Mr. Sam Tai Ling keeps a restaurant, and, some years ago, when my ways were cast about West India Dock Road, I knew him well. He was an old man then; he is an old man now: the same age, I fancy. Supper with him is something to remember—I use the phrase carefully. You will find, after supper, that soda-mints and potass-water are more than grateful and comforting.
When we entered he came forward at once, and such was his Celestial courtesy that, although we had recently dined, to refuse supper was impossible. He supped with us himself in the little upper room, lit by gas, and decorated with bead curtains and English Christmas-number supplements. A few oily seamen were manipulating the chop-sticks and thrusting food to their mouths with a noise that, on a clear night, I should think, could be heard as far as Shadwell. When honourable guests were seated, honourable guests were served by Mr. Tai Ling. There were noodle, shark's fins, chop suey, and very much fish and duck, and lychee fruits. The first dish consisted of something that resembled a Cornish pasty—chopped fish and onion and strange meats mixed together and heavily spiced, encased in a light flour-paste. Then followed a plate of noodle, some bitter lemon, and finally a pot of China tea prepared on the table: real China tea, remember, all-same Shan-tung; not the backwash of the name which is served in Piccadilly tea-shops. The tea is carefully prepared by one who evidently loves his work, and is served in little cups, without milk or sugar, but flavoured with chrysanthemum buds.
As our meal progressed, the cafe began to fill; and the air bubbled with the rush of labial talk from the Celestial company. We were the only white things there. All the company was yellow, with one or two tan-skinned girls.
But we were out for amusement, so, after the table hospitality, Sam took us into the Causeway. Out of the coloured darkness of Pennyfields came the muffled wail of reed instruments, the heart-cry of the Orient; noise of traffic; bits of honeyed talk. On every side were following feet: the firm, clear step of the sailor; the loud, bullying boots of the tough; the joyful steps that trickle from "The Green Man"; and, through all this chorus, most insistently, the stealthy, stuttering steps of the satyr. For your Chink takes his pleasure where he finds it; not, perhaps, the pleasure that you would approve, for probably you are not of that gracious temperament that accords pity and the soft hand to the habits of your fellows. Yet so many are the victims of the flesh, and for so little while are we here, that one can but smile and be kind. Besides, these yellow birds come from an Eastern country, where they do not read English law or bother about such trifles as the age of consent.
Every window, as always, was closely shuttered, but between the joints shot jets of slim light, and sometimes you could catch the chanting of a little sweet song last sung in Rangoon or Swatow. One of these songs was once translated for me. I should take great delight in printing it here, but, alas! this, too, comes from a land where purity crusades are unknown. I dare not conjecture what Bayswater would do to me if I reproduced it.
We passed through Pennyfields, through clusters of gladly coloured men. Vaguely we remembered leaving Henrietta Street, London, and dining in Old Compton Street, Paris, a few hours ago. And now—was this Paris or London or Tuan-tsen or Taiping? Pin-points of light pricked the mist in every direction. A tom-tom moaned somewhere in the far-away.
It was now half-past ten. The public-house at the extreme end was becoming more obvious and raucous. But, at a sudden black door, Sam stopped. Like a figure of a shadowgraph he slid through its opening, and we followed. Stairs led straight from the street to a basement chamber—candle-lit, with two exits. I had been there before, but to my companions it was new. We were in luck. A Dai Nippon had berthed a few hours previously, and here was its crew, flinging their wages fast over the fan-tan tables, or letting it go at Chausa-Bazee or Pachassee.
It was a well-kept establishment where agreeable fellows might play a game or so, take a shot of opium, or find other varieties of Oriental delight. The far glooms were struck by low-toned lanterns. Couches lay about the walls; strange men decorated them and three young girls in socks, idiotically drunk. Small tables were everywhere, each table obscured in a fog of yellow faces and greasy hair. The huge scorbutic proprietor, Ho Ling, swam noiselessly from table to table. A lank figure in brown shirting, its fingers curled about the stem of a spent pipe, sprawled in another corner. The atmosphere churned. The dirt of years, tobacco of many growings, opium, betel-nut, bhang, and moist flesh allied themselves in one grand assault on the nostrils. Perhaps you wonder how they manage to keep these places clean. That may be answered in two words: they don't.
On a table beneath one of the lanterns squatted a musician with a reed, blinking upon the company like a sly cat, and making his melody of six repeated notes.
Suddenly, at one of the tables was a slight commotion. A wee slip of a fellow had apparently done well at fan-tan, for he slid from his corner, and essayed a song—I fancy it was meant to be "Robert E. Lee"—in his seaman's pidgin. At least, his gestures were those of a ragtime comedian, and the tune bore some faint resemblance. Or is it that the ragtime kings have gone to the antiquities of the Orient for their melodies? But he had not gone far before Ho Ling, with the dignity of a mandarin, removed him. And the smell being a little too strong for us, we followed, and strolled to the Asiatics' Home.
The smell—yes. There is nothing in the world like the smell of a Chinatown in a Western city. It is a grand battle between a variety of odours, but opium prevails. The mouth of West India Dock Road is foul with it. For you might as well take away a navvy's half-pint of beer as deprive a Chink of his shot of dope and his gambling-table. Opium is forbidden under the L.C.C. regulations, and therefore the Chink sleeps at a licensed lodging-house and goes elsewhere for his fun. Every other house in this quarter is a seamen's lodging-house. These hotels have no lifts, and no electric light, and no wine-lists. You pay threepence a night, and you get the accommodation you pay for. But then, they are not for silk-clad ossifications such as you and me. They are for the lusty coloured lads who work the world with steam and sail: men whose lives lie literally in their great hands, who go down to the sea in ships and sometimes have questionable business in great waters.
These India Docks are like no other docks in the world. About their gates you find the scum of the world's worst countries; all the peoples of the delirious Pacific of whom you have read and dreamed—Arab, Hindoo, Malayan, Chink, Jap, South Sea Islander—a mere catalogue of the names is a romance. Here are pace and high adventure; the tang of the East; fusion of blood and race and creed. A degenerate dross it is, but, do you know, I cannot say that I don't prefer it to the well-spun gold that is flung from the Empire on boat-race nights. Place these fellows against our blunt backgrounds, under the awful mystery of the City's night, and they present the finest spectacle that London affords.
You may see them in their glory at the Asiatics' Home, to which we now came. A delightful place, this home for destitute Orientals; for it has a veranda and a compound, stone beds and caged cubicles, no baths and a billiard-table; and extraordinary precautions are taken against indulgence of the wicked tastes of its guests. Grouped about the giant stove are Asiatics of every country in wonderful toilet creations. A mild-eyed Hindoo, lacking a turban, has appropriated a bath-towel. A Malay appears in white cotton trousers, frock-coat, brown boots, and straw hat; and a stranded Burmese cuts no end of a figure in under-vest, steward's jacket, yellow trousers and squash hat. All carry a knife or a krees, and all are quite pleasant people, who will accept your Salaam and your cigarette. Rules and regulations for impossibly good conduct hang on the walls in Hindustani, Japanese, Swahili, Urdu, and Malayan. All food is prepared and cooked by themselves, and the slaughter of an animal for the table must be witnessed and prayed upon by those of their own faith. Out in the compound is a skittle-alley, where the boys stroll and play; and costumes, people, and setting have all the appearance of the ensemble of a cheap revue.
I suppose one dare not write on Limehouse without mentioning opium-rooms. Well, if one must, one must, though I have nothing of the expected to tell you. I have known Limehouse for many years, and have smiled many times at the articles that appear perennially on the wickedness of the place. Its name evokes evil tradition in the public mind. There are ingenuous people who regard it as dangerous. I have already mentioned its sinister atmosphere; but there is an end of it. There is nothing substantial. These are the people who will tell you of the lurking perils of certain quarters of London—how that there are streets down which, even in broad daylight, the very police do not venture unaccompanied. You may believe that, if you choose; it is simply a tale for the soft-minded with a turn for the melodramatic. There is no such thing as a dangerous street in London. I have loafed and wandered in every part of London, slums, foreign quarters, underground, and docksides, and if you must have adventure in London, then you will have to make your own. The two fiercest streets of the metropolis—Dorset Street and Hoxton Street—are as safe for the wayfarer as Oxford Street; for women, safer. And the manners of Limehouse are certainly a lesson to Streatham Hill.
