Going Into Mourning
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
The weeping mother bent over the beautiful form of innocent childhood — beautiful still, though its animating spirit had fled — and kissed the pale cheek of her dear departed one. When she lifted her head, a tear glistened on the cold brow of the babe. Then the father looked his last look, and, with an effort, controlled the emotion that well-near mastered him. The sisters came next, with audible sobs, and cheeks suffused with tears. A moment or two they gazed upon the expressionless face of their dear little play-fellow, and then the coffin lid was shut, while each one present experienced a momentary feeling of suffocation.
As the funeral procession came out of the door, and the family passed slowly across the pavement to the carriages, a few gossiping neighbors — such as, with no particular acquaintance with the principal members of a household, know all about the internal management of every dwelling in the square — assembled close by, and thus discoursed of the events connected with the burying.
"Poor Mrs. Condy," said one, "how can she bear the loss of that sweet little fellow!"
"Other people have lost children as well as she," remarked a sour-looking dame. "Rich people, thank Heaven! have to feel as well as we poor folks."
No one seemed disposed to reply to this; and there was a momentary silence.
"They've got up mourning mighty quick," said a third speaker. "Little Willie only died yesterday morning."
"It's most all borrowed mourning clothes, I suppose," responded a fourth.
"Hardly," said the other.
"Yes, but I know that it is, though," added the individual who made the allegation of borrowing; "because, you see, Lucy, the chambermaid, told me last night, that Mrs. Condy had sent her to borrow her sister's black dress, and that the girls were all hard enough put to it to know where to get something decent to attend the funeral in."
"No doubt, they thought more about mourning dresses, than they did about the dead child," remarked the cynic of the group.
"It's a shame, Mrs. Grime, for you to talk in that way about anyone," replied the woman who had first spoken.
"It's the truth, Mrs. Myers," retorted Mrs. Grime. "By their works you shall know them. You needn't tell me about people being so dreadful sorry at the loss of friends — when they can make such a to-do about getting black to wear. These mourning dresses and long black veils are truly enough called mourning — they are an excellent counterfeit, and deceive one half of the world. Ah, me! If all the money that was spent buying mourning clothes was given to the poor, there would be less misery in the world by a great deal."
And while the little group, attracted by the solemn pageant, thus exercised the privilege of independent thought and free discussion, carriage after carriage was filled and moved off, and soon the whole passed out of sight.
It was near the hour of twilight when the afflicted family returned, and after partaking of supper, sparingly, and in silence, the different members retired to their chambers, and at an early hour sought relief to their troubled thoughts in sleep.
On the next morning, during the breakfast hour, Mrs. Condy broke the oppressive silence by asking of her husband the sum of fifty dollars.
"What for, Sarah?" said Mr. Condy, looking into her face with an expression of grave inquiry.
"It's the middle of the week now, you know, and therefore no time is to be lost in getting mourning. At any rate, it will be as much as a bargain to get dresses made by Sunday. Jane and Mary will have to go out this morning and buy the goods."
Mr. Condy did not immediately reply, but seemed lost in deep and somewhat painful thought. At length, he said, looking his wife steadily in the face, but with a kind expression on his countenance —
"Sarah, black dresses and an outside imposing show of mourning cannot make us any the more sorry for the loss of our dear little one," and his voice gave way and slightly trembled at the last word, and the moisture dimmed his eyes.
"Yes, but, Mr. Condy, it would seem wicked and unfeeling not to put on mourning," said his wife in an earnest voice, for the idea of non-conformity to the custom of society, so suddenly presented to her mind, obscured for the moment the heart-searching sorrow awakened by the loss of her youngest born and dearest. "How can you think of such a thing?"
"Why, father, it would never do in the world," added the eldest daughter, Jane. "I would feel condemned as long as I lived, if I were to neglect so binding a duty."
"And what would people say?" asked Mary, whose simple mind perceived at once the strongest motive that operated in favor of the mourning garments.
"I don't see, Mary," replied Mr. Condy, "that other people have anything at all to do in this matter. We know our grief to be real, and need no artificial incitements to keep it alive. Black garments cannot add to our sorrow."
