“Among this people … dinner has a kind of sanctity quite independent of the dishes that may be set upon the table.”
It has often perplexed me to imagine how an Englishman will be able to reconcile himself to any future state of existence from which the earthly institution of dinner shall be excluded. Even if he fail to take his appetite along with him, (which it seems to me hardly possible to believe, since this endowment is so essential to his composition,) the immortal day must still admit an interim of two or three hours during which he will be conscious of a slight distaste, at all events, if not an absolute repugnance, to merely spiritual nutriment. The idea of dinner has so imbedded itself among his highest and deepest characteristics, so illuminated itself with intellect and softened itself with the kindest emotions of his heart, so linked itself with Church and State, and grown so majestic with long hereditary customs and ceremonies, that, by taking it utterly away, Death, instead of putting the final touch to his perfection, would leave him infinitely less complete than we have already known him. He could not be roundly happy. Paradise, among all its enjoyments, would lack one daily felicity which his sombre little island possessed. Perhaps it is not irreverent to conjecture that a provision may have been made, in this particular, for the Englishman’s exceptional necessities. It strikes me that Milton was of the opinion here suggested, and may have intended to throw out a delightful and consolatory hope for his countrymen, when he represents the genial archangel as playing his part with such excellent appetite at Adam’s dinner-table, and confining himself to fruit and vegetables only because, in those early days of her housekeeping, Eve had no more acceptable viands to set before him. Milton, indeed, had a true English taste for the pleasures of the table, though refined by the lofty and poetic discipline to which he had subjected himself. It is delicately implied in the refection in Paradise, and more substantially, though still elegantly, betrayed in the sonnet proposing to “Laurence, of virtuous father virtuous son,” a series of nice little dinners in midwinter; and it blazes fully out in that untasted banquet which, elaborate as it was, Satan tossed up in a trice from the kitchen-ranges of Tartarus.
Among this people, indeed, so wise in their generation, dinner has a kind of sanctity quite independent of the dishes that may be set upon the table; so that, if it be only a mutton-chop, they treat it with due reverence, and are rewarded with a degree of enjoyment which such reckless devourers as ourselves do not often find in our richest abundance. It is good to see how stanch they are after fifty or sixty years of heroic eating, still relying upon their digestive powers and indulging a vigorous appetite; whereas an American has generally lost the one and learned to distrust the other long before reaching the earliest decline of life; and thenceforward he makes little account of his dinner, and dines at his peril, if at all. I know not whether my countrymen will allow me to tell them, though I think it scarcely too much to affirm, that, on this side of the water, people never dine. At any rate, abundantly as Nature has provided us with most of the material requisites, the highest possible dinner has never yet been eaten in America. It is the consummate flower of civilization and refinement; and our inability to produce it, or to appreciate its admirable beauty, if a happy inspiration should bring it into bloom, marks fatally the limit of culture which we have attained.
It is not to be supposed, however, that the mob of cultivated Englishmen know how to dine in this elevated sense. The unpolishable ruggedness of the national character is still an impediment to them, even in that particular line where they are best qualified to excel. Though often present at good men’s feasts, I remember only a single dinner, which, while lamentably conscious that many of its higher excellences were thrown away upon me, I yet could feel to be a perfect work of art. It could not, without unpardonable coarseness, be styled a matter of animal enjoyment, because out of the very perfection of that lower bliss there had arisen a dream-like development of spiritual happiness. As in the master-pieces of painting and poetry, there was a something intangible, a final deliciousness that only fluttered about your comprehension, vanishing whenever you tried to detain it, and compelling you to recognize it by faith rather than sense. It seemed as if a diviner set of senses were requisite, and had been partly supplied, for the special fruition of this banquet, and that the guests around the table (only eight in number) were becoming so educated polished, and softened, by the delicate influences of what they ate and drank, as to be now a little more than mortal for the nonce. And there was that gentle, delicious sadness, too, which we find in the very summit of our most exquisite enjoyments, and feel it a charm beyond all the gayety through which it keeps breathing its undertone. In the present case, it was worth a heavier sigh, to reflect that such a festal achievement, — the production of so much art, skill, fancy, invention, and perfect taste, — the growth of all the ages, which appeared to have been ripening for this hour, since man first began to eat and to moisten his food with wine, — must lavish its happiness upon so brief a moment, when other beautiful things can be made a joy forever. Yet a dinner like this is no better than we can get, any day, at the rejuvenescent Cornhill Coffee-House, unless the whole man, with soul, intellect, and stomach, is ready to appreciate it, and unless, moreover, there is such a harmony in all the circumstances and accompaniments, and especially such a pitch of well-according minds, that nothing shall jar rudely against the guest’s thoroughly awakened sensibilities. The world, and especially our part of it, being the rough, ill-assorted, and tumultuous place we find it, a beef-steak is about as good as any other dinner.
The foregoing reminiscence, however, has drawn me aside from the main object of my sketch, in which I purposed to give a slight idea of those public or partially public banquets, the custom of which so thoroughly prevails among the English people, that nothing is ever decided upon, in matters of peace or war, until they have chewed upon it in the shape of roast-beef, and talked it fully over in their cups. Nor are these festivities merely occasional, but of stated recurrence in all considerable municipalities and associated bodies. The most ancient times appear to have been as familiar with them as the Englishmen of to-day. In many of the old English towns, you find some stately Gothic hall or chamber in which the Mayor and other authorities of the place have long held their sessions and always, in convenient contiguity, there is a dusky kitchen, with an immense fire-place, where an ox might lie roasting at his ease, though the less gigantic scale of modern cookery may now have permitted the cobwebs to gather in its chimney. St. Mary’s Hall, in Coventry, is so good a specimen of an ancient banqueting-room that perhaps I may profitably devote a page or two to the description of it.
In a narrow street, opposite to St. Michael’s Church, one of the three famous spires of Coventry, you behold a mediæval edifice, in the basement of which is such a venerable and now deserted kitchen as I have above alluded to, and, on the same level, a cellar, with low stone pillars and intersecting arches, like the crypt of a cathedral. Passing up a well-worn staircase, the oaken balustrade of which is as black as ebony, you enter the fine old hall, some sixty feet in length, and broad and lofty in proportion. It is lighted by six windows of modern stained glass, on one side, and by the immense and magnificent arch of another window at the farther end of the room, its rich and ancient panes constituting a genuine historical piece, in which are represented some of the kindly personages of old times, with their heraldic blazonries. Notwithstanding the colored light thus thrown into the hall, and though it was noonday when I last saw it, the panelling of black oak, and some faded tapestry that hung round the walls, together with the cloudy vault of the roof above, made a gloom which the richness only illuminated into more appreciable effect. The tapestry is wrought with figures in the dress of Henry VI.’s time, (which is the date of the hall,) and is regarded by antiquaries as authentic evidence both for the costume of that epoch, and, I believe, for the actual portraiture of men known in history. They are as colorless as ghosts, however, and vanish drearily into the old stitch-work of their substance, when you try to make them out. Coats-of-arms were formerly emblazoned all round the hall, but have been almost rubbed out by people hanging their overcoats against them, or by women with dish-clouts and scrubbing-brushes, obliterating hereditary glories in their blind hostility to dust and spiders’ webs. Full-length portraits of several English kings, Charles II. being the earliest, hang on the walls; and on the dais, or elevated part of the floor, stands an antique chair of state, which more than one royal character is traditionally said to have occupied while feasting here with their loyal subjects of Coventry. It is roomy enough for a person of kingly bulk, or even two such, but angular and uncomfortable, reminding me of the oaken settles which used to be seen in old-fashioned New-England kitchens.
