Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Chapter 6 - The Nobleman's Fete - and the Woolly Woman's

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THERE are certain changes taking place in our little household in Half-Moon Street, which affect me more perhaps than they should. If I had been told six months ago that I should be having the heartache now in consequence of a coming parting with any friends, I should have smiled, though sadly, at the prophet; and if he had added that these friends were such as X and Y, I should have laughed outright in his face. As marriages are made in heaven, however, so friendships are not manufactured to order upon this planet. Man is not a demi-bivalve, that he should annex himself to one precisely similar to himself; [-107-] if so, where should I have found the double of a sentimental colonist of middle age, inclined to prose, but not averse to be convivial? I protest that the young man X has grown as dear to me as a son to his father; while for Y, I entertain those kindly emotions which affect forgiving uncles (on the stage) towards their scapegrace nephews. I feel as if, thanks to me, the dog was living merrily upon post-obits.
    These young men can be scarcely unaware of my friendly feelings, and indeed reciprocate them, so far as sociality goes, with the pleasantest freedom ; and yet their native delicacy forbids them to derive therefrom any practical advantage. The Trevors of Trevarton were not more proud than nor was my poor brother Thomas a more obstinate mule than is X in one respect. "The last thing that a gentleman does," says some old foolish play, "is to borrow money of his friend;" and this seems to be an immutable canon with the two advertisers. This sentiment is of course an honourable one, and is deep-seated in [-108-] most Englishmen of condition. I venture, however, to affirm it to be an error founded upon something like vulgarity - upon an undue and commercial regard for mere current coin. I may receive my friend into my house for as long as he pleases, I may mount him on my hunters a whole winter through, I may get his son appointed to a ship in Her Majesty's servrce, I may do him, in short, any good turn one can conceive, but I may neither give him nor lend him Money. Taking low ground, let me ask: What difference is there between money and money's worth? Taking high ground: What, then, is Friendship, that the intervention of a little gold should act as a non-conductor? In Melbourne, there is many a rich man who owes, not only his prosperity, but his very existence, to the help of a friend in a less prosperous time. I have heard one of these at his own dinner-table relate how that, but for a ten- pound note from a generous fellow who had but few of his own to spare, he might have stuck to sign-painting all his life; and, turning to the [-109-] man seated on his right hand, he added (and very tenderly for a Government contractor), "That was you, Bob, wasn't it ?"
    This ridiculous delicacy "overleaps itself, and falls on the other" into what is very like meanness. Do X and Y suppose that, having assisted them in their pecuniary difficulties, I should be so base as to hold them debtors rather than friends? I have no doubt whatever that something like this is the case, and it disquiets me. My connection with them as advertisee is coming to an end; I cannot much longer prolong it without exciting some morbid suspicion that I do so for their sake, whereas, although I would gladly benefit them, it is I who will suffer most at parting. I protest I shudder at the thought of returning to that solemn Caravansary, that magnificent Mausoleum in which I took up my quarters on coming to town; the thought of the patronage of that head-waiter is hateful and oppressive. How I shall miss the merry laugh of X, although, indeed, I fancy that he is not so blithe as when I first knew him. I heard him [-110-] sigh the other day when he thought himself alone, in a manner that convinced me he has some secret wretchedness; although he declared to me that it was only the first approach of indigestion, which one must expect at twenty-six.
    Last night he left us for some country house which it seems he has in the west of England; he has gone, as I believe, to effect its sale. Perhaps it is an ancestral place - for Martin is a good name - which it distresses him to part with. If he had but been less reserved, I might have hinted that I was willing to help him, and should myself be glad to visit that district, which must be near what was once my own home. I would persuade him that to have the entrée of a friend's house there would be worth much to me; but I dare not. I cannot hope to convey to others my sense of the danger of such a step. It will not be conceived that men about town, spendthrifts on their last legs, advertisers, should be so difficult to deal with, but so it is; there is nothing so proud as a proud man growing poor.
