Story type: Essay
A half-humorous, half-pathetic epistle has been sent to me by a woman, who explains in it her particular perplexity. Such letters are the windfalls of our profession! For what is more attractive than to have a woman take you for her lay confessor, to whom she comes for advice in trouble? opening her innocent heart for your inspection!
My correspondent complains that her days are not sufficiently long, nor is her strength great enough, for the thousand and one duties and obligations imposed upon her. “If,” she says, “a woman has friends and a small place in the world–and who has not in these days?–she must golf or ‘bike’ or skate a bit, of a morning; then she is apt to lunch out, or have a friend or two in, to that meal. After luncheon there is sure to be a ‘class’ of some kind that she has foolishly joined, or a charity meeting, matinee, or reception; but above all, there are her ‘duty’ calls. She must be home at five to make tea, that she has promised her men friends, and they will not leave until it is time for her to dress for dinner, ‘out’ or at home, with often the opera, a supper, or a ball to follow. It is quite impossible,” she adds, “under these circumstances to apply one’s self to anything serious, to read a book or even open a periodical. The most one can accomplish is a glance at a paper.”
Indeed, it would require an exceptional constitution to carry out the above programme, not to mention the attention that a woman must (however reluctantly) give to her house and her family. Where are the quiet hours to be found for self-culture, the perusal of a favorite author, or, perhaps, a little timid “writing” on her own account? Nor does this treadmill round fill a few months only of her life. With slight variations of scene and costume, it continues through the year.
A painter, I know, was fortunate enough to receive, a year or two ago, the commission to paint a well-known beauty. He was delighted with the idea and convinced that he could make her portrait the best work of his life, one that would be the stepping-stone to fame and fortune. This was in the spring. He was naturally burning to begin at once, but found to his dismay that the lady was just about starting for Europe. So he waited, and at her suggestion installed himself a couple of months later at the seaside city where she had a cottage. No one could be more charming than she was, inviting him to dine and drive daily, but when he broached the subject of “sitting,” was “too busy just that day.” Later in the autumn she would be quite at his disposal. In the autumn, however, she was visiting, never ten days in the same place. Early winter found her “getting her house in order,” a mysterious rite apparently attended with vast worry and fatigue. With cooling enthusiasm, the painter called and coaxed and waited. November brought the opera and the full swing of a New York season. So far she has given him half a dozen sittings, squeezed in between a luncheon, which made her “unavoidably late,” for which she is charmingly “sorry,” and a reception that she was forced to attend, although “it breaks my heart to leave just as you are beginning to work so well, but I really must, or the tiresome old cat who is giving the tea will be saying all sorts of unpleasant things about me.” So she flits off, leaving the poor, disillusioned painter before his canvas, knowing now that his dream is over, that in a month or two his pretty sitter will be off again to New Orleans for the carnival, or abroad, and that his weary round of waiting will recommence. He will be fortunate if some day it does not float back to him, in the mysterious way disagreeable things do come to one, that she has been heard to say, “I fear dear Mr. Palette is not very clever, for I have been sitting to him for over a year, and he has really done nothing yet.”
He has been simply the victim of a state of affairs that neither of them were strong enough to break through. It never entered into Beauty’s head that she could lead a life different from her friends. She was honestly anxious to have a successful portrait of herself, but the sacrifice of any of her habits was more than she could make.
Who among my readers (and I am tempted to believe they are all more sensible than the above young woman) has not, during a summer passed with agreeable friends, made a thousand pleasant little plans with them for the ensuing winter,–the books they were to read at the same time, the “exhibitions” they were to see, the visits to our wonderful collections in the Metropolitan Museum or private galleries, cosy little dinners, etc.? And who has not found, as the winter slips away, that few of these charming plans have been carried out? He and his friends have unconsciously fallen back into their ruts of former years, and the pleasant things projected have been brushed aside by that strongest of tyrants, habit.
I once asked a very great lady, whose gracious manner was never disturbed, who floated through the endless complications of her life with smiling serenity, how she achieved this Olympian calm. She was good enough to explain. “I make a list of what I want to do each day. Then, as I find my day passing, or I get behind, or tired, I throw over every other engagement. I could have done them all with hurry and fatigue. I prefer to do one-half and enjoy what I do. If I go to a house, it is to remain and appreciate whatever entertainment has been prepared for me. I never offer to any hostess the slight of a hurried, distrait‘call,’ with glances at my watch, and an ‘on-the-wing’ manner. It is much easier not to go, or to send a card.”
This brings me around to a subject which I believe is one of the causes of my correspondent’s dilemma. I fear that she never can refuse anything. It is a peculiar trait of people who go about to amuse themselves, that they are always sure the particular entertainment they have been asked to last is going to “be amusing.” It rarely is different from the others, but these people are convinced, that to stay away would be to miss something. A weary-looking girl about 1 A.M. (at a house-party) when asked why she did not go to bed if she was so tired, answered, “the nights I go to bed early, they always seem to do something jolly, and then I miss it.”
There is no greater proof of how much this weary round wears on women than the acts of the few who feel themselves strong enough in their position to defy custom. They have thrown off the yoke (at least the younger ones have) doubtless backed up by their husbands, for men are much quicker to see the aimlessness of this stupid social routine. First they broke down the great New-Year-call “grind.” Men over forty doubtless recall with a shudder, that awful custom which compelled a man to get into his dress clothes at ten A.M., and pass his day rushing about from house to house like a postman. Out-of-town clubs and sport helped to do away with that remnant of New Amsterdam. Next came the male revolt from the afternoon “tea” or “musical.” A black coat is rare now at either of these functions, or if seen is pretty sure to be on a back over fifty. Next, we lords of creation refused to call at all, or leave our cards. A married woman now leaves her husband’s card with her own, and sisters leave the “pasteboard” of their brothers and often those of their brothers’ friends. Any combination is good enough to “shoot a card.”
In London the men have gone a step further. It is not uncommon to hear a young man boast that he never owned a visiting card or made a “duty” call in his life. Neither there nor with us does a man count as a “call” a quiet cup of tea with a woman he likes, and a cigarette and quiet talk until dressing time. Let the young women have courage and take matters into their own hands. (The older ones are hopeless and will go on pushing this Juggernaut car over each other’s weary bodies, until the end of the chapter.) Let them have the courage occasionally to “refuse” something, to keep themselves free from aimless engagements, and bring this paste-board war to a close. If a woman is attractive, she will be asked out all the same, never fear! If she is not popular, the few dozen of “egg-shell extra” that she can manage to slip in at the front doors of her acquaintances will not help her much.
If this matter is, however, so vastly important in women’s eyes, why not adopt the continental and diplomatic custom and send cards by post or otherwise? There, if a new-comer dines out and meets twenty-five people for the first time, cards must be left the next day at their twenty-five respective residences. How the cards get there is of no importance. It is a diplomatic fiction that the new acquaintance has called in person, and the call will be returned within twenty-four hours. Think of the saving of time and strength! In Paris, on New Year’s Day, people send cards by post to everybody they wish to keep up. That does for a year, and no more is thought about it. All the time thus gained can be given to culture or recreation.
I have often wondered why one sees so few women one knows at our picture exhibitions or flower shows. It is no longer a mystery to me. They are all busy trotting up and down our long side streets leaving cards. Hideous vision! Should Dante by any chance reincarnate, he would find here the material ready made to his hand for an eighth circle in his Inferno.