Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Chapter 5 - Wimbledon Camp

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THE ignorance of English country-folks with respect to the district that surrounds their metropolis, is excessive. They come up for the season to see town, they say, and to partake of its doings; and as for the fields and trees, they see enough of them at home. Even if they bring their carriages with them, Thomas (who has not the bump of locality, and only knows his way from Charing Cross, whither he always drives, to start from) is generally instructed never to go "off the stones," except for a round or two in Hyde Park, or to a visit to the Botanical Gardens when there is a flower-show. Visitors who are not "carriage-people," are deterred from exploring the suburbs, [-86-] even if they wish to do so; they are naturally suspicious of a pleasure-excursion that begins and ends with a railway journey; and, on the other hand, they fear the extortions of the cabmen; the distance to points of interest and beauty is also greatly overrated, and they shrink from pedestrian expeditions out of town, of the length of which they would think nothing in their own neighbourhoods. Thus it happens that very many deprive themselves of the enjoyment of excursions which combine in a high degree the pleasures of town and country.
    In the hands of X and Y, I ran no risk of omitting anything far or near that was worth seeing. I learned with wonder, that if the site of London had not been chosen for a commercial city on account of its convenience, it would have been assuredly a place of much resort for its picturesque position; and that if the Thames had not been fated to bear upon its bosom the argosies of the world, it would yet have attracted thousands by its natural beauties - its winding ways, its rapid [-87-] depths and gleaming shallows, its sleepy backwaters, its frequent islands cleaving time swift stream, its sloping lawns and woods, that form or crown its banks. As a prose writer of exceeding and acknowledged merit seldom gets much credit for writing poetry, however excellently he may do it, so the Thames, being the golden river of trade, is little thought of for its mere loveliness.
    "Do you know whither we are taking you?" asked X, one afternoon, as our barouche rolled swiftly and smoothly over Kew Bridge.
    "No," said I; "nor should I complain if you had brought me only to see this. What an exquisite scene ! - what beautiful villas ! - and how charmingly their gardens kiss the stream !"
    "You should see them when the tide is out, and they have nothing to kiss," said Y, with agreeable malevolence. "A man who lives in a Thames villa should have no nose."
    "It is my belief," said X, " that if Y was ever to get to Paradise (which, however, seems very [-88-] improbable), he would manage to pick some hole in the local arrangements even there.
    "He does not disturb me," said I; "he is to me but as the skeleton at their feasts was to the Egyptians. When he reminds me that the tide will presently leave Kew, and spoil it, I enjoy Kew all the more while the tide is in."
    "Admirable Morumbidgee !" cried X; "your words are nuggets of gold unadulterated with quartz. Your contentment shall be repaid by a glorious spectacle as soon as we hare mounted this hill."
    An open heath, set in an exquisite landscape, lay before us, and in the centre were the snow-white tents of an encamping army. Artificial mounds of various sizes, looking like the barrows of the ancient dead, were arranged in uneven lines to southward, each of them having a white shield upon one side of it, with a black boss in the centre; flags of all colours fluttered multitudinous in the sweet summer air, and borne upon it came the strains of martial music, and now and then the [-89-] murmur of many tongues in a sort of hushed applause. There was also another sound, almost incessant, which was new to me.
    "That ping and thud which you hear," explained the observant X, "is the voice of the Minie bullet, which is dooming death to many a poor fellow this day on the other side of the Atlantic. Here, how ever, thank Heaven, we shoot at targets, and not men."
    Leaving the carriage outside the lines, we paid our shillings at the gate, and entered the camp. The canvas town was admirably arranged, each official tent bearing upon its forehead the name of the business transacted within it - Armourer, Council, Secretary, Printing Office, Statistics, Finance (which, however, had nothing in it), and Executive. All these made up one circle of themselves; but besides them were numbers of marquees appropriated to various purposes. Some held the country rifle associations - Berks, Hertfordshire, Kent, Shropshire, &c., fluttering gaily over them in letters of gold; some were vast re-[-90-]freshment booths; some contained huge wooden stands for spectators in wet weather; while in addition to these, a couple of vast encampments, east and west, were occupied as residences by the Volunteers, some of whom defrayed their own expenses, and some - representative men of the different corps - were maintained at the common charge. Direction-posts were placed at every turning-To Ammunition; To Sighting Targets; To Long Ranges; To Pool.
