Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 32 - Yellowknights

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WHEN Roscius was an actor in Rome, I think it highly probable that private theatricals, imitative of the performances of the great dramatic exemplar of the day, were a highly popular amusement among the juvenile Roman aristocracy. It is pleasant as well as reasonable to think so. if would have given something to have been able to witness such a celebration in the great city of men; and that such sights often took place I have very small doubts. That amiable system of classical education under which you and I, my dear Hopkins, were reared, but which our sons, let us hope, will mercifully escape—that grand scheme of grammatical tuition which held chief among its axioms that the mind of youth, like a walnut-tree, must be quickened by blows in its advances to maturity; that the waters of Helicon were not wholesome unless duly mingled with brine; and that the birch and the bays were inextricably interwoven in the poetical chaplet—that system, I say, taught us (among irreproachable quantities and symmetrical feet) to look upon everything appertaining to Rome and the Romans with something very much akin to horror; to regard Plautus as a bugbear and Terence. as a tyrant; to remember nothing of Horace but the portrait of his schoolmaster—nothing of Virgil but the cruel memory of Juno. But now that a new generation has grown up, and we ourselves (according to an ingenious theory some time propounded) have changed our cuticle, and have had provided for us a new set of viscera, we can afford to look back without bitterness or regret, without fear or trembling, upon the old days of verbum personale and studio grammaticoe. Queer days! They would have flogged us for reading Mr. Macaulay’s ‘Lays,’ and caned us had we looked upon Lemprière, not as a dull book of reference, but as the most charming collection of fairy tales in the world. Now all our gerunds and. supines, our dactyls and spondees, our subjects and attributes, our hexameters and pentameters, are mingled in a pleasant jumble of dreamy memories: now that we quite forget what took place in the thirty-sixth Olympiad, and don’t know the names [-368-] of the forty tyrants, and can’t rememumber the value of an As or the number of stadia between Rome and Capri (I speak for myself, Hopkins)—we can indulge in the fancy that the Romnans were not at all times frowning, awful spectres, with hook-noses, laurel-bound brows, and flowing togas, incessantly occupied in crossing the Rubicon, subduing the Iceni, reviewing the tenth legion, striking Medusa­like medals, standing behind chairs with hatchets and bundles of rods, or marching about with S. P. Q. R. stuck on the top of a pole. Cicero pleaded against Verres, but there were other advocates to plead in the cause of a countryman’s pig. The geese were not always saving the Capitol—'bo' must have been occasionally said to them, and they eaten with sage and onions sometimes. The Cumaean sybil must have taken a little snack on her tripod from time to time. Maecenas must have made jokes, great Caesar stooped to pun, and stern Brutus played with his children. Yes; among all this solemn bigwiggery — these triumphs, ovations, sacrifices, orations (in which a tremendous amount of false Latin was talked, you may be sure), there must have been a genial, social, homely, comic element among the Roman citizens. Who shall say that there were not Cockney Romans who pronounced vir, wir, and dropped the H in Horrida? Who shall say that there were no games at blindman’s-buff, forfeits, and hunt the slipper, on long winter evenings, in the great Consular families; that there was no kissings under the mistletoe in the entertainments of the Roman knights; that there were no private theatricals, blithesome, ridiculous, and innocent., what time Roscius was an actor in Rome?
