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THE SHINGLETON MYSTERY.

A SEA-SIDE STORY,

BY DUDLEY COSTELLO.

MERELY to say of Shingleton that it is a rising watering-place, would be to give offence to every one of its five hundred regular inhabitants ; yet, if it contain no more than that number, I do not see why Shingleton should not have expectations, and hope to rise.

Such, in fact, must be the case, or how does it happen that, at present, Shingleton is overbuilt, more apartments-if not houses-being to let in it than there are visitors to fill them, even in the height of the season ?

Some magnificent ideas went towards the laying out of Shingleton, but they remain unaccomplished. The Royal Crescent exhibits only one horn, the Royal-square only half deserves its name, the Royal Promenade stretches in front of a very imperfectly occupied range of buildings, and the Royal Swimming-baths are not yet begun. These are signs either of caution or recklessness, of prudent speculation or headlong bank. ruptcy: the builders of Shingleton either stopped in time, or only stopped when they had no longer the means of going on,

Be this as it may, there Shingleton stands, another monument to the vanity of human wishes of which the world contains so many examples.

But although incomplete and unfinished, Shingleton is not without attractions. A fine range of breezy downs lies behind the town, a fine expanse of open sea-breezy enough, too, upon occasion---spreads before it; there are sands at low water, and, when the tide is in, you see how appropriately Shingleton is named ; donkeys and bathing-machines are also among the properties of the place, and there is a riding-master who has an establishment of four horses and three ponies. Nor is this all : the Royal Promenade Rooms supply the usual sea-side literature ; a German band makes its appearance twice a week, arriving nobody knows how, and departing nobody knows when ; wandering acrobats halt now and then to pick up charitable pence; natural history on wheels suns itself sometimes on the road that skirts the Royal Promenade ; and itinerant vendors of sea-side curiosities take Shingleton on their way

to somewhere else.

On a small scale, then, allowing for drawbacks, and substituting good intentions—that very dangerous pavement—for downright performances, you have at Shingleton very much the same kind of thing that you get in places of higher renown: and unless tormented by the fiend Ambition, who delights in showing off before the multitude, you may pass one or two months there pleasantly enough, according to the mind you carry with

you. Most people have some reason to give for the choice they make of their sea-side home. The exceptions, who, like Brummel going out to dinner, tell their valet to put them into a carriage and drive them somewhere, are very few in number. Some seek retirement, some a crowd ; some

health; some mere amusement; and so on. The motive which induced Mr. Benjamin Smurfitt to visit Shingleton was an inordinate fondness for prawns.

Long before the skill of the architect had been called in to convert a small fishing-village into a fashionable watering-place, the fame of the Shingleton prawns had spread far and wide ; and long before his retirement from business, Mr. Benjamin Smurfitt had inwardly resolved that, whenever that event took place, he would go to Shingleton and have his fill of prawns. Thirty years is a long interval between the birth of an idea and its realisation as a fact, but for thirty years did Mr. Benjamin Smurfitt toil in the pursuit of wealth and his crustacean reward.

Mr. Smurfitt was in the brush-making line, a branch of art which has very extensive ramifications, leading upward to shower-baths and smokejacks, downward to dusters and door-mats, and embracing in one broad, universal level nearly all the refinements of the scullery, the pantry, and the kitchen. “Persons about to marry” were enjoined in the newspapers to “go to Smurfitt's, The Little Dustpan, Duke-street, Manchestersquare, where only,” &c.; and by dint of advertisements on the one hand, and really fulfilling the promises made in them on the other, the advertiser at length became a man of money, and withdrew—as he said - from public life.

While Smurfitt had been making his fortune, Shingleton—to a certain extent—was acquiring celebrity. Like “The Little Dustpan” in Dukestreet, Shingleton also had been well advertised. The building company who took the matter in hand quoted (an apocryphal passage in the Registrar-General's annual report to show that Shingleton was the healthiest place in England; it was acknowledged, they said, on all hands, to be the most delightful spot on the coast; the same interest declared that, when the direct Shingleton line was finished, it would be more accessible than Blazetown, to which it was even now a formidable rival; and as to the creature-comforts of Shingleton, nothing more was necessary than to point with pride to its prawns. Thus conscientiously recommended, Shingleton became what has already been described and thither, with more than a lover's eagerness, Mr. Smurfitt went to realise the day-dream of his existence.

