List of Illustrations
WAX EFFIGY OF QUEEN ELIZABETH
From a photograph by D. Weller
WAX EFFIGY OF CHARLES THE SECOND
From a photograph by D. Weller
GREAT ST. HELEN'S
From a photograph by the Autotype Company
From a photograph by the Autotype Company
A BIT OF OLD SMITHFIELD
From a photograph by the Autotype Company
DR. JOHNSON'S HOUSE IN GOUGH SQUARE
GREAT CHEYNE ROW AND CARLYLE'S HOUSE
From a photograph by Hedderley, circa 1860
THE FOUNDLING HOSPITAL
From a photograph by the Autotype Company
From a photograph by the Autotype Company
People who are kind enough to read my stories sometimes tell me they like them on account of their London atmosphere. This is reassuring, because London is, to me, what “King Charles’ head” was to “Mr. Dick,” and when my publisher suggested that I should write this volume I mounted my hobby-horse with glee.
The objects of the journeys recorded were chosen haphazard. With a myriad places clamouring for notice, and each place brimful of interest, one takes the first that comes, reflecting that what one doesn’t see to-day can be seen to-morrow, regretful only that, no matter how many to-morrows may remain, there will not be enough to exhaust the charms of London. London has moods for each hour and surprises round every corner. It may be the enchantress, or the “stony-hearted step-mother,” but one part it can never play – that of the bore. “Strange stories,” says Walter Thornbury, in his introduction to “Old and New London,” “about strange men grow like moss in every crevice of the bricks.” To people the streets with the shades of those “strange men” is a fascinating pastime which I owe, in large measure, to the guidance of that wonderful and inexhaustible book.
If, in this humble little volume of my own, I dared aspire to do anything more than please myself, it would be to share with some lovers of London those moods of curious happiness which one finds in the haunts of London’s ghosts.
When the Countess of Corbridge sent the quarterly cheque for fifty pounds to her brother, the Hon. George Tallenach, she always addressed the envelope to Carrington Mansions, Mayfair. As a matter of fact, the Honourable George lived in Carrington Mews, Shepherd Market, and derived a certain ironic pleasure from the contemplation of his sister’s snobbishness. But then the Honourable George had never acted up to the traditions of his family. His Bohemianism, coupled with an inability to settle down to any calling, had been the despair of that family ever since he was ploughed at Oxford. And now, at the age of sixty-five, he was a pensioner on the bounty of the Countess of Corbridge, living in a workman’s flat in Carrington Mews, an adept in the art of poetic loafing, an inveterate gossip and roamer of the streets, a kindly old vagabond with well-brushed shabby clothes, a clean collar and a spotless pocket handkerchief, the love of London in his bones, and of his fellows in his heart.
Mrs. Darling, the pensioned widow of a night watchman, who lived in the flat below, was in the habit of rendering the Honourable George small services. It was she to whom he applied in any domestic emergency – she mended his socks and kept his handkerchiefs a good colour, sewed on his buttons, and inculcated a policy of thrift towards the end of the quarter when funds were getting low.
Such a period was imminent now, and when Mrs. Darling brought in a pile of snowy handkerchiefs and deposited them on the table this warm September morning, the Honourable George, faced with the prospect of three lean weeks, propounded to her a scheme he had devised for a cheap form of enjoyment.
“Mrs. Darling,” he began, “I have noticed with regret your lamentable ignorance of the place in which you live.”
“Me ignorant of Shepherd Market. I don’t think!” declared Mrs. Darling indignantly. “I ’aven’t lived in it for thirty-five years for nothink. Why, there isn’t a shop or a person I ––”
“Not so fast, Mrs. Darling. I was referring to London as a whole, of which Shepherd Market is as a needle in a haystack. And your knowledge even of the Market and its surroundings is purely superficial. I suppose you are not aware that Shepherd Market is the place where the fair, which gave Mayfair its name, was held up to the middle of the eighteenth century, and that the Market itself is nearly two hundred years old. No doubt you are also in ignorance of the fact that Kitty Fisher lived in Carrington Street: Kitty, the celebrated courtesan who married John Norris and gave herself up to repairing two dilapidated fortunes, thus proving the inaccuracy of the statement that the leopard cannot change its spots, and challenging the baseness and the scurvy malevolence of those ‘little scribblers’ who accused her of having ‘neither sense nor wit, but only impudence’.”
