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things. When the mistress is absent, this room, although everything is
here as it was before, does not look at all like the same place; it is
stiff, and seems to lack a soul. When she returns, I can see that her
eye, even while greeting me, takes in the situation at a glance.
While she is talking of the journey, and before she has removed her
traveling-hat, she turns this chair and moves that, sets one piece of
furniture at a different angle, rapidly, and apparently unconsciously,
shifts a dozen little knick-knacks and bits of color, and the room is
transformed. I couldn't do it in a week.

THE MISTRESS. That is the first time I ever knew a man admit he couldn't
do anything if he had time.

HERBERT. Yet with all their peculiar instinct for making a home, women
make themselves very little felt in our domestic architecture.

THE MISTRESS. Men build most of the houses in what might be called the
ready-made-clothing style, and we have to do the best we can with them;
and hard enough it is to make cheerful homes in most of them. You will
see something different when the woman is constantly consulted in the
plan of the house.

HERBERT. We might see more difference if women would give any attention
to architecture. Why are there no women architects?

THE FIRE-TENDER. Want of the ballot, doubtless. It seems to me that here
is a splendid opportunity for woman to come to the front.

THE YOUNG LADY. They have no desire to come to the front; they would
rather manage things where they are.

THE FIRE-TENDER. If they would master the noble art, and put their
brooding taste upon it, we might very likely compass something in our
domestic architecture that we have not yet attained. The outside of our
houses needs attention as well as the inside. Most of them are as ugly
as money can build.

THE YOUNG LADY. What vexes me most is, that women, married women, have
so easily consented to give up open fires in their houses.

HERBERT. They dislike the dust and the bother. I think that women rather
like the confined furnace heat.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Nonsense; it is their angelic virtue of submission. We
wouldn't be hired to stay all-day in the houses we build.

THE YOUNG LADY. That has a very chivalrous sound, but I know there will
be no reformation until women rebel and demand everywhere the open fire.

HERBERT. They are just now rebelling about something else; it seems to
me yours is a sort of counter-movement, a fire in the rear.

THE MISTRESS. I'll join that movement. The time has come when woman must
strike for her altars and her fires.

HERBERT. Hear, hear!

THE MISTRESS. Thank you, Herbert. I applauded you once, when you
declaimed that years ago in the old Academy. I remember how eloquently
you did it.

HERBERT. Yes, I was once a spouting idiot.

Just then the door-bell rang, and company came in. And the company
brought in a new atmosphere, as company always does, something of the
disturbance of out-doors, and a good deal of its healthy cheer. The
direct news that the thermometer was approaching zero, with a hopeful
prospect of going below it, increased to liveliness our satisfaction in
the fire. When the cider was heated in the brown stone pitcher, there
was difference of opinion whether there should be toast in it; some
were for toast, because that was the old-fashioned way, and others were
against it, "because it does not taste good" in cider. Herbert said
there, was very little respect left for our forefathers.

More wood was put on, and the flame danced in a hundred fantastic
shapes. The snow had ceased to fall, and the moonlight lay in silvery
patches among the trees in the ravine. The conversation became worldly.



Herbert said, as we sat by the fire one night, that he wished he had
turned his attention to writing poetry like Tennyson's.

The remark was not whimsical, but satirical. Tennyson is a man of
talent, who happened to strike a lucky vein, which he has worked with
cleverness. The adventurer with a pickaxe in Washoe may happen upon like
good fortune. The world is full of poetry as the earth is of "pay-dirt;"
one only needs to know how to "strike" it. An able man can make himself
almost anything that he will. It is melancholy to think how many epic
poets have been lost in the tea-trade, how many dramatists (though
the age of the drama has passed) have wasted their genius in great
mercantile and mechanical enterprises. I know a man who might have been
the poet, the essayist, perhaps the critic, of this country, who chose
to become a country judge, to sit day after day upon a bench in
an obscure corner of the world, listening to wrangling lawyers and
prevaricating witnesses, preferring to judge his fellow-men rather than
enlighten them.

