AN old acquaintance of mine, who has gone away into the dark with all his mirthful sayings, once described an English servant as “ the valet of the Shadow of Death.” The not was said not to be original with my friend, but I have heard so many brilliant things from those same lips that I do not care to go further in search of an owner for what is sufficiently characteristic of him to be his. Whoever first said it gave us in a single phrase the most perfect croquis that ever was made of the English serving-man. We all know him in the English novel of the period, and some of us know him in the flesh. I chance myself to be familiar with a mild form of him. I speak of him as if he were a disease : in his most aggravated type I should say he might be considered as an affliction. Thackeray — the satirist and biographer, the Pope and Plutarch, of Jeemes — frankly admitted he was afraid of the creature. That kindly keen blue eye, which saw through the shams and follies of Mayfair, was wont to droop under the stony stare of his host’s butler. I hasten to confess to only a limited personal knowledge of the august being in plush small-clothes and pink silk stockings who presides over the grand houses in England, for I carried my pilgrim’s wallet into few grand houses there; but I have had more or less to do with certain humble brothers of his, who are leading lives of highly respectable gloom in sundry English taverns and hotels.
It is one of these less dazzling brothers who furnishes me with the motif of this brief study. More fortunate than that Roman emperor who vainly longed to have all his enemies consolidated into a single neck, I have secured in a person named Smith the epitome of an entire class, — not, indeed, with the cruel intent of dispatching him, but of photographing him. I should decline to take Smith’s head by any less gentle method.
In London there is a kind of hotel of which we have no counterpart in the United States. This hotel is usually located in some semi-aristocratic side street, and wears no badge of its servitude beyond a large, well-kept brass door-plate, bearing the legend “ Jones’s Hotel ” or “ Brown’s Hotel,” as the case may be ; but be it Brown or Jones, he has been dead at least fifty years, and the establishment is conducted by Robinson. There is no coffee-room or public dining-room, or even office, in this hotel ; the commercial traveler is an unknown quantity there ; your meals are served in your apartments ; the furniture is solid and comfortable, the attendance admirable, the cuisine unexceptionable, and the bill abominable. But for ease, quietness, and a sort of 1812 odor of respectability, this hotel has nothing to compare with it in the wide world. It is here that the intermittent homesickness you contracted on the Continent will be lifted out of your bosom ; it is here will be unfolded to you alluring vistas of the substantial comforts that surround the private lives of prosperous Britons ; it is here, above all, that you will be brought in contact with Smith.
It was on our arrival in London, one April afternoon, that the door of what looked like a private mansion, in D—— Street, was thrown open to us by a boy broken out all over with buttons. Behind this boy stood Smith. I call him simply Smith for two reasons : in the first place because it is convenient to do so, and in the second place because that is what he called himself. I wish it were as facile a matter to explain how this seemingly unobtrusive person instantly took possession of us, bullied us with his usefulness, and knocked us down with his urbanity. From the moment he stepped forward to relieve us of our hand-luggage, we were his, — and remained his until that other moment, some weeks later, when he handed us our parcels again, and stood statuesque on the door-step, with one finger lifted to his forehead in decorous salute, as we drove away. Ah, what soft despotism was that which was exercised for no other end than to anticipate our requirements, — to invent new wants for us only to satisfy them ! If I anywhere speak lightly of Smith, if I take exception to his preternatural gravity (of which I would not have him moult a feather), if I allude invidiously to his life-long struggle with certain rebellious letters of the alphabet, it is out of sheer envy and regret that we have nothing like him in America. We have Niagara, and the Yosemite, and Edison’s Electric Light (or shall have it, when we get it), but we have no trained serving-men like Smith. He is the result of older and vastly more complex social conditions than ours. His training began in the feudal ages. An atmosphere charged with machicolated battlements and cathedral spires was necessary his perfect development,— that, and generation after generation of lords and princes and wealthy country-gentlemen for him to practice on. He is not possible in New England. The very cut of his features is unknown among us. It has been remarked that each trade and profession has its physiognomy, its own proper face. If you look closely you will detect a family likeness running through the portraits of Garrick and Kean and Booth and Irving. There’s the self-same sabre-like flash in the eye of Marlborough and Bonaparte,— the same resolute labial expression. Every lackey in London might be the son or brother of any other lackey. Smith’s father, and his father’s father, and so on back to the gray dawn of England, were serving-men, and each in turn has been stamped with the immutable trade-mark of his class. Waiters (like poets) are born, not made; and they have not had time to be born in America.
