CHAPTER XV

The "Grove of the Evangelists" — The "fastest" neighborhood in London — Mixture of the reputable and disreputable in the Wood — The two classes of "gay" women — Streets of particularly ill-fame — Hanover Gardens — Wilton Street — A famous house of assignation — Extraordinary state of affairs — The "fast" lodging houses — Money the fetish always — Extortionate prices — St John's Wood "pubs" as compared with Montmartre cafés — Rural quietude of certain streets — Sequestered gardens — Secluded villas — The hansom "cabbies" — Fancy boys — "Bruisers" — The "Judas" — The "best boy" — Signals to the "best boy" — The stamp paper — Beethoven's symphony — Luxury and sensuality — A masterpiece of voluptuousness — All sorts and conditions of tenants — An awkward embroglio — Liaisons — "Kept women" — Sordid arrangements — Calf love — Amusing incident — Story of a rich Frenchman and his mistress — The flashy, fair-haired houris of then — The "flapper" of today — Sunday tea parties — Drunkenness amongst women

ST JOHN'S WOOD, in the days of which I am writing, was facetiously designated the " Grove of the Evangelists" by the man about town, and certain streets in it had a very unsavory reputation ; as a matter of fact it was popularly considered the "fastest" neighborhood in London, and supposed to be inhabited principally by theater people, artists and prostitutes. The character of the whole district is completely changed now, owing to two causes, firstly, the advent of the Great Central Railway, and secondly, the modern fashion adopted by the women of living in flats. The railway has entirely obliterated streets that in my young days were practically in the possession of loose women. They were fairly long thoroughfares then, but are merely names now, and quite non-existent, whilst with others that were notorious five-and-twenty years ago, and still remain, their character is so altered that they are respectable roads today.

As I have said, it was a curious anomaly, the mixture of the reputable and disreputable in St John's Wood, and it was hard to explain. The fact, however, was indisputable, and to me, was always somewhat of a mystery. At an hour when all the good folk had long been at home and in bed, the echoes of the quiet neighborhood would be awakened by the clatter of hansom cabs bringing these ladies of pleasure from their West End haunts, more often than not shouting and singing.

Curiously enough, although certain of the streets were inhabited almost entirely by this class of woman, one would hardly have guessed the character of their houses from their prosperous, middle-class appearance outside. Had one not known of the reputation of the neighborhood, there was little to draw one's attention to it beyond seeing smartly dressed women driving down West at night, alone, and returning, usually accompanied, in the small hours of the morning.

There were two classes of gay women, the fortunate ones who were generally living under the protection of a well-to-do admirer, and who had dainty little detached villas in secluded gardens, and the less fortunate, who only occupied lodgings, and made their living from day to day on the streets of the West End. It was seldom one saw any of them about during the day time, so in reality there was little to offend the eye of the respectable inhabitants. Occasionally on a fine afternoon, well turned-out dog - carts, driven by flashy - looking women, and generally accompanied by very good-looking grooms, would dash past, which would cause people, if the driver were particularly attractive, to turn round and smile with a world of meaning; but, as a rule, no one took much notice of the goings-on of the demi-mondaines; it was sufficient to know they lived there, and unless something drew special attention to them, they were unnoticed.

When I was living in the Wood, there were several streets of particularly ill-fame: Park Road, Lodge Road, Alpha Road, Omega Place, Lorne Gardens, and North and South Bank — which were so named by reason of their situation on either side of the Canal — Wellington Road, Elm Tree Road, and many others.

Apart from the streets above named there were two which bore so terrible a character, even for St John's Wood, that they require special reference — Hanover Gardens, which had been re-named Lorne Gardens, and has now practically ceased to exist, and Wilton Street, which was also re-christened. It was said in those days that there had never been anything in London to equal them for down-right iniquity, and of Wilton Street in particular, that it was "the limit." I can well remember my impression on first passing through it, and how in my mind I contrasted it with the very lowest quarters in Paris, and was forced to the conclusion that the latter had nothing to teach London in this respect.

In the summer evenings one saw women of the most degraded kind, young and old, and in every Kind and stage of outrageous attire, sitting on the balconies or doorsteps, or hanging out of the windows of the three-storied houses, leering at the male passers-by, in the very sight of innocent children playing about on the pavement and in the roadway.

Not the least curious feature was the way in which the authorities for many years apparently winked at this state of affairs, which was positively a disgrace to what ought to have been a fine residential neighborhood. In North Bank there was quite a famous house of assignation kept by a Madam J ____. It was most luxuriously furnished, and it was said she had most of the best-looking girls in the town on her books, and all the "biggest swells" used to go there. Streets, which have now become quite respectable, at that time were entirely given up to harlotry of the most brazen type. As an instance of the most extraordinary state of affairs existing, I may mention that I have myself seen in broad daylight two women stripped to the waist fighting in a front garden in South Bank, with a crowd of children looking on.

