Story type: Essay
Occasionally a friend will ask me some such question as this, Do you prefer dark women or fair? Another will say, Do you like tall women or short? A third, Do you think light-hearted women, or serious, the more agreeable company? I find myself in the position that, once upon a time, overtook a certain charming young lady of taste who was asked by an anxious parent, the years mounting, and the family expenditure not decreasing, which of the numerous and eligible young men, then paying court to her, she liked the best. She replied, that was her difficulty. She could not make up her mind which she liked the best. They were all so nice. She could not possibly select one to the exclusion of all the others. What she would have liked would have been to marry the lot, but that, she presumed, was impracticable.
I feel I resemble that young lady, not so much, perhaps, in charm and beauty as indecision of mind, when questions such as the above are put to me. It is as if one were asked one’s favourite food. There are times when one fancies an egg with one’s tea. On other occasions one dreams of a kipper. Today one clamours for lobsters. To-morrow one feels one never wishes to see a lobster again; one determines to settle down, for a time, to a diet of bread and milk and rice-pudding. Asked suddenly to say whether I preferred ices to soup, or beefsteaks to caviare, I should be nonplussed.
I like tall women and short, dark women and fair, merry women and grave.
Do not blame me, Ladies, the fault lies with you. Every right-thinking man is an universal lover; how could it be otherwise? You are so diverse, yet each so charming of your kind; and a man’s heart is large. You have no idea, fair Reader, how large a man’s heart is: that is his trouble–sometimes yours.
May I not admire the daring tulip, because I love also the modest lily? May I not press a kiss upon the sweet violet, because the scent of the queenly rose is precious to me?
“Certainly not,” I hear the Rose reply. “If you can see anything in her, you shall have nothing to do with me.”
“If you care for that bold creature,” says the Lily, trembling, “you are not the man I took you for. Good-bye.”
“Go to your baby-faced Violet,” cries the Tulip, with a toss of her haughty head. “You are just fitted for each other.”
And when I return to the Lily, she tells me that she cannot trust me. She has watched me with those others. She knows me for a gad-about. Her gentle face is full of pain.
So I must live unloved merely because I love too much.
My wonder is that young men ever marry. The difficulty of selection must be appalling. I walked the other evening in Hyde Park. The band of the Life Guards played heart-lifting music, and the vast crowd were basking in a sweet enjoyment such as rarely woos the English toiler. I strolled among them, and my attention was chiefly drawn towards the women. The great majority of them were, I suppose, shop-girls, milliners, and others belonging to the lower middle-class. They had put on their best frocks, their bonniest hats, their newest gloves. They sat or walked in twos and threes, chattering and preening, as happy as young sparrows on a clothes line. And what a handsome crowd they made! I have seen German crowds, I have seen French crowds, I have seen Italian crowds; but nowhere do you find such a proportion of pretty women as among the English middle-class. Three women out of every four were worth looking at, every other woman was pretty, while every fourth, one might say without exaggeration, was beautiful. As I passed to and fro the idea occurred to me: suppose I were an unprejudiced young bachelor, free from predilection, looking for a wife; and let me suppose–it is only a fancy–that all these girls were ready and willing to accept me. I have only to choose! I grew bewildered. There were fair girls, to look at whom was fatal; dark girls that set one’s heart aflame; girls with red gold hair and grave grey eyes, whom one would follow to the confines of the universe; baby-faced girls that one longed to love and cherish; girls with noble faces, whom a man might worship; laughing girls, with whom one could dance through life gaily; serious girls, with whom life would be sweet and good, domestic-looking girls–one felt such would make delightful wives; they would cook, and sew, and make of home a pleasant, peaceful place. Then wicked-looking girls came by, at the stab of whose bold eyes all orthodox thoughts were put to a flight, whose laughter turned the world into a mad carnival; girls one could mould; girls from whom one could learn; sad girls one wanted to comfort; merry girls who would cheer one; little girls, big girls, queenly girls, fairy-like girls.
