T.S. Arthur – Common People
“Are you going to call upon Mrs. Clayton and her daughters, Mrs. Marygold?” asked a neighbor, alluding to a family that had just moved into Sycamore Row.
“No, indeed, Mrs. Lemmington, that I am not. I don’t visit everybody.”
“I thought the Claytons were a very respectable family,” remarked Mrs. Lemmington.
“Respectable! Everybody is getting respectable now-a-days. If they are respectable, it is very lately that they have become so. What is Mr. Clayton, I wonder, but a school-master! It’s too bad that such people will come crowding themselves into genteel neighborhoods. The time was when to live in Sycamore Row was guarantee enough for any one–but, now, all kinds of people have come into it.”
“I have never met Mrs. Clayton,” remarked Mrs. Lemmington, “but I have been told that she is a most estimable woman, and that her daughters have been educated with great care. Indeed, they are represented as being highly accomplished girls.”
“Well, I don’t care what they are represented to be. I’m not going to keep company with a schoolmaster’s wife and daughters, that’s certain.”
“Is there anything disgraceful in keeping a school?”
“No, nor in making shoes, either. But, then, that’s no reason why I should keep company with my shoemaker’s wife, is it? Let common people associate together–that’s my doctrine.”
“But what do you mean by common people, Mrs. Marygold?”
“Why, I mean common people. Poor people. People who have not come of a respectable family. That’s what I mean.”
“I am not sure that I comprehend your explanation much better than I do your classification. If you mean, as you say, poor people, your objection will not apply with full force to the Claytons, for they are now in tolerably easy circumstances. As to the family of Mr. Clayton, I believe his father was a man of integrity, though not rich. And Mrs. Clayton’s family I know to be without reproach of any kind.”
“And yet they are common people for all that,” persevered Mrs. Marygold. “Wasn’t old Clayton a mere petty dealer in small wares. And wasn’t Mrs. Clayton’s father a mechanic?”
“Perhaps, if some of us were to go back for a generation or two, we might trace out an ancestor who held no higher place in society,” Mrs. Lemmington remarked, quietly. “I have no doubt but that I should.”
“I have no fears of that kind,” replied Mrs. Marygold, in an exulting tone. “I shall never blush when my pedigree is traced.”
“Nor I neither, I hope. Still, I should not wonder if some one of my ancestors had disgraced himself, for there are but few families that are not cursed with a spotted sheep. But I have nothing to do with that, and ask only to be judged by what I am–not by what my progenitors have been.”
“A standard that few will respect, let me tell you.”
“A standard that far the largest portion of society will regard as the true one, I hope,” replied Mrs. Lemmington. “But, surely, you do not intend refusing to call upon the Claytons for the reason you have assigned, Mrs. Marygold.”
“Certainly I do. They are nothing but common people, and therefore beneath me. I shall not stoop to associate with them.”
“I think that I will call upon them. In fact, my object in dropping in this morning was to see if you would not accompany me,” said Mrs. Lemmington.
“Indeed, I will not, and for the reasons I have given. They are only common people. You will be stooping.”
“No one stoops in doing a kind act. Mrs. Clayton is a stranger in the neighborhood, and is entitled to the courtesy of a call, if no more; and that I shall extend to her. If I find her to be uncongenial in her tastes, no intimate acquaintanceship need be formed. If she is congenial, I will add another to my list of valued friends. You and I, I find, estimate differently. I judge every individual by merit, you by family, or descent.”
“You can do as you please,” rejoined Mrs. Marygold, somewhat coldly. “For my part, I am particular about my associates. I will visit Mrs. Florence, and Mrs. Harwood, and such an move in good society, but as to your schoolteachers’ wives and daughters, I must beg to be excused.”
“Every one to her taste,” rejoined Mrs. Lemmington, with a smile, as she moved towards the door, where she stood for a few moments to utter some parting compliments, and then withdrew.
Five minutes afterwards she was shown into Mrs. Clayton’s parlors, where, in a moment or two, she was met by the lady upon whom she had called, and received with an air of easy gracefulness, that at once charmed her. A brief conversation convinced her that Mrs. Clayton was, in intelligence and moral worth, as far above Mrs. Marygold, as that personage imagined herself to be above her. Her daughters, who came in while she sat conversing with their mother, showed themselves to possess all those graces of mind and manner that win upon our admiration so irresistably. An hour passed quickly and pleasantly, and then Mrs. Lemmington withdrew.
