Living in London
MY search for lodgings in London ended in my fixing myself in Maddox Street, which runs from Regent Street near its upper end across New Bond Street. Here I had a parlor, bedroom, and dressing-room on the second floor; and, although they were not handsome, perhaps hardly cheerful, I was very comfortable. I did not mind it that my little sideboard, my sofa, and my chairs
were old mahogany of the hideous fashion of George IV.’s day. They were respectable, and there was a keeping between them and the street into which I looked through chintz window-curtains that reminded me not unpleasantly of those that had hung over my mother’s bed in my boyhood. They were much more grateful to my eye than those which formed the canopy of my bed, which were heavy moreen of such undisturbed antiquity that they made the room somewhat stuffy. But I liked the old bedstead, which was a four-poster so high that I ascended to it by steps; and those also brought back my boyhood to me in the recollection of a dreadful fall which I had from just such a pair, which I had mounted to blow a feather into the air, in defiance of parental injunction. The low French bedstead long ago drove the four-poster out of American bedrooms, in the Northern cities at least; but the stately and, to uneasy sleepers, somewhat dangerous old night tents still hold their own, not only in London lodgings of the higher class, but in great country houses, where they have stood, many of them, for more than a century, some of them for more than two. English beds are, in the day-time, among the few things in England which I did not find pleasant to look upon. This is because of the fashion in which they are made up, which I found to be invariable. The coverlet is drawn up over the pillows; and the curtains, hanging from the canopy or pushed up to tlie head-posts, are then drawn across the upper part of the bed, one curtain being folded over tlie other. To an eye accustomed to the sight of white pillow-cases and of the upper sheet turned down over the coverlet, the effect of the English arrangement is gloomy, stuffy, and forbidding. But at night, when the maid has released and half drawn the curtains and turned down the coverlet, and has prepared everything for your night toilet, an English bed-chamber, even in lodgings, has a very attractive and sleep-provoking aspect. The bed, too, keeps the promise to the eye. English beds are delightful to sleep upon, and are something in feeling between a hair mattress and a well-stuffed feather bed, soft upon the surface yet firm beneath. I found all English beds so, even in hotels in small provincial towns.
The locality in which my rooms were had a little interest for me, and would have had more if I had been a woman, from the fact that they were within a few yards of St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, where the marriages of which accounts are published in the London newspapers almost always take place. My fair readers I believe have wondered, some of them I know have wondered, why the Lady Arabella must always be married at St. George’s. The reason is simply this: that St. George’s is, or till lately has been, the westernmost parish of London, the “ West End ” parish, that which is nearest the quarter known as Belgravia or May-Fair. Now an Englishwoman of position is married, as a rule, at her parish church; if from her father’s country-seat, at the little old stone building which has stood just outside the park perhaps fur centuries; if in London, at St. George’s, Hanover Square. The church is, however, not upon Hanover Square; not nearer it, indeed, than Grace Church is to Union Square, or than the “ Old South ” is to Boston Common. It has its designation, after the London fashion which I have mentioned before, because it is in the neighborhood of Hanover Square. The church itself is ugly enough, like most oE the London churches built in the last century; but it is somewhat imposing from its large portico, over which is a handsome pediment supported by six Corinthian pillars. Inside, however, it is mean and frivolous, almost vulgar. It is remarkable that this portico stands out over the pavement or sidewalk, the steps rising abruptly from the edge of the road, so that pedestrians walking upon that side of the street must go into the road, or mount the steps and pass within the pillars as if they were going to church. The effect is somewhat that of a huge ecclesiastical trap set to catch wayfaring sinners.
When I took these lodgings, I was struck with another manifestation of that confidence which I have already mentioned. One day, as I passed through the street, I stopped and looked at the rooms, attracted by a neat little card in the lower window, announcing that there were apartments to be let. Three days afterward I came unannounced in a cab with my luggage, and, finding that the rooms were still unlet, said that I would take them for an indefinite time between a fortnight and six weeks. I was made welcome, and my luggage was taken upstairs. I had not yet given even my name; but now I presented my card, the name on which I am sure my landlady had never seen before, and asked if I should pay a week in advance. The answer was, “ Oh, no, we don’t want that, sir.” Inquiries were then made as to how I would like to be taken care of, at what hour I should breakfast, and so forth. For the rooms I paid a guinea and a half a week, exclusive of fire and candles. For breakfast, and for luncheon when I chose to take it there, I was to pay just the cost of what was furnished to me. I found the bills for these “extras” very moderate; and from the time when this arrangement was made I never saw my landlady, or heard the sound of her voice, or knew of her existence, except by her bill, which appeared, with every item carefully priced, weekly upon my breakfast table. I was expected to pay for every article that I asked for, no matter how trifling. An extra candle appeared in the bill; and I remarked, when the arrangement as to my occupation of the rooms was making, that Mrs.
