Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Chapter 4 - A Trip to Fairyland

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WE did not go to Fairyland upon the day appointed.
    In Morumbidgee, where, when it rains, it rains, and the hailstones are at times so large as to kill birds, and even young lambs, we can promise our visitor fine weather, as one takes lodgings, "for a month certain;" but in England, in respect to all projected out-of-door entertainments, there is, even in summer, the greatest uncertainty. Man proposes, but the heavens settle it. It was wet for days; and, moreover, I was not in a fit condition for an excursion of pleasure. There are few colonists who do not bring back with them some remembrances from their adopted land in the shape [-63-] of a disease. The "little present from India" is liver complaint; from the Gold Coast and the West Indies, it is ague; and although Australia is but a poor country for illnesses, yet not to be altogether behind the rest, it gives us a liability to influenza. I was laid up in Half-Moon Street with an attack of that most ridiculous ailment - the eye-closer, the mouth-opener, that enemy of distinct pronunciation, which confuses our ps with our bs.
    During this infliction, nothing could exceed at first the courtesy, and afterwards the attentive kindness of my new-found friends. Their names, I learned, were respectively Charles Martin and Angus Layton; but it suited our humour to call one another X, and Y, and Morumbidgee, as we had begun. They procured for me the newest books, and even read them to me aloud when I was unable to amuse myself in that way; and when I was too prostrated to rise, they came up into my room - of which they had made quite a flower-garden - without their beloved [-64-] cigars, and did me more good by their pleasant talk than I could have extracted from a whole medicine-chest. In vain I protested that such conduct was not in the bond; that they had undertaken to show me life, but not to tend me in hospital.
    "That is true," admitted X; "but then, on our own parts, we cannot afford to lose a new sensation. We are not accustomed to sick. people. - Try a little lemonade; you can taste it, can you? Come, that shews you're getting well - and you afford us a most curious and interesting study, I assure you. Don't he, Y ?"
    "Most certainly," assented the other; "it couldn't be better - unless, indeed, it were a surgical case. I have often been going to see an amputation, but I never did. Perhaps, when he gets over this bout, he will be good enough to meet with a compound comminuted fracture of some sort or other. Ah! here are those strawberries come at last. There is nothing objectionable about them, as there was in the cherries."
    I coughed like a sick sheep at this, intending to [-65-] laugh ; for it was Y's theory that I was not really ill, but only disordered and thrown out of gear by finding everything in England contrary to what it was in Australia. I had not been able to eat certain cherries that had been provided for me, and he averred that I had set myself against them because the stones were not outside the fruit, as in Morumbidgee. He was always apologising for the scent in the flowers, and for the song of a caged thrush that hung in a window opposite - Australian flowers being for the most part scentless, and the birds without song; and he insisted upon placing a cuckoo-clock outside my door, that I might hear that persevering note at night, as in the under-world.
    As to thanks, these young gentlemen would have none of them, protesting that all kind offices of theirs were but my due, since in the Tables of Affinity the Advertisee occurred in the same line with one's brothers and sisters; "and, indeed," added Y, "considerably before one's elder brother, if the property is entailed."
    [-66-] I could not help getting rapidly well under such circumstances as these, nor did I regret the indisposition which had evoked such evidences of good feeling in those with whom I had so curiously cast in my lot.
    "Morumbidgee," said X, one evening, as I was retiring to my room, "you are getting well and strong now, and it is time that we should commence our campaign. To-morrow is, for certain reasons, peculiarly suitable for a trip to Fairyland; the glass at last promises us fine weather; and-"
    "Hush !" interrupted Y, mysteriously; "don't annoy him, or he won't sleep. The barometer ought to fall, you know, according to his reckoning.* [* In Australia, the barometer rises before bad weather, and falls before good.] He has been quite pleased with the weather lately, because it has been like winter, as June in all well-regulated climates ought to be. For goodness' sake, don't let him know that it's the longest day to-morrow, for it ought to be the shortest. It would quite spoil his pleasure."
