Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - A Rainy Day in Town

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[-81-]

A RAINY DAY IN TOWN.

    SOME cynical person has remarked that people are given to talk most about what they least understand - an observation, by the way, which although it has passed into a maxim pretty generally current, is, like most of the dicta of your sarcastic philosophers, true only in a limited sense. It is strikingly true, however, with regard to John Bull and his numerous family whenever their talk is about the weather. John, from his insular position, is more exposed to the "skiey influences,'' as the writers call the changes of the weather, than any of his neighbours; and being a personage whose business, and whose pleasures too, lie very much out of doors, he would be glad to know, were it possible, how to manage his movements so as to escape the foul and enjoy the fair. Hence it is that the weather, and its probable state at some not very distant or closely impending period, is a universal topic of conversation with honest John. It is a question in which he has a personal interest, and one often of greater moment than any other which a mere casual acquaintance could discuss with him. A Frenchman or a German, an Italian or a Spaniard, may, it is true, be equally interested in the weather - but then he is seldom, if ever, in the same uncertainty respecting it. With a wind from any point but the west or south-west, your continental friend does not fear getting drenched to the skin but John knows from awkward experience, that he has no cause for solid reliance upon any wind that blows and that rain may come to him, and does come to him at times, from all points of the [-82-] compass. So he is ever on his guard against it, and prophesies concerning its advent and departure - not very often, it must be confessed, with the happiest result - thus showing that though he talks so much about it, he understands it very little indeed. But he is not content with talking only - if he were, he wouldn't be John Bull. He arms himself against foul weather, as he would against any other enemy and has contrived no end of munitions and fortifications against the assaults which the clouds are for ever preparing or discharging upon his devoted head. If, on the one hand, he is annoyed by water, he is, on the other, defiant in "waterproof." Run your eye down the columns of his morning paper, and see what a prodigious store of bulwarks he has prepared against the storm.. Read the list of gallant defenders, with the immortal Macintosh at their head, who have levied contributions from the resources of universal nature for the purpose of keeping the hostile moisture on the safe side of John's waistcoat - from coats of four ounces, "warranted to keep out twelve hours' rain," to coats of twice as many capes, which would laugh at a monsoon - and from idrotobolic hats, which keep his bald pate dry, and ventilate it at the same time, to gutta-percha soles that don't know and won't be prevailed upon, under any circumstances, to know, what it is to be damp. Think of voluminous folds of vulcanised caoutchouc and gutta-perchified cloth - of rugs and railway wrappers - of paletots, bequemes, bear -skins, pea-coats, Chesterfields, Codringtons, Witney Overs, Derby coats, Melton-Mowbrays, Wellington sacs and wrap-rascals - to say nothing of the millions of umbrellas, of which everybody has one to use and two to lend : think of all these, and a thousand more of the same sort, and say if John Bull be not tolerably well provided against yonder black cloud.
    Come, we are not going to he afraid of a rainy day, at any rate, though we do prefer the sunshine ; and it is well [-83-] we are not, for it is coming down in torrents just now, and we must be off to the office to our daily task, let it come as it may. Jones, our volatile neighbour in the "two-pair back," has just declared, in our hearing, to his wife, that this is a "delectable swizzle,'' and no mistake. We know what that means, well enough. But Jones's wife has tied a comforter round his chin, and he is off, and we must follow close at his heels, "swizzle" as it will, or else lose a character for punctuality, which will never do. The street-door slams us out. Whew! but it is a soaker! What a clatter the big drops make upon the strained silk! - we could spare such hydraulic music. The sky is one dull sheet of lead ; the nearest houses appear as if veiled in a gauze dress, and the further ones are behind a wet blanket, and won't appear at all. All London is just now under the douche, and undergoing a course of hydropathic treatment. Much good may it do thee, thou dear old wilderness of brick ; thy alimentary canal has long been out of order. Drink, old Babylon! Drink, and forget thy filthiness, and show thy countless offspring a clean face when the morrow's sun lights up they forest of tall towers. In the meantime, though, this is but a sorry joke. Slippety, sloppety, squash! Concern that loose paving-stone! and an ovation to the man of genius who invented gaiters, by which we are spared an involuntary "futz.'' What is that? "Clickety, clackety, skrsg!" Pattens, by all that is poetical! "O the days when we were young!" as the poet says, when pattens were the genteel thing - when comfortable dowagers went waddling abroad exalted on iron rings, and with their heads buried in calashes shaped like a gentleman's cab, only not quite so big. Ah, those were thee days! What a rush of tender recollections comes with the clatter of that single pair of pattens! It seems an age since we last heard that once familiar sound ; and it seems, too, as though we had entered a new world since that sound was of everyday occurrence. [-84-] But we must not indulge in these pensive recollections. Swish!  -p-r-r-r-r-r-r-p! whirr! - no indeed! -if this isn't enough to swill all sentiment out of a fellow. "Halloo! Conductor, stop that bus!"
