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My first appearance at a Music Hall was in the year one thousand eight hundred and s—. Well, I would rather not mention the exact date. I was fourteen at the time. It was during the Christmas holidays, and my aunt had given me five shillings to go and see Phelps—I think it was Phelps—in Coriolanus—I think it was Coriolanus. Anyhow, it was to see a high-class and improving entertainment, I know.
I suggested that I should induce young Skegson, who lived in our road, to go with me. Skegson is a barrister now, and could not tell you the difference between a knave of clubs and a club of knaves. A few years hence he will, if he works hard, be innocent enough for a judge. But at the period of which I speak he was a red-haired boy of worldly tastes, notwithstanding which I loved him as a brother. My dear mother wished to see him before consenting to the arrangement, so as to be able to form her own opinion as to whether he was a fit and proper companion for me; and, accordingly, he was invited to tea. He came, and made a most favourable impression upon both my mother and my aunt. He had a way of talking about the advantages of application to study in early life, and the duties of youth towards those placed in authority over it, that won for him much esteem in grown-up circles. The spirit of the Bar had descended upon Skegson at a very early period of his career.
My aunt, indeed, was so much pleased with him that she gave him two shillings towards his own expenses (“sprung half a dollar” was how he explained the transaction when we were outside), and commended me to his especial care.
Skegson was very silent during the journey. An idea was evidently maturing in his mind. At the Angel he stopped and said: “Look here, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Don’t let’s go and see that rot. Let’s go to a Music Hall.”
I gasped for breath. I had heard of Music Halls. A stout lady had denounced them across our dinner table on one occasion—fixing the while a steely eye upon her husband, who sat opposite and seemed uncomfortable—as low, horrid places, where people smoked and drank, and wore short skirts, and had added an opinion that they ought to be put down by the police—whether the skirts or the halls she did not explain. I also recollected that our charwoman, whose son had lately left London for a protracted stay in Devonshire, had, in conversation with my mother, dated his downfall from the day when he first visited one of these places; and likewise that Mrs. Philcox’s nursemaid, upon her confessing that she had spent an evening at one with her young man, had been called a shameless hussy, and summarily dismissed as being no longer a fit associate for the baby.
But the spirit of lawlessness was strong within me in those days, so that I hearkened to the voice of Skegson, the tempter, and he lured my feet from the paths that led to virtue and Sadler’s Wells, and we wandered into the broad and crowded ways that branch off from the Angel towards Merry Islington.
Skegson insisted that we should do the thing in style, so we stopped at a shop near the Agricultural Hall and purchased some big cigars. A huge card in the window claimed for these that they were “the most satisfactory twopenny smokes in London.” I smoked two of them during the evening, and never felt more satisfied—using the word in its true sense, as implying that a person has had enough of a thing, and does not desire any more of it, just then—in all my life. Where we went, and what we saw, my memory is not very clear upon. We sat at a little marble table. I know it was marble because it was so hard, and cool to the head. From out of the smoky mist a ponderous creature of strange, undefined shape floated heavily towards us, and deposited a squat tumbler in front of me containing a pale yellowish liquor, which subsequent investigation has led me to believe must have been Scotch whisky. It seemed to me then the most nauseous stuff I had ever swallowed. It is curious to look back and notice how one’s tastes change.
I reached home very late and very sick. That was my first dissipation, and, as a lesson, it has been of more practical use to me than all the good books and sermons in the world could have been. I can remember to this day standing in the middle of the room in my night-shirt, trying to catch my bed as it came round.
Next morning I confessed everything to my mother, and, for several months afterwards, was a reformed character. Indeed, the pendulum of my conscience swung too far the other way, and I grew exaggeratedly remorseful and unhealthily moral.
There was published in those days, for the edification of young people, a singularly pessimistic periodical, entitled The Children’s Band of Hope Review. It was a magazine much in favour among grown-up people, and a bound copy of Vol. IX. had lately been won by my sister as a prize for punctuality (I fancy she must have exhausted all the virtue she ever possessed, in that direction, upon the winning of that prize. At all events, I have noticed no ostentatious display of the quality in her later life.) I had formerly expressed contempt for this book, but now, in my regenerate state, I took a morbid pleasure in poring over its denunciations of sin and sinners. There was one picture in it that appeared peculiarly applicable to myself. It represented a gaudily costumed young man, standing on the topmost of three steep steps, smoking a large cigar. Behind him was a very small church, and below, a bright and not altogether uninviting looking hell. The picture was headed “The Three Steps to Ruin,” and the three stairs were labelled respectively “Smoking,” “Drinking,” “Gambling.” I had already travelled two-thirds of the road! Was I going all the way, or should I be able to retrace those steps? I used to lie awake at night and think about it till I grew half crazy. Alas! since then I have completed the descent, so where my future will be spent I do not care to think.
Another picture in the book that troubled me was the frontispiece. This was a highly-coloured print, illustrating the broad and narrow ways. The narrow way led upward past a Sunday-school and a lion to a city in the clouds. This city was referred to in the accompanying letterpress as a place of “Rest and Peace,” but inasmuch as the town was represented in the illustration as surrounded by a perfect mob of angels, each one blowing a trumpet twice his own size, and obviously blowing it for all he was worth, a certain confusion of ideas would seem to have crept into the allegory.
