Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 18 - Carefully Moved in Town and Country

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IF any reader of this book should require full and valuable information regarding the houses in the various suburbs of London, their size, rent, advantages and disadvantages, annual amount of sewer's rate and land-tax, soil, climate, quality of water, and other particulars, let him address a letter, post-paid, to "Wanderer," under Cover to the publishers, and he will have his heart's desire. I am "Wanderer," if you please, and I am in a position to give the information named; for, during the last ten years, I have led a nomadic and peripatetic existence; now becoming the tenant of a villa here, now blossoming as the denizen of a mansion there, sipping the sweets of the assessed taxes and the parochial rates, and then flying off, with my furniture in several large vans, to a distant neighbourhood. Want of money, possession of funds, hatred of town, detestation of the country, a cheerful misanthropy, and an unpleasant gregariousness - all these have, one by one, acted upon me, and made me their slave. What I have learned by sad experience, I now purpose to teach setting myself up as a pillar of example and warning to my dissatisfied fellow- creatures.
    Before I married, I lived in chambers in Piccadilly, kept my horse, belonged to the Brummel Club, and was looked [-191-] upon as rather a fine fellow; but when I married, my Uncle Snape (from whom I obtained the supplies for my expenses, and who was a confirmed woman-hater) at once stopped my allowance, and I had nothing but my professional earnings as an Old Bailey barrister, and a hundred a year which I had inherited. Under these circumstances I had intended going into lodgings; but my wife's family (I don't know exactly what that means: she has no mother, and her father never interferes with her or her sisters: I think it must be her Sisters who are the family, but we always speak of "the family ") were very genteel, and looked upon lodgings as low; so it was generally understood that I must take a house, and that "the family" would help to furnish it. I need not mention that there was a great discussion as to where the house should be. The family lived in St. John's Wood, and wished us to be near them; but the rents in that saintly neighbourhood were beyond my means, and, after a great deal of searching and heart-aching worry, after inspecting a dozen "exact things," "just what you wanted," and "such treasures!" found for me by friends, none of which would do, I at last took a house in Bass's Buildings, in the New Road. That great thoroughfare has since been subdivided, I think, but then it was the New Road stretching from Paddington to Islington, and our house was about a mile from the Paddington end. It was small, but so was the rent, sixty pounds a year, and it was quite large enough for my wife and me and our one servant. It had a little garden in front, between it and the road, with a straight line of flagstones leading direct from the gate to the doorsteps, and bits of flower-beds (in which nothing ever grew) intersected by little gravel-paths about a foot wide. This garden was a source of great delight to my humorous friends. One of them could be seen carefully putting one foot before the other, in order that he might not step off the path, and, after wandering in and out between the little beds, would [-192-] feign excessive fatigue on his arrival at the house, declaring he had been "lost in the shrubbery;" another would suggest that we should have a guide on the spot to show visitors the nearest way; while a third hoped we intended giving some out-door fetes in the summer, assuring us that the "band of the Life Guards would look splendid on that," pointing to a bit of turf about the size of a pocket-handkerchief. When the street-door was opened wide back, it entirely absorbed the hall, and we could not get out of the dining-room door; but then we could, of course, always pass out through the "study," a little room like a cistern, which just held my desk and one chair.
