James closed his hands behind his back and stared out at the street, trying to keep his expression blank. He hoped that any passerby would see a man standing at attention, not a man who was shivering from the cold. Perhaps such a thing was inevitable after the first snowfall of the year, but he had a part to play, and he’d be damned if he was going to break character.
When he had first taken the job, it seemed like an excellent idea. There was some downtime between plays, and James, like many of his fellow performers, was looking for some odd jobs in the meantime. While he’d been having tea with Michael, a fellow actor, a funeral posession passed by, somber men wreathed in black proceeding a black trimmed carriage. Michael and James took their hats off and watched it pass. As soon as it was out of sight, Michael inclined his head in its direction. “There’s an idea, you know.”
“You could offer up your services as a mute,” Michael said, “I might not be the greatest pay, but it’ll keep you busy. Besides, having to be silent and mournful will give you a chance to practice your acting.”
James nodded eagerly, suddenly taken with the idea. “And I’d get a glimpse of different areas of London, which might let me add some realism to my characters.”
“I don’t see a downside,” Michael said, “Why don’t you see what you can find.”
So James had made his way to most of the reputable funeral parlors and asked if they had any call for a mute. Several of them looked at him askance, wondering why someone like him would be applying. One, however, looked him up and down before nodding. “You certainly look like you could project an air of gravity. I’m willing to give you a trial run. I’m afraid I can’t pay you much until you’ve proven yourself, but I’ll supply the crepe and pay you a few shillings for every hour you’re working for me. Does that seem reasonable?”
“Yes, sir.” James said, inclining his head respectfully.
“Very good,” Mr. Gorney said, “Leave your address with me, and I’ll send a boy round to your lodgings when your services will be required.”
And what how, a month later, James found himself standing in front of a manor house, keeping vigil until it was time for the funeral. Naturally, it was only now that he was actually committed that the downsides started to appear. For one thing, the job was phenomenally boring. Since he wasn’t allowed to speak, all he could do to pass the time was look at the surrounding area and let his mind wander (but not too much, or he might lose focus on the task at hand.) For another, he had to remain standing at attention at all times, which led to a stiffness in his legs. Fortunately, he was able to move around and stretch a little as long as there was no one on the street to see.
But unquestionably, the worst part about it was the cold. It was just hard luck that his trial run coincided with the first snowfall of winter, but it meant that he had to stand there in the cold, with only his black coat to keep him warm. The only small mercy was that he had been allowed to wear black gloves—otherwise, his hands would be utterly numb. That was the least of his worries, though.
One of James’ unfortunate quirks was that the cold wreaked havoc on his sinuses. Until he got used to the winter weather, his nose was perpetually damp. Since sniffling was unbecoming to a mute (although, personally, James thought it would add to the appearance of grief), he had no choice but to carefully dab his nose with the handkerchief hidden in his sleeve whenever there was no one present. It stopped his nose from running, but it was causing an entirely different problem. The inability to tend to his nose properly was causing his nose to itch, slightly at first but growing in urgency the longer he stood there.
James was a rather earnest young man who took his duties quite seriously. As such, when he had accepted the responsibilities of being a mute, he had vowed to himself that he wouldn’t do anything that would shatter the illusion of a somber, professional mourner, and sneezing most certainly fell into that category. Besides, he needed to prove himself to Mr. Gorney, and an ill-timed sneeze might cost him the position. So he gave his nose as many discreet rubs as possible and tried to focus his mind on the task at hand, not the tickle in his nose.
After several agonizing hours, he saw a crepe-trimmed carriage approaching the house, and he gave a faint sigh of relief. All he had to do now was mix in with the mourners and look appropriately sad during the procession and funeral, and at least there’d be a walk and a church service to warm him up a little.
Mr. Gorney, at the head of the procession, held up a hand for the carriage to stop, and beckoned two men forward, presumably to carry out the coffin. As he came up the stairs, he met James’ eye and gave him a slight nod of approval. James blinked to acknowledge it, but otherwise maintained his position.
As the door closed behind the men, James’ nose gave a rather violent twitch, and panic flared up in his chest. The family would be coming out any minute, and there was the coachman outside besides. This was the absolute worst time to sneeze, but he had absolutely no way to keep it out.
Thinking quickly, James lifted his hand to his face on the pretext of adjusting his hat and pressed his palm against his nose, taking a shallow breath. To his immense relief, the itch calmed down, returning to a nagging tickle instead of an impending sneeze. Then the door swung open behind him, and he quickly moved his hand to his hat to remove it as a gesture of respect.
Gorney’s men were remarkable. Somehow, despite the appearance of moving slowly and respectfully, they manged to move the coffin down the stairs and into the carriage in the span of two minutes. The minute the door closed, Gorney gave James the signal, and he stepped down (his legs twinging in a combination of relief and protest) to join the other mourners. As he took his place at the end of the procession, one of the mourners caught his eye and gave him a grateful smile, a silent thank you for standing vigil. James knew it was unbecoming to smile back, but he nodded and touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement. Clearly, he was playing his part well, which was reassuring.
