Tancred/Chapter XVI

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Tancred  (1847)  by Benjamin Disraeli
Chapter XVI. Tancred Rescues a Lady in Distress


Tancred Rescues a Lady in Distress

THAT is most striking in London is its vastness. It is the illimitable feeling that gives it a special character. London is not grand. It possesses only one of the qualifications of a grand city, size; but it wants the equally important one, beauty. It is the union of these two qualities that produced the grand cities, the Romes, the Babylons, the hundred portals of the Pharaohs; multitudes and magnificence; the millions influenced by art. Grand cities are unknown since the beautiful has ceased to be the principle of invention. Paris, of modern capitals, has aspired to this character; but if Paris be a beautiful city, it certainly is not a grand one; its population is too limited, and, from the nature of their dwellings, they cover a comparatively small space. Constantinople is picturesque; nature has furnished a sublime site, but it has little architectural splendour, and you reach the environs with a fatal facility. London overpowers us with its vastness.

Place a Forum or an Acropolis in its centre, and the effect of the metropolitan mass, which now has neither head nor heart, instead of being stupefying, would be ennobling. Nothing more completely represents a nation than a public building. A member of Parliament only represents, at the most, the united constituencies: but the Palace of the Sovereign, a National Gallery, or a Museum baptised with the name of the country, these are monuments to which all should be able to look up with pride, and which should exercise an elevating influence upon the spirit of the humblest. What is their influence in London? Let us not criticise what all condemn. But how remedy the evil? What is wanted in architecture, as in so many things, is a man. Shall we find a refuge in a Committee of Taste? Escape from the mediocrity of one to the mediocrity of many? We only multiply our feebleness, and aggravate our deficiencies. But one suggestion might be made. No profession in England has done its duty until it has furnished its victim. The pure administration of justice dates from the deposition of Macclesfield. Even our boasted navy never achieved a great victory until we shot an admiral. Suppose an architect were hanged? Terror has its inspiration as well as competition.

Though London is vast, it is very monotonous. All those new districts that have sprung up within the last half-century, the creatures of our commercial and colonial wealth, it is impossible to conceive anything more tame, more insipid, more uniform. Pancras is like Mary-le-bone, Mary-le-bone is like Paddington; all the streets resemble each other, you must read the names of the squares before you venture to knock at a door. This amount of building capital ought to have produced a great city. What an opportunity for architecture suddenly summoned to furnish habitations for a population equal to that of the city of Bruxelles, and a population, too, of great wealth. Mary-le-bone alone ought to have produced a revolution in our domestic architecture. It did nothing. It was built by Act of Parliament. Parliament prescribed even a façade. It is Parliament to whom we are indebted for your Gloucester Places, and Baker Streets, and Harley Streets, and Wimpole Streets, and all those flat, dull, spiritless streets, resembling each other like a large family of plain children, with Portland Place and Portman Square for their respectable parents. The influence of our Parliamentary Government upon the fine arts is a subject worth pursuing. The power that produced Baker Street as a model for street architecture in its celebrated Building Act, is the power that prevented Whitehall from being completed, and which sold to foreigners all the pictures which the King of England had collected to civilise his people.

In our own days we have witnessed the rapid creation of a new metropolitan quarter, built solely for the aristocracy by an aristocrat. The Belgrave district is as monotonous as Mary-le-bone; and is so contrived as to be at the same time insipid and tawdry.

Where London becomes more interesting is Charing Cross. Looking to Northumberland House, and turning your back upon Trafalgar Square, the Strand is perhaps the finest street in Europe, blending the architecture of many periods; and its river ways are a peculiar feature and rich with associations. Fleet Street, with its Temple, is not unworthy of being contiguous to the Strand. The fire of London has deprived us of the delight of a real old quarter of the city; but some bits remain, and everywhere there is a stirring multitude, and a great crush and crash of carts and wains. The Inns of Court, and the quarters in the vicinity of the port, Thames Street, Tower Hill, Billingsgate, Wapping, Rotherhithe, are the best parts of London; they are full of character: the buildings bear a nearer relation to what the people are doing than in the more polished quarters.

The old merchants of the times of the first Georges were a fine race. They knew their position, and built up to it. While the territorial aristocracy, pulling down their family hotels, were raising vulgar streets and squares upon their site, and occupying themselves one of the new tenements, the old merchants filled the straggling lanes, which connected the Royal Exchange with the port of London, with mansions which, if not exactly equal to the palaces of stately Venice, might at least vie with many of the hotels of old Paris. Some of these, though the great majority have been broken up into chambers and counting-houses, still remain intact.

In a long, dark, narrow, crooked street, which is still called a lane, and which runs from the south side of the street of the Lombards towards the river, there is one of these old houses of a century past, and which, both in its original design and present condition, is a noble specimen of its order. A pair of massy iron gates, of elaborate workmanship, separate the street from its spacious and airy court-yard, which is formed on either side by a wing of the mansion, itself a building of deep red brick, with a pediment, and pilasters, and copings of stone. A flight of steps leads to the lofty and central doorway; in the middle of the court there is a garden plot, inclosing a fountain, and a fine plane tree.

