Looking up, Matthew saw pictures in the ripples and dimples of satin as if they were layers of clouds over Munson’s Hill. There, in the far corner: That drape looked like one of Mr. Venable’s cantankerous swans. And just overhead was the familiar lumpy profile of Mr. Krohn the wheelwright, mouth yawning wide.
Matthew grinned at the thought of fat Mr. Krohn wedged into this narrow space. He slowly, noiselessly slid his arms and legs outward until they met the soft, adamant walls to left and right. Then gradually, in torturous, tense increments, he raised trembling hands and feet until knuckles and bare toes were buried in the satin of the ceiling and could rise no farther.
Not much room even for Matthew, eight years old last Tuesday, but for Mr. Krohn? No standard-sized box for him. Maybe they’d just knock the wheels off one of Mr. Krohn’s own wagons, take down his barn door, and saw him a lid to fit.
Matthew came perilously close to giggling, in this space too small for both a medium-sized boy and a good-sized laugh. He froze, lips pursed and bulging, as murmuring voices approached his sanctuary from the world beyond the lid.
Matthew had noticed, long before his eyes adjusted to the dark, the dust-thin creases of light that outlined the lid on three sides. Matthew, a butcher’s son, had speculated wildly on the effects of this unexpected ventilation. Now shadows crawled the length of the longest seam, filling it. Matthew heard a woman snuffling, and then the deep and placid voice of Mr. Marsh, whose words sounded recited, like Scripture.
“And this is, of course, one of our simpler models, but nonetheless popular, for reasons I’m sure you can discern for yourselves. Simple yet elegant, qualities for which your aunt herself was, if I may say so, quite well known in life.”
A whimper of ladylike assent emerged from the snuffles before being choked off, and another man’s voice said: “Indeed. Might this model, like the mahogany, be fitted with a bell?”
“Yes, of course,” Mr. Marsh said, “or the equally effective speaking tube, which as I have said is a less cumbersome and more frugal option. In either case, your aunt would be guaranteed able to summon assistance in the event of—the unspeakable.” He rushed the last two words in an awestruck mumble.
“Well, that’s a mercy, anyway,” the other man said, just as Matthew gave voice to the unspeakable, and sneezed.
All sounds from without ceased. For a thrilling few moments of darkness and silence, Matthew himself froze—the easiest course of action, really, in a space that so limited a boy’s options. His heart raced. He felt a strange exultation he’d never felt before. He snapped shut his eyes and folded both hands over his chest just as Mr. Marsh seized hold of the lid and lifted.
The sunshine streaming through the front window was hot on Matthew’s cheeks. He opened his eyes to see three faces looking down: the right-side-up face (Mr. Marsh) swollen and agog like a frog forbidden to croak; the first sideways face (the other man) pale and aghast, a deacon’s face; the second sideways face (the woman!) mostly black lace and crepe above red lips and perfect teeth, one row parted from the other in surprise. It was at her lovely half-face that Matthew smiled, and to her that he directed his greeting.
“Hullo. Mr. Marsh is quite right. This is a very comfortable model indeed.”
Matthew sprang over the side of the coffin before the adults quite registered that he even had sat up. He hit the polished floor running. He skidded around a marble angel and set a candelabrum ominously rocking as he dashed for the door. Behind him the two men called for him to stop and denounced him as an ill-bred urchin, a vagabond, a ragamuffin. The woman’s laughter rang out over their futility as clear and as strong as any of Mr. Marsh’s old coffin bells.
Matthew ran out of the shop and into the muddy street and slid unscathed directly across the path of a rearing carriage horse. Heedless beneath flashing hooves, exultant between toe-shaped gushes of mud, Matthew began his lifelong vivid recollection of the veiled woman’s naked astonishment. This private image, tinted and embellished like an illustrated weekly’s engraving of Christ, would be especially dominant a few years later, when Matthew began to take a naturally keener interest in the corseted half of humanity.
• • • •
“I must confess to you, Mr. Preble,” Miss Charity Gorce told Matthew, “that you are not the first man to ask for my hand in marriage.”
“Of that, Miss Gorce, I have no doubt.”
“I must tell you, as well, that when your predecessors heard my conditions of marriage, they rescinded their offers, quit this house with more haste than decorum, and never returned—indeed, severed all relations with me. In short, Mr. Preble, they fled.”
