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TWENTY-FOUR HOURS OF LONDON STREETS.
IT is pleasant to stroll leisurely through the highways and by-ways, to
saunter in the thoroughfares and no-thoroughfares of a great city, as the
shadows of evening are settling down upon it. "Parting day," says a
"Dies like the dolphin, whom each pang imbues
With a new colour as it gasps away!
The last still loveliest, till - 'tis gone - and all is grey."
To the mind of the artist, "in populous city pent," this description is not a whit less applicable than to him who, accustomed to rove at will, "by meadow, grove and stream" might be apt to appropriate the praises of the poet exclusively to the subjects he loves best to contemplate. We are not sure that the city, after all, does not gain more in picturesque beauty by the descending twilight than the choicest landscape can do. That grey curtain which closes in the wide panorama of the country, and robs it of its charm of infinity, adds that very charm to the town, by concealing its narrower limits, and clothing with a veil of vague and mystic unsubstantiality its loftiest structures. We are aware that this notion will be accounted by poets, and painters too, as decidedly erroneous but still it is one, we will venture to say, which has often crossed the brain of the casual lounger among the half-deserted haunts of his busy brethren, at that dim hour when the solid masses of granite in the gloom of which he wanders appear to fade away into shadowy forms, [-380-] and mingle their viewless outlines with the dusky harbinger of night.
But we must not indulge in speculations, artistic or aesthetic. We are far from twilight as yet, and have many things to notice before London puts on that peculiar and pensive phase which she always assumes as the shadows of evening gather over her countless towers and spires - her moiling and ever-restless population.
Long before the summer sun sinks to a level with the horizon, what the great heart of this mercantile Babylon lies that day determined to do, is done and ended, and in its deepest and widest channels the grand current of commerce has ceased to flow. With all the gigantic activity that characterises London's commercial exploits, there is combined an unmistakeable appreciation of gentlemanly ease and leisure. Her merchant princes enjoy their state like princes, in spite of their toil, and they fly from the arena of business to the retreat of home when the first cool breath of evening sweeps refreshingly through the sweltering streets. The banks are all closed - counting-houses are empty - the Exchange is a desert - and the Titans of wholesale traffic have abandoned the market, and left it to the rule of the shopkeepers, by the time the Post-office, at the sound of the last stroke of six, has barred up its letter-boxes. Here and there a few anxious speculators may huger in their dens, calculating probabilities, and waiting for the departure of the last mail ere they dispatch their orders or resolve upon their sales and purchases ; but these are only the exceptions that prove the rule. Those who rank as the aristocracy of London's commerce for the most part wind up their commercial day with the hour of dinner, and set themselves and their humbler coadjutors free to enjoy the pleasures of the evening as they list.
Then it is that the army of clerks is disbanded, filing off in whole brigades from Lombard Street and the courts [-381-] adjacent - emerging from countless avenues in the vicinity of the Bank, the Exchange, and Threadneedle Street, and starting off at a tangent in cab or omnibus, or slowly sauntering off on foot to indulge in the rest or recreation of the hour. For some, a thousand places of amusement, with doors wide open, present a bewildering choice of recreation or excitement ; for others, the library or the lecture-room has superior attractions and for all, the free air of the suburbs, and the outlying country, present the healthful opportunitv for exercise and change of scene. Family men now, as a general rule, return to the bosom of home, and in the society of wife and children - it may be in a patch of garden-ground twenty feet square, ornamented with half-a-dozen flower roots, a water-butt, dust-box, and central bush of laurel, or it may be in a family procession to the nearest park or trespassable field - spend the quiet hours in the relish of domestic enjoyment. Now, the numerous tea-gardens that fringe the dusty metropolis on every side are boiling their huge kettles, and are heard to be exceedingly talkative through the screen of pitchy railings and stunted bushes which protects them from the intrusive gaze of passers-by. Now, as we pass the door of some rural inn the sound of tremendous and barbaric blows assails the ear, followed immediately by a dismal rumbling, which to a nervous poet might suggest a distant earthquake or a far-off battle-field, but which to that bricklayer's labourer advancing says "Skittles" as plain as it can speak. Now, the schoolboys are out for their evening games, and rejoicing in the soundness of their lungs and the fleetness of their legs - and the prattle of infant children, and the thumping of toy-drums, and the inarticulate appeals of penny whistles, and the involuntary crowings of babies in arms, are heard in back gardens-and nursing mothers are in their glory, while the little fat-faced, bare-legged youngsters tumble about, and papa in his dressing-gown looks on, and forgets that stocks [-382-] fell three-eighths since eleven o'clock this morning, and he bought in yesterday.
