The Beaten Track
MOST of the eminent American men of letters who went to Europe during the last century, and kept journals, and afterwards made books of them, seem to have landed at Liverpool. From Liverpool they found it most natural to go to Chester; from Chester, to Stratford-on-Avon; and thence to Oxford. Most conscientious Americans who nowadays land at Liverpool doubtless follow the same course; and hardly less keen than their interest in those distinguished places themselves is their delight at finding themselves following in the footsteps of Irving, of Emerson, of Hawthorne.
There are, however, who for that very reason would choose a different route for their first promenade en Angleterre. Such will usually, I suppose, make straight for London, and a tailor’s shop in Bond Street. Having there, as they imagine, sufficiently Anglicized their outsides to escape detection, they will ignore, so long as they can, such companionship of their fellow countrymen as they will nevertheless find themselves favored with, wherever they may go.
The impulse is not, I believe, distinctively American. Mr. Frederic Harrison remarked not long ago that Englishmen of the upper classes, when they visit Switzerland, deny themselves much of the finest Alpine scenery because it is also the best known — and accessible to trippers on bank holidays. We will all agree, however, that such snobbery in routes and resorts is indistinguishable from mere snobbery of persons, and therefore unworthy. We might even use stronger words, and call it ridiculous, contemptible; but perhaps we recall that we ourselves, our first time over, were not entirely without our apprehensions concerning that American vulgarity which, we had been given to understand, was so much worse abroad than at home. Perhaps we should have to confess that we also coveted the sense of being foreign, as well as abroad, and actually, for a little while, felt that thrill. Perhaps we too — we may as well make a clean breast of it, now we have begun — made first for London and Bond Street. Perhaps, that first time over, we did not go at all to Chester or Stratford or Warwick.
And perhaps, therefore, we should prefer to compromise by admitting the impulse foolish, as well as vain. That it was vain we may have discovered the first time. But that it was foolish also we may not have learned until, our second or third time, we have felt ourselves such old travelers as to go wherever we liked, even though it should be with the crowd; until we have gone at last to Chester, and walked the circuit of its wall, and found how incomparably well it serves for portal and prologue to all that England keeps of the mediæval and the ancient; and thence to Warwick, for a yet simpler and fuller abandonment to the wonder and awe and pity of our race’s past; and thence to Stratford — by this time with Hawthorne or Emerson in pocket, and turned very pilgrims, and grown decently respectful to the most obviously American of our fellow pilgrims, provided only they have seemed in moods like ours; and so on to Oxford and London.
And in London, thus achieved, Regent and Bond may no longer seem the chief thoroughfares; one may give over one’s keenness for discovering unsuspected masters at Burlington House or among the dealers, and betake one’s self frankly, catalogue in hand, to the undisputed masters at the National Gallery; one may even lose one’s shyness of the Abbey. The Abbey, indeed, shall be the test. It is not enough to look in, as by chance, and decide to stay for the impending service, and thus, surreptitiously, in some backward pew, bow one’s ear to the music that wavers out from the choir, and submit one’s soul to all the place’s vast inspiration. No; if one would attest a real change of heart, one must, after the service, make again the circuit of the whole; pause by each tablet or bust or statue inscribed with a name one knows, and recall what one can of the famous life it commemorates; join the throng about the verger, and hang upon his lips while he passes from one to another of the royal tombs, and tells the height of Longshanks, and points upward to the buckler and helmet of Harry the Fifth; then go seek a bookshop, and spend the evening over Shakespeare, or Macaulay’s essays. For of all the English writers these two, I think, bring one oftenest to the Abbey. The next morning, one will be ready for the Temple, Holland House, St. Paul’s, — even the Tower.
