Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Pt.II -  Chapter 1 - The Steps our Home Correspondent Took to see the Royal Procession

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HAVING received my credentials from the proprietors of a certain Journal, as Home Correspondent, with particular instructions as to the public reception of her Royal Highness the Princess Alexandra of Denmark, I set myself to consider, as soon as the flutter of self-congratulation had somewhat subsided, how this first great task should be most fitly executed. I put aside the idea, suggested to me by an acquaintance connected with the newspaper press, of evolving a royal procession from the depths of my moral consciousness, and made up my mind to see it - either with the naked eye, or through the medium of those "Binocular Field-glasses, worn round the neck"  (!) without [-178-] which, their inventor informed me, per advertisement, that the procession could not be seen. But in what prominent position (being thus decorated) should I place myself, so that not only might I see the coming princess, but that the gratification might (in some degree) be reciprocal? This was the great question.
    Money, of course, being no object, should I take an unfurnished house in the city, entirely to myself, at a rent, for the afternoon, which it probably never before fetched per annum? I ran my eye down the columns of the Supplement of the Times, and perceived therein no less than seven such opportunities only waiting my acceptance and cheques for from some thirty to two hundred pounds. "The best position in all London" was offered me in fifty places; near Fishmongers' Hall, upon the Monument, "just out of Cheapside," on Ludgate Hill, at Temple Bar, "at the corner of Bleak Street" (wherever that is), in Pimlico, at Paddington, and at Windsor. "Covered seats, obtaining a long and uninterrupted view," were to [-179-] be obtained everywhere, even at the most unexpected places, such as Western Road, Brighton, and High St., Tunbridge Wells. Nothing particular could be said upon the advantages possessed by the last two localities, for even the Binoculars only professed to command an area of ten miles; but advertisers who had seats in the City delicately hinted that if you remained in the West End, you might just as well go to bed; while advertisers in the West End retorted that you might go to the City, indeed, between the hours of four and seven A.M., but would never return alive on the same evening.
    "By the way, we must observe," remarked Ludgate Hill, "that as the Princess Alexandra will not reach Bricklayers' Arms Station till about three o'clock in the afternoon, the procession cannot reach the West End till dusk. The borough suggested that "a good daylight view" was preferable. In vain did Farringdon Street - made (somehow) "doubly desirable, in consequence of the recent amicable arrangements between the [-180-] government and the civic authorities "- proffer words of peace. Fleet Street sternly remarked "The Civic Procession leaves at Temple Bar," in an Emersonian sentence, all to itself - just as though the entire nation were panting once more to behold that sword-bearer sitting sideways, and preventing the Lord Mayor from looking out of window.
    Upon the other hand, the attempts on the part of the Strand to make capital out of the Duke of Buccleuch, as an attractive spectacle, were equally strenuous; while an enthusiast, with half a window to let in a second floor in Pall Mall, endeavoured to excite some public curiosity regarding the members for Westminster.
    I was embarrassed by the multitude of favourable opportunities. Should I take twenty-five pounds of window in St. James's Street, with "the use of a bagatelle-table?" Or the two rooms in the Edgeware Road (one of which was a back apartment, looking into a mews), at fifteen guineas, "with fires and attendance?" Or the suite [-181-] of apartments "opposite the Marble Arch" for twenty guineas, from which sum, "if two ladies of position, whose cards would be given, were permitted to share a window, four guineas would be struck off ?" the addition of these eligible females struck me as very desirable; so much so, indeed, that I wonder four guineas more, instead of less, were not demanded as the price of their attendance. It was surely an excellent opportunity for wealthy but unaristocratic persons to obtain an introduction to society. If, on the other hand, the ladies were proud and haughty, one could obstruct their view, or even insist upon pulling the blinds down, which we should have a perfect right to do.
