One of our English summers looks, in the retrospect, as if it had been patched with more frequent sunshine than the sky of England ordinarily affords; but I believe that it may be only a moral effect, — a “light that never was on sea nor land,” — caused by our having found a particularly delightful abode in the neighborhood of London. In order to enjoy it, however, I was compelled to solve the problem of living in two places at once, — an impossibility which I so far accomplished as to vanish, at frequent intervals, out of men’s sight and knowledge on one side of England, and take my place in a circle of familiar faces on the other, so quietly that I seemed to have been there all along. It was the easier to get accustomed to our new residence, because it was not only rich in all the material properties of a home, but had also the home-like atmosphere, the household element, which is of too intangible a character to be let even with the most thoroughly furnished lodging-house. A friend had given us his suburban residence, with all its conveniences, elegancies, and snuggeries, — its drawing-rooms and library, still warm and bright with the recollection of the genial presences that we had known there, — its closets, chambers, kitchen, and even its wine-cellar, if we could have availed ourselves of so dear and delicate a trust, — its lawn and cozy garden-nooks, and whatever else makes up the multitudinous idea of an English home, he had transferred it all to us, pilgrims and dusty wayfarers, that we might rest and take our ease during his summers absence on the Continent. We had long been dwelling in tents, as it were, and morally shivering by hearths which, heap the bituminous coal upon them as we might, no blaze could render cheerful. I remember, to this day, the dreary feeling with which I sat by our first English fireside, and watched the chill and rainy twilight of an autumn day darkening down upon the garden; while the portrait of the preceding occupant of the house (evidently a most unamiable personage in his lifetime) scowled inhospitably from above the mantel-piece, as if indignant that an American should try to make himself at home there. Possibly it may appease his sulky shade to know that I quitted his abode as much a stranger as I entered it. But now, at last, we were in a genuine British home, where refined and warm-hearted people had just been living their daily life, and had left us a summers inheritance of slowly ripened days, such as a stranger’s hasty opportunities so seldom permit him to enjoy.
Within so trifling a distance of the central spot of all the world, (which, as Americans have at present no centre of their own, we may allow to be somewhere in the vicinity, we will say, of St. Paul’s Cathedral,) it might have seemed natural that I should be tossed about by the turbulence of the vast London whirlpool. But I had drifted into a still eddy, where conflicting movements made a repose, and, wearied with a good deal of uncongenial activity, I found the quiet of my temporary haven more attractive than anything that the great town could offer. I already knew London well; that is to say, I had long ago satisfied (so far as it was capable of satisfaction) that mysterious yearning—the magnetism of millions of hearts operating upon one—which impels every man’s individuality to mingle itself with the immensest mass of human life within his scope. Day after day, at an earlier period, I had trodden the thronged thoroughfares, the broad, lonely squares, the lanes, alleys, and strange labyrinthine courts, the parks, the gardens and inclosures of ancient studious societies, so retired and silent amid the city-uproar, the markets, the foggy streets along the river-side, the bridges, — I had sought all parts of the metropolis, in short, with an unweariable and indiscriminating curiosity; until few of the native inhabitants, I fancy, had turned so many of its corners as myself. These aimless wanderings (in which my prime purpose and achievement were to lose my way, and so to find it the more surely) had brought me, at one time or another, to the sight and actual presence of almost all the objects and renowned localities that I had read about, and which had made London the dream-city of my youth. I had found it better than my dream; for there is nothing else in life comparable (in that species of enjoyment, I mean) to the thick, heavy, oppressive, sombre delight which an American is sensible of, hardly knowing whether to call it a pleasure or a pain, in the atmosphere of London. The result was, that I acquired a home-feeling there, as nowhere else in the world, — though afterwards I came to have a somewhat similar sentiment in regard to Rome; and as long as either of those two great cities shall exist, the cities of the Past and of the Present, a man’s native soil may crumble beneath his feet without leaving him altogether homeless upon earth.
Thus, having once fully yielded to its influence, I was in a manner free of the city, and could approach or keep away from it as I pleased. hence it happened, that, living within a quarter of an hours rush of the London Bridge Terminus, I was oftener tempted to spend a whole summer-day in our garden than to seek anything new or old, wonderful or commonplace, beyond its precincts. It was a delightful garden, of no great extent, but comprising a good many facilities for repose and enjoyment, such as arbors and garden-seats, shrubbery, flower-beds, rose-bushes in a profusion of bloom, pinks, poppies, geraniums, sweet-peas, and a variety of other scarlet, yellow, blue, and purple blossoms, which I did not trouble myself to recognize individually, yet had always a vague sense of their beauty about me. The dim sky of England has a most happy effect on the coloring of flowers, blending richness with delicacy in the same texture; but in this garden, as everywhere else, the exuberance of English verdure had a greater charm than any tropical splendor or diversity of hue. The hunger for natural beauty might be satisfied with grass and green leaves forever. Conscious of the triumph of England in this respect, and loyally anxious for the credit of my own country, it gratified me to observe what trouble and pains the English gardeners are fain to throw away in producing a few sour plums and abortive pears and apples, — as, for example, in this very garden, where a row of unhappy trees were spread out perfectly flat against a brick wall, looking as if impaled alive, or crucified, with a cruel and unattainable purpose of compelling them to produce rich fruit by torture. For my part, I never ate an English fruit, raised in the open air, that could compare in flavor with a Yankee turnip.
