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Aspects and Intimations

The fog, through that golden month of September (September is so silvern in America), was more or less a fact of the daily weather. The morning began in a mellow mistiness, which the sun burned through by noon; or if sometimes there was positive rain, it would clear for a warm sunset, which had moments of a very pretty pensiveness in the hollows of Green Park, or by the lakes of St. James's. There were always the bright beds of autumn flowers, and in Hyde Park something of the season's flush came back in the driving. The town began to be visibly fuller, and I was aware of many Americans, in carriages and on foot, whom I fancied alighting after a continental summer, and poising for another flight to their respective steamers. The sentiment of London was quite different at the end of September from the sentiment of London at the beginning, and one could imagine the sort of secondary season which it revisits in the winter. There was indeed no hint of the great primary season in the sacred paddock of beauty and fashion in Hyde Park, where the inverted penny chairs lay with their foreheads in the earth; and the shrivelled leaves, loosened from their boughs in the windless air, dropped listlessly round them.

At night our little Mayfair Street was the haunt of much voluntary minstrelsy. Bands of cockney darkeys came down it, tuning their voices to our native ragtime. Or a balladist, man or woman, took the centre, and sang towards our compassionate windows. Or a musical husband and wife placed their portable melodeon on the opposite sidewalk, and trained their vocal and instrumental attack upon the same weak defences.

It was all in keeping with the simple kindliness of the great town whose homelikeness arises from its immense habitability. This always strikes the New-Yorker, whether native or adoptive, if he be a thoughtful New- Yorker, and goes about the different regions of the ampler metropolis with an abiding sense of the restricted spaces where man may peacefully dwell, or quietly lodge over-night, in his own city. In assimilating each of the smaller towns or villages which it has made itself up of London has left them so much of their original character that though merged, they are not lost; and in cases where they have been so long merged as to have experienced a severance of consciousness, or where they are only nominally different sections of the vast whole, they have each its own temperament. It would be quite impossible for one finding one's self in Bloomsbury to suppose one's self in Belgravia, or in any of the Kensingtons to fancy one's self in Mayfair. Chelsea is as temperamentally different from Pimlico as the City from Southwark, and Islington, again, though it speaks the same language as Whitechapel, might well be of another tongue, so differently does it think and feel. The names, and a hundred others, call to the stranger from the sides and fronts and backs of omnibuses, until he has a weird sense that they personally knew him long before he knew them. But when once domesticated in any quarter he is so quickly at home in it that it will be the centre of London for him, coming to and going from it in a local acceptance which he cannot help feeling a reciprocal kindliness. He might do this as a mere hotel-dweller, but if he has given hostages to fortune by going into lodgings, and forming even indirect relations with the tradesmen round the corners, the little stationers and newsmen, the nearest bookseller, the intelligent female infants in the post-office (which is always within a minute's walk), and perhaps conversed with the neighboring policeman, or has taken cabs so often from the neighboring rank as to be recognizable to the cabmen, then he is more quickly and thoroughly naturalized in the chosen region. He will be unworthy of many little friendlinesses from his fellow-citizens if he does not like them, and he will miss, in refusing the image of home which is offered him, one of the rarest consolations of exile.

At a distance from London (say as small a distance, in time if not space, as Bath), you will hear it said that everybody is well in London, but in London you will find that the hygienic critics or authorities distinguish. All England, indeed, is divided into parts that are relaxing, and parts that are bracing, and it is not so strange then that London should be likewise subdivided. Mayfair, you will hear, is very bracing, but Belgravia, and more particularly Pimlico, on which it borders, is terribly relaxing. Beyond Pimlico, Chelsea again is bracing, and as for South Kensington it stands to reason that it is bracing because it is very high, almost as high as Mayfair. If you pass from your Pimlico borderland of Belgravia to either of those regions you are certainly not sensible of any sharp accent, but there is no telling what a gradual rise of eight or ten feet may make in the quality of the air. To the stranger all London seems a vast level, with perhaps here and there the sort of ground-swell you may note from your car-window in the passage of a Western plain. Ludgate Hill is truly a rise of ground, but Tower Hill is only such a bad eminence as may gloomily lift itself in history irrespective of the actual topography. Such an elevation as our own Murray Hill would be a noticeable height in London, and there are no such noble inequalities as in our up-town streets along the Hudson. All great modern cities love the plain surfaces, and London is not different from Chicago, or Philadelphia, or Paris, or Berlin, or Vienna, or St. Petersburg, or Milan in this; New York is much more mountainous, and Boston is a Sierra Nevada in comparison.

