XXV. THE COSTERS' CARNIVAL.
IN a little alley, which offers a convenient and near
"cut" from our street to the main road, resides our greengrocer. He
is a most wonderful man, being at once the most shrewd, and shiftless, and idle,
and everlastingly active fellow that ever was born. Ours is a new neighbourhood,
and we are very glad to patronise Mr. Tibbits and his perambulating store.
Blending with the music of the morning muffin-bell you may hear his melodious
voice chanting in praise of his cabbages and his plums of "Arline." At
midday he may be seen retailing coals, in the afternoon toiling to some
carpet-ground with a cartload of dirty carpeting, and his early evenings are
consumed in moving goods or servants' luggage. After that he disappears, and is
seen no more that night except by the policeman and such of the public as may
happen to be abroad at midnight. Then he is drunk-not helplessly so, inasmuch as
he is able to keep his legs by hanging heavily on to the chorus of the last
rollicking stave sung at "The Jolly Sandboys"-but very tipsy indeed,
This was so last night, the night before, any and every night; yet to-morrow morning, certain as the rising sun, and even before the sun has risen, Mr. Tibbits will be again afoot and at work. It is the invariable habit of this indefatigable one-this cabbage-bawling, carpet-beating, gravel-carting, coal-selling, goods-removing, servants'-box-conveying, "Jolly Sandboy"-boosing person, who never seeks his own door until that of the public-house is closed against him-it is this man's custom to work fifteen hours, to waste five, and take no more than the little remainder for rest, summer and winter, all the year round. It must be so. Covent Garden is a " solid" seven miles from Mr. Tibbits's abode, which makes the double journey fourteen, to say nothing of market stop-pages and a load to take home. Mr. Tibbits has but one holiday a year, and that is at Barnet autumn fair time. It was only within the last few days that I became acquainted with the fact that he gave himself this holiday. On the morning of Tuesday week his voice was unheard in the street, and we thought, to be sure, that the poor man was ill. Happening, however, that morning to avail myself of his short-cut alley, I was agreeably surprised to perceive a German band before his door, which it was only natural to suppose would scarcely be allowed if anything very terrible ailed the poor greengrocer. On arriving opposite his shop my mind was set quite at ease as regarded apprehensions as to Mr. Tibbits's state of health, though I could not quite make out the state of affairs; for there, arrayed in bran-new corduroys and a starched and snowy shirt, was our worthy greengrocer himself, adjusting his blue bird's-eye neckerchief by aid of a bit of looking-glass stuck against the wall. The cause of his banishment from the little parlour behind the shop was evident, a gorgeously-bonneted head being there visible " putting itself to rights" in the glass over the mantel-shelf. Having arranged the neckerchief to his satisfaction, Mr. T. donned a waistcoat of elaborate design and of the pattern known as "the dog's-paw;" and, with his thumbs hooked in the armholes thereof, came to the door, with his hair radiant of bear's-grease and his face beaming with happiness, to view the musicians; wagging his head like a loyal subject as the tow-haired vagabonds squeaked and squealed from their brazen instruments that magnificent anthem, "God bless the Prince of Wales," after the performance of which he appeared much relieved, and producing a half-gallon can from under the shop-counter, and inviting the instrumenta1ists to chink, inquired if they knew something " a little rousier," whereon they stuck up "Annie Laurie," but had scarcely proceeded as far as " Maxwelton braes" when Mr. T. imperiously waved them to silence.
"That's a rare rouser, that is," said he, with mild sarcasm; "ain't you got sense enough to serve your customers with wot's in season ? Something in this style, now;" and clearing his throat, Mr. T. favoured the astonished Teutons with the first verse of the ancient stave-
"Ere older you grow, here's a song you should know,
I'd advise you to buy and to larn it,
T'other day 't happened so, with a friend I did go
To see the famed races of Barnet.
Sing fol-de-rol fol-de-rol-lay."
