Intending to sail for America in the early part of June, I determined to spend the interval of six weeks in England, to which country my mind’s eye only had as yet been introduced. I had formed in Italy and France a resolute preference for old inns, considering that what they sometimes cost the ungratified body they repay the delighted mind. On my arrival in London, therefore, I lodged at a certain antique hostelry, much to the east of Temple Bar, deep in the quarter that I had inevitably figured as the Johnsonian. Here, on the first evening of my stay, I descended to the little coffee-room and bespoke my dinner of the genius of “attendance” in the person of the solitary waiter. No sooner had I crossed the threshold of this retreat than I felt I had cut a golden-ripe crop of English “impressions.” The coffee-room of the Red Lion, like so many other places and things I was destined to see in the motherland, seemed to have been waiting for long years, with just that sturdy sufferance of time written on its visage, for me to come and extract the romantic essence of it.
The latent preparedness of the American mind even for the most characteristic features of English life was a matter I meanwhile failed to get to the bottom of. The roots of it are indeed so deeply buried in the soil of our early culture that, without some great upheaval of feeling, we are at a loss to say exactly when and where and how it begins. It makes an American’s enjoyment of England an emotion more searching than anything Continental. I had seen the coffee-room of the Red Lion years ago, at home — at Saragossa Illinois — in books, in visions, in dreams, in Dickens, in Smollett, in Boswell. It was small and subdivided into six narrow compartments by a series of perpendicular screens of mahogany, something higher than a man’s stature, furnished on either side with a meagre uncushioned ledge, denominated in ancient Britain a seat. In each of these rigid receptacles was a narrow table — a table expected under stress to accommodate no less than four pairs of active British elbows. High pressure indeed had passed away from the Red Lion for ever. It now knew only that of memories and ghosts and atmosphere. Round the room there marched, breast-high, a magnificent panelling of mahogany, so dark with time and so polished with unremitted friction that by gazing a while into its lucid blackness I made out the dim reflexion of a party of wigged gentlemen in knee-breeches just arrived from York by the coach. On the dark yellow walls, coated by the fumes of English coal, of English mutton, of Scotch whiskey, were a dozen melancholy prints, sallow-toned with age — the Derby favourite of the year 1807, the Bank of England, her Majesty the Queen. On the floor was a Turkey carpet — as old as the mahogany almost, as the Bank of England, as the Queen — into which the waiter had in his lonely revolutions trodden so many massive soot-flakes and drops of overflowing beer that the glowing looms of Smyrna would certainly not have recognised it. To say that I ordered my dinner of this archaic type would be altogether to misrepresent the process owing to which, having dreamed of lamb and spinach and a salade de saison, I sat down in penitence to a mutton-chop and a rice pudding. Bracing my feet against the cross-beam of my little oaken table, I opposed to the mahogany partition behind me the vigorous dorsal resistance that must have expressed the old-English idea of repose. The sturdy screen refused even to creak, but my poor Yankee joints made up the deficiency.
While I was waiting there for my chop there came into the room a person whom, after I had looked at him a moment, I supposed to be a fellow lodger and probably the only one. He seemed, like myself, to have submitted to proposals for dinner; the table on the other side of my partition had been prepared to receive him. He walked up to the fire, exposed his back to it and, after consulting his watch, looked directly out of the window and indirectly at me. He was a man of something less than middle age and more than middle stature, though indeed you would have called him neither young nor tall. He was chiefly remarkable for his emphasised leanness. His hair, very thin on the summit of his head, was dark short and fine. His eye was of a pale turbid grey, unsuited, perhaps, to his dark hair and well-drawn brows, but not altogether out of harmony with his colourless bilious complexion. His nose was aquiline and delicate; beneath it his moustache languished much rather than bristled. His mouth and chin were negative, or at the most provisional; not vulgar, doubtless, but ineffectually refined. A cold fatal gentlemanly weakness was expressed indeed in his attenuated person. His eye was restless and deprecating; his whole physiognomy, his manner of shifting his weight from foot to foot, the spiritless droop of his head, told of exhausted intentions, of a will relaxed. His dress was neat and “toned down”— he might have been in mourning. I made up my mind on three points: he was a bachelor, he was out of health, he was not indigenous to the soil. The waiter approached him, and they conversed in accents barely audible. I heard the words “claret,” “sherry” with a tentative inflexion, and finally “beer” with its last letter changed to “ah.” Perhaps he was a Russian in reduced circumstances; he reminded me slightly of certain sceptical cosmopolite Russians whom I had met on the Continent. While in my extravagant way I followed this train — for you see I was interested — there appeared a short brisk man with reddish-brown hair, with a vulgar nose, a sharp blue eye and a red beard confined to his lower jaw and chin. My putative Russian, still in possession of the rug, let his mild gaze stray over the dingy ornaments of the room. The other drew near, and his umbrella dealt a playful poke at the concave melancholy waistcoat. “A penny ha’penny for your thoughts!”
