PERSONAL charm seems to be quite independent of every other quality; it has a mysterious individuality of its own. Does the charm of childhood, of certain children rather, consist in perfect features, a well-trained mind, a flawless character ? Not in the least. In young character ? Not in the least; in young or old, charm is equally intangible and equally distinct from moral approval. It is possible for it to be combined with sterling worth as well as with a snub-nose and freckles, and few would be bold to maintain that all scalawags are fascinating, though they may be firmly convinced that the really successful ones are.
Once upon a time I knew one such. She had practically every fault except bad temper. She never paid a bill if she could possibly avoid doing so, but because of her cordial friendliness she was adored by her tradespeople. She could not bear to tread upon an earthworm, but she would keep her horses, to say nothing of coachman and footman, waiting in the cold and sleet an hour or more while she tried to make up her mind as to what she should wear. She was an exacting mistress, yet because she smiled commendation when a thing was well done, her servants would work their fingers to the bone for her. Few mothers have had more devoted children, yet she flirted outrageously with any young man who began to pay her daughters attention.
Her husband, a clever physician, had to give up the practice of his profession because she wished to have him free to take her to the theatre in the evening, and disliked having strangers ringing at the door at inopportune moments. People confided in her instinctively, though she could not keep a secret, not even one of her own. Indeed, her conversation, always entertaining and frequently witty, simply bristled with indiscretions and betrayed confidences. She was utterly inaccurate, yet even to those who knew her well her wildest remarks carried conviction at the time, enforced as they were by the childlike innocence of her direct gaze.
Though she had few pretensions to beauty, her eyes were remarkably handsome, large, well-cut, and of a liquid brown. Her manner was gentle and appealing, and she was, for the moment, genuinely interested in the person with whom she might happen to be. She was full of good intentions and high aspirations, and I have no doubt that the only pangs of conscience she ever knew were caused by the thought of imaginary lapses from her unfailing tact and goodhumor.
I knew another charmer, a man this time, a devoted and unselfish son and husband, a faithful friend, an upright and public-spirited citizen. He also was adored by high and low, rich and poor. He had a beautiful voice, the aspect of a young Crusader, a merry and most infectious laugh. He never had a row with a cabman, in spite of having conscientious scruples against giving large tips; he was the chosen and beloved friend of one of the most cantankerous and eccentric geniuses of his time; and, greatest marvel of all, he was always on the best of terms with his concierge. So evidently charm can exist without moral obliquity as a necessary ingredient. In fact, few things are necessary, for charm seems to exist quite independently of good looks, of cleverness, of unselfishness, of any of the attributes which, according to a foolish convention, are in themselves attractive. There is no more connection between them than there is between curly hair and a taste for mathematics.
Neither is this personal, undefinable, inscrutable quality confined to human beings. Some animals have almost more than their share of it, as, for instance, the cat, that most inscrutable of beasts. It is easy to sympathize with the ancient Egyptians in their worship of the god Pasht. If I were going to fall down and worship any four-footed creature, it would not be the calf I should choose, — the stolid, slow, ruminating calf. No, I should take the cat, sitting with the corners of her mouth curled up in a superior smile and looking out at the world through half-shut eyes with the air of having solved the riddle of the universe. She is so clean, so fastidious, so unmoved by all our blandishments. If she condescends to notice them, how proud we feel, how honored! How differently it affects us as compared with the adulation of the promiscuous dog, who will risk dislocating his spine with frantic waggings of the tail in return for a casual word of kindliness. A cat’s reserve and sense of measureless superiority arise not so much from pride as from the dispassionate conviction that our thoughts cannot be as her thoughts, therefore why should she be at the trouble to impart them to vulgar mortals ? In short, she is the furry incarnation of that arch-type of mysterious charm, the Mona Lisa. And for my part, I prefer pussy.
A remote and ineffable superiority, attractive though it be in animals, is less so in mere human beings. In our fellow men it seems more out of place, more humiliating. It is indeed a bold spirit that has never quailed before the unfathomable smile of a Chinese laundryman.