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Noblesse Oblige by V. G. Smith


Those of you who have studied French can translate this motto, and those who have not may perhaps guess that it means "nobility obliges"; but it is a favorite expression with so many different people, and it seems to mean such different things to different persons, that perhaps it may be worth while to tell a few anecdotes about what nobility has been supposed to oblige us to do.

When James I. of England was a little boy in Scotland, he had an extremely clever tutor, George Buchanan. Now Buchanan was a great Latin scholar. He wrote verses, and was called the Scotch Virgil. Of course he was very ambitious that his royal pupil should be a good Latin scholar too, and the books say he "whipped so much knowledge into him" that James was called the "British Solomon." This was the approved way in Great Britain at that time to educate boys. But there is a fact about which most of the books are silent: Buchanan and his friends reasoned that though it was quite true that James could never learn Latin unless some one was whipped, it would be a dreadful thing to strike a boy of the blood royal, and so they arranged that another boy should live at court, who should be whipped every time James failed in his declensions and conjugations.

This seems to have been a very satisfactory arrangement, and you see, in this case, "nobility obliged" somebody else to be punished when the "nobility" had done wrong.

This is the sense in which a great many splendid and magnificent people, with crowns on their heads and sceptres in their hands, have understood the motto.

Tradition does not say what James himself thought about it. Perhaps he worked all the harder with his lessons, and felt that "nobility obliged" him not to let any one else suffer for his faults. If that was so, it was not a bad plan, after all.

There is a better sense in which some have understood the motto. Perhaps some of you have read the touching letter of the Prince Imperial before he went to the fatal Zululand, where he was so cruelly murdered. The poor boy felt as if he had no object in England. He thought of the great deeds of the other Napoleons, and was stung at his own inaction. There seemed to be no duty left for him to do, in the way of fighting; but fight he must, to show he was as brave as the rest of his family. They say he was a gentle, affectionate, noble-spirited boy, and it seems as if he thought others would suppose he was weak unless he did some deed of daring. His nobility obliged him to be foremost in the most desperate places; and so he died, and the world mourned for him.

I think, as you read history more and more, you will believe, as I do, that men, and even children, of high birth, are surer to be brave and courageous than those in more obscure station. They may have other faults—dreadful ones—but it seems as if they dare not be cowards, because their whole race is looking at them, and expecting them to be noble. In this country, where we know so little about our ancestors, we need a still higher courage to make us do as grand things from yet higher motives.

For, much as I pity and admire the little Prince, I think there is even a better way than his to understand the old motto.

Perhaps you have been reading lately some account of the wedding festivities of the young King Alfonso of Spain; but it is not very long since he was married to his first wife, sweet little Princess Mercedes, who died within a few months after her marriage. Indeed, their nobility often obliges kings who lose their wives to be married again very soon.

It is of Queen Mercedes I wish to tell you. When she was about thirteen or fourteen years old she was sent to school to a convent in France. The convent was full of lovely and noble ladies, who had gone there because they had met with misfortunes of one kind or another. These ladies taught the young girls under their care very gently; still, there were certain light punishments for those who were careless or idle. I think one of these was that the offender should stand in a corner for a certain length of time.

Although most of the girls were of high birth, the little Princess, soon to be Queen, was of higher rank than any of the others. Her seat was a little apart from theirs, and by various small tokens of this kind her position was recognized.

Now one day it happened that Mercedes committed some fault. Perhaps she was late in rising, or failed in some other way to carry out the convent rules. The fault was not serious, and the Sisters did not think it necessary to enforce the punishment; but Mercedes, blushing very much, went of her own accord to the corner where she knew she ought to stand, and staid the appointed time. You see she felt that if she was of too high rank to receive punishment from others, the duty of inflicting it upon herself was her own. Noblesse oblige.

Although the illustrations I have given you have all been from royal families, where, I suppose, the motto originated, I am sure you will be able to apply it to hundreds of other cases, and will believe that nobility of character obliges us with still more force to do the best things always, though we are bound by no outward law.