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Gentility by T. S. Arthur

 

"Didn't I see you walking up the street with a young lady yesterday, William?" said Anna Enfield to her brother, who had but a few days before returned from New York, after an absence of some months.

"Perhaps you did; I was in company with a young lady in the afternoon," replied the brother.

"Well, who was she? I did not see you until after you had passed the store I was in, and then I could not see her face."

"It was Caroline Murry; you know her, I suppose."

"Caroline Murry! Why, brother! what were you doing in her company?" and Anna's face expressed unfeigned astonishment.

"Why, really, you surprise me, sister! I hope there is no blemish on her character. But what is the matter? I feel concerned to know."

"There's nothing much the matter, brother; but, then, Caroline Murry is not genteel. We don't think of keeping her company."

"Indeed! and you don't associate with her because she is not genteel. Well, if I am any judge of gentility, Anna, Caroline Murry is about as genteel and lady-like as any girl I know, always excepting, of course, my own dear sister."

"Why, brother, how you talk! You don't certainly pretend to compare her with Ernestine Eberly and Zepherine Fitzwilliams, whom you have seen here several times?"

"No, I do not," replied the brother, emphatically.

"Well, they're what I call genteel; and Caroline Murry wouldn't be tolerated in the society where they visit."

"And why not, sister?"

"Havn't I told you? Because she is not considered genteel; that is the reason."

"But I don't understand what you consider genteel, Anna. If I know what gentility means, Caroline, as far as that is concerned, is in every way superior to Ernestine Eberly and Zepherine Fitzwilliams."

"Now, William, that is too bad! If any other man had said so to me, I would never have spoken to him again as long as I lived."

"But seriously, Anna, what do you mean by gentility?" asked the brother.

"That's a question more easily asked than answered; but you know, as well as I do, what is meant by gentility. Every body knows."

"I know what I mean by it, Anna. But it seems that we don't agree on the subject; for I call Caroline Murry genteel, and you don't: so you see that different things may be called by the same name. Now, what I wish to know is, what precise meaning you attach to the word? or, why you do not think Caroline genteel?"

"Why, in the first place, she don't go into genteel company. People of the first rank won't associate with her."

Here ensued a pause, and the brother said —

"Well, why won't they associate with her, Anna? I hope she has not been guilty of improper or immoral conduct."

"O, no! nothing of that. I never heard the slightest reflection on her character," replied the sister. "But, then, genteel young ladies don't work in the kitchen, like hired servants; and she does. And, besides this, call on her when you will, and she is always doing something. Why, I am told that she has even been seen at the chamber windows, fronting on the public street, with her head tied up, sweeping and making the beds! And Clarrissa Spiggler says that she saw her once, with the parlor windows open, sweeping and dusting like a servant! Nobody is going to associate, or be seen in the street with any one who hasn't the spirit to be above the condition of a hireling. And, besides this, whenever she was invited to balls or parties, she never would stay later than ten or eleven o'clock, which every one knows to be vulgar. Somebody had to go home with her, of course; and the choicest beau in the company was almost sure to have his good nature and his politeness taxed for this purpose. Once I heard her say, that she considered the theatre an unfit place for any young lady; she offended the whole company, and has never been invited to a party among genteel people since."

"And is that all?" said William Enfield, taking a long breath.

"Yes, and I should think that was enough, in all conscience," replied the sister.

"So should I, Anna, to make me respect her."

"Why, William!"

"Why, Anna!"

"But seriously, William, you cannot be in earnest?"

"And seriously, Anna, are you in earnest?"

"Of course I am."

"Well, sister, I'm afraid my old fashioned notions, for such I suppose you will call them, and your new fangled notions, for such I must call them, will not chime well together. All that I have heard you allege against Caroline Murry, raises, instead of lowering her in my estimation. So far as a gentle, and truly lady-like deportment is concerned, I think her greatly superior to the two friends you have named as the pinks of gentility."

