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Chapter III.: CHANCK CUSTOMERS. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 6 (Messrs. Vanderput and Snoek, The Loom and the Lugger Parts 1 & 2) 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 6.
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Nurse Nicholas had met with so much sympathy and kindness from everybody about her since the day when her misfortune was made known to her, that she excited, at length, something like envy in the inferior servants of Mr. Culver's family. They had, at first, offered to make up her mourning for her, and to take the entire charge of the children for a few days, that she might have leisure to grieve alone; and they were making slops, or mixing brandy-and-water for her all day long for the first week,—thinking indulgence a very consoling thing, whether earned by illness of body or pain of mind. Moreover, they had patience with her pettishness for a longer time than could have been expected, observing to one another that it was certainly a very cutting thing to have an only son shot; and that it was enough to make any temper go astray to think of anybody that had done his best for his country being served in such a way. In time, however, when four years had elapsed, they began to feel that the call upon their good-nature and forbearance was more protracted and incessant than was necessary. Nurse had really grown so proud, that it was difficult to keep well with her; and they were tired of seeing the very same look come over her face, and of hearing the very same sigh, whenever there was mention of things which must be mentioned sometimes,—people's sons, for instance, and the sea, and tobacco, and such things. If there was any sort of dispute, in which their master or the young ladies interfered, everybody was sure to be blamed except nurse; and profit came out of her misfortune in other ways, too. They wished they might ever get into such favour with any master or mistress as to have friends to tea as often as nurse had; and all to cry over the story of poor Nicholas, though, to be sure, time was found to talk about plenty of other things before the evening was over. Then, though Nicholas had been a very good son, in respect of sending presents to his mother, out of his pay, the gifts she now had would much more than make up for anything she had lost from that quarter. They could not conceive, for their parts, what she could do with her wages; they only wished they were to expect what she must have to leave. She really could not spend anything, except for the trifles she gave the children on their birthdays. As sure as the year came round, her master presented her with a black gown; and the young ladies bought muslin handkerchiefs and mourning-caps, more than she could use; and Mademoiselle had knitted her a pair of black mits for Sundays, that were quite a curiosity for the knitting. O yes; it was very well to wear mourning from year to year,—longer than she had done for her husband. Nurse would always wear mourning now, as well she might, though they doubted whether she would have had much more comfort of her son, if he had lived, than now; for he could not have been spared often from his duty, and he was always but a poor hand at writing a letter. If a woman was to lose an only son, it could hardly happen in an easier way than it had happened to nurse.
In the midst of some such speculations as these, it happened that nurse accepted a little black shawl from one of the young ladies with unaccountable indifference. There was nothing for it but to suppose that she was now so accustomed to presents that she thought little of them. But on the next Sunday the matter was differently explained. Nurse appeared in a splendid figured brocade, which had been left her by an aunt, and never altered in the fashion, from there being no materials wherewith to make up any part of it afresh. By dint of a double quantity of muslin handkerchief, and of a long and wide muslin apron, tamboured by herself when at school, the peculiarities of the waist were in part hidden, while enough projected on all sides to show what fine, stout fabrics our fathers could weave. The apparition of nurse, thus attired, appeared on the stairs time enough to allow of all the necessary speculation being gone through before church.
“Papa, papa!” cried Lucy, flying about the house to find her father, who was reading his Sunday paper quietly in the back parlour. “Oh, papa!——”
“Well, my dear. But I wish you would not slam the door.”
“I thought nurse was behind, and I did not want her to come in. Oh, papa! have you seen nurse?”
“No, my dear. Is her nose growing out of the window, and over hill and dale, like the wonderful nose in the German story that Maria was telling me?”
“No, no! but she does look so odd in that gay gown that she used to show us for a sight; and just after Charlotte gave her a shawl, too,—a shawl with a border of pretty grey and white pattern, on a black ground. She might have worn Charlotte's shawl a little first.”
“She will wear it still, I dare say; and perhaps she thinks she has been in black long enough.”
Nurse now came in, with a prim and somewhat sentimental expression of countenance, as if thinking that she ought to change her face with her dress, and scarcely knowing how to set about it. Her master's question soon brought back one of her accustomed modes of looking and speaking.
“You are going-out for the day, I suppose, nurse?”
“Going out, sir! where should I go to? It is for those who have friends and relations to go out visiting; and I have none, except just the Taylors and the Aytons, and old Mr. Martin, and Sukey Street, and a few more. You seem to think I must be always wanting to go out visiting, sir.”
