XXIV. A JOURNEY TO EPSOM.
THE picture of a solitary individual abroad and astir in
Epsom town while it is yet so early that but a slender slip of sunlight twinkles
on the bed-room windows on one side of the road, and the pigeons of the place
still strut fearlessly upon the pavement, and the policeman has not yet
abandoned that solemn, measured tramp which is his night tramp, and very
different from the free-and-easy, slack-knee'd step with which he moves through
the town when it is up and alive, is likely to suggest thoughts on the probable
business of the solitary one-especially as his way tends to the lane which leads
to the Downs-of a not particularly flattering sort. Perhaps he is a
"tout," or, in other words, a horse spy and a skulker, on his way to
the exercise-ground, there to climb a tree or lie flat on his face in the grass,
timing the pace of the racers and making note of it. Perhaps he is a hired
ruffian with sharp stones in his pocket to be strewn over the ground where Blair
Athol takes his morning "breather," in the diabolical hope that one of
them may pierce the innocent foot of that sensitive creature and cripple him
everlastingly. Perhaps, again-and I think he does look a leetle too respectable
to be either a tout or a horse-lamer; he is more F. than R., as the saying
is-some restless wretch of a grocer or pork-butcher, who has pawned his shop and
what there is in it, and his wife's earrings and best gown, and his own
shirt-studs and silver hunting-watch that he may "get well on " a
horse which, though at long odds, is a "certainty," and of which he
has got the "tip," for the small charge of a guinea, from that
wideawake tipster, "Weazle," of the Spouting Life. Perhaps it is
"Weazle;" but that is scarcely likely; so remarkable a character must
surely be known to the police, whereas the early bird in question passes the
representative of the Epsom constabulary without so much as an exchange of nods.
No, the solitary one is neither a " tout," nor a horselamer, nor a pork-butcher, nor "Weazle;" he is the reader's very humble servant, the writer, who flatters himself that at this time, five o'clock in the morning of the 25th of May, there is not a happier man in Epsom; and this because he has no sort of business at Epsom at all. He has nothing to sell, no "flys" to let, no appointments to keep, and he doesn't care twopence whether the Derby laurels are carried off by Cambuscan or the rankest outsider. He has already partaken of a cup of coffee and a crust, and his breakfast will be ready at ten o'clock, when he will return to it. Meanwhile, he has plenty of tobacco and some pipelights, and an umbrella in case it should rain, and he is bound for Epsom Downs; and if the reader has a mind we will link arms and leisurely stroll thither together.
Pompeii, on the morning of the day of its devastation, could not have exhibited more serenity than does Epsom town as we enter it from the clock-tower end. Absolutely certain as it is that within six short hours the place, road and pavement, will be overrun by a reckless host, a ravening host, hungry as locusts, and as indomitably bent on devouring every green thing-a parched host, thirsting for drink as the sands of the desert-an uproarious host, fishing for mischief and helter-skelter devilry as though mischief was the essential salt of their lives, and only to be had for the scrambling after once a year at Epsom. Inevitable as is all this, the Epsomites slumber in content; the white blinds at the chamber windows are tranquil as though it were a Sunday morning; and, looking up and down the High-street, the only out-thrust and anxious head appears under a tumbled nightcap at an upper window of the Spread Eagle Tavern, and can belong to no other than a betting-man, whose " book " is made up to the finest points of wind and weather, and who really ought to pull through, considering how handsomely he has backed Providence for sunshine. A little way up a green lane there is the Epsom police-station, and there, in anticipation of a tremendously hard day, two policemen are on duty, one of them in his shirt-sleeves hanging out a blackbird among the flowering creepers that grow about and above the door, and the other with a fragrant pipe at full blast, while with a wisp of bass he secures a refractory hollyhock growing in the pretty garden in front. I should like to see the cells at Epsom station-house. I believe they are made of lattice-work, and painted the cheerfullest green, with a cool thatched roof covered with stonecrop. If I were condemned to hard labour there, I should expect it to consist in shelling green peas or making reed squeakers for the inspector's children. Perhaps, however, I might find myself mistaken. If I were a professional evil-doer on my first visit to Epsom on a Derby Day, and, seeing the tasty little station-house, laughed to think how easy it would be to break out of it if by ill-luck a policeman interrupted me at business at the Grand Stand, I certainly should be very much mistaken; for, knowing the said Grand Stand from the flagstaff to the cellars, I likewise know of a particularly dingy and secure apartment there, in which the police stow brawlers and pickpockets until it is convenient to convey them away in the evening.
