Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - A Moonlight Excursion to Rosherville

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IT was a "happy thought" which inspired those who guide the destinies of our river steamers to promote a moonlight voyage on the Thames. The idea, had it been started ten years ago, might have appeared absurd. In that dark age the stream was banked throughout its whole length by pestilent mud accumulations and odious wharfs and factories, and the water itself was of a kind unpalatable to any fish more fastidious than the eel. But we have mended our water ways since then, and with a flowering Thames Embankment, and a tidal flow so pellucid that the finny tribe have been tempted back to it, there seemed no reason why the river's refinement should not progress yet a step further. Its chastened bosom was surely as susceptible to romance as those puny puddles in Italy about which pictorial art is so fond of fussing, and, "weather permitting," it would be easy enough to travel by moonlight, and in a manner worthy of the greatest commercial city in the world.
    It would, of course, be ridiculous to attempt the gondola style of thing, with a picturesque waterman, and grapes, and wine, and a guitar on board. It would not pay in the first place, and in the second it would hardly be effective at certain points of the voyage - in the Pool, for instance, where the coal lighters lie thick, and the surface of the stream is so thickly mantled with inky dust, that if the lady ventured, as they do in those Vene-[-65-]tian pictures, to toy with the water over the boat's side, her lily hand would immediately become as though it had been coated with the finest liquid blacking. But why not charter a steam vessel, and do the thing as it should be done? So it came about that on a certain Saturday night, the moon being at that time near the full, and therefore eminently favourable, a steamer left Greenwich Pier at half-past six for Rosherville, to return therefrom when the sun had sunk to rest in the west, and Luna, Queen of Night, perambulated the starry heavens in her silver car.
    Punctual to the moment, the Zephyr steamed gallantly up to the starting-point at Greenwich. It was a brave sight. At the fore part of the vessel a hundred tiny bannerets streamed gaily in the evening breeze, while neatly furled from funnel to fore-peak was the friendly tarpaulin which would unfold its sheltering wings in the event of rain. At the after-part of the vessel there was not so much festive display; but then there was this advantage - the brass band faced in that direction. Discarding lutes and flutes and twanging guitars, the projectors of the trip had provided seven performers on brazen instruments and a drummer, and these sat in a row on the bridge which spans the gulf between the paddle-boxes. It was an experiment, possibly a delicate one, but at a glance, and even before the Zephyr touched the pier, it was evidently worth trying.
    Moonlight trippers, to the number of a hundred and fifty at least, were there ready to embark, and very curious, and, for that matter, touching as well, was it to observe how, if you can only get at it, there is romance in even the commonest natures. Of course, it was no more than one expected to find Augustus and Angeljna there - Augustus, the pale and poetic, with his hair brushed back from his noble brow, and with his slim throat severely socketed in a spotless turnover collar, and Angelina in muslin, with his likeness in her brooch and a white rose in her dress, a zephyr shawl over her arm, and in her hand a volume [-66-] of the sweetest poems. Such a pair there was in at least dozen places; but the individuals one would not, on such an occasion, have missed had they been absent, but who were there too and in considerable force, included lovers of a humbler sphere of life. The lithe-limbed young costermonger from the "Brill" and from Bethnal-green had somehow got wind of the excursion, and here he was with his young woman. He came in a new hairy cap, and a waistcoat as flowerily sprigged as though he was on the way to be married, and the poetry newly kindled in his breast found expression in the pensive manner in which he drew on the store of winkles with which his pocket was filled, wriggling them out of their shells with a pin, and thoughtfully swallowing them as though with the vague idea that somehow or other there was a similarity in the fate of thw winkle and that of the young man who meditated matrimony His companion, though probably not less sentimental than he was too shrewd and sensible to believe that her affianced could exist on romance and winkles from six in the evening until midnight, and had prudently brought with her a convenient hand-basket full of provisions; while in her own behalf, and to mark her respectful appreciation of the event, she came with her honest red hands encased in lavender-coloured cotton gloves, and with a market pottle of strawberries for her refreshment.
    There were youths and their sweethearts of a much less respectable type than the love smitten couple last mentioned, and, oddly enough, any number of middle-aged pairs - hard-working, cosy and comfortable looking Darbies and Joans - who came linked together as lovingly as the rest, except that occasionally there was a sheepishness about Darby that was not natural to him. It is not unlikely, however, that Darby's sheepishness, inasmuch as it invested his countenance with a certain amount of bashfulness and lover-like bewilderment, rather heightened than detracted from the romantic effect. As we started, the brass band on the bridge played some selections from "Madame [-67-] Angot;" while the sun was shining, and the river merrily rippling, the little flags gaily flying, in defiance of melancholy, and all the dull world and its drudgery, and altogether things looked promising. At Blackwall we took in at least a hundred more moonlight trippers, amongst whom were a score or so whose room would have been preferable to their company, for we were getting uncomfortably crowded; and at Woolwich we made a final call and took in some sixty or seventy more. By this time we were chokeful from stem to stern, with both cabins below packed as closely almost as herrings in a barrel.
