THE END OF A CENTURY

The close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth
was the subject of much notice both in drawing-room talks and articles
in the papers. The latter recapitulated all that the march of science
and civilisation had effected. Private persons spoke gaily or piously
anent “turning over a new leaf.”

For me? Well, it was much the same as with the rest of nature. My life
went on through 1900 with only this difference, that it had grown—grown
certainly in the past years of striving to put forth one’s self.

Personally the end of the old century marked a new departure, and was
the starting-point of much interesting public work—work, by the way,
that only a few short years before might not have seemed so enticing to
the then young Society woman as it was now to the thoroughly interested
worker.

In 1899 the International Council of Women, under that brilliant worker
the Countess of Aberdeen, had met in London. It was a tremendous
undertaking, and I served on several of the committees. The one,
however, which took most of my time and thought was the Agricultural
Section, for which I was the Convener, and finally took the chair.
It seems a funny thing for a writer to have taken the chair at the
proceedings of an Agricultural Section, but this was the outcome of the
pamphlet on butter-making, and the endless articles I had then written
about women taking up dairy-work in this country.

The Agricultural Section was a novelty, and, I am glad to say, proved
a success. I never felt more nervous in my life, although supported
on the platform by many able people, among them the Earl of Aberdeen.
Viscount Templetown sat next to me, and primed me in what to say, rang
bells when the allotted space of time had been filled by some speaker,
and generally acted as call-boy and prompter combined. And Professor
James Robertson, Agricultural Commissioner of Canada, travelled to this
country purposely to speak for me. I felt terribly impressed by the
solemnity of the entertainment, the whole section being a new departure.

I continually received little notes from the audience asking questions
or offering to speak. One of them ran, “Please pass me down that
beautiful hat.” Utterly amazed at such a thing, I read and re-read the
sentence. I seemed to know the writing. I looked again, and found a
little “Hy. F.”

“Good heavens!” I thought. “Harry Furniss is here making caricatures of
the proceedings.”

Truly enough, the picture appeared in a paper the following week.

One thing leads to another. At the Paris Exhibition of 1900 a Woman’s
Section was inaugurated, and a few people were invited by the Minister
of Commerce of the French Republic from England to go over and speak on
different subjects. Accordingly to Paris I went, and for twelve minutes
inflicted upon those poor, dear French people a speech which I read
in French, entitled “L’Agriculture et les femmes en Grande Bretagne.”
Since those days cultured women have energetically taken up dairying,
chicken-rearing, and egg-collecting, to say nothing of many branches of
horticulture in which they have proved themselves eminently successful.

But while these international courtesies and gatherings were in process
the tragedies of war were being enacted in South Africa, and deep
anxiety and sorrow prevailed throughout the British Empire.

Only a few weeks after the relief of Kimberley and Ladysmith Queen
Victoria came to London for a couple of days. She had a splendid
reception as she drove through the chief streets, a marvellous
demonstration of unorganised loyalty. After our sad reverses early in
the Transvaal War England went wild at the favourable turn of events,
and London continued its jubilation during Her Majesty’s stay.

The Queen visited the City—it was on March 8th, 1900—and, in
accordance with the ancient custom, the Lord Mayor awaited Her
Majesty’s arrival at the City boundaries. On this occasion the
Embankment was the route taken by the Royal procession, and the Lord
Mayor—Sir Alfred Newton—stood in the road by the Temple Gardens and
presented the Queen with the City sword in its pearl scabbard, offering
a welcome “on behalf of your ancient and most loyal City.” It was an
impressive scene. The great City dignitary is privileged to wear an
earl’s robe when receiving a crowned head, and he was surrounded by his
Sheriffs, the City Marshal, the Sword-bearer, and the members of the
Common Council.

After taking the sword—which was presented to the Corporation by
Queen Elizabeth—in both hands, Queen Victoria returned it to the Lord
Mayor “for safe keeping,” adding in her beautiful voice and faultless
diction, “My Lord Mayor, I wish to thank you for all the City has
done.” This, of course, alluded to the formation of the City Imperial
Volunteer Corps, which had started some weeks before for South Africa.

