Since something must be crowded out, the first and great point is to determine what this something must be. Certain duties are of prime importance, others only secondary. One writer says of a woman who had cultivated the sense of proportion with regard to her work: "We felt all the while the cheer and gladness and brightness of her presence, just because she had learned to make this great distinction,—to put some things first and others second. She had mastered the great secret of life."
This talk of mine reminds me of a prosy preacher who chose one Sunday as the text of his sermon, "It is good to be here," and began his discourse with the announcement, "I shall employ all the time this morning in telling of the places in which it is not good to be. If you come to hear me to-night I will tell you where it is good to be."
So we will consider the things which must not be put aside. Some duties are plain, self-evident, and heaven-appointed. Such is the care of children. To the young mother this is, or should be, the first and great object in life. Her baby must have enough clothes, and these clothes must be kept clean, fresh and dainty, for his pure, sweet babyship. His many little wants must be attended to, even if calls are not returned and correspondence is neglected. But it is not absolutely necessary to load down the tiny frocks with laces and embroidery that are time consumers from the moment they are stitched on till the article they serve to adorn is ready for the rag-bag. The starching, the fluting, the ironing, all take precious hours that might be employed upon some of the must-haves.
Home duties take the precedence of social engagements. A busy mother cannot serve John, babies and society with all her heart, soul and strength. Either she will neglect the one and cleave unto the other, or neither will receive proper attention. Even a wealthy woman who can make work easy (?) by having a nurse for each child in the household, cannot afford to leave the tender oversight of the clothes, food, and general health of one of her babies to those hired to do the "nursing." There is no genuine nurse but the mother; and although others may do well under her eye and directed by her, she can never shift the mother-responsibility to other shoulders; and if she be worthy of the dignity of motherhood, she will never wish to have it otherwise.
A few days ago I heard a clever woman say that a friend of hers had chosen as her epitaph—not, "She hath done what she could," but "She tried to do what she couldn't," and that her motto in life seemed to be, "What's worth doing at all is worth doing swell." This speech applies to too many American women, and so general is the habit of overcrowding, that she who would really determine what is worth doing at all must hold herself calmly and quietly in hand, and stand still with closed eyes for one minute, until her senses, dazed by the wild rush about her, have become sufficiently clear, and her hand steady enough, to pick out the diamonds of duty from the glass chips which pass with the superficial observer for first-water gems. It is well for our housewife to have some test-stone duty by which she may rate the importance of other tasks. Such a test-stone may be John's or baby's needs or requirements. Of course she must not expect to make as much show to the outside world by keeping the children well and happy, entertaining her husband each evening until he forgets the trials and vexations of his business-day, preparing toothsome and wholesome dainties for the loved ones, and making home sweet and attractive, as does the society woman who attends twenty teas a week, gives large lunches and dinners, and "takes in" every play and opera.
"The little bird sits at his door in the sun, Atilt like a blossom among the leaves, And lets his illumined being o'errun With the deluge of summer it receives. His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings, And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings; He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest; In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?"
If my reader is a mother it will not take very long for her to justly determine the values.
Recently I heard a busy woman and an excellent housewife say: "If I am pressed with important work, and my parlors are not very dusty, I unblushingly wipe off the polished furniture, on which every speck shows, and leave the upholstered articles until another time."
This was not untidiness. It was only putting time and work to the best advantage, that there might be enough to go around.
I read the other day in the woman's department of a prominent paper a letter from a subscriber who said that she was so driven with work that it was all she could do to get her washing done, much less her ironing. So she had determined to use her bed-linen and underclothing rough-dry. Would it not have been wiser as well as neater, for her to have plain, untrimmed underwear, and iron it without starching? For here comfort is also to be considered. Is not smooth, neat linen to take the precedence of trimming and starch?
Another thing which must not be crowded out is rest, and the care of the health,—and the one includes the other. A day in which no breathing-space has been found is a wicked day. Not only is it our duty to the bodies which God has given to care properly for them, but it is, moreover, a positive duty to our fellow-man. An overworked person is likely to be cross and disagreeable, for the mind is affected by the state of the body, and it is an absolute sin to put ourselves into a condition that makes others miserable. It is also wretched economy to burn the candle at both ends every day. When it is needed to aid us in some large piece of work the wick will be consumed, and the light will faintly flicker, or splutter feebly and die.
Among the things which may be easily and advantageously crowded out, we may rank unnecessary talking. The housekeeper would be surprised were she to take note of the time spent by her servants, and, perhaps, even by herself, in saying a few words here, and telling a story there in the time which rightfully belongs to other tasks. Could she look, herself unseen, into her kitchen, she would find Bridget and Norah, arms akimbo, comparing notes as to past "places" or present beaux. Gossip is their meat and drink, and it does not occur to them, or they do not care, that they are paid the same wages for time thus spent as for the hours at the tubs and ironing-board. "When you work, work; and when you play, play," is an excellent motto for both mistress and maid.
To many workers there is a lack of courage and a sinking of heart at the thought of a large piece of work ahead of them, and such persons lose a vast amount of time in looking at a duty before they attack it. This habit of dallying over a task is something which may certainly be crowded out.
The two great points in the successful management of time are concentration and system. At the beginning of each day set duties in array before your mind's eye, and attack them, one at a time. This may at first sight sound like ridiculously unnecessary advice. But unless my readers are exceptional women, they all know what it is to be so pressed with things that must be done that they do not know what to begin first. Having chosen the most important task, attack that, and when you have once laid hold of the plough, drive straight ahead, not allowing the sight of another furrow, which is not just straight, to induce you to stop midway to straighten it before you have finished the one upon which your energies should now be bent. Too many women are mere potterers, not earnest laborers. They begin to make a bed, and stop to brush up some dust that has collected under the bureau. Before the dust-pan is emptied, the thought occurs of a tear in one of the children's aprons, and by the time that is mended, something else appears that needs attention, and all day long tasks are half completed and nothing is entirely finished, until at night the poor toiler is weary and discouraged, with nothing to show for her pains, except an anxious face and a semi-straight household.
Woman's work is quite as dignified as man's, and why should it not be arranged as carefully and systematically? If some thing must be crowded out, let it be, with forethought and reason, set to one side,—not shoved or huddled amid mess and confusion.
WHAT GOOD WILL IT DO?
Thus I translate the Latin cui bono. In whatever language the query is put, it is the most valuable balance-wheel ever attached to human action and speech.
The principle is old. The pithy phrase in the shrewd Roman's mouth was two-edged, and had a sharp point. The enterprise that led to no good was not worth beginning.
A friend of mine who has written long, much, and, so far as I can judge, always profitably, told me that in 1865 she wrought out what was, to her apprehension, the most powerful book she ever composed,—a story of the Civil War. She was a Unionist in every thought and sentiment, and this she proclaimed; she had had unusual opportunities of seeing behind the scenes of political intrigue, and she had improved them. When the last chapter was written she carried the MS. into her husband's study at dusk one evening, and began to read it aloud to him. She finished it at two o'clock a.m. Her auditor would not let her pause until then. Hoarse, but with a heart beating high with excitement, she waited for the verdict. The husband walked up and down the floor for some minutes, head bent and hands clasped behind him, deep in thought. Finally he stopped in front of her.
"That is a marvelous book, my dear,—strong, true, dramatic. It will sell well. It will make a noise in the world. But—cui bono?"
Chagrined, mortified, angry, the author took the words with her to her room, and her brain tossed upon them as upon thorns all night. At dawn she arose and put the MS. into the fire.
"I shudder to this day in thinking what would have been had I acted differently," she says. "What I had written in a semi-frenzy of patriotism would have been hot pincers, tearing open wounds which humanity and religion would have taught me to heal."
Into many lives comes some such crisis, when the text I would bind upon my reader's mind would act as a breakwater, and save more than one soul from sorrow, perhaps from destruction. In the everyday life of everybody, crises of less moment accentuate experience, and tend to make the nature richer or poorer.
I incline to the belief that nine-tenths of the remorseful heartaches which most of us know only too well, might be spared us did we pause to repeat to ourselves the Latin or English sentence. It may be a relic of barbarism, but it is an undeniable trait of human nature that all of us feel the longing to "answer back," or, as the children put it, to "get even with" the man or woman whose speech offends us. The apostle showed marvelous knowledge of the weakness of sinful mortals when he affirmed that the tongue was an unruly member, for it is easier to perform a herculean feat, to strain physical strength and muscle to the utmost, than to bite back the sharp retort, or repress the acrid reply. And there is such a hopelessness in the sentence once uttered! It is gone from us forever. We may regret it and show our repentance in speech and action, but we cannot blot the memory of the cruel words from our minds, or from the mind of the person,—perhaps a mere acquaintance, oftener bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh,—in whose heart the barbed arrows of our eloquence rankle for months and years. The dear friend may forgive freely and fully the bitter censure or unjust reproof, but a scar is left which, if touched in a moment of inadvertence, will pulse and throb with the remembrance of pain.