“Well, sir, I must admit I didn’t know all them things.”
“Of course you didn’t; but cheer up, it isn’t too late to learn. What d’you say to our having some outings together? Suppose we make a start this afternoon? London’s at its best on these calm autumn days.”
“What, me and you?”
“Yes – why not?”
“‘Spose we met any of yer grand friends? Me, in my ole plush coat I’ve ’ad this ten years. It’s true I got a new ’at, ten and eleven at Selfridge’s bargain basement, but a hat ain’t everythink.”
“No, you certainly want more than that. But clothes, also, aren’t everything. It’s your company I hanker after, Mrs. Darling. I seek a virgin mind on which to make first impressions. I’m tired of people who know everything. In seeing things through your eyes I shall ––”
But Mrs. Darling interrupted the speaker to remark with a scandalised air that there wasn’t much of the virgin about her, seeing she’d been married thirty-three years, and a widow too, not to speak of being the mother of four children.
This drew forth from the Honourable George a charge of frivolity coupled with a long-winded explanation of his newly conceived idea, and an equally long-winded explanation of the benefit Mrs. Darling might derive from it. The listener, who had been standing first on one leg, then on the other, her mind racked by a suspicion that the potatoes would be reduced to pulp, made a reckless promise at the first pause, and then beat a precipitate retreat to her flat below.
“‘E gets worse and worse,” she meditated, as she strained off the potatoes – just in time. “Talk about balmy – if this don’t take the bun! But if it gives ’im any pleasure, it won’t do me no ’arm. I’ll go this once, just to pacify ’im. I bet ’e won’t ask me again!” and Mrs. Darling’s smile had a quality of grim humour.
The Honourable George, always a favourite with the opposite sex, had had many love affairs of a more or less light nature, loves of a day, a week, or a month. But existing with, and surviving these ephemeral distractions, was “Agatha,” the woman he had always meant some day to ask in marriage. Owing, however, to the Honourable George’s thriftless habits, that day had never arrived, and “Agatha,” who had allowed all her birds in the hand to escape in favour of that elusive bird in the bush, was at the age of sixty still a spinster, finding her interests in church work, dogs, and other people’s babies. At regular intervals she had letters from George. George, who was apt to ride rough-shod over her well-bred susceptibilities with his racy comments on people and things. George, who shocked her and saved her from old maidishness, whose letters came into the prim little country house with a refreshing breath of Bohemianism, providing an antidote to dry rot, and a healthy interest in men and things outside her narrow circle. The following letters are those particular ones which gave the account of his peregrinations with Mrs. Darling.
Dear Agatha, – I’ve got a new pal! Her name may have appeared in my letters before, in connection with the histories of my neighbours in the other flats, the mending of my vests and pants, and cheap lunches at home when she provides me with a portion of her beef-steak pie for ninepence. Her name is Darling, which necessitates the painstaking use of the “Mrs.” for fear of a misunderstanding. She is a widow, and a person of kindly sympathies but limited intelligence outside the domain of domestic affairs. She is Cockney to the finger tips, yet London, to her, is as unexplored and as unknown as one of the stars. The temptation, when one day I realised this, was irresistible. Obviously, it was meant that I was destined to take the work of her education in hand, and to-day we made a start with our immediate surroundings.
It seems hardly credible that Mrs. Darling never went out to buy a pound of potatoes that she did not pass “Ducking Pond Mews” in Shepherd Street, yet it had never occurred to her to wonder how it got its title, much less to make any effort to find out. She said she supposed there had been a pond there, some time, and when I told her it was what, in contemporary papers, was described as “an extensive basin of water,” she said, “A penny plain and tuppence coloured”. Mrs. D. is very averse to anything of the nature of “side” in conversation, and so I did not go on to quote the article which spoke of a “commodious house and a good disposure of walks”. I thought, though, it would interest her to know that, by payment of the small sum of twopence, lovers of a certain polite and humane sport could in those old days witness the torture of the duck when it was put in the pond and hunted by dogs who were driven in after it. Also that Charles II and some of his nobility were in the habit of frequenting those sports.
