“On the day after my death, the exercise book in which I have written my Last Will And Testament will be taken to a desolate spinney. There, its contents will be shrieked by my embalmer, whomsoever that may be. Those gathered to hear it will accompany the embalmer’s shrieks by plucking on primitive wooden stringed instruments. All those present will wear cotton hoods, and go barefoot. This I command.”
Lars Talc had written these words some twenty years before, and published them in a small compendium of his scribblings entitled Shuddering & Brilliantine. Minnie underlined the paragraph and handed a dog-eared copy of the book to Batlip, who read the words with dismay. He was a fiercely shy man, and the prospect unnerved him. With Talc in his coffin, and as he and Chodd rinsed off the embalming equipment and rubbed their hands with Finnish swarfega, he confessed his terrors to his helpmeet.
“I cannot do it, Chodd. I am a deeply religious man, and I have no wish to ride roughshod over the sincere wishes of the deceased, especially so eminent a Finn as Professor Talc. But look, already I am incontinent with fear.”
Chodd dabbed at Batlip’s trousers with a cloth.
“Thank you, Chodd. Oh, how I shiver with apprehension at the thought of public speaking. Two years ago, when I was awarded the All Finland Embalming Medal, I was forced to mount the dais to make an acceptance speech. Sepulchral noteworthies from throughout the land were gathered before me, sitting on benches, agog to hear my every word. The president of the Institute looped the medal around my neck, and they all cheered, applauded, and threw their funeral hats into the air. I was led to a microphone like a villain to the firing squad. Do not chuckle, I am serious. My mouth opened and closed repeatedly, without a word issuing forth. Sweat glistened from every pore. I shat in my pantaloons, and then I swooned.”
“You see,” continued Batlip, “I simply cannot do it. I would disgrace the memory of a towering Finn. I would sully his name. There is only one answer. You will have to play my part. You will be the embalmer. After all, you have given me sterling assistance on this sad day. I ask this favour of you out of proper respect for the departed.”
So it was that at noon on the following day, Chodd, sporting a false moustache and smelling of fish, arrived in the desolate spinney with Talc’s exercise book stuffed into his pocket.
There were twenty-six souls gathered to hear Talc’s last words: Minnie, of course; the ten surviving members of the scientifico-medical club, with Bewg in tow; a bone-setter named Carg; Linnet and his wife; Aloysius Batlip, heavily disguised; a trio of mountebanks with whom Talc had had larks; his neighbour Pillchain; a curmudgeonly widow, name unknown, who was passing the spinney and stopped to ponder the scene; poor, fearful Bruno; Slops Curbin, detailed to attend by the Electro-Magnetic Apparatus Museum Committee; Horst Venk, an old, begrimed friend of Talc’s from their student days; the journalist Ritnob; and Ingborg Todge, a blind and foul-mouthed army captain who, he kept telling everybody, had known Talc for years, though he was unknown to all those present, including Minnie, who deliberately crushed his toes under her black boot to stop his incessant babbling.
Chodd distributed the little cotton hoods which he had found next to the exercise book in Talc’s cast iron cabinet and, at full screech, ordered the assembled company to remove their footwear. Minnie handed out the musical instruments. Then, standing atop a makeshift plinth, Chodd thumbed open the exercise book and proceeded to shriek.
“This is the Last Will And Testament of Lars Talc. I, Professor Lars Talc, a Finn, a polymath, author of numberless books on topics as diverse as anorthopia, bell-ringing, cramp, death, ectoplasm, fireworks, galley-slaves, haplography, Iceland, jam, knuckle-dusters, lemon meringue pie, mortmain, nystagmus, owls, pap, quicklime, ranunculus, sanitation, time-bombs, ullage, vanquishment, whimbrels, xerasia, yeast, and zapateado, I, an accomplished musician, balladeer, and madrigalist, who have in my time excelled as a wrestler, an entomologist, a pirate manqué, a splinterbrain, and a taxonomer, I who have enjoined my fellow Finns to acts of mercy and philanthropy, who have robbed none but given succour to many, who have clambered over mental obstacles with the torch of truth clutched in my fist, I, Lars Talc, Professor of Pandaemonium, moral exemplar, I who would reek of saintliness were there such things as saints, which there are not, I hereby give, devise, and bestow, absolutely and forever, in perpetuity, until the last pale flicker of animate life is stilled and the universe blotted out, I bequeath all my estate and effects, whatever they may comprise, for I neither know nor care, but all of it, every last scrap, to my dear, dear Minnie, who I thus proclaim as my executrix, and if, oh!, misery, she should perish before I do, then the whole lot will instead be bequeathed to a man, a crab-gaited man, a lanky man with a stoop, a man who will make himself known to you by the popping noises he elicits from the thin slit of his mouth, a man who may remain in hiding for years, even decades, during which time my estate will be tied up in formidable legal knots, and chaos descend upon all those who have the gall to claim any part of it, and their lives will be filled to the very brim with woe.
“In witness to the above, I have hereunto set my hand, this teeming day, [date]. The florid, some would say too florid, signatures of my witnesses appear below. Both are in my presence as I write. Pillchain is slumped in an armchair, leafing through a copy of my momentous tome The Glue Of Rascality, a better book than he will ever write. The other witness is a topiarist of renown, who I bumped into at the docks this morning, and is at present fooling about in a striped purple and green cape in my vestibule.
“In turn, I will hand each of them my pen and la!, they will sign their names, and this document will be complete, and I will apply a wad of blotting paper, and shut the book, and place it in my cast iron cabinet, where it will remain for who knows how long, until these final words are screeched by my embalmer in a desolate spinney on the day after my death. You may now remove your cotton hoods and, putting boots, shoes, or sandals back on, go shod, my proxy-screeched farewell ringing in your ears. Farewell!”
Chodd ceased. The mad strumming on the banjos, shamizens, guitars, and ukuleles ceased. The sun burst from behind a cloud. Lars Talc’s will was done.