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The Galaxy/Volume 24/Number 3/Three Excursions

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THREE EXCURSIONS.


I.

They differed greatly from each other, but each had an interest of its own. There seemed (as regards the first) a general consensus of opinion as to its being a great pity that a stranger in England should miss the Derby day. Every one assured me that it was the great festival of the English people and the most characteristic of national holidays. This, since it had to do with horseflesh, I could readily believe. Had not the newspapers been filled for weeks with recursive dissertations upon the animals concerned in the ceremony? and was not the event, to the nation at large, only imperceptibly less momentous than the other great question of the day—the fate of empires and the reapportionment of the East? The space allotted to sporting intelligence in a small journal like the "Pall Mall Gazette" had seemed to me for some time past a measure of the hold of such questions upon the British mind. The "Pall Mall Gazette" is a short newspaper; it contains but a single editorial—it is compact and eclectic. But in spite of the fact that it has to count its paragraphs very narrowly, it appears never to grudge the goodly fraction of a page which it so frequently bestows upon the mysteries of Newmarket and of Tattersall's. This, however, is very natural in a country in which in "society" you are liable to make the acquaintance of some such syllogism as the following: You are seated at dinner next a foreign lady, who has on her other hand a native gentleman, by whom she is being instructed in the art of getting the right point of view for looking at English life. I profit by their conversation, and I learn that this point of view is apparently the saddle. "You see, English life," says the gentleman, "is really English country life. It's the country that is the basis of English society. And you see, country life is—well, it's the hunting. It's the hunting that is at the bottom of it all." In other words, "the hunting" is the basis of English society. Duly initiated into this equestrian philosophy, one is prepared for the colossal proportions of the annual pilgrimage to Epsom. This pilgrimage, however, I was assured, though still well worth taking part in, is by no means so picturesque as in former days. It is now performed in a large measure by rail, and the spectacle on the road has lost its ancient brilliancy. The road has been given up more and more to the populace and the strangers, and has ceased to be graced by the presence of ladies. Nevertheless, as a man and a stranger, I was strongly recommended to take it; for the return from the Derby is still, with all abatements, a classic spectacle.

I mounted upon a four-horse coach, a charming coach, with a yellow body and handsome, clean-flanked leaders. I mounted beside the coachman, as I had been told this was the point of vantage. The coach was one of the vehicles of the new fashion—the fashion of public conveyances driven by gentlemen of leisure. There are expensive pastimes which involve benefit to other people, but are a bore to one's self; there are others that are agreeable to one's self, but a nuisance to other people. This amateur coaching has the advantage of being agreeable to every one—the driver and the driven alike. Its expensiveness, moreover, is curtailed by the fact that the seats are sold at prices more than nominal (though by no means high), and the gentlemanly charioteer is therefore not seriously left out of pocket. (On the other hand, it can hardly be supposed that he makes money.) On the Derby day all the coaches that start from the classic headquarters—Hatchett's, in Piccadilly—and stretch away from London toward a dozen different and well-selected goals, had been dedicated to the Epsom road. The body of the vehicle is empty, as no one thinks of occupying any but one of the thirteen places on the top. On the Derby day, however, a properly laden coach carries a company of hampers and champagne baskets in its inside places. The open coach door allows a glimpse of a kind of miniature reproduction of a superior grocery. The vehicle on which I went to the Derby was driven by a professional whip, who proved to be an entertaining companion. Other companions there were, perched in the twelve places behind me, whose social qualities I made less of a point of testing—though in the course of the expedition these qualities, under the influence of champagne, expanded so freely as greatly to facilitate the operation. We were a society of exotics—Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Germans. There were only two Britons, and these, according to my theory, were Australians—an antipodal bride and groom, on a wide wedding tour.

