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An Afternoon at Hampton Court

The amiable afternoon of late April which we chose for going to Hampton Court, made my return to the place after an interval of twenty odd years, a sort of triumphal progress by embowering the course of our train with plum and pear and cherry trees in a white mist of bloom. Long before we reached the country these lovely apparitions abounded in the back-yards of the little city and suburban dwellings which we ran between, and the bits of gardens were full of homely flowers; when we got to open expanses where nature could find room to spread in lawns that green English turf of hers, the grass was starry with daisies and sunny with dandelions. The poets used to call that sort of thing enamelling, and it was not distasteful, in our approach to such a kindly, artificial old place as Hampton Court, to suppose that we were passing through enamelled meads. Under the circumstances we might have expected our train to purl, in default of a stream to perform the part, and I can truly say of it that it arrived with us in a mood so pastoral that I still cannot understand why we did not ask for a fly at the station in a couplet out of Pope. We got the fly easily enough in our prose vernacular, and the driver hid his surprise at our taking it for the little distance to the palace, which it would have been so much pleasanter to walk.

Yet, I do not know but we were instinctively wise in coming to the entrance of the fine old paved courtyard with a certain suddenness: if we had left it much more time the grass between the bricks might have overgrown them, and given an air of ruin to precincts that for centuries have been held from decay, in the keeping of life at once simple and elegant. Though Hampton Court has never been the residence of the English kings since the second George gave the third George an enduring disgust for it by boxing the ears of the boy there in a fit of grandfatherly impatience, it has been and is the home of many English gentlefolk, rarely privileged, in a land of rare privileges, to live in apartments granted them by royal favor. In former times the privilege was now and then abused by tenants who sublet their rooms in lodgings; but the abuse has long been broken up, and now there cannot be, in the whole earth, a more dignified dwelling for the dowager of a distinguished or merely favored family than such as the royal pleasure freely grants at Hampton Court. Doubtless the crumpled rose-leaf is there, as it is everywhere, but unless it is there to lend a faint old-fashioned odor as of pot-pourri to life in those apartments, I do not believe that it abounds in any of them.

The things I had chiefly in mind from my former visit were the beauties of the Stuarts' time, and of Sir Peter Lely's pencil, in the galleries of the palace, and the secular grape-vine which I found in its familiar place in a corner of the conservatories. I will not say which I paid my devoirs to first, but if it was the vine, I can truly declare that I did not find it looking a day older since I had seen it last in 1882. It could hardly have said as much for me, but I reflected that I had not been two hundred years old to begin with, and consoled myself as I could in my consciousness that I was really not so young by twenty odd years as I once was. Yet I think it must be a dull and churlish nature which would wish to refuse the gentle contemporaneity offered by the unaging antiquity at Hampton Court. I should at this moment be glad to share the youthful spirit of the sunken garden which I passed on my way to the famous vine, and in which with certain shapes of sculpture and blossom, I admired the cockerels snipped out of arbor-vitae in the taste of a world more childlike than ours, and at the same time so much older. The Dutch taste of it all, once removed from a French taste, or twice from the Italian, and mostly naturalized to the English air by the good William and Mary (who were perhaps chiefly good in comparison with all their predecessors from Henry VIII. down to the second and worst of the Jameses), comes to its most endearing expression in that long arbor of clipped wych-elms, near the sunken garden, called Mary's bower, which, on our April afternoon, was woolly with the first effort of its boughs to break into leaf.

We did not penetrate its perspective, for it seems one of the few things at Hampton Court barred to the public. Everywhere else the place is free to the visitor, who may walk as he pleases on its garden-paths, or over its close-woven turf, or sit out of the sun under its dense black yews, or stroll beneath the oaks by the banks of the Long Canal. If the canal is Dutch, the burly trees which lounge about at their pleasure in the park, impart the true English sentiment to the scene; but, for my part, I did not care to go far from the borders of the beds of hyacinths and tulips and daffodils. The grass sighed with secret tears under the foot, and it was better to let the fancy, which would not feel the need of goloshes, rove disembodied to the bosky depths into which the oaks thickened afar, dim amid the vapor-laden air. From the garden-plots one could look, dry-shod, down upon the Thames, along which the pretty town of Hampton stretches, and in whose lively current great numbers of house-boats tug at their moorings. The Thames beside the palace is not only swift but wide, and from the little flowery height on which we surveyed these very modernest of pleasure-craft they had a remove at which they were lost in an agreeable mystery. Even one which we were told belonged to a rich American could not alienate itself from the past when there were no United States, and very few united colonies. The poorest American, if he could not have a lodgement in the palace (and I do not see how the royal bounty could extend to one of our disinherited condition), or one of the pleasant Hampton houses overlooking the river, might be glad to pass the long, mild English summer, made fast to the willowy bank of the Thames, without mosquitoes or malaria to molest him or make him afraid in his dreamful sojourn.

