THE UNIVERSAL PROVIDER.
LET us take a walk, not down Fleet Street—for my address is to madam, not sir—but
down Westbourne Grove, that Bond Street of the far West, which a few years have
changed from a hopeless, woebegone thoroughfare, to one of the busiest centres
of retail trade. I mind me of the time, when Westbourne Grove and its
neighbourhood were cited as instances of the folly of persons in overbuilding
themselves—as it was funnily called—and Bayswater generally was known as
Bayswater the dusty. In those days, old gentlemen were beard to speak of
junketings at the Flora Tea Gardens, and of duels on Wormwood Scrubs; and
Bayswater was voted by the authorities a stupid blunder. Its growth, rapid as it
has been of late, was slow enough at first. In fact, Westbourne Grove has only
within the last dozen years become a desirable promenade.
The first thing to strike us in Westbourne Grove, is the abode of the Universal Provider, a title which bears an odd similarity to that of the People's Caterer. The Universal Provider, however, is another manner of man from the People's Caterer. Instead of aggressively-pointed moustaches, be wears abundant whiskers; and, unlike the Napoleonic caterer, is a Yorkshireman. It is barely fifteen years since Mr. Whiteley, who now seems to own half the shops in Westbourne Grove, pitched his tent in that locality at Number Thirty-one, with a brace of assstants. By selling artificial flowers and similar goods at, a low price, he quickly secured a large number of customers, who, by degrees, pushed him into extending his business, until he now occupies an entire row of houses on one side of Westbourne Grove, and several numbers on the other. The domain of the Provider is the object of our stroll. Let, us walk in, and see what he will do for us.
As I step into Number Forty-three, Westbourne Grove, I find that the Provider is prepared to take me in hand early in life. No sooner am I, madam, in the nurse's arms, than I am enswathed in the goods supplied by the universal one. I find myself in a trimmed French cambric ditto—whatever that is—and encompassed by flannel bands, swathes, pilches, and other mysterious garments fitting to my infant nature. I am profusely dredged with powder from the perfumery department of the Provider, and I am washed—oh, agony!—with soap from the same shelves. By-and-by, frequent visits are made to the Universal Provider on my account. From the jewellery department comes a coral with golden bells, pleasing to the ear, and sweet to whet my baby teeth upon. From Number Forty-three, again, comes curious raiment. My dumpling cheeks, quickly marbled by the wild north-easter, are protected by a silken hood, richly embroidered; my dumpy limbs by a muslin robe, trimmed regardless of expense, and by an embroidered cloak of price. When I lay me down to rest, or rather am put to bed, everybody having had enough of me for that day, I stretch my fat little arms, and kick my little legs, in a basinet, also from the stores of the Universal Provider. When the solemn period of short-coating arrives, that great man is again called in to provide me with everything, from a nainsook frock to a silk-velvet pelisse, and my mamma is assisted in her choice of my costume, by cunningly-dressed dolls made in my image. At this period I am still shod by the Provider, who also supplies me with a hat, which gives me, in my fond mother's eyes at least, a dashing and cavalier air. As I grow in stature, I still receive from the same address costumes of serge and silk, as well as gorgeous-printed flannel dressing-gowns, and costumes for the delightful days on the sands. In this, however, and several subsequent years of my existence, I love the Provider best in that blissful period which comes between Christmas and Twelfth Night. What a bower of bliss to me is Whiteley's then, with its great bazaar devoted not to great, ugly, useful things, but to delicious mice, which run along the ground; to men, who turn head over heels downstairs; to frogs which leap, and may-bugs to put down girls' backs; to cocked-hats, holding not brains, but sugar-plums; and to wild animals with viscera equally good to eat! What store of tin trumpets, and squeaking pigs, and barking dogs, and bellowing bulls are set forth! What wonderful rocking-horses! just like life, as the nurse says, with but slight regard for truth, I fear, for I have never seen, to my knowledge, a real live horse suffering from an eruption of scarlet wafers. What a child's Elysium is this fairy spot, with its bright holly sparkling in the light, and its Golconda, its Potosi of toys! As I grow bigger, my toys take a different shape. Crossbows and guns, peg-tops and humming ditto, assert their claims, and, finally, I am made happy by the possession of a full-sized