Of a lover's eagerness, indeed, Mr. Smurfitt knew nothing, for, though he had reached his fifty-fifth year, he had never been in love. Absorbed in bristles and rope-yarn and such-like unyielding substances, for thirty years gave no thought to anything more tractable or tender; for to the last-named category his housekeeper, Mrs. Bruff, could hardly be said to belong, so little of either were in her temper or aspect. That Mrs. Bruff, despite her inward and outward woman, entertained thoughts with respect to Mr. Smurfitt which have—or appear to have some affinity with sentiment, was quite another thing; but though her entertainment of them had made no impression on the heart of Smurfitt, it helped without doubt to keep that heart free from other impressions, supposing him weak enough at any moment to have relaxed in his attentions to ropeyarn and bristles. To tell the truth, though Mr. Smurfitt seemed impassive as a merman—a little, too, perhaps on that very account, as far as she was personally concerned— Mrs. Bruff was indescribably jealous. If she could not win him herself, she took every domestic precaution to

he

prevent any one else from doing so, and, with respect to out-of-door transactions, she guarded him with more than feline watchfulness. This excessive vigilance would have made many a man miserable, but Smurfitt, though he winced a little now and then, took it very easily on the whole, and at length it became almost an article in his creed that of all the pitfals of life there is none so dangerous as matrimony.

As a confirmed bachelor, then, Mr. Smurfitt went to Shingleton, and so resolute to appear what he was, that he left Mrs. Bruff behind. It cost her something to acquiesce in this arrangement, for there was no knowing what might happen to her master when he was out of her sight and so far away, but in this particular Mr. Smurfitt was inexorable: he was going in for prawns, and, as he said, the only way to do that with any degree of satisfaction, was to have them to himself.' Ah, if Smurfitt had but known that there were prawns in the West Indies, equal in flavour to those of Shingleton and three times their size, he would have braved all the terrors of the Atlantic to get at them; and, had he made the Jamaica voyage, it is more than probable that Mrs. Bruff's apprehensions would have come to pass. But I must not anticipate.

The frequenters of the Royal Promenade Rooms at Shingleton, as they laboriously strove, in the beginning of August last, to beguile the time and cheat the skyey influences of our delicious summer, whose harvest is still ungarnered, read with more than common interest—there being only seven visitors in the place at that time—the announcement, in the fashionable column of the Shingleton Gazette, that Benjamin Smurfitt, Esquire, was among the latest arrivals, and “occupied apartments” at Unicorn Mansion : the editor had caught the true Blazetown style, and Shingleton had adopted the true Blazetown nomenclature. Moreover, as they read, they might have been aware—in fact, they could not help knowing, as he was the only stranger who had appeared at the Rooms all the week—that Benjamin Smurfitt, Esquire, was in presence before them, seeking recreation like themselves, and like themselves--not finding it. This being the case, it may be convenient here to describe the

personal appearance of Mr. Smurfitt, borrowing the description from his own photographed carte de visite. As his tendencies were not at all literary, he had chosen “ The Library style,” surrounding himself with bookcases which he had never seen, and gazing on books he had never opened. He was bald-headed, of course—that helped the literary illusion ; blunt featured—that denoted sagacity; short-all your intellectually-great men are so; stout-well, to be stout, in Smurfitt's opinion, was to be manly; so, as a short, stout, blunt-featured, bald-headed man, he stood, when he was in Regent-street, before the artist's painted library; and, with the decorations only changed, and his hat on, so he appeared at the Royal Promenade Rooms, Shingleton.

I can't say that anybody there was much taken with Mr. Smurfitt's appearance, except, perhaps, the proprietor of the establishment, who booked his subscription; but as a new comer was a godsend at Shingleton, and the day was unusually wet-complete saturation being rapidly achieved—he soon found some one to talk to him. Conversation was a safety-valve to Mr. Smurfitt at that moment, for he was exceedingly out of temper, and wanted to give vent to it. Out of temper? And at Shingleton ? Yes! Mr. Smurfitt was a disappointed man. He had been

nearly four-and-twenty hours at Shingleton, and hadn't yet seen a single prawn! But he shall speak for himself.

The weather had naturally made an opening.

“ Wet day, sir! Yes. Shamefully wet, I call it," replied Mr. Smurfitt to his interlocutor, an elderly twaddler, who seemed as if he also had retired from business, and would be glad to get back to it again; "when one comes into the country one don't expect to be treated in this way."

The elderly twaddler was one who accepted his fate more patiently than Mr. Smurfitt : probably he was not so well off. “ I'm not partial to wet weather myself

, sir," he replied; “ it keeps one so much in-doors. What with the rain and the wind, it was as much as I could do to get here this morning, though Marine Villa, where I'm lodging, is not a couple of hundred yards off. I really thought I couldn't have kep' my legs, the wind was so uncommon high.”

“That's where it is, sir," returned Mr. Smurfitt, boiling and bubbling with indignation ; "it's the beastly wind that does it! I call it a perfect imposition—a regular downright swindle ! Look here, sir,” he continued: “I come down to Shingleton on purpose to eat prawns, and what's the first thing I hear? Very sorry, but there are none to be had. Forced to go without 'em at tea, sir, yesterday; forced to go without 'em at breakfast again, this morning. Same story repeated : high wind, rough sea, not a prawn in the town. What signifies wind and sea! They ought always to be had. You can get oysters whenever you want 'em why not prawns ?"

