Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a Black House

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Mv unsatiable desire to meet with strange company led me on a certain Sunday afternoon, in the autumn time, to pay a visit to what had been described to me, by a friendly undertaker, as one of the most flourishing public houses of the "black sort," to be found at the outskirts of London, and arrived there at about three in the afternoon, after an hour's walk eastward, and I must confess that my first glance at the much vaunted hostel caused me a pang of disappointment. Except for the horse-trough and one drunken man asleep on an outside form, it looked as quiet and unbusinesslike a place as could well be imagined. It was almost as though a roadside villa, driven to desperation on account of its isolation from the abodes of men, had procured a spirit and beer license, and set up a sign-board, purely for the sake of enticing an occasional wayfarer to cross its threshold, and so for a while, by his discourse of the busy world, to dispel the gloom and dejection that seemed to enwrap the place.
    To be sure it was Sunday and church time; and under such conditions the "Polecat" could hardly be expected to appear at its liveliest. The good dry skittle ground was, of course, idle; and the attractions of the small teagarden were not increased by a lowering sky and a keen easterly wind.
    But what about the "excellent and increasing blackcoach trade."
    As a shrewd and suspicious man, I should have been [-34-] inclined, by the evidence of my visual organs, to regard that alluring line in the advertisement as something very like "fudge." There were black coaches in plenty, and as they slowly approached their number increased; but not one of them availed itself of the inducements to halt held out by the "Polecat." The drivers on the hearse and on the coaches, and the bearers or porters, or whatever they are called, who clung in bunches at the back of the coaches, turned a look of placid serenity towards the "Polecat" portals, through the chinks of which, arranged artistically on the counter, a pyramid of cool and shiny pewter pots was temptingly visible; but vehicle after vehicle passed on as though the prospect of closer acquaintance were too remote to excite in the bosoms of their attendants the least present emotion.
    But what puzzled me more was the undismayed and perfectly calm manner in which mine host of the "Polecat" regarded this - as it appeared to me - neglect of his establishment. He stood on his steps with his fat thumbs hooked into his apron-string, and blandly nodded in acknowledgment of the waving of every departing coachman's whip, as though he were stationed there expressly to warn them off, and were sensible of the obligation they conferred on him by not compelling him to resort to extreme measures. Presently, however, he shaded his eyes with his hand, took a long look down the road, and, finding no more coaches coming, became an altered man - a man whose spell of rest had expired, and who is thoroughly prepared for a rush of business that he knows to be presently coming.
    "Bill," he cries, "is the spittoons, and the pipes, and that, all ready in the parlour ?"
    "All right, sir," responds brisk potman Bill.
    "Then give the tables out in the back a brush down. [-35-] There seems to be a tidy swarm of 'em to-day, with young 'uns and women, and we shall be glad to put 'em out there if the sun comes out anything strong."
    And almost before Bill had hastily completed the last job entrusted to him, the first instalment of the "swarm of 'em" predicted by the sagacious landlord drew up at his door.
    Not a very promising instalment, judging from appearances - a cheap turn-out of the hearse-and-coach-and-combined order, drawn by a single horse. Descending from their perch, the driver and his man threw open the black coach door that was now exactly opposite and not three yards from the public-house entrance, and without the least hesitation let down the steps. The occupants of the coach were two elderly people - a man and woman of the working class - and a young girl of about sixteen. I think that the sudden halt and the opened door must have taken them by surprise, for the old lady had her arms about the young girl's neck, and the old fellow's face was wet. His amazement at finding himself so close to the ginshop was such, that, he forgot to wipe his eyes ere he addressed the undertaker's man-
    "Go on, get home; we don't want to stay here."
"Must bait the horse, sir. Must put up a little while, sir. 'Spectable, quiet room, sir ; no obtrushions. Always do it, sir. Be quick, sir; there's another party a waitin' to draw up."
    Which was perfectly true; and what with his poor old head being so bemuddled with grief, and the undertaker's positive manner, and his disinclination to further afflict his old wife and his young daughter by a display of anger, he got out as he was told, with his companions; while an ostler drew the coach over against the wall, [-36-] manoeuvring it alongside as a man who knows how to make the most of precious space.
    Another black coach drew up, and precisely the same argument that would accept of no denial - "Must bait the horses, sir; quiet respectable place, sir; always stop here, sir, for just a few minutes ;" and a second company of mourners, with their funeral cloaks and scarves, are ushered through the public-house doors. Then two coaches - but these contain mourners of that peculiar type who possibly have been to bury a distant relative, who stand in need of just that kind of consolation that the "Polecat" offers, and who will presently cool their warm brandy and water with sighs, and wipe their lips with the spotless handkerchief they have been holding to their eyes.
    The black coaches are beginning to arrive rapidly; for the buryings in the neighbouring cemetery are all over, and the hard-worked minister, who for an hour and a half, as fast as his legs could carry him, has been hurrying from one black gap in the clay to another, has divested himself of his gown, and gone home.
    Now, indeed, it was easy to believe that it was no vain boast when the landlord of the "Polecat" described his black-coach business as "excellent." Without the least exaggeration, in less than half-an-hour from the arrival of the first melancholy vehicle to stand between the horse-trough and the tavern-doors, the number must have increased to a dozen at least; and, as with the first, so soon as each load of mourners was cajoled into the public-house, the ostlers took it in hand and stowed it snug, exactly as one sees the operation performed with pleasure-vans, flashy "drags," and Hansom-cabs at Epsom wayside-houses on a Derby-day. I  do not say [-37-] that every mourning-coach returning from the cemetery halted or attempted to halt at the "Polecat."
