'A Dinner at Poplar Walk'
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Mr. Augustus Minns was a bachelor of about forty as he said—of about eight and forty as his friends said. He was always exceedingly clean, precise, and tidy, perhaps somewhat priggish, and the most "retiring man in the world." He usually wore a brown frock-coat without a wrinkle, light inexplicables without a spot, a neat neckerchief with a remarkably neat tie, and boots without a fault; moreover, he always carried a brown silk umbrella with an ivory handle. He was a clerk in Somerset House, or, as he said, he held "a responsible situation under Government." He had a good and increasing salary, in addition to some 10,000l. of his own (invested in the funds), and he occupied a first floor in Tavistock-street, Covent Garden, where he had resided for twenty years, having been in the habit of quarrelling with his landlord the whole time, regularly giving notice of his intention to quit on the first day of every quarter, and as regularly countermanding it on the second. He had but two particular horrors in the world, and those were dogs and children. His prejudice arose from no unamiability of disposition, but that the habits of the animals were continually at variance with his love of order, which might be said to be equally as powerful as his love of life. Mr. Augustus Minns had no relation in or near London, with the exception of his cousin, Mr. Octavius Bagshaw, to whose son, whom he had never seen (for he disliked the father), he had consented to become godfather by proxy. Mr. Bagshaw having realised a moderate fortune by exercising "the trade or calling" of a corn-chandler, and having a great predilection for the country, had purchased a cottage in the vicinity of Stamford Hill, whither he retired with the wife of his bosom and his only son, Master Alexander Augustus Bagshaw. One evening, as Mr. and Mrs. B. were admiring their son, discussing his various merits, talking over his education, and disputing whether the classics should be made an essential part thereof, the lady pressed so strongly upon her husband the propriety of cultivating the friendship of Mr. Minns in behalf of their son, that Mr. Bagshaw at last made up his mind, that it should not be his fault if he and his cousin were not in future more intimate.
"I’ll break the ice, my love," said Mr. Bagshaw, stirring up the sugar at the bottom of his glass of brandy-and-water, and casting a sidelong look at his spouse to see the effect of the announcement of his determination,—"by asking Minns down to dine with us, on Sunday."
"Then pray, Bagshaw, write to your cousin at once,’ replied his spouse; "who knows, if we could only get him down here, but that he might take a fancy to our Alexander, and leave him his property?—Alick, my dear, take your legs off the rail of the chair."
"Very true," said Mr. Bagshaw, musing, "very true indeed, my love."
On the following morning, as Mr. Minns was sitting at his breakfast-table, alternately biting his dry toast and casting a look upon the columns of the Times, which he always read from the title to the printer’s name, he heard a loud knock at the street door, which was shortly afterwards followed by the entrance of his servant, who put into his hand a particularly small card, on which was engraved in immense letters, "Mr. Octavius Bagshaw, AMELIA COTTAGE (Mrs. B.’s name was Amelia), Poplar Walk, Stamford Hill."
"Bagshaw!" ejaculated Minns, "what the deuce can bring that vulgar man here?—Say I’m asleep—say I’ve broken my leg—any thing."
"But, please, sir, the gentleman’s coming up," replied the servant;—and the fact was made evident by an appalling creaking of boots on the staircase, accompanied by a pattering noise, the cause of which Minns could not for the life of him divine.
"Hem! show the gentleman in," said he in a state of desperation.—Exit servant, and enter Octavius, preceded by a large white dog, dressed in a suit of fleecy-hosiery, with pink eyes, large ears, and no perceptible tail. The cause of the pattering on the stairs was but too plain.—If it be possible for a man to entertain feeling of the most deep-rooted and unconquerable aversion to any one thing, Minns entertained this feeling towards an animal of the canine species. This, by the way, was hinted before.
"My dear fellow, how are you?" said Mr. Bagshaw, as he entered. (He always spoke at the top of his voice, and always said the same thing half-a-dozen times.)—"How are you, my hearty?"
"How do you do, Mr. Bagshaw?—pray take a chair!" politely stammered the discomfited Minns.
"Thank you, thank you. Well, how are you, eh?"
