ONLY A MOURNING VEIL
Glimpses at a Modern Pawnbroker’s Sale in New York.
BAB BEFRIENDS A WOMAN
It Was at the Humane Establishment on Fifth Avenue and Many Unredeemed Pledges Were at Auction
A Pathetic Christmas Story of a Fallen Daughter.
New York, December 20, 1895
It was a very queer crowd—in the extreme front were the pawnbrokers from off the Bowery. Among them, and around them, were fashionable women, who looked frightened because their sables were a little too close to shabby coats, and because their ears were shocked by loud voices. It was the sale of society’s pawnshop—that is to say, the pawnshops that society, properly enough, is backing. The pawnshop permits you to get back whatever you pawn on the installment plan, and all the percentage that is asks is a very small one, so that your heart’s blood is not dragged from you, and there is some chance for the poor. But there were so many things no called for, and there had to be a sale. To be in harmony, this sale took place in a fashionable auction room on the Fifth avenue. The day before some beautiful pictures were sold, and the newest beauty flirted with the handsomest millionaire, and there was a mixed odor of violets and sable, while the seats were filled by the people who at night occupy boxes at the opera. The Four Hundred usually go to this auction room, but to-day it was the representatives of the four million who were there.
How the dealers did lean forward to look at the diamonds! They were so eager that they were told to sit down. And such pitiful diamonds as they were! Good enough stones, but those in rings were set as you remember your mother’s engagement ring was. Those in brooches were in the deep, old-fashioned way that didn’t bring out the brightness of the stone, but which was though very smart fifty years ago. There were old-fashioned breast-pins, such as gentlemen used to wear in their scarfs; there was a flounce of Spanish lace—whose dress had it trimmed? There was a little watch with an open face, and on the back engraved “To the One Woman from Him” –who was she?
Poverty at the Sale.
My neighbor on my right was a shabby woman, not pleasant to look upon. She was thin, she was tall, her features were sharp, and she had that peculiar air that one sees among the people of the other side of never having been satisfied. Never having been warm enough, never having had clothes enough, and never having had quite enough to eat. She had on a black alpaca dress, a miserable looking black crape bonnet, while a shabby blue and green shawl was wrapped around her shoulders. She pushed her way through the crowd, bringing a stool with her, shoved me closer to the wall, placed her stool and seated herself. Then she borrowed my catalogue. She turned over several pages, and I heard her say to herself, “’Taint come up yet.” She continued talking, and although I did not understand every word, I did heard her say, “if I’d a got here before the sale commended, there’d a been no trouble; but when you hire out for a day, people they say ‘gimme a day,’ but I was bent on comin’ here this afternoon to get that.”
Rings were sold, watches were sold, there were so many wedding rings sold, and then there was a child’s necklace put upon a string of coral beads with a tiny enameled clasp. I glanced at my neighbor, thinking it was that in which she was interested, but no; she evidently cared nothing for it. In a few minutes I felt her touch me on the arm. I looked around and smiled. She said, “Lady, would you be afraid to bid on anything?” I told her I wouldn’t, and then she asked, “If I start and don’t get right will you straighten me?” I promised. Then I heard her say, “I had enough to pay for the ticket, but a handsom’ thing like that—well, there’s no telling what some of these fashionable folks will do.”
Bid All the Money She Had.
Suddenly the auctioneer said: “I am not in the habit of selling dry goods, but—“
There was a hush, and for once the brokers were silent. And I knew, in some queer way, some inexplicable way, that what my neighbor had come for was put up. It was not a diamond ring, it was not a beautiful watch, it was not a long gold chain; it was only—a mourning veil. For a second—and it seemed like an hour—nobody bid. Then the auctioneer said, “Won’t somebody start this?” Somebody did for 50 cents. In a second my neighbor was on her feet, and it was raised to 75 cents. Her opponent called out a dollar. She raised it a quarter. He made it a dollar and a half. She raised it another quarter. He made it $2. She sat down, the tears streaming down her face. I heard her say, “I ain’t got a penny more, an’ can’t get it.”
I lifted my muff way up in the air. The auctioneer saw it, and the veil was knocked down to me for two dollars and a half. She looked at me quickly. She saw the smile on my face, the smile that struggled with tears for supremacy, and she realized the truth. Grasping my gloved hand in her hard, rough one, she said: “I’ll work it out.” But I whispered good-by, gave my card to her, and was glad that I had been of use to somebody in the world.
