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Glimpses of the Lowly and the Lowlier

I liked walking through St. James's and through Green Park, especially in the late afternoon when the tired poor began to droop upon the benches, and, long before the spring damp was out of the ground, to strew themselves on the grass, and sleep, face downward, among its odorous roots. There was often the music of military bands to which wide-spreading audiences of the less pretentious sort listened; in St. James's there were seats along the borders of the ponds where, while the chill evening breeze crisped the water, a good deal of energetic courting went on. Besides, both were in the immediate neighborhood of certain barracks where there was always a chance of military, and were hard by Buckingham Palace with its chances of royalty. But the resort of the poorer sort of pleasure-seekers is eminently Battersea Park, to which we drove one hot, hot Sunday afternoon in late July, conscience-stricken that we had left it so long out of our desultory doing and seeing. It was full of the sort of people we had expected to find in it, but these people though poor were not tattered. The Londoner, of whatever class is apt to be better dressed than the New-Yorker of the same class, and the women especially make a bolder attempt than ours, if not so well advised, at gayety. They had put on the best and finest they had, in Battersea Park, and if it was not the most fitting still they wore it. The afternoon was sultry to breathlessness; yet a young mother with a heavy baby in her arms sweltered along in the splendor of a purple sack of thick plush; she was hot, yes; but she had it on. The young girls emulated as well as they could the airy muslins and silks in which the great world was flitting and flirting at the same hour in the closes of Hyde Park, and if the young fellows with these poor girls had not the distinction of the swells in the prouder parade they at least equalled them in their aberrations from formality.

There was not much shade in Battersea Park for the people to sit under, but there was almost a superabundance of flowers in glaring beds, and there were pieces of water, where the amateur boatman could have the admiration of watchers, two or three deep, completely encircling the ponds. To watch them and to walk up and down the shadeless aisles of shrubbery, to sit on the too sunny benches, and to resort in extreme cases to the tea-house which offered them ices as well as tea, seemed to be the most that the frequenters of Battersea Park could do. We ourselves ordered tea, knowing the quality and quantity of the public English ice, which is so very minute that you think it will not be enough, but which when you taste it is apt to be more than you want. The spectacle of our simple refection was irresistible, and a crowd of envious small boys thronged the railing that parted us from the general public, till the spectacle of their hungry interest became intolerable. We consulted with the waiter, who entered seriously into our question as to the moral and social effect of sixpence worth of buns on those boys; he decided that it would at least not form an example ruinous to the peace of his tea-house; and he presently appeared with a paper bag that seemed to hold half a bushel of buns. Yet even half a bushel of buns will not go round the boys in Battersea Park, and we had to choose as honest a looking boy as there was in the foremost rank, and pledge him to a just division of the buns intrusted him in bulk, and hope, as he ran off down an aisle of the shrubbery with the whole troop at his heels, that he would be faithful to the trust.

* * * * *

So very mild are the excitements, so slight the incidents, so safe and tame the adventures of modern travel! I am almost ashamed when I think what a swashing time a romantic novelist, or a person of real imagination would have been having in London when so little was happening to me. There was, indeed, one night after dinner when for a salient moment I had hopes of something different. The maid had whistled for a hansom, and a hansom had started for the door where we stood waiting, when out of the shadows across the way two figures sprang, boarded the cab, and bade the cabman drive them away under our very eyes. Such a thing, occurring at almost eleven o'clock, promised a series of stirring experiences; and an American lady, long resident in England, encouragingly said, on hearing of the outrage, "Ah, that's London!" as if I might look to be often mishandled by bandits of the sort; but nothing like it ever befell me again. In fact the security and gentleness with which life is operated in the capital of the world is one of the kind things makes you forget its immensity. Your personal comfort and safety are so perfectly assured that you might well mistake yourself for one of very few people instead of so many.