    There was a very small yard at the back, giving on to a set of stables which had their real entrance in the mews but we were compelled to cover all our back windows with putty, imitative of ground-glass, on which we stuck cut-out paper designs of birds and flowers, as these looked directly on the rooms over the stables, inhabited by the coachman and his family; and the sight of a stalwart man at the opposite window, shaving himself in very dingy shirt-sleeves within a few feet of your nose, was not considered genteel by the family. We were rather stivy in the upstairs rooms, owing to low ceilings, and a diffidence we felt as to opening the windows, for the New Road is a dusty thoroughfare, and the immediate vicinity of a cab-stand, though handy on some occasions, lets one into rather a larger knowledge of the stock of expletives with which the English language abounds, than is good for refined ears. But when we knew that the coachman was out, we used to open the back windows and grow very enthusiastic over "fresh air from Hampstead and Highgate," which, nevertheless, always seemed to me to have a somewhat stabley twang. One great point with the family was that there were no shops near us : that being an acme of vulgarity which it appears no well-regulated mind can put up with; to be sure, the row immediately opposite [-193-] to us was bounded by a chemist's, but then, you know, a chemist can scarcely be called a tradesman - at least the family thought so - and his coloured bottles were rather a relief to the eye than otherwise, giving one, at night, a strange idea of being at sea in view of land. On the door next to the chemist's stood, when we first took possession of our house in Bass's Buildings, a brass plate with "Middlemiss, Portrait Artist," on it, and by its side a little case containing miniatures of  the officer, the student in cap and gown, and the divine in white bands, with the top of the wooden pulpit growing out from under his arms, which are common to such professors. It was a thoroughly harmless little art-studio, and apparently did very little business, no one ever being seen to enter its portal. But after a twelve-month Mr. Middlemiss died, and we heard through the electric chain of our common butcher, that his son, a youth of great spirit, was about to carry on the business. The butcher was right. The new proprietor was a youth of great spirit, no half measures with him; he certainly did not fear his fate too much, nor were his deserts small (though in his lamented father's time his dinners were said to have been restricted), for he set his fate upon one touch-of paint - to win or lose it all. He coloured the entire house a bright vermilion, on which, from attic to basement, the following sentences were displayed in deep black letters: "The Shop for Portraits! Stop, Examine, and Judge for Yourselves! 'Sit, Cousin Percy; sit, good Cousin Hotspur' - Shakespeare. Photography defied! Your Likeness in Oils in Ten Minutes! 'The Counterfeit Presentment' - Shakespeare. Charge low, Portraits lasting ! Art, not Mechanical Labour!" Kit-cat portraits of celebrated characters copied from photographs leered out of every window, while the drawing-room balcony was given up to Lord John Russell waving a parchment truncheon, and Mr. Sturgeon, the popular preacher, squinting at his upheld forefinger. The family were out of town when [-194-] this horrible work was undertaken: when they returned, they declared with one voice that we could live in Bass's no longer, and must move at once.
    I was not sorry, though I liked the little house well enough; but we had been confined there in more senses than one, and wanted more room for our family, now increased by a baby and a nurse. The nurse was a low-spirited young person, afflicted with what she called "the creeps," under the influence of which she used to rock to and fro, and moan dismally and slap the baby on the back; and it was thought that change of scene might do her good. I was glad, too, for another reason. I had recently obtained occasional employment on a daily journal, which detained me until late at night at the newspaper-office, and I had frequently to attend night consultations at the chambers of leading barristers, to whom I was to act as junior. Bass's Buildings were a horrible distance from the newspaper-office and the chambers; and walking home at night had several times knocked me up. So my wife submitted to the family a proposition that I must remove to some more convenient position; and the family, after a struggle (based, I am inclined to think, on the reflection that lunch at my expense would not be so practicable), consented.
