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[-268-] NINE O'CLOCK P.M.- HALF-PRICE IN THE NEW CUT, AND A DANCING ACADEMY.
AN inedited anecdote of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. - an anecdote passed
over or ignored by Boswell, Croker, Piozzi, and Hawkins, - an anecdote
to allude to which, perhaps, Lord Macaulay might disdain, while Mr. Carlyle might stigmatise it as an "unutterable sham of mud-volcano
gigability," but in which I have, nevertheless, under correction, the
most implicit faith, relates that the Sage's opinion was once asked by
Oliver Goldsmith (Mr. Boswell of Aunchinlech being present, of course)
as to whether he approved, or did not approve, of the theatrical institution known as "half-price?" The Doctor was against it. "Sir," he
reasoned, or rather decided, "a man has no right to see half an entertainment. He should either enjoy all or none." "But, sir," objected
Goldsmith deferentially, "supposing the entertainment to be divided
into equal halves, both complete in themselves, has not a man a right
to suit his pocket and his convenience, and see only one half?" "Sir,
you are frivolous," thundered the Doctor; "the man has but Hobson's
choice : the second moiety of the entertainment. If he go at first
price, he must pay whole price." "But, sir," suggested Bozzy with a
simper, "how would it stand, if the man coming at half-price promised
the doorkeeper to go away punctually at nine o'clock, when the second
price commenced?""Hold your tongue, sir," said Doctor Johnson,
whereat Mr. Boswell of Auchinlech was abashed, and spake no more
till the kindly old Doctor invited him to tea, with blind Miss Williams
and Mr. Levett the apothecary.
I am sure that it must be a matter of lamentation for any man with a well-regulated mind to be under the necessity of disagreeing with so eminent an authority as Doctor Johnson-with the rough, genial, old bear, who had had so many sorrows of his own when young; had danced upon so many hot plates, and to the very ungenteelest of tunes; had been so pitilessly muzzled and baited by mangy curs, that he yet made it his delight in age and comparative affluence to take the young bears under his protection, to assuage their ursine sorrows, and lick them with a lumbering pity into shape. I am equally certain that few would even dare to differ from the scholar, critic, poet, dramatist, essayist, [-269-] moralist, philosopher, and Christian gentleman, whose pure life and death in an unbelieving age are an answer for all time to the ephemeral brilliance of the fribble Chesterfield, the icicle Hume, the stalactite Gibbon, and the flasy Bristol-diamond Voltaire. Still, in the interests of the British drama (and assuming my anecdote to be otherwise than apocryphal), I must, perforce, dissent from the Doctor, and pin my faith to half-price. The absence of a second price is suitable enough for such exotic exhibitions as the Italian operas and the French plays but I deplored the suspension of that dramatic habeas corpus in the palmy Lyceum days of Madame Vestris's management. There is something supercilious, pragmatical, maccaronyish, un-English, in the announcement, "No half-price." How immeasurably superior is the fine old British placard, now, alas! so seldom seen, "Pit full standing- room only in the upper boxes!"
