"Come what may, appearances must be kept up!" wrote a venerable gentlewoman to her daughter, with whom life had grown suddenly hard by reason of her husband's pecuniary losses. "Show a brave front to the world although there may be an empty purse and an empty larder behind it. Noblesse oblige!"
The motto is grand - sometimes sublime.
There is an heroic side to the question, of which I shall treat presently.
The ignoble side, and that which forms the basis of most treatises on this subject, crops up when appearances are all in all, and make the life a continual lie, like an embroidered silk stocking drawn over an unwashed foot.
One of my childish recollections is of a rich woman, whose "pair of parlors," as she called them, were richly carpeted, curtained and furnished, as was also a spacious dining-room on the same floor. When there was no company the family sat in a back room adjoining the kitchen. The worthy woman, visiting a sister-housewife, was scandalized at learning that she, her husband and six children actually used the parlors "every day and Sunday, too," and ate habitually in a dining-room "where there was an elegant Brussels carpet on the floor."
"My dear Mrs. Blank!" cried the wealthy economist, "do you expect to have all this and heaven, too?"
"I expect to enjoy heaven the more for having made the best of the Father's gifts to me here," answered the matron of advanced ideas.
Ideas, which I record with devout gratification, are fast relegating to a dusty and dishonored past, the "best room" of farmhouse and town mansion never opened except for visitors. With it is going the basement sitting-room, "low" in every sense of the word, which used to be thought good enough for the family. Expensive furniture, kept with real china and solid silver for "occasions"-that is, when appearances must be kept up before comparative strangers and acquaintances for whom, taken as individuals, the appearance-worshipers care less than nothing; fine clothes, worn above mean undergarments; sounding phrases aired, like the reserve of linen sheets, for company use - have more influence upon character than we are willing to believe. It is well to put the best foot foremost. It is better to have both feet decently shod and alike serviceable. Each of us knows plenty of people who have company tones, company smiles, company phraseology, company opinions - wnwisely kept for show. One and all, singly and collectively, they mean to imply something which the wearers thereof are not. Their "appearances" are social electroplating, moral veneering. Slipshod at home and every day; well-groomed abroad and in the sight of those to whom it makes not an atom of difference how the hypocrites look or act, - "home devils and street angels," as plain-spoken critics style them, - such is the great host of those who keep up appearances because they have not souls above shams, whose dusters and mops never visit the insides of burnished cups and platters. Verily they have their reward, but the prizes are as ignoble as the recipients and their motives.
We see, or may see, if we use our senses aright, the heroic side of the question. My heart aches with the thought of scores of examples which pass under my eyes in the lives of unknown martyrs of whom this world is not worthy, by whom the world to come will be made the worthier abiding-place of those for whom the Father has prepared it.
An old woman, who knew the Bronte sisters as children and women, told me that their body linen was darned by a thread until the original fabric hardly showed between the mending.
"But it was always whole and clean, and they made it as carefully as if it were to be trimmed with real lace. Nobody ever saw a rip in their gloves, and they cleaned them themselves. They looked like the ladies they were. Not a bit fashionable, but downright ladylike, you know. They always kept themselves up.
I heard another "downright ladylike" girl, who is almost as poor as the Yorkshire sisters were, insist, the other day, upon dressing for the family dinner when the relative with whom she lived begged her not to change her walking costume.
"You are so tired, my dear, after teaching all day!"
"We working women can not take such liberties with ourselves," said the spirited heroine. "If we let the forms of elegant propriety and conventionality go, we are in danger of forgetting what they represent."
Of a like strain was the regard for appearances that led young Ellsworth, who was killed early in the Civil War, decline an invitation to dine with a business acquaintance at a restaurant when Ellsworth was so hungry that the smell of the food made him almost frantic. He was then a poor student working his way through a New York law school. In referring to the incident in more prosperous days, Colonel Ellsworth explained that he could not have accepted a courtesy he would not be able to repay in kind.
"A gentleman may starve without loss of caste," he added. "He forfeits his right to the name in becoming a pauper, or a beggar."
The outward appearance was the sign of the inward grace, inbred and invincible.
True refinement - the kind that does not shrink or go to pieces under the roughest processes of the mangle we know as daily living - is "even-threaded" and consistent throughout.
I called the other day upon a woman who has never been rich, but always refined. She is now poor. She can never be common. Her lunch hour was earlier than I had supposed, and my call infringed upon it. She and her daughter were at table.
The cheese had been melted upon buttered toast, cut by a tin "shape" into scalloped ovals; it was golden brown in color, crisp to the teeth, savory to the palate. The tea was scalding and fresh and fragrant; for meat we had three Hamburg steaks, garnished with celery-tops. They were accompanied by an apple-and-celery salad, treated on the table to a French dressing; wafery slices of brown bread and butter went with it. Afterwards we had Albert biscuits and a second cup of tea - and nothing else. Beyond the laughing remark prefacing the frugal meal, the hostess offered no apology. She lived in this style every day, affecting nothing and hiding nothing. A gentlewoman in grain, if she had sat down to three meals a day alone, she would have breakfasted, lunched and dined - not merely "fed." Luxury was beyond her reach - elegance never.
A Bridesmaids Table With Pink Roses
Table For An Engagement Dinner
Suggestion For A Sunflower Luncheon
Simplicity need not be homely. Neatness is not a synonym for bareness. A certain degree of beauty and grace is almost a Christian duty.
The best cooks can not afford to despise the recommendation of the eye to the palate. The difference between plain and dainty housekeeping depends so much upon it that the professional caterer plays cunningly upon the desire of the eye, often bringing a good thing into disrepute. Because his garnishes and fanciful devices conceal cheap materials and indifferent manufactures is no reason why the housekeeper should not make the substantial "home fare" provided by her honest hands goodly to sight, as well as to taste.
Cooking schools and classes, chafing-dish lectures and the cuisine corner of the woman's page have been active for more than a third of a century to bring our average American housewife to what old-time revivalists called "a realizing sense" of the deficiencies of the national kitchen, and by the rugged road of conviction to conversion from the old way to the new, which is the better. There is no dearth of missionaries, no lack of machinery.
Much of the work done by these is surface culture - scratching and smoothing over the soil, cleansing, to a polish, cup and platter. Curled parsley, beets, carrots and turnips, carved into leaves, stars and flowers, and fantastic confections of tissue paper and meringue - do not cheat veterans in gastronomies into relish of the ill-prepared dishes they adorn. Experiences of this sort have something to do with the contempt felt by many competent cooks for culinary esthetics. They class everything that looks in this direction under the head of "French cookery," a synonym with them for flash and frippery.
I grant that to the hale appetite of the lover of "plain roast and boiled" of joints, haunches and rounds - the man who can digest mountains of fried "griddles," and, in the bottom of his stomachic conscience, prefers corned beef and cabbage to broiled sweetbreads and mushrooms - his steak, or rare roast, or sugar-cured ham, or choice cut of cod, tastes no better for the garnish of cress, nasturtium or lemon. I once saw a millionaire "high-liver" toss aside the green sprays with the declaration that he "liked to have victuals and weeds sent in upon separate dishes." After clearing the trou - trencher! - he proceeded to feed.
In the feeder's very teeth I maintain that food daintily served tastes better than the same when set before us with no regard to seemliness. If slender appetites are to be coaxed into action, the study of pleasing effects becomes an obligation.