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Shows and Side-Shows of State

We are quite as domestic as the English, but with us the family is of the personal life, while with them it is of the general life, so that when their domesticity imparts itself to their out-door pleasures no one feels it strange. One has read of something like this without the sense of it which constantly penetrates one in London. One must come to England in order to realize from countless little occasions, little experiences, how entirely English life, public as well as private, is an affair of family. We know from our reading how a comparatively few families administer, if they do not govern, but we have still to learn how the other families are apparently content to share the form in which authority resides, since they cannot share the authority. At the very top I offer the conjecture towards the solution of that mystery which constantly bewilders the republican witness, the mystery of loyalty—is, of course, the royal family; and the rash conclusion of the American is that it is revered because it is the royal family. But possibly a truer interpretation of the fact would be that it is dear and sacred to the vaster British public because it is the royal family. A bachelor king could hardly dominate the English imagination like a royal husband and father, even if his being a husband and father were not one of the implications of that tacit Constitution in whose silence English power resides. With us, family has less and less to do with society, even; but with the English it has more and more to do, since the royal family is practically without political power, and not only may, but almost must, devote itself to society. It goes and comes on visits to other principalities and powers; it opens parliaments; it lays corner- stones and presides at the dedication of edifices of varied purpose; it receives deputations and listens to addresses; it holds courts and levees; it reviews regiments and fleets, and assists at charity entertainments and at plays and shows of divers sorts; it plays races; it is in constant demand for occasions requiring exalted presences for their prosperity. These events seem public, and if they were imaginable of a democracy like ours they would be so; but in the close-linked order of English things they are social, they are domestic, they are from one family to every other family directly or indirectly; the king is for these ends not more a royalty than the rest of his family, and for the most part he acts as a family man; his purely official acts are few. Things that in a republic are entirely personal, as marriages, births, christenings, deaths, and burials, whether of high or low, in a monarchy are, if they affect royalty, of public and national concern, and it would not be easy to show how one royal act differed from another in greater or less publicity.

If you were of a very bold conjecture, or of a willingness to generalize from wholly insufficient grounds, and take the chances of hitting or missing, you might affirm a domestic simplicity of feeling in some phases of functions exalted far beyond the range of republican experiences or means of comparison. In the polite intelligence which we sometimes have cabled to our press at home, by more than usually ardent enterprise, one may have read that the king held a levee at St. James's; and one conceived of it as something dramatic, something historic, something, on the grand scale, civic. But if one happened to be walking in Pall Mall on the morning of that levee, one saw merely a sort of irregular coming and going in almost every kind of vehicle, or, as regarded the spiritual and temporal armies, sometimes on foot. A thin fringe of rather incurious but not unfriendly bystanders lined the curbstone, and looked at the people arriving in the carriages, victorias, hansoms, and four-wheelers; behind the bystanders loitered dignitaries of the church; and military and naval officers made their way through the fringe and crossed the street among the wheels and horses. No one concerned seemed to feel anything odd in the effect, though to the unwonted American the sight of a dignitary in full canonicals or regimentals going to a royal levee in a cab or on foot is not a vision which realizes the ideal inspired by romance. At one moment a middle-aged lady in the line of vehicles put her person well out of the window of her four-wheeler, and craned her head up to instruct her driver in something. She may not have been going to the levee, but one felt that if she had been she would still have done what it abashed the alien to see.

We are, in fact, much more exacting than the English in matters of English state; we, who have no state at all require them to live up to theirs, just as quite plain, elderly observers expect every woman to be young and pretty, and take it hard when she is not. But possibly the secret of enduring so much state as the English have lies in knowing how and when to shirk it, to drop it. No doubt, the alien who counted upon this fact, if it is a fact, would find his knuckles warningly rapped when he reached too confidingly through air that seemed empty of etiquette. But the rapping would be very gentle, very kindly, for this is the genius of English rule where it is not concerned with criminal offence. You must keep off wellnigh all the grass on the island, but you are "requested" to keep off it, and not forbidden in the harsh imperatives of our brief authorities. It is again the difference between the social and the public, which is perhaps the main difference between an oligarchy and a democracy. The sensibilities are more spared in the one and the self-respect in the other, though this is saying it too loosely, and may not be saying it truly; it is only a conjecture with which I am parleying while I am getting round to add that such part of the levee as I saw in plain day, though there was vastly more of it, was much less filling to the imagination than a glimpse which I had of a court one night. I am rather proud of being able to explain that the late queen held court in the early afternoon and the present king holds court at night; but, lest any envious reader suspect me of knowing the fact at first-hand, I hasten to say that the glimpse I had of the function that night only revealed to me in my cab a royal coach driving out of a palace gate, and showing larger than human, through a thin rain, the blood-red figures of the coachmen and footmen gowned from head to foot in their ensanguined colors, with the black-gleaming body of the coach between them, and the horses trampling heraldically before out of the legendary past. The want of definition in the fact, which I beheld in softly blurred outline, enhanced its value, which was so supreme that I could not perhaps do justice to the vague splendors of inferior courtward equipages, as my cab flashed by them, moving in a slow line towards the front of Buckingham Palace.

