Across the Serpentine in the children’s paradise of Kensington Gardens we should find that the Board Walk and the “Round Pond” lose none of their drawingpower with the years and that the fountains and flowers are as beautiful and as highly prized as ever. There is the additional attraction of having a chance, by keeping a sharp eye on the tops of the tall ash-trees, of catching a glimpse of Peter Pan preparing to fly home to his mother’s window.
The exclusive shades of Green Park and St. James’s have a convenient nearness that entices hundreds from the roaring thoroughfares of the neighborhood, and at this hour their old elms and graceful bowers give impartially of their repose and peace to hearts that are heavy and hearts that are gay. It would seem inevitable that thoughts must come of the royal and princely companies that once trod these ways – of Charles II, at least, strolling in St. James’s surrounded by his dogs, pausing a while to feed his ducks and then tripping gayly up the “Green Walk” for a chat with Nell Gwynn over the garden wall, while scandalized John Evelyn hurries home to make note in his journal of “a very familiar discourse between the King and Mrs. Nelly.”
The London social season being at its height during May, June, and July, while Parliament is in session, belated clerks wending homeward between seven and eight o’clock find the great houses occupied and dinner-parties in progress with as much universality as a New York clerk, under like circumstances at home, would expect to see in December. All Mayfair, Belgravia, and Pimlico is indulging in feasting and merriment, and the austere aloofness of their retired squares, with central parks high-fenced in iron from contact with the “ordinary person,” is broken by the whirl of the carriages and motors of arriving guests. The sudden flood of soft lights from the reception hall as Hawkins throws open the door, and the quick and noiseless disappearance of the conveyances, is all of a moment and our clerk finds himself disconsolately gazing at the frowning front of some solid, ivy-grown, and altogether charming old mansion, through whose carefully-drawn window draperies only the slightest of beams dares venture forth to him. Were he to indulge such a passion for walking as characterized Lord Macaulay, – said to have passed through every street of London in his day, – he would find the same thing in progress at this hour in all the exclusive region that lies in the purlieus of Buckingham Palace. Dignity, riches, elegance, and power would be his in hasty, grudging glimpses – and then the dim square again and the high iron fence. The London square, indeed, seems decorative only-trees, turf, flowers, and the fence, and the surrounding houses playing dog-in-the-manager. This is not always without its bewilderment to foreigners; and so confirmed a traveler as Theophile Gautier puzzled over the matter considerably before he dismissed it with the conclusion that it is probably satisfaction enough to the owners to have kept other people out.
If our clerk were to take the “tube” at Brompton Road and come out at Whitechapel Station in the East End, he would see the other side of the story with a vengeance. To quote Gautier again, “to be poor in London is one of the tortures forgotten by Dante.” Here the air is stifling with dirty dust, and thousands of miserable, unkempt creatures with wan and pasty faces feed, when they can muster a penny, on a choice of “black puddings,” pork-pies, “sheep-trotters,” or the mysterious, smoking “faggots.” In old Ratcliffe Highway, which is now St. George Street, they make out by munching kippers carried in hand as they go their devious ways. An occasional stale fish from Billingsgate is that much better than nothing. Yiddish seems to be the prevailing national tongue east of Aldgate Pump, and if you understand it there will be no trouble over the signs and announcements. With characteristic Hebrew thrift it is always “open season” for buyers. Each product has its special habitat. Toys or other sweatshop articles come from Houndsditch, shoes from Spitalfields, leather goods from Bermondsey, beef remnants from Smithfield, left-over poultry from Leadenhall, vegetable “seconds” from Covent Garden, birds are to be had in Club Row, meat and clothing in Brick Lane, and a general outfitting in Petticoat Lane which the reformers have rechristened Middlesex Street. As for a “screw o’ baccy” or a “mug o’ bitter,” the “pub” of any corner will answer. The University Settlement workers of Toynbee Hall are doing what men can to better conditions, but so have others tried for ages – yet here is the malodorous East End practically as unwashed and unregenerate as of old. The glimpses one catches of squalor and filth up narrow passages and of the damp and grimy “closes” that remind you of