Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Pt.II -  Chapter 2 - The London Feast of Lanterns

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CHAPTER II.

THE LONDON FEAST OF LANTERNS.

DEATH, who has hitherto enjoyed the doubtful reputation of being the Greatest Leveller of social ranks, has succumbed since the night of March 10th, and surrendered that distinction to another. A Royal Marriage, with Illuminations to follow, is now allowed to be even a greater democrat than he. For after even death, a lady of position does not ride in a van; she is not set up on the knife-board of a penny bus, and borne through the metropolis at a foot's pace, as for public exhibition, gorgeously lit up by gas stars. Gentlemen of fashion, when deceased, are not compelled to sup in the open air, in front of what were once their Clubs, and in the company of costermongers; and [-206-] when they employ a hearse, they ride inside, and not upon the roof-top, clinging to the plumes. Yet these indignities, and worse, were endured on the night in question, by a class of society which could afford to pay ten guineas for the temporary use of each of the vehicles in question. Nor was the thing to be done cheaper. Your Home Correspondent looked at it every way, my public, from a commendable wish to spare his employers, but it could not be done.
    I do not agree with that medical gentleman, who in the Times newspaper proclaimed his conviction that all the poor sufferers in that Mansion House mle had "a predisposition" for being suffocated in crowds; but I do think, that when a gentleman under five feet eight undertakes to make his way from the Marble Arch to London Bridge and back, through more than a million of taller people than himself, he essays a perilous thing. Of course there was some danger to be incurred even upon wheels, but the word Fear is unknown to this Home Correspondent when Duty beckons him on.  [-207-] When I visited Mr. Axle's yard, and beheld there sixty Busses engaged for that evening at ten pounds apiece, as 1 never had so strong a desire to be an omnibus Proprietor, so I never entertained so small an inclination to be a Driver thereof. I left Mr. Axle's saying, "I would think about it," but in reality debating in my mind the propriety of catching a sore throat, and deputing my task of chronicler to somebody else. Upon my return to my own house, however, I found no less than three invitations awaiting me, two of which were so characteristic that I transcribe them.

"MY DEAR EDWARD,
    "Your grandpapa and myself have determined to witness the rejoicings to-night in honour of your future King and Queen - for they are not likely to be ours, I hope, considering the time of life we have come to. We shall take care to be in good time, so as to be home early, and therefore mean to start punctually at half-past five from Old World Square. We have asked John [-208-] and his wife (but he goes on the box) and their two boys; and Kitty Carraway, who never sees anything, poor little thing, is also coming; but she does not wear crinoline, you know, good, sensible creature that she is, and there will be ample room for you in the carriage.
        "Your affectionate grandmother,
                "MARGARET MAITLAND."

If "steadiness" could have insured safety on such an occasion, I would have intrusted myself to old James, my grandmother's coachman, rather than to any Jehu in London; but I was not going to make a seventh in a barouche, nor to start dinnerless in the middle of the day to see unlit fireworks, and I therefore declined the kind invitation of my aged relative, with respectful expressions of regret. The second letter was of a rather different class.

    "DEAR NED,
            "After the success of the 'steps' on Satur-[-209-]day, we must have no bathos for Tuesday night. Walking will be disagreeable, except on stilts, and driving in any ordinary vehicle is out of the question-it will be merely standing still on wheels. But I have hit on a capital plan: I have engaged a fire-engine, and firemen's costume for eight. Everybody will make way for us, if we do but hollo 'Fire! fire!' and point up in the sky. The hose will be filled with bitter beer. Just write a line to say done.' We shall start from Charges Street at ten precisely.
        "Yours ever,
                "DICK SERGEANT.
"P.S.- I have got a helmet that will fit you to a T, and will, I hope, be becoming; as for myself, they say I look in mine like an ancient Roman."

