Hippothanasia, or, the Last of Tails by William Jerdan

A LAMENTABLE TALE

"London and Brighton Railway (quatuor); Brighton and London Railway, without a tunnel; Gateshead, South-Shields, and Monk-Wearmouth Railway; London Grand-junction Railway; Northern and Eastern Railway; Southeastern Railway; Great Northern Railway; Great Western Railway; London and Birmingham Railway; London and Greenwich Railway; Croydon Railway; North-Midland Railway; London and Blackwall Railway; Commercial-road Railway; Wolverhampton and Dudley Railway; Liverpool and Manchester Railway; Hull and Selby Railway; Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Carlisle Railway; Kingston-upon-Hull Railway; Durham Junction Railway; Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway; Dublin and Kingstown Railway; Dublin and Bantry Bay Railway; London and Gravesend Railway; Commercial Railway; Eastern Counties Railway; Llanelly Railway; London, Salisbury and Exeter Railway; Preston and Wye Railway; Bristol and Exeter Railway; Gravesend and Dover Railway; Gravesend, Rochester, Chatham, and Stroud Railway; London and Southampton Railway; Gateshead and South Shields Railway; Cheltenham and Great Western Railway; Lincoln Railway; Leicester and Swannington Railway; Newcastle and York Railway; Birmingham and Derby Railway; Bolton and Leigh Railway; Canterbury and Whitstable Railway; Clarence Railway; Cromford and Peak Forest Railway; Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway; Dean Forest Railway; Hartlepool Railway; St. Helens and Runc. Gap Railway; Manchester and Oldham Railway; Preston and Wigan Railway; Stanhope and Tyne Railway; Stockton and Darlington Railway; Warrington and Newton Railway; the Grand Incomparable North-southern, East-western Railway, with parallel and radiating Branches," &c. &c. &c.

"It may be observed," (says a newspaper in our hand, quite as correctly informed as newspapers usually are,) "that the railway companies now forming, of which we have a list before us, require a capital of upwards of thirty millions of pounds, divided into nearly five hundred thousand shares."

This was in the year 1836; and the horror it excited in the race of horses, native and foreign, inhabitants of the British empire, is not to be described. A knowledge of the habits and intelligence of this species is only to be obtained from the writings of our matter-of-fact and lamented predecessor, Captain Lemuel Gulliver, whose travels among the Houyhnhnms, rather more than a century ago, may have been heard of by a few of our antiquarian and classical readers. To that work we would refer, to show that Houyhnhnm is "the perfection of nature;" which truth will partly account for the following melancholy narrative. "I admired" (the author writes) "the strength, comeliness, and speed of the inhabitants; and such a constellation of virtues in such amiable persons, produced in me the highest veneration."

Having the view of horse-flesh which this preface opens, though we have not had an opportunity of studying it so purely under our mixed government, breeds, and circumstances, it is unnecessary to explain the panic which arose on the announcement of so universal a system of railways to supersede the noble animal in every beneficial and elegant office, and reduce it to the condition of a useless sinecurist, even if permitted to live on human bounty. The result was that, when the severities of winter fell thick and fast, a convocation was held by moonlight in Smithfield, and adjourned, owing to the multitude, to Horselydown, (so called from King John being tumbled off his nag by that process in that locality,) and, after a most interesting  discussion, it was unanimously resolved that every horse in Great Britain should die. Wherefore should they live? Steam-boats had thrown the wayfaring trackers out of hay; steam-ploughs, the agricultural labourers out of oats; steam-carriages, the best of posters out of employment; steam guns, the military out of service; steam-engines, the mechanics out of mills and factories;—in short, their occupations were gone, and they knew not where they could get a bit to their mouths. Wherefore should they live!

The resolution having been communicated throughout the country, and an hour appointed for the catastrophe, though it had nigh broken the hearts of some petted ponies and favourites, it was obeyed with all the stubborn sted-fastness of this illustrious creature. Racers and hunters, coach and cart, high-bred and low, drays and galloways, saddle and side ditto, Suffolk punches and dogsmeat, cobs and cabs, hacks and shelties, respectables and rips, old and young, stallions, mares, geldings, colts, foals, and fillies,—all perished at the same time. O'Connell's tail was the only one that remained extant in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland; but this our tale hath no reference to that. It may be inquired by the physiologist what were the means of death to which the abhorrence of steam induced the horses to resort; and it is gratifying to be able to satisfy their thirst for knowledge by stating that they died of the Vapours.

