Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home/Place I
George Hotel, Portsmouth, June 4, 1839.
My Dear C.,
Captain S.'s cutter took us off the ship this morning at nine o'clock. It was at last a sad parting from our messmates, with whom we have been for a month separated from all the world, and involved in a common destiny; and from the ship, which seems like a bit of home, for the feet of the friends we have left there have trodden it.
When I touched English ground I could have fallen on my knees and kissed it; but a wharf is not quite the locale for such a demonstration, and spectators operate like strait-jacketa upon enthusiasm, so I contented myself with a mental salutation of the home of our fathers, the native land of one of our dearest friends, and thee birthplace of "the bright, the immortal names" that we have venerated from our youth upward.
I forewarn you, my dear C., not to look for any statistics from me—any "Valuable information." I shall try to tell you truly what I see and hear; to "chronicle," as our friend Mr. Dewey says, "while they are fresh, my sensations." Everything looks novel and foreign to us: the quaint forms of the old, sad-coloured houses; the arched, antique gateways; the royal busts niched in an old wall; the very dark colouring of the foliage, and the mossy stems of the trees. We seem to have passed from the fresh, bright youth to the old age of the world. The form and colouring of the people are different from those of ours. They are stouter, more erect, and more sanguine.
Our friends Dr. M. and his wife have decided to remain with us while we stay here, so we make eight in all; and as we stand in the bow-window of the George, staring, wondering, exclaiming, and laughing, we must make a group of "homespuns just come up to town" worthy Cruikshank's pencil. And, by-the-way, the passing equipages appear to us the originals of Cruikshank's illustrations, and the parties driving in them fac-similes of Pickwick (the modern Don Quixote) and his club.
Basil Hall is living here. We have had some discussion whether we should recall ourselves to his memory by sending to him Mr. A.'s letter and our cards. We have no individual claims on him, and, as Americans, there is no love lost between us. R. cited Scott's opinion that it is uncivil to both parties not to deliver promptly a letter of introduction; so, submitting to such sound authority, Dr. M. has gone off to leave ours at Captain Hall's door, and then he will leave his card at ours, and there the matter will end.
We have been walking over the town, over the ramparts, and through some fine gravelled avenues shaded with elms. Don't fancy our elms, with their drooping embowering branches—no, nothing so beautiful—but what we call the English elm, with its upright, stiff stem. As we straggled on down a green lane, we saw a notice "To let furnished" on the gate of a very attractive-looking cottage; so, being seized with a happy inspiration (a natural one, you may think it, for pushing Yankees), we determined, as applicants for the tenement, to see the inside of an English cottage; so, going up a narrow paved walk, we rung for admittance. I asked a pretty, neatly-dressed woman who appeared to show me the premises, and kept my countenance in spite of my tittering followers, while we were shown through a dining-room, drawing-room, two kitchens, and five bedrooms, all small, and furnished with extreme neatness and comfort. All this, with a very pretty little garden, we might have, without linen or plate, for four guineas a week. There was a lovely little court, too, in front, filled with shrubs and flowers; not a thimbleful of earth that did not do its duty. No wonder the woman took us at our word, for I am sure we looked as if we would fain set up our rest there.
I afterward followed R. into the garden, and encountered the deaf husband of our neat matron-guide. He showed me a filbert grafted upon an apple-tree by a bird having deposited a seed there. I asked, "Had the filbert borne fruit?" "Four guineas a week, ma'am," he answered, "and it's counted a very 'ealthy hair!" We felt it was quite time to retreat.
When we came borne we found that Captain Hall, Mrs H., and some of their friends had left cards for us. "Very prompt," we thought; "and so this matter is done."
We ate with Dalgetty appetites our first English dinner: soup, salmon, mutton-chops, and everything the best of its land, and served as in a private gentleman's house, and, alas! with an elegance and accuracy found in few gentlemen's houses in our country. We have plenty of gentlemen, but gentlemen's servants are with us rare birds.
June 5. We feel green and bewildered, as you may imagine; and not knowing how to arrange our tour around the Isle of Wight, we were discussing it in some perplexity when Captain Hall and Mrs. H. were announced. They were just going off on a visit to the son of Wilberforce who is rector at Brixton; but Captain H. deciding at once that we must give the day to the Portsmouth lions, and that be would show them to us, deferred his departure till the evening; and the half hour before we set off was occupied in receiving a visit from Captain H.'s children and instructions from a friend of Mrs. Hall, well acquainted with the localities, as to our progress around the island. Captain H. left us no time for dawdling. He has been a lion-hunter, and understands the art of lion-showing, and, what I think rather the nicest part of the art, what not to show. Off we set towards the sally-port On the way we dropped into a Gothic church (a pretty episode enough) of the twelfth century. Captain H. pointed out a monument to Buckingham, Charles the First's favourite who, as you may remember, was killed by Felton at Portsmouth.