She said she wasn’t a bit surprised. She never had thought much of royalty; all the same, it didn’t do to believe everything you were told.
This was a trifle discouraging, and we walked on in silence for a few minutes, pausing to glance down East Chapel Street, where is the many-paned window of the “Serendipity” shop, with its old coloured prints and the original editions of seventeenth-century poets, bound in vellum; then on to the East Yard, which exists exactly as it was in the old coaching days.
Do you know, Agatha, that I live in one of the most unique spots in London? We are hemmed in by an aristocracy of houses, places and people, yet we are as far apart from it all as if the walls of Jericho came between. There’s no approaching by degrees. One steps through one of those low arches in Curzon Street into this quaint little island of loiterers in the twinkling of an eye. A world of cobbled-paved streets, culs de sac, devious by-ways, and shops which in their meditative unconcern seem to trust in Providence to send them customers. A world from which one sometimes awakens in Piccadilly with a feeling of having slept as long as Rip Van Winkle himself.
I suggested the wax effigies at Westminster Abbey with diffidence. To my relief, however, the old lady received the proposal favourably, and on our way I imparted to her a dark intention which I had cherished for years. It was to spend a night in the Abbey. I should choose the warmest night in summer, and I should go provided with a packet of sandwiches and a flask of whisky. Imagine the thrill on a moonlight night, when the figures on the tombs in the long aisles would be like creatures on a stage frozen into stone at some moment of dramatic intensity. Pointing, beckoning, warning, praying, weeping and exhorting. “The dust of the dead” – a fine phrase that. One would see it rise like incense in the moonbeams, and the vast silences would be thick with whispered thoughts. Perhaps now and again there would come a sound which had nothing to do with the dead – the footfall of a watchman.
Mrs. Darling asked if it had occurred to me that the watchman might give me in charge. I assured her that I had not left such a contingency out of my calculations. I should well tip the watchman, and a drink out of my flask on top of the tip would make a friend of him for life. No doubt he would be glad of a talk to relieve the monotony of his job, and the talk of a night watchman in Westminster Abbey would be worth listening to. He could tell me something of those suspected secret places which are not shown to visitors. He might even let me see them for myself. He would know the Abbey as it is impossible for the ordinary public to know it. The ordinary public no more knows the Abbey than does a person, who stands on the kerb to watch the King pass on his way to some State function, know the man inside the King. The Abbey should be seen when the voices of glib guides, and the shuffling footsteps of visitors bored with sight-seeing, have ceased. Then, when the echoes of the last footsteps have died away, when the last door has banged, and the last key been turned in the last lock, then the Abbey puts aside its mask and communes with its dead. What a strange silence that must be, when the thoughts of kings and queens, statesmen and warriors, poets and priests, fill every corner of the ancient building with their noiseless vigilance!
Mrs. Darling said that, even if I escaped being taken to the police station, I should certainly get an attack of rheumatism, but I explained that sensations invariably have their price, and that I shouldn’t grudge paying for this particular one.
We left the daylight of the Broad Sanctuary for the gloom of the vast interior, and I suggested that we should explore the chapels before doing the wax effigies in the Islip Chamber.
As we walked down the north transept the old lady asked me if it was true that “Old Parr” was buried in the Abbey, and I took her to read the inscription on the stone in Poet’s Corner. “Old Parr’s” qualification for hob-nobbing with the élite in art and literature lies in the fact that he died at the age of 152, and lived in the reigns of ten sovereigns, an achievement great enough, it was considered, to earn him the right to such distinguished burial. How came it, I wonder, that this solitary human being was endowed with such powers of resistance to natural decay? There must have been something weird about that old man. Taylor, the poet, in his description of him, says:
“From head to heel, his body hath all over
A quick set, thick set, natural, hairy cover.”
Was Old Parr a throw-back to our ancestor the ape?
