- AFTER THE WAR
- HAMLET HOUSE BY RUBY ALICE SIDE Written 1916
- Bringing back My Grandfather: John H. Thompson; Son Of Ruby Alice Side Thompson
- For Genealogy Lovers: THE THOMPSON FAMILY (A Search into History) Compiled by Edward Thompson (1879-1970)
- CopyRight Statement
- Mentions and Great Links
HAMLET HOUSE BY RUBY ALICE SIDE Written 1916
After twenty years of emptiness, in 1880, Hamlet House at last found a tenant. Mr. John Hamblyn with his wife and family moved in at the Michaelmas Term. Nobody ever knew why it was called Hamlet House. It certainly had no connection with a village hamlet, nor yet with Shakespeare; yet such was unmistakably its name, and carved in deeply, too, in the big pillars, topped with large marble balls, at its huge front gates.
Nobody knew to whom the house belonged. Rumor said to the Duke of Hamilton; but except for Ham and Ham there was no evidence for it. Presumably Mr. John Green the estate agent in King St. knew, but if he did he never told; not even to Mr. John Hamblyn when he signed his lease. Rumor might now assign ownership to Mr. Hamblyn because his name began with Ham, and be reliable as ever.
Now, 1880 is already a long while ago and we have forgotten almost all about it, so I am going to tell the story of the beautiful Hamblyn sisters and of handsome courageous old John before it is all entirely forgotten; and the story began frothing to its climax from the time the family moved into Hamlet House.
The house had been built a hundred years, or more, before this. It matched up with Lad Scott’s Villa in Ravenscourt Park, with Holland House in Kensington; it excelled little but dignified Cromwell House in Hammersmith King Street. It lay back two furlongs from the Chiswick High Road, and had a beautiful avenue of elms leading from its gates to its terraces, and its red face and green lawns gave brightness to our grey high road that every passerby loved. Except for its red bricks and greenery in 1880 its glories had departed.
We Hammersmithie's cannot remember when its owner abandoned it, nor never had even a ghost of a clue as to why, but it had stood empty since the days of our childhood in the sixties. Hamblyn took it on pension-day when in that day’s usual state of exhilarated intoxication he could be persuaded to anything, no matter how absurd. To occupy Hamlet House on a tenancy was manifestly an absurd thing to do, for it was in a state of rack and ruin. Its large gardens were one tangled wilderness. The house was literally tumbling down. In fact most of the barns and stables and servant-lodges were in a better condition than the house. Many of the rooms had to be locked because it was unsafe to walk across their floors, or in others because the ceiling above might fall. Many of the doors had to be fastened open, because if they latched it was an hour’s job for a locksmith to open them again. Most of the windows were inoperable, or if opened would descend with sudden crashes when least expected to do so. Scarce a chimney would draw. Years before the Duke of Hamilton, or whoever was the shadowy problematic owner, had withdrawn a caretaker, because there was nothing left to take care of. Yet for said mansion John Hamblyn had signed a three years lease at a rental of L30 per annum.
My story really begins with Grandma. I suppose most stories do. Or with Eve, only that is too far back to travel.
Grandma was not really grandmother at all, but only “own aunt” to our John. I never went to Devonshire, so I do not know the earlier ramifications of the family, but “Grandma” had been born a Miss Hamblyn, presumably sister to John’s father. She was the first to leave Devon for London, where with her husband, Benjy Bates, she successfully ran a small public house in Charles Street on Nottinghill. So successful was she that when her husband died, the Brewers (those almighty men) continued the license to her alone, Mrs. Benjamin Bates, The Angel, (inexplicable name of London pubs) and Nottinghill.
She had married in 1840, on the same day as the young Queen Victoria; and her husband had died on the first of May, 1851, the opening day of the Great Exhibition; two historical coincidences of which Grandma was for ever inordinately vain. Do you remember how we Victorians used to date all of our personal history not from the calendar but from public events? We were born and married and hung not on a particular day of the month in any special year of our Lord; but the day the Prince of Wales was born, or the day of the cessation of John Company, or Balaclava, or the day the Duke of Wellington died, or dear Dickens; and so on.
In ’51 Mrs. Bates being free of the encumbering husband began to scheme for her family. She sent to Devon for two lone members of it and installed them with her in the Angel. These two were our John Hamblyn, then a youth of twenty, and his present wife, Maria Hamblyn, a young girl of fourteen. Both were orphans, so Mrs. Bates determined to mother both, leave them her money when she died, and marry them to one another; which last object she accomplished in 1860. When their children arrived she became “Grandma”, and to such an extent did she fill the part that the entire neighborhoods of Nottinghill, Sheppard’s Bush, Hammersmith and Chiswick knew her as Grandma Bates, and called her so, too. Moreover she was continually piling up money, which of course added to her reputation.