    The neighbourhood of Russell Square was that selected, and in it we began to make constant research. There are few Londoners of the rising generation who know those ghastly streets, solemn and straight, where the daylight at the height of summer fades at four o'clock, and in winter only looks in for an hour about noon; where the houses, uniform in dirt and dinginess, in lack of paint on their window-sills, and in fulness of filth on their windows, stare confronting each other in twin-like similitude. Decorum Street, Hessian Street, Walcheren Square, Great Dettingen Street, each exactly resembling the other, all equally dreary, [-195-] equally deserted, equally heart-breaking, equally genteel. Even the family could not deny the gentility, but were good enough to remember having visited a judge in Culloden Terrace, and having been at the routs of Lady Flack, wife of Sir Nicholas Flack, Baronet, Head of the College of Physicians, and Body-preserver in Ordinary to the Great Georgius of sainted memory. All the districts just named were a little above my means; but eventually I settled down into a house in Great Dowdy Street, a row of small but very eligible tenements on the Dowdy estate. None of your common thoroughfares, to be rattled through by vulgar cabs and earth-shaking Pickford's vans; but a self-included property, with a gate at each end and a lodge with a porter in a gold-laced hat and the Dowdy arms on the buttons of his mulberry-coloured coat, to prevent anyone, except with a mission to one of the houses, from intruding on the exclusive territory. The rent was seventy pounds a year, "on a repairing lease" (which means an annual outlay of from five-and-twenty to thirty to keep the bricks and mortar and timbers together), and the accommodation consisted of a narrow dining-room painted salmon-colour, and a little back room looking out upon a square black enclosure in which grew fearful fungi; two big drawing-rooms, the carpeting of which nearly swallowed a quarter's income; two good bed-rooms, and three attics. I never went into the basement save when I visited the cellar, which was a mouldy vault under the street-pavement, only accessible through the area, and consequently rendering anyone going to it liable to the insults of rude boys, who would grin through the area-railings, and say, "Give us a drop, guv'nor;" or, "Mind you don't drop the bottle, old 'un;" and other ribald remarks; but I believe the kitchen was pronounced by the servants to be "stuffy," and the whole place "ill conwenient," there being no larder, pantry, nor the usual domestic arrangements. I know, too, that we [-196-] were supposed to breed and preserve a very magnificent specimen of the blackbeetle ; insects which migrated to different parts of the house in droves, and which to the number of five-and-twenty being met slowly ascending the drawing-room stairs, caused my wife to swoon, and me to invest money in a hedgehog: an animal that took up his abode in the coal-cellar on the top of the coals, and, retiring thither early one morning after a surfeit of beetles, was supposed to have been inadvertently "laid" in the fire by the cook in mistake for a lump of Wallsend.
    I don't think there were many advantages in the Great Dowdy Street house (though I was very happy there, and had an immense amount of fun and pleasure) beyond the proximity to my work, and the consequent saving in cab-hire and fatigue. But I do recollect the drawbacks; and although six years have elapsed since I experienced them, they are constantly rising in my mind. I remember our being unable ever to open any window without an immediate inroad of "blacks:" triturate soot of the most penetrating kind, which at once made piebald all the antimacassars, toilet-covers, counterpanes, towels, and other linen; I remember our being unable to get any sleep after five A.M., when, at the builder's which abutted on our back enclosure, a tremendous bell clanged, summoning the workmen to labour, and from which time there was such a noise of sawing, and hammering, and planing, and filing, and tool-grinding, and bellows-blowing, interspersed with strange bellowings in the Celtic tongue from one Irish labourer to another, and mingled with objurgations in pure Saxon from irate overseers, that one might as well have attempted a quiet nap in the neighbourhood of Babel when the tower was in course of erection. I remember, on the first occasion of our sleeping there, a horrible yell echoing through the house, and being discovered to proceed from the nurse aforenamed, who had, at the time of her shrieking, about [-197-] six A.M., heard "ghostes a bursting in through the walls." We calmed her perturbed spirit, finding no traces of any such inroads; but were aroused in a similar manner the next morning, and then discovered that the rushing in of the New River supply, obedient to the turncock's key, was the source of the young person's fright. I remember the hot summer Sunday afternoons, when the pavement would be red-hot, and the dust, and bits of straw, and scraps of paper, would blow fitfully about with every little puff of air, and the always