Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 6

MEDITATIONS IN MONMOUTH-STREET

We have always entertained a particular attachment towards
Monmouth-street, as the only true and real emporium for second-hand
wearing apparel. Monmouth-street is venerable from its antiquity,
and respectable from its usefulness. Holywell-street we despise;
the red-headed and red-whiskered Jews who forcibly haul you into
their squalid houses, and thrust you into a suit of clothes,
whether you will or not, we detest.

The inhabitants of Monmouth-street are a distinct class; a
peaceable and retiring race, who immure themselves for the most
part in deep cellars, or small back parlours, and who seldom come
forth into the world, except in the dusk and coolness of the
evening, when they may be seen seated, in chairs on the pavement,
smoking their pipes, or watching the gambols of their engaging
children as they revel in the gutter, a happy troop of infantine
scavengers. Their countenances bear a thoughtful and a dirty cast,
certain indications of their love of traffic; and their habitations
are distinguished by that disregard of outward appearance and
neglect of personal comfort, so common among people who are
constantly immersed in profound speculations, and deeply engaged in
sedentary pursuits.

We have hinted at the antiquity of our favourite spot. 'A
Monmouth-street laced coat' was a by-word a century ago; and still
we find Monmouth-street the same. Pilot great-coats with wooden
buttons, have usurped the place of the ponderous laced coats with
full skirts; embroidered waistcoats with large flaps, have yielded
to double-breasted checks with roll-collars; and three-cornered
hats of quaint appearance, have given place to the low crowns and
broad brims of the coachman school; but it is the times that have
changed, not Monmouth-street. Through every alteration and every
change, Monmouth-street has still remained the burial-place of the
fashions; and such, to judge from all present appearances, it will
remain until there are no more fashions to bury.

We love to walk among these extensive groves of the illustrious
dead, and to indulge in the speculations to which they give rise;
now fitting a deceased coat, then a dead pair of trousers, and anon
the mortal remains of a gaudy waistcoat, upon some being of our own
conjuring up, and endeavouring, from the shape and fashion of the
garment itself, to bring its former owner before our mind's eye.
We have gone on speculating in this way, until whole rows of coats
have started from their pegs, and buttoned up, of their own accord,
round the waists of imaginary wearers; lines of trousers have
jumped down to meet them; waistcoats have almost burst with anxiety
to put themselves on; and half an acre of shoes have suddenly found
feet to fit them, and gone stumping down the street with a noise
which has fairly awakened us from our pleasant reverie, and driven
us slowly away, with a bewildered stare, an object of astonishment
to the good people of Monmouth-street, and of no slight suspicion
to the policemen at the opposite street corner.

We were occupied in this manner the other day, endeavouring to fit
a pair of lace-up half-boots on an ideal personage, for whom, to
say the truth, they were full a couple of sizes too small, when our
eyes happened to alight on a few suits of clothes ranged outside a
shop-window, which it immediately struck us, must at different
periods have all belonged to, and been worn by, the same
individual, and had now, by one of those strange conjunctions of
circumstances which will occur sometimes, come to be exposed
together for sale in the same shop. The idea seemed a fantastic
one, and we looked at the clothes again with a firm determination
not to be easily led away. No, we were right; the more we looked,
the more we were convinced of the accuracy of our previous
impression. There was the man's whole life written as legibly on
those clothes, as if we had his autobiography engrossed on
parchment before us.

The first was a patched and much-soiled skeleton suit; one of those
straight blue cloth cases in which small boys used to be confined,
before belts and tunics had come in, and old notions had gone out:
an ingenious contrivance for displaying the full symmetry of a
boy's figure, by fastening him into a very tight jacket, with an
ornamental row of buttons over each shoulder, and then buttoning
his trousers over it, so as to give his legs the appearance of
being hooked on, just under the armpits. This was the boy's dress.
It had belonged to a town boy, we could see; there was a shortness
about the legs and arms of the suit; and a bagging at the knees,
peculiar to the rising youth of London streets. A small day-school
he had been at, evidently. If it had been a regular boys' school
they wouldn't have let him play on the floor so much, and rub his
knees so white. He had an indulgent mother too, and plenty of
halfpence, as the numerous smears of some sticky substance about
the pockets, and just below the chin, which even the salesman's
skill could not succeed in disguising, sufficiently betokened.
They were decent people, but not overburdened with riches, or he
would not have so far outgrown the suit when he passed into those
corduroys with the round jacket; in which he went to a boys'
school, however, and learnt to write--and in ink of pretty
tolerable blackness, too, if the place where he used to wipe his
pen might be taken as evidence.

