Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - A Novel Competition Show

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A NOVEL COMPETITION SHOW.

I HAD been to look for a friend a long way off - a very long way off; but not being a man of fashion, only a foot-passenger in the journey of life, I don't mind how far I go in search of a friend - east or west, north or south - so that I find him at last. As adverse fate would have it, however, I did not find my friend, and had to return disappointed and vexed.
    Of course it began to rain - it always does when you are a long way off. Rain, did I say ? it began to spout, as though Jupiter Pluvius had just hit upon a new system of hydraulics, and was making experiments with it upon a grand scale. Before meeting with a cab or omnibus, or coming to any rational place of shelter, I had got dripping wet, and determined doggedly, since matters could not be worse to go right through it all the way. I was brought up, however, by an advertisement in the window of a public-house of a nature curious enough to attract a hunter of curiosities like me. It announced a convocation of dogs, just about to come off, under the patronage of a celebrated character: in other words, a dog-show - a kind of canicultural fete, at which the best-bred specimens of the bow-wow fraternity would reap the honour of a prize.
    This was too much for my resolution : I darted at once into the "Thingumbob," and made my way to the exhibition-room - a public-house parlour of the usual dimensions. In the centre, a couple of tables placed together were surmounted with a roomy cage of wood and wire in several [-122-] compartments A solitary poodle lay curled up in the bottom of the cage, and his owner, who looked a cross between a bailiff and a stable-keeper, and in whose mouth stuck a short pipe very considerably blacker than his rusty hat, sat contemplating him with perfect satisfaction. In a minute or two, he was joined by another exhibitor, who produced from his pocket a spaniel of King Charles's breed, no bigger than a kitten, and passed it into an upper compartment of the cage. The owner of the poodle had a bull-dog sitting gravely between his knees, and the proprietor of the spaniel had another at his heels. Tokens of recognition, consisting of a species of electric nods, almost too rapid for observation, passed between the candidates, but no speech. Two newcomers anticipated any conversation that might have ensued: they were handicraftsmen - shoemakers I think - and each produced a miniature terrier from his pouch, full grown, but not much bigger than a good-sized rat. They then pulled the bell, and ordered stout from the waiter. Other exhibitors now poured in fast, and nearly every man produced his dog, most of them from the pocket. In the course of half an hour, the room was unpleasantly full, and the cage, too, was thoroughly stocked. Every man drank beer or grog, and smoked, and all talked - save those who roared - together. The odour of the strong rank weed they chose to smoke was almost enough to choke a crocodile - the walls of the room vanished behind the reeking mist that arose on all sides, and the vision of ill-favoured faces that loomed through the grey cloud, reminded me of the grim colossal phantasmagoria which used to haunt my boarding-school couch on a hungry and sleepless night. The floor was literally covered with ugly curs, which had come as spectators - all of the fighting school, and most of them maimed or mutilated by battle. One prodigious Gorgon of a brute - with a chest as broad as a boy's, and whose feet, as he sat motionless beneath a table, met on the ground like the two [-123-] lines of a capital V - had lost one eye and the whole of his lower lip ; he had a face and forehead of chamois leather, and was covered with half-healed wounds from some recent and desperate encounter.
    There were as yet no signs of business. The celebrated character had not made his appearance, or he had delayed his introduction, perhaps, to give the accommodating landlord of the " Thingumbob'' the benefit of those interesting moments which precede any important event, during which the absorbents are generally in a state of activity. Pending his arrival with the umpires, some of the party got up an exhibition of a different kind, which I had not expected. Several members of the fraternity had brought little square bundles wrapped up in handkerchiefs ; these proved to be small bird-cages, each containing a pet bird. One man opening his cage, put in his forefinger, upon which he brought out a lively goldfinch, which he offered "to whistle agile any bird in the room for a crown.'' It seemed that the little songster was a celebrated prima-donna in its way, and had earned the name which it bore, of the Jenny Lind. "Don't you wish you may get it?'' was the jeering inquiry from several voices. "Give the long odds, and I'll match Piper agin him," bawled one ; but the proposition was not accepted. The little bird plumed itself proudly, and uttered a note of defiance.
