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What Katy Did Next(chapter5)

2006-08-22 19:17

  CHAPTER 5

  STORY-BOOK ENGLAND

  `Oh, is it raining?' was Katy's first question next morning, when the maid came to call her. The pretty room, with its gaily-flowered chintz, and china, and its brass bedstead, did not look half so bright as when lit with gas the night before, and a dim grey light struggled in at the window, which in America would certainly have meant bad weather coming or already come.

  `Oh, no, h'indeed, ma'am, it's a very fine day not bright, ma'am, but very dry,' was the answer.

  Katy couldn't imagine what the maid meant, when she peeped between the curtains and saw a thick dull mist lying over everything, and the pavements opposite her window shining with wet. Afterwards, when she understood better the peculiarities of the English climate, she too learned to call days not absolutely rainy `fine', and to be grateful for them; but on that first morning her sensations were of bewildered surprise, almost vexation.

  Mrs Ashe and Amy were waiting in the coffee room when she went in search of them.

  `What shall we have for breakfast,' asked Mrs Ashe - `our first meal in England? Katy, you order it.'

  `Let's have all the things we have read about in books and don't have at home,' said Katy eagerly. But when she came to look over the bill of fare there didn't seem to be many such things. Soles and muffins she finally decided upon, and, as an afterthought, gooseberry jam.

  `Muffins sound so very good in Dickens, you know,' she explained to Mrs Ashe, `and I never saw a sole.'

  The soles when they came proved to be nice little pan fish, not unlike what in New England are called `scup' All the party took kindly to them, but the muffins were a great disappointment, tough and tasteless, with a flavour about them as of scorched flannel.

  `How queer and disagreeable they are!' said Katy. `I feel as if I were eating rounds cut from an old ironing blanket and buttered! Dear me! What did Dickens mean by making such a fuss about them, I wonder? And I don' care for gooseberry jam, either; it isn't half as good as the jams we have at home. Books are very deceptive.'

  `I am afraid they are. We must make up our minds to find a great many things not quite so nice as they sound when we read about them,' replied Mrs Ashe.

  Mabel was breakfasting with them, of course, and was heard to remark at this juncture that she didn't like muffins either, and would a great deal rather have waffles; whereupon Amy reproved her, and explained that nobody in England knew what waffles were, they were such a stupid nation, and that Mabel must learn to eat whatever was given her and not find fault with it!

  Alter this moral lesson it was found to be dangerously near train-time, and they all hurried to the station, which, fortunately, was close by. There was rather a scramble and confusion for a few moments, for Katy, who had undertaken to buy the tickets, was puzzled by the unaccustomed coinage, and Mrs Ashe, whose part was to see after the luggage, found herself perplexed and worried by the absence of checks, and by no means disposed to accept the porter's statement, that if she'd only bear in mind that the trunks were in the second van from the engine, and get out to see that they were safe once or twice during the journey, and call for them as soon as they reached London, she'd have no trouble - `please remember the porter, ma'am!' However, all was happily settled at last, and without any serious inconveniences they found themselves established in a first-class carriage, and presently after running smoothly at full speed across the rich English Midlands toward London and the eastern coast.

  The extreme greenness of the October landscape was what struck them at first, and the wonderfully orderly and trim aspect of the country, with no ragged, stump-dotted fields or reaches of wild untended woods. Late in October as it was, the hedgerows and meadows were still almost summer-like in colour, though the trees were leafless. The delightful old manor houses and farmhouses of which they had glimpses now and again, were a constant pleasure to Katy, with their mullioned windows, twisted chimney stacks, porches of quaint build, and thick-growing ivy. She contrasted them with the uncompromising ugliness of farmhouses she remembered at home, and wondered whether it could be that at the end of another thousand years or so America would have picturesque buildings like those to show in addition to her picturesque scenery.

  Suddenly, into the midst of these reflections there glanced a picture so vivid that it almost took away her breath, as the train steamed past a pack of hounds in full cry, followed by a galloping throng of scarlet-coated huntsmen. One horse and rider were in the air, going over a wall. Another was just rising to the leap. A string of others, headed by a lady, were tearing across a meadow bounded by a little brook, and beyond that streamed the hounds following the invisible fox. It was like one of Muybridge's instantaneous photographs of `The Horse in Motion', for the moment that it lasted, and Katy put it away in her memory, distinct and brilliant, as she might a real picture.

  Their destination in London was Batt's Hotel in Dover Street. The old gentleman on the Spartacus, who had `crossed' so many times, had furnished Mrs Ashe with a number of addresses of hotels and lodging houses, from among which Katy had chosen Batt's for the reason that it was mentioned in Miss Edgeworth's Patronage. `It was the place,' she explained, `where Godfrey Percy didn't stay when Lord Oldborough sent him the letter.' It seemed an odd enough reason for going anywhere, that a person in a novel didn't stay there. But Mrs Ashe knew nothing of London, and had no preference of her own, so she was perfectly willing to give Katy hers; and Batt's was decided upon.