The garden included that prime feature of English domestic scenery, a lawn. It had been levelled, carefully shorn, and converted into a bowling-green, on which we sometimes essayed to practise the time-honored game of bowls, most unskilfully, yet not without a perception that it involves a very pleasant mixture of exercise and ease, as is the case with most of the old English pastimes. Our little domain was shut in by the house on one side, and in other directions by a hedge-fence and a brick wall, which last was concealed or softened by shrubbery and the impaled fruit-trees already mentioned. Over all the outer region, beyond our immediate precincts, there was an abundance of foliage, tossed aloft from the near or distant trees with which that agreeable suburb is adorned. The effect was wonderfully sylvan and rural, insomuch that we might have fancied ourselves in the depths of a wooded seclusion; only that, at brief intervals, we could hear the galloping sweep of a railway-train passing within a quarter of a mile, and its discordant screech, moderated by a little farther distance, as it reached the Blackheath Station. That harsh, rough sound, seeking me out so inevitably, was the voice of the great world summoning me forth. I know not whether I was the more pained or pleased to be thus constantly put in mind of the neighborhood of London; for, on the one hand, my conscience stung me a little for reading a book, or playing with children in the grass, when there were so many better things for an enlightened traveller to do, — while, at the same time, it gave a deeper delight to my luxurious idleness, to contrast it with the turmoil which I escaped. On the whole, however, I do not repent of a single wasted hour, and only wish that I could have spent twice as many in the same way; for the impression in my memory is, that I was as happy in that hospitable garden as the English summer-day was long.
One chief condition of my enjoyment was the weather. Italy has nothing like it, nor America. There never was such weather except in England, where, in requital of a vast amount of horrible east-wind between February and June, and a brown October and black November, and a wet, chill, sunless winter, there are a few weeks of incomparable summer, scattered through July and August, and the earlier portion of September, small in quantity, but exquisite enough to atone for the whole years atmospherical delinquencies. After all, the prevalent sombreness may have brought out those sunny intervals in such high relief, that I see them, in my recollection, brighter than they really were: a little light makes a glory for people who live habitually in a gray gloom. The English, however, do not seem to know how enjoyable the momentary gleams of their summer are; they call it broiling weather, and hurry to the sea-side with red, perspiring faces, in a state of combustion and deliquescence; and I have observed that even their cattle have similar susceptibilities, seeking the deepest shade, or standing mid-leg deep in pools and streams to cool themselves, at temperatures which our own cows would deem little more than barely comfortable. To myself, after the summer heats of my native land had somewhat effervesced out of my blood and memory, it was the weather of Paradise itself. It might be a little too warm; but it was that modest and inestimable superabundance which constitutes a bounty of Providence, instead of just a niggardly enough. During my first year in England, residing in perhaps the most ungenial part of the kingdom, I could never be quite comfortable without a fire on the hearth; in the second twelve-month, beginning to get acclimatized, I became sensible of an austere friendliness, shy, but sometimes almost tender, in the veiled, shadowy, seldom smiling summer; and in the succeeding years—whether that I had renewed my fibre with English beef and replenished my blood with English ale, or whatever were the cause—I grew content with winter and especially in love with summer, desiring little more for happiness than merely to breathe and bask. At the midsummer which we are now speaking of, I must needs confess the noontide sun came down more fervently than I found altogether tolerable; so that I was fain to shift my position with the shadow of the shrubbery, making myself the movable index of a sun-dial that reckoned up the hours of an almost interminable day.
For each day seemed endless, though never wearisome. As far as your actual experience is concerned, the English summer-day has positively no beginning and no end. When you awake, at any reasonable hour, the sun is already shining through the curtains; you live through unnumbered hours of Sabbath quietude, with a calm variety of incident softly etched upon their tranquil lapse; and at length you become conscious that it is bed-time again, while there is still enough daylight in the sky to make the pages of your book distinctly legible. Night, if there be any such season, hangs down a transparent veil through which the by-gone day beholds its successor; or, if not quite true of the latitude of London, it may be soberly affirmed of the more northern parts of the island, that To-morrow is born before Yesterday is dead. They exist together in the golden twilight, where the decrepit old day dimly discerns the face of the ominous infant; and you, though a mere mortal, may simultaneously touch them both, with one finger of recollection and another of prophecy. I cared not how long the day might be, nor how many of them. I had earned this repose by a long course of irksome toil and perturbation, and could have been content never to stray out of the limits of that suburban villa and its garden. If I lacked anything beyond, it would have satisfied me well enough to dream about it, instead of struggling for its actual possession. At least, this was the feeling of the moment; although the transitory, flitting, and irresponsible character of my life there was perhaps the most enjoyable element of all, as allowing me much of the comfort of house and home without any sense of their weight upon my back. The nomadic life has great advantages, if we can find tents ready pitched for us at every stage.
So much for the interior of our abode, — a spot of deepest quiet, within reach of the intensest activity. But, even when we stepped beyond our own gate, we were not shocked with any immediate presence of the great world. We were dwelling in one of those oases that have grown up (in comparatively recent years, I believe) on the wide waste of Blackheath, which otherwise offers a vast extent of unoccupied ground in singular proximity to the metropolis. As a general thing, the proprietorship of the soil seems to exist in everybody and nobody; but exclusive rights have been obtained, here and there, chiefly by men whose daily concerns link them with London, so that you find their villas or boxes standing along village-streets which have often more of an American aspect than the elder English settlements. The scene is semi-rural. Ornamental trees overshadow the sidewalks, and grassy margins border the wheel-tracks. The houses, to be sure, have certain points of difference from those of an American village, bearing tokens of architectural design, though seldom of individual taste; and, as far as possible, they stand aloof from the street, and separated each from its neighbor by hedge or fence, in accordance with the careful exclusiveness of the English character, which impels the occupant, moreover, to cover the front of his dwelling with as much concealment of shrubbery as his limits will allow. Through the interstices, you catch glimpses of well-kept lawns, generally ornamented with flowers, and with what the English call rock-work, being heaps of ivy-grown stones and fossils, designed for romantic effect in a small way. Two or three of such village-streets as are here described take a collective name, — as, for instance, Blackheath Park, — and constitute a kind of community of residents, with gate-ways, kept by policemen, and a semi-privacy, stepping beyond which, you find yourself on the breezy heath.
