Having a somewhat disquieted sensation in the pit of his
stomach, Maybe I ought not be leavin’ the boy a second time
this day. Feeling vaguely guilty over leaving Zachariah once
again, Eh, tis nothin’! Rationalizing, ‘e’ll do what ‘e must
an’ find ‘is way ‘ome without me ‘elp. Mentally brushing the
sensation away, turning away, Johnson took a step toward
the doorway, stopped, considering a moment, then turned
back and, lifting it off the drop cloth, placed the bandoleer
of brushes around his shoulder. “That’ll leave ya just the
cloths, the scrapper an’ brush an’ the rope to be carryin’,”
he said magnanimously. “An’ if the ol’ bastard asks where
I’m at, tell ‘im I ‘ad a ‘nother ‘pointment.”
Climbing Boy 16: The Stiff
December 24, 1843
Going to the parlor doorway, leaning his head through,
he looked across the hall to the door leading to the
downstairs workroom, which was still closed. Walking on
tiptoes, Johnson went to the front door, opened it, stepped
through, and closed it quietly behind himself.
Zachariah watched as Johnson left the room, then,
backing out of the firebox on his knees, standing, stretching
it outward, he looked into the breast pocket of his coat.
Looking back, the mouse twitched its nose.
“We’ll be through soon an’ goin’ ‘ome an’ then I’ll find ya
somethin’ to eat.” Reaching his finger inside, he scratched
Mousy’s head, patted the pocket, then crawled back into
Finished with the rear wall, still on his knees, leaning his
upper body backward, Zachariah looked to see if he’d missed
anything. “Almost done now,” he said to the creature in his
coat pocket as much as to himself. Seeing a small, tar-like
patch of creosote, he scraped at it until only the soot-stained
firewall was visible.
Brushing the remaining ash into a mound to be swept
up and carried away, the boy was startled by the loud, hollow
sound as a sudden pounding on the front door reverberated
through the cold funeral parlor.
“I’m coming.” The pounding continued. “I’m coming!”
Zachariah heard Hobbins shout from the basement
workroom, then the thumping sound of footsteps on
Hurrying up the stairs, the undertaker glanced at
Zachariah as, the pounding continuing, he rushed to the
Curious, Zachariah looked out of the fireplace, and by
craning his neck was able to see the foyer.
Annoyed, “I’m coming!” Hobbins shouted as, pulling the
door open, a gust of wind blew sleet, snow and dirt through
the doorway into the foyer. “Yes?” he said in an annoyed,
“Mr. ‘obbins, Sir.” One of the two magistrates leaned his
head into the foyer. “Sorry to be bother’n ya tonight but…”
Peering beyond the policeman, standing aside, “You may
as well come inside so’s we can keep whatever warmth
Each carrying opposite ends of a heavy pallet, coming
inside, the magistrates lowered it to the floor.
Realizing what was on the pallet, Zachariah swallowed.
Slamming the door shut, standing with his back to the
parlor, blocking the boy’s view, “But,” the undertaker said,
speaking to the magistrates in harsh tones, “it’s Christmas
Eve and if it weren’t for these two…” motioning over his
shoulder, glancing into the parlor, noticing that the boy was
alone, “cleaning the chimney late me and the missis would
be long gone!”
Expecting a bit of a commission, especially on Christmas
Eve, “We be knowin’, Sir,” speaking with an Irish brogue,
the second officer said, “an’ it’s sorry we are to be botherin’
ya on such a night, but you bein’ the closest, we thought a
fee—a big fee!” winking his eye, “such as from a gentleman
as fine as this…” pointing to the body, “might be’a interest
to ya, an’…”
Looking at the body for the first time, Hobbins noticed
the expensive clothing.
“… might well be a fee ya’d be wantin’! But if not, we’ll
be findin’ another place to be leavin’ the stiff.”
Reaching behind his back, the magistrate opened the
door, bent down and lifted one end of the pallet.
“No!” Hobbins said quickly, thinking the magician may
well be a rich barrister. “Long as you’re here, you might as
well leave it. Come ahead, carry it down to the workshop.”