—said, “ As you won’t dine at ’ome, you say, there 'll be no charge for kitchen fire.” It seems that the cost of heat expended in making breakfast is counted in the room rent of London lodgings, but that for every dinner that may be served there is an extra charge for kitchen fire.
I paid also for the washing of my bedlinen, towels, and napkins. My own clothes were sent out for me, to the laundress, of whom I knew nothing but the wonderfully written bills on minute scraps of paper which came with the returned garments. The price of their lavation looked very small to me, as indeed it should have been if price bore any proportion to purification; for it seemed to me sometimes, when they came back, as if the smoke and dirt of London, which was upon them in streaks and patches when they were sent out, had been merely dissolved and diffused through them, and fixed in them by heat and starch. For once I sympathized heartily with that selfish snob, George Brummell, — the sufferance of whose impudent vulgarity by English gentlemen and gentlewomen was always a marvel to me,— in his insistence upon country washing. Was his charm a singularity in being clean in his person and neat in his dress? Country washing in England is as fine as can be; the clothes come to you as white as snow, and seeming to bring with them a suggestion of daisies and lavender. But London washing seems to be done in a dilution of grime; and how, indeed, could it be otherwise?
This homely subject leads me to remark upon the relief of the English housekeeper of middling rank from one great trial of her American sister in a corresponding condition of life. In no English household of a station above that in which washing is done as a means of livelihood is any washing done at all. The weekly wash which is the ever-recurring torment of most, American housekeepers is unknown in England. Everything is sent out to a laundress. I think that the effect of this is one element of the greater serenity and repose of English life. Nor would English kitchens — and I saw not a few, in full operation, in houses of all grades —admit of the laundry work that is carried on in so many American kitchens where there is no separate laundry. The English kitchen in the houses of men of moderate means — for example, professional men and merchants not wealthy — is not half so large as that in corresponding American houses. A set of standing - tubs would more than half fill it. And that Moloch of the American kitchen, the great mass of heated iron known as a range, is almost unknown in England. The fire-places are comparatively small; the fire is open, and although there is the hob and the hot closet and the boiler, the whole affair is much less formidable than our range, which looks like an ironclad gun-boat stranded upon the hearthstone.
I dined, when not at the house of a friend, at restaurants of various grades. Eating and drinking is such serious business in England, and is taken so much to heart by everybody, that one expects to find ample and worthy provision For it in the great capital. But although a stranger need not go hungry in London if he has money in his pocket, he is not sure of being able to breakfast, lunch, dine, or sup to his satisfaction, at short notice, if he is at all fastidious as to viands, cookery, or table service. There are eating-houses in great numbers and variety, at some of which yon may fare sumptuously, and at many of which excellent cold beef and hot, tender chops may be had, with good beer, and even good wine; but of restaurants at which you may order from a copious bill of fare to your liking, there are very few. I did not find one that would compare favorably with half a dozen that I could name in New York, or with Parker’s in Boston. At most of the London eatinghouses of the first class there is a set dinner at set hours, or rather two or three set dinners of different grades, which are served at corresponding prices. The courses, few or many, are placed before you in due order, and the cooking is tolerably good; but you cannot travel out of the record ; and as to coming in at your own hour and making up your own menu, the preparation of which begins while you are dallying with oysters and soup, that is almost out of the question. Of course, there is good reason for this; for it need hardly be said that London can and will have anything that it wants; and I find the reason in the habits of the people, who are prone to regularity of life, and as a rule have a liking for the simple and the solid, and are not inclined to be fanciful. Notwithstanding the introduction of French cookery and dinners aà la Russe among the luxurious classes, the average Englishman, even if he can afford to be fanciful and luxurious, has a liking for his joint, and is satisfied with that if it is well cooked, juicy and large enough. Lord Palmerston used to tell his butler, when people were coming to dinner, to get what he pleased for the rest, but to be sure to have a good joint of roast mutton and an apple-pie for him, — and “ Pam ” was a typical Englishman. Moreover, the Englishman generally likes to eat his dinner at home, even if he is living at lodgings; if not at home, at his club ; if neither at home nor at his club, then at some eating-house, where he goes regularly and takes the regular course of things, content if his dinner is plentiful, his wine sound and strong, and his cheese mild, but reserving the right to grumble, with good occasion or without. He is not inclined, like the Frenchman, to take his wife and children to a restaurant and make his dinner a work of art, more or less varied and rich in design and costliness, according to the condition of his purse or the festivousness of the occasion. Such, too, if I mistake not, were the habits and tastes of Yankees, until the Delmonicos introduced into New York, some thirty or forty years ago, I believe, the French restaurant system, which has gradually exercised a modifying in fluence upon habits of life in this respect throughout the country. It may be questioned whether, all circumstances and consequences being considered, this influence has been in every respect benign, even upon cookery.
