Triangles of Life, and other stories/Letters to Jack Cornstalk
Letters to Jack Cornstalk
From an Australian in London
London, September, 1900.
DEAR JACK,—You know I always had a great idea of the value of first impressions—an exaggerated idea, you used to say. I have it stronger than ever—indeed, I sometimes fear that the eagerness to seize first impressions, and write them down before they become blurred and lost, is becoming a mania with me. If I had to write up a big city I'd rather be there a month than a year. We Australians seem to adapt ourselves so quickly to strange places and upside-down conditions. Already London walls seem less dark and dirty to me—London streets less narrow, crowded and sordid, the whole city less like a big squalid village. The houses are growing every day, and I suppose as I go on the lives of the bulk of London humanity, and of two classes of London society especially—that of fashionable West End and that of Spitalfields, for instance—will seem less and less hopelessly useless and unnecessary to the existence of the world. As I make friends, and find halfway houses, so to speak, to drop into in my wanderings about the city, the awful monotony of London ceases to oppress me. For the first few days I thought it more dreadful than the monotony of the Bush, and more utterly hopeless, seeing that the Bush becomes settled and humanized, while London can only change with the changes of the centuries.
I suppose I'll make some blunders, in detail, with my first impressions, but they will be the blunders of hundreds, maybe thousands, who come to London, get the same impressions, and take 'em away and never lose 'em. So many writings will still hold true as of first impressions. I want to drive all this into your thick head, because I intend to write to you pretty regularly, and i know that you will regard some parts of my letters as cheap copy for that old democratic rag of yours, the Come-by-Chance Boomerang. I don't mind—it will save me writing at length to all the boys, as I promised.
I am writing under a disadvantage, for which I never bargained when I left Australia. I have heard Australians say that you cannot get round the real size of the difference between Sydney or Melbourne and London until you return to Australia, and I feel not that that is true. A returned Australian once said to me: "When you go to London you don't think much of it, but when you come back to Sydney the houses seem about a foot high." This was before they began to build sky-scrapers in Australia. My present impression is that in Sydney city the houses in general are higher than in London—but that is probably because of the few rally tall buildings in Sydney. You see, they don't allow high buildings in London.
You do not so quickly realize the contrast between a big thing and a small thing of the same kinds, seen previously, as between a greater thing, seen some time ago, and a lesser thing seen now. See? Well, look here! St. Pancras Railway Station covers, under the unbroken arch of roof (260 feet at the base), five long, comfortable platforms, a wide carriage-way, and ten lines of rail; Redfern Station, Sydney—the largest we have—has only two little platforms and a double line of rail under the main roof. But the general idea is the same, and to me—with three months and some fifteen thousand miles of ocean between the two stations—St. Pancras is only Redfern blown out, or magnified, but enlarged to an extent which I shall not be able to realize until I strike Redfern again. St. Pancras is about—how many times bigger than Redfern? but this doesn't strike you until you begin to study it out; and I suppose few Australians who visit London would take that trouble. This is scarcely a first impression, but let it pass. I have an idea that when I go back, Sydney—where I spent the greatest part of my life—will surprise me a deal more than London did at first. Then for some first impressions of Sydney. And (this might sound like a ridiculous paradox) I have an impression that Australians, who come to London and stay awhile, never realize the size of their disappointment—they keep on expecting to be surprised presently, and having a vague idea that the street they're in must lead toward the city proper— that London begins to grow on them and surprise 'em gradually.
There are many things I want to tell you about. We expect to find English people cold, reserved and inhospitable, and are not disappointed; but we seldom study the reasons. No need to come to England for that. They are reserved and inhospitable, because they have to be—they are so hopelessly bound by the same customs (or superstitions) and cast-iron conditions, which are surely, and not too slowly, gaining ground in Australian cities, and which papers like the old Boomerang have been slogging at for years. The English do not seem, to Australian city people more cold-blooded than the people of Australian cities themselves appear from a bushman's point of view.
I think, after all, the best thing I can do is to write straight on and describe the things which I have up to date seen and experienced, and the impressions I got from them; and I hope the reason for the real (or apparent) inhospitality of English people, for the vague, irritating feeling of disappointment we have on first visiting London, and for many other things, will appear plain to you as I write.
By the way, they call wheat "corn" in England, so in speaking of you to English friends I've had to explain that you were nicknamed after the stalk of the Indian corn (maize), else they'd think you were a very slender reed indeed to lean on or run against, instead of the tough old stalk you are; but I suppose you are pretty slender after the shearing season Out- Back—unless you've managed to hang on to the editorial chair of the Boomerang. I think of old Come-by-Chance sometimes; I suppose things are just as dull as ever in that dead-and-alive township.
I'll tell you all about the voyage some other time. We had fog, thick, heavy and wet as one of old "Curry-and- Rice's" dampers, from Spain, past Plymouth, and nearly to Dover. Syren going the whole time, and other syrens all round through the night. All the officers on the bridge and the lookout men for'ard. "Light on the port bow, sir!" "Light on the starboard bow, sir!" "Vessel on the port bow, sir!" all the time. Somewhere coming out of the Bay of Biscay we just shaved a big four-masted sailing ship that suddenly developed out of a smudge in the fog. That's nothing in these waters. The ship's people kept winding up mud and seaweed from the bottom to see where we were—prospecting the bottom of the Channel. It wasn't what we'd call "payable dirt" on the goldfields; this submarine prospecting delayed us considerably, but it probably saved our lives. We saw Dover on a fine, bright morning. You remember a picture in a glass case at home, half picture, half modelled, with a cliff like a piece of scraped chalk painted a bright green on top, and little Noah's ark houses with dabs of colour for windows and doors, and trees—like those in a cheap box of toys—stuck about the top of the cliff. Cliff too white, we thought, and trees and grass altogether too green for anything of the kind on earth—outside a picture. Well, Dover from the distance looked just like that—like a bright little doll-housey picture. And Margate from a distance reminded me of one of New Zealand's miniature cities in wood—the open sea-front of Napier, for instance.
The Thames is the Melbourne Yarra on a larger scale, and without the smell.
From the time the fog lifted there was no escape from a confounded bore, who'd been there before, and wanted to point out things. He lived part of the year in Australia and the rest in England. He was not an Englishman, as far as I could see, and not an Australian—nor yet what is next best to it, an Englishman Australianized. He'd been all over the world—he was simply a type of the born-and-bred idiots, who travel to see things, so that they will be able to say that they have seen 'em, and who couldn't describe them any more than they could fly. He hadn't the brains to be a liar—he had no brains at all—he hadn't even any politics.
Every now and again he'd come up and say: " Well, we're in the Thames now—what do you think of it? "
I was leaning over the rail, taking in things quietly, and looking at some old warships cut down to a hulk, when he took a pinch of my arm and stuck his finger out in another direction from that in which I was looking. He paused a moment, as if he was going to say something very impressive, then he said—
" See that boat there? "
I saw a boat like one of our Manly steamers, crowded with holiday people.
"Yes, I see it. What's wrong with it?"
"There's nothing wrong with it. It's an excursion steamer taking a holiday crowd from London down to Margate, or some of them places."
If the holiday crowd had been naked, and painted in red and blue stripes, there might have been something to look at. As it was, I couldn't see any difference between them and an ordinary Manly beach crowd. And the pointing-out friend seemed to expect me to stare and be astonished. "You'll open your eyes when you see the docks," he said; but I saw nothing in the docks to open my eyes any wider than usual. The docks are simply big dam arrangements of masonry, one leading into another, built in the river bank, and ships are floated in, and the water-gate closed behind them, to keep up the floating depth of water when the tide goes out of the river.
This explains why captains are anxious to catch a tide. Australian boats .are timed to arrive on Saturday, and if they miss a tide and get in on Sunday it's awkward for all parties.
I suppose that when the tide goes out of the river you could row outside on a level with the keels of the vessels in dock. And if the water-gates were to break things would get mixed, I fancy; there' d be a lot of running round and swearing.
The Buster's father met us at the docks. You remember the day I took you to the Buster's studio in Sydney, and he showed you how he made men out of mud?