The next day, March 9th, 1900, a luncheon party was given at the
Mansion House by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress to the members of the
Executive Committee of the International Associations of the Press.
Among others I received an invitation.

When an alderman is elected Lord Mayor, he and his family take up their
residence at the Mansion House for a year. There is a charming suite of
apartments at the top of the house for their reception, and all they
have to take with them is their private house-linen; everything else is
found. The servants are supplied, but as the Lord Mayor _pro tem._ pays
their wages, he can dismiss them at his pleasure. This rarely occurs,
however, especially among the upper servants, who positively nurse the
Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress and steer them clear of shoals during
their year of office.

Arrived at the state door of the Mansion House, where magnificent
servants in blue velvet and gold trappings, white silk, and powdered
heads, took our cloaks, the guests ascended the red-carpeted staircase
to the chief corridor. Here, at the far end, between two splendid
thrones, stood the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress. The former wore a
black Court dress, with his chain of office, and a wonderful locket of
diamonds and enamel. On my name being announced, he most graciously
shook hands, and remarked, “I believe I am to have the pleasure of
sitting next you.” Evidently a Lord Mayor is not devoid of tact,
judging by this small incident.

The City Marshal, resplendent in scarlet uniform, the Mace-bearer
in black robes with sable cap, many well-known City dignitaries,
and various officials stood around; among others being Mr. Sheriff
(afterwards Alderman Sir) William Treloar, who was later a most popular
Lord Mayor himself.

Some hundred and fifty people had been received when luncheon was
announced. The Lord Mayor offered his arm to Mademoiselle Humbert,
the daughter of one of the French Deputies and editor of _L’Éclair_,
and the late Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid, one of the originators of evening
papers, was allotted to me. We formed into a procession and marched to
the big banqueting hall. A long table was arrayed down the room. At the
side centre sat the Lord Mayor, in a veritable throne of red velvet and
gilding. It was a magnificent setting, for behind him, along a large
part of the room, a sort of red-baize-covered sideboard was erected,
which literally groaned under gold plate. Tankards, cups, swords, and
bowls in number were here displayed, the collection of hundreds of
years of City wealth.

We began with the renowned turtle soup, and I ventured to ask the Lord
Mayor if that were part of the City religion, at which he laughed.

“Almost,” he said. “But I think to-day it has been given for luncheon,
a somewhat unusual affair, in honour of our foreign friends.” He
was both affable and charming. During the meal a perfect budget of
papers was brought in for his signature. He did not even look at their
contents—there were too many of them—but merely signed. Thereupon I
remarked:




“You may be signing away your birthright.”

“Oh,” he replied, “the Mansion House is a network of officialism, and
all these papers have gone through the proper office, been enquired
into, and passed; I have, therefore, nothing to do with them but sign
my name.” Gorgeous flunkeys placed the papers before him and gorgeous
flunkeys bore them away.

The luncheon was not particularly good, except the turtle soup,
though it was well served. All the plates and silver bore the City
arms. Beautiful yellow tulips stood in golden vases down the table.
Certainly the foreign visitors ought to have been impressed by the
solid magnificence of a City banquet. The Lord Mayor made a happy,
though evidently unprepared speech, and regretted that he was not
master of each of the sixteen languages represented by the different
nationalities sitting round the table, but he did give a few phrases in
French and German, much to the delight of the foreigners.

“What is the most difficult part of being Lord Mayor?” I asked.

“The dinners,” was his surprising reply. “It is a case of dining out
practically every night, and as the Lord Mayor goes everywhere in his
official capacity, he is always expected to say something. How is it
possible to say anything with any sense in it six times a week?”

He seemed delighted with the Queen’s visit and showed the sword which
had been used for the ceremony. The next day the announcement appeared
in the papers that Her Majesty, in recognition of her City reception,
had been pleased to confer a baronetcy upon him, and knighthood upon
the Sheriffs.

