The appearance presented by the streets of London an hour before sunrise, on a summer’s morning, is most striking even to the few whose unfortunate pursuits of pleasure, or scarcely less unfortunate pursuits of business, cause them to be well acquainted with the scene. There is an air of cold, solitary desolation about the noiseless streets which we are accustomed to see thronged at other times by a busy, eager crowd, and over the quiet, closely-shut buildings, which throughout the day are swarming with life and bustle, that is very impressive.
The last drunken man, who shall find his way home before sunlight, has just staggered heavily along, roaring out the burden of the drinking song of the previous night; the last houseless vagrant, whom penury and police have left in the streets, has coiled up his chilly limbs in some paved corner, to dream of food and warmth. The drunken, the dissipated, and the wretched have disappeared; the more sober and orderly part of the population have not yet awakened to the labours of the day, and the stillness of death is over the streets; its very hue seems to be imparted to them, cold and lifeless as they look in the grey, sombre light of daybreak. The coach-stands in the larger thoroughfares are deserted, the night-houses are closed, and the chosen promenades of profligate misery are empty.
An occasional policeman may alone be seen at the street-corners, listlessly gazing on the deserted prospect before him; and now and then a rakish-looking cat runs stealthily across the road and descends his own area with as much caution and slyness—bounding first on the water-butt, then on the dust-hole, and then alighting on the flag-stones—as if he were conscious that his character depended on his gallantry of the preceding night escaping public observation. A partially opened bedroom window here and there bespeaks the heat of the weather, and the uneasy slumbers of its occupant; and the dim scanty flicker of the rush-light, through the window-blind, denotes the chamber of watching or sickness. With these few exceptions, the streets present no signs of life, nor the houses of habitation.
An hour wears away; the spires of the churches and roofs of the principal buildings are faintly tinged with the light of the rising sun; and the streets, by almost imperceptible degrees, begin to resume their bustle and animation. Market-carts roll slowly along; the sleepy wagoner impatiently urging on his tired horses, or vainly endeavouring to awaken the boy, who, luxuriously stretchedon the top of the fruit-baskets, forgets, in happy oblivion, his long-cherished curiosity to behold the wonders of London.
Rough, sleepy-looking animals of strange appearance, something between ostlers and hackney-coachmen, begin to take down the shutters of early public-houses; and little deal tables, with the ordinary preparations for a street breakfast, make their appearance at the customary stations. Numbers of men and women (principally the latter), carrying upon their heads heavy baskets of fruit, toil down the park side of Piccadilly, on their way to Covent Garden, and, following each other in rapid succession, form a long straggling line from thence to the turn of the road at Knightsbridge.
Here and there, a bricklayer’s labourer, with the day’s dinner tied up in a handkerchief, walks briskly to his work, and occasionally a little knot of three or four schoolboys on a stolen bathing expedition rattle merrily over the pavement, their boisterous mirth contrasting forcibly with the demeanour of the little sweep, who, having knocked and rung till his arm aches, and being interdicted by a merciful legislature from endangering his lungs by calling out, sits patiently down on the door-step until the housemaid may happen to awake.
Covent Garden market and the avenues leading to it are thronged with carts of all sorts, sizes, and descriptions, from the heavy lumbering wagon, with its four stout horses, to the jingling costermonger’s cart with its consumptive donkey. The pavement is already strewed with decayed cabbage-leaves, broken haybands, and all the indescribable litter of a vegetable market; men are shouting, carts backing, horses neighing, boys fighting, basket-women talking, piemen expatiating on the excellence of their pastry, and donkeys braying. These and a hundred other sounds form a compound discordant enough to a Londoner’s ears, and remarkably disagreeable to those of country gentlemen who are sleeping at the Hummums for the first time.
