I should be insulting the intelligence of readers generally, if I thought it at all necessary to describe to them that widely-celebrated town, Tidbury-on-the-Marsh. As a genteel provincial residence, who is unacquainted with it? The magnificent new hotel that has grown on to the side of the old inn; the extensive library, to which, not satisfied with only adding new books, they are now adding a new entrance as well; the projected crescent of palatial abodes in the Grecian style, on the top of the hill, to rival the completed crescent of castellated abodes, in the Gothic style, at the bottom of the hill — are not such local objects as these perfectly well known to any intelligent Englishman? Of course they are! The question is superfluous. Let us get on at once, without wasting more time, from Tidbury in general to the High Street in particular, and to our present destination there — the commercial establishment of Messrs Dunball and Dark.
Looking merely at the coloured liquids, the miniature statue of a horse, the corn plasters, the oil-skin bags, the pots of cosmetics, and the cut-glass saucers full of lozenges in the shop window, you might at first imagine that Dunball and Dark were only chemists. Looking carefully through the entrance, towards an inner apartment, an inscription; a large, upright, mahogany receptacle, or box, with a hole in it; brass rails protecting the hole; a green curtain ready to draw over the hole; and a man with a copper money shovel in his hand, partially visible behind the hole; would be sufficient to inform you that Dunball and Dark were not chemists only, but ‘Branch Bankers’ as well.
It is a rough squally morning at the end of November. Mr Dunball (in the absence of Mr Dark, who has gone to make a speech at the vestry meeting) has got into the mahogany box, and has assumed the whole business and direction of the branch bank. He is a very fat man, and looks absurdly over-large for his sphere of action. Not a single customer has, as yet, applied for money — nobody has come even to gossip with the branch banker through the brass rails of his commercial prison house. There he sits, staring calmly through the chemical part of the shop into the street — his gold in one drawer, his notes in another, his elbows on his ledgers, his copper shovel under his thumb; the picture of monied loneliness; the hermit of British finance.
In the outer shop is the young assistant, ready to drug the public at a moment’s notice. But Tidbury-on-the-Marsh is an unprofitably healthy place; and no public appears. By the time the young assistant has ascertained from the shop clock that it is a quarter past ten, and from the weather-cock opposite that the wind is ‘Sou’-sou’-west’, he has exhausted all external sources of amusement, and is reduced to occupying himself by first sharpening his penknife, and then cutting his nails. He has completed his left hand, and has just begun on the right hand thumb, when a customer actually darkens the shop door at last!
Mr Dunball starts, and grasps the copper shovel: the young assistant shuts up his penknife in a hurry, and makes a bow. The customer is a young girl, and she has come for a pot of lip salve.
She is very neatly and quietly dressed; looks about eighteen or nineteen years of age; and has something in her face which I can only characterize by the epithet — lovable. There is a beauty of innocence and purity about her forehead, brow, and eyes — a calm, kind, happy expression as she looks as you — and a curious home-sound in her clear utterance when she speaks, which, altogether, make you fancy, stranger as you are, that you must have known her and loved her long ago, and somehow or other ungratefully forgotten her in the lapse of time. Mixed up, however, with the girlish gentleness and innocence which form her more prominent charm, there is a look of firmness — especially noticeable about the expression of her lips — that gives a certain character and originality to her face. Her figure —
I stop at her figure. Not by any means for want of phrases to describe it; but from a disheartening conviction of the powerlessness of any description of her at all to produce the right effect on the minds of others. If I were asked in what particular efforts of literature the poverty of literary material most remarkably appears, I should answer, in personal descriptions of heroines. We have all read these by the hundred — some of them so carefully and finely finished, that we are not only informed about the lady’s eyes, eyebrows, nose, cheeks, complexion, mouth, teeth, neck, ears, head, hair, and the way it was dressed; but are also made acquainted with the particular manner in which the sentiments below made the bosom above heave or swell; besides the exact position of head in which her eyelashes were just long enough to cast a shadow on her cheeks. We have read all this attentively and admiringly, as it deserves; and have yet risen from the reading, without the remotest approach to a realization in our own minds of what sort of a woman the heroine really was. We vaguely knew she was beautiful, at the beginning of the description; and we know just as much — just as vaguely — at the end.
Penetrated with the conviction above-mentioned, I prefer leaving the reader to form his own realization of the personal appearance of the customer at Messrs Dunball and Dark’s. Eschewing the magnificent beauties of his acquaintance, let him imagine her to be like any pretty intelligent girl whom he knows — any of those pleasant little fire-side angels, who can charm us even in a merino morning gown, darning an old pair of socks. Let this be the sort of female reality in the reader’s mind; and neither author, nor heroine, need have any reason to complain.
Well; our young lady came to the counter, and asked for lip salve. The assistant, vanquished at once by the potent charm of her presence, paid her the first little tribute of politeness in his power, by asking permission to send the gallipot home for her.
‘I beg your pardon, miss,’ said he; ‘but I think you live lower down, at No. 12. I was passing; and I think I saw you going in there, yesterday, with an old gentleman, and another gentleman — I think I did, miss?’
‘Yes: we lodge at No. 12,’ said the young girl; ‘but I will take the lip salve home with me, if you please. I have a favour, however, to ask of you before I go,’ she continued very modestly, but without the slightest appearance of embarrassment; ‘if you have room to hang this up in your window, my grandfather, Mr Wray, would feel much obliged by your kindness.’