Talking of the Grand Stand, as we top that steep and dusty hill, up which many thousands of men, Jack-o'-lantern light of heart, have climbed as buoyantly as though at top were to be found certain rest and luxury that would last, and down which exactly the same number, to a single one, have toiled as wearily as though it were the flintiest steep, chokeful of despair and amazement, and grateful to their jaunty green gauze veils for hiding their troubled faces,-mounting this hill, we come in sight of Mr. Dorling's palace of deal boards, glistening white in the morning sun, and recalling to the mind various images, some profane and gay, and some scriptural as well as sepulchral, but withal a well-pitched edifice, and affording capital observation of the racecourse. Everyone is satisfied with the management of the building, including, it is generally understood, the manager; and no wonder, when he is able to accommodate five thousand visitors, and the ready-money system is rigidly enforced.
Satisfactory, however, as are the Grand-Stand arrangements, it seems to me that in one department at least there is room for improvement. I allude to the " betting-ring," which is most unsavourily situated just under the noses of the best class of Grand-Stand visitors. Being commonly engaged in raising mammon, a few whiffs of brimstone of a coarser quality than ordinary might be tolerated in the nostrils of the " upper ten; " but when it comes to sulphur of the Saffron Hill sort, when one is compelled to the reflection that a good percentage of the costermonger clamour heard below is the selfsame that gave tongue on the Field Lane ruins on Saturday last, and that the gentleman in the bran new paletot and glossy hat, from whose mouth the idea of the patent expanding trunk might have taken its origin, and who is so industriously yelping as to the odds he will lay about this, that, and the other, is the same individual who is to be seen any day in the neighbourhood above mentioned, luring numskull butcher-boys and shoemakers' apprentices to stake their half-crowns and shillings, the result is not pleasing to one's dignity or manhood. Is there no room in the cellars for these yellow flies? Or, better still, could they not be accommodated on the roof ? If they could, it would be better for themselves-better for everybody. They would no longer offend the organs of sight, and hearing, and smell, in honest men; and they, by being enabled to look out far and wide, would be spared that minute of horrible torture when the racers are lost behind the hill-when they go down like a doubtful swimmer in deep and weedy water, who will presently rise to fling up his arms and drown, or show his confident face and his lusty shoulders, sure tokens of peril past. How will it be ? The pulsings of the desperate bettingman's heart took the time of his horse's hoofs-hirrup hirrup ! hirrup !-over the springy turf, when he last saw him; and if that " hirrup " has increased in speed in the same degree with the thumping under the wretch's waistcoat, the gallant horse will "land" the stakes to a certainty. But it is doubtful-so horribly doubtful, that the betting-man's arterial steed will surely gallop itself out of life unless the other makes great haste. Now for it ! Now we shall know! No, not yet! Was there ever such a crawling match ? For less than a little minute the horses are lost behind the hill, yet there is time enough for the gambler to review all his business with that horse-that magnificent horse-that infernal horse. "Bless him ! he's sure to win. Confound him why did I lay a penny on him?" He thinks of what that cautious fellow, Brown, told him, and curses himself for not taking the advice; and again, in the thousandth part of a second, on what Jones put him up to, and reviles himself as an idiot for thinking for a moment on anything that such a timid donkey as Brown should say. So he shifts his few miserable straws from left to right, and tortures himself with the problem of sink or swim, until-
But, really, to discuss the emotions of the man of "Mammon's acre" is not the purpose of this paper. Who cares whether he sinks or swims ? Sink he must some day, and as well to-day as to-morrow. He is like a pig which, swimming against the tide, inevitably cuts his throat with his hoofs. It doesn't matter. He didn't fall into the flood-was not pushed in. He took a deliberate "header," trusting to the "Betting-man's Guide," with all the latest dodges and improvements, as a lifebelt. The " Guide " instructed him that the best way to catch flat fish floating blindly with the stream was to take the tide the other way and meet them. And a very profitable game he found it until the " spoony" fry came to know the snout of the hungry pike, and avoided him. Then, in desperation, up came the hoofs for one good, bold dash among the minnows, and his gullet is slit beyond repair. And a good job done. A good job if every pig of the fiendish breed would follow the example of that ancient herd recorded in Sacred Writ, and gratify us with a last view of their heels over the shingle of the seabeach.
