In old days Dym-street had been a fashionable quarter. The long link-extinguishers fastened over the rusty iron railings, attested that gay meetings had been held in those dreary old houses; that fair women had danced there; that Corydon, in a long skirted coat, had handed Phillis, in hoop and powder, to her sedan, amid a crowd of shouting link boys, and pushing chairmen.
The glory had departed from it now. The tall houses still remained, but their dreary, dusty windows, and melancholy, sombre doors, had desolation written in every pane and every panel. No well hung barouches stood at its doorsteps. No coachman gorgeous in calves and wig, squared his fat arms and pulled up his foaming horses, to permit Lady Lavinia or Lady Florence to recount the triumphs of a drawing-room, or to seek repose after the fatigues of a ball. To be sure, Lord Ballyragbag’s mansion was situated at one end of the street, but as his lordship was always either in Paris or Hombourg (his creditors allowed him £200 a year to keep out of the court), its presence did not confer much practical honour on the neighbourhood. Dr. Sangrado possessed a funeral looking establishment close at hand, an establishment termed by the doctor a “sanatorium,” but which, with its black door and stained brass plate, had the appearance of a huge coffin set up on end.
Mr. Lurcher Demas, the popular (condemnatory) preacher, lived in Dymstreet, and preached sulphuric sermons in the wooden church next to the gin palace at the corner. The Hon. and Rev. Vere St. Simeon was presumed to live there too, but his duties calling him frequently to visit his uncle the Bishop and his father the Earl, the work of the parish—not a small one—was performed by Mr. Paul Rendelsham, a haggard and conscientious curate on £80 a year. Anthony Castcup, the banker, resided in Dym-street. A rich man was Anthony, but having gout in every place but his stomach, and being restricted by his doctors to half a snipe and a pint of champagne per diem, he did not impart much liveliness to the locality. Miss Lethbridge—a woman of vast wealth it was reported—lived next door to the banker, and sent tender inquiries after his health by her apoplectic servant; inquiries which, I grieve to say, were responded to with ungrateful rumblings and groanings of a comminatory sort, by the inaccessible Anthony. A struggling barrister, with a family of fourteen, occupied a house over the way (it was all that was left to him out of a law suit, which had amused his family for thirty years); but his wife being delicate and the children given to infantile ailments, the knocker was eternally enveloped in kid, and the roadway covered with tan and straw, giving a casual passer-by the idea that the Great Plague had made a special settlement there, and that the dead-cart, “loud on the stone and low on the straw,” was momentarily expected.
Dym-street, it will be seen, therefore, was not a pleasant place. Its principal characteristic was melancholy; its principal articles of importation were babies; its principal industries were the eating of toffee and the dropping of shuttlecocks down areas. This last amusement was a favourite one with the infant inhabitants. The consumption of shuttlecocks was stupendous, and on a summer’s morning the bottoms of areas would be covered with round pieces of moulting cork, leading a stranger to believe that some vast flight of birds had passed over London in the night, and had left the weak and weary behind them. Dym-street had evidently commenced life like some gay young spendthrift: had fallen on evil days, and, after a desperate attempt to regain respectability, given up the idea in despair, and relapsed into utter destitution and Bohemianism. At the Oxford-street end it was well enough. ’Twas here where Ballyragbag’s mansion reared its stately head. In the middle, it inclined to the military and sporting interest, having a barracks (or the back of one) and a “Mews” conspicuously placed. At the end, it ran into all sorts of extravagancies—cheap photographic saloons; confectioners (with fly spotted ices in painted deal always in the window); haberdashers in a chronic state of insolvency; and grocers with immense tea-pots (bearing “Try our pure teas, 6d,” conspicuously lettered on their sides), hanging in Brobdignagian splendour from the upper storey. Signs of various trades abounded in the lower end of Dym-street. Boots, hats, coffee pots and gridirons, creaked in the blasts of November, and blistered in the suns of June. So many and so large were these monstrosities, that one might imagine that the Titans had taken lodgings in the west-end, and having had a family dispute, were flinging their household furniture out of the windows.
With the Bohemian end of Dym-street, however, we have little to do, and still less with the aristocratic quarter. It is the middle of the street that claims our attention.