"Leave the bitter word unspoken; So shalt thou be strongly glad, If there lies no backward shadow On dead faces, wan and sad."
"To repress a harsh answer, to confess a fault, to stop, right or wrong, in the midst of self-defence, in gentle submission, sometimes requires a struggle like life and death, but these three efforts are the golden threads with which domestic happiness is woven."
How frequently we exclaim,—"If I ever get the opportunity, I will give that woman a piece of my mind!" or, "I shall some time have the satisfaction of telling that man what I think of his behavior."
It is a very melancholy and most unsatisfactory satisfaction to know that you have made a person uncomfortable. It is folly for you to suppose for a moment that an angry speech of yours will turn a man from a course of which you do not approve. It will make him hate you, perhaps, but it will not change him. It is not only foolish, but un-Christian to triumph in another's discomfiture. Then why "give the piece of your mind," which you can never take back? What good will it do?
The same question may be asked with regard to the uncharitable remarks which nearly all of us make daily. Once in a great while, we meet a human being, still permitted to dwell on this sinful earth, who rarely says anything unkind of anybody, whose rule is, "If you cannot say a kind thing say nothing." In the course of a long and varied experience I may have known half-a-dozen such. But what man has done, man may do again. What is the baneful spirit which tempts the gentlest of us to take more pleasure in calling attention to a fault than to a virtue? If a woman is a tender mother, a model wife, and an excellent housekeeper, why, when her virtues are discussed, is it necessary for some one to "think it is such a pity that she does not read more?" or what good comes from the remark that she is "sprightly, but not very deep?"
There is no habit more easily contracted than that of wholesale criticism, and it is a habit that grows with fungus-like rapidity. Washington Irving says "that a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use," and with many people the unruly member has acquired a razor-like edge which contains in itself the faculty of keeping sharp, and never needs "honing" or "setting."
I have in mind one man to whom I hesitate to name a friend, unless it chances to be one over whom he has cast the mantle of his approval. Those who are fortunate enough to live up to his standard are very few, and all others he criticises unmercifully, employing in his condemnation a ready wit and fluent speech that might be used in a nobler purpose. Such a reputation as he holds for all uncharitableness is not an enviable one, and one wonders what would be his answer to our cui bono. When there are so many truthful and pleasant things that may be said of everybody, why call attention to disagreeable points, which after all, are fewer than the agreeable ones?
The office of the gossip is so thankless that it is a marvel any one accepts it. To certain natures there is positive delight in being the first to relate a choice bit of scandal. It never occurs to them that the old maxim with regard to a dog who fetches a bone can possibly be applied to them. But it is as true as the stars that if a person brings you an unsavory tale of a friend, she will carry away as ugly a story of you, if she can find the faintest suggestion upon which to found it. The gossip acquires a detective-like faculty for following out a clue, but unfortunately, the clue is oftener purely imaginary than real. A little discrepancy like this does not disturb the professional scandal-monger. So tenacious is the habit of making much of nothing, that, deprived of this, her sustenance, she would find life colorless and void. So, if material does not present itself, she manufactures it. One must live.
There is also a habit, which, while comparatively innocent, is likely to bring trouble upon the perpetrator. It is that of making many confidantes. Here comes a very serious cui bono. Undoubtedly there is a momentary satisfaction in telling one's woes and sorrows to an interested listener. When the auditor is a friend, and a trusted friend, whose sympathy is genuine and whose discretion is vast, there is a comfort beyond description in unburdening one's soul. But there is a line to be drawn even here. It is not deceit to keep your private affairs to yourself when you are sure that you are guilty of nothing dishonorable or hypocritical in so doing. You are often your own best and safest counselor. I know one woman who long ago said a thing which should be a motto to those susceptible persons who in a sudden expansion of the heart tell all they know and which they would most wish to keep to themselves.
"My dear," she said, "in the course of a somewhat checkered life I have discovered that while I have often been sorry for things which I have told, I have never had cause to regret what I have kept to myself."
If you have a secret and wish to keep it, guard it jealously. It ceases to be yours alone when you impart it to another. Your confidante may be discretion personified, and, yet again, she may have some nearer and dearer one to whom she "tells everything," even the secrets of her friends. Or, you may in time learn to be ashamed of the confidence which you have reposed in this person, and the knowledge that she knows and remembers the thing, and, it may be, knows that you feel a mortification at the thought of it, will gall you unspeakably.
Perhaps the hardest struggle that comes to the average human being is to let others be mistaken. Yet what good will it do to point out to them their mistakes? If your husband or son tells several people that he met John Smith last week in New York, and you know that he was in that city three weeks ago, why correct him? He is talking hastily and does not stop to measure his words or time. The mistake is unimportant. Why antagonize a man by exclaiming:
"My dear John! This is the third week in January, and you went to New York immediately after Christmas."
When you hear your friend tell your favorite story, and change some minor detail, she will love you not a whit the more if you correct her with—
"No, Mary! the way it happened was this"—and then proceed with the tale in the manner which you consider best.
There are so many things which we all do for which there is no honest reason, that I will mention only one more. That is the exceedingly uncomfortable trick of reminding a man of something he has once said, when he has since had occasion to change his mind. Perhaps some years ago when you first met your now dear friend, you thought her manner affected, and did not hesitate to mention the fact to your family. Since then you have become so well acquainted with her delightful points that you forget your early impression of her. How do you feel when you are enthusiastically enumerating her many lovable attributes, if the member of the household with the fiendish memory strikes in with—
"Oh, then you have changed your mind about her? You remember you once said that you considered her the most affected mortal whom you had ever met."
Under such provocation does not murder assume the guise of justifiable homicide?
There is no more bitter diet than to be forced to eat one's own words. Never tell one of an opinion which he once held, if he has since had reason to alter his views. There is no sin or weakness in changing one's mind. It is a thing which all of us—if we except a few victims to pig-headed prejudice—do daily. And, as a rule, we hate to be reminded of the fact. Then why call the attention of others to the circumstances that they are guilty of the same weakness, if such it be? Again I ask, cui bono?
SHALL, I PASS IT ON?
"Me refrunce, mum!"
I look up, bewildered, from an essay to which I have just set the caption—"Who is my Neighbor?"
"Me carackter, mum! Me stiffticket! You'll not be sending me away without one, peticklerly as 'twas meself as give warnin'?"
She is ready for departure. Dressed in decent black for the brother "who was drownded las' summer," she stands at the back of my desk, one hand on her hip, and makes her demand. It is not a petition, but a dispassionate statement of a case that has no other side.
She has been in my kitchen for six months as my nominal servitor. She has drawn her wages punctually for that time. She "wants a change;" her month is up; she is going out of my house, out of my employ, out of my life. These things being true, Katy wants to take with her all that pertains to her. One of these belongings is her "refrunce." From her standpoint, I owe it to her as truly as I owed the sixteen dollars I have just paid her.
I engaged Katy last May from a highly responsible intelligence office. For and in consideration of a fee of three dollars, a lady-like agent, with a smooth voice and demeanor, passed over "the girl" to me as she might a brown paper parcel of moist sugar. She supplied, gratis, a personal voucher for the woman I had engaged, having known her well for five years. Katy had, moreover, a model "recommend," which she unwrapped from a bit of newspaper that had kept it clean. The chirography was the fashionable "long English;" the diction was good, and the orthography faultless. Envelope and paper had evidently come from a lady's davenport.
"This is to certify that Katherine Brady has lived in my family for eleven months as cook. I have found her industrious, sober, neat, honest and obliging. She also understands her business thoroughly. She leaves me in consequence of my removal from the city. (Mrs.) ... No ... West 57th St., New York City."
If the certificate had a fault, it was that the fit was too nearly perfect. I had heard of references written to order by venal scribes, and I consulted the city directory. Mr. ...'s office was in Wall street, his residence No ... West 57th street. I called to see him, found him in, and found him a gentleman. He had no doubt that all was right. He believed the name of their latest cook was Katherine. They called her "Katy." He knew that his wife was sorry to part with her, and inferred that she was a worthy woman.