The difference between Mrs. Lemmington and Mrs. Marygold was simply this. The former had been familiar with what is called the best society from her earliest recollection, and being therefore, constantly in association with those looked upon as the upper class, knew nothing of the upstart self-estimation which is felt by certain weak ignorant persons, who by some accidental circumstance are elevated far above the condition into which they moved originally. She could estimate true worth in humble garb as well as in velvet and rich satins. She was one of those individuals who never pass an old and worthy domestic in the street without recognition, or stopping to make some kind inquiry–one who never forgot a familiar face, or neglected to pass a kind word to even the humblest who possessed the merit of good principles. As to Mrs. Marygold, notwithstanding her boast in regard to pedigree, there were not a few who could remember when her grandfather carried a pedlar’s pack on his back–and an honest and worthy pedlar he was, saving his pence until they became pounds, and then relinquishing his peregrinating propensities, for the quieter life of a small shop-keeper. His son, the father of Mrs. Marygold, while a boy had a pretty familiar acquaintance with low life. But, as soon as his father gained the means to do so, he was put to school and furnished with a good education. Long before he was of age, the old man had become a pretty large shipper; and when his son arrived at mature years, he took him into business as a partner. In marrying, Mrs. Marygold’s father chose a young lady whose father, like his own, had grown rich by individual exertions. This young lady had not a few false notions in regard to the true genteel, and these fell legitimately to the share of her eldest daughter, who, when she in turn came upon the stage of action, married into an old and what was called a highly respectable family, a circumstance that puffed her up to the full extent of her capacity to bear inflation. There were few in the circle of her acquaintances who did not fully appreciate her, and smile at her weakness and false pride. Mrs. Florence, to whom she had alluded in her conversation with Mrs. Lemmington, and who lived in Sycamore Row, was not only faultless in regard to family connections, but was esteemed in the most intelligent circles for her rich mental endowments and high moral principles. Mrs. Harwood, also alluded to, was the daughter of an English barrister and wife of a highly distinguished professional man, and was besides richly endowed herself, morally and intellectually. Although Mrs. Marygold was very fond of visiting them for the mere eclat of the thing, yet their company was scarcely more agreeable to her, than hers was to them, for there was little in common between them. Still, they had to tolerate her, and did so with a good grace.
It was, perhaps, three months after Mrs. Clayton moved into the neighborhood, that cards of invitation were sent to Mr. and Mrs. Marygold and daughter to pass a social evening at Mrs. Harwood’s. Mrs. M. was of course delighted and felt doubly proud of her own importance. Her daughter Melinda, of whom she was excessively vain, was an indolent, uninteresting girl, too dull to imbibe even a small portion of her mother’s self-estimation. In company, she attracted but little attention, except what her father’s money and standing in society claimed for her.
On the evening appointed, the Marygolds repaired to the elegant residence of Mrs. Harwood and were ushered into a large and brilliant company, more than half of whom were strangers even to them. Mrs. Lemmington was there, and Mrs. Florence, and many others with whom Mrs. Marygold was on terms of intimacy, besides several “distinguished strangers.” Among those with whom Mrs. Marygold was unacquainted, were two young ladies who seemed to attract general attention. They were not showy, chattering girls, such as in all companies attract a swarm of shallow-minded youug fellows about them. On the contrary, there was something retiring, almost shrinking in their manner, that shunned rather than courted observation. And yet, no one, who, attracted by their sweet, modest faces, found himself by their side that did not feel inclined to linger there.
“Who are those girls, Mrs. Lemmington?” asked Mrs. Marygold, meeting the lady she addressed in crossing the room.
“The two girls in the corner who are attracting so much attention?”
“Don’t you know them?”
“I certainly do not.”
“They are no common persons, I can assure you, Mrs. Marygold.”
“Of course, or they would not be found here. But who are they?”
“Ah, Mrs. Lemmington! how are you?” said a lady, coming up at this moment, and interrupting the conversation. “I have been looking for you this half hour.” Then, passing her arm within that of the individual she had addressed, she drew her aside before she had a chance to answer Mrs. Marygold’s question.