Overhead, supported by a self-sustaining power, without the aid of a single pillar, is the original ceiling of oak, precisely similar in shape to the roof of a barn, with all the beams and rafters plainly to be seen. At the remote height of sixty feet, you hardly discern that they are carved with figures of angels, and doubtless many other devices, of which the admirable Gothic art is wasted in the duskiness that has so long been brooding there. Over the entrance of the hall, opposite the great arched window, the party-colored radiance of which glimmers faintly through the interval, is a gallery for minstrels; and a row of ancient suits of armor is suspended from its balustrade. It impresses me, too, (for, having gone so far, I would fain leave nothing untouched upon,) that I remember, somewhere about these venerable precincts, a picture of the Countess Godiva on horse-back, in which the artist has been so niggardly of that illustrious lady’s hair, that, if she had no ampler garniture, there was certainly much need for the good people of Coventry to shut their eyes. After all my pains, I fear that I have made but a poor hand at the description, as regards a transference of the scene from my own mind to the reader’s. It gave me a most vivid idea of antiquity that had been very little tampered with; insomuch that, if a group of steel-clad knights had come clanking through the door-way, and a bearded and beruffed old figure had handed in a stately dame, rustling in gorgeous robes of a long-forgotten fashion, unveiling a face of beauty somewhat tarnished in the mouldy tomb, yet stepping majestically to the trill of harp and viol from the minstrels’ gallery, while the rusty armor responded with a hollow ringing sound beneath, — why, I should have felt that these shadows, once so familiar with the spot, had a better right in St. Mary’s hall than I, a stranger from a far country which has no Past. But the moral of the foregoing pages is to show how tenaciously this love of pompous dinners, this reverence for dinner as a sacred institution, has caught hold of the English character; since, from the earliest recognizable period, we find them building their civic banqueting-halls as magnificently as their palaces or cathedrals.
I know not whether the hall just described is still used for festive purposes, but others of similar antiquity and splendor are so. For example, there is Barber-Surgeons’ Hall, in London, a very fine old room, adorned with admirably carved wood-work on the ceiling and walls. It is also enriched with Holbein’s master-piece, representing a grave assemblage of barbers and surgeons, all portraits, (with such extensive beards that methinks one-half of the company might have been profitably occupied in trimming the other,) kneeling before King Henry VIII. Sir Robert Peel is said to have offered a thousand pounds for the liberty of cutting out one of the heads from this picture, he conditioning to have a perfect fac-simile painted in. The room has many other pictures of distinguished members of the company in long-past times, and of some of the monarchs and statesmen of England, all darkened with age, but darkened into such ripe magnificence as only age could bestow. It is not my design to inflict any more specimens of ancient hall-painting on the reader but it may be worth while to touch upon other modes of stateliness that still survive in these time-honored civic feasts, where there appears to be a singular assumption of dignity and solemn pomp by respectable citizens, who would never dream of claiming any privilege of rank outside of their own sphere. Thus, I saw two caps of state for the warden and junior warden of the company, caps of silver (real coronets or crowns, indeed, for these city-grandees) wrought in open-work and lined with crimson velvet. In a strong-closet, opening from the hall, there was a great deal of rich plate to furnish forth the banquet-table, comprising hundreds of forks and spoons, a vast silver punch-bowl, the gift of some jolly king or other, and, besides a multitude of less noticeable vessels, two Loving-Cups, very elaborately wrought in silver gilt, one presented by Henry VIII., the other by Charles II. These cups, including the covers and pedestals, are very large and weighty, although the bowl-part would hardly contain more than half a pint of wine, which, when the custom was first established, each guest was probably expected to drink off at a draught. In passing them from hand to hand adown a long table of compotators, there is a peculiar ceremony which I may hereafter have occasion to describe. Meanwhile, if I might assume such a liberty, I should be glad to invite the reader to the official dinner-table of his Worship, the Mayor, at a large English seaport where I spent several years.
The Mayor’s dinner-parties occur as often as once a fortnight, and, inviting his guests by fifty or sixty at a time, his Worship probably assembles at his board most of the eminent citizens and distinguished personages of the town and neighborhood more than once during his year’s incumbency, and very much, no doubt, to the promotion of good feeling among individuals of opposite parties and diverse pursuits in life. A miscellaneous party of Englishmen can always find more comfortable ground to meet upon than as many Americans, their differences of opinion being incomparably less radical than ours, and it being the sincerest wish of all their hearts, whether they call themselves Liberals or what not, that nothing in this world shall ever be greatly altered from what it has been and is. Thus there is seldom such a virulence of political hostility that it may not be dissolved in a glass or two of wine, without making the good liquor any more dry or bitter than accords with English taste.
The first dinner of this kind at which I had the honor to be present took place during assize time, and included among the guests the judges and the prominent members of the bar. Reaching the Town-Hall at seven o’clock, I communicated my name to one of several splendidly dressed footmen, and he repeated it to another on the first staircase, by whim it was passed to a third, and thence to a fourth at the door of the reception-room, losing all resemblance to the original sound in the course of these transmissions so that I had the advantage of making my entrance in the character of a stranger, not only to the whole company, but to myself as well. His Worship, however, kindly recognized me, and put me on speaking-terms with two or three gentlemen, whom I found very affable, and all the more hospitably attentive on the score of my nationality. It is very singular how kind an Englishman will almost invariably be to an individual American, without ever bating a jot of his prejudice against the American character in the lump. My new acquaintances took evident pains to put me at my ease; and, in requital of their good-nature, I soon began to look round at the general company in a critical spirit, making my crude observations apart, and drawing silent inferences, of the correctness of which I should not have been half so well satisfied a year afterwards as at that moment.