“Not at all, nurse. It was only that I saw you were dressed, and I supposed——”
“Dressed! aye, it is time to be dressed when the very nursery-maids make as fine a show as their mistresses did twenty years ago. Why, there is Mrs. Mudge's nurse-maid; I curtsied to her last week, knowing the baby, and taking the girl for Mrs. Mudge herself, as I well might do, for she had a prettier Leghorn than ever her mistress wore, and a slate-coloured silk, with leg of mutton sleeves. You may rely upon it, sir, with leg of mutton sleeves, and a band the same, buckled behind, like a young lady.”
“And so you put on something gayer than a slate-coloured silk to outdo her.”
“It puts one upon one's dignity, sir, to see such ways in bits of girls sprung up but yesterday. At this girl's age I worked hard enough, I remember, for months together, before I got a chintz, which was thought a great thing in my day.”
“And I dare say somebody scolded you for getting it; for chintzes cost as much then as some silks do now. I dare say somebody scolded you, nurse.”
“Why, my mistress made me wear black mittens and a white apron with it, to show that I was a servant: which was very proper, though I had no mind to it at the time. But as to wearing silk, except on a pincushion, I assure you, sir, I never thought of such a thing.”
“Any more than Mrs. Mudge's maid now thinks of dressing in white satin. I dare say not, indeed; for it was as much as any but rich mistresses could do to get silk dresses in your young days.”
Nurse hoped her master was not going to object to her wearing silk now, on Sundays and the young ladies' dancing days. When servant-girls took upon them to wear such things as their elders never aspired to, it was time——
“I am not going to object to your wearing silk, nurse, any more than to the nurse-maid you speak of doing the same. The more you both wear, the belter for me.”
“Aye, in the sense of your being a manufacturer; but, as the master of a family, sir, you would judge differently.”
“Not at all. If there are silk-worms enough in the world to yield silk wherewith to dress every man, woman and child, where is the harm of every man, woman, and child wearing silk, if it pleases them to do so?”
“But the look of it, sir! Think of a girl dressing like her mistress!”
“It is an unfit thing when the girl has not money enough properly to afford such a dress. But if the price falls to a point within her reach, there is no more reason why she should not possess herself of such an one than there would be if she had had money left her wherewith to buy it. Her mistress will forthwith array herself in some more expensive fabric, which, perhaps, none below duchesses had worn till it became cheaper in proportion, as silk had done; and this fabric will, in its turn, descend within the reach of servants, till Mrs. Mudge's maid may, in her old age, be as much surprised at the array of the young girls of that time as you now are at people of her rank wearing silk.”
“But, papa,” objected Lucy, “what are the ladies to do all this time? Must duchesses go on inventing expensive things to wear, or else dress like their maids?”
“There will be always plenty of people able and willing to save the duchesses the trouble of inventing,” replied her papa. “We have not yet seen half of what human ingenuity may do in the way of inventing comforts and discovering beauties. If you could pop into the world again a few hundred years hence, you might chance to find every African between the tropics dressed in clear muslin, and every Laplander comfortably muffled in superfine scarlet or blue cloth.”
“And what would our duchesses wear then, papa?”
“Something which we cannot guess at; and which to them would appear more beautiful and convenient than was ever invented before.”
Nurse wondered what her master could be thinking of. Instead of having people humble and contented with their condition, he would have them be looking up and on continually.
“Have you seen the gipsy women lately?” inquired her master. Not very lately, nurse replied; but she probably should soon, as a great annual gipsy feast was to be held within the month, somewhere near town; and no doubt the Drapers would return to their old haunts for the occasion.
“Do you bid them be contented with their condition, living in tents, on the damp ground, and eating animals that they find dead?”
Nurse thought her master more odd than ever. As if all respectable people did not like to live under a roof, and have decent clothes, and eat like Christians! She did not know that in old times, servants and labourers who dwelled somewhat in gipsy style were desired to be content with their condition; and that it was thought a piece of ineffable presumption to wish to live in abodes at which beggars would now shrug their shoulders. Mr. Culver would have people content without what could not be had otherwise than by the sacrifice of what is of more consequence than that which they wish for. He was sorry to see maid-servants dressed in lace, because it is impossible for maid-servants to buy lace without neglecting their parents and friends, or omitting to provide themselves with a hundred more necessary things, or with a fund for their own support when they must cease to earn; but if lace should ever come to be as cheap as tape, he should like to see every body wear lace that likes it.
“O, papa!” cried Lucy, “would you like to see little Ichabod Cooper with lace on his shirt-collar?”
“I should like to see the Coopers, and not only the Coopers, but the poorest of the poor, in possession of every thing that is useful and that gives pleasure. If there was enough for every body of all that is useful and beautiful, why should not every body have it? All would be the happier, would not they?”