In character she approximated to those chronic, sardonic, vitriolic dowagers of high life who Meredith has portrayed for us, but who in common life are plainly called termagants. Nature had made her a woman by a fluke: she was meant to be a man, and she continually chafed against the mistake. She came of Yeoman fighters, and she fought too, and conquered in her sphere wealth form her little public-house and respect and fear from all the people she moved among. Had she survived to these our times she would doubtless have landed herself in jail for the militant cause. She loved a fight, and almost any cause was a good one. Woman’s suffrage was not heard of in her day, at least, not in her world, the men having enough to do fighting for the charter.
So Grandma only concerned herself with her immediate affairs. At the bottom of Blake Lion Lane she owned three little shops and she knew all about the Cowl’s who ran the greengrocery business, and the Turrell’s who had the candy store, and the Meek’s who had the rag and bone shop; but she knew nothing at all about the man who lived in the large secluded house next to the little shops and who was a celebrated artist who painted wonderful portraits and who had put gorgeous pictures on the walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral; not even his name. Nor had she heard of the poet-artist-revolutionary who lived on the mall though she owned a house nearby; and she actually owned the famous Misses Pinkerton’s Establishment for Young Ladies and didn’t know its reputation. No: Grandma was not concerned with the Dream but with the Business, and a very successful businesswoman she made. As fast as she made money in the Angel she converted it into bricks and mortar and she finally owned scores of little shops and cottages all over the four parishes. She relinquished the Angel in 1875 when she had to begin to fight a terrible foe – cancer- and established herself in a small cottage at Brook Green, where she lived alone, dignified and irascible, and taking John’s girls for turns to stay with her for occasional company. As for John, he was her darling. He was a pensioned policeman now, and, besides, one of the handsomest and lovable men in the United Kingdom.
When in 1830 Sir Robert Peel established the constabulary he did much more than place a protection for the metropolis: he placed and ambition before all the poor youth of the country, and an ideal also, with the consequence that he drew all the finest and handsomest fellows of the yeomanry into the London Force.
John Hamblyn who had hugged the ides of being a London bobby ever since as a twelve year old he found out the difference between a truncheon and a shillelagh - had been one of the bravest and handsomest of the lot; very tall, very broad, very blue eyes, curling fair hair, and withal the happy and peaceful expression of countenance which is so often given to the most gigantic men. He resembled to a marked degree the handsome Prince Consort. Perhaps on examination that likeness resolved itself mostly into a matter of whiskers, and was shared with a few other thousands of men with the same qualification throughout the kingdom; a periodic likeness which may be found in any population to correspond with its reigning head, a compliment from the commoners; remember for instance, how many Louis Napoleons you used to meet on the Paris Boulevards or the Bois de Boulogne; or how many Edwards VII’s in Bond St. or at the Derby; or how many Woodrow Wilson’s in New York environs.
John was handsome in his own right I wish you could see his portrait, painted by God knows who, about the time of his wedding. Even the poor itinerant portrait painter could not help but show it, and we all know how lamentable the work of such men always was. He has our John showing in all his glory of flowered brocaded velvet waistcoat, which had been purchased especially for the sittings, and crossed by a dashing gold chain; with his oily love-lock so carefully placed in the middle of his head – a regular D’orsay curl like a Himalaya ridge traversing his poll-; sitting in a throne-like chair against a plush curtain drawn back to show a magnificent panorama of park and wood and stream and rising hill and castle, a la La Giaconda - though it would be a safe bet the artist knew nothing of that lady. To make a balance, I suppose, for the imaginary lordly estate, which John did not possess (nor had even dreamed of) the artist entirely left out the very fine character John was possessed of.
There are few more interesting portraits in the family. There is one of John’s wife Maria when she was a little girl, looking for all the world like one of those penny wooden Dutch dolls we used to buy when we were children. She is portrayed standing on a sandy hill which might be in the middle of the Sahara for any indication there is to the contrary, with a tree quite unknown to botany severely in the right of the picture, with horrible pantalettes very much exposed, and much exposed thin neck and stick-like arms, and a coiffure that looks the very duplicate of the wooden crown of the Dutch dolly. The particular artist who made this monstrosity must have been an arrant failure for Maria Hamblyn was really a very beautiful girl. Hers was the Victorian style of beauty of course, but nevertheless it was telling; fine silky hair drooped and plastered precisely around each ear, a childlike complexion, and an engaging innocent and childlike expression, and a petite and pretty figure.