But we are talking of opium. We left Mr. Tai Ling on the steps of the Asiatics' Home, and from there we wandered to High Street, Poplar, to the house of a gracious gentleman from Pi-chi-li, not for opium but for a chat with him. For my companions had not smoked before, and I did not want two helpless invalids on my hands at midnight. Those amazingly thrilling and amazingly ludicrous stories of East End opium-rooms are mainly, I may say, the work of journalistic specials. A journalistic special is a man who writes thrillingly on old-fashioned topics on which he is ill-informed. The moment he knows something about his subject he is not allowed to write; he ceases to be a special. Also, of course, if a man, on sociological investigation, puts an initial pipe of opium on top of a brandy or so—well, one can understand that even the interior of the Bayswater omnibus may be a haunt of terror and wonder. Taking a jolt of "chandu" in a Limehouse room is about as exciting as taking a mixed vermuth at the Leicester Lounge.
The gracious gentleman received us affably. Through a curtained recess was the small common room, where yellow and black men reclined, in a purple dusk, beaded with the lights of little lamps. The odour was sickly, the air dry. The gentleman wondered whether we would have a room. No, we wouldn't; but I bought cigarettes, and we went upstairs to the little dirty bedrooms. The bed is but a mattress with a pillow. There, if you are a dope-fiend, you may have your pipe and lamp, very cosy, and you may lock the door, and the room is yours until you have finished. One has read, in periodicals, of the well-to-do people from the western end, who hire rooms here and come down, from time to time, for an orgy. That is another story for the nursery. White people do visit the rooms, of course, but they are chiefly the white seamen of the locality; and, in case you may ever feel tempted to visit any of the establishments displaying the Sign of the Open Lamp, I may tell you that your first experiment will result in violent nausea, something akin to the effect of the cigar you smoked when you were twelve, but heightened to the nth power. Opium does nasty things to the yellow man; it does nastier things to the white man. Not only does it wreck the body, but it engenders and inflames those curious vices to which allusion has been made elsewhere. If you do not believe me, then you may accept the wisdom of an unknown Formosan, who, three hundred years ago, published a tract, telling of the effects of the Open Lamp on the white man. They are, in a word, parallel with the effects of whisky on the Asiatic. Listen:—
The opium is boiled in a copper pan. The pipe is in appearance like a short club. Depraved young men, without any fixed occupation, meet together by night and smoke; and it soon becomes a habit. Fruit and sweetmeats are provided for the sailors, and no charge is made for the first time, in order to tempt them. After a while they cannot stay away, and will forfeit all their property so as to buy the drug. Soon they find themselves beyond cure. If they omit smoking for a day, their faces become shrivelled, their lips stand open, and they seem ready to die. Another smoke restores vitality, but in three years they all die.
So now you know. The philanthropic foreigner published his warning in 1622. In 1915 ... well, walk down Pennyfields and exercise your nose, and calculate how much opium is being smoked in London to-day.
Nobody troubles very much about Chinatown, except the authorities, and their interference is but perfunctory. The yellow men, after all, are, as Prologue to "Pagliacci" observes, but men like you, for joy or sorrow, the same broad heaven above them, the same wide world before them. They are but men like you, though the sanitary officials may doubt it. They will sleep six and seven in one dirty bed, and no law of London can change their ways. Anyway, they are peaceful, agreeable people, who ask nothing but to be allowed to go about their business and to be happy in their own way. They are shy birds, and detest being looked at, or talked to, or photographed, or written about. They don't want white men in their restaurants, or nosing about their places. They carry this love of secrecy to strange lengths. Not so long ago a press photographer set out boldly to get pictures of Chinatown. He marched to the mouth of Limehouse Causeway, through which, in the customary light of grey and rose, many amiable creatures were gliding, levelled his nice new Kodak, and got—an excellent picture of the Causeway after the earthquake. The entire street in his plate was deserted.
Certain impressionable people—Cook's tourists and Civil Servants—return from the East mumbling vague catchwords—mystic, elusive, subtle, haunting, alluring. These London Chinese are neither subtle nor mystic. They are mostly materialist and straightforward; and, once you can gain their confidence, you will find yourself wonderfully at home. But it has to be gained, for, as I have said, they are shy, and were you to try to join a game of cards on a short acquaintance ... well, it would be easier to drop in for a cigarette with King George. To get into a Grosvenor Square mansion on a ball night is a comparatively easy matter: swank and an evening suit will do it; nothing very exclusive about those people. But the people of Limehouse, and, indeed, of any slum or foreign quarter, are exclusive; and to get into a Poplar dope-house on bargain night demands the exercise of more Oriental ingenuity than most of us possess.
Only at the mid-January festival do they forget themselves and come out of their shells. Then things happen. The West India Dock Road is whipped to life. The windows shake with flowers, the roofs with flags. Lanterns are looped from house to house, and the slow frenzy of Oriental carnival begins. In the morning there is solemn procession, with joss-sticks, to the cemetery, where prayers are held over the graves of departed compatriots, and lamentations are carried out in native fashion, with sweet cakes, whisky, and song and gesture. In the evening—ah!—dancing in the halls with the white girls. Glamorous January evening ... yellow men with much money to spend ... beribboned girls, gay, flaunting, and fond of curious kisses ... lighted lanterns swinging lithely on their strings ... noise, bustle, and laughter of the cafes ... all these things light this little bit of London with an alluring Eastern flame.
There was a time, years ago, when the East End was the East End—a land apart, with laws and customs of its own, cut off from civilization, and having no common ground with Piccadilly. But the motor-'bus has changed all that. It has so linked things and places that all individual character has been swamped in a universal chaos, and there is now neither East nor West. All lost nooks of London have been dug out and forced into the traffic line, and boundaries are things which exist to-day only in the mind of the borough councillor. Hyde Park stretches to Shadwell, Hampstead to Albert Docks. Soho is vieux jeu. Little Italy is exploded. The Russian and Jewish quarters are growing stale and commercial, and the London Docks are a region whose chief features are Cockney warehouse clerks. This corner of Limehouse alone remains defiantly its Oriental self, no part of London; and I trust that it may never become popular, for then there will be no spot to which one may escape from the banalities of the daily day.
But as we stood in the little bedroom of the gentleman from Pi-chi-li the clock above Millwall Docks shot twelve crashing notes along the night. The gentleman thrust a moon face through the dusky doorway to inquire if I had changed my mind. Would myself and honourable companions smoke, after all? We declined, but he assured me that we should meet again at Tai-Ling's cafe, and perhaps hospitality....
So we tumbled down the crazy stairs, through the room from which the Chinks were fast melting, and into the midnight glitter of the endless East India Dock Road. We passed through streets of dark melancholy, through labyrinthine passages where the gas-jets spluttered asthmatically, under weeping railway arches, and at last were free of the quarter where the cold fatalism of the East combats the wistful dubiety of the West. But the atmosphere, physical and moral, remained with us. Not that the yellow men are to blame for this atmosphere. The evil of the place is rather that of Londoners, and the bitter nightmare spirit of the place is rather of them than of Asia. I said that there was little wickedness in Chinatown, but one wickedness there is, which is never spoken of in published articles; opium seems the only point that strangers can fasten on. Even if this wickedness were known, I doubt if it would be mentioned. It concerns.... But I had better not.
We looked back at Barking Road, where it dips and rises with a sweep as lovely as a flying bird's, and on the bashful little streets, whose lights chime on the darkness like the rounding of a verse. Strange streets they are, where beauty is unknown and love but a grisly phantom; streets peopled, at this hour, with loose-lipped and uncomely girls—mostly the fruit of a yellow-and-white union—and with other things not good to be talked of. I was philosophizing to my friend about these things, and he was rhapsodizing to me about the stretch of lamplights, when a late 'bus for the Bank swept along. We took a flying mount that shook the reek of Limehouse from our clothes and its nastiness from our minds, and twenty minutes later we were taking a final coffee at the "Monico."
A DOMESTIC NIGHT
THE LAMPLIT HOUR
Dusk—and the lights of home Smile through the rain: A thousand smiles for those that come Homeward again.
What though the night be drear With gloom and cold, So that there be one voice to hear, One hand to hold?
Here, by the winter fire, Life is our own. Here, out of murk and mire, Here is our throne.
Then let the wild world throng To pomp and power; And let us fill with love and song The lamplit hour.
A DOMESTIC NIGHT
At six o'clock every evening London Bridge vomits its stream of tired workers, hurrying home, most of them living at Clapham Common or similar places with a different name. Some of them walk home along those straggling streets which, after many years, reach the near suburbs; some of them go by car or 'bus. All are weary. All are gay. They are Going Home.