"Uncommonly well, thank you," said Minns, casting a diabolical look at the dog, who, with his hind-legs on the floor, and his fore-paws resting on the table, was dragging a bit of bread-and-butter out of a plate, which, in the ordinary course of things, it was natural to suppose he would eat with the buttered side next the carpet.
"Ah, you rogue!" said Bagshaw to his dog.—"You see, Minns, he’s like me, always at home: eh, my boy!—Egad, I’m precious hot and hungry! I’ve walked all the way from Stamford Hill, this morning."
"Have you breakfasted?" ejaculated Minns.
"Oh, no!" returned Bagshaw. "oh no! Came to town to breakfast with you; so, ring the bell, my dear fellow, will you? and let’s have another cup and saucer, and the cold ham.—Make myself at home, you see!" he continued, dusting his boots with a table-napkin."‘Ha!—ha!—ha!—’Pon my life, I’m hungry!"
Minns rang the bell, and tried to smile, but looked as merry as a farthing rushlight in a fog.
"I decidedly never was so hot in my life," continued Octavius, wiping his forehead;—"Well, but how are you, Minns? ‘Pon my soul, you wear capitally!"
"Humph! 'dye think so?"
"’Pon my life, I do!"
"Mrs. B. and—what’s his name—quite well?"
"Alick—my son, you mean. Never better—never better. But such a place as we’ve got at Poplar Walk! you know. It certainly is a most capital place—beautiful! I'll trouble you for another cup of tea. Let's see—what was I saying? Oh! I know. Such a beautiful place! When I first saw it, by Jove! it looked so knowing, with the front garden like, and the green railings, and the brass knocker, and all that—I really thought it was a cut above me."
"Don’t you think you’d like the ham better," interrupted Minns, "if you cut it the other way?" as he saw, with feelings which it is impossible to describe, that his visitor was cutting, or rather maiming the ham, in utter violation of all established rules.
"No, thank ye," returned Bagshaw, with the most barbarous indifference to crime; "I prefer it this way—it eats short. But, I say, Minns, when will you come down and see us? You'll be delighted with the place; I know you will. Amelia and I were talking about you the other night, and Amelia said—another lump of sugar, please: thank ye—she said, "Don’t you think you could contrive, my dear, to say to Mr. Minns, in a friendly way—Come down, Sir—damn the dog! He’s spoiling your curtains, Minns—Ha!—ha!—ha!" Minns leaped from his seat as though he had received the discharge from a galvanic battery.
"Come out, Sir!—go out, hoo!" cried poor Augustus, keeping, nevertheless, at a very respectful distance from the dog, having read of a case of hydrophobia in the paper of that morning. By dint of great exertion, much shouting, and a marvellous deal of poking under the tables with a stick and umbrella, the dog was at last dislodged, and placed on the landing, outside the door, where he immediately commenced a most appalling howling; at the same time vehemently scratching the paint off the two nicely-varnished bottom panels of the door, until they resembled the interior of a backgammon-board.
"A good dog for the country that!" coolly observed Bagshaw to the distracted Minns—"he’s not much used to confinement, though. But now, Minns, when will you come down? I’ll take no denial, positively. Let’s see—to-day’s Thursday;—will you come on Sunday? We dine at five. Don’t say no—do." After a great deal of pressing, Mr. Augustus Minns, driven to despair, and finding that if the dog, remained in the house much longer, he, Mr. Augustus Minns, might just as well lodge in the Zoological Gardens, accepted the invitation, and promised to be at Poplar Walk on the ensuing Sunday, at a quarter before five, to the minute.
"Now mind the direction," said Bagshaw: "the coach goes from the Flower-pot, in Bishopsgate-street, every half hour. When the coach stops at the Swan, you’ll see, immediately opposite you, a white house—"
"Which is your house—I understand," said Minns, wishing to cut short the story and the visit at the same time.
"No, no, that’s not mine; that’s Grogus’s, the great ironmonger’s. I was going to say, you turn down by the side of the white house till you can’t go another step further—mind that; and then you turn to your right, by some stables—well; close to you, you’ll see a wall with 'BEWARE OF THE DOG' written on it in large letters—[Minns shuddered]—go along by the side of that wall for about a quarter of a mile, and anybody will show you which is my place."
