Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 15 - Perfidious Patmos

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THE natural place of refuge for a hunted man is an island. None but those who have known what it is to be pursued from place to place, who have been aware of such and such blood-hounds upon their track, of such and such scouts waiting at given paints to lead them down to death or captivity, can form an idea of the feeling of security engendered by the knowledge that there is between them and their enemies [-164-] a bulwark far more impregnable than any gabion, glacis, bastion, or counterscarp, that Vauban ever dreamed of, in the shape of a ring of blue water. So islands have been, in all ages and circumstances, the chosen places of refuge to men who could find no rest elsewhere for the soles of their feet. Patinas was the elected asylum of St. John the Apostle. In Malta, the last Christian knights of Palestine, driven from their first island refuge - Rhodes - found a haven of safety, and founded a city of strength against the infidels. The expiring embers of the Druidical priesthood smouldered away in the impenetrable groves of the island of Anglesey. The isles of Greece were the eyries of poetry, and art, and liberty, when the mainland groaned beneath the despotism of the thirty tyrants. The Greeks located their paradise in the islands of the blest. Madeira spread forth pitying, protecting arms to two fugitive lovers. Charles Edward hid in Skye. Once within the pleasant valleys of Pitcairn's Island, Jack Adams and the mutineers of the 'Bounty' felt secure and safe from courts-martial and yard-arms. There is a hiding-place for the pursued of sheriffs in the island of Jersey and in the Isle of Man; in which latter insular refuge, Charlotte de la Tremouille, Countess of Derby, sheltered the last remnants of the cause of the Stuarts against Oliver Cromwell. The dogs of Constantinople found protection from the sticks and stones of the men of Stamboul, in an island in the Bosphorus. The last of the London marshes staunchly defy drainage from the strongholds of the Isle of Dogs; and there is a wall of strength for the choicest London fevers, and the dirtiest London lodging-houses, against Inspectors Reason and Humanity and their whole force, in and about the mud embankments of Jacob's Island.
    But, chief and pre-elect of islands on which camps of refuge have been built, is the one we are happy enough to live in, the Island of England. There are other islands in the world, far more isolated, geographically speaking, far more distant from hostile continents, far more remote from the shores of despotism. Yet to these chalky cliffs of Albion, to this Refuge, misnamed the perfidious, come refugees from all quarters of the world, and of characters, antecedents, and opinions, pointing to every quarter of the political compass. The oppressor and the oppressed, the absolutist and the patriot, the butcher and the victim, the wolf and the lamb, the legitimist as white as snow, and the montagnard as red as [-165-] blood, the doctrinaire and the socialist - men of views so dissimilar that they would (and do) tear each other to pieces in their own lands, find a common refuge in this country, and live in common harmony here. The very climate seems to have a soothing and mollifying influence on the most savage foreign natures. South American dictators, who have shot, slaughtered, and outraged hecatombs of their countrymen in the parched-up plains of Buenos Ayres and Montevideo, roar you as mildly as any sucking doves as soon as they are in the Southampton Water - make pets of their physicians, and give their barbers silver shaving-dishes; pachas of three tails, terrible fellows for bowstringing, impaling, and bastinadoing in their Asiatic dominions, here caper nimbly in ladies' chambers to the twangling of lutes; hangers of men and scourgers of women forego blood-thirstiness; demagogues forget to howl for heads; and red republicans, who were as roaring lions in the lands they came from, submit to have their claws cut, and their manes trimmed, drink penny cups of coffee, and deliver pacific lectures in Mechanics' Institutes.
    England, then, is the Patmos of foreign fugitives - a collection of Patmoses, rather; almost every seaport and provincial town of any note having a little inland island of refuge of its own; but London being the great champ d'asile, the monster isle of safety, a Cave of Adullam for the whole world. It is with this Patmos that I have principally to do.