The drive to Epsom, when you get well out of London, is sufficiently pretty; but the part of it which most took my fancy was a suburban district—the classic neighborhood of Clapham. One has always heard of Clapham—of its respectable common, its evangelical society, and its goodly brick mansions of the Georgian era. I beheld these objects for the first time, and I thought them very charming. This epithet, indeed, scarcely applies to the evangelical society, which naturally, on the morning of the Derby day, and during the desecrating progress of the Epsom revellers, was not much in the foreground. But all around the verdant, if cockneyfied common, are ranged capacious houses, of a sober red complexion, from under whose neo-classic pediments you expect to see a nice-faced lady emerge—a lady in a cottage bonnet and mittens, distributing tracts from a little satchel. It would take an energetic piety, however, to stem the current of heterogeneous vehicles which at about this point takes up its metropolitan affluents and bears them in its rumbling, rattling tide. The concourse of wheeled conveyances of every possible order here becomes dense, and the spectacle from the top of the coach proportionately entertaining. You begin to perceive that the brilliancy of the road has in truth departed, and that well appointed elegance is not the prevailing characteristic. But when once you have grasped this fact your entertainment is continuous. You perceive that you are "in," as the phrase is, for something vulgar, something colossally, unimaginably, heroically vulgar; all that is necessary is to settle down to your point of view. Beside you, before you, behind you, is the mighty London populace, taking its chats. You get for the first time a sort of notion of what the London population really consists of. It has piled itself into carts, into omnibuses, into every possible and impossible species of "trap." A large proportion of it is of course on foot, trudging along the perilous margin of the wheel track in such comfort as may be gathered from a fifteen miles' dodging of broken shins. The smaller the vehicle, the more ratlike the animal that drags it, the more numerous and ponderous its human freight; and as every one is nursing in his lap a parcel of provisions as big as himself, wrapped in ragged newspapers, it is not surprising that roadside halts are frequent, and that the taverns all the way to Epsom (it is wonderful how many there are) are encompassed by dense groups of dusty pilgrims, indulging liberally in refreshment for man and beast. And when I say man I must by no means be understood to exclude woman. The female contingent on the Derby day is not the least remarkable part of the London multitude. Every one is prepared for an "outing," but the women are even more brilliantly-and resolutely prepared than the men; it is the best possible chance to observe the various types of the British female of the lower orders. Or rather, let me half retract my phrase. Is it, after all, the best possible chance? On the whole, charitably speaking, I think not. The lady in question is usually not ornamental. She is useful, robust, prolific, excellently fitted to play the somewhat arduous part allotted to her in the great scheme of British civilization. But she has not those graces which would enable her to make a harmonious figure on a day of bright festivity. A figure she certainly makes, but it is not exactly a graceful one. On smaller holidays—or on simple working days—in London crowds, I have often thought her handsome; thought, that is, that she had handsome "points," and that it was not impossible to see whereby it is that she helps to make the English race, on the whole, one of the comeliest in the world. But at Epsom she is too stout, too hot, too red, too thirsty, too crowded, too boisterous, and last, not least, accoutred with finery too violently infelicitous. Upon the aberrations of her taste in this respect I have neither the space nor the courage to linger. And yet I wish to do her justice; so I must add that if there is something to which an American cannot refuse a tribute of admiration in the gross plebeian jollity of the Derby day, it is not evident why these brave she-revellers should not get part ot the credit of it.

The striking thing, the interesting thing, both on the onward drive and on the return, was that the holiday was so completely, frankly, lustily, good-humoredly taken. The people that of all peoples is habitually the most governed by decencies, proprieties, rigidities of conduct, was, for one happy day, unbuttoning its respectable straight-jacket and letting its powerful, carnal, healthy temperament take the air. In such a spectacle there was inevitably much that was unlucky and unprofitable; these things came uppermost chiefly on the return, when demoralization was supreme, when the temperament in question had quite taken what the French call the key of the fields, and seemed in no humor whatever for coming back to give an account of itself. For the rest, to be dressed with a kind of brutal gaudiness, to be very thirsty and violently flushed, to laugh perpetually at everything and at nothing, to thoroughly enjoy, in short, a momentous occasion—all this is not, in simple persons of the more susceptible sex, an unpardonable crime.

