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[-297-] ELEVEN O'CLOCK P.M.-A SCIENTIFIC CONVERSAZIONE, AND AN EVENING PARTY.
It is Eleven o' Clock post meridian, and I
am once more thrown, with my clock on my hands, on the great world of London.
The insatiable, restless metropolis is as busy in the night as in the day
season; there is no respite, no cessation, in its feverish activity. One set or
class of mortals may, quite worn and worried out, cast themselves on beds more
or less hard, and sleep; but, forthwith, another section of the population arise
like giants refreshed - the last hour of the night to some is the
commencement, the opening day, to others; and an innumerable army of conscripts
are ready to relieve one another in mounting the guard of London Life.
Eleven o'clock, and thousands are yet in the streets, tens of thou-[-298-]sands still in the pursuit of the avocations by which they earn their daily (or nightly) bread, hundreds of thousands awake, busy, and stirring. The children of the aristocracy and some sections of the middle classes are gone to bed - save those who have been so good that their fond parents have taken them to the play, which entertainment they are now enjoying, with delightful prospects superadded of "sitting up" to supper, perchance of oysters, afterwards. But the children of the poor do not dream of bed. They are toddling in and out of chandlers' shops in quest of ounces of ham and fragments of Dutch cheese for father's supper ; they are carrying the basket of linen - mother takes in washing - to the residences of clients ; they are eliminating the most savoury-looking bits of plaice or flounders from the oleaginous pile in the fried-fish shop they are fetching the beer and the "clean pipe" from the public-house; nay - not unfrequently, alas assisted by a lean baby in arms - they are fetching father himself home from the too-seductive establishment of the licensed victualler. Eleven o'clock at night is the great supper-time of the working classes ; then, by the steady and industrious mechanic, the final calumet is smoked, the borrowed newspaper read, the topics of the day, the prospects of the coming week, discussed with the cheery and hard-working helpmate who sits by the side of her horny-handed lord, fills his pipe, pours out his beer, and darns the little children's hose.
Eleven o'clock theatrical audiences are at their apogee, and the last piece is "on". Convivial clubs are in full action, and the waiters at the supper-rooms, very tumbled and drowsy during the day, put on their most highly-starched neckcloths, and begin to rub their eyes, in preparation for the labours of the night. The linen-drapers' shopmen, who have been strolling about Regent Street and Oxford Street since the shops closed at nine, and who "live on the premises", begin to turn in; the proprietors tolerate no gadding about after eleven, and persistence in keeping bad hours to the extent of hearing the chimes at midnight, out of doors, would entail reprimand, and perhaps expulsion, on the offender. At eleven o'clock close the majority of the coffee, chop houses, and reading-rooms. There are some that will remain open all night; but they are not of the most reputable description. At eleven the cheap grocer, the cheesemonger, and the linen-draper, in low-priced neighbourhoods, begin to think of putting up the shutters; and, by half-past eleven, the only symposia of merchandise open will be the taverns and cigar-shops, the supper-rooms and shell-fish warehouses, the [-299-] night coffee-houses, and the chemists - which last shops, indeed, never seem to be quite open, or quite closed, at all, and may be said to sleep with one eye open.
Eleven o'clock at the West-end is, morally speaking, broad day-light. Midnight will be high noon. Fashionable life's current riots through the veins of West-end streets ; mirth, and gaiety, and intrigue, are heard on staircases and at street corners. And pre-eminently wide awake, busy, active, and restless just now is the great and mysterious country of Bohemia, both Upper and Lower. You are beginning to hear of Bohemia, oh, reflective reader! and of its shady denizens. Recondite, half-reluctant allusions are made to it in solemn reviews and portentous magazines. An arch-Bohemian proposed the other day to write a novel concerning the present condition of his country. The book actually appeared, but its author stumbled on the threshold of his own subject. Either he dared not say that which he knew, or he had over-estimated his knowledge of things Bohemian: and he drew, not the real country, but an impalpable region full of monsters. But his was no easy task. After all, who shall say, who can tell, where Bohemia really is, and who really are Bohemians? They are secretly affiliated, and to each other known, like freemasons, like the Illuminati and Brethren of the Rosy Cross of the last century, like Balzac's "Treize;" but the outside world knows them not, and oft-times mistakes for a Bohemian a vile Illyrian, a contemptible Styrian, a worthless Croat, or a base Bezonian. Is there a king of Bohemia? or is it an oligarchy, a theocracy, or a red republic? How does a man become a Bohemian, and can he ever renounce his allegiance to the "friends of Bohemia," and become an ordinary citizen of the world? Yet Bohemianism is ubiquitous. The initiated ones are everywhere. In the House of Commons, at this very moment, a free and accepted Bohemian is pounding away at the ministry, and a past grand-master of Bohemianism is descending the steps of the Carlton. A Bohemian is dancing the Schottische in Westbourne Terrace, and his brother is passing underneath Temple Bar, in a cab and in custody, on his way to Mr. Slow-man's caravanserai in Cursitor Street. There is a Bohemian, in white kid gloves and a white cravat, sitting in his opera-stall, and he whispers to his companion to order a Welsh rabbit and a pint of half-and-half for him at the Club. Some Bohemians are drinking claret at the Wellington, and others are sleeping