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Chapter 14

VAUXHALL-GARDENS BY DAY

There was a time when if a man ventured to wonder how Vauxhall-
gardens would look by day, he was hailed with a shout of derision
at the absurdity of the idea. Vauxhall by daylight! A porter-pot
without porter, the House of Commons without the Speaker, a gas-
lamp without the gas--pooh, nonsense, the thing was not to be
thought of. It was rumoured, too, in those times, that Vauxhall-
gardens by day, were the scene of secret and hidden experiments;
that there, carvers were exercised in the mystic art of cutting a
moderate-sized ham into slices thin enough to pave the whole of the
grounds; that beneath the shade of the tall trees, studious men
were constantly engaged in chemical experiments, with the view of
discovering how much water a bowl of negus could possibly bear; and
that in some retired nooks, appropriated to the study of
ornithology, other sage and learned men were, by a process known
only to themselves, incessantly employed in reducing fowls to a
mere combination of skin and bone.

Vague rumours of this kind, together with many others of a similar
nature, cast over Vauxhall-gardens an air of deep mystery; and as
there is a great deal in the mysterious, there is no doubt that to
a good many people, at all events, the pleasure they afforded was
not a little enhanced by this very circumstance.

Of this class of people we confess to having made one. We loved to
wander among these illuminated groves, thinking of the patient and
laborious researches which had been carried on there during the
day, and witnessing their results in the suppers which were served
up beneath the light of lamps and to the sound of music at night.
The temples and saloons and cosmoramas and fountains glittered and
sparkled before our eyes; the beauty of the lady singers and the
elegant deportment of the gentlemen, captivated our hearts; a few
hundred thousand of additional lamps dazzled our senses; a bowl or
two of punch bewildered our brains; and we were happy.

In an evil hour, the proprietors of Vauxhall-gardens took to
opening them by day. We regretted this, as rudely and harshly
disturbing that veil of mystery which had hung about the property
for many years, and which none but the noonday sun, and the late
Mr. Simpson, had ever penetrated. We shrunk from going; at this
moment we scarcely know why. Perhaps a morbid consciousness of
approaching disappointment--perhaps a fatal presentiment--perhaps
the weather; whatever it was, we did NOT go until the second or
third announcement of a race between two balloons tempted us, and
we went.

We paid our shilling at the gate, and then we saw for the first
time, that the entrance, if there had been any magic about it at
all, was now decidedly disenchanted, being, in fact, nothing more
nor less than a combination of very roughly-painted boards and
sawdust. We glanced at the orchestra and supper-room as we hurried
past--we just recognised them, and that was all. We bent our steps
to the firework-ground; there, at least, we should not be
disappointed. We reached it, and stood rooted to the spot with
mortification and astonishment. THAT the Moorish tower--that
wooden shed with a door in the centre, and daubs of crimson and
yellow all round, like a gigantic watch-case! THAT the place where
night after night we had beheld the undaunted Mr. Blackmore make
his terrific ascent, surrounded by flames of fire, and peals of
artillery, and where the white garments of Madame Somebody (we
forget even her name now), who nobly devoted her life to the
manufacture of fireworks, had so often been seen fluttering in the
wind, as she called up a red, blue, or party-coloured light to
illumine her temple! THAT the--but at this moment the bell rung;
the people scampered away, pell-mell, to the spot from whence the
sound proceeded; and we, from the mere force of habit, found
ourself running among the first, as if for very life.

It was for the concert in the orchestra. A small party of dismal
men in cocked hats were 'executing' the overture to Tancredi, and a
numerous assemblage of ladies and gentlemen, with their families,
had rushed from their half-emptied stout mugs in the supper boxes,
and crowded to the spot. Intense was the low murmur of admiration
when a particularly small gentleman, in a dress coat, led on a
particularly tall lady in a blue sarcenet pelisse and bonnet of the
same, ornamented with large white feathers, and forthwith commenced
a plaintive duet.

We knew the small gentleman well; we had seen a lithographed
semblance of him, on many a piece of music, with his mouth wide
open as if in the act of singing; a wine-glass in his hand; and a
table with two decanters and four pine-apples on it in the
background. The tall lady, too, we had gazed on, lost in raptures
of admiration, many and many a time--how different people DO look
by daylight, and without punch, to be sure! It was a beautiful
duet: first the small gentleman asked a question, and then the
tall lady answered it; then the small gentleman and the tall lady
sang together most melodiously; then the small gentleman went
through a little piece of vehemence by himself, and got very tenor
indeed, in the excitement of his feelings, to which the tall lady
responded in a similar manner; then the small gentleman had a shake
or two, after which the tall lady had the same, and then they both
merged imperceptibly into the original air: and the band wound
themselves up to a pitch of fury, and the small gentleman handed
the tall lady out, and the applause was rapturous.

The comic singer, however, was the especial favourite; we really
thought that a gentleman, with his dinner in a pocket-handkerchief,
who stood near us, would have fainted with excess of joy. A
marvellously facetious gentleman that comic singer is; his
distinguishing characteristics are, a wig approaching to the
flaxen, and an aged countenance, and he bears the name of one of
the English counties, if we recollect right. He sang a very good
song about the seven ages, the first half-hour of which afforded
the assembly the purest delight; of the rest we can make no report,
as we did not stay to hear any more.

