‘How d’ye do, dear?’ said the Misses Briggs to the Misses Taunton. (The word ‘dear’ among girls is frequently synonymous with ‘wretch.’)
‘Quite well, thank you, dear,’ replied the Misses Taunton to the Misses Briggs; and then, there was such a kissing, and congratulating, and shaking of hands, as might have induced one to suppose that the two families were the best friends in the world, instead of each wishing the other overboard, as they most sincerely did.
Mr. Percy Noakes received the visitors, and bowed to the strange gentleman, as if he should like to know who he was. This was just what Mrs. Taunton wanted. Here was an opportunity to astonish the Briggses.
‘Oh! I beg your pardon,’ said the general of the Taunton party, with a careless air.–‘Captain Helves–Mr. Percy Noakes–Mrs. Briggs–Captain Helves.’
Mr. Percy Noakes bowed very low; the gallant captain did the same with all due ferocity, and the Briggses were clearly overcome.
‘Our friend, Mr. Wizzle, being unfortunately prevented from coming,’ resumed Mrs. Taunton, ‘I did myself the pleasure of bringing the captain, whose musical talents I knew would be a great acquisition.’
‘In the name of the committee I have to thank you for doing so, and to offer you welcome, sir,’ replied Percy. (Here the scraping was renewed.) ‘But pray be seated–won’t you walk aft? Captain, will you conduct Miss Taunton?–Miss Briggs, will you allow me?’
‘Where could they have picked up that military man?’ inquired Mrs. Briggs of Miss Kate Briggs, as they followed the little party.
‘I can’t imagine,’ replied Miss Kate, bursting with vexation; for the very fierce air with which the gallant captain regarded the company, had impressed her with a high sense of his importance.
Boat after boat came alongside, and guest after guest arrived. The invites had been excellently arranged: Mr. Percy Noakes having considered it as important that the number of young men should exactly tally with that of the young ladies, as that the quantity of knives on board should be in precise proportion to the forks.
‘Now, is every one on board?’ inquired Mr. Percy Noakes. The committee (who, with their bits of blue ribbon, looked as if they were all going to be bled) bustled about to ascertain the fact, and reported that they might safely start.
‘Go on!’ cried the master of the boat from the top of one of the paddle-boxes.
‘Go on!’ echoed the boy, who was stationed over the hatchway to pass the directions down to the engineer; and away went the vessel with that agreeable noise which is peculiar to steamers, and which is composed of a mixture of creaking, gushing, clanging, and snorting.
‘Hoi-oi-oi-oi-oi-oi-o-i-i-i!’ shouted half-a-dozen voices from a boat, a quarter of a mile astern.
‘Ease her!’ cried the captain: ‘do these people belong to us, sir?’
‘Noakes,’ exclaimed Hardy, who had been looking at every object far and near, through the large telescope, ‘it’s the Fleetwoods and the Wakefields–and two children with them, by Jove!’
‘What a shame to bring children!’ said everybody; ‘how very inconsiderate!’
‘I say, it would be a good joke to pretend not to see ’em, wouldn’t it?’ suggested Hardy, to the immense delight of the company generally. A council of war was hastily held, and it was resolved that the newcomers should be taken on board, on Mr. Hardy solemnly pledging himself to tease the children during the whole of the day.
‘Stop her!’ cried the captain.
‘Stop her!’ repeated the boy; whizz went the steam, and all the young ladies, as in duty bound, screamed in concert. They were only appeased by the assurance of the martial Helves, that the escape of steam consequent on stopping a vessel was seldom attended with any great loss of human life.
Two men ran to the side; and after some shouting, and swearing, and angling for the wherry with a boat-hook, Mr. Fleetwood, and Mrs. Fleetwood, and Master Fleetwood, and Mr. Wakefield, and Mrs. Wakefield, and Miss Wakefield, were safely deposited on the deck. The girl was about six years old, the boy about four; the former was dressed in a white frock with a pink sash and dog’s-eared- looking little spencer: a straw bonnet and green veil, six inches by three and a half; the latter, was attired for the occasion in a nankeen frock, between the bottom of which, and the top of his plaid socks, a considerable portion of two small mottled legs was discernible. He had a light blue cap with a gold band and tassel on his head, and a damp piece of gingerbread in his hand, with which he had slightly embossed his countenance.
The boat once more started off; the band played ‘Off she goes:’ the major part of the company conversed cheerfully in groups; and the old gentlemen walked up and down the deck in pairs, as perseveringly and gravely as if they were doing a match against time for an immense stake. They ran briskly down the Pool; the gentlemen pointed out the Docks, the Thames Police-office, and other elegant public edifices; and the young ladies exhibited a proper display of horror at the appearance of the coal-whippers and ballast-heavers. Mr. Hardy told stories to the married ladies, at which they laughed very much in their pocket-handkerchiefs, and hit him on the knuckles with their fans, declaring him to be ‘a naughty man–a shocking creature’–and so forth; and Captain Helves gave slight descriptions of battles and duels, with a most bloodthirsty air, which made him the admiration of the women, and the envy of the men. Quadrilling commenced; Captain Helves danced one set with Miss Emily Taunton, and another set with Miss Sophia Taunton. Mrs. Taunton was in ecstasies. The victory appeared to be complete; but alas! the inconstancy of man! Having performed this necessary duty, he attached himself solely to Miss Julia Briggs, with whom he danced no less than three sets consecutively, and from whose side he evinced no intention of stirring for the remainder of the day.
Mr. Hardy, having played one or two very brilliant fantasias on the Jews’-harp, and having frequently repeated the exquisitely amusing joke of slily chalking a large cross on the back of some member of the committee, Mr. Percy Noakes expressed his hope that some of their musical friends would oblige the company by a display of their abilities.
‘Perhaps,’ he said in a very insinuating manner, ‘Captain Helves will oblige us?’ Mrs. Taunton’s countenance lighted up, for the captain only sang duets, and couldn’t sing them with anybody but one of her daughters.
‘Really,’ said that warlike individual, ‘I should be very happy, ‘but–‘
‘Oh! pray do,’ cried all the young ladies.
‘Miss Emily, have you any objection to join in a duet?’
‘Oh! not the slightest,’ returned the young lady, in a tone which clearly showed she had the greatest possible objection.
‘Shall I accompany you, dear?’ inquired one of the Miss Briggses, with the bland intention of spoiling the effect.
‘Very much obliged to you, Miss Briggs,’ sharply retorted Mrs. Taunton, who saw through the manoeuvre; ‘my daughters always sing without accompaniments.’
‘And without voices,’ tittered Mrs. Briggs, in a low tone.
‘Perhaps,’ said Mrs. Taunton, reddening, for she guessed the tenor of the observation, though she had not heard it clearly–‘Perhaps it would be as well for some people, if their voices were not quite so audible as they are to other people.’
‘And, perhaps, if gentlemen who are kidnapped to pay attention to some persons’ daughters, had not sufficient discernment to pay attention to other persons’ daughters,’ returned Mrs. Briggs, ‘some persons would not be so ready to display that ill-temper which, thank God, distinguishes them from other persons.’
‘Persons!’ ejaculated Mrs. Taunton.
‘Persons,’ replied Mrs. Briggs.
‘Hush! hush!’ interrupted Mr. Percy Noakes, who was one of the very few by whom this dialogue had been overheard. ‘Hush!–pray, silence for the duet.’
After a great deal of preparatory crowing and humming, the captain began the following duet from the opera of ‘Paul and Virginia,’ in that grunting tone in which a man gets down, Heaven knows where, without the remotest chance of ever getting up again. This, in private circles, is frequently designated ‘a bass voice.’
‘See (sung the captain) from o-ce-an ri-sing Bright flames the or-b of d-ay.
From yon gro-ove, the varied so-ongs–‘
Here, the singer was interrupted by varied cries of the most dreadful description, proceeding from some grove in the immediate vicinity of the starboard paddle-box.
‘My child!’ screamed Mrs. Fleetwood. ‘My child! it is his voice–I know it.’
Mr. Fleetwood, accompanied by several gentlemen, here rushed to the quarter from whence the noise proceeded, and an exclamation of horror burst from the company; the general impression being, that the little innocent had either got his head in the water, or his legs in the machinery.
‘What is the matter?’ shouted the agonised father, as he returned with the child in his arms.
‘Oh! oh! oh!’ screamed the small sufferer again.
‘What is the matter, dear?’ inquired the father once more–hastily stripping off the nankeen frock, for the purpose of ascertaining whether the child had one bone which was not smashed to pieces.
‘Oh! oh!–I’m so frightened!’
‘What at, dear?–what at?’ said the mother, soothing the sweet infant.
‘Oh! he’s been making such dreadful faces at me,’ cried the boy, relapsing into convulsions at the bare recollection.
‘He!–who?’ cried everybody, crowding round him.
‘Oh!–him!’ replied the child, pointing at Hardy, who affected to be the most concerned of the whole group.
The real state of the case at once flashed upon the minds of all present, with the exception of the Fleetwoods and the Wakefields. The facetious Hardy, in fulfilment of his promise, had watched the child to a remote part of the vessel, and, suddenly appearing before him with the most awful contortions of visage, had produced his paroxysm of terror. Of course, he now observed that it was hardly necessary for him to deny the accusation; and the unfortunate little victim was accordingly led below, after receiving sundry thumps on the head from both his parents, for having the wickedness to tell a story.
This little interruption having been adjusted, the captain resumed, and Miss Emily chimed in, in due course. The duet was loudly applauded, and, certainly, the perfect independence of the parties deserved great commendation. Miss Emily sung her part, without the slightest reference to the captain; and the captain sang so loud, that he had not the slightest idea what was being done by his partner. After having gone through the last few eighteen or nineteen bars by himself, therefore, he acknowledged the plaudits of the circle with that air of self-denial which men usually assume when they think they have done something to astonish the company.
‘Now,’ said Mr. Percy Noakes, who had just ascended from the fore- cabin, where he had been busily engaged in decanting the wine, ‘if the Misses Briggs will oblige us with something before dinner, I am sure we shall be very much delighted.’
One of those hums of admiration followed the suggestion, which one frequently hears in society, when nobody has the most distant notion what he is expressing his approval of. The three Misses Briggs looked modestly at their mamma, and the mamma looked approvingly at her daughters, and Mrs. Taunton looked scornfully at all of them. The Misses Briggs asked for their guitars, and several gentlemen seriously damaged the cases in their anxiety to present them. Then, there was a very interesting production of three little keys for the aforesaid cases, and a melodramatic expression of horror at finding a string broken; and a vast deal of screwing and tightening, and winding, and tuning, during which Mrs. Briggs expatiated to those near her on the immense difficulty of playing a guitar, and hinted at the wondrous proficiency of her daughters in that mystic art. Mrs. Taunton whispered to a neighbour that it was ‘quite sickening!’ and the Misses Taunton looked as if they knew how to play, but disdained to do it.
