Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Chapter 3 - The Advertisers

[back to menu for this book ...]




HALF-MOON STREET, Piccadilly, is not exactly a gay locality, but it is highly genteel. There is not a milkman's establishment, and far less a green-grocer's, to mar its Select Exclusiveness. If it is not quite Fashionable, it is at least something more than Professional; and if barristers and doctors do inhabit it, sparsely, it is charitable (to the street) to conclude that they have at all events no practice. I was by no means, therefore, surprised to find that it had been chosen for a residence by the two gentlemen, X and Y, whose time was so entirely unoccupied.
    The house indicated by their advertisement had [-40-] nothing peculiar to distinguish it from its neighbours, except that flowers, and very charming ones, were arranged in masses outside the windows, and breathed a delicious fragrance as I stood at the front-door in that summer evening: nay, not only a fragrance but a confidence, for it was surely next to impossible that professional garrotters, such as my waiter had darkly hinted at, should invest m floral "cherry pie" and "lady's slippers:" mustard and cress they might have grown for the gross uses of the table, but mignonette - no, never. I rang the hell without a shadow of apprehension for my personal safety. It never struck me that a visitor at such an hour might be exposed to some slight suspicions on his own account, for in Morumbidgee he is equally welcome, and quite as likely to arrive, at midnight as at noon.
    One of the gravest, not to say the most monumental of man-servants replied to my summons. This class of person has excited, I perceive, the particular wonder of the emissaries of the French press now sojourning in London, as it also excites [-41-] mine. I do think that they have a greater austerity, a more colossal calm about them even than their high-bred masters. Their superiority and their affability are alike tremendous. I should much like to see a few of the most imperturbable of them amidst a stampede of bullocks. The great question of the power of the human eye upon wild animals would then receive a satisfactory solution. For myself, I cowered before the spectacle of this tremendous answerer of bells; he stared at me with such stony Sphinx-like eyes, as though he would say: "Rash mortal, perceive the Genius thou hast idly summoned. What wouldest thou at mine hand? Speak, speak, but beware !"
    "I wish," said I, in steady but, I hope, respectful tones, "to see X and Y."
    The majestic being answered me nothing, but 1 perceived his eye roll up and down Half-Moon Street in an unmistakably urgent manner. It was evident that he was looking for a policeman.
    "You had better go away," said he in awful [-42-] tones; "you had better go away before there's a row. None of your larks here, if you please."
    "I want either X or Y, my good man: look at this ;" and I produced the copy of the Times, with the advertisement in it, which I had taken the precaution to bring away with me.
    "Oh! that's your little game is it," observed the Servitor, not without a touch of pity; "why, you don't suppose that in our fifth year of credit we are going to be caught by such chaff as that! you must be a young 'un in the business, you must have taken to it late in life, after failing as a gentleman."
    He pulled a bell which rang upstairs, and a young and cheery voice called over the banisters, "Who is it now, John Thomas? You must show the gentleman to an attic, for I suppose he's come to sleep. His friends have sat the bottoms out of all the hall-chairs already. What can he want at this time of night, when Sleep is about to knit up the ravelled sleeve of care, and even tailors let us alone; a time when Man ceases to prey on Man, [-43-] and the very dun devotes himself to repentance and digestion."
    "It's a party as I don't know, sir," replied the servant, regarding me with a sort of malignant curiosity, as though I were the Beast with a Bill itself; "he has got some 'umbugging story about a Hex and a Why."
    There was a noise above stairs as though some person or persons were struggling with some internal emotion, such as laughter, and then a grave and almost solemn voice addressed John Thomas thus:
    "Show up our respected Advertisee at once, you idiot; then leave the house, nor venture to darken its door again until you have been powdered with ashes, and plushed in sackcloth."
    The discomfited flunkey led the way to the drawing-room, an apartment luxuriously rather than elegantly furnished; there were no knick-knacks distributed with elaborate carelessness, no splendidly-worked cushions protected by the hateful antimacassar, no traces of female tyranny of any [-44-] kind. The sofas were meant for weary legs and shoes; the arm-chairs to be lolled in; and there was also an exquisite aroma of tobacco-smoke, which established the domination of the male beyond a doubt. Two young gentlemen, of five-and-twenty or so, advanced as I entered, and received me with much politeness. The one who introduced himself as X, had a frank Saxon face, and an air particularly ingenuous; the other was a handsomer man, of an almost Spanish complexion, but with a jaded expression that scarcely ever left his features.
    "You do not object to tobacco, I trust," said the former.
    I smiled my ready toleration of that weed, the virtues of which no man who has not lived in solitude, and hardships, and want of all social solaces can ever rightly know.