Suppose a young man had to select his wife in this fashion from some twenty or thirty thousand; or that a girl were suddenly confronted with eighteen thousand eligible young bachelors, and told to take the one she wanted and be quick about it? Neither boy nor girl would ever marry. Fate is kinder to us. She understands, and assists us. In the hall of a Paris hotel I once overheard one lady asking another to recommend her a milliner’s shop.
“Go to the Maison Nouvelle,” advised the questioned lady, with enthusiasm. “They have the largest selection there of any place in Paris.”
“I know they have,” replied the first lady, “that is just why I don’t mean to go there. It confuses me. If I see six bonnets I can tell the one I want in five minutes. If I see six hundred I come away without any bonnet at all. Don’t you know a little shop?”
Fate takes the young man or the young woman aside.
“Come into this village, my dear,” says Fate; “into this by-street of this salubrious suburb, into this social circle, into this church, into this chapel. Now, my dear boy, out of these seventeen young ladies, which will you have?–out of these thirteen young men, which would you like for your very own, my dear?”
“No, miss, I am sorry, but I am not able to show you our up-stairs department to-day, the lift is not working. But I am sure we shall be able to find something in this room to suit you. Just look round, my dear, perhaps you will see something.”
“No, sir, I cannot show you the stock in the next room, we never take that out except for our very special customers. We keep our most expensive goods in that room. (Draw that curtain, Miss Circumstance, please. I have told you of that before.) Now, sir, wouldn’t you like this one? This colour is quite the rage this season; we are getting rid of quite a lot of these.”
“NO, sir! Well, of course, it would not do for every one’s taste to be the same. Perhaps something dark would suit you better. Bring out those two brunettes, Miss Circumstance. Charming girls both of them, don’t you think so, sir? I should say the taller one for you, sir. Just one moment, sir, allow me. Now, what do you think of that, sir? might have been made to fit you, I’m sure. You prefer the shorter one. Certainly, sir, no difference to us at all. Both are the same price. There’s nothing like having one’s own fancy, I always say. NO, sir, I cannot put her aside for you, we never do that. Indeed, there’s rather a run on brunettes just at present. I had a gentleman in only this morning, looking at this particular one, and he is going to call again to-night. Indeed, I am not at all sure–Oh, of course, sir, if you like to settle on this one now, that ends the matter. (Put those others away, Miss Circumstance, please, and mark this one sold.) I feel sure you’ll like her, sir, when you get her home. Thank YOU, sir. Good-morning!”
“Now, miss, have YOU seen anything you fancy? YES, miss, this is all we have at anything near your price. (Shut those other cupboards, Miss Circumstance; never show more stock than you are obliged to, it only confuses customers. How often am I to tell you that?) YES, miss, you are quite right, there IS a slight blemish. They all have some slight flaw. The makers say they can’t help it–it’s in the material. It’s not once in a season we get a perfect specimen; and when we do ladies don’t seem to care for it. Most of our customers prefer a little faultiness. They say it gives character. Now, look at this, miss. This sort of thing wears very well, warm and quiet. You’d like one with more colour in it? Certainly. Miss Circumstance, reach me down the art patterns. NO, miss, we don’t guarantee any of them over the year, so much depends on how you use them. OH YES, miss, they’ll stand a fair amount of wear. People do tell you the quieter patterns last longer; but my experience is that one is much the same as another. There’s really no telling any of them until you come to try them. We never recommend one more than another. There’s a lot of chance about these goods, it’s in the nature of them. What I always say to ladies is–‘Please yourself, it’s you who have got to wear it; and it’s no good having an article you start by not liking.’ YES, miss, it IS pretty and it looks well against you: it does indeed. Thank you, miss. Put that one aside, Miss Circumstance, please. See that it doesn’t get mixed up with the unsold stock.”
