I have seen pretty faces under various aspects:some peeping innocently from a wild luxuriance of honeysuckle and roses — others glancing with bright intelligence from opera boxes, made glorious by amber satin, and the radiance of chandeliers; and there is something harmonious in both styles of embellishment.
When, however, my youthful fancy was just beginning to put forth its tender buds beneath the cold shade of College House, I had rather peculiar views of decorative art, my notion being, that the sphere for sylphs to shine in was one liberally adorned with puffs,—raspberry gaffe, cranberry tarts, and all that tends to sweeten existence embittered by Bonny castle and Valpy. The serene felicity of my first love is thus strangely associated with the favourable impression which I received from my first jelly.
I almost tremble now to think what sacrifices in cash and constitution I made at that refectory which Amelia’s glances filled with mimic sunshine. Warmed by those beams, my consumption of ices was at once rapid and futile. My bosom glowed, despite of all my polar luxuries; and if I suffered from heart-burn (as I often did after a banquet at Crump’s), it was not entirely owing to dyspepsia, but derived its poignancy from a singular but powerful combination of Beauty and Buns.
Amelia was Crump’s niece. Crump — sole proprietor of the Original Bun House at the corner of the Cathedral Close — was a little weazen, one eyed, floury-faced man, who always wore a nightcap and a sack-apron. We of College House never saw much of him, for his proper place was below, near the oven, from which, like a fish, he came to the surface at intervals, with a block of gingerbread or a tray of pies. Mrs. Crump — Amelia’s aunt — was the most stupendous and remarkable woman I ever saw out of a caravan. She commonly sat in an arm-chair behind the counter, with a huge toasting-fork erect, like Britannia, and her rule was absolute. She had studied human nature long, and, it would seem, with profitable results, for she gave no credit to man or boy.
You could trace the mandate: “Pay on delivery,” sharply etched in her acid countenance; and her voice, decidedly metallic in its uppernotes, had none of that softness which marks the advocates of a paper currency. Between her and her niece there were differences of kind, as well as of degree. Amelia’s little white palm instinctively shrank from copper coins, hot from our portable treasuries. Her mild blue eyes were full of trust; her rosy lips and bewildering auburn ringlets, all spoke of generosity and confidence; yet such was the respectful devotion with which her loveliness inspired College House, that no boy, however great his natural audacity, ever presumed even in a whisper to ask her to accept his promissory note for a pound of ratafias.
Crump had a workhouse apprentice — an awkward, lazy, ill-constructed lad, who in early life had been fished out of a pond, and had never quite recovered his then suspended animation. Being kept at work all night in a cavern swarming with black-beetles and such queer company, he had lost his hold upon the sympathy of his fellow men or boys; while his vacant gaze, electrified hair, and ghoul-like nails, had deprived him of any claim to compensation which the gentler sex might otherwise have allowed. Yet, despite of his isolated condition, College House looked on Crump’s apprentice with envy. Was he not in hourly communication with Amelia? Might he not abuse the privilege of his position, and pluck from that dimpled chin what College House, by the most liberal expenditure of its petty cash, could never hope to enjoy — a surreptitious kiss? The thought used to haunt us in our midnight visions.
One boy, named Barwell, whose father was governor of the county jail, went so far as to assert that he had never at his father’s official residence seen any countenance so decidedly felonious as that of Crump’s apprentice. No wonder, then, that College House had fears — strong fears — for the security of Crump’s tilL
To her credit be it spoken, Amelia treated her eager worshippers with strict impartiality. Recognising no superiority of age, learning, or opulence, she bestowed on every ardent lover of her uncle’s buns an encouraging smile. On one occasion, however, it was reported that she wrapt up Larpent’s change in whity-brown paper. Larpent was a West Indian, tall and slender, with remarkably pretty teeth, and a somewhat distingué air.
He always dressed well, and the distinction shown him was, I honestly believe, entirely owing to his expensive lemon-kid gloves. Slight as was this token of favoritism, it created a feeling of uneasiness and insecurity at College House; and Boag and Pepper, who, in avowed imitation of Beaumont and Fletcher, had established a poetical partnership, of which Amelia’s charms might be regarded as the “working capital,” at once tore up their sonnets, and dissolved the firm.