But Mrs. Condy shook her head, and the daughters shook their heads, and the end of the matter was, Mr. Condy's purse-strings were loosened, and the required amount of money handed over.
After thinking a good deal about the matter, Mary suggested, about an hour after breakfast, that it would not look well for her and Jane to be seen shopping, and Willie only buried the day before; and it was agreed to send for Ellen Maynard, who always sewed in the family when there was much to do, and get her to make the purchases. This determined, Lucy was despatched for Ellen.
The reader will transfer his mental vision to a small but neat and comfortable room in another part of the town. The inhabitants are two. One, with a pale, thin face, and large bright eyes, reclines upon a bed. The other is seated by a window, sewing.
"I think I will try to sit up a little, Ellen," said the former, raising herself up with an effort.
"I wouldn't, if I were you, Margaret," replied the other, dropping her work and coming to the bedside. "You had better keep still, or that distressing cough may come back again."
"Indeed, sister," returned the invalid, "I feel so restless that it is almost impossible to lie here. Let me sit up a little while, and I am sure I shall feel better."
Ellen did not oppose her further, but assisted her to a large rocking-chair, and, after placing a pillow at her back, resumed her work.
"I can't help thinking of Mrs. Condy's little Willie," said Ellen, after a pause. "Dear little fellow! How much they must all feel his loss."
"He is better off, though," remarked the sister; but even that idea could not keep her eyes from glistening. The thought of death always referred itself to her own near approach to the thick shadows and the dark valley.
"Yes, he is with the angels," was the brief response of Ellen.
Just at that moment the door opened, and Mrs. Condy's chambermaid entered.
"Good morning, Lucy, how do you do?" said Ellen, rising. "How is Mrs. Condy and all the family?"
"They are very well, Miss Ellen," replied Lucy. "Mrs. Condy wants you to come there this morning and go and buy the mourning for the family. And then they want you to come and sew all this week, and part of next, too."
Ellen glanced at her sister, involuntarily, and then said —
"I am afraid, Lucy, that I can't go. Margaret is doing very poorly, and I don't see how I can possibly leave her."
"O yes, you can go, Ellen," said Margaret. "You can fix me what I want, and come home every night. I'll do well enough."
Ellen paused a few moments, and then turning to Lucy, said —
"Tell Mrs. Condy that I will come around in the course of half an hour."
Lucy went away, and Ellen, after sitting irresolute for some minutes, said —
"I don't think, sister, that I can do anything more for Mrs. Condy than her shopping. I wouldn't like to leave you alone. You know how bad your cough is sometimes."
"I'll do well enough through the day, Ellen," replied Margaret, though her feeble voice and languid manner told too plainly that she could not do very well at any time. "You know that our rent will be due in two weeks, and that you haven't yet got enough to pay it."
"That is very true," said Ellen, somewhat sadly. "Anyhow, I'll go to Mrs. Condy's, and will think about the matter."
After dressing herself, Ellen insisted that her sister should lie down. She then placed a small table close to the bed, upon which was set a few articles of food, and a vial of cough medicine. After charging Margaret to keep very quiet, and to try to sleep, she turned upon her a look of deep and yearning affection, and then hurried away.
The sight of Ellen, and the necessary allusion to the recent afflicting loss, caused the tears of the mother and sisters to flow afresh. But these were soon dried up, and so much were the minds of each interested in the idea of the mourning dresses, and in the necessary directions to be given, that few traces of the real affliction which had wrung their hearts remained, for the time, perceptible. The orders received by Ellen were promptly filled at the store where the family usually purchased their dry-goods, and the various articles sent home. The bundles arrived about the same time that Ellen returned. Then came a careful examination of the shades of color and quality of the goods. These proving satisfactory, Jane said —
"And now, Ellen, mother's dress, and Mary's, and mine must be done this week. We'll all help you. Mary and I can make the skirts and bind cord for you, and do a good deal on the dresses. You can get them done, easily enough?"
"Indeed, Miss Jane," replied Ellen, and her voice was not steady, "I hardly know what to say. Sister is worse than she has ever been; and I don't see how I can leave her alone. She coughs terribly; and is so weak, that she can only sit up a little while. She has failed very fast within a week."
