“To Let” – An April Fool’s Day Prank: 1873

TO LET.

I should like to describe my hero as a young and gallant cavalier of this nineteenth century, with the beauty of an Apollo and the wisdom of a sage, but truth compels me to that Rupert Smithson, in spite of his fine Christian appellation, was neither one or the other. His nephew and namesake, who was called by the bosom of his family Rupert the Second, said that his Uncle Rupert was a crusty old bachelor, and I hammer my brains in vain for a more fitting description.

A crusty old bachelor he undoubtedly was, more than fifty years of age, with grizzled hair, heavy gray beard, and a rough voice and manner. It is very true that he was always careful to keep the crustiest side of nature on the surface, and had been discovered in the act of committing several deeds of charity and kindness, that belied utterly his habitual surly tone and abrupt manner. Twenty years before, when the gray hair was nut-brown and clustered in rich curls over the broad white forehead, when the brown eye shown with the fire of ambition, the clear voice was true and tender, Rupert Smithson had given his whole loyal heart to Katie Carroll, neighbor and friend, little sweetheart from childhood.

Urged by love as well as by ambition, he had left his home, in a small Western town, and gone to New York to win a name and fortune to lay at Katie’s feet. The fortune and fame as a successful merchant came to him, but when he returned to Katie he found she had left her home also, to become the wife of a wealthy pork dealer in Cincinnati.

Nobody told Rupert of treachery to the pretty Katie, of letters suppressed, of slanders circulated, and parental authority stretched to the utmost in favor of the wealthy suitor. He had no record of the slow despair that crept over the loving heart, when the pleading letters were answered, of the dull apathy that yielded at last, and gave a way the hand of the young girl, when her heart seemed broken.

All that the young, ardent lover knew was the one bitter fact that the girl he loved faithfully and fondly was false to her promise, the wife of another. He spoke no word of bitterness, but returned to the home he hoped was his stepping-stone, and a life of loneliness.

Ten years later, when his sister, with her son and daughter, came to live in New York for educational advantages, Rupert the First was certainly what his saucy nephew called him, a crusty old bachelor. Yet into that sore, disappointed heart Katie’s desertion had so wounded, the bachelor uncle took with warm love and great indulgence his nephew and niece, bright, handsome children of ten and twelve, who, childlike, imposed upon his good nature, rioted over his quiet, orderly house, his staid housekeeper declared they were worse than a pair of monkeys, caressed him stormily moment, and pouted over some refusal for a monstrous indulgence the next, and treated as bachelor uncles must expect to be treated by their sister’s children.

“Rupert was so set in his fidgety old bachelor ways,” she said, “that it would be positive cruelty to disturb him.”

Probably young Rupert and Fannie did not consider their bright young faces disturbers of their uncle’s tranquility, but it is quite certain that out of school hours, No. 49, their uncle’s house, saw them as frequently as No. 43, where their mother resided.

With the intuitive perception of children they understood that the abrupt, often harsh voice, the surly words, and the demonstrative manner, covered a heart that would have made any sacrifice for their sakes, that loved them with as true a love as their own dead father could have given them.

As they outgrew childhood, evidences of affection ceased to take the form of dolls and drums, and cropped out in Christmas checks, in ball dresses and boquets, a saddle horse, and various other delightful shapes, till Rupert came of age, when he was taken from college into his uncle’s counting house and a closer intimacy than ever was cemented between the young life and the one treading the downward path to old age.

There had been a family gathering at Mrs. Kimberly’s one evening in the month of March, and a conversation had arisen upon the traditional customs and tricks of the 1st of April.

“Senseless, absurd tricks,” Rupert Smithson had called them in his abrupt, rough way, fit only to amuse children or idiots.

“O, pshaw, Uncle Rupert!” said Fannie, saucily, “you played April fool tricks too when you were young.”

“Never! Never could see any wit or sense in them. And what’s more, Miss Fannie, I was never once caught by any of the shallow deceits.”

“Never made an April fool?”

“Never, and never will be,” was the reply. “There child, go play me that last nocturn you learned. It suits me. I hate sky-rocket music, but that is the dreamy, lazy air, and I like it.”

“The idea of your liking anything dreamy and lazy,” said Mrs. Kimberly. “I thought you were all energy and activity.”

“When I work,” was the reply; “but when I rest, I want rest.”

“Uncle Rupert, broke in Rupert, suddenly, ” what will you bet I can’t fool you next week?”

“Bah! The idea of getting to my age to be fooled by a boy like you.”

“Then you defy me?”

