Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 12 - On the Ice

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MAY this 10th of January, whereupon the Home Correspondent begins this paper - upon which, for the first time for a fortnight, his stony fingers have been able to hold a pen - be henceforth a festival among readers; and yet not a white day, for the frost is gone, and, by comparison, a very summer has succeeded it. Ever since last year (or December 31), the Londoner has been obliged to restrict his washing within continental limits, for the water has not "come in" at all. The turn cock, who, in ordinary weather, is considered a useless functionary, something like an aquatic beadle, whose duties nobody understands, has of late become a person of importance. [-94-] His deputy - for it is not to be supposed that so great a man would do any work himself - has been the cynosure of all neighbouring householders. When would his Eminence please to come and turn on the water from the main at the top of the street ? has been literally the great question of the day. It is understood that he will ring a bell in the public thoroughfare, to give notice when that ceremony takes place; but this he declines to do, and therefore our households are kept in a state of indescribable anxiety, and perhaps miss the favourable hour after all. The street-boys surround the unaccustomed fountains, and enjoy the spectacle; but our unfortunate cook, who is momentarily expecting the kitchen-boiler to burst for want of its native element, is unconscious of the supply until it is too late. Under these circumstances, hot water for the hands has become a wicked luxury, and scarcely to be procured even for necessaries - such as toddy. If we have had no water, however, we have had plenty of gas, which has "escaped" in all directions, and with such [-95-] alacrity, that there has been none left at the jets. Dirt and darkness have therefore been the position of most people during the late "glorious weather"; while in the case of those few persons who possess any scientific knowledge, there has been added to these disadvantages the well-grounded apprehension of being suddenly blown into the air. It has been said that the world may be divided into knaves, fools, and fox-hunters, in sly disparagement, as I conceive, of this last class of our fellow-creatures; but there is this to be asserted in their honour, that at least they never rejoice with the Thoughtless or Malignant upon the setting in of Frost.
    It has been my painful mission to make personal observation of the behaviour of the Londoners upon the ice, and I have fulfilled it conscientiously. Some Home Correspondents would have sat at home, knees and nose over the fire, and contented themselves with amplifying the details of "The Weather and the Parks" in the Times newspaper; but though the Path of Duty - to which I have [-96-] once before made some allusion - were a Slide over thin ice, I should not hesitate, I hope, to follow it to the bitter end.
    Upon entering Kensington Gardens from the north-east in severe frost, the most striking peculiarity in the foreground is the mass of persons collected around Negretti and Zambra's huge thermometer. I imagine the British public believes that this instrument possesses the power of imparting heat; for they spread their hands in front of it, and speak of it with much the same sort of awe with which a Parsee might allude to the Sun.
    "What do it say now, Bob ?" inquired one unscientific fellow-countryman of another within my hearing.
    "Don't know," replied the friend appealed to; "and what's more, I never do know. I thinks you must rattle him and tap him before you get him to say anything; and you see one can't do that, because he's caged up."
    "Ay, so he is," assented the first speaker, rather [-97-] approvingly, as if such an instrument might be dangerous if at large. "And what's that other thing, Bob, with a nob of glass at the end of him?"
    "Well, I don't know which is which," responded Bob, with the tone of a man who has got some information to impart at last; " but I can tell you this: one on 'em's a barometer, and the other's a thermometer. The difference between 'em is, I believe, scarcely worth naming, being about the same as between a crocodile and a halligator."
    I was setting down the heads of this conversation upon my way to the "Long Water," when I was suddenly surrounded by four ruffians, armed with weapons tipped with iron.
    "Try a pair o' skates, sir? 'Ave an hour on 'em? We've got a chair to sit down upon, and a nice little bit o' carpet. 'Ave an hour on 'em ?"
    Once in my life, I had been fool enough to put on skates, at the intercession of two of my brothers; they had insisted upon my taking more than an hour's exercise which consisted of falling, at short [-98-] intervals, upon the back of my head - and I had only induced them to take them off upon the most solemn asseverations that I had sprained my ankle, which was happily not the case. I remembered the adventure very vividly, and therefore declined the present invitation, which was renewed about a hundred times during the morning. The banks on both sides were lined with chairs and little bits of carpet - as though an attempt had been made to furnish the landscape - and fellows were waiting everywhere ready to thrust a gimlet into your heel for sixpence, or even half the money. I am sure I would gladly have patronised the poor men if I had dared; for their occupation was much more praiseworthy than that of perambulating the streets, as many did, singing "We are all frozen out," in indescribably melancholy tones. I would also have dealt with the sellers of hot chestnuts had the state of my digestion permitted me so to do. Very comfortable they looked, with their little braziers full of glowing coals; as also did the vendors of baked potatoes and "clear coffee," about whom there [-99-] was a genial atmosphere that defied the depths of Fahrenheit.
