Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
The Arch of Death
By William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)
 

THERE came a day when the round of decorous pleasures and solemn gaieties in which Mr. Joseph 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 arch.
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  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 the cook lurks down before daylight to scour her pots and pans in the kitchen; by which the 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 bannisters 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 down-stairs; 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 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, etc. Your comedy and mine will have been played then, and we shall be removed, O 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 survivors 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.  2
  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.”  3
 
 
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