Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 12 - City Spectres

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IN the Royal Exchange there always were, and are, and will be, rows of gaunt men, with haggard countenances, and in seedy habiliments, who sit on the benches ranged against the [-136-] walls of the arcades; sit, silently, immoveably, with a stem and ghostly patience, from morn till dusk. These shabby sedentaries have long haunted me. I call them City Spectres. I have passed through Change as early as nine o'clock in the morning, and found the Ghosts there; I have passed through it just as it was about to close, and found them there still - silent, unalterable in their immobility; speechless in the midst of the gabble and turmoil, the commercial howls, and speculative shrieks of high Change. I have gone away from England, and, coming back again, have found the same Ghosts on the same benches. They were on the Old Exchange; they were on the 'Burse' in Sir Thomas Gresham's time, I have no doubt; and when the 'coming man' - the Anglo-New-Zealander of Thomas Babington Macaulay - arrives to take his promised view of the ruins of St. Paul's, he will have to place in the foreground of his picture, sitting on crumbling benches, in a ruined Exchange, over-against a ruined Bank, the City Spectres, unchangeable and unchanged.
    What do they do on Sundays and holidays, and after Change hours? What did they do when the Exchange was burnt down, and the merchants congregated first at the Old South Sea House, and then in the courtyard of the Excise Office, in Broad Street? Are they the same men, or their brothers, or their cousins, who sit for hours on the benches in St. James's Park, staring with glazed, unmeaning eyes at the big Life-Guardsmen and the little children? Are they the same men who purchase half a pint of porter, usurp the best seat (upon the tub, and out of the way of the swing-door) before the bar, to the secret rage of the publican? Are they connected with the British Museum spectres - the literary ghosts - who pass the major part of the day in the Reading-room, not reading - for their eyes always seem to me to be fixed on the same spot, in the same page of the same volume, of the Pandects of Justinian - but snuffing, with a grimly affectionate relish, the morocco leather-laden atmosphere, and silently hugging the comfortable chairs and tables, luxuriating in the literary hospitality of Britain - the feast of paper-knives and eleemosynary quill-pens, the flow of well-filled and gratuitous leaden inkstands?
    Yet these City Spectres must live in their spectral fashion. They must eat. They must drink, even; for I have observed that not a few of them have noses of a comfortable degree of redness. Who supplies them with food and rai-[-137-]ment? Who boards and lodges them? Who washes them? - no; that last interrogation is certainly irrelevant; for the City Ghosts, both as regards their persons and their linen, appear to be able to do without washing altogether.
    I used to ask myself, and I still do ask myself, these questions about the City Spectres with distressing pertinacity ; I form all sorts of worrying theories concerning them. By dint, however, of considerable observation, of unflagging industry in putting 'this and that together,' and, perhaps, of a little stretching of possibilities into probabilities, and probabilities into certainties, I have managed to cover the dry bones of the Spectres of the Royal Exchange with a little commercial flesh and blood. I have found local habitations and names for them. I assume avocations which occupy them even as they sit in idle ghostliness on the benches. I discover incomes which cover their meagre limbs with mildewed raiment; which find some work for their lantern jaws in the way of mastication; and which give a transient rubicundity to their sometimes livid noses. I have found out - or at least think I have found out - who the City Ghosts are how and where they live; what they were before they were ghosts; and how they came to bench-occupying and to ghosthood.
