OF the year 1862 Henry Adams could never think without a shudder. The war alone did not greatly distress him; already in his short life he was used to seeing people wade in blood, and he could plainly discern in history, that man from the beginning had found his chief amusement in bloodshed; but the ferocious joy of destruction at its best requires that one should kill what one hates, and young Adams neither hated nor wanted to kill his friends the rebels, while he wanted nothing so much as to wipe England off the earth. Never could any good come from that besotted race! He was feebly trying to save his own life. Every day the British Government deliberately crowded him one step further into the grave. He could see it; the Legation knew it; no one doubted it; no one thought of questioning it. The Trent Affair showed where Palmerston and Russell stood. The escape of the rebel cruisers from Liverpool was not, in a young man’s eyes, the sign of hesitation, but the proof of their fixed intention to intervene. Lord Russell’s replies to Mr. Adams’s notes were discourteous in their indifference, and, to an irritable young private secretary of twenty-four, were insolent in their disregard of truth. Whatever forms of phrase were usual in public to modify the harshness of invective, in private no political opponent in England, and few political friends, hesitated to say brutally of Lord John Russell that he lied. This was no great reproach, for, more or less, every statesman lied, but the intensity of the private secretary’s rage sprang from his belief that Russell’s form of defence covered intent to kill. Not for an instant did the Legation draw a free breath. The suspense was hideous and unendurable.
The Minister, no doubt, endured it, but he had support and consideration, while his son had nothing to think about but his friends who were mostly dying under McClellan in the swamps about Richmond, or his enemies who were exulting in Pall Mall. He bore it as well as he could till midsummer, but, when the story of the second Bull Run appeared, he could bear it no longer, and after a sleepless night, walking up and down his room without reflecting that his father was beneath him, he announced at breakfast his intention to go home into the army. His mother seemed to be less impressed by the announcement than by the walking over her head, which was so unlike her as to surprise her son. His father, too, received the announcement quietly. No doubt they expected it, and had taken their measures in advance. In those days, parents got used to all sorts of announcements from their children. Mr. Adams took his son’s defection as quietly as he took Bull Run; but his son never got the chance to go. He found obstacles constantly rising in his path. The remonstrances of his brother Charles, who was himself in the Army of the Potomac, and whose opinion had always the greatest weight with Henry, had much to do with delaying action; but he felt, of his own accord, that if he deserted his post in London, and found the Capuan comforts he expected in Virginia where he would have only bullets to wound him, he would never forgive himself for leaving his father and mother alone to be devoured by the wild beasts of the British amphitheatre. This reflection might not have stopped him, but his father’s suggestion was decisive. The Minister pointed out that it was too late for him to take part in the actual campaign, and that long before next spring they would all go home together.
The young man had copied too many affidavits about rebel cruisers to miss the point of this argument, so he sat down again to copy some more. Consul Dudley at Liverpool provided a continuous supply. Properly, the affidavits were no business of the private secretary, but practically the private secretary did a second secretary’s work, and was glad to do it, if it would save Mr. Seward the trouble of sending more secretaries of his own selection to help the Minister. The work was nothing, and no one ever complained of it; not even Moran, the Secretary of Legation after the departure of Charley Wilson, though he might sit up all night to copy. Not the work, but the play exhausted. The effort of facing a hostile society was bad enough, but that of facing friends was worse. After terrific disasters like the seven days before Richmond and the second Bull Run, friends needed support; a tone of bluff would have been fatal, for the average mind sees quickest through a bluff; nothing answers but candor; yet private secretaries never feel candid, however much they feel the reverse, and therefore they must affect candor; not always a simple act when one is exasperated, furious, bitter, and choking with tears over the blunders and incapacity of one’s Government. If one shed tears, they must be shed on one’s pillow. Least of all, must one throw extra strain on the Minister, who had all he could carry without being fretted in his family. One must read one’s Times every morning over one’s muffin without reading aloud —“Another disastrous Federal Defeat”; and one might not even indulge in harmless profanity. Self-restraint among friends required much more effort than keeping a quiet face before enemies. Great men were the worst blunderers. One day the private secretary smiled, when standing with the crowd in the throne-room while the endless procession made bows to the royal family, at hearing, behind his shoulder, one Cabinet Minister remark gaily to another: “So the Federals have got another licking!” The point of the remark was its truth. Even a private secretary had learned to control his tones and guard his features and betray no joy over the “lickings” of an enemy — in the enemy’s presence.
