Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


Lord Bythesea at Eton—The Earl of Woking—Bythesea comes of age— Is taken to the Queens Bench Prison—We visit him there—Racquet courts — “Tap is open “—No distinctions of rank — Slowman’s sponging-house—The last Earl of Woking—The proposed marriage —it takes place—its sequel—Death of my old friend.

   IT is a remarkable thing that while there are always hundreds or-persons trying to climb the social ladder—as exemplified in the two previous chapters—an equal number may be found doing their level best to descend it. Old and honoured names are dragged into the mire, and families that have been esteemed and venerated from generation to generation are, by the thoughtless, reckless, and sometimes criminal acts of one or more of their members, degraded and disgraced almost beyond all hope of recovery.
   I was at Eton with Lord Bythesea, the only son of the Earl of Woking, and, as boys say, we were very “pallish.” He was an extremely popular boy; a good all-round fellow in the “eight” and the football wall Oppidan eleven; great at “pop”; and, save and except inter silvas academi, a beau-ideal Etonian. Our schooldays over, we both left to take our different places in the world.
   The Earl of Woking had been an extravagant sporting man, with a weak wife, this son, and three daughters. He possessed a large stud of race-horses, had once owned the favourite for the Derby, and had won some few classic races. His lordship had hunted a very stiff and expensive county, and indulged in many other extravagant tastes. Before coming into his title he excited a good deal of admiration and astonishment as a debater, and he subsequently attained some distinction in the capacity of M.P. for one of the divisions [-128-] of Kent. On being translated to the quieter atmosphere of the House of Lords, however, he practically gave up politics, and set himself with increased zest to squander what remained of his fortune.
   His lordship was, in his way, very fond of his son Ralph, and had great influence over him. The lad did everything his father wished him to do, and the result was that in due time the entail was cut off, and all that remained of an old and valuable property was handed over to the fashionable usurers of the day.
   On coming of age, Ralph Bythesea, who inherited all the tastes and habits of his progenitor, purchased a lot of race­horses, and trained in famous stables at Newmarket. Besides his love for flit-racing, he was an extremely game rider over sticks and at steeple-chasing, being second to none in schooling his horses over timber. At this time he was deeply in debt, and his I.O.Us., bills, and post-obits were flying all over London.
   Ralph and I met several times at the theatre and opera. We also dined together at the “Wellington and Blue Posts,” in Cork Street, and there talked and laughed over old Eton days.
   One morning in July, while I was having breakfast in my rooms in Duke- Street, St. James’s, I was informed that F—, another old schoolfellow of mine, desired to see me immediately.
   “I say, Monty, old fellow,” he exclaimed, as he entered the room, “I’ve awfully bad news for you—that is, if you haven’t already heard of it. Poor Ralph Bythesea was arrested ten days ago, and is at present in the Queen’s Bench Prison, and from what I can see, there is precious little chance of his getting out of it. I have been round to Jimmy Dickinson, the lawyer in Burlington Street, and sent him down to see what can be done. He seems to think it’s a bad business. He holds a lot of his paper himself I know how fond you are of poor old Ralph, and the least thing we can do, as soon as you’ve polished off your breakfast and dressed, is to drive to the other side of the water and see for ourselves what’s to be done.”
   The news was indeed startling. Needless to say I required no second invitation. I scrambled into my clothes, and a quarter of an hour later we chartered a hansom, and ordered the driver to take us to the well-known debtors’ gaol at Southwark.
   [-129-] The Queen’s Bench Prison, which has long since been demolished, was familiarly known as Hudson’s Hotel, a gentleman named Hudson having been the governor of that somewhat extensive establishment.
   Upon our hansom driving up to the gates of the prison we got out, and I pulled the bell. We were at once admitted into what was called “the receiving-room.” I gave our names, and enquired if we could see Lord Bythesea.
   “Oh,” said one of the officials to another, “Bythesea? Yes ; show the gentlemen to three in six.”
   We were at once conducted into the prison yard. Imme­diately opposite the apartment we had just quitted stood a building which we subsequently learnt was called the State House. Here Humphrey, Brown, and Cameron, directors of the British Bank, were, at the time of our visit, accommodated with a lodging. Other tenants were a Captain, formerly of the Rifle Brigade, and two brothers—the victims of some Chancery proceedings—who had been there for twenty years.
   To the  right of the State House was an enormously high wall of considerable length. It was utilised for a series of racquet courts, the boundaries of which were marked out upon the gravel. Players were to be seen all along the line, and at the margin of the courts stood a number of spectators, some of whom were betting while others kept the score. I need hardly say that prominent among the crowd was the object of our visit, arrayed in flannels, and playing as if his he depended on the issue of the game. He espied us at once, and holding up his racquet, shouted:
   “Must finish this game, old fellows. Will be with you in ten minutes. Meanwhile have a look round the shop.”
