Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Pt.II -  Chapter 5 - The British Carnival

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LIKE most other national festivals, the British Carnival has some connection, although not a very direct one, with matters ecclesiastical. It takes place on the Wednesday that immediately follows Trinity Sunday, and is therefore dependent upon that mysterious numeral, the Golden Number — a very "dark horse," indeed, to the devotees of the carnival, the majority of whom, it is likely, never even heard of it. Because they are ignorant, however, they are by no means less zealous. No shrine in Christendom, at the most superstitious period, ever obtained per annum the number of pilgrims that repair within twenty-four hours to Epsom Downs. The British Carnival [-281-] does but last a day; but while it does last, what devotion is exhibited! what abnegation of all other pursuits! what harping upon a single string — the Derby "string of horses — from dusty morn to even dustier eve!
    All the English world, and his wife and family, arise early on that sacred morning, either to pay their vows in person, or to see others set forth to pay them. For seventeen miles, all roads from the metropolis of the Universe to a certain insignificant village in Surrey are choked by outgoers from eight o'clock to two; there is an interval of one hour or so, during which the ceremony is actually solemnised, and then, until the heavens are set with stars, the roads are choked again.
    If any philosophic foreigner, cast by the waves of revolution upon some peaceful Surrey hillside, should, ignorant of St. Derby's Day, adventure to drive to London before three o'clock on that afternoon, he would conceive himself to be the object of hatred to the entire nation. He would imagine that they had come out to meet him with  [-282-] their chariots, their horsemen, their footmen, and even their maid-servants, in order to bar his way. That misguided alien could no more accomplish his futile design of reaching London, than could a salmon leap up Niagara. No human eye ever yet saw a vehicle "going the other way" upon a Derby Day. Practically, indeed, there is no "other way." Nay, more; police — not rural police, but men who will stop the leaders of a four-in-hand, and cry "Stand!" to a peer's landau with the same coolness with which they would "back" a costermonger's donkey — line all the roads, and marshal the mighty throng; here, permitting the feeders to join the main stream, which, but for them, the main stream would never do; there, forcing the triple line to become but two, and when the way grows narrow, even one, and, generally, educing Order out of Chaos — and chayhorses.
    To him who stands upon "the hill" at Epsom on that wonderful forenoon, there is presented a literally "endless chain" of carriages, debouching  [-283-] from all sides upon the heath, but of necessity proceeding almost always at the pace of a funeral procession. There is by no means the sound of lamentation, but, otherwise, at that distance, the spectacle might well be taken for "the mourning of a mighty nation" coming to bury their greatest hero on Epsom Downs; and the similarity is increased by the fact, that every man who does not wish to become a mere animated dust-bin, wears, twined around his hat, a veil, like a funeral- scarf, only of livelier colours. Sahara, compared to the Surrey roads upon that day, is a convenient highway pleasantly irrigated by water-carts.
    In the early morning of the carnival, the streets of London present a spectacle deeply interesting to the antiquary — we had almost said the geologist — in the resuscitation of an extinct race called "Boys " — old wrinkled creatures, bowed down by years and with the weight of saddle and harness, which they are bearing to the various livery-stables. What trades they ordinarily follow we cannot tell, but for this one day they are postilions — post-[-284-]boys. Their appearance reminds one of the return to the world of Rip Van Winkle. Who are these so withered and so wild in their attire, that look not like the inhabitants of the earth, and yet are on't? They are men who, centuries ago, filled the king's highway with the crack of whips, but who are now no more, except that on this one day they are again permitted to revisit the scenes of dust and turmoil to which they were once accustomed, and to rise up and down in a saddle like human pistons, warranted never to wear away. Sneer not, reader, at you aged form — though his tight breeches are patched in such a peculiar manner behind — for he has seen suns that never shone upon your comparatively youthful head, and was, perhaps, the very postilion that conveyed your grandfather and your grandmother to Gretna Green.
    The omnibuses to the city upon the Derby morning are very few, for they are most of them chartered to go to the great festival, and those that are left are filled with but women and children. [-285-] Lives there a man with soul so dead, who, being a Briton, can yet "transact business" upon a day like this? Look closely to such a one, if there be. Weigh well his wares; hold up his banknotes to the sun, that you may make sure of the water-line: and ring with carefulness his proffered sovereigns.
