Our Hundred Days in Europe
WE found our old quarters all ready and awaiting us. Mrs. Mackellar’s motherly smile, Sam’s civil bow, and the rosy cheeks of many-buttoned Robert made us feel at home as soon as we crossed the threshold.
The dissolution of Parliament had brought “ the season ” abruptly to an end. London was empty. There were three or four millions of people in it, but the great houses were for the most part left without occupants except their liveried guardians. We kept as quiet as possible, to avoid all engagements. For now we were in London for London itself, to do shopping, to see sights, to be our own master and mistress, and to live as independent a life as we possibly could.
The first thing we did on the day of our arrival was to take a hansom and drive over to Chelsea, to look at the place where Carlyle passed the larger part of his life. The whole region about him must have been greatly changed during his residence there, for the Thames Embankment was constructed long after he removed to Chelsea. We had some little difficulty in finding the place we were in search of. Cheyne (pronounced “ Chainie ”) Walk is a somewhat extended range of buildings.
Cheyne Row is a passage which reminded me a little of my old habitat, Montgomery Place, now Bosworth Street. Presently our attention was drawn to a marble medallion portrait on the corner building of an ordinary-looking row of houses. This was the head of Carlyle, and an inscription informed us that he lived for forty-seven years in the house No. 24 of this row of buildings. Since Carlyle’s home life has been made public, he has appeared to us in a different aspect from the ideal one which he had before occupied. He did not show to as much advantage under the Boswellizing process as the dogmatist of the last century, dear old Dr. Johnson. But he remains not the less one of the really interesting men of his generation, — a man about whom we wish to know all that we have a right to know. The sight of an old nest over which two or three winters have passed is a rather saddening one. The dingy three-story brick house in which Carlyle lived, one in a block of similar houses, was far from attractive. It was untenanted, neglected ; its windows were unwashed, a pane of glass was broken ; its threshold looked untrodden, its whole aspect forlorn and desolate. Yet there it stood before me, all covered with its associations as an ivy-clad tower with its foliage. I wanted to see its interior, but it looked as if it did not expect a tenant and would not welcome a visitor. Was there nothing but this forbidding house-front to make the place alive with some breathing memory ? I saw crossing the street a middle-aged woman, — a decent body, who looked as if she might have come from the lower level of some not opulent but respectable household. She might have some recollection of an old man who was once her neighbor. I asked her if she remembered Mr. Carlyle. Indeed she did, she told us. She used to see him often, in front of his house, putting bits of bread on the railing for the birds. He did not like to see anything wasted, she said. The merest scrap of information, but genuine and pleasing; an instantaneous photograph only, but it makes a pretty vignette in the volume of my reminiscences. There are many considerable men in every generation of mankind, but not a great number who are personally interesting, — not a great many of whom we feel that we cannot know too much; whose foibles, even, we care to know about; whose shortcomings we try to excuse ; who are not models, but whose special traits make them attractive. Carlyle is one of these few, and no revelations can prevent his interesting us. He was not quite finished in his prenatal existence. The bricklayer’s mortar of his father’s calling stuck to his fingers through life, but only as the soil he turned with his ploughshare clung to the fingers of Burns. We do not wish either to have been other than what he was. Their breeding brings them to the average level, carries them more nearly to the heart, is a simple expression of our common humanity. As we rolled in the cars by Ecclefechan, I strained my eyes to take in every point of the landscape, every cottage, every spire, if by any chance I could find one in that lonely region. There was not a bridge nor a bit of masonry of any kind that I did not eagerly scrutinize, to see if it were solid and honest enough to have been built by Carlyle’s father. Solitary enough the country looked. I admired Mr. Emerson’s devotion in seeking his friend in his bare home among what he describes as the “ desolate heathery hills ” about Craigenputtock, which were, I suppose, much like the region through which we were passing.
It is one of the regrets of my life that I never saw or heard Carlyle. Nature, who seems to be fond of trios, has given us three dogmatists, all of whom greatly interested their own generation, and whose personality, especially in the case of the first and the last of the trio, still interests us, — Johnson, Coleridge, and Carlyle. Each was an oracle in his way, but unfortunately oracles are fallible to their descendants. The author of “ Taxation no Tyranny ” had wholesale opinions, and pretty harsh ones, about us Americans, and did not soften them in expression : " Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” We smile complacently when we read this outburst, which Mr. Croker calls in question, but which agrees with his saying in the presence of Miss Seward, " I am willing to love all mankind except an American.”