On this great, bare, dreary common I often went astray, as I afterwards did on the Campagna of Rome, and drew the air (tainted with London smoke though it might be) into my lungs by deep inspirations, with a strange and unexpected sense of desert-freedom. The misty atmosphere helps you to fancy a remoteness that perhaps does not quite exist. During the little time that it lasts, the solitude is as impressive as that of a Western prairie or forest; but soon the railway-shriek, a mile or two away, insists upon informing you of your whereabout; or you recognize in the distance some landmark that you may have known, — an insulated villa, perhaps, with its garden-wall around it, or the rudimental street of a new settlement which is sprouting on this otherwise barren soil. Half a century ago, the most frequent token of mans beneficent contiguity might have been a gibbet, and the creak, like a tavern-sign, of a murderer swinging to and fro in irons. Blackheath, with its highway-men and footpads, was dangerous in those days; and even now, for aught I know, the Western prairie may still compare favorably with it as a safe region to go astray in. When I was acquainted with Blackheath, the ingenious device of garroting had recently come into fashion; and I can remember, while crossing those waste places at midnight, and hearing footsteps behind me, to have been sensibly encouraged by also hearing, not far off, the clinking hoof-tramp of one of the horse-patrols who do regular duty there. About sunset, or a little later, was the time when the broad and somewhat desolate peculiarity of the heath seemed to me to put on its utmost impressiveness. At that hour, finding myself on elevated ground, I once had a view of immense London, four or five miles off, with the vast Dome in the midst, and the towers of the two Houses of Parliament rising up into the smoky canopy, the thinner substance of which obscured a mass of things, and hovered about the objects that were most distinctly visible, a glorious and sombre picture, dusky, awful, but irresistibly attractive, like a young man’s dream of the great world, foretelling at that distance a grandeur never to be fully realized.
While I lived in that neighborhood, the tents of two or three sets of cricket-players were constantly pitched on Blackheath, and matches were going forward that seemed to involve the honor and credit of communities or counties, exciting an interest in everybody but myself, who cared not what part of England might glorify itself at the expense of another. It is necessary to be born an Englishman, I believe, in order to enjoy this great national game; at any rate, as a spectacle for an outside observer, I found it lazy, lingering, tedious, and utterly devoid of pictorial effects. Choice of other amusements was at hand. Butts for archery were established, and bows and arrows were to be let, at so many shots for a penny, — there being abundance of space for a farther flight-shot than any modern archer can lend to his shaft. Then there was an absurd game of throwing a stick at crockery-ware, which I have witnessed a hundred times, and personally engaged in once or twice, without ever having the satisfaction to see a bit of broken crockery. In other spots, you found donkeys for children to ride, and ponies of a very meek and patient spirit, on which the Cockney pleasure-seekers of both sexes rode races and made wonderful displays of horsemanship. By way of refreshment there was gingerbread, (but, as a true patriot, I must pronounce it greatly inferior to our native dainty,) and ginger-beer, and probably stancher liquor among the booth-keepers hidden stores. The frequent railway-trains, as well as the numerous steamers to Greenwich, have made the vacant portions of Blackheath a play-ground and breathing-place for the Londoners, readily and very cheaply accessible; so that, in view of this broader use and enjoyment, I a little grudged the tracts that have been filched away, so to speak, and individualized by thriving citizens. One sort of visitors especially interested me: they were schools of little boys or girls, under the guardianship of their instructors, — charity-schools, as I often surmised from their aspect, collected among dark alleys and squalid courts; and hither they were brought to spend a summer afternoon, these pale little progeny of the sunless nooks of London, who had never known that the sky was any broader than that narrow and vapory strip above their native lane. I fancied that they took but a doubtful pleasure, being half affrighted at the wide, empty space overhead and round about them, finding the air too little medicated with smoke, soot, and graveyard exhalations, to be breathed with comfort, and feeling shelterless and lost because grimy London, their slatternly and disreputable mother, had suffered them to stray out of her arms.
Passing among these holiday-people, we come to one of the gate-ways of Greenwich Park, opening through an old brick wall. It admits us from the bare heath into a scene of antique cultivation and woodland ornament, traversed in all directions by avenues of trees, many of which bear tokens of a venerable age. These broad and well-kept pathways rise and decline over the elevations and along the bases of gentle hills which diversify the whole surface of the Park. The loftiest and most abrupt of them (though but of very moderate height) is one of the earths noted summits, and may hold up its head with Mont Blanc and Chimborazo, as being the site of Greenwich Observatory, where, if all nations will consent to say so, the longitude of our great globe begins. I used to regulate my watch by the broad dial-plate against the Observatory-wall, and felt it pleasant to be standing at the very centre of Time and Space.
There are lovelier parks than this in the neighborhood of London, richer scenes of greensward and cultivated trees; and Kensington, especially, in a summer afternoon, has seemed to me as delightful as any place can or ought to be, in a world which, some time or other, we must quit. But Greenwich, too, is beautiful, a spot where the art of man has conspired with Nature, as if he and the great mother had taken counsel together how to make a pleasant scene, and the longest liver of the two had faithfully carried out their mutual design. It has, likewise, an additional charm of its own, because, to all appearance, it is the people’s property and play-ground in a much more genuine way than the aristocratic resorts in closer vicinity to the metropolis. It affords one of the instances in which the monarchs property is actually the peoples, and shows how much more natural is their relation to the sovereign than to the nobility, which pretends to hold the intervening space between the two: for a nobleman makes a paradise only for himself, and fills it with his own pomp and pride; whereas the people are sooner or later the legitimate inheritors of whatever beauty kings and queens create, as now of Greenwich Park. On Sundays, when the sun shone, and even on those grim and sombre days when, if it do not actually rain, the English persist in calling it fine weather, it was good to see how sturdily the plebeians trod under their own oaks, and what fulness of simple enjoyment they evidently found there. They were the people, — not the populace, — specimens of a class whose Sunday clothes are a distinct kind of garb from their week-day ones; and this, in England, implies wholesome habits of life, daily thrift, and a rank above the lowest. I longed to be acquainted with them, in order to investigate what manner of folks they were, what sort of households they kept, their politics, their religion, their tastes, and whether they were as narrow-minded as their betters. There can be very little doubt of it: an Englishman is English, in whatever rank of life, though no more intensely so, I should imagine, as an artisan or petty shopkeeper, than as a member of Parliament.