Not, however, that Bond and Regent, or Piccadilly, or Mayfair, shall cease to charm. They have not failed, for that matter, to attract those other indistinguished-looking, those rather washed-out and tired-looking Americans, from whose directness of search one finds one’s self so surprisingly taking a lesson. To them, too, London is not merely a place of reverences, but the great Babylon also, — unless, indeed, they have decided Paris will be that, — and they have no mind to miss what glimpses are to be caught of its solemn worldliness, its unapproachable good form. They would as soon fail to go to The Cheshire Cheese and sit in Dr. Johnson’s seat. They may have neglected their Henry James since Daisy Miller and their Meredith since Feverel, and not know Leonard Merrick at all. But they have not yet even begun properly to neglect their Mrs. Humphry Ward; and their Dickens and Thackeray are amazingly fresh. And come to think of it, it is Dickens and Thackeray of whom these London faces and garbs and streets and houses and names first put one in mind; and not the first time one sees them only, but every time one sees them first after a long absence. As one’s candor grows, Dombey and Our Mutual Friend will very likely take their places in one’s traveling library of books one has read more than once before.
Esmond and The Virginians are for the country, rather, or for the steamer coming over, or, better still, for the train, between one’s first luxurious glimpses, through the car-windows, of English fields and hedges and villages and the green Welsh mountains in the distance. For who of us can ever possibly come to England, whichever time it may be, were it the fortieth, in any mood but that of eager-hearted young Harry Warrington and George, his graver brother, a century and a half ago ? Whatever the castle we go to view, is it not always in truth that old Castle wood, in Hampshire, which we seek?
I confess that, for my own part, I cannot approach the lodge of any great English country place without thought of old Lockwood, whom Harry found sitting in the sun before the lodge at Castlewood; or look out over the garden without thought of Harry himself, coming the next morning to meet the old Baroness Bernstein, — her who proved to be all that was left of Beatrix in her glory, — who awaited him, “ pacing the green terraces that sparkled with the recent morning dew, which lay twinkling, also, on a flowery wilderness of trim parterres, and on the crisp walls of the dark box hedges, under which marble fauns and dryads were cooling themselves, whilst a thousand birds sang, the fountains plashed and glittered in the rosy morning sunshine, and the rooks cawed from the great wood. . . . And now, accordingly, the lad made his appearance, passing under the old Gothic doorway, tripping down the steps from one garden terrace to another, hat in hand, his fair hair blowing from his flushed cheeks, his slim figure clad in mourning.” And if I glance into the courtyard, it is to see what, more than half a century before that, young Harry Esmond had seen in the courtyard of that same Castlewood. “ There was in the court a peculiar silence somehow: — the sky bright overhead; the buttresses of the building and the sun-dial casting shadows over the gilt memento mori inscribed underneath; the two dogs, a black greyhound and a spaniel nearly white, the one with his face up to the sun, and the other snuffling amongst the grass and stones, and my lord leaning over the fountain, which was bubbling audibly.” My lord, who should go away on the morrow to London, to pick a quarrel with that evil Lord Mohun, — a quarrel over the cards, but about my lady,—and be done to death at midnight, in Leicester Field!
Following the crowd would seem to have brought us into rather fine company! That, no doubt, is usually the crowd’s instinct — and an instinct that is gratified easily enough when the company is dead, and entombed in the Abbey, or brought to life again in well-known novels and histories. Not an unerring instinct, however; the unexclusive sight-seer does not always choose his guides wisely. He may prefer Bulwer or Mrs. Ward to Sir Walter or Thackeray. We cannot, after all, accompany him without reserves. Nor can even this present humility persuade us that there will not be times when we will none of his companionship. If he prove such an one as at Florence, on the Ponte Vecchio, the sunset almost gone and the first lights twinkling in the tall, crowding rookeries that once were palaces, must break silence with an inane “ Historic old city, sir! ” we should again, undoubtedly, rebuff him with some muttered unfriendliness. Although, if we would not forego the very chiefest delights of travel, we must follow the beaten track, we would yet reserve some right of choice of companionships; at any rate, the right to be sometimes alone.
To be alone in the beaten track: in the track of empire, of conquests and worldly glory; of the few who have led, the multitude which has followed, in all manner of enterprise and achievement; of armies and priestly processions; of kings and saints and warriors and poets and the quite silent millions that won no fame; to feel one’s self alone in the wide pathway which the human spirit has blazed through the centuries — this may well be the highest experience which travel in older lands can yield. Not a cheerful experience always, or usually; oftener solemn, and sometimes daunting; but if known once, sure to be sought again.
