M. Denon’s Hundred Days in England
On Sunday morning we reached Westminster Bridge, by one of the best roads in a country which, for the excellence of its highways, ought to be called the heaven of travellers, though it is the purgatory of horses. The fine river sweeping round a border of palaces, the giant-bridges, the sublime dome which seems to dwell among clouds, ought all to be seen on Sunday; for they all seem to belong to man’s hope of immortality. And as a mere citizen of this world, I love to enter a new place, especially such a city as London, on the sabbath-day. Men in general live in, or for business all the rest of the week, but on this day for themselves alone—that is, for their own pleasure. Every man shews his best coat and graces if he has any, looks for his friends, enjoys his money, and is at least for twelve hours whatever his real inclinations make him. Let my English readers say this is the remark of a Frenchman and an egotist,—I admit the charge. A Frenchman always loves himself, and therefore he tries to see every thing in its holiday and silken attire: not in the worsted, and dust of dull business. He is merriest on Sunday, because he knows the gay half of the world are then making the most of their present time, and the grave laying up a stock for futurity.
Though all the shops were shut, except the unlicensed corners of a few ice-shops, and some that sold an opposite commodity; the Strand was full of groupes pressing eagerly along. Shouts of laughter proceeded from one, and I joined it of course. It was composed of a few loud ill-dressed boys following a thick short man in a coat with square skirts and broad buttons, a hat worn into the shape of a jockey-cap, and enormous shoes white with dust, which lay more snugly in the wrinkles and folds of his huge grey stockings. He had nevertheless a very clean shirt of fine linen, though no cravat, and his face had a comical mixture of defiance and boobyish ease in it. He turned himself twice round, made his companions a ridiculous bow, and thanked them for their company. The boys went off trooping and laughing, and the countryman sat down on one of the balustrades of St. Martin’s Church, muttering, “As well be trodden under foot by th’ horses, as punched to death.”
He looked at me as he spoke, and I saw under the red bronze of his complexion a streak of blue remaining on the round upturned tip of his nose, which reminds me of the fine ultramarine tint of my acquaintance in that extraordinary place which I have had the honour of describing to the National Institute—the illustrious politician whose soubriquet or travelling name was, as he then said, M. Teapottus.—“Ha!” I exclaimed—“my extremely, dear friend!—who could have expected to see a person of your importance, the member of a fraternity so profound and invisible, walking in broad noon-day near a church!”—“My good chevalier,” he answered, “there is no disguise so complete as an English clown’s. A man may say and do what he will, spend as little or as much as he pleases, thrust himself into any company, and gaze long at any thing or nothing on whatever pretence he chooses, the blunt, honest, sulky independence of John Bullism protects him thoroughly.”—It was my duty to acquaint M. Teapottus with the purpose of my visit to England, and he listened with great interest.—“Frankly,” he replied, “I advise you to finish your tour with me. You have already filled your note-book with all that is magnificent on the surface; and to tell you a truth, not one of the thousand travellers who have seen the same things will agree that you describe them rightly. Complete your chapters on the laws and architecture of England at home and at your leisure—M. Denon, Père, will make a good volume of them; but you must see the people with your own eyes. When I come on these secret missions to collect emigrants and settlers for our colony, I put my cordon bleu in my portmanteau, and an honest yeoman’s frieze coat on my shoulders. Then I can grumble with the force and weight of an oracle. A well-dressed growler is supposed to be in debt, a ragged one to have compounded with his creditors, but the discontent of a sleek, sturdy, safe farmer must have a very broad foundation. Come with me, and you shall see it.” M. Teapottus trotted before me, shaking his oaken cudgel and his head occasionally with a sly grin of scorn at the splendid loungers in our way, till we arrived at a place called the Coal-hole, where we ordered an abundant supper and old wine. If I had not known the birth-place of my companion, and the prodigious depth of his fraternity’s plans, I should have laughed at the true English ease of his demeanour as he rolled himself into the best seat, frowned at the flavour of the wine, and disputed the age of his beef-steak. When the waiter had slunk away laughing at the Yorkshireman’s penetration, and doubting very much the success of his master’s charges, Teapottus shook me by the hand again. “Denon, that rogue thinks either you or I must be a swindler, for a Frenchman and a West-Yorkshireman were never seen together for any good purpose. You must have a more consistent coat if we become fellow tourists. Listen to me. You know, for I saw it detailed in your communication to the National Institute, how I and my brotherhood provide ourselves with old books and archives. By such means we often reach strange family papers, and here is a Will found among charcoal by some of our Carbonari, and I shall make it the pretence of my journey to the West of England. It will cause a great sensation in the little town near your place of embarkation, and in one week will shew you more of Englishmen in their domiciles than you would have seen in twenty years; had you travelled as long here in the suite of a Russian Duke, or Prince Ratafie.”