Naturally these two had strikingly beautiful children, but, fortunately, Grandma Bates kept busy on the job of knocking pride and vanity out of them.
There was a portrait of Grandma, the most atrocious one of all. It showed the handsome paisley shawl and her handsome Brussels lace cap, and her long, thin handsome face, but- oh heavens – it too plainly showed her terribly unromantic wig. It was that wig that was the final undoing of Charley Wheatland.
Pope’s Moving Co. (their official name painted in yellow on large green vans) had unloaded the last stick; every bonnet-box, every dust-pan, every copper-stick, everything; and everything was stacked pell-mell in the large central marble hall of Hamlet House; the men were paid, and the empty vans were going slowly down the Quarter Mile Lane which ran alongside the western boundary wall of the property and made the hated tradesmen’s entry- hated by the tradesmen because it was so long, and hated by servants because it was such a fearful and dark place to penetrate after dark.
However, the Hamblyn's would not have to contend against the superstitious of servants, because they kept no servants.
They were all assembled now before the huge old mansion, listening to the rumble of the departing vans and the quips and quirks of the men lighting up their pipes and cheerfully going home in the leisurely English way at the end of their day’s work.
Grandma after a round of the premises came across the top terrace to where John was standing. “I suppose you have first paid those men, John?” She said.
“Why- yes”, he said slowly, knowing beforehand she would remonstrate about it. “Just your usual foolishness. Why pay them on the dot? Can’t Pope wait for his money, like any other tradesman! And how much did he charge you?”
“Three pound ten.”
“And you paid it?”
“John, everyone over charges you. Why? Because you let ‘em. I suppose if he had asked five pounds you would have paid that?” “Why, yes, if that had been his price.”
“Oh, anyone would think you were a precious aristocrat! Calmly to pay whatever is asked of you, and never to bother where the money comes from. Plenty of money! Plenty of money! Don’t think I am going to pay your bills.”
“Well, Grandma, I haven’t asked you to.” “No. True. Tell me, clear John, why did you take this awful place?”
He looked at her steadily for a minute or so, and then said, very quietly, “Because I wanted to move Maria.” Grandma said “Oh!” very shortly and seemed to find it a good and sufficient reason.
She turned presently to look at Maria who was standing in the large doorway, surrounded by all the youngsters of the party.
Maria was on of those easy-going placid people who can never say No, and was consequently adored, and befooled, by all young creatures, both human and brute; thought the brute creatures did obey her which her own children never did. She was a woman you could never envisage alone, or yet empty-handed. You saw her throwing corn to the chickens, meat to the dogs with sugar for the pony, pence and eatables for the children, strong drink for the men folk, She was a Martha, but untroubled about her many things. She was planning now how to get supper. The confusion of her household things: the fact that there was not a bed ready to lay on, nor a candle ready to illuminate the dusk, did not disturb her in the least; but she was concerned that the family might not get a proper meal.
“John,” she called out, “where did the moving-men put the that hamper I packed with our supper? I asked you to watch it, you remember?”
“They put it in the room off the left of the hall. Mind the hole near the window.”
Maria with all the young ones fluttering and buzzing around her disappeared into the house and only Grandma and John were left standing on the terrace.
“Too many young people around, John,” said Grandma.
“What of it? Said John.
“Only that it means courting.”
“Too young”, said John. “And, besides, what of it! They are only boys and girls yet. As long as I can see them it’s bound to be all right. If I catch my girls dawdling in the street with the boys, why- why- why I’ll horse whip them all the way home.”
“They’d run away in half an hour.”
“Oh-well. I want to see the boys and girls here: then I am satisfied.”
“But they are too young, John. Willis is only nineteen”
“Yes, but thank heaven a boy: consequently not thinking of matrimony yet.”
“The girls are. Or certainly will be if you let these young men flock around like this. My Alice is only eighteen……………”
“Yes. Lil seventeen, and Bell sixteen. You would have married Maria to me at sixteen if you could, you know.”
“Different thing, John. Maria needed a husband.”
“How do you know my girls don’t?”
“God forbid. Besides, they have you to take care of them.”
“How long would they think of that if they imagined themselves in love?”