As the evening advances, the dense hosts of labour begin to pour forth from unnumbered workshops, warehouses, and factories. Multitudes, worn and weary with the exactions of the day, hasten to throw themselves on their pallets to recruit strength for the morrow multitudes rush to the reeking purlieus of the tavern, longing for the beggarly delights of intoxication ; and multitudes more roam abroad in search of such recreation as may chance to come within their reach. A tide of the population of our industrial establishments sets in towards the parks, where a thousand different groups may be seen squatted or supine on the grass, gazing, it may be, up into the sky, where one or two, or perhaps half-a-dozen balloons, freighted with adventurers for whom the common earth has not perils enough, are voyaging slowly in the breezeless upper air - or watching the children chasing their long shadows on the close-cropped sward, or feeding the fowls in the pond, or sending up paper messengers to the kite steadied far aloft. Crowds of released artizans rush to the river, and on the decks of steamers run down to Greenwich for a stroll beneath the chestnut-trees, or a ramble on Blackheath or up the river to Chelsea, and Vauxhall, and Battersea, and Putney. The wherries are out in swarms upon the Thames, and amateur rowing-matches are coming off amid the cheers and outcries of backers on shore and afloat. The angling tribe, mustering their maggots and fishing-rods, are off to the New River, or the Surrey Canal, or the Docks, or the Grand Junction, where, notwithstanding they have been at work since seven in the morning, and must begin again at seven to-morrow, they will sit, with marvellous patience, watching the bobbing float till long after the stars wink out at them, dreaming of a bite. Whole battalions mount in double rows on the backs of omnibuses, bound for Highgate or Hampstead, to enjoy an hour's ramble on hill [-383-] or heath. From Hyde Park in the west to Victoria Park in the east all the verdant spots and gardens which constitute the lungs of London are dotted over with her inhabitants of all ages and grades, come forth to breathe the air of heaven and look the welcome sky in the face. The fields and meadows of the debatable land, where the grass is invaded by endless regiments of unburnt brick, and where green lanes are gradually undergoing a transformation info brick streets, are alive with human shapes and throughout the hundred miles of thoroughfare that lead in different radii from the centre to the suburbs of the metropolis, the publicans' hives are swarming with thirsty bees flocking thither, not to store up honey, but to waste it. Notwithstanding all this, and ten times more, every street, court, and back-lying lane, is populous with life and crowded with animate forms. What is the reason? It is the hour when industrial London is out of doors - when the toil of the day is supposed to be over, and, for the major part of the toilers, the only season of recreation is to be enjoyed.
But there is a numerous tribe whose labours are never done, or are not subject to the laws which regulate the business world, and whose traffic thrives best when the streets are fullest. They cannot afford to take a holiday : too many holidays are thrust upon them ; and when the public are abroad, and that portion of the public in particular who are their special patrons, they must be up and doing, or suffer the consequences of idleness. The industrial hordes who labour for their daily bread are themselves, in their turn, the patrons and paymasters of another distinct and nomadic horde, who hang upon their skirts wherever they are to be found, and, like the lowest orders of the animal creation, derive support and nutriment from sources which, by the unreflecting, are often ignorantly despised and undervalued. Let us wander this fine evening through a furlong or two of that long route which, like the Boulevards of Paris, girdles [-384-] the metropolis on its northern and eastern sides, and glance for a brief space at a few of these peripatetic professors - these commercial Bedouins, who peacefully waylay the monster caravan that nightly files off along this well-known track in the desert of London.