The other path—the “broad way”—which ended in what at first glance appeared to be a highly successful display of fireworks, started from the door of a tavern, and led past a Music Hall, on the steps of which stood a gentleman smoking a cigar. All the wicked people in this book smoked cigars—all except one young man who had killed his mother and died raving mad. He had gone astray on short pipes.
This made it uncomfortably clear to me which direction I had chosen, and I was greatly alarmed, until, on examining the picture more closely, I noticed, with much satisfaction, that about midway the two paths were connected by a handy little bridge, by the use of which it seemed feasible, starting on the one path and ending up on the other, to combine the practical advantages of both roads. From subsequent observation I have come to the conclusion that a good many people have made a note of that little bridge.
My own belief in the possibility of such convenient compromise must, I fear, have led to an ethical relapse, for there recurs to my mind a somewhat painful scene of a few months’ later date, in which I am seeking to convince a singularly unresponsive landed proprietor that my presence in his orchard is solely and entirely due to my having unfortunately lost my way.
It was not until I was nearly seventeen that the idea occurred to me to visit a Music Hall again. Then, having regard to my double capacity of “Man About Town” and journalist (for I had written a letter to The Era, complaining of the way pit doors were made to open, and it had been inserted), I felt I had no longer any right to neglect acquaintanceship with so important a feature in the life of the people. Accordingly, one Saturday night, I wended my way to the “Pav.”; and there the first person that I ran against was my uncle. He laid a heavy hand upon my shoulder, and asked me, in severe tones, what I was doing there. I felt this to be an awkward question, for it would have been useless trying to make him understand my real motives (one’s own relations are never sympathetic), and I was somewhat nonplussed for an answer, until the reflection occurred to me: What was he doing there? This riddle I, in my turn, propounded to him, with the result that we entered into treaty, by the terms of which it was agreed that no future reference should be made to the meeting by either of us—especially not in the presence of my aunt—and the compact was ratified according to the usual custom, my uncle paying the necessary expenses.
In those days, we sat, some four or six of us, round a little table, on which were placed our drinks. Now we have to balance them upon a narrow ledge; and ladies, as they pass, dip the ends of their cloaks into them, and gentlemen stir them up for us with the ferrules of their umbrellas, or else sweep them off into our laps with their coat tails, saying as they do so, “Oh, I beg your pardon.”
Also, in those days, there were “chairmen”—affable gentlemen, who would drink anything at anybody’s expense, and drink any quantity of it, and never seem to get any fuller. I was introduced to a Music Hall chairman once, and when I said to him, “What is your drink?” he took up the “list of beverages” that lay before him, and, opening it, waved his hand lightly across its entire contents, from clarets, past champagnes and spirits, down to liqueurs. “That’s my drink, my boy,” said he. There was nothing narrow-minded or exclusive about his tastes.
It was the chairman’s duty to introduce the artists. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he would shout, in a voice that united the musical characteristics of a foghorn and a steam saw, “Miss ’Enerietta Montressor, the popular serio-comic, will now happear.” These announcements were invariably received with great applause by the chairman himself, and generally with chilling indifference by the rest of the audience.
It was also the privilege of the chairman to maintain order, and reprimand evil-doers. This he usually did very effectively, employing for the purpose language both fit and forcible. One chairman that I remember seemed, however, to be curiously deficient in the necessary qualities for this part of his duty. He was a mild and sleepy little man, and, unfortunately, he had to preside over an exceptionally rowdy audience at a small hall in the South-East district. On the night that I was present, there occurred a great disturbance. “Joss Jessop, the Monarch of Mirth,” a gentleman evidently high in local request was, for some reason or other, not forthcoming, and in his place the management proposed to offer a female performer on the zithern, one Signorina Ballatino.
The little chairman made the announcement in a nervous, deprecatory tone, as if he were rather ashamed of it himself. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began,—the poor are staunch sticklers for etiquette: I overheard a small child explaining to her mother one night in Three Colts Street, Limehouse, that she could not get into the house because there was a “lady” on the doorstep, drunk,—“Signorina Ballatino, the world-renowned—”
Here a voice from the gallery requested to know what had become of “Old Joss,” and was greeted by loud cries of “’Ear, ’ear.”
The chairman, ignoring the interruption, continued:
“—the world-renowned performer on the zither—”
“On the whoter?” came in tones of plaintive inquiry from the back of the hall.
“Hon the zither,” retorted the chairman, waxing mildly indignant; he meant zithern, but he called it a zither. “A hinstrument well-known to anybody as ’as ’ad any learning.”
This sally was received with much favour, and a gentleman who claimed to be acquainted with the family history of the interrupter begged the chairman to excuse that ill-bred person on the ground that his mother used to get drunk with the twopence a week and never sent him to school.