As a shell that has the care of inclosing a pearl like Smith, Jones’s Hotel demands a word or two of more particular description. The narrow little street in which it is situated branches off from a turbulent thoroughfare, and is quite packed with historical, social, and literary traditions. Here at the close of his days, dwelt the learned and sweetminded philosopher, John Evelyn, the contemporary and friend of everybody’s friend, Mr. Samuel Pepys, of the admiralty. I like to think of Evelyn turning out of busy Piccadilly into this more quiet precinct, accompanied, perhaps, by the obsequious Samuel himself. According to Jesse, the witty Dr. Arbuthnot also resided here, after the death of his royal patroness, Queen Anne, had driven him from his snug quarters in St. James’s Palace. Hither came Pope, Swift, Gray, Parnell, Prior, and a flock of other singing-birds and brilliant wits to visit the worthy doctor. As I sit of an evening in our parlor, which is on a level with the sidewalk, the ghostly echo of those long-silent footfalls is more distinct to my ear than the tread of the living passersby. The earthly abiding places of obsolete notabilities are very thick in this neighborhood. A few minutes’ walk takes you to the ugly walled mansion that once held the beauty, but could not hold all the radiance, of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, and a little further on is Apsley House.
But we need not wander. D — Street still has high pretensions of its own. I take it that several families whose consequence is to be found in Debrett’s Peerage have their town-houses here. Over the sculptured door-way of a sombre edifice which sets somewhat back behind a towering iron grille with gilded spear-heads, I have noticed a recently hung hatchment, — an intimation that death is no respecter of English nobility. At the curb-stone of a spacious, much - curtained mansion directly opposite the hotel, there is a constant arrival and departure of landaus and broughams, with armorial blazons and powdered footmen. From these carriages descend bewitching slips of English maidenhood with peach-bloom complexions, and richly - dressed, portly dowagers shod with perfectly flat-soled shoes. But I confess that the periodical rattling by of a little glazed cart lettered “ Scarlet the Butcher ” interests me more ; for no mortal reason, I suppose, except that Scarlet seems a phenomenally appropriate name for a gentleman in his line of business.
I am afraid my description of Jones’s Hotel is very like one of those old Spanish comedies,
As Lope says, the history of the world
Brought down from Genesis to the Day of Judgment. ”
The building itself, arguing from the thickness of the walls and the antiquated style of the interior wood-work, must have stood its ground a great many years. I do not know how long it has been a hotel; perhaps for the better part of a century. In the first instance it was doubtless the home of some titled family. I indulge the fancy that there was a lot of lovely, high-bred daughters, who drew gay company here. The large, lofty-studded rooms were meant for an opulent, hospitable kind of life to inhabit them. Opening on the wide hall — where Buttons is always sitting, a perfect young Cerberus, waiting for the door-bell to ring — is a small dressingcabinet, in which, I make no question, his lordship has many a time sworn like a pirate over the extravagance of the girls. I know he has discharged the butler there. A fitful, evasive odor, as of faded rose-leaves in a forgotten drawer, seems to linger in these chambers, and I think there are hints in the air of oldtime laughter and of sobs that have long since hushed themselves into silence. The parlor is full of suggestions to me, especially at twilight, before the candles are brought in. Sometimes I can almost hear a muffled, agitated voice murmuring out of the Past, “ Leave me, Bellamore ! ” and I have an impression that he did n’t leave her. How could he, with those neat diamond buckles glistening at her instep, and her pretty brown hair frosted with silver powder, and that distracting dot of court-plaster stuck near the left corner of her rosy mouth! The old walls are very discreet, not to say incommunicative, on this subject; it is not for them to betray the joys and sorrows and sins of yesterday, and I have to evolve these matters out of my own synthetic imagination. But I am certain that Bellamore did n’t leave her !
Overhead there are suites of apartments identical with our own, and I believe they are occupied — by seriousminded families of phantoms ; they come and go so softly. There is no loud talking on the staircase, no slamming of doors, no levity of any description among the inmates of this hostelry. Whoever comes here finds his nature subdued to the color of his surroundings, like the dyer’s hand. The wildest guest shortly succumbs to the soothing influence of Smith. He pervades the place like an atmosphere, and fits it so perfectly that, without jarring on the present, he seems a figure projected out of that dusky past which has lured me too long, and will catch me again before we get through.
Smith is a man of about forty, but so unassuming that I do not think he would assume to be so old or so young as that: tall and straight, with scant, faded brown hair parted in the middle, and a deferential cough ; clammy blue eyes, thin lips, a sedentary complexion, and careful side - whiskers. He is always in evening dress, and wears white cotton gloves, which set your teeth on edge, during dinner service. He is a person whose gravity of deportment is such as to lend seriousness to the coal-scuttle when he replenishes the parlor fire, — a ceremony which the English April makes imperative, the English April being as raw as an American February.