If, leaving Finsbury Square, we walk towards the Angel, we shall not proceed far without meeting with a specimen. Here is one already - a weather-worn man seated on a high stool in front of a slender and rickety framework supporting a whole gamut of little bells. Having a row of wooden keys under his feet, which act upon hammers that strike the bells, and a fiddle under his chin, he contrives to scrape and jingle out "Auld Lang Syne,'' or "Home, sweet Home," with an effect not too nearly approaching to the harmonious. His audience are not disposed to be hypercritical ; the spectacle pleases them in all probability more than the music, which is of a rather doubtful quality; but Englishmen love to see a man doing a good deal, and the industrious fellow, who is wriggling from his fingers' ends to his toes, and only sits because his is a profession at which nobody could stand, receives his modest reward of coppers, as a despot receives homage, on his self-erected throne. Here is another specimen - a prodigiously loud-voiced stentor, standing erect as you wooden Highlander at the snuff-shop, but, unlike him giving forth utterances distinguishable above the roar of the omnibus wheels and the hum of the crowd at a hundred yards' distance. He has always a goodly company around him at this hour of the day, if the weather is at all favourable, being an outspoken fellow and a bit of a wag to boot. He carries a broad tray in front of him, suspended from his shoulders, and resting against his stomach, which is never troubled with indigestion. Upon his tray are piled a curious heap of knicknacks, useful and amusing, manufactured by his own hands, from tin, and iron, and brass wire. Hear him as he dilates upon the marvels of a puzzling toy which he holds [-385-] in his hand, and which is nothing more nor less than a miniature set of the apparatus known in many parts of England as the "tiring-irons,'' and occasionally drawn forth from the tower of the church, when, upon any fair-day or festival some brawny blacksmith, bold enough to attempt the solution of their mystery, makes application to the sexton for the purpose. "Here you are, gentlemen," says he, "here you are! This is the comfoozlem, so called because it was invented by the celebrated Chinese feelusover Confuse-us, and certainly it does confuse most folks ; you must feel it over a good many times, I can tell'ee, afore you finds out the trick of it ; but it's easy enough when you know it, till you forgit again, and then it's amusement for another week to find it out. It's only tuppens - good hard brain-work for a fortnight, and all for tuppens. This is how you do it" (speaking very rapidly, and as rapidly performing the exploit) "the first ring don't come off first, but the second, you see, then the first drops, you see, then the second goes on again, then the third comes off, you see, then the second drops, then the third goes on again, then the fourth comes off, then the third drops, you see, then the fourth goes on again, then the fifth," &c. &c. In half a minute the rings are all off, and in a minute more on again, all done with a rapidity of manipulation which it is impossible to follow with the eye. "One for you, sir ? Yes, sir- thank'ee.-Two for you ? Oh, three - an even sixpence - thank'ee sir I wish you may find it out, sir, before you go to sleep. Who wants a save-all? save-alls a penny a-piece! Why they calls em save-alls, never could think, though I've made thousands on 'em. If you wants to save your candle-ends, don't have nothin' to do with this contrivance, it burns em all up till there's none left. Did you ask what this is, sir? - them's candle-springs. I never could abear to see the old voman a roppin' bits o' paper round the candles to make 'em fit the candlesticks, so I invented this here article to [-386-] keep 'em tight - a penny a pair, sir ; thank'ee, sir. That, sir ? that's a mouse-trap ; you wouldn't think it, would you? no more would a mouse - there's the beauty on it - a penny; thank'ee, sir." In this manner, pausing now and then to fetch breath, and to re-arrange the condition of his tray, and to pile up the halfpence, of which he makes a grand show in one corner, this clever and confident genius amuses the mob, and makes his own market. He sells vast numbers of his puzzling toy, but it is hardly one purchaser in a thousand who succeeds in penetrating the mystery of its construction so as to perform the difficult feat which to him, from long practice, is as easy as drawing on a glove.
Not far from the friend of Confucius stands a man who boasts, in a confidential and half-mysterious voice, the possession of three important secrets, which no consideration should induce him to reveal to the world, but the benefits of which, at the small charge of one penny each, he is ready, here and now, to confer upon mankind in general, and womankind in particular. The first of these secrets is embodied in certain small cakes of a grey-coloured composition, by the proper use of which grease of all kinds is summarily eradicated from linen, woollen, and silken fabrics, with the utmost ease and certainty. Making a sudden dash with his left hand, and seizing a boy with a greasy collar, and dragging him forward to the proof, he applies his nostrum, and giving it a few rubs with an old tooth-brush clipped in water, the grease instantly disappears, and its place shows like a patch of new cloth upon an old garment. The second secret is a wonderful cement which joins broken china or glass in a most marvellously effectual manner; and the third, which only by a stretch of imagination can be supposed useful to ladies, is a composition for the sharpening of razors, in proof of whose efficiency he makes trial of it upon an old blade, triumphantly severing with it a single hair, held between his finger and thumb. He chatters volubly all the [-387-] while, and performs a variety of experiments with each of his talismanic properties - selling and delivering his goods, and giving change if necessary, without the slightest pause in the torrent of his elocution.