“Of course I do.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Fore-warned is fore-armed. But come, stop chatting, I want my music.”

Pretty, saucy, mirth-loving Fannie. with her dancing black eyes and brilliant smile, did not look like a very promising interpreter of dreamy, lazy music, but once her hands touched the keys of the grand pianoforte, the whole nature seemed to merge into the sounds she created. Merry music made dancing elves of her fingers as they flew over the notes; dreamy music drew a mask of hushed beauty over her face. and her great black eyes would dilate and seem to see far away beauties as the room filled with the sweet, low cadences.

She would look like an inspired Joan of Arc when grand chords rolled out under her hands in majestic measures, and sacred music transformed her beauty into something saintly. When once the rosewood case closed, Saint Cecilia became pretty, winsome Fannie Kimberly again.

There were few influences that could soften the outer crust of manner in Rupert Smithson, but he would hide his face away when Fannie played, ashamed of the tears that started, or smiles that hovered on his lips as the music pierced down into that warm, loving heart he had tried to conceal with cynical words and looks.

So, when the first chords of the nocturn melted softly into silence, the old bachelor stole away and left the house, bidding no one farewell. They were accustomed to his singular ways, and no one followed him, but Mrs. Kimberly sighed as she said:

“Rupert gets more odd and crusty every year.”

“But he is so good,” Fannie said, leaving her piano stool with a twirl that kept it spinning around giddily.

“Why don’t he get married?” asked Rupert. “It is a downright shame to have that splendid house shut up year after year, excepting just the few rooms Uncle Rupert and Mrs. Jones occupy.”

“I mean to ask him,” said Fannie, impulsively.

“No, no!” said Mrs. Kimberly, hastily, ” never speak of that to your uncle, Fannie, Never!”

“But why not?”

“I never told you before, but your uncle was engaged years ago, and there was some trouble. I never understood about it exactly, for I was married and left Wilton the same year that Rupert came to New York. But this I do know; the lady after waiting three or four years, married, and Rupert has never been the same man since. I am quite sure he was very much attached to her, and that you would wound him, Fannie, if you jested about marriage.”

“But I don’t mean to jest at all. I think he would be ever so much happier if he had some one to love, and some one to love him in return. It must be dreadfully lonesome in that large house with no companion but Mrs. Jones, who is 100 years old, I am certain.”

“He ought to marry her,” said Rupert, “she always calls him ‘dearie.'”

“Don’t, children, jest about it any more,” said their mother, “and be sure you never mention the subject to your uncle.”

The first of April was a clear, rather cold day, the air bright and snapping, and the sky all treacherous smiles as became the coquettish month of sunshine and showers.

Uncle Rupert, finishing his lonely breakfast, thought to himself: “I must be on the lookout to-day for Rupert’s promised trick! He won’t find it so easy as he imagines to fool his old uncle. Who’s there?” The last two words in answer to a somewhat timid knock upon the door.

It was certainly not easy to astonish Rupert Smithson, but his eyes opened with an unmistakable expression of amazement as the door opened to admit a tall, slender figure in deep mourning, and a low, very sweet voice asked:

“Is this the landlord?

“The—the–what?”

“I called about the house, sir.”

“What house? Take a seat”–suddenly recalling his politeness.

“Is not this No. 49 W__ place?”

“Certainly it is.”

“I have been looking out for some time for a furnished house suitable for boarders, sir, and if I find this one suits me, and the rent is not too high ”

“But__,” interrupted the astonished bachelor.

“O, I hope it is not taken. The advertisement said to call between 8 and 9, and it struck 8 as I stood on the door step.”

“O, the advertisement. Oh no. Master Rupert. This is your doings, is it? will you let me see the advertisement, madam?”

“You have the paper in your hand, sir,” she said, timidly. “I did not cut it out.”

“O, you saw it in the paper,” and he turned to the list of houses to let.

Sure enough there it was.

“To let, furnished–three story, brown-stone front, basement.” and rather a full description of the advantages of the premises, with the emphatic addition, “call only between 8 and 9 A. M.”

“So as to be sure I am at home, the rascal,” said Rupert Smithson, laying aside the paper.

“I am sorry, madam,” he said, ” that you have had the trouble of calling upon a useless errand.”

“Then it is taken?” said a very disappointed voice, and the heavy crape veil was lifted to show a sweet, matronly face, framed in that most saddest of all badges, a widow’s cap.

“Well, no,” said the perplexed bachelor, “it is not exactly taken.”

“Perhaps you object to boarders?”

