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

George William Curtis (1824–1892)

Miss Minerva Tattle at Saratoga and Newport

From “Potiphar Papers”

NEWPORT, August.
IT certainly is not papa’s fault that he doesn’t understand French; but he ought not to pretend to. It does put one in such uncomfortable situations occasionally. In fact, I think it would be quite as well if we could sometimes “sink the paternal,” as Timon Crœsus says. I suppose everybody has heard of the awful speech pa made in the parlor at Saratoga. My dearest friend, Tabby Dormouse, told me she had heard of it everywhere, and that it was ten times as absurd each time it was repeated. By the bye, Tabby is a dear creature, isn’t she? It’s so nice to have a spy in the enemy’s camp, as it were, and to hear everything that everybody says about you. She is not handsome—poor, dear Tabby! There’s no denying it, but she can’t help it. I was obliged to tell young Downe so, quite decidedly, for I really think he had an idea she was good-looking. The idea of Tabby Dormouse being handsome! But she is a useful little thing in her way; one of my intimates.

The true story is this.

Ma and I had persuaded pa to take us to Saratoga, for we heard the English party were to be there, and we were anxious they should see some good society, at least. It seems such a pity they shouldn’t know what handsome dresses we really do have in this country! And I mentioned to some of the most English of our young men, that there might be something to be done at Saratoga. But they shrugged their shoulders, especially Timon Crœsus and Gauche Boosey, and said—

“Well, really, the fact is, Miss Tattle, all the Englishmen I have ever met are—in fact—a little snobbish. However.”

That was about what they said. But I thought, considering their fondness of the English model in dress and manner, that they might have been more willing to meet some genuine aristocracy. Yet, perhaps, that handsome Col. Abattew is right in saying with his grand military air,—

“The British aristocracy, madam,—the British aristocracy is vulgar.”

Well, we all went up to Saratoga. But the distinguished strangers did not come. I held back that last muslin of mine, the yellow one, embroidered with the Alps, and a distant view of the isles of Greece worked on the flounces, until it was impossible to wait longer. I meant to wear it at dinner the first day they came, with the pearl necklace and the opal studs, and that heavy ruby necklace (it is a low-necked dress). The dining-room at the “United States” is so large that it shows off those dresses finely, and if the waiter doesn’t let the soup or the gravy slip, and your neighbor (who is, like as not, what Tabby Dormouse, with her incapacity to pronounce the r, calls “some ’aw, ’uff man from the country”) doesn’t put the leg of his chair through the dress, and if you don’t muss it sitting down—why, I should like to know a prettier place to wear a low-necked muslin, with jewels, than the dining-room of the “United States” at Saratoga….

I am as bad as dear Mrs. Potiphar about coming to the point of my story. But the truth is, that in such engrossing places as Saratoga and Newport, it is hardly possible to determine which is the pleasantest and most important thing among so many. I am so fond of that old, droll Kurz Pacha, that if I begin to talk about him I forget everything else. He says such nice things about people that nobody eke would dare to say, and that everybody is so glad to hear. He is invaluable in society. And yet one is never safe. People say he isn’t gentlemanly; but when I see the style of man that is called gentlemanly, I am very glad he is not. All the solemn, pompous men who stand about like owls, and never speak, nor laugh, nor move, as if they really had any life or feeling, are called “gentlemanly.” Whenever Tabby says of a new man—“But then he is so gentlemanly!” I understand at once. It is another case of the well-dressed wooden image. Good heavens! do you suppose Sir Philip Sidney, or the Chevalier Bayard, or Charles Fox, were “gentlemanly” in this way? Confectioners who undertake parties might furnish scores of such gentlemen, with hands and feet of any required size, and warranted to do nothing “ungentlemanly.” For my part, I am inclined to think that a gentleman is something positive, not merely negative. And if sometimes my friend the Pacha says a rousing and wholesome truth, it is none the less gentlemanly because it cuts a little. He says it’s very amusing to observe how coolly we play this little farce of life—how placidly people get entangled in a mesh at which they all rail, and how fiercely they frown upon anybody who steps out of the ring. “You tickle me and I’ll tickle you; but, at all events, you tickle me,” is the motto of the crowd.

“Allons!” says he, “who cares? lead off to the right and left—down the middle and up again. Smile all around, and bow gracefully to your partner; then carry your heavy heart to your chamber, and drown in your own tears. Cheerfully, cheerfully, my dear Miss Minerva. Saratoga until August, then Newport until the frost, the city afterward; and so an endless round of happiness.”

And he steps off humming Il segreto per esser felice!

Well, we were all sitting in the great drawing-room at the “United States.” We had been bowling in our morning dresses, and had rushed in to ascertain if the distinguished English party had arrived. They had not. They were in New York, and would not come. That was bad, but we thought of Newport and probable scions of nobility there, and were consoled. But while we were in the midst of the talk, and I was whispering very intimately with that superb and aristocratic Nancy Fungus, who should come in but father, walking toward us with a wearied air, dragging his feet along, but looking very well dressed for him. I smiled sweetly when I saw that he was quite presentable, and had had the good sense to leave that odious white hat in his room, and had buttoned his waistcoat. The party stopped talking as he approached; and he came up to me.

