Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 14 - A Fast-Day

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TIME was when the British public not only "took their pleasure sadly" at times ordained by the church as epochs of mortification, but for the most part abstained from taking it at all. Passion-week, for instance, until very lately, closely resembled that ideal period, so familiar to the sporting world, entitled "a week of Sundays." Nothing beyond those most unexhilarating of spectacles called Orreries, and perhaps a panorama or two of the Holy Land, was offered to the metropolitan sight-seers in the way of amusement. The theatres were closed; the street-music was confined to the church-bells; and all the wicked people who wanted pleasure on Ash-Wednesday [-134-] went into the country by early trains. We have changed all that now. Whether we have imported Continental notions to our great spiritual detriment, as some say, or whether we have merely broadened our sympathies, without at all losing sight of true religion, as others contend, it is quite certain that the majority of London folks do not treat humiliation-days as they used to do. Perhaps they wish to exhibit a proper and Protestant abhorrence of the papal faith in thus ignoring them; but whether they are actuated by that high motive or some lower one, a fast-day and a feast-day have come to have a very similar signification; the Holy Day, with the masses at least, has become a Holiday. With the Upper Ten Thousand, things still remain pretty much as they were; so that the two great classes into which, notwithstanding all change, this great city is still divided - namely, the Rich and the Poor - spend their fast-days very differently: there is the old style, and there is the new style. Far be it from me to decide where doctors, even of divinity, [-135-] differ so widely. It is the amiable desire of this Home Correspondent to become the best-hated writer in England, if possible, by telling the truth. You may find what fault with your camera, my friends, you please, but the photographs shall be taken from the life. If the objects are displeasing, I did not make them so; and if any of you think that the representation is libellous, bring your action against the Sun Fire Office, which is alone responsible for the damage.
    Upon the 25th of March 1864, I arose as usual some time after six o'clock, with the excellent intention of watching how my fellow-creatures behaved themselves throughout the day, and putting my observations into print. This employment is the nearest approach to the spy system which has yet been introduced into this country, and it is rapidly gaining ground. I never find myself (in my character as H. C., of course, for otherwise I "go nowhere ") in any place of public resort without perceiving others unmistakably engaged in the same infamous profession ; listening to [-136-] conversation that is not intended for them ; putting questions to official persons in a careless manner, and then going into a corner to write down their replies; regarding all things with supercilious yet hungry eyes, and not enjoying themselves a bit. I know them, although they don't know me, but set me down perhaps as a country gentleman of independent means, who would be all the better for a year or two of Mr. Banting's system.
    "Tut, tut," says one, "what has all this to do with the matter on hand?
    My good sir, it is evident that you do not belong to the upper section of society, or you would not be so very anxious to begin your fast-day. You are not the sort of man who has hot cross-buns for breakfast, which I believe to be the most deadly food, with one exception, that can be taken into the human oesophagus. If the oesophagus is not the right place for it (for I have my doubts), then it is all the more likely to get there. Hot bread is bad enough, but hot buns! and for breakfast! Who was the cruel fanatic [-137-] that fixed upon such an engine of mortification? I have hinted that there was one article of food - I do not say "of consumption," because it is coherent, lumpish, and insoluble - that is even worse than hot cross-buns. This is salt-fish with parsnips. "There was a certain Francis Battalia," says Dr. Bulwer, "a true Lithophagus or stone-eater, who would take for nourishment nothing but three or four pebbles in a spoon once in twenty-four hours, and a draught of beer after them I examined this man with all the attention I could. I found his gullet very large, his teeth exceedingly strong, and his stomach lower than ordinary, which I imputed to the vast number of flints he has swallowed. . . . I used the lancet on him: his blood had little or no serum, and in two hours became as fragile as coral." This was just the man for your hot-cross buns and salted fish with parsnips; but for ordinary folks, I contend they are not wholesome. It is not my business to interfere with ecclesiastical ordinances. I know a very [-138-] worthy young woman who abstains from treacle with her suet-pudding during certain seasons of the church, as being a meritorious act of self-denial. This, as it happens, does not hurt her; treacle, whether pure or with brimstone, is unessential to her good health. But the fast-day fare of the orthodox is really a serious matter. Why should digestion be made the standard of devotion? I asked myself this question many times during the 25th of March, and especially during the night which followed it. I had my hot buns for breakfast, of course, and there were plenty to spare for my friend Mr. Richard Sergeant, who dropped in with a request that I would accompany him to a certain fashionable chapel, where the Rev. Softe Sawder was advertised in all the papers to preach that morning.
    "My dear sir," said I, "I am going to my own parish church close by, as is my usual custom and in the afternoon I propose to visit the Crystal Palace, to see my friends the public enjoying themselves after their manner."