We settled to stay at the Buster's Dad's place, in City Road, for a day or two, until we had time to look round.
We hadn't been allowed to land at Teneriffe, on account of the plague in Australia, so the custom officers weren't strict. I got on with them all right. You get tobacco cheap at Teneriffe.
We took the train from the Albert Docks to Fenchurch Street, third class, and the worst accommodation I ever experienced. We came over London East, but I was too knocked out to take much notice of it. A wilderness of houses, where you might easily get bushed. The first difference that struck me was the absence of awnings and verandahs.
At Fenchurch Street I said good-bye to my chum of the voyage. He was a lanky Victorian, from West Australia last. He must have been near seven feet. I thought I was the tallest man on board until a couple of days after King George's Sound (he'd been down sea-sick), when I came on deck one morning and saw him standing by the rail. By way of introduction I went and stood back-to-back with him. He grinned. " That's nothing," he said, " there's some terribly tall fellows where I come from." He came from Bendigo way, in Victoria. He was of a type of bushman that I always liked—the sort that seem to get more good-natured the longer they grow; yet are hard-knuckled, and would accommodate a man who wanted to fight, or thrash a bully, in a good-natured way. He wore a good-humoured grin at all times, and was nearly always carrying somebody's baby about, or making tea at the galley for some of the women, or cadging extras for them. He'd been "doin' a bit of diggin' in West Australia." "The West was dead," he said, and there was nothing doing in the Eastern colonies, so far as he could hear; he'd made a "few quid," and had made up his mind to take a run across to 'South Africa and have a look round. I was glad to see him still on board after Cape Town. "I was just beginning to feel at home on the ship," he explained, " so I thought I might just as well go right on and have a look at London and the Paris Exhibition. You see I booked right through, and I mightn't get the chance again. I can have a look round South Africa just as well coming back; and things will be more settled there then."
The fare from Australia to England by the Cape was the same as by Suez, because of competition, but the fare to the Cape was only a pound less; so many booked right through who'd only intended to go to the Cape. This led to trouble over selling and transferring tickets in South Africa.
When I ran against the Victorian at Fenchurch Street he looked the same as ever, and grinned his broadest grin of good nature. He'd stuck to his soft felt hat, and wore a comfortable sac suit of grey saddle tweed—such as you, Jack, wear on Sundays. He had on a white shirt, though it was a hot day, and, out of respect for a strange country, he had buttoned his waistcoat. He had sewn a pocket inside that waistcoat for his money.
"I've just heard of a cheap boardin'-house," he said, " where they don't pop it on too stiff, and a man can get a square feed. I'll stay and knock round London for a few days, and see what's to be seen; and then I'll take a run over and have a look at the Frenchmen. I reckon I'd better take a cab, or I'll get bushed. Well, so long, old man, and good luck! We're pretty sure to run against each other again, knockin' round the world." He gave my fingers a squeeze that glued them together with pain; and so I parted with the last of the Australians for a while. Outside the station I saw him grinning good-naturedly down on a very short, fat cabman,
We took a four-wheeler from Fenchurch Street. Looking at things from the outside, the principal business streets of Australian capitals, narrower, without the verandahs, and with a little more traffic, would do for London; and streets like Pitt Street, Sydney, or Collins Street, Melbourne, would ornament the old city. The dirty, gritty, blackened walls are very striking, after the yellow-tinted freestone, clean brick and painted cement of Sydney. The walls of old Newgate are coated like the inside of a neglected chimney. When I first saw the blackened walls I had a vague sort of notion that there had been a big fire round there lately, and for days I had a kind of idea that the terraces had been painted black, or some dark colour, so as not to show the dirt.
Just as we were turning out of the streets which I thought, by the look of them, must run down towards the City, the Buster's Dad pointed to a dingy black wall, and said: " There's the Bank." It was low and very dirty, and not particularly solid looking. I thought it would be all the better for a scrape down and a couple of coats of stone-colour. I would have expected to see a better rear wall to the backyard of the Bank of England, for, of course, I thought the front of the building must be round in a main street. I asked the Buster's Dad if we'd go round by the front?
"That's the front," he said.
The Buster's Dad lived in a terrace built in a half-circle, back from the street, the space in front filled by a half-moon of stone or cement, with posts round it, and seats on it. The Buster's Bad says he remembers when trees grew there. On the opposite side of the street was a big hoarding covered with advertisements. After tea, when we had told them all about the Buster's family in Australia, I sat by the window (it was Saturday evening) and watched the 'buses and horse-trams go by, painted pink and blue and yellow, according to their routes, and covered with advertisements; and I watched the people who drifted round and rested on the dusty seats of the dusty little stone half-moon. It was a hot day, and dust and straw and bits of paper drifted round.
There were draggled girls with rag babies—at least the babies were mostly rags—who came from back courts; there were shapeless, rusty black bundles, tied round the middle, with dingy shawls three-corner-wise over the shoulders, and knobs on top, in the shape of black bonnets: old women who met on their way from the pubs, with jugs half under their shawls, and who rested a while on a seat and helped, no doubt, to blacken a dirty, mean street with their tongues. It would surprise a Sydneysider to see how many respectable working women go into pubs as a matter of course; but you soon get used to these things. There was the drunk who hooked his elbow on to the back of a seat and half hung, half sat, and talked to himself, until he felt able to get up and stagger to the pub.
There was one man, or the shadow of a man, who drifted on to that space with a human eddy from the street, and rested on a seat for a while. He wore a white shirt and a high collar, and his boots were pathetically well polished; his clothes seemed decent and whole, though the cloth rather dull and the linen cloudy; his face was white and worn sharp—a dead white, with something bluish about it, I fancied. He drew in his shoulders, as if he were cold, and, as he sat down he bent forward and hitched up the knee of his trousers. The "dicky," or false shirt-front, worked up and buckled outwards, and I could see through between it and his bare bony breast. And when he got up and moved away I saw that he was walking on his bare feet. Things hadn't changed much since Dickens' time. I had seen something like this in Sydney, and I felt that I would live to see the same scene from a Sydney or Melbourne window. I began to feel pretty dismal.
On Sunday morning the Buster's Dad and a couple of friends took me round to show me the city, and point out places which were as familiar to me as the face of the old Boomerang cashier—or as mine should be to him—because I had seen those places, from as far back as I could remember, in every variety of picture-show——from the old peep-show and magic-lantern, to the improved cinematograph; and speaking of the cinematograph, it was in a "ride down the Strand" in a vitascope show in Sydney that I first experienced the feeling of disappointment——I kept expecting to come into a big street, or to see something presently, right up to the moment the picture was shut off the screen.
And my London friends seemed to expect me to open my mouth or show some sign of astonishment. The only thing that surprised me was to see St. Paul's and those places reduced to about half the size I expected them to be, and very black and dirty. I wanted to see the Monument close, and my friends took me round by it, but didn't seem to think much of it. I drifted back into an old London fog, and saw the London coach come in, and Mr. Pecksniff and his daughters get down and start to walk to the Commercial Boarding-house, where poor silly little Mercy met the brute her father sold her to. I'd have followed (and no doubt have found the Commercial Boarding-house little changed), but I hadn't time before my friends wanted to point out something else.
English people seem unable to realize the progress of a new country. Leaving out St. Paul's and the Abbey, and those old institutions, most things that are in London we have in Australia on a smaller scale——some on a larger——and we have——because of our readiness to give Yankee and foreign notions a show——many things that they haven't got in London yet.
I remember reading a magazine article by a leading English writer, in which he censured the average Australian in London for his " affectation of indifference," pointed out that it was only an exhibition of weakness or ignorance, and that it would be more manly to express his honest astonishment at the marvels he saw. That writer will probably never understand that his article was only another example of the stay-at-home Englishman's hopeless inability to realize progress outside his own country.
My first landlady expressed surprise at hearing me speak "such good English"; she said she thought that Australians had a language of their own; and, now I come to think of it, she wasn't so far out.