A few steps further, and we are confronted by Fowler Jack, with a large cage in compartments, filled with young birds, among which we observe with concern our old confident acquaintance, the red-breast, whom of late years it has been a fashion with Londoners to immure in a cage for the sake of his charming though simple song. In rural districts the cock-robin used to be safe from the snares of the fowler, and the gun of the juvenile sportsman ; and twenty times when he has been caught in the clap-nets have we seen him restored to liberty, as a thing of course, by Hedge, who would have accounted it a crime to injure him. But the London fowler knows nothing about this, or, if he does, regards it as an ignorant superstition, and turns a penny, if he can, by anything and everything that comes into his net. His best customers are the working-men, an immense proportion of whom keep birds, and are not bad judges in matters ornithological. Jack's colony of blackbirds, thrushes, larks, linnets, and finches - golden, bull, and other - have each hardly room to turn round in their narrow habitations ; but being sold cheap, they soon get released into larger premises, and, if they chance to survive a London seasoning, they make the dark lanes and back streets of the smoky city vocal with their cheerful music.
Here we are at the establishment of our old friend Penny Peter, with his broad platform of a hand-cart, heaped with his collection of multitudinous wares, all at a penny a-piece. Peter has been on a journey to Somers-Town and Pentonville all the morning and afternoon, tempting the servant-maids and children with his unaccountable bargains ; and just as evening was drawing on, he unshed his ample equipage (not unlike the floor of a small room mounted on wheels) [-388-] down the City Road to meet the current which experience tells him sets in northerly towards the close of the labouring day. What does not Peter sell for a penny? It is hard to say - and what he does sell were long to tell. There is a box of toys, a box of nine-pins, a box of trenchers, a box of wafers, and a box of boxes. There is a card of steel pens, a serviceable slate, a half-a-quire of paper, and a bottle of ink. There are cups and saucers, and drinking-mugs, presents for Mary and Susan, and Emma and Sarah, and Jane and Bessy, and Willy and Charley, and all the names in the register. There are plates, and dishes, and drinking-glasses, and mirrors, and mousetraps, and memorandum-books, and fifty other things besides - and all, gentlemen, for a penny each, though how they could ever be manufactured at the cost of even double the money is a mystery that has often puzzled us, and is likely to puzzle us longer. Penny Peter is a man of few words ; his merchandise speaks for itself; a dignified wave of the hand in semicircular sweep over the surface of his travelling stage, and the occasional ejaculation of "One penny each, gentlemen," is all the demonstration he condescends to make. He is a great man in the eyes of small nursery-girls and very little children, and no small proportion of his stock is destined to undergo the process of dissection by infant fingers, for the gratification of infant curiosity. His museum is a great treat to the working- man's child; and in working-men's pockets, at the present moment, some dozens of his most substantial merchandise are on their way to the domestic hearth.
Close by Penny Peter, where she is always sure of an audience, and upon whom perhaps she relies for protection in case of need, stands a pale-faced girl of ten years of age, playing with remarkable skill, " considerin'," as her admirers say, upon the violin. She is well versed in the popular airs of the day, and bows them out with a good round tone, tapping the strings with her flying fingers with all the [-389-] precision and confidence of a professor. A little brother of six or seven carries round a small wicker tray among the listeners, putting the halfpence in his sister's pocket as fast as he receives them. It is rumoured, with what truth we know not, that the fiddling girl of ten is the sole support of three younger children left parentless, who, but for her exertions and extraordinary talent, would be consigned to the care of the parish.