Potted prawns are very nice, sir," mildly interposed The Twaddler. “ Potted ‘nonsense !" retorted Mr. Smurfitt, more angry than ever. “ It spoils 'em altogether. Clarified butter takes away the taste! Quite another thing when they're fresh! Relish of the sea about them-firm, juicy, delicious! I hate potted meats, sir ; potted prawns worse than anything else. I wish I was lord-lieutenant of the county—mayor of the town-inspector of the police-harbour-master, or what not-I'd bind these fellows down in a penalty of-of-of-twenty poundstwenty pounds, sir, at the very least--for every day they made me go without prawns.

I'd soon bring 'em to their senses !" “Well, really," said The Twaddler, rubbing the window-pane with his cuff

, " I do think it's going to clear up! It looks lighter out at sea, and don't seem quite so blusterous. Perhaps they'll catch some this afternoon !"

“ If they don't," said Mr. Smurfitt, firmly, “I know what I'll do!"

There is no threat so terrible as that, the actual purport of which is unrevealed ; and, to use a familiar phrase, The Twaddler almost shook in his shoes as he glanced at the angry countenance of Mr. Smurfitt.

But as storms clear away from the face of the ocean, so the wrath of the retired brushmaker, having spent its fury, gradually subsided. Mr. Smurfitt became more conversable, and the chit-chat gently filtered through the lips of The Twaddler fell soothingly on the ear of his listener. He learned by this means who the celebrities were that constituted the

company then staying at Shingleton, what the amusements of the place, how, at stated periods, the Band or the Ethiopian Serenaders made their appearance, what was done on the shingle at high water and what on the sands when the tide went out, where the best donkeys were

to be hired, how many church services there were on Sundays, what time they began, when they ended, who preached —But no, I can conceive nothing more cruel than the repetition of The Twaddler's information: let it suffice that he made Mr. Smurfitt as completely au fait of what was going on at Shingleton as if he had been the oldest spinster inhabitant.

Notwithstanding The Twaddler's prediction—notwithstanding his attempt to verify it by tapping the glass with his knuckle, and then wondering why it did not rise-the rain pelted and the wind blew as if it had never rained or blown before, and when the afternoon had been spent in the desultory way common to all afternoons that are passed in Marine Libraries, Mr. Smurfitt, under cover of his umbrella, returned to Unicorn Mansion, to eat his lonely dinner.

Yet loneliness in dining was less a misfortune to Mr. Smurfitt than it is to many. He liked his dinner, not so much for the sociability of the meal as for the thing itself. A table d'hôte would, without doubt, have been more agreeable to him than a solitary cover, for at a table d'hôte there is greater variety and more of it, but the season was so bad that a table d'hôle was impossible. Mr. Smurfitt was the only occupant of Unicorn Mansion, and consequently his dinner was served in his private apartment,” a luxury forced upon him by the proprietor, who tried to persuade him to take the whole Aoor. This costly kindness, however, Mr. Smurfitt resisted, and limited himself to a sitting-room and bedroom, communicating with each other. Mr. Smurfitt, then, ate his soup, his fish (which came from London), his mutton, his fowl, his stewed mushrooms, his macca

caroni, his damson tart, his custard, his Chedder cheese, his watercresses, with the appetite of a man to whom dining was the most important function of life; with the same consideration for himself he disposed of a pint of brown sherry and a jug of pale ale; sighed over absent prawns, of which they gave him hopes on the morrow; and then seriously addressed himself to the task of discussing a bottle of port, by the aid of which he trusted to get through the evening, till it was time to wind up with the customary cigar and glass of hot brandy-and-water.

While Mr. Smurfitt is engaged in his pleasant occupation, I may as well describe the situation of Unicorn Mansion, as it has something to do with the events which subsequently befel that gentleman during his sojourn at Shingleton.

Possessing what the local house-agents call “ a noble frontage,” Shingleton is cut at right angles by numerous streets, which, with symmetrical regularity, lead towards the sea. In Marine-street-not that it has a more marine character than any other—four doors from the corner of Marine Parade, stands Unicorn Mansion, opposite to which, and forming the other angle of the street, with a good share of the noble frontage, rises a large block of buildings, a part of it forming The Giant Hotel, an edifice whose proportions are adapted to its name and to the ambitious designs of its projector. It would, perhaps, bave been more consonant with that ambition if The Giant Hotel had occupied the entire block, but the hotel itself was an afterthought, a large boarding-house----when it held any boarders-constituting the actual corner, the entrance to which was in Marine-street. A little lower down, and exactly facing Unicorn Mansion, was a small, elegant-looking house, with plate-glass windows, brown jalousies, and a light balcony, that ran round the curve of the

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