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Meteorological Emotions

Whoever carries a mental kodak with him (as I suspect I was in the habit of doing long before I knew it) must be aware of the uncertain value of the different exposures. This can be determined only by the process of developing, which requires a dark room and other apparatus not always at hand; and so much depends upon the process that it might be well if it could always be left to some one who makes a specialty of it, as in the case of the real amateur photographer. Then one's faulty impressions might be so treated as to yield a pictorial result of interest, or frankly thrown away if they showed hopeless to the instructed eye. Otherwise, one must do one's own developing, and trust the result, whatever it is, to the imaginative kindness of the reader, who will surely, if he is the right sort of reader, be able to sharpen the blurred details, to soften the harsh lights, and blend the shadows in a subordination giving due relief to the best meaning of the print. This is what I fancy myself to be doing now, and if any one shall say that my little pictures are superficial, I shall not be able to gainsay him. I can only answer that most pictures represent the surfaces of things; but at the same time I can fully share the disappointment of those who would prefer some such result as the employment of the Roentgen rays would have given, if applied to certain aspects of the London world.

Of a world so vast, only small parts can be known to a life-long dweller. To the sojourner scarcely more will vouchsafe itself than to the passing stranger, and it is chiefly to home-keeping folk who have never broken their ignorance of London that one can venture to speak with confidence from the cumulative misgiving which seems to sum the impressions of many sojourns of differing lengths and dates. One could have used the authority of a profound observer after the first few days in 1861 and 1865, but the experience of weeks stretching to months in 1882 and 1883, clouded rather than cleared the air through which one earliest saw one's London; and the successive pauses in 1894 and 1897, with the longest and latest stays in 1904, have but served to confirm one in the diffident inconclusion on all important points to which I hope the pages following will bear witness.

What appears to be a fact, fixed and absolute amid a shimmer of self- question, is that any one coming to London in the beginning of April, after devious delays in the South and West of England, is destined to have printed upon his mental films a succession of meteorological changes quite past computation. Yet if one were as willing to be honest as one is willing to be graphic, one would allow that probably the weather on the other side of the Atlantic was then behaving with quite as swift and reckless caprice. The difference is that at home, having one's proper business, one leaves the weather to look after its own affairs in its own way; but being cast upon the necessary idleness of sojourn abroad, one becomes critical, becomes censorious. If I were to be a little honester still, I should confess that I do not know of any place where the month of April can be meaner, more poison, upon occasion, than in New York. Of course it has its moments of relenting, of showing that warm, soft, winning phase which is the reverse of its obverse shrewishness, when the heart melts to it in a grateful tenderness for the wide, high, blue sky, the flood of white light, the joy of the flocking birds, and the transport of the buds which you can all but hear bursting in an eager rapture. It is a sudden glut of delight, a great, wholesale emotion of pure joy, filling the soul to overflowing, which the more scrupulously adjusted meteorology of England is incapable of at least so instantly imparting. Our weather is of public largeness and universal application, and is perhaps rather for the greatest good of the greatest number; admirable for the seed-time and harvest, and for the growing crops in the seasons between. The English weather is of a more private quality, and apportioned to the personal preference, or the personal endurance. It is as if it were influenced by the same genius which operates the whole of English life, and allows each to identify himself as the object of specific care, irrespective of the interests of the mass. This may be a little too fanciful, and I do not insist that it is scientific or even sociological. Yet I think the reader who rejects it might do worse than agree with me that the first impression of a foreign country visited or revisited is stamped in a sense of the weather and the season.

Nothing made me so much at home in England as reading, one day, that there was a lower or a higher pressure in a part of Scotland, just as I might have read of a lower or a higher pressure in the region of the lakes. "Now," I said to myself, "we shall have something like real weather, the weather that is worth telegraphing ahead, and is going to be decisively this or that." But I could not see that the weather following differed from the weather we had been having. It was the same small, individual weather, offered as it were in samples of warm, cold, damp and dry, but mostly cold and damp, especially in-doors. The day often opened gray and cloudy, but by-and-by you found that the sun was unobtrusively shining; then it rained, and there was rather a bitter wind; but presently it was sunny again, and you felt secure of the spring, for the birds were singing: the birds of literature, the lark, the golden-billed blackbird, the true robin, and the various finches; and round and over all the rooks were calling like voices in a dream. Full of this certainty of spring you went in-doors, and found it winter.

If you can keep out-of-doors in England you are very well, and that is why the English, who have been philosophizing their climate for a thousand and some odd years, keep out-of-doors so much. When they go indoors they take all the outer air they can with them, instinctively realizing that they will be more comfortable with it than in the atmosphere awaiting them. If their houses could be built reversible, so as to be turned inside out in some weathers, one would be very comfortable in them. Lowell used whimsically to hold that the English rain did not wet you, and he might have argued that the English cold would not chill you if only you stayed out-of-doors in it.