It is probably no exaggeration to assert that there was only a sprinkling of respectable houses in any parts of these roads in those days. The wonder was that there were any at all; yet in one or two of them there were distinguished writers and others who lived cheek by jowl with the lowest characters, as, for instance, Wilson Barrett, and Beatty Kingston, in North Bank, Henry Herman, the author of "The Silver King," in Alpha Road, and many others whose names I cannot recall at the moment.

The lodging-houses were usually run by oldish women, who had been at the game themselves, and who, when passés, in their turn, started fleecing the younger generation, as they themselves had been fleeced in their time. The most fantastic prices were often extorted from women for apartments and board, anything, in fact, they might be thought able to pay, and woe betide any girl who was behindhand with her rent, especially if she showed signs of not attending to her "business," and often came home at night alone. The hags who were their landladies seldom had much compassion on them.

Money was the fetish always — no money, no anything. Many of the women had bullies living with them, and one was continually hearing tales of blackmail and extortion. Drinks of the vilest description were sold in all the houses, but at prices that make one smile to think of — 5s. for a brandy or whisky and soda; two drinks, one for the man and one for the woman, always came to 10s. A bottle of so-called "champagne," £1. Food, in the shape of supper, was never to be had unless the landlady happened to have a bit of cold meat in the house, or you brought in something with you, which, of course, they didn't object to because it meant more drinks with it.

One was reminded of the unsavory streets in certain districts in Paris where the under-world congregates, with the exception that there were no cafés or brasseries to liven up this quarter. The various large public house private bars were frequented by women, but there was nothing of a lighthearted character to offer attraction to the usual casual customer; whereas in Montmartre, even the lowest of the cafés presented some fascination to the student of life in its various aspects. These "pubs," however lavishly decorated and brilliantly lighted, were nothing but low drinking resorts after all, and the drunken women one saw in them made them appear still more repulsive.

St John's Wood has indeed a lot to be thankful for to the Great Central Railway, although it may have depreciated certain parts of it from the landlord's point of view. It is a far cry from the days when, as the old "chestnut" had it, a "masher" of the period jumped into a hansom and told the man to drive him to the Bank, to be met with the query, "North or South, sir?"

Curiously enough there was a certain air of mystery about some of the more secluded roads, as, for instance, Elm Tree Road, which presented almost a rural aspect, more especially in the summer time. The fine old trees and the high walls which surrounded the sequestered gardens combined to impart an impression of quietude and charm one would hardly have expected in so notorious a neighborhood.

All the houses being built in the villa style, which was so distinct a characteristic of suburban architecture in the early days, and surrounded by quite picturesque gardens, offered, therefore, a much desired privacy, which it was difficult to find elsewhere or in more public streets. I have often thought if these quaint little houses could speak, what stories most of them would have to relate.

I am, of course, only referring now to a curious phase in the life of St John's Wood in those days. Elm Tree Road was one of the smartest and the best frequented in the neighborhood, and the women who lived there were generally more prosperous and less disorderly than their sisters in the other roads I have mentioned. Several nice people, and some well-known artists, as I have said, had studios here, and that, I thought, gave a certain tone to the road; but this was only a thin veneer of respectability, for early in the evening and late at night the many hansoms and smart broughams going to the various houses would rudely dispel the feeling of rural quietude and remind one that gilded vice had its abode there.

The hansom cabbies must have had good times from all accounts, for they would frequently be kept waiting all night, as was well known, and these men could have told some curious stories of the goings-on of the swells and the smart demi-mondaines. It was often hinted that several of the dapper drivers of the best turned-out cabs were really the "fancy-boys" of the ladies they drove down West in the day or to Richmond on Sundays, and, judging from appearance, there was probably a good deal of truth in it, as they could scarcely manage to dress themselves as they did, with their wonderfully shiny hats and smart gloves, patent boots, flower in buttonhole, on their legitimate earnings.

They were often also "bruisers" as well, if one could believe the stories one was continually hearing of their goings-on, and woe betide the masher who tried to bilk a girl, or who did not shell out what they thought he ought to pay in the shape of fare. In the ill-lighted, deserted streets, late at night, he had a bad time of it if he could not take care of himself, though it sometimes happened that the cabby found he had caught a tartar. In these days of taxis and electric light, it is hardly conceivable what was possible when I lived in the Wood, and although probably a good deal of the same sort of thing still exists, though in another form, there is no doubt the entire class of men is different now.