among the vegetable baskets under the tarpaulins in Covent Garden Market. Bohemian No. one has just [-300-] won a hundred pounds at écarté. Bohemian No. two has just pawned his great-coat. A Bohemian has just gone home to read Plato, and take a basin of arrow-root for supper. Another has let himself out with his latch-key, and is on his way to the Haymarket. Oh, marvellous land! Oh, people yet more marvellous! Despised, derided, abused by men, ye are yet a power in the state. Bootmakers combine against ye; but you can turn out governments. Clerks of county courts issue judgment summonses against ye; but you dine at princes' tables. Lands you have not, nor jewels, nor raiment, nor fine linen, nor pieces of gold, nor pieces of silver; still do ye travel first-class express; still do you clamour for green fat at mighty banquets, and turn up your Bohemian noses if the venison be not hung to your liking; still do you pride yourselves upon being good judges of Rhine wine and Habana cigars. A peculiar race! And the most astonishing thing about the Bohemian is this : that he does not - as the non-Bohemian charitably supposes and reports - die in an hospital, to be saved from dissection, and humbly buried, only by a subscription among his Bohemian associates. If he be an ass and a profligate, he goes to the bad, and serve him right; but the Bohemian, dying, frequently leaves a great deal more money behind him than yonder starched man of business, who professed to regard him, during his lifetime, with a shuddering, pitying horror. The Bohemian, brought, as it would seem, to the lowest and forlornest state of impecuniosity and discredit, suddenly starts up as Attorney-General of Yellow-Jack Island with twelve hundred a year, as Judge-Advocate of the Meridional Quashiboos, or Consul-General to the Tontine Republic.
While thus discoursing to you on things in general, I have been keeping a sharp look-out for the most notable things that are to be seen in London at eleven p.m. But as we shall have to sit up very late to-night - or rather early to-morrow morning - I think it right that we should pass the time till midnight in a quiet and decorous manner. Not but that we have been exceedingly well-behaved ever since the commencement of our peripatetics ; but life is life, and one can scarcely go twice round the clock in London without some moral and physical wear and tear. Suppose we drop in at a Conversazione.
This (more or less) social reunion is an institution of purely modern invention. It is the latest device of the fantastically despotic organisation we call "society," with the exception of the dansante, or dancing tea. It might be alleged, but the allegation would be open to the [-301-] imputation of hypercriticism, that the first conversazione on English record was the meeting of the Royal Society at which King Charles II. propounded the famous problem of the live fish in the pail of water: and another semblance of a conversazione might be found in the assemblage of antiquaries at the christening of Martinus Scriblerus. But the real conversazione is quite another affair, and wholly modern. It is not much more than twenty years old, its establishment following close on the heels of the fashionable "rout," which again succeeded the "assemblies" of our grandmothers and the "drums" of our great- grandmothers. The modern conversazione means a room or a suite of rooms thrown open for the reception of a miscellaneous mob of fashionables or of celebrities, foreign and native, political, literary, scientific, or artistic. It is a vast menagerie, a "happy family" on a monster scale, a Noah's ark upon dry ground, and the birds, beasts, and fishes crowd and elbow each other, and roar, or yell, or howl, or bark, or low, or grunt, or squeak, or crow, or whistle, or scream, or pipe, to the infinite delectation of the host and hostess. The only sounds proper to the animal or ornithological kingdom are those which might be supposed to be produced by billing and cooing; for the guests are not - or do not in general look - very good-tempered, and a favourite manner of passing the time at a conversazione is to scowl at your neighbour, and wonder who the deuce he is. But one of the chief advantages connected with these bringings-together of celebrities, lies in the moderate sum for which the thing can be done. The conversazione is eminently cheap. They don't give these lions any shinbones of beef; tea, coffee, macaroons, and, at very hospitable houses, sandwiches and wishy-washy negus, are all that you can reckon upon in the way of refreshment at a conversazione.
Of late days, conversaziones, which were ordinarily given by private persons - the Mrs. Leo Hunters of the beau monde -have been held by societies literary and learned, nay, even by commercial and financial companies. I remember myself receiving on one occasion an invite to a "conversazione" at which the novel principles of a new life assurance company, and the immense advantages offered to shareholders, assurers, and annuitants, were to be fully developed and explained. The conversazione was held at the bran-new offices of the company, smelling very strongly of recent varnish, putty, and French polish, and of calf ledgers and day-books yet innocent of entries. There were plenty of ladies in evening dress, and plenty of gentlemen in white waistcoats, [-302-] and flirtation and gallantry were oddly mixed up with the Northampton Tables and the Institute of Actuaries. We had a neat lecture by a stout gentleman, in a blue coat buttoned up to the chin, upon the inestimable blessings of life assurance. Tea and coffee were handed round in the intervals of his discourse upon bonuses, paid-up capital, and the purchase of reversions; and an immense sensation was created at the termination of the lecture by the recitation, on the part of the orator, of a neat little copy of verses, of which the commencing stanzas, so far as my recollection will serve me, ran somewhat thus
"When dear papa went up to heaven,
What grief mamma endured!