Yet, I suppose there must be something in the superstition that one part of London is more bracing or more relaxing than another, and that there is really, however insensibly, a difference of levels. That difference of temperaments which I have mentioned, seems mostly intimated in the size and age of the houses. They are larger and older in Bloomsbury, where they express a citizen substance and comfort; they are statelier about the parks and squares of Belgravia, which is comparatively a new settlement; but there are more little houses among the grandeurs of Mayfair which is of the same social quality, though many of its streets crossing from Piccadilly have quite gone to shops and family hotels and lodgings. It is more irregular and ancient than Belgravia, and its grandeurs have a more casual air. The historic mansions crowded by the clubs towards Hyde Park Corner, and grouped about the open space into which Piccadilly falters there, or following the park in the flat curve of Park Lane, have not the effect of withdrawal and exclusion of the Belgravian mansions; beyond which again there is a world of small dwellings of fainter and fainter self-assertion till they fade into the hopeless plebeian unconsciousness of Pimlico, whose endless streets are without beauty or dignity. Yet beyond this lost realm Chelsea redeems itself in a grace of domestic architecture and an atmosphere of esthetic associations which make it a favorite abode of the tastes as well as the means. Kensington, where you arrive after what seems hopeless straggling through the roaring thoroughfare prolonging the Fleet-and-Strand-derived Piccadilly, is of almost equal artistic and literary appeal, but is older and perhaps less actual in its claims upon the cultivated sympathies. In either of these regions the polite American of definite resources might, if banished from the republic, dwell in great material and spiritual comfort; but if he chose Chelsea for his exile, I do not know that I should blame his preference. There he would have the neighborhood of many charming people whom to know for neighbors would add a certain grace to existence, although he might not otherwise know them. Besides he would have, beyond the Thames, the wooded stretch of Battersea Park, if his dwelling, as it very well might, looked out upon the river and across it; and in the distance he would have the roofs and chimneys of that far Southwark, which no one seems anxious to have nearer than, say, the seventeenth century, and yet which being a part of London must be full of perfectly delightful people.

Even if you make-believe that Southwark bears some such relation to London as Jersey City bears to New York (but the image is very imperfect) still New York, you are aware, can never domesticate the Hudson as London has domesticated the Thames. Our river is too vast, too grand, if you will, ever to be redeemed from its primitive wildness, much less made an intimate part of the city's life. It may be laced with ferries and bound with all the meshes that commerce can weave with its swift-flying shuttles; it shall be tunnelled and bridged hereafter, again and again, but its mere size will keep it savage, just as a giant, though ever so amiable and good-natured, could not imaginably be civilized as a man of the usual five-foot-six may be. Among rivers the Thames is strictly of the five-foot-six average, and is therefore perfectly proportioned to the little continent of which it is the Amazon or the Mississippi. If it were larger it would make England ridiculous, as Denmark, for instance, is made ridiculous by the sounds and estuaries that sunder it. But the Thames is of just the right size to be held in London's arms, and if it is not for her the graceful plaything that the Seine is for Paris, it is more suited to the practical nature of London. There are, so far as I noted, no whispering poplars planted by the brink of the Thames, but I feel sure that if there were, and there were citizens fishing their years away in their shade, they would sometimes catch a fish, which the life-long anglers in the Seine never do. That forms a great difference, expressive of a lasting difference of character in the two capitals. Along the Thames the trees are planted on the successive Embankments, in a beautiful leafy parkway following its course, broken here and there by public edifices, like the Parliament buildings, but forming a screen mostly uninterrupted, behind which a parade of grandiose hotels does not altogether hide itself from the river. Then the national quality of the English stream is expressed in the succession of bridges which span it. These are uglier than any that cross the Seine; each one, in fact, is uglier than the other, till you come to the Tower Bridge, which is the ugliest of all. They have a strange fascination, and quickly endear themselves to the stranger who lounges on their parapets and looks down upon the grimy little steamers scuttling under them, or the uncouth barges pushed and pulled over the opacity of the swift puddle. They form also an admirable point for viewing the clumsy craft of all types which the falling tide leaves wallowing in the iridescent slime of the shoals, showing their huge flanks, and resting their blunt snouts on the mud-banks in a slumberous content.

It is seldom that the prospect reveals a vessel of more dignified proportions or presence, though in my drives along one of the Embankments I came upon a steamer of the modest size which we used to think large when we crossed the Atlantic in it, but which might be swung among the small boats from the davits of a latter-day liner. This vessel always had an admiring crowd about it, and I suppose it had some peculiar interest for the public which did not translate itself to me. As far as the more visible commerce of the more sight-seen parts of the Thames is concerned, it is as unimpressive as may be. It has nothing of the dramatic presence of the shipping in the Hudson or the East River, with its light operatic touches in the gayly painted Sound and North River steamboats. You must go as far at least as Stepney on the Thames before you begin to realize that London is the largest port, as well as the largest city, in the world.

