Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 13 - Commercial Grief

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  "WHEN business orders are received
    From parties painfully bereaved,
    Five minutes' time is all we ask,
    To execute the mournful task."
                                     MOSES & SON

WHEN a man has more than his usual number of letters of a morning, and leisure to play with them, it is observable what flirtations he indulges himself in, ere he finally makes them unbosom themselves. Now he toys with them, scrutinizes one after another, and guesses whom they can be from. Sometimes a. handwriting that he dreamily remembers calls to him, as it were, from the envelope. Such a letter, deeply bordered with black, at once attracted my attention among the heap that lay upon my table. Whom could it be from? It was evidently a messenger of affliction; but how could that affect an old bachelor, with neither chick nor child? I tore the white weeping willow upon a black background, that formed the device upon the seal, and read the contents. Nothing more than an intimation from a relative (perhaps once more intimate than now), of the sudden death of her brother-in-law, and a request that, under the circumstanes of the sudden bereavement of the widow, I would [-135-] undertake certain sad commissions relative to the mourning and monument which she entrusted to my care.
    It is noteworthy that, even in. the deepest affliction, especially among women, in the matter of dress, how the very abandonment of grief is shot, as it were, with the more cheerful love of the becoming; and in this instance I found no departure from the general rule, as I was particularly enjoined, in the most decent terms that the writer could command under the circumstances, to do my sad spiriting at a certain maison de deuil mentioned. Of course, the term was not absolutely new to me; but I had never realized its exact meaning, or imagined with what exquisite delicacy and refinement those establishments had gone in partnership, as it were, with the emotions, and with what sympathy, beautifully adjusted to the occasion, trade had met the afflictions of humanity.
    After breakfast, I set out upon my sad errand, and had no difficulty in finding the maison de deuil in question. It met me in the sad habiliments of mourning. No vulgar colours glared from the shop-windows, no gilt annoyed with its festive glare. The name of the firm scarcely presumed to make itself seen in letters of the saddest grey, on a black ground. Here and there beads of white set off the general gloom of the house-front, like the crape pipings of a widow's cap. The very metal window-frames and plates had gone into a decorous mourning, zinc taking the place of —  what we feel, under the circumstances, would be quite indecent —  brass. Our neighbours across the Channel, who know how to dress up affliction as appropriately as their bonbonniere, have long since seen the necessity of classifying the trappings of grief, and of withdrawing [-136 -] them from the vulgar atmosphere of gayer costumes. In any of our smaller country towns, the ordinary mercer who has just been handling a flaunting silk thinks it no shame to measure off, with his last smirk still upon his features, a dress of paramatta. The rude Anglo-Saxon provincial element feels no shock at the incongruity. They manage these things better in France, and we are following their example in the great metropolis.
    On my pushing the plate-glass door, it gave way with a hushed and muffled sound, and I was met by a gentleman of sad expression, who, in the most sympathetic voice, inquired the nature of my want: and, on my reply, directed me to the INCONSOLABLE GRIEF DEPARTMENT. The inside of the establishment I found to answer exactly to the appearance without. The long passage I traversed was panelled in white with black borderings, like so many mourning cards placed on end; and I was becoming impressed with the deep solemnity of the place, when I caught sight of a neat little figure rolling up some ribbon, and on inquiring if I had arrived at the Inconsolable Grief Department, she replied in a gentle voice, slightly shaded with gaiety, that that was the half-mourning counter, and that I must proceed until I had passed the repository for widows' silk. Following her directions, I at last reached my destination, a large room draped with black, with a hushed atmosphere about it, as though a body was invisibly lying there in state.
    An attendant in sable habiliments picked out with the inevitable white tie, and with an undertakerish eye and manner, awaited my commands. I according produced my list. Scanning it critically, he said:
    [-137-] "Permit me to inquire, sir, if it is a deceased partner?"
    I nodded assent.
    "We take the liberty of asking this distressing question," he replied, "as we are extremely anxious to keep up the character of this establishment by matching at once the exact shade of affliction. Our paramattas and crapes in this department give satisfaction to the deepest woe. Permit me to show you a new texture, which we term the Inconsolable." With that he placed a pasteboard box before me, full of mourning fabrics.
    "Is this it ?" I inquired, lifting a lugubrious piece of drapery.
    "Oh no!" he replied: "the one you have in your hand was manufactured for last year's afflictions, and was termed  'the stunning blow shade;' it makes up well, however, with our sudden bereavement silk — a leading article — and our distraction trimmings."
    "I am afraid," said I, "my commission says nothing about these novelties."
    "Ladies in the country," he blandly replied, "are possibly not aware of the perfection to which the art of mourning genteelly is now brought. But I will see that your commission is attended to to the letter." Giving another glance over my list: "Oh! a widow's cap is mentioned, I see. I must trouble you, sir, to proceed to the Weeds Department for that article —  the first turning to the left."
    Proceeding as I was directed, I came to a recess fitted up with a solid phalanx of widows' caps. I perceived, at a glance, that they exhausted the whole gamut of grief, [-138-] from its deepest shade to that tone which is expressive of a pleasing melancholy. The foremost row confronted me with all the severity of crapen folds, in the midst of which my mind's eye could see the set features of many a Mrs. Clennam, whilst those behind gradually faded off into the most jaunty tarlatan; and one or two of the outsiders even breaking out into worldly feathers, and the most flaunty weepers.
