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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPelham - Volume 4 - Chapter 49
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Pelham - Volume 4 - Chapter 49 Post by :richerquicker Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :711

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Pelham - Volume 4 - Chapter 49

VOLUME IV CHAPTER XLIX

Heroes mischievously gay, Lords of the street and terrors of the way, Flush'd as they are with folly, youth, and wine.--Johnson's London.

Hol. Novi hominem tanquam te--his humour is lofty, his discourse peremptory, his tongue filed, his eye ambitious, his gait majestical, and his general behaviour vain, ridiculous, and thrasonical. --Shakspeare.

I went a little after seven o'clock to keep my dinner engagement at---'s; for very young men are seldom unpunctual at dinner. We sat down, six in number, to a repast at once incredibly bad, and ridiculously extravagant; turtle without fat--venison without flavour--champagne with the taste of a gooseberry, and hock with the properties of a pomegranate. (Note: Pomum valde purgatorium.) Such is the constant habit of young men: they think any thing expensive is necessarily good, and they purchase poison at a dearer rate than the most medicine-loving hypochondriac in England.

Of course, all the knot declared the dinner was superb; called in the master to eulogize him in person, and made him, to his infinite dismay, swallow a bumper of his own hock. Poor man, they mistook his reluctance for his diffidence, and forced him to wash it away in another potation. With many a wry face of grateful humility, he left the room, and we then proceeded to pass the bottle with the suicidal determination of defeated Romans. You may imagine that we were not long in arriving at the devoutly wished for consummation of comfortable inebriety; and with our eyes reeling, our cheeks burning, and our brave spirits full ripe for a quarrel, we sallied out at eleven o'clock, vowing death, dread, and destruction to all the sober portion of his majesty's subjects.

We came to a dead halt in Arlington-street, which, as it was the quietest spot in the neighbourhood, we deemed a fitting place for the arrangement of our forces. Dartmore, Staunton, (a tall, thin, well formed, silly youth,) and myself, marched first, and the remaining three followed. We gave each other the most judicious admonitions as to propriety of conduct, and then, with a shout that alarmed the whole street, we renewed our way. We passed on safely enough till we got to Charing-Cross, having only been thrice upbraided by the watchmen, and once threatened by two carmen of prodigious size, to whose wives or sweethearts we had, to our infinite peril, made some gentle overtures. When, however, we had just passed the Opera Colonnade, we were accosted by a bevy of buxom Cyprians, as merry and as drunk as ourselves. We halted for a few minutes in the midst of the kennel, to confabulate with our new friends, and a very amicable and intellectual conversation ensued. Dartmore was an adept in the art of slang, and he found himself fairly matched, by more than one of the fair and gentle creatures by whom we were surrounded. Just, however, as we were all in high glee, Staunton made a trifling discovery, which turned the merriment of the whole scene into strife, war, and confusion. A bouncing lass, whose hands were as ready as her charms, had quietly helped herself to a watch which Staunton wore, a la mode, in his waistcoat pocket. Drunken as the youth was at that time, and dull as he was at all others, he was not without the instinctive penetration with which all human bipeds watch over their individual goods and chattels. He sprung aside from the endearments of the syren, grasped her arm, and in a voice of querulous indignation, accused her of the theft.

"Then rose the cry of women--shrill As shriek of gosshawk on the hill."

Never were my ears so stunned. The angry authors in the adventures of Gil Blas, were nothing to the disputants in the kennel at Charing Cross; we rowed, swore, slanged with a Christian meekness and forbearance, which would have rejoiced Mr. Wilberforce to the heart, and we were already preparing ourselves for a more striking engagement, when we were most unwelcomely interrupted by the presence of three watchmen.

"Take away this--this--d--d woman," hiccuped out Staunton, "She has sto--len--(hiccup)--my watch"--(hiccup.)

"No such thing, watchman," hallooed out the accused, "the b--counter-skipper never had any watch! he only filched a twopenny-halfpenny gilt chain out of his master, Levi, the pawnbroker's window, and stuck it in his eel-skin to make a show: ye did, ye pitiful, lanky-chopped son of a dog-fish, ye did."

"Come, come," said the watchman, "move on, move on."

"You be d--d, for a Charley!" said one of our gang.

"Ho! ho! master jackanapes, I shall give you a cooling in the watch-house, if you tips us any of your jaw. I dare say the young oman here, is quite right about ye, and ye never had any watch at all, at all."

"You are a d--d liar," cried Staunton; "and you are all in with each other, like a pack of rogues as you are."

"I'll tell ye what, young gemman," said another watchman, who was a more potent, grave, and reverend senior than his comrades, "if you do not move on instantly, and let those decent young omen alone, I'll take you all up before Sir Richard."

"Charley, my boy," said Dartmore, "did you ever get thrashed for impertinence?"

The last mentioned watchman took upon himself the reply to this interrogatory by a very summary proceeding: he collared Dartmore, and his companions did the same kind office to us. This action was not committed with impunity: in an instant two of the moon's minions, staffs, lanterns, and all, were measuring their length at the foot of their namesake of royal memory; the remaining Dogberry was, however, a tougher assailant; he held Staunton so firmly in his gripe, that the poor youth could scarcely breathe out a faint and feeble d--ye of defiance, and with his disengaged hand he made such an admirable use of his rattle, that we were surrounded in a trice.

As when an ant-hill is invaded, from every quarter and crevice of the mound arise and pour out an angry host, of whose previous existence the unwary assailant had not dreamt; so from every lane, and alley, and street, and crossing, came fast and far the champions of the night.

"Gentlemen," said Dartmore, "we must fly--sauve qui peut." We wanted no stronger admonition, and, accordingly, all of us who were able, set off with the utmost velocity with which God had gifted us. I have some faint recollection that I myself headed the flight. I remember well that I dashed up the Strand, and dashed down a singular little shed, from which emanated the steam of tea, and a sharp, querulous scream of "All hot--all hot! a penny a pint." I see, now, by the dim light of retrospection, a vision of an old woman in the kennel, and a pewter pot of mysterious ingredients precipitated into a greengrocer's shop, "te virides inter lauros," as Vincent would have said. On we went, faster and faster, as the rattle rung in our ears, and the tramp of the enemy echoed after us in hot pursuit.

"The devil take the hindmost," said Dartmore, breathlessly (as he kept up with me).

"The watchman has saved his majesty the trouble," answered I, looking back and seeing one of our friends in the clutch of the pursuers.

"On, on!" was Dartmore's only reply.

At last, after innumerable perils, and various immersements into back passages, and courts, and alleys, which, like the chicaneries of law, preserved and befriended us, in spite of all the efforts of justice, we fairly found ourselves in safety in the midst of a great square.

Here we paused, and after ascertaining our individual safeties, we looked round to ascertain the sum total of the general loss. Alas! we were wofully fully shorn of our beams--we were reduced onehalf: only three out of the six survived the conflict and the flight.

"Half," (said the companion of Dartmore and myself, whose name was Tringle, and who was a dabbler in science, of which he was not a little vain) "half is less worthy than the whole; but the half is more worthy than nonentity."

"An axiom," said I, "not to be disputed; but now that we are safe, and have time to think about it, are you not slightly of opinion that we behaved somewhat scurvily to our better half, in leaving it so quietly in the hands of the Philistines?"

"By no means," answered Dartmore. "In a party, whose members make no pretensions to sobriety, it would be too hard to expect that persons who are scarcely capable of taking care of themselves, should take care of other people. No; we have, in all these exploits, only the one maxim of self-preservation."

"Allow me," said Tringle, seizing me by the coat, "to explain it to you on scientific principles. You will find, in hydrostatics, that the attraction of cohesion is far less powerful in fluids than in solids; viz. that persons who have been converting their 'solid flesh' into wine skins, cannot stick so close to one another as when they are sober."

"Bravo, Tringle!" cried Dartmore; "and now, Pelham, I hope your delicate scruples are, after so luminous an eclaircissement, set at rest for ever."

"You have convinced me," said I; "let us leave the unfortunates to their fate, and Sir Richard. What is now to be done?"

"Why, in the first place," answered Dartmore, "let us reconnoitre. Does any one know this spot?"

"Not I," said both of us. We inquired of an old fellow, who was tottering home under the same Bacchanalian auspices as ourselves, and found we were in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

"Which shall we do?" asked I, "stroll home; or parade the streets, visit the Cider-Cellar, and the Finish, and kiss the first lass we meet in the morning bringing her charms and carrots to Covent Garden Market?"

"The latter," cried Dartmore and Tringle, "without doubt."

"Come, then," said I, "let us investigate Holborn, and dip into St. Giles's, and then find our way into some more known corner of the globe."

"Amen!" said Dartmore, and accordingly we renewed our march. We wound along a narrow lane, tolerably well known, I imagine, to the gentlemen of the quill, and entered Holborn. There was a beautiful still moon above us, which cast its light over a drowsy stand of hackney coaches, and shed a 'silver sadness' over the thin visages and sombre vestments of two guardians of the night, who regarded us, we thought, with a very ominous aspect of suspicion.

We strolled along, leisurely enough, till we were interrupted by a miserable-looking crowd, assembled round a dull, dingy, melancholy shop, from which gleamed a solitary candle, whose long, spinster-like wick was flirting away with an east wind, at a most unconscionable rate. Upon the haggard and worn countenances of the by-standers, was depicted one general and sympathizing expression of eager, envious, wistful anxiety, which predominated so far over the various characters of each, as to communicate something of a likeness to all. It was an impress of such a seal as you might imagine, not the arch-fiend, but one of his subordinate shepherds, would have set upon each of his flock.

Amid this crowd, I recognized more than one face which I had often seen in my equestrian lounges through town, peering from the shoulders of some intrusive, ragamuffin, wagesless lackey, and squealing out of its wretched, unpampered mouth, the everlasting query of "Want your oss held, Sir?" The rest were made up of unfortunate women of the vilest and most ragged description, aged itinerants, with features seared with famine, bleared eyes, dropping jaws, shivering limbs, and all the mortal signs of hopeless and aidless, and, worst of all, breadless infirmity. Here and there an Irish accent broke out in the oaths of national impatience, and was answered by the shrill, broken voice of some decrepit but indefatigable votaress of pleasure--(Pleasure! good God!) but the chief character of the meeting was silence;--silence, eager, heavy, engrossing; and, above them all, shone out the quiet moon, so calm, so holy, so breathing of still happiness and unpolluted glory, as if it never looked upon the traces of human passion, and misery, and sin. We stood for some moments contemplating the group before us, and then, following the steps of an old, withered crone, who, with a cracked cup in her hand, was pushing her way through the throng, we found ourselves in that dreary pandaemonium, at once the origin and the refuge of humble vices--a Gin-shop.

"Poor devils," said Dartmore, to two or three of the nearest and eagerest among the crowd, "come in, and I will treat you."

The invitation was received with a promptness which must have been the most gratifying compliment to the inviter; and thus Want, which is the mother of Invention, does not object, now and then, to a bantling by Politeness.

We stood by the counter while our proteges were served, in silent observation. In low vice, to me, there is always something too gloomy, almost too fearful for light mirth; the contortions of the madman are stranger than those of the fool, but one does not laugh at them; the sympathy is for the cause--not the effect.

Leaning against the counter at one corner, and fixing his eyes deliberately and unmovingly upon us, was a man about the age of fifty, dressed in a costume of singular fashion, apparently pretending to an antiquity of taste, correspondent with that of the material. This person wore a large cocked-hat, set rather jauntily on one side,--a black coat, which seemed an omnium gatherum of all abominations that had come in its way for the last ten years, and which appeared to advance equal claims (from the manner it was made and worn), to the several dignities of the art military and civil, the arma and the toga:--from the neck of the wearer hung a blue ribbon of amazing breadth, and of a very surprising assumption of newness and splendour, by no means in harmony with the other parts of the tout ensemble; this was the guardian of an eye-glass of block tin, and of dimensions correspondent with the size of the ribbon. Stuck under the right arm, and shaped fearfully like a sword, peeped out the hilt of a very large and sturdy looking stick, "in war a weapon, in peace a support."

The features of the man were in keeping with his garb; they betokened an equal mixture of the traces of poverty, and the assumption of the dignities reminiscent of a better day. Two small, light-blue eyes were shaded by bushy, and rather imperious brows, which lowered from under the hat, like Cerberus out of his den. These, at present, wore the dull, fixed stare of habitual intoxication, though we were not long in discovering that they had not yet forgotten to sparkle with all the quickness, and more than the roguery of youth. His nose was large, prominent, and aristocratic; nor would it have been ill formed, had not some unknown cause pushed it a little nearer towards the left ear, than would have been thought, by an equitable judge of beauty, fair to the pretensions of the right. The lines in the countenance were marked as if in iron, and had the face been perfectly composed, must have given to it a remarkably stern and sinister appearance; but at that moment, there was an arch leer about the mouth, which softened, or at least altered, the expression the features habitually wore.

