Passing along one of the most crowded thoroughfares of the city the other day, I was attracted by the arrangements made for the sale of a “respectable tradesman’s stock.” Large placards pasted on the shop-windows announced that Mr. Ichabod had the honour to announce to the nobility and public in general, that he was about to dispose of a valuable stock by order of the proprietors; and long slips of paper shooting diagonally across the whole shop-front, like a flight of rockets, inscribed with “This Day,” in large letters, testified to the vehement desire of the proprietor to realise without more delay.
The dishevelled state of the goods in the window well seconded these outward appearances. A plated coffee-pot, of rather florid design, with a deep smear of tarnish across its bulging sides; a candlestick, with resplendent glass pendules, ornamented with doubtful ormolu work; and a lady’s work-table of papier mache, varnished to within an inch of its life, and so deposited as to show the full glare of the flagrant rose wreath that ornamented its top; spoke of the rather mixed nature of the stock now in the agonies of dissolution within.
As I entered the shop the bidding was not very active, nor the company large. Indeed, the group of bidders looked almost as lifeless as the figures in a stereoscope, and the lots passed with pantomimic silence. No one looked round, but it was evident my footstep over the threshhold gave a gentle electric shock of pleasure to the assembled company. The auctioneer seemed suddenly to find his voice, the bidding grew brisker, and the splendid china tea-service, as if by magic, seemed to become the object of keen contention; the whole company leapt at once into life, as though I were the fairy prince who had suddenly broken into the enchanted palace.
I ventured to ask a tall gentleman, who volunteered to assist me in my biddings, for a catalogue. They were not selling by catalogue that day, he said, as the trade were not there; and I should therefore embrace the opportunity to get bargains. Taking a quiet but comprehensive glance around me, I certainly could neither see any signs, nor smell the proximity, of that lively race which is indigenous to ordinary sale-rooms.
There was a tall man, dressed in a brown coat, that hung down to his feet; with a face long and lean, and of a most simple expression. His modest white neckcloth, neatly folded beneath his old-fashioned waistcoat, and his rather large hands encased in black woollen gloves, gave me the idea that he was the respected deacon of some provincial Zion. As a contrast to this unsophisticated individual, there was a rough man in top boots and corduroys, with a huge comforter tied in a great bunch under his chin; whilst in his hand he held a cudgel, greatly exaggerated about the knots. He might have been a drover. The rest of the company were remarkably nosey and breast-pinny.
“Come, show the gentlemen the matchless Dresden service,” said the auctioneer.
Whereat the company instantly seemed to part down the middle, and I found myself raked by the piercing eye of the presiding functionary.
My friend the deacon appeared all of a sudden to take an amazing fancy to that splendid service, for he stretched out a nervous hand to examine a cup, when it slipped through his fingers, and broke upon the floor. My friend apologised for his awkwardness, and begged to be allowed to pay for his mishap; but the auctioneer would not hear of it — it was quite an accident — he was among gentlemen, who would treat him as such.
My heart began to soften; possibly it was a genuine concern after all: I actually made a bid. It had been a bad day, I suppose, in consequence of the “absence of the trade.” Be that as it may, the sight of a naked foot-mark did not more astonish Crusoe than did apparently the sound of my voice the assembled company. “One pound ten,” I cried.
“Why, you’re a making game,” said my tall friend. “Why it’s a hundred guinea set. — Two pound ten.”
“It’s only Stafford ware,” I retorted. “Only Stafford, is it?” he remarked, with a faint laugh: “I should say they was Sayvres.”
But the auctioneer held me with his “glittering eye.”
“Let the gentleman come forward,” he said: “they was made for the Grand Dook of Saxe Coburg, only they wasn’t finished in time.” “Indeed,” said I: “that was a pity.” I suppose there must have been some peculiarity in the tone of my voice, for I instantly perceived that I had incurred the displeasure of the gentlemen around me, and my position was beginning to grow rather unpleasant, as all the noses and breast-pins converged upon me in rather a threatening attitude. The deacon alone looked mildly on.
At that moment I was aware of a fresh footstep on the floor, the same gentle electric shock as before seemed to pervade the bidders and the rather bloated gentleman in the rostrum gave a slightly perceptible start, just as a spider does when a blue bottle blunders into his web. And now I discovered how it was that the company could see so well what was going on behind them; for on the opposite wall hung a looking-glass, and in it I could see an unmistakable country clergyman timidly looking at a “genuine Raphael.”
“Jim,” said the auctioneer, solto voce, “tip us the old master.”
In a moment the “Grand Dook” tea-service was knocked down to a sulky-looking bidder in a blue bird’s-eye cravat, and Jim staggered beneath the weight of a remarkably brown Virgin, encased in a resplendent frame.
“The pictures I have the honour to submit to your bidding this morning, gentlemen,” commenced the auctioneer, in the most impressive voice, “have been brought to the hammer under the most peculiar — I may say unprecedented — circumstances. The late proprietor — a nobleman — ransacked the stores of foreign collectors, and purchased, regardless of cost, the few, but priceless gems I now have the honour of submitting to your notice. Unfortunately, circumstances have compelled his representatives to realise, without a moment’s delay — in short, they must be sold for what they will fetch. The first lot, gentlemen, is a genuine Raphael, originally in the collection of Cardinal Ritz. It is a genuine engraved picture,” remarked the official, examining some apocryphal memorandum through his gold eyeglass, “termed the Virgin and Twilight, which accounts for the dark and solemn nature of the subject.”