But we now come to the extraordinary results which must spring from the fatal fact we have just recorded. "What next?" as the political pamphleteer sayeth:—ay, what next? How will the country go on? What will the Lords do—without horses?

The revolution produced by the event was immediately felt in every part of the empire, in every pursuit, in every trade, in every amusement. Within four-and-twenty hours, the isle was frighted from her propriety, and England could no longer be recognised for herself. It is true that the crown remained; but how shorn of its beams! And then the whole Equestrian order had been destroyed at a blow. Talk of swamping the Peers! it was done, and they could dragoon the representatives of the people no more. And in proportion to their fall was the rise of the Commoners. Not a donkey-man whose ass fed on these wastes, but found himself in a higher and more powerful position. When horses are out of the field, great is the increase of the value of asses. The brutes, it is true, are still long-eared, obstinate, devoid of speed, rat-tailed, and stupid; but, in the absence of nobler beasts, whatever is, must be first. And so it now happened. The huckster, the gipsy, the higgler, the donkey-driver of Margate, the costermonger, the sandman, every asinine possessor mounted in the scale, as it fell out, with a one or more ass power, and the scum became the top of the boiling-pot of society, who all at once found themselves gentlemen of property and influence. Little had the superior classes dreamed how entirely their dignity and consequence depended on their "cattle;" but now, when a Wellington, a Grey, a Melbourne, an Anglesey, a Jersey, a Cavendish, a Fane, a Somerset, had to trudge on foot through the muddy streets, whilst the Scrogginses, the Smiths, the Gileses, the Toms, Bills, and Charleys honoured them with a nod and a splash as they scampered by, shouting "Go it, Neddy!" it was sadly demonstrated to them, and to the world, that their former personal vanity, pride, and presumption  had been built on a false foundation; for it was not themselves, but their fine and noble horses, that had won the observance and submissiveness of their fellow men unmounted.

The instant effects of the hippo-hecatomb in every circle and business of life were as remarkable as they were important. No previous imagination could have suggested a homœopathic part of the vast change. His Majesty had decided to open parliament, not by proxy, but in person,—that is to say, he was to proceed to the House in royal state, and read his speech as if it were his own, instead of leaving it to five gentlemen in large cloaks, as if it were theirs, and be ashamed to march through Coventry with them; but, alas the day! the cream-coloured steeds were all dead, and the blacks were as pale as the cream. Windsor awoke in affright and dismay. There were the royal carriages, and there the coachmen, and there the grooms, and there the hussars; but where were the horses? Gone! It was a moment for an ebullition of loyalty, and we record it as an everlasting honour to their young patriotic feelings, that the boys at Eton, in this mighty emergency, respectfully offered their services to drag the King to London, providing the head-master sat upon the box as driver, and the ushers clustered behind, in the character of the footmen. A council held on the proposition decided that the task would be too much for the tender years of the Etonians, and especially as drawing had hardly been taught in that classic establishment; so that, instead of being competent to draw a monarch, there was not a boy in the school who could draw anything. At Woolwich it was quite the reverse. In the increasing dilemma,—for his Majesty declined the walk, and the route by the river could not be performed in time,—it was resolved to despatch one of the royal messengers on the swiftest ass which the town could produce, and order a short prorogation till measures could be adopted to meet the awful exigences of the crisis.

