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In Praise Of Old Ladies

It is everywhere the custom, in life, in literature, to celebrate the young girl; to praise her pink cheeks, her shining hair, her innocence, her gayeties—her muslins, even, and blue ribbons. She has become in these latter days a proverb, a type—la jeune fille.

Yet, to the discreet observer how gaudy is her charm, how showy and unsubstantial, and of the day only, when matched with graces like those of the truly incomparable old lady! It is an antique convention that hurries off old age with decrepitude and care and quavering palsy. And it may be that the old gentleman is unamiable; that, his days of strenuousness fairly over, he becomes crabbed, a lover of snuff, and unpoetical. But the old lady is a creature of another quality. The refinements of age only enhance the femininity of her charm; to her, whimsicalities, delicate occupations, the fine lines that etch themselves expressively across her brow and about her mouth, are all vastly becoming. With what ineffable grace, moreover, she pronounces certain words in the elegant fashion of an age ago! How softly the old Indian shawls she wears fall about her shoulders! What strange, unlikely stories she tells of the beginning of the century!

I am indeed no novice to her charms. I have been victim to the enchantments of a long line of old ladies from my earliest years upward. When my frocks were still short and I still suffered under the ignominy of pinafores, I remember very well following a friend of my grandmother’s about, and fetching big books for her. She was an exceedingly learned old lady, I take it; indeed, my grandmother always spoke of her as strong-minded, wherefore I am sometimes led to doubt whether she would so unreservedly have pleased my maturer taste. But in those early days my devotion impelled me even to the point of learning the alphabets of the curious languages she read. What constituted her peculiar, her romantic charm, however, was the fact that she had traveled in many far-away countries. I always understood it was their strange suns that had turned her skin the yellow color of old parchment, and stopped the whitening of her hair at a grizzly gray. This particular ugly gray I admired along with the rest: it suggested worldly sophistication and a cosmopolitan experience, as did no less her deep voice and blue-veined hands, and her habit of taking a vigorous walk in the morning, before breakfast. Her daughter, she told me, was named Aurore. How I wished that I myself had been favored with such a name!

My grandmother was very different—much prettier and gentler, no doubt; but her daughters bore such stiff, old-fashioned names as Anne and Emeline, and she herself had seldom left New England, and took only a short walk in the sun at noonday, under a tiny black silk parasol. At other times she sat beside her work-table, which had legs of twisted mahogany, and a crimson silk bag hanging down from the middle in a way I never understood. Out of this she occasionally brought scraps of faded old brocades,—pink and green they would be, with a rare yellow, or a blue still a little gay; and now and then, when the winter evenings until my bedtime were long, she even found bright-colored beads in a small drawer at the side. Although she had been ‘a proficient’ in music as a girl, I think she knew no language save English. Emerson she read chiefly; the prayers of Theodore Parker; black volumes of sermons by William Ellery Channing; and sometimes, to me, in a very soft voice, Whittier’s poems. In the late afternoons she was accustomed to play at solitaire, letting me sit at a corner of the table to look on. Not infrequently, when excited by the odds against which we were fighting, I forgot to hold up my head, and my long brown curls, falling down among the cards, threw them into disarray, and obliged me to sit at a penitential distance. My grandmother did not choose to be interrupted. But all the games in turn she invariably won by a deft rearrangement of the cards when she saw them going wrong. ‘With one’s self, you know, my dear,’ she would say, judiciously distributing diamonds among the spades,—’with one’s self it is quite understood.’

Since the days of my grandmother and her friends I have known a hundred other old ladies, if none more charming. There are, I dare say, persons who, in going about the world, meet people of other sorts: actors, perhaps, or ladies of fashion, or diplomatists,—first of all, I fancy, to be desired,—or spiritualists, or musicians. Personally, I never fall in with any one except old ladies. In a railway train, for example, I am sure to find myself opposite or beside one, and of late years they have generally had birds with them.

The first I remember—with a bird, that is—was in a German railway carriage going from Berlin to Hanover. At least, my destination was Hanover; the old lady herself was on her way home to Düsseldorf. She had been visiting her nephews and nieces in Berlin; she had a great many of them, she told me. From her fingers, covered with old pearl and diamond rings, I gathered that she was very rich; and from the bouquets of many colors, ranged in the luggage-rack above her head, that the nephews and nieces were trying to persuade her to leave them her fortune. She wore, nevertheless, an air of extreme detachment, holding her long netted silk purse—through whose meshes the Prussian gold gleamed—tightly clasped between two fat fingers. Altogether she was a very portly and regal-looking person, and gave you the impression of being dressed in black velvet, though in point of fact I do not think that she was. But her mantle was fringed heavily several times about, and her hat—for she wore a hat with a brim that dropped slightly, discreetly, all around—was also bordered by a black fringe that just cleared her faded eyebrows and her black beady eyes. She had a gouty foot, too,—she was quite complete,—that rested on a little folding stool she had brought with her; and she rang imperiously for the guard. When he came she ordered coffee, bullying the cream-faced Teuton into bringing a double portion of sugar to feed her bird, a little green creature, disposed among the flowers above her head. It was with a good deal of difficulty that she struggled up to reach him, but to have him handed down would, she said, excite him unnecessarily. ‘Mein Männchen, mein Männchen,’ she murmured in a deep, tender tone, as she fed him each successive crumb. After feasting the bird she turned her attention to me, and asking to see the book that I was absorbed in, she kept it until we arrived at Hanover. I had evidently read too much in trains, she remarked, alluding to my eye-glasses. Americans, she knew, were very foolish. Then she asked me the price of everything in the States, and of my traveling bag in particular, and quarreled with me as to the number of marks in a dollar. ‘You’ll find that I am right,’ she assured me, as I was squeezing myself and the brown leather bag she admired out of the narrow door of the German coupé. ‘You’ll find there are six marks in every dollar. Auf wiedersehen, Fräulein.’

