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Parting Guests

However the Golden Cross Inn may have inwardly or outwardly changed, the Golden Cross Hotel keeps its old place hard by the Charing Cross station, which is now so different from the station of the earlier day. I do not think it is one of the most sympathetic of the London stations. I myself prefer rather the sentiment of the good old Euston station, which continues for you the feeling of arrival in England, and keeps you in the glow of landing that you have, or had in the days when you always landed in Liverpool, and the constant Cunarders and Inmans ignored the upstart pretensions of Southampton and Plymouth to be ports of entry from the United States. But among the stations of minor autobiographical interest, Charing Cross is undoubtedly the first, and you may have your tenderness for it as the place where you took the train for the nightboat at Folkestone in first crossing to the continent. How strange it all was, and yet how not unfriendly; for there is always a great deal of human nature in England. She is very motherly, even with us children who ran away from home, and only come back now and then to make sure that we are glad of having done so. In the lamp-broken obscurity of the second-class carriage I am aware still of a youthful exile being asked his destination, and then his derivation, by a gentle old lady in the seat opposite (she might have been Mother England in person), who, hearing that he was from America where the civil war was then very unpromising, could only say, comfortingly: "And very glad to be out of it, I dare say!" He must protest, but if he failed to convince, how could he explain that part of his high mission to the ports of the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom was to sweep from the Adriatic the Confederate privateers which Great Britain was then fitting out to prey upon our sparse commerce there? As a matter of fact he had eventually to do little or no sweeping of that sort; for no privateers came to interrupt the calm in which he devoted himself, unofficially, to writing a book about the chief of those ports.

It was the first of many departures from London, where you are always more or less arriving or departing as long as you remain in England. It is indeed an axiom with the natives that if you want to go from any one point to any other in the island it is easier to come to London and start afresh for it, than to reach the point across country. The trains to and from the capital are swifter and more frequent, and you are not likely to lose your way in the mazes of Bradshaw if you consult the indefinitely simplified A B C tables which instruct you how to launch yourself direct from London upon any objective, or to recoil from it. My impression is that you habitually drive to a London station as nearly in time to take your train as may be, and that there is very little use for waiting-rooms. This may be why the waiting-room seems so small and unattractive a part of the general equipment. It never bears any such proportion to the rest as the waiting-rooms in the great Boston stations, or even that of the Grand Central in New York, and is by no chance so really fine as that of the Atchison and Topeka at Omaha, or that of the Lake Shore at Pittsburg. Neither the management nor the climate is so unkind as to keep intending passengers from the platforms, where they stand talking, or walk up and down, or lean from their carriage-doors and take leave of attendant friends with repeated pathos. With us it is either too cold or too hot to do that, and at all the great stations we are now fenced off from the tracks, as on the Continent, and unless we can make favor with the gateman, must despatch our farewells before our parting dear ones press forward to have their tickets punched. But at no London station, and far less at any provincial station in England, are you subjected to these formalities; and the English seem to linger out their farewells almost abusively, especially if they are young and have much of life before them.

Charing Cross has the distinction, sole among her sister stations, of a royal entrance. There is no doubt a reason for this; but as royalty is always coming and going in every direction, it is not easy to know why the other stations do not provide themselves with like facilities. One cannot imagine just how the king and queen get in and out of the common gateway, but it has to be managed everywhere but at Charing Cross, no matter what hardship to royalty it involves. Neither has any other station a modern copy of a Queen Eleanor's Cross, but this is doubtless because no other station was the last of these points where her coffin was set down on its way from Lincoln to its final restingplace in Westminster. You cannot altogether regret their lack after you have seen such an original cross as that of Northampton, for though the Victorian piety which replaced the monument at Charing Cross was faithful and earnest, it was not somehow the art of 1291. One feels no greater hardness in the Parliamentary zeal which razed the cross in 1647 than in the stony fidelity of detail which hurts the eye in the modern work, and refuses to be softened by any effect of the mellowing London air. It looks out over the scurry of cabs, the ponderous tread of omnibuses, the rainfall patter of human feet, as inexorably latter-day as anything in the Strand. It is only an instance of the constant futility of the restoration which, in a world so violent or merely wearing as ours, must still go on, and give us dead corpses of the past instead of living images. Fortunately it cannot take from Charing Cross its preeminence among the London railway stations, which is chiefly due to its place in the busy heart of the town, and to that certain openness of aspect, which sometimes, as with the space at Hyde Park Corner, does the effect of sunniness in London. It may be nearer or farther, as related to one's own abode, but it has not the positive remoteness from the great centres, by force of which, for instance, Waterloo seems in a peripheral whirl of non-arrival, and Vauxhall lost somewhere in a rude borderland, and King's Cross bewildered in a roar of tormented streets beyond darkest Bloomsbury. Even Paddington, which is of a politer situation, and is the gate of the beautiful West-of-England country, has not the allure of Charing Cross; even Euston which so sweetly prolongs the old-fashioned Liverpool voyage from New York, and keeps one to the last moment in a sense of home, really stays one from London by its kind reluctance. It is at Charing Cross alone that you are immediately and unmistakably in the London of your dreams.

