Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp

THE HOTEL OF THE BEAUTIFUL STAR

"WHERE do you live?" is a question habitually asked by companionable tramps, chance vagrants, and other homeless folk, blown like drifting leaves through the thoroughfares, the myriad streets, along the wide suburban roads, by the bridges, into the parks of the Great City.
The answer is, in effect, "At the Sign of the Moon," "Gas-lamp Lodging," "Bridge Hotel," "The Star Inn," or-for among the homeless there are poets (as well as adapters of the phrase of their Parisian kindred)---"The Hotel of the Beautiful Star." These frequenters are often themselves called "stars." A "star" is a man who "lodges free."
No one knows how many homeless folk seek such shelter as is to be had o' nights in London. I have asked at Scotland Yard and of good authorities, but every estimate is guess-work, for no one man can tell what is happening each night throughout this vast nation of London. I am inclined to accept as approximately near the facts the opinion of a police inspector of my acquaintance who has had altogether exceptional experience, not only as a metropolitan constable, but as a member of the separate force known as the river police. After much consideration, he said he would reckon on an average of from fifteen to twenty thousand homeless folk nightly in London during the months from May till September; about five or six thousand in the late autumn and the early spring ; and anywhere between two and five thousand in the winter, the average falling to its lowest---a thousand, more or less, according to the weather-in January.
"Some time ago," he said, " I heard this very question mooted at a kind of slum congress. A gentleman declared that the common estimate of homeless London was grossly exaggerated. He said that, except in the hot midsummer nights, there were never more than a few groups of people in the parks, a score waifs and strays on certain thoroughfares where seats are to be had here and there---as in the Bayswater Road, under the shadow of the trees, close alongside the iron railings of Kensington Gardens; another score, perhaps, along the Embankment and at the different bridges---at most, a hundred or so in all. I was about to speak, when a Salvation Major got up and read some notes. He took the breath away from some of the good folk there. When he had done, he said that it was only Whitechapel and the east of London he was speaking of, and that he could double or treble his figures by including central and southern London, leaving aside the bridges and parks and the whole mass of squares and gardens and quiet roads from the Marble Arch to Hampstead Heath---which itself, in summer, he added, was never without a large contingent of bush-sleepers. He wound up by suggesting that the gentleman who had discredited a large estimate should come with him on his night rounds for a week. So at that I got up too, and told what I knew about the swarm of folk---a mongrel lot, I'm bound to say, what with the Portugee mixture [a generalism for a mixed foreign Population] and Malays and Chinese and them slippery coolies---along the river banks from London Bridge or above it all the way down to near Tilbury. In some of the old warehouses and sheds they lie like rats, many of them below beams. I couldn't give notes like the Salvation-Army Major, but I could see that even what I could tell was an amazing surprise to all there."
In summer, of course, and especially in early summer, one can best study the idiosyncrasies of this wandering and uncertain tribe of the unfortunate, the wretched, the idle, and the merely migratory. It is surprising how large a number is comprised in the last class. It was not till I understood this that the great discrepancy between August and July, the two hottest months, became explicable. Why the migrants in August should be far fewer than those in May and June and July is because of the great and evergrowing demand in the home counties for orchard-work and all manner of farm-labour. In scores of ways, indeed, there is employment for more labourers than there are applicants, and in August there is, in every class, a far greater exodus from London than in any other season. Thousands of tramps, wicker-workers, tinkers, an immense motley of indiscriminate trades no trades,* pour from the city in all and directions. It is said there is not a gipsy, habitual tramp, or "Walker Esquire" in London in August. Again, as a result, there is the relief in the congestion oflodging-houses, and in consequent lowered terms.

*Some of these " lines " are peculiar---such as the white-mice line," , the parrakeet or paroquet line," "the false-hair line," " artificial teeth," "spectacles," "Persian and tailless kittens," "bull-pups," and in fact almost every imaginable commodity, from the "real lace" and the as "real ostrich feathers" lines to stomach cordials and (awful thought) the "blackpudding line."

