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Henley Day

Our invitation to the regatta at Henley, included luncheon in the tent of an Oxford college, and a view of the races from the college barge, which, with the barges of other Oxford colleges, had been towed down the Thames to the scene of the annual rivalry between the crews of the two great English universities. There may also have been Cambridge barges, spirited through the air in default of water for towing them to Henley, but I make sure only of a gay variety of houseboats stretching up and down the grassy margin of the stream, along the course the rowers were to take. As their contest was the least important fact of the occasion for me, and as I had not then, and have not now, a clear notion which came off winner in any of the events, I will try not to trouble the reader with my impressions of them, except as they lent a vivid action and formed a dramatic motive for one of the loveliest spectacles under the sun. I have hitherto contended that class-day at Harvard was the fairest flower of civilization, but, having seen the regatta at Henley, I am no longer so sure of it.

Henley is no great way from London, and the quick pulse of its excitement could be sensibly felt at the station, where we took train for it. Our train was one of many special trains leaving at quarter-hourly intervals, and there was already an anxious crowd hurrying to it, with tickets entitling them to go by that train and no other. It was by no means the youthful crowd it would have been at home, and not even the overwhelmingly feminine crowd. The chaperon, who now politely prevails with us in almost her European numbers, was here in no greater evident force; but gray-haired fathers and uncles and elderly friends much more abounded; and they looked as if they were not altogether bent upon a vicarious day's pleasure. The male of the English race is of much more striking presence than the American; he keeps more of the native priority of his sex in his costume, so that in this crowd, I should say, the outward shows were rather on his part than that of his demurely cloaked females, though the hats into which these flowered at top gave some hint of the summer loveliness of dress to be later revealed. They were, much more largely than most railway-station crowds, of the rank which goes first class, and in these special Henley trains it was well to have booked so, if one wished to go in comfort, or arrive uncrumpled, for the second-class and third-class carriages were packed with people.

There seemed so many of our fellow-passengers, that reaching Henley in the condition of greed and grudge of all travellers on errands of pleasure, we made haste to anticipate any rush for the carriages outside the station which were to take us to the scene of the races. Oddly enough there was no great pressure for these vehicles, or for the more public brakes and char-à-bancs and omnibuses plying to the same destination; and so far from falling victims to covert extortion in the matter of fares, we found the flys conscientiously placarded with the price of the drive. This was about double the ordinary price, and so soon does human nature adjust itself to conditions that I promptly complained to an English friend for having had to pay four shillings for a drive I should have had to pay four dollars for at home. In my resentment I tried to part foes with my driver, who mildly urged that he had but a few days in the year for doubling his fares, but I succeeded so ill that when I found him waiting for me at the end of the day, I amicably took him again for the return to the station.

Of the coming and going through the town of Henley I keep the sort of impression which small English towns give the passing stranger, of a sufficiently busy commercial life, doing business in excellent shops of the modern pattern, but often housed in dwellings of such a familiar picturesqueness that you wonder what old-fashioned annual or stage- setting or illustrated Christmas-story they are out of. I never could pass through such a town without longing to stop in it and know all about it; and I wish I could believe that Henley reciprocated my longing, on its bright holiday morning, that we could have had each other to ourselves in the interest of an intimate acquaintance. It looked most worthy to be known, and I have no doubt that it is full of history and tradition of the sort which small towns have been growing for centuries throughout England.