My friend, as I call him, uttered an exclamation, stared, then laid his two hands on the other’s shoulders. The latter looked round at me keenly, compassing me in a momentary glance. I read in its own vague light that this was a transatlantic eyebeam; and with such confidence that I hardly needed to see its owner, as he prepared, with his companion, to seat himself at the table adjoining my own, take from his overcoat-pocket three New York newspapers and lay them beside his plate. As my neighbours proceeded to dine I felt the crumbs of their conversation scattered pretty freely abroad. I could hear almost all they said, without straining to catch it, over the top of the partition that divided us. Occasionally their voices dropped to recovery of discretion, but the mystery pieced itself together as if on purpose to entertain me. Their speech was pitched in the key that may in English air be called alien in spite of a few coincidences. The voices were American, however, with a difference; and I had no hesitation in assigning the softer and clearer sound to the pale thin gentleman, whom I decidedly preferred to his comrade. The latter began to question him about his voyage.
“Horrible, horrible! I was deadly sick from the hour we left New York.”
“Well, you do look considerably reduced,” said the second-comer.
“Reduced! I’ve been on the verge of the grave. I haven’t slept six hours for three weeks.” This was said with great gravity.
“Well, I’ve made the voyage for the last time.”
“The plague you have! You mean to locate here permanently?”
“Oh it won’t be so very permanent!”
There was a pause; after which: “You’re the same merry old boy, Searle. Going to give up the ghost tomorrow, eh?”
“I almost wish I were.”
“You’re not so sweet on England then? I’ve heard people say at home that you dress and talk and act like an Englishman. But I know these people here and I know you. You’re not one of this crowd, Clement Searle, not you. You’ll go under here, sir; you’ll go under as sure as my name’s Simmons.”
Following this I heard a sudden clatter as of the drop of a knife and fork. “Well, you’re a delicate sort of creature, if it IS your ugly name! I’ve been wandering about all day in this accursed city, ready to cry with homesickness and heartsickness and every possible sort of sickness, and thinking, in the absence of anything better, of meeting you here this evening and of your uttering some sound of cheer and comfort and giving me some glimmer of hope. Go under? Ain’t I under now? I can’t do more than get under the ground!”
Mr. Simmons’s superior brightness appeared to flicker a moment in this gust of despair, but the next it was burning steady again. “DON’T ‘cry,’ Searle,” I heard him say. “Remember the waiter. I’ve grown Englishman enough for that. For heaven’s sake don’t let’s have any nerves. Nerves won’t do anything for you here. It’s best to come to the point. Tell me in three words what you expect of me.”
I heard another movement, as if poor Searle had collapsed in his chair. “Upon my word, sir, you’re quite inconceivable. You never got my letter?”
“Yes, I got your letter. I was never sorrier to get anything in my life.”
At this declaration Mr. Searle rattled out an oath, which it was well perhaps that I but partially heard. “Abijah Simmons,” he then cried, “what demon of perversity possesses you? Are you going to betray me here in a foreign land, to turn out a false friend, a heartless rogue?”
“Go on, sir,” said sturdy Simmons. “Pour it all out. I’ll wait till you’ve done. Your beer’s lovely,” he observed independently to the waiter. “I’ll have some more.”
“For God’s sake explain yourself!” his companion appealed.
There was a pause, at the end of which I heard Mr. Simmons set down his empty tankard with emphasis. “You poor morbid mooning man,” he resumed, “I don’t want to say anything to make you feel sore. I regularly pity you. But you must allow that you’ve acted more like a confirmed crank than a member of our best society — in which every one’s so sensible.”
Mr. Searle seemed to have made an effort to compose himself. “Be so good as to tell me then what was the meaning of your letter.”
