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[-142-] TWO P.M.-FROM REGENT STREET TO HIGH CHANGE.
I breathe again. I see before me, broad-spread, a vista of gentility.
I have done, for many hours to come, with shabby subjects. No more
dams I'll make for fish-in Billingsgate; nor scrape trencher, nor wash dish, at second-rate eating-houses; nor fetch firing at requiring in
Covent Garden or the Docks. Prospero must get a new man, for
Caliban has got a new master: Fashion, in Regent Street.
I declare that when I approach this solemnly-genteel theme, my [-143-] frame dilates, my eyes kindle, my heart dances. I experience an intense desire to array myself in purple and fine linen, knee shorts, lace ruffles, pink silk stockings, diamond buckles, and a silver-hilted sword; to have my hair powdered, and my jewelled tabatiere filled with scented rappee; to sit with my feet on a Turkey carpet, before a table inlaid with marqueterie, wax candles in silver sconces (the candles all green, with fillagree bobeches) on either side; and then-while my Dulcinea in a hoop petticoat, a point lace apron, red-heeled mules, a toupet and a mouche on the left cheek, her feathered fan, painted by Fragonard on the finest chicken-skin, lying beside her-plays the minuet from "Ariadne" in an adjoining and gilded salon, decorated in the Style Pompadour, on the harpsichord; and on pink scented note-paper, with a diamond pointed pen and violet ink-the golden pounce-box at my elbow-then under these circumstances and with these luxurious appliances around me, I think I could manage to devote myself to the task of inditing matter concerning Regent Street in the smoothest dythrambics. This is rather a violent contrast to the dry skittle-ground, the cows, and the depraved sow which inspired me in the last chapter; but only take my subject into consideration: only permit me to inoculate you with one drop of the ethereal nectar which should be quaffed by every writer who would look upon Regent Street from a proper point of view. Ladies and gentlemen moving in the polite circles have - but that is long ago - accused me of being of Bohemia, and to that manner born; of writing a great deal too much about the Virginian weed in its manufactured state, and the fermented infusion of malt and hops; publishers have refused to purchase my novels because they contained too many descriptions of "low life ;" because my heroes and heroines were too frequently ragged and forlorn creatures, who did'nt go into "society," who didn't go to church, who were never seen at the May meetings in Exeter Hall, but who went to public-houses and penny-gaffs instead. Oh, lords and ladies! oh, brilliant butterflies of society! oh, respectable people of every degree whose ear coarse language wounds, but who would have, believe me, to undergo much coarser deeds from the ragged ones you despise, were it not for the humble efforts of us poor pen-and-ink missionaries; O salt ones of the earth! think that you are but hundreds among the millions of the tattered and torn, who have never studied the "Handbook to Etiquette," nor heard of Burke and Debrett, and who would eat peas with their knives if they had any peas to eat - Heaven help them! [-144-] They are around and about you always. I have no greed of gain in advocating their cause, for I am unknown to them, and am of your middle class, and am as liable to be stoned by the ragged ones for having a better coat than they any day. But woe be to you, respectables, if you shut you ears to their plaints and your eyes to their condition. For the stones may fly thick and fast some day; there may be none to help you, and it may be too late to cry for help.
