London: A Pilgrimage


 prev      next London: A Pilgrimage  


CHAPTER XIII - WITH THE BEASTS

Opera very full last night,"-or "Didn't get home till two": or "Lady Ermine looks well after the crush"-are the greetings upon the grass on Sunday afternoons in the season, after Whitsuntide, in the Zoological Gardens.

No wonder that the quiet lounges in the Gardens were so popular, before they reached the honours of burlesque, and the vulgar wits of the music halls. It is the very place for quiet easy talk in the open air-with the animals to point the conversation. The sentimental linger by the gazelles: the hoyden makes merry with the parrots: the humourists gather in the monkey house: the muscular-minded Amazon watches old Leo rasping the shin-bone with his rough tongue. The Sunday habitué, besides, will pass all London in review in the course of the season: from the Prince and Princess, to the latest fantastic ambassador from

"Cruel islands mid the far-off sea."

The heroes of debate, the silver-tongued advocate whom Rumour credits with a yearly gain of thirty thousand pounds; the sleek and winning fashionable physician who fascinates while he cures; the professor who crams the Royal Institution and secures the breathless attention of whole parterres of pretty women, who learn from him to talk of "things which they don't understand;" the bearded and furrowed traveller who has seen half the zoological collection in their native hills, or valleys, or waters; the prime donne of last night who packed the rival Opera houses, each attended by a proud obsequious court-here they are meandering, lolling, flirting, laughing, or garnishing their discourse with scandal-delicately as a Gouffé handles aïl or vanilla. The art of carrying a chair-possibly two chairs-with ease and grace, is being practised by dozens of gentlemen, with little success. We are not a pliable race. From their artificial eyries, the eagles appear to look down, with scornful glance-as disdainful of the proudest beauty who raps her dainty parasol against the wires of the cage, as of the impudent London sparrows who skim, chattering, through it.

"Let us go and see the lynx: there is a fellow with a wicked face if you like," said my fellow-pilgrim. And we went forthwith to afford our broad-eared friend a quart d'heure de Rabelais. The lynx was, as the fashionable idler puts it, "in good form;" and, as he was stirred from corner to corner, afforded the observing artist a good study of the various expressions of hate and rage. He was right-there is not a more thoroughly wicked face in creation that I can call to mind, than that of the lynx in his wrathful moments.

To the Parrot Walk! We agreed that it was thoroughly English in its early summer dress. The canal below creeps through banks of superb greenery: the banks have a tender spring tint: the shrubberies are gay with flowers: the blackthorn fills the air and delights the eye with its blossoms: the laburnum ripples its gold through the laden branches of the limes. The mind is strangely disturbed in this essentially English lane-that has no look of a garden-when the elephants come along with a mighty shambling gait, and a degraded air under the cart-whip of the keeper; and when the screams of the parrots draw the eye to their radiant plumes floating under British greenery. "He looks as though he had been rolling upon your palette," said I to my fellow-pilgrim, while he dallied with the gaudiest of the gaudy company. And then we talked of the varieties of cruel and of kind expressions that are to be found in a zoological collection: from the stealthy, sleek, impassible, low head of the polar bear, to the sinister eye of the skulking serpent.

The lovers of the animals make the usual round, and watch the health and changes of appearance of the fine specimens with real anxiety. I have known human lovers of the wombat; frequenters who appeared to take an almost family interest in the fretful, shivering chimpanzee, who died in our bitter climate of consumption; and special visitors to the cloudy tiger. I came upon a member of the Landseer family the Sunday the famous old lion died. The kind old gentleman was passing from group to group asking sympathy in his distress; and he grasped my hand when he told me the bad news, and looked into my face to watch my distress. The real habitués and watchers of the collection were apparent on that day; and they were to be seen sauntering pensively from cage to cage and house to house, marking the condition of each favourite.

"I always end with the monkeys," said an illustrious savant to me, when we discussed the ways in which the various people did the Gardens.

"And I with the serpents," said a queenly lady, with a soft, small voice.

"And I with the hippopotamus," said a sculptor-"he is so like Professor Goggleton."

We were on the side of the monkeys; and we were with the majority.

In the greenery which is accessible to the Londoner, in the Parks, in these Gardens, at Windsor, Hampton Court, Greenwich, Chiswick, and Kew; there are studies of nature that delight and refresh every cast of mind. As in the Regent's Park the holiday-maker can study the animal life of every climp; so at Kew, in the palm-house, he can transport himself from the vapoury richness of English park scenery, to the climes where the banana spreads its festoons of luscious food. The rich have Chiswick, and the Botanical, and the Horticultural Gardens: the many are delighted with the flower-shows of the Crystal Palace and the ever-blossoming slopes of Sydenham that grow in beauty, year by year, under the loving and learned eye of Mr. Grove. These shows and public gardens have given to the poorer classes the taste for flowers, which the hawker satisfies, at a cheap rate, even in the foggy lanes of the East End. When the, primroses are first cried in London streets, the poor Cockney feels the first kiss of the Spring upon his pale cheeks. He watches the cheapening of flowers day by day. It is a pity there are no markets for them-as there are in foreign cities; open on Spring and Summer evenings to home-returning work-folk. Every barrow that appears in the poor man's street is as a fresh landscape to him. The wallflower is a revelation; the ten-week stock, a new season; the carnation, a dream of sweet Arabia.

So, may the flower-hawker long prosper in our Babylon.