‘Oh, Mr Swales, you can’t be serious. Surely these tombstones are not all wrong?’
‘Yabblins! There may be a poorish few not wrong, savin’ where they make out the people too good; for there be folk that do think a balm-bowl be like the sea, if only it be their own. The whole thing be only lies. Now look you here; you come here a stranger, an’ you see this kirk-garth.’ I nodded, for I thought it better to assent, though I did not quite understand his dialect. I knew it had something to do with the church. He went on: ‘And you consate that all these steans be aboon folk that be happed here, snod an’ snog?’ I assented again. ‘Then that be just where the lie comes in. Why, there be scores of these lay-beds that be toom as old Dun’s baccabox on Friday night.’ He nudged one of his companions, and they all laughed. ‘And my gog! how could they be otherwise? Look at that one, the aftest abaft the bier-bank; read it!’ I went over and read:
‘Edward Spencelagh, master mariner, murdered by pirates off the coast of Andres, April, 1854, aet. 30.’ When I came back Mr Swales went on:
‘Who brought him home, I wonder, to hap him here? Murdered off the coast of Andres! an’ you consated his body lay under! Why, I could name ye a dozen whose bones lie in the Greenland seas above’ – he pointed northwards – ‘or where the currents may have drifted them. There be the steans around ye. Ye can, with your young eyes, read the small print of the lies from here. This Braithwaite Lowrey – I knew his father, lost in the Lively off Greeland in ’20; or Andrew Woodhouse, drowned in the same seas in 1777; or John Paxton, drowned off Cape Farewell a year later; or old John Rawlings, whose grandfather sailed with me, drowned in the Gulf of Finland in ’50. Do ye think that all these men will have to make a rush to Whitby when the trumpet sounds? I have me antherums aboot it! I tell ye that when they got here they’d be jommlin’ an’ jostlin’ one another that way that it ’ud be like a fight up on the ice in the old days, when we’d be at one another from daylight to dark, an’ tryin’ to tie up our cuts by the light of the aurora borealis.’ This was evidently local pleasantry, for the old man cackled over it, and his cronies joined in with gusto.
‘But,’ I said, ‘surely you are not quite correct, for you start on the assumption that all the poor people, or their spirits, will have to take their tombstones with them on the Day of Judgment. Do you think that will be really necessary?’
‘Well, what else be they tombsteans for? Answer me that, miss!’
‘To please their relatives, I suppose.’
‘To please their relatives, you suppose!’ This he said with intense scorn. ‘How will it pleasure their relatives to know that lies is wrote over them, and that everybody in the place knows that they be lies?’ He pointed to a stone at our feet which had been laid down as a slab, on which the seat was rested, close to the edge of the cliff. ‘Read the lines on that thruffstean,’ he said. The letters were upside down to me from where I sat, but Lucy was more opposite to them, so she leant over and read:
‘“Sacred to the memory of George Canon, who died, in the hope of a glorious resurrection, on July 29, 1873, falling from the rocks at Kettleness. This tomb is erected by his sorrowing mother to her dearly beloved son. He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.” Really, Mr Swales, I don’t see anything very funny in that!’ She spoke her comment very gravely and somewhat severely.
‘Ye don’t see aught funny! Ha! ha! But that’s because ye don’t gawm the sorrowin’ mother was a hell-cat that hated him because he was acrewk’d – a regular limiter he was – an’ he hated her so that he committed suicide in order that she mightn’t get an insurance she put on his life. He blew nigh the top of his head off with an old musket that they had for scarin’ the crows with. ’Twarn’t for crows then, for it brought the clegs and the dowps to him. That’s the way he fell off the rocks. And, as to hopes of a glorious resurrection, I’ve often heard him say masel’ that he hoped he’d go to hell, for his mother was so pious that she’d be sure to go to heaven, an’ he didn’t want to addle where she was. Now isn’t that stean at any rate’ – he hammered it with his stick as he spoke – ‘a pack of lies? and won’t it make Gabriel keckle when Geordie comes pantin’ up the grees with the tombstean balanced on his hump, and asks it to be took as evidence!’