Leigh Hunt

Walks home by night

Originally published in the Companion, No. V, Wednesday, Feb 6, 1828

 

The readers of these our fourpenny lucubrations need not be informed that we keep no carriage. The consequence is, that being visitors of the theatre, and having some inconsiderate friends who grow pleasanter and pleasanter till one in the morning, we are great walkers home by night; and this has made us great acquaintances of watchmen, moonlight, mad-light, and other accompaniments of that interesting hour. Luckily we are fond of a walk by night. It does not always do us good ; but that is not the fault of the hour, but our own, who ought to be stouter; and therefore we extract what good we can out of our necessity, with becoming temper. It is a remarkable thing in nature, and one of the good-naturedest things we know of her, that the mere fact of looking about us, and being conscious of what is going on, is its own reward, if we do but notice it in good-humour. Nature is a great painter (and art and society are among her works), to whose minutest touches the mere fact of becoming alive is to enrich the stock of our enjoyment.

We confess there are points liable to cavil in a walk home by night in February. Old umbrellas have their weak sides; and the quantity of mud and rain may surmount the picturesque. Mistaking a soft piece of mud for hard, and so filling your shoe with it, especially at setting out, must be acknowledged to be “aggravating.” But then you ought to have boots. There are sights, indeed, in the streets of London, which can be rendered pleasant by no philosophy; things too grave to be talked about in our present paper; but we must premise, that our walk leads us out of town, and through streets and suburbs of by no means the worst description. Even there we may be grieved if we will. The farther the walk into the country, the more tiresome we may choose to find it; and when we take it purely to oblige others, we must allow, as in the case of a friend of ours, that generosity itself on two sick legs may find limits to the notion of virtue being its own reward, and reasonably “curse those comfortable people” who, by the lights in their windows, are getting into their warm beds, and saying to one another—“Bad thing to be out of doors to night.”

Supposing then that we are in a reasonable state of health and comfort in other respects, we say that a walk home at night has its merits, if you choose to meet with them. The worst part of it is the setting out,—the closing of the door upon the kind faces that part with you. But their words and looks on the other hand may set you well off. We have known a word last us all the way home, and a look make a dream of it. To a lover, for instance, no walk can be bad. He sees but one face in the rain and darkness; the same that he saw by the light in the warm room. This ever accompanies him, looking in his eyes; and if the most pitiable and spoilt face in the world should come between them, startling him with the saddest mockery of love, he would treat it kindly for her sake. But this is a begging of the question. A lover does not walk. He is sensible neither to the pleasures nor pains of walking. He treads on air; and in the thick of all that seems inclement, has an avenue of light and velvet spread for him, like a sovereign prince.

To resume then, like men of this world. The advantage of a late hour is, that everything is silent, and the people fast in their beds. This gives the whole world a tranquil appearance. Inanimate objects are no calmer, than passions and cares now seem to be, all laid asleep. The human being is motionless as the house or the tree; sorrow is suspended; and you endeavour to think, that love only is awake. Let not readers of true delicacy be alarmed, for we mean to touch profanely upon nothing that ought to be sacred; and as we are for thinking the best on these occasions, it is of the best love we think; love, of no heartless order, legal or illegal; and such only as ought to be awake with the stars.

As to cares, and curtain-lectures, and such like abuses of the tranquillity of night, we call to mind, for their sakes, all the sayings of the poets and others, about “balmy sleep,” and the soothing of hurt minds, and the weariness of sorrow, which drops into forgetfulness. The great majority are certainly “fast as a church” by the time we speak of; and for the rest, we are among the workers who have been sleepless for their advantage; so we take out our licence to forget them for the time being. The only thing that shall remind us of them, is the red lamp, shining afar over the apothecary’s door; which, while it does so, reminds us also that there is help for them to be had. I see him now, the pale blinker, suppressing the conscious injustice of his anger at being roused by the apprentice, and fumbling himself out of the house, in hoarseness and great coat, resolved to make the sweetness of the Christmas bill indemnify him for the bitterness of the moment.

But we shall be getting too much into the interior of the houses.— By this time the hackney-coaches have all left the stands; a good symptom of their having got their day’s money. Crickets are heard, here and there, amidst the embers of some kitchen. A dog follows us. Will nothing make him “go along?” We dodge him in vain; we run; we stand and “hish” at him; accompanying the prohibition with dehortatory gestures, and an imaginary picking up of a stone. We turn again, and there he is, vexing our skirts. He even forces us into an angry doubt whether he will not starve, if we do not let him go home with us. Now if we could but lame him without being cruel; or if we were only an overseer; or a beadle; or a dealer in dog-skin; or a political economist, to think dogs unnecessary. Oh, come; he has turned a corner; he is gone; we think we see him trotting off at a distance, thin and muddy; and our heart misgives us. But it was not our fault; we were not “hishing” at the time. His departure was lucky, for he had got our enjoyments into a dilemma; our “article” would not have known what to do with him. These are the perplexities to which your sympathizers are liable. We resume our way, independent and alone; for we have no companion this time, except our never- to-be-forgotten and etherial companion, the reader. A real arm within another’s puts us out of the pale of walking that is to be made good. It is good already. A fellow-pedestrian is company; is the party you have left; you talk and laugh, and there is no longer anything to be contended with. But alone, and in bad weather, and with a long way to go, here is something for the temper and spirits to grapple with and turn to account; and accordingly we are booted and buttoned up, an umbrella over our heads, the rain pelting upon it, and the lamp-light shining in the gutters; “mud-shine,” as an artist of our acquaintance used to call it, with a gusto of reprobation. Now, walk cannot well be worse; and yet it shall be nothing if you meet it heartily. There is a pleasure in overcoming any obstacle; mere action is something; imagination is more; and the spinning of the blood, and vivacity of the mental endeavour, act well upon one another, and gradually put you in a state of robust consciousness and triumph. Every time you set down your leg, you have a respect for it. The umbrella is held in the hand, like a roaring trophy.

