The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. IV: American
Miss Minerva Tattle at Saratoga and Newport
By George William Curtis (18241892)
From Potiphar Papers
IT certainly is not papas fault that he doesnt 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 Crsus 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, isnt she? Its so nice to have a spy in the enemys camp, as it were, and to hear everything that everybody says about you. She is not handsomepoor, dear Tabby! Theres no denying it, but she cant 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.
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 shouldnt 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 Crsus and Gauche Boosey, and said
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,
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 doesnt 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) doesnt put the leg of his chair through the dress, and if you dont muss it sitting downwhy, 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 isnt 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 manBut 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 its very amusing to observe how coolly we play this little farce of lifehow 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 Ill 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 leftdown 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.
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.
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 couldnt 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. Potiphars witty friend) asked Morris audibly at dinner, Where do the parvenus sit? I want to sit among the parvenus.
And so the thing went on mulitplying itself. Poor papa doesnt understand it yet. I dont 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:
There was another roar that time, but not from the representative of Noahs 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 summers 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 forwell, 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 Clovernot too much, pas trop jeune. And awaited the onset.
Naturally, said he, for Ive been in the immediate vicinity of the boreal pole for a half an houra neighborhood in which, I am told, even the most ardent spirits sometimes freezeso you must pardon me if I am more than usually dull, Miss Minerva.
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.
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 somethingapproving his taste, perhaps, who knows?when I saw Mrs. Potiphar. She was splendidly dressed in the silk, and its a pity she doesnt become a fine dress better. She made for me directly.
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 Tattles, 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. Its pretty; isnt it? Just look here at this trimming.
Oh! but Mr. Crsus! to go to the glen and skip stones, and to walk on the cliff, and drive to Batemans, and the fort, and to go to the beach by moonlight; and then the bowling-alley, and the archery, and the Germania. Oh! its a splendid place. But, perhaps, you dont like natural scenery, Mr. Crsus?
I know that, and its 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 cant be visiting our shoemakers and shop-men. Thats the great difficulty of a watering-place, one does nt know whos 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?
Fie! Mr. Boosey, continued Mrs. P, smiling. But the music-seller didnt 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 thats the sort of thing one is exposed to here, and though your friend may be very nice, it isnt safe for me to know him. In a country where theres no aristocracy one cant 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. Im afraid myself its 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 Downes! What a lovely polka-redowa!