There is a transpontine theatre, situated laterally towards the Waterloo Road, and having a northern front towards an anomalous thoroughfare that runs from Lambeth to Blackfriars, for which I have had, during a long period of years, a great esteem and admiration. This is the Royal Victoria Theatre. To the neophyte in London I frequently point out a brick erection, above the cornice of the pediment, and say, "My friend, in the days when the 'Vic.' (it is popularly termed the 'Vic.') was known as the 'Coburg,' that brick slip was built to contain at its rise - for it could not be rolled up - the famous 'Crystal curtain,' which ruined one management to construct., and half ruined another to demolish. The grand melodramas the Coburg used to give us - real horses, real armour, real blood, almost real water!" Those were the days of "Ginevra the Impaled One" and "Manfroni the One-handed Monk." There are famous dramatists, actors, scene-painters, who would look rather shame-faced (though I cannot see why they should be ashamed) were they reminded, now, of their achievements in the service of transpontine melodrama at the Coburg. How stupidly absurd people are in repudiating their beginnings! Buffel, the millionaire contractor, denies stoutly that he ever carried a hod, although hundreds of us remember him on the ladder. Linning, the fashionable tailor, would poison any one who told him he once kept a beer-shop in Lambeth Walk, and afterwards failed as a tea-dealer in Shoreditch. One of the most accomplished comedians of the day makes a point of cutting me dead, because I can recollect the time, and knew him, when he used to colour prints for a livelihood; and I daresay that [-270-] Baron Rothschild - with all the philosophy his unbounded wealth should properly give him - would not ask me to dinner, if I reminded him that his grandfather was a pedlar in the Juden-Grasse, at Frank-fort. The next Tamworth baronet, I suppose, will strike the beehive and "Industria" out of the family escutcheon, and assume the three leeches sable on a field gules semée or, of his ancestors the De la Pills, who came over with the Conqueror as barber-chirurgeons to the ducal body. And yet a certain Emperor and King was not ashamed to talk of the period when he was a "lieutenant in the Regiment of Lafère;" and the present writer, who is, on one side (the wrong), of the sangre azul of Spain, is not above confessing the existence of a tradition in his family, hinting that his maternal grandmother danced on the tight rope.
Although I am a devotee of the opera, and am always glad when Drury Lane doors are open, and mourn over the decadence of the Lyceum, and wish that the Strand would succeed,* (* This pretty little theatre has succeeded, thanks to the genius and perseverance of Miss Swanborough, aided by an admirable company.) and longed for the day when the resuscitated Adelphi should open its doors, and rejoice at the prosperity of the Olympic, and think that one of the most rational and delightful night's amusements in Europe, may be attained by the sight of the "Merchant of Venice" at the now closed (so far as Charles Kean is concerned) Princess's, I have yet a tenderness, a predilection, an almost preference) for the Vic. There is a sturdy honesty of purpose, unity of action, sledge-hammer morality about the rubbishing melodramas, which are nightly yelled and ranted through on the Victoria stage, that are productive, I believe, of an intellectual tone, highly healthful and beneficial. Burkins, the garotter, who is now in hold in Pentonville for his sins, and is so promising a pupil of the chaplain, (having nearly learnt the Gunpowder Plot service and the prohibitions of consanguinity by heart,) has confidentially informed his reverend instructor that to the melodramas at the Victoria must be ascribed his ruin. It was the "Lonely Man of the Ocean" that led him to fall on Mr. Jabez Cheddar, cheesemonger, in Westminster Broadway, at two o'clock in the morning, split his skull open with a life-preserver, jump upon him, and rob him of eight pounds twelve, a silver hunting-watch, and a brass tobacco-box ; at which confession the chaplain orders him more beef and books, and puts him down in the [-271-] front rank for his next recommendatory report to the visiting magistrates. Partaking, in company with some other persons, of the opinion that Burkins adds to the characteristics of a ruffian and a blockhead, those of a hypocrite and a Liar, I do not necessarily set much store by the expression of his opinions on the British drama. But when I find shrewd police-inspectors and astute stipendiary magistrates moralising over the dreadful effects of cheap theatres, attended as they are by the "youth" of both sexes, I deem them foemen worthy of my