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

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READER, do you know the Cave of Harmony? If you do not, so much the better. If you are one of its habitués, I fear no words of mine can make you forsake it. It is said the Cave is altered since we were there - so much the better; Thackeray, I think, had something to do with that reform - and that now nothing objectionable is sung. Still, I doubt whether drinking and harmony after 12 P. M. can do much good. You and I, it may be, are old men,
        "Ruin'd trunks on wither'd forks,
        Empty scarecrows you and I."
We have run through youth with money in our pockets and time on our hands, and have seen all that life can offer, and know, what so many do not, that pleasure's cup bat sparkles near the brim. What we have done and been has been wine working on the fiery impulses of young blood, but now, sir, with our hair turning grey and our eyes growing dim, shall we not lift up a [-93-] warning voice, and ask youth to pause ere it take the final plunge which for years, it may be for ever, shall estrange it from innocence, and peace, and God.
    It is midnight in the great city in which we write. For a while sorrow and care are veiled from the eyes of men, and to the poorest and most toilworn come pleasant dreams. The shops have long been closed, the roar of the streets has died away, the theatres have discharged their jaded crowds, and as we walk along, meeting now and then a poor drunkard reeling home - or a policeman silently patrolling the streets - or one of the unfortunates, by turns man's victim and curse-or some of the votaries of dissipation who are awake when other men are asleep - we realize all the grandeur and poetry and magnificence of London by night, and wonder not that Savage and Johnson should have found such a fascination in the scene, and that other sons of genius have read such sermons in its eloquent atones. Let us stroll towards Covent Garden - in another hour it will be ringing with the oaths and execrations of seemingly all the market gardeners in Middlesex - and enter that doorway indicated by the glare of gas; come with me [-94-] down these stairs, and into that room, the door of which the waiter holds obligingly open. Let us stand here while we recover from the effect of the fumes of grog and the smoke of tobacco. You find yourself in a room holding perhaps 1200 gentlemen; look around, this is a respectable place, this Cave of Harmony, there are no poor people here. We have heavy swells, moustached, and with white kids - officers in the army - scions of noble houses - country gentlemen, and merchants, and lawyers in town on business-literary men, medical students, and old fogies, with every moral sensibility dead, who have sat here for years listening to the same songs and the same outpourings; they could tell you something, these old fogies - what changes they have seen, as one generation after another of students and rakes and men about town have thought it fast to sup every night within these walls; of course the majority in the room are clerks, and commercial gents, and fellows in Government situations, learning here the extravagance which in time will compel them to commit frauds and forgery, and eventually perhaps land· them in a felon's jail. For the Cave of Harmony is not a cheap place to [-95-] sup at. The chop and baked potatoes are excellent but dear, and four or five shillings is a sum soon spent if you do as every one here does,- take your pint of stout, and three or four glasses of grog; and the chances are you will meet a friend, who will persuade you to make a night of it and stroll West with him, where you will see Vice flaunting more finely and with greater bravery than in any other capital in Europe. But let us drop these considerations. We are at one end of a long room, at the other is a raised platform, on which is a piano, and in front of which some half-dozen gentlemen are seated-these are the performers. Their faces you know well enough, for they are in much repute for dinners at the London Tavern or the Freemasons, and the last time I dined with the Indigent Blind - with a High Church dignitary in the chair - we had the whole half-dozen to assist; they are good singers, I willingly confess, and sing many of them touching songs of youth, and hope, and true love, and home - but they do n't sing the better for singing during the small hours and in a drinking saloon. That little Hebrew, who has been at it, he tells me, for upwards of forty years, is not an impro-[-96-]visatore like Theodore Hook, but he does it well enough for an audience good-natured and a little the worse for drink. The imitations of a barnyard, with its cows, and geese, and turkeys, and other live stock, by that poor, seedy, needy, smiling German, are amusing to hear once, but every one here has heard them over and over again. What they need is something richer, and more spicy, as they term it. You see they are getting tired of sentimental songs, and war songs, and madrigals, and glees. They don't want to hear-
        "I know a maiden fair to see,"
        "Down in a flowery vale,
            All on a summer morning,"
        "In going to my lonely bed
            As one that would have slept."
They are careless when Podder sings "Kathleen Mavourneen," and are indifferent to the manner in which Brown renders
        "Beautiful Venice, city of song."
In old times, before the obscenity of the place was done away with, towards early morning it seemed a perfect Babel. A favourite's name was sounded - it was repeated with every variety of [-97-] emphasis in every corner of the room; the tables were struck with drunken fists till the tumult became a perfect storm; the master of the place raps the table with an auctioneer's hammer- "Silence, gentlemen, if you please, Mr - will sing a comic song;" and immediately a man in a beggar's costume, and with the face of an idiot, jumps upon the stage. his appearance was a signal for a whirlwind of' applause. He sang, with accompanying action, some dozen verses of doggerel, remarkable for obscenity and imbecility. You looked around, but not a blush did you see in that crowded room; not one single head was held down in shame; not one high-spirited gentleman rushed indignantly from the place. On the contrary, the singer was greeted with the most lavish expression of applause, continued so loudly and so long that again the proprietor had to announce, "Mr - will sing another comic song." But this time the comic singer would not dress for his part, and you saw a young, good-looking, well-dressed, gentlemanly fellow voluntarily degrading himself for the pleasure of men more degraded still. You tell me the comic singer is a happy fellow, that he gets six guineas a-week, that he lives in a nice little cottage in [-98-] the Hampstead-road. I know better than you; the man I write of, after having been the attraction of the Cave of Harmony for years, after having been feasted by the nobility and gentry, after having led a career of pleasure on the most extravagant scale, will go down yet young as a beggar to one of our sea-port towns, and, after craving in vain a refuge from the winter's cold and a crust of bread, will die in the workhouse, and be buried in a pauper's grave. How many of the gay young fellows now around us will have a similar termination to their career! I never can pass the Cave of Harmony without thinking of the comic singer as last I saw him - in the very flush of health and life, stimulated by wine and applause, little dreaming of the workhouse in which he was so soon to beg for room to die. But this exhibition is of the past,- the place is reformed; and how it is patronized is clear, when I state that on the night of the marriage of the Princess Royal, there were consumed in it 21 dozen kidneys, 478 chops, 280 Welsh rabbits, 1500 glasses of stout, and a hogshead of pale ale.