Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 34 - On the Public Service

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So Earl Russell called it in my passport - travelling "on the public service," nothing definite, nothing more. I had my instructions, of course, but they were, as they will remain, private. I had no uniform, like a courier, no sheepskin bag of documents, no despatch-box, nothing distinctive and immediately recognisable, like a Queen's messenger. On the public service I was to travel as one of the public, quietly making such inquiries as had been suggested to me, and quietly noting down the replies ; but I was in no wise to give clue to my business, was not to produce my passport until it was asked for, and was to enter into no particulars as to the public service on which I was accredited. I had one consolation - that I afforded subject for an enormous amount of jesting on the part of those friends who knew that my mission lay in Hamburg, at that time the head-quarters of the German army marching on to Schleswig Holstein. It was a part of the admirable humour of those wags to assume a belief in the premature closing of my earthly career, to take longing, lingering farewells of me under the assumption that I should be taken for a spy, and either shot on the spot, after a drum-head court-martial, or immured for life in a Prussian fortress. I was christened "Major André." I was begged to read an account of the [-357-] captivity at Verdun. One would gravely affirm that he had heard hanging was not really painful; another would advise me not to submit to the degradation of a handkerchief over my eyes, but to glare defiantly at the shooting-party; a third hoped I had a strong pocket-knife, because "people always bought those queer little things that the prisoners carved out of wood." I bore their sallies like a hero, and started by the night-mail to Dover "on the public service."
    Although the South-Eastern Railway has done its best to whirl me to that never-somnolent town, and although the Belgian mail-packet, advantaged by a splendid night, a favouring breeze, and a placid sea, has conveyed me thence to Ostend in very little more than four hours, I find, on disembarking at halfpast three A.M., that our haste has been in vain, for the train does not start until after seven, and I have nearly four hours to get through. I am not prepared to say at what town in Europe I should prefer spending these four hours on a winter's night, but I am prepared to declare that certainly Ostend should not have my suffrages. Had it been summer, I could have had some supper at one of the numerous quay-side restaurants, and then strolled round the town; or I could have walked on the Digue, or examined the Phare, or bathed in the sea; but in January the quay-side restaurants are shut, and none of the other diversions are tempting. Nothing suggests itself but bed; so, mindful of old recollections, I determine to go to the Hotel d'Allemagne, and, waving off touters, who, even at this dead hour of the night and season of the year, are vociferously to the fore, I stow myself into a one-horse omnibus, and mention my intended destination. The conductor of this omnibus suggests to me a reconsideration of my determination. That he should say anything against the Hotel d'Allemagne, far be it! But he knows a better; one which, if he may use an English word, is bien comfortablement, one which is close at hand, and where mademoi-[-358-]selle (the other occupant of the omnibus) is about to descend. Will I not? No, I won't The Hotel d'Allemagne or nothing; and I pity mademoiselle, who descends at a not very attractive-looking porte-cochere, as I think of Raymond and Agnes, and Mr. Wilkie Collins's terribly strange bed, and many other unpleasant nights. But arriving at the Hotel d'Allemagne, we find it fast closed, and all ringing and shouting are powerless to wake the inhabitants ; so, much humiliated and crestfallen, I give in, and allow myself to be reconveyed to the bien comfortablernent.
    It is warm at the bien comfortablement, which is a great point on a bitter night; the stove is alight, the moderator-lamp shines brightly on the snowy tablecloth, and mademoiselle, who was deposited by the omnibus on its first journey, and who turns out to be a "young person in service," is talking unaspirated English to a big man, who came over in the fore-part of the steamer, and who is drinking hot brandy-and-water at a great rate. My hoarse friend, who has given up the omnibus, here puts in a spectral appearance at the door, and beseeches me to go to bed, promising to call me in the morning; so, dazed and tired, to bed I go; and as I creep between the coarse sheets, and rebound on the spring mattress, and see the foreign furniture, and smell the foreign smell, and vainly endeavour to cover myself with the foreign bed-clothes, I bethink me of the time when I was a tall slip of a boy, eighteen years ago, and when, on my way to a German university, I passed my first night in foreign parts in this same city of Ostend. And so, lulled partly by these reflections, partly by the monotonous crooning of the voices of the young person in service and the brandy-drinker in the next room, I fell asleep.
