[... back to menu for this book]
HE was a discontented man, the omnibus-driver, and he said
generally that he didn't like it. Wolunteers might be good, he said, and they
mightn't - leastways, what noise they made, frightening horses with bangin' bands
and such-like, wasn't much count lawyers they was, and clurks, and ribbing-coves
(understood by present writer to be drapers' assistants), and such-like.
Rifle-matches - ah I well, he'd heard tell, but hadn't seen much of that game,
further than the Red House at Battersea, and for nuts at Greenwich Fair. If they
was any good-as men - do you see? they'd come up to Copenhagen House, or the
Brecknock, at Easter Monday, and have a back-fall with those parties that came
up from Devonshire and the North. Wolunteers! he thought he knew a young man in
the public line not far from Tottenham, which - he was all fair and bove-board -
which it was at Wood Green, his name being Obbie, what could
show them Wolunteers something at knurr-and-spell: let em come with their
fur-caps and all their fandangoes! Here he grew defiant, and elbowed me fiercely
with his whip-arm. The whole affair was bellicose. I was on a Waterloo omnibus,
going to the Waterloo station on my way to Wimbledon, then under martial law;
and seeing that the taint had got into the driver's blood, and fearing [-155-]
lest he should kick me with his bluchers, I remained silent and never opened my
mouth until I asked for my railway-ticket.
But when I had curled into my corner in the railway-carriage, and had taken stock of the arms, accoutrements, and general appearance of the three privates and the ensign who went down with me, and had weaned my ears from drinking in the pompous rhetoric of the other occupant of our compartment, a gentleman of very imposing appearance, to whom, according to his own account, Wimbledon was indebted for its tenure of existence, I began to ponder over the omnibus-driver's remarks ; and his reminiscences of Battersea Red House, and the nuts at Greenwich Fair, reminded me of what my idea of a rifle-match was, as embodied in the last one in which I took part. Sixteen years, I thought, have passed since I went down, rifle in hand, to a long strip of meadow bordering the Rhine, and paid my money to become a competitor at the Dusselberg Schutzen Fest. A pretty quiet spot, flanked on one side by other meadows filled with large-uddered mild-eyed cows, whose bells tinkled pleasantly in the ears of the competitors, and on the other by the rapid-rushing river. There were some half-dozen painted wooden targets, arranged on the Swiss system; while a little distance apart, on the top of a high pole, towered a popinjay, to hit which was the great event of the day. The spectators of the friendly contest, varying, according to the time of day, from one to three hundred, were all townspeople well known to the marksmen and to each other, and occupied their time either in coming to the firing-posts and giving utterly vague and incoherent advice to their favourites, or in. examining with deep reverence the prizes, consisting of two silver-mounted bierglaser, and a few electrotyped Maltese crosses bearing the name of the Schutzen Fest and the date, one of which I saw the other day in a dressing-table drawer, with a few old [-156-] letters, an odd glove or two, a hacked razor-strop, a partially-obliterated daguerreotype, and such-like lumber. I don't think we shot well; I know that an enlightened public would not have liked our appearance, and that General Hay would have objected to our attitudes, which were anything but Hythe-position. I am certain that the merest tyro of a recruit would have scorned our rifles, which required several seconds' notice before they went off; and I have no doubt that we were supremely ridiculous ; but I am equally certain that we were undeniably happy. The great charm, I thought, of such a meeting as that which I am recalling and that to which I am going, is its quiet - the change from the bustle and roar of ordinary life to the calm tranquillity, the noiseless serenity, of open country space. If I felt it then, when merely straying from the monastic seclusion of my university, how shall I enjoy it now, when flying from the ceaseless hum of London! How pleasant will be the open heath, dotted here and there with rifle-ranges and marksmen, the freedom from bustle and noise, the picturesque surroundings, the fresh turf the elastic air, the - PUTNEY! The voice of the guard announcing my destination breaks upon my reverie. I jump out of the carriage, and, ascending the steps of the station, I emerge.