Mrs. Darling said he must have outlived all his relations and been very lonely, and to reassure her I mentioned that if he outlived old ties he also made new ones, marrying his second wife (only his second) at the age of 120, and having by her one child.
Mrs. D. retorted that he ought to have been ashamed of himself, which struck me as inconsistent. Parr’s first wife had no doubt been dead a great many years, and all those years he had presumably been waiting for the end which never came. When, at the age of 120, he found himself still alive, and still hale and hearty, he would begin to think it was about time to accept things as they were and start life all over again. That my thoughts in Poet’s Corner, by the way, concerned themselves with “Old Parr” to the exclusion of Garrick, Johnson, Thackeray, Dickens, Coleridge, and Spenser, the “Prince of Poets,” must have been Mrs. D.’s fault.
I prefer Monday for a visit to the chapels, not because one saves sixpence, but because I never follow in the footsteps of a guide without a humiliating sense of being one of a hungry mob of chickens round the man with the bag of grain. It is much more exciting to go pecking about on your own, and on Mondays you can loiter unmolested where you will, and for as long as you will.
The north aisle of Henry VII’s Chapel, where Queen Elizabeth is buried, invariably draws me, and I led the way there, first. Strangely enough, it is often empty, and always quiet. One’s thoughts of Elizabeth mingle curiously with those of her hated half-sister, “Bloody Queen Mary,” who is buried below Elizabeth, and who was, according to Sandford, “interred without any monument or other remembrance”.
It is strange to note the unequal distribution of favours in the matter of burial. Charles II, for instance, has nothing more than his name and the dates of his birth and death recorded in small letters on the pavement of the chapel in the south aisle. Pepys says of Charles, “He was very obscurely buried at night without any manner of pomp, and soon forgotten after all his vanity”.
Addison is near Queen Elizabeth, and close to his friend Charles Montague, first Earl of Halifax. Reference to the fact is quaintly made in the two concluding lines of the Addison’s epitaph:
“Oh for ever gone; take this last adieu,
And sleep in peace next thy lov’d Montague.”
The place is narrow and rather dark. It would have been more befitting Elizabeth’s magnificence had she been laid amidst the colour and pomp of the chapel of Henry VII. One would think, too, that she had a restless neighbour in “Bloody Queen Mary”. The words of the Latin inscription perhaps make a mute appeal for charity for the latter when they say, “Consorts both in throne and grave, in the hope of one resurrection”.
Against the east wall is a sarcophagus containing bones found at the foot of a staircase in the Bloody Tower, and supposed to be those of the two princes who were murdered in the Tower by their uncle. Yes, Elizabeth has eerie company, and somehow, in the cold grey light of this dim corner of the Abbey, it is not the Elizabeth described by Green, the historian, as that “brilliant, fanciful, unscrupulous child of earth, and the Renaissance,” of whom we think, but the dying, lonely woman who, her mind unchanged, her old courage gone, “called for a sword to be constantly beside her, and thrust it from time to time through the arras as if she heard murderers stirring there”. What a subject for a picture!
The quarters were struck by the chiming of the Abbey clock inside, and the booming of Big Ben outside, and as we wandered from chapel to chapel I was wooing those lurking beauties of the building which wait patiently for the day, the hour, and the man who is to find out their loveliness. The ordinary visitor is mostly too engaged in picking up crumbs of information to have leisure to lift his eyes to the sculptured figures which stand aloft in the blue haze of encroaching twilight. Neither does he catch the secret flame of some obscure window which suddenly shines out like a sinking sun through the forest of pillars and arches, nor notice the jealous little doors to which only the privileged have the key. I found one such this afternoon in the Chapel of Edward the Confessor, but when I put my eye to the keyhole, nothing but darkness rewarded my curiosity. Mrs. Darling asked me if I’d ever had any luck with keyholes, and I was obliged to admit that I hadn’t – still, one never knows.
There was no need to peer through the keyhole of the door leading to the Islip Chamber, because for the moderate sum of threepence we were admitted without parley.
The guide pushed back a door into darkness, touched a button, and behold a flight of steps leading up to the strange lodging of the life-sized dolls.