    Take that tall Ghost who sits in the portion of the arcade called the Wallachio-Moldavian walk, on the bench between the advertisements setting forth the approaching departure of the 'Grand Turk, A. 1, and copper-bottomed for Odessa,' and the pictorial chromo-lithographic placard, eulogising, in so disinterested a manner, the virtues of Mr. Alesheeh's magic strop. See him once, and forget him if you can. His countenance is woebegone: his hat is battered in the crown, torn in the brim, worn away in the forepart, by constant pulling off; napless long since; but rendered factitiously lustrous by the matutinal application of a wet brush; his satin stock - black once, brown now - fastened at the back with a vicious wrench and a rusty buckle: his sorry body-coat (Spectres never wear frock-coats), tesselated on the collar and elbows with cracked grease-spots; torn at the pockets with continuous thrusting-in of papers; dotted white with the tombstones of dead buttons: his shrinking, withered, shame-faced trousers: his boots (not Bluchers, but nearly always Wellingtons) cracked at the sides and gone at the heel, the connection still preserved by the aid of a red-hot poker and gutta percha. I [-138-] know all about that Ghost, He passed to the world of spectres in 1825. He must have been that head clerk in the great banking firm of Sir John Jebber, Jefferson, and Co., which speculated somewhat too greedily in the Patent Washing, Starching, Mangling, and Ironing Company; in the Amalgamated Dusthole, Breeze Exportation, and Cinder Consumption Company; in the Royal Rat, Cat, and Rabbit Fur Company (Incorporated by Royal Charter); in the Imperial Equitable Spontaneous Combustion Association for Instantaneous Illumination (in connection with the Northern Lights Office); in the Anglico-Franco-Mexico Mining Company for the Rapid Diffusion of Quicksilver all over the World; in Baratarian (deferred) Bonds. When the panic of '25 came, and there was a rush on Jobber's bank, and a line of carriages extended from Lombard Street to Ludgate Hill (for most of the aristocracy banked at Jobber's), it was the Spectre who enacted the bold stroke of policy, of having heavy coalwaggons driven artfully into the line of vehicles between Birchin Lane and Nicholas Lane; and of raising an alarm of 'mad dog' at the corner of Pope's Head Alley, whereby the stream of customers, rabid to draw out their deposits, was arrested for hours. Twas he who suggested to the firm the artful contrivance (first practised by a larger establishment) of paying heavy cheques in sixpences; but all, alas! in vain. The firm had to be removed from Lombard Street to the Bankruptcy Court, in Basinghall Street. Jobber went into a lunatic asylum; the Miss Jobbers went out (poor things!) as governesses; and Jefferson, with the Co. emigrated - some people said with the cash-box - to the land of freedom; where he became principal director of that famous banking company, the five-dollar notes of which were subsequently in such astonishing demand as shin plasters and pipe-lights. Their head clerk went, straightway, into the Ghost line of business, and has never given it up. The other clerks found easily and speedily berths in other establishments; but, malicious people said that the Ghost-clerk knew more about that bundle of bank notes, which was so unaccountably missing, than he chose to aver. He did not give satisfactory information, either, about the shares in several of the companies we have enumerated, and no one would employ him; so he became an accountant, with no accounts to keep; and an agent, with no agencies. Then he was secretary to that short-lived association, 'The Joint-Stock Pin-Collecting Com-[-139-]pany.' Then he got into trouble about the subscription for the survivors of the 'Tabitha Jane,' Mauley, master; his old detractors, with unabated malice, declaring that there never was a 'Tabitha Jane,' nor a Mauley, master. He sells corn and coal on commission now - not at first-hand; but for those who are themselves commission agents. He is a 'broker's man in possession,' when he can get a job. He does a bit of law writing, a bit of penny-a-lining, a bit of process-serving ;-an infinity of those small offices known as 'odd jobs.' He picks up a sorry crust by these means, and is to be heard of at the bar of the Black Lion. He is sober; but, upon compulsion, I am afraid. If you give him much beer, he weeps, and tells you of his bygone horse and gig; of his box at Shooter's Hill; of his daughter Emily, who had the best of boarding-school educations (and married Clegg, of the Great Detector Insurance Office), and who won't speak to her poor old father, now, sir: of his other daughter, Jenny, who is kind to him; although she is mated with a dissolute printer, whose relations are continually buying him new founts of type, which he is as continually mortgaging for spirits and tobacco. Poor old Ghost! Poor old broken-down, spirit-worn hack! When great houses come toppling down, how many slender balustrades and tottering posts are crushed along with the massive pillars!