"But you know this is a case particularly pressing," said Mrs. Condy. "There seems to be no help for it. There is no one we can get but you, now; and you know we give you all our sewing, and depend on you. Lucy says that Margaret is willing to have you come, and says that she can get on very well."
Ellen paused a moment or two, and then replied, with an expression of sadness in her voice — "I will make the dresses for you, Mrs. Condy, but you must all help me as much as you can, so that I can get home every evening. It won't do to let Margaret be alone all night, for her cough is much worse in the evening, and before day in the morning."
Neither Mrs. Condy nor her daughters replied to this. Mentally, they deemed it impossible for Ellen to go home at night. But they did not wish to say so. It was Wednesday, and all the afternoon was consumed in cutting, fitting, and basting the dresses. Night came, and Ellen, after tea, prepared to go home. Some slight objection was made; but she was resolute. It was some time after dark when she came in sight of her chamber window. It showed that there was no light within. Instantly she sprang forward, and soon bounded up the stairs and into the room.
"Margaret! — How are you, Margaret?" she said, pressing up to the bedside, and putting her hand upon the forehead of her sister. It was cold and clammy. A violent fit of coughing prevented a reply. A light was obtained in a few minutes, and showed the countenance of Margaret slightly distorted from difficult breathing, and her forehead perceptibly corrugated.
"You are worse, sister!" exclaimed Ellen, kissing her damp forehead.
"No, not much worse. My cough is only a little troublesome," was the quiet reply.
"You have had no supper yet, of course," said Ellen. "A cup of hot tea will do you good."
This was soon prepared, and Margaret ate with a keen appetite. After tea, she was much better. The cold perspiration ceased, and her skin became dry and warm. A brief conversation passed between the sisters, when Margaret fell off into a pleasant slumber. On the next morning, with much reluctance and many misgivings as to whether it were right to leave her sister alone, Ellen went to Mrs. Condy's. Before going, however, she asked the kind neighbor who lived below, to look in occasionally, and to see that Margaret had a good cup of tea for dinner. This was promised, and she felt lighter at heart.
Ellen worked hard through that day; but when night came, with all the help she had received, the first dress was not finished. Unless one dress were finished each day, the three could not be done by Sunday; and this not being the case on the first day, how could she go home that night? for if she worked a few hours longer, the garment would be ready for the wearer.
"I must run home a little while," said she, mentally, "and then come back again. But how can I leave Margaret all night? She may die!" The thought caused her to shudder.
At length she said to Mrs. Condy —
"I can't leave sister all night, madam. But I can take your dress home with me, and by sitting up late, I can easily finish it. You will have no objection to my doing this, I hope?"
Mrs. Condy paused a moment, for she did feel an objection to this being done; but humanity prevailed, and she consented. This relieved Ellen's mind very greatly, and she bundled up the dress, and hurried away with it. Margaret appeared more feeble than she was in the morning; and her cough was very troublesome. It was nearly twelve o'clock when the last stitch was taken in Mrs. Condy's dress. And then Ellen retired to her bed. But it was a long time before she could sleep. The nervous excitement, induced by protracted labor and great anxiety of mind, drove slumber from her eyelids for many hours. Towards morning she fell into a troubled sleep, and awoke at daylight unrefreshed.
This day was Friday, and Jane's dress came next in turn. Ellen applied herself with even greater assiduity than she had used on the preceding day; but, as Jane's dress required more trimming, and less assistance was given her on it, the progress she made towards its completion was in no way promising. After dinner her head began to ache, and continued its throbbing, almost blinding pain, until the evening twilight began to fall, and the darkness compelled her to suspend her work.
"Why, Ellen, Jane's dress isn't nearly done," said Mary, in tones of surprise, on coming into the room, at the moment Ellen laid the garment aside.
"No, but I'll finish it tonight," replied Ellen.
"Why, it'll take you pretty much all night to finish this," she said, lifting and examining her sister's dress. "How in the world did you get so behindhand, Ellen?"
