My Fortnight at Wretchedville

by George Augustus Sala

How I came to be acquainted with Wretchedville was in this wise. I was in quest last autumn of a nice quiet place within a convenient distance of town, where I could finish an epic poem—or stay, was it a five-act drama?—on which I had been long engaged, and where I could be secure from the annoyance of organ-grinders, and of reverend gentlemen leaving little subscription books one day and calling for them the next. I pined for a place where one could be very snug, and where one's friends didn't drop in "just to look you up, old fellow," and where the post didn't come in too often. So I picked up a bag of needments, and availing myself of a mid-day train on the Great Domdaniel Railway, alighted haphazard at a station.

It turned out to be Sobbington. I saw at a glance that Sobbington was too fashionable, not to say stuck-up for me. The waltz from "Faust" was pianofortetically audible from at least half-a-dozen semi-detached windows; and this, combined with some painful variations on "Take, then, the sabre," and a cursory glance into a stationer's shop and fancy warehouse, where two stern mammas of low-church aspect were purchasing the back numbers of "The New Pugwell Square Pulpit," and three young ladies were telegraphically inquiring, behind their parents' backs, of the young person at the counter whether any letters had been left for them, sufficed to accelerate my departure from Sobbington. The next station on the road, I was told, was Doleful Hill, and then came Deadwood Junction. I thought I would take a little walk, and see what the open and what the covert yielded.

I left my bag with a moody porter at the Sobbington Station, and trudged along the road which had been indicated to me as leading to Doleful Hill. It is true that I had not the remotest idea of where I was going to live. I walked onwards and onwards, admiring the field cows in the far-off pastures—cows the white specks on whose hides recurred so artistically that one might have thought the scenic arrangement of the landscape had been entrusted to Mr. Birket Foster. Anon I saw coming towards me, a butcher-boy in his cart, drawn by a fast trotting pony. I asked him when he neared me, how far it might be to Doleful Hill.

"Good two mile," quoth the butcher-boy, pulling up. "But you'll have to pass Wretchedville first. Lays in a 'ole a little to the left, 'arf a mile on."

"Wretchedville," thought I; what an odd name! "What sort of a place is it?" I inquired.

"Well," replied the butcher-boy; "it's a lively place, a werry lively place. I should say it was lively enough to make a cricket burst himself for spite: it's so uncommon lively." And with this enigmatical deliverance the butcher-boy relapsed into a whistle of the utmost shrillness, and rattled away towards Sobbington.

I wish that it had not been quite so golden an afternoon. A little dulness, a few clouds in the sky, might have acted as a caveat against Wretchedville. But I plodded on and on, finding all things looking beautiful in that autumn glow, until at last I found myself descending the declivitous road into Wretchedville and to destruction.

"Were there any apartments to let?" Of course there were. The very first house I came to was, as regards the parlour-window, nearly blocked up by a placard treating of "Apartments Furnished." Am I right in describing it as the parlour-window? I scarcely know; for the front door, with which it was on a level, was approached by such a very steep flight of steps, that when you stood on the topmost grade, it seemed as though, with a very slight effort, you could have peeped in at the bed-room window, or touched one of the chimney-pots; while as concerns the basement, the front kitchen—I beg pardon, the breakfast parlour—appeared to be a good way above the level of the street.

The space in the first-floor window not occupied by the placard, was filled by a monstrous group of wax fruit, the lemons as big as pumpkins, and the leaves of an unnaturally vivid green. The window below—it was a single-windowed front—served merely as a frame for the half-length portrait of a lady in a cap, ringlets, and a colossal cameo brooch. The eyes of this portrait were fixed upon me; and before almost I had lifted a very small light knocker, decorated, so far as I could make out, with the cast-iron effigy of a desponding ape, and had struck this against a door, which to judge from the amount of percussion produced, was composed of Bristol board highly varnished, the portal itself flew open and the portrait of the basement appeared in the flesh; indeed, it was the same portrait. Downstairs it had been Mrs. Primpris looking out into the Wretchedville Road for lodgers. Upstairs it was Mrs. Primpris letting her lodgings and glorying in the act.

She didn't ask for any references. She didn't hasten to inform me that there were no children or any other lodgers. She didn't look doubtful when I told her that the whole of my luggage consisted of a black bag which I had left at the Sobbington Station. She seemed rather pleased with the idea of the bag, and said that her Alfred should step round for it. She didn't object to smoking; and she at once invested me with the Order of the Latchkey—a latchkey at Wretchedville, ha! ha! She further held me with her glittering eye, and I listened like a two-years' child while she let me the lodgings for a fortnight certain.