There were two judges present, a good many lawyers, and a few officers of the army in uniform. The other guests seemed to be principally of the mercantile class, and among them was a ship-owner from Nova Scotia, with whom I coalesced a little, inasmuch as we were born with the same sky over our heads, and an unbroken continuity of soil between his abode and mine. There was one old gentleman, whose character I never made out, with powdered hair, clad in black breeches and silk stockings, and wearing a rapier at his side; otherwise, with the exception of the military uniforms, there was little or no pretence of official costume. It being the first considerable assemblage of Englishmen that I had seen, my honest impression about them was, that they were a heavy and homely set of people, with a remarkable roughness of aspect and behavior, not repulsive, but beneath which it required more familiarity with the national character than I then possessed always to detect the good-breeding of a gentleman. Being generally middle-aged, or still farther advanced, they were by no means graceful in figure; for the comeliness of the youthful Englishman rapidly diminishes with years, his body appearing to grow longer, his legs to abbreviate themselves, and his stomach to assume the dignified prominence which justly belongs to that metropolis of his system. His face (what with the acridity of the atmosphere, ale at lunch, wine at dinner, and a well-digested abundance of succulent food) gets red and mottled, and develops at least one additional chin, with a promise of more; so that, finally, a stranger recognizes his animal part at the most superficial glance, but must take time and a little pains to discover the intellectual. Comparing him with an American, I really thought that our national paleness and lean habit of flesh gave us greatly the advantage in an æsthetic point of view. It seemed to me, moreover, that the English tailor had not done so much as he might and ought for these heavy figures, but had gone on wilfully exaggerating their uncouthness by the roominess of their garments: he had evidently no idea of accuracy of fit, and smartness was entirely out of his line. But, to be quite open with the reader, I afterwards learned to think that this aforesaid tailor has a deeper art than his brethren among ourselves, knowing how to dress his customers with such individual propriety that they look as if they were born in their clothes, the fit being to the character rather than the form. If you make an Englishman smart, (unless he be a very exceptional one, of whom I have seen a few,) you make him a monster: his best aspect is that of ponderous respectability.
To make an end of these first impressions, I fancied that not merely the Suffolk bar, but the bar of any inland county in New England, might show a set of thin-visaged, green-spectacled men, looking wretchedly worn, sallow with the intemperate use of strong coffee, deeply wrinkled across the forehead, and grimly furrowed about the mouth, with whom these heavy-cheeked English lawyers, slow-paced and fat-witted as they must needs be, would stand very little chance in a professional contest. How that matter might turn out I am unqualified to decide. But I state these results of my earliest glimpses of Englishmen, not for what they are worth, but because I ultimately gave them up as worth little or nothing. In course of time, I came to the conclusion that Englishmen of all ages are a rather good-looking people, dress in admirable taste from their own point of view, and, under a surface never silken to the touch, have a refinement of manners too thorough and genuine to he thought of as a separate endowment, — that is to say, if the individual himself be a man of station, and has had gentlemen for his father and grandfather. The sturdy Anglo-Saxon nature does not refine itself short of the third generation. The tradesmen, too, and all other classes, have their own proprieties. The only value of my criticisms, therefore, lay in their exemplifying the proneness of a traveller to measure one people by the distinctive characteristics of another, — as English writers invariably measure us, and take upon themselves to be disgusted accordingly, instead of trying to find out some principle of beauty with which we may be in conformity.
In due time we were summoned to the table, and went thither in no solemn procession, but with a good deal of jostling, thrusting behind, and scrambling for places when we reached our destination. The legal gentlemen, I suspect, were responsible for this indecorous zeal, which I never afterwards remarked in a similar party. The dining-hall was of noble size, and, like the other rooms of the suite, was gorgeously painted and gilded and brilliantly illuminated. There was a splendid table-service, and a noble array of footmen, some of them in plain clothes, and others wearing the town-livery, richly decorated with gold-lace, and themselves excellent specimens of the blooming young-manhood of Britain. When we were fairly seated, it was certainly an agreeable spectacle to look up and down the long vista of earnest faces, and behold them so resolute, so conscious that there was an important business in hand, and so determined to be equal to the occasion. Indeed, Englishman or not, I hardly know what can be prettier than a snow-white table-cloth, a huge heap of flowers as a central decoration, bright silver, rich china, crystal glasses, decanters of Sherry at due intervals, a French roll and an artistically folded napkin at each plate, all that airy portion of a banquet, in short, that comes before the first mouthful, the whole illuminated by a blaze of artificial light, without which a dinner of made-dishes looks spectral, and the simplest viands are the best. Printed bills-of-fare were distributed, representing an abundant feast, no part of which appeared on the table until called for in separate plates. I have entirely forgotten what it was, but deem it no great matter, inasmuch as there is a pervading commonplace and identicalness in the composition of extensive dinners, on account of the impossibility of supplying a hundred guests with anything particularly delicate or rare. It was suggested to me that certain juicy old gentlemen had a private understanding what to call for, and that it would he good policy in a stranger to follow in their footsteps through the feast. I did not care to do so, however, because, like Sancho Panza’s dip out of Camacho’s caldron, any sort of pot-luck at such a table would be sure to suit my purpose; so I chose a dish or two on my own judgment, and, getting through my labors betimes, had great pleasure in seeing the Englishmen toil onward to the end.
They drank rather copiously, too, though wisely; for I observed that they seldom took Hock, and let the Champagne bubble slowly away out of the goblet, solacing themselves with Sherry, but tasting it warily before bestowing their final confidence. Their taste in wines, however, did not seem so exquisite, and certainly was not so various, as that to which many Americans pretend. This foppery of an intimate acquaintance with rare vintage does not suit a sensible Englishman, as he is very much in earnest about his wines, and adopts one or two as his life-long friends, seldom exchanging them for any Delilahs of a moment, and reaping the reward of his constancy in an unimpaired stomach, and only so much gout as he deems wholesome and desirable. Knowing well the measure of his powers, he is not apt to fill his glass too often. Society, indeed, would hardly tolerate habitual imprudences of that kind, though, in my opinion, the Englishmen now upon the stage could carry off their three bottles, at need, with as steady a gait as any of their forefathers. It is not so very long since the three-bottle heroes sank finally under the table. It may be (at least, I should be glad if it were true) that there was an occult sympathy between our temperance-reform, now somewhat in abeyance, and the almost simultaneous disappearance of hard-drinking among the respectable classes in England. I remember a middle-aged gentleman telling me (in illustration of the very slight importance attached to breaches of temperance within the memory of men not yet old) that he had seen a certain magistrate, Sir John Linkwater, or Drinkwater, — but I think the jolly old knight could hardly have staggered under so perverse a misnomer as this last, — while sitting on the magisterial bench, pull out a crown-piece and hand it to the clerk. “Mr. Clerk,” said Sir John, as if it were the most indifferent fact in the world, “I was drunk last night. There are my five shillings.”
During the dinner, I had a good deal of pleasant conversation with the gentlemen on either side of me. One of them, a lawyer, expatiated with great unction on the social standing of the judges. Representing the dignity and authority of the Crown, they take precedence, during assize-time, of the highest military men in the kingdom, of the Lord-Lieutenant of the county, of the Archbishops, of the royal Dukes, and even of the Prince of Wales. For the nonce, they are the greatest men in England. With a glow of professional complacency that amounted to enthusiasm, my friend assured me, that, in case of a royal dinner, a judge, if actually holding an assize, would be expected to offer his arm and take the Queen herself to the table. Happening to be in company with some of these elevated personages, on subsequent occasions, it appeared to me that the judges are fully conscious of their paramount claims to respect, and take rather more pains to impress them on their ceremonial inferiors than men of high hereditary rank are apt to do. Bishops, if it be not irreverent to say so, are sometimes marked by a similar characteristic. Dignified position is so sweet to an Englishman, that he needs to be born in it, and to feel it thoroughly incorporated with his nature from its original germ, in order to keep him from flaunting it obtrusively in the faces of innocent by-standers.