It is a useful philtre, the juice of that small western flower, that Oberon drops upon our eyelids as we sleep. It solves all difficulties in a trice. Why of course Helena is the fairer. Compare her with Hermia! Compare the raven with the dove! How could we ever have doubted for a moment? Bottom is an angel, Bottom is as wise as he is handsome. Oh, Oberon, we thank you for that drug. Matilda Jane is a goddess; Matilda Jane is a queen; no woman ever born of Eve was like Matilda Jane. The little pimple on her nose–her little, sweet, tip-tilted nose–how beautiful it is. Her bright eyes flash with temper now and then; how piquant is a temper in a woman. William is a dear old stupid, how lovable stupid men can be–especially when wise enough to love us. William does not shine in conversation; how we hate a magpie of a man. William’s chin is what is called receding, just the sort of chin a beard looks well on. Bless you, Oberon darling, for that drug; rub it on our eyelids once again. Better let us have a bottle, Oberon, to keep by us.
Oberon, Oberon, what are you thinking of? You have given the bottle to Puck. Take it away from him, quick. Lord help us all if that Imp has the bottle. Lord save us from Puck while we sleep.
Or may we, fairy Oberon, regard your lotion as an eye-opener, rather than as an eye-closer? You remember the story the storks told the children, of the little girl who was a toad by day, only her sweet dark eyes being left to her. But at night, when the Prince clasped her close to his breast, lo! again she became the king’s daughter, fairest and fondest of women. There be many royal ladies in Marshland, with bad complexion and thin straight hair, and the silly princes sneer and ride away to woo some kitchen wench decked out in queen’s apparel. Lucky the prince upon whose eyelids Oberon has dropped the magic philtre.
In the gallery of a minor Continental town I have forgotten, hangs a picture that lives with me. The painting I cannot recall, whether good or bad; artists must forgive me for remembering only the subject. It shows a man, crucified by the roadside. No martyr he. If ever a man deserved hanging it was this one. So much the artist has made clear. The face, even under its mask of agony, is an evil, treacherous face. A peasant girl clings to the cross; she stands tip-toe upon a patient donkey, straining her face upward for the half-dead man to stoop and kiss her lips.
Thief, coward, blackguard, they are stamped upon his face, but UNDER the face, under the evil outside? Is there no remnant of manhood–nothing tender, nothing, true? A woman has crept to the cross to kiss him: no evidence in his favour, my Lord? Love is blind-aye, to our faults. Heaven help us all; Love’s eyes would be sore indeed if it were not so. But for the good that is in us her eyes are keen. You, crucified blackguard, stand forth. A hundred witnesses have given their evidence against you. Are there none to give evidence for him? A woman, great Judge, who loved him. Let her speak.
But I am wandering far from Hyde Park and its show of girls.
They passed and re-passed me, laughing, smiling, talking. Their eyes were bright with merry thoughts; their voices soft and musical. They were pleased, and they wanted to please. Some were married, some had evidently reasonable expectations of being married; the rest hoped to be. And we, myself, and some ten thousand other young men. I repeat it–myself and some ten thousand other young men; for who among us ever thinks of himself but as a young man? It is the world that ages, not we. The children cease their playing and grow grave, the lasses’ eyes are dimmer. The hills are a little steeper, the milestones, surely, further apart. The songs the young men sing are less merry than the songs we used to sing. The days have grown a little colder, the wind a little keener. The wine has lost its flavour somewhat; the new humour is not like the old. The other boys are becoming dull and prosy; but we are not changed. It is the world that is growing old. Therefore, I brave your thoughtless laughter, youthful Reader, and repeat that we, myself and some ten thousand other young men, walked among these sweet girls; and, using our boyish eyes, were fascinated, charmed, and captivated. How delightful to spend our lives with them, to do little services for them that would call up these bright smiles. How pleasant to jest with them, and hear their flute-like laughter, to console them and read their grateful eyes. Really life is a pleasant thing, and the idea of marriage undoubtedly originated in the brain of a kindly Providence.
