The Suburbs of London
The Suburbs of London
THE term “suburban” has always seemed to me to have a peculiarly English meaning. It suggests images that are not apt to present themselves in America. American cities have suburbs; but they have to a very limited extent what may be called suburban scenery. The essence of suburban scenery in the western world is to be straggling, shabby, inexpensive; to consist of rail fences and loose planks, vacant, dusty lots in which carpet-beating goes forward, Irish cabins, lumber yards, and rudely bedaubed advertisements of quack medicines. The peculiar function of the neighbourhood of most foreign towns, on the other hand, is to be verdant and residential, thickly inhabited, and replete with devices for making habitation agreeable. Some of the prettiest things in England and France are to be found in the immediate vicinity of the capitals of those countries. There is nothing more charming in Europe than the great terrace at Saint Germain; there are few things so picturesque as Richmond bridge and the view thence along either bank of the Thames. There are certainly ugly things enough in the neighbourhood of London, and there is much agreeable detail to be found within an hour's drive of several American towns; but the suburban quality, the mingling of density and rurality, the ivy-covered brick walls, the riverside holiday-making, the old royal seats at an easy drive, the little open-windowed inns, where the charm of rural seclusion seems to merge itself in that of proximity to the city market—-these things must be caught in neighbourhoods that have been longer a-growing.
Murray (of the Hand-Books) has lately put forward a work which I have found very full of entertaining reading: a couple of well-sized volumes treating of every place of the smallest individuality within a circuit of twenty miles round London. The number of such places is surprising; so large an amount of English history has gone on almost within sight of the tower of the Abbey. From time to time, as the days grow long, the contemplative stranger finds a charm in the idea of letting himself loose in this interesting circle. Even to a tolerably inveterate walker London itself will not appear in the long run a very delightful field for pedestrian exercise. London is too monotonous and, in plain English, too ugly to supply that wayside entertainment which the observant pedestrian demands. The shabby quarters are too dusky, too depressing, English low life is too unrelieved by out-of-door picturesqueness, to be treated as a daily spectacle. There are too many gin-shops, and too many miserable women at their doors; too many, far too many dirty-faced children sprawling between one's legs; the young ladies of the neighbourhood are too much addicted to violent forms of coquetry. On the other hand, the Squares and Crescents, the Roads and Gardens, are too rigidly, too blankly genteel. They are enlivened by groups of charming children, coming out to walk with their governesses or nursemaids, and by the figures of superior flunkies, lingering, in the consciousness of elegant leisure, on the doorstep. But, although these groups—-the children and the flunkies—-are the most beautiful specimens in the world of their respective classes, they hardly avail to impart a lively interest to miles of smoke-darkened stucco, subdivided into porticoes and windows. The most entertaining walk, therefore, is a suburban walk, which will introduce you to fewer butlers and footmen, but to children as numerous and as rosy, and to something more unexpected in the way of architecture.
There is a charming place of refuge from the London streets of which I fain would speak, although it hardly belongs to my modest programme. There was a time when Kensington was a suburb, but the suburban phase of it's history has pretty well passed away. Nothing can well be conceived less suburban than the vast expanses of residential house frontage of which this region now chiefly consists; and yet to go thither is the shortest way of getting out of London. Step into Kensington Gardens, and ten minutes walk will carry you practically fifty miles from the murky Babylon on the other side of the railing. It may really be said that Kensington Gardens contain some of the finest rural scenery in England. If they were not a huge city square, they would be an admirable nobleman's park. To sit down for an hour at the base of one of the great elms and see them studding the grass around you in vistas, which, as you do not perceive their limits, may be as long-drawn as you choose to suppose them, is one of the most accessible as well as one of the most agreeable methods of spending a June afternoon.
Whenever, toward six o'clock, I have mustered the spirit to go to Hyde park, I have ended, after a duly dazzled gaze at the wonderful throng that assembles there, by slinking away into the comparative wilderness of the neighbouring enclosure. I use the expression “slinking,” because I have usually taken this course with a bad conscience. In Hyde park you see fine people; in Kensington Gardens you see only fine trees; and the observant stranger feels that it is upon eminent specimens of the human rather than of the vegetable race that he should bestow his attention. Every one in London, as the phrase is, goes to Hyde park of a fine afternoon; and the spectacle, therefore, may be presumed to have no small impressiveness.