The English character, as I conceive it, is by no means a very lofty one; they seem to have a great deal of earth and grimy dust clinging about them, as was probably the case with the stalwart and quarrelsome people who sprouted up out of the soil, after Cadmus had sown the dragon’s teeth. And yet, though the individual Englishman is sometimes preternaturally disagreeable, an observer standing aloof has a sense of natural kindness towards them in the lump. They adhere closer to the original simplicity in which mankind was created than we ourselves do; they love, quarrel, laugh, cry, and turn their actual selves inside out, with greater freedom than any class of Americans would consider decorous. It was often so with these holiday-folks in Greenwich Park; and, ridiculous as it may sound, I fancy myself to have caught very satisfactory glimpses of Arcadian life among the Cockneys there, hardly beyond the scope of Bow-Bells, picnicking in the grass, uncouthly gambolling on the broad slopes, or straying in motley groups or by single pairs of love-making youths and maidens, along the sun-streaked avenues. Even the omnipresent policemen or park-keepers could not disturb the beatific impression on my mind. One feature, at all events, of the Golden Age was to be seen in the herds of deer that encountered you in the somewhat remoter recesses of the Park, and were readily prevailed upon to nibble a bit of bread out of your hand. But, though no wrong had ever been done them, and no horn had sounded nor hound bayed at the heels of themselves or their antlered progenitors, for centuries past, there was still an apprehensiveness lingering in their hearts; so that a slight movement of the hand or a step too near would send a whole squadron of them scampering away, just as a breath scatters the winged seeds of a dandelion.
The aspect of Greenwich Park, with all those festal people wandering through it, resembled that of the Borghese Gardens under the walls of Rome, on a Sunday or Saint’s day; but, I am not ashamed to say, it a little disturbed whatever grimly ghost of Puritanic strictness might be lingering in the sombre depths of a New-England heart, among severe and sunless remembrances of the Sabbaths of childhood, and pangs of remorse for ill-gotten lessons in the catechism, and for erratic fantasies or hardly suppressed laughter in the middle of long sermons. Occasionally, I tried to take the long-hoarded sting out of these compunctious smarts by attending divine service in the open air. On a cart outside of the Park-wall, (and, if I mistake not, at two or three corners and secluded spots within the Park itself,) a Methodist preacher uplifts his voice and speedily gathers a congregation, his zeal for whose religious welfare impels the good man to such earnest vociferation and toilsome gesture that his perspiring face is quickly in a stew. His inward flame conspires with the too fervid sun and makes a positive martyr of him, even in the very exercise of his pious labor; insomuch that he purchases every atom of spiritual increment to his hearers by loss of his own corporeal solidity, and, should his discourse last long enough, must finally exhale before their eyes. If I smile at him, be it understood, it is not in scorn; he performs his sacred office more acceptably than many a prelate. These way-side services attract numbers who would not otherwise listen to prayer, sermon, or hymn, from one year’s end to another, and who, for that very reason, are the auditors most likely to be moved by the preacher’s eloquence. Yonder Greenwich pensioner, too, — in his costume of three-cornered hat, and old-fashioned, brass-buttoned blue coat with ample skirts, which makes him look like a contemporary of Admiral Benbow, — that tough old mariner may hear a word or two which will go nearer his heart than anything that the chaplain of the Hospital can be expected to deliver. I always noticed, moreover, that a considerable proportion of the audience were soldiers, who came hither with a day’s leave from Woolwich, — hardy veterans in aspect, some of whom wore as many as four or five medals, Crimean or East-Indian, on the breasts of their scarlet coats. The miscellaneous congregation listen with every appearance of heartfelt interest; and, for my own part, I must frankly acknowledge that I never found it possible to give five minutes’ attention to any other English preaching: so cold and commonplace are the homilies that pass for such, under the aged roofs of churches. And as for cathedrals, the sermon is an exceedingly diminutive and unimportant part of the religious services, — if, indeed, it be considered a part, — among the pompous ceremonies, the intonations, and the resounding and lofty-voiced strains of the choristers. The magnificence of the setting quite dazzles out what we Puritans look upon as the jewel of the whole affair for I presume that it was our forefathers, the Dissenters in England and America, who gave the sermon its present prominence in the Sabbath exercises.
The Methodists are probably the first and only Englishmen who have worshipped in the open air since the ancient Britons listened to the preaching of the Druids; and it reminded me of that old priesthood, to see certain memorials of their dusky epoch—not religious, however, but warlike—in the neighborhood of the spot where the Methodist was holding forth. These were some ancient burrows, beneath or within which are supposed to lie buried the slain of a forgotten or doubtfully remembered battle, fought on the site of Greenwich Park as long ago as two or three centuries after the birth of Christ. Whatever may once have been their height and magnitude, they have now scarcely more prominence in the actual scene than the battle of which they are the sole monuments retains in history, — being only a few mounds side by side, elevated a little above the surface of the ground, ten or twelve feet in diameter, with a shallow depression in their summits. When one of them was opened, not long since, no bones, nor armor, nor weapons were discovered, nothing but some small jewels, and a tuft of hair, perhaps from the head of a valiant general, who, dying on the field of his victory, bequeathed this lock, together with his indestructible fame, to after-ages. The hair and jewels are probably in the British Museum, where the potsherds and rubbish of innumerable generations make the visitor wish that each passing century could carry off all its fragments and relics along with it, instead of adding them to the continually accumulating burden which human knowledge is compelled to lug upon its back. As for the fame, I know not what has become of it.
