London: A Pilgrimage


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CHAPTER XI - BY THE ABBEY

From our pleasant window in the eastern angle of the Westminster Palace Hotel, we have watched the bright side of London life on many a May morning-as it drifts gaily past the shadows of the venerable Abbey. Venerable indeed: its foundations lost in the tangled, indistinct records of the remote past. Was it erected, as Sporley, a monk of the Abbey, records at the period when King Lucius is said to have become a Christian-nearly seventeen centuries ago? Was it a Temple of Apollo under the Roman Emperor Diocletian: or later, as John Flete implies-in the fifth or perhaps the sixth century, when the Pagan Saxons and Angles over-ran the island? Or was the story of the Apollo merely a spiteful invention, as Wren surmised, got up by the Abbey monks in rivalry to the traditions of Diana and St. Paul's? We shall never know, let us fondly trust, whether foundations of a Pagan shrine lie below the Christian ground. Suffice it for us that we may reverently pace the ancient Abbey, and day by day, mark the life that passes within and without. Now gala carriages, in stately line, wind to the gates: and we are present at a splendid wedding. Now, crowds of happy boys, the favourites of fortune of the land, are coming from Westminster School for confirmation by the bishop. It is an imposing and a beautiful scene. These lads-the flower of the country whose paths tend to the senate and the council chamber, and who will be among the future governors of the Empire; are ranged and gowned, as my fellow Pilgrim has with his pencil described them. The bishop lays his hands upon their sunny, comely heads. It is a day and time of high hopes that stir the imagination vividly. Thackeray used to say that London had no grander sight to show the stranger than the charity children in St. Paul's. The Westminster boys in the Abbey may be accepted, it seems to me, as a companion picture.

From that scene of holy brightness, we may profitably stray into the solemn byways of the Abbey, and to the corner where the honoured dust of great Englishmen is laid. We came one morning upon an open grave, about which silent, grieving hosts were gathered; and in which the flowers obscured the coffin. It was the narrow bed of Charles Dickens; wherein he had been plainly laid, in obedience to his own commands, early in the morning. It has been said, and by no mean authority, that Dickens was perhaps the most widely popular man who ever lived; and it was while we watched the crowds pass, in bitter grief, past his grave that we realised the force of the observation. His death, appeared to be a personal loss to every Englishman and Englishwoman. They grieved over him, as though he had left an empty chair at their own fireside. For many days afterwards loving groups were stationed about the newly-laid slab upon which was to be plainly cut the world-honoured name. The Great and Good whom we loved, are gathering fast in this corner of immortal shadow. The noble head of Thackeray is thrown out from the grey of the venerable Minster walls: and the latest of the company of the world's benefactors is Professor Maurice.

Again and again we opened a morning's pilgrimage with half an hour on this holy ground, under the lofty groined roofs, and threading the stately pillars; observing the wondrous points of light and shade-the mullioned windows, the storied monuments, the exquisite triforiums, the chapels; and the groups of verger-led people of all classes and climes who pass, shadows in the solemn shade, over the dust of the great. The tendency of all footsteps, however, is to Poets's Corner; where the imagination is most excited. We, humble Pilgrims of this later day, are in the company of the Canterbury Pilgrims. The air is filled with immortal spirits; and the memory snatches at the gems of each. Rare Ben, Shakespeare, "blind old Milton," Dryden, the singer of "The Faƫrie Queene," Pope, Sheridan, Gray, Addison, Handel, the voice that charmed and give cheeriness to "The Mariners of England," Macaulay, Grote, the parent of Pendennis, and the gentle heart that hymned an immortal "Christmas Carol" to the world-crowd upon the thoughtful spectator, and keep his feet leaded to the ground. it is, as it were, the whispering gallery of the Great of our country, whence they are speaking to far off posterity. Hard by lie the ashes of the great Chatham and of Sir Isaac Newton; immortal memories, that compel the reverence of pilgrims from every clime. Each day, each hour, in the Minster, has charms to the serious and sensitive creature. The choir thrills to the heart: the organ lifts the feet from the earth-as it vibrates through the chapels filled with the dust of kings, and trembles through the shadowy, meditative cloisters. Or, the soul is stirred, and the eyes are gladdened, when to the stately cadences of the Wedding March, a marriage procession, like a beam of light, glides from the western entrance to the altar rails.

Henry the Seventh's Chapel, the Dean's Yard, Jerusalem Chamber wherein Henry the Fourth died; the Confessor's Chapel, with its pure English chancel, and its coronation chairs in which country cousins love to sit for an instant; all within and without and round about the Minster, that the Roundheads have left free from their hammers, sword-hilts, and heels-tempts the pilgrim to linger, and to come again-as we lingered and came again-to the silent meeting of the poets, to the morning service, and to those grand gatherings of the people which are drawn under the ancient roof by the sermons of the Minster's eloquent Dean.

And from these gatherings with what painful ease we could wander far away from the shrine and the monumental urn, to some of the saddest of London's scenes. The Devil's Acre is, happily, almost a solitude now. The light of heaven has been admitted through the pestilent dens, the foul byeways, the kens and fences of wicked Westminster. Yet there are terrible highways and passages round about the Abbey still-as there are indeed about all the fairer parts of the metropolis. We appear to delight in violent contrasts. At the back of Regent Street and Oxford Street are alleys of houses where some among the most miserable of London's citizens abide. There are purlieus in Kensington, Belgravia, Westbournia, and the Regent's Park, as heart-sickening as those that skirt the highway of Shoreditch. The Palace looks out upon the common Lodging House. From the brightest of our roads, the traveller has only to make a few steps aside to light upon the haunt of the costermonger, the rough, the cadger. Worse company than that to be picked up within three minutes' walk of the Houses of Parliament, is not within the metropolitan postal district, as the detective force, whose head quarters are at hand, would willingly testify.

"House of Commons, sir! House of Commons is the best club in London," said a new member, repeating an old boast.

"Yes," was the reply-"The best club in London-in the worst part of it."

"That's too bad," was the retort-"for we pay the deuce of an entrance fee."

Coming from the Abbey, in a shower, and making for St. James's Park for a cigar, we were amused one morning with a general scamper under the florid drinking fountain: a bit of modern Christianity-pure as the fountain, at which the foot-sore wanderer is bidden to slake his thirst.

The stolidity of the policeman in the storm was excellent.