It is certainly a very brilliant mob, and the copper coin which you pay for the use of your little chair is a small equivalent for the greatness of the privilege. Before you is the Drive, with it's serried ranks of carriages; behind you is the Row, with it's misty, red-earthed vista, and it's pacing and bounding equestrians; between the two is the broad walk in which your fellow starers arc gathered together lolling back in the tightly-packed chairs or shuffling along with wistful looks at them. The first time the observant stranger betakes himself to the park, he certainly is struck with the splendour of the show. There seems to be so much of everything; there are so many carriages, so many horses, so many servants, so many policemen, so many people in the carriages, on horseback, in the chairs, on foot. The observant stranger is again reminded of those constant factors in every more distinctively “social” spectacle in England—-the boundless wealth and the boundless leisure. Leisure is suggested even more forcibly if he goes to the park of a fine summer morning. In the afternoon people may be supposed to have brought the days labours to a close, to have done their usual stint of work and earned the right to fiâner. But American eyes do not easily accustom themselves to the sight of a great multitude in a busy metropolis, beginning the days entertainment, a couple of hours after breakfast, by going to sit in a public garden and watch several hundred ladies and gentlemen gallop past them on horseback. To the great commercial bourgeoisie, which constitutes “American society,” this free disposal of the precious morning hours is an unattainable luxury. The men are attending to business; they are immersed in offices, counting-houses, and “stores.” The ladies are ordering the dinner, setting the machinery of the household in motion for the day, finding occupation among their children. To people brought up in these traditions there is, therefore, something very—-what shall I call it?—-very picturesque, in these elegant matutinal groups, for whom the work of life is done to order, and who lose so little time of a morning in beginning the play.
They seem to have time enough, in all conscience; why should they be in such a hurry to begin? Here you catch that “leisured class” the absence of which is so often pointed out to you as the distinguishing feature of our awkward civilization, and the existence of which in England is, to many good Americans, a source of envy, admiration, and despair—-here you catch it in the very act, as it were; and you may stroll about and envy and admire it as much as you find warrant for. It is very good looking, very well dressed; it sits very quietly, looking without eagerness at passing things, and talking about them without striking animation. Women, all over the world, have less to do than men; and these unmortgaged hours are, on the ladies parts, comparatively natural. What an American particularly notices is the number of disengaged men; well dressed, gentlemanly, agreeable fellows, who have nothing more urgent to do, at twelve o'clock in the morning, than to stroll about under green trees, with a stick and a pair of gloves in their hands, or to sit with their legs crossed and murmur soft nothings to a lady in a Gainsborough hat. And in all this I am speaking only of the spectators; I am not including the show itself—-the fine folks in the carriages and the happy folks on horseback.
If the spectators testify to English leisure, the carriages testify more particularly to English incomes. To keep a carriage and pair in London costs, I believe, about five hundred pounds a year; the number of people driving about at this expense defies any powers of calculation at the command of the contemplative stranger. The carriages flock into the park in thousands; they roll along in dense, far-stretching masses; they stand locked together in a wilderness of wheels and cockades. In the morning, however, they are few in number, and you may bestow your attention upon the Row, which is at any time, indeed, a much prettier sight. It is the prettiest sight possible, and it shows you the finest side of English idleness. There is every kind of horse save the ugly one, and if it is not quite equally true that there is every kind of rider save the bad one, at least the bad one's are few and far between. The good Homer sometimes nods, and the good Englishman has sometimes a slippery saddle. I have heard American ladies say that they were “disappointed” in Rotten Row; but for myself, I was never disappointed. I don't exactly know what my countrywomen expected; but they have in everything. I know, a high standard. A young English girl, in a habit without a wrinkle, mounted upon a beautiful English horse, with health in her cheek and modesty in her eye, pulling up, flushed and out of breath, at the end of a long gallop, is a picture in which I can pretend to pick no flaws. “Ah, pulling up,” my disappointed countrywoman will say; “when they have pulled up they are doubtless very well; it is their rapid motion that is not what we have been taught to believe it.” And she will go on to say that these disappointments are an old story, and that there is nothing like coming to Europe and seeing for one's self.