“You want to take boarders?” he answered, thinking how ladylike and gentle she looked, and wondered if she had long been a widow.

“Yes, sir; but I would be very careful about the reference.”

“Have you ever kept boarders before?”

“No, sir. Since my husband died, six years ago–he failed in business, and brought on a severe illness by mental anxiety–my daughter and myself have been sewing, but we have both been in ill health all winter, and I want to try some way of getting a living that is less confining. I have kept house several years, but I have no capital to furnish, so we want to secure a house furnished like this one, if possible.”

Quite unconscious of the reason, Rupert Smithson was finding it very pleasant to talk to this gentle little widow about her plans, and as she spoke, was wondering if it would not make an agreeable variety in his lonely life to let her make her experiment of keeping a boarding house upon the premises Seeing his hesitation, she said, earnestly,

“I think you will be satisfied with my references, sir. I have lived in one house and have worked for one firm for six years, and if you require it, I can obtain letters from my husband’s friends in Cincinnati.”

“Cincinnati?”

“He was pretty well known there, Perhaps you have heard of him, John Murray, ___street?”

“John Murray!” Rupert Smithson looked searchingly into the pale face that was so pleadingly raised to his gaze. Where was the rosy cheeks, the dancing eyes, the laughing lips that he pictured as belonging to John Murray’s wife? Knowing now the truth, he recognized the face before him, the youth all gone, and the expression sanctified by sorrow and long suffering.

“You have children?” he said, after a long silence.

“Only one living, a daughter, seventeen years old. I have buried all the others.”

“I will let you have the house on one condition,” he said, his lip trembling a little as he spoke.

She did not answer. In the softened eyes looking into her own, in the voice suddenly modulated to a tender sweetness, some memory was awakened, and she only listened with bated breath and dilating eyes.

“On one condition, Katie,” he said, “that you come to it as my wife, and its mistress. I have waited for you over twenty years, Katie.”

It was hard to believe, even then, though the little widow let him caress her, and sobbed upon his breast.

This gray-haired, middle-aged man was so unlike the Rupert she had believed false. Even after the whole past was discussed, and Rupert knew how he had been wronged, but not by Katie, it was hard to believe there might be years of happiness still in store for them.

Rupert Smithson didn’t put in an appearance at his counting house that day, and Rupert the Second went home to his dinner in rather an uneasy state of mind regarding that April fool trick of his.

“I must run over and see if I have offended beyond all hope of pardon,” he said, as he rose from the table.

But a gruff voice behind him arrested his steps.

“So, so; you have advertised my house to let,” said his uncle, but spite of his efforts he failed to look very angry.

“How many old maids and widows applied for it?” inquired the daring young scapegrace.

“I don t know. After the first application my housekeeper told the others the house was taken.

“Taken!”

“Yes, I have let it upon a life lease. too.”

Here he opened the door.

“My wife!”

Very shy, blushing and timid “my wife” looked in her slate-colored dress and bonnet, as her three-hours’ husband led her in.

After a moment’s scrutiny Mrs. Kimberly cried: “It is Katie Carroll!”

“Katie Smithson!” said the bridegroom, with immense dignity, “and my daughter, Winifred.”

There was a new sensation, as a pretty blonde answered this call, but a warmer welcome was never given than was accorded to these by their new relatives, and to this day Uncle Rupert will not acknowledge that he got the worst of the joke when his nephew played him an April fool’s trick by advertising his house to let.

The Elk County [PA] Advocate 9 October 1873: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  April Fool’s Pranks followed well-worn paths: sending merchants with loads of goods to unsuspecting householders; insulting signs stuck to a stranger’s coat; coins glued to the side-walk; and, of course, advertising an occupied house to let.

The author used a full stock of Victorian popular literature cliches: the husband who failed in business, went into a Decline and died; the broken-hearted widow whose children are all in the grave, save one; the suppressed letters to separate devoted lovers; and the crusty old bachelor with a heart of gold. All that is missing is the villainous nobleman and the lisping child. Never mind–Rupert the Second and saucy, mirth-loving Fannie have been cast in the juvenile roles, sans lisp.  Mrs Daffodil assumes that the author was paid by the word; hence the lengthy and altogether unnecessary description of Fanny’s musical talents.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

1 thought on ““To Let” – An April Fool’s Day Prank: 1873

  1. Ruth Beaty

    Ahhh, I liked this one! It was sweetly sappy without being over done. And short! Not some horrid 300 page drippy novel, as they were so fond of then. The perfect story for an April Fool’s Day.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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