    Should I take a room "exclusively for a family," but "capable of accommodating five-and-twenty persons," which is certainly a pretty large domestic circle; or should I hire those "thousand seats in one lot, in six rows, one above another," and either occupy that entire space myself, or invite a few personal friends to share it? Or should I pur-[-182-]chase "timber, die square, planks, deals, &c., on very low terms," at that "old-established timber- yard" in Southwark, and set up a scaffolding of my own, on that "eligible piece of waste land near the Bricklayers' Arms?" If so, what should I do with the die square?
    Those justly famous "large and comfortable widows" to be hired at Charing Cross, I gave up with a sigh, for the duties of a Home Correspondent would be inconsistent, I was well aware, with such social temptations. Nor was the above the only misprint in the advertisements of the procession, unless the drawing-room balcony in Connaught Terrace were really "capable of accommodating twenty thousand volunteers," and afforded "an excellent view of upwards of forty persons." All these things were to be got for money; but what if I could go to my bootmaker's, or my tailor's, or my tooth-extractor's, upon the line of route, and simply request a seat upon the ground of being an excellent customer? Alas! my boot-maker, my tailor, my toothdrawer, had each put [-183-] forth his advertisement that he "had now placed all his windows at the service of his patrons, and could positively accommodate no others." He was obliged, with regret, to publish this statement, "in order to prevent disappointment." I wonder whether the patrons were admitted under a guinea a head! I wonder whether my bootmaker, for instance, had an eye (while the other winked) solely directed to puffing his own wares!
    Beside these establishments, the only place which was absolutely closed to me was one in "the escort of the ladies of Great Britain," from which I was unfortunately precluded by my sex male. But I wonder who made "the Loyal Suggestion, that the lady~equeStrians of England should form an escort to Her Royal Highness the Princess through the streets of London, for which the fashionable tailor was "prepared to furnish an equestrian uniform on the auspicious occasion!" Until I beheld his advertisement, I had positively never heard of such a proposal having been made at all.
    [-184-] The advertisement which would have obtained my choice, in my private capacity, would undoubtedly have been that since celebrated one emanating from the churchwardens of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, offering the use of a church and the benefit of clergy, with "a series of pieces on the organ," as well as a covered seat in the churchyard adjacent, to behold our future queen. But a Home Correspondent must restrain his devotional impulses, lest he gets locked up, for example, for two whole hours, contrary to his will, and forbidden to open his mouth, while the subsequent scramble, when the order of release at last arrives, resembles the contents of the Ark endeavouring to escape, as one bear, through a small square aperture. I was still hankering, however, after a seat in St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, when Sergeant, of another Temple, a college-friend of mine, of an eminently practical turn of mind, wrote to ask me to lunch with him on the 7th, and after that, to witness the all-engrossing spectacle. He lodged in a street off Piccadilly, [-185-] which we will call Charges Street (though his invitation was, of course, a friendly one, not to be paid for), and his windows, as I understood, would command an excellent side-view. The attraction, however, set forth in his note, was a private billiard-table, upon which himself and friends were to play pool, until the time arrived for sight-seeing.
    "You remember," said his postscript, "those billiard-rooms in the Strand, which we hired on the day of the last great public procession, and got our amusement and our spectacle in one; the proprietors have acquired wisdom since that time, and are charging five-and-thirty guineas for the windows alone."
    That postscript reminding me, as it did, of a very pleasant far-back day, decided me upon closing with my friend's offer, and giving up, though regretfully, the series of pieces on the organ. There had also been not one syllable breathed by the churchwardens of St. Martin in respect to luncheon, and my system requires luncheon [-186-] almost, or quite, as much as my soul thirsts after impressive harmony.