However few my own disappointments, I have, as I said just now, usually brought my sessions in Hyde park to a premature close, and wandered away to the shady precinct of the old red palace which stares across the pond, and which has, I believe, a respectable collection of historical associations. It was, I believe, in Kensington Palace that the present Queen passed a large part of her youth; it was there that the news of her accession was brought to her. It is a modest, homely, but delightful old residence, and so much more agreeable of aspect than the villainous pile which overlooks St. James's park, that the privilege of living there might reconcile one to being on the steps of the throne rather than on the throne itself (Buckingham Palace being habitable, I believe, only by the sovereign, and Kensington being allotted to the sovereign's near relations). London—-apropos of this matter—-is, compared with continental capitals, singularly destitute of royal residences. Buckingham Palace is lamentably ugly; St. James's Palace is less shabby only because it is less pretentious; Marlborough House is hidden away in a courtyard, and presents no face whatever to the world. Marlborough House is, indeed, completely effaced, as the French say, by the neighbouring clubs in Pall Mall. You have to go but a short distance out of London, however, to see two of the most beautiful of all royal seats. One of the first of your excursions in the lengthening days is, as a matter of course, to Windsor. Windsor Castle, as you see it from the train, while you are yet at some distance from the station, massing it's long cluster of towers and battlements against the sky, is quite as impressive as the one considerable residence of English sovereigns should be.
If these sovereigns have fewer dwelling places than most other members of the royal fraternity, they may at least claim that their single castle is the most magnificent of castles. Nothing can well be more royal than the tremendous mass of Windsor, looking down from it's height over the valley of the Thames, and the vast expanse of it's park and forest. As you turn into the town, out of the station, you find yourself confronted with the foundations of the castle, along whose rugged base, and the steep on which it is perched, the little high street wanders in pygmy fashion. It has been my misfortune that at the time of each of my visits to Windsor the interior of the palace was not being shown; this is the case whenever the Queen is living there. But I must add that I use the term “misfortune” here in a great measure for form's sake. The rooms at Windsor are, I believe, numerous and interesting; they contain, among other treasures, some very fine pictures. But when I reflect that I should have had to go through them in the company of a large assemblage of fellow starers, “personally conducted,” like Mr. Cooks tourists, by a droning custodian, and shuffling in dull, gregarious fashion over the miles of polished floor and through the vistas of gilded chambers in which they are requested not to “touch”—-when the memory of this ordeal, frequently repeated in earlier years, comes back to me, I cannot help feeling a diminution of regret.
The “observant stranger” ought perhaps to be ashamed to confess to such levity, but a couple of years of indoor sight-seeing will have done a good deal toward making him ask himself whether the most beautiful rooms in the world are worth visiting in one of these bands of centripetal stragglers. The thing is disagreeable; one is not bound to say how or why. It is disagreeable to wander about any house—-be it even Windsor Castle—-without entering into relation with the master; and at Windsor and some other great houses the casual visitor is not only referred to the servants, but actually denied entrance unless the proprietor be absent. It is, however, one's fellow starers, one's fellow shufflers, that make the shoe pinch. It appears to be a fundamental rule of human nature, lying lower than the plummet of analysis will drop, that one shall, for the time, despise such people. On the continent, perhaps, you can keep better terms with them; they are usually, like yourself, foreigners in the country, and this gives them a cosmopolitan, independent air which tempers their subjection to the housekeeper or the beadle. But in England, wherever you go, there are usually fifty English people there before you; and the class which, in England, indulges in the inspection of native monuments, a pears to be for the most part the class for which the housekeeper and the beadle have irresistible terrors.
Even when the apartments at Windsor are closed, the great terrace behind the castle is open, and this lordly platform is one of the finest things in the world. I talk of it's being “behind” the castle, but I have no warrant for attempting to distinguish between back and front in an edifice of such irregular magnificence. The terrace, at any rate, looks over a beautiful country, and straight down at the playing fields of Eton, which are bordered by the sinuous Thames. It is not beneath the dignity of this line of observation to relate that the last time I was at Windsor I strolled along the terrace—-it has a magnificent length—-toward a point at which a portion of it is marked off by an iron railing for the use of the inhabitants of the castle. Here a gentleman was standing, with his back against the parapet, looking up intently at the wall. At the narrow window of a tower was placed the face of a housemaid, which was removed a moment after I had perceived it. The gentleman carried, slung over his shoulder, an opera glass, of which he appeared not to have made use. Turning to me very solemnly—-"I think it was the Queen,” he said.