    "Full inside, sir : plenty of room outside, sir!"
    "Not a doubt of it ; but I'm outside already.'' 
    No admission for gentlemen in distress. Never mind - we shall be sure to find an omnibus in the City Road that will take us in. Really, this is the very sort of a day to turn into a night and were it not for the despotism of Business, that genius of modern activities, who rules us, as he rules all his subjects, with an iron sceptre, we should he tempted to follow the example of an eccentric artist of the last century, and by turning back to our home once more and by simply closing the window-shutters, lighting candles, and poking up the fire, transform this drenching morning into a cheerful evening. But that won't do either, lest we fall into a practice that will entail upon us rainy days of a still endurable complexion. Sweeper Jack, yonder, is of the same way of thinking; he has scraped his crossing as clean as he can with his worn-out broom-stump; but his function is no sinecure this morning, as new puddles are forming every minute in the track which his daily sweepings have hollowed out. He cannot afford to lose his morning coppers ; and though he is wet through to the skin, and has been for this hour past, he will not quit his post till his last regular patron lies gone by on his way to the City. He holds out a hand, sodden like a washerwoman's, for his customary half-penny, and deposits it in one of his Bluchers, lying high and dry under the shelter of a doorway - a piece of practical economy that, because he finds it cheaper to subject the soles of his bare feet to the mud and slush of the season than it would be to submit the soles of leather to the same destructive ordeal. Sweeper Jack is not much worse off on such a day as this than the whole tribe of peripatetic [-85-] traders whom the sky serves for a roof every day in the year, and who prefer the risk of drowning abroad to the certainty of starving at home. "Eels! live eels!" cries one and we can fancy them swimming at their ease in the broad basket in which they are borne aloft. The soles, haddocks, and cod are travelling once more in their own element, and the salesmen are particularly lively, knowing, by experience, that a drenching day, when economical housewives don't care to plunge over the way or round the corner to the butcher's, is not unfavourable to their trade. Ten to one that we find a cod's head and shoulders on the table when we return to dinner at five. Charley Coster's cart looks remarkably fresh and green this morning but that poor "moke" of his is evidently depressed in spirits, and, after the manner of his kind, lowers his head and bends back his ears in silent deprecation of the extra weight of moisture he has to drag through the miry streets. Yonder is a potato-steamer, which the prudent proprietor has moored snugly under a covered archway : his little tin funnel is fizzing away amongst a group of boys and lads driven there for shelter from the storm. He has got his steam up early to-day - foul weather acting invariably as an impetus to his peculiar commerce : a hot buttered potato for a halfpenny, with salt a discr?tion, as the French say, is too good a bargain to go far a-begging on such a morning as this. Another wandering son of commerce, who profits especially when the clouds are dropping fatness, is that umbrella hawker, who stands there at the corner, roofed in under a monster-dome of gingham, from which he utters ever and anon in a cavernous voice : "A good um'rella for sixpence! Sixpence for a good um'rella! A silk un for a shilling!" You will not see him driving business in that fashion when the sky is without a cloud;  you might as well look for a rainbow. He gets his living by rainy days ; and if he could regulate the calendar in ins own way, 'twere but little hay [-86-] that would be made while the sun shone, and Vauxhall and Cremorne Gardens might shut up shop. But of all the gainers by the liberality of Jupiter Pluvius, the cabmen are the most active and the most exemplary. Now is the very carnival of cabs ; and every driver assumes an air of increased importance, and sways his whip with authority, as though he were chief monarch of a wet world, which in some sort he is. But there is not a single cab on the stand. The stand itself is washed away - all the disjecta from the nose-bags, every wisp of hay and straw of fodder, is floated off the stones ; the very waterman has disappeared, and taken for the nonce to burnishing pewter-pots in the back-slums of the Pig and Whistle - his tubs alone are the only vestiges which are left to proclaim the fact that four-and-twenty vehicles, all of a row, have their home and resting-place on that deserted spot. Cabby is abroad stirring up the mud in every highway and byway of universal London ; and Cabby's horse, under the impetus of unlimited whipcord, is straining every nerve to compensate for the idleness of yesterday, and to devour as many miles, measured by six-pences, as will satisfy, if that be possible, the expectations of his owner.