“I could not imagine having the slightest desire to flee your presence, Miss Gorce. I find it most congenial.”
“Yes,” she said, without inflection. “Well, you’re young yet, Mr. Preble—somewhat younger than I am, if I may be so forward, though we need not speak in numeric terms. Perhaps you will be older by the time you leave here. Allow me to examine the evidence for your suit. Oh, you may sit, by the way. I’m sure your knee would be glad of the rest.”
Matthew bowed his head graciously and rose from his position at Miss Gorce’s feet. Three backward steps brought him to the edge of the cushioned window seat, where he reverently settled himself.
Miss Gorce adjusted her pince-nez and leafed silently through Matthew’s papers. Matthew admired the contours of her arms, rather daringly revealed by her stylishly tight sleeves. He admired her face as well. Her high forehead and patrician nose were shared by all the grim ancestors whose surrounding portraits conspired to darken the room. Yet her mouth was comically wide, her eyebrows a single dark swath, her hair asymmetrically askew. Nature had marred her inherited good looks just enough to make her beautiful.
“I remember your father’s butcher shop, Mr. Preble,” Miss Gorce finally said, “for my mother traded there. I confess I have no recollection of you being anywhere near the place, at least during hours in which work might be done. Since leaving Rochester, however, you seem to have been uncharacteristically industrious. Surveying team in the Aroostook Valley . . . Commendations from two governments for your role in settling that border dispute . . . Further surveying, exploring, speculating . . . These are strange times, Mr. Preble, when a man can make a fortune in land transactions without acquiring any land himself. I presume this is where I, and my family’s holdings, come in? No need to protest, Mr. Preble, I’m only joking. Partially. Cultural activities seem in order . . . Founding sponsor of the New York Philharmonic . . . Et cetera, et cetera. Well.”
She plucked off her spectacles and sat back in her chair, layers of fabrics and petticoats crackling and rustling. “Let us set aside these papers for a moment.”
“Let’s,” said Matthew, quivering.
“I admit that the months we have spent strolling and taking tea and visiting the infirm on Sundays have been pleasant for me, Mr. Preble.”
“For me, as well, Miss Gorce.”
“As long as I am being blunt, I should add that you are, in your own unique and disheveled way, quite a well-turned-out young man.” As she said this, she averted her eyes downward so that she no longer met his gaze. “And so,” she said, finally looking up. She was flushed. She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. “I am inclined to accept your proposition, and grant you my hand in marriage.”
In the next instant, Matthew was on his knees at her feet once more, seizing her hands in his. “Marvelous! You will not regret this, Miss Gorce. I will be yours until death!”
“And beyond?” she asked, smiling down at him.
Her smile faded. She sat forward, pallid and drawn, eyes swimming with ghosts, and clutched his hands until his knuckles grated. “I have but one fear, Mr. Preble,” she whispered. “My inheritance has spared me privation and want; my talents and industry have spared me the unreliable mercies of men. But nothing will spare me the chill of the tomb. My one fear, Mr. Preble, is that I will suffer the fate suffered by all my ancestors on the walls around us—that despite my money, and status, and wit, I will die and be buried alone. I have lived alone for years, and thrive upon it; but to lie in my casket alone—Oh! The dread possibility has me choking and gasping in my bed each night, unable to sleep, unable to breathe, unable to bear the thought of the blanketing, solitary doom that awaits. Do you understand now my conditions of marriage, Mr. Preble?”
Matthew opened his mouth, considered, then snapped it shut and rapidly shook his head.
“Should I die first,” Miss Gorce said, “my husband must be buried with me. Immediately. Before another sunset. He must willingly lie, before his time, in an adjoining casket in our mutual plot in the Gorce family cemetery, and sail alongside me into that sea of worms.”
“He must be buried alive?” Matthew croaked.
“Alive or dead, the choice is his. Buried, yes; that is my choice. My choice, my desire, my condition of marriage.” She smiled faintly. “Shall I have Mr. Sterne bring your hat?”
“And if I die before you?”
She smiled more broadly. “Then I will do you the same favor, Mr. Preble. I will not remain above the soil one day more than you do. That very night, I will lie beside you in the adjacent grave.”