We, too, were leaving town, but only for the summer. Katy "liked the country in hot weather. All the best fam'lies now-a-days had their country-places."
It is not an easy matter to "change help" during a summer sojourn in a cottage distant an hour and a half from town. The act involves one or more railway journeys, much running about in hot streets, and much hopeless ringing at dumb and dusty doors. This is the explanation of Katy's six months' stay in my kitchen. In town, she would have been dismissed at the end of the first week. She was a wretched cook, and a worse laundress. Within an hour after she entered my door, the decent black gown was exchanged for a dingy calico which she wore, without a collar, and minus a majority of the buttons, all day long and every day. She was "a settled girl"—owning to twenty-eight summers, and having weathered forty winters. Her hair, streaked with gray, tumbled down as persistently as Patience Riderhood's, and was uncomfortably easy of identification in ragout and muffins. Her slippers were down at heel; her kitchen was never in order; her tins were black; her pots were greasy; her range was dull; her floors unclean. Like all her compeers, she "found the place harder nor she had been give to onderstand, but was willin' to do her best, seein' she had come."
Her best was sometimes sour bread, sometimes burned biscuits, generally weak, muddy coffee, always under-seasoned vegetables and over-seasoned soup. By July 1, she developed a genius for quarreling with the other servants that got up a domestic hurricane, and I told her she must leave. She promptly burst into tears, and reminded me that I "had engaged her for the sayson, an' what would a pore girl be doin' in the empty city in the middle of the summer?
"An' whativer they may say o' me ways down-stairs, it's the timper of a babby I have, an' would niver throw a harrd wurrd at a dog, let alone a human. Whin they think me cross, it's only that I'm a bit quoiet, an' who can wonder? thinkin' o' me pore brother as was drownded las' summer, an' him niver out o' me moind!"
I weakly allowed her to stay upon promise of good and peaceable behavior, and tried to make the best of her, as she had of the place.
One September day, just when the physician, called in to see a dear young guest, had expressed his fear that she was sickening for a serious illness, Katy gave warning. "Her feelin's would not allow her to stay in a house where there was sickness. It always reminded her of her pore, dear brother what was drownded las' summer, an' a sick pairson made a quare lot o' extra work, even when it was considered in the wages. She'd be lavin' that day week, her month bein' up then."
Happily, the threatening of illness was a false alarm, but Katy is going. The city is filling up, and many "best families" must re-open their town-houses in time for the school terms. She looks as happy at the prospect of a return to area-gossip and Sunday flirtation as I feel at getting rid of her. I have made with her a farewell round of pantries, refrigerator, and cellar. Valuable articles are missing—notably two solid silver tablespoons and a dozen fine napkins. At the back of the barn a pile of brushwood masks a Monte Testaccio of china and cut-glass. Dirt is in every corner; glass-towels have been degraded into dish and floor-cloths; saucepans are burned into holes; tops are lacking to pots and pails.
For all this there is no redress. When I made a stand upon the "case of spoons," as being old family silver, the housemaid declared that Katy had used them often to stir soup and porridge, and Katy retorted with gusts of brine and brogue that she "wouldn't be accountable for things that didn't belong to her business."
Altogether, my amiable willingness that she should take her leave without shaking more dust from her feet upon an already burdened household, had become impatient desire by the time I counted out her wages. Yet, here she stands, grim as the sphinx, fixed as Fate, with the inexorable requisition, "Me refrunce, mum!"
"What could I say of you Katy?" I ask, miserably.
"What any leddy whatsomever, as is a leddy, would say! What lots o' other leddies, as leddylike as enny leddy could wish to be, ridin' in their coaches an' livin' in houses tin times 's big as this, leddies as had none but leddylike ways, has said!" is the tautological response. "I've served yez, fair an' faithful, for six mont's, and it stan's to rayson as I wouldn't 'a' been let to stay that long onder yer ruff if so be I hadn't shuited yez."
She has me there, and she knows it. Inwardly, I retract some of the hard things I have thought and said of Mrs. ... of No ... West Fifty-seventh street. Having let the creature abide under her roof for eleven months, she must justify herself for the act. She meant to leave town, as I mean to go back to town, and, like me, truckled weakly to expediency. Nevertheless, her weakness did me a real wrong.
Shall I pass it on?
This is the moral question I would sift from what my readers may regard as trivial and commonplace details. The fact that my experience is so common as to seem trite, is the most startling feature in the case. Our American domestic service is a loosely woven web, full of snarls and knots. It is time that the great national principle that government must depend upon the consent of the governed, should be studied and applied to the matter in hand. We, the wage-payers, are the governed, and without our consent. The recent attempt to enforce this retroverted law upon a grand scale, in calling a mighty railway corporation to account for the discharge of a dozen or so out of several thousand employes, is no stronger proof of this curious reversal of positions than the demand of my whilom cook that I should set my hand to a lie.
I caught her once in a falsehood so flagrant that I commended the rule of truth-speaking to her moral sense, and asked how she reconciled the sin with her knowledge of what was right.
Her answer was ready: "Oh, there's no sin in a lie that doesn't hurt yer neighbor!"
Judged even by this easygoing principle, I should sin in penning the reference without which Katy intimates that she will not withdraw her foot from my house. She looms before me,—vulgar, determined, irrational and ignorant,—the impersonation of the System under which we cringe and groan.
"What would you do?" I ask a friend, who is a successful housewife.
She shrugs her shoulders.
"Oh, swim with the tide! Not to give the certificate will be equivalent to boycotting yourself. The news of your contumacy will spread like prairie fires. You will be baited and banned beyond endurance."
"But—my duty to my neighbor?"
"Thanks to the prevailing rule in these affairs, your neighbor knows how little a written reference is worth. She will satisfy the proprieties by reading it, and form her own opinion of the girl. When Katy has worn out her saucepans and patience, your successor in misfortune will give her clean papers to the next place. It is a sort of endless chain of suffering. Then, there is the humane side of the question. A recommendation of some sort is a form most housewives insist upon. You may be taking the bread out of a 'girl's' mouth by denying her a scrap of paper."
Nevertheless, I shall not give Katy a reference. I have said to her in plain but temperate terms:
"You are a poor cook. You are wasteful, dirty, ill-tempered and impertinent. You have been a grievous trial and a money loss to me. I am willing to write this down, together with the statement that you are sober, strong and quick to learn, and that you would probably work well under a stricter mistress than I have time to be."
She has informed me in intemperate terms, that "it is aisy to see you are no leddy, an' fer the matter o' that, no Christian, ayther, or you'd not put sech an insult on to an honest, harrd-wurkin' girrl as has her livin' to git."
She pronounces furthermore, that she "was niver so put upon an' put about in all her life afore as since into this house she come;" that she "will have the law o' me for refusing her her rights." Finally, and most intemperately, that "the Lord will dale with me for grindin' the face of a pore, defenceless young cre'tur' as has had such a pile o' throuble already. If her pore, dear brother what was drownded las' summer was alive, I wouldn't dare trate her so cruel."
I stand fast, between breaths, to my resolution. I relate the true history of the transaction to enforce my appeal to my fellow housekeepers, all over the land, to join hands in a measure which would, I am persuaded, go far toward rectifying a crooked system.
Let each housekeeper, in dismissing a servant, write out without prejudice for or against the late employee, her claims to the confidence of the next employer, and her faults,—in short, a veritable "character." Let her pledge herself to her sister-housekeepers and to her conscience, not to receive into her family one who cannot produce satisfactory testimonials of her fitness for the place she seeks.
In England, a mistress who engages a maid without such credentials is regarded as recreant to her order. In England, too, the former mistress is held partly responsible for the mischief done, if she turn loose upon other households a woman like Katherine Brady.
The proposed remedy for a crying and a growing evil is so simple that some may doubt its practical efficacy. Yet the most casual thinker must see the strength as well as the simplicity of a plan which would make skill and fidelity in service the only road to success. Self-interest, if nothing else, would stimulate our Katies and Bridgets, our Dinahs and our Gretchens, to keep a place, if it were not so wickedly easy to "make a change." Our kitchens are overrun and ravaged by Arabs that become, every year, more despotic.
"Who would be free, herself must strike the blow." General liberty from this bondage can only be achieved by determined and united effort. The establishment in every community of a simple organization under the name of The Housekeepers' Protective Union, that should have but one article in its constitution, and that one be the pledge I have indicated, would cover the whole ground, and effect within a year, permanent reform. Shall not this appeal be the Alexander to cut the Gordian knot which has, thus far, defied the dexterity and strength of all who have wrestled with the problem?