    On the morning of the 7th I started from Portman Square (in one of the very best houses of which locality I reside), with a wedding-favour on my breast, advertised by the vendor as "handsome, yet chaste," and which was composed of about half-a-dozen artificial flowers, "to each of which (he said) was imparted the delicious perfume allotted to it by nature." I had a slight cold in my head, however, and to that circumstance I may no doubt attribute the fact that I could distinguish none of those odours. The pool in Charges Street was not to begin till twelve o'clock (though had an earlier hour been appointed, my duties as Home Correspondent would have prevented my attendance), and in the meantime, there was much opportunity for observation. I had intended, in the first instance, to turn eastward, but was driven in the precisely opposite direction by an entire regiment of Volunteers, assisted by its mounted staff. This formidable [-187-] body, bound for the Park, were marching southward down Baker Street, with their colonel at their head, on horseback; and his unaccustomed steed was so dismayed - either by the number of spectators congregated in the square, or by a German band, with Danish colours, which was playing Haste to the Wedding, in opposition to the Nancy Dawson of the regimental performers - that it fled down Berkeley Street, despite all the efforts of its rider, and the application of a steel scabbard. The obedient troops followed their leader, and thereupon ensued a scene unparalleled in the annals of military experience. The populace, who knew he was going wrong, threw themselves between the colonel and his men, and by ejaculations, gestures, and waving of cotton umbrellas, compelled them to pause in their misdirected course. "Back, back!" "The Park !" "Where are you a-shovin' to ?" "Never mind 'Im; Ee's run away with, E is !" - were a few of the emphatic sentences which were addressed, with [-188-] appropriate action, to the 92nd Royal Diddlesex. Their eloquence prevailed; the course of the Volunteers was violently changed, as also that of the Home Correspondent, who, amid a tide of persons of very various callings (including the Portman Square crossing-sweeper, who tossed his broom in passionate appeals to gods and men and volunteers, in vain), was hurried westward, and only suffered to enjoy the full use of his own legs upon reaching the Edgeware Road.
    Finding myself deposited in that thoroughfare by such exceptional and unprecedented means, I deemed it only proper to explore the neighbourhood, and not fight against Fate by endeavouring to retrace my steps. Sombre as the streets hereabouts usually are, they were now gay with extemporised decoration-inexpensive splendour. Banners (of calico) were flying, joy (hand) bells pealing, organs (with a monkey on them) discoursing soul-thrilling music. Upon all faces, too, sat a genuine good feeling, a Welcome not to be purchased by certain monarchs still upon their [-189-] thrones at the price of half their kingdoms. I have never seen so many smiling lips, or so few frowns, on any London morning. I knew not where the omnibusfuls (if I may be allowed to introduce that graceful word into the English language) of crusty, stupid, egotistic people, who are to be seen daily hurrying citywards, had hid themselves upon the 7th of March at 9 A.M.; but they were certainly absent from the streets, and their places occupied by quite a different company. All tongues were talking about Her - God bless her! Where was she now? they wondered, and when would her sweet face shine upon them there? It was all Wonder, for nobody knew anything for certain, except the platform proprietors, some of whom appeared to be in receipt of momentary telegraphs regarding her royal movements. "Come early;" "Take your seats, ladies and gents;" "She'll be here at two;" "She'll be here at twelve;" "She'll be here before you're comfortably seated, now;" "Come early, please come early, do!" The bells clashing from the Pad-[-190-]dington steeples echoed, "Please come early, please come early, do !"
    And the public did come early. It came at nine, and it had come at eight, and at seven, and at six. It had come overnight, as I honestly believe, and slept in its numbered seats under the waterproof coverings. It had come with books in its hand to beguile the time, and with sandwiches in its pocket to repair the destruction of tissue, and with brandy- flasks to keep up its spirits at their unprecedented pitch. It had come at two guineas a head, and it had come at sixpence (on a plank gallantly sustained by two washing-tubs up to the very moment of the arrival of the procession, when it suddenly broke down), and it was going to have its money's worth out, and it wasn't going away. Talk of patience on a monument - there was a whole cage-full of people on the Monument of London that festal morning who smiled at every grief that passed, and at some that did not pass, but remained behind, such as lumbago, and before, such as cold in the head, for days and weeks to [-191-] come. Patience! let no man prate of that fictitious personage to me, who saw her very embodiment, fat and fiery-faced, and forty, sitting with all the persistence of a domestic fowl, in Oxford and Cambridge Terrace, next to its triumphal arch, and ever and anon tapping the same with the handle of her gingham umbrella, from morn to dewy eve. I saw her at nine A.M., and I saw her at six P.M. still tapping, like a woodpecker, as though to ascertain whether that elegant artificial structure could possibly he wood, and not the pure white marble that it seemed.
