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Twice-Seen Sights and Half-Fancied Facts

London is so manifold (as I have all along been saying) that it would be advisable, if one could, to see it in a sort of severalty, and take it in the successive strata of its unfathomable interest. Perhaps it could best be visited by a syndicate of cultivated Americans; then one could give himself to its political or civic interest, another to its religious memories and associations, another to its literary and artistic records; no one American, however cultivated, could do justice to all these claims, even with life and health of an expectation beyond that of the most uncultivated American. Besides this suggestion I should like to offer a warning, and this is, that no matter with what devoted passion the American lover of London approaches her he must not hope for an exclusive possession of her heart. If she is insurpassably the most interesting, the most fascinating of all the cities that ever were, let him be sure that he is not the first to find it out. He may not like it, but he must reconcile himself to seeing some English rival before him in devotion to any aspect of her divinity. It is not for nothing that poets, novelists, historians, antiquarians have been born in England for so many ages; and not a palm's breadth of her sky, not a foot of her earth, not a stone or brick of her myriad wallspaces but has been fondly noted, studied, and described in prose, or celebrated in verse. English books are full of England, and she is full of Englishmen, whom the American, come he never so numerously, will find outnumbering him in the pursuit of any specific charm of hers. In my wanderings otherwhere in their islands I had occasion to observe how fond the English were of English travel and English objects of interest, and wherever I went in London there were Englishmen elbowing me from the front rank, not rudely, not unkindly, but insensibly to my rights of priority as an alien. In the old days of my Italian travels I had been used as a foreigner to carrying it with a high hand at shrines of the beautiful or memorable. I do not know how it is now, but in those days there was nothing in the presence of an Italian church, gallery, palace, piazza, or ruin that you expected less than an Italian. As for Rome, there was no such thing as doing as the Romans do in such places, because there were apparently no Romans to set you the example. But there are plenty of Londoners in London, and of a curiosity about London far greater than you can ever inspire them with for New York.

Even at such a place as the Zoological Gardens, which they must have been visiting all their lives, there were, at least, a thousand Englishmen for every cultivated American we could make sure of when we went there; and as it was a Sunday, when the gardens are closed to the general public, this overwhelming majority of natives must have come on orders from Fellows of the Society such as we had supposed would admit us much more selectly, if not solely. Still, the place was not crowded, and if it had been, still it would have been delightful on a summer afternoon, of that hovering softness, half-cloud, half-sun, which the London sky has the patent of. The hawthorn-trees, white and pink with their may, were like cloudlets dropped from that sky, as it then was and would be at sunset; and there was a density of grass underfoot and foliage overhead in which one's own childhood found itself again, so that one felt as free for the simple pleasure of consorting with strange beasts and birds as if one were still ten or eleven years old. But I cannot hope to rejuvenate my readers in the same degree, and so had better not insist upon the animals; the herds of elephants, the troops of lions and tigers, the schools of hippopotamuses, and the mass-meetings of anthropoid apes. Above and beyond these in their strangeness were the figures of humanity representative of the globe-girdling British empire, in their drawers and turbans and their swarthy skins, who could urge a patriotic interest, impossible for me, in the place. One is, of course, used to all sorts of alien shapes in Central Park, but there they are somehow at once less surprising and less significant than these Asian and African forms; they will presently be Americans, and like the rest of us; but those dark imperialings were already British and eternally un-English. They frequented the tea-tables spread in pleasant shades and shelters, and ate buns and bread-and-butter, like their fellow-subjects, but their dark liquid eyes roamed over the blue and gold and pink of the English complexions with an effect of mystery irreconcilable forever with the matter-of-fact mind behind their bland masks. We called them Burmese, Eurasians, Hindoos, Malays, and fatigued ourselves with guessing at them so that we were faint for the tea from which they kept us at the crowded tables in the gardens or on the verandas of the tea-houses. But we were not so insatiable of them as of their fellow-subjects, the native British whom one sees at a Sunday of the Zoo to perhaps special advantage. Our Sunday was in the season, and the season had conjecturably qualified it, so that one could sometimes feel oneself in company better than one's own. The children were well-dressed and admirably well-behaved; they justly outnumbered their elders, and it was obviously their day. But it was also the day of their elders, who had made excuse of the children's pleasure in coming to the Zoo for their own. Some indeed were not so much their elders, and the young aunts and uncles, who were naturally cousins, lost themselves at times a little way from the children and maids, in the quieter walks or nooks, or took boat to be alone on the tranquil waters with one another. They were then more interesting than the strangest Malays and Hindoos, and I wonder what these made of them, as they contemplated their segregation with the other thronging spectators.