At length, the Misses Briggs began in real earnest. It was a new Spanish composition, for three voices and three guitars. The effect was electrical. All eyes were turned upon the captain, who was reported to have once passed through Spain with his regiment, and who must be well acquainted with the national music. He was in raptures. This was sufficient; the trio was encored; the applause was universal; and never had the Tauntons suffered such a complete defeat.
‘Bravo! bravo!’ ejaculated the captain;–‘bravo!’
‘Pretty! isn’t it, sir?’ inquired Mr. Samuel Briggs, with the air of a self-satisfied showman. By-the-bye, these were the first words he had been heard to utter since he left Boswell-court the evening before.
‘De-lightful!’ returned the captain, with a flourish, and a military cough;–‘de-lightful!’
‘Sweet instrument!’ said an old gentleman with a bald head, who had been trying all the morning to look through a telescope, inside the glass of which Mr. Hardy had fixed a large black wafer.
‘Did you ever hear a Portuguese tambourine?’ inquired that jocular individual.
‘Did YOU ever hear a tom-tom, sir?’ sternly inquired the captain, who lost no opportunity of showing off his travels, real or pretended.
‘A what?’ asked Hardy, rather taken aback.
‘Nor a gum-gum?’
‘What IS a gum-gum?’ eagerly inquired several young ladies.
‘When I was in the East Indies,’ replied the captain–(here was a discovery–he had been in the East Indies!)–‘when I was in the East Indies, I was once stopping a few thousand miles up the country, on a visit at the house of a very particular friend of mine, Ram Chowdar Doss Azuph Al Bowlar–a devilish pleasant fellow. As we were enjoying our hookahs, one evening, in the cool verandah in front of his villa, we were rather surprised by the sudden appearance of thirty-four of his Kit-ma-gars (for he had rather a large establishment there), accompanied by an equal number of Con- su-mars, approaching the house with a threatening aspect, and beating a tom-tom. The Ram started up–‘
‘Who?’ inquired the bald gentleman, intensely interested.
‘The Ram–Ram Chowdar–‘
‘Oh!’ said the old gentleman, ‘beg your pardon; pray go on.’
‘–Started up and drew a pistol. “Helves,” said he, “my boy,”–he always called me, my boy–“Helves,” said he, “do you hear that tom- tom?” “I do,” said I. His countenance, which before was pale, assumed a most frightful appearance; his whole visage was distorted, and his frame shaken by violent emotions. “Do you see that gum-gum?” said he. “No,” said I, staring about me. “You don’t?” said he. “No, I’ll be damned if I do,” said I; “and what’s more, I don’t know what a gum-gum is,” said I. I really thought the Ram would have dropped. He drew me aside, and with an expression of agony I shall never forget, said in a low whisper–‘
‘Dinner’s on the table, ladies,’ interrupted the steward’s wife.
‘Will you allow me?’ said the captain, immediately suiting the action to the word, and escorting Miss Julia Briggs to the cabin, with as much ease as if he had finished the story.
‘What an extraordinary circumstance!’ ejaculated the same old gentleman, preserving his listening attitude.
‘What a traveller!’ said the young ladies.
‘What a singular name!’ exclaimed the gentlemen, rather confused by the coolness of the whole affair.
‘I wish he had finished the story,’ said an old lady. ‘I wonder what a gum-gum really is?’
‘By Jove!’ exclaimed Hardy, who until now had been lost in utter amazement, ‘I don’t know what it may be in India, but in England I think a gum-gum has very much the same meaning as a hum-bug.’
‘How illiberal! how envious!’ cried everybody, as they made for the cabin, fully impressed with a belief in the captain’s amazing adventures. Helves was the sole lion for the remainder of the day- -impudence and the marvellous are pretty sure passports to any society.
The party had by this time reached their destination, and put about on their return home. The wind, which had been with them the whole day, was now directly in their teeth; the weather had become gradually more and more overcast; and the sky, water, and shore, were all of that dull, heavy, uniform lead-colour, which house- painters daub in the first instance over a street-door which is gradually approaching a state of convalescence. It had been ‘spitting’ with rain for the last half-hour, and now began to pour in good earnest. The wind was freshening very fast, and the waterman at the wheel had unequivocally expressed his opinion that there would shortly be a squall. A slight emotion on the part of the vessel, now and then, seemed to suggest the possibility of its pitching to a very uncomfortable extent in the event of its blowing harder; and every timber began to creak, as if the boat were an overladen clothes-basket. Sea-sickness, however, is like a belief in ghosts–every one entertains some misgivings on the subject, but few will acknowledge any. The majority of the company, therefore, endeavoured to look peculiarly happy, feeling all the while especially miserable.
‘Don’t it rain?’ inquired the old gentleman before noticed, when, by dint of squeezing and jamming, they were all seated at table.
‘I think it does–a little,’ replied Mr. Percy Noakes, who could hardly hear himself speak, in consequence of the pattering on the deck.
‘Don’t it blow?’ inquired some one else.
‘No, I don’t think it does,’ responded Hardy, sincerely wishing that he could persuade himself that it did not; for he sat near the door, and was almost blown off his seat.
‘It’ll soon clear up,’ said Mr. Percy Noakes, in a cheerful tone.
‘Oh, certainly!’ ejaculated the committee generally.
‘No doubt of it!’ said the remainder of the company, whose attention was now pretty well engrossed by the serious business of eating, carving, taking wine, and so forth.
The throbbing motion of the engine was but too perceptible. There was a large, substantial, cold boiled leg of mutton, at the bottom of the table, shaking like blancmange; a previously hearty sirloin of beef looked as if it had been suddenly seized with the palsy; and some tongues, which were placed on dishes rather too large for them, went through the most surprising evolutions; darting from side to side, and from end to end, like a fly in an inverted wine- glass. Then, the sweets shook and trembled, till it was quite impossible to help them, and people gave up the attempt in despair; and the pigeon-pies looked as if the birds, whose legs were stuck outside, were trying to get them in. The table vibrated and started like a feverish pulse, and the very legs were convulsed– everything was shaking and jarring. The beams in the roof of the cabin seemed as if they were put there for the sole purpose of giving people head-aches, and several elderly gentlemen became ill- tempered in consequence. As fast as the steward put the fire-irons up, they WOULD fall down again; and the more the ladies and gentlemen tried to sit comfortably on their seats, the more the seats seemed to slide away from the ladies and gentlemen. Several ominous demands were made for small glasses of brandy; the countenances of the company gradually underwent most extraordinary changes; one gentleman was observed suddenly to rush from table without the slightest ostensible reason, and dart up the steps with incredible swiftness: thereby greatly damaging both himself and the steward, who happened to be coming down at the same moment.
The cloth was removed; the dessert was laid on the table; and the glasses were filled. The motion of the boat increased; several members of the party began to feel rather vague and misty, and looked as if they had only just got up. The young gentleman with the spectacles, who had been in a fluctuating state for some time– at one moment bright, and at another dismal, like a revolving light on the sea-coast–rashly announced his wish to propose a toast. After several ineffectual attempts to preserve his perpendicular, the young gentleman, having managed to hook himself to the centre leg of the table with his left hand, proceeded as follows:
‘Ladies and gentlemen. A gentleman is among us–I may say a stranger–(here some painful thought seemed to strike the orator; he paused, and looked extremely odd)–whose talents, whose travels, whose cheerfulness–‘
‘I beg your pardon, Edkins,’ hastily interrupted Mr. Percy Noakes,- -‘Hardy, what’s the matter?’
‘Nothing,’ replied the ‘funny gentleman,’ who had just life enough left to utter two consecutive syllables.
‘Will you have some brandy?’
‘No!’ replied Hardy in a tone of great indignation, and looking as comfortable as Temple-bar in a Scotch mist; ‘what should I want brandy for?’
‘Will you go on deck?’
‘No, I will NOT.’ This was said with a most determined air, and in a voice which might have been taken for an imitation of anything; it was quite as much like a guinea-pig as a bassoon.
‘I beg your pardon, Edkins,’ said the courteous Percy; ‘I thought our friend was ill. Pray go on.’
‘Pray go on.’
‘Mr. Edkins IS gone,’ cried somebody.
‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ said the steward, running up to Mr. Percy Noakes, ‘I beg your pardon, sir, but the gentleman as just went on deck–him with the green spectacles–is uncommon bad, to be sure; and the young man as played the wiolin says, that unless he has some brandy he can’t answer for the consequences. He says he has a wife and two children, whose werry subsistence depends on his breaking a wessel, and he expects to do so every moment. The flageolet’s been werry ill, but he’s better, only he’s in a dreadful prusperation.’
All disguise was now useless; the company staggered on deck; the gentlemen tried to see nothing but the clouds; and the ladies, muffled up in such shawls and cloaks as they had brought with them, lay about on the seats, and under the seats, in the most wretched condition. Never was such a blowing, and raining, and pitching, and tossing, endured by any pleasure party before. Several remonstrances were sent down below, on the subject of Master Fleetwood, but they were totally unheeded in consequence of the indisposition of his natural protectors. That interesting child screamed at the top of his voice, until he had no voice left to scream with; and then, Miss Wakefield began, and screamed for the remainder of the passage.
Mr. Hardy was observed, some hours afterwards, in an attitude which induced his friends to suppose that he was busily engaged in contemplating the beauties of the deep; they only regretted that his taste for the picturesque should lead him to remain so long in a position, very injurious at all times, but especially so, to an individual labouring under a tendency of blood to the head.
The party arrived off the Custom-house at about two o’clock on the Thursday morning dispirited and worn out. The Tauntons were too ill to quarrel with the Briggses, and the Briggses were too wretched to annoy the Tauntons. One of the guitar-cases was lost on its passage to a hackney-coach, and Mrs. Briggs has not scrupled to state that the Tauntons bribed a porter to throw it down an area. Mr. Alexander Briggs opposes vote by ballot–he says from personal experience of its inefficacy; and Mr. Samuel Briggs, whenever he is asked to express his sentiments on the point, says he has no opinion on that or any other subject.