I have heard Regent Street compared to the Boulevard des Italiens, to Unter-den-Linden et Berlin, to Broadway at New York, to the Montague de la Cour at Brussels, to the Corso de' Servi at Milan, to the Toledo at Naples, to George Street, Sydney, and to the Nevskoi Perspective at Petersburg. In my opinion, Regent Street is an amalgamation of all these streets, and surpasses them all. Their elements are strained, filtered, refined, condensed, sublimated, to make up one glorious thoroughfare. Add to this, the unique and almost indescribable cachet which the presence of English aristocracy lends to every place it chooses for its frequentation, and the result is Regent Street. Of the many cities I have wandered into and about, there is but one possessing a street that can challenge comparison with - and that, I must confess, well nigh equals - the street that Nash, prince of architects, built for the fourth George. At a right angle from the pleasant waters of the river Liffey, there runs a street, wide in dimensions, magnificent in the proportions of its edifices, splendid in its temples and its palaces, though many of the latter, alas! are converted now into hotels, now into linen- drapers' shops; but on a golden summer's afternoon, when you see, speeding towards the column of Nelson in the distance, the glittering equipages of the rich and noble, who yet have their dwelling in Eblana; the clattering orderlies, on sleek-groomed horses, and with burnished accoutrements, spurring from the Castle towards the Post Office - and, beauty of beauties, the side walks on either hand converted into parterres of living flowers, the grand and glorious Irish girls, with their bright raimant and brighter eyes; you will acknowledge that Regent Street has a rival, that beyond St. George's Channel is a street that the triumphal procession of a Zenobia or a Semiramis might pass down, and that the queen of streets is Sackville Street, Dublin.
Do you know, youth of the present generation - for I fondly hope that I have good store of juveniles among my readers - that Regent Street has its antiquities, its archaeologia, its topographical curiosities? Mr. Peter Cunningham knows them all by heart; I am not about to [-145-] steal from the "Handbook of London" of our modern Camden; but will just tell you, in my desultory way, that, in the days when the Mews reared their head, an unsightly mass of brick buildings, in the area which is now Trafalgar Square; when Canton House loomed at the eastern end of Pall Mall, instead of the ugly post erected as a monument of national gratitude to the Royal Duke who paid nobody; when the Golden Cross, Charing Cross, was hemmed in by a cobweb mass of dirty tenements, and Hungerford Market was yet a mass of fishy hovels ungraced by Hungerford Hall and Mr. Gatti's penny-ice shop; when the old "Courier" newspaper office stood (over-against Mr. Cross's older Exeter Change, with the elephant's tusks displayed outside, the shops beneath, and Chunee and the wild beasts all alive and roaring upstairs) in the space that now forms the approach to Waterloo Bridge; and when the vicinity of Temple Bar was blocked up by a brick-and-mortar cloaca, since swept away to form what is now termed Picket Place. Are you at all aware, neophytes in topographical lore, that the area of Regent Street the superb, was occupied by mean and shambling tenth-rate avenues, among which the chiefest was a large, dirty highway, called Great Swallow Street? Old Fuller (I don't know why he should be called "old so persistently, for he did not attain anything like a venerable age) was in the habit of collecting information for the "Worthies of England" from the tottering crones who sat spinning by the ingle-nook, and from the white-headed grandsires sunning themselves on the bench by the almshouse door. In like manner, I owe much of the information I possess on the aspect of London streets, at the time just previous to my nonage, to communing with nurses and nurses' female friends. The good folks who tend children, seldom deem that the little pitchers they say jestingly have long ears, will suck their lore in so greedily, or retain it so long.
