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In one of our midland counties stands a town that but for its boasting a weekly market could pretend to no higher distinction than that of a large village. Incongruous as it would appear in the eyes of the fashionable inhabitants of Belgrave, or the older aristocracy of Grosvenor. square, or the admixture of both in Park-lane, such towns or villages as the one here alluded to have their classification of distinct grades of society within their precincts, in as full force as in the metropolis wherein the fashionable localities mentioned are situated; and innocent, straight-forward, and kind-hearted as country persons have the credit of generally being, not to throw them quite beyond the pale of fashion and fashionable qualifications, I do from practical cognizance and observation aver that envy, "hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness" do exist among them to quite as great an extent as among the most fashionable of our metropolitan coteries ; in fact, to rescue them from any suspicion of primitive want of worldly feelings, I think I may say that all those worldly attributes are even in greater force among the pretenders to high life than they are among the great and high born ; for among and in the consideration of the latter, & private gentleman, a military or naval man, or one of the learned professions, is a man high in dignity of office. Among the truly great there is no distinct line of exclusiveness : any of such possessing a fair character in public estimation, and the manners of a gentleman, has the entrée to good society. Next in the catalogue of pretensions comes the trader; here, unless he be some eminent merchant, exclusiveness begins, and indeed ends ; for whether he be the proprietor of an establishment (name not a shop) in Regent or other fashionable street, or whether he be one who with more sense, and probably with more respectability and responsibility, avows himself the owner of a shop in vulgar St. Martin'g-lane, so little distinction is made between the two by persons in high life, that they both come under one head, namely, non-admissibles and nonpresentables.
I am aware that such distinction is occasionally thrown aside, where enormous wealth induces the self-interested or adulatory to worship the golden image that fortuitous circumstances, in the absence of Nebuchadnezzar, has set up; but such images are few, and for the sake of the high blood of our aristocracy, we will conclude that such cases of adulation are few also. Such persons doubtless say, and perhaps think, that throwing aside old-fashioned and as they probably term them illiberal distinctions shows greatness of mind. I would only suppose a case to such elevated minds : strip their golden calf of his golden appliances, where would be their elevation of mind then?
In a country town or village the theory works differently; here is a host of distinctions that no one but the inhabitants of such places can understand. It is true the number of gentlemen's families residing in country towns are generally but few; these, with the clergyman, the medical man, and the man of law, form a clique among themselves : this everyone can understand ; here is a line of demarkation clearly laid down. Then comes a local distinction that would puzzle a Philadelphian lawyer to understand the cause of—Mrs. Barleycorn, the maltster's wife, does not visit Mrs. Print, the linendraper ; Mrs. Print does not hold some perhaps truly-respectable and praiseworthy young woman who makes up the muslin, by the sale of which Mrs. Print lives, as ranking high enough to be on visiting terms with. Mr. Cutaway, the tailor, holds Calfskin, the shoemaker, in contempt, if peradventure the latter wears an apron in his shop. Mr. Cutaway has great respect for Calfskin's wife, a particularly well-conducted person, and the Misses Calfskins, really very fine girls; he is sure Mrs. Cutaway would be happy to ask them to her parties ; “but”—but why? This perhaps no one can tell ; but perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Cutaway can. This will show that it was not probable the good town of Chatterville was likely to be at all times exempt from certain heartburnings among its inhabitants ; but when I add that no inconsiderable number of those consisted of venerable spinsters, with no pursuit to occupy their time and attention save that of investigating all and every thing done by their neighbours, it is only surprising that certain little enmities that usually broke out weekly were not diurnal. These virgins, to make certain that nothing should transpire in the town without their cognizance of the fact, and that such facts should have their full quota of comments and discussion thereon, with sundry and various embellishments, additions, or subtractions, as the information and the impressions of the narrator might call for, had established what they termed “little pleasant réunions” at the domiciles of each other, and of those of such friends as patronised these Sisters of Charity (new style). These delightful réunions, to avoid expense, and thereby ensure their frequency, were confined rigidly to tea, scandal, penny whist, cake, and a certain wine, or rather beverage, of a nondescript character, but having to a certain degree the gusto and aroma of Madeira. In vino veritas is said with much truth of most persons and places ; but somehow the only veritable quality of the Madeira consisted in its acidity, a quality that imparted itself to a considerable portion of the conversation where it was imbibed.
