The Undertaker's Wife

The Undertaker's Wife

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by Loren D. Estleman

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The undertaker's wife waits; she weaves; she builds.

The undertaker practices his art, the Dismal Trade, with consummate skill. He has raised it to an art through the high craft of the Connable Method. Through it, he has managed to transform the ugliness of death into a thing of dignity and beauty. Victims brutalized by war, street fights, tavern brawls,

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The undertaker's wife waits; she weaves; she builds.

The undertaker practices his art, the Dismal Trade, with consummate skill. He has raised it to an art through the high craft of the Connable Method. Through it, he has managed to transform the ugliness of death into a thing of dignity and beauty. Victims brutalized by war, street fights, tavern brawls, ambushes, fires, every hazard in a raw West---these, in his hands, become presentable. Everywhere on the frontier, which erupts with life and death, he offers his skill: to the rich of San Francisco, the bawds and ruffians of the Barbary Coast, to Kansas cowboys, outlaws, soldiers, and sheriffs. He is devoted to dignifying the dead.

She is devoted to making her marriage whole, in spite of the tragedy that surrounds it and, most especially, in spite of the tragedy that in one terrible afternoon strikes at its center.

Today the undertaker is called to disguise the suicide of a famous financier. It is high drama, for only his art can save America's financial markets. Her task on this day is secret, an act of understanding and dedication.

In the end, it is the undertaker's wife who, through love, is able to transcend death.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As in The Master Executioner, his 2001 tour de force, Estleman picks an unpopular profession and draws from it two compelling characters, and a memorable love story as well. Circa 1900, retired undertaker Richard Connable is pressed back into service by a cabal of powerful men who want him to work his "invisible art" on the corpse of a major financier who has committed suicide (the men want to disguise the cause of death and thereby avert economic panic). In his absence, Richard's estimable wife, Lucy, sensing the approach of her own death, recalls their story: the adventures that took them to Michigan, San Francisco, Kansas, Montana and elsewhere; Richard's professional development and friendship with Wild Bill Hickock; and the death of Richard and Lucy's only child. Well researched and meticulously detailed, offering a vivid picture of Victorian America, the novel is also marked by moments of grace and wit. The last third of this bittersweet love story, though, is a truncated summary of the rest of the Connables' lives, and the last 30 pages are rushed, losing depth and quality. Even so, the novel offers a superlative love story and a fascinating look at a misunderstood vocation. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Chapter One

Elihu Warrick entered his first-class stateroom aboard the Michigan Central, laid out his cigars and placed his portable bar in its morocco-leather case on one of the seats, removed his shimmering silk hat and gray Chesterfield, and gave them to the porter for brushing. When the porter returned forty-five minutes later, carrying the items in a new pair of white gloves, he found Mr. Warrick slumped on the seat opposite the bar and cigars, indisputably dead.

Certainly the porter, who had performed as an orderly in a Negro troop hospital during the war with Spain, was disinclined to dispute the fact. There was the matter of the pallor of the overfed face, like tallow in contrast to the weighty black moustache, too obviously a beneficiary of Dr. Rose’s Old Reliable Hair and Whisker Dye, and then there was the confirmation of the round blue hole in the right temple, burned and puckered at the edges, and Mr. Warrick’s thumb inside the trigger guard of the Forehand Perfection Automatic Five-Shot Revolver in his lap.

The porter laid the folded coat on the seat next to the bar and cigars, stood the silk hat atop the coat bottom side up to protect the brim, leaned across the body, and opened the window to let out the sulfurous stink—of the exploded cartridge combined with the passenger’s voided bowels, not of the cigar, which continued to emit a pleasingly expensive masculine perfume from the smoking stand where its owner had placed it half-smoked. The young Negro was mildly upset. Mr. Warrick was reputed to be a generous tipper, and he’d neglected to lay out a gratuity.

To help himself to a cigar from the open silver case violated railroad regulations as well as the porter’s own standard of conduct. Instead he poured an inch of brandy into a small silver-plated cup from the crystal decanter strapped inside the portable bar, flipped the brown liquid down his throat, polished the cup thoroughly inside and out with his handkerchief, and returned the cup to its loop inside the lid. With the spirit’s heat spreading up from the floor of his stomach, he went to find the conductor.