    Years ago, Doctor Johnson called London 'the common sewer of Paris and of Rome;' but at the present day it is a reservoir, a giant vat, into which flow countless streams of continental immigration. More so than Paris, where the English only go for pleasure; the Germans to become tailors and boot-makers; and the Swiss, valets, house-porters, and waiters. More so than the United States, whose only considerable feed-pipes of emigration are Irish, English, and. Germans. There is in London the foreign artistic population, among which I will comprise French, and Swiss, and German governesses, French painters, actors, singers, and cooks; Italian singers and musicians; French hairdressers, milliners, dressmakers, clear-starchers, and professors of legerdemain, with countless teachers of every known language, and professors of every imaginable musical instrument. There is the immense foreign servile population: French and Italian valets and shopmen, and German nurses and nursery-maids. [-166-] There is the foreign commercial population, a whole colony of Greek merchants in Finsbury, of Germans in the Minories, of Frenchmen round Austin Friars, of Moorish Jews in Whitechapel, and of foreign shopkeepers at the west end of the town. There is the foreign mechanical, or labouring population: French, Swiss, and German watchmakers, French and German lithographers, Italian plaster-cast makers and German sugar-bakers, brewers, and leather-dressers. There is the foreign mendicant population: German and Alsatian buy-a-broom girls, Italian hurdy-gurdy grinders, French begging-letter writers (of whose astonishing numbers, those good associations, 'La Société Française de Bienfaisance a Londres,' and 'The Friends of Foreigners in Distress,' could tell some curious tales, maybe), Lascar street-sweepers, and tom-tom pounders. There is the foreign maritime population: an enormous one, as all men who have seen Jack alive in London can vouch for. There is the foreign respectable population, composed of strangers well to do, who prefer English living and English customs to those of their own country. There is the foreign swindling population: aliens who live on their own wits and on the want thereof in their neighbours: sham counts, barons, and chevaliers; farmers of German lotteries, speculators in German university degrees, forgers of Russian bank-notes, bonnets at gaming-houses, touts and spungers to foreign hotels and on foreign visitors, bilkers of English taverns and boarding-houses, and getters-up of fictitious concerts and exhibitions. There is the foreign visiting or sightseeing population, who come from Dover to the Hotel de l'Europe, and go from thence, with a cicerone, to. St. Paul's, Windsor, and Richmond, and thence back again to France, Germany, or Spain. Lastly, there is the refugee population; and this be mine to descant upon.
    The Patmos of London I may describe as an island bounded by four squares; on the north by that of Soho, on the south by that of Leicester, on the east by the quadrangle of Lincoln's Inn Fields (for the purlieus of Long Acre and Seven Dials are all Patinas), and on the west by Golden Square.
    The trapezium of streets enclosed within this boundary are not, by any means, of an aristocratic description. A maze of sorry thoroughfares, a second-rate butcher's meat and vegetable market, two model lodging-houses, a dingy parish church, and some 'brick barns' of dissent are within its boundaries. No lords or squires of high degree live in this [-167-] political Alsatia. The houses are distinguished by a plurality of bell-pulls inserted in the door-jambs, and by a plurality of little brass name-plates, bearing the names of in-dwelling artisans. Everybody (of nubile age and English extraction) seems to be married, and to have a great many children, whose education appears to be conducted chiefly on the outdoor principle.
    As an uninterested stranger, and without a guide, you might, perambulating these shabby streets, see in them nothing which would peculiarly distinguish them from that class of London veins known inelegantly, but expressively, as 'back slums'. At the first glance you see nothing but dingy houses teeming with that sallow, cabbage-stalk, and fried fish sort of population, indigenous to back slums. The pinafored children are squabbling or playing in the gutters; while from distant courts come faintly and fitfully threats of Jane to tell Ann's mother; together with that unmeaning monotonous chant or dirge which street-children sing, why, or with what object, I know not. Grave dogs sit on door-steps - their heads patiently cocked on one side, waiting for the door to be opened, as - in this region of perpetual beer-fetching - they know must soon be the case. The beer itself, in vases of strangely-diversified patterns, and borne by Hebes of an diversified appearance, is incessantly threading the needle through narrow courts and alleys. The public-house doors are always on the swing; the bakers' shops (they mostly sell 'seconds') are always full; so are the cookshops, so are the coffee-shops: step into one, and you shall have a phase of Patmos before you incontinent.