My companion on the other side was a thick-set, middle-aged man, uncouth in manners, and ugly where none were handsome, with a dark, roughly hewn visage, that looked grim in repose, and seemed to hold within itself the machinery of a very terrific frown. He ate with resolute appetite, and let slip few opportunities of imbibing whatever liquids happened to be passing by. I was meditating in what way this grisly-featured table-fellow might most safely be accosted, when he turned to me with a surly sort of kindness, and invited me to take a glass of wine. We then began a conversation that abounded, on his part, with sturdy sense, and, somehow or other, brought me closer to him than I had yet stood to an Englishman. I should hardly have taken him to be an educated man, certainly not a scholar of accurate training; and yet he seemed to have all the resources of education and trained intellectual power at command. My fresh Americanism, and watchful observation of English characteristics, appeared either to interest or amuse him, or perhaps both. Under the mollifying influences of abundance of meat and drink, he grew very gracious, (not that I ought to use such a phrase to describe his evidently genuine good-will,) and by-and-by expressed a wish for further acquaintance, asking me to call at his rooms in London and inquire for Sergeant Wilkins, — throwing out the name forcibly, as if he had no occasion to be ashamed of it. I remembered Dean Swift’s retort to Sergeant Bettesworth on a similar announcement, — “Of what regiment, pray, Sir?” — and fancied that the same question might not have been quite amiss, if applied to the rugged individual at my side. But I heard of him subsequently as one of the prominent men at the English bar, a rough customer, and a terribly strong champion in criminal cases; and it caused me more regret than might have been expected, on so slight an acquaintanceship, when, not long afterwards, I saw his death announced in the newspapers. Not rich in attractive qualities, he possessed, I think, the most attractive one of all, — thorough manhood.
After the cloth was removed, a goodly group of decanters were set before the Mayor, who sent them forth on their outward voyage, full freighted with Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Claret, of which excellent liquors, methought, the latter found least acceptance among the guests. When every man had filled his glass, his Worship stood up and proposed a toast. It was, of course, “Our gracious Sovereign,” or words to that effect; and immediately a band of musicians, whose preliminary tootings and thrummings I had already heard behind me, struck up “God save the Queen,” and the whole company rose with one impulse to assist in singing that famous national anthem. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen a body of men, or even a single man, under the active influence of the sentiment of Loyalty; for, though we call ourselves loyal to our country and institutions, and prove it by our readiness to shed blood and sacrifice life in their behalf, still the principle is as cold and hard, in an American bosom, as the steel spring that puts in motion a powerful machinery. In the Englishman’s system, a force similar to that of our steel spring is generated by the warm throbbings of human hearts. He clothes our bare abstraction in flesh and blood, — at present, in the flesh and blood of a woman, — and manages to combine love, awe, and intellectual reverence, all in one emotion, and to embody his mother, his wife, his children, the whole idea of kindred, in a single person, and make her the representative of his country and its laws. We Americans smile superior, as I did at the Mayor’s table; and yet, I fancy, we lose some very agreeable titillations of the heart in consequence of our proud prerogative of caring no more about our President than for a man of straw, or a stuffed scarecrow straddling in a cornfield.
But, to say the truth, the spectacle struck me rather ludicrously, to see this party of stout middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, in the fulness of meat and drink, their ample and ruddy faces glistening with wine, perspiration, and enthusiasm, rumbling out those strange old stanzas from the very bottom of their hearts and stomachs, which two organs, in the English interior arrangement, lie closer together than in ours. The song seemed to me the rudest old ditty in the world; but I could not wonder at its universal acceptance and indestructible popularity, considering how inimitably it expresses the national faith and feeling as regards the inevitable righteousness of England, the Almighty’s consequent respect and partiality for that redoubtable little island, and His presumed readiness to strengthen its defence against the contumacious wickedness and knavery of all other principalities or republics. Tennyson himself, though evidently English to the very last prejudice, could not write half so good a song for the purpose. Finding that the entire dinner-table struck in, with voices of every pitch between rolling thunder and the squeak of a cartwheel, and that the strain was not of such delicacy as to be much hurt by the harshest of them, I determined to lend my own assistance in swelling the triumphant roar. It seemed but a proper courtesy to the first Lady in the land, whose guest, in the largest sense, I might consider myself. Accordingly, my first tuneful efforts (and probably my last, for I purpose not to sing any more, unless it be “Hail Columbia” on the restoration of the Union) were poured freely forth in honor of Queen Victoria. The Sergeant smiled like the carved head of a Swiss nut cracker, and the other gentlemen in my neighborhood, by nods and gestures, evinced grave approbation of so suitable a tribute to English superiority; and we finished our stave and sat down in an extremely happy frame of mind.
Other toasts followed in honor of the great institutions and interests of the country, and speeches in response to each were made by individuals whom the Mayor designated or the company called for. None of them impressed me with a very high idea of English postprandial oratory. It is inconceivable, indeed, what ragged and shapeless utterances most Englishmen are satisfied to give vent to, without attempting anything like artistic shape, but clapping on a patch here and another there, and ultimately getting out what they want to say, and generally with a result of sufficiently good sense, but in some such disorganized mass as if they had thrown it up rather than spoken it. It seemed to me that this was almost as much by choice as necessity. An Englishman, ambitious of public favor, should not be too smooth. If an orator is glib, his countrymen distrust him. They dislike smartness. The stronger and heavier his thoughts, the better, provided there be an element of commonplace running through them; and any rough, yet never vulgar force of expression, such as would knock an opponent down, if it hit him, only it must not be too personal, is altogether to their taste; but a studied neatness of language, or other such superficial graces, they cannot abide. They do not often permit a man to make himself a fine orator of malice aforethought, that is, unless he be a nobleman, (as, for example, Lord Stanley, of the Derby family,) who, as an hereditary legislator and necessarily a public speaker, is bound to remedy a poor natural delivery in the best way he can. On the whole, I partly agree with them, and, if I cared for any oratory whatever, should be as likely to applaud theirs as our own. When an English speaker sits down, you feel that you have been listening to a real man, and not to an actor; his sentiments have a wholesome earth-smell in them, though, very likely, this apparant naturalness is as much an art as what we expend in rounding a sentence or elaborating a peroration.
It is one good effect of this inartificial style, that nobody in England seems to feel any shyness about shovelling the untrimmed and untrimmable ideas out of his mind for the benefit of an audience. At least, nobody did on the occasion now in hand, except a poor little Major of Artillery, who responded for the Army in a thin, quavering voice, with a terribly hesitating trickle of fragmentary ideas, and, I question not, would rather have been bayoneted in front of his batteries than to have said a word. Not his own mouth, but the cannon’s, was this poor Major’s proper organ of utterance.