Matthew stood, walked to the window, and looked toward fields and sheds that he did not see. He closed his eyes and summoned, as he had countless times before, an elegant mouth beneath black lace and crepe, leaning over a coffin. This time the mouth was Miss Gorce’s. Then, in his vision, he was standing above the coffin looking in, as Miss Gorce’s lips repeatedly formed the word “Yes.”
Surging with tides he could neither name nor deny, he swung round and returned to Miss Gorce’s side, where he fervently and repeatedly kissed her hand.
“May I take this as an acceptance?” Miss Gorce asked, a bit breathlessly.
Matthew made no verbal reply.
Her eyes glistening, her broad forehead cleared of furrows, Miss Gorce groped with her free hand for the bell pull, seized it, and yanked it repeatedly. She left it dancing and reached for Matthew’s hair, tugging absently but fondly at the upswept curls that spilled over his collar in back.
“For if he loves me with all his heart,” she murmured, “of what use will life be to him afterwards?”
The papers had lain for years in a downstairs safe. On many occasions, Miss Gorce’s butler, Sterne, had transferred the papers to a silver salver and sat impassively in the pantry, watching the bell, waiting for a signal that never came. Each time, he had needed no further instructions; without troubling his mistress more, he had returned the papers to their felt-lined vault before the suitor’s horse had galloped past the willow tree on the corner.
On this day, the jangling resurrection of the so-long-dormant bell caused Sterne no visible surprise. After a pause of only a few seconds, he stood, picked up the salver, and strode from the pantry before the bell had finished tinkling.
Sterne walked silently through a series of ever more ornate doorways, through a series of increasingly well-lighted rooms, and ascended a flight of stairs wide enough for a pedestrian race. At the top, he tapped at the door of Miss Gorce’s office.
“Come,” she murmured.
Silently, Sterne watched as Matthew and Miss Gorce signed the documents. Then Sterne signed his own name, added the date, and stamped each of the three copies with the embossed seal of the State of New York.
“So convenient,” Miss Gorce breathed into Mr. Preble’s ear, “having a notary on the premises.”
• • • •
The Prebles were as content in marriage as any couple can be in this fallen world. An early crisis on the question of brunch was defused by the decision to have it each day, only at different times, some days as late as midnight. Over brunch, tea, elevenses, and all other meals (for they were a ravenous pair), they read aloud to each other (and to Sterne, as he shimmered in and out) from Godey’s Lady’s Book, the Southern Literary Messenger, Scientific American, and all other periodicals, including, most thrillingly, the Workingman’s Advocate. They imported a saxophone from Belgium, a harmonium from France, and practiced fruitlessly before an audience of each other, for Sterne scheduled his errands judiciously.
They also devoted many more successful hours to perfecting their marital arts, displaying impromptu skills that astonished and gratified in equal measure. Perhaps sensing that the new marrieds were more than normally preoccupied with matters normally left to a procreative God, the mothers of Rochester began propelling their children past the gates of the Gorce mansion at double speed. The Prebles observed this, as they observed everything else, and were happy. Then Mrs. Preble died.
• • • •
Matthew lay in the dark coffin and sobbed. His cries and moans were close about him. Disgorged from his chest and mouth, they sank into the fabric lining the box and rebounded to nestle, moist, against him. Again and again he choked out his dear wife’s name, careless of the squandered air. What use was air, with Charity in the grave?
Through his spasms of grief, Matthew was dimly aware that he now had far less room to maneuver than he had at age eight, inside Mr. Marsh’s display model. Unable to flail his arms and legs as he wailed, he twisted and rolled from side to side, bruising his shoulders against the coffin lid. He groaned and cursed like an armless flagellant, and his tormented words crowded the box on all sides. He was awash in nightmare jibberings. The clouds of satin over his head shaped a riot of crawling, leaping, writhing things, the pandemonium of a dozen faiths.
And there, in the cloths to the left—was that lump of fabric not the placid death-mask of his poor dead Charity, his wife of barely a twelvemonth, who had looked so rosy and fair even on her bier that she scarce seemed a fit candidate for the grave? No doubt, her sure foreknowledge that her husband was willing to lie beside her even in death had eased her soul’s dark dread, made her dead cheeks and brow bloom in relief.
But where was Matthew’s solace now, as he churned in misery many feet below the heaped earth of the family plot?