"Very well—thank ye—good bye."
"Certainly: good morning."
"I say, Minns, you’ve got a card?"
"Yes, I have; thank ye." And Mr. Octavius Bagshaw departed, leaving his cousin looking forward to his visit on the following Sunday with the feelings of a pennyless poet to the weekly visit of his Scotch landlady.
Sunday arrived; the sky was bright and clear; crowds of clean, decently-dressed people were hurrying along the streets, intent on their different schemes of pleasure for the day; and every thing, and every body, looked cheerful and happy but Mr. Augustus Minns.
The day was fine, but the heat was considerable; and by the time Mr. Minns had fagged up the shady side of Fleet Street, Cheapside, and Threadneedle Street, he had become pretty warm, tolerably dusty, and it was getting late into the bargain. By the most extraordinary good fortune, however, a coach was waiting at the Flower Pot, into which Mr. Augustus Minn's got, on the solemn assurance of the cad that the coach would start in three minutes—that being the time the coach was allowed to wait by "act of Parliament." A quarter of an hour elapsed, and there were no signs of moving. Minns looked at his watch for the sixth time.
"Coachman, are you going or not?" bawled Mr. Minns (with his head and half his body out of the coach window).
"Di-rectly, Sir," said the coachman, with his hands in his pockets, looking as much unlike a man in a hurry as possible.—"Bill, take them cloths off." Five minutes more elapsed; at the end of which time the coachman mounted the box, from whence he looked down the street, and up the street, and hailed all the pedestrians for another five minutes.
"Coachman! If you don’t go this moment, I shall get out," said Mr. Minns, rendered desperate by the lateness of the hour, and the impossibility of being in Poplar Walk at the appointed time.
"Going this minute, Sir," was the reply;—and, accordingly, the coach trundled on for a couple of hundred yards, and then stopped again. Minns doubled himself up into a corner of the coach, and abandoned himself to fate.
"Tell your missis to make haste, my dear—'cause here's a gentleman inside vich is in a desperate hurry." In about five minutes more missis appeared, with a child and two band-boxes, and then they set off.
"Be quiet, love!" said the mother—who saw the agony of Minns, as the child rubbed its shoes on his new drab trowsers—"be quiet, dear! Here, play with this parasol—don't kick the gentleman."
The interesting infant, however, with its agreeable plaything, contrived to tax Mr. Minns's ingenuity, in the "art of self-defence," during the ride; and amidst these infantile assaults, and the mother's apologies, the distracted gentleman arrived at the Swan, when, on referring to his watch, to his great dismay he discovered that it was a quarter past five. The white house, the stables, the "Beware of the Dog,"—every landmark was passed, with a rapidity not unusual to a gentleman of a certain age when too late for dinner. After the lapse of a few minutes, Mr. Minns found himself opposite a yellow brick house, with a green door, brass knocker, and door-plate, green window-frames, and ditto railings, with "a garden" in front, that is to say, a small loose bit of gravelled ground, with one round and two scalene triangular beds, containing a fir-tree, twenty or thirty bulbs, and an unlimited number of marigolds. The taste of Mr. or Mrs. Bagshaw was further displayed by the appearance of a Cupid on each side of the door, perched upon a heap of large chalk flints, variegated with pink conch-shells. His knock at the door was answered by a stumpy boy, in drab-livery, cotton stockings and high-lows, who, after hanging his hat on one of the dozen brass-pegs which ornamented the passage, denominated by courtesy "The Hall," ushered him into a front drawing-room, commanding a very extensive view of the backs of the neighbouring houses. The usual ceremony of introduction, and so forth, over, Mr. Minns took his seat: not a little agitated at feeling that he was the last comer, and, somehow or other, the Lion of a dozen people, sitting together in a small drawing-room, getting rid of that most tedious of all time, the time preceding dinner.
"Well, Brogson," said Bagshaw, addressing an elderly gentleman in a black coat, drab knee-breeches, and long gaiters, who, under pretence of inspecting the prints in an Annual, had been engaged in satisfying himself on the subject of Minns’ general appearance, by looking at him over the top of the leaves—"well, Brogson, what do ministers mean to do? Will they go out, or what?’