Let us turn our backs on the Grand Stand, where the sweepers are busily sweeping and the upholsterers are tacking up extra red baize for the great occasion; and on the high-railed ring, within which a labourer is hard at work gathering up yesterday's crumpled sandwich-papers and orange-peel; and on the "course," on which a dozen men are busy with shovels and brooms and rammers, smoothing out the dents in the turf made by yesterday's racers, and filling up every hole with almost as much care as a joiner prepares a dining-table for polishing. With these-at least, at present-we have nothing to do. We have climbed the hill, not on business, but for pleasure's sake, and for the gratification of an idle curiosity to know the kind of figure cut by Epsom Downs early in the morning of the great race. It could scarcely be called idle curiosity either, since it grew out of much speculation and laboured puzzling on the singular fact-as proved by observation from the window of our lodging at the London end of the town-that whereas, since Monday morning, at least five thousand individuals had turned into the lane that leads to the hill atop of which the downs begin, not more than two thousand had come back again up to a late hour on Tuesday night. What had become of those other three thousand ? What were they doing up on the bleak downs ? Where did they sleep ? and how ?-for although many had gone up with carts and waggons, and smart caravans with a chimney in the roof and a knocker on the door, in which it was easy enough to lie snug and warm; hundreds had tramped it afoot, carrying neither bag nor baggage, not so much as a little bundle no bigger than a night-shirt would make. Neither had they any money; for regularly as, limping along on their crooked-heel boots, they came to Bonsor's ham-and-beef shop, with its pillars of brisket and its rounds in mighty hillocks, and a greater number of sausage-rolls than would have filled a cornbin, they invariably halted and indulged in a visionary banquet, picking out the crustiest of the new penny loaves, and helping themselves to fat, and to lean, and to mustard, and taking a bite at the German sausage, and going leisurely in for a ham-knuckle, with pickled cabbage; meanwhile soothing their cruelly-tantalised stomachs under cover of their trouser-pockets; but never on a single occasion had I observed them to enter Bonsor's shop, which I am sure they would have done had they even so much as the price of a sausage-roll about them. Penniless, hungry, and so tired that, even after the first imaginary plateful outside Bonsor's, they might be seen yawning and blinking as they leant against the brass window rail, what on earth could take them to Epsom Downs, and what did they find there that, liking it so very much, they could not leave it ? This was part of the riddle it was the purpose of our excursion to solve, but it proved a tougher business than was anticipated. It was a perfect hedgehog of a riddle-the closer you approached it the tighter it curled itself up. There they were, the hungry and penniless ones, crouched against the outer canvas of the booths, huddled dogwise under carts and vans, or lying blankly on the open plain with their faces to the earth, and their caps for a pillow, and their ugly heads of hair blending with the grass and bedewed like it. This, as regards some of them-the lazy ones, or, may be, the midnight arrivals who had manfully achieved the twenty and odd miles from Whitechapel Church to Epsom Clock-tower, but had been dead beaten by the hill, and, spent and pluckless, so soon as they came to a nice soft bit of turf, had there plunged down, in much the same spirit as mad folks plunge from a bridge for a water cure for all their aches and pains.
It seemed so certain that they were lying uncomfortable that it was a great temptation to wake them; but when on looking about one saw what they were like when they were awake, the inclination was immediately checked. They were perfect images of neglect, and famine, and dust-especially of dust. Dust was in their hair, their eyes, and their ears; it came in puffs out of the rents and holes in their boots when they walked; it lodged on the ledges the cobbles and patches made in their jackets and trousers; their very skin had the hue of a dusty old felt carpet, and looked as though, if you attempted to beat it, you would be instantly smothered. Yesterday's dust and yesterday's sweat mingled to make their thin hands and faces loathsome, and yesterday's hunger and weariness looked out at their heavy eyes. Some of them, in groups of fours and fives, crouched over a spluttering, smoky fire of gorse and green sticks, were warming their cramped limbs (for, the reader must know, the wind blows chilly at six o'clock on a May morning on Epsom Downs); some meekly skulked close to the big fires the coffee-vendors had by this time kindled under their kettles; and some, the youngest, hung about such of the company as chanced to be engaged in the consumption of victuals, fawning and looking up for a bit like drovers' dogs at a cattlefair. There was one boy whom I distinctly recollected as gazing in at Bonsor's window yesterday, and now, with about an equal prospect of success, he was Bonsorising a fair-going looking sort of a person with knee-breeches of velveteen, and a cap made of the skin of some bristly animal, and who, squatted on the grass with some cold boiled beef and a loaf, and some beer in a tin bottle, between his outstretched legs, was calmly discussing his breakfast. Presently the beefeater took a bite out of a big crust and then laid it down without the boundary of his legs, and Bonsor, regarding it as a waif, was down upon it instantly. Not so quickly, however, as the beefeater was down upon him. He caught Bonsor in the very act, and gave him a rap on the knuckles with the buckhorn handle of his big clasp-knife.