The joint is still dominant upon the average English table. Its rule is visible, tangible, almost oppressive. It appears in various forms, even at breakfast. That greasy Juggernaut of many American breakfast tables, a hot beefsteak, or a beefsteak which is not hot, is almost unknown in England; at least, I had the pleasure of never seeing it, even at a hotel; but mighty cold sirloins, and legs of mutton, and hams, and birds in pies, and mysterious potted creatures weigh down the buffet at all the great hotels. Your eggs and bacon, your sole or your whiting, with your muffin kept hot by a bowl of hot water beneath the plate, are set before you upon your special table; but to yonder mountainous holocaust of cold heterogeneous flesh you may take your plate at pleasure, and carve for yourself, and cut and come again. In private houses the same arrangement obtains, but modified and gently tempered to more fastidious eyes and delicate appetites than are generally found in the coffee-room of a hotel. In the windows of the middling restaurants. soon after midday, placards begin to appear, announcing in large letters, “ A Hot Joint at 2 o’clock,” and a like announcement is repeated at intervals of an hour or thereabout. It seemed to me as if there was a degree of solemnity about this, and I am sure that the word joint in reference to the table is uttered with a notable unctuousness and emphasis by the average Englishman.
At a restaurant of high class just out of Regent Street, at which I dined twice, the worship of the joint was impressively brought home to me. The room was a handsome one, and the service rich, almost elegant; the diners seemed to be all of such a condition in life as one would expect to find in such a place. In due time I was asked whether I would have roast beef or roast mutton. I chose mutton, of course. Whereupon my waiter disappeared, and presently returned, slowly followed by a man clothed in a white garment and with a white cap upon his head. In one hand he bore a huge blade that looked like a sabre, in the other what seemed to be some pronged instrument of torture. Behind him came an assistant who pushed forward on rollers a small staging of dark wood, which was solemnly set before me. I looked in amazement, but not with apprehension ; for was I not in the land of Magna Charta, and trial by jury, and the Bill of Rights? It was in truth not a block, and the man in the white cap was not a headsman who had come to take my head, although upon the seeming block was a charger large enough to have held that of John the Baptist if he had been as big as Goliath of Gath. But it was already occupied by a huge roast saddle of mutton, and the man in white was only the carver. The blade gleamed in the air and descended upon the joint, and the only result of this solemnity was that there lay upon my plate a large slice of mutton so delicious that the eating of it marks an era in my gastronomic life. I shall date my dinners back and forth from the day when I ate that mutton.
In no other eating-house that I remember was there so formal and elaborate a cultus of the joint as this, which I found was peculiar to the house where I saw it. But in all others, and particularly in those of a somewhat lower grade, I observed that the joint was spoken of with a certain deference and unction, much as, for example, when it was said that Mr. Blank was particularly engaged; “ Lord Soaridso was with him.” The manager of the place where the joint was solemnly sacrificed to the god of Philistia had but finely apprehended and boldly conformed to the spirit of the public, one of whose priests he was. His carving performance was a little above and yet closely akin to that of the grill-rooms, the attraction of which is that your chop, or your kidney, or your steak, is broiled before your eves. You may pick out your chop, if you like to do so, see it put upon the gridiron, and stand by while it steams and smokes and hisses and sputters before you, and, hastening to your table, send it steaming, smoking, hissing, and sputtering down your throat. The smell of cooking is one of the sensuous miseries of life; and the sight of a gashed and dismembered joint, with its severed tendons and fibres, its gory gravy, and the sickening smell of its greasy vapor, is, it would seem, what any man not a Fijian of the old school would gladly avoid. But in England, eating, with us a necessity, with the French an art, is a religion, and the joint is, like some other fetiches, at once god and sacrifice. The devouring of hot, red, half-roasted flesh is high among the duties and the beatitudes.