At one time it was a great delight to the present writer to wander about nocturnal London, and in all regions, from Eel-Pie Island up Richmond way, as far downThames as Rosherville and Gravesend; from the great commons of Wimbledon and Blackheath to those of Parliament Hill and Hampstead Heath; from these, alas ! gruesome deceptive names in the east and north-east, Cambridge Heath, London Fields, Hackney Downs, and Green Lanes, to Brook Green in the west (where there is not much green and no brook), and to a drear locality rejoicing now in a new name, St. Quintin Park, hitherto known as Wormwood Scrubbs. These were the outlying gardens of that vast hostelry "The Hotel of the Beautiful Star." Little need to wander there, however, except for variety and curiosity ; for the inner purlieus include the many parks, and, above all, Hyde Park, and the multitude of squares and "places," with a host of equally forbidden yet surreptitiously attainable public, private, conspicuous, secret, possible, and " impossible " havens for the shelterless.
At all times, too, the river and the riverside had an extraordinary fascination. By its banks many "stars" set and rise in another than the scientific or poetic sense.
The Thames below Richmond is not beautiful in the conventional meaning of the word, but the artist delights in its aspects at all seasons. By night it has a subtle and potent effect on the imagination, and under the influence of moonlight it can take on a beauty or a mysterious strangeness which, once realised, is irresistible. The night of May and June are the loveliest. It is then the hayboats come down---great bargelike sloops laden close to the water with their fragrant burdens-and with brick-red sails shining like dull bronze in the after-glow or in the dazzle of the moonshine. I remember the fascination these summer visitors used to have for Rossetti, the front rooms of whose fine old house in Cheyne Walk looked on the river. It was a sight of which he never tired. One night he told me a delightful story, though whether exaggerated by one of his sudden whimsical extravaganzas or literally true I was at first doubtful. It appeared that he had been watching a great "hoy" coming down stream, and was admiring the magnificent effect of the full moon on the curves of the river and on the hay-laden boat, when to his horror he saw the skipper and mate of the craft run forward, drag a man from under the thatch of hay, and fling him into the water. It took a good deal to make the famous painter-poet leave what was practically his hermitage, but what had just happened was too much for him, so he rushed from his house and across the broad roadway to Cheyne Embankment. A little crowd had already collected and was watching curiously---as Rossetti thought, with callous indifference---the sturdy approach of the unfortunate swimmer against tide or current, or both. In reply to Rossetti's indignant exclamations, a bystander remarked, "Oh, you needn't worry yourself, guv'nor; it's only a bushsleeper comin' in to Lunnon by way of a free bed o' hay. When they're found out they're allus chucked---like that---that is, arter they makes their choice." "What choice?" Rossetti asked. "It's like this, guv'nor. Says skipper to you like, 'You take your choice an' have a thorough beltin' an' a run-in at the end o't, or over you go out o' this'---an' in nine cases out o' ten, arter a bit of scuffle fust, per'aps, the cove has a free bath gratis for nothin'."
Meanwhile the bush-sleeper had been dragged out of the water, and stood dripping and disconsolate as a half-drowtied rat. Rossetti was moved to compassion, and told the man to follow him, which he did, and soon had warmth again both within and without. Afterwards he was shown up into the dim studio, and it must have seemed a strange, uncanny place to this waff from a world more remote from that in which Rossetti lived than from the every-day life of five hundred years ago. The painter-poet was amused by his disreputable guest, for here there was no question of virtue struggling with adversity.
The man was a ne'er-do-well, and frankly admitted it. No, he said, he could not reconcile himself to sleeping indoors, particularly in summer. Where did he sleep, then? Oh, anywhere: sometimes in a yard, sometimes under the trees in a square, to reach which he had surreptitiously and unseen to climb the railings ; sometimes in an empty or new house, or in unfinished buildings; sometimes on the Embankment seats, on river-side craft, on moored steamboats, on wharves. "An' you don't pay nuthin' at the Sign of the Bunch o' Stars, neither," he added, "an' that suits me down to the ground, not havin' too much o' the shiny to waste on sich like things as boardinghouses, to say nuthin' o' the sharks as keeps them."
