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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

George William Curtis (1824–1892)


“Prue and I”

ALTHOUGH my person is not present at your dinner, my fancy is. I see Aurelia’s carriage stop, and behold white-gloved servants opening wide doors. There is a brief glimpse of magnificence for the dull eyes of the loiterers outside; then the door closes. But my fancy went in with Aurelia. With her, it looks at the vast mirror, and surveys her form at length in the Psyche-glass. It gives the final shake to the skirt, the last flirt to the embroidered handkerchief, carefully held, and adjusts the bouquet, complete as a tropic nestling in orange leaves. It descends with her, and marks the faint blush upon her cheek at the thought of her exceeding beauty; the consciousness of the most beautiful woman, that the most beautiful woman is entering the room. There is the momentary hush, the subdued greeting, the quick glance of the Aurelias who have arrived earlier, and who perceive in a moment the hopeless perfection of that attire; the courtly gaze of gentlemen, who feel the serenity of that beauty. All this my fancy surveys; my fancy, Aurelia’s invisible cavalier.

You approach with hat in hand and the thumb of your left hand in your waistcoat pocket. You are polished and cool, and have an irreproachable repose of manner. There are no improper wrinkles in your cravat; your shirt-bosom does not bulge; the trousers are accurate about your admirable boot. But you look very stiff and brittle. You are a little bullied by your unexceptionable shirt-collar, which interdicts perfect freedom of movement in your head. You are elegant, undoubtedly, but it seems as if you might break and fall to pieces, like a porcelain vase, if you were roughly shaken.

Now, here, I have the advantage of you. My fancy quietly surveying the scene, is subject to none of these embarrassments. My fancy, will not utter commonplaces. That will not say to the superb lady, who stands with her flowers, incarnate May, “What a beautiful day, Miss Aurelia.” That will not feel constrained to say something, when it has nothing to say; nor will it be obliged to smother all the pleasant things that occur, because they would be too flattering to express. My fancy perpetually murmurs in Aurelia’s ear, “Those flowers would not be fair in your hand, if you yourself were not fairer. That diamond necklace would be gaudy, if your eyes were not brighter. That queenly movement would be awkward, if your soul were not queenlier.”

You could not say such things to Aurelia, although, if you are worthy to dine at her side, they are the very things you are longing to say. What insufferable stuff you are talking about the weather, and the opera, and Alboni’s delicious voice, and Newport, and Saratoga! They are all very pleasant subjects, but do you suppose Ixion talked Thessalian politics when he was admitted to dine with Juno?

I almost begin to pity you, and to believe that a scarcity of white waistcoats is true wisdom. For now dinner is announced, and you, oh rare felicity, are to hand down Aurelia. But you run the risk of tumbling her expansive skirt, and you have to drop your hat upon a chance chair, and wonder, en passant, who will wear it home, which is annoying. My fancy runs no such risk; is not at all solicitous about its hat, and glides by the side of Aurelia, stately as she. There! you stumble on the stair, and are vexed at your own awkwardness, and are sure you saw the ghost of a smile glimmer along that superb face at your side. My fancy doesn’t tumble down-stairs, and what kind of looks it sees upon Aurelia’s face are its own secret.

Is it any better, now you are seated at table? Your companion eats little because she wishes little. You eat little because you think it is elegant to do so. It is a shabby, second-hand elegance, like your brittle behavior. It is just as foolish for you to play with the meats, when you ought to satisfy your healthy appetite generously, as it is for you, in the drawing-room, to affect that cool indifference when you have real and noble interests.

I grant you that fine manners, if you please, are a fine art. But is not monotony the destruction of art? Your manners, oh happy Ixion, banqueting with Juno, are Egyptian. They have no perspective, no variety. They have no color, no shading. They are all on a dead level; they are flat. Now, for you are a man of sense, you are conscious that those wonderful eyes of Aurelia see straight through all this network of elegant manners in which you have entangled yourself, and that consciousness is uncomfortable to you. It is another trick in the game for me, because those eyes do not pry into my fancy. How can they, since Aurelia does not know of my existence?

Unless, indeed, she should remember the first time I saw her. It was only last year, in May. I had dined, somewhat hastily, in consideration of the fine day, and of my confidence that many would be wending dinnerward that afternoon. I saw my Prue comfortably engaged in seating the trousers of Adoniram, our eldest boy—an economical care to which my darling Prue is not unequal, even in these days and in this town—and then hurried toward the avenue. It is never much thronged at that hour. The moment is sacred to dinner. As I paused at the corner of Twelfth Street, by the church, you remember, I saw an apple-woman, from whose stores I determined to finish my dessert, which had been imperfect at home. But, mindful of meritorious and economical Prue, I was not the man to pay exorbitant prices for apples, and while still haggling with the wrinkled Eve who had tempted me, I became suddenly aware of a carriage approaching, and, indeed, already close by. I raised my eyes, still munching an apple which I held in one hand, while the other grasped my walking-stick (true to my instincts of dinner-guests, as young women to a passing wedding or old ones to a funeral), and beheld Aurelia!

