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

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[-115-]

LEICESTER-SQUARE.

ONE of the peculiar institutions of the country is the square. Charles Knight says :-" The Piazza, Place, Platz, of Italy, France, or Germany, have little in common with it. Its elements are simple enough-an open space of a square figure, houses on each of the four sides, and an enclosed centre with turf, a few trees, and, it may be, flowers; and there is a square." There are fashionable squares, all alive with the sound of carriage-wheels and the chaste accents of a thousand flunkeys; there are city squares, dull, dark places, with old red-brick houses, and a stunted, smoke-dried shrub or two in the middle. Then there are respectable squares, which never were fashionable, nor ever aimed to be such; and then there are squares which were once fashionable, but now are sadly gone out of rep4e. One of the chief of these is Leicester-square. Do our readers remember how Queen Caroline found time to be the mother of seven [-116-] promising children, of whom the eldest, Frederick, Prince of Wales, was a continual source of sorrow and vexation to both his parents? "He resembled, writes Horace Walpole, with his usual sneer, "the Black Prince only in dying before his father." Well, there was a house built before the Commonwealth, called Leicester-house. Hither came this young, dissipated, short-lived Prince, and fixed his court. When he passed away, and the wits wrote-
        "Here lies Fred,
         Who was alive,
         And is dead,"
still the place had the prestige of fashion. It gradually assumed the shape of a square, and became the dwelling-place of men truly great. Sir Isaac Newton resided near the square, in a house yet standing, and known to fast men as Bertolini's, alias the Newton Hotel. Where now we see the Sablonière Hotel, Hogarth once dwelt, and at a later time Sir Joshua Reynolds lived on the opposite side of the square. In its neighbourhood Sir Charles Bell made his discoveries respecting the nervous system, and here the renowned John Hunter lived. In later times Wordsworth made it the scene of his [-117-] Moon-gazers; and if he could term it "Leicester's busy square," still more is that epithet appropriate to it at the present time. It is true that the Great Globe is not a success; that the Panopticon failed; that the Western Literary Institution did not flourish; that the place is not literary or scientific, nor even business-like, for by daylight the shops look seedy, and the wares exhibited are somewhat of the cheapest. But at night a change comes over the spirit of its dream. Here, from cheap lodging-houses hard by, from cold garrets or dark and dusty two-pair backs, crawl out to walk its flagstones, or taint its air with the smoke of cheap cigars, men of all nations and tongues - French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Poles-the scoundrels and patriots of Europe. There is business here now; the air is laden with the sickly odour of a thousand dinners. Hotels and cafés, and restaurants are lit up and gay. Mr Smith opens the Alhambra on Sundays and week-days for Music for the Million; and women, rouged and dressed as much as possible like the nude figures, degrade our conceptions of Venus, and Sappho, and the Syrens, and others of our classic acquaintances, by the exhibition of them in ques-[-118-]tionable groupings tolerated as poses plastiques. Wine-shades attract us; we hear the clink of billiards. This house we know to be a betting house - that to be a hell. A man runs up against us. He turns round and apologizes. I catch a glimpse of his face. I see at once that he is a billiard-room shark. Look at his pale face, his cold eye, his hard mouth; and don't play with him, however civil. Above all, don't imagine from his exterior that he is a gentleman. A gentleman does not wear slop-shop clothes nor mosaic gold.
    You wish to sit down. Well, as it is past the midnight hour, we will go into this Café Chansante. At any rate the foreigners have more taste than ourselves. The pretty young girls, French or German, at the bar give the place a pleasant appearance, and the mirrors on all sides reflect the gay forms and faces here assembled. But we pass into the concert room, where some Spanish minstrels in national costumes are singing national airs. As you are not musical and cannot understand these distinguished foreigners, let us see who are here, the Swiss Kellner, with his wonted civility, having first brought us a cup of coffee and a cigar. I don't know why it is [-119-] so, but it always struck me that of all asses the English ass is the greatest. How conspicuous, for instance, are those three young fellows sitting at the small marble table in front of us. Most likely they are medical students. Of course they are drinking and smoking, and have female companions, respecting whose character there can be no doubt. How happy are they in their conceit - in their insolent laugh at the foreigners round them - in their vulgar shouts of derisive applause. Talk to them, and you will be astonished to find how morally dead they are, how narrow is their range of thought, how obsolete are all their ideas, how suppressed are all their sympathies: not even the beer they drink can be heavier. Yet these lads are to teach the next age its medical science - and in the last death-struggle, when we would save the life we love, with broken hearts and streaming eyes we shall appeal to them in vain. In England the general practioner will always be under-bred so long as the night-house and the casino absorb the hours science imperiously claims. But pass on to this next table. Look at this girl all radiant with beauty and smiles-beautiful even in spite of her long-lost virtue and life of sin. For,
        [-120-] "You may break, you may ruin, the vase if you will,
            But the scent of the roses will hang round it still."
    The man seated by her side is in love with her. It may be for her love he has given up mother, sister, betrothed, home, his fair name, his prospects in life, his hopes of heaven; and she no more heeds his passionate vows than does the rock the murmur of the waves at its feet; and already her wanton eye glances round the room for other victims to sacrifice to her vanity and pride. Oh, the deceit and craft and hardness of women such as she! And yet on account of such in distant village-homes there is sadness, and the mother and sister deny themselves many a luxury, and grayhaired fathers mourn over their lost and loved - their Benjamins - born and nurtured to come to such an end. Perhaps at the next table the picture is reversed; that woman is beautiful, and her face has a smile, and there is a flush upon her cheek, and the wine has driven from her heart for a while bitter memories; but she is not happy, though loud be her laugh; and if she dared to sit and think of the hour when she fell, and of the mire and dirt along which she has crawled, of what she is now in her rustling silks, and what she was in her pea-[-121-]sant dress then - eyes full of grief, and dim with tears, would look into her own; and out of that gilded room, and away from all the song and laughter and wine, would she not rush home to die? Yet if she now sells herself to pay tomorrow's baker's bill, is she to be trod on by the high-born beauty that goes up to God's altar with one for whom she has no love, for an establishment that will make her bridesmaids yellow with well-bred jealousy? But we are all gay here. Is not the room light and cheerful? Is not the whole aspect all mirth-inspiring? Does not dull care flee the flowing bowl? Jolly fellows are sitting and telling each other tales which you would be sorry your sister should hear, and which no mother would believe would be ever heard by son of hers without a manly protest. Women are laughing and drinking as if theirs were not lives of shame. Sated men about town languidly smoke, and the eye of the gloomy refuge sparkles, and his heart beats quicker, as he hears the song of his father-land. The hours hasten on the company depart - the wanton beauty, flushed with conquest, rides off in the Hansom, or it may be in her private brougham, to her luxurious rooms; while her sister, shiver-[-122-]ing in the cold night, begs us for two-pence with which to purchase a bed of straw. Poor forlorn one! in another year thou wilt lie down in another bed, only to wake up when the last trump shall sound!