TIMES change, and so, apparently, do even such well-regulated objects as the heavenly bodies themselves.
There was a time — it was the day of our grandmothers — when the moon, regardless of the condition of the clouds or the season of the month, never failed “ to turn night into day ; ” when lovers strolled abroad, or took seats upon balconies. It was then that harpstrings, swept by jeweled fingers, sounded “ silver sweet ” upon the jasmine - scented air; when voices, melting into melody, quivered and trembled through verses of Byron and Moore ; when ladies, possessing necks “ whose whiteness outrivaled their gowns,” wore roses and jasmine in curls or braid ; when gentlemen, existing but to play the part of suitors, stood ever ready, at the frown or smile of a lady, to put bullets through their own brains or through those of their rivals, with indiscriminate but always romantic devotion.
It was then that the Belle, a lady set apart from her sisters “ by beauty and much admiration,” played the game of hearts in city and town. Many are the traditions concerning her.
There was “ the Magnolia Flower of the South,” that lovely Alabama lady of whom Irving declared that such a woman exists but once in the course of an empire ; there was the bewitchful E. M., pride of Gotham, about whose carriage thronged crowds, curious to catch but a glimpse of her loveliness ; there was the ever famous “ belle of Jackson’s administration ; ” there was that Philadelphia matron, renowned as the Magnificent; there was the stately and radiant S. W., as illustrious among Kentucky’s women as Clay among her men.
About the traditions of the Belle, about her very existence, there has ever lingered a glamour, a witchery, as subtile, as alluring, as the scent of her own favored jasmine.
There were her songs. We can see her now, seated in some dimly lighted parlor, her fingers lightly touching the strings of her harp, her bosom rising and falling in sentimental demand to her music. We wonder at the fullness of her skirts, at the languid grace of her movements, at her curls, “ dark as the wing of the raven,” “black as the robe of Night.” And seeing her thus in her loveliness, we too, with the admiring gentlemen of the satin waistcoats and chin-touching stocks, lend attentive ear to the words of the song which, quivering in its struggle with emotion, trembles forth from the lovely throat of the singer : —
He came, I could not breathe, for his eye was upon me.
He spoke, his words were cold, and his smile was unaltered,
I knew how much he felt, for his deep-toned voice faltered.
I wore my bridal robe, and I rivalled its whiteness ;
Bright gems were in my hair, — how I hated their brightness!
He called me by my name as the bride of another.
Oh, thou hast been the cause of this anguish, my mother! ”
To-day the Belle has passed into oblivion. She is distinctly a lady of the past, and, as with Hamlet’s father, we shall not look upon her like again. The moon, too, has become obedient to time, and is obliged, occasionally, to turn a dark face upon lovers. The harp is silent in other halls than in that of Tara, and the songs are remembered only by old ladies.
Meditating upon this lady of the past, reflecting upon her former autocracy, we are moved to speculate concerning the curious law which calls into existence distinct types of humanity only to banish them to the shades of oblivion with the changing of the conditions of society : “ the irksome brawling Scold; ” “ the light Coquette who sports and flutters in the fields of air ; ” that “ man of dress,” the Beau; the Euphuist; the famous French Précieuse ; the Æsthete ; and to-day, the Progressive Woman. Why, we ask, are a certain number of individuals so impressed by the spirit of an age as to be forced into bold relief as exponents of its abnormal tendencies, while, on the other hand, a much greater number pursue the eventless tenor of normal existence, unagitated by fads, unstirred by changing conditions ?
Not long since, in a list of autograph letters advertised for sale in a New York newspaper, appeared mention of a note from “ S. W., a noted Southern belle, requesting the editor of Harper’s Bazar to deny the report of her marriage to the wealthy Mr. N.” The price set upon this letter was one equal in value to that placed upon the autographs of the minor men of letters, and yet its sole source of value lay in the writer’s onetime existence as a typical figure of a bygone society.
Wherein, we ask ourselves, lay the magic charm of this captivating Belle, and why, in spite of her once social power, has she become so distinctly a personage of the past ?
It was not beauty alone which set apart the Belle. Nor, in all cases, was it birth, since local tradition hath more than one tale to tell of the elevation of some lovely Beggar Maid by an adoring King Cophetua. Nor was it alone charm, but haply a divine combination of many things, — beauty and tact and tolerance, with a flavor of assurance at times approaching the insolent, and that supremest of social gifts, graciousness, a possession too often denied a far higher type of woman. And the Belle understood the art of flattery. Of S. W. it was said that no man left her presence without being as much in love with himself as with her. Above all, the aim of the Belle was single.
Once it fell to my lot to share with one of these much-adored ladies — then past her grand climacteric — the rereading of the letters of her youth. From their pages it was not difficult to discern that the life of the lady had been governed by one motive. Books on her head, board at her back, sunbonnet, veil, dancing master, harp practice, — all were but agents in a preparation for the future subjugation of man and a possibility of bellehood. In proof of their success there were the letters, each of their lines bespeaking his homage.
The energies of the Belle wasted themselves in no side issues, but concentrated in the inclination to enchant, to subdue. All her bewitchments, all her genius, all her aspirations, bent in a single direction, and divided not, as do those of her modern sister, upon clubs and colleges, reforms and rights.
When the ante-bellum civilization bowed its head, and the sun of those halcyon days “ befo’ de wahr ” set forever, this all-powerful lady, this Queen of Yesterday, laid down her sceptre and vanished with the past. Is it not strange that so distinct a type, so regal a lady, has played no part in American fiction ? She was a rare exotic of the social soil, nourished by romance, cherished by chivalry, in the mere conditions of her existence making an appeal to fiction.
We have met her, it is true, in those mild old stories of the once popular Sartain and Union magazines, those stories whose heroines were invariably belles, and always surpassingly lovely ; but as a living, bewitchful, enrapturing woman, a very American Beatrix Esmond, the Belle yet has to appear in the pages of our novel.
Those who would consider her but a creature of the harp and jasmine should betake themselves to the Letters of Elizabeth Patterson, and there make discovery that beneath the personal attraction of at least one Belle there existed a power far more compelling than charm of feature or grace of manner. Madame Jerome Bonaparte, it will be found, possessed the social intellect, and so, perchance, did her sisters, the Belles.
To-day, woman, wearying of shadows in the glass, turns her eyes to Camelot. And there, apparently, she discovereth objects of interest other than Sir Lancelot. So the New Woman has become possible, the Belle is no more. Not the least interesting phase of the affair is that, through all the changes of the social horizon, the every-day woman lives peacefully and marries naturally, reigning in her home, and seeking but the homage of her household ; existing in an even fashion, undisturbed by the vagaries of her more impressionable sisters, unaffected by conditions, unchanged by environment, never at any time an exponent of aught but the normal conditions of every-day existence. Truly, as Madame Bonaparte assured her father, “ in mediocrity alone can be found happiness.”
Pausing for a moment, may we not ask ourselves if, when all is said, it is not this same every-day woman who, after all, achieves most permanently the object of her less stable sister, the unswerving and ever willing homage of the individual called man ?