After traversing, the Park, we come into the neighborhood of Greenwich Hospital, and will pass through one of its spacious gate-ways for the sake of glancing at an establishment which does more honor to the heart of England than anything else that I am acquainted with, of a public nature. It is very seldom that we can be sensible of anything like kindliness in the acts or relations of such an artificial thing as a National Government. Our own Government, I should conceive, is too much an abstraction ever to feel any sympathy for its maimed sailors and soldiers, though it will doubtless do them a severe kind of justice, as chilling as the touch of steel. But it seemed to me that the Greenwich pensioners are the petted children of the nation, and that the Government is their dry-nurse, and that the old men themselves have a childlike consciousness of their position. Very likely, a better sort of life might have been arranged, and a wiser care bestowed on them; but, such as it is, it enables them to spend a sluggish, careless, comfortable old age, grumbling, growling, gruff, as if all the foul weather of their past years were pent up within them, yet not much more discontented than such weather-beaten and battle-battered fragments of human kind must inevitably be. Their home, in its outward form, is on a very magnificent plan. Its germ was a royal palace, the full expansion of which has resulted in a series of edifices externally more beautiful than any English palace that I have seen, consisting of several quadrangles of stately architecture, united by colonnades and gravel walks, and inclosing grassy squares, with statues in the centre, the whole extending along the Thames. It is built of marble, or very light-colored stone, in the classic style, with pillars and porticos, which (to my own taste, and, I fancy, to that of the old sailors) produce but a cold and shivery effect in the English climate. Had I been the architect, I would have studied the characters, habits, and predilections of nautical people in Wapping, Rotherhithe, and the neighborhood of the Tower, (places which I visited in affectionate remembrance of Captain Lemuel Gulliver, and other actual or mythological navigators,) and would have built the hospital in a kind of ethereal similitude to the narrow, dark, ugly, and inconvenient, but snug and cozy homeliness of the sailor boarding-houses there. There can be no question that all the above attributes, or enough of them to satisfy an old sailors heart, might be reconciled with architectural beauty and the wholesome contrivances of modern dwellings, and thus a novel and genuine style of building be given to the world.
But their countrymen meant kindly by the old fellows in assigning them the ancient royal site where Elizabeth held her court and Charles H. began to build his palace. So far as the locality went, it was treating them like so many kings; and, with a discreet abundance of grog, beer, and tobacco, there was perhaps little more to be accomplished in behalf of men whose whole previous lives have tended to unfit them for old age. Their chief discomfort is probably for lack of something to do or think about. But, judging by the few whom I saw, a listless habit seems to have crept over them, a dim dreaminess of mood, in which they sit between asleep and awake, and find the long day wearing towards bedtime without its having made any distinct record of itself upon their consciousness. Sitting on stone benches in the sunshine, they subside into slumber, or nearly so, and start at the approach bf footsteps echoing under the colonnades, ashamed to be caught napping, and rousing themselves in a hurry, as formerly on the midnight watch at sea. In their brightest moments, they gather in groups and bore one another with endless sea-yarns about their voyages under famous admirals, and about gale and calm, battle and chase, and all that class of incident that has its sphere on the deck and in the hollow interior of a ship, where their world has exclusively been. For other pastime, they quarrel among themselves, comrade with comrade, and perhaps shake paralytic fists in furrowed faces. If inclined for a little exercise, they can bestir their wooden legs on the long esplanade that borders by the Thames, criticizing the rig of passing ships, and firing off volleys of malediction at the steamers, which have made the sea another element than that they used to be acquainted with. All this is but cold comfort for the evening of life, yet may compare rather favorably with the preceding portions of it, comprising little save imprisonment on shipboard, in the course of which they have been tossed all about the world and caught hardly a glimpse of it, forgetting what grass and trees are, and never finding out what woman is, though they may have encountered a painted spectre which they took for her. A country owes much to human beings whose bodies she has worn out and whose immortal parts she has left undeveloped or debased, as we find them here; and having wasted an idle paragraph upon them, let me now suggest that old men have a kind of susceptibility to moral impressions, and even (up to an advanced period) a receptivity of truth, which often appears to come to them after the active time of life is past. The Greenwich pensioners might prove better subjects for true education now than in their school-boy days; but then where is the Normal School that could educate instructors for such a class?
There is a beautiful chapel for the pensioners, in the classic style, over the altar of which hangs a picture by West. I never could look at it long enough to make out its design; for this artist (though it pains me to say it of so respectable a countryman) had a gift of frigidity, a knack of grinding ice into his paint, a power of stupefying the spectator’s perceptions and quelling his sympathy, beyond any other limner that ever handled a brush. In spite of many pangs of conscience, I seize this opportunity to wreak a life-long abhorrence upon the poor, blameless man, for the sake of that dreary picture of Lear, an explosion of frosty fury, that used to be a bugbear to me in the Athenaeum Exhibition. Would fire burn it, I wonder?
