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HOUSES TO LET. *
[*This article was written before the abolition of the stamp duty on newspapers. There is now no supplement at all to the 'Times'; the whole concrete mass of advertisements and news being sold as an aggregate for fourpence.]
HAVE often heard conjectures hazarded, as to who and what manner of people they may be that read the Supplement of the ‘Times’ newspaper. That
a very fair proportion of the subscribers and readers of that journal do so, is
a fact, I take it, apparent to, and acknowledged by, the frequenters of
parlours, coffee-houses, club-rooms, and hotel snuggeries. Admitting always that
it is read, it is not by any means so certain who reads it. The advertisers may
do so, wishing, like careful men of business, to make sure that they have had
their pennyworth for their penny. The proof reader reads it [-217-]
bon gré, malgré, though, very likely, while toiling down the dreary columns
of uninteresting announcements, he may say, with Ancient Pistol, in the Great
Leek Consumption Case,— ‘I read and eke I swear.’ But do you or I affect
the perusal of that portentous broad-sheet. From time to time we may glance at
the Education near London column; at the New Discoveries in Teeth ; at the Sales
bv Auction ; and the Horizontal Grand Pianofortes: but we know that the really
interesting ‘ads.’ are in the body of the paper; that the profligate
initials are entreated to return to their parents, or to send back the key of
the tea-caddy in the second or third column of the front page; and that the
unfathomable hieroglyphics hold sweet converse in the same locality. In that
Pactolean front page, who knows, from morning to morning, but that Messrs.
Wouter, Gribble, and Sharp, of Gray’s Inn, may publicly express their wish to
communicate something to our advantage to us? In that front page, conscientious
cab-men have found the wearing apparel and jewellery we have lost, or
dog-fanciers (more conscientious still) the dogs which leave been st— well,
mislaid. In that same page we can put our hands on all the announcements we
want :—the Steam Navigation, which is to waft us to Rotterdam and the Rhine,
or to Paris, via Calais, in eleven hours; of the exhibitions and dioramas we
delight in witnessing; of the charitable associations it so pleaseth us (kind
souls!) to subscribe to; of horses and carriages, we buy or sell; of the
commodious travelling-bags, replete with every nécessaire de voyage, from a
bootjack to a toothpick, which Mr. Fisher of the Strand exhorts us to purchase
ere we set out on the grand tour; of Mr. Bennett’s watches ; and Mr. Sangster’s
umbrellas, and Mr. Tucker’s lamps ; and of the oats, which good Mary Wedlake
so pertinaciously desires to know if we bruise yet. If we want clerks or
governesses, or, as clerks and governesses, are ourselves wanted; if we wish
to borrow or to lend money, or to see what new books or new music appeal to our
taste, literary or musical, we find them, if not in the front page, still almost
invariably in the main body of the ‘Times;’ it is only on special occasions —
the honourable Member for Mugborough divides the house at two o’clock in the
morning; or the Crushclod Agricultural Society holds a meeting, unusually stormy
or lengthy; or my Lord Centipede gives a dinner, at which everybody drinks
everybody’s health, and returns thanks into the bargain,—that the [-218-]
really interesting advertisements are crowded into the
Supplement. On other occasions, that document remains a dreary acceptance for the education,
teeth, pianoforte, and auctioneer advertisements, with the addition, perhaps, of
a few camphine lamps, liquid hair-dyes, and coals at nine shillings per chaldron. Yet the Supplement is read by thousands,—not merely by that pale
man in the brown cloak and the discontented face opposite to me, who has engaged
the ‘Times’ de facto after me, and is only, I can plainly see, affecting to
read the de jure Supplement; having rage in his heart, caused by the
conviction (wherein he is right) that I intend to keep the paper till I have
read the ‘leaders’ through ;—not merely by him, but by the numerous and
influential class of persons who are interested in a phalanx of
advertisements, which I have hitherto omitted to enumerate, as among the
contents of the dullest Supplement; and which have reference to Houses to Let.
