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Civic Banquets


It has often perplexed one to imagine how an Englishman will be able to
reconcile himself to any future state of existence from which the earthly
institution of dinner shall he excluded. Even if he fail to take his
appetite along with him (which it seems to me hardly possible to believe,
since this endowment is so essential to his composition), the immortal
day must still admit an interim of two or three hours during which he
will be conscious of a slight distaste, at all events, if not an absolute
repugnance, to merely spiritual nutriment. The idea of dinner has so
imbedded itself among his highest and deepest characteristics, so
illuminated itself with intellect and softened itself with the kindest
emotions of his heart, so linked itself with Church and State, and grown
so majestic with long hereditary customs and ceremonies, that, by taking
it utterly away, Death, instead of putting the final touch to his
perfection, would leave him infinitely less complete than we have already
known him. He could not be roundly happy. Paradise, among all its
enjoyments, would lack one daily felicity which his sombre little island
possessed. Perhaps it is not irreverent to conjecture that a provision
may have been made, in this particular, for the Englishman's exceptional
necessities. It strikes me that Milton was of the opinion here
suggested, and may have intended to throw out a delightful and
consolatory hope for his countrymen, when he represents the genial
archangel as playing his part with such excellent appetite at Adam's
dinner-table, and confining himself to fruit and vegetables only because,
in those early days of her housekeeping, Eve had no more acceptable
viands to set before him. Milton, indeed, had a true English taste for
the pleasures of the table, though refined by the lofty and poetic
discipline to which he had subjected himself. It is delicately implied
in the refection in Paradise, and more substantially, though still
elegantly, betrayed in the sonnet proposing to "Laurence, of virtuous
father virtuous son," a series of nice little dinners in midwinter and it
blazes fully out in that untasted banquet which, elaborate as it was,
Satan tossed up in a trice from the kitchen-ranges of Tartarus.

Among this people, indeed, so wise in their generation, dinner has a kind
of sanctity quite independent of the dishes that may be set upon the
table; so that, if it be only a mutton-chop, they treat it with due
reverence, and are rewarded with a degree of enjoyment which such
reckless devourers as ourselves do not often find in our richest
abundance. It is good to see how staunch they are after fifty or sixty
years of heroic eating, still relying upon their digestive powers and
indulging a vigorous appetite; whereas an American has generally lost the
one and learned to distrust the other long before reaching the earliest
decline of life; and thenceforward he makes little account of his dinner,
and dines at his peril, if at all. I know not whether my countrymen will
allow me to tell them, though I think it scarcely too much to affirm,
that on this side of the water, people never dine. At any rate,
abundantly as Nature has provided us with most of the material
requisites, the highest possible dinner has never yet been eaten in
America. It is the consummate flower of civilization and refinement; and
our inability to produce it, or to appreciate its admirable beauty, if a
happy inspiration should bring it into bloom, marks fatally the limit of
culture which we have attained.

It is not to be supposed, however, that the mob of cultivated Englishmen
know how to dine in this elevated sense. The unpolishable ruggedness of
the national character is still an impediment to them, even in that
particular line where they are best qualified to excel. Though often
present at good men's feasts, I remember only a single dinner, which,
while lamentably conscious that many of its higher excellences were
thrown away upon me, I yet could feel to be a perfect work of art. It
could not, without unpardonable coarseness, be styled a matter of animal
enjoyment, because, out of the very perfection of that lower bliss, there
had arisen a dream-like development of spiritual happiness. As in the
masterpieces of painting and poetry, there was a something intangible, a
final deliciousness that only fluttered about your comprehension,
vanishing whenever you tried to detain it, and compelling you to
recognize it by faith rather than sense. It seemed as if a diviner set
of senses were requisite, and had been partly supplied, for the special
fruition of this banquet, and that the guests around the table (only
eight in number) were becoming so educated, polished, and softened, by
the delicate influences of what they ate and drunk, as to be now a little
more than mortal for the nonce. And there was that gentle, delicious
sadness, too, which we find in the very summit of our most exquisite
enjoyments, and feel it a charm beyond all the gayety through which it
keeps breathing its undertone. In the present case, it was worth a
heavier sigh, to reflect that such a festal achievement,--the production
of so much art, skill, fancy, invention, and perfect taste,--the growth
of all the ages, which appeared to have been ripening for this hour,
since man first began to eat and to moisten his food with wine,--must
lavish its happiness upon so brief a moment, when other beautiful things
can be made a joy forever. Yet a dinner like this is no better than we
can get, any day, at the rejuvenescent Cornhill Coffee-House, unless the
whole man, with soul, intellect, and stomach, is ready to appreciate it,
and unless, moreover, there is such a harmony in all the circumstances
and accompaniments, and especially such a pitch of well-according minds,
that nothing shall jar rudely against the guest's thoroughly awakened
sensibilities. The world, and especially our part of it, being the
rough, ill-assorted, and tumultuous place we find it, a beefsteak is
about as good as any other dinner.

The foregoing reminiscence, however, has drawn me aside from the main
object of my sketch, in which I purposed to give a slight idea of those
public, or partially public banquets, the custom of which so thoroughly
prevails among the English people, that nothing is ever decided upon, in
matters of peace and war, until they have chewed upon it in the shape of
roast-beef, and talked it fully over in their cups. Nor are these
festivities merely occasional, but of stated recurrence in all
considerable municipalities and associated bodies. The most ancient
times appear to have been as familiar with them as the Englishmen of
to-day. In many of the old English towns, you find some stately Gothic
hall or chamber in which the Mayor and other authorities of the place
have long held their sessions; and always, in convenient contiguity,
there is a dusky kitchen, with an immense fireplace where an ox might be
roasting at his ease, though the less gigantic scale of modern cookery
may now have permitted the cobwebs to gather in its chimney. St. Mary's
Hall, in Coventry, is so good a specimen of an ancient banqueting-room,
that perhaps I may profitably devote a page or two to the description
of it.

In a narrow street, opposite to St. Michael's Church, one of the three
famous spires of Coventry, you behold a mediaeval edifice, in the
basement of which is such a venerable and now deserted kitchen as I have
above alluded to, and, on the same level, a cellar, with low stone
pillars and intersecting arches, like the crypt of a cathedral. Passing
up a well-worn staircase, the oaken balustrade of which is as black as
ebony, you enter the fine old hall, some sixty feet in length, and broad
and lofty in proportion. It is lighted by six windows of modern stained
glass, on one side, and by the immense and magnificent arch of another
window at the farther end of the room, its rich and ancient panes
constituting a genuine historical piece, in which are represented some of
the kingly personages of old times, with their heraldic blazonries.
Notwithstanding the colored light thus thrown into the hall, and though
it was noonday when I last saw it, the panelling of black-oak, and some
faded tapestry that hung round the walls, together with the cloudy vault
of the roof above, made a gloom, which the richness only illuminated into
more appreciable effect. The tapestry is wrought with figures in the
dress of Henry VI.'s time (which is the date of the hall), and is
regarded by antiquaries as authentic evidence both for the costume of
that epoch, and, I believe, for the actual portraiture of men known in
history. They are as colorless as ghosts, however, and vanish drearily
into the old stitch-work of their substance when you try to make them
out. Coats-of-arms were formerly emblazoned all round the hall, but have
been almost rubbed out by people hanging their overcoats against them or
by women with dishclouts and scrubbing-brushes, obliterating hereditary
glories in their blind hostility to dust and spiders' webs. Full-length
portraits of several English kings, Charles II. being the earliest, hang
on the walls; and on the dais, or elevated part of the floor, stands an
antique chair of state, which several royal characters are traditionally
said to have occupied while feasting here with their loyal subjects of
Coventry. It is roomy enough for a person of kingly bulk, or even two
such, but angular and uncomfortable, reminding me of the oaken settles
which used to be seen in old-fashioned New England kitchens.