And yet that grief was softened, for
Papa he was assured.
"He never lodged his policy,
He left it to mamma;
The office paid most cheerfully,
How happy now we are!"
This touching effusion was received with great waving of handkerchiefs, and some sobs, indeed, on the part of the ladies, and I have no doubt that many of those fair ones on returning home did that night incite, command, and compel their liege lords and masters forthwith to assure their lives in the "Amiabl fact, e and General Fire and Life Assurance Company" (with which are incorporated the "Good-natured and Law Life," the "Equitable and Jocular Fire," and the "Compassionate and Confidential Deposit and Loan Association"). The friendly meeting of the "Amiable and General" was distinguished above other conversaziones by the fact, that when the ladies had taken their departure, a capital cold supper, and abundant libations of champagne, were provided for the directors and their friends, at which repast, which lasted to a very advanced hour, everybody drank everybody else's health with all the honours, and everybody was made a preferential shareholder. I know that I was; though I am not quite aware at the present moment of the exact locality of the "Amiable and General's" offices, or, indeed, whether that most promising company is still in existence.
The strange conversaziones a man may from time to time visit! I have been to one at the Hanover Square Rooms given by the con-fraternity of dentists. Slim gentlemen of Carker-like dental developement held forth on the transcendant merit of the art of pulling out [-303-] people's teeth, and fiercely denounced the quacks and impostors who ignorantly tampered with the jaws of her Majesty's subjects; the room itself was hung round with the most hideous coloured cartoons, representative of diverse phases of dental surgery, and I came away haunted by visions of pink beeswax, thin gold plates, morocco easy chairs, springs, dents osanores, artificial gums, and those dreadfully clean hands, the wrists garnished by wristbands as clean, which seem to be the exclusive property of dentists. I congratulated myself, too, on my departure, on the fact that no visitor to the conversazione had, for the pure love of art, pulled out one of my few remaining teeth, just as, after dining with a schoolmaster, I felicitate myself for having escaped a caning. There is something in the whiteness of a dentist's hand, and in the twinkling of a schoolmaster's gray eye, that would make me tremble were I Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.
But the oddest conversazione I ever attended was not in this country, but in a foreign land. It was in Paris - and I am speaking seriously - a conversazione of coiffeurs, of barbers, hair-dressers, and wig-makers. I declare that I have seldom passed a more agreeable evening in my life. Everything was conducted on the most intensely genteel footing, and everybody was ceremoniously polite; although I must be candid in admitting that a decided odour of pomatum and freshly-frizzled curls pervaded the salon, which was, indeed, the upstairs room of a restaurant at Montmartre. There were ladies present, too; and after some pleasant little discourse, all tending to the glorification of hair-dressing, an eminent professor of the philocomal art there present proceeded to a series of practical and illustrative experiments on the heads of some of the young ladies, in order to show the different styles of dressing and arranging the head which had prevailed from the time of François, premier jusqu' a nos jours, to our own days. The ladies submitted with charming equanimity to the operation, and the experimentalist was enabled to submit to public inspection and admiration a full-blown Ninon d'Enclos, a Mademoiselle de Montpensier, a Duchesse de Longueville, a Madame de Maintenon, together with several Du Barns, De la Vallières, Pompadours, Madame Talliens, Mademoiselle Mars, Charlotte Cordays, and Theroigne de Mericourts. At the conclusion of the experiments, there was a grand procession of the ladies variously coiffées round the room, followed by the triumphant hair-dressers, waving their tongs and combs, and redolent of puff-powder; then we had orgeat and anisette; and then I [-304-] went and supped in the restaurant downstairs with one of the hairdressers, who went me halves in a bottle of Beaune, and swore eternal friendship to me over a Mayonnaise de homard.
But to return to the conversazione world of London. Suppose we take a literary one to begin with: say one of Mrs. Van Umbug's Thursdays. Mrs. Van Umbug lives at that classically severe mansion, the "Arena," Gladiator's Crescent, Nero Square. Mr. Van Umbug is a member of Parliament, and sits on the Liberal side of the House, but nobody takes much notice of him, and he is usually alluded to as Mrs. Van Umbug's husband. If you ask the coachman in the adjacent mews whose horses are those the helper is harnessing to the brougham, he will probably answer, "Mrs. Van Umbug's." The servants in the house in Gladiator Street, talk continually of "Missus" (who makes her presence not only seen but felt), but scarcely ever mention "Master." The tradespeople usually send in their bills to Mrs. Van Umbug; and it is certain that it is that lady who issues the invitations and receives the company at her Thursday conversaziones. Mr. Van Umbug, M.P., is scarcely ever seen at those gatherings, and when he is, rarely, manifest, it is in a very meek and subdued manner. He sneaks in and out as if the house didn't belong to him (which, indeed, it does not), and appears desperately afraid of the portly man in black with the white Berlin gloves who hands round the tea and coffee.