   We acted upon this advice, and made a thorough inspec­tion of the prison yard.
   It was not long before we perceived what had been meant when the officer directed us to “three in six.” Facing the racquet wall, and bounded by a broad white pavement, was a row of houses four or five storeys high, and with a number painted over the door of each. On entering one of these buildings we found that each room was similarly distinguished by a number; therefore it was clear that “three in six” meant the third room in the sixth house. These houses were occu­pied by those debtors who could afford to pay for quasi-luxuries and for a laundress to wait upon them.
   At the back of the row of houses was the “poor side” of [-130-] the prison, and those who were forced to live in this portion of the establishment were in a very wretched condition indeed, and had to get on as well as they could. There were no racquet courts for them.
   Another interesting part of the building was the kitchen, which resembled that of a West End club more than anything else. It was presided over by a chef, who, if the inhabitants of the prison were to be believed, was one of considerable distinction. As we were emerging from this apartment we were met by our friend, racquet in hand.
   “Deuced good of you fellows to come over here,” said lie. “Come up to my room, and then I’ll give you a true, full, and particular account of my latest sheaf of misfortunes.”
   “Ralph, old man,” said I, “will you never be serious?”
   “Quite enough time for that, dear old fellow,” he replied; then suddenly stopping, and casting his eyes towards a door on the right, he exclaimed: “By Jove, Tap is open! You know, my future Cicero, we can only get liquor here twice a day, between one and two, and five and six, and we can’t go beyond one quart of ale or one pint of wine per diem; but you fellows, you know, being visitors, can have what you like. Doesn’t it remind you of Jack Knight’s, only that old coon at the beer-engine is not a fair representative of little Emily?” And so he rattled on, as though he hadn’t a single care in the world.
   Having partaken of sundry draughts of shandygaff, we pro­ceeded to “three in six.” It was a funny little room, with a table in the middle, an iron camp bedstead behind the door, a chest of drawers against the window, and three or four Windsor chairs standing here and there. In a few minutes the laundress, an untidy, middle-aged woman, made her appearance with a snow-white table-cloth, and proceeded to set out a plain hot substantial luncheon. While she was thus engaged we were all looking out of the window, watching the racquet players.
   “See that dapper-looking little fellow in flannels?” said Ralph. “That’s —, the tailor of Cork Street. Overdid himself a little with discounting, not to mention a great partiality for Cremorne and a villa at Barnes. That stout fellow playing with him is the heir to the earldom of W –
   No distinctions of rank here, I can tell you !“ And he was right, for, just as he was uttering the words, the door was kicked open, and a long, loose-built, red-haired man lumbered into the room with the words;
   [-131-] “Got any mustard and things, Bythesea? Think I’ll borrow the lot,” sweeping up a number of bottles from the table. “Bring them back in five minutes.”
   “Who is that extraordinary apparition?” I asked, when the fellow had shut the door behind him.
   “Oh, that?” was the answer; “that’s Gibson. He’s a bookmaker, I believe; at any rate he is one in here, and he’ll always lay you odds up to a tenner on any race, money staked of course. He’s the very deuce at loo. We play a good deal when the weather puts a stop to racquets. All cards are forbidden, you know, so we have to keep them up the chimney. Look !“ he added, putting his hand up the register, and pro­ducing a sooty piece of brown paper in which were wrapped two packs of cards and a box of ivory counters. Replacing them he continued : “Now I’ll tell you about my arrest. I was coming out of the Travellers and was jumping into my tilbury, when a very common-looking fellow put his hand on my shoulder and exclaimed: ‘Very sorry, my lord, but you are my prisoner. Ca sa unsatisfied judgement—suit of one Joel.’ First of all I felt inclined to knock him down but, remembering that if it were not the enterprising Joel, it would be somebody else of the same calling, I yielded to fate, hailed a four-wheeler, and was whisked off, in company with the myrmidons of the law, to Slowman’s, the sponging-house in Cursitor Street, Chancery Lane. Ah, my dear fellow, you’ve never seen a sponging-house! Ye gods I what a place! I had an apartment they were pleased to call a bedroom to myself certainly, but if I wanted to breathe the air I had to do so in a cage in the back garden—iron bars all round, and about the size of one of the beast receptacles at the Zoo. For this luxury I had to pay two guineas a day. A bottle of sherry cost a guinea, a bottle of Bass half-a-crown, and food was upon the same sort of economical tariff. Well, you know, this sort of thing wouldn’t do, so I sent for the governor and talked matters over. He went to his lawyer, who got what they call a habeas for me, whereupon I was brought over here, and here I am. Might have been worse, old fellow, you know.”