Overhead, supported by a self-sustaining power, without the aid of a
single pillar, is the original ceiling of oak, precisely similar in shape
to the roof of a barn, with all the beams and rafters plainly to be seen.
At the remote height of sixty feet, you hardly discern that they are
carved with figures of angels and doubtless many other devices, of which
the admirable Gothic art is wasted in the duskiness that has so long been
brooding there. Over the entrance of the hall, opposite the great arched
window, the party-colored radiance of which glimmers faintly through the
interval, is a gallery for minstrels; and a row of ancient suits of armor
is suspended from its balustrade. It impresses me, too (for, having gone
so far, I would fain leave nothing untouched upon), that I remember,
somewhere about these venerable precincts, a picture of the Countess
Godiva on horseback, in which the artist has been so niggardly of that
illustrious lady's hair, that, if she had no ampler garniture, there was
certainly much need for the good people of Coventry to shut their eyes.
After all my pains, I fear that I have made but a poor hand at the
description, as regards a transference of the scene from my own mind to
the reader's. It gave me a most vivid idea of antiquity that had been
very little tampered with; insomuch that, if a group of steel-clad
knights had come clanking through the doorway, and a bearded and beruffed
old figure had handed in a stately dame, rustling in gorgeous robes of a
long-forgotten fashion, unveiling a face of beauty somewhat tarnished in
the mouldy tomb, yet stepping majestically to the trill of harp and viol
from the minstrels' gallery, while the rusty armor responded with a
hollow ringing sound beneath,--why, I should have felt that these
shadows, once so familiar with the spot, had a better right in St. Mary's
Hall than I, a stranger from a far country which has no Past. But the
moral of the foregoing description is to show how tenaciously this love
of pompous dinners, this reverence for dinner as a sacred institution,
has caught hold of the English character; since, from the earliest
recognizable period, we find them building their civic banqueting-halls
as magnificently as their palaces or cathedrals.

I know not whether the hall just described is now used for festive
purposes, but others of similar antiquity and splendor still are. For
example, there is Barber-Surgeons' Hall, in London, a very fine old room,
adorned with admirably carved wood-work on the ceiling and walls. It is
also enriched with Holbein's masterpiece, representing a grave assemblage
of barbers and surgeons, all portraits (with such extensive beards that
methinks one half of the company might have been profitably occupied in
trimming the other), kneeling before King Henry VIII. Sir Robert Peel is
said to have offered a thousand pounds for the liberty of cutting out one
of the heads from this picture, he conditioning to have a perfect
facsimile painted in. The room has many other pictures of distinguished
members of the company in long-past times, and of some of the monarchs
and statesmen of England, all darkened with age, but darkened into such
ripe magnificence as only age could bestow. It is not my design to
inflict any more specimens of ancient hall-painting on the reader; but it
may be worth while to touch upon other modes of stateliness that still
survive in these time-honored civic feasts, where there appears to be a
singular assumption of dignity and solemn pomp by respectable citizens
who would never dream of claiming any privilege of rank outside of their
own sphere. Thus, I saw two caps of state for the warden and junior
warden of the company, caps of silver (real coronets or crowns, indeed,
for these city-grandees) wrought in open-work and lined with crimson
velvet. In a strong-closet, opening from the hall, there was a great
deal of rich plate to furnish forth the banquet-table, comprising
hundreds of forks and spoons, a vast silver punch-bowl, the gift of some
jolly king or other, and, besides a multitude of less noticeable vessels,
two loving-cups, very elaborately wrought in silver gilt, one presented
by Henry VIII., the other by Charles II. These cups, including the
covers and pedestals, are very large and weighty, although the bowl-part
would hardly contain more than half a pint of wine, which, when the
custom was first established, each guest was probably expected to drink
off at a draught. In passing them from hand to hand adown a long table
of compotators, there is a peculiar ceremony which I may hereafter have
occasion to describe. Meanwhile, if I might assume such a liberty, I
should be glad to invite the reader to the official dinner-table of his
Worship, the Mayor, at a large English seaport where I spent several
years.

The Mayor's dinner-parties occur as often as once a fortnight, and,
inviting his guests by fifty or sixty at a time, his Worship probably
assembles at his board most of the eminent citizens and distinguished
personages of the town and neighborhood more than once during his year's
incumbency, and very much, no doubt, to the promotion of good feeling
among individuals of opposite parties and diverse pursuits in life. A
miscellaneous party of Englishmen can always find more comfortable ground
to meet upon than as many Americans, their differences of opinion being
incomparably less radical than ours, and it being the sincerest wish of
all their hearts, whether they call themselves Liberals or what not, that
nothing in this world shall ever be greatly altered from what it has been
and is. Thus there is seldom such a virulence of political hostility
that it may not be dissolved in a glass or two of wine, without making
the good liquor any more dry or bitter than accords with English taste.

The first dinner of this kind at which I had the honor to be present took
place during assize-time, and included among the guests the judges and
the prominent members of the bar. Reaching the Town Hall at seven
o'clock, I communicated my name to one of several splendidly dressed
footmen, and he repeated it to another on the first staircase, by whom it
was passed to a third, and thence to a fourth at the door of the
reception-room, losing all resemblance to the original sound in the
course of these transmissions; so that I had the advantage of making my
entrance in the character of a stranger, not only to the whole company,
but to myself as well. His Worship, however, kindly recognized me, and
put me on speaking-terms with two or three gentlemen, whom I found very
affable, and all the more hospitably attentive on the score of my
nationality. It is very singular how kind an Englishman will almost
invariably be to an individual American, without ever bating a jot of his
prejudice against the American character in the lump. My new
acquaintances took evident pains to put me at my ease; and, in requital
of their good-nature, I soon began to look round at the general company
in a critical spirit, making my crude observations apart, and drawing
silent inferences, of the correctness of which I should not have been
half so well satisfied a year afterwards as at that moment.