Why will not travellers be honest with foreign countries? Is it because they think they may some day come back? For my part, I am going to be heroic, and say that the in-doors cold in England is constant suffering to the American born. It is not that there is no sizzling or crackling radiator, no tropic-breathing register; but that the grate in most of the houses that the traveler sees, the public-houses namely, seems to have shrunken to a most sordid meanness of size. In Exeter, for example, where there is such a beautiful cathedral, one found a bedroom grate of the capacity of a quart pot, and the heating capabilities of a glowworm. I might say the same of the Plymouth grate, but not quite the same of the grates of Bath or Southampton; if I pause before arriving at the grate of London, it is because daring must stop somewhere. I think it is probable that the American, if he stayed long enough, would heed the injunction to suffer and be strong from the cold, as the Englishman has so largely done, but I am not sure. At one point of my devious progress to the capital I met an Englishman who had spent ten years in Canada, and who constrained me to a mild deprecation by the wrath with which he denounced the in-doors cold he had found everywhere at home. He said that England was a hundred, five hundred, years behind in such matters; and I could not deny that, even when cowering over the quart pot to warm the hands and face, one was aware of a gelid mediaeval back behind one. To be warm all round in an English house is a thing impossible, at least to the traveller, who finds the natives living in what seems to him a whorl of draughts. In entering his own room he is apt to find the window has been put down, but this is not merely to let in some of the outside warmth; it is also to make a current of air to the open door. Even if the window has not been put down, it has always so much play in its frame, to allow for swelling from the damp, that in anything like dry weather the cold whistles round it, and you do not know which way to turn your mediaeval back.

In the corridors of one of the provincial hotels there were radiators, but not hot ones, and in a dining-room where they were hot the natives found them oppressive, while the foreigners were warming their fingers on the bottoms of their plates. Yet it is useless for these to pretend that the suffering they experience has not apparently resulted in the strength they see. Our contemporary ancestors are a splendid-looking race, in the higher average, and if in the lower average they often look pinched and stunted, why, we are not ourselves giants without exception. The ancestral race does often look stunted and poor; persons of small build and stature abound; and nature is

"So careful of the single type"

of beefy Briton as to show it very rarely. But in the matter of complexion, if we count that a proof of health, we are quite out of it in comparison with the English, and beside them must look like a nation of invalids. There are few English so poor as not, in youth at least, to afford cheeks of a redness which all our money could not buy with us. I do not say the color does not look a little overdone in cases, or that the violent explosion of pinks and roses, especially in the cheeks of small children, does not make one pause in question whether paste or putty might not be more tasteful. But it is best not to be too critical. Putty and paste, apart from association, are not pretty tints, and pinks and roses are; and the English children look not only fresher but sturdier and healthier than ours. Whether they are really so I do not know; but I doubt if the English live longer than we for living less comfortably. The lower classes seem always to have colds; the middle classes, rheumatism; and the upper, gout, by what one sees or hears. Rheumatism one might almost say (or quite, if one did not mind what one said) is universal in England, and all ranks of society have the facilities for it in the in-doors cold in which they otherwise often undeniably flourish. At the end, it is a question of whether you would rather be warm and well, or cold and well; we choose the first course and they choose the last.

If we leave this question apart, I think it will be the experience of the careful observer that there is a summit of healthful looks in England, which we do not touch in America, whatever the large table-land or foot-hill average we reach; and in like manner there is an exceptional distinction of presence as one encounters it, rarely enough, in the London streets, which one never encounters with us. I am not envying the one, or at least not regretting the other. Distinction is the one thing for which I think humanity certainly pays too much; only, in America, we pay too much for too many other things to take any great comfort in our want of distinction. I own the truth without grief or shame, while I enjoy the sight of distinction in England as I enjoy other spectacles for which I cannot help letting the English pay too much. I was not appreciably the poorer myself, perhaps I was actually the richer, in seeing, one fine chill Sunday afternoon, in the aristocratic region where I was taking my walk, the encounter of an elderly gentleman and lady who bowed to each other on the pavement before me, and then went and came their several ways. In him I saw that his distinction was passive and resided largely in his drab spats, but hers I beheld active, positive, as she marched my way with the tall cane that helped her steps, herself tall in proportion, with a head, ashen gray, held high, and a straight well-fitted figure dressed in such keeping that there was nothing for the eye to dwell on in her various black. She looked not only authoritative; people often do that with us; she looked authorized; she had been empowered by the vested rights and interests to look so her whole life; one could not be mistaken in her, any more than in the black trees and their electric-green buds in the high-fenced square, or in the vast, high, heavy, handsome houses where, in the cellary or sepulchral cold, she would presently resume the rheumatic pangs of which the comparative warmth of the outer air had momentarily relieved her stately bulk.

But what is this? While I am noting the terrors of the English clime, they have all turned themselves into allures and delights. There have come three or four days, since I arrived in London, of so fine and mellow a warmth, of skies so tenderly blue, and so heaped with such soft masses of white clouds, that one wonders what there was ever to complain of. In the parks and in the gardened spaces which so abound, the leaves have grown perceptibly, and the grass thickened so that you can smell it, if you cannot hear it, growing. The birds insist, and in the air is that miraculous lift, as if nature, having had this banquet of the year long simmering, had suddenly taken the lid off, to let you perceive with every gladdening sense what a feast you were going to have presently in the way of summer. From the delectable vision rises a subtile haze, which veils the day just a little from its own loveliness, and lies upon the sighing and expectant city like the substance of a dream made visible. It has the magic to transmute you to this substance yourself, so that while you dawdle afoot, or whisk by in your hansom, or rumble earthquakingly aloft on your omnibus-top, you are aware of being a part, very dim, very subtile, of the passer's blissful consciousness. It is flattering, but you feel like warning him not to go in-doors, or he will lose you and all the rest of it; for having tried it yourself you know that it is still winter within the house walls, and will not be April there till well into June.

William Dean Howells