Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Chapter 2 - Mr. Frith's "Railway Station"

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CHAPTER II.

MR. FRITH'S "RAILWAY STATION."

"WAITER," said I, "since I must not dine before seven, what is to be done in the meantime ?"
    The waiter led the way into the entrance-hall, and fixing his eyes upon an enormous board, decorated with announcement bills, checked them off upon his fingers, with a running accompaniment of comment - thus:
    "Mr. and Mrs. German Reed with Mr. John Parry at the Gallery - a musical entertainment; Mr. Charles Mathews, his personal experiences - funny; Exeter Hall, with an interesting report from a Caribbean Missionary, partly eaten - we have a platform ticket, sir, if you are so disposed. [-24-] Not a serious gentleman? Very good, sir. The Flying Man, then, at 2.30 at the Alhambra - he must drop some day, and my advice is therefore 'Go early;' David Copperfield at St James's Hall - with Mr. Dickens hisself, and a very pretty reader; Mr. Frith's Railway Station -"
    "Stop!" cried I; "I will go and see that first."
    "Fine pictur, sir - very fine pictur, and they tell me a matter of nine thousand pounds bid for it."
    The next moment I found myself in a hansom - something like the old calash, my young friends, but with only a single horse in it, and the addition of a man at the top of your head - and was conveyed, as it were, in a locomotive air-bath, and with astounding rapidity, to my destination. I joined the stream of fashionable people that was flowing in at the door, and it carried me into the exhibition. I say, "carried" advisedly, for I was buoyed up by a couple of ladies, who, singularly enough, had retained the ancient fashion of wearing hoops, which was almost extinct even in my  [-25-] early days. I know they were hoops, because they knocked against my shins, and tipped up upon one side on the very least provocation, whereby, too, I perceived (so true it is that knowledge begets knowledge) that females wear in England articles which in Australia are confined to the male sex, but elegantly fringed with lace a little above the ankles.
    The great picture was not approached with the facility with which one even of a favourite painter - such as Wilkie - would have been in my time; for it was not only great, but it was Sensation. The American Republic, to which this country is already so largely indebted for the invention of goloshes, sherry-cobbler, and shilling-clocks (and to which we ourselves in America owe the introduction of that handy and ingenious instrument, the bowie-knife), has recently imported Sensation into Great Britain. No matter whether the term be applied to a dance or a divine, a melodrama or a system of medicine, it has the wonderful effect of drawing multitudes to hear, to see, to taste, and  [-26-] to admire. If I could only have made Morumbidgee Sensation, we should have had no want of hands in the shearing-season. Mr. Frith's picture was protected by a rail, in front of which the ardent spectators move slowly in single file, while a gentleman connected with the exhibition murmurs softly: "Pass on, ladies and gentlemen, if you please; you may go by as often as you wish, but you must not interfere with the general convenience by standing still: pass on, pass on." Moreover, there is a gigantic scaffold hung with purple cloth, whereupon giddy or timid visitors may stand and stare. So long as she does not get a seat, the most resolute stickler for her money's worth may be depended upon to go away after an hour or two; so all day long the show-room fills and fills, like a basin with a hole in it, and the "enterprising purchaser,! let us hope, begins to reap the first-fruits of his venture.
    In my time, aristocratic connoisseurs were almost the sole patrons of the painter, and they patronised the dead more than the living. The great  [-27-] manufacturers and merchants had only just begun to buy; artist and dealer were alike unaware of the existence of their true patron, the Public, who pays three times over for what pleases it; once for the exhibition of the picture, as in the present instance; once for proofs before letters, for engravings, and for prints; and finally (in the persons of Municipalities or Associations), for the picture itself, which thus delights ten thousand instead of a hundred eyes. Let no man grudge Mr. Frith his great success. He is the Hogarth of his time, and will illustrate for future generations the manners of our day. A period may arrive (though perhaps only coincident with the metaphorical New Zealander) when Margate Sands may lose their attractions for Londoners, or even when the Derby Day itself may cease to agitate the British mind; yet our descendants will be at no loss for a most truthful representation of both those scenes. So, if railways should ever be superseded by balloons, or other methods of locomotion, the present picture will remain an accurate memorial of them. The  [-28-] Railway Station is indeed an epitome of life as witnessed from a departure platform. When I left England, the features of such a work as this would have met with no general recognition. The stage-coach was still the national locomotive. The coachmen who "tooled" the "teams" upon the various highways out of London, were personally known to vast numbers of people. Noblemen and gentlemen styled them Bill and Jack, and honoured the box seat with their presence, from which they gave well-weighed verdicts of admiration upon the "spanking tits" beneath them. Some of the old "Corinthians" still survived with a hole in one of their front teeth, which had been bored in the days of their youth, for the express purpose of enabling them to whistle shrilly to their steeds, as well as to expectorate with the accuracy and precision which distinguished the professional gentlemen of the whip. Those days are dead, and "buried all, under the down-trodden pall of the leaves of many years," but while they lasted it seemed that they could never be forgotten.  [-29-] If Mr. Frith had lived in them, they would not have lacked all memento as they now do. How admirably would he have secured for us for ever that splendid national scene, the Departure of the Mail from St. Martin's-le-Grand - a spectacle that will never more be seen of men.

