Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 13 - A Juvenile Party

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THERE are three "distances," as painters call them, of domestic trouble, one beyond the other, in which Man, being mortal, is likely to find himself.
    The first is the bondage of matrimony simple. I say "simple" because in Mohammedan countries it is permitted to marry more than one wife, while in our own the precept, that "no man can serve two masters," is happily insisted upon by the Law.
    The second is the position of Paterfamilias encumbered with female children.
    The third is that of Paterfamilias harassed with boys.
    The writer of these words is in the middle dis-[-111-]tance; there is, he knows, a deeper depth beyond, and from that knowledge he has sometimes reaped satisfaction, at others derived terrors which it took months to prove imaginary. I have often seen the male children of my friends, in charge of their natural guardians, with heartfelt gratitude for my own freedom from such inflictions; but I have never known, until the experience about to be narrated, how much indeed I had to be thankful for. Let our title lack a wearer after our noble self; let our landed estates descend by entail to the offspring of our hated cousin; but oh, ye stars of nativity, O Juno Matrona, save me, save me from being the father of a boy!
    Girls are troublesome enough at times. I have no desire to exalt them into unmitigated blessings; I look upon them rather as "escapes from boys"; but they are tender and affectionate, and, by comparison, easily subjugated. One can drive six-in-hand of them - which is exactly the number fallen to my share - harnessed to the domestic chariot, easier than a boy in single harness. It is pleasant [-112-] to see them run willingly up and down stairs on messages; and flock to meet one, and take one's hat and gloves, on coming home from business. I am an oldish bird, not easily caught by chaff, but my little girls can wile almost anything out of me. I find myself going with them to the pantomime - which I consider to be a medley of stupid jokes and meaningless noise - at two o'clock in the afternoon, when I ought to be in the city; and I have come home in an omnibus so laden with toys upon a Christmas-eve, as to be publicly objected to by my fellow-passengers. When one marries after forty, as I did, one is more induced to make a fool of one's self in this way, and the younger the child is, I think the more power the little darling has over one. My beloved Mabel, aged four, and called May for brevity and dearness, pulled my wig off the other day in the presence of persons of distinction of both sexes, and yet I had not the heart to scold her. I would certainly have put a boy to death, to slow music, for hinting that I wore such a thing.
    [-113-] It was Mabel, I am afraid, who let me in for the juvenile party. "Papa, dear, I want a dudenile tarty," was her observation one morning when she came in, as usual, to superintend my shaving operations; and I, thinking that she meant something to eat, said: "Very well ; then you shall have it." This concession, made under the greatest misapprehension, was held by the rest of the family, including even the wife of my bosom, as a promise; and there was no peace for the present writer until it was fulfilled. I did not myself entertain any great apprehensions of the result. I thought that half-a-dozen little girls would be invited to play for a few hours with our own, and that they would have cake and wine, and go away again. I certainly did not anticipate any personal inconvenience from their coming. I intended to arrive at home from the City an hour earlier than ordinary, in order to see the young folks enjoying themselves, and then to dine as comfortably as usual, with my digestion assisted by the consciousness of having performed a domestic duty with a good grace. When, there-[-114-]fore, my wife observed at breakfast, upon the morning of the festal-day: "My love, we must dine at twelve o'clock to-day, if you please," the suggestion took my breath away.
    "At twelve o'clock at night or at noon?" inquired I sarcastically.
    "Well, my dear, at noon. I know you hate dining-out of all things, so I have managed that we shall get a dinner - but it will be rather a scramble. And they will be taking the furniture out of both the drawing-rooms, and the school-room must be given up for the early tea; so that we must dine, I am afraid, down stairs in the servants' hall."
    "And why not here in the dining-room ?" asked I, aghast at these arrangements.
    "Why, you dear silly old man, of course the dining-room table will be all set out for supper long before twelve o'clock; and as for your study" -
    "You don't mean to say, madam, that my study will not be sacred!" ejaculated I, laying down the [-115-] Times newspaper, to part with which, at such a time, no light thing would induce me.
    "Dear papa's tudy upthide down," observed the intelligent Mabel, who, as usual, had taken up her post, in expectation of dainties, at my knee.
    I rose in alarm, and sought my sanctuary, to behold with my own eyes the extent of the damage. The sacred apartment had already been turned into a dressing-room. My desk and papers were thrust into a corner, and their place upon the table occupied by a looking-glass and combs and brushes. The genius of Discomfort had rendered in twenty minutes the snuggest apartment in the house as cheerless as a hairdresser's back room.
    "Good Heavens!" cried I, "who is it who demands these sacrifices? Cannot half-a-dozen of the girls of my friends Jones and Robinson be entertained without all this fuss? When we lived in the country, my house was never turned topsy-turvy in this manner."
