Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 11 - Boxing-Night

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CHAPTER XI

BOXING-NIGHT.

THERE is a day in December upon which, although it takes place during Christmas-time, class is set against class more than on any other day in the year. The poor rejoice in it, but the rich grumble exceedingly; the kitchen is uproarious with merriment, but the drawing-room floor, and especially "the study, where Paterfamilias sits, are shrouded in gloom.
    "Please, sir, the postman," exclaims our parlour-maid, in cherry-coloured ribbons, and with cherry cheeks, for the postman has probably kissed her; "and please, sir, the dustman" (who, let us hope, has not ventured upon such a liberty); "and please, sir, the grocer's young man has called for himself and his pardner."
    [-78-] "Then I am not his pardoner," returns Paterfamilias, stung into repartee.- "And where is the money to come from, my dear,* [* The expression "My dear" is, of course, addressed not to the parlour-maid, but to Materfamilias, who has looked in to see how "papa" takes it.] I should like to know, for all these Christmas boxes? I wish there was no such thing as Boxing-day in the calendar."
    He might just as well wish that there was no such periodical as Lady-day. It is the great red- letter day of the year to all the lower classes of London, from linen-drapers' assistants down to costermongers, and is becoming, so to speak, redder annually. It is made more of a festival, "allowed" by the great employers of London labour more and more, and may fairly be considered the great metropolitan holiday. Christmas-day, which would otherwise enjoy that pre-eminence, has a smack of Sunday about it; and the Derby-day is only a holiday under the rose. Under these circumstances, it has become absolutely necessary that Boxing-[-79-]day should be fitly chronicled; and when we say "fitly," it will be understood that we mean chronicled by our Home Correspondent. The only obstacle to this arrangement was, that since the feast in question is chiefly remarkable for its evening amusements, our H. C. had to break through his well-known domestic habits, and go out at night. However, the nature of the enterprise being explained to him, he undertook it at once, and cheerfully; and, indeed, it is our opinion, that his noble nature is so constituted that he would tread the Path of Duty, even though it led through a Garrotte-walk. Here follows the result of his experience:
    If you would see Boxing-night in its true colours - which are bright even to gaudiness - you must patronise a transpontine pantomime, and not the Halls of Dazzling Delight at "the Lane" or "the Garden." "The gallery" at the two great national theatres is composed of materials too aristocratic for our purpose; the tariff of admission thereto being prohibitive even to exclusion. Such persons [-80-] would occupy the stalls in the places of amusement of "the people," and in full evening costume; or, in other words, they would keep their coats on. As soon, therefore, as the H. C. had received his instructions, he took a Hansom from his Belgravian residence to the Theatre-royal, Putt Street, and bespoke the stage-box for the 26th of December. Not, be it understood, from any feeling of pride; but firstly, because he suspected (very justly, as it turned out) that he would be a little too crowded elsewhere to make his philosophic observations; and secondly, because his expenses are defrayed by his proprietors. The price of the privilege thus demanded was 10s. 6d.; and the H. C. tendered a five-pound note in payment thereof. Now, the man inside the little light-house with the pigeon-hole (through which to receive the prices of admission), had been a good deal staggered by my wanting the stage-box at all; and when he beheld the note, I saw the idea strike him like lightning, that the whole proceeding was an ingenious swindle, and an attempt to pass "flash" paper.
    [-81-] "It won't do, my friend," said he, with a grim smile; and then, perceiving my look of virtuous indignation, he added dryly: "We haven't got so much money in the treasury."
    "Here is five shillings," observed I, calmly, "which you may retain by way of deposit; only be sure that the box is kept for me."