“Well I should say you wanted to marry the girls, and quick too, if you encourage the young men so. There is always a young fellow, or two, knocking around of late.”
“Wrong, Grandma. This is the way I discourage them. Let Maria feed the young ones and they’ll not grow romantic. Let them play kiss-in-the-ring with me to watch and they’ll not be kissing, and worse, on the sly in the lane.”
“Wrong, John. The youngsters are bound to befuddle their heads with thoughts of love until they are five and twenty. Cannot help it. It’s simply folly to through them together. As for the girls, they’ll be like all the rest of the girls in the room. They will marry the first man who asks them. Mark that. Who is the dark-haired fellow hanging around Alice?”
“Cadaverous, irritable dog. I hope she will hate him, and hate too soon instead of too late. And who is the guy with the moustache and the velveteen jacket?”
“Will Ditches. Lil’s beau – since you will have it they are beaux. He is an artist.”
“Jackanapes. What about your friend, the auctioneer? Is he courting you or Maria, or my little Bella?”
“Tut. You have a bee in your bonnet. Forget it. There is no courting going on in this house, I tell you; and I’m damned if there shall be yet awhile. Let the youngsters play a year or two. Trouble will begin soon enough.”
“There-there. Come and get your supper, man.” Within the house was cheerful uproar. The pretty girls ran hither and thither, not accomplishing much, but very busy all the same, shouting orders to their brother and his friends and calling for help in twenty different directions. “Charles, steady this trestle, please. Will and Willis won’t you put up Mother’s bed? Which room Mother? Mind that hole or you will go through the floor. Where is the beer? Mother, there are elder- bushes outside, and lots of currant bushes too. Grapes, you can make us barrels and barrels of wine for our parties. Mother, I’m going to have some chickens, to be mine only. Oh, thank-you Charles. Now please unpack that basket of plates. Who has seen the candles, or a lamp? Oh, have “you seen the ball-room? It’s gorgeous. Mother, won’t you give a ball for Christmas? Forks, forks, I want forks. Willis, you chump! Don’t set that down on my bonnet! Mother, haven’t you any more bread? Will, ask Dad to come and carve this ham. No, you mustn’t do it, only Dad. Mother, I say----------.” So on and so on. Hubbub. Such noisy happiness, such a merry crowd! When was the old house full of such merry noisy company before? Such shrill girlish shrieks, such teasing young men, such a beaming Mama: how wonderfully happy it was! Here they sat at supper, so jolly together, one bright group, quite unabashed by the gloomy and mysterious house they had just dumped and tumbled into; indeed, so completely unabashed they were quite eager to examine it all by candlelight forthwith. Only John wouldn’t let them.
“Tomorrow – tomorrow”, said John.
So they ate around their impromptu table joking and giggling, and baiting Grandma who really did not mind it much, and egging on John to tell his story of ceremony, Sarah Moaney; - a tale I have not got straight yet, so I can not tell it to you now. Till finally the candles began to sputter and gutter and give warning they were going out and there was a grand rush of the ladies up the staircase and the young men rolled themselves up in blankets on the floor, and very soon quietness and darkness enveloped the old house once more, and every one was asleep.
The next day was a Sunday, so the young men having nothing to do decided to help the Hamblyn's set to rights. Another happy meal was breakfast, which with its jollity would have spun along indefinitely into dinner, if John had not meant business and cleared it away abruptly – in the very middle of one of Charles jokes, too – by packing everyone off with a special and definite task to do. Then there was some commotion. Whistling, banging, knocking, ripping, hammering, laughing, singing, chaffing, could be heard in every room in the house. All worked finely and with a will. By dark again the setting was done. Carpets were nailed down, pictures hung up, furniture in place, lamps trimmed, fires lighted, pantry in good order, and another hungry and very tired crowd buzzing around Maria, who had actually found time during the day to bake, and now sat all down to a large plum cake, an immense treacle-tart, a good brew of tea, apparently endless bread and butter, and a fine Stilton cheese.
There was not so much merriment tonight as there had been last night, because all were tired, but it was just as good and happy a meal, and when the young men ceased to re-fill their plates and the girls to pass up their cups to Maria for more tea, Hamblyn gave a little tap on the table with the end of his knife handle to draw everybody’s attention, and then made the company a little speech.