London was altogether beside itself on one point, in especial; it created a nightmare of its own, and gave it the shape of Abraham Lincoln. Behind this it placed another demon, if possible more devilish, and called it Mr. Seward. In regard to these two men, English society seemed demented. Defence was useless; explanation was vain; one could only let the passion exhaust itself. One’s best friends were as unreasonable as enemies, for the belief in poor Mr. Lincoln’s brutality and Seward’s ferocity became a dogma of popular faith. The last time Henry Adams saw Thackeray, before his sudden death at Christmas in 1863, was in entering the house of Sir Henry Holland for an evening reception. Thackeray was pulling on his coat downstairs, laughing because, in his usual blind way, he had stumbled into the wrong house and not found it out till he shook hands with old Sir Henry, whom he knew very well, but who was not the host he expected. Then his tone changed as he spoke of his — and Adams’s — friend, Mrs. Frank Hampton, of South Carolina, whom he had loved as Sally Baxter and painted as Ethel Newcome. Though he had never quite forgiven her marriage, his warmth of feeling revived when he heard that she had died of consumption at Columbia while her parents and sister were refused permission to pass through the lines to see her. In speaking of it, Thackeray’s voice trembled and his eyes filled with tears. The coarse cruelty of Lincoln and his hirelings was notorious. He never doubted that the Federals made a business of harrowing the tenderest feelings of women — particularly of women — in order to punish their opponents. On quite insufficient evidence he burst into violent reproach. Had Adams carried in his pocket the proofs that the reproach was unjust, he would have gained nothing by showing them. At that moment Thackeray, and all London society with him, needed the nervous relief of expressing emotion; for if Mr. Lincoln was not what they said he — was what were they?
For like reason, the members of the Legation kept silence, even in private, under the boorish Scotch jibes of Carlyle. If Carlyle was wrong, his diatribes would give his true measure, and this measure would be a low one, for Carlyle was not likely to be more sincere or more sound in one thought than in another. The proof that a philosopher does not know what he is talking about is apt to sadden his followers before it reacts on himself. Demolition of one’s idols is painful, and Carlyle had been an idol. Doubts cast on his stature spread far into general darkness like shadows of a setting sun. Not merely the idols fell, but also the habit of faith. If Carlyle, too, was a fraud, what were his scholars and school?
Society as a rule was civil, and one had no more reason to complain than every other diplomatist has had, in like conditions, but one’s few friends in society were mere ornament. The Legation could not dream of contesting social control. The best they could do was to escape mortification, and by this time their relations were good enough to save the Minister’s family from that annoyance. Now and then, the fact could not be wholly disguised that some one had refused to meet — or to receive — the Minister; but never an open insult, or any expression of which the Minister had to take notice. Diplomacy served as a buffer in times of irritation, and no diplomat who knew his business fretted at what every diplomat — and none more commonly than the English — had to expect; therefore Henry Adams, though not a diplomat and wholly unprotected, went his way peacefully enough, seeing clearly that society cared little to make his acquaintance, but seeing also no reason why society should discover charms in him of which he was himself unconscious. He went where he was asked; he was always courteously received; he was, on the whole, better treated than at Washington; and he held his tongue.