Another hour passes away, and the day begins in good earnest. The servant of all work, who, under the plea of sleeping very soundly, has utterly disregarded “Missis’s” ringing for half an hour previously, is warned by Master (whom Missis has sent up in his drapery to the landing-place for that purpose) that it’s half-past six, whereupon she awakes all of a sudden with well-feigned astonishment, and goes down stairs very sulkily, wishing, while she strikes a light, that the principle of spontaneous combustion would extend itself to coals and kitchen range. When the fire is lighted, she opens the street-door to take in the milk, when, by the most singular coincidence in the world, she discovers that the servant next door has just taken in her milk too, and that Mr. Todd’s young man over the way, is, by an equally extraordinary chance, taking down his master’s shutters. The inevitable consequence is, that she just steps, milk-jug in hand, as far as next door, just to say “good morning” to Betsy Clark, and that Mr. Todd’s young man just steps over the way to say “good morning” to both of ’em; and as the aforesaid Mr. Todd’s young man is almost as good-looking and fascinating as the baker himself, the conversation quickly becomes very interesting, and probably would become more so, if Betsy Clark’s Missis, who always will be a followin’ herabout, didn’t give an angry tap at her bedroom window, on which Mr. Todd’s young man tries to whistle coolly, as he goes back to his shop much faster than he came from it; and the two girls run back to their respective places, and shut their street-doors with surprising softness, each of them poking their heads out of the front parlour-window, a minute afterwards, however, ostensibly with the view of looking at the mail which just then passes by, but really for the purpose of catching another glimpse of Mr. Todd’s young man, who being fond of mails, but more of females, takes a short look at the mails, and a long look at the girls, much to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.
The mail itself goes on to the coach-office in due course, and the passengers who are going out by the early coach, stare with astonishment at the passengers who are coming in by the early coach, who look blue and dismal, and are evidently under the influence of that odd feeling produced by travelling, which makes the events of yesterday morning seem as if they had happened at least six months ago, and induces people to wonder with considerable gravity whether the friends and relations they took leave of a fortnight before, have altered much since they left them. The coach-office is all alive, and the coaches which are just going out are surrounded by the usual crowd of Jews and nondescripts, who seem to consider, Heaven knows why, that it is quite impossible any man can mount a coach without requiring at least sixpenny-worth of oranges, a pen-knife, a pocket-book, a last-year’s annual, a pencil-case, a piece of sponge, and a small series of caricatures.
Half an hour more, and the sun darts his bright rays cheerfully down the still half-empty streets, and shines with sufficient force to rouse the dismal laziness of the apprentice, who pauses every other minute from his task of sweeping out the shop and watering the pavement in front of it, to tell another apprentice similarly employed how hot it will be to-day, or to stand with his right hand shading his eyes, and his left resting on the broom, gazing at the “Wonder,” or the “Tally-ho,” or the “Nimrod,” or some other fast coach till it is out of sight, when he re-enters the shop, envying the passengers on the outside of the fast coach, and thinking of the old red brick house “down in the country” where he went to school: the miseries of the milk and water, and thick bread and scrapings, fading into nothing before the pleasant recollection of the green field the boys used to play in, and the green pond he was caned for presuming to fall into, and other schoolboy associations.
Cabs, with trunks and band-boxes between the drivers’ legs and outside the apron, rattle briskly up and down the streets on their way to the coach-offices or steam-packet wharfs; and the cab-drivers and hackney-coachmen who are on the stand polish up the ornamental part of their dingy vehicles—the former wondering how people can prefer “them wild-beast cariwans of homnibuses, to a riglar cab with a fast trotter,” and the latter admiring how people can trust their necks into one of “them crazy cabs, when they can have a ’spectable ’ackney cotche with a pair of ’orses as von’t run away with no vun;” a consolation unquestionably founded on fact, seeing that a hackney coach-horse never wasknown to run at all, “except,” as the smart cabman in front of the rank observes, “except one, and he run back’ards.”