A generation later comes along Coleridge, with his circle of reverential listeners. He says of Johnson that his fame rests principally upon Boswell, and that “ his bow-wow manner must have had a good deal to do with the effect produced.” As to Coleridge himself, his contemporaries hardly know how to set bounds to their exaltation of his genius. Dibdin comes pretty near going into rhetorical hysterics in reporting a conversation of Coleridge’s which he listened to: " The auditors seemed to be wrapt in wonder and delight, as one observation more profound, or clothed in more forcible language, than another fell from his tongue. . . . As I retired homeward I thought a SECOND JOHNSON had visited the earth to make wise the sons of men.” And De Quincey speaks of him as “ the largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and most comprehensive, in my judgment, that has yet existed amongst men.” One is sometimes tempted to wish that the superlative could be abolished, or its use allowed only to old experts. What are men to do when they get to heaven, after having exhausted their vocabulary of admiration on earth ?
Now let us come down to Carlyle, and see what he says of Coleridge. We need not take those conversational utterances which called down the wrath of Mr. Swinburne, and found expression in an epigram which violates all the proprieties of literary language. Look at the full-length portrait in the Life of Sterling. Each oracle denies his predecessor, each magician breaks the wand of the one who went before him. There were Americans enough ready to swear by Carlyle until he broke his staff in meddling with our anti-slavery conflict, and buried it so many fathoms deep that it could never be fished out again. It is rather singular that Johnson and Carlyle should each of them have shipwrecked his sagacity and shown a terrible leak in his moral sensibilities on coming in contact with American rocks and currents, with which neither had any special occasion to concern himself, and which both had a great deal better have steered clear of.
But here I stand once more before the home of the long-suffering, muchlaboring, loud-complaining Heraclitus of his time, whose very smile had a grimness in it more ominous than his scowl. Poor man ! Dyspeptic on a diet of oatmeal porridge; kept wide awake by crowing cocks; drummed out of his wits by long-continued piano-pounding ; sharp of speech, I fear, to his high-strung wife, who gave him back as good as she got! I hope I am mistaken about their everyday relations, but again I say poor man! — for all his complaining must have meant real discomfort, which a man of genius feels not less, certainly, than a common mortal.
I made a second visit to the place where he lived, but I saw nothing more than at the first. I wanted to cross the threshold over which he walked so often, to see the noise-proof room in which he used to write, to look at the chimneyplace down which the soot came, to sit where he used to sit and smoke his pipe, and to conjure up his wraith to look in once more upon his old deserted dwelling. That vision was denied me.
After visiting Chelsea we drove round through Regent’s Park. I suppose that if we apply the much-abused superlative to Hyde Park, Regent’s Park will be the comparative, and Battersea Park the positive, ranking them in the descending grades of their hierarchy. But this is my conjecture only, and the social geography of London is a subject which only one who has become familiarly acquainted with the place should speak of with any confidence. A stranger coming to our city might think it made little difference whether his travelling Boston acquaintance lived in Alpha Avenue or in Omega Square, but he would have to learn that it is farther from one of these places to the other, a great deal farther, than it is from Beacon Street, Boston, to Fifth Avenue, New York.
An American finds it a little galling to be told that he must not drive in his numbered hansom or four-wheeler except in certain portions of Hyde Park. If he is rich enough to keep his own carriage, or if he will pay the extra price of a vehicle not vulgarized by being on the numbered list, he may drive anywhere that his Grace or his Lordship does, and perhaps have a mean sense of satisfaction at finding himself in the charmed circle of exclusive “ gigmanity.” It is a pleasure to meet none but well-dressed and well-mannered people, in well-appointed equipages. In the highroad of our own country, one is liable to fall in with people and conveyances whom it is far from a pleasure to meet. I was once driving in an open carriage, with members of my family, towards my own house in the country town where I was then living. A cart drawn by oxen was in the road in front of us. Whenever we tried to pass, the men in it turned obliquely across the road and prevented us, and this was repeated again and again. I could have wished I had been driving in Hyde Park, where clowns and boors, with their carts and oxen, do not find admittance. Exclusiveness has its conveniences.