“Do you mean that person at the window?” I inquired.
“Yes; she looked at me a long time, and I looked at her.”
“I thought it was a housemaid,” I rejoined.
He shook his head. “She looked very much like the Queen. She looked just like her photographs.”
“Possibly,” I said. “But she had on a housemaid's cap.”
Once more he shook his head and lifted his eyes to the empty window. “She looked at me a long time,” he murmured, “and I looked at her. I am sure it was the Queen.” And I left him in the happy faith that he had sustained the awful gaze of royalty out of a back staircase window.
I left him in order to walk hack under the castle arches and through the triple courts, through the town and across the bridge to Eton; and then come up into the town again, hire a vehicle at the stand beneath the granite walls, and take a long drive in the park. Eton college is on the other side of the Thames; you approach it by a long, dull, provincial street, consisting apparently chiefly of print shops, filled with portraits of the pretty women of the period. I approached it with a certain sentimental agitation, for I had always had a theory that the great English schools are delightful places to have been to. A few weeks before this I had paid a short visit to Winchester, and in the grounds of the venerable college which adjoins that ancient town I had seen a hundred rosy lads playing cricket (I am counting the lookers-on), with as business-like a jollity as if the ball were rebounding from the maternal bosom of Britannia herself. The courts of the old college, empty and silent in the eventide; the mellow light on the battered walls; the great green meadows, where the little clear-voiced boys made gigantic shadows; the neighbourhood of the old cathedral city, with it's admirable church, where early kings are buried—-all this seemed to make a charming background for boyish lives, and to offer a provision of tender, picturesque memories to the grown man who has passed through it. Eton, of a clear June evening, must be quite as good, or indeed a great deal better.
The day I speak of was a half-holiday, and the college itself was pretty well deserted. It consists of a couple of not particularly ornamental quadrangles, a good deal the worse for wear, a fine old chapel, and a queer bronze statue of Henry II., the founder of the school. All this stands near the river, among goodly trees, and hard by are the master's houses, in which the boys are lodged. A good many of the boys were strolling about, in their little man's hats and broad collars; this was apparently a holiday costume. Some of them were buying tarts from a wheedling Jew, who had rested his basket on the parapet of the school-house green; some were looking at the types of female beauty in the print-sellers' windows; one was very carefully carrying a jug full of some foaming liquid home from the pastry cooks. Beyond the houses, toward the river, some of them were playing at their eternal cricket. The river, just here, is very pretty; the great elms, in the meadows beside it, are magnificent; there is a bosky-looking little island in the middle, and silvery reaches up and down; and from the further side the castle looks down with a kind of maternal majesty. This is the extent of my knowledge of Eton. I had a letter of introduction to an excellent little boy—-it was from his mamma; but I had not the heart to spoil his half-holiday by making him play cicerone to my dismal seniority.
So, as I said, I drove away through Windsor park; through the Long Walk, which stretches from the castle gates for the space of three miles, bordered with trees as old, very nearly, as the English monarchy, and quite as solid, to a great grassy mound on which a rather ridiculous statue of George III. is perched. The statue stares across the interval at the castle, and the great avenue—-thanks to it's very perfection—-looks like a much smaller affair than it is. But nothing in Windsor park is small. I drove for some fifteen miles, and everywhere the great trees were scattered over the slopes and lawns; everywhere there was a glimpse of browsing deer; everywhere, at the end of cross-roads, the same wooded horizon. It is the perfection of park scenery, the noblest of all parks. I drove to Virginia Water, and left my carriage to come and meet me at some unknown point, to which my driver directed my steps. The walk proved charming; it led me over the grass and under the trees—-and such trees, always—-for a couple of miles, beside an agreeable lake. It was all delightfully sylvan, and almost solitary; and yet it retained the comfortable park character. There was no losing of one's way nor scratching away underbrush; and there was at the end a little inn, as pretty as a tavern in a comic opera, at which it was not impossible to lunch. I drove back through other avenues and over other slopes, with an occasional view of the long-outlined castle above the tree tops. There had been a great deal of it, and yet I had seen nothing of the forest.