Mr. Edkins–the young gentleman in the green spectacles–makes a speech on every occasion on which a speech can possibly be made: the eloquence of which can only be equalled by its length. In the event of his not being previously appointed to a judgeship, it is probable that he will practise as a barrister in the New Central Criminal Court.
Captain Helves continued his attention to Miss Julia Briggs, whom he might possibly have espoused, if it had not unfortunately happened that Mr. Samuel arrested him, in the way of business, pursuant to instructions received from Messrs. Scroggins and Payne, whose town-debts the gallant captain had condescended to collect, but whose accounts, with the indiscretion sometimes peculiar to military minds, he had omitted to keep with that dull accuracy which custom has rendered necessary. Mrs. Taunton complains that she has been much deceived in him. He introduced himself to the family on board a Gravesend steam-packet, and certainly, therefore, ought to have proved respectable.
Mr. Percy Noakes is as light-hearted and careless as ever.
CHAPTER VIII–THE GREAT WINGLEBURY DUEL
The little town of Great Winglebury is exactly forty-two miles and three-quarters from Hyde Park corner. It has a long, straggling, quiet High-street, with a great black and white clock at a small red Town-hall, half-way up–a market-place–a cage–an assembly- room–a church–a bridge–a chapel–a theatre–a library–an inn–a pump–and a Post-office. Tradition tells of a ‘Little Winglebury,’ down some cross-road about two miles off; and, as a square mass of dirty paper, supposed to have been originally intended for a letter, with certain tremulous characters inscribed thereon, in which a lively imagination might trace a remote resemblance to the word ‘Little,’ was once stuck up to be owned in the sunny window of the Great Winglebury Post-office, from which it only disappeared when it fell to pieces with dust and extreme old age, there would appear to be some foundation for the legend. Common belief is inclined to bestow the name upon a little hole at the end of a muddy lane about a couple of miles long, colonised by one wheelwright, four paupers, and a beer-shop; but, even this authority, slight as it is, must be regarded with extreme suspicion, inasmuch as the inhabitants of the hole aforesaid, concur in opining that it never had any name at all, from the earliest ages down to the present day.
The Winglebury Arms, in the centre of the High-street, opposite the small building with the big clock, is the principal inn of Great Winglebury–the commercial-inn, posting-house, and excise-office; the ‘Blue’ house at every election, and the judges’ house at every assizes. It is the head-quarters of the Gentlemen’s Whist Club of Winglebury Blues (so called in opposition to the Gentlemen’s Whist Club of Winglebury Buffs, held at the other house, a little further down): and whenever a juggler, or wax-work man, or concert-giver, takes Great Winglebury in his circuit, it is immediately placarded all over the town that Mr. So-and-so, ‘trusting to that liberal support which the inhabitants of Great Winglebury have long been so liberal in bestowing, has at a great expense engaged the elegant and commodious assembly-rooms, attached to the Winglebury Arms.’ The house is a large one, with a red brick and stone front; a pretty spacious hall, ornamented with evergreen plants, terminates in a perspective view of the bar, and a glass case, in which are displayed a choice variety of delicacies ready for dressing, to catch the eye of a new-comer the moment he enters, and excite his appetite to the highest possible pitch. Opposite doors lead to the ‘coffee’ and ‘commercial’ rooms; and a great wide, rambling staircase,–three stairs and a landing–four stairs and another landing–one step and another landing–half-a-dozen stairs and another landing–and so on–conducts to galleries of bedrooms, and labyrinths of sitting-rooms, denominated ‘private,’ where you may enjoy yourself, as privately as you can in any place where some bewildered being walks into your room every five minutes, by mistake, and then walks out again, to open all the doors along the gallery until he finds his own.
Such is the Winglebury Arms, at this day, and such was the Winglebury Arms some time since–no matter when–two or three minutes before the arrival of the London stage. Four horses with cloths on–change for a coach–were standing quietly at the corner of the yard surrounded by a listless group of post-boys in shiny hats and smock-frocks, engaged in discussing the merits of the cattle; half a dozen ragged boys were standing a little apart, listening with evident interest to the conversation of these worthies; and a few loungers were collected round the horse-trough, awaiting the arrival of the coach.
The day was hot and sunny, the town in the zenith of its dulness, and with the exception of these few idlers, not a living creature was to be seen. Suddenly, the loud notes of a key-bugle broke the monotonous stillness of the street; in came the coach, rattling over the uneven paving with a noise startling enough to stop even the large-faced clock itself. Down got the outsides, up went the windows in all directions, out came the waiters, up started the ostlers, and the loungers, and the post-boys, and the ragged boys, as if they were electrified–unstrapping, and unchaining, and unbuckling, and dragging willing horses out, and forcing reluctant horses in, and making a most exhilarating bustle. ‘Lady inside, here!’ said the guard. ‘Please to alight, ma’am,’ said the waiter. ‘Private sitting-room?’ interrogated the lady. ‘Certainly, ma’am,’ responded the chamber-maid. ‘Nothing but these ‘ere trunks, ma’am?’ inquired the guard. ‘Nothing more,’ replied the lady. Up got the outsides again, and the guard, and the coachman; off came the cloths, with a jerk; ‘All right,’ was the cry; and away they went. The loungers lingered a minute or two in the road, watching the coach until it turned the corner, and then loitered away one by one. The street was clear again, and the town, by contrast, quieter than ever.
‘Lady in number twenty-five,’ screamed the landlady.–‘Thomas!’
‘Letter just been left for the gentleman in number nineteen. Boots at the Lion left it. No answer.’
‘Letter for you, sir,’ said Thomas, depositing the letter on number nineteen’s table.
‘For me?’ said number nineteen, turning from the window, out of which he had been surveying the scene just described.
‘Yes, sir,’–(waiters always speak in hints, and never utter complete sentences,)–‘yes, sir,–Boots at the Lion, sir,–Bar, sir,–Missis said number nineteen, sir–Alexander Trott, Esq., sir?–Your card at the bar, sir, I think, sir?’
‘My name IS Trott,’ replied number nineteen, breaking the seal. ‘You may go, waiter.’ The waiter pulled down the window-blind, and then pulled it up again–for a regular waiter must do something before he leaves the room–adjusted the glasses on the side-board, brushed a place that was NOT dusty, rubbed his hands very hard, walked stealthily to the door, and evaporated.
There was, evidently, something in the contents of the letter, of a nature, if not wholly unexpected, certainly extremely disagreeable. Mr. Alexander Trott laid it down, and took it up again, and walked about the room on particular squares of the carpet, and even attempted, though unsuccessfully, to whistle an air. It wouldn’t do. He threw himself into a chair, and read the following epistle aloud:-
‘Blue Lion and Stomach-warmer,
‘Sir. Immediately on discovering your intentions, I left our counting-house, and followed you. I know the purport of your journey;–that journey shall never be completed.
‘I have no friend here, just now, on whose secrecy I can rely. This shall be no obstacle to my revenge. Neither shall Emily Brown be exposed to the mercenary solicitations of a scoundrel, odious in her eyes, and contemptible in everybody else’s: nor will I tamely submit to the clandestine attacks of a base umbrella-maker.
‘Sir. From Great Winglebury church, a footpath leads through four meadows to a retired spot known to the townspeople as Stiffun’s Acre.’ [Mr. Trott shuddered.] ‘I shall be waiting there alone, at twenty minutes before six o’clock to-morrow morning. Should I be disappointed in seeing you there, I will do myself the pleasure of calling with a horsewhip.
‘PS. There is a gunsmiths in the High-street; and they won’t sell gunpowder after dark–you understand me.
‘PPS. You had better not order your breakfast in the morning until you have met me. It may be an unnecessary expense.’
‘Desperate-minded villain! I knew how it would be!’ ejaculated the terrified Trott. ‘I always told father, that once start me on this expedition, and Hunter would pursue me like the Wandering Jew. It’s bad enough as it is, to marry with the old people’s commands, and without the girl’s consent; but what will Emily think of me, if I go down there breathless with running away from this infernal salamander? What SHALL I do? What CAN I do? If I go back to the city, I’m disgraced for ever–lose the girl–and, what’s more, lose the money too. Even if I did go on to the Browns’ by the coach, Hunter would be after me in a post-chaise; and if I go to this place, this Stiffun’s Acre (another shudder), I’m as good as dead. I’ve seen him hit the man at the Pall-mall shooting-gallery, in the second button-hole of the waistcoat, five times out of every six, and when he didn’t hit him there, he hit him in the head.’ With this consolatory reminiscence Mr. Alexander Trott again ejaculated, ‘What shall I do?’
Long and weary were his reflections, as, burying his face in his hand, he sat, ruminating on the best course to be pursued. His mental direction-post pointed to London. He thought of the ‘governor’s’ anger, and the loss of the fortune which the paternal Brown had promised the paternal Trott his daughter should contribute to the coffers of his son. Then the words ‘To Brown’s’ were legibly inscribed on the said direction-post, but Horace Hunter’s denunciation rung in his ears;–last of all it bore, in red letters, the words, ‘To Stiffun’s Acre;’ and then Mr. Alexander Trott decided on adopting a plan which he presently matured.
First and foremost, he despatched the under-boots to the Blue Lion and Stomach-warmer, with a gentlemanly note to Mr. Horace Hunter, intimating that he thirsted for his destruction and would do himself the pleasure of slaughtering him next morning, without fail. He then wrote another letter, and requested the attendance of the other boots–for they kept a pair. A modest knock at the room door was heard. ‘Come in,’ said Mr. Trott. A man thrust in a red head with one eye in it, and being again desired to ‘come in,’ brought in the body and the legs to which the head belonged, and a fur cap which belonged to the head.
‘You are the upper-boots, I think?’ inquired Mr. Trott.
‘Yes, I am the upper-boots,’ replied a voice from inside a velveteen case, with mother-of-pearl buttons–‘that is, I’m the boots as b’longs to the house; the other man’s my man, as goes errands and does odd jobs. Top-boots and half-boots, I calls us.’
‘You’re from London?’ inquired Mr. Trott.
‘Driv a cab once,’ was the laconic reply.
‘Why don’t you drive it now?’ asked Mr. Trott.
‘Over-driv the cab, and driv over a ‘ooman,’ replied the top-boots, with brevity.
‘Do you know the mayor’s house?’ inquired Mr. Trott.
‘Rather,’ replied the boots, significantly, as if he had some good reason to remember it.
‘Do you think you could manage to leave a letter there?’ interrogated Trott.
‘Shouldn’t wonder,’ responded boots.