    At the word "deposit," the man's countenance changed from suspicion to benignity. He explained, with great civility, that he was not himself empowered to receive so vast a sum, but that there was an individual within who would take it upon his own responsibility, and give me a written acknowledgement. This document, which cost me a shilling to the man who wrote it, cost me another to the cabman, on account of the period consumed in its due and proper execution; and my belief is, that the person of responsibility could not write his name, and that the manager had to be sent for from some suburban residence for that purpose. The pantomime in Putt Street, instead of being the last piece to be represented, as is usual, pre-[-82-]ceded the rest of the performances; for a Boxing-night audience in that locality is not remarkable for patience, but must behold their favourite spectacle at once. The hour of commencement being seven, this Home Correspondent (whose sense of duty is equal to that of the conscientious actor who, in order to perform Othello, blacked himself all over) arrived in the neighbourhood a little after six; and I write "in the neighbourhood" by design, since Putt Street was by that time quite blocked up by a fanatical public, who had been already assured three times that the Theatre-Royal was full to suffocation. To a person of my delicate frame and spiritual organisation, any attempt to force a passage would have been futile; nor is it probable that my powers of persuasion, however fascinating, would have induced the multitude to make way for me; I might just as well have expected them to recognise my genius by strewing chaplets of roses; but I had taken the precaution to bring a friend with me broad in the shoulders, and who has a very winning way with him - which [-83-] some persons might almost stigmatise as forwardness - in a crowded thoroughfare. Towed in his wake - but by no means a jolly-boat, for I was almost stove in by elbows - I managed to reach the centre of the throng, and perceive distinctly the words, "No standing-room," stuck up in front of the theatre.
    As this piece of information did not produce the slightest effect upon those around me, I endeavoured to ignore it also, and to pass the time in taking mental notes of my neighbours. They were doubtless a rough set, and those of them who chanced to be brought before the sitting magistrate upon the following day were probably described as. "ruffians" by the reporters ; but they possessed a good-nature under trying circumstances which cannot be too highly eulogised. If an oath was heard here and there, it was rapped out from evil habit, without malice, just as a horse with corn in him kicks in play; and although there were one or two wicked savages, who made "rushes" from time to time, such as sometimes [-84-] fatal to the weakly in throngs of that sort, there was a general disposition to protect the women and children, and make the crush as bearable for them as possible. It was no place, one would have thought, for the weaker sex to be in at all, but they were there in hundreds, and a young mother close to me-reduced as by hydraulic pressure to her least proportions-was feeding her baby. The child, though rather flat, did not seem to suffer any inconvenience; but the crinoline of its parent had snapped in forty places, and had lost all power to rasp people. Immediately behind me was a little man, "a tailor by trade," as I imagine, who had ventured out under the protection of his wife. "Come," said she, "this is getting too much of a crush for you, Jerry; let us he off."
    "Pooh, pooh," replied he, sidling away, though, as he spoke - for he was a foot and a half shorter than anybody else, and stood in darkness, and an atmosphere of indescribable density -" I can bear what any woman can, I suppose."
    I never shall forget the tone of contemptuous [-85-] pity with which his better and bigger half responded "Lor, Jerry!"
    This lady appeared so wise and prudent, that I inquired of her whether there was no other way but this impassable one into the Theatre-Royal, and she informed me that there was a stage-door at the back of the House; "and likewise," added she, "a gallery; but that won't do for such as you." The aristocratic character of the H. C., although he had a billy-cock hat on, being apparent to this far-sighted female.
    In the back street, the crowd was not so great, because the doors there had been advertised to close at 6.30, and had done so, as far as it was practicable. But the stage-door had been driven off its hinges, and was only restored broadways; so that the pantomime itself, in its highest features - the flying fairies and so forth - could be distinctly seen over the top of it, and afforded unspeakable satisfaction to hundreds at a very cheap rate. In the aperture, however, stood a stout dramatic character - a demon, as I think - obscuring as much of [-86-] the gorgeous vision as possible, and flicking with the lash of a hunting-whip as many persons as he could reach with that formidable weapon. "This ain't the right door, I tell you," was his continued cry. "You must go round into Putt Street. I should be ashamed, 1 should, of seeing a pantomime for nothin'. Here's a mean lot! [This was addressed to the H. C. and his indignant companion.] What! you can't afford fourpence, can't you, for a seat in the gallery?" And for once his audience sympathised with this hateful personage, and exclaimed as with a single voice: "No, they haven't got a tanner between them ."
    Never, surely, were two gentlemen, about to occupy the stage-box of a Theatre-Royal, placed in so false a position.