London is like nature in its vastness, simplicity, and deliberation, and if it hurried or worried, it would be like the precession of the equinoxes getting a move on, and would shake the earth. The street events are few. In my nine or ten weeks' sojourn, so largely spent in the streets, I saw the body of only one accident worse than a cab-horse falling; but that was early in my stay when I expected to see many more. We were going to the old church of St. Bartholomew, and were walking by the hospital of the same name just as a cab drove up to its gate bearing the body of the accident. It was a young man whose bleeding face hung upon his breast and whose limp arm another young man of the same station in life held round his own neck, to stay the sufferer on the seat beside him. A crowd was already following, and it gathered so quickly at the high iron fence that the most censorious witness could hardly see with what clumsiness the wounded man was half-dragged, half-lifted from the cab by the hospital assistants, and stretched upon the ground till he could be duly carried into the hospital. It may have been a casualty of the many incident to alcoholism; at the best it was a result of single combat, which, though it prepared us in a sort for the mediaeval atmosphere of the church, was yet not of the tragic dignity which would have come in the way of a more heroical imagination.

It was indeed so little worthy of the place, however characteristic of the observer, that I made haste to forget it as I entered the church-yard under the Norman arch which has been for some years gradually finding itself in an adjoining shop-wall. The whole church, indeed, as now seen, is largely the effect (and it was one of the first effects I saw) of that rescue of the past from the present which is perpetually going on all over England. Till lately the Lady Chapel and the crypt of St. Bartholomew had been used as an ironworker's shop; and modern life still pressed close upon it in the houses looking on the graves of the grassless church-yard. With women at the windows that opened on its mouldy level, peeling potatoes, picking chickens, and doing other household offices, the place was like something out of Dickens, but something that yet had been cleaned up in sympathy with the restoration of the church, going on bit by bit, stone by stone, arch by arch, till the good monk Rahere (he was gay rather than good before he turned monk) who founded the Cistercian monastery there in the twelfth century would hardly have missed anything if he had returned to examine the church. He would have had the advantage, which he could not have enjoyed in his life-time, of his own effigy stretched upon his tomb, and he might have been interested to note, as we did, that the painter Hogarth had been baptized in his church six hundred years after his own time. His satisfaction in the still prevalent Norman architecture might have been less; it is possible he would have preferred the Gothic which was coming in when he went out.

The interior was all beautifully sad and quiet, gray, dim, twilighted as with the closes of the days of a thousand years; and in the pale ray an artist sat sketching a stretch of the clerestory. I shall always feel a loss in not having looked to see how he was making out, but the image of the pew-opener remains compensatively with me. She was the first of her sort to confront me in England with the question whether her very intelligent comment was conscious knowledge, or mere parrotry. She was a little morsel of a woman, in a black alpaca dress, and a world-old black bonnet, who spared us no detail of the church, and took us last into the crypt, not long rescued from the invasive iron-worker, but now used as a mortuary chapel for the poor of the parish, which is still full of the poor. The chapel was equipped with a large bier and tall candles, frankly ready for any of the dead who might drop in. The old countries do not affect to deny death a part of experience, as younger countries do.

We came out into the imperfect circle before the gateway of the church, and realized that it was Smithfield, where all those martyrs had perished by fire that the faith of the world might live free. There can be no place where the past is more august, more pathetic, more appealing, and none I suppose, where the activities of the present, in view of it, are more offensive. It is all undermined with the railways that bring the day's meat-provision to London for distribution throughout the city, and the streets that centre upon it swarm with butchers' wagons laden with every kind and color of carnage, prevalently the pallor of calves' heads, which seem so to abound in England that it is wonderful any calves have them on still. The wholesale market covers I know not what acreage, and if you enter at some central point, you find yourself amid endless prospectives of sides, flitches, quarters, and whole carcasses, and fantastic vistas of sausages, blood-puddings, and the like artistic fashionings of the raw material, so that you come away wishing to live a vegetarian ever after.

