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Sight-Seeing

SOME VOLUNTARY AND INVOLUNTARY SIGHT-SEEING

I had a very good will towards all the historic temples in London, and I hope that this, with the fact that I had seen them before, will pass for my excuse in not going promptly to revere them. I indeed had some self-reproaches with regard to St. Paul's, of which I said to myself I ought to see it again; there might be an emotion in it. I passed and repassed it, till I could bear it no longer, and late one afternoon I entered just in time to be turned out with half a score of other tardy visitors who had come at the closing hour. After this unavailing visit, the necessity of going again established itself in me, and I went repeatedly, choosing, indeed, rainy days when I could not well go elsewhere, and vengefully rejoicing, when I went, in the inadequacy of its hugeness and the ugliness of its monuments.

Some sense of my mood I may impart, if I say that St. Paul's always seemed a dispersed and interrupted St. Peter's in its structure and decoration, and a very hard, unsympathetic, unappealing Westminster Abbey in its mortuary records. The monuments of the Abbey are often grotesque enough, but where they are so they are in the taste of times far enough back to have become rococo and charming. I do not mind a bronze Death starting out of a marble tomb and threatening me with his dart, if he is a Death of the seventeenth century; but I do very much mind the heavy presence of the Fames or Britannias of the earlier nineteenth century celebrating in dull allegory the national bereavement in the loss of military and naval heroes who fell when the national type was least able to inspire grief with an artistic expression. The statesmen, the ecclesiastics, the jurists, look all of a like period, and stand about in stone with no more interest for the spectator than the Fames or the Britannias.

The imagination stirs at nothing in St. Paul's so much as at that list of London bishops, which, if you are so lucky as to come on it by chance where it is inscribed beside certain windows, thrills you with a sense of the long, long youth of that still unaging England. Bishops of the Roman and Briton times, with their scholarly Latin names; bishops of the Saxon and Danish times remembered in rough, Northern syllables; bishops of the Norman time, with appellations that again flow upon the tongue; bishops of the English time, with designations as familiar as those in the directory: what a record! It moves you more than any of those uniformed or cloaked images of warriors and statesmen, and it speaks more eloquently of the infrangible continuity, the unbroken greatness of England.

My last visit was paid after I had seen so many other English cathedrals that I had begun to say, if not to think, that England was overgothicized, and that I should be glad, or at least relieved, by something classicistic. But I found that I was mistaken. That architecture is alien to the English sky and alien to the English faith, which continues the ancient tradition in terms not ceremonially very distinct from those of Rome; and coming freshly from the minster in York to the cathedral in London, I was aware of differences which were all in favor of the elder fane. The minster now asserted its superior majesty, and its mere magnitude, the sweep of its mighty nave, the bulk of its clustered columns, the splendor of its vast and lofty windows, as they held their own in my memory, dwarfed St. Paul's as much physically as spiritually.

A great congregation lost itself in the broken spaces of the London temple, dimmed rather than illumined by the electric blaze in the choir; a monotonous chanting filled the air as with a Rome of the worldliest period of the church, and the sense of something pagan that had arisen again in the Renaissance was, I perceived, the emotion that had long lain in wait for me. St. Paul's, like St. Peter's, testifies of the genius of a man, not the spirit of humanity awed before the divine. Neither grew as the Gothic churches grew; both were ordered to be built after the plans of the most skilful architects of their time and race, and both are monuments to civilizations which had outlived mystery.

I no more escaped a return to Westminster Abbey than to St. Paul's, but I had from the first so profoundly and thoroughly naturalized myself to the place that it was like going back to a home of my youth. It was, indeed, the earliest home of my youthful love of the old; and if I might advise any reader who still has his first visit to Westminster Abbey before him, I would counsel him not to go there much past his twenty-fourth year. If possible, let him repair to the venerable fane in the year 1861, and choose a chill, fair day of the English December, so short as to be red all through with a sense of the late sunrise and a prescience of the early sunset. Then he will know better than I could otherwise tell him how I felt in that august and beautiful place, and how my heart rose in my throat when I first looked up in the Poets' Corner and read the words, "Oh, rare Ben Jonson!" The good Ben was never so constantly rare in life as he has been in death, and that I knew well enough from having tried to read him in days when I was willing to try reading any one. But I was meaning then to be rare every moment myself, and out of the riches of my poetic potentiality I dowered him with a wealth of poetry which he had not actually enjoyed; and in this generous emotion the tears came.

