Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 22 - Tattyboys Renters

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THAT gregarious tendency common to men, as well as to the inferior orders of animation, that leads the devouring lion to howl in company with his fellows, minnows to flow together into the net of the snarer, herrings to be taken in shoals of thousands, blacklegs to horde with blacklegs, lords with lords, children with children, birds of a feather, in fact, human as well as ornithological, to flock together—has brought a considerable number of eccentric parties together in Tattyboys Rents. For the Rents being decidedly eccentric of themselves as Rents, it was but natural and to be expected that at least one party of eccentric character should, in the first instance, come to reside in them. After this it was not of course surprising, carrying out the birds-of-a-feather theory, that other eccentric parties should come and join party number one; and the glorious yet natural result has been, that we possess in Tattyboys Rents perhaps as queer a lot of parties as you could find (though we are perfectly solvent) out of Queer Street.
    I strove so hard, remis atque velis, in the first instance, to give you as sufficient an idea of the Rents, architecturally speaking, that I had little space to dilate on the characteristics of the inhabitants. You might have been able to discern something like eccentricity in Miss Tattyboys, but I cannot bring her forward with anything like certainty as a character; she is so unsubstantial, so mythic. As it has been often and bitterly complained of by her tenants—you don’t know where to have her. But the Rents can boast [-246-] other characters about whom there is no mistake, who stand out in bold and well-defined relief, and who, whether trades­men or dealing at one another’s shops, are emphatically rum customers. Will you allow me to introduce you to a few? You will? Mumchance, stand forth!
    Right up at the further end of the Rents, where the thoroughfare is blockaded by the high frowning walls of Smelt and Pigg’s foundry, dwells, in a house—one of the dingiest, shabbiest, queerest houses in Tattyboys Rents— P.R. Mumchance. Would you know for what stand the initials P. R. ? For Peter Robert, haply? For Peregrine Reuben, or Pietro Rolando, or Paul Ralph? Not at all. Mumchance’s father (commonly known as Old Nutcrackers, from the strong development of his facial muscles) was a great admirer—some say friend and creditor——of that virtuous, illustrious, and magnanimous prince, the penultimate possessor of the British throne; and young Mumchance, being born about the year eighteen hundred and eleven, was christened, in a moment of loyal enthusiasm, Prince Regent Mumchance. This curious Christian name is a sore point and grievous stumbling-block with Mumchance. The Prince Regent is his old man of the sea, his white elephant of Ava. He is fond of political discussion. What could an individual bearing so illustrious a name be but an out-and-out, an ultra-cerulean Conservative? So Mumchance is a Tory of the bitterest and bluest description; and as the majority of the Renters are as bitter Radicals, opposing rates, taxes, rents, or indeed any other imposts, vehemently, the discussions that nightly take place in the parlour of the Cape of Good Hope are not of the pleasantest description. Moreover, Mumchance is fond of his glass; and could you expect an individual bearing the august name of the great champion of rare beverages (it is whispered, even, the inventor of hock and soda-water) to consume such vulgar liquids as porter, or gin, or rum? No. P. R. Mumchance never asks you if you will take a glass of ale, or a ‘drain’ of gin. ‘Glass of sherry wine, sir?’ is the Prince Regent’s hospitable interrogatory; and a good many glasses of sherry wine does the Prince Regent take in the course of the twenty-four hours.
    Mumchance keeps a shop—a stationer’s shop. He sells stationery, account-books, slates and slate-pencils, tops, marbles, string, paste, and, by some curious idiosyncracy, pickles. How he got into that line, or how he can reconcile [-247-] pickles with writing-paper, I cannot imagine; but there are the pickles—walnut, onion, and mixed—in big earthen jars; and at all hours of the day you may see small brigades of children bearing halfpence and cracked teacups or gallipots, bound to Mumchance’s for ‘a pennorth of pickles, please.’