HAIRLINE CR ACKS radiating from the death by his own hand at age fifty-four of the well-known Chicago speculator, railroad investor, and meatpacking magnate reached as far north as Ontario, where he’d maintained mining interests, and as far south as Venezuela, where his gifts to several key cabinet members had secured extensive investments in the trade in rubber and balata, a principal ingredient in the manufacture of guttapercha and chewing gum. The Texas cattle industry was concerned, as were his associates in New York City, who through their attorneys moved swiftly to demand an audit of all his books; for in the world inhabited by Warrick and his class, suicide had but two motives, money and women, and as the second was invariably tangled with the first, it little mattered which was the specific cause. This latest disaster, occurring when the bloody gash of the 1893 Panic had not yet healed completely, further eroded stomach linings already worn as thin as vellum.

As it happened, the news reached John C. Broughty at Windvale, his twelve-acre estate on Long Island, just as he was showing an early holograph manuscript of John Donne’s 1624 poem "No Man Is an Island" to a baron from the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The baron was considering trading some documents signed by Frederick the Great for it, along with mineral rights in the Ruhr Valley. Broughty, seventy-three and determined to extend his mastery of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, listened to his butler’s announcement that a gentleman awaited him on the telephone, invited the Herr Baron to examine the parchment at his leisure, and excused himself to squeeze into the cork-lined closet he’d installed in his front hallway to accommodate the instrument. The caller was a railroad dispatcher in his employ, relating the circumstances as they’d been wired to him by the conductor on the train from Chicago to New York City. Broughty cross-questioned the man, who assured him that no one knew the details apart from himself, the conductor, and the porter, both of whom the dispatcher had admonished by return wire to say nothing to anyone.

"And the telegraphers, of course," he added. "But they’re bound by the seal of the profession."

"Bind them by mine as well. I own sixty thousand shares in Western Union. What about the police?"

The dispatcher replied that he’d arranged for the man in charge of the Michigan City branch of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to secure the stateroom when the train stopped there and to exercise his discretion with the local authorities. Broughty knew the detective’s name, and approved of this decision. He shouted instructions to remain by the telephone, got the operator on the line, and placed a call to his attorney.

He smoked the better part of a cigar while waiting for the connection, with the door open to let smoke out of the closet.

Pulling it shut and extinguishing the stump, he made arrangements for an immediate audit.

"My firm represents Warrick," the attorney shouted back. "Shall I inform the widow?"

"Ask her to make no funerary decisions until I’ve spoken with her."

"She’ll want to know why."

"She and Warrick have benefited from my counsel for twenty years. Send your best man to remind her of that. Your most diplomatic man. Go yourself."

His next call was to Gordon Lindsey, his personal secretary, whom he instructed to call and wire his associates with the news of Warrick’s sudden death, sans details, and a request to come to Windvale at their earliest convenience that evening. Then he pegged the receiver and returned to his guest.

By eleven o’clock, five men who had twice rescued the United States Treasury from bankruptcy were gathered in Broughty’s neoclassical library, which was fresh out of barons but well supplied as to illuminated manuscripts, European incunabula of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and other literary spoils plundered from the capitals of the Old World. Between the glazed book presses and above the Levantine marble fireplace hung a new portrait of the owner, while below and in front of it, its subject struck the same unconscious pose, one thumb hooked inside the watch pocket of his vest and his good ear turned to the world. He was famously deaf in the other, the result of a childhood encounter with an exasperated streetcar operator whose one brush with history was to box the ear of the future most powerful man in America.

In the painting and in person, Broughty’s face frequently surprised people who knew him only by reputation. White-haired, pink-skinned, and clean-shaven, with the suggestion of a chronic smile about the mouth, he resembled one of those kindly corner druggists who were routinely taken advantage of by wholesalers and their own delivery boys. Governor Roosevelt, less easily impressed, had denounced him as "the greatest threat to free competition since the Golden Horde."

The four influential guests listened to the news about Warrick without interrupting, while Broughty’s secretary, pockmarked and side-whiskered, sat with his hands folded in his lap, his writing block out of sight for the first time in memory. Cicero Lewiston—banks, shipping, and chocolate—was the first to break the silence. He was the fattest man in a company of notorious trenchermen.

"Did he leave a note?"

"None was mentioned. If he did, we’ll get it from Pinker-ton’s."

"We can either start unloading stock first thing in the morning before the price drops, or buy more at noon when it’s down and counter the run." This was James Oliphant, railroads and mining, bald as a china plate beneath his gray bowler. "I don’t see any third alternative."