“But there never could be enough of every thing for every body, papa.”
“How do you know that, my dear? I am far from being sure of that myself.”
Lucy stared, and began to think of all that she liked best;—blue sashes, and cages of squirrels, and ice-creams, and Rosamond—Rosamond that she hid under her pillow that she might read it before nurse was awake in the morning. Was it possible that there could ever be enough of all these for every body in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America? Her papa assured her that the experiment had never yet been tried how many of God's good gifts can be put within the reach of God's creatures. So many have been afraid of others possessing too much, that all have only got a very little way in helping one another, though they have been very clever at the work of mutual hindrance. It may be that there are pearls enough in southern oceans to deck the whole human race; and cotton enough on the American plains to clothe the species; and dyes enough in the eastern woods to diversify all the habitations in the world; and industry, and zeal, and good-will enough in men's hearts to dispose them all to learn and to communicate whatever the wise have to teach, and the benevolent to suggest, and the inventive to relate, from the remotest corners of the earth. It may be that every good book will in time be read in all countries of the globe, and then——
“And then,” interrupted Lucy, “some Lapland children may read about Rosamond's gallop down the Black Lane; and some little people in China may be pleased at finding that she was fond of gold and silver fish. Well, this does not seem very surprising when one thinks how many people in America and in the East Indies know all about Rosamond already.”
“I should like to be now sending my silks as far as our good books will travel in time,” observed Mr. Culver.
“And so you will, I suppose, papa, if so many people will wear silks as you seemed to think just now.”
“Your brothers may, after me; or their sons and grandsons, after them,” replied Mr.-Culver; “but it takes a long time for people to learn to exchange freely and fairly against each other, when they have been taught to be mutually jealous, and to fancy that if one party gains by the exchange, the other must be a loser.”
“But many more do buy silk than some time ago, papa.”
“Yes, indeed,” observed nurse; “when maidservants begin, it is a pretty good sign that silk is growing common.”
“Then you will grow rich, papa. I should like you to grow rich.”
Her father told her that a beginning was made by his having ceased to grow poor. When smuggling should have ceased, and there should have been time for the English manufacture to improve as the French had done, he hoped he might be more in the way of growing rich than he had ever yet been. Meanwhile, the more people wore silks, be they servant-maids or the dames of New Zealand, the better for him; and for them, if they felt more complacent in silk attire than in the woollen petticoats and mantles of matting which their respective ancestors wore.
“The Bremes dance beautifully in their blue Gros-de-Naples frocks,” Lucy observed.
“Better than you in your white, my dear! Well, if all the world is to wear more silk, it is time you and your sisters were beginning,—I suppose you think. Hey, Lucy?”
Nurse was in possession of the young ladies ideas on this subject, and took the present opportunity of putting her master in possession of them likewise, together with her own.
“Well, nurse, I have no wish that my children should go on being envious of the Bremes a moment longer than is necessary. So, silk frocks they shall have. I shall send you in half a piece from the warehouse, which will do very well. If you find a few blemishes in the warp, you can cut them out in the making, I dare say; and, but for them, the fabric is perfectly good.”
The girls were a little disappointed at not having the choice of a colour, and alarmed at the mention of blemishes; but it was a great thing to have gained, in any way, a point which had long been aspired to. Nurse was much vexed that she could not have the pleasure of making the purchase at Mr. Breme's shop, giving Mr. Breme himself, if he should be behind the counter, all possible trouble in suiting the tastes of her young ladies. In order not to be wholly deprived of this satisfaction, she determined that all the adjuncts of these pretty new dresses should be purchased there. This settled, she and her charge were equally anxious not to delay the business beyond the next day.
When they arrived near the shop, on the Monday morning, nurse still resplendent in her figured brocade, they were mortified at finding the house shut in by a scaffolding, and the narrow entrance between the planks almost closed up by heaps of shavings and piles of bricks. They slackened their pace to observe, and were silently afraid that it must be too dark within for the proper transaction of business. While pausing, they were saluted by a cloud of dust which rose after some heavy blows behind the screen of planks, and which did much towards convincing them that the present was hardly the time or place for discharging their errand.
“We must come some other time,” remarked Lucy to the unwilling nurse.
“We must go somewhere else,” observed Charlotte, who saw little hope of the scaffolding being clown before the next dancing-day, beyond which it was impossible to wait for the new silk frocks.