“My dear friend,” said I, “nothing could be more convenient for the benefit of the literary world, and the private concerns of my purse, which, as I was just going to hint in the confidence of friendship, slipped out of my pocket into the hand of a sharp-eyed, broad-footed, country-looking gentleman like yourself. If your taylor can accommodate me with another coat—”
“Pho!—my taylor!—an artist of your class should make any man clothe him.—I have found a Will, and I shall take care those who profit by it shall pay all my travelling expenses, and perhaps yours. Trust me to whisper something proper respecting you, and be content with the names I shall give you. One of the whims of honest Englishmen in a country-town is to dislike foreigners, and the mere sound of “M. Denon” would make all the curs fly out against you to hasten your departure, as one of your countrymen says the dogs in Scotland are taught to bark when horses pass them, to save whip and spur.”—“I have read that tourist, M. Teapottus,” I replied, “and on my conscience can only believe half what he says, for he declares all the dogs in Scotland are cunning, and all the men honest.”
“It was only a mistake in the printing,” said Teapottus, “he meant the reverse.”
We set out the next morning in a western mail, and my fellow-traveller verified his assertion respecting the immunities of a yeoman’s frieze coat. With a nosegay tucked into his vest, and his unbrushed hat archly awry, he mounted beside the coachman, found fault with his cattle, his reins, and his coach-springs; and made his peace with him by sundry draughts of ale and juniper-juice. What he chose to say of me, I did not think proper to enquire; but I could see several sly glances cast back at me by the coachman, as I dozed near the chair of state allotted to the guard in our rear. This important person shewed me very great courtesy, talking joyously and incessantly between his frequent descents to “lock the wheel,” never waiting for a reply, which, notwithstanding my fluent knowledge of the English language, I might have been perplexed to give in a suitably familiar idiom. But my greatest surprise was, when the mail paused for a relay, to find myself seized in this good-humoured giant’s arms, carried into a neat parlour, and presently attended by a waiting-damsel with a cup of delicate ratefie and a few perfumed wafers. I said something in the prettiest English I could devise, to which she only answered by a small laugh, and an offer of her arm to conduct me back to the mail. It was a very acceptable one, and I availed myself, without knowing it, of the pretext which I supposed my friend Teapottus had contrived to make me more interesting. When the coach resumed its journey, the night-air made me desirous to lodge myself within; and the guard having whispered a few words to the passengers, made a colossal pirouette, and tossed me into the corner of his vehicle. A gentleman, whose barret-cap and yellow face had a very Norman contour, looked at me through his lorgnette, and yawned. His companion drew his boots together with great complaisance, and began to talk of les Montagnes Russes, M. Talma, and other Parisian curiosities. Being instructed to evade the appearance of a foreigner, I declared myself an English amateur just returning from a month’s admiration of the Louvre and the Musée, and we fell into an amusing dissertation on the Venus and the Psyche in the sculpture-gallery. I spoke, as became a lover of virtù, with rapture of the contour of Canova’s Hebe, and the exquisite transparency of those folds which seem as if the marble had become a cobweb under the artist’s chizzel. I appealed in French to the Norman-looking gentleman with his Parisian cap and cloak, but he shut his eyes; and my English companion thrust his watch-chain and seals out of sight. At supper he assisted me to the choicest morceaus, and insisted on paying my quota; took his place beside me on the outside of the coach next morning, and repeated a whole page of milord Byron’s tragedy.
After all, it must be owned civility is the true sweetener of life. My companion said nothing peculiarly new or brilliant, but he was in good-humour with himself and me. When we arrived at the inn where our journey terminated, he expressed his intention to see me again, and I kissed my hand, as politeness required. There was in the countenance of M. Teapottus such an intense bitterness of sarcasm, that my tongue could not restrain itself. “You see,” said I, “Englishmen are not brutal except they are treated like brutes. It is the privilege and distinction of a polite man to treat every stranger as his equal, and by that treatment to make him feel or wish himself to seem no way inferior. There is nothing so delightful as the roof of an English stage-coach, because it proves the power and comfort of a civil humour—While the hypochondriac traveller is growling at the dust or groaning for his crushed packages, the polite philosopher gathers amusement or intelligence from every one near him, sees richness in the land if it be level, and picturesque beauty if it be rugged. He winds like this smooth river, and catches sunshine whenever it is present.”