The principal thing that they have to show you, at Greenwich Hospital, is the Painted Hall. It is a splendid and spacious room, at least a hundred feet long and half as high, with a ceiling painted in fresco by Sir James Thornhill. As a work of art, I presume, this frescoed canopy has little merit, though it produces an exceedingly rich effect by its brilliant coloring and as a specimen of magnificent upholstery. The walls of the grand apartment are entirely covered with pictures, many of them representing battles and other naval incidents that were once fresher in the worlds memory than now, but chiefly portraits of old admirals, comprising the whole line of heroes who have trod the quarter-decks of British ships for more than two hundred years back. Next to a tomb in Westminster Abbey, which was Nelson’s most elevated object of ambition, it would seem to be the highest meed of a naval warrior to have his portrait hung up in the Painted Hall; but, by dint of victory upon victory, these illustrious personages have grown to be a mob, and by no means a very interesting one, so far as regards the character of the faces here depicted. They are generally commonplace, and often singularly stolid; and I have observed (both in the Painted Hall and elsewhere, and not only in portraits, but in the actual presence of such renowned people as I have caught glimpses of) that the countenances of heroes are not nearly so impressive as those of statesmen, — except, of course, in the rare instances where warlike ability has been but the one-sided manifestation of a profound genius for managing the worlds affairs. Nine-tenths of these distinguished admirals, for instance, if their faces tell truth, must needs have been block-heads, and might have served better, one would imagine, as wooden figure-heads for their own ships than to direct any difficult and intricate scheme of action from the quarter-deck. It is doubtful whether the same kind of men will hereafter meet with a similar degree of success; for they were victorious chiefly through the old English hardihood, exercised in a field of which modern science had not yet got possession. Rough valor has lost something of its value, since their days, and must continue to sink lower and lower in the comparative estimate of warlike qualities. In the next naval war, as between England and France, I would bet, methinks, upon the Frenchman’s head.
It is remarkable, however, that the great naval hero of England the greatest, therefore, in the world, and of all time—had none of the stolid characteristics that belong to his class, and cannot fairly be accepted as their representative man. Foremost in the roughest of professions, he was as delicately organized as a woman, and as painfully sensitive as a poet. More than any other Englishman he won the love and admiration of his country, but won them through the efficacy of qualities that are not English, or, at all events, were intensified in his case and made poignant and powerful by something morbid in the man, which put him otherwise at cross-purposes with life. He was a man of genius; and genius in an Englishman (not to cite the good old simile of a pearl in the oyster) is usually a symptom of a lack of balance in the general making-up of the character; as we may satisfy ourselves by running over the list of their poets, for example, and observing how many of them have been sickly or deformed, and how often their lives have been darkened by insanity. An ordinary Englishman is the healthiest and wholesomest of human beings; an extraordinary one is almost always, in one way or another, a sick man. It was so with Lord Nelson. The wonderful contrast or relation between his personal qualities, the position which he held, and the life that he lived, makes him as interesting a personage as all history has to show; and it is a pity that Southey’s biography—so good in its superficial way, and yet so inadequate as regards any real delineation of the man—should have taken the subject out of the hands of some writer endowed with more delicate appreciation and deeper insight than that genuine Englishman possessed.
But the English capacity for hero-worship is full to the brim with what they are able to comprehend of Lord Nelson’s character. Adjoining the Painted Hall is a smaller room, the walls of which are completely and exclusively adorned with pictures of the great Admiral’s exploits. We see the frail, ardent man in all the most noted events of his career, from his encounter with a Polar bear to his death at Trafalgar, quivering here and there about the room like a blue, lambent flame. No Briton ever enters that apartment without feeling the beef and ale of his composition stirred to its depths, and finding himself changed into a hero for the nonce, however stolid his brain, however tough his heart, however unexcitable his ordinary mood. To confess the truth, I myself, though belonging to another parish, have been deeply sensible to the sublime recollections there aroused, acknowledging that Nelson expressed his life in a kind of symbolic poetry which I had as much right to understand as these burly islanders. Cool and critical observer as I sought to be, I enjoyed their burst of honest indignation when a visitor (not an American, I am glad to say) thrust his walking-stick almost into Nelson’s face, in one of the pictures, by way of pointing a remark; and the by-standers immediately glowed like so many hot coals, and would probably have consumed the offender in their wrath, had he not effected his retreat. But the most sacred objects of all are two of Nelson’s coats, under separate glass cases. One is that which he wore at the Battle of the Nile, and it is now sadly injured by moths, which will quite destroy it in a few years, unless its guardians preserve it as we do Washington’s military suit, by occasionally baking it in an oven. The other is the coat in which he received his death-wound at Trafalgar. On its breast are sewed three or four stars and orders of knighthood, now much dimmed by time and damp, but which glittered brightly enough on the battle-day to draw the fatal aim of a French marksman. The bullet-hole is visible on the shoulder, as well as a part of the golden tassels of an epaulet, the rest of which was shot away. Over the coat is laid a white waistcoat with a great blood-stain on it, out of which all the redness has utterly faded, leaving it of a dingy yellow hue, in the threescore years since that blood gushed out. Yet it was once the reddest blood in England, — Nelson’s blood!
The hospital stands close adjacent to the town of Greenwich, which will always retain a kind of festal aspect in my memory, in consequence of my having first become acquainted with it on Easter Monday. Till a few years ago, the first three days of Easter were a carnival-season in this old town, during which the idle and disreputable part of London poured itself into the streets like an inundation of the Thames, — as unclean as that turbid mixture of the offscourings of the vast city, and overflowing with its grimy pollution whatever rural innocence, if any, might be found in the suburban neighborhood. This festivity was called Greenwich Fair, the final one of which, in an immemorial succession, it was my fortune to behold. If I had bethought myself of going through the fair with a note-book and pencil, jotting down all the prominent objects, I doubt not that the result might have been a sketch of English life quite as characteristic and worthy of historical preservation as an account of the Roman Carnival. Having neglected to do so, I remember little more than a confusion of unwashed and shabbily dressed people, intermixed with some smarter figures, but, on the whole, presenting a mobbish appearance such as we never see in our own country. It taught me to understand why Shakspeare, in speaking of a crowd, so often alludes to its attribute of evil odor. The common people of England, I am afraid, have no daily familiarity with even so necessary a thing as a wash-bowl, not to mention a bathing-tub. And furthermore, it is one mighty difference between them and us, that every man and woman on our side of the water has a working-day suit and a holiday suit, and is occasionally as fresh as a rose, whereas, in the good old country, the griminess of his labor or squalid habits clings forever to the individual, and gets to be a part of his personal substance. These are broad facts, involving great corollaries and dependencies. There are really, if you stop to think about it, few sadder spectacles in the world than a ragged coat or a soiled and shabby gown, at a festival.