"Oh—why—really, you know, I’m the last person in the world to ask for news. Your cousin, from his situation, is the most likely person to answer the question."
Mr. Minns assured the last speaker, that, although he was in Somerset House, he possessed no official communication relative to the projects of his Majesty’s Ministers. His remark was evidently received incredulously; and no further conjectures being hazarded on the subject, a long pause ensued, during which the company occupied themselves in coughing and blowing their noses, until the entrance of Mrs. Bagshaw caused a general rise.
The ceremony of introduction being over, dinner was announced, and down stairs the party proceeded accordingly: Mr. Minns escorting Mrs. Bagshaw as far as the drawing-room door, but being prevented, by the narrowness of the stair-case, from extending his gallantry any further. The dinner passed off as such dinners usually do. Ever and anon, amidst the clatter of knives and forks, and the hum of conversation, Mr. Bagshaw’s voice might be heard asking a friend to take wine, and assuring him he was glad to see him; and a good deal of by-play took place between Mrs. Bagshaw and the servants respecting the removal of the dishes, during which her countenance assumed the variations of a weather-glass, sometimes "stormy" and occasionally "set fair." Upon the dessert and wine being placed on the table, the servant, in compliance with a significant look from Mrs. Bagshaw, brought down "Master Alexander," habited in a sky-blue suit with silver buttons, and with hair of nearly the same colour as the metal. After sundry praises from his mother, and various admonitions as to his behaviour from his pa, he was introduced to his godfather.
"Well, my little fellow—you are a fine boy, an’t you?" said Minns, as happy as a tom-tit upon bird-lime.
"How old are you?"
"Eight, next We’nsday. How old are you?"
"Alexander," interrupted his mother, "how dare you ask Mr. Minns how old he is!"
"He asked me how old I was," said the precocious darling, to whom Minns had, from that moment, internally resolved he never would bequeath one shilling. As soon as the titter occasioned by the observation had subsided, a little smirking man with red whiskers, sitting at the bottom of the table, who, during the whole of dinner, had been endeavouring to obtain a listener to some stories about Sheridan, called out, with a very patronising air,—"Alick, what part of speech is be?"
"That’s a good boy," said Mrs. Bagshaw, with all a mother’s pride. "Now, you know what a verb is?"
"A verb is a word which signifies to be, to do, or to suffer; as, I am—I rule—I am ruled. Give me an apple, Ma."
"I’ll give you an apple," replied the story-teller, who was clearly one of those bores who are commonly called 'friends of the family,' "if you’ll tell me what is the meaning of, be."
"Be?" said the prodigy, after a little hesitation—"an insect that gathers honey."
"No, dear," frowned Mrs. B—; "B double E is the substantive."
"I don’t think he knows much yet about common substantives," said the smirking gentleman, who thought this an admirable opportunity for letting off a joke: "It’s clear he’s not very well acquainted with proper names. He! he! he!"
"Gentlemen," called out Mr. Bagshaw, from the end of the table, in a stentorian voice, and with a very important air, "will you have the goodness to charge your glasses? I have a toast to propose."
"Hear! hear!" cried the gentlemen, passing the decanters. After they had made the round of the table, Mr. Bagshaw proceeded—"Gentlemen; there is an individual present—"
"Hear! hear!" said the little man with the red whiskers.
"Pray be quiet, Jones," remonstrated Bagshaw, sotto voce.
"I say, gentlemen, there is an individual present," resumed the host, "in whose society, I am sure, we must take great delight—and—and—the conversation of that individual must have afforded to every individual present the utmost pleasure."— ["Thank Heaven he does not mean me!" thought Minns, conscious that his diffidence and exclusiveness had prevented his saying above a dozen words since he entered the house.]— "Gentlemen, I am but a humble individual myself, and I perhaps ought to apologize for allowing any individual feelings of friendship and affection for the person I allude to, to induce me to venture to rise, to propose the health of that person—a person that, I am sure—that is to say, a person whose virtues must endear him to those who know him—and those who have not the pleasure of knowing him, cannot dislike him."
"Hear! hear!" said the company, in a tone of encouragement and approval.
