Chapter VII. {XXX}

“They sit conferring.” Taming the Shrew.

{William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, V.ii.102}

THE usual evening circle had collected in Miss Wyllys’s parlour, with the addition of Mary Van Alstyne, who had just arrived from Poughkeepsie, and Mrs. St. Leger. Miss Emma Taylor had gone to a concert with her good-natured brother-in-law, and a couple of her admirers. Jane and her sister-in-law, Adeline, were sitting together in a corner, talking partly about their babies, partly about what these two young matrons called “old times;” that is to say, events which had transpired as far back as three or four years previously. To them, however, those were “old times;” for, since then, the hopes and fears, cares and pleasures, of the two friends were much changed.

Among the rest of the party the conversation became more general; for Elinor had just finished a song, and Mr. Wyllys had just beaten Mrs. Creighton at a game of chess.

“Mr. Hazlehurst, pray what have you done with my saya y manto?” asked the pretty widow, taking a seat at the side of Elinor, on a sofa. “Here have you been, three, four, five days, and I have not even alluded to it, which, you must observe is a great act of forbearance in a lady, when there is a piece of finery in question.”

{ “saya y manto” = skirt and cloak (Spanish)}

“I am really ashamed of myself for not having reported it safe at Philadelphia, before. I would not send it to your house, when I heard you were here, for I wished to deliver it in person; and I did not bring it with me, because Mrs. Hazlehurst told me it was too warm for a fashionable lady to wear anything as heavy as black silk for the next three months.”

“Well, of course I am very much obliged to you for the trouble you have had with it; but I shall defer thanking you formally, until I find out whether it is becoming or not.”

“Do you expect to make a very captivating Spaniard?” asked Mr. Stryker.

“I shall do my best, certainly; but I shall leave you to decide how far I succeed, Mr. Stryker. Are the Brazilian women pretty, Mr. Hazlehurst?- -what do they look like?”

“Very like Portuguese,” was the answer.

“More than the Americans look like the English?” inquired Elinor.

“Far more,” said Harry; “but you know there is less difference between the climates of Brazil and Portugal, than between ours and that of England.”

“For my part,” observed Mr. Ellsworth, “I do not think we look in the least like the English — neither men nor women. We are getting very fast to have a decided physiognomy of our own. I think I could pick out an American from among a crowd of Europeans, almost as soon as I could a Turk.”

“You always piqued yourself, Ellsworth, upon having a quick eye for national characteristics. We used to try him very often, when we were in Europe, Mrs. Creighton, and I must do him the justice to say he seldom failed.”

“Oh, yes; I know all Frank’s opinions on the subject,” replied Mrs. Creighton: “it is quite a hobby with him.”

“What do you think are the physical characteristics of the Americans, as compared with our English kinsmen?” inquired Mr. Wyllys.

“We are a darker, a thinner, and a paler people. The best specimens of the English have the advantage in manliness of form and carriage; the American is superior in activity, in the expression of intelligence and energy in the countenance. The English peculiarities in their worst shape are, coarseness and heaviness of form; a brutal, dull countenance; the worst peculiarities among the Americans are, an apparent want of substance in the form, and a cold, cunning expression of features. I used often to wonder, when travelling in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, at the number of heavy forms and coarse features, which strike one so often there, even among the women, and which are so very uncommon in America.”

“Yes; that brutal coarseness of features, which stood for the model of the old Satyrs, is scarcely to be met in this country, though by no means uncommon in many parts of Europe,” observed Hazlehurst.

“I was very much struck the other evening, at the dance, with the appearance of the women,” continued Mr. Ellsworth. “Not that they are so brilliant in their beauty — one sees beautiful women in every country; but they are so peculiarly feminine, and generally pretty, as a whole. By room-fulls, en masse, they appear to more advantage I think, than any other women; the general effect is very seldom broken by coarseness of face, or unmanageable awkwardness of form.”

“Yes, you are right,” said Mr. Stryker. “There is a vast deal of prettiness, and very little repulsive ugliness among the women in this country. But it strikes me they are inclining a little too much to the idea, just now, that all the beauty in the world is collected in these United States, which, as we all know is rather a mistaken opinion.”