    Albrecht Lurleiberg, who keeps this humble little Deutsche Caffee und Gasthof, as he calls it, commenced business five years ago with a single coffee-pot and two cups and saucers. That was a little before February, 1848. Some few foreigners dropped into visit him occasionally; but he was fain to eke out his slender earnings by selling sweetstuff, penny dolls, and cheap Sunday newspapers. After the first three months' saturnalia of revolution in '48, however, exiles began to populate Patmos pretty thickly. First, Barbès' and Albert's unsuccessful riot; then the escapade of Ledru-Rollin and Louis Blane; then the wholesale prescriptions of Hungary, Italy, Austria, Russia, and Baden - all these contributed to swell the number of Herr Lurleiberg's customers a hundredfold, and to fill Patmos to overflowing. The sweetstuff and dolls [-169-] disappeared 'right away,' and the coffee-pots and cups and saucers multiplied exceedingly. In addition to this, the Herr caused to be stretched across the single window a canvas blind, on which his name, and the style and title of his establishment, were painted in painfully attenuated letters, with which, not yet content, he incited young Fritz Schiftmahl, the artist, with dazzling prospects of a carte-blanche for coffee and tobacco, to depict beneath, in real oil colours, the counterfeit presentments of a Pole, a Hungarian, and a German embracing each other in a fraternal accolade, all smoking tobacco like volcanos sulphur; the legend setting forth that true, universal, and political brotherhood are only to be found at Albrecht Lurleiberg's.
    In the Herr's back parlour-he once designed in the flush of increased business to enlarge it by knocking it into the back yard, till warned, by a wary neighbour, of the horrible pains and penalties (only second to proemunire) incurred by meddling with a wall in England - in this dirty back parlour with rings made by coffee-cups on the ricketty Pembroke tables, and on the coarsely papered, slatternly printed foreign newspapers and periodicals, are a crowd of men in every variety of beard and moustache and head-dress, in every imaginable phase of attire more or less dirty and picturesque - figures such as, were you to see them in the drawings of Leech, or Daumier, or Gavarni, you would pronounce exaggerated and untrue to nature; hooded, tasselled, and braided garments of unheard-of fashion; hats of shapes to make you wonder to what a stage the art of "squeezability" had arrived; trousers with unnumbered plaits; boots made as boots seemed never made before; finger and thumb-rings of fantastic fashion; marvellous gestures, Babel-like diversified tongues; voices anything but (Englishly) human; the fumes as of a thousand brick-kilns; the clatter as of a thousand spoons: such are the characteristics of this in-door Patinas.
    Here are Frenchmen-ex-representatives of the people, ex- ministers, prefects and republican commissaries, Prolétaires, Fourierists, Phalansterians, disciples of Proudhon, Pierre le Roux and Cahagnet, professors of pantheism, socialism, phalansterianism, all the 'isms' in ismdom; men yet young, but two-thirds of whose lives have been spent in prison or in exile. Here are political gaol-birds who have been caged in every state prison of Europe; in the citadels of France, the cachots of Mont St. Michel, the secrets of the Concier-[-169-]gerie, the piombi of Venice, the gloomy fastnesses of Ehrenbreitstein and Breslau and Spandlau, the oubliettes of the Spielberg and Salzburg. Here are young men - boys almost - of good families and high hopes, blasted by the sirocco of civil war. Here are German philosophic democrats - scientific conspirators - who between Greek roots and algebraical quantities, tobacco smoke and heavy folios in German text upon international law, have somehow found themselves upon barricades and in danger of the fate of Robert Blum. Here are simple-minded German workmen - such honest-faced, tawney-bearded young fellows as you see in the beer-cellars of Berlin - who have shaken off their dreams of German unity to find themselves in this back slum Patmos far away from home and friends. Here are swarthy Italians, eyeing the Tedeschi (though friendly ones) askance, cursing Radetzky and Gyulay, and telling with wild gesticulations how Novara was fought and Rome defended. Here, and in great numbers, are the poor, betrayed, cozened Hungarians, with glossy beards, and small embroidered caps and braided coats. They are more woe-begone, more scared and wild-looking than the rest, for they are come from nearly the uttermost corner of Europe, and have little fellowship save that of misfortune with their continental neighbours. Lastly, here are the Poles, those historical exiles who have been so long fugitives from their country that they have adopted Patmos with a will, and have many of them entered into and succeeded in business, but would, I think, succeed better if the persons with whom they have commercial transactions were able to pronounce their names - those jaw-breaking strings of dissonant letters in which the vowels are so few that the consonants seem to have compassed them round about, like fortifications, to prevent their slipping out.