This unfragrant crowd was exceedingly dense, being welded together, as it were, in the street through which we strove to make our way. On either side were oyster-stands, stalls of oranges, (a very prevalent fruit in England, where they give the withered ones a guise of freshness by boiling them,) and booths covered with old sail-cloth, in which the commodity that most attracted the eye was gilt gingerbread. It was so completely enveloped in Dutch gilding that I did not at first recognize an old acquaintance, but wondered what those golden crowns and images could be. There were likewise drums and other toys for small children, and a variety of showy and worthless articles for children of a larger growth; though it perplexed me to imagine who, in such a mob, could have the innocent taste to desire playthings, or the money to pay for them. Not that I have a right to accuse the mob, on my own knowledge, of being any less innocent than a set of cleaner and better dressed people might have been; for, though one of them stole my pocket-handkerchief, I could not but consider it fair game, under the circumstances, and was grateful to the thief for sparing me my purse. They were quiet, civil, and remarkably good-humored, making due allowance for the national gruffness; there was no riot, no tumultuous swaying to and fro of the mass, such as I have often noted in an American crowd, no noise of voices, except frequent bursts of laughter, hoarse or shrill, and a widely diffused, inarticulate murmur, resembling nothing so much as the rumbling of the tide among the arches of London Bridge. What immensely perplexed me was a sharp, angry sort of rattle, in all quarters, far off and close at hand, and sometimes right at my own back, where it sounded as if the stout fabric of my English surtout had been ruthlessly rent in twain; and everybody’s clothes, all over the fair, were evidently being torn asunder in the same way. By-and-by, I discovered that this strange noise was produced by a little instrument called “The Fun of the Fair,” — a sort of rattle, consisting of a wooden wheel, the cogs of which turn against a thin slip of wood, and so produce a rasping sound when drawn smartly against a person’s back. The ladies draw their rattles against the backs of their male friends, (and everybody passes for a friend at Greenwich Fair,) and the young men return the compliment on the broad British backs of the ladies; and all are bound by immemorial custom to take it in good part and be merry at the joke. As it was one of my prescribed official duties to give an account of such mechanical contrivances as might be unknown in my own country, I have thought it right to be thus particular in describing the Fun of the Fair.
But this was far from being the sole amusement. There were theatrical booths, in front of which were pictorial representations of the scenes to be enacted within; and anon a drummer emerged from one of them, thumping on a terribly lax drum, and followed by the entire dramatis personae, who ranged themselves on a wooden platform in front of the theatre. They were dressed in character, but wofully shabby, with very dingy and wrinkled white tights, threadbare cotton-velvets, crumpled silks, and crushed muslin, and all the gloss and glory gone out of their aspect and attire, seen thus in the broad daylight and after a long series of performances. They sang a song together, and withdrew into the theatre, whither the public were invited to follow them at the inconsiderable cost of a penny a ticket. Before another booth stood a pair of brawny fighting-men, displaying their muscle, and soliciting patronage for an exhibition of the noble British art of pugilism. There were pictures of giants, monsters, and outlandish beasts, most prodigious, to be sure, and worthy of all admiration, unless the artist had gone incomparably beyond his subject. Jugglers proclaimed aloud tbc miracles which they were prepared to work; and posture-makers dislocated every joint of their bodies and tied their limbs into inextricable knots, wherever they could find space to spread a little square of carpet on the ground. In the midst of the confusion, while everybody was treading on his neighbors toes, some little boys were very solicitous to brush your boots. These lads, I believe, are a product of modern society, — at least, no older than the time of Gay, who celebrates their origin in his “Trivia”; but in most other respects the scene reminded me of Bunyan’s description of Vanity Fair, — nor is it at all improbable that the Pilgrim may have been a merry-maker here, in his wild youth.
It seemed very singular—though, of course, I immediately classified it as an English characteristic—to see a great many portable weighing-machines, the owners of which cried out continually and amain, — “Come, know your weight! Come, come, know your weight to-day! Come, know your weight!” — and a multitude of people, mostly large in the girth, were moved by this vociferation to sit down in the machines. I know not whether they valued themselves on their beef, and estimated their standing as members of society at so much a pound; but I shall set it down as a national peculiarity, and a symbol of the prevalence of the earthly over the spiritual element, that Englishmen are wonderfully bent on knowing how solid and physically ponderous they are.
On the whole, having an appetite for the brown bread and the tripe and sausages of life, as well as for its nicer cates and dainties, I enjoyed the scene, and was amused at the sight of a gruff old Greenwich pensioner, who, forgetful of the sailor-frolics of his young days, stood looking with grim disapproval at all these vanities. Thus we squeezed our way through the mob-jammed town, and emerged into the Park, where, likewise, we met a great many merry-makers, but with freer space for their gambols than in the streets. We soon found ourselves the targets for a cannonade with oranges, (most of them in a decayed condition,) which went humming past our ears from the vantage-ground of neighboring hillocks, sometimes hitting our sacred persons with an inelastic thump. This was one of the privileged freedoms of the time, and was nowise to be resented, except by returning the salute. Many persons were running races, hand in hand, down the declivities, especially that steepest one on the summit of which stands the world-central Observatory, and (as in the race of life) the partners were usually male and female, and often caught a tumble together before reaching the bottom of the hill. Hereabouts we were pestered and haunted by two young girls, the eldest not more than thirteen, teasing us to buy matches; and finding no market for their commodity, the taller one suddenly turned a somerset before our faces, and rolled heels over head from top to bottom of the hill on which we stood. Then, scrambling up the acclivity, the topsy-turvy trollop offered us her matches again, as demurely as if she had never flung aside her equilibrium; so that, dreading a repetition of the feat, we gave her sixpence and an admonition, and enjoined her never to do so any more.