I think it was Mr. Mark Sheridan who was singing, some few years back, that "All the girls are lover-ly by the seaside!" I do not know the poet responsible for this sentiment, but I should like to take him to any of the London bridges and let him watch the crowd coming home at six o'clock. He was all wrong, anyway. The girls are not lovely by the seaside. If there is one place where the sweetest girl is decidedly plain and ill-kempt it is at the seaside. His song should read, "All the girls are lover-ly up in London!" And they are, whether they be chorus-girls, typists, shop-girls, Reuter's messenger-girls, modistes, or factory girls. Do you know those delightful London children, the tailors' collectors, who "fetch it and bring it home"? Their job is to take out the work from the big tailoring establishments to the dozens and dozens of home workers, and to collect it from them at the appointed time. You may easily recognize them by the large black-lining bundles which they carry so deftly under either arm. Mostly they are dear little girls of about fourteen, in short frocks, and mostly they are pretty. They have a casual manner, and they smile very winningly. Often their little feet tramp twelve and fourteen miles a day delivering and collecting; often they are sworn at by the foreman for being late; often they are very unhappy, and hardly ever do they get more than seven-and-sixpence a week. But they always smile: a little timidly, you know, because they are so young and London is so full of perils; yea, though they work harder than any other sweated labourer—they smile.
And over the bridges they come at nightfall, if they are not doing overtime, chattering and smiling, each with a Dorothy-bag, or imitation leather dispatch-case, each with a paper novelette, and so to the clear spaces of Clapham Common, now glittering with the lights of home, and holding in its midst a precious jewel—the sparkled windows of the Windmill Inn.
At home, tea is ready set for them and their brothers. Brothers are probably in warehouses or offices, somewhere in the brutal City; for every member of the suburban family earns something; they all contribute their little bit to help "keep the home going." Tea is set in the kitchen, or living-room, and Mother sits there by the fire, awaiting the return of her brood, and reading, for the forty-fourth time, East Lynne. Acacia Grove is a narrow street of small houses, but each house is pridefully held by its owners, and fierce competition, in the matter of front gardens, is waged during spring and summer. Now it is a regiment of soft lights, each carrying its message of cheer and promises of tea, armchair, and slippered ease. The fragrance of the meal is already on the air, and through the darling twilight comes the muffin-man and the cheery tinkle of his bell—one of the last of a once great army of itinerant feeders of London. Gaslight and firelight leap on the spread table, glinting against cups and saucers and spoons, and lighting, with sudden spurts, the outer gloom. A sweet warmth fills the room—the restful homeliness imparted by a careful, but not too careful, woman. The wallpaper is flaring, but very clean. The pictures are flaring, but framed with honest love. The dresser holds, not only crockery but also items of decoration: some carved candlesticks, some photographs in gilt frames, an ornament with a nodding head, kept there because it always amuses young Emmie's baby when she calls. Everywhere pride of home is apparent....
When the lady hears a familiar step, she lays East Lynne aside, pokes up the fire, places a plate in the fender, and a kipper over the griddle, where it sizzles merrily; for it is wasteful to use the gas grill when you have a fire going. Then the boys come clumping in, or the girls come tripping in, and Mother attends them while she listens to recitals of the days doings in the City. Sometimes the youngsters are allowed to postpone their tea until the big ones come home; and then they take a Scramble Tea on the rug before the fire. You take a Scramble Tea by turning saucers and plates upside down, and placing the butter in the sugar-basin, the sugar on the bread-board, and the bread, so far as possible, in the sugar-basin, and the milk in the slop-basin. Taken in this way, your food acquires a new and piquant flavour, and stimulates a flagging appetite. Or they lounge against the table, and help themselves to sly dips in the jam with the handle of a teaspoon, or make predatory assaults on the sugar-basin.
After tea, the bright boys wash, clean their boots, and change into their "second-best" attire, and stroll forth, either to a picture palace or to the second house of the Balham Hippodrome; perchance, if the gods be favourable, to an assignation on South Side Clapham Common; sometimes to saunter, in company with others, up and down that parade until they "click" with one of the "birds." The girls are out on much the same programme. They, too, promenade until they "click" with some one, and are escorted to picture palace or hall or chocolate shop. Usually, it is a picture palace, for, in Acacia Grove, mothers are very strict as to the hours at which their young daughters shall be in. Half-past ten is the general rule, with an extension on certain auspicious occasions.
It is a great game, this "clicking"; with very nice rules. However seasoned the player may be, there are always, in certain districts, pitfalls for the unwary. The Clapham manner is sharply distinct from the Blackheath manner, as the Kilburn manner is distinct from that of Leyton. On Clapham Common, the monkeys' parade is South Side; and the game is started by strolling from "The Plough" to Nightingale Lane. As the boys pass the likely girls they glance, and, if not rebuffed, offer wide smiles. But they do not stop. At the second meeting, however, they smile again and touch hands in passing, or cry over the shoulder some current witticism, as: "'Snice night, Ethel!" or "I should shay sho!"
And Ethel and Lucy will swing round, challengingly, with scraping feet, and cry, "Oooh!" The boys linger at the corner, looking back, and the girls, too, look back. Ethel asks Lucy, "Shall we?" and Lucy says, "Oooh—I d'no," and by that time the boys have drawn level with them. They say, "Isn't it cold?" or "Awf'ly warm 'sevening!" And then, "Where you off to in such a hurry?"
"Well—shall we stroll 'cross the Common?"
"I don' mind."
Then boys and girls move forward together for the bosky glades of the Common. They have "clicked." They have "got off."
In the light evenings the children sometimes take Mother for a 'bus ride to Kingston or Mitcham, or Uncle George may drop in and talk to them about the garden. While the elders talk gardens, the kiddies play in the passage at sliding down the banisters. Having regard to its value in soothing the nerves and stimulating the liver, and to the fact that it is an indoor pastime within the reach of high and low, I never understand why banister-sliding has not become more popular. I should imagine that it would be an uproariously successful innovation at any smart country house, during the long evenings, and the first hostess who has the courage to introduce it will undoubtedly reap her reward....
There are, of course, other domesticities around Clapham Common on a slightly higher scale; for there are roads and roads of uniform houses at rents of L60 and L70 per annum, and here, too, sweetness and (pardon the word) Englishness spread their lambent lustre.
Here they do not come home to tea; they come home to dinner. Dinner is usually the simple affair that you get at Simpson's: a little soup followed by a joint and vegetables, and a sweet of some sort. Beer is usually drunk, though they do rise to wine on occasion. Here, too, they have a real dining-room, very small, but still ... a dining-room. They keep a maid, trim and smiling. And after dinner you go into the drawing-room. The drawing-room is a snug little concern, decorated in a commonplace way, but usually a corner where you can be at ease. The pictures are mostly of the culture of yesterday—Watts, Rossetti, a Whistler or so; perhaps, courageously, a Monet reproduction. The occasional tables bear slim volumes of slim verse, and a novel from Mudie's. There is one of those ubiquitous fumed-oak bookcases. They go in a little for statuettes, of a kind. There is no attempt at heavy lavishness, nor is there any attempt at breaking away from tradition. The piano is open. The music on the stand is "Little Grey Home in the West"; it is smothering Tchaikowsky's "Chant sans Paroles." There are several volumes of music—suspiciously new—Chopin's Nocturnes, Mozart's Sonaten, Schubert's Songs.
After dinner, the children climb all over you, and upset your coffee, and burn themselves on your cigarette. Then Mother asks the rumple-haired baby, eight years old, to recite to the guest, and she declines. So Mother goes to the piano, and insists that she shall sing. To this she consents, so long as she may turn her back on her audience. So she stands, her little legs looking so pathetic in socks, by her mother, and sings, very prettily, "Sweet and Low" and that delicate thing of Thomas Dekker's—"Golden Slumbers"—with its lovely seventeenth-century melody, full of the graceful sad-gaiety of past things, and of a pathos the more piercing because at first unsuspected; beauty and sorrow crystallized in a few simple chords.
Then baby goes in care of the maid to bed, and Mother and Father and Helen, who is twelve years old, go to the pictures at the Palladium near Balham Station. There, for sixpence, they have an entertainment which is quite satisfying to their modest temperaments and one, withal, which is quite suitable to Miss Twelve Years Old; for Father and Mother are Proper People, and would not like to take their treasure to the sullying atmosphere of even a suburban music-hall.
So they spend a couple of hours with the pictures, listening to an orchestra of a piano, a violin, and a 'cello, which plays even indifferent music really well. And they roar over the facial extravagances of Ford Sterling and his friends Fatty and Mabel; they applaud, and Miss Twelve Years Old secretly admires the airy adventures of the debonair Max Linder—she thinks he is a dear, only she daren't tell Mother and Father so, or they would be startled. And then there is Mr. C. Chaplin—always there is Mr. C. Chaplin. Personally, I loathe the cinematograph. It is, I think, the most tedious, the most banal form of entertainment that was ever flung at a foolish public. The Punch and Judy show is sweetness and light by comparison. It is the mechanical nature of the affair that so depresses me. It may be clever; I have no doubt it is. But I would rather see the worst music-hall show that was ever put up than the best picture-play that was ever filmed. The darkness, the silence, the buzz of the machine, and the insignificant processions of shadows on a sheet are about the last thing I should ever describe by the word Entertainment. I would as soon sit for two hours in a Baptist Chapel. Still, Mr. C. Chaplin has made it endurable.
