The Night Walker (William Maginn)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"The Night Walker" is a literary sketch by William Maginn published first in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine.

Full text

THE NIGHT WALKER.


IN a crowded and highly cultivated state of society like that of London, the race of exertion against ,time is incessant. Take a distant village, although a populous one (as in Devon- shire or Cornwall), and even discord, during the hours of dark- ness, is found forgetting herself in rest. The last alehouse closes before the clock strikes ten, sending the very scapegraces of the hamlet in summer to bed by daylight; no lady would choose after curfew hour (even by beating her husband) to disturb her neighbors; and unless some tailor happens to be behindhand with a wedding pair of small clothes, or some housewife prolongs the washing-day and gives an extra hour to her lace caps, or unless the village be a post-stage, where the " first-turn-boy " must sleep in his spurs, or where, the mail changing horses, some one sits up to give the guard his glass of rum, no movable probably like a lighted candle is known to such a community from eleven o'clock on the Saturday night, to six o'clock on the Monday morning. In London, however, the course of affairs is widely different. As the broad glare of gas drives darkness even from our alleys, so multitudinous avocations keep rest forever from our streets. By an arrange- ment the opposite to that of Queen Penelope, it is during the night that the work of regeneration in our great capital goes on ; it is by night that the great reservoirs which feed London and Westminster repair the vast expenditure which they make during the day. As the wants of twelve hundred thousand persons are not ministered to with a wet finger, this operation of replenishment does not proceed in silence. Its action is best observable (as regards the season) towards the end of spring; when, the town being at the fullest, the markets are most abundantly supplied. Then every succeeding hour of the four-and-twenty brings its peculiar business to be performed, and sets its peculiar agents into motion.

Between half-past eleven and twelve o'clock at night the several theaters of the metropolis discharge themselves of their loads, and at that hour it is (unless the House of Commons happens to sit late) that the last flush of passengers is seen in the streets of London. The forth-rushing multitudes of Covent Garden and Drury Lane pass westward in divisions by King Street and Leicesterfields, eastward by Catherine Street^ the Strand, and Temple Bar; they are crossed at the points of Blackfriars and St. Martin's Lane by the Middlesex-dwelling visitors of Astley's and the Circus, and may be distinguished from the chance travelers (pedestrians) of the same direction by their quick step, hilarious mood, and still more by that style of shouldering in which Englishmen when they walk in a body always indulge towards the single-handed. About this time, too, the hackney horses put their best feet (where there is a choice) foremost, knowing of old that whence comes one lash there as easily come two. The less public and more peaceful districts of town are next flattered for some twenty minutes by the loud knocks of coachmen, occasionally commuted into "touches of the bell" for the sake of "the lodgers," or "the children," or sometimes "the old lady opposite." And before the stroke of midnight, in these comparatively pacific regions the tomcats and the watchmen reign with undisputed sway.

In the greater thoroughfares of London, however, and especially about Fleet Street and the Strand, the tumult of evening does not subside so easily. From twelve by Paul's clock until after two in the morning the Gates of the Temple, and the nooks under St. Dunstan's Church, the corners of Bell Yard, Star Court, and Chancery Lane, the doors of the Rain- bow, the Cock, and the other minor coffee-houses of Fleet Street are beset by habitual idlers or late-stirring " professional people," members of spouting-clubs and second-rate actors, bar- risters without law and medical students guiltless of physic; besides these, there flourish a set of City " choice spirits," who can't get so far west as "Pedley's Oyster-rooms," or "The Saloon," in Piccadilly, but must take their "lark" (moving homewards) between the Adelphi Theater and Whitechapel; and now and then, perhaps, some grocer of Farringdon falls (vino gravidus) into the irregularity of a " set-to," and pays thirty shillings " making-up " money to his Jew antagonist at St. Bride's Watch-house, to save a jobation at Guildhall from the sitting alderman next day.

This is the very "witching time," par excellence, of night,

" When graves yield up their dead "

(because resurrection-men will have it so), when lamps are "rifled at," and sots pushed out of public-houses ; and when the sober wayfarer starts ever and anon at the prolonged hilly-oh- ho-ho ! that bellow, as it were, crescendo, peculiar I think to the throats of the English, which frightens watchmen into their hutches and quiet citizens into the kennel. This whoop by the way prolonged, which invites MANKIND, as it were, to clear the way, is with us a pure national, and not a local, characteristic. Both high and low affect the practice ; both " good men " and bul- lies. W e have it at Oxford and at Cambridge, where the gowns- men if opposed strip and buff to their work like stout "forty minutes " fellows ; and again in London, where your flustered haberdasher, after defying perhaps a whole street, at last pro- vokes somebody to thrash him, and is beat without a blow in his defense.