Into Pandemonium. Into a roaring, raving, shouting crowd into a combination of the road to the Derby and Aldershot Heath on a field-day in June ; for you have every component part of both. Enormous rolling clouds of dust, a heterogeneous mass of carriages, open and shut, some regularly licensed, others improvised for the occasion and be a ring a paper permit obtained impromptu from Somerset House and gummed on to the panels ; the drivers of the vehicles shouting, shrieking, touting, beckoning, and gesticulating with whips, carneying weak-minded and hustling feeble-bodied persons into becoming passengers ; gipsies, beggars; imps, with the bronze of the country on their faces and the [-157-] assurance of London in their address, vending cigar-lights, showing the way, turning "cart-wheels," and being generally obstructive; volunteer officers clanking a good deal, and volunteer privates unbuttoning their tunics and showing more shirt-front than is provided for in the regulations public-houses crammed and overflowing into the road with drink-seeking wayfarers; station-porters giving up all idea of business, and flitting from one knot of people to the other, sipping here, sporting there, like butterflies in velveteen. The inhabitants of Putney evidently divided into two sections - the natives, who gathered together in grinning masses, who chuckled fat-headedly, and sniggered, and saw a grand opportunity for shirking work and passing the entire day in vacant staring ; and the affiliated, acclimatised, or naturalised Putneians, who are grubs in the City from nine till five, and butterflies at Putney for the remaining portion of their lives, and whose wives and daughters looked upon the whole thing as "low," and glared balefully at us from their plate-glass windows. I managed to survive even their scowls, and installed myself as one of a cheerful though perspiring party of seven, in a carriage intended to hold four (and looking, in its check-chintz lining, as though it had come out in its dressing-gown), which, after five minutes' dalliance with a knotted whip, a very flea-bitten gray horse was persuaded to drag up the hill towards the camp.
As we neared the spot, I was reminded of my friend the omnibus-driver's observations anent Greenwich Fair and shooting for nuts; for I am bound to say that, in the course of a long and varied experience, I never saw anything so like a fair as the Wimbledon camp seen from the outside. A wooden railing, shabby enough in itself, and rendered more shabby by the torn and ragged bills sticking to it, surrounds the camp; from within float sounds of distant bands, popping rifles, and cheering populace; while immediately outside stands that salvage of nothing-doing, lounging, thieving, drunken [-158-] scum invariably to be found in the immediate vicinity of all fairs. On first entering, the same idea prevailed, for there were a few miserable little booths, in front of which one expected to see painted canvases of the giantess, the armadillo, and the tiger that devoured the Indian on horseback. But as I progressed up the ground, and passed wonderingly through the long line of tents, this notion vanished entirely, and instead of being in a fair, I found myself in a very village of canvas. An hour's stroll showed me that this village was a town. The early Australian gold-diggers had their canvas town ; and here we had ours, within a twenty minutes' run from London. Canvas Town, by all means! for in what town could you find more completeness, or in what town would you require more than is here to your hand ? For in the course of my survey I have lighted upon a newspaper- office ( Volunteer Service Gaize//e), a police-station, a post-office with the hours of the arrival and despatch of mails duly placarded outside, a telegraph-office with temporary wires communicating with - everywhere, whence you could send the name of the winner of the Queen's Prize to your friend Ryot in the indigo trade at Suez, or utterly depress Sneesh of McMull, yachting off Malta, with the tidings that the Scotch were beaten in the International Match; many taverns and restaurants ; many gunsmiths' and shops (tents) for kindred matters; a club, where four copies of The Times are to be found, with other journals in proportion, and from which issuing the sound of a grand piano and a musical voice, proved that a great step in advance had been made in club matters, and that lady members were admitted. Farther on, here and there, I found public boards whereon printed matters affecting the common weal might be - and were - read; " Lost" and "Found "(rare the latter) notices, shooting-scores for great prizes, and other documents, very like the inscriptions on pounds and such-like country-town institutions. I am not much of a reckoner in such matters, but [-159-] from my observation I should imagine that Canvas Town covers many acres; it is duly fenced-off from the outlying grounds, and it has streets and a square regularly arranged. In what might be called the market-place, at the back of what I choose to consider the town-hall (which, to vu]gar minds, is the "Grand Stand"), I find the public clock, a monster Bennet, and a little farther off the public thermometer, which tells you everything scientific which you cannot possibly want to know, and which, while being, I understand, excessively useful to the erudite, is so exact and so complicated, that even my very cursory inspection of it sends inc away headachy and discomfited.
