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The Arlton Court-house was an old building, and its age was the solitary claim it possessed to the affectionate admiration of genuine Arltonians. A very careful scrutiny, by an artist of great experience, had resulted in pronouncing it to be akin to the Gothic order of architecture in its original form ; and the date of its erection was loosely fixed at “any period which History might show to have been remarkably deficient. in artistic skill, and at the same time powerfully addicted to the use of purple bricks.”
Some years before the date of our story, a considerable change had been effected in the West, or High Street aspect of the mouldy edifice, and the change came about in this wise. The magnates of the town, smitten with compunction when they contrasted this mean temple of Justice with their own stately little palaces of stone, and at the same time resolved on retaining the only piece of antiquity of which they could boast, contrived a graceful compromise, by which their consciences might be relieved without detriment to their truly noble conservatism in matters of taste. The plan adopted may be described as follows-the main body was to be new fronted with an imposing façade, along which there should be inserted six Doric pilasters (“well masticated,”. the worthy
proposer said), then a good bold porch in the middle, with two Doric pillars, as thick as possible, and of real stone. Since the change, a casual observer was almost sure to be overwhelmed with the magnificence of the structure, until he received the rather spiteful explanation of his guide, that "it looked a vast sight better than it was ;” whereas, in the old times, honest Arltonians would exultantly apologise for its external meanness by assuring their friends on a visit, that it
a vast sight better than it looked. The commercial prosperity indicated by this improvement in the front elevation of the Court-house had continued with occasional drawbacks; but the time had not yet arrived for pulling the old part down, and making the building uniform. Indeed, the philosophic spirits of the town had very early, perhaps prematurely, accepted and acted upon the opinion of their first literary authority, “that there is a point beyond which it is not desirable to carry civilisation, and when that point is reached, it is the duty of all men to spread it over as large a space as possible, instead of pursuing the process of refinement any further.” The Arltonians, then, consented to regard the new front as quite civilisation enough to do any real good, and in accordance with the maxim of their oracle they had thenceforward addressed their energies and superfluous cash to the pleasing, but difficult task, of bringing the rest of the town up to the Court-house standard.
THE court-yard was spacious enough for all communal gatherings, whether for business or pleasure. There stood the hustings, when an appeal to the country was going on; and here, too, stood the crowd of the great unrepresented, to maintain their poor share of popular privilege and to discharge their solitary political duty--that of asking impertinent questions, and then drowning with deafening roars the equally
impertinent answers. There, also, twice in a twelvemonth the fun of the Fair was collected as in a focus. The beasts of “the forest primeval;" the ugly dwarfs full to the scalp of malice, and the milky-faced giant who could not and dare not injure a fly; the African bruisers : the great-headed baby : the acorn-prompted pig : the celebrated conjurer from the Indies who swore "by the Powers" and appeared to thrive not amiss by the favour of those same powers ; the wax-works better and truer than life; the Theatre Royal with a new five-act tragedy every quarter of an hour, and above all and among all the strains that invite to revelry and cost only voluntary coppers.
Here, every Monday in the year, might be seen the huge prison-van drawn up very close to the iron gate in the
-hearse-like, horseless—a solemn warning to all who passed by ; and vis-a-vis, like Puss in the Corner, was the gorgeous gold-coloured barouche of my lord—an affecting and very palpable illustration of the blessings to be picked up in the course of a virtuous life. In truth, that yard was well worth a visit from all who devote themselves to the study of character, any day of the year, with the exception, say, of about 300; and on those exceptional days, to tell the truth, the yard could furnish no subjects for profitable reflection beyond a few melancholy, ownerless, degraded dogs, and some scores of idle quarrelsome cocks and hens.
In this court-yard were enacted the scenes with which the tale opens, whilst the scenes supply not only the turning point, but also an epitome and miniature of the two lives which furnish the materials of this book.
A GENERAL HOLIDAY.