The course at Epsom is in itself very pretty, and disposed by nature herself in sympathetic prevision of the sporting passion. It is something like the crater of a volcano, without the volcano. The outer rim is the course proper; the space within it is a vast, shallow, grassy concavity in which vehicles are drawn up and beasts tethered, and in which the greater part of the multitude—the mountebanks, the little vociferous betting-stands, and the myriad hangers-on of the scene—are congregated. The outer margin of the uplifted rim in question is occupied by the grand stand, the small stands, the paddock. The day was exceptionally beautiful; the charming sky was spotted over with little idle looking, loafing, irresponsible clouds; the Epsom downs went swelling away as greenly as in a colored sporting print, and the wooded uplands, in the middle distance, looked as innocent and pastoral as if they had never seen a policeman or a "Welsher." The crowd that spread itself over this immense expanse was the most prodigious assemblage of human life that I have ever looked upon. One's first fate after arriving, if one is perched upon a coach, is to see the coach guided, by means best known to the coachman himself, through the tremendous press of vehicles and pedestrians, introduced into a precinct roped off and guarded from intrusion save under payment of a substantial fee, and then drawn up alongside of the course, as nearly as possible opposite the grand stand and the winning post. Here you have only to stand up in your place—on tiptoe, it is true, and with a good deal of stretching—to see the race fairly well. But I hasten to add that seeing the race is indifferent entertainment. If I might borrow a formula from Hibernian logic, I would say that in the first place you do not see it at all, and in the second place what you do see of it is not worth the seeing. It may be very fine in quality, but in quantity it is inappreciable. The horses and their jockeys first go dandling and cantering along the course to the starting point, looking as insubstantial as sifted sunbeams. Then there is a long wait, during which, of the sixty thousand people present (my figures are imaginary), thirty thousand affirm positively that they have started, and thirty thousand as positively deny it. Then the whole sixty thousand are suddenly resolved into unanimity by the sight of a dozen small jockey heads whizzing along a very distant sky-line. In a shorter space of time than it takes me to write it, the whole thing is before you, and for the instant it is a very ugly thing. A dozen furiously revolving arms—pink, green, orange, scarlet, white—whacking the flanks of as many straining steeds; a glimpse of this, and the spectacle is over. The spectacle, however, is of course an infinitesimally small part of the purpose of Epsom and the interest of the Derby. The interest is in having money in the affair, and doubtless those most interested do not trouble themselves particularly to watch the race. They learn soon enough whether they are, in the English phrase, to the good or to the bad.

When the Derby stakes had been carried off by a horse of which I confess I am barbarous enough to have forgotten the name, I turned my back to the running, for all the world as if I were largely "interested," and sought entertainment in looking at the crowd. The crowd was very animated; that is the most succinct description I can give of it. The horses of course had been removed from the vehicles, so that the pedestrians were free to surge against the wheels and even to a certain extent to scale and overrun the carriages. This tendency became most pronounced when, as the mid period of the day was reached, the process of lunching began to unfold itself and every coach-top to become the scene of a picnic. From this moment, at the Derby, demoralization begins. I was in a position to observe it, all around me, in the most characteristic forms. The whole affair, as regards the conventional rigidities I spoke of a while since, becomes a real dégringolade. The shabbier pedestrians bustle about the vehicles, staring up at the lucky mortals who are perched in a kind of tormentingly near empyrean—the region of lobster salad dishes passed about and champagne corks cleaving the air like celestial meteors. There are nigger-minstrels, and beggars, and mountebanks, and spangled persons on stilts, and gypsy matrons, as genuine as possible, with glowing Oriental eyes and dropping their h's; these last offer you for sixpence the promise of everything genteel in life—minus the aspirate. On a coach drawn up beside the one on which I had a place, a party of opulent young men were passing from one stage of exhilaration to another with a punctuality which excited my admiration. They were accompanied by two or three young ladies of the kind that usually share the choicest pleasures of youthful British opulence—young ladies with chignons more golden than gold and lips more rosy than the rose herself. The whole party had been drinking deep, and one of the young men, a pretty lad of twenty, had in an indiscreet moment staggered down as best he could to the ground. Here his cups proved too many for him, and he collapsed and rolled over. In plain English, he was beastly drunk. It was the scene that followed that arrested my observation. His companions on the top of the coach called down to the people herding under the wheels, to pick him up and put him away inside. These people were the grimiest of the rabble, and a couple of men who looked like coal-heavers out of work, undertook to handle this hapless youth. But their task was difficult; it was impossible to imagine a young man more drunk. He was a mere bag of liquor—at once too ponderous and too flaccid to be lifted or carried. He lay in a helpless heap under the feet of the crowd—the best intoxicated young man in England. His extemporized chamberlains took him in this fashion and that, but he was like water in a sieve. The crowd bustled over him; every one wanted to see; he was pulled, and shoved, and fumbled. The spectacle had a grotesque side, and this it was that seemed to strike the fancy of the young man's comrades. They had not done lunching, so they were unable to bestow upon the incident the whole of that consideration which its high comicality deserved. But they did what they could. They looked down very often, glass in hand, during the half hour that it was going on, and they stinted neither their generous, joyous laughter nor their appreciative comments. Women are said to have no sense of humor; but the young ladies with the gilded chignons did liberal justice to the beauty of the joke. Toward the last, indeed, their attention rather flagged; but even the best joke suffers by reiteration, and when you have seen a stupefied young man, infinitely bedusted, slip out of the embrace of a couple of clumsy paupers for the twentieth time, you may very properly deem that you have arrived at the furthest limits of the ludicrous.