“Well, you had got on MY nerves, if you want to know, when I wrote it. It came of my always wishing so to please folks. I had much better have let you alone. To tell you the plain truth I never was so horrified in my life as when I found that on the strength of my few kind words you had come out here to seek your fortune.”
“What then did you expect me to do?”
“I expected you to wait patiently till I had made further enquiries and had written you again.”
“And you’ve made further enquiries now?”
“Enquiries! I’ve committed assaults.”
“And you find I’ve no claim?”
“No claim that one of THESE big bugs will look at. It struck me at first that you had rather a neat little case. I confess the look of it took hold of me —”
“Thanks to your liking so to please folks!” Mr. Simmons appeared for a moment at odds with something; it proved to be with his liquor. “I rather think your beer’s too good to be true,” he said to the waiter. “I guess I’ll take water. Come, old man,” he resumed, “don’t challenge me to the arts of debate, or you’ll have me right down on you, and then you WILL feel me. My native sweetness, as I say, was part of it. The idea that if I put the thing through it would be a very pretty feather in my cap and a very pretty penny in my purse was part of it. And the satisfaction of seeing a horrid low American walk right into an old English estate was a good deal of it. Upon my word, Searle, when I think of it I wish with all my heart that, extravagant vain man as you are, I COULD, for the charm of it, put you through! I should hardly care what you did with the blamed place when you got it. I could leave you alone to turn it into Yankee notions — into ducks and drakes as they call ’em here. I should like to see you tearing round over it and kicking up its sacred dust in their very faces!”
“You don’t know me one little bit,” said Mr. Searle, rather shirking, I thought, the burden of this tribute and for all response to the ambiguity of the compliment.
“I should be very glad to think I didn’t, sir. I’ve been to no small amount of personal inconvenience for you. I’ve pushed my way right up to the headspring. I’ve got the best opinion that’s to be had. The best opinion that’s to be had just gives you one leer over its spectacles. I guess that look will fix you if you ever get it straight. I’ve been able to tap, indirectly,” Mr. Simmons went on, “the solicitor of your usurping cousin, and he evidently knows something to be in the wind. It seems your elder brother twenty years ago put out a feeler. So you’re not to have the glory of even making them sit up.”
“I never made any one sit up,” I heard Mr. Searle plead. “I shouldn’t begin at this time of day. I should approach the subject like a gentleman.”
“Well, if you want very much to do something like a gentleman you’ve got a capital chance. Take your disappointment like a gentleman.”
I had finished my dinner and had become keenly interested in poor Mr. Searle’s unencouraging — or unencouraged — claim; so interested that I at last hated to hear his trouble reflected in his voice without being able — all respectfully! — to follow it in his face. I left my place, went over to the fire, took up the evening paper and established a post of observation behind it.
His cold counsellor was in the act of choosing a soft chop from the dish — an act accompanied by a great deal of prying and poking with that gentleman’s own fork. My disillusioned compatriot had pushed away his plate; he sat with his elbows on the table, gloomily nursing his head with his hands. His companion watched him and then seemed to wonder — to do Mr. Simmons justice — how he could least ungracefully give him up. “I say, Searle,”— and for my benefit, I think, taking me for a native ingenuous enough to be dazzled by his wit, he lifted his voice a little and gave it an ironical ring —“in this country it’s the inestimable privilege of a loyal citizen, under whatsoever stress of pleasure or of pain, to make a point of eating his dinner.”
Mr. Searle gave his plate another push. “Anything may happen now. I don’t care a straw.”
“You ought to care. Have another chop and you WILL care. Have some better tipple. Take my advice!” Mr. Simmons went on.
My friend — I adopt that name for him — gazed from between his two hands coldly before him. “I’ve had enough of your advice.”
“A little more,” said Simmons mildly; “I shan’t trouble you again. What do you mean to do?”
“Nothing, nothing, nothing!”
“Nothing but starve. How about meeting expenses?”
“Why do you ask?” said my friend. “You don’t care.”
“My dear fellow, if you want to make me offer you twenty pounds you set most clumsily about it. You said just now I don’t know you,” Mr. Simmons went on. “Possibly. Come back with me then,” he said kindly enough, “and let’s improve our acquaintance.”
“I won’t go back. I shall never go back.”