By all the laws of picturesque dealing with other times the people whose portraits we had seen in the galleries ought to have been in the garden or about the lawns in hospitable response to the interest of their trans-Atlantic visitors; but in mere common honesty, I must own they were not. They may have become tired of leaving their frames at the summons of the imaginations which have so often sought to steal their color for a dull page, and to give the charm of their tragedy or comedy to a passage which otherwise would not move. I do not blame them, and I advise the reader not to expect a greater complaisance of them than we experienced. But in all that densely-storied England, where every scene has memories accumulated one upon another till the sense aches under them, I think there is none that surpasses, if any vies with this.

What makes the charm of Hampton Court is that from first to last it lies in an air clearer of fable or tradition than that which involves most other seats of power. For we do like to know what we are dealing with, in the past as in the present, and in proportion as we are ourselves real, we love reality in other people, whether they still live or whether they died long ago. If they were people of eminence, we gratify in supreme degree the inextinguishable passion for good society innate in every one by consorting with royalties and titles whom we may here know as we know our contemporary equals, through facts and traits even better ascertained. At Hampton Court we are really at home with the great parvenu who began the palace in such magnificence that none of the successive princes have excelled it in design, and who when his fear of the jealous tyrant compelled him to offer it to his king, could make such a gift as no subject ever before laid at the feet of a sovereign. The grandeur of Cardinal Wolsey, and the meanness of Henry VIII., in the sufferance and the performance of that extortion are as sensible in the local air as if they were qualities of some event in our own day, and the details of the tyrant's life in the palace remain matters of as clear knowledge as those of some such tragedy as the recent taking off of the Servian king and queen. The annals are so explicit that no veil of uncertainty hangs between us and the lapse of Anne Boleyn from the throne to the scaffold; we see Catherine Howard as in an instantaneous photograph escaping from her prison-chamber and running through the gallery to implore the mercy of Henry at mass in the chapel, and, as if a phonograph were reporting them, we hear the wretched woman's screams when she is pursued and seized and carried back, while the king continues devoutly in the chapel at prayer. The little life of Edward VI. relates itself as distinctly to the palace where he was born; and one is all but personally witness there to the strange episode of Elizabeth's semi-imprisonment while Bloody Mary, now sister and now sovereign, balanced her fate as from hand to hand, and hesitated whether to make her heiress to a throne or to a crown of martyrdom. She chose wisely in the end, for Elizabeth was fitter for mortal than immortal glory, and for the earthly fame of Mary Queen of Scots Elizabeth in her turn did not choose unwisely, however unwittingly, when amid her coquetting and counselling with her statesmen and lovers at Hampton Court she drew the toils closer and closer about her victim. But here I ought to own that all this is a reflected light from after-reading, and not from my previous knowledge of the local history. In making my confession, however, I am not sure that the sort of general ignorance I brought to it was not a favorable medium through which to view Hampton Court. If you come prepared with the facts, you are hampered by them and hindered in the enjoyment of the moment's chances. You are obliged to verify them, from point to point, but if you learn them afterwards you can arrange them in your memories of the scene, where you have wandered vaguely about in a liberal and expansive sense of unlimited historical possibilities. I am able now to realize, without having missed one charm of our spring afternoon in those entrancing bounds that the son of Mary Stuart was as fond of Hampton Court, when he came there king, as Elizabeth herself.