After the pictures, they go home, and Miss Twelve goes to bed, while Mother and Father sit up awhile. Father has a nightcap, perhaps, and Mother gives him a little music. She doesn't pretend to play, she will tell her guests; she just amuses herself. Often they have a friend or two in for dinner and a little music, or music and a little dinner. Or sometimes they visit other friends in an exchange of hospitalities, or book seats for a theatre, or for the Coliseum, and perhaps dine in town at Gatti's or Maxim's, and feel very gay. Mother seizes the opportunity to air her evening frock, and father dresses, too, and they have a taxi to town and a taxi home.
Then, one by one, the lights in their Avenue disappear; the warm windows close their tired eyes; and in the soft silence of the London night they ascend, hand in hand, to their comfortable little bedroom; and it is all very sweet and sacramental....
A LONELY NIGHT
A LONELY NIGHT
In the tinted dayspring of a London alley, Where the dappled moonlight cools the sunburnt lane, Deep in the flare and the coloured noise of suburbs, Long have I sought you in shade and shine and rain! Through dusky byways, rent with dancing naphthas, Through the trafficked highways, where streets and streets collide, Through the evil twilight, the night's ghast silence, Long have I wandered, and wondered where you hide.
Young lip to young lip does another meet you? Has a lonely traveller, when day was stark and long, Toiling ever slower to the grey road's ending, Reached a sudden summer of sun and flower and song? Has he seen in you the world's one yearning, All the season's message, all the heaven's play? Has he read in you the riddle of our living? Have you to another been the dark's one ray?
Well, if one has held you, and, holding you, beheld you Shining down upon him like a single star; If Love to Love leans, even as the June sky, Laughing down to earth, leans strangely close and far; Has he seen the moonlight mirrored in the bloomy, Softly-breathing gloom of your dear dark hair; And seeing it, has worshipped, and cried again for heaven? Then am I joyful for a fire-kissed prayer!
A LONELY NIGHT
Kingsland Road is one of the few districts of London of which I can say, definitely, that I loathe it. I hate to say this about any part of London, but Kingsland Road is Memories ... nothing sentimental, but Memories of hardship, the bitterest of Memories. It is a bleak patch in my life; even now the sight of its yellow-starred length, as cruelly straight as a sword, sends a shudder of chill foreboding down my back. It is, like Barnsbury, one of the lost places of London, and I have met many people who do not believe in it. "Oh yes," they say, "I knew that 'buses went there; but I never knew there really was such a place."
Many miles I have tramped and retramped on its pavements, filled with a brooding bitterness which is no part of seventeen. Those were the days of my youth, and, looking back, I realize that something, indeed, a great deal, was missing. Youth, of course, in the abstract, is regarded as a kingship, a time of dreams, potentialities, with new things waiting for discovery at every corner. Poets talk of it as some kind of magic, something that knows no barriers, that whistles through the world's dull streets a charmed tune that sets lame limbs pulsing afresh. Nothing of the kind. Its only claim is that it is the starting-point. Only once do we make a friend—our first. Only once do we succeed—and that is when we take our first prize at school. All others are but empty echoes of tunes that only once were played.
There are fatuous folk who, having become successful and lost their digestions, look back on their far youth, and talk, saying that their early days, despite miseries and hardships, were really, now they regard them dispassionately, the happiest of their lives. That is a lie. And everybody, even he who says it, secretly knows it to be a lie. Youth is not glorious; it is shamefaced. It is a time of self-searching and self-exacerbation. It is a horrible experience which everybody is glad to forget, and which nobody ever wants to repeat. It knows no zest. It is a time of spiritual unrest, a chafing of the soul. Youth is cruel, troubled, sensitive to futilities. Only childhood and middle-age can be light-hearted about life: childhood because it doesn't understand, middle-age because it does.
And a youth of poverty is, literally, hell. There is a canting phrase in England to the effect that poverty is nothing to be ashamed of. Yet if there is one country in the world where poverty is a thing to be superlatively ashamed of, that country is England. There never was an Englishman who wasn't ashamed of being poor. I myself had a youth of hardship and battle: a youth in which I invaded the delectable countries of Literature and Music, and lived sometimes ecstatically on a plane many degrees above everyday life, and—was hungry. Now, looking back, when I have, at any rate, enough to live upon and can procure anything I want within reason; though I am no longer enthusiastic about Art or Music or Letters, and have lost the sharp palate I had for these things; yet, looking back, I know that those were utterly miserable days, and that right now I am having the happiest time of my life. For, though I don't very much want books and opera and etchings and wines and liqueurs—still, if I want them I can have them at any moment. And that sense of security is worth more than a thousand of the temperamental ecstasies and agonies that are the appanage of hard-up youth.
At that time, fired by a small journalistic success, I insulted the senior partner of the City firm which employed me at a wicked wage, and took my departure. Things went well, for a time, and then went ill. There were feverish paradings of Fleet Street, when I turned out vivid paragraphs for the London Letter of a Northern daily, receiving half a crown apiece. They were wonderful paragraphs. Things seemed to happen in London every day unknown to other newspapers; and in the service of that journal I was, by the look of it, like Sir Boyle Roche's bird, in five places at once. But that stopped, and for some time I drifted, in a sort of mental and physical stupor, all about highways and byways. I saw naked life in big chunks. I dined in Elagabalian luxury at Lockhart's on a small ditto and two thick 'uns, and a marine. I took midnight walks under moons which—pardon the decadent adjectives—were pallid and passionate. I am sure they were at that time: all moons were. Then, the lightness of my stomach would rise to the head, so that I walked on air, and brilliance played from me like sparks from a cat's back. I could have written wonderful stuff then—had I the mind. I wandered and wandered; and that is about all I remember. Bits of it come back to me at times, though....
I remember, finally, sloughing through Bishopsgate into Norton Folgate, when I was down to fifteen-and-sixpence. In Norton Folgate I found a timid cocoa-room, and, careless of the future, I entered and gorged. Sausages ... mashed ... bread ... tomatoes ... pints of hot tea.... Too, I found sage wisdom in the counter-boy. He had been through it. We put the matter into committee, and it was discussed from every possible point of view. I learnt that I could get a room for next to nothing round about there, and that there was nothing like studying the "Sits. Vacant" in the papers at the Library; or, if there was anything like it, it was trusting to your luck. No sense in getting the bleeding pip. As he was eighteen and I was seventeen, I took his counsel to heart, and, fired with a repletion of sausage and potato, I stalked lodgings through the forests of Kingsland Road and Cambridge Road. In the greasy, strewn highway, where once the Autonomie Club had its home, I struck Cudgett Street—a narrow, pale cul-de-sac, containing fifty dilapidated cottages; and in the window of the first a soiled card: "One Room to Let."
The doorstep, flush with the pavement, was crumbling. The door had narrowly escaped annihilation by fire; but the curtains in the front-room window were nearly white. Two bare-armed ladies, with skirts hiked up most indelicately behind them, were sloshing down their respective doorsteps, and each wall was ragged with five or six frayed heads thrust from upper windows for the silken dalliance of conversation. However, it was sanctuary. It looked cheap. I knocked.
A lady in frayed alpaca, carrying a house-flannel, came to hearken. "Oh, yerss. Come in. Half a jiff till I finished this bottom stair. Now then—whoa!—don't touch that banister; it's a bit loose. Ver narsely furnished you'll find it is. There. Half-a-crown a week. Dirt cheap, too. Why, Mrs. Over-the-Road charges four for hers. But I can't. I ain't got the cheek."
I tripped over the cocoanut mat. The dulled windows were draped with a strip of gauze. The "narse furnicher" wasn't there. There was a chest of drawers whose previous owner had apparently been in the habit of tumbling into bed by candle-light and leaving it to splutter its decline and shed its pale blood where it would. The ceiling was picked out with fly-spots. It smelt—how shall I give it to you? The outgoing tenant had obviously used the hearth as a spittoon. He had obviously supped nightly on stout and fish-and-chips. He had obviously smoked the local Cavendish. He had obviously had an acute objection to draughts of any kind. The landlady had obviously "done up" the room once a week.... Now perhaps you get that odour.
But the lady at my side, seeing hesitation, began a kind of paean on the room. She sang it in its complete beauty. She dissected it, and made a panegyric on the furniture in comparison with that of Mrs. Over-the-Road. She struck the lyre and awoke a louder and loftier strain on the splendour of its proportions and symmetry—"heaps of room here to swing a cat"—and her rapture and inspiration swelled as she turned herself to the smattering price charged for it. On this theme she chanted long and lovingly and a hundred coloured, senescent imageries leaped from the song.