I said that when asked to choose between beef and mutton of course I chose mutton, and that I was richly rewarded for my preference. Much as English mutton has been praised, not half enough, so far as I know, has been said of its excellence. As to the roast beef of Old England, it is good enough, but although I suppose that I had opportunities of eating the best that could be had, I found it no better in flavor or in fibre than that to which I had been accustomed. On the whole, I think that although we have nothing better, one is rather more sure of getting very good beef here than there. I found the beefsteaks decidedly inferior to ours. But with English mutton eaten in England there is none to be compared. Canada mutton, and even English eaten here, is inferior in every respect. I had such a distaste for mutton, particularly when roasted, that I had often said, to the discomfiture of the domestic powers, that I should be glad never to see it again upon the table; but in England I ate it always when I could obtain it. There it was mutton which was mutton, and yet was not muttony. For tenderness, juiciness, and flavor, it was beyond praise. It was merely to he eaten with thankfulness.
To return to my lodgings: for my comfort in them I was chiefly, and indeed it seemed almost entirely, dependent upon a maid-servant who took care of them and of me, and who was always ready when I touched my bell. Emma — for that was her name — was a typical specimen of her class. I have said that the prettiest women I saw in England were, with few exceptions, among the chamber-maids and the bar-maids; and Emma’s fine figure, bright eyes, and ever pleasant and respectful manner of course enhanced the agreeable effect of her careful and thoughtful service. They even caused me to be somewhat disturbed by the consciousness of the fact that she cleaned the shoes which she brought with my hot water in the morning. I did not quite like to feel that a woman, and a pretty young woman, performed that service for me.
The freedom, innocent and unconscious, of the English chamber-maid was also a surprise to me. When at the house of a friend, in one of the suburbs of London, just after my arrival, I was awakened by a slight tap at the door, and a rosy, blue-eyed, fair-haired young woman, of that type of English beauty which is not too often seen in England, walked into my bedroom with a can of hot water. I was startled, although I did not find the shock at all unpleasant. She set out my “ tub ” and my rough towels, and disappeared with a pleasant “ Good morning, sir.” One reason for this agreeable ceremony is that bath-rooms arc very rare in English houses; and in households in which men-servants are not kept, the maid-servants perform all such offices. For that a “gentleman ” should do anything for himself, even in the preparation for his own toilet, is not to be thought of, except in some great emergency.
The care with which one is looked after by these good creatures — and they seemed to me to be the perfection of good nature and of thoughtful kindliness, and made me wish that I had sovereigns to give them instead of shillings — was illustrated to me on my return to my lodgings from my first dining out. It was after midnight when I came in. In the passage below stood a lighted candle, and against it leaned something, I forget now what, which showed that it was meant for me. I found the door of my sitting-room wide open, with a chair set against it to keep it so; for, like all the other doors in my rooms, it was hung upon beveled hinges, which caused it to shut gently of itself. Upon the table directly in front of the door stood two candles unlit; between them were the letters and cards that had been left for me during the evening. The door between my sitting-room and bedroom was also wide open, and was stayed back, as also was that of my dressing-room. In both bedroom and dressing-room everything was prepared for my night toilet, even to the laying out of my night-shirt “ in a wow” upon the bed, like Dundreary’s dozen. This careful setting open of all the doors did indeed suggest to me a suspicion on Emma’s part of the condition in which I might possibly return from dinner; but that I readily forgave her for the forethought. Briefly, there was nothing that I could wish or reasonably expect to have done for my comfort that this good girl did not do for me, generally without my asking it. After I had been in my rooms a day or two, she seemed to understand me, and to know what I should like, and to set herself to making my stay as pleasant as possible. And like most of her class that I saw, she added to her ministrations the grace of cheerfulness, while at the same time, although she was not without the capacity of enjoying a little complimentary chaff, her manner was perfectly modest and proper, mingling respect for herself and for me with an ease of manner very uncommon in the Hibernian maid-servant of America.
She illustrated to me one day a superstition which had quite faded out of my memory. I had asked for a fire, which she laid and lit, but which, owing to some ill condition of the air, smoldered in blackness. I went into my bedroom for a minute, and, returning, found the open tongs laid over the top of the coals, and Emma standing over the grate watching it intently. “ What is that for?” I asked, pointing to the tongs. “To draw up the fire, thir,” replied the girl, who added a little lisp to the charm of her soft English voice; and then I remembered that I had read of this superstition, but I did not suppose that it still held its own in England, and that I should ever see it acted upon in simple good faith. But the blaze came up, and the girl lifted off the tongs with a little look of triumph at my face, which I suppose showed some of the amusement and the doubt I meant to conceal.
