Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 14 - The Secrets of the Gas

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THE Gas has its secrets, and I happen to know them. The Gas has a voice, and I can hear it-a voice beyond the rushing whistle in the pipe, and the dull buzzing flare in the burner. It speaks, actively, to men and women of what is, and of what is done and suffered by night and by day; and though it often crieth like Wisdom in the streets and no man regardeth it, there are, and shall be some to listen to its experiences, hearken to its counsels, and profit by its lessons.
    I know the secrets of the gas, but not all of them. Some secrets it has, which are hidden by land, and stream, and sea - by accident, position, and authority - even from my sight, but not from my ken. The gas has its secrets in palaces, on whose trebly-piled carpets my plebeian feet can never tread. It may be burning now,* (*Temp. Bell. Taurid. Scrip.) to the heavy blow and great discouragement of bearded and sheep-skinned purveyors of tallow and lamp-oil - burning in an Ural gilt candelabrum, chastely decorated with double eagles in the den - the private cabinet, I mean - of some grim bear or autocrat, who lies not amidst bones and blood, far away with the weeds and shells at the bottom of the Inner Sea, but lies amidst protocols and diplomatic notes - unlighted fusees to the shells of destruction. That gas may be shining on minims and breves of Te Deums, fresh scored and annotated in appropriate red ink - to be sung by all orthodox believers, when the heretical fleets of the West shall have followed the Moslem three-deckers to their grave in Sinope Bay. That gas may be flickering now - who [-157-] knows? - in the lambent eyes of some tyrant as he peers greedily over the map of Europe, and settles in his own mind where in England this Off shall eat his first candle, or where in France that Owsky shall apply the knout. Permeating in pipes beneath the well-drilled feet of thousands of orthodox serfs, this same gas may be glimmering in the lamps of the Nevskoi Prospekt, and twinkling in the bureau of the Director of Secret Police as he prepares pass-tickets for Siberia, or cancels them for bribes of greasy rouble notes; it may be glowering at the Moscow railway station, as thousands of human hundred-weight of great-coated food for powder, leave by late or early trains for the frontier; it may be illumining the scared and haggard face of the incendiary when, on the map he is scanning, the names of the countries he lusts to seize, turn to letters of blood and dust, and tell him (as the handwriting told Belshazzar) that the Medes and Persians are at his gate, and that his kingdom is given to another. I say, this gas, with the glowing charcoal in the stove, and the ceremonial wax candles on the malachite mantelpiece, may be the only spectator of the rage in his eyes, and the despair in his heart and the madness in his brain. Though, perhaps, he burns no gas in his private cabinet after all, and adheres to the same orthodox tallow fat and train oil, by the light of which Peter plied his adze, Catherine plundered Poland, Paul was strangled, and Alexander was poisoned!
    The gas may have its secrets unknown to me (now that English engineering has been favoured with the high privilege of illumining the Eternal City), in the strong casemates of the Castle of St. Angelo. Yes, may derive deeper shadows from it; and it may light up tawny parchments with heavy seals, which attest that the Holy Office is yet a little more than a name. There is gas in Venice; every tourist has had. his passport examined by its light; and who shall say that the gas has not its secrets in the Palace of the Doges; that it burns not in gloomy corridor, and on stone winding staircase, lighting some imperial gaoler in his tour of inspection; or that by its unpitying light some wretched prisoner who has dared to violate the imperio-regal Lombardo-Venetian edicts by thinking, or speaking, or writing, in the manner of one who walks on two legs instead of four, is not brought forth to have some state secret (which he knows nothing of) extorted from him by the imperial and royal stick. Royal Neapolitan