Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 26 - The Illuminations

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CHAPTER XXVI

THE ILLUMINATIONS 

So short-lived is human interest in any event that the great day of the Jubilee having passed, the restoration of London to its former state began immediately. On Wednesday morning four-wheeled cabs were drawn up in front of lodgings everywhere, from Maida Vale to the borders of Belgravia; these were loaded with luggage, and men, women and children, hurrying out, betook themselves to the country and the provincial towns whence the attractions of London had drawn them. Hansoms returned to their customary tariff, and the omnibus, once more "full up," accepted pennies where it had extorted shillings. The price of food had gone down - a prodigious over-supply having been laid in by the green-grocers and restaurants, tons of which had been wasted or sold for a trifle; and the placard "Apartments" was once more displayed in windows along Baker street, throughout the dreary regions of Bloomsbury and in plebeian Bayswater. Scaffoldings and stands melted like frost in the sunshine, and St. Martin's in the Field, the Athenaeum and other clubs came forth from their temporary eclipse. One realized, as never before, the real comfort of ordinary, humdrum life. For ten days London had been the most uncomfortable city on the globe. During that time the British subject, no matter how polite or amiable by nature, snapped if you looked at him. The most characteristic figure I had seen that week was a stout woman of fifty, crimson and perspiring, who climbed into an Atlas' bus [-332-] Piccadilly Circus. She sat down, drawing deep stertorous breaths, and looked at her fellow passengers with the expression of one deeply injured; her bonnet was tipped over one ear and her umbrella handle had been snapped off short; she had simply endeavored to make her way across Piccadilly Circus and reached the distant curbstone with rent garments, straining seams and bursting buttons, bristling and disheveled and indignant.
    The illuminations on the evening of the 22d promised to be in keeping with the pageant of the day; but every one anticipated a crowd, through which it would be almost impossible to move, and postponed seeing the show until the evening of Wednesday. Thus, on the first evening, while the streets and railway stations were comparatively free, the evening following, locomotion became not only difficult but almost impossible. It meant getting over the ground inch by inch, and resistance to incessant and painful elbowing, pushing and prodding. The rich drove in cabs and carriages; the poor and the robust patronized the omnibus, which had been excluded from the usual thoroughfares on the evening of the 22d, and there were thousands who were courageous enough to attempt going on foot. The more rational and discreet, those of moderate means and of ordinary strength, remained quietly within doors, devoutly thankful, after all the burly burly and excitement, for a quiet retreat where they might be shut away from the sight of human beings and the tumult of human activity.
    I had promised the housekeeper, who was not able to leave home on Tuesday, that she should see the illuminations on Wednesday evening under my guidance and protection, and this is a true narrative of our adventures.
    We set out at nine o'clock, at which hour it was still broad daylight, to take the Atlas' bus at the "Princess of Wales" to ride through Baker street, Oxford and Regent [-333-] streets and Whitehall, over Westminster bridge, through the East End and back again - the route that I had taken on Monday evening previous. We supposed that we would be amongst the last, having given the crowd time to set out in advance of us, but we found a great throng who had taken a like precaution, and who were also anxiously waiting for places. Each omnibus, departing at intervals of a few minutes, was filled to its utmost capacity. As it was useless to wait, we walked a mile, or more, to meet an empty vehicle on its return, but in this scheme, also, we had been anticipated by scores who had been moved by the same impulse. After much delay we found one bus with just three places on top, and these our small party were fortunate enough to secure. We were no sooner seated than up came a Jew, very big, very loud of voice and very aggressive; he was accompanied by his wife and half-grown daughter. A place was found for his wife, but the daughter was thrust into a seat already occupied by two persons, one of them a mild and inoffensive woman. It occasionally happens that the outwardly mild and inoffensive are the most dangerous when roused, and so it proved to be in this case. The woman protested emphatically, stating that she had paid, not one fare but two, for her seat, and that the law was being violated. This led to what the English call a "jolly row," which brought the Jewish gentleman to the scene of action; after seating his family he had perched out of sight, but not out of hearing, on the steps below. He was violent and insulting, and finally the quiet woman turned to him and asked cuttingly:
    "You're a Jew, aren't you ?"
    It may have been shockingly ill-bred, but she had been goaded to desperation. The question only increased the man s fury.
    "A Jew! A Jew!" he screamed, "and what are you? [-334-] An atheist, I suppose; yes, an atheist! You look like an atheist. I'm not ashamed of my religion; you are of yours, for I see you won't tell what it is. The Lord Mayor of London is a Jew, perhaps you don't know that; yes, the Lord Mayor of London is a Jew, and so was Lord Beaconsfield, and I don't suppose you ever heard of Moses Montefiore."
    The woman replied to this harangue with, "stop your abuse or I'll give you in charge."
    This kindled the man's wrath afresh and when the conductor was appealed to he said angrily:
    "O, 'ush your row!"
    By this time a third person intervened, and the indignant Jew was induced to place his daughter beside his wife, to which that lady greatly objected, and for a time hostilities were suspended. There was also on top a party of country folk from Derbyshire, and they huddled together and looked on at the quarrel, the shrieking Jew and the indefatigable woman who maintained her rights, with the dazed and frightened expression of sheep peering through a gap in a hedge at a rough and tumble fight between two collies.
    These people the Jew endeavored by every means to oust from their seats that he might get possession of them, shouting out that "they'd have to pay a shilling more when they got to Orchard street." This statement was promptly contradicted by the other passengers who were disposed to protect the country people, and a renewal of difficulties for a moment seemed imminent. Finally with this lively prologue to the evening's melodrama, which threatened a tragedy before it was finished, we rolled away.