    But pray don’t think that although Mumchance is a stationer and account-book manufacturer, his shop is at all like a stationer’s. Not at all. It is considerably more like the warehouse of a wholesale tobacconist who has sold his stock out; and it has, if I must be candid, a considerable dash of the marine-store and of the rag-shop. There is a ghostly remnant of a whilom gigantic pair of scales; there are mysterious tubs and packing-cases, and bulging parcels tied with rotten cord. Mumchance does not deny that he buys waste-paper; the evil-minded whisper that he buys and sells rags: nay, old Mrs. Brush, the veteran inhabitant alluded to in a former paper, minds the time when a doll—a real black doll—swung backward and forward in the wind over the door of Toby, commonly bight old Nutcrackers, the father of Prince Regent Mumchance.
    That Mumchance is mad many have declared; but I, for one, do not believe it. That Mumchance is queer, very queer in manners, appearance, and general character, no one can deny. He is an undersized man, whose portrait can be succinctly drawn if I tell you that he is an utter stranger to the brush. By the brush I mean the clothes-brush, and the hat-brush, the hair-brush, the tooth-brush, the nail-brush, and, I may add, the flesh-brush. Buhl-work is a beautiful style of ornamentation, so is marqueterie, so is Venetian mosaic; but when you happen to find buhl, marqueterie, and mosaic, all represented in a gentleman’s face and hands by a complicated inlaying and ingraining of dirt, the spectacle will hardly be so pleasant, I fancy, as examples of the same arts in a cabinet, an escrutoire, or the cupola of St. Mark’s Church. So mosaicised is Mumchance. Bets have been freely made that he never washes; but he has been observed to rub his face occasionally with a very mouldy pocket-handkerchief of no discoverable size or colour, conjectured to be either a fragment of an old window-blind, or one of the ancient rags purchased by his father Toby in the way of business. Even this occasional friction of his countenance, however, is not supposed to advance in Mumchance the cause of that state which is said to be next to godliness; he wipes his face indeed; but [-248-] he only removes the impurities of the day, of the hour, to show, in all its distinctness, the inlaid dirt of perchance years. It is just as when examining an old picture you pass a wet cloth over its surface; and lo! the mellowness of centuries becomes visible to you beneath.
    Mumchance’s head is, if I may use the expression, rhomboidal. His hair is, as before stated, utterly unbrushed, somewhat of the colour of an unbaked brick, and generally in a state which I may characterize as fluffy. In fact, minute particles of straw, paper, cotton, bread, and other foreign substances, may freely be detected on its surface by the naked eye alone, which may partially be accounted for, by his carrying most of his purchases, sometimes his letters, and always his lunch, in his hat. His whiskers, which are of the same colour, or the same state of discoloration, as his hair, do not appear to have made up their minds yet as to where they shall settle, and have grown irregularly about his face, just as hirsute things happened to turn up. his complexion I may describe heraldically as a field gules, semé (I believe that is the word) with sable or dirt. No sign of shirt appears in the entire Mumchance. A big black stock confines his neck, and to his chin rises his closely-buttoned blue swallow-tailed coat—that woeful blue coat with the odd buttons once gilt, and once tightly sewn on, but now drooping like Ophelia’s willow, askant the brook; the sleeves too short, the tails too long, the coat with many darns, and the nap all turned the wrong way. Add to this coat (without the connecting isthmus of a waistcoat) a pair of corduroy trousers, of which the pockets, apparently disgusted with their long seclusion, have burst forth to see the world, and stand agape, on Mumchance’s hips, at that world’s wonders; suppose these trousers to be much frayed at the bottom, much inked (he makes calculations on their knees frequently), and much too short, and conclude them with Wellington boots, patched till they resembled that knight’s silk stockings that were darned so frequently that they changed their texture from silk to worsted—and you have Mumchance before you, all but his shamble, his watery eye, his rich though somewhat husky voice.