My personal acquaintance with Regent Street dates from the year thirty-two, when I remember a great scrambling procession of operatives, with parti-coloured sags, emblazoned with devices I could not read, passing down it. Mrs. Esner, who was then attached to my person in a domestic capacity (she often calls upon me now, and, saying that she "nussed" me, expatiates on the benefits of a pound of green tea), told me that these operatives belonged to the "Trades Union." She said - though the good woman must have exaggerated - that they were half a million in number, and I recollect her portending, in a grave low voice, that there would be riots that night. I [-146-] don't think that any occurred; but long after, whenever I saw a crowd, I used to ask whether "there would be any riots" that night, just as I might have inquired whether there would be any bread-and-butter for tea. This was about the time that they used to call the great Duke of Wellington "Nosey," and "Sawbones," and to break his windows. I was too young to know then, that the Athenians grew tired of hearing Aristides called "The Just ;" and that a nation once grumbled at having to pay for the palace it had bestowed upon that John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, who won the battle of Blenheim. I think, too, there must have been something about the Cholera in my earliest recollections of Regent Street; yet, no : I lived in North Audley Street at that time, and opposite the mansion of the great Earl of Clarendon; for, as clearly as though it were yesterday, I see now in the eye to which the attention of Horatio, friend of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, was directed - a hot autumn afternoon. I am at the nursery-window in sad disgrace, and pouting because I have wrenched the sprightly wooden hussar from the horse which had the semi-circle of wire with the bullet at the end fixed in his stomach, and who used, with that impetus, to swing so deftly. There is much commotion in the great earl's mansion; for one of the servants partook too plentifully last night of gooseberry-fool after a rout his lordship gave - where are the "routs" and the "gooseberry-fools now? - and she is dead this morning of cholera morbus. My female entourage are unanimously exacting in calling it cholera "morbus." The undertaker's men bring the body out; the shell gleams white in the afternoon's sunshine, and it is begirt with cords; "for," says the domestic oracles behind me, "it was so mortal swole that it would ave bust else." A horrible rumour runs about, that the coffin has been "pitched and sealed." What can "pitching and sealing" mean? There is a great crowd before the earl's door, who are violent and clamorous, because rumour - a servant's hall, an area gate, a coachman from-the-house-to-his-wife-in-the-mews rumour - bruits it about that the body has not been washed. My nurse says that they will have to send for the "padroll" with "cut- lashes." All these things sink into my little mind; and then the whole sequel, with a train of years behind it, fade away, leaving me with but one more recollection - that we had a twopenny cottage-loaf boiled in milk that day for dinner, which was consequently swollen to twice its natural size; and which the Eumenides of the nursery authoritatively assured me was, with brown sugar, the "best puddin' out." I know now that congested loaf to have been an insipid swindle.
[-147-] I am again in Regent Street, but at another window, and in another house. There is no nurse now, but a genteel young woman, aged about thirty-she asked me once, for fun, how old she was, and I guessed, in all youthful seriousness, fifty, whereupon she slapped me - to take care of me. Her name is Sprackmore, she has long corkscrew ringlets, and is very pious, and beneath her auspices I first study the "Loss of the Kent East Indiaman," and the "Dairyman's Daughter." She has fits, too, occasionally. I am just of that age to be a hollow-eyed little boy in a tunic, with a frill and a belt, and to be dreadfully afraid of the parent I used a year before to love and caress with such fearless confidence. They say I am a clever child, and my cleverness is encouraged by being told that I am not to ask questions, and that I had much better go and play with my toys than mope over that big volume of Lyttelton's "History of England," lent to me by Mr. Somebody, the lawyer - I see him now, very stout and gray, at the funeral whenever any of us dies: of which volume - it is in very shabby condition - I break the top-cover off by letting it fall from the chair, which is my reading-desk. I stiffer agonies of terror and remorse for months, lest the fracture should be discovered, though I have temporarily repaired it by means of a gimlet and a piece of twine. Then, one bright day, my cousin Sarah gives me a bright five-shilling piece - I take her to the opera now, but she always remembers my childish dependence upon lien, and insists upon paying the cab home - and take Lyttelton's "History," still with great fear and trembling, to a bookbinder's in Broad Street, Golden Square, who tells me that the "hends is jagged," and that there must be a new back, lettering, and gilding to the book. He works his will with it, and charges me four shillings and sixpence out of the five shilling-piece for working it; but to tell of the joyful relief I feel when I bring Lyttelton's "History" back safe and sound! I do not get rid of my perturbation entirely, however, till I have rubbed the back against the carpet a little to soil it, in order that it may not look too new. Oh ! the agonies, the Laocoon-like conscience windings, the Promethean tortures, that children suffer through these accidental breakages! Oh! the unreasoning cruelty of parents, who punish children for such mischances! So I am the little boy in a tunic; and I daresay that, with my inquisitiveness, and my moping over books, I am an intolerable little nuisance. I am at the Regent Street window, and much speculation is rife as to whether the King, who is lying mortally sick at Windsor, is dead. For it is within a few minutes of [-148-]
TWO O'CLOCK : REGENT STREET
[-149-] eleven, and at that time the well-known troop of Horse Guards pass on
their way to St. James's; and it is reasonably inferred that, if King
William be gathered to his fathers, the standard will be furled. The
Guards pass; they wore helmets, with plumes above them shaped like
black mutton chops-not the casques with the flowing horse-hair they
wear now; and to be sure the standard is furled, in a species of drab
umbrella case. The King is dead for sure; nay, he does not die for a
full week afterwards; the flag was merely furled because the day was
dark and lowering, presaging rain.
