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Fishing for Whitebait

An incident of the great midsummer heat, was an excursion down the Thames which took us far from the society atmosphere so relaxing to the moral fibre of the mere witness of the London season. The change was not to the cooler air which had been imagined, but it immersed us for the space of the boat's voyage to and from Greenwich among those social inferiors who are probably the moral betters of their superiors, but whose company does not always seem the spiritual baptism it doubtless is. Our fellow-passengers were distinctly of the classes which are lower as well as middle, and the sole worldly advantage they had of us was that they were going where they wished, and we were going where we must. We had started for Richmond, but as there proved to be no boat for Richmond, we decided to take the boat which was for Greenwich, and consoled ourselves with visions of whitebait, in memory and honor of many parliamentary and literary feasts which that fish has furnished. A whitebait dinner, what would not one suffer of human contiguity for it, even though it could be only a whitebait lunch, owing to the early hour?

It was the flaming heart of the forenoon when the Greenwich boat puffed up to her landing at Westminster Bridge, and the lower middle classes streamed aboard.

She looked very lower middle class herself, poor boat, and she was of a failing line which the London County Council is about to replace by a line of municipal boats, without apparently alarming, in the English, the sensibilities so apprehensive of anarchy with us when there is any talk of government transportation. The official who sold me tickets might have been training himself for a position on the municipal line, he was so civilly explanatory as to my voyage; so far from treating my inquiries with the sardonic irony which meets question in American ticket-offices, he all but caressed me aboard. He had scarcely ceased reassuring me when the boat struck out on the thin solution of dark mud which passes for water in the Thames, and scuttled down the tide towards Greenwich.

Her course lay between the shabbiness of Southwark and the grandeur of the Westminster shore, which is probably the noblest water-front in the world. Near and far the great imperial and municipal and palatial masses of architecture lifted themselves, and, as we passed, varied their grouping with one another, and with the leafy domes and spires which everywhere enrich and soften the London outlook. Their great succession ought to culminate in the Tower, and so it does to the mind's eye, but to the body's eye, the Tower is rather histrionic than historic. It is like a scenic reproduction of itself, like a London Tower on the stage; and if ever, in a moment of Anglo-Saxon expansion, the County Council should think of selling it to Chicago, to be set up somewhere between the Illinois Central and the Lake, New York need not hopelessly envy her the purchase: New York could easily build a London Tower that would look worthier of its memories than the real one, without even making it a sky-scraper.

So it seems at the moment, but I am not sure that it is so true as it is that after passing the Tower the one shore of the Thames begins to lose its dignity and beauty, and to be of like effect with the other, which is the Southwark side, and like all the American river-sides that I remember. Grimy business piles, sagging sheds, and frowsy wharves and docks grieve the eye, which the shipping in the stream does little to console. That is mostly of dingy tramp-steamers, or inferior Dutch liners, clumsy barges, and here and there a stately brig or shapely schooner; but it gathers nowhere into the forest of masts and chimneys that fringe the North River and East River. The foul tide rises and falls between low shores where, when it ebbs, are seen oozy shoals of slime, and every keel or paddle that stirs the surface of the river brings up the loathsomeness of the bottom.

Coming back we saw a gang of half-grown boys bathing from the slimy shoals, running down to the water on planks laid over them, and splashing joyously into the filthy solution with the inextinguishable gladness of their years. They looked like boys out of the purlieus of Dickens's poverty-world, and all London waterside apparitions are more or less from his pages. The elderly waiter of the forlorn out-dated hotel to which we went for our whitebait lunch at Greenwich was as much of his invention as if he had created him from the dust of the place, and breathed his elderly-waiter-soul into him. He had a queer pseudo-respectful shuffle and a sidelong approach, with a dawning baldness at the back of his head, which seemed of one quality with these characteristics: his dress-coat was lustrous with the greasiness of long serving. Asked for whitebait, he destroyed the illusion in which we had come at a blow. He said he could send out and get us some whitebait if we could wait twenty minutes, but they never had any call for it now, and they did not keep it. Then he smiled down upon us out of an apparently humorous face in which there was no real fun, and added that we could have salmon mayonnaise at once. Salmon mayonnaise was therefore what we had, and except that it was not whitebait, it was not very disappointing; we had not expected much of it. After we had eaten it, we were put in relations with the landlord, regarding a fly which we wished to take for a drive, in the absence of whitebait. But a fly required, in Greenwich, an interview with a stableman and a negotiation which, though we were assured it would be fairly conducted, we decided to forego, and contented ourselves with exploring the old hostelry, close and faint of atmosphere and of a smell at once mouldy and dusty. The room that was called Nelson's, for no very definite reason, and the room in which the ministry used to have their whitebait dinners in the halcyon days before whitebait was extinct in Greenwich, pretended to some state but no beauty, and some smaller dining-rooms that overhung the river had the merit of commanding a full view of the Isle of Dogs, and in the immediate foreground—it was as much earth as water that lapped the shore—a small boy wading out to a small boat and providing himself a sorrowful evening at home with his mother, by soaking his ragged sleeves and trousers in the solution. Some young men in rowing costume were vigorously pulling in a heavy row-boat by way of filling in their outing; a Dutch steamer, whose acquaintance we had made in coming, was hurrying to get out of the river into the freshness of the sea, and this was all of Greenwich as a watering-place which we cared to see.

But that was a pleasant landlord, and he told us of balls and parties, which, though not imaginably of the first social quality, must have given his middle-aging hostelry a gayety in winter that it lacked in summer. He applauded our resolution to see the pictures in the gallery of the old naval college on the way back to our boat, and saw us to the door, and fairly out into the blazing sun. It was truly a grilling heat, and we utilized every scrap of shade as one does in Italy, running from tree to tree and wall to wall, and escaping into every available portico and colonnade. But once inside the great hall where England honors her naval heroes and their battles, it was deliriously cool. It could not have been that so many marine pieces tempered the torrid air, for they all represented the heat of battle, with fire and smoke, and the work of coming to close quarters, with

"hot gun-lip kissing gun."

The gallery was altogether better in the old admirals and other sea-dogs of England whose portraits relieved the intolerable spread of the battle scenes; and it was best of all in the many pictures and effigies and relics of Nelson, who, next to Napoleon, was the wonder of his great time. He looked the hero as little as Napoleon; everywhere his face showed the impassioned dreamer, the poet; and once more gave the lie to the silly notion that there is a type of this or that kind of great men. When we had fairly settled the fact to our minds, we perceived that the whole place we were in was a temple to Nelson, and that whatever minor marine deities had their shrines there, it was in strict subordination to him. England had done what she could for them, who had done so much for her; but they seem consecrated in rather an out-of-the-way place, now that there is no longer whitebait to allure the traveller to their worship; and, upon the whole, one might well think twice before choosing just their apotheosis.

By the time I reached this conclusion, or inconclusion, it was time to grill forth to our boat, and we escaped from shade to shade, as before, until we reached the first-class shelter of the awning at her stern. Even there it was crowded in agonizing disproportion to the small breeze that was crisping the surface of the solution; and fifteen or twenty babies developed themselves to testify of the English abhorrence of race-suicide among the lower middle classes. They were mostly good, poor things, and evoked no sentiment harsher than pity even when they were not good. Still it was not just the sort of day when one could have wished them given the pleasure of an outing to Greenwich. Perhaps they were only incidentally given it, but it must have been from a specific generosity that several children in arms were fed by their indulgent mothers with large slices of sausage. To be sure they had probably had no whitebait.

William Dean Howells