The next day, as I was strolling through Burlington Arcade, I saw a figure just before me which I recognized as that of my townsman, Mr. Abbott Lawrence. He was accompanied by his son, who had just returned from a trip round the planet. There are three grades of recognition, entirely distinct from each other: the meeting of two persons of different countries who speak the same language, — an American and an Englishman, for instance ; the meeting of two Americans from different cities, as of a Bostonian and a New Yorker or a Chicagonian; and the meeting of two from the same city, as of two Bostonians.
The difference of these recognitions may be illustrated by supposing certain travelling philosophical instruments, endowed with intelligence and the power of speech, to come together in their wanderings, — let us say in a restaurant of the Palais Royal. “Very hot,” says the talking Fahrenheit (Thermometer) from Boston, and calls for an ice, which he plunges his bulb into and cools down. In comes an intelligent and socially disposed English Barometer. The two travellers greet each other, not exactly as old acquaintances, but each has heard very frequently about the other, and their relatives have been often associated. “We have a good deal in common,” says the Barometer. “ Of the same blood, as we may say; quicksilver is thicker than water,” “ Yes,” says the little Fahrenheit, “ and we are both of the same mercurial temperament.” While their columns are dancing up and down with laughter at this somewhat tepid and low-pressure pleasantry, there come in a New York Réaumur and a Centigrade from Chicago. The Fahrenheit, which had got warmed up to temperate, rises to summer heat, and even a little above it. They enjoy each other’s company mightily. To be sure, their scales differ, but have they not the same freezing and the same boiling point ? To be sure, each thinks his own scale is the true standard, and at home they might get into a dispute about the matter, but here in a strange land they do not think of disputing. Now while they are talking about America and their own local atmosphere and temperature, there comes in a second Boston Fahrenheit. The two of the same name look at each other for a moment, and rush together so eagerly that their bulbs are endangered. How well they understand each other ! Thirty-two degrees marks the freezing point. Two hundred and twelve marks the boiling point. They have the same scale, the same fixed points, the same record : no wonder they prefer each other’s company!
I hope that my reader has followed my illustration, and finished it off for himself. Let me give a few practical examples. An American and an Englishman meet in a foreign land. The Englishman has occasion to mention his weight, which he finds has gained in the course of his travels. “ How much is it now ? ” asks the American. “ Fourteen stone. How much do you weigh ? ” " Within four pounds of two hundred.” Neither of them takes at once any clear idea of what the other weighs. The American has never thought of his own, or his friend’s, or anybody’s weight in stones of fourteen pounds. The Englishman has never thought of any one’s weight in pounds. They can calculate very easily with a slip of paper and a pencil, but not the less is their language but half intelligible as they speak and listen. The same thing is in a measure true of other matters they talk about. “ It is about as large a space as the Common,” says the Boston man. " It is as large as St. James’s Bark,” says the Londoner. “ As high as the State House,” says the Bostonian, or “ as tall as Bunker Hill Monument,” or “ about as big as the Frog Pond,” where the Londoner would take St. Paul’s, the Nelson Column, the Serpentine, as his standard of comparison. The difference of scale does not stop here ; it runs through a great part of the objects of thought and conversation. An average American and an average Englishman are talking together, and one of them speaks of the beauty of a field of corn. They are thinking of two entirely different objects : one of a billowy level of soft waving wheat, or rye, or barley; the other of a rustling forest of tall, jointed stalks, tossing their plumes and showing their silken epaulettes, as if every stem in the ordered ranks were a soldier in full regimentals. An Englishman planted for the first time in the middle of a wellgrown field of Indian corn would feel as much lost as the babes in the wood. Conversation between two Londoners, two New Yorkers, two Bostonians, requires no foot-notes, which is a great advantage in their intercourse.
To return from my digression and my illustration. I did not do a great deal of shopping myself while in London, being contented to have it done for me. But in the way of looking in at shop windows I did a very large business. Certain windows attracted me by a variety in unity which surpassed anything I have been accustomed to. Thus one window showed every conceivable convenience that could be shaped in ivory, and nothing else. One shop had such a display of magnificent dressing-cases that I should have thought a whole royal family was setting out on its travels. I see the cost of one of them is two hundred and seventy guineas. Thirteen hundred and fifty dollars seems a good deal to pay for a dressing-case.