I told you hours since that I lived in the house in Regent Street in which the Marquis de Bourbel forged his letters of credit.* (see page 30) I think that I am qualified to speak of the place, for, walking down it the other day, I counted no less than eleven houses, between the two circuses, in which I had at one time dwelt. But they were all early, those remembrances, and connected with the time when the colonnade of the Quadrant existed - "La ville de Londres," as the foreign engravers of pictorial note-paper used grandiloquently to call it. Whatever could have possessed our Commissioner of Woods and Forests to allow those unrivalled arcades to be demolished! The stupid tradesmen, whose purblind, shop-till avarice led them to petition for the removal of the columns, gained nothing by the change, for the Quadrant, as a lounge in wet weather, was at once destroyed ; and I see now many of the houses, once let out in superior apartments, occupied as billiard-rooms and photographic studios, and many of the shops invaded and conquered by cheap tailors. The Quadrant colonnade afforded not only a convenient shelter beneath, but it was a capital promenade for the dwellers in the first-floors above. The entresols certainly were slightly gloomy; and moustached foreigners, together with some gaily-dressed company still naughtier, could with difficulty be restrained from prowling backwards and forwards between Glasshouse Street and the County Fire Office. But, perambulating Regent Street at all hours of the day and night, as I do now frequently, I see no diminution in the number of moustached, or rouged, or naughty faces, whose prototypes were familiar to me, years agone, in the brilliant Quadrant. As to the purlieus of the County Fire Office, they are confusion, and a scandal to London and its police. The first-floor balconies above were in my childhood most glorious playgrounds. There I kept preserves [-150-] of broken bottles and flowerpots; on those leads I inscribed fantastic devices in chalk and with penknives, drawing silver diagrams through the cake of dust and dried refrain that covered the metal; and often have I come to domestic grief through an irresistible propensity for poaching on the balconies of the neighbours on either side. Still in a state of tunic-hood, I remember a very tall, handsome gentleman, with a crimson velvet under-waistcoat - I saw his grave in Perè la Chaise last winter - who was my great aider and abettor in these juvenile escapades. He had a wondrous weapon of offence called a "sabar-cane," a delightful thing (to me then), half walking-stick, half pea- shooter, from which he used to discharge clay pellets at the vagrant cats on the adjoining balconies. He it was who was wont to lean over the balcony, and fish for people's hats with a salmon-hook affixed to the extremity of a tandem-whip; he it was who came home from the Derby (quite in a friendly manner) to see us one evening, all white - white hat, white coat, white trousers, white waistcoat, white neckerchief, white boots, to say nothing of the dust and the flour with which he had been plentifully besprinkled at Kennington Gate. He had won heavily on some horse long since gone to grass for ever, was very merry, and insisted upon winding-up our new French clock with the snuffers. He it was who made nocturnal excursions from parapet to parapet along the leads, returning with bewildering accounts of bearded men who were gambling with dice at No. 92; of the tenor of the Italian Opera, who, knife in hand, was pursuing his wife (in her nightdress) about the balcony, at No. 74; and of Mademoiselle Follejambes, the premier sujet of the same establishment, who was practising pirouttes before a cheval glass at the open window of No. 86, while Mademoiselle Follejambe's mamma, with a red cotton