    [-139-] "That is one way of spending a fast-day," observed my friend (who is the offspring of a dean) with some severity.
    "Nay," said I, "it is the other way; for there are only two ways. I am sorry your sense of what is right prevents your accompanying me. I am not without scruples about the matter myself; but you know I am a Home Correspondent, and have public duties."
    "Oh! yes; a pretty excuse," returned Mr. Sergeant so bitterly, that it was easy to perceive he would have given a good deal to have had the like apology. "I suppose there will be dancing and drinking, and all sorts of ribaldry."
    "I am going to see," returned I calmly. "Take another hot-cross bun."
    "Look here," quoth this irresolute creature. "If you will come with me to Softe Sawder, I will go with you to the Palace of Crystal. There."
    "No," said I, "no. I cannot stand your fashionable preachers. I never heard anything practical from them in my life; they are blowers of word-[-140-]bubbles, that is all. My clergyman here is a good old soul, who knows what he means, and his congregation understand him. I have no itching ears."
    "But Softe Sawder is the most practical preacher you ever heard. That is his great peculiarity. I guarantee that you will have an admirable discourse."
    "Will you guarantee that I get a seat ?" returned I, wavering.
    "Yes, I will," returned Mr. Richard Sergeant; "that is, if we start at once. It is now ten, and the service begins punctually at eleven; we must step out."
    "But we shall get there in a quarter of an hour," reasoned I, aghast at the notion of a quick walk after four large buns. "Surely we shall be much too soon."
    "Not an instant," returned my friend, putting on his hat. "There is no standing-room within ten minutes of the commencement. The free seats are filled directly the doors are open."
 [-141-]   My friend had spoken the truth. The few high-backed narrow forms - certainly not called free by reason of their having any superfluous accommodation - which occupied the aisle of the fashionable chapel, had already several tenants when we arrived, and other candidates were pouring in. There was supposed to be room for three on each bench; but to have a child for one's next neighbour was esteemed a prize by stout persons, who beckoned to strange juveniles with eager hospitality, and having obtained their company, squeezed them without remorse. My companion and I were not so fortunate, but looked shillings into the eyes of every pew-opener that passed, in hopes of getting better quarters. Surely there is something hopeful in the way in which persons consent to be thus inconvenienced for the sake of hearing an eloquent divine! In very few walks of life has a man such a chance of imparting his thoughts, or of finding so many fellow-creatures willing - nay, eager - to receive them. If the manager of a theatre should contrive such Procrustean seats as we were sitting [-142-] in, I am sure he would find but few persons to fill them. And yet, how envied we were by a crowd of persons, elegantly attired, who could not obtain seats at all, but stood in drafts and doorways, content with those fragments of discourse that reached them when the preacher "rose upon the wind of doctrine" higher than usual.
    As for the British pew-holder, however, I confess I was impressed unfavourablyby his demeanour. Whatever price he may have paid, by the season, for his position, he took it all out in self-complacency and superciliousness. In my own ordinary place of worship, after the service has begun a reasonable time, those without seats are admitted into the pews, as a matter of course; but in the present case, matters were very different. Again and again would a pew-opener lean over the door of some half-tenanted pew, and request permission to introduce some seatless stranger, only to meet with frowns and shakes of the head.* [* There was one individual of about sixty, the sole tenant of a pew of considerable size, who came under my immediate * There was one individual of about sixty, the sole tenant of a pew of considerable size, who came under my immediate [-143-] observation; him no official had ventured to ask for room, probably because they knew him too well; so he sat surrounded by Space. Presently, however, a young lady of great personal attractions, who was standing in the aisle with her mother, aroused this gentleman's benevolence. He nodded to her in a condescending manner, and when she took no notice of that, he beckoned to her, at the same time opening the pew-door. Upon this she bowed, and accepted his offer of a seat ; her elderly relative attempted to follow, whereupon this astounding individual quietly reached forward, and shut the pew-door between them with a smack, leaving mamma outside. I never felt so much inclined to write to the Times.] The notion [-143-] of a gentleman in church, of all places in the world, behaving in this manner-with a picture of the Good Samaritan actually throwing "warm gules" upon his shirt-front from the painted window-would have been really humorous, but for the sad seriousness of the matter; what stolid ignorance of the cause of their being in that edifice at all, must possess such persons! What a blurred and indistinct idea must they entertain of the Great System which they flatter themselves they support by paying their pew-rents! How delicately the Rev. Softe Sawder must have [-144-] picked his pastoral way, never to have suggested to these people even the first germs of Christian conduct! The art of How not to do it, however, was in this reverend gentleman's sermon carried to perfection. There not being one single miserable sinner present in that fashionable chapel whose income was less than five hundred a year, he depicted the vices of the poor in glowing colours; while the rest of his discourse was solely directed against "the Infidel" - not present. Never did I behold a congregation, I do not say more orthodox, for I hope I am orthodox myself, but more obviously conventional in every particular. He might just as well have directed his efforts against the tenets of the prophet Mohammed.* [* And yet there were numbers of good people taking notes of what was said, as though poor Softe Sawder had been St. Chrysostom.]
