Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Chapter 7 - Looking Down on the World

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"HAVE we nearly got to the top, Morumbidgee ?" inquired Y in despondent tones.
    "Look over the balusters, and judge for yourself, my friend."
    "Below, is a well," groaned Y ; " above, is a shaft."
    "That is very true," returned I cheerfully; "a secondary design in constructing the Column was, that it might serve as an astronomical tube for discovering the parallax of the earth, by observing the different distances of the stars in the Dragon's Head from the zenith, at various seasons of the year; but the oscillation of the pillar was found to be so very considerable-"
   [-133-] "Good heavens !" cried Y, "does it oscillate ?"
    "I dare say not, said I; "I am only quoting from a scientific work. It was also attempted to ascertain, by means of the Column, the pressure of the atmosphere at different heights-"
    "The atmosphere has been most oppressive at all heights, as yet," interrupted Y. "There is no ventilation whatever. The windows will not open, although I have fortunately broken one with my umbrella in endeavouring to make it do so. I never smelt so vile a smell; and I shall never get rid of it. It is entering into my system. How did the persons you speak of find the atmosphere at the top ?"
    "The quicksilver in the tube was found to stand higher at the bottom than at the top of the Column-"
    "That's nonsense," exclaimed Y with irritation; "that's impossible; and besides, I don't care what the quicksilver did."
    "And also," added I, "Dr. Hooke observed the same to ascend by degrees, as nearly as he could [-134-] perceive, proportionally to the space descended in going down the pillar from the top to the bottom."
    "I don't understand one word of that," observed Y gloomily. "But since you seem to be so clever, can you tell me why the top of the column recedes from us as we advance? My legs tremble beneath me. I have spoiled my gloves with this abominable railing, polished by fifty thousand pairs of dirty hands."
    "Nay, not pairs," I said laughing; "people only use one hand in going up."
    "And do they not use the other in coming down ?" inquired Y sardonically.
    "No," said I; "they descend next the wall, to permit the passage of those they meet."
    "Morumbidgee," exclaimed Y solemnly, seating himself in one of the clammy niches in the rounded stone, "let me distinctly understand my position. Am I expected to descend this perpendicular flight of steps without any rail? I tell you that I am sick and giddy as it is; let us retrace our [-135-] steps while as yet nobody has entered the pillar to cut off our retreat."
    "Somebody has entered it; I think I have heard voices beneath us for this long time. Listen."
    From the nature of our position, we had each our ear to the wall, and a third scientific use for which the column is singularly adapted is for acoustic purposes. It forms a Whispering Gallery, two hundred and fifteen feet high.
    "Git along with yer, do, John - for shame," murmured a voice, half suffocated with mirth, as of a female giggling.
    "Well, then, only just one more - for luck," replied another in tones unmistakeably masculine; and then there was a sound as if the palm of the hand had been struck smartly against the wall - in point of fact, a smack.
    "Morumbidgee," cried Y, "this is eaves-dropping. There is no knowing what one may hear; let us make another effort to proceed. If these young people overtake us, I shall betray myself; I shall [-136-] shriek with irrepressible ]aughter. They are doing it again. On, on, in the name of chivalry! But how very, very much attached John and she must be to one another, to make love inside the monument."
    Yes; myself and my nil admirari friend, as perhaps has been guessed by this time, were actually about to survey London from the top of its famous column. X was not to be back from the country till the evening: and until he arrived, Y had made up his mind to perform all the duties of himself and partner in respect to me. The ascent of the monument was his own proposition, suggested, I believe, rather as a proof of the extent to which he was prepared to go in my service, than as a practical idea; but I had closed with it at once. He had never, of course, accomplished the feat before, nor even enjoyed the acquaintance of anybody who had done so; and when our object was attained, he was about as much out of his element as a red mullet would have been at the same elevation - and he was almost as red. 
"Well," observed he, as we reached the topmost step, "one has obtained at least a qualification for the Alpine Club. No member who has merely been up Monte Rosa would venture to match his pretensions against ours. The air, too, must be a good deal more fragrant on that mountain, if there is any meaning in names. What a determination must have existed in the breasts of those individuals who have come up here for the purpose of suicide! or perhaps it is the staircase itself which has induced so many persons, rather than experience it again, to commit self-destruction."