cricket-bat. I grow bigger, but not out of the knowledge of the Provider, who keeps his keen Yorkshire eye upon me. Am I beyond the natty knickerbockers and jerkins of small boyhood? The Universal Provider is ready and willing to equip me with jackets of the correct cut for a public school, with a tall hat, and with boating and cricketing suits, like the oysters in a New York cellar, "in every style." My first watch and chain come from his establishment, as well as my first "pink;" the dawn, so to speak, of a cross-country career. The cash system of the Provider prevents my becoming very great friends with him during my college days, when terms are of less importance than unlimited credit ; but when these "green and salad days " are over, and I am possessed of a yearly income, I again turn my steps to Westbourne Grove, or, to speak more correctly, am turned thither by my fond mother and prudent sisters. They make of Whiteley's a daily haunt, and are never weary of singing its praises. As somebody belonging to us, or known to us, is always getting married, or coming of age, or having an ordinary birthday, my people are perpetually buying presents, of the useful and practical kind preferred for family commemorations. They find great store at the Provider's of clocks, articles de Paris, bronzes, and ormolu generally, and excellent jewellery, made by the best manufacturers. It is not, however, until I enter the holy state of matrimony, that I quite realise the value of Whiteley's and ready money. Then, indeed, I find the comfort of getting things "in the lump," without the aid of a host of furnishers and artificers. The Provider is ready to equip me with everything, like the agent of the famous Manchester commission house, who would take an order for anything, from a church-steeple to a hay-seed. If I want a house built, he will build it for me in any style I prefer—Queen Anne, Renaissance, or Thirteenth Century. He will also furnish it from top to bottom; with carpets, or rushes, as may be preferred; with furniture of any kind, make, or shape; with curtains, mirrors, a pianoforte for my wife, and a violoncello for myself; with crockery and china, all drily emblazoned with arms, crest, or humbler monogram; with kitchen utensils and drawing-room knickknacks ; with oilcloth, mats, and rugs; with combs and brushes, eau-de-cologne, and tooth-powder ; and with stationery of every conceivable kind. One day before my wedding I look in at Whiteley's, intending on that occasion, all else having been organised, to limit my purchases to a plain, but substantial, circlet of gold. By great good lack, I happen to see the Universal Provider himself, who is not at all too grand and remote to have a chat with me. He kindly introduces me into his private room, and shows me mysteries as yet unknown. As my wedding-tour will be lengthy, I bewail the trouble of passports and the difficulty of procuring eligible berths on ocean steamers; and it also occurs to me, as a prudent man, that on getting married I should insure my life. Nothing is easier. I am introduced to six offices, one for shipping, one for banking, one for fire and life assurance, one for the counting-house superintendent, one for Mr. Whiteley's private secretary, and one general order and receiving office. I find that I can not only insure my house and my life, but secure my berth on any vessel going anywhere. The Universal Provider will book my luggage, procure me passports and letters of credit, and, in short, take me and mine off my hands completely. He will also supply me with every known kind of trunk and travelling-box, from the lofty Saratoga to the natty bullock trunk, from the vast portmanteau to the convenient Gladstone. He will open a banking account with me, and procure me anything purchasable for ready money. "I hardly wished for all these departments," he tells me, "but they have been thrust upon me one after the other. I was asked supply horses, as I supplied carriages, and now I am asked for horses day by day. One day a customer thought he would try a flight beyond me. He asked if I would sell him an elephant for his children to ride on in his park in the Midlands. It did not seem more unnatural to me that a man should want an elephant than a road locomotive, but I thought for awhile whether I could fill the order. In thirty seconds I recollected that elephants were an article of commerce, and I offered to supply him one, but declined to give him an estimate on the spot. Next day I sent him word that he could have a fine young elephant for four hundred pounds, and requested his directions as to the delivery of the animal. He came and apologised for the trouble he had given me, and declared the whole affair a joke, just to see if I could be shut up by any order."