There were two judges present, a good many lawyers, and a few officers of
the army in uniform. The other guests seemed to be principally of the
mercantile class, and among them was a ship-owner from Nova Scotia, with
whom I coalesced a little, inasmuch as we were born with the same sky
over our heads, and an unbroken continuity of soil between his abode and
mine. There was one old gentleman, whose character I never made out,
with powdered hair, clad in black breeches and silk stockings, and
wearing a rapier at his side; otherwise, with the exception of the
military uniforms, there was little or no pretence of official costume.
It being the first considerable assemblage of Englishmen that I had seen,
my honest impression about then was, that they were a heavy and homely
set of people, with a remarkable roughness of aspect and behavior, not
repulsive, but beneath which it required more familiarity with the
national character than I then possessed always to detect the good
breeding of a gentleman. Being generally middle-aged, or still further
advanced, they were by no means graceful in figure; for the comeliness of
the youthful Englishman rapidly diminishes with years, his body appearing
to grow longer, his legs to abbreviate themselves, and his stomach to
assume the dignified prominence which justly belongs to that metropolis
of his system. His face (what with the acridity of the atmosphere, ale
at lunch, wine at dinner, and a well-digested abundance of succulent
food) gets red and mottled, and develops at least one additional chin,
with a promise of more; so that, finally, a stranger recognizes his
animal part at the most superficial glance, but must take time and a
little pains to discover the intellectual. Comparing him with an
American, I really thought that our national paleness and lean habit of
flesh gave us greatly the advantage in an aesthetic point of view. It
seemed to me, moreover, that the English tailor had not done so much as
he might and ought for these heavy figures, but had gone on wilfully
exaggerating their uncouthness by the roominess of their garments; he had
evidently no idea of accuracy of fit, and smartness was entirely out of
his line. But, to be quite open with the reader, I afterwards learned to
think that this aforesaid tailor has a deeper art than his brethren among
ourselves, knowing how to dress his customers with such individual
propriety that they look as if they were born in their clothes, the fit
being to the character rather than the form. If you make an Englishman
smart (unless he be a very exceptional one, of whom I have seen a few),
you make him a monster; his best aspect is that of ponderous
respectability.

To make an end of these first impressions, I fancied that not merely the
Suffolk bar, but the bar of any inland county in New England, might show
a set of thin-visaged men, looking wretchedly worn, sallow, deeply
wrinkled across the forehead, and grimly furrowed about the mouth, with
whom these heavy-checked English lawyers, slow-paced and fat-witted as
they must needs be, would stand very little chance in a professional
contest. How that matter might turn out, I am unqualified to decide.
But I state these results of my earliest glimpses at Englishmen, not for
what they are worth, but because I ultimately gave them up as worth
little or nothing. In course of time, I came to the conclusion that
Englishmen of all ages are a rather good-looking people, dress in
admirable taste from their own point of view, and, under a surface never
silken to the touch, have a refinement of manners too thorough and
genuine to be thought of as a separate endowment,--that is to say, if the
individual himself be a man of station, and has had gentlemen for his
father and grandfather. The sturdy Anglo-Saxon nature does not refine
itself short of the third generation. The tradesmen, too, and all other
classes, have their own proprieties. The only value of my criticisms,
therefore, lay in their exemplifying the proneness of a traveller to
measure one people by the distinctive characteristics of another,--as
English writers invariably measure us, and take upon themselves to be
disgusted accordingly, instead of trying to find out some principle of
beauty with which we may be in conformity.

In due time we were summoned to the table, and went thither in no solemn
procession, but with a good deal of jostling, thrusting behind, and
scrambling for places when we reached our destination. The legal
gentlemen, I suspect, were responsible for this indecorous zeal, which I
never afterwards remarked in a similar party. The dining-hall was of
noble size, and, like the other rooms of the suite, was gorgeously
painted and gilded and brilliantly illuminated. There was a splendid
table-service, and a noble array of footmen, some of them in plain
clothes, and others wearing the town-livery, richly decorated with
gold-lace, and themselves excellent specimens of the blooming young
manhood of Britain. When we were fairly seated, it was certainly an
agreeable spectacle to look up and down the long vista of earnest faces,
and behold them so resolute, so conscious that there was an important
business in hand, and so determined to be equal to the occasion. Indeed,
Englishman or not, I hardly know what can be prettier than a snow-white
table-cloth, a huge heap of flowers as a central decoration, bright
silver, rich china, crystal glasses, decanters of Sherry at due
intervals, a French roll and an artistically folded napkin at each plate,
all that airy portion of a banquet, in short, that comes before the first
mouthful, the whole illuminated by a blaze of artificial light, without
which a dinner of made-dishes looks spectral, and the simplest viands are
the best. Printed bills-of-fare were distributed, representing an
abundant feast, no part of which appeared on the table until called for
in separate plates. I have entirely forgotten what it was, but deem it
no great matter, inasmuch as there is a pervading commonplace and
identicalness in the composition of extensive dinners, on account of the
impossibility of supplying a hundred guests with anything particularly
delicate or rare. It was suggested to me that certain juicy old
gentlemen had a private understanding what to call for, and that it would
be good policy in a stranger to follow in their footsteps through the
feast. I did not care to do so, however, because, like Sancho Panza's
dip out of Camacho's caldron, any sort of pot-luck at such a table would
be sure to suit my purpose; so I chose a dish or two on my own judgment,
and, getting through my labors betimes, had great pleasure in seeing the
Englishmen toil onward to the end.

They drank rather copiously, too, though wisely; for I observed that they
seldom took Hock, and let the Champagne bubble slowly away out of the
goblet, solacing themselves with Sherry, but tasting it warily before
bestowing their final confidence. Their taste in wines, however, did not
seem so exquisite, and certainly was not so various, as that to which
many Americans pretend. This foppery of an intimate acquaintance with
rare vintages does not suit a sensible Englishman, as he is very much in
earnest about his wines, and adopts one or two as his lifelong friends,
seldom exchanging them for any Delilahs of a moment, and reaping the
reward of his constancy in an unimpaired stomach, and only so much gout
as he deems wholesome and desirable. Knowing well the measure of his
powers, he is not apt to fill his glass too often. Society, indeed,
would hardly tolerate habitual imprudences of that kind, though, in my
opinion, the Englishmen now upon the stage could carry off their three
bottles, at need, with as steady a gait as any of their forefathers. It
is not so very long since the three-bottle heroes sank finally under the
table. It may be (at least, I should be glad if it were true) that there
was an occult sympathy between our temperance reform, now somewhat in
abeyance, and the almost simultaneous disappearance of hard-drinking
among the respectable classes in England. I remember a middle-aged
gentleman telling me (in illustration of the very slight importance
attached to breaches of temperance within the memory of men not yet old)
that he had seen a certain magistrate, Sir John Linkwater, or
Drinkwater,--but I think the jolly old knight could hardly have staggered
under so perverse a misnomer as this last,--while sitting on the
magisterial bench, pull out a crown-piece and hand it to the clerk. "Mr.
Clerk," said Sir John, as if it were the most indifferent fact in the
world, "I was drunk last night. There are my five shillings."

During the dinner, I had a good deal of pleasant conversation with the
gentlemen on either side of me. One of them, a lawyer, expatiated with
great unction on the social standing of the judges. Representing the
dignity and authority of the Crown, they take precedence, during
assize-time, of the highest military men in the kingdom, of the
Lord-Lieutenant of the county, of the Archbishops, of the royal Dukes,
and even of the Prince of Wales. For the nonce, they are the greatest
men in England. With a glow of professional complacency that amounted to
enthusiasm, my friend assured me, that, in case of a royal dinner, a
judge, if actually holding an assize, would be expected to offer his arm
and take the Queen herself to the table. Happening to be in company with
some of these elevated personages, on subsequent occasions, it appeared
to me that the judges are fully conscious of their paramount claims to
respect, and take rather more pains to impress them on their ceremonial
inferiors than men of high hereditary rank are apt to do. Bishops, if it
be not irreverent to say so, are sometimes marked by a similar
characteristic. Dignified position is so sweet to an Englishman, that he
needs to be born in it, and to feel it thoroughly incorporated with his
nature from its original germ, in order to keep him from flaunting it
obtrusively in the faces of innocent bystanders.

