The performance over, pulleys squeaked as once again
the chandeliers were lowered and the theater, once again
Putting their hats and coats on, the people filed outside,
into the cold gloom of this waning, prematurely dark day.
Climbing Boy 13: Undertaker
December 24, 1843
The coil of rope, brushes and the stack of drop clothes lying
at his feet, holding the collar of the long-coat pressed tightly
against his throat with one red, cold, chapped, scraped hand,
the boy held his other hand against his breast pocket, trying
to keep his friend the mouse inside warm also.
No bit of warmth nor a vestige of sunshine remained as
this day’s late afternoon winter grayness began its ebb into
Standing, waiting at the rear door of Hobbins’ Funeral
Parlor, thinking, Where’s the ol’ bastard? Johnson brought
his fist back to the black, blistered, and cracked door to
knock once again when he saw a shadow through the frosted
window. There ya are, ya ol’ bastard! and heard the shuffling
footsteps coming from within. Glancing at the boy, “The ol’
bastard’s comin’.” Shivering, he shoved both hands deeply
into his trouser pockets.
Parted slightly, the thinly opened door throwing a sliver
of light across Johnson’s face, “Yes?”
Recognizing the voice that came from behind the door,
“Eh, Mizz’s Hobbins, Mum!”
The door opened wider.
“Mum, it’s me, Johnson, the sweep, ‘ere with me ‘prentice
to clean the chimney.” Looking through the crack onto the
dour face of the undertaker’s wife, then, dropping his gaze,
Johnson looked downward.
The door opened wider, revealing a stringent faced, big
boned, middle-aged woman. “You’re late!” Glaring at
Johnson, her thin, upper lip curling with obvious dislike,
“We’d given up on you today!”.
“I knows, Mum,” he whined “We was unavoidably ‘eld
back at the first two jobs. Sorry, Mum.”
“Humph!” the undertaker’s wife snorted. “Wait here.”
Slamming the door, she bolted it behind her.
Staring at the closed door, listening to the receding
footsteps, “Bloody, damn witch!” Johnson said as, stamping
his feet and blowing warm air into his cupped hands, he
began to cough.
Within a few moments they heard returning footsteps.
The door opened.
Wearing a crusted, filthy, red streaked, hardly distinguishable-
as-white apron, his head bowed to keep from touching the upper doorframe, a tall, thin figure stood just inside the doorway.
“I knows, Sir, an’ I’m sorry, Sir, but…”
Unwilling to be touched by either of these two, standing
aside, “Come in!” Hobbins commanded. “Come inside so’s
least we can keep the cold out!”
Picking up the equipment, thankful to be invited out of
the cold, they quickly entered the comparative warmth of
the rear foyer.
Not wanting to be touched by the gore-splattered undertaker, Johnson and the boy also walked well to the side. Tall,
coming to near six feet, six inches, with the exception of a prominently protruding potbelly, the undertaker was reed thin.
In his early fifties, a sullen, dour faced man, Hobbins’
appearance was well in keeping with his frightful profession.
Rattling the frosted glass, slamming the door shut, “You’re
late!” Hobbins repeated angrily. “We’ve family, too, you
know!” Purposely bending forward, speaking closely into
Johnson’s face, “It’s Christmas Eve and we’re near closing.”
Tall, but not nearly as tall as Hobbins, intimidated by all,
but more so this man, Johnson attempted to back away. But,
always frightened by the undertaker, hiding behind his
master, Zachariah was pressed between Johnson and
“Mister ‘obbins, Sir,” reaching behind, grasping, trying
to pull the boy out from between himself and the wall behind
so he might have room to move further from Hobbins. “We
tried ‘ard to be ‘ere on time, but…” grabbing hold of his
shoulder, he dragged the boy out from behind by the sleeve
of his coat, “‘e made a mess an’ I ‘ad’a stop an’ clean it, an’
we rushed ‘ere as best we could, Sir!”
Even in the dimly lit foyer, Hobbins was able to see
Johnson’s drooping lids and blood-shot eyes. Bending
forward, coming even closer, forcing Johnson to arch his
head backward, “Johnson,” smelling his breath a second
time, “you’re a despicable liar! I know your tricks. You leave
the boy,” glaring at Zachariah—who shrunk behind his
master again—then looking back at Johnson, “and you go
off and get drunk. Humph! ‘You had to clean the mess he
made’! More’s the likely you forgot where you left the boy
and he had to wait for you to remember and find your
The back of Johnson’s head kept from touching the wall
only because Zachariah was hiding behind him; the two men
stood near nose to nose.
The undertaker being one of his few repeating customers,
not daring to answer for fear of losing his patronage, trying
his best to back away from Hobbins, Johnson remembered—
the ol’ bastard—the undertaker was a teetotaler and he
silently berated himself for coming to this establishment with
liquor on his breath and now, attempting to hold his breath,
Johnson started to cough, and his coughing finally caused
Hobbins to back away.
Catching his breath, “Sir, ‘tis true , I did stop for a wee
nip.” Holding his thumb and forefinger together. “But t’were
only one or two. I’m sorry, bein’ late an’ all, but we’s ‘ere
now.” Pleading, “So’s can’t we be started gettin’ on with
“No! I told you we’d be closing early!”