It is fortunate for the vanity of the living and the reputation of the
dead, that men get almost as much credit for what they do not as for
what they do. It was the opinion of many that Burns might have excelled
as a statesman, or have been a great captain in war; and Mr. Carlyle
says that if he had been sent to a university, and become a trained
intellectual workman, it lay in him to have changed the whole course of
British literature! A large undertaking, as so vigorous and dazzling a
writer as Mr. Carlyle must know by this time, since British
literature has swept by him in a resistless and widening flood, mainly
uncontaminated, and leaving his grotesque contrivances wrecked on the
shore with other curiosities of letters, and yet among the richest of
all the treasures lying there.

It is a temptation to a temperate man to become a sot, to hear what
talent, what versatility, what genius, is almost always attributed to a
moderately bright man who is habitually drunk. Such a mechanic, such a
mathematician, such a poet he would be, if he were only sober; and
then he is sure to be the most generous, magnanimous, friendly soul,
conscientiously honorable, if he were not so conscientiously drunk. I
suppose it is now notorious that the most brilliant and promising men
have been lost to the world in this way. It is sometimes almost painful
to think what a surplus of talent and genius there would be in the world
if the habit of intoxication should suddenly cease; and what a slim
chance there would be for the plodding people who have always had
tolerably good habits. The fear is only mitigated by the observation
that the reputation of a person for great talent sometimes ceases with
his reformation.

It is believed by some that the maidens who would make the best wives
never marry, but remain free to bless the world with their impartial
sweetness, and make it generally habitable. This is one of the mysteries
of Providence and New England life. It seems a pity, at first sight,
that all those who become poor wives have the matrimonial chance, and
that they are deprived of the reputation of those who would be good
wives were they not set apart for the high and perpetual office of
priestesses of society. There is no beauty like that which was spoiled
by an accident, no accomplishments - and graces are so to be envied as
those that circumstances rudely hindered the development of. All
of which shows what a charitable and good-tempered world it is,
notwithstanding its reputation for cynicism and detraction.

Nothing is more beautiful than the belief of the faithful wife that her
husband has all the talents, and could, if he would, be distinguished in
any walk in life; and nothing will be more beautiful - unless this is
a very dry time for signs - than the husband's belief that his wife is
capable of taking charge of any of the affairs of this confused planet.
There is no woman but thinks that her husband, the green-grocer, could
write poetry if he had given his mind to it, or else she thinks small
beer of poetry in comparison with an occupation or accomplishment purely
vegetable. It is touching to see the look of pride with which the
wife turns to her husband from any more brilliant personal presence or
display of wit than his, in the perfect confidence that if the world
knew what she knows, there would be one more popular idol. How she
magnifies his small wit, and dotes upon the self-satisfied look in his
face as if it were a sign of wisdom! What a councilor that man would
make! What a warrior he would be! There are a great many corporals
in their retired homes who did more for the safety and success of
our armies in critical moments, in the late war, than any of the
"high-cock-a-lorum" commanders. Mrs. Corporal does not envy the
reputation of General Sheridan; she knows very well who really won Five
Forks, for she has heard the story a hundred times, and will hear it a
hundred times more with apparently unabated interest. What a general
her husband would have made; and how his talking talent would shine in

HERBERT. Nonsense. There isn't a wife in the world who has not taken
the exact measure of her husband, weighed him and settled him in her own
mind, and knows him as well as if she had ordered him after designs and
specifications of her own. That knowledge, however, she ordinarily keeps
to herself, and she enters into a league with her husband, which he was
never admitted to the secret of, to impose upon the world. In nine out
of ten cases he more than half believes that he is what his wife tells
him he is. At any rate, she manages him as easily as the keeper does the
elephant, with only a bamboo wand and a sharp spike in the end. Usually
she flatters him, but she has the means of pricking clear through his
hide on occasion. It is the great secret of her power to have him think
that she thoroughly believes in him.