While I was thus amiably occupied in criticizing my fellow-guests, the Mayor had got up to propose another toast; and listening rather inattentively to the first sentence or two, I soon became sensible of a drift in his Worship’s remarks that made me glance apprehensively towards Sergeant Wilkins. “Yes,” grumbled that gruff personage, shoving a decanter of Port towards me, “it is your turn next”; and seeing in my face, I suppose, the consternation of a wholly unpractised orator, he kindly added, — “It is nothing. A mere acknowledgment will answer the purpose. The less you say, the better they will like it.” That being the case, I suggested that perhaps they would like it best, if I said nothing at all. But the Sergeant shook his head. Now, on first receiving the Mayor’s invitation to dinner, it had occurred to me that I might possibly be brought into my present predicament; but I had dismissed the idea from my mind as too disagreeable to be entertained, and, moreover, as so alien from my disposition and character that Fate surely could not keep such a misfortune in store for me. If nothing else prevented, an earthquake or the crack of doom would certainly interfere before I need rise to speak. Yet here was the Mayor getting on inexorably, — and, indeed, I heartily wished that he might get on and on forever, and of his wordy wanderings find no end.
If the gentle reader, my kindest friend and closest confidant, deigns to desire it, I can impart to him my own experience as a public speaker quite as indifferently as if it concerned another person. Indeed, it does concern another, or a mere spectral phenomenon, for it was not I, in my proper and natural self, that sat there at table or subsequently rose to speak. At the moment, then, if the choice had been offered me whether the Mayor should let off a speech at my head or a pistol, I should unhesitatingly have taken the latter alternative. I had really nothing to say, not an idea in my head, nor, which was a great deal worse, any flowing words or embroidered sentences in which to dress out that empty Nothing, and give it a cunning aspect of intelligence, such as might last the poor vacuity the little time it had to live. But time pressed; the Mayor brought his remarks, affectionately eulogistic of the United States and highly complimentary to their distinguished representative at that table, to a close, amid a vast deal of cheering and the band struck up “Hail Columbia,” I believe, though it might have been “Old Hundred,” or “God save the Queen” over again, for anything that I should have known or cared. When the music ceased, there was an intensely disagreeable instant, during which I seemed to rend away and fling off the habit of a lifetime, and rose, still void of ideas, but with preternatural composure, to make a speech. The guests rattled on the table, and cried, “Hear!” most vociferously, as if now, at length, in this foolish and idly garrulous world, had come the long-expected moment when one golden word was to be spoken; and in that imminent crisis, I caught a glimpse of a little bit of an effusion of international sentiment, which it might, and must, and should do to utter.
Well; it was nothing, as the Sergeant had said. What surprised me most was the sound of my own voice, which I had never before heard at a declamatory pitch, and which impressed me as belonging to some other person, who, and not myself would be responsible for the speech: a prodigious consolation and encouragement under the circumstances! I went on without the slightest embarrassment, and sat down amid great applause, wholly undeserved by anything that I had spoken, but well won from Englishmen, methought, by the new development of pluck that alone had enabled me to speak at all. “It was handsomely done!” quoth Sergeant Wilkins; and I felt like a recruit who had been for the first time under fire.
I would gladly have ended my oratorical career then and there forever, but was often placed in a similar or worse position, and compelled to meet it as I best might; for this was one of the necessities of an office which I had voluntarily taken on my shoulders, and beneath which I might be crushed by no moral delinquency on my own part, but could not shirk without cowardice and shame. My subsequent fortune was various. Once, though I felt it to be a kind of imposture, I got a speech by heart, and doubtless it might have been a very pretty one, only I forgot every syllable at the moment of need, and had to improvise another as well as I could. I found it a better method to prearrange a few points in my mind, and trust to the spur of the occasion, and the kind aid of Providence, for enabling me to bring them to bear. The presence of any considerable proportion of personal friends generally dumbfounded me. I would rather have talked with an enemy in the gate. Invariably, too, I was much embarrassed by a small audience, and succeeded better with a large one, — the sympathy of a multitude possessing a buoyant effect, which lifts the speaker a little way out of his individuality and tosses him towards a perhaps better range of sentiment than his private one. Again, if I rose carelessly and confidently, with an expectation of going through the business entirely at my ease, I often found that I had little or nothing to say; whereas, if I came to the scratch in perfect despair, and at a crisis when failure would have been horrible, it once or twice happened that the frightful emergency concentrated my poor faculties, and enabled me to give definite and vigorous expression to sentiments which an instant before looked as vague and far-off as the clouds in the atmosphere. On the whole, poor as my own success may have been, I apprehend that any intelligent man with a tongue possesses the chief requisite of oratorical power, and may develop many of the others, if he deems it worth while to bestow a great amount of labor and pains on an object which the most accomplished orators, I suspect, have not found altogether satisfactory to their highest impulses. At any rate, it must be a remarkably true man who can keep his own elevated conception of truth when the lower feeling of a multitude is assailing his natural sympathies, and who can speak out frankly the best that there is in him, when by adulterating it a little, or a good deal, he knows that he may make it ten times as acceptable to the audience.
* * *
This slight article on the civic banquets of England would be too wretchedly imperfect, without an attempted description of a Lord-Mayor’s dinner at the Mansion-House in London. I should have preferred the annual feast at Guild-hall, but never had the good-fortune to witness it. Once, however, I was honored with an invitation to one of the regular dinners, and gladly accepted it, — taking the precaution, nevertheless, though it hardly seemed necessary, to inform the City-King, through a mutual friend, that I was no fit representative of American eloquence, and must humbly make it a condition that I should not be expected to open my mouth, except for the reception of his Lordship’s bountiful hospitality. The reply was gracious and acquiescent; so that I presented myself in the great entrance-hall of the Mansion-House, at half-past six o’clock, in a state of most enjoyable freedom from the pusillanimous apprehensions that often tormented me at such times. The Mansion-House was built in Queen Anne’s days, in the very heart of old London, and is a palace worthy of its inhabitant, were he really as great a man as his traditionary state and pomp would seem to indicate. Times are changed, however, since the days of Whittington, or even of Hogarth’s Industrious Apprentice, to whom the highest imaginable reward of life-long integrity was a seat in the Lord-Mayor’s chair. People nowadays say that the real dignity and importance have perished out of the office, as they do, sooner or later, out of all earthly institutions, leaving only a painted and gilded shell like that of an Easter egg, and that it is only second-rate and third-rate men who now condescend to be ambitions of the Mayoralty. I felt a little grieved at this; for the original emigrants of New England had strong sympathies with the people of London, who were mostly Puritans in religion and Parliamentarians in politics, in the early days of our country so that the Lord-Mayor was a potentate of huge dimensions in the estimation of our forefathers, and held to be hardly second to the prime-minister of the throne. The true great men of the city now appear to have aims beyond city-greatness, connecting themselves with national politics, and seeking to be identified with the aristocracy of the country.