    The sight was a pretty one, but it hardly equalled our expectations; the trees in the gardens through St. John's wood and Regent Park were strung with many-colored fairy lamps; here and there were the familiar and unvaried [-335-] designs; coronets, the royal or imperial monogram, the national coat of arms; the crest of the Prince of Wales interwoven with the shamrock, rose and thistle. Japanese lanterns were suspended from balconies, and from swaying and sagging lines thrown across the roadway, and, mingled with these, were flags and flowers, effective by daylight, but which were dimmed in the more brilliant glow of the illuminations. Drapers' shops on Oxford street were lighted from foundation to cornice, gas and electricity both being employed. The gas jets were extinguished by every puff of wind and men were required continually to relight them. There had been a long discussion in the newspapers as to the respective merits of gas and electricity prior to the Jubilee, the general verdict being in favor of gas as "less glaring;" but the trouble that it gave as compared to electricity must have made it apparent that nothing equals the soft, steady brilliancy of electricity.
    The crush in the streets was indescribable, far greater than on the morning of the Jubilee when the thoroughfares had been closed to traffic. Carriages, cabs, vans, carriers' carts filled with men, women and children from the poorer districts of London, with all the thousands of omnibuses that ply the streets of the metropolis daily, seemed to have been massed together in an inextricable tangle. The police, unexcited, gentle and patient, stood grouped in the "shelters" and endeavored to take some supervision of the chaos. Now one of them stepped briskly out of his place and seized a horse by the bridle, or backed him until he reared on his haunches, and this summary act was followed by the noise of backing vehicles which sounded like the switching of an empty freight train. Through the snarl of wheels and hoofs and tossing manes, thousands of people passed on foot; scores of men and half-grown boys, following each other in single file. Occasionally there would be a line, each man with his hands extended and [-336-] resting on the shoulders of the man in front of him - files that were roughly torn apart by the watchful police. Scores of fool-hardy women had brought with them broods of babies that could scarcely toddle. It was pleasant, though, to see that even these were helped and cared for; nobody reproached the poor mothers or told them that they should have remained at home; the long-suffering "bobby" made way for them; a big hobbledehoy of a lad, or a gentleman in patent leather shoes and evening dress trying to reach his club, would pick up the children and pass them along like so many buckets at a village fire. The sidewalks were packed solidly from wall to curbstone, and they accommodated only a fraction of the thousands that overflowed into the road among the traffic. Our omnibus crawled along almost imperceptibly, with long and frequent halts; and we were nearly two hours in going from Oxford street to Trafalgar square. Here the crowd was more immovable than ever; we had quite forgotten that it was a "command night" at the opera; that all the visiting Princes and potentates would appear, a spectacle such as Covent Garden had not witnessed for many a decade. Down Pall Mall, to Marlborough House and Buckingham Palace the streets were closed, the right of way being reserved for royalty and their guests.
    We could not, of course, cross the square, but worked our way by a devious and unfamiliar route in the neighborhood of the Metropole hotel to Westminster bridge. The larger hotels, which were patronized by Americans, were one dazzling sheet of colored lamps, row upon row, of red, white and blue. At Westminster bridge there was another dismal blockade; it was impossible to get through it, so the driver turned and made his way back to Trafalgar square. Here there was still no thoroughfare, although by this time it was half past eleven o'clock, [-337-] so the horses' heads were turned again in the direction of the Parliament building, near which we were caught once more, and the exciting scenes of Oxford street were re-enacted. The line of traffic had closed behind us and stretched interminably in front, as solid as a stone wall. It was somewhat appalling; we knew we were there to remain until the mass in front of us moved, as it did, step only at a time; there was no going back, and little hope of going forward, and we waited at a dead standstill with what patience we could muster for three quarters of an hour. Near the omnibus was a carriage with a pair of magnificent horses; one of them was terrified by the blaze of lights from the illuminations over the door of the Metropolitan railway station, and trembled in every nerve, tossing its head in anguish, with nostrils dilated, breast and forehead flecked with foam. As in Oxford street, pedestrians wound in and out, jumped and crawled among hoofs and wheels, all preserving their good nature and self-control. Here and there, through that jumble of vehicles and quadrupeds, came the shrill notes of the latest music hall ballad, sung or whistled by wayfaring gamins, in which they were joined from time to time by the impatient prisoners on the top of the omnibuses. When a space in front of us was comparatively clear and the wheels began to turn once more, all hope of getting across the bridge being abandoned, we were taken quite out of the ordinary route, down Victoria street, past the Colonial offices, the Army and Navy stores--hotels with scarlet uniformed sentries at the entrance betokening the presence of envoys or of royalty-and all outvying each other in the brilliancy and profusion of their flags, lights and garlands. From Victoria street we turned into Buckingham Palace road and here was another blockade, quite as hopeless as that from which it had taken us nearly an hour to get free in Westminster. The driver was tired, cross, and [-338-] as it soon became apparent, far from sober. He turned the distracted horses with a jerk, the huge omnibus swayed and reeled, the wheels grating against the curbstone as it bounced upon the sidewalk and jolted down again. That we were saved from a frightful catastrophe was due alone to an interposing providence. Most of us were silent, but I gave a gasp and held fast to the seat in front of me with the clutch of despair. One woman went off into shrieking hysterics but was brought to her senses by a stern rebuke and vigorous and painful pinching from the woman behind her, who emphasized her pinchings with the angry exhortation:
  