generosity may yet permit some streaks of prison gas to penetrate [-158-] into the Sicilian dens where gentlemen are chained to felons, to show them the brightness of their fetters, and the filthiness of the floor, and the shadow of the sentry's bayonet through the heavy bars outside. Mighty secrets, dread secrets, dead secrets, may the gas have, abroad and at home. Strange stories could the dark lantern of old have told - the lantern by the light of which Fawkes laid his train, and D'Enghien was led into the ditch of Vincennes to be shot, and Pichegru was murdered, anti Fletcher Christian whispered with John Adams; but the light of the lantern pales before the mystery of the gas. The gas saw the blood that was brought from the shambles and smeared over the pavement of the Paris Boulevards - the blood on which, next day, the dynasty of Orleans stumbled and came headlong down to ruin and death. The gas shone broadly, brightly, in hall and corridor and antechamber of the Elysee on the eve of the second of December. It penetrated into an inner chamber where one silent man sat, his feet on the fender, smoking a cigar, who to fears and questions, and remonstrances, and doubts, and counsels, had but this one answer, 'Qu'on exécute mes ordres!' The same gas saw those orders obeyed as the stealthy hackney-coaches went about with the stealthier Commissaries of Police, to kidnap the representatives and generals. I remember passing the Palace of the Elysées on the night of the third of December, and seeing the courtyard and windows of this palace of successful power, one blaze of gas-blazing on the green liveries of the lacqueys, and the uniforms of the aides-de-camp, and the hands and faces of the soldiers hardly yet cleansed from blood and gunpowder. What secrets that gas of the Rue St. Honors - the same starting from the pert little Cupids quivering in the bonnet-shop opposite - must have been a trusty listener to, within those three December nights!
    If any man doubt the secrets of the gas, not only abroad but at home - not only supposititious and probable but actual - let him remember that recent miserable inquiry into the cruelties and tyrannies of some of our vaunted philanthropy-purified English gaols. Let him remember among the list of wretches tied to walls, and strapped to railings, and whipped, and half throttled with collars, let him remember those who - as the official memorandum ran - were to be 'deprived of their bed and gas.' Bless you, the gas heard all these things while the good Birmingham people (may there never be worse people in England!) slept soundly. The gas knew how [-159-] many turns of the crank prisoner No. 50 was short; of how many meals 51 had been mulcted; how many lashes epileptic 52 was to receive; how often 54 was to be deprived, of him bed and gas!
    As I walk about the streets by night, endless and always suggestive intercommunings take place between me and the trusty, silent, ever-watchful gas, whose secrets I know. In broad long streets where the vista of lamps stretches far far away into almost endless perspective; in courts and alleys, dark by day but lighted up at night by this incorruptible tell-tale; on the bridges; in the deserted parks; on wharfs and quays; in dreary suburban roads; in the halls of public buildings; in the windows of late-hour-keeping houses and offices, there is my gas - bright, silent, and secret. Gas to teach me; gas to counsel me; gas to guide my footsteps, not over London flags, but through the crooked ways of unseen life and death, of the doings of the great Unknown, of the cries of the great Unheard. He who will bend himself to listen to, and avail himself, of these crets of the gas, may walk through London streets proud in the consciousness of being an Inspector - in  the great police force of philosophy - and of carrying a perpetual bull's-eye in his belt. Like his municipal brother, he may perambulate the one-half world, while
        'Nature seems dark, and wicked dreams abuse
        The curtained sleep.'
    Not a bolt or bar, not a lock or fastening, not a houseless night-wanderer, not a homeless dog, shall escape that searching ray of light which the gas shall lend him, to see and to know.