pocket-handkerchief tied round her old head, was drinking anisette out of a tea-cup. You must be forbearing with me, if, while I speak of Regent Street, I interlard my speech with foreign languages a little. For, from its first erection, the Quadrant end of Regent Street has been the home of the artistic foreigners who are attracted to London during the musical and operatic season, less by inclination for the climate and respect for the institutions of England, than by a profound admiration for the circular effigies, in gold, (with neatly milled edges) of her Majesty the Queen, which John Bull so liberally bestows on those who squall or fiddle for him, provided they be of foreign extraction. Let me not be too unjust, however, to Bull. Find him but a real English tenor, and J. B. will [-151-] smother him in bank-notes, and deafen him with plaudits. From the balconies of Regent Regent, I have seen the greatest cantatrici and ballerine of this age. The Grand Chain of tenors, who has never been replaced-no signor Mario, no Signor Giuglini, no Signor Mongini, no Signor Tamberlik, no Mr. Sims Reeves, no Mr. George Perren - the incomparable Rubini, had lodgings opposite, once, to where we dwelt, at a shawl shop. I have watched the sedulous care which that eminent man took of his health, marvelled at the multitudinous folds of silk or woollen stuff, like the turban of an Asiatic, with which he encircled his invaluable throat when he took out-door exercise. I have seen, through his open window, the basso of basso's, Papa Lablache, the man with the lion's head, the Falstaffian abdomen, and the ten times stentorian lungs, eat maccaroni for twenty-seven consecutive minutes, till he seemed determined to outdo all the ribbon-swallowing conjurors who had ever lived. We used to say that he was practising for Leporello. He had a kindly heart, Papa Lablache, and preserved a kindly remembrance of the hearty English people, among whom he made his fortune. Though he would sometimes facetiously declare, that when his voice was no longer fit to be heard in a Continental city, he would come to England to settle, and sing "Fra questi sordi" among these deaf ones - for whom he would still be quite good enough - his heart never cooled towards the old country; and, moribund at Naples, when the supreme Hour was fast arriving, he raised himself on his couch, and essayed to sing a song he loved very well - "Home sweet Home !" But, as the silver cord loosened, he murmured, "Mi manca la voce" - " My voice fails me;" and so died.
To say nothing of a dreadful German basso, one of the regular line-of-battle ship voices, with 56-pounders on the first deck, who was once a next-door neighbour in the Quadrant, and when he used to call for his servant thus, " PauOlo !" shook the flower-pots on our own balcony; or of an egregious fiddler, with long hair, who, in imitation of his predecessor, Paganini, gave out that he had sold himself to the devil, but who was, I believe, an arrant humbug with a mania for practising in the open air-it may have been as a medium of advertisement - and used to attract large crowds in the street beneath listening to his complicated fiddlements. Yet I must spare a word for Madame - I really forget whom, but it ended with "heim," I think-who had the six-and-thirty Austro-Sclavonic children who used to perform the mirror dance and other terpsichorean feats at her Majesty's Theatre, [-152-] and whom she used to drill on the balcony like soldiers. They made a tremendous noise, these tiny figurantes, and in the hours of recreation were not unaccustomed to fight among themselves. Then Madame Somethingheim would sally forth on the balcony and cut savagely into their poor young bodies with a switch, and after much howling on their part, and chasing to and fro on hers, restore peace.