    Here is another Spectre of my acquaintance, who has been a ruined man any time these twenty years; but is a very joyous and hilarious Ghost, notwithstanding. Though utterly undone, he sits cheerfully down all day on his accustomed bench in the Bengalee walk, beating the devil's tattoo with mirthful despair on the Exchange flags. Bless you, he has thriven on ruin. He lives on it now. Burnt out four times - broken both legs - bed-ridden wife - child scalded to death - execution on his poor 'sticks,' at this very moment. He is, you will please observe, no begging-letter writer; he would scorn the act. You can come round to his place' now, if you like, and judge of his total wreck for yourself; here is the letter of Alderman Fubson, condoling with him; and, could you lend him half a crown?
    Turn round another arcade into the Austro-Sclavonian walk, and sympathise with this melancholy Spectre in the hat pulled over his brows, and the shabby cloak with the mangy fur collar. No clerk; cashier, or stock-broker's assistant has he been; but, in times gone by, a prosperous merchant, [-140-] one who walked on Change, rattling his watch-chain; who quoted prices with a commanding, strident voice; who awed the waiters at Garraway's, at the Cock, in Threadneedle Street, at the New England, and at the Anti-Gallican; whose name was down in every charity and on every committee; who carried a gold snuff-box in his hand, and his gloves and silk handkerchief together with his bank-book, in his hat. He failed; and his brother allows him a small stipend. His hat is now crammed with the records of defunct transactions; memoranda of mythical bargains; bills of lading referring to phantom ships that never were loaded; old blank bills of exchange, with the name of his firm (when it had a name) curiously flourished thereon in copper-plate; his former seal of office; a greasy cheque-book, with nothing but tallies telling of sums long since drawn from his banker's; bits of sealing-wax; his bankrupt certificate; his testimonials of integrity from his brother merchants. These have an abiding place in his pockets. He has a decayed pocket-book, too, bulging out with prospectuses of dead companies full of sound and flourish, signifying nothing. He sits alone, and aloof from his brother Ghosts; not indulging even in the silent freemasonry of these commercial phantoms. The greatest favour you could do him, would be to send him to get a cheque cashed for you (he is perfectly honest), or to leave a bill for acceptance. The trembling eagerness with which he would present the magic document, and answer the bland inquiry of the cashier as to 'how he would have it;' the delirious semblance of business he would put into the mere act of dropping 'this first of exchange' into the box appointed to receive it, would be quite affecting. When he is not sitting on Change, I can picture him wandering furtively about Lombard Street, peering anxiously through the half-opened doors when customers go in and out; or sauntering along Cheapside; glancing with melancholy looks at the forms of bills of lading, charter-parties, and policies of insurance, displayed in the windows of the stationers' shops; scrutinising the strong-backed ledgers, day-books, and journals, in their brave binding of vellum and red, thinking meanwhile - miserable man - that their glories are no longer for him; that he hath done with ink, black, red, and blue; that 'cash-debtor-contra-creditor,' have no longer music for his ears. In the evening, at the shabby coffee-house where he takes his meal, nought strikes him in yesterday's 'Advertiser,' [-141-] save the list of bankrupts. In bed he is haunted - ghost as he is - by the ghosts of buried hopes, by tipstaffs, by irate Commissioners, and by fiats to which he has neglected to surrender.
    As the late Mr. Rothschild was called the 'Pillar of the Exchange,' so seemeth this other old phantom. He has been an Exchange Spectre since ever there were Exchanges or Ghosts at all. He puzzles me. I can weave histories, find genealogies, dovetail circumstances for all the other mysterious Bourse-haunters; but this silver-haired apparition is a mystery inscrutable. Centuries of commercial ghostliness seem hovering in the innumerable furrows of his parchment face, in the multitudinous straggling locks of his dull, lustreless white hair. Some garment he has on - whether a coat, a cloak, or a gaberdine, I will not be bold enough to say - which, reaching from his neck to his heels, allows you to see nothing but his furrowed face, and lean, long hands clasped before him. How long has he haunted the city of London? Did he linger in Paul's Walk, or in the Roundhouse of the Temple Church in Charles's days, when business, intrigue, and devotion were so curiously mingled in Christian temples; when mountebanks vended their wares by clustered pillars, and dirty-surpliced choristers pursued jingling cavaliers for 'spur-money?' Was he a City Ghost when ladies in sacks, and, gallants in cut velvet and embroidery, came to gamble South Sea shares in Change Alley? Did he haunt Change when merchants appeared thereon, who had had their ears cut off by the Spaniards in Honduras: when bargains were made for cash in negro flesh? Does he remember Lord Mayor Beckford, Fauntleroy, and Rowland Stevenson? Can he have been the broker for the Poyais Loan? I should not be surprised to hear that his recollection extended to Alderman Richard Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London; or to that topping wine-merchant who 'in London did well,' and 'who had but one daughter, he loved very well.'