We smiled back at them, and we made way for them; we rose from our chairs with a polite, “Allow me, miss,” “Don’t mention it, I prefer standing.” “It is a delightful evening, is it not?” And perhaps–for what harm was there?–we dropped into conversation with these chance fellow-passengers upon the stream of life. There were those among us–bold daring spirits–who even went to the length of mild flirtation. Some of us knew some of them, and in such happy case there followed interchange of pretty pleasantries. Your English middle-class young man and woman are not adepts at the game of flirtation. I will confess that our methods were, perhaps, elephantine, that we may have grown a trifle noisy as the evening wore on. But we meant no evil; we did but our best to enjoy ourselves, to give enjoyment, to make the too brief time, pass gaily.
And then my thoughts travelled to small homes in distant suburbs, and these bright lads and lasses round me came to look older and more careworn. But what of that? Are not old faces sweet when looked at by old eyes a little dimmed by love, and are not care and toil but the parents of peace and joy?
But as I drew nearer, I saw that many of the faces were seared with sour and angry looks, and the voices that rose round me sounded surly and captious. The pretty compliment and praise had changed to sneers and scoldings. The dimpled smile had wrinkled to a frown. There seemed so little desire to please, so great a determination not to be pleased.
And the flirtations! Ah me, they had forgotten how to flirt! Oh, the pity of it! All the jests were bitter, all the little services were given grudgingly. The air seemed to have grown chilly. A darkness had come over all things.
And then I awoke to reality, and found I had been sitting in my chair longer than I had intended. The band-stand was empty, the sun had set; I rose and made my way home through the scattered crowd.
Nature is so callous. The Dame irritates one at times by her devotion to her one idea, the propagation of the species.
“Multiply and be fruitful; let my world be ever more and more peopled.”
For this she trains and fashions her young girls, models them with cunning hand, paints them with her wonderful red and white, crowns them with her glorious hair, teaches them to smile and laugh, trains their voices into music, sends them out into the world to captivate, to enslave us.
“See how beautiful she is, my lad,” says the cunning old woman. “Take her; build your little nest with her in your pretty suburb; work for her and live for her; enable her to keep the little ones that I will send.”
And to her, old hundred-breasted Artemis whispers, “Is he not a bonny lad? See how he loves you, how devoted he is to you! He will work for you and make you happy; he will build your home for you. You will be the mother of his children.”
So we take each other by the hand, full of hope and love, and from that hour Mother Nature has done with us. Let the wrinkles come; let our voices grow harsh; let the fire she lighted in our hearts die out; let the foolish selfishness we both thought we had put behind us for ever creep back to us, bringing unkindness and indifference, angry thoughts and cruel words into our lives. What cares she? She has caught us, and chained us to her work. She is our universal mother-in-law. She has done the match-making; for the rest, she leaves it to ourselves. We can love or we can fight; it is all one to her, confound her.
I wonder sometimes if good temper might not be taught. In business we use no harsh language, say no unkind things to one another. The shopkeeper, leaning across the counter, is all smiles and affability, he might put up his shutters were he otherwise. The commercial gent, no doubt, thinks the ponderous shopwalker an ass, but refrains from telling him so. Hasty tempers are banished from the City. Can we not see that it is just as much to our interest to banish them from Tooting and Hampstead?
The young man who sat in the chair next to me, how carefully he wrapped the cloak round the shoulders of the little milliner beside him. And when she said she was tired of sitting still, how readily he sprang from his chair to walk with her, though it was evident he was very comfortable where he was. And she! She had laughed at his jokes; they were not very clever jokes, they were not very new. She had probably read them herself months before in her own particular weekly journal. Yet the harmless humbug made him happy. I wonder if ten years hence she will laugh at such old humour, if ten years hence he will take such clumsy pains to put her cape about her. Experience shakes her head, and is amused at my question.