"Gentlemen," continued Bagshaw, "my cousin is a man who—who is a relation of my own." (Hear! hear!) Minns groaned audibly—who I am most happy to see here, and who, if he were not here, would certainly have deprived us of the great pleasure we all feel in seeing him. (Loud cries of hear!)—Gentlemen: I feel that I have already trespassed on your attention for too long a time. With every feeling of—of—with every sentiment of—of—"
"Gratification"—suggested the friend of the family.
"—Of gratification, I beg to propose the health of Mr. Minns."
"Standing, gentlemen!" shouted the indefatigable little man with the whiskers—"and with the honours. Take your time from me, if you please. Hip! hip! hip!—Za!—Hip! hip! hip!—Za!—Hip hip!—Za—a—a!"
All eyes were now fixed on the subject of the toast, who, by gulping down port-wine at the imminent hazard of suffocation, endeavoured to conceal his confusion. After as long a pause as decency would admit, with a face as red as a flamingo, he rose; but, as the newspapers sometimes say in their reports of the debates, "we regret that we are quite unable to give even the substance of the honourable gentleman’s observations." The words "present company—honour—present occasion," and "great happiness"—heard occasionally, and repeated at intervals, with a countenance expressive of the utmost misery, convinced the company that he was making an excellent speech; and, accordingly, on his resuming his seat, they cried "Bravo!" and manifested tumultuous applause. Jones, who had been long watching his opportunity, then darted up.
"Bagshaw," said he, will you allow me to propose a toast?"
"Certainly," replied Bagshaw, adding in an under tone to Minns right across the table—"Devilish sharp fellow that: you’ll be very much pleased with his speech. He talks equally well on any subject." Minns bowed, and Mr. Jones proceeded:
"It has on several occasions, in various instances, under many circumstances, and in different companies, fallen to my lot to propose a toast to those by whom, at the time, I have had the honour to be surrounded. I have sometimes, I will cheerfully own—for why should I deny it?—felt the overwhelming nature of the task I have undertaken, and my own utter incapability to do justice to the subject. If such have been my feelings, however, on former occasions, what must they be now—now—under the extraordinary circumstances in which I am placed. (Hear! hear!)—To describe my feelings accurately would be impossible; but I cannot give you a better idea of them, gentlemen, than by referring to a circumstance which happens, oddly enough, to occur to my mind at the moment. On one occasion, when that truly great and illustrious man, Sheridan was—"
"Please, Sir," said the boy, entering hastily, and addressing Bagshaw, "as it's a very wet ev'ning, the nine o'clock stage has come round to know, whether any one's going to town. There's room for one inside."
Minns, who had some time meditated suicide, now, with a courage heretofore unknown, started up to secure the chance of escape.
Many were the expressions of surprise, and numerous the entreaties to stay, when Minns persisted in his determination to accept the offer of the vacant inside place. It was useless to press him further; so, after detaining the coach for the purpose of looking for his umbrella, and then making the pleasant discovery that he had left it in the other coach coming don, Minns was informed by the parsley-and-butter coated boy that the coachman "couldn't wait no longer; but if the gentleman would make haste, he might catch him at the Swan." Minns muttered, for the first time in his life, a diabolical ejaculation. It was of no use that fresh entreaties poured upon him. Quite as effective was the appeal of Master Alick, who, after dabbling half-an-hour in raspberry jam and custard, and fixing the print of his paws on Minns' trowsers, cried out—"Do stop, godpa'—I like you—Ma' says I am to coax you to leave me all your money!"—Had Minns been stung by an electric eel, he could not have made a more hysteric spring through the door-way; nor did he relax his speed until, arriving at the Swan, he saw the coach drive off—full inside and out.
It was half-past three in the morning ere Mr. Augustus Minns knocked faintly at No. 11, Tavistock Street, Covent Garden. He had footed it every step of the way from Poplar Walk:—he had not a dry thread about him, and his boots were like pump-suckers. Never from that day could Mr. Minns endure the name of Bagshaw or Poplar Walk. It was to him as the writing on the wall was to Belshazzar. Mr. Minns has removed from Tavistock Street. His residence is at present a secret, as he is determined not to risk another assault from his cousin and his pink-eyed poodle.