Transcribed from the 1899 Charles Scribner's Sons edition by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Worldly Ways & Byways
BY Eliot Gregory ("An Idler")
NEW YORK Charles Scribner's Sons MDCCCXCIX
Copyright, 1898, by Charles Scribner's Sons
To E. L. Godkin, Esqre.
I wish your name to appear on the first page of a volume, the composition of which was suggested by you.
Gratitude is said to be "the hope of favors to come;" these lines are written to prove that it may be the appreciation of kindnesses received.
Heartily yours Eliot Gregory
A Table of Contents
To the R E A D E R
2. The Moth and the Star
3. Contrasted Travelling
4. The Outer and the Inner Woman
5. On Some Gilded Misalliances
6. The Complacency of Mediocrity
7. The Discontent of Talent
9. Social Suggestion
11. Social Exiles
12. "Seven Ages" of Furniture
13. Our Elite and Public Life
14. The Small Summer Hotel
15. A False Start
16. A Holy Land
17. Royalty at Play
18. A Rock Ahead
19. The Grand Prix
20. "The Treadmill"
21. "Like Master Like Man"
22. An English Invasion of the Riviera
23. A Common Weakness
24. Changing Paris
26. The Climber
27. The Last of the Dandies
28. A Nation on the Wing
30. The Faubourg St. Germain
31. Men's Manners
32. An Ideal Hostess
33. The Introducer
34. A Question and an Answer
35. Living on Your Friends
36. American Society in Italy
37. The Newport of the Past
38. A Conquest of Europe
39. A Race of Slaves
To the Reader
There existed formerly, in diplomatic circles, a curious custom, since fallen into disuse, entitled the Pele Mele, contrived doubtless by some distracted Master of Ceremonies to quell the endless jealousies and quarrels for precedence between courtiers and diplomatists of contending pretensions. Under this rule no rank was recognized, each person being allowed at banquet, fete, or other public ceremony only such place as he had been ingenious or fortunate enough to obtain.
Any one wishing to form an idea of the confusion that ensued, of the intrigues and expedients resorted to, not only in procuring prominent places, but also in ensuring the integrity of the Pele Mele, should glance over the amusing memoirs of M. de Segur.
The aspiring nobles and ambassadors, harassed by this constant preoccupation, had little time or inclination left for any serious pursuit, since, to take a moment's repose or an hour's breathing space was to risk falling behind in the endless and aimless race. Strange as it may appear, the knowledge that they owed place and preferment more to chance or intrigue than to any personal merit or inherited right, instead of lessening the value of the prizes for which all were striving, seemed only to enhance them in the eyes of the competitors.
Success was the unique standard by which they gauged their fellows. Those who succeeded revelled in the adulation of their friends, but when any one failed, the fickle crowd passed him by to bow at more fortunate feet.
No better picture could be found of the "world" of to-day, a perpetual Pele Mele, where such advantages only are conceded as we have been sufficiently enterprising to obtain, and are strong or clever enough to keep—a constant competition, a daily steeplechase, favorable to daring spirits and personal initiative but with the defect of keeping frail humanity ever on the qui vive.
Philosophers tell us, that we should seek happiness only in the calm of our own minds, not allowing external conditions or the opinions of others to influence our ways. This lofty detachment from environment is achieved by very few. Indeed, the philosophers themselves (who may be said to have invented the art of "posing") were generally as vain as peacocks, profoundly pre-occupied with the verdict of their contemporaries and their position as regards posterity.
Man is born gregarious and remains all his life a herding animal. As one keen observer has written, "So great is man's horror of being alone that he will seek the society of those he neither likes nor respects sooner than be left to his own." The laws and conventions that govern men's intercourse have, therefore, formed a tempting subject for the writers of all ages. Some have labored hoping to reform their generation, others have written to offer solutions for life's many problems.
Beaumarchais, whose penetrating wit left few subjects untouched, makes his Figaro put the subject aside with "Je me presse de rire de tout, de peur d'etre oblige d'en pleurer."
The author of this little volume pretends to settle no disputes, aims at inaugurating no reforms. He has lightly touched on passing topics and jotted down, "to point a moral or adorn a tale," some of the more obvious foibles and inconsistencies of our American ways. If a stray bit of philosophy has here and there slipped in between the lines, it is mostly of the laughing "school," and used more in banter than in blame.
This much abused "world" is a fairly agreeable place if you do not take it seriously. Meet it with a friendly face and it will smile gayly back at you, but do not ask of it what it cannot give, or attribute to its verdicts more importance than they deserve.
Newport, November first, 1897
Women endowed by nature with the indescribable quality we call "charm" (for want of a better word), are the supreme development of a perfected race, the last word, as it were, of civilization; the flower of their kind, crowning centuries of growing refinement and cultivation. Other women may unite a thousand brilliant qualities, and attractive attributes, may be beautiful as Astarte or witty as Madame de Montespan, those endowed with the power of charm, have in all ages and under every sky, held undisputed rule over the hearts of their generation.
When we look at the portraits of the enchantresses whom history tells us have ruled the world by their charm, and swayed the destinies of empires at their fancy, we are astonished to find that they have rarely been beautiful. From Cleopatra or Mary of Scotland down to Lola Montez, the tell-tale coin or canvas reveals the same marvellous fact. We wonder how these women attained such influence over the men of their day, their husbands or lovers. We would do better to look around us, or inward, and observe what is passing in our own hearts.
Pause, reader mine, a moment and reflect. Who has held the first place in your thoughts, filled your soul, and influenced your life? Was she the most beautiful of your acquaintances, the radiant vision that dazzled your boyish eyes? Has she not rather been some gentle, quiet woman whom you hardly noticed the first time your paths crossed, but who gradually grew to be a part of your life—to whom you instinctively turned for consolation in moments of discouragement, for counsel in your difficulties, and whose welcome was the bright moment in your day, looked forward to through long hours of toil and worry?
In the hurly-burly of life we lose sight of so many things our fathers and mothers clung to, and have drifted so far away from their gentle customs and simple, home-loving habits, that one wonders what impression our society would make on a woman of a century ago, could she by some spell be dropped into the swing of modern days. The good soul would be apt to find it rather a far cry from the quiet pleasures of her youth, to "a ladies' amateur bicycle race" that formed the attraction recently at a summer resort.
That we should have come to think it natural and proper for a young wife and mother to pass her mornings at golf, lunching at the club-house to "save time," returning home only for a hurried change of toilet to start again on a bicycle or for a round of calls, an occupation that will leave her just the half-hour necessary to slip into a dinner gown, and then for her to pass the evening in dancing or at the card-table, shows, when one takes the time to think of it, how unconsciously we have changed, and (with all apologies to the gay hostesses and graceful athletes of to-day) not for the better.
It is just in the subtle quality of charm that the women of the last ten years have fallen away from their elder sisters. They have been carried along by a love of sport, and by the set of fashion's tide, not stopping to ask themselves whither they are floating. They do not realize all the importance of their acts nor the true meaning of their metamorphosis.
The dear creatures should be content, for they have at last escaped from the bondage of ages, have broken their chains, and vaulted over their prison walls. "Lords and masters" have gradually become very humble and obedient servants, and the "love, honour, and obey" of the marriage service might now more logically be spoken by the man; on the lips of the women of to-day it is but a graceful "facon de parler," and holds only those who choose to be bound.
It is not my intention to rail against the short-comings of the day. That ungrateful task I leave to sterner moralists, and hopeful souls who naively imagine they can stem the current of an epoch with the barrier of their eloquence, or sweep back an ocean of innovations by their logic. I should like, however, to ask my sisters one question: Are they quite sure that women gain by these changes? Do they imagine, these "sporty" young females in short-cut skirts and mannish shirts and ties, that it is seductive to a lover, or a husband to see his idol in a violent perspiration, her draggled hair blowing across a sunburned face, panting up a long hill in front of him on a bicycle, frantic at having lost her race? Shade of gentle William! who said
A woman moved, is like a fountain troubled,— Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty. And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Is the modern girl under the impression that men will be contented with poor imitations of themselves, to share their homes and be the mothers of their children? She is throwing away the substance for the shadow!
The moment women step out from the sanctuary of their homes, the glamour that girlhood or maternity has thrown around them cast aside, that moment will they cease to rule mankind. Women may agitate until they have obtained political recognition, but will awake from their foolish dream of power, realizing too late what they have sacrificed to obtain it, that the price has been very heavy, and the fruit of their struggles bitter on their lips.
There are few men, I imagine, of my generation to whom the words "home" and "mother" have not a penetrating charm, who do not look back with softened heart and tender thoughts to fireside scenes of evening readings and twilight talks at a mother's knee, realizing that the best in their natures owes its growth to these influences.
I sometimes look about me and wonder what the word "mother" will mean later, to modern little boys. It will evoke, I fear, a confused remembrance of some centaur-like being, half woman, half wheel, or as it did to neglected little Rawdon Crawley, the vision of a radiant creature in gauze and jewels, driving away to endless fetes—fetes followed by long mornings, when he was told not to make any noise, or play too loudly, "as poor mamma is resting." What other memories can the "successful" woman of to-day hope to leave in the minds of her children? If the child remembers his mother in this way, will not the man who has known and perhaps loved her, feel the same sensation of empty futility when her name is mentioned?