The carriages were doubtless full of titles, any one of which would enrich my page beyond the dreams of fiction, and it is said that in the time of the one-o'clock court they used to receive a full share of the attention which I could only so scantily and fleetingly bestow. They were often halted, as that night I saw them halting, in their progress, and this favored the plebeian witnesses, who ranged along their course and invited themselves and one another to a study of the looks and dresses of the titles, and to open comment on both. The study and the comment must have had their limits; the observed knew how much to bear if the observers did not know how little to forbear; and it is not probable that the London spectators went the lengths which our outsiders go in trying to verify an English duke who is about to marry an American heiress. The London vulgar, if not better bred than our vulgar, are better fed on the sight of social grandeur, and have not a lifelong famine to satisfy, as ours have. Besides, whatever gulf birth and wealth have fixed between the English classes, it is mystically bridged by that sentiment of family which I have imagined the ruling influence in England. In a country where equality has been glorified as it has been in ours, the contrast of conditions must breed a bitterness in those of a lower condition which is not in their hearts there; or if it is, the alien does not know it.

What seems certain is the interest with which every outward manifestation of royal and social state is followed, and the leisure which the poor have for a vicarious indulgence in its luxuries and splendors. One would say that there was a large leisure class entirely devoted to these pleasures, which cost it nothing, but which may have palled on the taste of those who pay for them. Of course, something like this is the case in every great city; but in London, where society is enlarged to the bounds of the national interests, the demand of such a leisure class might very well be supposed to have created the supply. Throughout the London season, and measurably throughout the London year, there is an incessant appeal to the curiosity of the common people which is never made in vain. Somewhere a drum is throbbing or a bugle sounding from dawn till dusk; the red coat is always passing singly or in battalions, afoot or on horseback; the tall bear-skin cap weighs upon the grenadier's brow,

"And the hapless soldier's sigh,"

if it does not "run in blood down palace walls," must often exhale from lips tremulous with hushed profanity. One bright, hot morning of mid-July the suffering from that cruel folly in the men of a regiment marching from their barracks to Buckingham Palace and sweltering under those shaggy cliffs was evident in their distorted eyes, streaming cheeks, and panting mouths. But why do I select the bear-skin cap as peculiarly cruel and foolish, merely because it is archaic? All war and all the images of it are cruel and foolish.

The April morning, however, when I first carried out my sensitized surfaces for the impression which I hoped to receive from a certain historic spectacle was very different. There was even a suggestion of comfort in the archaic bear-skins; they were worn, and they had been worn, every day for nearly two hundred years, as part of the ceremonial of changing the regimental colors before Buckingham Palace. I will not be asked why this is imperative; it has always been done and probably always will be done, and to most civilian onlookers will remain as unintelligible in detail as it was to me. When the regiment was drawn up under the palace windows, a part detached itself from the main body and went off to a gate of the palace, and continued mysteriously stationary there. In the mean time the ranks left behind closed or separated amid the shouting of sergeants or corporals, and the men relieved themselves of the strain from their knapsacks, or satisfied an exacting military ideal, by hopping at will into the air and bouncing their knapsacks, dragging lower down, up to the napes of their necks, where they rested under the very fringe of their bear-skin caps. A couple of officers, with swords drawn, walked up and down behind the ranks, but, though they were tall, fine fellows, and expressed in the nonchalant fulfilment of their part a high sense of boredom, they did not give the scene any such poignant interest as it had from the men in performing a duty, or indulging a privilege, by hopping into the air and bouncing their knapsacks up to their necks. After what seemed an unreasonable delay, but was doubtless requisite for the transaction, the detachment sent for the change of colors returned with the proper standards. The historic rite was then completed, the troops formed in order, and marched back to their barracks to the exultant strains of their band.