And here, to the utter astonishment of the young assistant, she handed him a piece of cardboard, with a string to hang it up by, on which appeared the following inscription, neatly written:—
Mr Reuben Wray, pupil of the late celebrated John Kemble, Esquire, begs respectfully to inform his friends and the public that he gives lessons in elocution, delivery, and reading aloud, price two-and-sixpence the lesson of an hour. Pupils prepared for the stage, or private theatricals, on a principle combining intelligent interpretation of the text, with the action of the arms and legs adopted by the late illustrious Roscius of the English stage, J. Kemble, Esquire; and attentively studied from close observation of Mr J.K. by Mr R.W. Orators and clergymen improved (with the strictest secrecy), at three-and-sixpence the lesson of an hour. Impediments and hesitation of utterance combated and removed. Young ladies taught the graces of delivery, and young gentlemen the proprieties of diction. A discount allowed to schools and large classes. Please to address, Mr Reuben Wray (late of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane), 12, High Street, Tidbury-on-the-Marsh.
No Babylonian inscription that ever was cut, no manuscript on papyrus that ever was penned, could possibly have puzzled the young assistant more than this remarkable advertisement. He read it all through in a state of stupefaction; and then observed, with a bewildered look at the young girl on the other side of the counter:—
‘Very nicely written, miss; and very nicely composed indeed! I suppose — in fact, I’m sure Mr Dunball’— Here a creaking was heard, as of some strong wooden construction being gradually rent asunder. It was Mr Dunball himself, squeezing his way out of the branch bank box, and coming to examine the advertisement.
He read it all through very attentively, following each line with his forefinger; and then cautiously and gently laid the cardboard down on the counter. When I state that neither Mr Dunball nor his assistant were quite certain what a ‘Roscius of the English stage’ meant, or what precise branch of human attainment Mr Wray designed to teach in teaching ‘Elocution’, I do no injustice either to master or man.
‘So you want this hung up in the window, my — in the window, miss?’ asked Mr Dunball. He was about to say, ‘my dear’; but something in the girl’s look and manner stopped him.
‘If you could hang it up without inconvenience, sir.’
‘May I ask what’s your name? and where you come from?’
‘My name is Annie Wray; and the last place we came from was Stratford-upon-Avon.’
‘Ah! indeed — and Mr Wray teaches, does he? — elocution for half-a-crown — eh?’
‘My grandfather only desires to let the inhabitants of this place know that he can teach those who wish it, to speak or read with a good delivery and a proper pronunciation.’
Mr Dunball felt rather puzzled by the straightforward, self-possessed manner in which he — a branch banker, a chemist, and a municipal authority — was answered by little Annie Wray. He took up the advertisement again; and walked away to read it a second time in the solemn monetary seclusion of the back shop.
The young assistant followed. ‘I think they’re respectable people, sir,’ said he, in a whisper; ‘I was passing when the old gentleman went into No. 12, yesterday. The wind blew his cloak on one side, and I saw him carrying a large cash box under it — I did indeed, sir; and it seemed a heavy one.’
‘Cash box!’ cried Mr Dunball. ‘What does a man with a cash box want with elocution, and two-and-sixpence an hour? Suppose he should be a swindler!’
‘He can’t be, sir: look at the young lady! Besides, the people at No. 12 told me he gave a reference, and paid a week’s rent in advance.’
‘He did — did he? I say, are you sure it was a cash box?’
‘Certain, sir. I suppose it had money in it, of course?’
‘What’s the use of a cash box, without cash?’ said the branch banker, contemptuously. ‘It looks rather odd, though! Stop! maybe it’s a wager. I’ve heard of gentlemen doing queer things for wagers. Or, maybe, he’s cracked! Well, she’s a nice girl; and hanging up this thing can’t do any harm. I’ll make enquiries about them, though, for all that.’
Frowning portentously as he uttered this last cautious resolve, Mr Dunball leisurely returned into the chemist’s shop. He was, however, nothing like so ill-natured a man as he imagined himself to be; and, in spite of his dignity and his suspicions, he smiled far more cordially than he at all intended, as he now addressed little Annie Wray.
‘It’s out of our line, miss,’ said he; ‘but we’ll hang the thing up to oblige you. Of course, if I want a reference, you can give it? Yes, yes! of course. There! there’s the card in the window for you — a nice prominent place (look at it as you go out)— just between the string of corn plasters and the dried poppy-heads! I wish Mr Wray success; though I rather think Tidbury is not quite the sort of place to come to for what you call elocution — eh?’
‘Thank you, sir; and good morning,’ said little Annie. And she left the shop just as composedly as she had entered it.
‘Cool little girl, that!’ said Mr Dunball, watching her progress down the street to No. 12.
‘Pretty little girl, too!’ thought the assistant, trying to watch, like his master, from the window.
‘I should like to know who Mr Wray is,’ said Mr Dunball, turning back into the shop, as Annie disappeared. ‘And I’d give something to find out what Mr Wray keeps in his cash box,’ continued the banker-chemist, as he thoughtfully re-entered the mahogany money chest in the back premises.
You are a wise man, Mr Dunball; but you won’t solve those two mysteries in a hurry, sitting alone in that branch bank sentry-box of yours! — Can anybody solve them? I can.
Who is Mr Wray? and what has he got in his cash box? — Come to No. 12, and see!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52