The Buster's Dad took me round some of the way in the underground railway. I noticed that a young friend of his watched me closely, to see if I'd be nervous, I suppose. The Underground was about as hot as the centre of Bulli Tunnel, near Sydney, and a good deal dirtier; in some places the smoke goes up through gratings along the middle of the street. The stations, big, grimy, gritty cellars, and you go up dusty steps and stumble into mean streets and other unexpected places.
The size of London lies in the spread of it; but you can no more realize it than you can the mighty extent of the Bush—the land of magnificent distances. In the latter case you only remember the day's ride or tramp through scrubs and clearings—and other days like it. The day's work or walk. It is the same with distance at sea; you realize the horizon around you all day, for weeks—or months—and that's about all.
To me, the first, the most ghastly thing in London, was broad daylight after nine o'clock at night. When I am hurried round, and things are pointed out to me, I lose my bearings and see through cockney eyes. I like to go alone. So, on Monday morning, I slipped out and took a walk down to the City. It was another hot day, and there was plenty of dust. I was already used to the absence of verandahs, and felt just as much at home as if I were walking down George Street from Redfern. I had decided that the best way to learn the City was to blunder round and ask as little as possible. I called to mind certain instructions given me, but decided to make back for the Bank whenever I got hopelessly mixed, and make a fresh start from there.
But the trouble was to find the Bank. It is the most modest building I ever met; most unobtrusive, as it should be, if only on account of its dirt. On more than one occasion I asked to be directed to the Bank, and was told that I was at it. It had a shut-up and deserted appearance, as if it went bung about fifty years ago, and closed for reconstruction (as most of our banks did in '92), and had never opened since. I have a faint recollection of having seen a door in the front wall, and, if there really is one, I'll go in next time I'm down in the City, and see what it's like inside.
We have in Australia an exaggerated idea of the volume and rush and roar of London traffic. I'd rather cross at the Bank (and not use the subways) than at the corner of King and George Streets, Sydney, where we have a double line of fast electric tramway, and the 'Bus Companies are still hanging on. But this is mainly because London traffic is so perfectly managed.
From the top of a 'bus the only real difference I could see between the business street crowd of London and that of Sydney or Melbourne was, while there is a sprinkling of frock-coats and tall hats in the young cities, there is a shower in London. I fancied that the Sydney people, when I last saw them, seemed the more haggard, worried and hurried; but that might have been a trick of memory.
Down Fenchurch Street I was looking for a place in a hurry, and passed it twice—because it was up a court instead of in the main street, where it advertised itself to be—and was passing it for the third time when I was aware of a shadow at my elbow. Poor devil!—he had been a man, I suppose; there was little manhood left in him now. Imagine a Sydney Domain Dosser in his last stage of dosserdom—imagine him several degrees worse than he could possibly become in Sydney! This man was apparently a hopeless drunkard; long past the bloated stage. He wore an old frock-coat that was in rags round his wrists, and so smeared with grease and dirt that it hung heavy from his sharp shoulder-blades. His hat, a level-brimmed stove-pipe, rested on his ears, which supported it like brackets, the rim seemed only held together by grease and dirt, and the crown was of the same materials, with, perhaps, a thin under lining of felt. Where the grease was thin on his clothes there were patches of collar green. And the most wretched Sydney gutter-raker would not do more than turn the boots over with a stick if he saw them lying in the rubbish. His trousers legs (they don't call trousers pants in England)—his trousers were stiff as buckram, and by the hang of them may have been suspended from his waist by shreds or bits of string. Heaven only knows what ghastly skeleton in dirt that old frock-coat covered.
"Excuse me, sir!" he said, hurriedly and hoarsely, "is there any place you want to find? I can direct you. I'm—I'm a messenger! I've been thirty-five years here, and I know every hole and corner——"
"No," I said, with the distrust of the stranger in London; "I can find my way." We hear so much about the cleverness of London pickpockets, confidence men, etc., that some of us, for the first week, take precautions which seem childish and silly when we look back at them.
"But—but you've passed the place!" (Observation told him that—his wits were sharpened by the drunkard's thirst.) "Only tell me what place you want to find. I'll show you at once!" (His hands began to tremble—then to shake.) "What—what place is it, sir? I've been here thirty-five years and I——" (every now and again his voice broke into an involuntary whine; the cry that breaks out in the speech of the hopeless drunkard, who is suffering a recovery, and has been too long without a drink). "I can show you, sir. I can show you at once, any place, sir! Only tell me the name of the place!" (He was trembling now from head to foot. I told him where I wanted to go.)
"Come with me, sir ! Come with me. I know it! I'll show you the place!—it's up here! You passed it! You'd never find it!" (His limbs were trembling violently now. God help us all!) "There it is; go right up those steps and in through that big door! Do you want to find any other place, sir? I'll show you any place! Shall I wait, sir? I'm—I'm a messenger—I've been round here forthirty-five years, and——"
"You've been here for thirty-five years?"
"Yes, sir ! thirty-five years——" His whine broke loose again on the "thirty-five."
"You don't seem to have done much good with your time," I said.
The words were scarcely out of my mouth before I felt the foolish brutality of them. It benefited him, though, for I gave him enough to drown his hell for a while. He wanted more ("make it even money, sir!"), but that was human nature.
But London is perhaps the easiest city in the world to find your way about in. It is here that you get the full benefit of the advice, "Ask a policeman." I like the London policeman; he is large, good-natured and seemingly broad-minded. When you speak to him he doesn't turn slowly and, if you are shabby, regard you as if you had shoved up against him on purpose. He doesn't look you up and down and say "Phwhat's that? Oh, the Barrank! You ought to know where that is. What do you want to go there?" Neither does he turn his back on you, jerk his thumb over his shoulder and say, "It's beyant."
He doesn't scratch his head, think lazily, and say, "Go round the carrner, turn up the third turrnin' to the rroight. Keep straight down till ye come to the top an a hill. Thin keep straight up till ye see a church forninst ye. And thin arsk."
No. The London policeman attends to you instantly, and his directions are prompt, plain and concise. He is recruited mostly from the provinces, I believe, and there is a certain democratic dignity about him which appeals to me. I like his "Second to the right, sir"; or "Third—no—wait a moment" (with a cheerful smile) "fourth to the left—ask the policeman there."
He knows most things about London. He is supposed to know everything in existence—and many things which do not exist, except in the imaginations of strangers from all possible parts of the world (and from many places which would seem impossible to the un-travelled English mind). He turns from explaining to you where you are, and where you'll have to go to get anywhere else, to attend to a slow old lady who wants to be put in a tram, that doesn't come within half a mile of where she is, in order to reach a place where trams don't run. He has to keep one eye on the traffic and the other on her while she finds her purse and looks out a piece of paper with an illegible address scrawled on it; and he must put her right, somehow. Also amongst hundreds of other things, he has to attend to strangers who want clean good board and lodging cheap. And, mind you, all this time he is probably stationed in the middle of a cross street, managing four streams of traffic, of which the vehicles can go in twelve lawful directions (if you count round the corners); while there is sure to be a cabby trying variations. Also he has to take nervous women across the street and save them in spite of themselves.
The London policeman wears two breast-pockets on his tunic (this is a hint for Australian artists), and I think the pockets would be an improvement to the uniforms of the "traps" of a certain city I know—with, in one pocket, a small book in big type, "Defoe" style for preference, setting forth the virtues of common civility, and, in the other, a book which would explain to the Bobby, in language fitted to his comprehension, that he is a servant of the people, and not a recruiting agent for the gaols.
In my next letter I'll tell you about St. Paul's, the Abbey, and the Tower, and a good many other things.
Letters to Jack Cornstalk
From an Australian in London
England, December, 1900.