Who will send me news of the formation of the first Chapter of the H.P.U.?
"ONLY HER NERVES."
There is a slang expression current among the irreverent youth of the present day, when referring to a man wise in his own conceit, to the effect that "what that fellow does not know is torn out." So I, quoting my juniors, begin my talk with the sentence—for the raciness of which I apologize—"What American women do not know about nervousness is torn out!"
Only this week in a city horse-car I watched the faces of my fellow-passengers,—women, most of them—with a pain at my heart. Oh, the tired, strained, impatient faces, and the eager, alert, and anxious expression that belong to the people of this new and free country! Some of these wretched mortals had babies with them,—babies whose fretful wails seemed but to voice the mother's expression of countenance. In an uneasy way the little mites would be shifted from one shoulder to another, or trotted in nervousness that reminded me irresistibly of the nursery rhyme which might be the motto of the American mother:
", out of breath, They trot the baby, most to death, Sick or well, or cold or hot, It's trottery, trottery, trottery, trot."
Of all these women there was not one who sat still for three consecutive minutes. Heads were twisted to look at the name of the corner lamp-posts, glove fingers were smoothed, the folds of dress-skirts shaken out, hats straightened,—until I would fain have cried out in irreverent paraphrase, at sight of the unrest which I blush to confess made me conscious of my own nerves:
"Not one sitteth still—no, not one!"
That men have any patience with what they term "feminine fidgetiness," is but an evidence that they are better Christians than we of the gentler sex are willing to admit. For I think I am not making a sweeping assertion when I state that not one tolerably healthy man in five hundred knows what it is to have nerves such as are the birthright of his mother, sister, and wife. And yet how well the physician, poet, autocrat and professor, Oliver Wendell Holmes, knows and sympathizes with this weakness in us! He touches the truth in a direct way that wrings a sigh of familiar pain from many a patient soul.
"Some people have a scale of your whole nervous system and can play all the gamut of your sensibilities in semi-tones, touching the naked nerve-pulps as a pianist strikes the keys of his instrument. I am satisfied that there are as great masters of this nerve-playing as Vieuxtemps or Thalberg in their lines of performance. Married life is the school in which the most accomplished artists in this department are found. A delicate woman is the best instrument; she has such a magnificent compass of sensibilities. From the deep inward moan which follows pressure on the great nerves of right, to the sharp cry as the filaments of taste are struck with a crashing sweep, is a range which no other instrument possesses."
And again he speaks of the less serious affection of the nerves as: ... "Not fear, but what I call nervousness,—unreasoning, but irresistible; as when, for instance, one, looking at the sun going down, says: 'I will count fifty before it disappears,' and as he goes on and it becomes doubtful whether he will reach the number, he gets strangely flurried, and his imagination pictures life and death and heaven and hell as the issues depending on the completion or non-completion of the fifty he is counting."
If a man can describe it all so well, what could a woman do? I fear that her description would be too graphic to be read by us, her sisters.
Many people have a way of saying of a sufferer:
"There is nothing the matter with her. She is only excessively nervous."
This "only" is a very serious matter. There is no illness more difficult to treat and more trying to bear than nervous prostration. It is a slowly advancing malady which is scarcely recognized as serious by one's friends until the tired mind succumbs and mental aberration is the terrible finale of the seemingly slight indisposition.
My readers may wonder why I dwell upon a subject that baffles even the most eminent physicians in the country. It is because I feel that each of us women has in herself the only check to the nervousness which we all dread. We, as Americans, cannot afford to trifle with our unfortunate inheritance, but must use every means at our command to subjugate the evil instead of being subjugated by it. Too many women, especially among the lower classes, think it "pretty" to be nervous. The country practitioner will tell you of the precious hours he loses every week in hearkening to the recital of personal discomforts as poured into his professional ears by farmers' wives. And the beginning, middle, and end of all their plaints is "my nerves." Anything, from a sprained ankle to consumption, is attributed to or augmented by these necessary adjuncts to the human anatomy.
Not long ago I was talking to the ignorant mother of a jaundiced, colicky child of two years of age.
"What does she eat?" I asked.
"Well, she takes fancies, and her latest notion is that she won't eat nothin' but ginger-nuts and bananas. So she mostly lives on them. Sometimes she suffers awful."
"Oh, no!" patronizingly. "She inherits all my nervous weakness. Her nerves get the upper hand of her, and she turns pale and shivers all over, and then she looks as if she would go into the spasms."
"But," I suggested, "don't you think that is caused by acute indigestion?"
"No, ma'am. You see I know what it is, havin' had it so bad myself. The nerves of her stomach all draw up, and cause the shakin' and tremblin'."
Suggestions as to the modification of the little one's diet were useless. Indigestion was unromantic (in the mother's judgment), and "nerves" were highly aristocratic and refined.
I am happy to note that the girl of the rising generation is learning that to succumb to weakness is not a sign of ladyhood. She does not jump on a chair at sight of a mouse, scream when she meets a cow in a country road, or cover her face and shudder at mention of a snake. She is proud of being afraid of nothing, of having a good appetite, and of the ability to sleep as soundly as a tired and healthy child.
It is not then to her, but to ourselves, that we mothers have need to look. We are too often the ones who give way to hysterical tears or to sharp words, or perhaps to unjust criticism, all of which we attribute to nervousness. Our more frank girl, if affected in the same way, would bluntly acknowledge that she was "as cross as a bear." Let us quietly take hold of ourselves and ask ourselves the plain question, "Are we nervous, or cross?" If the latter, we know how to remedy it. A well person has no right to be so abominably bad-tempered or moody that he cannot keep people from finding it out. If you are nervous, there is some reason for it. Perhaps you did not sleep well last night; perhaps you are suffering from dyspepsia; but in any case will-power will do much towards lessening the trouble. If you are ill, it may cause a struggle greater than your nearest and dearest can imagine to repress the startled ejaculation at the slamming of a door, or the angry exclamation when your bed is jarred. But you will be better, not worse, physically, for this self-control. The woman, who, though tortured by nervousness sets her teeth and says, "I will be strong!" stands a better chance of speedy recovery than does she who weakly gives way to hysterical sobs a dozen times a day. Your nerves should be your servants, and, like all servants, may give you much trouble, but as long as you are mistress of yourself you need not fear them. Once let them get the control over you, and you are gone. There is no tyrant more merciless than he who has hitherto been a slave.
May I add one word to those whom we, in exasperation, are apt to call aggressively strong? If you, yourself, do not know what nervousness is, pity and help the poor sufferer in your family who never knows during day or night what it is to be without what you consider "the fussiness that sets you wild." If this mother, or aunt, or sister, does control herself, remember that she is stronger than you, as the man who successfully curbs the fiery steed is more to be commended for courage than he who holds the reins loosely over the back of the safe farm-horse who does not know how to shy, kick, or run.
THE RULE OF TWO.
One character mentioned in the unique rhyme of Mary and her Little Lamb, has never had due praise and consideration dealt out to him. The teacher who heartlessly expelled from the temple of learning the unoffending and guileless companion of the innocent maiden who is the heroine of the above-mentioned ditty, was, in spite of his cruelty, a philosopher. After the exit of the principal actors in the poem, we are told that the following conversation ensued:
"What makes the lamb love Mary so?" The eager children cry. "Because she loves the lamb, you know," The teacher did reply.
The teacher was wise in his generation. In his "reply," lies a world of meaning—one of the answers to the old question of the reason for personal antipathies and attractions, and may perhaps be said, in this case, to touch upon animal magnetism.
There are exceptions to every rule, and to the maxim that "love begets love" there are many instances to be cited in which the contrary proves true. We all have been so unfortunate at some time during our lives as to be liked by people of whom we were not fond. But, if we look the matter thoughtfully and honestly in the face, we will acknowledge that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred we are attracted toward a person as soon as we learn that that person finds us agreeable. Of course this knowledge must not be conveyed in a manner that disgusts by effusiveness a sensitive person. None of us like fulsome flattery, but a compliment so delicately hinted that it does not shock, and scarcely surprises the person for whom it is intended, seldom fails to produce an impression that is far from disagreeable. Certainly no more graceful compliment can be paid a man or woman by us selfish mortals than the acknowledgment of an affinity between ourselves and the person whom we would honor by our friendship. Said a well-known scholar to me:
"The most laudatory public speech ever addressed to me failed to make my heart glow as warmly as did the remark of an old friend not long ago. We had been separated for years, and at our reunion spent the first hour in talking of old times, etc. Suddenly, my friend turned to me, and grasping my hand exclaimed:
"'Old fellow! you always were, and still are, my affinity!'