For a thousand reasons, the best diplomatic house in London was Lord Palmerston’s, while Lord John Russell’s was one of the worst. Of neither host could a private secretary expect to know anything. He might as well have expected to know the Grand Lama. Personally Lord Palmerston was the last man in London that a cautious private secretary wanted to know. Other Prime Ministers may perhaps have lived who inspired among diplomatists as much distrust as Palmerston, and yet between Palmerston’s word and Russell’s word, one hesitated to decide, and gave years of education to deciding, whether either could be trusted, or how far. The Queen herself in her famous memorandum of August 12, 1850, gave her opinion of Palmerston in words that differed little from words used by Lord John Russell, and both the Queen and Russell said in substance only what Cobden and Bright said in private. Every diplomatist agreed with them, yet the diplomatic standard of trust seemed to be other than the parliamentarian No professional diplomatists worried about falsehoods. Words were with them forms of expression which varied with individuals, but falsehood was more or less necessary to all. The worst liars were the candid. What diplomatists wanted to know was the motive that lay beyond the expression. In the case of Palmerston they were unanimous in warning new colleagues that they might expect to be sacrificed by him to any momentary personal object. Every new Minister or Ambassador at the Court of St. James received this preliminary lesson that he must, if possible, keep out of Palmerston’s reach. The rule was not secret or merely diplomatic. The Queen herself had emphatically expressed the same opinion officially. If Palmerston had an object to gain, he would go down to the House of Commons and betray or misrepresent a foreign Minister, without concern for his victim. No one got back on him with a blow equally mischievous — not even the Queen — for, as old Baron Brunnow described him: “C’est une peau de rhinocere!” Having gained his point, he laughed, and his public laughed with him, for the usual British — or American — public likes to be amused, and thought it very amusing to see these beribboned and bestarred foreigners caught and tossed and gored on the horns of this jovial, slashing, devil-may-care British bull.
Diplomatists have no right to complain of mere lies; it is their own fault, if, educated as they are, the lies deceive them; but they complain bitterly of traps. Palmerston was believed to lay traps. He was the enfant terrible of the British Government. On the other hand, Lady Palmerston was believed to be good and loyal. All the diplomats and their wives seemed to think so, and took their troubles to her, believing that she would try to help them. For this reason among others, her evenings at home — Saturday Reviews, they were called — had great vogue. An ignorant young American could not be expected to explain it. Cambridge House was no better for entertaining than a score of others. Lady Palmerston was no longer young or handsome, and could hardly at any age have been vivacious. The people one met there were never smart and seldom young; they were largely diplomatic, and diplomats are commonly dull; they were largely political, and politicians rarely decorate or beautify an evening party; they were sprinkled with literary people, who are notoriously unfashionable; the women were of course ill-dressed and middle-aged; the men looked mostly bored or out of place; yet, beyond a doubt, Cambridge House was the best, and perhaps the only political house in London, and its success was due to Lady Palmerston, who never seemed to make an effort beyond a friendly recognition. As a lesson in social education, Cambridge House gave much subject for thought. First or last, one was to know dozens of statesmen more powerful and more agreeable than Lord Palmerston; dozens of ladies more beautiful and more painstaking than Lady Palmerston; but no political house so successful as Cambridge House. The world never explains such riddles. The foreigners said only that Lady Palmerston was “sympathique.”
The small fry of the Legations were admitted there, or tolerated, without a further effort to recognize their existence, but they were pleased because rarely tolerated anywhere else, and there they could at least stand in a corner and look at a bishop or even a duke. This was the social diversion of young Adams. No one knew him — not even the lackeys. The last Saturday evening he ever attended, he gave his name as usual at the foot of the staircase, and was rather disturbed to hear it shouted up as “Mr. Handrew Hadams!” He tried to correct it, and the footman shouted more loudly: “Mr. Hanthony Hadams!” With some temper he repeated the correction, and was finally announced as “Mr. Halexander Hadams,” and under this name made his bow for the last time to Lord Palmerston who certainly knew no better.