On the other hand, some of the firstclass tradesmen and workmen make no show whatever. The tailor to whom I had credentials, and who proved highly satisfactory to me, as he had proved to some of my countrymen and to Englishmen of high estate, had only one small sign, which was placed in one of his windows, and received his customers in a small room that would have made a closet for one of our stylish merchant tailors. The bootmaker to whom I went on good recommendation had hardly anything about his premises to remind one of his calling. He came into his studio, took my measure very carefully, and made me a pair of what we call Congress boots, which fitted well when once on my feet, but which it cost more trouble to get into and to get out of than I could express my feelings about without dangerously enlarging my limited vocabulary.
Bond Street, Old and New, offered the most inviting windows, and I indulged almost to profligacy in the prolonged inspection of their contents. Stretching my walk along New Bond Street till I came to a great intersecting thoroughfare, I found myself in Oxford Street. Here the character of the shop windows changed at once. Utility and convenience took the place of show and splendor. Here I found various articles of use in a household, some of which were new to me. It is very likely that I could have found most of them in our own Boston Cornhill, but one often overlooks things at home which at once arrest his attention when he sees them in a strange place. I saw great numbers of illuminating contrivances, some of which pleased me by their arrangement of reflectors. Bryant and May’s safety matches seemed to be used everywhere. I procured some in Boston with these names on the box, but the label said they were made in Sweden, and they diffused vapors that were enough to produce asphyxia. I greatly admired some of Dr. Dresser’s water-cans and other contrivances, modelled more or less after the antique, but I found an abundant assortment of them here in Boston, and I have one I obtained here more original in design and more serviceable in daily use than any I saw in London. I should have eyed Wolverhampton, as we glided through it, with more interest, if I had known at that time that the inventive Dr. Dresser had his headquarters in that busy-looking town.
One thing, at least, I learned from my London experience : Better a small city where one knows all it has to offer than a great city where one has no disinterested friend to direct him to the right places to find what he wants. But of course there are some grand magazines which are known all the world over, and which no one should leave London without entering as a looker-on, if not as a purchaser.
There was one place I determined to visit, and one man I meant to see, before returning. The place was a certain bookstore or book-shop, and the person was its proprietor, Mr. Bernard Quaritch. I was getting very much pressed for time, and I allowed ten minutes only for my visit. I had never had any dealings with Mr. Quaritch, but one of my near relatives had, and I had often received his catalogues, the scale of prices in which had given me an impression almost of sublimity. I found Mr. Bernard Quaritch at No. 15 Piccadilly, and introduced myself, not as one whose name he must know, but rather as a stranger, of whom he might have heard through my relative. I conjecture that his Sunday is our Saturday, and if I were entertaining him I should not offer him ham sandwiches. If of that ancient race to which I suppose him to belong, he is a good specimen of it, and I should like to deal with him ; for if he wants a handsome price for what he sells, he knows its value, and does not offer the refuse of old libraries, but, on the other hand, all that is most precious in them is pretty sure to pass through his hands, sooner or later.
“ Now, Mr. Quaritch,” I said, after introducing myself, “ I have ten minutes to pass with you. You must not open a book ; if you do I am lost, for I shall have to look at every illuminated capital, from the first leaf to the colophon.” Mr. Quaritch did not open a single book, but let me look round his establishment, and answered my questions very courteously. It so happened that while I was there a gentleman came in whom I had previously met, — my namesake, Mr, Holmes, the Queen’s librarian at Windsor Castle. My ten minutes passed very rapidly in conversation with these two experts in books, the bibliopole and the bibliothecary. No place that I visited made me feel more thoroughly that I was in London, the great central mart of all that is most precious in the world.
Leave at home all your guineas, ye who enter here, would be a good motto to put over his door, unless you have them in plenty and can spare them, in which case Take all your guineas with you would be a better one. For you can here get their equivalent, and more than their equivalent, in the choicest products of the press and the finest work of the illuminator, the illustrator, and the binder. You will be sorely tempted. But do not be surprised when you ask the price of the volume you may happen to fancy. You are not dealing with a bouquiniste of the Quais, in Paris. You are not foraging in an old book-shop of New York or Boston. Do not suppose that I undervalue these dealers in old and rare volumes. Many a much-prized rarity have I obtained from Drake and Burnham and others of my townsmen, and from Denham in New York; and in my student years many a choice volume, sometimes even an Aldus or an Elzevir, have I found among the trumpery spread out on the parapets of the quays. But there is a difference between going out on the Fourth of July with a militia musket to shoot any catbird or " chipmunk ” that turns up in a piece of woods within a few miles of our own cities, and shooting partridges in a nobleman’s preserves on the first of September. I confess to having felt a certain awe on entering the precincts made sacred by their precious contents. The lord and master of so many Editiones Principes, the guardian of this great nursery full of incunabula, did not seem to me like a simple tradesman. I felt that I was in the presence of the literary purveyor of royal and imperial libraries, the man before whom millionaires tremble as they calculate, and billionaires pause and consider. I have recently received two of Mr. Quaritch’s catalogues, from which I will give my reader an extract or two, to show him what kind of articles this prince of bibliopoles deals in.
