XIX. RECOLLECTIONS FROM ABROAD
I know of nothing more delightful for a well-read American than to visit the scenes in Great Britain with which he has become familiar in his reading. No matter how rapidly he may travel, if he goes over the places made memorable by Sir Walter Scott in the "Waverley Novels," and in his poems, he will have had impressions, thrills, and educational results which will be a pleasure for the rest of his life. The same is true of an ardent admirer of Dickens or of Thackeray, in following the footsteps of their heroes and heroines. I gained a liberal education and lived over again the reading and studies of a lifetime in my visits to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. I also had much the same experience of vivifying and spiritualizing my library in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Holland.
London is always most hospitable and socially the most delightful of cities. While Mr. Gladstone was prime minister and more in the eyes of the world than any statesman of any country, a dinner was given to him with the special object of having me meet him. The ladies and gentlemen at the dinner were all people of note. Among them were two American bishops. The arrangement made by the host and hostess was that when the ladies left the dining-room I should take the place made vacant alongside Mr. Gladstone, but one of the American bishops, who in his younger days was a famous athlete, made a flying leap for that chair and no sooner landed than he at once proposed to Mr. Gladstone this startling question: "As the bishop of the old Catholic Church in Germany does not recognize the authority of the pope, how can he receive absolution?" --and some other abstruse theological questions. This at once aroused Mr. Gladstone, who, when once started, was stopped with difficulty, and there was no pause until the host announced that the gentlemen should join the ladies. I made it a point at the next dinner given for me to meet Mr. Gladstone that there should be no American bishops present.
At another time, upon arriving at my hotel in London from New York, I found a note from Lord Rosebery saying that Mr. Gladstone was dining with Lady Rosebery and himself that evening, and there would be no other guests, and inviting me to come. I arrived early and found Mr. Gladstone already there. While the custom in London society then was for the guests to be late, Mr. Gladstone was always from fifteen minutes to half an hour in advance of the time set by his invitation. He greeted me with great cordiality, and at once what were known as the Gladstone tentacles were fastened on me for information. It was a peculiarity with the grand old man that he extracted from a stranger practically all the man knew, and the information was immediately assimilated in his wonderful mind. He became undoubtedly the best-informed man on more subjects than anybody in the world.
Mr. Gladstone said to me: "It has been raining here for forty days. What is the average rainfall in the United States and in New York?" If there was any subject about which I knew less than another, it was the meteorological conditions in America. He then continued with great glee: "Our friend, Lord Rosebery, has everything and knows everything, so it is almost impossible to find for him something new. Great books are common, but I have succeeded in my explorations among antiquarian shops in discovering the most idiotic book that ever was written. It was by an old lord mayor of London, who filled a volume with his experiences in an excursion on the Thames, which is the daily experience of every Englishman." To the disappointment of Mr. Gladstone, Lord Rosebery also had that book. The evening was a memorable one for me.
After a most charming time and dinner, while Lord Rosebery went off to meet an engagement to speak at a meeting of colonial representatives, Lady Rosebery took Mr. Gladstone and myself to the opera at Covent Garden. There was a critical debate on in the House of Commons, and the whips were running in to inform him of the progress of the battle and to get instructions from the great leader.
During the entr'actes Mr. Gladstone most interestingly talked of his sixty years' experience of the opera. He knew all the great operas of that period, and criticised with wonderful skill the composers and their characteristics. He gave a word picture of all the great artists who had appeared on the English stage and the merits and demerits of each. A stranger listening to him would have said that a veteran musical critic, who had devoted his life to that and nothing else, was reminiscing. He said that thirty years before the manager of Covent Garden had raised the pitch, that this had become so difficult that most of the artists, to reach it, used the tremolo, and that the tremolo had taken away from him the exquisite pleasure which he formerly had in listening to an opera.
Mr. Gladstone was at that time the unquestionable master of the House of Commons and its foremost orator. I unfortunately never heard him at his best, but whether the question was of greater or lesser importance, the appearance of Mr. Gladstone at once lifted it above ordinary discussion to high debate.