Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Chapter 1 - Contrasts

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I AM an Englishman, born and bred; and yet I suppose scarce any Foreigner who comes at this time* [*These pages first appeared in a serial form in 1862] for the World's Fair to London knows less about that world-famous city than I. England has been a far land to me these many years, but I have not loved it less on that account; nay more, one must go to school, they say, to appreciate home, and I have been to a hard school on the other side the world without one holiday. For the last score of years and longer, I have walked

By the long wash of Australasian seas 
Far off, and held my head to other stars, 
And breathed in converse seasons. 

[-4-] I can quote, you see. I know English writers better perhaps than many who have had leisure to read them here at home; for I have had more cause to know them. They have been to me almost as home itself. Out in the lonely Bush they have held before me pictures of peopled cities; and on the treeless Prairie the loved landscapes of my native land.
    I had not, it is true, much taste for reading as a boy; I liked riding better; I loved poaching (with a blunderbuss stolen from the butler's pantry) best of all. When my father died, and my brother Tom was left sole heir, I daresay I did not do much credit to his grand establishment. He did not put any insuperable barriers to my fancy for emigration. We parted not as brothers, I fear, nor even as friends. He was very solicitous that the Family name should not be discredited by association with any low pursuit -such as sheep- farming (the Trevors, he said, had not been connected with trade for centuries); and I indulged him in this matter with a vengeance. Nobody [-5-] would suspect that in the person of Mr. John Stokes, last of Melbourne, late of Morumbidgee, is now concentrated all that remains of the rich blood of the Trevors of Trevarton. In Australia, one kind of blood is no better than another - for we don't refine our own sugar. However, there is no need for bitterness. Tom is dead now, poor fellow, childless; and his wife is dead, and her nephew is made heir of all. The breezy uplands, where I used to fly my kite, are his; the home Farm, where I was wont to skim the cream from the standing milk; the sheltered paddock, that held the long-tailed pony which my father gave me upon the last birthday I ever spent in England. The old man never dreamed that things would turn out thus. Trevarton gone to strangers - Heaven knows whom; I don't. And likely to change hands again, for the young spark, 'tis said, is lavish of his money. I might buy the estate to-morrow, doubtless, if I chose; but I do not choose. Mr. John Stokes is not ambitious of territorial distinction. What are three or four [-6-] hundred paltry acres, to one who has had twenty square miles of pasture-land in the underworld to call his own! No. I can be no country squire now. I am a citizen of the universe without a tie; and also, alas! without a friend within sixteen thousand miles or so.
    I am here in England to behold the wonders of civilization, and life in the metropolis of the world; my object so far is identical with that of the Japanese ambassadors. But many things are so altered since my time that they are more strange than if they were new.
    Let me take a simple example. When I left England, Cricket was a favourite game with village boys, but was only in rare instances played by men. There was one cricket-club where there are now a dozen. If you looked out the word in the encyclopaedias of that date, it would have been with this result:
    "CRICKET. See Gryllus; is also [small type] an exercise or game with bats and a ball."
    Yet one Australian firm alone gave recently [-7-] seven thousand pounds for the honour of a visit from the Eleven of England. Each man received his 150, had his passage paid out and home, and was maintained throughout his stay in the colony as though he were a prince of the blood. He never went out upon wheels without four, horses. His excellency the governor presided at the entertainment which welcomed these Philosophers of the Wicket, who were received everywhere with distinctions such as were never paid to those of the Porch. Their departure from England was so timed as not to interfere with their professional avocations (!), and they now return for the recommencement of the cricketing season at home. Thus, with the exception of the time lost in the two voyages, they will have played cricket all the year round, and been well rewarded for it. In my time, there was scarcely a professional cricketer in Great Britain. Round-hand bowling was almost unknown. It was contemptuously called "throwing" by the veterans, who accounted for its origin thus: An only son, much addicted to cricket, [-8-] sighed in vain for his favourite pursuit during the holidays, until his sisters volunteered to bowl for him. Cricket in the family became from that date an established institution; only, as the girls were unable to bowl in the usual way (that is, underhand), because of their petticoats (which they could not well gather up under their left arms as a man does his coat-tails), they bowled round-hand; and that, after a little, so accurately, that their brother was quite enamoured of the fashion, and took it back with him to school. This feminine bowling - but with the speed of a catapult, and the certainty of a rifle bullet - is now become the recognised mode. What a stride, then, has this one matter of Cricket made, which I left an amusement, to find a recognised Art, nay, a Science, the disciples of which are invited even to the antipodes!