Broughty said, "There will be no run."

Lewiston said, "The man killed himself. Stockholders are sheep. They’ll stampede."

"Sheep follow," Broughty corrected. "Cattle stampede. Never without reason. Outside of this room, only five men are aware Warrick’s death was suicide. You all know young Lindsey." The secretary was fifty. "It shouldn’t be necessary to swear us five to secrecy as well. Warrick’s wife doesn’t know. I didn’t even tell my attorney."

"Still, it’s five too many." Ignatius Frank, refrigeration. Thirty years after Louis Napoleon named him an honorary chevalier of France, he still waxed his whiskers after the fashion of the defunct imperial court. "It’s bound to come out."


The host snarled the word the same way he said, "The press," at whom he’d been known to raise his stick.

"Rumors are as bad as the truth. Worse." R.W. Gilbert, who held the patent on the Gilbert Hydraulic Perpendicular Railway—elevators—was a sallow-faced old widower who managed to depress people when he wished them a happy Christmas.

"I’m not saying the market won’t react," Broughty said. "It would do that if he’d died of apoplexy. It will adjust itself once the rumors are refuted by fact."

Lewiston was a man for the basics. "What fact? The man killed himself."

"The fact of his corpse."

"Naturally, the coffin will be closed." Gloomy old Gilbert was an authority on funerary practice. Since burying his wife, he’d attended thirty such services, many of them for complete strangers. The society correspondent for Harper’s Weekly reported that he traveled with his own casket (as the genteel class were calling it now), in case he expired during a business excursion far from his Fifth Avenue brownstone.

"Naturally, a closed coffin would only fuel further rumors. He will lie in state, and the viewing will be open to the public."

Even the redoubtable Gordon Lindsey was agitated by Broughty’s declaration. He unfolded his hands and refolded them the other way. The others yawped like terriers; all except Gilbert, who stared at the Turkestan and howled like a basset. Broughty lit a cigar, breathed the smoke in through his nostrils, and waited until the protests had crested. Then he said, "Connable."

This had the effect of dropping a lid on the noise. This time, bald Oliphant was the first to speak. Of all those present, he was the only one who had fought in a war, as a volunteer with the First Division in Mexico in 1846. "Have you ever seen a corpse

with a bullet in its brain? You don’t just cork the hole and plaster it over."

"I would imagine that’s just what you do," said Broughty. "I’m sure there’s quite a bit more to it, but it would seem to be some variation on that principle." Broughty waved his cigar. "Gentlemen, I don’t know for a certainty that the thing is possible. If it is, Dick Connable’s our man."

AT THE time this conversation was taking place, Richard Connable was four hundred miles away, playing canasta with his wife and another couple from their neighborhood in the two-story brick house he owned on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo. He was a large man in his late fifties, thick-shouldered and burly, and clean-shaven like John C. Broughty, but less benevolent in appearance. This lack of warmth was a practice of long standing, assisted by the blue-tinted lenses of his wire-rimmed spectacles, which protected his weak eyes from glare and masked the only truly expressive feature of his face. Although he still went about in stiff collars and neckties, the striped and colored shirts he wore in place of the conservative white of old, combined with the dark glasses—cheaters—put observers in mind of a professional gambler; but not if they’d ever played cards with him. He was constitutionally incapable of reading his partner’s signals and always had to be reminded when it was his turn.

In truth, he loathed parlor games. He found them as tiresome and time-wasting as the couple he and Lucy were playing against that evening. Sitting there holding his cards, listening to the clock knocking out the seconds of his life and watching the faces distorted in concentration, hands restlessly shifting the pasteboards from one arbitrary position to another, he realized most vividly that to retire was to sit back and wait for death. He only

played because his wife seemed to enjoy it; and Lucy enjoying anything was worth the trade of several hours’ morbid contemplation of the Inevitable.

The neighbors weren’t bad company—not bad in the sense of a prospector who hadn’t bathed in eight months, or a settler turned cannibal, gloweringly watching him inject arsenious acid and potash into the veins of a cadaver, banishing it from the bill of fare—just dismally predictable. He was a former engineer in charge of widening and dredging the Erie Canal, she a former New York City debutante, and most of their conversation had been stuck in a tunnel since 1862. Had Connable brought their attention to the fact that the century was only three months from turning, he would half expect them to blink and fall to dust. Theirs was an earlier generation, one he had spent much of his career preparing for burial, and yet retirement had flung them all into one camp.

