Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
There came a day when the round of decorous pleasures and solemn gaieties in which Mr. Jos Sedley’s family indulged was interrupted by an event which happens in most houses. As you ascend the staircase of your house from the drawing towards the bedroom floors, you may have remarked a little arch in the wall right before you, which at once gives light to the stair which leads from the second story to the third (where the nursery and servants’ chambers commonly are) and serves for another purpose of utility, of which the undertaker’s men can give you a notion. They rest the coffins upon that arch, or pass them through it so as not to disturb in any unseemly manner the cold tenant slumbering within the black ark.
That second-floor arch in a London house, looking up and down the well of the staircase and commanding the main thoroughfare by which the inhabitants are passing; by which cook lurks down before daylight to scour her pots and pans in the kitchen; by which young master stealthily ascends, having left his boots in the hall, and let himself in after dawn from a jolly night at the Club; down which miss comes rustling in fresh ribbons and spreading muslins, brilliant and beautiful, and prepared for conquest and the ball; or Master Tommy slides, preferring the banisters for a mode of conveyance, and disdaining danger and the stair; down which the mother is fondly carried smiling in her strong husband’s arms, as he steps steadily step by step, and followed by the monthly nurse, on the day when the medical man has pronounced that the charming patient may go downstairs; up which John lurks to bed, yawning, with a sputtering tallow candle, and to gather up before sunrise the boots which are awaiting him in the passages—that stair, up or down which babies are carried, old people are helped, guests are marshalled to the ball, the parson walks to the christening, the doctor to the sick-room, and the undertaker’s men to the upper floor—what a memento of Life, Death, and Vanity it is—that arch and stair—if you choose to consider it, and sit on the landing, looking up and down the well! The doctor will come up to us too for the last time there, my friend in motley. The nurse will look in at the curtains, and you take no notice—and then she will fling open the windows for a little and let in the air. Then they will pull down all the front blinds of the house and live in the back rooms—then they will send for the lawyer and other men in black, &c. Your comedy and mine will have been played then, and we shall be removed, oh, how far, from the trumpets, and the shouting, and the posture-making. If we are gentlefolks they will put hatchments over our late domicile, with gilt cherubim, and mottoes stating that there is “Quiet in Heaven.” Your son will new furnish the house, or perhaps let it, and go into a more modern quarter; your name will be among the “Members Deceased” in the lists of your clubs next year. However much you may be mourned, your widow will like to have her weeds neatly made—the cook will send or come up to ask about dinner—the survivor will soon bear to look at your picture over the mantelpiece, which will presently be deposed from the place of honour, to make way for the portrait of the son who reigns.
Which of the dead are most tenderly and passionately deplored? Those who love the survivors the least, I believe. The death of a child occasions a passion of grief and frantic tears, such as your end, brother reader, will never inspire. The death of an infant which scarce knew you, which a week’s absence from you would have caused to forget you, will strike you down more than the loss of your closest friend, or your first-born son—a man grown like yourself, with children of his own. We may be harsh and stern with Judah and Simeon—our love and pity gush out for Benjamin, the little one. And if you are old, as some reader of this may be or shall be old and rich, or old and poor—you may one day be thinking for yourself—”These people are very good round about me, but they won’t grieve too much when I am gone. I am very rich, and they want my inheritance—or very poor, and they are tired of supporting me.”
The period of mourning for Mrs. Sedley’s death was only just concluded, and Jos scarcely had had time to cast off his black and appear in the splendid waistcoats which he loved, when it became evident to those about Mr. Sedley that another event was at hand, and that the old man was about to go seek for his wife in the dark land whither she had preceded him. “The state of my father’s health,” Jos Sedley solemnly remarked at the Club, “prevents me from giving any large parties this season: but if you will come in quietly at half-past six, Chutney, my boy, and fake a homely dinner with one or two of the old set—I shall be always glad to see you.” So Jos and his acquaintances dined and drank their claret among themselves in silence, whilst the sands of life were running out in the old man’s glass upstairs. The velvet-footed butler brought them their wine, and they composed themselves to a rubber after dinner, at which Major Dobbin would sometimes come and take a hand; and Mrs. Osborne would occasionally descend, when her patient above was settled for the night, and had commenced one of those lightly troubled slumbers which visit the pillow of old age.