We are now reaching the country: the fog and rain are over; and we meet our old friends the watchmen, staid, heavy, indifferent, more coat than man, pondering yet not pondering, old but not reverend, immensely useless. No; useless they are not; for the inmates of the houses think them otherwise, and in that imagination they do good. We do not pity the watchmen as we used. Old age often cares little for regular sleep. They could not be sleeping perhaps, if they were in their beds; and certainly they would not be earning. What sleep they get, is perhaps sweeter in the watch-box,—a forbidden sweet; and they have a sense of importance, and a claim on the persons in-doors, which together with the amplitude of their coating and the possession of the box itself, make them feel themselves, not without reason, to be “somebody.” They are peculiar and official. Tomkins is a cobbler as well as they; but then he is no watchman. He cannot speak to “things of night;” nor bid “any man stand in the King’s name.” He does not get fees and gratitude from the old, the infirm, and the drunken; nor “let gentlemen go;” nor is he “a parish-man.” The church wardens don’t speak to him. If he put himself ever so much in the way of “the great plumber,” he would not say “How do you find yourself, Tomkins?”—“An ancient and quiet watchman.” Such he was in the time of Shakspeare, and such he is now. Ancient, because he cannot help it; and quiet, because he will not help it, if possible; his object being to procure quiet on all sides, his own included. For this reason, he does not make too much noise in crying the hour, nor is offensively particular in his articulation. No man shall sleep the worse for him, out of a horrid sense of the word “three.” The sound shall be three, four, or one, as suits their mutual convenience.

Yet characters are to be found even among watchmen. They are not all mere coat, and lump, and indifference. By the way, what do they think of in general? How do they vary the monotony of their ruminations from one to two, and from two to three, and so on? Are they comparing themselves with the unofficial cobbler; thinking of what they shall have for dinner tomorrow; or what they were about six years ago; or that their lot is the hardest in the world, (as insipid old people are apt to think, for the pleasure of grumbling); or that it has some advantages nevertheless, besides fees; and that if they are not in bed, their wife is?

Of characters, or rather varieties among watchmen, we remember several. One was a Dandy Watchman, who used to ply at the top of Oxford street, next the park. We called him the dandy, on account of his utterance. He had a mincing way with it, pronouncing the a in the word “past” as it is in hat,—making a little preparatory hem before he spoke, and then bringing out his “Past ten” in a style of genteel indifference, as if, upon the whole, he was of that opinion.

Another was the Metallic Watchman, who paced the same street towards Hanover square, and had a clang in his voice like a trumpet. He was a voice and nothing else; but any difference is something in a watchman. A third, who cried the hour in Bedford square, was remarkable in his calling for being abrupt and loud. There was a fashion among his tribe just come up at that time, of omitting the words “Past” and “o’clock,” and crying only the number of the hour. I know not whether a recollection I have of his performance one night is entire matter of fact, or whether any subsequent fancies of what might have taken place are mixed up with it; but my impression is, that as I was turning the corner into the square with a friend, and was in the midst of a discussion in which numbers were concerned, we were suddenly startled, as if in solution of it, by a brief and tremendous outcry of—ONE. This paragraph ought to have been at the bottom of the page, and the word printed abruptly round the corner.

A fourth watchman was a very singular phenomenon, a Reading Watchman. He had a book, which he read by the light of his lantern; and instead of a pleasant, gave you a very uncomfortable idea of him. It seemed cruel to pitch amidst so many discomforts and privations one who had imagination enough to wish to be relieved from them. Nothing but a sluggish vacuity befits a watchman.

But the oddest of all was the Sliding Watchman. Think of walking up a street in the depth of a frosty winter, with long ice in the gutters, and sleet over head, and then figure to yourself a sort of bale of a man in white, coming sliding towards you with a lantern in one hand, and an umbrella over his head. It was the oddest mixture of luxury and hardship, of juvenility and old age! But this looked agreeable. Animal spirits carry everything before them; and our invincible friend seemed a watchman for Rabelais. Time was run at and butted by him like a goat. The slide seemed to bear him half through the night at once; he slipped from out of his box and his common-places at one rush of a merry thought, and seemed to say, “Everything’s in imagination;—here goes the whole weight of my office.”

But we approach our home. How still the trees! How deliciously asleep the country! How beautifully grim and nocturnal his wooded avenue of ascent, against the cold white sky! The watchmen and patroles, which the careful citizens have planted in abundance within a mile of their doors, salute us with their “good mornings;”—not so welcome as we pretend; for we ought not to be out so late; and it is one of the assumptions of these fatherly old fellows to remind us of it. Some fowls, who have made a strange roost in a tree, flutter as we pass them;—another pull up the hill, unyielding; a few strides on a level; and there is the light in the window, the eye of the warm soul of the house,— one’s home. How particular, and yet how universal, is that word; and how surely does it deposit every one for himself in his own nest!

(1828)

MLA Citation

Hunt, Leigh. “Walks home by night.” 1828. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 22 Dec 2007. 29 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hunt/walks_home_by_night/>.

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