"The subtle flattery of that one exclamation makes me even now thrill with a delicious throb of self-conceit."
Not long ago, I asked of an acquaintance who is a wonderful reader of character:
"Why has Mrs. S—— so many good friends?"
"Because she is such a good friend herself."
"But why is she attractive to so many people?" queried I.
"Because she is first attracted by them," was the quick response. "She goes on the principle that there is some good in everybody, and sets herself to work to find it. Each of us knows when she is thrown into contact with a person who likes her. It is as if each were surrounded with tinted atmospheres,—some green, some blue, some red, or yellow—in fact, there are more shades and colors than you can mention. When two reds meet, they mingle; when two harmonious tints touch, they may form a pleasing combination; but when such enemies as blue and green come together, they clash—fairly 'swear at one another,' and the persons enveloped in the opposing atmospheres are mutually disagreeable. The man who is surrounded by the color capable of most harmonious combinations is said to have personal magnetism."
May not this explanation, while rather far-fetched, afford some clue to the causes of personal popularity? And the thought following swift upon this is: If this be true, how much may each of us have to do with softening and making capable of harmony his and her own individual atmosphere? While we cannot change our "colors" (to follow out my friend's figure) we may shade them down and make them less pronounced, so that in time they may become capable of a variety of combinations.
Does not Faber touch upon this point, when he says:
"The discord is within which jars So roughly in life's song; 'Tis we ourselves who are at fault When others seem so wrong,"
We blame others for being uncongenial When the "discord is within," that makes all things go awry. A drunken man sees the whole world go around, and blames it, for its unsteadiness.
One way to render less obtrusive an inharmonious color, if we possess such is to keep it out of a strong light that will attract all eyes to it. Do not let us be proud of our personal defects and peculiarities. They are subjects for regret, not pride. When a woman boasts that she "knows she is often impatient, but she simply cannot help it, she is so peculiarly constituted!" she acknowledges a weakness of which she should be ashamed. If she is so undisciplined, so untrained, that she cannot avoid making life uncomfortable for those around her, she would better stay in a room by herself until she learns self-control. Often the very eccentricities of character to which we cling so tenaciously are but forms of vanity. Why should our preferences, our likes or dislikes be of more account than those of thousands of other people?
Another great mistake we make is that we try the effect of other colors with our own, and resent it hotly if they do not "go well together." We do not insist that they shall be like ours in tint, but they must act as good backgrounds, or form pleasing combinations with ours, or we will none of them. Now it is quite possible for human beings to hold contrary views from those entertained by you and me, and still be excellent members of society and reputable Christians. To many of us this seems incredible, but it is none the less true. Not only are individual characters different, but environment and education make us what we are. Very often a person who is uncongenial to us, will, in the surroundings to which she is fitted, be at ease, and perhaps even attractive.
I do not say that we must like everybody. That is a physical, mental and moral impossibility. But we may do others the justice of seeing their good traits as well as the bad. And sometimes when we find a chance acquaintance drearily uninteresting, it is because we do not take the trouble to find out what is in her.
Some people are always bored. May it not be because they look at everything animate and inanimate from a selfish standpoint, with the query in their minds, "How does that affect me?" The old definition of a bore as "a person who talks so much of himself that he gives you no chance to talk of yourself," may apply not only to the bore, but to the bored. When you find yourself wearied and uninterested, be honest enough to examine yourself calmly, and see if the reason is not because your vis-a-vis is not talking about anything which interests you especially. Should he turn the conversation upon your favorite occupation or pastime, or even upon your personal likes and dislikes (which, by the way, might be an infinite bore to him), would he not at once become entertaining?
Viewed from a selfish and politic standpoint, it is to our interest to make the best of everybody. We cannot always pick and choose our associates in the school of life, and must frequently be thrown with people whom we do not "take to," and, worse still, who may not "take to" us. Since this be true, would it not be better for us to look at their pleasantest side, and, by making ourselves agreeable to them, insure their friendly feeling for us? The old saying that the good-will of a dog is preferable to his ill-will, may still be quoted with regard to many specimens of the genus homo which we daily meet.
There is one case in which I make an exception to all that I have said—namely, when from the first, there is—not a feeling of dislike, but a strong, uncontrollable personal antipathy. If you are generally charitable and just, and have few actual dislikes, and meet a man against whom your whole nature revolts, who is as repulsive to you as a snake would be, avoid him. It is not necessary for you to tell others of the uncomfortable impression he has made upon you. He may not affect them in the same way. I acknowledge, not only from observation, but from personal experience, that there are certain people from whom one recoils with a feeling of physical as well as mental repugnance. I believe that every woman who reads this talk has an unerring feminine instinct which will thus prompt her when she meets her own particular "Dr. Fell."
But I also believe that we seldom meet characters which repel us in this especial way. Oftener some slight to ourselves, some one unfortunate speech, biases our judgment, and those against whom we are thus prejudiced are even sometimes connected to us by ties of consanguinity. We would do well to analyze the causes which lead to our feelings of dislike, and I fear we should often find that wounded self-esteem was the root of the evil. And, after all, what a great matter a little fire kindleth! Let us quench the spark before it ignites. It is arrant folly, not to mention wickedness, to make enemies for the little while we are here. There is an incurable heartache which comes from such mistakes. Owen Meredith describes it in a poem, every verse of which throbs with hopeless love and regret, and one of which teaches a lesson so much needed by us all that we would do well to commit to memory the last two lines, and repeat them almost hourly:
"I thought of our little quarrels and strife, And the letter that brought me back my ring; And it all seemed then, in the waste of life, Such a very little thing!"
THE PERFECT WORK OF PATIENCE.
A slender little treble was singing it over and over again in childish sort, with so little appreciation of the meaning of the words that the oddity of the ditty was the first thing to attract my attention to it.
"You'd better bide a wee, wee, wee! Oh, you'd better bide a wee. La, la, la, la, la, la, You'd better bide a wee."
The elf was singing her dolly to sleep, swinging back and forth in her little rocking-chair, the waxen face pressed against the warm pink cushion of her own cheek, the yellow silk of curls palpitating with the owner's vitality mingling with the lifeless floss of her darling's wig. The picture was none the less charming because so common, but it was not in admiring contemplation of it that I arrested my pen in the middle of a word, holding it thus an inch or two above the paper in position to resume the rapid rush along the sheet it had kept up for ten minutes and more. I mused a moment. Then, with the involuntary shake one gives his cranium when he has a ringing in his ears, I finished the sentence:—"sideration, I cannot but think that patience has had her perfect work."
"You'd better bide a wee!"
lisped the baby's song.
I smiled slightly and sourly at what I called mentally "the pat incongruity" of the admonition with mood and written words. A swift review of the situation confirmed the belief that I did well to be angry with the correspondent whose open letter lay upon the table beside the unfinished reply. The letter head was familiar. Of late the frequent sight of it had bred annoyance waxing into irritation. The brisk interchange of epistles grew out of a business-matter in which, as I maintained, I had been first ungenerously, then unfairly, finally dishonestly dealt with. There was no doubt in my mind of the intention to mislead, if not to defraud me, and the communication now under advisement was in tone cavalier almost to the point of insult. Aroused out of the enforced calm I had hitherto managed to preserve, I had seated myself and set my pen about the work of letting him who had now assumed the position of "that man," know how his conduct appeared in the light of reason and common sense. I had not even withheld an illusion to honesty and commercial morality. I had never done a better piece of literary work than that letter. Warming to the task in recounting the several steps of the transaction, I had not scrupled to set off my moderation by a Rembrandtish wash of shadow furnished by my correspondent's double-dealing, and to cast my civility into relief by adroit quotations from his impertinent pages. When I said that patience had had her perfect work, it was my intention to unfold in short, stinging sentences my plans as to future dealings with the delinquent.
The singing on the other side of the room meant no more than the chirping of a grasshopper upon a mullein-stalk. I did not delude myself with the notion of providential use of the tongue that tripped at the consonants and lingered in liquid dalliance with favorite vowels. Yet, after ten motionless minutes of severe thinking, the letter was deliberately torn into strips and these into dice, and all of these went into the waste-paper basket at my elbow. I had concluded to "abide a wee." If the sun went down that once upon my anger, he arose upon cold brands and gray ashes. I had not changed my intellectual belief as to my correspondent's behavior, but the impropriety of complicating an awkward business by placing myself in the wrong to the extent of losing my temper was so obvious that I blushed in recalling the bombastic periods of the torn composition.