On a recent occasion Rossetti had been told about the "Hotel of the Beautiful Star," and he was delighted with the name and what he heard of its associations, and of its Paris equivalent, "L'Htel de la Belle Etoile."
But if the midsummer nights are loveliest, the nocturnal midwinter Thames is often more wonderful. Mention of Rossetti recalls to me a wonderful sight in January (I think in 1880, but possibly in 1881), when the Thames opposite his house at Chelsea was more like the Neva in spring than our sedate London stream. Great masses and boulders of ice came crashing down the river, grinding at the piers and bridges, and sometimes huddling and leaping and falling back like a herd of stampeded cattle. The papers had a very strange story at that time about a "bush-sleeper." The man had crept on board a straw-laden barge, but during the night the extreme cold had wakened him, and he had apparently realised that it was better to tramp homeless ashore than lie where he was and be frozen. In trying to slink along a narrow gangway, slippery with the frost, he must have lost his footing, and as he fell his head struck a mass of ice rearing abovestream like a buffalo in a flying herd, and from this he rolled back on a huge slab that went sailing down stream. About this time it had begun to snow. Next morning, far below the Pool, though I forget exactly where, the great slab grounded. Some men noticed a strange moulding on the surface, and when they swept away the snow they found a man frozen hard to the ice-block, lying as though asleep, or rather as though a carven monument on a tomb, face upwards, and on his back, with the hands and arms lying listlessly idle by his side.
But it is not all tragic---I mean, the fate of those who have to lodge for a night or two, or for many nights, at the Hotel of the Beautiful Star. Let me tell a story I know at first hand, though I must not only withhold the name but slightly alter the details, yet in nothing essential. One mild March night, some years ago---for even March does sometimes give us a spell of mild hours, though this may be mocked as a fantastical glorification of our English spring---I was on Primrose Hill about midnight. This eminence---it is no more, and to call it a hill is but a cockney flattery---over looks Regent's Park on the north side. I was given to mounting its grassy slope occasionally o' nights, partly for the sake of the scintillating view on fine evenings and the sealike mass of the foliage of Regent's Park, and the Zoological Gardens, and partly for the free play of air at that relatively high and uncontaminated spot of smoky London. It used to be a favourite resort on warm June and July nights for those who preferred a couch on the soft grass to a weary tramp of the pavements or the hard mercies of a stone seat or ironclamped wooden bench. I have seen more than a score of sleepers, apart from the many couples who lingered long and late on. that rather bare and prosaic Mons Amotis. There was a phrase among the many medical students and other budding youth of all sorts and conditions who lodged in Albert Street and Park Street and the neighbourhood, the significance of which none mistook. When one remarked that he "was not having his letters regular" at the moment, as he was putting up at the Primrose, we all knew just where that inn was, and understood why the postman did not call of a morning.
Well, on that March night, after I had sat at the summit for a bit, and had my fill of what I had come to see, I was slowly making my way downward, when abruptly I went headlong over a recumbent figure. The blasphemy which ensued was peculiar; it was that of a bargee in the refined voice of a girl. An apology put matters right, and a hearty laugh induced a sudden camaraderie. My companion sat up, and asked me if I too were "on the green." On hearing that I was not, in his sense, he said "Lucky you," and asked if perchance I had cigarettes on me. I had a pipe and some tobacco; but this would not do, it seemed. "A low taste," he observed, with a wave of his hand. "When you come to see me, you must either bring cigarettes with you or smoke mine."
"So," I answered, "after all, you're no more putting up at the Primrose than I am!"
"Excuse me. I am not a liar. I have already said, or implied, that I am putting up, as you have it, in these very quarters."
"What about your house and cigarettes ?