Respectability is rampant in the middle. By respectability, I mean that respectability that goes to office at nine in a morning, is clean shaven and rosy gilled, is married and has children. These respectabilities were chiefly clerks in east-end government offices, clerks in merchants’ houses, clerks to banking firms, clerks in that vague place the “city;” clerks, who, as a rule, had incomes of £200 a year, who were slightly bald, wore creaking boots, and who supplemented their gains by the letting of portions of their houses to lodgers.
Dym-street middle, was a nest of lodging-houses—some good, some bad, some indifferent, but all, as far as outward appearances went, respectable to freezing point. It must not be imagined, however, that the keepers of them were all clerks. No, some were widows. Your London lodging-house keeper is invariably a clerk or a widow; and, when Mr. Cyril Chatteris answered an advertisement in the Times by driving up in a four-wheeled cab, loaded with luggage, to 75 Dym-street, the door was opened by a widow.
Mrs. Anastasia Manton was no common woman. She was tall, robust, and nobly built. Her detractors said that her form inclined to the Dutch galliot build, but that was calumny. She was the widow—so she asserted—of a departed coal merchant, who, dying in the odour of sanctity and the arms of his spouse, left her £2000 in the three per cents., and a small, brown-eyed daughter.
Deprived of the protecting arm of her departed coal merchant, Mrs. Manton did not quail. She went instantly into widow’s weeds and furnished lodgings, determined to husband her resources. From all that Mr. Cyril Chatteris was able to learn, Mrs. Manton had no friends; but, by dint of economy and perseseverance, she succeeded in saving enough money to rent a furnished house in Dym-street (“within easy distance of the parks and places of amusement”) and to make a very snug living out of the lodgers she “did for.”
The house was, perhaps, not lively, but it was cheap; and Mr. Cyril Chatteris, being somewhat slender in purse, was satisfied to live in the “parlours,” and to be waited on by Miss Caroline Manton, the brown-eyed daughter of his landlady.
Mr. Cyril Chatteris was a young man, with the ostensible profession of a barrister, but who had no chambers, and no briefs, and very few friends. He seldom went out, and was occupied in reading and smoking a great portion of the day, and in smoking and reading a great portion of the night. In a word, Mr. Cyril Chatteris was a studious young fellow; so, at least, Mrs. Manton said; and a very quiet young fellow, so the other lodgers said; and rather a handsome young fellow, so Miss Caroline said.
Caroline Manton was a pretty girl. A girl who looked as if she was capable of doing something beside simpering, and playing new music in tolerable time at sight. She was slight, with a good figure, plenty of wavy brown hair, and large brown eyes. There was not much to attract the admirer of muscular beauty, but the brown eyes had a fire in them, and the delicate little nose a piquancy about it, and the brown hair a tendency to break loose and tumble down in soft masses, that was tantalizing and fascinating enough. Miss Caroline Manton had very white hands, very pretty feet, and could talk to a sensible man for ten minutes without either looking foolish, trying to flirt, or talking nonsense.
It may be a matter of wonder to the reader that the daughter of a lodging- house keeper should possess these attractions—the white hands especially. It must be remembered, however, that Mrs. Manton was no common woman, and that she brought up her daughter in no common way. Miss Caroline could sing, for instance. Old Papatacci, who occupied the drawing-room floor, said that she would sing “peautiful von of these days,” and though her mother permitted her to take up tea-trays, and to chat for five minutes or so with the lodgers, she never allowed “her Carry” to soil her pretty hands with housework. It is doubtful indeed if Miss Caroline would have submitted to such drudgery had her mother commanded it. For she was not unread in the fascinating pages of the “London Journal,” and had heard how pretty girls of humble birth were constantly being selected by the aristocracy as wives. Did not Mildred Mainwaring marry a Duke? and was not poor Lucy the Lone One rewarded for her perils (chiefly in the balcony-descending and “Ha-maiden,-you-must-be-mine!” line of business) by the hand of the Earl of Elsinore, and a dowry (given by Sir Rupert de Burgh) of £50,000 on her wedding day? Now, Caroline had compared faces with Mildred Mainwaring, and had come to the conclusion that her own looking-glass reflected the prettier woman of the two, and she was convinced that she only wanted the chance to marry a duke in twenty-four hours. When a young lady, aged seventeen, is convinced of her own powers of fascination, and has courage enough to use them, she becomes a dangerous rock ahead to the numberless craft that cruise hither and thither in that social sea whose shore is matrimony. Men are usually prepared for coquetries in a woman, but when a little slip of a girl appears they unbuckle their armour of proof, and ten to one get a sly shaft sent home up to the feather.