    Again proceeding to the front entrance, we found a policeman explaining to his hereditary enemies, the British public, that they had much better seek a pantomime elsewhere, since here, in Putt Street, it was not to be seen, even though they should stand upon one another's shoulders. The advice [-87-] was of course unheeded by those to whom it was addressed; but I seized the opportunity to explain our position, as persons who had a right to admittance - Peris against whom the crystal bar of Eden had been most unreasonably put up - and the servant of Justice immediately admitted us, amidst howls of disapprobation. The fairy scene was shut from our gaze at first by tiers of people standing up between us and the dress-circle; and when we had pushed our way to our private box, we found it in possession of no less than seven gentlemen and ladies. It was advertised to "accommodate" but four people, so that these individuals were all sitting upon one another's laps, in such an interminglement of limb that it took another policeman to disentangle them. The box-keeper, with his indignant "Well, I never!" was totally unable to separate the human coil, who exclaimed, like a hydra, with one voice, that they had each paid two shillings for the accommodation, and did not think it cheap at time money - in which I very cordially agreed with them. It went to my [-88-] heart to disturb them, for they were enthralled with the action of the pantomime, as indeed was every occupant of the house. Sloping up from orchestra to ceiling was a vast bank of human faces, as close together as in those crowded photographs where we have "fifteen hundred likenesses for a penny," all eager, craving, hushed. At the back of these, and out of sight, an incessant tumult was kept up by the excluded persons - lately increased by seven - but all whom we could see were dumb. The stalls (for there were stalls) were fortunately not furnished with arms; otherwise, since two persons invariably occupied the place of one, they would have been inconveniently tight. These were patronised either by married folks, or by young persons whose engagement was sufficiently acknowledged in society to admit of their being tender to one another. The protecting arm (in a shirt-sleeve) of the swain, was thrown around his beloved object; and she, on her part, leaned her head upon his manly bosom. The position was demonstrative, but unavoidable; they had [-89-] nowhere else to put their arms and heads. These persons, like the occupants of the boxes, paid two shillings each for their very limited room; the denizens of the pit paid eightpence, and those of the gallery, as we have already stated, a fourpenny bit.
    Great, however, as the expenditure of the audience must have been, when we consider their position in life, they had still plenty of money left wherewith to purchase refreshments. The drop- curtain, which was let down oftener than usual for this very purpose, gave the nobility and gentry to understand that "Refreshments could be procured within the establishment, and without leaving their seats, as good as at any house in the neighbourhood." It also informed them where "Excellent vans could be procured suitable for parties of pleasure; and also a one-horse hearse." It was, in fact, a complete advertisement-sheet of tradespeople of the locality. Besides these, there was that metropolitan celebrity, Grifflths, with his "Fire, Thieves, Fire!" I wished him elsewhere [-90-] as I sat in that crowded place, and read his words. They suggested to me the awful thought - Suppose there should be a fire! Suppose any one of these tinsel ornaments - not to mention the poor ballet-girls in spangled muslin - should catch fire from the footlights, or the myriad gas-burners, or the red lights at the wings, what a holocaust of victims would there be! Nay, even, should a spectator repeat aloud the words before him, "Fire, Fire!" what a hideous scene of selfishness and destruction would ensue! A roar of laughter roused me from these reflections. Gammer Gurton's cow had fallen upon the stage, through some want of concert between its inmates, and the four human legs were kicking one another in the most furious manner. The Dame and some "supers" assisted to raise the animal; but as soon as it reached the side-scenes, we beheld from our coign of vantage the two performers wriggle forth from their spotted prison, and go to fisticuffs over the empty cow. Circumstances of this sort were of course uproariously applauded; but all the [-91-] political or social "hits," by no means subtle or obscure ones either, which occurred in the course of the pantomime, were received in solemn silence. The whole audience took their pleasure sadly, although with the most perfect good-humour. The misfortunes of the stage "Bobby"-  a very different character from the strong, stern men in blue who here and there looked calmly on at their caricaturist - alone excited them to mirth; they cheered when he had his head cut off, and it was put into a pie, and wildly clapped their hands when he was turned out, thin and flattened, from the mangling machine. It seemed to me, however, that this antagonism was merely conventional; that the mass of spectators entertained no more genuine animosity against the guardians of the peace, than do the boys who welcome a Guy Faux against their fellows of the Roman Catholic persuasion. No; what the fifth of November is to his Holiness the Pope, such is Boxing-night to the policeman; it is his time of trial and popular condemnation; but his execution only takes place [-92-] in effigy, and means nothing after all. Within the walls of the Theatre-Royal, Putt Street, I did not hear one single exclamation of anger or of coarseness; nor was there any spectacle beheld from our stage-box - unless it were shirt-sleeves - which the most modest lady in the land (although I do not say the most prudish) had any need to blush at. This Home Correspondent, who is himself as sensitive as a Vestal Virgin (and even more afraid of fire), never changed colour once.