A ‘appy Release

On the Stairs 

The house had been “genteel.” When trade was prospering in the East End, and the ship-fitter or block-maker thought it a shame to live in the parish where his workshop lay, such a master had lived here. Now, it was a tall, solid, well-bricked, ugly house, grimy and paintless in the journey, cracked and patched in the windows; where the front door stood open all day long, and the womankind sat on the steps, talking of sickness and deaths and the cost of things; and treacherous holes lurked in the carpet of road-soil on the stairs and in the passage. For when eight families live in a house, nobody buys a door-mat, and the secret was one of those streets that are always muddy. It smelled, too, of many things, none of them pleasant (one was fried fish); but for all that it was not a slum.

Three flights up, a gaunt woman with bare forearms stayed on her way to listen at a door which, opened, let out a warm, fetid waft from a close sick-room. A bent and tottering old woman stood on the threshold, holding the door behind her.

“An’ is ‘e no better now, Mrs. Curtis?” the gaunt woman asked, with a nod at the opening.

The old woman shook her head, and pulled the door closer. Her jaw waggled loosely in her withered chaps: “Nor won’t be, till ‘e’s gone.” Then after a certain pause: “’E’s goin’,” she said.

“Don’t doctor give no ‘ope?”

“Lor’ bless ye, I don’t want to ast no doctors,” Mrs. Curtis replied, with something not unlike a chuckle. “I’ve seed too many on ’em. The boy’s a-goin’ fast; I can see that. An’ then”–she gave the handle another tug, and whispered–“he’s been called.” She nodded amain.

“Three seprit knocks at the bed-head las-night; an’ I know what that means!”

The gaunt woman raised her brows, and nodded. “Ah, well,” she said, “we all on us comes to it some day, sooner or later. An’ it’s often a ‘appy release.”

The two looked into space beyond each other, the elder with a nod and a croak. Presently the other pursued: “’E’s been a very good son, ain’t he?”

“Ay, ay—well enough son to me,” responded the old woman, a little peevishly; “an’ I’ll ‘ave ‘im put away decent, though there’s on’y the Union for me after. I can do that, thank Gawd” she added, meditatively, as, chin on fist, she stared into the thickening dark over the stairs.

“When I lost my pore ‘usband,” said the gaunt woman, with a certain brightening, “I give ‘im a ‘andsome funeral. ‘E was a Odd Feller, an’ I got twelve pound. I ‘ad a oak caufin an’ a open ‘earse. There was kerridge for the fam’ly an’ one for ‘is mates—two ‘orses each, an’ feathers, an’ mutes: an’ it went the furthest way round to the cimitry. ‘Wotever ‘appens, Mrs. Manders,’ says the undertaker, ‘you’ll feel as you’re treated ‘im proper; nobody can’t reproach you over that.’ An’ they couldn’t. ‘E was a good ‘usband to me, an’ I buried ‘im respectable.”

The gaunt woman exulted. The old, old story of Mander’s funeral fell upon the other one’s ears with a freshened interest, and she mumbled her gums ruminantly. “Bob’ll ‘ave a ‘ansome buryin’ too,” she said. “I can make it up, with the insurance money, an’ this, an’ that. On’y I dunno about mutes. It’s a expense.”

In the East End, when a woman has not enough money to buy a thing much desired, she does not say so in plain words; she says the thing is an “expense,” or a “great expense.” It means the same thing, but it sounds better. Mrs. Curtis had reckoned her resources, and found that mutes would be an “expense.” At a cheap funeral mutes cost half a sovereign and their liquor. Mrs. Manders said as much.

“Yus, yus, ‘arf a sovereign,” the old woman assented. Within, the sick man feebly beat the floor with a stick. “I’m a-comin’,” she cried, shrilly; “yus, ‘arf a sovereign, but it’s a lot, an’ I don’t see ‘ow I’m to do it–not at present.” She reached for the door-handle again, but stopped and added, by after-thought: “Unless I don’t ’ave no plooms.”

“It ‘ud be a pity not to ‘ave plooms. I ‘ad–“

There were footsteps on the stairs; then a stumble and a testy word. Mrs. Curtis peered over into the gathering dark. “Is it the doctor, sir?” she asked. It was the doctor’s assistant; and Mrs. Manders tramped up to the next landing as the door of the sick-room took him in.

For five minutes the stairs were darker than ever. Then the assistant, a very young man, came out again, followed by the old woman with a candle. Mrs. Manders listened in the upper dark. “He’s sinking fast,” said the assistant. “He must have a stimulant. Doctor Mansell ordered port wine. Where is it?” Mrs. Curtis mumbled dolorously. “I tell you he must have it,” he averred with unprofessional emphasis (his qualification was only a month old). “The man can’t take solid food, and his strength must be kept up somehow. Another day may make all the difference. It is because you can’t afford it?”

“It’s a expense–sich a expense, doctor,” the old woman pleaded. “An’ wot with ‘arf-pints o’ milk an’–” She grew inarticulate, and mumbled dismally.

