New England Women

I HEAR a great deal of talk at dinner parties; sometimes I think it a pity that it should be lost. I was struck lately with the quaint originality of my friend Harrison, who sat opposite to a cloudy but cultivated Englishman. The conversation had been more fragmentary and jerky than it is usually, even; we had jumped from the dollar of our fathers — a subject we ladies found dull, particularly as we have lately been able to charm so few of them from our immediate masculine neighbors — up to “ How very brilliant Mars has been this summer, almost realizing the old idea, you know, of a battle summer,” and so on, rising in our celestial scenery till at. last, referring to that exquisite Crescent and the Cross effect which Venus and Luna were obliging enough to produce for us a short time since, we suddenly descended; and I feared that we were drifting toward the Gulf Stream, whose soft, enervating influence wooes but to drown all rational conversation, when somebody (bless him!) spoke up about Western exports (even pigs, I fear), and we were saved!

It brought out Harrison, a profuse and fluent talker, and waked up Mr. Majoribanks, the most literal and hemmy and hawey Englishman I have lately met, who uttered a singularly curt sentence for him.

“ What do you export from New England? ” said he. It was a clarion call!

“Women!” said Harrison, bravely. “ Unique women, with a peculiar flavor, local, like that of California wine.”

“ You mean that—you mean that — haw — that you — hem — I don’t know — you mean that — that, you —hem — send these women away?” remarked Majoribanks, looking shocked.

“ We do not put them in bottles and sell them by the dozen! No, we allow our customers to come and select individual samples, while we warrant them to be tonic in character, sound, of admirable bouquet, a genuine article, the pure juice of the grape,” said Harrison, with the fluency of an American and with the liquid speech of a wine merchant.

“ They should be— I suppose — they should be — they should be — hem — I suppose—born in Boston, should they not? ”

“Yes,” said Harrison rapidly, “that is, imperial Johannisberger, but the supply is necessarily limited; we cannot, fill our orders for that, so we furnish a fine Ausleser, the first dropping of the grape, from our vineyards which grow on the bleak hill-sides of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Cold winters and short summers, a great deal of cultivation, Puritan style of clipping the tendrils, not much richness of soil, not much richness any way, and we bring to perfection the rarest, purest, most peculiar grape in all the world! ”

The Englishman smiled. “I have found the flavor excellent — hem —ah! — excellent, you know, but perhaps — I don’t know — a trifle too pronounced. You spoke — perhaps — yes — hem — haw — of California wines. A little cold, a trifle forbidding, perhaps too intellectual, not so charming as—I don’t know — hem—perhaps the women of New York, or — haw — farther South and West. Cincinnati now — charming women there, you know.”

Harrison burst forth like one of his own similes, imperfectly corked California champagne, not too ripe.

“ She has not studied charm, my export, that I grant you; she will not flatter you, but the purest, most honest creature! true to her prejudices all the world over, like everybody who is worth anything. Take her to Paris to live at eighteen, and at fifty (the dear thing) you will find her with her New England opinions thick upon her. She call on anybody in Paris that she would not call on in Springfield? Perish the thought! Puritan morality, Puritan prejudice, Puritan purity, I find in her a sort of passion for chastity, a clearness of intent., a determination not to please any man but her husband.”

“ I thought,” said Majoribanks, delicately dipping his walnut in wine, and slowly crunching it with his fine white teeth, “ I thought I had— I don’t know — I thought I had seen New England women in Paris.”

“Yes,” said the American hastily, “ false growths, parasites which float up from tropical swamps, we know not how; the seed of a South American air plant may reach even Norway; the oidium will visit our grape-vines sometimes. But I speak of typical women, the host product, the highly organized sisterhood. I assure you that these women are as different from Southern women as is an Irish potato from a sweet potato.”

“ The Southern women are delicious,” said Mr. Majoribanks, deliberately eating a pecan nut. Our host, a literary man, and a purist, said that the word “ delicious ” must not be used except in regard to food, odors, and music.