Anna looked into the face of her brother for some moments, her countenance exhibiting a mingled expression of surprise and disappointment.

"But you are not going to walk with her in the street any more, I hope," she at length said.

"And why not, Anna?"

"Because, as I have said before, she is not gen —"

"Genteel, you were going to say. But that allegation, you perceive, Anna, has no weight with me; I do not consider it a true one."

"Well, we won't talk any more about it just now, for it would be no use," said the sister, changing her voice and manner; "and so I will change the subject. I want you to make a call or two with me this morning."

"On whom?"

"On Miss Eberly and Miss Fitzwilliams."

"It wouldn't be right for me to do so, would it? You know I don't consider them genteel," said the brother, with affected gravity.

"O nonsense, brother? why will you trifle so?"

"But, seriously, Anna, I do not consider that those young ladies have any very strong claims to gentility; and, like you, I have no wish to associate with those who are not genteel."

"If you talk in that way, William, I shall get angry with you, I cannot hear my most intimate friends spoken of so lightly; and, at the same time accused of a want of gentility. You must remember that you are reflecting upon your sister's associates."

"You must not, and I know you will not, get angry with me, sister, for speaking plainly; and you must do me the justice to believe that in speaking as I do I am in earnest. And you must also remember, that, in saying what you did of Caroline Murry, you spoke of one with whom your brother has associated, and with whom he is still willing to associate."

Anna looked very serious at this, nor could she frame in her own mind a reply that was satisfactory to her. At last she said —

"But, seriously, brother William, won't you call on those young ladies with me?"

"Yes, on one condition."

"Well, what is that?"

"Why, on condition that you will, afterwards, call with me, and see Caroline Murry."

"I cannot do that, William," she replied, in a positive tone.

"And why not, Anna?"

"I have already told you."

"I cannot perceive the force of that reason, Anna. But, if you will not go with me, I must decline going with you. The society of Miss Murry cannot be more repulsive to you, than is that of the Misses Eberly and Fitzwilliams to me."

"You don't know what you are talking about, William."

"That is my own impression about you. But come, now, sister, let us both be rational to each other. I am willing to go with you, if you will go with me."

"Yes, but, William, you don't reflect, that, in doing as you desire me, I will be in danger of losing my present position in society. Caroline Murry is not esteemed genteel in the circle in which I move, and if it should be known that I visit her, I will be considered on a level with her. I would do any thing to oblige you, but, indeed, I would be risking too much here."

"You would only be breaking loose," replied the brother, "from the slavery you are now in to false notions of what is truly genteel. If any one esteems you less for being kind, attentive, and courteous, to one against whom suspicion has never dared to breathe a word, and whose whole life is a bright example of the pure and high-toned principles that govern her, that one is unworthy of your regard. True gentility does not exist, my sister, merely in a studied and artificial elegance of behavior, but in inward purity and taste, and a true sense of what is right, all exhibiting themselves in their natural external expression. The real lady judges of others from what they are, and neglects none but the wilfully depraved. True, there are distinctions in society, and there are lines of social demarcation — and all this is right. But we should be careful into what social sphere we are drawn, and how we suffer ourselves to be influenced by the false notions of real worth which prevail in some circles that profess a high degree of gentility. I hold that every one, no matter what may be his or her condition in life, fails to act a true part if not engaged in doing something that is useful. Let me put it to your natural good sense, which do you think the most deserving of praise, Caroline Murry, who spends her time in `doing something' useful to her whole family; or your friends, the Misses Eberly and Fitzwilliams, and those constituting their particuler circle, who expect service from others, but never think of rendering any, and who carry their prejudices so far as to despise those who work?"

Anna did not reply, and her brother said —

"I am in earnest, sister, when I say, that you cannot confer a greater favor upon your brother, than to go with him to see Caroline Murry. Cannot I induce you to comply with my wishes?"

"I will go," she replied to this appeal, and then hurried away, evidently no little disturbed in her feelings.