I am not sensible of having been grouped with others in charge of a verger, but a verger there must have been, and at my next visit there must equally have been one; he only entered, rigid, authoritative, unsparing, into my consciousness at the third or fourth visit, widely separated by time, when he marshalled me the way that he was going with a flock of other docile tourists. I suppose it would be possible to see Westminster Abbey without a verger, but I do not know; and would it be safe? I imagine he was there at my first and second visits, but that my memory rejected him as unfit for association with fames and names made so much of in death that it seemed better than life in all dignified particulars, though I was then eagerly taking my chances of getting along for a few centuries on earth.

I hope I am not being severe upon the verger, for he is a very necessary evil, if evil at all, in a place of such manifold and recondite interest; and in my next-to-last visit I found him most intelligibly accessible to my curiosity concerning those waxen effigies of royalty which used to be carried in the funeral processions of the English kings and queens. He bade us wait till he had dismissed all his flock but ourselves, and then, for a very little gratuitous money, he took us into some upper places where, suddenly, we stood in the presence of Queen Elizabeth and of William and Mary, as they had looked and dressed in life, and very startlingly lifelike in the way they showed unconscious of us. Doubtless there were others, but those are the ones I recall, and with their identity I felt the power that glared from the fierce, vain, shrewd, masterful face of Elizabeth, and the obstinate good sense and ability that dwelt in William's. Possibly I read their natures into them, but I do not think so; and one could well wish that art had so preserved all the great embodiments of history.

I hope it was some better motive than the sightseer's that at least partly caused me to make myself part of the congregation listening to a sermon in the Abbey on the Sunday afternoon of my last visit. But the stir of the place's literary associations began with the sight of Longfellow's bust, which looks so much like him, in the grand simplicity of his looks, as he was when he lived; and then presently the effigies of all the "dear sons of memory" began to reveal themselves, medallion and bust and figure, with many a remembered allegory and inscription. We went and sat, for the choral service, under the bust of Macaulay, and, looking down, we found with a shock that we had our feet upon his grave. It might have been the wounded sense of reverence, it might have been the dread of a longer sermon than we had time for, but we left before the sermon began, and went out into the rather unkempt little public garden which lies by the Thames in the shadow of the Parliament Houses; and who has said the Houses are not fine? They are not a thousand years old, but some day they will be, and then those who cavilled at them when they were only fifty will be sorry. For my part I think them as Gothically noble and majestic as need be. They are inevitably Gothic, too, and they spring from the river-side as if they grew from the ground there far into the gray sky to which their architecture is native. It was a pale, resigned afternoon, with the languor of the long, unwonted heat in it, which a recent rain had slightly abated, and we were glad of a memoriferous property which it seemed to exhale. Suddenly in the midst of that most alien environment we confronted a pair of friends from whom we had last parted twenty years before in the woods beside Lake George, and whose apparition at once implied the sylvan scene. So improbable, so sensational is life even to the most bigoted realist! But if it is so, why go outside of it? Our friends passed, and we were in the shadow of the Parliament Houses again, and no longer in that of the forest which did not know it was Gothic.

We were going to hang upon the parapet of Westminster Bridge for the view it offers of the Houses, to which the spacious river makes itself a foreground such as few pictures or subjects of pictures enjoy in this cluttered world; but first we gave ourselves the pleasure of realizing the statue of Cromwell which has somehow found place where it belongs in those stately precincts, after long, vain endeavors to ignore his sovereign mightiness. He was not much more a friend of Parliaments than Charles whom he slew, but he was such a massive piece of English history that the void his effigy now fills under the windows of the Commons must have ached for it before.