    There are many of these poor refugees (I speak of them in general) who sit in coffee-shops similar to Herr Lurleiberg's, from early morning till late at night, to save the modicum of fire and candle they would otherwise be compelled to consume at home (if home their garrets can be called), and which, God knows, they can ill spare. About one o'clock in the day, those who are rich enough congregate in the English cookshops, and regale themselves with the cheap cag-mag there offered for sale. Towards four or five the foreign eating-houses, of which there are many in Patmos of a fifth or sixth into order of excellence, are resorted to by those who yet [-170-] adhere to the gastronomic traditions of the land they have been driven from; and there they vainly attempt to delude themselves into the belief that they are consuming the fricassées and ragouts, the suet puddings and sauerkraut, the maccaroni, risotto, and stuffato of France or Germany or Italy - all the delightful messes on which foreigners feed with such extreme gusto and satisfaction. But, alas! these dishes, though compounded from foreign recipes and cooked by foreign hands, are not, or, at least, do not taste like foreign dishes. Cookery, like the amor patriae, is indigenous. It cannot be transplanted. It cannot flourish on a foreign soil. I question if the black broth of Sparta would have agreed with the Lacedaemonian palate if consumed in an England a la mode beef shop.
    Patmos is likewise studded with small foreign tobacco shops - limited to the sale of tobacco mostly, for the cigar is a luxury in most cases beyond the reach of the exile. You must remember that abroad you may obtain a cigar as large as an Epping sausage (and as damp), as strong as brandy and as fiery as a red-hot poker for a matter of two sous : -in some parts of Belgium and Germany for one sou; and that in England the smallest Cuba of Minonies manufacture, smoked in a minute and of no particular flavour, costs three halfpence: a sum! There is, to be sure, a harmless milk-mild little roll of dark brown colour, the component parts of which, I believe, are brown paper, hay, and aromatic herbs, vended at the charge of one penny. But what would be the use of one of those smoke-toys to an exile who is accustomed to wrap himself in smoke as in a mantle; to smoke by the apertures of his mouth, nostrils, eyes, and ears; to eat cigars, so to speak? Thus Patmos solaces itself with cut tobacco (good and cheap in England), which it puffs from meerschaums or short clays, or rolls up into fragments of foreign newspapers and makes cigarettes of.
    If there exist a peculiarity of Patmos which I could not, without injustice, avoid adverting to, it is the pleasure its inhabitants seem to feel in reading letters. See, as we saunter down one of Patmos's back streets a German exile, in a pair of trousers like a bifurcated carpet bag, stops a braided Hungarian with a half quartern loaf under his arm. A sallow Italian (one of Garibaldi's men) enters speedily unto them, and the three fall greedily to the perusal of a large sheet of tissue paper, crossed and re-crossed in red, and black, and blue ink, patchworked outside with postage marks of con-[-171-]tinental frontiers and Government stamps. Few of these missives reach their destination without some curious little scissor marks about the seal, some suspicions little hot-water blisters about the wafers, hinting that glazed cocked hats, and jack-boots, and police spies have had something to do with their letters between their postage and their delivery. Indeed, so well is this paternal solicitude on the part of foreign governments to know whether their corresponding subjects write and spell correctly, known among the refugees, that some wary exiles have their letters from abroad addressed to 'Mr. Simpson Brown,' or 'Mr. Thomas Williams,' such and such a street, London; and as foreign governments are rather cautious as to how they meddle with the families of the Browns and the Williams's - who grow refractory sometimes and post their letters in the paddle-boxes. of war steamers- the Brown and Williams letters reach London untampered with.
    More exiles reading letters. One nearly falls over a dog's meat cart, so absorbed is he in his correspondence; another, bearded like the pard, and with a fur cap like an Armenian Calpack, is shedding hot tears on his outstretched paper, utterly unconscious of the astonishment of two town-made little boys, who have stopped in the very middle of a 'cartwheel' to stare at the 'furriner a crying.' Poor fellows! poor broken men! poor hunted wayfarers! If you, brother Briton, well clothed, well fed, well cared for - with X 99 well paid to guard you  - with houses for the sale of law by retail on every side, where you can call for your half-pint of habeas corpus, or your Magna Charta, cold without, at any hour in the day - if you were in a strange land, proscribed, attainted, poor, unfriended, dogged even in your Patmos by spies; could you warrant yourself not to shed some scalding tears, even in a fierce fur cap, over a letter from the home you are never to see more?
