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Certain Traits of the London Springtime

The painting-up which the apartments, as they always call themselves, undergo inside and out, in preparation for the season, is a rite to which all London bows during April as far as it can afford it. The lodging-house may restrict itself to picking out in fresh green its front door and window-frames, or perhaps reddening its area railing; but private houses pretending to be smart clothe themselves from eave to basement in coats of creamy white, or other blond tints susceptible of the soonest harm from the natural and artificial climates of London. While the paint is fresh, or "wet," the word by which you are warned from its contact everywhere, it is undeniably pleasing; it gives the gray town an air of girlish innocence, and, with the boxes of brilliant flowers at every window-sill, promises a gayety which the season realizes in rather unusual measure. It is said that the flowers at the windows must be renewed every month, against the blight of the London smoke and damp, and, if the paint cannot be renewed so often, it is of perhaps a little more durable beauty. For a month of preparation, while the house-fronts in the fashionable streets are escaladed by painters emulous of the perils of the samphire-gatherer's dreadful trade, the air is filled with the clean, turpentiny odor, and the eye is pleased with the soft colors in which the grimy walls remember the hopes of another spring, of another London season.

If the American's business or pleasure takes him out of town on the edge of the season and brings him back well over its border, he will have an agreeable effect from his temporary absence. He will find the throngs he left visibly greater and notably smarter. Fashion will have got in its work, and the streets, the pavements, the parks will have responded with a splendor, a gayety earlier unknown. The passing vehicles will be more those of pleasure and not so much those of business; the passing feet will be oftener those going to luncheon and afternoon tea, and not so solely those hurrying to or lagging from the toils of the day. Even the morning trains that bring the customary surburbans seem to arrive with multitudes fresher and brighter than those which arrived before the season began. I do not know whether it was in tribute to the joyful time that a housemaid, whom I one morning noted scrubbing down and whitening up the front steps of a stately mansion, wore a long, black train and a bolero hat and jacket, and I do not say that this is the usual dress of the London housemaid, poor thing, in the London season, when putting on them the scrupulous effect of cleanliness which all the London steps wear in the morning. One might as well pretend that the may is consciously white and red on all the hawthorns of the parks and squares in honor of the season. The English call this lovely blossom so with no apparent literary association, but the American must always feel as if he were quoting the name from an old ballad. It gives the mighty town a peculiarly appealing rustic charm, and it remains in bloom almost as long as its namesake month endures. But that is no great wonder: when a tree has worked as hard as a tree must in England to get its blossoms out, it is naturally in no hurry to drop them; it likes to keep them on for weeks.

The leaves, by the beginning of June, were in their silken fulness; the trees stood densely, softly, darkly rounded in the dim air, and they did not begin to shed their foliage till almost two months later. But I think I had never so exquisite a sense of the loveliness of the London trees as one evening in the grounds of a country club not so far out of London as not to have London trees in its grounds. They were mostly oaks, beeches, and sycamores; they frequented the banks of a wide, slow water, which could not be called a stream, and they hung like a palpable sort of clouds in the gathering mists. The mists, in fact, seemed of much the same density as the trees, and I should be bolder than I like if I declared which the birds were singing their vespers in. There was one thrush imitating a nightingale, which I think must have been singing in the heart of the mist, and which probably mistook it for a tree of like substance. It was having, apparently, the time of its life; and really the place was enchanting, with its close-cropped, daisy-starred lawns, and the gay figures of polo-players coming home from a distant field in the pale dusk of a brilliant day of early June.

The birds are heard everywhere in London through that glowing month, and their singing would drown the roar of the omnibuses and the clatter of the cab-horses' hoofs if anything could. The little gardens of the houses back together and form innumerable shelters and pleasaunces for them. The simple beauty of these umbrageous places is unimaginable to the American city-dweller, who never sees anything but clothes-lines in blossom from his back windows; but they exist nearly everywhere in London, and a more spacious privacy can always be secured where two houses throw their gardens together, as sometimes happens.

The humblest, or at least the next to the humblest, London house has some leafy breathing-place behind it where the birds may nest and sing, and our lodging in the street which was almost Belgravian was not without its tree and its feathered inmates. When the first really warm days came (and they came at the time appointed by the poets), the feathered hostess of the birds, in a coop under the tree, laid an egg in honor of her friends building overhead. This was a high moment of triumph for the landlord's whole family. He happened to be making some very gravelly garden-beds along the wall when the hen proclaimed her achievement, and he called his children and their mother to rejoice with him. His oldest boy ran up a flag in honor of the event, and his lodgers came to the window to enjoy the scene, as I am sure the royal princess would have done if she had been taking tea there that afternoon.

He was a good man, that landlord, and a kind man, and though his aspirates were dislocated, his heart, however he miscalled it, was in the right place. We had many improving conversations, by which I profited more than he; and he impressed me, like Englishmen of every class, as standing steadfastly but unaggressively upon the rights of his station. In England you feel that you cannot trespass upon the social demesne of the lowliest without being unmistakably warned off the premises. The social inferiors have a convention of profound respect for the social superiors, but it sometimes seemed provisional only, a mask which they expected one day to drop; yet this may have been one of those errors which foreigners easily make. What is certain is that the superior had better keep to his place, as the inferior keeps to his. Across the barrier the classes can and do exchange much more kindness than we at a distance imagine; and I do not see why this is not a good time to say that the English manner to dependants is beyond criticism. The consideration for them seems unfailing; they are asked to do things if they please, and they are invariably and distinctly thanked for the smallest service. There are no doubt exceptions to the kindness which one sees, but I did not see the exceptions. The social machinery has so little play that but for the lubrication of these civilities the grind of class upon class might be intolerable. With us in America there is no love lost between rich and poor; unless the poor are directly and obviously dependent on the rich our classes can be frankly brutal with one another, as they never seem in England. Very possibly that perfect English manner from superiors is also a convention, like the respect of the inferiors, but it is a becoming one.

This is getting rather far away from the birds, not to say my landlord, who told me that when he first took that house a flock of starlings used to visit him in the spring. He did not tell me that his little house stood in the region of Nell Gwynne's mulberry-gardens; his knowledge was of observation, not of reading; and he was a gossip only about impersonal things. Concerning his lodgers he was as a grave for silence, and I fancy this is the strict etiquette of his calling, enforced by the national demand for privacy. He did, indeed, speak once of a young German lodger whom he had kept from going to a garden-party in full evening-dress, but the incident was of a remoteness which excused its mention. What had impressed him in it was the foreigner's almost tearful gratitude when he came home and acknowledged that he had found everybody in the sort of frock-coat which the landlord had conjured him to wear.

While the may was still hesitating on the hawthorns whether to come out, there were plum and peach trees in the gardens which emulated the earlier daring of the almonds. Plums do ripen in England, of course; the greengages that come there after they have ceased to come from France are as good as our own when the curculio does not get them; but the efflorescence of the peaches and almonds is purely gratuitous; they never fruit in the London air unless against some exceptionally sun-warmed wall, and even then I fancy the chances are against them. Perhaps the fruits of the fields and orchards, if not of the streets, would do better in England if the nights were warmer. The days are often quite hot, but after dusk the temperature falls so decidedly that even in that heated fortnight in July a blanket or two were never too much. In the spring a day often began mellowly enough, but by the end of the afternoon it had grown pinched and acrid.

William Dean Howells