    "People have, however, evaded these stairs without that sacrifice," remarked I. "In 1732, a sailor flew from the top of the Monument to the 'Three Tuns' Tavern in Gracechurch Street, upon a single rope, and was down in half a minute. At an earlier hour on the same day a waterman's boy came up hither, and seeing the rope hanging loose, which was presently to be stretched for the achievement, he slid down by [-138-] it into Monument Yard, 'the stairs (he explained) being inconveniently crowded.'"
    "I sympathise deeply with that boy,2 said Y. "Let us come out into the open."
    What a change was that from the stale dank odours of the shaft to the fresh current of the upper air, from the narrow circling stair with the blank wall ever facing us, to the boundless heaven! Immediately below us lay that street and bridge more densely thronged with traffic than any others in the universe; but they afforded no sensation of crowding - of want of space. At the point from which we regarded those fussy active little men and women, with their toy omnibuses and Liliputian wains, they did but seem as ants; that area, too, broad as it is, was dwarfed by the enormous city circling around it, further than the eye could reach. As for all other streets, the widest was but as a crevasse in a glacier - a zigzag crack soon terminating in the mass of brick-work; the nearest, one could hardly take for streets at all, but rather as gaps for the adventurous cat to clear in a single [-139-] bound. It was a city of house-roofs tenanted by a nation of cats. If our architects have been slavishly uniform with respect to the walls of their edifices, they have let their fancy have full swing in the roofs thereof. One would never have guessed what funny coverings those most respectable houses in Eastcheap, for instance, expose to the eye of the aeronaut, the chimney-sweep, and the Monument-climber. Some are flat as a bowling- green, and have little arbours upon them, where the proprietor sits and smokes (and is smoked); some are pointed; some are dome-shaped; but all have a little hole in them somewhere, through which members of the Human family occasionally emerge, to the consternation of the Feline. Of the fifty-six steeples which I count, with my face to the north-west, there are scarcely two alike: one is open as a barley-sugar basket; one is solid as a wedge of iron; one, white as the smoke will permit a decent steeple to be; another, black as night, with the gilded vane breaking out of it like fire. There is also apparently a mosque or two, [-140-] whose existence I was previously unaware of. In the church-towers hang the bells, quite visible, and around them eddy innumerable flights of pigeons, as though they really roosted under those iron tongues, which once a week at least must make the top of the Monument unsuitable, as a mathematical retreat, for Mr. Babbage. The bridges lose their individuality, their arches, to our down-looking gaze, being uniformly flattened; but the winding river, with its swift-moving traffic, and its anchored fleets of merchandise, is a noble sight indeed.
    I was thinking of Melbourne and Sydney, and how the entire shipping of both those famous ports could be placed in one of the docks beneath me without causing much inconvenience, when Y touched me on the shoulder. "They are both here," whispered he; "whatever you do, don't laugh."
    I felt quite hot at first, under the impression that I had hurt somebody's feelings. "Who are here ?" said I.
    [-141-] "John and the young woman," continued my companion, under his breath; "they are immediately behind us. They were driven up by somebody, or they would have remained in the Column all day. The lady seems a little nervous, as though she were not altogether ignorant of acoustics; but the gentleman - he's a baker - has not the least suspicion that we are in possession of his soft secret. He looks as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth."
    If nature ever made an innocent man in this world - to look at - it was that baker. His profession caused him to be physically white and spotless, but the air of innocent simplicity which pervaded him, would have won the hearts of a British jury in any case whatever connected with the wiles of the female sex. He would have come out of fifty breach-of-promise transactions with an untarnished reputation.
    His politeness to the young woman was cold almost to stateliness. He remarked that the wind was easterly, and that the pigeon was a pretty bird. [-142-] I am not a bad judge of character, but I should have taken him for a serious young man, by whom baking was felt to be a snare, and who contemplated missionary enterprise in the Tonga Islands. The evidence of one's own ears, however- "Git along with yer, do John; for shame !"- was not to be discredited. He was the amatory aggressor of that respectable young woman of heightened complexion, whose fingers now reposed upon his arm as lightly as a snow-flake. If he belonged to any religious body at all, it should have been that of the Jesuits.