    Many drove straight homeward, thereby suggesting the idea that the plea of baiting and resting the horses is not absolutely imperative. As regards size and condition, how many omnibus-horses may be favourably compared with the costly creatures whose sable hue peculiarly fits them for funeral work? The ordinary day's work of a pair of London omnibus-horses is to drag a vehicle constructed to carry twenty-eight persons over from ten to fourteen miles of slippery stones, and that task they perform day after day, summer and winter. How much hardship, then, can there be for a pair of the funeral performer's powerful black beasts, who bowl over six or seven miles of an easy country road with half-a-dozen coach-riders, and then, after the inevitable rest at the cemetery, return home to their stable?
    Having concluded my survey of the "draw-up" in front of the "Polecat" - which was now packed quite full of coaches and hearses and as lively as a fair - I thought that I would have a peep in at the quiet and respectable room I had heard spoken of so frequently.
    On the way I had to pass the capacious bar of the "Polecat," which now presented quite a cheerful and animated spectacle. It was crowded thick with undertakers' men, and on the metal counter was such an array of gin measures and glass, ale quarts and glasses, papers of tobacco and pipes, as fully to account for the prevailing hilarity. Not uproarious hilarity, but that of a sort that was far more characteristic of the individuals engaged in it. The feasters did not laugh outright, and pledge each other over their liquor as men are wont to do; they covertly chuckled and winked, and nudged [-38-] each other as though they said, "Keep at it, keep at it, for there is no telling how long it may last, and lost moments, like spilt gin, can never be recovered. Hang all fastidious considerations about which is your glass and which is mine. It is all out of the same tub. Gulp it down. Don't stop to mouth it and discuss its flavour; swallow it, and taste the luxury of a good deep draught that shan't cost you a half-penny." And so, with subdued glee, there they stood on that Sabbath afternoon, to take their doses of gin, of rum, or ale, as fast as the obliging persons behind the bar were able to draw the prescribed restoratives; never stopping to taste it, but bolting it as practised patients bolt their familiar allotment.
    Some had already imbibed until they could imbibe no more, and too blissfully indolent to exert themselves in the least, still with their trade-mark of sadness elongating their cadaverous countenances, they lolled on the forms and barrels, with their hats tipped piquantly over their eyes, and a short pipe at full blast adorning their mouths. There was one among them, a young fellow, who, judging from the ready manner in which his face bloomed under the influence of rum and water, must have seen some "life" as well as death, and who wore on his hat the customary emblem which denotes that it is a child who is carried to the grave. As he drank, laughing at some rich joke a friend was relating to him, his liquor somehow went the "wrong way," and he shook so in coughing that the little white cockade tumbled off his hat and fell into his steaming rum and water, and, dear heart! what fun there was among the undertakers' men when the young fellow, with a manner that would make his fortune as a comic singer at a music-hall, fished out the token of angel innocence, and held it aloft on the bowl of a spoon!
    [-39-] I passed on to the "commodious parlour2 just as the door was pushed open by the active Bill, who was emerging with a tray full of empty pots and glasses. It was by no means a pretty sight that was revealed. The retiring-room-to take refuge in which, according to that gin-swilling undertakers' man, was to be secure from "obtrushion" - was, in its aspect as well as its atmosphere, the commonest of common tap-rooms. There were narrow tables and seats at the sides, and here were seated the more decent of the company, attired in their funeral trappings, impatiently awaiting the pleasure of their custodians, who, as we have seen, were so pleasantly engaged at the bar. But many, as the glasses before them proved, women as well as men, had been tempted to "partake of a little refreshment.
    It was at the large table in the middle of the room, however, that Bill, the waiter, found most business. They were working people all of them, and some of them so poor that their suits could scarcely be called mourning in the strict sense of the term. The two or three master undertakers who condescended to sit with them in their glossy black and their spotless shirt-fronts and bands, with a goodly display of gold watch-chain adorning their waistcoats, made them look all the more shabby, poor fellows! They were not in the least proud, these sleek and comfortable gentlemen; yet, while they were pleasant spoken and affable, they did not care to disguise the social superiority shown in smoking none but the best cigars, and by drinking nothing but pale brandy in cold water. The poor mourners, who doubtless found it hard to scrape up the money with which to bury father or brother Bob, could not afford brandy and water and cigars; so they - used, as a rule, in their hours of tavern relaxation to short pipes and pints of beer - [-40-] compromised the matter by smoking long pipes and drinking gin and water or the best ale. There were the liquor vessels and the spilled liquor on the table, and the pile of mourning hats, with the weepers attached, forming a pyramid in the centre; there, too, were the mourners, seduced by the undertakers' respectable example and by the repeated assurance that it was absolutely necessary to let the horses be baited ; and the submissive folks were ordering just one drop more, until the room was foul with tobacco smoke and the fume of spirits, and the men were growing mooney-eyed and the women maudlin.
    By which signs the watchful funeral performers knew the horses must have finished their bait, and rang the bell-on behalf of the person present responsible for the funeral expenses-to inquire what their men at the bar had had to drink, and, in fact, what it came to altogether? It was no business of mine what the sum total was; but that the imbibers at the bar had their fair share in it was guaranteed by the fact, that several of them were so audaciously fortified as to start for the homeward journey, on the hearses as well as the black coaches, still smoking their short pipes.