    Individual instances of this virtue are often ludicrous, but the aggregate Patience of a great People is a spectacle sublime. The footways of a city clothed with eager faces; the voices hushed, but the eyes speaking; its balconies overflowing; its roofs alive with watching, waiting thousands- this is a stirring sight, my friends, to all of us who are not philosophers or fools. If, just at the moment when the long procession has passed before [-192-] you, save that one last carriage, at whose approach all heads are bared in a second, and the air is thick with cheers - when the sound of a mighty people's acclaim bursts suddenly forth, I say, if there is a lump in your throat which forbids you to join in the same, and a tear in your eyes, when you do find voice to join, you need not be ashamed. Very many honourable men will experience those same emotions, although they will probably conceal the fact if you ask them the question. We may ignore the awful Sympathy that exists between every one of us and his fellows, but, thank God, we cannot prevent it.
    His pocket-handkerchief having been abstracted while he was setting down the above reflections in the rough, the Home Correspondent wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his coat, and turned his steps towards Pall Mall. The decorations on the road hither were more expensive (but not more prodigal), and the crowds better dressed, with the exception of the police, who, here as there, clothed in their little brief authority, stretched it to its [-193-] utmost limits. They made many an angel weep, who, flounced and furbelowed, wished to penetrate as usual, in the precise direction which she was forbidden to pursue, with their stern "You can't pass here, ma'am; all carriages is to keep to the left." The steps of the Guard's Monument in Waterloo Place were crowded with living figures, not less steadfast than those upon its summit; they had taken up that position before eight - the hour at which the Lords of the Admiralty were embarking at Woolwich to meet the princess at Gravesend - and stood there with, eyes fixed steadfastly to eastward, lest they should lose the first signal of Her coming. The Marionettes (in bridal white, in honour of the occasion), who had pitched their theatre in that open space devoted to such frivolities, immediately beneath the cold shade of the Athenaeum, could scarce provoke a smile from them. Not so, however, with the people who had not yet obtained a vantage ground, but who journeyed on in search of one, or waited near the eligible positions in case a vacancy should arise through hunger or disease. [-194-] "I shall faint," observed one stout, spectator to his friend, "if this crush goes on."
    "I wish you would, and then I shall get a step," replied a lively neighbour; whereat there was a roar of laughter.
    Encouraged by this applause, the friend himself remarked:
    "If you faint, Jack, I shall double you up, and stand upon you; or let you out at half-a-crown a foot as a bench  - and a good deal of money I should clear from a man of your inches."
    Considering what people did pay for as standing ground-the tables, the chairs, the rickety three-legged stools (but tall, and therefore at a premium) - there was really nothing to surprise one in such a stroke of business. In the plate-glass windows of the shops were exposed such wares as reminded one of an eastern slave-market. The ordinary goods had been removed, and their places occupied by gorgeous females in tiers (and smiles), each numbered from 1 to 70, or even higher: this indicated neither their age nor their [-195-] price, of course, but only their position in the shop-front; but the passers-by would have it otherwise, and held a mock-auction over their charms, wherewith, though I protest I did not bid, 1 could not help being vastly amused. The helplessness of the " lots" in question should have aroused my pity, I know; but their indignation, particularly when a doubt was expressed as to whether their age was not higher than their number, would have drawn smiles from Draco.