Mrs. Van Umbug's mansion is supposed to be furnished in the highest style of taste and virtu. Hers is quoted as an abode of all that is elegant, recherché, and distingué. What are taste and virtu, I wonder? what makes things elegant, distingué, and recherché? Do chairs that you can't sit down upon, and spindled-shanked tables, tottering beneath the weight of gaudily-bound books, containing specimens of chromo-lithography? do a sham pre-Raphaelite picture or two, in which a long-legged swain is courting a lady with yellow hair and a striped dress falling in unnatural folds, under the lee of a marvellously-executed waterbutt - a curiously-manipulated mangold-wurzel, and a minutely finished frying-pan occupying the foreground? do scraps of armour and oak-carvings, supposed to be ancient, but in reality manufactured the week before last in Wardour Street? do odds and ends, and Chinese monsters in porcelain, and a Louis Quinze clock, and the model of a Swiss chalet in box-wood, and an imitation grotto and aquarium in an ante-room? I suppose these things do.
This present Thursday at Mrs. Van Umbug's is a great literary one. [-305-] The lions of literature are present in the flesh. Here is the distinguished Snortup, author of "The Common Objects of the Back-yard," "Geology in Joke," "Trigonometry Judged by Taxation," "The Extinct Animals of Eel-pie Island," and other erudite and ponderous scientific works. Snortup, who is a Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Schinckelbrauen, is a heavy man, with a black wig and a huge black satin stock, in which gleams a cameo bearing a curious resemblance to an oyster. He snuffs a great deal, and when he speaks he does not belie his name, but literally snorts. Near him is young Twiddles, with his auburn hair, his turn-down collar, and Byron tie, his speckled silk stockings and low shoes, his baby face and falsetto voice. Twiddles, who writes under the pseudonym of Swedenborg Scanderberg, has just published a volume of poems of the ultra-spasmodic order. In passages replete with burning eloquence, he has spoken of the "moonbeam's frosty rime, that hoars the head of nature, and makes last summer's sapling patriarchal white." His grand passage in "Ladye Babbynetta," in which he alludes to "the hot and rabid ice, that burns and sears by force of congelation," has been enthusiastically spoken of by Sidney Muffins, editor of the "Tomfool" (with which is incorporated the "Pinchbeck News") weekly journal. Muffins is not a poet yet, but he hopes to be one when his whiskers grow and he has read "Cassel's Popular Educator." Meanwhile, he swears by Twiddles, and fiercely abuses, in print and in person, those who can't avoid the conviction that Twiddles is a donkey.
Do you see that man with the enormous red beard, the black velvet cuffs, collars, and facings to his coat, and the fez cap? what is O'Roarer. O'Roarer is a special correspondent to the "Howl" daily newspaper. O'Roarer went to the Crimea for the "Howl," during the war; he quarrelled with a major in a marching regiment, and challenged him to mortal combat. The general commanding the division was compelled to request O'Roarer to select some other locality for his hut, and terrific were the criticisms upon that divisional general's military conduct, which subsequently appeared in the "Howl." Little Eggles, who was a clerk in the Commissariat Department, who hates O'Roarer, declares that he was found in Balaclava once returning from a carouse on board ship, and Bacchi plenus, that he was taken to the main-guard, and in the morning, notwithstanding his protestations that it was "all a mistake," and his assertions of his "responsible position," he received the customary hospitality of the main-guard, namely, two dozen lashes. [-306-]Eggles adds, with a knowing wink, that the provost-marshal was not General's nephew for nothing.
Besides Mr. O'Roarer and his fellows already described, there is the Honourable Simperkin Blushington, that pleasing novelist and Oriental traveller. A little to the left, and scowling at the Honourable Simper-kin fearfully, is Leathers, the author of "A Jaunt to Jericho" and "Seven Years in a Penal Settlement." Leathers wears a huge cut-velvet waistcoat, that looks like a fragment from some tapestried window-curtain. lie is not at all clever, is Leathers - has no humour, observation, or power of description; but he has got a name among the book-selling trade, somehow, as a "good travelling hand" - a safe man for two volumes royal octavo with plates and a map - and so soon does any foreign country, from Canton to British Columbia, begin, from political or other causes, to attract public attention, so soon is Leathers commissioned to write his two bulky volumes of travels therein. Ill- natured people say that he keeps particulars relative to geography pigeon-holed in his library, and that he never went further than Boulogne, in the days of the five-shilling fares; but Leathers gets his price, and can afford to laugh at the evil-speaking. Bonassus, the publisher, of Bumpus Street, will have Leathers's portrait in the next edition of "Rambles in the Island of Perim."