My companion on the other side was a thick-set, middle-aged man, uncouth
in manners, and ugly where none were handsome, with a dark, roughly hewn
visage, that looked grim in repose, and secured to hold within itself
the machinery of a very terrific frown. He ate with resolute appetite,
and let slip few opportunities of imbibing whatever liquids happened to
be passing by. I was meditating in what way this grisly featured
table-fellow might most safely be accosted, when he turned to me with a
surly sort of kindness, and invited me to take a glass of wine. We then
began a conversation that abounded, on his part, with sturdy sense, and,
somehow or other, brought me closer to him than I had yet stood to an
Englishman. I should hardly have taken him to be an educated man,
certainly not a scholar of accurate training; and yet he seemed to have
all the resources of education and trained intellectual power at command.
My fresh Americanism, and watchful observation of English
characteristics, appeared either to interest or amuse him, or perhaps
both. Under the mollifying influences of abundance of meat and drink, he
grew very gracious (not that I ought to use such a phrase to describe his
evidently genuine good-will), and by and by expressed a wish for further
acquaintance, asking me to call at his rooms in London and inquire for
Sergeant Wilkins,--throwing out the name forcibly, as if he had no
occasion to be ashamed of it. I remembered Dean Swift's retort to
Sergeant Bettesworth on a similar announcement,--"Of what regiment, pray,
sir?"--and fancied that the same question might not have been quite
amiss, if applied to the rugged individual at my side. But I heard of
him subsequently as one of the prominent men at the English bar, a rough
customer, and a terribly strong champion in criminal cases; and it caused
me more regret than might have been expected, on so slight an
acquaintanceship, when, not long afterwards, I saw his death announced in
the newspapers. Not rich in attractive qualities, he possessed, I think,
the most attractive one of all,--thorough manhood.

After the cloth was removed, a goodly group of decanters were set before
the Mayor, who sent them forth on their outward voyage, full freighted
with Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Claret, of which excellent liquors,
methought, the latter found least acceptance among the guests. When
every man had filled his glass, his Worship stood up and proposed a
toast. It was, of course, "Our gracious Sovereign," or words to that
effect; and immediately a band of musicians, whose preliminary footings
and thrummings I had already heard behind me, struck up "God save the
Queen," and the whole company rose with one impulse to assist in singing
that famous national anthem. It was the first time in my life that I had
ever seen a body of men, or even a single man, under the active influence
of the sentiment of Loyalty; for, though we call ourselves loyal to our
country and institutions, and prove it by our readiness to shed blood and
sacrifice life in their behalf, still the principle is as cold and hard,
in an American bosom, as the steel spring that puts in motion a powerful
machinery. In the Englishman's system, a force similar to that of our
steel spring is generated by the warm throbbings of human hearts. He
clothes our bare abstraction in flesh and blood,--at present, in the
flesh and blood of a woman,--and manages to combine love, awe, and
intellectual reverence, all in one emotion, and to embody his mother, his
wife, his children, the whole idea of kindred, in a single person, and
make her the representative of his country and its laws. We Americans
smile superior, as I did at the Mayor's table; and yet, I fancy, we lose
some very agreeable titillations of the heart in consequence of our proud
prerogative of caring no more about our President than for a man of
straw, or a stuffed scarecrow straddling in a cornfield.

But, to say the truth, the spectacle struck me rather ludicrously, to see
this party of stout middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, in the fulness of
meat and drink, their ample and ruddy faces glistening with wine,
perspiration, and enthusiasm, rumbling out those strange old stanzas from
the very bottom of their hearts and stomachs, which two organs, in the
English interior arrangement, lie closer together than in ours. The song
seemed to me the rudest old ditty in the world; but I could not wonder at
its universal acceptance and indestructible popularity, considering how
inimitably it expresses the national faith and feeling as regards the
inevitable righteousness of England, the Almighty's consequent respect
and partiality for that redoubtable little island, and his presumed
readiness to strengthen its defence against the contumacious wickedness
and knavery of all other principalities or republics. Tennyson himself,
though evidently English to the very last prejudice, could not write half
so good a song for the purpose. Finding that the entire dinner-table
struck in, with voices of every pitch between rolling thunder and the
squeak of a cart-wheel, and that the strain was not of such delicacy as
to be much hurt by the harshest of them, I determined to lend my own
assistance in swelling the triumphant roar. It seemed but a proper
courtesy to the first Lady in the land, whose guest, in the largest
sense, I might consider myself. Accordingly, my first tuneful efforts
(and probably my last, for I purpose not to sing any more, unless it he
"Hail Columbia" on the restoration of the Union) were poured freely forth
in honor of Queen Victoria. The Sergeant smiled like the carved head of
a Swiss nutcracker, and the other gentlemen in my neighborhood, by nods
and gestures, evinced grave approbation of so suitable a tribute to
English superiority; and we finished our stave and sat down in an
extremely happy frame of mind.

Other toasts followed in honor of the great institutions and interests of
the country, and speeches in response to each were made by individuals
whom the Mayor designated or the company called for. None of them
impressed me with a very high idea of English postprandial oratory. It
is inconceivable, indeed, what ragged and shapeless utterances most
Englishmen are satisfied to give vent to, without attempting anything
like artistic shape, but clapping on a patch here and another there, and
ultimately getting out what they want to say, and generally with a result
of sufficiently good sense, but in some such disorganized mass as if they
had thrown it up rather than spoken it. It seemed to me that this was
almost as much by choice as necessity. An Englishman, ambitious of
public favor, should not be too smooth. If an orator is glib, his
countrymen distrust him. They dislike smartness. The stronger and
heavier his thoughts, the better, provided there be an element of
commonplace running through them; and any rough, yet never vulgar force
of expression, such as would knock an opponent down, if it hit him, only
it must not be too personal, is altogether to their taste; but a studied
neatness of language, or other such superficial graces, they cannot
abide. They do not often permit a man to make himself a fine orator of
malice aforethought, that is, unless he be a nobleman (as, for example,
Lord Stanley, of the Derby family), who, as an hereditary legislator and
necessarily a public speaker, is bound to remedy a poor natural delivery
in the best way he can. On the whole, I partly agree with them, and, if
I cared for any oratory whatever, should be as likely to applaud theirs
as our own. When an English speaker sits down, you feel that you have
been listening to a real man, and not to an actor; his sentiments have a
wholesome earth-smell in them, though, very likely, this apparent
naturalness is as much an art as what we expend in rounding a sentence or
elaborating a peroration.

It is one good effect of this inartificial style, that nobody in England
seems to feel any shyness about shovelling the untrimmed and untrimmable
ideas out of his mind for the benefit of an audience. At least, nobody
did on the occasion now in hand, except a poor little Major of Artillery,
who responded for the Army in a thin, quavering voice, with a terribly
hesitating trickle of fragmentary ideas, and, I question not, would
rather have been bayoneted in front of his batteries than to have said a
word. Not his own mouth, but the cannon's, was this poor Major's proper
organ of utterance.