    Who built the forms - the wooden forms, I mean - for all these females? Who framed the scaffoldings'? Who fronted every street with wood in sixty hours'? Who, think you, were those men in paper-caps who worked outside every house, by day and night, from Bricklayers' Arms to Paddington? There are not forty thousand carpenters in London, I suppose, nor anything like it. Who therefore were those men, labouring at a guinea an hour, with as much beer as they could drink? Some of them were unskilled mechanics - savans [-196-] with a turn for planing; others were literary men. I recognised several brethren of the pen myself, sitting on the wrong side of window-sills, and "cutting out chips," not with the scissors, but the chisel. The entertainments that have since been given in their chambers have been of a much more luxurious character than before. Not a few Irish members of parliament took the opportunity of re-embracing the profession of their youth, and with a short dudheen in their mouth, tripped up their ladder to the second floors as though it were to Place and Pension. One or two honest Scotch members, too, deploring the universal extravagance, yet (it is said) managed to turn it into a deserving channel by getting their materials from home, by sea (hammers and nails being at a fabulous premium), and doing a fair day's work for a very fair day's wage. Certain young barristers of my acquaintance have become quite solvent since these royal festivities, having applied their really good natural abilities to gas-piping. They had never had any opportunity of illuminating the Courts [-197-] of Chancery, and they were panting to do it, but the Vice-chancellor said:
    "No; if a strong light was thrown there, the place would be ruined."
    But these are grave questions of supply and demand with which I have nothing to do. Let me make my way, slowly but surely, not by force, but with that winning manner, which is the characteristic of this Home Correspondent, into Charges Street and luncheon. It distressed me to observe that my practical friend Sergeant lived at the northern extremity of this fashionable spot, whence the view of the procession must necessarily be extremely limited; but he assured me that he had taken steps for our beholding it when the time arrived. In the meanwhile, each guest that joined us had something new to tell of the preparations or the multitude. One had come from the City, where he had seen a brass band saved from destruction by the chivalry of some ladies in a balcony, who had made a rope of their laced handkerchiefs, and drawn up bugle and trombone out [-198-] of the crush; he told of the anguish of the proprietor of the big drum (which the mob wanted to stand upon), and how the same saving hands had made a sort of fire-escape of shawls, and hauled up the monstrous thing amid the cheers of the fickle multitude; and how, after a little, mothers with infants began to importune these Sisters of Charity to take their babes into safe keeping, so that when he left, the house had already become an Emporium for all things perishable.
    The luncheon was excellent, and the pool not less profitable than usual to the Home Correspondent, but a sense of delay in the performance of his duties embittered even these delights. At last, at half-past three o'clock, when the party had dispersed to their clubs and their balconies in divers places, and I was left alone with my practical friend (who was calmly smoking a cigar, as though the Princess was not to pass till to-morrow), I could bear the inaction no longer.
    "Come, Sergeant," said I for the second time, "what steps are we going to take to see this Royal Procession?"
    [-199-] "We are going to take the steps by which our Mary reaches the chandelier," returned he; "they are eight feet high, and if they will only bear us, we shall see as well as the best of them." With these words he led the way to the pantry, where the article in question was reclining against an upper shelf. It was certainly tall-too tall for stability, I thought - and it had that peculiar weight which is called top-heaviness. But it was too late then to take any other steps. My practical friend seized hold. of the lighter end, and I of the heavier, and we sallied out into Charges street, like a couple of splendidly attired acrobats, about to give an open-air entertainment.
    "A penny more, and up goes the donkey," cried the crowd, as with one voice; but the impassive Sergeant (who is slightly bald, and solid as to frame and feature) never moved a muscle, either in acknowledgment or dissent, save just so much as was required to keep his glass in his eye.