For that matter, I am persuaded that, long before, Thespis’s little brothers and sisters performed tragedies in a go-cart, not in socks and buskins, but in socks and pinafores, before their big brother took to the legitimate business in a waggon; and that Alcibiades got up a private pantomime among his friends, parodying Aristophanes’ Knights, with himself (Alcibiades) for clown, Socrates for pantaloon, and Glycerium for columbine. But confining ourselves to Rome, would you not. have delighted to have witnessed some ancient private theatrical entertainment in the now capital of the papal dominions? It is good (confounding chronology) to fancy the largest lamp lit; the Atrium fitted up, draped with some borrowed togas; the patres conscripti in the front rows, the [-369-] matres conscripti behind, among them, of course, the mother of the Gracchi, thinking the performances of her children the most wonderful that ever were seen, but entertaining no very exalted opinion of the dramatic efforts of Master Marcus Antonius Lepidus, aged nine, or of that conceited little upstart Fatua Fanna, who would not be allowed to play at all if she were not the niece of the Pontifex Maximus. See— there are the blushing, simpering young Roman virgins, all in fine white linen with silver hems, and their tresses powdered with gold-dust. There is pretty little Livia Ottilia, the great heiress, whose cruel papa wanted her to give up her large fortune towards the expenses of the Punic war, and. become a vestal virgin; but she knew better, and ran off to Brundusium with young Sextus Quintilius. There is demure little Miss Octavia Prima—she looks as though spikenard would not melt in her mouth; who would think, now, that she sticks gold pins into the shoulders of her slaves, and beats her lady’s-maid with the crumpling-irons? There are the young Roman beaux, terrible fellows for fast chariot-driving, wild-beast fighting, gladiator backing: yonder is young Flavius, the president of the Whip Club; his motto is, Quousque tandem: there, ambergrised, powdered, perfumed, is that veteran toad-eater and tuft-hunter, but pretty poet, Q. Horatius Flaccus; he will write a charming copy of Sapphics on the occasion, dedicated to his influential patron, the Marquis Maecenas, who will probably ask him to dinner and give him roast pig stuffed with honey, gamin, and slave-fed carp. There is Ovidius Naso, who was a fine man once, but now goes among the gay youths by the name of Nosey. He has led a very dissipated life, and will be compelled to fly from his creditors by-and-by, to some remote corner of Asia Minor, attributing, of course, his forced absence to political reasons. There also, among the audience, you may see P. Virgilius Maro, in top-boots and a bottle-green toga. He, too, is a poet, but is a great authority on matters bucolic, breeds cattle, is a magistrate of his county, and president of the Campanian Agricultural Association. There is Curius Dentatus, that conceited fop, who is always showing his white teeth; and Aulus Gellius, who is a very Othello to his wife ; and Pompeius Crassus, who is considered to be very like his friend Caesar; and Mark Antony, who has incurred something like odium for his naughty conduct towards Mrs. Mark, and his shameful carryings on with a mulatto lady in Egypt; and [-370-] there is Cato, the censor, who disapproves of theatricals, public and private, in the abstract, turning up his nose in a corner and pretending to read the last number of ‘Sybilline Leaves.’ But, mercy on us! what chronology is this? Mark Antony, Curius Dentatus, and Cato the censor! As well have Romulus and Remus with the wolf in for the last scene, Numa Pompilius to give the entertainment, and Horatius Cocles to announce that a shell-fish supper is ready. Away, pleasant and most ignorant fancies!
The mind of my life is as a cemetery, full of gravestones; but here and. there are gay cenotaphs, airy temples of the composite order, with comic masks sculptured on the pediment,—flower-grown tombs, sacred to private theatricals. This pen shall be a key, and open one of them.
There was ‘Yellowknights.’ Yellowknights was the commodious family mansion of Hipkins Hawes, Esquire, a man of the richest, but of the merriest and the best. He had a prodigious number of daughters, all pretty; and envious people said that his private theatricals were only baits to lure young men on to matrimonial destruction. He must have been very indiscriminate in his luring, be it as it may, for he was visited by a whole colony of sexagenarian gentlemen living in the vicinity, who cared, I think, much more about his rare old port than his performances, and by a host of children, among whom I can mention one youth, aged eight, who was decidedly not hired by any matrimonial snares with reference to the Miss Haweses, but by a juvenile predilection for plum cake, orange wine, trifle, a glorious grapery, an unrivalled nectarine wall, and a whole Tower armoury of toys, rocking-horses, cricket-bats, electric ducks, regiments of soldiers, and India-rubber balls like balloons. Of course I fell in love with all the Miss Haweses afterwards; but somehow they all married somebody else. Perhaps my hair didn’t curl, so I could not come into wedlock with them. Hipkins Hawes took the young men exactly as they came, and as he found them. ‘ If the fellows,’ he was wont to say (he was a plain-spoken man), ‘come after my gals, let ‘em. If Loo or Bell are sweet upon Jack or Dick, let them come to Hipkins Hawes and tell him what they mean, and he’ll see what to do. Hipkins Hawes knows how many blue beans make five’ Hipkins Hawes did. Though he lived in that grand and commodious mansion Yellowknights, and kept horses, carriages, and footmen, he had formerly pursued no more [-371-] elevated a calling than that of a coach-builder; and many and many a holiday afternoon have I spent in gazing at and admiring the wonderful lord mayors’ and sheriffs’ coaches that Hipkins Hawes built at his grand repository in Orchard Street, Portman Square. To be lifted into one of these carriages, and to sit for a moment on one of those imperial squabs, was to me then the summum bonum of human felicity. What would I give to be able to feel such a pleasure now!