After the great race had been run I quitted my perch and spent the rest of the afternoon in wandering about that grassy concave that I have mentioned. It was amusing and picturesque: it was like a huge Bohemian encampment. Here also a great number of carriages were stationed, freighted in like manner with free-handed youths and young ladies with gilded tresses. These young ladies were almost the only representatives of their sex with pretensions to elegance; they were often pretty and always ill dressed. Gentlemen in pairs, mounted on stools, habited in fantastic sporting garments, and offering bets to whomsoever listed, were a conspicuous feature of the scene. It was equally striking that they were not preaching in the desert, and that they found plenty of patrons among the vulgar sort. I returned to my place in time to assist at the rather complicated operation of starting for the drive back to London, Putting in horses and getting vehicles into line seemed in the midst of the general crush and entanglement a process not to be facilitated even by the most liberal swearing on the part of those engaged in it. But little by little we came to the end of it; and as by this time a kind of mellow cheerfulness pervaded the upper atmosphere—the region of drivers and travellers—even those interruptions most trying to patience were somehow made to minister to jollity. It was for people below to not get trampled to death or crunched between opposing wheel-hubs, if they could manage it. Above, the carnival of "chaff" had set in, and it deepened as the lock of vehicles grew denser. As they were all locked together (with a comfortable padding of pedestrians at points of acutest contact), they contrived somehow to move together; so that we gradually got away and into the road. The four or five hours consumed on the road were simply as I say, a carnival of "chaff, "the profusely good-humored savor of which, on the whole, was certainly striking. The chuff was not brilliant or subtle or particularly graceful; and here and there it was quite too tipsy to be even articulate. But as an expression of that unbuttoning of the popular straight-jacket of which I spoke awhile since, it had its wholesome and even innocent side. It took indeed frequently an importunate physical form; it sought emphasis in the use of pea-shooters and water-squirts. At its best, too, it was extremely low and rowdyish. But a stranger, even of the most refined tastes, might be glad to have a glimpse of the vulgar hubbub, for it would make him feel that he was learning something more about the English people. It would remind him that they too are subject to some of the most frolicsome of the human passions, and that the decent, dusky vistas of the London residential streets—those genteel creations of which Thackeray's "Baker Street" is the type—are not a complete symbol of the remarkable race that erected them.




II.

I Was lucky in my weather. On a day even more charmingly fair than the one I have just commemorated, I went down to Hatfield House. I had been assured that it was one of the most interesting of great English mansions, and as I learned that it was shown to strangers with an altogether exemplary liberality, the short journey of less than an hour seemed well worth making. I found the expedition interesting in the highest degree; and my only hesitation in attempting to make a note of my impressions arises from the very purity and perfection of those—from their harmonious character and exquisite quality. Such a place as Hatfield is, to my sense, one of the most beautiful things the world possesses—one of those things which we instinctively feel the vanity of any attempt to reproduce, just as we feel the indisposition to gossip about any deep experience. Sooner or later, however, our experience begins to reverberate; and these poor words may pass as a faint reverberation of Hatfield.