We were to go first to the Victory, which is now Kept here, "a kind of toy," as one of our seamen of the St. James said, but which, in fact, is something more than that—a receiving and drilling ship. We found a boat awaiting us, put (of course by Captain Hall's intervention) at our disposal by the commander of the Victory. It was manned with a dozen youngsters in the Victory's uniform, a white knit woollen blouse, with the word Victory in Maria-Louise-blue on the breast. They were stout, ruddy lads. The Victory, you know, is the ship in which Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar, and died in winning it. Captain H. led us to the quarter-deck, and showed us a brass plate inserted in the floor, inscribed with these words, "Here Nelson fell!" This was a thrilling sight to those of us who remembered when Nelson was held as the type of all gallantry, fighting for liberty against the world. R. was obliged to turn away till he could command bis emotions, and I thought of the time when we were all children together at home, and I saw him running breathless up the lane, tossing his hat into the air and shouting, "Nelson! Victory!" Truly, "the child is father to the man." We were received very courteously by the commander. Captain S., who invited us into an apartment which, save the ceiling was a little lower, had the aspect of a shore drawing-room; these were sofas, show-books, flowers, piano, and a prettier garniture than these, a young bride, reminding us, with her pale, delicate face and French millinery, of our fair young countrywomen—quite un-English. The Victory is Captain S.'s home, and the lady was his daughter.
We then went into the cockpit and groped our way to the dark, narrow state-room (a midshipman's) where Nelson was carried after he was shot down. Captain H. pointed to the beam where his head lay when he died. There a heroic spirit had passed away, and left a halo in this dark, dismal place. Place and circumstance are never less important to a man than when he is dying, and yet it was a striking contrast (and the world is full of such), the man dying in this wretched, dark, stifling hole, when his name was resounding through all the palaces of Europe, and making our young hearts leap in the New World. Shall I tell you what remembrance touched me most as I stood there? not his gallant deeds, for they are written in blood, and many a vulgar spirit has achieved such; but the exquisite tenderness gleaming forth in his last words, "Kiss me, Hardy!" These touched the chord of universal humanity.
Our next step was from the poetic-romantic to the actual, from the Victory to the biscuit-bakery, a place where biscuits are made for naval stores by steam. A police-man started out upon us "like a spider," as Captain H. very descriptively said, and announced that all ingress to the art and mystery of steam-baking was forbidden to foreigners; and we were turning away acquiescently, for the most curious of our party had two or three years ago seen the process in full blast in one of our Western States, but Captain Hall would not be so easily baffled. He was vexed that an old rule, fallen into general discredit, should be applied to a biscuit-bakery and "such branches of learning;" so he went to find the admiral, but he was not at his quarters; and no dispensation being to be had, he declared the biscuits "all sour." Very sweet we thought them the next morning when we received an amende most honourably in the shape of a note from Admiral Fleming, "regretting the disappointment Miss S. met with at the bakehouse, of which Captain Hail bad informed him" (I can imagine in what animated terms) "and which he would have prevented had he known her wishes," and concluding with saying, that, having heard from Captain Hall of our intention of visiting the Isle of Wight, he had the pleasure of offering his yacht for our conveyance. Now this was surely the true spirit of courtesy; and when this spirit he infused into international manners we may be called Christian nations, and not till then.
Well, the bakery being taboo, our conductor proposed we should next row off to the royal yacht by way of parenthesis in the day's doings. This yacht was built for George IV., and the fitting up, even to the pattern of the chintz, designed by bis majesty: truly a sitting occupation for the monarch of the greatest nation in the world! He had the ambition, I have known shared with him by some exquisite fine ladies, who cast away their gowns and burn their caps if they be imitated. The manufacturer gave a required pledge that the chintz of the royal yacht should never be copied. M. suggested it was not pretty enough, to make this a sacrifice on the part of the manufacturers. The yacht, however, is a bijou, the prettiest thing, I fancy, that has floated since Cleopatra's barge. The beds are wide and sumptuous, there are luxurious chairs and sofas, gilt pannelings, lamps with cable-chains and anchor-shaped ornaments, and a kitchen-range fit to serve an Apicius. There is a pretty library too, but I suspect his majesty's proportion of mental and corporeal provision was much alter Falstaff's fashion. R. remarked its incompleteness, and said to Captain H., "Our library in the St James is superior to this; it has your books."
If I could refresh you with the bottle of Madeira and plate of biscuits which Captain Hall contrived to conjure into the block manufactory, while a very clear-headed man was explaining to us its capital machinery, I might venture to drag you along with us through the rolling-mill and the Cyclops regions where the anchors are forged; but here I let you off for this busily pleasant day, at the moment of our parting with Captain Hall, and the interchange of hearty wishes that we might meet again in the Isle of Wight. What a host of prejudices and false judgments had one day's frank and kind intercourse dispersed to the winds—forever!