   “Has-Jimmy Dickinson been over to see you?” said I.
   “Oh, yes,” he replied. “He said matters would take a long time to settle, so I chocked him up and sent for little P—, of New Inn. He’s as sharp as they make ‘em, so the best of the fellows in here say, and he’s sure to get things brought to a head in a week or two at most.”
   [-132-] As he was speaking a knock came at the door, and the subject of his remarks entered. He was a short, stout, fair man, rather fashionably dressed, and with a quick, off-hand manner. After Bythesea had introduced us, I turned to F—— and observed:
   “Time is getting on, and as these gentlemen have business to discuss, had we not better be on the move?”
   The little lawyer at once interposed.
   “Not the slightest necessity, my dear sir,” said he. “ I know exactly what his lordship wants—to get out of this hole as quickly as possible. I enquired at the gate and found that the amount of Joel’s judgement was three thousand five hundred pounds, and there are detainers lodged in the gaol which total up to something like thirty-three thousand pounds. It can all be arranged for his lordship. With the assistance of the noble Earl, his father, the money can be raised, and discharge. procured: All I require is that the matter shall be left entirely in my hands. I never permit any interference. No, my dear sir,” he continued, turning to me, “too many cooks—you know the rest,” and holding out his cigar-case, he added: “Let me offer you one of the very finest Cabanas in London.”
   I did not refuse. Seeing, however, that no business could be seriously transacted if F—.- and I remained, we wished our companions good-bye and took our departure.
   I visited Bythesea nearly every day, and in about a fort­night’s time had the pleasure of calling at the prison, in company with the lively solicitor, and taking him away.
   It will now be necessary, from want of space, and for other reasons, to skip over a long period. Suffice it to say that, in the fu-]ness of time, the Earl was gathered to his fathers, and Ralph ruled in his stead. Ruled? Yes; but the kingdom to rule over had practically vanished. My old friend was Earl of Woking with scarcely an acre to his name. Since his release from the Queen’s Bench Prison, he had married the youngest daughter of an Irish Viscount, who was almost as impecunious as himself. She was extremely beautiful and very haughty, and, though much attached to her husband, was ill suited to face the troubles of the res angusta domi. By their marriage they had one child—the most distinguée and beautiful girl I have ever seen.
   Lady Ethel Marsden was the apple of her father’s eye, and she in turn thought there was no one in the world like the author of her being.
   [-133-] Marsden Manor, and the mansion in Park Lane, had been sold by legal arrangement, and the old family estate had passed into the hands of a millionaire, one Sir Samuel —He was a widower, and had an extremely vulgar son. One little corner of the estate was preserved—Swallows Fields, which consisted of a house, farms, and grounds—and this had been the home of the Earl since ruin fell upon the family.
   His friends—and their name was legion—did not desert him, and, though his wife never accepted invitations, he him­self was often to be seen at Newmarket, Ascot, Doncaster, and other fashionable race meetings, all the families in the neigh­bourhood being only too pleased to receive him as a guest. Besides Swallows Fields the Earl had a small flat in the neighbourhood of Victoria Street, and here he passed a portion of the London season.
   The happiest days of his life, as I often heard him declare, were the six weeks he spent every year at a charming nook by the sea not a hundred miles from Cowes. An old schoolfellow who was at the same tutor’s as both of us, and who had succeeded to a vast inheritance, was in the habit of placing this, one of his numerous residences, at his lordship’s disposal every year.
   It was after one of these autumnal sojourns by the sea that I chanced one day upon my old friend at a club of which we both were members. For some time past I had noticed a change for the better in his appearance. He had a more elastic gait than formerly, and his anxious, careworn expression was becoming a thing of the past.
   “My dear old fellow,” said he, “I am so glad to have met you! Things at last are taking a brighter turn. You know ——, the man who owns our property now? Not a bad sort of fellow——you needn’t tell me you don’t like him; I know that. Why, my Ethel found it out in a moment I You know, you and the Countess don’t seem to hit it off very well—one’s old friends before marriage never do—but I think that Ethel likes you, after her old dad, better than any one in the whole world.”
   “Better than any one?” queried I, smiling.
   “What do you mean?’” said he, fidgeting with his watch-chain and key.