Hogarth’s drawings are apt to content the most curious, unless he be an insatiable investigator, indeed, and is willing to take his chances of being “burked.” Hand on pocket you thread narrow alleys where people are said to have been offered attractive bargains on their own watches when they reached the other end. Here after the day’s work is over and the “moke” and barrow safely stabled for the night, with a ” Wot cher, chummy; ‘ow yer ‘oppin’ up?” our industrious coster friends, ‘Arry and ‘Arriet, make merry among pals at a-,” Free and Easy,” or lay out a couple of “thri’-p’ny bits” for seats in a local theatre, whence they emerge between acts for a “‘arf-en’-‘arf” or a “pot-o’-porter” with instant and painfully frank opinions if “it’yn’t fustryte.” Dinner at “The Three Nuns,” of course, is only for state occasions. They are the people, just the same, to get most out of Hampstead Heath on a Bank Holiday or a picnic at Epping Forest any time. With them originated in days gone most of the catchy street-cries for which London was long curiously noted. But one hears no more “Bellows to Mend!” or “Three Rows a Penny Pins!” or “Cockles and Mussels, Alive, Alive oh!” or “Sweet Blooming Lavender, Six Bunches a Penny!” or “One a Penny, two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns!” or the traditional tune of “Buy a Broom!” or the barrow-woman’s “Ripe Cherries!” and “Green Rushes O!” You may, however, have a chance at “‘Taters, all ‘ot!” or “Three a Penny, Yarmouth Bloaters; ‘ere’s yer Bloaters!” After all, it takes a very limited inspection of the East End to wish them all in Hyde Park, as the flag falls at seven-thirty, to join the hundreds of men and boys there who are out of their clothes before the signal is barely given and taking an evening plunge in the Serpentine.
Between the truffles of Mayfair and the “faggots” of Whitechapel lies the region of the menu with which the average Londoner is most familiar and which he is now exploring with profound earnestness according to his lights and shillings. Dining, as every one knows, is an important expression of the British conscience, a solemn rite of well-nigh religious momentousness. The traditional fate of the uninvited guest is his in double measure who ventures to intrude between the Briton and his beef. One might “try it on,” perhaps, on the Surrey Side where they incline to “dining from the joint” around six o’clock-though nothing short of compulsion should take a sight-seer to South London after nightfall. The shabby Southwark shore of dingy wharves and grimy sheds is half concealed in drifting shadows raised by the uncertain light of flickering gas jets and the net results are not worth the trouble of walking London Bridge, unless we except the picture of quiet dignity and mellow beauty presented by the ancient church of St. Saviour. This rare old survivor finely expresses by night the subtle sense of a long-continued veneration and the finger-touches of the passing years. And to think that St. Saviour’s was doing parish duty and was a delight to look upon long before the Globe Theatre of Shakespearean fame had reared a neighboring head! But the gloom of the Surrey Side is thicker and more discomforting than the fog. Long, monotonous, cheerless streets, poorly lighted and scantily employed after dark, emerge from drab perspectives of gloaming and fade sullenly away into others. The scattered pedestrians one encounters reflect by solemn countenance the prevailing depression and seem able to take but little heart of courage as they go their melancholy ways. The whole region appears given over to breweries, potteries, factories, and hospitals. By night Lambeth Palace itself takes on the universal brewery aspect. You even detect a vatish look to the Greenwich Observatory and mistrust some trace of beer in the famous meridian. And then the tarry hotels of Greenwich must add their quota to the general dejection by offering everything in the world in the way of fish excepting its celebrated whitebait, which was, of course, the one thing you had come for. The lights of St. George’s Circus – the Leicester Square of South London- may be few in point of fact, but they seem highly exhilarating down there; nor are you to scorn the good cheer of the comfortable old tavern hard by that rejoices in the extraordinary name of “The Elephant and Castle.” There may also be a kindly feeling for the Old Kent Road where Chevalier’s coster “knock’d ’em,” but otherwise the breweries win. There is one on the sacred site of the old Globe Theatre, something like one where stood the Tabard Inn whence Chaucer started his immortal Pilgrims for Canterbury, and you will find a brazen gin palace if you search for “The White Hart Inn,” of “Henry VI” and “Pickwick Papers.” Poor old Southwark! Her glorious days of light have passed!
