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MY OLD LADY, LONDON
BY A. EDWARD NEWTON
I Once heard a charming woman say at dinner, 'I don't think I ever had quite as much fresh asparagus as I wanted.' In like manner, I don't think I shall ever get as much of London as is necessary for my complete happiness; I love it early in the morning — before it rouses itself, when the streets are deserted; I love it when throngs of people — the best-natured and politest people in all the world — crowd its thoroughfares; and I love it, I think, best of all, at sunset, when London, in some of its aspects, can be very beautiful. If I were a Londoner, I should never leave it, except perhaps for a day or two now and then, so that I could enjoy coming back to it.
The terrible world-upheaval through which we have just passed is responsible for my not having been in Ixmdon for six years, and I greatly feared that those years might have left some unhappy imprint upon the Old Lady. Indeed, she may have lost a tooth or a wisp of hair; but aristocratic old ladies know how to conceal the ravages of time and circumstance, and as I looked around the railway station while my belongings were being stowed away in the 'left luggage' room, I saw only the usual crowd quietly going about its business.
Then, as I stepped into my taxi and said, 'Simpson's in the Strand,' and was being whirled over Waterloo Bridge, I said to myself,'Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed except that the
fare, which was once eightpence, is now a shilling.'
I said it again, with not quite the same certainty, when, after eating my piece of roast beef and a little mess of greens and a wonderful potato, I called the head waiter and complained that the meat was tough and stringy. 'It is so,' said that functionary, and continued: 'you see, sir, during the war we exhausted' (with careful emphasis upon the h) 'our own English beef, and we arc now forced to depend upon — ' I looked him straight in the eye; he was going to say America, but changed his mind and said, 'the Argentine.'
'Very neatly done,' I said, ordering an extra half-pint of bitter and putting a sixpence in his hand; 'to-morrow I'll have fish. I'm very sure that nothing can have happened to the turbot.'
It was only a little after one, when, leaving Simpson's I lit a cigar and turned westward in quest of lodgings. As the Savoy was near at hand, I thought no harm would be done by asking the price of a large double-bedded room overlooking the river, with a bath, and was told that the price would be five guineas a day, but that no such accommodation was at that moment available. 'I'm glad of it,' I said, feeling that a temptation had been removed; for I have always wanted a room that looked out on the river; and, continuing westward, I inquired at one hotel after another until, just as I was beginning to feel, not alarmed, but a trifle uneasy, I secured, not just what I wanted, but a room and a bath which would serve — at the Piccadilly.
I had been kept waiting quite a little time in the lobby, and as I looked about me there seemed to be a good many foreigners in evidence, a number of Spaniards and, I suspected, Germans. A fine manly young fellow, with only one arm (how many such I was to see), who manipulated the lift and to whom I confided my suspicions, replied,'Yes, sir, I believe they is, sir; but what are you going to do? They calls themselves Swiss!'
But in my anxiety to get to London, I have forgotten to say a word about the Imperator, on which I crossed, or of the needless expense and delay to which one is subjected in New York, for no reason that I can see, but that some of what Mr. Bryan called 'deserving Democrats' may be fed at the public trough.
After being photographed, and getting your passport and having it vised by the consul of the country to which you are first going, and after assuring the officials of the Treasury Department that the final installment of your income tax will be paid, when due, by your bank, — though where the money is to come from, you don't in the least know, — you finally start for New York, in order that you may be there one day before the steamer sails, so that you may again present your passport at the Custom House for final inspection. I know no man wise enough to tell me what good purpose is served by this last annoyance. With trunks and suitcases, New York is an expensive place in which to spend a night, and one is not in the humor for it; one has started for Europe and reached — New York.
But fearful that some hitch may occur, you wire on for rooms and get them, and'the day previous to sailing,' as the
regulation demands, you present yourself and your wife, each armed with a passport, at the Custom House. Standing in a long line in a corridor, you eventually approach a desk at which sits a man consuming a big black cigar. Spreading out your passport before him he looks at it as if he were examining one for the first time; finally, with a blue pencil, he puts a mark on it and says, 'Take it to that gentleman over there,' pointing across the room. You do so; and another man examines it, surprised, it may be, to see that it so closely resembles one that he has just marked with a red pencil. He is just about to make another hieroglyph on the passport when he observes that the background of your photograph is dark, whereas the regulations call for light. He suspends the operation; is it possible that you will be detained at the last moment? No! with the remark, 'Get a light one next time,' he makes a little mark in red and scornfully directs you to another desk. Here sits another man — these are all able-bodied and presumably well-paid politicians — with a large rubber stamp; it descends, and you are free to go on board your ship — to-morrow.