We had not pledged ourselves not to go to the Zoo; we were there quite voluntarily; but among the places which we promised ourselves not to visit again were the South Kensington Museum and the National Gallery; and I shall always be glad that we did not keep faith with ourselves in regard to the last. We went to it again not once, but several times, and always with an increasing sense of its transcendent representativity. It is not merely that for all the schools of painting it is almost as good as going to the continental countries where they flourished, and is much easier. It is not only that for English history, as it lives in the portraiture of kings and queens, and their courtiers and courtesans and heroes and statesmen, it is the past made personal to the beholder and forever related to himself, as if he had seen those people in the flesh. It is, above everything else, for those rooms upon rooms crowded with the pictures and statues and busts of the Englishmen who have made England England in every field of achievement that is oppressively, almost crushingly wonderful. Before that swarming population of poets, novelists, historians, essayists, dramatists; of painters, sculptors, architects; of astronomers, mathematicians, geologists, physicians; of philosophers, theologians, divines; of statesmen, politicians, inventors, actors; of philanthropists, reformers, economists, the great of our own history need not, indeed, shrink in form, but must dwindle in number till our past seems as thinly peopled as our continent. It is in these rooms that the grandeur of England, historically, resides. You may, if you are so envious, consider it in that point and this, and at some point find her less great than the greatest of her overgrown or overgrowing daughters, but from the presence of that tremendous collectivity, that populous commonwealth of famous citizens whose census can hardly be taken, you must come away and own, in the welcome obscurity to which you plunge among the millions of her capital, that in all-round greatness we have hardly even the imagination of her transcendence.

Well towards fifty years had passed between my first and last visits to London, but I think I had kept for it throughout that long interval much more of the earlier sentiment than for any other city that I have known. I do not wish to be mystical, and I hesitate to say that this sentiment was continuous through the smell of the coal-smoke, or that the smoke formed a solution in which all associations were held, and from which they were, from time to time, precipitated in specific memories. The peculiar odor had at once made me at home in London, for it had probably so saturated my first consciousness in the little black, smoky town on the Ohio River, where I was born, that I found myself in a most intimate element when I now inhaled it. But apart from this personal magic, the London smoke has always seemed to me full of charm. Of course it is mostly the smoke which gives "atmosphere," softens outlines, tenderly blurs forms, makes near and far the same, and intenerisce il cuore, for any him whose infant sense it bathed. No doubt it thickens the constant damp, and lends mass and viscosity to the fog; but it is over-blamed and under-praised. It is chiefly objectionable, it is wholly deplorable, indeed, when it descends in those sooty particles, the blacks; but in all my London sojourns I have had but one experience of the blacks, and I will not condemn the smoke because of them. It gives a wild pathetic glamour to the late winter sunrises and the early winter sunsets, the beauty of which dwells still in my mind from my first London sojourn. In my most recent autumn, it mellowed the noons to the softest effulgence; in the summer it was a veil in the air which kept the flame of the heated term from doing its worst. It hung, diaphonous, in the dusty perspectives, but it gathered and thickened about the squares and places, and subdued all edges, so that nothing cut or hurt the vision.

I was glad of that, because I found one of my greatest pleasures in looking at the massed tree-forms in those gardened-groves, which I never penetrated. The greater parks are open to the public, but the squares are enclosed by tall iron fences, and locked against the general with keys of which the particular have the keeping in the houses about them. It gave one a fine shiver of exclusion as populace, or mob, to look through their barriers at children playing on the lawns within, while their nurses sat reading, or pushed perambulators over the trim walks. Sometimes it was even young ladies who sat reading, or, at the worst, governesses. But commonly the squares were empty, though the grass so invited the foot, and the benches in the border of the shade, or round the great beds of bloom, extended their arms and spread their welcoming laps for any of the particular who would lounge in them.