While I was thus amiably occupied in criticising my fellow-guests, the
Mayor had got up to propose another toast; and listening rather
inattentively to the first sentence or two, I soon became sensible of a
drift in his Worship's remarks that made me glance apprehensively towards
Sergeant Wilkins. "Yes," grumbled that gruff personage, shoving a
decanter of Port towards me, "it is your turn next"; and seeing in my
face, I suppose, the consternation of a wholly unpractised orator, he
kindly added, "It is nothing. A mere acknowledgment will answer the
purpose. The less you say, the better they will like it." That being
the case, I suggested that perhaps they would like it best if I said
nothing at all. But the Sergeant shook his head. Now, on first
receiving the Mayor's invitation to dinner, it had occurred to me that I
might possibly be brought into my present predicament; but I had
dismissed the idea from my mind as too disagreeable to be entertained,
and, moreover, as so alien from my disposition and character that Fate
surely could not keep such a misfortune in store for me. If nothing else
prevented, an earthquake or the crack of doom would certainly interfere
before I need rise to speak. Yet here was the Mayor getting on
inexorably,--and, indeed, I heartily wished that he might get on and on
forever, and of his wordy wanderings find no end.

If the gentle reader, my kindest friend and closest confidant, deigns to
desire it, I can impart to him my own experience as a public speaker
quite as indifferently as if it concerned another person. Indeed, it
does concern another, or a mere spectral phenomenon, for it was not I, in
my proper and natural self, that sat there at table or subsequently rose
to speak. At the moment, then, if the choice had been offered me whether
the Mayor should let off a speech at my head or a pistol, I should
unhesitatingly have taken the latter alternative. I had really nothing
to say, not an idea in my head, nor, which was a great deal worse, any
flowing words or embroidered sentences in which to dress out that empty
Nothing, and give it a cunning aspect of intelligence, such as might last
the poor vacuity the little time it had to live. But time pressed; the
Mayor brought his remarks, affectionately eulogistic of the United States
and highly complimentary to their distinguished representative at that
table, to a close, amid a vast deal of cheering; and the band struck up
"Hail Columbia," I believe, though it might have been "Old Hundred," or
"God save the Queen" over again, for anything that I should have known or
cared. When the music ceased, there was an intensely disagreeable
instant, during which I seemed to rend away and fling off the habit of a
lifetime, and rose, still void of ideas, but with preternatural
composure, to make a speech. The guests rattled on the table, and cried,
"Hear!" most vociferously, as if now, at length, in this foolish and idly
garrulous world, had come the long-expected moment when one golden word
was to be spoken; and in that imminent crisis, I caught a glimpse of a
little bit of an effusion of international sentiment, which it might, and
must, and should do to utter.

Well; it was nothing, as the Sergeant had said. What surprised me most,
was the sound of my own voice, which I had never before heard at a
declamatory pitch, and which impressed me as belonging to some other
person, who, and not myself, would be responsible for the speech: a
prodigious consolation and encouragement under the circumstances! I went
on without the slightest embarrassment, and sat down amid great applause,
wholly undeserved by anything that I had spoken, but well won from
Englishmen, methought, by the new development of pluck that alone had
enabled me to speak at all. "It was handsomely done!" quoth Sergeant
Wilkins; and I felt like a recruit who had been for the first time under
fire.

I would gladly have ended my oratorical career then and there forever,
but was often placed in a similar or worse position, and compelled to
meet it as I best might; for this was one of the necessities of an office
which I had voluntarily taken on my shoulders, and beneath which I might
be crushed by no moral delinquency on my own part, but could not shirk
without cowardice and shame. My subsequent fortune was various. Once,
though I felt it to be a kind of imposture, I got a speech by heart, and
doubtless it might have been a very pretty one, only I forgot every
syllable at the moment of need, and had to improvise another as well as I
could. I found it a better method to prearrange a few points in my mind,
and trust to the spur of the occasion, and the kind aid of Providence,
for enabling me to bring them to bear. The presence of any considerable
proportion of personal friends generally dumbfounded me. I would rather
have talked with an enemy in the gate. Invariably, too, I was much
embarrassed by a small audience, and succeeded better with a large one,--
the sympathy of a multitude possessing a buoyant effect, which lifts the
speaker a little way out of his individuality and tosses him towards a
perhaps better range of sentiment than his private one. Again, if I rose
carelessly and confidently, with an expectation of going through the
business entirely at my ease, I often found that I had little or nothing
to say; whereas, if I came to the charge in perfect despair, and at a
crisis when failure would have been horrible, it once or twice happened
that the frightful emergency concentrated my poor faculties, and enabled
me to give definite and vigorous expression to sentiments which an
instant before looked as vague and far off as the clouds in the
atmosphere. On the whole, poor as my own success may have been, I
apprehend that any intelligent man with a tongue possesses the chief
requisite of oratorical power, and may develop many of the others, if he
deems it worth while to bestow a great amount of labor and pains on an
object which the most accomplished orators, I suspect, have not found
altogether satisfactory to their highest impulses. At any rate, it must
be a remarkably true man who can keep his own elevated conception of
truth when the lower feeling of a multitude is assailing his natural
sympathies, and who can speak out frankly the best that there is in him,
when by adulterating it a little, or a good deal, he knows that he may
make it ten times as acceptable to the audience.


This slight article on the civic banquets of England would be too
wretchedly imperfect, without an attempted description of a Lord Mayor's
dinner at the Mansion House in London. I should have preferred the
annual feast at Guildhall, but never had the good fortune to witness it.
Once, however, I was honored with an invitation to one of the regular
dinners, and gladly accepted it,--taking the precaution, nevertheless,
though it hardly seemed necessary, to inform the City-King, through a
mutual friend, that I was no fit representative of American eloquence,
and must humbly make it a condition that I should not be expected to open
my mouth, except for the reception of his Lordship's bountiful
hospitality. The reply was gracious and acquiescent; so that I presented
myself in the great entrance-hall of the Mansion House, at half past six
o'clock, in a state of most enjoyable freedom from the pusillanimous
apprehensions that often tormented me at such times. The Mansion House
was built in Queen Anne's days, in the very heart of old London, and is a
palace worthy of its inhabitant, were he really as great a man as his
traditionary state and pomp would seem to indicate. Times are changed,
however, since the days of Whittington, or even of Hogarth's Industrious
Apprentice, to whom the highest imaginable reward of lifelong integrity
was a seat in the Lord Mayor's chair. People nowadays say that the real
dignity and importance have perished out of the office, as they do,
sooner or later, out of all earthly institutions, leaving only a painted
and gilded shell like that of an Easter egg, and that it is only
second-rate and third-rate men who now condescend to be ambitious of the
Mayoralty. I felt a little grieved at this; for the original emigrants
of New England had strong sympathies with the people of London, who were
mostly Puritans in religion and Parliamentarians in politics, in the
early days of our country; so that the Lord Mayor was a potentate of huge
dimensions in the estimation of our forefathers, and held to be hardly
second to the prime minister of the throne. The true great men of the
city now appear to have aims beyond city greatness, connecting themselves
with national politics, and seeking to be identified with the aristocracy
of the country.