The emotions are not at one's bidding, and if one calls upon them, they are very apt not to come. I promised myself some very signal ones, of a certain type, from going to the Sunday market of the Jews in what was once Petticoat Lane, but now, with the general cleaning up and clearing out of the slums, has got itself called by some much finer and worthier name. But, really, I had seen much Jewisher things in Hester Street, on our own East Side. The market did not begin so early as I had been led to expect it would. The blazing forenoon of my visit was more than half gone, and yet there was no clothes' auction, which was said to be the great thing to see. But by nine o'clock there seemed to be everything else for sale under that torrid July sun, in the long booths and shelters of the street and sidewalks: meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, glassware, ironware, boots and shoes, china and crockery, women's tawdry finery, children's toys, furniture, pictures, succeeding one another indiscriminately, old and new, and cried off with an incessant jargon of bargaining, pierced with shrill screams of extortion and expostulation. A few mild, slim, young London policemen sauntered, apparently unseeing, unhearing, among the fevered, nervous Semitic crowd, in which the Oriental types were by no means so marked as in New York, though there was a greater number of red Jews than I had noted before. The most monumental features of the scene were the gorgeous scales of wrought brass, standing at intervals along the street, and arranged with seats, like swings, for the weighing of such Hebrews as wished to know their tonnage; apparently they have a passion for knowing it.

The friend who had invited me to this spectacle felt its inadequacy so keenly, in spite of my protests, that he questioned the policemen for some very squalid or depraved purlieu that he might show me, for we were in the very heart of Whitechapel, but failing that, because the region had been so very much reformed and cleaned up since the dreadful murders there, he had no recourse but to take me on top of a tram-car and show me how very thoroughly it had been reformed and cleaned up. In a ride the whole length of Whitechapel Road to where the once iniquitous region ceased from troubling and rose in a most respectable resurrection as Stepney, with old-fashioned houses which looked happy, harmless homes, I could only be bidden imagine avenues of iniquity branching off on either hand. But I actually saw nothing slumlike; indeed, with a current of cool east wind in our faces, which the motion of the tram reinforced, the ride was an experience delightful to every sense. It was significant also of the endlessness of London that as far as the tram-car took us we seemed as far as ever from the bounds of the city; whatever point we reached there was still as much or more London beyond.

Perhaps poverty has everywhere become shyer than it used to be in the days before slumming (now itself of the past) began to exploit it. At any rate, I thought that in my present London sojourn I found less unblushing destitution than in the more hopeless or more shameless days of 1882-3. In those days I remember being taken by a friend, much concerned for my knowledge of that side of London, to some dreadful purlieu where I saw and heard and smelled things quite as bad as any that I did long afterwards in the over-tenanted regions of New York. My memory is still haunted by the vision of certain hapless creatures who fled blinking from one hole in the wall to another, with little or nothing on, and of other creatures much in liquor and loudly scolding and quarrelling, with squalid bits of childhood scattered about underfoot, and vague shapes of sickness and mutilation, and all the time a buying and selling of loathsome second-hand rags.

In the midst of it there stood, like figures of a monument erected to the local genius of misery and disorder, two burly figures of half-drunken men, threatening each other with loud curses and shaken fists under the chin of a policeman, perfectly impassive, with eyes dropped upon the fists which all but stirred the throat-latch of his helmet. When the men should strike, I was aware that it would be his instant duty, as the guardian of the public peace, to seize them both and hale them away to prison. But it was not till many years afterwards that I read in his well-remembered effigy the allegory of civilization which lets the man-made suffering of men come to the worst before it touches it, and acts upon the axiom that a pound of prevention is worth less than an ounce of cure.