I am sure it is very ungallant in me to have been so long silent regarding the ladies who grace the literary conversazione with their presence. A man must be, indeed, a brute who could pass over the charms of Miss Withers, aged forty, authoress of "Crackings of the heartstrings," "Shudderings of the Soul," "Crinklings of the Spirit- skin," " Eyeball Darts," and other pathetic lyrics. Miss Withers once kept a boarding-school, but gradually languished into poetry. She attained considerable celebrity in the time of the Annuals, but on the downfall of those amusing ephemerides, she betook herself to history, and is the writer of "Lives of the Wet Nurses of the Princesses of England," "Memorials of celebrated Bedchamber Women," and "The Silversticks in Waiting before the Conquest" - all works replete with critical acumen, and brimful of historical lore, though following a little too closely in the footsteps of a lady who has written an admirable and genuine History concerning some Queens of England. Miss Withers, however, has done very well for her publishers and for herself. She is one of those authoresses who, dying, would never wish to blot out a line they had written, simply because Heaven has gifted them with a [-307-] happy mental cecity that prevents them from discerning that nine-tenths of their works should never have been written at all. You may see Miss Withers any day in the British Museum Reading-room, vigorously compiling away at the desk marked "for ladies only." She has piles of books around her; she makes the attendants' lives a torment to them with the flying squadrons of book-tickets she deposits at the bar; she walks about the india-rubber flooring with one pen behind her ear and another in her mouth. She, being tall, bony, severe of aspect, and much given to snuff-taking, is generally feared by the Museum frequenters. She wrenches volumes of the catalogue from mild young clergymen in spectacles and M. B. waistcoats. She follows line after line of the printed page with her heavy inkstained forefinger. Once Dedman the pedigree-hunter, who was filling up his ticket opposite Miss Withers, was venturous enough to ask her the day of the month. She called him, in a hollow voice, "fellow," on the spot, snuffed indignantly, and afterwards spoke of him to the attendant with the red moustache as an "impertinent jackanapes." The only person with whom she condescends to be conversational in the reading-room, is Eglintoun Beaverup, the famous novelist, satirist, poet, traveller, Quarterly Reviewer, essayist, epigrammatist and politician, who stood for the Macbeth district of burghs last general election, and proved in an article in the "Rampant Magazine," that the present Duke of Sennacherib's grandfather was a pork butcher in Liquorpond Street, and that Sir Ranulph De Brie's papa (who was a pawnbroker) owed his baronetcy to a loan of ten thousand pounds, advanced by him to the Prince Regent on the security of a pinchbeck watch, which that improvident scion of royalty, having no other available pawnable property, had borrowed for the nonce from one of the helpers in his stable. Beaverup is himself descended from Brian de Bois Guilbert on the father's side, and from the original Thane of Cawdor, who slew Duncan, on that of the mother. Miss Withers will sometimes exchange deadly whispers with him relative to the mushroom characteristics of our modern peerage, and the departed glories of soccage and villeinage, infang theof and outfang theof.
Ah! and you are there, too, at Mrs. Van Umbug's conversazione, little Fanny Gillytin. Even so behold Fanny in a black satin dress and a laced berthe, and her yellow wavy hair parted on one side like a man, seated on an ottoman in deep conversation with Professor Sventurato, that red-hot republican, formerly one of the tribunes of the [-308-] Ultramontane Republic; next, under the name of Kibaub Bey, a colonel in the Turkish service, warring against the Moscovs in Anatolia; then deputy-assistant quartermaster-general under the immortal Walker, liberator of Nicaragua; next, an actor at the Variétés Theatre, New Orleans ; next, keeper of an oyster and lager bier saloon, in One- Hundred-and-Twenty-seventh Street, Ginslingopolis, in the United States of America; next, of Paris, Milan, Turin, Vienna, and Pesth, travelling as a broom-girl, an old woman, a Jesuit priest, a waiter at a café, a Franciscan friar, and a clown to a circus; now of the Whetstone Park College for Ladies (by whom he is adored), professor of modern languages; during the foregoing time, and occasionally, a prisoner in divers cells, wards, casemates, underground dungeons, oubliettes, piombi, ergastoli, and penal colonies, from all of which he has escaped by means little short of miraculous. Fanny, they say, is madly in love with Sventurato, and would marry him, were not the professor already allied to a Moldo-Wallachian lady, the daughter of a Kaimakan, whose heroism effected his escape from the citadel of Comorn, and who afterwards essayed to poison him in his coffee. Fanny is no less mad after liberty, by which she means universal democracy, universal spoliation, and universal smash. She has some private fortune, which she dispenses liberally among necessitous refugees; and in furtherance of the sacred cause of liberty - as she understands it - she has written piles of books. She is the authoress of that flaming epic, "The Tyrant's Entrails, or a Maiden's Wish;" "Crowns and Coffins, or Oligarchs and Ogres," an historical retrospect; "Mazzini the Shiloh," and " Victory and Vitriol," those soul-stirring pamphlets. She signs revolutionary bank-notes; she applauds regicide; she is in correspondence (in a complicated cipher which every police official from Paris to Petersburg understands and laughs at) with foreign revolutionary committees. She visits the Continent sometimes to distribute funds and ammunition. She would be ready to assume man's clothes for the benefit of her adored liberty - as she understands it. Ah! Fanny, Fanny, pause; ah! rash and foolish girl, for whom to be whipped and sent to bed would be the better portion, forbear to play with these edged tools! No second-sight is