    Averting our eyes from this hypocritical spectacle, we began to note the peculiarities of life on the house-tops. There were creatures and things there the existence of which one would never, but for this opportunity, have suspected. Vegetable life was greatly more abundant than might have been looked for; not only were there boxes of plants, and tubs of shrubs, and pots of not very flourishing flowers, but the heads of bona-fide trees made themselves apparent in all directions. It is an [-143-] assertion originated, or at least corroborated, by Leigh Hunt, that there is no street of any size in the city from some part of which a tree is not visible; and really I believe this to be the case. Almost every church of any antiquity has a tree beside it, and also a little quadrangular well, as it seemed, with grass at the bottom; this was the churchyard where Christian people used to put their kinsfolk, making death terrible indeed. The biggest cats now hold their court in them; so big, that even from where we stood they looked as large as their brethren of the roof; black cats, tawny ones, lean cats (but brawny ones), fat cats, tortoiseshell cats-every description of awful cat was there. Cats, too, as I have said, formed the majority of the population of the roofs; stalking noiselessly over leads in search of prey; expressing with bent back, and rigid as if they had taken strychnine, their antagonistic sentiments towards their fellows; or sitting, demure as Bathsheba, upon the topmost tiles, engaged in cleansing operations, but not without an eye to the pigeons. Birds [-144-] in cages, too, were hung about in considerable quantities; and there were several dog kennels with their tenants. The clothes that were drying - I cannot say whitening - in that autumn breeze, were of the most miscellaneous description. There were some-especially towards the shipping portion of the town - the nature of which could not be discovered even by aid of the telescope which is "lent out," for that and other purposes, by an official in the Monument gallery, for the reasonable charge of one penny. The sun-rays were reflected from the glass roofs of a dozen photographic establishments, and upon the tiles thereof lay the photographs themselves, undergoing some mysterious process. Neither artists nor their victims were to be seen, however. The upper half of a male or female figure would now and then protrude itself through a house-top, but having ascertained the state of the wind, or taken an observation of the sun, or accumulated the desired number of "blacks" upon its countenance, would withdraw again, apparently satisfied.
    [-145-]  The scene, though striking enough, was for some time wanting in human interest. Presently, however, two full-length individuals ascend from the same house; full-length, but not full size; for one of them is but a page; the other, I should say, was a housemaid. Their errand is to beat carpets, but they do not confine themselves to that operation. I perceive "John" to press the fingers of his affianced bride (for I cannot but believe, in charity, that they are engaged young people), as this other pair make their unexpected appearance. He knows exactly what they are about to do, although he has never set eyes on them before. They look about them on all sides, to make sure that they are alone; the pigeons will carry no tales of them; the electric wires, that run like cobwebs in all directions, will never telegraph their proceedings. There is an attic window in rather a commanding position to eastward, so they put a stack of chimneys between it and the area of their operations. Only they never think of looking up at the Monument, where there are at least two couple of [-146-] persons deeply interested in their proceedings, and among whom the telescope is circulating with an anxious rapidity. It is not my intention to describe in these columns what took place between that page and that housemaid. The case of Mr. Samuel Weller, whose first courtship took place, if I remember rightly, under precisely similiar circumstances, may be referred to as a parallel; but for my part, I am not the man to reveal one of the tenderest scenes which it has ever been my good- fortune to witness. What with the fiat roof, the Turkey carpet, and the mosques in the neighbourhood, it was like an eastern love-story. When the carpet was folded up to the last fold, and the beaters were necessarily close to one another, a circumstance occurred which caused the affianced bride to toss her head, and exclaim with indignation: "Well, I never!" But she had ever - and very recently too - for all that.
    Then the carpet-beating was over, we felt that any other spectacle must be a bathos, and would have descended at once, but for the hypocritical [-147-] baker, who took out his watch and said that he had not a moment to spare, but must be off directly. Under such circumstances, we thought we would leave the staircase to the affianced pair, and remain yet a few minutes longer on the summit. The guardian of the Column had descended for another telescope, in the hope that the love-story would last longer than it did, and there was but one person left with us, a stout but sombre man, who had never ceased cracking walnuts since our arrival. In spite of the mandate against "throwing anything whatever from the top of the Monument," he had dropped nearly a sack of empty walnut-shells through the railings on the north side, and seemed to take a stolid pleasure in watching their fall.