    It was pretty to see fathers with their boys, and even their dainty girls in scarlet cloaks, all coming for skates, and being enticed by such cries as, "You can all sit down at once, sir, here; we've chairs for four." Then to see the family shod amid an admiring crowd, and the little ones conducted to the water's edge, like young ducks for their first swim, and last of all Paterfamilias, staggering down with "a rough" upon each side of him, and "clucking" to his giddy offspring to beware of dangerous places! The grown people, on the other hand, who were venturing upon skates for the first time, afforded a humiliating spectacle. Those who could boast of a coup1e of friends were attended by them, and truly they never needed friendly aid so much in their lives. They reminded the H. C. of an intoxicated person in charge of two humane policemen, or perhaps still more of a wild elephant between two sagacious tame ones. The frantic desire which they evinced to [-100-] dash themselves backwards; the sudden diversion of both legs in opposite directions; the expression of countenance, made up of agonised fear and a sense of overwhelming obligation, afforded a picture which might be gratifying to a gorilla, but made a man blush for his species. Sometimes a neophyte was lunatic enough to make his first essay alone, so far as personal friends were concerned, but not alone as to companions. Every street-boy on the Long Water proffered his services immediately. They encumbered him with aid as he tottered, like a swan upon dry land, to the level brink, and pretended to be pillars, as he lurched to this side and that, ere he came down headlong, and made his mark - a star - upon the cruel ice. How it came about that Hardicanute Fitztoppinger should have done such a thing in such a place, I know not, but I beheld him (myself unseen) put his first skates on, with these eyes. It was early in the morning - about twelve - and perhaps he thought that nobody would be up at that hour who was anybody. O for a pond in some [-101-] vast wilderness, and a boundless contiguity of shade, would have been my aspiration, before I ventured thus to exhibit myself; but "Toppy" (as we call him at the club) had had the temerity to come to Kensington Gardens. As I watched him, a tottering imbecile, with his glorious apparel all stained and wetted with numerous tumbles, and grasping a ragged boy by either hand, as though they were his younger brothers, I could not help exclaiming suddenly "Hullo, Toppy, how is the ice ?" He staggered for a second (but he had been doing that for the last twenty minutes), and then replied with a ghastly smile: "Ah, there's nothing the matter with the ice that I know of - except that it is uncommon hard."
    "How is the ice?" is the fit and proper observation to make, of course, even if you have not the most distant intention of going on it yourself. The interest taken by the public therein is absorbing, and the Humane Society are good enough to publish hourly bulletins of the state of its health, as though it were one of the royal [-102-] family. The ice is in a highly-dangerous state this morning, is a favourite bulletin, and has the effect of enticing people in much larger numbers to venture upon it. It is a sort of lottery, in which there are no blanks, and the prizes are hot blankets and plenty of the best pale brandy, which are to be procured ad libitum upon the Society's premises by the immersed.
    I have discovered a new definition for Man, which I believe to be most valuable. Man is "a skate-wearing animal," which distinguishes him from all others, with the trifling exception of a cat in walnut-shells. That sagacious creature, the Dog, gazes upon his so-called master with wonder and contempt as he flees, aimless, over the glassy surface. I saw a Newfoundland upset his owner while performing a gyration, and then, snatching up his stick, carry it off to land, as though in practical reproof of his making such a fool of himself. It was a lesson to humanity at large, and beholding immediately afterwards the Rev. Pyx Oriel, in silk waistcoat and stiffest of ties, waltzing back-[-103-]wards in the space devoted to time Skating Club, I applied it to him. What would his congregation think of him, if they could have then witnessed his eccentric evolutions? How could they ever listen respectfully to the arguments of a gentleman whom they had seen proceeding on one leg for fifteen minutes, in what I may well call "a vicious circle?"* [* The bystanders were for the most part of the "roughest" description.] I should not have been the least surprised had he joined in the hurdle-race. This amusement consisted in placing obstacles, formed of the débris of ice and earth, across the Serpentine, over which the skaters of both sexes leaped in their headlong course. Their marvellous speed and bird-like gliding could not but extort your admiration; or, shutting your eyes as time fleeting throng swept by, you might easily imagine the groaning and girding of the laden ice were the threats of the pent-up water-spirits.
    Nothing, on the contrary, could be more melancholy than the attitude of the Web-footed - the [-104-] legitimate feathered inhabitants of the flood - who, huddling together for mutual warmth, bewailed, in quacks and shrieks, the inexplicable catastrophe which had befallen them. These were the true "frozen-out" individuals, and I should much like to have had the swan's opinion, written with his own quill, of the nature of his situation. Conceive one's being shut off from land some fine morning by some transparent obstacle, which it was nevertheless impossible to remove!
