Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At the Death-Bed of a London Dragon

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IT is my proud and happy privilege to announce to the anxious mothers of England that one of the most celebrated and voracious dragons haunting wicked London is at its last gasp, and cannot, unless by a miracle, recover. Were it anything else than a dragon it must be pitied ; its case is so deplorable. Its fangs are worn down to the bluntness of a broomstick ; its sting has lost its sheath, and there appears plain to be seen and avoided; the fire has expired in its nostrils, or at least is reduced to the merest smoulder, accompanied by a fume sufficiently disgusting to warn off all who would approach there is no more fascination remaining in its eyes than in the eyes of a dead flounder, and, more significant than all, its wonderful powers of wheedling and deluding have forsaken it, and it is reduced to idiotic chatter and drivel that can fill its hearers only with disgust, and Contempt.
    Coal Hole is the monster's name. It is one of the most venerable of metropolitan dragons, and may truthfully boast of having devoured a larger number of green young men than any beast of its tribe. For very many years its den was situate in the heart of London, and it had as its chief priest a huge, fat creature of our own species called Baron. These were the dragon's palmiest days, and its renown spread through [-100-] the land. Daring young farmers and graziers venturing up to "Lunnon" in the Cattle Show season were treated to a glimpse of real out-and-out "life" by their Cockney cousins, and, after paying a visit to all the minor dragons, "wound up" by diving into Maiden Lane, and obtaining an introduction to Old Dragon Coal Hole. Hailing from regions where gas is unknown, and where the "mop" fair at Michaelmas and the "mummers" at Christmas-time are the only amusements vouchsafed the inhabitants, it were no wonder if the young farmers and graziers were enchanted by the intoxicating splendour of the dragon and its surroundings. Lights sparkling amid a glory of twinkling glass, velvet-covered seats, waiters more respectable-looking as regards dress than the country parson at home, brilliant champagne, choice cigars, ladies more splendid than Queens of Sheba, spicy meats, spicy songs, and music compared with which the Muggleton brass band was as the braying of donkeys in a pound No wonder, when young Dawkings heard and saw all these things that he felt slightly delirious, and that on returning home he confided to his most intimate male friends the matchless marvels he had been eye-witness to, and the "pretty penny" which first and last the privilege had cost him. Dawkings's most intimate friends whom he could trust with a secret he would not have come to his mother's or sister's ears for worlds, had their most intimate friends who were equally trustworthy, and so the secret spread, and the dragon of Maiden Lane became more terribly famous than ever. Visions of the monster nightly haunted the pillows of parents whose sons were in London, and when kind-hearted Aunt Deborah forwarded to Mr. Charley Wiggles, of King's College, that fifteen pounds he so disinterestedly solicited from her on behalf of his widowed laundress, whose husband had been killed by a fall from a ladder, leaving her with thirteen young children to support, the letter that accompanied the donation, and which contained good counsel against the wiles of dragons [-101-] generally, hinted broadly at Dragon Coal Hole (" night-house" Aunt Deborah called it) in particular.
    But sleep in peace, good country mothers and fathers; abate your alarms, Aunt Deborah; for the ravening beast in question is on its last legs. Its chief priest died some two years or so since, and shortly after, the monster crawled out of Maiden Lane in the night, and for a time disappeared, so that its enemies began to indulge in the hope that he might have crossed the Strand and, blundering down some of the dark alleys there, tumbled into the river, and so an end of him. But he was not dead yet. Where he had lurked meanwhile, or on what he had been subsisting nobody knows, but one night he suddenly hung out his sign again. It is a queer sign that of Dragon Coal Hole. A shabby wretch, a sort of plucked and tame Solomon Eagle, carries the monster's insignia on his head, lit by a candle, covered by a sort of transparent hat. Yes, the dragon had come to life again, the sign on the man's head informed the public, and might be found jolly, hearty, and rollicking as ever in Leicester Square. Having the highest respect for Aunt Deborah, I had hitherto abstained from visiting the fascinating beast, but feeling curious and pleading the call of duty, last Monday night I paid it a visit.