This is, at least, my theory. If ever I see a man really mentally immersed in
time perusal of the ‘Times’ Supplement, and appearing to derive any genuine
interest therefrom, I make pretty sure that he has either a House to Let, or
that he wants to take one.
Houses to Let ! The subject is fraught with speculative interest for those philosophers who are content to leave the sun, the moon, the pro-Adamite dynasties, tile Mosaic theory of creation, the Aeolic digamma, and the perpetual motion, to their betters ; and can find sufficient food for philosophy in the odds and ends, the sweeping of the House of Life—who can read homilies in bricks and mortar, sermons in stones, the story of a life, its hopes and fears, its joys and woes, in the timbers of a dilapidated pigstye, in the desolation of a chokedup fountain, or the ruins of a springless pump!
We change our dresses, our servants, our friends and foes— how can our houses expect to be exempt from the mutabilities of life? We tire of the old friend, and incline to the new; the old baby is deposed in favour of the new baby; the fat, turnip silver watch our father gave us, gives place to a gold Geneva—we change, and swop, and barter, and give up, and take back, and long for, and get tired of, all and everything in life—why not of houses too? So the Supplement of the ‘Times’ can always offer Houses to Let; and we are continually running mad to let or hire them, as vice versa, six months hence, perhaps we shall be as maniacally eager to hire or to let.
Subdivision, classification, and elaboration, are certainly [-219-] distinguishing characteristics of the present era of civilisation. The house-agents of the ‘Daily Courant,’ of the ‘Public Ledger,’ or the ‘Evening Intelligencer,’ would have been coupled with the announcement pur et simple, that in such and such a street, or part of the court, there was a House to Let. They might, perhaps, have added, at the most, that it was over-against the Bear Garden, or that it formerly belonged to a tradesman possessing an infallible cure for the scurvy, and who ‘made the very best purle that ever was brewed;’ but there they would stop. Catch us doing anything of the sort in these enlightened days. Where our benighted grandfathers had boys’ and girls’ schools, we have seminaries, academics, lyceums, and colleges, for young ladies. Where they had sales ‘by inch of candle,’ we had Mr. George Robins, and have now Messrs. Musgrove and Gadsden, and Frederick Jones, who are always being ‘honoured with instructions’ to sell things for us or to us. A spade isn’t a spade in 1859, but something else ; and with our house-agents, a house is not only a house, but a great many things besides.
A House to Let may be a mansion, a noble mansion, a family mansion, a residence, a desirable residence, a genteel residence, a family residence, a bachelor’s residence, a distinguished residence, an elegant house, a substantial house, a detached house, a desirable villa, a semi-detached villa, a villa standing in its own grounds, an Italian villa, a villa-residence, a small villa, a compact detached cottage, a cottage ornée, and so on, almost ad infinitum. Rarely do the advertisements bear reference only to a house, a villa, or a cottage: we must call the spade something in addition to its simply agrarian title.
Now, are all these infinitesimal subdivisions of Houses to Let merely intended as ingenious devices to charm the house hirer by variety, in the manner of’ Mr. Nicoll, with regard to his overcoats, and Messrs. Swan and Edgar with reference to ladies’ cloaks and shawls; or do there really exist subtle distinctions, minute, yet decidedly perceptible, between every differently named house? Can it be that the desirable residence has points calculated to satisfy desire in a different degree to the elegant predilections to be gratified by the elegant residence? Can it be that a residence, after all, isn’t a house, nor a house a residence? It may be so. People, in the innocence of their hearts, and unaccustomed to letting or hiring houses, may imagine that there can be no very material difference between a villa, a genteel villa, and a compact [-220-] villa; but in the mind of the astute house-agent, and equally intelligent house-hirer, differences, varieties of size, aspect, and convenience, immediately suggest themselves; and to their experienced eyes there are as many points of distinction between the genteel and the compact, the desirable and the distinguished, as to the visual organs of those learned in horses between a cob and a hack, a racer and a screw; or to the initiated in dog-lore, between a greyhound and a setter.