“But Mister ‘obbins, Sir, it’s barely evenin’, an’ ya don’t
never close afore nightfall!”
“Johnson,” becoming angry again, “I told you, today’s
the night before Christmas and Mrs. Hobbins and me are
“Mister ‘obbins, meanin’ no disrespect, Sir, but don’t
people die on the night afore Christmas?”
Trying to see if he’s making a jest at his expense, the
undertaker looked closely at Johnson, but concluded he
wouldn’t have the courage. Contemptuously, “Yes, people
do ‘die on the night afore Christmas,’” Hobbins said. “But
we’ve nothing left to do at this time that can’t wait till after
Christmas… Boy!” Yelling at Zachariah, who was still
squeezed between Johnson and the wall. “You’re not leaning
on my wall with your filthy coat?”
Startled, Zachariah pushed into Johnson, who grimaced
as he brushed against Hobbins’ blood- and chemical-stained
apron, whom, at the same time, quickly backed away from
Johnson while brushing soot off his disgusting apron.
“Me, Sir?” the boy asked meekly, poking his head from
behind Johnson’s hip.
“Yes! ‘You, Sir’! You’re not dirtying my wall are you?”
He was, but, “Oh, no, Sir!”
“Humph!” Thinking, Hobbins stroked his chin. “Johnson,
so long as the two of you are here, I’ll tell you what I’ll do.
I’ll let you do the chimney now… but not for the usual fee.”
“Mister ‘obbins, you’d not be do’in’ a workin’ man outta
his livin’ now, would ya? On the night afore the birth of, uh,
your Lord, Sir?”
“If you want to do the work today and not have to come
all this way back another time… if, if I allow you back!”
The implied threat was not lost on Johnson.
“Then, if you do, because of your lateness today, and
causing such great inconvenience to myself and Mrs.
Hobbins, if you want to be doing the work, then it’ll be for…”
thinking a moment, “four pence less!”
Hobbins’ dark eyes bored into Johnson’s.
Johnson looked back angrily… for a moment… then,
defeated, looked away.
“Four pence less today, or I’ll be finding another sweep
to be doing my work!”
Looking at the floor, thinking, Ya ol’ bastard! Johnson
agreed to the amount of payment by a feeble nod of his head.
“All right, now, that’s settled. Get to work! And remember,
the lowered price is agreed on! I’ll not be allowing any
careless work because I’m paying less than you want. I
expect the job well finished! And I want you out of here
Holding his anger, Johnson replied softly, through his
teeth. “Don’t ya be worrin’, Sir. It’s only the best work for
ya, an we’ll be out’a your ‘stablishment well afore seven.”
“Get on with you!” Turning away, followed by the two,
walking down the hall, Hobbins opened a door leading into
a long, dark corridor and, taking quick, purposeful strides,
led them into the main condolence parlor that was
immediately adjacent the front door.
Clearing his throat, as though to impress Johnson and
Zachariah with his meaning, “I tell you again,” looking at
both man and boy, “my furniture is expensive. I will tolerate
no dirt! Not a smidgen!” With one last, hard look from face
to face, turning, the undertaker walked from the room.
Being sure that Hobbins was well out of hearing, waiting
till he heard the door to the downstairs workroom slam shut,
dropping the toolbox onto the carpeted floor, “Tis a dirty,
rotten bastard ‘e is!” Johnson said vehemently. “Damned ol’
tightwad, bastard, skinflint!” Looking about the room, “You!”
pointing at the boy, “Get your arse to work!” Shaking his
fist at him, “Or do ya want me ta give ya what for?”
Sighing, “No, Sir.” Taking his coat off, the boy laid it on
the hardwood floor to the right of the hearth.
Zachariah and Johnson moved the tables and chairs. They
rolled the carpets and draped drop cloths over the heavier
His anger still seething, muttering, “Damned ol’ skinflint!”
Hearing him, thinking he’s being spoken to, “Ehh, what’s
“Nothin’, ya little twit!” Taking some small part of his
rage at Hobbins out on the hapless boy, reaching to him,
Johnson slapped Zachariah on the side of his head.
Working rapidly, but well remembering Hobbins’
warning, both were extremely careful in the covering of
furniture as they prepared for the sweep in this richly
furnished condolence parlor.
The rows of chairs had fabric seats of a dark plum color.
The room had scattered, highly polished dark walnut tables
and three gold, brocade settees.
Pointing to an uncovered settee arm, “Ya be careful
there!” Johnson said. “Ya ‘eard what the ol’…” glancing over
his shoulder, “bastard said!”
“Yes, Sir,” Zachariah answered softly.
Not quite hearing the boy, turning angrily, leaving a gray
smudge of soot where the leg of his trousers brushed against
the light colored, gold material of one of the settees, “What
ya say, boy? Best be speakin’ up when I be talkin’ to ya!”
“Yes, Sir. I said, ‘Yes, Sir’!” Zachariah repeated in a
Drop cloths in place, leaving the building through a side
door, climbing to the roof, Johnson dropped the rope through
Below, Zachariah pulled it partially through, tied the
green twig brush onto the middle, placed the screening
clothes over the front of the fireplace, and tugged on the
Johnson pulled up.
Zachariah pulled it back.
Back and forth, as soot and ash rained into the fireplace.