I Always do my best to earn my welcome at those houses where I — fortunate bachelor that I am — enjoy the privilege of being able to drop in when I like, of an evening, for a cup of tea and a pleasant chat. So that — happening to be present when the new microscope, which my friend Jones had ordered as a present for his wife, came home; and hearing that lady express a wish for a bottle full of the green slime of stagnant ponds, “in which the dear animalcules and infusoria, about which Mr. Gosse writes so charmingly,” are to be found — you may be sure that I took advantage of the opportunity thus afforded me of making myself acceptable; and promised my hostess that I would forthwith obtain for her a liberal supply of those interesting creatures to try her long coveted instrument upon; and early the following morning I started off, like a man of my word, to procure them.
I can recall tho time when I could have got what I wanted within half a mile of the Marble Arch, but those days have long since passed away. I remembered that when travelling by railway I had passed through fields in the neighbourhood of — let us call the suburb — Whichstcad, in which green ponds were still to be found, and thitherward I directed my course. An omnibus carried me as far as the turnpike-gate, and having strolled on, about half a mile along the high road, I came to a lane. I turned down this lane, and lo! I was in the country.
Looking northward—I could see nothing but fields and trees; looking eastwards and westwards—nothing but trees and fields. I could not look to the south very far, because the railway embankment shut out the prospect. I might have been a hundred miles from London for anything of its noise, and bustle, and smoke, that I could perceive in that quiet spot . The hedges were in bud; the birds were singing. There was a good crop of grass that would soon be mowed, in the field to my right. Over the stile on the other side a man in a smock frock was ploughing, and yet I was barely five miles from Oxford Street!
If I had gone there to moralise I could have done so at great length, but I had come to catch animalcules for Mrs. Jones, and looking about I soon saw a pond—a green-coated, rush-fringed hole, with a small quantity of dirty water in it, a willow-tree at one end, and two boys fishing for efts with a worm tied to a piece of worsted, at the other. I quickly filled the bottles, which I had provided with the richest slime, according to my instructions, and having added to these by purchasing from the juveniles a brace of the most loathsome of the reptiles they had captured, for my friend’s aquarium, I retraced my steps; and Mrs. Jones held microscopic seances every evening for a week.
I am quite incapable of describing the wonders that the learned lady disclosed to us. I only know that, at last, we got a little tired of them— that the treasured green slime bottle, being left about one day, “baby” got hold of it, and drank some —that the efts crawled out of their tank, and after having been hunted for, high and low, in vain, for a fortnight, were found at last baked quite dry in a crack in the hearth-stone—and that about three months afterwards, the animalcule mania having broken out again, I was asked if I would be so very kind as to fetch a fresh supply.
Again I put my bottles in my pocket; again I paced along the Whichstead road; again I turned the corner of the lane that had led me to my pond, fully expecting to find it as I had left it, with its willow tree at one end, and its two boys fishing for efts at the other, and, lo! I was in a town. Looking northward, I could see nothing but houses—houses built, and houses in course of erection; looking eastwards and westwards, nothing but houses in course of erection, and houses built. Looking to the south, the railway embankment shut out the prospect as before.
The hedges were gone, so were the song-birds; the sharp click of the bricklayers’ trowels was now the prevalent sound. The grass-field was turned into a square, laid out with flower-beds, and fenced with an iron railing. A bright, new, flaring public-house, just finished, with a huge flag waving from the roof, stood where my friend in the smock frock had “whistled at the plough.” Upon the very spot where I had seen the largest and most repulsive of my efts drawn wriggling from his muddy lair, was erected the threshold of “Sevastopol Villa!”
As I have to explain how this remarkably sudden change came about, the sooner I set about doing so the better. The land belonged to the trustees of a Charity, and they wanted to make money of it. Mr. Specie, the great contractor, had plenty of money, and wanted to sink some of it in land.
The deeds were executed, the consideration paid, and to Peter Specie, Esq., was duly conveyed the grass-field, and the ploughed land, with their, and all and every of their fences, walls, ditches, water-courses, mines, minerals, tenements, and hereditaments; and also the pond and the willow-tree, with their, and all and every of their efts, newts, rushes, tadpoles, animalcule, caterpillars, and earwigs thereunto belonging or in any way pertaining: to have and to hold unto him the said Peter Specie and his heirs for ever.
Having obtained possession, the new landlord stuck up, upon every part of his property that could be seen from the road, huge boards, upon which was legibly painted the information that eligible plots of land were to be let on building leases. What says the old saw! — “Fools build houses for wise men to live in.” Peter Specie did not build houses — but he took mortgages from those who did.
One Joe Price, a carpenter, was his victim in this instance, who, after mortgaging the house floor by floor, in order to complete it, and running it up as slightly as possible, found in the end, that if it was let as soon as the paint was dry, and the rent was paid punctually, from that day forward to the expiration of his lease, he owed as much as the house was worth: Mr. Specie knew better than to let him owe more. Fortunately for poor Joe, a tenant was found soon after the paint became dry, and his name was Honiton Smith, of the Inner Temple, Esq., Barrister-at-law. Honiton Smith had a fair practice at the bar — as practices go now-a-days; and having arranged preliminaries with a pretty girl in his own position in life, he married her at once, like a sensible fellow, instead of wearing out her heart, and her roses, with a long engagement.
But, unlike a sensible fellow, instead of taking her to substantial lodgings, where they could save up capital for commencing housekeeping, he took Sebastopol Villa, and hired his furniture from Veneer, Shoddy, & Co., on the plan of paying for it by instalments. Pretty Katey, his wife, in her joy at its radiance, of course aspired to have a housewarming, and Honiton Smith gave way; but “mind,” he said severely, laying aside the man and assuming the householder – “mind you do not invite too many.” Katey assured him that it should “only be a little dance,” and there the discussion ended.
