Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 18 - An Equestrian Entertainment

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IT was late one afternoon in December last that I found myself on the roof of a Bayswater bus, but travelling eastward. It is well known to my readers that I am not at all above taking the air in that manner, and I particularly like it just before dinner. I do not mean before a banquet whereat evening-dress is indispensable, but previous to that more comfortable meal which awaits one at a club. The mind is then prevented from growing impatient by observations of men and things; the liver soon, perhaps, to be tried by some too gorgeous viand, is vastly benefited by the violent oscillation, and the appetite is titillated to the proper pitch. Moreover, the most intelligent class [-219-] of people in town, and those who can be most depended upon as conversationalists, are unquestionably to be found upon the driving-box and monkey-board of an omnibus. I allude, of course, to the driver and conductor. The society of the former of these is so much sought after that it is hard to obtain a seat beside him; but colloquial access to the conductor is, through his position, less difficult. Thus, in this particular case, the four seats of "the omnibus-box" were engaged by a rapt audience, and I had to content myself with the conversation of the cad, which, although brilliant as usual, was subject to interruption from his having to dash away at times, and make up the minds of indecisive females by dragging them into his vehicle.
    However, as we neared the Edgeware Road, even this species of chance passenger got very rare, for who wants to go into the City after six o'clock? As for the knife-board, I was all alone there, like a bachelor in the Bed of Ware; and when I heard the door slammed at Praed Street, I thought we [-220-] had lost all our insides. This, however, was far from being the case.
    "I say," cried the conductor, taking a cotton handkerchief out of his hat, and wiping his forehead - "here's a go, sir, if there ever was one!"
    "What's the matter ?" inquired I, at the same time entreating that he would hold on to the strap, and let his forehead alone till he got down.
    "I can't help it," returned he - "I never was so taken aback in my life. Did you see them ere two fellurs who just got out ?"
    "I saw the top of their hats," said I; "and they were very bad ones."
    "And so they ought to be," observed my friend with indignation. "Nothing but the habjectest poverty can excuse what they have been and done."
    "Why, what have they done?" inquired I.
    "Well, they've been and got in again," returned the conductor. "We're tuppence to Praed Street, and thripence from Praed Street to the City; and 'beyond those distances,' says our table of fares [-221-] inside, we're sixpence. Now, darned if these gents - no, gents wouldn't behave so shabby - darned if these scheming willins haven't got out and paid their tuppences, and now got in again, in order to pay their thripences, by which means they will save a penny apiece by the transaction. Now, don't that beat Mazeppa all to nothing?"
    "It is very ingenious," said I, "and shows great frugality of mind; but I am not sufficiently acquainted with the details respecting Mazeppa to offer an opinion."
    "What, have you not heard about Mazeppa, the Tartarean steed as is hacting at —  I say, Bill !"
    Here my friend endeavoured to draw the drivers attention to the humorous fact of any person (such as myself) not being aware of all the circumstances connected with the animal in question; but, fortunately, the noise of the traffic drowned his cries.
    "It is unnecessary, my good friend," observed I, "that two people should tell me this story; your testimony will he quite sufficient. Pray, begin at [-222-] the beginning; I know nothing about it; and, indeed, I was not even aware that Mazeppa was the name of a horse at all."
    "No more it t'aint, bless ye; it's a mare. She's a hacting now at Hashley's, and a drawing her thousands; and yet, would you believe it, she used to be a 'bus oss, and never drawed more than her eighteen at a time, if so many. Talk about hingenuity! Why, how do you think they starts 'the Desert-born' - that's what they calls it - on her Wild Career?"
    "They crack a whip at the wing, I suppose," said I, remembering how M. Fechter's mare in the King's Butterfly is incited to action.
    "Nothin' of the kind, sir," observed the conductor triumphantly; "they bangs a door, and calls out 'Right,' just as we do, and then the Desert-born moves on accordingly. Moreover" (the excitement of the narrator here rose to such a pitch that be shook his head in the negative at two old ladies frantically telegraphing him to stop and take them in) - "Moreover, there's a vultur, or a heagle,  [-223-] or somethink of that in the piece, which descends upon this 'ere Mazeppa; and how do you think they makes her stop? Why, by hollering out 'Peckham! Peckham!' which is the place she used to run to when in harness. Oh, ain't it a pretty game !"
    Here the conductor once more had resort to his hat for his pocket-handkerchief, and wiped his eyes with amazing vigour.