I had a long talk after the luncheon with Sir William Agnew, who
said, “I have now collected all my pictures for the Paris Exhibition,
and flatter myself they are the finest collection of representative
English art that has ever been brought together, considering the
number—Gainsborough, Raeburn, Romney, Constable, Turner, Watts,
Burne-Jones are among them, and several are insured for from £10,000
to £15,000 apiece. But I have never before found such difficulty in
obtaining the loan of pictures. In several cases I received an answer
in the affirmative until I mentioned Paris. ‘Oh no, my dear fellow! I
am not going to let my picture go _there_,’ has been the reply.

“There is no doubt about it,” he continued, “that the attitude of
the French Press lately towards the Queen, and their comments on the
Transvaal War, have caused a very bitter feeling in this country, and
in several instances I have had to make it a personal favour to myself
to get the pictures at all. Indeed, the fear has been so great that the
exhibition might be burnt down, or the canvases cut and destroyed, that
I almost gave up all idea of a representative English collection in
despair; and, although I have insured the pictures for a large sum from
their owner’s door till their ultimate return, I shall not be happy
in my mind until the exhibition is over and they are back again. The
present mistrust of the French people is extraordinary, and the sort
of feeling current that we may go to war with France has made it very
difficult.”

A few years later the influence of King Edward did much to create a
better understanding with France.

The Lord Mayor’s documents coming in for signature reminded me of a
millionaire, who has much to do with the issue of shares and can sign
his name fourteen or fifteen hundred times in an hour.

“I often do that,” he said; “in fact, two or three times in a year. But
the greatest number of times I ever signed my name in a week was once
in Paris when we were bringing out a new company; then I signed my name
thirty-three thousand times in one week.”

“How on earth do you manage it?” I exclaimed. “Does a secretary pass
the papers before you and blot them as you sign?”

“I have no secretary and no one blots them,” he replied. “A book,
containing from one to three hundred documents, is put before me, and
I lift each one with my left hand while I sign with my right. I don’t
stop to blot them, they blot themselves—or smudge,” he laughed; “and as
each book is completed I throw it on the floor and take up another from
the table beside me. Every hour or so one of the clerks comes in, and
wheels the signed books away on a trolley and places another bundle on
the table. I sometimes sign my name for three hours straight off, which
means four thousand to four thousand five hundred signatures without
rising from my seat.”

“I am going to assist at a bazaar,” I exclaimed, “and I really think
it would be a splendid idea to put you in a little room dressed up in
gorgeous Eastern attire, charge sixpence for admission, and write in
large letters on the outside: “‘The man who can sign his name fifteen
hundred times in an hour!’ We should make quite a lot of money.”

He laughed. Writer’s cramp never troubled him.

When the day came that I really was overpowered with work, that my
table was strewn with commissions, that I had secretaries hard at it,
sorting, arranging, looking out photographs or figures; as I dictated
between whiles and they typed, a horrible pain, like hot sand, came
in my eyes. At first intermittently, then more frequently, till at
last a hideous dread of blindness—like my father’s—seized hold of me.
Off to Sir Anderson Critchett I went. “Overwork, overstrain; you must
give up your work for a time.” “I can’t,” I replied. “Then you must be
responsible for the consequences.” Lotions, blisters behind the ears,
brought improvement, but still that hot, burning sand was there.

To Sir John Tweedy I then repaired. “Inflammation of the eyes from
overwork; you must rest the eyes. Never work at night, and always wear
a black shade when possible.”

So I gained nothing fresh from him. Both gave me exactly the same
advice and warned me of danger.

I wore that hideous shade for a year, tore it off the moment a stranger
appeared—never went out at night. The glaring lights of the theatre had
become positive torture; but, in spite of all, I managed somehow to
keep up my work and write another book.

Gradually, by resting my eyes whenever possible, never reading unless
obliged, and sitting much in the dark, my eyes became better and remain
better.

And thus the last days of the great Century of Progress sped into
the realm of past ages. But when the newcomer crossed the threshold
of Time, with all the new century’s opportunities and hopes, I was
far away under the Southern Cross amid the brilliant colouring and
luxuriant vegetation of the tropics.

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