Of course, I had to take it. And towards late afternoon, when the grey cloak of twilight was beginning to be torn by the gas lamps, I had pulled the whole place to pieces and found out what made it work. I had stood it on its head. I had reversed it, and armlocked it, and committed all manner of assaults on it. I had found twenty old cigarette ends under the carpet, and entomological wonders in the woodwork of the window. Fired by my example, the good lady came up to help, and when I returned from a stroll she had garnished it. Two chairs, on which in my innocence I sat, were draped with antimacassars. Some portraits of drab people, stiffly posing, had been placed on the mantelshelf, and some dusty wool mats, set off with wax flowers, were lighting the chest of drawers to sudden beauty. In my then mood the false luxury touched me curiously.
There I was and there I stayed in slow, mortifying idleness. You get stranded in Kingsland Road for a fortnight ... I wish you would. It would teach you so many things. For it is a district of cold, muddy squalor that it is ashamed to own itself. It is a place of narrow streets, dwarfed houses, backed by chimneys that growl their way to the free sky, and day and night belch forth surly smoke and stink of hops. The poverty of Poplar is abject, and, to that extent, picturesque in its frankness; there is no painful note of uncomely misery about it. But the poverty of Kingsland is the diseased poverty of bead flowers in the front room and sticky furniture on the hire system.
My first night was the same as every other. My window looked out on a church tower which still further preyed on the wan light of the street, and, as I lay in bed, its swart height, pierced by the lit clock face, gloated stiffly over me. From back of beyond a furry voice came dolefully—
Goo bay to sum-mer, goo bay, goo baaaaay!
That song has thrilled and chilled me ever since. Next door an Easy Payments piano was being tortured by wicked fingers that sought after the wild grace of Weber's "Invitation to the Valse." From the street the usual London night sounds floated up until well after midnight. There was the dull, pessimistic tramp of the constable, and the long rumble of the Southwark-bound omnibus. Sometimes a stray motor-car would hoot and jangle in the distance, swelling to a clatter as it passed, and falling away in a pathetic diminuendo. A traction-engine grumbled its way along, shaking foundations and setting bed and ornaments a-trembling. Then came the blustering excitement of chucking-out at the "Galloping Horses." Half a dozen wanted to fight; half a dozen others wanted to kiss; everybody wanted to live in amity and be jollyolpal. A woman's voice cried for her husband, and abused a certain Long Charlie; and Long Charlie demanded with piteous reiteration: "Why don't I wanter fight? Eh? Tell me that. Why don't I wanter fight? Did you 'ear what he called me? Did you 'ear? He called me a—a—what was it he called me?"
Then came police, disbandment, and dark peace, as the strayed revellers melted into the night. Sometimes there would sound the faint tinkle of a belated hansom, chiming solitarily, as though weary of frivolity. And then a final stillness of which the constable's step seemed but a part.
It was a period of chill poverty that shamed to recognize itself. I was miserably, unutterably lonely. I developed a temper of acid. I looked on the world, and saw all things bitter and wicked. The passing of a rich carriage exasperated me to fury: I understood in those moments the spirit that impels men to throw bombs at millionaires and royalties. Among the furious wilds of Kingsland, Hackney, and Homerton I spent my rage. There seemed to be no escape, no outlet, no future. Sometimes I sat in that forlorn little room; sometimes I went to bed; sometimes I wandered and made queer acquaintance at street corners; sometimes I even scanned that tragic column of the Daily Telegraph—Situations Vacant. Money went dribbling away. At "Dirty Dick's" you can get a quartern of port for threepence, and gin is practically given away. Drink is a curse, I know, but there are innumerable times when it has saved a man from going under.... I wish temperance fiends would recognize this.
After a time, all effort and anxiety ceased. I became listless. I neither wondered nor anticipated. I wandered about the Christmas streets, amid radiant shops. The black slums and passages were little gorges of flame and warmth, and in Morning Lane, where the stalls roared with jollity, I could even snatch some of their spirit and feel, momentarily, one of them. The raucous mile of Cambridge Road I covered many times, strolling from lit window to lit window, from ragged smears of lights to ragged chunks of dark. The multitudes of "Useful Presents," "Pretty Gifts," "Remarkable Value," "Seasonable Offerings" did not tantalize me; they simply were part of another world. I saw things as one from Mars.
That was a ghastly Christmas. Through the whole afternoon I tramped—from Hackney to Homerton, thence to Clapton, to Stoke Newington, to Tottenham, and back. Emptiness was everywhere: no people, little traffic. Roofs and roads were hard with a light frost, and in the sudden twilight the gleaming windows of a hundred houses shone out jeeringly. Sounds of festivity disturbed the brooding quiet of the town. Each side street was a corridor of warm blinds. Harmoniums, pianos, concertinas, mouth organs, gramophones, tin trumpets, and voices uncertainly controlled, poured forth their strains, mingling and clashing. The whole thing seemed got up expressly for my disturbance. In one street I paused, and looked through an unshaded window into a little interior. Tea was in progress. Father and Mother were at table, Father feeding the baby with cake dipped in tea, Mother fussily busy with the teapot, while two bigger youngsters, with paper headdresses from the crackers, were sprawling on the rug, engaged in the exciting sport of toast-making. It made me sick. A little later the snow unexpectedly came down, and the moon came out and flung long passages of light over the white world, and forced me home to my room.
Next day, I had no food at all, and in the evening I sprawled on the bed. Then things happened.
The opposite room on the same landing had been let to a girl who worked, so I understood from my hostess, at the cork factory close at hand. She came home every evening at about six, and the little wretch invariably had a hot meal with her tea. It was carried up from below. It was carried past my door. I could not object to this, but I could and did object to the odour remaining with me. Have you ever smelt Irish stew after being sixteen hours without food? I say I objected. What I said was: "Can't you keep that damn stink out of my room?" Landlady said she was sorry; didn't know it annoyed me; but you couldn't keep food from smelling, could you?
So I slammed the door. A little later came a timid tap. I was still lying on the bed, picturing for myself an end in the manner of a youth named Chatterton, but I slithered off to answer the knock. Before I could do so, the door was pushed softly open, and Miss Cork Factory pushed a soft head through it.
"Say, don't mind me, do you? But here, I know all about you. I been watching you, and the old girl's told me, too. She given you notice? Listen. I got a good old stew going in here. More'n enough for two. Come on!"
What would you have done? I was seventeen; and she, I imagine, was about twenty. But a girl of twenty is three times older than a boy of seventeen. She commanded. She mothered. I felt infinitely childlike and absurd. I thought of refusing; but that seemed an idiotic attempt at dignity which would only amuse this very mature young person. To accept seemed to throw away entirely one's masculinity. Somehow, I.... But she stepped right into the room then, instinctively patting her hair and smoothing herself, and she took me by the arm.
"Look here, now. Don't you go on this silly way; else you'll be a case for the morchery. Noner your nonsense, now. You come right along in." She flitted back, pulling me with her, to the lit doorway of her room, a yellow oblong of warmth and fragrance. "Niff it?" she jerked in allusion to the stew. I nodded; and then I was inside and the door shut.
She chucked me into a rickety chair by the dancing fire, and chattered cheerily while she played hostess, and I sat pale and tried to recover dignity in sulky silence.
She played for a moment or so over a large vegetable dish which stood in the fender, and then uprose, with flaming face and straying hair, and set a large plate of real hot stuff before me on the small table. "There you are, me old University chum!" served as her invitation to the feast. She shot knife, fork, and spoon across the table with a neat shove-ha'p'ny stroke. Bread followed with the same polite service, and then she settled herself, squarely but very prettily, before her own plate, mocking me with twinkling eyes over her raised spoon.
Her grace was terse but adequate: "Well—here's may God help us as we deserve!" I dipped my spoon, lifted it with shaking hand, my heart bursting to tell the little dear girl what I thought about her, my lips refusing to do anything of the sort; refusing, indeed, to do anything at all; for having got the spoon that far, I tried to swallow the good stuff that was in it, and—well ... I ... I burst into tears. Yes, I did.
"What the devil——" she jerked. "Now what the devil's the matter with—— Oh, I know. I see."
"I can't help it," I hiccuped. "It's the st-st-st-stew! It's so goo-goo-good!"
"There, that's all right, kid. I know. I been like that. You have a stretch of rotten luck, and you don't get nothing for perhaps a day, and you feel fit to faint, and then at last you get it, and when you got it, can't touch it. Feel all choky, like, don't you? I know. You'll be all right in a minute. Get some more into you!"