  `It is just like a dream or a story,' said Katy, as they drove away from the London station in a four-wheeler. `It is really ourselves, and this is really London. Can you imagine it?'

  She looked out. Nothing met her eyes but dingy weather, muddy streets, long rows of ordinary brick or stone houses. It might very well have been New York or Boston on a foggy day, yet to her eyes all things had a subtle difference which made them unlike similar objects at home.

  `Wimpole Sheet!' she cried suddenly, as she caught sight of the name on the corner, `that is the street where Maria Crawford in Mansfield Park, you know, “opened one of the best houses” after she married Mr Rushworth. Think of seeing Wimpole Street! What fun!' She looked eagerly out after the `best houses', but the whole street looked uninteresting and old fashioned; the best house to be seen was not of a kind, Katy thought, to reconcile an ambitious young woman to a dull husband. Katy had to remind herself that Miss Austen wrote her novels nearly a century ago, that London was a `growing' place, and that things were probably much changed since that day.

  More `fun' awaited them when they arrived at Batt's, and exactly such a landlady sailed forth to welcome them as they had often met with in books an old landlady, smiling and rubicund, with a towering lace cap on her head, a flowered silk gown, a gold chain, and a pair of fat mittened hands demurely crossed over a black brocade apron. She alone would have been worth crossing the ocean to see, they all declared. Their telegram had been received, and rooms were ready, with a bright, smoky fire of soft coals; the dinner table was set, and a nice, formal, white-cravatted old waiter, who seemed to have stepped out of the same book with the landlady, was waiting to serve it. Everything was dingy and old fashioned, but very clean and comfortable, and Katy concluded that on the whole Godfrey Percy would have done wisely to go to Batt's, and could have fared no better at the other hotel where he did stay.

  The first of Katy's `London sights' came to her next morning before she was out of her bedroom. She heard a bell ring and a queer, squeaking little voice utter a speech of which she could not make out a single world. Then came a laugh and a shout, as if several boys were amused at something or other; altogether her curiosity was roused, so that she finished dressing as fast as she could, and ran to the drawing room window, which commanded a view of the street. Quite a little crowd was collected under the window, and in their midst was a queer box raised high on poles, with little red curtains tied back on either side to form a miniature stage, on which puppets were moving and vociferating. Katy knew in a moment that she was seeing her first Punch and Judy show!

  The box and the crowd began to move away. Katy, in despair, ran to Wilkins, the old waiter, who was setting the breakfast table.

  `Oh, please stop that man!' she said. `I want to see him.'

  `What man is it, miss?' said Wilkins.

  When he reached the window, and realized what Cry meant, his sense of propriety seemed to receive a severe shock. He even ventured on remonstrance.

  `H'I wouldn't, miss, h'if h'I was you. Them Punches are a low lot, miss; they h'ought to be put down, really they h'ought. Gentlefolks, h'as a general thing, pays no h'attention to them.'

  But Katy didn't care what `gentlefolk' did or did not do, and insisted upon having Punch called back. So Wilkins was forced to swallow his remonstrances and his dignity, and go in pursuit of the objectionable object. Amy came rushing out, with her hair flying, and Mabel in her arms, and she and Katy had a real treat of Punch and Judy, with all the well-known scenes, and perhaps a few new ones thrown in for their especial pleasure; for the showman seemed to be inspired by the rapturous enjoyment of his little audience of three at the first-floor windows. Punch beat Judy and stole the baby, and Judy banged Punch in return, and the constable came in, and Punch outwitted him, and the hangman and the devil made their appearance duly; it was all perfectly satisfactory, and `just exactly what she hoped it would be, and it quite made up for the muffins', Katy declared.

  Then, when Punch had gone away, the question arose as to what they should choose out of the many delightful things in London, for their first morning.

  Like ninety-nine Americans out of a hundred, they decided on Westminster Abbey, and indeed there is nothing in England more worthy of being seen or more impressive, in its dim, rich antiquity, to eyes fresh from the world which still calls itself `new'. So to the Abbey they went, and lingered there till Mrs Ashe declared herself to be absolutely dropping with fatigue.

  `If you don't take me home and give me something to eat, she said, `I shall drop down on one of these pedestals and stay there and be exhibited for ever after as an “h'effigy” of somebody belonging to ancient English history.

  So Katy tore herself away from Henry the Seventh and the Poet's Corner, and tore Amy away from a quaint little tomb shaped like a cradle, with the marble image of a baby in it, which had greatly taken the child's fancy. Amy could only be consoled by the promise that she should soon come again and stay as long as she liked.