The town was up betimes on this glorious autumn morning, and the life which manifested itself at an unusual hour in the shopkeeping streets, must have been anticipated by the hambler children of toil in back streets, and in the
villages for miles round. The programme of the day's festivity included a procession, a gala in the People's Park, and a tea-party that promised unprecedented glory. The procession was to start at ten o'clock; and, accordingly, from the hour of six, a. M., there was a constant stream of townsfolk into the yard, and of country cousins into the town. Every vehicle known to man had been put into requisition by the visitors from without, and all styles of costume ever attempted by the leaders of rural fashion must surely have been represented in the medley crowd which occupied the quadrangle. The first comers enjoyed their time-honoured advantage of escaping criticism either of their equipage or their dress; but, with a playful contempt for the small generosities of life, they flung the shafts of ridicule right and left, without either discrimination or fear of retort. Peals of laughter every now and then directed curious eyes to some new feature in the scene, but very rarely to any fact or person droll enough to account for the merriment.
One incident, however, was just comical enough to justify the wild guffawing of the crowd, and out of respect to the general sedateness of neighbours, it will be well to record the event as a justifying plea. Groggy Muggins, a thriving bone-crusher, was excessively fat, and Mrs. Muggins was much fatter. Economical in the matter of horseflesh, Mr. M. had decided to commit his own person to the carrying powers of his dumpy, wicked little pony instead of to a milk cart which was drawn by a bigger but leaner horse. It is not wholly improbable that the desire his spouse had expressed about “having a day out,” influenced him in the selection of his conveyance. But if he thought such a saucy trick would baffle any woman in the world, much more such a woman as his wife, he had lived thirty years in nuptial bondage to very little purpose. She cheerfully agreed to put up with the inconvenience of a pillion, trusting for consolation to her secret intentions of revenge on the road. They travelled ten dusty miles in sulks ; but, happily, without falling out in any sense. Their goal, “The Bull Pup," was nearly in sight, and with resigned minds, the pony and his riders were devouring their several breakfasts by anticipation,
heedless of intervening perils. Slowly descending the incline opposite the court-house gates, “ the three fat 'uns," as boys upon the railings impudently called them, came to sudden grief. The stones were a trifle greasy, the burdens a trifle heavy, and the secret purposes of the matron were so far fulfilled that Groggy was, as he said, “ riding uncommonly forrards—astraddle the shoulder-bone;" so that when the weary brute slipped, it had no alternative but to sneeze, plunge headlong, and break its knees. The saddle-girth, and the various strappings involved in the pillion contrivance, snapped all at once. What particular angle Mrs. M. described in her descent, it boots not to inquire ; but tradition saith, that, on her way to that recumbent position in which she long lay panting, observers had an unexpected opportunity of contrasting Dives and Lazarus in one and the same individual,--splendid purple, of the silkiest texture, and in redundant folds; but where consistency demanded fine linen, alas ! the best that could be said had better not be said.
A crowd knows no mercy, and always prosecutes false pretensions with the utmost rigour; nor was there any exception now. So far as the jolly unbruised bone-crusher was concerned, this instinct of the crowd mattered very
little. He had long ago buried his sensitive nature very deep beneath his cow-skin waistcoat, and for many years had been heaping on its tomb layers of impenetrable fat. He rather enjoyed the thing than not, so long as he was only shaken a bit. But with his better and larger half, the case was widely different. She had, with a girlish glee, pinned her pride upon her purple sleeve-a conspicuous mark, hit at once and often by the darts of popular scorn. She was not really much hurt; but shame seemed to make her weigh double, and glue her to the pavement. And when at length she was gathered up from the mud, kind inquirers found that, with the exception of her bonnet being crushed—her plum-coloured satin dyed drab in patches—her ill-matched stockings over her shoe-heels-her reticule smashed, with its contents of pastry and bacon, into an indistinguishable parti-coloured jelly-and her face scratched like a map in red ink,—she