‘But this letter,’ said Trott, holding a deformed note with a paralytic direction in one hand, and five shillings in the other– ‘this letter is anonymous.’
‘A–what?’ interrupted the boots.
‘Anonymous–he’s not to know who it comes from.’
‘Oh! I see,’ responded the reg’lar, with a knowing wink, but without evincing the slightest disinclination to undertake the charge–‘I see–bit o’ Sving, eh?’ and his one eye wandered round the room, as if in quest of a dark lantern and phosphorus-box. ‘But, I say!’ he continued, recalling the eye from its search, and bringing it to bear on Mr. Trott. ‘I say, he’s a lawyer, our mayor, and insured in the County. If you’ve a spite agen him, you’d better not burn his house down–blessed if I don’t think it would be the greatest favour you could do him.’ And he chuckled inwardly.
If Mr. Alexander Trott had been in any other situation, his first act would have been to kick the man down-stairs by deputy; or, in other words, to ring the bell, and desire the landlord to take his boots off. He contented himself, however, with doubling the fee and explaining that the letter merely related to a breach of the peace. The top-boots retired, solemnly pledged to secrecy; and Mr. Alexander Trott sat down to a fried sole, maintenon cutlet, Madeira, and sundries, with greater composure than he had experienced since the receipt of Horace Hunter’s letter of defiance.
The lady who alighted from the London coach had no sooner been installed in number twenty-five, and made some alteration in her travelling-dress, than she indited a note to Joseph Overton, esquire, solicitor, and mayor of Great Winglebury, requesting his immediate attendance on private business of paramount importance–a summons which that worthy functionary lost no time in obeying; for after sundry openings of his eyes, divers ejaculations of ‘Bless me!’ and other manifestations of surprise, he took his broad- brimmed hat from its accustomed peg in his little front office, and walked briskly down the High-street to the Winglebury Arms; through the hall and up the staircase of which establishment he was ushered by the landlady, and a crowd of officious waiters, to the door of number twenty-five.
‘Show the gentleman in,’ said the stranger lady, in reply to the foremost waiter’s announcement. The gentleman was shown in accordingly.
The lady rose from the sofa; the mayor advanced a step from the door; and there they both paused, for a minute or two, looking at one another as if by mutual consent. The mayor saw before him a buxom, richly-dressed female of about forty; the lady looked upon a sleek man, about ten years older, in drab shorts and continuations, black coat, neckcloth, and gloves.
‘Miss Julia Manners!’ exclaimed the mayor at length, ‘you astonish me.’
‘That’s very unfair of you, Overton,’ replied Miss Julia, ‘for I have known you, long enough, not to be surprised at anything you do, and you might extend equal courtesy to me.’
‘But to run away–actually run away–with a young man!’ remonstrated the mayor.
‘You wouldn’t have me actually run away with an old one, I presume?’ was the cool rejoinder.
‘And then to ask me–me–of all people in the world–a man of my age and appearance–mayor of the town–to promote such a scheme!’ pettishly ejaculated Joseph Overton; throwing himself into an arm- chair, and producing Miss Julia’s letter from his pocket, as if to corroborate the assertion that he HAD been asked.
‘Now, Overton,’ replied the lady, ‘I want your assistance in this matter, and I must have it. In the lifetime of that poor old dear, Mr. Cornberry, who–who–‘
‘Who was to have married you, and didn’t, because he died first; and who left you his property unencumbered with the addition of himself,’ suggested the mayor.
‘Well,’ replied Miss Julia, reddening slightly, ‘in the lifetime of the poor old dear, the property had the incumbrance of your management; and all I will say of that, is, that I only wonder it didn’t die of consumption instead of its master. You helped yourself then:- help me now.’
Mr. Joseph Overton was a man of the world, and an attorney; and as certain indistinct recollections of an odd thousand pounds or two, appropriated by mistake, passed across his mind he hemmed deprecatingly, smiled blandly, remained silent for a few seconds; and finally inquired, ‘What do you wish me to do?’
‘I’ll tell you,’ replied Miss Julia–‘I’ll tell you in three words. Dear Lord Peter–‘
‘That’s the young man, I suppose–‘ interrupted the mayor.
‘That’s the young Nobleman,’ replied the lady, with a great stress on the last word. ‘Dear Lord Peter is considerably afraid of the resentment of his family; and we have therefore thought it better to make the match a stolen one. He left town, to avoid suspicion, on a visit to his friend, the Honourable Augustus Flair, whose seat, as you know, is about thirty miles from this, accompanied only by his favourite tiger. We arranged that I should come here alone in the London coach; and that he, leaving his tiger and cab behind him, should come on, and arrive here as soon as possible this afternoon.’
‘Very well,’ observed Joseph Overton, ‘and then he can order the chaise, and you can go on to Gretna Green together, without requiring the presence or interference of a third party, can’t you?’
‘No,’ replied Miss Julia. ‘We have every reason to believe–dear Lord Peter not being considered very prudent or sagacious by his friends, and they having discovered his attachment to me–that, immediately on his absence being observed, pursuit will be made in this direction:- to elude which, and to prevent our being traced, I wish it to be understood in this house, that dear Lord Peter is slightly deranged, though perfectly harmless; and that I am, unknown to him, awaiting his arrival to convey him in a post-chaise to a private asylum–at Berwick, say. If I don’t show myself much, I dare say I can manage to pass for his mother.’
The thought occurred to the mayor’s mind that the lady might show herself a good deal without fear of detection; seeing that she was about double the age of her intended husband. He said nothing, however, and the lady proceeded.
‘With the whole of this arrangement dear Lord Peter is acquainted; and all I want you to do, is, to make the delusion more complete by giving it the sanction of your influence in this place, and assigning this as a reason to the people of the house for my taking the young gentleman away. As it would not be consistent with the story that I should see him until after he has entered the chaise, I also wish you to communicate with him, and inform him that it is all going on well.’
‘Has he arrived?’ inquired Overton.
‘I don’t know,’ replied the lady.
‘Then how am I to know!’ inquired the mayor. ‘Of course he will not give his own name at the bar.’
‘I begged him, immediately on his arrival, to write you a note,’ replied Miss Manners; ‘and to prevent the possibility of our project being discovered through its means, I desired him to write anonymously, and in mysterious terms, to acquaint you with the number of his room.’
‘Bless me!’ exclaimed the mayor, rising from his seat, and searching his pockets–‘most extraordinary circumstance–he has arrived–mysterious note left at my house in a most mysterious manner, just before yours–didn’t know what to make of it before, and certainly shouldn’t have attended to it.–Oh! here it is.’ And Joseph Overton pulled out of an inner coat-pocket the identical letter penned by Alexander Trott. ‘Is this his lordship’s hand?’
‘Oh yes,’ replied Julia; ‘good, punctual creature! I have not seen it more than once or twice, but I know he writes very badly and very large. These dear, wild young noblemen, you know, Overton–‘
‘Ay, ay, I see,’ replied the mayor.–‘Horses and dogs, play and wine–grooms, actresses, and cigars–the stable, the green-room, the saloon, and the tavern; and the legislative assembly at last.’
‘Here’s what he says,’ pursued the mayor; ‘”Sir,–A young gentleman in number nineteen at the Winglebury Arms, is bent on committing a rash act to-morrow morning at an early hour.” (That’s good–he means marrying.) “If you have any regard for the peace of this town, or the preservation of one–it may be two–human lives”–What the deuce does he mean by that?’
‘That he’s so anxious for the ceremony, he will expire if it’s put off, and that I may possibly do the same,’ replied the lady with great complacency.
‘Oh! I see–not much fear of that;–well–“two human lives, you will cause him to be removed to-night.” (He wants to start at once.) “Fear not to do this on your responsibility: for to-morrow the absolute necessity of the proceeding will be but too apparent. Remember: number nineteen. The name is Trott. No delay; for life and death depend upon your promptitude.” Passionate language, certainly. Shall I see him?’
‘Do,’ replied Miss Julia; ‘and entreat him to act his part well. I am half afraid of him. Tell him to be cautious.’
‘I will,’ said the mayor.
‘Settle all the arrangements.’
‘I will,’ said the mayor again.
‘And say I think the chaise had better be ordered for one o’clock.’
‘Very well,’ said the mayor once more; and, ruminating on the absurdity of the situation in which fate and old acquaintance had placed him, he desired a waiter to herald his approach to the temporary representative of number nineteen.
The announcement, ‘Gentleman to speak with you, sir,’ induced Mr. Trott to pause half-way in the glass of port, the contents of which he was in the act of imbibing at the moment; to rise from his chair; and retreat a few paces towards the window, as if to secure a retreat, in the event of the visitor assuming the form and appearance of Horace Hunter. One glance at Joseph Overton, however, quieted his apprehensions. He courteously motioned the stranger to a seat. The waiter, after a little jingling with the decanter and glasses, consented to leave the room; and Joseph Overton, placing the broad-brimmed hat on the chair next him, and bending his body gently forward, opened the business by saying in a very low and cautious tone,
‘Eh?’ said Mr. Alexander Trott, in a loud key, with the vacant and mystified stare of a chilly somnambulist.
‘Hush–hush!’ said the cautious attorney: ‘to be sure–quite right–no titles here–my name is Overton, sir.’
‘Yes: the mayor of this place–you sent me a letter with anonymous information, this afternoon.’
‘I, sir?’ exclaimed Trott with ill-dissembled surprise; for, coward as he was, he would willingly have repudiated the authorship of the letter in question. ‘I, sir?’
‘Yes, you, sir; did you not?’ responded Overton, annoyed with what he supposed to be an extreme degree of unnecessary suspicion. ‘Either this letter is yours, or it is not. If it be, we can converse securely upon the subject at once. If it be not, of course I have no more to say.’
‘Stay, stay,’ said Trott, ‘it IS mine; I DID write it. What could I do, sir? I had no friend here.’
‘To be sure, to be sure,’ said the mayor, encouragingly, ‘you could not have managed it better. Well, sir; it will be necessary for you to leave here to-night in a post-chaise and four. And the harder the boys drive, the better. You are not safe from pursuit.’
‘Bless me!’ exclaimed Trott, in an agony of apprehension, ‘can such things happen in a country like this? Such unrelenting and cold- blooded hostility!’ He wiped off the concentrated essence of cowardice that was oozing fast down his forehead, and looked aghast at Joseph Overton.
‘It certainly is a very hard case,’ replied the mayor with a smile, ‘that, in a free country, people can’t marry whom they like, without being hunted down as if they were criminals. However, in the present instance the lady is willing, you know, and that’s the main point, after all.’
