The foolish stranger who chooses such an hour for a tramp about the “City” will breathe more freely, after he has exorcised the last whimpering shade of Newgate and “the poor prisoners of the `Fleet,”‘ as he hurries along Ludgate Hill and attains unto his heart’s desire at Fleet Street. Thence on, it is all the primrose way. No matter what the hour or season, he can never be companionless in the “Highway of Letters” for its very excess of material and immaterial presences. In its brief and narrow course of a few hundred yards, the richest in literary associations of any region on earth, the weather-beaten, irregular fronts of its old stone houses look down affectionately, and perhaps pityingly, on hurrying journalists and anxious authors, as they have been doing for ages. The leisurely diner of the old school who clings to the mellow places of inspiring associations is pretty sure to be going along Fleet Street at this time, intent on a chop and kidneys and a mug of stout at “The Cock,” preferred of Tennyson, or a beefsteak-pudding and toby of ale at the sand-floored “Cheshire Cheese” palpitant with memories of autocratic and snuffy Dr. Johnson exploding with “Sirs,” of good-natured Goldsmith, crotchety Reynolds, impassioned Burke, merry Garrick, and all the others of that deathless company. The usual evening idler and aimless stroller always makes Fleet Street a part of his pleasant itinerary, and it matters little to him that the sidewalks are narrow and the crowd uncomfortably large, when he can beguile each yard or two by lingering glances up dim and fascinating little rookery courts full of mysterious corners and deep shadows whose paving-stones have reechoed the tread of so many sons of fame. The lights may not be as bright nor as numerous as in the Strand, nor the shops as attractive, but they are non-existent to the sentimentalist who is seeing Izaak Walton in his hosier shop at the Coventry Lane corner and Richard Lovelace in dingy quarters up Gunpowder Alley, and is peering wistfully through the arched gateway to the Temple for a glimpse of Lamb’s birthplace or Fielding’s home or Goldsmith’s grave or a sight of those delightful “old benchers,” brusque “Thomas Coventry,” methodical “Peter Pierson,” and gentle “Samuel Salt.” Doubtless he is able even to detect the rich aroma of the chimney-sweeps’ sassafras tea in the neighborhood of “Mr. Read’s shop, on the south side of Fleet Street, as thou approachest Bridge Street.”
The shadows fall away with startling suddenness as Fleet Street becomes the Strand at Temple Bar. The jolliest uproar of all London storms impetuously along that modern Rialto all the way into Trafalgar Square. Brilliant lights, shop displays of every description, theatres, hotels, and restaurants create a profusion of excitement for the gay and jostling crowd that harries you perilously near to the curb and the heavy wheels of the ponderous busses.
And what an amazing institution the London bus is! The Strand might still be the Strand if St. Mary’s and St. Clement Danes were effaced from its roadway, but what if the busses went! Gladstone’s partiality for these archaic contrivances was extreme, which naturally disposed Disraeli to take the other side and champion the fleeting hansom – “the gondola of London,” as he aptly styled it. And, indeed, much may be said in commendation of the omnipresence, economy, and convenience of the latter, and of its friendly way of flying to one’s aid at the merest raising of the hand to whisk you away at breakneck speed and through a thousand hairbreadth escapes to any possible destination you may indicate. But the majority vote with Gladstone, nevertheless, and take their ease on a bustop. It is true that in the profusion of advertising signs you may not always be certain whether you are bound for Pear’s Soap or Sanderson’s Mountain Dew, but with blissful indifference you pocket the long ticket, and, ensconced among the glowing pipe-bowls in the dusk of a “garden-seat,” “rumble earthquakingly aloft.” What a delight it is to hear the cockney conductor drawl “Chairin’ Crauss,” “Tot’nh’m Court Rauwd,” “S’n Jimes-iz Pawk,” and the rest of it! From your heaving perch beside the ruddy-faced driver in his white high hat you observe that your ark keeps turning to the left, – the English rule of the road, – and that now you must look down instead of up to find the placards on the trolley posts that mark the stopping-places of the trams. You see belated solicitors and barristers hurrying out of the great gray courts of justice, and above the heads of the pedestrians you may study the gloomy arches of Somerset House or the ornate Lyceum where Sir Henry Irving reigned or the neat little Savoy where Gilbert and Sullivan won spurs and fortune. It is a great satisfaction to look down in comfort on the elbowing throng you have escaped, with its jostling and its stereotyped “I’m sorry,” -the top-hats and the caps, the actors, bohemians, professional men, tourists, tramps, beggars, thieves, Tommy Atkins in “pillbox” and “swagger,” blue-coated and yellow-legged boys of Christ’s Hospital, red-coated bootblacks, barmaids in turndown collars, well-dressed and shabbilydressed women, as well as that particularly flashy brand to whom you return a “Vade retro, Satanus!” to her “Come to my arms, my slight acquaintance.” No wonder when Kipling’s “Private Ortheris” went mad of the heat in India that he babbled of the Adelphi Arches and the Strand!