necessary for the result of these miserable machinations to be manifest. I see the portico of a theatre brilliantly lighted up; for a Tyrant and his young innocent wife come hither to-night. He is hemmed in by guards and police-agents; yet, for all his escort, desperate men rush forward and throw hand-grenades beneath his car-[-309-]riage-wheels. A horrible explosion, and then scores of peaceful men, women, and children, are borne, dead or frightfully mutilated, to the hospitals; and the Tyrant, safe and sound, bows to a cheering audience from his box. I see four downcast men sitting between gensd'arme on the criminals' bench of a crowded court-house, before stern judges who have doomed them to death before the very reading of the indictment. I see a straight-waistcoated wretch sitting in his chair in a gloomy cell, his head bent down, the governor and the priest standing by, while the executioner cuts off his hair and shaves the back of his neck. I see a grim, gray winter's morning in the fatal Place of the Roquette. A space is kept clear by thousands of horse, foot, artillery, and police; and, thrust to the furthermost limits of the place, is a pale-faced crowd surging like a sea. Then the drums beat, and the dismal procession issues from a prison to a scaffold. Then, tottering between priests and turnkeys, come two bare-footed men, with long white shirts over their garments, and their faces concealed by hideous black veils. But the veils are removed when they mount the scaffold, when one by one a distorted, livid face, with white lips, appears, when the executioner seizes the pinioned criminal, and flings him-yes, flings him, is the word-on the plank. Then I see the horrible gash in the face as the moribund strives to shape his mouth to utter his last words on earth ; the last up-turning of the starting eye-balls ; but the plank reverses, the rollers revolve, the slide closes, the spring is touched, the KNIFE falls, the blood spouts, and the heads drop into the sawdust of the red basket. Liberty, equality, and fraternity, flaming epics, soul-stirring pamphlets, and complicated ciphers, have come to this miserable end. The Tyrant is borne through the streets, the people shouting, and the maidens strewing flowers at his feet. The telegram has been despatched from the revolutionary committee to the Roquette, and the answer is a corpse that quivers, the parricide's shroud, and the headsman's bloody axe.
Of course there are some titled folks at Mrs. Van Umbug's conversazione it would not be complete without a literary lord - a harmless nobleman, generally, who has translated Horace, invented a new metre, or discovered a new butterfly; and a literary lady - if separated from her husband all the better, who paints him in the darkest of colours, as the hero of every one of her novels. And, equally of course, Ethelred Guffoon is here. Ethelred Guffoon is everywhere. He is one of Mrs. Van Umbug's special favourites. She calls him by his Christian name. He hunts up new lions for her; occasionally he officiates as peacemaker, [-310-] and prevents the lions from growling and fighting among themselves. He rushes from Mrs. Van Umbug's conversazione to the Pontoppidan Theatre, to see a new face, which he must criticise; after that he will sit up half the night to review Mr. Gladstone's Homer, for the "Daily Scratcher," and will be at Somerset House by punctual office hours the next morning. A man of the age, Ethelred Guffoon - a man of the time, a good fellow, but frivolous.
I wonder whether the celebrities one sees at this shadowy conversazione really represent the literary world - the real people who write the books and think the thoughts. I am afraid they do not. I fear that to find the princes of the pen, the giants of the land of letters, I must go further afield. Lo, here is Great Tom of Chelsea, sitting cosily, in his back parlour, smoking a pipe of bird's-eye with Eglintoun Beaverup, and telling him he is about having his ceilings whitewashed. Here is Lord Livy poring over Restoration and Revolution broadsides by his reading-lamp in his lonely chambers in the Albany ; - no, not lonely, the spirits of the old historic men come from their dusty shelves and clap him on the shoulder, and cry, " Go on and prosper, Thomas Babington, Lord Livy." The great Mr. Polyphemus, the novelist, is bidden to the Duke of Sennacherib's, and as he rolls to Sennacherib House in his brougham, meditates satiric onslaughts on " Tom Garbage" and " Young Grubstreet" - those Tom Thumb foes of his* (* "He made the giants first, and then he killed them. - Fielding's "Tom Thumb") - in the next number of the "Pennsylvanians." Mr. Goodman Twoshoes is reading one of his own books to the members of the Chawbacon Athenaeum, and making, I am delighted to hear, a mint of money by the simple process. Goldpen, the poet, has taken his wife and children to Miss P. Horton's entertainment ; Bays, the great dramatist, is sitting in the stalls of the Pontoppidan Theatre listening with rapt ears to the jokes in his own farce; and Selwyn Cope, the essayist, is snoring snugly between the sheets, having to rise very early to-morrow morning in order to see a man hanged. And where are the working-men of literature, the conscripts of the pen, doomed to carry Brown Bess, for sixpence a day, all their lives? Where are Garbage and Grubstreet? In the worst inn's worst room, with racing prints half hung, the walls of plaster and the floors of sand, at once a deal table but stained with beer, sits Garbage playing four-handed cribbage with an impenitent hostler, a sporting man who has sold the fight, and a potboy who is a returned [-311-] convict? Sits he there, I ask, or is he peacefully pursuing his vocation in country lodgings? And Grubstreet, is he in some murky den, with a vulture's quill dipped in vitriol inditing libels upon the great, good, and wise of the day? Wonder upon wonders, Grubstreet sits in a handsome study-listening to his wife laughing, over her crochet work, at Mr. Polyphemus's last attack on him, and dandling a little child upon his knee! Oh! the strange world in which we live, and the post that people will knock their heads against!