The next morning I went in to pay my bill, and the cashier said to me: “There is a woman here, a woman who was here when we opened the door, and she is waiting for you.” It was my friend of the day before. I felt that she was unusual in her desired to say “thank you,” for experience has taught me that thanks are the scarcest things in this world and yet they cost the least. But here she stood, stiff and starved looking, and with the precious veil in her hand. After the ordinary thank you, she said to me, “You must let me pay you the money I’ve got, lady, and as I told you yesterday, I’ll work out the rest.” I told her it was not necessary, that I was glad to think I had been able to make her happy. And then she began to cry.
Her Daughter an Actress.
She said, “It mayn’t seem much to you, but it’s a great deal to me. Times has been hard with me, else this’d never gone into the pawnshop. I’m common, lady, but I had a girl and you’d never thought she was my girl. And she was like you and the other ladies and wore soft furs, and dresses that rustled, and always had a nice perfume all around her. She was pretty when she was a baby, and when her father died some kind people got the Sisters interested in her, and they took her in the school for nothin’. An’ she was so bright and pretty that they taught her to play on the piano, an’ she could sing and talk to the laundress that lives in the same house with us, and who comes from way off across the sea just as well as she could to me, though the langwidges was different. I always thought she was goin’ to be a teacher, an’ when she came home to my poor place, just one room, I used to think how comfortable we’d be when she got a situation an’ we could take a cheap little flat and enjoy ourselves. But no, she said she was goin’ to be an actress. I don’t know how she managed it. No, I never went to see her act. Somehow it didn’t seem right to me. But she sent for me once, an’ I went to a big hotel, an’ there she was lookin’ like a queen, an’ she told me she was married, an’ showed me the picture of a handsome young man. An’ she wanted to give me some money, but I said ‘No, my dear, I know just how fussy some son-in-laws are, an’ this one shan’t say that your mother’s interferin’ with you.’
“I could always keep myself decent, but I just made up my mind I’d have to give her up. Once in a while the neighbors would show me a paper, where there would be a picture of her, and it’d tell how she played and sang and how much people liked her. But I never saw her again ‘till one night last winter near Christmas. I’d gone to bed. There was a knock at the door, and who should it be but my girl.
She and the Baby Died.
“I saw she was in trouble, and when she says to me, ‘Mother, I’m a bad girl, but I have come back to you,’ I remembered that story in the Bible where his father went far out to meet him, an’ I never blamed her. She had a few trinkets, and they went first to get medicine. Then came that awful night when her baby was born. They both died. The poor little baby seemed to know it wasn’t wanted in this world, an’ it just opened its eyes an’ closed them again. But she, she said to me,’ Mother, I don’t want you to forget me’ an’ I promised her I wouldn’t. An’ to show I didn’t, I got this crape bonnet and that veil and wore them to the funeral. That was Christmas Eve she died, nearly a year ago, and during the year I have been strapped pretty tight, and I bundled up a lot of things and took them to the pawnbroker so I might square myself with the undertaker. They was things I didn’t care for, but he wouldn’t gimme enough on the, so I just yanked off my veil and left it. An’ I have been worrying for it ever since. I thought I’d get here in time to redeem it, ‘cause I kept my ticket, but I appreciate your kindness, lady, an’ I think you can understand why just when it was getting’ near Christmas I wanted to have my veil on, ‘cause it seemed to tell those people who knew her that, no matter what she was, no matter how she acted, she was my girl, an’ I wore the veil in memory of her. God give you and yours a happy Christmas.”…
It is strange how that spirit of Christmas brings up in our hearts the desire to keep before us always those for whom Christmas was made joyful many years ago. There are processions of children who are thought of, and the memory of each one comes back to the mother heart that has each missed a little child. And that mother heart can sympathize with the hard, common-looking old woman who longed so for her black crape veil that she might show on Christmas Day she had not forgotten her daughter….
The Washington [DC] Post 22 December 1895: p. 22
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the desperate desire by the poor for respectful and respectable mourning. To those comfortably well-off, it seemed a foolish mania to spend all the burial club money on crape and display. This struggling woman, however, points the moral that wearing mourning was not always about what the neighbours thought, but of love for the unforgotten dead.
For more on mourning veils and Victorian mourning, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.