Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
The New Livery
By George William Curtis (1824–1892)
 
[Born in Providence, R. I., 1824. Died in New York, N. Y., 1892. The Potiphar Papers. 1853.]

THE GNUS, and Crœsuses, and Silkes, and the Settum Downes, have their coats of arms, and crests, and liveries, and I am not going to be behind, I tell you. Mr. P. ought to remember that a great many of these families were famous before they came to this country, and there is a kind of interest in having on your ring, for instance, the same crest that your ancestor two or three centuries ago had upon her ring. One day I was quite wrought up about the matter, and I said as much to him.
  1
  “Certainly,” said he, “certainly; you are quite right. If I had Sir Philip Sidney to my ancestor, I should wear his crest upon my ring, and glory in my relationship, and I hope I should be a better man for it. I wouldn’t put his arms upon my carriage, however, because that would mean nothing but ostentation. It would be merely a flourish of trumpets to say that I was his descendant, and nobody would know that, either, if my name chanced to be Boggs. In my library I might hang a copy of the family escutcheon as a matter of interest and curiosity to myself, for I’m sure I shouldn’t understand it. Do you suppose Mrs. Gnu knows what gules argent are? A man may be as proud of his family as he chooses, and, if he have noble ancestors, with good reason. But there is no sense in parading that pride. It is an affectation, the more foolish that it achieves nothing—no more credit at Stewart’s—no more real respect in society. Besides, Polly, who were Mrs. Gnu’s ancestors, or Mrs. Crœsus’s, or Mrs. Settum Downe’s? Good, quiet, honest, and humble people, who did their work, and rest from their labor. Centuries ago, in England, some drops of blood from ‘noble’ veins may have mingled with the blood of their forefathers; or even, the founder of the family name may be historically famous. What then? Is Mrs. Gnu’s family ostentation less absurd? Do you understand the meaning of her crest, and coats of arms, and liveries? Do you suppose she does herself? But in forty-nine cases out of fifty, there is nothing but a similarity of name upon which to found all this flourish of aristocracy.”  2
  My dear old Pot is getting rather prosy, Carrie. So, when he had finished that long speech, during which I was looking at the lovely fashion-plates in Harper, I said:  3
  “What colors do you think I’d better have?”  4
  He looked at me with that singular expression, and went out suddenly, as if he were afraid he might say something.  5
  He had scarcely gone before I heard:  6
  “My dear Mrs. Potiphar, the sight of you is refreshing as Hermon’s dew.”  7
  I colored a little; Mr. Cheese says such things so softly. But I said good morning, and then asked him about liveries, etc.  8
  He raised his hand to his cravat (it was the most snowy lawn, Carrie, and tied in a splendid bow).  9
  “Is not this a livery, dear Mrs. Potiphar?”  10
  And then he went off into one of those pretty talks, in what Mr. P. calls “the language of artificial flowers,” and wound up by quoting Scripture—“Servants, obey your masters.”  11
  That was enough for me. So I told Mr. Cheese that, as he had already assisted me in colors once, I should be most glad to have him do so again. What a time we had, to be sure, talking of colors, and cloths, and gaiters, and buttons, and knee-breeches, and waistcoats, and plush, and coats, and lace, and hatbands, and gloves, and cravats, and cords, and tassels, and hats. Oh! it was delightful. You can’t fancy how heartily the Rev. Cream entered into the matter. He was quite enthusiastic, and at last he said, with so much expression: “Dear Mrs. Potiphar, why not have a chasseur?”  12
  I thought it was some kind of French dish for lunch, so I said:  13
  “I am so sorry, but we haven’t any in the house.”  14
  “Oh,” said he, “but you could hire one, you know.”  15
  Then I thought it must be a musical instrument—a panharmonicon, or something of that kind, so I said in a general way:  16
  “I’m not very, very fond of it.”  17
  “But it would be so fine to have him standing on the back of the carriage, his plumes waving in the wind, and his lace and polished belts flashing in the sun, as you whirled down Broadway.”  18
  Of course I knew then that he was speaking of those military gentlemen who ride behind carriages, especially upon the continent, as Margaret tells me, and who, in Paris, are very useful to keep the savages and wild beasts at bay in the Champs Elysées, for you know they are intended as a guard.  19
  But I knew Mr. P. would be firm about that, so I asked Mr. Cheese not to kindle my imagination with the chasseur.  20
  We concluded finally to have only one full-sized footman, and a fat driver.  21
  “The corpulence is essential, dear Mrs. Potiphar,” said Mr. Cheese. “I have been much abroad; I have mingled, I trust, in good, which is to say, Christian society: and I must say, that few things struck me more upon my return than that the ladies who drive very handsome carriages, with footmen, etc., in livery, should permit such thin coachmen upon the box. I really believe that Mrs. Settum Downe’s coachman doesn’t weigh more than a hundred and thirty pounds, which is ridiculous. A lady might as well hire a footman with insufficient calves, as a coachman who weighs less than two hundred and ten. That is the minimum. Besides, I don’t observe any wigs upon the coachmen. Now, if a lady set up her carriage with the family crest and fine liveries, why, I should like to know, is the wig of the coachman omitted, and his cocked hat also? It is a kind of shabby, half-ashamed way of doing things—a garbled glory. The cock-hatted, knee-breeched, paste-buckled, horse-hair-wigged coachman is one of the institutions of the aristocracy. If we don’t have him complete, we somehow make ourselves ridiculous. If we do have him complete, why, then?”—  22