    It is almost needless to say that the Home Correspondent not only rejected this discreditable proposal, but also composed a suitable admonition to Mr. Richard Sergeant, under two heads, the one relating to the general impropriety of the sug-[-210-]gestion in question, the other to the great mistake Mr. R. S. had committed with respect to the character of the person to whom he had ventured to make such a proposition.
    The third invitation was enclosed in a pink envelope, which bore the Pim-, I mean the Belgravian post-mark. This Home Correspondent is fully aware of the duty he owes to the public, but the contents of that letter must he withheld from its anxious Eye. Suffice it to say, that the correspondent was a certain matron, much beloved by the H. C., and that she had written to say that she had secured an omnidus on the 10th for her family, and if I liked to accompany the same to view the Illuminations, I should be welcome.
    This offer was embraced with rapture. I could not, however, accept the invitation to dine which accompanied it (for the lady in question was not one of those scourges of society who ask one "to come in the evening"), but occupied instead the hours from six till half-past eight P.M. in exploring the wet and shining metropolis.
    [-211-] District W did not much patronise Mr. Defries, but was gorgeous in cheap transparencies. The Prince and Princess smiled from the first floors of half Paddington, and I regret to add that in more than one case they squinted. Business and loyalty were combined as much as was consistent with the principles of high art, and even more so. Here the royal pair were seen over a baker's shop in the enjoyment of a French roll, with the legend: 'Long may they live, and they can't live without it,' encircling the festal scene; and here they were represented at a pastry-cook's, in ecstasies over a most unwholesome looking patty, with 'May they be happy afterwards' inscribed above them - a touching instance of loyal and loving Faith, contending with the greatest improbability. In one instance, an excited crowd demanded that their Princess should not be represented (larger than life) upon her knees in the act of cleaning a grate; and the proprietor of the transparency in question had to explain that the picture did not represent the Princess at all, but was always there, as an [-212-] advertisement of his patent grate-powder, and that he had only lit it up in honour of the occasion. On the other hand, a magnificent Queen of Hearts was loudly cheered, although no particular loyal compliment had been intended by the card-maker over whose establishment it stood. A very ordinary gentleman in a "corazza shirt" and "Sydenhams" was also hailed with enthusiasm, as the counterfeit presentment of the Prince of Wales donning his wedding-garments.
    The mystic art of spelling seemed to have been temporarily lost in the universal ebullition of loyalty; and in those ambitious instances where the ancient classical languages were employed, the mistakes looked awful in their pyrotechnic prominence. The gentlemen of university education, with characteristic apathy, had evidently omitted to take advantage of one of the few opportunities which has ever been afforded them of turning their training to account. As for the modern continental tongues, they were rendered differently in different parts of the town, although I was quite [-213-] unable to detect the law of their variation. What was Wilkommen in Piccadilly was Vilkommen in Oxford and Cambridge Terrace, and in Chapel Street was even Bilkommen. The Edgeware Road wisely contented itself with the vernacular, and only exclaimed, like a stage uncle: "God bless you both."
    After many perils and much compression, I managed to reach the Albert Gate, between which and my destination was only a narrow space indeed, but occupied by a sluggish stream of vehicles four deep. To cross this at right angles was impossible, for its course was never arrested by the hand of Authority for one signal instant; but selecting the quietest-looking horse, I ran under him, and established myself on the step of a vehicle in the second row; repeating this operation, I reached the third and fourth with equal success, and in about half an hour I found myself on the right side of the road. But conceive the picture which London must have afforded, on that occasion, to any gentleman of observation stationed in [-214-] a balloon above it, and furnished with a good night-glass! That Knightsbridge Road was only one example of what was taking place in all roads leading to the principal thoroughfares.
    My dear grandmother, as I have since learned, was at that time - viz., 8 P.M. - in Wych Street, Strand, from which respectable neighbourhood her barouche and six (insides) did not emerge till daylight. They had started in time, with a vengeance, arriving in Trafalgar Square at 6 o'clock; the illuminations were not alight at that hour, but the police compelled my relatives to "move on," as though they had been gratified by the choicest possible displays. They had "moved on" until they came to Temple Bar, which steady James had pronounced impassable; whereupon they had turned into Wych Street, and there stuck. They supped at 10, and breakfasted at 4 A.M, still in that barouche, for which, I am told, the whole family now entertain so great an aversion that my grandfather is thinking of selling it. I know of another family who, wishing to reach London [-215-] Bridge from Kilburn, by way of the Edgeware Road, never even attained the Marble Arch.
    The omnibus was at the door of the dwelling to which I was bound by the time I reached it, and very incongruous with that fashionable neighbourhood did the vehicle appear. It was of the yellow class, the highest ordinary rate of charge of which is, I believe, twopence per passenger. It might have looked less dirty if the night had not been dedicated to illuminations; but, as it was, we saw a good deal of that omnibus which we had no desire to see; and we had a very lengthened opportunity for observation. When the charming young ladies of fashion, who had never experienced even the inside of such a vehicle before, mounted on the box-seat thereof, they did so, gaily, under the impression that they were to enjoy an hour or two of the splendours of the town, and return home about eleven. Some elaborate orders were even given respecting the preparation of tea for that hour precisely. A hamper of refreshments, however, of a more solid character was fortunately [-216-] carried with us, to which circumstance I, for one, feel that I owe my preservation.