“That is good,” said my cynic—“but I have reached my journey’s end quite as soon. The mob laughed in London when they saw me stalking in the middle of the street, and heard me say, in a clown’s tone, ’twas as good to be trodden as elbowed to death—yet I kept stiffly on my way, knowing both carriages and horsemen would turn to the right and left when they saw me stubbornly keeping the middle-road.—This is the worshipful market-town of ***** What does your philosophic eye see?”
“An old tower grey with age, a church, a mansion-house, and twenty dozen of smaller tenements. But, though it is almost night, there is a troop of vagrants bustling round the churchyard-porch. Let us go into the midst—I hear laughter and loud tongues.—A Frenchman desires no better concert.” M. Teapottus shrugged up his shoulders, and we went together into the porch.
We who have lived on the continent are not well able to understand the desolation which English custom spreads over the grave. We give it a tongue as the English poet bestows one on Time, but it is not to affright and create horror. The same tender thoughts that induce us to strew flowers on the beds of our friends on the morning of their birthday’s anniversary, teach us to plant graceful trees and hang fresh garlands over the bed from which they are promised a nobler birth. Even if religion was not a sublime matter, I should keep it for the sake of my own importance. It is impossible for a polite man to be an infidel, for an infidel is of all men the most vulgar in his ideas. All the elegant courtesies of society lose their root and freshness, if we once believe their objects merely heaps of perishing dust. And when I see a man neglect those gracious kindnesses which soothe and comfort human-nature, I am apt to think he believes it no better than the brute that lives but for a season.
These fancies came into my mind as I stood on a broad paved path near a mound, from which two or three whistling ruffians were plucking away the stones that had been reared as an enclosure. They were preparing it to receive another tenant, and some ragged urchins played at football with the tufts of grass torn up from its edges. The minute-bell began to toll as usual for a person of some note, and a procession set forth from the mansion-house nearly opposite the church. It came on foot, for it had not many yards to traverse, and was led by a young man in the habit of chief mourner, leading a very lovely girl scarcely in her seventeenth year. She was followed by two women of more advanced age in rich and deep black, and the supporters of the pall were surrounded by an immense crowd of men in yeomanlike attire, and females coarsely but neatly drest; all gazing with the decent earnestness of grateful sorrow.
It was, as I heard them say, their benefactor’s coffin going to the grave, attended by his tenants and his children. To the latter class the beautiful young girl very soon shewed her claim by sobs of anguish and gestures of the most pathetic kind. Several men, and one or two women, approached to see earth spread over the remains, and their dry composure appeared to me a frightful contrast to the young mourners. Nothing is so terrible to a man as to see the indifference of his fellow-creatures near a grave;—nothing he excuses so readily as the desperate grief of an orphan or a widow. But a groupe of aged and poor matrons in the back-ground redeemed the offence given me by their companions, for they wailed and wept unceasingly. I have Montaigne’s faith in the judgment of ancient dames, and listened with undoubted reverence to the praises they poured on the deceased. M. Teapottus scowled demurely, and when the last bell had tolled, led me away to the best hotel in the town.
“What are you going to propose?” said I, holding my note-book; “I must make a sketch of the churchyard-scene.”
“I,” he answered dryly, “am invited to dine with the mourners; and when you have eaten your dinner also among them, you may finish your drawing.”