She had converted me into a single gentleman lodger of quiet and retired habits—or was I a widower of independent means seeking a home in a cheerful family?—so suddenly that I beheld all things as in a dream. Thinking, perchance, that the first stone of that monumental edifice, the bill, could not be laid too quickly, she immediately provided me with tea. There was a little cottage-loaf, so hard, round, shiny, and compact, that I experienced a well-nigh uncontrollable desire to fling it up to the ceiling to ascertain whether it would chip off any portion of a preposterous rosette in stucco in the centre, representing a sunflower surrounded by cabbage-leaves. This terrible ornament was, by the way, one of the chief sources of my misery at Wretchedville: I was continually apprehensive that it would tumble down bodily on the table. In addition to the cottage-loaf there was a pretentious tea-pot, which, had it been of sterling silver, would have been worth fifty guineas, but which in its ghastly gleaming, said plainly, "Sheffield" and "imposture." There was a piece of butter in a "shape" like a diminutive haystack, and with a cow sprawling on the top in unctuous plasticity. It was a pallid kind of butter, from which with difficulty you shaved off adipocerous scales, which would not be persuaded to adhere to the bread, but flew off at tangents and went rolling about an intolerably large tea-tray on whose papier-mâché surface was depicted the death of Captain Hedley Vicars. The Crimean sky was inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and the gallant captain's face was highly enriched with blue and crimson foil-paper.

As for the tea, I don't think I ever tasted such a peculiar mixture. Did you ever sip warm catsup sweetened with borax? That might have been something like it. And what was that sediment, strongly resembling the sand at Great Yarmouth, at the bottom of the cup? I sat down to my meal, however, and made as much play with the cottage-loaf as I could. Had the loaf been varnished? It smelt and looked as though it had undergone that process. Everything in the house smelt of varnish. I was uncomfortably conscious, too, during my repast—one side of the room being all window—that I was performing the part of a "Portrait of the Gentleman on the first floor," and that, as such, I was "sitting" to Mrs. Lucknow at Number Twelve opposite—I knew her name was Lucknow, for a brass plate on the door said so—whose own half-length effigy was visible in her own breakfast-parlour window glowering at me reproachfully because I had not taken her first floor, in the window of which was, not a group of wax fruit, but a sham alabaster vase full of artificial flowers. Every window in Wretchedville exhibited one or other of these ornaments, and it was from their contemplation that I began to understand how it was that the "fancy goods" trade in the Minories and Houndsditch throve so well. They made things there to be purchased by the housekeepers of Wretchedville.

The shades of evening fell, and Mrs. Primpris brought me in a monstrous paraffin-lamp, the flame of which wouldn't do anything but lick the chimney-glass till it smoked it to the proper hue to observe eclipses by, and then splutter into extinction and charnel-like odour. After that we tried a couple of composites (six to the pound) in green glass candlesticks. I asked Mrs. Primpris if she could send me up a book to read, and she favoured me, per Alfred and Selina, with her whole library, consisting of the Asylum Press Almanack for 1860; two odd volumes of the Calcutta Directory; the Brewer and Distiller's Assistant; Julia de Crespigny, or a Winter in London; Dunoyer's French Idioms; and the Reverend Mr. Huntingdon's Bank of Faith.

I took out my cigar-case after this and began to smoke; and then I heard Mrs. Primpris coughing and a number of doors being thrown wide open. Upon this I concluded that I would go to bed. My sleeping apartment—the first-floor back—was a perfect cube. One side was a window overlooking a strip of clay-soil hemmed in between brick walls. There were no tombstones yet, but if it wasn't a cemetery, why, when I opened the window to get rid of the odour of the varnish, did it smell like one? The opposite side of the cube was composed of a chest of drawers. I am not impertinently curious by nature, but as I was the first-floor lodger, bethought myself entitled to open the top long drawer with a view to the bestowal of the contents of my black bag. The drawer was not empty; but that which it held made me feel very nervous. I suppose the weird figure I saw stretched out there with pink arms and legs sprouting from a shroud of silver paper, a quantity of ghastly auburn curls, and two blue glass eyes unnaturally gleaming in the midst of a mask of salmon-coloured wax, was Selina's best doll; the present perhaps of her uncle, who was, haply, a Calcutta director, or an Asylum Press Almanack maker, or a brewer and distiller, or a cashier in the Bank of Faith. I shut the drawer again hurriedly, and that doll in its silver paper cerecloth haunted me all night.