Our hostess had asked us (ladies) not to leave the table when the gentlemen began to smoke, but to stay (if we did not mind cigars) and listen to the conversation. As we all told her that we frequently had to stand the smoke without the conversation, we agreed to remain, and one brave woman said, “ I consider cigar smoke delicious.”

“ ‘ Delicious’ should be used only in regard to what goes over the palate,” said Harrison, “ but as I was impertinent enough to use a potato simile, we will forgive Majoribanks.”

“ Speech goes over the palate, therefore speech can be delicious,” said our hostess.

“ Southern women, I am pleased to say,” said Harrison, “ are very nice; I like the flattering things that they say to one in a drawling manner. I like their low-toned, rich voices; courteous even to their own sex, and to our unworthy sex, even to the old and the unornamental, they are most attentive. I remember arriving one summer’s day at a watering-place hotel, ill, jaded, travelstained. I entered the crowded diningroom filled with well-dressed fashionable habitués. One Southwestern woman, a great belle, sat at her own table surrounded by her beaux, and gallantly caparisoned in a Worth dress. I knew her a little, a very little; she might have come and bowed to me on the piazza, later, but what did she do? She got up, walked the whole length of thatdiningroom, came to my table, ordered my dinner for me, comforted me, smiled upon me; and made me a well man. Now there was no glory to be derived from me; I own up to sixty-five; I am not an office holder, or a millionaire. She did this cordial thing because she is a cordial creature, full of amiability, love of approbation, if you please, but certainly very charming. There were a dozen New England women in the room who knew me much better than she did; not one of them thought of this fascinating manifestation of courtesy. She forgot all about me, I dare say, the next day, but 1 shall not forget her face.”

“It was a conspicuous thing to do,” said our hostess, who is a shy New England woman. Harrison looked at her with respect, but went on: “ Too much prudence, a decided egotism, are the accompaniments of higher virtues, I will allow that my typical woman has the defects of her qualities! ”

“I have thought—haw — I have — I don’t know — I have perhaps supposed— hem — that the New England people, women, you know —haw — were too much occupied in being good — being— perhaps — intellectual,” said Majoribanks, tilting the ashes of his cigar into a receiver.

Harrison swallowed a thimbleful of curacoa; he was growing softer and more sentimental; he quoted the lines, —

“ I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life was duty.’’

“ That is their watchword,” said he; “ from youth to age what heroines they are! how they can consume their own smoke! ” Here he lighted a fresh Rosa Concha, whose etherealization nearly hid him from us. “ How she can suffer and be strong! That clever woman, Mrs. Henry Field, that Frenchwoman with the great brain and heart, now dead, said to me once that she had been watching all day a New England heroine.

“ 'I have seen her sit by her son through a most cruel operation,’ said she. ‘ Of course it wounded her laterally and diagonally more than it did him; what is worse, it will reverberate through her nerves forever, while he will recover and forget it. She showed nothing but a tender firmness. I have left her sewing up-stairs as if nothing had happened. There is a color high upon either cheek, nature’s only sign of victory over that indomitable unselfishness! ’

“ ‘ And yet,’said I, ‘ a sister of charity does this every day.’

“ ‘ Ah,’ said my observant Frenchwoman, ' the sister is not a mother, to begin with. She has her church, her vows, and her dress to help her. What a shield is a uniform! These are all enormous aids. The New England Joan of Arc fights without armor.’

“ ‘ Her armor is her honest thought,’ said I.

“‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Field, ‘she leans on her own unassisted soul, as no other woman ever did.’

“ And the woman who spoke there lived and died a heroine.”

Majoribanks had begun several times a sentence which he did not seem able to find. He fumbled for his language. Why do the Englishmen mislay their words so perpetually? They have ideas, they have education. What demon has stolen their fluency ?

“ Do they ever — is there sometimes — is it impossible for them to — do you know — in fact, do they know how to flirt — to be coquettish? ” said he, with difficulty; a sort of stertorous breathing out of idea, broken by “ you knows. ’ ’

“ No,” said Harrison. “ Never were such single-minded Eves ! The serpent has not hissed in their ears. In their relation towards men, unique; to love some one man, live for him, die for him, it is enough. Flirtation would give them a sick headache; coquetry, under a waterproof cloak, never! ” “ Cold, bloodless beauties — I suppose, because, you know — because, you know — I think — I don’t know — yes, I do know they are very pretty, you know,” said Majoribanks with unaccustomed fervor.