"This is a harder dress to make than your mother's," replied Ellen; "and besides having had less help on it, my head has ached very badly all the afternoon."
Without seeming to notice the last reason given, Mary said —
"Well, if you can possibly get it done tonight, Ellen, you must do so. It would never answer in the world not to have all the dresses done by tomorrow night."
"I will have it done," was the brief reply, made in a low tone.
Jane's dress was taken home that night, unfinished by full six or seven hours' work. As Ellen had feared, she found Margaret suffering much from her cough. After preparing some food for her sister, whose appetite still remained good, she drank a cup of tea, and then sat down to work upon the mourning garment. Towards midnight, Margaret, who had fallen asleep early in the evening, began to grow restless, and to moan as if in pain. Every now and then, Ellen would pause in her work and look towards the bed, with an anxious countenance; and once or twice she got up, and stood over her sister; but she did not awake. It was three o'clock when the last stitch was taken, and then Margaret's cough had awakened her, and she seemed to suffer so much from that and from difficult breathing, that Ellen, even after lying down, did not go to sleep for an hour. It was long after sunrise when she awoke.
"Must you go today, too?" inquired Margaret, looking into her sister's face anxiously, on seeing her, after the hastily prepared breakfast had been eaten, take up her bonnet and shawl.
"Yes, Margaret, I must go today. There is one more dress to be made, and that must be done. But after today, I won't go out anywhere again until you are better."
"I don't think I shall ever be better again, Ellen," said the sick girl. "I am getting so weak; and I feel just as if I shouldn't stay here but a little while. You don't know how strange I feel sometimes. Oh, I wish you didn't have to go out today!" And she looked so earnestly into the face of her sister, that the tears sprung into Ellen's eyes.
"If I can persuade them to put this last dress off until next week, and then get someone else to make it, I will," said the sister: "but if I can't, Margaret, try and keep up your spirits. I'll ask Mrs. Ryland, downstairs, to come and sit with you a little while at a time through the day; and so if I can't; get off, you won't be altogether without company."
"I wish you would, sister, for I feel so lonesome sometimes," replied Margaret, mournfully.
Mrs. Ryland consented, for she was a kind-hearted woman, and liked the sisters, and Ellen hurried away to Mrs. Condy's.
"You are very late this morning, ain't you?" said Mary Condy, as Ellen entered with Jane's finished dress.
"I am a little late, Miss Mary, but I sat up until three o'clock this morning, and overslept myself in consequence."
"Well, you'll finish my dress today, of course?"
"Really, Miss Mary, I hardly know what to say about it. Sister is so very poorly, that I am almost afraid to leave her alone. Can't you in any way put yours off until next week? I have been up nearly all night for two nights, and feel very unwell this morning." And certainly her pale cheeks, sunken eyes, and haggard countenance fully confirmed her statement.
"It will be impossible, Ellen," was Mary's prompt and positive response. "I must go to church tomorrow, and cannot, of course, go out, without my black dress."
With a sigh, Ellen sat down and resumed her needle. After a while she said —
"Miss Mary, I cannot finish your dress, unless you and your sister help me a good deal."
"Oh, we'll do that, of course," replied Mary, getting up and leaving the room.
It was nearly eleven o'clock before Mary thought of helping Ellen any, and then two or three young ladies came in to pay a visit of condolence, and prevented her. Tears were shed at first; and then gradually a more cheerful tone of feeling followed, and so much interested were the young ladies in each other's company, that the moments passed rapidly away, and advanced the time near on to the dinner hour. It was full three o'clock before Mary and Jane sat themselves down to help Ellen. The afternoon seemed almost to fly away, and when it was nightfall, the dress was not half finished.
"Will it be possible to get it done tonight?" asked Mrs. Condy.
"It will be hard work, madam," said Ellen, whose heart was with her sister.
"Oh, it can be finished," said Mary, "if we all work hard for two or three hours. The fact is, it must be done. I wouldn't miss having it for the world."
With a sigh, Ellen turned again to her work; though feeble nature was well-near sinking under the task forced upon her. It was past eleven o'clock when the dress was finished, and Ellen prepared to go home to her sister.