    Forearmed by the stories I had heard of the monster's artifices to lure the unwary to destruction, while approaching its den I sternly resolved that neither the magnificence of its gilded saloons, the seductive flavour of its wines, the blandishment of its sirens, or the rich and racy humour of its great entertainment, called a "judge and jury," should move me to being anything else than a cool, calm, dispassionate observer, with his wits about him, and with a single glass of bitter ale before him just for appearance sake. And with this steady determination I entered in at its portals.
    The fee for admission was one shilling, which a man sitting in a little hutch on one side received, giving me in exchange a [-102-] tin ticket, with the direction to go straight on. I went straight on towards a door covered with red cloth at the end of the passage, and pushed it open, prepared for the dazzling splendour that would immediately burst on me.
    I was disappointed. The place in which I found myself was anything but dazzling or splendid. It was a smallish, odd-angled building, as though built over a back-yard atop of such walls as came handiest, and was a temporary, rickety- looking structure with a skylight ridge and furrow roof, and great stains all down the flashly-papered wainscotting where the rain had found its way through; while gas jets, depending from rough iron piping suspended across the joists overhead, gave out a dim and flickering light. To the left of the dragon's den as you entered was a nook where a wretched-looking waiter in greasy black, and with a dirty neckcloth, presided over an array of empty glasses, yawning hopelessly as he wiped out such as had been used with a cloth that might have been twin with that about his throat. Just inside the chamber there was an individual, palpably an Israelite, who performed the double duty of usher to the court (bearing in that capacity a long black rod, and wearing a scanty bedgown of black serge) and ticket collector. Fixed in rows were seats sparsely covered with the same sort of cloth as that on the door, with a strip of raw deal, about six inches wide, perched up in front, convenient to stand a pot on or knock the ashes out of a pipe. There was a select space covered with a drugget, and for its sake, rather than out of decency, provided with spittoons. This was where the "jury" sat, and strangers had the privilege of sitting with the jury on payment of two shillings instead of one. Just as I went in, although the case was proceeding, there were but five jurymen present, and one of them, rather than attending to his duties, was fiercely whispering in argument with the waiter, his grievance being that he had been charged sixpence for a glass of fourpenny ale.
    [-103-] Facing these "reserved seats" was the judicial bench, with his lordship sitting on it, flanked on the one side by two counsel for the plaintiff, and on the other by two counsel for the defendant. His lordship had some coloured liquid in a mummer before him, which, however, was suspiciously like ale, a glass of which sober beverage the counsel on either side had between them. Matters must have gone wrong with the dragon since the great Baron kept den for him. It seems that the)' will neither grant him a licence to sell beer or spirits, nor so much as trust him with sixpenn'orth of either, even for so short a time as it takes to deliver the same to a customer and receive payment. I asked for some ale. "I must have the money first," replied the dirty waiter, holding out his hand. I gave him it, and he shuffled off through a back door, and presently brought me about three-quarters of a pint of just the same opaque puddle as the juryman had complained of, and charged me sixpence for it, at the same time demanding a fee for his trouble.
    The case his lordship was trying, for the sake of advertisement, hinged on the great Cornhill jewel robbery, but in reality had no more to do with it than with the distribution of the Indian prize-money. Mr. Caseley, however, was dragged into it, and there was a disgusting fellow dressed in female apparel in it, and a ruffian disguised as Mr. Stiggins, and a funny policeman with flaxen tow hanging down from his head over his shoulders, and his belly stuffed out with hay in a highly humorous manner. These, with the judge and the four counsel, were the whole of the performers.