    With the drivers of a railway train, it is impossible that the general public (with the exception of such gentlemen of fashion as Mr. Wyndham, with whom engine-driving was a relaxation) can have much personal acquaintance; but with the Railway Guards it is different. I heard at least a score of people remark upon the fidelity with which Mr. Frith had reproduced the features of the Great Western officials. From what rank of life, I wonder, do those courteous and intelligent persons come? They have not the somewhat broad joviality of the old scarlet-coated mail-guards, who, like their brethren of the box, were a little spoiled by the flatteries of the public, but they are always good-natured and attentive; while [-30-] the porters present a remarkable contrast,* [* When there are only enough of them, for "one is not a bird, ma'am, that one can be in two places at once."] in their gratuitous civility, to the harpies who were wont to take charge of the luggage of the unhappy traveller by the mail-coach. Oh, shades of "Boots" extortionate (from whom, as I believe, must have arisen the word Booty, spoil of the traveller), into what limbo have you fled, now that "every charge for attendance is included in the hotel-bill ?" No more, at parting, shall you stand, with cap in hand - pretending to wipe your brow bedewed with labour on account of that little carpet.bag of ours - and bid us, with sycophantic smile, to "remember" you. We deemed it, in those days, a most superfluous exhortation, for we had no hope that the day would come when it would be possible to forget you; but now, behold the whirligig of Time has brought about our revenge.
    In yon Detective, too, with his hand upon the shoulder of the Forger, who, standing upon the very threshold of the carriage, imagines, poor [-31-] wretch, that his safety is already half secured, I recognise no feature of the Past. The race of the Bow Street Runner has long been run. The iron hand of Justice is of far surer gripe than ever, but it is softly gloved, and its movements are not so visible. The criminal may fly from it upon the very wings of the wind, but the lightning flash will even then overtake and precede him, disclosing his secret to men who wait for him a hundred miles away. Nay, upon the cushioned seat on which he reclines there may be one whom he takes but for a chance passenger, but who is in reality his Nemesis, the avenger of wrong, only awaiting the signal from head-quarters to produce the hand-cuffs in the name of the Queen.
    Close beside this awful group there is the marriage-party, and the farewell parting of the bride from her weeping sisters; when "light regrets that come, make April of her tender eyes; and doubtful joys the father move, and tears are on the mother's face, as parting with a long embrace, she enters other realms of love." There are now for  [-32-] "happy pairs" no chaises and four, and no old shoe is thrown for luck after their retreating wheels; no postboys now are to be bribed to increased speed upon the road to Gretna, for Gretna Green itself is a railway station, and rash young people, with only three hundred a year and love between them, may be wedded to equal advantage in Hanover Square.
    Here are Recruits about to join their regiment, and sailors their ships, as they did in my own day, for wars are unhappily not abolished yet ; but there is also another class of possible fighting-men which is quite new to me. One end of the train is in possession of a number of Volunteers bound for a day's rifle-practice somewhere down the line. Whatever change the old country suffers, therefore, it is not likely, I thank Heaven, that she will ever change hands. She trusts in Providence, but also keeps her powder dry; or rather, like a mother of many children, whom it becomes, in these days of crinoline and inflammable material, to be extraordinarily prudent, she places fire-guards upon  [-33-] every grate, in preference to subscribing to a burial society, or putting faith in a hearth-rug and presence of mind to extinguish flames. The news-boy flits ubiquitous from group to group with intelligence for one penny, brought that very morning from the uttermost parts of Europe, which in my day took one fortnight to arrive, and another to be contradicted and set right again, by special messengers. His news may be important, and detail the fall of a dynasty, or the enfranchisment of a nation, but it has no interest for the widow yonder, parting with her son, with the ribbons fluttering in his cap, and the recruiting-sergeant at his elbow; nor for the sailor's wife, who is doomed for years to be separated from "dear Jack," and to dream in her lonely bed of storms at sea; nor even for the boy there, who is off to school for the first time, and parts from his mother with a pang, the hurt of which is only known to him and to her.
    These partings, which sometimes break, but never weaken the strands of the human heart, are sad to  [-34-] witness, and terrible to bear. But there is one thing worse, believe me - to return home with none to welcome us. The very forger, you see, has his meek, worn wife to comfort him, and to make excuses for him that will be made by no other being in this world. But for me - if I were to add a new Sensation to your picture, Mr. Frith, by dropping down a dead man in this room, there is not one in all my native land to say, "I knew him." This crowded London is a frightful solitude to an Englishman that has no friend. The Foreigner - such as he who is wrangling with the cabman on yonder canvas - expects to find in it a world alien, if not absolutely hostile, to be gazed at, rather than to be mixed with; but when the accents of every passer-by are familiar, and their very features speak something to us of home, it is hard, indeed, to feel that neither face nor voice has any recognition in them. The occupation of cattle-farming in Morumbidgee does not predispose the human mind for morbid sentiment; but as I walked back (I had almost written "home") through the  [-35-] teeming streets, I felt this bitterly. My dining- table was set out in the coffee-room with crystal, and silver, and damask - but it sadly wanted a second chair. The dinner was excellent., but I have often enjoyed far more a pot of tea and a dish of damper in company with my stockman in the bush. The Times is a great organ, but not so companionable as that of the human voice. There were advertisements in it of everything that can be procured for money, but, unhappily, they could not tell me where to find a friend. I could purchase an aunt - Aunt Sally - so low as 14s. 6d., it is true, but that relative was to throw sticks at, and not to love. I could procure for my constant companion his Royal Highness Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, photographed from life on a rich brown silk pocket-handkerchief, for 4s. 6d., but royalty, it is the opinion of a good colonist, is not a thing to be sneezed at. The United Society of Cooks invited my patronage, but that was not the sort of society for which I pine. The Private Inquiry Office was open, I read, under ci-devant Inspector  [-36-] Field, but, with all his cunning, he could never discover the one thing above all I wanted; one must find out a friend for one's self.
    "A lady of high title and first position" was indeed, I saw, "willing to receive at her husband's west-end mansion a lady wishing to be properly presented, or aspiring to advantages derivable from an introduction to exclusive society," for the (to myself) but trifling consideration of 5,000. But it was more than doubtful whether she would receive a gentleman upon the same terms. "Name and all circumstances" were to be stated too; so Mr. John Stokes would have to reveal his descent from the Trevors. This last was an insurmountable obstacle, although, in other respects, the investment was eligible enough.