Old in this kind of observation as I am, there was something so graciously alluring in the look that she cast upon me, as unconsciously, indeed, as she would have cast it upon the church, that, fumbling hastily for my spectacles to enjoy the boon more fully, I thoughtlessly advanced upon the apple-stand, and, in some indescribable manner, tripping, down we all fell into the street, old woman, apples, baskets, stand, and I, in promiscuous confusion. As I struggled there, somewhat bewildered, yet sufficiently self-possessed to look after the carriage, I beheld that beautiful woman looking at us through the back window (you could not have done it; the integrity of your shirt-collar would have interfered), and smiling pleasantly, so that her going around the corner was like a gentle sunset, so seemed she to disappear in her own smiling; or—if you choose, in view of the apple difficulties—like a rainbow after a storm.

If the beautiful Aurelia recalls that event, she may know of my existence; not otherwise. And even then she knows me only as a funny old gentleman, who, in his eagerness to look at her, tumbled over an apple-woman.

My fancy from that moment followed her. How grateful I was to the wrinkled Eve’s extortion, and to the untoward tumble, since it procured me the sight of that smile. I took my sweet revenge from that. For I knew that the beautiful Aurelia entered the house of her host with beaming eyes, and my fancy heard her sparkling story. You consider yourself happy because you are sitting by her and helping her to a lady-finger, or a macaroon, for which she smiles. But I was her theme for ten mortal minutes. She was my bard, my blithe historian. She was the Homer of my luckless Trojan fall. She set my mishap to music, in telling it. Think what it is to have inspired Urania; to have called a brighter beam into the eyes of Miranda, and do not think so much of passing Aurelia the mottoes, my dear young friend.

There was the advantage of not going to that dinner. Had I been invited, as you were, I should have pestered Prue about the buttons on my white waistcoat, instead of leaving her placidly piercing adolescent trousers. She would have been flustered, fearful of being too late, of tumbling the garment, of soiling it, fearful of offending me in some way (admirable woman!), I, in my natural impatience, might have let drop a thoughtless word, which would have been a pang in her heart and a tear in her eye, for weeks afterward.

As I walked nervously up the avenue (for I am unaccustomed to prandial recreations), I should not have had that solacing image of quiet Prue, and the trousers, as the background in the pictures of the gay figures I passed, making each, by contrast, fairer. I should have been wondering what to say and do at the dinner. I should surely have been very warm, and yet not have enjoyed the rich, waning sunlight. Need I tell you that I should not have stopped for apples, but instead of economically tumbling into the street with apples and apple-women, whereby I merely rent my trousers across the knee, in a manner that Prue can readily, and at little cost, repair, I should, beyond peradventure, have split a new dollar-pair of gloves in the effort of straining my large hands into them, which would, also, have caused me additional redness in the face, and renewed fluttering.

Above all, I should not have seen Aurelia passing in her carriage, nor would she have smiled at me, nor charmed my memory with her radiance, nor the circle at dinner with the sparkling Iliad of my woes. Then at the table, I should not have sat by her. You would have had that pleasure; I should have led out the maiden aunt from the country, and have talked poultry, when I talked at all. Aurelia would not have remarked me. Afterward, in describing the dinner to her virtuous parents, she would have concluded, “and one old gentleman, whom I didn’t know.”

No, my polished friend, whose elegant repose of manner I yet greatly commend, I am content, if you are. How much better it was that I was not invited to that dinner, but was permitted, by a kind fate, to furnish a subject for Aurelia’s wit.

There is one other advantage in sending your fancy to dinner, instead of going yourself. It is, that then the occasion remains wholly fair in your memory. You, who devote yourself to dining out, and who are to be daily seen affably sitting down to such feasts, as I know mainly by hearsay—by the report of waiters, guests, and others who were present—you cannot escape the little things that spoil the picture, and which the fancy does not see.

For instance, in handing you the potage à la Bisque, at the very commencement of this dinner to-day, John, the waiter, who never did such a thing before, did this time suffer the plate to tip, so that a little of that rare soup dripped into your lap—just enough to spoil those trousers, which is nothing to you, because you can buy a great many more trousers, but which little event is inharmonious with the fine porcelain dinner-service, with the fragrant wines, the glittering glass, the beautiful guests, and the mood of mind suggested by all of these. There is, in fact, if you will pardon a free use of the vernacular, there is a grease-spot upon your remembrance of this dinner.

Or, in the same way, and with the same kind of mental result, you can easily imagine the meats a little tough; a suspicion of smoke somewhere in the sauces; too much pepper, perhaps, or too little salt; or there might be the graver dissonance of claret not properly attempered, or a choice Rhenish below the average mark, or the spilling of some of that Arethusa Madeira, marvelous for its innumerable circumnavigations of the globe, and for being as dry as the conversation of the host. These things are not up to the high level of the dinner; for wherever Aurelia dines, all accessories should be as perfect in their kind as she, the principal, is in hers.

That reminds me of a possible dissonance worse than all. Suppose that soup had trickled down the unimaginable berthe of Aurelia’s dress (since it might have done so), instead of wasting itself upon your trousers! Could even the irreproachable elegance of your manners have contemplated, unmoved, a grease-spot upon your remembrance of the peerless Aurelia?