steel. Good Mr. Inspector, worthy Master Justice, where are the youth and the adults of both sexes to go in quest of that amusement, which I suppose you will concede to them, of some nature, the necessity? Are the churches open on week nights, and to such as they? and would you yourselves like to sit under Doctor Cumming, or even Mr. Spurgeon, from Saturday to Saturday? Are they to go to the Opera, to Almack's, to the Canton Club, or to the conversaziones of the Geological Society? You object, you say, to the nature of the entertainments provided for them. Come with me, and sit on the coarse deal benches in the coarsely and tawdrily-decorated cheap theatre, and listen to the sorrily-dressed actors and actresses - periwigged-pated fellows and slatternly wenches, if you like - tearing their passion to tatters, mouthing and ranting, and splitting the ears of the groundlings. But in what description of pieces? In dramas, I declare and maintain, in which, for all the jargon, silliness, and buffoonery, the immutable principles of right and justice are asserted ; in which virtue, in the end, is always triumphant, and vice is punished; in which cowardice and falsehood are hissed, and bravery and integrity vehemently applauded; in which, were we to sift away the bad grammar, and the extravagant action, we should find the dictates of the purest and highest morality. These poor people can't help misplacing their h's, and fighting combats of six with tin broadswords. They haven't been to the university of Cambridge; they can't compete for the middle-class examinations; they don't subscribe to the "Saturday Review;" they have never taken dancing lessons from Madame Michau; they have never read Lord Chesterfield's Letters ; they can't even afford to purchase a "Shilling Handbook of Etiquette." Which is best? That they should gamble in low coffee-shops, break each other's heads with pewter pots in public- houses, fight and wrangle at street corners, or lie in wait in doorways and blind alleys to rob and murder, or that they should pay their threepence for admission into the gallery of the "Vic" - witness the [-272-] triumph of a single British sailor over twelve armed ruffians, who are about to carry off the Lady Maud to outrage worse than death; see the discomfiture of the dissolute young nobleman, and the restitution of the family estates (through the timely intervention of a ghost in a tablecloth) to the oppressed orphan? And of this nature are the vast mass of transpontine melodramas. The very "blood-and-murder" pieces, as they are termed, always end with the detection of the assassin and his condign punishment. George Cruikshank's admirable moral story of "The Bottle" was dramatised at the "Vic.," and had an immense run. They are performing "Never Too Late to Mend," now, over the water, to crowded houses. If we want genteel improprieties, sparkling immoral repartees, decorously scandalous intrigues, and artful cobwebs of double intendre, touching on the seventh commandment, we must cross the bridges and visit the high-priced, fashionably-attended theatres of the West. end. At a West-end theatre, was produced the only immoral version of an immoral (and imbecile) "Jack Sheppard," which is, even now, vauntingly announced as being the "authorised version" - the only one licensed by the Lord Chamberlain; and in that "authorised version" occurs the line, "Jack Sheppard is a thief, but he never told a lie," a declaration than which the worst dictum of howling Tom Paine or rabid Mary Wolstoncraft was not more subversive of the balance of moral ethics. And, at a West-end theatre, likewise, his Lordship the Chamberlain authorised the production of a play, whose story, regarded either as a melodrama or as the libretto of a trashy Italian opera, has not been equalled for systematic immorality no, not by Wilkes; no, not by Aphra Behn no, not by Crebillon the younger no, not by Voltaire in the scandalous "Pucelle."
And have I brought you all the way over Waterloo Bridge in the evening only to sermonise you! I deserve to be mulcted in three times the halfpenny toll; and I must make amends by saying nothing whatsoever about the shot towers, or the Lion Brewery, the London and South-Western Terminus, and Hawkstone Hall. Here we are, at the Corner of the New Cut. It is Nine o'Clock precisely (I must have flown rather than walked from the pawnbroker's in that lane on the Middlesex side), and while the half-price is pouring into the Victoria Theatre, the whole-price (there is no half-price to the gallery, mind, the charge for the evening's entertainment being only threepence) is pouring out with equal and continuous persistence, and are deluging the New Cut. [-273-] Whither, you may ask, are they bound? They are in quest of their Beer.