    My pencil may limn an individual portrait or so in the perfidious refuge, and then I must needs row my bark away to other shores. Stop at forty-six, Levant Street, if you please, over against Leg-bail Court.
    Up four flights of crazy stairs, knocking at a ricketty door, you enter a suite of three musty attics. They are very scantily furnished, but crowded with articles of the most heterogeneous description; mes marchandises, as the proprietor calls them Variegated shades for lamps, fancy stationery, bon-bon boxes, [-173-] lithographic prints, toys, cigar-cases, nicknacks of every description are strewn upon the chairs and table, and cumber the very floor; at one window a dark-eyed mild-looking lady, in a dark merino dress, is painfully elaborating a drawing on a lithographic stone; at another a slender girl is bending over a tambour frame; at a desk a round-headed little boy is copying music, while in an adjoining apartment - even more denuded of furniture and littered with marchandises - are two or three little children tumbling among the card-board boxes. All these moveables, animate and inanimate, belong to a Roman Marquis - the Marchese del Pifferare. He and his have been reared in luxury. Time was he possessed the most beautiful villa, the finest equipages, the most valuable Rafaelles in the Campagna of Rome; but la politique, as he tells you with a smile, has brought him down to the level of a species of unlicensed hawker, going with his wares (to sell on commission) from fancy warehouse to fancy warehouse, often rebutted, often insulted; yet picking up an honest livelihood somehow. His wife has turned her artistic talent, and his eldest daughter her taste for embroidery to account; his son Mithridates copies music for the orchestra in a theatre, for living is dear in London, and those helpless little ones among the card-board boxes must be looked after. He has been an exile for five years. The Holy Father was good enough to connive at his escape, and to confer all his confiscated estates on a Dominican convent. No one knows what the politique, which has been his ruin, exactly was; nor, I am inclined to think, does the good man know very clearly himself. 'We got away from Rome,' he tells you mildly, 'with a few hundred scudi, and our plate and a picture or two, and went to Marseilles; but when we had "eaten" (avevamo mangiati) what we had brought with us, we came to England. It was very hard at first; for we had no friends, and could speak nothing but French and Italian, and the English are a suspicious people, whose first impulse, when they see a foreigner for the first time, is to button up their pockets as if he must necessarily be a thief.' But the marquis went to work manfully, forgot his coronet, and is now doing a very good fancy commission business. He has an invention (nearly all refugees have inventions) for curing smoky chimneys, which, when he has money enough to patent it, he expects will bring him a fortune. In the days of his utterest and most dire distress, he always managed to pay three shillings every Sunday for [-173-] the sittings of himself, his wife, and daughter at a foreign Catholic chapel, and to wear every day the cleanest of white neckcloths, fastened no man knows how, for no man ever saw the tie thereof.
    Within these sorry streets - these dingy slums - are swept together the dead leaves, the rotten branches, the withered fruits from the tree of European liberty. The autumn blast of despotism has eddied them about from the ends of Europe, has chased them from land to land, has wafted them at last into this perfidious Patmos, where there is liberty to act, and think, and breathe, but also, alas! liberty to Starve. n
    O England, happily unconscious of the oppressions and exasperations that have driven these men here, try sometimes to spare some little modicum of substantial relief, some crumbs of comfort, some fragile straws of assistance to the poor drowning exiles! Their miseries are appalling. They cannot dig (for few, if any, Englishmen will call a foreigner's spade into requisition), to beg they are nobly ashamed. They do not beg, nor rob, nor extort. They starve in silence. The French and Hungarian refugees suffer more, perhaps. than those of other nations. The former have by no means an aptitude for acquiring the English language, and are, besides, men mostly belonging to the professional classes of society-classes wofully overstocked in England; the latter seldom know any language but their own-a language about as useful and appreciated here as Cochin-Chinese. Only those who have wandered through Patmos, who have watched the gates of the London Docks at early morning when the chance labourers apply for work, who have sat in night coffee- houses, and explored dark arches, can know what awful shifts some of these poor refugees, friendless, foodless, houseless, are often put to.