Far down the staircase one heard Lord Palmerston’s laugh as he stood at the door receiving his guests, talking probably to one of his henchmen, Delane, Borthwick, or Hayward, who were sure to be near. The laugh was singular, mechanical, wooden, and did not seem to disturb his features. “Ha! . . . Ha! . . . Ha!” Each was a slow, deliberate ejaculation, and all were in the same tone, as though he meant to say: “Yes! . . . Yes! . . . Yes!” by way of assurance. It was a laugh of 1810 and the Congress of Vienna. Adams would have much liked to stop a moment and ask whether William Pitt and the Duke of Wellington had laughed so; but young men attached to foreign Ministers asked no questions at all of Palmerston and their chiefs asked as few as possible. One made the usual bow and received the usual glance of civility; then passed on to Lady Palmerston, who was always kind in manner, but who wasted no remarks; and so to Lady Jocelyn with her daughter, who commonly had something friendly to say; then went through the diplomatic corps, Brunnow, Musurus, Azeglio, Apponyi, Van de Weyer, Bille, Tricoupi, and the rest, finally dropping into the hands of some literary accident as strange there as one’s self. The routine varied little. There was no attempt at entertainment. Except for the desperate isolation of these two first seasons, even secretaries would have found the effort almost as mechanical as a levee at St. James’s Palace.
Lord Palmerston was not Foreign Secretary; he was Prime Minister, but he loved foreign affairs and could no more resist scoring a point in diplomacy than in whist. Ministers of foreign powers, knowing his habits, tried to hold him at arms’-length, and, to do this, were obliged to court the actual Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, who, on July 30, 1861, was called up to the House of Lords as an earl. By some process of personal affiliation, Minister Adams succeeded in persuading himself that he could trust Lord Russell more safely than Lord Palmerston. His son, being young and ill-balanced in temper, thought there was nothing to choose. Englishmen saw little difference between them, and Americans were bound to follow English experience in English character. Minister Adams had much to learn, although with him as well as with his son, the months of education began to count as aeons.
Just as Brunnow predicted, Lord Palmerston made his rush at last, as unexpected as always, and more furiously than though still a private secretary of twenty-four. Only a man who had been young with the battle of Trafalgar could be fresh and jaunty to that point, but Minister Adams was not in a position to sympathize with octogenarian youth and found himself in a danger as critical as that of his numerous predecessors. It was late one after noon in June, 1862, as the private secretary returned, with the Minister, from some social function, that he saw his father pick up a note from his desk and read it in silence. Then he said curtly: “Palmerston wants a quarrel!” This was the point of the incident as he felt it. Palmerston wanted a quarrel; he must not be gratified; he must be stopped. The matter of quarrel was General Butler’s famous woman-order at New Orleans, but the motive was the belief in President Lincoln’s brutality that had taken such deep root in the British mind. Knowing Palmerston’s habits, the Minister took for granted that he meant to score a diplomatic point by producing this note in the House of Commons. If he did this at once, the Minister was lost; the quarrel was made; and one new victim to Palmerston’s passion for popularity was sacrificed.
The moment was nervous — as far as the private secretary knew, quite the most critical moment in the records of American diplomacy — but the story belongs to history, not to education, and can be read there by any one who cares to read it. As a part of Henry Adams’s education it had a value distinct from history. That his father succeeded in muzzling Palmerston without a public scandal, was well enough for the Minister, but was not enough for a private secretary who liked going to Cambridge House, and was puzzled to reconcile contradictions. That Palmerston had wanted a quarrel was obvious; why, then, did he submit so tamely to being made the victim of the quarrel? The correspondence that followed his note was conducted feebly on his side, and he allowed the United States Minister to close it by a refusal to receive further communications from him except through Lord Russell. The step was excessively strong, for it broke off private relations as well as public, and cost even the private secretary his invitations to Cambridge House. Lady Palmerston tried her best, but the two ladies found no resource except tears. They had to do with American Minister perplexed in the extreme. Not that Mr. Adams lost his temper, for he never felt such a weight of responsibility, and was never more cool; but he could conceive no other way of protecting his Government, not to speak of himself, than to force Lord Russell to interpose. He believed that Palmerston’s submission and silence were due to Russell. Perhaps he was right; at the time, his son had no doubt of it, though afterwards he felt less sure. Palmerston wanted a quarrel; the motive seemed evident; yet when the quarrel was made, he backed out of it; for some reason it seemed that he did not want it — at least, not then. He never showed resentment against Mr. Adams at the time or afterwards. He never began another quarrel. Incredible as it seemed, he behaved like a well-bred gentleman who felt himself in the wrong. Possibly this change may have been due to Lord Russell’s remonstrances, but the private secretary would have felt his education in politics more complete had he ever finally made up his mind whether Palmerston was more angry with General Butler, or more annoyed at himself, for committing what was in both cases an unpardonable betise.
