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SKETCHES FROM OUR OFFICE WINDOW.
Thad much rather, I protest, watch graceful figures from the office window.'
THERE is a time in the day which
solidarity of its own, which is the very heart of its heart, the very morning of its morning-a time which I should put as the hours
VOL. XV.-NO. LXXXIX.
between twelve and three. Depend upon it, all the most important business of the world is done very much about this time. Letters are by that time answered, interruptions attended to, routine business trans
acted, and a man settles down into what most requires his thoughts and energies for the time. But it is just at this time that carriages begin to permeate the four avenues of Piccadilly, and the sanctum sanctorum of the office is at times invaded. While sordid men are most deeply engaged in making filthy lucre, the heavenly beings are about to pursue their loftier destiny of making away with it. No, we had rather not give the benefit of our refined taste in accompanying them to Hunt and Roskell, or to Swan and Edgar, lest we should hear soft whispers about that love of a shawl, or that darling of a bracelet. We reject the proffer of a seat in the carriage to visit that simpering dowager who was so greatly struck by our portrait in the Academy, or even the young ladies who are quite in love with our pretty vers de société. But we walk to the office window just in time to catch a Parthian glance and a waving hand; and as the wheels roll away our attention and thoughts are recalled. to some phases of London Society which belong to shopping and visiting.
It is after lunch that the real work of shopping commences. The mornings have been passed in domestic avocations, that is to say the newspapers have been glanced at, letters written, the dinner ordered, and, reinvigorated by lunch, the ladies are prepared to enter upon the flowery but dangerous paths of shopping. A certain difference is to be observed between those who shop early and those who shop late. If you have some really important purchases to make the shopping takes precedence over every other morning engagement. A young lady is going to be married, and the tremendous arrangements of the trousseau are to be effected; or some one is going out to India, and dozens upon dozens of everything are to be provided; or some large purchases are to be effected such as happen every now and then in a household. Now these are really business transactions of which the most businesslike people must speak with respect. Ladies then require plenty of time
and ample attention and freedom from distraction. But the ordinary shopping of the season is not of this extraordinary kind. It is merely a pleasant occupation pour passer le temps-an amusing interlude that may fill up some space between lunching and visiting. It is attended with a pleasing amount of hazard and excitement perhaps not altogether remote to the enjoyment which coarser beings find in their betting-books. It is even pleasant to see the crowd and confusion-to feel how much of it is due to oneself-and exchange smiles, words, and glances with one's friends, and thus combine the duties and pleasures of society.
As I stand at my office window, frequently glancing down the vistas of the street, I am greatly amused at the extraordinary amount of lady traffic which goes on in and out of the shops within range of observation. It becomes a difficult matter to credit the general assertion of my lady friends, that they dislike shopping. From what I observe from my office window, I feel convinced that shopping is one of the most important transactions of a lady's life, but, I suspect, by no means generally done in a business-like way. It is lingered over and lengthened to twice the number of hours really necessary for it. It therefore strikes me, as a looker on, that shopping must afford ladies an extreme amount of pleasure and amusement, judging by the intensity of ardour which they bring to the pursuit. Moreover, I have more than once had the dubious felicity of being the escort, in the days of ignorance, to a lady during her whole morning's engagements, so I have some definite notions of what takes place at any large, handsome draper's establishment. The windows are decked out with every enticement to enter. Here are displayed splendid silks, dainty little bonnets, Parisian mantles, or cloaks, all suitable for the season, whether summer or winter, and many other equally bewitching articles of a lady's apparel. Mammas and elder daughters, or elder daughter accompanied by a governess or com
panion as chaperone, are handed out by the liveried footmen and received by obsequious shopmen, bowing them to a seat by the counter. The carriage slowly moves off, either to wait an indefinite period, or with directions to call again in an hour or so. At any rate, scarcely a thought is cast to the weary coachman until the ladies have concluded their purchases, about which they frequently spend two or three hours, and sometimes a still longer time.