I do not pretend to any peculiarly nice perception as to things in general. I cannot tell to this day a hawk from a falcon (between the former bird and a handsaw I might be able to guess). It was a long time before I could distinguish between a leveret and a rabbit, or tell very high venison from decomposed shoulder of mutton; and I will not be certain, even now, if I could tell from the odour (being blindfolded). which was pitch and which tar. So, the immense variety of houses to Let has always been to me a mystery, the subtle distinctions in their nomenclature sources of perplexed speculation. There may be those who are more learned than I am — those who, with similar acuteness as the gentlemen mentioned in Hudibras, who had been beaten till they could tell to a splinter of what wood the cudgel was composed, and kicked till they knew if the shoe were ‘calfskin or neat’s leather ‘— can mark the strong connections, the nice dependencies, the gradations just of houses, mansions, villas, and residences, and with their ‘pervading souls look through' the wondrous variety of Houses to Let.
I can only theorise. I have studied the 'Times' attentively, and gazed wearily at the elongated crimson baize-covered panels in the house-agents’ windows, on which, written on ships of foolscap, the announcements of Houses to Let are secured with parti-coloured wafers. Goodness knows how far from the actual mark I may be; but you shall hear what my ideas are on this very open House question.
First, of the Mansion. What manner of house would you imagine that to be? I take it to be situate at Kew, possibly at Chiswick, peradventure at Putney. Red brick, stone window casings, a great many chimney-pots, a steep flight of steps before the door. Perhaps the advertisement says that it is ‘approached by a carriage drive.’ I can see that carriage drive, the mangy gravel, weeds and grass springing up between ; the brown ragged lawn in the middle ; the choked- up flower-beds, with pieces of broken bottles and fractured tobacco-pipes, where once were geraniums, and heliotropes. [-221-] There must be a wall in front, and a pair of rusty iron gates, or more probably a paint-destitute portal, scored over with drawings in crayons of unpopular churchwardens, and fierce denunciations of the Pope of Rome, the College of Cardinals, and the New Police Act. This door is blistered with the sun, dinted by the peg-tops and hockey-sticks of savage boys. In the centre you may see a parallelopipedal patch, where the paint is of a lighter colour, and where there are marks of bygone screws. That was where the brass plate was, when the mansion was occupied by the Reverend Doctor Brushback. It was called ‘Smolensko House’ then, and on Sundays and holidays a goodly procession of youths educated therein issued from it. A small confectioner’s (‘sock-shop,’ the boys called it) was started in the adjacent lane, on the sole strength of the school custom; and Widow Maggle, the greengrocer, who supplied the establishment with birch-brooms, actually started her boy Dick in a cart with a live donkey from her increased profits. But the Reverend Doctor Brushback, at the age of fifty-seven, and in a most unaccountable manner, took it into his head to turn the wife of his bosom out of doors. Then he flogged three-fourths of his scholars away, and starved the remainder. Then he was suspected of an addiction to strong drinks, and of breaking Leather’s (the shoe, knife, and general errand boy’s) head, because he could not tell him what was Greek for a boot-jack. Smolensko House speedily presented that most melancholy spectacle, a bankrupt school; and the last time I heard of Doctor Brushback, it was on a charge (unfounded, of course) at the Public Office, Bow Street, of being drunk and disorderly in the gallery of Drury Lane Theatre Was not our mansion, after this, Minerva House Finishing Academy for Young Ladies? Surely so. The Misses Gimp devoted themselves to the task of tuition with a high sense of its onerous duties, and strenuously endeavoured to combine careful maternal supervision with the advantages of a finished system of polite education (vide ‘Times’). But the neighbourhood was prejudiced against the scholastic profession, and the Misses Gimp found few scholars, and fewer friends. Subsequently, their crack scholar, Miss Mango, the heiress, eloped with Mr. De Lypey, professor of dancing, deportment, and calisthenics. The resident Parisienne married Mr. Tragacanth, assistant to Mr. Poppyed, the chemist, and the Misses Gimp went to ruin or Boulogne. I lost sight of my mansion about here—for a [-222-]time at least. It must, however, have been rented by Captain Vere do Vere Delamere, and his family, who paid nobody, and, owing innumerable quarters for rent, were eventually persuaded to remove by a bribe from the landlord. Or was the mansion ever in the occupation of the celebrated Mr. Nix, who said he belonged to the Stock Exchange, and removed in the midst of winter, and at the dead of night, taking with him, over and above his own furniture, a few marble mantel-pieces, register stoves, and other trifles in the way of fixtures? Or was this mansion the one taken by Mr. Pluffy, immensely rich, but very eccentric, who turned his nephews and nieces out of doors, painted all the windows a bright red, kept a tame hyaena, and persisted in standing outside his gate on Sunday mornings with nothing on, to speak of, save a leather apron and a meerschaum, assuring the public generally that he was Peter the Great?