"Hook it, will yer! yer (something) young prig," said he, grinning, with his mouth full of boiled beef; as poor Bonsor gave a howl and a wriggle, and got out of his way. He wriggled close to where I was standing, and, presuming on our slight acquaintance, I ventured to address him-
"Did I not see you yesterday in Epsom town, my man?"
For an instant Bonsor's boy took in my length and breadth with a glance peculiar to London boys and robins, and then, not feeling fully assured that I was not something in the detective line, replied evasively-
"Well, what on it?"
"Nothing to me," I said; "only you seemed to be looking for something to eat then; and, unless I'm mistaken, that is what you are doing now."
"That is what I am doing," replied Bonsor, once more furtively taking my measure while he sucked his sore knuckles. "You don't happen to have a job as would bring a cove in as much as would fetch a bit of grub and a drop of coffee-eh, guvnor ? "
"Yes, I have," I replied; "as easy a job as you are likely to find. Answer me three questions, and I will give you a shilling. To begin with, what brought you to Epsom ? "
"Chance of picking up a job or so," replied Bonsor, promptly, and with his hands behind him, as though I was questioning him out of the Church Catechism.
"That's what brings all us coves down here; " and he gave a comprehensive sweep with his chin, indicating that by "us coves" he meant the sleepers on the grass and the crouchers over the fires.
"In what way ?"
"Forty ways," replied Bonsor, with difficulty concealing his contempt for my ignorance; "there's the c'rect card coves-two bob a dozen at the Stand, and a werry tidy pull for coves with a bit of money to lay out; and then there's cigar-lights, and dolls to stick in the hats, and noses and hair, and clean yer boots, and all sorts of amoosing things for gents what wins. Then there's the brushing coves, and them as fetches water, and them as looks arter the empty bottles and the bones. Lor ! I can't tell you half on 'em."
"And do they all find it worth their while to tramp all the way from London and back again ?"
"Well, don't yer see, it's all speckerlation, and that's the beauty on it," replied Bonsor, wagging his head admiringly. " You never know what's going to turn up one minnit from another. Why, I knows a man who once had a pound given him for fetching a pail of water. It's all luck, don't yer know. You might make a crown, and you mightn't make enough to get a lift home in a wan."
"Are there many such unlucky ones ?"
"I believe yer. Old uns, don't yer know, what's out of work and too 'spectable like for noses, and hair, and dolls, and c'rect cards, is no use unless a feller can run; so they comes out a brushing. Yes; and when they gets here," continued Bonsor, his extremely dirty face lighting up at the absurdity of the thing, "when they gets here they'll see a cove what comes from their parts in a pleasure-wan, or something of that, and aint got the cheek to take out their brush arter all, and trot home, when it's dark, just the same as they come."