    [-111-] Another weakness of theirs is a repugnance to being suspected of doing anything creditable to themselves. This is especially the case with Y; and I am sure I offended him very much this morning by detecting him in a good action. I was awakened at six o'clock or so by the opening of his window. I heard him say, "Are you the man for Mr. Layton?" and then the answer, "Yes, sir." Directly afterwards, I heard a soft but apparently extensive body descending the staircase. I opened my door, and lo, there was Y in his dressing-gown rolling an enormous bundle before him down the stairs. He did not see me, though I watched him all the way, and saw him open the front-door, and having delivered the bundle to the messenger, close it again with great caution, and noiselessly replace the bolts.
    At breakfast-time, I exclaimed suddenly,
    "And where was the great parcel going to, that you got up so early this morning to dispose of?"
    "It was going to Preston, sir, to some people [-112-] who want clothes more than I do. Have you any other question to ask ?"
    "I never saw Y angry before; and this was the first time he had ever called me "sir."
    "I am sorry to have been rude," said I; "but surely, my dear Y, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Why on earth did you get up at that hour, and perform your benevolent mission with such mystery? Having been a witness to your strange procedure, I could not but be curious. "
    "Well," said Y, "if you must know the truth, I was afraid of John Thomas. My garments are, as he conceives, his perquisites; and in giving them away, I was committing a robbery. So, you see, I was not so virtuous after all. Whenever you see a man perform what appears to be a good action, conclude at once he has some mean motive for doing so, and employ your sagacity in discovering it; that is not only good fun but excellent philosophy. How very odd the Lancashire operatives will look in my pegtops."
    It was evident, although he tried to conceal it, [-113-] that Y was much annoyed. In order to turn the conversation, I began to talk of what should be done in X's absence: "He is not to return to-day, I think."
    "No, poor fellow," replied Y; "and when he does, I am afraid he will be out of spirits."
    "How is that ?" asked I, with eagerness ; for all that I knew of X was from Y, and vice versa; they never spoke about themselves.
    "Oh ! it's a woman, of course," observed Y, bitterly.
    "Well, I'm glad it's no worse," said I; "the quarrels of lovers are not lasting. I was afraid he had gone on more unpleasant business. From some questions X was putting to me the other day about Australia, I gathered that he was half resolved to emigrate."
    "And why not, O Morumbidgee? I am sure you yourself are an excellent specimen of Transportation."
    I smiled sadly, but did not answer, for my very heart ached for poor X. Y, touched by my silence, [-114-] the cause of which he partly perceived, continued:
    "The fact is, our friend X, like myself, is out at elbows; but, unlike me, he is, or was, in love. Perhaps it is over by this time, for the young lady rises early, and is doubtless now in possession of his circumstances. While he was the squire, and in possession of the big house, the parson of the parish was willing enough to let him have his Arabella. But now the house is to be sold, it is likely she will be retained for the next squire, if he be eligible - if the man and the mansion be equally unencumbered."
    "But do the young people mutually love one another, think you?"
    "To distraction, doubtless," replied Y, sardonically; "that is to say, they did when X started. He will come home, poor fellow, miserable enough; we must do what we can to cheer him. In the meantime, let us cheer ourselves. The autumn is ending, Morumbidgee; we must take our pleasure while we may."
    "Well," said I, "we have been to a good number [-115-] of places less select than otherwise; I should now like to take a look at more exclusive society. There was once an assembly which had a great reputation for fashion at the time I left England; and I perceive by the papers that it is now resuscitated. I have a great fancy, Y, for going to Almack's."
    "Almack's ! Al-l-l-mack's!" exclaimed Y, drawing out the word as though it were a telescope; "my dear Morumbidgee, what do you mean'? Compose yourself. Take a glass of cold water, and read the Shipping Intelligence. You know not what you ask."