London’s vastness yields it still. At midday, in the city, in the shadow of St. Paul’s, close by the spot where Milton was born and the site of that Mermaid Tavern which knew Shakespeare, where countless narrow streets and mews, strangely denizened, pour out their teeming life into the great thoroughfares, already full, and roaring with the dull roar of London, one feels one’s self in the centre of what for ages has been the chief highway of the trade of all the nations, one listens to the sordid heart-throbs of the world. The Strand at midnight is almost equally a world’s highway of garish pleasures and coarse appetites—coarser, surely, in this English Babylon than in any other capital. But the stiller hours are best.
Should the chance ever come to you, pass at dawn — the gloomy dawn of a true London day — down Whitehall, between the gray, stately-solemn rows of government buildings, to Westminster bridge; look up at the pigeons circling in the first light around the giant watch-tower, and revealing its cliff-like height; watch first the Abbey and then, closer at hand, the statues of England’s statesmen in Parliament Square, emerging from the night-mist; the streets slowly revealing themselves, and stretching away like damp, gloomy cañons; the advance guard of the day’s traffic rumbling sullenly over the bridge; the heavy, unuplifted faces of the many who, at that drear hour, must take up the day’s long toil, — the dogged race whose labors, sodden and serious, yet inspired for centuries with the strange instinct and grim resolve of empire, have piled up all this sombre, dim magnificence, — and you will have such a vision of the true might and glory of the English race as you shall never win from any wandering in by-paths.
Here is that slow result of time of which our America does not yet yield us the sense. In presence of it all, we understand better our own pioneer office in this present world. We comprehend, not without awe and trembling, the endlessness of that old human procession which we have ushered across a new continent, to repeat there, and in Pacific seas, the old struggles, the old heroisms, brutalities, glories, agonies. We begin to see plainly that our own immunity from the fiercer strifes, the grimmer and more sordid rivalries, that the laxness among us of the cruel law of all the earth, is but for a little while. The fresh path we have blazed must become, — that also, — and at no distant day, a beaten track.
Once in this train, the mind roves backward as well as forward — from the beaten tracks of to-day and to-morrow to those of yesterday, in which men walk no longer; to the abandoned highways of the world’s trade and warfare and art and religion. England, we all know, has grown so great by becoming the chief mart of all the world; and this she could do only by getting the mastery of the sea and by the continuing superiority of her seamen, and by the excellence of her workers, helped by her climate and resources, in many manufactures. But it is not many centuries since she had neither of these two supremacies. Florence was long rich with the profits she earned by turning the coarse products of English looms into fine woolens and broadcloths. The cloth-makers of the Low Countries also excelled England’s until, late in the sixteenth century, Spanish persecution drove the Flemish weavers across the channel. The sea was Spain’s, and the new world with it, until a fatal bigotry committed all to the Armada, and the Armada to unfamiliar Northern seas. London is London because the glory is departed from Florence, Antwerp, Cadiz, — and from Venice, once the greatest and most splendid of them all, because supreme both in sea-craft and in handicrafts.
There, indeed, is our best modern instance of the waywardness of what Lord Morley once called “ the tides of human circumstance.” Who would measure that waywardness has but to pass from the roar of Cheapside to the petty chattering of the Rialto; from Westminster to the silent court of the matchless palace where doges dwell no longer; from Thames Mouth, crowded with shipping, to the empty lagoons that once harbored the commerce of Europe and Asia. The British Mediterranean squadron sometimes visits Venice, anchoring off the Lido. It was an unforgettable lesson in the irony of the fate of nations to look out, as I did one afternoon, from that narrow strand, once a camping ground of crusaders, now degraded into a sort of Coney Island, upon those gray reminders of Northern power, lying there sinister and silent, rolling gently in the soft Adriatic surges, — then turn about and behold, bathed in sunset glories Turner has not caught, the city of pearl: her whose galleys, holding the Eastern gates of the Mediterranean, were for centuries the defense of Christendom against the Turk.