In the entrance-hall I was received by a body of footmen dressed in a
livery of blue coats and buff breeches, in which they looked wonderfully
like American Revolutionary generals, only bedizened with far more lace
and embroidery than those simple and grand old heroes ever dreamed of
wearing. There were likewise two very imposing figures, whom I should
have taken to be military men of rank, being arrayed in scarlet coats and
large silver epaulets; but they turned out to be officers of the Lord
Mayor's household, and were now employed in assigning to the guests the
places which they were respectively to occupy at the dinner-table. Our
names (for I had included myself in a little group of friends) were
announced; and ascending the staircase, we met his Lordship in the
doorway of the first reception-room, where, also, we had the advantage of
a presentation to the Lady Mayoress. As this distinguished couple
retired into private life at the termination of their year of office, it
is inadmissible to make any remarks, critical or laudatory, on the
manners and bearing of two personages suddenly emerging from a position
of respectable mediocrity into one of pre-eminent dignity within their
own sphere. Such individuals almost always seem to grow nearly or quite
to the full size of their office. If it were desirable to write an essay
on the latent aptitude of ordinary people for grandeur, we have an
exemplification in our own country, and on a scale incomparably greater
than that of the Mayoralty, though invested with nothing like the outward
magnificence that gilds and embroiders the latter. If I have been
correctly informed, the Lord Mayor's salary is exactly double that of the
President of the United States, and yet is found very inadequate to his
necessary expenditure.

There were two reception-rooms, thrown into one by the opening of wide
folding-doors; and though in an old style, and not yet so old as to be
venerable, they are remarkably handsome apartments, lofty as well as
spacious, with carved ceilings and walls, and at either end a splendid
fireplace of white marble, ornamented with sculptured wreaths of flowers
and foliage. The company were about three hundred, many of them
celebrities in politics, war, literature, and science, though I recollect
none preeminently distinguished in either department. But it is
certainly a pleasant mode of doing honor to men of literature, for
example, who deserve well of the public, yet do not often meet it face to
face, thus to bring them together under genial auspices, in connection
with persons of note in other lines. I know not what may be the Lord
Mayor's mode or principle of selecting his guests, nor whether, during
his official term, he can proffer his hospitality to every man of
noticeable talent in the wide world of London, nor, in fine, whether his
Lordship's invitation is much sought for or valued; but it seemed to me
that this periodical feast is one of the many sagacious methods which the
English have contrived for keeping up a good understanding among
different sorts of people. Like most other distinctions of society,
however, I presume that the Lord Mayor's card does not often seek out
modest merit, but comes at last when the recipient is conscious of the
bore, and doubtful about the honor.

One very pleasant characteristic, which I never met with at any other
public or partially public dinner, was the presence of ladies. No doubt,
they were principally the wives and daughters of city magnates; and if we
may judge from the many sly allusions in old plays and satirical poems,
the city of London has always been famous for the beauty of its women and
the reciprocal attractions between them and the men of quality. Be that
as it might, while straying hither and thither through those crowded
apartments, I saw much reason for modifying certain heterodox opinions
which I had imbibed, in my Transatlantic newness and rawness, as regarded
the delicate character and frequent occurrence of English beauty. To
state the entire truth (being, at this period, some years old in English
life), my taste, I fear, had long since begun to be deteriorated by
acquaintance with other models of feminine loveliness than it was my
happiness to know in America. I often found, or seemed to find, if I may
dare to confess it, in the persons of such of my dear countrywomen as I
now occasionally met, a certain meagreness, (Heaven forbid that I should
call it scrawniness!) a deficiency of physical development, a scantiness,
so to speak, in the pattern of their material make, a paleness of
complexion, a thinness of voice,--all of which characteristics,
nevertheless, only made me resolve so much the more sturdily to uphold
these fair creatures as angels, because I was sometimes driven to a
half-acknowledgment, that the English ladies, looked at from a lower
point of view, were perhaps a little finer animals than they. The
advantages of the latter, if any they could really be said to have,
were all comprised in a few additional lumps of clay on their shoulders
and other parts of their figures. It would be a pitiful bargain to
give up the ethereal charm of American beauty in exchange for half a
hundred-weight of human clay!

At a given signal we all found our way into an immense room, called the
Egyptian Hall, I know not why, except that the architecture was classic,
and as different as possible from the ponderous style of Memphis and the
Pyramids. A powerful band played inspiringly as we entered, and a
brilliant profusion of light shone down on two long tables, extending the
whole length of the hall, and a cross-table between them, occupying
nearly its entire breadth. Glass gleamed and silver glistened on an acre
or two of snowy damask, over which were set out all the accompaniments of
a stately feast. We found our places without much difficulty, and the
Lord Mayor's chaplain implored a blessing on the food,--a ceremony which
the English never omit, at a great dinner or a small one, yet consider, I
fear, not so much a religious rite as a sort of preliminary relish before
the soup.

The soup, of course, on this occasion, was turtle, of which, in
accordance with immemorial custom, each guest was allowed two platefuls,
in spite of the otherwise immitigable law of table-decorum. Indeed,
judging from the proceedings of the gentlemen near me, I surmised that
there was no practical limit, except the appetite of the guests and the
capacity of the soup-tureens. Not being fond of this civic dainty, I
partook of it but once, and then only in accordance with the wise maxim,
always to taste a fruit, a wine, or a celebrated dish, at its indigenous
site; and the very fountain-head of turtle-soup, I suppose, is in the
Lord Mayor's dinner-pot. It is one of those orthodox customs which
people follow for half a century without knowing why, to drink a sip of
rum-punch, in a very small tumbler, after the soup. It was excellently
well-brewed, and it seemed to me almost worth while to sup the soup for
the sake of sipping the punch. The rest of the dinner was catalogued in
a bill-of-fare printed on delicate white paper within an arabesque border
of green and gold. It looked very good, not only in the English and
French names of the numerous dishes, but also in the positive reality of
the dishes themselves, which were all set on the table to be carved and
distributed by the guests. This ancient and honest method is attended
with a good deal of trouble, and a lavish effusion of gravy, yet by no
means bestowed or dispensed in vain, because you have thereby the
absolute assurance of a banquet actually before your eyes, instead of a
shadowy promise in the bill-of-fare, and such meagre fulfilment as a
single guest can contrive to get upon his individual plate. I wonder
that Englishmen, who are fond of looking at prize-oxen in the shape of
butcher's-meat, do not generally better estimate the aesthetic gormandism
of devouring the whole dinner with their eyesight, before proceeding to
nibble the comparatively few morsels which, after all, the most heroic
appetite and widest stomachic capacity of mere mortals can enable even an
alderman really to eat. There fell to my lot three delectable things
enough, which I take pains to remember, that the reader may not go away
wholly unsatisfied from the Barmecide feast to which I have bidden him,--
a red mullet, a plate of mushrooms, exquisitely stewed, and part of a
ptarmigan, a bird of the same family as the grouse, but feeding high up
towards the summit of the Scotch mountains, whence it gets a wild
delicacy of flavor very superior to that of the artificially nurtured
English game-fowl. All the other dainties have vanished from my memory
as completely as those of Prospero's banquet after Ariel had clapped his
wings over it. The band played at intervals inspiriting us to new
efforts, as did likewise the sparkling wines which the footmen supplied
from an inexhaustible cellar, and which the guests quaffed with little
apparent reference to the disagreeable fact that there comes a to-morrow
morning after every feast. As long as that shall be the case, a prudent
man can never have full enjoyment of his dinner.