Perhaps you would like one of those romances which turned the head of Don Quixote. Here is a volume which will be sure to please you. It is on one of his lesser lists, confined principally to Spanish and Portuguese works : —
“ Amadis de Gaula . . . folio, gothic letter, FIRST EDITION, unique . . . red morocco super extra, doublé with olive morocco, richly gilt, tooled to an elegant Grolier design, gilt edges . . . in a neat case.”
A pretty present for a scholarly friend. A nice old book to carry home for one’s own library. Two hundred pounds — one thousand dollars — will make you the happy owner of this volume.
But if you would have also on your shelves the first edition of the “ Cronica del famoso cabaluero cid Buy Diaz Campadero,” not “ gilt tooled,”not even bound in leather, but in “ cloth boards,” you will have to pay two hundred and ten pounds to become its proprietor. After this you will not be frightened by the thought of paying three hundred dollars for a little quarto giving an account of the Virginia Adventurers. You will not shrink from the idea of giving something more than a hundred guineas for a series of Hogarth’s plates. But when it comes to Number 1001 in the May catalogue, and you see that if you would possess a first folio Shakespeare, “ untouched by the hand of any modern renovator,” you must be prepared to pay seven hundred and eighty - five pounds, almost four thousand dollars, for the volume, it would not be surprising if you changed color and your knees shook under you. No doubt some brave man will be found to carry off that prize, in spite of the golden battery which defends it, perhaps to Cincinnati, or Chicago, or San Francisco. But do not be frightened. These Alpine heights of extravagance climb up from the humble valley where shillings and sixpences are all that are required to make you a purchaser.
One beauty of the Old World shops is that if a visitor comes back to the place where he left them fifty years before, he finds them, or has a great chance of finding them, just where they stood at his former visit. In driving down to the old city, to the place of business of the Barings, I found many streets little changed. Temple Bar was gone, and the much-abused griffin stood in its place. There was a shop close to Temple Bar where, in 1834, I had bought some brushes. I had no difficulty in finding Prout’s, and I could not do less than go in and buy some more brushes. I did not ask the young man who served me how the old shopkeeper who attended to my wants on the earlier occasion was at this time. But I thought what a different color the locks these brushes smooth show from those that knew their predecessors in the earlier decade !
I ought to have made a second visit to the Tower, so tenderly spoken of by Artemus Ward as “ a sweet boon,” so vividly remembered by me as the scene of a personal encounter with one of the animals then kept in the Tower menagerie. But, the project added a stone to the floor of the underground thoroughfare which is paved with good intentions.
St. Paul’s I must and did visit. The most striking addition since I was there is the massive monument to the Duke of Wellington. The great temple looked rather bare and unsympathetic. Poor Dr. Johnson, sitting in semi-nude exposure, looked to me as unhappy as our own half-naked Washington at the national capital. The Judas of Matthew Arnold’s poem would have cast his cloak over those marble shoulders, if he had found himself in St. Paul’s, and have earned another respite. We brought away little, I fear, except the grand effect of the dome as we looked up at it. It gives us a greater idea of height than the sky itself, which we have become used to looking upon.
A second visit to the National Gallery was made in company with A―. It was the repetition of an attempt at a draught from the Cup of Tantalus. I was glad of a sight of the Botticellis, of which I had heard so much, and at others of the more recently acquired paintings of the great masters; of a sweeping glance at the Turners; of a look at the well-remembered Hogarths and the memorable portraits by Sir Joshua. I carried away a confused mass of impressions, much as the soldiers that sack a city go off with all the precious things they can snatch up huddled into clothes-bags and pillow-cases. I am reminded, too, of Mr. Galton’s composite portraits; a thousand glimpses, as one passes through the long halls lined with paintings, all blending in one not unpleasing general effect, out of which emerges from time to time some single distinct image.
