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IT is but a narrow thread of grayish hue, streaking the murky
horizon in the quarter the sun comes from, that I take to spin my feeble web
from. Fragile it is, and of as little account as the long, slender, attenuated
filament I have seen stretching from the limbs of an oak (whose frame has grown
gaunter, but whose muscles seem to grow stronger in its rigid, iron knots, like
those of an old athlete) down to the cowslips in a field beneath: the aerial
suspension bridge of the spider. Break of day is my slender, gray, flickering
thread; but Day and Night are the strong oak and the wide field they connect;
and my thread may serve as a humble link between two mighty subjects.
And my thread - daybreak - should it not be a chord in the harp on which Nature at least for ever sings hymns of praise; if men do sometimes fail to pray? And daybreak, is it not a bell, a marriage-bell to millions - a passing-bell to dying millions too - a joy-bell and a knell of death? And daybreak, is it not the main, from which tend smaller pipes of light? And daybreak, is it not the chandelier at which both wise and foolish virgins kindle their lamps, to light them their day's work through? The night may seem lifelong; hut daybreak comes: it must come - like Death.
Yet, omnipresent as it is, how many children of humanity there be who rise, and work, and go to bed again, through a lifetime, without once beholding my thread. 'Does one man in a million,' asks Paley, in the Natural Theology, 'know how oval frames are turned?' - Is there one man in a thousand, I will less boldly ask, who has seen the break of day? [-185-] If all had seen it, what would there be left for me to write about? If everybody knew everything, how many, many days the poor schoolmasters and philosophers would have to wait for the bread they had cast on the waters!
What aspect, observation, has daybreak on a railway? We have left London by the night mail for Liverpool. It is August weather, and day breaks just after we have passed Crewe. With a rasping, shattering express motion have we come over the rails. Reading was out of the question. A pale gentleman in spectacles essayed it at Watford; but the letters danced up and down in all manner of ways against his gold-rimmed pebbles, as though the matrix they (the letters) had descended from had been a maniac; and they, in consequence, mad type, wholly unsuitable for so grave a work as 'The Architectural Psychology of the Middle Ages, as Exhibited in Flying Buttresses,' which the pale gentleman essayed to peruse but gave up at last in despair.
Another traveller, a political-looking man with gray whiskers and a determined neckcloth - the sort of man, I warrant, who looks sharply after the member for his borough, and heads a requisition to him to resign his seat two or three times in the course of a session - tried also to read a leader in that day's 'Times;' but, in spite of the large, bold type, and of his folding the paper into a small, fierce compass, and holding it with both hands, with a paper-knife pressed over the line immediately below the one he read, and so moved downwards, and nearly gluing his eyes to it in the bargain; in spite of this he had no better success; and muttering 'Unprincipled print' (doubtless because he couldn't read it), went austerely to sleep, and dreamed, probably, of the brisk rubbing up he will give the honourable member for Throttlebury, shortly, concerning his infamous tergiversation about that poor burked little bill which was to have given sewers to Throttlebury. A commercial gentleman, with his great-coat full of gold pencil-cases, vainly attempted at Rugby to jot down an order in his note-book, and failing to make anything but incoherent zigzag diagrams, bound a railway rug round his head till it assumed the semblance of a grenadier's cap that had been stencilled at a paper-stainer's, and went to sleep, too. Somebody (I hope he didn't sit near me), not being able to read, or to sleep, or to snore and gasp and bark like the ball of something with a wide-awake hat in the left-hand off corner, and afraid to sing, presumed to smoke, swal-[-186-]lowing the major part of the fumes through modesty, and tilting the ashes cautiously out of the little Venetian jaloosies above the window.
We all got out at Wolverton, where the commercial traveller disappeared - perhaps to take an order for pork pies; and the pale gentleman in spectacles was indignant (and justly so, I think), that he could not have threepenn'orth of brandy in his tea. So, through the black night have we rushed fiercely through black county after county. At Stafford, the ball of something (which has turned out to be camlet cloak), speaking for the first and last time, has remarked that 'it is a long train' (which it is not). At some intermediate station - whose name, as it was yelped forth by a porter as he hurried by thrusting grease into the hot greedy maw of the axle-box, might just as well have been cried in Chaldee or Sanscrit for anything I could make of it - a simpering gentleman with a gold chain peeping even from among his many coats, and a Fez cap, proposed to enter the carriage; but, drawing back, declared that somebody had been 'smoking,' and that it was a 'disgwace;' whereupon the guard asked nobody in particular if anybody had been smoking; and, seeming perfectly satisfied with the assurance that nobody had, remarked that 'it was the engine-maybe,' and popped my simpering gentleman into the next carriage, in which there were two old maids, one purple satin lady of Lambertian or Armitagian bulk, a young child (querulous), a black nurse, and a gentleman subject to fits - having them, too, every other station or so. No smoking there!
