Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 26 - The Dirty Derby

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WHEN I think that this is written with unshackled hands in a pleasant library instead of a padded cell, that I am as much in possession of my senses as I ever was, and that I acted under no constraint or obligation - I feel that the world will be naturally incredulous when I record the fact that I went to the last Derby. I blush as I make the statement; but if I had not gone, what could I have done with O'Hone, who had come over from Ballyblether expressly for the event, who had been my very pleasant guest for the three previous days, and who would have been grievously disappointed had he not put in an appearance on the Downs? For O'Hone is decidedly horsey. From the crown of his bell-shaped hat to the soles of his natty boots, taking in his cutaway coat, his long waistcoat, and his tight trousers, there is about him that singular flavour, compounded of stables, starting-bells, posts and rails, trodden grass, metallic memorandum-books, and lobster-salad, which always clings to those gentry whom the press organs are pleased to describe as "patrons of the turf." Since O'Hone has been with me, the stout cob whose services I retain for sanitary purposes, and who is wont to jolt me up the breezy heights of Hampstead or through the green lanes of Willesden, has been devoted to my friend, has undergone [-272-] an entirely new phase of existence, has learnt to curvet and dance, and has passed a considerable portion of each day in airing himself and his rider in the fashionable Row. For I find it characteristic of all my visitors from the country, that while they are in town not merely should they see, but also that they should be seen ; there is generally some friend from their country town staying in London at the same time, to whom they like to exhibit themselves to the best advantage, and there is always the local member of parliament, who is called upon and catechised, and whose life, from what I can make out, must be a weary one indeed.
    For OHone to miss seeing the race would have been wretched, though even then he would not have been worse off than an American gentleman who crossed the Atlantic expressly to attend the Epsom festival, and who, being seized with the pangs of hunger at about half-past two on the Derby day, entered Mr. Careless's booth and began amusing himself with some edible "fixings" in the way of lunch, in which pleasant task he was still engaged when shouts rent the air, and the American gentleman rushing hatless out of the booth, and finding that the race had been run and was over, burst into the piercing lamentation "Oh Je----rusalem! To come three thousand miles to eat cold lamb and salad!" But O'Hone to miss being seen at the race, being recognised by the member, by Tom Durfy, now sporting reporter on the press, but erst educated at the Ballyblether Free School, and by two or three townsmen who were safe to be on the Downs - that would be misery indeed. Moreover, I was dimly conscious of a white hat, and a singular alpaca garment (which gave one the idea that the wearer's tailor had sent home the lining instead of the coat), which I knew had been specially reserved by my friend for the Derby day. So I determined that, so far as I was concerned, no overt objection to our going to Epsom should be made.
    [-273-] I still, however, retained a latent hope that the sense of impending misery, only too obvious from the aspect of the sky during the two previous days, would have bad its natural effect in toning down my impulsive guest; but when I went into his bedroom on the morning of the fatal day, and when I pulled up the blind and made him conscious of the rain pattering against his window, he merely remarked that "a light animal was no good to-day, anyhow," and I, with a dim internal consciousness that I, albeit a heavy animal, was equally of no good under the circumstances, withdrew in confusion. At breakfast, O'Hone was still appallingly cheerful, referred in a hilarious manner to the laying of the dust, borrowed my waterproof coat with a gentlemanly assumption which I have only seen rivalled by the light comedian in a rattling farce, and beguiled me into starting, during a temporary cessation of the downfall, after he had made a severe scrutiny of the sky, and had delivered himself of various meteorological observations, in which, when they come from persons residing in the country, I have a wild habit of implicitly believing.
    We had promised, the night before, to call for little Iklass, an artist, and one of the pleasantest companions possible when all went well, but who, if it rained, or the cork had come out of the salad-dressing, or the salt had been forgotten at a picnic, emerged as Apollyon incarnate. Little Iklass's greatest characteristic being his generous devotion to himself, I knew that the aspect of the morning would prevent him from running the chance of allowing any damp to descend on that sacred form. We found him smoking a pipe, working at his easel, and chuckling at the discomfiture outside. "No, no, boys," said he, "not I! I'll be hanged-"
    "Which you weren't this year at the Academy!" I interrupted viciously. But you can't upset Iklass with your finest sarcasm!
    [-274-] "The same to you, and several of them - no - which I was not - but I will be if I go to-day!I It'll be awfully miserable, and there are three of us, and I daresay you won't always let me sit in the middle, with you to keep the wind off on either side. And I won't go!" And he wouldn't; so we left him, and saw him grinning out of his window, and pointing with his mahl-stick at the skies, whence the rain began to descend again as we got into the cab.
    We went on gloomily enough to the Waterloo Station; we passed the Regent Circus, and saw some very shy omnibuses with paper placards of "Epsom" on them, empty and ghastly; there was no noise, no excitement, no attempt at joyousness! I remembered the Derbys of by-gone years, and looked dolefully at O'Hone; but he had just bought a "c'rect card," and was deep in statistical calculations.