    "Sieu! 'sieu! cinq heures et d'mi, m'sieu." That recalled me to my senses, and I damped myself with the [-359-] napkin, and placed as much of my nose and chin as it would contain into the pie-dish, and dressed myself; and arrived in the salon just as the breakfast I had ordered before I went to bed was brought in by the waiter.
    Princes, fools, and Englishmen travel in the first-class carriages, says the German proverb: I know I am not a prince, but I am an Englishman, therefore one need not enter upon the other question, I think, as I take my first-class ticket. I am travelling "on the public service" now, so I ride in the first-class; on previous occasions I have ridden in the fourth-class, with fishwomen carrying strong-smelling baskets of Ostend produce into the inland regions, and blue-bloused peasants in large-peaked caps, with all of whom I have held converse in the Flemish language - which I did not understand, but in which I made excellent progress by speaking a mixture of English and German with a Dutch accent. Now I sit in the first-class. I am certain there are no other Englishmen in the train, and I suppose there are no princes, and no fools, at such an early hour, for I am solitary and silent. On, past Jabbeke and Bloemendael, jolly little neighbouring villages ; on, through the flat well-cultivated Belgian country; on, past those dreary old châteaux, with the gabled roofs, standing far hack, and looking so grim and desolate; on, past the white-faced little towns, through the high street of which our train tears, giving us passing glimpses of close-capped children screaming at the wooden bar which prevents them from hurling themselves on the line; on, until with a whistle and a shriek, we dash into Ghent, and pull up steaming beside the platform. Only one change at the Ghent station - no Englishman; no bundle of railway rugs, umbrella and sticks, waterproof coat, camp-stool, and red-faced Murray, shining like a star in the midst of them; no bowing commissionnaire conducting milor to his carriage; priests in big shovel-hats; fat-faced Flemish maidens; Ghent burghers, [-360-] looking particularly unlike one's idea of Philip van Artevelde; porters, idlers, everything as usual, except the English travellers. So at Malines, where, as usual, we stop for half an hour's refreshment, I perceive the lack of English travellers; the buvette, where assemble the choice spirits of the third and fourth classes, is filled with roysterers drinking that mahogany-coloured beer with a white woolly froth, which is at once so nasty and so reminiscent of a pantomime beverage; but the first-class restaurant (so red-velvety, so gilded and looking-glassed, and artificial-flowered, and marble-tabled) has only three visitors: a Belgian officer in a gray overcoat, bright blue trousers and gilt spurs; a fat German, perpetually wetting the point of the pencil with which he is making notes; and myself. So throughout the journey.
    Passing Liege, the sun burst out, and the deep red cuttings, and the foaming waterfalls, and babbling rivulets, and bright green growth of what Thomas Hood aptly called the "lovely environs of that grim smoke-begrimed city, glowed in his rays. Indeed, the weather continued so bright and genial, that when we ran into Cologne, at half-past four, I could scarcely believe it was mid-winter. But when I stood, portmanteau in hand, at the railway-station, I soon realised the fact! In the touring season the yard is filled with cabs and omnibuses; now, there are three wretched droschkies, driverless and badly horsed; then, you have to fight your way through a shrieking crowd of touters, eager to bear you off to see the Dom, the shrine of the three kings, and the bones of St. Ursula's twelve thousand virgins; now, a solitary man, hinting at no sight to be seen, offers to carry my baggage to an inn. But I leave my traps at the station, and having two hours to pass before the starting of the train, I walk through the town, and find it indeed deserted. The big Rhine-bordering hotels are closed, half the Jean Marie Farinas have shut up their eau-de-eologne shops, while the [-361-] other two hundred and fifty seem thoroughly unexpectant of custom: the Wechsel Comptoir (or money-changers), whose ideas as to the current value of a sovereign are very vacillating, now have closed their shutters, and the itinerant photograph-sellers have fled. So I skulk back to the station, and there get a portion of a tough hare, and some red cabbage, and some kraut and potato salad, drink a bottle of Rudesheimer, and throw myself into the train and prepare for a night's rest.