We all know what “only a little dance” means. Poor Katey! She calculated that half the elderly people she invited for propriety’s sake would decline; but they, “rather than offend the young folks,” committed self-sacrifice and came. Then Katey discovered that twenty dancing girls had accepted, and that she had only invited fifteen men upon whom she could count as partners for them.
Honiton had asked a number of clients and brother barristers — persons of no use whatever in a ball-room— without tolling her, and the question whether there would be room and supper enough for all became a pertinent one. The eventful night arrived, and a crush of guests poured into the drawing-room of Sebastopol Villa such as Joe Price had never contemplated in settling the strength of his joists.
At the height of the festivities,—when good little Katey’s nervousness had worn off, and she began to think that really things were not going so badly, after all — in the middle of the last galop before supper — when the jellies and creams and cakes, the chickens with their legs and wings cut off, and tied on again with blue ribbons were laid out for that repast — when the hired plate and glass were shining their brightest — when the table was, as the man from the confectioner’s declared, “quite a pictur’ to look at,” — when the dance was going on gaily above, and the first instalment of “married people” had just taken their places at the festive board,— smash! came a boot and a black trousered leg through the ceiling, close to the chandelier; and then, Smash!! — CRASH!!! — down came chandelier, ceiling, and all upon the supper table, breaking it down and burying all its glittering and savoury contents in one mass of chalky desolation.
Words cannot paint the scene that followed. The ladies shrieked and fled into the garden, thinking that the house itself was coming down. It was as much as three men could do to drag the unfortunate youth, whose vigorous dancing had finished Mr. Price’s flooring, out of his hole. No one would enter drawing or dining-room again, and it was some time before cabs were procured, as a solution to the confusion, and the dispirited assembly melted away. The next day Price was sent for; Smith, the crest-fallen, would have it out with him, at any rate; but to his indignation it was the builder who assumed the injured innocent. What had they bin up to?
Darncing! What business had they to get darncing in his house? Fifty pound houses like that warn’t built for darncing! Worn’t there a clause in their agreement agin balls, and parties, and sich like goings on. No, there worn’t? Yes, but there was though, and that Mr. Smith should find. Honiton had forgotten all about the prohibitory covenant, and had to pay for the necessary repairs out of his own pocket. Mr. Price was right: Sebastopol Villa was clearly “not built for darncing.”
The builder’s account for a new ceiling, floor, and joists mounted up to 40 l.; the confectioner’s bill for broken glass and damaged silver was 32 l., besides the cost of the supper which was spoilt. When all this was paid, poor Smith had but little of his savings left to go towards making up the 50 l., the first instalment of the 500 l. due to Messrs. Veneer, Shoddy, & Co. I have said that the dining-room table was broken down by the fall of the ceiling.
The fracture disclosed that it was a rotten, worthless article, just French polished up for sale. A respectable upholsterer was called in, and it soon became clear that all the furniture in the house was of the same description.
The chairs broke when sat upon, the carpets wore out, the curtains faded, and in little more than a year distressing signs of seediness appeared in every room. Smith expostulated with the great furnishing firm, and the great furnishing firm turned round upon him insolently, and demanded what right he had to find fault, when his last instalment was in arrear?
Smith persisted, and Veneer & Co. blustered, threatening to sue him. Smith took heart of grace, swore he would defend the action, and dared them to proceed. Veneer & Co. were cowed, and eventually released their entire claim upon Smith’s father paying them 300 l. The real worth of the goods they had sold was not three hundred pence!
But the troubles of the newly-married pair did not begin or end here. Winter set in, and they soon found that Sebastopol Villa was neither wind, rain, nor cold proof. It looked very pretty in summer. Its plate-glass windows were imposing; its stuccoed front was unimpeachable; its marble mantle pieces and fancy grates were apparently first-rate.
But then the wet came through the roof, the doors warped and let in the draught, and the sashes of the windows would not fit. Added to this, the walls were very, very thin, and afforded little shelter against the piercing north-east wind, to which the house was exposed. Moreover, being papered before they were quite dry, the paper now began to peel off in strips, which hung down, and waved about mournfully in the currents of air that rushed in and out of the rooms. Poor Katey Smith did not jump for joy in her drawing room now.
Christmas came, and Joe Price himself was in the Gazette. He had tried other building speculations, had run up other “jerry-built” houses, and had failed utterly, hopelessly. Mr. Peter Specie seized his houses, including Sebastopol Villa, for the ground rent, had them patched up, and let them to people who believed in cheap tenements. Honiton Smith did not long continue his tenant. He saw with grief that his good little wife’s cheek grew paler and paler every day.
One morning as he was taking leave of her to go into his chambers, he put his arm round her, and, drawing the gentle face close to his own, said, softly, “Katey, are you very fond of housekeeping?”
“No, dear!” she said, looking down, tying and untying knots in her apron cords, “not very.”
“Should you much mind our giving up this place, and going into lodgings for a year or two, until we can afford to hire a really good house, and furnish it comfortably?”
“O, Honey!” was the joyous reply, “I’d have asked you to do so months ago, but I feared it might pain you.”
Within two years the Smiths had a house of their own again, thanks to Honiton’s increasing Parliamentary practice; but you may depend upon it that it was not built by a Price, nor furnished by a Veneer, Shoddy, & Co. Sebastopol Villa is To BE Let. If the public will take my advice, it will remain so.
Author: Albany Fonblanque, Junr.