“Why do you keep calling her Veronica?” said Uncle George. “Louie wrote that her name was Pearl.”
“It still is,” said Solly. “But it is also Veronica, and that is what she likes me to call her. Her father is Professor Vambrace, you know.”
“Oh God, that old bastard,” said Uncle George, and was kicked on the ankle by his wife. “Gussie, what are you kicking me for?”
At this moment a Hansen cousin, leaning on a stick, approached and interrupted.
“Let’s see, George, now Louisa’s gone you’re the oldest Hansen stock, aren’t you?”
“I’m sixty-nine,” said Uncle George; “you’re older than that, surely, Jim?”
“Sixty-eight,” said Jim, with a smirk.
“You look older,” said Uncle George, unpleasantly.
“You would, too, if you’d been where I was on the Somme,” said Cousin Jim, with the conscious virtue of one who has earned the right to be nasty on the field of battle.
“You people certainly like it hot in Canada,” said Aunt Gussie. And she was justified, for the steam heat and three open fires had made the crowded rooms oppressive.
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Solly and crept away. He ran upstairs and sought refuge in the one place he could think of which might be inviolable by his mother’s relatives. As he entered his bathroom from his dressing room his wife slipped furtively in from the bedroom. They locked both doors and sat down to rest on the edge of the tub.
“They’re beginning to fight about who’s the oldest stock,” said Solly.
“I’ve met rather too many people who’ve hinted that our marriage killed your mother,” said Veronica. “I thought a breather would do me good.”
“Mother must have written fifty letters about that.”
“Don’t worry about it now, Solly.”
“How is Humphrey doing?”
“I haven’t heard any complaints. Do people always soak like this at funerals?”
“How should I know? I’ve never given a funeral tea before.”
When Solly and his wife went downstairs again they found that most of the guests had turned their attention from drink to food, save for a half-dozen diehards who hung around the bar. The mourners were, in the main, elderly people who were unaccustomed to fresh air in the afternoon, and the visit to the cemetery had given them an appetite. The caterer directed operations from the kitchen, and his four waitresses hurried to and fro with laden platters. Ethel and Doris, ranking as mourners, pretended to be passing food, but were in reality engaged in long and regretful conversations with family friends, one or two of whom were unethically sounding them out about the chances of their changing employment, now that Mrs Bridgetower was gone. (After all, what would a young man with an able-bodied wife want with two servants?) Miss Puss had been expected to pour the tea, a position of special honour, but she gave it up after overfilling three cups in succession, and seemed to be utterly unnerved; little Mrs Knapp took on this demanding job, and was relieved after a hundred cups or so by Mrs Swithin Shillito. The fake beams of the dining-room ceiling seemed lower and more oppressive than ever as the mourners crowded themselves into the room, consuming ham, turkey, sandwiches, cheese, Christmas cake and tartlets with increasing gusto. Those who were wedged near the table obligingly passed plates of food over the heads of the crowd to others who could not get near the supplies. The respectful hush had completely vanished, laughter and even guffaws were heard, and if it had not been a funeral tea the party would have been called a rousing success.
The mourners had returned from the graveyard at four o’clock, and it was six before any of them thought of going home. It was the general stirring of the Montreal Hansens, who had a train to catch, which finally broke up the party.
“Good-bye, Solly, and a Merry Christmas!” roared Uncle George, who had returned to the bar immediately after finishing a hearty tea. His wife kicked him on the ankle again, and he straightened his face. “Well, as merry as possible under the circumstances,” he added, and plunged into the scramble for rubbers which was going on in the hall. Cousin Jim was sitting on the stairs, while a small, patient wife struggled to put on and zip up his overshoes. “Take care of my bad leg,” he said, in a testy voice, to anyone who came near. It was some time before all the Hansens had gone. Several of them trailed back into the drawing-room, in full outdoor kit, to wring Solly’s hand, or to kiss him on the cheek. But at last they went, and the Saltertonians began to struggle for coats and overshoes.
Mr Matthew Snelgrove, solicitor and long-time friend of Mrs Bridgetower, approached Solly conspiratorially. He was a tall old man, stiff and crane-like, with beetling brows.
“Will tomorrow, at three o’clock, suit you?” he said.
“For what, Mr Snelgrove?”
“The will,” said Mr Snelgrove. “We must read and discuss the will.”
“But is that necessary? I thought nobody read wills now. Can’t we meet at your office some day next week and discuss it?”
“I think that your Mother would have wished her will to be read in the presence of all her executors.”
“All her executors? Are there others? I thought that probably you and myself –”
There are two executors beside yourself, and it is not a simple will. Not simple at all. I think you should know its contents as soon as possible.”
“Well — if you say so.”
“I think it would be best. I shall inform the others. Here, then, at three?”
“As you please.”
Solly had no time to reflect on this arrangement, for several people were waiting to say good-bye. Dean Knapp and his wife approached last, each holding an arm of Miss Puss Pottinger, who wore the rumpled appearance of one who has been put into her outside clothes by hands other than her own. One foot was not completely down into her overshoe, and she lurched as she walked.
“We shall see Miss Pottinger home,” said the Dean, smiling but keeping a jailor’s grip on Auntie Puss.
“Solly, dear boy,” cried that lady, and breaking free from the Dean she flung herself upon Solly’s bosom, weeping and scrabbling at his coat. It became clear that she wanted to kiss him. He stooped and suffered this, damp and rheumy as it was; then, taking her by the shoulders, he passed her back to Mrs Knapp. With a loud hiccup Auntie Puss collapsed, and almost bore the Dean’s wife to the floor. When she had been picked up, she was led away, sobbing and murmuring, “Poor Louisa’s last At Home — shall never forget –” They were the last to go.
“Well, well, well,” said Cobbler, strolling in from the hall, when he had helped the Dean to drag Auntie Puss down a rather icy walk, and boost her into a car; “quite overcome with grief. Sad.”
“She was drunk,” said Solly. “What on earth did you give her?”
“The poor old soul was badly in need of bracing,” said Cobbler. “I gave her a sherry with a touch of brandy in it, and it did the trick. But would she let well alone? She would not. She kept coming back. Was I to refuse her? I tried her once without the brandy, but she passed back her glass and said, “This isn’t the same.” Well — she had seven. I couldn’t put her on the Indian List; she’d have made a scene. Whatever she feels like tomorrow, I am pure as the driven snow. Never say No to a woman; my lifelong principle.”
He was helping Veronica to clear up the mess. Paper napkins were everywhere. Dirty plates covered the top of the piano. Cake had been ground into the carpet. The pillow of white roses in Mrs Bridgetower’s chair had been pushed under it by the callous Cousin Jim, who wanted to sit down and had no feeling for symbolism.
“For heaven’s sake leave that,” said Solly. “Let Ethel and Doris cope with it.”
” ‘Fraid the girls are a bit overcome,” said Cobbler. “They told me they were good for nothing but bed. Odd phrase, considering everything.”
“Humphrey, what did you do?” said Veronica.
“Me? Not a thing. Just my duty, as I saw it. People kept asking for drinks and I obliged them. Really, Solly, those Hansen relatives of yours are something special. Hollow legs, every one of them.”
“Was there enough?”
“Just managed. Do you know that there were two hundred and forty-seven souls here, and not one of them was a teetotaller? I always count; it’s automatic with me. I count the house at every Cathedral service; the Dean likes to know how he’s pulling. I consider that the affair was a credit to your late Mum, but we nearly ran out of swipes. It was a close thing.”