The doors in the garden walls of the villas were always jealously closed, and in many of them there was a small "Judas " through which the visitor could be scrutinized, and, if he were not known, his business ascertained before the door was opened. This appearance of secrecy made the houses still more mysterious, but the reason of it in most cases was not far to seek. With such women as inhabited these houses fidelity is not a characteristic trait, and it was probably seldom that one of them kept faith with the man who provided her with the house in which she lived and the means of satisfying her extravagant tastes.

Many of the fair denizens of these secluded villas had their "best boys," who would profit by the absence of the owner, who was probably an elderly man, to take his place and have a good time with his lady-love. These "fancy men" were quite a different class, as a rule, to the low-down bullies and pimps who battened on the unfortunates in the common streets. It was in order to guard against surprise visits that the "Judas" was cut in the door, as through the narrow aperture it was easy to see in an instant who was outside and to give or receive letters or messages. Endless were the stories of adventures in this connection, for it generally happened that the "best boy" was a hefty youth, particularly well constituted physically for these amorous escapades. It may be of interest to recall that very big women were the favorites then, for the "flapper" of today was non-existent. No doubt bachelors of gregarious tastes had many opportunities for adventures of a gallant nature in these quiet by-ways. For myself I saw no charm in them. Perhaps my character tends somewhat to the sentimental side, and there must ever be for me a touch of the romantic. I am afraid, notwithstanding many shattered illusions, it is my nature always to hoist my latest "attraction" on to a pedestal. One did not, however, live in the midst of all this fast life with one's eyes shut, and I recall many weird and amusing subterfuges to circumvent the precautions of the liege lord to remain in sole possession.

One of the tricks struck me as being extremely ingenious in its simplicity. When Miss Kathleen De Vere (as we will call her — for all these ladies were called by aristocratic names) received an unexpected visit from her aged but wealthy admirer at a moment when she was awaiting the more congenial arrival of her best boy for the moment, her maid had instructions to stick a piece of stamp paper in a pre-arranged spot in a dark corner of the gateway. Then when Algy turned up, full of love and anticipation, he recognized the warning that the coast was not clear, and departed disconsolate, after having removed the stamp paper as a return signal that he had kept the appointment.

In many of the houses the door would not be opened unless a signal which had been preconcerted was given. This either took the form of a peculiar knock or a particular whistle. A lady who was of musical tastes had conceived the idea of getting her lover to signal his presence outside by whistling the opening bars of Beethoven's famous No. 5 Symphony in C Minor!

Had she, I wonder, heard the legend attaching to this symphony? — that Beethoven, lying ill in bed, in the small hours of the morning, heard a man who had lost his latchkey trying to attract the attention of his wife by repeated whistlings in this peculiar fashion, outside the street door — the reiterated whistling starting the vein of musical thought which led to a masterpiece.

Many of the houses were decorated and furnished in most luxurious fashion, and not infrequently displayed evidence of artistic taste that would be somewhat unexpected. A house agent in the neighborhood gave me an explanation of this, which was somewhat curious, though quite feasible.

A lady would, on the guarantee of a gentleman who was looking after her for the time being, take a house on an agreement, and probably before moving in she would get her friend to have it thoroughly decorated and furnished. A few months after, perhaps, there would be trouble in the dovecot, and the place sold up, and probably bought by some one else who also had a Dulcinea he wanted to keep all to himself. The place might want doing up a bit, and, doubtless, would be, and so the process would continue, each successive tenant adding and perhaps improving, or otherwise, on what had been done by her predecessor, till the whole place, at last, might become quite artistic and elegant in effect.

I remember on one occasion being taken to one which was the very quintessence of luxurious sensuality, if one can so describe it.

Everything that was calculated to excite the jaded fancies of the blasé voluptuary had evidently been carefully and thoughtfully designed, and the result could certainly not have been excelled even in Paris, where, in my time, this style of furnishing was very much in vogue, and was a sort of trade in itself, as only a few firms laid themselves out for it. In this particular St . John's Wood retreat the decorator and the upholsterer had borrowed their ideas from the East, and had succeeded in producing quite a masterpiece of voluptuousness. From the moment one entered, a strange feeling of fascination took hold of you. The windows were all covered with musharabeyah work, which effectually screened the light, so you felt as though trespassing into a harem.

The illusion was heightened by the heavy odor of a seductive perfume, and the costume — or rather the lack of costume — of the fair occupant of this abode of love, a strikingly beautiful woman. She was reclining on a low, wide Turkish divan under a tent-like awning, and half buried in big, soft cushions. She had on a semi-transparent drapery of some Persian material that disguised, without hiding, her shapely form, and here and there a tiny gold crescent scintillated, or a metal ornament rattled as she moved languidly, for it was very hot and oppressive in the house.