Then we come upon a travelling picture-gallery, with above five hundred specimens all jumbled pell-mell in the cavity of an inverted umbrella, and all offered for sale at a farthing each. Among them are a numerous body of divines lying quietly on their backs, together with radical reformers, boa-constrictors, fat oxen, prize-fighters, and caverns of Fingal - not to mention such trifles as the Spanish giant, Tom Thumb, Daniel Lambert, the Siamese twins, and a host of other lusus naturae, mingled together with magnified monsters rescued from the waste paper of some old Cyclopaedia. Then there is a marine smell, and we are stopped on a sudden by Sam Scollops oyster-bench, upon which, in spite of the regulation which compels oysters to be unwholesome in months spelled without an R, those unfortunate bivalves are doomed to be eaten all the year round, their chief consumers being of that order who never spell their months at all - street-porters, coal-heavers, hod-men, costers, sweeps, scavengers, et hoc genus omne, innocent of orthography. Then there comes a barrow-load of pine-apples split into sections of a pennyworth each, and another of cocoa-nuts, retailed at a still cheaper rate. Nor is the ballad-singer wanting, with his six yards of melodious verse for a halfpenny, each his two hundred songs in a neat volume for a penny ; nor the "patterer," with the full, true, and particular account "of the last shocking murder;" nor the mutilated sailor, with his model of a ship in full sail; nor the blown-up miner, with his one arm and two stumps for [-390-] legs, and one eye, and his terrible picture of the explosion unfolded on the ground, where you may see legs, arms, and heads, flying about like hail, and dying men writhing in the flames ; nor the man born blind, who reads you a chapter with his finger ; nor that poor woman who, working away like a machine, cuts ornamental fire-screens out of lumps of wood. All these, and it may chance a dozen or score beside, relying upon the sympathies or the humble taste of the artizan class, find it to their advantage to confront them at the hour when they are most abroad, and are to be found nightly in the path of the working-man returning from his labour. If we were to diverge from the regular route, and mingle among the bibulous crowds sitting on the benches around the public-houses, we should meet with the professors of a different species of industry - an industry- not by any means so commendable, carried on by a nomadic class, to whom the atmosphere of the low tavern and the beer- shop has become a natural and congenial element. These are a species of self-taught and half-taught conjurors and jugglers, who, for the chance of a few halfpence, skulk about among the various summer-eve encampments of beer-drinkers and tobacco-smokers, exhibiting their stale and clumsy tricks as a provocation to the smallest contribution of copper encomiums. One possesses the art of driving, by force of magic, sixpennyworth of small change sheer through the solid table into his hat held beneath. Another produces an old silk handkerchief, from which, drawing it repeatedly through his clenched hand, he yet shakes forth various solid articles, such as eggs, padlocks, or a shoemaker's last; and a third borrows a marked shilling, which every man in the company finds in his own pocket when requested to search for it.
But while we have been amusing ourselves with these discursive glances at the characteristic scenes around us, the hours have flown imperceptibly away. The sun has gone [-391-] down exactly in the north-west., the hazy twilight is settling down upon the dusty road, and the gas-lamps glimmering one by one into being, already mark out its definite track for a full mile in our rear. A cool breeze rising from the west brings with it the far-off hum of life, which fills up the pauses between the rattling and rumbling of cabs and omnibuses flying to and from the city, and reminds us that, to complete even our scanty outline, we must change the scene.
It is done - and we are standing now in one of the broad shop-thoroughfares, where the current of population is ever the strongest, and where commercial London trenches upon the fashionable domain of the west-end. The evening is unusually fine, and though the sunshine has disappeared, there is yet a faint reflection of its parting glow upon the summits of the lofty buildings, and the street is yet as light almost as day, though nine o'clock has rung from the neighbouring towers. The shops, with very few exceptions, are all open ; and at this precise hour, when daylight yet reigns without and gaslight within, some of them present an appearance bordering on the magical or supernatural. As we glance down their long avenues, lighted up with regular rows of pendant lamps, richly ornamented and multiplied by ample mirrors, we half realise the fairy visions of oriental romancists, and recognise in the genius of commerce the veritable magician who has the wealth of the world at his command. The attraction of such a spectacle is too great not to be widely appreciated; and the pathways are consequently crowded with passengers, the majority of whom, in the characters of mere spectators, are enjoying the rich and varied display. Dr. Johnson, in his day, preferred the spectacle of Fleet Street to all the picturesque forms of nature in any other locality; and it is no marvel that with myriads in London, the magnificence of her unrivalled shops, enriched with a luxurious profusion, and [-392-] illuminated with a