I did. And I was all right. I sat by her fire for the rest of the evening, and smoked her cigarettes—twelve for a penny. And we talked; rather good talk, I fancy. As the food warmed me, so I came out of my shell. And gradually the superior motherliness of my hostess disappeared; I was no longer abject under her gaze; I no longer felt like a sheepish schoolboy. I saw her as what she really was—a pale, rather fragile, very girlish girl. We talked torrentially. We broke into one another's sentences without apology. We talked simultaneously. We hurled autobiography at each other....
That was my last week in Kingsland Road; for luck turned, and I found work—of a sort. I left on the Saturday. I parted from her at Cudgett Street corner. I never asked her name; she never asked mine. She just shook hands, and remarked, airily, "Well, so long, kid. Good luck."
A MUSICAL NIGHT
THE OPERA, THE PROMENADES
AT THE PIANO
Cane chairs, a sleek piano, table and bed in a room Lifted happily high from the loud street's fermentation; Tobacco and chime of voices wreathing out of the gloom, Out of the lilied dusk at the firelight's invitation. Then, in the muffled hour, one, strange and gracious and sad, Moves from the phantom hearth, and, with infinite delicacies, Looses his lissome hands along the murmurous keys.
Valse, mazurka, and nocturne, prelude and polonaise Clamour and wander and wail on the opiate air, Piercing our hearts with echo of passionate days, Peopling a top front lodging with shapes of care. And as our souls, uncovered, would shamefully hide away, The radiant hands light up the enchanted gloom With the pure flame of life from the shadowless tomb.
A MUSICAL NIGHT
THE OPERA, THE PROMENADES
For a few months of the year London is the richest of all cities in the matter of music; but it is only for a few months. From the end of August to the end of October we have Sir Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts. From the end of May to mid-July we have the Grand Season at Covent Garden. Interspersed between these, at intervals all too rare, we have individual concerts at the Queen's, Steinway, and AEolian Halls; sometimes an Autumn Season of opera or Russian ballet; and the Saturday and Sunday concerts, the former at the Albert and Queen's Halls, and the latter, under the auspices of the Sunday League, at pretty well every theatre and music-hall in London and the suburbs.
There are, however, long spells of emptiness when nothing or little is doing in musical London, and that little hardly ever at night, though Sir Thomas Beecham, the greatest philanthropist of his time, is doing splendid work in feeding the hungry music-lover.
I should like, just here, to enter a protest against the practice prevalent among our best soloists of giving their concerts in the afternoons. Does it not occur to MM. Pachmann, Paderewski, Backhaus, Mischa Elman, Hambourg, and others that there are thousands of music-lovers in London who are never free at afternoons, and cannot turn their little world upside down in order to snatch an afternoon even for something so compelling as their recitals? Continually London gives you these empty evenings. You do not want theatre or vaudeville; you want music. And it is not to be had at any price; though when it is to be had it is very well worth having.
No artist of any kind in music—singer, pianist, violinist, conductor—considers himself as established until he has appeared in London and received its award of merit; and whatever good things may be going in other continental cities we know that, with the least possible waste of time, those good things will be submitted to us for our sealing judgment. There is only one other city in the world which has so firm a grip on the music of the hour, and that is Buenos Ayres.
Let the superior persons, like Mr. Oscar Hammerstein, who says that London is not musical, because it sniffs at Schonberg, and doesn't get excited over the dead meat of Rossini, Auber, and Bellini, pay a visit any night to Queen's Hall during the Promenade Season. Where are the empty seats? In the five-shilling tier. Where is the hall packed to suffocation? In the shilling promenade. In the promenade there are seats for about one hundred, and room for about seven hundred. That means that six hundred Londoners stand, close-packed, with hardly room for a change of posture and in an atmosphere overcharged with heat and sound, for two hours and a half, listening, not to the inanities of Sullivan or Offenbach or Arditi, but to Weber, Palestrina, Debussy, Tchaikowsky, Wieniawski, Chopin, Mozart, Handel, and even the starch-stiff Bach.
Personally I prefer the sugar and spice of Italian Opera. I know it is an execrable taste, but as I am a most commonplace person I cannot help myself. I have loved it since childhood, when the dull pages of my Violin Tutor were lit by crystalline fragments of Cherubini and Donizetti, and when the house in which I lived was chattering day and night Italianate melody. One of my earliest recollections is of hearing, as a tiny thing in petticoats, the tedious noises of the professional musician, and the E A D G of the fiddle was the accompaniment to all my games. From noon until seven in the evening I played amid the squeak of the fiddle, the chant of the 'cello, the solemn throb of the double bass, and the querulous wail of flute and piccolo; and always the music was the music of Italy, for these elders worked in operatic orchestras. So I learned to love it, and especially do I still love the moderns—Leoncavallo, Wolf-Ferrari, Mascagni, Puccini—for it was in "La Boheme" that I heard both Caruso and grand opera for the first time; and whenever I now hear "Che gelida manina," even badly sung, I always want to sit down and have a good cry. It reminds me of a pale office-boy of fifteen, who had to hoard his pence for a fortnight and wait weary hours at the gallery door of Covent Garden to hear Caruso, Scotti, Melba, and Journet as the Bohemians. What nights! I remember very clearly that first visit. I had heard other singers, English singers, the best of whom are seldom better than the third-rate Italians, but Caruso.... What is he? He is not a singer. He is not a voice. He is a miracle. There will not be another Caruso for two or three hundred years; perhaps not then. We had been so accustomed to the spurious, manufactured voices of people like de Reszke and Tamagno and Maurel, that when the genuine article was placed before us we hardly recognized it. Here was something lovelier than anything that had yet been heard; yet we must needs stop to carp because it was not quite proper. All traditions were smashed, all laws violated, all rules ignored. Jean de Reszke would strain and strain, until his audience suffered with him, in order to produce an effect which this new singer of the South achieved with his hands in his pockets, as he strolled round the stage.
The Opera in London is really more of a pageant than a musical function. The front of the house frequently claims more attention than the stage. On Caruso and Melba nights it blazes. Tiers and tiers of boxes race round in a semicircle. If you are early, you see them as black gaping mouths. But very soon they are filled. The stalls begin to leap with light, for everybody who is not anybody, but would like to be somebody, drags out everything she possesses in the way of personal adornment, and sticks it on her person, so that all the world may wonder. At each box is a bunch of lights, and, with the arrival of the silks and jewellery, they are whipped to a thousand scintillations.
The blaze of dancing light becomes painful; the house, especially upstairs, is spitefully hot. Then the orchestra begin to tumble in; their gracefully gleaming lights are adjusted, and the monotonous A surges over the house—the fiddles whine it, the golden horns softly blare it, and the wood-wind plays with it.
But now there is a stir, a sudden outburst of clapping. Campanini is up. Slowly the lights dissolve into themselves. There is a subdued rustle as we settle ourselves. A few peremptory Sh-sh-sh! from the ardent galleryites.
Campanini taps. His baton rises ... and suddenly the band mumbles those few swift bars that send the curtain rushing up on the garret scene. Only a few bars ... yet so marvellous is Puccini's feeling for atmosphere that with them he has given us all the bleak squalor of his story. You feel a chill at your heart as you hear them, and before the curtain rises you know that it must rise on something miserable and outcast. The stage is in semi-darkness. The garret is low-pitched, with a sloping roof ending abruptly in a window looking over Paris. There is a stove, a table, two chairs, and a bed. Nothing more. Two people are on. One stands at the window, looking, with a light air of challenge, at Paris. Down stage, almost on the footlights, is an easel, at which an artist sits. The artist is Scotti, the baritone, as Marcello. The orchestra shudders with a few chords. The man at the window turns. He is a dumpy little man in black wearing a golden wig. What a figure it is! What a make-up! What a tousled-haired, down-at-heel, out-at-elbows Clerkenwell exile! The yellow wig, the white-out moustache, the broken collar.... But a few more brusque bars are tossed from Campanini's baton, and the funny little man throws off, cursorily, over his shoulder, a short passage explaining how cold he is. The house thrills. That short passage, throbbing with tears and laughter, has rushed, like a stream of molten gold, to the utmost reaches of the auditorium, and not an ear that has not jumped for joy of it. For he is Rudolfo, the poet; in private life, Enrico Caruso, Knight of the Order of San Giovanni, Member of the Victorian Order, Cavalier of the Order of Santa Maria, and many other things.