    "I simply desire," said I, firmly, "to witness a scene in which the performers are the aristocracy of my native land. If admission cannot be procured - and I have heard that it is difficult - well and good; but I am unaware that my manners are so rude as to make my request rid"-
    "Accomplished Morumbidgee," interrupted Y, with warmth, "your manners are unexceptionable. Dismiss any notions of inferiority from your mind, and adopt precisely opposite ones. If you were [-116-] a fool, or even a gentleman of ordinary type, I should say 'Go;' but I know you better than you know yourself, and I tell you, you wouldn't like it. We have had some little experience of life together, my friend; and we are not fitted - either of us, believe me - 'to move in the best circles.' You are too fond of fun for that, and I of easy slippers. It is a lamentable fact, but the Best Society is dull, and demands boots of polished leather. You are my advertisee, and in the absence of X, I must do your bidding; only beware. Remember that evil night at Lady de Squashkin's, when we could not emerge from the third drawing-room, and had nothing to support nature upon for five mortal hours save a lemon-biscuit and that water-ice which I divided with you, Morumbidgee, uith a weak but unfaltering hand. What an effort it cost you to keep on your gloves on that occasion! You averred that you were dying with the heat, and yet could not perceive that that was the very reason why it was imperative that you should retain those gloves. Think, too, how indisposed you subse-[-117-]quently were to leave your card upon her ladyship, observing that you were not disinclined to lunch with her, but that calling was an absurdity. All this, my friend, exhibits your good sense, but at the same time your unfitness for that scene for which you so indiscreetly pant. What? You behaved very well at the Opera! Nay, excuse me. In the first place, the Opera is a house of public amusement, where you can conduct yourself as you like so long as you don't sit with your legs over the front of the box; and, secondly, you did not behave so very well at the Opera. You did not see why your great-coat should be taken away upon admission, and (particularly) why you should have to pay for that abduction when you came away. You compared the very expensive box in which we were accommodated to a four-poster, and the curtains thereof to bed-curtains. The magnificent Duchess of X- (not Arabella), who sat resplendent with feathers immediately opposite to us, you likened to an ancient bird looking out of a pigeon-hole. Instead of being [-118-] ravished by the melodious notes of the chief singers, you were making sarcastic observations upon the same. You remarked how very much the trombones assisted their deep passions, and how the flutes helped them out with their lighter emotions; with what an admirable self-restraint they curbed their feelings until the expiration of their proper bars, and how their harmonious rage never overstepped the musical limits.
    "Yes," said I laughing, "I remarked that the spirit and the letter were one indeed."
    "You should not have remarked it, however," continued Y reprovingly; "for humour and Music are deadly enemies. Moreover, three.fourths of your time were occupied in the study of the libretto. You could never find out the place at which the performance had arrived. You complained because Alice never descended slowly from the mountain."
    "And she never did," said I; "they cut it all out."
    "That was because it was Saturday night, [-119-] Morumbidgee. You would not have people be impious, I hope, for the sake of a libretto. But, worst of all, do you remember how you wanted supper? You would have eaten Welsh rarebit upon the Grand Tier, if you could have got it. Then, when they brought us ices, recollect what happened; how you opened the door too hastily, and upset the whole concern, you terrible bushranger! Ah, what a crash was there! We divided the attention of the audience with the chorus of phantom nuns singing, appositely enough
    Gia nelle rete
    Caduto è il forte.

    Now in the snare
    The brave shall fall.
For how were you to know, simple antipodean, that the box-door opened outward? I do not recall these things to reproach you, friend; but only to convince you of your inability to enjoy yourself under too conventional restrictions. You are silent, but unconvinced. What say you to a [-120-] fête champêtre given in a nobleman's grounds on the river side. I know of one that takes place today, beginning at three o'clock. This will surely be better than Almack's."
    "I shall enjoy it of all things" said I; "but how will you get tickets?"
    "Leave that to me," replied Y. "Only bring with you a willing mind."
    At three o'clock, we found ourselves in Villiers Street, Strand, which, now that Hungerford Market is no more, is The Way to the Steam-boats.
    "The tide is low," quoth Y, "which is a pity."
    "And how can you possibly know that as yet ?" asked I.
    "Because there are no boys in the street," answered my companion. "When the water is in, they stand on their heads, or 'do the wheel,' for half-pennies on shore; when the water is out - you shall see for yourself what they do."
    A few steps brought us to the wretched pier, built up of decaying timbers, and ornamented with advertisement boards: on either side of it, knee-[-121-] deep in the mud, stood the boys, clamouring for largess, and prepared to dive down in the sluggish ooze, to fight with one another, to exhaust a whole vocabulary of abuse, for the smallest copper coin. They were dressed in a uniform suit of darkish but glossy brown, which fitted them more admirably than any they could have procured in Bond Street: this was nothing but mud. When the tide came up, they would presently wash themselves in it, and put on their rags.
    "What a sad, sad sight," said I.