The English have been a beer-loving people for very many ages. It gives them their masculine, sturdy, truculent character. Beer and beef, it has been before remarked, make boys. Beer and beef won the battle of Waterloo. Beer and beef have built railways all over the world. Our troops in the Crimea languished, even on beef (it was but hard corned junk, to be sure) till the authorities sent them beer. There is a lex non scripta among the labouring English, much more potent than many Acts of Parliament, and called the "Strong Beer Act." They have songs about beer with lusty "nipperkin, pipperkin, and the brown beer" choruses ; and in village parlours you may hear stentorian baritones, of agricultural extraction, shouting out that "Feayther likes his beer, he does;" that "Sarah's passionately fond of her beer, she is;" and denouncing awful vengeance upon those enemies of the people who would "rob a poor man of his beer." Our fingers were brought to the very hair-trigger of a revolution by the attempted interference of an otherwise well-meaning nobleman, with the people's beer ; and did not William Hogarth strike the right nail on the head when he drew those two terrible pictures of Beer Street and Gin Lane? The authorities of the Victoria Theatre have preserved, I am glad to say, a wholesome reverence for the provisions of the Strong Beer Act, and it is, I believe, a clause in the Magna Charta of the management, that the performances on Saturday evenings shall invariably terminate within a few minutes of midnight, in order to afford the audience due and sufficient time to pour out their final libations at the shrine of Beer, before the law compels the licensed victuallers to close.
There are not many gradations of rank among the frequenters of the Victoria Theatre. Many of the occupants of the boxes sat last night in the pit, and will sit to-morrow in the gallery, according to the fluctuation of their finances; nay, spirited denizens of the New Cut will not unfrequently, say on a Monday evening, when the week's wages have not been irremediably dipped into, pay their half-crown like men, and occupy seats in the private box next the stage. And the same equality and fraternity are manifest when the audience pour forth at half-price to take their beer. There may be a few cheap dandies, indeed - Cornwall Road exquisites and Elephant-and-Castle bucks - who prefer to do the "grand" in the saloon attached to the theatre; there may be some dozens of couples sweethearting, who are content to consume oranges, [-274-] ginger beer, and Abernethy biscuits within the walls of the house; but the great pressure is outwards, and the great gulf stream of this human ocean flows towards a gigantic "public" opposite the Victoria, and which continually drives a roaring trade.
I wish that I had a more savoury locality to take you to than the New Cut. I acknowledge frankly that I don't like it. We have visited many queer places in London together, of which, it may be, the fashionables of the West-end have never heard; but they all had some out-of-the-way scraps of Bohemianism to recommend them. I can't say the same for the New Cut. It isn't picturesque, it isn't quaint, it isn't curious. It has not even the questionable merit of being old. It is simply Low. It is sordid, squalid, and, the truth must out, disreputable. The broad thoroughfare, which, bordered with fitting houses, would make one of the handsomest streets in London, is gorged with vile, rotten tenements, occupied by merchants who oft-times pursue the very contrary to innocent callings. Everything is second-hand, except the leviathan gin-shops, which are ghastly in their newness and richness of decoration. The broad pavement presents a mixture of Vanity Fair and Rag Fair. It is the paradise of the lowest of costermongers, and often the saturnalia of the most emerited thieves. Women appear there in their most unlovely aspect : brazen, slovenly, dishevelled, brawling, muddled with beer or fractious with gin. The howling of beaten children and kicked dogs, the yells of ballad-singers, "death and fire-hunters," and reciters of sham murders and elopements; the bawling recitations of professional denunciators of the Queen, the Royal family, and the ministry; the monotonous jodels of the itinerant hucksters; the fumes of the vilest tobacco, of stale corduroy suits, of oilskin caps, of mildewed umbrellas, of decaying vegetables, of escaping (and frequently surreptitiously tapped) gas, of deceased cats, of ancient fish, of cagmag meat, of dubious mutton pies, and of unwashed, soddened, unkempt, reckless humanity: all these make the night hideous and the heart sick. The New Cut is one of the most unpleasant samples of London that you could offer to a foreigner. Bethnal Green is ragged, squalid, woe-begone, but it is quiet and industrious. Here, there is mingled with the poverty a flaunting, idle, vagabond, beggarly-fine don't-care-a-centishness. Burkins in hold in Pentonville for his sins assures the chaplain that the wickedness of the New Cut is due solely to the proximity of the "Wictoriar Theayter," that 'aunt of disypashion and the wust of karackters." For my part, I think that if there were no such safety-valve as a theatre [-275-] for the inhabitants of the "Cut," it would become a mere Devil's Acre, a Cour des Miracles, a modern edition of the Whitefriars Alsatia; and that the Cutites would fall to plundering, quarrelling, and fighting, through sheer ennui. It is horrible, dreadful, we know, to have such a place; but then, consider - the population of London is fast advancing towards three millions, and the wicked people must live somewhere - under a strictly constitutional government. There is a despot, now, over the water, who would make very short work of the New Cut. He would see, at a glance, the capacities of the place; in the twinkling of a decree the rotten tenements would be doomed to destruction; houses and shops like palaces would line the thoroughfare; trees would be planted along the pavement; and the Boulevard de Lambeth would be one of the stateliest avenues in the metropolis. But Britons never will be slaves, and we must submit to thorns (known as "vested interests ) in the constitutional rose, and pay somewhat dear for our liberty as well as for our whistle.