"Keep quiet; behave yourself; how dare you!" and, thus disciplined, the refractory one held her arms close to her sides, sobbing and sighing, but obedient. And then began a ride which none of us is likely ever to forget. We went bounding and jolting back over a part of the route by which we had come, grazing the curbstones and making the shortest possible turns around corners into Eton square; from Sloane street to Knightsbridge, from Knightsbridge to West Kensington, thence to Notting-hill Gate, to Paddington and finally to Westbourne Grove and up to the door of the Jew who had succeeded in getting the Derbyshire people to alight in Piccadilly Circus, and find their way as best they could to St. Pancreas railway station, while he disposed his family about him in their seats, from which he had finally ousted them. This gave him a place at the driver's elbow, and unknown to the rest of us, he engineered the omnibus through the semi-darkness of unfrequented streets, far from the scene of the Jubilee rejoicings. It was no merit of his that we reached home unharmed and alive. London bus drivers are, as a rule experts; ours was both drunk and stupid, but we were absolutely at his mercy. A cab could not have been hired under two guineas an hour, and in this out-of-the-way re-[-339-]gion, at one o'clock in the morning-for it was now long past midnight - we would have been charged twice that sum. We were far from all the known omnibus routes and had no choice but to stick to the dangerous vehicle and the crazy driver, trusting to luck. The greater part of the police force were detailed to the crowded centers and we could not appeal to them - at least not then. Finally we stopped at a public house; three or four of the men alighted, went into the place and slaked their thirst; the Jew returning with a glass of beer for the driver and a glass of sherry for his wife. This was consumed easily and leisurely, and, after the lapse of twenty minutes or more, the men returned and off we went again. We scraped curbstones, bounced into holes and out again, another perilous turn on the sidewalk was made with a narrower escape from capsizing than before, then we retraced our course and turned again. We were now in streets where an omnibus had apparently never been seen, and roused by the unusual rumble of wheels people came to their windows, aroused from sleep, and peered out wonderingly. A man and woman among the passengers on top had been ominously silent; but the man now rose in his might.
    " Ere, you!" he shouted to the conductor; "I want to know where you're taikin' us. We want to go to Baiker street."
    "Yes," his wife shrieked confirming this sudden speech. "We got in at Victoria's - miles away - and we told you that we wanted to go to Baiker street."
    We were then quite as far from Baker street as we were from Victoria, and we sympathized with the rage of the screaming woman.
    "This is a pretty way to treat honest folks I must say- tell 'em you'll taike em to Baiker street and bring 'em to Paddington. Oh you'll pay for this lemme tell you !" and [-340-] the savage snarl with which thi indefinite threat concluded was blood-curdling.
    The conductor, who, no doubt, had also been subsidized by the Jew, came running up on top and endeavored to pacify her; but she paid no attention, and her husband, recognizing her superior fluency, let her do the most of the remonstrating, although he had no feeble command of language himself. The woman went on in a steady crescendo:
  