The heavy air around him was cotton in a pill-box, holding him fixed and suffocating in the center of his prison. He rolled through this cloying ether of misery as a crated carcass in a ship’s hold rolls stupidly through lard. Had Charity, blessedly insensible, been spared this ordeal? Ah, Charity! Ah, Matthew! Ah, God!
Such were Matthew’s thoughts as he fell, exhausted, into the deepest, most blissful, most untroubled sleep of his life.
Matthew was awakened by a ripping, splintering, grating wail only inches from his face.
More jolts, and something heavy raking along the length of the box.
Coughs and murmurs.
A sawing rasp.
Then Matthew’s skin prickled as the trapped and clammy air released its grip and rushed upward, a dank gasp exhaled into a rectangle of star-flecked sky. Its escape fluttered the coattails and stirred the mutton chops of a black-clad, lantern-haloed figure who straddled the coffin and looked dourly down into earth, one hand supporting the casket lid.
Matthew lay still and looked up, blinking, uncomprehending.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said.
“Who else?” Sterne asked, extending a hand.
Matthew allowed himself to be hauled from the hole and propped against the fresh mound of earth. He choked on the brandy that Sterne slopped into his mouth.
“Please, sir,” Sterne kept saying. “Please, you must drink.”
“Sterne,” Matthew rasped. “Sterne. What is happening?”
Sterne fumbled in his waistcoat-pocket, drawing forth a sheaf of papers. “If I may explain, sir. I have spent some time studying the agreement that you and my mistress signed before the wedding. I also consulted my cousin, a solicitor in Philadelphia—in strictest confidence, I assure you, sir. He confirmed my interpretation. The document clearly mandates your interment in the event of your wife’s death, but makes no provision for the duration of said interment.” He waved the paper in front of Matthew, jabbing a gloved finger at the pertinent clause.
“You have exhumed me,” Matthew said, ignoring the paper.
“I took that liberty, sir,” Sterne said, dropping his eyes.
“Then my wife . . . lies there still?”
“She does, sir.”
Matthew groaned, flung his forearm across his face, and would have expressed his desire to return to the earth, rather than face the sunlight alone, had all his senses not been galvanized by the faint jingling of a tiny bell, such as a gentlewoman might use to summon a lady-in-waiting.
Matthew sat up, his nose nearly meeting Sterne’s. The men stared at each other. As one, they turned and regarded the adjacent grave. The bell continued to jingle.
“My wife’s coffin—” Matthew began.
“The latest safety features—” Sterne began.
Matthew already was clawing doglike at the dirt with one hand and using the other to yank free squares of freshly laid sod. He flung them over his shoulder, where they puffed into dust on his own yawning casket. A tossed spade thumped into the dirt beside him. As he seized it, he saw Sterne gouge the blade of his own shovel deep into the mound, one grimy spat glimmering white in the glow of the lantern.
Silently, master and servant worked side by side, pelting the landscape with shovelfuls of dirt. As his arms and shoulders pumped like automatons, Matthew’s mind ransacked a lifetime’s lore concerning those strange diseases that seemed to rebuke the advances of modern medicine. Certain maladies mocked the symptoms of death, caused the temporary cessation of all vital functions except, apparently, the fluttering soul, which later awakened in the most dreadful predicament known to suffering humanity. Merciful God! Still the bell kept ringing—ringing—ringing!—until Matthew’s blade jabbed into the casket lid and splintered its tiny belfry at the base. As he and Sterne scrabbled away the remaining layer of earth, the slender, severed bell-pull slithered back into its trap and vanished inside the coffin, as if tugged one last time by an unseen hand falling limp in exhaustion.
“My wife!” cried Matthew, wrenching open the lid.
“My husband!” cried Charity, reaching up to him.
Sterne’s lantern then illumined a tender scene. Husband laved wife with muddy kisses as, with his last strength, he bore her out of the grave and laid her gently upon the mound where Sterne had laid him not an hour before. The two collapsed together like the walls of a tent, and in a heap they cradled each other, murmuring endearments.
Sterne, coughing discreetly, dispensed brandy, then retreated to the wagon for some rope. “No need to waste the caskets,” he muttered as he went.