The colonnades are as fruitful to me in recollections as the balconies. How many miles of daily walks have I gone over, the hand of a toddling little sister in mine, and with strict injunctions not to stray beyond the shadow of the columns, and with prohibitions, under dreadful menaces, of ventering in Air Street on the one side or Vigo Lane on the other! I wore, I remember, then, an absurd blue cloak, too short for me, and lined with red, and with a brass clasp somewhat resembling the ornament on a cartouch box. This cloak chafed and fretted me, and was the bane and terror of my existence; for I knew, or fancied I knew, that every passer-by must know that it had never been made for me, which, indeed, it never had, having formerly been of far larger dimensions and the property of an officer in his Majesty's light infantry. I believe that there was a domestic ukase promulgated for our benefit against crossing the road; but we did cross it nevertheless, with many looks to the right and the left, not only to secure ourselves against threatening carriage wheels, but with reference to the possible appearance of parents and guardians. There was a delightful bird-stuffer's shop at the corner of a court, with birds of paradise, parrots, and humming- birds of gorgeous plumage, and strange creatures with white bodies and long yellow beaks and legs that terrified while they pleasured us. Then there was the funeral monument shop, with the mural tablets, the obelisks, the broken columns, the extinguished torches, and the draped urns in the window, and some with the inscriptions into the bargain, all ready engraved in black and white, puzzling us as to whether the tender husbands, devoted wives, and affectionate sons, to whom they referred, were buried in that grisly shop - it had a pleasant, fascinating terror about it, like an undertaker's, too. There was Swan and Edgar's, splendid and radiant, then as now, with brave apparel (how many times have I listened to the enthusiastic cheers of Swan and Edgar's young men, on the occasion of the proprietors giving their annual banquet to their employés?), and even then replete with legends of dishonest fares, who caused a cab to halt at the Regent Street entrance, got out, said they would be back in a moment, and then darting through the crowded [-153-] shop, knavishly escaped at the Piccadilly end. There was the Italian statuary shop, with Canova's Graces, the crouching Venus, and the birds round a vase in alabaster; and, above all, there was Mrs. Lipscombe's shop - I don't mean the staymaker's, but the one next to that, the filter shop, with the astonishing machines for converting foul and muddy water, like gruel, thick and slab, into a sparkling, crystal stream. What a miracle it seemed to me that the goblet, filled to the brim, and yet into which, from the filter above, drops continually fell, never overflowed! how I used to watch the little cork ball, kept in a continually bounding state of agitation by the perpendicular jet of water - watch it with almost breathless agitation, when, every now and then, the centre of gravity would be lost, and the little ball would tumble in the basin beneath - the whole was covered by a glass shade - till, caught up once more, it would be sent in eddying whirls higher than ever ! I have seen the same experiment tried since with bigger balls - and of marble - very like twenty-four pounders - at the Grandes Eaux of Versailles, and in the gardens of Peterhoff. Stone Neptunes and Tritons surrounded the basin, and the jets of water, forty feet high, sent the spray flying in the faces of the spectators; but none of these hydraulic displays ever came up, in my opinion, to the tiny squirt, with the little cork ball, underneath the glass shade, in Mrs. Lipscombe's window. Does she make stays and sell filters yet, I wonder! What a curious mixture of avocations! I know of none stranger since the names of M. Fenwick de Porquet and Mrs. Mary Wedlake were amalgamated, and inquiries as to whether we "bruised our oats yet," were alternated with pressing questions of "Parlez vous Francais ?"
