to these night sounds. He tossed and twisted. He wanted to yowl himself, to demand that the man downstairs get the dickens back to bed where all sensible folk belonged at this hour.
          And so, listening, waiting, they lay in their beds in the servants’ quarters at three or four o’clock in the morning--Minnie Pumpley, Eli Stamp, Verbena Huttle, and Joshua Overland.
          Suddenly the wind died.
          Suddenly silence reigned.
          The four tensed. Small and weak and vulnerable now, each one alone, they held breath.
          Did they not, in the dark of night, grow cold with apprehension? Were they not, in the dark of night, reduced to infants all?
          The crash, when it came, was thunderous. It was mingled with the shatter of glass and the clash of chimes. It seemed to shake the entire house.
          Joshua Overland was first out of bed. The place in which he slept was a cramped, musty space used formerly to store trunks and valises, open at the hall end and lacking a window, and so low was the ceiling that in order to exit  he must crawl or crack his head. He crawled out now and hesitated in his union suit at the head of the stairs, unwilling to descend for fear of what he might find. Down the hall he heard old Eli’s grumble, the plaint of Verbena’s girlish voice, questioning, then Mrs. Pumpley’s urgent hiss:
          “Go down and see, you ninny!”
          It sent him down, step by step, into the kitchen to the electric light switch; then, blinking, into the dining room; then to the door of the great parlor where, reaching round the jamb, his fingers felt for another switch, found it, and turned it. 
          He gasped.
          Lycurgus Cadbury lay on the floor.
          In his nightcap and shirt, his legs askew, he seemed shrunken, no bigger than a doll.
          His eyes were closed. From one corner of his open, toothless mouth a ribbon of spittle glazed in the light.
          His canes had dropped beside him.
          Near him, pulled down by him evidently in an attempt to break his fall, lay the grandfather clock. It had been the clock’s weight, not the shatter of its glass face and front or the clash of its Whittington chimes, which had seemed to shake the house.
          About the parlor, on rugs and sofas and chairs, their yellow eyes attentive, their mewling stilled as though by tragedy, sat a wake of cats.
          Lycurgus Cadbury had fallen in his eighty-fourth year. It had been his design, his heart’s desire, indeed his obsession, to live at least a while into the new century, the twentieth. He had come up short by a scant thirty-two days. This was the early morning of November 29, in the year 18 and 99.
          “Eeeeeeee!”
          Minnie Pumpley’s scream so startled young Josh that he jumped and came down on the tail of a cat. The animal emitted a rasp of resentment which, added to Verbena’s moan and old Eli’s groan, made the room a babble. The others had crept downstairs and entered the parlor after Josh, had seen now what he  had seen, and milled about in horror and confusion.
          “Poor Mr. Cadbury!” moaned Verbena, rolling her eyes.
          “Ohhh!  Ohhh!” groaned Eli Stamp, shaking his head. 
          “I knew it! I knew it!” cried Mrs. Pumpley, hands at her cheeks. “Mercy of God!”
          Widow she might be, but married she had been to the household for thirty years, in sickness and in health, for better or worse. And in another minute she had them bustling--Verbena to the telephone in the entry to ring up Dr. Hopkins and say that Mr. Cadbury was dead and he must come immediately, Josh and Eli to stand the clock upright, then bring broom and dustpan. This they did, only to discover Verbena did not know how to use the telephone, to crank and contact the operator, so Mrs. Pumpley had to make the call in her stead while Eli swept up the shards of glass from the rug and Josh collected cats one by one and saw them out a side door.
          Her parlor put to rights, the pious housekeeper then took them into the dining room, away from the body, ordered them to kneel with her--a feat of contortion for Eli--and recite the Lord’s Prayer. This they did as well, after which she asked that each remain in place, head bowed, eyes closed, and devote some time to meditation on the kindness and generosity of the man who had now “gone to his reward,” the soul which had already, she was sure, “taken its place amongst the Heavenly Host.” How long they so devoted no one knew, but it seemed an age. Verbena sniffled.  Mrs. Pumpley sighed. Josh stifled yawns. Eli trembled in every antique limb. And when the doorbell ran, causing even the old soldier to shoot his feet like a rocket, it was a relief as much as an amen.