“I thought the most terrible moment of my life,” Matthew finally said, “was when I entered your bedchamber to find you in the very shape and lineaments of death. But it was nothing compared to the terror I felt here, in this cemetery, when Sterne and I heard your cry for help ring out practically beneath our feet.”
Charity tensed alongside him like a rope pulling taut. She moved back a few inches. Matthew did not care for her gaze; she seemed to see him coolly and see him whole.
“Beneath your feet, my angel?” Charity asked. “How could that be, my dove?”
Charity then turned and regarded the open pit of her husband’s grave. She craned forward and looked down upon the empty coffin. Then she faced her own grave, studied her own empty casket. She silently looked from one pit to another, her appraising glance that of a vaguely interested customer presented with equally uninviting alternatives.
“My dear—” Matthew said.
“How strange,” Charity said, almost to herself, “that Sterne’s initial response, upon hearing my call for help, was to go next door and dig you up. Was your help so necessary? I always fancied Sterne more self-sufficient than that.”
“My love—” Matthew said.
“If he loves me with all his heart,” she said, fully to herself by now, “of what use will life be to him afterwards? What use, indeed?” She picked up a clod of clay and fisted it, raining sediment upon her shoe.
“My heart—” Matthew said.
“I think I would like to go back home, now, Mr. Preble,” Charity said, in the voice she lately had reserved for tradesmen, shopkeepers, and clergy. “I would like to return to my house, to my bedchamber, to my life, which has been so rudely interrupted, and attempt to forget that all this recent unpleasantness ever happened.”
As she spat out the word “unpleasantness,” she looked him squarely in the face, as she was not to do again for a very long time.
• • • •
Many months later, Matthew retreated to the casket.
This time, he did not open his eyes to see what portraits and playlets the satin curtains would unveil. This time, he repaired to the grave only to sleep. He lay still, eyes closed, tried to wedge himself into the sweet, sunny coffin of childhood memory, and willed sweet nepenthe to embrace him.
Night after fitful night, in his new, cold, lonely bedchamber in the servant’s wing of the Gorce mansion, he had sought oblivion with insomniac singlemindedness, and had failed utterly. Partially to blame was the bed—a creaking, swaybacked ruin that had been a malevolent secret of the Gorce family for decades, the lot of generations of unwelcome cousins, unwanted drummers, and unnecessary circuit preachers. Its arthritic joints were trussed with baling wire, and its list to starboard would have been even more noticeable but for the prosthetic use of an overturned chamber pot.
At Matthew’s direction, Sterne and his tool chest did the malformed bed further injury, lowering the canopy to mere inches from the occupant’s nose. Still it did little more than mock the exquisite sleep Matthew had enjoyed in the grave.
Finally, with great reluctance, Sterne heeded his master’s pleas. Sterne helped him wrestle the familiar casket into the patient pit (which Mrs. Preble demanded be left open, as evidence of her husband’s duplicity). Sterne lowered the lid, then raised it seconds later, as an apparent afterthought, and said—
“Eight hours. No more.”
—then closed it again.
At first, Matthew merely fussed and fidgeted. Why had he not brought a decent pillow, rather than rely upon this inadequate felt-covered fist that Mr. Marsh provided all his clients at no extra charge? Furthermore, the intrusive speaking tube that protruded from the lid forced him to hold his head at an unnatural angle, and the cold air that coursed down it all but guaranteed a chill. But Matthew eventually became accustomed to his circumstances, and began to doze. In his half-waking state, he fancied that a beautiful woman reached into his coffin, grasped him by his proudest member, and tugged repeatedly, as if to lift him with one hand alone—succeeding only in producing the most delightful friction, one that sent him smiling into . . . blissful, easeful, soul-repairing sleep!
“Sir, please wake up.
“Your wife, sir—she has need of you.”
The sunshine was hot on Matthew’s cheeks. But this sun was too close above his face. The lantern illumined Sterne’s features from below, doing them no credit; they flickered and danced obscenely.
“What?” Matthew blinked and sat up, slowly. “It’s still night. What time is it?” He groped for his watch.
“Three hours till dawn,” Sterne said. “I am ahead of my time, sir, but my mistress—your wife—demanded that I wake you.”
“My wife?” Matthew was not yet alert enough to envision any scenario in which his wife might desire his presence. “Why, is something wrong? Where is she?”
“She is here, sir,” Sterne said. “Alongside you.”