The shops are now completely opened, and apprentices and shopmen are busily engaged in cleaning and decking the windows for the day. The bakers’ shops in town are filled with servants and children waiting for the drawing of the first batch of rolls—an operation which was performed a full hour ago in the suburbs; for the early clerk population of Somers and Camden towns, Islington, and Pentonville, are fast pouring into the city, or directing their steps towards Chancery Lane and the Inns of Court. Middle-aged men, whose salaries have by no means increased in the same proportion as their families, plod steadily along, apparently with no object in view but the counting-house; knowing by sight almost everybody they meet or overtake, for they have seen them every morning (Sundays excepted) during the last twenty years, but speaking to no one. If they do happen to overtake a personal acquaintance, they just exchange a hurried salutation, and keep walking on either by his side, or in front of him, as his rate of walking may chance to be. As to stopping to shake hands, or to take the friend’s arm, they seem to think that as it is not included in their salary, they have no right to do it. Small office lads in large hats, who are made men before they are boys, hurry along in pairs, with their first coat carefully brushed, and the white trousers of last Sunday plentifully besmeared with dust and ink. It evidently requires a considerable mental struggle to avoid investing part of the day’s dinner-money in the purchase of the stale tarts so temptingly exposed in dusty tins at the pastry-cook’s doors; but a consciousness of their own importance and the receipt of seven shillings a week, with the prospect of an early rise to eight, comes to their aid, and they accordingly put their hats a little more on one side, and look under the bonnets of all the milliners’ and staymakers’ apprentices they meet—poor girls!—the hardest worked, the worst paid, and too often the worst used class of the community.
Eleven o’clock, and a new set of people fill the streets. The goods in the shop-windows are invitingly arranged; the shop-men, in their white neckerchiefs and spruce coats, look as if they couldn’t clean a window if their lives depended on it; the carts have disappeared from Covent Garden; the wagoners have returned, and the costermongers repaired to their ordinary “beats” in the suburbs; clerks are at their offices, and gigs, cabs, omnibuses, and saddle-horses, are conveying their masters to the same destination: The streets are thronged with a vast concourse of people, gay and shabby, rich and poor, idle and industrious; and we come to the heat, bustle, and activity of NOON.
THE STREETS: NIGHT
But the streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark, dull, murky winter’s night, when there is just enough damp gently stealing down to make the pavement greasy, without cleansing it of any of its impurities; and when the heavy, lazy mist, which hangs over every object, makes the gas-lamps look brighter and the brilliantly lighted shops more splendid, from the contrast they present to the darkness around. All the people who are at home on such a night as this seem disposed to make themselves as snug and comfortable as possible; and the passengers in the streets have excellent reason to envy the fortunate individuals who are seated by their own firesides.
In the larger and better kind of streets, dining-parlour curtains are closely drawn, kitchen fires blaze brightly up, and savoury steams of hot dinners salute the nostrils of the hungry wayfarer, as he plods wearily by the area railings. In the suburbs, the muffin-boy rings his way down the little street, much more slowly than he is wont to do; for Mrs. Macklin, of No. 4, has no sooner opened her little street-door, and screamed out “Muffins!” with all her might, than Mrs. Walker, at No. 5, puts her head out of the parlour-window, and screams “Muffins!” too; and Mrs. Walker has scarcely got the words out of her lips, than Mrs. Peplow, over the way, lets loose Master Peplow, who darts down the street, with a velocity which nothing but buttered muffins in perspective could possibly inspire, and drags the boy back by main force, whereupon Mrs. Macklin and Mrs. Walker, just to save the boy trouble, and to say a few neighbourly words to Mrs. Peplow at the same time, run over the way and buy their muffins at Mrs. Peplow’s door, when it appears from the voluntary statement of Mrs. Walker, that her “kittle’s just a biling, and the cups and sarsers ready laid,” and that, as it was such a wretched night out o’ doors, she’d made up her mind to have a nice hot comfortable cup o’ tea—a determination at which, by the most singular coincidence, the other two ladies had simultaneously arrived.