DEAR JACK,—In my last letter I promised to tell you something about St. Paul's, the Tower, and those places. You remember the story of a rising young Australian politician who came home (how glibly the "home" comes!)—who came home on business, stayed some months, and went back without having seen either Westminster Abbey or the Tower, and without having been once inside the British House of Commons. He saw St. Paul's—he couldn't very well have dodged it. We couldn't understand his constitution at the time, but I think I realize the thing now. You see, we have come so far to see the big, old, or otherwise wonderful (or eccentric) things that we've been hearing about since childhood, and they are so near that we experience that feeling of dullness or disinterestedness that comes after long waiting, or expectation, and just before the climax. Besides, we come from the land o' lots of time and bring the atmosphere of it with us, round ourselves; so we reckon we'll just take things easy to-day and go and do the Abbey or one of those places to-morrow—take
a full day for it. I wouldn't be surprised to know that hundreds come from Australia to London, stay some time, and go away without having seen anything to talk about.
If you come to make a living in London it doesn't do to lean up against the Post of To-morrow. Rent days fly round and bills fly in. Your landlady, if you board and have apartments, meets you with a smile of anticipation before you know where you are, and they all think that because you came from Australia you must have plenty of money. You can't take a supply of tea, sugar and flour and pitch your camp down the creek, where there's plenty of wood and water, and take a fortnight to think over things. No; you must hustle round. You can live about as cheaply or as expensively as you like in London, but you've got to find those things out before you blue your cheque. You can't borrow a few quid from your mate Jim, or Bill, and take another week or so waiting for something to turn up. A Sydney University boy of my acquaintance came "home" about two years ago to make a living in London with his pen, and he took things easy for a while. Now he answers letters by return post, with perhaps a letter-card following his letter, and containing something which he forgot to say in the letter; and I have known him to dash off a postcard by the same post with something of importance on it which he forgot to mention in the letter-card. When he arrived he wore comfortable clothes and a soft felt hat; now he wears a frock-coat, a top-hat, gloves, a stick, a card-case, a pair of glasses to nip on to his nose with a spring, and all the rest of it. When he has an appointment you'll see him burst out of the front door and rush down the street, jerking his watch out every few yards, his coat tails flying and his top-hat lowered like a battering-ram. It's a wonder he doesn't telescope into that hat against something.
He is a good magazine writer, and a grand chap personally; and when I get him quiet for an hour he's just the same old chap I knew in Sydney. He has had a gruelling which he will never forget. Some day I'll tell you about his life in London—the tragedy of it scared me. Talk about heroes!
But where was I? Oh, about St. Paul's and those places. I went through St. Paul's because I found myself on the steps and couldn't think of anywhere else to go just then. I went through the Art Gallery and the Abbey because my literary friend rushed me round and through those places. I must go and see for myself later on.
St. Paul's is one of those places which are built too big, in a way, to look large. Looming out of London, it does not appear more imposing than a big corrugated iron shed looming out of the lonely scrubs Out Back in Australia, and certainly less impressive when you are properly impressed (or rather oppressed) by the extent and loneliness of the mighty Bush.
I haven't seen the ruins of ancient lands—probably they would impress me; but as far as I have seen of the works of modern man, I can't help thinking that when he sets to work to build a great, useless building with an eye to bigness only he succeeds in putting up a perishable monument to his own paltriness and the littleness of all his works. And the monument is usually an obstruction to the air, the view, and the traffic—a square with a fountain would be far better there. There's a lot more sense in an ant-hill than in St. Paul's. When man builds a big thing like St. Paul's or St. Peter's, he builds so high that when he wants to put stone josses—I mean statues—on the walls and in the niches, and pictures up round inside, he has to make representations of giants—monsters—else they wouldn't be visible to people on the pavement or floor. And of what use is the result? You've got to study relative distance and heights—say, the size of a man as against the size of the building—in order to get some idea of the "vastness" of the work or structure, and when you have got it of what use is it to you? When a dome swells as big as the dome of St. Paul's it suggests a silly attempt to rival the dome of the sky—and there you are.
Mind I am not writing with the idea of pulling down everything that's up in theory without suggesting anything in its place. Have patience with me for a while. Neither am I going to use the worn-out argument that the millions spent on these buildings would feed and clothe thousands who are starving and in rags. The great majority of mankind would not be content for a month unless they were slaves; and so why abuse the few who will not be slaves, at least not slaves from a worldly point of view—who escape from being slaves to man, either by making money and sticking to it or by blowing out their brain matter.
I've seen buildings in Australia and elsewhere of less than half the size of St. Paul's, which look much more imposing—the Hotel Australia in Sydney, for instance, or the Yankee insurance offices next the G.P.O.; but then in one case we have unbroken height, and in the other fresh clean granite and freestone work. In the guide-book pictures St. Paul's stands out complete—as in the guide-book pictures of most buildings in the world. There is an atmosphere suggestive of wide spaces—of asphalt walks and gardens running out a mile or two in any direction. This is one of the apparently useless lies of civilization—but I suppose it's born of commercialism, like most other lies—a little branch line lie of commercialism. You don't see much of St. Paul's in London—it is so crowded by buildings nearly as grimy and dingy as itself. A coat of soot round the lower part of the building hides the fine or graceful lines which may be in the stone work, and throws the columns—which should stand out clean and defined—flat against the inner wall; also it reduces the height of the building. The upper half of the building is a dirty, rain-washed white, and the soot is washed in streaks down over the ledges. I remember a black cliff in a corner of the coast in New Zealand with a cave in it and a round tussock hill on the top; on the upper ledges of the cliff millions of sea-birds were in the habit of roosting. St. Paul's, from a distance, reminds me of that cliff.
A Londoner tells me that by and by I'll look at St. Paul's and other London things, and be ready to kick myself to think I was so foolish as to write as I am writing now. If I do, I'll say so—and probably kick myself. I have so often had occasion to kick myself that I am getting hardened to it.
This Londoner says that he'll go past St. Paul's every day for nine days and see nothing in it, but on the tenth day he'll look up and have a feeling. I suppose when I go back to Sydney and see the General Post Office or the Town Hall, I'll have a feeling too—because of many things; but when I was in Sydney I passed those buildings nearly every day for years, and the only feeling I had was one of resentment, called up by the vicinity of a cheap restaurant in which I did a six months' perish in other and braver years. Different billets make men look at things in different ways.
English home people are remarkable for their invulnerable common sense, but they allow the appearance of an awful lot of senseless idolatry in London. And worse!—there is in London a fashionable dog graveyard—headstones and all complete—and on one of those headstones the fashionable bereaved one expresses a hope that she'll meet her darling in heaven. But I didn't mean to touch on that; I'm not ready for it yet. Such things excite me.
I take off my hat and go into St. Paul's (you have to take off your hat, and that fact is pregnant). I take off my hat and go into St. Paul's, expecting to be impressed and awed—and wishing to be. I think it's a very good and hopeful thing to be impressed, and to feel a reverence for something in these shallow cowardly days of a false feeling of manliness, and of the sex problem. But the interior of St. Paul's does not impress me; it suggests to me an imitation of the interior of some older and larger building which I haven't seen yet. The statuary, of white marble, is so smoked that it suggests at once cheap plaster casts coated with grey or stone-coloured paint to preserve and keep them together. This after the pure white marble in Sydney gardens.
There is a sprinkling of people on a regiment of seats in the centre, under the dome, between the shafts, and the organ is playing. I am not educated to classical or organ music. I suppose that if I were to hear a good voice now, singing "Bonnie Doon," or "Annie Laurie" or "Mary of Argyle," or any of those old songs, I'd feel nice and miserable. Those are the sort of tunes that impress me. To me the volume of the organ of St. Paul's does not seem greater than that of the Sydney organ—the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere. But I remember what I said in my last letter about not seeing the contrast between a great thing and a small thing of the same kind seen previously.
I go round one side of the nave behind the shafts and meet a spectral figure in a black gown—a man who looks as if he's just come out of the hospital—and he closes a wicket noiselessly and raises a ghostly hand against me—as if there's some one dying up there. He doesn't impress me at all. He might impress the majority, but he impresses me least of anything in St. Paul's. I think he ought to be swept up and taken away in the dust cart.