    "A glorious sight!" observed he - as though quite unencumbered with any impediment, and at [-200-] liberty to enjoy the Beautiful, spelled with its biggest B - "what a sea of faces, what a mass of colour! How strange it seems, while flags are flying everywhere, even from the Victoria Tower, to see Buckingham Palace without its standard."
    "Now, then," remarked a policeman, walking up to us in that stealthy manner which always means mischief to the civilian; "you mustn't let out them steps."
    "Gracious Goodness !" cried the Home Correspondent, jealous for his social position, "we had not the remotest idea of doing such a thing, my good man."
    "I am sorry to say, gentlemen," replied the official in a gentler key, "that my orders is against having them even put up."
    "Very good," remarked Sergeant, laying them down in the gutter; "we were only coming out with them to clean some windows in Piccadilly. If you can get these people away, we'll set about the job at once; if not, we may stop where we are, I suppose."
    [-201-] The crowd applauded, the policeman smiled, and we were left for a time the masters of the situation. A perambulator, with two juvenile insides, who had been brought by their considerate nurse to see the procession (to which she had turned their backs, however, while she carried on a whispered conversation with a footman in canary), was the only other obstacle beside our steps which was permitted in the street, within fifty yards of the line of route. We were congratulating ourselves on this monopoly, when down came the policeman again, like a Yankee frigate, who, having once overhauled a little Britisher, and examined her papers, still hankers after an informality, and bids her bring-to again.
    "Look here, gents; you mustn't stay here with them 'ere steps; you mustn't indeed. There's a lady here, at the corner-house, who says you must move on. I've just put her carriage back half a mile, according to orders, as a hobstruction, and what she says is this, says she: 'I pays rent and taxes, and yet my coachman mayn't sit at my [-202-] door; then why is that there perambulator and them steps allowed? Move 'em away, policeman; take 'em to the Green Yard' -which is very ridicklus of her, of course; but what am I to do?"
    "Take the perambulator to the Green Yard," said Sergeant, "and then come back for the steps."
    The policeman was a well-meaning man enough, and understood his duty. Instead, therefore, of prolonging the discussion, he darted after a ragged man with a bench, who was intruding himself into our neighbourhood, with the sordid intention of making a little money. Almost at the same moment a general irruption of persons in a similar profession took place; they sprang up without warning from the earth, as it seemed, armed with the implements of their dreadful trade. Their leader and fore-runner was sacrificed to justice, and his bench confiscated and shattered, but the arm of the Law was powerless with his legion of followers. In half a minute, their rickety forms and tables were covered with spectators at 2s. a head, whose [-203-] vested interests were not to be disturbed with impunity. One energetic lady, a little disguised in liquor, set down a rush-bottomed chair immediately beside us, and disposed of the loan of it to two stout gentlemen at half-a-crown a piece. Both springing up at once to enjoy this post of vantage, their combined weight and momentum proved too much for the material that should have sustained them, and through the rushes they both broke, and stuck in the framework. If it had not been for the look of the thing, they might now just as well have been standing on their own feet for they were no higher; while their involuntary confinement gave opportunity for an exaction to the proprietress of the misused furniture, who assessed the damages (and got them) at five shillings. These chairs and tables had doubtless done duty at the mouth of many another street that day, and the appearance of their owners proved, as now, the sure precursor of the Procession. But a few minutes more, and the cuirasses of the Life Guards were flashing by us, and then "the hushed [-204-] amaze of hand and eye" was succeeded by one long rapturous cheer. It never sank, it never failed while that fair young face could be seen, so eager to please, so anxious, as it seemed, to let every heart be aware that she was conscious of its loyal homage.
    May I add, that for one fleeting instant - but which will endure in my glad memory for ever - that right royal glance lit, wonder-struck, upon Sergeant and myself on our strange eminence. She smiled - ah! let me think it was for me alone - as only she can smile, upon this home Correspondent and his enthusiasm; she approved - I am confident that sweet Princess approved - of us, and of the Steps we took to see her pageant pass.