London: A Pilgrimage


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CHAPTER VIII LONDON ON THE DOWNS

London on the Downs; London waking on the Derby morning: London on the road to the race: London in the evening after the race! Here are studies each of which illustrates salient features of our metropolitan life.

On the Downs London is in the highest spirits, and all classes are intermingled for a few hours on the happiest terms. Strolling amid the booths and tents we find elbowing each other, bantering, playing, drinking, eating and smoking; shoals of shopboys and clerks, tradesmen in fast attire, mechanics in holiday dress, wondering foreigners, gaudy ladies, generally of loud voice and unabashed manner. We come upon a noble earl indulging in three throws for a penny. He has been recognised by a few bystanders; and the whisper that a peer is casting sticks at cocoanuts and dolls has travelled apace. His lordship has taken heartily to the fun, and is reckless of the shillings he is spending. His cuffs turned back, his hat tilted upon his head, his face red and shining, he beams upon the applauding crowd, when he has deftly consigned a jack-in-the-box to the bag which makes it his. We press onward through packs of noisy lads, past negro serenaders; fortune-tellers, tattered sellers of fusees, stablemen of every degree, groups of men-servants finishing up luncheons,-to the course. Way is cleared a little, and a calm-faced Nawab passes, followed by his silent retinue. Not far off we come upon a personage upon whom many hopes are centred-the patient exile waiting for his crown. Then there is the beauty of the hour, flushed with champagne, and haughty to the slaves whose elbows are planted in rows round her carriage.

Clear the course! We suddenly, find the crowd tighten about us. A flutter goes through the sea of heads on the Grand Stand: the men climb to the roofs of the carriages: the general murmur deepens: the betting men are in a fever of excitement: a fight or two may be descried from the vantage-ground of a rumble.

They're off! The emotion is quiet at first. The Grand Stand suddenly becomes white with a thousand faces turned in one direction-an observer remarks, "like the heads, of geese upon a common." Then a low, hoarse sound travels about the Downs, deepening in waves of thrilling vibration at every instant. Then a roar breaks upon the frantic people, answered by a second roar. The multitudeis divided into two prodigious camps. Faster and shriller come the shouts. The Grand Stand is in convulsions. The bellowing is fearful to hear: the frantic commotion along the lines of coaches is frightful to see-as the horses, lying like a handful, sweep to the winning-post. Cheers and counter cheers, fluttering of handkerchiefs, waving of hats upon sticks, cries, fierce as though wild beasts had been let loose; all tend to a final crash of ten thousand voices, and-the Derby is won.

"The tooth is out!" was the expression that fell upon my ear-as a young buck, with a purple face, jumped from his coach and buried himself in the heaving throng.

Epsom is not Ascot we all know; but the Downs discover an extraordinary variety of superb "traps" every Derby day, bearing considerable burdens of such beauty as is not easily matched on any Continental race-course. The Countess Crême de la Crême is not here (unless she be among the beauties gazing disdainfully from lofty balcony by the way): the Duchess of Surrey is of opinion that the scene is, not one for the serene eyes of her daughters; the feminine gentilities of Kensington and Westbournia are consequently absent also-but there are whole parterres of honest, pretty women of humble social pretensions-plebeian beauties-whom the critical Frenchman must have overlooked or misunderstood.

The delights of the Downs are to M. Taine's mind our carnival-and a very noisy one-noise being essential to the over-muscular, thick-throated Englishman, who delights in every opportunity of showing his manly vigour.

I have already observed how strongly the general wearing of cast-off clothes by our poorer countrymen and countrywomen had struck upon the mind of my fellow-Pilgrim. The sadness and meanness of the habit were impressed upon us scores of times during our wanderings; so that when on a certain Sunday we turned into Petticoat Lane, we had the key to the activity of the clothes market of Lazarus. The Lane clothes thousands at Epsom.

M. Taine will not admit that there is anything grandiose in the great race-day on the Downs. The crowd is an ant-heap: the horsemen and the carriages moving about resemble beetles, May-bugs, large sombre drones on a green cloth. "The jockeys in red, in blue, in yellow, in mauve, form a small group apart, like a swarm of butterflies which has alighted." M. Taine mistrusts his moralising, as he unfolds it: "Probably I am wanting in enthusiasm, but I seem to be. looking at a game of insects." His description of the actual race is excellent:

"Thirty-four run. After three false starts they are off; fifteen or twenty keep together, the others are in small groups, and one sees them moving the length of the ring. To the eye the speed is not very great; it is that of a railway train seen at the distance of half a league; in that case the carriages have the appearance of toy-coaches which a child draws tied to a string. Certainly, the impression is not stronger here, and it is a mistake to speak either of a hurricane or a whirlwind. During several minutes, the brown patch, strewn with red and bright spots, moves steadily over the distant green. It turns; one perceives the first group approach. 'Hats off!' and all heads are uncovered, and every one rises. A suppressed hurrah pervades the stands. The frigid faces are on fire; brief, nervous gestures suddenly stir the phlegmatic bodies. Below, in the betting ring, the agitation is extraordinary-like a general St. Vitus's dance. Picture a mass of puppets receiving an electric shock, and gesticulating with all their members like mad semaphores. But the most curious spectacle is the human tide which, instantaneously and in a body, pours forth and rolls over the course behind the runners, like a wave of ink; the black and motionless crowd has suddenly melted and become molten; in a moment it spreads itself abroad in vast proportions till the eye cannot follow it, and appears in front of the stands. The policemen make a barrier in two or three ranks, using force when necessary to guard the square to which the jockeys and horses are led. Measures are taken to weigh and see that all is right."

Perhaps the company just in our rear are extravagant enough, for an illustration of British wildness on the return frolic from a race.

When the brilliant French observer goes on to say that the betting fever is so intense and general that "several cabmen have lost their horses and their vehicles," we can only exclaim: "Gently M. Taine-or the reader will imagine that not the least active holder of a champagne glass, was the moraliser himself." Let us moralise on the way home, with the empty baskets in the boot: but don't let us make a note of every extravagant story we shall hear before we get to Kennington Common.

The stories we may believe are wild and startling enough for the most earnest lover of the sensational. We find the revellers divided into distinct easily-recognised sections-viz., the Winners and the Losers. The Winners are uproarious and bibulous; the Losers are bibulous and sullen. It cannot be pretended by the keenest lover of the course and the hunting-field that racing promotes any of the virtues. On the other hand it fosters a general love of gambling. But this Derby-day has its bright-even its useful side too. It gives all London an airing, an "outing"; makes a break in our over-worked lives; and effects a beneficial commingling of classes. This latter result is of more importance than appears on the face of it: and I commend it to the attention of the moralists on the road-especially of the zealots who, pay the religious board-men. These silent itinerant preachers provoke the tipsy blasphemer: and never make a penitent. There is a time for all things: and most certainly the Derby-day is not the time for missionary work.