  She reminded Katy of this promise the very next morning.

  `Mamma has waked up with rather a bad headache, and she thinks she will lie still and not come to breakfast,' she reported. `And she sends her love, and says will you please have a cab and go where you like, and if I won't be a trouble, she would be glad if you would take me with you. And I won't be a trouble, Miss Katy, and I know where I wish you would go.'

  `Where is that?'

  `To see that cunning little baby again that we saw yesterday. I want to show her to Mabel - she didn't go with us, you know, and I don't like to have her mind not improved; and, darling Miss Katy, mayn't I buy some flowers and put them on the baby? She's so dusty and so old that I don't believe anybody has put any flowers on her for ever so long.'

  Katy found this idea rather pretty, and willingly stopped at Covent Garden, where they bought a bunch of late roses for eighteen pence, which entirely satisfied Amy. With them in her hand, and Mabel in her arms, she led the way through the dim aisles of the Abbey, through grates and doors, and up and down steps, the guide following, but not at all needed, for Amy seemed to have a perfectly clear recollection of every turn and winding. When the chapel was reached, she laid the roses on the tomb with gentle fingers, and a pitiful, reverent look in her grey eyes. Then she lifted Mabel up to kiss the odd little baby effigy above the marble quilt, whereupon the guide seemed altogether surprised out of his composure, and remarked to Katy:

  `Little miss is an h'American, as is plain to see; no h'English child would be likely to think of doing such a thing.'

  `Do not English children take any interest in the tombs of the Abbey?' asked Katy.

  `Oh, yes, m'm - h'interest; but they don't take no special notice of one tomb above h'another.'

  Katy could scarcely keep from laughing, especially as she heard Amy, who had been listening to the conversation, give an audible sniff, and inform Mabel that she was glad she was not an English child who didn't notice things, and liked grown-up graves as much as she did dear little cunning ones like this!

  Later in the day, when Mrs Ashe was better, they all drove together to the quaint old keep which has been the scene of so many tragedies, and is known as the Tower of London. Here they were shown various rooms and chapels and prisons, including the apartments where Queen Elizabeth, when a friendless young princess, was shut up for many months by her sister, Queen Mary. Katy had read somewhere, and now told Amy, the pretty legend of the four little children who lived with their parents in the Tower, and used to play with the royal captive; and how one little boy brought her a key which he had picked up on the ground, and said, `Now you can go out when you will, lady'; and how the Lords of the Council, getting wind of it, sent for the children to question them, and frightened them and their friends almost to death, and forbade them to go near the princess again.

  A story about children always brings the past much nearer to a child, and Amy's imagination was so excited by this tale that when they got to the darksome closet which is said to have been the prison of Sir Walter Raleigh, she marched out of it with a pale and wrathful face.

  `If this is English history, I never mean to learn any more of it, and neither shall Mabel,' she declared.

  But it is not possible for Amy or anyone else not to learn a great deal of history simply by going about London. So many places are associated with people or events, and seeing the places makes one care so much more for the people or the events that one insensibly questions and wonders. Katy, who had `browsed' all through her childhood in a good old-fashioned library, had her memory stuffed with all manner of little scraps of information and literary allusions, which now came into use. It was like owning the disjointed bits of a puzzle, and suddenly discovering that properly put together they make a pattern. Mrs Ashe, who had never been much of a reader, considered her young friend a prodigy of intelligence; but Katy herself realized how inadequate and inexact her knowledge was, and how many bits were missing from the pattern of her puzzle. She wished with all her heart, as everyone wishes under such circumstances, that she had studied harder and more wisely while the chance was in her power. On a journey you cannot read to advantage. Remember that, dear girls, who are looking forward to travelling some day, and be industrious in time.

  October is not a favourable month in which to see England. Water, water is everywhere; you breathe it; you absorb it; it wets your clothes and it dampens your spirits. Mrs Ashe's friends advised her not to think of Scotland at that time of the year. One by one their little intended excursions were given up. A single day and night in Oxford and Stratford-on-Avon; a short visit to the Isle of Wight, where, in a country place which seemed provokingly pretty as far as they could see it for the rain, lived that friend of Mrs Ashe who had married an Englishman, and in so doing had, as Katy privately thought, `renounced the sun'; a peep at Stonehenge from under the shelter of an umbrella, and an hour or two in Salisbury Cathedral - this was all that they accomplished, except a brief halt at Winchester, that Katy might have the privilege of seeing the grave of her beloved Miss Austen. Katy had come abroad with a terribly long list of graves to visit, Mrs Ashe declared. They laid a few rain-washed flowers upon the tomb, and listened with edification to the verger, who inquired:

  `Whatever was it, ma'am, that lady did which brings so many h'Americans to h'ask about her? Our h'English people don't seem to take the same h'interest.'