I remember only one of these neighborhood gardens which was open to the public, and that was in the poor neighborhood which we lodged on the edge of, equally with the edge of Belgravia. It was opened, by the great nobleman who owned nearly the whole of that part of London, on all but certain days of the week, with restrictions lettered on a board nearly as big as the garden itself; but I never saw it much frequented, perhaps because I usually happened upon it when it was locked against its beneficiaries. Upon the whole, these London squares, though they flattered the eye, did not console the spirit so much as the far uglier places in New York, or the pretty places in Paris, which are free to all. It can be said for the English way that when such places are free to all they are not so free to some, and that is true. In this world you have to exclude either the many or the few, and in England it is rather the many who are excluded. Being one of those shut out, I did not like the English way so well as ours, but if I had had keys to those locks, I should not now dare ask myself which principle I should have preferred. It would have been something like choosing between popular government and family government after having been created one of the governing families.

Life, I felt, would be sensibly dignified if one could spend some months of every year of it in a mansion looking down into the leafy tops of those squares. One's mansion might not always have the company of the most historical or patrician mansions; sometimes these are to be found in very unexpected and even inconspicuous places; but commonly the associated dwellings would be ample, if not noble. They would rarely be elbowed by those structures, not yet quite so frequent in London as in New York, which lift themselves in an outer grandeur unsupported by the successive levels of the social pretence within. I should say that with the English, more than with us, the perpendicular is still socially superior to the horizontal domestication. Yet the London flats are of more comfortable and tasteful arrangement than ours. They are better lighted always, never having (as far as I know) dark rooms blindly staring into airless pits; and if they are not so well heated, that is because the English do not wish, or at least expect, to be heated at all. The elevator is not so universal as with us, but the stairways are easier and statelier. The public presence of the edifice is statelier, too; but if you come to state, the grandest of these buildings must deny its denizens the splendor of flunkeys standing before its door, on a day or night of social function, as one sees them standing by the steps or portals of some mansion that houses a single family. To which of the flat-dwellers would they be supposed to belong, if they grouped themselves at the common entrance? For anything specific in their attendance they might almost as well be at the next street-corner.

Time and again, in these pages, I have paid my duty, which has been my grateful pleasure, to the birds which haunt the squares, and sing there. You are not obliged to have a householder's key in order to hear them; and when the hawthorns and the horse-chestnuts blossomed you required a proprietorial right as little. Somehow, my eye and ear always disappointed themselves in the absence of rooks from such places. My senses ought to have been better instructed than to expect rooks in London, but they had been so educated to the sight and sound of rooks everywhere else in England that they mechanically demanded them in town. I do not even know what birds they were that sang in the spaces; but I was aware of a fringe of sparrow-chirpings sharply edging their song next the street; and where the squares were reduced to crescents, or narrow parallelograms, or mere strips or parings of groves, I suspect that this edging was all there was of the mesh of bird-notes so densely interwoven in the squares.

I have spoken hitherto of that passion for dress to which all the womanhood of England has so bewitchingly abandoned itself, and which seemed to have reached an undue excess in the housemaid in a bolero hat and a trained skirt, putting that white on the front steps which is so universal in England that if the sun missed it after rising he might instantly go down again in the supposition that it was still night. It must always be a woman who whitens the steps; if a man-servant were to do it any such dreadful thing might happen as would follow his blacking the boots, which is alienably a female function. Under the circumstances one hears much of the general decay of excellence in woman-servants in London. They are far less amiable, patient, respectful, and faithful than when their mistresses were young. This may be from the fact that so many more employments besides domestic service seem to be open to girls. Apparently very young girls are preferred in the innumerable postal- stations, if one may judge from the children of tender years who sell you stamps, and take your telegrams and register your letters. I used at first to tremble for a defective experience, if not a defective intelligence in them, but I did not find them inadequate to their duties through either. Still their employment was so phenomenal that I could not help remarking upon it. None of my English friends seemed to have noticed it, till at last one, who had noticed it, said he believed it was because the government found them cheap, and was in that way helping repay itself for the enormous expenses of the Boer War.