With all their respectfulness and deference, English servants and people in humble life indulge in a freedom of speech of which democracy has unfortunately deprived us. I made purchases from day to day; they were greater in number and in bulk than in value, and one day, being a little annoyed by the clutter which they made upon my table and sofa, when Emma brought in an addition to it which, had just come home, I cried out against them. “ And yet they keepth a-comin, thir,” said the girl, as she turned to go out. Another time, being very much vexed at a mistake that I had made, I exclaimed, “ I do sometimes think that I act like a born fool! ”
“ I thuppoth tho, thir,” demurely said Emma, who entered from my bedroom just as I spoke. I looked at her a moment, and we both laughed, — I heartily, she shyly and blushing. And yet in all this there was not the slightest lack of respect; she never forgot her place, and I could not but think in regard to her, as I thought in regard to others in like condition, how much better this freedom of intercourse was, how much more human, than an absolute interdiction of all communion between the server and the served, and how much it might do to smooth and sweeten life for both.
I was witness to a scene of freedom between the server and the served in which the conditions and the sexes were reversed. One morning I went to take an carly walk in Hyde Park. It was not later than nine o’clock, which for London, and particularly for that end of London, is very early. And indeed, as I walked at my will through path, or over lawn, beneath great trees, with that perfect freedom the consciousness, or rather the unconscious possession, of which adds so much to the charms of an English park, the rays of the sun slanting through a golden mist, the cool freshness of the turf, and a moisture yet upon the leaves made the landscape seem like one seen soon after dawn in an American summer. I had crossed the Serpentine, and was walking slowly along the footpath by the side of the road, when I saw coming towards me a young lady on horseback. She was riding alone, but at the usual distance behind her I saw her groom. Till then I had found the park as deserted as if it were midnight; and now I and the two distant riders were the only living things in sight; and sound there was none except a gentle murmur faintly coming from the town, as it slowly wakened into life. The riders walked their horses, and as we gradually approached each other I saw that my horsewoman was a large, fair girl, some twenty years of age. She rode a handsome bright bay, remarkably tall and powerful, as indeed the horse that carried her had need to be; for she herself was notably tall, and her figure was full to the utmost amplitude of outline consistent with beauty. Plainly neither she nor the groom saw me, and as I wished to have a good look at her without seeming rude, I withdrew myself into a position which enabled me to do so, as she passed within a few yards of rue. Her face was not beautiful, and pretty would have been too small a word to apply to it in any case, but she certainly was a fine, handsome girl; her face breathed health and sweetness and good nature; she was very fair, with glowing cheeks, and teeth that made me thank her for smiling as she passed. She wore a blue riding-habit that fitted very close, and of course a chimney-pot hat. As she drew near to me, I saw that the groom gradually shortened the distance between them, and spoke to her, he speaking first. She answered, and they began to talk, be bringing his horse step by step nearer hers. Looking at him attentively, I found him one of the handsomest men I had ever seen, He was tall, and strongly although sparely built, with fair skin, dark hair and whiskers, steel-gray eyes, and a firm yet persuasive-looking mouth. He was in complete groom’s costume, top-boots, livery - buttons, and striped waistcoat, but these did not seem able to subdue a certain distinction in his bearing. Perhaps, however, he was only a fine, handsome animal, and would have been vulgarized by being put into a dress-coat and a white neck-tie, — that crucial test of a man’s ability to look like a gentleman. Nearer and nearer he came to his young mistress, closer and closer his horse sidled up to hers, till when they had just passed me he was only about a head behind her, — just enough to say behind. He spoke earnestly now, leaning over toward her from his saddle; and she did not lean the other way, but turned her head slightly, and looked down with a sidelong glance upon the ground. I could hear her voice as well as his, and although I was not able to distinguish the words of either, and the sounds became fainter with the slow stepping of their horses, I felt somewhat ashamed of my position. And yet the place was public, and I had expected only to see an English lady ride past me. Gradually I lost the sound of their voices, but I still saw the groom leaning toward her and her head not turned away from him. At length it seemed as if their saddle-girths must touch, and I almost expected to see him put his arm around her, as she sat there, except for the blue woolen surface, Lady Godiva from the saddle up. But he was discreet, and merely held his place; the blue outlines of her noble figure became indistinct, the great gleaming knot of her golden hair waned and faded in the distance, and they rode out of my sight, leaving me to wonder what might come of all this.