    "But when is this to be seen, my good friend?" inquired I, as I descended at the Circus, in order to walk quietly down Regent Street, and so to the Megatherium club-house.
    "Why, it's to be seen every night  -to-night, if you like. Now do you go, sir."
    And after dinner, during which I retailed the above incident amid marked applause, I did go accordingly and more than one guest-fellow went with me.
    Everybody knows that Astley's is a very different place from what it used to be in the days of Widdicomb and saw-dust; indeed, it is now per-[-224-]haps the most comfortable theatre in all London. But during the performance of Mazeppa there was one charming circumstance which vividly brought back the old times to my mind, and seemed almost to renew my youth: I allude to that overpowering odour of - I know not what - which hangs like an atmosphere about all equestrian entertainments, and them only, with the single exception of Wild-beast Shows. It can't be got in a mere stable. It is a subtle perfume, made up of a combination of various essences, in which nothing preponderates, although saw-dust, and gas, and orange-peel have all their proper places in it, and harmonise the whole.
    My intelligent informant, to whom I was indebted for this theatrical experience, was mistaken, I perceived, in one particular. It was not the horse who played Mazeppa, but a Jewish maiden, called in the bills Miss Menken, "whose Graceful and Classical Acting, combined with Histrionic Power, Genius, and Amazonian Courage, threw a new light upon Lord Byron's Chef-d'oeuvre. This [-225-] was true, and especially the last part of it. Next to the extraordinary peculiarity of a horse, as suggested, acting Mazeppa, I should think may be placed the fact of a female sustaining that part. It is generally, it seems, played by a dummy; for, said the bill, "Notice: in this drama, Miss Adah Isaacs Menken, as Mazeppa, ascends the fearful precipices on Horseback, and fights her Combats, which has hitherto been done by Deputy." The literature of our drama is said to be in the hands of the French; but let us be thankful that that of our playbills is still English. There were expressions in that one at Astley's which never could have entered into the mind of a foreigner, and with which no study of the British classics could have supplied him. "The Terrific Rakes and Wild Mountain Paths," it said, "had been erected by Mr. Nash and fifty assistants. Now, "the Terrific Rakes by Mr. Nash and fifty assistants," would have been intelligible. From conversation held immediately about us (for it being an equestrian entertainment, we thought it only right to be in [-226-] "the stalls"), we gathered that the fitting costume for a Tartar prince of the seventeenth century, when bound to an untamed steed, had been a subject of great contention with the London press. Since the original text of Lord Byron could scarcely be followed with propriety, the dramatic critics were at feud. The attire of the present Mazeppa had been even stigmatised as insufficient; but really, as others urged, in these days of burlesque and ballet, it was hard to know where to draw the line-that is, the clothes-line. Once permit persons on the stage to dress otherwise than the spectators, and you open the door to anything - and almost nothing. It is like the argument of what is fair and civilized in War, which generally resolves itself, at last, into the not very bigoted restriction, that one mustn't poison the enemy's wells. This question of apparel is far too delicate and difficult a one for the present writer to settle ; and if Mazeppa upon the Desert-born did appear to me as though he had recently escaped from a house on fire, and had not risked his life a second time by [-227-] going back for superfluous garments, perhaps it was only because I really have no idea how a prince of Tartary ought to have been dressed under such very exceptional circumstances.
    But of the steed itself (whose name did not transpire), let me say a few words of praise. It never could have been an omnibus horse; of that I am positively certain. It would not have been permitted by the police, since its appearance would have created obstruction in the highways - mobs. It was of the most wonderful colour imaginable; like a strawberry-cream ice when it begins to melt. If it ever was a jet-black (as represented in the posters), the disease which induced its present hue must have been a very remarkable one. If it ever reared, or sprang across unfathomable gulfs (as depicted in the playbills), this must have taken place during the earlier representations of the piece, and I was unfortunate in having delayed my visit. Or perhaps the creature expends its tremnendous powers in the rehearsals. It was an animal, nevertheless, of the greatest versatility of [-228-] genius. The affability with which it - or another wild steed very like it - took part in a medieval tournament, wherein, by-the-by, the combatants seized one another by the collar like policemen, and used their lances as single-sticks, was above all praise; its behaviour when the vulture was hovering, was indomitable in the highest degree, and even leisurely; while the manner in which it pretended to be dead, was - like life itself.* [* The joke was irresistible; but I will not knowingly wound the feelings of any fellow-creature, though quadruped, and of a strawberry-cream; the horse was a most intelligent horse, and looked as dead (when required so to do), as a pudding-stone.] In a word, I was very much gratified with the Desert-born.