“But he must have it, Mrs. Curtis, if it’s your last shilling; it’s the only way. If you mean you absolutely haven’t the money–” And he paused a little awkwardly. He was not a wealthy young man–wealthy young men do not devil for East End doctors—but he was conscious of a certain haul of sixpences at nap the night before; and, being inexperienced, he did not foresee the career of persecution whereon he was entering at his own expense and of his own motion. He produced five shillings: “If you absolutely haven’t the money, why–take this and get a bottle–good. Not at a public-house. But mind, at once. He should have had it before.”

It would have interested him, as a matter of coincidence, to know that his principal had been guilty of the self-same indiscretion–even the amount was identical—on that landing the day before. But, as Mrs. Curtis said nothing of this, he floundered down the stair and out into the wetter mud, pondering whether or not the beloved son of a Congregational minister might take full credit for a deed of charity on the proceeds of sixpenny nap. But Mrs. Curtis puffed her wrinkles, and shook her head sagaciously as she carried in her candle. From the room came a clink as of money falling into a teapot. And Mrs. Manders went about her business.

The door was shut, and the stair a pit of blackness. Twice a lodger passed down, and up and down, and still it did not open. Men and women walked on the lower flights, and out at the door, and in again. From the street a shout or a snatch of laughter floated up the pit. On the pavement footsteps rang crisper and fewer, and from the bottom passage there were sounds of stagger and sprawl. A demented old clock buzzed divers hours at random, and was rebuked every twenty minutes by the regular tread of a policeman on his beat. Finally, somebody shut the street-door with a great bang, and the street was muffled. A key turned inside the door on the landing, but that was all. A feeble light shone for hours along the crack below, and then went out. The crazy old clock went buzzing on, but nothing left that room all night. Nothing that opened the door….

When next the key turned, it was to Mrs. Manders’s knock, in the full morning; and soon the two women came out on the landing together, Mrs. Curtis with a shapeless clump of bonnet. “Ah, ‘e’s a lovely corpse,” said Mrs. Manders. “Like wax. So was my ‘usband.”

“I must be stirrin’,” croaked the old woman, “an’ go about the insurance and the measurin’ an’ that. There’s lot to do.”

“Ah, there is. ‘Oo are you goin’ to ‘ave–Wilkins? I ‘ad Wilkins. Better than Kedge, I think; Kedge’s mutes dresses rusty, an’ their trousis is frayed. If you was thinkin’ of ‘avin’ mutes–“

“Yus, yus”—with a palsied nodding–“I’m a-goin’ to ‘ave mutes; I can do it respectable, thank Gawd!”

“And the plooms?”

“Ay, yus, and the plooms too. They ain’t sich a great expense, after all.”

Tales of Mean Streets, Arthur Morrison, 1921: pp. 154-162

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Funeral Men: 1856

The Funeral Men The Funeral Mute, Robert William Buss, Museum of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We are all familiar with the more usual tokens of death: the picture falling off the wall, the howling dog or hooting owl, the tap of the Death Watch Beetle or the stopped clock. Some of us may also know the less common death omens: the butterfly of doom or ships with black sails, but it is the specifically mortuary tokens of death that fascinate me: the sounds of a phantom funeral, or visions of a spectral hearse or coffin. The following story, which is unique in my experience, features two funeral mutes as the terrifying messengers of death.

‘In the year 1856 we were residing in a rented house in one of the midland counties, with our family and servants, near which temporary residence my husband, an officer in the army, had a command. For reasons upon which I need not enter, a change of position and locality had been much pressed upon the authorities in London, on my husband’s behalf, which, after the expiration of some time, was determined on by them; and we found ourselves likely to go to Scotland; the exact change for which my husband’s friends had asked, and which we each desired, for it was not far from the home of some of those who were very near and dear to us.

‘As there was considerable difficulty in obtaining a suitable and sufficiently convenient house at the place where we wished to reside, my husband went on to Scotland a month before it was intended to take me and our family. I therefore remained with our household in England. With the exception of my children and servants, I was quite alone. Our hired residence, surrounded by considerable grounds and plantations, and situated on the slope of a hill, was quite isolated. No other abode was nearer than a quarter of a mile ; and that was the lodge where our gardener resided. Our drawing- room was on the first floor, outside of the windows of which rose a balcony of iron and wood, connecting this room with my bedroom (which adjoined it), and my husband’s dressing-room, which was furthest off, all of which rooms, by glazed doors, opened on to the balcony in question.

‘One evening, between nine and ten o’clock, in the month of September, I was seated in the drawing-room. My maid had brought me some coffee, and was arranging my work-table and books prior to my retiring to bed, when I arose mechanically and walked out on to the balcony through the open door, as was often my custom, to look at the beautiful landscape in the moonlight. The moon was up, and the whole of the valley below was bright, almost as bright as in the day. Greensward and brook, wood and copse, were seen in the distance; with a large dark mass of stately elms, below which a cluster of Scotch pines stood to the right. The stillness was marked and almost unusual; the landscape lovely.