When I thus walked the Regent Quadrant, twenty years since, it was haunted by a class of men, now, I am happy to believe, almost entirely extinct. We have plenty of rogues in our body corporate yet. The turf has its blacklegs and touts; the nightside of London is fruitful in "macemen," "mouchers," and "go-alongs." You must not be angry with me for using slang terms; for did not a clergyman, at a highly-respectable institution, deliver a lecture on slang the other day, and did not the "Times" quote him? We are not free from skittlesharps, card-cheats, "duffers," and ring-droppers; nay, even at remote country race-courses, you may find remnants of the whilom swarming tribe of "charley-pitchers," the knavish gentry who pursue the games of "under seven or over seven," "red, black, leather and star," or inveigle the unwary with "three little thimbles and one small pea." But a stern and righteous legislation has put down nine-tenths of the [-154-] infamous dens where any fool who chose to knock was fleeced to the last lock of wool. If a man wants to be vicious (in the gambling way) now, he must have the entrée to the abodes of vice, and a nodding acquaintance with the demon. A neophyte is not allowed to ruin himself how and where he likes. In the days of which I make mention, Regent Street and its purlieus abounded in open gambling houses, and to the skirts of these necessarily hung on a deboshed regiment of rogues, who made their miserable livings as runners, and decoy-ducks, and bravos to these abominable nests. They were called "Greeks," and two o'clock in the afternoon was their great time for turning out. From what infected holes or pestiferous garrets in Sherrard, or Brewer, or Rupert Street, they came, I know not; but there they were at the appointed hour, skulking with a half sheepish, half defiant stride up and down Regent Street. Miserable dogs mostly, for all their fine clothes - always resplendently, though dirtily, attired. They wore great white coats, shiny hats, and mosaic jewellery, which was just then coming into fashion. There was another fashion, in which they very nearly succeeded, by adopting, to drive out, and make permanently disreputable that of wearing moustaches. They used to swagger about, all lacquered, pomatumed, bejewelled, and begnimed, till I knew them all by sight and many of them by name and repute. There was Jack Cheetham, the lord's son, he who was thrown out of the window at Frascati's, and killed the Frenchman in the Bois de Vincennes. There was Captain Dollamore, who married the rich widow, and was arrested for her milliner's bill the week afterwards. There was Charley Skewball; he was called Charley, but he was a baronet, had once been a gentleman, and was the greatest rogue unhung. Mr. Thackeray knows these men well. They are his Count Punters, Major Loders, M. de Caramboles, Hon. Algernon Deuceaces; but they are extinct among us as a class, O Titmarsh; and simple people, who read your admirable novels, wonder whom the monsters are that you draw. They are dead; they are at the hulks ; they are feebly punting at the few remaining gambling places on the Rhine: they flaunted in the bad prime of their manhood when I was a child. I have outgrown them; and only now and then, when I am out very late, collecting materials for "Twice Round the Clock," I come upon a stray Jack or Charley- ragged and drivelling, his fine feathers all moulted or smirched, his occupation quite gone - who sidles up to me and calls me "Your honour," and with salt-rheumy lips, whimpers forth a supplication for "A penny towards a night's lodging."
[-155-] When our dear Queen Victoria was crowned, I began to lose sight of Regent Street - lost sight of it by degrees altogether, and came not back to it, as an observer, for many years. I rather avoided the place, for I had a bitter baptism of physical misery in the beginning of my working life: wanting food and raiment, not through prodigality (that came afterwards), but through sheer penury and friendlessness. And Regent Street, for all my querulous childhood, was associated with too many memories of happier days gone for ever. You know what the Italian rhymester says-
Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
An Englishman has stolen the thought in some lines about "a
sorrow's crown of sorrow," whose summing up I forget; but the sense
of the passage is that the times are exceedingly hard, when, destitute
and footsore, you pass by a house, and glance at the windows once
lighted up by feasting in which you participated; when you think of
the rooms, once swept by the robe of the woman whom you loved, but
that now, house, windows, rooms, are the portion of strangers. I say
I went away from Regent Street, and came not back. There were
reasons. I became of the Strand and Fleet Street a denizen, and
Temple Bar entered into my soul. For I was affiliated to a great
mystery of Masonry, called Literature, and had to follow the behests of
my mother lodge. You don't see much of Regent Street, during your
apprenticeship, if you begin at the lowermost degree, I can assure you.
Now I am a master-mason, free and accepted, and can hold my own;
albeit I shall never be an Office-bearer, or "Grand," of my lodge, or
rise to the superlatives of the Royal Arch or the Thirty-third.