A black suit and the jacket changed into a diminutive coat. His
father had died, and the mother had got the boy a message-lad's
place in some office. A long-worn suit that one; rusty and
threadbare before it was laid aside, but clean and free from soil
to the last. Poor woman! We could imagine her assumed
cheerfulness over the scanty meal, and the refusal of her own small
portion, that her hungry boy might have enough. Her constant
anxiety for his welfare, her pride in his growth mingled sometimes
with the thought, almost too acute to bear, that as he grew to be a
man his old affection might cool, old kindnesses fade from his
mind, and old promises be forgotten--the sharp pain that even then
a careless word or a cold look would give her--all crowded on our
thoughts as vividly as if the very scene were passing before us.

These things happen every hour, and we all know it; and yet we felt
as much sorrow when we saw, or fancied we saw--it makes no
difference which--the change that began to take place now, as if we
had just conceived the bare possibility of such a thing for the
first time. The next suit, smart but slovenly; meant to be gay,
and yet not half so decent as the threadbare apparel; redolent of
the idle lounge, and the blackguard companions, told us, we
thought, that the widow's comfort had rapidly faded away. We could
imagine that coat--imagine! we could see it; we HAD seen it a
hundred times--sauntering in company with three or four other coats
of the same cut, about some place of profligate resort at night.

We dressed, from the same shop-window in an instant, half a dozen
boys of from fifteen to twenty; and putting cigars into their
mouths, and their hands into their pockets, watched them as they
sauntered down the street, and lingered at the corner, with the
obscene jest, and the oft-repeated oath. We never lost sight of
them, till they had cocked their hats a little more on one side,
and swaggered into the public-house; and then we entered the
desolate home, where the mother sat late in the night, alone; we
watched her, as she paced the room in feverish anxiety, and every
now and then opened the door, looked wistfully into the dark and
empty street, and again returned, to be again and again
disappointed. We beheld the look of patience with which she bore
the brutish threat, nay, even the drunken blow; and we heard the
agony of tears that gushed from her very heart, as she sank upon
her knees in her solitary and wretched apartment.

A long period had elapsed, and a greater change had taken place, by
the time of casting off the suit that hung above. It was that of a
stout, broad-shouldered, sturdy-chested man; and we knew at once,
as anybody would, who glanced at that broad-skirted green coat,
with the large metal buttons, that its wearer seldom walked forth
without a dog at his heels, and some idle ruffian, the very
counterpart of himself, at his side. The vices of the boy had
grown with the man, and we fancied his home then--if such a place
deserve the name.

We saw the bare and miserable room, destitute of furniture, crowded
with his wife and children, pale, hungry, and emaciated; the man
cursing their lamentations, staggering to the tap-room, from whence
he had just returned, followed by his wife and a sickly infant,
clamouring for bread; and heard the street-wrangle and noisy
recrimination that his striking her occasioned. And then
imagination led us to some metropolitan workhouse, situated in the
midst of crowded streets and alleys, filled with noxious vapours,
and ringing with boisterous cries, where an old and feeble woman,
imploring pardon for her son, lay dying in a close dark room, with
no child to clasp her hand, and no pure air from heaven to fan her
brow. A stranger closed the eyes that settled into a cold
unmeaning glare, and strange ears received the words that murmured
from the white and half-closed lips.

A coarse round frock, with a worn cotton neckerchief, and other
articles of clothing of the commonest description, completed the
history. A prison, and the sentence--banishment or the gallows.
What would the man have given then, to be once again the contented
humble drudge of his boyish years; to have been restored to life,
but for a week, a day, an hour, a minute, only for so long a time
as would enable him to say one word of passionate regret to, and
hear one sound of heartfelt forgiveness from, the cold and ghastly
form that lay rotting in the pauper's grave! The children wild in
the streets, the mother a destitute widow; both deeply tainted with
the deep disgrace of the husband and father's name, and impelled by
sheer necessity, down the precipice that had led him to a lingering
death, possibly of many years' duration, thousands of miles away.
We had no clue to the end of the tale; but it was easy to guess its
termination.

