A Small but Costly Crown
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
Possibly, like Mr. Salteena, I am ‘not quite a gentleman.’ I know that once Englishmen thought that no Americans were gentlemen, and there may have been some truth in the idea; though I know of no more dreadful confession to make than that of Mr. Salteena. At any rate, I used to look at ‘royalty’ and the nobility as Mr. Salteena did; and I used to pay rather particular attention to the ‘small but costly crowns’ upon their heads. Indeed, do not all of us Americans do the same? Do we not expect some outward sign of rank, and some obvious manifestation of nobility, on the part of a titled person ?
But this was all before I lived a little in England. When I came back and was met with the query, ‘ How did the English aristocracy act in the war?’ I was almost as much at a loss to reply as any true-born Englishman. ‘Has anyone written a book about it?’ they said to me. ‘Is it not true that the noblemen showed up better than would have been expected; that they are not degenerate after all?’ Ah, Mr. Salteena, not only must he wear a costly crown, but it must indeed be a ‘sinister son of Queen Victoria’ who wears it. We will not allow to the English noble that similarity to all the rest of mankind which he has, and likes; he must not be insignificant, at least in the eyes of a foreign people.
I told my questioners that the aristocracy was just like the rest of England. That answer produced quiet, but not satisfaction. So my own curiosity was aroused, and I asked an English friend.
‘Nobody here,’ my friend replied, ‘has been sufficiently interested in our aristocracy to write a book, or even an article, about them in connection with the war. I don’t see why they should.’ (My friend, I fear, is a bit of a Bolshevik.) ‘It’s an entirely American point of view to suppose that the aristocracy, whoever they may be, are peculiar persons whose conduct in war differs fundamentally from anyone else’s. You must know from your own experiences that they were just caught up in it like all the rest of us, and, except for a certain outrageous lot who were “unwearied by war-work” in the Sketch and Tatler every week, behaved fairly well, and no differently from anyone else. Bretton’s father [Bretton is the son of a nobleman who once held cabinet office] was a sergeant in the R—.
That sort of thing was not usual, though. It savors too much of advertisement for the average Englishman. So generally they just got commissions and were killed off like the rest.’
Thus did my friend reply — a hopeless democrat he, not to call him anything unkinder. He is, I might say perhaps in partial extenuation, a member of an old county family.
I asked another Englishman, a rather close acquaintance of mine, and the son of a prominent manufacturer. His answer was altogether different. He rode to the rescue gallantly with a mention of the performances of Lord Beaverbrook as publicist, Lord Northcliffe as propagandist, Lord Ernle as grower of the nation’s food, and Lord Rhondda as savior of the same food. But I was forced to point out to myself, though I forebore to remind him, that those four peers, all having been born commoners, and all having been ennobled presumably for distinguished governmental service, are an example merely of the soundness of the British common stock, and not at all of the achievements of the aristocracy.
‘Do you remember,’ said I finally to myself, ‘the Duke of Omnium, whom you used to admire so much? Trollope, his creator, was a veracious gentleman. And do you remember how modest the Duke was, in spite of his great position? and how, when his wife, the Lady Glencora, complained of his humility, he asked if she would have him wear his coronet every day?
‘Or do you remember his friend the Lady Rosina de Courcy, the only person in England who treated him as a friend and not as a great man; and how Lady Glencora asked what they talked about when they took long walks? (For the Lady Rosina was an old lady.)
“‘Cork soles,” answered the Duke. “We talk about cork soles. Lady Rosina has a favourite shoemaker in Silverbridge who makes most excellent cork soles for her half-worn boots. She has nearly persuaded me to try them.”’
This is too sobering a draught for you, fellow American, who, like me, wish that the Duke of Omnium had worn his coronet every day, and that the inward grace of nobility (when it dwells in coroneted heads) should be supplemented at all times by the concrete sign of rank. What glamour it would add to life if one could recognize a countess by her coiffure and a Knight of the Garter by the blue ribbon on his breast, when they stroll across Hyde Park! Who has heard the cottager’s ‘my lady’ to the lady of the manor, or seen the curtsey that some little children are still taught to drop to their betters, without wishing that some visible token would give the ticketcollector on the railway a chance to show his passion for inequality, and would allow even you and me to forget our democratic simplicity and salute on the street ‘my lord.’
Or do we fear (O Postume, Postume!) that nowadays the gateman is too full of social insubordination, and the consciousness of the incredible number of shillings he gets every week, to count any man his better? Or must we admit that there are titled heads that would not look worthy of a coronet? Surely the years since King Arthur made glorious the knighthood, or King James invented baronets, have not fled away to any such ill end.