    You may go to the Derby anyhow, for the saint is far from being particular. You may go with four horses and a private drag, or upon a skeleton frame, with a barrel of small-beer upon it, to sell by retail on the course, and drawn by a skeleton donkey. Or you may go in a furniture-van, if the "Glass with care," which is so prominently painted upon it, affords you greater assurance of safety. Or you may go in an advertisement-van, of which there are hundreds, whose inmates perhaps carry the combination of business and pleasure to the highest attainable degree. Or you may go in a pleasure-van, pure and simple, with evergreens and babies, and a brass-band. Or you may go in a Hansom cab, bearing your luncheon-hamper on [-286-] the top of it as a maiden bears her pitcher, with the less desirable liquor in it, from the well. Nay, you may even go in a life-boat, for we saw one wending its inland way upon wheels to the saint's abode, as though it had been the shrine of Neptune; nor were the nautical inmates so much out of their element as might have been expected, for we noticed that most of them were already half- seas-over. For what we know to the contrary, a good many people may go in balloons — but we set down here nothing but things certain, and which have occurred under our own eye.
    About a quarter of a million of the more zealous devotees, who do not mind the risk of being squeezed to death, and the certainty of having their pockets picked, patronise the Rail; but we confine ourselves to describing the Road-which, after all, is the Derby. If, as in the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, folks could be taken to Epsom on enchanted carpets, and set down there in a twinkling, not the best and brightest piece of Brussels that was ever made should transport me  [-287-] thither. The race itself only lasts two minutes and a half, and is but as the flash of a rainbow. To go and return is what, I know, most makes men happy, and most keeps them so; and I think I may say the same of the women and children. At every wayside dwelling, whether consequential villa, "standing in its own grounds," and looking quite aware of the fact; or farmhouse, whose pastoral air increases by contrast the Pandemoniacal character of the passing scene, there are mothers at the windows holding up their babes, girls with their younger sisters, and beautiful servant-maidens demonstratively happy in the attics. The luckier portion of the fair sex, who actually form part of the procession, are also in the highest spirits, but it must be confessed that the majority of them are not young. What is the correct explanation of this misfortune, we do not know; but the popular belief, as expressed without hesitation or reserve, is that these are the ladies who will not let their husbands stir anywhere without them. " Couldn't she trust you, old gentleman?" was an  [-288-] interrogation put to more than one respectable Paterfamilias in our hearing, whose voluminous better-half had banished him to the edge of the driving-seat of his pony carriage; and those cruel satirists, and the occasional grazing of the wheel, no doubt did somewhat dull the glories of the day for him. The lady, on the other hand, always seemed to take the remark in excellent part, as a pleasing tribute to her matrimonial supremacy; and, at all events, it never spoiled her appetite. The extent to which these middle-aged females ate and drank was the subject of our incessant wonder and apprehension. After consuming the rations they had brought with them in their vehicles, it was they, who, under pretence of "giving the horse something," retarded the mighty pilgrimage at every place of refreshment, and divided the delay with the accidents. Dotted alongside the route at frequent intervals, there lay dismounted Omnibuses, shaftless Hansoms, and Flies — too venturous flies, which had endeavoured to struggle across the carriage cobweb — torn almost limb from  [-289-] limb. Like the fainting stragglers of the Grand Army in the retreat from Moscow, or the dying camels in the Caravans of the Desert, they lay, hopeless, helpless, never to rise again-at least in time for the Derby. These unhappy persons glared upon us as we swept by, with pea-shooter and trumpet, with banner and with branch-for it was "Oakapple-day," and we were like Birnum Wood in the matter of foliage. We had a great stock of almost everything except pity. "Broke a trace, sir? Sorry for that! Sorry I left my needle and thread at home. Join 'em together, and spit upon 'em. Bless me, what delicate tracery!" This was the sort of comfort which was dispensed to these unhappy persons. Never a word they spoke, but sat on their shattered vehicles eating the luncheons which they had intended to have devoured on the Downs.