Since that lesson, I have never sent off an angry or splenetic letter, although the temptation to "have it out" upon paper has sometimes got the better of my more sensible self. If the excitement is particularly great, and the epistle more than usually eloquent of the fact that, as the old-time exhorters used to say, I had "great liberty of speech," I have always left it to cool over night. The "sunset dews" our mothers sang of took the starch out of the bristling pages, and the "cool, soft evening-hours," and nightly utterance of—"As we forgive them that trespass against us,"—drew out the fire.
"You'd better bide a wee!"
I have sometimes thought of writing it down, as poor Jo of "Bleak House" begged to have his last message to Esther Summerson transcribed—"werry large,"—and pasting it upon the mirror that, day by day, reflects a soberer face than I like to see in its sincere depths—as one hot and hasty soul placarded upon her looking-glass the single word "PATIENCE." To people whose tempers are quick and whose actions too often match their tempers, one of the most difficult of daily duties is to reserve judgment upon that which appears ambiguous in the conduct of their associates. The dreary list of slain friendships that makes retrospect painful to those of mature years; the disappointments that to the young have the bitterness of death; the tale of trusts betrayed and promises broken—how would the story be shortened and brightened if conscientious and impartial trial of the accused preceded sentence and punishment!—if, in short, we would only "bide a wee" before assuming that our friend is false, or our love unworthily given.
In a court of justice previous character counts for much. The number and respectability of the witnesses to a prisoner's excellent reputation and good behavior have almost as much weight with the jury as direct testimony in support of the claim that he did not commit the crime. To prove that he could not, without change of disposition and habit, violate the laws of his country, is the next best thing to an established alibi. I should be almost ashamed to set down a thing which everybody knows so well were it not that each one of us, when his best friend's fidelity to him is questioned, flies shamelessly in the face of reason and precedent by ignoring the record of years. He may have given ten thousand proofs of attachment to him whom he is now accused of wronging; have showed himself in a thousand ways to be absolutely incapable of deception or dishonorable behavior of any sort. A single equivocal circumstance, a word half-heard, a gesture misunderstood; the report to his prejudice of a tale-bearer who is his inferior in every respect,—any one of these outbalances the plea of memory, the appeal of reason, the consciousness of the right of the arraigned to be heard. Were not the story one of to-day and of every day, the moral turpitude it displays would arouse the hearer to generous indignation.
Taking at random one of the multitude of illustrations crowding upon my mind, let me sketch a vexatious incident of personal history. Some years ago—no matter how many, nor how long was my sojourn in the town which was the scene of the story—I accepted the invitation of an acquaintance to take a seat in her carriage while on my way to call upon a woman well known to us both. The owner of the equipage, Mrs. D——, overtook me while I was trudging up the long street leading to the suburb in which our common acquaintance lived. The day was bleak and windy, and I was glad to be spared the walk. Mrs. C——, to whom the visit was paid, came down to receive us with her hat and cloak on. She was going down town presently, she said, and would not keep us waiting while she laid aside her wraps. No! she would not have us shorten our call on her account; she could go half an hour later as well as now. A good deal was said of the disagreeable weather, and the bad sidewalks in that new section of the city—as I recollected afterward. At the time, I was more interested in her mention that her favorite brother, an editor of note from another town and State, was visiting her. She asked permission to bring him to call, and I consented with alacrity, thinking, as I spoke, that I would, after meeting him, arrange a little dinner-party of choice spirits in his honor.
When we were ready to go, Mrs. D——, to my surprise and embarrassment, did not propose that our hostess should drive down-town with us, although we were going directly back, and a cold "Scotch mist" was beginning to fall. To this day, I do not know to what to attribute what I then felt—what I still consider—was gross incivility. The most charitable supposition is that it never occurred to her that it would be neighborly and humane to offer a luxurious seat in her swiftly rolling chariot to the woman who must otherwise walk a mile in the chill and wet. She had the reputation of absent-mindedness. Let us hope that her wits were off upon an excursion when we got into the carriage and drove away, leaving Mrs. C—— at the gate.
Glancing back, uneasily, I saw her raise an umbrella and set out upon her cheerless promenade directly in our wake, and I made a desperate essay at redressing the wrong.
"It is a pity Mrs. C—— must go out this afternoon," I said, shiveringly. "She will have a damp walk."
"Yes," assented my companion, readily. "That is the worst of being in this vicinity. There is no street railway within half a mile."
She went no further. I could go no further. The carriage was hers—not mine.
Mrs. C—— 's brother did not call on me, nor did she ever again. The latter circumstance might not have excited surprise, had she not treated me with marked coldness when I met her casually at the house of a friend. In the busy whirl of an active life, I should have forgotten this circumstance, or set it down to my own imagination, had not her brother's paper contained, a month or so later, an attack upon myself that amazed me by what I thought was causeless acrimony. Even when I found myself described as rich, haughty and heartless, "consorting with people who could pay visits to me in coaches with monograms upon the doors, and turning the cold shoulder to those who came on foot,"—I did not associate the diatribe with my visit to the writer's relative. Five years afterward, the truth was made known to me by accident. Mrs. C—— had judged from something said during our interview that the equipage belonged to me, and that I had brought Mrs. D—— to see her instead of being the invited party. I was now a resident of another city. The story came to me by a circuitous route. Explanation was impracticable. Yet it is not six months since there fell under my eye a paragraph penned by the offended brother testifying that his opinion of my insignificant self remains unaltered.
Had he or his sister suspended judgment until the evidence against my ladyhood and humanity could be investigated, I should have had to look elsewhere for an incident with which to point the moral of my Talk.
Rising above the pettiness of spiteful grudge-bearing against a fellow-mortal, let me say a word of the unholy restiveness with which we meet the disappointments which are the Father's discipline of His own. "All these things are against me!" is a cry that has struck upon His loving heart until Godlike patience is needed to bear with the fretful wail.
Nothing that He lets fall upon us can be "against" us! In His hottest fires we have but to "hold still" and bide His good time in order to see that all His purposes in us are mercy, as well as truth to His promises. In the Hereafter deeded to us as a sure heritage, we shall see that each was a part of His design for our best and eternal good.
"ACCORDING TO HIS FOLLY."
The hardest task ever set for mortal endeavor is for us to allow other people to know less than we know.
The failure to perform this task has kindled the fagots about the stake where heretics perished for obstinacy.
It is not a week, by the way, since I heard a woman, gently nurtured and intellectual, lament that those "old Pilgrim forefathers were so disagreeably obstinate." She "wondered that their generation did not send them to the scaffold instead of across the sea."
Inability to suffer the rest of the world to be mistaken has set a nation by the ears, broken hearts and fortunes, and separated more chief friends than all other alienating causes combined. Many self-deluding souls set down their impatience with others' errors to a spirit of benevolence. They love their friends too dearly, they have too sincere a desire for the welfare of acquaintances, to let them hold mischievous tenets.
The cause of variance may appear contemptible to an indifferent third party.
To the average reasoner who has no personal concern in the debate, it may seem immaterial at what date Mrs. Jenkyns paid her last visit to Boston. She is positive that it was in March, 1889. Mr. Jenkyns is as certain that she accompanied him thither in April of that year. She establishes her position by the fact that she left her baby for the first time when the cherub was ten months old, and there is the Family Bible to prove that he was born May 10, 1888. Is she likely to be mistaken on such a point when she cried all night in Boston and the bereft infant wailed all night in New York? What does Charles take her for? Hasn't he said, himself, dozens of times, that there is no use arguing as to times and seasons with a woman who verifies these by her children's ages? Mr. Jenkyns has said so—but with a difference. There is no use arguing with a woman in any circumstances, whatsoever. That Emma tries to carry her point now by lugging in the poor little kid, who has nothing whatever to do with the case, is but another proof of the inconsequence of the sex. He has the stub of his check-book to show that he paid the hotel bill in Boston, April 11, 1889. Figures cannot lie. Mrs. Charles Jenkyns challenges the check-book on the spot—and the wrangle goes on until she seeks her chamber to have her cry out, and he storms off to office or club, irritated past forbearance by the pig-headed perversity of a creature he called "angel" with every third breath on their wedding journey to Boston in 1886.
