Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Jack Frost At Our Terrace

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WE must confess to a friendly feeling for Jack Frost, as an old acquaintance, who in times past has contributed not, a little to those bracing exercises out-of-doors which are worth all the doctor's stuff in the world in a sanitary point of view. Jack, moreover, is a picturesque fellow, dealing in strong contrasts of colour, depths of rich brown and black beneath mountainous mantles of white and in odd and grotesque shapes, as well as forms rare and fanciful - in involuted snowdrifts, curling like the capital of an Ionic column - in gigantic icicles ranged in jagged rows, like the teeth of some adamite monster, or sharp, glittering, and terrible, as the sword of Michael. These doings of ,Jack's, we say, are picturesque and suggestive ;  they set the imagination scampering off on a new track, occasionally breaking up a little fallow-ground in a mans fancy, and awakening old associations, or creating new, which else would not like to be without altogether. Wherefore we welcome Jack Frost as a friend and when he comes writing his beautiful and flourishing signature on our window-panes, we show him a cheerful face on the warm side of the glass, and wish him a merry time of it.
    But a man may have too much of a good thing; and the best friend in the world may become a bore if he is always at your elbow; and on this account we would take the liberty of suggesting to our friend Old Jack Frost, that it would be quite as well if lie would content himself with his own side of the street-door, and not be playing the burglar as he has done of late, and turning things upside down, besides per-[-64-]petrating all manner of mischief in our peculiar domiciles. The fellow came in unceremoniously, "last Wednesdav was a week," as Boniface says, and took possession like a broker's man ; and here he stays, and won't be got rid of, do what we will. Betty, having a presentiment of his intention, did all she could to keep him out, by cramming the vents of the attic stoves, and shutting the windows tight, not to mention the lighting of rousing fires on every floor. But Jack found his way in somehow, and has had his own way ever since.
    The first thing he did was to crack the water-bottles by the expansion of their contents ; then he glewed the ewers to the basins, so that they couldn't be got apart ; then he transformed our private and particular sponge into a piece of pumice-stone ; changed the tooth-brush into a lump of something as hard as the kitchen-poker, but of a colder flavour and starched the towels to such a state of dignity, that each one thought fit to declare himself independent of the towel-horse, and would ride a pick-a-back no longer, but stand stubbornly on end. Those exploits, however, were but trifles compared with what was to follow. Notwithstanding that we have regularly paid our water-rates, and have all our receipts on the file ready to produce at any time, Jack had the impudence to treat us as defaulters, and to manifest an intention to cut off the water. Betty, who had suspected his design, made up her mind to defeat it. With this view she commenced a course of friendly overtures and good offices to the pipe, which running through the kitchen, pierces the wall, and disembogues into the cistern in the back-garden. Never was pipe the object of more tender care or solicitous coddling - a part she swathed in warm flannels, a part she bandaged surgically with hay-bands, and another portion she boxed off with boards, filling the interstices with sifted coal-ashes. After all this skilful engineering, Betty grew defiant against Jack and, we must say that for her, certainly kept her kettle boiling without the [-65-] help of foreign resources for days after our neighbours were frozen up. But, alas for the triumphs of the beau sexe! the first thing we heard on coming down to breakfast on Tuesday morning last was, that that pipe had frozen and burst in the night, and that all the water in the house would have to be dipped out through ice three inches thick, from the half-empty cistern. There was no help for it ; and we had to submit, especially as the plumber, upon being called in, declined operations till the thermometer should rise above the freezing-point. At the moment we write, the whole capillary system of the New River Company is suffering from congestion, and the arterial circulation of that leviathan hotly is represented by a few perpendicular plugs stuck up in odd corners and out-of-the-way places. Upon these extemporised fountains, Our Terrace, and the whole parish, for that matter, are thrown for their indispensable supply of water. The capture of a pailful of the precious liquid is no easy matter. The plug, being besieged all day long by tubs, brackets, pails, pans, and garden-pots, in the possession of every description of bare red-elbowed matron, serving-maid, small girl, and errand-boy, is not readily approachable, particularly as it is surrounded by a slippery glacier, a foot or more in thickness, caused by the spillings and overflowings. There is a continual quarrelling for priority; and though the law of "first come first served" is recognised in theory, it is not amicably earned out in practice - the strong supplant the weak, and the sure-footed upset the timid ; and it is at the water-plug as it is all the world ever, that the feeble go to the wall, and the strong-willed have their way. Now and then comes the sound of a splash, followed by a roar of laughter, and perhaps a faint cry this time it is a little girl lugging a water-pot with a spout as long as herself, which she has been waiting half an hour to get filled, and having upset it through falling, is limping off to beg a kettleful from a neighbour.
    [-66-] There is another plug at the other end of the Terrace, but that is in the possession of the water-hawkers, a race who, according to a law which ever operates in London, have sprung up to supply the necessities of the moment. Their voices, in every tone and key, are heard all the morning long, bawling as they march slowly along the pavement, "Water - any water wanted?" They pull bells and bang at doors without ceremony, and will fetch you a yoke of water for twopence "in your own pails." They are pretty well employed in the forenoon, but disappear about one o'clock until to-morrow. They are the same race - in fact, the same individuals - who but a short time ago performed the part of "snow-birds" in clearing away the snow from the doors and house-fronts - a duty which the law, as they are perfectly aware, will compel you to perform, if you do not set about it spontaneously before ten o'clock or so - and which, for a "trifle of coppers" they are ready to perform for you. 