In the cartoon accompanying this essay, you will find a delineation of the hostelry - the tavern - bah! it isn't a hostelry - it isn't a tavern ; it is an unadulterated gin and beer palace - whither takes place the rush at half-price for malt refreshment. I have kept you lingering at the door a long time; I have digressed, parried, evaded the question; discoursed upon the transpontine drama, and the moot question of its morality; I have wandered about the New Cut, and have even gone back to the last century, and evoked the ghost of Doctor Johnson; I have been discursive, evasive, tedious very probably, but purposely so. I was bound to show you the place, but it is better that the pen should leave the fulness of representation to the pencil in this instance. It is humorous enough, brilliant enough, full of varied life and bustle enough. I could make you very merry with accounts of the mock Ethiopian serenaders at the door, with facetious remarks on the gentleman in the sou'-wester, kneeshorts, anklejacks, and gaiters, who is instructing the lady in the mob-cap in the mysteries of the celebrated dance known as the "Roberto Poiveroso," or "Dusty Bob and Black Sal." I might be eloquent upon the subject of the sturdy sailor who is hobnobbing with the negro, the Life Guardsman treating the ladies, like a gallant fellow as he is, and the stream of honest, hard-working mechanics, their wives, and families, who have surged in from the "Vic." to have their "drop of beer." But the picture would still be incomplete. In graver pages - in tedious, solemn journals only - could be told (and I have told, in my time) the [-276-]
NINE O'CLOCK P.M. : HOUSE OF CALL FOR THE VICTORIA AUDIENCE
[-277-] truth about a gin-shop in the New Cut. I will not descant upon
the crime and shame, the age made hardened, the very babies weaned
on gin. Let us take the better part, and throw a veil over this ugly
position of the night side of London.
Do you ever read the supplement of the "Times" newspaper? Of course you do; at least, you must diurnally peruse one column at least of that succursal to the monster journal, specially interesting to yourself. Almost every one who can read is anxious to consult the "Times" every morning for one purpose or other. Either he requires information about a ship that is going out, or a ship that should be come home; about a purse he has lost, or a bank-note he has found; about a situation he wants, or a clerkship he has advertised for competition; about the wife he has run away from, or the son who has run away from him; about the horse he wishes to sell, or about the Newfoundland pup he wants to buy; about his debtor's bankruptcy, or his own insolvency; about the infallible remedy for all diseases, for which he has promised to send a recipe on the receipt of twelve postage-stamps ; or the best curative pills advertised for hypochondriasis and dyspepsia; about the cheapest sherries, and the best second-hand broughams; about pianofortes for the million, sales by auction, money to be lent, or money wanted to borrow; and, chiefest of all, about the "births, deaths, and marriages," which announcements are the prime and favourite reading of the female sex. Indeed, I know one lady-young, comely, accomplished, good-natured, and married - who never even condescends to glance at a line of the colossal "Times" newspaper, beyond the "Births, Marriages, and Deaths;" and very good reading she declares them to be.