The third side of my bedroom consisted of chimney—the coldest, hardest, brightest-looking fire-place I ever saw out of Hampton Court Palace guardroom. The fourth side was door. I forget into which corner was hitched a wash-hand stand. The ceiling was mainly stucco rosette, of the pattern of the one in my sitting-room. Among the crazes which came over me at this time, was one to the effect that this bedroom was a cabin on board ship, and that if the ship should happen to lurch or roll in the trough of the sea, I must infallibly tumble out of the door or the window, or into the drawer where the doll was—unless the drawer and the doll came out to me—or up the chimney. I think that I murmured "Steady!" as I clomb into bed.

My couch—an "Arabian" one, Mrs. Primpris said proudly—seemingly consisted of the Logan, or celebrated rocking-stone of Cornwall, loosely covered with bleached canvas, under which was certain loose foreign matter, but whether composed of flocculi of wool or of the halves of kidney potatoes I am not in a position to state. At all events I awoke in the morning veined all over like a scagliola column. I never knew, too, before, that any blankets were manufactured in Yorkshire, or elsewhere, so remarkably small and thin as the two seeming flannel pocket-handkerchiefs with blue-and-crimson edging, which formed part of Mrs. Primpris's Arabian bed-furniture. Nor had I hitherto been aware, as I was when I lay with that window at my feet, that the moon was so very large. The orb of night seemed to tumble on me flat, until I felt as though I were lying in a cold frying-pan. It was a "watery moon," I have reason to think; for when I awoke the next morning, much battered with visionary conflicts with the doll, I found that it was raining cats and dogs.

"The rain," the poet tells us, "it raineth every day." It rained most prosaically all that day at Wretchedville, and the next, and from Monday morning till Saturday night, and then until the middle of the next week! Dear me! dear me! how wretched I was! I hasten to declare that I have no kind of complaint to make against Mrs. Primpris. Not a flea was felt in her house. The cleanliness of the villa was so scrupulous as to be distressing. It smelt of soap and scrubbing-brush like a Refuge. Mrs. Primpris was strictly honest, even to the extent of inquiring what I would like to have done with the fat of cold mutton-chops, and sending me up antediluvian crusts, the remnants of last week's cottage-loaves, with which I would play moodily at knock-'em-downs, using the pepper-caster as a pin. I have nothing to say against Alfred's fondness for art. India-rubber to be sure, is apter to smear than to obliterate drawings in chalk; but a three-penny piece is not much; and you cannot too early encourage the imitative faculties. And again, if Selina did require correction, I am not prepared to deny that a shoe may be the best implement and the blade bones the most fitting portion of the human anatomy for such an exercitation.

I merely say that I was wretched at Wretchedville, and that Mrs. Primpris's apartments very much aggravated my misery. The usual objections taken to a lodging-house are to the effect that the furniture is dingy, the cooking execrable, the servant a slattern, and the landlady either a crocodile or a tigress. Now my indictment against my Wretchedville apartments simply amounts to this: that everything was too new. Never were there such staring paper-hangings, such gaudily printed druggets for carpets, such blazing hearthrugs—one representing the dog of Montargis seizing the murderer of the Forest of Bondy—such gleaming fire-irons, and such remarkably shiny looking-glasses with gilt halters for frames. The crockery was new, and the glue on the chairs and tables was scarcely dry. The new veneer peeled off the new chiffonier. The roller-blinds to the windows were so new that they wouldn't work. The new stair-carpeting used to dazzle my eyes so, that I was always tripping myself up; the new oil-cloth in the hall smelt like the Trinity House repository for new buoys; and Mrs. Primpris was always full dressed by nine o'clock in the morning. She confessed once or twice during my stay that her house was not quite "seasoned." It was not even seasoned to sound. Every time the kitchen-fire was poked you heard the sound in the sitting-room. As to perfumes, whenever the lid of the copper in the wash-house was raised, the first-floor lodger was aware of the fact. I knew by the simple evidence of my olfactory organs what Mrs. Primpris had for dinner every day. Pork, accompanied by some green esculent, boiled, predominated.

When my fortnight's tenancy had expired—I never went outside the house until I left it for good—and my epic poem, or whatever it was, had more or less been completed, I returned to London, and had a rare bilious attack. The doctor said it was painter's colic; I said at the time it was disappointed ambition, for the booksellers had looked very coldly on my poetical proposals, and the managers to a man had refused to read my play; but at this present writing I believe the sole cause of my malady to have been Wretchedville. I hope they will pull down the villas and build the jail there soon, and that the rascal convicts will be as wretched as I was.