Smith’s respect for you, at least its outward manifestation, is accompanied by a deep, unexpressed respect for himself. He not only knows his own place, but he knows yours, and holds you to it. He is incapable of venturing on a familiarity, or of submitting to one. He can wrap up more pitying disapprobation in a scarcely perceptible curl of his nether lip than another man could express in a torrent of words. I have gone about London a whole forenoon with one of Smith’s thin smiles clinging like a blister to my consciousness. He is not taciturn, but he gives you the impression of unconquerable reserve. Though he seldom speaks, except to answer an inquiry, he has managed in some occult fashion to permeate us with a knowledge of his domestic environment. For the soul of me, I cannot say how I came by the information that Smith married Lady Hadelaide Scarborough’s first maid twelve years ago, nor in what manner I got hold of the idea that Lady Hadelaide Scarborough’s first maid rather stooped from her social status when she formed a matrimonial alliance with him. Yet these facts are undeniably in my possession. I also understand that Smith regards Mrs. Smith — who quitted service at the time of this mésalliance — as a sort of fragment (a little finger-joint, if that will help convey my meaning) of Lady Hadelaide herself. There’s an air of very good society about Smith. He evidently has connecting tendrils with beings who, if they are not roses themselves, have the privilege of constituting the dust at the roses’ feet. If Smith were to make any statement to me concerning the movements of Royalty, I should believe him. If he were to confide to me that Her Majesty, accompanied by the Princess Beatrice, walked for a few seconds yesterday afternoon on the terrace at Windsor, I should know it was so, even if I failed to see the event recorded in The Times.
Smith has been very near to Royalty. To be sure, it was fallen royalty, so I shall waste no capital letters on it. It fell at Sedan, and picked itself up in a manner, and came over to London, where Smith had the bliss of waiting upon it. “ The Hemperor was a very civil-spoken gentleman,” observed Smith, detailing the circumstances with an air of respectful patronage, and showing that he had a nice sense of the difference between an English sovereign and an uncurrent Napoleon.
The plain truth is that Smith is an arrant gossip about himself without in the least having the appearance of it. He so ingeniously embroiders bits of his autobiography on alien textures that one is apt to get a detail or two quite unawares. I do not know how or when six little Smiths glided into my intelligence (they cost me a shilling a head), but I think it was in connection with an inquiry on my part as to what hour the morning train left Paddington Station for Stratford-upon-Avon. Two nights out of the week Smith retires to his domestic domicile; situated, I infer, in some remote suburb of London, for he always takes a bag with him,—a respectable, drab-colored hand-bag, with a monogram on it. At a little distance the twisted initials, in raised worsted, resemble a reduced copy of the Laocoön, the prominent serpentine S having, I suspect, no small share in producing that effect. I somehow pose and mix up the six little Smiths in this monogram.
I have said that Smith took possession of our party immediately on its arrival at Jones’s Hotel, but we were not at once conscious of the fact. We had arrived there in high spirits, glad to have left a tedious sea-voyage behind us, and rejoiced to find ourselves in London, — the London we had dreamed of these ten or twenty years. But presently we felt there was something in the temperature that chilled our vivacity. We were a thousand miles from suspecting what it was. Our purpose in London was to see the sights, to visit all those historic buildings and monuments and galleries which were wrested from us by the war of 1776. Our wanderings through the day were often long and always fatiguing; we returned jaded to the hotel, frequently after the dinner hour, and in no mood to undertake radical changes in our costume. There stood Smith in his crisp neck-tie and claw-hammer coat and immaculate gloves. The dinner was elegant in its appointments, and exquisitely served. The dressing of the salad was rivaled only by the dressing of Smith. Yet something was wrong. We were somehow repressed, and for three days we did not know what it was that repressed us. On the fourth day I resolved to give our party a little surprise by appearing at dinner in conventional broadcloth and white breastplate. Each of the other two members of the coterie — insensibly under the magnetism of Smith — had planned a like surprise. When we met at table and surveyed each other, we laughed aloud, — for the first time in three days in Smith’s presence. It was plain to see that Smith approved of an elaborate dinner toilette, and henceforth we adopted it.