Each of the combatants was confident, after the first exchange of shots, that the other was in error. Half an hour's quarreling left both doubly confident of the truth which was self-evident from the outset. It is sadly probable that neither will ever confess, to himself or to herself, that the only wise course for either to pursue would have been to let ignorance have its perfect work, by abstaining from so much as a hint of contradiction.
"I don't see how you held your temper and your tongue!" said one man to another, as a self-satisfied acquaintance strutted away from the pair after a monologue of ten minutes upon a matter of which both of his companions knew infinitely more than he. "I hadn't patience to listen to him, much less answer him good-humoredly—he is such a fool!"
"I let him alone because he is a fool."
"But he is puffed up by the fond impression that you agree with him!"
"That doesn't hurt me,—and waste of cellular tissue in such a cause would!"
"Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit?" asks Solomon. "There is more hope of a fool than of him."
Which I take to mean that self-conceit is the rankest form of folly, a sort of triple armor of defence against counter-statement and rebutting argument. So far as my experience goes to prove a disheartening proposition,—all fools are wise (to themselves) in their own conceit. The first evidence of true wisdom is humility. One may be ignorant without being foolish. Lack of knowledge because the opportunity for acquiring it has been withheld, induces in the human mind such conditions as we find in a sponge that has been cleaned and dried. Information fills and enlarges the pores. Ignorance that is content with itself is turgid and saturated. It will take up no more, no matter what is offered.
This is the form of folly which the preacher admonishes us to answer in kind. The effort to force the truth upon the charged sponge is an exercise of mental muscle akin to the beating of the air, deprecated by the Apostle to the Gentiles.
"Such stolid stupidity is incredible in a land where education is compulsory!" exclaimed a friend who, having talked himself out of breath in the effort to persuade a rich vulgarian into belief of one of the simplest of philosophical principles, had the mortification of seeing that his opponent actually flattered himself with the idea that he had come off victorious in the wordy skirmish. "One would have thought that living where he does, and as he does, he would have taken in such knowledge through the pores."
"Not if the pores were already full," was a retort that shed new light into the educated mind.
Folly has a law and language of its own with which intelligence intermeddles not. The workings of an intellect at once untrained and self-sufficient are like the ways of Infinite Wisdom—past finding out.
Philosophy and politeness harmonize in the effort to meet such intellects upon what they shall not suspect is "made ground." To apply to them the rules of conversation and debate you would use in intercourse with equals would be absurd, and disagreeable alike to you and to themselves. They would never forgive a plain statement of the difference between you and their guild.
As a matter of curious experiment, I made the attempt once, in a case of a handsome dolt, who was, nominally, a domestic in my employ for a few months. She had an affected pose and tread which she conceived to be majestic. She was stupid, awkward and slovenly about her work, and altogether so "impossible" that I disliked to send her adrift upon the world, and was still more averse to imposing her upon another household. In a weak moment I essayed to reason her out of her fatuous vanity, and stimulate in her a desire to make something better of herself. She seemed to hearken while I represented mildly the expediency of learning to do her part in life well and creditably; how conscience entered into the performance of duties some people considered mean; how, in this country, a washerwoman is as worthy as the President's wife, so long as she respects herself.
Norah's impassive face had not changed, but she interposed here:
"Beg pardon, ma'am! I've no thought of taking a hand with the washing."
I was silly enough to go on with what I had tried to make so plain that the wayfaring "living-out girl" could not err in taking it in. I was willing to train her in the duties of her station. I set forth, and would have specified what these were, but for a second interruption that was evidently not intentionally disrespectful, and was uttered with the bovine stolidity that never forsook her.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but I've always understood that all that made a lady in Ameriky was eddercation, an' shure I have that 's well 's you!"
She could read, or so I suppose, although I never saw a book in her hand, and could probably write, after the fashion of her class.
With a smile at my folly that struggled with a sigh over hers, I let her go. It was my fault not hers, that I had bruised my fists thumping against a stone wall. Had I discoursed to her in Bengalee she would have comprehended me no more imperfectly. The doom of hopelessness was upon her. She was not merely a fool, but had taken the full degree as a self-satisfied blockhead. I deserved what I got—and more of the same sort.
Of a different type—being only a moderately conceited ignoramus, was an otherwise well-educated woman whom I heard discourse volubly upon ceramics and a valuable collection of old china she had picked up in a foreign town. Among other kinds she named some choice bits of "faience."
"Is not that used now as a general term for earthenware decorated with color?" asked a listener modestly.
"Oh, by no means! It is never applied except to a particular and exceedingly rare sort of pottery," went on the connoisseur. "But perhaps you are not familiar with ceramic terms?"
"Not as familiar as I should be, I confess," rejoined the other, gently regretful.
A couple of years later, I met the enthusiastic collector in the house of the other party to the dialogue, and learned with her that our hostess was renowned for her treasures of old china, and actually the author of a book upon ceramics.
"What must she have thought of me the day I made such a fool of myself!" moaned the humbled woman in a corner to me. "And you know—as I have learned since, as she knew all the time,—that 'faience' is used as a generic term! Well! I have had my lesson in talking of what I do not understand. How could she have answered me so civilly and gravely!"
I was too sorry for her to put into words the thought of the proverbial answer, "according to his folly." The incident had its moral and example for me too. The recollection has beaten back many a vehement protest against egregious absurdity, and helped me endure with apparent composure even the patronage of fools.
After all, there are so many mistakes made by other people that affect nobody but themselves that Don Quixote might tire of tilting at them. The more asinine the speaker the louder is his bray, and the more surely do we encounter him in social and domestic haunts. To dispute with him is to strengthen the stakes, and twist harder the cords of his belief in himself. In recognizing the truth, so humiliating to human reason, one wonders what effect would be produced by a determined regime of letting alone. Would what St. James graphically describes as "foaming out of their own shame," finally froth itself into silence? Is not the opposition consequent upon the universal desire to set other people right, the breath that blows the flame?
What would be the status of society, what the atmosphere of our homes, were each of us to curb the impulse to controvert doubtful, but important, statements:—to seem to acquiesce in—let us say, in Tom's declaration that there are forty black cats in the back yard, and Polly's opinion that Susie Jones is the prettiest girl in town, when we consider her positively homely, and so on to the end of the day's or week's or month's chapter? If, when we know that a man is a blatant vaporer, we simply let him vapor, and mind our own business; if, having gauged the measure of a woman's mind, and found it only an inch deep, we do not fret our souls by vain dredgings in a channel to-day that will fill up by to-morrow; if we give the fool the benefit of his license; and expend thought and care upon that which is hopeful and profitable—do we not prove ourselves prudent economists of time and labor?
The subject is practical, and merits consideration. In this working-day world of ours there is so much unavoidable pain, and so much annoyance which we cannot overlook, that sensible people cushion corners and shrink aside from brier-pricks. We do ourselves actual physical harm when we lose temper; the tart speech takes virtue out of us. A woman would better fatigue herself by righting an untidy chamber than scold a servant for neglecting it. Foreigners comment surprisedly upon the "anxious faces" of American women even of the better class. The inchoate condition of our domestic service has undoubtedly much to do with the premature seams that mar what would else be fair and sweet, but I incline to the belief that more is due to a certain irritableness which is a national characteristic,—a restless desire to set everything right. The zeal for reform is commendable, but not always according to knowledge. Certain forms of folly cure themselves, if not flattered by grave rebuke, and others do not come within the province of her who has her hands full already. It is easier for us all to find fault than to overlook. It "just drives our woman-reformer wild to hear some people talk!" The least aggressive of us knows for herself the impotent vexation of attempting to convince one who is too dull, or too dogged, to see reason. Why, then, yield to the disposition to attempt the impracticable? If we would live worthily and live long, we must school ourselves in the minor details of self-control and everyday philosophy that make up a useful and well-balanced life.
I shall never forget the first time I heard the homely proverb, once better known than now, "Fine words butter no parsnips."
A bitter-tongued old lady, with an eye like a hawk's, and a certain suspicious turn of the head to this side and that which reminded one of the same bird of prey, was discussing a new neighbor.
"I don't hold with meaching ways at any time and in anybody," said the thin croak, made more husky by snuff, a pinch of which she held between thumb and finger, the joined digits punctuating her strictures. "And she's one of the fair-and-softy sort. A pleasant word to this one, and a smile to that, and always recollecting who is sick, and who is away from home, and ready to talk about what pleases you, and not herself, and praising your biscuits and your bonnets and your babies, and listening to you while you are talking as if there was nobody else upon earth."
Like the octogenarian whose teeth gave out before his dry toast, she "hadn't finished, but she stopped" there, being clean out of breath.