We took a step or two further on, and by way of restoring the
naturally cheerful tone of our thoughts, began fitting visionary
feet and legs into a cellar-board full of boots and shoes, with a
speed and accuracy that would have astonished the most expert
artist in leather, living. There was one pair of boots in
particular--a jolly, good-tempered, hearty-looking pair of tops,
that excited our warmest regard; and we had got a fine, red-faced,
jovial fellow of a market-gardener into them, before we had made
their acquaintance half a minute. They were just the very thing
for him. There was his huge fat legs bulging over the tops, and
fitting them too tight to admit of his tucking in the loops he had
pulled them on by; and his knee-cords with an interval of stocking;
and his blue apron tucked up round his waist; and his red
neckerchief and blue coat, and a white hat stuck on one side of his
head; and there he stood with a broad grin on his great red face,
whistling away, as if any other idea but that of being happy and
comfortable had never entered his brain.

This was the very man after our own heart; we knew all about him;
we had seen him coming up to Covent-garden in his green chaise-
cart, with the fat, tubby little horse, half a thousand times; and
even while we cast an affectionate look upon his boots, at that
instant, the form of a coquettish servant-maid suddenly sprung into
a pair of Denmark satin shoes that stood beside them, and we at
once recognised the very girl who accepted his offer of a ride,
just on this side the Hammersmith suspension-bridge, the very last
Tuesday morning we rode into town from Richmond.

A very smart female, in a showy bonnet, stepped into a pair of grey
cloth boots, with black fringe and binding, that were studiously
pointing out their toes on the other side of the top-boots, and
seemed very anxious to engage his attention, but we didn't observe
that our friend the market-gardener appeared at all captivated with
these blandishments; for beyond giving a knowing wink when they
first began, as if to imply that he quite understood their end and
object, he took no further notice of them. His indifference,
however, was amply recompensed by the excessive gallantry of a very
old gentleman with a silver-headed stick, who tottered into a pair
of large list shoes, that were standing in one corner of the board,
and indulged in a variety of gestures expressive of his admiration
of the lady in the cloth boots, to the immeasurable amusement of a
young fellow we put into a pair of long-quartered pumps, who we
thought would have split the coat that slid down to meet him, with
laughing.

We had been looking on at this little pantomime with great
satisfaction for some time, when, to our unspeakable astonishment,
we perceived that the whole of the characters, including a numerous
corps de ballet of boots and shoes in the background, into which we
had been hastily thrusting as many feet as we could press into the
service, were arranging themselves in order for dancing; and some
music striking up at the moment, to it they went without delay. It
was perfectly delightful to witness the agility of the market-
gardener. Out went the boots, first on one side, then on the
other, then cutting, then shuffling, then setting to the Denmark
satins, then advancing, then retreating, then going round, and then
repeating the whole of the evolutions again, without appearing to
suffer in the least from the violence of the exercise.

Nor were the Denmark satins a bit behindhand, for they jumped and
bounded about, in all directions; and though they were neither so
regular, nor so true to the time as the cloth boots, still, as they
seemed to do it from the heart, and to enjoy it more, we candidly
confess that we preferred their style of dancing to the other. But
the old gentleman in the list shoes was the most amusing object in
the whole party; for, besides his grotesque attempts to appear
youthful, and amorous, which were sufficiently entertaining in
themselves, the young fellow in the pumps managed so artfully that
every time the old gentleman advanced to salute the lady in the
cloth boots, he trod with his whole weight on the old fellow's
toes, which made him roar with anguish, and rendered all the others
like to die of laughing.

We were in the full enjoyment of these festivities when we heard a
shrill, and by no means musical voice, exclaim, 'Hope you'll know
me agin, imperence!' and on looking intently forward to see from
whence the sound came, we found that it proceeded, not from the
young lady in the cloth boots, as we had at first been inclined to
suppose, but from a bulky lady of elderly appearance who was seated
in a chair at the head of the cellar-steps, apparently for the
purpose of superintending the sale of the articles arranged there.

A barrel-organ, which had been in full force close behind us,
ceased playing; the people we had been fitting into the shoes and
boots took to flight at the interruption; and as we were conscious
that in the depth of our meditations we might have been rudely
staring at the old lady for half an hour without knowing it, we
took to flight too, and were soon immersed in the deepest obscurity
of the adjacent 'Dials.'

Charles Dickens