“Certainly; that would be an extremely ridiculous notion.”

“You think delicacy then, the peculiar characteristic of American beauty?” said Mr. Wyllys.

“Yes, sir; but I could point out others, too. Brown hair and hazel eyes are another common feature in American beauty. If you look over the pretty women of your acquaintance, you will find that the case I think.”

“Like Mrs. Creighton’s,” said Elinor, smiling.

“No; Josephine’s features are not sufficiently regular for a beauty,” said her brother, good-naturedly.

“I shan’t get a compliment from Frank, Miss Wyllys,” replied the widow, shaking her head. “I agree with him, though, about the brown- haired beauties; for, I once took the trouble to count over my acquaintances, and I found a great many that answered his description. I think it the predominating colour among us. I am certainly included in the brown tribe myself, and so are you, Miss Wyllys.”

“As far as the colour of my hair goes,” replied Elinor, with a smile which seemed to say, talk on, I have no feeling on the subject of my plain face. One or two persons present had actually paused, thinking the conversation was taking an unfortunate turn, as one of the ladies present was undeniably wanting in beauty. To encourage the natural pursuit of the subject, Elinor remarked that, “light hair and decidedly blue eyes, like Mrs. St. Leger’s, are not so very common, certainly; nor true black hair and eyes like your’s, Jane.”

“You are almost as much given to compliments, Miss Wyllys, as I am,” said Mrs. Creighton; “I have to say a saucy thing now and then, by way of variety.”

“The saucy speeches are for your own satisfaction, no doubt, and the compliments for that of your friends, I suppose,” replied Elinor, smiling a little archly; for she had very good reasons for mistrusting the sincerity of either mode of speech from the lips of the gay widow; whom, for that very reason, she liked much less than her brother.

“Do you really think me too severe? — wait till we are better acquainted!”

“I shall always think you very charming,” replied Elinor, with her usual frank smile; for, in fact, she admired Mrs. Creighton quite as much as the rest of the world. And then observing that Mr. Ellsworth was listening to their conversation, she turned to him and asked, if the true golden hair, so much admired by the Italian poets, and so often sung by them, were still common in Italy?

“Judging from books and pictures, I should think it must have been much more common some centuries ago than at the present day; for, certainly, there is not one Italian woman in a hundred, who has not very decidedly black hair and eyes. I remember once in a translation from English into Italian, I used the expression ‘grey eyes,’ which diverted my master very much: he insisted upon it, there was no ‘such thing in nature;’ and even after I had reminded him of Napoleon, he would not believe the Emperor’s eyes were not black. He was a thorough Italian, of course, and knew nothing of the northern languages, or he would have met with the expression before.”

“Let me tell you, Ellsworth,” said Harry, after a short pause in the conversation, “that it is very pleasant to pass an agreeable evening in this way, chatting with old friends. You have no idea how much I enjoy it after a three years’ exile!”

“I can readily believe it.”

“No, I don’t think you understand it at all. It is true you were roving about the world several years, but you were not alone, my dear sir. You had indeed the advantage of particularly agreeable companions with you: in Paris you had Mrs. Creighton, and in Egypt you had your humble servant. And then, in the next place, your mind was constantly occupied; you lived with the past while in Italy and Greece, and with the present in Paris. Now, at Rio, there is no past at all, and not much of a present.”

“Is there no general society at Rio?” inquired Miss Wyllys.

“Oh, yes; society enough, in the usual meaning of the word. I was very fortunate in meeting with some very agreeable people, and have really a strong regard for Manezes { sic} — a good fellow he is, and I hope to see him here one of these days. But they were all new acquaintances. You cannot think how much I wanted to see a face I had known all my life; I was positively at one time on the verge of being home-sick.”

“You found out that you were more tender-hearted than you had believed yourself,” said Mr. Ellsworth.

“So it seems,” replied Harry; a shade of embarrassment crossing his face as he spoke.

“I should have thought some old acquaintance or other would have gone straggling towards Rio, in these travelling days,” observed Mr. Ellsworth.

