I had thought—rather cheaply, as I now realize—of offering, as a pendant for the scene of Fashion Meeting Itself in the Park on the Sunday noons and afternoons which I have tried to photograph, some picture of open-air life in the slums. But upon reflection I have decided that the true counterpart of that scene is to be found any week-day evening, when the weather is fair, on the grassy stretches which the Park rises into somewhat beyond the sacred close of high life. This space is also enclosed, but the iron fence which bounds it is higher and firmer, and there is nothing of such seclusion as embowering foliage gives. There are no trees on any side for many acres, and the golden-red sunset glow hovers with an Indian-summer mellowness in the low English heaven; or at least it did so at the end of one sultry day which I have in mind. From all the paths leading up out of Piccadilly there was a streaming tendency to the pleasant level, thickly and softly turfed, and already strewn with sitting and reclining shapes which a more impassioned imagination than mine might figure as the dead and wounded in some field of the incessant struggle of life. But, besides having no use for such a figure, I am withheld from it by a conscience against its unreality. Those people, mostly young people, are either sitting there in gossiping groups, or whispering pairs, or singly breathing a mute rapture of release from the day's work. A young fellow lies stretched upon his stomach, propped by his elbows above the newspaper which the lingering light allows him to read; another has an open book under his eyes; but commonly each has the companionship of some fearless girl in the abandonment of the conventionalities which with us is a convention of summer ease on the sands beside the sea, but which is here without that extreme effect which the bathing-costume imparts on our beaches. These young people stretched side by side on the grass in Hyde Park added a pastoral charm to the scene, a suggestion of the
"Bella età, dell' oro"
not to be had elsewhere in our iron civilization. One might accuse their taste, but certainly they were more interesting than the rows of young men perched on the top course of the fence, in a wide variety of straw hats, or even than the red-coated soldiers who boldly occupied the penny chairs along the walks and enjoyed each the vigorous rivalry of girls worshipping him on either hand.
They boldly occupied the penny chairs, for the danger that they would be made to pay was small. The sole collector, a man well in years and of a benevolent reluctance, passed casually among the rows of seats, and took pennies only from those who could most clearly afford it. There was a fence round a pavilion where a band was playing, and within there were spendthrifts who paid fourpence for their chairs, when the music could be perfectly well heard without charge outside. It was, in fact, heard there by a large audience of bicyclers of both sexes, who stood by their wheels in numbers unknown in New York since the fad of bicycling began to pass several years ago. The lamps shed a pleasant light upon the crowd, after the long afterglow of the sunset had passed and the first stars began to pierce the clear heavens. But there was always enough kindly obscurity to hide emotions that did not mind being seen, and to soften the details which could not be called beautiful. As the dark deepened, the prone shapes scattered by hundreds over the grass looked like peaceful flocks whose repose was not disturbed by the human voices or by the human feet that incessantly went and came on the paths. It was a touch, however illusory, of the rusticity which lingers in so many sorts at the heart of the immense city, and renders it at unexpected moments simple and homelike above all other cities.
The evening when this London pastoral offered itself was the close of a day of almost American heat. The mercury never went above eighty-three degrees, but the blood mounted ten degrees higher; though I think a good deal of the heat imparted itself through the eye from the lurid horizons paling upward into the dull, unbroken blue of the heavens, ordinarily overcast or heaped with masses of white cloud. A good deal came also from the thronged streets, in which the season had scarcely begun to waver, and the pulses of the plethoric town throbbed with a sense of choking fulness. The feverish activity of the cabs contributed to the effect of the currents and counter-currents, as they insinuated themselves into every crevice of the frequent "blocks," where the populations of the bus-tops, deprived in their arrest of the artificial movement of air, sweltered in the sun, and the classes in private carriages of every order and degree suffered in a helpless equality with the perspiring masses.
Suddenly all London had burst into a passion of straw hats; and where one lately saw only the variance from silken cylinders to the different types of derbies and fedoras, there was now the glisten of every shape of panama, tuscan, and chip head-gear, with a prevalence of the low, flat-topped hard-brimmed things that mocked with the rigidity of sheet-iron the conception of straw as a light and yielding material. Men with as yet only one foot in the grave can easily remember when the American picked himself out in the London crowd by his summer hat, but now, in his belated conformity to an extinct ideal, his head is apt to be one of the few cylindered or derbied heads in the swarming processions of Piccadilly or the paths in the Park. No shape of straw hat is peculiar to any class, but the slouching panama is for pecuniary reasons more the wear of rank and wealth. With a brim flared up in front and scooped down behind, it justifies its greater acceptance with youth; age and middle-age wear its weave and the tuscan braid in the fedora form; and now and then one saw the venerable convention of the cockaded footman's and coachman's silk hat mocked in straw. No concession more extreme could be made to the heat, and these strange cylinders, together with the linen liveries which accompanied them, accented the excesses in which the English are apt to indulge their common-sense when they decide to give way to it. They have apparently decided to give way to it in the dress of both sexes on the bridle-paths of the Park, where individual caprice is the sole law that obtains amid a general anarchy.