In the entrance-hall I was received by a body of footmen dressed in a livery of blue and buff, in which they looked wonderfully like American Revolutionary generals, only bedizened with far more lace and embroidery than those simple and grand old heroes ever dreamed of wearing. There were likewise two very imposing figures, whom I should have taken to be military men of rank, being arrayed. in scarlet coats and large silver epaulets but they turned out to be officers of the Lord-Mayor’s household, and were now employed in assigning to the guests the places which they were respectively to occupy at the dinner-table. Our names (for I had included myself in a little group of friends) were announced; and ascending the staircase, we met his Lordship in the door-way of the first reception-room, where, also, we had the advantage of a presentation to the Lady-Mayoress. As this distinguished couple retired into private life at the termination of their year of office, it is inadmissible to make any remarks, critical or laudatory, on the manners and bearing of two personages suddenly emerging from a position of respectable mediocrity into one of preëminent dignity within their own sphere. Such individuals almost always seem to grow nearly or quite to the full size of their office. If it were desirable to write an essay on the latent aptitude of ordinary people for grandeur, we have an exemplification in our own country, and on a scale incomparably greater than that of the Mayoralty, though invested with nothing like the outward magnificence that gilds and embroiders the latter. If I have been correctly informed, the Lord-Mayor’s salary is exactly double that of the President of the United States, and yet is found very inadequate to his necessary expenditure.
There were two reception-rooms, thrown into one by the opening of wide folding-doors; and though in an old style, and not yet so old as to be venerable, they are remarkably handsome apartments, lofty as well as spacious, with carved ceilings and walls, and at either end a splendid fireplace of white marble, ornamented with sculptured wreaths of flowers and foliage. The company were about three hundred, many of them celebrities in politics, war, literature, and science, though I recollect none preëminently distinguished in either department. But it is certainly a pleasant mode of doing honor to men of literature, for example, who deserve well of the public, yet do not often meet it face to face, thus to bring them together, under genial auspices, in connection with persons of note in other lines. I know not what may be the Lord-Mayor’s mode or principle of selecting his guests, nor whether, during his official term, he can proffer his hospitality to every man of noticeable talent in the wide world of London, nor, in fine, whether his Lordship’s invitation is much sought for or valued; but it seemed to me that this periodical feast is one of the many sagacious methods which the English have contrived for keeping up a good understanding among different sorts of people. Like most other distinctions of society, however, I presume that the Lord-Mayor’s card does not often seek out modest merit, but comes at last when the recipient is conscious of the bore, and doubtful about the honor.
One very pleasant characteristic, which I never met with at any other public or partially public dinner, was the presence of ladies. No doubt, they were principally the wives and daughters of city-magnates; and if we may judge from the many sly allusions in old plays and satirical poems, the city of London has always been famous for the beauty of its women and the reciprocal attractions between them and the men of quality. Be that as it might, while straying hither and thither through those crowded apartments, I saw much reason for modifying certain heterodox opinions which I had inbibed, in my Transatlantic newness and rawness, as regarded the delicate character and frequent occurrence of English beauty. To state the entire truth, (being, at this period, some years old in English life,) my taste, I fear, had long since begun to be deteriorated by acquaintance with other models of feminine loveliness than it was my happiness to know in America. I often found, or seemed to find, if I may dare to confess it, in the persons of such of my dear countrywomen as I now occasionally met, a certain meagreness, (Heaven forbid that I should call it scrawniness!) a deficiency of physical development, a scantiness, so to speak, in the pattern of their material make, a paleness of complexion, a thinness of voice, — all which characteristics, nevertheless, only made me resolve so much the more sturdily to uphold these fair creatures as angels, because I was sometimes driven to a half-acknowledgment, that the English ladies, looked at from a lower point of view, were perhaps a little finer animals than they. The advantages of the latter, if any they could really be said to have, were all comprised in a few additional lumps of clay on their shoulders and other parts of their figures. It would be a pitiful bargain to give up the ethereal charm of American beauty in exchange for half a hundred-weight of human clay!
At a given signal we all found our way into an immense room, called the Egyptian Hall, I know not why, except that the architecture was classic, and as different as possible from the ponderous style of Memphis and the Pyramids. A powerful band played inspiringly as we entered, and a brilliant profusion of light shone down on two long tables, extending the whole length of the hall, and a cross-table between them, occupying nearly its entire breadth. Glass gleamed and silver glistened on an acre or two of snowy damask, over which were set out all the accompaniments of a stately feast. We found our places without much difficulty, and the Lord-Mayor’s chaplain implored a blessing on the food, — a ceremony which the English never omit, at a great dinner or a small one, yet consider, I fear, not so much a religious rite as a sort of preliminary relish before the soup.
The soup, of course, on this occasion, was turtle, of which, in accordance with immemorial custom, each guest was allowed two platefuls, in spite of the otherwise immitigable law of table-decorum. Indeed, judging from the proceedings of the gentlemen near me, I surmised that there was no practical limit, except the appetite of the guests and the capacity of the soup-tureens. Not being fond of this civic dainty, I partook of it but once, and then only in accordance with the wise maxim, always to taste a fruit, a wine, or a celebrated dish, at its indigenous site; and the very fountain-head of turtle-soup, I suppose, is in the Lord-Mayor’s dinner-pot. It is one of those orthodox customs which people follow for half a century without knowing why, to drink a sip of rum-punch, in a very small tumbler, after the soup. It was excellently well-brewed, and it seemed to me almost worth while to sup the soup for the sake of sipping the punch. The rest of the dinner was catalogued in a bill-of-fare printed on delicate white paper within an arabesque border of green and gold. It looked very good, not only in the English and French names of the numerous dishes, but also in the positive reality of the dishes themselves, which were all set on the table to be carved and distributed by the guests. This ancient and honest method is attended with a good deal of trouble, and a lavish effusion of gravy, yet by no means bestowed or dispensed in vain, because you have thereby the absolute assurance of a banquet actually before your eyes, instead of a shadowy promise in the bill-of-fare, and such meagre fulfilment as a single guest can contrive to get upon his individual plate. I wonder that Englishmen, who are fond of looking at prize-oxen in the shape of butchers-meat, do not generally better estimate the æsthetic gormandism of devouring the whole dinner with their eyesight, before proceeding to nibble the comparatively few morsels which, after all, the most heroic appetite and widest stomachic capacity of mere mortals can enable even an alderman really to eat. There fell to my lot three delectable things enough, which I take pains to remember, that the reader may not go away wholly unsatisfied from the Barmecide feast to which I have bidden him, — a red mullet, a plate of mushrooms, exquisitely stewed, and part of a ptarmigan, a bird of the same family as the grouse, but feeding high up towards the summit of the Scotch mountains, whence it gets a wild delicacy of flavor very superior to that of the artificially nurtured English game-fowl. All the other dainties have vanished from my memory as completely as those of Prospero’s banquet after Ariel had clapped his wings over it. The band played at intervals, inspiriting us to new efforts, as did likewise the sparkling wines which the footmen supplied from an inexhaustible cellar, and which the guests quaffed with little apparent reference to the disagreeable fact that there comes a to-morrow morning after every feast. As long as that shall be the case, a prudent man can never have full enjoyment of his dinner.
