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NIGHT SCENES IN SARDINIA STREET.
To be awakened from sleep by the cry of "Fire!" is bad enough under
any circumstances. But it is extremely trying to the nerves if you happen to be
living in a very old house, the walls of which are covered from top to bottom
with wainscoting, making it a dead certainty that if the house ever caught fire,
it would instantly blaze up like a box of lucifer matches; and more especially
if you know that the only chance of escape would be by the roof, unless the fire
began at the top of the house and burned downwards.
Happily, however, many fires do not often occur in the same locality. Like other misfortunes they seem to come round in cycles, so after three or four of such catastrophes one may reasonably hope for an interval of repose. There had already just been a dreadful fire in this street, when a large printing establishment was destroyed. Thus, with the two of which we were eye-witnesses, there were three [-24-] serious fires in our immediate neighbourhood within the short period of three months. Since that time we have not again been disturbed by the alarm of fire. Still I am not able to say that we have enjoyed any interval of quietude and repose, except when, in the summer, we went to seek it in the country, "far from the madding crowd."
During the daytime Sardinia Street is not more noisy or worse perhaps than some parts of Drury lane. Groups of sottish-looking men and women may generally be seen about the doors of the public- houses. The eating-house next door is also much resorted to by a class of men and boys who in more fashionable neighbourhoods would scarcely be thought desirable neighbours. I do not, however, object to them on the score of gentility, as I did not come here for the genteel but for the outcast.
But this coffee-shop is also frequented by a certain class of visitors whom I should very much like to banish altogether from the street, had I the power to do so. I mean organ-grinders. Not that I object to an occasional tune on the barrel-organ; nay, I would willingly submit even to a series of tunes once a day for the sake of poor children who get no music at home. But the organ-grinders appear to come next door three or four times a day, and while they are inside at their meals, they leave their large organs in the street in charge of boys, who willingly under-[-25-]take the charge in consideration of being allowed to grind the organs ad libitum while the professional musicians are refreshing themselves. And judging from the maddening rapidity with which these juvenile amateurs play each tune, and make one tune succeed another, and then repeat the whole series over and over again, I take it that their principal object must be to get as much out of the organ as possible while they have the opportunity.
Of an evening the steps of our door and the pavement in front of the house and church are generally taken possession of by a gang of lads and girls, from fifteen to twenty years of age, who are sometimes very boisterous and make a great disturbance, jigging, romping, and behaving altogether in a manner to which a modest maiden would hardly like to be exposed. But that is as nothing compared with what takes place later on.
About ten or eleven o'clock at night the street begins to wake up in earnest. The barrel-organs, which only advertised themselves, as it were, during the day, now return to play for money, and sometimes go on playing till past midnight. Around them are groups of young people, indulging in the coarsest kind of horseplay, and the coarsest language. On the pavements are bands of little children, dancing to the mingled accompaniments of jig music, obscene songs, and profane oaths. From the bars of the [-26-] various public-houses emanates the confused noise of many voices brutalised by drink, and all trying to make themselves heard at the same time.
But the revelry does not reach its height until the taverns are closed, and the drunkards, having squandered their last farthing, and having exchanged their children's bread for drink, are turned out into the gutter. It is their children who, while waiting for their fathers and mothers outside, are serving such an early apprenticeship to drunkenness and profligacy. Some of the less experienced, or less hardened, children take their parents by the hand and say, "Come home, father!" or "Come home, mother!" But I have seen a daughter brutally struck with many blows in the face by her own mother for persisting in trying to get her home. Home indeed! the closing of the public-houses does not in these parts mean going home. The men collect together in groups, some of which begin to discuss politics or religion, which generally means a wholesale denunciation of capital and property, of all authority and order, of virtue, and of God.
Others, who are too much intoxicated to take any interest in such discussions, form themselves into separate groups of a more convivial character. Then, perhaps, several songs with choruses are started at the same time; and men, women, and children join in the different choruses as their fancy dictates.
[-27-] It sometimes reminds me of the Carnival, which I have more than once seen at its height in Continental towns ; but at other times it is suggestive of something much worse than the Carnival. The noise is as if the gates of Pandemonium were opened, and the demons of darkness all let loose upon the street.
The worst nights are those of Saturday and Sunday, when a clergyman stands most in need of rest. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights would be very trying if it were only on account of the noise made by the horses and waggons which are brought at all hours from Covent Garden Market to the opposite yard. But on Saturday amid Sunday nights it is almost impossible to get any sleep before three or four o'clock. For some hours after the public-houses are closed there is a continuous uproar-singing, shouting, howling, yelling, cursing, fighting; women's voices crying "Murder!" and the voices of little children screaming with terror, while their parents are engaged in a desperate fight with their boon companions, or with each other. Sometimes we can plainly hear the sounds of the struggle going on under our window, and the combatants falling against the street door. One morning, after hearing a violent bumping of heads against the door during the previous night, I found it stained with blood.
In summer time our door-steps are generally [-28-] occupied, both day and night, either by children or adults, or both. The servant, whose duty it is to wash the steps, has often, upon first opening the door, found persons still asleep there. One morning she discovered as many as five, including two children, sleeping on the steps. And the good woman finds it so impossible to keep the door-steps clean for half an hour together, that she considers it a cruel waste of labour to wash them at all. Indeed, she goes even further than that, and not unfrequently says to her mistress, with a look of despair in her face, "Please, ma'am, the more I wash em, the worse they are!"