I glance again at the advertisement, and find my mansion described as a ‘noble’ one. In that case I should say it was in some nice, marshy, swampy, reedy part of Essex, where the owls scream, and the frogs croak blithely at night. There are two stone hawks sculptured abode the gates; a garden, as tangled and savage-looking as an Indian jungle; a dried-up fountain; and maimed, broken-nosed, mildewed statues, tottering on moss and weed-covered pedestals. In the old time, the Earl of Elbowsout lived at the ‘noble’ mansion; but his lordship afterwards resided in sunny Italy for many years, deriving immense benefit (not pecuniary, of course) from a judicious consumption of Professor Paracelsus’s pills. He left an heir; and whenever Inspector Beresford was wont to force open the door of some harmless house in Jermyn Street, with sledge hammers, you would be pretty sure to find, among the list of prisoners, conveyed to Vine Street, on a suspicion of indulging in the forbidden game of chicken-hazard, the names of Robert Smith or of John Brown; one of whom, you might have been as certain, was no other than Lord Viscount Hawker, his lordship’s son.
‘Convenient Mansion,’ says the 'Times' again. Ah! I know, A big, square block of a house, very small windows, iron- barred, and a high wall inside. Just suitable for Doctor Muffles’s asylum for the insane; plenty of cold water laid on. Very convenient !—Family Mansion, Plenty of bed-rooms, high gate on the nursery-stairs, stables, coach-house, and detached room, for the gardener.— 'Picturesque Mansion.' [-223-] Decidedly picturesque, but damp. Picturesque in proportion to its ruin, and out of all habitable repair. Thomas Hood wrote a beautiful poem once, of a Picturesque Mansion —A Haunted House—and which has haunted me ever since. The choked-up moat; the obscene birds, that flapped their wings on the roof; the foul insects, that wove webs inside; the gaunt rats, that held unholy gambols in the kitchen; the weed-grown courtyard, window-sills, and door-steps; the damp feculence, dust, dirt, rust, a bout all or everything; the one Sunbeam, coming through a grimed window, and illuminating a bloody hand. There had been a murder done there, and the house was haunted. I can well believe it. I, too, saw, once upon a time, a mansion, where a foul and wicked murder had been done. I saw labourers searching the muddy moat for the weapons of the assassins; I was taken to see the corridor where the deed had been done; and I followed the footsteps of the murderer through mud and slush, snow and straw, from the mansion to the farm he lived at. I never read poor hood’s plaintive poem without thinking that Stanfield Hall—shut up, un-tenanted, moat-dried—would be a very counterpart, now, of the house he shadowed forth.