“Well, lads, I thank you heartily,” he said. “ It is a great grand help you have given us. If it weren’t Sunday night I’d let you dance in that old ballroom. Some other night – some other night. We’ll arrange it- won’t we mother? Now boys, I am going to live in this house three years. Perhaps you think I’m crazy? Alright-alright: you may be old men too, some day. Here is a house to play in lads. You’re always kindly welcome, always. Come up. The girls can give you a time, and Ma will see you don’t go hungry. Now, goodnight. No loitering. Willis, you take a lantern down to the gates. No, girls, you will stay here and help your Mother put those dishes away. Mr. George, Sir, you will stay tonight, I hope. Goodnight Charles. Goodnight Mr. Ditches. Goodnight, goodnight. God bless ye.”
Mr. George was an in-between man. Not old enough to be John’s contemporary yet he was not young enough to be summarily dismissed with the young men. He was an ambiguous friend in a respectable family. Little was known of his family credentials, and that little he never bothered to display. He carried himself with an air, flair, and a fashion more convincing than evidence. He was as handsome and as debonair as a traditional lord. Moreover he had an imposing voice, low tone and slow and perfect enunciation, which in itself would impress with awe our plebeian crowd. Then at times he spoke in terms incomprehensible to them, which made him further imposing as an educated man. Our friends had secret theories about him being a gentleman in disguise. Perhaps he was.
Now having tacitly accepted Hamblyn’s invitation to stay the night he proceeded to make himself comfortably at home. He offered John a cigar, and drew chairs near the fire for the ladies; in which, however, John would not yet allow Maria to settle herself.
“Girls, go to bed,” said John: “and Maria, bring the bottle.”
It was like a fresh beginning. After a rattling tarantella diminuendo, a return to steady four-time tempo and a sensible time. Now the foolish youngsters were out of the way a little sane enjoyment might be had; now their buffoonery and screeches had ceased, now reasonable people could talk sense. The kettle boiled. The bottle gurgled and zipped. Sugar tongs clipped. Sip. Sip. “Ah!” said John.
“Good stuff,” said George. They tasted and lingered and tasted again in solid contentment. Englishmen drink alcohol like a cow chews the cud, one mouthful apparently lasting forever. The ladies had their dilution also, rather syrupy, but enjoyed with the proper decorous feminine gusto. There was nothing unusual about that forty or fifty years ago. Even as late as 1880 downright drunkenness was quite excusable occasionally. Hamblyn himself got insane drunk every pension-day: that was as much a matter of course as drawing his money. His wife did not mind. Nor did his children, generation ahead of him as they were, criticize him. Children did not dream of criticizing parents in those days; that did not come about until a generation later again.
John could have sat on in a comfortable silence until midnight, but having a visitor on his hands he felt it incumbent on him to talk and he was casting over in his mind for a topic to begin on, when Mr. George saved him that arduous trouble.
“A very fine place you have got here, Sir.”
“Do you intend to buy it, Mr. Hamblyn?”
“It isn’t for sale.”
Silence. Topic number one exhausted. Presently, “ a very fine cigar, Mr. George,” said John, to praise his visitor’s tobacco.
“Do you like them?” replies Mr. George; and then there was another tedious silence, topic two being exhausted.
The ladies were unusually silent. Grandma could be voluble enough on occasion, but tonight she was tired. As for Maria she seldom spoke directly to John. She was a woman of no opinions at the freest of times, but John seemed to paralyze her speech altogether. She would give him little timid glances and little timid smiles when he looked to her, and perpetual acquiescence in everything, but she never dreamed of exchanging ideas with him, or opposing him at all.
A tension seemed suddenly to pervade the room. The women felt it first: John presently. George wanted to say something and did not know how to begin. The women felt it but in their own inarticulateness could not help him. He made a plunge at it.
“Mr. Hamblyn, I want to marry your daughter Bella.” Mark you, “I want to”; no humble “May I!”
John slowly and deliberately knocked the ashes out of his pipe. Then he said: “Bell is the baby. Maybe you mean Alice, my eldest girl.”
“I do not mean Alice. I mean Bell.”
“Or Lily? Who is seventeen.”
“Nor Lily. I positively and absolutely mean Bella.”
“Have you been making love to her?”
“Then how do you know you want to marry her?”
“Because I do. (“A Maria reason! Exclaimed Grandma in a sneer to herself.) Mr. Hamblyn she is the most beautiful woman in London, and I love her fiercely.”
“I don’t like your fierce lovers,” said Grandma. “Heavens, man,” said John, “she is only a child! How old are you?”
“Twenty years older than she is. She wouldn’t have you.”
“Ask her, sir.”