But we had only that one day there, and in our haste to give it to the regatta we could only make sure of driving over a beautiful picture- postal bridge on our way to the meadows by whose brink our college barge was moored, and making believe to tug at its chain. It was really doing nothing of the kind, for it was familiar with boat-racing in the Thames where the Thames is still the Isis at Oxford, and was as wholly without the motive as without the fact of impatience. Like many other barges and house-boats set broadside to the shore for a mile up and down as closely as they could be lined, it was of a comfortable cabin below and of a pleasant gallery above, with an awning to keep off the sun or rain, whichever it might be the whim of the weather to send. But that day the weather had no whims; it was its pleasure to be neither wet nor hot, but of a delicious average warmth, informed with a cool freshness which had the days of the years of youth in it. In fact, youth came back in all the holiday sights and scents to the elderly witness who ought to have known better than to be glad of such things as the white tents in the green meadows, the gypsy fires burning pale in the sunlight by the gypsy camps, the traps and carriages thronging up and down the road, or standing detached from the horses in the wayside shadow, where the trodden grass, not less nor more than the wandering cigar-whiff, exhaled the memories of far-off circus-days and Fourths of July. But such things lift the heart in spite of philosophy and experience, and bid it rejoice in the relish of novelty which a scene everywhere elementally the same offers in slight idiosyncrasies of time and place. Certain of these might well touch the American half-brother with a sense of difference, but there was none that perhaps more suggested it than the frank English proclamation by sign-board that these or those grounds in the meadows were this or that lady's, who might be supposed waiting in proprietory state for her guests within the pavilion of her roped-off enclosure. Together with this assertion of private right, and the warning it implied, was the expression of yet elder privilege in the presence of the immemorial wanderers who had their shabby camps by the open wayside and offered the passer fortune at so low a rate that the poorest pleasurer could afford to buy a prophecy of prosperity from them; I do not know why they proposed to sell with these favorable destinies small brushes and brooms of their own make.

These swarthy aliens, whom no conditions can naturalize, are a fact of every English holiday without which it would not be so native, as the English themselves may hereafter be the more peculiarly and intensely insular through the prevalence of more and more Americans among them. Most of our fellow-guests on that Oxford barge were our fellow- countrymen, and I think now that without their difference there would have been wanting an ultimately penetrating sense of the entirely English keeping of the affair. The ardor of our fresh interest lent, I hope, a novel zest to our English hosts for the spectacle which began to offer itself so gradually to our delight, and which seemed to grow and open flower-like from the water, until it was a blossom which covered the surface with its petals.

The course for the races was marked off midway from either shore by long timbers fastened end to end and forming a complete barrier to the intrusion of any of the mere pleasure-craft. Our own shore was sacred to barges and house-boats; the thither margin, if I remember rightly, was devoted to the noisy and muscular expansion of undergraduate emotion, but, it seems to me, that farther up on the grounds which rose from it were some such tents and pavilions as whitened our own side. Still the impression of something rather more official in the arrangements of that shore persists with me.

There was a long waiting, of course, before the rowing began, but as this throughout was the least interest of the affair for any one but the undergraduates, and the nearest or fairest friends of the crews, I will keep my promise not to dwell on it. Each event was announced some minutes beforehand by the ringing of a rather unimpressive hand-bell. Then a pistol-shot was fired; and then, after the start far up the course, the shells came sweeping swiftly down towards us. I noticed that the men rowed in their undershirts, and not naked from their waists up as our university crews do, or used to do, and I missed the Greek joy I have experienced at New London, when the fine Yale and Harvard fellows slipped their tunics over their heads, and sat sculpturesque in their bronze nudity, motionlessly waiting for the signal to come to eager life. I think that American moment was more thrilling than any given moment at Henley; and though there is more comfort in a college barge, and more gentle seclusion for the favored spectator, I am not going to own that it equals as a view-point the observation-train, with its successive banks of shouting and glowing girls, all a flutter of handkerchiefs and parasols, which used to keep abreast of the racing crews beside the stately course of the Connecticut Thames. Otherwise I think it best to withhold comparisons, lest the impartial judge should decide in favor of Henley.

There was already a multitude of small boats within the barriers keeping the race-course open, and now and then one of these crossed from shore to shore. They were of all types: skiffs and wherries and canoes and snub-nosed punts, with a great number of short, sharply rounded craft, new to my American observance, and called cockles, very precisely adapted to contain one girl, who had to sit with her eyes firmly fixed on the young man with the oars, lest a glance to this side or that should oversee the ticklishly balanced shell. She might assist her eyes in trimming the boat with a red or yellow parasol, or a large fan, but it appeared that her gown, a long flow as she reclined on the low seat, must be of one white or pale lavender or cowslip or soft pink, lest any turmoil of colors in it should be too much for the balance she sought to keep. The like precaution seemed to have been taken in the other boats, so that while all the more delicate hues of the rainbow were afloat on the stream, there was nothing of the kaleidoscope's vulgar variety in the respective costumes. As the numbers of the boats momentarily increased, it was more and more as if the church-parade of Hyde Park had taken water, and though in such a scene as that which spread its soft allure before us, it was not quite imaginable that all the loveliness one saw was of the quality of that in the consecrated paddocks near Stanhope Gate, neither was it imaginable that much of the beauty was not as well-born as it was well-dressed. Those house-boats up and down the shore must mainly have been peopled by persons of worldly worth, and of those who had come from the four quarters to Henley for the day, not every one could have been an actress with her friends, though each contributed to the effect of a spectacle not yet approached in any pantomime. There was a good deal of friendly visiting back and forth among the house-boat people; and I was told that it was even more than correct for a young man to ask a house-boat girl to go out with him in one of the small boats on the water, but how much this contributed to keep the scene elect I do not know.