    "At all events, it is better fun than Almack's," replied Y laughing. "What are you about, Morumbidgee? There will be a murder, and you will be an accessory before the fact."
    Certainly, the tumult among the amphibious throng was something terrible: in a moment of enthusiasm, I had chucked them half-a-crown. The white coin shimmering for a moment in its velvet bed, had been the signal for a simultaneous plunge of the whole army. Somebody clutched it, and instead of putting it instantly in his mouth [-122-] (as was the invariable custom, since as yet they had no pockets), he indiscreetly announced his good-fortune by a yell. Then, as a duck with a worm in his mouth is pursued by other ducks, until the prize is torn from his reluctant bill, so the too fortunate treasure-finder was set upon, and even as he fled to shore, with competence in his right hand, and visions of endless tripe arid beer in his mind's-eye, was despoiled of his wealth ; the robber was in his turn attacked, and with redoubled fury, when suddenly there was a terrible pause - a silence, a solemn closing round of all, as it were, round the grave-mouth, and the mud closed over the half-crown, which had escaped their fingers, and lo, there was no tripe and beer for anybody!
    After a short voyage, which not even the mud-banks could render wholly unpicturesque, under countless bridges, by palace and by assembly hail, by rotting hovels and stately homes of trade, we arrived at our place of disembarkation. From thence we walked to the gardens, still by the river's [-123-] side, where the nobleman's fête was to he held. These were tastefully enough laid out, with gleaming statuary contrasting with flower-beds of blue and scarlet, but containing an amount of arbours exceedingly disproportionate to the area of the place.
    "I don't admire his lordship's taste," observed I; "what on earth does he want with a Grotto and a Hermit's Cave in the heart of London ?"
    "It's only his excessive exclusiveness," explained Y. "It is not every person, even of rank, let me tell you, who comes to these gardens."
    "But the people that are here don't seem to be very aristocratic, urged I. "There's a young lady eating an apple."
    "Hush!" said Y ; "or she'll hear you, and very likely throw it at you. People of quality don't care what they do."
    "Well, I should think not," said I; "why, her mother's taking beer and ginger-beer mixed !"
    "And a very aristocratic drink, too," replied Y. "The nobility call it Shan de Gaff - a name pro-[-124-]bably of Norman origin. As for her wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, it is vulgar to remark upon such a circumstance. I am not bound to defend the manners of his lordship's guests. Perhaps some of them are vulgar; the fête is for a charitable purpose - for the benefit of a man of the name of Smith - and our host is therefore not so particular as usual, doubtless. He is, however, liberality itself. Collations are served in yonder bowers to all who wish to dine al fresco."
    "Let us by all means have a collation," said I; "it is a thing I have often read about, but never seen."
    A collation at his lordship's fête comprehended cold chickens, veal, and ham (pronounced by his retainer am), pie, lobster salad, and some custards of a character quite unknown to me. Beneath the bowers was a temple in which a military band was stationed, and around the temple was an enormous platform, upon which at first a score or two, but afterwards many hundred couples, waltzed and [-125-] Schottisched. It was certainly a pretty sight. The high-born persons of both sexes indulged in an abandon (to use the language of their favourite chroniclers) which convinced the beholder that they felt at home; there was none of that haughtiness so unjustly ascribed to them by those who perhaps have no such opportunity as was now afforded us of seeing them chez eux. The men smoked without reproof; certainly it is the upper classes that lead our civilisation.
    When we had dined, we descended into the gardens, now brilliantly illuminated by thousands of coloured lamps; only the Hermit's Cave was appropriately left in shadow, where a venerable man foretold our destinies at a shilling a head - for the benefit of the unfortunate Smith. Emerging from this retreat, we came upon a band of music followed by a detachment of the elite, for all the world as Punch and his theatre is pursued by the merest vulgar. To the Giant, was emblazoned on a banner borne before them, and our curiosity being aroused by that device, we joined the pro[-126-]cession. After a march somewhat unnecessarily circuitous, we came upon an unpretending edifice, for admission to which, however, sixpence a head was demanded for the benefit of the unfortunate Smith. Here a gentleman of no less an altitude than eight feet two inches delighted all eyes by walking up and down an apartment considerably too small for him.
    "Upon my word and honour," observed 1, "this is like a show at a fair. It must certainly be true that our aristocracy is becoming democratic. I am surprised not to see Aunt Sally."