    The only man in the neighbourhood of Our Terrace who has fought victoriously with Jack Frost, and beaten him on his own ground, is the water-man of the cab-stand round the corner. But Old Tom Buckle seized Time by the forelock; and when he scented Jack a-coming, took the precaution to bury the fountain from which he fills his horse-tubs in a pyramid of stable manure five feet high, and nearly as wide at its base. Into this pyramid Old Buckle has to make an excavation to get at the tap for every bucketful he draws but he gets the water he wants without buying, begging, or borrowing, and therein he differs from his neighbours the householders.
    The peripatetic tradesmen appear to care less for Jack Frost than one might expect. Their sonorous cries penetrate further than usual through the clear atmosphere, and are intelligible to a greater distance. "Live soles," and "Live cod" keep alive longer in ice, and cook never questions their freshness when they come to hand frozen. Charley Coster [-67-] continues to maintain as abundant a show of vegetables as though frosty weather were no bar to their production - though, notwithstanding his obstinate assertions to the contrary, it is our conviction that his potatoes at a penny a pound are not the better but the worse for being frostbitten, and eating sugary. The larder of the cats-meat man is frozen as stiff as a brick wall, and Stalker just now has to crunch his daily ration as noisily as though it were so much overbaked biscuit, unless when Betty chances to get hold of it first, and, in mercy to his old teeth, thaws it for him.
    Just now, the road in front of our dwellings is alive with stooping figures, and noisy with the click of pickaxes. Two or three dozen of poor fellows, who, having been frozen out of their employment in the fields or gardens, or on houses in process of building, have applied to the parish for relief,  have been set by the overseers to cut channels in the ice next the herb-stone, in readiness for the thaw when it shall come They form, however, but a small proportion of the unfortunate crowd whom the severity of the season has driven to apply for parish relief. We find the door of the workhouse besieged by numbers, pass it at what hour we may ; and we see in other places sufficient evidence of cruel personal sufferings borne by the industrious poor, who yet disdain the relief of alms. On the other hand, Jack Frost is welcomed by a numerous band of his special followers and admirers. There is Mr. Brown, who goes a-skating in Regent's Park every day, and is seen coming home at dusk, dangling his steel blades and straps, and steaming after the exhilarating exercise like a locomotive. There is Robinson, who wasn't at church all day yesterday, but was seen starting from home at nine o'clock with a suspicious swelling hunch at his coattail, which looked more like a pair of pocketed skates than a prayer-book, and who didn't return till after dark. Then there is that Jones, who has rushed home at three o'clock every afternoon since the ice would bear, and started thence [-68-] at a trot to Hornsey Wood House, where the lake is as smooth as a mirror, and kept select for subscribers, and where he stays cutting all manner of figures by lamplight, until it is time to come home to supper and to bed. It was but Friday afternoon last that, happening to walk over to take a look at the sport, we surprised him in the very act of giving lessons in skating to Miss G-, who, it was evident from the ease with which she swept an arc on one little foot, must have had a pretty liberal course of instruction before.
    Betty summons us to the coal-cellar, and we go down, feeling alarmed at our consumption of the black diamonds. and wondering if it be possible that the liberal supply which came in at Christmas can show symptoms of exhaustion. She brings a candle ; and then we see a sight worth seeing - Jack Frost, among his other tricks, has converted the coal-cellar, which runs under the front garden, into a crystal palace the walls and ceiling are apparently incrusted beneath a massive frieze of silver - the old cobwebs are pendulous with frosted silver instead of dust - and spumy-looking cascades of frostwork exude from every fissure and crevice, reflecting the light of the candle at every angle. We have just taken our fill of this natural curiosity, when there comes a message from the landlord to say, that he hopes we shall be thoughtful enough to have the roof cleared of snow before the thaw comes, and perchance floods the upper rooms unawares. So we send Betty off to Mr. Scriven, and he sends his man with a shovel to do the needful service. Stump, stump, he plods upstairs, and disappears through the trap-door. A minute after, his big voice is heard bawling out, "BE-low!" and down comes a succession of snowy avalanches, plump into the middle of the road, with a shock that rattles the parlour-windows as we sit by the fire watching the lumbering shower. This practice of snow-balling on a grand scale excites the com-[-69-]bative organ of the doctor's boy opposite, who evidently itches to be returning the compliment to the man on the roof, but has no time for such experiments, having too many pills of a different description to distribute.
    Which brings us to the notice of the melancholy fact, that this season of extreme cold is alarmingly sickly and trying to the invalid and the old. Cough-lozenges, delectables and jujubes, are not the only medicines now at a premium. Medical men are active night and day ; and so, alas are the coffin-makers and undertakers. The number of funeral processions that passed Our Terrace yesterday, amounted to nearly a score. The bills of mortality have risen as much as forty per cent, since Jack Frost housed himself in every dwelling and many a sad heart, and many a weary head, are looking forward prayerfully for the arrival of the gentle south wind, which shall snap the iron chain that binds the world, and restore them to liberty and health.