As the opera proceeds, so does the marvel grow. You think he can have nothing more to give than he has just given; the next moment he deceives you. Towards the end of the first Act, Melba enters. You hear her voice, fragile and firm as fluted china, before she enters. Then comes the wonderful love-duet—"Che gelida manina" for Caruso and "Mi chiamano Mimi" for Melba. Gold swathed in velvet is his voice. Like all true geniuses, he is prodigal of his powers; he flings his lyrical fury over the house. He gives all, yet somehow conveys that thrilling suggestion of great things in reserve. Again and again he recaptures his first fine careless rapture. His voice dances forth like a little girl on a sunlit road, wayward, captivating, never fatigued, leaping where others stumble, tripping many miles, with fresh laughter and bright quick blood. There never were such warmth and profusion and display. Not only is it a voice of incomparable magnificence: it has that intangible quality that smites you with its own mood: just the something that marks the difference between an artist and a genius. There are those who sniff at him. "No artist," they say; "look what he sings." They would like him better if he were not popular; if he concerned himself, not with Puccini and Leoncavallo, but with those pretentiously subtle triflers, Debussy and his followers. Some people can never accept beauty unless it be remote. But true beauty is never remote. The art which demands transcendentalism for its appreciation stamps itself at once as inferior. True art, like love, asks nothing, and gives everything. The simplest people can understand and enjoy Puccini and Caruso and Melba, because the simplest people are artists. And clearly, if beauty cannot speak to us in our own language, and still retain its dignity, it is not beauty at all.
Caruso speaks to us of the little things we know, but he speaks with a lyric ecstasy. Ecstasy is a horrible word; it sounds like something to do with algebra; but it is the one word for this voice. The passion of him has at times almost frightened me. I remember hearing him at the first performance of "Madame Butterfly," and he hurt us. He worked up the love-duet with Butterfly at the close of the first act in such fashion that our hands were wrung, we were perspiring, and I at least was near to fainting. Such fury, such volume of liquid sound could not go on, we felt. But it did. He carried a terrific crescendo passage as lightly as a school-girl singing a lullaby, and ended on a tremendous note which he sustained for sixty seconds. As the curtain fell we dropped back in our seats, limp, dishevelled, and pale. It was we who were exhausted. Caruso trotted on, bright, alert, smiling, and not the slightest trace of fatigue did he show.
It seems to have been a superb stroke of fortune for us that Caruso should have come along contemporaneously with Puccini. Puccini has never definitely written an opera for his friend; yet, to hear him sing them, you might think that every one had been specially made for him alone. Their temperaments are marvellously matched. Each is Italian and Southern to the bone. Whatever Caruso may be singing, whether it be Mozart or Gounod or Massenet or Weber, he is really singing Italy. Whatever setting Puccini may take for his operas, be it Japan, or Paris, or the American West, his music is never anything but Italian.
And I would not have it otherwise. It may offend some artistic consciences that Butterfly, the Japanese courtesan, should sob out her lament in music which is purely Italian in character and colour; but what a piece of melody it is!
Puccini's is a still small voice; very pleading, very conscious of itself and of the pathos of our little span of living; but the wistfulness of its appeal is almost heartbreaking. He can never, I suppose, stand among the great composers; dwarfed he must always be against Mozart or Weber, or even Verdi. But he has done what all wise men must do: he has discovered the one thing he can perform well, and he is performing it very well indeed. His genius is slim and miniature, but he handles it as an artist. There is no man living who can achieve such effects with so slender material. There is no man living who can so give you, in a few bars, the soul of the little street-girl; no man living who can so give you flavour of a mood, or make you smell so sharply the atmosphere of a public street, a garret, a ballroom, or a prairie. And he always succeeds because he is always sincere. A bigger man might put his tongue in his cheek and sit down to produce something like "La Boheme," and fail miserably, simply because he didn't mean it.
When Puccini has something to say, though it may be nothing profound or illuminating, he says it; and he can say the trite thing more freshly, with more delicacy, and in more haunting tones, than any other musician. His vocabulary is as marvellous as his facility in orchestration and in the development of a theme. He gets himself into tangles from which there seems no possible escape, only to extricate himself with the airiest of touches. Never does his fertility of melodic invention fail him. He is as prodigal in this respect as Caruso in his moments. Where others achieve a beautiful phrase, and rest on it, Puccini never idles; he has others and others, and he crowds them upon you until the ear is surfeited with sweetness, and you can but sit and marvel.
There it is. Sniff at it as you will, it is a great art that captures you against your reason, and when Puccini and Caruso join forces, they can shake the soul out of the most rabid of musical purists. What they do to commonplace people like myself is untellable. I have tried to hint at it in these few remarks, but really I have told you nothing ... nothing.
* * * * *
I am not over-fond of the Promenade Concerts. You have, of course, everything of the best—the finest music of the world, the finest English orchestra, and a neat little concert-hall; but somehow there is that about it that suggests Education. I have a feeling that Sir Henry is taking me by the hand, training me up in the way I should, musically, go. And I hate being trained. I don't want things explained to me. The programme looks rather like "Music without Tears" or "First Steps for the Little Ones." I know perfectly well what Wagner meant by the "Tannhaeuser" overture, and what Beethoven wants to say to me in the Ninth Symphony. I don't want these things pointed out to me, and sandwiched between information as to when the composer was born, how long he lived, and how many hundred works he wrote. However, all that apart, the Promenades are an institution which we should cherish. For a shilling you can lean against the wall of the area, and smoke, and take your fill of the best in music. If there is anything that doesn't interest you, you can visit the bar until it is concluded. The audience on the Promenade is as interesting as the programme. All types are to be found here—the serious and hard-up student, the musically inclined working-man, probably a member of some musical society in his suburb, the young clerk, the middle-aged man, and a few people who KNOW.
The orchestra is well set, and its pendant crimson lamps and fernery make a solemn picture in the soft light. The vocalists and soloists are not, usually, of outstanding merit, but they sing and play agreeably, and, even if they attempt more than their powers justify them in doing, they never distress you. Sir Henry Wood's entrance on the opening night of any season is an impressive affair. As each known member of the orchestra comes in, he receives an ovation; but ovation is a poor descriptive for Sir Henry's reception. There is no doubt that he has done more for music in England than any other man, and his audiences know this; they regard him almost as a friend.
He is an artist in the matter of programmes. He builds them as a chef builds up an elaborate banquet, by the blending of many flavours and essences, each item a subtle, unmarked progression on its predecessor. He is very fond of his Russians, and his readings of Tchaikowsky seem to me the most beautiful work he does. I do not love Tchaikowsky, but he draws me by, I suppose, the attraction of repulsion. The muse who guides the dreamings of the Russian artist is a sombre and heavy-lidded lady, but most sombre, I think, when she moves in the brain of the musician. Then she wears the glooms and sables of the hypochondriac. She does not "nerve us with incessant affirmations." Rather, she enervates us with incessant dubitations. It is more than a relief to leave the crowded Promenade, after a Tchaikowsky symphony, to stroll in the dusky glitter of Langham Place, and return to listen the clear, cool tones of Mozart, as sparkling and as gracious as a May morning! Next to Tchaikowsky, Sir Henry gives us much of Wagner and Beethoven and Mendelssohn. I can never understand why Mendelssohn is played nowadays. His music always seems to me to be so provincial and gentlemanly and underbred as to remind one of a county ball. I am sure he always composed in a frock-coat, silk hat, and lavender gloves. When he is being played, many of us have to rush away and saunter in the foyer.
Usually the programme contains some examples of modern French music (a delicate horror by Ravel, perhaps) and of the early Italians. You will get something sweet and suave and restful by Palestrina or Handel, and conclude, perhaps, with a tempest of Berlioz.
During the season of the Promenades, there are also excellent concerts going on in the lost districts of London. There is, to begin with, the Grand Opera season at the Old Vic. in Waterloo Road, where you can get a box for one-and-sixpence, and a seat in the gallery for twopence. The orchestra is good, and the singers are satisfactory. The operas include "Daughter of the Regiment," and run through Verdi and some of Wagner to Mascagni and Charpentier. The audience is mostly drawn from the surrounding streets, the New Cut and Lower Marsh. It wears its working clothes, and it smokes cut Cavendish; but there is not a whisper from the first bar of the overture to the curtain. The chorus is drawn from the local clubs, and a very live and intelligent chorus it is. Then there are the Saturday evening concerts at the People's Palace in Whitechapel, at the Surrey Masonic Hall, in Camberwell, at Cambridge House, and at Vincent Square. In each case the programme is distinctly classical. It is only popular in the sense that the prices are small and the performers' services are honorary. Many a time have I attended one of these concerts, because I knew I should hear there some old, but obscure, classic that I should never be likely to hear at any of the West End concert-halls.
These West End halls are unhappily situated. The dismal Bond Street holds one, another stands cheek by jowl with Marlborough Police Court, and the other two are stuck deep in the melancholic greyness of Wigmore Street. All are absurdly inaccessible. However, when it is a case of Paderewski or Hambourg or Backhaus or Ysayt, people will make pilgrimages to the end of the earth ... or to Wigmore Street. It was at the Bechstein, on a stifling June evening, that I first heard that mischievous angel, Vladimir de Pachmann.