    By the time we reached Greenhithe I am afraid that many of the company began to suspect that the affair was a mistake. It did not seem to have occurred to any one before that there is all the difference between going out to greet the moon and making a voyage on the chance of meeting her on the way. Likewise, it is one thing to pull along at one's ease on the surface of a pleasant tide, with luxurious lounging and gossip and pipe-smoking to beguile the time, and quite another to be rammed and jammed on the deck of a crowded steamboat, with not room even to turn round without vigorously exercising one's elbows. I was considerably incommoded in this way myself but, if I felt it, how must it have been with Angelina and Augustus ! Just imagine the mental condition of those twin souls of poetry, in such a crowd that it was impossible to count its number; but on board the Zephyr there must have been a least a dozen such unhappy pairs who were being "scrouged" and hustled about in the most deplorable manner; and if ever the human countenance wore an expression of hatred and disgust for all, except one, of humankind, that expression was visible in every agonized Augustus on the boat. Tender looks, tender words - stuff and nonsense! Never mind your heart and its throbbings ; be careful that that gentleman who is struggling over your beloved's shoulder to borrow a corkscrew of a friend half a dozen yards away, does not poke her eye out [-68-] with the sharp-pointed instrument. Angelina's face is flushed and her hair is coming down: she regards Augustus with tearful eyes which convey a well's depth of reproach; but what can that unhappy young man do? Were he in a train he could ,et out at the next station; were he in an omnibus it would merely be a question of alighting and hailing another vehicle; but on board the Zephyr he is for the time as much a prisoner as though he were on board a transport ship, and bound for penal settlement. He is pledged for the "moonlight trip" and there is no release for him or for his affianced until the trip is consummated. Perhaps when the moon rises he tourists will settle down, or stand quiet, at all events.
    By half-past eight Rosherville is gained, but we do not land The captain, seeing that some of his party have become a little too lively to be trusted on shore, will not entertain the idea for a moment, so we turn homeward. It is a disappointment, but there is at least this consolation: it is growing more and more dark, and the moon may be expected at any moment. We do our best to invite her, for in half a dozen different spots there are as many parties singing " Rise, gentle moon," "When the moon is on the waters," "Meet me by moonlight alone," and so forth. Then, all the songs in which the word moon is mentioned having been sung, those who are still in a sentimental mood, continue to serenade her coy ladyship with many melancholy ballads of the " Poor old Jeff" and "Mary Blane" order; but whether the moon is sulky or frightened, she certainly declines to illumine the heavens. It is a pity, and the moon herself can hardly be aware how much she has to answer for in consequence of not shining out that Saturday night. There were those on board that boat who, I feel convinced, were "open to conversion." There was that young winkle-devouring costermonger and the many bosom friends and acquaintances he discovered on the steamer. The "moonlight trip" was to them the dawn of tenderness and sentimentality. Had the orb of night ful-[-69-]filled the share assigned to her in the programme, there is no knowing but that the contemplation of her full splendour would have acted on his corrugated nature as a hot flat-iron acts on rough linen, and that he would have appeared a smooth and glossy character ever after; but since the moon saw fit to flout that impetuous young fellow, and declined to respond to his shy advances, why, "the moon be blowed !" says the young costermonger to his sweetheart; "wot's the use of stopping up here to ketch cold ?" As the night grows darker sentiment is thrown overboard altogether, and, as they sit and stand, young men and maidens, fast boys and their female acquaintances, respectable middle-aged women and their husbands, all huddled together in the dark, go in for music-hall ditties of the fullest strength and flavour, and other melodies of the same classical character. There is an attempt at dancing, but it ends in an inevitable trampling on the feet of the innocent, and a fight that is promptly suppressed by the policeman in attendance. There is finally drinking and smoking everywhere, and downstairs more, I think, than anywhere else, judging from the steady cloud of tobacco smoke that ascends from thence, and the mutual tenderness for each other evinced by couples whose affection does not seem diminished by their discovery of the moon's faithlessness. On the whole, the return to Greenwich was not nearly so dignified as the outsetting; and perhaps it was, after all, a kindness on the part of the luminary we had been voyaging in search of that she did not peep out at this last moment, and show to all assembled there what a very unromantic crew it was that had sought to bask in her smiles.