    [-67-]  The next morning a barouche and pair conveyed us early through the south-western suburbs of London. The amazing extent of these fatigued as much as they astonished me. However mean and vile the outskirts of our colonial towns may be, at least one soon gets out of them. A poor man may there sleep in an alley, and yet breathe mountain air before breakfast. But here, were it not for the parks, tens of thousands would never behold a tree or a blade of grass. We drove through miles of melancholy streets, where every other shop was either an emporium for lollipops or for cheap literature ; their Principle, it was set forth in their windows, was Small Profits, and I should think that it must be their practice also. After a great while, however, we arrived at what seemed to be a country town (which, however, was London still), and eventually at the country. This country consisted not of open fields, but of great walls, over which, when lower than common, or through the bars of jealous iron gates, we caught occasional peeps of exquisite gardens, parks, and  [-68-] shrubberies, and of the mansions they surrounded. In the land from which I conic, when I drive by any country-seat such as these, it is probable I know who lives there. Upon inquiry, I can easily learn whether he made his money by gold or by sheep, ad even some scandal about his father having emigrated at the government expense with a ring round one of his ankles. But the proprietors of the splendid places I was now looking at - Jones of the Stock Exchange, Brown the army contractor, Robinson who finds the rag-and-bone line so mysteriously remunerative - these men of two thousand a year and upwards were nobodies. Society, of which they would be shining lights in Melbourne, is here unaware of their existence. As we emerged from this region into the champaign, a mighty glimmer of light flashed upon us through the trees. The top of the eastern hill seemed clothed in fire as for another sunrise. It dazzled me for a moment, and was gone; we were travelling on an elm-set English highway only, amidst a chequer-work of beam and shade. Then  [-69-] the trees ceased, leaving a great interval, and through it I beheld a magnificent palace of light, with towers and pinnacles tipped with flame. It was like no building wrought by the hand of man, and 1 looked for it to fade like a vision before my unsatisfied eyes.
    "It is the Palace that was made by enchantment out of a single diamond," exclaimed X, "by the good genius Focksanendasar. "It is open to mortals six days in the week, but on the seventh only to Sharholdas the unfortunate - to whose griefs its garden, planted by Prince Packstoneddin, is sacred."
    In another moment we had entered the crystal portal, and I found myself in the distant tropics, among lustrous birds and giant vegetation. The atmosphere would have been oppressive but for Sirens, who scattered coolness through the place from a mighty fountain, in which grew the rice-plant and the sugar-cane, and one with tall green stems, and fibrous leaves, upon which the eye gladly rested, as a relief to the surrounding splendours.
     [-70-] "It is the papyrus," observed X, "which supplied note-paper to Rameses the Great, from whose temple came yonder statues."
    I turned, and through an avenue of palms and sphinxes, perceived two figures seated, so collossal that I had entered between them without perceiving either.
    "These were hewn out of the solid Nubian rock," continued X, "more than fifteen hundred years before the Christian era."
    "It is appalling to contemplate the offspring of a period such as that," said I; "it is like standing face to face with eternity."
    "And yet that opposite cedar - look you - was centuries old before Rameses was in the arms of his dusky mother, and once stood proudly up four hundred feet in air in the Sierra Nevada, in California. These things perplex you, Morumbidgee, because you attempt to reason about them. Give yourself up into my hands. I possess the enchanted carpet which Prince Houssain bought at Bisnagar for the Princess Nourounnihar; and it  [-71-]  shall carry us whithersoever you please. In an instant of time you shall be in the halls of Sennacherib, guarded by the winged Assyrian bulls; or in that red palace above Granada, where the Moor held regal state in defiance of Christendom."
    The Court of Lions in the Alhambra rose before me while he spoke, a mass of gold and colour, with the stalactite roof of the Hall of the Abencerrages beyond. The solitary splendour of the place - its gilded halls and inlaid ceilings, its silent fountain, its dim divans inviting dreamy ease - enchained my tongue. It seemed as though I could have lived here with the memories of the Cid, a lifetime. But X said: "Behold !" and drew aside a curtain.
    I know not what I saw, but if that scene had been peopled by Peris, I know I should not have wondered. A vision of whiteness, of things too bright and beautiful to be real set in a realm of crystal; a mingling of statues and foliage; a murmur of music and voices.
     [-72-] "Be calm, O son of the under-world. Lo, here is ancient Greece !"
    Before us stood the temple of Jupiter at Nemea, and through the columned entrance I caught a glimpse, I thought, of the Athenian Parthenon. Within, were all the statues that have most charmed the world since art was born - the Farnese Juno and the Laocoon; the Discobulus and the Ariadne from the Vatican; and in the centre, as though to receive the homage of the rest, the matchless Milo Venus. I was looking at the living frieze upon the wall - that long procession of man and horse that reaches through so many centuries - when twilight fell upon my eyes.
    "This darkness is Egyptian," murmured X; "we are in the tomb of Beni Hassan, on the Eastern Nile."
    On the walls without there were sunk reliefs of pious offerings from kings to gods, and hieroglyphics weird and mystical, and columns of black granite, with capitals of lotus-leaf and palm
     [-73-] "My friend," said I, my brain whirls; "take me hence into the English air, I pray."
    "Yet first come underground," returned X, gravely.
    I was in a roofless court, with coloured walls and tesselated floor. On every side were shady chambers, and in the midst of that in which we stood a marble bath. At the entrance of this costly place was inscribed Salve - welcome.
    "This, then, is Rome," said I.