    "He does not object to tobacco!" exclaimed Y, with a sigh of relief; "then the rest of the negotiation will be comparatively easy."
    This second gentleman, to whom conversation [-45-] appeared to be an almost intolerable exertion, here subsided on an ottoman, and waved his hand, as though to dissipate any remnant of responsibility that might be supposed to cling to him with respect to the business on which I had called.
    "Very well," resumed the first speaker, accepting the position thus imposed upon him, "let X - it is like a charming equation, I declare - let X be the party that is empowered to treat with - with Stokes, Esq. That is sherry, and this Madeira - the last of a most excellent bin; these are Havannahs, and these Manilla cheroots. Permit me to assist you with a light; complete combustion is essential."
    The young man dipped a silver sponge-holder into the flame of a spirit-lamp, and applied it to my cigar with all the care that a surgeon takes with a tender wound.
    "My dear Y, our Advertisee was about to use a lucifer - a brimstone lucifer!"
    The gentleman on the ottoman shuddered.
    "Yes," said I, "lucifers have always done well [-46-]  enough for me. I have often thought myself lucky to get them. Instead of tobacco, too, I have now and then used dock-leaves. We are not particular at Morumbidgee."
    "At where?" exclaimed Y, with an energy that I could not have believed was in him.
    "The gentleman is speaking of his country-seat," observed X, reprovingly.
    "Yes," said I, "in South Australia. I am a rough, simple fellow, who have made my money over in that colony."
    "Good!" exclaimed X, taking out his note-book. "How much, now?"
    "A very considerable amount of money," replied I, with pardonable pride.
    "This looks like business," observed X, with a radiant countenance.
    "Will you do us the honour of shaking hands with you ?" cried Y, from the ottoman. "X, shake hands with Morumbidgee (if I may address him by his territorial title), for self and partner, will you?"
    [-47-] "And I am come back to England, gentlemen," I continued, "with the intention of spending this money like a man."
    "Y," cried X, "get up, and fill your glass, sir; the occasion is supreme. Let us drink the health of our Advertisee in some appropriate manner; with Highland honours and Kentish cheers. We are most unfeignedly glad to see him, to hear of his prosperity, to be assured of his honourable intentions. He may count upon our best endeavours to assist him in carrying them out. Morumbidgee (what a name!), let us understand one another. You have money - we have only debts and a very, very little credit. On the other hand, you have had no experience whatever of civilized life, whereas we, alas! have seen much more of it than most people. Let us mutually supply our respective deficiencies. You will find us to be gentlemen. We shall not look for any very high standard in that respect in you."
    "What!" cried I, with all the blood of the Trevors rushing to my countenance; "and do you [-48-] suppose that it is lemon-coloured gloves and languid airs which constitute that grand old name of gentleman, defamed by every charlatan, and soiled by all ignoble use? I tell you that I have seen men unkempt, rough-handed, reeking with labour, splashed with the blood of the slaughterhouse, yet better read, better cultured than most of your Mayfair butterflies, and, in the hour of death and danger, as brave as Nelson, as tender as Florence Nightingale."
    "Bravo, bravissimo!" exclaimed X; "I like this middle-aged individual!"
    "He's a perfect tonic to me," cried Y, clapping his small white hands together; "I trust he may be the Perfect Cure."
    "Young gentlemen," observed I, with some severity, "I amuse you, it seems, without intending it. Doubtless, in your fine company I shall soon lose all admiration of the vulgar virtues of which I speak."
    "How dull he will be then," murmured Y, soliloquizing.
    [-49-] "I am a poor plain man," I continued.
    "No, no," cried X; "no false modesty; not poor, only plain."
    "And doubtless my manners require some French polish. You may be ashamed of me now and then among your fashionable folks - I like you better for not denying that the thing is probable - but I am good-natured and of a social disposition, although, as you may imagine by my presence here, I am in this country absolutely friendless."
    "Not now," observed X softly, "not now;" and in his deep-blue eyes I thought I could really read an honest pity. I felt myself drawn towards that lad as I have been to few men else in either hemisphere.
    "I thank you, young gentleman. With regard to the mere pecuniary arrangements" - As I pronounced these words, my new friends executed a simultaneous performance of which I had deemed them altogether incapable: they blushed. X helped himself at unnecessary length to wine; Y [-50-] feigned to be employed in arranging an exquisite little nosegay in his button .hole. "With regard to the money," continued I, "it is unnecessary to be too precise in particulars; but of course, while we three are companions, I shall bear all charges, while you will indicate the most agreeable methods for passing our time. A cheque at the week's end"-
    "My very dear sir," cried X beseechingly, "that will do."
