Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   AS a promoter of brotherly love and kindly regard, and general jolly good-fellowship, there is nothing like water. The poet who penned that sweet and universally accepted line, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin," no doubt had water in his eye as he wrote. By " nature," he meant the aqueous element. It may be objected that Shakspeare claims the homage of the "whole world" for his panacea, and that at this point the water theory breaks down, inasmuch as regards a large proportion of the world's inhabitants there exists such a horror of the "nature" in question that were they not only "touched" with it, but drenched with it-soused in it-scrubbed with it till they were nearly clean and totally wretched, they would exhibit towards the operators no more goodwill than before; probably less, indeed; but the objectors might be met by the suggestion, that the sentiment was penned for Britons-for the inhabitants of the "world" in which the poet lived, and with whose hearts' desires he was so familiar. Anyhow, if this is not a true rendering of the poet's meaning, it well might be. Blood even is not so potent as water. It maybe "thicker," but, as a cement for broken brotherhood, is not for a moment to be compared with simple aqua; for while blood is a stickler for caste and degree, and so prompt to spill (alack for the empty pitcher !) that the common herd may view and judge of its quality, water not more infallibly finds its own level than it levels such of mankind as trust themselves to its jurisdiction. It may be proved in a dozen cases, great and small. In the case of the sea, for instance. You have but to touch the hem of its garment, even the faggest hem, such as the beach at Brighton or Hastings, and you are straight translated from your former self as completely as though you had grasped the tail of an electric eel. You discover that it is all a mistake about Britannia ruling the waves; it is the waves that rule Britannia. Your birthright of freedom-of freedom to dress as you please, eat what you please, and go where you please-no longer avails you. Born in the interior, the sea knows you not, but, having entered her dominions, you must do as the rest of the sea subjects. There is no seat for pomp by the side of the sea, and vanity dare not stretch its wings beyond the drawing-room windows of the lodging-houses. No matter the terms for which you enlist in the service of the sea, you must serve beneath her banner faithfully. It is a brown banner, broad and ample, but as plainly brown as a Quaker's coat. Its shadow clothes you. It stirs the air and imparts to it the balminess and fragrance which the cinnamon stick imparts to the bowl of healing cordial, and as you quaff it you are comforted. There is nothing on earth so nice. Every one you meet says so, from their eyes, at least, some being new to it, and twinklingly intoxicated, eager as trouts on a rainy day, and rapturous as early sweethearts; others grown used to it, hummingly contented as honey-bees, and beaming with brown beneficence to the very roots of their hair.
   You are all alike, all brownly cheerful and sedately happy; all with warm hearts and none with cold shoulders. "But," says the reader, "it is possible to have too much of the brown banner; there are times-times of dead calm, when it doesn't stir the air in the least, but hangs dull and wooden as its own staff." Dead calm, indeed! Sleep is dead calm; so is snow covering the wheatfield; so is sunset, and a hundred other things, which go to make the ever new to-morrow. Dull! Eve, advised of a worldly sensation from which she was debarred, found the Garden of Eden dull. There came a season, however, when she would have mightily rejoiced to have got back again, as you, my friend, will rejoice to get back to the humdrum brown banner, come the sultry autumn time. On the sea, even more than by the side of it, is the influence of the Leveller felt. On land there are grades of sickness; there is "rich man's" gout and "poor man's" gout; and often, for want of a guinea, a life is hampered by a heartload of pain; but sickness born of the sea is of but one quality-between the man in clouted boots prostrate in the steerage, to the state cabin inhabitant burying his unhappy nose in the softness of the dainty couch cushion, there is at most but the difference of a twopenny pannikin.
   A great ship setting out to sea reckons, say, five hundred lives aboard, the cabin-boy counting one and the commander one-not one and a quarter; no, nor a sixteenth; though, come to share the prize-money, he is lumping weight against any twenty men in the ship. He is great, and his greatness continues by grace of the quiet sea till there is an end to the voyage; but should the sea awake, and, donning its foamy crown, take the command out of the commander's hands, then blue serge is on a par with scarlet and gold lace; and no wave of the great sea's army will be so polite as it sweeps the troubled deck as to avoid scarlet and gold that it may chase blue serge to death. Should the wrecked ship go down, than the dead level to which the cabin-boy, and the commander, and Pompey the cook will fall, it is impossible to imagine anything deader.
   From the Atlantic to the Thames, from H.M.S. Vengeance, Commander Ajax, to Citizen B, Captain W. Blinker, and we are aboard the Chelsea boat. Citizen B starts from London Bridge, and calls at all the piers up the river. It has called at Temple Pier and taken up the clerkly young gentleman with the blue bag and the third volume of the last sensation novel. I wonder who the heroine is? Is it a she wolf in shape of a countess, according to the prevailing fashion, or is she a garret-angel-a human sewing-machine-stitching herself into an early grave at the rate of threepence-halfpenny a day ? If so, he cannot do better than put aside his stupid book and look about him. There, in the flesh, sits the heroine whom he so passionately adores in printer's type. True, she has not yet arrived at that interesting stage when, "by the hectic roses on her cheek and the light of brighter worlds in her eye, insidious disease marks her for its own," so graphically described at page 430; but she is none the less eligible to become his heart's idol on that account. Just speak to her, and you'll find with what a sweet, bewitching voice she will answer; or, if you are bashful, as is likely, or cautious-which, being in the " legal" line, is still more likely-just for a moment cast your eyes from your book-pretending to read all the time-and observe with what tenderness she contemplates that penny bunch of violets in the flower-girl's basket. Think of the bliss, when you had married her, and made her happy, and given her, instead of violets to smell, roses to wear all the year round; think of the pleasure of having such a pair of eyes to lovingly greet you when you returned at eve from your musty office in Pump Court; think of- But the young fellow thinks of nothing of the kind. He gets out at Westminster, and leaves the little needlewoman to cross over to Lambeth -which completes her penny ride-anxiously debating within her own mind whether she shall buy the violets and walk back to London Bridge. Confound that young fellow's sensation novel! But for that, the genius of jolly good-fellowship, as represented by the river, might have induced him to have treated the poor little maid to a ride all the way to Kew and bought her a bunch of flowers into the bargain.
   But the genius in question has prevailed with every other soul on board Citizen B. The coalheaver is engaged in friendly discourse with one who but a quarter of an hour ago was a stranger. The young gentleman with the puppy-dog hair and the young lady with the blue parasol are discussing the dimensions of the "platform" at Cremorne, whither they are bound. Even the man at the wheel looks as though he was quite ready to set the laws of his country at defiance, and to "speak" to any one bold enough to begin a conversation. There remains but the foreigner and the happy carpenter. Ignorance of the language of those about him is the sole and simple reason why the French gentleman is companionless; but observe how eloquent are his spectacles! But the happy carpenter, he, too, is companionless. Is he ! He ! he ! that's all you know about it! His wife is down-stairs in the cabin. They are going to Kew. It ain't often he loses half a day, but when he does he likes to enjoy himself. Staying down in that stuffy cabin isn't enjoyment. Stay ! " What do you say, Tomkins ? (Tomkins is at this end of the boat; his wife is down in the stuffy cabin along with the happy carpenter's wife). Fresh breeze up here, my boy; blow some of the sawdust out of a fellow. Jerooslem, Tomkins! there's a pair of balmorals !"