It is the property of the Marquis of Salisbury, and it lies in the county of Hertford, within twenty miles of London. There is a little red-hued village directly at its gates; from the railway station you step directly into the village. But when, having walked along the village street and climbed the gentle eminence on which the walls of the park rest, you pass beneath an old brick archway and step into sight of the mansion and its acres, you seem to leave such matters as railway stations immeasurably far away. You emerge from the shadow of some magnificent trees—shadow that mingles well with the ruddy mottled brickwork of a most picturesque old structure, a chapel turned into a stable, which adjoins the entrance gate and forms an impressive relic of the original and smaller house; then you face to the right, and see, beyond a wide gravelled platform, the long delightful front of the mansion, gazing serenely down one of the sun-chequered avenues of its park.

Hatfield House was one of the finest productions of the Jacobian period, and it remains, I believe, the noblest specimen. It was erected in the course of the first decade of the seventeenth century, by William Cecil, son of Lord Burleigh, the great founder of his race's honors, Elizabeth's minister. There is a story that the Cecil who built the house was himself the surveyor and architect, but I do not find it substantiated in an account of the place given in one of Mr. Murray's excellent publications. If it is true, one cannot but admire so elaborate and definite a vision of the desirable home on the part of a distinguished amateur. To have such a house as Hatfield built for one may seem a rare degree of human felicity; but to build it one's self for one's self adds not a little to the honor and luxury. Built at all events it is in the stateliest fashion, and with the happiest effect to the eye. It is a long red house, with a castellated top and a great many square-bowed windows running vertically from story to story. That is the simplest description that can be given of the front that is turned toward the gateway and park. But such a description is pitifully bald, whereas the reality is extremely rich and interesting. Indeed, I have never seen a house-front of which I grew more familiarly fond as I looked at it. The charming proportions, the sweet domestic dignity, the cool, faded, elegant tones of the brick, the happy disposition of the elements, after all simple and subdued, of which it is composed, make it a structure for which I can imagine myself acquiring at last, with familiarity, a kind of tranquil passion. There is another front of a quite different kind, which is much grander and more ornate, but I am not sure that I like it as well. The house is a huge parallelogram, but on the side which is turned away from the village it puts forth, at right angles, two long and stately wings, which form, with this second façade, the three sides of a court. This is properly the grand front. It is adorned with Italian stone work and delicate sculptures, and balanced by neat iron gates which open upon a long straight avenue, stretching away, if I am not mistaken, to London. This immense avenue, with its trees set far back from the road and divided from it by an expanse of grass on each side as wide as the roadway, makes the stateliest approach to the house—such an approach as, in some directions, such a house as Hatfield ought always to have. Here, in former days, the slow-moving coach and its swifter outriders must have been seen at the end of the long vista; the grassy border of the avenue seems a place intended for all retainers and dependants to come and station themselves, with their hats off, in an expectant line. And for the coach, which should see the charming great house at the end of the drive, sitting there on its greensward with parted arms, like a stately mother divided between tenderness and ceremony, this disposition of things must have had its periodically recurring impressiveness. The sides of the house which connect the two façades are very charming places—places with gravelled terraces looking on gardens and shady sitting spots just out of long windows.

Of the inside of Hatfield there would be a good deal to say if one chose to go into enumeration. The most urbane of housekeepers conducted me through it, and I found in wandering from chamber to chamber, from one great saloon to another, from library to hall, and from gallery to chapel, the particular sort of entertainment of which, on the whole, I am fondest. Nothing is more interesting than the observation of interiors—of human habitations which have been greatly lived in. Hatfield is full of the things that make a house interesting—historical memories, picturesque arrangements, handsome appointments, traces of great hospitality and of connection with great contemporary events. Unfortunately, if my relish of old apartments is great, my memory for them is small, and I have only a confused impression of walking through an endless labyrinth of rooms in which sculptured chimney-places reached to darkly carven ceilings, in which oriel windows looked out from deep embrasures into garden and park, in which old monumental beds, and ancient hangings, and polished wainscots, and curious cabinets, and every form of venerable bric-a-brac, in the best condition, created a sort of mild bewilderment of envy. Within, as without, Hatfield has preserved its perfect Jacobian character, though I suppose that in infusing the perfection of modern comfort into its quaintness and antiquity it has done no more than the customary duty of all great English residences. There are certain chambers, called the state apartments, which seemed to me to set off the house very handsomely. There is a long gallery—that charming feature of so many great English houses—running, in the second story, the whole length of the greater façade, continuously windowed on one side, beautifully roofed, furnished with half a dozen chimney-pieces, and most delightful, I should suppose, with its southern exposure, as that "winter morning-room" for which the housekeeper declared that it served.