And at this Bonsor, conscious that he had given me my three answers fair and full, and one over, withdrew his hands from behind him, and twiddled his finger and thumb expectantly. The next minute he was negotiating with a coffee man, while I strolled in among the booths and gipsy-tents, picturing to myself one of the poor, old, broken-down fellows, " too 'spectable for noses and hair," spending the livelong day lurking behind show-vans and booths, and nut-targets, and wrathfully watching the van which brought down Jenkins, the ladies' bootmaker, who lives just over the way where the old fellow lives. The tablecloth is spread on a board in the van, and the old fellow, from his miserable hiding, can see the flash of knives and forks, and the foaming glasses of bottled beer; and, if he were not such a proud old donkey, he might hail Jenkins (who is as good a soul as ever lived), and, in a twinkling, be eating and drinking to his heart's content. Not he; he hates Jenkins with the deadliest hatred, and nothing, or so he thinks, would give him greater pleasure than to see the stuck-up fellow swallow too large a bit of meat, and choke himself on the spot. And so he lurks and watches, with a vague intention of beginning business when Jenkins has gone, till night approaches, and Jenkins and everyone else goes, and the foolish old boy goes too, with his respectable old clothes-brush--the very one with which in better times he has, often and often, proudly flicked the dust from his Sunday clothes-hanging a dead and profitless weight in his pocket, as it has hung ever since his old woman wrapped it in paper for him last night (giving him at the same time her last threepence that he might not want for a half-pint of beer and a bit of 'bacca on the road), he fags homeward in the dust and the deepening dusk, keeping the wall to be out of the way of the lively mob who hold the road; fags along for an hour or more, till it grows quite dark, and the vehicles bowling along past him, less in number, but faster and more uproariously, the drivers being drunk to a man; fags along till he reaches the dark road near to Croydon, by which time it is past midnight, and the inns are closed, and it is full five minutes since he heard the clatter of wheels, and, quite dead beat, he sits down on the grass that skirts the road "just for a rest," and there he sleeps till the sunshine wakes him.
As the Bonsor boy observed, " it's all speckerlation." Speculation fills the Grand Stand and the betting-ring; speculation and the legend of the man who once upon a time got £1 for fetching a pail of water incites decent elderly men, as well as those with whom decency has long ceased to be a consideration, and ruffianly young men, and blackguardly boys, to undertake the lengthy journey. " Speckerlation," then, may be taken as the answer to the riddle respecting the three thousand who went up on to the Downs and did not come down again -that is to say, as far as the brushers, and the water-carriers, and the noses-and-hairs, and the pipelights, and the c'rect cards, went towards making up the total, which was not very considerable. Of the remainder, some were speculators and some were not. Among the former must, I suppose, be classed the various bands of Ethiopian "serenaders," many of whom, divested of their business wool and " long-tail blues," mixed with the crowd or conversed at the coffee-stalls, their nigger masks of yesterday (consisting of ivory-black and beer) looking much the worse for wear and a night's tumbling on straw. And what else than as speculators could you regard the score or so of professional sparrers and glove-boxers who, in the intervals of racing, delight the aristocracy of the Grand Stand with an exhibition of scientific nose-punching and eye-blacking? and who, roused at this early hour, not because they have had sleep enough, but because their drouthy natures were famishing for beer, stroll about with their hands in their trousers pockets, and yawning their great jaws, with countenance about as amiable as that a bull-dog, who had attacked the supposititious calf of a wooden-legged man, might be imagined as wearing.
Then there were the cockshy-men and the Aunt-Sally men, and the men who were not to be mistaken for tailors because they carried a thimble in their pocket, or as persons in the farming interest from the circumstance of their happening to be possessed of two or three peas. And the target-keepers; and the proprietors of pulling, and punching, and weighing machines, and machines at which you will, by-and-by, be invited to "blow," by way of testing the strength of your lungs; and the victuallers, licensed and unlicensed; and the "wheel-of-fortune" keepers, man and woman, attended by their "jollies" (who, as may be explained to the innocent reader, are those wonderfully lucky persons who, coming up quite promiscuously, win and carry away the sets of china and diamond earrings); and the party with the performing dogs; and the gentleman who smashes lumps of granite with his naked fist: and fifty others, speculators all; not forgetting the busy little barber who rushes about among them all, with his belt fuller stuck with sharp-edged weapons than the girdle of an Ojibbeway, crying out, "Now, then ! now, then! One at a time! Here's the barber! the barber ! the bar-BER!" doing a very good trade at a penny a shave, and being on the best of terms with the fair folks, no one denying him the loan of their fire for his shaving-pot, or making a rumpus when, in the pushing and jostling, he happened to nick a bit out of their chins. And if the reader can imagine the various characters sketched engaged in making preparations for the company who will presently arrive-the booth-keepers sweeping out and hanging up their banners; the gingerbread-nut women arranging their spruce stalls, and darting amongst their great canisters, and joking and laughing amongst themselves with that jollity which the vending of gingerbread seems invariably to confer; and the owners of the rifle-targets adjusting their lengths of tubing, like steamboat funnels; and the cockshy-men squatting about and trimming cockshy-sticks with a spokeshave, or weaving their rush-baskets to hold the earth into which the shysticks are stuck; and the niggers, grouped in retired corners, blacking each other's faces, and adjusting their wigs and paper collars before a looking-glass upheld against their monstrous hats; and the brushers and bruisers, and rag and tag generally, aiming aimlessly at that "bob" which is always to be picked up here-and he will have a faithful picture of what Epsom Downs are like early in the morning of the great race.