Though nothing could be more stringent than the réunion rules as to the admission of the monster man, still they so far laid claim to charity as not to render those rules absolutely exclusive of the male sex. The parson, attorney, a rich brewer, and a poor retired General, as he was termed, not only generally but universally, though a company in a veteran battalion was his true grade, were the four favoured by a regular, permitted entrée to the fair sisterhood. The worthy parson went, we suppose, because, as he wished to be “in charity with all men,' we may conclude he wished to be on the same terms with all women, and further, from thinking it right to occasionally mortify the flesh-a consummation certain to follow the Madeira. The attorney went, hoping he might at some time be required to defend some action for libel or slander. The brewer patronised the réunions because its fair members patronised the smallest of his small beer. The General was too old a soldier not to quarter himself anywhere where he got his ration gratis; moreover, he liked whist, and though the penny points were regulation at the réunion, private bets were allowed, and here the General had a rich harvest in the jolly brewer, who thought himself first-rate as a whist-player, and backed his own judgment like a trump; while every bet made between the two was trumps to the man of war. The ladies were about an average specimen of those of the fair sex who live unblessing and unblessed, and whose ages ranged from about forty to that age when even a hint on the subject would have brought an expulsion of the offender nem. con. The only person among the sisterhood differing from the rest was Miss Johns, alias “Old Jack," as she was facetiously styled by the young ladies over whom she presided at Prospect House Establishment for, as the printed terms of Prospect House set forth, the education of the afore-mentioned or any other
young ladies. Now why this place was called Prospect anything, I never could make out, as its sides had no windows at all; its front looked against a blank wall, highly gratifying and exhilarating to the fair prisoners in their leisure moments, and highly proper at the same time; for as there was nothing to see, of course there was nothing improper seen by the young ladies; but, as Miss Johns was wont to remark, the young mind requires a little amusement, to which end a walled-in lugubrious-looking garden, of some thirty yards square, was allotted as a place where the pupils might indulge in healthful exercise and any youthful flight of fancy suggestion might prompt, provided such youthful flight did not exceed the walking by twos on the one walk that went round this sylvan seat. The centre was a bilious-looking piece of grass called by Miss Johns par excellence the lawn; here it was profanation for a young foot to tread, for two reasons—first, because Miss Johns had (as she termed them) the young ladies' “fine things" washed at home, to ensure their being "got up nicely;" and the lawn was, therefore, appropriated to the bleaching of these articles from a yellow ochre to a Naples yellow hue; the other cause of prohibition of trespass was a really fine mulberry-tree in the centre of this elysium. On this during the fruit season the ladies were permitted to feast their eyes; but as to touching even a windfall of the fruit, they would as soon have thought of picking up a hand-grenade, with its fuse lighted.
There was nothing, therefore, in all this to account for the name of “ Prospect-for that, it will be seen, was rather confined ; while, on the other hand, the prospect of the young ladies' advancement in education here was so distant that it was lost sight of by its very remoteness: so we can only conclude that its name was given it by chance, in lieu of “ Happy Hall," " Merry Vale,” “ Cosy Cottage,” or any other equally appropriate.
Miss Johns was“ fat, fair,” so far as the colour of some other person's hair on her head could make her so, and most certainly was, or had been, " forty." I must do her the justice to say she could look the picture of good-humour and liberality; but those who knew her knew also that, as Norval says of his father, her “only care was to increase her store” as related to herself, but to diminish as far as possible the store for the use of the young ladies. And here again let me pay a tribute of justice. No young lady who had passed twelve months at
Prospect House was ever seen to leave it in a state of unladylike obesity : no hen with her brood of chicks was more fussy than was Miss Johns about her brood of young ladies, more watchful, or more indefatigable in all matters appertaining to them, provided such care and watchfulness cost nothing in pecuniary expenditure. Such was Old Jack.
We will now see why the quartette of the male sex mentioned above were the chosen of the Lady Patronesses of the Re-unions. The parson was installed from his vocation, which it was considered cast a kind of halo of holiness over and around the assembly. The brewer, because his imperturbable good-humour was found (as sugar does in punch) to correct or neutralize the acidity that in the humour of other members would sometimes be detected as predominating too much; and further, he was the most wealthy man in the town. Our attorney had drawn up the regulations of the re-unions free of expense, and gratuitously acted as secretary and cashier for the sixpenny fines that were occasionally levied on any departure from the regulations laid down. The General could not be left out, as the word “ General" sounded aristocratic. He was, besides, a bachelor ; and in the private ear of each fair Reunionist vowed she was the most fair-not that I am authorized in saying any of the ladies absolutely contemplated perpetrating matrimony, but the General's soft speeches and inuendos kept up a little undefinable titillation, tantamount to the gratification some persons feel in having the palm of the hand tickled. Where this little titillation was chiefly felt by the fair spinsters I am of all men in the world the least capable of conjecturing
In this state were the re-unions and the town of Chatterville when an advertisement in the county paper set forth that “a most comfortable family house, comprising dining and drawing rooms, breakfast room, library, and such-and-such bed rooms, of such-and-such sizes ; kitchens, laundry, stabling, coach-house, and numerous out-buildings; excellent garden, pleasure grounds, and so much meadow land” was to let,“ on the verge of the romantically-situated and excellent market-town of Chatterville."
