"Men ask such absurd questions," said I.
"Mrs. Potiphar, I never asked but one utterly absurd question in my life," said he, and marched out of the house.
Au revoir, chere Caroline. I have a thousand things to say, but I know you must be tired to death.
P. S.—Our little Fred. is quite down with the scarlet fever. Potiphar says I mustn't expose myself, so I don't go into the room; but Mrs. Jollup, the nurse, tells me through the keyhole how he is. Mr. P. sleeps in the room next the nursery, so as not to carry the infection to me. He looks very solemn as he walks down town. I hope it won't spoil Fred's complexion. I should be so sorry to have him a little fright! Poor little thing!
P. S. 2d.—Isn't it funny about the music?
A MEDITATION BY PAUL POTIPHAR, ESQ.
Well, my new house is finished—and so am I. I hope Mrs. Potiphar is satisfied. Everybody agrees that it is "palatial." The daily papers have had columns of description, and I am, evidently, according to their authority, "munificent," "tasteful," "enterprising," and "patriotic."
Amen! but what business have I with palatial residences? What more can I possibly want, than a spacious, comfortable house? Do I want buhl escritoires? Do I want or molu things? Do I know anything about pictures and statues? In the name of heaven do I want rose-pink bed-curtains to give my grizzly old phiz a delicate "uroral hue," as Cream Cheese says of Mrs. P.'s complexion? Because I have made fifty thousand this last year in Timbuctoo bonds, must I convert it all into a house, so large that it will not hold me comfortably,—so splendid that I might as well live in a porcelain vase, for the trouble of taking care of it,—so prodigiously "palatial" that I have to skulk into my private room, put on my slippers, close the door, shut myself up with myself, and wonder why I married Mrs. Potiphar?
This house is her doing. Before I married her, I would have worn yellow silk breeches on 'Change if she had commanded me—for love. Now I would build her two houses twice as large as this, if she required it—for peace. It's all over. When I came home from China I was the desirable Mr. Potiphar, and every evening was a field-day for me, in which I reviewed all the matrimonial forces. It is astonishing, now I come to think of it, how skilfully Brigadier-General Mrs. Pettitoes deployed those daughters of hers; how vigorously Mrs. Tabby led on her forlorn hope; and how unweariedly, Murat-like, Mrs. De Famille charged at the head of her cavalry. They deserve to be made Marshals of France, all of them. And I am sure, that if women ought ever to receive honorary testimonials, it is for having "married a daughter well."
That's a pretty phrase! The mammas marry, the misses are married.
And yet, I don't see why I say so. I fear I am getting sour. For certainly, Polly's mother didn't marry Polly to me. I fell in love with her, the rest followed. Old Gnu says that it's true Polly's mother didn't marry her, but she did marry herself, to me.
"Do you really think, Paul Potiphar," said he, a few months ago, when I was troubled about Polly's getting a livery, "that your wife was in love with you, a dry old chip from China? Don't you hear her say whenever any of her friends are engaged, that they 'have done very well!' and made a 'capital match!' and have you any doubt of her meaning? Don't you know that this is the only country in which the word 'money' must never be named in the young female ear; and in whose best society—not universally nor without exception, of course not; Paul, don't be a fool—money makes marriages? When you were engaged, 'the world' said that it was a 'capital thing' for Polly. Did that mean that you were a good, generous, intelligent, friendly, and patient man, who would be the companion for life she ought to have? You know, as well as I do, and as all the people who said it know, that it meant you were worth a few hundred thousands, that you could build a splendid house, keep horses and chariots, and live in style. You and I are sensible men, Paul, and we take the world as we find it; and know that if a man wants a good dinner he must pay for it. We don't quarrel with this state of things. How can it be helped? But we need not virtuously pretend it's something else. When my wife, being then a gay girl, first smiled at me, and looked at me, and smelt at the flowers I sent her in an unutterable manner, and proved to me that she didn't love me by the efforts she made to show that she did, why, I was foolishly smitten with her, and married her. I knew that she did not marry me, but sundry shares in the Patagonia and Nova Zembla Consolidation, and a few hundred house lots upon the island. What then? I wanted her, she was willing to take me,—being sensible enough to know that the stock and the lots had an incumbrance. Voila tout, as young Boosey says. Your wife wants you to build a house. You'd better build it. It's the easiest way. Make up your mind to Mrs. Potiphar, my dear Paul, and thank heaven you've no daughters to be married off by that estimable woman."
Why does a man build a house? To live in, I suppose—to have a home. But is a fine house a home? I mean, is a "palatial residence," with Mrs. Potiphar at the head of it, the "home" of which we all dream more or less, and for which we ardently long as we grow older? A house, I take it, is a retreat to which a man hurries from business, and in which he is compensated by the tenderness and thoughtful regard of a woman, and the play of his children, for the rough rubs with men. I know it is a silly view of the case, but I'm getting old and can't help it. Mrs. Potiphar is perfectly right when she says:
"You men are intolerable. After attending to your own affairs all day, and being free from the fuss of housekeeping, you expect to come home and shuffle into your slippers, and snooze over the evening paper—if it were possible to snooze over the exciting and respectable evening journal you take—while we are to sew, and talk with you if you are talkative, and darn the stockings, and make tea. You come home tired, and likely enough, surly, and gloom about like a thundercloud if dinner isn't ready for you the instant you are ready for it, and then sit mum and eat it; and snap at the children, and show yourselves the selfish, ugly things you are. Am I to have no fun, never go to the opera, never go to a ball, never have a party at home? Men are tyrants, Mr. Potiphar. They are ogres who entice us poor girls into their castles, and then eat up our happiness and scold us while they eat."
Well, I suppose it is so. I suppose I am an ogre and enticed Polly into my castle. But she didn't find it large enough, and teased me to build another. I suppose she does sit with me in the evening, and sew, and make tea, and wait upon me. I suppose she does, but I've not a clear idea of it. I know it's unkind of me, when I have been hard at work all day, trying to make and secure the money that gives her and her family everything they want, and which wearies me body and soul, to expect her to let me stay at home, and be quiet. I know I ought to dress and go into Gnu's house, and smirk at his wife, and stand up in a black suit before him attired in the same way, and talk about the same stocks that we discussed down town in the morning in colored trowsers. That's a social duty, I suppose. And I ought to see various slight young gentlemen whirl my wife around the room, and hear them tell her when they stop, that it's very warm. That's another social duty, I suppose. And I must smile when the same young gentlemen put their elbows into my stomach, and hop on my feet in order to extend the circle of the dance. I'm sure Mrs. P. is right. She does very right to ask, "Have we no social duties, I should like to know?"
And when we have performed these social duties in Gnu's house, how mean it is, how "it looks," not to build a larger house for him and Mrs. Gnu to come and perform their social duties in. I give it up. There's no doubt of it.
One day Polly said to me:
"Mr. Potiphar, we're getting down town."
"What do you mean, my dear?"
"Why, everybody is building above us, and there are actually shops in the next street. Singe, the pastry-cook, has hired Mrs. Croesus's old house."
"I know it. Old Croesus told me so some time ago; and he said how sorry he was to go. 'Why, Potiphar,' said he, 'I really hoped when I built there, that I should stay, and not go out of the house, finally, until I went into no other. I have lived there long enough to love the place, and have some associations with it; and my family have grown up in it, and love the old house too. It was our home. When any of us said 'home' we meant not the family only, but the house in which the family lived, where the children were all born, and where two have died, and my old mother, too. I'm in a new house now, and have lost my reckoning entirely. I don't know the house; I've no associations with it. The house is new, the furniture is new, and my feelings are new. It's a farce for me to begin again, in this way. But my wife says it's all right, that everybody does it, and wants to know how it can be helped; and, as I don't want to argue the matter, I look amen.' That's the way Mr. Croesus submits to his new house, Mrs. Potiphar."
She doesn't understand it. Poor child! how should she? She, and Mrs. Croesus, and Mrs. Gnu, and even Mrs. Settum Downe, are all as nomadic as Bedouin Arabs. The Rev. Cream Cheese says, that he sees in this constant migration from one house to another, a striking resemblance to the "tents of a night," spoken of in Scripture. He imparts this religious consolation to me when I grumble. He says, that it prevents a too-closely clinging affection to temporary abodes. One day, at dinner, that audacious wag, Boosey, asked him if the "many manthuns" mentioned in the Bible, were not as true of mortal as of immortal life. Mrs. Potiphar grew purple, and Mr. Cheese looked at Boosey in the most serious manner over the top of his champagne-glass. I am glad to say that Polly has properly rebuked Gauche Boosey for his irreligion, by not asking him to her Saturday evening matinees dansantes.
There was no escape from the house, however. It must be built. It was not only Mrs. Potiphar that persisted, but the spirit of the age and of the country. One can't live among shops. When Pearl street comes to Park Place, Park Place must run for its life up to Thirtieth street. I know it can't be helped, but I protested, and I will protest. If I've got to go, I'll have my grumble. My wife says:
"I'm ashamed of you, Potiphar. Do you pretend to be an American, and not give way willingly to the march of improvement? You had better talk with Mr. Cream Cheese upon the 'genius of the country.' You are really unpatriotic, you show nothing of the enterprising spirit of your time." "Yes," I answer. "That's pretty from you; you are patriotic aren't you, with your liveries and illimitable expenses, and your low bows to money, and your immense intimacy with all lords and ladies that honor the city by visiting it. You are prodigiously patriotic with your inane imitations of a splendor impossible to you in the nature of things. You are the ideal American woman, aren't you, Mrs. Potiphar?"