Charles the Second was the first to confront us, his bold black eyes meeting Mrs. Darling’s inquisitive glance with a sinister challenge.
“Of a tall stature and of sable hue,
Much like the son of Kish that lofty grew.”
“I wouldn’t trust ’im a inch further than I could see ’im,” was Mrs. Darling’s comment on the “Merry Monarch”.
I complimented her on being a good judge of character. The guide had turned on the electric lights, which were fixed to shine on the silent company standing in their glass cases. William III and Mary in their purple velvet and brocades, their real point de rose and imitation jewels. The Duke of Buckingham, who died at the age of nineteen, lies on a bier in the centre of the room. The effigy lay in state at his mother’s house, and one reads that she invited all her friends to see it, stating that “she could carry them in conveniently by a back door”. Plain Queen Anne and “La Belle Stuart,” the Duchess of Richmond, loved, in vain, by Charles II, and jealous for the posthumous reputation of her beauty. She left orders that her effigy, “as well done as could be,” should be placed “under clear crown glass and none other”. She should have been content to go down to posterity as the figure of Britannia on the coins.
Mrs. Darling thought the Duchess would “’ave a bit of a shock if she could see ’er self now,” and, indeed, I have rarely seen a more cynical comment on the glory that passes than is to be found in these weird figures in their dingy finery. Yet they have a dignity, and an exciting interest. One can approach unmolested and share the privilege of the cat who may look at a king. One may try to pierce the secrets hidden or betrayed by those waxen masks. There is Queen Elizabeth, for instance (to my mind the most arresting figure in the collection); the face is taken from a death mask, and there is something disquieting in the eyes, awful with the horror of death. A strange face, possessing in its smallness the curiously repellant qualities of great age: a face to which the kindly homeliness of Nelson’s in the next case made reassuring contrast.
Mrs. Darling said “Elizabeth didn’t look ’uman,” and I suppose one touches on the tragedy of her life when one says that it is always as a queen, rather than as a woman, one regards her. Yet she had her feminine vanities. I have always been impressed by the account of her travelling from Richmond to Chelsea by night because the torchlight was more kind to her wrinkles than was the daylight.
The bell was tolling for afternoon service, the voice of a guide could be heard echoing in the chapels below, and we had the place to ourselves. Mrs. Darling returned and had another look at Charles II, just, as she expressed it, to “wonder what any woman could see in him,” and, for the moment, I was alone with those waxen men and women who stared at me across the ages. There is something oddly intimate about a wax figure, and I was making strides in the acquaintance of Queen Elizabeth and Nelson when the verger returned with the intimation that sight-seers must depart, as Evensong was about to begin. Remorselessly he switched off the lights and we clattered down the wooden stairway, leaving the little company of strangely assorted ghosts to their dreams, and maybe an interchange of thoughts as the outcome of their long broodings.
It occurred to me as we came into the sunlight again, that while we were about it we would go and see the older figures which have been placed in the Norman Undercroft. And so we turned into Dean’s Yard, and from thence to the cloisters, pausing now and again to read the inscriptions on the tombstones over which we walked. The lettering on some of them had been freshly chiselled, and the names stood out, giving, it seemed, new life to the memories of those who lay beneath.
Mrs. Darling complained that I might have taken her to a more cheerful place, giving it as her opinion that Westminster Abbey was “nothink more than a bloomin’ churchyard”. I had to remind her that it is we who, in that place, are the ghosts, and the ghosts who are the real people. The present no longer exists for us. We left it, half an hour ago, to adventure into the dim old ages.
“Speak for yourself, sir,” said she. “The present’s good enough for me. You got a white mark on yer coat leaning up against the wall, and there’s the old chap waiting what you asked to take us underground.”
The verger approached with a bunch of keys, leading the way through the “dark cloister” to a door above which was an iron grating. At its opening, a gloomy dungeon-like interior was disclosed, but he put up his hand, and in a moment the Undercroft was flooded with electric light. It is of spacious proportions and of Norman architecture, having a clean-swept empty appearance. On the floor are some glass cases containing the oldest of the effigies, the actual figures which were carried at the funerals. Here is Katherine of Valois. I never hear her name without remembering a passage in Pepys’ Diary, where he says: “To Westminster Abbey and there did see all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone … and here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a queen, and that this was my birthday, thirty-six years old.”