   “Ethel,” I said, “is very beautiful. Has it never occurred to you that there might be somebody else? She sees so very little of people, and the time might come, you know——-”
   [-134-] “Now, it is a curious thing,” he said, “but that is the very matter I was coming down to the Temple to see you about to­morrow if we hadn’t met. As I said to you before, —— is a good fellow, a very good fellow, and I can’t disguise from you the fact that he has been of considerable use to me of late. I am making a certain amount of money in the City now, for he has put me on several boards. You see, my name and the influence of his wealth make rather a valuable combination. As you must have guessed, I have been considerably em­barrassed of late, and I am bound to say he has been generosity itself. I have only had to express a wish, and it has been gratified at once. And then her ladyship, you know, has rather set her heart on this. You know, my lather and I, to put the finest point upon it, did not always consider what was our duty to our successors.” Throwing away a cigar, and trying to laugh, he added: “You see, it is I who am becoming serious now. As my lady says, the estates will be in the family, if not in the family name.”
   “What on earth do you mean?” said I.
   “You seem remarkably dense to-night; the thing is easy enough to comprehend. In a word,” and here his voice took a snappish tone, “Sir Samuel’s boy loves Ethel.”
   I confess I was so startled that my prudence for a moment entirely forsook me, and I was sorry afterwards for what I said.
   “Good God!” was my exclamation, “you can’t think of giving your girl to a cub like that—and such a girl! Does she know? Have you told her? Has it never struck you that her heart may not be quite her own? Even if it were not so, a girl of such refinement! She is so loveable a creature, with all your good qualities, and—if you will pardon me for saying so—none of your faults.”
   He retorted irascibly:
   “What do you mean about her heart? Ethel has never kept a thing from me.”
   “Am I talking to a blind old man?” said I. “At Cowes, when her ladyship was good enough to tolerate my presence for a day or two, if your eyes were shut, mine weren’t. Don’t you remember when Claude Misterton came to say good-bye before rejoining his ship? Why is it, old friend, that since then day after day, when down there, Ethel’s eyes were always fixed upon the sea? And have you seen no change? Where is that merry laugh? Where have those spirits flown? Across [-135-] the sea, and, if I’m not much mistaken—and you know I am by trade a reader of faces and minds—her life, her thoughts have leapt out there.”
   “This is absolute ruin,” he protested, “worse than any­thing that has gone before. I have always looked upon Claude Misterton as though ne were one of my own family; and, consider for a moment—beyond his lieutenancy in the Navy, he has not a shilling he can call his own. No, no, it would break my lady’s heart.”
   I am bound to say that I am a bad hand at weighing quantities, and as I had never gauged the article referred to, I simply replied
   “It is too late,” said he; “my darling Ethel—I would not give her a moment’s pain for the wealth of the world; but what am I to do? I thought her - heart was free—and in fact, short of your surmises, I don’t know to the contrary now— and on Sir Samuel mentioning his hopes and wishes to me I consulted my wife, who was more than delighted; and—well, hang it all—I’ve told my neighbours that the thing is as good as settled.”
   Not being a man of fashionable society’s world, I observed:
   “You have not consulted the principal party concerned?”
   “Ah!” he exclaimed impatiently, “that’s just like you; you don’t understand these things. At dry law books there’s no one better, and at addressing a jury you’re splendid—give me a light, old fellow—thanks—but you don’t understand women. You have no idea how these things are arranged. Forty thousand a year at the least; my girl—all of us—in the position I destroyed. It will be all right—it will be all right I”
   A few months after this conversation, on taking up The Morning Post, I read a paragraph headed:
   “Marriage in High Life.”
   It ran as follows:
   “A marriage has been arranged, and will shortly take place, between Ponsonby ———, Esq., of Marsden Manor, and Ethel, only daughter of Ralph, Earl of Woking. The marriage is to be celebrated early in July.”
   In due time I received a card for the ceremonial and reception. I did not go, but I read in the next day’s paper a glowing account of the marriage—which took place in the [-136-] Chapel Royal, Savoy—and of the departure of the “happy pair.” Happy! Knowing what I did, I would rather have surrendered all I possessed in the world than have witnessed the sacrifice of that poor child.
   The remainder of this somewhat tragic history may be told -within the scope of a few sentences.
   Two years after the solemnisation of the marriage, a paragraph appeared in the papers with these head-lines:
   “Another Scandal in High Life.”
   “Elopement of Lady Ethel —— with the Hon. Claude Misterton, Lieut. R.N.”
   I had an enormous number of business engagements at the time, and for a fortnight after reading this announcement I had hardly a moment to call my own. The first time I had a little leisure I jumped into a hansom and drove to my old friend’s flat in the neighbourhood of Victoria Street. Upon asking if he were at home, the answer I received was:
   “His lordship died this morning.”
   “Is her ladyship here?”
   “No, sir. His lordship came up to town yesterday, suddenly, and he was quite alone when he died.”
   And this was the end of my poor old friend. There was no heir, and the title is now extinct.

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