    "Not so," said X, "although the men that lived here were Romans, before the burning flood came from the hill, and made them dust. It is Pompeii. For sixteen hundred years this house, and thousands like it, lay covered with white ashes ere man began to dig for these memorials of his fellows. This was the summer dining-room; here the revellers were reclining, doubtless, when their red doom went forth; this was the Xystus, or flower-garden -"
    "A flower-garden !" cried I passionately; "oh, how my dizzy eyes would love to look upon a simple flower !"
     [-74-] In a moment we stood upon a range of terraces, below which smiled a hundred gay parterres, with marble vases filled to the brim with flowers, amid green sward and trees - a mass of bloom and verdure, interspersed with whitest statues and long flights of marble stairs. Innumerable fountains, not as yet in motion, but "with beaded bubbles winking at their brim," in act to rise, made silver throbbing round us, while in the distance lay a wooded landscape sloping to green hills. Beyond those lay, perchance, the common world, but all within sight was Dreamland - Paradise. Then, while we looked, the beaded bubbles grew, and high and higher leaped the waterfalls, and intermingling at the highest point one with another, flashed above the trees; and lo! a broad white stream went tripping down a marble channel, which I had taken for stairs, and out of the roofs of the summer temples gushed the flood, to fall in a silver veil round the Naiad, who stood in the shrine within. The heat of the noonday was quelled, the faint odours were freshened that came from the  [-75-] rosary beneath, and the topmost spray touched our hot brows, falling far through the blue.
    "Happy fountains," ejaculated a languid voice beside us; "when they work, they only play."
    This was Y, whom we had suddenly come upon, stretched on the sloping green-sward, and smoking a cigar.
    "And so you deserted us, when we started upon the enchanted carpet," observed I reprovingly.
    "Not so," said he; "I would have shewn you the omnium gatherum with the greatest pleasure, but unhappily Fate decided against me."
    "We tossed," explained X laughing, "and I lost, that is all. If it had been tails, Y would have been your cicerone instead of me; as it is, I am the Interpreter of the Palace of Crystal and of the Garden of Delight. Do you not hear something, Morumbidgee ?"
    "I hear the fountains, although their voice grows faint and fainter."
    "Do you hear nothing else?"
     [-76-]  "I hear the birds renewing their interrupted song, as after rain."
    "The Golden Water and the Talking Bird you can scarcely have missed," said X; "but if you hear not more than these, you must have stuffed your ears with cotton-wool, even as did the Princess Parizadé when she started on her search after the Singing Tree."
    Upon listening more attentively, a low melodious thunder seemed to steal out of the Fairy Palace behind me, which, gathering strength, arose, and presently rolled out of doors like some vast embodied spirit of melody, to whom even those Crystal walls were too much like a prison; and then it again grew faint, and wailed and wandered all about the air, as though it would fain reenter, but could not. Most unmistakable music, the harmonious crash of human voices, here broke forth triumphant, "as when a mighty people rejoice with shawms and cymbals and harps of gold," the jubilant cry, as it seemed, of an enfranchised nation.
     [-77-]  "It is the Hallelujah chorus," murmured X with bated breath; "and sounds like the very echo of heaven."
    "Let us go in," said Y, dropping the end of his cigar; "our tickets are for Block G."
    Musical festivals upon any great scale are things which colonists cannot be expected to compass. England herself, when I left her, had but one such entertainment in half a century. This was held at Westminster Abbey in 1834, and about six hundred performers only were employed in it. Since then - thanks mainly to Mr. Hullah - the nation has become intensely and well-nigh universally musical. Few other countries could produce an orchestra such as that which was now before me, numbering some four thousand singers and players. No other country could certainly have offered them a building suitable for their performance. Yet here, in their vast amphitheatre, stood this harmonious multitude, their music-books fluttering white as doves' wings, or poplar leaves in storm; and in front of them were twenty thousand  [-78-] eager listeners, with room enough and to spare, beyond whom, too, the far-stretching crystal naves on both sides could have accommodated ten times their number. All this great company were on their feet as we entered, following the good old fashion of George III., who always rose at the Hallelujah, as having at least an equal title to that mark of respect with the national anthem; and their sitting down, amid rustle of silk and swaying of crinoline, was of itself a musical spectacle. Then a female singer came to the front of that gigantic platform, and filled all the shining space with one clear voice.

Let the bright seraphim in burning row
Their loud, uplifted, angel trumpets blow,

sang she; and at those words the trumpeter by her side blew long and shrill.
    "I like those melodious illustrations - that fitting of sound to sense," observed X, "for my part, although I believe it is not held to be the highest art. The Creation is, to my mind, the first of  [-79-] oratorios, because it is the most descriptive."
    "What a row there must be, then, when the Bumble Bee is made," quoth Y, drily.