‘Lady willing,’ repeated Trott, mechanically. ‘How do you know the lady’s willing?’
‘Come, that’s a good one,’ said the mayor, benevolently tapping Mr. Trott on the arm with his broad-brimmed hat; ‘I have known her, well, for a long time; and if anybody could entertain the remotest doubt on the subject, I assure you I have none, nor need you have.’
‘Dear me!’ said Mr. Trott, ruminating. ‘This is VERY extraordinary!’
‘Well, Lord Peter,’ said the mayor, rising.
‘Lord Peter?’ repeated Mr. Trott.
‘Oh–ah, I forgot. Mr. Trott, then–Trott–very good, ha! ha!– Well, sir, the chaise shall be ready at half-past twelve.’
‘And what is to become of me until then?’ inquired Mr. Trott, anxiously. ‘Wouldn’t it save appearances, if I were placed under some restraint?’
‘Ah!’ replied Overton, ‘very good thought–capital idea indeed. I’ll send somebody up directly. And if you make a little resistance when we put you in the chaise it wouldn’t be amiss–look as if you didn’t want to be taken away, you know.’
‘To be sure,’ said Trott–‘to be sure.’
‘Well, my lord,’ said Overton, in a low tone, ‘until then, I wish your lordship a good evening.’
‘Lord–lordship?’ ejaculated Trott again, falling back a step or two, and gazing, in unutterable wonder, on the countenance of the mayor.
‘Ha-ha! I see, my lord–practising the madman?–very good indeed– very vacant look–capital, my lord, capital–good evening, Mr.– Trott–ha! ha! ha!’
‘That mayor’s decidedly drunk,’ soliloquised Mr. Trott, throwing himself back in his chair, in an attitude of reflection.
‘He is a much cleverer fellow than I thought him, that young nobleman–he carries it off uncommonly well,’ thought Overton, as he went his way to the bar, there to complete his arrangements. This was soon done. Every word of the story was implicitly believed, and the one-eyed boots was immediately instructed to repair to number nineteen, to act as custodian of the person of the supposed lunatic until half-past twelve o’clock. In pursuance of this direction, that somewhat eccentric gentleman armed himself with a walking-stick of gigantic dimensions, and repaired, with his usual equanimity of manner, to Mr. Trott’s apartment, which he entered without any ceremony, and mounted guard in, by quietly depositing himself on a chair near the door, where he proceeded to beguile the time by whistling a popular air with great apparent satisfaction.
‘What do you want here, you scoundrel?’ exclaimed Mr. Alexander Trott, with a proper appearance of indignation at his detention.
The boots beat time with his head, as he looked gently round at Mr. Trott with a smile of pity, and whistled an adagio movement.
‘Do you attend in this room by Mr. Overton’s desire?’ inquired Trott, rather astonished at the man’s demeanour.
‘Keep yourself to yourself, young feller,’ calmly responded the boots, ‘and don’t say nothing to nobody.’ And he whistled again.
‘Now mind!’ ejaculated Mr. Trott, anxious to keep up the farce of wishing with great earnestness to fight a duel if they’d let him. ‘I protest against being kept here. I deny that I have any intention of fighting with anybody. But as it’s useless contending with superior numbers, I shall sit quietly down.’
‘You’d better,’ observed the placid boots, shaking the large stick expressively.
‘Under protest, however,’ added Alexander Trott, seating himself with indignation in his face, but great content in his heart. ‘Under protest.’
‘Oh, certainly!’ responded the boots; ‘anything you please. If you’re happy, I’m transported; only don’t talk too much–it’ll make you worse.’
‘Make me worse?’ exclaimed Trott, in unfeigned astonishment: ‘the man’s drunk!’
‘You’d better be quiet, young feller,’ remarked the boots, going through a threatening piece of pantomime with the stick.
‘Or mad!’ said Mr. Trott, rather alarmed. ‘Leave the room, sir, and tell them to send somebody else.’
‘Won’t do!’ replied the boots.
‘Leave the room!’ shouted Trott, ringing the bell violently: for he began to be alarmed on a new score.
‘Leave that ‘ere bell alone, you wretched loo-nattic!’ said the boots, suddenly forcing the unfortunate Trott back into his chair, and brandishing the stick aloft. ‘Be quiet, you miserable object, and don’t let everybody know there’s a madman in the house.’
‘He IS a madman! He IS a madman!’ exclaimed the terrified Mr. Trott, gazing on the one eye of the red-headed boots with a look of abject horror.
‘Madman!’ replied the boots, ‘dam’me, I think he IS a madman with a vengeance! Listen to me, you unfortunate. Ah! would you?’ [a slight tap on the head with the large stick, as Mr. Trott made another move towards the bell-handle] ‘I caught you there! did I?’
‘Spare my life!’ exclaimed Trott, raising his hands imploringly.
‘I don’t want your life,’ replied the boots, disdainfully, ‘though I think it ‘ud be a charity if somebody took it.’
‘No, no, it wouldn’t,’ interrupted poor Mr. Trott, hurriedly, ‘no, no, it wouldn’t! I–I-‘d rather keep it!’
‘O werry well,’ said the boots: ‘that’s a mere matter of taste– ev’ry one to his liking. Hows’ever, all I’ve got to say is this here: You sit quietly down in that chair, and I’ll sit hoppersite you here, and if you keep quiet and don’t stir, I won’t damage you; but, if you move hand or foot till half-past twelve o’clock, I shall alter the expression of your countenance so completely, that the next time you look in the glass you’ll ask vether you’re gone out of town, and ven you’re likely to come back again. So sit down.”
‘I will–I will,’ responded the victim of mistakes; and down sat Mr. Trott and down sat the boots too, exactly opposite him, with the stick ready for immediate action in case of emergency.
Long and dreary were the hours that followed. The bell of Great Winglebury church had just struck ten, and two hours and a half would probably elapse before succour arrived.
For half an hour, the noise occasioned by shutting up the shops in the street beneath, betokened something like life in the town, and rendered Mr. Trott’s situation a little less insupportable; but, when even these ceased, and nothing was heard beyond the occasional rattling of a post-chaise as it drove up the yard to change horses, and then drove away again, or the clattering of horses’ hoofs in the stables behind, it became almost unbearable. The boots occasionally moved an inch or two, to knock superfluous bits of wax off the candles, which were burning low, but instantaneously resumed his former position; and as he remembered to have heard, somewhere or other, that the human eye had an unfailing effect in controlling mad people, he kept his solitary organ of vision constantly fixed on Mr. Alexander Trott. That unfortunate individual stared at his companion in his turn, until his features grew more and more indistinct–his hair gradually less red–and the room more misty and obscure. Mr. Alexander Trott fell into a sound sleep, from which he was awakened by a rumbling in the street, and a cry of ‘Chaise-and-four for number twenty-five!’ A bustle on the stairs succeeded; the room door was hastily thrown open; and Mr. Joseph Overton entered, followed by four stout waiters, and Mrs. Williamson, the stout landlady of the Winglebury Arms.
‘Mr. Overton!’ exclaimed Mr. Alexander Trott, jumping up in a frenzy. ‘Look at this man, sir; consider the situation in which I have been placed for three hours past–the person you sent to guard me, sir, was a madman–a madman–a raging, ravaging, furious madman.’
‘Bravo!’ whispered Mr. Overton.
‘Poor dear!’ said the compassionate Mrs. Williamson, ‘mad people always thinks other people’s mad.’
‘Poor dear!’ ejaculated Mr. Alexander Trott. ‘What the devil do you mean by poor dear! Are you the landlady of this house?’
‘Yes, yes,’ replied the stout old lady, ‘don’t exert yourself, there’s a dear! Consider your health, now; do.’
‘Exert myself!’ shouted Mr. Alexander Trott; ‘it’s a mercy, ma’am, that I have any breath to exert myself with! I might have been assassinated three hours ago by that one-eyed monster with the oakum head. How dare you have a madman, ma’am–how dare you have a madman, to assault and terrify the visitors to your house?’
‘I’ll never have another,’ said Mrs. Williamson, casting a look of reproach at the mayor.
‘Capital, capital,’ whispered Overton again, as he enveloped Mr. Alexander Trott in a thick travelling-cloak.
‘Capital, sir!’ exclaimed Trott, aloud; ‘it’s horrible. The very recollection makes me shudder. I’d rather fight four duels in three hours, if I survived the first three, than I’d sit for that time face to face with a madman.’
‘Keep it up, my lord, as you go down-stairs,’ whispered Overton, ‘your bill is paid, and your portmanteau in the chaise.’ And then he added aloud, ‘Now, waiters, the gentleman’s ready.’
At this signal, the waiters crowded round Mr. Alexander Trott. One took one arm; another, the other; a third, walked before with a candle; the fourth, behind with another candle; the boots and Mrs. Williamson brought up the rear; and down-stairs they went: Mr. Alexander Trott expressing alternately at the very top of his voice either his feigned reluctance to go, or his unfeigned indignation at being shut up with a madman.
Mr. Overton was waiting at the chaise-door, the boys were ready mounted, and a few ostlers and stable nondescripts were standing round to witness the departure of ‘the mad gentleman.’ Mr. Alexander Trott’s foot was on the step, when he observed (which the dim light had prevented his doing before) a figure seated in the chaise, closely muffled up in a cloak like his own.
‘Who’s that?’ he inquired of Overton, in a whisper.
‘Hush, hush,’ replied the mayor: ‘the other party of course.’
‘The other party!’ exclaimed Trott, with an effort to retreat.
‘Yes, yes; you’ll soon find that out, before you go far, I should think–but make a noise, you’ll excite suspicion if you whisper to me so much.’
‘I won’t go in this chaise!’ shouted Mr. Alexander Trott, all his original fears recurring with tenfold violence. ‘I shall be assassinated–I shall be–‘
‘Bravo, bravo,’ whispered Overton. ‘I’ll push you in.’
‘But I won’t go,’ exclaimed Mr. Trott. ‘Help here, help! They’re carrying me away against my will. This is a plot to murder me.’
‘Poor dear!’ said Mrs. Williamson again.
‘Now, boys, put ’em along,’ cried the mayor, pushing Trott in and slamming the door. ‘Off with you, as quick as you can, and stop for nothing till you come to the next stage–all right!’
‘Horses are paid, Tom,’ screamed Mrs. Williamson; and away went the chaise, at the rate of fourteen miles an hour, with Mr. Alexander Trott and Miss Julia Manners carefully shut up in the inside.