We had dined solidly, with old English ale, at "The Cock," in Fleet Street. Perhaps tomato soup, mutton cutlets, quarts of bitter, apple and blackberry tart and cream, macaroni cheese, coffee, and kuemmel are hardly in the right key for an evening with Chopin. But I am not one of those who take their pleasures sadly. If I am to appreciate delicate art, I must be physically well prepared. It may be picturesque to sit through a Bayreuth Festival on three dates and a nut, but monkey-tricks of that kind are really a slight on one's host. However, I felt very fat, physically, and very Maeterlinckian, spiritually, as we clambered into a cab and swung up the great bleak space of Kingsway.
At the entrance to the Steinway we ran against a bunch of critics, and adjourned to the little place at the opposite corner, so that one of the critics might learn from us what he ought to say about the concert. We had just time to slip into our seats, and then Pachmann, sleek and bullet-headed, minced on to the platform. I said that I felt fat, physically, and Maeterlinckian or Burne-Jonesy, or anything else that suggests the twilight mood, spiritually. But the moment Pachmann came on he drove the mood clean out of us. Obviously, he wasn't feeling Maeterlinckian or Chopinesque. He was feeling very full of Pachmann, one could see. Nothing die-away or poetic about him. He was fat physically, and he looked fat spiritually. One conceived him much more readily nodding over the fire with the old port, than playing Chopin in a bleak concert-hall, laden with solemn purples and drabs, stark and ungarnished save for a few cold flowers and ferns.
However, there he was; and after he had played games and cracked jokes, of which nobody knew the secrets but himself, with the piano-stool, his hair, and his handkerchief, he set to work. He flourished a few scales; looked up; giggled; said something to the front row; looked off and nodded; rubbed his fingers; gently patted his ashen cheek; then stretched both hands to the keys.
He played first a group of Preludes. What is there to say about him? Nothing. Surely never, since Chopin went from us, has Chopin been so played. The memory of my Fleet Street dinner vanished. The hall vanished. All surroundings vanished. Vladimir, the antic, took us by the hand and led us forth into a new country: a country like nothing that we have seen or dreamed of, and therefore a country of which not the vaguest image can be created. It was a country, or, perhaps, a street of pale shadows ... and that is all I know. Its name is Pachmann-land.
Before he was through the first short prelude, he had us in his snare. One by one the details of the room faded, and nothing was left but a cloud of lilac in which were Pachmann and the sleek, gleaming piano. As he played, change succeeded change. The piano was labelled Chappell, but it might just as well have been labelled Bill Bailey. Under Pachmann, the wooden structure took life, as it were, and became a living thing, breathing, murmuring, clamouring, shrieking. Soon there was neither Chappell, nor Pachmann, nor Chopin; only a black creature—Piano. One shivered, and felt curiously afraid.
Then, suddenly, there was a crash of chords—and silence. That crash had shattered everything, and, looking up, we saw nothing but the grinning Pachmann. One half-remembered that he had been grinning and gesturing and grimacing with ape-like imbecility all the time, yet, somehow, one had not noticed it. He bobbed up and down, and grinned, and applauded himself. But there was something uncanny, mysterious. We looked at one another uneasily, afraid to exchange glances. Nobody spoke. Nobody wanted to speak. A few smiled shy, secret smiles, half-afraid of themselves. For some moments nobody even applauded. Something had been with us. Something strange and sad and exquisitely fragile had gone from us.
Pachmann looked at us, noted our dumb wonder, and—giggled like an idiot.
A JEWISH NIGHT
When the young year woos all the world to flower With gold and silver of sun and shower, The girls troop out with an elfin clamour, Delicate bundles of lace and light. And London is laughter and youth and playtime, Fair as the million-blossomed may-time: All her ways are afire with glamour, With dainty damosels pink and white.
The weariest streets new joys discover; The sweet glad girl and the lyric lover Sing their hearts to the moment's flying, Never a thought to time or tears. O frivolous frocks! O fragrant faces, Scattering blooms in the gloomy places! Shatter and scatter our sombre sighing, And lead us back to the golden years!
A JEWISH NIGHT
Whitechapel exists under false pretences. It has no right to its name, for the word Whitechapel arouses grim fears in the minds of those who know it not. Its reputation is as theatrically artificial as that of the New York Bowery. Its poverty and its tradition of lawlessness are sedulously fostered by itself for the benefit of the simple-minded slummer.
To-day it is, next to St. John's Wood, the most drably respectable quarter of the town. This is explained by the fact that it is the Ghetto: the home of the severely moral Jew. There is no disorder in Whitechapel. There is no pillage or rapine or bashing. The colony leads its own pleasant life, among its own people, interfering with none and desiring intercourse with none. It has its own manners and customs and its own simple and very beautiful ceremonies. The Jews in London are much scattered. They live in various quarters, according to the land of their birth. Thus, the French Jews are in Soho, the German Jews in Great Charlotte Street, the Italian Jews in Clerkenwell, while those of Whitechapel are either Russian Jews or Jews who have, for three generations, been settled in London. The wealthy Jew, who fancies himself socially, the fat, immoral stockbroker and the City philanderer, has deserted the surroundings of his humbler compatriots for the refinements of Highbury, Maida Vale, and Bayswater.
The Whitechapel Ghetto begins at Aldgate, branches off at that point where Commercial Street curls its nasty length to Shoreditch, and embraces the greater part of Commercial Road East, sprawling on either side. Here at every turn you will meet the Jew of the comic papers. You will see expressive fingers, much jewelled, flying in unison with the rich Yiddish tongue. You will see beards and silk hats which are surely those which decorated the Hebrew in Eugene Sue's romance. And you will find a spirit of brotherhood keener than any other race in the world can show. It is something akin to the force that inspired that splendid fraternity that once existed in London, and is now no more: I mean the Costers. If a Jew is in trouble or in any kind of distress, a most beautiful thing happens: his friends rally round him.
The atmosphere of the Ghetto is a singular mixture. It is half-ironic gaiety and half-melancholy. But it has not the depressing sadness of the Russian Quarter. Its temper is more akin to that of the Irish colony that has settled around Southwark and Bermondsey. There is sadness, but no misery. There is gloom, but no despair. There is hilarity, but no frivolity. There is a note of delight, with sombre undertones. There is nothing of the rapture of living, but rather the pride of accepted destiny. In the hotels and cafes this is most marked. At the Aldgate Hotel, you may sit in the brasserie and listen to the Russian Trio discoursing wistful music, while the packed tables reek with smoke and Yiddish talk; but there is a companionable, almost domestic touch about the place which is so lacking about the Western lounges. Young Isaacs is there, flashing with diamonds and hair-oil, and Rebecca is with him, and the large, admiring parents of both of them sit with them and drink beer or eat sandwiches. And Isaacs makes love to his Rebecca in full sight of all. They lounge in their chairs, arms enclasped, sometimes kissing, sometimes patting one another. And the parents look on, and roll their curly heads and say, with subtle significance, "Oi-oi-oi!" many times.
Out in the street there is the same homely, yearning atmosphere. It is the homeliness of a people without a home, without a country. They are exiles who have flung together, as well as may be, the few remnants of their possessions, adding to them little touches that may re-create the colour of their land, and have settled down to make the best of things. Their feasts and festivals are full of this yearning. The Feast of Maccabeus, which is celebrated near our Christmas-time, is delightfully domestic. It is preceded, eight days before, by the Feast of the Lights. In each house a candle is lit—one candle on the first day, two on the second, three on the third, and so on until the eighth day, which is that dedicated to Maccabeus. Then there are feastings, and throughout the rich evenings the boys walk with the girls or salute the latter as they lounge at the corners with that suggestion in their faces of lazy strength and smouldering fire. A children's service is held in the synagogues, and cakes and sweets are distributed. The dark, vivid beauty of these children shows marvellously against the greys of Whitechapel. Every Saturday of the year the streets are filled with them, for then all shops are shut, all work suspended, and the little ones are in those best frocks and velvet suits in which even the poorest parents are so proud to clothe their offspring. They love colour; and ribbons of many hues are lavished on the frocks and tunics. One of my London moments was when I first saw, in Whitechapel High Street, a little Jewess, with masses of jet-black hair, dressed in vermilion and white. I wonder, by the way, why it is that the children of the genteel quarters of London, such as Kensington Gardens, have no hair, or at any rate, only skimpy little twigs of it, while the children of the East are loaded with curls and tresses of an almost tropical luxuriance, and are many times more beautiful. Does that terrifying process called Good Breeding kill all beauty? Does careful feeding and tending poison the roots of loveliness? I wonder.... Anyway, the Jews, beautiful alike in face and richness of tresses, stand to the front in two of the greatest callings of the world—art and fighting. Examine the heroes of the prize-ring; at least two-thirds of them are Jews. Examine the world's greatest musicians and singers, and the same may be said.