Then I run, for I'm afraid of myself, as much as of her. I am sick of this universal plea of patriotism. It is used to excuse all the follies that outrage it. I am not patriotic if I do not do this and that, which, if done, is a ludicrous caricature of something foreign. I am not up to the time if I persist in having my own comfort in my own way. I try to resist the irresistible march of improvement, if I decline to build a great house, which, when it is built, is a puny copy of a bad model. I am very unpatriotic if I am not trying to outspend foreign noblemen, and if I don't affect, without education, or taste, or habit, what is only beautiful, when it is the result of the three.
However, this is merely my grumble. I knew, the first morning Mrs. Potiphar spoke of a new house, that I must build it. What she said was perfectly true; we were getting down town, there was no doubt of the growing inconvenience of our situation. It was becoming a dusty noisy region. The congregation of the Rev. Far Niente had sold their church and moved up town. Now doesn't it really seem as if we were a cross between the Arabs who dwell in tents and those who live in cities, for we are migratory in the city? A directory is a more imperative annual necessity here than in any other civilized region. My wife says it is a constant pleasure to her to go round and see the new houses and the new furniture of her new friends, every year. I saw that I must submit. But I determined to make little occasional stands against it. So one day I said:
"Polly, do you know that the wives of all the noblemen who will be your very dear and intimate friends and models when you go abroad, always live in the same houses in London, and Paris, and Rome, and Vienna? Do you know that Northumberland House is so called because it is the hereditary town mansion of the Duke, and that the son and daughter-in-law of Lord Londonderry will live after him in the house where his father and mother lived before him? Did that ever occur to you, my dear?"
"Mr. Potiphar," she replied, "do you mean to go by the example of foreign noblemen? I thought you always laughed at me for what you call 'aping.'"
"So I do, and so I will continue to do, Mrs. Potiphar; only I thought that, perhaps, you would like to know the fact, because it might make you more lenient to me when I regretted leaving our old house here. It has an aristocratic precedent."
Poor, dear little Mrs. P.! It didn't take as I meant it should, and I said no more. Yet it does seem to me a pity that we lose all the interest and advantage of a homestead. The house and its furniture become endeared by long residence, and by their mute share in all the chances of our life. The chair in which some dear old friend so often sat—father and mother, perhaps—and in which they shall sit no more; the old-fashioned table with the cuts and scratches that generations of children have made upon it; the old book-cases; the heavy side-board; the glass, from which such bumpers sparkled for those who are hopelessly scattered now, or for ever gone; the doors they opened; the walls that echoed their long-hushed laughter,—are we wise when we part with them all, or, when compelled to do so, to leave them eagerly?
I remember my brother James used to say: "What is our envy for our country friends, but that their homes are permanent and characteristic? Their children's children may play in the same garden. Each annual festival may summon them to the old hearth. In the meeting-house they sit in the wooden pews where long ago they sat and dreamed of Jerusalem, and now as they sit there, that long ago is fairer than the holy city. Through the open window they see the grass waving softly in the summer air, over old graves dearer to them than many new houses. By a thousand tangible and visible associations they are still, with a peculiar sense of actuality, near to all they love."
Polly would call it a sentimental whim—if she could take Mrs. Croesus's advice before she spoke of it—but what then? When I was fifteen, I fell desperately in love with Lucy Lamb. "Pooh, pooh," said my father, "you are romantic, it's til a whim of yours."
And he succeeded in breaking it up. I went to China, and Lucy married old Firkin, and lived in a splendid house, and now lies in a splendid tomb of Carrara marble, exquisitely sculptured.
When I was forty, I came home from China, and the old gentleman said, "I want you to marry Arabella Bobbs, the heiress. It will be a good match."
I said to him,
"Pooh, pooh, my dear father, you are mercenary; it's all a whim of yours."
"My dear son, I know it," said he, "the whole thing a whim. You can live on a hundred dollars a year, if you choose. But you have the whim of a good dinner, of a statue, of a book. Why not? Only be careful in following your whims, that they really come to something. Have as many whims as you please, but don't follow them all."
"Certainly not," said I; and fell in love with the present Mrs. Potiphar, and married her off-hand. So, if she calls this genuine influence of association a mere whim—let it go at that. She is a whim, too. My mistake simply was in not following out the romantic whim, and marrying Lucy Lamb. At least it seems to me so, this morning. In fact sitting in my very new "palatial residence," the whole business of life seems to me rather whimsical.
For here I am, come into port at last. No longer young,—but worth a good fortune,—master of a great house,—respected down town,—husband of Mrs. Potiphar,—and father of Master Frederic ditto. Per contra; I shall never be in love again,—in getting my fortune I have lost my real life,—my house is dreary,—Mrs. Potiphar is not Lucy Lamb,—and Master Frederic—is a good boy.
The game is all up for me, and yet I trust I have good feeling enough left to sympathize with those who are still playing. I see girls as lovely and dear as any of which poets have sung—as fresh as dew-drops, and beautiful as morning. I watch their glances, and understand them better than they know.—for they do not dream that "old Potiphar" does any thing more than pay Mrs. P.'s bills. I see the youths nervous about neckcloths, and anxious that their hair shall be parted straight behind. I see them all wear the same tie, the same trowsers, the same boots. I hear them all say the same thing, and dance with the same partners in the same way. I see them go to Europe and return—I hear them talk slang to show that they have exhausted human life in foreign parts and observe them demean themselves according to their idea of the English nobleman. I watch them go in strongly for being "manly," and "smashing the spoonies"—asserting intimacies with certain uncertain women in Paris, and proving it by their treatment of ladies at home. I see them fuddle themselves on fine wines and talk like cooks, play heavily and lose, and win, and pay, and drink, and maintain a conservative position in politics, denouncing "Uncle Tom's Cabin," as a false and fanatical tract; and declaring that our peculiar institutions are our own affair, and that John Bull had better keep his eyes at home to look into his coal mines. I see this vigorous fermentation subside, and much clear character deposited—and, also, much life and talent muddled forever.
It is whimsical, because this absurd spectacle is presented by manikins who are made of the same clay as Plutarch's heroes-because, deliberately, they prefer cabbages to roses. I am not at all angry with them. On the contrary, when they dance well I look on with pleasure. Man ought to dance, but he ought to do something else, too. All genial gentlemen in all ages have danced. Who quarrels with dancing? Ask Mrs. Potiphar if I ever objected to it. But then, people must dance at their own risk. If Lucy Lamb, by dancing with young Boosey when he is tipsy, shows that she has no self-respect, how can I, coolly talking with Mrs. Lamb in the corner, and gravely looking on, respect the young lady? Lucy tells me that if she dances with James she must with John. I cannot deny it, for I am not sufficiently familiar with the regulations of the mystery. Only this; if dancing with sober James makes it necessary to dance with tipsy John—it seems to me, upon a hasty glance at the subject, that a self-respecting Lucy would refrain from the dance with James. Why it should be so, I cannot understand. Why Lucy must dance with every man who asks her, whether he is in his senses, or knows how to dance, or is agreeable to her or not, is a profound mystery to Paul Potiphar. Here is a case of woman's wrongs, decidedly. We men cull the choicest partners, make the severest selections, and the innocent Lucys gracefully submit. Lucy loves James, and a waltz with him (as P. P. knows very well from experience) is "a little heaven below" to both. Now, dearest Lucy, why must you pay the awful penance of immediately waltzing with John, against whom your womanly instinct rebels? And yet the laws of social life are so stern, that Lucy must make the terrible decision, whether it is better to waltz with James or worse to waltz with John! "Whether," to put it strongly with Father Jerome, "heaven is pleasanter than hell is painful."
I say that I watch these graceful gamesters, without bitter feeling. Sometimes it is sad to see James woo Lucy, win her, marry her, and then both discover that they have made a mistake. I don't see how they could have helped it; and when the world, that loves them both so tenderly, holds up its pure hands of horror, why, Paul Potiphar, goes quietly home to Mrs. P., who is dressing for Lucy's ball, and says nothing. He prefers to retire into his private room, and his slippers, and read the last number of Bleak House, or a chapter in Vanity Fair. If Mrs. Potiphar catches him at the latter, she is sure to say:
"There it is again; always reading those exaggerated sketches of society. Odious man that he is. I am sure he never knew a truly womanly woman."
"Polly, when he comes back in September I'll introduce him to you," is the only answer I have time to make, for it is already half past ten, and Mrs. P. must be off to the ball.
I know that our set is not the world, nor the country, nor the city. I know that the amiable youths who are in league to crush spooneyism are not many, and well I know, that in our set (I mean Mrs. P.'s) there are hearts as noble and characters as lofty as in any time and in any land. And yet, as the father of a family (viz. Frederic, our son), I am constrained to believe that our social tendency is to the wildest extravagance. Here, for instance, is my house. It cost me eighty-five thousand dollars. It is superbly furnished. Mrs. P. and I don't know much about such things. She was only stringent for buhl, and the last Parisian models, so we delivered our house into the hands of certain eminent upholsterers to be furnished, as we send Frederic to the tailor's to be clothed. To be sure, I asked what proof we had that the upholsterer was possessed of taste. But Mrs. P. silenced me, by saying that it was his business to have taste, and that a man who sold furniture, naturally knew what was handsome and proper for my house.