The effect, upon the whole, is exhilarating, and suggests the daring thought that, if ever their race decides to get on without government of any sort, they will rid themselves of it with a thoroughness and swiftness past the energy of dynamite, and cast church and state, with all their dignities, to the winds as lightly as they have discarded the traditional costumes of Rotten Row. The young girls and young men in flapping panamas, in tunics and jackets of every kind and color, gave certainly an agreeable liveliness to the spectacle, which their elders emulated by expressions of taste as personal and unconventional. A lady in the old-fashioned riding-habit and a black top-hat with a floating veil recalled a former day, but she was obviously riding to lose weight, in a brief emergence from the past to which she belonged. One man similarly hatted, but frock-coated and not veiled, is scarcely worthy of note; but no doubt he was gratifying an individual preference as distinct as that of the rest. He did not contribute so much to the sense of liberation from the heat as the others who, when it reached its height, frankly confessed its power by riding in greatly diminished numbers. By twelve o'clock scarcely one left of all those joyous youths, those jolly sires and grandsires, those happy children, matched in size with their ponies, as the elders were in their different mounts, remains to distract the eye from the occupants of the two rows of penny chairs and the promenaders between them.
It was a less formidable but possibly more interesting show of what seemed society at home than the Sunday-afternoon reception in the consecrated closes on the grass. People who knew one another stopped and gossiped, and people who knew nobody passed on and tried to ignore them. But that could not have been easy. The women whom those handsome, aristocratic men bowed over, or dropped into chairs beside, or saluted as they went by, were very beautiful women, and dressed with that sentiment which has already been celebrated. Their draperies fluttered in the gay breeze which vied with the brilliant sun in dappling them with tremulous leaf-shadows, and in making them the life of a picture to be seen nowhere else. It was not necessary to know just who, or just of what quality they were, in order to realize their loveliness.
Behind the walks and under the trees the grass had still something of its early summer freshness; but in its farther stretches it was of our August brown, and in certain spaces looked burned to the roots. The trees themselves had begun to relax their earlier vigor, and the wind blew showers of yellowing leaves from their drooping boughs. Towards the close of the season, on the withered grass, quite in the vicinity of those consecrated social closes, to which I am always returning with a snobbish fondness, I saw signs of the advance of the great weary army which would possess the pleasure-grounds of the town when the pleasurers had left it. Already the dead-tired, or possibly the dead-drunk, had cast themselves, as if they had been shot down there, with their faces in the lifeless grass, and lay in greasy heaps and coils where the delicate foot of fashion had pressed the green herbage. As among the spectators I thought I noted an increasing number of my countrymen and women, so in the passing vehicles I fancied more and more of them in the hired turnouts which cannot long keep their secret from the critical eye. These were as obvious to conjecture as some other turnouts, which I fancied of a decayed ancestrality: cumbrous landaus and victorias, with rubberless tires, which grumbled and grieved in their course for the passati tempi, and expressed a rheumatic scorn for the parvenu carriages, and for all the types of motors which more and more invade the drives of the Park. They had a literary quality, and were out of Thackeray and Trollope, in the dearth of any modern society novelists great enough for them to be out of.
If such novelists had not been wanting I am sure I should not be left with the problem of an extremely pretty and charming woman whose scarf one morning so much engaged the eye of the gentleman sitting beside another extremely pretty and charming woman, that he left her and came and sat down by the new-comer, who let him play with the fringe of her scarf. Was she in a manner playing him with it? A thoroughly equipped society fiction, such as the English now lack, would have instructed me, and taught me the mystic meaning of the young girls who fluttered up and down the paths by twos and threes, exquisite complexions, exquisite shapes, exquisite profiles, exquisite costumes, in a glad momentary freedom from chaperonage. It would fix even the exact social value of that companion of a lady stopped in chat by that other lady, who was always hopping up and stopping people of her acquaintance. The companion was not of her acquaintance, nor was she now made of it; she stood statue-still and sphinx-patient in the walk, and only an eye ever avid of story could be aware of the impassioned tapping of the little foot whose mute drama faintly agitated the hem of her drapery. Was she poor and proud, or was she rich and scornful in her relation to the encounter from which she remained excluded? The lady who had left her standing rejoined her and they drifted off together into the vast of the unfathomed, but not, I like to believe, the unfathomable.
When the heat broke at last, after a fortnight, of course it did not break. That would have been a violence of which English weather would not have been capable. There was no abrupt drop of the mercury, as if a trap were sprung under it, after the fashion with us. It softly gave way in a gradual, delicious coolness, which again mellowed at the edges, as it were, and dissolved in a gentle, tentative rain. But how far the rain might finally go, we did not stay to see: we had fled from the "anguish of the solstice," as we had felt it in London, and by the time the first shower insinuated itself we were in the heart of the Malvern Hills.