The Engineer and the Debutante won the rubber, as usual, and square on the chime of midnight the Engineer hauled out his heavy gold watch, popped the face, and said, "Well—"; and Connable knew they were only twenty minutes from leaving.

When they’d gone, he locked the door behind them, lit a lamp, and turned out all the gas fixtures on the ground floor, then climbed the stairs by handheld lamplight to the bedroom. He savored that solitary time in the soft glow and would miss it when the house was electrified. Half the city was engulfed in white incandescence, with the other half expected to follow next year. Lucy wanted it, and that was the end of that.

He turned out the lamp before entering the bedroom, undressed in the dark, and dropped his nightshirt over his head. Lucy was already under the covers, breathing evenly. He climbed in beside her, without hope that his insomnia would spare him this night or any other. He was awake four hours later when someone pulled at the bell downstairs.

LUCY CONNABLE awoke slowly, and was only aware that Richard was shaking her by the shoulder when she opened her eyes and saw his face, inches from hers with his tinted glasses pushed down so he could see her over the tops. The lamp he always carried from downstairs glowed on the nightstand on his side of the bed. He was fully dressed, in the suit he’d worn earlier that evening and one of the white shirts she hadn’t seen in months. He was speaking her name gently.

"Is it Victoria?" She pulled herself upright.

Instantly she realized her mistake, saw the pain on his face.

"A man named Lindsey is downstairs," he said. "He came here straight from New York. He works for John C. Broughty."

"Broughty?" She saw columns in the Ledger, a headline. The name meant nothing beyond that. She smelled gin on Richard’s breath.

"The Manhattan millionaire. He’s offering me a client, a man named Warrick. He’s in a parlor in Cleveland. They took him directly from the train station and knocked up the owner. Five thousand dollars for one day’s work."

"Cleveland?" She couldn’t seem to stop repeating names. The fog began to clear. "Richard, you’re retired."

"Five thousand dollars, Lucy. We can sell this house and build a better one out West."

She didn’t say, "West?" She asked him the time.

"It’s nearly dawn. Lindsey hired a carriage. We can make the six-fifteen if we leave soon. I’ll be back by dark."

"It’s too much money. It must be criminal."

"This is John Broughty, not the Shrunk brothers. He wants to exhibit the client. He doesn’t want to stuff him in a sack and dump him in Blackwell’s Bog. If that were the case, he wouldn’t need me." He straightened. "This is your chance to clean my study. You complain I never leave it."

Then he was gone.

She waited until she heard hoofbeats echoing down the empty block, then rose, stuck her long narrow feet into an old pair of Richard’s slippers and, hugging her arms in her nightdress, went downstairs, carrying the lamp Richard had left for her. In the kitchen she found the quart of gin where he was hiding it now, behind a can of Royal Baking Powder in the cabinet above the sink, and drank from it.

She was fifty-five, and under no illusion that she didn’t look her age. Always slender, she’d begun to lose weight lately, although she ate as much as ever and took little exercise. The skin of her face had grown shiny where it stretched over bone. She no longer saw out her right eye, a recent and sudden development she took pains to conceal from her husband.

She wore her rusted-iron hair long, braided for sleep and pinned up during the day, caught with ivory combs on the rare occasions they went out together. In younger years, she’d been what in fashionable quarters was called a Handsome Woman, never a beauty; she considered herself plain and always had. The closest her parents had ever come to confirming that description was when they’d referred to young Connable at the time of her wedding as a Good Catch. Her cousins had all married doctors. She’d known where she stood in comparison.

She took another drink and stood on tiptoe to slide the bottle back into its nook. She didn’t want to take so much she’d have to replace it with water from the tap. This morning was the first in many years she’d known Richard to take a drink any day other than January fifteenth. She couldn’t take the chance of his noticing the substitution.

She drew aside the curtains over the kitchen window and watched the first zinc-colored light spreading behind the Muellers’ house on the other side of their lot. It chilled her, despite the flush of the gin. She wished she’d thought to put on her robe. Reaching up to recover and replace the bottle had claimed the strength she needed to climb the stairs.

A house out West. Richard hadn’t mentioned it for as long as they’d lived in Buffalo. Which was as long as it had been since either of them had spoken Victoria’s name aloud.

Excerpted from The Undertaker’s Wife by Loren D. Estleman.Copyright © 2005 by Loren D. Estleman.Published in August 2005 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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