The workmen went on knocking, sawing, and standing in the way very unconcernedly; but a strange-looking personage peeped out from behind the corner of the screen of planks, saying,
“Go somewhere else, ladies? Where will you meet with such a shop as this, now being enlarged for your convenience? You will find it light and busy enough within. I know of one good customer, at least, that is there.”
The girls thought this odd, as the man was only a poor person who was mending a chair-bottom, in the corner formed by the projection of the scaffolding into the street, where he could lay his rushes beside him, and work undisturbed by the passengers, while in full view of them. He seemed to take upon himself the office of advertiser of Mr.) Breme's concern, as he directed to the establishment the attention of all who stopped and peeped over the heads of the little boys who were watching his proceedings. He let everybody know that the shop was accessible, and was now being enlarged. Several persons lingered to see whether nurse and her charge went in; and their safe and easy entrance, when they once made the attempt, encouraged one or two to follow.
Charlotte looked round for the good customer spoken of by the chair-mender, but could see no finely-dressed lady engrossing the attention of the shop-people; no dainty gentleman pronouncing upon such articles as he might be presumed to understand. There was only an old woman buying nun's lace for her mob-cap; and a young woman, with a baby in her arms, comparing remnants of common print; and a child waiting patiently, with a hot half-penny squeezed in her hand, for a skein of thread; and a party of gipsies in red cloaks at the further end of the shop, with their backs turned to the new comers. Nurse was too busy putting on her spectacles, and holding gauze ribbons in various lights, to take any notice of what other people were doing, till the man who was serving her leaned over the counter to whisper that the customers yonder (nodding towards the gipsies) were choosing a very expensive dress for their queen to wear at the next of their festivals; and that it was to be made up by one of the first dress-makers in town. A stout country girl, who had followed nurse and her party, and taken her seat beside them, heard this as well as they; and from that moment her attention seemed bent upon the wearers of the red cloaks rather than upon her own purchases. She stepped forward a pace or two, when one of them turned at an accidental noise, and an immediate recognition took place, to the surprise and amusement of the shop-people.
The gipsy strode forward, holding out her brown hand, and saying,
“Why, Miss Rebecca, I thought the sea-shore was our meeting-place. So often as I have met you there. I never dreamed of seeing you in town parts.”
“Nor I neither, Mrs. Draper: but I am not long from home.”
“Only come for a little pleasure, Miss Rebecca. Well; you know I used to tell you that there was one that would give you what pleasure you liked, if you chose to ask. I dare say now——”
And Mrs. Draper looked round, as if for some supposed companion of Rebecca's; but Rebecca answered,
“Now, I told you, Mrs. Draper, long ago, to talk no nonsense; and I'm here buying things, you see——”
“Ay, my dear; I see,” said Mrs. Draper, looking no graver for being told that she talked nonsense. “I see; but how's the father?”
“Why, but middling. Father's a wonderful hearty man for his years, to be sure, considering some things.”
“Ah! the ruin of the coast, which must have hurt his feelings. And dame,—how's the dame?”
“O, she's well, and hobbling about, as usual. And I hope she'll keep well. Dame and me are going to keep school—a boarding-school for girls.”
Mrs. Draper laughed heartily at the idea of Rebecca teaching manners, as she said, and walking out behind her young ladies, two and two.
“Ah! you may laugh,” answered Rebecca, food-humouredly; “and I know many people think I'm not a bit fit for it; but I don't care what “pains I take—I don't care what I do,’ if I could but see father smile.”
Mrs. Draper was struck dumb; for to her it seemed that Mr. Pim not smiling was not Mr. Pim at all. What could have happened to render it difficult for Rebecca to “make father smile?”
“It is not a venture, as it would be to set up a school in a town, to set one up in the country,” observed Rebecca. “'Tis such a common thing, you know, to send children to the sea-side when they are delicate; and dame always took great care of our chilblains; and, for my part, I like nursing them when they are ill better than teaching,—ever so much. And, you know, I can teach sewing, I think much of needle-work; it is so useful! They shall do a deal of that.—And then we have the maps. I can teach them those; and they shan't stick to them too long. I remember, when I used to learn, how my back ached, and I used to get the fidgets, and think, ‘ Well, now, shall we ever leave off?’ O, they shall go out and come in again; and we'll find them something to read that they will get amused with; and if anything more is wanting, why, father will help us, perhaps.”
“He will help you all to run races on the downs. He is the one to say ‘ One, two, three, and away.’ But I really hoped, Miss Rebecca, that you were buying for a house of your own.”
“And where would be the use of a house of my own, unless father was to be in it? and then it would be all one as his. No, the old house must do,—at least for a beginning. If better times should come, perhaps——”
“What! your father's school fell off, then. It was a fine one when my children went; but I suppose the ruin of the coast ruined it?”