‘Suddenly, turning my eyes to the left along the balcony, I beheld all at once the figures of two men, dressed as mutes at a funeral, with hatbands, scarves and cross-poles covered with black silk, standing at the glass door of my husband’s dressing room. They did not seem in the least degree spectral, but too truly and too perfectly real. For a brief moment this was my certain impression; but on looking steadily at their forms for a few seconds, they began to have a less substantial, and a more transparent and cloudy appearance. Awestricken and overcome, I fell back through the drawing-room window, with a shriek and a stagger, into a chair. My maid, who was still in the room, rushed forward to my aid; and for a few seconds I believe that I entirely lost my consciousness. On recovering myself partially, but wholly unable to speak many consecutive words, I cried out to her, pointing in the direction of the figures, “Look there—there!”

‘She looked out on to the balcony, and there beheld the two gloomy forms as vividly and keenly as myself. It was a surprise and a shock to us ‘both.

‘She rang for the man-servant, who, coming up, was at once asked if he could see anyone or anything outside his master’s dressing-room door on the balcony.

‘Looking in the direction indicated, he replied that he could not. “There is no one and nothing there.”

‘“Don’t you see those two funeral men?” earnestly asked the maid.

‘“There are no men there,” he answered; at the same time that he walked out, and approached the spot where the figures we still beheld stood.

‘I and the maid watched him as he boldly walked up to the door, into the room, and actually passed through the spectral forms which still stood there. They did not swerve, they did not stir. The dressing-room was as usual, the man asserted. No mortal was there. The man-servant maintained that both the maid and I were dreaming.

‘For a while, the figures seemed to both of us as solid and lifelike as possible. There they stood in the clear moonlight, erect, weird, motionless, and spectral. In a short time they began to grow less distinct, and as it were, cloudy and dim, in their lower parts, but yet, as manifest as ever in the upper; and then, in about a quarter of an hour, they had utterly faded away.

‘I was overcome and puzzled to a degree which I cannot describe and could not measure. The thought of my husband’s safety—for which 1 prayed—smote me at once, and was constantly before me, and yet at the same time I felt a weight of sorrow and a foreboding of loss which so completely took possession of me, that I could neither talk nor cry. Tears would have been a relief; but they did not and would not come.

‘Within an hour, my maid occupying a sofa in my bedroom, I had been induced to retire to rest ; almost glad to be convinced at one minute by the arguments of the man-servant that what I had seen was the result of my imagination, and yet utterly unable either to get rid of the pressing load of anxiety on my mind, or to secure sleep.

‘A night-light burned in my room; and from time to time a few commonplace words had been spoken between myself and my maid. The time passed slowly. Midnight had come; I think I was dozing.

‘All of a sudden we heard a loud and startling knock at the principal entrance of the house; so sudden, so loud, and so startling, that the manservant, who slept on the ground floor, suddenly awakened, speedily rushed to the front door.

‘He opened it as quickly as possible. But as he solemnly and affrightedly affirmed, there was no one there, and no sign of anyone, as he told me at my bedroom door. The moon was still up; my maid and I looked out once again on to the balcony: the landscape was clear. Not a sign. Not a sound. All was still. “These things,” said I to myself, “are some blessed angel’s warning of a coming calamity,” and this thought (for I had always believed in angelic intervention) was upon me throughout the rest of the night. I did not begin to sleep until the morning had broken, and the sparrows were twittering on the roof. But constantly I commended myself to God the Blessed Trinity in prayer.

‘On the following evening, my husband’s brother came to announce the overwhelming tidings that my children were orphans and that I was a widow.

‘ My husband had died almost suddenly of heart disease, at his temporary residence in the north of Scotland on the very night in question; and these strange warnings for eye and ear were no doubt mercifully sent to me to break the severity of the shock which news of a sudden death must have given. Here is the finger of God. How often afterwards, and how fervently, have I prayed to God in the beautiful words of the collect for St. Michael’s Day in the “Book of Common Prayer,” “As Thy Holy Angels always do the service in Heaven, so may they succour and defend us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” ’

More Glimpses of the World Unseen, Frederick Lee, 1878

The sharp rapping on the door was a common death-omen. Some banshees also knocked on doors, rather than screaming.

Victorian Funeral mutes

Funeral mutes—the “funeral men,” as the maid calls them, were, for a long time, an essential part of a Victorian funeral. They carried wands swathed in black and were stationed mournfully outside the house of the deceased. They also marched in the funeral procession to the cemetery. Mutes were paid by the job and were rarely from the most refined social classes. They were often a figure of fun in Victorian literature and journalism. But there is nothing amusing about these sinister Mutes in Black,  uniquely Victorian messengers of death.

Other death omens with a mortuary theme? Swathe in crape and send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

You’ll find information about professional and amateur mourners in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.  And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.