     And what a sight they missed through not arriving there! Looking from "the hill," the dense multitude seemed to cover the heath as ants an ant-hill. One broad green sweep alone was visi- [-290-]ble when the coarse was cleared. Directly you descended from your post of vantage, you were engulphed, and became a mere unit among half a million. The real sublimity of the spectacle was lost, and the sad consideration was forced upon you that nine out of ten of all your fellow-creatures are unmitigated, irreclaimable scoundrels. So many bad faces are never anywhere collected as upon Epsom Downs. But then they come by train. Our friends remain, for the most part, in their drags, their barouches, their omnibuses, their vans, their market-carts, their skeleton frames, with the barrel of small beer, which is being disposed of at a penny per glass. Small-beer is, at all events, refreshing; but why offer Tortoises for sale upon Epsom Downs? "Buy a tortoise, buy a live tortoise !" is the cry, and certainly the man has half-a-dozen of them covered with dust, and looking inexpressibly mournful. "Strawberries and cherries, flowers and heath, ladies and gentlemen !" Good! We can understand that such things find customers, but why expose for sale the  [-291-] model of an ecclesiastical edifice, which would require a van to itself if you carried it home? Is the enthusiastic vendor a missionary of the Church Extension Society, or a lunatic architect, or a man who has undertaken this strange transaction for a bet? And again, why dolls for sale? Every other man has a newly-purchased doll in his hat, and every third man has a doll to sell, stuck round about his hat, like patron saints round the cap of Louis XJ.  —  dolls, too, which have very little to enhance their charms in the way of dress. "Aunt Sally" is of course on every hand, surrounded by her admiring relatives; but why goldfish in a glass jar?
    Pondering much upon these things, we are suddenly made conscious of an awful pause and silence. The mighty pulse of all this throbbing life has stopped its beating. Every voice is hushed. The change from deafening clamour to perfect stillness has something terrible in it. It is as though a nation of men had come together to hear some one word spoken to them, and that the moment of [-292-] speech had arrived. If the glass-bowl yonder, with the goldfish in it, was to be broken now, you would hear the crash from one end of the heath to the other. It is no wonder that some are hushed, for in two minutes more some thousands will be made rich men (for a little), or will be irretrievably ruined; but not only these, but all are silent. The peer in the stand is breathless as he clutches his race-glass with a shaking hand; the thief under your carriage is quiet as death, as he draws down your railway rug from the seat behind you. They are starting the horses for the Derby. Those beautiful creatures that we have just seen cantering up the course are now about to engage in the most tremendous struggle that horses know. Yonder they are, a gleam of scarlet, and white, and yellow, under the hill. Then a mighty shout breaks forth: "They are off, they are off !" and all the race-stands change from dark to light in a second like some mighty Venetian blind, as the great area of faces upon them turns with a flash towards Tattenham Corner. Look well at that [-293-]  brilliant horse-meteor for the moment that you are permitted to do so, and at the vast dark mass of men that closes in behind, exactly as water behind the hand, the instant it has flown by; and listen to that roar of hoofs as the race sweeps by-for it is a sight and a sound that are to be met with nowhere else. The Derby is won, with its 6500 worth of mere stake. And the man is not to he envied, if such exists, who can see it run without his heart throbbing the faster.
    The great event concluded, the pigeons, which, notwithstanding the establishment of the telegraph to town, are still much used as messengers, begin to circle overhead; the universal clamour breaks forth with redoubled vigour; and above all cries is the cry for lunch. Then the fusilade of champagne corks and the clash of steel continues uninterruptedly for a couple of hours, during which races are run with nobody to look at them; but all the tortoises are bought up, and even the impracticable Church falls to the lot of an enthusiastic and grateful green-grocer, who has taken [-294-] twelve to one in "ponies" against the winner. As for ourselves, we buy twelve dolls for sixpence, and give them away to importunate beggars, to whom dolls have apparently become articles of necessity. We are convinced that in so doing we have been performing acts of charity, and feel a greater benevolence towards the whole human family than ever. Or, for what other reason can it be that we take glasses of Moselle with everybody within nodding distance? O beneficent influences of St. Derby and his time-honoured race!
    But now it is high time that our horses should be "put to" again, an operation which is by no means to be accomplished by talking about it. The inmates of some forty thousand vehicles also "within the ropes"  — for which privilege they pay two guineas a-piece  — are quite as anxious to get away as we are. Our postilions, however  — and observe the modesty with which we insinuate the fact that we had four horses  — perform prodigies of valour, and we at length escape from the vortex of  [-295-] wheel and pole, with a broken panel indeed, but with whole bones. Then begin again the glories of the Road, and this time with a redoubled splendour, for the world on wheels is now four times as numerous (since it all starts at about the same hour from the course); and those who are not elevated by success have accomplished that object by means of spirituous liquors. Still, there is no absolute drunkenness, and there prevails a universal good-humour.