The furnishing was certainly performed with great splendor and expense. My drawing-rooms strongly resemble the warehouse of an ideal cabinetmaker. Every whim of table—every caprice of chair and sofa, is satisfied in those rooms. There are curtains like rainbows, and carpets, as if the curtains had dripped all over the floor. There are heavy cabinets of carved walnut, such as belong in the heavy wainscotted rooms of old palaces, set against my last French pattern of wall paper. There are lofty chairs like the thrones of archbishops in Gothic cathedrals, standing by the side of the elaborately gilded frames of mirrors. Marble statues of Venus and the Apollo support my mantels, upon which or molu Louis Quatorze clocks ring the hours. In all possible places there are statues, statuettes, vases, plates, teacups, and liquor-cases. The woodwork, when white, is elaborated in Moresco carving—when oak and walnut, it is heavily moulded. The contrasts are pretty, but rather sudden. In truth, my house is a huge curiosity shop of valuable articles,—clustered without taste, or feeling, or reason. They are there, because my house was large and I was able to buy them; and because, as Mrs. P. says, one must have buhl and or molu, and new forms of furniture, and do as well as one's neighbors, and show that one is rich, if he is so. They are there, in fact, because I couldn't help it. I didn't want them, but then I don't know what I did want. Somehow I don't feel as if I had a home, merely because orders were given to the best upholsterers and fancy-men in town to send a sample of all their wares to my house. To pay a morning call at Mrs. Potiphar's is, in some ways, better than going shopping. You see more new and costly things in a shorter time. People say, "What a love of a chair!" "What a darling table!" "What a heavenly sofa!" and they all go and tease their husbands to get things precisely like them. When Kurz Pacha the Sennaar Minister, came to a dinner at my house, he said:
"Bless my soul! Mr. Potiphar, your house is just like your neighbor's."
I know it. I am perfectly aware that there is no more difference between my house and Croesus's, than there is in two ten dollar bills of the same bank. He might live in my house and I in his, without any confusion. He has the same curtains, carpets, chairs, tables, Venuses, Apollos, busts, vases, etc. And he goes into his room, and thinks it's all a devilish bore, just as I do. We have each got to refurnish every few years, and therefore have no possible opportunity for attaching ourselves to the objects about us. Unfortunately Kurz Pacha particularly detested precisely what Mrs. P. most liked, because it is the fashion to like them. I mean the Louis Quatorze and the Louis Quinze things.
"Taste, dear Mrs. Potiphar," said the Pacha, "was a thing not known in the days of those kings. Grace was entirely supplanted by grotesqueness, and now, instead of pure and beautiful Greek forms, we must collect these hideous things. If you are going backward to find models, why not go as far as the good ones? My dear madame, an or molu Louis Quatorze clock would have given Pericles a fit. Your drawing-rooms would have thrown Aspasia into hysterics. Things are not beautiful because they cost money; nor is any grouping handsome without harmony. Your house is like a woman dressed in Ninon de l'Enclos's bodice, with Queen Anne's hooped skirt, who limps in Chinese shoes, and wears an Elizabethan ruff round her neck, and a Druse's horn on her head. My dear madam, this is the kind of thing we go to see in museums. It is the old stock joke of the world."
By Jove! how mad Mrs. Potiphar was! She rose from table, to the great dismay of Kurz Pacha, and I could only restrain her by reminding her that the Sennaar Minister had but an imperfect idea of our language, and that in Sennaar people probably said what they thought when they conversed.
"You'd better go to Sennaar, then, yourself, Mr. Potiphar," said my wife, as she smoothed her rumpled feathers.
"'Pon my word, madam, it's my own opinion," replied I.
Kurz Pacha, who is a philosopher (of the Sennaar school), asks me if people have no ideas of their own in building houses. I answer, none, that I know of, except that of getting the house built. The fact is, it is as much as Paul Potiphar can do, to make the money to erect his palatial residence, and then to keep it going. There are a great many fine statues in my house, but I know nothing about them: I don't see why we should have such heathen images in reputable houses. But Mrs. P. says:
"Pooh! have you no love for the fine arts?"
There it is. It doesn't do not to love the fine arts; so Polly is continually cluttering up the halls and staircases with marble, and sending me heavy bills for the same.
When the house was ready, and my wife had purchased the furniture, she came and said to me:
"Now, my dear P., there is one thing we haven't thought of."
"Pictures, you know, dear."
"What do you want pictures for?" growled I, rather surlily, I am afraid.
"Why, to furnish the walls; what do you suppose we want pictures for?"
"I tell you, Polly," said I, "that pictures are the most extravagant kind of furniture. Pshaw! a man rubs and dabbles a little upon a canvas two feet square, and then coolly asks three hundred dollars for it."
"Dear me, Pot," she answered, "I don't want home-made pictures. What an idea! Do you think I'd have pictures on my walls that were painted in this country?—No, my dear husband, let us have some choice specimens of the old masters. A landscape by Rayfel, for instance; or one of Angel's fruit pieces, or a cattle scene by Verynees, or a Madonna of Giddo's, or a boar hunt of Hannibal Crackkey's."
What was the use of fighting against this sort of thing? I told her to have it her own way. Mrs. P. consulted Singe the pastry cook, who told her his cousin had just come out from Italy with a lot of the very finest pictures in the world, which he had bribed one of the Pope's guard to steal from the Vatican, and which he would sell at a bargain.
They hang on my walls now. They represent nothing in particular; but in certain lights, if you look very closely, you can easily recognize something in them that looks like a lump of something brown. There is one very ugly woman with a convulsive child in her arms, to which Mrs. P. directly takes all her visitors, and asks them to admire the beautiful Shay douver of Giddo's. When I go out to dinner with people that talk pictures and books, and that kind of thing, I don't like to seem behind, so I say, in a critical way, that Giddo was a good painter. None of them contradict me, and one day when somebody asked, "Which of his pictures do you prefer?" I answered straight, "His Shay douver," and no more questions were asked.
They hang all about the house now. The Giddo is in the dining room. I asked the Sennaar Minister if it wasn't odd to have a religious picture in the dining-room. He smiled, and said that it was perfectly proper if I liked it, and if the picture of such an ugly woman didn't take away my appetite.
"What difference does it make," said he, in the Sennaar manner, "it would be equally out of keeping with every other room in your house. My dear Potiphar, it is a perfectly unprincipled house, this of yours. If your mind were in the condition of your house, so ill-assorted, so confused, so overloaded with things that don't belong together, you would never make another cent. You have order, propriety, harmony, in your dealings with the Symmes's Hole Bore Co., and they are the secrets of your success. Why not have the same elements in your house? Why pitch every century, country, and fashion, higgledy-piggledly into your parlors and dining-room? Have everything you can get, in heaven's name, but have everything in its place. If you are a plodding tradesman, knowing and caring nothing about pictures, or books, or statuary, or objets de vertu; don't have them. Suppose your neighbor chooses to put them in his house. If he has them merely because he had the money to pay for them, he is the butt of every picture and book he owns."
When I meet Mr. Croesus in Wall street, I respect him as I do a king in his palace, or a scholar in his study. He is master of the occasion. He commands like Nelson at the Nile. I, who am merely a diplomatist, skulk and hurry along, and if Mr. Croesus smiles, I inwardly thank him for his charity. Wall street is Croesus's sphere, and all his powers play there perfectly. But when I meet him in his house, surrounded by objects of art, by the triumphs of a skill which he does not understand, and for which he cares nothing,—of which, in fact, he seems afraid, because he knows any chance question about them would trip him up,—my feeling is very much changed. If I should ask him what or molu is, I don't believe he could answer, though his splendid or molu clock rang, indignant, from the mantel. But if I should say, 'Invest me this thousand dollars,' he would secure me eight per cent. It certainly isn't necessary to know what or molu is, nor to have any other objet de vertu but your wife. Then why should you barricade yourself behind all these things that you really cannot enjoy, because you don't understand? If you could not read Italian, you would be a fool to buy Dante, merely because you knew he was a great poet. And, in the same way, if you know nothing about matters of art, it is equally foolish for you to buy statues and pictures, although you hear on all sides that, as Mrs. P. says, one must love art.
"As for learning from your own pictures, you know perfectly well, that until you have some taste in the matter, you will be paying money for your pictures blindly, so that the only persons upon whom your display of art would make any impression, will be the very ones to see that you know nothing about it.
"In Sennaar, a man is literally 'the master of the house.' He isn't surrounded by what he does not understand; he is not obliged to talk book, and picture, when he knows nothing about these matters. He is not afraid of his parlor, and you feel instantly upon entering the house, the character of the master. Please, my dear Mr. Potiphar, survey your mansion, and tell me what kind of a man it indicates. If it does not proclaim (in your case) the President of the Patagonia Junction, a man shrewd, and hard, and solid, without taste or liberal cultivation, it is a painted deceiver. If it tries to insinuate by this chaotic profusion of rich and rare objects, that you are a cultivated, accomplished, tasteful, and generous man, it is a bad lie, because a transparent one. Why, my dear old Pot., the moment your servant opens the front door, a man of sense perceives the whole thing. You and Mrs. Potiphar are bullied by all the brilliancy you have conjured up. It is the old story of the fisherman and the genii. And your guests all see it. They are too well-bred to speak of it; but I come from Sennaar, where we do not lay so much stress upon that kind of good-breeding.
"Mr. Paul Potiphar, it is one thing to have plenty of money, and quite another to know how to spend it."