It needed not the appearance at this juncture of Mr.Tibbits's cart and horse (the former clean washed and with three Windsor chairs ranged in it, betokening " a party," and the latter with his mane and tail neatly plaited and tied with cherry-coloured ribbon) to explain the mystery. The cat was out. Our greengrocer was going to Barnet Pair. Without doubt this was his holiday of the year. Christmas was nothing to him, for, as I distinctly recollect, he left word the day before " that if extra fruit or anything was wanted, he should be open all day;" on Derby Day he was bawling green-peas and gooseberries; on the Mondays of Whitsun and Easter he was seen at a neighbouring fair with his cart, and up to his elbows in damaged dates, driving a roaring trade. What was there about Barnet Fair that could attract our hard-working greengrocer so powerfully ?
I was still puzzling over this problem when I reached the main road (the Holloway Road, which is the direct line to Barnet), and a glance revealed the fact that Tibbits was but one of a thousand bound for the ancient battleground whereon, four hundred years ago, the great Earl of Warwick was defeated and slain. The highway was alive with Barnet fair-goers, and to a man they were of the Tibbits sort; though, as a rule, and if appearances might be trusted (and surely on such a day they might), not nearly so well to do. Rattling down the road as it presently did (with three on the cart-seat and the Windsor chairs all occupied-four gentlemen and two ladies in all, the former enjoying at once a " chaw" and a smoke out of their cheroots, and with dahlias decorating the breast button-holes of their velveteen coats), Mr. T.'s equipage outshone by many degrees the generality, which were costermongerish in the extreme. Donkey carts and donkeys were decidedly the majority; handbarrows with elongated handles to attach a quadruped between, and burdened with four and even six hulking men and women, to say nothing of the big stone bottle and the bushel-basketful of victuals. Donkey drays, "half-carts," " shallows," and every other sort of vehicular device peculiar to costermongery, had its representative, drawn by every known shape in equine nature-donkeys fat, and sleek, and prizeworthy, and donkeys spavined, lame, and chapfallen, and looking as though they had been stabled in a damp cellar till mildew had seized on their hides; ponies, fast-trotters, glossy-coated, long-tailed, and frisky, and poor wizened things with that haggard, careworn expression which is the old, ill-used pony's peculiarity; young fiery horses, which were hard to hold in, and splay-legged, Roman-nosed, ancient brutes, which were hard to hold up; "kickers," "roarers," " jibbers;" vixens of fierce blood, and who could do anything but behave themselves, and meek, languid, washed-out horses, with drooping ears, drooping eyes, drooping everything, too deeply settled in melancholy to be stirred by whipcord, and who swung one leg before the other like clockwork horses wound up to their best, and never blinked an eye, let their drivers batter their ribs how they might, and curse and swear in a way calculated to startle them, if anything would. So that, taken as a whole, the road presented a very lively picture; and people said it was many years since there had been such a "Barnet," and generally attributed the improvement to the abolition of turnpikes. Why should not I go to Barnet Fair ? True, I had no fast trotter and light-springed cart, nor even a donkey and barrow; but the railway was close at hand, and for an insignificant 198 Unsentimental Journeys; or, sum I might, in a very few minutes, be translated quietly at my ease to the coveted spot.
I went, and arrived there about noon. My first impression was my last, and still remains-viz., that Barnet Fair is a disgrace to civilisation. I have witnessed a Warwickshire "mop " fair; I have some recollection of "Bartlemy; " I was at Greenwich when, on account of its increasing abominations, the fair that so long afflicted that Kentish borough was held for the last time; but take all these, and skim them for their scum and precipitate them for their dregs, and even then, unless you throw in a very strong flavouring of the essence of Old Smithfield on a Friday, and a good armful of Colney Hatch and Earlswood sprigs, you will fail to make a brew equal to that of Barnet. It is appalling. Whichever way you turn-to the High Street, where the public-houses are-to the open, where the horse-" dealing" is in progress-to the booths, and tents, and stalls-brutality, drunkenness, or brazen rascality, stare you in the face unwinkingly. Plague-spots thought to be long ago "put down" by the law and obliterated from among the people, here appear bright and vigorous as of old-card-sharpers, dice-sharpers, manipulators of the " little pea," and gentlemen adept at the simple little game known as "prick the garter." Wheels-of-fortune and other gaming-tables obstructed the paths. "Rooge-it-nor, genelmen; a French game, genelmen; just brought over; one can play as well as forty, and forty as well as one. Pop it down, genelmen, on the black or on the red, and, whatever the amount, it will be instantly kivered! Faint heart never won fair lady, so pop it down while the injicator is rewolving! Red wins, and four half-crowns to you, sir; keep horf our gold is all we ask; our silver we don't wally! " Not in a hole-and-corner way this, but bold and loud-mouthed as goods hawked by a licensed hawker.