I would very willingly have seen something of this kind again, but, as I say, I happened not to see it. I think that I did not see or hear even so much simple drunkenness in London as formerly, but again this may have been merely chance. I fancied that formerly I had passed more gin- palaces, flaring through their hell-litten windows into the night; but this may have been because I had become hardened to gin-palaces and did not notice them. Women seemed to be going in and coming out of such places in draggle-tailed processions in those wicked days; but now I only once saw women drinking in a public house. It was a Saturday night, when, if ever, it may be excusable to anticipate the thirst of the morrow, for all through the Sunday idleness it cannot be slaked enough. It was a hot night, and the bar-room door stood open, and within, fronted by a crowd of their loudly talking, deeply drinking men-kind, those poor silly things stood drooping against the wall with their beer-pots dangling limply from their hands, and their mouths fallen open as if to catch the morsels of wit and wisdom that dropped from the tongues of their admired male companions. They did not look very bad; bad people never do look as bad as they are, and perhaps they are sometimes not so bad as they look. Perhaps these were kind, but not very wise, mothers of families, who were merely relieving in that moment of liquored leisure the long weariness of the week's work. I may have passed and repassed in the street some of the families that they were the mothers of; it was in that fortnight of the great heat, whose oppressiveness I am aware of having vainly attempted to share with the reader, and the street children seemed to have been roused to uncommon vigilance by it. They played about far into the night, unrebuked by their mothers, and the large babies, whom the little girls were always lugging, shared their untimely wakefulness if not their activity. There was seldom any crying among them then, though by day the voice of grief and rage was often lifted above the shout of joy. If their mothers did not call them in-doors, their fathers were still less exacting. After the marketing, which took place in the neighboring avenue, where there began to be a tremendous preparation for it in the afternoon, father and mother alike seemed to have renounced their domestic cares and to have liberated their offspring to the unrestricted enjoyment of the street.

As for drunkenness, I say again that I did not see much of it, and I heard less, though that might have been because I did not look or listen in the right places. With that, as with everything else in London, I took my chance. Once I overheard the unseen transports of a lady in Mayfair imaginably kept by the offices of mutual friends from assaulting another lady. She, however, though she excelled in violence, did not equal in persistence the injured gentleman who for a long, long hour threatened an invisible bicyclist under our windows in that humbler quarter already described as a poor relation of Belgravia. He had apparently been almost run down by the hapless wheelman, who, in a moment of fatuous truth, seemed to have owned that he had not sounded the warning bell. In making this confession he had evidently apologized with his forehead in the dust, and his victim had then evidently forgiven him, though with a severe admonition for the future. Imaginably, then, the bicyclist had remounted his wheel and attempted to ride off, when he was stopped and brought back to the miserable error of his confession. The whole ground was then gone over again, and again pardon with warning was given. Even a glad good-night was exchanged, the wheelman's voice rising in a quaver of grateful affection. Then he seemed to try riding off again, and then he was stayed as before by the victim, whose sense of public duty flamed up at the prospect of his escape. I do not know how the affair ended; perhaps it never ended; but exhausted nature sank in sleep, and I at least was saved from its continuance. I suppose now that the almost injured person was, if not drunk, at that stage of tipsiness when the sensibilities are keenest and self-respect is most alert. An American could not, at least, have been so tedious in his sober senses, and I will not believe that an Englishman could.

It is to be considered, in any view of the comparative drunkenness of the great Anglo-Saxon race, which is the hope and example of the human race in so many things, that much if not most of our American drunkenness is alien, while English drunkenness is almost entirely native. If the inebriety of the spirited Celt, which in the early years of his adoption with us is sometimes conspicuous, were added to the sum of our home-born intoxication, there could be no doubt which was the greater. As it is, I am afraid that I cannot claim to have seen more drunken men in London than in New York; and when I think of the Family Entrance, indicated at the side-door of every one of our thousands of saloons, I am not sure I can plume myself on the superior sobriety of our drinking men's wives. As for poverty—if I am still partially on that subject—as for open misery, the misery that indecently obtrudes itself upon prosperity and begs of it, I am bound to say that I have met more of it in New York than ever I met during my sojourns in London. Such misery may be more rigidly policed in the English capital, more kept out of sight, more quelled from asking mercy, but I am sure that in Fifth Avenue, and to and fro in the millionaire blocks between that avenue and the last possible avenue eastward, more deserving or undeserving poverty has made itself seen and heard to my personal knowledge than in Piccadilly, or the streets of Mayfair or Park Lane, or the squares and places which are the London analogues of our best residential quarters.