  Here Mr. Cheese coughed a little, and patted his mouth with his cambric. But what he said was very true. I should like to come out with the wig, I mean upon the coachman; it would so put down the Settum Downes. But I’m sure old Pot wouldn’t have it. He lets me do a great deal. But there is a line which I feel he won’t let me pass. I mentioned my fears to Mr. Cheese.  23
  “Well,” he said, “Mr. Potiphar may be right. I remember an expression of my carnal days about ‘coming it too strong,’ which seems to me to be applicable just here.”  24
  After a little more talk, I determined to have red plush breeches, with a black cord at the side—white stockings—low shoes, with large buckles—a yellow waistcoat, with large buttons—lappels to the pockets—and a purple coat, very full and fine, bound with gold lace—and the hat banded with a full gold rosette. Don’t you think that would look well in Hyde Park? And, darling Carrie, why shouldn’t we have in Broadway what they have in Hyde Park?  25
  When Mr. P. came in, I told him all about it. He laughed a good deal, and said, “What next?” So I am not sure he would be so very hard upon the wig. The next morning I had appointed to see the new footman, and, as Mr. P. went out he turned and said to me: “Is your footman coming to-day?”  26
  “Yes,” I answered.  27
  “Well,” said he, “don’t forget the calves. You know that everything in the matter of livery depends upon the calves.”  28
  And he went out laughing silently to himself, with—actually, Carrie—a tear in his eye.  29
  But it was true, wasn’t it? I remember in all the books and pictures how much is said about the calves. In advertisements, etc., it is stated that none but well-developed calves need apply; at least it is so in England, and, if I have a livery, I am not going to stop half way. My duty was very clear. When Mr. Cheese came in, I said I felt awkward in asking a servant about his calves, it sounded so queerly. But I confessed that it was necessary.  30
  “Yes, the path of duty is not always smooth, dear Mrs. Potiphar. It is often thickly strewn with thorns,” said he, as he sank back in the fauteuil, and put down his petit verre of Marasquin.  31
  Just after he had gone, the new footman was announced. I assure you, although it is ridiculous, I felt quite nervous. But when he came in, I said calmly:  32
  “Well, James, I am glad you have come.”  33
  “Please ma’am, my name is Henry,” said he.  34
  I was astonished at his taking me up so, and said decidedly:  35
  “James, the name of my footman is always James. You may call yourself what you please, I shall always call you James.”  36
  The idea of the man’s undertaking to arrange my servants’ names for me!  37
  Well, he showed me his references, which were very good, and I was quite satisfied. But there was the terrible calf business that must be attended to. I put it off a great while, but I had to begin.  38
  “Well, James!” and there I stopped.  39
  “Yes, ma’am,” said he.  40
  “I wish—yes—ah!” and there I stopped again.  41
  “Yes, ma’am,” said he.  42
  “James, I wish you had come in knee-breeches.”  43
  “Ma’am?” said he, in great surprise.  44
  “In knee-breeches, James,” repeated I.  45
  “What be they, ma’am? What for, ma’am?” said he, a little frightened, as I thought.  46
  “Oh! nothing, nothing; but—but—”  47
  “Yes, ma’am,” said James.  48
  “But—but I want to see—to see—”  49
  “What, ma’am?” said James.  50
  “Your legs,” gasped I; and the path was thorny enough, Carrie, I can tell you. I had a terrible time explaining to him what I meant, and all about the liveries, etc. Dear me! what a pity these things are not understood; and then we should never have this trouble about explanations. However, I couldn’t make him agree to wear the livery. He said:  51
  “I’ll try to be a good servant, ma’am, but I cannot put on those things and make a fool of myself. I hope you won’t insist, for I am very anxious to get a place.”  52
  Think of his dictating to me! I told him that I did not permit my servants to impose conditions upon me (that’s one of Mrs. Crœsus’s sayings), that I was willing to pay him good wages and treat him well, but that my James must wear my livery. He looked very sorry, said that he should like the place very much—that he was satisfied with the wages, and was sure he should please me, but he could not put on those things. We were both determined, and so parted. I think we were both sorry; for I should have to go all through the calf-business again, and he lost a good place.  53
  However, Caroline, dear, I have my livery and my footman, and am as good as anybody. It’s very splendid when I go to Stewart’s to have the red plush, and the purple, and the white calves springing down to open the door, and to see people look, and say: “I wonder who that is?” And everybody bows so nicely, and the clerks are so polite, and Mrs. Gnu is melting with envy on the other side, and Mrs. Crœsus goes about, saying: “Dear little woman, that Mrs. Potiphar, but so weak! Pity, pity!” And Mrs. Settum Downe says: “Is that the Potiphar livery? Ah, yes. Mr. Potiphar’s grandfather used to shoe my grandfather’s horses (as if to be useful in the world were a disgrace—as Mr. P. says), and young Downe, and Boosey, and Timon Crœsus, come up and stand about so gentlemanly, and say: “Well, Mrs. Potiphar, are we to have no more charming parties this season?” and Boosey says, in his droll way: “Let’s keep the ball a-rolling!” That young man is always ready with a witticism. Then I step out, and James throws open the door, and the young men raise their hats, and the new crowd says: “I wonder who that is!” and the plush, and purple, and calves spring up behind, and I drive home to dinner.  54
 
 
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