“Not at all, not at all; not bloodless beauties!” said the irrepressible Harrison. “Just as beautiful as Italians, Spaniards, South of France, Arles — all that sort of thing. Why, I have in my mind now a valley in New England where the dark-haired, red-lipped, highinstepped, full-figured women seemed to me to have come from Andalusia, instead of from Vermont, they were so graceful, so well complexioned, so well developed. They were of the passionate type, too: long black lashes, black eyes, deep rich complexions, not wanting, some of them, the delicate mustache which adds to the beauty of a dark, well-featured face. Had they been at home, in Spain, what guitar tinklings, what madrigals, what fans! Ten duennas apiece would not have protected these dashing creatures from insidious love-letters, thrust into the most taper fingers in all the world. And yet they were the most thoroughly regulated, studious, industrious, calculating set of Puritans imaginable. I use the word ‘calculating’ advisedly. It expresses that arithmetical arrangement of the duties which I have never met except in the New England female mind. Not calculating in the sense of taking advantage of others, but calculating rigidly how much they could take out of themselves. No studying how to throw up those thick, long, curly lashes; no studying to make the teeth, white as a slice of cocoanut, more radiant by a comprehensive smile; not a particle of natural extravagance in dress. If a scarlet bow flowed out under a dusky, dimpled chin, it came out because it was in the blood. It could not be helped; it was not sought. In fact, they were badly dressed with great attention to economy. They chose their gowns, even in that sweet, early spring time, — when girls should be like the flowers, only engaged in blushing, — for qualities that would wear well, as the vicar chose his wife. They were neat as pins. ‘ It was their nature to; ’ not neat because it looked well, but clean because they liked it; sweet as cloverbeds, fresh as June roses; but badly shod, badly corseted, badly coffěe. Their thoughts, meantime, were keeping noble company; their hands were doing useful work. Rich, as well as poor, learned the noble household arts. They were not good linguists, nor nearly so highly accomplished as the women of New York, or of New Orleans, or of Charleston; but they were thoroughly educated in history and geography, they were good mathematicians, excellent logicians, great thinkers, and possessed of an omnivorous thirst for knowledge, which drove them with scorpion whips to lectures, to the feet of such men as Agassiz, Emerson, and Wended Phillips, unbending occasionally to listen to some lesser authority, but filled (the dear creatures) with the finest poetical sense; violet - hooded doctors, sweet, starryeyed, pure dreamers, devoted to Tennyson, to Longfellow, to Whittier, to Bryant, and to Lowell, to all poets, and excellent Shakespeareans, — every one. Never were there such clear, north star, crystalline consciences. The Puritan mothers must have been very superior to the Puritan fathers. I think the women of New England escaped much of that avarice and narrowness, that — something—which has been (perhaps falsely) called cheating, which is said by their enemies to enter into the modern New England mind—the masculine half. New England women may be cold, may be forbidding, may be plainly dressed, even sour-faced, but they are not cheats. I think it is a talent they have not. Now we all know that after marriage the life of a French flirt begins. To attract men, to gain lovers and to be admired,— to heighten every beauty, to dress the foot becomingly, to tint the cheek and hair, to be coquette in every movement and action, — that is the study of three quarters of the female population of the globe. One must believe, after seeing the world widely, that it, is the average female mind; that it is an instinct, not necessarily a bad one, though sometimes, it is to be feared, leading to other consequences than good ones.