Not, however, to forget Houses to Let. Shall I take the Bachelor’s Residence? An invisible hand points to Highgate—an inward feeling suggests Mitcham. I go for Crickle wood: Kilburn is too near, and Edgeware too far; but Cricklwood holds a juste milieu between them. I can see the Bachelor’s Residence—a pert, smart, snug, little habitation, standing alone, mostly; for your bachelor is incorrigible (steady or fast) with regard to musical instruments. Your fast bachelor will manage the Redowa on the cornet-a-piston; and your steady one, set ‘Ah! non giunge,’ to hard labour on the flute—but all will practise; and—should their bachelors’ quarters happen to be supported, right and left, by family residences—the inhabitants of Acacia Terrace or Plantain Grove are apt to become remarkably disagreeable in their reclamations to the bachelor himself. The bachelor is a bank-clerk, very likely, or a stock-broker, not over-plethoric just yet with profits; or a young fellow with a small independence. He has a front garden and a back garden; both, ten to one, provided with a trim little summer-house, where he is very fond of sitting on fine afternoons with his friends, clad in bachelor-like deshabille, consuming the grateful beer of Bass, and gently whiffing the cutty-pipe of Milo, or the meerschaum. [-224-] He has flowers, but has a faint idea that the tobacco-smoke does not do them any good. He has a housekeeper—generally middle-aged, and frequently deaf—many friends, more pipes. and frequently an anomalous kind of little vehicle, drawn by an eccentric pony, and which he calls his ‘trap.’ Sunday is his great day. All his fly-rods, fishing-tackle, gardening implements, guns, rabbit-hutches, and pipe-racks, are overhauled on that day; grave judgments are passed on the dogs and horses of his friends; and an impervious cloud of Bird’s-eye or Oronooko hangs about the little summer-houses. But the bachelor marries; goes a little too fast, perhaps, or dies (for, alas! even bachelors must die) ; and so his Bachelor’s Residence is To Let.
The Desirable Residence. I have the secret of that ‘House to Let,’ I will be bound. A lodging-house! What could there be more desirable, in the way of a residence, than that, I should like to know? Twelve-roomed house, in Manchester Street, Manchester Square. Blue damask curtains in the first-floor windows; red ditto in the parlour windows; a neverdisappearing placard, of Apartments Furnished (for however full the lodging-house may be, it always seems to have a marvellous capacity for holding more); and area railings, frequently enlivened and ornamented by the three-quarter portrait of a pretty servant maid. Whenever you see the butcher, or the baker, or the grocer’s man, at the door of the Desirable Residence, you will be sure, if you watch, to see him produce a red account-book; for people who keep lodging-houses invariably run bills with tradesmen, probably to give an air of veracity and colourable truth to the persevering assertion made to their lodgers, that they have a little bill to pay to-morrow, If the lady who keeps the Desirable Residence is married, you will not be very far out, if you assert that her husband has something to do with the Docks, or that he is a barrister’s clerk, in good practice. You can’t be wrong, if you set him down as an indifferently-dressed man, with an umbrella, who, whenever he speaks to you, calls you ‘ Sir.’ if your landlady should happen to be a widow, take my word for it, that 'she was not always in these circumstances;' that her late husband’s executors have used her shamefully; and that she has a pretty daughter or niece.
Unless I am very far out in my theory, the ‘Substantial Residence’ is a lodging-house too, and the ‘ Genteel Residence’ not very far from it. Cecil Street, Strand, for the former, and [-225-] Camberwell for the latter, would not be very wide of the mark. Cecil Street is full of substantial houses, in which lodgers, sometimes not quite so substantial as the houses, continually dwell. The prices of provisions are high in Cecil Street, and the quantity of nourishment they afford far from considerable. Penny loaves are twopence each, and you can’t get more than one dinner off a leg of mutton. The profits arising from the avocations of the landladies of substantial residences must be so large, that I wonder they ever come to be advertised as ‘to let’ at all. Perhaps it is that they make their fortunes, and migrate to the ‘elegant residence,' or the ‘distinguished residence.’
Am I wrong in placing the locale of these two last species of ‘Houses to Let,’ in Belgravia and Tyburnia? They may, after all, be wasting their elegance and their distinction in Golden Square, Ely Place, or Kennington Oval. Yet I am always coming across, and reading with great unction, paragraphs in the newspapers, setting forth that, ‘after the marriage of Miss Arabella Constantia Tanner, daughter of Hyde Tanner, Esq., of the firm of Bender, Cooter, and Tanner, of Lombard Street, to the Honourable Captain Casey, son of Lord Latitat, the happy couple partook of a magnificent déjeuner at the elegant residence of the bride’s father in Hyde Park Gardens;’ or else it is, that ‘last evening the Earl and Countess of Hammersmith and Ladies Barnes (2), Sir ,John Bobcherry, Pillary Pacha, &c., &c., honoured Sir Styles and Lady Springer with their company to dinner at their distinguished residence in Eaton Place.’ I can always imagine tall footmen, magnificent and serene in plush and embroidery, lolling at the doors of elegant and distinguished residences. I don’t think I can be very far wrong. I reside, myself, over a milk-shop, and I know that to be neither an elegant nom a distinguished residence; but are there not both elegance and distinction in the stately Belgrave Square, and the lofty Westbourne Grove?