In London, meanwhile, the consternation was equally overwhelming, if not more so. Ministers met in cabinet, but, as usual, knew not what to do; and so agreed to lie by, a bit, and see how matters might shape their own course. The First Lord of the Treasury and three secretaries sat down to a rubber of long whist, half-crown points; the Lord President of the Council, First Lord of the Admiralty, President of the Board of Control, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Lord Privy Seal, preferred three-card loo; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Trade had a capital tête-à-tête bout at brag. The other officers of state employed themselves as they could, from the Lord High Chancellor to the store-keepers and under-secretaries. And meanwhile the public mind, that is to say, all the mind inside the hats of the mob about Whitehall and Westminster, was in a tumult of excitement. Two o'clock struck, and no guns were heard: three, and the patereros were dumb. The clock of the Horse Guards—the Horse Guards! a name of departed glory and present woe!—told the hour in vain; till, just as it gave warning for four, a breathless and panting ass was seen galloping into Downing street. It bore the express from Windsor, who by prodigious exertions had accomplished the journey in less than seven hours. The unfinished rubber was broken up, to the heavy mortification of the First Lord, who scored eight, and was looking forward to a call of the honours; the loo-scores were balanced and settled, the First Lord of  the Admiralty pocketing the profits, in consequence of taking one for his heels as the donkey turned up; and "I brag" fell no more from Exchequer or Trade. But it was already too late to restore order; and confusion in the midst of deliberation only became worse confounded. Extraneous calamities every instant interfered. No mails had arrived, and very few peeresses. The letters containing friendly assurances from foreign governments were in post-offices, Heaven knew at what distances. Such of the ministers, bachelor as well as married, as were directed by their grey mares, had no opportunity for consulting and receiving their commands, though it must have been in some degree a consolation to feel that they remained amid the wreck of horse-flesh. In short, in politics, as at cards, the game was up. The English constitution was not the constitution of a horse, and it gave way before the frightful revolution; and, to add to the individual horrors of the scene, the Master of the Buckhounds, the Master of the Horse, the Postmaster-General, and the Master of the Rolls (why he, could never be conjectured) committed suicide in the course of the ensuing night; and the Lord Chancellor became a confirmed lunatic, under his own care.

It were tedious to trace all the varieties of aspects into which this awful event plunged the nation: a few, briefly described, may suffice to indicate its universal extent and terrible alterations. Routs, ball, at homes, operas, and every fashionable amusement and resort were abrogated. The ladies of the land were bowed to the ground. Visits could not be paid: to dress was unnecessary. There was no crush-room; and milliners, mantua-makers, perfumers, and jewellers were crushed. Seventeen old sedan-chairs were the total that could be discovered in London; and these, with the succedaneum suggested by the witty Countess of ——, viz. mounting such of the porters' hall-chairs as were susceptible of the improvement upon poles, in a similar manner, constituted the whole migrations of the fashionable world. We will not allude to the meetings baulked, and the assignations broken, through this unfortunate state of things; and are only sorry to say it did not add to the sum of domestic felicity.

The Park—dismal was the Park! Exquisites, more helpless than ever, tottered along its almost deserted walks. There was not one who,

——With left heel insidiously aside, Provoked the caper he would seem to chide;

nor was there a pretty woman to smile at him if he had. Could the race have obtained asses, it would have been most unnatural to ride them; and thus they vanished from the vision of society.

Ascot was not particularly unhappy, though the King's cup was a cup of dregs. But Bentinck and Crocky, Richmond and Gully, Exeter and Lamb, Rutland and ——, Jersey and ——, Chesterfield and the rest of the legs, got up an excellent two days' sport. Running in sacks afforded ample opportunities for betting heavily; and wheelbarrow races, with the barrow-drivers blindfolded or partially enlightened, were found quite as good as anything which had been done before, and allowing quite as much scope for the honourable strategies of the turf. An immense number of useless horsecollars were brought to be grinned through; and the books of literature and intelligence surpassed, if anything, those of other times.

At Epsom, the old and general patrons of that course having now the ascendency, indulged in donkey races, at which the poor nobility gazed with speechless regret. The last were truly the first, here.

Among the instances of individual ruin, none was more unentertaining than that of Mr. Ducrow. Reduced to a single zebra, he was obliged to turn wanderer and mendicant; the stripes of Misfortune were vividly impressed upon him. Circuses and amphitheatres ceased; and the dragon was more than a match for the poor horseless St. George. What a symbol of the decline of England, when even her patron saint must yield to a Saurian reptile!

Of all human beings affected by the calamity, deep as were the afflictions of others, perhaps those who evinced the most sensitive and overpowering feelings on the occasion, were the butchers' boys. As a class, they evidently suffered beyond the rest. Betrayed, unsupported, and wretched, they trudged under the heavy burthens of fate, as if the world—as indeed in one sense it was—were out of joint for them. The centaurs of antiquity were destroyed by a demigod; but the modern centaurs had nothing to soothe their pride. They were hurled down, but living and without a hope. Poor lads! every heart bled for them.

