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'you Are An American' Post by :Niceday_Jacky Category :Essays Author :Robert Cortes Holliday Date :October 2011 Read :3321

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"you Are An American"

"Lavender, sweet lavender,
Who will buy my sweet blooming lavender?
Buy it once, you'll buy it twice,
And make your clothes sweet and nice!"

She was a wretched-looking creature, with a great basket; and it was so she sang through the street. By this you know where we are, for this is one of the old cries of London town.

For the sake of my clothes, and for the noble pleasure of associating for an instant with the original of a coloured print of old London types, I bought a sprig of lavender. "Thank you, sir," she said.

I saw it coming; ah! yes, by now I knew she would. "You are an American, sir," she added, eyeing me with interest.

You would think that since the "American invasion" first began ever so long ago, some time after Dicky Davis "discovered" London, they, the British, would have seen enough of us to have become accustomed to us by now. But, as you have found, it is not so--we are a strange race from over the sea.

"You are an American, sir," said the barmaid. She was a huge young woman who could have punched my head in. I am not so delicate, either. And she had a pug nose.

"I do not so much care for American ladies," she said. "I think they are a bit hard, don't you?" Then, perhaps feeling that she may have offended me, she quickly added: "Not of course that I doubt that there are maidenlike ladies in America."

They are a curious people, these English, with their nice ideas, even among barmaids, of the graces of a mellow society. For some time I could not understand why she was so beautiful. Then I perceived that it was because of her nose. She looked just like the goddesses of the Elgin marbles, whose noses are broken, you know. Still I doubt whether it would be a good idea for a man to break his wife's nose in order to make her more beautiful.

I will grave her name here on the tablet of fame, so that when you go again to London you may be able to see her. It is Elizabeth.

He was a cats' meat man. And on his arm he carried a basket in which was a heap of bits of horse flesh (such I have been told it is), each on a sliver of stick. There was a little dog playing about near by. "Would you care to treat that dog to a ha'penny's worth of meat, sir?" asked the man.

I had never before treated a dog to anything, though treating is an American habit. So I "set up" the dog to a ha'penny's worth of meat. "Thank you, sir," said the cats' meat man. I saw by the light come into his eye that he had recognised me. "You are------" he began. "I know it," I said; "I am."

I looked at the wretched dog. Would he too accuse me? But he ate his meat and said never a word. Perhaps he was not an Englishman. No, I think he was a tourist, too, like myself. I was glad I had befriended him in an alien land.

"What is the price of this?" I asked. "Thri'pence?" I inquired, reading a sign.

"Three pence," pronounced the attendant very distinctly. It was but his way of saying, "You are an American."

I went into an office to see a man I know. "How are you?" I said in my democratic way to the very small office boy. "You are looking better than when I saw you last," I remarked with pleasant home humour.

"I never saw you before, sir," replied the office boy. "He is an American," I heard him, apologising for me, tell the typist.

Some considerable while after this I went to this office again. I had quite forgotten the office boy. I handed him my card. A bright lad, he. "I'm feeling much better, sir," he said.

In Pall Mall there is a steamship office in the window of which is displayed a miniature sheet of water. At opposite sides of this little ocean are small dabs of clay, one labelled England, the other America. Tiny ships ply back and forth between the two countries. Observers cannot make out how it is that these little boats turn about as they do, apparently of their own accord. And the scene has continually a number of spectators. (This was before the war.)

One day I was looking in at this window, very much interested in this problem. Standing next to me was a fine specimen of a Pall Mallian, with his silk "topper," his black tail coat, his buttonhole, his checked trowsers, his large grey spats, his shining boots, his stick and his glass on its ribbon, apparently equally absorbed. I turned to him after a hit--a quite natural thing to do, I thought--and, "How the deuce do you suppose that thing works?" I said.

The tall gentleman slowly turned. Slowly, stiffly, with an aristocratic gesture, he raised his arm and placed his glass in his eye, for a moment. I was frozen by his blank stare, quite through. Then he lifted his eyebrow; the glass dropped and bounded before him on its ribbon. And he turned and walked away. Walked away, I dare say, to his frowning club, to tell how he had just been set upon in the street and insulted by some strange ruffian. But, you see, I didn't know; I was an American.

To Epsom I went in a cart to see the Derby. It was at Epsom, you know, that the King's horse was thrown several seasons ago by a suffragette who lost her life in the act. Well, most of the fine gentlemen of England, I think, were there, all in splendid tall grey hats and with their field glasses slung over their shoulders. And a horde of the cleverest crooks in Europe also.