There is a portentous column to which my attention is attracted (I know not why, for it has never concerned me in the slightest degree), having reference to dancing. I don't allude to the casinos, or masquerades, or public full-dress balls, to which a man may go, lounge about, stare at the votaries of Terpsichore, and go away again without ever shaking a leg; but to the advertisements of the professors of dancing and "drawing-room deportment," who really mean business, and give instruction in those elegant and graceful arts, and hold their academies daily and nightly all over London, from the farthest East to the extremest West. Now I am myself no dancer. I remember as a boy, in the grim Parisian pension, or school boarding-house attached to the College where I had my scant Humanities hammered into me, a [-278-] certain obese professor, to whom my parents and guardians paid certain quarterly sum for my instruction in the poetry of motion. I remember him well, for whenever we took our walks abroad in Paris, we could scarcely pass a dead wall without seeing it placarded, or a porte coch?re without seeing it hung, with a little yellow black framed bill, screened with a wire trellis-work, proclaiming "Boizot" and his "cours de danse." This was in '39; yet last winter in Paris the same walls and portes coch?res still sounded the praises of Boizot. He appears to be immortal, like Cockle of the pills, Grimstone of the eye-snuff, and Elizabeth Lazenby of the sauce. The square toqued and black-gowned professors of the College Bourbon - now Lycée Bonaparte - could by dint of locking me up in cellars, making me kneel across sharp rulers and rapping my knuckles with ferulas (for corporal punishment never - oh never - enters into the scheme of French education), impel me to construe Caesar indifferently well; but Boizot, in all his cours de danse, failed in teaching me the difference between cavalier seul and en avant deux -between the pastorale and the chaine des dames. A more incorrigible dunce at dancing than your humble servant, never, I believe, existed. In the attempt to instruct me in the enchanting and vertigo-giving waltz, Boizot made a most lamentable fiasco, although he resorted to his famous specific of stamping on the pupil's toes with heavy-heeled shoes till he made the right steps to the right time. But our gyrations always ended in my doing all my waltzing on his toes; and he flung me away from him at last, denouncing me as a hopeless butor, ganache, cretin, and cancre - a Vandal, a Goth, an Ostrogoth, and a Visigoth - the three first being terms perfectly comprehensible to the French schoolboy, but for which it is difficult to find equivalents in this language. I am sure that Boizot left me with the utmost dislike and contempt, and with the most sinister forebodings for my future career. Thenceforth I was released from the dancing-lessons. In after years, I have heard it reported on good authority that I once danced a hornpipe at the wedding-breakfast of a maritime relation of mine ; but the exploit, if ever accomplished, was due more, I opine, to the salmon and cucumber of the nuptial feast than to the certaminis gaudia of dancing. I essayed seriously once more to waltz at a Kursaal ball at a German watering-place. How I tore a lady's dress, how I tripped myself up, how I was covered with shame, and had the finger of scorn pointed at me, are yet matters of history at Bubbelbingen Schlaggasenberg. Thither I will return no [-279-] more. Again, when I visited Russia, the first letter of introduction I presented on my arrival at St. Petersburg brought me an invitation to a grand ball. It was - Oh, horror! a diplomatic ball; there were not half a dozen persons in plain clothes in the ball-room ; and I stood lonely and forlorn among a crowd of brilliant guardsmen, be-starred and be-ribboned ministers, plenipotentiaries, and embroidered attaches, who are proverbially the best dancers in Europe. I had not even the miserable safety-valve of crossing over and talking to the non-dancing dowagers, for, according to Russian custom - one which would delight the irreverent Mr. Spurgeon - the ladies remain at one end of the salon, and the gentlemen at the other - a relic of Orientalism - and in strict isolation, during the intervals between the dances. I was in despair, and about either to rush out or to recite "My name is Norval," with a view towards exciting curiosity and inspiring terror, when the gracious lady who did the honours for the ball-giving minister, who was a bachelor, asked me if I didn't dance? I didn't say that I had a sprained ankle, that I was hot, or tired, but I told the truth for once, and said honestly that I couldn't. "Don't you smoke, then?" she continued, glancing at me with a sort of pitying expression, as though she were thinking, "I wonder what this gawky Englishman can do?" I replied that I could smoke a little; whereupon, with her own fair hands, she opened a door and inducted me to an apartment, where a score of Boyards and secretaries of legation were smoking Havannahs, playing pr?ference, and sipping whisky-punch, and where I stopped till two o'clock in the morning; became very popular, and positively sang a comic song. At evening parties in England, alas! they seldom have a smoking-room, and so I don't go to them. A non-dancing man becomes speedily known in society, and the women shun him.