    "There's many," observed he, in tones so husky that they could never have been produced by Melancholy alone, unaided by his favourite fruit - "There's many as has dropped down here, and been smashed, beside walnuts!"
    "Well, they can't do it any more," remarked I [-148-] cheerfully, pointing to the iron bars that encaged us overhead.
    "A thin man could squeedge himself through them," replied the walnut-cracker sighing; "but not even him with any comfort. What a pack o' nonsense it is of govinment railing in places of this kind; if a party wants to take a header, why, let him take it. 'Live and let live'; that's my motto."
    "That may be your motto," remarked Y; "but it is scarcely illustrative of the principle in question."
    The gloomy man did not so much as turn an eye in the direction of the speaker, but continued to address his remarks to myself, as though he and I were the only persons upon that solitary height capable of the communication of ideas.
    "The fust was a party - name of Green - in a white waistcoat and blue apron. They say as he didn't mean to do it; that there was a tame beagle kept up here, and in reaching round to look at him, he overbalanced hisself; and a lot of gammon [-149-] of that kind. But he did mean, bless ye, of course he did. Look here; d'ye see that lamp-post ? - well, that wasn't there then - but just on that hidentical spot, Green pitched. He was the fust." 
    "What a nice agreeable gentleman this is," observed Y with animation -  "how full of amusing anecdote! Pray, tell us some more, sir."
    The solemn man never moved a muscle, except those that were absolutely necessary for the cracking of another walnut; but having skinned and devoured its contents with the greatest deliberation, he continued as follows:
    "The second was a baker; not a twopenny-halfpenny journeyman fellow - such as that who was stannin here a while ago, and would never dream of doing such a thing, not he - he ain't got the pluck for it - but a master baker - name of Cradock: he threw hisself down on the very same spot, or within that of it ;" and the speaker measured out, with great exactness, about an inch and a quarter on his middle-finger. "He was the second party, he were. Then there was a Jew [-150-] gentleman: now, listen. He got a-top of these ere railings, and walked round, and round, and round, till presently he sprung off - look here - just exactly on the same spot as the other two had pitched - now, do look here."
    "My good man," said I, "I don't want to look. I don't want to hear these dreadful things."
    "The Jew gent. was the third party," continued the sombre man, in a state of intense excitement. "Now the fourth party was a female. She tied a rope to the railings, she did, with a sort of stirrup to it, by which means-    Here the narrator broke off suddenly, and assumed that look of enforced cheerfulness which oppressed maidens are accustomed to wear upon the melodramatic stage, after the delivery of the words, "But I must dissemble."
    The guardian of the Monument had reappeared with a telescope under each arm. I could not help whispering to this official, as we turned to leave the gallery, that he had better keep his eye on the sombre man.
    [-151-] "I only wish as I could help it," returned he. "There's little else to look at four days out of the six. He's always here, bless yer, rain or shine. It isn't pleasant on a foggy day to be shut up with a chap like that, I can tell you, a couple of hundred feet above the rest of the world. It's "crack, crack, crack," all day with him, and he never gives one on 'em away neither - the scaly warmint."
    "But he seems such a very miserable man," said I; "if I were you, I should almost fear for his personal safety."
    "Should yer really?" observed the official sardonically. "Well, I never guv it a thought."
    "But don't you think he is a very likely sort of man to kill himself - to commit self-destruction ?"
    "Most uncommon likely," returned the Monument-man coolly; "positively sartin, I should say - sooner or later - with them walnuts."
    A man whose whole existence is passed in looking down on the world cannot but be somewhat cynical, but yet I was inclined to think that this [-152-] philosopher had gauged his sombre companion pretty accurately.
    Both Y and myself were excessively giddy by the time we got to the bottom of the "three hundred and forty-five black marble steps," and became the subjects of a curious optical delusion. We thought we saw John and his affianced bride emerging from the portal only a second or two in advance of ourselves - a circumstance which, considering that he had previously declared he had "not a moment to spare," must be considered incredible.