Far behind lies Crewe, though but a minute passed. I draw down the window, and the keen morning breeze charges in at the aperture like a Cossack. And in the eastern horizon Day breaks. How many cocks, I wonder, in all the lands day breaks upon are singing their morning hymn now? I listen for one Chanticleer; but the engine has a crow of its own, and a yell for going into tunnels, and a howl for coming out of them, and hideous noises for all seasons and every inch of the road. All the cocks in Lancashire might crow themselves hoarse ere I could hear them amid this din.
Day breaks fast, and the slender gray thread expands into a wide sheet of pale light. Against it the coldly violet clouds are defined in sharp and rigid relief. These are the fragments of the veil of night yielding slowly, and, as it were, reluctantly, to daylight. Slower and slower, almost imper-[-187-]ceptibly, as day gains on night, one great hank of cloud sinks in nearly a horizontal line into Erebus, like a pair of flats in a theatrical spectacle; but the side pieces of clouds - the wings and set pieces, if I may call them so - split up into jagged, obstinate, refractory cloudlets over the sky, which by this time has turned from ashy pallid gray to silver blue - not sky-blue, as we generally understand it, yet - but a blue like that we see in the shadow part of silver lace. These clouds are of fantastic shapes: some are dark slices, long, and almost mathematically straight; others torn and zigzag-shaped; some take the semblance of fiendish heads, and hideous animals with more legs than were ever dreamt of in the philosophy of Buffon or Cuvier. Fast as the day breaks, and broad daylight as it is by this time, the genial, warming influence of the blessed sun is yet wanting. The guests are bidden and the banquet is spread; but the bride and bridegroom are not come home from church yet. The contract is drawn up, but lacks the signature. The pyre is heaped up and needs only one friendly torch to set it in a blaze.
Coldly garish yet is the white, sunless day. Funereally black and dismal loom tufted masses of tall trees - their urnbrageous mantles chequered here and there by diamond flashes of the sunlight coming up behind them. Coldly gray are the wide leas and ploughed fields. Coldly black are the hedgerows, and hayricks, and stunted pollard willows, and lonely cowshippons. Coldly dark and dismal, rear their heads, the roofed posts of the electric telegraph - looking, in the dubious light, like gibbets. Coldly the wind keeps blowing in at the window; so at least tells me my fellow-traveller in the gold pencil line-tells me so, too, in a remarkably discourteous tone, with some nonsensical allusion to the ear-ache. I shut the window and pity him. He thinks nothing of the break of day - thinks about it no more, nay, not so much as that flapping crow overhead - no more than that rustic in the clay-soiled fustian, who has been up since three to fodder the cows and lead Ball and Dapple to the pond to drink, and who now leans over a gate on the line, smoking his break-of-day pipe, and whistling bewhiles. And yet, perhaps, I libel this clay-stained man. Perchance he does think of day and of its Maker-in his own rough untutored way sees in the clouds, and the sky, and the light, as clear a connection between the varied Nature and the varied God, as he knows to exist between. the two plain sets of iron rails [-188-] on the gravel road before him, and the mighty terminus at Euston Square-two hundred miles away.
Wra-a-a-ah! the train enters a tunnel. All is black for half a dozen minutes-then emerging, we see the sun getting imp in the East like a refreshed generous giant, scattering gold over the world.