          Dr. Silas Hopkins was admitted to the parlor. One of the only two physicians in Gilead, and of the two by far the more learned in science, he had long cared for Mr. Cadbury. He was fiftyish, a bachelor and a dandy, wiry and vigorous, with penetrating eyes and a waxed mustache, the ends of which he tweaked when immersed in thought. He greeted the four with a nod, removed a hat of black seal fur and a velvet-collared Chesterfield coat, opened his black bag, rubbed his hands, and got down to grim business.
          He placed a hand on the corpse’s chest.
          He looked at the servants.
          “He has not expired,” he said.
          They gaped at him.
          “He is not dead.”
          They gaped at each other. Minnie Pumpley backed into a chair and sat down heavily.
          The doctor then peered into his patient’s eyes, taking care to note the angle of the retinas. Extracting a rubber mallet from his bag, he tapped elbows and legs for reflex. He twisted the left leg, then the right, to ascertain a fracture of either hip in the fall. At length he rose, tweaked an end of his mustache for a moment, and made his diagnosis.
          “Mr. Cadbury has incurred a cerebral hemorrhage,” he said.  “In common parlance, a stroke. A thrombosis, or blood clot, in one hemisphere of the brain which blocks the circulation of the blood. I cannot tell as yet if there will be paralysis, loss of speech, so on.”
          He paused, and addressed them soberly. “In any event, his condition is critical. He is elderly, he is frail, and my best guess is that he has precious little time. I would advise you to summon his nieces at once.” He looked at young Overland. “Josh, isn’t it?”
          “Yes, sir.”
          “You appear able-bodied. Let’s get him into bed.”
          With maid and housekeeper carrying canes and hovering, Josh and the doctor lifted the comatose Lycurgus Cadbury, who was light as a feather, carried him into his room off the parlor, and deposited him gingerly in bed.
          “Should I sit with him?” whispered Mrs. Pumpley.
          “It won’t be necessary,” was the response. “I’ll look in on him in the morning, when he’s conscious and when I can better tell what damage has been done.”
          They returned to the parlor. Briskly the doctor donned his coat and hat. “I repeat,” he said. “I would urge Miss Hetta Mae and Mrs. Morgan to make haste--and come prepared to stay till the end.”
          “You mean he--“ began Mrs. Pumpley.
          “I do.”
          To their surprise, young Josh spoke up, having done some arithmetic. “Pardon me, sir, but could he—could he live thirty-two days?”
          “Into the next century? Ah, yes, I recall his ambition. I think not, Josh. No, having achieved everything else he wanted in life, for once Mr. Cadbury  has failed.” He frowned. “I’m sorry. But I doubt he will be with us thirty-two hours.”
          A clock ticked. It was after four o’clock in the morning. Alone again, the four of them were drinking cocoa, a treat they would never have dared, night or day, had their employer been in good health.  They sat in the chilly kitchen, their faces pale their eyes hollowed from want of sleep.
          Eli sucked greedily at his cocoa. He was hairless. Drawn taut over his old skull, his skin gleamed. His nightshirt looked to have been slept in for months without a change, and round his skinny neck he had safety-pinned a woolen sock tinctured with drops of camphor to ward off the ague, a fever to which he claimed soldiers were frequently subject. No one knew Eli’s age, and he himself had forgotten, but he was a veteran of the Civil War, had been the oldest man in Gilead to volunteer, and had seen two years of service with the Second New York Zouaves, a regiment of infantry whose ranks were decimated in Virginia. There in the Wilderness, where men were slaughtered by the thousands on both side, Union and Confederate, he had taken a minié ball through the shoulder, and was invalided home. The shoulder healed and stiffened. Because he could no longer earn his living at what was then the Cadbury Wagon Works, his patriotism was rewarded by the offer of a position with his former employer in his old household, and here he had toiled as coachman-handyman-gardener as long as Minnie Pumpley, and for the same pay--ten dollars a month and found.
          Of the camphor, only Mrs. Pumpley was unaware. Her face, Josh had thought on first meeting it, was like that of a basset hound, loyal and friendly; and in return for loyalty and friendship she would wag her tail forever. But at this hour she slumped, her plump cheeks sagged, the cup between her elbows was ignored. As her bosom burdened the table, the masses of her coarse gray hair, compacted into a bun during the day, burdened her broad shoulders. She wore carpet slippers and a flannel bathrobe with a rose print, the flowers    as faded and drear as her expression. She was a woman worn to the bone.