    Once only, a party of moody aristocrats — a class which the wars and volunteering have happily rendered almost extinct — heavily moustached, grimly staring, imperturbable, proud, fall foul of an independent young costermonger. Their charioteer takes the corner off the course a little too narrowly, and catching up one of the skeleton frames aforesaid, shatters it to fragments. His noble lordship would fain drive on, as though nothing particular had happened, but the disthroned costermonger seizes the heads of his leaders, and turns them into a ditch. A joyful movement to-[-296-]wards the scene of action is at once perceptible upon all sides, and the inmates of carts stand by their order, and the inmates of carriages by theirs. An elegant brougham, with two elegant young gentlemen inside it, drives rapidly up. These sons of Fashion would be fit models for a pre-Raphaelite painter, or objects to be placed under the microscope. Their attire is perfectly spotless; they have lemon-coloured kid gloves, and a lily of the valley at their button-holes. They,are even more fashionable than the fashionables upon the drag; but they are also niore enthusiastic. His noble lordship and his friends content themselves with casting what missiles lie ready to their hands — such as dolls and oranges — and with besprinkling the surging cloud with flowers of rhetoric; but the new arrivals leap out from their chariot, turn back their coat-cuffs, so that the snowy linen coupled with golden studs is made conspicuous, and cast themselves into the tumult. The affair becomes truly Homeric, and not likely to be concluded without the intervention of the gods — the [-297-] Police. But his noble Lordship is wiser than his personal appearance would lead you to imagine. Taking advantage of the charge of his chivalrous allies, he rushes his four horses at the crowd, which parts to right and left, and the vast machine sweeps by at the full gallop, swaying, indeed, in a most ship-like manner, but still with its right side uppermost.
    Never was more base and unknightly deed performed since the days when women and children were placed in the front of an enemy's battle. Oh shame upon that dozen of morose and moody men to thus desert their two defenders! These will surely now fall victims to the democratic ardour, and their dripping heads be suspended in front of a pleasure van. Not so. A cheer breaks forth for the two plucky "swells." They are delivered as if by magic, out of the turmoil. They are put back into their highly polished vehicle with something approaching to reverence, albeit their eyes are darkened, and their noses bleeding, and the lemon-coloured gloves are soiled, and the lilies are broken [-298-] at their button-holes. Nor are they on their part insensible of the universal sympathy. They beckon the disconsolate costermonger-the involuntary Helen of the war  — and enter into conversation with him. It is his own still gory hand which has done that violence to at least one of their noses, but all is now forgotten and forgiven.
        "Will he get inside with them, since his own vehicle has met with so untoward an accident ?"
    "He would travel outside," returns he, "and thank their honours, but then, he adds pathetically, "there is the moke"  — by which he means his donkey, which is rolling in the dust by the wayside, delighted to have got rid of his burden by any means. They will be delighted, they reply, to take "the moke " up also, if that can be effected. The costermonger gives a rapid comparative glance at the dimensions of the animal, and of the front seat, and shakes his head. That will not do, he fears; but "would their honours take the beer-barrel, and send it on to Whitechapel in the course of the next day? He must have it again [-299-] for retail business for the Oaks on Friday."
     Their honours accede with pleasure to this proposal. The beer-barrel is hoisted on to the roof amid vivats, and the half mile of carriages behind, which has hitherto been at a stand-still in consequence of this little episode, is permitted to move on.
    We have observed that the procession to the Derby is, in respect to pace and hatbands, not unlike a funeral; the resemblance, as we come back again, is still stronger  — that is to a return funeral, when everything unpleasant has been got rid of, and the mock mourners and hired mutes have resumed their habitual jollity, and are singing choruses among the plumes.
    As we approach the suburbs of the metropolis we scarcely advance at all. We should have thought that everybody in town had possessed a vehicle, and gone to the Derby in it, but we now perceive that some people have still been left in London. The streets are lined by thousands who have been unable to attend the shrine in person, [-300-] and who seek to catch a reflected sanctity from the devotees who have.
    Not until almost midnight does the last of that great procession roll into London, nor, we fear, until a very much later hour does the British Carnival conclude.