Now, as I told him, this kind of talk may do very well in Sennaar, but it is absurd in a country like ours. How are people to know that I'm rich, unless I show it? I'm sorry for it, but how shall I help it, having Mrs. P. at hand?
"How about the library?" said she one day.
"What library?" inquired I.
"Why, our library, of course."
"I haven't any."
"Do you mean to have such a house as this without a library?"
"Why," said I plaintively, "I don't read books—I never did, and I never shall; and I don't care anything about them. Why should I have a library?"
"Why, because it's part of a house like this."
"Mrs. P., are you fond of books?"
"No, not particularly. But one must have some regard to appearances. Suppose we are Hottentots, you don't want us to look so, do you?"
I thought that it was quite as barbarous to imprison a lot of books that we should never open, and that would stand in gilt upon the shelves, silently laughing us to scorn, as not to have them if we didn't want them. I proposed a compromise.
"Is it the looks of the thing, Mrs. P.?" said I.
"That's all," she answered.
"Oh! well, I'll arrange it."
So I had my shelves built, and my old friends Matthews and Rider furnished me with complete sets of handsome gilt covers to all the books that no gentleman's library should be without, which I arranged carefully, upon the shelves, and had the best looking library in town. I locked 'em in, and the key is always lost when anybody wants to take down a book. However, it was a good investment in leather, for it brings me in the reputation of a reading man and a patron of literature.
Mrs. P. is a religious woman—the Rev. Cream Cheese takes care of that—but only yesterday she proposed something to me that smells very strongly of candlesticks.
"Pot., I want a prie-dieu."
"Pray-do what?" answered I.
"Stop, you wicked man. I say I want a kneeling-chair."
"A kneeling-chair?" I gasped, utterly confused.
"A prie-dieu—a prie-dieu—to pray in, you know."
My Sennaar friend, who was at table, choked. When he recovered, and we were sipping the "Blue seal," he told me that he thought Mrs. Potiphar in a prie-dieu was rather a more amusing idea than Giddo's Madonna in the dining-room.
"She will insist upon its being carved handsomely in walnut. She will not pray upon pine. It is a romantic, not a religious, whim. She'll want a missal next; vellum or no prayers. This is piety of the 'Lady Alice' school. It belongs to a fine lady aid a fine house precisely as your library does, and it will be precisely as genuine. Mrs. Potiphar in a prie-dieu is like that blue morocco Comus in your library. It is charming to look at, but there's nothing in it. Let her have the prie-dieu by all means, and then begin to build a chapel. No gentleman's house should be without a chapel. You'll have to come to it, Potiphar. You'll have to hear Cream Cheese read morning prayers in a purple chasuble,—que sais-je? You'll see religion made a part of the newest fashion in houses, as you already see literature and art, and with just as much reality and reason."
Privately, I am glad the Sennaar minister has gone out of town. It's bad enough to be uncomfortable in your own house without knowing why; but to have a philosopher of the Sennaar school show you why you are so, is cutting it rather too fat. I am gradually getting resigned to my house. I've got one more struggle to go through next week in Mrs. Potiphar's musical party. The morning soirees are over for the season, and Mrs. P. begins to talk of the watering places. I am getting gradually resigned; but only gradually.
"Oh! dear me, I wonder if this is the "home, sweet home" business the girls used to sing about! Music does certainly alter cases. I can't quite get used to it. Last week I was one morning in the basement breakfast-room, and I heard an extra cried. I ran out of the area door—dear me!—before I thought what I was bout, I emerged bareheaded from under the steps, and ran a little way after the boy. I know it wasn't proper. I am sorry, very sorry. I am afraid Mrs. Croesus saw me; I know Mrs. Gnu told it all about that morning: and Mrs. Settum Downe called directly upon Mrs. Potiphar, to know if it were really true that I had lost my wits, as everybody was saying. I don't know what Mrs. P. answered. I am sorry to have compromised her so. I went immediately and ordered a pray-do of the blackest walnut. My resignation is very gradual. Kurz Pacha says they put on gravestones in Sennaar three Latin words—do you know Latin? if you don't come and borrow some of my books. The words are: ora pro me!"
FROM THE SUMMER DIARY OF MINERVA TATTLE.
It certainly is not papa's fault that he doesn't understand French; but he ought not to pretend to. It does put one in such uncomfortable situations occasionally. In fact, I think it would be quite as well if we could sometimes "sink the paternal," as Timon Croesus says. I suppose everybody has heard of the awful speech pa made in the parlor at Saratoga. My dearest friend, Tabby Dormouse, told me she had heard of it everywhere, and that it was ten times as absurd each time it was repeated. By the by, Tabby is a dear creature, isn't she? It's so nice to have a spy in the enemy's camp, as it were, and to hear everything that everybody says about you. She is not handsome,—poor, dear Tabby! There's no denying it but she can't help it. I was obliged to tell young Downe so, quite decidedly, for I really think he had an idea she was good-looking. The idea of Tabby Dormouse being handsome! But she is a useful little thing in her way; one of my intimates.
The true story is this.
Ma and I had persuaded pa to take us to Saratoga, for we heard the English party were to be there, and we were anxious they should see some good society at least. It seems such a pity they shouldn't know what handsome dresses we really do have in this country! And I mentioned to some of the most English of our young men, that there might be something to be done at Saratoga. But they shrugged their shoulders, especially Timon Croesus and Gauche Boosey, and said—
"Well, really, the fact is, Miss Tattle, all the Englishmen I have ever met are—in fact—a little snobbish. However."
That was about what they said. But I thought, considering their fondness of the English model in dress and manner, that they might have been more willing to meet some genuine aristocracy. Yet, perhaps, that handsome Col. Abattew is right in saying with his grand military air,—
"The British aristocracy, madam,—the British aristocracy is vulgar."
Well, we all went up to Saratoga. But the distinguished strangers did not come. I held back that last muslin of mine, the yellow one, embroidered with the Alps, and a distant view of the isles of Greece worked on the flounces, until it was impossible to wait longer. I meant to wear it at dinner the first day they came, with the pearl necklace and the opal studs, and that heavy ruby necklace (it is a low-necked dress). The dining-room at the "United States" is so large that it shows off those dresses finely, and if the waiter doesn't let the soup or the gravy slip, and your neighbor, (who is, like as not, what Tabby Dormouse, with her incapacity to pronounce the r, calls "some 'aw, 'uff man from the country,") doesn't put the leg of his chair through the dress, and if you don't muss it sitting down—why, I should like to know a prettier place to wear a low-necked muslin, with jewels, than the dining-room of the "United States" at Saratoga.
Kurz Pacha, the Sennaar minister, who was up there, and who is so smitten with Mrs. Potiphar, said that he had known few happier moments in this country than the dining hour at the "United States."
"When the gong sounds," says he, "I am reminded of the martial music of Sennaar. When I seat myself in the midst of such splendor of toilette, and in an apartment so stately and so appropriate for that display, I recall the taste of the Crim Tartars, to whose ruler I had the honor of being first accredited ambassador. When I behold, with astonished eyes, the entrance of that sable society, the measured echo of whose footfalls so properly silences the conversation of all the nobles, I seem to see the regular army of my beloved Sennaar investing a conquered city. This, I cry to myself, with enthusiasm, this is the height of civilization; and I privately hand one of the privates in that grand army, a gold dollar, to bring me a dish of beans. Each green bean, O greener envoy extraordinary, I say to myself, with rapture, should be well worth its weight in gold, when served to such a congress of kings, queens, and hereditary prince royals as are assembled here. And I find," continues the Pacha, "that I am right. The guest at this banquet is admitted to the freedom of corn and potatoes, only after negotiations with the sable military. It is quite the perfection of organization. What hints I shall gather for the innocent pleasure-seekers of Sennaar who still fancy that when they bargain for a draught of rose sherbet, they have tacitly agreed for a glass to drink it from!
"Why, the first day I came," he went on, "I was going to my room, and met the chambermaid coming out. Now, as I had paid a colored gentleman a dollar for my dinner, in addition to the little bill which I settle at the office, I thought it was equally necessary to secure my bed by a slight fee to the goddess of the chambers. I therefore pulled out my purse, and offered her a bill of a small amount. She turned the color of tomatoes.
"'Sir,' exclaimed she, and with dignity, 'do you mean to insult me?'
"'Good heavens, miss,' cried I, 'quite the contrary,' and thinking it was not enough, I presented another bill of a larger amount.
"'Sir,' said she, half sobbing, 'you are no gentleman; I shall leave the house!'
"I was very much perplexed. I began again:
"'Miss—my dear—I mean madam—how much must I pay you to secure my room?'
"'I don't understand you, sir,' replied the chambermaid, somewhat mollified.
"'Why, my dear girl, if I paid Sambo a dollar for my dinner, I expect to pay Dolly something for my chamber, of course.'
"'Well, sir, you are certainly very kind,—I—with pleasure, I'm sure,' replied she, entirely appeased, taking the money and vanishing.
"I," said Kurz Pacha, "entered my room and locked the door. But I believe I was a little hasty about giving her the money. The perfection of civilization has not yet mounted the stairs. It is confined to the dining-room. How beautiful is that strain from the Favorita, Miss Minerva, tum, tum, ti ti, tum tum, tee tee," and the delightful Sennaar ambassador, seeing Mrs. Potiphar in the parlor, danced humming away.
There are few pleasanter men in society. I should think with his experience he would be hard upon us, but he is not. The air of courts does not seem to have spoiled him.