What a charming place, filled with groups of pleasant people, say in Christmas week! There is a chapel, with a high gallery all round, divided into little cushioned niches, plentifully supplied with prayer-books and easily accessible from bed-rooms, during morning prayers, by tardy worshippers on tiptoe. Very pretty indeed is this little chapel, and very much like a private theatre, with the small niches I speak of as boxes in the second tier. Then there is a great banquetting-hall, with a stone pavement and an arched roof, in which, if I rightly understood the attendant, the possessors of the house, while there, daily partake of some meal with their children—or in which the children, at any rate, habitually dine. This is one of those facts which an American may be allowed to find impressive. When it is mentioned to him he lingers some moments, looking up at the time-darkened rafters and the serious walls, and envies this parcel of modern youngsters the education of such a habit—the daily contact with things which remind them so solidly of the continuity between their own small lives and the gathered honors of their race. And, meditating, he turns away with a kind of awe of young persons moulded by influences so ennobling. He turns away and goes out into the park; but here he does not get rid of the "influences." He meets them at every turn, in the rustle of the old oaks and the flicker of the verdurous light.

The park at Hatfield is worthy of the house; one cannot say more for it. It is of the highest antiquity, and seems like a remnant of early English forest. Its gnarled and twisted oaks are disposed in avenues in which you would stroll up and down indefinitely if it were not that you constantly incline to wander away and fling yourself at the foot of one of the innumerable detached trees, as mighty of girth and as fantastic of limb, which are scattered at hazard over the sides of the grassy undulations. One of these trees is more definitely historical than the rest. Nothing but a rugged trunk and half a dozen mouldering twigs remain; they are the last surviving witnesses of a great occasion. Here, according to tradition, sat Elizabeth Tudor, reading a book, when the panting nobleman who had hurried down from London, brought her the news that the death of her childless sister had placed the crown of England upon her head. The same story has it that she rose with such animation, to make her way back to the house, that her hat fell off in the movement, and, having been picked up reverentially by one of her courtiers, was preserved ever afterward in verification of the scene. It lies in the drawer of a cabinet, and is taken forth and shown to the still more reverent visitor: a curious circle of delicate and elaborate basket-work, lined, if I remember rightly, with faded silk. I have omitted to mention that Elizabeth was for some time a resident of Hatfield, where she had been placed by her sister in a sort of honorable confinement. She lived in the elder house, a portion of which constitutes the present gateway, and of which only the chapel remains—being now, as I have said, transformed into the most picturesque of stables. There is an ecclesiastical stable of this kind in "Daniel Deronda"—the property, if I remember rightly, of Sir Hugo Mallinger—which is the scene of one of the first incidents in the hero's remarkable flirtation with Gwendolen. I found it natural to wonder whether this curious fragment of early Hatfield had suggested to George Eliot the disposition of the domicile of Sir Hugo's stud. The studs of English gentlemen are certainly better lodged than some of their tenants, and at Hatfield the very horses are subjected to those ennobling influences of which I just spoke. The Gothic arches expand, far aloft, above the clean, spacious boxes, with polished sides, where the glossy hacks and hunters turn their heads to show you the whites of their charming eyes; and the little sculptured mediæval faces, at the spring of the groining, look down with a genial grin into the well-filled mangers. In this enjoyment of space, and air, and picturesqueness—this contact with the protective virtue of the past—the hacks and hunters have their knowledge of what I feel like calling the most satisfactory of human institutions. This is not too high a title to bestow upon a place like Hatfield. The last impression it made upon me was that of the force of circumstances. You cannot spend an afternoon there without feeling that circumstances are the major part of life; and if you go there disposed to say that they are literally everything, there is nothing in Hatfield that will contradict you. Everything in fact will seem to say to you that to have all that embodied tradition, that preserved picturesqueness, that domestic grandeur, as the background of one's personal life, is a pure gain, and not to have such things is a dead loss. A place like Hatfield is deeply aware of its own preciousness, and that is the argument it will hold. The wandering American, at least, will feel that he best consults the harmony of the occasion by assenting. The moral of mellow façade and quiet terraces, of oaken chambers and Elizabethan trees, will seem to him to be that we are made up by the things that surround us, and that such things as these make us up supremely well. He will find it impossible not to believe that they mould the character, that they refine the temper, that they make the whole nature strong and exquisite. How can he refuse to believe it? how can he be guilty of the incivility of not supposing that the people who have allowed him to pass his charming day have moulded characters and exquisite natures?