The woman who proposes a game of cards to a youth who comes to pass an hour in her society, can hardly expect him to carry away a particularly tender memory of her as he leaves the house. The girl who has rowed, ridden, or raced at a man's side for days, with the object of getting the better of him at some sport or pastime, cannot reasonably hope to be connected in his thoughts with ideas more tender or more elevated than "odds" or "handicaps," with an undercurrent of pique if his unsexed companion has "downed" him successfully.
What man, unless he be singularly dissolute or unfortunate, but turns his steps, when he can, towards some dainty parlor where he is sure of finding a smiling, soft-voiced woman, whose welcome he knows will soothe his irritated nerves and restore the even balance of his temper, whose charm will work its subtle way into his troubled spirit? The wife he loves, or the friend he admires and respects, will do more for him in one such quiet hour when two minds commune, coming closer to the real man, and moving him to braver efforts, and nobler aims, than all the beauties and "sporty" acquaintances of a lifetime. No matter what a man's education or taste is, none are insensible to such an atmosphere or to the grace and witchery a woman can lend to the simplest surroundings. She need not be beautiful or brilliant to hold him in lifelong allegiance, if she but possess this magnetism.
Madame Recamier was a beautiful, but not a brilliant woman, yet she held men her slaves for years. To know her was to fall under her charm, and to feel it once was to remain her adorer for life. She will go down to history as the type of a fascinating woman. Being asked once by an acquaintance what spell she worked on mankind that enabled her to hold them for ever at her feet, she laughingly answered:
"I have always found two words sufficient. When a visitor comes into my salon, I say, 'Enfin!' and when he gets up to go away, I say, 'Deja!'"
"What is this wonderful 'charm' he is writing about?" I hear some sprightly maiden inquire as she reads these lines. My dear young lady, if you ask the question, you have judged yourself and been found wanting. But to satisfy you as far as I can, I will try and define it—not by telling you what it is; that is beyond my power—but by negatives, the only way in which subtle subjects can be approached.
A woman of charm is never flustered and never distraite. She talks little, and rarely of herself, remembering that bores are persons who insist on talking about themselves. She does not break the thread of a conversation by irrelevant questions or confabulate in an undertone with the servants. No one of her guests receives more of her attention than another and none are neglected. She offers to each one who speaks the homage of her entire attention. She never makes an effort to be brilliant or entertain with her wit. She is far too clever for that. Neither does she volunteer information nor converse about her troubles or her ailments, nor wander off into details about people you do not know.
She is all things—to each man she likes, in the best sense of that phrase, appreciating his qualities, stimulating him to better things.
—for his gayer hours She has a voice of gladness and a smile and eloquence of beauty; and she glides Into his darker musings with a mild and healing sympathy that steals away Their sharpness ere he is aware.
No. 2—The Moth and the Star
The truth of the saying that "it is always the unexpected that happens," receives in this country a confirmation from an unlooked-for quarter, as does the fact of human nature being always, discouragingly, the same in spite of varied surroundings. This sounds like a paradox, but is an exceedingly simple statement easily proved.
That the great mass of Americans, drawn as they are from such varied sources, should take any interest in the comings and goings or social doings of a small set of wealthy and fashionable people, is certainly an unexpected development. That to read of the amusements and home life of a clique of people with whom they have little in common, whose whole education and point of view are different from their own, and whom they have rarely seen and never expect to meet, should afford the average citizen any amusement seems little short of impossible.
One accepts as a natural sequence that abroad (where an hereditary nobility have ruled for centuries, and accustomed the people to look up to them as the visible embodiment of all that is splendid and unattainable in life) such interest should exist. That the home-coming of an English or French nobleman to his estates should excite the enthusiasm of hundreds more or less dependent upon him for their amusement or more material advantages; that his marriage to an heiress—meaning to them the re-opening of a long-closed chateau and the beginning of a period of prosperity for the district—should excite his neighbors is not to be wondered at.
It is well known that whole regions have been made prosperous by the residence of a court, witness the wealth and trade brought into Scotland by the Queen's preference for "the Land of Cakes," and the discontent and poverty in Ireland from absenteeism and persistent avoidance of that country by the court. But in this land, where every reason for interesting one class in another seems lacking, that thousands of well-to- do people (half the time not born in this hemisphere), should delightedly devour columns of incorrect information about New York dances and Lenox house-parties, winter cruises, or Newport coaching parades, strikes the observer as the "unexpected" in its purest form.
That this interest exists is absolutely certain. During a trip in the West, some seasons ago, I was dumbfounded to find that the members of a certain New York set were familiarly spoken of by their first names, and was assailed with all sorts of eager questions when it was discovered that I knew them. A certain young lady, at that time a belle in New York, was currently called Sally, and a well-known sportsman Fred, by thousands of people who had never seen either of them. It seems impossible, does it not? Let us look a little closer into the reason of this interest, and we shall find how simple is the apparent paradox.
Perhaps in no country, in all the world, do the immense middle classes lead such uninteresting lives, and have such limited resources at their disposal for amusement or the passing of leisure hours.
Abroad the military bands play constantly in the public parks; the museums and palaces are always open wherein to pass rainy Sunday afternoons; every village has its religious fetes and local fair, attended with dancing and games. All these mental relaxations are lacking in our newer civilization; life is stripped of everything that is not distinctly practical; the dull round of weekly toil is only broken by the duller idleness of an American Sunday. Naturally, these people long for something outside of themselves and their narrow sphere.
Suddenly there arises a class whose wealth permits them to break through the iron circle of work and boredom, who do picturesque and delightful things, which appeal directly to the imagination; they build a summer residence complete, in six weeks, with furniture and bric-a-brac, on the top of a roadless mountain; they sail in fairylike yachts to summer seas, and marry their daughters to the heirs of ducal houses; they float up the Nile in dahabeeyah, or pass the "month of flowers" in far Japan.
It is but human nature to delight in reading of these things. Here the great mass of the people find (and eagerly seize on), the element of romance lacking in their lives, infinitely more enthralling than the doings of any novel's heroine. It is real! It is taking place! and—still deeper reason—in every ambitious American heart lingers the secret hope that with luck and good management they too may do those very things, or at least that their children will enjoy the fortunes they have gained, in just those ways. The gloom of the monotonous present is brightened, the patient toiler returns to his desk with something definite before him—an objective point—towards which he can struggle; he knows that this is no impossible dream. Dozens have succeeded and prove to him what energy and enterprise can accomplish.
Do not laugh at this suggestion; it is far truer than you imagine. Many a weary woman has turned from such reading to her narrow duties, feeling that life is not all work, and with renewed hope in the possibilities of the future.
Doubtless a certain amount of purely idle curiosity is mingled with the other feelings. I remember quite well showing our city sights to a bored party of Western friends, and failing entirely to amuse them, when, happening to mention as we drove up town, "there goes Mr. Blank," (naming a prominent leader of cotillions), my guests nearly fell over each other and out of the carriage in their eagerness to see the gentleman of whom they had read so much, and who was, in those days, a power in his way, and several times after they expressed the greatest satisfaction at having seen him.
I have found, with rare exceptions, and the experience has been rather widely gathered all over the country, that this interest—or call it what you will—has been entirely without spite or bitterness, rather the delight of a child in a fairy story. For people are rarely envious of things far removed from their grasp. You will find that a woman who is bitter because her neighbor has a girl "help" or a more comfortable cottage, rarely feels envy towards the owners of opera-boxes or yachts. Such heart-burnings (let us hope they are few) are among a class born in the shadow of great wealth, and bred up with tastes that they can neither relinquish nor satisfy. The large majority of people show only a good- natured inclination to chaff, none of the "class feeling" which certain papers and certain politicians try to excite. Outside of the large cities with their foreign-bred, semi-anarchistic populations, the tone is perfectly friendly; for the simple reason that it never entered into the head of any American to imagine that there was any class difference. To him his rich neighbors are simply his lucky neighbors, almost his relations, who, starting from a common stock, have been able to "get there" sooner than he has done. So he wishes them luck on the voyage in which he expects to join them as soon as he has had time to make a fortune.
So long as the world exists, or at least until we have reformed it and adopted Mr. Bellamy's delightful scheme of existence as described in "Looking Backward," great fortunes will be made, and painful contrasts be seen, especially in cities, and it would seem to be the duty of the press to soften—certainly not to sharpen—the edge of discontent. As long as human nature is human nature, and the poor care to read of the doings of the more fortunate, by all means give them the reading they enjoy and demand, but let it be written in a kindly spirit so that it may be a cultivation as well as a recreation. Treat this perfectly natural and honest taste honestly and naturally, for, after all, it is
The desire of the moth for the star, Of the night for the morrow. The devotion to something afar From the sphere of our sorrow.