I go back and round the other way and try to get impressed by the sculpture, and the following groups in succession is what I see (according to notes taken on the spot, while another convalescent in a black gown looked as if he'd expire before they got him back to the hospital)—
Major-General Andrew Hay.—Officer in uniform falling sideways, in most awkward position, and supported awkwardly by big, naked man on left (why naked?), who holds the Major-General as if he's got something in his hands in which he is not interested, and which he doesn't know what to do with. Supporter seemingly blind and sea-sick; lips suggest exhausted disgust. If he has any expression at all, it is the expression of a tired man who is doing a useless and idiotic thing, and knows it, and can't help himself. On the right stands the figure of a private, holding his chin and looking as if he is sorry he got the Major into his present fix. In the background to the right the usual squeezed-out little row of wooden undersized soldiers charging. The rank looks as if it's skewered.
Sir Thomas Picton.—Dressed as Alexander the Great, or something, with a property helmet on and little else. Inevitable angel handing him a wreath across the head of a lion. Lion looks currishly, maliciously inclined to bite because the wreath isn't meat. Behind Sir Thomas, and leaning familiarly on his shoulder, a naked girl, with wings on, stands cross-legged; she has a woolly head, and all the points of a third-rate Sydney barmaid in the old sub-letting days.
Lord Rodney.—Figure of Lord Rodney up in the background. Angel standing on right, with hand thrown back towards Rodney's waistcoat, and dictating to angel on left, who sits with a book and pencil, and looks up at angel No. i as if to ask, "You surely don't want me to write down that?" The whole suggests the designing of a new uniform on a tailor's dummy.
Lord Rodney wears the indignant and dignified expression of a local magnate who is stopped by a beggar in his own grounds. Sir Thomas Picton wears something more like a string of small sausages bunched up than a beard, and an expression of quiet annoyance. Others regard their angels with looks more or less pained and idiotic, though some of the expressions would be natural to men accosted by strange ladies wearing wings.
Now, let any intelligent Englishman who reads this go into St. Paul's and look at these groups, and decide as to whether the sculptors were impudent humbugs, or I'm one.
How contemptible this "art" would seem by the side of the statue of Burke and Wills (the Australian explorers) in Melbourne, or of Bobbie Burns in Ballarat (the statue with a twinkle in the eye), or a hundred others in Australia.
Talking of statues, there is often, from one point of view, an unforeseen effect which is not possible in pictures—a point of a cocked hat, for instance, which suggests a beak, or a rapier sticking out behind, and giving the figure a tail. There is in the statue of Lord Nelson, on a tall column in Trafalgar Square, an effect which is greatly admired by the Americans who patronize Morley's Hotel on the Strand side of the Square. There is a similar—or even more so—effect in the statue of Captain Cook in Sydney, seen from one point of view. It's strange that these things are never foreseen. The sculptors must have had a rough time amongst their friends.
The Misguide Book says: "Generally speaking, the monuments in the Cathedral are more interesting from personal associations than from great artistic merit but some of the groups display vigorous action, and the likenesses are well preserved," etc., etc. You've read the same sort of stuff before. If the likenesses are preserved, then most of the heroes must have been born idiots. From my point of view, most of the statuary in St. Paul's is crude and—no, not theatrical—it doesn't even deserve that term. Reversing time, I would say that it belongs to the concert hall, living-picture school—the whole business has a concert-hally atmosphere. And I needn't have reversed time either, for the sentiment of the British Empire of to-day is popular concert hall sentiment. We can't get any lower, and that's some comfort.
When I look at a stone angel I mostly see a shallow-brained, soulless artist or sculptor's model in part of a sheet, and with a pair of wings. The stone angel business has been carried to a sickening extent in St. Paul's. If it were not so concert-hally, and thus beneath contempt, I would call it—well, Jack, I would call it blasphemy—and you know I'm no saint. To see everywhere crude angels in stone in senseless attendance on stone gods supposed to represent dead heroes, who were only lucky to be leaders, who were no braver than thousands who fought under them, and some of whom were greater cowards in domestic life than the majority. As our friend, the shearer's cook at Come-by-Chance Station, used to say, "There's more money and sympathy wasted over dead an' rotten humbugs than there is common justice done to straight honest living men." It's the way of all the world, and all time. Make gods of the dead! Crucify the living.
If a man's name cannot live in the history of a nation it cannot live in a stone idol.
Londoners admit that the statuary in St. Paul's is notoriously bad. Then why is it there? Why is it not broken up and buried, and something sensible put in its place? Or is it an object lesson of the times when conceited, untalented humbugs, with nothing but "cheek" to recommend them, got by influence and court favour large sums of the public money for spoiling marble, while men who had the genius to put life and sense in stone were left to starve and eat their hearts out in garrets, or drink themselves to hell in wine cellars?
There is no escape from a superstition called Wren in London. Going round with my literary friend the other day, he pointed and said—
"Do you see that spire?"
"Perfect! by Wren."
The spire looked all right—anyway, I couldn't suggest any alteration on the spot. Looking at it later on, I had to admit that it was beautiful.
By and by he pointed to another spire.
"See that spire?"
It did look ugly. After a while he pointed again.
"See that spire?"
"By Wren—perfect. Slightly different in design from the other."
There was a slight difference. Later on we came to Westminster Abbey.
"See that tower?"
"Restored by Wren. But—" (he hesitated), "but the top doesn't somehow seem——"
It didn't seem to fit the bottom. That's what he meant. But he was too much a Londoner, and too great a worshipper of Wren, to see where the trouble was. I think I saw it at once. Wren had simply taken the tops of four spires he had on hand and put one on each corner of the tower. If ever a pun was justified, Wren was an inspired man. He wasn't a tower man, and in restoring the Abbey he wasn't laying to his book. He was working on his reputation—or, maybe, he was hard up at the time.
I'll take you into Westminster Abbey when I'm in a more cheerful frame of mind.
Letters to Jack Cornstalk
From an Australian in London
A MIDLAND VILLAGE
England, January, 1901.
DEAR JACK,—When I came to England I took a house in a fair-sized, old and new fashioned village, not fifty miles from London. I came down here to get my breath after the voyage, and have a quiet think, and talk things over with myself quietly before tackling London in earnest. The village is, as I say, a new-old-fashioned one. Along one side of the village street is a row of old elms, and behind them a row of old-fashioned cottages, and an inn called the Blue Lion, with thatch two feet thick, and a gravelled footpath. On the other side are no trees, but a row of modern shops, such as you'd see in any decent suburb in an Australian city, with a kerbed, asphalt pavement. All round on the high ground are modern villas, detached, semi-detached, and several in a row, from the £35 a-year cottage (rates and taxes included) to the £90 or £100 house. If you take a £25 to £30 cottage, you are known as those or them new people in that house; if you take a £50 to £60 house, you are the new people in Blank Villa; if you take a £90 or £100 house, you are Mr. and Mrs. Brown-Jones (or whatever your name may be).
The country is undulating and covered with fields and hedge-rows, with parks and little woods here and there, and brooks and streams along the bottoms, that run by old brick- ways under little old-fashioned hamlets, and under the corners of decayed buildings, which might have been mills at one time; and in unexpected places in the corners of the hedges are little, very old-fashioned inns, with fixed benches and tables outside, and sanded and saw-dusted floors in the bar and taprooms, and ingle-nooks and window-seats, where customers drink, and think (if they do think), and talk—do anything but dress—pretty much as they did fifty or a hundred years ago.
The village has a big common, but the common is rather a painful place, for it is frequented every day by nursemaids with babies in perambulators, and by serious-looking individuals wheeling invalids in chairs; and when you see the baby in the perambulator beside the broken-up old party in the chair, you are apt to think of the years that go between, and ponder drearily on the futility of human life. Also troops of slum children are brought down here, now and again, for an airing, and somehow it makes me feel sadder to see them on the grass and in the sunshine for one day—and to think it's only for one day—than it would to see them in their native gutters every day for a year.
You can walk out in any direction by the country roads, and round back home; and when you get tired of walking by the narrow roads worn deep between the hedges, and seeing nothing, you can climb out and follow the field-paths. The field-roads are very narrow, barely wide enough for one vehicle; so, I was told, that if a farmer proposes to take a cart down one of these roads, he advertises the fact amongst his neighbours a week beforehand, to lessen the possibility of his meeting another cart halfway, in which case the farmer with the least moral or physical backbone might have to back his horse for miles, and that would mean inconvenience and loss of time to both sides, and possibly break up an old and convenient borrowing-and-lending friendship.