I would have evening classes for the teaching of temper to married couples, only I fear the institution would languish for lack of pupils. The husbands would recommend their wives to attend, generously offering to pay the fee as a birthday present. The wife would be indignant at the suggestion of good money being thus wasted. “No, John, dear,” she would unselfishly reply, “you need the lessons more than I do. It would be a shame for me to take them away from you,” and they would wrangle upon the subject for the rest of the day.
Oh! the folly of it. We pack our hamper for life’s picnic with such pains. We spend so much, we work so hard. We make choice pies, we cook prime joints, we prepare so carefully the mayonnaise, we mix with loving hands the salad, we cram the basket to the lid with every delicacy we can think of. Everything to make the picnic a success is there except the salt. Ah! woe is me, we forget the salt. We slave at our desks, in our workshops, to make a home for those we love; we give up our pleasures, we give up our rest. We toil in our kitchen from morning till night, and we render the whole feast tasteless for want of a ha’porth of salt–for want of a soupcon of amiability, for want of a handful of kindly words, a touch of caress, a pinch of courtesy.
Who does not know that estimable housewife, working from eight till twelve to keep the house in what she calls order? She is so good a woman, so untiring, so unselfish, so conscientious, so irritating. Her rooms are so clean, her servants so well managed, her children so well dressed, her dinners so well cooked; the whole house so uninviting. Everything about her is in apple-pie order, and everybody wretched.
My good Madam, you polish your tables, you scour your kettles, but the most valuable piece of furniture in the whole house you are letting to rack and ruin for want of a little pains. You will find it in your own room, my dear Lady, in front of your own mirror. It is getting shabby and dingy, old-looking before its time; the polish is rubbed off it, Madam, it is losing its brightness and charm. Do you remember when he first brought it home, how proud he was of it? Do you think you have used it well, knowing how he valued it? A little less care of your pots and your pans, Madam, a little more of yourself were wiser. Polish yourself up, Madam; you had a pretty wit once, a pleasant laugh, a conversation that was not confined exclusively to the short-comings of servants, the wrong-doings of tradesmen. My dear Madam, we do not live on spotless linen, and crumbless carpets. Hunt out that bundle of old letters you keep tied up in faded ribbon at the back of your bureau drawer–a pity you don’t read them oftener. He did not enthuse about your cuffs and collars, gush over the neatness of your darning. It was your tangled hair he raved about, your sunny smile (we have not seen it for some years, Madam–the fault of the Cook and the Butcher, I presume), your little hands, your rosebud mouth–it has lost its shape, Madam, of late. Try a little less scolding of Mary Ann, and practise a laugh once a day: you might get back the dainty curves. It would be worth trying. It was a pretty mouth once.
Who invented that mischievous falsehood that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach? How many a silly woman, taking it for truth, has let love slip out of the parlour, while she was busy in the kitchen. Of course, if you were foolish enough to marry a pig, I suppose you must be content to devote your life to the preparation of hog’s-wash. But are you sure that he IS a pig? If by any chance he be not?–then, Madam, you are making a grievous mistake. My dear Lady, you are too modest. If I may say so without making you unduly conceited, even at the dinner-table itself, you are of much more importance than the mutton. Courage, Madam, be not afraid to tilt a lance even with your own cook. You can be more piquant than the sauce a la Tartare, more soothing surely than the melted butter. There was a time when he would not have known whether he was eating beef or pork with you the other side of the table. Whose fault is it? Don’t think so poorly of us. We are not ascetics, neither are we all gourmets: most of us plain men, fond of our dinner, as a healthy man should be, but fonder still of our sweethearts and wives, let us hope. Try us. A moderately-cooked dinner–let us even say a not-too-well-cooked dinner, with you looking your best, laughing and talking gaily and cleverly–as you can, you know–makes a pleasanter meal for us, after the day’s work is done, than that same dinner, cooked to perfection, with you silent, jaded, and anxious, your pretty hair untidy, your pretty face wrinkled with care concerning the sole, with anxiety regarding the omelette.