    But now we emerge upon the City Road, and hear the welcome syllables, "Room for one," from the conductor of a Favorite omnibus. With a foot on the step, we bolt in upon a not very inviting spectacle : ten stout gentlemen, each with a dripping umbrella, and one stouter dame, two single Niobes rolled into one, with a weeping umbrella and a plethoric bundle to boot - all packed together almost as tight as Turkey figs in a drum, in a locomotive vapour-bath reeking and steaming at every pore. It is impossible to pass up the centre, and so we are jammed into the corner next to the conductor, who, enveloped in oil-skin, considerately bars the pelting drops from our face by exposing to them his own broad back. We commence a conversation by [-87-] observing, as a sort of leading remark, that such a drencher as this is a capital day for omnibuses. "Why, you must be making quite a fortune to-day.''
    "Hexcuse me, sir," says he, "but that ere's a wery vulgar herror. People thinks, because they finds the buses full when they wants to go to town of a wet day, that the wet weather is best for the trade. 'Taint no sich thing. We goes to town this mornin', for instance, full ; but we shall come back empty well-nigh, and shan't do nothing to speak of afore gentlemen has done their business and comes back in the evening. Buses that runs along the business-lines does tolerable well perhaps but I'm bound to say that them as goes north and south don't do half a average trade sich a day as this. No, sir - fine weather is best for buses, if I know anything about it. People walks out in fine weather to enjoy theirselves and gits tired, and rides home ; or they rides out for pleasure, and to call upon their friends, or they rides a-shopping, and brings home their bargains ; but when sich weather as this shuts people within doors, of course they can't ride in buses.''
    There was no denying the force of the conductor's logic, backed as it was by a long experience - and we sat corrected.
   Here our vis-a-vis, the stout dame with the bundle, stops the omnibus, and shambling hastily into the muddy road drops some halfpence into the conductor's hand.
    "What's this, marm?"
    "Why, the fare - threepence to be sure.''
    "Threepence ain't the fare, and this ain't threepence. D'ye call that a penny ? 'tis only a half-penny as ha' been run over."
    "O dear me! are you sure it's not a penny? it's big enough. I thought your fare was threepence.''
    Conductor opens the door and shows the printed table of fares. "You see, marm, it's fourpence. I want three-half-pence more."
    [-88-] "O dear, I wonder if I've got any more."
    Niobe lays her bundle on the step, and dives into her pocket. First dive, fishes up an enormous pincushion, red on one side and green on the other ; dive the second, a pocket handkerchief and a ball of worsted ; dive the third, a nutmeg-grater, a nutmeg half consumed, a piece of ginger, and an end of wax-candle, which shows signs of having been on terms of the closest intimacy with a skein of thread ; dive the fourth, half of a crumpled newspaper and a lump of gingerbread.
    "Come, be alive, marm," says the conductor ; "we can't be waiting here all day."
    "O dear me, how it does rain! Don't be in a hurry, my good man - I feel the money now ;" and, sure enough, dive the fifth produces, together with a handful of ends of string, reels of coloured cotton, and a tin snuff-box, a couple of penny-pieces. The fare is paid - bang goes the door, and on we roll towards the Bank.
    The City wears rather a blank appearance. It is busy, as it always is, with the working-bees of commerce, but the drones are absent, and of pleasure-takers there are none to be seen. Greatcoated figures flit hurriedly backwards and forwards beneath their hoisted umbrellas ; and the indispensable business of the day is done in spite of the unceasing tempest that pouts from morn to night. But retail trade is almost at a stand-still. That immense standing-army whose lives are passed in the service of this ladies, experience, it may well be, a welcome intermission of their labours. The shop-walker may rest his weary shanks, and the shop-talker may give his tongue a holiday. Drapers' assistants have no goods to drape, and may assist one another in the laborious occupation of doing nothing. Now and then the shopkeeper walks to the front door, and, with one hand in his pocket, while he rubs his smooth-shaven chin with the other, casts an appealing look upwards to the leaden sky. He sees no symptoms of a [-89-] pause in the pattering storm ; so he retires, and buries himself in his back-parlour, where, with his nose every now and then between the leaves of his bad-debt book, he falls to making out fresh bills for stale and long-forgotten accounts. We mourn for our old friends the book-stalls, which lie all day long under a pall - a pall of dilapidated floor-cloth, which no man stops to lift and look beneath. The search after knowledge may be carried on under some difficulties, but not under such a sousing shower-bath as this. It has actually washed away the apple-women from the kerb-stones, who are known to be as waterproof as Macintosh himself ; and it has driven the orange-girls off the pavement to the shelter of covered courts and theatrical piazzas.