It was there that James I. confronted and confuted the Puritan divines whom he invited to lay their complaints before him, and there in his pedantic brow-beating so hammered their hard metal that he tempered it to the sword soon to be unsheathed against his son; it was there that Charles began the famous quarrel with his queen which ended in his deporting Henrietta Maria's French adherents, or, as he wrote Buckingham, "dryving them away, lyke so many wylde beastes and soe the Devill goe with them"; it was there that more importantly when an honorable captive of Parliament, he played fast and loose, after the fashion he was born to, with Cromwell and the other generals who would have favored his escape, and even his restoration to the throne, if they could have found any truth in him to rest a treaty on. It was at Hampton that Cromwell, when the palace became his home, first put on something of royal state, always with lapses through his bonhomie into good-fellowship with his officers, and never with any help from his simple-hearted wife; that the death of his daughter, amid these fitful glories, broke his heart, and he drooped and sickened to his own end, which a change to the different air of Whitehall did not delay; that after the little time of Richard Cromwell's protectorate, Hampton Court had another royal lord in the second Charles, who repeated history in a quarrel with his queen, for none of the good reasons which the first Charles had in the like contention. The father's tergiversations with Cromwell may be supposed to have given a glamour of kingcraft to his sojourn later, but the bad part which the son took against his wife was without one dignifying circumstance. One reads with indignation still hot how he brought the plain little Portuguese woman there for their honeymoon, and brightened it for her by thrusting upon her the intimacy of his mistress Lady Castlemaine; how he was firm for once in his yielding life, when he compelled Clarendon to the base office of coaxing and frightening the queen who had trusted the old man as a father; how, like the godless blackguard he was, the "merry monarch," swore "before Almighty God," in his letter to the chancellor, that he was "resolved to go through with this matter" of forcing his paramour upon his wife, with the added threat, "and whomsoever I find my Lady Castlemaine's enemy" in it, "I do promise upon my word to be his enemy as long as I live." It is less wonderful that the unhappy creature whose spirit he broke should have been crushed, than that the English people, to whom the king's bad life was an open book, should have suffered him. But perhaps, even this was less wonderful than their patience with the harsh virtue of the Puritans. It is not well to be good, or make others be good at the cost of every ease and grace of life, and though it seems strange and sad to us republicans that the mighty English commonwealth should have been supplanted by such a monarchy as that restored in Charles, it may not be so strange as it was sad. The life which attests itself in the beauties of Lely and of Kneller on the walls of Hampton Court, when it began to have its free course was doubtless none the purer for having been frozen at its source. The world is a long time being saved from itself, and it has had to go back for many fresh starts. If the beautiful women whose wickedness is recorded by the court painters in a convention of wanton looks, rather than by a severally faithful portraiture, can be regarded simply as a part of the inevitable reaction from a period when men had allowed women to be better, we shall not have so much difficulty in showing them mercy. If only after a lapse of twenty years they would not look so much like old acquaintances who had kept their youth too well, one need certainly not be shy of them. Even if all the beauties were as bad as they were painted, there are many other women not ostensibly bad whose pictures fill Hampton Court; but, knowing what galleries are, how mortally fatiguing to every fibre, I should not think of making the reader follow me through the long rooms of the palace, and I will now own that I even spared myself many details in this second visit of mine.

Historically, as I retrospectively perceived, it never ceases to be most intimately interesting down to the day of that third George who had his ears boxed there. The second James had almost as little to do with it as our last king; he was in such haste to go wrong everywhere else that he had no time for the place where other sovereigns before and after him took their pleasure. But William and Mary seemed to give it most of their leisure; to the great little Dutchman it was almost as dear as if it were a bit of Holland, and even more to his mind than Kensington. His queen planted it and kept it to his fancy while he was away fighting the Stuarts in Ireland; and when she was dead, he continued to pull down and build up at Hampton Court as long as he lived, laying the sort of ruthless hand upon its antiquity with which the unsparing present always touches the past. He sickened towards his end there, and one day his horse stepping into a mole-hill when the king was hunting (in the park where the kings from Henry VIII. down had chased the deer), fell with him and hurt him past surgery; but it was at Kensington that he shortly afterwards died. Few indeed, if any of the royal dwellers at Hampton Court breathed their last in air supposed so life-giving by Wolsey when he made it his seat. They loved it and enjoyed it, and in Queen Anne's time, when under a dull sovereign the civility of England brightened to Augustan splendor, the deep-rooted stem of English poetry burst there into the most exquisite artificial flower which it ever bore; for it was at Hampton Court that the fact occurred, which the fancy of the poet fanned to a bloom, as lasting as if it were rouge, in the matchless numbers of The Rape of the Lock.