At the time, the question was hardly raised, for no one doubted Palmerston’s attitude or his plans. The season was near its end, and Cambridge House was soon closed. The Legation had troubles enough without caring to publish more. The tide of English feeling ran so violently against it that one could only wait to see whether General McClellan would bring it relief. The year 1862 was a dark spot in Henry Adams’s life, and the education it gave was mostly one that he gladly forgot. As far as he was aware, he made no friends; he could hardly make enemies; yet towards the close of the year he was flattered by an invitation from Monckton Milnes to Fryston, and it was one of many acts of charity towards the young that gave Milnes immortality. Milnes made it his business to be kind. Other people criticised him for his manner of doing it, but never imitated him. Naturally, a dispirited, disheartened private secretary was exceedingly grateful, and never forgot the kindness, but it was chiefly as education that this first country visit had value. Commonly, country visits are much alike, but Monckton Milnes was never like anybody, and his country parties served his purpose of mixing strange elements. Fryston was one of a class of houses that no one sought for its natural beauties, and the winter mists of Yorkshire were rather more evident for the absence of the hostess on account of them, so that the singular guests whom Milnes collected to enliven his December had nothing to do but astonish each other, if anything could astonish such men. Of the five, Adams alone was tame; he alone added nothing to the wit or humor, except as a listener; but they needed a listener and he was useful. Of the remaining four, Milnes was the oldest, and perhaps the sanest in spite of his superficial eccentricities, for Yorkshire sanity was true to a standard of its own, if not to other conventions; yet even Milnes startled a young American whose Boston and Washington mind was still fresh. He would not have been startled by the hard-drinking, horse-racing Yorkshireman of whom he had read in books; but Milnes required a knowledge of society and literature that only himself possessed, if one were to try to keep pace with him. He had sought contact with everybody and everything that Europe could offer. He knew it all from several points of view, and chiefly as humorous.
The second of the party was also of a certain age; a quiet, well-mannered, singularly agreeable gentleman of the literary class. When Milnes showed Adams to his room to dress for dinner, he stayed a moment to say a word about this guest, whom he called Stirling of Keir. His sketch closed with the hint that Stirling was violent only on one point — hatred of Napoleon III. On that point, Adams was himself sensitive, which led him to wonder how bad the Scotch gentleman might be. The third was a man of thirty or thereabouts, whom Adams had already met at Lady Palmerston’s carrying his arm in a sling. His figure and bearing were sympathetic — almost pathetic — with a certain grave and gentle charm, a pleasant smile, and an interesting story. He was Lawrence Oliphant, just from Japan, where he had been wounded in the fanatics’ attack on the British Legation. He seemed exceptionally sane and peculiarly suited for country houses, where every man would enjoy his company, and every woman would adore him. He had not then published “Piccadilly”; perhaps he was writing it; while, like all the young men about the Foreign Office, he contributed to The Owl.
The fourth was a boy, or had the look of one, though in fact a year older than Adams himself. He resembled in action — and in this trait, was remotely followed, a generation later, by another famous young man, Robert Louis Stevenson — a tropical bird, high-crested, long-beaked, quick-moving, with rapid utterance and screams of humor, quite unlike any English lark or nightingale. One could hardly call him a crimson macaw among owls, and yet no ordinary contrast availed. Milnes introduced him as Mr. Algernon Swinburne. The name suggested nothing. Milnes was always unearthing new coins and trying to give them currency. He had unearthed Henry Adams who knew himself to be worthless and not current. When Milnes lingered a moment in Adams’s room to add that Swinburne had written some poetry, not yet published, of really extraordinary merit, Adams only wondered what more Milnes would discover, and whether by chance he could discover merit in a private secretary. He was capable of it.