    I get it, with the exception of three rapid exits for refreshment purposes, at Minden, Hanover, and Lehrte. I sleep steadily on until half-past seven A.M., when we arrive at Harburg, our terminal station. Hamburg lies on the other side of the Elbe, and the passage of the river is made in summer by a steamboat; but now the Elbe is frozen, and the crossing is long and difficult. As I am getting my portmanteau, I see a good-looking fresh-coloured boy in a huge fur cap, standing on the box of a droschky in the courtyard; he motions to me inquiringly; I respond, and the next minute he has rushed up, has collared my portmanteau, has pushed me into his carriage, and is standing upon the box, whooshing and holloaing to his two mettlesome little steeds. Besides his fur cap, he wears a short sheepskin jacket with the collar turned up round his face, thick breeches, and well-greased boots reaching to his knees. He has a large pair of fur gloves too, and a long whip, and a short cigar, and a great flow of animal spirits, which impels him jocosely to lay the whip across everybody he meets: shivering peasants with yokes carrying red pails, solemn douaniers, pompous post-couriers, sturdy farmers, fat burghers, all with their heads buried in their coat-collars. In five minutes we arrive at the banks of the Elbe, where we have to wait a quarter of an hour until the steam-ferry is ready to receive us. The scene is desolate enough; the ice has begun to break up, but as yet has "given" but little ; a bitter north-east wind [-362-] skins the thin bald dreary landscape, flat and treeless; and the horses attached to the various carriages shiver and rattle their harness. The peasants have put off their yokes, and stamp up and down beside their red pails; the douaniers scowl over their pipes through the windows of the little toll-house ; the post-courier slips on the frozen road and falls headlong, coming up again with a comic expression of ruffled dignity and a mouth full of strange oaths; and nobody seems happy save my fur-capped droschky boy, who, by dodging and whipping, has edged his carriage into the foremost rank. Then a shout announces that the steam-ferry is ready, and with heavy jolts and bumps we rumble on to it, carriages, horsemen, peasants, all closely packed together, with some twenty men in the bows armed with long iron-tipped poles to break up the solid, and push off the floating, ice. Steam is up, the fat little funnel throws out angry snorts, and we are off; but after two minutes come upon a solid mass of ice which defies our charge, and defies, too, all the prods of the pole-bearers: so we have to back and steer into another channel, through which, by dint of pushing off the floating icebergs, and after many weary stoppages, we arrive at the other side. Then down a long, long chaussée, with never-ending poplars on either side, bounded by a broad arm of the Elbe, so thoroughly frozen that we drive bodily over the ice, with no other difficulty than the uncertain foothold of the horses; then another chaussée, straggling outskirts of a town, wooden bridges over canals, where broad-bottomed boats lay, like the larks and leverets in the pie immortalised by Tennyson, "embedded and enjellied;" then through a handsome faubourg, along a broad road skirting an enormous sheet of water and bordered by handsome houses; and then pulled short up by the door of Streit's hotel.
    Very good is Streit, very handsome is his house, and very excellent is his accommodation, although by reason of my becoming tenant of the only disengaged room in the [-363-] hotel, I am mounted up very high, and my chamber has a dreary look-out into a back courtyard or flowerless garden. For Streit is full. At Streit's door I noticed two sentinels on guard, and in Streit's first floor are reposing princes of the land, who are thus guarded, and noble officers, the princes' staff. His Royal Highness of Prussia is chez Streit, and smaller Transparencies are billeted about in other mansions of this noble street, which is called the Jungfernstieg. A very short acquaintance with Streit proves to me that his visitors are principally military ; lumbering men with clinking spurs, and huge overcoats, and sweeping moustaches, brush by me in the passages; and I am continually tumbling over the regular soldier-servant, he of the short hair, stiff gait, and ears sticking out on the side of his head like the handles of a jug. I am disposed to believe that Streit imagines I too am military, when he hands me a letter from high authority which has been waiting my arrival, and which bears an enormous seal with the impression of the town arms, and has a strictly official and somewhat military appearance. Streit, I think, recognises the style of the address, but little wots Streit of the contents of this document, which enjoins me to return to England so soon as my necessary rest is accomplished. In his happy ignorance, and doubtless thinking that he has me his customer for days, Streit suggests my being tired and going to bed. But - though I don't confide this to Streit - I have only one day in which to see Hamburg, so I scorn his suggestion, and order breakfast. After a splendid bath - Streit has a very good bath in his house - I descend, find an oasis of cups and plates in a desert of tablecloth (laid for the table d'hote breakfast), and start out to explore.