"But Mrs. A.!" I raised my girlish voice to reach the deaf ears. "I think all that is beautiful. I only wish I could imitate her, and be as popular and as much beloved."
"Humph!" inhaling the snuff spitefully. "She's too sweet to be wholesome. Fair words butter no parsnips. Look out for a tongue that's smooth on both sides. What does the Bible say of the hypocrite? 'The words of his mouth were smoother than butter.' I'd rather have honest vinegar!"
I stood too much in dread of her frankness to ask if sugar is never honest, or to speculate audibly why she chose parsnips with their length of fibre and peculiar cloying sweet, as types of daily living. The adage seemed droll enough to me then, and it is odd even now that I have become familiar with it in the talk of old-fashioned people. Interpreting it as they do, I dispute it stoutly. Parsnips may be only passable to most palates even when buttered. They would be intolerable with vinegar. Furthermore,—before we drop the figure,—if anything can butter them, it is fair words.
This business which we call living is not easy at the best. Our parsnips are sometimes tough and stringy; sometimes insipid; often withered by drought or frost-bitten. If served without sauce, they—to quote our old-fashioned people again—"go against the stomach."
There is a pernicious fallacy to the effect that a rough tongue is an honest one. There are quite as many unpleasant untruths told as there are flattering falsehoods. Because a speech is kind it is not of necessity a lie, nor does a remark gain in truth in direct ratio as it loses its politeness. Often the blunt criticism is the outcome of a savage instinct on the part of the perpetrator. In America, men and women (always excepting Italians) do not carry poniards concealed in their breasts, or swords at their sides. In lieu of these the tongue is used to revenge an evil.
The Psalmist exclaims: "Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness; and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil," but the average representative of the nineteenth century will not echo his sentiment. It may be that the "righteous" of that day had a more agreeable way of offering reproof than have the modern saints. However that may be, the "excellent oil" seems to have given place to corrosive sublimate and carbolic acid—neither of which, applied in an undiluted form, may be even remotely suspected of soothing an open wound. True, they are fatal to bacteria, but at the same time they madden the sufferer as would coals of living fire.
Even supposing one lays herself open to the charge of flattery, is it not less of a fault than to merit the reputation for brutal fault-finding? Who would not rather be a healer than a scarifier?
"Faithful may be the wounds of a friend" (and on this word "friend" I lay special stress), but the converse is also true. Faithful are his healings. Have you never had a whole day brightened by some seemingly chance remark which warmed the cockles of your heart with a delicious glow? It may have been that you were disappointed in some cherished scheme—how much disappointed no one guessed and you were ashamed to confess. It may have been that you were struggling to be brave and cheerful under some trial, the weight of which you thought others could not appreciate. The cheering word may only have been—"My dear, how sweet you are looking to-day! You do my old eyes good." Or perhaps an appreciative other-half has pressed your hand and whispered, "You are the bravest little woman in the world!" Who does not remember how, at such a time, the unexpected sympathy or encouragement brought the quick tears to the eyes, and to the cheeks the flush which meant a bound of joy from the heavy heart? If we could but remember that we are told to "speak the truth in love!" In "love," recollect,—not in temper. Do not be the accursed one by whom the offences come. They will come. The Evil One will look out for that, but it is not worth while for you to make his work too easy. Determine to train yourself strictly to see the many excellent qualities possessed by your associates, and you will be surprised to find that before long the disagreeable traits will only appear as foils for the good. Cultivate an eye for pleasant characteristics, and do not encourage people who are prone to rough speech. Frown down the blunt expression of opinion and it will cease to be considered praiseworthy frankness. The woman of whom the Royal Preacher speaks, "in whose tongue was the law of kindness," probably showed that kindness by being agreeable, or we may be sure no human being of the masculine gender would have considered her price far above rubies; nor add with such sublime confidence—"her husband also, and he praises her."
One such woman never forgot to thank anyone for the slightest favor, and I have seen a burly and phlegmatically sombre policeman smile with unexpected pleasure at receiving the sweet-faced "thank you!" with which she always acknowledged his pilotage over a crowded street-crossing.
It is time that people comprehended that it is not their duty to be disagreeably frank, when another's comfort is the price thereof. An unkind sentence has the power of lodgment in the mind. It is like the red "chigoe" which inserts his tiny head in the flesh and burrows until he causes a throbbing fester. For instance, I have never forgotten a speech which was addressed to me over twenty years ago. It was just after we had built an unpretending, but thoroughly cozy summer cottage, nestled in a grove of trees that threw long shadows into a silvery lake. The man in question told me he never saw our light at night from the other side of the pretty sheet of water that it did not "remind him of a charcoal-burner's hut in the heart of a wilderness." It would be of interest to ascertain why this needlessly unkind remark was made. Since there were at least one or two pleasant features in the landscape, why could he not call attention to them?
It is not necessary that we should flatter, but let us be lavishly generous with what French cooks call sauce agreable, since parsnips must be eaten. Some efforts in this line remind me of a story I recently heard of a farmer who received at a New York restaurant the customary small pat of butter with his Vienna roll. Imperiously beckoning to a waiter, he commanded him to "wipe that grease spot off that plate, and bring him some butter!"
Let us give more than the grease spot. Better go to the other extreme, and drown our friend's neglected parsnips in fresh, pure un-oleomargarined, and entirely sweet butter.
IS MARRIAGE REFORMATORY?
To no other estate are there so many varieties of phases as to that of matrimony. Like the music of Saint Caecilia and old Timotheus combined, it is capable of raising "a mortal to the skies," or of bringing "an angel down" to the lowest depths of misery. At the best the betrothed couple can never say with absolute certainty—"After marriage we shall be happy." The experience of wedded life is alarmingly like that of dying—each man and woman must know it for himself and herself, and no other human being can share its trials or its joys.
The mistake the prospective wife makes is in obstinately closing her eyes to the fact that married life has any trials which are not far outbalanced by its pleasures. Marriage does not change man or woman. The impressive ceremony over, the bridal finery laid aside, the last strain of the wedding-march wafted into space, and the orange-flowers dead and scentless,—John becomes once more plain, everyday John, with the same good traits which first won his Mary's heart, and the many disagreeable characteristics that exasperated his mother and sisters. And Mary, being a woman, and no more of a saint than is her life-partner, will also be exasperated. If John is an honest gentleman who loves Mary, the chances for her happiness depend upon her common-sense and her love for John. It is utterly impossible to have too much of the last-named commodity. It will be all needed, well-blended with the divine attribute of patience, and judiciously seasoned with woman's especial gift—tact, to enable man and wife to live together peaceably for one year.
Moreover, Mary must understand that John the lover and John the husband have very different ways of showing affection. The lover would loiter evening after evening waiting for other guests to go home that he might have time for a few tender words with his sweetheart. Woman's logic reasons,—"what more natural when he has hours of time than for him to keep on saying those same tender words, only very many more of them?" The fact remains that he does not. After the kiss of welcome on his arrival home at the close of day, he is unsentimental enough to want his dinner, and, that disposed of, he buries himself behind his newspaper, from which perhaps he does not emerge before nine o'clock when he is ready to talk to Mary and to be entertained by her.
And yet this John of whom I am talking is as good morally, as faithful and conscientious in his manly way as Mary in her womanly.
But—suppose he were not a good man, what then? Could the mere fact of his union with her change his entire nature?
A good man may be made better by association with a good woman; a man with repressed evil tendencies may have them held more firmly in check by his wife's restraining influence, but no woman should undertake to "make over" a man who has given way to the wicked passions of his being until they are beyond his control. He will not be made a reputable member of society and a bright and shining light to the community in which he dwells, by marrying. He does not go into the new life as a sort of Keeley cure,—a reformatory institution. A woman's strongest and weakest point is her power of idealizing every cold fact with which she comes in contact. She loves a handsome roue. He tells her that if she will but take him in training she can make a new man of him; that her fair hand can wipe all the dark spots from his past life, smooth the rough places and elevate the depressions in his character until it will be once more goodly to contemplate. And over the stereopticon view of the man his fiancee throws the rosecolored light of her idealistic lantern, and believes all he says. Of course during their engagement he frequently slips back into the old path, sometimes has a downfall that shocks and horrifies her who would reform him, but, once more trimming and turning up the wick, she bathes him in the pink light and remembers that he is not yet as entirely under her influence as he will be some day. She would think it cruel injustice were some unprejudiced observer to suggest that if he cannot change his life when the possibilities of winning her are at stake, he will hardly do so when the prize is his own.