"My dear madam," he said one evening to Mrs. Potiphar, "if you laugh at anything, your laughing is laughed at next day. Life is short. If you can't see the jewel in the toad's head, still believe in it. Take it for granted. The Parisienne says that the English woman has no je ne sais quoi, The English woman says the Parisienne has no aplomb. Amen! When you are in Turkey—why gobble. Why should I decline to have a good time at the Queen's drawing-room, because English women have no je ne sais quoi, or at the grand opera, because French women lack aplomb? Take things smoothly. Life is a merry-go-round. Look at your own grandfather, dear Mrs. Potiphar,— fine old gentleman, I am told,—rather kept in what the artists call the middle-distance, at present,—a capital shoemaker, who did his work well—Alexander and John Howard did no more:—well here you are, you see, with liveries and a pew in the right church, and altogether a front seat in the universe—merry-go-round, you know; here we go up, up, up; here we go down, down, down, etc. By the bye, pretty strain that from Linda; tum tum, ti, tum tum," and away hopped the Sennaar minister.
Mrs. Potiphar was angry. Who wouldn't have been? To have the old family shoes thrown in one's teeth! But our ambassador is an ambassador. One must have the best society, and she swallowed it as she has swallowed it a hundred times before. She quietly remarked—
"Pity Kurz Pacha drinks so abominably. He quite forgets what he's saying!"
I suppose he does, if Mrs. P. says so; but he seems to know well enough all the time: as he did that evening in the library at Mrs. Potiphar's, when he drew Cerulea Bass to the book-shelves, and began to dispute about a line in Milton, and then suddenly looking up at the books, said—
"Ah! there's Milton; now we'll see." But when he opened the case, which was foolishly left unlocked, he took down only a bit of wood, bound in blue morocco, which he turned slowly over, so that everybody saw it, and then quietly returned it to the shelf saying only—
"I beg pardon."
Old Pot, as Mrs. P. calls him, happened to be passing at the moment, and cried out in his brusque way—
"Oh! I haven't laid in my books yet. Those are only samples—pattern-cards, you know. I don't believe you'll find there a single book that a gentleman's library shouldn't be without. I got old Vellum to do the thing up right, you know. I guess he knows about the books to buy. But I've just laid in some claret that you'll like, and I've got a sample of the Steinberg. Old Corque understands that kind of thing, if anybody does." And the two gentlemen went off to try the wine.
I am astonished that a man of Kurz Pacha's tact should have opened the book-case. People have no right to suppose that the pretty bindings on one's shelves are books. Why, they might as well insist upon trying if the bloom on one's cheek, or the lace on one's dress, or, in fact, one's figure, were real. Such things are addressed to the eye. No gentleman uses his hands in good society. I've no doubt they were originally put into gloves to keep them out of mischief.
I am as bad as dear Mrs. Potiphar about coming to the point of my story. But the truth is, that in such engrossing places as Saratoga and Newport, it is hardly possible to determine which is the pleasantest and most important thing among so many. I am so fond of that old, droll Kurz Pacha, that if I begin to talk about him I forget everything else. He says such nice things about people that nobody else would dare to say, and that everybody is so glad to hear. He is invaluable in society. And yet one is never safe. People say he isn't gentlemanly; but when I see the style of man that is called gentlemanly, I am very glad he is not. All the solemn, pompous men who stand about like owls, and never speak, nor laugh, nor move, as if they really had any life or feeling are called "gentlemanly." Whenever Tabby says of a new man—"But then he is so gentlemanly!" I understand at once. It is another case of the well-dressed wooden image. Good heavens! do you suppose Sir Philip Sidney, or the Chevalier Bayard or Charles Fox, were "gentlemanly" in this way? Confectioners who undertake parties might furnish scores of such gentlemen, with hands and feet of any required size, and warranted to do nothing "ungentlemanly." For my part, I am inclined to think that a gentleman is something positive, not merely negative. And if sometimes my friend the Pacha says a rousing and wholesome truth, it is none the less gentlemanly because it cuts a little. He says it's very amusing to observe how coolly we play this little farce of life,—how placidly people get entangled in a mesh at which they all rail, and how fiercely they frown upon anybody who steps out of the ring. "You tickle me and I'll tickle you; but at all events, you tickle me," is the motto of the crowd.
"Allons!" says he, "who cares? lead off to the right and left—down the middle and up again. Smile all round, and bow gracefully to your partner; then carry your heavy heart up chamber, and drown in your own tears. Cheerfully, cheerfully, my dear Miss Minerva.—Saratoga until August, then Newport till the frost, the city afterwards; and so an endless round of happiness."
And he steps off humming Il segreto per esser felice!
Well, we were all sitting in the great drawing-room at the "United States." We had been bowling in our morning dresses, and had rushed in to ascertain if the distinguished English party had arrived. They had not. They were in New York, and would not come. That was bad, but we thought of Newport and probable scions of nobility there, and were consoled. But while we were in the midst of the talk, and I was whispering very intimately with that superb and aristocratic Nancy Fungus, who should come in but father, walking towards us with a wearied air, dragging his feet along, but looking very well dressed for him. I smiled sweetly when I saw that he was quite presentable, and had had the good sense to leave that odious white hat in his room, and had buttoned his waistcoat. The party stopped talking as he approached; and he came up to me.
"Minna, my dear," said he, "I hear everybody is going to Newport.
"Oh! yes, dear father," I replied, and Nancy Fungus smiled. Father looked pleased to see me so intimate with a girl he always calls "so aristocratic and high-bred looking," and he said to her—
"I believe your mother is going, Miss Fungus?"
"Oh! yes, we always go," replied she, "one must have a few weeks at Newport."
"Precisely, my dear," said poor papa, as if he rather dreaded it, but must consent to the hard necessity of fashion. "They say, Minna, that all the parvenus are going this year, so I suppose we shall have to go along."
There was a blow! There was perfect silence for a moment, while poor pa looked amiable as if he couldn't help embellishing his conversation with French graces. I waited in horror; for I knew that the girls were all tittering inside, and every moment it became more absurd. Then out it came. Nancy Fungus leaned her head on my shoulder, and fairly shook with laughter. The others hid behind their fans, and the men suddenly walked off to the windows and slipped on to the piazza. Papa looked bewildered, and half smiled. But it was a very melancholy business, and I told him that he had better go up and dress for dinner.
It was impossible to stay after that. The unhappy slip became the staple of Saratoga conversation. Young Boosey (Mrs. Potiphar's witty friend) asked Morris audibly at dinner, "Where do the parvenus sit? I want to sit among the parvenus."
"Of course you do, sir," answered Morris, supposing he meant the circle of the creme de la creme.
And so the thing went on multiplying itself. Poor papa doesn't understand it yet, I don't dare to explain. Old Fungus who prides himself so upon his family (it is one of the very ancient and honorable Virginia families, that came out of the ark with Noah, as Kurz Pacha says of his ancestors when he hears that the founder of a family "came over with the Conqueror,") and who cannot deny himself a joke, came up to pa in the bar-room, while a large party of gentlemen were drinking cobblers, and said to him with a loud laugh:
"So all the parvenus are going to Newport: are they, Tattle?"
"Yes!" replied pa, innocently, "that's what they say. So I suppose we shall all have to go, Fungus."
There was another roar that time, but not from the representative of Noah's Ark. It was rather thin joking but it did very well for the warm weather, and I was glad to hear a laugh against anybody but poor pa.
We came to Newport, but the story came before us, and I have been very much annoyed at it. I know it is foolish for me to think of it. Kurz Pacha said:
"My dear Miss Minerva, I have no doubt it would pain you more to be thought ignorant of French than capable of deceit. Yet it is a very innocent ignorance of your father's. Nobody is bound to know French; but you all lay so much stress upon it, as if it were the whole duty of women to have an 'air' and to speak French, that any ignorance becomes at once ludicrous. It's all your own doing. You make a very natural thing absurd, and then grieve because some friend becomes a victim. There is your friend Nancy Fungus, who speaks 'French as well as she does English.' That may be true; but you ought to add, that one is of just as much use to her as the other—that is of no use at all, except to communicate platitudes. What is the use of a girl's learning French to be able to say to young Tele de Choux, that it is a very warm day, and that will hardly be spirituelle in her exotic French. It edge of French is going to supply her with ideas to express. A girl who is flat in her native English will hardly be spirituelle in her exotic French. It is a delightful language for the natives, and for all who have thoroughly mastered its spirit. Its genius is airy and sparkling. It is especially the language of society, because society is, theoretically, the playful encounter of sprightliness and wit. It is the worst language I know of for poetry, ethics, and the habit of the Saxon mind. It is wonderful in the hands of such masters as Balzac and George Sand, and is especially adapted to their purposes. Yet their books are forbidden to Nancy Fungus, Tabby Dormouse, Daisy Clover, and all their relations. They read Telemaque, and long to be married, that they may pry into Leila and Indiana: their French meanwhile, even if they wanted to know anything of French literature,—which is too absurd an idea,—serves them only to say nothing to uncertain hairy foreigners who haunt society, and to understand their nothings, in response. I am really touched for this Ariel, this tricksy sprite of speech when I know that it must do the bidding of those who can never fit its airy felicity to any worthy purpose. I have tried these accomplishel damsels who speak French and Italian as well as they do English. But our conversation was only a clumsy translation of English commonplace. And yet, Miss Minerva, I think even so sensible a woman as you, looks with honor and respect upon one of that class. Dear me! excuse me! What am I thinking of? I'm engaged to drive little Daisy Clover on the beach at six o'clock. She is one of those who garnish their conversation with French scraps. Really you must pardon me, if she is a friend of yours; but that dry gentlemanly fellow, D'Orsay Firkin, says that Miss Clover's conversation is a dish of tete de veau farci. Aren't you coming to the beach? Everybody goes to-day. Mrs. Gnu has arrived, and the Potiphars are here,—that is, Mrs. P. Old Pot. arrives on Sunday morning early, and is off again on Monday evening. He's grown very quiet and docile. Mrs. P. usually takes him a short drive on Monday morning, and he comes to dinner in a white waistcoat. In fact, as Mrs. Potiphar says, 'My husband has not the air distingue which I should be pleased to see in him, but he is quite as well as could be expected.' Upon which Firkin twirls his hat in a significant way; you and I smile intelligently, dear Miss Minerva; Mrs. Green and Mrs Settum Downe exchange glances; we all understand Mrs. Potiphar and each other, and Mrs. Potiphar understands us, and it is all very sweet and pleasant, and the utmost propriety is observed, and we don't laugh loud until we're out of hearing, and then say in the very softest whispers, that it was a remarkably true observation. This is the way to take life, my dear lady. Let us go gently. Here we go backwards and forwards. You tickle, and I'll tickle, and we'll all tickle, and here we go round—round—roundy!"
