A  Passionate Pilgrim

A Passionate Pilgrim

A PASSIONATE PILGRIM HENRY JAMES I 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 to-morrow 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." "Oh come!" "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." "Never?" "Never." 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?" "Heaven forbid!" "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-in-waiting 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 ...