Penelope's English Experiences

Chapter V. A Hyde Park Sunday.

The Honourable Arthur, Salemina, and I took a stroll in Hyde Park one Sunday afternoon, not for the purpose of joining the fashionable throng of 'pretty people' at Stanhope Gate, but to mingle with the common herd in its special precincts,—precincts not set apart, indeed, by any legal formula, but by a natural law of classification which seems to be inherent in the universe. It was a curious and motley crowd—a little dull, perhaps, but orderly, well-behaved, and self-respecting, with here and there part of the flotsam and jetsam of a great city, a ragged, sodden, hopeless wretch wending his way about with the rest, thankful for any diversion.

Under the trees, each in the centre of his group, large or small according to his magnetism and eloquence, stood the park 'shouter,' airing his special grievance, playing his special part, preaching his special creed, pleading his special cause,—anything, probably, for the sake of shouting. We were plainly dressed, and did not attract observation as we joined the outside circle of one of these groups after another. It was as interesting to watch the listeners as the speakers. I wished I might paint the sea of faces, eager, anxious, stolid, attentive, happy, and unhappy: histories written on many of them; others blank, unmarked by any thought or aspiration. I stole a sidelong look at the Honourable Arthur. He is an Englishman first, and a man afterwards (I prefer it the other way), but he does not realise it; he thinks he is just like all other good fellows, although he is mistaken. He and Willie Beresford speak the same language, but they are as different as Malay and Eskimo. He is an extreme type, but he is very likeable and very well worth looking at, with his long coat, his silk hat, and the white Malmaison in his buttonhole. He is always so radiantly, fascinatingly clean, the Honourable Arthur, simple, frank, direct, sensible, and he bores me almost to tears.

The first orator was edifying his hearers with an explanation of the drama of The Corsican Brothers, and his eloquence, unlike that of the other speakers, was largely inspired by the hope of pennies. It was a novel idea, and his interpretation was rendered very amusing to us by the wholly original Yorkshire accent which he gave to the French personages and places in the play.

An Irishman in black clerical garb held the next group together. He was in some trouble, owing to a pig-headed and quarrelsome Scotchman in the front rank, who objected to each statement that fell from his lips, thus interfering seriously with the effect of his peroration. If the Irishman had been more convincing, I suppose the crowd would have silenced the scoffer, for these little matters of discipline are always attended to by the audience; but the Scotchman's points were too well taken; he was so trenchant, in fact, at times, that a voice would cry, 'Coom up, Sandy, an' 'ave it all your own w'y, boy!' The discussion continued as long as we were within hearing distance, for the Irishman, though amiable and ignorant, was firm, the 'unconquered Scot' was on his native heath of argument, and the listeners were willing to give them both a hearing.

Under the next tree a fluent Cockney lad of sixteen or eighteen years was declaiming his bitter experiences with the Salvation Army. He had been sheltered in one of its beds which was not to his taste, and it had found employment for him which he had to walk twenty-two miles to get, and which was not to his liking when he did get it. A meeting of the Salvation Army at a little distance rendered his speech more interesting, as its points were repeated and denied as fast as made.

Of course there were religious groups and temperance groups, and groups devoted to the tearing down or raising up of most things except the Government; for on that day there were no Anarchist or Socialist shouters, as is ordinarily the case.

As we strolled down one of the broad roads under the shade of the noble trees, we saw the sun setting in a red-gold haze; a glory of vivid colour made indescribably tender and opalescent by the kind of luminous mist that veils it; a wholly English sunset, and an altogether lovely one. And quite away from the other knots of people, there leaned against a bit of wire fence a poor old man surrounded by half a dozen children and one tired woman with a nursing baby. He had a tattered book, which seemed to be the story of the Gospels, and his little flock sat on the greensward at his feet as he read. It may be that he, too, had been a shouter in his lustier manhood, and had held a larger audience together by the power of his belief; but now he was helpless to attract any but the children. Whether it was the pathos of his white hairs, his garb of shreds and patches, or the mild benignity of his eye that moved me, I know not, but among all the Sunday shouters in Hyde Park it seemed to me that that quavering voice of the past spoke with the truest note.

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