    There was no excitement at the station ; we took our places at the tail of a damp little crowd, and took our tickets as though we were going to Birmingham. There was a little excitement on getting into the train of newly-varnished carriages destined for our conveyance, for the damp little crowd had been waiting some time, and made a feeble little charge as the train came up. O'Hone and I seized the handle of a passing door, wrenched it open and jumped in. We were followed by an old gentleman with a long stock and a short temper, an affable stock-broker in a perspiration, and two tremendous swells, in one of whom I recognised the Earl of Wallsend, the noble colliery proprietor. Our carriage is thus legitimately full ; but a ponderous woman of masculine appearance and prehensile wrists hoists herself on to the step, and tumbles in amongst us. This rouses one of the swells, who remonstrates gently, and urges that there is no room; but the ponderous woman is firm, and not only takes vantage-ground herself, but invites a male friend, called John, to join her. "Coom in, [-275-] Jan! Coom in, tell ye! Coom in, Jan!" But here the swell is adamant. " No," says he, rigidly, " I'll be deed if John shall come in! Police!" And when the guard arrives, first John is removed, and then the lady; and then the swell says, with an air of relief: "Good Heaven! did they think the carriage was a den of wild beasts?"
    So, through a quiet stealing rain, the train proceeded, and landed us at last at a little damp rickety station - an oasis of boards in a desert of mud. Sliding down a greasy clay hill, we emerged upon the town of Epsom and the confluence of passengers by rail and by road. We, who had come by the rail, were not lively ; we were dull and dreary, but up to this point tolerably dry, in which we had the advantage of those who had travelled by the road, and who were not merely sulky and morose, but wet to their skins. At The Spread Eagle and at The King's Head stood the splashed drags with the steaming horses, while their limp occupants tumbled dismally off the roofs, and sought temporary consolation in hot brandy-and-water. A dogcart, with two horses driven tandem-fashion, and conveying four little gents, attempted to create an excitement on its entry into the town. One of the little gents on the back seat took a post-horn from its long wicker case and tried to blow it, but the rain, which had gradually been collecting in the instrument, ran into his mouth and choked him; while the leading horse, tempted by the sight of some steaming hay in a trough, turned sharp round and looked its driver piteously in the face, refusing to be comforted, or, what was more to the purpose, to move on, until it had obtained refreshment. So, on through the dull little town, where buxom women hooked with astonishment mixed with pity at the passers-by ; and where, at a boot-shop, the cynical proprietor stood in the doorway smoking a long clay pipe and openly condemned us with a fiendish laugh as "a pack of adjective jackasses;" up the hill, on which [-276-] the churned yellow mud lay in a foot-deep bath, like egg-flip, and beplastered us wretched pedestrians whenever it was stirred by horses' hoofs or carriage-wheels skirting the edge of a wheat-field (and a very large edge we made of it before we had finished), the proprietor whereof had erected a few feeble twigs by way of barriers here and there - a delusion and a mockery which the crowd had resented by tearing them up and strewing them in the path ; across a perfect Slough of Despond situated between two brick walls, too wide to jump, too terrible to laugh at, a thing to be deliberately waded through with turned-up trousers, and heart and boots that sank simultaneously; a shaking bog, on the side of which stood fiendish boys armed with wisps of straw, with which, for a consideration, they politely proposed to clean your boots.
    I didn't want my boots cleaned. I was long past any such attempt at decency. O'Hone was equally reckless; and so, splashed to our eyes, we made our way to the course. Just as we reached the Grand Stand a rather shabby carriage dashed up to the door, and a howl of damp welcome announced that Youthful Royalty had arrived. Youthful Royalty, presently emerging in a Macintosh coat, with a cigar in its mouth, proved so attractive that any progress in its immediate vicinity was impossible; so O'Hone and I remained tightly jammed up in a crowd, the component parts of which were lower, worse, and wickeder than I have ever seen. Prize-fighters - not the aristocracy of the ring; not those gentry who are "to be heard of," or whose money is ready ; but those who are always expressing in print their irrepressible desire to do battle with Konky's Novice at catch-weight, or who have an "Unknown" perpetually walking about in greatcoat, previous to smashing the champion - not these, but elderly flabby men with flattened noses and flaccid skins and the seediest of great-coats buttoned over the dirtiest of jerseys; racing touts - [-277-] thin, wiry, sharp-faced little men, with eyes strained and bleary from constant secret watching of racers' gallops; dirty, battered tramps, sellers of cigar-lights and c'rect cards; pickpockets, shifty and distrustful, with no hope of a harvest from their surroundings; and "Welshers," who are the parody on Tattersall's and the Ring, who are to the Jockey Club and the Enclosure what monkeys are to men - poor pitiful varlets in greasy caps and tattered coats, whose whole wardrobe would be sneered at in Holywell Street or Rag Fair, and who yet are perpetually bellowing, in hoarse ragged tones, "I'll bet against the field!" "I'll bet against Li-bellous!" "I'll bet against the Merry Maid!" "I'll bet against anyone, bar one!" Nobody seemed to take their bets, nobody took the slightest notice of their offers, and yet they bellowed away until the race was run, in every variety of accent - in cockney slang, in Yorkshire harshness, in Irish brogue. These were the only members of the crowd thoroughly intent on their business; for all the rest Youthful Royalty had an immense attraction.