In half an hour she was ready, and, taking her brother's arm, was soon on the way to Miss Ernestine Eberly's residence. That young lady received them with all the graces and fashionable airs she could assume, and entertained them with the idle gossip of the day, interspersed with an occasional spice of envious and ill-natured remark. Knowing that her brother was a close discriminator, and knowing that he was by no means prepossessed in her friends favor, Anna herself observed her more narrowly, and, as it were, with his eyes. It seemed to her that Miss Eberly never was so uninteresting, or so mal-apropos in what she said. The call on Zepherine Fitzwilliams came next in turn. Scanning her also with other eyes than her own, Anna was disappointed in her very dear friend. She looked through her, and was pained to see that there was a hollowness and want of any thing like true strength or excellence of character about her. Particularly was she displeased at a gratuitous sneer thrown out at the expense of Caroline Murry.

And now, with a reluctance which she could not overcome, Anna turned with her brother, towards the residence of the young lady who had caste, because she had good sense and was industrious.

"I know my sister's lady-like character will prompt her to right action, in our next call," said the brother, looking into Anna's face with an encouraging smile.

She did not reply, yet she felt somehow or other pleased with the remark. A few minutes walk brought them to the door, and they were presently ushered into a neat parlor in which was the young lady they were seeking. She sat near a window, and was sewing. She was plainly dressed in comparison with the young ladies just called upon; but in neatness, and in all that constitutes the lady in air and appearance, in every way their superior.

"I believe you know my sister," said Enfield, on presenting Anna.

"We have met a few times," she replied with a pleasant, unembarrassed smile, extending at the same time her hand.

Miss Enfield took the offered hand with less reluctance than she had imagined she could, but a few hours before. Somehow or other, Caroline seemed to her to be very much changed for the better in manner and appearance. And she could not help, during all the visit, drawing contrasts between her and the two very dear friends she had just called upon; and the contrast was in no way favorable to the latter. The conversation was on topics of ordinary interest, but did not once degenerate into frivolity or censoriousness. Good sense manifested itself in almost every sentence that Caroline uttered, and this was so apparent to Anna, that she could not help frequently noticing and involuntarily approving it. "What a pity," Anna once or twice remarked to herself, "that she will be so singular."

The call was but a brief one. Anna parted with Caroline under a different impression of her character than she had ever before entertained. After her return with her brother, he asked her this abrupt question.

"Which of the young ladies, Anna, of the three we called upon this morning, would you prefer to call your sister?"

Anna looked up, bewildered and surprised, into the face of her brother, for a few moments, and then said;

"I don't understand you, brother William."

"Why, I thought I asked a very plain question. But I will make it plainer. Which one of the three young ladies we called upon this morning, would you advise me to marry?"

"Neither," replied Anna promptly.

"That is only jumping the question," he said, smiling. "But, to corner you so that there can be no escape, I will confess that I have made up my mind to marry one of the three. Now tell me which you would rather it would be."

"Caroline Murry, said Anna, emphatically, while her cheeks burned, and her eyes became slightly suffused.

William Enfield did not reply to the hoped for, though rather unexpected admission, but stooping down, he kissed her glowing cheek, and whispered in her ear,

"Then she shall be your sister, and I know you will love one another."

He said truly. In a few months he claimed Caroline Murry as his bride, and her good sense, and winning gentleness of character, influenced Anna, and effectually counteracted the false notions which were beginning to corrupt a good heart and to overshadow a sound judgment. It was not long before she was fully sensible of the real difference which there was between the character of her two friends, and that of her brother's wife; and also between true and false gentility. Although Caroline Murry had been proscribed by a certain circle in which false pride, instead of principle, was the governing motive, she had still been esteemed among those who knew how to look beyond the surface. As the wife of Enfield, she at once took a position in circles where those who had passed her by as unworthy would have sought in vain for admission, and in those circles she shone as a bright particular star.

 
 
 

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