    "Because in our country-house there was lots of room, my love," returned my wife. "A juvenile [-116-] party in London requires a good deal of preparation, and it is necessary to economise our space."
    "But, my dear madam," expostulated I, "you don't mean to say that six extra girls, however preposterous may be their crinolines, require "-
    "There are more than six," observed my wife, sententiously; "you know you promised Mabel a juvenile party."
    "How many, then, are coming in all?" gasped I, with anxiety. "Tell me the worst - that is, the most that are likely to come."
    "Well, it is impossible to say, some mothers are so stupid about answering invitations; but we are sure of three-and-thirty at least."
    "Three-and-thirty little girls coming to-night, madam! What!  They're not all girls. Do you mean to tell me that you have asked any horrid boys ?"
    "Well, my dear love, you wouldn't have been so absurd as to give a juvenile party composed entirely of one sex. The girls would not enjoy it without the boys."
    [-117-]"I am sorry to hear it, replied I despondingly. "At what time do they all go away?"
    "Now, I do hope you are not going to desert us," exclaimed my consort, laying her fingers affectionately upon my arm. "We depend upon you for providing amusement, you know. The master of the house always does that. He either dresses up " - 
    "Dresses up!" ejaculated I, indignantly. "What do you mean by that, madam ?"
    "Why, he pretends to be a beggarman, or a Bengal tiger, or something of that sort; and if he doesn't mind running about on all-fours "- 
    "But if he does mind, madam, interrupted I with sternness - "if he declines, at his time of life, to expose himself to any description of ridicule, what does he do then?"
    "Well, then, of course, he goes out into the town, and hires a Conjuror, or a Punch and Judy, or a Magic Lantern. There are lots of shops which send out these sort of people."
    "What sort of shops, madam?" inquiried I with [-118-] the calmness of despair. "I will do anything in reason; but I never happened to hire a Conjuror in my life."
    "The toy-shops, of course; or you may hire one at the Mausoleum - as I saw advertised in the newspaper some time ago-that is a very good place to get one, I should think."
    "The Mausoleum is shut up," returned I, sulkily, "and its dreary entertainments are closed by the bankruptcy of its proprietor."
    "Yes, but another man has got it now, and you will find what you want there all the same. And now, my love, if you wouldn't mind perhaps you'll leave us to ourselves a little, because we want the room."
    "Then you turn me out of the house, in short, do you! Well, you will not see me back again at twelve o'clock, madam, I do assure you. I shall take my dinner elsewhere, since a proper meal at home is denied to me."
    "There's a darling love," responded my wife, embracing. me tenderly. "I knew he would, if it [-119-] was only properly put before him. For once and away, we really shall get on better without you. You will find us all anxiously waiting for you about four o'clock, and supper will be ready for the grown-up people - after ,the children have had theirs - at nine o'clock precisely."
    "The grown-up people, Mrs. P.-why, this is the first time I have heard of them!"
    "Well, of course, there must be some grown-up people, my dear, unless you prefer to apply for some policemen, to keep order. And my uncle Chutney - you know how violent he gets if we don't ask him to every sort of entertainment we give - I was obliged to send him an invitation."
    "Colonel Chutney at a juvenile party !" ejaculated I, throwing my hands up; "why, he'll be using bad language before the children."
    "Yes, my love, I am afraid he will; but, then, fortunately, he always swears in Hindustanee. Now, don't you be later than four o'clock; there's a dear man. And here's your hat, and here are your gloves; and don't forget the Conjuror."
    [-120-] Thus was I turned out of my own house, and driven remorselessly to the Mausoleum. That place of public amusement has not a cheerful appearance even under the most favourable circumstances, but I thought its Grecian portico never looked so lowering as upon the present occasion. The porter smiled a ghastly smile as I set foot in the entrance-hall, for I was the first pleasure-seeker who had darkened its threshold that morning, and informed me that the Experiments connected with the Galvanic Battery were about to commence in the western corridor. Declining to have my spirits further depressed by any such spectacle, I asked, with some magnificence of manner, to see the Proprietor. "I wish," said I, "for a personal interview upon a matter of business."
    "You ain't a-going to take the place, are you, sir ?" inquired the porter, rubbing his hands in a propitiatory manner. "I 'ave been here a many years, sir, and 'ope I may still keep the situation. I could show you certificates from three-and-[-121-]twenty as 'ave had the Mausoleum at one time or another."
    "I have not a doubt of it, my good man," returned I; "and each of them, I believe, had a certificate of their own to show from Mr. Commissioner Fonblanque. I am only come about hiring a Conjuror for a Juvenile Party."