Nearly opposite to me, on the other side of the table, sat a young lady in white, whom I am sorely tempted to describe, but dare not, because not only the supereminence of her beauty, but its peculiar character, would cause the sketch to be recognized, however rudely it might be drawn. I hardly thought that there existed such a woman outside of a picture-frame, or the covers of a romance: not that I had ever met with her resemblance even there, but, being so distinct and singular an apparition, she seemed likelier to find her sisterhood in poetry and picture than in real life. Let us turn away from her, lest a touch too apt should compel her stately and cold and soft and womanly grace to gleam out upon my page with a strange repulsion and unattainableness in the very spell that made her beautiful. At her side, and familiarly attentive to her, sat a gentleman of whom I remember only a hard outline of the nose and forehead, and such a monstrous portent of a beard that you could discover no symptom of a mouth, except when he opened it to speak, or to put in a morsel of food. Then, indeed, you suddenly became aware of a cave hidden behind the impervious and darksome shrubbery. There could be no doubt who this gentleman and lady were. Any child would have recognized them at a glance. It was Bluebeard and a new wife (the loveliest of the series, but with already a mysterious gloom overshadowing her fair young brow) travelling in their honey-moon, and dining, among other distinguished strangers, at the Lord-Mayor’s table.
After an hour or two of valiant achievement with knife and fork came the dessert; and at the point of the festival where finger-glasses are usually introduced, a large silver basin was carried round to the guests, containing rose-water, into which we dipped the ends of our napkins and were conscious of a delightful fragrance, instead of that heavy and weary odor, the hateful ghost of a defunct dinner. This seems to be an ancient custom of the city, not confined to the Lord-Mayor’s table, but never met with westward of Temple Bar.
During all the feast, in accordance with another ancient custom, the origin or purport of which I do not remember to have heard, there stood a man in armor, with a helmet on his head, behind his Lordship’s chair. When the after-dinner wine was placed on the table, still another official personage appeared behind the chair, and proceeded to make a solemn and sonorous proclamation, (in which he enumerated the principal guests, comprising three or four noblemen, several baronets, and plenty of generals, members of Parliament, aldermen, and other names of the illustrious, one of which sounded strangely familiar to my cars,) ending in some such style as this: “and other gentlemen and ladies, here present, the Lord-Mayor drinks to you all in a loving-cup,” — giving a sort of sentimental twang to the two words, — “and sends it round among you!” And forthwith the loving-cup—several of them, indeed, on each side of the tables—came slowly down with all the antique ceremony.
The fashion of it is thus. The Lord-Mayor, standing up and taking the covered cup in both hands, presents it to the guest at his elbow, who likewise rises, and removes the cover for his Lordship to drink, which being successfully accomplished, the guest replaces the cover and receives the cup into his own hands. He then presents it to his next neighbor, that the cover may be again removed for himself to take a draught, after which the third person goes through a similar manœuvre with a fourth, and he with a fifth, until the whole company find themselves inextricably intertwisted and entangled in one complicated chain of love. When the cup came to my hands, I examined it critically, both inside and out, and perceived it to be an antique and richly ornamented silver goblet, capable of holding about a quart of wine. Considering how much trouble we all expended in getting the cup to our lips, the guests appeared to content themselves with wonderfully moderate potations. In truth, nearly or quite the original quart of wine being still in the goblet, it seemed doubtful whether any of the company had more than barely touched the silver rim before passing it to their neighbors, — a degree of abstinence that might be accounted for by a fastidious repugnance to so many compotators in one cup, or possibly by a disapprobation of the liquor. Being curious to know all about these important matters, with a view of recommending to my countrymen whatever they might usefully adopt, I drank an honest sip from the loving-cup, and had no occasion for another, — ascertaining it to be Claret of a poor original quality, largely mingled with water, and spiced and sweetened. It was good enough, however, for a merely spectral or ceremonial drink, and could never have been intended for any better purpose.
The toasts now began in the customary order, attended with speeches neither more nor less witty and ingenious than the specimens of table-eloquence which had heretofore delighted me. As preparatory to each new display, the herald, or whatever he was, behind the chair of state, gave awful notice that the Right Honorable the Lord-Mayor was about to propose a toast. His Lordship being happily delivered thereof, together with some accompanying remarks, the band played an appropriate tune, and the herald again issued proclamation to the effect that such or such a nobleman, or gentleman, general, dignified clergyman, or what not, was going to respond to the Right Honorable the Lord-Mayor’s toast; then, if I mistake not, there was another prodigious flourish of trumpets and twanging of stringed instruments; and finally the doomed individual, waiting all this while to be decapitated, got up and proceeded to make a fool of himself. A bashful young earl tried his maiden oratory on the good citizens of London, and having evidently got every word by heart, (even including, however he managed it, the most seemingly casual improvisations of the moment,) he really spoke like a book, and made incomparably the smoothest speech I ever heard in England.
The weight and gravity of the speakers, not only on this occasion, but all similar ones, was what impressed me as most extraordinary, not to say absurd. Why should people eat a good dinner, and put their spirits into festive trim with Champagne, and afterwards mellow themselves into a most enjoyable state of quietude with copious libations of Sherry and old Port, and then disturb the whole excellent result by listening to speeches as heavy as an after-dinner nap, and in no degree so refreshing? If the Champagne had thrown its sparkle over the surface of these effusions, or if the generous Port had shone through their substance with a ruddy glow of the old English humor, I might have seen a reason for honest gentlemen prattling in their cups, and should undoubtedly have been glad to be a listener. But there was no attempt nor impulse of the kind on the part of the orators, nor apparent expectation of such a phenomenon on that of the audience. In fact, I imagine that the latter were best pleased when the speaker embodied his ideas in the figurative language of arithmetic, or struck upon any hard matter of business or statistics, as a heavy-laden bark bumps upon a rock in mid-ocean. The sad severity, the too earnest utilitarianism, of modern life, have wrought a radical and lamentable change, I am afraid, in this ancient and goodly institution of civic banquets. People used to come to them, a few hundred years ago, for the sake of being jolly; they come now with an odd notion of pouring sober wisdom into their wine by way of wormwood-bitters, and thus make such a mess of it that the wine and wisdom reciprocally spoil one another.
Possibly, the foregoing sentiments have taken a spice of acridity from a circumstance that happened about this stage of the feast, and very much interrupted my own further enjoyment of it. Up to this time, my condition had been exceedingly felicitous, both on account of the brilliancy of the scene, and because I was in close proximity with three very pleasant English friends. One of them was a lady, whose honored name my readers would recognize as a household word, if I dared write it another, a gentleman, likewise well known to them, whose fine taste, kind heart, and genial cultivation are qualities seldom mixed in such happy proportion as in him. The third was the man to whom I owed most in England, the warm benignity of whose nature was never weary of doing me good, who led me to many scenes of life, in town, camp, and country, which I never could have found out for myself, who knew precisely the kind of help a stranger needs, and gave it as freely as if he had not had a thousand more important things to live for. Thus I never felt safer or cozier at anybody’s fireside, even my own, than at the dinner-table of the Lord-Mayor.
