Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

Chapter viii

The Mistaken Milliner. A Tale of Ambition

Miss Amelia Martin was pale, tallish, thin, and two-and-thirty — what ill-natured people would call plain, and police reports interesting. She was a milliner and dressmaker, living on her business and not above it. If you had been a young lady in service, and had wanted Miss Martin, as a great many young ladies in service did, you would just have stepped up, in the evening, to number forty-seven, Drummond-street, George-street, Euston-square, and after casting your eye on a brass door-plate, one foot ten by one and a half, ornamented with a great brass knob at each of the four corners, and bearing the inscription ‘Miss Martin; millinery and dressmaking, in all its branches;’ you’d just have knocked two loud knocks at the street-door; and down would have come Miss Martin herself, in a merino gown of the newest fashion, black velvet bracelets on the genteelest principle, and other little elegancies of the most approved description.

If Miss Martin knew the young lady who called, or if the young lady who called had been recommended by any other young lady whom Miss Martin knew, Miss Martin would forthwith show her up-stairs into the two-pair front, and chat she would — SO kind, and SO comfortable — it really wasn’t like a matter of business, she was so friendly; and, then Miss Martin, after contemplating the figure and general appearance of the young lady in service with great apparent admiration, would say how well she would look, to be sure, in a low dress with short sleeves; made very full in the skirts, with four tucks in the bottom; to which the young lady in service would reply in terms expressive of her entire concurrence in the notion, and of the virtuous indignation with which she reflected on the tyranny of ‘Missis,’ who wouldn’t allow a young girl to wear a short sleeve of an arternoon — no, nor nothing smart, not even a pair of ear-rings; let alone hiding people’s heads of hair under them frightful caps. At the termination of this complaint, Miss Amelia Martin would distantly suggest certain dark suspicions that some people were jealous on account of their own daughters, and were obliged to keep their servants’ charms under, for fear they should get married first, which was no uncommon circumstance — leastways she had known two or three young ladies in service, who had married a great deal better than their missises, and THEY were not very good-looking either; and then the young lady would inform Miss Martin, in confidence, that how one of their young ladies was engaged to a young man and was a-going to be married, and Missis was so proud about it there was no bearing of her; but how she needn’t hold her head quite so high neither, for, after all, he was only a clerk. And, after expressing due contempt for clerks in general, and the engaged clerk in particular, and the highest opinion possible of themselves and each other, Miss Martin and the young lady in service would bid each other good night, in a friendly but perfectly genteel manner: and the one went back to her ‘place,’ and the other, to her room on the second-floor front.

There is no saying how long Miss Amelia Martin might have continued this course of life; how extensive a connection she might have established among young ladies in service; or what amount her demands upon their quarterly receipts might have ultimately attained, had not an unforeseen train of circumstances directed her thoughts to a sphere of action very different from dressmaking or millinery.

A friend of Miss Martin’s who had long been keeping company with an ornamental painter and decorator’s journeyman, at last consented (on being at last asked to do so) to name the day which would make the aforesaid journeyman a happy husband. It was a Monday that was appointed for the celebration of the nuptials, and Miss Amelia Martin was invited, among others, to honour the wedding-dinner with her presence. It was a charming party; Somers-town the locality, and a front parlour the apartment. The ornamental painter and decorator’s journeyman had taken a house — no lodgings nor vulgarity of that kind, but a house — four beautiful rooms, and a delightful little washhouse at the end of the passage — which was the most convenient thing in the world, for the bridesmaids could sit in the front parlour and receive the company, and then run into the little washhouse and see how the pudding and boiled pork were getting on in the copper, and then pop back into the parlour again, as snug and comfortable as possible. And such a parlour as it was! Beautiful Kidderminster carpet — six bran-new cane-bottomed stained chairs — three wine-glasses and a tumbler on each sideboard — farmer’s girl and farmer’s boy on the mantelpiece: girl tumbling over a stile, and boy spitting himself, on the handle of a pitchfork — long white dimity curtains in the window — and, in short, everything on the most genteel scale imaginable.