It is a very pretty place, and I only saw one blot on the scenery round here. It stands at the top of a slope in the background of as pretty a piece of rural scenery as you could imagine, and it is a big black board on which, painted in staring white letters, are the words:—
SPRATT'S DOG BISCUITS USED."
The population of the village is aristocratic, "well-to-do," "better-class" shopkeeping, mechanic and bucolic. The village is what we might call a "tourist town" in Australia. "Better-class" and "well-to-do" people take houses and bring their families down here for the summer. Some stay all the year round, but I don't know whether these are of the well-to-do or of the better-class people. I've heard of a "middle-class" in England, but not down here—perhaps the term "middle-class" is too vulgar for this village. Some do not even stay all the summer, but go away quietly towards the middle or the end of the quarter. I've heard shopkeepers refer to these as swindlers. There's a boarding-house or two, kept by workmen's wives. There are. several ladies in £25-£30 houses, who let apartments. The husband of one (we stayed with her till our house was ready) is a mechanic in the City, who comes home once or twice a week disguised as a business man; his wife lives in hourly dread of his real occupation becoming known in the village—and all the neighbours know it.
There are other ladies, in £30-£50 houses, who take in "paying guests." One, a widow with a small income, who might be comfortable in a cottage, but who has two grown daughters, who mustn't soil their hands, and must have accomplishments and genteel society, is struggling, with the assistance of "paying guests," to keep up an appearance in a big house. She had the bailiff in last week.
I came in touch with the bucolic element first. I was nearly a week rescuing my luggage from the Mudland Railway Company. The trouble is, I believe, that most of the trains are in such a hurry that they haven't always time to take in luggage, or, having got it aboard, they haven't time to put it out. Anyway, after waiting four days, one of the carriers (he was an intelligent type of workman) told me that my luggage was at the station. I inquired at the office, but they knew nothing about it; they told me that it might be over in the shed in the yard, so I went over there. In the shed I found a fresh-faced, unemotional youth, who wore an expression as if he were pondering deeply over a complete absence of ideas. There also seemed a something, as of resentment, in his expression, but this I believe was unconscious. I recognized him at once, or rather his type; I had met him as a loutish new chum working on Australian farms; I had come across him Out Back in Australia, "getting colonial experience" (though I could never conceive him as being capable of absorbing experience of any kind). Travel doesn't change him—strange lands and adventure make no impression on his mind. He is just as bucolic and undemonstrative camping out under the great star on the mighty plains of the never never, and comes home with no more ideas than he would have had he only gone to the next village for a day. He is not confined to England. He is not intentionally boorish nor uncivil, for if he does leave a question unanswered now and again it is only because the question fails to convey an impression to his alleged mind—or he needs time. Repeat the question two or three times if necessary, with decent intervals, and, above all, give him time. But, anyway, you can't hurry him.
The youth in the shed was cleaning out the place. He worked on for a few minutes, apparently totally unconscious of my intrusion; but I gave myself time to soak in—I gave him fifteen minutes; then I stated my name and asked if my boxes had come. He rubbed the top of his head, and looked slowly round the shed, which was nearly empty; then presently he got an idea, and asked me what I said my name was.
I told him again, and spelled it. The spelling of it seemed to rouse him a little. He looked round the shed again, and in through the window of a storeroom that was locked, and up in the loft, and under the floor. I had looked myself, and told him so, but he persisted in looking. Then he asked me what my boxes were like.
I described them to him several times during the interview, at his own request. The boxes were of unusual size and shape, and there would be no mistaking them; yet he persisted in pulling out empty fruit-boxes, and barrels, and bits of machinery from amongst the rubbish, and asking me whether "any of them was them." He looked at the label on a crate full of straw, and the name on it only differed in the matter of three letters from mine. He pulled that out at once, and wanted to know if it was mine. I am not sure now that I really convinced him that it wasn't. Then I had a happy thought—I should have had it before.
"Are you in charge of this shed?" I asked—and I waited.
"No," he said, "I ain't."
"Is there a man in charge?" I asked—and gave him time.
"Yes," he said slowly, "there is."
"Can I see him?"
"Well—you might see him—if you want to."
"And where is he?"
"Oh! he's up the yard, he is."
I went up the yard and found the man in charge, and got him to admit it. He might have been the youth that I'd left in the shed, suddenly grown several years older, but otherwise little changed.
He knew nothing about the luggage, but agreed to have a look at the books. We came across the name which had a syllable in it sounding like one in mine, and that delayed us a little; then he went to have a look in the shed, and I left him looking. I hunted up the carrier again, and consulted him; he was positive that he had seen my luggage arrive; and next day I found it under a tarpaulin in a truck up the yard. The yard manager didn't seem in the least surprised. He asked me which truck it was, and I took him to it and showed him the luggage. He regarded the boxes with drowsy interest, looked at the address, also the old shipping labels, and asked me if them boxes was mine. I assured him that they were. I asked him what the next move would be.
He thought a while.
"Do you want them boxes?" he asked.
He thought for a long time, then said he'd see the carrier about them, if I liked.
I privately resolved to see the carrier myself, and get the boxes away at once, else some train might get hold of that truck by mistake and take it on to Scotland. I suggested that there might be some papers in the office, which would give me some idea of the charges, and which I might have to sign. He agreed that that was likely, and walked back to the office with me. On the way back he said, as if an idea got into his head somehow and he wanted it settled one way or the other—
"You come from abroad, don't you?"
"Yes; I come from Australia."
Presently he said in a tired, disinterested tone—
"I thought you come from abroad."
I sounded him as deep as he went, but "Abroad" was the nearest that he could get to Australia.
And I couldn't help thinking, "And are these of the people we're fighting for?"
I've had rare opportunities for studying the British shopkeeper in all his glory. I had taken a £30 house, but it soon got round that I came from abroad, or Australia, so of course I must have plenty of money. On the evening of the day we shifted into the house there came a knock at the front door, and I went to open it—we hadn't captured a maid yet. I saw a decently-dressed, respectable-looking man backing out towards the gate, and I asked him if he wanted me.
"I must apologize, sir, for coming to the front gate, sir," he said nervously, still backing out.
"Why?" I asked.
By this time he'd got to the gate, and I couldn't catch what he said—I'm rather deaf, you know. I didn't seem able to coax him nearer, so I told him to wait while I called the wife. When she came down he'd disappeared. We stood wondering awhile, and presently the wife heard a timid knock at the back door, and we went there. It was the man—he'd slipped in and round while my back was turned. He had his hat off, and looked very apologetic.
"I really must beg yer pardon, ma'am," he said, "for coming to the front door——"
"Why?" she asked.
"I'm very sorry, ma'am," he said hurriedly; "but you see, I wasn't sure that there was any one in the house yet. I'll always come to the back door in the future."
It turned out that he was a grocer's man, and his boss had been recommended to us by an Anglo-Australian acquaintance of ours in the village.
"Would you be pleased to give an order, ma'am?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," said the wife.
"Thank yer, ma'am," he said briskly, getting out his pocket-book and pencil. "What would you be pleased to want, ma'am ? I'll take it down, ma'am."
She gave the order from a list she had.
"Three pounds of loaf-sugar."
Grocer's man, taking it down, "Thank yer, ma'am."
"Three pounds of moist."
"Thank yer, ma'am!"
"One pound of fresh butter."
"Thank yer, ma'am!"
"Two pounds of rice."
"One packet of Sunlight soap."
"Two pieces of blue."
And so on with the soda, starch, borax, etc., to the end of a long list.
"Anything more, mum?"
"No, that's all."
He begged pardon again for coming to the front door, took off his hat, and got away out of that.
Next evening the milkman mistook the wife for the maid, and growled about being kept waiting. He's been conscience-stricken and apologetic ever since. The wife, who is sympathetic, feels really sorry for him.