    "Why to Pool?" inquired I. "Of all places, why to Pool?"
    "He knows nothing, absolutely nothing," exclaimed Y, with admiration. "Morumbidgee, you are priceless."
    Even X's elucidation was interrupted with paroxysms of mirth.
    "To Pool, means to the pool-targets; those to which each marksman contributes a certain sum, and if he makes the highest score, wins the entire subscription. You have heard of pool with billiard-halls, I suppose ?"
    [-91-] Immense boards also met us everywhere with programmes of the proceedings of the day. Running Deer as usnal (" Like the bulletin of a sick swell," said Y) ; Tickets sold at the Respective Targets; Pool; Sighting; Association Cup; Lord Spencer's Cup; St. George's Vase, &c. There was also a tent for Prize Entries with this announcement: Rifle Derby, All Corners, Lord Vernon's, and (without an intervening stop) Messrs. Eley's Saturday Review.
"Ah! then it has changed hands," observed Y grimly, "although they said it hadn't."
    "But it does not seem much of a prize," observed I, "after all. The Saturday Review only costs sixpence, does it ?"
    "My dear Morumbidgee," exclaimed X pathetically, "you have made I laugh aloud. Let me explain this matter before he indulges himself further in a weakness so exceedingly inconsistent with his character and position. The Saturday Review has offered a prize of fifty pounds to be shot for; and since it has long made a butt of [-92-] everybody, its proprietors could scarcely have hit upon a more appropriate method of expiation. How annoyed they would be if Mr. Bright was to enter for their guerdon, and win it."
    "There is no fear," observed I dryly; "he only shoots with the long bow, and that at a venture. Perhaps, when you see the prizes, Morumbidgee, you yourself may be induced to try your fortune with the rifle; they are here."
    We entered a large tent with a semi-circular table in it, on which was crowded every description of costly trophy from an inlaid rifle to a gold watch; telescopes and tankards, epergnes, silver shields for rose-water, and groups in tile precious metals, executed by the best artists. As we stopped opposite to one of this last kind.
    "What say you," asked X, "to competing for the First Stage Queen's, to-day?"
    "The First Stage Queen's?" said I, " what are they?"
    "Morumbidgee imagines that it is something theatrical," cried I; "he believes that a prima [-93-] donna will reward the exertions of the successful candidates !"
    "It is the first stage-the first day's shooting for the Queen's prize," explained X, "and this group by Marochetti is one of the proposed rewards. The winner may take his choice here to the amount of two hundred and fifty pounds."
    He might well have been puzzled amid that glittering show, contrasting so strangely with the unfurnished tent and the heath stretching wide and bare before the open canvas door.
    "Magnificent strawberries," exclaimed a fruit-seller at the threshold of this treasure-house; "this-morning-gathered-strawberries, gentlemen."
    "There's a Carlylism for you," observed X.
    "No, sir; they're Carolinas," said the man.
    Upon this we could not refrain from buying a pottle (of which the topmost layer was excellent), and it served to remind us we were in need of a more substantial lunch; but we had now lost our bearings, and could not find a refreshment tent. "Captain Drake will read 'Pickwick' this evening [-94-] in the Scotch tent; Orchestra, Captain Mildmay," was inscribed over the place where we had hoped to find more material food. At last we came upon Dinner Two and Sixpence; pay Here, at a little pigeon-hole outside-that is to say, before we had the opportunity of seeing whether the meat was worth the money.
    "What is there for dinner, waiter ?" inquired I.
    "Cold meat, sir  - very nice cold beef, sir, and pickles. Shall I bring cold beef for three, sir ?"
    "We will have that presently," observed X, severely. "Morumbidgee, you are an infant; waiter, you are a knave. First of all, bring us salmon - hot salmon and potatoes; then lamb and pease; we will afterwards consider your cold beef and pickles, as well as that salad which you omitted to mention.
    We had indeed a most excellent luncheon - such as would have been a Lord Mayor's feast in the Bush - and I picked up my pease with the steel fork with very much more dexterity than my companions.
    [-95-] "It is as difficult to catch a pea with such implements as to lay hands upon a bluebottle fly," ejaculated X.
    "It is very difficult," said I, with the air of a man who had never tried the last experiment; "and I have now learned for the first time why the lower orders put their knives in their mouths."