Another of my early walks was to Covent Garden market, where I went soon after sunrise to see the early traffic. Covent Garden, with an adherence to the signification of its name, is a market for flowers and vegetables only. It is not much frequented by private purchasers, but is the place where dealers, green-grocers and coster-mongers, supply themselves. Half London gets its supply of garden stuff from Covent Garden. I found little peculiar in the place, except its size and the filling of this vast expanse with vegetable produce. I arrived in the height of the early business. All around the place were the little carts of the little dealers, waiting to be filled, or just filled and hurried off at that break-neck pace with which such people think it necessary to drive as well in London as in New York. Even the donkey-carts went off with rapidity. The number of these was amazing and amusing. I never saw so many donkeys on four legs before, nor shall I ever see so many again. There were ears enough there to have stretched in a straight line through London. The hurry and bustle was bewildering. Every dealer seemed to think that his fortune for the day depended upon his making his purchases and getting off with his load five minutes before bis neighbor. But in the midst of all, here and there auctions went on, — Dutch auctions, as they were called. For it has long been the strange custom to sell vegetables and flowers every morning by auction at Covent Garden; but the sale is called an auction because the offered price does not increase, but diminish. The things are put up at a certain price, which is gradually lowered by the crier, until they are taken at the rate named. When this so-called Dutch form of auction came in I did not learn. The vegetables were much what may be found in American markets, but seemed fresher, perhaps because I saw them earlier in the morning than it is my wont to see anything. I took note of no novelty except the vegetable marrow, that fruit of the soil which Mrs. Nickleby’s admirer cast at her feet. On eating this vegetable, I thought it most ill adapted to the expression of an ardent passion, in which it might yield to the pretensions of a pumpkin. It looks like a long, smooth squash, and, even when it passes through the hands of a skillful cook, it tastes like squash and water. The fruit at Covent Garden, some of it, was fine and fair to the eye; but in this respect I found in England much to be desired.
I shall not say with Hawthorne that I never tasted anything there that had half the flavor of a New England turnip; but, excepting grapes, I found the taste even of wall fruit and hot-house fruit comparatively tame. Apples were small and tough; pears, mostly from France, were better, but still inferior; peaches were often fair to the eye, yet at best rather greenish in tint, but within always an almost tasteless, watery pulp. Indeed, the climate of England is not well adapted to the growth either of fruit or of grain. For both there seems to be required a drier and longer continued heat than her skies afford. The hothouse-supplies this in part for fruit, but only in part, except, I am told, as to the strawberry; but that I did not eat; it was not in season. The melons, even those which came from Spain, were poor, flashy things, far past the help even of pepper and salt. Yet it is poor melon the flavor of which is not spoiled by condiments. As to grain, it remains to be proved, and will probably erelong be tested, whether England might not better abandon its culture, and depend, for wheat at least, upon other countries. To this end come the corn laws.
It is not very far from Covent Garden to Seven Dials. This place is so called
from the fact that by the meeting of seven streets seven corners are formed, at each of which there was once, it is said, a dial. This place has a reputation like that of Five Points in New York; and it is remarkable that the meeting of many streets should in both cities have been followed by a degradation of the neighborhood. But Seven Dials, although I found that it richly deserved the ill odor in which it stands, is not, as Five Points is, or was, the lowest and most wretched part of the town. There are neighborhoods in London which are to Seven Dials as Seven Dials is to May-Fair. These are regions which stretch away to the east and north from the city proper. They are a city in themselves. The formation of a nest, of slums one can understand; but it was inconceivable to me how this vast area of wretchedness and vice, and of moral and physical filth and gloom, could have been formed in a civilized country. I went into the innermost recesses of it, into quarters which I found few London men knew of, and where I was warned by those who did know them not to go, for the danger of it. But although remarked and gazed at, I was not molested ; and although I had nothing with me for self-protection but an umbrella, I came out unharmed. Indeed, I have found that a man may go almost anywhere and among almost any people, if he will only behave to them as if he neither fears nor hates them; and the only way of doing that is neither to fear nor to hate. I found here nothing to provoke hate, nothing ludicrous, nothing amusing. The sadness of it weighed heavily upon my spirit. The houses were high and without any character whatever; plain brick walls, lead-colored for the most part, and pierced with modern windows. Indeed, all this part of London is quite modern. In one little court, however, that I penetrated running out of Whitecross Street, (a street named twice by Defoe in his History of the Plague in London, once as the street in which a shop-keeper lived who was summoned to the closed door of his deserted shop to pay money, and who, with death in his face, told the messenger to stop at Cripplegate church and bid them ring the passing bell for him, and died that day; next as the scene of the burning to death of a plaguestricken citizen in his bed, and, as it was supposed, by his own hand), I found a remnant of the old city, a relic of the great fire which so closely followed the great plague more than two hundred years ago. It was the rounded corner of an old peaked-roof stone or plaster house, only two stories high, which had escaped the burning, and although not more than about twenty feet square of it had been left, this had characteristically been preserved, and was built into the modern building. From the quaint windows of this ancient habitation two girls, not more than twelve or thirteen years old, but with pallid faces and a hideous leer, began to chaff me as I stood in the little court. I felt that to be the most dangerous place that I had ever been in, although I had walked under the walls in Havana more than twenty years ago; and I turned away and got out of it as soon as possible, but went leisurely, and nodded good-by to the girls.