Even beyond the lantern light, Sterne’s forehead and neck twitched, suggesting a fit of nerves, or an unprecedented display of emotion barely kept in check. He wordlessly helped Matthew clamber out of the pit, then pointed into the adjacent grave.
A closed casket rested there, lightly covered by a shallow layer of earth. Sterne handed Matthew a shovel.
“She wishes for you to dig her up,” Sterne said. He walked away, hunching his shoulders against the breeze, vanishing three paces into the gloom.
Dazed, Matthew moved the lantern to the brink of the grave and vaulted into the hole. After a couple of experimental thrusts, he cast away the shovel, for the earth was only a few inches deep. With his hands, he raked away the clods indifferently spread across the mahogany surface in token burial.
He opened the lid.
Charity, wearing only her shift, looked up at him, smiling, twinkling, cheeks flushed. “Hello, husband,” she said.
He blinked. “Hullo.”
“Mr. Sterne told me what you were up to, you rogue. Embarrassing the poor man like that.”
She reached up with both hands and twined her long fingers into the frills on the front of his shirt. She tried to imitate Sterne’s familiar rumble. “He’s out there in the cemetery, ma’am. Really and truly in it, I mean. Says life has no meaning for him any more, and he won’t emerge—begging your pardon, ma’am—until you come out there and save him.” Her laugh was like the sweet jingle of a coffin bell, as she raised one bare foot, sidling it along the folds of his trousers. “Matthew, my love, what an enchanting—no, exciting—place to consummate your apology!”
“Matthew,” Charity said, “come wake me. Come wake the dead.” Tightening her fingers, she hauled violently, throwing him off balance. Matthew fell atop her, and the casket lid thumped down upon his buttocks.
Untended, the lantern burned until nearly dawn.
• • • •
Caskets were henceforth an important feature of the Prebles’ domestic life. Funeral parlors welcomed their lingering visits. Porters and doormen cursed and marveled at the weight of their luggage. Sterne quietly purchased enough digging equipment to exhaust a vein of coal, while the children of Rochester, delighted by rumors, paid each other to run past the Prebles’ house. By spring 1849, when both Mr. and Mrs. Preble set sail on that doomed Hudson steamer, its boiler ticking down the hours until explosion, the faithful Sterne had lost count of how many times he had buried the both of them.
• • • •
For weeks after the double funeral, though the other mourners (mostly out-of-towners) had long departed and resumed their lives, Sterne lingered. Frequent travelers on the turnpike that spring became accustomed to seeing the buggy tethered to the gates of the Gorce family cemetery, the dappled horse cropping wild asparagus in the shadow of the arching wrought-iron legend:
IT IS A HOLY AND WHOLESOME THOUGHT, TO PRAY FOR THE DEAD.
No one looked inside the buggy to remark on the ropes, the brandy, the shovels.
Sterne took most of his noontime meals in that bee-haunted acre, straddling the sandstone wall within hailing distance of the two fresh, bare graves.
The widow Redfield, observing Sterne’s schedule, began visiting her late husband (whose mother was a Gorce) somewhat more frequently than had been her custom. Her appearances became so frequent, in fact, that Sterne no longer could dismiss them as coincidence. In a stoic air of experimentation, he began loading double provisions into his picnic basket each day, and he was not disappointed.
No matter how scintillating the widow Redfield’s company, however, he conversed in a polite but abstracted manner, always with one ear cocked, listening for the chimes, the knocks, the muffled halloos that never came.
On the last day of his vigil, while calmly buttering a roll, he said aloud: “I suppose all amusements must come to an end.”
“Oh, Mr. Sterne,” the widow Redfield said, suddenly pale.
“Eh?” Trained to react to far subtler inflections, he looked up, butter knife poised. “I don’t mean our visits, Mrs. Redfield. You misunderstand me. I was thinking aloud . . . about a private joke, of long standing, between my mistress and master, and me.” He nodded in their direction.
The widow Redfield dimpled anew, smacked a droning yellowjacket with one of Mr. Marsh’s advertising fans, and asked: “Why, Mr. Sterne. Are you a man who appreciates amusements, then?” She threw her shoulders back, emphasizing her already considerable bosom.
“Increasingly so, Mrs. Redfield,” he replied, and popped the entire golden roll into his mouth.