THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
AN Englishman would say, I suppose, that, of all the towns in England, Liverpool is the most uninteresting. As for Americans, most of our countrymen go as quickly as they can to Chester ; and those who have stopped in Liverpool at all remember it as nothing more than a dull, sombre town, first seen in leaden silhouette from the Mersey, and even after the miseries of the landing stage — and they are many — on closer acquaintance proving dreary and forbidding. A few fine buildings in the classic style (including a good picture-gallery), which immediately surround S. George’s Hall, and the hall itself, together with the docks, seem to them all that the town has to show. These sights are in no sense typically English ; although the neverending procession of slatternly women and wizened children bearing beer-mugs either filled or about to be filled, which files around a certain corner, near a well-known hotel, leads the beholder to believe himself indeed in the land of Cruikshank and Gilray. For beggary in its most miserable form commend me to England ; for the most sodden and abject of English beggars, to Liverpool.
And yet some delightful hours may be passed in Liverpool, and people do not realize that there are characteristically English sights to be seen there. After all, why wish to be plunged into antiquity? Why, rather, should we not (if I may so speak) wade in by degrees ? For just in proportion as we are familiar with a period does it interest us, and we find our colonial homestead, with its two hundred years of familiar history, richer to us in suggestion and greater in interest than the Roman bridge built by a general we never heard of, in some period whose remoteness robs it of any sense of age or reality. It is somewhat for this reason that the small and unimpressive seventeenth-century building styled the Cathedral Church of S. Peter, Church Street, Liverpool, has for me its attractions.
It was a late autumn afternoon when I first saw the interior of this ugly old temple, — a gray, murky day, and all the air of the sanctuary permeated, not with incense, but with the characteristic Liverpool odor of soft coal. A few gaslights dimly twinkled in a halo of brownish haze, near the altar. There seemed to be no color anywhere. All the woodwork — the fronts of the galleries, the stalls, the great carved altar-piece — was black, its polished darkness broken only by thin white streaks, the reflection of the garish light outside through the great plainly glazed arched windows in the galleries. Over the altar was a great window in an anæmic mezzotint, representing S. Peter with his keys, and surrounded with a border of red and blue panes of glass. A modest throne for the bishop rose conspicuous among the stalls of the choir. The organ, in a gallery on the left of the altar, soon began to play, and the choir rapidly filed into the church from a small circular sacristy in the tower. The service was the usual evensong of the English cathedral, not ill performed; and with an anthem full of rills, trills, and quavers, and pleasant parts and harmonies, — not solemn nor devout, but quaint, and just matching the queer old pseudoclassic church whose walls were bathed in its soft melody. It was all so intensely eighteenth-century, so ugly, so homelike, so interesting, that I could but think of Dr. Johnson at S. Bride’s, Fleet Street, or else believe him on a visit to this same church, where he would have been placed in a pew devoted to the Corporation of Liverpool, — a pew decorated with two elaborate wrought-iron posts, heavily gilt, upon which stood the civic bird, an ostrich. This same proud fowl figures on a waterspout without, and beneath him, on the said spout, appears the date of the building of the church, which is, I believe, 1611.
Hardly an afternoon passed that I did not find myself at S. Peter’s, in the midst of a congregation made up of workingmen, pale clerks, old women and doddering old men, young girls and little children ; always a good congregation for a week-day service ; always the same indefinable English steadiness and sturdiness about the performance of it, and in the behavior of the people, which is so satisfying after the self-conscious reverence or (what is worse) the unconscious irreverence which are the Scylla and Charybdis of American religious life. As I watched the darkling church, the sense of the immense background of tradition, custom, inheritance, and continuity of faith overwhelmed me. “This,” I said to myself, “is to me a strange episode, and yet all over England, in cathedrals and parish churches, this goes on day by day, and I am the chance and transient quantity even here.” It vexed me that what to them was so common was to me an event, and that what had been the heritage of the poorest child of the slums was to me a privilege worth recording. I left the church with a sense of having been in some way defrauded of my birthright, and for the moment wished myself a Briton born.
It was one evening, after a particularly well-sung service, that, as I emerged into the dark street, a little bent man, in a tall hat, a poor faded oddity from Heaven knows where, touched me on the arm, and said, “ Parding, sir, but that hanthem, — was n’t it beautiful, sir ? Oh, sir, I do henjoy them hanthems, sir, — no offense, I hope, sir. Goodnight.’ And he vanished into the darkness. " I think. " said I to my friend, “that man must have escaped from — Dickens.”Indeed, it was enough to remind any one of Hard Times or Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton to see, on certain mornings, the couples waiting in the church to be married. Somehow it seemed impossible that they could be about to take part in a ceremony which the traditions of all lands and all ages surround with joy (or an expensive imitation of it) in so sad-colored and commonplace a manner. No music, no welldressed crowd, no flowers. It made me long to buy each couple at least a wedding favor ; and possibly that good angel of European fiction, the rich American, will some day found a “ dole " to supply rice and iced cakes to the lads and lasses who frequent S. Peter’s on marriage-days. Old shoes the couples seem to bring with them.