The officers lifted the pallet.
Turning, Hobbins saw the boy watching. “You! Boy! Get
back to work! Mind your own business and get finished!
Saying nothing, holding both hands forward, palms up,
Zachariah shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ll be back to you in a minute!” Turning to the two
magistrates, “All right! All right,” he said impatiently, “carry
Catching the threat in Hobbins words, Zachariah
returned to his work.
Making the turn from the foyer to the stairway, looking
for a larger tip, “Eh!” grunting loudly, “‘e’s a ‘eavy stiff, ‘e
is!” one of the magistrates complained as they started to
carry the body of the magician down the steps.
The boy could hear the muted sounds of a discussion
through the open door, and after a few minutes the clumping
footsteps of the magistrates as they came up the stairs,
slammed the basement door shut and, closing the door
behind them, left the funeral parlor.
The fireplace finished, sweeping the remaining ash into
the scuttle, carrying the pail outside, no compost heap here,
he poured the ash into the trash.
Back inside, taking his scarf off, the boy shook it lightly
over the drop cloths and, Mousy, what do I do with ya,
Mousy? Not knowing where to put Mousy, afraid that the
creature might run away, holding the pocket closed, he
removed his coat, shook it also, then folded the cloths and,
anxious to be away from here, not taking the time to put his
coat on, laying it on top, the boy stacked the drop cloths
alongside the fireplace.
Going to the basement door, opening it a crack, “Mister
‘obbins,” speaking softly, “Mister ‘obbins, Sir. I be finished.”
Closing the door, waiting for the sound of footsteps, he stood
back… Cracking the door again, calling a bit louder, “Mister
‘obbins! I’ve…” Suddenly pushed open, the door smashed
into the boy’s head knocking him backward where, tripping
on the rug, he fell flat on his back.
“I’m here! No need to shout.” Stepping over the boy, “Get
off my rug!” Going into the parlor, “Where’s Johnson?”
Hobbins asked. “Why’s he not here?”
Standing, rubbing the growing bump on his forehead,
“Uh, Mister ‘obbins, Sir, Master Johnson, ‘e, uh, ‘e ‘ad’a
‘pointment, an’ ‘ad’a go.”
““e ‘ad’a ‘pointment an’ ‘ad’a go’!” Mimicking the boy
sarcastically. “He had an appointment, did he? I know where
your worthless master’s appointment is!” Leaning into him,
breathing his fetid breath onto his face. “With a bottle of
gin!” Grabbing Zachariah by the shoulders, shaking him, as
if to place Johnson’s weakness for gin onto the hapless boy.
“Isn’t that where he’s at? Not a doubt! With a bottle of gin!”
Pushing him aside, wiping his hands on the bloody apron,
waiting for him to answer, daring him to tell the truth,
Hobbins glared at the boy.
Rubbing his right shoulder with his left hand, and the
painful, rapidly growing bump on his forehead with his right,
backing away, “Mister ‘obbins, that’s all ‘e said to me, Sir. ‘e
said ‘e’s got’a ‘pointment.”
“Don’t you lie to me, boy. I know his tricks; he left you
here to do my work while he went off to meet his worthless,
drunken friends.” Taking angry strides, Hobbins went to the
fireplace, stooped, looked in, then, getting onto his knees
he leaned inside and peered upward, into the flue. Actually
seeing very little in the darkened flue, “Not perfect,” he said,
turning back to the apprehensive boy, “but,” adding
grudgingly, “it’ll do.”
Standing behind the undertaker, Zachariah had been
holding his breath and now let it out.
Going from chair to chair, from settee to settee, the
undertaker inspected, looking for a smear, a smudge, a
reason—any reason—to take his anger out on Johnson for
not remaining on the job; a reason not to pay.
Quiet. Not daring to make a sound, not daring to make a
movement, unaware that he was holding his breath,
following Hobbins with his eyes only, Zachariah wanted only
to be paid and to be out of this place.
One item left: A gold settee.
Walking slowly, inspecting, looking closely, “Mmmm,”
stroking his chin, “Mmmm,” Hobbins repeated as, holding
his breath once again, standing stock still, still, the boy
followed the man with his eyes only.