My hobby, as you know, is carpentering, and I often go to the shops for gimlets, bradawls, screws, nails and glue, and such like; and, in the absence of a maid, I frequently went small errands to the grocer for pounds of butter or candles and the like. I usually dress in the rough Sunday sac suit I wore in the Bush, and wear a slouch hat, and not unfrequently a coloured shirt; but I came from abroad, you know, and must have plenty of money—it's Australian fashion to dress as I do, so I might be an earl at least by the way the village shopkeeper bows and smiles and squirms when I come into his shop.
I had at first the greatest difficulty in the world to rescue my small purchase from those shopkeepers; they didn't seem to understand that I was capable of carrying anything heavier than my hands, or had ever been in the habit of doing so. They couldn't understand why, if I bought a packet of tacks that I wanted to use at once, or a pound of starch that the wife was waiting for, I preferred to carry it home with me and have done with the business.
"We would send it up at once," they'd protest; "the man is going directly."
"Now look here!" I said one day to one of them. "You mustn't go by appearances." (He bowed with humility.) "I'm not so delicate as I might look; I'm thin, but most Australians are—I'm thin, but I'm wiry." (He bowed again.) "I've been used to hard work" (they call "graft" work in England); "I've camped out all winter in a tent on a telegraph line in New Zealand; I've probably done more hard graft than any man in this village, and as for walking and carrying, I've tramped five hundred miles at a trip in the drought, across some of the driest and hottest country Out Back in Australia, and carried a heavy swag and a load of sorrow all the way." (He bowed.) "And now," I said, "can't you understand that I'm able and willing to carry home that quarter of a pound of borax? My wife is waiting for it; it won't hurt me. I'll get home sooner than your man can, and you can save him to send to a weaker customer. Now, be sensible; it will save you trouble, and save me trouble, and save up your man, and save my wife inconvenience. She'll want to argue with me if I go home without that borax I—promised to bring it home—don't make me break my word! What's the matter with the arrangement, anyway?"
He bowed and smiled in a scared sort of a way; my speech didn't seem to convey the ghost of an understanding to his mind; but he let me have the borax—or rather I got out of the shop with it before he pulled himself together.
There's a grocer just round the corner from where we live; he is newly started in business; his prices are reasonable, and it would be convenient for us to deal with him, but he is a white-haired, whey-faced, abject man with pinkish eyes, and it's too painful to go into his shop. We've been there twice, and I think that if we went a third time, or gave him an order, he'd collapse, and I'd have to gather him up from the floor. And the hand-rubbing, and the writhing, and the sickly smirk of him! The British shopkeeper's smile is enough to warn off a Bushman first thing. They straighten up pretty quick when they strike a bad debt.
I went to the draper's and got a pair of gloves as a present for the wife. They insisted on sending them, so I gave in, and told the draper to send them in a van. He bowed. I asked him to send them in the best and showiest vehicle he had, if he had more than one. He bowed, and said he would. And he did. I don't think the van belonged to him—he must have borrowed or hired it. Perhaps he bought it on the strength of a new customer.
But I had hopes then. I thought I detected, in the sending of the van, the action of a sly, dry humorist—a "joker" or "hard case," as we'd call him in the Bush; so I determined to cultivate that draper, and if possible get him to come up to my place some time of an evening, and help me to keep from feeling homesick. But I was mistaken and disappointed; he probably had less humour in him than any other man in the village.
It is cut-throat competition that does it—makes crawlers of beings who might have been men had they had the brains or courage to emigrate. These shopkeepers will do anything, short of crawling and grovelling at your feet, while they hope to gain your patronage, and while they think you're safe; but let trouble come to your home—they are at you like crows round a dying sheep in the Bush, though the bill be but a few shillings. They have no souls, and have learned no mercy. They know no middle level; they cannot meet you as man to man, as in Australia; they must either crawl or bully. No Australian could help feeling a hearty contempt for the average British shopkeeper. In a village like this they do all in their power to overreach their rivals; they hate each other, and yet they are all informers amongst themselves. They will supply and cheat a customer for years, and the moment they think he is going down they stop credit, and inform their rivals of his trouble. If you have a dispute and close accounts with one of them, he will often take revenge by hinting doubts of your solvency to the others.
This is plain truth. But something more must be said in truth and justice. In the Bush—take your own town of Come-by-Chance, for instance; the shopkeepers have a hard enough job to pull through; they will dump your groceries down at the front door, and growl if you growl, and swear if you swear, and sometimes call you by your Christian name; but if you're honestly hard-up, they'll say, "Oh! come up to the store and get what you want, and settle up when you can." But here in England, where people do not move about as in Australia (where the husband's work, if he is a shearer or drover, might take him away five hundred or a thousand miles, and for a year); here in England they cannot trust, not the workman, but the respectable middle class, better class, well-to-do class, independent class, or whatever you like to call them. And why? Because of the curse of England—the ghastly struggle to "keep up appearances"—because, if the tradesman is not sharp, Mrs. So-and-so will very likely spend the money that So-and-so owes him on a stylish, useless piece of furniture, which she must have or burst, because Mrs. Somebodyelse has just bought one like it.
The houses and villas round here are very much like what you'd see at Mosman, North Sydney, or any other well-to-do Australian suburb. I can see little difference between the street I'm living in and the street I lived in in North Sydney. But outside we have fields and hedges in the place of bare fences, brown paddocks, and dreary, monotonous, endless scrubs, as round about Come-by-Chance. This is a pretty place, and a healthy place, and a bright place all summer, and the well-to-do people ought to be happy; but I believe that they are the most miserable people on the face of God's earth. It's all on account of the struggle to keep up the appearance of being twice as well off as they are.
We'll suppose that the "better class people" are tradesmen's families, mechanics, and others, who have risen in the world. We'll lump those known as "well-to-do" and "independent" people together—we'd call 'em all the middle classes in Australia, but "middle class" is only a vulgar term used by ignorant colonial democracy and bloated aristocrats. I don't know anything about the aristocrats of this village; they are driven up to the station at the last moment in dog-carts or carriages, and ushered into a first-class carriage with as much celerity and sympathetic respect as if they were royal families, and that's about all you see of them.
About a hundred of the City men, who have their families down here, go up to London every morning and come home at night. They travel third-class, and there is much of a muchness between them. They don't talk —perhaps they can't. Ten men can travel for two hours in a train without one saying a word to another. If you try to talk to them, they read a paper. This is English reserve, or English boorishness, or English suspicion, or English ignorance—whatever you like to call it. If you try to talk to them, they treat you as if you were a swindler trying to get them to take shares in a rotten concern.
I can't say whether middle and upper class Englishmen are reserved because they are shy, or because, as Dooley says, they have nothing to say. Come to think of it, I think that Dooley is right. Englishmen know nothing beyond their own little selfish and paltry little commercial world, and they have the intelligence to know that they know nothing, therefore they keep their mouths shut. Maybe it is unconscious instinct which makes them do this. And perhaps it's an instinctive knowledge of their own world-ignorance which goads them to hector people who are in a lower station of life, and whom they suppose to be more ignorant than they are themselves, and so keep up some appearance of intellectual superiority. Possibly Englishmen are silent because, when they are not thinking money, they are either brooding over the fact that the world thinks them boorish, or keeping up their reputation for being reserved. However, there are plenty of exceptions in London—though I don't know how they got there.
Englishmen—younger sons or sons of families who have spent their money to keep up appearances—ne'er-do-wells—anyway, Englishmen who came out to Australia and drift into the Bush (provided they are not old men), soon lose their reserve, and become grand fellows humorous, sympathetic and open-handed—the best we have.