    The enormous lake in front of me is the Alster Bassin, and no doubt in summer, when it is the grand resort of the Hamburgers, who, making up pleasant parties, float over its waters in painted boats, or booze and smoke in pavilion [-364-] cafes on its banks, it is a delightful place. Now, however, it is one vast sheet of ice, on which the thaw is just beginning to take effect, for in the distance is seen a line of men, half-a-dozen paces apart, extending from shore to shore, busily engaged in breaking holes in the ice to admit the air, and so tend to its more speedy dissolution. In the comely gardens fringing the lake I find nurse-girls and their charges, of course attendant soldiers, old gentlemen evidently bent on "constitutionals," priests with bent heads hurrying to the service, the bells inviting to which are now resonant, and little children scampering about - not unlike a foreign edition of St. James's Park, barring the ducks. Between the two Alster Bassins, the greater and the less, I cross over a barren strip of land, where there is a lock and a big windmill, brown and skeletony, and reminding one of the background of a sketch by Ostade; and on the other side I find a high road, and on the high road I find two horses, and on the horses I find two Austrian officers coming very much to grief; partly on account of the slippery state of the roads, and partly on account of their not having yet acquired the rudiments of equitation ; for I take it that to pull a horse's nose on a level with his eye by the aid of a very sharp curb, and then to kick him in the flank with sharp-rowelled spurs, clutching meanwhile by anything permanent, is not the best way to keep a horse on his legs. Then across the Jungfernstieg into the shop-streets, where there is plate-glass, and gilding, and decoration, and lavish expenditure on every side. To eat seems the great end of the Hamburger's life - to eat and so to enjoy. Not only are there large hotels, restaurants, conditorei or pastrycooks, and fruiterers in every street, but at every dozen doors you find a board announcing that in the basement, below the level of the pavement, is an oyster-cellar. Austern und Fruhstuck, Oysters and Breakfast, that is the hospitable announcement of the signboard, and there do the fast young merchants [-365-] congregate before they arrive at their counting-houses, and plunge so deeply into the many-lined, thinly-written, thin rustling leaves of letter-paper, all relating to that "first of exchange." These oyster-cellars are cool yet snug resorts, suggestive of pleasant and soothing alkaline waters, succulent bivalves, appetising anchovies and devilled biscuits; for your Hamburger has anything but poor brains for drinking, and could give your swag-bellied Hollander, and the rest of Cassio's friends, a long start and catch him easily. Likewise, as a new feature, do I notice at the doors of the restaurants, venison: not in its prepared and floured state - as with us - but in its natural state, skin on, horns, hoofs, severed jugular and all.
    High change in Hamburg is at one o'clock. As it is rapidly approaching that hour, I make my way towards the Börse, and enter the building as it is beginning to fill. A handsome edifice this, with a large spiral hall in the centre, surrounded by a colonnade. Upstairs all sorts of little rooms, with names on the doors, merchants' offices like our London pattern at Lloyd's, and a big room, empty and locked, which I am told is the seat of the Chamber of Commerce. From below comes a roar of voices, and, looking down, I see the Hamburg merchants literally "at it." There they are, Hamburgers proper, rotund of body, heavy of jowl, fishy of eye, stubbly of hair, bushy of beard, thumb-beringed and hands-begrimed, listening and grunting; young Hamburg, blotchy, sodden, watery-eyed, strongly reminiscent of "last night," stung into business for business sake, and for the sake of making more money for the encouragement of Veuve Clicquot, and Mumm, and Roederer, and Heidzecker, and other compounders of Sillery Sec and Pommery Greno; old Jewry, gaberdined to the heels in fur, with cotton wool in its ears, screaming, yelling, checking off numbers in its interlocutor's face with skinny yellow fingers; young Jewry, with an avalanche of black satin [-366-] round its throat, and a big brilliant diamond therein, cool, calm, specious, and a trifle oleaginous; middle-aged France, heaving in the waistband which props its rotund stomach under its double-chin, with scarcely any face to be seen between the rim of its fore and aft hat and the points of its gummed moustache; here and there an Englishman, chimney-pot-hatted, solemn and awfully respectable ; little olive-skinned Greeks, Russians in sable, and two Parsees in brown-paper head-dresses. But the noise! It floods you, drenches you, soaks you through and through.