And in these streets there were shops, although of what forlornness of aspect who can tell! But they told that even these people buy and sell and get gain, and live upon each other. It would seem that they must live altogether by thieving and burglary. One business was a strange one to me. Cooked food was sold at stands, at not very remote distances from each other. A board or two was stretched across two trestles or two barrels, and on this were a few potatoes, bits of bacon, and other viands. I saw no one eating, at which I did not wonder. There might have been much of interest to be learned from the people in these houses, but upon that I could hardly venture; externally, they but oppressed me by the seemingly endless sameness of their dull and formless misery.
The mention of the great fire reminds me that one day I passed the place where it was stayed. This is Pye Corner, and the fact is recorded in a little inscription on one of the houses. It had an interest to me beyond that of the event thus announced; for Pye Corner is the place where Mrs. Quickly tells us that Falstaff came continuantly to buy a saddle. Most unexpectedly I came upon this memorial of the old London of Elizabeth’s and Henry V.’s days; and I confess that by the help of Mrs. Quickly I felt myself nearer to Shakespeare there than when I stood in his father’s cottage in Stratford, or looked upon his signature in the British Museum.
The scene of Falstaff’s continuant shopping for a saddle is also celebrated by Defoe, who tells us, in his History of the Devil, that the fact that Satan had a cloven foot is certified by “that learned familiarist Mother Hazel, whose writings are to be found at the famous library at Pye Corner.” Did the circulating library spring up at Pye Corner to flower into Mudie ?
What proportion of intelligent Londoners know that there is such a place as Pye Corner, and such a street as Whitecross Street, I shall not undertake to say; but I think that the number must be very, very small. And apart from the general ignorance about places ot interest, but not of celebrity, which is not peculiar to Londoners, I was much impressed by the Englishman’s ignorance of everything that did not concern him, if it were a little out of his daily beat, even if it were daily before his eyes. I was walking, one day, with an elderly London friend through precincts where he told me he had passed his boyhood and his youth. Going from one charmingly secret and mysterious court to another, as much in private, it would seem, as if we were going through a succession of back yards, I saw just on one hand a great gate-way with square posts surmounted with balls; it must have been twelve feet high. I asked my friend what it was. He hesitated a moment, and then said, smiling, “ Indeed, I don’t know. Strange to say, although I ’ve seen it all my life, I never did know.” Just then another elderly gentleman came out of some hidden by-way to worm himself into another, and my friend exclaimed, “ Oh, here’s A—! He ’ll tell ns; he s lived near here all his life.” But A— knew no more about the gate-way than my friend did himself, and they were not such Philistines but that they laughed at each other for their common ignorance.
Not only did I find this sort of ignorance, but actual ignorance of their own neighborhoods, of the principal streets, great thoroughfares, and public places. The very cabmen were not to be trusted; and I had to set one right when I had been in London only a fortnight. I found that it was much better to trust to my own general knowledge, and to my feeling for form and distance, than to ask direction from any one but a policeman. They were always right, always attentive, always civil. Before I left London I came to look upon every policeman that I met as a personal friend.