    The gas on the river. Has it no secrets to tell there? On bridge after bridge, the long rows of lamps mirror themselves in the dark, still pool of the silent highway, and penetrate like arrows into the bosom secrets of the Thames. The gas knows of the ancient logs of timber, It - and Wisdom - only know how many centuries old, strong and seasoned in their gray rottenness, the logs which the bargemen and lightermen of Erith and Greenhithe bring home for fuel, or for garden-fences, and which, for aught we know, may have been in dead, ages remnants of Danish ships, of Roman galleys, of the primitive skiffs of the old Britons, maybe. Down beneath, where the glittering arrow of the gas points, there may be shields, and arrows, and collars of barbaric gold. There may be the [-160-] drinking-cup of Vortigern, the crown of Canute, the golden bracelets that Alfred hung up on the highways, the rings of Roman knights, and the swords of the Consuls, the amulets of the Druids, and the jewels of the Saxon kings. The gas knows of shoals which the cunningest harbour-masters, the best conservators of the river, and the mightiest hydrographers, cannot point out. The gas knows the weak points of the tunnel; and where the waters broke in years ago, and where they may break in again. Down where the gas points, may be the bones of men and women drowned before our great grandsires were born. There, may be Henry the Fourth, flung coffin and all from the boat in which his remains were being conveyed for sepulture. There, may be sailors slain in sudden broils on board ship, and flung into the river. There, may be bodies of men murdered by river pirates, plundered by longshore-men and lighthouse-men, and thrown from boats with heavy weights tied to them, into the pit where the water and the gas tell no tales. There, may be mangled corpses brought by assassins on horseback, as Caesar Borgia brought us brother the Duke of Gandia, to the Tiber, and thrown into the dull plashing stream, with stones in their cloaks to make them sink. There, may be dead men, drowned in stepping from one ship to another, or who have slipped off planks, drunk, or fallen from mast-heads, or who have leaped into the river to escape press-gangs, or robbers, or river policemen. There, may be 'run' cargoes of contraband goods, tobacco, fiery spirits, rich silk or delicate lace; there, may be bales of goods plundered by fresh-water thieves from foreign ships; and sunk by bullets and iron weights until the time shall serve for fishing them up again. There, may be the suicide of yesterday; the wayward boy, once the pride and hope of the family; the girl, once loved and prized; the ruined spendthrift; the hopeless bankrupt; the desperate man, driven by an intolerable misery and utter hunger and nakedness, to cast himself into these jaws of death as into a bed of slumber and soft repose. Oh you gas upon the bridges! How many times have the garments of forlorn women gleamed in your unpitying light as they flung themselves from the high parapet into the abyss beneath. Oh you gas! how many sighs and prayers and words of despairing farewell! There was a shriek, a plunge, a plash, the vertical reflection of the gas was for a moment broken into zigzag sparkles by a body combating with the remorseless river. Then, the [-161-] waters of death went over the head of mortality, and all was still, and all was over. O Gas! Where are they now? The hope of the family, the focus of tender love, and anxious care, and fond aspirations. The advertisements which entreat them to return are yet in the 'Times;' the bills which describe their appearance are yet on the walls; the watchers at home are waiting; the river men are out with drags; but the water holds them fast, and the gas shines secretly above them, and they shall no more appear in the comeliness of life and love. If we ever hear of these, O Gas! it will be, at best, at the grim dead-house by the waterside, and their only epitaph will be the awful placard on the wall of the Police Station, 'Dead body found.'
    Fast does the gas keep the secrets of the river. They cannot escape. The janitor gas-lamps guard either side. They watch over long lines of docks, and see that no light, save their own, appear about gaunt-masted ships, and strong bricken warehouses where the old wines ooze into toping casks, and muddle them with vinous fumes: where the sawdust is purpled with emptied glasses; where the spiral threads which the coopers' gimlet has made, dance; where the great wreaths of cobwebs hang lazily from the roof as if quite gone in liquor and overcome with the tasting-orders of years; where floors A and 13, and cellarages C and D, are pungent with pepper and tobacco, and fragrant with coffee and spices, and sickly with oranges and grapes, and sticky with figs and muscovado and molasses, and aromatic with crisp teas and chicory and pemmican, and ammoniacally nauseous with horns and hoofs and untanned skins and guano, and oleaginous with tallow and palm-oil, and hive-smelling with bees'-wax, and drowsy and vapid with huge chests, of opium, packed by