Social Exiles by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Balzac, in his Comedie Humaine, has reviewed with a master-hand almost every phase of the Social World of Paris down to 1850 and Thackeray left hardly a corner of London High Life unexplored; but so great have been the changes (progress, its admirers call it,) since then, that, could Balzac come back to his beloved Paris, he would feel like a foreigner there; and Thackeray, who was among us but yesterday, would have difficulty in finding his bearings in the sea of the London world to-day.

We have changed so radically that even a casual observer cannot help being struck by the difference. Among other most significant “phenomena” has appeared a phase of life that not only neither of these great men observed (for the very good reason that it had not appeared in their time), but which seems also to have escaped the notice of the writers of our own day, close observers as they are of any new development. I mean the class of Social Exiles, pitiable wanderers from home and country, who haunt the Continent, and are to be found (sad little colonies) in out-of- the-way corners of almost every civilized country.

To know much of this form of modern life, one must have been a wanderer, like myself, and have pitched his tent in many queer places; for they are shy game and not easily raised, frequenting mostly quiet old cities like Versailles and Florence, or inexpensive watering-places where their meagre incomes become affluence by contrast. The first thought on dropping in on such a settlement is, “How in the world did these people ever drift here?” It is simple enough and generally comes about in this way:

The father of a wealthy family dies. The fortune turns out to be less than was expected. The widow and children decide to go abroad for a year or so, during their period of mourning, partially for distraction, and partially (a fact which is not spoken of) because at home they would be forced to change their way of living to a simpler one, and that is hard to do, just at first. Later they think it will be quite easy. So the family emigrates, and after a little sight-seeing, settles in Dresden or Tours, casually at first, in a hotel. If there are young children they are made the excuse. “The languages are so important!” Or else one of the daughters develops a taste for music, or a son takes up the study of art. In a year or two, before a furnished apartment is taken, the idea of returning is discussed, but abandoned “for the present.” They begin vaguely to realize how difficult it will be to take life up again at home. During all this time their income (like everything else when the owners are absent) has been slowly but surely disappearing, making the return each year more difficult. Finally, for economy, an unfurnished apartment is taken. They send home for bits of furniture and family belongings, and gradually drop into the great army of the expatriated.

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Oh, the pathos of it! One who has not seen these poor stranded waifs in their self-imposed exile, with eyes turned towards their native land, cannot realize all the sadness and loneliness they endure, rarely adopting the country of their residence but becoming more firmly American as the years go by. The home papers and periodicals are taken, the American church attended, if there happens to be one; the English chapel, if there is not. Never a French church! In their hearts they think it almost irreverent to read the service in French. The acquaintance of a few fellow-exiles is made and that of a half-dozen English families, mothers and daughters and a younger son or two, whom the ferocious primogeniture custom has cast out of the homes of their childhood to economize on the Continent.

I have in my mind a little settlement of this kind at Versailles, which was a type. The formal old city, fallen from its grandeur, was a singularly appropriate setting to the little comedy. There the modest purses of the exiles found rents within their reach, the quarters vast and airy. The galleries and the park afforded a diversion, and then Paris, dear Paris, the American Mecca, was within reach. At the time I knew it, the colony was fairly prosperous, many of its members living in the two or three principal pensions, the others in apartments of their own. They gave feeble little entertainments among themselves, card-parties and teas, and dined about with each other at their respective tables d’hote, even knowing a stray Frenchman or two, whom the quest of a meal had tempted out of their native fastnesses as it does the wolves in a hard winter. Writing and receiving letters from America was one of the principal occupations, and an epistle descriptive of a particular event at home went the rounds, and was eagerly read and discussed.

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The merits of the different pensions also formed a subject of vital interest. The advantages and disadvantages of these rival establishments were, as a topic, never exhausted. Madame une telle gave five o’clock tea, included in the seven francs a day, but her rival gave one more meat course at dinner and her coffee was certainly better, while a third undoubtedly had a nicer set of people. No one here at home can realize the importance these matters gradually assume in the eyes of the exiles. Their slender incomes have to be so carefully handled to meet the strain of even this simple way of living, if they are to show a surplus for a little trip to the seashore in the summer months, that an extra franc a day becomes a serious consideration.

Every now and then a family stronger-minded than the others, or with serious reasons for returning home (a daughter to bring out or a son to put into business), would break away from its somnolent surroundings and re-cross the Atlantic, alternating between hope and fear. It is here that a sad fate awaits these modern Rip Van Winkles. They find their native cities changed beyond recognition. (For we move fast in these days.) The mother gets out her visiting list of ten years before and is thunderstruck to find that it contains chiefly names of the “dead, the divorced, and defaulted.” The waves of a decade have washed over her place and the world she once belonged to knows her no more. The leaders of her day on whose aid she counted have retired from the fray. Younger, and alas! unknown faces sit in the opera boxes and around the dinner tables where before she had found only friends. After a feeble little struggle to get again into the “swim,” the family drifts back across the ocean into the quiet back water of a continental town, and goes circling around with the other twigs and dry leaves, moral flotsam and jetsam, thrown aside by the great rush of the outside world.

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For the parents the life is not too sad. They have had their day, and are, perhaps, a little glad in their hearts of a quiet old age, away from the heat and sweat of the battle; but for the younger generation it is annihilation. Each year their circle grows smaller. Death takes away one member after another of the family, until one is left alone in a foreign land with no ties around her, or with her far-away “home,” the latter more a name now than a reality.

A year or two ago I was taking luncheon with our consul at his primitive villa, an hour’s ride from the city of Tangier, a ride made on donkey- back, as no roads exist in that sunny land. After our coffee and cigars, he took me a half-hour’s walk into the wilderness around him to call on his nearest neighbors, whose mode of existence seemed a source of anxiety to him. I found myself in the presence of two American ladies, the younger being certainly not less than seventy-five. To my astonishment I found they had been living there some thirty years, since the death of their parents, in an isolation and remoteness impossible to describe, in an Arab house, with native servants, “the world forgetting, by the world forgot.” Yet these ladies had names well known in New York fifty years ago.

The glimpse I had of their existence made me thoughtful as I rode home in the twilight, across a suburb none too safe for strangers. What had the future in store for those two? Or, worse still, for the survivor of those two? In contrast, I saw a certain humble “home” far away in America, where two old ladies were ending their lives surrounded by loving friends and relations, honored and cherished and guarded tenderly from the rude world.

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In big cities like Paris and Rome there is another class of the expatriated, the wealthy who have left their homes in a moment of pique after the failure of some social or political ambition; and who find in these centres the recognition refused them at home and for which their souls thirsted.

It is not to these I refer, although it is curious to see a group of people living for years in a country of which they, half the time, do not speak the language (beyond the necessities of housekeeping and shopping), knowing but few of its inhabitants, and seeing none of the society of the place, their acquaintance rarely going beyond that equivocal, hybrid class that surrounds rich “strangers” and hangs on to the outer edge of the grand monde. One feels for this latter class merely contempt, but one’s pity is reserved for the former. What object lessons some lives on the Continent would be to impatient souls at home, who feel discontented with their surroundings, and anxious to break away and wander abroad! Let them think twice before they cut the thousand ties it has taken a lifetime to form. Better monotony at your own fireside, my friends, where at the worst, you are known and have your place, no matter how small, than an old age among strangers.

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