Of course, this heated term was not as the heated terms of New York are; but it excelled them in length, if not in breadth and thickness. The nights were always cool, and that was a saving grace which our nights do not know; with nights like ours so long a heat would have been unendurable, but in London one woke each morning with renewed hope and renewed strength. Very likely there were parts of London where people despaired and weakened through the night, but in these polite perspectives I am trying to exclude such places; and whenever I say "one" in this relation, I am imagining one of the many Americans who witness the London season perhaps oftener from the outside than the inside, but who still can appreciate and revere its facts.
The season was said to begin very late, and it was said to be a very "bad" season, throughout May, when the charges of those who live by it ordinarily feel an expansive rise; when rooms at hotels become difficult, become impossible; when the rents of apartments double themselves, and apartments are often not to be had at any price; when the face of the cabman clouds if you say you want him by the hour, and clears if you add that you will make it all right with him; when every form of service begins to have the courage of its dependence; and the manifold fees which ease the social machine seem to lubricate it so much less than the same fees in April; when the whole vast body of London groans with a sense of repletion such as no American city knows except in the rare congestion produced by a universal exposition or a national convention. Such a congestion is of annual occurrence in London, and is the symptomatic expression of the season; but the symptoms ordinarily recognizable in May were absent until June in the actual year. They were said to have been suppressed by the reluctance of the tardy spring, and again by the king's visit to Ireland. As the king is the fountain of social prosperity it is probable that he had more to do with delaying the season than the weather had; but by what one hears said of him he would not have willingly delayed it. He is not only a well-meaning and well-doing prince, one hears from people of every opinion, but a promoter of peace and international concord (especially with France, where his good offices are believed to have been peculiarly effective), and he is, rather more expectedly, a cheerful sovereign, loving the gayety as well as the splendor of state, and fond of seeing the world enjoy itself.
It is no betrayal of the national confidence to repeat what every one says concerning the present outburst of fashion, that it is a glad compliance with the king's liking; the more eager because of its long suppression during the late queen's reign and the more anxious because of a pathetic apprehension inspired by the well-known serious temperament of the heir-apparent to the throne. No doubt the joyful rebound from the depression of the Boer war is also still felt; but for whatever reason London life is gay and glad, it is certainly making its hay while the sun shines, and it mixes as many poppies and daisies with the crop as possible against the time when only grass may be acceptable. In other terms the prevailing passion for pretty clothes in the masses as well as the classes is the inspiration of the court, while the free personal preferences expressed are probably the effect of that strong, that headstrong, instinct of being like one's self, whether one is like others or not, which has always moulded precedence and tradition to individual convenience with the English. One would not have said that a frock-coat of lustrous black alpaca was just the wear for a tall middle-aged gentleman in a silk hat and other scrupulous appointments; but when he appeared in it one hottest Sunday afternoon in that consecrated close of Hyde Park, and was welcomed by the inmost flower-group of the gorgeous parterre, one had to own a force of logic in it. If a frock-coat was the proper thing for the occasion in general, then the lightest and coolest fabric was the thing for that occasion in particular. So the wearer had reasoned in sublime self-reliance, and so, probably, the others reasoned in intelligent acquiescence.
Just what quality he had the courage of one could not have guessed at a distance, and he must remain part of the immense question which London continues for the inquirer to the last; but it is safe to say that he looked distinguished. Out of season, the London type of man looked undistinguished, but when the season began to make London over, the pavement of Piccadilly sprouted in a race of giants who were as trees walking. They were mostly young giants, who had great beauty of complexion, of course, and as great beauty of feature. They were doubtless the result of a natural selection, to which money for buying perfect conditions had contributed as much as the time necessary for growing a type. Mostly their faces were gentle and kind, and only now and then hard or cruel; but one need not be especially averse to the English classification of our species to feel that they had cost more than they were worth. The very handsomest man I saw, with the most perfectly patrician profile (if we imagine something delicately aquiline to be particularly patrician), was a groom who sat his horse beside Rotten Row, waiting till his master should come to command the services of both. He too had the look of long descent, but if it could not be said that he had cost the nation too much time and money, it might still be conjectured that he had cost some one too much of something better.
Next after these beautiful people I think that in the multitudinously varied crowd of London I saw no men so splendidly, so brilliantly, so lustrously handsome as three of those imperial British whose lives are safer, but whose social status is scarcely better than that of our negroes. They were three tall young Hindoos, in native dress, and white- turbaned to their swarthy foreheads, who suddenly filed out of the crowd, looking more mystery from their liquid eyes than they could well have corroborated in word or thought, and bringing to the metropolis of the West the gorgeous and foolish magnificence of the sensuous East. What did they make of the metropolis? Were they conscious, with or without rebellion, of their subjection, their absolute inferiority in the imperial scheme? If looks went for what looks rarely do, except in women, they should have been the lords of those they met; but as it was they were simply the representatives of one of the suppressed races which, if they joined hands, could girdle the globe under British rule. Somehow they brought the sense of this home to the beholder, as none of the monuments or memorials of England's imperial glory had done, and then, having fulfilled their office, lost themselves in the crowd.
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