The crowd outside the palace yard, which this daily sight attracts, dispersed reluctantly, its particles doubtless holding themselves ready to reassemble at the slightest notice. It formed a small portion only of the population of London which has volunteer charge of the goings and comings at Buckingham Palace. Certain of its members are on guard there from morning till night, and probably no detail of ceremony escapes their vigilance. If asked what they are expecting to see, they are not able to say; they only know that they are there to see what happens. They make the most of any carriage entering or issuing from the yard; they note the rare civilians who leave or approach the palace door on foot, the half-dozen plain policemen who stand at their appointed places within the barrier which none of the crowd ever dreams of passing must share its interest. Neither these policemen nor the sentries who pace their beat before the high iron fence are apparently willing to molest the representatives of the public interest. On the April morning in case, during the momentary absence of the policeman who should have restrained the crowd, the sentry found himself embarrassed by a spectator who had intruded on his beat. He faltered, blushing as well as he could through his high English color, and then said, gently, "A little back, please," and the intruder begged pardon and retired.

In the simple incident there was nothing of the nervousness observable in either the official or the officious repositories of the nationality which one sees in Continental countries, and especially in Germany. It was plain that England, though a military power, is not militarized. The English shows of force are civil. Nowhere but in England does the European hand of iron wear the glove of velvet. There is always an English war going on somewhere, but one does not relate to it the kindly-looking young fellows whom one sees suffering under their bear-skin caps in the ranks, or loitering at liberty in the parks, and courting the flattered girls who flutter like moths about the flame of their red jackets, up and down the paths and on the public benches. The soldiers are under the law of military obedience, and are so far in slavery, as all soldiers are, but nothing of their slavery is visible, and they are the idols of an unstinted devotion, which adds to the picturesqueness and, no doubt, the pathos of the great London spectacle. It is said that they sometimes abuse their apparent supremacy, and that their uniform generally bars them from places of amusement; but one sees nothing of their insubordination or exclusion in the public ways, where one sometimes sees them pushing baby-carriages to free the nurse-maids to more unrestricted flirtation, or straying over the grass and under the trees with maids who are not burdened by any sort of present duty.

After all, as compared with the civilians, they are few even in that game of love which is always playing itself wherever youth meets youth, and which in London is only evident in proportion to the vastness of the city. Their individual life is, like that of the royalty which they decorate, public more than private, and one can scarcely dissociate them, with all their personal humility, from the exalted figures whose eminence they directly or indirectly contribute to throw into relief. I do not mean that they are seen much or little in the king's company. The English king, though he wears many land and sea uniforms, is essentially civilian, and though vast numbers of soldiers exist for his state in London, they do not obviously attend him, except on occasions of the very highest state. I make this observation rather hazardously, for the fact, which I feel bound to share with the reader, is that I never saw in London any of the royalties who so abound there.

I did, indeed, see the king before I left England, but it was in a place far from his capital, and the king was the only one of his large family I saw anywhere. I hope this will not greatly disappoint my readers, especially such as have scruples against royalties; but it is best to be honest. I can be quite as honest in adding that I had always a vague, underlying curiosity concerning royalty, and a hope that it would somehow come my way, but it never did, to my knowledge, and somehow, with the best will towards it; I never went its way. This I now think rather stupid, for every day the morning papers predicted the movements of royalty, which seemed to be in perpetual movement, so that it must have been by chance that I never saw it arriving or departing at the stations where I was often doing the same.