“ The typical New England woman knows nothing of this side of life. It is so far off from her that the temptation can scarcely be said to exist. It does not come near enough to be denied. The idea of making herself agreeable to any man but her husband! She would sooner steal, murder, poison. In fact, some ungenerous critics have said of her that she has the defects of her qualities, and does not even make herself agreeable to him, but this idea I repudiate. Imagine the two contrasted lives! The European woman in her velvet and pearls, at forty, busily engaged in being fascinating. She succeeds in looking perhaps ten years younger than she is. She has felt much emotion in her day. She can talk beautifully about her past, her present, and her future. She classifies the passions admirably. She is preëminently the woman to invite to dinner. What tact, what esprit, what espièglerie. One must use French words to describe her. Who is her God ? Self. Who the first, last, ever-present being to her? Herself. She shuns suffering, she abhors a wrinkle. Every hour of the day must have its amusement. She may be very amiable, do no wrong, be a very comfortable, comforting, good woman in her way. She would be miserably ennuyee without a love-affair, but would consider it wretched taste to go too far.

“ Where is the typical New England woman at forty? She is where she has always been, doing her duty. If she wears velvet and pearls, it is under protest; she may be obliged to do so by an exacting and rich husband, but she does not like it. She is thinking of his business, his advantage, his advancement, and the boys’ education. Whether Dartmouth, or Harvard, or Yale, —that is the question. If she has daughters, she goes out with them in the plainest gown that will pass muster. She in love with anybody! She desirous of showing her foot ! — and it is apt to be a very slender and very pretty one, — perish all such rubbish! She would not believe that such horrible and wicked nonsense existed, did she not read a French novel occasionally to see if it were proper that the girls might possibly read it.”

“I believe that it would bore a New England woman,” said our host, “ to be obliged, under any pressure of circumstances, to take up, after her one heart experience is over, any sort of successor to it. The element in which other women exist, the vanity, coquetry, or sentiment, call it what you will, which is so much a part of most women’s lives, is left out of hers. She hates it, repudiates it even, if she knows it. Generally she does not know it.”

“ That is so,” said Harrison. “ Now why and wherefore? Whence this difference? It is not climate, for Russia is much colder, and we know what is morality in Russia, Sweden, and Denmark. It is not religion, for in no part of the world has any one sect or church so little apparent influence as in New England. In fact, some of the most moral and conscientious women I have ever known have been practically infidels. I do not think the descendants of the Puritans are religious; at least not emotionally so; and indeed, is emotional religion any restraint upon the evil passions? No, I fear not. It does not keep women virtuous, or men honest. It is begging the question to call in education, for what is education but an outcropping of ourselves? Besides, education is far more strict, far more silent, in France than here. Young girls are brought up over there with cotton stuffed in their ears.

“ Is it tradition? Is it the old Puritan atmosphere still circling around Plymouth Rock? What was there in that stone? Was it an aerolite? Was it a meteoric fragment dropped from the moon? Diana’s crescent, pure and pale, rises over that fortunate land which surrounds our national blarney stone. It is the ' field mark and device ’ of a large and influential type, as is also ' the icicle which hangs on Diana’s temple ' ” — Here the host interposed. “ No matter about the rest of the quotation. ” “Icicles are sometimes hard,” said Majoribanks.

“ Very hard; so are New England women! One who had lived longer in Paris than she had on Beacon Street would not know anybody from Boston whom she had not known in Beacon Street, as I remarked before. It is a strong and refreshing trait in an American. I love to he so local. The Philadelphians have this trait. The old-time Revolutionary aristocracy clings to Philadelphia much more than that which would be so much more natural, a Revolutionary democracy. New York is but a conglomerate of all nations; therefore people who leave New York for a European life seldom come back, or regret it, or carry any memories of it. It is but leaving a lesser Paris for a greater Paris; the greater wins.

“ The life of a New England woman up to thirty years ago must have been one of hardship. She had the climate to struggle against; she saw her children die of scarlet fever and croup, or the older ones go off into consumption; she had to struggle (and always will have to) with incompetent servants. Life was a battle to both sexes. There is a tombstone over a husband and wife in a New England burying-ground at which people smile. ' Their warfare is accomplished;' such is the legend. There was a warfare, no doubt, within sometimes, certainly without.