"But you are not going home tonight?" said Mr. Condy, who was now present.
"O yes, sir. I haven't seen sister since morning, and she's very ill."
"What is the matter with your sister?" asked Mr. Condy, in a kind tone.
"I'm afraid she's got the consump . . . " It vas the first time Ellen had attempted to utter the word, and the sound, even though the whole of it remained unspoken, broke down her feelings, and she burst into tears.
Instinctively, Mr. Condy reached for his hat and cane, and as he saw Ellen recover, by a strong effort, her self-possession, he said —
"It is too late for you to go home alone, Ellen, and as we cannot ask you, under the circumstances, to stay all night, I will go with you."
Ellen looked her gratitude, for she was really afraid to go into the street alone at that late hour. As they walked along, Mr. Condy, by many questions, ascertained that Ellen had been almost compelled to work day and night to make up mourning garments for his family, and to absent herself from her sick sister, while she needed her most careful attention. Arrived at her humble dwelling, his benevolent feelings prompted him to ascertain truly the condition of Margaret, for his heart misgave him that her end was very near.
On entering the chamber, they found Mrs. Ryland, the neighbor who lived below, supporting Margaret in the bed, who was gasping for breath as if every moment in fear of suffocation. Ellen sprung forward with a sudden exclamation, and, taking Mrs. Ryland's place, let the head of her sister fall gently upon her bosom. Mr. Condy looked on for a moment, and then hastily retired. As soon as he reached home, he despatched a servant for the family physician, with a special request to have him visit Ellen's sister immediately. He then went into his wife's chamber, where the daughters, with their mother, were engaged in looking over their new morning apparel.
"I'm afraid," said he, "that you have unintentionally been guilty of a great wrong."
"How?" asked Mrs. Condy, looking up with sudden surprise.
"In keeping Ellen here so late from her sister, who is, I fear, at this moment dying."
"Is it possible!" exclaimed the mother and daughters with looks of alarm.
"It is, I fear, too true. But now, all that can be done is to try and make some return. I want you, Mary, and your mother, to put on your bonnets and shawls and go with me. Something may yet be done for poor Margaret. I have already sent for the doctor."
On the instant Mrs. Condy and Mary prepared themselves, and the former put into a small basket some sugar and a bottle of wine, and handed it to her husband, who accompanied them, at that late hour, to the dwelling of the two sisters. On entering the chamber, they found no one present but Ellen and Margaret. The latter still reclined with her head on her sister's bosom, and seemed to have fallen into a gentle slumber, so quiet did she lay. Ellen looked up on the entrance of Mr. and Mrs. Condy, with Mary; and they saw that her eyes were filled with tears, and that two large drops stood upon her cheeks. She made a motion for them to be seated, but did not rise from her place on the bed, nor stir by the least movement of her body the still sleeper who leaned upon her bosom. For nearly fifteen minutes, the most profound silence reigned throughout the chamber. The visitors understood the whole scene, and almost held their breaths, lest even the respiration, that to them seemed audible, should disturb the repose of the invalid. At the end of this time the physician entered, and broke the oppressive stillness. But neither his voice nor his step, nor the answers and explanations which necessarily took place, restored Margaret to apparent consciousness. After feeling her pulse for some time, he said —
"It will not be necessary to disturb her while she sleeps; but if she becomes restless, a little wine may be given. In the morning I will see her early," and he made a movement to go.
"Doctor," said Ellen, looking him eagerly in the face, "tell me truly — is she dying?"
For a moment the physician looked upon the earnest, tearful girl, and read in her countenance that hope and fear held there a painful struggle.
"While there is life — there is hope," he replied briefly.
"Tell me the truth, doctor, I can bear it," she urged appealingly. "If my sister is going to die, I wish to know it."
"I have seen many recover who appeared nearer to death than she is," he replied, evasively. "As I have just said, where there is life, there is hope."