When we had done our hanging upon the parapet of the bridge we found a somewhat reluctant cab and drove homeward through the muted Sunday streets. The roar of the city was still there, but it was subdued; the crowd was still abroad, but it was an aimless, idle, shuffling crowd. The air itself seemed more vacant than on week-days, and there was a silencing suspense everywhere. The poor were out in their poor best, and the children strayed along the streets without playing, or lagged homeward behind their parents. There were no vehicles except those of pleasure or convenience; the omnibuses sent up their thunder from afar; our cab-horse, clapping down the wooden pavement, was the noisiest thing we heard. The trees in the squares and places hung dull and tired in the coolish, dusty atmosphere, and through the heart of the summer afternoon passed a presentiment of autumn. These are subtilties of experience which, after all, one does not impart. Those who like, as I do, the innocence which companions the sophistication of London will frequent Kensington Gardens in the earlier spring before the season has set the seal of supreme interest on Hyde Park. It then seems peculiarly the playground of little children in the care of their nurses, if they are well-to-do people's children, and in one another's care if they are poor people's. All over England the tenderness of the little children for the less is delightful. I remember to have seen scarcely any squabbling, and I saw abundance of caressing. Small girls, even small boys, lug babies of almost their own weight and size, and fondle them as if it were a privilege and a pleasure to lug them. This goes on in spite of a reciprocal untidiness which is indescribable; for the English poor children have the very dirtiest faces in the world, unless the Scotch have dirtier ones; but nothing, no spotting or thick plastering of filth, can obscure their inborn sweetness. I think, perhaps, they wash up a little when they come to play in Kensington Gardens, to sail their ships on its placid waters and tumble on its grass. When they enter the palace, to look at the late queen's dolls and toys, as they do in troops, they are commonly in charge of their teachers; and their raptures of loyalty in the presence of those reminders that queens, too, must have once been little girls are beautiful to behold, and are doubtless as genuine as those of their elders in the historical and political associations. Since William III. built the palace and laid out the gardens that he might dwell within easy reach of his capital, but out of its smoke and din, the place has not lost the character which his homely wish impressed upon it, and it is especially sweet and commendable because of its relation to the good Victoria's childhood. One does not forget "great Anna's" drinking tea there in the Orangery so nobly designed for her by Wren, but the plain old palace is dearest because Victoria spent so many of her early days in it, and received there the awful summons literally to rise from her dreams and come and be queen of the mightiest realm under the sun. No such stroke of poetry is possible to our system; we have not yet provided even for the election of young girls to the presidency; and though we may prefer our prosaical republican conditions, we must still feel the charm of such an incident in the mother monarchy.

The Temple was another of the places that I did not think I should visit again, because I had so pleasant and perfect a memory of it, which I feared to impair. More than a score of years before I had drunk tea in the chambers of some young leader-writing barrister, and then went out and wandered about in the wet, for it was raining very diligently. I cannot say, now, just where my wanderings took me; but, of course, it was down into the gardens sloping towards the river. In a way the first images of places always remain, however blurred and broken, and the Temple gardens were a dim and fractured memory in the retrospect as I next saw them. It needed all the sunshine of my September day to unsadden them, not from the rainy gloom in which I had left them then, but from the pensive associations of the years between. Yet such sunshine as that can do much, and I found it restoring me to my wonted gayety as soon as we got out of our four-wheeler after our drive from the Thames Embankment and began to walk up towards the Temple Church. I will not ask the reader to go over the church with us; I will merely have him note a curious fact regarding those effigies of the crusaders lying cross-legged in the pavement of the circle to which one enters. According to the strong, the irresistible conviction of one of our party, these crusaders had distinctly changed their posture since she saw them first. It was not merely that they had uncrossed their legs and crossed them another way, or some such small matter; but that now they lay side by side, whereas formerly they had better accommodated themselves to the architectural design, and lain in a ring with their long-pointed toes pointing inward to the centre. Why they should have changed, we could not understand; the verger said they had not; but he was a dim, discouraged intelligence, bent chiefly in a limp sort on keeping the door locked so that people could not get away without his help, and must either fee him, or indecently deny him. The Temple Church, indeed, is by no means the best of the Temple. Cunningham says that the two edifices most worth visiting are the church and the Middle Temple Hall, which I now preferred luxuriously to leave in my remembrances of 1882, and to idle about the grounds with my party, straying through the quiet thoroughfares and into the empty courts, and envying, not very actively, the lodgers in the delightfully dull-looking old brick dwellings. I do not know just what Templars are, in this day, but I am told they are practically of both sexes, and that when married they are allowed to domesticate themselves in these buildings in apartments sublet to them by Templars of one sex. It is against the law, but conformable to usage, and the wedded pairs are subject only to a semicentennial ejection, so that I do not know where a young literary couple could more charmingly begin their married life. Perhaps children would be a scandal; but they would be very safe in the Temple paths and on the Temple lawns. At one house, a girl was vaguely arriving with a band-box and parcels, and everything in the Temple seemed of a faint, remote date; in the heart of a former century, the loud crash of our period came to us through the Strand gate softened to a mellow roar. The noise was not great enough, we noted, to interrupt the marble gentleman in court dress and full-bottomed wig, elegantly reclining on the top of his tomb in a niche of the wall near Goldsmith's grave, and leaning forward with one hand extended as if, in the spirit of the present entente cordiale, he was calling our attention to the fact that the garlands and streamers of the Virginian-creeper dangling from the walls about him were in the mother-clime of a real American redness.