Mr. Simmons thought it shrewdly over. “Well, you ARE sick!” he exclaimed presently. “All I can say is that if you’re working out a plan for cold poison, or for any other act of desperation, you had better give it right up. You can’t get a dose of the commonest kind of cold poison for nothing, you know. Look here, Searle”— and the worthy man made what struck me as a very decent appeal. “If you’ll consent to return home with me by the steamer of the twenty-third I’ll pay your passage down. More than that, I’ll pay for your beer.”
My poor gentleman met it. “I believe I never made up my mind to anything before, but I think it’s made up now. I shall stay here till I take my departure for a newer world than any patched-up newness of ours. It’s an odd feeling — I rather like it! What should I do at home?”
“You said just now you were homesick.”
“I meant I was sick for a home. Don’t I belong here? Haven’t I longed to get here all my life? Haven’t I counted the months and the years till I should be able to ‘go’ as we say? And now that I’ve ‘gone,’ that is that I’ve come, must I just back out? No, no, I’ll move on. I’m much obliged to you for your offer. I’ve enough money for the present. I’ve about my person some forty pounds’ worth of British gold, and the same amount, say, of the toughness of the heaven-sent idiot. They’ll see me through together! After they’re gone I shall lay my head in some English churchyard, beside some ivied tower, beneath an old gnarled black yew.”
I had so far distinctly followed the dialogue; but at this point the landlord entered and, begging my pardon, would suggest that number 12, a most superior apartment, having now been vacated, it would give him pleasure if I would look in. I declined to look in, but agreed for number 12 at a venture and gave myself again, with dissimulation, to my friends. They had got up; Simmons had put on his overcoat; he stood polishing his rusty black hat with his napkin. “Do you mean to go down to the place?” he asked.
“Possibly. I’ve thought of it so often that I should like to see it.”
“Shall you call on Mr. Searle?”
“Something has just occurred to me,” Simmons pursued with a grin that made his upper lip look more than ever denuded by the razor and jerked the ugly ornament of his chin into the air. “There’s a certain Miss Searle, the old man’s sister.”
“Well?” my gentleman quavered.
“Well, sir! — you talk of moving on. You might move on the damsel.”
Mr. Searle frowned in silence and his companion gave him a tap on the stomach. “Line those ribs a bit first!” He blushed crimson; his eyes filled with tears. “You ARE a coarse brute,” he said. The scene quite harrowed me, but I was prevented from seeing it through by the reappearance of the landlord on behalf of number 12. He represented to me that I ought in justice to him to come and see how tidy they HAD made it. Half an hour afterwards I was rattling along in a hansom toward Covent Garden, where I heard Madame Bosio in The Barber of Seville. On my return from the opera I went into the coffee-room; it had occurred to me I might catch there another glimpse of Mr. Searle. I was not disappointed. I found him seated before the fire with his head sunk on his breast: he slept, dreaming perhaps of Abijah Simmons. I watched him for some moments. His closed eyes, in the dim lamplight, looked even more helpless and resigned, and I seemed to see the fine grain of his nature in his unconscious mask. They say fortune comes while we sleep, and, standing there, I felt really tender enough — though otherwise most unqualified — to be poor Mr. Searle’s fortune. As I walked away I noted in one of the little prandial pews I have described the melancholy waiter, whose whiskered chin also reposed on the bulge of his shirt-front. I lingered a moment beside the old inn-yard in which, upon a time, the coaches and post-chaises found space to turn and disgorge. Above the dusky shaft of the enclosing galleries, where lounging lodgers and crumpled chambermaids and all the picturesque domesticity of a rattling tavern must have leaned on their elbows for many a year, I made out the far-off lurid twinkle of the London constellations. At the foot of the stairs, enshrined in the glittering niche of her well-appointed bar, the landlady sat napping like some solemn idol amid votive brass and plate.
The next morning, not finding the subject of my benevolent curiosity in the coffee-room, I learned from the waiter that he had ordered breakfast in bed. Into this asylum I was not yet prepared to pursue him. I spent the morning in the streets, partly under pressure of business, but catching all kinds of romantic impressions by the way. To the searching American eye there is no tint of association with which the great grimy face of London doesn’t flush. As the afternoon approached, however, I began to yearn for some site more gracefully classic than what surrounded me, and, thinking over the excursions recommended to the ingenuous stranger, decided to take the train to Hampton Court. The day was the more propitious that it yielded just that dim subaqueous light which sleeps so fondly upon the English landscape.