III.

It seemed to me a good fortune to have been asked down to Oxford at Commemoration by a gentleman implicated in the remarkable ceremony which goes on under that name, and who kindly offered me the hospitality of his college. I made, as the French say, neither one nor two; I simply took the first train. I had learned something of Oxford in former years, but I had never slept in a low-browed room looking out on a grassy quadrangle, opposite a mediæval clock-tower. This satisfaction was vouchsafed me on the night of my arrival. I was inducted into the rooms of an absent undergraduate. I sat in his deep armchairs; I burned his candles and read his books. I hereby thank him, from the bottom of my heart. Before going to bed I took a turn through the streets, and renewed in the silent darkness that impression of the charm imparted to them by the quiet college fronts which I had gathered in former years. The college fronts were now quieter than ever: the streets were empty, and the old scholastic city was sleeping in the warm starlight. The undergraduates had been withdrawing in large numbers, encouraged thereto by the collegiate authorities, who deprecate their presence at Commemoration. However many young gownsmen may be sent away, there always remain enough to make a noise. There can be no better indication of the resources of Oxford in a spectacular way than this fact, that the first step toward preparing an impressive ceremony is to get rid of the undergraduates. In the morning I breakfasted with a young American, who, in common with a number of his countrymen, had come hither to seek stimulus for a finer quality of study. I know not whether he would have reckoned as such stimulus the conversation of a couple of those ingenuous youths of Britain, whose society I always find charming; but it added, from my own point of view, to the local color of the entertainment. After this was over I repaired, in company with a crowd of ladies and elderly people, interspersed with gownsmen, to the hoary rotunda of the Sheldonian theatre, which every visitor to Oxford will remember, with its curious cincture of huge, clumsily-carven heads of warriors and sages perched upon stone posts. The interior of this edifice is the scene of the classic hooting, stamping, and cat-calling by which the undergraduates confer the last consecration upon the distinguished gentlemen who come up for the honorary degree of D. C. L. It is with the design of attenuating as much as possible this incongruous chorus, that the heads of colleges, on the close of the term, a few days before Commemoration, speed their too demonstrative disciples upon the homeward way. As I have already hinted, however, the contingent of irreverent lads was on this occasion quite large enough to produce a very handsome specimen of the traditional rumpus. This made the scene a very singular one. An American of course, with his fondness for antiquity, his relish for picturesqueness, his "emotional" attitude at historic shrines, takes Oxford much more seriously than its customary denizens can be expected to do. These people are not always upon the high horse; they are not always in an acutely sentient condition. Nevertheless, there is a certain maximum of disaccord with their beautiful circumstances which the ecstatic Occidental vaguely expects them not to transcend. No effort of the intellect beforehand would enable him to imagine one of those silver-gray temples of learning converted into a kind of Bowery theatre before the curtain rises.