“No, I was particularly unfortunate: once when the American squadron lay at Rio for some weeks, and I had several friends on board the Macedonian, I happened at that very time to be absent on an excursion in the interior. For six months, or so it did very well; it takes one as long as that to enjoy the lovely scenery, to say nothing of the novelty; but after admiring the bay and the Corcovado under every possible aspect, I got at last to be heartily tired of Rio. I should have run away, if we had not been recalled this summer.”

{” Macedonian“ = a United States warship, commanded during the early 1840s by Commodore William Branford Shubrick (1790-1874), a life-long close friend of James Fenimore Cooper. Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote a biography of him in 1876; “Corcovado” = a famous mountain peak overlooking the bay of Rio de Janeiro}

“You should have fallen in love,” said Mrs. Creighton.

“I don’t think I succeeded in that; perhaps I did not try very hard.”

“But is not the state of society pleasant at Rio?” inquired Mr. Wyllys.

“Not particularly, sir; it is too much like our own for that; something provincial lingering about it, although they have an emperor of their own. We cannot do without the other hemisphere yet, in spite of our self-important airs. We Yankees have coaxed Time out of a great deal, but he is not to be cheated for all that. People were not busy for thousands of years in the Old World, merely to qualify them for discovering America, whatever some of our patriots may say on the subject.”

“Yes, you are right, Harry; I have often wished that our people would remember what they seem to forget, that Time has a prerogative beyond their reach. There is a wide difference between a blind reverence for Time, and an infatuated denial of his power; and I take it to be one of the duties of your generation to find out the dividing line in this and other points, and shape your practice accordingly.”

“Yes, sir; it appears to me high time that the civilized world set about marking more distinctly a great many boundary lines, on important moral questions; and it is to be presumed, that with so much experience at our command, we shall at last do something towards it. It is to be hoped that mankind will at length learn not always to rush out of one extreme into the other; and when they feel the evil of one measure, not to fly for relief to its very opposite, but set about looking for the true remedy, which is generally not so far off.”

“You don’t believe in moral homœopathy?” said Mrs. Stanley.

“Not in the least.”

“Well, we are very much obliged to you for getting tired of Rio,” said Mrs. Creighton; “and thinking that the gay world of Philadelphia was quite as agreeable as the Imperial Court.”

“I take it for granted, however, that it was not exactly the gay world that you regretted,” said Ellsworth.

“Not exactly, no; general society is not sufficiently perfect in its way among us, for a man to pine after.”

“I have often thought,” observed Elinor, “that the spirit of mere dissipation must be less excusable in this country than in Europe. Society must have so many attractions there — more general finish — more high accomplishment.”

“Yes; we want more of the real thing; we have smatterers enough as it is,” replied Mr. Ellsworth.

“And then the decorations are so well got up in Europe!” exclaimed Mrs. Creighton. “I must confess myself enough of a woman, to be charmed with good decorations.”

“Something far better than mere decoration, however, is requisite to make society at all agreeable,” continued Mr. Ellsworth. “There is luxury enough among us, in eating and drinking, dressing and furniture, for instance; and yet what can well be more silly, more puerile, than the general tone of conversation at common parties among us? And how many of the most delightful soirées in Paris, are collected in plain rooms, au second, or au troisième, with a brick floor to stand on, and a glass of orgeat, with a bit of briocheto eat!”

{“au second, or au troisième” = on the third or fourth floor; ” orgeat“ = a syrup flavored drink; “brioche” = a simple pastry (French)}

“Lots and Love — Speculation and Flirtation, are too entirely the order of the day, and of the evening, with us,” said Harry; “whether figuring on Change, or on a Brussels carpet.”

{“on Change” = at the stock market}

“I have often been struck, myself, with the excessive silliness of the conversation at common parties, especially what are called young parties; though I have never seen anything better,” said Elinor.

“Those young parties are enough to spoil any society,” said Harry.

“Perhaps, however, you have too high an idea of such scenes in Europe, precisely because you have not seen them, Miss Wyllys,” observed Mr. Ellsworth.

“That may very possibly be the case.”