A man must grow hungry whatever may be his sentiments, and I took my place close to Teapottus at the bottom of a table furnished so sumptuously as to remind me of the great Englishman’s saying—“Nobody eats an ounce less when they are sorry for a friend.” However, the groupe was of a motley kind, and the novelty of a dinner so splendid probably abated the grief of many. “This,” said my cicerone, “is the unfailing termination of all kinds of business in England. Half a century ago, the funeral baked meats made the mourning family poor for at least two years; and the enormous quantities of cake handed round before the interment, and sent with sable gloves in sealed white papers after, consumed more than would have provided for the widow’s apparel. A few perfumed biscuits and cards of thanks are the substitutes now, even in this remote province; and the crowd of gazers on the dead, which though attracted by curiosity and custom had some show of kindness in them to the living, are now forbidden by courtly etiquette to enter the bereaved house. But they assemble here as you see; and the tone of their discourse, and the modernized elegance of their attire, tell the progress of improvement, as you will call it, better than a volume. Those ruby-coloured portly gentlemen in black coats over the rest of their stout grey apparel, are all farmers of the third rank, whose mornings are spent in the field among their herdsmen, and their noons at sales among drovers. Hear with what shrewd intelligence and good choice of language they rehearse public matters and debate on the science of agriculture!The slim boys scattered among them in stiff collars and broad wristbands are their sons, half going to college, the other just returned from an annual call of the militia. They are not at all surprised at your French ridingote and outré head-dress, for they suppose me a Wiltshire farmer rather related to the dead man, and you my nephew and presumptive heir. Turn your chair, and you will see through that window the young chief mourner in to-day’s funeral shaking hands with a horse-dealer as he steps into his curricle; and his steward’s clerk fighting with the vintner and the milliner to prevent a mal-a-propos exhibition of their bills. Forty years ago, the heir must have stayed decently at home; and the carousers, though they ate and brawled too much, would have talked of nothing but him and his concerns. To-day they are too wise to care for the dead, and too prudent to talk of the living: too sulkily independent, in short, to be civil to either. It was absurd to feast a set of hungry gossips in past times, but worse to feed the thankless indifference of the present.”
“I don’t see,” said I, “that a tough hazle stick is worse for its polish, or a stone for being smooth: and this meeting, though it may not be so amusing, is not so mischievous as the family legends, and paltry scandal of forty years ago. The smoking, swearing, gormandizing clowns described by your own writers, were as proud of their leathern jerkins and wooden shoes, as these decent yeomen of their newspapers and grammar-schools.”
“Let me tell you,” returned Teapottus, “there is some difference between the roaring blaze of sound wood which warmed every body’s heart, and the short neat sparkling of modern coke with its ‘curious perfume.’—And the clowns of those days, like the apples that roasted their round faces before it, though they cracked and sputtered, were warm and mellow within. I hate,” continued he, taking a huge glass of eau-de-vie, “I hate the dry, cold, smooth indifference that gives a man no hold on his fellow-creatures, and forces him to stir up his dormant blood, not with generous sociable frolics, but with such a solitary and brief helper as this glass, which I drink to no man’s health and no woman’s beauty, for I know none that will ever benefit me.” So saying, he pushed his chair out of the circle, seized his one-cornered hat, and turned his back on the company without smile or nod, shewing me by his example how to repay the givers of our dinner.
My hypochondriac guide took his stand on the bridge, watching some ragged little knaves trying to keep themselves erect on a piece of timber they had set afloat. I stood a few steps below him, more pleased to see through the camera obscura of the arch the long line of a delicious valley, banked with small tufts and plats of green herbs or bushes, the pride of a few cottages whose chimnies betrayed them behind. The lane which had brought us to this bridge stretched far down among lowlands newly mown, and bordered with hawthorns and the sweet-briar rose-trees. It was one of those sweet sleeping scenes found oftenest in England; for my own country in its loveliest hollows, has something of that fantastic and gay aspect which its peasantry shew even in their tatters. “Ay,” said Teapottus, throwing away the Mayblossoms he had plucked, “that rascal-boy is not the only venturer on a raft of wormeaten timber—here comes the heir of yesterday.”—And I saw in his face, now unshadowed by crape and twilight, my courteous acquaintance on the roof of the mail-coach. He exchanged courtesies more in the style of Madame De Sevigne’s days than in those of 1820; pressed to know if my accommodations were good at my hotel, shook Teapottus kindly by the hand, and recommended him to do the honours of his country to me in good fashion. We walked up the broad green slope before his house, and he gave me the history of some ancient manors attached to it. He offered me a view of his stud, named a selection of the choicest pieces from the Theâtre Français which he had lately added to his library, and asked my approbation. He talked of the ingenious packs of cards introduced by the Ex-Empress Maria-Louisa, and enquired if the kings, queens, and knaves, were faithful likenesses of our tragic and comic favourites. “If,” thought I, “it is true that Englishmen resemble their own coal-mines, it needs only a skilful visitor to discover their bright veins. A peevish, arrogant, dogmatical traveller sees his own likeness in whatever he meets;—an easy agreeable one does the same. After all, there is no place where a sensible and well-bred stranger is happier than in England.” —Teapottus saw this, or something like this in my face, and began to whistle as he walked behind us.