    The principal spectacle of the day was now commencing. The four public schools of Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and Marlborough, had each sent its contingent of eleven apiece to contend for the Ashburnham Shield. Each school had its own volunteer uniform, and all seemed full of anxiety and esprit de corps. The mothers and sisters of these young gentlemen mustered also in great numbers, and their heightened colour and eager eyes not only betokened the interest they felt in the juvenile riflemen, but were also exceedingly becoming. Chairs where allotted to the ladies in the best places, to command a view of the proceedings, and behind them stood the vast throng of male spectators. The first range at [-96-] which the boys were to compete was only two hundred yards, so that the hits could almost be noted without the aid of the marker's flags. These were of three colours; white, to denote "an outer," striking the outside division of the target, and counting one; blue for "a centre," counting two; and red and white for "a bull's eye," counting three. The young riflemen stepped out, one by one, from their detachments, took aim with as much deliberation as they pleased, and having fired, waited with straining eyes and parted lips for the flag to appear from behind the marker's butt. If it was a centre, there was a murmur of "Well done, Howe," or "Pierpoint;" but if it was a bull's-eye there was a round of kid-glove hand-clapping, a waving of embroidered handkerchiefs from the ladies, and a "Bravo, Schneider," or "Eldon," from the men. A more pleasant spectacle can scarcely be imagined, and the shooting was exceedingly good. The Etonians, however, in whom I took an interest such as I should not have supposed him capable of, did not come off [-97-] victorious, which he took great pains to explain to us was owing to their devotion to boating.
    "They have no time to give their attention to rifle-practice, as these other mere 'dry-bob' * [* Schools which have not the advantage of a river in their neighbourhood.] schools can do, you see."
    This enthusiasm in such a man for the place of his juvenile education was very striking and strange to me, Tom Brownism having as yet taken no root in young Australia.
    At the next target, a match was going forward which excited scarcely less interest-the contest between the Lords and Commons. From the circumstance of the former not having their robes and coronets (which had been evidently ex~ pected by some of the onlookers), there was no little dispute as to which branch of the legislature the respective elevens belonged. It was a comfort, however, to feel that one's sympathies could not, at the worst, be thrown away upon anybody under a member of Parliament, and we enjoyed the [-98-] spectacle hugely. From that pious feeling that moderates every transport in the Briton when in presence of titled persons, we did not ejaculate "Bravo, Abercorn!" "Go it, Airlie !" as in the former case; but when the first range was done, and the Lords won it, we could not forbear to cheer a little.
    "Let law, religion, virtue, morals die,"
exclaimed X, misquoting from a well-known poem,
    "But leave us still our old nobility."
    "At the same time," added he, "instead of following them to their next range, I think we shall find better fun at the Running Deer."
    This animal being of the same size (in iron) as the living creature, and proceeding by mechanism at about the same speed, runs to and fro between two butts of earth, for twenty or thirty yards or so, and has to be shot in transitu. If the shooter should miss it altogether, he loses nothing; but if he "spoils the venison" by hitting it on the  [-99-]  haunch, the marker promptly displays a blue and white flag, and the sportsman is fined for the offence. The above seven targets, as well as four others for Pool, were all close together in that portion of the common which was formerly devoted to duelling; * [* Glen Cardigan is, for an obvious reason, the local name for this spot.] and the noise of the rifles was therefore very great. A red flag would now and then be set up, while the markers left their places of safety to clean this or that target, but otherwise the firing was incessant. Add to this, that various prizes were being shot for simultaneously at the remaining thirty or forty targets, and it may well be imagined that Wimbledon Common was not sacred to silence. The whir of the Volunteer bullet, however, is but the whisper of peace: there was nothing in it (to my ear, at least) to mar the exquisite serenity of the surrounding scene. Immediately beneath us lay Richmond Park and a far-reaching range of pasture and cornland breathing prosperous plenty; while in [-100-]  the distance hung that mighty cloud which ever hovers over the wealthiest city in the world, and yet almost the only one that has neither wall nor rampart, nor even a gate to close in the face of a foe.
    "I am glad to perceive that the old have not forgotten their cunning, and that the young - for whom in my time "bulls-eyes" had no other meaning than mere lollipops - are learning to handle their weapons as they should," mused I- "I never look on yonder town and champaign, but, like a miser who gazes on some priceless jewel of his own, my mind reverts to the bolts and bars, arid inquires of itself whether the blunderbuss is in working-order."