  `She wrote such delightful stories,' explained Katy, but the old verger shook his head.

  `I think h'it must be some other party, miss, you've confused with this here. It stands to reason, miss, that we'd have heard of 'em h'over 'ere in England sooner than you would h'over there in h'America, if the books 'ad been h'anything so h'extraordinary.'

  The night after their return to London they were dining for the second time with the cousins of whom Mrs Ashe had spoken to Dr Carr, and as it happened Katy sat next to a quaint elderly American, who had lived for twenty years in London and knew it much better than most Londoners do. This gentleman, Mr Allen Beach, had a hobby for antiquities, old books especially, and passed half his time at the British Museum, and the other half in sale-rooms and the old shops in Wardour Street.

  Katy was lamenting over the bad weather which stood in the way of their plans.

  `It is so vexatious!' she said. `Mrs Ashe meant to go to York and Lincoln and all the cathedral towns and to Scotland, and we have had to give it all up because of the ram. We shall go away having seen hardly anything.'

  `You can see London.'

  `We have - that is, we have seen the things that everybody sees.'

  `But there are so many things that people in general do not see. How much longer are you to stay, Miss Carr?'

  `A week, I believe.'

  `Why don't you make out a list of old buildings which are connected with famous people in history, and visit them in turn? I did that the second year after I came. I gave up three months to it, and it was most interesting. I unearthed all manner of curious stories and traditions.'

  `Or,' cried Katy, struck with a sudden bright thought, `why mightn't I put into the list some of the places I know about in books - novels as well as history - and the places where the people who wrote the books lived?'

  `You might do that, and it wouldn't be a bad idea, either,' said Mr Beach, pleased with her enthusiasm. `I will get a pencil after dinner, and help you with your list if you will allow me.

  Mr Beach was better than his word. He not only suggested places and traced a plan of sightseeing, but on two different mornings he went with them himself; his intelligent knowledge of London added very much to the interest of the excursions. Under his guidance the little party of four - Mabel was never left out for it was such a chance for her to improve her mind, Amy declared - visited the Charterhouse, where Thackeray went to school, and the Home of the Poor Brothers connected with it, in which Colonel Newcome answered `Adsum' to the roll call of the angels. They took a look at the small house in Curzon Street, which is supposed to have been in Thackeray's mind when he described the residence of Becky Sharp, and the other house in Russell Square which is unmistakably that where George Osborne courted Amelia Sedley. They went to service in the delightful old church of St Mary in the Temple, and thought of Ivanhoe and Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Rebecca the Jewess. From there Mr Beach took them to Lamb's Court, where Pendennis and George Warrington dwelt in chambers together; and to Brick Court, where Oliver Goldsmith passed so much of his life; and to the little rooms in which Charles and Mary Lamb spent so many sadly happy years. On another day they drove to Whitefriars, for the sake of Lord Glenvarloch and the old privilege of sanctuary in the Fortunes of Nigel; they took a peep at Bethnal Green, where the Blind Beggar and his `Pretty Bessee' lived; and at the old prison of the Marshalsea, made interesting by its associations with Little Dorrit. They also went to see Milton's house and St Giles Church, in which he is buried, and stood a long time before St James's Palace, trying to make out which could have been Miss Burney's windows when she was dresser to Queen Charlotte. They saw Paternoster Row, and No. 5 Cheyne Walk, sacred forever to the memory of Thomas Carlyle, and Whitehall, where Queen Elizabeth lay in state and King Charles was beheaded, and the state rooms of Holland House; and by great good luck had a glimpse of George Eliot getting out of a cab. She stood for a moment while she gave her fare to the cabman, and Katy looked as one who might not look again, and carried away a distinct picture of the unbeautiful, interesting, remarkable face.

  With all this to see and to do, the last week sped all too swiftly, and the last day came before they were at all ready to leave what Katy called `story-book England'. Mrs Ashe had decided to cross by Newhaven and Dieppe, because someone had told her of the beautiful old town of Rouen, and it seemed easy and convenient to take it on the way to Paris. Having just landed from the long voyage across the Atlantic, the little passage of the Channel seemed nothing to our travellers, and they made ready for their night on the Dieppe steamer, with the philosophy which is born of ignorance. They were speedily undeceived!

  The English Channel has a character of its own, which distinguishes it from other seas and straits. It seems made fractious and difficult by nature, and set as on purpose to be barrier between two nations who are too unlike to easily understand each other, and are the safer neighbours for this wholesome difficulty of communication between them. The `chop' was worse than usual on the night when our travellers crossed; the steamer had to fight her way inch by inch. And oh, such a little steamer! And oh, such a long night!

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