In the lull before the turning of the evening tide toward the opera and the theatre there is opportunity for each to indulge his penchant. What the shops of Fleet Street and the Strand show in general, the windows of specialists elsewhere are presenting in particular and with increased elaboration. Regent Street will draw the fanciers of pictures, leather goods, perfumes, and jewelry; Bond Street, rare paintings and choice porcelains; Wardour Street, curios and antiques; Stanway Street, silver and embroidery; Charing Cross Road, old bookstalls; and Hatton Garden, diamonds, – the same Hatton Garden that Queen Elizabeth gave a slice of to a favorite courtier and threatened the Bishop of Ely in a brief but sufficient note to hurry up with the necessary details or “I will unfrock you, by God!” This methodical fashion of grouping certain interests in definite localities is carried even further; as, for example, should you feel the need of a physician it is not necessary to wade through the thirty-five hundred pages of Kelly’s PostOffice Directory, but take a taxi to Harley Street where any house can supply you. No matter where you ramble, surprises and delights await you. It will be found so to those in particular who stroll down Oxford Street – with thoughts, perhaps, of De Quincey when a starved and homeless little boy groping a timorous and whimpering way down this street as he clutched the hand of his new acquaintance; or of Hazlitt’s dramatic struggle with hunger and poverty – and suddenly, on reaching High Holborn, catch their first glimpse of the picturesque beauty of mediaeval Staple Inn. There are few lovelier spots in all London, and the sparrows still chatter there as clamorously every evening as they did when Dr. Johnson frowned up at them from the manuscript of “Rasselas,” or when Dickens lived and worked there, or when Hawthorne visited and revisited it with increasing delight.
The princely spaces in the neighborhood of Buckingham Palace are quite as attractive at this hour as when the afternoon sun is warm along fair Piccadilly – ” radiant and immortal street,” said Henley – and the gay coaches clatter back toward Trafalgar Square with blasts of horn and jangling chains. The Mall, the Grand Walk for ages, fairly exhales class and pride in the deepening dusk of the late English twilight. The clubmen of Pall Mall and St. James’s Street, in their fine, imposing old houses, are taking up the question of the evening’s amusements with as much bored listlessness by the aristocrats at Brooks’s as rakish enthusiasm by the country gentlemen of Boodle’s. Signs of approaching activity are even to be observed in the stately mansions of exclusive Park Lane – a street that half the business men of London hope to be rich enough to live in some day; so effectually has time effaced the memory of Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild and the rest of the air-dancing specialists who figured here in chains in the days when Tyburn Hill was a name to shudder over.
But the appeal of the “halls,” which began when the curtains of the Alhambra and the Pavilion went up at seven-thirty, grows almost imperative as the hour wears around toward eight. The rank of waiting cabs up the middle of Haymarket is thinned to the merest trickle. “Heavy swells” of clubdom and the West End are strolling in groups across the wide, statue-dotted expanse of Trafalgar Square, stopping to scratch matches on the lions of Nelson’s Column or General Gordon’s granite base. The artists are forsaking the studios of Chelsea, the real bohemians – not the pretenders of the Savage Club and the Vagabond dinners – the cheap restaurants and the performing monkeys of Soho, the students their quiet quarters in Bloomsbury and the forty miles of book-shelves of the British Museum, the musicians their Baker Street lodgings up Madame Tussaud’s way, the literary people their charming Kensington, and even the gay Italians are deserting the organgrinding on Saffron Hill and the disorder of St. Giles – and all are rapidly moving on Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and the Strand. There they will view the elaborate ballets according to their means; from the “pit” for a shilling, or from a grand circle “stall” for seven shillings sixpence, with another sixpence to the girl usher for a programme loaded with advertisements. It is the hour when Pierce Egan would have summoned “Tom and Jerry” to be in at the inaugural of the night life of the great city, and Colonel Newcome would have marched Clive out of the “Cave of Harmony” to hear less offensive entertainers at the “halls.” It is the time Stevenson’s “New Arabian Nights” has invested with the richest potentiality for adventure, and when, in consequence, any polite tobacconist is likely suddenly to disclose himself as a reigning sovereign in disguise. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, you may be sure, are never in their Baker Street lodgings at such a time as this. In the preliminary uproar about the bars of the favorite cafes and in the flashing of electric signs, glare of lights, and rush of hansoms and motors, one may discern the beginnings of “a night of it” for many whom the early sun will surprise with bleared eyes and battered top-hats about the coffee-booths of Covent Garden. And, indeed, unless you have access to a club, night-foraging is a highly difficult undertaking in London. Every restaurant closes down at half an hour after midnight; and thereafter, unless you come across a chance “luncheon-bar” that defies the authorities, or a friendly cabman introduces you to a “shelter,” you may have to content yourself with a hard-boiled egg at a coffee-stall. Many a sturdy Briton trudging along behind his linkman could have found better accommodation two hundred years ago when the watch went by with stave and lantern and cried out that it was two o’clock and a fine morning.
With Big Ben in Parliament Watch Tower throwing his full thirteen tons into an effort to advise as many Londoners as possible that it is eight o’clock at last, and with a band concert in progress in the Villiers Street Garden of the Embankment, as agreeable a loungingplace as one could desire is the beautiful expanse of Waterloo Bridge. Not only is the prospect fair and inspiring, but the great bridge itself is worthy of it. Said Gautier, “It is surely the finest in the world”; said Canova, “It is worthy of the Romans.” Pallid and broad and long, and so level that its double lines of fine lights scarcely rise to the slightest of arcs, it rests with rare grace on its nine sweeping arches and spans the Thames just where the great bend is made to the east. One looks along it northward and sees the lamps of Wellington Street fade into the blurring dazzle of the Strand and Longacre, and southward to find the converging lights of Waterloo Road sending a bright arrow straight to the heart of Southwark. The greensward of the flowered and statued Embankment sweeps across and back on either side of its northern end, and palace hotels, Somerset House and the huge glass roof of Charing Cross Station bulk large at hand. Eastward the Ionic columns of Blackfriars Bridge and the strutting iron arches of Southwark Bridge stalk boldly across the serene river, and southwestward the broad arch of Westminster Bridge offers Parliament cheer to glum Lambeth. It would be the most natural mistake in the world to suppose the trim buildings of St. Thomas Hospital, on the Surrey bank, a favored row of handsome detached summer villas, with owners of strong political influence to be able to build on the fine long curve of the Albert Embankment, having no less a visa-vis than the terraces and glorious Gothic pile of Parliament buildings on their thousand feet of “noblest water front in the world.”
Only the mind’s eye may look farther on to Chelsea and take note of the tall plane-trees of Cheyne Walk, and re-people the red brick terraces and homely old houses with Sir Thomas More entertaining Erasmus and Holbein, with Addison and Steele in revelry at Don Saltero’s coffee-house, with Byron at home in the amazing disorder of Leigh Hunt’s cottage, with Tennyson smoking long pipes with Carlyle, with Turner and Whistler bending over their palettes, and with Rossetti, Swinburne, and Meredith courting the Muses under a common roof and in a common brotherhood.
To the observer on Waterloo Bridge the deep roar of the city comes out dulled and subdued. Bells chime softly and the whistles of the river-craft sound, from time to time, with sudden and startling shrillness. Long shafts of light shake out from either bank and spots of color from signal lamps dot the nearer rim. All outside is a bright dazzle, with patches of deep shadow and heavy ripples from the brown-sailed lighters and pert steamers that move across the shining reaches. The gloomy Southwark shore is blurred and uncertain in light mists, and the roof masses of the frowning city lift the ghostly fingers of Wren’s slender spires and cower beneath the indistinct and cloudlike silhouette of the dome of St. Paul’s. The prospect is that of a vast, confused expanse, of indistinguishable, shadowy blending of buildings and foliage whose remoter verges merge into a soft violet blur, and over all of it rages a wild snowstorm of tiny pin-point lights. Under the arches of the bridge old Father Thames moves serenely seaward, the most ancient and yet ever the youngest member of the community. From his continual renewal of life one could believe that in some long-forgotten time he had won this reward when he, too, had achieved the Holy Grail among the stout knights up Camelot way “in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned.” With true British reserve he whispers to a stranger no word of such secrets as once he confided at this bridge to Dickens, of the savagery and cruelty of this London that has driven _so many of its desperate children to peace within his sheltering arms, –
“Mad with life’s history, Glad to death’s mystery Swift to be hurled Anywhere, anywhere, Out of the world.”
Looking from one of these bridges on the proud, powerful, self-sufficient city, Wordsworth was once moved to exclaim that “earth has not anything to show more=fair.” Certainly it has few things to show more stirring and impressive, few to move the heart more profoundly, few that in achievement, resourcefulness, and power embody more completely to men of today “The grandeur that was Rome.”