Blobbins, a boy of plethoric habit, small eyes and little ideality, and who was continually cooling the passions of youth by sucking oranges, was heard to declare, that he always thought Amelia Pluckrose a coquette; and on being sharply interrogated as to what he meant by that offensive epithet, made answer, that a coquette was one who looked very
sweet at you so long as you spent all your money upon buns, — a definition which, however correct, was not in good taste, and covered Blobbins with the obloquy due to vulgar detractors.
On Valentine’s Day every pupil at College House, who had attained years of discretion, sent his gage d’amour to: Miss A. Pluckrose, Original Bun House,” and marked outside: “Private,” to deter Old Crump from breaking the seal. Some of these compositions—my own for example — had never appeared in print. Others were cribbed from Arliss’s Magazine, and another anonymous miscellany. With that happy credulity which is youth’s most precious inheritance, every boy at College House secretly believed that Amelia’s eye was more frequently directed to him for the rest of the “half, ” than to any one else.
It is true that Larpent, by virtue of his liberal outlay for cherry-brandy and preserved ginger at the Original Bun House, could always command an audience of the reigning beauty; but we could all see that Amelia’s attention was mere politeness — nothing more.
Larpent, with his lemon-coloured gloves, might have made a sensible impression on some weak minded girls. But College House had great confidence in his complexion, which was a decided chocolate.
We felt assured that Amelia with her refined feelings would never be so silly as Desdemona was, or would cast herself away upon a Moor. Indeed I was inclined to pity Larpent for wasting so much precious eloquence and pocket-money at the Original Bun House, when his extraordinary behaviour towards the College in general, and myself in particular, proclaimed that he neither deserved compassion nor stood in need of it.
I was sitting at my desk on Valentine’s Eve composing an acrostic, when some one pulled my ear in a jocular way, and, turning round very angrily, I found it was Larpent who had thus rudely obstructed a poet’s progress.
“What will you take for it when it is finished?” he said, bending down to read what I had written.
“Nothing that you can give me,” was my answer, in a tone of defiance.
“Amelia P.,” he continued, glancing at the initials of each line, “this is for Miss Pluckrose.”
“And suppose it is,” said I, “you have no right to interfere.”
“No right, eh?” he replied, showing his teeth.
“Certainly not. What right have you?”
He grasped my arm with his vice-like fingers till he almost made me shriek, as looking at me like a savage, he exclaimed:
“The best right which any man can have. The right of conquest — booby!”
There was a pause, very long and very awkward. I could not speak from astonishment. He would not, because my perplexity gratified him. At last he broke silence.
“I will not allow you or any other fellow, to send a parcel of trumpery love-verses to my Amelia.”
“O, then all the trumpery love-verses she may receive must emanate from you?” I hit him there, and he felt it.
“That’s my ultimatum,” he rejoined, and he began cutting his pencil ferociously.
“Larpent,” said I, after two or three painful endeavours to articulate, “you are carrying the joke a little too far —you are, upon my honour.”
“You think so, do you?” he returned, throwing away his pencil. “Well, to convince you that I am perfectly serious, you see this,” and he drew from his breast-pocket a small blue-barrelled pistol inlaid with silver. “If you don’t give up your ridiculous pretensions quietly, my friend,” was his remark, “you must take your chance of a bullet-hole, that’s all. I don’t want anything unreasonable, but if you insist on crossing my path in this little affair, down you go — pop!”
“Not if we fire at one another with — crossbows,” said I, maliciously, for only two days before we had a shooting-match at a blacking bottle, and Larpent was beaten hollow. “However, I don’t want to take an unfair advantage — choose your own weapon — I’m ready and willing.”
The West Indian put his pistol back in his pocket, and took my hand.
“Bonser,” he said, with affected kindness, “I have a respect for you and consideration for your mother, but really you mustn’t stand in my light.”
“Stand in your light!” I exclaimed, fiercely. “You are standing in mine. Who spoke to Amelia first? I’ve known her since I was a child — almost.”
Larpent burst out laughing.
“Why, Bonser, what are you now?” without waiting for my reply, he said: “Give me this acrostic, promise not to write any more, and I’ll present you with a dozen splendid cigars.”
“Hang your cigars!” I cried. “Disgusting Cabanas! — they would make me sick.”
“Very well, then you mean to fight?”
“If you should prefer horse-pistols,” said Larpent, pulling on his lemon-coloured gloves,“I have got a brace in my trunk upstairs ready loaded.”