At the end of an hour I found myself wandering through the apartments of the great palace. They follow each other in infinite succession, with no great variety of interest or aspect, but with persistent pomp and a fine specific effect. They are exactly of their various times. You pass from painted and panelled bedchambers and closets, anterooms, drawing-rooms, council-rooms, through king’s suite, queen’s suite, prince’s suite, until you feel yourself move through the appointed hours and stages of some rigid monarchical day. On one side are the old monumental upholsteries, the big cold tarnished beds and canopies, with the circumference of disapparelled royalty symbolised by a gilded balustrade, and the great carved and yawning chimney-places where dukes-inwaiting may have warmed their weary heels; on the other, in deep recesses, rise the immense windows, the framed and draped embrasures where the sovereign whispered and favourites smiled, looking out on terraced gardens and misty park. The brown walls are dimly illumined by innumerable portraits of courtiers and captains, more especially with various members of the Batavian entourage of William of Orange, the restorer of the palace; with good store too of the lily-bosomed models of Lely and Kneller. The whole tone of this processional interior is singularly stale and sad. The tints of all things have both faded and darkened — you taste the chill of the place as you walk from room to room. It was still early in the day and in the season, and I flattered myself that I was the only visitor. This complacency, however, dropped at sight of a person standing motionless before a simpering countess of Sir Peter Lely’s creation. On hearing my footstep this victim of an evaporated spell turned his head and I recognised my fellow lodger of the Red Lion. I was apparently recognised as well; he looked as if he could scarce wait for me to be kind to him, and in fact didn’t wait. Seeing I had a catalogue he asked the name of the portrait. On my satisfying him he appealed, rather timidly, as to my opinion of the lady.
“Well,” said I, not quite timidly enough perhaps, “I confess she strikes me as no great matter.”
He remained silent and was evidently a little abashed. As we strolled away he stole a sidelong glance of farewell at his leering shepherdess. To speak with him face to face was to feel keenly that he was no less interesting than infirm. We talked of our inn, of London, of the palace; he uttered his mind freely, but seemed to struggle with a weight of depression. It was an honest mind enough, with no great cultivation but with a certain natural love of excellent things. I foresaw that I should find him quite to the manner born — to ours; full of glimpses and responses, of deserts and desolations. His perceptions would be fine and his opinions pathetic; I should moreover take refuge from his sense of proportion in his sense of humour, and then refuge from THAT, ah me! — in what? On my telling him that I was a fellow citizen he stopped short, deeply touched, and, silently passing his arm into my own, suffered me to lead him through the other apartments and down into the gardens. A large gravelled platform stretches itself before the basement of the palace, taking the afternoon sun. Parts of the great structure are reserved for private use and habitation, occupied by state-pensioners, reduced gentlewomen in receipt of the Queen’s bounty and other deserving persons. Many of the apartments have their dependent gardens, and here and there, between the verdure-coated walls, you catch a glimpse of these somewhat stuffy bowers. My companion and I measured more than once this long expanse, looking down on the floral figures of the rest of the affair and on the stoutly-woven tapestry of creeping plants that muffle the foundations of the huge red pile. I thought of the various images of old-world gentility which, early and late, must have strolled in front of it and felt the protection and security of the place. We peeped through an antique grating into one of the mossy cages and saw an old lady with a black mantilla on her head, a decanter of water in one hand and a crutch in the other, come forth, followed by three little dogs and a cat, to sprinkle a plant. She would probably have had an opinion on the virtue of Queen Caroline. Feeling these things together made us quickly, made us extraordinarily, intimate. My companion seemed to ache with his impression; he scowled, all gently, as if it gave him pain. I proposed at last that we should dine somewhere on the spot and take a late train to town. We made our way out of the gardens into the adjoining village, where we entered an inn which I pronounced, very sincerely, exactly what we wanted. Mr. Searle had approached our board as shyly as if it had been a cold bath; but, gradually warming to his work, he declared at the end of half an hour that for the first time in a month he enjoyed his victuals.
“I’m afraid you’re rather out of health,” I risked.
“Yes, sir — I’m an incurable.”