If I venture to remonstrate with my fair friends, and speak a little authoritatively on this apparent waste of time, I am told with benign contempt that shopping is a very important matter, requiring no end of tact, taste, judgment, and innumerable other qualities of a high moral and intellectual nature. And no doubt they are right; but having an ill-disposed mind, which sometimes revolts against the unsupported enunciation of dogmatic truth, I become sceptical, and ask for reasons. It shows no judgment, I argue in my ignorance, to be unable to choose a dress until every piece of silk or stuff has been exhibited over and over again, and at last the choice falls upon the first brought forward, or perhaps on none. But then those well-dressed, curly-headed, dandy fied young men are employed on purpose to angle gently with the ladies, and induce them to buy, and think no labour lost if they manage to put up a parcel at the end. Ladies are the best customers, and of course are best attended to, as, indeed, they should be everywhere. It no doubt amuses them to see all the pretty things; and as many of them leave papa to pay at the end of the year, they rarely deny themselves anything they fancy. It is only when the bill comes in, and dear papa looks dismayed and rather cross, that mammas and daughters trouble themselves as to whether certain articles were necessary, and then invariably come to the conclusion that not a thing has been purchased that could possibly have been done without. So papa settles the account, and the ladies return to their
favourite haunts, and are received with renewed politeness and attention. The parcels are as large as ever, the delights of shopping as attractive.
But besides the drapers' (granted to be the most important of all bazaars), there are other shops to be visited. It is instructive, however, to observe with what comparative contumely these are treated. Mamma looks at her watch, and declares it to be much later than she expected. It is very convenient that the grocer is a close neighbour of the much-favoured draper, and he receives the honour of a visit. This visit, however, is entirely on business. A few words, a few orders hastily given, and the lady generally declines to examine any of his commodities, which cannot be supposed to be pretty or attractive.
It is something sad, something humiliating, something like Alexander's toothache, which reminded him that he was mortal, to reflect that occasionally ethereal beings will condescend once in a way to do a little business with butcher or baker. But in this description of shopping ladies can carry brevity to the point of curtness. Only the reflection arises that if ladies can be expeditious, and can be brief, and can really say what they mean in the fewest possible words, why should they not carry the idea a little further, and illumine other paths and haunts of life with these truly refulgent principles? very different when a lady visits a jeweller, most happy when bona fide she has got a hundred-pound note to lay out on something pretty. Why, shopping makes us think of diamonds, and diamonds is a subject as exhaustless as it is brilliant. romance, and even a tragedy, might be written on the subject of shopping at a jeweller's. Yet I question if, after all, the jeweller is the tradesman most destructive to marital peace. There is the dressmaker and the milliner, and that fearful 'shething,' who is dressmaker and milliner at once, a being who supplies both materials and workmanship, and whose bills the British husband never really knows during a
prolonged sojourn in this life. This is the kind of establishment where a Madame Mantalini is proprietress, and Miss Knaggs presides, and a pretty Kate Nickleby tries on the garment. The fashionable modiste has often a house full of pretty, graceful girls, whose grace and prettiness are not appreciated as they ought to be by their patrons; and, really, if they sold gloves and collars at this sort of place, a man might look on the institution of shopping with a more favourable eye. I must also admit, on behalf of shopping, what I think Sir Robert Peel has pointed out, that it has a very strong educational value. Many a boy and girl picks up a great deal of knowledge by peering into the shop windows; and the same may be said of any of us who will make the experiment of studying shop windows all the way from the Marble Arch to the City.
From her shopping the lady hurries to her carriage, in order to make her calls in the palaced west, whether of congratulation, condolence, or politeness. Considered per se, calls represent a very odd custom. To the unenlightened male mind they appear very frivolous; but there is a philosophy of common things, and the philosophy of calls is very deep indeed. Granting that they are productive of much that is enjoyable, there is also the abuse of the institution. The carriage has rolled away from the fashionable tradesman, and we will follow it in some morning calls. Most important of all is the lunching call. Shopping whets a lady's appetite, and she is quite prepared to enjoy an agreeable lunch and a pleasant chat with a few friends. Sometimes she has the good fortune to meet with new acquaintances whom she has long wished to know, or with strangers who turn out to be worth knowing. Englishmen can do nothing without eating and drinking, and even English ladies can do much better in the talking line at lunch-time. The calls have really done good. Mixing in society sharpens the intellect, awakens the conversational powers, and arouses a keen spirit of observation. These
are much needed by the great mass of ladies, who, but for visiting, would see very little of actual life, and are at all times rather inclined to narrow views of people and things. No blame is to be attached to them for this; it is owing to their education and seclusion, not from any physical or mental deficiency. They enjoy these little peeps into the outer world as much or even more than men, who have rather too much of it sometimes.