A sudden rush of pupils into the school-room, singing in chorus “Rule Britannia,” prevented my sanguinary rival from proceeding further with his warlike demonstrations. Intelligence had just arrived of the battle of Navarino*; and Wapshaw, who loved his country, and used to expatiate in our rural walks upon England’s naval supremacy, had, in a fit of enthusiasm, given permission to the boys to sing national airs, for half an hour before supper. I am sure he forgot that vocal exercises invigorate the appetite, or he would never have granted this musical licence.
All night long I lay awake with my eyes fixed on the black leathern trunk with brass nails beneath Larpent’s bed. Notwithstanding my lofty tone when confronting my Creole enemy, I had not made up my mind to fight him, but I resolved to maintain a bold front.
Accordingly, when Larpent came up to me next day in the cricket-ground, and coolly asked me if I was ready to die for Amelia, I answered sullenly, “I am,” and followed him at his command with long and rapid strides.
We had nearly reached the coppice at the extremity of the ground, where Larpent proposed the duel should take place,when a tennis ball came ricocheting behind us, and struck me in my spine. On turning round I perceived a knot of boys gathered round McPhun, the old Scotch gardener of College House, and who hailed us to come back with gesticulations of such earnestness as indicated that something alarming had happened.
I was very glad to obey this peremptory summons, and on my way met Blobbins, with team streaming from his little eyes.
“Have you heard about poor old Crump?” he said, wiping his cheeks with a tattered pocket handkerchief.
“No,” said I. “Has he been knocked down again by a painter’s ladder?”
“Worse,” replied Blobbins, sucking an orange to calm his emotion: “he has fell beneath a load of bricks.”
“What, crushed!” I exclaimed.
“Reg’larly,” said Blobbins, weeping afresh, and adding, with inconceivable tenderness, “We shall never, Bonser, taste such buns again.”
I turned away from this heartless voluptuary with feelings of mingled pity and disdain, and joined the noisy crowd which encircled McPhun, the old Scotch gardener, and eagerly questioned him about poor Crump’s catastrophe.
From his narrative it seemed that Crump, having scraped together a little money in the Original Bun House, had unwisely invested it in land for building purposes, and, like many other sanguine speculators, had overbuilt himself.
This Blobbins figuratively described as being crushed beneath a load of bricks. To accelerate his downfall he had become surety for a particular friend of the family, whose health was so infirm that he could not leave Boulogne when his promissory note became due.
The consequence was, that execution had been issued against Crump, who was seized by the sheriff, while another hostile force, with that officer’s authority, marched into the Original Bun House, and garrisoned it by command of Crump’s principal creditor, a hot-headed brick-maker. This was sad news indeed.
“And what’s become of poor little Mely, Mac?” demanded College House, with its forty five voices harmoniously rolled into one.
“I hear,” replied McPhun, “that she has taken a situation as barmaid at the ’Marquis 0’ Granby.’ ”
College House fell back as if its forty-five pillars had been shaken by an earthquake. Amelia, so graceful, innocent, and fair, to let herself down behind the bar of an ordinary commercial inn! Such degradation was enough to cause a sympathetic sinking in every manly breast. Blobbins whispered to me in my extremity what he deemed words of consolation:
“Couldn’t we go to the ’Marquis’ together, Bonser, and have a pint of early purl?”
I looked at him distrustfully, and felt confident by his retreating manner that he was profoundly ignorant of the nature of that matutinal beverage. He confessed afterwards that he fancied it was morning dew, flavoured with sugar and lemon.
My duel with Larpent was postponed sine die by tacit consent. The next day, being Wednesday, after dinner Blobbins took me aside, and murmured mysteriously in my ear, “Early purl.” I understood him, and, as soon as we were out of school, we started off towards the “Marquis of Granby,” a large posting-inn, facing the Hay market.
As we passed the Original Bun House we observed with sorrow that Crump’s homely name had been painted out, and the Italian patronymic of Tolibozzi had usurped its place, while for indigenous “Pastry-cook ” was substituted exotic “Confectioner.”
Tolibozzi was a tall and superior looking man, with very black eyebrows, a flat linen cap, and a white apron. It appeared that Tolibozzi had been cook in a nobleman’s family, and had condescendingly married the lady’s maid. Mrs. Tolibozzi, however, was a very genteel young person, and were as many rings as her late mistress, with a gold watch and chain. We bought a couple of buns, just out of curiosity; but, O! Tolibozzi’s buns were no more to be compared with Crump’s than chalk and alum with sugar and eggs: they were, indeed, a bitter mockery.