My pal, who took me there, and was a very great friend of hers, told me that I should see something which would startle me, but this was quite a revelation, and certainly a very delightful one, for I am not a prude in any way, as may have already been surmised; but I could not help wondering whether she had donned this attire for my benefit, or if it were her usual reception dress. To my great surprise I learnt she was English, for her surroundings and tastes were evidently quite Oriental.

There were no chairs, so we had to sit on the ground, which was covered with matting, whilst here and there were hassocks and cushions. Coffee was served to us by a colored servant — Turkish fashion, in keeping with everything else, and every detail was carried out to perfection.

Our hostess expressed her regret that a great friend of hers, "a lovely girl," she had invited to meet me, was unable to come, as her "gentleman friend" had returned to town unexpectedly, but she hoped to see me another time. I had, however, already made a mental note that this was no place for me, artistically beautiful as it was, for it represented a world with which I was not in touch or ever likely to be — the world of the idle, elderly rich man — the vieux marcheur. I felt sure without seeing her that the "lovely girl" who had not been able to join us was of the same class as this semi-nude Venus in front of me. It was, perhaps, therefore a lucky thing for me her being otherwise engaged, and it afforded a very good excuse for not prolonging my visit. So wishing my friend a good time, I left him with his lady-love.

When I found myself outside in the bright sunshine of the summer afternoon, I could not help thinking how little one would have expected, in this humdrum London of ours, to have come across anything so Eastern in its sensuality.

Most of the delightful semi-rural villas, standing in their own gardens, had seen all sorts and conditions of tenants, and on occasions awkward embroglios arose from the inability of visitors to realize this.

A case in point I recollect was of two young officers home on leave from India, feeling somewhat elated after a good dinner, wending their way to a cozy nest which they remembered before they had gone abroad, and where they felt they were sure to find a loving and ardent welcome.

To all outward appearance the house was unchanged, and it took the combined arguments of two prim maid-servants and finally the persuasion of a burly policeman to convince them that Maud and Ethel had made way for more desirable tenants, and to induce them after half-an-hour's parley to retire crestfallen.

Imagine their horror when a few days later they received a letter from their Colonel's wife inviting them to dine with her and her mother at the very house where they had attempted their raid, and which she had taken for the season!

As may be imagined St John's Wood was a perfect paradise for house agents, and they would frequently let the same house two or three times a year, for those love affairs were very seldom of a lasting nature. There were, however, one or two I heard of which had continued after cat-and-dog sort of fashion for many years, but they did so simply because the man, perhaps, was getting on in years, or was either too frightened to break it off, or else that the woman in the course of their liaison had managed to get to know something of him or his business of a private nature and which she held as a sort of sword of Damocles
over his head.

The seamy side of this phrase of Bohemian life in those days was, to my mind, more marked in London than in Paris, perhaps by reason of the matter-of-fact way men treated the women they took up with. One could not help noticing this, and at times it made one's blood boil to watch it, whilst one pitied the woman who stood it. The "modern girl" has far more spirit and independence in this respect, and would not put up with it for a moment.

In those days the term "kept woman" was quite common, and though synonymous with the French maîtresse, it had scarcely the same significance, I thought. It was rarely that there was any semblance of romance or love about these sordid arrangements even from the start, and they were usually entered into in the same manner as one would an ordinary business transaction.

In Paris a man would commence probably by delicately sending the object of his desire some flowers, or some dainty present to propitiate her; in London, to put it roughly, it was generally a question of "How much do you want me to allow you a week? so that you don't have to see any one else" — without any other preliminaries. With the knowledge that must have been intuitive to most " kept " women that they were only being made conveniences of for a time, it could hardly be wondered at that in pure self-defense, and especially if they were no longer young, that they should attempt to get a more secure hold of their man, and this, no doubt, accounted for much of the trouble one heard of, and the large sums of money men of means often had to "shell out" to get rid of an irksome tie.

Occasionally, however, there were cases, as it were, of sentiment intermingled with the monetary relations, but it was generally the calf-love of some youth who had lost his heart over a woman. Still, it was genuine affection on his part whilst it lasted, and it not infrequently happened that the object of his admiration really ended by liking him very much, more especially if he combined nice presents with his love.

I remember a little story a very good-looking, fair-haired woman, living in Wellington Road, told me of an experience she had once had, and its amusing ending. An Eton boy whom she had got to know somehow had fallen violently in love with her, and used to come up to town as often as he could to see her, and spent all his money on her — in fact more, for he ended by borrowing so as to give her presents. Of course, it ended by her getting quite fond of the lad, for he was a very gentle and delightful companion.