          Mr. Cadbury had of late tested her loyalty to the utmost.  She had suffered him. He was old, and changes of habit and character all to often accompanied advanced age. She was sixty-three herself, and sadly conscious of swelling about her knees and ankles, the first signs of dropsy. These, too, she must endure, as she had Mr. Cadbury’s transformation, for she had been his cook-housekeeper nigh on thirty years--ten before he was widowed and twenty since, first in the old house, torn down, and later in this mansion, built five years ago to replace it. They had been, on the whole, good years.  She had been in sole charge of a banquet in 1882 for Chester A. Arthur, President of the United States, who was an overnight guest in the old house, and he had complimented the on the roast boar. Later that hot July night there was an electrical storm, and at about this time a bolt of lightning struck a huge oak tree on the lawn, and rived it so that half the trunk and limbs toppled against a brick wall and alarmed everyone out  of bed, including President Arthur. It shook the entire house.
          Verbena Huttle sat at the table sipping. She was a slight girl, and the wash-worn challis nightgown lent her by Mrs. Pumpley was so capacious that she tied it about her waist with a string. Her blond hair was done up in rag curlers. Her dimples were deep, even when her heart-shaped face was in repose. She was prone to roll her violet eyes, and over the rim of her cup she rolled them now, sometimes at Josh, sometimes at the others, but oftener at Josh.
          She was the eldest of ten children. When she turned fifteen, and it was apparent her father was unequal to the task of providing for his brood, she was presented with the choice of applying at the Cadbury Cutter Works, which was Gilead’s only industry, or of going into domestic service. The one was a dead end, the other an unknown; but at least, if she could find the right place, it might uplift her someday to a height she could never aspire to in a manufactory.  She might even become a family favorite. She might even marry a rich man.
          Hence it was innocence which took her forthwith to “the mansion,” as it was invariably referred to; it was innocence which propelled her by the wide lawns and up the circle drive under magnificent oaks and elms, past the cutter, or sleigh, parked prominently in front, a life-sized, single-seater replica made of iron and drawn by an iron steed. This was the largest home for miles around. House and stable and grassy, shaded sweeps occupied a whole town block. A fortress of red brick boasting six rooms down
and seven up, it was roofed with terne metal, the edges protected
by metal shingles individually stamped in the form of oak leaves. There were high chimneys and gables and dormer windows and in
one corner, crowned by a gilded weather vane, a glassed-in cupola,
or “sea watch,” from which one could espy, on a clear day, Troy to
the southeast and Albany to the southwest. There were porches on two sides, long and painted green and trimmed with intricate wooden scrollwork. Innocence sent Miss Huttle up the asphalt drive, up the wide steps, over the broad veranda to the front door rather than the rear, mandatory entrance for servants and deliveries. Innocence let her ring the bell. Fortune, in the person of a Mrs. Pumpley, swelling at the knees and ankles, and distraught that morning with responsibility, let her in.
          She was happy. She was paid five dollars a month and allowed lunch, for she was day help. Only now and again, when she must work late, as she had today, was she given supper and a bed. She was housemaid and scullery maid. She dusted, swept, scrubbed, mopped, waxed, polished, and beat; she cut, whipped, sliced, stirred, scoured, washed, and dried--all these twelve hours at a stretch, seven days of the week. But no matter how toilsome the time, how menial the drudgery, the mansion to her was a castle, and she could pretend, even while cleaning up after cats, that she was a princess. She admired the beveled glass windows, the brass hardware copper-flashed throughout, the transom of stained glass over every interior door; and she was amazed by such modernities as electric lights and a telephone and the “window doors” which would, on the pressure of a hand, rise into the walls and provide in summer a marvelous means of ventilation. She loved the molded metal ceilings, the height and spaciousness of the rooms, the luxury of the furnishings. And she liked Mrs. Pumpley and old Eli and Josh--especially Josh. Secretly she wished he were two or three years older. How handsome he would be then! How eligible!
          He sat on a stool in his union suit, one bare foot atop the other, his brown hair a rat’s nest. His open countenance was freckled, his ears were large, his chin cleft, and his hands and wrists were broad and strong for one of fourteen--tribute to the tons of coal, snow, wood, and horse manure he had moved from one place to another. 
          At this moment Josh was sorry he could not feel for his employer the sympathy he might have for a father, but filial devotion was a subject in which life had little schooled him. He had never known a father, or a mother for that matter. Entrusted to the doorstep of an orphanage in Albany when only days old, he had eked out an existence there, instructed in the rudiments of reading, writing, and ciphering, until he was twelve. Destiny then, or chance, took him by the nape of the neck. He was plucked away to act as helper to an old man named Eli Stamp, who served in a great house in Gilead. He was given a straw tick, a cubbyhole, clothing, board, five dollars a month--and given to understand that should he fail or be slack in the performance of his duties before he was sixteen, at which age he might legally be released as a charge of the state of  New York, back to the orphanage he would go.