“ But I never knew a New England heroine beaten. I have seen her assailed by all the enemies of our race, — sickness, poverty, misfortune, disgrace, and sorrow, — and she has conquered them all. I have seen her as an export to the West, that West which she has made the prosperous land that it is; and I have admired her bent form, her sallow paleness, her patient mouth, from which that pearly gleam had departed, far more than the most roseate bloom, the most Venus-like outline. I have seen her so courageous, so simple in her devotion to duty, and yet so beyond Joan of Are in her heroism, that I have said to myself, ' Duty is beauty; the rhyme was wrong.’ ” “ This abnegation of self,” said our host, “this devotion to principle, should be — we fondly boast that it is — an integral part of that Anglo - Saxon race from which we spring.”

“Yes, — perhaps; hunger and cold proved the iron determination of the Puritan race. It knew no primrose path of dalliance; luxury and travel and the progress of the age have altered the conditions; we no longer eat the fine kernels of corn. The primroses do spring in our path, our houses and lives are luxurious, but this Mayflower remains unsullied and fresh, fragrant as when Priscilla stooped and picked the pink and white buds, and gave them to John Alden with a blush, ‘herself a fairer flower. The type of the New England woman has not departed ; it flourishes still.

“ Old Count Gorowski, a great student of race, said that he would venture to tell the nationality of any crime. If poisoning, it was apt to be Italian; if lying, French; if brutal, English; if cunning, Spanish; if cheating, American; if all five, Russian! That was a somewhat severe résumé of his country, and undoubtedly breathed in one of the moments of irritability for which he was famous. Some one suggested that he had left out Poland. ‘Oh!’ said he,

‘ the Poles do not know enough to be grandly bad, they are such fools.’ ”

The Englishman had listened patiently and with respect to this long tirade. “ You have been a great traveler, I hear,” said he, when his turn came.

“Yes,” said the American, “ twenty years in China, ten more in the Indian provinces, ten in Europe, living in all the great cities, but principally in Paris.”

“ Not in England much, I suppose? ”

“ No, only a few visits in the season.”

“And how much in your own country?”

“ The first twenty years of my life, and five years since. I own up to sixtyfive, as you see.”

“ The first twenty years of our lives are years in which we see only the best,” said the Englishman, reflectively.

“ Oh! I have been home in the intervals,” said the American; “ I am not speaking from memory; besides, I have seen our exports everywhere.”

“I claim the same type of character, the same purity, the same nobility, the same heroic self-denial, for the women of England,” said the Englishman.

“ You are right, with a difference,” said Harrison. “The rhododendrons which are imported from America, and cultivated in English soil, are fuller in color, more redundant, far more magnificent as flowers and shrubs, than the native growth; but I have plucked in an American forest a bunch of rhododendrons of palest pink, or pure white, which was more delightfully beautiful than any cultivated one; it had that unique charm, that local flavor, that peculiarity, which I claim for my New England women,” said the American.

“ The root is the same! ”

“That I grant. I yield to no man in my admiration for your countrywomen, but the conditions are widely different. An Englishwoman in any grade of life finds life cut out for her; an American woman must cut it out for herself. The typical New England woman makes everything for herself, from her bonnet up to her destiny. She can be anything; there are no limitations to her ambition. She fits herself unconsciously for the position of wife to a foreign ambassador. If that fate does not come, she accepts patiently the position of wife to a country doctor. But the reading, and the dignity, and the sense of position are kept up. This enormous self-respect seldom leaves her; she is a peeress in her own right, without the estates.”

“How do you account for the coldness of manner? I should think that such good women would be more amiable,” said our host.

“ Adversity is more becoming to the New England woman than prosperity, I grant you. Sometimes, when I have not admired her so much, wrapped up in the latter, her natural reserve becomes something which appears like a purse-proud disdain. Her conscientious truthfulness does not shine well in a society where a satin hypocrisy rules, and her unused talents make her sometimes uncomfortable. She is conscious of the ‘ latent misery of a baffled instinct.’ She is never so great, so good, so lovely, or so much herself, as when she is conquering an adverse destiny; she is made to ‘suffer and be strong.’ As a hostess in a great house, she sometimes seems wanting in cordiality; as the wife of a secretary of state, a president, or a foreign ambassador, she would be intelligent enough, elegant enough, dignified enough; but whether she is always sufficiently gracious, I am doubtful. She is elective, she wants the best; I am inclined to think that the ignorant, the pretentious, and the bores would decide that her manners were not so cordial as those of Mrs. Breckenridge Clay Rutledge, of the South.”