    "His lordship has provided a Woolly Woman instead," replied Y. "Let us inspect her, Morumbidgee, before her band strikes up, and while her salon is comparatively uncrowded."
    A winding passage, imperfectly lighted by a few lamps, brought us to a spacious but empty theatre; we had disbursed a shilling - for the benefit of the unfortunate Smith - at the door, but besides the money-taker, there appeared no mortal in connection with the place. We had somehow arrived [-127-] upon the stage, and were fronting the desolate vista of unoccupied benches; all was shadow and silence. We waited for the Woolly Woman to appear, surrounded by blue fire, or presenting some other startling contrast to the supernatural gloom. But a voice close to my elbow suddenly ejaculated: "Here you see the Woolly Woman; she is genuine; you are at liberty to take hold of this lock of hair, and to pull it - in moderation."
    I was almost frightened into a fit by the unexpectedness of these remarks; but when I perceived a grave man standing within a few inches of me, and holding out a rope of hair, which certainly did not measure less than seven feet, for me to lay hold of, I obeyed him; in a paroxysm of alarm, I say, I clutched it, partly to steady myself, and partly because I thought it would give him pleasure. At the other end of the rope, however, was an ancient negress, out of whose head it most undoubtedly grew. It was impossible for her to have counterfeited the shriek of agony with which she resented my conduct. "This is the only instance," the [-128-] grave man went on, quite calmly, "of the hair of one of the negro race attaining such lux-"
    I heard no more; I fled. I felt convinced that I had irreparably injured that unhappy Woolly Woman, and that to affect an interest in her after what had happened, would be an insult. The rest of my evening was embittered by this involuntary misconduct towards one of an oppressed race. Not even in the pages of Mrs. Beecher Stowe does one read of ruffians who use the gray hair of their female slaves with such cruel irreverence. What if I had really loosened it, so that the lock should presently come off, and leave her not only much disfigured - although I cannot say the hair, as hair, was to be admired - but without the means of gaining her livelihood; for it was that single lock that alone made her attractive, the rest of her head being like that of any ordinary negro lady who had reached the age of about 105.
    After that, I say, I enjoyed myself no more. Y took me to all the amusements which his lordship had provided for our gratification. I beheld [-129-] flying men cleave the viewless fields of air, while their fellow-mortals quietly partook of sherry-cobbler beneath them, in the happy confidence that if they fell they would do so on the spring-board. I saw a "ballet of action ;" I shot wild game and even deer in a scenic forest, with a rifle and a ten. penny nail; I lost myself irrevocably within the heart of a maze, and had to make a hole through the hedge to get out at, whereby we avoided a gentleman who took toll at the exit, and deprived, I fear, the unfortunate Smith of a couple of sixpences; I watched the Sensation Contortionist tie himself in knots, till I thought he would never come undone again. But the charm of that fête champêtre was gone for me, and I demanded to go home. I had read in history concerning savages such as Alaric, without attaching any peculiar meaning to the phrase, that "he spared neither sex nor age ;" but now I knew what it meant. And yet, I suppose, even Alaric never tugged with brutal energy at the gray hair of an exiled negress of 105. To any personal explanation or apology, as I frankly confessed to Y in the [-130-] cab, I felt myself wholly unequal; but if his lordship could be got to convey to the venerable female my very deep regret at what had occurred, I should feel, I said, in some degree comforted.
    "By the by," said I, "what is his lordship's name?"
    "Same name as the gardens," returned Y hastily; "it's a territorial title; but it will never do to write to him about the Woolly Woman. He has nothing to do with the lady whatever. He would wash his hands of the whole concern. This fête, he would very justly observe, was entirely for the benefit of the man of the name of Smith."
    "There is something I don't understand about the matter altogether," returned I. "I cannot feel entirely convinced that I have been his lordship's guest at all."
    "My dear Morumbidgee," said Y soothingly, "you are tired and unnerved. You are encouraging a ridiculous hallucination; go to bed."
    I did go to bed, but the Sensation Contortionist threw somersaults upon my chest in consequence [-131-] of the collation, and I awoke from a nightmare in which the Woolly Woman was a conspicuous feature, grasping the bell-pull with both my hands.