Hampton Court Palace is always open, and you are free to wander through the apartments as you list. They form indeed a museum of second and third-rate works of art—-a kind of pictorial hospital. Most of the pictures are doubtful specimens of the great masters whose names are affixed to their frames; there are a few very good ones, however, of a more modest attribution. The long row of great drawings in tempera by Andrea Mantegna, representing the triumph of Julius Cæsar, are alone worth a moderate pilgrimage; and the collection of meretricious countesses of the Restoration, by Lely, is very brilliant in it's own peculiar way. The great charm of Hampton Court is not, however, in the pictures; it would not be even if these were a great deal better. It is the old red palace itself that is chiefly delightful; it's great round-windowed, stone-embossed courts; it's long, warm-coloured front and sides; it's brown old chambers with their dusky canvases, their fireplaces, and their tapestry; it's beautiful formal garden, with it's close-clipt lawns, it's shaded walks, it's curious yews, and it's Dutch-looking canal.
Of all the suburban lions Hampton Court is the most cockneyfied; London holiday-makers flock down there in hundreds, and spread themselves over the place, which is especially dedicated to that form of popular entertainment known as “school feasts.” These simple festivals are celebrated within the enclosure of Bushey park, just beyond the palace gardens. There would be something inhuman in saying that they spoil the place for the solitary, selfish stroller; inasmuch as they are a source of entertainment to crowds of underfed little Londoners, who make a juvenile uproar under the great horse-chestnuts. I hasten, therefore, to say that on the three or four occasions when I have spent the afternoon at Hampton Court, the presence of the London contingent has never been fatal to my enjoyment. The place has such an honest, friendly charm, that it seems good-naturedly to refuse to be vulgarised; and your fellow cockneys become, as it were, a part of the homely animation of the landscape, like the greedy swans in the canal or the very tame deer in the park. The school children, moreover, with their dusky pinafores and clumsy gambols, their tea tables and omnibuses, all, for reasons best known to themselves, herd together near the park gates. Ten minutes' walk will carry you out of sight or sound of them; and you may stroll down the great vistas of horse-chestnut without the fear of encountering any object more displeasing than a young man on an occasional bench, encircling the waist of his sweetheart, or a young person sketching difficult foliage at the base of one of the trees.
Bushey park consists of a single long avenue of trees in a double row; that is, there are four lines of trees. At about a quarter of it's length this avenue is crossed by another, which puts out two arms—-two high green corridors—-of almost equal magnitude. All this foliage is magnificent; and we know what the horse-chestnut is capable of. One afternoon it was very warm—-warm enough (far too rare a blessing in England) to fling one's self on the grass at the base of one of the giant trunks. I made a point of doing so, and spent a couple of hours in this attitude, in the faintly stirred shade, watching the soft, still evening close in. You must do something of this kind, to feel the charm of an old English park. It has more to say to you, a great deal more, than it can ever say as you pass by in the most neatly appointed “fly,” or even as you stroll along in company the most exempt from a vulgar sense of unexpectedness. During an idle lounge in the mellowing, fading light, the beautiful quality of the place steals irresistibly over your spirit, the air seems charged with serene antiquity and accumulated peace, and the rustle of the leaves strikes you as the continuous sound made in their passage by the hours and years which have given all this it's quiet chance to grow. To the contemplative stranger who permits himself not only to talk sentimental nonsense, but to think it, it seems as if, somehow, all England had been gathered up into such a place—-as if nothing less than her glorious past, her wealth, her power, her honour, her uninvaded centuries, had been needed to produce it.
Another charm of Hampton Court is it's being directly upon the river, which flows beside the long, ivy-muffled brick wall of the gardens. Nothing can be prettier than the walk on the further side of this wall, whose charming old mottled red extent you have on one hand, as you have the grassy bank of the Thames on the other. After a while the wall stops and a tall iron paling begins. It's interstices are choked with shrubbery, but they permit you to look into the great, peaceful, private expanse of the Home park. It's timbered acres stretch away with a very grand air, and it seems to be simply a park for a park's sake. The reduced gentlewomen who occupy apartments in the palace, at the Queen's pleasure, are free to take their exercise there; and for picturesqueness's sake I ought certainly to have seen a couple of them, in eventide gossip, dragging a scanty train over the soft grass. I must add that you see more of the Home park from within the gardens. The limit of these is marked by a sort of semicircular canal, of the quaintest aspect, ornamented with shaven banks, and with huge water-lilies and swans. Directly opposite the centre of the palace this artificial pool puts forth a long, straight arm, which stretches away into the Home park to a great distance, and makes one of those geometrical vistas that old-fashioned monarchs used to like to look at from their palace windows. This one is bordered with tall, stiff trees, and is a model of it's kind. Round about it the park expands immensely, and you may look at it all across the canal, over a little fence.