“ I should know exactly what crimes a New England woman would commit,” said our hostess. “ I agree, with Gorowski about the locale of crime ; hers would be crimes against the agreeable. She might be capable of great hardness toward the man she loved if he did not, come up to her standard of faith. If she found him untrue to his principles and hers, she would leave him and denounce him; that is to say, my type would; she would be most unmerciful. His sins toward herself she might forgive, but not a dishonesty of creed or conscience.”

“ She cultivates her conscience more than her heart, then?” said a very pretty woman, not from New England.

“I am afraid so,” said Harrison, reluctantly.

Our host, a thoughtful man, here said a few pertinent words. “ I should know that your typical woman would not take a bribe, or feel the temptations of ordinary women as to dress and social power; but would she not possibly become a political Cleopatra, an antislavery Delilah, and use some wiles unworthy of the Mayflower standard to advance the cause she advocates and believes in, — some high-toned flatteries, some eloquent arguments ” —

“Never! As well expect to find a pine-apple, or a cactus, growing in the untropical streets of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, as to find such an one! ” said the undaunted Harrison.

“ Perhaps she is ignorant, like — you know—Gorowski’s Poles; perhaps,” began Majoribanks, “she would not know how to be so fascinating.”

Harrison looked baffled, but recovered himself in a moment. “Exactly! She does not know; she has not the instinct of Cleopatra or Delilah; a bribe does not reach her brain; she is cut off, poor thing, by the limitations of her being, from some very admirable vices.”

“I have seen — that is, there are — there were — some very beautiful ones in England, last summer; very nice ones, too. Gainsborough type, you know,” said Majoribanks, as if extenuating, and setting down naught in malice.

“ Yes, that type prevails in Boston, also the willow pattern; don’t leave out, either, my Andalusians. I believe also that a tribe of gypsies went through one county, and that the daughters of the Zingari married into the best families.

I drink to their fine eyes! ”

“ Harrison, you grow incoherent,” said our host.

“ It is the curaçoa ! ”

“I think,” said our hostess, “if I have followed the conversation aright, that you have made us out a cold, forbidding set, even with all your praises! ”

‘ ‘ I have met — that is — I have perhaps— yes — haw — I have met some that were cordial,” said Majoribanks.

“ There are,” said Harrison, gravely, “ some queens who rule the world: some Northern women with Southern manners, some Southern women with all the sincerity and directness of Northern souls. We cannot mark off the virtues, the faults, or the manners, by latitude or longitude. We cannot define that geographical boundary where the Yankee twang ends, or the New York accent begins, yet we who have ears can hear, and mark it as we go.”

“ I have—the accent — it is strange — I don’tknow — yes — hem — I have heard — that you know a Philadelphian by his talk, and can tell — that is to say, perhaps — a Western man’s State, or if New England, what you call Yankee drawl — or is it that there can be local accent ? ” asked Majoribanks, getting completely swamped.

“ Yes, I assure you, definite as Yorkshire or Kingsley’s county talk. Remember his Derbyshire? And more than definite is the type of our New England export ’ ’ —

“ Supposing you change the simile,” said our hostess, interrupting him, and pulling a lily from the flowers in the épergne and handing it to Harrison, as she signaled to us to move off.

“ Yes,” said he, accepting the flower. “ Wherever I have seen her, on a silver lake, on the secluded shaded wave of a lonely river, my pure New England flower; or on the marshy, disturbed surface of some suburban inlet, or the malarious, broad plane of Western waters, it was the same white flower, it was always the lily. ”

As we left the dining-room and walked off to the parlor, the Englishman confided to me that he thought Harrison had too many words, and was given to bragging.

M. E. W. S.