There I had my pocket "cut" by a pickpocket. That is the way they go through you in England, neatly lift your pocket out. I thought this was an interesting thing, so I told it about that I had had my pocket cut, but I did not see any international significance in the affair.

The achievement, however, I discovered was much relished by my hearers in England. I, an American, had come over there and had my pocket cut. He, the crook, an Englishman very probably, had been "cuter" than I; he had "had" me, an American.

It is a curious thing, and a fact not generally known, I believe, that all decayed taxicab drivers in London, those who are unfortunate, have fallen from a high estate. Each and every one of them used to drive the London to Oxford coach in the days of 'orses.

I met a number of these personages, fat, with remarkably red faces and large honeycombed noses. Not at all like the alert, athletic lads, a type of mechanical engineer, who have arisen as cabbies with the advent of taxis. What do they know about 'orses?

It was such an old boy who drove me from the neighbourhood of Russell Square, where I was stopping, to Chelsea, where I went into lodgings. He frequently had the pleasure of driving Americans, he remarked. "Thank you, sir," he said.

I required to have my shoes repaired, and I inquired of my landlord where might be found a good cobbler. He told me that there was an excellent one in Battersea. "In Battersea!" I said. "Is there none in Chelsea? How am I to get my shoes clear over to Battersea?"

"Why," he replied, "we will send the cobbler a card and he'll send some one over for the boots and----"

"And then, I suppose," I said, "he will send us another card saying that the boots are done and so on. And in the meantime I could have had the boots repaired and worn out again."

Naturally I was for wrapping up the shoes in a piece of newspaper and setting out straight off to find a cobbler. But my landlord would not hear of such a thing at all. "Of course you are an American," he said.

I gathered that while such a proceeding might be all right in my country it wouldn't do in England. He did not want lodgers, I understood, going in and out of his house with parcels under their arms. It would reflect on him. He was a man with a lively mind, and he told me a little story.

"How do you like the new lodger?" asked the first housemaid of the second.

"Oh, he's very nice indeed," replied the second housemaid. "But he's not a gentleman. He helped me carry the coals upstairs yesterday."

"Could you spare me a trifle, sir?" asked the errand man in my street. "I haven't had tea today."

It's a funny thing, that; isn't it?--our just being all "Americans" (when we are not referred to as "Yankees" or "Yanks"). We are never United Statesians. It is the "American Ambassador," and the "American Consul-General." I have even heard Dr. Wilson referred to as the "President of America."

One day I saw a tourist. He was an American, a young man I knew in New York. I found him going into the Houses of Parliament. I was fond of going in there frequently, and said I would accompany him.

With an easy stride, at a speed I should say of about two miles an hour, he walked straight through the Houses of Parliament; through the Norman porch, through the King's robing room, the Royal or Victoria gallery, the Prince's chamber, the sumptuously decorated House of Peers, the Peers' lobby, the spacious central hall, the Commons' corridor and the House of Commons; glancing about him the while at art and architecture, lavish magnificence and the eternal garments and symbols of history. Returning to the central hall, we passed through St. Stephen's and Westminster Hall and arrived again in the street.

"How long did it take us to do that?" said my friend, questioning his watch.

"Oh, about fifteen minutes," I replied.

He said he thought he would go across the way and "do" the Abbey next while he was in the neighbourhood.

I suppose I could have helped him in the matter of despatch, but I didn't think of it at the time. Later I heard of two Americans who drove up to the abbey in a taxi. Leaping out, one said to the other: "You do the outside and I'll do the inside, and that way we'll save a lot of time."

The thing a man does in America, of course, when he gets into a railroad train is to light a cigar and begin talking to the fellow next to him. There were two of us in the railway carriage compartment on my way down into Surrey. I made a number of amiable observations; I asked a number of pleasant questions. My object was to while away the time in human companionship. "Quite so," was his reply to observations.

In replying to questions he would commit himself to nothing; he wouldn't even say that he didn't know. "I shouldn't undertake to say, sir," was his answer. And then, certainly, there was no possibility of pursuing the subject further.

He wasn't reading a paper; he wasn't doing anything but gaze straight in front of him. I concluded that he was "sore" at me; I concluded that he was a surly bear, anyway. And so an hour or so passed in utter silence.

