A Supplanted Dignitary
— Some one, venturing latel into the labyrinth of internation al comparison, has said that the crucial difference between an English and an American hotel is that at the former the traveler is at once furnished with warm water for the outer man, and at the latter with iced water for the inner man. This is no doubt a significant divergence of custom, worth following up to the remote psychological diversities of which it is the outcome and the expression. But there is another variation of the arrangements in the American caravansary for travelers from those of its English equivalent which seems even more important in its bearings than the opposite points of view in regard to the use of water. This is the more Constant and visible presence at the English hotel of the feminine element. Every one who has read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Across the Plains will remember that clever gentleman’s imbroglio with the clerk and the clerk’s colored male assistant at the hotel at Council Bluffs. One laughed, of course, in reading it, as was intended, but one blushed a little, too, if one were open to conviction in regard to one’s country’s habits, — as was perhaps also intended. To the weary tourist, with reminiscences in his mind of the ample and motherly female who, with reassuring cap and keys, would graciously meet him at the door or in the hall of an English provincial inn, the aspect of the preoccupied business manager, hedged in behind a barrier-like counter, is somewhat chilling and discountenancing. Yet his, it is needless to remark, is the sole reception our national custom ordains for the hotel guest, of high degree or low, in small town or huge metropolis ; unless, indeed, one chooses to consider one’s self as received by the porters and bellboys, who do the business for one’s self and one’s luggage by getting both inducted, without any nonsense, and as speedily as may be, into the designated number.
It is not only in provincial England, but in good old time houses in the metropolis as well, that this feminine welcome is considered the traveler’s due. Sometimes, indeed, it happens that she is a trifle too imposing, this capped and furbelowed housekeeper. Her silks now and then rustle with a richness that emphasizes too strongly one’s own travel-stained shabbiness. The laces and bows of her cap and her glittering gold brooch seem to menace a modest purse. But this is not often. The consensus of sensations she gives the arriving guest is, on the whole, agreeable ; she represents the settled comfort in things small and obscure that makes the dividing line between civilization and semi-civilization ; her supervision is a part of the decorum that belongs to the institutions of our English kindred.
Sitting, one summer evening, not long ago, on the thatched porch of a West Country inn, watching the waves as they rolled in a hundred feet below us and broke against the deep red sandstone cliffs, and chatting over a cigar with an English tourist about the local features of the place, after the fashion of chance acquaintances in unfamiliar regions, my companion remarked upon the undivided sway of our landlady. Her husband, he said, might be seen sitting tranquilly over his newspaper in their small sitting-room off the porch, while she bustled about, attending to the coaching and posting arrangements of her guests no less than to their rooms, their breakfasts, and their luncheons. “ And what else should he be doing in the house?” asked our Englishman. “ Oh, he might at least send the orders to the stables,” I hastened to interpose, fearing that an international comparison was imminent. “ Yes, he might do that,” was the careless reply ; and I breathed a sigh of relief that the catastrophe was averted. To explain laboriously to a Briton of the insular type how New World customs venture to differ from his own is a task unfit for a fair Devonshire evening, when the lingering twilight and the sweet smell from the “heaths starr’d with broom ” seem to breathe the very spirit of repose and acquiescence.
The picture of Penelope ruling over her domain in the absence of Ulysses would lose half its attractiveness without the bevy of handmaidens more dimly outlined in the background of the poet’s canvas, and with the tutelar feminine head of the English hotel the case is the same. If her assistants know no secrets of tapestry and of suitors, they are at least thoroughly well versed in the mysteries of those bewilderingly lined and crossed and itemized accounts that contain the records of your bed and board under a confusing multiplicity of heads. But though you may sigh for a decimal system of currency, or for better brains, — according to your habit of finding fault with the world in general, or yourself in particular, — you cannot but approve the manner in which the female clerk has made out your bill : such fair chirography, such faultless memory, and such impeccable arithmetic. They are equaled only by the accent and tone in which you will find yourself answered if you ask a question of this trim assistant of the petticoated major-domo. She is not what one would call a person of general information, as you will find to your cost if you are a tourist of the hurry-skurry stamp, and wish her to tell you how to “ do ” a castle or a cathedral in no time at all. She may even be put to confusion by a sudden request for a tuppenny-ha’penny stamp, and persist in believing it identical with two ha’penny ones. But then that ever excellent thing in woman, her soft, low voice, — how pleasant it is to ears accustomed to the shriller note of the New World ! And how pleasantly, too, her ready “ beg pardon ” and " thank you ” permeate strictly business discourse ! What an air of breeding they give to the sordid transactions of pounds, shillings and pence ! It is a pity that we ourselves are so lacking in this small coin of civility. We shall, doubtless, some day come to appreciate its value as a circulating medium, and set it flowing with our characteristic lavishness.
It is a curious reversal of custom that has led us to relegate our public housekeeping to the hand that has always spurned the distaff and the thread. Certainly it is a reversal paradoxical to the spirit of an age that more than any other has put the work of the commercial and business world upon feminine shoulders. A proof that we have lost rather than gained by it is that one finds the prevalence of the feminine element so agreeable a feature of the English inns and hotels. Quite as often as “ manager ” one sees the newly coined “ manageress ” figure on advertising cards and bill-heads. The term does not imply anything slipshod or unfinished in the household economy. The butler’s linen is as glossy and his broadcloth as irreproachable under feminine as under masculine supervision. But not the briskest clerk under the sun can impart the touch of homely comfort and domestic refinement that follow in the train of the housekeeper and her young women assistants, and give one the acceptable impression of being a person, and not a “ number ” merely.