“Well, who’d er thought they’d come to this!” exclaimed Mrs. Darling, as she gazed at the “ragged regiment”. “Wot a show up! Why, this one ain’t decent,” pointing to the nude figure of Prince Henry of Wales.
The verger explained that these historic dolls had been discovered lying in the cellars under the Dean’s house, and how I envied the finder! If only I could get free permission to roam the Abbey and its precincts night and day, open every door I came to, go down every cellar, explore every passage, mount every stairway, I should want to live for ever. I said as much to Mrs. Darling, and she remarked that it wouldn’t surprise her to hear that, when I got to heaven, I’d been given “some nosey job”.
Quite an inspiring idea! and I warned her that next time she came to the Abbey she might see my ghost peeping through a keyhole.
She shook her head. “You ain’t ever likely to meet me ’ere,” she said, “for if I must speak the truth, sir, I think it’s very dry.”
I told her that was because she didn’t realise the living, human side of the people in whose likeness the effigies had been made, and I captured her attention with gossip about Henry VII, whose mother was not quite fourteen when she gave birth to him, and whose usurious disposition led him to think first of marrying his own daughter-in-law, then a lady who was insane. The information that on his death-bed he had discharged the debts of all prisoners in London who owed no more than forty shillings, roused a cynical comment from the old lady to the effect that Henry VII did his devil-dodging at the expense of his heirs.
We left the dark cloister as we talked and turned into the vaulted passage leading to the corner which I have sometimes heard described as “The Monk’s Garden”. Surely there is no more peaceful spot in all London. The little fountain in the enclosure bubbles all day long to the silence, the huge plane tree above it spreads wide arms to the old arcade, and ferns unfold their green fronds to the sunshine. It is a place in which to meditate kindly on the weaknesses of poor human nature, and to dwell with reverence on its greatness.
I felt impelled to set Henry VII right with Mrs. Darling, and suggested we should return to visit his chapel, but the words fell on stony soil. Mrs. D.’s face assumed the expression with which I associated “dryness,” and I proposed instead an adjournment to one of the neighbouring tea-shops. The old lady at once became alert, and taking the lead, towed me reluctantly through Dean’s Yard into the roar of Victoria Street.
But I could not so easily shake the dust of the Abbey from my feet. I felt as one of those wax effigies would feel could he come to life, and stepping from out of his glass case, take a walk to Charing Cross. Then a strange idea occurred. Suppose I was one of them? It was possible, if the theory of a former existence holds water. I might be a Charles II, a Henry VII, a Nelson! On second thoughts, though, I am more inclined to class myself with the artistic fraternity – a Garrick, a Beaumont, or a Ben Jonson – “O, rare Ben Jonson!” Yes, I find in myself traits distinctly reminiscent of the poet who used his pen as Hogarth used his brush––
“That’s the second time you done it, sir.” Mrs. Darling’s voice brought me back to the twentieth century with an unpleasant jar.
“Done what?” I asked.
“Run into somebody through not lookin’ where yer goin’. That telegraph boy didn’t ’arf size you up. I shouldn’t like to repeat wot ’e said.”
“I wouldn’t ask it of you,” I hastened to assure her.
She had come to a halt before the window of an A.B.C. shop. “Look!” she exclaimed, “Crumpets! ’ow funny!”
I told her I didn’t see the joke, and she said that came of my not keeping my ears open – the telegraph boy had referred to a certain person being “balmy on the crumpet!”
I feigned unconsciousness of the deduction. There are occasions when Mrs. D.’s perverted sense of humour needs keeping in check, and to quote “Charley’s Aunt,” it was “such a damned silly joke”.
I am sorry to have to end my yarn on this prosaic note, but that is the way of things in an existence where the necessity to blow your nose or change your socks breaks in on the most exalted moments.
Believe me, dear Agatha,