The most curious amusement that we witnessed here—or anywhere else, indeed—was an ancient and hereditary pastime called “Kissing in the Ring.” It is one of the simplest kinds of games, needing little or no practice to make the player altogether perfect; and the manner of it is this. A ring is formed, (in the present case, it was of large circumference and thickly gemmed around with faces, mostly on the broad grin,) into the centre of which steps an adventurous youth, and, looking round the circle, selects whatever maiden may most delight his eye. He presents his hand, (which she is bound to accept,) leads her into the centre, salutes her on the lips, and retires, taking his stand in the expectant circle. The girl, in her turn, throws a favorable regard on some fortunate young man, offers her hand to lead him forth, makes him happy with a maidenly kiss, and withdraws to hide her blushes, if any there be, among the simpering faces in the ring; while the favored swain loses no time in transferring her salute to the prettiest and plumpest among the many mouths that are primming themselves in anticipation. And thus the thing goes on, till all the festive throng are inwreathed and intertwined into an endless and inextricable chain of kisses; though, indeed, it smote me with compassion to reflect that some forlorn pair of lips might he left out, and never know the triumph of a salute, after throwing aside so many delicate reserves for the sake of winning it. If the young men had any chivalry, there was a fair chance to display it by kissing the homeliest damsel in the circle.
To be frank, however, at the first glance, and to my American eye, they looked all homely alike, and the chivalry that I suggest is more than I could have been capable of, at any period of my life. They seemed to be country-lasses, of sturdy and wholesome aspect, with coarse-grained, cabbage-rosy cheeks, and, I am willing to suppose, a stout texture of moral principle, such as would bear a good deal of rough usage without suffering much detriment. But how unlike the trim little damsels of my native land! I desire above all things to be courteous; but, since the plain truth must be told, the soil and climate of England produce feminine beauty as rarely as they do delicate fruit, and though admirable specimens of both are to be met with, they are the hot-house ameliorations of refined society, and apt, moreover, to relapse into the coarseness of the original stock. The men are man-like, but the women are not beautiful, though the female Bull be well enough adapted to the male. To return to the lasses of Greenwich Fair, their charms were few, and their behavior, perhaps, not altogether commendable; and yet it was impossible not to feel a degree of faith in their innocent intentions, with such a half-bashful zest and entire simplicity did they keep up their part of the game. It put the spectator in good-humor to look at them, because there was still something of the old Arcadian life, the secure freedom of the antique age, in their way of surrendering their lips to strangers, as if there were no evil or impurity in the world. As for the young men, they were chiefly specimens of the vulgar sediment of London life, often shabbily genteel, rowdy-ish, pale, wearing the unbrushed coat, unshifted linen, and unwashed faces of yesterday, as well as the haggardness of last night’s jollity in a gin-shop. Gathering their character from these tokens, I wondered whether there were any reasonable prospect of their fair partners returning to their rustic homes with as much innocence (whatever were its amount or quality) as they brought to Greenwich Fair, in spite of the perilous familiarity established by Kissing in the Ring.
The manifold disorders resulting from the fair, at which a vast city was brought into intimate relations with a comparatively rural district, have at length led to its suppression; this was the very last celebration of it, and brought to a close the broad-mouthed merriment of many hundred years. Thus my poor sketch, faint as its colors are, may acquire some little value in the reader’s eyes from the consideration that no observer of the coming time will ever have an opportunity to give a better. I should find it difficult to believe, however, that the queer pastime just described, or any moral mischief to which that and other customs might pave the way, can have led to the overthrow of Greenwich Fair; for it has often seemed to me that Englishmen of station and respectability, unless of a peculiarly philanthropic turn, have neither any faith in the feminine purity of the lower orders of their countrywomen, nor the slightest value for it, allowing its possible existence. The distinction of ranks is so marked, that the English cottage-damsel holds a position somewhat analogous to that of the negro girl in our Southern States. Hence comes inevitable detriment to the moral condition of those men themselves, who forget that the humblest woman has a right and a duty to hold herself in the same sanctity as the highest. The subject cannot well he discussed in these pages; but I offer it as a serious conviction, from what I have been able to observe, that the England of to-day is the unscrupulous old England of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, Humphrey Clinker and Roderick Random; and in our refined era, just the same as at that more free-spoken epoch, this singular people has a certain contempt for any fine-strained purity, any special squeamishness, as they consider it, on the part of an ingenuous youth. They appear to look upon it as a suspicious phenomenon in the masculine character.
Nevertheless, I by no means take upon me to affirm that English morality, as regards the phase here alluded to, is really at a lower point than our own. Assuredly, I hope so, because, making a higher pretension, or, at all events, more. carefully hiding whatever may be amiss, we are either better than they, or necessarily a great deal worse. It impressed me that their open avowal and recognition of immoralities served to throw the disease to the surface, where it might be more effectually dealt with, and leave a sacred interior not utterly profaned, instead of turning its poison hack among the inner vitalities of the character, at the imminent risk of corrupting them all. Be that as it may, these Englishmen are certainly a franker and simpler people than ourselves, from peer to peasant; but if we can take it as compensatory on our part, (which I leave to be considered,) that they owe those noble and manly qualities to a coarser grain in their nature, and that, with a finer one in ours, we shall ultimately acquire a marble polish of which they are unsusceptible, I believe that this may be the truth.