The whole of this city, which teems with an ever-busy, running, pushing, shouting, gun-carrying, band-playing, red, green, gray, and brown population, is under canvas, save in a few instances where canvas is supplemented by wood. Far and away, right and left, stretch the long lines of tents, looking somewhat ghostly, even in the bright afternoon sun, and suggesting a very spectral appearance at night. The tents are of two shapes-some like Brobdingnagian dishes of blancmange, others like inverted monster pegtops without the pegs. Strolling on, I come upon a little oasis of painted brick, a small house belonging to the miller, whose mill hooks like a huge genie with arms outspread, protecting the phantom-village he has called into existence - a little house which seemed quite ashamed of its conventional appearance, and had done its best to hide it by having tents in its garden and right up to its very doorstep; and as I skirt the garden I become aware of something couchant in the grass - something which I imagine at first to be a snake, but which turns out to be nothing more than a harmless policeman off duty, who is lying supine on his back looking up at the sky, rural, happy, contemplative - as though there were no such things as bad "beats" or Irish navvies with homicidal tendencies. Recalled to sublunary matters by [-160-] my approach, he sits up and gives me good-day; and sitting down beside him, I enter into conversation, find him a very pleasant fellow, and learn from him, amongst other things, that Canvas Town has a place for public worship, divine service being performed on Sunday in the Grand Stand, to a large and attentive congregation, and a school - where, however, the "instructors" are, to a man, from Hythe.
On leaving my policeman, I strayed pleasantly into the arms of some of my old companions the Grimgribber Rifles, and who received me with the greatest cordiality. From them I learnt that the most interesting feature in Wimbledon life was the camp-fire and its gathering, which was decidedly a thing to be seen. It sounded well - a camp-fire, with plenty of punch, and singing, and ladies' company, to be preceded by a dinner with my old corps, and to be concluded with a dog-cart drive to London - so I agreed to stop; and very glad I am I determined on this arrangement, for the camp-fire was the end which crowned the day's work, and crowned it royally.
After a capital dinner, we moved out about nine o'clock to the "meeting," which was held in a large open space, a circle, surrounded by a rising mound, forming a perfectly natural amphitheatre. In the middle of the circle blazed a large fire of dried heather; on the mound - some on chairs (ladies these mostly), some couchant at full length, some squatting on their hams hike Indians at a council-fire - sat a motley assemblage, composed of volunteers in all uniforms and from all counties, natives of Wimbledon, neither pure nor simple, gaping people from town, and people from the neighbourhood the ladies muffled in pretty capes and fantastic hoods and ravishing yachting-jackets; the gentlemen in that stern simplicity of white neckcloth and black everything else, which gives such picturesque dignity to the dining Briton. Nor was Scotland Yard without its representatives. Not possessing the [-161-] advantages enjoyed by caricaturists, I have never seen a policeman at supper in my kitchen, and consequently have never been a spectator of that hilarity to which the "force" abandons itself when it is off duty. Certainly, at Wimbledon the police never entirely forgot that they were not as other men ; they smiled, they spoke, they sang ; but I imagine the singer only let out his stock by one hole to stiffer his high C to have scope, and that in no moment of delight did any one of them cease to give an occasional slap at his coat-tails, to assure himself that his truncheon had not been purloined. But it was very jolly. When we arrived (and we had scented the burning heather and the tobacco a quarter of a mile off), Lord Bowling was just finishing a comic song, which, so far as I could make out, was about some transaction in which a Jew and some poached eggs were equally