    This is merely a single instance of that stupendous Change which has affected all things here within a quarter of a century. As a father who has been away from his child in foreign climes [-9-] returns, and scarcely recognises his own, so gaze I on England. She is beautiful exceedingly, thinks he, but with another sort of beauty than that which has recurred to him in danger, in sickness, in the long watches of the night, at all times, in short, when the sombre thought has intruded that he will see her never more; different altogether from that picture which he has made within his mind, and dwelt upon throughout that weary voyage which ended at last in home: she is a child no longer, but a woman grown, with all her charms mature. My own advancing years must plead excuse for a metaphor so faulty as this. I am not old, as years go, but I feel old in this England, which I left a youth, and return to in middle age. The generation to which I once belonged, here, has grown up without me, among experiences of which I know nothing. I look for companions (so strongly do old associations work) into the faces of men who have been born since I left my native land. I am told that the very external face of nature has suffered change here - that what were pleasant fields, are [-10-] seamed with roads of iron, and strewed with ashes; the common lands enclosed; the trees uprooted, and their places filled with towering chimneys, breathing the black breath of trade. I do not care to see if this be true. I said that I was Stokes, and Australian to the backbone, but - it is a foolish prejudice, but I trust they have not found coal in Trevarton parish, and sunk a round black pit in the middle of the paddock. That western country has not, I understand, been found so wealthy underground as other districts, but merely produces the fruits of the earth after the old fashion still. I am glad of it. I have been in a land which, being wounded by the pick, bleeds gold, but its people are no better for that; gold; we know, makes guilt.
    Even in the English West, however, where I landed, there was much unrecognisable. We flew by towns which were hamlets when I left them, and by roaring factories which were the silent pasture-lands of cattle: here and there, where space was still to be found, there were set up [-11-] rifle-butts - the strangest sight of all. The very mode of travel was a wonder to me. The last time I had gone that route (to school), it was a three days' journey, which was now a six hours' trip. The inns are in ruins, and the landlords broken or dead all along that road. The coachmen and postboys are genera as entirely extinct as the dodo of my adopted land. Through Evarton, which was on the Great South Road, there were wont to pass to and fro two hundred coaches per diem, but a single omnibus from Evarton Road Station suffices to carry all that visit that now secluded village. I saw the thing standing at the Navvy's Arms myself as the train made a moment's stoppage, whereat the fiery monster, who had dragged us through the air at forty miles an hour, shrieked impatiently for "Work, more work," as the Foul Fiend shrieked to the sorcerer. To men who go sixty miles to their city counting-houses every morning, and return in the afternoon to their families at the sea-side, these matters may appear commonplace enough. "The fairy tales of science [-12-] and the long results of time," awaken in them no such interest; their lives are centred (ah me!) in wife and children, in friends and home. They have neither leisure nor inclination for such reflections as crowd in upon me with every sight I see in this old land which is so new to me. They gaze out of the carriage window at the flying landscape almost without consciousness of those bare white poles that fly too all the way, bearing their half-a-dozen lines of wire. They might be clothes-props for all the notice they excite. But to me, who have lived apart from my fellow-men so long, often with no means of communicating with them save by a perilous day's ride through a wilderness, this power of speech at a distance seems very wonderful and precious. Ah, what would I not have given at times for one little tinkle such as the telegraph bell gives, or one little "tick, tick," of its watch-like hands, to let me know that another human being was wishing me well! The sound of a voice, the touch of a hand, the writing of a letter, are now no longer necessary [-13-] to transmit human sympathy; and as the world rolls, and knowledge broadens, I do not doubt that there will be one day scarce a single spot in the whole world whither a healing word may not fly from Old England more swiftly by a hundred times than on the wings of a dove. There will be no such thing as Exile then. You who have always lived at home do not know how the mere sight of a ship lying in an Australian harbour bound for the English shore moves the hearts of rough stern men who are not to sail in her; I have seen them touch her sides with a sort of reverence. If you do not believe this, you will scarcely be to blame; for how is it possible you should understand home-sickness - the yearning of the Emigrant: a certain poetry, my friends, which you imagine, perhaps, to exist in the book-world only, flames up, I tell you, like the crocus, in every exiled bosom, no matter how frozen the soil. If a ship, then, which in half-a-year's time, perhaps, will reach our native shore, excites such interest, judge what it will be to see, to touch such wires [-14-] as these, and to know that the other end of them lies in England. Even if no friend be there to flash his love to us across the world, this will be something. It would have been a great deal to me, I know, who had no such friend.