The stillness, doubly effective after the tumult just quitted, the lulling voice of the water, the soothing aspect of the quivering foliage, the noble building, and the cool and capacious quadrangle, the aspect even of those who enter, and frequently enter, the precinct, and who are generally young men, gliding in and out, earnest and full of thought, all contribute to give to this locality something of the classic repose of a college, instead of a place agitated with the most urgent interests of the current hour; a place that deals with the fortunes of kings and empires, and regulates the most important affairs of nations, for it is the counting-house in the greatest of modern cities of the most celebrated of modern financiers.

It was the visit of Tancred to the City, on the Wednesday morning after he had met Lord Eskdale, that occasions me to touch on some of the characteristics of our capital. It was the first time that Tancred had ever been in the City proper, and it greatly interested him. His visit was prompted by receiving, early on Wednesday morning, the following letter:

'Dear Tancred: I saw Sidonia yesterday, and spoke to him of what you want. He is much occupied just now, as his uncle, who attended to affairs here, is dead, and, until he can import another uncle or cousin, he must steer the ship, as times are critical. But he bade me say you might call upon him in the City to-day, at two o'clock. He lives in Sequin Court, near the Bank. You will have no difficulty in finding it. I recommend you to go, as he is the sort of man who will really understand what you mean, which neither your father nor myself do exactly; and, besides, he is a person to know.

'I enclose a line which you will send in, that there may be no mistake. I should tell you, as you are very fresh, that he is of the Hebrew race; so don't go on too much about the Holy Sepulchre.

'Yours faithfully,
'Spring Gardens, Wednesday morning.'

It is just where the street is most crowded, where it narrows, and losing the name of Cheapside, takes that of the Poultry, that the last of a series of stoppages occurred; a stoppage which, at the end of ten minutes, lost its inert character of mere obstruction, and developed into the livelier qualities of the row. There were oaths, contradictions, menaces: 'No, you sha'n't; Yes, I will; No, I didn't; Yes, you did; No, you haven't; Yes, I have;' the lashing of a whip, the interference of a policeman, a crash, a scream. Tan-cred looked out of the window of his brougham. He saw a chariot in distress, a chariot such as would have become an Ondine by the waters of the Serpentine, and the very last sort of equipage that you could expect to see smashed in the Poultry. It was really breaking a butterfly upon a wheel to crush its delicate springs, and crack its dark brown panels, soil its dainty hammer-cloth, and endanger the lives of its young coachman in a flaxen wig, and its two tall footmen in short coats, worthy of Cinderella.

The scream, too, came from a fair owner, who was surrounded by clamorous carmen and city marshals, and who, in an unknown land, was afraid she might be put in a city compter, because the people in the city had destroyed her beautiful chariot. Tan-cred let himself out of his brougham, and not without difficulty contrived, through the narrow and crowded passage formed by the two lines, to reach the chariot, which was coming the contrary way to him. Some ruthless officials were persuading a beautiful woman to leave her carriage, the wheel of which was broken. 'But where am I to go?' she exclaimed. 'Icannot walk. I will not leave my carriage until you bring me some conveyance. You ought to punish these people, who have quite ruined my chariot.'

'They say it was your coachman's fault; we have nothing to do with that; besides, you know who they are. Their employers' name is on the cart, Brown, Bugsby, and Co., Limehouse. You can have your redress against Brown, Bugsby, and Co., Lime-house, if your coachman is not in fault; but you cannot stop up the way, and you had better get out, and let the carriage be removed to the Steel-yard.'

'What am I to do?' exclaimed the lady with a tearful eye and agitated face.

Tancred opened the door of the chariot

'I have a carriage at hand,' said Tancred, who at this moment reached her, 'and it is quite at your service.'

The lady cast her beautiful eyes, with an expression of astonishment she could not conceal, at the distinguished youth who thus suddenly appeared in the midst of insolent carmen, brutal policemen, and all the cynical amateurs of a mob. Public opinion in the Poultry was against her; her coachman's wig had excited derision; the footmen had given themselves airs; there was a strong feeling against the shortcoats. As for the lady, though at first awed by her beauty and magnificence, they rebelled against the authority of her manner. Besides, she was not alone. There was a gentleman with her, who wore moustaches, and had taken a part in the proceedings at first, by addressing the carmen in French. This was too much, and the mob declared he was Don Carlos.

'You are too good,' said the lady, with a sweet expression.

Tancred opened the door of the chariot, the policemen pulled down the steps, the servants were told to do the best they could with the wrecked equipage; in a second the lady and her companion were in Tancred's brougham, who, desiring his servants to obey all their orders, disappeared, for the stoppage at this moment began to move, and there was no time for bandying compliments.

He had gained the pavement, and had made his way as far as the Mansion House, when, finding a group of public buildings, he thought it prudent to inquire which was the Bank.

'That is the Bank,' said a good-natured man, in a bustle, but taken by Tancred's unusual appearance. 'What do you want? I am going there.'

'I do not want exactly the Bank,' replied Tancred, 'but a place somewhere near it. Do you happen to know, sir, a place called Sequin Court?'

'I should think I did,' said the man, smiling. 'So you are going to Sidonia's?'