Yet I remember meeting once a member of parliament, a wealthy and a very hearty man, who had made his money in gas-fixtures and who to this day lights his house with gas — sturdy sign of independence and lack of false shame. With a modicum of his fortune, presented judiciously in one large sum, he had saved his party in a lean year and had helped a dozen statesmen into parliament. He has become Sir Henry Burrell. He belongs to that same order of ‘knights bachelor’ to which Sir Uther Pendragon and Sir Philip Sidney belonged. In this age, one realizes, it is as splendid a service to His Majesty to light the realm by gas as it used to be to preserve it with the sword. But as I conversed with Sir Henry’s wife, with Lady Burrell, I was so strongly reminded of a neighbor of my childhood, a Mrs. Brown, that I called her Mrs. Brown — twice.
No, I should not want to give the insignia of rank to Sir Henry Burrell.
A MAID IN THE HOUSE
‘ Don’t go to the door, children! Let Katie.’
Thus early began my aversion. In her place Katie might have been all very well; but in our house, as all along our street, she was a spoil-sport. What child — who is allowed — but flies to answer the door-bell as his dearest prerogative, interviews tramps, scrapes with his tongue, as long as an anteater’s, the cake-batter bowl and the ice-cream dasher — in short, is always under foot? Perhaps Katie would n’t have minded his licking the dasher, either — unless, as he suspected, she saved it for herself; she might have given him a lump of dough to impregnate with rich grime; but his mother, so considerate of Katie at his expense, always called him away and whistled him down the wind. Nor could he, like a boy whose mother does her own work, recount at the dinner-table the news he had heard. Katie might repeat it to Annie, and Annie to the subject of it, her employer. It must not be mentioned that the Lutheran minister wore a wig, because Katie is a Lutheran. Patent medicines must not be laughed at, because Katie has a bottle of PainBouncer on her bureau.
It is a ticklish matter for mother, too, to know whether or not to dust the living-room. If she does, it may seem a reproach to Katie’s thoroughness; if she does not, it may seem to be throwing extra work on Katie; for dusting, whether pro or con, was not mentioned in the bond. It is the same with the desserts: to suggest that mother make her lovely charlotte russe may seem a reflection on the cottage pudding we had yesterday. Father, too, has learned to care, and eats what he does not like, lest silent aspersions be cast.
Maids are in the house, not of it. They are unnaturalized citizens. Their dreaded air of censorship may be the unavoidable result of having never been consulted about the arrangements. ‘I told Katie our meal hours, and how fond we are of griddle-cakes for lunch.’ Why not, ‘I asked Katie whether she likes griddle-cakes, and whether she thinks we’d better have supper half an hour earlier’?
A partner would not be always tacitly contemning his enterprise, as so many maids, in what I believe to be subconscious protest against their humiliating lack of responsibility, incessantly and exasperatingly do. A coworker, whose criticisms were invited and weighed, would not be muttering them with blackened brows behind the roller towel.
‘The whole relation of master and servant,’ says a California sage, ‘is false.’ Is this the reason that there is so frequently on the employer’s side an unbecoming but not ungrounded fear of some causeless loud outbreak, some unseemly defiance? Though so sorely ill at ease, we stick to our hair-shirt; to our curiously prized little perquisites of being called ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss,’ while we address to a total stranger the ‘Katie’ of intimate friendship; to our privilege of sitting at a different table, with flowers on it, served with silver forks, while only plated ones are found in the pantry drawer; and of not introducing Katie to the friends she serves, as we would introduce the doctor or tutor, whose business is equally unrelated.
Is the sedentary leisure to grow bilious worth it? Is it worth while to have to walk three miles a day and do setting-up exercises as a substitute for housework? worth the stifling of that hospitable impulse to invite the two old ladies calling to stay to tea, because we’ve had all the company we dare that week? Or, if we ask them, is it worth the uneasy wonder whether that old back-ache of Katie’s will be coming on again? Is it worth the enlarged grocer’s bills, when we wish already that we had n’t seen that picture in the Survey of the dark-eyed little Rumanian child starving on his hospital cot?
The operation for maidicitis is all but painless for all concerned. Few, indeed, are looking for the post; and many another career, less stunting and repressive, even though poorer in creature-comforts, lies open. Freedom lies in that quarter, privacy and individuality for the maid; freedom, too, for the household, to joke, to meddle, to be noisy, to have company; freedom to lock the house and with a clear conscience prolong the motoring trip and sup at an inn; freedom, above all, from the accustomed damper of continuous mild embarrassment, as we muddle along at the too-delicate task of perpetuating a worn anomaly in semi-human relations.