The Left-Over Expression of Countenance
—There are certain humorous sidewalk observations that are open to one as a kind of compensation for having to elbow and jostle along the public ways. One of these is the trick people have of looking at you with the left-over remainders of the expression of face just bestowed on the companion with whom they are walking and talking. A pair of persons engaged in lively argument are approaching you. One of them is laying down the law with great vigor of facial and muscular gesture. At the moment of brushing by he glances at you, with the ferocious scowl of his fervid eloquence still puckering his features. You would think he was your bitterest foe. Of course it would have been opposed to the great law of economy of force to have relaxed and then puckered up again, just for the momentary meeting of another face. Perhaps his apparatus of facial expression is not agile enough to have accomplished the manæuvre, if he had tried.
Shortly after, you encounter Saccharissima and Dulcissima, chatting and laughing together as they come. They are entire strangers to you, but as you pass you receive a most captivating smile, — from both of them this time, as it happens, for both are talking at once. It produces an effect like those momentary streaks of warm air through which one suddenly walks on an autumn day.
Sometimes you get a mixed expression, with much the effect of a stream of warm and of cold water poured on the head at the same time. The eyes, which are the more mobile portion of the expressional apparatus, will nimbly alter their look, at the instant of meeting you, to that freezing glance appropriate to the encounter of an un-introduced fellowcreature. The mouth, meanwhile, with its attendant cheek-curves, continues the companionable smile, thus bridging over the interruption, and allowing the conversation to go on, with its atmosphere unchanged.
Occasionally it happens, however, that the mixture was already in the original expression. We all know that bloodcurdling look which passes between eminently civil people, wherein the eyes remain distant and stony, while the unfortunate mouth (which — for its sins, perhaps — always has to do the hypocrisy for the whole countenance) is forced to maintain an expansive mechanical smile. Thus I meet, of a morning, two middle-aged ladies engaged in polite exchange of views upon the weather. Rival boarding-house keepers, possibly. The effect now is quite complex. They are already wearing, for each other, the mixed expression referred to, and in glancing at you each infuses an additional drop of vitriol into the ocular and adjustable part of her look. This momentary contact with expressions that were intended for other people is singularly noticeable on the road in meeting open carriages. Sometimes on a crisp afternoon, when everybody is out and all are animated, it is like encountering an intermittent running fire of faces : some real rifle-shots (such as Emerson describes), and with explosive bullets at that; others, the mere sugar-plum artillery of the Carnival, — and none of them intended for you particularly. It is merely that you happen to intervene in the line of fire. An effect of this sort is when two crowded open horse-cars meet and pass. Here you have, not single shots, but the simultaneous discharge of a whole battery of diverse facial howitzers.
Perhaps the oddest case of this persistence of previous expressions is where you have stopped a moment to speak with a lady on a village sidewalk. You are only slightly acquainted, and neither your mutual relation nor the business in hand call for anything but a very indifferent and matter-of-fact cast of countenance. But suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, this daughter of Eve is aware of a favorite young gentleman bowing and smiling from a rapidly passing carriage. Without moving her head, — there is not time for that, — but only her eyes, she flashes on her vanishing friend a bewitchingly intimate smile. Then she instantly looks back to you and finishes the business sentence, with the remains of this charming but now queerly incongruous glance fading out of her face in a most interesting manner. It is like watching the last tint of sunset vanishing from a mountain peak, or a pretty little wave ebbing back on the beach, or the closing of a flower at night, or the putting up of the shutters on the village apothecary shop at bedtime.
I remember an appalling instance of such a phenomenon that occurred to me when a child. Even at this late day, whenever I vividly recall the scene, it gives me a chill. It was in a Virgil class, and I was a poor little palpitating new scholar. While I was anxiously construing the opening lines of the Dido-in-thestorm episode, the beetle-browed master turned slyly to a privileged older pupil with some sotto voce schoolmaster’s joke. As I glanced up, having partly heard the words without catching the point, he was just turning back to me, with a most genial and winning smile sweetening his usually acid features. Innocently, and no doubt with some timidly responsive look on my face, I said, “ What ? ” But on the instant of speaking I divined that, alas ! the grin was not meant for me. It was a case of left-over remainder. As it ceased to “ coldly furnish forth ” his rapidly congealing countenance, he bade me in a stern voice to “ go on.” It was much as if he had cried, “ What right have you to be smiling at me, you miserable little sinner ? ”
But I have known over-sensitive persons of larger growth to have their disagreeable moments with these “remainder biscuits ” of expression. For example, I have an unhappy friend who has all his life been intermittently ridden with the idea that he is in some way ridiculous. I can never find him really happy and at his ease except in his library or his garden. The books and the chickens, he says, do not laugh at him. Whether it be the effect on his nerves of tea-drinking, or of living too much alone, or of having been brought up by homespun people, to whom his artistic tastes really did appear ridiculous, and who took no pains to conceal the fact, — whatever the cause, there is nothing of which he has such terror as the “ laughter of fools ” directed against himself. Lately I set myself seriously to combat this fancy. I said, “ Let us go out together on the street, or into company, and see if you can show me any reliable instances of people’s laughing at you.”
The first persons we happened to encounter, after leaving the house, were two sauntering schoolgirls, satchels on arm, maxillaries active, and one was telling the other with infinite secrecy — as if the very lamp-posts were sure to be listening— some wonderful experience, such as only schoolgirls have. As my friend and I approached them, it appeared that the climax of the narrative had just been reached. Glancing up at us unconsciously, as we met, they continued to giggle, and passed on. “ There ! you see ! ” said my friend. And I had much ado to convince him that it was only a case of left-over expression.