And the Sennaar minister danced out of the room.
He is a droll man, and I don't quite understand him. Of course I don't entirely like him for it always seems as if he meant something a little different from what he says. Laura Larmes, who reads all the novels, and rolls her great eyes around the ball room,—who laughs at the idea of such a girl as Blanche Amory in Pendennis,—who would be pensive if she were not so plump,—who likes "nothing so much as walking on the cliff by moonlight,"—who wonders that girls should want to dance on warm summer nights when they have Nature, "and such nature" before them,—who, in fact, would be a mere emotion if she were not a bouncing girl,—Laura Larmes wonders that any man can be so happy as Kurz Pacha.
"Ah! Kurz Pacha," she says to him as they stroll upon the piazza, after he has been dancing (for the minister dances, and swears it is essential to diplomacy to dance well), "are you really so very happy? Is it possible you can be so gay? Do you find nothing mournful in life?"
"Nothing, my best Miss Laura," he replies, "to speak of; as somebody said of religion. You, who devote yourself to melancholy, the moon, and the source of tears, are not so very sad as you think. You cry a good deal, I don't doubt. But when grief goes below tears, and forces you in self-defence to try to forget it, not to sit and fondle it,—then you will understand more than you do now. I pity those of your sex upon whom has fallen the reaction of wealth,—for whom there is no career,—who must sit at home and pine in a splendid ennui,—who have learned and who know, spite of sermons and 'sound sensible view of things,' that to enjoy the high 'privilege of reading books,—of cultivating their minds; and, when they are married, minding their babies, and ministering to the drowsy, after-dinner ease of their husbands, is not the fulfilment of their powers and hopes. But, my amiable Miss Larmes, this is a class of girls and women who are not solicitous about wearing black when their great-aunt in Denmark dies, whom they never saw, nor when the only friend who made heaven possible to them, falls dead at their sides. Nor do they avoid Mrs. Potiphar's balls as a happiness which they are not happy enough to enjoy—nor do they suppose that all who attend that festivity—dancing to Mrs. P.'s hired music and drinking Mr. P.'s fines wines—are utterly given over to hilarity and superficial enjoyment. I do not even think they would be likely to run—with rounded eyes, deep voice, and in very exuberant health—to any one of us jaded votaries of fashion, and say, How can you be so happy? My considerate young friend, 'strong walls do not a prison make'—nor is a man necessarily happy because he hops. You are certainly not unhappy because you make eyes at the moon, and adjudge life to be vanity and vexation. Your mind is only obscured by a few morning vapors. They are evanescent as the dew, and when you remember them at evening they will seem to you but as pensive splendors of the dawn."
Laura has her revenge for all this snubbing, of course. She does not attempt to disguise her opinion that Kurz Pacha is a man of "foreign morals," as she well expresses it. "A very gay, agreeable man, who glides gently over the surface of things, but knows nothing of the real trials and sorrows of life," says the melancholy Laura Larmes, whose appetite continues good, and who fills a large armchair comfortably.
It is my opinion, however, that people of a certain size should cultivate the hilarious rather than the unhappy. Diogenes, with the proportions of Alderman Gobble, could not have succeeded as a Cynic.
Here at Newport there is endless opportunity of detecting these little absurdities of our fellow-creatures. In fact, one of the greatest charms of a watering-place, to me, is the facility one enjoys of understanding the whole game, which is somewhat concealed in the city. Watering-place life is a full dress parade of social weaknesses. We all enjoy a kind of false intimacy, an accidental friendship. Old Carbuncle and young Topaz meet on the common ground of a good cigar. Mrs, Peony and Daisy Clover are intimate at all hours. Why? Because, on the one hand, Mrs. P. knows that youth, and grace and beauty, are attractive to men, and that if Miss Rosa Peony, her daughter, has not those advantages, it is well to have in the neighborhood a magnet strong enough to draw the men.
On the other hand, Daisy Clover is a girl of good sense enough to know—even if she didn't know it by instinct—that men in public places like the prestige of association with persons of acknowledged social position, which, by hook or by crook, Mrs. Peony undoubtedly enjoys. Therefore, to be of Mrs. P.'s party is to be well placed in the catalogue—the chances are fairer—the gain is surer. Upon seeing Daisy Clover with quiet little Mrs. Clover, or plain old aunt Honeysuckle,—people would inquire, Who are the Clovers? And no one would know. But to be with Mrs. Peony, morning, noon, and night, is to answer all questions of social position.
But, unhappily, in the city things are changed. There no attraction is necessary but the fine house, gay parties, and understood rank of Mrs. Peony to draw men to Miss Rosa's side. In Newport it does very well not to dance with her. But in the city it doesn't do not to be at Mrs. Peony's ball. Who knows it so well as that excellent lady? Therefore darling Daisy is dropped a little when we all return.
"Sweet girl," Mrs. P. says, "really a delightful companion for Rosa in the summer, and the father and mother are such nice, excellent people. Not exactly people that one knows, to be sure—but Miss Daisy is really amiable and quite accomplished."
Daisy goes to an occasional party at the Peonys. But at the opera and the theatre, and at the small intimate parties of Rosa and her friends, the darling Daisy of Newport is not visible. However, she has her little revenges. She knows the Peonys well: and can talk intelligently about them, which puts her quite on a level with them in the estimation of her own set. She rules in the lower sphere if not in the higher, and Daisy Clover is in the way of promotion. Yes, and if she be very rich, and papa and mamma are at all presentable, or if they can be dexterously hushed up, there is no knowing but Miss Daisy Clover will suddenly bloom upon the world as Mrs. P.'s daughter-in-law, wife of that "gentlemanly" young man, Mr. Puffer Peony.
Naturally it pains me very much to be obliged to think so of the people with whom I associate. But I suppose they are as good as any. As Kurz Pacha says: "If I fly from a Chinaman because he wears his hair long like a woman, I must equally fly the Frenchman because he shaves his like a lunatic. The story of Jack Spratt is the apologue of the world." It is astonishing how intimate he is with our language and literature. By-the-bye, that Polly Potiphar has been mean enough to send out to Paris for the very silk that I relied upon as this summer's cheval de bataille, arid has just received it superbly made up. The worst of it is that it is just the thing for her. She wore it at the hall the other night, and expected to have crushed me, in mine. Not she! I have not summered it at Newport for—well, for several years, for nothing, and although I am rather beyond the strict white muslin age, I thought I could yet venture a bold stroke. So I arrayed a la Daisy Clover—not too much, pas trop jeune. And awaited the onset.
Kurz Pacha saw me across the room, and came up, with his peculiar smile. He did not look at my dress, but he said to me, rather wickedly, looking at my bouquet:
"Dear me! I hardly hoped to see spring flowers so late in the summer."
Then he raised his eyes to mine, and I am conscious that I blushed.
"It's very warm. You feel very warm, I am sure, my dear Miss Tattle," he continued, looking straight at my face.
"You are sufficiently cool, at least, I think," replied I.
"Naturally," said he, "for I've been in the immediate vicinity of the boreal pole for half an hour—a neighborhood in which, I am told, even the most ardent spirits sometimes freeze—so you must pardon me if I am more than usually dull, Miss Minerva."
And the Pacha beat time to the waltz with his head.
I looked at the part of the room from which he had just come, and there, sure enough, in the midst of a group, I saw the tall, and stately, and still Ada Aiguille.
"He is a hardy navigator," continued Kurz Pacha, "who sails for the boreal pole. It is glittering enough, but shipwreck by daylight upon a coral reef, is no pleasanter than by night upon Newport shoals."
"Have you been shipwrecked, Kurz Pacha?" asked I suddenly.
He laughed softly: "No, Miss Minerva, I am not one of the hardy navigators; I keep close in to the shore. Upon the slightest symptom of an agitated sea, I furl my sails, and creep into a safe harbor. Besides, dear Miss Minna I prefer tropical cruises to the Antarctic voyage."
And the old wretch actually looked at my black hair. I might have said something—approving his taste, perhaps, who knows?—when I saw Mrs. Potiphar. She was splendidly dressed in the silk, and it's a pity she doesn't become a fine dress better. She made for me directly.