    It was not easy to follow the plot of the case, but there was of course a considerable deal about divorce and adultery in it, and, apart from the immensely comical acting of the stuffed policeman who engaged in a sparring match with Mr. Caseley in the dock, and several times said, "O, crickey!" and inquired of the convict if his mother knew that he was out - all [-104-] the fun consisted in Caseley calling the judge "old bloak" and the counsel "rummy codgers," and in the disgusting wretch in woman's attire, and who was supposed to be a native of Germany, importing filthy blunders into his broken English. Anything nastier, or drearier, or more completely deserving the contempt and reprobation of decent men it is scarcely possible to imagine. If the jokes had been merely of a sort to cause a man of decent mind to blush, under such circumstances they might perhaps be excused, but their effect was not such. Assisted by the judge and counsel, the man in the bonnet and petticoats would now and then utter a something that came at one as a rotten egg might, causing a shudder and a sensation of sickness at the stomach. Nobody except the usher and the waiter laughed, and then only by way of a lead, which I am glad to say was seldom or never followed, and which of course made the audacity of the whole business more apparent. I am quite convinced that nearly every spectator present had come there actuated much more by curiosity than vice, and prepared for a style of amusement broader and more reckless than might be found elsewhere, and finding himself "in" for the sort of thing that presented itself sat uneasy on his seat, waiting only for such a break in the performance as would enable him to escape from such a den without inconvenience to his neighbours.
    There were several "breaks" in the performance, as was needful to enable the "case" to drag its unclean length through an entire evening. The German witness had a row with Mr. Valhantine, the counsel, and, coining down out of the box, scratched his face and, pulling off his wig, threw it in his face. Then the stuffed policeman fell down in a fit, and the business of the court was entirely suspended while he was brought to again. And during these intervals the first batch of visitors who had looked in out of curiosity, grown quite disgusted, went off, and a new batch of curious ones came in, so [-105-] that during the whole evening the spectators were in number closely the same-that number being about thirty. Hilarity, or anything in the shape of it, never once appeared in the course of the whole entertainment. There was no drunkenness. Spirits as well as beer might be obtained somewhere out at the back door, but every one present was sober, even to melancholy. About ten o'clock a Chesterfield, clearly from Houndsditch, came in with rings on his fingers, a short stick, a rubicund countenance, and evidently "out on the spree." He was not a man of refined appetite, and tried very hard to enjoy himself; but as the case proceeded he grew sallow visibly, and by-and-by, draining up his brandy, walked out, favouring the usher, to whom he had rendered the ticket that had cost him a shilling, with the most savage of scowls.
    It rather surprised me to find that as twelve o'clock approached the audience grew larger, and seemed more careful than hitherto in the selection of their seats. The reason presently became apparent. The trial being concluded-with a verdict for the defendant-the judge announced that from now till one o'clock all present would be charmed and delighted by an exhibition of poses plastiques of a very superior description. I had previously noticed that extending behind the judge's bench was a wide green curtain, and now I divined its purpose.
    In the course of a quarter of an hour the gas was lowered till the room was nearly dark, and the usher (who, I should say, was the proprietor, from the over-seeing eye he cast on the entire entertainment) divested himself of the black bedgown, and took his seat by a chink in the back partition, with a little bell in his hand Amid the breathless silence of the auditory he peeped through the chink, rang the bell, and the curtain rose, and, behold 1 there were four ordinary and elderly females attired in fleshings and kilts, hand in hand, and revolving on a pedestal, as though the machinery that moved them were a roasting-jack. There was no buzz of admiration or applause - [-106-] a slight tittering, and that was all. They continued to revolve for a minute or more, and then the curtain was lowered. As though, however, the ball had thundered with plaudits, he rang the curtain up again, and the four middle-aged females performed another tedious revolution, with no more effect than that at first as regarded the spectators.
    After a while the curtain rose once more, revealing the oldest of the ladies alone on the roasting-jack, attired as Diana. Still the audience were dumb, and the curtain was lowered and raised again. Then came "The Three Graces," but the audience remained unmoved. No wonder. Fancy a trio of bold-faced women, with noses snub, Roman, and shrewish, with wide mouths and eyes crowsfooted, having the impudence to represent the Graces! Mr. Moses, at the peep-hole, looked more ferocious than ever, and jerked the curtain down and jerked it up again, with such an if-you-don't-like-it-you-can-leave-it expression of countenance that it seemed unsafe to stay any longer, and I came away with at least this comforting reflection for my shilling - that an inane and nasty, though old-established, public exhibition was cutting its own throat with laudable expedition.