    "O dear me, sir," replied the porter, "you will not get anything of that sort here. We used to be in that way at one time, but we are working under quite a different system now. We are all for practical science, we are, and the elevation of the public intellect."
    "Oh, then, you don't let out a Punch and Judy nor a Magic Lantern, of course?"
    "O dear, no, sir," cried the porter, looking round suspiciously, as though the gigantic pillars of the vestibule themselves had ears. "Oh, pray don't mention no such things as that. If you wanted an Electrifying Machine, or even a Horrery-"
    "Thank you," said I, "very much, but I don't [-122-] think that that would do at all. And I left the melancholy porter watching for a scientific pleasure-seeker, and wandered on upon my dreadful errand elsewhere. Having selected a mammoth toy-shop, where the Noah's Arks in the windows were about the size of the real houses in my own neighbourhood, I walked in, and inquired for a magician on hire."
    "What," said I, "is your usual charge for the loan of a conjuror for an evening?"
    "Well, sir," replied the man of toys, "we can  let you have a very good one for three guineas."
    "That is a great deal of money for tricks," observed I.
    "The whole apparatus is included in that sum," remarked the other persuasively, "and the sugar- plums he distributes are warranted genuine."
    "Still," said I, "I think your conjuror is a little dear."
    "We have them of all descriptions," answered the proprietor, in a less respectful tone ; "some of them go out as low as ten and six."
[-123-]    "Those must be professors of a very inferior kind, I conclude," observed I, wishing him to contradict me above all things. But the master of the magi only shrugged his shoulders, and threw out his hands contemptuously. "I understand you," said I; "they would only be just clever enough to steal the spoons. Now, do you let out a Punch and Judy ?"
    "Two, ten, six," responded the proprietor curtly; "or without the Dog Toby, two guineas."
    Now, I had heard of the play of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark, but of Punch and Judy without Dog Toby, I had never heard.
    "A man with a monster magic lantern would be how much ?" inquired I.
    "A guinea and his expenses," returned the proprietor, less respectfully than ever.
    "Then let him be at my house by six o'clock," said I; and I presented my card of address.
    Having made an early dinner with great discomfort at a chop-house, and feeling intensely fatigued with walking about, instead of doing my [-124-] business as usual in the City, I returned home at about half-past five. I let myself softly in: and passing on tiptoe the drawing-room, from which proceeded a tumult of juvenile revelry, I found myself safe in my dressing-room, where there is a little bed, on which I determined to take forty winks, to strengthen me for the festivities to follow. I had taken off my peruke, in order that this interval of repose might be more enjoyable, and was about to put on my dressing-gown, when I heard the sudden clapping of a pair of tiny hands, and a shrill voice, like that of a malignant fairy, observed,
    "Oh, my, if he don't wear a wig !"
    A diminutive boy, in blue velvet knickerbockers and pink stockings, whom I suppose I had awakened from slumber, was sitting up on the bed, and staring at me with all his might.
    "What is your name?" inquired I, "you wicked boy! and how dare you come here! What is your name, I say ?"
    "Dunno," returned he defiantly
    [-125-] "What!" cried I; "don't know your own name? Whom do you belong to ?"
    "And why are you lying in my bed with your horrid boots on?"
    "I don't like the people downstairs," responded the imp. "I want my supper."
    "Why, you have only just had tea, have you not ?"
    "Tea's nothing. I want my supper, I say."
    I rushed out of the room, and screamed, "Nurse, nurse!" over the balusters as loud as I could scream.
    There was a trampling of many feet, a rustling of many crinolines, and not one nurse, but what seemed to be a legion of them (there were eighteen, I believe, in the house at that moment), came rushing up the stairs. I stood upon the landing, holding the strange boy by the collar at arm's-length, and demanded that he should be delivered to his proper guardian.
    "We don't know who has the charge of him, sir," [-126-] responded the eldest of these "young persons" severely; "but any one of us will be delighted to take to the darling ;" and indeed they at once began to kiss and fondle the little creature, who, had he but been accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy, might have passed for a monkey before a committee of the Zoological Society itself. As he was borne away in a sea of curls and cap-strings, he shrieked out: "That funny old man has left his hair upon the looking-glass."