Begrudgingly satisfied, the sharp clink of jiggled coins
could be heard throughout the silent room as the undertaker
reached beneath the apron, into his pocket and, extracting
his hand, holding it forward…
Taking a breath now, breathing now, Zachariah reached
for the money.
“Hmmm?” Thinking he’d seen something, turning,
stooping, Hobbins once again looked at the gold settee.
Closer this time—much closer.
And sure enough… “Ah-ha!”
“Ah-ha”? Feeling his heart thump, his hand held forward,
the boy stood still, completely still.
Craning his neck, Zachariah attempted to peer around
the tall man’s legs.
“What is this?” Grabbing Zachariah by the scruff of the
neck, dragging him forward, forcing his head down. “Boy,”
the undertaker demanded, “what is this?”
The boy turned pale beneath the layers of dirt.
Holding him, “It’s soot!” Hobbins screamed. “That’s what
it is! Soot! You’ve filthied my settee! You’ve ruined it!”
Forcing the boy’s head down, the man rubbed Zachariah’s
nose—as one would a puppy’s into a puddle of urine—onto
the barely seen smudge, the soot on his nose causing the
slight smear on the silky, gold material to become larger
“No, Sir!” Terrified, bounding back, Zachariah twisted
out of the undertaker’s grasp. “No, Sir,” he said, rubbing
his neck with one hand and his nose the other, “It ain’t
possible! I never ‘ad been near it!”
Seizing Zachariah by the arm, squeezing, twisting,
Hobbins pulled him forward. “Are you calling me a liar, boy?
Here! Open your eyes! Look again! No, sir! I told him—that
worthless master of yours—I told him I pay only for well turned
“No, Sir.” Twisting, the boy attempted to pull from his
grasp, but the undertaker held on tightly. “No, Sir! I ain’t
callin’ ya a liar, Sir!” He pleaded, “Ya sofa’s not been ruined!
It’s only a little smudge.” Though by now, with the rubbing
of his nose onto the light colored material, the light smudge
had become a rather vivid smear. “It’ll come clean. Please,
Sir, let me try an’ clean it!”
Hobbins had found his excuse for not paying, even though
he knew that with the help of a few drops of embalming
fluid the smudge could easily be cleaned.
Now, though, “No, by God!” he’d truly worked himself
into near hysteria. “Nothing for you and nothing for your
worthless master!” His face red, the veins in his thin neck
bulging, “Not a farthing!” he screamed. “Out! I want you
out of here! Now!”
Hearing her husband, Mrs. Hobbins came from a place
in the rear of the funeral establishment and now stood just
inside the parlor doorway.
Noticing her, calming slightly, “The gold settee,” he said.
“They got soot onto it and still the drunkard’s whelp expects
to be paid!”
“Don’t pay him! Where’s the filth’s besotted master?”
“Oh,” Hobbins said sarcastically, “no doubt the good man
went off to church for an early Christmas mass.”
“Sir,” turning from one to the other, “Mum,” looking from
face to face. “Mister ‘obbins, Sir, your sofa ‘ere ain’t been
ruined! Mizz’s ‘obbins, it’ll come clean!” The boy pleaded,
“Please let me clean it for ya!” But…
“No!” said Mrs. Hobbins, whom, if anything, was even
cheaper than her husband. “Throw the filthy scum out!”
“Please, Mizz’s! Master Johnson’ll beat me! I worked so
‘ard for ya an’ I’ll be beaten’n’punished for nothin’… Please!”
Protected only by his threadbare shirt, his fingers digging
painfully into the flesh of the boy’s arm, Hobbins dragged
him to the front door.
Mrs. Hobbins yanked it open and together the two
forcefully thrust Zachariah through.
The force of the shove sent the boy sliding across the
slippery porch and, his arms flailing the air, he tried to regain
his balance but couldn’t, and falling down the four wooden
steps, landed in a muddy puddle.
Sitting in the mud, looking up, “Mister ‘obbins, Mizz’s
‘obbins…” the boy tried one last appeal, “It’s near Christmas!