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The Means of Sojourn

The secular intensification of the family life makes it possible for the English to abandon their secular domesticity, when they will, without apparent detriment to the family life. Formerly the English family which came up to London for the season or a part of it went into a house of its own, or, in default of that, went into lodgings, or into a hotel of a kind happily obsolescent. Such a family now frankly goes into one of the hotels which abound in London, of a type combining more of the Continental and American features than the traits of the old English hotel, which was dark, cold, grim, and silently rapacious, heavy In appointments and unwholesome in refection. The new sort of hotel is apt to be large, but it is of all sizes, and it offers a home reasonably cheerful on inclusive terms not at all ruinous. It has a table-d'hôte dinner at separate tables and a fair version of the French cuisine. If it is one of the more expensive, it will not be dearer than our dearest, and if one of the cheaper, it will be better in every way than our cheaper. The supply has created a demand which apparently did not exist before, and the Englishman has become a hotel-dweller, or at least a hotel-sojourner, such as he had long reproached the American with being.

In like manner, with the supply of good restaurants in great number and variety, he has become a diner and luncher at restaurants. Whether he has been able to exact as much as he really wanted of the privacy once supposed so dear to him, a stranger, even of the middle species, cannot say, but it is evident that at his hotel or his restaurant he dines or lunches as publicly as ever the American did or does; and he has his friends to dinner or lunch without pretence of a private dining-room. One hears that this sort of open conviviality tempts by its facility to those excesses of hospitality which are such a drain on English incomes; but again that is something of which an outsider can hardly venture to have an opinion. What is probably certain is that the modern hotel and restaurant, with their cheerful ease, are pushing the old-fashioned lodging as well as the old-fashioned hotel out of the general favor, and have already driven them to combine their attractions or repulsions on a level where they are scarcely distinguishable as separate species.

In the streets neighboring on Piccadilly there are many apartments which are effectively small hotels, where you pay a certain price for your rooms, and a certain fixed price for your meals. You must leave this neighborhood if you want the true lodging where you pay for your apartment, and order the provisions which are cooked for you, and which are apportioned to your daily needs. This is the ideal, and it is not seriously affected by the reality that your provisions are also apportioned to the needs of your landlord's family. Even then, the ideal remains beautiful, and you have an image, somewhat blurred and battered, of home, such as money cannot elsewhere buy you. If your landlord is the butler who has married the cook, your valeting and cooking approach as nearly perfection as you can hopefully demand.

It will be well not to scan too closely the infirmities of the appointments over which an air of decent reticence is cast, and it will have been quite useless to try guarding all the points at which you might be plundered. The result is more vexatious than ruinous, and perhaps in a hotel also you would be plundered. In a lodging you are promptly and respectfully personalized; your tastes are consulted, if not gratified; your minor wants, in which your comfort lies, are interpreted, and possibly there grows up round you the semblance, which is not altogether deceitful, of your own house.

The theory is admirable, but I think the system is in decay, though to say this is something like accusing the stability of the Constitution. Very likely if some American ghost were to revisit a well-known London street a hundred years from now, he would find it still with the legend of "Apartments" in every transom; and it must not be supposed that lodgings have by any means fallen wholly to the middle, much less the lower middle, classes. In one place there was a marquis overhead; in another there was a lordship of unascertained degree, who was heard on a court night being got ready by his valet and the landlord's whole force, and then marking his descent to his cab by the clanking of his sword upon the stairs, after which the joint service spent a good part of the night in celebrating the event at a banquet in the basement. At two lodgings in a most unpretentious street, it was the landlords' boast that a royal princess had taken tea with their tenants, who were of the quality to be rightfully taken tea with by a royal princess; and at certain hours of the afternoon during the season it was not uncommon to see noble equipages standing at the doors of certain apartments with a full equipment of coachmen and footmen, and ladies of unmistakable fashion ascending and descending by the carriage-steps like the angels on Jacob's ladder. It could be surmised that they were visiting poor relations, or modest merit of some sort, but it was not necessary to suppose this, and upon the whole I prefer not.

The search for lodgings, which began before the season was conscious of itself, was its own reward in the pleasures it yielded to the student of human nature and the lover of mild adventure. The belief in lodgings was a survival from an age of faith, when in the early eighteen-eighties they seemed the most commodious and desirable refuge to the outwandering American family which then first proved them. The fragmentary outwanderers who now visited London, after an absence of twenty-two years, did not take into account the fact that their apartment of long ago was the fine event of the search, prolonged for weeks, of two friends, singularly intelligent and rarely versed in London; they took it as a type, and expected to drive directly to its fellow. They drove indirectly to unnumbered lodgings unlike it and unworthy of its memory, and it was not until after three days that they were able to fix upon a lodging that appeared the least remote from their ideal. Then, in a street not too far from Mayfair, and of the quality of a self-respectful dependant of Belgravia, they set up their breathless Lares and panting Penates, and settled down with a sense of comfort that grew upon them day by day. The place undeniably had its charm, if not its merit. The drawing-room chairs were in a proper pattern of brocade, and, though abraded at their edges and corners, were of a tasteful frame; the armchairs, covered like the sofa in a cheerful cretonne, lent the parting guest the help of an outward incline; the sofa, heaped with cushions, could not conceal a broken spring, though it braved it out with the consciousness of having been sat upon by a royal princess who had once taken tea in that lodging. But the other appointments, including a pretty writing-desk and a multitude of china plates almost hiding the wall-paper, were unfractured, and the little dining-room was very cosey. After breakfast it had the habit of turning itself into a study, where one of the outwanderers used to set himself down and ask himself with pen and ink what he honestly thought and felt about this England which he had always been more or less bothering about. The inquiry took time which he might better have spent in day-dreaming before the prospect of the gray March heaven, with the combs of the roofs and the chimney-pots mezzotinted against it. He might have more profitably wasted his time even on the smoke-blackened yellow-brick house-walls, with their juts and angles, and their clambering pipes of unknown employ, in the middle distance; or, in the foreground, the skylights of cluttered outbuildings, and the copings of the walls of grimy backyards, where the sooty trees were making a fight with the spring, and putting forth a rash of buds like green points of electric light: the same sort of light that showed in the eyes of a black cat seasonably appearing under them. Inquiries into English civilization can always wait, but such passing effects stay for no man, and I put them down roughly in behalf of a futile philosopher who ought to have studied them in their inexhaustible detail.