Break of day after the Honourable Mrs. Plover's soirée dansante. The Honourable Mrs. Plover was the youngest and seventh daughter of General the Earl of Duxandraques of Liverwing Hall. The footmen at Liverwing have had for some years a somewhat Hebrew-Caucasian cast of countenance, and evil-minded men do say they are bailiffs in disguise. The noble lord's solicitor and heirs male do not dare to trust him, if they can help it, with as much wood as would serve for a lucifer match - so addicted is he to cutting down the timber on his estate, and afterwards 'cutting away' with the ligneous proceeds to Hombourg or Baden-Baden. The Honourable Miss de Bressbohun (that is the family name of the Duxandraques) had for her fortune only a remarkably pretty face, and an assortment of the most captivating blonde ringlets you ever saw; so she married Mr. Rufus Plover, who is ambiguously known to be 'on 'Change' and brings fabulously large sums of money off it. They have a grand country-house at Gunnersbury, and a sweet little marine villa at Brighton - all Venetian blinds and dazzling stucco; and, to crown all, a jewel of a house, Number 402 (A), Toppletoton Street, Crinoline Square. In this Elysian mansion (Madame de Pompadour could not have spent more in upholstery upon it than did Mrs. Plover,) the enchanting soirees dansantes of the Honourable Mrs. P. are held.
This had been a grand night for the P. family. Half Long Acre in the way of carriages. Half the Heralds' College in the armorial bearings on the coach panels. Quite a Zoological Garden of lions rampant, couchant, and passant, griffins sparring wildly with their paws at inoffensive shields, and birds', beasts', and fishes' heads drawn and quartered in every imaginary way. Quite a little course of 'Latin without a master' in the heraldic mottos.
And such company! No merchants, nor ship-owners, nor people of that sort - not even one of Mr. Plover's 'Exchange' friends. Their exclusion was won from Mr. P. after a hard battle the very morning of the ball, and only after the concession on the part of his lady of two trifles and a model of the [-189-] Great Exhibition in confectionary, to be withdrawn from the menu of the supper. The nearest approach to commerce among the guests was the great Sir Blanke Cheque, the banker of Lombard Street, who has three daughters married to peers of the realm, and one to the Russian Count Candleatevich, who is immensely rich, but dare not return to Russia, where he would infallibly be knouted, have his nose and ears slit, and be sent to Tobolsk, for daring to overstay the time allowed him by the Czar for a continental trip, and for presuming to go to a concert where Miss Crotchet sang the 'Fair Land of Poland;' a due minute of which last crime was made the very next day by little Juda Benikowski, the Muscovite* (*Nous avons changé tout ca - will say my Russian friends, who have so improved in civilisation within the last two years, that happening to turn over the leaves of a book called the "Journey due North" the other day at a stall - [the "Journey" was marked eightpence] - I thought I was reading the narrative of a nightmare.) Jew spy, and duly recorded against the count in the archives of the Russian Consulate General. Among the company was the noble Duke and Duchess of Garternee; the Earl and Countes of Anchorsheet, and Ladies Fitzfluke (2); Field- Marshal Count Schlaghintern; the Ban of Lithuania; the Waywode of Bosnia; the Hospodar of Thrace; the new Bishop of Yellowjack Island, West Indies, the Mac Kit of that ilk in full Highland costume, with a dirk in his stocking worth five hundred pounds - having come to Mrs. Plover's straight from the anniversary of the Tossancaber Highland Association, where he danced more strathspeys on the table, emptied more mulls of snuff, and drank more glasses of whisky than I care to name. Then there was Chibouck Pasha, in a tight frock-coat like that of an inspector of police, but with a blister of diamonds on his breast, a red cap, and a gorgeous beard.
There was Mr. Vatican O'Phocleide, M.P. for Barrybugle, Ireland, who had a slight dispute with the Hansom cabman who brought him to Toppletoton Street, and threatened to inflict personal chastisement on Berkely Montmorency, Mrs. P.'s sergeant-footman, for not rightly announcing his style and titles. There was old General Halberts, who served in the Prussian army at Leipsic, who was about sixty years of age when that battle was fought, but is about fifty- one or two now, has very black hair and whiskers and mustachoes, but being rather shaky and tremulous (not with [-190-] age, of course), got nervous at the great confusion of carriages at the top of the street, and chose to dismount and walk to 402 (A), whereby he became entangled between one of Mr. Bunter's pastry-cook's men, and Ludovico Scartafaccio from Modena (with his orchestra on wheels, drawn by a pony of a Modenese cast of countenance), and unluckily hooked himself on to an area railing by his diamond-hilted sabre, and the collar of the Golden Fleece, from which unpleasant position he was at length extricated by policeman P. 95, and Silver Sam, the link-boy.