    For all his shabby appearance, however, once a year Mumchance throws aside his chrysalis garb, and comes forth a full- blown butterfly. Once a year he dines with his Company— the Stationers—at the grand old hall in the dim regions of the city; for Mumchance is a citizen, a liveryman, a worshipful [-249-] stationer—who but he—and so was Toby his father before him. He goes to the dinner of his Company, clean, rosy, shaven, with a shirt, aye, and a shirt frill, a blue coat and gilt buttons, but new, glossy, well brushed, a shiny hat, and shiny boots. Thus he goes; but how he comes back no inhabitant of Tattyboys Rents has ever been able to discover. The policeman should know; but he affects ignorance; and though I do not wish to impute corruption to that functionary, it is certain that Mumchance is always leaving private drains of liquor for him at the bar of the Cape of Good Hope, for at least a week following his Company’s dinner.
    Some of the renters have affirmed that they have heard with the chimes at midnight dismal ditties trolled forth in incoherent accents; and these are surmised to have issued from Mumchance while in a state of conviviality, and to have been occult Stationers’ songs, taught him along with the other arts and mysteries of the worshipful craft in his earliest youth. Mrs. Mumchance (an elongated female of an uncertain age, with a vexed cap and a perturbed gown) is a lady with a fixed idea. That idea is Fisher. Fisher, whether he be the family doctor, lawyer, nearest kinsman, dearest friend, or most valued adviser, is at all events Mrs. Mumchance’s Law and Prophet. Fisher recommends her change of air. Fisher has inexorably prophesied her dissolution within six calendar months, if she continues worreting herself about her family. Fisher warned her against the second floor lodger, who ran away without paying his rent. Fisher advises her to stand it no longer with Mr. Mumchance’s recalcitrant debtors, but to employ Barwise, and summons them all forthwith. When Fisher said Mrs. Mumchance, said he, beware of Mrs. Tuckstrap, were not those the words of truth? On all emergencies, in all difficulties and dilemmas, Mrs. Mumchance throws herself upon Fisher, He is intimately mixed up with the whole family. Mumchance professes the highest respect and veneration for him. Mr. Fisher he says, a man of the first, of the very first. Coat buttoned up to here, sir. Great friend of poor father’s, sir. Frequently does he escape curtain lectures on late and vinous returns to his Lares and Penates on the plea that he has been ‘along with Fisher.’ If you ask Charley, Mumchance’s youngest, who his godfather was, he will answer, ‘Missa Fisser;’ if you ask him who or what Missa Fisser, or Fisher may be, he will answer, a ‘chown;’ from which, however, it is not to be inferred absolutely that Fisher is connected with the stage in a red ochre [-250-] and bismuth view as a clown; Charley’s ideas of trades and professions being necessarily vague as yet; and his whole bump of admiration having been so engrossed by a pantomimic performance of which he was lately the spectator, that he applies the epithet chown, or clown, to everything great, or good, or pleasant; being even known to address as chown, horses, sweetstuff, hoopsticks, fenders, and halfpence.
    I never had the pleasure of seeing Fisher; but Mrs. Brush, the oldest inhabitant, has seen him, and describes him as a pleasant-spoken body. Mrs. Spileburg, of the Cape of Good Hope, declares him to he a born gentleman, as takes his drink quite hearty like, which it would do you good to see. I should like to know Fisher.
    Mumchance has an indefinite number of children. I say indefinite, for they are always being born and going out to service, and walking out with Tom or Dick So and So, and marrying, and so on. There is always, however, an eldest daughter Annie, tall, lanky, and fourteen, who must begin to do something for herself shortly, and a youngest boy, at present Chancy; but the whole family have such a curious way of shooting up and growing into maturity suddenly, that I should. not be at all surprised on my next visit to the Rents to learn that Annie was suckling her second, or that Charley had enlisted in the Life Guards.
    Mumchance’s trade and manner of doing business, puzzle and amaze me sorely. Men repute him to be wealthy: I know he spends a great deal of money, yet I seldom see him sell anything more considerable than a ha’porth of slate pencil, a sheet of writing-paper, a penn’orth of wafers, or a penny bottle of ink. The man who could purchase a quire of fools­cap, or half gross of steel pens, was never yet known, I opine, to enter Mumchance’s. He tries to force the market some­times, and to create a factitious excitement about his wares, by displaying in front of his establishment placards in pen and ink, containing such announcements as ‘Cheapest wafers in the world!’ ‘Paper down again!’ ‘Great news!’ ‘Ink a penny a bottle;’ but the passers-by regard these notifications irreverently, and point to the inferior quality of the paper and ink of the placard, in depreciation of the stationery within: nay, even raise objections against Mumchance’s pens, because Mumchance’s writing is none of the best, and his orthography none of the most correct.