It is all over-nine hours since by ordinary humdrum time o' day, ages since according to Epsom Downs time, between the start for the "great event" and when the upreared number-board by the judge's chair declared who the victor was. We didn't see the race. We never meant to see it. According to our expressed intention, we came home to breakfast at ten a.m., and remained at home until midnight. It was nothing to us who the winner was, though, as it chanced, we knew as soon almost as anybody in the town, for, at about a quarter past four o'clock, whilst sitting behind the window-curtain, comfortably discussing a delightful little book-the "History of Epsom," by a clergyman-kindly lent us by the landlady, hearing a swift pattering of feet (Epsom town is curiously still from ten till four on a Derby Day), we looked out, and spied the grocer's young man rushing, hatless and breathless, up the street, and when he came to the cheesemonger's young man, who was at his shopdoor to hear the news, he cried with deep emotion, "It's all up, Dick ! That blessed Blair Athol has gone and done it!" And so he had: General Peel coming in second, and Scottish Chief third. About the positions of the other horses we need not trouble ourselves. It's all over. The two hundred thousand who went up the hill have come down again; the judge has pocketed his fifty pounds and gone home, and is by this time-or so we hope, for it is past twelve o'clock-a-bed and calmly asleep, and the thousands whom his judgment made happy or miserable have also gone home, some to bed, and some to celebrate their good luck by getting shockingly tipsy, and some to mourn over their bad luck and pass the remainder of the night wearily figuring and planning how they may find a way out of the bog Blair Athol has flung them into. The turbulent sea that surged over the Downs and reached even to the brow of the great hill has subsided, leaving them blank, save for the booths and vans, which in the distance loom shapelessly and black; save for the lights from torches and lanterns twinkling like glow-worms; and still, save for the snatches of song and laughter coming from the spot where the vans and booths are most thickly clustered; for what has been fun for the sightseers, has been real hard work for those whom we saw so busily "making ready" in the morning, and now that their customers have gone, leaving their money behind 'em, their Derby holiday commences, and they arrange comfortable parties, and dance, and sing, and play cards, and eat up what is known as the " overplush" of ham sandwiches and such other food as will not keep handsomely through a warm night. They likewise give a fair share of their patronage to the " overplush " beer, and about two in the morning become rather noisy.
Nobody, however, is ever taken up for being drunk and disorderly on Epsom Downs on the Derby night. There are policemen on the spot, but they are all snugly housed at the Grand Stand in a great room, where there is a jolly fire, and plenty of mattresses, on which the officers recline with their coats and boots off. Just for form's sake, they march out in a body two or three times in the course of the night, but it is only to look in, in a good-humoured way, at the booths where there is most row, and mildly recommend peace and harmony. The ugliest customers the police have to deal with are the gipsies-those free and blithesome individuals who scorn house-dwelling and prefer to herd in dens no better than dog-kennels. The gipsies, however, are not troublesome on account of their drunken propensities, but from their disposition for plunder. Heaven help the unlucky wretch who, drinking himself past consciousness, lies down in a corner to sleep and is forgotten by the party with whom he came from London! Not only will the gipsies rob and beat him-they will strip him to the skin, and drive him off, pelting him as he runs. The watchmen at the Grand Stand, more than once or twice attracted by the cries of the victim, have found him without a rag shivering at the door, and kindly lent him a sack to cover and comfort him, and enable him to set out on his walk back to London without delay. It is because of these gipsy ruffians that the booth-keepers provide themselves with firearms; and, as the night wanes and the revellers tire, and the twinkling lights grow fewer, there is heard on every side a tremendous banging, caused by the booth-keepers discharging their guns and pistols at their doors to let the gipsies know what they may expect should they venture in after the money-box.