I was lost but once, and that was after midnight, and because, instead of trusting to my own instincts, I was misled and misdirected. I was on my way home from dinner at a suburban house (it was the occasion when Emma set all the doors open for me), and found myself set down, or turned out, at the Victoria Station about twelve o’clock. I had been there only once before, but I wanted the walk home; and, confident in my ability to go back over any road by which I had passed one way, I called no cab, and set out to walk to my lodgings by way of St. James’s Park, St. James’s Street, and Regent Street. To my surprise, as I was turning into the street leading, as I thought, to Buckingham Palace Road, I saw all the cabs going my way turn off at another street. I waited a few moments, and, seeing that they all went that way, I inferred that I had at last gone wrong, and I followed the lead of the cabs. I had not gone a hundred yards before I thought that I must be astray. That was not the street I had come through before; everything was strange to me. But I reflected that the night was very dark, and I kept on for a while, the impression of strangeness and of lengthening distance still increasing on me. The cabs were out of sight and out of hearing long ago. Just as I was about stopping to reconsider my ways, I saw a young man— a gentleman he seemed — come out of a house just ahead of me. When we met I asked him if this was the way to St. James’s Park. “ Oh, yes,” he kindly replied, “quite so, quite so. You ’ll keep on for about off a mile, and then go straight through it.” The distance, half a mile in addition to what I had walked, struck me as too great, and I asked if he was sure, and mentioned again that it was St. James’s Park I wanted. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “quite sure, quite so, quite so.” I thanked him, and walked on. But at every step I was more and more impressed by the feeling that I had not been driven through that street on my way to the station, and after walking full “off a mile” I saw no sign of the park, or of anything of its surroundings. I did, however, see a policeman, and glad I was of the sight. To my inquiry how far it was to St. James’s Park, he replied, “ Why, bless your art, sir, I dun know ow far it may be the way you ’re goin’. You ’re a-walkin’ halmost right away from it. You must turn back for near a mile,” etc. In a word, I was to go back to where I had first turned off. I started, but before I got there along came a belated cab, which, thinking I had had walk enough for that night, I hailed and took. It was well that I did so. My cabman astonished me by the route he took; so much so that I turned and called to him, “Maddox Street, Maddox Street!” “ All right, sir,” he answered, and on he drove, up and down, through ways unknown to me, At last I recognized my street through the darkness, and was set down at my own door. “ Why did n’t you come by Buckingham Palace Road?” I asked. “It’s much shorter.” “ I knows it, sir. Hof course. But the pok was shut up this afternoon, sir; mendin’ the road, sir.” And this was the reason that the cabs had turned off into another street, to my misleading.
Another little experience of this kind amused me and made me wonder. A gentleman had asked me to his house on Sunday morning. He lived in Knightsbridge, and was an author of high repute,—a very distinguished author. I had never been to Knightsbridge; did not even know where it was; but I found out that it was to be reached through Piccadilly, and I set out to walk there. I had come, I was sure, pretty near to the place, and I thought that I would ask to be directed to this gentleman’s house; less that I felt in need of direction, than for the sake of trying an experiment; for the ignorance of these London people about London had become a matter of observation to me, and of amusement. I looked about and saw a gentleman descending the steps of a very handsome house near Albert Gate, Hyde Park. I went to him and asked if he could tell me where my friend lived, mentioning the celebrated name, of course, and adding that I was sure it was very near there. The gentleman was not only polite, but kind, as I always found people in England; but he hemmed and hawed, and said he ought to know, yet at last was obliged to confess that he did n’t. “ But come,” he said, “we’ll find somebody to tell you. Here ’s a crossing-sweeper; he ’ll be sure to know, if it’s near by.” But the old sweeper was as ignorant as the gentleman, and touched his hat and looked at us with a lack-lustre eye. I had a delightful inward smile, said good morning, and in less than three minutes I was at Charles Reade’s door, which was not much more than a hundred yards off, and in five minutes more I was sitting with him in a pleasant parlor (not a drawing-room) before a sea-coal fire, talking fiddle, — a subject which he understands better and warms up about more than any other except one; and what that is no woman need be told who has read his novels, from Peg Woffington down to The Cloister and the Hearth, and onward through the brilliant list. I wish to write of things, not persons, but I may say that I found Charles Reade far more attractive than authors generally are. He is tall, distinguished in person and in manner, yet easy and simple in speech and bearing, with no more vanity than he has the right to have (and this I mention only because he is credited with more) ; and as to his companionableness, I only wished for greater opportunity of testing it. I did not tell him that his near neighbors did not know where he lived; but I wish that I had done so, for the sake of the hearty laugh that we should have had together.
Richard Grant White.