" To Foreigners, Returned Colonists, and Country Gentlemen unacquainted with London."

    Returned colonists sounds, to a sensitive ear, just a little too much like returned convicts, but I daresay no offence was intended. 
    [-37-] "Two gentlemen, whose time is entirely unoccupied, offer their services as ciceroni to gentlemen of good means, desirous of seeing town-life. Apply to X or Y; Half-Moon Street, Piccadilly."
    "Now this," thought I, "is the very advertisement for me. Here is not only one companion, but a couple, secured by a single transaction. Gentlemen? To be sure, there might have been a little doubt about that, but for the immediately succeeding sentence, "whose time is entirely unoccupied," which at once puts the matter above suspicion. In Melbourne, at all events, the very definition of a gentleman is comprehended in that statement. I like, too, the honesty of the words "to gentlemen of good means;" the advertisers (who have seen it already) evidently desire to see town-life in a comfortable fashion, and delicately suggest that Moselle, at the very least, must be always on the dinner-table."
    "Waiter," said I, confidentially - for it is impossible to set down in words the tacit but paternal guardianship which that head-waiter had assumed  [-38-] over me by this time -  "now, what do you think of this advertisement ?"
    I watched my Mentor while he read it, and his appearance gave me a higher opinion of him even than that I already entertained. The elevation of his eyebrows and the compression of his lips went on to that extent that I looked for the disappearance of those intelligent features altogether. The result of his mental labours was brief, decisive, and oracular. He shut his eye, he shook his head, and he ejaculated "Gammon;" then, after a pause, he added with mysterious emphasis:- " And if it ain't Gammon, now, you mark my words, sir, it's Garrotting."
    I thanked him gratefully, and putting a cigar in my mouth, strolled across the park to Half-Moon Street, Piccadilly.