The little village of Hampton Court stands clustered about the entrance of Bushey Park, and after we had dined we lounged along into the celebrated avenue of horse-chestnuts. There is a rare emotion, familiar to every intelligent traveller, in which the mind seems to swallow the sum total of its impressions at a gulp. You take in the whole place, whatever it be. You feel England, you feel Italy, and the sensation involves for the moment a kind of thrill. I had known it from time to time in Italy and had opened my soul to it as to the spirit of the Lord. Since my landing in England I had been waiting for it to arrive. A bottle of tolerable Burgundy, at dinner, had perhaps unlocked to it the gates of sense; it arrived now with irresistible force. Just the scene around me was the England of one’s early reveries. Over against us, amid the ripeness of its gardens, the dark red residence, with its formal facings and its vacant windows, seemed to make the past definite and massive; the little village, nestling between park and palace, around a patch of turfy common, with its taverns of figurative names, its ivy-towered church, its mossy roofs, looked like the property of a feudal lord. It was in this dark composite light that I had read the British classics; it was this mild moist air that had blown from the pages of the poets; while I seemed to feel the buried generations in the dense and elastic sod. And that I must have testified in some form or other to what I have called my thrill I gather, remembering it, from a remark of my companion’s.
“You’ve the advantage over me in coming to all this with an educated eye. You already know what old things can be. I’ve never known it but by report. I’ve always fancied I should like it. In a small way at home, of course, I did try to stand by my idea of it. I must be a conservative by nature. People at home used to call me a cockney and a fribble. But it wasn’t true,” he went on; “if it had been I should have made my way over here long ago: before — before —” He paused, and his head dropped sadly on his breast.
The bottle of Burgundy had loosened his tongue; I had but to choose my time for learning his story. Something told me that I had gained his confidence and that, so far as attention and attitude might go, I was “in” for responsibilities. But somehow I didn’t dread them. “Before you lost your health,” I suggested.
“Before I lost my health,” he answered. “And my property — the little I had. And my ambition. And any power to take myself seriously.”
“Come!” I cried. “You shall recover everything. This tonic English climate will wind you up in a month. And THEN see how you’ll take yourself — and how I shall take you!”
“Oh,” he gratefully smiled, “I may turn to dust in your hands! I should like,” he presently pursued, “to be an old genteel pensioner, lodged over there in the palace and spending my days in maundering about these vistas. I should go every morning, at the hour when it gets the sun, into that long gallery where all those pretty women of Lely’s are hung — I know you despise them! — and stroll up and down and say something kind to them. Poor precious forsaken creatures! So flattered and courted in their day, so neglected now! Offering up their shoulders and ringlets and smiles to that musty deadly silence!”
I laid my hand on my friend’s shoulder. “Oh sir, you’re all right!”
Just at this moment there came cantering down the shallow glade of the avenue a young girl on a fine black horse — one of those little budding gentlewomen, perfectly mounted and equipped, who form to alien eyes one of the prettiest incidents of English scenery. She had distanced her servant and, as she came abreast of us, turned slightly in her saddle and glanced back at him. In the movement she dropped the hunting-crop with which she was armed; whereupon she reined up and looked shyly at us and at the implement. “This is something better than a Lely,” I said. Searle hastened forward, picked up the crop and, with a particular courtesy that became him, handed it back to the rider. Fluttered and blushing she reached forward, took it with a quick sweet sound, and the next moment was bounding over the quiet turf. Searle stood watching her; the servant, as he passed us, touched his hat. When my friend turned toward me again I saw that he too was blushing. “Oh sir, you’re all right,” I repeated.
At a short distance from where we had stopped was an old stone bench. We went and sat down on it and, as the sun began to sink, watched the light mist powder itself with gold. “We ought to be thinking of the train back to London, I suppose,” I at last said.
“Oh hang the train!” sighed my companion.
“Willingly. There could be no better spot than this to feel the English evening stand still.” So we lingered, and the twilight hung about us, strangely clear in spite of the thickness of the air. As we sat there came into view an apparition unmistakeable from afar as an immemorial vagrant — the disowned, in his own rich way, of all the English ages. As he approached us he slackened pace and finally halted, touching his cap. He was a man of middle age, clad in a greasy bonnet with false-looking ear-locks depending from its sides. Round his neck was a grimy red scarf, tucked into his waistcoat; his coat and trousers had a remote affinity with those of a reduced hostler. In one hand he had a stick; on his arm he bore a tattered basket, with a handful of withered vegetables at the bottom. His face was pale haggard and degraded beyond description — as base as a counterfeit coin, yet as modelled somehow as a tragic mask. He too, like everything else, had a history. From what height had he fallen, from what depth had he risen? He was the perfect symbol of generated constituted baseness; and I felt before him in presence of a great artist or actor.