Ellen turned from him, evidently disappointed at the answer, and the doctor went downstairs, accompanied by Mr. Condy. The two remained some minutes in conversation below, and when the latter returned he found his wife and daughter standing by the bedside, and Margaret exhibiting many signs of restlessness. She kept rolling her head upon the pillow, and throwing her hands about uneasily. In a few minutes she began to moan and mutter incoherently. After a little while her eyes flew suddenly open, and she pronounced the name of Ellen quickly.
"I am here, Margaret," replied the sister, bending over her.
"Oh, Ellen, why did you stay away so long?" she said, looking up into her face half reproachfully, and seeming not to observe the presence of others. "I was so lonesome all day; and then at night I waited and waited, and you didn't come home! You won't go away any more — will you, Ellen?"
"No — no, sister, I won't leave you again," said Ellen, soothingly, her tears starting afresh.
The words of Margaret smote upon the heart of Mary, whose great eagerness to get the mourning dress done, so that she could go out on Sunday — had been the cause of Ellen's long detention from her sick sister. She hastily turned away from the bed, and seated herself by the window, As she sat there, the image of her baby-brother came up vividly before her mind, and with it the feeling of desolation which the loss of a dear one always occasions. And with this painful emotion of grief, there arose in her mind a distinct consciousness that, since her thoughts had become interested in the getting and making up of her mourning dress — she had felt but little of the keen sorrow that had at first overwhelmed her, and that now came back upon her mind like a flood.
As she sat thus in silent communion with herself, she was enabled to perceive that, in her own mind, there had been much less of a desire to commemorate the death of her brother, in putting on mourning, than to appear before others to be deeply affected with grief. She saw that the black garments were not to remind herself of the dear departed one, but to show to others that the babe was still remembered and still mourned. In her present state of keen perception of interior and true motives — she felt deeply humbled, and inwardly resolved that, on the morrow, she would not go out for the too vain purpose of displaying her mourning apparel. Just as this resolution became fixed in her mind, a sudden movement at the bedside arrested her attention, and she again joined the group there.
Her heart throbbed with a sudden and quicker pulsation, as her eye fell upon the face of Margaret. A great change had passed upon it; death had placed his sign there, and no eye could misunderstand its import. Rapidly now did the work of dissolution go on, and just as the day dawned, Margaret sank quietly away into that deep sleep which knows no earthly waking.
After rendering all such offices as were required, Mrs. Condy and Mary went home, the latter promising Ellen that she would return and remain with her through the day. At the breakfast table, Mr. Condy so directed the conversation as to give the solemn event they had been called to witness, its true impression upon the minds of his family. Before the meal closed, it was resolved that Jane and Mary should go to the humble dwelling of Ellen, and remain with her through the day; and that after the funeral, the expense of which Mr. Condy said he would bear, Ellen would be offered a permanent home.
The funeral took place on Monday, and was attended by Mr. Condy's family. On the next day Mrs. Condy called on Ellen, and invited her to come home with her, and to remain there. The offer was thankfully accepted.
During the day, and while Ellen, assisted by Jane and Mary, was at work on black dresses for the younger children, Mr. and Mrs. Condy came into the room: the latter had a black dress in her hand.
"Here is a dress for you, Ellen," she said, handing her the black dress .
Ellen looked up with a sudden expression of surprise; her face flushed an instant, and then grew pale.
"You will need a black dress, Ellen," resumed Mrs. Condy, "and I have bought you one."
"I do not wish to put on black," said she, with a slightly embarrassed look and an effort to smile, while her voice trembled and was hardly audible.
"And why not, Ellen?" urged Mrs. Condy.
"I never liked black," she replied evasively. "And, anyhow, it would do any good," she added somewhat mournfully, as if the former reason struck her on the instant as being an insufficient one.
"No, child, it wouldn't do any good," said Mr. Condy, tenderly and with emotion. "And if you don't care about having it, don't take it."
Mrs. Condy laid the offered dress aside, and Ellen again bent silently over her work. The hearts of all present were touched by her simple and true remark, "that it would do no good," and each one respected her the more, that she shunned all exterior manifestation of the real sorrow that they knew oppressed her spirits. And never did they array themselves in their somber mourning dresses, that the thought of Ellen's unobtrusive grief did not come up and chide them.