CHAPTER I. WHERE?
An omnibus is passing along a road in the neighbourhood of London.
“Potmus Street, Jack!”
Jack pulls up his horses at the place indicated, and a tall, active-looking old gentleman, with a profusion of grey hair and a pair of remarkably bright blue eyes, steps into the road and turns quickly into Hippopotamus Street. He is evidently on the look-out for something or somebody, for as he goes along he keeps turning his eyes alternately to the shop windows on either *ide of the way. He reaches the end of the street, seemingly without attaining the object of his search. He wheels round, and retraces his steps. Presently he comes to a dead stop before a fishmonger’s shop. Its proprietress, the widow Robinson, a corpulent and cantankerous-looking person, is engaged in sprinkling fresh water upon her stale soles, to the manifest improvement of their appearance in
general, and of the orange spots on their backs in particular.
“Perhaps you will be kind enough to inform me where Miss ,Smith the milliner resides?” asks the stranger, in a conciliatory tone which not more than one woman in a thousand could have resisted.
“Drat the fish!” exclaims the one in a thousand, giving a savage push to an unfortunate half-dead-and-alive lobster which had contrived to jerk itself a little out of its assigned position.
The stranger repeats the question. Then, and only then, does the saver of soles turn round and survey the questioner. She gives a sudden start. What ran be the matter with the woman? At last she finds what the neighbours say she is rarely in want of — her tongue.
“You’re inquirin’ arter Smith the dressmaker?”
“I’m told there’s a party o’ that name a livin’ hereabouts, but I can’t inform you where. Better ask the pleaceman!”
This in the gruffest of tones, and the last words accompanied by a glance of peculiar meaning. The stranger looks round, but sees not the official referred to. He smiles and walks on. Mrs. Robinson soliloquises bitterly: —
“He’s here for no good, that there man. I wonder where’s that blessed pleaceman?”
With unusual interest in the movements of that functionary, she keeps her eyes at the same time rivetted on the door of the pastrycook’s shop through which the stranger has just disappeared.
Let us peep after him. At the moment of his entry, blooming Mary Pattypan happens to be engaged in ascertaining the weight of a loaf for a customer. She hastily flings a piece of bread into the scale as a make-weight, then slips the loaf into the woman’s basket and the money into the till, and, in the twinkling of an eye, having wiped her hands in her tasteful little apron, and pushed back her hair, she turns towards the stranger with a pleasant smile upon her rosy lips. He inquires after the milliner.
“Four doors further up at the other side. Where you see the great sycamore tree!”
Just as Miss Mary arrives at the word “tree,” something about the stranger’s face seems particularly to attract her notice. Her voice quavers, and her colour becomes perceptibly heightened; she looks downwards, bites her lip, and seems to have no little difficulty in preventing her smile from broadening into the preliminaries of a laugh. The old gentleman looks sharply at her.
“Why that’s a stationer’s shop,” he rejoins, “I passed it not two minutes ago.”
“Ah, but Miss Smith has lately given up the millinery, and gone into the news line!”
“Oh, indeed! I thank you. Good day!”
And the bright-eyed old gentleman raises his hat, and the fair pastrycook performs an elaborate salute, which would have done credit to one of her Majesty’s Maids of Honour. She does not lift her eyes, however, until his back is turned, and then positively they are dancing in tears, and she is attempting to smother a hearty laugh with a dazzlingly white cambric pocket-handkerchief.
CHAPTER II. THERE.
Crossing the little street with the big Greek name, the old gentleman walks on a few paces, and then, passing under the fine old sycamore tree, with its dark drapery of ivy, enters the stationer’s shop. And bright eyes are upon him, I can tell you. Pretty Miss Pattypan, ignoring the existence of a small boy who has just crept from the door to the counter, is looking anxiously over the way.
There’s the widow Robinson, too, has altogether forgotten her soles, and stands a fixture at the door of the Piscatorial Repository. What’s that? Can it be possible? Why there’s the venerable stranger chatting and laughing across the counter with the demure little milliner. Worse still remains behind! The lady and gentleman leave the shop to take care of itself, and entering the little parlour beyond, are lost to sight!
“Dear me, how very funny!” ejaculates Miss Pattypan.
“I wish that pleaceman ‘d come by,” cries the fish wife. “The street isn’t safe till that man’s in the station-house. And as for that dressmaker — ” The fishwife was at a loss for terms of abuse, and could only perspire in her helpless perplexity.
CHAPTER III. THEREAFTER.
Even while the words I have just recorded are falling from the lips of the pretty pastrycook and the unlovely fishwife, our friend the old gentleman is creeping noiselessly up the stairs of the milliner’s house. On reaching the first landing-place, he turns at the right hand side, towards a door which happens to be slightly ajar. Through the aperture this inquisitive old fellow instantaneously casts those bright blue eyes of his. He keeps them in that position! Well, there certainly is some excuse for that lingering gaze! Let us peep into the room!
At a small circular table, near the fire-place, sits a young lady in deep mourning, and with a face such as few persons could look on without interest. Her age might be two or three and twenty. Her figure is slight and graceful, and she has a very prettily shaped head, adorned with the richest, darkest brown hair you ever saw. Her features are charmingly regular, but her face is quite colourless. Her eyes you cannot see, for they are intently fixed on some needlework upon which her fingers are busily employed.
All at once she heaves a deep sigh, and lets the work fall from her hands. The old gentleman, who has now drawn quite close to the door, seems strangely affected by these movements.
“Egad, I believe it’s crying I am,” whimpers the sentimental old goose, wiping off a tear with the back of his hand.
Then she raises her fair head, and you see a pair of large loving brown eyes, surpassingly beautiful in shape and colour, but with the mourn fullest expression imaginable.
There is a portfolio on the table, and the young creature turns it over as though she were looking for some particular page. She pauses. She has found what she sought for, as you may guess by that sweet sad smile. The old gentleman is wonderfully excited by all this.
“The darling little soul, how I do long to eat her up!” murmurs the horrid old cannibal.
By this time he has got very nervous indeed, and is unconsciously fiddling with the door-handle, which happens to l)e a flexible one. Suddenly he gives it a violent jerk, and he has now no option but either to advance, or to sneak off. He taps at the door.
“Come in !” from the gentlest, sweetest voice in the universe.
The old gentleman advances aud bows. The young lady rises, with a graceful inclination of the head.
“I beg pardon for intruding, madam, but — ”
This in a very hoarse voice; in such marked contrast, indeed, to the speaker’s tones either at the pastrycook’s or the fishmonger’s, that one is tempted into believing that he has suddenly caught a very bad cold.
“Pray don’t mention it, sir,” says a soft kind voice. “Pray, don’t mention it, sir,” repeat two fsweet brown eyes belonging to the owner of that pleasant voice.
The person thus addressed responds to the lady’s gentle words in tones still hoarser than before.
“In excuse, madam, let me state that — I’m the bear — bearer of a mes — message from — ”
Oh, dear, what can the matter be? Surely the young lady’s bewitched! What a change in the expression of that beautiful face! Falcon never shot forth a more piercing glance than is now emitted from those soft, dove-like eyes. She steps hurriedly forward. The old gentleman rushes to meet her. She utters a little cry.
The next moment his arms are wound tightly round her. He presses her warmly to his bosom. Their lips meet, and the touch is assuredly not an uncertain one. Then she looks at him through eyes blinded with happy tears. He fondly passes his hand over her rich brown hair, and kisses her eyes and forehead several times. For some minutes scarce a word is spoken.
At length Georgy, wiping the tears from her eyes, looks again into the old gentleman’s face. With a silvery laugh she starts from his arms, and taking him by the hand, leads him before the mirror. What a picture! A whisker, large, bushy, and of the badger’s hue, has all but fallen from the visitor’s right jaw, and a very notable grey wig, of dimensions almost gigantic, has slipped quite to one side, while a profusion of bright brown hair, with an invincible tendency to curl, has resumed its rightful position.
Another second, and off goes the wig, yea, flies to the other end of the room, and young Harry Albright’s himself again, and the reader knows the cause of the pastrycook’s merriment and the fishwife’s suspicious.
While the lovers are putting and answering questions, now talking sadly of the dead, now discussing little plans for the future — at this crisis it is my duty to explain matters.
Harry Albright and Georgina Sinclair had been attached to each other from babyhood. Harry, when a mere infant, had lost both his parents, and become altogether dependent on a wealthy but penurious old uncle.
Georgina’s father, a lieutenant in the navy, had died when she was but a little girl, leaving his widow and child unprovided for, save by the pittance doled out by a generous Government to the relicts of deceased officers. Mrs. Sinclair, who had been acquainted in early life with Harry’s father, took a deep interest in the poor boy’s fate.
As he grew up, he manifested such sterling qualities that he quite wound himself round her heart; and had he been her own son she could scarcely have loved him better. She regarded with an approving eye and a thankful spirit the tender affection which subsisted between her daughter and Harry; and the course of these young people’s true love would in all likelihood have run on with the most delightful smoothness, had it not been for that terrible res angusta domi — the rock upon which so many fond hearts have been wrecked.
Harry at an early age had been placed by his uncle in an attorney’s office, with a plain intimation from that relative that nothing further was to be expected at his hands. On attaining the age of eighteen, the poor fellow found himself in the receipt of a splendid salary of fifteen shillings per week, with the magnificent prospect before him of being able, after ten more years of toil and moil, to earn double that very fine income hebdomadally.
Strange to relate, Harry began to get very discontented with his present position and probable future. He looked about him in all directions, and at last determined on taking a bold step. Just then news had reached Europe of the discovery of the new El Dorado; and one sunny morning our hero kissed the tears out of Georgina’s eyes, received the poor widow’s bletsing, and shouldering his knapsack set off sturdily for tho Gold Fields of the Far West.
Amongst the young man’s brightest anticipations, was the prospect of soon being able to surround with substantial comforts that generous old friend who had been more than a mother to him. Alas! he was destined never more to behold that kind old face! Mrs. Sinclair died suddenly a few months after his departure from England. At first Harry fared but indifferently in his mining operations; but he corresponded regularly with Georgina, and always wrote cheerfully as to what the future had in store for them both; insisting on the absolute certainty of his ultimately scraping together enough to make them comfortable all their days.
While writing in this fashion, the poor fellow was half-starving himself in order that he might forward occasional remittances to his wife elect, who, since her mother’s death, had been mainly dependent for a livelihood on small sums obtained for executing jobs in fancy work, and for giving lessons in French and music. Towards the close of the second year, however, Harry lighted upon a large vein of the precious metal, and by a few months of hard labour secured a competence for life. The work completed, he sailed for England. Now, young Albright was one of those good kind souls who delight above all things in giving people pleasant surprises, and had not written to let Georgy know that he was coming back.
Somo little time before he quitted the gold regions, his beloved, having been promised some pupils in the neighbourhood of Hippopotamus Street, had shifted her quarters thither, and written to let her lover know. But by the day her letter had traversed the ocean, Harry was half-way home. On reaching London, and inquiring for Georgina at her old lodgings, he was directed to the little milliner’s. The number of the house they had forgotten.
A sudden thought now struck Harry, and, repairing to Bow Street, ho promptly arrayed himself in a grey wig, grey whiskers, and other disguises. On ferreting out Miss Smith, he revealed to her the little plot he had concocted; and the kind little soul, entering cordially into the working out thereof, pushed under the wig the bright stray curls which had already bewildered “Potmus” Street, and gently opening the parlour door, silently motioned the conquering hero up-stairs. [I think that I have now with the most painstaking minuteness cleared up every scrap of mystery — completely disentangled every thread.]
Let me state, in conclusion, that the young pair — a few incidents in whose history I have been doing my poor best to put on paper — were married within a month of the events I have recorded. Furthermore, that the union was a most felicitous one. And, lastly, that I, who have the honour and happiness to be numbered amongst their friends, have again and again enjoyed a hearty laugh with Mr. Albright and his admirable wife over the details of the great and terrible “wigging” administered by him to the petticoated denizens of Hippopotamus Street on the afternoon of the ever-memorable third of May, eighteen hundred and fifty-one.
S. Lang Ley.