    In harmony with my usual ill-luck, I was so unfortunate as never to behold a fellow-creature immersed, although I watched for the incident unremittingly. I made friends with every man in a cork-jacket, and lingered in the neighbourhood of their ice-ladders until my nose turned blue, but nothing came of it, except chilblains. The sole information I extracted worthy of record was that, when a party went "in" in St. James' Park, people were always more ready to help him than anywhere else. I set this remarkable fact down in my note-book, and after deep reflection upon the [-105-] matter, inquired of my informant as to what he thought was the reason of this. The ideas of an uneducated but observing person are always valuable, and I was curious to see whether he attributed the local philanthropy to the character of the inhabitants, or to the influence of the neighbourhood of their sovereign.
    "Well, you see," replied the guardian of the public safety, " St. James' have got a concrete bottom, so that there's no mud to choke a party; and besides, they knows as its nowhere more than five feet deep. Now, in the Serpentine, they're ready enough to hook a fellow-cretur' out, but they do it with a pole, from terror firmer."
    In St. James' Park, however, I witnessed a spectacle calculated to touch most feeling hearts. To keep the public off a certain ornamental island, to which nature has now formed a bridge, a parkkeeper is placed upon it, of imposing size and aspect. He is bound to stay there as long as the ice remains strong enough for the enemy to cross upon it; but what will he do when it is not strong [-106-] enough? There must be a long interval between the period when it is not safe for ordinary folks - far less for him - and when it will admit of a boat being sent for this unhappy officer. The population of Westminster will therefore have the advantage of beholding how a solitary human being conducts himself when cut off from his fellows. In that park-keeper they will behold a Robinson Crusoe reduced to the condition of primeval humanity. They will witness his devices for procuring food and fuel; he will rub dry sticks together until they emit a spark, and roast time unwary duck or foolish fowl. It is to be hoped that he may at least be rescued before he is reduced to dress himself in their skins. "Fishing," says a Notice immediately opposite to him, "is strictly forbidden;" but Necessity has no Park Regulations, and we shall perhaps perceive him, sitting like a Greenlander, beside a hole in ice, watching patiently for the seal; the cygnet he will probably have cooked already.
    Shaking from me as far as possible these gloomy [-107-] forebodings, I turned to watch an agile gentleman, who, it was rumoured, was cutting his name out upon the ice. If this were correct, it was a very long name, and I was wondering to myself as to what he would do if he had any is and ts in it - for he could surely never dot and cross them - when my arm was suddenly pinched in a familiar manner, and I beheld Mr. Richard Sergeant. He had been shaking my hand for some considerable time, but it was far too cold to be aware of it.
    "Now, you are going to put all this into print," said he. "Don't contradict me, because I know it. Yet this is nothing to what occurs at nighttime - nothing whatever. The scene is then like fairy-land, bless you: a blaze of party-coloured light sheds -"
    "Have you ever seen it ?" interrupted I, for I know Mr. Sergeant well.
    "Why, no," returned he, hanging his head; "I haven't seen it myself; but I've no objection to see it. Let us go together to-night."
    So I asked him to dine with me that evening. [-108-] After dinner, in order to preserve us from the rigours of the expedition we had in view, I caused a bottle of elder wine to be heated. My friend had never tasted that homely but cheerful drink before, and he was pleased to like it exceedingly; so we brewed another saucepanful - and I confess it with shame - even a third. "The beauty of it was," as Mr. Sergeant observed, that "it was quite impossible to take too mush of a liquid of that sort." I could have taken my oath that he said "mush ;" but being his host, I forbore to make any observation. I was obliged, however, to remind him, when we emerged into the cold air, that he had omitted to bring out his hat with him. He ascribed this act of forgetfulness to the toast, which we had dipped, according to custom, into the fragrant wine. "Toast in strips," he explained, "always had that peculiar effect upon him; not dry toast, nor buttered toast, nor yet Anne -" After a long interval, and with a great effort, he ejaculated, as if the expression had been extorted from him by some passing object, "Chovy toast!"
    I took my dear friend's arm, and drew him in the direction of the Serpentine.
    "Come," said I, "we shall be late for the torches and the dancing."
    "I see the torches dancing," remarked he, referring, I regret to say, to the gas-lamps in the Bayswater Road. "I see a policeman skating, and an omnibus upon a slide."
    After this I desisted from my purpose of witnessing the Torch-light fête, and took Mr. Sergeant home.