"Dear Minna, I'm so glad to see you. Why how young and fresh you look to-night. Really, quite blooming! And such a sweet pretty dress, too, and the darling baby-waist and all—"
"Yes," said that witty Gauche Boosey, "permit me, Miss Tattle,—quite an incarnate seraphim, upon my word."
"You are too good," replied I, "my dear Polly, it is your dress which deserves admiration, and I flatter myself in saying so, for it is the very counterpart of one I had made some months ago."
"Yes, darling, and which you have not yet worn," replied she. "I said to Mr. P., 'Mr. P.' said I, 'there are few women upon whose amiability I can count as I can upon Minerva Tattle's, and, therefore, I am going to have a dress like hers. Most women would be vexed about it, and say ill-natured things if I did so. But if I have a friend, it is Minerva Tattle; and she will never grudge it to me for a moment.' It's pretty; isn't it? Just look here at this trimming."
And she showed me the very handsomest part of it, and so much handsomer than mine, that I can never wear it.
"Polly, I am so glad you know me so well," said I. "I'm delighted with the dress. To be sure, it's rather prononce for your style; but that's nothing."
Just then a polka struck up. "Come along! give me this turn," said Boosey, and putting his arm round Mrs. Potiphar's waist, he whirled her off into the dance.
How I did hope that somebody would come to ask me. Nobody came.
"You don't dance?" asked Kurz Pacha, who stood by during my little talk with Polly P.
"Oh, yes," answered I, and hummed the polka.
Kurz Pacha hummed too, looked on at the dancers a few minutes then turned to me, and looking at my bouquet, said:
"It is astonishing how little taste there is for spring-flowers."
At that moment young Croesus "came in" warm with the whirl of the dance, with Daisy Clover.
"It's very warm," said he, in a gentlemanly manner.
"Dear me! yes, very warm," said Daisy.
"Been long in Newport?"
"No; only a few days. We always come, after, Saratoga for a couple of weeks. But isn't it delightful?"
"Quite so," said Timon, coolly, and smiling at the idea of anybody's being enthusiastic about anything. That elegant youth has pumped life dry; and now the pump only wheezes.
"Oh!" continued Daisy, "it's so pleasant to run away from the hot city, and breathe this cool air. And then Nature is so beautiful. Are you fond of Nature, Mr. Croesus?"
"Tolerably,"' returned Timon.
"Oh! but Mr. Croesus! to go to the glen and skip stones, and then walk on the cliff, and drive to Bateman's, and the fort, and to go to the beach by moonlight; and then the bowling-alley, and the archery, and the Germania. Oh! it's a splendid place. But perhaps, you don't like natural scenery, Mr. Croesus?"
"Perhaps not," said Mr. Croesus.
"Well, some people don't," said darling little Daisy, folding up her fan, as if quite ready for another turn.
"Come, now; there it is," said Timon, and, grasping her with his right arm, they glided away.
"Kurz Pacha," said I, "I wonder who sent Ada Aiguille that bouquet?"
"Sir John Franklin, I presume," returned he.
"What do you mean by that," asked I.
Before he could answer, Boosey and Mrs. Potiphar stopped by us.
"No, no, Mr. Boosey," panted Mrs. P., "I will not have him introduced. They say his father actually sells dry goods by the yard in Buffalo."
"Well, but he doesn't, Mrs. Potiphar.
"I know that, and it's all very well for you young men to know him, and to drink, and play billiards, and smoke, with him. And he is handsome to be sure, and gentlemanly, and I am told, very intelligent. But, you know, we can't be visiting our shoemakers and shopmen. That's the great difficulty of a watering-place, one doesn't know who's who. Why Mrs. Gnu was here three summers ago, and there sat next to her, at table, a middle-aged foreign gentleman, who had only a slight accent, and who was so affable and agreeable, so intelligent and modest, and so perfectly familiar with all kinds of little ways, you know, that she supposed he was the Russian Minister, who, she heard, was at Newport incognito for his health. She used to talk with him in the parlor, and allowed him to join her upon the piazza. Nobody could find out who he was. There were suspicions, of course. But he paid his bills, drove his horses, and was universally liked. Dear me! appearances are so deceitful! who do you think he was?"
"I'm sure I can't imagine."
Well, the next spring she went to a music store in Philadelphia, to buy some guitar strings for Claribel, and who should advance to sell them but the Russian Minister! Mrs. Gnu said she colored—"
"So I've always understood," said Gauche, laughing.
"Fie! Mr. Boosey," continued Mrs. P. smiling. "But the music-seller didn't betray the slightest consciousness. He sold her the strings, received the money, and said nothing, and looked nothing. Just think of it! She supposed him to be a gentleman, and he was really a music-dealer. You see that's the sort of thing one is exposed to here, and though your friend may be very nice, it isn't safe for me to know him. In a country where there's no aristocracy one can't be too exclusive. Mrs. Peony says she thinks that in future she shall really pass the summer in a farm-house or if she goes to a watering-place, confine herself to her own rooms and her carriage, and look at the people through the blinds. I'm afraid, myself, it's coming to that. Everybody goes to Saratoga now, and you see how Newport is crowded. For my part I agree with the Rev. Cream Cheese, that there are serious evils in a republican form of government. What a hideous head-dress that is of Mrs. Settum Downe's! What a lovely polka-redowa!"
"So it is, by Jove! Come on," replied the gentlemanly Boosey, and they swept down the hall.
"Ah! ciel!" exclaimed a voice close by us—Kurz Pacha and I turned at the same moment. We beheld a gentleman twirling his moustache and a lady fanning. They were smiling intelligently at each other, and upon his whispering something that I could not hear, she said, "Fi! donc" and folding her fan and laying her arm upon his shoulder, they slid along again in the dance.
"Who is that?" inquired the Pacha.
"Don't you know Mrs. Vite?" said I, glad of my chance. "Why, my dear sir, she is our great social success. She shows what America can do under a French regime. She performs for society the inestimable service of giving some reality to the pictures of Balzac and George Sand, by the quality of her life and manners. She is just what you would expect a weak American girl to be who was poisoned by Paris,—who mistook what was most obvious for what was most characteristic,—whose ideas of foreign society and female habits were based upon an experience of resorts, more renowned for ease than elegance,—who has no instinct fine enough to tell her that a lionne cannot be a lady,—who imitates the worst manners of foreign society, without the ability or opportunity of perceiving the best,—who prefers a double entendre to a bon-mot,—who courts the applause of men whose acquaintance gentlemen are careless of acknowledging,—who likes fast driving and dancing, low jokes, and low dresses, who is, therefore, bold without wit, noisy without mirth, and notorious without a desirable reputation. That is Mrs. Vite."
Kurz Pacha rolled up his eyes.
"Good Jupiter! Miss Minerva," cried he, "is this you that I hear? Why you are warmer in your denunciation of this little wisp of a woman than you ever were of fat old Madame Gorgon, with her prodigious paste diamonds. Really, you take it too hard. And you, too, who used to skate so nimbly over the glib surface of society, and cut such coquettish figures of eight upon the characters of your friends. You must excuse me, but it seems to me odd that Miss Minerva Tattle, who used to treat serious things so lightly, should now be treating light things so seriously. You ought to frequent the comic opera more, and dine with Mrs. Potiphar once a week. If your good humor can't digest such a hors d'oeuvre as little Mrs. Vite, what will you do with such a piece de resistance as Madame Gorgon?"
Odious plain speaker! Yet I like the man. But, before I could reply, up came another couple—Caroline Pettitoes and Norman de Famille.
"You were at the bowling-alley?" said he.
"Yes," answered Caroline.
"You saw them together?"
"Well, what do you think?"
"Why, of course, that if he is not engaged to her he ought to be. He has taken her out in his wagon three times, he has sent her four bouquets, he waltzes with her every night, he bowls with her party every morning, and if that does not mean that he wants to marry her, I should like to know what it does mean," replied Caroline, tossing her head.
Norman de Famille smiled, and Caroline continued with rather a flushed face, because Norman had been doing very much the same thing with her:
"What is a girl to understand by such attentions?"
"Why, that the gentleman finds it an amusing game, and hopes she is equally pleased," returned De Famille.
"Merci, M. de Famille," said Caroline, with an energy I never suspected in her, "and at the end of the game she may go break her heart, I suppose."
"Hearts are not so brittle, Miss Pettitoes," replied Norman. "Besides, why should you girls always play for such high stakes?"
They were just about beginning the waltz again, when the music stopped, and they walked away. But I saw the tears in Caroline's eyes. I don't know whether they were tears of vexation, or of disappointment. The men have the advantage of us because they can control their emotions so much better. I suppose Caroline blushed and cried, because she found herself blushing and crying, quite as much as because she fancied her partner didn't care for her.
I turned to Kurz Pacha, who stood by my side, smiling, and rubbing his hands.