By two o'clock, however, the riotous get pretty well disposed of; some snug and flea-bitten in their own personal garrets, more (and still flea-bitten) in the compters of the police. The wickets of the night-houses after this open only to known cus- tomers, and the flying pieman ceases his call. The pickpockets, linked with the refuse of another pestilence of the town, are seen sauntering lazily towards their lurking places in gangs of five and six together. And when these last stragglers of darkness have swept over the pav, the debris of the evening may be con- sidered as cleared off ; and except an occasional crash of oyster- shells cast (maugre Angelo Taylor) from some lobster-shop, or the sharp rattle of a late billiard-ball echoing from the rooms over Mrs. Salmon's, silence, or something like it, obtains for some brief minutes, while the idlers of night give place to the dark-working men of business.

The earliest disturbers of London until within these few years were the market gardeners, who rolled lazily through the suburbs about three with their filled up carts and wagons, some "well to do " and pompous, parading their four high-fed horses apiece, others poor (and modest) drawing with a single quadru- ped, and he, God wot, looking as though stray cabbage leaves were his holiday-fare, that is, supposing (what is not supposa- ble) that such a thing as a holiday ever happened to him ; all the spring vehicles, however, top-heavy with baskets of raspberries, strawberries, and currants ; and followed by heavier machines bearing gooseberries, or frame potatoes ; the cauliflowers, peas, and such more ponderous and plebeian esculents having creaked into town (as they might) in the course of the preceding evening.

But two or three mild winters of late in succession have brought a new article of foreign trade into England. Ice, for the use of the confectioners, comes now to us all the way from Norway, where a gentleman, we understand, is making arrange- ments to send over even snow, at a far cheaper rate than it can afford to fall in this country ; so that frost, in fact (as regards Great Britain and Ireland), may consider itself discharged from further attendance ; and, with the help of a few more devices in the way of commercial arrangement, and perhaps a new improve- ment or two as to the application of steam, it shall go hard but we will shortly turn the seasons out-of-doors altogether. And this imported ice (jealous of sunshine) is foremost in our streets now of mornings, moving along, in huge cartloads, from the be- low-bridge wharfs ; and looking, as it lies in bulk, like so much conglutinated Epsom salts.

Meantime the river above bridge is not suffered to lie idle ; but the fruits of Putney and Fulham walk upon the shoulders of porters, from Hungerford and the Adelphi stairs, to the great mart of vegetable matter, Co vent Garden. Arid upon this spot (Covent Garden), which circumstances seem to have erected into a sort of museum for all the varied staple of a crowded capital city ; to which all the patron friends of all the ills that scourge mankind seem to have rushed with one consent, day and night, to hold divan ; where Luxury roams gorgeous through her long range of lighted taverns, and brims the bowl with wine, which Discord waits to dash with blood; where hunger, squalor, nakedness, and disease dance, antic, round our NATIONAL MONUMENTS of national wealth and superfluity; where vices, too hideous to be contemplated in detail, assert their royalty over us, alike in every class and every condition, blazing in transient luster amid the splendid hotels of the Piazza, starving, in rags (yet scarce more abject) amongst the horrid fastnesses of Bedford Court! upon this spot, where all things monstrous are crowded and jumbled together ; where the sounds seem all confused, and the sights all anomalous ; where the wild laugh of revelry, and the low moan of suffering, - the subdued whisper of entreaty, and the hoarse bark of exe- cration mingle and mix and blend, and half neutralize each other; upon this spot, Covent Garden jovial Covent Gar- den, the darling haunt alike of folly and of wit, the great mart of all London for oranges, outcasts, and old clothes, where the jokes are mostly good, where the cookery is always excellent, where the claret is commonly the best in England, and the morality never failingly the worst on this spot, one continued uproar of labor or dissipation has endured without interims- sion for nearly a century gone by ; and here, so long as Lon- don shall keep her holding as a city, silence, probably, by night or day, shall never find a resting-place.

But we will tear ourselves from Covent Garden even in " the sweet " (as Falstaff calls it) " of the night," for we must take a peep at the other points of provisional concentration about town. We must look towards Cockspur Street, where the hay collects itself in such quantities that nothing but the stomach of a horse could ever hope to make away with it. And we must cross, too, into Smithfield, where herds of cattle keep coming in all night, and where it is amazing how anybody can get a wink of sleep for the barking of the dogs and the bellow- ing of the bulls, and, louder than all, the swearing of the drovers, against whom Heaven, Richard Martin, strengthen thine arm ! Smithfield, however, to be seen to advantage, should be taken from its eastern bearing through the fogs of a November morning, when the lights in the west quadrangle at "The Ram," "The Goat," and "The Bull's Head" show like beacons (though they shine but dimly) amid the total darkness on all sides of them ; and when, looking at the hubbub of traffic which roars through the outward street against the deep un- heeding silence that reigns within the houses, a man might fancy he witnessed the rush of an invading army, or division, into a town which the inhabitants had the night before aban- doned. Then pick your way round (for there is no venturing to cross) and peep through the steaming window-panes into the parlor of an inn, where graziers and salesmen, in their fan- tastic " auld world " dresses, flop-hatted and top-coated, booted and waist-be-girt ; knee-capped, twenty-handkerchiefed, mud- be -splashed, and spurred, snore or smoke in arm-chairs ; and, be- tween whiles, drive bargains for thousands. Mark the huge bulk of these men, their bluff bearing and English counte- nances. Hark to their deep voices, strange dialects, and un- couth expression. Then take their attendant demons, the badged drovers, each his goad and cord in hand ; and with .garb so pieced together, patched, and tattered that it might pass for the costume of any age, being like the costume of none. Catch the style of the old-fashioned building before you, with its latticed windows and pent-house roof. Take the low ceiling of the sitting apartment, and the huge sea-coal fire that glows in it. Take the figures of the farmers within doors, and of the drovers hovering without; of the gaitqred, smock-f rocked hostlers, carriers, and carmen : of the ragged, patient, waiting ponies, and the still more ragged and patient sheep-dogs the most faithful, intelligent, and ill-used beings of their species ; take these objects amid the darkness of the hour and the exag- geration of the fog, and then, with a little natural romance and a lively recollection of Shakspeare, you may (almost) fancy yourself thrown back into the glorious rudeness of the thir- teenth century, arriving from a recent robbery (ah ! those in- deed were days) rich with the spoils of " whoreson caterpillars," and calling for a light to walk between tavern and tavern !