There are certain characteristics, qualities, of London which I am aware of not calling aright, but which I will call sentiments for want of some better word. One of them was the feel of the night-air, especially late in the season, when there was a waste and weariness in it as if the vast human endeavor for pleasure and success had exhaled its despair upon it. Whatever there was of disappointment in one's past, of apprehension in one's future, came to the surface of the spirit, and asserted its unity with the collective melancholy. It was not exactly a Weltschmerz; that is as out-dated as the romantic movement; but it was a sort of scientific relinquishment, which was by no means scornful of others, or too appreciative of one's own unrecognized worth. Through the senses it related itself to the noises of the quiescing city, to the smell of its tormented dust, to the whiff of a casual cigar, or the odor of the herbage and foliage in the park or square that one was passing, one may not be more definite about what was perhaps nothing at all. But I fancy that relinquishment of any sort would be easier in London than in cities of simpler interest or smaller population. For my own part I was content to deny many knowledges that I would have liked to believe myself possessed of, and to go about clothed in my ignorance as in a garment, or defended by it as by armor. There was a sort of luxury in passing through streets memorable for a thousand things and as dense with associations as Long Island with mosquitoes when the winds are low, and in reflecting that I need not be ashamed for neglecting in part what no man could know in whole. I really suppose that upon any other terms the life of the cultivated American would be hardly safe from his own violence in London. If one did not shut one's self out from the complex appeal to one's higher self one could hardly go to one's tailor or one's hatter or one's shoemaker, on those missions which, it is a national superstition with us, may be more inexpensively fulfilled there than at home. The best way is to begin by giving up everything, by frankly saying to yourself that you will not be bothered, that man's days of travel are full of trouble, and that you are going to get what little joy you can out of them as you go along. Then, perhaps, on some errand of quite ignoble purport, you will be seized with the knowledge that in the very spot where you stand one of the most significant things in history happened. It will be quite enough for you, as you inhale a breath of the London mixture of smoke, dust, and fog, that it is something like the air which Shakespeare and Milton breathed when they were meditating the works which have given so many international after-dinner orators the assurance of a bond of amity in our common language. Once, in driving through one of the dullest streets imaginable, I chanced to look out of the side-window of my hansom, and saw on a flying house-wall a tablet reading: "Here lived John Dryden," and though Dryden is a poet to move one to tenderness as little as may be, the tears came into my eyes.

It is but one of a thousand names, great in some sort or other, which make sojourn in London impossible, if one takes them to heart as an obligation to consciousness of her constant and instant claim. They show you Johnson's house in Bolt Court, but it only avails to vex you with the thought of the many and many houses of better and greater men which they will never show you. As for the scenes of events in fiction you have a plain duty to shun them, for in a city where the great facts of the past are written so deep upon the walls and pavement one over another, it is folly which can be forgiven only to the vacancy of youth to go looking for the places where this imaginary thing happened. Yet this claim of folly has been recognized, and if you wish to indulge it, you can do so at little trouble. Where the real localities are not available they have fictitious ones, and they show you an Old Curiosity Shop, for instance, which serves every purpose of having been the home of Little Nell. There are at least three Cock Taverns, and several Mitres, all genuine; and so on. Forty odd years ago I myself, on first arriving in London, lodged at the Golden Cross, because it was there that David Copperfield stopped; and I was insensately pleased the other day that there was still a hotel of that name at the old stand. Whether it was the old inn, I did not challenge the ghost within me to say. I doubt if you now dine there "off the joint" in the "coffee-room"; more probably you have a table d'hôte meal served you "at separate tables," by a German lad just beginning to ignore English. The shambling elderly waiter who was part of the furniture in 1861 is very likely dead; and for the credit of our country I hope that the recreant American whom I heard telling an Englishman there in those disheartening days, of our civic corruptions, may have also passed away. He said that he himself had bought votes, as many as he wanted, in the city of Providence; and though I could deny the general prevalence of such venality at least in my own stainless state of Ohio, I did not think to suggest that in such a case the corruption was in the buyer rather than the seller of the votes, and that if he had now come to live, as he implied, in a purer country, he had not taken the right way to be worthy of it. But at twenty-four you cannot think of everything at once, and a recreant American is so uncommon that you need hardly, at any age, provide for him.

William Dean Howells