"A charming evening we have had of it, Miss Minerva," said he, "an epitome of life—a kind of last-new-novel effect. The things that we have heard and seen here, multiplied and varied by a thousand or so, produce the net result of Newport. Given, a large house, music, piazzas, beaches, cliff, port, griddle-cakes, fast horses, sherry-cobblers, ten-pins, dust, artificial flowers, innocence, worn-out hearts, loveliness, black-legs, bank-bills, small men, large coat-sleeves, little boots, jewelry, and polka-redowas ad libitum, to produce August in Newport. For my part, Miss Minerva, I like it. But it is a dizzy and perilous game. I profess to seek and enjoy emotions, so I go to watering-places. Ada Aiguille says she doesn't like it. She declares that she thinks less of her fellow-creatures after she has been here a little while. She goes to the city afterward to refit her faith, probably. Daisy Clover thinks it's heavenly. Darling little Daisy! life is an endless German cotillion to her. She thinks the world is gay but well-meaning, is sure that it goes to church on Sundays and never tells lies. Cerulea Bass looks at it for a moment with her hard, round, ebony eyes, and calmly wonders that people will make such fools of themselves. And you, Miss Minerva, pardon me,—you come because you are in the habit of coming—because you are not happy out of such society, and have a tantalizing sadness in it. Your system craves only the piquant sources of scandal and sarcasm, which can never satisfy it. You wish that you liked tranquil pleasures and believed in men and women. But you get no nearer than a wish. You remember when you did believe, but you remember with a shudder and a sigh. You pass for a brilliant woman. You go out to dinners and balls; and men are, what is called, 'afraid of you.' You scorn most of us. You are not a favorite, but your pride is flattered by the very fear on the part of others which prevents your being loved. Time and yourself are your only enemies, and they are in league, for you betray yourself to him. You have found youth the most fascinating and fatal of flirts, but he, although your heart and hope clung to him despairingly, has jilted you and thrown you by. Let him go, if you can, and throw after him the white muslin and the baby-waist. Give up milk and the pastoral poets. Sail, at least, under your own colors; even pirates hoist a black flag. An old belle who endeavors to retain by sharp wit and spicy scandal the place she held only in virtue of youth and spirited beauty is, in a new circle of youth and beauty, like an enemy firing at you from the windows of your own house. The difficulty of your position, dear Miss Minerva, is, that you can never deceive those who alone are worth deceiving. Daisy Clover and Young America, of course, consider you a talented, tremendous kind of woman. Daisy Clover wonders all the men are not in love with you. Young America sniffs and shakes its little head, and says disapprovingly, 'Strong-minded woman!' But you fail, you know, notwithstanding. You couldn't bring old Potiphar to his knees when he first came home from China, and he must needs plunge in love with Miss Polly, whom you despised, but who has certainly profited by her intimacy with Mrs. Gnu, Mrs. Croesus, and Mrs. Settum Downe, as you saw by her conversation with you this evening.
"Ah, Miss Minerva, I am only a benighted diplomat from Sennaar, but when I reflect upon all I see around me in your country; when I take my place with terror in a railroad car, because the certainty of frightful accidents fills all minds with the same vague apprehensions as if a war were raging in the land; when I see the universal rush and fury—young men who never smile, and who fall victims to paralysis; old men who are tired of life and dread death; young women pretty and incapable; old women listless and useless; and both young and old, if women of sense, perishing of ennui, and longing for some kind of a career;—why, I don't say that it is better anywhere else,—perhaps it isn't,—in most ways it certainly is not. I don't say certainly, that there's a higher tone of life in London or Paris than in New York, but only that, whatever it may be there, this, at least, is rather a miserable business."
"What is your theory of life, then?" asked I. "What do you propose?"
Kurz Pacha smiled again.
"Suppose, Miss Minerva, I say the Golden Rule is my theory of life. You think it vague; but it is in that like most theories. Then I propose that we shall all be good. Don't you think it a feasible proposition? I see that you think you have effectually disposed of all complaint by challenging the complainer to suggest a remedy. But it is clear to me that a man in the water has a right to cry out, although he may not distinctly state how he proposes to avoid drowning. Your reasoning is that of those excellent Americans who declare that foreign nations ought not to strike for a republic until they are fit for a republic—as if empires and monarchies founded colleges to propagate democracy. Probably you think it wiser that men shouldn't go into the water until they can swim. Mr. Carlyle, I remember, was bitterly reproached for grumbling in his "Chartism," and other works, as if a man had no moral right to complain of hunger until he had grasped a piece of bread. 'What do you propose to do, Mr. Carlyle?' said they, 'what with the Irish, for instance?' Mr. C. said that he would compel every Irishman to work, or he would sink the island in the sea. 'Barbarous man, this is your boasted reform!' cried they in indignant chorus, unsuited either way, and permitting the Irish to go to the dogs in the meanwhile. So suffer me, dearest Miss Minerva, to regret a state of things which no sensible man can approve. Even if it seems to you light, allow me, at least, to treat it seriously, nor suppose I love anything less, because I would see it better. You are the natural fruit of this state of things, O Minerva Tattle! By thy fruits ye shall know them."
After a few moments, he added in the old way:
"Don't think I am going to break my heart about it, nor lose my appetite. Look at the absurdity of the whole thing. I am preaching to you in your baby-waist, here in a Newport ball-room at midnight. I humbly beg your pardon. There are more potent preachers here than I. Besides, I'm engaged to Mrs. Potiphar's supper at 12. Take things more gently, dear Miss Minerva. Don't make faces at Mrs. Vite, nor growl at your darling Polly. Women as smart as you are, will say precisely as smart thing of you as you say of them. We shall all laugh, first with you, and then at you. But don't deny yourself the pleasure of saying the smart things in hope that they will also refrain. That's vanity, not virtue. People are much better than you think, but they are also much worse. I might have been king of Sennaar, but I am only his ambassador. You might have been only a chambermaid, but you are the brilliant and accomplished Miss Tattle. Tum, tum, tum, ti, ti, ti,—what a pretty waltz! Here come Daisy and Timon Croesus, and now Mrs. Potiphar and Gauche Boosey, and now again Caroline Pettitoes and De Famille. She is smiling again, you see. She darts through the dance like a sunbeam as she is. Caroline is a philosopher. Just now, you remember, it was down, down, down,—now it is up, up, up. It is a good world, if you don't rub it the wrong way. Sit in the sun as much as possible. One preserves one's complexion, but gets so cold in the shade. Ah! there comes Mrs. Potiphar. Why, she is radiant! She shakes her fan at me. Adieu, Miss Minerva. Sweet dreams. To-morrow morning at the Bowling Alley at eleven, you know, and the drive at six. Au revoir."
And he was gone. The ball was breaking up. A few desperate dancers still floated upon the floor. The chairs were empty. The women were shawling, and the men stood attendant with bouquets. I went to a window and looked out. The moon was rising, a wan, waning moon. The broad fields lay dark beneath, and as the music ceased, I heard the sullen roar of the sea. If my heart ached with an indefinite longing,—if it felt that the airy epicurism of the Pacha was but a sad cynicism, masquerading in smiles,—if I dreaded to ask whether the wisest were not the saddest,—if the rising moon, and the plunging sea, and the silence of midnight, were mournful, if I envied Daisy Clover her sweet sleep and vigorous waking,—why, no one need ever know it, nor suspect that the brilliant Minerva Tattle is a failure.
THE POTIPHARS IN PARIS.
A LETTER FROM MISS CAROLINE PETTITOES TO MRS. SETTUM DOWNE.
MY DEAR MRS. DOWNE,—Here we are at last! I can hardly believe it. Our coming was so sudden that it seems like a delightful dream. You know at Mrs. Potiphar's supper last August in Newport, she was piqued by Gauche Boosey's saying, in his smiling, sarcastic way:
"What! do you really think this is a pretty supper? Dear me! Mrs. Potiphar, you ought to see one of our petits soupers in Paris, hey Croesus?" and then he and Mr. Timon Croesus lifted their brows knowingly, and smiled, and glanced compassionately around the table.
"Paris, Paris!" cried Mrs. Potiphar; "you young men are always talking about Paris, as if it were heaven. Oh! Mr. P., do take me to Paris. Let's make up a party, and slip over. It's so easy now, you know. Come, come, Pot. I know you won't deny me. Just for two or three months, The truth is," said she, turning to D'Orsay Firkin, who wore that evening the loveliest shirt-bosom I ever saw, "I want to send home some patterns of new dresses to Minerva Tattle."
They all laughed, and in the midst Kurz Pacha, who was sitting at the side of Mrs. Potiphar, inquired:
"What colors suit the Indian summer best, Mrs. Potiphar?"
"Well, a kind of misty color," said Boosey, laughingly, and emphasizing missed, as if he meant some pun upon the word.
"Which conceals the outline of the landscape," interrupted Mrs. Gnu.
"Cajoling you with a sense of warmth on the very edge of winter, eh?" asked the Sennaar minister.
Another loud laugh rang round the table.
"I thought Minerva Tattle was a friend of yours, Kurz Pacha," said Mrs. Gnu, smiling mischievously, and playing with her beautiful bouquet, which Mrs. Potiphar told me Timon Croesus had sent her.
"Certainly, so she is," replied he. "Miss Minerva and I understand each other perfectly. I like her society immensely. The truth is, I am always better in autumn; the air is both cool and bright."
As he said this he looked fixedly at Mrs. Gnu, and there was not quite so much laughing. I am sure I don't know what they meant by talking about autumn. I was busy talking with Mr. Firkin about Daisy Clover's pretty morning dress at the Bowling Alley, and admiring his shirt-bosom. Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and an exquisite bouquet was handed in for Kurz Pacha.
"Why didn't you wait until to-morrow?" said he, sharply.
The man stammered some excuse, and the ambassador took the flowers. Mrs. Gnu looked at them closely, and praised them very much, and quietly glanced at her own, which were really splendid. Kurz Pacha showed them to all the ladies at table, and then handed them to Mrs. Potiphar, saying to her, as he half looked at Mrs. Gnu: