« VorigeDoorgaan »
if it was not the most fitting still they wore it. The afternoon was sultry to breathlessness; yet a young mother with a heavy baby in her arms sweltered along in the splendor of a purple sack of thick plush; she was hot, yes; but she had it on. The young girls emulated as well as they could the airy muslins and silks in which the great world was flitting and flirting at the same hour in the closes of Hyde Park, and if the young fellows with these poor girls had not the distinction of the swells in the prouder parade they at least equalled them in their aberrations from formality.
There was not much shade in Battersea Park for the people to sit under, but there was almost a superabundance of flowers in glaring beds, and there were pieces of water, where the amateur boatmen could have the admiration of watchers, two or three deep, completely encircling the ponds. To watch them and to walk up and down the shadeless aisles of shrubbery, to sit on the too sunny benches, and to resort in extreme cases to the tea-house which offered them ices as well as tea, seemed to be the most that the frequenters of Battersea Park could do. We ourselves ordered tea, knowing the quality and quantity of the public English ice, which is so very minute that you think it will not be enough, but which when you taste it is apt to be more than you want. The spectacle of our simple refection was irresistible, and a crowd of envious small boys thronged the railing that parted us from the general public, till the spectacle of their hungry interest became intolerable. We consulted with the waiter, who entered seriously into our question as to the moral and social effect of sixpence worth of buns on those boys; he decided that it would at least not form an example ruinous to the peace of his tea-house; and he presently appeared with a paper bag
that seemed to hold half a bushel of buns. Yet even half a bushel of buns will not go round the boys in Battersea Park, and we had to choose as honest a looking boy as there was in the foremost rank, and pledge him to a just division of the buns intrusted him in bulk, and hope, as he ran off down an aisle of the shrubbery with the whole troop at his heels, that he would be faithful to the trust.
So very mild are the excitements, so slight the incidents, so safe and tame the adventures of modern travel! I am almost ashamed when I think what a swashing time a romantic novelist, or a person of real imagination would have been having in London when so little was happening to me. There was, indeed, one night after dinner when for a salient moment I had hopes of something different. The maid had whistled for a hansom, and a hansom had started for the door where we stood waiting, when out of the shadows across the way two figures sprang, boarded the cab, and bade the cabman drive them away under our very eyes. Such a thing, occurring at almost eleven o'clock, promised a series of stirring experiences; and an American lady, long resident in England, encouragingly said, on hearing of the outrage, "Ah, that's London!" as if I might look to be often mishandled by bandits of the sort; but nothing like it ever befell me again. In fact the security and gentleness with which life is operated in the capital of the world is one of the things that make you forget its immensity. Your personal comfort and safety are so perfectly assured that you might well mistake yourself for one of very few people instead of so many.
London is like nature in its vastness, simplicity, and
deliberation, and if it hurried or worried, it would be like the precession of the equinoxes getting a move on, and would shake the earth. The street events are few. In my nine or ten weeks' sojourn, so largely spent in the streets, I saw the body of only one accident worse than a cab-horse falling; but that was early in my stay when I expected to see many more. We were going to the old church of St. Bartholomew, and were walking by the hospital of the same name just as a cab drove up to its gate bearing the body of the accident. It was a young man whose bleeding face hung upon his breast and whose limp arm another young man of the same station in life held round his own neck, to stay the sufferer on the seat beside him. A crowd was already following, and it gathered so quickly at the high iron fence that the most censorious witness could hardly see with what clumsiness the wounded man was half-dragged, half-lifted from the cab by the hospital assistants, and stretched upon the ground till he could be duly carried into the hospital. It may have been a casualty of the many incident to alcoholism; at the best it was a result of single combat, which, though it prepared us in a sort for the mediæval atmosphere of the church, was yet not of the tragic dignity which would have come in the way of a more heroical imagination.
It was indeed so little worthy of the place, however characteristic of the observer, that I made haste to forget it as I entered the church-yard under the Norman arch which has been for some years gradually finding itself in an adjoining shop-wall. The whole church, indeed, as now seen, is largely the effect (and it was one of the first effects I saw) of that rescue of the past from the present which is perpetually going on all
over England. Till lately the Lady Chapel and the crypt of St. Bartholomew had been used as an ironworker's shop; and modern life still pressed close upon it in the houses looking on the graves of the grassless church-yard. With women at the windows that opened on its mouldy level, peeling potatoes, picking chickens, and doing other household work, the place was like something out of Dickens, but something that yet had been cleaned up in sympathy with the restoration of the church, going on bit by bit, stone by stone, arch by arch, till the good monk Rahere (he was gay rather than good before he turned monk) who founded the Cistercian monastery there in the twelfth century would hardly have missed anything if he had returned to examine the church. He would have had the advantage, which he could not have enjoyed in his life-time, of his own effigy stretched upon his tomb, and he might have been interested to note, as we did, that the painter Hogarth had been baptized in his church six hundred years after his own time. His satisfaction in the still prevalent Norman architecture might have been less; it is possible he would have preferred the Gothic which was coming in when he went out.
The interior was all beautifully sad and quiet, gray, dim, twilighted as with the closes of the days of a thousand years; and in the pale ray an artist sat sketching a stretch of the clerestory. I shall always feel a loss in not having looked to see how he was making out, but the image of the pew-opener remains compensatively with me. She was the first of her sort to confront me in England with the question whether her very intelligent comment was conscious knowledge, or mere parrotry. She was a little morsel of a woman, in a black alpaca dress, and a world-old black bonnet, who spared us no
detail of the church, and took us last into the crypt, not long rescued from the invasive iron-worker, but now used as a mortuary chapel for the poor of the parish, which is still full of the poor. The chapel was equipped with a large bier and tall candles, frankly ready for any of the dead who might drop in. The old countries do not affect to deny death a part of experience, as younger countries do.
We came out into the imperfect circle before the gateway of the church, and realized that it was Smithfield, where all those martyrs had perished by fire that the faith of the world might live free. There can be no place where the past is more august, more pathetic, more appealing, and none I suppose, where the activities of the present, in view of it, are more offensive. It is all undermined with the railways that bring the day's meat-provision to London for distribution throughout the city, and the streets that centre upon it swarm with butchers' wagons laden with every kind and color of carnage, prevalently the pallor of calves' heads, which seem so to abound in England that it is wonderful any calves have them on still. The wholesale market covers I know not what acreage, and if you enter at some central point, you find yourself amid endless perspectives of sides, flitches, quarters, and whole carcasses, and fantastic vistas of sausages, blood-puddings, and the like artistic fashionings of the raw material, so that you come away wishing to live a vegetarian ever after.
The emotions are not at one's bidding, and if one calls upon them, they are very apt not to come. I promised myself some very signal ones, of a certain type, from going to the Sunday market of the Jews in what was once Petticoat Lane, but now, with the general cleaning