It is proof of the manifold interest of London, or else of our own inadequacy to our opportunities, that in all our sojourns we had never yet visited what is left of that famous Whitehall, so tragically memorable of the death of Charles I. The existing edifice is only the noble remnant of that ancient palace of the English kings which the fire of 1697 spared, as if such a masterpiece of Inigo Jones would be the fittest witness of its highest, saddest event. Few, if any, of the tremendous issues of history are so nearly within seeing and touching as that on which the windows of Whitehall still look, and I must count that last day of our September in London as spent in such sort as to be of unsurpassed if not unrivalled impression, because of the visit which we then so tardily paid to the place, and so casually that we had almost not paid it at all.

The Banquetting House is now a sort of military and naval museum; with the swords and saddles and uniforms and other equipments of divers English heroes in glass cases, and models of battle-ships, and of the two most famous English battles, likewise under glass. I was not so vain of my reading about battles as not to be glad of seeing how the men-of-war deployed at Trafalgar; or how the French and English troops were engaged at Waterloo (with the smoke coming out of the cannons' mouths in puffs of cotton-wool), when Blücher modestly appeared at one corner of the plan in time to save the day. "But we should 'ave 'ad it, without 'im?" a fellow sight-seer of local birth anxiously inquired of the custodian. "Oh, we should 'ave 'ad the victory, anyway," the custodian reassured him, and they looked together at some trophies of the Boer war with a patriotic interest which we could not share. I do not know whether they shared my psychological interest in that apposition of Napoleon and of Nelson which, in this place, as in several others in England, invests the spiritual squalor of war-memories with the glamour of two so supremely poetic, yet so different personalities. Whatever other heroes may have been, these dreamers in their ideals shed such a light upon the sad business of their lives as almost to ennoble it. One feels that with a little more qualification on the creative side they could have been literary men, not of the first order, perhaps, but, say, historical novelists.

There is some question among other authorities which window of the Banquetting House the doomed king passed through upon the scaffold to the block; but the custodian had no doubts. He would not allow a choice of windows, and as to a space broken through the wall, he had never heard of it. But we were so well satisfied with his window as to shrink involuntarily from it, and from the scene without whose eternal substance showed through the shadowy illusion of passing hansoms and omnibuses, like the sole fact of the street, the king's voice rising above the noises in tender caution to a heedless witness, "Have a care of the axe; have a care," and then gravely to the headsman: "When I stretch out my hands so, then—" The drums were ordered beaten, so that we could not hear more; and we went out, and crossed among the cabs and 'busses to the horse-guards sitting shrunken on their steeds, and passed between them into the park beyond where the beds of flowers spread their soft autumnal bloom in the low sun of the September day.

William Dean Howells