After a little conversation about the wretchedness of the weather and the merits of tea, with a digression relative to the viciousness of boys as a rule, and the amiability of Master Peplow as an exception, Mrs. Walker sees her husband coming down the street; and as he must want his tea, poor man, after his dirty walk from the Docks, she instantly runs across, muffins in hand, and Mrs. Macklin does the same, and after a few words to Mrs. Walker, they all pop into their little houses, and slam their little street-doors, which are not opened again for the remainder of the evening, except to the nine o’clock “beer,” who comes round with a lantern in front of his tray, and says, as he lends Mrs. Walker “Yesterday’s ’Tiser,” that he’s blessed if he can hardly hold the pot, much less feel the paper, for it’s one of the bitterest nights he ever felt, ’cept the night when the man was frozen to death in the Brick-field.
After a little prophetic conversation with the policeman at the street-corner, touching a probable change in the weather, and the setting-in of a hard frost, the nine o’clock beer returns to his master’s house, and employs himself for the remainder of the evening in assiduously stirring the tap-room fire, and deferentially taking part in the conversation of the worthies assembled round it.
The streets in the vicinity of the Marsh Gate and Victoria Theatre present an appearance of dirt and discomfort on such a night which the groups who lounge about them in no degree tend to diminish. Even the little block-tin temple sacred to baked potatoes, surmounted by a splendid design in variegatedlamps, looks less gay than usual; and as to the kidney-pie stand, its glory has quite departed. The candle in the transparent lamp, manufactured of oil-paper, embellished with “characters,” has been blown out fifty times, so the kidney-pie merchant, tired with running backwards and forwards to the next wine-vaults to get a light, has given up the idea of illumination in despair, and the only signs of his “where-about” are the bright sparks, of which a long irregular train is whirled down the street every time he opens his portable oven to hand a hot kidney-pie to a customer.
Flat-fish, oyster, and fruit venders linger hopelessly in the kennel, in vain endeavouring to attract customers; and the ragged boys who usually disport themselves about the streets stand crouched in little knots in some projecting doorway, or under the canvas blind of the cheesemonger’s, where great flaring gas-lights, unshaded by any glass, display huge piles of bright red and pale yellow cheeses, mingled with little five-penny dabs of dingy bacon, various tubs of weekly Dorset, and cloudy rolls of “best fresh.”
Here they amuse themselves with theatrical converse, arising out of their last half-price visit to the Victoria gallery, admire the terrific combat, which is nightly encored, and expatiate on the inimitable manner in which Bill Thompson can “come the double monkey,” or go through the mysterious involutions of a sailor’s hornpipe.
It is nearly eleven o’clock, and the cold thin rain which has been drizzling so long is beginning to pour down in good earnest; the baked-potato man has departed; the kidney-pie man has just walked away with his warehouse on his arm; the cheesemonger has drawn in his blind, and the boys have dispersed. The constant clicking of pattens on the slippy and uneven pavement, and the rustling of umbrellas, as the wind blows against the shop-windows, bear testimony to the inclemency of the night; and the policeman, with his oil-skin cape buttoned closely round him, seems, as he holds his hat on his head and turns round to avoid the gust of wind and rain which drives against him at the street-corner, to be very far from congratulating himself on the prospect before him.
The little chandler’s shop with the cracked bell behind the door, whose melancholy tinkling has been regulated by the demand for quarterns of sugar and half-ounces of coffee, is shutting up. The crowds which have been passing to and fro during the whole day, are rapidly dwindling away; and the noise of shouting and quarrelling which issues from the public-houses is almost the only sound that breaks the melancholy stillness of the night.
There was another, but it has ceased. That wretched woman with the infant in her arms, round whose meagre form the remnant of her own scanty shawl is carefully wrapped, has been attempting to sing some popular ballad, in the hope of wringing a few pence from the compassionate passer-by. A brutal laugh at her weak voice is all she has gained. The tears fall thick and fast down her own pale face; the child is cold and hungry, and its low half-stifled wailing adds to the misery of its wretched mother, as she moans aloud, and sinks despairingly down on a cold damp door-step.