    As for Mazeppa, I did not know whom I was looking at, till an old gentleman, apparently of the Jewish persuasion, was so good as to hand me over a little pamphlet, in a yellow cover, for which he refused to accept any remuneration whatever. This naturally excited my astonishment; yet not so much so as the contents of the work in question. This [-229-] professed to be "a brief biography of Adah Isaacs Menken;" and although brief, it was very startling. It began by stating that this lady was of the Hebrew faith, "which she has always Loved, and been a warm defender of;" that while yet a child, she mastered the French, Latin, and Hebrew languages, and at twelve years old translated Homer's Iliad from the original tongue. At fourteen she was premiere danseuse at the French Opera House in New Orleans; and upon the occasion of her farewell benefit, presents of diamonds and gold were bestowed upon her, beyond the value of 2,000 dollars-one bracelet alone costing 700." Migrating to Cuba, she was adopted by a wealthy Spanish family. Here she had horses, carriages, diamonds, &c., at her command in profusion; but in consequence of a lawsuit, "she became discontented, and gathering up horses, dogs, &c., went to Texas, and thence to Mexico," where she was again premiere danseuse. After this season of triumph, she seems to have returned to Texas, and "out hunting one day with her grooms and [-230-] dogs, a party of Indians took her captive." A prisoner in their hands for more than three weeks, she was rescued, after a sanguinary engagement, by a company of "Texan Rangers," who took her to Austen, where the army was then stationed, commanded by General Harvey. Here she remained at head-quarters, "breakfasting with the family,2 assisting the General in translating Spanish documents into French and English, "reviewing troops, and commanding the regiment with the dignity and precision of an old soldier."
    Tired of a military life, she returned to New Orleans, and gave herself up to literature and the study of German ; also to music and painting. Then, too, she published a volume of poetry called Memories - which ought, we should think, to be interesting, if the contents are indicated by the title - but yet she had not become so etherealised as to neglect her own affairs. She again visited Texas, "to look after a large tract of land that belonged to her." She established a newspaper of her own at Liberty, and became teacher of Latin [-231-] and French in a young-ladies' academy in that city. Then she took to the stage for the first time, as an actress, as Bianca in the tragedy of Fazio, at New Orleans, in 1858. Here, too, she was crowned with flowers, and presented with a set of diamonds [toujours diamonds] and a golden goblet. Although thus successful,. she left the stage and studied sculpture, "working in the studio of T. D. Jones at Columbus;" then went to Cincinnati, and became principal contributor to the Israelite, the leading Jewish paper in America. "Her reply to the Churchman, in defence of Baron Rothschild's Admission to Parliament, was copied widely in England, translated into French and German journals and for which [sic] she received an autograph letter of praise and thanks from Baron Rothschild, calling her the inspired Deborah of her race."
    We have nearly done now.
    "The circumstances of her family compelled her to return to the stage. She played several engagements West; and while at Dayton, in the state of [-232-] Ohio, she was elected, by complimentary vote, captain of the Dayton Light Guard, and presented with a handsome sword and epaulettes."
    I have quoted rather largely from the pamphlet, because it is so very curious; the fact, too, of its being printed, quite apart from the authenticity of its contents, is not without significance. Was it usual, in the days of our boyhood at Astley's or any other theatre, to be supplied with a biography of the particular star which happened to be then shining? Others, I hear, have seen Mazeppa without being furnished with this interesting memoir, but that proves nothing, any more than the circumstance of some persons not having seen an individual commit murder, acquits him of that crime. I, at all events, have got the Biography, and value it immensely. If I ever went to see Mazeppa again, which, however, I do not at present contemplate, I should regard with a new interest "the inspired Deborah of her race," who is also the "captain of the Dayton Light Guard." Strange and melodramatic as is the play in which I beheld her, its [-233-] incidents are feeble compared with those which I read make up the sum of her life.
    Of course, I am told that this said biography is only a bright bubble meant for "puffing," or, as Sir Watts Watt of the Megatherium characterises it, "all lies." But even so,it is a new and striking feature in the British drama. It is by no means new, however, I am given to understand, in the New World. The American Stars, in their courses, are somewhat eccentric; and the Lights and Shadows of London Theatrical Life are not always to be woven, it seems, according to the old patterns.