Well, this had been going on for some time, and she guessed he was getting deeply into debt on her account, when one day she received a visit from a stranger, an old gentleman of most staid appearance. To her surprise he told her he was the father of her youthful lover, and had come to have a chat with her about his son. Of course, she divined at once that it was on no subject likely to give her pleasure that he had called, so she quite expected a sermon, but she was mistaken. He commenced by telling her in a very paternal manner that he knew all about the little love affair, and that he was at first inclined to be very angry with his son about it and take drastic steps to put a stop to it, but on mature reflection he had decided to call and see her first, and appeal to her to break it off herself. He implored her to listen to his entreaties to give up his son. She must know it was only a boy's infatuation, and it would break his mother's heart.

Naturally, she was very much upset on hearing all this, for she was quite a good sort, so she consented to do what the father asked her, and it was arranged she should not see the youngster again when he called.

The old gentleman seized her hand, and, suddenly drawing her towards him, gave her a paternal kiss, and thanked her profusely, more profusely perhaps than was necessary, and was taking his departure when, as though a sudden thought had struck him, he returned, and, putting his arm affectionately round her waist, said he had taken quite a fancy to her himself, and asked her if she would dine with him that evening somewhere on the quiet. The idea so tickled her that for the fun of the thing she said she would, and did.

A few days later she received a letter from the elder brother of the boy lover, saying that he had heard that "she had dined with the pater the other evening." He was writing to her in confidence to ask if she would come out with him also, as he was so anxious to know her! But she thought she had done enough for the family, and did not reply to his letter.

In France, where a long attachment in Bohemia very often ends in marriage, one seldom hears of such a state of affairs, although, of course, it frequently happens that it is difficult to sever a long connection, but it is more often a case of laisser-aller, the couple get used to each other, and even if their long association does not end in wedlock, they continue together almost through sheer force of habit.

They used to tell the story in Paris of a rich man who had kept the same mistress for many years, and to whom he was genuinely very attached. He was a married man, but his wife had been an invalid from the commencement of their married life, so there was some excuse for the liaison, and, as a matter of fact, it was commonly supposed that she acquiesced in it, as they got on in a very friendly sort of way, and so long as he paid her a certain amount of attention she never complained of his leaving her of an evening after dinner, which he did regularly, to visit his amie. His wife at length died after lingering on for a long while, and a few months later a friend met the widower, and when the usual expressions of sympathy had passed, asked him when he was going to get married to his old maîtresse, since he was so fond of her. "Get married!" was the reply, "why should I? I am quite happy as I am, I shouldn't know what on earth to do with my evenings if I married her!"

Differents pays, diff events mœurs — and although men kept women in St John's Wood, it was very different and far more matter-of-fact an affair than across the Channel, for there was seldom much love in these ménages, as far as I could judge from what I learned. Roughly speaking, it was simply a question of barter. The woman had something to sell, and the man bought it for the time being, and so long as it suited him he stuck to it.

Romance was out of the question. Conceit had a lot to do with it, as it generally has in these matters. The middle-aged man of pleasure liked to preen himself on Sundays driving in a phaeton or dog-cart down to the "Star and Garter" at Richmond, accompanied by some flashy, fair-haired houri.

"That's a devilish fine woman I saw you with yesterday, my boy," his pals at the club will perhaps tell him. He is delighted, and will fancy himself no end of a dog and a lady-killer.

The same sort of thing exists, no doubt, to some extent, nowadays, but it is not so much en evidence, perhaps because a different class of woman has sprung up which is not so blatant as that of twenty-five years ago, and also, as I have said, because it is the era of the simple girl and the "flapper," not of the big, showy type of overdressed woman that was so much admired formerly.

In the days of which I am writing the women used to have tea parties on Sundays, and there would often be rollicking times, for whiskey or brandy and soda would be more popular than the "cup that cheers," and a lot of heavy drinking took place which doubtless accounted for the redundant figures of the fair sex of the period.

Things have improved vastly since then, not that I would for a moment suggest that vice no longer exists, as fast men and loose women will always be until the end of time ; but it is in other respects that all is changed for the better.

For one thing there is, I fancy, less drinking, and in its place one notes a vast amelioration in the tone of the demi-monde in London, at any rate. When I lived in the Wood drunkenness, even amongst quite respectable women, was common. How any woman addicted to drink could inspire tender sentiments in a man was to me always a mystery, or how love could exist at all if either the man or the woman drank, was an enigma which I did not care to attempt to solve.




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