My poor Martha, be not troubled about so many things. YOU are the one thing needful–if the bricks and mortar are to be a home. See to it that YOU are well served up, that YOU are done to perfection, that YOU are tender and satisfying, that YOU are worth sitting down to. We wanted a wife, a comrade, a friend; not a cook and a nurse on the cheap.
But of what use is it to talk? the world will ever follow its own folly. When I think of all the good advice that I have given it, and of the small result achieved, I confess I grow discouraged. I was giving good advice to a lady only the other day. I was instructing her as to the proper treatment of aunts. She was sucking a lead-pencil, a thing I am always telling her not to do. She took it out of her mouth to speak.
“I suppose you know how everybody ought to do everything,” she said.
There are times when it is necessary to sacrifice one’s modesty to one’s duty.
“Of course I do,” I replied.
“And does Mama know how everybody ought to do everything?” was the second question.
My conviction on this point was by no means so strong, but for domestic reasons I again sacrificed myself to expediency.
“Certainly,” I answered; “and take that pencil out of your mouth. I’ve told you of that before. You’ll swallow it one day, and then you’ll get perichondritis and die.”
She appeared to be solving a problem.
“All grown-up people seem to know everything,” she summarized.
There are times when I doubt if children are as simple as they look. If it be sheer stupidity that prompts them to make remarks of this character, one should pity them, and seek to improve them. But if it be not stupidity? well then, one should still seek to improve them, but by a different method.
The other morning I overheard the nurse talking to this particular specimen. The woman is a most worthy creature, and she was imparting to the child some really sound advice. She was in the middle of an unexceptional exhortation concerning the virtue of silence, when Dorothea interrupted her with–
“Oh, do be quiet, Nurse. I never get a moment’s peace from your chatter.”
Such an interruption discourages a woman who is trying to do her duty.
Last Tuesday evening she was unhappy. Myself, I think that rhubarb should never be eaten before April, and then never with lemonade. Her mother read her a homily upon the subject of pain. It was impressed upon her that we must be patient, that we must put up with the trouble that God sends us. Dorothea would descend to details, as children will.
“Must we put up with the cod-liver oil that God sends us?”
“And with the nurses that God sends us?”
“Certainly; and be thankful that you’ve got them, some little girls haven’t any nurse. And don’t talk so much.”
On Friday I found the mother in tears.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing,” was the answer; “only Baby. She’s such a strange child. I can’t make her out at all.”
“What has she been up to now?”
“Oh, she will argue, you know.”
She has that failing. I don’t know where she gets it from, but she’s got it.
“Well, she made me cross; and, to punish her, I told her she shouldn’t take her doll’s perambulator out with her.”
“Well, she didn’t say anything then, but so soon as I was outside the door, I heard her talking to herself–you know her way?”
“Yes, she said?”
“She said, ‘I must be patient. I must put up with the mother God has sent me.’”
She lunches down-stairs on Sundays. We have her with us once a week to give her the opportunity of studying manners and behaviour. Milson had dropped in, and we were discussing politics. I was interested, and, pushing my plate aside, leant forward with my elbows on the table. Dorothea has a habit of talking to herself in a high-pitched whisper capable of being heard above an Adelphi love scene. I heard her say–
“I must sit up straight. I mustn’t sprawl with my elbows on the table. It is only common, vulgar people behave that way.”
I looked across at her; she was sitting most correctly, and appeared to be contemplating something a thousand miles away. We had all of us been lounging! We sat up stiffly, and conversation flagged.
Of course we made a joke of it after the child was gone. But somehow it didn’t seem to be OUR joke.
I wish I could recollect my childhood. I should so like to know if children are as simple as they can look.