As for the river, in talking about London suburbs we should have come to that first of all. The Thames is the great feature of suburban London; and these neighbourhoods are, for the most part, worth describing only as they bear some relation to it. Londoners appreciate their river in the highest degree; and they manifest their regard in a thoroughly practical fashion. They use the Thames: it might almost be said they abuse it. They use it, I mean, for pleasure; for above Chelsea bridge there are happily few traces of polluting traffic. When once indeed, going up the stream, you fairly emerge from the region of the London bridges, the Thames turns rural with surprising quickness. At every bend and reach it throws off something of it's metropolitan degradation; with each successive mile it takes on another prettiness. By the time you reach Richmond, which is only nine miles from London, this suburban prettiness touches it's maximum. Higher in it's course the Thames is extremely pretty; but nothing can well be so charming as what you see of it from Richmond bridge and just above. The bridge itself is a very happy piece of picturesqueness. Sketches and photographs have, I believe, made it more or less classical. The banks are lined compactly with villas embowered in walled gardens, which lie on the slope of Richmond hill, whose crest, as seen from below, is formed by the long, bosky mass of Richmond park.
To speak of Richmond park is to speak of one of the loveliest spots in England. It has not the vast extent of Windsor, but in other respects it is quite as fine. It is poor work talking of English parks, for one is reduced to ringing the changes on a few lamentably vague epithets of praise. One talks of giant oaks and grassy downs, of browsing deer and glades of bracken; and yet nine-tenths of what one would say remains unsaid. I will therefore content myself with observing that, to take a walk in Richmond park and afterward repair to the Star and Garter inn to satisfy the appetite you have honestly stimulated, is as complete an entertainment as you are likely to find. It is rounded off by your appreciation of the famous view of the Thames from the windows of the inn—-the view which Turner has painted and poets have versified, and which certainly is as charming as possible, though to an American eye it just grazes, a trifle painfully, the peril of over-tameness. But the river makes a graceful, conscious bend, and wanders away into that thick detail of distance characteristic of the English landscape.
Richmond is in every way the most beautiful of the environs of London. I had a sense of it during a couple of visits that I lately paid to a delightful old house on the outskirts of the town. This was such an old house as we should go barefoot to see in America, though in this happy land of domiciles with antecedents it enjoys no particular distinction. It stands close to the river; it dates from the reign of Queen Anne; it has a red brick front and elaborate cornices and copings; it is guarded by a high brick wall and tall iron gates. Within, it is rich in wainscoted parlours, with rococo mouldings and carvings, to which you ascend by a great square staircase that is panelled and embellished in proportion. Opposite, on the other side of the river, are the villas and lawns of Twickenham. Close at hand, among converging, overshadowing elms, is a strange, haunted-looking mansion, with weedy gardens and foreign medallions set in it's face. Beyond this are the great botanical gardens of Kew; behind is Sudbrook park and the greater extent of Richmond park. Staying there, one need not be at loss for a walk.
And then you have the river. When I said just now that Londoners and suburbans use their river, I meant in the first place that they dwell upon it's edges as closely as possible, and in the second place that they set themselves afloat upon it in tremendous force. From early spring to the last of the autumn, the river is given up to boating. Wherever you approach it the symptoms of this pastime are in the foreground; there are always a dozen young men with bare legs and jerseys pulling themselves up and down in cigar-shaped boats. There are boats, indeed, of every form and dimension: sharp-cutting wherries, in which the occupant seems to be sitting on the back of a knife-blade; uncomfortable canoes, in which he paddles with an awkward movement, as if he were bailing out a sinking craft; capacious barges, containing a party in which a lady usually reclines in the stern and plays coxswain. Of a summer afternoon these innumerable water parties make a very pretty bustle. I took a boat at Richmond on such an afternoon, and rowed up to Teddington, whence I walked along the towing path to Hampton Court. Between Richmond and Teddington the riverside is an unbroken succession of small country houses, each perched upon a lawn as smooth as a billiard table and dipping it's border into the water. The prettiness, smoothness, trimness, cottage-of-gentility look of all this is quite inexpressible.