    "It will do most admirably," echoed Y, but with the air of a gentleman who has been caught in the act of listening at a keyhole.
    A few minutes ago, I had felt myself at a disadvantage in the society of my new acquaintances, but now I was master of the situation. I had, as it were, taken the young couple into my service. They were now respectful indeed, but also distressingly ill at ease.
    "My friends," said I, "it seems to me that you are not in good spirits. You must be aware that I engage you [how they shuddered!] with the tacit [-51-] understanding that you will be elastic and agreeable in your behaviours. You have no conception how stupid you are become, Mr. Y. - That is better: I am glad to see that start; there is animation about you.-The cause of this alteration for the worse is obvious, even to a colonial mind. You are suffering under the sense of obligations to come."
    "Spare us," cried X - "spare us; we will try and be jolly."
    "Yes, X will try," exclaimed Y. The latter, poor fellow, had for his own part quite given up hope of recovering from his degradation. One end of his cigar was white and cold; he had lost his air of exclusive refinement, and looked a good deal like a begging-letter impostor. "It was I," continued he, "who persuaded X to advertise. We were reduced to do it, for we cannot live without our little elegances - I pay, for example, that is, I intended to pay, twenty-five pounds per annum to a florist for supplying this ornament for my coat every morning - and we had both of us spent all our money."
    [-52-] "Yes, and a good deal more than all," murmured X. 
    "We did it half in earnest, half in jest," resumed Y. "We did not think that anybody would be really fool enough to come."
    "Gentlemen," said I, "I am astonished at you. You offer certain terms to me, and when I agree to them, you begin to shrink from the bargain. It is true that you are poor, but what of that? Garibaldi is also poor. To have spent one's money is only to be regretted in case one has not received its equivalent. It costs a man five hundred pounds, I hear, to go to an English University, but does he not come away from thence with the capital letters B.A. appended to his name?"
    "We are both B.A.s," groaned X and Y despondingly.
    "I can easily imagine it," said I; "I should think myself defrauded, if you were not. That honourable distinction, then, enables you to profess to make B.A.s of other people; to get back in [-53-] teaching the money you have expended in learning. Similarly, a doctor's diploma enables you to train up human leeches. Having eaten, or at least paid for, a number of indifferent dinners in a certain place, and purchased a wig and gown, you can exact premiums from gentlemen who have not yet passed through those ordeals. Even if you have spent money in buying a commission in the army, the investment is not entirely thrown away; there are many pursuits, such as billiard-table keeping, and horse- jobbing, for which, in Melbourne at least, a man is all the better qualified for having been a captain. Since all experience fetches its price, how idle then is it to imagine that a knowledge of London life and good society - to attain which has cost you, I suppose, ten times the expense of any of these - is not to bear its marketable value. Is it reasonable that Men about Town alone are to have no return for their money, and health, and youth, consumed in dissipations that were often perhaps wearisome while they lasted, and the recollection [-54-] of which is a positive reproach? Do you not perceive the injustice that you are thus inflicting upon yourselves? You can hardly imagine, I suppose, that the results of an experience of this sort are too sacred for barter, when even divines take very considerable payments from the young gentlemen who are so fortunate as to be their private pupils. Mere Fashion can scarcely curl her lip, I say, at a practice indulged in by Law, by Physic, and by Divinity. Be men of common sense. I am come here, it is true, to procure certain advantages which you happen to have for sale; but the bargain being concluded - as it is, and on my word I think I have the better of it - what need of further talk or thought of the matter? We shall be of necessity companions; who knows but that some day we may become friends ?"
    "---- Stokes, Esq.," exclaimed X, slapping me on the shoulder with much heartiness, "I shall never regret that we advertised."
    "Morumbidgee," observed Y, with tears in his eyes, "you're a gentleman born."
    [-55-] I had succeeded in re-establishing my young friends in their own good opinion. The one recovered his natural enthusiasm, the other relapsed into his equally characteristic state of polite torpor.
    It was arranged that on the morrow my luggage should be removed from my hotel into Half-Moon Street, where a handsome sleeping apartment was allotted to me.
    "Next week is a most fortunate one for your reintroduction to English life," remarked X cheerfully; "there is, to begin with, the Derby.
    Y uttered an involuntary groan. "Never mind me," exclaimed he hurriedly; "I beg your pardon."
    "But what is the matter, my good sir?" inquired I, for I was really afraid that he had sat upon something very sharp.