“No you don’t, “ said Grandma. “Any fool of sixteen would marry any man who wanted her – rogue, imbecile, deformed- it wouldn’t matter as long as she could wed. Talk sense. Mr. George, how much money do you make? Who was your father, and where do you come from, and are you a respectable man? I ask you because I see John won’t.”
“My father was an independent man. He put me into the auctioning business. I have a good business now in Kensington, three hundred pounds a year. By the time Bella is twenty I’ll make her a thousand a year.”
Now this was tall talk. Hamblyn’s income was only two hundred pounds a year, and George knew it; so these figures made an impression, and decidedly a favorable one. Who would not respect a man who made one hundred a year more than oneself?
“But how comes it that you never married before?” said practical John.
Half a minutes pause, and then came a vehement answer. “Because I never loved a girl before, sir. Because I never found a woman good enough and because a good girl never found me. Your little Bella, Sir! She is the darlingest! So pretty. So pure. Oh the dear innocence of her. Only give her to me and I can be a good man all the rest of my life. Only-------“
“Hoity-toity, young man!” broke in Grandma. “Don’t talk that kind of nonsense. How many murders have you committed already, might I enquire?”
“Mrs. Bates, don’t laugh at me. Befriend me. Let me talk plain business to you. You know I am not after your money, for I can make as much as you’ve got for myself. Well, listen. Bella is a milliner’s apprentice. How much money does she make at that?
“Half a crown a week.”
“Munificent! Well, she is going to marry sometime. I will marry her right out of hand and give her five pounds a week to spend at once. Then I have got some splendid business chances, besides a special scheme that should land me a baronetcy, that I’ll lay any wager you like I’ll make a thousand a year in five years time. I want to marry little Belle. Let me court her, Sir, at least.”
“But she considers you an old man.”
“Then do this. Rent me a room here in this big house. Take me as your lodger. I won’t frighten the girl. If she is not eager to take me of her own accord at the end of six months I’ll swear off her forever.”
They debated and debated (except Maria who said nothing) and finally their worldly wisdom decided that George might take up his abode there and try his chances. He was to settle his affairs at his present lodgings and come to the Hamblyns permanently in the next week.
The fire was out when they rose to disperse for the night and frightening shadows flickered on he walls. The men clasped hands at parting, and in manly style Mr. George said, “This has been a queer talk for tow honest Englishmen. God forgive us. Mr. Hamblyn, I want your daughter more than any mortal thing, and I’ll do anything-mortal thing to get her. I am an honest man; sir and I’ll prove it. I have been a very foolish one, but that is all over now. Only let me have Bella, ah! How I want her!”
The mother and father entered their own room in silence. , But instead of beginning silently to undress, as was their usual way, both stood still hesitating and perplexed. Maria wanted to say something, but did not dare. John wanted to justify his cold-bloodedness but would not admit it. Finally he said, with a little conciliatory air, “What do you think of it, Maria?” She answered with warmth unusual in her. “I hate arranged marriages. I have good reason to. I hate all marriage. Sixteen, poor child! What a babe to begin it! Between you, you will do as you please, I suppose.”
“Don’t come-come me. Yes, I will speak for once. Yes, I know I have forfeited all right to you. Oh, what a fool I was!” She wrung her hands with a fierce primitive gesture, reminiscent of an old despair. “But you shouldn’t do this, John. You can’t unmake me her Mother, whatever you do, and that gives me a natural right to speak, even if I have no other. Don’t marry my Bella to that man. I beg you don’t do it.”
“I am not doing it. Don’t be silly. It would be a good marriage. I am only agreeing not to obstruct the gentleman’s chances.”
“Gentleman, indeed! I hate him.”
“That’s nothing against him, “ said phlegmatic John. “You hate me, I do believe, and that’s nothing against me, either.”