In the same way we passed through the exhibition of paintings at the Royal Academy. I noticed that A― paid special attention to the portraits of young ladies by John Sargent and by Collier, while I was more particularly struck with the startling portrait of an ancient personage in a full suit of wrinkles, such as Rembrandt used to bring out with wonderful effect. Hunting in couples is curious and instructive; the scent for this or that kind of game is sure to be very different in the two individuals.
I made but two brief visits to the British Museum, and I can easily instruct my reader so that he will have no difficulty, if he will follow my teaching, in learning how not to see it. When he has a spare hour at his disposal, let him drop in at the Museum, and wander among its books and its various collections. He will know as much about it as the fly that buzzes in at one window and out at another. If I were asked whether I brought away anything from my two visits, I should say, Certainly I did. The fly sees some things, not very intelligently, but he cannot help seeing them. The great round reading-room, with its silent students, impressed me very much. I looked at once for the Elgin Marbles, but casts and photographs and engravings had made me familiar with their chief features. I thought I knew something of the sculptures brought from Nineveh, but I was astonished, almost awe-struck, at the sight of those mighty images which mingled with the visions of the Hebrew prophets. I did not marvel more at the skill and labor expended upon them by the Assyrian artists than I did at the enterprise and audacity which had brought them safely from the mounds under which they were buried to the light of day and the heart of a great modern city. I never thought that I should live to see the Birs Nimroud laid open, and the tablets in which the history of Nebuchadnezzar was recorded spread before me. The Empire of the Spade in the world of history was founded at Nineveh by Layard, a great province added to it by Schliemann, and its boundary extended by numerous explorers, some of whom are diligently at work at the present day. I feel very grateful that many of its revelations have been made since I have been a tenant of the travelling residence which holds so many secrets in its recesses.
There is one lesson to be got from a visit of an hour or two to the British Museum, — namely, the fathomless abyss of our own ignorance. One is almost ashamed of his little paltry heartbeats in the presence of the rushing and roaring torrent of Niagara. So if he has published a little book or two, collected a few fossils, or coins, or vases, he is crushed by the vastness of the treasures in the library and the collections of this universe of knowledge.
I have shown how not to see the British Museum ; I will tell how to see it.
Take lodgings next door to it, — in a garret, if you cannot afford anything better, — and pass all your days at the Museum during the whole period of your natural life. At threescore and ten you will have some faint conception of the contents, significance, and value of this great British institution, which is as nearly as any one spot the nœud vital of human civilization, a stab at which by the dagger of anarchy would fitly begin the reign of chaos.
On the 3d of August, a gentleman, Mr. Wedmore, who had promised to be my guide to certain interesting localities, called for me, and we took a hansom for the old city. The first place we visited was the Temple, a collection of buildings with intricate passages between them, some of the edifices reminding me of our college dormitories. One, however, was a most extraordinary exception, — the wonderful Temple church, or rather the ancient part of it which is left, the round temple. We had some trouble to get into it, but at last succeeded in finding a slip of a girl, the daughter of the janitor, who unlocked the door for us. It affected my imagination strangely to see this girl of a dozen years old, or thereabouts, moving round among the monuments which had kept their place there for some six or seven hundred years ; for the church was built in the year 1185, and the most recent of the crusaders’ monuments is said to date as far back as 1241. Their effigies have lain in this vast city, and passed unharmed through all its convulsions.
The fire must have crackled very loud in their stony ears, and they must have shaken day and night, as the bodies of the victims of the plague were rattled over the pavements.
Near the Temple church, in a green spot among the buildings, a plain stone laid flat on the turf bears these words : “ Here lies Oliver Goldsmith.” I believe doubt has been thrown upon the statement that Goldsmith was buried in that place, but as some poet ought to have written,
’T is wisdom to believe.
We do not “drop a tear” so often as our Della Cruscan predecessors, but the memory of the author of the “ Vicar of Wakefield ” stirred my feelings more than a whole army of crusaders would have done. A pretty rough set of filibusters they were, no doubt.