implicated ; and when the roar of applause which followed the termination died away, Lord Echo, who was apparently the president of the evening, called upon "A 395;" and that "vigilant officer," as, no doubt, he has been often described in print, set to work with a will, and piped us a sentimental ditty with a good voice and much real feeling. While he sang I looked round me in wonder. Rembrandtish, or rather more after the wild dash of Salvator Rosa, was the scene in front the fitful glare of the fire lighting up now, leaving in dusk then, uniforms of various sombre hues, relieved here and there with a sharp bit of scarlet stocking, the top of which, surrounded by the dark knickerbocker, glowed like a fire in a grate; incandescent tips of cigars dotting the black background, illumined now and then in a little space by a vesuvian match; farther still, the long, weird, gaunt common, stunted, blank, and dreary, with a ghostly fringe of waning spectral tents. This was a quiet night. " Not one of our great meetings," said a Victoria Rifle to me ; and yet there must have been between three and four hundred people present. Close by me is a [-162-] family party, evidently from one of the houses hard by, consisting of papa, bland and full of port-wine ; mamma,. half-sedate, half-anxious; two noble sons of sixteen and fifteen, braving papa in the matter of tobacco, and entirely absorbed therein; some very pretty daughters and dining friends. As Policeman A 395 warbles forth his ditty, one pretty daughter (the auburn-haired daughter) and one dining friend (with the shaved face and the heavy Austrian moustache) want "to see better" - happy A 395, to be the attraction of so much curiosity - so they gradually edge off until they are quite by themselves, and then they no doubt see admirably, for the gentleman looks down at the lady, and the lady looks down at the turf and draws figures on it with her parasol. Never mind, A 395 ; you are not the first person by a good many who has stood innocent godfather to this kind of business ; and you quiver so nicely and make such a prolonged shake on the last note of your song, that you deserve all the applause and the glass of punch bestowed on you, as you make a stiff bow and retire.
Who next, my Lord Echo? Who next? Who but Harrison? And so soon as the name is heard, the welkin (what is the welkin? you don't know! I don't! but it's a capital phrase), the welkin rings with shouts of delight. A prime favourite, Harrison, evidently. Doubtless a buffo-singer, short, fat, broad, genial, and jolly, as all comic men should be. No! Harrison is a slim handsome fellow of middle height, with a bright eye, a mellow voice, and a lithe agile figure. " Capital fellow," says the man of the Victorias next to me; "tremendous favourite here; sings like a lark, talks like a book, and starts next week to join his regiment in India." Bravo, Harrison ! Well sung, my young friend After Harrison has sung his song, he gives us (being loudly encored) an imitation of a "stump oration," which, truth to tell, is a dull affair. At its conclusion, to [-163-] our astonishment, Lord Echo calls upon General McMortar for a song. We think it is a joke, and have no idea that the gallant Inspector is among us. But lo! like the ghost of Banquo, the well-known form of General McMortar rises amidst the smoke, and the well-known voice commences. Not a song ! no, a speech ! The old story of volunteers being descended from those old English bowmen (who have done such enormous service to writers and speakers on this matter), and of pluck, and valour, and of their being called upon to resist an enemy ; and, in fact, a choice selection from the speeches which the good general has delivered at inspections for the last three years. This is a damper ! Men begin to scuffle off; ladies shiver and clasp their cloaks tighter round them the evening is evidently finished - thanks to General McMortar.
Off we go then, making towards the road as best we may one minute's halt at the Grimgribber tent, for what is known as a "nip;" and then home in my friend's dog-cart, with a very happy reminiscence of the day's loitering and the night's camp-fire.