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Chapter 2

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 jist 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 variegated lamps, 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
'whereabout,' 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 vendors 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 a cheesemonger's, where great flaring gas-lights,
unshaded by any glass, display huge piles of blight red and pale
yellow cheeses, mingled with little fivepenny 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 oilskin 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 measures 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'm'n--pray give your orders,'--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.

The 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-ral 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.

Charles Dickens