    "Cock-a-doodle -doo!" screamed its proprietor; " all afeard on yer, Jenny - that a what it is, my beauty-champion of all England, my little pinch a' feathers. Who bids ten guineas for the champion?"
    "Not champion yet, if I know it,'' said a voice from the abyss of sickening vapour ; and a man stepped out of the gloom, bearing a bird perched on his knuckle, as closely resembling the redoubtable champion as it is possible to imagine. He accepted1 the challenge on behalf of his protégé, and producing his money, seated himself in a chair, [-124-] rested his elbow on the table, and held forth his forefinger as a perch for the bird ; the other did the same, while a third person lighted an inch of candle, and stuck it on an upturned pewter pot between the competitors. The lists thus prepared, the challenger gave the signal by a peculiar sound produced by drawing the air between his lips ; and. Jenny, after a few low and preparatory flourishes, burst into song. The rival bird responded in a strain equally loud, and both sang in evident emulation of each other, and by degrees stilled all other sounds in the room, save the snorting puffs that arose from some half-hundred pipes. The little creatures grew wondrously excited; their throats swelled, their tiny feathers ruffled up, their eyeballs rolled, their beaks yawned and quivered, while without an instant's pause or let, amidst that horrid reek of filthy tobacco, through which their forms were but just visible, still rushed the stream of song. One would have thought such an atmosphere would have poisoned them, but both were plainly proof against it and when at length the rival bird ceased and fluttered down upon the table, it was from sheer exhaustion of physical strength, and lack of further power of endurance. Jenny, as usual, had won the day; and its owner, as he complimented the bird caressingly, averred, with a tremendous expletive, that he would have wrung its neck upon the spot had it been defeated.
    Another similar match followed between birds of less note and less exalted pretensions ; but, owing to a defect, or perhaps to an excellence, in my pectoral apparatus, I was so unpleasantly affected by the amount of tobacco-reek which had found its way into my lungs, as to be compelled to make a hasty exit. Consequently, I had not the privilege of seeing the celebrated character, or of witnessing the bestowal of honours upon the dogs of merit. Whether Pompey bore off the prize - which of the terriers got a medal - and which came off with only honourable mention, I am in no condition [-125-] to satisfy the public. There was no illustrated catalogue of the exhibition, although it would have stood illustration remarkably well from the hands of some combined Hogarth and Landseer. Bets were rife upon the chances of the prize, and the "favourite" was a black and tan spaniel, about the size of a rabbit, with long broad cars, long silken hair, and no nose to speak of. This was a dog of fortune - had been pupped, to speak figuratively, with a golden spoon in its mouth, having been bred to order for a certain beautiful duchess, to whom, after competed for, and probably won, the first prize, it would be forwarded on the morrow, to be pillowed henceforth on silk plush, or fondled in the folds of lace or satin ; to be dieted on fricassees and cream to be attended, in case of an attack of the spleen, by a physician who keeps his carriage and to be led forth in park or shrubbery every day for an airing, by a liveried page impressed to melancholy by the awful responsibility of the charge.
    Companions of man, dogs are subject, like him, to every imaginable variety of social position, and to all possible mutations of fortune. The difference between the Queen upon the throne, and the veriest houseless outcast that cowers shiveringly beneath the blast of winter in the streets of London, is not greater than that which exists between the kicked, starved, mangled, worried, and skeleton mongrel that wears and whines out its miserable life in the cozy kennels of the city slums, and the Queen's favourite poodle, caressed by royalty, immortalised by Landseer, and housed in a palace. The parallel is capable of a much more extensive application ; but I must not pursue it too far, lest I be betrayed into comparisons which might not be deemed complimentary to the reader, for whom, and for whose dog, I entertain the tenderest regard.