    Mumchance puts the coldness of the public all down to the [-251-] fault of the times. What’s the good of painting the shop, sir? he asks. Poor father never did, sir, and we had nobility here. Nobility, sir. But look at the times. Would nobility come here now, sir?
    I generally admit, when Mumchance asks me this question,. that nobility would not.
    ‘That’s it, sir,’ says Mumchance triumphant (he always says sir, even to the ragged little boys who come in for a penn’orth of pickles). ‘That’s it, it’s the times. Nobody buys stamps now a days. In poor father’s time, we sold millions of stamps, sir. Lord Cabus, sir. Proud man, sir. Coat buttoned up to here, sir. Sit on the counter, sir. All in black, sir, with his coat buttoned. Mumchance, he’d say to poor father, Mumchance, bless your eyes, fifty pounds’ worth of bill stamps. Proud man, sir, Lord Cabus; never would take hold of the handle of the door with his hand; always took the tail of his coat to it, like this, sir,’ and Mumchance suits the action to the word.
    I may remark as one of the most eccentric among Mumchance’s idiosyncracies that the very great majority of his titled or celebrated acquaintances are always dressed in black, and have their coats buttoned up to here, meaning the chin. Thus, when Mumchance went to see Edmund Kean, and there was, in consequence of a certain trial, a violent commotion in the house against the tragedian, Mumchance described Kean as coming forward to address the audience attired in black, with his coat buttoned up to here. Similarly attired, according to Mumchance, was wont to be the famous Jack Thurtell, who was a great customer of poor father’s, for bill stamps. Likewise all in black, with coats buttoned up to here, were a mysterious company of four-and-twenty forgers who, according to Mumchance, were discovered sitting round a long table with a green baize cover (forging with all their might and main, I presume), vy Townshend the officer (vide Little Blitsom Street gang). I can imagine Townshend with his coat buttoned up; but with the traditions of his white hat, red waistcoat, and top boots, still in my mind, I cannot form to myself an idea of him —all in black.
    The number of extraordinary characters with whom Mumchance has been acquainted and connected, and whose little peculiarities he descants upon, is astonishing. His anecdotes bearing upon Colonel Bubb alone, would fill a volume. The Colonel is to Mumchance what Fisher is to Mrs. M. On all [-252-] political, parochial, financial, and social questions, he is his chief adviser, and his heroic advice is ordinarily, ‘Mumchance, be firm.’ I met Mumchance once, just before the opening of a session of Parliament by her gracious Majesty. There had been some silly mares-nests found about that time by some sillier politicians, and grim whispers circulated about an illustrious personage, treason, the Tower, tampering with treaties, and such twepenny trash. Mumchance was full of it. He had scarcely time to gasp out his customary invite of ‘glass of sherry wine, sir, and a crust?’ and to dive into a previously invisible public-house (he knows all the slip-in and slip-out public-houses in London), before he had me fast with Colonel Bubb on the illustrious question. Saw him this morning, sir. Got his leathers on, sir (I conjecture the Colonel to be in the cavalry). Got his cloak over his leathers, sir (a cloak this time, but well buttoned up you may be sure of it). Mumchance, he says, I’ve got my army in the park. Drawn up (in their leathers, I suppose). Mumchance, blood before night. Blood! With which horrifying conclusion, Colonel Bubb departed in his leathers, as Mumchance took care supplementarily to inform me, to rejoin his army. I did go down to the park that day, where I saw the usual number of big lifeguardsmen; but I missed Colonel Bubb, his cloak, and his leathers, and I saw no blood, either that night or the next.