No. 3—Contrasted Travelling
When our parents went to Europe fifty years ago, it was the event of a lifetime—a tour lovingly mapped out in advance with advice from travelled friends. Passports were procured, books read, wills made, and finally, prayers were offered up in church and solemn leave-taking performed. Once on the other side, descriptive letters were conscientiously written, and eagerly read by friends at home,—in spite of these epistles being on the thinnest of paper and with crossing carried to a fine art, for postage was high in the forties. Above all, a journal was kept.
Such a journal lies before me as I write. Four little volumes in worn morocco covers and faded "Italian" writing, more precious than all my other books combined, their sight recalls that lost time—my youth—when, as a reward, they were unlocked that I might look at the drawings, and the sweetest voice in the world would read to me from them! Happy, vanished days, that are so far away they seem to have been in another existence!
The first volume opens with the voyage across the Atlantic, made in an American clipper (a model unsurpassed the world over), which was accomplished in thirteen days, a feat rarely equalled now, by sail. Genial Captain Nye was in command. The same who later, when a steam propelled vessel was offered him, refused, as unworthy of a seaman, "to boil a kettle across the ocean."
Life friendships were made in those little cabins, under the swinging lamp the travellers re-read last volumes so as to be prepared to appreciate everything on landing. Ireland, England and Scotland were visited with an enthusiasm born of Scott, the tedium of long coaching journeys being beguiled by the first "numbers" of "Pickwick," over which the men of the party roared, but which the ladies did not care for, thinking it vulgar, and not to be compared to "Waverley," "Thaddeus of Warsaw," or "The Mysteries of Udolpho."
A circular letter to our diplomatic agents abroad was presented in each city, a rite invariably followed by an invitation to dine, for which occasions a black satin frock with a low body and a few simple ornaments, including (supreme elegance) a diamond cross, were carried in the trunks. In London a travelling carriage was bought and stocked, the indispensable courier engaged, half guide, half servant, who was expected to explore a city, or wait at table, as occasion required. Four days were passed between Havre and Paris, and the slow progress across Europe was accomplished, Murray in one hand and Byron in the other.
One page used particularly to attract my boyish attention. It was headed by a naive little drawing of the carriage at an Italian inn door, and described how, after the dangers and discomforts of an Alpine pass, they descended by sunny slopes into Lombardy. Oh! the rapture that breathes from those simple pages! The vintage scenes, the mid-day halt for luncheon eaten in the open air, the afternoon start, the front seat of the carriage heaped with purple grapes, used to fire my youthful imagination and now recalls Madame de Stael's line on perfect happiness: "To be young! to be in love! to be in Italy!"
Do people enjoy Europe as much now? I doubt it! It has become too much a matter of course, a necessary part of the routine of life. Much of the bloom is brushed from foreign scenes by descriptive books and photographs, that St. Mark's or Mt. Blanc has become as familiar to a child's eye as the house he lives in, and in consequence the reality now instead of being a revelation is often a disappointment.
In my youth, it was still an event to cross. I remember my first voyage on the old side-wheeled Scotia, and Captain Judkins in a wheeled chair, and a perpetual bad temper, being pushed about the deck; and our delight, when the inevitable female asking him (three days out) how far we were from land, got the answer "about a mile!"
"Indeed! How interesting! In which direction?"
"In that direction, madam," shouted the captain, pointing downward as he turned his back to her.
If I remember, we were then thirteen days getting to Liverpool, and made the acquaintance on board of the people with whom we travelled during most of that winter. Imagine anyone now making an acquaintance on board a steamer! In those simple days people depended on the friendships made at summer hotels or boarding-houses for their visiting list. At present, when a girl comes out, her mother presents her to everybody she will be likely to know if she were to live a century. In the seventies, ladies cheerfully shared their state-rooms with women they did not know, and often became friends in consequence; but now, unless a certain deck-suite can be secured, with bath and sitting-room, on one or two particular "steamers," the great lady is in despair. Yet our mothers were quite as refined as the present generation, only they took life simply, as they found it.
Children are now taken abroad so young, that before they have reached an age to appreciate what they see, Europe has become to them a twice-told tale. So true is this, that a receipt for making children good Americans is to bring them up abroad. Once they get back here it is hard to entice them away again.
With each improvement in the speed of our steamers, something of the glamour of Europe vanishes. The crowds that yearly rush across see and appreciate less in a lifetime than our parents did in their one tour abroad. A good lady of my acquaintance was complaining recently how much Paris bored her.
"What can you do to pass the time?" she asked. I innocently answered that I knew nothing so entrancing as long mornings passed at the Louvre.
"Oh, yes, I do that too," she replied, "but I like the 'Bon Marche' best!"
A trip abroad has become a purely social function to a large number of wealthy Americans, including "presentation" in London and a winter in Rome or Cairo. And just as a "smart" Englishman is sure to tell you that he has never visited the "Tower," it has become good form to ignore the sight-seeing side of Europe; hundreds of New Yorkers never seeing anything of Paris beyond the Rue de la Paix and the Bois. They would as soon think of going to Cluny or St. Denis as of visiting the museum in our park!
Such people go to Fontainebleau because they are buying furniture, and they wish to see the best models. They go to Versailles on the coach and "do" the Palace during the half-hour before luncheon. Beyond that, enthusiasm rarely carries them. As soon as they have settled themselves at the Bristol or the Rhin begins the endless treadmill of leaving cards on all the people just seen at home, and whom they will meet again in a couple of months at Newport or Bar Harbor. This duty and the all-entrancing occupation of getting clothes fills up every spare hour. Indeed, clothes seem to pervade the air of Paris in May, the conversation rarely deviating from them. If you meet a lady you know looking ill, and ask the cause, it generally turns out to be "four hours a day standing to be fitted." Incredible as it may seem, I have been told of one plain maiden lady, who makes a trip across, spring and autumn, with the sole object of getting her two yearly outfits.
Remembering the hundreds of cultivated people whose dream in life (often unrealized from lack of means) has been to go abroad and visit the scenes their reading has made familiar, and knowing what such a trip would mean to them, and how it would be looked back upon during the rest of an obscure life, I felt it almost a duty to "suppress" a wealthy female (doubtless an American cousin of Lady Midas) when she informed me, the other day, that decidedly she would not go abroad this spring.
"It is not necessary. Worth has my measures!"
No. 4—The Outer and the Inner Woman
It is a sad commentary on our boasted civilization that cases of shoplifting occur more and more frequently each year, in which the delinquents are women of education and refinement, or at least belong to families and occupy positions in which one would expect to find those qualities! The reason, however, is not difficult to discover.
In the wake of our hasty and immature prosperity has come (as it does to all suddenly enriched societies) a love of ostentation, a desire to dazzle the crowd by displays of luxury and rich trappings indicative of crude and vulgar standards. The newly acquired money, instead of being expended for solid comforts or articles which would afford lasting satisfaction, is lavished on what can be worn in public, or the outer shell of display, while the home table and fireside belongings are neglected. A glance around our theatres, or at the men and women in our crowded thoroughfares, is sufficient to reveal to even a casual observer that the mania for fine clothes and what is costly, per se, has become the besetting sin of our day and our land.
The tone of most of the papers and of our theatrical advertisements reflects this feeling. The amount of money expended for a work of art or a new building is mentioned before any comment as to its beauty or fitness. A play is spoken of as "Manager So and So's thirty-thousand- dollar production!" The fact that a favorite actress will appear in four different dresses during the three acts of a comedy, each toilet being a special creation designed for her by a leading Parisian house, is considered of supreme importance and is dwelt upon in the programme as a special attraction.
It would be astonishing if the taste of our women were different, considering the way clothes are eternally being dangled before their eyes. Leading papers publish illustrated supplements devoted exclusively to the subject of attire, thus carrying temptation into every humble home, and suggesting unattainable luxuries. Windows in many of the larger shops contain life-sized manikins loaded with the latest costly and ephemeral caprices of fashion arranged to catch the eye of the poorer class of women, who stand in hundreds gazing at the display like larks attracted by a mirror! Watch those women as they turn away, and listen to their sighs of discontent and envy. Do they not tell volumes about petty hopes and ambitions?
I do not refer to the wealthy women whose toilets are in keeping with their incomes and the general footing of their households; that they should spend more or less in fitting themselves out daintily is of little importance. The point where this subject becomes painful is in families of small means where young girls imagine that to be elaborately dressed is the first essential of existence, and, in consequence, bend their labors and their intelligence towards this end. Last spring I asked an old friend where she and her daughters intended passing their summer. Her answer struck me as being characteristic enough to quote: "We should much prefer," she said, "returning to Bar Harbor, for we all enjoy that place and have many friends there. But the truth is, my daughters have bought themselves very little in the way of toilet this year, as our finances are not in a flourishing condition. So my poor girls will be obliged to make their last year's dresses do for another season. Under these circumstances, it is out of the question for us to return a second summer to the same place."
I do not know how this anecdote strikes my readers. It made me thoughtful and sad to think that, in a family of intelligent and practical women, such a reason should be considered sufficient to outweigh enjoyment, social relations, even health, and allowed to change the plans of an entire family.