“And `she’ shakes `her’ feeble head, That it seems as if `she’ said, `They are gone.”‘
Even Southwark is not much duller at this hour than that ancient nucleus that is still styled the “City.” Where the leading commercial centres and money markets of the world were in frenzied activity, two or three hours ago, a few belated pedestrians now-go clattering along echoing and deserted streets with an unhappy air of apology. No section of London undergoes so amazing a transformation each day; nor is any other so drear and cheerless by the suddenness of contrast – attesting the keenness of Lowell’s observation that nothing makes so much for loneliness as the sense of man’s departure. There is little dining now in the region where Falstaff once reveled at “The Boar’s Head” and the Shakespearean coterie at “The Mermaid Tavern.” The low, windowless, stolid Bank of England gropes like a blindman toward Wellington on his horse before the lofty Corinthian portico of the Royal Exchange, and the massive, sombre Mansion House of the Lord Mayor suggests some ruined temple of Paestum. ” Gog ” and ” Magog ” slumber in the dusty recesses of the old Guildhall, and the pigeons nest in its blackened eaves unstartled by the impassioned oratory of government ministers at banquets. But it is the time of times to attend the sweet chiming of Bow Bells, under the dragon in the beautiful tower that Wren built for St. Mary’s, and one could almost wish to have been born cockney if only to have heard them ringing from babyhood. The winding and gloomy little streets whose names recall so much in the lives of the Elizabethan literati entice one craftily, like so many Bow runners, into the purlieus of the Tower, within the shadows of whose momentous walls cabmen drowse securely on the boxes of dusty four-wheelers. To the imaginative stranger its bright fascination by day suffers a night-change into something gruesomely repellent, and the “beef-eaters” do not protect the crown jewels half so effectively as do the headless shades of Lady Jane Grey and Henry’s unhappy queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Doubtless there are safer thoroughfares on earth than Lower Thames Street in the early evening, but they would not lead to as diverting a neighborhood. The wharves and storehouses may not be as tumultuous as by day, but the fastidious wayfarer encounters at Billingsgate enough strength of language and odor to satisfy. Tom Bowling is entertaining Black-eyed Susan at some East End “hall,” but the “pubs” are roaring with “the mariners of England that guard our native seas.” Still, cutty-pipes are glowing at Wapping Old Stairs, and the heaving turmoil of the shipping in the “Pool,” with swaying ridinglights dotting the vast tangle of masts and cordage, prepares you for the shock of the amazing human wave that is ever surging with a ceaseless roar across old London Bridge. Caught in the strong current of that billow one washes back to Wellington and his horse and drifts aimlessly along under the raised awnings of the tailor shops of Cheapside, with scarce time for a grateful hand-wave to hushed and shadowed St. Augustine’s for the “Ingoldsby Legends” its former rector gave us, before he finds himself high and dry in Paternoster Row and the bookish churchyard of St. Paul’s. The great cathedral is imposing, without doubt, and no one would think of saying that Wren did not earn the two hundred pounds per annum he received during the thirty-five years it took him to build it; – and yet it can hardly be expected to appear over-cheerful by night, when it is chill and gloomy and repellent by day with the sun powerless to warm the tessellated floor and stiff, gloomy monuments with the brightest colors of its stained-glass windows – futile to rival even the moon in that vision of Keats as she
“Threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast, Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together grest, And on her silver cross soft amethyst, And on her hair a glory, like a saint.”
The moon, however, will aid us now in quickening into life the rich memories that adhere to the surrounding churchyard and to Paternoster Row, where so many generations of authors and publishers in dingy shops and inns and coffee-houses have debated the launching of immortal books. Every English-published volume must still start its race from neighboring Stationers’ Hall.