I can't help thinking (of course, on the fox and sour grapes principle), whenever I see a very accomplished male dancer, as when I look upon a first-rate amateur billiard-player, on the immense amount of time the man must have wasted to acquire a useless and frivolous art. Yet I remember the fox and the grapes, and suppress my rising sneer. Dancing to those who like it, and can dance gracefully, is an innocent and cheerful recreation. It does my heart good sometimes to see the little tiny children in our crowded London courts and alleys waltzing and polkaing to the Italian organ-grinder's music; and I shall be sorry for the day when some new Oliver Cromwell or Puritan [-280-] government - we may have another in time - may denounce and put down "public dancing and dancing academies."
But why should the dancing academy column in the "Times" advertisements possess more than general attractions for me? Is it that I have a sneaking inclination to visit one of these establishments as a pupil ; take six private lessons from Miss Leonora Geary, or Mrs. Nicholas Henderson - I could never dare to face Madame Melanie Duval, or the Semiramis of dancing mistresses, Madame Michau Adelaide - study the fashionable steps in secret, and then burst upon the world as an adept in the Schottische, the Cellarius, and the Deux Temps? Alas! I do not even know the names of the fashionable dances of the day, and very probably those to which I have alluded are by this time old fashioned, out of date, rococo, and pigtaily. But I have a theory that every man must dance before he dies, and that of the choregraphic art we may say as of love-
"Whoe'er thou art, thy master see,
Who is, or was, or is to be."
And I shall dance, I suppose, some of these days, although my nerves be shrunk, my blood be cold, and hair white, and Death scrape away on the fiddle, as in Hans Holbein's shudder-giving panorama.
Mr. William M'Connell, however, the young gentleman who is my artistic fides achates in this horological undertaking, is, I am given to understand, a complete master of this desirable accomplishment, and a finished adept in its various mysteries. In this case, therefore, the leader has become the led, and I am grateful to him for his service as cicerone in introducing me to the domains of Terpsichore.
Assume, O reader and spectator - to violate no academical privacy - that we are in the salle de danse conducted for so many years, and with so much success, by Mrs. Hercules Fanteague, late of the Royal Operas. Throughout each day, from morn till dewy eve, does Mrs. Fanteague - a little woman, who, at no remote period of time, has been pretty - assisted by her husband, Mr. Hercules Fanteague, a diminutive gentleman, with tight pantaloons and a "kit," and a numerous family of sons and daughters, who all appear to have been born dancing-masters and mistresses, give private instruction to ladies and gentlemen, who are as yet novices in the art, or who are too shame-faced to venture upon the ordeal of public instruction. But, at nine o'clock in the evening, commences the public academy-the "hop," as some persons, innocent of [-281-]
NINE O'CLOCK P.M. : A DANCING ACADEMY
[-282-] the bump of veneration, call it. There, in the tastefully yet cheaply
decorated saloon, with its boarded floor and flying cupids and sylphides
on the panels - there, where the gas shines, and the enlivening strains of
a band, composed of a harp, piano, and violin, are heard - there, in a
remote section of the apartment - the pons asinorum of the dancing-school
- the adult gentlemen, who are as yet in the accidence or rudiments of dancing, are instructed in the mysteries of the "positions"
and preliminary steps by Mrs. Hercules Fanteague. The dancing-
mistress is obliged to be very firm and decided, not to say severe, with
her awkward pupils; for some are inclined to blush, and some to laugh
and whisper disparaging jokes to one another, and some to tie their legs
into knots and imitate the action of the old shutter telegraphs with
their arms, and some to sink into a state of stony immobility and semi-unconsciousness, from which they can only be rescued by sharp words
and pushes. When these hopeful ones are sufficiently advanced in the
elements, they are handed over to lady partners, who, to the sound of
the aforesaid harp, piano, and violin, twirl them about the room till
they are pronounced fit to figure in the soirees of society, and in the
Arabian Night-like scenes of Cremorne and Highbury Barn.