As American women are so fond of copying English ways they should be willing to take a few lessons on the subject of raiment from across the water. As this is not intended to be a dissertation on "How to Dress Well on Nothing a Year," and as I feel the greatest diffidence in approaching a subject of which I know absolutely nothing, it will be better to sheer off from these reefs and quicksands. Every one who reads these lines will know perfectly well what is meant, when reference is made to the good sense and practical utility of English women's dress.
What disgusts and angers me (when my way takes me into our surface or elevated cars or into ferry boats and local trains) is the utter dissonance between the outfit of most of the women I meet and their position and occupation. So universal is this, that it might almost be laid down as an axiom, that the American woman, no matter in what walk of life you observe her, or what the time or the place, is always persistently and grotesquely overdressed. From the women who frequent the hotels of our summer or winter resorts, down all the steps of the social staircase to the char-woman, who consents (spasmodically) to remove the dust and waste-papers from my office, there seems to be the same complete disregard of fitness. The other evening, in leaving my rooms, I brushed against a portly person in the half-light of the corridor. There was a shimmer of (what appeared to my inexperienced eyes as) costly stuffs, a huge hat crowned the shadow itself, "topped by nodding plumes," which seemed to account for the depleted condition of my feather duster.
I found on inquiring of the janitor, that the dressy person I had met, was the char-woman in street attire, and that a closet was set aside in the building, for the special purpose of her morning and evening transformations, which she underwent in the belief that her social position in Avenue A would suffer, should she appear in the streets wearing anything less costly than seal-skin and velvet or such imitations of those expensive materials as her stipend would permit.
I have as tenants of a small wooden house in Jersey City, a bank clerk, his wife and their three daughters. He earns in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred dollars a year. Their rent (with which, by the way, they are always in arrears) is three hundred dollars. I am favored spring and autumn by a visit from the ladies of that family, in the hope (generally futile) of inducing me to do some ornamental papering or painting in their residence, subjects on which they have by experience found my agent to be unapproachable. When those four women descend upon me, I am fairly dazzled by the splendor of their attire, and lost in wonder as to how the price of all that finery can have been squeezed out of the twelve remaining hundreds of their income. When I meet the father he is shabby to the outer limits of the genteel. His hat has, I am sure, supported the suns and snowstorms of a dozen seasons. There is a threadbare shine on his apparel that suggests a heartache in each whitened seam, but the ladies are mirrors of fashion, as well as moulds of form. What can remain for any creature comforts after all those fine clothes have been paid for? And how much is put away for the years when the long-suffering money maker will be past work, or saved towards the time when sickness or accident shall appear on the horizon? How those ladies had the "nerve" to enter a ferry boat or crowd into a cable car, dressed as they were, has always been a marvel to me. A landau and two liveried servants would barely have been in keeping with their appearance.
Not long ago, a great English nobleman, who is also famous in the yachting world, visited this country accompanied by his two daughters, high-bred and genial ladies. No self-respecting American shop girl or fashionable typewriter would have condescended to appear in the inexpensive attire which those English women wore. Wherever one met them, at dinner, fete, or ball, they were always the most simply dressed women in the room. I wonder if it ever occurred to any of their gorgeously attired hostesses, that it was because their transatlantic guests were so sure of their position, that they contented themselves with such simple toilets knowing that nothing they might wear could either improve or alter their standing.
In former ages, sumptuary laws were enacted by parental governments, in the hope of suppressing extravagance in dress, the state of affairs we deplore now, not being a new development of human weakness, but as old as wealth.
The desire to shine by the splendor of one's trappings is the first idea of the parvenu, especially here in this country, where the ambitious are denied the pleasure of acquiring a title, and where official rank carries with it so little social weight. Few more striking ways present themselves to the crude and half-educated for the expenditure of a new fortune than the purchase of sumptuous apparel, the satisfaction being immediate and material. The wearer of a complete and perfect toilet must experience a delight of which the uninitiated know nothing, for such cruel sacrifices are made and so many privations endured to procure this satisfaction. When I see groups of women, clad in the latest designs of purple and fine linen, stand shivering on street corners of a winter night, until they can crowd into a car, I doubt if the joy they get from their clothes, compensates them for the creature comforts they are forced to forego, and I wonder if it never occurs to them to spend less on their wardrobes and so feel they can afford to return from a theatre or concert comfortably, in a cab, as a foreign woman, with their income would do.
There is a stoical determination about the American point of view that compels a certain amount of respect. Our countrywomen will deny themselves pleasures, will economize on their food and will remain in town during the summer, but when walking abroad they must be clad in the best, so that no one may know by their appearance if the income be counted by hundreds or thousands.
While these standards prevail and the female mind is fixed on this subject with such dire intent, it is not astonishing that a weaker sister is occasionally tempted beyond her powers of resistance. Nor that each day a new case of a well-dressed woman thieving in a shop reaches our ears. The poor feeble-minded creature is not to blame. She is but the reflexion of the minds around her and is probably like the lady Emerson tells of, who confessed to him "that the sense of being perfectly well- dressed had given her a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion was powerless to bestow."
No. 5—On Some Gilded Misalliances
A dear old American lady, who lived the greater part of her life in Rome, and received every body worth knowing in her spacious drawing-rooms, far up in the dim vastnesses of a Roman palace, used to say that she had only known one really happy marriage made by an American girl abroad.
In those days, being young and innocent, I considered that remark cynical, and in my heart thought nothing could be more romantic and charming than for a fair compatriot to assume an historic title and retire to her husband's estates, and rule smilingly over him and a devoted tenantry, as in the last act of a comic opera, when a rose-colored light is burning and the orchestra plays the last brilliant chords of a wedding march.
There seemed to my perverted sense a certain poetic justice about the fact that money, gained honestly but prosaically, in groceries or gas, should go to regild an ancient blazon or prop up the crumbling walls of some stately palace abroad.
Many thoughtful years and many cruel realities have taught me that my gracious hostess of the "seventies" was right, and that marriage under these conditions is apt to be much more like the comic opera after the curtain has been rung down, when the lights are out, the applauding public gone home, and the weary actors brought slowly back to the present and the positive, are wondering how they are to pay their rent or dodge the warrant in ambush around the corner.
International marriages usually come about from a deficient knowledge of the world. The father becomes rich, the family travel abroad, some mutual friend (often from purely interested motives) produces a suitor for the hand of the daughter, in the shape of a "prince" with a title that makes the whole simple American family quiver with delight.
After a few visits the suitor declares himself; the girl is flattered, the father loses his head, seeing visions of his loved daughter hob-nobbing with royalty, and (intoxicating thought!) snubbing the "swells" at home who had shown reluctance to recognize him and his family.
It is next to impossible for him to get any reliable information about his future son-in-law in a country where, as an American, he has few social relations, belongs to no club, and whose idiom is a sealed book to him. Every circumstance conspires to keep the flaws on the article for sale out of sight and place the suitor in an advantageous light. Several weeks' "courting" follows, paterfamilias agrees to part with a handsome share of his earnings, and a marriage is "arranged."
In the case where the girl has retained some of her self-respect the suitor is made to come to her country for the ceremony. And, that the contrast between European ways and our simple habits may not be too striking, an establishment is hastily got together, with hired liveries and new-bought carriages, as in a recent case in this state. The sensational papers write up this "international union," and publish "faked" portraits of the bride and her noble spouse. The sovereign of the groom's country (enchanted that some more American money is to be imported into his land) sends an economical present and an autograph letter. The act ends. Limelight and slow music!
In a few years rumors of dissent and trouble float vaguely back to the girl's family. Finally, either a great scandal occurs, and there is one dishonored home the more in the world, or an expatriated woman, thousands of miles from the friends and relatives who might be of some comfort to her, makes up her mind to accept "anything" for the sake of her children, and attempts to build up some sort of an existence out of the remains of her lost illusions, and the father wakes up from his dream to realize that his wealth has only served to ruin what he loved best in all the world.
Sometimes the conditions are delightfully comic, as in a well-known case, where the daughter, who married into an indolent, happy-go-lucky Italian family, had inherited her father's business push and energy along with his fortune, and immediately set about "running" her husband's estate as she had seen her father do his bank. She tried to revive a half-forgotten industry in the district, scraped and whitewashed their picturesque old villa, proposed her husband's entering business, and in short dashed head down against all his inherited traditions and national prejudices, until her new family loathed the sight of the brisk American face, and the poor she had tried to help, sulked in their newly drained houses and refused to be comforted. Her ways were not Italian ways, and she seemed to the nun-like Italian ladies, almost unsexed, as she tramped about the fields, talking artificial manure and subsoil drainage with the men. Yet neither she nor her husband was to blame. The young Italian had but followed the teachings of his family, which decreed that the only honorable way for an aristocrat to acquire wealth was to marry it. The American wife honestly tried to do her duty in this new position, naively thinking she could engraft transatlantic "go" upon the indolent Italian character. Her work was in vain; she made herself and her husband so unpopular that they are now living in this country, regretting too late the error of their ways.