Young’s Corner was on block further west than Hamlet House. From Young’s Corner to the Hammersmith Hop Poles was a mile; from the Hop Poles to Addison Road Bridge was another mile and from there to Derry’s was yet another mile. Our girls walked these three miles every morning to their work, and at night they walked over them home again. How many of our working girls today would cheerfully walk six miles every day, or could do it? These long walks held some of the happiest times. Hamblyn at Derry and Lows had duly apprenticed Alice, Lily, and Bell, and consequently, alack, they were very stylish young ladies. How pretty they were and how clever! Alice and Lily were dressmakers, Bell the milliner, so they could make their own pretty clothes and chic bonnets, and very proud John was of them. Lil was the vainest of them, but her vanity made her the most industrious also. That girl would rise at four o’clock of a summer’s morning to make a dress to wear at the same evening’s party. She would be the belle of it, too. Hers was a dashing sparkling Diana-like beauty. Bella was a voluptuous Venus. Alice was like a demure and pure Madonna. Each of her type was perfection, and they had adorers galore from one end of the three miles to the other. “Who are these fine girls?” they would hear as they passed by. Gallants would bombard them with lovers’ tokens at different regular points of the route. There was Bill Allen, the first on the outward trip, who always appeared before them in Hammersmith Broadway and every morning presented Alice with a little bouquet. They never spoke a word to on another. The poor fellow flushing would doff his cap and hold out his snowdrops or pansies or wallflowers or asters, and whatnot, and Alice without even lingering would take them and smile and pass on. “Every morn I bring thee violets,” as somebody has sung. Bill Allen hardly comes into the story; too bashful to speak out events passed him by; but he adored Alice with a reticent respect until she married another fellow, and then he faded into limbo as far as she was concerned. Her really truly man they met a few streets further on. This was Charles Wheatland who cut across their path from Rowan Road. A daughter of Leigh Hunt lived on Rowan Road, only that has nothing to do with the story, either. Years before when they were all small children the Wheatland’s and Hamblyn's had lived in adjoining houses, and at that time Charley had been hated. He had been a small freckled faced redheaded boy. Pray who likes that kind of boy? Then they lost sight of him for a few years, until he came to life again in rather an arresting manner. In the dusk of summer’s evening as Alice was returning alone from her work, this being before the two younger girls had started their business careers, she saw torment getting ready for her in King Street. As she came towards a narrow strip of road a group of boys who had been guffawing together swiftly parted and lined up in an impassable chain across the road. “Who goes there!” and “Now then, Beauty, a Kiss, forfeit a Kiss!” they shouted at her. She was harassed, and being a slow thinker and not a witty girl, she was speechless. She looked up and down the row of urchins in visible agitation, when suddenly a very tall fellow turning from a bye-street and seeing beauty in distress came to the rescue with a very large cane and a very large hand, and a very large and terrible voice. The urchins scuttled off their game spoiled, and Alice looking up timidly to thank her knight recognized Charley Wheatland. His freckles were gone, his red hair had darkened to coal black, but by something or other in his air or his carriage she recognized him, something domineering and self sufficient; something that finally fascinated and subjugated her, for from that time he became the one fellow in the world for her. I must admit he did have a handsome ugliness (very like old Dante Alighieri he was, but of course never knew that) and a braggadocio that was rather captivating. Well, he would time herself to meet Alice of a morning and swagger for her admiration. They had no time for chatting, for they would be all on their way to work, only for greeting, but it was always one of the day’s pleasures.
The whole way was a trail of rendezvous. They would catch up so many workers, and all laugh along together. In the evenings the same company would all laugh home again. There were always the day’s jokes to retell and everything almost is a joke at twenty and plans for the evening’s or Sunday’s fun to make.
One particular nights adventure that happened about this time I must tell you, because it was the last hearty innocent fun our young men and maids were to enjoy together.
There stood in King Street on the corner of Mansion House Street a hall curiously called The Temple of Varieties, music hall of course, and which was called for short by all the townsfolk simply The Temple. The place has long since been rebuilt, and re cherished, having become in its new splendor a Palace; but then it was unique amongst London buildings in the possession of a portcullis; actually a hanging-gate. So medieval were we, even then! In 1880 Hammersmith was not prosperous enough, or perhaps giddy enough, to support a permanent music hall, so The Temple was rented out for any likely suitable occasion, and the Salvationist's being then rather a new force in the town, and not yet having erected their own barracks, would hire The Temple once a week. Moreover, their prayer meetings proved rather more exciting than the usual musical programme, and they always had a very full audience, or should I say congregation? I am sorry to say, not a thoroughly devout one. Like everything startlingly new and daring they had to receive much ridicule. Many went not for conversion but for sheer amusement. Even more lamentable fact, courting couples went in large numbers because the free seats saved them the fatigue of prowling the town.
So that it is without surprise the word was passed along our girl’s three miles for all friends to meet one particular November evening to go to the Salvationists. It chanced to be Guy Fawkes Day so the entire town was in rather a holiday mood, and I am sorry to say The Temple was crowded.