Then, the dinner. There was baked leg of mutton at the top, boiled leg of mutton at the bottom, pair of fowls and leg of pork in the middle; porter-pots at the corners; pepper, mustard, and vinegar in the centre; vegetables on the floor; and plum-pudding and apple-pie and tartlets without number: to say nothing of cheese, and celery, and water-cresses, and all that sort of thing. As to the Company! Miss Amelia Martin herself declared, on a subsequent occasion, that, much as she had heard of the ornamental painter’s journeyman’s connexion, she never could have supposed it was half so genteel. There was his father, such a funny old gentleman — and his mother, such a dear old lady — and his sister, such a charming girl — and his brother, such a manly-looking young man — with such a eye! But even all these were as nothing when compared with his musical friends, Mr. and Mrs. Jennings Rodolph, from White Conduit, with whom the ornamental painter’s journeyman had been fortunate enough to contract an intimacy while engaged in decorating the concert-room of that noble institution. To hear them sing separately, was divine, but when they went through the tragic duet of ‘Red Ruffian, retire!’ it was, as Miss Martin afterwards remarked, ‘thrilling.’ And why (as Mr. Jennings Rodolph observed) why were they not engaged at one of the patent theatres? If he was to be told that their voices were not powerful enough to fill the House, his only reply was, that he would back himself for any amount to fill Russell-square — a statement in which the company, after hearing the duet, expressed their full belief; so they all said it was shameful treatment; and both Mr. and Mrs. Jennings Rodolph said it was shameful too; and Mr. Jennings Rodolph looked very serious, and said he knew who his malignant opponents were, but they had better take care how far they went, for if they irritated him too much he had not quite made up his mind whether he wouldn’t bring the subject before Parliament; and they all agreed that it ‘’ud serve ’em quite right, and it was very proper that such people should be made an example of.’ So Mr. Jennings Rodolph said he’d think of it.

When the conversation resumed its former tone, Mr. Jennings Rodolph claimed his right to call upon a lady, and the right being conceded, trusted Miss Martin would favour the company — a proposal which met with unanimous approbation, whereupon Miss Martin, after sundry hesitatings and coughings, with a preparatory choke or two, and an introductory declaration that she was frightened to death to attempt it before such great judges of the art, commenced a species of treble chirruping containing frequent allusions to some young gentleman of the name of Hen-e-ry, with an occasional reference to madness and broken hearts. Mr. Jennings Rodolph frequently interrupted the progress of the song, by ejaculating ‘Beautiful!’ — ‘Charming!’ — ‘Brilliant!’ — ‘Oh! splendid,’ &c.; and at its close the admiration of himself, and his lady, knew no bounds.

‘Did you ever hear so sweet a voice, my dear?’ inquired Mr. Jennings Rodolph of Mrs. Jennings Rodolph.

‘Never; indeed I never did, love,’ replied Mrs. Jennings Rodolph.

‘Don’t you think Miss Martin, with a little cultivation, would be very like Signora Marra Boni, my dear?’ asked Mr. Jennings Rodolph.

‘Just exactly the very thing that struck me, my love,’ answered Mrs. Jennings Rodolph.

And thus the time passed away; Mr. Jennings Rodolph played tunes on a walking-stick, and then went behind the parlour-door and gave his celebrated imitations of actors, edge-tools, and animals; Miss Martin sang several other songs with increased admiration every time; and even the funny old gentleman began singing. His song had properly seven verses, but as he couldn’t recollect more than the first one, he sang that over seven times, apparently very much to his own personal gratification. And then all the company sang the national anthem with national independence — each for himself, without reference to the other — and finally separated: all declaring that they never had spent so pleasant an evening: and Miss Martin inwardly resolving to adopt the advice of Mr. Jennings Rodolph, and to ‘come out’ without delay.