“You have tablets in your hand,” said Lord Boscobel, with a charming smile—“let me distinguish my land by giving some anecdotes of it to be placed there. This is Bosworth Field, and that old building with diamond casements was once an inn, whose owners are said to have grown rich by discovering a hoard of gold within the immense oak posts of a bed in which Richard the Usurper slept before the battle. And the builder of my house has left a tradition in his family, that he observed among the labouring masons a man of singular deportment, who had been educated secretly and bountifully in all the learning of the times, by a father whose visits were always paid to him in disguise, but were never repeated after that fatal battle. This man was supposed to be King Richard’s son, and I am proud to call him my ancestor.”
“Ah! my dear lord!” I replied, “I shall be glad to inform my countrymen that your third Richard was as gallant, perhaps as handsome, as the First, whose taste for eating Saracens did no honour to his mother, though I assure you, on the authority of all our histories, his mother was a demon, not a Frenchwoman. But I have also in my tablet a very new anecdote of your learned Dr.—pah!—he who settled the geology of this world with our M. De Lac—he whose eyetooth was found in a box and sold for sixty guineas by the rogues who plundered his library, as if it had been Richard’s, dug out of this famous field.”
Milord laughed, and replied—“The tooth of knowledge is at least as sharp as the eye;—but I am glad to find you value King Richard’s gallantry more than his ambition.” And with a most gracious grasp of the hand, he appointed the morrow for our meeting on the river bank to angle à l’Anglaise.
“On my word, Teapottus, this is altogether delightful, and I cannot conceive why you came here to find settlers for your colony in Mezzoterranea. Emigrate from this fine country!—If I was not a Frenchman I would be an Englishman; which is the same as saying, if I was not Alexander the Great, I would be—”
“Pray don’t tell me,” said my cynic, “for I see it all very plain—and as we have half a dozen days more to spend here, I advise you not to finish that sentence in your note-book till you see how you find yourself at the end of our visit.”
“It is my intention,” I replied, “and not without hopes, that the Hundred Days I shall spend in England will be as important in the chronicles of science as the hundred of the Ex-emperor were to the policy of Europe. France, M. Teapottus, is the only empire that can spare great men to benefit other nations. What would have become of the glories of Charlemagne, of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, of your Merlin, and King Arthur; if they had not been recorded in French poems which only a few learned men can read?”
“True,” said Teapottus, “if it had not been for those volumes now sunk into the Central regions of the earth among the fossil skulls of their writers, we should never have heard that Richard ate Saracens’ heads, or that Merlin relieved King Herod from the seven bubbles of a troublesome cauldron, by cutting off seven learned men’s—”
“Ha! my dear friend!” I exclaimed, seizing a precious thought—“when you were digging in the under-strata of Mezzoterranea, had you the happiness of finding any of those volumes? My private mission to England is to compare the Edition found in the petites maisons of Paris with the MSS. in the British Museum.—But what a treasure would the originals be to the National Institute!”
“I have found one book!” said Teapottus, pointing to a chest with three strong locks under his portmanteau.
“My excellent friend, we shall be covered with glory! Think of the appendix it will make to my tour!—The original legends of Merlin and Charlemagne, copied by Nennius and Archbishop Turpin, found in the catacombs of Mezzoterranea by the President of the Bas-bleux, and edited by M. Denon!”
“Monsieur,” replied Teapottus, drily, “I never had the honour of belonging to the society who borrow their name from the blue stockings worn by their French leader.”
“A thousand pardons, my dear fellow-traveller!—you belong, I know, to the fraternity of philosophers whose fondness for profundity and livid complexions have gained the English soubriquet of Blue Dev—,—excuse me:—Your French cognomen, ‘Bas bleu,’ equally and more elegantly indicates your peculiar tint and origin De profundis.”
“M. Denon,” he again answered, “I am for the present domiciled in England, and I chuse my English name, a Grumbler. Your sketch of this nation can hardly fail to be correct, for a French wit, and an English politician, always see both the best and worst sides of things.”
When a compliment has two meanings, an Englishman is always at a loss which to take, but a Frenchman never. I made my profoundest bow, and recollecting Lord Boscobel’s beautiful sister, I opened a romance to collect a few courtly ideas in the English style, and made my first attempt at verse in this language.
“There’s not a nut in the filbert-hedge
So brown as Chloe’s hair,
And not a sloe on the bramble-bush
Can with her eyes compare;
Her hair is of that very brown,
That doth all browns excel;
And there’s no hair on all her head
But curls delightful well.
She twirls her hair ere break of day,
And makes so sure a chain,
That never heart entangled there
Did ever get loose again.
O! what shall I do? the poet said,
My fate is past compare;
For she will take the verse I make,
And with it curl her hair.”