You smile, of course, and remind me that that lady’s manners are so perfect that, if she drank poison, she would wipe her mouth after it as gracefully as ever. How much more then, you say, in the case of such a slight contretemps as spotting her dress, would she appear totally unmoved.

So she would, undoubtedly. She would be, and look, as pure as ever; but, my young friend, her dress would not. Once I dropped a pickled oyster in the lap of my Prue, who wore, on the occasion, her sea-green-silk gown. I did not love my Prue the less; but there certainly was a very unhandsome spot upon her dress. And although I know my Prue to be spotless, yet, whenever I recall that day, I see her in a spotted gown, and I would prefer never to have been obliged to think of her in such a garment.

Can you not make the application to the case, very likely to happen, of some disfigurement of that exquisite toilet of Aurelia’s? In going down-stairs, for instance, why should not heavy old Mr. Carbuncle, who is coming close behind with Mrs. Peony, both very eager for dinner, tread upon the hem of that garment which my lips would grow pale to kiss? The august Aurelia, yielding to natural laws, would be drawn suddenly backward—a very undignified movement—and the dress would be dilapidated. There would be apologies, and smiles, and forgiveness, and pinning up the pieces, nor would there be the faintest feeling of awkwardness or vexation in Aurelia’s mind. But to you, looking on, and, beneath all that pure show of waistcoat, cursing old Carbuncle’s carelessness, this tearing of dresses and repair of the toilet is by no means a poetic and cheerful spectacle. Nay, the very impatience that it produces in your mind jars upon the harmony of the moment.

You will respond, with proper scorn, that you are not so absurdly fastidious as to heed the little necessary drawbacks of social meetings, and that you have not much regard for “the harmony of the occasion” (which phrase I fear you will repeat in a sneering tone). You will do very right in saying this; and it is a remark to which I shall give all the hospitality of my mind, and I do so because I heartily coincide in it. I hold a man to be very foolish who will not eat a good dinner because the table-cloth is not clean, or who cavils at the spots upon the sun. But still a man who does not apply his eye to a telescope, or some kind of prepared medium, does not see those spots, while he has just as much light and heat as he who does.

So it is with me. I walk in the avenue, and eat all the delightful dinners, without seeing the spots upon the table-cloth, and behold all the beautiful Aurelias without swearing at old Carbuncle. I am the guest who, for the small price of invisibility, drinks only the best wines, and talks only to the most agreeable people. That is something, I can tell you, for you might be asked to lead out old Mrs. Peony. My fancy slips in between you and Aurelia, sit you never so closely together. It not only hears what she says, but it perceives what she thinks and feels. It lies like a bee in her flowery thoughts, sucking all their honey. If there are unhandsome or unfeeling guests at table, it will not see them. It knows only the good and fair. As I stroll in the fading light and observe the stately houses, my fancy believes the host equal to his house, and the courtesy of his wife more agreeable than her conservatory.

It will not believe that the pictures on the wall and the statues in the corners shame the guests. It will not allow that they are less than noble. It hears them speak gently of error, and warmly of worth. It knows that they commend heroism and devotion, and reprobate insincerity. My fancy is convinced that the guests are not only feasted upon the choicest fruits of every land and season, but are refreshed by a consciousness of greater loveliness and grace in human character.

Now you, who actually go to the dinner, may not entirely agree with the view my fancy takes of that entertainment. Is it not, therefore, rather your loss? Or, to put it in another way, ought I to envy you the discovery that the guests are shamed by the statues and pictures—yes, and by the spoons and forks also, if they should chance neither to be so genuine nor so useful as those instruments? And, worse than this, when your fancy wishes to enjoy the picture which mine forms of that feast, it cannot do so, because you have foolishly interpolated the fact between the dinner and your fancy.

Of course, by this time it is late twilight, and the spectacle I enjoyed is almost over. But not quite, for as I return slowly along the streets, the windows are open, and only a thin haze of lace or muslin separates me from the Paradise within.

I see the graceful cluster of girls hovering over the piano, and the quiet groups of the elders in easy chairs, around little tables. I cannot hear what is said, nor plainly see the faces. But some hoyden evening wind, more daring than I, abruptly parts the cloud to look in, and out comes a gush of light, music and fragrance, so that I shrink away into the dark, that I may not seem, even by chance, to have invaded that privacy.

Suddenly there is singing. It is Aurelia, who does not cope with the Italian prima donna, nor sing indifferently to-night, what was sung superbly last evening at the opera. She has a strange, low, sweet voice, as if she only sang in the twilight. It is the ballad of “Allan Percy” that she sings. There is no dainty applause of kid gloves, when it is ended, but silence follows the singing, like a tear.

Then you, my young friend, ascend into the drawing-room, and, after a little graceful gossip, retire; or you wait, possibly, to hand Aurelia into her carriage, and to arrange a waltz for to-morrow evening. She smiles, you bow, and it is over. But it is not yet over with me. My fancy still follows her, and, like a prophetic dream, rehearses her destiny. For, as the carriage rolls away into the darkness and I return homeward, how can my fancy help rolling away also, into the dim future, watching her go down the years?