Coming, in the pursuit of this superficial examination of ‘Houses to Let,’ I stop puzzled at the word ‘House,’ simple, unadulterated, unaccompanied with eulogy, or explanatory prefix. I have my theory about it, thought it may be but a lame one. The lone, silent ‘House’ must be like that celebrated one at the corner of Stamford Street, Blackfriars, which, with its two companions, everybody has seen, and nobody knows the history of—a house unlet, unletable, yet [-226-] always to let. Now, a house agent having any bowels whatsoever, could not call this a desirable house, nor a convenient house, nor an elegant house So, being too good a man of business to call it an ill-favoured house, a dirty house, and a villanous house, as it is, he calls it a ‘House.’ A house it is, sure enough, just as a horse, albeit spavined, wind-galled, glandered, staggered, lame, blown, a kicker and a roarer is a horse still. But what a horse, and what a house!
A‘Genteel House’ seems to me different to a genteel residence. The latter’s use I have elsewhere hinted at; the former I take to be situate somewhere in Gower Street, Keppel Street, or Guildford Street, or in some of those mysterious thoroughfares you are always getting into when you don’t want them, and never can find when you do. In the genteel house, I should think, two maiden ladies must have lived—sisters probably; say, the Miss Twills, whose father was Twills of Saint Mary-Axe, sugar-baker; and whose brother, Mr. Twills, in partnership with Mr. Squills, can be found in Montague Place, Bedford Square, where the two carry on a genteel business as surgeons arid apothecaries. The Miss Twills kept a one-horse fly (not one of your rakish-looking broughams, be it understood), with a corpulent horse (serious of disposition, and given to eating plum-cake when he could get if), and a mild-looking coachman, who carried a hymnbook in his pocket. One day, however, I surmise, Miss Jessy Twills, the youngest and prettiest sister (she did not mind owning to forty) married the Reverend Felix Spanker, of Saint Blazer’s Chapel, in Milman Street. Miss Betsy Twills went to live with her married sister (the two lead the poor parson a terrible life between them, and Felix is more irate in the pulpit against the Pope than ever), and the genteel residence took its place in the category of ‘Houses to Let.’
The ‘Detached House’ bears its peculiar characteristic on its front; it stands alone, and nothing more can be said about it; but with the ‘semi-detached house’ there is a subtle mystery, much to be marvelled at. Semi-detached! Have the party-walls between two houses shrunk, or is there a bridge connecting the two, as in Mr. Beckford’s house in Landsdown Crescent, Bath? A semi-detached house may be a house with a field on one side and a bone-boiling factory on the other. Semi-detached may mean half-tumbling to pieces. I must inquire into it.
The ‘mansion,’ the ‘residence,’ and the ‘house,’ seem to [-227-] indicate dwellings of some considerable degree of importance and extent; the ‘villa,’ the ‘cottage,’ and the ‘lodge,’ seem to indicate smaller places of abode, thought perhaps equalling, if not surpassing, their contemporaries in elegance, gentility, distinction, convenience, desirableness, substantiality, &c., &c. There is one thing, however, certain about the villa —one sound basis to go upon, which we do not possess as regards the ‘house.’ The ‘house’ is ambiguously situated, it may be, in Grosvenor Square, in Pall Mall, or in Brick Lane, Spitalfields, or Crown Street, Seven Dials; but the villa is necessarily suburban. You could not call a house (however small it might be) situated between a pie-shop and a public-house, a ‘villa.’ A four-roomed house in Fleet Street would be a novelty, and if you were to call it a Gothic lodge, would be a greater novelty still; while Covent Garden Market, or Long Acre, would scarcely be the locale for a cottage ornée, or an Italian villa. I recognise cottages, villas, and lodges, with the addition of ‘hermitages.’ ‘priories,’ ‘groves,’ ‘boxes,’ ‘retreats,’ &c., on all suburban reads;—in Kensington, Hammersmith, and Turnham Green; in Kingsland, Hackney, and Dalston; in Highgate, Hampstead, and Hornsey; in Camberwell, Peckham, and Kennington; in Paddington, Kilburn, and Cricklewood; their roads, approaches, and environs, inclusive. And a fair proportion do these suburbs contribute to the ‘Houses to Let’ in the Supplement of the ‘Times.’