"Sir," said he, (after a few minutes of silence,) "Sir," said he, approaching me, "will you do me the honour to take a pinch of snuff?" and so saying, he tapped a curious copper box, with a picture of his late majesty upon it.

"With great pleasure," answered I, bowing low, "since the act is a prelude to the pleasure of your acquaintance."

My gentleman of the gin-shop opened his box with an air, as he replied--"It is but seldom that I meet, in places of this description, gentlemen of the exterior of yourself and your friends. I am not a person very easily deceived by the outward man. Horace, Sir, could not have included me, when he said, specie decipimur. I perceive that you are surprised at hearing me quote Latin. Alas! Sir, in my wandering and various manner of life, I may say, with Cicero and Pliny, that the study of letters has proved my greatest consolation. 'Gaudium mihi,' says the latter author, 'et solatium in literis: nihil tam laete quod his non laetius, nihil tam triste quid non per hos sit minus triste.' God d--n ye, you scoundrel, give me my gin! ar'n't you ashamed of keeping a gentleman of my fashion so long waiting?" This was said to the sleepy dispenser of the spirituous potations, who looked up for a moment with a dull stare, and then replied, "Your money first, Mr. Gordon--you owe us seven-pence halfpenny already."

"Blood and confusion! speakest thou to me of halfpence! Know that thou art a mercenary varlet; yes, knave, mark that, a mercenary varlet." The sleepy Ganymede replied not, and the wrath of Mr. Gordon subsided into a low, interrupted, internal muttering of strange oaths, which rolled and grumbled, and rattled in his throat, like distant thunder.

At length he cheered up a little--"Sir," said he, addressing Dartmore, "it is a sad thing to be dependant on these low persons; the wise among the ancients were never so wrong as when they panegyrized poverty: it is the wicked man's tempter, the good man's perdition, the proud man's curse, the melancholy man's halter."

"You are a strange old cock," said the unsophisticated Dartmore, eyeing him from head to foot; "there's half a sovereign for you."

The blunt blue eyes of Mr. Gordon sharpened up in an instant; he seized the treasure with an avidity, of which the minute after, he seemed somewhat ashamed; for he said, playing with the coin, in an idle, indifferent manner--"Sir, you show a consideration, and, let me add, Sir, a delicacy of feeling, unusual at your years. Sir, I shall repay you at my earliest leisure, and in the meanwhile allow me to say, that I shall be proud of the honour of your acquaintance."

"Thank-ye, old boy," said Dartmore, putting on his glove before he accepted the offered hand of his new friend, which, though it was tendered with great grace and dignity, was of a marvellously dingy and soapless aspect.

"Harkye! you d--d son of a gun!" cried Mr. Gordon, abruptly turning from Dartmore, after a hearty shake of the hand, to the man at the counter--"Harkye! give me change for this half sovereign, and be d--d to you--and then tip us a double gill of your best; you whey-faced, liverdrenched, pence-griping, belly-griping, paupercheating, sleepy-souled Arismanes of bad spirits. Come, gentlemen, if you have nothing better to do, I'll take you to my club; we are a rare knot of us, there--all choice spirits; some of them are a little uncouth, it is true, but we are not all born Chesterfields. Sir, allow me to ask the favour of your name?"

"Dartmore."

"Mr. Dartmore, you are a gentleman. Hollo! you Liquorpond-street of a scoundrel--having nothing of liquor but the name, you narrow, nasty, pitiful alley of a fellow, with a kennel for a body, and a sink for a soul; give me my change and my gin, you scoundrel! Humph, is that all right, you Procrustes of the counter, chopping our lawful appetites down to your rascally standard of seven-pence half-penny? Why don't you take a motto, you Paynim dog? Here's one for you--'Measure for measure, and the devil to pay!' Humph, you pitiful toadstool of a trader, you have no more spirit than an empty water-bottle; and when you go to h--ll, they'll use you to cool the bellows. I say, you rascal, why are you worse off than the devil in a hip bath of brimstone?--because, you knave, the devil then would only be half d--d, and you are d--d all over! Come, gentlemen, I am at your service."

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