In the London shops I did not think women were so generally employed as in our own, or those of the Continent. But this may have been a conclusion from careless observation. In the book-stores to which I most resorted, and which I did not think so good as ours, I remember to have seen but one saleswoman. Of course saleswomen prevail in all the large stores where women's goods, personal and household, are sold, and which I again did not think comparable to ours. Seldom in any small shop, or even book-stall or newspaper-stand, did women seem to be in charge. But at the street-markets, especially those for the poorer customers, market-women were the rule. I should say, in fine, that woman was a far more domestic animal in London than in Paris, and never quite the beast of burden that she is in Berlin, or other German cities great or small; but I am not going to sentimentalize her lot in England. Probably it is only comparatively ideal in the highest classes. In the lower and lowest its hardship is attested by the stunted stature, and the stunted figure of the ordinary English lower-class woman. Even among the elect of the afternoon parade in the Park, I do not think there was so great an average of tall young girls as in any fashionable show with us, where they form the patriciate which our plutocracy has already flowered into. But there was a far greater average of tall young men than with us; which may mean that, with the English, nobility is a masculine distinction.

As for those great department stores with which the question of women relates itself inevitably, I have cursorily assumed our priority in them, and the more I think of them, the more I am inclined to believe myself right. But that is a matter in which women only may be decisive; the nice psychology involved cannot be convincingly studied by the other sex. I will venture, again, however, so far into this strange realm as to say that the subordinate shops did not seem so many or so good in London as in New York, though when one remembers the two Bond Streets, and Oxford, and lower Piccadilly, one might feel the absurdity of claiming superiority for Broadway, or Fourteenth and Twenty-third streets, or Union and Madison squares, or the parts of Third and Sixth avenues to which ladies' shopping has spread. After all, perhaps there is but one London, in this as in some other things.

Among the other things are hardly the restaurants which abound with us, good, bad, and indifferent. In the affair of public feeding, of the costliest, as well as the cheapest sorts, we may, with our polyglot menus, safely challenge the competition of any metropolis in the world, not to say the universe. It is not only that we make the openest show of this feeding, and parade it at windows, whereas the English retire it to curtained depths within, but that, in reality, we transact it ubiquitously, perpetually. In both London and New York it is exotic for the most part, or, at least, on the higher levels, and the administration is in the hands of those foreigners who take our money for learning English of us. But there is no such range of Italian and French and German restaurants in London as in New York, and of what there are none are at once so cheap and so good as ours. The cheaper restaurants are apt to be English, sincere in material, but heavy and unattractive in expression; in everything culinary the island touch seems hopelessly inartistic. One Sunday morning, far from home, when the lunch came prematurely, we found all the English eating-houses devoutly shut, and our wicked hope was in a little Italian trattoria which opened its doors to the alien air with some such artificial effect as an orange-tree in a tub might expand its blossoms. There was a strictly English company within, and the lunch was to the English taste, but the touch was as Latin as it could have been by the Arno or the Tiber or on the Riva degli Schiavoni.

At the great restaurants, where one may see fashion lunching, the kitchen seemed of an equal inspiration with Sherry's or Delmonico's, but the entourage was less oppressively glaring, and the service had more moments of effacing itself, and allowing one to feel oneself a principal part of the drama. That is often the case with us in the simpler sort of eating-houses, where it is the neat hand of Phyllis that serves rather than that of the white-aproned or dress-coated Strephon of either color or any nationality. My profoundest and distinctest impression of Phyllidian service is from a delightful lunch which I had one golden noonday in that famous and beautiful house, Crosby Place, Bishopsgate, which remains of much the perpendicular Gothic state in which Sir John Crosby proudly built it from his grocer's and woolman's gains in 1466. It had afterwards added to it the glory of lodging Richard III., who, both as protector and as sovereign-prince made appointments there, in Shakespeare's tragedy of him, for the Lady Anne, for Catesby, and for the "First Murderer," whom he praises for his thoughtfulness in coming for the "warrant," that he might be admitted to their victim.

"Well thought upon; I have it here about me.
When you have done, repair to Crosby place."