    "There are a hundred and seventy thousand blunderbusses such as these," said X; "and even these are nothing to what you shall see now."
    He led the way to another range where the competitors were shooting at an object which I could scarcely discern with the naked eye. This target was 800 yards away; its dimensions 12 feet [-101-]  by 6; its centre 6 feet square; its bull's-eye but 3 feet. Yet no man missed the target-got less than an "outer" - while we were looking on; many got "centres," and not a few made "bulls-eyes." It was permissible in this contest for the competitors to assume any position they pleased, and certainly they availed themselves of this privilege to the utmost. Some stood, some sat, some knelt, some lay on their stomachs, and one even lay on his back.
    "Look, look, Mornmbidgee," cried Y, "here is a gentleman to please you. He patronises the inverted system, which, without doubt, is the usual one in Topsy-turvy land."
    And certainly it was a wonderful exhibition. The Volunteer in question lay on his back, placed his left arm beneath his head, hugging his weapon to his ear with the left hand, and with the barrel resting upon his left knee, fired - not into the air, as one would have supposed, and even to have "let it off" in such a position was a feat to be proud of - but into the bull's-eye. Again and [-102-]  again, at this enormous distance, did the recumbent marksman accomplish this miracle.
    "This must be witchcraft!" exclaimed I, "that strikes what is considerably less than half a Frenchman, at eight hundred yards, from the most unpromising position that can be selected."
    "Not so," replied X; "this gentleman only practises what has long been a precept with men of science. Sir David Brewster for one, I think, has always recommended it. Lying on the back is said to clear the eye from all watery humours. The position, too, has the enormous advantage in actual warfare of not exposing the marksman to the adversary's fire."
    "The monopoly of it must, however, be preserved by one side," observed I dryly; "otherwise, neither would do much execution: while the spectacle of two armies on their backs, with their rifles pointed in the air, would alarm the feathered creation most unnecessarily."
    The skill of this marksman, however, admirable as it was, was outdone by several others. One [-103-] Volunteer made seven bulls-eyes in succession at the 500 yards' distance. Another made five at it, and immediately afterwards, five more at a different range, thus scoring ten successive bulls-eyes.
    Some of the incidents of the Wimbledon meeting, which we attended again and again, were most exciting and remarkable. For the Queen's Prize, value 250 and a Reputation, there was a tremendous struggle. It lay at last between two competitors, A and B. A had made so good a score that if B only made "an outer" - the target itself being scarcely visible - he would have lost. He required a centre to tie, and a bull's-eye to win. B made the bull's-eye.
    In contending for a certain prize, one of the very best marksmen in Great Britain, who had made a large score, and was looking to win, got so excited as to aim and shoot at the wrong target, thus altogether throwing away his chance.
    But by far the most engrossing contest of all was that on the last day, between the winners of prizes at the Meeting - between the best shots in [-104-]  the world, that is-for Lord Dudley's prize.  The shooting was very equal, as might be expected; but Lord Bury and Captain Williams made the best scores. After the last shot of the former, his success seemed almost certain, for it was necessary that his antagonist should make a bull's-eye - at 800 yards - even to tie him. Captain Williams made the bull's-eye. They now prepared, therefore, to "shoot off the tie." The excitement was now thrilling indeed, and amidst a breathless silence Captain Williams shot first, and made another bull's-eye. Lord Bury then also made a second bull's-eye. These men must have had iron nerves; for I myself, upon whom a thousand eyes were not fixed, and who had not a shilling dependent on the result, felt myself trembling with anxiety. Captain Williams shot again, and made a third bull's eye. I was sorry for his Lordship; but upon my own account I was really glad when the match was here decided, for my knees began to knock together. Lord Bury made a centre - only two inches, it was said, below the bull's eye, and [-105-]  directly in a line with it, but still only a centre, and so lost the prize.
    "No wonder," remarked X, as we drove home, well pleased, though slightly stunned, "that foreigners should shoulder their rifles at sight of such shooting as this, and leave the All-comers of all Nations prize* [* Among the fifty-three successful competitors for this prize, there was but one alien, a Swiss.] to be contended for by the aborigines."
    "True," said I, rubbing my hands with pardonable exultation; "no foreigners need apply."
    I murmured something to himself, which sounded to my sensitive ears like, "nor any colonists either;" but he protested with much earnestness that I was mistaken.