dull houses would look infinitely duller with their blinds down, and no sound would fall upon the ear save the distant hum of the cabs in Holborn, or the footfall of some young person in service going to afternoon church  - or to what was, in her mind, its equivalent - in all the glory of open-worked stockings, low shoes, and a prayer- book swaddled in a white cotton pocket-handkerchief. I have sat at my window on scores of such Sundays, eyeing the nose of Lazarus over the dwarf Venetian blinds opposite, or the gorgeous waistcoat of Eliason, a little higher up (for the tribes are great in the neighbourhood). I have stared upwards to catch a glimpse of the scrap of blue unclouded sky, visible above the houses; and then I have thought of Richmond Hill; of snowy tablecloths, and cool Moselle-cup, and salmon-cutlets, in a room overhanging the river at the Orkney Arms, at Maidenhead ; of that sea-breeze which passes the little hotel at Freshwater Bay, in wild hurry to make play over the neighbouring downs; of shaded walks, and cool retreats, and lime avenues, and overhung bathing- places, and all other things delicious at that season; until I have nearly gone mad with hatred of Great Dowdy Street, and fancied myself pretty able to comprehend the feelings of the polar bears in their dull retrogressive promenade in the Zoological Gardens. That none of our friends had ever heard of Great Dowdy Street; that no cabman could be instructed as to its exact whereabout, naming it generally as [-198-] "somewhere near the Fondlin';" that migration to a friend's house in a habitable region to dinner occasioned an enormous expense in cab-fare; that all the tradesmen with whom we had previously dealt declined our custom, "as they never sent that way;" that we found Tottenham Court Road a line of demarcation, behind which we left light, and sunshine, and humanity - on our side of which we tumbled into darkness and savagery; that we were in the midst of a hansom-cab colony, clattering home at all hours of the night; and in the immediate neighbourhood of all the organ-men, who gave us their final grind just before midnight; all these were minor but irritating annoyances. At length, after six years' experience of this life, we heard that Uncle Snape was dead, and had left me some money; and we immediately determined on quitting Great Dowdy Street.
   "Oh, my life in Egypt!" sighs Cleopatra in the Dream of Fair Women, remembering the dalliance and the wit, the Libyan banquets, and all the delights of that brief but glorious season. "Oh, my life in Agatha Villa, Old Brompton!" say I, which was quite as brief, and almost as glorious. We entered upon Agatha Villa immediately on quitting Great Dowdy Street, and revelled in the contrast. Such an elegant house; such a dining-room in red flock paper and black oak furniture, such a, drawing- room in satin paper and chintz, opening with large French windows upon a little lawn, such a study for me, such a spare bed-room for a bachelor friend from Saturday till Monday! It was at Agatha Villa that we commenced our delightful little Sunday dinners - which, indeed, finished in the same place. It was at Agatha Villa we first discovered how fond people were of us; what a popular writer I was; how my oratorical displays at the Old Bailey were making a sensation. People liked coming to see us at Agatha Villa not for the mere sake of what they got, of course, but [-199-] because they were sure of meeting "such charming people" at our house : money was all very well, they would remark, but no money could bring together such a host of genius as was always to be seen at Agatha Villa. The host of genius (I am not speaking of myself) was expensive to entertain; it stopped late, it dined heavily, it smoked on the lawn, and remained sipping cold drinks until past midnight. Its admirers remained too: sometimes some of the host of genius borrowed money and didn't return it; the host of genius was always either painting a picture which I was expected to buy, or giving a concert which we were expected to patronise, or having a "ben" for which we had to take stalls. From one of the admirers of the host of genius I bought a pair of horses, they were not good horses; from another I purchased a phaeton, it was a bad one! I confess I did not like the manner in which some of the host of genius used to climb up the walls and kiss their hands to Miss Crump's young ladies who were walking in the next garden, and I owned to Miss Crump that it was too strong retaliation even for the pianoforte practice at five A.M.: they could not take any liberties with my neighbour on the other side, for he was Dr. Winks, the celebrated mad-doctor, and we were always in a state of mental terror lest some of his patients should get loose and come over the wall at us. However, the life at Agatha Villa, though merry, was brief. Through my own exertions, and those of the host of genius, I ran through a couple of thousand pounds in two years, and then the Cotopaxi Grand Imperial Mining Company, in which I had invested the rest of Uncle Snape's money, went to smash, and I had to give up Agatha Villa.