Now, ‘coming out,’ either in acting, or singing, or society, or facetiousness, or anything else, is all very well, and remarkably pleasant to the individual principally concerned, if he or she can but manage to come out with a burst, and being out, to keep out, and not go in again; but, it does unfortunately happen that both consummations are extremely difficult to accomplish, and that the difficulties, of getting out at all in the first instance, and if you surmount them, of keeping out in the second, are pretty much on a par, and no slight ones either — and so Miss Amelia Martin shortly discovered. It is a singular fact (there being ladies in the case) that Miss Amelia Martin’s principal foible was vanity, and the leading characteristic of Mrs. Jennings Rodolph an attachment to dress. Dismal wailings were heard to issue from the second-floor front of number forty-seven, Drummond-street, George-street, Euston-square; it was Miss Martin practising. Half-suppressed murmurs disturbed the calm dignity of the White Conduit orchestra at the commencement of the season. It was the appearance of Mrs. Jennings Rodolph in full dress, that occasioned them. Miss Martin studied incessantly — the practising was the consequence. Mrs. Jennings Rodolph taught gratuitously now and then — the dresses were the result.

Weeks passed away; the White Conduit season had begun, and progressed, and was more than half over. The dressmaking business had fallen off, from neglect; and its profits had dwindled away almost imperceptibly. A benefit-night approached; Mr. Jennings Rodolph yielded to the earnest solicitations of Miss Amelia Martin, and introduced her personally to the ‘comic gentleman’ whose benefit it was. The comic gentleman was all smiles and blandness — he had composed a duet, expressly for the occasion, and Miss Martin should sing it with him. The night arrived; there was an immense room — ninety-seven sixpenn’orths of gin-and-water, thirty-two small glasses of brandy-and-water, five-and-twenty bottled ales, and forty-one neguses; and the ornamental painter’s journeyman, with his wife and a select circle of acquaintance, were seated at one of the side-tables near the orchestra. The concert began. Song — sentimental — by a light-haired young gentleman in a blue coat, and bright basket buttons — [applause]. Another song, doubtful, by another gentleman in another blue coat and more bright basket buttons — [increased applause]. Duet, Mr. Jennings Rodolph, and Mrs. Jennings Rodolph, ‘Red Ruffian, retire!’ — [great applause]. Solo, Miss Julia Montague (positively on this occasion only) — ‘I am a Friar’ — [enthusiasm]. Original duet, comic — Mr. H. Taplin (the comic gentleman) and Miss Martin — ‘The Time of Day.’ ‘Brayvo! — Brayvo!’ cried the ornamental painter’s journeyman’s party, as Miss Martin was gracefully led in by the comic gentleman. ‘Go to work, Harry,’ cried the comic gentleman’s personal friends. ‘Tap-tap-tap,’ went the leader’s bow on the music-desk. The symphony began, and was soon afterwards followed by a faint kind of ventriloquial chirping, proceeding apparently from the deepest recesses of the interior of Miss Amelia Martin. ‘Sing out’ — shouted one gentleman in a white great-coat. ‘Don’t be afraid to put the steam on, old gal,’ exclaimed another, ‘S-s-s– s-s-s-s’-went the five-and-twenty bottled ales. ‘Shame, shame!’ remonstrated the ornamental painter’s journeyman’s party — ‘S-s-s– s’ went the bottled ales again, accompanied by all the gins, and a majority of the brandies.

‘Turn them geese out,’ cried the ornamental painter’s journeyman’s party, with great indignation.

‘Sing out,’ whispered Mr. Jennings Rodolph.

‘So I do,’ responded Miss Amelia Martin.

‘Sing louder,’ said Mrs. Jennings Rodolph.

‘I can’t,’ replied Miss Amelia Martin.

‘Off, off, off,’ cried the rest of the audience.

‘Bray-vo!’ shouted the painter’s party. It wouldn’t do — Miss Amelia Martin left the orchestra, with much less ceremony than she had entered it; and, as she couldn’t sing out, never came out. The general good humour was not restored until Mr. Jennings Rodolph had become purple in the face, by imitating divers quadrupeds for half an hour, without being able to render himself audible; and, to this day, neither has Miss Amelia Martin’s good humour been restored, nor the dresses made for and presented to Mrs. Jennings Rodolph, nor the local abilities which Mr. Jennings Rodolph once staked his professional reputation that Miss Martin possessed.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30