We, the family of your informant, were humble neighbours of the wealthy Yellowknights people; dwelling, indeed, in a detached cottage, where an attempt at gentility was made by the existence of a coach-house and a two-stall stable, but the vehicular accommodation of the first of which was only called into requisition for a child’s chaise, and in the second of which trunks, lumber, and odds and ends cumbered the manger, and refused not to abide by the crib. The great mansion and our genteel cottage were both in a small village some five miles from London, with which communication was kept up by a bi-daily stage-coach. I went down to the village the other day by rail. Our genteel habitat had been pulled down bodily, and our two-stall stable occupied perhaps a hundredth part of the ground on which a mighty circular stable for roaring locomotives had been built. Yellowknights—where was that commodious mansion? It had been converted into a ladies’ school—no: the South-Southern Branch College for Ladies. Lecturer on physical astronomy, Professor Charles S. Wain! Hipkins Hawes is Sir Hipkins Hawes, Bart., now, and dwells in a mansion at Tyburnia as big as a barrack.
But in the old days Hipkins Hawes, the retired coach-builder, was the merriest, most hospitable, charitable soul on the whole suburban country-side. He was always giving balls, suppers, fêtes champêtres, archery meetings, charades, fancy-dress soirees, and especially private theatricals. The Miss Haweses used to drive to London in carriages and four (it was not considered extravagant to drive four horses then, and I have seen a great duchess, dead and gone, riding in a coach and six), convulse Holywell Street, and throw Vinegar Yard into an uproar, in voyages of discovery after theatrical costumes. They were quite costume-books themselves. I think I must have seen the eldest Miss Hawes as a Bayadère, Lady Macbeth, Columbine (in Turkish trousers), the Fair [-372-] One with the Golden Locks, Zuleika, Clari the Maid of Milan, Ophelia (a very cheap costume, consisting in the last part merely of a bedgown and back hair), Mrs. Haller, and Flora Macdonald. As to the youngest Miss Hawes, she was so incessantly playing fairies, sylphs, and Ariels, that at this day I can’t help picturing her to myself with wings, a silver-foil wand, and a short muslin skirt; though I know her to be married to Mr. Bearskin (of Bull and Bearskin, stockbrokers) and the mother of six children. Then the young Haweses (males), of whom there was a swarm, all six feet high, in the army, the navy, the Church, Cambridge University, Guy’s Hospital, and the Charterhouse, were continually busy with private theatricals; painting scenes on the lawn, modelling comic masks in clay, putting the footboy to hard labour in whitewashing, pulling up the dining-room flooring for traps, purloining the sheets and table-cloths for ghosts, blowing up the greenhouse with badly-made fireworks, stifling the servants with premature red fire, and, in fact, as Mrs. Hipkins Hawes said (the only person at Yellowknights who did not approve of private theatricals), ‘turning the house out of windows.’ She was a weak lady, subject to headaches, and with an expressive but somewhat monotonous formula of reply to every remark, namely, ‘stuff and nonsense.’ Said the doctor to her, when at last she lay mortally sick, ‘I fear, madam, that you are seriously indisposed,’ Whereupon, ‘Stuff and nonsense!’ cried out Mrs. Hipkins Hawes, and died.