Probably the First Murderer lunched there, four hundred years ago, "when he had done as I did now"; but, in the mean time, Henry VIII. had given Crosby Place to a rich Italian merchant, one Anthony Bonvice; later, ambassadors had been received in it; the first Earl of Northampton had enlarged it, and dwelt in it as lord mayor; in 1638 the East India Company had owned it, and later yet, in 1673, it was used for a Presbyterian meeting-house; but in 1836 it was restored to its ancient form and function. I do not know how long it has been an eating-house, but I hope it may long remain so, for the sensation and refreshment of Americans who love a simple and good refection in a mediaeval setting, at a cost so moderate that they must ever afterwards blush for it. You penetrate to its innermost perpendicularity through a passage that enclosed a "quick-lunch" counter, and climb from a most noble banquet- hall crammed with hundreds of mercantile gentlemen "feeding like one" at innumerable little tables, to a gallery where the musicians must have sat of old. There it was that Phyllis found and neat-handedly served my friend and me, gently experiencing a certain difficulty in our combined addition, but mastering the arithmetical problem presently, and taking our tip with an air of surprise which it never created in any of the English-learning Swiss, French, or Italian Strephons who elsewhere ministered to us.

The waitresses at Crosby Place were of a girlish dignity which never expected and was never visibly offered the familiar pleasantries which are the portion of that strange, sad, English creation, the barmaid. In tens of thousands of London public-houses she stands with her hand on beer-pumps, and exchanges jocose banalities with persons beyond the counter in whose dim regard she must show a mere blur of hardened loveliness against her background of bottles and decanters; but the waitress at Crosby Place is of an ideal of behavior as fine as that of any Phyllis in a White Mountain hotel; and I thought it to the honor of the lunchers that they seemed all to know it. The gentle influence of her presence had spread to a restaurant in the neighborhood where, another day, in trying for Crosby Place, I was misled by the mediaeval aspect of the entrance, and where I found waitresses again instead of waiters. But nowhere else do I remember them, always excepting the manifold tea-houses of the metropolis, and those repeated A. B. C. cold-lunch places of the Aerated Bread Company, where a chill has apparently been imparted to their bearing by the temperature of the food they serve. It is very wholesome, however, and it may be rather that a New England severity in them is the effect of the impersonal relation of served and server which no gratuity humanizes.

It would not be easy to fathom the reason for the employment of girls as ushers in the London theatres. Perhaps it is to heighten the glamour of a place whose glamour hardly needs heightening, or more probably it is to soften the asperity of the play-goer who finds himself asked sixpence for that necessary evil, the programme. But, now I come to think of it, most of the play-goers in London are Englishmen who have been always used to paying, ancestrally and personally, sixpence for their programmes and feel no asperity at being so plundered. The true explanation may be found, after all, in the discovery, akin to the government's, that their service is cheaper than men ushers' would be. Children of as tender years as those who manage the postal-stations, go round with tea and coffee between the acts, as with us the myriad-buttoned ice-water boy passes; but whereas this boy returns always with a tray of empty glasses, I never saw a human being drink either the tea or coffee offered by those female infants in any London theatre.

Let it be not supposed, however, that I went much to London theatres. I went perhaps half a dozen times in as many weeks. Once settled in my chair, I might well have fancied myself at home in a New York theatre, except that the playing seemed rather better, and the English intonation not quite so scrupulously English as that which our actors have produced after a conscientious study of the original. I heard that the English actors had studied the American accent for a play imported from us; but I did not see this play, and I am now very sorry. The American accent, at least, must have been worth hearing, if one might judge from the reproductions of our parlance which I heard in private life by people who had sojourned, or merely travelled, among us. These were so unfailingly delightful, that one could not have wished them more like.

The arriving and departing of theatre-goers by night adds sensibly to the brilliancy of the complexion of London. The flare of electricity in the region of the theatres made a midnight summer in the empty heart of September, and recalled the gayety of the season for the moment to the desolate metropolis. But this splendor was always so massed and so vivid that even in the height of the season it was one of the things that distinguished itself among the various immense impressions. The impressions were all, if I may so try to characterize them, transitory; they were effects of adventitious circumstances; they were not structural in their origin. The most memorable aspect of the Strand or Fleet Street would not be its moments of stately architecture, but its moments of fog or mist, when its meanest architecture would show stately. The city won its moving grandeur from the throng of people astir on its pavements, or the streams of vehicles solidifying or liquefying in its streets. The august groups of Westminster and Parliament did not seem in themselves spectacular; they needed the desertedness of night, and the pour of the moon into the comparative emptiness of the neighborhood, to fill them out to the proportions of their keeping in the memory. Is Trafalgar Square as imposing as it has the chance of being? It is rather scattered and spotty, and wants somehow the magic by which Paris moves the spirit in the Place de la Concorde, or Edinburgh stirs the soul with its suggestions of old steel-engravings of Athens. Of course St. Paul's has a prodigious opportunity, as the multitudinous omnibuses roll their tide towards its facade, but it is not equal to its opportunity. Bit for bit, there is not quite any bit in London like that edifice of smutted Greek on which the newly arrived American looks from his breakfast-table in his Liverpool hotel, and realizes that he is in England. I am far from thinking the black of the coal-smoke a disadvantage to the London architecture. Pure white marble is all very well, and the faint rose that the stone takes from a thousand years of Italian sunsets is not bad; but the black blur on the surfaces of St. Paul's lends wall and dome and pillar a depth of shadow which only the electric glare of tropic suns can cast. The smoke enriches the columns which rise, more or less casually as it seems, from the London streets and squares, and one almost hates to have it cleaned off or painted under on the fronts of the aristocratic mansions. It is like having an old picture restored; perhaps it has to be done, but it is a pity.