    City Spectres, like the rest of their order, are, for the most part, silent men. Their main object seems to be to impress the spectator, by the inert force of taciturnity, with an idea of the weighty business they have on hand. A few, however, are talkative; some, as I know to my sorrow, are garrulous. Woe be unto you if you have ever been in the company of, or have the slightest acquaintance with, the talkative Ghost! Although, to say the truth, when he wants to talk, he will talk, [-142-] and is not even solicitous of an introduction: he thinks he knows you; or he knew your father, or he knows your wife's second cousin, or he knows somebody very like you; and, upon the strength of that knowledge, he takes you quietly, but firmly, by the button - he holds you in his 'skinny hand' as tightly as if you were the wedding guest and he the Ancient Mariner; and, for all that you beat your breast, you cannot choose but hear. You listen like a three-years' child, while this ancient bore speaks on, discoursing of his grievances; of his losses; of the 'parties' he knows, or has known; of his cousin, who, - would you believe it, my dear sir ? - drives into the City every morning in a carriage and pair, with a powdered footman in the rumble. All this, he speaks in a low and earnest, though distressingly rambling, tone; and his brother Ghosts in the distance - as if believing he had really business to transact with you - clutch their umbrellas, and bend their dull eyes on both of you with looks of jealous curiosity.
    That substantial Spectre, who holds me in spirit-wearying conversation; who speaks in a low, hoarse, secret kind of voice, with long and bitter words, was an attorney - a City attorney - in large practice: and, for some alleged malpractices, was struck off the Rolls. He has been a Spectre and a bore ever since. You must hear his case; you must hear the scandalous, the unheard-of manner in which he has been treated. Read his statement to the public, which the newspapers would not insert; read his letter to Mr. Justice Bullwiggle, which that learned functionary never answered; read his memorial to Lord Viscount Fortyshins, which was answered, and that was all. Only wait till he has the means to publish a pamphlet on his case. Meanwhile, read his notes thereupon. Never mind your appointment at three: what's that to justice?
    Even as he speaks, a slowly gibbering army of Ghosts who have grievances start before you; Ghosts with inventions which they can't afford to patent, and which unscrupulous capitalists have pirated; Ghosts who can't get the Prime Minister to listen to their propositions for draining Ireland in three weeks, or for swamping the National Debt in a day; Ghosts against whose plans of national defence the War Office door has been more than once rudely shut; Spectres who, like Dogberry, have had losses; Ghosts who when in the flesh (but they never had much of that) were shrunk and attenuated, with interminable stories of fraudulent partners; [-143-] Ghosts who have long been the victims of fiendish official persecutions: lastly, and in particular, that never-to-be- forgotten and always-to-be-avoided Ghost, who has had, a Chancery suit on and off for an incalculable number of years; who has just been with his lawyers, and is going to file a bill to-morrow. Alas, poor Ghost! 'Be still, old mole; there is no hope for thee!'