          Joshua Overland was a boy of sterling qualities, amiable disposition, and sturdy physique. And it was well that he was sturdy, for as Eli became ever more infirm, the ancient found ever more for his assistant to do. Josh was what was termed a “choreboy.” From breakfast to bed, in fair weather and foul, he whirled like a dervish.  He cared for horses and harness, cleaned stables, mowed lawns, raked and burned leaves, shoveled snow, toted wood for six fireplaces and the kitchen stove, coaled the monster furnace in the basement, banked it at night, grated and hauled the ashes in the morning, aided Mrs. Pumpley when ordered, and sprang to Verbena’s side at the slightest pallor in her cheek, at the merest dither of her lashes. How like an angel she was, an angel he had once seen in a picture book depicting the differences between Heaven and Hell.  How he wished he were two or three years older!
          Eli smacked his lips. “Aye, Master be took this time.” He spoke to himself. “Stroke’s sure as shootin’. That I know.”
          “I knew it, too, soon’s I heard that crash,” agreed Mrs. Pumpley. “Like that old oak tree, way back then.”
          “You called them women?” he asked.
          “The both of them. Miss Hetta Mae first, she being the closest.”
          Hetta Mae Cadbury lived in Gloversville, only twenty miles from Gilead.
          “Did she faint?” inquired Verbena.
          “I thought she did. Not a peep out of ‘er for a long spell.  Then she come on the line again and said she’ll hire a trap and be here by ten. Oh, I’ll  bet she will, cryin’ over him like spilt milk.” Mrs. Pumpley remembered her cocoa, warmed herself with it, then warmed to the telling. “Then I called Mrs. Morgan. I never called to New York City before; he always did it. You can hear the wires hum. I told her, and nary a peep from her neither for a bit. I could hear her thinkin’, though. She’ll come up on the train, she said, her and Montfort. Be here by noon.” She sighed. “What we’ll have to put up with for these next few days--great sakes.” She reflected. “Oh, they’ll come on the run, all right. Money. Which of ‘em’ll get the most when he’s gone.”
          Josh piped up again. “Mrs. Pumpley, how rich is Mr. Cadbury?”
          She stared at him.
          “It ain’t snowed yet,” declared Eli. “Why don’t it snow?”
          “How rich is he?” Josh repeated.
          Verbena stared at him.
          “Never you mind,” responded Mrs. Pumpley. “None of our business. Everybody says he’s a millionaire--how much ever that is.”
          Verbena took courage. “Might he--might he leave us something?”
          Mrs. Pumpley stared at her.
          “Might he?” the girl repeated.
          Josh stared at her.
          “No,” said the housekeeper. “He might, bein’ a good and righteous man--but there won’t be naught to leave after them two get their hands in his pockets.”
          She had said too much, and knew it, and pressed her lips into a line, and the room grew still, and chiller still. A clock ticked. The cocoa cups were empty. The last words of Dr. Hopkins echoed in the minds of the four: “I doubt he will be with us thirty-two hours.” And it was now that the realization of what this night might mean to them assailed their hearts as the smell of camphor did their nostrils. Each of them realized, as never before, how utterly dependent he was, she was, upon Lycurgus Cadbury. As long as the man drew breath, as long as his feeble mechanisms functioned, they were safe. They had a roof over their heads, and beds to sleep in, and their bellies might anticipate the next meal. But the hour, the minute, the second he ceased to exist, they were lost, cast out into a cruel world penniless, friendless, hopeless--fate’s abandoned toys. 
          A clock ticked. Their cups were empty. Suddenly Minnie Pumpley put her head down on the table, buried her face in her arms, and loosed a lament for all:
          “Oh, whatever’s to become of us!”
          They went to bed. Housekeeper, aged retainer, maid, and choreboy climbed the narrow stairs in that order. At the top, while the others proceeded, Josh touched Verbena on the shoulder. She turned to him. He stood on the step below her, so that small as she was their faces were on a level in the darkness.
          “Don’t you fret, Verbena,” he whispered. “No matter what, I’ll take care of you.”
          “Oh, Josh, thank you,” she whispered, and kissed him, and was gone.
         

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