Presently we were struck, and then began to be appalled, by the accuracy, minuteness, and comprehensiveness of Smith’s knowledge of London. It was encyclopedic. He was a vitalized timetable of railways and coaches and steamboats, a walking, breathing directory to all the shops, parks, churches, museums, and theatres of the bewildering capital. He had stamped on his brain a map of all the tangled omnibus routes ; he knew the best seats in every place of amusement, the exact moment the performance began in each, and could put his finger without hesitating a second on the very virtuoso’s collection you wanted to examine. This is not the half of his accomplishments. I despair of stating them. I do not see how he ever had the leisure to collect such a mass of detail. It seems to substantiate a theory I have that Smith has existed, with periodic renewals of his superficial structure, from the time of the Norman Conquest. Before we discovered his almost wicked amplitude of information, we used to consult him touching intended pilgrimages, but shortly gave it up, finding that our provincial plans generally fell cold upon him. He was almost amused, one day, at our desire to ascertain the whereabouts of that insignificant house in Cheapside — it is No. 17, if I remember — in which Keats wrote his sonnet on Chapman’s Homer. Our New World curiosity as to certain localities which possess no interest whatever to the Londoner must often have struck Smith as puerile. His protest or his disapproval — I do not know how to name it — was always so delicate and shadowy that he cannot be said to have expressed it; it was something in his manner, and not in his words, — something as vague as a fleeting breath on a window-glass; but it dampened us.
There is a singular puissance in a grave, chilling demeanor, though it may be backed by no solid quality whatever. Nothing so imposes on the world. I have known persons to attain very high social and public distinction by no other means than a guarded solemnity of manner. Even when we see through its shallowness, we are still impressed by it, just as children are paralyzed by a sheeted comrade, though they know all the while it is only one of themselves playing ghost.
I suppose it was in the course of nature that we should have fallen under the domination of Smith, and have come to accept him with a degree of seriousness which seems rather abject to me in retrospect. Without acknowledging it to ourselves, we were affected by his intangible criticism. I would not have had it come to his ears for a five-pound note that I had a habit of eating a chop in a certain snuffy old coffee-house near Temple Bar, whenever lunch-time chanced to catch me in that vicinity.
“O plump head-waiter at The Cock,”
to which I most resorted, I should have been ashamed to have Smith know that I had the slightest acquaintance with you, though Tennyson himself has sung your praises! Nor would I have had Smith get wind of the low-bred excursion I made, one day, up the Thames, in a squalid steamer crowded with grimy workingmen and their frouzy wives and children. I hid in my heart the guilty joy I took in two damaged musicians aboard, — a violin and a flageolet. The flageolet — I am speaking of the performer — had such a delightfully disreputable patch over his right eye ! By the way, I wonder why it is that vagrant players of wind-instruments in England usually have a patch over one eye. Are they combative as a class, or is it that they now and then blow out a visual organ with too assiduous practice in early youth ? The violin-man, on the other hand,—perhaps I ought to say on the other leg, —was lame. Altogether the pair looked like the remains of a band that had been blown up by a steamboiler explosion on some previous trip on the river. They played a very doleful tune ; full of unaccountable gruffnesses and shrillnesses, which it was my mood to accept as the ghostly replication of the cries and complaints of their late comrades on the occasion suggested. There was a rough crowd on board, with a sprinkling of small shop-keepers, and here and there a group of gaudily-dressed young women, not to be set down in the category of doubtful characters. These people were off on a holiday, and it was curious to observe the heavy, brutal way they took their pleasure, turning it into a hardship. I got a near view of a phase of English life not to be met with in the rarefied atmosphere of D—— Street, and I regret to admit that I have many a time enjoyed myself less in better company. When I returned to the hotel that night, Smith stood rebukefully drying The Pall Mall Gazette for me before the parlor fire.
A year or two of Smith would make it difficult for a man to dispense with him. With Smith for a valet, one would have no distinct wants to perplex one, for Smith’s intuition would head them off and supply them before they were formulated. He was, as I have more than hinted, an invaluable servant. Sometimes, as I looked at him, and reflected on his unmurmuring acceptance of a life of servitude, and the kind of sober grace he threw about its indignity, I used to call to mind that disgruntled, truculent waiter described by John Hay in his charming Castilian Days. “ I know a gentleman in the West,” says Mr. Hay, “ whose circumstances had forced him to become a waiter in a backwoods restaurant. He bore a deadly grudge at the profession that kept him from starving, and asserted his unconquered nobility of soul by scowling at his customers and swearing at the viands he dispensed. I remember the deep sense of wrong with which he would growl, ‘ Two buckwheats, be gawd ! ’ ”
As to Smith’s chronic gloom, it really had nothing of moroseness in it, — only an habitual melancholy, a crystallized patience. We doubtless put it to some crucial tests with our American ideas and idioms. The earlier part of our acquaintanceship was fraught with mutual perplexities. It was the longest time before we discovered that ay ill meant Hay Hill Street, Smith making a single mouthful of it, thus, — ayill. One morning he staggered us by asking if we would like “ a hapricot freeze ” for dessert. We assented, and would have assented if he had proposed iced hippopotamus; but the nature of the dish was a mystery to us, and perhaps never, since the world took shape out of chaos, was there simple mould of apricot jelly looked forward to in such poignant suspense. It is scarcely permissible in so light a paper as this to touch on anything so heavy as philology ; but I cannot forbear wondering what malign spirit has bewitched the vowels of the lower-class Englishman. When he finds it impossible to elide the vowel at the beginning of a word, he invariably covers it with an h, — the very letter that plays the deuce with him under ordinary circumstances. An Oxford scholar once informed me that this peculiarity was the result of imperfect education, and left me to settle it for myself why the peculiarity was confined to England. Illiterate Americans—if there are any — do not drop their h’s. But as I have said, this is too heavy a text.