"First, let me tell you one thing. You may not be inclined to believe it, but I have genius. In the next, I have prospects. In the third, I know the pangs, but I may add also the blessed sureties, of love. Fourthly, the rest follows : that in due course I shall have a fit habitation and cigarettes; and fifthly, if you will permit me to say so, it will be a pleasure to me, when I know your name, to welcome you at that house, to introduce you to my wife, and to offer you my cigarettes."
I was delighted and amused with my companion, whom I took to be a genial and harmless crank. I had occasion, however, to change my mind before long: my acquaintance was in no sense a crank, but a remarkably true critic and prophet.
Having compared notes, we fraternised further, and I proposed an adjournment to my "diggings." On the way thither my new friend informed me, to my surprise---for he seemed neat and clean in his dress and person, though obviously his clothes, and those tell-tale articles the boots, were beyond the stage of barter "at the sign of the Three Golden Balls"---that he had been homeless and shelterless for more than a week---for nine days, he declared, after some calculation. He had put up at the Hotel of the Beautiful Star in Hyde Park till the east wind had set in. Then he had tried the sheltered havens at Bridge Hotel, but only on one night succeeded in securing a seat on the wind side. He had tried Regent's Park, but had to walk to and fro till dawn to keep his circulation going. For two nights he had managed to creep behind a large stack of hay in some open stables in Albany Street. Then the weather had become milder. He had been promised a walkingon part at the small Park Theatre in Camden Town, but one cannot get a room on the head of a promise.
So I thought of the 'Star Inn ' once more," he added, "and ultimately decided to try my luck at the Primrose."
To make a long story short, my friend remained all night with me, contentedly and indeed gladly exchanging the grassy sods of the Star Inn for my hardly luxurious but relatively comfortable sofa.
I had imagined from his allusion to the Park Theatre that the handsome youth was an actor or would-be actor. I was mistaken, for I learned that he was a clever writer, and a painter of excelling promise. I do not mean that he told me this, though some of it was vaguely hinted and some I inferred from his talk. I ascertained it in a few days. An extraordinary series of mischances and ill luck had pursued him. However, in less than a month from the date of our meeting he was making from five to ten pounds a week by his admirable drawings for a popular periodical and by his various journalistic contributions. Soon after that I went abroad. On my return from Italy, some six months later, I found that my friend had gone to Paris. Hearing that he had relinquished his paying artistic and literary connections, I feared that some strain of irreconcilable bohemianism had broken out in him again, and I was only half reassured when I learned that he was painting very hard but in absolute isolation. Well, to come to the point, he sold a picture at the Salon the ensuing May ; had a bigger success in Munich, and then in London, and finally an "arrived" success at the next Salon again. My work took me there on the jour de vernissage, and to my great pleasure, just as I was about to leave, I came suddenly upon my friend. I had already been admiring his two beautiful pictures, one of them a portrait of great loveliness, but he would hear of nothing about these, but only of myself. In a few minutes, I found myself in the usual little "voiture deux places," and being driven rapidly in a northerly direction. Within half an hour thereafter I had seen "the fit habitation," smoked the first of many later cigarettes provided by my host, and been introduced to his charming wife, the beautiful original of the portrait. I had already had convincing proof of the genius.
"All too charming to be true," doubtless many will exclaim, or to the like effect. Only, it happens to be true.