The aristocratic mansions themselves, the hundreds of large houses of the proudest nobility in the world, are by no means overwhelming. They hold their primacy among the other pieces of domestic architecture, as their owners hold their primacy in society, very quietly, if very stolidly, and one would have, I fancy, to come much harder against them than one would be allowed to do, in order to feel their quality intimately. There they are, in Park Lane, and the park neighborhood of Piccadilly, and the larger and lesser streets of Mayfair, and the different squares and gardens and places; and certain of them may be visited at certain times on application by the tourist. But that is a barren pleasure which one easily denies oneself in behalf of the simpler and more real satisfactions of London. The charm of the vast friendly old place is not in such great houses, as its grandeur is not in its monuments. Now and then such a house gave evidence of high social preparation during the season in flinging out curtained galleries or pavilions towards the street, if it stood back; if it stood flush upon the sidewalk a group of fifteen or twenty flunkeys, and the continual arrest of carriages would attest its inward state; but the genius of the race is to keep its own to itself, even its own splendors and grandeurs, except on public occasions when it shines forth in incomparable magnificence.

If London, then, is not habitually grandiose, or monumental, or beautiful, what is it? I should say, with much fear of contradiction and scornful laughter, that it was pretty, that it was endearingly nooky, cornery, curvy, with the enchantment of trees and flowers everywhere mixed with its civic turmoil, and the song of birds heard through the staccato of cabs, and the muffled bellow of omnibuses. You may not like London, but you cannot help loving it. The monuments, if I may keep coming back to them, are plain things, often, with no attempt upon the beholder's emotions. In the process of time, I suspect that the Albert Memorial will not be the most despised among them, for it expresses, even if it over-expresses, a not ignoble idea, and if it somewhat stutters and stammers, it does at last get it out; it does not stand mum, like the different shy, bashful columns stuck here and there, and not able to say what they would be at.

If one comes to the statues there are, of course, none so good as the Farragut in Madison Square, or the Logan on the Lake front at Chicago, and, on the whole, I remember those at Washington as better. There are not so many English kings standing or riding about as one would expect; the English kings have, indeed, not been much to brag of in bronze or marble, though in that I do not say they are worse than other kings. I think, but I am not sure, that there are rather more public men of inferior grade than kings, though this may be that they were more impressive. Most noticeable was the statue of Disraeli, which, on Primrose Day, I saw much garlanded and banked up with the favorite flower of that peculiarly rustic and English statesman. He had the air of looking at the simple blossoms and forbearing an ironical smile, or was this merely the fancy of the spectator? Among the royal statues is that of the Charles whom they put to death, and who was so unequal in character though not in spirit to his dread fate. It was stolen away, and somewhere long hid by his friends or foes, but it is now to be seen in the collection of Trafalgar Square, so surely the least imposing of equestrian figures that it is a pity it should ever have been found. For a strikingly handsome man, all his statues attest how little he lent himself to sculpture.

Not far away is another equestrian statue, which never failed to give me a start, when I suddenly came upon it in a cab. It looked for an instant quite like many statues of George Washington, as it swept the air with its doffed hat, but a second glance always showed it the effigy of George the Third, bowing to posterity with a gracious eighteenth-century majesty. If it were possible, one would like to think that the resemblance mentioned had grown upon it, and that it in the case of Americans was the poor king's ultimate concession to the good-feeling which seems to be reuniting the people he divided.

William Dean Howells