There were another set of men, almost equally unfortunate, though they endured it with greater equanimity,—the late royal horseguards, with all their splendid caparisons, their tags and tassels, their sashes and sabres, their spurs and epaulettes, their helms and feathers; the officers, people of the first families in the country, the men, the picked and chosen of the plebeian many. The high élite and the low, reduced alike by unsparing destiny to foot it with the humblest,—it was a grievous blow; and, considering their Uniform conduct, most undeserved. And it was accordingly felt that among the earliest evils for which a remedy should be sought, was the remounting of those so essential to the dignity of the throne and the safety of the realm. True it was, that of the animals they once bestrode not a skin was left; but donkeys were to be procured at excessive prices; and they were obtained for this especial purpose. As yet, the manœuvres of the Royal Ass Guards are more amusing than seemly; but there is no doubt that with time and discipline they will be, as before, the foremost corps in the service.

It were easy to enlarge upon similar topics to the end of this tome, but they would only serve to illustrate that which, we trust, we have illustrated enough. At Melton it was melancholy to see the gay hunter, unable to risk his limbs and neck, reduced to stalking,—and stalking, too, without a horse. Carts being hors de combat, the truck system began to prevail in all quarters, and, bad as it was, what could not be cured must be endured. Londonderry went into mourning on account of having exported seventy asses to Canada by a vessel which sailed about a month before, about the same period that the old bear at the Tower was sent to America, together with the monkey which bit Ensign Seymour's leg. Scotland suffered in the extreme, in spite of its excellent banking business and assets, for there was scarcely an ass in the country, except among some gipsies at Yetholm (vide Guy Mannering); and if, as we are certain it is not, one in a thousand of our readers ever saw a dead jackass anywhere, it will be agreed that not one in a million could ever enjoy that spectacle on the north side of Tweed. But enough: the kingdom was turned upside down,—old gentlemen without their hobbies,  young gentlemen without their exhibitions, sportsmen without their sports, schoolboys in the holidays without their ponies, ladies without their rides and knights, coachmen without their hacks, waggoners without their teams, barges without their draughts, the army without cavalry, and a king and aristocracy without equipages,—the revolution is complete.

In picturing this appalling change, it is but proper to notice that the agricultural interests have not been so severely dealt with. The substitution of bullocks was effected without much difficulty in most farms; and in others hand labour was happily introduced, which employed the poor, and, upon the whole, rather ameliorated the condition of the people.

At first, and for a while, it appeared as if dogs, as well as asses, would rise in value; but it was soon discovered that every dog would have only a short day. Like honest creatures as they are, they pulled and tugged at the cruel loads imposed upon them, till gradually their strength departed from them, and they died away. Their supply of food had failed, and the last of the knackers had followed the last of the tails. Pigs were tried, but positively refused to train. They smelt the wind, or what was in it; and, when out of breath, had no idea of getting a new one. A few goats in babies' shays were honoured as well-bearded and respectable-looking substitutes for the departed; and the Principality published several triads on the auspicious circumstance.

But there was a curious coincidence in London, which puzzled the British Association, the Royal Society, and other learned bodies, and which it is probable never can be satisfactorily accounted for. We refer to the sudden and enormous rise in the price of German, Strasburg, and Bologna sausages. Epping, like Epsom, might be involved in the national difficulty; but how distant countries, Germany and Italy, could by possibility be affected, was a mystery which the Geographical, and even the Statistical Society, professed themselves incompetent to determine.

From bad to worse has been the rapid declension of the empire since the fatal day of the fatal catastrophe which is the subject of this pitiable historical record. Competition, too faint for success, having ceased, steam and smoke have everywhere usurped the once blooming soil. From them, we are now a land of clouds,—murky clouds, to which those of Aristophanes are but fanciful and brilliant exhalations. Intersected by railroads, the iron age is restored, and the golden has vanished for ever. The commonweal revolves on the axes of tramwheels and trains; the reins of government are utterly relaxed; and the country, saddled with taxes and burthens, can no longer afford its inhabitants a single morsel. Engineers and speculators are bringing us to a dead level everywhere; and a republic is the inevitable consequence. For our parts, with the stomach of a horse, and loving beyond measure a sound horse-laugh, emigration is our immediate purpose. By Strasburg and Bologna will we wend our way, and endeavour to fathom the sausage-wonder; and thence, if no better may be, we shall sail for the Houyhnhnms' Land, (to the south of Lewin's and Nuyt's Land, and the west of Maelsuyker's Isle), and, at all events, make our finale like Trojans, by trusting to the horse!