The Imperator made, I think, only one trip in the service of the company that built her; during the war she remained tied up to her pier in Ho bo ken; and when she was finally put into passenger service, she was taken over, pending final allocation, by the Cunard Line. She is a wonderful ship — with the exception of the Leviathan, the largest boat afloat; magnificent and convenient in every detail, and as steady as a church. The doctor who examines my heart occasionally, looking for trouble, would have had a busy time on her. I fancy I can see him, drawing his stethoscope from his pocket and suspending it in his ears, poking round, listening in vain for the pulsation of her engines; fearful, no doubt, that he was going to lose his patient, he would have prescribed certain drops in water at regular intervals, and, finally, he would have sent her in a very large bill.
I am quite sure that I owe my comparatively good health to having been very abstemious in the matter of exercise. But it was my habit to take a constitutional each day before breakfast; this duty done, I was able to read and smoke thereafter with a clear conscience. Four and a half times around the promenade deck was a mile, the steward told me; and I can quite believe it.
Coming back to earth, or rather sea, after this flight into the empyrean, I am bound to admit that the Germans knew how to build and run ships. And the beautiful part of the Imperator was that, though you saw a German sign occasionally, not a German word was heard. How completely, for the time being at any rate, the German nation has been erased from the sea! I sometimes doubt the taste of the English singing 'Rule, Britannia'; it is so very true — now.
As we entered Southampton Water after a pleasant and quite uneventful voyage, we saw almost the only sign of the war we were destined to see. A long line, miles long, of what we should call torpedo-boat destroyers, anchored in midstream, still wearing their camouflage coloring, slowly rusting themselves away.
We landed on a clear, warm September afternoon, and, Southampton possessing no charm whatever, we at once took train for Winchester, which we reached in time to attend service in the austere old cathedral. The service was impressive, and the singing better than in most cathedrals, for the choir is largely recruited from the great school
founded centuries ago by William of Wykeham. After the service, we stood silently for a moment by the tomb of Jane Austen; nor did we forget to lift reverently the carpet that protects the tablet let into the tombstone of Izaak Walton. After tea, that pleasant function, we drove out to the Hospital of St. Cross, beautiful and always dear to me, being, as it is, the scene of Trollope's lovely story, The Warden.
Seated at home in my library, in imagination I love to roam about this England, this 'precious stone set in the silver sea,' which, however, now that the air has been conquered, no longer serves it defensively as a moat; but as soon as I find myself there, the lure of London becomes irresistible, and almost before I know it I am at some village railway station demanding my 'two single thirds' to Waterloo or Victoria, or wherever it may be.
So it was in this case. I did, however, take ad vantageof the delightful weather to make a motor pilgrimage to Selborne, some fifteen miles across country from Winchester. A tiny copy of White's Natural History of Selborne came into my possession some forty years ago, by purchase, at a cost of fifteen cents, at Leary's famous bookshop in Philadelphia; and while I now display, somewhat ostentatiously perhaps, Horace Walpole's own copy of the first edition, I keep my little volume for reading and had it with me on the steamer.
The Wakes, the house in which Gilbert White was born and in which he died, is still standing on what is by courtesy called the main street of the little village, which is, in its way, I suppose, as famous as any settlement of its size anywhere. The church of which he was rector, and in which he preached, when he was not wandering about observing with unexampled fidelity the flora and fauna of his native parish, stands near the upper end of a tiny public square called the Plestor, or play-place, which dates only from yesterday, that is to say, from 1271! Originally an immense oak tree stood in the centre; but it was uprooted in a great storm some two centuries ago, and a sycamore now stands in its place. Encircling it is a bench upon which the rude forefathers of the hamlet may sit and watch the children at play, and on which we should have sat but that we were more interested in the great yew which stands in the near-by churchyard. It is one of the most famous trees in England, — a thousand years old, they say, — and looking old for its age; but it is so symmetrical in its proportions that its immense size is not fully realized until one slowly paces round it and discovers that its trunk is almost thirty feet in circumference.
The church, which has luckily escaped the restorations so many parish churches have been compelled to undergo, is in no wise remarkable. Many Whites are buried therein; but our particular White, the one who made Selborne notable among the villages of England, lies outside in the churchyard, near the north wall of the chancel, the grave being marked by a half-sunken headstone on which one reads with difficulty two simple letters,' G. W.,' and a date, '26th June, 1793'; but a tablet within the church records at greater length his virtues and distinctions.