When Mr. Cyril Chatteris first arrived in Dym-street, I am convinced he had no intention of making love to his landlady’s daughter; but as time wore on, and the silvery laugh, the elegant figure, the pretty minauderies, and the artful artlessness of Miss Carry became more marked, he began to watch for her coming, to make excuses for keeping her waiting, and to venture upon casual and offhand inquiries as to where she had been, and what she had been doing during the day. In proportion as the girl saw her success, the more did she force on the attack, until at last, the lodger began to ask himself seriously if this state of things could continue.
“I cannot marry the girl!” said Cyril, as he contemplated his slippers through a cloud of tobacco-smoke after breakfast. “She would—and Kate too—pshaw—the thing is impossible!” and he fell to thinking.
“Moreover, how to keep her? I have no money, and that old—” he stopped suddenly. “It’s madness to dream of it. Here am I, without a sixpence beyond a beggarly allowance of two hundred a year, and no hope of getting more. A quarrel with my father. Oh, confound it, it’s preposterous!” he cried, starting up,—“fall in love with my landlady’s daughter! Why, it would kill old Lady Loughborough if she even dreamt it.”
And the “Parlours” fell to walking up and down, biting his nails, gnawing his moustache, and smoking violently.
Mrs. Manton was not ignorant of her lodger’s predilection for her daughter. Madam Manton was a woman of remarkable diplomatic ability. As she frequently remarked over her evening tea, “She could see as far through a millstone as most people;” and her researches among her lodger’s linen, and her inspection of his gold-topped dressing case, had led her to the belief that he was of a different stamp to the usual class of Dym-street lodgers. Though Mr. Cyril Chatteris wore a tweed shooting-coat, was given to smoking cavendish tobacco, and eschewed cigars, there was an air about him which forbade the suspicion that he was of the Bohemian sort.
“Briefless barristers don’t have diamond studs, and six dozen shirts to their backs, as I knows on,” would Mrs. Manton say; “and it’s my opinion that Mr. Chatteris needn’t live in Dym-street unless he liked. Oh, don’t tell me, Carry. He’s got a ’h’air’ about him, he has; and if he’s a making love to you, you’d better take care what you’re about. He aint a fool like young Binns, the ‘Parlours’ aint!”
At which Carry would blush and laugh. To speak truth, the young lady was more than willing to meet any advances that the “Parlours” might choose to make, half-way. Cyril Chatteris was a handsome fellow. He was of the middle height, with good grey eyes, and sound white teeth. Perhaps his grey eyes had a shifting, uneasy look about them, that made you imagine that they were not too trustworthy; and his mouth would have been cruel had it not been for the brown moustache that covered it so gracefully. But his youth was in his favour. His chin was the worst part of his face; it was the chin of a vacillating, vain, yet reckless man, who might have the courage to commit a crime, but not the courage to face the consequences. Taking him all in all though, Cyril Chatteris was well enough: he was better looking than most men one meets, and he had a certain amount of sarcastic cleverness and superficial brilliancy that made him an amusing companion and an agreeable fellow. Miss Caroline mentally likened him to Sir Felix Fakeaway, the wicked, clever, dashing baronet, in the last story in her penny journal, and was enraptured with his nonchalant ways, his spotless wristbands, and his brown moustache.
It seemed that it would not take much urging to make her as much in love with him as her mother would wish her to be; and as for “taking care of what she was about,” that was an easy thing to the student of “Mildred Mainwaring.”
Chatteris himself had, I am bound to say, no designs upon the girl. He might have had them at first, but her artful innocence rendered him powerless. He was only twenty-two, and had never laid siege to the heart of a woman like his landlady’s daughter.