Mr. Alexander Trott remained coiled up in one corner of the chaise, and his mysterious companion in the other, for the first two or three miles; Mr. Trott edging more and more into his corner, as he felt his companion gradually edging more and more from hers; and vainly endeavouring in the darkness to catch a glimpse of the furious face of the supposed Horace Hunter.
‘We may speak now,’ said his fellow-traveller, at length; ‘the post-boys can neither see nor hear us.’
‘That’s not Hunter’s voice!’–thought Alexander, astonished.
‘Dear Lord Peter!’ said Miss Julia, most winningly: putting her arm on Mr. Trott’s shoulder. ‘Dear Lord Peter. Not a word?’
‘Why, it’s a woman!’ exclaimed Mr. Trott, in a low tone of excessive wonder.
‘Ah! Whose voice is that?’ said Julia; ”tis not Lord Peter’s.’
‘No,–it’s mine,’ replied Mr. Trott.
‘Yours!’ ejaculated Miss Julia Manners; ‘a strange man! Gracious heaven! How came you here!’
‘Whoever you are, you might have known that I came against my will, ma’am,’ replied Alexander, ‘for I made noise enough when I got in.’
‘Do you come from Lord Peter?’ inquired Miss Manners.
‘Confound Lord Peter,’ replied Trott pettishly. ‘I don’t know any Lord Peter. I never heard of him before to-night, when I’ve been Lord Peter’d by one and Lord Peter’d by another, till I verily believe I’m mad, or dreaming–‘
‘Whither are we going?’ inquired the lady tragically.
‘How should _I_ know, ma’am?’ replied Trott with singular coolness; for the events of the evening had completely hardened him.
‘Stop stop!’ cried the lady, letting down the front glasses of the chaise.
‘Stay, my dear ma’am!’ said Mr. Trott, pulling the glasses up again with one hand, and gently squeezing Miss Julia’s waist with the other. ‘There is some mistake here; give me till the end of this stage to explain my share of it. We must go so far; you cannot be set down here alone, at this hour of the night.’
The lady consented; the mistake was mutually explained. Mr. Trott was a young man, had highly promising whiskers, an undeniable tailor, and an insinuating address–he wanted nothing but valour, and who wants that with three thousand a-year? The lady had this, and more; she wanted a young husband, and the only course open to Mr. Trott to retrieve his disgrace was a rich wife. So, they came to the conclusion that it would be a pity to have all this trouble and expense for nothing; and that as they were so far on the road already, they had better go to Gretna Green, and marry each other; and they did so. And the very next preceding entry in the Blacksmith’s book, was an entry of the marriage of Emily Brown with Horace Hunter. Mr. Hunter took his wife home, and begged pardon, and WAS pardoned; and Mr. Trott took HIS wife home, begged pardon too, and was pardoned also. And Lord Peter, who had been detained beyond his time by drinking champagne and riding a steeple-chase, went back to the Honourable Augustus Flair’s, and drank more champagne, and rode another steeple-chase, and was thrown and killed. And Horace Hunter took great credit to himself for practising on the cowardice of Alexander Trott; and all these circumstances were discovered in time, and carefully noted down; and if you ever stop a week at the Winglebury Arms, they will give you just this account of The Great Winglebury Duel.
CHAPTER IX–MRS. JOSEPH PORTER
Most extensive were the preparations at Rose Villa, Clapham Rise, in the occupation of Mr. Gattleton (a stock-broker in especially comfortable circumstances), and great was the anxiety of Mr. Gattleton’s interesting family, as the day fixed for the representation of the Private Play which had been ‘many months in preparation,’ approached. The whole family was infected with the mania for Private Theatricals; the house, usually so clean and tidy, was, to use Mr. Gattleton’s expressive description, ‘regularly turned out o’ windows;’ the large dining-room, dismantled of its furniture, and ornaments, presented a strange jumble of flats, flies, wings, lamps, bridges, clouds, thunder and lightning, festoons and flowers, daggers and foil, and various other messes in theatrical slang included under the comprehensive name of ‘properties.’ The bedrooms were crowded with scenery, the kitchen was occupied by carpenters. Rehearsals took place every other night in the drawing-room, and every sofa in the house was more or less damaged by the perseverance and spirit with which Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, and Miss Lucina, rehearsed the smothering scene in ‘Othello’–it having been determined that that tragedy should form the first portion of the evening’s entertainments.
‘When we’re a LEETLE more perfect, I think it will go admirably,’ said Mr. Sempronius, addressing his corps dramatique, at the conclusion of the hundred and fiftieth rehearsal. In consideration of his sustaining the trifling inconvenience of bearing all the expenses of the play, Mr. Sempronius had been, in the most handsome manner, unanimously elected stage-manager. ‘Evans,’ continued Mr. Gattleton, the younger, addressing a tall, thin, pale young gentleman, with extensive whiskers–‘Evans, you play Roderigo beautifully.’
‘Beautifully,’ echoed the three Miss Gattletons; for Mr. Evans was pronounced by all his lady friends to be ‘quite a dear.’ He looked so interesting, and had such lovely whiskers: to say nothing of his talent for writing verses in albums and playing the flute! Roderigo simpered and bowed.
‘But I think,’ added the manager, ‘you are hardly perfect in the– fall–in the fencing-scene, where you are–you understand?’
‘It’s very difficult,’ said Mr. Evans, thoughtfully; ‘I’ve fallen about, a good deal, in our counting-house lately, for practice, only I find it hurts one so. Being obliged to fall backward you see, it bruises one’s head a good deal.’
‘But you must take care you don’t knock a wing down,’ said Mr. Gattleton, the elder, who had been appointed prompter, and who took as much interest in the play as the youngest of the company. ‘The stage is very narrow, you know.’
‘Oh! don’t be afraid,’ said Mr. Evans, with a very self-satisfied air; ‘I shall fall with my head “off,” and then I can’t do any harm.’
‘But, egad,’ said the manager, rubbing his hands, ‘we shall make a decided hit in “Masaniello.” Harleigh sings that music admirably.’
Everybody echoed the sentiment. Mr. Harleigh smiled, and looked foolish–not an unusual thing with him–hummed’ Behold how brightly breaks the morning,’ and blushed as red as the fisherman’s nightcap he was trying on.
‘Let’s see,’ resumed the manager, telling the number on his fingers, ‘we shall have three dancing female peasants, besides Fenella, and four fishermen. Then, there’s our man Tom; he can have a pair of ducks of mine, and a check shirt of Bob’s, and a red nightcap, and he’ll do for another–that’s five. In the choruses, of course, we can sing at the sides; and in the market-scene we can walk about in cloaks and things. When the revolt takes place, Tom must keep rushing in on one side and out on the other, with a pickaxe, as fast as he can. The effect will be electrical; it will look exactly as if there were an immense number of ’em. And in the eruption-scene we must burn the red fire, and upset the tea-trays, and make all sorts of noises–and it’s sure to do.’
‘Sure! sure!’ cried all the performers una voce–and away hurried Mr. Sempronius Gattleton to wash the burnt cork off his face, and superintend the ‘setting up’ of some of the amateur-painted, but never-sufficiently-to-be-admired, scenery.
Mrs. Gattleton was a kind, good-tempered, vulgar soul, exceedingly fond of her husband and children, and entertaining only three dislikes. In the first place, she had a natural antipathy to anybody else’s unmarried daughters; in the second, she was in bodily fear of anything in the shape of ridicule; lastly–almost a necessary consequence of this feeling–she regarded, with feelings of the utmost horror, one Mrs. Joseph Porter over the way. However, the good folks of Clapham and its vicinity stood very much in awe of scandal and sarcasm; and thus Mrs. Joseph Porter was courted, and flattered, and caressed, and invited, for much the same reason that induces a poor author, without a farthing in his pocket, to behave with extraordinary civility to a twopenny postman.
‘Never mind, ma,’ said Miss Emma Porter, in colloquy with her respected relative, and trying to look unconcerned; ‘if they had invited me, you know that neither you nor pa would have allowed me to take part in such an exhibition.’
‘Just what I should have thought from your high sense of propriety,’ returned the mother. ‘I am glad to see, Emma, you know how to designate the proceeding.’ Miss P., by-the-bye, had only the week before made ‘an exhibition’ of herself for four days, behind a counter at a fancy fair, to all and every of her Majesty’s liege subjects who were disposed to pay a shilling each for the privilege of seeing some four dozen girls flirting with strangers, and playing at shop.
‘There!’ said Mrs. Porter, looking out of window; ‘there are two rounds of beef and a ham going in–clearly for sandwiches; and Thomas, the pastry-cook, says, there have been twelve dozen tarts ordered, besides blancmange and jellies. Upon my word! think of the Miss Gattletons in fancy dresses, too!’
‘Oh, it’s too ridiculous!’ said Miss Porter, hysterically.
‘I’ll manage to put them a little out of conceit with the business, however,’ said Mrs. Porter; and out she went on her charitable errand.
‘Well, my dear Mrs. Gattleton,’ said Mrs. Joseph Porter, after they had been closeted for some time, and when, by dint of indefatigable pumping, she had managed to extract all the news about the play, ‘well, my dear, people may say what they please; indeed we know they will, for some folks are SO ill-natured. Ah, my dear Miss Lucina, how d’ye do? I was just telling your mamma that I have heard it said, that–‘
‘Mrs. Porter is alluding to the play, my dear,’ said Mrs. Gattleton; ‘she was, I am sorry to say, just informing me that–‘
‘Oh, now pray don’t mention it,’ interrupted Mrs. Porter; ‘it’s most absurd–quite as absurd as young What’s-his-name saying he wondered how Miss Caroline, with such a foot and ankle, could have the vanity to play Fenella.’
‘Highly impertinent, whoever said it,’ said Mrs. Gattleton, bridling up.
‘Certainly, my dear,’ chimed in the delighted Mrs. Porter; ‘most undoubtedly! Because, as I said, if Miss Caroline DOES play Fenella, it doesn’t follow, as a matter of course, that she should think she has a pretty foot;–and then–such puppies as these young men are–he had the impudence to say, that–‘
How far the amiable Mrs. Porter might have succeeded in her pleasant purpose, it is impossible to say, had not the entrance of Mr. Thomas Balderstone, Mrs. Gattleton’s brother, familiarly called in the family ‘Uncle Tom,’ changed the course of conversation, and suggested to her mind an excellent plan of operation on the evening of the play.