We walked about, and met with a disappointment at every turn; our
favourite views were mere patches of paint; the fountain that had
sparkled so showily by lamp-light, presented very much the
appearance of a water-pipe that had burst; all the ornaments were
dingy, and all the walks gloomy. There was a spectral attempt at
rope-dancing in the little open theatre. The sun shone upon the
spangled dresses of the performers, and their evolutions were about
as inspiriting and appropriate as a country-dance in a family
vault. So we retraced our steps to the firework-ground, and
mingled with the little crowd of people who were contemplating Mr.
Green.

Some half-dozen men were restraining the impetuosity of one of the
balloons, which was completely filled, and had the car already
attached; and as rumours had gone abroad that a Lord was 'going
up,' the crowd were more than usually anxious and talkative. There
was one little man in faded black, with a dirty face and a rusty
black neckerchief with a red border, tied in a narrow wisp round
his neck, who entered into conversation with everybody, and had
something to say upon every remark that was made within his
hearing. He was standing with his arms folded, staring up at the
balloon, and every now and then vented his feelings of reverence
for the aeronaut, by saying, as he looked round to catch somebody's
eye, 'He's a rum 'un is Green; think o' this here being up'ards of
his two hundredth ascent; ecod, the man as is ekal to Green never
had the toothache yet, nor won't have within this hundred year, and
that's all about it. When you meets with real talent, and native,
too, encourage it, that's what I say;' and when he had delivered
himself to this effect, he would fold his arms with more
determination than ever, and stare at the balloon with a sort of
admiring defiance of any other man alive, beyond himself and Green,
that impressed the crowd with the opinion that he was an oracle.

'Ah, you're very right, sir,' said another gentleman, with his
wife, and children, and mother, and wife's sister, and a host of
female friends, in all the gentility of white pocket-handkerchiefs,
frills, and spencers, 'Mr. Green is a steady hand, sir, and there's
no fear about him.'

'Fear!' said the little man: 'isn't it a lovely thing to see him
and his wife a going up in one balloon, and his own son and HIS
wife a jostling up against them in another, and all of them going
twenty or thirty mile in three hours or so, and then coming back in
pochayses? I don't know where this here science is to stop, mind
you; that's what bothers me.'

Here there was a considerable talking among the females in the
spencers.

'What's the ladies a laughing at, sir?' inquired the little man,
condescendingly.

'It's only my sister Mary,' said one of the girls, 'as says she
hopes his lordship won't be frightened when he's in the car, and
want to come out again.'

'Make yourself easy about that there, my dear,' replied the little
man. 'If he was so much as to move a inch without leave, Green
would jist fetch him a crack over the head with the telescope, as
would send him into the bottom of the basket in no time, and stun
him till they come down again.'

'Would he, though?' inquired the other man.

'Yes, would he,' replied the little one, 'and think nothing of it,
neither, if he was the king himself. Green's presence of mind is
wonderful.'

Just at this moment all eyes were directed to the preparations
which were being made for starting. The car was attached to the
second balloon, the two were brought pretty close together, and a
military band commenced playing, with a zeal and fervour which
would render the most timid man in existence but too happy to
accept any means of quitting that particular spot of earth on which
they were stationed. Then Mr. Green, sen., and his noble companion
entered one car, and Mr. Green, jun., and HIS companion the other;
and then the balloons went up, and the aerial travellers stood up,
and the crowd outside roared with delight, and the two gentlemen
who had never ascended before, tried to wave their flags, as if
they were not nervous, but held on very fast all the while; and the
balloons were wafted gently away, our little friend solemnly
protesting, long after they were reduced to mere specks in the air,
that he could still distinguish the white hat of Mr. Green. The
gardens disgorged their multitudes, boys ran up and down screaming
'bal-loon;' and in all the crowded thoroughfares people rushed out
of their shops into the middle of the road, and having stared up in
the air at two little black objects till they almost dislocated
their necks, walked slowly in again, perfectly satisfied.

The next day there was a grand account of the ascent in the morning
papers, and the public were informed how it was the finest day but
four in Mr. Green's remembrance; how they retained sight of the
earth till they lost it behind the clouds; and how the reflection
of the balloon on the undulating masses of vapour was gorgeously
picturesque; together with a little science about the refraction of
the sun's rays, and some mysterious hints respecting atmospheric
heat and eddying currents of air.

There was also an interesting account how a man in a boat was
distinctly heard by Mr. Green, jun., to exclaim, 'My eye!' which
Mr. Green, jun., attributed to his voice rising to the balloon, and
the sound being thrown back from its surface into the car; and the
whole concluded with a slight allusion to another ascent next
Wednesday, all of which was very instructive and very amusing, as
our readers will see if they look to the papers. If we have
forgotten to mention the date, they have only to wait till next
summer, and take the account of the first ascent, and it will
answer the purpose equally well.

Charles Dickens