    Sliding and slithering about on the sloping ground where turf had been and where now mud was, they pushed, and hustled, and jumped up to look over each other's heads. " Vich is 'im? Vich is 'im ?" "Not 'im! That's the late Duke o' Vellington! There's the Prince a blowin' his bacca like a man!" "Ain't he dry neither?" "Ain't I? Vonder vether he'd stand a drain?" "He wouldn't look so chuff if he vos down here, vith this moisture a tricklin' on his 'ed!" "Who's the hold bloke in barnacles?" "That - that's Queen Hann!" No wet, no poverty, no misery, could stop the crowd's chaff; and amidst it all still rang out the monotonous cry of the "Welshers" - "I'll bet against Li-bellous!" " I'll bet against the field!"
    A dull thudding on the turf, a roar from the neighbouring stand, and the simultaneous disappearance of all the [-278-] "Welshers," tells us - for we can see nothing - that the first race is over, and that we can move towards the hill. Motion is slow; for the crowd surging on to the course is met by a crowd seething off it, and when I do fight to the front, I have to dip under a low rail, and come out on the other side, like a diver. The course was comparatively dry; and just as we emerged upon it, a large black overhanging cloud lifted like a veil, and left a bright, unnatural, but not unpromising sky. O'Hone brightened simultaneously, and declared that all our troubles were over; we gained the hill, worked our way through the lines of carriages, received a dozen invitations to lunch, took a glass or two of sherry as a preliminary instalment, and settled down for the Derby. The old preparations annually recurring - the bell to clear the course, the lagging people, the demonstrative police, the dog (four different specimens this year at different intervals, each with more steadfastness of purpose to run the entire length of the course than I have ever seen previously exhibited), the man who, wanting to cross, trots halfway, is seized and brought back in degradation; the man who says or does something obnoxious (nobody ever knows what) to his immediate neighbours just before the race, and is thereupon bonneted, and kicked, and cuffed into outer darkness; the yelling Ring; the company on the hill, purely amateurish, with no pecuniary interest beyond shares in a five-shilling sweepstakes, and divided between excitement about the race and a desire for lunch; the entrance of the horses from the paddock, the preliminary canter - all the old things, with one new feature - new to me at least - THE RAIN! No mistake about it; down, down it came in straight steady pour; no blinking it, no "merely a shower," no hint at "laying the dust;" it asserted its power at once, it defied you to laugh at it, it defied you to fight against it, it meant hopeless misery, and it carried out its meaning. Up with the hoods of open carriages, out with the rugs, up with the [-279-] aprons, unfurl umbrellas on the top of the drags; shiver and crouch Monsieur Le Sport, arrived via Folkestone last night - poor Monsieur Le Sport, in the thin paletot and the curly-brimmed hat, down which the wet trickles, and the little jean boots with the shiny tips and the brown-paper soles, already pappy and sodden. Cower under your canvas wall, against which no sticks at three a penny will rattle to-day, O gipsy tramp; run to the nearest drinking-booth, O band of niggers, piebald with the wet! For one mortal hour do we stand on the soaked turf in the pouring rain, with that horrid occasional shiver which always accompanies wet feet, waiting for a start to be effected. Every ten minutes rises a subdued murmur of hope, followed by a growl of disappointment. At last they are really "off," and for two minutes we forget our misery. But it comes upon us with redoubled force when the race is over, and there is nothing more to look forward to.
    Lunch? Nonsense! Something to keep off starvation, if you like - a bit of bread and a chicken's wing - but no attempt at sociality. One can't be humorous inside a close carriage with the windows up, and the rain battering on the roof! Last year it was iced champagne, claret-cup, and silk overcoats; now it ought to be hot brandy-and-water, foot-baths, and flannels. Home! home, across the wheat-field, now simple squash ; down the hill, now liquid filth ; through the town, now steaming like a laundress's in full work; home by the train with other silent, sodden, miserable wretches; home in a cab, past waiting crowds of jeering cynics, who point the finger and take the sight, and remark, " Ain't they got it, neither!" and " Water-rats this lot!"- home to hot slippers, dry clothes, a roaring fire, and creature-comforts, and a stern determination never again to "do a dirty Derby."