“London Antiques”: Crayon enjoys antiquity hunting in London. One summer day, he becomes wearied and frustrated with the crowds and turns down a side street. He finds himself in a quiet grass court with a fountain, all surrounded by ancient tombs. Only blocks away from the bustling streets of London, he is in the chapel of the Knights Templar.
Another time he comes upon an empty gothic building. Crayon ventures inside and sits, musing on what the building might have been used for, when a small door opens and a line of grey-haired men, clad in long black cloaks, come through the hall silently and exit through another door. He explores further and sees more of these men, and from one or two passages he sees boys playing sports. Crayon thinks of something he has read about schools in old times that taught the black arts, and he believes he may have stumbled into one of them. As he thinks this, he passes a classroom filled with strange objects, such as a skull and a dead cat.
He stops to investigate this room further, and he is shocked to see a shriveled old man in the corner. The man beckons him in and gives Crayon the story of the place, called the Charter House. It is an old monastery that has been turned into an asylum for elderly men, connected to a school for boys. The old man, John Hallum, is a collector of curiosities, which is why this room is full of such strange objects.
“Little Britain”: This story was told to Crayon by a strange man he met shortly after stumbling upon the Charter House. Crayon finds it hard to believe at first, but upon making inquiries is told that the story is true. In the center of London, there is a small neighborhood called Little Britain, called such because in ancient times it was the residence of the Dukes of Britany. Since then, Little Britain has fallen on harder times, but there is still evidence of its past splendor in the old, subdivided, crumbling mansions. The narrator considers Little Britain a fragment of London as it was in its better days, having antiquated people and fashions and with many of the old holiday customs still flourishing. The residents, too, are almost all still very superstitious, and the old houses are the sites of many persisting ghost stories.
There are even two oracles of Little Britain, one the owner of a small apothecary’s shop, and the other a successful cheesemonger. They are sometimes rivals who have sometimes caused divisions among Little Britain’s constituents. The wit of Little Britain is Wagstaff, the pub owner, who has inherited many songs and jokes from the witty Wagstaffs who came before him.
Recently, however, a more serious division has disturbed the tranquility and balance of Little Britain, initiated by the aspiring family of a retired butcher, the Lambs. The Lambs for a long time were among the most thriving and popular families of the neighborhood, but one day one of the daughters was invited to be a lady in attendance on the Lady Mayoress. The family, very honored, from that moment considered themselves too good for all the activities of the neighborhood, and they started putting on airs. Even worse, they then had a grand ball, and did not invite any of their neighbors.
The neighborhood was in an uproar over this, and everyone decided never to speak to the Lambs again. Many failed at this but at least found ways to gossip meanly about the Lambs at every chance. The only one of the family never to put on airs was the butcher, but this did not protect him from sharing in his family’s general unpopularity and ostracism, even among his old friends.
Unfortunately, although the neighbors disdain the Lambs’ French fashions and airs, they eventually start to follow the Lambs’ example. Everything becomes worse when a rich oil man, who had been very stingy, dies and his daughters, the Trotters, use the inheritance to rival the Lamb girls. The town ends up dividing into rival factions, following either the Lambs or the Trotters, and all the old customs and traditions are lost in vain attempts to keep up with fashion.
“Stratford-on-Avon”: Crayon stays at an inn on Stratford-on-Avon on a poetical pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s hometown. He first goes to the house where Shakespeare was born and raised, which is filled with relics, the most famous of which is Shakespeare’s chair. Crayon knows it is not the original chair, but he allows himself to be fooled for the moment, as it costs him nothing.
Crayon goes to visit Shakespeare’s grave nearby. He finds the sexton of the church, who takes him home with him to get the key. They return to the church, inside of which is Shakespeare’s tomb, marked by four lines he is said to have written himself, and a bust of Shakespeare.
Crayon explains why Shakespeare ended up leaving Stratford for London. He and his friends, the story goes, were caught stealing deer from Sir Lucy, who imprisoned him. In retribution for this harsh treatment, Shakespeare wrote a cruel poem about him, which led Sir Lucy to retain a lawyer to try to punish Shakespeare. Not having the resources to fight back, Shakespeare ran away to London.
Intrigued by this history, Crayon goes to visit the scene of the crime, where the Lucy family still lives. Crayon walks all over the property and gets a tour of the house itself from the housekeeper. While touring, he imagines Shakespeare there in those halls, as well as the characters he based on it, and becomes lost in his imaginary world.
The stories in this section all deal quite strongly with the power of the imagination. In “London Antiques,” Crayon, in his continual search for the oldest things he can find in the city, ends up in a former monastery turned into a home for elderly men. His imagination is so strong that he convinces himself he is probably in a school of the black arts. He almost does not accept an invitation into one of the men’s rooms because he thinks the man is a wizard of some sort. Crayon uses his narrative skills well, not revealing the truth until he has engaged the reader’s own imagination about the strange place.
The reality turns out to be rather mundane. Whereas the Squire’s eccentricity and interest in old things made a lot of sense in the rural context, the old man’s eccentricity makes him a collector of curiosities that engages interest but is ultimately not integrated into any kind of social or cultural fabric. For the most part, the old man’s eccentricity is lived alone, while the Squire’s, perhaps due to his wealth and class, is integrated with what seems to be a healthy family life.
In “Stratford-on-Avon,” Crayon goes to visit the estate where Shakespeare was punished for poaching deer (about which he later based some dramatic scenes). Crayon’s imagination is so powerful here that not only does he imagine Shakespeare on the scene, but he also starts to believe that Shakespeare’s fictional characters actually roamed these halls. Also of note is Crayon’s deep respect, shown here once again, for great writers rather than great political figures.
This story is juxtaposed with “Little Britain.” It is not a very odd story, but Crayon prefaces it by saying that he did not believe it until he had asked other people to verify it. Thus Crayon’s powerful imagination is not just automatic, but it is a choice—when there is pleasure to be gained in believing something, even something unbelievable, he believes it. There is not much pleasure to be gained from a story in which the old traditions are shattered by fads and fashions. We see this choice also when Crayon visits Shakespeare’s house, where he chooses to believe his tour guide when she points out Shakespeare’s chair, although he happens to know the real chair was sold years before.
All of these stories also deal with the prevalent theme of the omnipresence of history in Europe. Crayon can visit Shakespeare’s tomb or stumble upon a graveyard for crusaders at any moment. In “Little Britain,” Crayon has even found a little pocket of England that was caught in the past, at least until recently. Although Crayon is not the narrator of this story, his narrator has a similar voice, and like Crayon, this narrator prefers the old-fashioned to the modern.
Indeed “Little Britain,” in showing this neighborhood’s descent into the modern, shows the tension between those who value the traditions of the past and want to maintain the status quo, and those who prefer to change with the times. The narrator here shows disgust with the “French fashions” that are being imported into Little Britain. Change for the sheer enjoyment of something different, or change because of changing conditions, might be justifiable, but change for the sake of a petty rivalry is perhaps the worst kind, and in this case all it does is factionalize the town and destroy its otherwise valuable traditions.