I think that sooner or later we had arrived at or departed from all the great stations, but I will not make so sure of St. Pancras. I am afraid that I was, more strictly speaking, only at a small church hard by, of so marked a ritualistic temperament that it had pictures in it, and gave me an illusion of Italy, though I was explicitly there because of an American origin in the baptism of Junius Brutus Booth. I am sorry I do not remember the name of that little church, but it stood among autumn flowers, in the heart of a still, sunny morning, where the reader will easily find it. Of Victoria station I am many times certain, for it was from it that we at last left London, and that at the time of an earlier sojourn we arrived in a fog of a type which stamped our sense of the world's metropolis with a completeness which it had hitherto disappointingly wanted.

It had been a dull evening on the way up from Dover, but not uncommonly dull for an evening of the English November, and we did not notice that we had emerged from the train into an intensified obscurity. In the corridors of the station-hotel hung wreaths of what a confident spirit of our party declared to be smoke, in expression of the alarming conviction that the house was on fire. Nobody but ourselves seemed troubled by the smoke, however, and with a prompt recurrence to the reading which makes the American an intimate of the English circumstance though he has never personally known it, we realized that what seemed smoke must be a very marked phase of London fog. It did not perceptibly thicken in-doors that night, but the next day no day dawned, nor, for that matter, the day after the next. All the same the town was invisibly astir everywhere in a world which hesitated at moments between total and partial blindness. The usual motives and incentives were at work in the business of men, more like the mental operations of sleep than of waking. From the height of an upper window one could look down and feel the city's efforts to break the mesh of its weird captivity, with an invisible stir in all directions, as of groping. Of course, life had to go on, upon such terms as it could, and if you descended from your window that showed nothing, and went into the street, and joined the groping, you could make out something of its objects. With a cabman who knew his way, as a pilot knows his way on a river in a black night, you could depart and even arrive. In the course of your journey you would find the thoroughfare thick with hesitating or arrested traffic. At one place you would be aware of a dull, red light, brightening into a veiled glare, and you would have come upon a group of horses, detached from several omnibuses, and standing head to head till they might hopefully be put to and driven on again. The same light, with the torches carried by boys, would reveal trucks and carts stopped, or slowly creeping forward. Cab-horses between the blotches of flame made by the cab-lamps were craning their necks forward, or twitching them from side to side. Through the press foot-passengers found their way across the street, and imaginably in the dark that swallowed up the sidewalks, they were going and coming on errands that could brook no stay. The wonder was that they could know which way they were going, or how they could expect to reach any given point.

Where the buildings were densest the fog was thinnest, and there it was a greenish-yellow, like water when you open your eyes and look at it far below the surface. Where the houses fell away, and you found yourself in a square, or with a park on one side, the vapor thickened into blackness and seemed to swell, a turbid tide, overhead and underfoot. It hurt your straining eyes, and got into your throat, and burned it like a sullen steam. If your cab stopped, miraculously enough, at the address given, you got out incredulous and fearful of abandonment. When you emerged again, and found your cab waiting, you mutely mounted to your place and resumed your strange quality of something in a dream.

So, all that day the pall hung upon the town, and all the next. The third day the travellers were to sail from Liverpool, and there was some imperative last-shopping on the eve. Two of them took a courageous cab, and started for Bond Street. In a few moments the cab was in the thick of the fog and its consequences, a tangle of stationary vehicles with horses detached, or marking time, without advancing either way. A trembling hand lifted the little trap in the cab-roof, and a trembling voice asked the cabman: "Do you think you can go on?" "I think so, sir." The horse's head had already vanished; now his haunches faded away. Towards the dashboard the shafts of another cab came yawing, and again the eager voice quavered: "Do you think you can get back?" "Oh yes, sir," the answer came more cheerfully, and the shopping was done a week later in Twenty-third Street.

There is an insensate wish in the human witness to have nature when she begins misbehaving do her worst. One longs to have her go all lengths, and this perhaps is why an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption, of violent type is so satisfactory to those it spares. It formed the secret joy of the great blizzard of 1888, and it must form the mystical delight of such a London fog as we had experienced. But you see the blizzard once in a generation or a century, while if you are good, or good enough to live in London, you may see a characteristic fog almost any year. It is another case in which the metropolis of the New World must yield to the metropolis of the whole world. Fog for fog, I do not say but the fog in which we left New York, on March 3, 1904, was not as perfect as our great London fog. But the New York fog was only blindingly white and the London fog blindingly black, and that is a main difference.

The tender and hesitating mist with which each day of our final September in London began, must not be confused in the reader's mind with a true London fog. The mist grew a little heavier, day by day, perhaps; but only once the sun failed to burn through it before noon, and that was one of the first days of October, as if in September it had not yet lost the last of its summer force. Even then, though it rained all the forenoon, and well into the afternoon, the weather cleared for a mild, warm sunset, and we could take the last of our pleasant walks from Half-Moon Street into St. James's Park.

When the last day of our London sojourn came, it was fitly tearful, and we had our misgivings of the Channel crossing. The crossing of the day before had been so bad that Pretty Polly, who had won the St. Leger, held all England in approving suspense, while her owners decided that she should not venture to the defeat that awaited her in France, till the sea was smoother. But in the morning the papers prophesied fair weather, and it was promised that Pretty Polly should cross. Her courage confirmed our own, and we took our initial departure in the London fashion which is so different from the New York fashion. Not with the struggle, personally and telephonically, in an exchange of bitter sarcasms prolonged with the haughty agents of the express monopoly, did we get our baggage expensively before us to the station and follow in a costly coupé, but with all our trunks piled upon two reasonable four- wheelers, we set out contemporaneously with them. In New York we paid six dollars for our entire transportation to the steamer; in London we paid six shillings to reach the Victoria station with our belongings. The right fare would have been five; the imagination of our cabman rose to three and six each, and feebly fluttered there, but sank to three, and did not rise again. At our admirable lodging the landlady, the butler and the chambermaid had descended with us to the outer door in a smiling convention of regret, the kindly Swiss boots allowed the street porter to help him up with our trunks, and we drove away in the tradition of personal acceptability which bathes the stranger in a gentle self-satisfaction, and which prolonged itself through all the formalities of registering our baggage for the continent at the station, of bribing the guard in the hope of an entire first-class compartment to ourselves and then sharing it with four others similarly promised its sole use, and of telegraphing to secure seats in the rapide from Calais to Paris.

Then we were off in a fine chill, small English rain through a landscape in which all the forms showed like figures in blotting-paper, as Taine said, once for all. After we had run out of the wet ranks of yellowish- black city houses, and passed the sullen suburbs,

"All in a death-doing autumn-dripping gloom,"

we found ourselves in a world which was the dim ghost of the English country we had so loved in the summer. On some of the trees and hedgerows the leaves hung dull yellow or dull red, but on most they were a blackening green. The raw green of the cold flat meadows, the purplish green of the interminable ranks of cabbages, and the harsh green of the turnip-fields, blurred with the reeking yellow of mustard bloom, together with the gleaming brown of ploughed fields, formed a prospect from which the eye turned with the heart, in a rapturous vision of the South towards which we were now swiftly pulsing.


William Dean Howells