    "Nothing, Morumbidgee, nothing; I am your willing slave; to hear is to obey. But if you only knew how dull that Derby is - even if you hare any money left to lose upon it - and had seen [-56-] it fifteen times, as I have done, you would groan also. The screwy posters and the solemn swells; the dust, the heat, the wicked words one hears; the funny gents; the dolls and pincushions; the Babel of the Downs ; the Legs, the Lords, the Fools; the luncheons on one's knees; the champagne spilt; and worse than spilt, the champagne swallowed "- 
    "But why all this? We could take him in a van, with evergreens and a barrel of beer," interrupted X.
    "That would be better fun," replied Y gravely; "but how would he stand the brass band and the drum ?"
    "I am entirely in your hands, gentlemen," observed I. "I will make a third upon a dromedary, if you think we shall enjoy ourselves better by that method of travelling."
    "Is he not charming ?" cried X. "Morumbidgee, we should have met you earlier. The Derby is on the fourth of June this year, upon which the Eton Regatta is always held. The picnic of the boys [-57-] upon the banks of Thames; the long procession of their boats; the enthusiasm of the aristocratic British youth, who have not yet attained their yawning age, is a sight worth seeing, and has drawn kings to look at it."
    "Ah !" observed Y dryly, "I was an Eton boy once myself, and remember that entertainment well. It is the big boys only who eat, and throw the chicken-bones at the little ones. There is no shelter except under the tables, and it is invariably a wet evening."
    "The International Exhibition begins its shilling-days on Monday," suggested X.
    "I am afraid," returned I smiling, "that that would indeed be too great a trial for our experienced friend. He has doubtless had a season ticket from the very commencement."
    "That is true," returned X, "but yet he has not exhausted the place either. The fact is, he has never been there. He invested his three guineas, not in the right of entrée, but in insurance against social annoyance. He remembered what those [-58-] who had not been to the Exhibition of 51 suffered in society at the hands of those who had - how they got it all detailed to them, whether they would or no, from the description of the Koh-i-noor to that of the horrid bedstead that turned you out at all hours in the morning, and would by no means be put back again. "My dear madam, or sir," as the case may be, is his answer now to all similar assailants, "you speak to a season-ticket holder from the first; it would be hard to mention any one thing with which I am less familiar than with the rest. Do you happen to have remarked that exquisite little nut-cracker in the Hohenzollern department? If you have not seen that, you have really seen nothing." This reply of his not only forms an admirable defence, but has given enterprising persons much employment in looking after the imaginary Teutonic wonder."
    "I can well believe it," returned I; "but Y must not be offended if, after this story of him, I receive any information he may be good enough to offer with some degree of caution."
    [-59-] "Nay," exclaimed Y with emotion, "you do me wrong, I assure you. My duty to my neighbour, if he bothers me with interrogations, may be neglected or overdone; but in my allegiance towards my Advertisee, I trust I shall never fail. What say you, X - since he has absolutely seen nothing - to taking our friend to Fairyland to-morrow?"
    "It would be certainly delightful to see him there, only be sure that we do not go by the Flying Dragon."
    So I left my new-found allies for that evening, John Thomas the Magnificent opening the hall-door for my exit with a very different air from that with which he had admitted me. He was still, indeed, a potent genius, but I was in possession of the talisman which he was forced to obey. He was the Slave of my Ring (and double knock) as long as my companionship with his masters X and Y should continue.
    "They talk of Fairyland, meaning I know not what," said I to myself, as I walked across the park to my hotel; but is not my  whole adventure [-60-] of this evening like a leaf out of the 'Arabian Nights?' It is this London, whose countless lights are now encircling me a thousandfold, which is the true city of enchantments after all. The millionaire awakes to find himself a beggar, his securities waste paper, and his mansion a mirage. The beggar, on the other hand, clutches untold wealth more suddenly than the gold-finder of the Macquarrie. Young gentlemen (late) of fortune become ciceroni, commissionaires - gentlemen-ushers to cattle-farmers of the Australian bush. These transformation scenes were certainly not so rapid and complete a quarter of a century ago.
    For my part, however, I felt grateful that such things should be. Two hours ago, I had left my palace a solitary monarch, with subjects enough obedient to my purse-strings, but with not a single friend; the Great Desert of London had spread its golden sands before me, and I had walked upon them, casting a lonely shadow; but now, so gracious is the least touch of human sympathy, this Arabia Deserta seemed changed into Arabia [-61-] Felix. I was no longer companionless and unregarded; two fellow-creatures yonder (not to mention John Thomas, into whose appreciating palm I had just slipped five shillings) had some sort of not unkindly interest in me. My native land had begun to welcome me in those two unknown ones, X and Y.