He could not be reproached with insensibility to his domestic circumstance, from the combination of cook and butler which took him into its ideal keeping to the unknown, unheard, and unseen German baron who had the dining-room floor, and was represented through his open door by his breakfast-trays and his perfectly valeted clothes. The valeting in that house was unexceptionable, and the service at table was of a dress-coated decorum worthy of finer dinners than were ever eaten there. The service throughout was of a gravity never relaxed, except in the intimate moments of bringing the bath in the morning, when the news of the day before and the coming events of the present day were suggestively yet respectfully discussed.

The tenants of the drawing-room floor owed some of their most fortunate inspirations in sight-seeing to the suggestions of the landlord, whose apartments I would in no wise leave to depreciatory conjecture. There was, indeed, always a jagged wound in the entry wall made by some envious trunk; but there was nothing of the frowziness, the shabbiness of many of those houses in the streets neighboring Mayfair where many Americans are eager to pay twice the fee demanded in this house on the borders of Belgravia.

The Americans I am imagining had first carried on their search in those genteel regions, which could hardly have looked their best in the last moments of preparation before the season began. The house-cleaning which went on in all of them was no more hurried than the advance of the slow English spring outside, where the buds appeared after weeks of hesitation, and the leaves unfolded themselves at long leisure, and the blossoms deliberated in dreamy doubt whether they had not better stay in than come out. Day after day found the lodging-houses with their carpets up, and their furniture inverted, and their hallways and stairways reeking from slop-pails or smelling from paint-pots, and with no visible promise of readiness for lodgers. They were pretty nearly all of one type. A young German or Swiss—there for the language—came to the door in the coat he had not always got quite into, and then summoned from the depths below a landlord or landlady to be specific about times and terms, to show the rooms, and conceal the extras. The entry was oftenest dim and narrow, with a mat sunk into the floor at the threshold and worn to the quick by the cleansing of numberless feet; and an indescribable frowziness prevailed which imparted itself to the condition of widowhood dug up by the young foreigner from the basement. Sometimes there responded to his summons a clerical, an almost episcopal presence, which was clearly that of a former butler, unctuous in manner and person from long serving. Or sometimes there would be something much more modern, of an alert middle-age or wary youth; in every case the lodging-keeper was skilled far beyond the lodging-seeker in the coils of bargaining, and of holding in the background unsurmised charges for electric lights, for candles, for washing, for baths, for boots, and for what-know-I, after the most explicit declaration that the first demand included everything. Nothing definite could be evolved but the fact that when the season began, or after the first of May the rent would be doubled.

The treaty usually took place in the dishevelled drawing-room, after a round of the widely parted chambers, where frowzy beds, covered with frowzy white counterpanes, stood on frowzy carpets or yet frowzier mattings, and dusty windows peered into purblind courts. A vulgar modernity coexisted with a shabby antiquity in the appointments; a mouldering wall showed its damp through the smart tastelessness of recent paper; the floor reeled under a combination of pseudo-aesthetic rugs. The drawing-room expected to be the dining-room also, and faintly breathed the staleness of the meals served in it. If the front windows often opened on a cheerful street, the back windows had no air but that of the sunless spaces which successive architectural exigencies had crowded with projecting cupboards, closets, and lattices, above basement skylights which the sky seldom lighted. The passages and the stairs were never visible except after dark; even then the foot rather than the eye found the way. Yet, once settled in such a place, it developed possibilities of comfort, of quiet, of seclusion, which the hardiest hopefulness could not have forecast. The meals came up and could be eaten; the coffee, which nearly all English hotels have good and nearly all English lodgings bad, could be exchanged for tea; the service was always well-intentioned, and often more, and except that you paid twice as much as it all seemed worth, you were not so ill-used as you might have been.

It is said that the whole system, if not on its last legs, is unsteady on its feet from the competition of the great numbers of those large, new, reasonably cheap, and admirably managed hotels. Yet the lodging-houses remain by hundreds of thousands, almost by millions, throughout the land, and if the English are giving them up they are renouncing them with national deliberation. The most mysterious fact concerning them is that they are, with all their multitude, so difficult to get, and are so very bad when you have got them. Having said this, I remember with fond regret particular advantages in every lodging of my acquaintance.

William Dean Howells