The Sheldonian theatre, like everything at Oxford, is more or less picturesque. There is a double tier of galleries, with sculptured pulpits protruding from them; there are full-length portraits of kings and worthies; there is a general air of antiquity and dignity, which, on the occasion of which I speak, was enhanced by the presence of certain ancient scholars, seated in high-backed chairs, in crimson robes. Formerly, I believe, the undergraduates were placed apart—packed together in a section of one of the galleries. But now they are scattered among the general spectators, a large number of whom are ladies. They muster in especial force, however, on the floor of the theatre, which is void of benches, and provides only standing room. Here the assemblage is at last divided by the entrance of the prospective D. C. L.'s walking in single file, clad in crimson gowns, preceded by mace-bearers and accompanied by the regius professor of civil law, who presents them individually to the Vice-Chancellor of the university, in a Latin speech, which is of course a glowing eulogy. The five gentlemen to whom this distinction had been offered in 1877 were not among those whom fame has trumpeted most loudly; but there was something very pretty in their standing in their honorable robes, with modestly bent heads, while the orator, equally brilliant in aspect, recited their titles sonorously to the venerable dignitary in the high-backed chair. Each of them, when the little speech is ended, ascends the steps leading to the chair; the Vice-Chancellor bends forward and shakes his hand, and the new D. C. L. goes and sits in the blushing row of his fellow doctors. The impressiveness of all this is much diminished by the boisterous conduct of the collegians, who superabound in extravagant applause, in impertinent interrogation, and in lively disparagement of the orator's Latinity. Of the scene that precedes the episode I have just described I have given no account; vivid portrayal of it is not easy. Like the return from the Derby, it is a carnival of "chaff"; and it is a singular fact that the scholastic festival should have forcibly reminded me of the great popular "spree." In each case it is the same race enjoying a certain definitely chartered license; in the sprigs of gentility at Oxford and the London rabble on the Epsom road it is the same strong good humor, tinctured with brutality.

After the presentation of the doctors came a series of those collegiate exercises which have a generic resemblance all the world over: a reading of Latin verses and English essays, a spouting of prize poems and Greek paraphrases. The prize poem alone was somewhat attentively listened to; the other things were received with an infinite variety of critical ejaculation. But after all, I reflected, as the ceremony drew to a close, this discordant racket is more characteristic than it seems; it is at bottom only another expression of the venerable and historic side of Oxford. It is tolerated because it is traditional; it is possible because it is classical. Looking at it in this light, one might manage at last to find it pleasing and picturesque.

I was not obliged to find ingenious protests for thinking well of another ceremony of which I was witness after we adjourned from the Sheldonian theatre. This was a lunch party at the college in Oxford, at which I should find it the most extreme felicity to reside. I may not further specify it. Perhaps, indeed, I may go so far as to say that the reason for my wishing to dwell there is that it is deemed by persons of a reforming turn the best-appointed Abuse in a nest of abuses. A commission for the expurgation of the universities has lately been appointed by Parliament to look into it—a commission armed with a gigantic broom, which is to sweep away all the fine old ivied and cobwebbed improprieties. Pending these righteous changes, one would like while one is about it—about, that is, this business of admiring Oxford—to attach one's self to the Abuse, to bury one's nostrils in the rose before it is plucked. At the college in question there are no undergraduates. I found it agreeable to reflect that those gray-green cloisters had sent no delegates to the slangy congregation I had just quitted. This delightful spot exists for the satisfaction of a small society of Fellows who, having no dreary instruction to administer, no noisy hobbledehoys to govern, no obligations but toward their own culture, no care save for learning as learning and truth as truth, are presumably the happiest and most charming people in the world. The party invited to lunch assembled first in the library of the college, a cool, gray hall, of very great length and height, with vast wall spaces of rich-looking book-titles and statues of noble scholars set in the midst. Had the charming Fellows ever anything more disagreeable to do than to finger these precious volumes and then to stroll about together in the grassy courts, in learned comradeship, discussing their weighty contents? Nothing, apparently, unless it were to give a lunch at Commemoration, in the dining hall of the college. When lunch was ready there was a very pretty procession to go to it. Learned gentlemen in crimson gowns, ladies in brilliant toilets, paired slowly off and marched in a stately diagonal across the fine, smooth lawn of the quadrangle, in a corner of which they passed through a hospitable door. But here we cross the threshold of privacy; I remained on the further side of it during the rest of the day. But I brought back with me certain memories of which, if I were not at the end of my space, I should attempt a discreet adumbration; memories of a fête champêtre in the beautiful gardens of one of the other colleges—charming lawns and spreading trees, music of Grenadier Guards, ices in striped marquees, mild flirtation of youthful gownsmen and bemuslined maidens; memories, too, of quiet dinner in common room, a decorous, excellent repast; old portraits on the walls and great windows open upon the ancient court, where the afternoon light was fading in the stillness; superior talk upon current topics; and over all the peculiar air of Oxford—the air of liberty to care for intellectual things, assured and secured by machinery which is in itself a satisfaction to sense.