“For God’s sake, gentlemen,” he said in the raucous tone of weather-beaten poverty, the tone of chronic sore-throat exacerbated by perpetual gin, “for God’s sake, gentlemen, have pity on a poor fern-collector!”— turning up his stale daisies. “Food hasn’t passed my lips, gentlemen, for the last three days.” We gaped at him and at each other, and to our imagination his appeal had almost the force of a command. “I wonder if half-a-crown would help?” I privately wailed. And our fasting botanist went limping away through the park with the grace of controlled stupefaction still further enriching his outline.
“I feel as if I had seen my Doppelganger,” said Searle. “He reminds me of myself. What am I but a mere figure in the landscape, a wandering minstrel or picker of daisies?”
“What are you ‘anyway,’ my friend?” I thereupon took occasion to ask. “Who are you? kindly tell me.”
The colour rose again to his pale face and I feared I had offended him. He poked a moment at the sod with the point of his umbrella before answering. “Who am I?” he said at last. “My name is Clement Searle. I was born in New York, and that’s the beginning and the end of me.”
“Ah not the end!” I made bold to plead.
“Then it’s because I HAVE no end — any more than an ill-written book. I just stop anywhere; which means I’m a failure,” the poor man all lucidly and unreservedly pursued: “a failure, as hopeless and helpless, sir, as any that ever swallowed up the slender investments of the widow and the orphan. I don’t pay five cents on the dollar. What I might have been — once! — there’s nothing left to show. I was rotten before I was ripe. To begin with, certainly, I wasn’t a fountain of wisdom. All the more reason for a definite channel — for having a little character and purpose. But I hadn’t even a little. I had nothing but nice tastes, as they call them, and fine sympathies and sentiments. Take a turn through New York today and you’ll find the tattered remnants of these things dangling on every bush and fluttering in every breeze; the men to whom I lent money, the women to whom I made love, the friends I trusted, the follies I invented, the poisonous fumes of pleasure amid which nothing was worth a thought but the manhood they stifled! It was my fault that I believed in pleasure here below. I believe in it still, but as I believe in the immortality of the soul. The soul is immortal, certainly — if you’ve got one; but most people haven’t. Pleasure would be right if it were pleasure straight through; but it never is. My taste was to be the best in the world; well, perhaps it was. I had a little money; it went the way of my little wit. Here in my pocket I have the scant dregs of it. I should tell you I was the biggest kind of ass. Just now that description would flatter me; it would assume there’s something left of me. But the ghost of a donkey — what’s that? I think,” he went on with a charming turn and as if striking off his real explanation, “I should have been all right in a world arranged on different lines. Before heaven, sir — whoever you are — I’m in practice so absurdly tender-hearted that I can afford to say it: I entered upon life a perfect gentleman. I had the love of old forms and pleasant rites, and I found them nowhere — found a world all hard lines and harsh lights, without shade, without composition, as they say of pictures, without the lovely mystery of colour. To furnish colour I melted down the very substance of my own soul. I went about with my brush, touching up and toning down; a very pretty chiaroscuro you’ll find in my track! Sitting here in this old park, in this old country, I feel that I hover on the misty verge of what might have been! I should have been born here and not there; here my makeshift distinctions would have found things they’d have been true of. How it was I never got free is more than I can say. It might have cut the knot, but the knot was too tight. I was always out of health or in debt or somehow desperately dangling. Besides, I had a horror of the great black sickening sea. A year ago I was reminded of the existence of an old claim to an English estate, which has danced before the eyes of my family, at odd moments, any time these eighty years. I confess it’s a bit of a muddle and a tangle, and am by no means sure that to this hour I’ve got the hang of it. You look as if you had a clear head: some other time, if you consent, we’ll have a go at it, such as it is, together. Poverty was staring me in the face; I sat down and tried to commit the ‘points’ of our case to memory, as I used to get nine-times-nine by heart as a boy. I dreamed of it for six months, half-expecting to wake up some fine morning and hear through a latticed casement the cawing of an English rookery. A couple of months ago there came out to England on business of his own a man who once got me out of a dreadful mess (not that I had hurt anyone