If one looked steadily at the pretty sight, it lost reality as things do when too closely scrutinized, and became a visionary confluence of lines and colors, a soft stir of bloom like a flowery expanse moved by the air. This ecstatic effect was not exclusive of facts which kept one's feet well on the earth, or on the roof of one's college barge. Out of that "giddy pleasure of the eyes" business lifted a practical front from time to time, and extended a kind of butterfly net at the end of a pole so long that it would reach anywhere, and collected pennies for the people in boats who had been singing or playing banjos or guitars or even upright pianos. For, it must be explained, there were many in that aquatic crowd who were there to be heard as well as seen, and this gave the affair its pathos. Not that negro minstrelsy as the English have interpreted the sole American contribution to histrionic art, is in itself pathetic, except as it is so lamentably far from the original; but that any obvious labor which adds to our gayety is sorrowful; and there were many different artists there who were working hard. Sometimes it was the man who sang and the woman who played; but it was always the woman who took up the collection: she seemed to have the greater enterprise and perseverance. Of course in the case of the blackened minstrels, some man appealed to the love of humor rather than the love of beauty for the bounty of the spectators. In the case of an old-time plantation darkey who sang the familiar melodies with the slurring vowels and wandering aspirates of East London, and then lifted a face one-half blackened, the appeal to the love of humor was more effective than the other could have been. A company of young men in masks with a piano in their boat, which one played while another led the singing in an amazing falsetto, were peculiarly successful in collecting their reward, and were all the more amusingly eager because they were, as our English friends believed, undergraduates on a lark.

They were no better-natured than the rest of the constantly increasing multitude. The boats thickened upon the water as if they had risen softly from the bottom to which any panic might have sent them; but the people in them took every chance with the amiability which seems to be finally the thing that holds England together. The English have got a bad name abroad which certainly they do not deserve at home; but perhaps they do not think foreigners worthy the consideration they show one another on any occasion that masses them. One lady, from her vantage in the stern of her boat, was seen to hit the gentleman in the bow a tremendous whack with her paddle; but he merely looked round and smiled, as if it had been a caress, which it probably was, in disguise. But they were all kind and patient with one another whether in the same boat or not. Some had clearly not the faintest notion how a boat should be managed; they bumped and punched one another wildly; but the occupants of the boat assailed simply pushed off the attacking party with a smiling acceptance of its apology, and passed on the incident to another boat before or beside them. From the whole multitude there came not one loud or angry note, and, for any appearance of authority on the scene it was altogether unpoliced, and kept safe solely by the universal good-humor. The women were there to show themselves in and at their prettiest, and to see one another as they lounged on the cushions or lay in the bottoms of the boats, or sat up and displayed their hats and parasols; the men were there to make the women have a good time. Neither the one nor the other seemed in the least concerned in the races, which duly followed one another with the ringing of bells and firing of pistols, unheeded. By the time the signal came to clear the course for the crews, the pleasure-craft pushed within the barriers formed a vast, softly undulating raft covering the whole surface of the water, so that you could have walked from the barrier to the shore without dipping foot in the flood. I have suggested that the situation might have had its perils. Any panic must have caused a commotion that would have overturned hundreds of the crazy craft, and plunged their freight to helpless death. But the spectacle smiled securely to the sun, which smiled back upon it from a cloud-islanded blue with a rather more than English ardor; and we left it without anxiety, to take our luncheon in the pavilion pitched beside our barge on the grassy shore.

To this honest meal we sat comfortably down at long tables, and served one another from the dishes put before us. There was not the ambitious variety of salads and sweets and fruits and ices, which I have seen at Harvard Class-Day spreads, but there were the things that stay one more wholesomely and substantially, and one was not obliged to eat standing and hold one's plate. Everything in England that can be is adjusted to the private and personal scale; everything with us is generalized and fitted to the convenience of the greatest number. Later, we all sat down together at afternoon tea, a rite of as inviolable observance as breakfast itself in that island of fixed habits.