Nearly opposite to me, on the other side of the table, sat a young lady
in white, whom I am sorely tempted to describe, but dare not, because
not only the supereminence of her beauty, but its peculiar character,
would cause the sketch to be recognized, however rudely it might be
drawn. I hardly thought that there existed such a woman outside of a
picture-frame, or the covers of a romance: not that I had ever met with
her resemblance even there, but, being so distinct and singular an
apparition; she seemed likelier to find her sisterhood in poetry and
picture than in real life. Let us turn away from her, lest a touch too
apt should compel her stately and cold and soft and womanly grace to
gleam out upon my page with a strange repulsion and unattainableness in
the very spell that made her beautiful. At her side, and familiarly
attentive to her, sat a gentleman of whom I remember only a hard outline
of the nose and forehead, and such a monstrous portent of a beard that
you could discover no symptom of a mouth, except, when he opened it to
speak, or to put in a morsel of food. Then, indeed, you suddenly became
aware of a cave hidden behind the impervious and darksome shrubbery.
There could be no doubt who this gentleman and lady were. Any child
would have recognized them at a glance. It was Bluebeard and a new wife
(the loveliest of the series, but with already a mysterious gloom
overshadowing her fair young brow) travelling in their honeymoon, and
dining, among other distinguished strangers, at the Lord Mayor's table.

After an hour or two of valiant achievement with knife and fork came the
dessert; and at the point of the festival where finger-glasses are
usually introduced, a large silver basin was carried round to the guests,
containing rose-water, into which we dipped the ends of our napkins and
were conscious of a delightful fragrance, instead of that heavy and weary
odor, the hateful ghost of a defunct dinner. This seems to be an ancient
custom of the city, not confined to the Lord Mayor's table, but never met
with westward of Temple Bar.

During all the feast, in accordance with another ancient custom, the
origin or purport of which I do not remember to have heard, there stood a
man in armor, with a helmet on his head, behind his Lordship's chair.
When the after-dinner wine was placed on the table, still another
official personage appeared behind the chair, and proceeded to make a
solemn and sonorous proclamation (in which he enumerated the principal
guests, comprising three or four noblemen, several baronets, and plenty
of generals, members of Parliament, aldermen, and other names of the
illustrious, one of which sounded strangely familiar to my ears), ending
in some such style as this: "and other gentlemen and ladies, here
present, the Lord Mayor drinks to you all in a loving-cup,"--giving a
sort, of sentimental twang to the two words,--"and sends it round among
you!" And forthwith the loving-cup--several of them, indeed, on each
side of the tables--came slowly down with all the antique ceremony.

The fashion of it is thus. The Lord Mayor, standing up and taking the
covered cup in both hands, presents it to the guest at his elbow, who
likewise rises, and removes the cover for his Lordship to drink, which
being successfully accomplished, the guest replaces the cover and
receives the cup into his own hands. He then presents it to his next
neighbor, that the cover may be again removed for himself to take a
draught, after which the third person goes through a similar manoeuvre
with a fourth, and he with a fifth, until the whole company find
themselves inextricably intertwisted and entangled in one complicated
chain of love. When the cup came to my hands, I examined it critically,
both inside and out, and perceived it to be an antique and richly
ornamented silver goblet, capable of holding about a quart of wine.
Considering how much trouble we all expended in getting the cup to our
lips, the guests appeared to content themselves with wonderfully moderate
potations. In truth, nearly or quite the original quart of wine being
still in the goblet, it seemed doubtful whether any of the company had
more than barely touched the silver rim before passing it to their
neighbors,--a degree of abstinence that might be accounted for by a
fastidious repugnance to so many compotators in one cup, or possibly by a
disapprobation of the liquor. Being curious to know all about these
important matters, with a view of recommending to my countrymen whatever
they might usefully adopt, I drank an honest sip from the loving-cup, and
had no occasion for another,--ascertaining it to be Claret of a poor
original quality, largely mingled with water, and spiced and sweetened.
It was good enough, however, for a merely spectral or ceremonial drink,
and could never have been intended for any better purpose.

The toasts now began in the customary order, attended with speeches
neither more nor less witty and ingenious than the specimens of
table-eloquence which had heretofore delighted me. As preparatory to
each new display, the herald, or whatever he was, behind the chair of
state, gave awful notice that the Right Honorable the Lord Mayor was
about to propose a toast. His Lordship being happily delivered thereof,
together with some accompanying remarks, the band played an appropriate
tune, and the herald again issued proclamation to the effect that such or
such a nobleman, or gentleman, general, dignified clergyman, or what not,
was going to respond to the Right Honorable the Lord Mayor's toast; then,
if I mistake not, there was another prodigious flourish of trumpets and
twanging of stringed instruments; and finally the doomed individual,
waiting all this while to be decapitated, got up and proceeded to make a
fool of himself. A bashful young earl tried his maiden oratory on the
good citizens of London, and having evidently got every word by heart
(even including, however he managed it, the most seemingly casual
improvisations of the moment), he really spoke like a book, and made
incomparably the smoothest speech I ever heard in England.

The weight and gravity of the speakers, not only on this occasion, but
all similar ones, was what impressed me as most extraordinary, not to say
absurd. Why should people eat a good dinner, and put their spirits into
festive trim with Champagne, and afterwards mellow themselves into a most
enjoyable state of quietude with copious libations of Sherry and old
Port, and then disturb the whole excellent result by listening to
speeches as heavy as an after-dinner nap, and in no degree so refreshing?
If the Champagne had thrown its sparkle over the surface of these
effusions, or if the generous Port had shone through their substance with
a ruddy glow of the old English humor, I might have seen a reason for
honest gentlemen prattling in their cups, and should undoubtedly have
been glad to be a listener. But there was no attempt nor impulse of the
kind on the part of the orators, nor apparent expectation of such a
phenomenon on that of the audience. In fact, I imagine that the latter
were best pleased when the speaker embodied his ideas in the figurative
language of arithmetic, or struck upon any hard matter of business or
statistics, as a heavy-laden bark bumps upon a rock in mid-ocean. The
sad severity, the too earnest utilitarianism, of modern life, have
wrought a radical and lamentable change, I am afraid, in this ancient
and goodly institution of civic banquets. People used to come to them,
a few hundred years ago, for the sake of being jolly; they come now with
an odd notion of pouring sober wisdom into their wine by way of
wormwood-bitters, and thus make such a mess of it that the wine and
wisdom reciprocally spoil one another.

Possibly, the foregoing sentiments have taken a spice of acridity from a
circumstance that happened about this stage of the feast, and very much
interrupted my own further enjoyment of it. Up to this time, my
condition had been exceedingly felicitous, both on account of the
brilliancy of the scene, and because I was in close proximity with three
very pleasant English friends. One of them was a lady, whose honored
name my readers would recognize as a household word, if I dared write it;
another, a gentleman, likewise well known to them, whose fine taste, kind
heart, and genial cultivation are qualities seldom mixed in such happy
proportion as in him. The third was the man to whom I owed most in
England, the warm benignity of whose nature was never weary of doing me
good, who led me to many scenes of life, in town, camp, and country,
which I never could have found out for myself, who knew precisely the
kind of help a stranger needs, and gave it as freely as if he had not had
a thousand more important things to live for. Thus I never felt safer or
cosier at anybody's fireside, even my own, than at the dinner-table of
the Lord Mayor.