In due course this party of five men sat down to dinner with the usual club manners of ladyless dinner-tables, easy and formal at the same time. Conversation ran first to Oliphant who told his dramatic story simply, and from him the talk drifted off into other channels, until Milnes thought it time to bring Swinburne out. Then, at last, if never before, Adams acquired education. What he had sought so long, he found; but he was none the wiser; only the more astonished. For once, too, he felt at ease, for the others were no less astonished than himself, and their astonishment grew apace. For the rest of the evening Swinburne figured alone; the end of dinner made the monologue only freer, for in 1862, even when ladies were not in the house, smoking was forbidden, and guests usually smoked in the stables or the kitchen; but Monckton Milnes was a licensed libertine who let his guests smoke in Adams’s bedroom, since Adams was an American–German barbarian ignorant of manners; and there after dinner all sat — or lay — till far into the night, listening to the rush of Swinburne’s talk. In a long experience, before or after, no one ever approached it; yet one had heard accounts of the best talking of the time, and read accounts of talkers in all time, among the rest, of Voltaire, who seemed to approach nearest the pattern.
That Swinburne was altogether new to the three types of men-of-the-world before him; that he seemed to them quite original, wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll, Adams could see; but what more he was, even Milnes hardly dared say. They could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, mediaeval, and modern; his faculty of reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backward, from end to beginning; or Dante, or Villon, or Victor Hugo. They knew not what to make of his rhetorical recitation of his own unpublished ballads —“Faustine”; the “Four Boards of the Coffin Lid”; the “Ballad of Burdens”— which he declaimed as though they were books of the Iliad. It was singular that his most appreciative listener should have been the author only of pretty verses like “We wandered by the brook-side,” and “She seemed to those that saw them meet”; and who never cared to write in any other tone; but Milnes took everything into his sympathies, including Americans like young Adams whose standards were stiffest of all, while Swinburne, though millions of ages far from them, united them by his humor even more than by his poetry. The story of his first day as a member of Professor Stubbs’s household was professionally clever farce, if not high comedy, in a young man who could write a Greek ode or a Provençal chanson as easily as an English quatrain.
Late at night when the symposium broke up, Stirling of Keir wanted to take with him to his chamber a copy of “Queen Rosamund,” the only volume Swinburne had then published, which was on the library table, and Adams offered to light him down with his solitary bedroom candle. All the way, Stirling was ejaculating explosions of wonder, until at length, at the foot of the stairs and at the climax of his imagination, he paused, and burst out: “He’s a cross between the devil and the Duke of Argyll!”
To appreciate the full merit of this description, a judicious critic should have known both, and Henry Adams knew only one — at least in person — but he understood that to a Scotchman the likeness meant something quite portentous, beyond English experience, supernatural, and what the French call moyenageux, or mediaeval with a grotesque turn. That Stirling as well as Milnes should regard Swinburne as a prodigy greatly comforted Adams, who lost his balance of mind at first in trying to imagine that Swinburne was a natural product of Oxford, as muffins and pork-pies of London, at once the cause and effect of dyspepsia. The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last.
Then came the sad reaction, not from Swinburne whose genius never was in doubt, but from the Boston mind which, in its uttermost flights, was never moyenageux. One felt the horror of Longfellow and Emerson, the doubts of Lowell and the humor of Holmes, at the wild Walpurgis-night of Swinburne’s talk. What could a shy young private secretary do about it? Perhaps, in his good nature, Milnes thought that Swinburne might find a friend in Stirling or Oliphant, but he could hardly have fancied Henry Adams rousing in him even an interest. Adams could no more interest Algernon Swinburne than he could interest Encke’s comet. To Swinburne he could be no more than a worm. The quality of genius was an education almost ultimate, for one touched there the limits of the human mind on that side; but one could only receive; one had nothing to give — nothing even to offer.