In point of fact, she was too clever for him. With her mother to back her, this little minx of seventeen would have been a match for a more experienced lady-killer than Mr. Cyril Chatteris. In vain he laughed at her, talked at her, made eyes at her, and chatted with her over the tea-cups. She was impervious.
The pursuit commenced in jest, was continued in earnest, and at last the lodger began to get very uneasy about the little coquette that showed herself for ten minutes or so every day, and would not hear the voice of the charmer, let him charm never so wisely.
“That booby Binns” that Mrs. Manton spoke of, was also a thorn in the side of the love-sick lodger. Binns was a grocer’s apprentice and sucking partner. He was a scorbutic youth, with a chin-tuft and a pretended sarcasm about his face that was irresistibly ludicrous. He was given to reading poetry, was Binns, and could quote Tennyson and Byron by the yard. This ingenious youth had been smitten by the charms of Carry at a trade ball in the neighbourhood. After much tribulation, he had obtained an introduction to the mother, and was tacitly admitted as suitor to Miss Manton.
On Sundays Binns would appear at the door, radiant in blue necktie, black clothes, green gloves, and Blucher boots. To him would issue Carry, looking bewitchingly pretty, and with the merest glance in the world at the parlour window where Mr. Chatteris was breakfasting, would trip off to church.
At first, the elegant lodger laughed at the Binnian flirtation, then he was annoyed to think that Carry should be seen in company with “that grocer cad;” then he considered the existence of Binns as a special insult to himself, and lastly, he determined, “if ever he met her with the little wretch, to twist his miserable neck.”
Binns had much the same feeling with regard to Mr. Cyril Chatteris. With the instinctive jealousy of a boy, he had picked out the lodger as a rival to his hopes, and though he had seldom seen him, and never spoken to him, he hated him with mortal hatred. Binns, like most foolish boys who are educated above their station, was a “Red-hot Radical, sir.” He would talk for hours about the aristocracy, the rights of MAN (in terrific vocal capitals), and had a general desire for the blood of all who looked down upon Binns. One day he ventured to ventilate these views to Carry, who, being in bad temper, retaliated with such cutting severity, that the poor little fellow cried over “Locksley Hall” that night in bed, and looked at his solitary, and as yet virgin, razor with dreadful emphasis.
One night this scorbutic boy had escorted Carry home from a “tea drinking” at Mrs. Mack’s (a fellow lodging-house keeper), and was convoying his charge up the street, when he was descried by Mr. Cyril Chatteris, who had been dining somewhat freely in town. Hastening his steps, the lodger overtook them.
“Good evening, Carry,” says he, raising his hat, and persistently overlooking the indignant Binns.
“Good evening, Mr. Chatteris,” returned the blushing Carry.
“Allow me to have the honour of escorting you home,” says Cyril, taking the hand she had extended to him, and drawing it under his arm.
“And, p—p—pray, sir, who may you be?” cries the slighted Binns, every pimple on his face glowing with love, pride, and indignation.
“You had better let the boy go home, Carry,” said the composed Cyril.
“The boy!” and “Carry!” Could this be borne? All his red-hot Radicalism cried out against it; and, with desperate intent, the enraged, despised, and vengeful Binns planted a blow fair upon the brown moustache of his aristocratic rival.
“Oh! Cyril, Cyril, pray take care!” screams Carry, her long-guarded secret slipping out.
“Don’t be afraid, my darling, I won’t hurt the little fool!” was the reply; and Chatteris, catching the youth by the collar of his best coat, boxed his ears until his own arms ached.
This was terrible. To be thrashed, Binns did not mind so much. He would have fought the lover of his mistress with any weapon that could be named. He would have died in her defence without a murmur; but to have his ears boxed! As he got slowly up from off the pavement—his ears tingling, his head swimming, his blue necktie disarranged, his shirt buttons torn off, and his best black coat ruined for ever, despised love, furious hate, and all the passions of Collins’s ode surging up in his heart—his red-hot Radicalism dissolved in a flood of tears.
It is not a pleasant spectacle, that of a “red-hot Radical,” nineteen years of age, blubbering over the loss of a girl who only used him as a stalking horse for other game; so we will drop the curtain for the present upon Mr. Robert Binns.