The whole group to which Goldsmith belonged came up before me, and as the centre of that group the great Dr. Johnson ; not the Johnson of the Rambler, or of The Vanity of Human Wishes, or even of Rasselas, but Boswell’s Johnson, dear to all of us, the “ Grand Old Man ” of his time, whose foibles we care more for than for most great men’s virtues. Fleet Street, which he loved so warmly, was close by. Bolt Court, entered from it, where he lived for many of his last years, and where he died, was the nest place to visit. I found Fleet Street a good deal like Washington Street as I remember it in former years. When I came to the place pointed out as Bolt Court, I could hardly believe my eyes that so celebrated a place of residence should be entered by so humble a passageway. I was very sorry to find that No. 3, where he lived, Avas demolished, and a new building erected in its place. In one of the other houses in this court he is said to have labored on his dictionary. Near by was a building of mean aspect, in which Goldsmith is said to have at one time resided. But my kind conductor did not profess to he well acquainted with the local antiquities of this quarter of London.
If I had a long future before me, I should like above all things to study London with a dark lantern, so to speak, myself in deepest shadow and all I wanted to see in clearest light. Then I should want time, time, time. For it is a sad fact that sight-seeing as commonly done is one of the most wearying things in the world, and takes the life out of any but the sturdiest or the most elastic natures more efficiently than would a reasonable amount of daily exercise on a treadmill. In my younger days I used to find that a visit to the gallery of the Louvre was followed by more fatigue and exhaustion than the same amount of time spent in walking the wards of a hospital.
Another grand sight there was not to be overlooked, namely, the Colonial Exhibition. The popularity of this immense show was very great, and we found ourselves, A― and I, in the midst of a vast throng, made up of respectable and comfortable looking people. It was not strange that the multitude flocked to this exhibition. There was a jungle, with its (stuffed) monsters, — tigers, serpents, elephants ; there were carvings which may well have cost a life apiece, and stuffs which none but an empress or a millionairess would dare to look at. All the arts of the East were there in their perfection, and some of the artificers were at their work. We had to content ourselves with a mere look at all these wonders. It was a pity; instead of going to these fine shows tired, sleepy, wanting repose more than anything else, we should have come to them fresh, in good condition, and had many days at our disposal. I learned more in a visit to the Japanese exhibition in Boston than I should have learned in half a dozen half-awake strolls through this multitudinous and most imposing collection of all
Showers on her kings,”
and all the masterpieces of its wonderworking artisans.
One of the last visits we paid before leaving London for a week in Paris was to the South Kensington Museum. Think of the mockery of giving one hour to such a collection of works of art and wonders of all kinds ! Why should I consider it worth while to say that we went there at all ? All manner of objects succeeded each other in a long series of dissolving views, so to speak, nothing or next to nothing having a chance to leave its individual impress. In the battle for life which took place in my memory, as it always does among the multitude of claimants for a permanent place, I find that two objects came out survivors of the contest. The first is the noble cast of the column of Trajan, vast in dimensions, crowded with history in its most striking and enduring form; a long array of figures representing in unquestioned realism the military aspect of a Roman army. The second case of survival is thus described in the catalogue : “ An altar or shrine of a female saint, recently acquired from Padua, is also ascribed to the same sculptor [Donatello]. This very valuable work of art had for many years been used as a drinking-trough for horses. A hole has been roughly pierced in it.” I thought the figure was the most nearly perfect image of heavenly womanhood that I had ever looked upon, and I could have gladly given my whole hour to sitting — I could almost say kneeling — before it in silent contemplation. I found the curator of the Museum, Mr. Soden Smith, shared my feelings with reference to the celestial loveliness of this figure. Which is best, to live in a country where such a work of art is taken for a horsetrough, or in a country where the products from the studio of a self-taught handicraftsman, equal to the shaping of a horse-trough and not much more, are put forward as works of art ?
A little time before my visit to England, before I had even thought of it as a possibility, I had the honor of having two books dedicated to me by two English brother physicians. One of these two gentlemen was Dr. Walshe, of whom I shall speak hereafter ; the other was Dr. J. Milner Fothergill. The name Fothergill was familiar to me from my boyhood. My old townsman. Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, who died in 1846 at the age of ninety-two, had a great deal to say about his relative Dr. John Fothergill, the famous Quaker physician of the last century, of whom Benjamin Franklin said, “I can hardly conceive that a better man ever existed.” Dr. and Mrs. Fothergill sent us some beautiful flowers a little before we left, and when I visited him he gave me a medallion of his celebrated kinsman.