“Minna, my dear,” said he, “I hear everybody is going to Newport.”

“Oh! yes, dear father,” I replied, and Nancy Fungus smiled. Father looked pleased to see me so intimate with a girl he always calls “so aristocratic and high-bred-looking,” and he said to her—

“I believe your mother is going, Miss Fungus?”

“Oh! yes, we always go,” replied she, “one must have a few weeks of Newport.”

“Precisely, my dear,” said poor papa, as if he rather dreaded it, but must consent to the hard necessity of fashion. “They say, Minna, that all the parvenus are going this year, so I suppose we shall have to go along.”

There was a blow! There was perfect silence for a moment, while poor pa looked amiable, as if he couldn’t help embellishing his conversation with French graces. I waited in horror; for I knew that the girls were tittering inside, and every moment it became more absurd. Then out it came. Nancy Fungus leaned her head on my shoulder, and fairly shook with laughter. The others hid behind their fans, and the men suddenly walked off to the windows, and slipped on to the piazza. Papa looked bewildered, and half smiled. But it was a very melancholy business, and I told him that he had better go up and dress for dinner.

It was impossible to stay after that. The unhappy slip became the staple of Saratoga conversation. Young Boosey (Mrs. Potiphar’s witty friend) asked Morris audibly at dinner, “Where do the parvenus sit? I want to sit among the parvenus.”

“Of course you do, sir,” answered Morris, supposing he meant the circle of the crême de la crême.

And so the thing went on mulitplying itself. Poor papa doesn’t understand it yet. I don’t dare to explain. Old Fungus, who prides himself so upon his family (it is one of the very ancient and honorable Virginia families, that came out of the ark with Noah, as Kurz Pacha says of his ancestors, when he hears that the founder of a family “came over with the Conqueror”), and who cannot deny himself a joke, came up to pa, in the barroom, while a large party of gentlemen were drinking cobblers, and said to him with a loud laugh:

“So, all the parvenus are going to Newport: are they, Tattle?”

“Yes!” replied pa innocently, “that’s what they say. So I suppose we shall all have to go, Fungus.”

There was another roar that time, but not from the representative of Noah’s ark. It was rather thin joking, but it did very well for the warm weather, and I was glad to hear a laugh against anybody but poor pa.

We came to Newport, but the story came before us, and I have been very much annoyed at it…. By the bye, that Polly Potiphar has been mean enough to send out to Paris for the very silk that I relied upon as this summer’s cheval de bataille, and has just received it superbly made up. The worst of it is that it is just the thing for her. She wore it at the ball the other night, and expected to have crushed me, in mine. Not she! I have not summered it at Newport for—well, for several years, for nothing, and although I am rather beyond the strict white-muslin age, I thought I could yet venture a bold stroke. So I arrayed à la Daisy Clover—not too much, pas trop jeune. And awaited the onset.

Kurz Pacha saw me across the room, and came up, with his peculiar smile. He did not look at my dress, but he said to me, rather wickedly, looking at my bouquet:

“Dear me! I hardly hoped to see spring flowers so late in the summer.”

Then he raised his eyes to mine, and I am conscious that I blushed.

“It’s very warm. You feel very warm, I am sure, my dear Miss Tattle,” he continued, looking straight at my face.

“You are sufficiently cool, at least, I think,” replied I.

“Naturally,” said he, “for I’ve been in the immediate vicinity of the boreal pole for a half an hour—a neighborhood in which, I am told, even the most ardent spirits sometimes freeze—so you must pardon me if I am more than usually dull, Miss Minerva.”

And the Pacha beat time to the waltz with his head.

I looked at the part of the room from which he had just come, and there, sure enough, in the midst of a group, I saw the tall and stately and still Ada Aiguille.

“He is a hardy navigator,” continued Kurz Pacha, “who sails for the boreal pole. It is glittering enough, but shipwreck by daylight upon a coral reef is no pleasanter than by night upon Newport shoals.”

“Have you been shipwrecked, Kurz Pacha?” asked I, suddenly.

He laughed softly: “No, Miss Minerva, I am not one of the hardy navigators; I keep close into the shore. Upon the slightest symptom of an agitated sea, I furl my sails and creep into a safe harbor. Besides, dear Miss Minna, I prefer tropical cruises to the Antarctic voyage.”

And the old wretch actually looked at my black hair. I might have said something—approving his taste, perhaps, who knows?—when I saw Mrs. Potiphar. She was splendidly dressed in the silk, and it’s a pity she doesn’t become a fine dress better. She made for me directly.

“Dear Minna, I’m so glad to see you. Why, how young and fresh you look to-night. Really, quite blooming! And such a sweet pretty dress, too, and the darling baby-waist and all.”

“Yes,” said that witty Gauche Boosey, “permit me, Miss Tattle—quite an incarnate seraphim, upon my word.”

“You are too good,” replied I; “my dear Polly, it is your dress which deserves admiration, and I flatter myself in saying so, for it is the very counterpart of one I had made some months ago.”