    There is a genealogical Ghost, eyeing me with devouring looks, that bode no conversational good. He only wants one baptismal certificate to prove that he is somebody's great-great-grandson, and to come into twenty thousand a year. Let him but earn, beg, or borrow a crown, and forthwith in the Times' comes out an advertisement, 'to parish clerks and others.'-There is a sporting Ghost, with a phantom betting-book, who tells you, in a sepulchral voice, of information' about 'Job Pastern's lot;' and that he can give you a 'tip' for safe odds on such and such an 'event.'- A Ghost there is, too, in mustachoes, who is called, on the strength of those appendages, 'Captain,' and is supposed to have been embodied in some sort of legion in Spain, at some time or another.
    Talkative or taciturn, however, here these poor spectres sit or loiter during the day, retiring into dark corners when genuine business begins, and the merchants and brokers come on Change; always, and without intermission, seeming to be here, yet prowling by some curious quality of body or spirit in other City haunts; - in Garraway's, and in the Auction Mart; in small civic coffee-houses and taverns; in the police-courts of the Mansion House; in Guildhall and the Custom House.
    In Bartholomew Lane wander another race of perturbed spirits, akin in appearance and mysterious demeanour to the Exchange Spectres; yet of a somewhat more practical and corporeal order. These are the 'lame ducks;' men who have once been stock-brokers-wealthy 'bulls,' purse-proud 'bears;' but who, unable to meet certain financial liabilities on a certain settling day, have been compelled to retire - who have 'waddled,' as is the slang of Cambists - from the parliament of money-brokers. Yet do they linger in the purlieus of the beloved Capel Court, even as the Peri waited at the gates of Paradise: yet do they drive small time bargains with very small jobbers, or traffic in equivocal securities and shares in suspicious companies. They affect the transaction [-144-] of business when they have none to transact; and, under cover of consulting the share-list of the day, or the City intelligence in a newspaper, they furtively consume Abernethy biscuits and 'Polony' sausages.
    Once, however, in about five-and-twenty years, do they cast off their slough of semi-inactivity; once even in that period do the Spectres of the Royal Exchange start forth into life and action. For, look you, once in every quarter of a century - sometimes more frequently - do the men, women, and children run stark, staring, raving, ranting mad. They have a MANIA. Now for gold-digging in American Dorados; now for South Sea fisheries; now for joint-stock companies, for doing everything for everybody; now for railways; now for life-assurance. Everybody goes crazed for shares. Lords, ladies, divines, physicians, chimney-sweeps; all howl for shares. They buy, sell, barter, borrow, beg, steal, invent, dream of shares. Bank-notes and prospectuses fly abut thick as the leaves in Vallambrosa; men are no longer mere human beings; but directors, provisional committee-men, auditors and trustees. The MANIA continues, and the SPECTRES arise. They become STAGS. Capel Court resounds with their shrill bargains; and, the spectre of a moment before stands erect, blatant, defiant, a stag of ten tynes. Away with the appointment with the man who never comes; away with the delusive commission on corn and coals; away with the phantom bill in the mythical Chancery; away with the air-drawn entail, and the twenty thousand a year! Shares, real shares, are what they hunger and thirst for. While orthodox speculators sell their shares through their brokers, and at the market price, the bold dealers - no longer Spectres, but Stags - will sell their letters of allotment for fourpence, or anything, premium (so that it be current coin) per share. They pert senate directors; they get up impromptu provisional committees in the tap-room of the Black Lion; their references are bishops, Queen's counsel, fellows of the Royal Society; their substance sham shares in sham companies. For awhile they are attired in purple and fine linen; they consume rich viands and choice wines in expensive taverns; they drive high chariots, and prance on blood-horses. For six weeks they live at the rate of ten thousand a year: they ride the whirlwind of Fortune! But after a storm comes rain; and after a mania, a panic! Then comes a run on the banking-houses; consternation darkens Capel Court; ruin is rampant [-145-] on Change. And, as I speak, the old Ghosts came creeping back to the old benches, and begin listlessly to wait for the man so punctual in his unpunctuality. The hats are more crammed with papers, the rusty pocket-books more plethorie, the pockets more loaded, the button-holding talks are resumed as earnestly and as lengthily as ever; yet the flesh and blood of Staghood have departed, and the figures crouching on Change, and growling about Capel Court, are no longer men,but City Spectres.