Another case but little less laughable, is that of a Boston girl with a neat little fortune of her own, who, when married to the young Viennese of her choice, found that he expected her to live with his family on the third floor of their "palace" (the two lower floors being rented to foreigners), and as there was hardly enough money for a box at the opera, she was not expected to go, whereas his position made it necessary for him to have a stall and appear there nightly among the men of his rank, the astonished and disillusioned Bostonian remaining at home en tete-a- tete with the women of his family, who seemed to think this the most natural arrangement in the world.
It certainly is astonishing that we, the most patriotic of nations, with such high opinion of ourselves and our institutions, should be so ready to hand over our daughters and our ducats to the first foreigner who asks for them, often requiring less information about him than we should consider necessary before buying a horse or a dog.
Women of no other nation have this mania for espousing aliens. Nowhere else would a girl with a large fortune dream of marrying out of her country. Her highest ideal of a husband would be a man of her own kin. It is the rarest thing in the world to find a well-born French, Spanish, or Italian woman married to a foreigner and living away from her country. How can a woman expect to be happy separated from all the ties and traditions of her youth? If she is taken abroad young, she may still hope to replace her friends as is often done. But the real reason of unhappiness (greater and deeper than this) lies in the fundamental difference of the whole social structure between our country and that of her adoption, and the radically different way of looking at every side of life.
Surely a girl must feel that a man who allows a marriage to be arranged for him (and only signs the contact because its pecuniary clauses are to his satisfaction, and who would withdraw in a moment if these were suppressed), must have an entirely different point of view from her own on all the vital issues of life.
Foreigners undoubtedly make excellent husbands for their own women. But they are, except in rare cases, unsatisfactory helpmeets for American girls. It is impossible to touch on more than a side or two of this subject. But as an illustration the following contrasted stories may be cited:
Two sisters of an aristocratic American family, each with an income of over forty thousand dollars a year, recently married French noblemen. They naturally expected to continue abroad the life they had led at home, in which opera boxes, saddle horses, and constant entertaining were matters of course. In both cases, our compatriots discovered that their husbands (neither of them penniless) had entirely different views. In the first place, they were told that it was considered "bad form" in France for young married women to entertain; besides, the money was needed for improvements, and in many other ways, and as every well-to-do French family puts aside at least a third of its income as dots for the children (boys as well as girls), these brides found themselves cramped for money for the first time in their lives, and obliged, during their one month a year in Paris, to put up with hired traps, and depend on their friends for evenings at the opera.
This story is a telling set-off to the case of an American wife, who one day received a windfall in the form of a check for a tidy amount. She immediately proposed a trip abroad to her husband, but found that he preferred to remain at home in the society of his horses and dogs. So our fair compatriot starts off (with his full consent), has her outing, spends her little "pile," and returns after three or four months to the home of her delighted spouse.
Do these two stories need any comment? Let our sisters and their friends think twice before they make themselves irrevocably wheels in a machine whose working is unknown to them, lest they be torn to pieces as it moves. Having the good luck to be born in the "paradise of women," let them beware how they leave it, charm the serpent never so wisely, for they may find themselves, like the Peri, outside the gate.
No. 6—The Complacency of Mediocrity
Full as small intellects are of queer kinks, unexplained turnings and groundless likes and dislikes, the bland contentment that buoys up the incompetent is the most difficult of all vagaries to account for. Rarely do twenty-four hours pass without examples of this exasperating weakness appearing on the surface of those shallows that commonplace people so naively call "their minds."
What one would expect is extreme modesty, in the half-educated or the ignorant, and self-approbation higher up in the scale, where it might more reasonably dwell. Experience, however, teaches that exactly the opposite is the case among those who have achieved success.
The accidents of a life turned by chance out of the beaten tracks, have thrown me at times into acquaintanceship with some of the greater lights of the last thirty years. And not only have they been, as a rule, most unassuming men and women; but in the majority of cases positively self- depreciatory; doubting of themselves and their talents, constantly aiming at greater perfection in their art or a higher development of their powers, never contented with what they have achieved, beyond the idea that it has been another step toward their goal. Knowing this, it is always a shock on meeting the mediocre people who form such a discouraging majority in any society, to discover that they are all so pleased with themselves, their achievements, their place in the world, and their own ability and discernment!
Who has not sat chafing in silence while Mediocrity, in a white waistcoat and jangling fobs, occupied the after-dinner hour in imparting second- hand information as his personal views on literature and art? Can you not hear him saying once again: "I don't pretend to know anything about art and all that sort of thing, you know, but when I go to an exhibition I can always pick out the best pictures at a glance. Sort of a way I have, and I never make mistakes, you know."
Then go and watch, as I have, Henri Rochefort as he laboriously forms the opinions that are to appear later in one of his "Salons," realizing the while that he is facile princeps among the art critics of his day, that with a line he can make or mar a reputation and by a word draw the admiring crowd around an unknown canvas. While Rochefort toils and ponders and hesitates, do you suppose a doubt as to his own astuteness ever dims the self-complacency of White Waistcoat? Never!
There lies the strength of the feeble-minded. By a special dispensation of Providence, they can never see but one side of a subject, so are always convinced that they are right, and from the height of their contentment, look down on those who chance to differ with them.
A lady who has gathered into her dainty salons the fruit of many years' careful study and tireless "weeding" will ask anxiously if you are quite sure you like the effect of her latest acquisition—some eighteenth-century statuette or screen (flotsam, probably, from the great shipwreck of Versailles), and listen earnestly to your verdict. The good soul who has just furnished her house by contract, with the latest "Louis Fourteenth Street" productions, conducts you complacently through her chambers of horrors, wreathed in tranquil smiles, born of ignorance and that smug assurance granted only to the—small.
When a small intellect goes in for cultivating itself and improving its mind, you realize what the poet meant in asserting that a little learning was a dangerous thing. For Mediocrity is apt, when it dines out, to get up a subject beforehand, and announce to an astonished circle, as quite new and personal discoveries, that the Renaissance was introduced into France from Italy, or that Columbus in his day made important "finds."
When the incompetent advance another step and write or paint—which, alas! is only too frequent—the world of art and literature is flooded with their productions. When White Waistcoat, for example, takes to painting, late in life, and comes to you, canvas in hand, for criticism (read praise), he is apt to remark modestly:
"Corot never painted until he was fifty, and I am only forty-eight. So I feel I should not let myself be discouraged."
The problem of life is said to be the finding of a happiness that is not enjoyed at the expense of others, and surely this class have solved that Sphinx's riddle, for they float through their days in a dream of complacency disturbed neither by corroding doubt nor harassed by jealousies.
Whole families of feeble-minded people, on the strength of an ancestor who achieved distinction a hundred years ago, live in constant thanksgiving that they "are not as other men." None of the great man's descendants have done anything to be particularly proud of since their remote progenitor signed the Declaration of Independence or governed a colony. They have vegetated in small provincial cities and inter-married into other equally fortunate families, but the sense of superiority is ever present to sustain them, under straitened circumstances and diminishing prestige. The world may move on around them, but they never advance. Why should they? They have reached perfection. The brains and enterprise that have revolutionized our age knock in vain at their doors. They belong to that vast "majority that is always in the wrong," being so pleased with themselves, their ways, and their feeble little lines of thought, that any change or advancement gives their system a shock.
A painter I know was once importuned for a sketch by a lady of this class. After many delays and renewed demands he presented her one day, when she and some friends were visiting his studio, with a delightful open-air study simply framed. She seemed confused at the offering, to his astonishment, as she had not lacked aplomb in asking for the sketch. After much blushing and fumbling she succeeded in getting the painting loose, and handing back the frame, remarked:
"I will take the painting, but you must keep the frame. My husband would never allow me to accept anything of value from you!"—and smiled on the speechless painter, doubtless charmed with her own tact.
Complacent people are the same drag on a society that a brake would be to a coach going up hill. They are the "eternal negative" and would extinguish, if they could, any light stronger than that to which their weak eyes have been accustomed. They look with astonishment and distrust at any one trying to break away from their tiresome old ways and habits, and wonder why all the world is not as pleased with their personalities as they are themselves, suggesting, if you are willing to waste your time listening to their twaddle, that there is something radically wrong in any innovation, that both "Church and State" will be imperilled if things are altered. No blight, no mildew is more fatal to a plant than the "complacent" are to the world. They resent any progress and are offended if you mention before them any new standards or points of view. "What has been good enough for us and our parents should certainly be satisfactory to the younger generations." It seems to the contented like pure presumption on the part of their acquaintances to wander after strange gods, in the shape of new ideals, higher standards of culture, or a perfected refinement of surroundings.
We are perhaps wrong to pity complacent people. It is for another class our sympathy should be kept; for those who cannot refrain from doubting of themselves and the value of their work—those unfortunate gifted and artistic spirits who descend too often the via dolorosa of discontent and despair, who have a higher ideal than their neighbors, and, in struggling after an unattainable perfection, fall by the wayside.