    I cannot part with Mumchance without telling you that in his crazy, dingy, unpainted house in Tattyboys Rents he has something else besides slate-pencils, pickles, and penny bottles of ink. Up stairs, amid much dirt, and dust, and flew, he has some nobly carved oaken bedsteads and rare old cabinets filled with real porcelain, yet rarer, and yet older. Also down in his cellar Mumchance has stores of considerable value. Here, among the dirt and dust, and above a sort of subsoil of the rags in which Mumchance was libellously supposed to deal, lie hundreds of books, many of them bygone and worthless pamphlets and tracts, but many rare and beautiful copies of expensive works. How he came by these Mumchance vouch­safes not to tell; neither will he explain how he became possessed of the copper-plates engraved in line and mezzotinto and aquatint, which lumber the floor, and on whose dusky surfaces I can observe dim shadowings of landscapes after Wilson, and beauties after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Poor father would appear to have had something to do with the original acquisition of these rarities, and the hardness of the times to [-253-] prevent their conversion into money; so here they, and proofs from the plates themselves, and the books, and papers, and rags, all mildew and rot in Mumchance’s cellar.
    Rummaging among the heap one day I found a huge oak-bound, iron-clasped volume, written in black and red letter on vellum in Saxon and Latin. It was the Rent Roll of Glastonbury Abbey! I confess that I immediately broke the tenth commandment, and began to covet my neighbour’s goods; in fact, I offered Mumchance several small sums, increasing in amount at every bid, for the volume. He seemed at first disposed to acquiesce, but requested time in order that he might consult Fisher. The upshot of it was that Fisher, (seconded no doubt by Colonel Bubb) strongly advised him not to sell the book until the arrival of a lady—name unknown—then sojourning at Jerusalem, who knew all languages, and could read the volume, as easy as a glove. As I never saw the oak-bound volume again, and as I heard that Mumchance had sold it to the trustees of a public library for forty guineas, I concluded either that the lady possessing the lingual accomplishments had come back from Jerusalem rather sooner than was expected, or that Mumchance was not so mad as his neighbours took him to be.
    Thus have I drawn the portrait of Prince Regent Mumchance, en pied, yet still grossly, broadly, sketchily. Were I to stay to define, to detail, to stipple the little points of his character, as Mr. Holman Hunt does his faces, I should weary myself and you; nay, more than that, I should leave no space for a three-quarter portrait of another eccentric party in the Rents, old Signor Fripanelli.
    What Gian Battisto Girolamo Fripanelli of Bologna, professor of singing and the pianoforte, could have been about when he came to lodge at Miss Drybohn’s, number eighteen in the Rents, I am sure I don’t know, yet with Miss Drybohn he has lodged for very nearly twenty years. They say that he came over to England at the Peace of Amiens, that he was chapel-master to Louis the Sixteenth, and that he only escaped the guillotine during the reign of terror, by composing a Sonata for the fête of the Goddess of Liberty. At any rate he is of a prodigious age, although his stature is but diminutive. I regret to state that the boys call him Jacko, and shout that derisive appellation after him in the street. These unthinking young persons affect to trace a resemblance between the venerable Signor Fripanelli, and the degraded animal which [-254-] eats nuts and grins between the bars of a cage in the Zoological Gardens. To be sure, the Signor is diminutive in stature. His head is narrow and long, his ears are large, his eyes small, his cheekbones high, his complexion sallow and puckered into a thousand wrinkles; to be sure his hands are singularly long and bony, and he walks with a sort of stumbling hop, and is generally munching something between his sharp teeth, and has a shrill squeaking voice, and gesticulates violently when excited; but is a gentleman to be called Jacko—to be likened to a low monkey for these peculiarities? Signor Fripanelli wears, summer and winter, a short green cloak, adorned with a collar of the woolly texture, generally denominated poodle; a white hat stuck at the very back of his head, threadbare black pantoloons, and very roomy shoes with rusty strings. This costume he never varies. In it he goes out giving lessons; in it, less the hat, he sits at home at Miss Drybohn’s; in it he goes twice every Sunday, in his own simple, quiet, honest fashion to the Roman Catholic Chapel in Lateran Street, out of Turk’s Lane.