    "Sergeant," said I impressively, when we got into the natural air outside, "this is the last time" -
    "Well, well," said he, "I know what you are [-145-] going to say. I confess Softe Sawder was not very practical this morning; but last Sunday I never heard anything more excellent; and if you will only try once more, say next Sunday, I will guarantee that he is good again."
    "My dear friend," remarked I gloomily, "I dare say you are right. It is only that I am unfortunate. When I happen to make one of a fishing-party, we never catch anything by any chance; but the day before, I am assured, they caught seventy-three dozen; and the day after was one totally unexampled in the way of piscatory success. So is it with me and the fashionable preachers. I will never leave my parish church again."
    "Come home and lunch with me," replied Mr. Sergeant gaily; "after some salt-fish and parsnips, you will feel quite a different being."
    "I have no doubt of that," replied I; "but I prefer to eat something that I can digest at the Crystal Palace."
    The crowd at Victoria Station, about mid-day on Good-Friday, was something tremendous, and [-146-] was composed entirely of that description of persons who boast a Sunday coat. The Upper Ten Thousand have many coats, and a much larger number of our fellow-citizens have only one; but neither of these classes were bound to hear Mr. Sims Reeves sing a song of sixpence (or very little more) in the nave at Sydenham. I believe it was the cheapest concert, considering "the talent engaged, that was ever given, and the audience was proportionally large. Quarter after quarter struck the clocks, but still the would-be pleasure-seekers remained at that Pimlico Station, growing flatter and flatter by reason of the increasing pressure, but without losing one drop of good-humour. I cannot be persuaded that persons are very vicious who behave with this admirable patience. Here were five thousand people or so, huddled together in an open pen, with nothing to do, and conscious that their one holiday of the year was slipping away from them in that unsatisfactory manner, and yet I did not hear a single expression of irritability [-147-]  far less any wicked words. Listening as usual with all my ears, I heard Mr. Sergeant, the dean's son, freely anathematising the railway authorities for their want of punctuality, but I heard no one else. Yet it was nothing to him whether Mr. Sims Reeves should have finished his last shake or not, before we arrived; and nothing to me, who had lost my temper long ago, as I always do when I'm kept waiting. We both received a lesson of kindliness and long-suffering, which I hope was not thrown away upon us. It was quite impossible that anybody but the boys - who climbed up the iron railings, and sat delightedly on the spikes as usua l- could have enjoyed this situation. The poor women, though in their Sunday clothes, had probably the only crinoline on they possessed, and they knew that it was snapping into angles; the steel circles were becoming pentagons, hexagons, polygons of all kinds under the continued pressure. They knew that they would look ridiculous in the eyes of their husbands and lovers at the journey's end, instead of that height of fashion which they had aimed at; and yet they kept a smiling coun-[-148-]tenance. One of them used rather a strong expression for a lady, but even that was an indication of the strength of her domestic attachments. "Drat it! " exclaimed she, in answer to some thought of her own, for her husband was looking the picture of patience, "what does it matter where we are, Bill, so long as you and I and the children are together ?" She referred to two little creatures, reduced to the shape of pancakes, who were clinging contentedly to her skirts in the cheerful hope that something else was presently to come of their holiday beside semi-suffocation, and the thermometer at ninety degrees in the shade.
    I had the pleasure of overhearing also the following conversation, which it is no discourtesy to publish, insomuch as the speakers delivered it in the highest notes of which their shrill voices were capable. They were two young gentlemen of kindred pursuits, and doubtless sympathetically attached to one another, but the envious crowd prevented any personal propinquity, and what [-149-] they had to say, they screeched like owls in a thicket.
    "Haven't been down to your place, Jack, for an age."
    "Ay, that's true, Joe; and why don't you? She's worth coming to look at, I can tell you. She's a real beauty, she is."
    [" She!" thought I. " Is it possible this youth of five feet nothing can possess a wife ?" ]
    "Her eye's all right again, is it ?" inquired Joe with feeling.
    "Ay; and she gains flesh, too. She's a picture, I tell you; and worth coming forty mile for."
    "When she was mine," returned the other-
    ["Then she's been in the Divorce Court, whispered Mr. Richard Sergeant.]
    "I had nothin' to complain of, nothin' - and so said Sam Roberts - except that she would kill."
    [" What an abandoned flirt I thought!" But what business had Sam Roberts to and fault with her!]