Uncle Tom was very rich, and exceedingly fond of his nephews and nieces: as a matter of course, therefore, he was an object of great importance in his own family. He was one of the best-hearted men in existence: always in a good temper, and always talking. It was his boast that he wore top-boots on all occasions, and had never worn a black silk neckerchief; and it was his pride that he remembered all the principal plays of Shakspeare from beginning to end–and so he did. The result of this parrot-like accomplishment was, that he was not only perpetually quoting himself, but that he could never sit by, and hear a misquotation from the ‘Swan of Avon’ without setting the unfortunate delinquent right. He was also something of a wag; never missed an opportunity of saying what he considered a good thing, and invariably laughed until he cried at anything that appeared to him mirth-moving or ridiculous.
‘Well, girls!’ said Uncle Tom, after the preparatory ceremony of kissing and how-d’ye-do-ing had been gone through–‘how d’ye get on? Know your parts, eh?–Lucina, my dear, act II., scene I– place, left-cue–“Unknown fate,”–What’s next, eh?–Go on–“The Heavens–“‘
‘Oh, yes,’ said Miss Lucina, ‘I recollect –
“The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase Even as our days do grow!”‘
‘Make a pause here and there,’ said the old gentleman, who was a great critic. ‘”But that our loves and comforts should increase”– emphasis on the last syllable, “crease,”–loud “even,”–one, two, three, four; then loud again, “as our days do grow;” emphasis on DAYS. That’s the way, my dear; trust to your uncle for emphasis. Ah! Sem, my boy, how are you?’
‘Very well, thankee, uncle,’ returned Mr. Sempronius, who had just appeared, looking something like a ringdove, with a small circle round each eye: the result of his constant corking. ‘Of course we see you on Thursday.’
‘Of course, of course, my dear boy.’
‘What a pity it is your nephew didn’t think of making you prompter, Mr. Balderstone!’ whispered Mrs. Joseph Porter; ‘you would have been invaluable.’
‘Well, I flatter myself, I SHOULD have been tolerably up to the thing,’ responded Uncle Tom.
‘I must bespeak sitting next you on the night,’ resumed Mrs. Porter; ‘and then, if our dear young friends here, should be at all wrong, you will be able to enlighten me. I shall be so interested.’
‘I am sure I shall be most happy to give you any assistance in my power’
‘Mind, it’s a bargain.’
‘I don’t know how it is,’ said Mrs. Gattleton to her daughters, as they were sitting round the fire in the evening, looking over their parts, ‘but I really very much wish Mrs. Joseph Porter wasn’t coming on Thursday. I am sure she’s scheming something.’
‘She can’t make us ridiculous, however,’ observed Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, haughtily.
The long-looked-for Thursday arrived in due course, and brought with it, as Mr. Gattleton, senior, philosophically observed, ‘no disappointments, to speak of.’ True, it was yet a matter of doubt whether Cassio would be enabled to get into the dress which had been sent for him from the masquerade warehouse. It was equally uncertain whether the principal female singer would be sufficiently recovered from the influenza to make her appearance; Mr. Harleigh, the Masaniello of the night, was hoarse, and rather unwell, in consequence of the great quantity of lemon and sugar-candy he had eaten to improve his voice; and two flutes and a violoncello had pleaded severe colds. What of that? the audience were all coming. Everybody knew his part: the dresses were covered with tinsel and spangles; the white plumes looked beautiful; Mr. Evans had practised falling until he was bruised from head to foot and quite perfect; Iago was sure that, in the stabbing-scene, he should make ‘a decided hit.’ A self-taught deaf gentleman, who had kindly offered to bring his flute, would be a most valuable addition to the orchestra; Miss Jenkins’s talent for the piano was too well known to be doubted for an instant; Mr. Cape had practised the violin accompaniment with her frequently; and Mr. Brown, who had kindly undertaken, at a few hours’ notice, to bring his violoncello, would, no doubt, manage extremely well.
Seven o’clock came, and so did the audience; all the rank and fashion of Clapham and its vicinity was fast filling the theatre. There were the Smiths, the Gubbinses, the Nixons, the Dixons, the Hicksons, people with all sorts of names, two aldermen, a sheriff in perspective, Sir Thomas Glumper (who had been knighted in the last reign for carrying up an address on somebody’s escaping from nothing); and last, not least, there were Mrs. Joseph Porter and Uncle Tom, seated in the centre of the third row from the stage; Mrs. P. amusing Uncle Tom with all sorts of stories, and Uncle Tom amusing every one else by laughing most immoderately.
Ting, ting, ting! went the prompter’s bell at eight o’clock precisely, and dash went the orchestra into the overture to ‘The Men of Prometheus.’ The pianoforte player hammered away with laudable perseverance; and the violoncello, which struck in at intervals, ‘sounded very well, considering.’ The unfortunate individual, however, who had undertaken to play the flute accompaniment ‘at sight,’ found, from fatal experience, the perfect truth of the old adage, ‘ought of sight, out of mind;’ for being very near-sighted, and being placed at a considerable distance from his music-book, all he had an opportunity of doing was to play a bar now and then in the wrong place, and put the other performers out. It is, however, but justice to Mr. Brown to say that he did this to admiration. The overture, in fact, was not unlike a race between the different instruments; the piano came in first by several bars, and the violoncello next, quite distancing the poor flute; for the deaf gentleman TOO-TOO’D away, quite unconscious that he was at all wrong, until apprised, by the applause of the audience, that the overture was concluded. A considerable bustle and shuffling of feet was then heard upon the stage, accompanied by whispers of ‘Here’s a pretty go!–what’s to be done?’ &c. The audience applauded again, by way of raising the spirits of the performers; and then Mr. Sempronius desired the prompter, in a very audible voice, to ‘clear the stage, and ring up.’
Ting, ting, ting! went the bell again. Everybody sat down; the curtain shook; rose sufficiently high to display several pair of yellow boots paddling about; and there remained.
Ting, ting, ting! went the bell again. The curtain was violently convulsed, but rose no higher; the audience tittered; Mrs. Porter looked at Uncle Tom; Uncle Tom looked at everybody, rubbing his hands, and laughing with perfect rapture. After as much ringing with the little bell as a muffin-boy would make in going down a tolerably long street, and a vast deal of whispering, hammering, and calling for nails and cord, the curtain at length rose, and discovered Mr. Sempronius Gattleton solus, and decked for Othello. After three distinct rounds of applause, during which Mr. Sempronius applied his right hand to his left breast, and bowed in the most approved manner, the manager advanced and said:
‘Ladies and Gentlemen–I assure you it is with sincere regret, that I regret to be compelled to inform you, that Iago who was to have played Mr. Wilson–I beg your pardon, Ladies and Gentlemen, but I am naturally somewhat agitated (applause)–I mean, Mr. Wilson, who was to have played Iago, is–that is, has been–or, in other words, Ladies and Gentlemen, the fact is, that I have just received a note, in which I am informed that Iago is unavoidably detained at the Post-office this evening. Under these circumstances, I trust– a–a–amateur performance–a–another gentleman undertaken to read the part–request indulgence for a short time–courtesy and kindness of a British audience.’ Overwhelming applause. Exit Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, and curtain falls.
The audience were, of course, exceedingly good-humoured; the whole business was a joke; and accordingly they waited for an hour with the utmost patience, being enlivened by an interlude of rout-cakes and lemonade. It appeared by Mr. Sempronius’s subsequent explanation, that the delay would not have been so great, had it not so happened that when the substitute Iago had finished dressing, and just as the play was on the point of commencing, the original Iago unexpectedly arrived. The former was therefore compelled to undress, and the latter to dress for his part; which, as he found some difficulty in getting into his clothes, occupied no inconsiderable time. At last, the tragedy began in real earnest. It went off well enough, until the third scene of the first act, in which Othello addresses the Senate: the only remarkable circumstance being, that as Iago could not get on any of the stage boots, in consequence of his feet being violently swelled with the heat and excitement, he was under the necessity of playing the part in a pair of Wellingtons, which contrasted rather oddly with his richly embroidered pantaloons. When Othello started with his address to the Senate (whose dignity was represented by, the Duke, a carpenter, two men engaged on the recommendation of the gardener, and a boy), Mrs. Porter found the opportunity she so anxiously sought.
Mr. Sempronius proceeded:
‘”Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, My very noble and approv’d good masters, That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter, It is most true;–rude am I in my speech–“‘
‘Is that right?’ whispered Mrs. Porter to Uncle Tom.
‘Tell him so, then.’
‘I will. Sem!’ called out Uncle Tom, ‘that’s wrong, my boy.’
‘What’s wrong, uncle?’ demanded Othello, quite forgetting the dignity of his situation.
‘You’ve left out something. “True I have married–“‘
‘Oh, ah!’ said Mr. Sempronius, endeavouring to hide his confusion as much and as ineffectually as the audience attempted to conceal their half-suppressed tittering, by coughing with extraordinary violence –
– ‘”true I have married her; –
The very head and front of my offending Hath this extent; no more.”
(Aside) Why don’t you prompt, father?’
‘Because I’ve mislaid my spectacles,’ said poor Mr. Gattleton, almost dead with the heat and bustle.
‘There, now it’s “rude am I,”‘ said Uncle Tom.
‘Yes, I know it is,’ returned the unfortunate manager, proceeding with his part.
It would be useless and tiresome to quote the number of instances in which Uncle Tom, now completely in his element, and instigated by the mischievous Mrs. Porter, corrected the mistakes of the performers; suffice it to say, that having mounted his hobby, nothing could induce him to dismount; so, during the whole remainder of the play, he performed a kind of running accompaniment, by muttering everybody’s part as it was being delivered, in an under-tone. The audience were highly amused, Mrs. Porter delighted, the performers embarrassed; Uncle Tom never was better pleased in all his life; and Uncle Tom’s nephews and nieces had never, although the declared heirs to his large property, so heartily wished him gathered to his fathers as on that memorable occasion.
Several other minor causes, too, united to damp the ardour of the dramatis personae. None of the performers could walk in their tights, or move their arms in their jackets; the pantaloons were too small, the boots too large, and the swords of all shapes and sizes. Mr. Evans, naturally too tall for the scenery, wore a black velvet hat with immense white plumes, the glory of which was lost in ‘the flies;’ and the only other inconvenience of which was, that when it was off his head he could not put it on, and when it was on he could not take it off. Notwithstanding all his practice, too, he fell with his head and shoulders as neatly through one of the side scenes, as a harlequin would jump through a panel in a Christmas pantomime. The pianoforte player, overpowered by the extreme heat of the room, fainted away at the commencement of the entertainments, leaving the music of ‘Masaniello’ to the flute and violoncello. The orchestra complained that Mr. Harleigh put them out, and Mr. Harleigh declared that the orchestra prevented his singing a note. The fishermen, who were hired for the occasion, revolted to the very life, positively refusing to play without an increased allowance of spirits; and, their demand being complied with, getting drunk in the eruption-scene as naturally as possible. The red fire, which was burnt at the conclusion of the second act, not only nearly suffocated the audience, but nearly set the house on fire into the bargain; and, as it was, the remainder of the piece was acted in a thick fog.
