In Washington by Bill Nye

Story type: Essay

I have just returned from a polite and recherche party here. Washington is the hot-bed of gayety, and general headquarters for the recherche business. It would be hard to find a bontonger aggregation than the one I was just at, to use the words of a gentleman who was there, and who asked me if I wrote “The Heathen Chinee.”

He was a very talented man, with a broad sweep of skull and a vague yearning for something more tangible–to drink. He was in Washington, he said, in the interests of Mingo county. I forgot to ask him where Mingo county might be. He took a great interest in me, and talked with me long after he really had anything to say. He was one of those fluent conversationalists frequently met with in society. He used one of these web-perfecting talkers–the kind that can be fed with raw Roman punch, and that will turn out punctuated talk in links, like varnished sausages. Being a poor talker myself, and rather more fluent as a listener, I did not interrupt him.

He said that he was sorry to notice how young girls and their parents came to Washington as they would to a matrimonial market.

I was sorry also to hear it. It pained me to know that young ladies should allow themselves to be bamboozled into matrimony. Why was it, I asked, that matrimony should ever single out the young and fair?

“Ah,” said he, “it is indeed rough!”

He then breathed a sigh that shook the foilage of the speckled geranium near by, and killed an artificial caterpillar that hung on its branches.

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“Matrimony is all right,” said he, “if properly brought about. It breaks my heart, though, to notice how Washington is used as a matrimonial market. It seems to me almost as if these here young ladies were brought here like slaves and exposed for sale.” I had noticed that they were somewhat exposed, but I did not know that they were for sale. I asked him if the waists of party dresses had always been so sadly in the minority, and he said they had.

I danced with a beautiful young lady whose trail had evidently caught in a doorway. She hadn’t noticed it till she had walked out partially through her costume.

I do not think a lady ought to give too much thought to her apparel; neither should she feel too much above her clothes. I say this in the kindest spirit, because I believe that man should be a friend to woman. No family circle is complete without a woman. She is like a glad landscape to the weary eye. Individually and collectively, woman is a great adjunct of civilization and progress. The electric light is a good thing, but how pale and feeble it looks by the light of a good woman’s eyes. The telephone is a great invention. It is a good thing to talk at, and murmur into and deposit profanity in; but to take up a conversation, and keep it up, and follow a man out through the front door with it, the telephone has still much to learn from woman.

It is said that our government officials are not sufficiently paid; and I presume that is the case, so it became necessary to economize in every way; but, why should wives concentrate all their economy on the waist of a dress? When chest protectors are so cheap as they now are. I hate to see people suffer, and there is more real suffering, more privation and more destitution, pervading the Washington scapula and clavicle this winter than I ever saw before.

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But I do not hope to change this custom, though I spoke to several ladies about it, and asked them to think it over. I do not think they will. It seems almost wicked to cut off the best part of a dress and put it at the other end of the skirt, to be trodden under feet of men, as I may say. They smiled good humoredly at me as I tried to impress my views upon them, but should I go there again next season and mingle in the mad whirl of Washington, where these fair women are also mingling in said mad whirl, I presume that I will find them clothed in the same gaslight waist, with trimmings of real vertebrae down the back.

Still, what does a man know about the proper costume of a woman? He knows nothing whatever. He is in many ways a little inconsistent. Why does a man frown on a certain costume for his wife, and admire it on the first woman he meets? Why does he fight shy of religion and Christianity and talk very freely about the church, but get mad if his wife is an infidel?

Crops around Washington are looking well. Winter wheat, crocusses and indefinite postponements were never in a more thrifty condition. Quite a number of people are here who are waiting to be confirmed. Judging from their habits, they are lingering around here in order to become confirmed drunkards.

I leave here to-morrow with a large, wet towel in my plug hat. Perhaps I should have said nothing on this dress reform question while my hat is fitting me so immediately. It is seldom that I step aside from the beaten path of rectitude, but last evening, on the way home, it seemed to me that I didn’t do much else but step aside. At these parties no charge is made for punch. It is perfectly free. I asked a colored man who was standing near the punch bowl, and who replenished it ever and anon, what the damage was, and he drew himself up to his full height.

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Possibly I did wrong, but I hate to be a burden on anyone. It seemed odd to me to go to a first-class dance and find the supper and the band and the rum all paid for. It must cost a good deal of money to run this government.

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