Out of this serene sky came a thunder-bolt. His Lordship got up and proceeded to make some very eulogistic remarks upon “the literary and commercial”—I question whether those two adjectives were ever before married by a copulative conjunction, and they certainly would not live together in illicit intercourse, of their own accord—“the literary and commercial attainments of an eminent gentleman there present,” and then went on to speak of the relations of blood and interest between Great Britain and the aforesaid eminent gentleman’s native country. Those bonds were more intimate than had ever before existed between two great nations, throughout all history, and his Lordship felt assured that that whole honorable company would join him in the expression of a fervent wish that they might be held inviolably sacred, on both sides of the Atlantic, now and forever. Then came the same wearisome old toast, dry and hard to chew upon as a musty sea-biscuit, which had been the text of nearly all the oratory of my public career. The herald sonorously announced that Mr. So-and-so would now respond to his Right Honorable Lordship’s toast and speech, the trumpets sounded the customary flourish for the onset, there was a thunderous rumble of anticipatory applause, and finally a deep silence sank upon the festive hall.
All this was a horrid piece of treachery on the Lord-Mayor’s part, after beguiling me within his lines on a pledge of safe-conduct and it seemed very strange that he could not let an unobtrusive individual eat his dinner in peace, drink a small sample of the Mansion-House wine, and go away grateful at heart for the old English hospitality. If his Lordship had sent me an infusion of ratsbane in the loving-cup, I should have taken it much more kindly at his hands. But I suppose the secret of the matter to have been somewhat as follows.
All England, just then, was in one of those singular fits of panic excitement, (not fear, though as sensitive and tremulous as that emotion,) which, in consequence of the homogeneous character of the people, their intense patriotism, and their dependence for their ideas in public affairs on other sources than their own examination and individual thought, are more sudden, pervasive, and unreasoning than any similar mood of our own public. In truth, I have never seen the American public in a state at all similar, and believe that we are incapable of it. Our excitements are not impulsive, like theirs, but, right or wrong, are moral and intellectual. For example, the grand rising of the North, at the commencement of this war, bore the aspect of impulse and passion only because it was so universal, and necessarily done in a moment, just as the quiet and simultaneous getting-up of a thousand people out of their chairs would cause a tumult that might be mistaken for a storm. We were cool then, and have been cool ever since, and shall remain cool to the end, which we shall take coolly, whatever it may be. There is nothing which the English find it so difficult to understand in us as this characteristic. They imagine us, in our collective capacity, a kind of wild beast, whose normal condition is savage fury, and are always looking for the moment when we shall break through the slender barriers of international law and comity, and compel the reasonable part of the world, with themselves at the head, to combine for the purpose of putting us into a stronger cage. At times this apprehension becomes so powerful, (and when one man feels it, a million do,) that it resembles the passage of the wind over a broad field of grain, where you see the whole crop bending and swaying beneath one impulse, and each separate stalk tossing with the self-same disturbance as its myriad companions. At such periods all Englishmen talk with a terrible identity of sentiment and expression. You have the whole country in each man; and not one of them all, if you put him strictly to the question, can give a reasonable ground for his alarm. There are but two nations in the world—our own country and France—that can put England into this singular state. It is the united sensitiveness of a people extremely well-to-do, most anxious for the preservation of the cumbrous and moss-grown prosperity which they have been so long in consolidating, and incompetent (owing to the national half-sightedness, and their habit of trusting to a few leading minds for their public opinion) to judge when that prosperity is really threatened.
If the English were accustomed to look at the foreign side of any international dispute, they might easily have satisfied themselves that there was very little danger of a war at that particular crisis, from the simple circumstance that their own Government had positively not an inch of honest ground to stand upon, and could not fail to be aware of the fact. Neither could they have met Parliament with any show of a justification for incurring war. It was no such perilous juncture as exists now, when law and right are really controverted on sustainable or plausible grounds, and a naval commander may at any moment fire off the first cannon of a terrible contest. If I remember it correctly, it was a mere diplomatic squabble, in which the British ministers, with the politic generosity which they are in the habit of showing towards their official subordinates, had tried to browbeat us for the purpose of sustaining an ambassador in an indefensible proceeding; and the American Government (for God had not denied us an administration of Statesmen then) had retaliated with stanch courage and exquisite skill, putting inevitably a cruel mortification upon their opponents, but indulging them with no pretence whatever for active resentment.
Now the Lord-Mayor, like any other Englishman, probably fancied that War was on the western gale, and was glad to lay hold of even so insignificant an American as myself, who might be made to harp on the rusty old strings of national sympathies, identity of blood and interest, and community of language and literature, and whisper peace where there was no peace, in however weak an utterance. And possibly his Lordship thought, in his wisdom, that the good feeling which was sure to be expressed by a company of well-bred Englishmen, at his august and far-famed dinner-table, might have an appreciable influence on the grand result. Thus, when the Lord-Mayor invited me to his feast, it was a piece of strategy. He wanted to induce me to fling myself, like a lesser Curtius, with a larger object of self-sacrifice, into the chasm of discord between England and America, and, on my ignominious demur, had resolved to shove me in with his own right-honorable hands, in the hope of closing up the horrible pit forever. On the whole, I forgive his Lordship. He meant well by all parties, — himself, who would share the glory, and me, who ought to have desired nothing better than such an heroic opportunity, — his own country, which would continue to get cotton and breadstuffs, and mine, which would get everything that men work with and wear.
As soon as the Lord-Mayor began to speak, I rapped upon my mind, and it gave forth a hollow sound, being absolutely empty of appropriate ideas. I never thought of listening to the speech, because I knew it all beforehand in twenty repetitions from other lips, and was aware that it would not offer a single suggestive point. In this dilemma, I turned to one of my three friends, a gentleman whom I knew to possess an enviable flow of silver speech, and obtested him, by whatever he deemed holiest, to give me at least an available thought or two to start with, and, once afloat, I would trust to my guardian-angel for enabling me to flounder ashore again. He advised me to begin with some remarks complimentary to the Lord-Mayor, and expressive of the hereditary reverence in which his office was held—at least, my friend thought that there would be no harm in giving his Lordship this little sugar-plum, whether quite the fact or no—was held by the descendants of the Puritan forefathers. Thence, if I liked, getting flexible with the oil of my own eloquence, I might easily slide off into the momentous subject of the relations between England and America, to which his Lordship had made such weighty allusion.
Seizing this handful of straw with a death-grip, and bidding my three friends bury me honorably, I got upon my legs to save both countries, or perish in the attempt. The tables roared and thundered at me, and suddenly were silent again. But, as I have never happened to stand in a position of greater dignity and peril, I deem it a stratagem of sage policy here to close the sketch, leaving myself still erect in so heroic an attitude.