The ‘villa standing in its own grounds’ is generally suggestive of stockbrokers. Great people are these stockbrokers for villas; for driving mail-phaetons, or wide-awake looking dog-carts; for giving capital dinners and wine. The young man who has a stockbroker for a friend, has need but to trouble himself only concerning his lodging and washing; his board will take care of itself, or, rather, will be amply taken care of in the villa of his Amphitryon. Next, I should say, to a decided penchant for giving and taking the longest of odds, and a marked leaning towards the purchase and sale of horseflesh, hospitality is the most prominent characteristic of a stockbroker. He is always ‘wanting to stand’ something. His bargains are made over sherry and sandwiches; he begins and ends the day with conviviality. What a pity it is that his speculations should fail sometimes, and that his clients should lose their money, and himself be 'sold up'—ostracised from ‘Change, driven to dwell among the tents [-228-] of Boulogne-sur-Mer, or the cities of refuge of Belgium, the boorish and the beery ! Else would he be living in his own ground-surrounded villa to this day, instead of its being confided to the tender mercies of Messrs. Hammer and Rapps, auctioneers and house-agents, as a ‘Villa to Let.’
‘An Italian Villa to Let.’ Pretty, plausible, but deceptive. The house-agent who devised the Italian prefix was a humbug. Start not, reader, while I whisper in your ear. The Italian villa is a shabby little domicile, only Italian in so much as it possesses Venetian blinds. I know it; for I, who speak, have been egregiously sold, lamentably taken in, by this mendacious villa.
‘A Villa to Let,’ again. Not elegant, desirable, distinguished, nor Italian; but a villa. It has bow-windows, I will go bail. A green verandah over the drawing-room window, for a trifle. Two bells, one for visitors, and one for servants. The villa is suitable for Mr. Covin (of the firm of Feraud and Covin, solicitors), who has been importuned so long by Mrs. Covin to abandon his substantial residence in Bedford Row, that he has at last acceded to her wishes. Covin is a portly man, with a thick gold chain, a bald head, and a fringe of black whisker, he is fond of a peculiarly fruity port, like black-currant jam diluted with treacle and water: and his wife’s bonnet-box is a japanned tin-coffer, labelled ‘Mr. Soldoff’s estate.’ He won’t live in the villa long, because he will get tired of it, and long for Bedford Row again, with its pleasant odour of new vellum and red tape. He will let it to Mr. Runt, the barrister, in ‘chamber’ practice, or Mr. Muscovado, the sugar-broker of Tower Street, or Mrs. Lopp, the comfortably-circumstanced widow, who was so stanch a friend to the Reverend Silas Chowler; the same who, in imitation of the famous Mr. Huntingdon, S.S., called himself H.B.B., or half-Burnt Brand.
What should the ‘cottage ornée’ be like, I should wish to know (to jump from villas to cottages), but that delightful little box of a place at Dulwich, where a good friend of mine was wont (wont, alas!) to live. The strawberries in the garden; the private theatricals in the back parlour; the pleasant excursions on week days to the old College—(God bless old Thomas Alleyne and Sir Francis Bourgeois, I say! had the former done nothing worthier of benediction in his life than found the dear old place, or the latter not atoned for all the execrably bad modern pictures he painted in his life-[-229-]time, by the exquisitely beautiful ancient ones he left us at his death) ;—the symposium in the garden on Sundays; the clear church-bells ringing through the soft summer air; the pianoforte in the boudoir, and Gluck’s ‘ Che faro senza Euridice?’ lightly, gently elicited from the silvery keys (by hands that are cold and powerless now), wreathing through the open window; the kind faces and cheerful laughter, the timid anxiety of the ladies concerning the last omnibus home at night, and the cheerful recklessness with which they subsequently abandoned that last omnibus to its fate, and conjectured impossibly fortuitous conveyances to town, conjectures ultimately resolving themselves into impromptu beds, How many a time have I had a shake-down on the billiard-table of the cottage ornée? How many a time——but my theme is of Houses to Let.