No. 7—The Discontent of Talent
The complacency that buoys up self-sufficient souls, soothing them with the illusion that they themselves, their towns, country, language, and habits are above improvement, causing them to shudder, as at a sacrilege, if any changes are suggested, is fortunately limited to a class of stay- at-home nonentities. In proportion as it is common among them, is it rare or delightfully absent in any society of gifted or imaginative people.
Among our globe-trotting compatriots this defect is much less general than in the older nations of the world, for the excellent reason, that the moment a man travels or takes the trouble to know people of different nationalities, his armor of complacency receives so severe a blow, that it is shattered forever, the wanderer returning home wiser and much more modest. There seems to be something fatal to conceit in the air of great centres; professionally or in general society a man so soon finds his level.
The "great world" may foster other faults; human nature is sure to develop some in every walk of life. Smug contentment, however, disappears in its rarefied atmosphere, giving place to a craving for improvement, a nervous alertness that keeps the mind from stagnating and urges it on to do its best.
It is never the beautiful woman who sits down in smiling serenity before her mirror. She is tireless in her efforts to enhance her beauty and set it off to the best advantage. Her figure is never slender enough, nor her carriage sufficiently erect to satisfy. But the "frump" will let herself and all her surroundings go to seed, not from humbleness of mind or an overwhelming sense of her own unworthiness, but in pure complacent conceit.
A criticism to which the highly gifted lay themselves open from those who do not understand them, is their love of praise, the critics failing to grasp the fact that this passion for measuring one's self with others, like the gad-fly pursuing poor Io, never allows a moment's repose in the green pastures of success, but goads them constantly up the rocky sides of endeavor. It is not that they love flattery, but that they need approbation as a counterpoise to the dark moments of self-abasement and as a sustaining aid for higher flights.
Many years ago I was present at a final sitting which my master, Carolus Duran, gave to one of my fair compatriots. He knew that the lady was leaving Paris on the morrow, and that in an hour, her husband and his friends were coming to see and criticise the portrait—always a terrible ordeal for an artist.
To any one familiar with this painter's moods, it was evident that the result of the sitting was not entirely satisfactory. The quick breathing, the impatient tapping movement of the foot, the swift backward springs to obtain a better view, so characteristic of him in moments of doubt, and which had twenty years before earned him the name of le danseur from his fellow-copyists at the Louvre, betrayed to even a casual observer that his discouragement and discontent were at boiling point.
The sound of a bell and a murmur of voices announced the entrance of the visitors into the vast studio. After the formalities of introduction had been accomplished the new-comers glanced at the portrait, but uttered never a word. From it they passed in a perfectly casual manner to an inspection of the beautiful contents of the room, investigating the tapestries, admiring the armor, and finally, after another glance at the portrait, the husband remarked: "You have given my wife a jolly long neck, haven't you?" and, turning to his friends, began laughing and chatting in English.
If vitriol had been thrown on my poor master's quivering frame, the effect could not have been more instantaneous, his ignorance of the language spoken doubtless exaggerating his impression of being ridiculed. Suddenly he turned very white, and before any of us had divined his intention he had seized a Japanese sword lying by and cut a dozen gashes across the canvas. Then, dropping his weapon, he flung out of the room, leaving his sitter and her friends in speechless consternation, to wonder then and ever after in what way they had offended him. In their opinions, if a man had talent and understood his business, he should produce portraits with the same ease that he would answer dinner invitations, and if they paid for, they were in no way bound also to praise, his work. They were entirely pleased with the result, but did not consider it necessary to tell him so, no idea having crossed their minds that he might be in one of those moods so frequent with artistic natures, when words of approbation and praise are as necessary to them, as the air we breathe is to us, mortals of a commoner clay.
Even in the theatrical and operatic professions, those hotbeds of conceit, you will generally find among the "stars" abysmal depths of discouragement and despair. One great tenor, who has delighted New York audiences during several winters past, invariably announces to his intimates on arising that his "voice has gone," and that, in consequence he will "never sing again," and has to be caressed and cajoled back into some semblance of confidence before attempting a performance. This same artist, with an almost limitless repertoire and a reputation no new successes could enhance, recently risked all to sing what he considered a higher class of music, infinitely more fatiguing to his voice, because he was impelled onward by the ideal that forces genius to constant improvement and development of its powers.
What the people who meet these artists occasionally at a private concert or behind the scenes during the intense strain of a representation, take too readily for monumental egoism and conceit, is, the greater part of the time, merely the desire for a sustaining word, a longing for the stimulant of praise.
All actors and singers are but big children, and must be humored and petted like children when you wish them to do their best. It is necessary for them to feel in touch with their audiences; to be assured that they are not falling below the high ideals formed for their work.
Some winters ago a performance at the opera nearly came to a standstill because an all-conquering soprano was found crying in her dressing-room. After many weary moments of consolation and questioning, it came out that she felt quite sure she no longer had any talent. One of the other singers had laughed at her voice, and in consequence there was nothing left to live for. A half-hour later, owing to judicious "treatment," she was singing gloriously and bowing her thanks to thunders of applause.
Rather than blame this divine discontent that has made man what he is to- day, let us glorify and envy it, pitying the while the frail mortal vessels it consumes with its flame. No adulation can turn such natures from their goal, and in the hour of triumph the slave is always at their side to whisper the word of warning. This discontent is the leaven that has raised the whole loaf of dull humanity to better things and higher efforts, those privileged to feel it are the suns that illuminate our system. If on these luminaries observers have discovered spots, it is well to remember that these blemishes are but the defects of their qualities, and better far than the total eclipse that shrouds so large a part of humanity in colorless complacency.
It will never be known how many master-pieces have been lost to the world because at the critical moment a friend has not been at hand with the stimulant of sympathy and encouragement needed by an overworked, straining artist who was beginning to lose confidence in himself; to soothe his irritated nerves with the balm of praise, and take his poor aching head on a friendly shoulder and let him sob out there all his doubt and discouragement.
So let us not be niggardly or ungenerous in meting out to struggling fellow-beings their share, and perchance a little more than their share of approbation and applause, poor enough return, after all, for the pleasure their labors have procured us. What adequate compensation can we mete out to an author for the hours of delight and self-forgetfulness his talent has brought to us in moments of loneliness, illness, or grief? What can pay our debt to a painter who has fixed on canvas the face we love?
The little return that it is in our power to make for all the joy these gifted fellow-beings bring into our lives is (closing our eyes to minor imperfections) to warmly applaud them as they move upward, along their stony path.
I should like to see, in every school-room of our growing country, in every business office, at the railway stations, and on street corners, large placards placed with "Do not slouch" printed thereon in distinct and imposing characters. If ever there was a tendency that needed nipping in the bud (I fear the bud is fast becoming a full-blown flower), it is this discouraging national failing.
Each year when I return from my spring wanderings, among the benighted and effete nations of the Old World, on whom the untravelled American looks down from the height of his superiority, I am struck anew by the contrast between the trim, well-groomed officials left behind on one side of the ocean and the happy-go-lucky, slouching individuals I find on the other.
As I ride up town this unpleasant impression deepens. In the "little Mother Isle" I have just left, bus-drivers have quite a coaching air, with hat and coat of knowing form. They sport flowers in their button- holes and salute other bus-drivers, when they meet, with a twist of whip and elbow refreshingly correct, showing that they take pride in their calling, and have been at some pains to turn themselves out as smart in appearance as finances would allow.
Here, on the contrary, the stage and cab drivers I meet seem to be under a blight, and to have lost all interest in life. They lounge on the box, their legs straggling aimlessly, one hand holding the reins, the other hanging dejectedly by the side. Yet there is little doubt that these heartbroken citizens are earning double what their London confreres gain. The shadow of the national peculiarity is over them.
When I get to my rooms, the elevator boy is reclining in the lift, and hardly raises his eye-lids as he languidly manoeuvres the rope. I have seen that boy now for months, but never when his boots and clothes were brushed or when his cravat was not riding proudly above his collar. On occasions I have offered him pins, which he took wearily, doubtless because it was less trouble than to refuse. The next day, however, his cravat again rode triumphant, mocking my efforts to keep it in its place. His hair, too, has been a cause of wonder to me. How does he manage to have it always so long and so unkempt? More than once, when expecting callers, I have bribed him to have it cut, but it seemed to grow in the night, back to its poetic profusion.
In what does this noble disregard for appearances which characterizes American men originate? Our climate, as some suggest, or discouragement at not all being millionaires? It more likely comes from an absence with us of the military training that abroad goes so far toward licking young men into shape.
I shall never forget the surprise on the face of a French statesman to whom I once expressed my sympathy for his country, laboring under the burden of so vast a standing army. He answered:
"The financial burden is doubtless great; but you have others. Witness your pension expenditures. With us the money drawn from the people is used in such a way as to be of inestimable value to them. We take the young hobbledehoy farm-hand or mechanic, ignorant, mannerless, uncleanly as he may be, and turn him out at the end of three years with his regiment, self-respecting and well-mannered, with habits of cleanliness and obedience, having acquired a bearing, and a love of order that will cling to and serve him all his life. We do not go so far," he added, "as our English neighbors in drilling men into superb manikins of 'form' and carriage. Our authorities do not consider it necessary. But we reclaim youths from the slovenliness of their native village or workshop and make them tidy and mannerly citizens."