The cathedral stands in an open space, — not precisely the traditional English cathedral close, although its trim parterres, winding paths, and green turf are a pleasant bit of freshness and color amid the dull shops and warehouses about it. It is surely much pleasanter than when I first knew it; for then the entire churchyard was paved with gravestones, — a desert of slate parallelograms, with their inscriptions half obliterated, reminding the beholder of a forgotten set of dominoes, face downwards.
It was across this stony plain that, the first. afternoon of my arrival in Liverpool, I wandered in search of adventures. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, and it was at the precise moment that I had decided that Liverpool had nothing at all worth seeing except docks (about which I am as indifferent as I am ignorant) that, at an angle of the churchyard, an old building in what we should call “ colonial ” style attracted my attention. It was, in fact, a Blue Coat School, founded by a dead-and-gone Liverpool merchant, in which, a Latin inscription informed me, the youth of Liverpool were to be trained, under the protecting wing of the Church of England, in that fear of God which is the beginning of wisdom. This dignified structure, surrounding three sides of a courtyard, looked its part to perfection. Its gates stood open, and beyond, through the centre door of the school itself, also open, I could see all the little Blue Coats going to prayers. Crossing the court and entering, I found myself in a hall paved with stone, with whitewashed walls and tall arched windows filled with little panes of glass. Two long tables ran up and down the room, set with great blue and white plates and bowls, all with the arms of Liverpool thereon. I could hear the tramp of the little boys going up the staircase to the chapel overhead ; and now the little girls, in blue dresses, white handkerchiefs crossed on their shoulders, and caps, were formed in a procession, which presently began to move, and Avhieli, respectfully followed, brought me to another hall, of the same size as that first entered, with more tall windows and a large organ. Banks of seats ran up on all sides of the room. The girls were close to the organ, flanked on either hand by the boys, all smug and neat in their long-tail blue coats with brass buttons. At a desk directly in front of the organ stood a peculiarly solemn blonde little boy, who saying in a piping voice, “ Let us now sing the 312th hymn to the praise and glory of God,” all the children struck up a psalm tune. This was followed by prayers, read by the same excellent youth in a loud voice and with a manner at once confident and exemplary, great attention being paid to shades of meaning, commas and full stops. At the end of some collects the “ youthful quire ” again burst forth into an elaborate anthem, of really great beauty, by Barnby, Stainer, or some other English composer, which they performed with great precision and very evident enjoyment. Not the least amusing part of the scene was the assemblage of townspeople, friends of the pupils, who sat patiently on the steep (and extremely hard) tiers of seats, and gazed with kindly pride at the little folks, — honest, goodhumored people, proud that ” Johnny was being brought up to respect hisself, and was by way of being a credit to the family.” Nor must I forget the decorations of the hall, which consisted of a number of immensely tall black wooden tablets (about eight by three feet), upon which were painted in dull yellow letters the amount of the benefactions made to the institution, thus : —
£ s. d.
Mr. Alderman Round. . . . . . 3 3 0
The Rt. Hon. P. Steen . . . . 1 0 0
T. Williamson, Esq. . . . . . 0 3 0
etc., in the manner of an account-book. This ingenious system of praising the liberal and shaming the churlish still goes on, and — such is British conservatism — having once been begun, no known power could modify the large type or the enormous tablets.
At the close of the anthem I discovered that I was to be “ let in ” for the Catechism and an address, and also that an unfortunate little boy and an equally wretched little girl were each to repeat a chapter from the Bible, verbatim. Shocked at the prospect of witnessing this ordeal, I fled from the room, but not before I was intercepted by an urchin with the inevitable plate. He was in the hallway, and, I fancy, enjoyed the " gates of Zion ” more than what Miss Phelps would call “ the beyond.”
But to the tired eyes of the voyager over the North Atlantic, wearied with the unutterable dreariness and grayness of its tossing waves, the greenery of the pretty parks without the town is the most grateful of the sights of Liverpool. The rich damp mist, the church towers rising above the masses of foliage, rosycheeked children by twos and threes loitering across the commons, all begin to tell us of the real England. Beyond Croxteth Park there is a network of lanes and roads, bordered by suburban houses,—houses buried in deep, dense shrubbery, with vines overunning all bounds and shrouding them in green. We pass these houses, each with its name painted upon the gatepost (and always the most imposing name for the smallest abode), and the roads lengthen out into real highways, bordered with tall, lichengrown, discolored walls, and at last a turn of the road discloses a distant view. We are at Mossley Hill Church. Below and beyond it the green meadows, the hedge-rows dividing field from field, the elms spreading their branches against the pale luminous blue of the evening sky, a light twinkling up the slope from some farmhouse, a laborer crossing a distant field-path, — all blend in one soft pastoral view full of a peaceful wellbeing, which, in spite of the discordant notes here and there, makes us forget the black and toiling town behind, and realize that the England we have always dreamed of is at last before us.