The noses and the pins now became violently agitated.
“Ah! that ain’t for such as we,” said one.
“No,” said another, “it’s a pity it should be put up when the trade ain’t here.”
“Come, gentlemen, make your bidding,” said the voice from the rostrum, “you must have it at your own price.”
“Well, then, just to give it a start,” said the gentleman in the blue bird’s eye neckerchief, “I’ll say 5 /.”
“What! for this untouched picture,” almost shrieked the horror-stricken auctioneer. “More likely 500 /.”
The noses began to grow excited. They actually seemed bidding “five pun ten,” “six pun,” “seven pun;” but the clergyman made no sign.
“Gentlemen,” said the auctioneer, wiping the sweat of agony from his brow, “I cannot rob my employers in this way. What! only seven pounds for this untouched gem of Italian art! Jim, run round to the executor’s, in Doctors’ Commons, and ask him if I must throw the pictures away into the dirt in this manner.”
Jim obeyed the order; and, calculating the time it would take to go and return, in pipes and goes, quietly stepped into an adjoining tap.
In about five minutes he rushed back. “Mr. says they must go at any price — they must be closed at once.”
“Very well. You hear what he says, gentlemen; it’s not my fault — go it shall;” and with a look of horror he held the hammer aloft — ” Going at seven pounds.”
“Let me look,” gently interposed the clergyman. He looked, wiped the Virgin’s face with a wetted handkerchief, and scrutinised the worm eaten panel, enriched with the seal of the art loving Cardinal.
“Here’s the buyer for the National Gallery coming,” remarked the tall man by his side.
“Ah!I thought he wouldn’t be far off today,” said the auctioneer, exultingly.
“Eight pounds!” cried the clergyman.
“Wait a minute,” said the auctioneer; “here’s a gentleman coming that knows what a good picture is.”
“Nine pounds!” shouted the deacon.
“Fifteen pounds!” cried the new comer, scarcely deigning to look at the gem.
“Twenty pounds!” faintly but hastily rejoined the clergyman.
The purchaser for the National Gallery, for some unaccountable reason which Mr. Conyngham should inquire into, would not go further, and the clergyman gained what the nation should have possessed — so said the auctioneer.
“You’ve been and made your fortune, sir,” said the deacon; and so the worthy purchaser seemed to think.
I fancy I can see that dear old black-gaitered pastor, in his snug vicarage, standing, some fine morning, before his priceless gem, his finger and thumb between the fresh-cut leaves of this week’s Guardian, pointing out its beauties to a brother of the cloth.
“Snapped it up, sir, for a bagatelle, under the nose of the National Gallery purchaser — a gem from the Pitti Palace — sold under a distress for rent.”
What other ancient masters were given away on that day I know not; for, happening to hazard some mild doubt as to the genuineness of the Raphael, the deacon, to my amazement and horror, addressed a few words to my private ear that I never dreamed could have fallen from his simple evangelical lips. I shall not repeat them, but merely content myself by saying, that with Doric strength he intimated that I had better depart, or it would be the worse for me; and, taking the hint, I retired.
Since that occasion, I have passed the establishment several times, and, I regret to say, Mr. Ichabod has not yet accomplished the sale of the whole of the stock, nor has the deacon yet returned to the duties of his local Zion. He still bids with charming simplicity for the china tea service; nay, it would appear that he is not yet cured of that nervous bashfulness which led him to break the tea-cup, for I saw him repeat his misfortune, with many apologies, only yesterday; and, if I am not greatly mistaken, I also perceived a pile of tea-cups behind the rostrum, which the benevolent proprietor, to all appearances, has provided against his unfortunate casualties. Strange to say, the cattle-dealer has not yet been able to tear himself away from the excitement of the bidding.
At the same time that we must admire the skill with which some figures in these little dramas play their parts, I cannot help thinking that, on one or two points, there is room for improvement, and if Mr. Ichabod is not proud, I will venture to make a suggestion or two. In the first place, why does he not introduce one or two lady bidders — representatives of those stout females, all false-front and catalogues, who cheapen pots and pans at genuine sales?
Then, to make it look more like the real thing, there should be a little more chaffing going on — quarrelling with the auctioneer — anything to break up the ghostlike silence of the bidders. I miss, too, our old friend the porter — one of those grimy individuals into whoso soul dirty carpet has entered. Surely the genius that dressed the deacon and manages his deportment, is equal to improvising so necessary a functionary.
There is another point which strikes me as entirely neglected. There should be more bustle among the company, more incoming, and out-going. Why could they not pass out by a back-door and in again at the mart entrance, thus economising their numbers as they do in grand processions at the theatres? Some arrangement of this sort would give to the scene an out-of-door life which at present is altogether wanting, and the absence of which tends to excite tho public suspicion, which might, with great advantage (to the proprietors), be avoided by a little ingenuity.
The next time I pass Mr. Ichabod’s establishment I shall see if he is above taking the hints I thus freely throw out.