A few days after this announcement a fashionable phaeton and pair, in which were seated a lady and gentleman, with a servant in the dickey behind, were seen passing, at a foot's pace, down the main street of the town; which, in fact, boasted none other, except a bye-lane or two diverging from it—in one of which Prospect House was situated. As the carriage came opposite to each house, at one or more of its windows a head or heads immediately appeared; the face turning more and more on the oblique as the vehicle got further on, till the ear was brought in contact with the glass, as if to give that organ its share of gratification as well as the rest. In some cases, however, these heads, full faces, and profiles, altogether disappeared from the window, but were immediately seen with their appropriate bodies at the door-ways; and then followed various signs, significant and insignificant, to a friend left to right, vis-à-vis to vis-à-vis. What these meant to indicate the actors were not all adepts enough in dumb show to clearly evince; but that the strangers were the object each party fully comprehended.
What created this particular curiosity was, first, the slow pace at which the carriage moved; and secondly, the gentleman looking earnestly from side toside if in search of something. This continued till the carriage came opposite the above-mentioned house, where “ To LET” apprised the strangers they had found the object of their journey to Chatterville. The lady and gentleman got out, remained some halfhour on the premises, resumed their carriage, and at a fair ten miles an hour left Chatterville ; also leaving its inhabitants to make such observations on the circumstance as they might think proper.
We must now, in elucidation of a part of the catastrophe that followed, make a few remarks relative to Mr. Parkes (our attorney) and the house to let. This small property had, until the last two years, belonged to a young, high, spirited, extravagant man of fortune, who had occasion to raise a certain sum on it. Now Parkes to his professed vocation of attorney, sub rosa, added that of a money-lender, and had advanced about one-fourth of its value on mortgage. Now Parkes not having, in criminal law phrase, the fear of God before his eyes, or legal fear of the owner of the house either, the first moment he could do so, availed himself of certain documents, and, in default of instant payment of the money advanced, came down on the devoted house, in Macduff's words, “ in one fell swoop,” by which it will be seen he became possessor of it, with all appurtenances thereunto belonging.
It must be told that Parkes and our jocund brewer hated each other with as decided a hate as could be felt towards anything living or dead. It is true, they met without outbreak-nay, dined with each other repeatedly, and on taking leave parted about on the same terms as we see Peachum and Lockit take leave on the stage. Parkes knew himself to be a contemptible scoundrel, and also knew the brewer held him as such,
Our Brewer had long wanted this house and premises : first, to prevent any unpleasant neighbour occupying it; and, secondly, with a view of adding to his own. But the purchase remained in abeyance, from Parkes having got it at the fourth of its value, but modestly demanding one-fourth more than its real worth.
The day after the appearance of the visitors to the house to let was one of the evenings of the re-unions. This took place at the house of the Brewer, who alone took on himself the liberty of departing from reunion regulations, as he did from any regulation that militated against good-followship and hospitality. The lady-patronesses fie-fied against his breach of rules; but vie-vied with each other in consuming the “good” (not the Gods) but the Brewer “provided.” It might be supposed that the visit, and the probable results of it, to the house to let, would have been the first subject discussed at the meeting"; and so it would have been, had it taken place at the domiciles of any of the fair spinsters; but its not being so here showed that, strong as was the love of gossip and scandal among the clique, the love of good tea, toast, muffins, cake, and tea-cake was stronger. These having been done ample justice, or (judging by the fearful onslaught) injustice to, when the ball (that is, the ball of conversation) was opened by Miss Candid, a lady who depreciated the absurd practice some persons have of concealing their age: for her part she gloried in hers, in her pretty jocose mode avowing that in ten years “she should be an honest half-hundred.” A few malevolent old persons in the town, however, declared they remembered her, exactly this half-century alluded to, then a girl of seven or eight years of age.