"You told us you'd let us hoff at Baiker street, and ere we are at Paddington, all the way from Victoria at this hour in the morning."
    The man interpolated in a deep bass, with awful conviction and solemnity:
    "It was that glass of beer that done it. I saw 'em. I saw that man and woman on the front seat bargaining to be taiken 'ome. It was that glass of beer that done it."
    He repeated the last charge with concentrated acrimony and both the conductor and the Jew were discreetly silent. Presently we turned into a somewhat more cheerful thoroughfare which was reasonably well-lighted. On the corner the driver's accusers spied two policemen - the first that we had sighted since we left Trafalgar square, and the man shouted at them with a bellow that must have roused the whole neighborhood. In fact it did, for there was a sound of exclamations and racing feet, and even at that hour a crowd began to collect - the belated, who, like ourselves, had been out to see the illuminations. The driver attempted to whip up the horses and get away; he was sober enough to try to evade the clutches of the law, but the police called to him, ordered him to stop, and then ran after us. The driver, thus coerced, stopped the horses, and both he and the conductor were obliged to come down from their places, join the officers in the road and give an account of themselves, and they were speedily reinforced [-341-] by the husband of the irate woman. The guilty ones were closely interrogated, the conductor endeavoring to break into the informant's story, but was ordered to keep quiet, while the crowd closed round them in an interested circle. One of the policemen took out a small book, entered the complaint therein, something was said as to further investigations, names and addresses were given and we were then allowed to proceed.
    The woman, however, was not in the least pacified, she went on and on like a Greek chorus, in monotonous reiteration:
    "It was a shoime, so it was; they got on at Victoria to be taiken to Balker street, and ere they were, goodness knows where. They got on at Victoria and they wanted to be taiken to Baiker street, and they would be taiken to Balker street."
    The moon had now risen and threw a ghostly light over the scene; we were in Kilbourne and the vehicle halted before an unpretentious villa very much gone to stucco. The Jew who had bribed the driver with more than beer I suspected, gathered his family together and descended. He had kept perfectly still during the last uproar, but he was now safe at home and had nothing more to fear.
    "Calls herself a laidy; nice sort of a laidy she is," said the woman driven to madness again at the superior good fortune of the Jew in being brought to his door.
    Her husband joined in:
    "You'll ear about this in the morning," he shouted, at which the victorious Jew paused before his gate, under the lamp post, took out his card-case and held up a bit of paste-board.
    "Perhaps you'd like my card," he yelled in reply. "Here it is, if you want it. No? Well, good-night," emphasizing the first syllable with exasperating malice.
    A very young and quiet man had slipped into the seat [-342-] beside me during a lull in the conflict, after we had dropped most of our passengers, and he said:
    "I have missed my train to Bristol, and I cannot get another until seven o'clock."
    "Too bad!" I exclaimed sympathizingly.
    "Oh, not at all," he replied, politely, "I shall not have long to wait, now. This has been awfully amusing, don't you know. I'll just stick to the bus and see what does happen."
    This is what did happen almost immediately; the enraged woman across the aisle stood up and cried in tones that were not to be disregarded, addressing the conductor:
    "Now, sir, taike us straight away to Baiker street."
    The conductor parleyed and protested and argued, and offered to hire a cab and send them at his own expense.
    "No sir," she replied viciously, "We goes to Baiker street, and we goes in this bus."
    The conductor gave a sigh and then surrendered; he muttered some order to the driver which our party failed to catch, but its meaning was immediately made clear; for the dozenth time the driver turned the tired horses and started off in precisely the opposite direction from that in which he had been driving.
  
"Now where are you going?" I, at least, ventured to ask of the conductor.
    "To Baiker street," replied the man, laconically and sullenly.
    In one brief night he had been in two rows, invited to drink at a public house and accepted the invitation, had been given over to the police - the vengeance of Nemesis finally overtaking him for failing to settle the Jew in the start.
    "Not with us," I declared sternly, roused also to resistance. "Stop instantly, and let us off."
    [-343-] Home was within comfortable walking distance, for we were now in High street, Kilbourne. The omnibus stopped again for the twentieth time, and we descended, tired, stiff, disgusted, but thankful to be upon solid ground with no bones broken. We walked through the deserted streets, escorted by a trio of gallant Etonians who also declined to be taken back to "Baiker street," and the bus rattled away, with the triumphant woman and her husband and the young man from Bristol on top, the sole remaining passengers. Morning was coming fast when we rang the bell and the sleepy housemaid let us in.
    "I do not see how we ever reached home alive," I remarked with a sigh of relief.
    The housekeeper who was a devout Christian Scientist replied with a conviction that admitted no argument:
  
"I demonstrated every step of the way!"