Is She A Lady?
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
"Mrs. Tudor is a perfect lady," said my wife, Mrs. Sunderland, to me one day, after having received a visit from the individual she named.
"She may have the manners of a lady," I replied, "when abroad; but whether she be a lady at home or not, is more than I can tell. It is easy to put on the exterior of a lady; but to be a lady is a very different thing."
"All that is true enough; but why do you connect such remarks with the name of Mrs. Tudor? Do you know anything to the contrary of her being a lady? — a lady at home, as you say, for instance?"
"No, I can't say that I do; but, somehow or other, I am a little inclined to be doubtful of the genuineness of Mrs. Tudor's claims to being a lady. Once or twice I have thought that I perceived an air of condescension to people who were considered inferior. This is a rigid but true test of any one's claims to being either a lady or a gentleman. No true lady is less careful of the feelings of those below her, than she is of those who are upon an equality."
"But you only thought you saw this," said Mrs. Sunderland.
"True, and my thought may be only a thought," I returned, "and unjust to Mrs. Tudor, who may be as much of a lady at home and under all circumstances, as she appears to be when abroad."
"What she is, I have not the least doubt," said my wife.
I never altogether cared for this Mrs. Tudor, although Mrs. Sunderland liked her very much. Before we built our new house, Mrs. Tudor did not know us, notwithstanding the fact that our pews had adjoined for two or three years. But after that event, Mrs. Tudor found out that we had an existence, and became uncommonly gracious with my wife.
Not long after I had spoken out my mind in regard to Mrs. Tudor, that lady, in company with her husband, paid us a visit one evening, and after sitting an hour, invited us to come around and take tea with them on a certain evening in the ensuing week.
When the time came, as we had accepted the invitation, we went. We found about a dozen people assembled, half of whom were entire strangers to us. Among these I soon perceived that there were two or three who, in the eyes of Mrs. Tudor, were a little superior to her other guests. On our entrance, we were introduced to them first, and with particular formality, our lady hostess pronouncing their names in a very distinct manner, while her articulation of ours was so low that they were scarcely, if at all, heard. During the hour that passed before tea was announced, Mrs. Tudor confined her attentions almost exclusively to these two or three individuals, who were evidently people of more importance than the rest of us. So apparent was all this, that most of those who were in the room, instead of joining in the conversation, sat looking at the more favored guests.
"They must be people of some importance," I could not help saying to my wife in an undertone, in which her quick ear detected something of sarcasm.
"For mercy's sake, Mr. Sunderland!" she replied, in a voice that only reached my own ears, "don't make remarks upon any of the company."
If she had said, "It is not gentlemanly to do so," she could not have conveyed what she wished to utter more distinctly than she did.
I felt the force of her reproof, but could not resist the inclination I felt to reply.
"We have so good an example of what is polite and genteel, that it is not to be wondered if we profit a little."
"Mr. Sunderland! Why, will you!" My wife seemed distressed.
I said no more on the subject, content with having let her know that I was noticing the conduct of her perfect lady. I believe, if I could have seen her thoughts, that among them I would have detected this one among the rest; that it was not exactly fair and gentlemanly in me to remind her so promptly of the error she had probably committed in her estimate of Mrs. Tudor's character.
Fully absorbed as she was in showing attentions to her more favored guests, Mrs. Tudor did not perceive the cold, uncomfortable, unsocial feeling that had crept over the rest of her company.
Tea was at last announced. I felt relieved at this, and so, I perceived, did most of those around me. At the tea-table I expected to find Mrs. Tudor more general in her attentions. But no. These favored ones were served first, and "Mrs. — , will you have this?" and "Mrs. — , will you have that?" were almost exclusively confined to three people at the table. Mr. Tudor, I remarked, noticed this, for he exerted himself in order to make all the rest feel at ease, which he succeeded in doing to some extent.
Waiting upon the table was a female servant, a young girl of good manners and appearance. To her Mrs. Tudor uniformly spoke in a way that must have been felt as peculiarly disagreeable. The warmest smile; and the most winning expression of voice, would instantly change, when Lucy was addressed — to a cold, haughty look, and an undertone of command. Several times I saw the blood mount to the girl's forehead, as a word or tone more marked and offensive than usual would be given so loudly as to be perceived by all. Once or twice, at such times, I could not resist a glance at Mrs. Sunderland, which was generally met with a slight, rebuking contraction of her brow.
