Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - The Bal Masque

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THE BAL MASQUE

IN foreign lands, we are told, is something refined and delicate. I have been to some abroad which certainly were nothing of the kind; but in England, or rather in London, they are low, blackguard places, whether in the Holborn Cosino, or Covent Garden, or the Grecian Saloon, or Vauxhall, or at Drury-lane. In 1723 they were put down by government. Steele wrote of them, that in his time, "the misfortune of the thing is, that people dress themselves in what they have a mind to be - and not what they are fit for." I have seen the French men and women at Vauxhall, and if they do in Paris what they do there - why, then I doubt somewhat of the superiority even of French Bal Masques. But in England a public Bal Masque is a disgusting exhibition, to enjoy which every moral sense must be deadened, and then a man must be drunk and have his pockets well lined. The rustic flower-girls and simple hay-makers with [-53-] whom you dance will drink champagne as if it were ginger-beer, and consume all the delicacies of the season as if they cost no more than bacon and beans.
    The fun, as it is termed, generally commences about 11 P.M., by an immense mob of costermongers, tag-rag and bob-tail, forming themselves in a row under the surveillance of the police, to watch and criticise the appearance of the maskers, and specially to regale themselves with jokes should any unfortunate do the economical and arrive on foot. I hear people say they like London - they can do anything they like without being observed. I doubt that much. I advise the strong-minded female who tells me that, to walk down Cheapside in a Bloomer costume, and I will warrant she will have as great a mob accompanying her as followed Kossuth or any other hero to Guildhall. But to return to the Bal Masque. I presume the company are arriving and the little boys are cheering, as only little boys can, right under cab wheels and in between the horses' legs. Some of the company, to borrow an ancient witticism, go disguised as gentlemen - some buy a mask at the door for fourpenee - others delight in monstrous noses [-54-] and fearful moustache-others, especially those who have fancy dresses, appear as Charles II.s, Cardinal Wolseys, Shakspeares, Henry VIII.s, Scotch Highlanders, Australian Diggers, Monks, and look far better when they enter than they do when they make their exit in the early light of a summer morning. The same remark holds true of their female companions, who are mostly the same ladies that you meet in Regent-street in the afternoon, or hanging about the Haymarket all night, a class at no time remarkable for modesty, but whom we shall see in the course of the evening becoming bold and brazen-faced with excitement and wine. But the theatre is full-the guests are met-the band is assembled-the leader wields the baton-the sparkling chandeliers give a lustre to the scene, and away they bound to the music, whilst from the boxes and the gallery admiring crowds look down. Yes, there is a wild excitement in the hour, which stirs even the pulses of old blood. The women, as debardeurs, flower girls, sailor boys-many of them with faces fitting them for diviner lives, look beautiful even in their degradation and shame. Horace tells us, wherever we go black care gets up and rides behind. Is it so? [-55-] Can there be sad hearts beneath those gay exteriors? Do those cheeks flushed and radiant eyes indicate that they belong to those whom all moralists have held infamous, all religions condemned, and whose existence our modern civilization perpetuates and deplores? Is man an immortal being, sent here for awhile to triumph over fleshly lusts and passions, to learn to trample as dross on the vanities of earth, and to set his affections on things above? Is it true that the most successful votaries of pleasure, from kingly Solomon to lordly Byron, have borne the same testimony to them, that they are not worth the gathering, that they are but as apples gathered by the shore of the Dead Sea, fair to the eye but deadly to the taste, and that in no way can they answer the need and aspirations of the heart of man, which is greater and grander than them all? Have we paid ministers of religion, bishops and archbishops, millions and millions of pounds to teach men these few self-evident truths, and yet do such orgies as those of which we write not merely exist but flourish, as if we had accepted. the creed of the Atheist,- "Let us eat and drink and be merry, for to-morrow we die?" To-morrow! who around us now thinks [-56-] of to-morrow? Not the young rake chaffing and dancing before us, whose mirth is the delirium of forgetfulness and the intoxication of wine, whose to-morrow is Whitecross-street Prison or the Insolvent Debtors' Court. Not that brazen- faced woman now arrayed in splendour, and surrounded by her admirers, whose to-morrow is old age, neglect, and a garret. Not those grey-headed gouty old sinners in the boxes, who have not the excuse of youth for the follies with which they desecrate old age. And certainly not that pale clerk, who has most probably embezzled his employer's money, and who is frantically exclaiming, "Waiter, another bottle of champagne, as he tells the women of his lot that he feels "a cup too low." You say he has them to cheer him. Yes, till his money is gone. When he is at Bow-street, as assuredly he will soon be, I promise you they will not be the last to give evidence as to his possession of funds, or the manner of his spending them. There may be honour among thieves, there is none among women when they have once lost their own.
    Still gaily goes on the dancing. Then there is supper and wine-and more dancing, and more music, and more wine. The reporters for [-57-] the papers generally leave about supper-time, and state that the gaieties were prolonged till a late hour; it is well they do this. In the earlier part of the evening the rioting and chaffing is somewhat of the coarsest, and the wit somewhat of the poorest; and the later it grows, and the more potent is the vinous influence, the less select, or rather the more obscene, is the phraseology. In the wild saturnalia that ensues, all the restraints of decency and habit are thrown on one side. It is time to close, and the conductor sees this. Already Henry VIII. is right royally drunk, and Cardinal Wolsey is uttering flat blasphemy, and one monk has got a black eye, another a bloody nose. Unless, as in the case of Covent Garden, the theatre is burned down, and the proceedings are abruptly terminated, there is a final dance, - a patriotic rendering of the national anthem, - and into the air walk, or rather tumble, the debauchees, some to go home quietly to bed, others to keep it up in the nearest coffee-houses and public-houses; and hand-maidens rising early to take in the milk in various parts of the metropolis are astonished by the exceedingly unsteady gait and singular cos-[-58-]tumes of various dismal gents, who have, if they are not absolute fools, sworn that it will be a long time before they go to another masque bal. Such, I believe, is the general conclusion, the only exceptions being the costumier who provides the dresses, generally a Jew, and the bigger Jew who furnishes the wine.