“Yes, darling, and which you have not yet worn,” replied she. “I said to Mr. P——, ‘Mr. P——,’ said I, ‘there are few women upon whose amiability I can count as I can upon Minerva Tattle’s, and, therefore, I am going to have a dress like hers. Most women would be vexed about it, and say ill-natured things if I did so. But if I have a friend, it is Minerva Tattle; and she will never grudge it to me for a moment.’ It’s pretty; isn’t it? Just look here at this trimming.”

And she showed me the very handsomest part of it, and so much handsomer than mine, that I can never wear it.

“Polly, I am so glad that you know me so well,” said I. “I’m delighted with the dress. To be sure, it’s rather prononcé for your style; but that’s nothing.”

Just then a polka struck up. “Come along! give me this turn,” said Boosey, and putting his arm round Mrs. Potiphar’s waist, he whirled her off into the dance.

How I did hope somebody would come to ask me. Nobody came.

“You don’t dance?” asked Kurz Pacha, who stood by during my little talk with Polly P——.

“Oh, yes,” answered I, and hummed the polka.

Kurz Pacha hummed too, looked on at the dancers a few minutes, then turned to me, and looking at my bouquet said:

“It is astonishing how little taste there is for spring flowers.” At that moment young Crœsus “came in,” warm with the whirl of the dance, with Daisy Clover.

“It’s very warm,” said he, in a gentlemanly manner.

“Dear me! yes, very warm,” said Daisy.

“Been long in Newport?”

“No; only a few days. We always come, after Saratoga, for a couple of weeks. But isn’t it delightful?”

“Quite so,” said Timon coolly, and smiling at the idea of anybody’s being enthusiastic about anything. That elegant youth has pumped life dry; and now the pump only wheezes.

“Oh!” continued Daisy, “it’s so pleasant to run away from the hot city, and breathe this cool air. And then Nature is so beautiful. Are you fond of Nature, Mr. Crœsus?”

“Tolerably,” returned Timon.

“Oh! but Mr. Crœsus! to go to the glen and skip stones, and to walk on the cliff, and drive to Bateman’s, and the fort, and to go to the beach by moonlight; and then the bowling-alley, and the archery, and the Germania. Oh! it’s a splendid place. But, perhaps, you don’t like natural scenery, Mr. Crœsus?”

“Perhaps not,” said Mr. Crœsus.

“Well, some people don’t,” said darling little Daisy, folding up her fan, as if quite ready for another turn.

“Come now; there it is,” said Timon, and, grasping her with his right arm, they glided away.

“Kurz Pacha,” said I, “I wonder who sent Ada Aiguille that bouquet?”

“Sir John Franklin, I presume,” returned he.

“What do you mean by that?” asked I.

Before he could answer, Boosey and Mrs. Potiphar stopped by us.

“No, no, Mr. Boosey,” panted Mrs. P——, “I will not have him introduced. They say his father actually sells dry-goods by the yard in Buffalo.”

“Well, but he doesn’t, Mrs. Potiphar.”

“I know that, and it’s all very well for you young men to know him, and to drink, and play billiards, and smoke with him. And he is handsome to be sure, and gentlemanly, and, I am told, very intelligent. But, you know, we can’t be visiting our shoemakers and shop-men. That’s the great difficulty of a watering-place, one does n’t know who’s who. Why, Mrs. Gnu was here three summers ago, and there sat next to her, at table, a middle-aged foreign gentleman, who had only a slight accent, and who was so affable and agreeable, so intelligent and modest, and so perfectly familiar with all kinds of little ways, you know, that she supposed he was the Russian Minister, who, she heard, was at Newport incognito for his health. She used to talk with him in the parlor, and allowed him to join her upon the piazza. Nobody could find out who he was. There were suspicions, of course, But he paid his bills, drove his horses, and was universally liked. Dear me! appearances are so deceitful! who do you think he was?”

“I’m sure I can’t imagine.”

“Well, the next spring she went to a music store in Philadelphia, to buy some guitar strings for Claribel, and who should advance to sell them but the Russian Minister! Mrs. Gnu said she colored——”

“So I’ve always understood,” said Gauche, laughing.

“Fie! Mr. Boosey,” continued Mrs. P——, smiling. “But the music-seller didn’t betray the slightest consciousness. He sold her the strings, received the money, and said nothing, and looked nothing. Just think of it! She supposed him to be a gentleman, and he was really a music-dealer. You see that’s the sort of thing one is exposed to here, and though your friend may be very nice, it isn’t safe for me to know him. In a country where there’s no aristocracy one can’t be too exclusive. Mrs. Peony says she thinks that in the future she shall really pass the summer in a farmhouse, or if she goes to a watering-place, confine herself to her own rooms and her carriage, and look at people through the blinds. I’m afraid myself it’s coming to that. Everybody goes to Saratoga now, and you see how Newport is crowded. For my part I agree with the Rev. Cream Cheese, that there are serious evils in a republican form of government. What a hideous head-dress that is of Mrs. Settum Downe’s! What a lovely polka-redowa!”

“So it is, by Jove! Come on,” replied the gentlemanly Boosey, and they swept down the hall.