I said just now that the view from Richmond was “over-tame,” and I hardly know how to qualify the impression it produces when looked at in detail. It seems like a country that is over-ripe; that cannot afford any more mellowing. The innumerable boats, the little green carpet-patches on the banks, the perfectly appointed cottages, the people sitting on the painted-looking lawns, with whom you can almost converse from across the stream—-these things suggest a kind of imminent repletion, a climax of maturity. And yet I don't suppose that another seasons sunshine will begin to bruise the mellow earth, or that the boats will crowd the water out of it's channel. The villas and cottages will go on being let as eligible residences, and young men in white flannel will feather their oars for all generations to come. It has lately become greatly the fashion to row down from Oxford, devoting a week to the voyage, and sleeping at the riverside inns. I can imagine nothing more charming, if—-to measure the matter rather grossly—-you carry a weeks dinner in the boat.
If I had not almost exhausted my space I should here devote a parenthesis to the singular meagreness of the British larder as exemplified at the village inn whose scented porch and latticed windows the poets and story-tellers have taught us in America to venerate. During a series of suburban afternoons it often happens that one applies for the evening meal at a tavern of prepossessing aspect, but usually with no greater profit than the right to register one's experience in that list of strange anomalies in which the tradition of English “comfort” is so prolific. One day I came down the river to Teddington, which I reached at half-past seven in the evening. As I had the prospect of not arriving in London till nearly ten o'clock, I went in quest of a house of entertainment. I found one on the river bank, standing in a garden, the perfection apparently of a rural hostelry, and adorned with the sign of the “Angler.” I enter the establishment and am met on the threshold, with every manifestation of hospitality, by a prosperous-looking host and hostess who have emerged from a snug and shining bar. I ask if I can be provided with dinner, and I receive an affirmative answer. It seems, however, to lack a certain savoury downrightness, and I further inquire of what the dinner will be composed. I am informed that it will be composed of cold 'am, an I can prevail upon my entertainers to add nothing else to the menu. This is apparently considered by an English innkeeper a very handsome offer; the ultima ratio of the frigid joint is thrust at you with a stolid complacency which in the anguish of a disappointed stomach you pardonably qualify as barbaric. But the phase of disappointment passes away, and you permit yourself to decide, once for all, that the English innkeeper lacks the culinary sense. Public opinion asks too little of him.
One evening I came back late from the country; it was a quarter past nine when I arrived in London. My dinner had been too long deferred, and I determined to obtain it without further delay. The station at which I had alighted was adorned, like most of the London stations, with a huge railway hotel. I entered this establishment, and, being directed to the coffee room, ascended a monumental staircase and passed along a corridor remarkable for it's sober-coloured massiveness and elegance. Everything here was a pledge of comfort, abundance, succulence. The coffee room was as vast and impressive as a cathedral; and the high priest and his acolyte—-the waiter and a little page—-approached me with a solemnity which seemed to promise a formal initiation into it's most savoury mysteries. The usual request for dinner was followed by the usual offer of cold meat, to which, being faint from inanition, I reluctantly assented. This attractive repast was set before me, flanked on either side by a chunk of bread and a mustard pot. It made a pitiful figure beneath the gilded vault of the coffee room, and I succumbed to a pardonable desire to give it an harmonious accessory. A simple expedient to this end seemed to be to ask for some potatoes. Hereupon followed this dialogue:
“We have no potatoes, sir.”
“You have no potatoes?”
“No, sir. We have no potatoes, sir.”
“Isn't that very extraordinary?”
“Yes, sir. We have no potatoes, sir.”
“You never have potatoes, perhaps. The absence of potatoes is perhaps a specialty of this hotel?”
“Yes, sir. We have no potatoes after nine o'clock, sir.”
The waiter was a very “fine man”; he was in evening dress. Near him stood the little page, with a hundred polished buttons on his jacket. I looked from one to the other, and then I looked up at the gilded dome and the stately pilasters of the room. This operation concluded, I addressed myself to what I have called the frigid and I may now add the rigid—-joint. But I am sorry to conclude in this plaintive key. If I had not exhausted my space, I should speak of the satisfaction of going down to Greenwich, at the duskier end of the Thames, and eating at the Ship hotel the best of all possible dinners.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.
The author died in 1916, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.