    But if the rain has dispersed a whole host of professionals, it has at least brought some new ones upon the scene. Here comes a characteristic establishment, vamped up for special use on a rain day. It is nothing more nor less than an ostensible father of a family, with six impromptu children, all born to him this identical morning  -children whose father was humbug, and whose mother was a promising ten hours' rain. He, unfortunate man, informs you as plainly as the cleverest pantomime can tell the tale, that he is an unsuccessful tradesman who has seen better days, and that these six forlorn infants, all clad in neat white pinafores, but paddling with naked feet on the cold wet stones, are the motherless children of his dear departed wife, who has left him in sickness and poverty to be the sole guardian of their tender years. As an evidence that he has brought them up in the right way, they are singing, as lustily as they can bawl, a pious hymn to a sacred tune, to which he himself groans a deplorable bass in a deplorable voice - holding out his hand the while as a modest appeal in behalf of his innocent orphans. If you are prudent, you will not be in a hurry to tax your sympathies. You may feel quite at your case, and rest assured that this unhappy family, which shows [-90-] so pathetically amidst the driving storm, owes its very existence to this dismal day, and to nothing else. Had the sun shone brightly this morning, each of these motherless infants had remained in charge of its own maternal parent, or passed the day in raking the mud of Westminster ; and the demure, sorrow-stricken father himself, had been off chalking the pavement, shamming the cripple, doing the deplorable "fake,'' or cadging in some ingenious way on his own private account, among the gullible population of some other district. We know the rascal well enough ; but he contrives to sneak on the safe side of the law, and laughs at exposure. If you want to help him to a debauch of gin, bestow your charity, but not otherwise.
    Such a day as this is a dead loss to a multitude of out-of-door professionals, not a few of whom will have to put up with short-commons, as a result of such an inhospitable sky. It is not very pleasant to think what becomes of a host which numbers so many thousands of needy individuals at such an untoward time, when they cannot be abroad, and when it would be of no use if they could, because their friends and patrons the public arc snug at home. Where are all the poor music-grinders? Where that solid phalanx of Italian piano-players ? Where those gangs of supple acrobats and street-jugglers ? Where that battalion of needy knife-grinders ? Where the travelling-tinkers, swinging their sooty incense beneath our noses ? Where the hawkers of fruits, and nuts, and sweet-stuff? Where the bands of children with their bunches of lavender ? Where those merry little tender German tinder -merchants? Where the street-stationer, with his creamy note-paper ? Where the violet-girls, with their sweet-smelling posies ? And where that vast and indiscriminate crowd that hangs perpetually upon the skirts of business or of pleasure, and, like Lazarus from the rich man's table, supply their daily necessities from the abundance and the superfluities of their more fortunate brethren ? In what [-91-] cheerless houses, what wretched slums and corners, what dark and unwholesome dens, do they lurk in hunger, cold, and bodily discomfort, while the relentless rain shuts them out from the chance of earning an honest penny? Truly, a rainy day in London has its dismal aspect within doors as well as without.
    The animal creation, which always sympathises in the pains and pleasures of us humans, show their aversion from rainy weather, when it is excessive, in a manner not to be  mistaken. We cannot pretend to decide whether the horse pulls a long face at a rain-storm, his face being never of the shortest ; but his eye is sadder than usual when he is soaked with a shower. Donkey shows his dislike to heavy rain by invariably getting out of it when he can, and by his un-willingness to face the driving blast when upon duty. Dog is, in wet London streets, invariably draggle-tailed and downcast, and out of heart. His post is too often, on these occasions, outside his master's door, upon the step of which he may be seen sitting, his muddy tail between his legs, and his woebegone face confronting the public, upon  whom he turns an appealing, lack-lustre eye, telling how much he would prefer sleeping curled up by the kitchen-fire to standing sentry in company with the scraper. Puss shows her sense of cleanliness and comfort by keeping within doors ; though our old "Stalker" is an exception to the general rule, preferring to sit on the outside of the window-sill, where, erecting every hair in his black coat till they bristle up "like quills upon the fretful porcupine," he gathers a vast amount of electricity and considerable moisture besides, and is always the cleaner and the livelier for the process, which he doubtless knows to be good for his constitution.
    Time was (when we were not so thoughtful as we are now) when we entertained a notion that it would have been an agreeable and convenient arrangement of such moist phenomena, if all the rain, hail, and snow, of which Mother [-92-] Earth stands in continual need, had been predestinated to fall after sunset, and the hours of daylight had been left to the uninterrupted pursuits and enjoyments of mankind. We are grown wiser now, arid see that it is better ordered. In that case, we should have lost for ever the moral effect of a rainy day and the stock of undeniable blessings to our mental and spiritual nature which spring out of little crosses and disappointments, would have been diminished so much in amount through the lack of a little gentle moral discipline, that, bad as the world is now, it would have been infinitely worse, and perhaps hardly bearable for living in. Therefore, with your leave, good reader, we will be reconciled to the wet weather and when it rains, let it rain, without grumbling, merely donning our gaiters, induing our waterproof soles, buttoning up our coats, hoisting our umbrellas, and setting about our business cheerfully and industriously, which, as everybody knows who knows anything, is the best way of providing against a rainy day.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857