It seems almost an Irish bull to say that one can be in London only once for the first time. In other places you may renew first impressions. A city on the Continent always remains a foreign city to you, no matter how often you visit it; but that first time in London is an experience which can never be made to repeat itself. Whatever is alien to you fades away under your earliest glances ; the place suddenly takes home-like aspects; certain streets and courts where you never set foot before strike you familiarly. It is a place where you might have lived, —this great seething metropolis, — where perhaps you once did live, in hose and doublet or knightly harness, in some immemorial century. I doubt if an American ever visited England without feeling in his bosom the vibration, more or less distinct, of these invisible threads of attachment. Everywhere in the lucid prose of Hawthorne’s English Note-Books and Our Old Home this sentiment lies imbedded, like a spray of fossilized fern.
The architecture, the language, and the customs are yours, or must have been yours long ago. Smith himself dawns upon you as a former acquaintance. Possibly he was one of your retainers in the time of Henry VIII. (You like to picture yourself with retainers ; for to be an Englishman, and not be a duke or an earl, is to miss four fifths of the good luck.) Your imagination gives you a long lease of existence when you fall into reveries of this nature; you fancy yourself extant at various interesting periods of English history ; it costs you no effort, while you are about it, to have a hand in a dozen different reigns. What a picturesque, highly decorative, household-art sort of life you may lead from the era of the Black Prince down to the Victorian age ! How lightly you assume the responsibility of prolonging Smith through all this ! He holds the bridle of an extra horse for you at Poitiers, and also at that other bloody field of Agincourt; and then, somewhat later, sits on the box of your glass coach (which Mr. Samuel Pepys, surveying it from his chamber window, pronounces “mightily fine”), as you drive through the shrewish winter morning to the Palace of Whitehall to witness the removal of Charles the First’s head. It is easy to shape any kind of chimera out of that yellowish London fog. Immediately after this epoch, however, your impressions of having been personally associated with the events of English history become dimmer, if not altogether confused ; possibly your spirit was about that time undergoing certain organic changes, necessary to the metempsychosis which befell you later.
You break from your abstraction to the consciousness that you are a stranger in your native land. The geniusloci does not recognize you ; you are an altered man. You are an American. Yet a little while ago the past of England was as much your past as it is Smith’s, or that of any Briton of them all. But you have altered, and forfeited it. Smith has not altered: he is the same tall, efficient serving-man he was in the time of the Plantagenets. He has that air of having been carefully handed down which stamps so many things in England. (If this has been said before, I beg somebody’s pardon ; I am treading on much-walked-over ground.) There, indeed, Nature seems careful of the type. The wretched woman who murders Kathleen Mavourneen in the street under your window shares this quality of permanency with Smith. She, or one precisely like her, has been singing ballads for ages, and will go on doing it. Endless generations of American tourists, lodging temporarily at Jones’s perpetual Hotel, will give her inexhaustible shillings, and Smith will carry them out to her on his indestructible waiter. The individual Smith may occasionally die, but not the type, not the essence. My mind can take in Macaulay’s picture of the New Zealander sitting on a broken buttress of London Bridge, aud cynically contemplating the débris, — “a landscape with figure,” as the catalogues would put it, — but I am unable to grasp the idea of the annihilation of anything so firmly established by precedent as Smith. I fancy that even out of the splintered masonry his respectful, well-modulated chest voice would be heard saying (through sheer force of habit), “ Will you ’ave a look at the hevening paper, sir ? ” or, “ If you please, sir, the ’ausom is at the door ! ”
Thomas Bailey Aldrich.