    I write all this because I spoke of it to one who was my fellow-passenger in the train, and it seemed to have some interest for him. He was civil enough to me, being amused (I could see) with my notice of things as with the remarks of a child. We colonists, in the eyes of you denizens of the old country, must always, I suppose, appear thus. Yet here let me be allowed to say, that, while leaving us far behind in very much, you have dropped some things in your swift career which we have retained. The power of genial appreciation has gone from you almost utterly; you seem afraid of committing yourselves too far - in everything save censure. The virtues of hospitality are not held at their due value; you entertain, in order that you may be entertained again, and that with ostentation and effort. The ancient fashion of [-15-] asking a friend "to stop to dinner," has quite faded away. A glazed and lithographed invitation is sent to him a fortnight in advance, instead, and a much more splendid banquet is provided for him than the "pot-luck "* [*Vulgar word. "Disused," says the latest dictionary]  to which he would otherwise have been welcomed. By this apparently extravagant procedure, half-a-dozen ordinary entertainments are saved, for the "friend" is thereby crossed out of the invitation list for the next four months - paid off like a tailor's bill until he accumulates sufficiently to be settled again. I do not say English men and women are become hollow-hearted - heaven forbid! but there is a love of tawdry glitter and show among them which I do not think used to be of old, and such as I have not seen in the underworld save in the case of its aboriginal inhabitants, who are as passionately fond of the greenest beads as though they were genuine emeralds. Wealth and Fashion have here got honest Nature by the throat, and are garrotting her. How you must all have grinned when you [-16-] heard of your fellow-countrymen on the other side of the globe assembling by tens of thousands to welcome the advent of a primrose from Old England! In one of dear Han Christien Andersen's tales, a certain prince sends to his love, the emperor's daughter, a rose, the fragrance of which is so exquisite, that everybody forgets his sorrows when he smells it; and a nightingale who sings as though all the lovely melodies of the world were collected in her little throat. When she saw the silver shrines containing these presents, the princess clapped her hands for joy.
    "Then out came the rose-tree with the beautiful rose.
    "'How very elegantly it is made!' exclaimed all the court ladies.
    "'It is more than elegant,' said the emperor, 'it is charming.'
    "But the princess, having felt it, was ready to cry.
    "'Fie, papa,' said she; 'it is not an artificial rose, but merely a natural one.'
    [-17-] "'Fie!' echoed all the ladies-in-waiting, 'it is merely a natural rose.'
    "'Let's see what the other shrine may contain before we fly into a passion,' said his majesty; and then out came the nightingale, and sang so sweetly, that nobody at first thought of any spiteful fault-finding.
    "'Superbe! - charmant!' cried the court ladies, for they all chattered French, however badly.
    "'The bird reminds me of the late empress's musical box,'' observed an old lord-in-waiting; 'it has the same tone and the same execution.'
    "'Yes,' said the emperor, crying like a little child.