    It would seem to favour the insolent Jacko theory concerning the poor Signor that Miss Drybohn, who it is generally acknowledged has the worst tongue in her head of any spinster in the Rents, and who, though Fripanelli has lodged with her for twenty years, and has never been a fortnight behind-hand with his rent—that Miss Drybohn, I say, declares that when the Signor returns home at night and retires to his bed-room, which is immediately above hers, she always hears (though she knows that he is alone) the noise of four feet pattering above. She accuses nobody, she states nothing, but such (she says) it is—and the by-standers shake their heads and whisper that the Signor, on return home, fatigued with teaching, assumes his natural position—in other words, that he crawls about on all-fours, like a baboon on the branch of a tree. Horror!
    Seriously, although the little man is like a monkey, he is one of the bravest, worthiest, kindest creatures alive. He has very little money; none but those who know what the life of an obscure foreign music-master is can tell how difficult it is for him to live, much less to save, in England; but from his scanty means he gives freely to his poor fellow-countrymen, yea, and to aliens of other climes and other creeds. Fifteen years ago, the Signor had a fine connection among the proudest aristocracy of this proud land. Yes, he taught singing at [-255-] half a guinea a lesson, in Grosvenor Square, and Park Lane and Mayfair. You may see some of his old songs now yellow-tattered and fly-blown on the music book-stalls: Cabaletto, dedicated by permission to the most noble the Marchioness of Antidiloof, by her obliged, faithful, and humble servant, Gian Battisto Girolamo Fripanelli. Aria, inscribed with the most devoted sentiments of respect and reverence to Her Grace the Duchess of Fortherfludd, by Her Grace’s etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There have been scores of the fairest and noblest young English ladies, whose taper fingers have been taught by poor old Jacko to fall harmoniously upon the ivory keys, whose ruby lips and pearly teeth he has tutored with much stress of sol-faing, to give due and proper, and gentle, and impassioned utterance to the silver strains of Italian song. Gian Battisto has been asked to lunch by Dukes—aye, and to dinner too, and has sat next to Ambassadors and Plenipotentiaries—parties to the Holy Alliance and hung with stars and crosses, as that patient gentleman near the Bank of England (who also sells pocket­books) is with dog-collars. He has played the grandest of grand sonatas and symphonies on the grandest of pianofortes, at fashionable soirees; the fairest of the fair have brought him ices and macaroons; Lords, Baronets, and Chief Justices have called him Fripanelli, and given him to snuff out of their gold and jewelled boxes; and the list of his pupils, with their half-guinea lessons, has been at times so swollen, that, work from morning till night, however hard he might, some were sure to be in arrear.
    But, ah me! what changes take place in fifteen months— what Worlds are upheaved, demolished, and built up again in fifteen years; Fripanelli did not change! he had always been, or seemed to be, as old and as ugly as he was before; but fashion changed—time changed. The fifteen years in their remorseless whirl have caught him up scornfully from Grosvenor Square and the half-guinea lessons and have dropped him in Tattyboys Rents, to give lessons in singing, in instrumental music, in French, and even Italian, should the latter be required, in tenth-class schools, to the daughters of small tradesmen about the Rents and Blitsom Street, and Turk’s Lane, for a shilling a lesson, for sixpence a lesson, for seven shillings a quarter, for anything that poor Gian Battisto can get to buy a crust with.
    Such is life for Art in the world’s Rents, as well as Tatty­[-256-]boys’. The educated and titled mob, which is ten times more fickle, false, and capricious than the grossest Flemish rabble that ever idolized an Artevelde, or massacred a De Witt, will quietly drop you, when it has had enough of you, and will let you starve or die, or go hang, with admirable indifference and composure. And it serves you, and all other lions, thoroughly right, who have not had the modest manhood to be quietly superior to such mob, and to let it go its way. I do not say this of poor old Fripanelli, for he was a stranger in the land before he came to the Rents, and he may easily have taken its surface for its core.