These remarks came to mind the other day as I watched a group of New England youths lounging on the steps of the village store, or sitting in rows on a neighboring fence, until I longed to try if even a judicial arrangement of tacks, 'business-end up,' on these favorite seats would infuse any energy into their movements. I came to the conclusion that my French acquaintance was right, for the only trim-looking men to be seen, were either veterans of our war or youths belonging to the local militia. And nowhere does one see finer specimens of humanity than West Point and Annapolis turn out.
If any one doubts what kind of men slouching youths develop into, let him look when he travels, at the dejected appearance of the farmhouses throughout our land. Surely our rural populations are not so much poorer than those of other countries. Yet when one compares the dreary homes of even our well-to-do farmers with the smiling, well-kept hamlets seen in England or on the Continent, such would seem to be the case.
If ours were an old and bankrupt nation, this air of discouragement and decay could not be greater. Outside of the big cities one looks in vain for some sign of American dash and enterprise in the appearance of our men and their homes.
During a journey of over four thousand miles, made last spring as the guest of a gentleman who knows our country thoroughly, I was impressed most painfully with this abject air. Never in all those days did we see a fruit-tree trained on some sunny southern wall, a smiling flower-garden or carefully clipped hedge. My host told me that hardly the necessary vegetables are grown, the inhabitants of the West and South preferring canned food. It is less trouble!
If you wish to form an idea of the extent to which slouch prevails in our country, try to start a "village improvement society," and experience, as others have done, the apathy and ill-will of the inhabitants when you go about among them and strive to summon some of their local pride to your aid.
In the town near which I pass my summers, a large stone, fallen from a passing dray, lay for days in the middle of the principal street, until I paid some boys to remove it. No one cared, and the dull-eyed inhabitants would doubtless be looking at it still but for my impatience.
One would imagine the villagers were all on the point of moving away (and they generally are, if they can sell their land), so little interest do they show in your plans. Like all people who have fallen into bad habits, they have grown to love their slatternly ways and cling to them, resenting furiously any attempt to shake them up to energy and reform.
The farmer has not, however, a monopoly. Slouch seems ubiquitous. Our railway and steam-boat systems have tried in vain to combat it, and supplied their employees with a livery (I beg the free and independent voter's pardon, a uniform!), with but little effect. The inherent tendency is too strong for the corporations. The conductors still shuffle along in their spotted garments, the cap on the back of the head, and their legs anywhere, while they chew gum in defiance of the whole Board of Directors.
Go down to Washington, after a visit to the Houses of Parliament or the Chamber of Deputies, and observe the contrast between the bearing of our Senators and Representatives and the air of their confreres abroad. Our law-makers seem trying to avoid every appearance of "smartness." Indeed, I am told, so great is the prejudice in the United States against a well- turned-out man that a candidate would seriously compromise his chances of election who appeared before his constituents in other than the accustomed shabby frock-coat, unbuttoned and floating, a pot hat, no gloves, as much doubtfully white shirt-front as possible, and a wisp of black silk for a tie; and if he can exhibit also a chin-whisker, his chances of election are materially increased.
Nothing offends an eye accustomed to our native laisser aller so much as a well-brushed hat and shining boots. When abroad, it is easy to spot a compatriot as soon and as far as you can see one, by his graceless gait, a cross between a lounge and a shuffle. In reading-, or dining- room, he is the only man whose spine does not seem equal to its work, so he flops and straggles until, for the honor of your land, you long to shake him and set him squarely on his legs.
No amount of reasoning can convince me that outward slovenliness is not a sign of inward and moral supineness. A neglected exterior generally means a lax moral code. The man who considers it too much trouble to sit erect can hardly have given much time to his tub or his toilet. Having neglected his clothes, he will neglect his manners, and between morals and manners we know the tie is intimate.
In the Orient a new reign is often inaugurated by the construction of a mosque. Vast expense is incurred to make it as splendid as possible. But, once completed, it is never touched again. Others are built by succeeding sovereigns, but neither thought nor treasure is ever expended on the old ones. When they can no longer be used, they are abandoned, and fall into decay. The same system seems to prevail among our private owners and corporations. Streets are paved, lamp-posts erected, store- fronts carefully adorned, but from the hour the workman puts his finishing touch upon them they are abandoned to the hand of fate. The mud may cake up knee-deep, wind and weather work their own sweet will, it is no one's business to interfere.
When abroad one of my amusements has been of an early morning to watch Paris making its toilet. The streets are taking a bath, liveried attendants are blacking the boots of the lamp-posts and newspaper-kiosques, the shop-fronts are being shaved and having their hair curled, cafe's and restaurants are putting on clean shirts and tying their cravats smartly before their many mirrors. By the time the world is up and about, the whole city, smiling freshly from its matutinal tub, is ready to greet it gayly.
It is this attention to detail that gives to Continental cities their air of cheerfulness and thrift, and the utter lack of it that impresses foreigners so painfully on arriving at our shores.
It has been the fashion to laugh at the dude and his high collar, at the darky in his master's cast-off clothes, aping style and fashion. Better the dude, better the colored dandy, better even the Bowery "tough" with his affected carriage, for they at least are reaching blindly out after something better than their surroundings, striving after an ideal, and are in just so much the superiors of the foolish souls who mock them—better, even misguided efforts, than the ignoble stagnant quagmire of slouch into which we seem to be slowly descending.
No. 9—Social Suggestion
The question of how far we are unconsciously influenced by people and surroundings, in our likes and dislikes, our opinions, and even in our pleasures and intimate tastes, is a delicate and interesting one, for the line between success and failure in the world, as on the stage or in most of the professions, is so narrow and depends so often on what humor one's "public" happen to be in at a particular moment, that the subject is worthy of consideration.
Has it never happened to you, for instance, to dine with friends and go afterwards in a jolly humor to the play which proved so delightful that you insist on taking your family immediately to see it; when to your astonishment you discover that it is neither clever nor amusing, on the contrary rather dull. Your family look at you in amazement and wonder what you had seen to admire in such an asinine performance. There was a case of suggestion! You had been influenced by your friends and had shared their opinions. The same thing occurs on a higher scale when one is raised out of one's self by association with gifted and original people, a communion with more cultivated natures which causes you to discover and appreciate a thousand hidden beauties in literature, art or music that left to yourself, you would have failed to notice. Under these circumstances you will often be astonished at the point and piquancy of your own conversation. This is but too true of a number of subjects.
We fondly believe our opinions and convictions to be original, and with innocent conceit, imagine that we have formed them for ourselves. The illusion of being unlike other people is a common vanity. Beware of the man who asserts such a claim. He is sure to be a bore and will serve up to you, as his own, a muddle of ideas and opinions which he has absorbed like a sponge from his surroundings.
No place is more propitious for studying this curious phenomenon, than behind the scenes of a theatre, the last few nights before a first performance. The whole company is keyed up to a point of mutual admiration that they are far from feeling generally. "The piece is charming and sure to be a success." The author and the interpreters of his thoughts are in complete communion. The first night comes. The piece is a failure! Drop into the greenroom then and you will find an astonishing change has taken place. The Star will take you into a corner and assert that, she "always knew the thing could not go, it was too imbecile, with such a company, it was folly to expect anything else." The author will abuse the Star and the management. The whole troupe is frankly disconcerted, like people aroused out of a hypnotic sleep, wondering what they had seen in the play to admire.
In the social world we are even more inconsistent, accepting with tameness the most astonishing theories and opinions. Whole circles will go on assuring each other how clever Miss So-and-So is, or, how beautiful they think someone else. Not because these good people are any cleverer, or more attractive than their neighbors, but simply because it is in the air to have these opinions about them. To such an extent does this hold good, that certain persons are privileged to be vulgar and rude, to say impertinent things and make remarks that would ostracize a less fortunate individual from the polite world for ever; society will only smilingly shrug its shoulders and say: "It is only Mr. So-and-So's way." It is useless to assert that in cases like these, people are in possession of their normal senses. They are under influences of which they are perfectly unconscious.
Have you ever seen a piece guyed? Few sadder sights exist, the human being rarely getting nearer the brute than when engaged in this amusement. Nothing the actor or actress can do will satisfy the public. Men who under ordinary circumstances would be incapable of insulting a woman, will whistle and stamp and laugh, at an unfortunate girl who is doing her utmost to amuse them. A terrible example of this was given two winters ago at one of our concert halls, when a family of Western singers were subjected to absolute ill-treatment at the hands of the public. The young girls were perfectly sincere, in their rude way, but this did not prevent men from offering them every insult malice could devise, and making them a target for every missile at hand. So little does the public think for itself in cases like this, that at the opening of the performance had some well-known person given the signal for applause, the whole audience would, in all probability, have been delighted and made the wretched sisters a success.
In my youth it was the fashion to affect admiration for the Italian school of painting and especially for the great masters of the Renaissance. Whole families of perfectly inartistic English and Americans might then he heard conscientiously admiring the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Leonardo's Last Supper (Botticelli had not been invented then) in the choicest guide-book language.