But we must glance at our friends whom we have left lunching. When the lunch is at an end, generally the visit ends too. The visitor remembers she has other places to go to, and takes her leave. there is no lunch to take up the time, and no other company than the caller and the lady called upon, to become sociable and confidential, these two friends have to introduce a third party into their conversation, and scandal becomes their dangerous amusement. With this resource time flies swiftly, and they part with regret and with many assurances that not a word of the private tête-à-tête shall ever be repeated. Every one knows the results of such a confab and such a compact. To make her last call, our lady of fashion drives into a narrow and gloomy street, and draws up at a dreary-looking house. Her arrival evidently makes a commotion within, but of the kind of commotion the intruder has no notion.
This visit may be welcome or unwelcome, just as the visitor conducts herself. The lady of limited means becomes, no doubt, more than ever conscious of the little deficiencies in her drawingroom furniture and her own mean attire by the stolen peep at the noble carriage outside and the rich and handsome dress of her visitor. She often feels overwhelmed with a sense of her own littleness, and an exaggerated sense of the superiority of the woman of fortune and fashion. Fine feathers make fine birds, and it often is these alone which claim the superiority. If a true lady, the visitor can render her morning call a real pleasure to the visited, and leave behind her the favourable
impression that pride, hauteur, and condescension are not the necessary accompaniments to a carriage and pair. We will charitably hope that in paying such a call a woman of wealth will carefully avoid expressions of condolence with her poorer friend, accounts of her own happier fortune, allusions to painfully contrasting circumstances, noticing glances at everything in the room, or impertinent inquiries respecting her friend's household arrangements. Visits of advice unasked for, of inspection, which invariably show vulgar manners, of curiosity, which is intensely annoying, are never agreeable, especially to those whose circumstances are narrow. Yet, supposing the visit has been of the disagreeable kind, it still has sometimes what may be thought beneficial results. A carriage and pair with liveried servants at a small house in a humble street, exalt, in the eyes of all neighbours, the inhabitants thus honoured. In their eyes, the people living at such a number are people of some standing in society from that day forward. And this is something to some people.
But ladies of wealth are not the only ladies who go shopping or visiting. All the customers at the grand shops do not arrive in their carriages. Many come on foot alone, or accompanied by their children. Some with limited purses, and some with none at all, having succeeded in obtaining credit by some unknown means. They enter the enticing shop with heavy, longing hearts, and leave it unsatisfied. A tender, honest mother purchases the article absolutely necessary, remembering many another scarcely less so for her little ones; but the sum in hand is expended, she dare not go beyond, and at once retires from the scene of temptation. Poor little Jack must still wear his threadbare frock, and Ellen her thin, but well-darned stockings. As for herself the mother desires no more. It is for her little ones she sighs. I must have a new bonnet,' murmurs a pretty girl; 'it is my only chance of success, and surely I shall be able to pay.' So
she enters, and first one thing and then another is presented to her view; and while she is about it she thinks she may as well get the things it is hard to do without. The temptation is strong, the list is lengthened, and the millstone is round her neck which weighs down health and spirits for many a long year. Once in debt it is rarely man or woman recover themselves.
Then our humbler friends have also their morning calls to pay. The wives of professional men have professional visits to make. In this way they share their husbands' burdens, and it is right they should do so. To neglect a call is frequently an act of self-indulgence, and always an act of incivility, especially to those who are equal in rank and position, and to inferiors it is a slight, and therefore an unkindness. There is a morality in visiting, a right and a wrong in all these social matters. It is much to be regretted that in these rounds of visits so little free and familiar intercourse is enjoyed. The stereo
typed British morning call is susceptible of no end of improvement. There is very often nothing said approaching to conversation. certain set of calling phrases seem almost to be transmitted from mother to daughter for generations, and are rigidly observed, till they become a weariness to flesh and spirit. If the ladies have patience to wade through these, and extend their visits beyond the necessary time for doing so, there may then be started some topic in which both take a little interest. The simple secret of true conversation is the taking an interest in what is said. Ladies often bring so much vanity and self-conceit with them in making a call, that they fail in awakening interest in each other. Each are anxious, after the first few phrases, to introduce themselves or their petty concerns into the foreground. The speaker is then interested, but frequently the listener is bored. They naturally fall back upon some quiet backbiting gossip, a constant fund for the woman of the world who is anxious that no hour may