The pretty landscape whirled by; we went through a hundred tunnels (more or less); the little engine gave a shrill little squeak now and then; at old, old railway stations, that remind one agreeably of jails, rough-looking men in black shirt sleeves and corduroy waistcoats ran out to the train to open the carriage doors, and I forgot the gentleman altogether. Till at length we came to his station.

When he had got out he turned to latch the door, and putting his head in at the window, he said to me in the pleasantest manner possible: "Good aufternoon, sir." He wasn't sore at me a bit! That was simply his fashion of travelling, in silence.

I was going into the countryside, to the country places where the old men have pleasant faces and the maidens quiet eyes. To fare forth upon the King's highway, to hedgerows and blossoms and the old lanes of Merrie England, to mount again the old red hills, bird enchanted, and dip the valleys bright with sward, to the wind on the heath, brother, to hills and the sea, to lonely downs, to hold converse with simple shepherd men, and, when even fell, the million tinted, to seek some ancient inn for warmth in the inglenook, and bite and drop, and where, when the last star lamp in the valley had expired, I would rest my weary bones until the sweet choral of morning birds called me on my way.

There was an ancient character going along the road. He walked with a staff, a crooked stick. His coatless habit was the colour of clay; his legs were bound about just below the knee by a strap (wherein, at one side, he carried his pipe), so that his trowsers flared at the bottom like a sailor's; over his shoulder he bore a flat straw basket. Under his chin were whiskers; his eyes were merry and bright and his cheeks just like fine rosy apples, with a great high light on each. I asked of him the way and we trudged along together. "You are from Mericy," he said with delight.

He told me about himself. He was seventy-four and he had never had "a single schooling" in his life. Capel was his home, a village of about twenty houses which we were approaching, thirty miles or so from London. The last time he been to London was when he was fifteen. He had then seen some fireworks there. No fireworks in Capel, he said, had ever been able to touch him since. He had been pushing on, he said, pushing on, pushing on all the while.

"You were not born in Capel, then?" I said.

Born in Capel! Why, he had been born seven miles from Capel.

The difficulty was that I had overlooked the fact that everybody goes out of London town at Whitsuntide. Village and county town I tried and I could not find where to lay my head. Everything was, as they say in England, "full up." It was coming on to rain and the night fell chill and black. Would I have to use my rucksack for a pillow and sleep in the fields?

At length I found a man--it was at quaint Godalming, I think, where the famous Charterhouse School is--who could not give me a room, but offered me a bed and breakfast at half a crown. "There's another fellow up there," he said. "But he's a nice, quiet fellow; something like yourself," he said. "I think you'll like him."

"You are an American," remarked my landlord. I sat with him in his little parlour behind the bar. It had a gun over the mantelpiece, a great deal of painted china and a group of stuffed birds in a glass case. He asked me if I liked reading, because, if I did, he had an old dictionary to which I was welcome at any time.

At length it was the hour for bed. I followed my heavy host with his candle up difficult stairs. "I think they're all asleep," he said.

"They're all asleep!" I exclaimed. "Who are?"

"Why," replied my landlord, "there are five of them, you know. But they are nice quiet fellows. Something like yourself," he added. "I think you will like them."

In that shadowed, gabled room were the noises of many sunk in slumber. Well, they were, I found in the morning, rather inoffensive young fellows, all cyclists, and indeed not altogether unlike myself. It was after my bacon and eggs that I found on my way a place for a "wash and brush up, tuppence."

"Traveller, sir?" inquired the publican, in response to my knock and peering cautiously out at his door. For it was Sunday, after three o'clock in the afternoon and not yet six; and to obtain refreshment at a public house at that hour one must be a "traveller over three miles' journey." "I'm a traveller all the way from the U.S.A.," said I.

I stood my battered shilling ash stick in a corner and looked out again from my window over the old red roofs and at the back of the house where he dwelt who when the Queen had commanded his presence said, "I'm an old man, ma'am, and I'll take a seat." When Annie, the maid, had brought my "shaving water, sir," in a kind of a tin sprinkling can and when I had used it I took up my Malacca town cane and went out to see how old Father Thames was coming on.

I thought I would buy some writing paper and I went into a drug store kind of a place. "I see you are an American, sir," said the shopman. "This is a chemist's shop," he explained; "you get paper at the stationer's, just after the turning, at the top of the street."

Hurrying for my passport, I inquired as to the location of such and such a street--whatever the name of it is--where, I understood, the place was where this was to be had. "Ah!" said he whom I addressed, "you want the American Consul-General."

(The end)
Robert Cortes Holliday's essay: "You Are An American"

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