    At nine P.M. we joined that sluggish Knightsbridge stream, and in three-quarters of an hour we had advanced the distance between two lampposts. The rate of travelling after this, however, decreased in a ratio only to be computed by skilled mathematicians. We remained opposite one particular second-floor apartment, in which sat an elderly lady brushing what was left of her back hair, for more than an hour. She was unaware that we could see her, although she now and then approached the window, and flattened her aquiline nose against the panes, to watch the throng of vehicles, and I was under the greatest apprehensions as to what she might proceed to do next. She was evidently retiring to rest, although, most fortunately, in a very leisurely manner. An immense gas star opposite her residence displayed her every movement with painful distinctness. I was fascinated, not by her beauty, but by the frightful idea that we should presently see her take her [-217-] teeth out, and put them on the mantel-piece, where she had already deposited her hair-pins and other personal property. Another carriageful of people immediately behind us were doubtless witnesses of this promised incident; but I so passionately besought our driver to move on, "anywhere, anywhere," out of this field of vision, that he broke the line in a heroic manner, and pushed into a southern by-street, with the intention of reaching Whitehall by Bird Cage Walk.
    We passed through a region not indeed brilliantly illuminated, but one in which it was possible to proceed at more than a foot's pace-for a little time. Then we found that the sagacious idea of Bird Cage Walk had occurred to some thousands of other people in a similar plight. That cheerful thoroughfare was blockaded by vehicles - not only four deep, but all inextricably involved in one another. Everybody wanted to get on, and accused his immediate neighbour of obstructing his passage. What with the fiery sky that surrounded us on all sides, and the frantic haste with which [-218-] each driver seized on every available inch to give his wheels a hundredth part of a turn, the scene reminded me of the retreat of the French wagons from Moscow. We were in a dead-lock, and there was no "key to the position." Unless for the distant fires, which lit St. James's Park up with a lurid glare, making our situation visible in all its ghastliness, there was no Illumination to be seen, save a very feeble one, which emanated from a tallow-candle, stuck in a basket of oranges. This served, however, to remind us that there was comfort yet in that hamper which lay inside. We had it up, and issued rations to the crew on deck; and I exhorted them not to give way altogether to despair, just as I often read is done by judicious captains when their vessel is becalmed upon a tropic sea. And the young ladies of fashion took to the sherry and sandwiches not unkindly, and listened to my words, and expressed their opinion that the expedition was by no means so bad a one after all.
    It was certainly not so bad a one then as it be-[-219-]came afterwards, when the midnight air grew cold, and the men quarrelled with one another for the few railway-wrappers which the ladies could afford to dispense with; when the cigar-cases began to be empty, and the sherry to dwindle in the bottles, and the sandwiches to crumble in the papers, and some of us to take snatches of sleep, in which we dreamed that we were driving at full gallop over boundless plains, and woke with a shiver in Bird Cage Walk, with the same vehicles on every side of us, and none of them moving. These involuntary neighbours of ours offended us greatly. There was a spectral cab, which haunted our scarce-revolving wheels all night, and greatly added to our depression. It had nobody in it; it looked like one of those cabs, so justly objected to, which devotes itself to the philanthropic task of taking fever-patients to the hospitals: there was a black sack stuck behind it, filled with, I know not what, but something that had a dim resemblance to a human form. There was a mourning-coach, filled outside and in with a party [-220-] obstreperously merry up to about midnight, when they all "fell out, and one fell down from the roof in a state of intoxication. There was also a pestilent costermonger's cart occupied by a party of young gentlemen of that profession, singing epithalamia in chorus. Next to these disagreeables, I count the satire of the passing crowd - the pedestrians who could pass. The Home Correspondent is not generally backward in repartee, but the company in which he had the honour to sit forbade, of course, his breaking a lance with the scoffers of the pavement. They wished to know what relative was dead, whom we were thus following to his last home at so appropriate and respectful a pace. They offered, with officious zeal, to go home and fetch our night-gear for us. They threatened to have our coachman pulled up for Furious Driving!
    We had fancied that Bird Cage Walk was preposterously crowded, but the traffic there was unimpeded when compared with the state of things in Whitehall. Ten lines of vehicles filled [-221-] up that mighty thoroughfare, save one small space left open for anything going towards Westminster. On both sides had been a perfect coruscation of light for four consecutive hours, but just as we reach the favoured spot, the Treasury "failed," without any assets, and that Palace of Tom Tiddler's Ground was transformed in an instant into a big blank wall. The poor old Admiralty would have gone out also, but that some men, upon ladders, would not let it, but kept it alive with sticks tipped with flaming tow. "Why, it's like givin' an old ooman drink to make her dance, observed a gentleman in a donkey-cart, within my hearing; and so it really was. This pitiful exhibition did more to prostrate us than the fatigue and cold, and thankful indeed did we feel when we were at last suffered to join that single line into which the whole ten had to be narrowed off, in order to enter Trafalgar Square. The huge transparency in front of the National Gallery was flickering and waning; the illuminations of Pall Mall were out; and only the skeletons of [-222-] Stars and Wreaths were anywhere to be seen as we drove down Piccadilly, and met the same fourfold line of which we had formed a unit about seven hours before, still pressing up from Knightsbridge.
    No vehicle moved out of a foot's pace that night, save one, for which room was made, as if by magic, in Whitehall, as it dashed by at full gallop. To common eyes, including those of the mounted police, it was a fire-engine, for the brass helmets of its occupants flashed back reflected flame from each device, as it flew by; but if I ev~ saw my friend Sergeant in a costume similar to that of Julius Cinsar, with an eyeglass added, and shouting: "Fire! fire!" at the top of his manly voice, it was on March 10, 1863, on the night of the London Feast of Lanterns.