    The thought of having to return to London and its dreariness, in the summer which had just set in, was the bitterest morsel of that tart humility which we were about to partake of; and you may judge, therefore, with what delight I received an offer of a country-house, rent free, for [-200-] a year. "It's a capital old house, any way," said old Cutler, its owner, "a capital house, near town, and yet thoroughly in the country. I'm going to take my gal abroad for a year to see the Continent, and you're not only welcome to live at Wollops, but I shall be obliged to you for keeping the place aired. Now, Wollops was a house, if you like ! An old red-brick Queen-Anne mansion, with little deep mullioned diamond-paned windows, with quaint old armour in the hall, and a portrait of Brabazon de Wollop, temp. Charles the Second, over the chimney-piece; there are long passages, and tapestry-hung rooms, and oak corridors, and secret doors, and a wine-cellar so like a subterraneous dungeon, that my heart sank within me every time I entered it; there were likewise numerous bed-rooms, with tremendous bedsteads, all plumes and hangings; and a stone kitchen like that one in the Tower of London which Mr. Cruikshank drew. The house stood in the middle of splendid grounds; there was a carriage drive tip to it; its drawing and dining room windows looked out upon a beautiful lawn dotted here and there with brilliant beds of verbena and scarlet geranium; and there was a lake, and a kitchen-garden, and an orchard, all kept up at Mr. Cutler's expense ; and everything was so noble and so grand, that a friend, who knew the reason of our quitting Agatha Villa, remarked, on seeing Wollops, that one more attempt at retrenchment would take us into Buckingham Palace. From our windows we looked away over green fields, to Harrow on the one side, to Highgate on the other, and it was worth something when coming
                        From brawling courts
        And dusty purlieus of the law,
to feel your feet on the turf, with the sweet fresh air blowing round you, and that soft silence, broken only by the pipe of bird or hum of insect, which is the greatest of all rural charms to an overworked Londoner. Wollops was too far [-201-] for the host of genius, as they could not have got back at night, so we only had our own friends and the family. I am happy to say that the croquet-parties at Wollops were the cause of marrying off my wife's two younger sisters: one to a revising barrister, and the other to a county-court judge while the elder girls, who had been very uncivil about what they called the "goings on" at Agatha Villa, were so delighted with Wollops that they forgave us off-hand, and each came and stayed a month. All this was during the summer weather; the autumn of that year was as good as summer, warm, clear, and sunny, and we were thoroughly happy. But, one fatal morning in the middle of November we got up and found winter had arrived; the wind roared through the old house, and moaned and shrieked in the long corridors; the rain dashed against the badly-fitting romantic windows, and lodged in large pools on their inner sills; the water-pipe along the house was choked, overflowed, soaked through the old red brick, which was just like sponge, and coming through the drawing-room wall, spoilt my proof copy of Landseer's Titania. The big bare trees outside rattled and clashed their huge arms, the gardeners removed everything from the beds, the turf grew into rank grass, and the storms from Harrow to Highgate were awful in their intensity. Inside the house, the fires would not light for some time, and then the chimneys smoked awfully, and the big grates consumed scuttles of coals and huge logs of wood without giving out the smallest heat. The big hall was like a well; after dark the children were afraid to go about the passages; and the servants came in a body and resigned, on account of the damp of the stone kitchen. Gradually the damp penetrated everywhere; lucifers would not strike, a furry growth came upon the looking-glass, the leather chairs all stuck to us when we attempted to rise. My wife wanted us to leave Wollops, but I was firm - for two nights afterwards; then the rats, [-202-] disturbed by the rains from their usual holes, rushed into our bed-room and danced wildly over us. The next morning at six A.M. I despatched the gardener to town, to bring out three cabs, and removed my family in those vehicles to lodgings in Cockspur Street, where I am at present.