Behold Regent Street at two p.m., in the accompanying cartoon. Not without reason do I declare it the most fashionable street in the world. I call it not so for the aristocratic mansions it might possess; for the lower parts of the houses are occupied as shops, and the furnished apartments are let, either to music or operatic celebrities or to unostentatious old bachelors. But the shops themselves are innately fashionable. There was a dash of utilitarianism mingled with the slightly Bohemian tinge of my Regent Street of twenty years ago; there were bakers' shops, stationers, and opticians, who had models of steam.engines in their windows. There was a grocer not above selling orange marmalade, brown sugar, and Durham mustard. I remember [-156-]
TWO O'CLOCK P.M. : HIGH CHANGE
[-157-] buying a penny cake of chocolate of him one morning; but I find the
shop now expanded into a magnificent emporium, where are sold wines,
and spirits, sweetmeats and preserves, liqueurs and condiments, Bayonne
ham, Narbonne honey, Bologna sausages, Russian caviare, Iceland moss,
clotted cream, and terrines of paté de foie gras. Indeed, Regent Street
is an avenue of superfluities - a great trunk-road in Vanity Fair.
Fancy watchmakers, haberdashers, and photographers; fancy stationers,
fancy hosiers, and fancy staymakers; music shops, shawl shops, jewellers,
French glove shops, perfumery, and point lace shops, confectioners and
milliners : creamily, these are the merchants whose wares are exhibited
in this Bezesteen of the world.
Now, whatever can her ladyship, who has been shopping in Regent Street, have ordered the stalwart footman, who shut the carriage door with a resounding bang, to instruct the coachman to drive her to the Bank for? Her ladyship's own private bank is in a shiningly aristocratic street, by Cavendish Square, embosomed among green trees. She does not want to buy ribbons or lace on Ludgate Hill, artificial flowers in St. Paul's Churchyard, or fine linen in Cheapside. No; she has a very simple reason for going into the city : Sir John, her liege lord, is on Change. He will be there from half-past two to three, at which hour High Change, as it may be called, closes, and she intends to call for him, and drive him to the West-end again. By your leave, we will jump up behind the carriage, heedless of the stalwart footman; for we are in the receipt of fern-seed, and invisible.
Going on Change seems to be but a mechanical and mercantile occupation, and one that might with safety be entrusted to some confidential clerk; yet it is not so; and the greatest magnates of commerce and finance, the Rothschilds, the Barings, the Huths, the legions of London's merchant-princes, are to be found chaffering in the quadrangle every day. In the old Exchange, they used to point out the particular column against which the elder Rothschild was wont to lean. They called the old man, too - marvellous diplomatist in financial combinations as he was - the Pillar of the Exchange. You know that the colonnades - whose ceilings are painted in such elaborate encaustic, and with such a signal result in ruin from damp and smoke - are divided into different promenades, variously designated, according to the nations of the merchants who frequent them. Thus - there are the Italian Walk, the Spanish Walk, the Portuguese Walk, the Danish Walk, and - a very notable walk it is too - the Greek Walk. [-158-] Here you may see, jabbering and gesticulating, the crafty, keen-eyed, sallow-faced Smyrnians, Suliotes, Zantrites, and Fanariotes, individuals much given to speculations in corn, in which, if report does them no injustice, they gamble most egregiously.
Three o'clock strikes-or rather chimes-from the bell-tower of Mr. Tite's new building. The quadrangle of the Exchange is converted into an accurate model of the Tower of Babel. The mass of black-hatted heads - with here and there a white one, like a fleck of foam on the crest of a wave-eddies with violence to and fro. Men shout, and push, and struggle, and jostle, and shriek bargains into one another's ears. A stranger might imagine that these money and merchandise dealers had fallen out, and were about to fight ; but the beadle of the Exchange looks on calmly ; he knows that no breach of the peace will be committed, and that the merchants and financiers are merely singing their ordinary paean of praise to the great god Mammon. Surely - if there be not high treason in the thought - they ought to pull down Mr. Lough's statue of Queen Victoria, which stands in the centre of the quadrangle, and replace it by a neat effigy of the Golden Calf.
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]