I cannot say that Mr. Cyril Chatteris was perfectly unmoved during the encounter. If the truth were told, I think that, in his heart of hearts, he was slightly afraid of his adversary. Bone and muscle are not to be despised, even though they belong to a grocer’s apprentice; and I am not sure whether, had the combat been prolonged, the plebeian would not have soundly thrashed the patrician, despite all the presumed blue blood in his veins. But the attack was too sudden. It was a triumph of mind over matter, and Cyril felt elated at the result of his brief engagement, and began to regret that he had used such severe chastisement. Now that the contest was over, and she had her lover safely by her side, perhaps Carry felt some pity too, for she said, after some minutes silence.
“I hope you did not hurt him much, Mr. Chatteris.”
“I! No!” says Cyril, pluming himself upon his displayed powers. “He’ll be all right in ten minutes.” Then, with a touch of the old envy, “You seem to take great interest in the lout.”
“No, Mr. Chatteris,” says Carry, “I don’t; but—”
“Can’t you call me Cyril; you did just now.”
Silence and blushes on the part of Carry. Cyril felt that he must say something. They were close to the Mantonian door.
“Carry, you must have seen that I love you!”
Carry’s heart gave a great bound. At last! The prince had come, and she should ride away with him.
“Oh, Mr. Chatteris!”
“Do you not love me, my darling?”
“I am afraid I do, Cyril, very much,” was the reply, given in a tone as innocent as Eve’s before the fall; though, even as the words left her lips, Carry was thinking of dresses and diamonds, and whether her mother would live with her when she was married.
When Mrs. Manton opened the door (the “slavey” had gone to fetch beer for the refection of the two ladies) she was somewhat surprised to see the slight figure of her elegant lodger, instead of the stumpy, sturdy one of the faithful Binns; but upon Carry, half weeping, half laughing, falling into her arms, she understood it all.
“He has proposed for her, then,” thought Mrs. Anastasia Manton. Then, aloud, “God bless you, sir. You’ve got a treasure in Carry. Come to her mother, then, my lovely!”
Chatteris turned into his parlour somewhat hastily; but, with all a mother-in-law’s instinctive tyranny, Mrs. Manton followed and embraced him emphatically, crying,
“God bless you, Cyril, my boy! God bless you!”
The accepted suitor was hardly prepared for this. The daughter he really loved—for the moment, at all events—but the old, vulgar, false-fronted, false-toothed mother—Faugh! He could not stand her, he said, mentally; and Mrs. Manton making preparations to faint upon the sofa, received such an undeniable scowl from her future son-in-law, that she changed her mind, and went down stairs instead.
I cannot relate with what female chit-chat and plans for future aggrandisement the mother and daughter beguiled the night away. I know, however, that Mr. Cyril Chatteris did not sleep soundly.
“I have done it, by Jove!” said he, “and I must make the best of it.”
He thought much how to make the best of it. What would his father say? “Not that it matters much now,” says Cyril to himself, over his fifth pipe. “He doesn’t care whom I marry. But I must tell him, I suppose. Yet I don’t know. He might turn round again perhaps. Shall I marry her boldly, and take her to Matcham? What could she do among those old women? A dove in a hawk’s nest. And Kate, too!” here his brow contracted, “I suppose Kate would love her like a sister—oh, of course!” and he laughed; “and my dear brother Fred, with his dandified airs! He wouldn’t tell stories at mess about her, would he? No—well, I don’t think he would. Fred isn’t a bad fellow. He offered to make it all right with the governor if I’d only—but no, hang it, I’ve done with all that.” And he rose and paced the carpet.
“It’s her education that is the thing. How would she look beside Kate with her painting and her drawing and her ’ologies’ and ’enics?’ She couldn’t preside at the table at Matcham—she’d kill old Lady Loughborough. There’s no help for it now, however. I must write and tell my father.”
He wrote five letters, and spoilt them all. One began, “My dear Carry,” instead of “My dear father,” and one he directed “Saville Manton,” instead of “Saville Chatteris.” After the fifth error he threw down the pen.
“I won’t write until I am married, at all events,” said he, and went to bed.