    "'But it is not a real bird, I trust?' asked the princess.
    "'Yes, it is a real bird,' said those who had brought it.
    "'Then let it fly away,' said the princess, who would not hear of the prince coming to pay his respects to her.
    We colonists were very glad to get the real [-18-] primrose; but as for you, my friends, it is my opinion that you would prefer a flower out of a jeweller's shop to the most charming that the Giver of all Good ever set in the world, to breathe not only its natural sweetness, but to awaken memories and thoughts too deep, indeed, for tears.
    Some of these sentiments, which I had only gathered at that time from the books which photograph you (and which we read, as I have said, with such excessive interest beyond the sea), I ventured to express to my fellow-traveller, who laughed at them good-naturedly, as one laughs at the petulance of a child. I had been away from society so long, he said, that I was not in a position to understand these matters; I was not looking at them from the right point of sight. He seemed to think one should stand inside in order to obtain a complete and comprehensive view of the Social Edifice. However, we parted excellent friends at the terminus. As the train glided in under the mighty roof, I bethought me of that contracted [-19-]  shell set in the midst of fields which in my time was Paddington station. The line, I think, reached as far as Hanwell, which now casts its iron net over a score of counties."
    "You should see Frith's picture of the Railway Station," were the last words of my carriage acquaintance in answer to some remark upon this subject, as he hurried away with a bow. In Melbourne - had he arrived there as I had in England - I should have taken him, bag and baggage, home, and insisted upon his staying there till he got tired of me. In London, however, a Londoner's first object is not to have a spare room in his house, in order to be able with a good conscience to send his own mother to an hotel.* [* It is not Hospitality but Terror through which entertainment and lodging are obtained from him by his mother-in-law.] 
    I directed the cabman to drive me to the same inn at which I rested the night before I left England. I remembered it well: its limp waiters; its stiff and high-voiced lady at the bar; its coffee- [-20-]room furnished with pens as for a sheep-fair, and smelling of cruets and stale crumbs.
    "Hollo! my good friend," cried I, as the cab-man pulled up in front of an edifice five times the size of His Excellency the governor's house, "where have you driven me to? I am not expected, I regret to say, at Buckingham Palace."
    "This is your 'Otel, sir, nevertheless. I thank your honour kindly. You are one of the right sort, you are. I wish sixpences was as scarce as gentlemen, I do."
    Not understanding the new tariff, I had paid him at the old shilling rate, and hence this epigrammatic burst of gratitude.
    The place wherein I now found myself was indeed a stately caravansary. Hot and cold baths, bran baths (the very intention of which is unknown to me), shower baths, douche baths, all marble and magnificence, were now where formerly there was but one miserable wooden trough overlooked by the pantry window. "The establishment," I was informed by a very pearl of head-waiters, looking  [-21-] more ducal than any confidential servant of a duke, "was also in communication with some Turkish Baths within a few minutes' walk." I wallowed in the crystal waters of an alabaster pool for a while, and then, as lively as an opossum, descended into the coffee-room. Coffee-room! It was more like a drawing-room, with a hundred waiters, and a thousand guests, and at least a score or so of Mr. John Stokeses - the mirrors multiplied everything to such an extent.
    "Waiter," said I, "what is that enormous instrument which I perceive through yonder window, with the wooden box beside it?"
    The waiter saw nothing remarkable.
    "What, man? Do you not perceive that ship's ventilator, which has apparently married a ladder."
    "That is only the hotel fire-escape, sir."
    Only that! The last time I was at this inn, it was the boast of the place that its staircase up to the first floor were made of stone, so that all eminent persons, at least - all the people who were most  [-22-] worth saving - who should honour it with their patronage, were safe from the devouring element.
    "And what time will you dine, sir ?"
    "What time do people dine in London?" asked I.
    "Oh! sir, gentlemen dine at all hours - at all hours, sir - after seven."
    Now, my hour for dining in the bush, when that event came off at all, used to be 11.30 A.M.