Finally, to mention a few more notabilities, there was Bohwanie-Lall, from Calcutta, a being strongly resembling a cocoa-nut candle swathed in a pair of white muslin curtains, bound round with bell-ropes of diamonds, pearls, and emeralds, and surmounted by a toupee of birds-of-paradise feathers. There was the author of the last new novel, and the last new painter, and the last new preacher, and the last new lion of whatever shape or degree he might be. There was Professor Oxalicacides, from Breslau, who, in his lectures on hygiene lately, gravely hinted his suspicions that the English sweet-stuff makers adulterated Everton toffee with sugar of lead and aqua tofana. There was Madame Sostenuta, and Mademoiselle Orphea Sospianti, and Signor Portamento from the Italian Opera, engaged to sing professionally; and with them Herr Bompazek, the great German basso, with a voice from the tombs, and hair dreadfully long and dishevelled. There were battalions of grand old dowagers in various stages of velvet and satin, more or less airy. There were frigid chaperons, so awful in their impressiveness that they seemed to possess the capacity of doing the office of Medusa's head for you at once. There were anxious mammas; and simpering young dandies in colossal white neckcloths, and feet so tiny as to endanger their centre of gravity, and to render their tumbling over in the midst of a quadrille anything but unlikely. There were flushed-faced old papas. There was Jullien's band; and there were cohorts, Pyrrhic phalanxes, of the dear English girls, the forms, the faces, the bright eyes, the red lips, the laughing lips that I will defy you to match - Mademoiselle Eulalie, or Signora Bianca, or Fräulein Trudschen, or Donna Inez, or Sudarinia Nadiezda, or Khanoum Haidee, Gulnare, or Dudu, any summer or winter's day the whole year through. And so, through the noise of the night season, the Hon. Mrs. Plover's soirée dansante proceeded.
[-191-] How many quadrilles, and polkas, valses a deux temps, Schottisches and mazurkas there were. How the 'lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;' how 'a thousand hearts beat happily,' and 'eyes looked love to eyes which spoke again;' how hands were squeezed in conservatories, and soft nothings whispered in balconies; how crushed white roses were ravished from unresisting Sabines by impetuous dragoons, and tulle ribbons purloined by Cupid-struck undergraduates of the University of Oxford, tell, philosopher in the ill-washed neck- cloth and the dress-coat, to whose appearance candle-light was a decided advantage - philosopher, too awkward to dance, too timid to play whist, too moody to do aught else save lounge against doorposts and observe. How Lord Claude Pettitoes proposed (over strawberry ice) to Mrs. Vanilla, the Cuban widow; how rude General Halberts made a dash at a model of Osler's crystal fountain in barley-sugar, and ate the fluted column up bodily. How Chibouck Pacha quaffed champagne till his face shone again; and Lady Blanche Pettitoes (sister of Lord Claude and daughter of the Marchioness of Dayryfedde) complained to her mamma, that he, the Pacha, squeezed her; how Mr. Remanet, M.P., insisted on talking agricultural statistics to his partner; how the various lions - literary, artistic, and scientific-howled, roared, and were stirred up with poles of different lengths and were trotted out in different corners of the different salons. How dancing commenced again after supper; how Mrs. Plover was here, there, and everywhere, with a smile for everybody and frown for nobody, save that sad fellow the member for Barrybugle, who tried to get a circle together in the boudoir, to discuss the wrongs of Ireland. How Bohwanie Lall from Calcutta, being strictly of the Brahminical persuasion, rigidly refused to partake of supper with unbelievers, and was served with a light repast of pistachio nuts and water-ice in an adjoining apartment, - though my private opinion is that he subsequently devoured a trayfull of real patties on the staircase. How the professional singers sang like syrens, and Herr Bompazek shook the very chandeliers with his sepulchral tones. How all these things were done, tell, fashionable Muse of soirees dansantes, if, Muse, thou wert honoured with a card for Mrs.. Plover's, which I was not!
When daybreak came at last, how garish the yellow candlelight looked against the strong beams of the morning, the stalwart workers, the early-to-bed goers, and early risers. [-192-] How they beat down the flickering wax-ends in their sockets. And the pretty girls - pretty still - yet looking pale, and a trifle draggled, and a thought sickly. There was a faint odour through the crowded rooms of faded roses and spilt perfumes, and spent champagne corks. The Honourable Mrs. Plover's soirée was over. Slowly down the grand staircase came the company, looking, if I may be permitted the use of vulgarism, 'seedy.' Slowly the yawning footmen opened the carriage-doors, and the sleepy horses clattered off. This was break of day-the day the grubs have to earn their daily bread by-and it was time for the butterflies to be in bed.