From a literary to a learned or scientific conversazione, at one of which we are about to take a transient peep, there is but one step; indeed, literature is always welcome among the good-natured old Dryasdusts, who are continually raking and rummaging, and rocking the "placers" and "prospects" of knowledge, and turning up huge masses of quartz, from which the nimble-fingered chymists of the pen extract flakes of shining gold. Presto! we leave the Republic of Letters, and are in the handsome rooms of the Royal Inquiring Society. This meritorious association (incorporated by Royal charter) is perpetually asking questions, and, though it often receives insufficient, if not ridiculous responses, yet manages, at the close of every year, to accumulate a highly-respectable stock of information on almost every imaginable topic. The members, I will assume (would that such a society in strict reality existed), are draughts from all the learned, scientific, philosophical, antiquarian, and artistic societies in London ; and on the first Thursday in every month during the season, they meet to glob over curiosities exhibited for their inspection, to shake hands and crack jokes with one another - I have even seen the friendly dig in the ribs, accompanied by the sly chuckle, occasionally administered - and to ask questions and receive answers. They are " Notes and Queries" (chattiest, most quaintly-erudite of periodicals) incarnated. But they abjure not the presence of the gentler, unscientific sex. These rare old boys of learning and science thread their way through the rooms (sometimes almost inconveniently crowded, for the Royal Inquiring Society is very popular) with blooming wives and daughters on their arms. The young ladies delight in these conversaziones-for a change. They are so strange, so peculiar, they say. You don't meet anybody to dance with or to talk about the weather, or the Crystal Palace, or crinoline, or the Botanical Gardens; but you see such nice old gentlemen, with dear, shiny, bald heads, and such wonderful intellectual-looking beings, with long hair, turn-down collars, and large feet, who smell musty bones with [-312-]
ELEVEN O'CLOCK P.M. : A SCIENTIFIC CONVERSAZIONE
[-313-] unpronounceable names, and make extraordinary
instruments to whiz round, and point out places upon maps, and talk so cleverly
(but so incomprehensibly to you, my dears) about rusty coins and the backbones
of fishes, and battered saucepans, which they say are helmets. And then
there are the nice stereoscopes to peep through, and the beautiful water-colour
drawings and photographs to look at, and the old gentlemen are so quiet and so
polite, and so different from the young men one meets in society, who either
stammer and blush or are superciliously rude and put their hands in their
trousers' pockets. Yes, young ladies, the bald-headed old gentlemen, the
careworn, long-haired, slovenly-looking men, are quiet and polite. They were,
many of them, poor and humble once; but they have hewn out steps from the rock
of knowledge, whereby they have mounted to that better fortune-European,
Worldwide fame. That quiet man with gray hair, smiles when ministers press upon
him a knighthood or a baronetcy: "Cui bono?" he says; "I
would rather be a corresponding member of the Academy of Honolulu. When I am old
and broke, and past work, you may give me enough for a little bread in my old
days: I take it as a Right, not as a favour," just as Turner the painter
left in his will the simple direction that he was to be buried in the Cathedral
Church of St. Paul. - "St. Paul's is for the painters and the
warriors, as Westminster Abbey is for the poets and statesmen; but I want not
your honours and titles. Such as you have, you bestow on your lawyers and your
lacqueys; but your captains are almost ashamed to take the decorations that are
shared by footmen and backstairs cringers."
You have readily divined, I hope, why I have instructed the dexterous limner who illustrates these pages to select for his subject the a scientific, rather than the literary, conversazione. The men of science do not obtrude their personalities upon the public. Their fame is known, their influence felt from London to Louisiana, but their portraits seldom meet the public eye. Those of General Tom Thumb or the Christy Minstrels would attract more crowds to the print-shop windows, and sell better. But, good lack I what a commotion there would be if the portraits of a series of littérateurs, in their habits as they live, appeared in "Twice Round the Clock." I should be denounced, repudiated, vilified, abused, for the artist's misdeeds. The great Mr. Polyphemus would crush me mercilessly beneath his iron heel ; Grubstreet would (threaten to) kick me ; Garbage would have me on the hip; O'Roarer smite me beneath the fifth rib ; Leathers [-314-] devise devices against me to make my existence intolerable; and Ethelred Guffoon castigate me terribly in his popular paper, "The Halfpenny Cane." No; let me deal only with the shadows; and those that the cobweb cap fits, e'en let them wear it.