Of course, no private person, not even the greatest nobleman, let alone the passing stranger, can possibly arrive and depart so much as the king and queen, and their many children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces, and cousins of every remove. For the sovereigns themselves this incessant motion, though mitigated by every device of loyal affection and devotion on the part of their subjects, must be a great hardship, and greater as they get into years. The king's formal office is simply to reign, but one wonders when he finds the time for reigning. He seems to be always setting out for Germany or Denmark or France, when he is not coming from Wales or Scotland or Ireland; and, when quietly at home in England, he is constantly away on visits to the houses of favored subjects, shooting pheasants or grouse or deer; or he is going from one horse-race to another or to some yacht-race or garden-party or whatever corresponds in England to a church sociable. It is impossible to enumerate the pleasures which must poison his life, as if the cares were not enough. In the case of the present king, who is so much liked and is so amiable and active, the perpetual movement affects the plebeian foreigner as something terrible. Never to be quiet; never to have a stretch of those long days and weeks of unbroken continuity dear to later life; ever to sit at strange tables and sample strange cookeries; to sleep under a different preacher every Sunday, and in a different bed every night; to wear all sorts of uniforms for all sorts of occasions, three or four times a day; to receive every manner of deputation, and try to show an interest in every manner of object—who would reign on such terms as these, if there were any choice of not reigning?

Evidently such a career cannot be managed without the help, the pretty constant help, of armed men; and the movement of troops in London from one point to another is one of the evidences of state which is so little static, so largely dynamic. It is a pretty sight, and makes one wish one were a child that one might fully enjoy it, whether it is the movement of a great mass of blood-red backs of men, or here and there a flaming squad, or a single vidette spurring on some swift errand, with his pennoned lance erect from his toe and his horse-hair crest streaming behind him. The soldiers always lend a brilliancy to the dull hue of civil life, and there is a never-failing sensation in the spectator as they pass afar or near. Of course, the supreme attraction in their sort for the newly arrived American is the pair of statuesque warriors who motionlessly sit their motionless steeds at the gates of the Horse- Guards, and express an archaic uselessness as perfectly as if they were Highlanders taking snuff before a tobacconist's shop. When I first arrived in London in the earliest of those sad eighteen-sixties when our English brethren were equipping our Confederate brethren to sweep our commerce from the seas, I think I must have gone to see those images at the Horse-Guards even before I visited the monuments in Westminster Abbey, and they then perfectly filled my vast expectation; they might have been Gog and Magog, for their gigantic stature. In after visits, though I had a sneaking desire to see them again, I somehow could not find their place, being ashamed to ask for it, in my hope of happening on it, and I had formed the notion, which I confidently urged, that they had been taken down, like the Wellington statue from the arch. But the other day (or month, rather), when I was looking for Whitehall, suddenly there they were again, sitting their horses in the gateways as of yore, and as woodenly as if they had never stirred since 1861. They were unchanged in attitude, but how changed they were in person: so dwarfed, so shrunken, as if the intervening years had sapped the juices of their joints and let their bones fall together, like those of withered old men!

This was, of course, the unjust effect of my original exaggeration of their length and breadth. The troops that I saw marching through the streets where we first lodged were fine, large men. I myself saw no choice in the different bodies, but the little housemaid much preferred the grenadier guards to the Scotch guards; perhaps there was one grenadier guard who lent beauty and grandeur to the rest. I think Scotch caps are much gayer than those busbies which the grenadiers wear, but that, again, is a matter of taste; I certainly did not think the plaid pantaloons with which the Scotch guards hid the knees that ought to have been naked were as good as the plain trousers of their rivals. But they were all well enough, and the officers who sauntered along out of step on the sidewalk, or stoop-shoulderedly, as the English military fashion now is, followed the troops on horseback, were splendid fellows, who would go to battle as simply as to afternoon tea, and get themselves shot in some imperial cause as impersonally as their men.

There were large barracks in our neighborhood where one might have glimpses of the intimate life of the troops, such as shirt-sleeved figures smoking short pipes at the windows, or red coats hanging from the sills, or sometimes a stately bear-skin dangling from a shutter by its throat-latch. We were also near to the Chelsea Hospital, where soldiering had come to its last word in the old pensioners pottering about the garden-paths or sitting in the shade or sun. Wherever a red coat appeared it had its honorable obsequy in the popular interest, and if I might venture to sum up my impression of what I saw of soldiering in London I should say that it keeps its romance for the spectator far more than soldiering does in the Continental capitals, where it seems a slavery consciously sad and clearly discerned. It may be that a glamour clings to the English soldier because he has voluntarily enslaved himself as a recruit, and has not been torn an unwilling captive from his home and work, like the conscripts of other countries. On the same terms our own military are romantic.

William Dean Howells