The old man clung to his daughter during this sickness. He would take his broths and medicines from scarcely any other hand. To tend him became almost the sole business of her life. Her bed was placed close by the door which opened into his chamber, and she was alive at the slightest noise or disturbance from the couch of the querulous invalid. Though, to do him justice, he lay awake many an hour, silent and without stirring, unwilling to awaken his kind and vigilant nurse.
He loved his daughter with more fondness now, perhaps, than ever he had done since the days of her childhood. In the discharge of gentle offices and kind filial duties, this simple creature shone most especially. “She walks into the room as silently as a sunbeam,” Mr. Dobbin thought as he saw her passing in and out from her father’s room, a cheerful sweetness lighting up her face as she moved to and fro, graceful and noiseless. When women are brooding over their children, or busied in a sick-room, who has not seen in their faces those sweet angelic beams of love and pity?
A secret feud of some years’ standing was thus healed, and with a tacit reconciliation. In these last hours, and touched by her love and goodness, the old man forgot all his grief against her, and wrongs which he and his wife had many a long night debated: how she had given up everything for her boy; how she was careless of her parents in their old age and misfortune, and only thought of the child; how absurdly and foolishly, impiously indeed, she took on when George was removed from her. Old Sedley forgot these charges as he was making up his last account, and did justice to the gentle and uncomplaining little martyr. One night when she stole into his room, she found him awake, when the broken old man made his confession. “Oh, Emmy, I’ve been thinking we were very unkind and unjust to you,” he said and put out his cold and feeble hand to her. She knelt down and prayed by his bedside, as he did too, having still hold of her hand. When our turn comes, friend, may we have such company in our prayers!
Perhaps as he was lying awake then, his life may have passed before him—his early hopeful struggles, his manly successes and prosperity, his downfall in his declining years, and his present helpless condition—no chance of revenge against Fortune, which had had the better of him—neither name nor money to bequeath—a spent-out, bootless life of defeat and disappointment, and the end here! Which, I wonder, brother reader, is the better lot, to die prosperous and famous, or poor and disappointed? To have, and to be forced to yield; or to sink out of life, having played and lost the game? That must be a strange feeling, when a day of our life comes and we say, “To-morrow, success or failure won’t matter much, and the sun will rise, and all the myriads of mankind go to their work or their pleasure as usual, but I shall be out of the turmoil.”
So there came one morning and sunrise when all the world got up and set about its various works and pleasures, with the exception of old John Sedley, who was not to fight with fortune, or to hope or scheme any more, but to go and take up a quiet and utterly unknown residence in a churchyard at Brompton by the side of his old wife.
Major Dobbin, Jos, and Georgy followed his remains to the grave, in a black cloth coach. Jos came on purpose from the Star and Garter at Richmond, whither he retreated after the deplorable event. He did not care to remain in the house, with the—under the circumstances, you understand. But Emmy stayed and did her duty as usual. She was bowed down by no especial grief, and rather solemn than sorrowful. She prayed that her own end might be as calm and painless, and thought with trust and reverence of the words which she had heard from her father during his illness, indicative of his faith, his resignation, and his future hope.
Yes, I think that will be the better ending of the two, after all. Suppose you are particularly rich and well-to-do and say on that last day, “I am very rich; I am tolerably well known; I have lived all my life in the best society, and thank Heaven, come of a most respectable family. I have served my King and country with honour. I was in Parliament for several years, where, I may say, my speeches were listened to and pretty well received. I don’t owe any man a shilling: on the contrary, I lent my old college friend, Jack Lazarus, fifty pounds, for which my executors will not press him. I leave my daughters with ten thousand pounds apiece—very good portions for girls; I bequeath my plate and furniture, my house in Baker Street, with a handsome jointure, to my widow for her life; and my landed property, besides money in the funds, and my cellar of well-selected wine in Baker Street, to my son. I leave twenty pound a year to my valet; and I defy any man after I have gone to find anything against my character.” Or suppose, on the other hand, your swan sings quite a different sort of dirge and you say, “I am a poor blighted, disappointed old fellow, and have made an utter failure through life. I was not endowed either with brains or with good fortune, and confess that I have committed a hundred mistakes and blunders. I own to having forgotten my duty many a time. I can’t pay what I owe. On my last bed I lie utterly helpless and humble, and I pray forgiveness for my weakness and throw myself, with a contrite heart, at the feet of the Divine Mercy.” Which of these two speeches, think you, would be the best oration for your own funeral? Old Sedley made the last; and in that humble frame of mind, and holding by the hand of his daughter, life and disappointment and vanity sank away from under him.
— William Makepeace Thackeray