The last of my old ladies with birds I met only a month or two ago, on the way from London down to Southsea,—the one place in all the world, I suppose, whither a thin spinster, accompanied by a ragged-tailed bird named Tip, should be traveling. She was, of course, very different from the German dowager; not so far on in years, and, as I indicated, exaggeratedly thin; shy, furthermore, and dressed in a worn black-silk gown, with a lace collar at her throat drawn together by a hair brooch. And she spoke only from time to time, to inquire if we must change carriages at Woking; meanwhile looking a little greedily from Tip to the seedcakes in the hands of three English schoolgirls, who, with shortish frocks and longish hair hanging over their shoulders, sat in a row on my side of the carriage, and scattered crumbs enough to have fattened a family of partridges.

Old ladies at sea, though there without the embellishments of flowers and birds, I have found no less attractive than on land. I fell in with a party of them in the early summer, on their way to Carlsbad to drink the waters; with the exception, that is, of two or three whose destination was Kissingen, and who disbelieved altogether, I learned when we were a few days out from New York, in the rheumatism of the Carlsbad-bound ladies. Carlsbad, they assured me,—punctuating their remarks with sniffs of their smelling-bottles as I tucked cushions behind their poor backs,—Carlsbad was all fine clothes and frivolity and band music (than which surely nothing has a more wicked sound), and was by no means the place a person really ill would dream of retiring to for her health’s sake.

But it matters very little whether I travel in trains or in ships, or whether I rest quietly at home, my companions are rarely of my own age. If I am asked out to luncheon to meet the wife of a melancholy doubtful poet who died young, and on my way to the house in question dwell, not unnaturally, on her youthful tragic grief, on my arrival I find myself confronted by a fat, kindly old lady, crowned with a large black-beaded bonnet that shows a bunch of purple flowers above either ear. If I go to visit some beautiful house secluded in the country, it is an old lady who stands on the threshold. I remember such a mansion, built in Tudor times, and topped with chimneys calculated to make you sigh your soul away in longing; it had once been the dower house of an English queen, and in front of it two peacocks paraded proudly all day long. Others, I knew, went to admire it, and were entertained by the granddaughter, or at least by the middle-aged daughter, of its mistress. Not so on the sunny morning of my visit. Lady W—— herself was working among the flowers in her garden, and herself showed me back to the cascade and the tulip tree, stepping over the lawn with the spirit of a girl, and apologizing with a girl’s vanity, too, for her garden hat and gloves.

She was the very flower and mirror of all the old ladies I have ever known; conscious, if you will, of her charm, and all the more charming for that. She led me into the drawing room—she knew she held my heart in her hand—to see her portrait, which, though painted by a celebrated artist, made her look very like any other old lady in velvet and a bonnet and furs. Her great gayety, her beautiful eyes, the sweet curving lines about her mouth, were all forgotten. ‘I don’t know,’ she said to me a little stiffly, as she paused before it, and for a moment glanced across to her maternal grandmother done by Reynolds, with pink cheeks, and with a pink rose in her hand instead of a muff, ‘I don’t know, my dear, whether it is like or not, but certainly it is a very odd picture.’

More delightful though each one be than the last, it is but reasonable that the wealth of my experience among old ladies should have led me to certain discriminations. Old ladies, I am prepared to say, divide themselves into two classes: the thin, namely, and the fat. Nor is this discrimination so artificial as it may appear. Another equally expressive, equally conclusive, could not be made. And of the two—but this is a matter of prejudice—I prefer the thin, as having commonly more wit, more liveliness, brighter eyes, and a taste for anecdote generally wanting, I think it only right to say, in the fatter, kindlier class. My point of view is possibly ultra-modern, but what will you? La grande dame, so called, vanished with the days and ideals of Louis XIV. At the end of two centuries or so she is rarely to be met with. I have known her only once in all her traditional fairness, but then she was of the essence of perfection. She gave one the impression of having never for a moment been out of the great world; of having lived, though in New York, perpetually with princes—‘les princes du sang, les princes étrangers, les grands-seigneurs façon de princes.’ But what is my ungraceful pen that it should hazard a description of her, or attempt the splendor of her white hair and her white hands! Her graciousness, her elegance, her worldliness, are not to be compassed by a sentence.

Among modern old ladies, of whom I speak somewhat less diffidently, I affect the more frivolous sort. My own feeling is, very strictly, that in old age the world of affairs should be left behind, and one’s hours passed pleasantly among pleasant things. Age should be impulsive, light-hearted—brilliant, if you will; it should fill its days with flowers and music and embroidery; it should drive in low carriages behind plump ponies; it should write a pretty, pointed, epistolary hand, and read nothing heavier than memoirs. Intellectuality may be all very well in youth, but in an old lady anything beyond a delicate pedantry is unlovely. I like old ladies with decided opinions, with a gift for repartee and some skill in the passions. Curiosities, strange modesties,—I knew of an old lady who brought her grandsons up never to look into a butcher’s shop, deeming it indecorous, even indecent,—fantastic economies, eccentricities of various sorts, are delightful. And of all these things the insipidity and jejuneness of youth perforce know nothing. The very pattern of young girls is bound by a strait-lacing conventionality. Formalities, anxieties, uncertainties, sit upon her sleeve. She has no alternative, innocent creature, save to order her days and lay her plans in behalf of a charming old ladyhood.

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