Out of this serene sky came a thunderbolt. His Lordship got up and
proceeded to make some very eulogistic remarks upon "the literary and
commercial"--I question whether those two adjectives were ever before
married by a copulative conjunction, and they certainly would not live
together in illicit intercourse, of their own accord--"the literary and
commercial attainments of an eminent gentleman there present," and then
went on to speak of the relations of blood and interest between Great
Britain and the aforesaid eminent gentleman's native country. Those
bonds were more intimate than had ever before existed between two great
nations, throughout all history, and his Lordship felt assured that that
whole honorable company would join him in the expression of a fervent
wish that they might be held inviolably sacred, on both sides of the
Atlantic, now and forever. Then came the same wearisome old toast, dry
and hard to chew upon as a musty sea-biscuit, which had been the text of
nearly all the oratory of my public career. The herald sonorously
announced that Mr. So-and-so would now respond to his Right Honorable
Lordship's toast and speech, the trumpets sounded the customary flourish
for the onset, there was a thunderous rumble of anticipatory applause,
and finally a deep silence sank upon the festive hall.

All this was a horrid piece of treachery on the Lord Mayor's part, after
beguiling me within his lines on a pledge of safe-conduct; and it seemed
very strange that he could not let an unobtrusive individual eat his
dinner in peace, drink a small sample of the Mansion House wine, and go
away grateful at heart for the old English hospitality. If his Lordship
had sent me an infusion of ratsbane in the loving-cup, I should have
taken it much more kindly at his hands. But I suppose the secret of the
matter to have been somewhat as follows.

All England, just then, was in one of those singular fits of panic
excitement (not fear, though as sensitive and tremulous as that emotion),
which, in consequence of the homogeneous character of the people, their
intense patriotism, and their dependence for their ideas in public
affairs on other sources than their own examination and individual
thought, are more sudden, pervasive, and unreasoning than any similar
mood of our own public. In truth, I have never seen the American public
in a state at all similar, and believe that we are incapable of it. Our
excitements are not impulsive, like theirs, but, right or wrong, are
moral and intellectual. For example, the grand rising of the North, at
the commencement of this war, bore the aspect of impulse and passion only
because it was so universal, and necessarily done in a moment, just as
the quiet and simultaneous getting-up of a thousand people out of their
chairs would cause a tumult that might be mistaken for a storm. We were
cool then, and have been cool ever since, and shall remain cool to the
end, which we shall take coolly, whatever it may be. There is nothing
which the English find it so difficult to understand in us as this
characteristic. They imagine us, in our collective capacity, a kind of
wild beast, whose normal condition is savage fury, and are always looking
for the moment when we shall break through the slender barriers of
international law and comity, and compel the reasonable part of the
world, with themselves at the head, to combine for the purpose of putting
us into a stronger cage. At times this apprehension becomes so powerful
(and when one man feels it, a million do), that it resembles the passage
of the wind over a broad field of grain, where you see the whole crop
bending and swaying beneath one impulse, and each separate stalk tossing
with the selfsame disturbance as its myriad companions. At such periods
all Englishmen talk with a terrible identity of sentiment and expression.
You have the whole country in each man; and not one of them all, if you
put him strictly to the question, can give n reasonable ground for his
alarm. There are but two nations in the world--our own country and
France--that can put England into this singular state. It is the united
sensitiveness of a people extremely well-to-do, careful of their
country's honor, most anxious for the preservation of the cumbrous and
moss-grown prosperity which they have been so long in consolidating, and
incompetent (owing to the national half-sightedness, and their habit of
trusting to a few leading minds for their public opinion) to judge when
that prosperity is really threatened.

If the English were accustomed to look at the foreign side of any
international dispute, they might easily have satisfied themselves that
there was very little danger of a war at that particular crisis, from the
simple circumstance that their own Government had positively not an inch
of honest ground to stand upon, and could not fail to be aware of the
fact. Neither could they have met Parliament with any show of a
justification for incurring war. It was no such perilous juncture as
exists now, when law and right are really controverted on sustainable or
plausible grounds, and a naval commander may at any moment fire off the
first cannon of a terrible contest. If I remember it correctly, it was a
mere diplomatic squabble, in which the British ministers, with the
politic generosity which they are in the habit of showing towards their
official subordinates, had tried to browbeat us for the purpose of
sustaining an ambassador in an indefensible proceeding; and the American
Government (for God had not denied us an administration of statesmen
then) had retaliated with stanch courage and exquisite skill, putting
inevitably a cruel mortification upon their opponents, but indulging them
with no pretence whatever for active resentment.

Now the Lord Mayor, like any other Englishman, probably fancied that War
was on the western gale, and was glad to lay hold of even so
insignificant an American as myself, who might be made to harp on the
rusty old strings of national sympathies, identity of blood and interest,
and community of language and literature, and whisper peace where there
was no peace, in however weak an utterance. And possibly his Lordship
thought, in his wisdom, that the good feeling which was sure to be
expressed by a company of well-bred Englishmen, at his august and
far-famed dinner-table, might have an appreciable influence on the grand
result. Thus, when the Lord Mayor invited me to his feast, it was a
piece of strategy. He wanted to induce me to fling myself, like a lesser
Curtius, with a larger object of self-sacrifice, into the chasm of
discord between England and America, and, on my ignominious demur, had
resolved to shove me in with his own right-honorable hands, in the hope
of closing up the horrible pit forever. On the whole, I forgive his
Lordship. He meant well by all parties,--himself, who would share the
glory, and me, who ought to have desired nothing better than such an
heroic opportunity,--his own country, which would continue to get cotton
and breadstuffs, and mine, which would get everything that men work with
and wear.

As soon as the Lord Mayor began to speak, I rapped upon my mind, and it
gave forth a hollow sound, being absolutely empty of appropriate ideas.
I never thought of listening to the speech, because I knew it all
beforehand in twenty repetitions from other lips, and was aware that it
would not offer a single suggestive point. In this dilemma, I turned to
one of my three friends, a gentleman whom I knew to possess an enviable
flow of silver speech, and obtested him, by whatever he deemed holiest,
to give me at least an available thought or two to start with, and, once
afloat, I would trust to my guardian-angel for enabling me to flounder
ashore again. He advised me to begin with some remarks complimentary to
the Lord Mayor, and expressive of the hereditary reverence in which his
office was held,--at least, my friend thought that there would be no harm
in giving his Lordship this little sugar-plum, whether quite the fact or
no,--was held by the descendants of the Puritan forefathers. Thence, if
I liked, getting flexible with the oil of my own eloquence, I might
easily slide off into the momentous subject of the relations between
England and America, to which his Lordship had made such weighty
allusion.

Seizing this handful of straw with a death-grip, and bidding my three
friends bury me honorably, I got upon my legs to save both countries, or
perish in the attempt. The tables roared and thundered at me, and
suddenly were silent again. But, as I have never happened to stand in a
position of greater dignity and peril, I deem it a stratagem of sage
policy here to close these Sketches, leaving myself still erect in so
heroic an attitude.


THE END

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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