Our street is furnished partly on the time-payment system, and partly (and furtively) second-hand; so the furniture is either gimcrack or full of white ants. It is fashionable or genteel and uncomfortable, and most of it useless—plain comfortable furniture would cost less than half the price. The villa ladies are wearing out their lives (and souls, if they have any) in the ghastly struggle to "keep up appearances." They talk of nothing but their servants. They never work themselves—only worry, whine, and lie, and grow more selfish every day—consequently they are frequently ill. They treat their servants like dogs—often stint and half-starve the girl who has to do the work, and therefore really needs the best, and most food, because every penny that can be "saved out of the servant" is needed to "keep up appearances." Consequently it is hard to get servants here—the girls prefer to go into factories. One lady I know, a big, strong, childless, discontented woman, recently dismissed her servant because said servant refused to address her as "Mistress" and her husband as "Master", instead of Mrs. Blank and Mr. Blank. Then the lady had to do her housework for three days, when she broke down; she has had the doctor ever since.
The servants, as far as my experience goes, are honest, healthy-minded, and rather more intelligent than their mistresses. I have talked to some of them! Yes, actually placed myself on a level with common servants. I suppose it's about the lowest-down thing I could do in this village. But it seems quite right and fashionable to talk about servants, to lie about them, and scandalize them behind their backs over four o'clock teas.
I've been introduced to the broad-minded intelligence of this village. There is an artist acquaintance of mine here—a black and white artist, cursed, as usual, with an idea that he can paint. He has no children, and makes a comfortable income, but his wife says that they must keep up appearances; so whenever they get a cheque the best part of it has to go for rubbish in the furnishing line. But that's neither here nor there. The other day he gave a private view of his pictures, and invited me to meet some intelligent "well-to-do" or independent people, who he said were broad-minded and unaffected—very "nice people" indeed. He said I'd be sure to like them; so I went. The visitors were a married couple, tall and thin; the husband wore a frock-coat and was very English. He told me that he understood that Australians were very unconventional in Australia; that was the only idea he seemed to have (if it was an idea). Whenever my friend put a picture on the easel the lady would clap her hands and exclaim—
"How jolly!" or "Isn't that jolly!" or "Oh, Edward! Isn't that jolly!" Sometimes they'd both say it together.
My friend put up a picture called "Sad Autumn."
"Oh, isn't that jolly!"
He put up a picture labelled "The Death of Day."
He put up a picture of "A Village Churchyard in the Gloaming."
"Oh, isn't that jolly!"
If he'd had a picture of a disembowelled corpse, they'd have said it was jolly.
But neither the artist nor his wife could see it.
And I couldn't help wondering, "And are these of the people we fight for?"
There is a factory or two on the outskirts of the village—not staring and unsightly as in Australia, but back behind trees and hedges—and the work-people live in little rows and squares of cottages at the end of the village and "over the Common." The working people seem to me to be honest and healthy-minded, even humorous, and more intelligent than the well-to-do class. But I came across one who seemed to have less humour in him than the draper mentioned above. He is the village coachbuilder, a tall, thin man, with very hollow cheeks and thin red whiskers growing in the hollows. We struck up an acquaintance on the strength of the fact that an uncle of his had gone out to Australia in the early days and made money.
"And he came home, and paid all his debts, and went out again," said the coachbuilder, impressively.
I didn't seem impressed.
"He came a long way out of his track," I said.
"They respected him for it," said the coachbuilder severely.
I got a better opinion of creditors.
"And when he went back," said the coachbuilder triumphantly, " he took out nineteen relations with him!"
"How many?" I asked.
"Nineteen," said the coachbuilder.
I reckon I've got upwards of two hundred relatives in Australia, and if I make a pile in England I'll strongly advise them to stay where they are.
There's no getting away from the shopkeeping atmosphere in England. The village post and telegraph, savings' bank and money order office is in a toy and stationery shop, in a corner amongst the packages and shelves. Fancy this in Australia, where, in the smallest town, these offices, with the postmaster's residence attached, are in a substantial brick or stone building by themselves. But if the English public (especially those in London) will stand anything labelled "Company," there's no reason why they shouldn't stand anything marked "Government." By the way, I haven't noticed any politics here. I suppose this village, like most of its kind, gets its politics, as well as its newspaper, fixed up for it in London.
Our postmaster has the soul of a shopkeeper, and shows you novelties when you call for letters. And strange to say (or is it strange?) while he and his wife are servile as shopkeepers, they are mighty independent in their official capacity. They change quickly and draw the line very plain. The wants of the village in the way of maids, situations, houses to let or sublet, or wanted, are pasted up in the post office window, in the advertiser's own writing, at the rate of sixpence a week. You can read the domestic and business troubles of the village between the lines of these advertisements. Villagers study that window with interest—it is their newspaper. But then, as most of the servants are related, some way or other, the private affairs of half the villa ladies are public property already.
We've got a maid (they call servants "maids" in England); she isn't trained. When she applied for the place she stated that her mother was a respectable woman. She is as light and graceful as a cow, and stubbornly honest. All English country working people are obstinately and aggressively honest. The man is "a honest working man," and the woman is "a respectable woman," or "a respectable married woman," which last fact is stated and repeated and reiterated in almost every neighbourly row or outside dispute, no matter what the disagreement is about.
Our servant starts first thing in the morning by scrubbing the middle of the kitchen floor hard. If she overhears us say anything which she considers funny she chuckles out loud. When visitors are in we often hear a loud guffaw from the pantry or kitchen. She says "Hey!" or "What-say?" but I like her, and would rather have her than a girl who has been trained—that is, bullied and stinted, and suspected, and watched, until she is forced to become deceitful and sly in her own defence.
Our girl has been greatly troubled lately on her father's account; he is a gardener; he has not been taking his food, and is falling away in consequence, I understand.
"He's gettin' so narrer, Mrs. Lawson," says Amy; "he's nearly as narrer as Mr. Lawson."
You know I'm rather thin.
There are plenty of young people here amongst the working-classes who have never been in London in their lives.
We haven't been troubled much by callers. I believe that when strangers settle down here people leave their cards or call on them, to see what they're like and what sort of furniture they've got in the house, and whether the wife has a tea-gown, a maid, and a tea service, and what the service and the tea-gown are like; and to go out afterwards and tell their friends all they've found out or supposed. But I got an idea. I had some cheap curtains hung up to the front window, and that scared 'em. A few factory girls and eighteen-penny to half-crown a week slaveys go along our street sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, and when they catch sight of the curtains they squeak and giggle, and say— "O—oh! Look at the penny-a-yard curtings!"
It's very interesting—shows how the minds of the middle class are poisoning those of the working people. But the worship of appearance is spreading its poison over Australian cities.
I notice that it's the fashion for the ladies down here to grab their skirts up from the front when they walk out in wet weather; in London they grab themselves behind. Englishwomen strike me as being, in nature and appearance, hard, unsympathetic, selfish and ungraceful.
I haven't seen the parson yet. The old doctor is a very aristocratic old gentleman, who, if a member of your family happens to die, regards you in the light of a murderer because you sent for the young doctor and not for him.
The young doctor is a grand young fellow, a Scot, prematurely grey, whose wife was a nurse, and who is steadily working up a practice here by dint of hard graft.
The landladies of the two leading hotels are elderly ladies of severe aspect, and one of them has a moustache. It's a slow process getting drunk here, they are so deliberate about serving you.
The publican of one of the little inns in the hedges has a face that would do for the portrait of John Bull, if it had any expression at all. He is short and as broad as he is long, and looms outside his little inn on Sunday afternoon, looking at the weather. He walks slowly into the middle of the road, with a movement as if he had clockwork inside him, to get a view of the sky all round. Then he comes back and slowly delivers his judgment on the weather in bull-calf tones. He looks as if he has never been a mile from the village in his life. He sells "Coider" by the jugful.
The station master is a shy man with a fresh complexion and side whiskers.
The sergeant in charge of the police station is a good fellow, and, if you know him, you can go up to the station after closing time and have a nightcap with him.
The barber and tobacconist is a little Cockney, who attends on gentlemen and gentlemen's families at their own 'omes and sells tobacco by the hounce.
The village policeman is a heavy-footed countryman in uniform, who sees you home if you happen to have had a drop too much, and calls round next morning ostentatiously to ask "how the gentleman is?" but really to see if you have forgotten that you tipped him generously last night, and if so, to get another tip.
And that's about all at present, from yours truly.