Through the efforts of Mr. Tudor, who certainly did his part well, the tea-table party was a good deal more social than had been the individuals composing it while in the parlor. The favored guests, notwithstanding the incense offered them by our hostess, appeared in no way to esteem themselves as better than the rest, and, as soon as opportunity was afforded them, tried to be at home with everyone. Once more in the parlors, and arranged there by a kind of social crystallization, I perceived that Mrs. Tudor was sitting between two of the ladies who were considered by her worthy of the most marked attention. There she sat during nearly the whole of the evening, except when refreshments were introduced, when she accompanied Lucy around the room, occasionally speaking to her in a tone of offensive command or cutting rebuke.
For one, I was glad when the time came to go home, and I rather think that all present were as much relieved, in getting away, as I was.
"What is your opinion now?" said I, triumphantly, to Mrs. Sunderland, the moment we were in the street.
"My opinion," she replied, a little sharply, "is, that you did not act, in several instances, this evening, like a gentleman!"
"I did not!" I spoke with affected surprise only; for I thought I knew what it was that she meant.
"No, I am sorry to say that you did not. Nothing could have been more improper than the notice you took of what was passing. A true gentlemanly spirit would have led you to look away from, rather than at the weakness of our hostess."
"Look away from it, Mrs. Sunderland! How could I do that? It was before my eyes all the time."
"You ought to have shut your eyes, then."
"Very far from it, Mr. Sunderland! You are ready enough to see the faults of other people!" — (in this, I must confess, my wife did not err very much) — "but quite willing to shut your eyes to your own. Now, I think you acted just as bad as Mrs. Tudor; and, in fact, worse."
"Worse! You are complimentary, Mrs. Sunderland."
"I can't help it if I am. Mrs. Tudor was led by her weakness to conduct herself in an unlady-like manner; but you, with her example before your eyes, and in a mood to reflect, permitted yourself to remark upon her conduct in a way calculated to give pain."
"In the name of wonder, what are you driving at, Mrs. Sunderland? No one but you heard any remark I made."
"I wish I could think so."
"Who, besides yourself, heard what I said?"
"He was sitting very near us when you so far forgot yourself as to notice, verbally, what was passing, and I am well satisfied, either heard distinctly what was said, or enough to enable him to understand the nature of all you said."
"You are surely mistaken," said I, feeling a good deal mortified, and perceiving much more clearly than I did before — the nature of my offence against good manners and propriety of conduct.
"I wish I were. But I fear I am not. I know that Mr. Tudor looked around toward you suddenly, and I noticed that he was much more particular afterward in his attentions to the rest of the company. At table, you may have yourself remarked this."
"Yes, I noticed it."
"And yet, even at the table, when he was doing his best, you again hurt his feelings."
"Yes, you. When Mrs. Tudor spoke harshly to Lucy, or did something or other that you thought out of the way, you must look your sarcasm at me, notwithstanding the eyes of her husband were upon you."
"But he didn't see me, then."
"Yes, but he did. I saw him looking directly at you."
"Oh, no! it cannot be." I was unwilling to believe this.
"I wish it were not so for my husband's sake," returned Mrs. Sunderland. "But the evidence of my senses, I generally find it necessary to believe."
I must own that I felt considerably cut up, or cut down, whichever is the most mortifying state to be in. To look and whisper my censure in company, I had thought no great harm; but now that I had found I had been discovered in the act, I had a mortifying sense of its impropriety.
"Well, anyhow," said I, rallying myself, and speaking with some lightness of tone, "it is clear that Mrs. Tudor is no lady, for all you thought her such a pattern of gentility."
"And I have not the least doubt," retorted my wife, "that it is equally clear to Mr. Tudor, that you are no gentleman. So, on that score, the account stands fairly balanced between the two families."
This was a pretty hard hit; and I felt a little "riled up," as the Yankees say, but I concluded that the uttering of a few sharp sayings to my wife, under the circumstances, would not prove my claim to being a gentleman, especially against the facts of the case; so I cooled down, and walked home rather silently, and in not the best humor with myself.
On the next morning, I took up a little book from my wife's bureau, and sat down to look over it while waiting for the breakfast bell. It was a book of aphorisms, and I opened at once to a page where a leaf was turned down. A slight dot with a pencil directed my eyes to a particular line, which read —
"He who lives in a glass house, shouldn't throw stones!"
I am not sure that Mrs. Sunderland turned down that leaf in the book, and marked the sentiment for my especial benefit; though I strongly suspected her. At any rate, I deemed it best not to ask the question.