Neither Blobbins nor I had ever entered a tavern; and before we reached the Marquis a feeling of nervousness came over us. We tossed for posteriority, and Blobbins lost. Girding up his loins, he dashed across the road, and I followed; but before he went in, he looked through the plate-glass window, and turning round, informed me with dismay that she wasn’t there!
It was perfectly true. She was not there; and on inquiring of Tolibozzi, we ascertained that Miss Pluckrose had never accepted any situation there, but contemplated devoting herself exclusively to dress-making and millinery. In answer to our modest application, where she was residing, Tolibozzi believed she was staying with her aunt, either in James Street or John Street, but the number he had forgotten, and Mrs. Tolibozzi had never heard.
Baffled in every effort to discover our Amelia, Blobbins, by way of balm, suggested that we should have a row. Adopting his advice, we made our way down to the ferry-house, and hiring a crank skid, Blobbins took the rudder, and I the sculls. We were proceeding up the river very gloomily, when all at once Blobbins turned pale,and exclaimed:
“Here she comes!”
“Who?” said I.
And scarcely had he spoken, when a wherry passed us on our larboard quarter, in which, with a blue silk bonnet and a parasol, sat Amelia, guiding the tiller-ropes, while a smart, yellow haired young fellow, whose navy cap she held in her lap, was pulling vigorously with his jacket off.
They had not passed us more than twenty yards, when one four-oared cutter which was racing against another, suddenly ran foul of Amelia’s boat — I very much fear, through that young person’s bad steering — and upset it. The naval officer and his charge were both immersed in the water, and the first glance we caught of them among the boats that were crowding round, showed us Amelia, supported by the strong arm of her gallant protector, who was coolly swimming with her to the bank, where, strange to say, Larpent arrived just too late to render any assistance.
The naval officer, having kissed his precious burthen to restore her to consciousness (which it did), they hurried, dripping wet as they were, into a Swiss cottage, whose hospitable doors were opened for their reception, and whose windows were hidden by willow trees.
For some time after this event Larpent never mentioned Amelia’s name to any human being. It was just upon the eve of Midsummer, so we lost sight of him; but on my return to College House Larpent, who had never left it, was as close and mysterious as before.
He had apparently made up his mind that Amelia was lost to him, and so had we all; nor were we greatly surprised, on the first Sunday after our return, to hear the banns of marriage published at church between Walter Henry Seaward, bachelor, and Amelia Pluckrose, spinster, both of this parish.
We did feel, however, some astonishment when, just after that solemn publication, the officiating clergyman left the reading-desk and advanced to the communion table, at the same time that five persons emerged from the vestry, two being in bridal attire. These were Walter Henry Seaward, bachelor, and Amelia Pluckrose, spinster; the others were old Crump and his wife, and his sister, a thin woman, with a coal-scuttle bonnet and a baggy umbrella.
Poor Larpent! he looked on at the ceremony with an Othello-like glare. Twice he stood up— we were in the gallery — and remained standing for some minutes, notwithstanding Wapshaw desired him to sit down.
It seemed cruel for Amelia to be invested with the grand order of matrimony in the presence of so many of her slaves, but I believe she was not morally responsible, having only complied with the earnest entreaty of certain impulsive young ladies in the Cathedral Close, who had formed themselves into a committee of admiration, and who had arranged this public performance of connubial rites as a fitting recognition by Amelia of the gallantry of her preserver.
On leaving College House, which he did at the next half, Larpent went out to South America, where he became an indigo-planter; and I heard that eventually he married a very plump and opulent widow, whose complexion was several shades more sombre than his own.
Old Crump was comfortably provided for by being appointed verger to the cathedral, where he toddled about for many years with a black gown and a steel poker.
The Original Bun House exists no more. Railway trains stop at the elegant refreshment-rooms which occupy the ground whereon it stood. These elegant rooms I went into last autumn. Another Amelia was there — how like, and yet how different! As charming, perhaps, in some eyes, but not to my experienced vision. My spectacles might have been dim.
She seemed to want repose. These modern cafés have their attractions; but, as any school-boy will tell you after all there is nothing half so sweet in life as the Original Bun House.
A. A., 1859