    Forgetting the proprieties for the moment, I inquired of the grave attendant, if one of the latter would be suitable?
    "Oh no, sir," she replied, with a slight shade of severity in her voice; "you may gradually work up to it in a year or two; but any of these," pointing to the front row of weeds, "are indispensable for the first burst of grief."
    Acquiescing in the propriety of this sliding-scale or sorrow, I selected some weeds expressive of the deepest dejection I could find; and having completed my commission, I inquired whether I could procure for myself some lavender gloves?
    "Oh, sir, for those things," she said, in the voice or Tragedy speaking to Comedy, "you must turn to your right, and you will come to the Complimentary Mourning counter:"
    Turning to the right, accordingly, I was surprised and a little shocked to find myself once more among worldly colours; tender lavender I had expected, but violet, mauve, and even absolute red, stared me in the face. I was about retiring, thinking I had made a mistake, when a young lady, with a charming tinge of cheerfulness in [-139-] her voice, inquired if I wanted anything in her department?
    "I was looking for the Complimentary Mourning counter," I replied, "for some gloves, but I fear I am wrong."
    "You are quite right, sir," she said; "this is it."
    She saw my eye glance at the cheerful silks, and, with the instinctive tact of woman, guessed my thoughts in a moment. "Mauve, sir, is very appropriate for the lighter sorrows."
    "But absolute red," I retorted, pointing to some velvet of that colour, — 
    "Is quite admissible when you mourn the departure of a distant relative; but may I show you some gloves ," and suiting the action to the word, she lifted the cover from the glove-box, and displayed a perfect picture of delicate half-tones, indicative of a struggle between the cheerful and the sad.
    "There is a pleasing melancholy in the shade of grey," she said, indenting slightly each outer knuckle with the elastic kid, as she measured my hand.
    "Can you find a lavender?"
    "Oh yes; the sorrow-tint is very slight in that, and it wears admirably."
    "Thus, by degrees, growing beautifully less, the grief of the establishment died out in the tenderest lavender, and I left, profoundly impressed with the charming improvements which Parisian taste has made on the old aboriginal style of mourning.
    But my task was not yet accomplished. A part of my [-140-] commission was to select a neat and appropriate monument, the selection of which was left entirely to my own discretion. Accordingly I wended my way towards the New Road, the emporium of "monumental marble." Here every house has its marketable cemetery, and you see grief in the rough, and ascending to the most delicately chiselled smoothness. Your marble mason is a very different stamp of man from the maison de deuil assistant, and my entrance into the establishment I sought, was greeted with a certain rough respect by the man in attendance, who was chiselling an angel's classic nose.
    "Will you kindly allow me to see some designs for a monument?" I inquired..
    "Certainly, sir. Is it for a brother or sister, father or mother, sir?"
    "A gentleman," I replied, rather shortly.
    "I hope no offence, sir — but the father of a family?" " I nodded assent. "Then will you please to step this way," he replied; and leading the way through the house, he opened a door, and we entered a back yard filled with broken, but erect, marble columns, that would not have disgraced Palmyra.
    "That," said he, "will be a very suitable article."
    "But," said I, "do you really break these pillars purposely?"
    "Why, that all depends, you see, sir. When the father, of a family is called away on a sudden, we break the column off short with a rough fracture: if it has been a lingering case, we chisel it down a little dumpy. That, for instance," said he, pointing to a very thick pillar, fractured as sharp and ragged as a piece of granite, "is for [-141-] an awful and sudden affliction — a case of apoplexy —  a wife and seven small children."
    " But," I observed, "there are some tall and some short columns."
    "Well, you see," said he. "that's all according to age. We break 'em off short for old 'uns, and it stands to reason. when it's a youngish one, we give him more shaft."
    "The candle of life is blown out early in some cases; in others, it is burnt to the socket," I suggested.
    "Exactly, sir," he said, "now you have hit it."
    "Nevertheless," I replied, "I have not exactly made up my mind about the column. Can you show me any other designs ?"
    "Yes, certainly, sir." With that he led the way again to the office, and placed before me a large book of "patterns." "We do a great deal in that way," he said, displaying a design with which my reader is probably familiar. It was an urn, after the old tea-urn pattern, half enveloped in a tablecloth overshadowed by a weeping-willow and an exceedingly limp-looking lady, who leaned her forehead against the urn, evidently suffering from a sick-headache.
    "No." I said. "I think I have seen that design before."
    "Perhaps so," he replied; "but really there are so many persons die that we can't have something new every time."
    "What is this ?" I inquired. It was an hour-glass and a skull overgrown by a bramble.
    "Oh, that is for the country trade," he said, hastily [-142-] turning over the leaf; "we don't do anything in that way among genteel people. This is the snapped lily-pattern, but that won't do for the father of a family; and here is the dove-design, a pretty thing enough. We do a good many of them among the Evangelicals of Clapham."
    A rather plump-looking bird, making a book-marker of his beak, was directing attention to a passage in an open volume.
    "But," said I, "have you no ornamental crosses?"
    "No," said he; "you must go to Paddington for them sort of things. Lord bless your soul, we should ruin our trade if we was to deal with such Puseyite things."
    "I never knew before," said I, "that sectarianism thus pursued us even to our tombstones."
    The art of design, it is quite clear, had not yet penetrated to the workshop of the marble-mason, so I was content to select some simple little design, and leave my friend to a resumption of the elaboration of the angel's nose, in which occupation I had disturbed him.