“There are always silly and ignorant people to be met with everywhere,” remarked Harry; “but the difference lies in the general character of the circle, which is not often so insipid and so puerile in Europe.”

“It is the difference, I suppose, between a puppet-show and genteel comedy,” said Elinor.

“Precisely, Miss Wyllys,” said Mr. Ellsworth, smiling.

“We have very pretty puppets, though,” observed Mrs. Creighton; “quite well-dressed, and sufficiently graceful, too; that is to say, the young lady puppets. As for the gentlemen, I shall not attempt to defend them, en masse, neither their grace nor their coats.”

“You won’t allow us to be either pretty or well-dressed?” said Mr. Stryker.

“Oh, everybody knows that Mr. Stryker’s coat and bow are both unexceptionable.”

“Why don’t you go to work, good people, and improve the world, instead of finding fault with it?” said Mr. Wyllys, who was preparing for another game of chess with Mrs. Robert Hazlehurst.

“A labour of Hercules, sir!” exclaimed Mr. Stryker, shrugging his shoulders. “The position of a reformer is not sufficiently graceful to suit my fancy.”

“It is fatiguing, too; it is much easier to sit still and find fault, sir,” observed Robert Hazlehurst, smiling.

Sauve qui peut, is my motto,” continued Mr. Stryker. “I shall take care of myself; though I have no objection that the rest of the world should profit by my excellent example; they may improve on my model, if they please.”

{“sauve qui peut” = everyone for himself (French)}

“The fact is, that manners, and all other matters of taste, ought to come by instinct,” said Mrs. Robert Hazlehurst; “one soon becomes tired of beings regularly tutored on such points.”

“No doubt of that,” replied Harry; “but unfortunately, though reading and writing come by nature, as Dogberry says, in this country, yet it is by no means so clear that good taste follows as a consequence.”

{“Dogberry” = a constable in Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing: “To be a well-favor’d man is the gift of fortune, but to write and read comes by nature.” III.iii.14-16}

“Good taste never came by nature, anywhere but in old Greece, I take it,” said Ellsworth. “In a new state of society, such things must force themselves upon one.”

“Certainly,” said Mr. Wyllys; “and you young people, who have had so many advantages of education and leisure, are very right to give the subject some attention, for the sake of the community in which you live. Manners in their best meaning, as a part of civilization, are closely connected at many different points, with the character and morals of a nation. Hitherto in this country, the subject has been too much left to itself; but in many respects there is a good foundation to work upon — some of our national traits are very creditable.”

“That is true, sir,” replied Mr. Ellsworth; “and Americans are naturally very quick in taking a hint, and in fitting it to their own uses. They are a good-natured, sociable race, too, neither coarse nor unwieldy in body or mind. All they want is, a little more reflection on the subject, and a sufficiently large number of models, to observe, and compare together; for they are too quick and clever, not to prefer the good to the bad, when the choice lies before them.”

“Remember too,” said Mr. Wyllys, “that if you cannot do everything, you must not suppose you can do nothing.”

“There is one point in American manners, that is very good,” said Harry: “among our very best people we find a great deal of true simplicity; simplicity of the right sort; real, not factitious.”

“Sweet simplicity, oh, la!” exclaimed Mr. Stryker. “Well, I am a bad subject to deal with, myself. I am too old to go to school, and I am too young yet, I flatter myself, to give much weight to my advice. Not quite incorrigible, however, I trust,” he added, endeavouring to smile in a natural way, as he turned towards Elinor and Mrs. Creighton. “I shall be most happy to learn from the ladies, and try to improve under their advice. Have you no suggestions to make, Miss Wyllys?”

“I am afraid I could not be of much use in that way.”

“There are only a thousand-and-one hints that I should give you,” said Mrs. Creighton, laughing.

“You must be frightfully particular!” exclaimed Mr. Stryker; “pray, what is hint No. 1?”

“Oh, I should not have time to make even a beginning; it is growing very late, and I shall defer your education until the next time we meet. Mr. Hazlehurst, that is my scarf, I believe, on your chair.”

The party separated; Harry offering his arm to Mrs. Creighton.