Of course, the statistics will probably be against me—I have often felt an enmity in statistics—and I offer my observations as possibly inexact. One can only be sure of one's own experience (even if one can be sure of that), and I can do no more than urge a fact or two further in behalf of my observations. After we returned to London, in September, I used to stroll much among the recumbent figures of the unemployed on the grass of Green Park, where, lulled by the ocean roar of the omnibuses on Piccadilly, they drowsed away the hours of the autumnal day. These fellow-men looked more interesting than they probably were, either asleep or awake, and if I could really have got inside their minds I dare say I should have been no more amused than if I had penetrated the consciousness of as many people of fashion in the height of the season. But what I wish to say is that, whether sleeping or waking, they never, any of them, asked me for a penny, or in any wise intimated a wish to divide my wealth with me. If I offered it myself, it was another thing, and it was not refused to the extent of a shilling by the good fellow whose conversation I bought one afternoon when I found him, sitting up in his turfy bed, and mending his coat with needle and thread. I asked him of the times and their badness, and I hope I left him with the conviction that I believed him an artisan out of work, taking his misfortune bravely. He was certainly cheerful, and we had some agreeable moments, which I could not prolong, because I did not like waking the others, or such of them as might be sleeping.

I did not object to his cheerfulness, though for misery to be cheerful seemed to be rather trivial, and I was better pleased with the impassioned bearing of a pair who passed me another day as I sat on one of the benches beside the path where the trees were dropping their listless leaves. The pair were a father and mother, if I might judge from their having each a babe in their arms and two or three other babes at their heels. They were not actually in tatters, but anything more intensely threadbare than their thin clothes could not be imagined; they were worse than ragged. They looked neither to the right nor to the left, but stared straight on and pressed straight on rather rapidly, with such desperate tragedy in their looks as moved me to that noble terror which the old-fashioned critics used to inculcate as the best effect of tragedy on the stage. I followed them a little way before I gained courage to speak to the man, who seemed to have been sick, and looked more miserable, if there was a choice, than the woman. Then I asked him, superfluously enough (it might have seemed in a ghastly pleasantry, to him) if he was down on his luck. He owned that he was, and in guarantee of his good faith took the shilling I offered him. If his need had apparently been less dire I might have made it a sovereign; but one must not fly in the face of the Providence, which is probably not ill-advised in choosing certain of us to be reduced to absolute destitution. The man smiled a sick, thin-lipped smile which showed his teeth in a sort of pinched way, but did not speak more; his wife, gloomily unmoved, passed me without a look, and I rather slunk back to my seat, feeling that I had represented, if I had not embodied, society to her.

I contribute this instance of poverty as the extremest that came to my knowledge in London; but I do not insist that it was genuine, and if any more scientific student of civilization wishes to insinuate that my tragedy was a masquerade got up by that pair to victimize the sentimental American stranger, and do him out of one of his ill-got shillings, I will not gainsay him. I merely maintain, as I have always done, that the conditions are alike in the Old World and the New, and that the only difference is in the circumstances, which may be better now in New York, and now in London, while the conditions are always bad everywhere for the poor. That is a point on which I shall not yield to any more scientific student of civilization. But in the mean time my light mind was taken from that dolorous pair to another pair on the grass of the slope not far off in front of me.

Hard by the scene of this pathetic passage a pair of quite well-dressed young people had thrown themselves, side by side, on the September grass as if it had been the sand at any American seashore, or the embrowned herbage of Hyde Park in July. Perhaps the shelving ground was dryer than the moist levels where the professional unemployed lay in scores; but I do not think it would have mattered to that tender pair if it had been very damp; so warmly were they lapped in love's dream, they could not have taken cold. The exile could only note the likeness of their open-air love-making to that in public places at home, and contrast it with the decorum of Latin countries where nothing of the kind is known. If anything, English lovers of this type are franker than with us, doubtless because of the greater simplicity of the English nature; and they seem to be of a better class. One day when I was sitting in a penny chair in Green Park, the agent of the company came and collected the rent of me. I thought it a hardship, for I had purposely chosen an inconspicuous situation where I should not be found, and it was long past the end of the season, when no company should have had the heart to collect rent for its chairs. But I met my fate without murmuring, and as the young man who sold me a ticket good for the whole day at a penny, was obviously not pressed with business, I tried to recoup myself by a little conversation.