splendour of which the philosophic doctor could not have had the smallest conception, should possess more charms than anything or everything else that can be gratuitously enjoyed. There is a fascination in the scene which the sight-loving public cannot withstand - a fascination well appreciated by the shopkeeper, whose end is more than half accomplished if he can succeed in attracting general observation. But agreeable, brilliant, and dazzling as is the picture, it has yet a dark and dismal side - dark with moral and physical evils, and dismal in its consequences to the unfortunate "slaves of the lamp'' who are compelled to minister, for the profit of the proprietors, to the caprice of their patrons, the public. We have seen the clerk and the handicraftsman long ago relieved from their toils, and enjoying the repose or recreation which they need, and at liberty to devote the evening hours to purposes of health or improvement. But the shopman, whose duties through the day scarcely admit of the necessary intermission for meals, still stands at his wearisome work, and not till the night is far spent will he be at liberty to snatch a single hour from sleep to recruit by exercise or change of scene his exhausted powers. Then, indeed, when libraries, lecture-rooms, and institutions are closed or closing for the night, and when only the tavern, the theatre, and the gaming-house are open for their reception - forth come thousands of respectable and responsible youth - who have character to form, and to whose success in life character above all things is essential - to encounter the temptations of London streets. We are bound to lift up our voice against this social anomaly, the complete reform of which is demanded by every consideration of humanity, justice, and good policy ; and we trust that the movement begun with the view of effecting it, and hitherto carried on nobly, will be prosecuted with renewed vigour until crowned with entire success.
Night closes in as we turn out of the populous shop-[-393-]thoroughfare, and direct our steps homeward. In the quiet streets in the rear, the sounds of pleasant harmony from harp and lute, violin and pensive horn, agreeably greet the ear. A group of foreign musicians have chosen a tranquil spot whereon to appeal to a choice audience for sympathy in their exile, and are executing a melancholy national air, the strains of which are interdicted in their own country. The sounds reverberate amid the lofty houses as we pursue our way, and have hardly died off in the distance when in turning a corner, we are suddenly confronted by a small group assembled round the proprietor of a very long telescope, which he has pitched upon a convenient spot, and pointed at the planet Jupiter, who, having just cleared the chimney-tops, is shining with uncommon brilliancy, and presents a capital object for the range of his instrument. Twopence for a practical lesson in astronomy is cheap enough - so we join the group, and, when our turn comes round, renew our acquaintance with the planet whom we have not looked fairly in the face for seven years. We find the broad belts in his iliac perfectly distinct, and three of his satellites in attendance, two on the left hand and one on the right, the fourth having been eclipsed by the planet himself just two minutes before we paid our respects to him. As we gaze at the beautiful spectacle with a pleasure not easily defined, the street astronomer obligingly recites the natural history of the planet - his size, distance from the earth and sun at the present moment, his periods of revolution on his own axis, and round his primary, &c., &c., for all which we refer those of our readers who do not happen to have it at their fingers ends to the Catechism of Astronomy. While yet stooping absorbed in the sight, a nudge at our elbow from an expectant star-gazer admonishes us that we have had our two-pennyworth, and must make room for the next comer - so good bye, Jupiter.
Evening is now fast merging into night - such night as a [-394-] star-lighted summer sky sheds upon the earth in the waning month of June. With the comparative darkness comes forth that class of beggars which no police regulations can put down, who in a garb of shabby gentility assail the lonely pedestrian with most elaborate fictions of unheard-of calamity, which the hardest of hearts finds it impossible to resist. These rivals of the moles and the bats do all their day's work in the one hour that ushers in the darkness. One of them hangs upon our skirts as we wend our homeward way, and talks, and talks, and talks, until, having three times contradicted his own story (which he is generally sure to do if you give him time enough), we remind him curtly of that fact, when he suddenly drops behind and frees us of his company-. We have sundry visions, as we quicken our steps - of belated organ-grinders; of solitary minstrels chanting at area railings ; of ragged flower-girls desperately urging the purchase of a bunch of papered violets; of anglers returning home with weary feet and empty creels; of tall sixty-foot fire-escapes walking along the centre of the road in charge of parish beadles ; of the extinguishing of shop-lights, and the lifting of shop-shutters ; of loitering and gossiping servant-girls carrying bulbous mugs of supper-beer ; and various other demonstrations of the kind, all tending to remind us that, to those of our readers at least who have not been fashionably bred, it is time to say, Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!