but myself), a legal practitioner in our courts, a very rough diamond, but with a great deal of FLAIR, as they say in New York. It was with him yesterday you saw me dining. He undertook, as he called it, to ‘nose round’ and see if anything could be made of our questionable but possible show. The matter had never seriously been taken up. A month later I got a letter from Simmons assuring me that it seemed a very good show indeed and that he should be greatly surprised if I were unable to do something. This was the greatest push I had ever got in my life; I took a deliberate step, for the first time; I sailed for England. I’ve been here three days: they’ve seemed three months. After keeping me waiting for thirty-six hours my legal adviser makes his appearance last night and states to me, with his mouth full of mutton, that I haven’t a leg to stand on, that my claim is moonshine, and that I must do penance and take a ticket for six more days of purgatory with his presence thrown in. My friend, my friend — shall I say I was disappointed? I’m already resigned. I didn’t really believe I had any case. I felt in my deeper consciousness that it was the crowning illusion of a life of illusions. Well, it was a pretty one. Poor legal adviser! — I forgive him with all my heart. But for him I shouldn’t be sitting in this place, in this air, under these impressions. This is a world I could have got on with beautifully. There’s an immense charm in its having been kept for the last. After it nothing else would have been tolerable. I shall now have a month of it, I hope, which won’t be long enough for it to “go back on me. There’s one thing!”— and here, pausing, he laid his hand on mine; I rose and stood before him —“I wish it were possible you should be with me to the end.”
“I promise you to leave you only when you kick me downstairs.” But I suggested my terms. “It must be on condition of your omitting from your conversation this intolerable flavour of mortality. I know nothing of ‘ends.’ I’m all for beginnings.”
He kept on me his sad weak eyes. Then with a faint smile: “Don’t cut down a man you find hanging. He has had a reason for it. I’m bankrupt.”
“Oh health’s money!” I said. “Get well, and the rest will take care of itself. I’m interested in your questionable claim — it’s the question that’s the charm; and pretenders, to anything big enough, have always been, for me, an attractive class. Only their first duty’s to be gallant.”
“Their first duty’s to understand their own points and to know their own mind,” he returned with hopeless lucidity. “Don’t ask me to climb our family tree now,” he added; “I fear I haven’t the head for it. I’ll try some day — if it will bear my weight; or yours added to mine. There’s no doubt, however, that we, as they say, go back. But I know nothing of business. If I were to take the matter in hand I should break in two the poor little silken thread from which everything hangs. In a better world than this I think I should be listened to. But the wind doesn’t set to ideal justice. There’s no doubt that a hundred years ago we suffered a palpable wrong. Yet we made no appeal at the time, and the dust of a century now lies heaped upon our silence. Let it rest!”
“What then,” I asked, “is the estimated value of your interest?”
“We were instructed from the first to accept a compromise. Compared with the whole property our ideas have been small. We were once advised in the sense of a hundred and thirty thousand dollars. Why a hundred and thirty I’m sure I don’t know. Don’t beguile me into figures.”
“Allow me one more question,” I said. “Who’s actually in possession?”
“A certain Mr. Richard Searle. I know nothing about him.”
“He’s in some way related to you?”
“Our great-grandfathers were half-brothers. What does that make us?”
“Twentieth cousins, say. And where does your twentieth cousin live?”
“At a place called Lackley — in Middleshire.”
I thought it over. “Well, suppose we look up Lackley in Middleshire!”
He got straight up. “Go and see it?”
“Go and see it.”
“Well,” he said, “with you I’ll go anywhere.”
On our return to town we determined to spend three days there together and then proceed to our errand. We were as conscious one as the other of that deeper mystic appeal made by London to those superstitious pilgrims who feel it the mother-city of their race, the distributing heart of their traditional life. Certain characteristics of the dusky Babylon, certain aspects, phases, features, “say” more to the American spiritual ear than anything else in Europe. The influence of these things on Searle it charmed me to note. His observation I soon saw to be, as I pronounced it to him, searching and caressing. His almost morbid appetite for any over-scoring of time, well-nigh extinct from long inanition, threw the flush of its revival into his face and his talk.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56