Turkish rayahs or Hindoo ryots, and in its black flabby cakes concentrating Heaven knows how much madness, and misery, and death, strangely mingled with soothing relief from pain and with sparkling gaiety. The gas hems in the stealthy dockyard watchman going his rounds, the beetle-browed convict in the dismantled grated-ported hulks, the swift galleys of the Thames Police, the moaning sufferers in the Dreadnought hospital-ship; the gas throws into skeleton relief the ribs and timbers of half-demolished ships, the stripped and spectral hulks of condemned and broken-up vessels rotting in the mud. The gas twinkles en the trellised panes of the Gothic windows in the great Parliament Houses, and listens slily to the late debates. The gas [-162-] feebly illumines the blackened coal-barges and lighters, full of bricks and huge paving-stones. It shines at the end of the landing stages, and at the feet of the slimy river stairs, upon moored wherries and river steam-boats so bustling and busy by day, so hushed and quiet by night. The gas gleams on the time-worn bastions of the Tower; the gas knows the secrets of the honeycombed old cannon better than do their tompions; the gas knows the password and the countersign; the gas is aware of the slow-pacing sentinel; the gas mirrors itself in the darkling stream which gurgles about the heavy timber barricades, with which the better feeling of the age has blocked up the Traitor's gate. The gas is too young to relate to you the secrets of the Tower in days gone by. It lighted not Elizabeth climbing the slimy stairs, and sitting down defiant of her gaolers, at the top; it has no knowledge of Jane Grey creeping to her doom; it has not seen the furtive wherries with the warders and halberdiers in the stern, and the prisoners in the midst, rowing towards the gate of death. It has not seen the courtly mien of Surrey; the gallant grey hairs, the toil and travel and trouble furrowed, but yet handsome face of Raleigh; the fierce white locks of the Countess of Pembroke; the sneers and sarcasms and wicked wrinkles of Simon Lord Lovat; the blue eyes and gentle smile of Derwentwater; the stern heroism of Charles Radcliffe; the crazy fanaticism of George Gordon; the Spa Fields and Cato Street enthusiasm of the poor feeble traitor Thistlewood. The Tower gas knows not where the posts of the scaffold stood, or how many stones have been bedewed with blood. It cannot point out the spot where the ghost of Ann Bullen was said to walk. It lighted not to their work Dighton and Forrest creeping to murder the princes. It shone not on the brazen countenance of the King-honoured Blood, as, arrayed in sham canonicals, he compassed the plunder of the crown. The gas knows not where Jane saw the headless body of her husband, or how much good, and gentle, and pious, as well as guilty and ambitious, dust moulders beneath the chancel flags of the little church of Saint Peter and Vincula. Yet has the Tower gas seen the hideous range of brick armouries built by the third William, with their tens of thousands of swords and bayonets and muniments of war, blazing up into one grand conflagration, and driving it, potent gas as it is, into obscurity for a time. It has seen the slow but absorbing footstep of the blessed by-gone years of peace dismantle ramparts and brick up portcullises, and rust the mouths [-163-] of the howling dogs of war and fill up the mouth. Its mission is more peaceful now. It glistens on the gold and crimson of the warders as the ceremony of delivering the Queen's keys is nightly performed. It winks at the spruce young Guardsmen officers as they dash up to the gates in Hansom cabs just before shutting-up time, or saunter jauntily to mess. It lights up the clean pots and glasses in the stone kitchen, and glows upon the rubicund countenances of thirsty grenadiers. It has an eye - a silent, watchful eye - upon a certain strong room where there is a great cage, and in that cage scintillating the precious stones of the Imperial Crown of England, the gold and silver and jewels of the sceptre, the orb, the ampulla, the great saltcellar, and all the stately regalia. The gas is a guardian of all these, and defies the Colonel Bloods of '59. (Oh degenerate '59, where are the good old Bloods, and where the good old monarchs who were so fond of them?) An impartial gas, it shines as brightly on the grenadier's quart-pot as on the queenly crown. A convivial gas, it blazes cheerfully in the mess room of the Beauchamp Tower. A secretive gas, it knows that beneath the curtains and flags of that same mess-room there are dark words and inscriptions cut into the aged wall - the records of agony and hopeless captivity, anagrams of pain, emblems of sorrow and hopes fled and youth and joy departed.
    So, from where the town begins to where it ends; from the twinkling lights of Putney and Kew, to the marshy flats below Deptford; the gas shines through the still night, and is the repository of secrets known to few, but which all who choose to make the gas their friend, may read, to the softening of their hearts, perhaps, even as they run.