I once heard a man of the world tell a lady, in gay reproach, that there were three things impossible of accomplishment to her sex. "Women can't throw," he said, "they can't jump, and they can't slide." The lady stoutly denied the third postulate, and adduced in proof her own sliding performances in winter time in the day-room at boarding school. The first assertion she settled by throwing the peeling of an apple at him, which fell deftly over his left shoulder, and formed on the carpet, I am told, the initials of her Christian name. However this may be with other ladies - for she was fair, and good, and wise, as "Sydney's sister, Pembroke's mother," though Time has not thrown a dart at her yet, I know there is one thing a man cannot do. He cannot dance. He may take lessons of Mrs. Hercules Fanteague till his hair grows out of his hat, and his nails grow out of his pumps he may dance the Crystal Platform at Cremorne to sawdust, but he will never succeed in making himself more than a capering elephant, or an ambling hippopotamus, with the facial expression of an undertaker's man on duty for the funeral of a very rich "party," where extra woe is laid on by Mr. Tressels, regardless of expense.
Of course I except professional dancers, and I bow reverentially before the bust of Vestris, "Diou de la Danse," and of the late Mr. [-283-] Baron Nathan. I do not remember the first. He died years before I was born, yet I see him in my mind's eye on the stage of the Grand Opera in Paris, swelling with peacock-pride and conscious merit -in dancing - in full court-dress, his sword by his side, his laced and plumed chapeau bras beneath his arm, his diamond solitaire in his laced shirt-frill, leading his son to the footlights, on the night of the first appearance of the youth, and saying, "Allez, my son, the Muses will protect you, and your father beholds you." Was it this son, or a grandson ? - tell me "Notes and Queries "- that was the Armand Vestris, whom our Eliza Bartolozzi (the famous Madame Vestris) married, and who was hurried at that dreadful hole at Naples? I see the Diou de la Danse on a subsequent occasion at rehearsal, when the same son, being committed to the prison as Fort l'Evêque by the lieutenant of police (the whole operatic troupe, led by Mademoiselle Guimard, were in a state of chronic revolt) dismissed him with these magnanimous words "A llez, my beloved one. This is the proudest day of your life. Demand the apartments of my friend the King of Poland. Take my carriage. Your father pays for all!" But the poor baron, with his corkscrew ringlets, turn-down collar, and limber legs, I can and do remember. I have seen him dance that undying pas, blindfold, among the eggs and tea-things, in the Gothic Hall at Rosherville. But five Sundays since I was at Gravesend, and over my shilling tea in the Gothic Hall, I sighed when I thought of Baron Nathan and of happier days. "Where art thou, my Belinda? There is no one to pull off my shrimp-heads now."
Lo, as I pen these reminiscences of nine o'clock in the evening - pen them in the "quiet street," where I am again for a season - though my boat is on the shore, and my bark is on the sea, and ere you hear from me again there will be a considerable variation of clocks between London and Jericho - a fife and tabour announce the advent of a little dancing boy and girl, with a careworn mother, in the street below. I look from my window, and see the little painted people capering in their spangles and fleshings and short calico drawers. It is against conviction, and against my own written words, and against political economy, and ex-Lord Mayor Carden; but I think on Mr. Carrick's picture of "Weary Life," and must needs take some pence from the clock-case, and throw them out to these tiny mummers. Life is so hard, my brother!
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]