Hipkins Hawes himself did not take any active part in the private theatricals, save paying good round sums for the expenses incurred, and enjoying in a most beaming manner the enjoyments of the children he loved so well. His principal employment was to sit at the great French windows overlooking the lawn, drink old port, and tell funny stories to young Bearskin, the stockbroker, and to Captain Chuff, who had been a king’s messenger, had travelled the wide world over, had a wonderful potato snuff-box, presented to him by the Emperor Alexander’s aide-de-camp, and was reported to be a gay nman. I never knew any one seem happier, more contented, more at peace with the world and himself than Hipkins Hawes, the retired coach-builder, then a florid, bald-headed, fair, round-bellied proprietor, aged fifty. He would hold the prompt-book during the rehearsals of his children’s plays, and make tremendous mistakes in his self-imposed [-373-] task. He would laugh the loudest at the jokes, and clap his fat hands, and take the little children who had played the fairies on his knee and kiss them. Ah! those were the days of pipe and tabour, of joy and gladness, of cake and wine; of the mirror before any of the quicksilver at the back is worn off; of the plated service before whitening and chamois leather have been too often used, and the copper begins to show. We youngsters were frequent guests at  Yellowknights, partly, perhaps, because all youth was welcome at that universal children’s friend society; partly because we were considered to be (I say it without vanity—woe is me!) a somewhat clever family. I had a brother who was a great chemist, who always had particoloured fingers and stained clothes, who burnt holes in all the blankets with noxious acids, who once nearly blew the front of the house out with some subtle chemical preparation, and who was always trying experiments upon the cat.* [* What an inestimable boon has the invention of photography been to heads of families whose younger branches are addicted to the study of chemistry. You can’t well blow a house up with a camera obscura, iodine, collodion, and gallic acid, and you may produce a pretty portrait of somebody.] I had a brother who had a wonderful genius for drawing ships. He drew so many of them on the margins of his spelling-book, that he quite overlooked the words ending in one or more syllables, or the book itself, and turned out an egregious dunce. I had a brother who made electrical machines out of cardboard and sealing-wax, models of ships that wouldn’t swim, and wooden clocks that wouldn’t go. His famous and favourite feat, however, was borrowing sixpence of me, which he never gave back. I had a sister— she is dead, dear girl !—who wrote the neatest, prettiest hand that ever was seen, long, I am sure, before she could. read. I have one of her books now, ‘Lines to Mourning, Psalm CIX.’ I don’t know what I was famous for myself, beyond sore eyes, and an intense love for private theatricals. This last attachment made me useful. I was call-boy, under-prompter, mob (behind the scenes), Sir Jeffery Hudson in the pie, one of the Children in the Wood, Prince Arthur, one of Hop-o’-my-Thumb’s brothers, a demon, a fairy, a black footboy, and the Yellow Dwarf. I wonder I never turned actor in after-life: so devoted was I to the drama in those early days. 
Our theatre was the great front drawing-room at Yellowknights, our stage, of course, the back drawing-room, the folding-doors making the proscenium. The dining-room was our favourite salle de spectacle; but Hipkins, our host, fond as he was of private theatricals, was fonder still of his dinner, and. was not to be cheated out of the enjoyment of his rare old port by the French windows looking out upon the lawn. I think Captain Chaff, Admiral Deadeyes (from the Priory), Old Mr. Puffweazle the retired solicitor, and others of his port-wine friends, coincided in this view of matters: it was the more annoying to us, as the dining-room was garnished by two massive Corinthian pillars, and looked exactly like a real stage proscenium. 
We did the best with what we had though, the drawing- rooms, and famously with those. Crowded audiences we used to have in those cheerful apartments, deaf old ladies in the front row, groups of happy children everywhere, and a grinning background of servants—’ to see how Miss Louisa do take her part to be sure!’ I need not enter into a minute criticism of our performances. We played everything, tragedy, comedy, farce, burlesque, and opera (all the Miss Haweses played and sang). I am afraid I was not much of an actor myself—I was so small and weak; but not to be egotistical, I imagine that I did once make something like a sensation as the physician’s head in Za-ze-zi-zo-zu.
I think if I had built coaches enough (mentally or bodily) to be very rich, that I should like to have a commodious family mansion, where my sons and daughters could play their private theatricals out. I am sure I would not grudge them time use of the dining-room, but would build a commodious summer-house on the lawn, where I could sip my old port wine.