And of ‘Houses to Let,’ I have been unconscionably garrulous, without being usefully communicative. I have said too much, and yet not half enough. In houses, I am yet at fault about the little mushroom-like rows of flimsy-looking tenements that spring up on every side in and about the suburbs; in brick-fields, in patches of ground where rubbish was formerly shot, and vagabond boys turned ever three times for a penny. I have yet to learn in what species of ‘House to Let’ the eccentric gentleman formerly resided, who never washed himself for five-and-forty years, and was supposed to scrape himself with an oyster-shell after the manner of the Caribbees; where it was, whether in a house, a villa, a residence, or a cottage, that the maiden lady entertained the fourteen tom cats, that slept each in a four-post bedstead, and were fed, all of them, on turtle soup. I want to know what 'every convenience' means. I should like to have some further information as to what ‘a select number’ actually implies. I am desirous of ascertaining in what category of ‘Houses to Let’ a house-agent would rank a tenantless theatre, a chapel without a congregation or a minister, an empty brewery, or a deserted powder-mill.
Finally, I should like to know what a ‘cottage’ is. Of the cottage ornée I have spoken; the compact cottage, the detached cottage, the semi-detached cottage, speak for themselves; but I am as much puzzled about the simple cottage as about the simple house, mansion, or villa. In my youth I had a chimera of a cottage, and drew rude outlines thereof on a slate. It had quadrangular tiles, a window immediately [-230-] above the door, palings at the side, and smoke continually issuing from the chimney. Its architecture was decidedly out of the perpendicular; afterwards, perusing works of a rural and pastoral description, a cottage became to me a little paradise of ivy, and honeysuckles, and woodbine. It had a pretty porch, where a young lady in a quilted petticoat, and a young gentleman in a flapped waistcoat, both after the manner (and a very sweet one it is) of Mr. Frank Stone, made first an last appeals to each other all the year round. That was in the time of roses. The times have changed, and I, so I suppose, have changed with them. The roses that remain to us, brother, when our hair becomes inclined to the grizzly, we feel disposed to look commercially upon, and to make money of. Yes; the fairest rose-leaves from Damascus’s garden will we sell to Messrs. Piesse and Lubin for the making of attar; even as Olympia, at sixty, sells the love-letters of her youth to Messrs Hotpress and Co, publishers, to make three volumes octave of ‘memoirs.’ I am sceptical, ignorant, undecided, about the cottage now. Sometimes it is the slate-pencil cottage, sometimes the Frank Stone one, sometimes the cottage of the sixpenny valentines, quitting which, by a bright yellow serpentine path, a gentleman in a blue coat, and a lady in a pink dress, wend their way to the altar of Hymen. Sometimes, O reader of mine! I see other cottages, dreadful cottages, squalid cottages, cottages in Church Lane, Saint Giles’s, where frowsy women in tattered shawls crouch stolidly on the door-step; where ragged, filthy children wallow with fowls and pigs amidst the dirt and squalor. Sometimes I see cottages in my fondly pictured rural districts— cottages dilapidated, half unroofed, where gaunt agricultural labourers are sullenly wrangling with relieving-officers; where white-headed, brick-dust faced children cry for bread; where mother is down with the fever, and grandmother bedridden, yet querulously refusing to go into the dreaded ‘House.’
Perhaps I am wrong in all this. Perhaps all these theories about mansions, residences, houses, villas, and the inexplicable cottages, after all may be but wild and improbable theories—crude, vague, purposeless speculations. But I have said my say, and shall be wiser some day, I hope, in other matters besides ‘Houses to Let.’