“Tis all ruin to us. If it was only the loss of the trade to himself, that was a great amusement. But it set the people all complaining about not affording schooling for the children; for they had grown careless about the fishing. And then, several went away for a time, after the murder, for fear of the reward the government offered; and that broke up everything. Father never got over that.—You may talk about running races on the down. Father has never been to the down with any heart since; for it was there that he spoke with poor Nicholas the very day before——”
Rebecca stopped short, struck by the effect of what she was saying on the gay ancient personage who sat near. Nurse came forward, jerking an end of ribbon in one trembling hand, and fumbling for her handkerchief with the other, while her countenance resumed the expression of which her fellow-servants were tired, and which they hoped she had laid aside with her mourning.
“My son, ma'am! I beg pardon for interrupting you, ma'am, but he was my son. Nicholas, I heard you mention. If you knew him, perhaps you would tell me anything you might know.”
Rebecca and the gipsy looked at each other, which made nurse appeal to Mrs. Draper, with confessions that she should not have turned her away from the back-door so peremptorily, the last time she came to tell the maids' fortunes, if she had thought she knew anything about the Preventive Service and her poor son.
“We knew him very well indeed,” said the plain-spoken Rebecca. “He used to pass almost before our door twenty times in a day, when he was upon watch; and our children used——”
“Ah, poor fellow! he was always like a child himself. He could never say a cross word to a child,” sobbed nurse.
“Nor to anybody else,” feelingly observed Rebecca.
Charlotte saw that the scene was becoming such as little beseems a busy shop, and she thought of an expedient for gratifying nurse without exposing her feelings to observation. After a consultation with Lucy, she asked Rebecca if she could come to tea at their house, and tell nurse everything that she could recollect about Nicholas. This Rebecca promised to do, though her stay in London was to be very short. She had come only to “improve herself” for a week or two, and to provide a few necessary additional articles for her school-keeping; and her father began to want her at home.
While nurse was wiping her eyes, in preparation for finishing her shopping, Mrs. Draper called upon Rebecca for an opinion respecting the purchase the gipsies were about to make. Lucy followed, being unable to restrain her curiosity; and impatiently did she beckon for her sister to join her when she saw with how splendid an array the counter was spread. Rebecca looked no less delighted.
“Yes, that will be the one,” observed Mrs. Draper, seeing that Rebecca's eye rested on a fabric of peculiar richness and beauty. “O, yes, it is expensive; but it is worth the money; and these cheaper silks have grown so common! Half the girls we tell fortunes to have more or less silk about them. Our queen must not be taken for such as live by a yearly wage. She must have of the best, and this must be the one.”
“O no, sir,” Rebecca replied, drawing back from the gentleman behind the counter, when he pressed some of his goods upon her notice, “O, no, thank you, sir; they are all too dear for me to buy to wear down by the sea-side.”
“Yet you and these ladies have seen very pretty silks down by the sea-side,” observed Mr. Breme, for it was lie who was himself serving his best customers for the hour. “We all know that very pretty silks have been seen by the seaside; but that day is over.”
“I don't know that, indeed,” replied Rebecca. “They say that Brighton will be fuller than ever next season, and that is the place for pretty dresses. I suppose there are not many such beauties as this sold anywhere?”
“More than you would suppose, ma'am; particularly of late. There is no end now to the silks that may be lawfully had; and when that is the case, more people think of wearing.”
“And yet silks are very little cheaper than they were.”
“At present, not much, as you say, ma'am. But people are so pleased to think that they may wear what has been forbidden so long, that they make a very brisk trade, I am happy to say. This will lead to improvement and cheapness, and then people at home and abroad will wear more still. The more you can get of a thing, the more will be wanted. That is the rule, ma'am; from small beer to satin dresses. The more can be had of a thing, the more will be wanted. Could not you fancy one of these beautiful things, ma'am?”
“Very easily,” replied Rebecca, “if a fairy would come this moment and give me money to buy one, but not else. I am keeping yonder gentleman waiting with the brown holland, which is what I wanted. I must leave your silk dresses in your shop till I have earned one.”
On further consideration, Rebecca feared she could not spare a whole evening to nurse. She had so much to do, and her time was so short! Would a call do? or meeting them in their walk? A better plan than either struck Charlotte. Would not Rebecca meet them at the dancing-school on Wednesday? One who was about to keep school should see some dancing; and she and nurse might have their chat in a corner, without anybody knowing what they were talking about. This was certainly the best plan, and Rebecca agreed to it, with grand expectations of the sight she was to see.