Singing! How few of those who pass such a miserable creature as this think of the anguish of heart, the sinking of soul and spirit, which the very effort of singing produces. Bitter mockery! Disease, neglect, and starvation, faintly articulating the words of the joyous ditty that has enlivened your hours of feasting and merriment. God knows how often! It is no subject of jeering. The weak tremulous voice tells a fearful tale of want and famishing; and the feeble singer of this roaring song may turn away, only to die of cold and hunger.
One o’clock! Parties returning from the different theatres foot it through the muddy streets; cabs, hackney-coaches, carriages, and theatre omnibuses, roll swiftly by; watermen with dim, dirty lanterns in their hands, and large brass plates upon their breasts, who have been shouting and rushing about for the last two hours, retire to their watering-houses, to solace themselves with the creature comforts of pipes and purl; the half-price pit and box frequenters of the theatres throng to the different houses of refreshment; and chops, kidneys, rabbits, oysters, stout, cigars, and “goes” innumerable, are served up amidst a noise and confusion of smoking, running, knife-clattering, and waiter-chattering, perfectly indescribable.
The more musical portion of the play-going community betake themselves to some harmonic meeting. As a matter of curiosity let us follow them thither for a few moments.
In a lofty room of spacious dimensions are seated some eighty or a hundred guests knocking little pewter on the tables, and hammering away with the handles of their knives, as if they were so many trunk-makers. They are applauding a glee, which has just been executed by the three “professional gentlemen” at the top of the centre table, one of whom is in the chair—the little pompous man with the bald head just emerging from the collar of his green coat. The others are seated on either side of him—the stout man with the small voice, and the thin-faced dark man in black. The little man in the chair is a most amusing personage,—such condescending grandeur, and such a voice!
“Bass!” as the young gentleman near us with the blue stock forcibly remarks to his companion, “bass! I b’lieve you; he can go down lower than any man; so low sometimes that you can’t hear him.” And so he does. To hear him growling away, gradually lower and lower down, till he can’t get back again, is the most delightful thing in the world, and it is quite impossible to witness unmoved the impressive solemnity with which he pours forth his soul in “My ’art’s in the ’ighlands,” or “The brave old Hoak.” The stout man is also addicted to sentimentality, and warbles “Fly, fly from the world, my Bessy, with me,” or some such song, with lady-like sweetness, and in the most seductive tones imaginable.
“Pray give your orders, gen’l’men—pray give your or-ders,”—says the pale-faced man with the red head; and demands for “goes” of gin and “goes” of brandy, and pints of stout, and cigars of peculiar mildness, are vociferously made from all parts of the room. The “professional gentlemen” are in the very height of their glory, and bestow condescending nods or even a word or two of recognition on the better known frequenters of the room, in the most bland and patronising manner possible.
That little round-faced man, with the small brown surtout, white stockings and shoes, is in the comic line; the mixed air of self-denial, and mental consciousness of his own powers, with which he acknowledges the call of the chair, is particularly gratifying. “Gen’l’men,” says the little pompous man, accompanying the word with a knock of the president’s hammer on the table—“Gen’l’men, allow me to claim your attention—our friend Mr. Smuggins will oblige.” “Bravo!” shout the company; and Smuggins, after a considerable quantity of coughing by way of symphony, and a most facetious sniff or two, which afford general delight, sings a comic song, with a fal-de-ral—tol-de-rol chorus at the end of every verse, much longer than the verse itself. It is received with unbounded applause, and after some aspiring genius has volunteered a recitation, and failed dismally therein, the little pompous man gives another knock, and says, “Gen’l’men, we will attempt a glee, if you please.” This announcement calls forth tumultuous applause, and the more energetic spirits express the unqualified approbation it affords them by knocking one or two stout glasses off their legs—a humorous device, but one which frequently occasions some slight altercation when the form of paying the damage is proposed to be gone through by the waiter.
Scenes like these are continued until three or four o’clock in the morning; and even when they close, fresh ones open to the inquisitive novice. But as a description of all of them, however slight, would require a volume, the contents of which, however instructive, would be by no means pleasing, we make our bow and drop the curtain.