At Eleven o'Clock in the evening, the social institutions known as Evening Parties assume their gayest and most radiant aspect. I think that I have already hinted in these pages that I am not a very frequent visitor at these entertainments. The truth must out : the people don't like me. At the last soirée I attended, a fashionable physician, coming in very late, and throwing out for general hearing the fact that he had been dining with an earl, I meekly suggested that he should allow me to rub myself up against him, in order to catch some of his aristocracy. All the women laughed, but the men looked as though they would have very much liked to throw me out of the window. There was one exception - a gentleman with one eye, and a face like a glass case full of curiosities, so many different phases of expression were there in it, who came across to me and made friends at once. But I shall never be asked to that house again; and if I am ill, I won't send for the fashionable physician. Timeo Danaos, and the pills they give you.
Thus circumstanced, I feel it becoming my degree to stay on the outside of great houses, and, herding among the crowd and the link- men, to witness the setting down and the taking up of the carriages coming to or going from evening parties. It has always been my lot so to stand on the kerb, to be a continual dweller on the threshold. I have stood there to see people married, to see people buried, and have murmured : "My turn must come next, surely;" but my time has not come yet. A king has patted me on the head, and I have sate, as a child, on the knee of the handsomest woman in Europe. I have been on the brink of many a precipice; I have attained the edge of many a cloud. But I have stopped there. I have always been like the recalcitrant costermonger's donkey, "going for to go," but never accomplishing the journey in its entirety.
I spoke of link-men. I might tell you a not uninteresting story regarding those industrials, in these gas-lit days growing day by day rarer and rarer. The tarred-rope made links are indeed, save on extraneous foggy nights, grown quite extinct, and are replaced by neat lanterns; and the time will come when the old red jackets, famous as a class from Grosvenor Square to the Horticultural Gardens at Chis-[-315-]wick, from the club-house fronts, on levee days, to the doorways of evening parties, shall become quite obsolete. But there is a grand old admiral living now-titled, high in office, before whom even his equals in rank bow, and who can make post-captains wait in his ante-chambers - who owes at least half his advancement and social position to the services of the link-men. Thirty years ago this officer was a young stripling, cast upon the ocean of London society. He was of good family, but his acquaintances in the fashionable world were few and far between, his influence was nil, and his promotion was therefore more than dubious. But at the Opera, then the King's Theatre, he happened to form a shilling-giving on the one side, cap-touching on the other, acquaintance with a link-man - Silver Tom, I think he was called, from a silver badge he always wore, presented to him by a noble marquis whom he had saved from being prematurely scrunched on a certain dark night between his own carriage wheels and those of the equipage of a duchess, his grandmamma. "Silver Tom," moved by gratitude, and experienced by his (outside) knowledge of the fashionable world, put the then young and poor lieutenant up to what is Vernacularly known as "a thing or two." Not a grand entertainment could be given in Fashionabledom, but on the lieutenant's arrival in full evening costume, "Silver Tom" bawled up his name to the footman in attendance on the door-step (the régime of cards was not so strictly attended to as it is now) ; he on the door-step halloaed it out to the powdered attendant on the first landing; he, in his turn, gave it to the black-vestmented groom of the chambers, who proclaimed it to the world in general in sonorous tones, and the bold lieutenant was inducted to the saloons of reception. Who was to know whether he had been invited to the feast or not? Not, certainly, the hostess, who, perhaps, did not know two hundred and fifty of her five hundred guests by sight. Some had been asked by her husband, some by herself. Not certainly the guests, who would not have been much surprised if they had met the Hottentot Venus or the King of the Cannibal Islands. The lieutenant made his bow and himself comfortable ; was sure to meet some lady or gentleman in society whom he knew, and probably departed with a list of half-a-dozen newly-formed and valuable acquaintances. He went on and prospered. Gradually, from being met and liked at great houses, he received genuine invitations, and, as I have premised, he made a good end of it at the Admiralty. I hope he pensioned "Silver Tom."[-316-]
ELEVEN O'CLOCK P.M. : AN EVENING PARTY
[-317-] Who is dead by this time, most probably; but I can still stand by the side of his successor, at the door of the great house, by the lamp and lantern's glare, and see the gay company pass in and out. How the horses champ! how the dresses rustle! how the jewels shine! and what fair women and brave men are here congregated ! Messrs. Weippert's or Collinet's band are upstairs ; Messrs. Gunter's men have brought the ices; there are flirtations in the conservatories, and squeezings of hands interchanged on the stairs. Vows of love are spoken, flowers from bouquets are given; and is it not, after all, the same old, old story, that boys and girls will love one another, and that the old people will look on with pretended severity, but with real contentment in their hearts, and that there will be present a few jealous and cankered ones, who will look on to envy the others because they are so happy? Drive envy from your hearts, ye who ride not in gilded chariots, and move not in the "fashionable circles." There is as much truth, love, and gaiety at a "sixpenny hop," between maid-servants and journeymen bakers, as at the most refined evening parties.
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]