Our youngsters with all their town friends were dispersed throughout the hall, in a manner that seemed accidental to the girls and due to the exigencies of the crowd, but was afterwards found to be intentional and of the boys’ arranging. Besides our Hamblyn's and their swains all the Burgess's and Bluff's and the Copse's and the Cousin's and the Lee's and the Latimer's were there, a regular band of saucy roguish boys. The meeting proceeded with fervor. Exhortation followed entreaty. The Salvationists were in deadly earnest.
Suddenly, in one of the preacher’s dramatic pauses, something happened. Suddenly and simultaneously every light in the hall went out. The tiniest thrill of alarm, due to the nervousness of most of the women in the place, went through the hall, but, with usual public politeness, nobody paid any attention to it, but all sat quietly still waiting for the lights to reappear. Instead something else happened. Someone kissed someone very loudly, whereat a titter went through the hall; and then following rapidly were more and more kisses.
This is what had happened. The hall was lighted by gas brackets projecting at regular intervals adorn the side walls, and the devilish gang of town boys had placed themselves one under each bracket, and at a given signal they had put out the lights and then started to kiss their way out of the hall. Kiss, kiss, kiss, and kiss. There was a regular cannonade of kissing. Curiously none of the victims seemed to have a match so the boys had it all their own way. Tom Cousins and Charlie Wheatland kept the door, and Willis Hamblyn and big Cliff Barleigh held the portcullis, so that the team at the finish got away in safety and all unidentified.
What a pandemonium! Kiss, kiss, kiss, and kiss. Up and down, right and left. Smack, smack. Quickly the uninitiated followed suite, and every woman in that hall was kissed that night; wives, maidens and widows; young maids and old maids; loose and prudish; sour faced and merry faced, the very grandmothers and beldames. Women who had never been kissed in their life, and so unattractive that they might never be kissed again, got their share that evening without favor or discrimination. Kiss, kiss; slap, slap, and kiss, kiss again. What laughter, what uproar, what fun!
How it ended and dissolved away and the town got safely to bed nobody knows. The crux of the affair was in its following events; for the occasion must have been like match to tinder, because a score of lingering courtships that had apparently been getting nowhere now hastened up suddenly and got tied into matrimony at St. Paul’s before Christmas. It was the revealing lightning touch, too, to Willis and Wheatland, amongst others, who both determined that night to marry forthwith.
When after their Michaelmas night’s conference Mr. Hamblyn announced to his family his intention of admitting Mr. George to it bosom he aroused therein a storm of indignation and protest.
“What! Take a lodger! “ Exclaimed Willis. “The idea!” screamed the girls. “Is that what we took this house for?”
They were furious about it. To their respectable middle class minds it represented an acknowledgement of poverty, a drop in the social scale, and therefore something extremely abhorrent.
“That old fogey, above all creatures, too!” exclaimed Belle. “I should think he’d stay in Kensington with his old duchesses he likes so well, who wants that stick here to spoil all the fun, with his bows and his scarves, and all his horrid politeness! Botheration take him!”
“I wish he’d auction himself off while he is on the job, “ said Lil. “Who’d bid him up! “Said Alice. “Hear-hear! Going cheap, a great bargain,” said Belle. “Valuable fossil; age unknown; supposed to be a specimen of humanity; possibly considered beautiful by the ancient Egyptian. Three pence, three farthings. Going, going, gone.
Of course they took care not to let John hear this ribaldry. They knew he would not permit it for a moment. They did beg him to undo the arrangement. John answered them, “No, no, my dears. I have promised him a room and he shall have it. He has gone to make his arrangements accordingly and I won’t disturb him. Moreover, he is a gentleman, and will behave as such. You’ll behave, too, my girls; or else, I’ll get my slipper, big as you are.” He meant it. So the girls accepted the inevitable and only grumbled and muttered a little to themselves.
However, when the next week came around Mr. George did not show up. Nor did he write nor send a message. The elders were not surprised at this. They merely thought he was delayed by business and would come as soon as he was ready; we do no easily get excited when we reach middle life; and as for Willis and the girls they simply did not bother their heads about him. However when the next week finished itself without George putting in an appearance Mr. Hamblyn did say something about it.
What he laconically said to Maria, was, “Queer! I wonder where that fellow is! Perhaps he is ill. I think I’ll go up to Kensington and see him.” So he went. Mr. George’s auction rooms were closed, and there was a big sign “To Let” upon the door. Inquiries around the neighborhood elicited no information whatsoever. Apparently Mr. George had disappeared from the face of the earth.
John Hamblyn was rather perturbed about it bur characteristically said very little. As for Maria, she considered it the incontrovertibly direct interposition of Providence.