London is a place of mysteries. Looking out of one of the windows at the back of Dr. Fothergill’s house, I saw an immense wooden blind, such as we have on our windows in summer, but reaching from the ground as high as the top of the neighboring houses. While admitting the air freely, it shut the property to which it belonged completely from sight. I asked the meaning of this extraordinary structure, and learned that it was put up by a great nobleman, of whose subterranean palace and strange seclusion I had before heard. Common report attributed his unwillingness to be seen to a disfiguring malady with which he was said to be afflicted. The story was that he was visible only to his valet. But a lady of quality, whom I met in this country, told me she had seen him, and observed nothing to justify it. These old countries are full of romances and legends and diableries of all sorts, in which truth and lies are so mixed that one does not know what to believe. What happens behind the high walls of the old cities is as much a secret as were the doings inside the prisons of the Inquisition.
Little mistakes sometimes cause us a deal of trouble. This time it was the presence or absence of a single letter which caused us to fear that an important package destined to America had miscarried. There were two gentlemen unwittingly involved in the confusion. On inquiring for the package at Messrs. Low, the publishers, Mr. Watts, to whom I thought it had been consigned, was summoned. He knew nothing about it, had never heard of it, was evidently utterly ignorant of us and our affairs. While we were in trouble and uncertainty, our Boston friend, Mr. James R. Osgood, came in. “ Oh,” said he, “ it is Mr. Watt you want, the agent of a Boston firm,” and gave us the gentleman’s address. I had confounded Mr. Watt’s name with Mr. Watts’s name. " W’at’s in a name ? ” A great deal sometimes. I wonder if I shall be pardoned for quoting six lines from one of my after-dinner poems of long ago : —
One trivial letter ruins all, left out;
A knot can change a felon into clay,
A not will save him, spelt without the k;
The smallest word has some unguarded spot,
And danger lurks in i without a dot.
I should find it hard to account for myself during our two short stays in London in the month of August, separated by the week we passed in Paris. The ferment of continued over-excitement, calmed very much by our rest in the various places I have mentioned, had not yet wholly worked itself off. There was some of that everlastingshopping to be done. There were photographs to be taken, a call here and there to be made, a stray visitor now and then, a walk in the morning to get back the use of the limbs which had been too little exercised, and a drive every afternoon to one of the parks, or the Thames Embankment, or other locality. After all this, an honest night’s sleep served to round out the day, in which little had been effected besides making a few purchases, writing a few letters, reading the papers, the Boston Weekly Advertiser among the rest, and making arrangement for our passage homeward.
The sights we saw were looked upon for so short a time, most of them so very superficially, that I am almost ashamed to say that I have been in the midst of them and brought home so little. I remind myself of my boyish amusement of skipping stones, — throwing a flat stone so that it shall only touch the water, but touch it in half a dozen places before it comes to rest beneath the smooth surface. The drives we took showed us a thousand objects which arrested our attention. Every street, every bridge, every building, every monument, every strange vehicle, every exceptional personage, was a show which stimulated our curiosity. For we had not as yet changed our Boston eyes for London ones, and very common sights were spectacular and dramatic to us. I remember that one of our New England country boys exclaimed, when he first saw a block of city dwellings, “ Darn it all, who ever see anything like that ’are ? Sich a lot o’ haousen all stuck together ! ” I must explain that “ haousen ” used in my early days to be as common an expression for houses among our country-folk as its phonetic equivalent ever was in Saxony. I felt not unlike that country boy.
In thinking of how much I missed seeing, I sometimes have said to myself, “ Oh, if the carpet of the story in the Arabian Nights would only take me up and carry me to London for one week, — just one short week, — setting me down fresh from quiet, wholesome living, in my usual good condition, and bringing me back at the end of it, what a different account I could give of my experiences ! But it is just as well as it is. Younger eyes have studied and will study, more instructed travellers have pictured and will picture, the great metropolis from a hundred different points of view. No person can be said to know London. The most that any one can claim is that he knows something of it. I am now just going to leave it for another great capital, but I shall return in my last paper of this series to Great Britain, and give some of the general impressions left by what I saw and heard in our mother country.
Oliver Wendell Holmes.
- Copyright, 1887, by OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. All rights reserved.↩