After marriage, the Provider takes me more seriously in hand. The ladies of my family can be attired for all occasions and in every fashion, from the riding-habit to the evening cuirass. Those buying evening costumes are provided with a gas-lighted room, that they may see bow the colours suit their complexions by night; and there is an immense establishment for the mysterious operations of cutting and fitting. There are ribbons too, and muslins and laces of every price, from the machine-made bobbin-net to the choicest products of Brussels. All is not vanity, however, in the lair of the Provider. Not the least curious part of it is that devoted to what the Americans call "notions "—to wit, pins, needles, tapes, thread, and sewing-cottons. The Provider buys pins by the ton, and retails them in boxes of one ounce, two ounces, a pound, and so forth. To assist the purchasers of these articles in their laudable efforts to make their own dresses, there is a special department for sewing-machines. The literary department is a curiosity. Books, magazines, and music are sold at the discount from selling price of threepence in a shilling; and as food is provided for the mind, so is refreshment provided for the body. At the restaurant I can offer my Belinda, exhausted by the mental and physical effort of trying on multitudinous dresses of quaint and marvellous design, substantial nutriment to support her until the solemn sacrifice of dinner is announced. The scheme of refreshment is not, I am glad to say, confined to such airy trifles as sandwiches, jellies, and the like, which purveyors loss enlightened appear to think fitted to the feminine organisation. That beautiful structure is, so far as my experience is concerned, far more adapted to the reception of roast mutton than of blancmange; and the Provider, like a wise Yorkshireman, has supplied the article most in demand. His real value is perhaps most distinctly felt, when there is a mutiny at home and friends are coming to dinner. Then he appears in all his majesty. The cook may have struck and Jeames followed suit, but domestic rebellion shakes me not a whit. It is a base thought that any live Briton should succumb to his domestics, but my friends must be fed and waited upon. So I hie me to the Provider. There is no difficulty at all. At fixed prices duly set forth, he will supply me from a list of twenty clear and as many thick soups, joints, poultry, and game, croquettes, rissoles, and patties, vol-au-vent from the noble financiere to the humble chicken, entrees of all sorts and sizes, ices, creams, cakes, jellies, and fruit. All these good things will he deliver punctually, with proper service thereto, and also provide seats, flowers, bouquets, and decorations, with plate and linen if my own stock fall short. It is also said, but not openly, that if pressed very hard he will supply two or three guests to fill up gaps suddenly caused by accident—the said guests to order being quite irreproachable persons, elegantly dressed in the latest fashion, and furnished with conversation to order, be the same political, aesthetic, military, naval, or merely social. The "quatorzieme" of French legend is realised at Whiteley's, and can he had with the clear turtle on the shortest reasonable notice. But this is one of the secrets of the Provider's lair.
Having lodged his clients and dressed them from top to toe, the Provider will, if they choose, supply them not only with choice banquets, but with the beef and mutton, the tea and coffee, the poultry and game, of everyday life. He offers these on a scale arranged according to market price. He sells butchers' meat, as it is called, to the extent of about two tons daily, poultry and pork, potatoes, greens, and grocery in proportion. The business done in this department is enormous, and it is a gay sight at Christmastide to see the regiments of turkeys and geese melt away before the heavy fire of purchasers. This comparatively new enterprise has entailed the purchase of a farm, and a farther extension in the same line of enterprise.