But the sober clearness of a summer's morning is no nurse for these wild fancies. It shows all objects too plainly and dis- tinctly for picturesque effect, the true secret of which lies in never exhibiting anything fully , but in showing just enough to ex- cite the imagination, and in then leaving it room enough to act. So we will turn back from Smithfield, just in the cold gray light of daybreak, and cross Holborn to Chancery Lane, where the kennels by this time are overflowing ; and rogues, with scoops, are watering the roads that is, " making the dust one mud ! " Now watchmen congregate round posts for a little sober conversation ; old women make to their respective stand- ings with hot saloop and bread and butter ; and presently the light hung caravans of the fishmongers built at first in imita- tion of the hearses, and now re-imitated into Paddington stage- coaches begin to jingle along at a trot by Thames Street towards Billingsgate.

As the last stars fade in the horizon and the sun coquets with the church spires, new actors in sundry shapes appear upon the scene. Milkwomen in droves clank along with their (to be filled) pails. The poorer fish-dealers, on their own heads, un- dertake the "care of soles." Chimney-sweepers shuffle on, straining out a feeble cry. And parties walk home (rather chilly) from Vauxhall, flaunting in satin shoes, silk stockings, and ostrich feathers; stared at now and then by some gaping, slipshod baker, who fetches spring water from the pump to cool his sponge, and looks like the statue in Don Juan, or a sack of flour truant from the kneading-trough; or hooted by some lost thing, all mad, and pale, and ghastly some creation of gin, and carmine, and soiled muslin, which shows by daylight as a being of other time and place an apparition, a prodigy, a denizen of some forbidden sphere a foul lamp, thickly glim- mering out its dregs, which the sun's light by some accident has omitted to extinguish.

Five o'clock, and the world looks as if stretching itself to awake. Coal-wagons and drays start forth upon "long turns," their country intent denoted by the truss of hay placed above the load. Butchers step sturdily towards Islington or Smith- field. Anglers, children of hope ! stride fieldwards with baskets on their backs. And Holborn and Snow Hill are crowded with pony-carts (since the Chancellor of the Exchequer rides nothing under fourteen hands) bearing butter, cheese, poultry, sucking- pork, and eggs from Newgate market to the distant parishes of Marylebone and Pancras.

Six ! And 'prentices begin to rub their eyes and curse their indentures. Maid-servants at u the Piccadilly end" of the town are not bound to stir just yet, but Russell Square and its dependencies set their spider-killers in motion betimes ; for courts of law and counting-houses both sit at nine o'clock, and an advocate in practice of ten thousand a year must step into his carriage at five-and-thirty minutes past eight in the morning.

And now the different shops begin to open themselves for action. Our friend the baker is first, for he has been up all night, and he has to cool his loaves at the open windows as he draws them from the oven. Next comes the pastry-cook, lotting his remnant of cheese-cake, selling yesterday's dainties at half- price to-day, and still making money (as it is said) by the deal- ing. Then coaches, splashed and dirty, come laboring into town ; and coaches, fresh and clean, drive out ; and by this time the mercers and jewelers set their portals wide, in favor of sweeping, sprinkling, and window-cleaning ; for the show-glasses (and here again sigh our friends the apprentices) must be emp- tied all, and polished and refurnished before breakfast.

The clock strikes eight, and the night-walker must be seen no more. Hurry and bustle and breakfast are on foot. The milkman cries in haste, and yet can scarce make his rounds fast enough. Maids with clean aprons (and sometimes with clean plates) step forth, key in hand, for the modicum of fresh butter ; and hot rolls (walk as you will) run over you at every corner. By nine the clerks have got down to their offices the attorneys have opened their bags, and the judges are on their benches ; and the business of the day in London may now be said to have be- gun, which varies from hour to hour as strangely as the business of the night, and (to the curious observer) presents even a more ample field for speculation.




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