THE YOUNG LADY STAYING WITH Us. And you call this hypocrisy? I have
heard authors, who thought themselves sly observers of women, call it

HERBERT. Nothing of the sort. It is the basis on which society rests,
the conventional agreement. If society is about to be overturned, it is
on this point. Women are beginning to tell men what they really think of
them; and to insist that the same relations of downright sincerity and
independence that exist between men shall exist between women and men.
Absolute truth between souls, without regard to sex, has always been the
ideal life of the poets.

THE MISTRESS. Yes; but there was never a poet yet who would bear to have
his wife say exactly what she thought of his poetry, any more than
he would keep his temper if his wife beat him at chess; and there is
nothing that disgusts a man like getting beaten at chess by a woman.

HERBERT. Well, women know how to win by losing. I think that the reason
why most women do not want to take the ballot and stand out in the open
for a free trial of power, is that they are reluctant to change the
certain domination of centuries, with weapons they are perfectly
competent to handle, for an experiment. I think we should be better
off if women were more transparent, and men were not so systematically
puffed up by the subtle flattery which is used to control them.

MANDEVILLE. Deliver me from transparency. When a woman takes that guise,
and begins to convince me that I can see through her like a ray of
light, I must run or be lost. Transparent women are the truly dangerous.
There was one on ship-board [Mandeville likes to say that; he has just
returned from a little tour in Europe, and he quite often begins his
remarks with "on the ship going over;" the Young Lady declares that
he has a sort of roll in his chair, when he says it, that makes her
sea-sick] who was the most innocent, artless, guileless, natural bunch
of lace and feathers you ever saw; she was all candor and helplessness
and dependence; she sang like a nightingale, and talked like a nun.
There never was such simplicity. There was n't a sounding-line on board
that would have gone to the bottom of her soulful eyes. But she managed
the captain and all the officers, and controlled the ship as if she had
been the helm. All the passengers were waiting on her, fetching this
and that for her comfort, inquiring of her health, talking about her
genuineness, and exhibiting as much anxiety to get her ashore in safety,
as if she had been about to knight them all and give them a castle
apiece when they came to land.

THE MISTRESS. What harm? It shows what I have always said, that the
service of a noble woman is the most ennobling influence for men.

MANDEVILLE. If she is noble, and not a mere manager. I watched this
woman to see if she would ever do anything for any one else. She never

THE FIRE-TENDER. Did you ever see her again? I presume Mandeville has
introduced her here for some purpose.

MANDEVILLE. No purpose. But we did see her on the Rhine; she was the
most disgusted traveler, and seemed to be in very ill humor with her
maid. I judged that her happiness depended upon establishing controlling
relations with all about her. On this Rhine boat, to be sure, there was
reason for disgust. And that reminds me of a remark that was made.


MANDEVILLE. When we got aboard at Mayence we were conscious of a
dreadful odor somewhere; as it was a foggy morning, we could see no
cause of it, but concluded it was from something on the wharf. The
fog lifted, and we got under way, but the odor traveled with us, and
increased. We went to every part of the vessel to avoid it, but in vain.
It occasionally reached us in great waves of disagreeableness. We had
heard of the odors of the towns on the Rhine, but we had no idea that
the entire stream was infected. It was intolerable.

The day was lovely, and the passengers stood about on deck holding their
noses and admiring the scenery. You might see a row of them leaning over
the side, gazing up at some old ruin or ivied crag, entranced with the
romance of the situation, and all holding their noses with thumb and
finger. The sweet Rhine! By and by somebody discovered that the odor
came from a pile of cheese on the forward deck, covered with a canvas;
it seemed that the Rhinelanders are so fond of it that they take it
with them when they travel. If there should ever be war between us
and Germany, the borders of the Rhine would need no other defense from
American soldiers than a barricade of this cheese. I went to the stern
of the steamboat to tell a stout American traveler what was the origin
of the odor he had been trying to dodge all the morning. He looked more
disgusted than before, when he heard that it was cheese; but his only
reply was: "It must be a merciful God who can forgive a smell like


The above is introduced here in order to illustrate the usual effect
of an anecdote on conversation. Commonly it kills it. That talk must be
very well in hand, and under great headway, that an anecdote thrown in
front of will not pitch off the track and wreck. And it makes little
difference what the anecdote is; a poor one depresses the spirits,
and casts a gloom over the company; a good one begets others, and the
talkers go to telling stories; which is very good entertainment in
moderation, but is not to be mistaken for that unwearying flow of
argument, quaint remark, humorous color, and sprightly interchange of
sentiments and opinions, called conversation.