That is the lesson and monition of all Europe; and a lesson Europe itself knows only too well. England, for all her wealth and power and world-wide extension, is so mindful of it that the seeming menace of Germany’s growing navy and expanding trade obsesses Parliament and the press. The greater the poverty and overcrowding among her own people, the more battleships she builds. Never in history, in fact, have the powers watched each other with more hawklike eyes. The mightiest are the most fearful. Greece revivified into a pale aftermath of her ancient glory, Germany and Italy reunited, have not for a moment blinded them to the everlasting law of growth, mutability, decay. Their continent, unlike ours, is strewn with mementos of it. Their seas warn us solemnly. How many times has not the Mediterranean changed mistresses ? Since Rome fell, at least once every three or four centuries. And before Rome it was the same, back to the day when Matthew Arnold’s grave Tyrian trader
Lifting the cool-hair’d creepers stealthily,
The fringes of a Southward-facing brow
Among the Ægean isles :
And saw the merry Grecian coaster come,
Freighted with amber grapes, and Chian wine,
Green bursting figs, and tunnies steeped in brine :
And knew the intruders on his ancient home,
The young, light-hearted masters of the waves.
Lands and seas, cities and wastes, — all is in this sense alike. All has been many times won and lost, and everywhere is the consciousness that what has been won and lost so often may be won or lost again. What now flourishes may be desolated; what is now desolate has flourished, and may flourish again. Gradually an American perceives that the entire continent is still battlefield as well as graveyard. The ways are all highways; the by-paths also are beaten tracks.
That sense of it all makes us prize our own national exemptions more highly. It tends to make of us chauvinists — or members of peace societies.
And this is what we feel also in a more individual way: not for our country only, but for ourselves. The comparative immunity of America from the acuter sort of international rivalries is no greater, and no more precious, than the comparative immunity of Americans from that more heart-breaking rivalry of man with man, merchant with merchant, worker with worker, artist with artist, beggar with beggar, drab with drab, pimp with pimp, which Europe endlessly displays. That way, it is the older world which shows savagely democratic, coarsely unreserved, nakedly human. The struggle and competition is universal, ceaseless. Every advantage of birth, station, talents, possessions, is seized ruthlessly, wielded remorselessly. The overcrowded earth, yielding not enough for all, is contested and trampled over as in the silent rage of beasts. Men barter frankly what we have not yet come to treat as objects of possession. The least service must be paid for; the gracefulest and noblest-seeming may be meant for pay. Whatever can possibly have value is accurately valued. Hopes and expectations cannot be, as with us, general and vague; they must have their entirely reasoned sources and directions. None expect the unexpected. No lesson of human experience is neglected. Aspiration and generosity are as calculating as avarice and hunger. Art is as clear-eyed as trade. It is as if all took the beaten track. Life is accepted on its own universal, its own hard and final terms.
And yet — there is aspiration and generosity; there is love and sacrifice; there is achievement, and on the noblest lines; there are keen delights. Beauty is not merely possessed as an heirloom, finished and unalterable, but cultivated as a vital principle. It is we, they declare, who are sordid, uninspired, incapable of joyousness. Their acceptance is not despair; it is even, on the whole, something better than resignation.
That is the heartening; not enough, perhaps, to countervail the chill which Europe sheds upon our inexperience, but enough, unless our own spirit is weak, to keep us firm against its daunting. Although walking in the beaten track teach us to go more cautiously, more slowly, it need not subdue us into any slinking gait — surely not into any cowering pause. Although the seeming-boundless range of our opportunity will narrow swiftly, there is yet time to win from it a kind of freedom and symmetry, now unattainable by those pent-up, close-grappled millions, which we may keep. We must part from our heedlessness as from youth; but men do not always, perhaps they do not usually, find in the end that youth was best. Unconsciously, as we reach and accept our limits, we shall ourselves take on a greater dignity, a clearlier marked and more impressive character and form; growing liker the older states and civilizations, yet also more distinct, with whatever distinction there is in all our past. A sweetness and glory of expectation will fade from our eyes. Life will show less simple, less openly inviting, and lose those brighter hues which untrained eyes seek and find in light and superficial pictures. But it will have what it still keeps for Europe and for Asia: a truer and more various, a deeper and more solemn beauty.