Disgusting brutality, too, had its representatives in dozens. There were the tents of the pugilists, where, for the small charge of twopence, might be seen the edifying spectacle of one man bruising and battering another; there was the booth of the showman who amused the public by lying on his back and allowing three half-hundredweights to be stacked on the bridge of his nose; there was the gentleman who put leaden pellets in his eyes, and drove rows of pins at a blow into a fleshy part of his leg; and there was a lean and horrible savage (a "Chicksaw," the showman said he was, "from the island of High Barbaree ") who ate live rats. Decidedly, this was the show of the fair. An iron-wire cage, containing thirty or forty rats, hung at the door, and beside it stood the High Barbarian, grinning, and pointing at the rats, and smacking his blubberous lips significantly. The sight was more than the people could stand; they rushed and scrambled up the steps, paying their pennies with the utmost cheerfulness; and, when the place was full, the performance was gone through to their entire satisfaction. The High Barbarian really did eat the rats. He set the cage before him, and, thrusting in his hand, stirred the animals about till he found one to his liking, then he ate it as one would eat an apple.
It was among the horses, however, where the chief business was doing, as may be easily understood when it is remembered that fully nine-tenths of the thousands that swarm the town and the fair-ground have in view the sale, or purchase, or "swop" of a horse, mule, or donkey. Go to the horse market in Copenhagen Fields any Friday, and it will be found that the chief difficulty the market officers encounter in the exercise of their duty consists in the presence of a score or so of donkey-dealing ruffians, who set law and order at defiance; a slangy, low-browed. bull-necked, county-cropped, spindle-legged, lantern-jawedbig-chinned, long-waisted, tight-breeched crew, lithe and muscular, carrying a thick ash stick with a spike at the end of it, and utterly refusing to be " regulated." Let the reader imagine such a crew, multiplied a hundredfold at the very least, and sprinkle amongst them a few butchers, a few soldiers, and more than a few blowsy, flashily-dressed costermonger women, and a hundred or so decent-looking folk who have come innocently to Barnet to buy a horse; make a mob of these, and distribute amongst it all the riff-raff and rubbish in the way of horse and donkey flesh to be found within twenty miles of London, and a feeble realisation of the picture presented at the end of the High Street, looking into the space where the horse fair is held, will be the result. Some such scene as this is presented to the eye; but who shall describe the bedlam Babel of sound that arises from the busy, ever-shifting, motley mob ? Fifty negotiations towards a sale are taking place at one and the same time, each one accompanied by an amount of yelling, and bellowing, and whip-slashing, and whistling which must have been pleasant to the ears of the " Chick-saw" rat-eater, as reminding him of the habits and customs of his tribe. Such a thing as a "quiet sale" is unknown at Barnet. The big-chinned one, with the battered white hat and the thongless whip, suddenly perceives a timid person of milkmanish mould furtively eyeing a gaunt, wall-eyed quadruped which he (the big-chinned one) has for sale. Instantly he slips the brute's halter from the post, and, vaulting on his back, proceeds to execute several daring feats of horsemanship, not the least of which is dashing amongst the crowd, which is quite unprepared for the manoeuvre. A dozen of the horse-dealer's friends are on the alert and strenuously exert themselves to bring out the "points" of the animal for the milkman's inspection; they shriek, they make hideous whistlings on their fingers, they clap their hands, they take off their hats and drum frantically on the inside with the butt-ends of their whips; and, when the intended purchaser is supposed to have arrived at a proper appreciation of the animal's valuable qualities, his rider dismounts as abruptly as he mounted, and, leading the panting steed up to the milkman, ejaculates, "Four pun' ten !" Should the milkman buy, you cannot miss the fact. " Hoi, hoi! sold again! sold again !" is roared by the partisans of the wall-eyed one's late owner, who immediately crowd around him to receive the reward of their meritorious exertions.