But this, all the same, is the "Prince Charming" side of the tragicomedy of the Hotel of the Beautiful Star. It is very rare that one of the sons of fortune finds himself a lodger in that barren accommodation; still rarer that so dramatically swift a change occurs between starvation and homelessness on the one hand, and affluence and fame on the other, and rarest of all that "a real genius" (and particularly one who candidly admits it is of this sad company. Yet, it is not to be wondered at---rather the opposite way were the record all one-sided, all of sadness and misfortune or of idleness and folly---that in the course of many years' nocturnal peregrinations in a great city like London one should meet the brilliant exception once in a way. Even the Star Inn has its occasional princes. In these wanderings I have encountered many unusual as well as interesting types, heard many strange tellings as well as far too many narratives of a sad uniformity in misfortune, a dull monotony of wreckage. There I have found life much the same as I have found it in other circles in London, or in Rome, New York, the South Seas, the Australian desert, among the boulevardiers of Paris, or the Arabs of the Sahara. Moreover, it is easy in London, as in New York, to get into a specific region at will. One can pursue the French outlander in Soho; the Italian, Hatton Garden way ; the Russian Jew, beyond Houndsditch; the Chinaman, the Malay, the coolie, each in his own habitat. There is a place of strange tales where I have studied much; but this must be frequented, for a like purpose, in summer, or on fine autumn afternoons; for otherwise one does not find communicative, or even in evidence at all, the broken old French count or Italian cavaliere, the wistful-eyed, hollow-cheeked foreigner who suns himself on the seats in the small grasse, under the laid heart of Leicester Square unspeakably commonplace and affected statue of Shakespeare--"mais voil, mon grand matre," as an old French playwright, a refugee from Paris, said to me once, ignoring the already admitted fact that he had never read a line of "ce divin Williams," as his countrymen sometimes have it.
But of these I have written elsewhere. What I want now to speak of is neither of the night wanderers nor of the brilliant, sordid, picturesque, vivid, tumultuous, or furtive life and aspects of London streets by night---though these have a wonderful fascination at times, and at certain hours and places, as at dusk or in a moonlight night, or in a faint fog, the dome of St. Paul's, the Tower, Somerset House from the river, the Houses of Parliament, Waterloo Bridge, the great serpentine sweep of the Embankment---not of those nor these do I want to speak now, but of the unexpected in nocturnal London scenery.
For that is as characteristic of London as the crowded Strand, Fleet Street, with its ceaseless under-throb of the mightiest newspaper pulse in the world, the thronged gin-palaces and music-halls, the endless swinging this way and that of countless hansoms and omnibuses, the unparalleled marketings of Covent Garden by flaring torch and spurting gas-jet, the perpetual dismal idleness of suburban roads, the restless flow at, all hours along thoroughfares such as Tottenham Court or Seven Sisters Road, Piccadilly Circus ("Siren Corner, Hell Road "), ablaze like a maelstrom into which pour Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, Coventry Street, and the Haymarket, and the long, continual surge of Piccadilly itself.
And what and where is this unexpected scenery? Well, come away from all that brilliant, pulsating London, from all that commonplace Suburbia; come away even from the tramp who lodges at "Gas-lamp Inn" on London Bridge, or "At the Sign of the Moon" on the Embankment, and follow the loafing or unfortunate nightfarer into the special purlieus of the Hotel of the Beautiful Star. But no---let us leave this motley company, and the furtively unobtrusive "battalion of the unjustly fallen," as poor James Thomson of the City of Dreadful Night called the unfortunate, the outcast, and the bewildered and baffled homeless. For, it should be said, tramps and vagrants cannot well go into closed and guarded parks, or float like barn-owls over the river-reaches.
For there are places where the night farer can take his rest untroubled, and where in the summer he does. There are tracts of Hyde Park where the cry of the constable is not heard in the land, nor the warning note of the keen-eyed park-ranger. After dark, on those mid-summer nights, in many wide spaces of Hyde Parkand Regent's Park (as of remoter Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common), the moonlight falls alike on clusters of still sheep and on scattered dusky shapes that are men and women.
The real unexpected in London is what we do not readily associate with a great metropolis : serenity, quietude, silence, space, beauty---a beauty as of the remote country, a spaciousness as of the desert, a silence as of ocean in calm. Here, perhaps, is wherein lies the deepest fascination of nocturnal London. One may cross Waterloo Bridge at midnight, and think of the stream of living eyes that one poor tortured dweller in the City of Dreadful Night was wont to see---nothing but hurrying, eddying, eyes; or of how the Romany Rye bartered there with a strange woman in the dusk; or one may stand on London Bridge and think of Hood's sad lyric of her who drifted, and of her thousand sisters who have since drifted beneath it ; or of Rossetti's picture of Found, and those who are sometimes found there but always too late ; or of Wordsworth's noble sonnet, filled with the vast silence and ineffable dignity of the sleeping city at daybreak:

Silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky.