As the Provider has become one of the largest employers of labour in this country, be has not been unmindful of the duties of his position. He has now in his employ nearly three thousand persons, male and female, and all are admirably cared for. A large proportion of these are resident hands, and for their accommodation Mr. Whiteley has leased several houses in Westbourne Grove Terrace; the female establishment occupying one side of the street, the male the other. The commissariat for this immense staff is a department in itself, and, perhaps, no employés are better fed than those of the great Provider. In joints alone they consume more than half a ton per diem, and the weekly bills of the Provider reach the following astounding figures: seven thousand pounds of fresh meat, forty sacks of potatoes, four thousand two hundred loaves of bread, eighteen hundred quarts of milk, three hundred pounds of butter, three hundred pounds of cheese, a thousand gallons of beer, three hundred pounds of tea, five hundred of loaf and two hundred Of moist sugar, two sacks of flour, six hundred eggs, seven hundred pounds of ham and bacon, one hundred and fifty pounds of currants, and an equal weight of rice, tapioca, and sago. About fifteen hundred persons sit down to the general meals of the day, and at tea that number is increased to eighteen hundred. Their chief is not content with supplying them with work and animal food, but has thoughtfully given them the means of innocent amusement. They have already in existence two cricket clubs, two rowing, clubs, two football clubs, a dramatic club, and the Mississippi Minstrel Troupe. The Provider's young people have also an athletic club and a brass band ; and with smoking and reading rooms for the men, reading and music rooms for the women, and an annual ball, are made very much at home. The Universal Provider takes good care of everybody, and, it is recorded, once covered himself with glory by making a match. An unbelieving customer was going to India, and, having purchased a liberal outfit, turned round like the man who ordered the elephant, and said, "Now, Mr. Whiteley, you have furnished me with everything but one—a wife." The Provider was equal to the occasion, presented the young gentleman to one of the prettiest of the young ladies in his employment, and created a love-match on the spot. The young gentleman did not go alone to India.
The universal one being thus equal to any transaction, it is not to be wondered at that he takes care of me, when growing infirmities press heavily upon me. As gout and dyspepsia assert their power, I again seek the Universal Provider, and buy of him pills and potions duly patented; and consult the hairdresser kept at his establishment, as to the expediency of applying to my whitening locks one of those articles stated to be "not a dye." In time this shallow semblance of youth becomes useless, and the wig-maker must be called into operation. I again take my way to Westbourne Grove, and after investing in silks and furs for my feminine belongings, bespeak a substantial head-covering for myself. Time passes till I feel the want of luncheon. I am past the solid refection of roast mutton and boned turkey now, and am fain to put up with a plate of turtle, and thin at that. But my wig is well made, and I feel that Time is set for awhile at defiance.
The Universal Provider having thus watched and tended me through life, in sickness and in health ; having poured out champagne for me in the hours of joy, and beef-tea in the hours of woe ; having supplied me with a clever hack to canter on in the Row, and a bath-chair for the faithful Barkins to drag me about in ; with luxurious cushions for my smoking-room, and a water-bed for my sick chamber; with go-carts for my children, and a neat brougham for my wife, is also prepared, this last time, not to sell but to lend me —or rather my executors, administrators, and assigns—another vehicle for a ceremony indispensable in some form, but looked upon with various eyes by the persons aforesaid, according to the disposition of my several messuages and tenements. The Universal Provider relieves my executors, administrators, and assigns of much anxious care, for he charges himself with the final disposal of myself ; and the price being settled, he is no niggard of ostrich plumes and other trappings ; he supplies the plumpest and sleekest of horses, and equally sleek men, adorned with no more carmine on their principal feature than is incidental to their profession. My casket, as my American cousins love to call it, is of the best and most thoroughly seasoned material, the handles are heavy, the plate is massive, and the fall quantity of nails is bestowed around it. Moreover, the Provider secures me an eligible spot for my resting-place, where my manes will not be offended by the contact of plebeian clay. He will see me laid there in due state and solemnity, and having me safe underground, will keep me there by placing over me a monument of marble or granite, ponderous and superb. He will guarantee absolutely the quality of this, the last of my requirements. He will warrant it best Sicilian, or best Peterhead; the sculpture and engraving to be the best procurable; and the Latin inscription to be good sound classical stuff, without blunders or solecisms, having honestly given this job to a Master of Arts and Fellow of Brazenface to execute. He will, in fact, warrant the entire monument with one trifling exception—he draws the line at the veracity of the epitaph.
All the Year Round, London, 1878