I believe some races were rowed while we were eating and drinking, but we did not mind. We were not there for the races, but for the people who were there for the races; or who were apparently so. In the mean time, the multitude of them seemed to have increased, and where I had fancied that not one boat more could have been pressed in, half a dozen had found room. The feat must have been accomplished by main strength and awkwardness, as the old phrase is. It was no place indeed for skill to evince itself; but people pushed about in the most incredible way when they tried to move, though mostly they did not try; they let their boats lie still, and sway with the common movement when the water rose and sank, or fluctuated unseen beneath them. There were more and more people of the sort that there can never be enough of, such as young girls beautifully dressed in airy muslins and light silks, sheltered but not hidden by gay parasols floating above their summer hats. It was the fairy multitude of Harvard Class-Day in English terms, and though Henley never came at any moment to that prodigiously picturesque expression which Class-Day used to reach when all its youthful loveliness banked itself on the pine-plank gradines enclosing the Class-Day elm, and waited the struggle for its garlands, yet you felt at Henley somehow in the presence of inexhaustible numbers, drawing themselves from a society ultimately, if not immediately, vaster. It was rather dreadful perhaps to reflect that if all that brilliant expanse of fashion and beauty had been engulfed in the hidden Thames it could have been instantly replaced by as much more, not once but a score of times.

I will not pretend that this thought finally drove me from the scene, for I am of a very hardy make when it comes to the most frightful sort of suppositions. But the afternoon was wearing away, and we must go sometime. It seemed better also to leave the gayety at its height: the river covered with soft colors, and the barges and house-boats by the brink, with their companies responsive in harmonies of muslin and gauze and lace to those afloat; the crowds on the opposite shore in constant movement, and in vivid agitation when the bell and the pistol announced a racing event. We parted with our friends on the barge, and found our way through the gypsy crones squatted on the grass, weaving the web of fate and selling brooms and brushes in the intervals of their mystical employ, or cosily gossiping together; and then we took for the station the harmless fly which we had forever renounced as predatory in the morning.

It was not yet the rush-hour for the run back to London, and we easily got an empty compartment, in which we were presently joined by a group of extremely handsome people, all of a southern type, but differing in age and sex. There were a mother and a daughter, and a father evidently soon to become a father-in-law, and the young man who was to make him so. The women were alike in their white gowns, and alike in their dark beauty, but the charms of the mother had expanded in a bulk incredible of the slender daughter. She and her father were rather silent, and the talk was mainly between the mother and the future of the girl. They first counted up the day's expenses, and the cost of each dish they had had at luncheon. "Then there was the champagne," the lady insisted. "It isn't so much when you count that out; and you know we chose to have it." They all discussed the sum, and agreed that if they had not wanted the champagne their holiday would not have cost inordinately. "And now," the mother continued to the young man, "you must order that box for the opera as soon as ever you reach the hotel. Order it by telephone. Give the girl your boutonnière; that will jolly her. Get a four-guinea box opposite the royal box."

As she sat deeply sunk in the luxurious first-class seat, her little feet could not reach the floor, and the effort with which she bent forward was heroic. The very pretty girl in the corner at her elbow was almost eclipsed by her breadth and thickness; and the old gentleman in the opposite corner spoke a word now and then, but for the most part silently smelled of tobacco. The talk which the mother and future son-in-law had to themselves, though it was so intimately of their own affairs, we fancied more or less carried on at us. I do not know why they should have wished to crush us with their opulence since they would not have chosen to enrich us; but I have never had so great a sense of opulence. They were all, as I said, singularly handsome people, in the dark, liquid, lustrous fashion which I am afraid our own race can never achieve. Yet with all this evident opulence, with their resolute spirits, with their satisfaction in having spent so much on a luncheon which they could have made less expensive if they had not chosen to gratify themselves in it, with their prospect of a four-guinea box, opposite the box of royalty, at the opera, it seemed to me they were rather pathetic than otherwise. But I am sure they would have never imagined themselves so, and that in their own eyes they were a radiantly enviable party returning from a brilliant day at Henley.

William Dean Howells