    When I leave the Exchange it is past two o'clock, which I am glad of; but it is beginning to rain, which I am sorry for; Streit's table-d'hote does not take place until four, and I must fain walk about, dreading the thoughts of my dreary bedroom looking on the back-yard. So I walk about, and look at the church of St. Nicholas, which is one of the best Gothic triumphs of our own great architect, Mr. Gilbert Scott, and I bend my neck very far back indeed endeavouring to see the spire of St. Michael's; and I visit the Rathhaus and am not impressed thereby, and I inspect the promenading female beauty with the same result: for the Hamburg females are neither better nor worse looking than the majority of their German sisters, and have the coarse hair, and the dull thick skins, and the coarse hands, and the elephantine ankles, for which your Deutsches Madchen is renowned. They seem to find favour though in the eyes of the Prussian and Austrian officers, who are everywhere and who ogle them in the the military manner; but the maidens do not respond, and only halt in their walk to contemplate occasional regiments marching by, with the invariable accompaniment of vagabond boys and men. But the rain now comes down so smartly that I can walk about uncovered no longer, and am making my way to Streit's, when out of the Jungfernstieg I turn into an arcade, full of such shops as in such places are generally to be found, and [-367-] here I while away my time. Jewellers first: I do not care to stare in at jewellers' windows in England; I seem to myself like a hungry urchin at a pastrycook's longing after the tarts; but that rule does not hold here, and so I stare my fill, noticing all the curly snakes with ruby eyes and turquoise tails, the rings and pins, the hair-brooches (the Germans are tremendous at these, and there were shoals of those very gummy wavy hair willow-trees bent over little black tombs, with the gilt wire adjustment plainly visible), the thin little French watches, the fat German turnips, the montres Chinoises (Chinese watches made in Geneva) with one long thin hand perpetually turning round, and rendering hopeless any attempt to tell the time ; the earrings, the enormous gold skewers, arrows, hoops, arcs, shells, and knobs for the hair. Printsellers : the place of honour occupied by the late Mr. Luard's pictures of "Nearing Home" and the "Welcome Arrival," and Mr. Brooks's pretty sentimentalisms of empty cradles and watching wives ; close by these, and in excellent keeping, a French artist's notion of the English in Paris; English gentleman in a suit of whity-brown paper, green plaid cloth tops to his boots, a pointed moustache, and a very fluffy hat (how they do catch our peculiarities in dress, don't they!), saying to a lady, lovely, but perhaps a trifle free: "Voulez accepter le coeur de moa?" in itself an excellent joke ; many pictures of encounters between the Prussians and the Danes in 1848, in which the latter are always getting the worst of it, and a notable print, "Seeschlacht bei Eckenford" (Sea-fight at Eckenford), which sea-fight apparently consists of a Danish ship running aground, and the Germans running away. Then, a bookseller's; covered all over with their little copies of Der Londoner Vertrag ("The London Treaty" of 1852), with numerous French and German books, and some gaudy-coloured English works, one of which I am inclined to think by its title, Daddy Goriot, or Unrequited Affection, [-368-] cannot be entirely original, but may have some connection with a French gentleman, one Honoré de Balzac, deceased. Then a photographer's; where I am refreshed at finding what I, of course, have never seen in my own land - carte-de-visite portraits of the Prince and Princess of Wales, also of Herr von Bismarck, the great Prussian firebrand, also of Fräulein Delia and Fräulein Lucca, great operatic stars, in all kinds of costume; also the portrait of a gentleman, with particoloured cheeks, a cock's-comb head-dress and fantastic dress, with a legend underneath, stating it to be the effigy of "Herr Price, Clown, Circus Renz."
     A lengthened tour of inspection of this arcade, and a chat with the tobacconist, of whom I buy some cigars, brings me close to four o'clock, when Streit rings his bell for table-d'hôte, and I find myself one of half-a-dozen civilians, all the rest of the guests being Austrian and Prussian officers. When they find I am a foreigner (they think I am a Russian), these gentlemen are very polite, including me in their conversation, clinking glasses with me, etc., while they scowl upon the civilians of their own country, and take no notice of them. The conversation turns upon the part played by England in this war, and I have the satisfaction of hearing my country and its ministers very roundly abused: so roundly, that at length I declare my nationality, and receive all sorts of apologies from my friends, who deprecate any idea of personality, but who still decry our English policy, and who tell me that the unpopularity of England throughout Germany is terrible. In due course after which I take my candle and go to bed, having to be up at daybreak, to start once more on the public service.