There is nothing more exhausting than the elegance of a big hotel; and to move from a fashionable caravansary in Philadelphia to another in London or Paris is to subject one's self to the inconvenience of travel, without enjoying any of its compensations. One wants to enjoy the difference of foreign countries rather than their somewhat artificial
resemblances. At the end of a busy day, when one is tired, one wants peace, quiet, and simplicity — at least, this one does; and so, when our attention was called to a small apartment in Albemarle Street, from the balcony of which I could throw a stone into the windows of Quaritch's bookshop, in the event that such an act would afford any solution to the problem of securing the books I wanted, I closed the bargain instantly and was soon by way of being a householder on a very small scale.
We had been told that 'service' in England was a thing of the past, that it has disappeared with the war; but this was only one of the many discouraging statements which were to be entirely refuted in the experience. No one could have been better cared for than we, by a valet and maid who brushed our clothes and brought us our breakfast; and shortly after ten each morning we started out upon our wanderings in whatever direction we would, alert for any adventure that the streets of London might afford. This is an inexpensive and harmless occupation, interesting in the event and delightful in retrospect. Is it Liszt who conjures us to store up recollections for consumption in old age? Well, I am doing so.
I know not which I enjoy most, beating the pavements of the well-known streets, which afford at every turn scenes that recall some well-known historic or literary incident, or journeying into some unexplored region, which opens up districts of hitherto unsuspected interest. Years ago, when slumming first became fashionable, one never used to overlook Pettycoat Lane in far-off Whitechapel: of late years it has been cleaned up and made respectable and uninteresting. But how many people are there who know that there is a very pretty slum right in the heart of things, only a short distance back of Liberty's famous shop in Regent Street? If interested in seeing how the other half lives, look it up when you are next in London, and you will be astonished at the way in which the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness unfolds itself in a maze of little streets and courts all jumbled together. London has always been a city in which extremes meet; where wealth impinges upon poverty. Nowhere can greater contrasts be obtained than in that terra incognita which lies just to the south of Soho. The world lives, if not in the open, at least in the streets; and food, fruit, fish, and furbelows are exposed for sale on barrows and trestles in what appears to be unspeakable confusion. I had discovered this curious slum years before my friend Lucas, that sympathetic wanderer in London, called attention to it in his delightful volume, Adventures and Enthusiasms.
But there is to my mind an even choicer little backwater, just off Fleet Street — Nevill's Court, which I first visited many years ago, during a memorable midnight ramble in company with David Wallerstein, a Philadelphia lawyer and an old friend, who, by reason of his wide reading, retentive memory, and power of observation, seemed able to better my knowledge of London even in a district where I had thought myself peculiarly at home.
Nevill's Court runs east from Fetter Lane. One enters it by an archway, which may easily be passed unnoticed; and to one's great surprise one comes suddenly upon a row of old mansions, one of which was pointed out to me as once having been the town residence of the Earl of Warwick. 'It was a grand house in its day, sir,' said a young woman in an interesting condition, who was taking the air late one afternoon when I first saw it; 'but it's let out as lodgings now. Keir Hardie, M.P., lodges there when he's in London; he says he likes it here, it's so quiet.'
'And how long have you lived here?' I inquired.
'Oh, sir, I've always lived about 'ere in this court, or close to; I like living in courts, it's so quiet; it's most like living in the country.'
All the houses look out upon ample, if now sadly neglected, gardens, through the centre of which flower-bordered paths lead to the front doors. Push open one of the several gates, — one is certain to be unlocked, — or peer through the cracks of an old oaken fence which still affords some measure of the privacy dear to the heart of every Englishman, and you will see a bit of vanishing London which certainly can last but a short time longer. The roar of the city is quite unheard; one has simply passed out of the twentieth century into the seventeenth.
Oxford Street is to me one of the least interesting streets in London. It is a great modern thoroughfare, always crowded with people going east in the morning, and west in the evening when their day's work is done. I was walking along this street late one afternoon, when my eye caught a sign, 'Hanway Street,' which instantly brought to mind the publishing business conducted in it more than a century ago by my lamented friend, William Godwin. I hoped to learn that it was named after the discoverer of the umbrella, but it is not. Hanway Street is a mean, narrow passage running north out of Oxford Street, as if intent upon going straightway to Hampstcad; but it almost immediately begins to wobble and, finally changing its mind, turns east and stops at the Horse-Shoe Tavern in the Tottenham Court Road.
My hour of refreshment having come, I stopped there, too, and over a mug of ale I thought of Godwin, and as a result of my meditations, decided to follow up the Godwin trail. And so, the inner man refreshed, I continued east through