    Then, for the first time, it pierced me, like a red-hot wire, that I had forgotten my wig. To remain alone with my own reflections after this circumstance was out of the question, and so I descended to the drawing-room. This apartment seemed to be filled with Marionettes-little creatures in velvet or white muslin, who seemed to have been recently bitten by a tarantula. It was no more possible to recognise an individual than any one dancing-mote in a sunbeam; and after asking one of my own girls how her father was, I gave up pretending to any particular acts of civility. [-127-] Presently, they formed a circle - a charming fairy ring - and played at a dreadful game called The Family Coach, wherein I sustained the part of "the wheel" with immense applause. I had to get up and turn completely round about six-and-twenty times in every minute, and the satisfaction which the boys took in witnessing the degradation of their senior was quite characteristic. In the midst of one of these revolutions, Colonel Chutney, my wife's uncle, was announced. He has always looked down upon me and my family; but the look of contempt which passed over his copper-coloured countenance at that moment, was absolutely withering.
    What had become of that creature with the Magic Lantern!
    At last he came, with his three-legged stand for the apparatus, with his "comic and sentimental slides," with his "portable sheet, which can be put in any drawing-room, without injury to the most delicate papering." Then a temporary darkness fell upon us, accompanied by a priceless  silence, [-128-] which lasted nearly half a second, and was atoned for by  vociferous raptures, following upon what the exhibitor described as the first "hoptical hillusion." The most popular representations were, I am afraid, those which Mr. Ruskin would have found most fault with: pictures of gentlemen with elongated chins and exaggerated hoses; and when a bald person of repulsive appearance was introduced, and a shrill voice exclaimed: "There's that funny man again, who left his wig upon the dressing-table," there was a perfect hurricane of applause. Scarcely less embarrassing was the remark of our own Mabel, who, upon the first appearance of the Flying Cupid, ejaculated with unwonted distinctness "Poor, poor !*[* An expression of pity; and therefore not in use, as I should imagine, among male infants.]  It dot no tothes on."
    The performances were slightly marred by the continued appearance of the boy in knickerbockers between the company and the objects represented; he declined to sit on a chair like other folks, but [-129-]  lay in wait upon the carpet like a wild animal, and sprang upon any optical illusion that took his fancy, under the impression that he could grasp it, though he succeeded only in pulling down the sheet. Nobody present even pretended to any authority over him. He had been brought by somebody, with the message that he was "to be left till called for," and a horrible suspicion began to take possession of my mind that I was the victim of a child-dropper. It certainly was only natural that the parent of such a boy should endeavour to get rid of him by any means; but that he should have dressed him up in blue velvet knickerbockers and pink stockings, and dropped him, for good and all, at a juvenile party, was a most unpardonable device. Would the workhouse take him in after 8.30, I wondered! Or would it be better to give him in charge to the police for obtaining supper under false pretences! As the evening grew on, his evil characteristics multiplied. He clamoured for something to eat, and had to be taken down stairs and fed before the proper time. This did not prevent him, however, [-130-]  from proceeding with his meal while the others took theirs, or prolonging it when they had concluded. In the meantime, Colonel Chutney, C.B., was inveighing in an unknown tongue against all young people, and demanding that the grown-up folks, or at all events himself, should not be kept waiting any longer. He refused to give the servants time to rearrange the table, but sat at the head of it, in front of the turkey, with a carving-knife and fork in his fingers, like a griffin rampant. I did not dare occupy that position myself, my whole attention being concentrated upon this hateful boy. He was perpetually jumping up to procure some novel dainty, and broke three plates of our best dinner-service in a struggle to snatch the flowers out of the epergne. I watched him rove from bonbons to lobster salad with malignant joy.
    The front door-bell had been ringing ceaselessly for half an hour, and troop after troop of little ones had departed, muffled and cloaked, with their faithful domestics, but neither cab nor carriage, nor nurse nor footman, had come for that boy. He [-131-]  buzzed about in his blue velvet knickerbockers and pink stockings, like some gorgeous tropical insect, inimical to the repose of man; and when all his contemporaries were gone he returned to the supper-table, and devoured plateful for plateful with Colonel Chutney, C.B., and the grown-up people. As for me, all appetite had fled with the contemplation of him; and I listened for the wheels of his possible chariot with an absorbing anxiety. He had just announced his intention of partaking of brandy and water with Colonel Chutney, C.B. (who never concludes an evening without that grateful medicine), when the long- looked-for chariot came. I do not know whether it was that exact description of carriage; any vehicle sent for that boy, from a costermonger's cart to the state-coach of the lord mayor, would have been equally welcome; but a female servant of unmistakably "Irish extraction," came with it, and demanded Master Dunno. A little mistake, she said, had occurred, it seemed, as to the number of the house, and she was afraid that she had left "the darlin'" [-132-]  at the wrong evening-party. But she supposed that it didn't much matter; her young masther had evidently enjoyed himself; and all juvenile "trates" were pretty much alike.
    If they are - if they really are - I can only say it is a most fortunate circumstance that Christmas, with its Juvenile Party, only comes once a year.