"I suppose your job is pretty well over now? I don't see many of your chairs occupied."

"Well, no sir, not by day, sir. But there's quite a few taken at night, sir—over there in the hollow." I looked a leading question, and he went on: "Young people come to sit there in the evening, sir. It's a quiet place and out of the way."

"Oh, yes. Where they're not molested by the unemployed?" I cast a generalizing glance over the dead and wounded of the battle of life strewn about the grass of an adjacent space.

"Well, that's just where it is, sir. Those fellows do nothing but sleep all day, and then after dark they get up and begin to prowl. They spy, some of 'em, on the young people courting, and follow 'em 'ome and blackmail 'em. They're a bad lot, sir. They wouldn't work if they could get it."

I perceived that my friend was a capitalist, and I suspected him of being one of the directors of the penny-chair company. But perhaps he thought me a capitalist, too, and fancied that I would like to have him decry the unemployed. Still he may have been right about the blackmailing; one must live, and the innocent courage of open-air courtship in London offers occasions of wilful misconstruction. In a great city, the sense of being probably unnoted and unknown among its myriads must eventuate in much indifference to one's surroundings. How should a young couple on an omnibus-top imagine that a stranger in the seat opposite could not help overhearing the tender dialogue in which they renewed their love after some previous falling out?

"But I was hurt, Will, dear."

"Oh, I'm so sorry, dear."

"I know, Will, dear."

"But it's all right now, dear?"

"Oh yes, Will, dear."

Could anything be sweeter? I am ashamed to set it down; it ought to be sacred; and nothing but my zeal in these social studies could make me profane it. Who would not have been the careless brute this young man must have been, if only one might have tasted the sweetness of such forgiving? His pardon set a premium on misbehavior. He was a nice-looking young fellow, but she was nicer, and in her tender eyes there seemed more wisdom. Probably she knew just at what moment to temper justice with mercy.

Sometimes women do not know when to temper mercy with justice. I fancied this the error of the fond nursemaid whom I one day saw pushing her perambulator at almost an illegal motor-pace along the sidewalk in order to keep up with the tall grenadier who marched with his head in the air, and let her make this show of being in his company, but not once looking at her, or speaking to her. The hearts of such poor girls are always with the military, so that it is said to be comparatively easy to keep servants in the neighborhood of the barracks, or even in those streets that the troops habitually pass through, and may be conveniently gloated upon from attic-windows or basement areas. Probably much of the natural supremacy of the male of our species has been lost in all ranks of society through the unimpressive simplicity of modern dress. If men in civil life still wore ruffles at their wrists, and gold-lace on their coats, and feathers in their hats, very likely they could still knock women about as they used, and be all the more admired. It is a point worth considering in the final adjustment of their mutual relations.

A pair of lovers who match themselves in my memory with those I eavesdropped so eagerly on the omnibus-top, was a silent pair I noted one day in St. Paul's. They were imaginably a bridal pair, who had apparently lost heart among the hard banalities of the place, where every monument is more forbidding than another, and had sunk down on a seat by themselves, and were trying to get back a little courage by furtively holding each other's hands. It was a touching sight, and of a human interest larger than any London characteristic. So, in a little different sort, was the rapture of a couple behind a tree on whom a friend of mine came suddenly in St. James's Park at the very moment when the eager he was pressing the coy she to be his. My friend, who had not the courage of an ever-present literary mission, fled abashed from the place, and I think he was right; but surely it was no harm to overhear the affianced of a 'bus-driver talking tender nothings to him all the way from Knightsbridge to Kensington, bending over from the seat she had taken next him. The witness was going up to a dentist in that region, and professed that in his preoccupation with the lovers he forgot the furies of a raging tooth, and decided not to have it out, after all.

William Dean Howells