Such pleasure-parties as that in which the lovely Arabella Fermor lost her curl under the scissors of Lord Petre, must have had the best of the gayety, in the time of the first and second Georges, for Pope himself, writing of it in one of his visits in 1717, described the court life as one of dull and laborious etiquette. Yet what was fairest and brightest and wittiest, if not wisest in England graced it, and the names of Bellenden and Lepell and Montagu, of Harvey and Chesterfield, of Gay and Pope and Walpole, flash and fade through the air that must have been so heavy even at Hampton Court in these reigns. After all, it is the common people who get the best of it when some lordly pleasure-house for which they have paid comes back to them, as palaces are not unapt finally to do; and it is not unimaginable that collectively they bring as much brilliancy and beauty to its free enjoyment as the kings and courtiers did in their mutually hampered pleasures.

Though the Georges began to divide the palace up into the apartments for the kind of permanent guests of the state who now inhabit them, it was not until well into the time of the late queen that the galleries and gardens were thrown open, without price or restriction, to the public. Whosever the instinct or inspiration was, the graciousness of it may probably be attributed to the mother-hearted sovereign whose goodness gave English monarchy a new lease of life in the affections of her subjects, and raised loyalty to a part of their religion. I suppose that actual rags and dirt would not be admitted to Hampton Court, but I doubt if any misery short of them would be excluded. Our fellow-visitors were of all types, chiefly of the humbler English, and there were not many obvious aliens among them. With that passion and pride in their own which sends them holidaying over the island to every point of historic or legendary interest, and every scene famous for its beauty, they strayed about the grounds and garden-paths of Hampton Court and through the halls of state, and revered the couches and thrones of the dead kings and queens in their bed-chambers and council-chambers, and perused the pictures on the walls, and the frescoes in the roofs. Oftenest they did not seem persons who could bring a cultivated taste to their enjoyment, but fortunately that was not essential to it, and possibly it was even greater without that. They could not have got so much hurt from the baleful beauties of Charles's court without their history as with it, and where they might not have been protected by their ignorance, they were saved by their preoccupation with one another, for they mostly hunted the objects of interest in courting couples.

We were going, after we had shared their sight-seeing, to enjoy the special privilege of visiting one of the private apartments into which the palace has been so comfortably divided up. But here, I am sorry to say, I must close the door in the reader's face, and leave him to cool his heels (I regret the offensiveness of the expression, but I cannot help it) on the threshold of the apartment, at the top of the historic staircase which he will have climbed with us, until we come out again. I do not mind telling him that nothing could be more charmingly homelike, and less like the proud discomfort of a palace, than the series of rooms we saw. For a moment, also, I will allow him to come round into the little picturesque court, gay with the window-gardens of its quaint casements, where we can look down upon him from the leads of our apartment. He ought to feel like a figure in an uncommonly pretty water- color, for he certainly looks like one, under the clustering gables and the jutting lattices. But if he prefers coming to life as a sight-seer he may join us at the door of Cardinal Wolsey's great kitchen, now forming part of our hostess's domain. The vast hearth is there yet, with its crane and spit, and if the cardinal could come back he might have a dinner cooked at it for Edward VII. with very little more trouble than for Henry VIII. three or four hundred years ago. "But what in the world," the reader may ask me, putting his hand on an old sedan-chair, which is somewhere in the same basement, if not in the kitchen itself, "is this?" I answer him, quite easily: "Oh, that is the Push," and explain that though now mounted on wheels instead of poles, the sedan-chair is still in actual use, and any lady-dweller in the apartments has the right of going to a dinner, or for what I know a "rout" in it, wherever it can be propelled within the precincts of the palace.

I suppose it is not taken out into the town, and I do not know that the ladies of the apartments ever visit there. In spite of this misgiving, Hampton remains one of the innumerable places in England where I should like to live always. Its streets follow the Thames, or come and go from the shores so pleasantly, that there is a sense of the river in it everywhere; and though I suppose people do not now resort to the place so much by water as they used, one is quite free to do so if one likes. We had not thought, however, to hire a waterman with his barge in coming, and so we poorly went back by the train. I say poorly in a comparative sense only, for there are many worse things in the world than running up to London in the cool, the very cool, of an April evening from Hampton Court. At such an hour you see the glad young suburban husbands, who have got home for the day, digging in the gardens at the backs of the pretty houses which your train passes, and the glad young wives, keeping round after them, and seeing they do not make play of their work. A neat maid in a cap pushes a garden-roller over the path, or a perambulator with a never-failing baby in it. The glimpse of domestic bliss is charming; and then it is such a comfort to get back to London, which seems to have been waiting, like a great plain, kind metropolis-mother, to welcome you home again, and ask what you would rather have for dinner.

William Dean Howells