Swinburne tested him then and there by one of his favorite tests — Victor Hugo for to him the test of Victor Hugo was the surest and quickest of standards. French poetry is at best a severe exercise for foreigners; it requires extraordinary knowledge of the language and rare refinement of ear to appreciate even the recitation of French verse; but unless a poet has both, he lacks something of poetry. Adams had neither. To the end of his life he never listened to a French recitation with pleasure, or felt a sense of majesty in French verse; but he did not care to proclaim his weakness, and he tried to evade Swinburne’s vehement insistence by parading an affection for Alfred de Musset. Swinburne would have none of it; de Musset was unequal; he did not sustain himself on the wing.
Adams would have given a world or two, if he owned one, to sustain himself on the wing like de Musset, or even like Hugo; but his education as well as his ear was at fault, and he succumbed. Swinburne tried him again on Walter Savage Landor. In truth the test was the same, for Swinburne admired in Landor’s English the qualities that he felt in Hugo’s French; and Adams’s failure was equally gross, for, when forced to despair, he had to admit that both Hugo and Landor bored him. Nothing more was needed. One who could feel neither Hugo nor Landor was lost.
The sentence was just and Adams never appealed from it. He knew his inferiority in taste as he might know it in smell. Keenly mortified by the dullness of his senses and instincts, he knew he was no companion for Swinburne; probably he could be only an annoyance; no number of centuries could ever educate him to Swinburne’s level, even in technical appreciation; yet he often wondered whether there was nothing he had to offer that was worth the poet’s acceptance. Certainly such mild homage as the American insect would have been only too happy to bring, had he known how, was hardly worth the acceptance of any one. Only in France is the attitude of prayer possible; in England it became absurd. Even Monckton Milnes, who felt the splendors of Hugo and Landor, was almost as helpless as an American private secretary in personal contact with them. Ten years afterwards Adams met him at the Geneva Conference, fresh from Paris, bubbling with delight at a call he had made on Hugo: “I was shown into a large room,” he said, “with women and men seated in chairs against the walls, and Hugo at one end throned. No one spoke. At last Hugo raised his voice solemnly, and uttered the words: ‘Quant a moi, je crois en Dieu!’ Silence followed. Then a woman responded as if in deep meditation: ‘Chose sublime! un Dieu qui croft en Dieu!”’
With the best of will, one could not do this in London; the actors had not the instinct of the drama; and yet even a private secretary was not wholly wanting in instinct. As soon as he reached town he hurried to Pickering’s for a copy of “Queen Rosamund,” and at that time, if Swinburne was not joking, Pickering had sold seven copies. When the “Poems and Ballads” came out, and met their great success and scandal, he sought one of the first copies from Moxon. If he had sinned and doubted at all, he wholly repented and did penance before “Atalanta in Calydon,” and would have offered Swinburne a solemn worship as Milnes’s female offered Hugo, if it would have pleased the poet. Unfortunately it was worthless.
The three young men returned to London, and each went his own way. Adams’s interest in making friends was something desperate, but “the London season,” Milnes used to say, “is a season for making acquaintances and losing friends”; there was no intimate life. Of Swinburne he saw no more till Monckton Milnes summoned his whole array of Frystonians to support him in presiding at the dinner of the Authors’ Fund, when Adams found himself seated next to Swinburne, famous then, but no nearer. They never met again. Oliphant he met oftener; all the world knew and loved him; but he too disappeared in the way that all the world knows. Stirling of Keir, after one or two efforts, passed also from Adams’s vision into Sir William Stirling–Maxwell. The only record of his wonderful visit to Fryston may perhaps exist still in the registers of the St. James’s Club, for immediately afterwards Milnes proposed Henry Adams for membership, and unless his memory erred, the nomination was seconded by Tricoupi and endorsed by Laurence Oliphant and Evelyn Ashley. The list was a little singular for variety, but on the whole it suggested that the private secretary was getting on.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50