But one can escape the floating populace of the bridge and the more or less trite, even when beautiful, literary association, by going further afield. Literally afield at first, if we pass by Tyburn Gate or go towards that vast region of Suburbia which once was a great forest called St. John's Wood, reaching from what now is Marylebone to the confines of Middlesex.
On a hot night in July, when travelling thunders have been loosening long sudden avalanches of wind through a barren desert of stagnant air, I have lain below a hawthorn-bush in Regent's Park, and dreamed I was far from London. For, harsh in the silence, came the same restless cry of cranes I had heard in the shallow Moorish waters beyond Tunis ; then, bewilderingly, rose the screams of the great-skua and the cormorant, recalling twilit shores in the wave-washed north; then, savagely, the aow-aow-aow of a wolf, the sullen, snarling howl of the jungle tiger, or, abruptly, the sickeningly near roar of a hunger or beatmaddened lion. But I was in London, after all; and the finch sitting in the hawthorn over her second brood did not stir, nor did the little cluster of sheep, like gray boulders cropping above the grass, edge further from the elm shadows into moonlit safety. I had forgotten where I was, and had been startled; where I lay was within a few yards of the enclosed trees of the Zoological Gardens, a brief distance from the lion-houses and the great openair enclosures of the tigers and panthers.
On another occasion I was with a friend---a Kensington Gardens ranger---and after closure-hour wandered idly through the vast glades and silent avenues where the Palace Gardens trend to Hyde Park. That May evening I had heard the wood-doves calling amid the green twilight of the oaks, the thrush and blackbird fluting mellowly from sycamore and plane, the rooks cawing over the bare tops of the tapering elms, the sudden, strident clamour of the mallard in his dashing flight to the water. As the shadows deepened, white moths fluttered between the lower branches. Amid the tall limes the black-cap tried over his shadow-dance song. Suddenly, from the dense leafy wilderness of a gigantic beech, a nightingale broke into stuttering short cries, and then, as with a recovering indrawn breath, was still a moment, and in another moment flooded the dusk with little rippling cries and up-caught ecstasies of a rapt oblivious trouble. The moon rode yellowly above the prairie of Hyde Park, as we walked past the fountains, so rococo, and yet so charming in their fantasticality, and in the moonshine so beautiful and suggestive of old Italian romance. Slowly we strolled down the western bank of the Long Water, hearing the coot and sheldrake of the call from the remoter shallows of the Serpentine. Robins and long-tailed tits rustled among the lilacs, dewily fragrant. Before a spray of laburnum, of a delicate dripping gold in the moonlight, ghostly moths danced fantastical two greatly. Suddenly a harsh screaming came from the rhododendron forest on the opposite bank. A whir---wish---whir-r-r-r, and first one peacock, then another, then another, rose, and with majestic meteoric flight swept with their vast, dusky fans in a long curve, one billowlike ascent again, then to sink cloudily amid the branches of the elms where they love to roost. That night I could not leave this far-remote wilderness of wild life and natural beauty. Yet, it was London. Long after midnight I crossed the dim prairie-land of Hyde Park, new passing huddled sheep, now a huddled figure below an oak or on the open grass. Never till then had I realised adequately this less strange of the two great silences of London : the solitary centre of Hyde Park and the solitary stillness round the Bank of England, "in the heart of the world."
In the grey daybreak I passed the dim vapour-dappled mere of St. James's Park, and saw the Whitehall palaces looming in a new stately beauty. A little later, at a sweep of the Embankment, while the seabirds were fluttering sidelong up stream from the marshes, and filling the air with a strenuous viking-music, ringing clarionlike through the City of Mist, as London in her few breathless moments of poetry so truly is, my gaze was caught by a sudden golden flashing light. It was the first shaft of sunrise breaking against the great gold cross of St. Paul's. The Hotel of the Beautiful Star was closed for another day.

1901

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