    [-150-] "Ay; 1 remember," said Jack carelessly; "her hair began to fall off about that time. It was rats, rats, rats with her from morning to night; I believe she dreamed o' rats. She is certainly the gamest little Tarrier as ever I see."
    These doggy boys were talking about a terrier. They belonged to that class of persons who, as Mr. Dickens tells us, do not so much keep dogs as dogs keep them. Let us not, however, be hard upon them; they would be "horsey," perhaps, like their betters, if they had but a little more per annum. Only why, why were they going to the Crystal Palace, where there is not a dog to be seen, except the monitory Cave Canem on the threshold of the Pompeian house ?
    A snort of an engine, a peal of a bell, and the gates are opened, and we rush forward like the riderless horses in the Corso; it is a stampedo of the middle classes. The carriages are filled in the first minute, and the fortunate occupants grin through the windows at the left-behind ones on the platform. The two little human pancakes have [-151-]  not been able to come to the front with the requisite dispatch. They stand rueful, with their large eyes filled with tears, between their philosophic father and their mother, who appeals vigorously to the guard, as though that official could produce more carriages by blowing his whistle.
    "Hi, mate," sings out some gentleman in the third class, who would have spoken plainer if he did not keep tobacco in his mouth ; "if you and your good lady don't mind a squeeze, we can make room for you here somehow, and take the little ones upon our knees."
    This offer is accepted as frankly as it is offered. The whole family troop into the already crowded compartment; and to judge from the peals of laughter that emanate from it during the journey, I fancy that nobody is seriously inconvenienced, after all. It was surprising, indeed, to see how lightly all the troubles of that day were borne. The Palace at Sydenham is a building of tolerable size, but fifty thousand people are as much as even it can agreeably accommodate; and the company [-152-]  on the fast-day considerably exceeded that number. The dust, the heat, and the difficulty of moving about must have robbed Art of many of its attractions. As for the concert, Mr. Sims Reeves might have been a peacock for all that ears, not long enough to have purchased "a reserved seat," could tell to the contrary; while the space adapted for the tropical plants was also most admirably fitted for persons to faint in. It is sad to think how rarely is it possible for poor folks to get as much enjoyment as the rich out of the same spectacle; but, on the other hand, they recreate themselves more thoroughly in such things as are left to them, and improvise delights of their own. Thus, where a colossal statue of Louis XIII. of France, in Roman attire, is, on ordinary occasions, seen with outstretched arm defying nature to produce his equal (which, to confess the truth, she has never done, nor, as I hope, attempted it), some humorous holiday-maker had greatly improved matters; he had given this imperious idiot something to look at, by suspending to his royal digits a pewter pot [-153-]  with a little small-beer in it; and the transformation thereby effected was complete. The unfortunate king seemed to have become perfectly sensible of the indignity put upon him, and was beseeching gods and men that it should be taken off again. Roars of laughter from every passer-by witnessed against the calumny that denies a sense of humour to the British public.
    At the same time, it must be allowed that this sense is dormant. At the foot of the gardens, the see-saws, or "Patent Invigorators," as they are called, were in active motion ; eight, at least, of both sexes seated in each, and all pulling at the ropes with such gravity as would have befitted serious sailors in a hurricane ; even when the bump came which necessarily took away their breath every half-minute, and extorted an exclamation similar to that used by paviours, it did not produce a single smile; neither did the so-called Merry-go-round, whose occupants sat as calm and stolid upon their griffins and unicorns as the best society in a mourning-coach. But the demeanour [-154-]  most appropriate to a fast-day was beyond question worn by the twenty thousand people or so who in various parts of the Palace Gardens were playing at Kiss-in-the-Ring. The component parts of this simple bulb popular game consist (as it seemed) of a solid crowd with a hole in it, and a few pieces of paper, which it is by no means necessary should be clean. Any gentleman might present a piece to any lady, and upon her accepting it (which almost always happened), she would start off like another Atalanta across the slopes and flower-beds, and he would pursue and capture her. This was accomplished with great decorum. Then he would lead her back, in courtesy a very Sir Roger de Coverley, into the ring, take off his hat like Beau Brummell, lift her veil as Uncle Toby might have lifted that of the widow, respectfully, nay, with reverence, and imprint one chaste salute upon her blushing cheek. I never beheld any amusement engaged in by both sexes conducted with such grave propriety; it reminded me of a minuet which I once saw my grandmother [-155-] and my great-uncle dance at a Christmas party; only all we little ones cheered the latter performance, while the Kiss-in-the-Ring was administered amid a sort of hushed applause.
    It would be a suppressio veri not to own that there was a case of intoxication at the Crystal Palace on March 25, 1864; one single (we hope he was single) drunken man out of 53,000 people! - from which, if we cannot deduce a rule of sobriety, there is surely no proof by exception.