In short, the whole affair was, as Mrs. Joseph Porter triumphantly told everybody, ‘a complete failure.’ The audience went home at four o’clock in the morning, exhausted with laughter, suffering from severe headaches, and smelling terribly of brimstone and gunpowder. The Messrs. Gattleton, senior and junior, retired to rest, with the vague idea of emigrating to Swan River early in the ensuing week.
Rose Villa has once again resumed its wonted appearance; the dining-room furniture has been replaced; the tables are as nicely polished as formerly; the horsehair chairs are ranged against the wall, as regularly as ever; Venetian blinds have been fitted to every window in the house to intercept the prying gaze of Mrs. Joseph Porter. The subject of theatricals is never mentioned in the Gattleton family, unless, indeed, by Uncle Tom, who cannot refrain from sometimes expressing his surprise and regret at finding that his nephews and nieces appear to have lost the relish they once possessed for the beauties of Shakspeare, and quotations from the works of that immortal bard.
CHAPTER X–A PASSAGE IN THE LIFE OF MR. WATKINS TOTTLE
CHAPTER THE FIRST
Matrimony is proverbially a serious undertaking. Like an over- weening predilection for brandy-and-water, it is a misfortune into which a man easily falls, and from which he finds it remarkably difficult to extricate himself. It is of no use telling a man who is timorous on these points, that it is but one plunge, and all is over. They say the same thing at the Old Bailey, and the unfortunate victims derive as much comfort from the assurance in the one case as in the other.
Mr. Watkins Tottle was a rather uncommon compound of strong uxorious inclinations, and an unparalleled degree of anti-connubial timidity. He was about fifty years of age; stood four feet six inches and three-quarters in his socks–for he never stood in stockings at all–plump, clean, and rosy. He looked something like a vignette to one of Richardson’s novels, and had a clean-cravatish formality of manner, and kitchen-pokerness of carriage, which Sir Charles Grandison himself might have envied. He lived on an annuity, which was well adapted to the individual who received it, in one respect–it was rather small. He received it in periodical payments on every alternate Monday; but he ran himself out, about a day after the expiration of the first week, as regularly as an eight-day clock; and then, to make the comparison complete, his landlady wound him up, and he went on with a regular tick.
Mr. Watkins Tottle had long lived in a state of single blessedness, as bachelors say, or single cursedness, as spinsters think; but the idea of matrimony had never ceased to haunt him. Wrapt in profound reveries on this never-failing theme, fancy transformed his small parlour in Cecil-street, Strand, into a neat house in the suburbs; the half-hundredweight of coals under the kitchen-stairs suddenly sprang up into three tons of the best Walls-end; his small French bedstead was converted into a regular matrimonial four-poster; and in the empty chair on the opposite side of the fireplace, imagination seated a beautiful young lady, with a very little independence or will of her own, and a very large independence under a will of her father’s.
‘Who’s there?’ inquired Mr. Watkins Tottle, as a gentle tap at his room-door disturbed these meditations one evening.
‘Tottle, my dear fellow, how DO you do?’ said a short elderly gentleman with a gruffish voice, bursting into the room, and replying to the question by asking another.
‘Told you I should drop in some evening,’ said the short gentleman, as he delivered his hat into Tottle’s hand, after a little struggling and dodging.
‘Delighted to see you, I’m sure,’ said Mr. Watkins Tottle, wishing internally that his visitor had ‘dropped in’ to the Thames at the bottom of the street, instead of dropping into his parlour. The fortnight was nearly up, and Watkins was hard up.
‘How is Mrs. Gabriel Parsons?’ inquired Tottle.
‘Quite well, thank you,’ replied Mr. Gabriel Parsons, for that was the name the short gentleman revelled in. Here there was a pause; the short gentleman looked at the left hob of the fireplace; Mr. Watkins Tottle stared vacancy out of countenance.
‘Quite well,’ repeated the short gentleman, when five minutes had expired. ‘I may say remarkably well.’ And he rubbed the palms of his hands as hard as if he were going to strike a light by friction.
‘What will you take?’ inquired Tottle, with the desperate suddenness of a man who knew that unless the visitor took his leave, he stood very little chance of taking anything else.
‘Oh, I don’t know–have you any whiskey?’
‘Why,’ replied Tottle, very slowly, for all this was gaining time, ‘I HAD some capital, and remarkably strong whiskey last week; but it’s all gone–and therefore its strength–‘
‘Is much beyond proof; or, in other words, impossible to be proved,’ said the short gentleman; and he laughed very heartily, and seemed quite glad the whiskey had been drunk. Mr. Tottle smiled–but it was the smile of despair. When Mr. Gabriel Parsons had done laughing, he delicately insinuated that, in the absence of whiskey, he would not be averse to brandy. And Mr. Watkins Tottle, lighting a flat candle very ostentatiously; and displaying an immense key, which belonged to the street-door, but which, for the sake of appearances, occasionally did duty in an imaginary wine- cellar; left the room to entreat his landlady to charge their glasses, and charge them in the bill. The application was successful; the spirits were speedily called–not from the vasty deep, but the adjacent wine-vaults. The two short gentlemen mixed their grog; and then sat cosily down before the fire–a pair of shorts, airing themselves.
‘Tottle,’ said Mr. Gabriel Parsons, ‘you know my way–off-hand, open, say what I mean, mean what I say, hate reserve, and can’t bear affectation. One, is a bad domino which only hides what good people have about ’em, without making the bad look better; and the other is much about the same thing as pinking a white cotton stocking to make it look like a silk one. Now listen to what I’m going to say.’
Here, the little gentleman paused, and took a long pull at his brandy-and-water. Mr. Watkins Tottle took a sip of his, stirred the fire, and assumed an air of profound attention.
‘It’s of no use humming and ha’ing about the matter,’ resumed the short gentleman.–‘You want to get married.’
‘Why,’ replied Mr. Watkins Tottle evasively; for he trembled violently, and felt a sudden tingling throughout his whole frame; ‘why–I should certainly–at least, I THINK I should like–‘
‘Won’t do,’ said the short gentleman.–‘Plain and free–or there’s an end of the matter. Do you want money?’
‘You know I do.’
‘You admire the sex?’
‘And you’d like to be married?’
‘Then you shall be. There’s an end of that.’ Thus saying, Mr. Gabriel Parsons took a pinch of snuff, and mixed another glass.
‘Let me entreat you to be more explanatory,’ said Tottle. ‘Really, as the party principally interested, I cannot consent to be disposed of, in this way.’
‘I’ll tell you,’ replied Mr. Gabriel Parsons, warming with the subject, and the brandy-and-water–‘I know a lady–she’s stopping with my wife now–who is just the thing for you. Well educated; talks French; plays the piano; knows a good deal about flowers, and shells, and all that sort of thing; and has five hundred a year, with an uncontrolled power of disposing of it, by her last will and testament.’
‘I’ll pay my addresses to her,’ said Mr. Watkins Tottle. ‘She isn’t VERY young–is she?’
‘Not very; just the thing for you. I’ve said that already.’
‘What coloured hair has the lady?’ inquired Mr. Watkins Tottle.
‘Egad, I hardly recollect,’ replied Gabriel, with coolness. ‘Perhaps I ought to have observed, at first, she wears a front.’
‘A what?’ ejaculated Tottle.
‘One of those things with curls, along here,’ said Parsons, drawing a straight line across his forehead, just over his eyes, in illustration of his meaning. ‘I know the front’s black; I can’t speak quite positively about her own hair; because, unless one walks behind her, and catches a glimpse of it under her bonnet, one seldom sees it; but I should say that it was RATHER lighter than the front–a shade of a greyish tinge, perhaps.’
Mr. Watkins Tottle looked as if he had certain misgivings of mind. Mr. Gabriel Parsons perceived it, and thought it would be safe to begin the next attack without delay.
‘Now, were you ever in love, Tottle?’ he inquired.
Mr. Watkins Tottle blushed up to the eyes, and down to the chin, and exhibited a most extensive combination of colours as he confessed the soft impeachment.
‘I suppose you popped the question, more than once, when you were a young–I beg your pardon–a younger–man,’ said Parsons.
‘Never in my life!’ replied his friend, apparently indignant at being suspected of such an act. ‘Never! The fact is, that I entertain, as you know, peculiar opinions on these subjects. I am not afraid of ladies, young or old–far from it; but, I think, that in compliance with the custom of the present day, they allow too much freedom of speech and manner to marriageable men. Now, the fact is, that anything like this easy freedom I never could acquire; and as I am always afraid of going too far, I am generally, I dare say, considered formal and cold.’
‘I shouldn’t wonder if you were,’ replied Parsons, gravely; ‘I shouldn’t wonder. However, you’ll be all right in this case; for the strictness and delicacy of this lady’s ideas greatly exceed your own. Lord bless you, why, when she came to our house, there was an old portrait of some man or other, with two large, black, staring eyes, hanging up in her bedroom; she positively refused to go to bed there, till it was taken down, considering it decidedly wrong.’
‘I think so, too,’ said Mr. Watkins Tottle; ‘certainly.’
‘And then, the other night–I never laughed so much in my life’– resumed Mr. Gabriel Parsons; ‘I had driven home in an easterly wind, and caught a devil of a face-ache. Well; as Fanny–that’s Mrs. Parsons, you know–and this friend of hers, and I, and Frank Ross, were playing a rubber, I said, jokingly, that when I went to bed I should wrap my head in Fanny’s flannel petticoat. She instantly threw up her cards, and left the room.’
‘Quite right!’ said Mr. Watkins Tottle; ‘she could not possibly have behaved in a more dignified manner. What did you do?’
‘Do?–Frank took dummy; and I won sixpence.’
‘But, didn’t you apologise for hurting her feelings?’
‘Devil a bit. Next morning at breakfast, we talked it over. She contended that any reference to a flannel petticoat was improper;– men ought not to be supposed to know that such things were. I pleaded my coverture; being a married man.’
‘And what did the lady say to that?’ inquired Tottle, deeply interested.