Cheered by this breath of popularity, our little president endeavoured to complete his introduction of the Signorina. He again repeated that she was the world-renowned performer on the zithern; and, undeterred by the audible remark of a lady in the pit to the effect that she’d “never ’eard on ’er,” added:
“She will now, ladies and gentlemen, with your kind permission, give you examples of the—”
“Blow yer zither!” here cried out the gentleman who had started the agitation; “we want Joss Jessop.”
This was the signal for much cheering and shrill whistling, in the midst of which a wag with a piping voice suggested as a reason for the favourite’s non-appearance that he had not been paid his last week’s salary.
A temporary lull occurred at this point; and the chairman, seizing the opportunity to complete his oft-impeded speech, suddenly remarked, “songs of the Sunny South”; and immediately sat down and began hammering upon the table.
Then Signora Ballatino, clothed in the costume of the Sunny South, where clothes are less essential than in these colder climes, skipped airily forward, and was most ungallantly greeted with a storm of groans and hisses. Her beloved instrument was unfeelingly alluded to as a pie-dish, and she was advised to take it back and get the penny on it. The chairman, addressed by his Christian name of “Jimmee,” was told to lie down and let her sing him to sleep. Every time she attempted to start playing, shouts were raised for Joss.
At length the chairman, overcoming his evident disinclination to take any sort of hand whatever in the game, rose and gently hinted at the desirability of silence. The suggestion not meeting with any support, he proceeded to adopt sterner measures. He addressed himself personally to the ringleader of the rioters, the man who had first championed the cause of the absent Joss. This person was a brawny individual, who, judging from appearances, followed in his business hours the calling of a coalheaver. “Yes, sir,” said the chairman, pointing a finger towards him, where he sat in the front row of the gallery; “you, sir, in the flannel shirt. I can see you. Will you allow this lady to give her entertainment?”
“No,” answered he of the coalheaving profession, in stentorian tones.
“Then, sir,” said the little chairman, working himself up into a state suggestive of Jove about to launch a thunderbolt—“then, sir, all I can say is that you are no gentleman.”
This was a little too much, or rather a good deal too little, for the Signora Ballatino. She had hitherto been standing in a meek attitude of pathetic appeal, wearing a fixed smile of ineffable sweetness but she evidently felt that she could go a bit farther than that herself, even if she was a lady. Calling the chairman “an old messer,” and telling him for Gawd’s sake to shut up if that was all he could do for his living, she came down to the front, and took the case into her own hands.
She did not waste time on the rest of the audience. She went direct for that coalheaver, and thereupon ensued a slanging match the memory of which sends a trill of admiration through me even to this day. It was a battle worthy of the gods. He was a heaver of coals, quick and ready beyond his kind. During many years sojourn East and South, in the course of many wanderings from Billingsgate to Limehouse Hole, from Petticoat Lane to Whitechapel Road; out of eel-pie shop and penny gaff; out of tavern and street, and court and doss-house, he had gathered together slang words and terms and phrases, and they came back to him now, and he stood up against her manfully.
But as well might the lamb stand up against the eagle, when the shadow of its wings falls across the green pastures, and the wind flies before its dark oncoming. At the end of two minutes he lay gasping, dazed, and speechless.
Then she began.
She announced her intention of “wiping down the bloomin’ ’all” with him, and making it respectable; and, metaphorically speaking, that is what she did. Her tongue hit him between the eyes, and knocked him down and trampled on him. It curled round and round him like a whip, and then it uncurled and wound the other way. It seized him by the scruff of his neck, and tossed him up into the air, and caught him as he descended, and flung him to the ground, and rolled him on it. It played around him like forked lightning, and blinded him. It danced and shrieked about him like a host of whirling fiends, and he tried to remember a prayer, and could not. It touched him lightly on the sole of his foot and the crown of his head, and his hair stood up straight, and his limbs grew stiff. The people sitting near him drew away, not feeling it safe to be near, and left him alone, surrounded by space, and language.
It was the most artistic piece of work of its kind that I have ever heard. Every phrase she flung at him seemed to have been woven on purpose to entangle him and to embrace in its choking folds his people and his gods, to strangle with its threads his every hope, ambition, and belief. Each term she put upon him clung to him like a garment, and fitted him without a crease. The last name that she called him one felt to be, until one heard the next, the one name that he ought to have been christened by.
For five and three-quarter minutes by the clock she spoke, and never for one instant did she pause or falter; and in the whole of that onslaught there was only one weak spot.
That was when she offered to make a better man than he was out of a Guy Fawkes and a lump of coal. You felt that one lump of coal would not have been sufficient.
At the end, she gathered herself together for one supreme effort, and hurled at him an insult so bitter with scorn so sharp with insight into his career and character, so heavy with prophetic curse, that strong men drew and held their breath while it passed over them, and women hid their faces and shivered.
Then she folded her arms, and stood silent; and the house, from floor to ceiling, rose and cheered her until there was no more breath left in its lungs.
In that one night she stepped from oblivion into success. She is now a famous “artiste.”
But she does not call herself Signora Ballatino, and she does not play upon the zithern. Her name has a homelier sound, and her speciality is the delineation of coster character.