The reader will perceive that all hope is gone here of deciding whether
Herbert could have written Tennyson's poems, or whether Tennyson could
have dug as much money out of the Heliogabalus Lode as Herbert did. The
more one sees of life, I think the impression deepens that men, after
all, play about the parts assigned them, according to their mental and
moral gifts, which are limited and preordained, and that their entrances
and exits are governed by a law no less certain because it is hidden.
Perhaps nobody ever accomplishes all that he feels lies in him to do;
but nearly every one who tries his powers touches the walls of his being
occasionally, and learns about how far to attempt to spring. There are
no impossibilities to youth and inexperience; but when a person has
tried several times to reach high C and been coughed down, he is quite
content to go down among the chorus. It is only the fools who keep
straining at high C all their lives.

Mandeville here began to say that that reminded him of something that
happened when he was on the -

But Herbert cut in with the observation that no matter what a man's
single and several capacities and talents might be, he is controlled by
his own mysterious individuality, which is what metaphysicians call the
substance, all else being the mere accidents of the man. And this is the
reason that we cannot with any certainty tell what any person will do or
amount to, for, while we know his talents and abilities, we do not know
the resulting whole, which is he himself. THE FIRE-TENDER. So if you
could take all the first-class qualities that we admire in men and
women, and put them together into one being, you wouldn't be sure of the

HERBERT. Certainly not. You would probably have a monster. It takes a
cook of long experience, with the best materials, to make a dish "taste
good;" and the "taste good" is the indefinable essence, the resulting
balance or harmony which makes man or woman agreeable or beautiful or
effective in the world.

THE YOUNG LADY. That must be the reason why novelists fail so lamentably
in almost all cases in creating good characters. They put in real
traits, talents, dispositions, but the result of the synthesis is
something that never was seen on earth before.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Oh, a good character in fiction is an inspiration.
We admit this in poetry. It is as true of such creations as Colonel
Newcome, and Ethel, and Beatrix Esmond. There is no patchwork about

THE YOUNG LADY. Why was n't Thackeray ever inspired to create a noble

THE FIRE-TENDER. That is the standing conundrum with all the women. They
will not accept Ethel Newcome even. Perhaps we shall have to admit that
Thackeray was a writer for men.

HERBERT. Scott and the rest had drawn so many perfect women that
Thackeray thought it was time for a real one.

THE MISTRESS. That's ill-natured. Thackeray did, however, make ladies.
If he had depicted, with his searching pen, any of us just as we are, I
doubt if we should have liked it much.

MANDEVILLE. That's just it. Thackeray never pretended to make ideals,
and if the best novel is an idealization of human nature, then he was
not the best novelist. When I was crossing the Channel -

THE MISTRESS. Oh dear, if we are to go to sea again, Mandeville, I move
we have in the nuts and apples, and talk about our friends.


There is this advantage in getting back to a wood-fire on the hearth,
that you return to a kind of simplicity; you can scarcely imagine any
one being stiffly conventional in front of it. It thaws out formality,
and puts the company who sit around it into easy attitudes of mind and
body, - lounging attitudes, - Herbert said.

And this brought up the subject of culture in America, especially as to
manner. The backlog period having passed, we are beginning to have in
society people of the cultured manner, as it is called, or polished
bearing, in which the polish is the most noticeable thing about the man.
Not the courtliness, the easy simplicity of the old-school gentleman, in
whose presence the milkmaid was as much at her ease as the countess,
but something far finer than this. These are the people of unruffled
demeanor, who never forget it for a moment, and never let you forget it.
Their presence is a constant rebuke to society. They are never "jolly;"
their laugh is never anything more than a well-bred smile; they
are never betrayed into any enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is a sign of
inexperience, of ignorance, of want of culture. They never lose
themselves in any cause; they never heartily praise any man or woman
or book; they are superior to all tides of feeling and all outbursts
of passion. They are not even shocked at vulgarity. They are simply
indifferent. They are calm, visibly calm, painfully calm; and it is
not the eternal, majestic calmness of the Sphinx either, but a rigid,
self-conscious repression. You would like to put a bent pin in their
chair when they are about calmly to sit down.