The procession moved forward slowly, but it was enough for James to regain some feeling in his legs. But it was still cold, and his nose continued to run and itch. Fortunately, being at the very back, James had more opportunities to rub at his nose, as long as they weren’t passing anyone on the streets. It was enough to keep the tickle at bay, though he was sure it was starting to take on a pink tinge. If anyone looked in his direction as he was tugging at his handkerchief, he’d drop his arm and look forward guiltily, not wanting to reveal his predicament. It was in this manner that the procession made its way to the cemetery, taking about half-an-hour all told.
Entering the church for the service was a blessed relief, warmth flooding over James and taking the edge off the chill in his bones. While he would have to remain standing in the back for the duration of the service, he found a spot in the middle of the wall, away from the doors, and positioned himself in such a way that he could lean against it without actually appearing to do so. As the mourners were settling into the pews, he took advantage of the bustle to give his nose another rub, hoping that the warm air would get rid of the tickle entirely. He’d have to face the chill again for the actual burial, of course, but the respite would be appreciated.
As the minister began his eulogy, James bowed his head, keeping up the air of dignified respect for the deceased. As he did so, his nose suddenly started running, the heat of the church apparently causing his nose to thaw. James’ heart started pounding, and he glanced around nervously to see if anyone was looking at him with disdain. No one seemed to have noticed, but he could only keep his head down for so long, and he was sure a sniff would echo through the church. Should he grab his handkerchief, or risk the noise?
Salvation came in the form of a hymn. As the mourners rose to their feet, James took a risk and sniffed wetly, wincing at the sound. But no one so much as glanced in his direction, for which he said a silent prayer of thanks. He spent the duration of the hymn mouthing the words, using the long notes to sniff now and again, afraid he’d give himself away if he actually spoke. Besides, he wasn’t sure if mutes were supposed to sing, or if they were meant to maintain a stoic silence.
When the priest murmured the last “Amen,” James sniffed one last time as everybody got to their feet and managed a quick rub at his nose before joining the crowd and moving towards the gravesite. Just a few more minutes, half-an-hour at most, and then it would all be over. Despite everything, James though he had handled himself rather well for his first time out.
Even with the chill in the air, James assumed all would be well. As long as he didn’t sniff when the priest or Mr. Gorney was looking in his direction, he was allowed a little more freedom. But then a gust of cold wind came along, striking the mourners square in the face and causing that damn tickle to rise up once again. Before James could sniff or make any other move to stop it, his breath started to hitch.
Desperately (and with a nervous glance over at Mr. Gorney), James ducked his head and pressed a finger to his nose, which calmed the tickle slightly. Besides him, one of the mourners took a shuddering breath, fighting back a sob, and James hoped that his noises had sounded similar enough so as not to arouse suspiscion. No easy feat, since the itch flared up again and caused a strangled “Hih…” before he pressed his finger to his nose again.
He wasn’t sure how long the burial took. All he knew was that his breath caught too many times for his comfort. When the priest at last murmured the final blessing (and what an apt word that was), James and the other mutes in Mr. Gorney’s employ discreetly broke off from the main group and made their way to the cemetery director’s office, where they would receive their payment. The moment the door had closed behind them, James finally gave in to the impulse that had been plaguing him for hours. “Heh…Heh-ISSHH!!!”
He did manage to turn away from the other mutes, but they all gave him scathing looks anyhow. He wanted to apologize, explain his condition, maybe even make a joke, but it seemed that, due to holding it back for so long, his sneezes were taking advantage of the situation. “Ah-KRSHHH!!” At least he managed to pull out his handkerchief and hold it to his face, muffling further sneezes. “Ishh! Kssh! Mpshh!”
“Mr. Forrest?” Someone said next to him, causing him to raise his head long enough to catch a glimpse of Mr. Gorney. Gorney was looking at him with a mixture of sternness and concern. “Are you all right?”
James nodded and pinched his nose so he could get through his sentences. “It was the cold air,” he said sheepishly, “I didn’t want to sneeze and spoil the effect.”
Gorney chuckled. “Very commendable, young sir, but not overly necessary. Mourners sneeze, why not mutes? As long as you didn’t make a habit of it, I don’t think anyone would have begrudged you a sneeze or two.”
Privately, James believed he had made the right choice regardless. Out loud, he merely said “Yes, sir.” and unpinched his nose. “Shiew!”
“Here,” Gorney said, holding out his hand, “Take your payment and head home to get warm. Never let it be said that Franklin Gorney deliberately allowed his mutes to fall sick while in his employ.”
James opened his free palm and accepted the coins, a few more than he’d expected. “Thank you, s-sir…rishh!”
“Bless you,” Gorney said, “One last thing, Mr. Forrest. Shall I call upon you again if another funeral should arise?”
James considered for a moment. Then he said (after pinching his nose again), “I’m honored that you thought my work was satisfactory, but perhaps you should wait until the weather has warmed up a bit. Just in case.”
Gorney shook his head, smiling faintly, and waved James towards the door. “Away with you. If I have a particularly important client and need someone who will treat the job with the utmost respect, I’ll send for you, cold or no cold. Is it a deal?”
“Agreed.” James said, stepping out to brave the cold air once more.