    Here, fortunately, there was a delicate, but universal clapping of gloved hands as the singer ceased, which hid our laughter; and then the conductor became electric in his motions, giving promise of some great thing. His enchanted wand moved this way, and that with wild velocity, and the basses stormed, and the sopranos made complaint, as though all the world had quarrelled with his wife, and were "having it out" together for our benefit Some said it was one thing, and some another, for it is not to be denied that there is a certain sameness about choruses, and that most of them, to an uneducated ear, have a very striking resemblance to God Save the King. When there was music without voices, the difficulty of identification was even greater.
    "What is that, if you please, sir ?" inquired an enthusiastic but indiscriminating old lady in our neighbourhood, of the unimpassioned Y.
     [-80-]  "I believe, madam, it is the Overture to Samson."
    "The what, sir ?" reiterated this lady sharply, who carried about with her an accompaniment to the drum of her ear in the shape of an ear-trumpet. "Whose overture, did you say?"
    "I believe it was Delilah's overture made to the Philistines," responded Y with gravity.
    "Dear me," responded she, making a note of this. "I am fortunate indeed in sitting next to a gentleman of such information."
    There could be no doubt in any mind concerning the piece that followed. Over even that scene, so instinct with life and colour, there seemed to fall an impalpable gloom with the first notes of the Dead March in Saul. The Fairy Palace itself might have been a funereal vault, while that far- off farewell of the dead was echoing through its aisles. The chorus from L'Allegro, again, one would have thought, was equally unmistakeable; but this was not universally the case.
    "Do you not hear people laughing, sir ?" ex- [-81-]claimed our inquiring neighbour with indignation. "People who want to laugh should not come to an oratorio?"
    "Madam, in that I most entirely agree with you," returned Y earnestly; "but it is the chorus itself which is laughing in the present instance."
    "Then, sir, they ought to be ashamed of themselves - that is my opinion - when persons have paid twelve-and-six to listen to them. And what are they all getting up and going away for? That is not a piece in the programme of this Rehearsal, that I am aware of."
    "It is the Retreat of the Four Thousand, madam. The singers go before, and the minstrels follow after-to lunch."
    Y's information was munificently recompensed to himself and friends in some excellent refreshments, which the old lady had brought with her in a basket which might have served for Moses's cradle in the Israel in Egypt. She was, for her own part, charmingly communicative, and expected others to be equally ready with their re-[-82-]marks, turning her trumpet suddenly upon you like a subscription-box, and awaiting your observation with some impatience. When we talked among ourselves, she listened, omitting, from motives of delicacy, from joining in the conversation, but soliloquising upon the various subjects as they arose, aloud. When X, for example, was praising, with some eloquence, the indisputable basses, the thunders of the musical Vatican, as being in every sense the "great guns" of an oratorio, she gave in her adhesion thus:
    "Yes," said she, making the observation to space, "I like them basses; I can hear them."
    During the second part of the performance, there was suddenly a commotion in the place caused by the rising and departure of the Pacha of Egypt and his suite, who were among the company.
    "Them foreigners care nothing for music," remarked our old lady peevishly. "Abraham Pacha always said he liked the tooning better than anything that was played afterwards
     [-83-] "Nay, madam, his High Mightiness is offended," explained Y; "this Israel in Egypt is, of course, a painful subject for him to listen to. He rose, you observed, when the chorus began to express their pleasure that the horse and the rider were thrown into the sea. His patriotic feelings were wounded; he could not forget that Pharaoh, with all his weaknesses, was a pacha like himself. The Times says that it is of the greatest importance to England that he should be kept in good-humour. Let us therefore follow, and make apology to him, O Morumbidgee."
    Under this ingenious pretence, we escaped from the patient throng, and from the old lady of Block G, and once more sought the garden, fair to wander in, but fairer to look down upon from some wide-open window after feast. We banqueted in a pavilion of crystal, and from it watched the returning crowds pass by, for whom the Fiery Dragon waited below, and thousands of whom would have to wait for the Fiery Dragon.
    "Oh, never come to the palace of Focksanen-[-84-]dasar, said X, "and, still more, never return, by any such means. The Dragon would gladly swallow every victim that is offered to him, but his maw is quite inadequate. The devotees, desirous to be first, fight with one another like fiends. Women and children are disregarded and trodden under foot by Selfishness and Brutal strength."
    "True," said Y; "genteel society without its company manners,' in a railway crush, is one of the ghastliest sights I know."

    But we ourselves, like gods above the thunder, though not like them, I trust, "smiling in secret, heard these things unmoved, for our barouche awaited us. We watched the shadows lengthen on the lawns, and evening quench the latest western flame that lingered on the palace pinnacles. Most true it was, we spent that day in fairyland. 

A goodly place, a goodly time,
As e'er were in the golden prim
        Of good Haroun Alraschid.