A sitting hen on her nest is calm, but hopeful; she has faith that her
eggs are not china. These people appear to be sitting on china eggs.
Perfect culture has refined all blood, warmth, flavor, out of them. We
admire them without envy. They are too beautiful in their manners to be
either prigs or snobs. They are at once our models and our despair. They
are properly careful of themselves as models, for they know that if they
should break, society would become a scene of mere animal confusion.

MANDEVILLE. I think that the best-bred people in the world are the

THE YOUNG LADY. You mean at home.

MANDEVILLE. That's where I saw them. There is no nonsense about a
cultivated English man or woman. They express themselves sturdily and
naturally, and with no subservience to the opinions of others. There's a
sort of hearty sincerity about them that I like. Ages of culture on the
island have gone deeper than the surface, and they have simpler and
more natural manners than we. There is something good in the full, round
tones of their voices.

HERBERT. Did you ever get into a diligence with a growling English-man
who had n't secured the place he wanted?

[Mandeville once spent a week in London, riding about on the tops of

THE MISTRESS. Did you ever see an English exquisite at the San Carlo,
and hear him cry "Bwavo"?

MANDEVILLE. At any rate, he acted out his nature, and was n't afraid to.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I think Mandeville is right, for once. The men of the
best culture in England, in the middle and higher social classes,
are what you would call good fellows, - easy and simple in manner,
enthusiastic on occasion, and decidedly not cultivated into the smooth
calmness of indifference which some Americans seem to regard as the sine
qua non of good breeding. Their position is so assured that they do not
need that lacquer of calmness of which we were speaking.

THE YOUNG LADY. Which is different from the manner acquired by those who
live a great deal in American hotels?

THE MISTRESS. Or the Washington manner?

HERBERT. The last two are the same.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Not exactly. You think you can always tell if a man
has learned his society carriage of a dancing-master. Well, you cannot
always tell by a person's manner whether he is a habitui of hotels or
of Washington. But these are distinct from the perfect polish and
politeness of indifferentism.


Daylight disenchants. It draws one from the fireside, and dissipates the
idle illusions of conversation, except under certain conditions. Let us
say that the conditions are: a house in the country, with some forest
trees near, and a few evergreens, which are Christmas-trees all winter
long, fringed with snow, glistening with ice-pendants, cheerful by
day and grotesque by night; a snow-storm beginning out of a dark
sky, falling in a soft profusion that fills all the air, its dazzling
whiteness making a light near at hand, which is quite lost in the
distant darkling spaces.

If one begins to watch the swirling flakes and crystals, he soon gets an
impression of infinity of resources that he can have from nothing else
so powerfully, except it be from Adirondack gnats. Nothing makes one
feel at home like a great snow-storm. Our intelligent cat will quit the
fire and sit for hours in the low window, watching the falling snow
with a serious and contented air. His thoughts are his own, but he is in
accord with the subtlest agencies of Nature; on such a day he is charged
with enough electricity to run a telegraphic battery, if it could be
utilized. The connection between thought and electricity has not been
exactly determined, but the cat is mentally very alert in certain
conditions of the atmosphere. Feasting his eyes on the beautiful
out-doors does not prevent his attention to the slightest noise in the
wainscot. And the snow-storm brings content, but not stupidity, to all
the rest of the household.

I can see Mandeville now, rising from his armchair and swinging his long
arms as he strides to the window, and looks out and up, with, "Well, I
declare!" Herbert is pretending to read Herbert Spencer's tract on the
philosophy of style but he loses much time in looking at the Young Lady,
who is writing a letter, holding her portfolio in her lap, - one of her
everlasting letters to one of her fifty everlasting friends. She is one

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Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 3 of 12)