When one considers the infinite knowledge of technique required to understand the difficulties overcome by the giants of the Renaissance and to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of their creations, one asks one's self in wonder what our parents admired in those paintings, and what tempted them to bring home and adorn their houses with such dreadful copies of their favorites. For if they appreciated the originals they never would have bought the copies, and if the copies pleased them, they must have been incapable of enjoying the originals. Yet all these people thought themselves perfectly sincere. To-day you will see the same thing going on before the paintings of Claude Monet and Besnard, the same admiration expressed by people who, you feel perfectly sure, do not realize why these works of art are superior and can no more explain to you why they think as they do than the sheep that follow each other through a hole in a wall, can give a reason for their actions.
Dress and fashion in clothes are subjects above all others, where the ineptitude of the human mind is most evident. Can it be explained in any other way, why the fashions of yesterday always appear so hideous to us,—almost grotesque? Take up an old album of photographs and glance over the faded contents. Was there ever anything so absurd? Look at the top hats men wore, and at the skirts of the women!
The mother of a family said to me the other day: "When I recall the way in which girls were dressed in my youth, I wonder how any of us ever got a husband."
Study a photograph of the Empress Eugenie, that supreme arbiter of elegance and grace. Oh! those bunchy hooped skirts! That awful India shawl pinned off the shoulders, and the bonnet perched on a roll of hair in the nape of the neck! What were people thinking of at that time? Were they lunatics to deform in this way the beautiful lines of the human body which it should be the first object of toilet to enhance, or were they only lacking in the artistic sense? Nothing of the kind. And what is more, they were convinced that the real secret of beauty in dress had been discovered by them; that past fashions were absurd, and that the future could not improve on their creations. The sculptors and painters of that day (men of as great talent as any now living), were enthusiastic in reproducing those monstrosities in marble or on canvas, and authors raved about the ideal grace with which a certain beauty draped her shawl.
Another marked manner in which we are influenced by circumambient suggestion, is in the transient furore certain games and pastimes create. We see intelligent people so given over to this influence as barely to allow themselves time to eat and sleep, begrudging the hours thus stolen from their favorite amusement.
Ten years ago, tennis occupied every moment of our young people's time; now golf has transplanted tennis in public favor, which does not prove, however, that the latter is the better game, but simply that compelled by the accumulated force of other people's opinions, youths and maidens, old duffers and mature spinsters are willing to pass many hours daily in all kinds of weather, solemnly following an indian-rubber ball across ten- acre lots.
If you suggest to people who are laboring under the illusion they are amusing themselves that the game, absorbing so much of their attention, is not as exciting as tennis nor as clever in combinations as croquet, that in fact it would be quite as amusing to roll an empty barrel several times around a plowed field, they laugh at you in derision and instantly put you down in their profound minds as a man who does not understand "sport."
Yet these very people were tennis-mad twenty years ago and had night come to interrupt a game of croquet would have ordered lanterns lighted in order to finish the match so enthralling were its intricacies.
Everybody has known how to play Bezique in this country for years, yet within the last eighteen months, whole circles of our friends have been seized with a midsummer madness and willingly sat glued to a card-table through long hot afternoons and again after dinner until day dawned on their folly.
Certain Memoires of Louis Fifteenth's reign tell of an "unravelling" mania that developed at his court. It began by some people fraying out old silks to obtain the gold and silver threads from worn-out stuffs; this occupation soon became the rage, nothing could restrain the delirium of destruction, great ladies tore priceless tapestries from their walls and brocades from their furniture, in order to unravel those materials and as the old stock did not suffice for the demand thousands were spent on new brocades and velvets, which were instantly destroyed, entertainments were given where unravelling was the only amusement offered, the entire court thinking and talking of nothing else for months.
What is the logical deduction to be drawn from all this? Simply that people do not see with their eyes or judge with their understandings; that an all-pervading hypnotism, an ambient suggestion, at times envelops us taking from people all free will, and replacing it with the taste and judgment of the moment.
The number of people is small in each generation, who are strong enough to rise above their surroundings and think for themselves. The rest are as dry leaves on a stream. They float along and turn gayly in the eddies, convinced all the time (as perhaps are the leaves) that they act entirely from their own volition and that their movements are having a profound influence on the direction and force of the current.
Lunching with a talented English comedian and his wife the other day, the conversation turned on Bohemia, the evasive no-man's-land that Thackeray referred to, in so many of his books, and to which he looked back lovingly in his later years, when, as he said, he had forgotten the road to Prague.
The lady remarked: "People have been more than kind to us here in New York. We have dined and supped out constantly, and have met with gracious kindness, such as we can never forget. But so far we have not met a single painter, or author, or sculptor, or a man who has explored a corner of the earth. Neither have we had the good luck to find ourselves in the same room with Tesla or Rehan, Edison or Drew. We shall regret so much when back in England and are asked about your people of talent, being obliged to say, 'We never met any of them.' Why is it? We have not been in any one circle, and have pitched our tents in many cities, during our tours over here, but always with the same result. We read your American authors as much as, if not more than, our own. The names of dozens of your discoverers and painters are household words in England. When my husband planned his first tour over here my one idea was, 'How nice it will be! Now I shall meet those delightful people of whom I have heard so much.' The disappointment has been complete. Never one have I seen."
I could not but feel how all too true were the remarks of this intelligent visitor, remembering how quick the society of London is to welcome a new celebrity or original character, how a place is at once made for him at every hospitable board, a permanent one to which he is expected to return; and how no Continental entertainment is considered complete without some bright particular star to shine in the firmament.
"Lion-hunting," I hear my reader say with a sneer. That may be, but it makes society worth the candle, which it rarely is over here. I realized what I had often vaguely felt before, that the Bohemia the English lady was looking for was not to be found in this country, more's the pity. Not that the elements are lacking. Far from it, (for even more than in London should we be able to combine such a society), but perhaps from a misconception of the true idea of such a society, due probably to Henry Murger's dreary book Scenes de la vie de Boheme which is chargeable with the fact that a circle of this kind evokes in the mind of most Americans visions of a scrubby, poorly-fed and less-washed community, a world they would hardly dare ask to their tables for fear of some embarrassing unconventionality of conduct or dress.
Yet that can hardly be the reason, for even in Murger or Paul de Kock, at their worst, the hero is still a gentleman, and even when he borrows a friend's coat, it is to go to a great house and among people of rank. Besides, we are becoming too cosmopolitan, and wander too constantly over this little globe, not to have learned that the Bohemia of 1830 is as completely a thing of the past as a grisette or a glyphisodon. It disappeared with Gavarni and the authors who described it. Although we have kept the word, its meaning has gradually changed until it has come to mean something difficult to define, a will-o'-the-wisp, which one tries vainly to grasp. With each decade it has put on a new form and changed its centre, the one definite fact being that it combines the better elements of several social layers.
Drop in, if you are in Paris and know the way, at one of Madeleine Lemaire's informal evenings in her studio. There you may find the Prince de Ligne, chatting with Rejane or Coquelin; or Henri d'Orleans, just back from an expedition into Africa. A little further on, Saint-Saens will be running over the keys, preparing an accompaniment for one of Madame de Tredern's songs. The Princess Mathilde (that passionate lover of art) will surely be there, and—but it is needless to particularize.
Cross the Channel, and get yourself asked to one of Irving's choice suppers after the play. You will find the bar, the stage, and the pulpit represented there, a "happy family" over which the "Prince" often presides, smoking cigar after cigar, until the tardy London daylight appears to break up the entertainment.
For both are centres where the gifted and the travelled meet the great of the social world, on a footing of perfect equality, and where, if any prestige is accorded, it is that of brains. When you have seen these places and a dozen others like them, you will realize what the actor's wife had in her mind.
Now, let me whisper to you why I think such circles do not exist in this country. In the first place, we are still too provincial in this big city of ours. New York always reminds me of a definition I once heard of California fruit: "Very large, with no particular flavor." We are like a boy, who has had the misfortune to grow too quickly and look like a man, but whose mind has not kept pace with his body. What he knows is undigested and chaotic, while his appearance makes you expect more of him than he can give—hence disappointment.
Our society is yet in knickerbockers, and has retained all sorts of littlenesses and prejudices which older civilizations have long since relegated to the mental lumber room. An equivalent to this point of view you will find in England or France only in the smaller "cathedral" cities, and even there the old aristocrats have the courage of their opinions. Here, where everything is quite frankly on a money basis, and "positions" are made and lost like a fortune, by a turn of the market, those qualities which are purely mental, and on which it is hard to put a practical value, are naturally at a discount. We are quite ready to pay for the best. Witness our private galleries and the opera, but we say, like the parvenu in Emile Augier's delightful comedy Le Gendre de M. Poirier, "Patronize art? Of course! But the artists? Never!" And frankly, it would be too much, would it not, to expect a family only half a generation away from an iron foundry, or a mine, to be willing to receive Irving or Bernhardt on terms of perfect equality?