In a few minutes after, a gentleman handed Melinda to the piano, and there was a brief pause as she struck the instrument, and commenced going through the unintelligible intricacies of a fashionable piece of music. She could strike all the notes with scientific correctness and mechanical precision. But there was no more expression in her performance than there is in that of a musical box. After she had finished her task, she left the instrument with a few words of commendation extorted by a feeling of politeness.
“Will you not favor us with a song?” asked Mr. Harwood, going up to one of the young ladies to whom allusion has just been made.
“My sister sings, I do not,” was the modest reply, “but I will take pleasure in accompanying her.”
All eyes were fixed upon them as they moved towards the piano, accompanied by Mr. Harwood, for something about their manners, appearance and conversation, had interested nearly all in the room who had been led to notice them particularly. The sister who could not sing, seated herself with an air of easy confidence at the instrument, while the other stood near her. The first few touches that passed over the keys showed that the performer knew well how to give to music a soul. The tones that came forth were not the simple vibrations of a musical chord, but expressions of affection given by her whose fingers woke the strings into harmony. But if the preluding touches fell witchingly upon every ear, how exquisitely sweet and thrilling was the voice that stole out low and tremulous at first, and deepened in volume and expression every moment, until the whole room seemed filled with melody! Every whisper was hushed, and every one bent forward almost breathlessly to listen. And when, at length, both voice and instrument were hushed into silence, no enthusiastic expressions of admiration were heard, but only half- whispered ejaculations of “exquisite!” “sweet!” “beautiful!” Then came earnestly expressed wishes for another and another song, until the sisters, feeling at length that many must be wearied with their long continued occupation of the piano, felt themselves compelled to decline further invitations to sing. No one else ventured to touch a key of the instrument during the evening.
“Do pray, Mrs. Lemmington, tell me who those girls are–I am dying to know,” said Mrs. Marygold, crossing the room to where the person she addressed was seated with Mrs. Florence and several other ladies of “distinction,” and taking a chair by her side.
“They are only common people,” replied Mrs. Lemmington, with affected indifference.
“Common people, my dear madam! What do you mean by such an expression?” said Mrs. Florence in surprise, and with something of indignation latent in her tone.
“I’m sure their father, Mr. Clayton, is nothing but a teacher.”
“Mr. Clayton! Surely those are not Clayton’s daughters!” ejaculated Mrs. Marygold, in surprise.
“They certainly are ma’am,” replied Mrs. Florence in a quiet but firm voice, for she instantly perceived, from something in Mrs. Marygold’s voice and manner, the reason why her friend had alluded to them as common people.
“Well, really, I am surprised that Mrs. Harwood should have invited them to her house, and introduced them into genteel company.”
“Why so, Mrs. Marygold?”
“Because, as Mrs. Lemmington has just said, they are common people. Their father is nothing but a schoolmaster.”
“If I have observed them rightly,” Mrs. Florence said to this, “I have discovered them to be a rather uncommon kind of people. Almost any one can thrum on the piano; but you will not find one in a hundred who can perform with such exquisite grace and feeling as they can. For half an hour this evening I sat charmed with their conversation, and really instructed and elevated by the sentiments they uttered. I cannot say as much for any other young ladies in the room, for there are none others here above the common run of ordinarily intelligent girls–none who may not really be classed with common people in the true acceptation of the term.”
“And take them all in all,” added Mrs. Lemmington with warmth, “you will find nothing common about them. Look at their dress; see how perfect in neatness, in adaptation of colors and arrangement to complexion and shape, is every thing about them. Perhaps there will not be found a single young lady in the room, besides them, whose dress does not show something not in keeping with good taste. Take their manners. Are they not graceful, gentle, and yet full of nature’s own expression. In a word, is there any thing about them that is ‘common?'”
“Nothing that my eye has detected,” replied Mrs. Florence.
“Except their origin,” half-sneeringly rejoined Mrs. Marygold.
“They were born of woman,” was the grave remark. “Can any of us boast a higher origin?”
“There are various ranks among women,” Mrs. Marygold said, firmly.
“True. But, ‘The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, The man’s the gold for a’ that.’
“Mere position in society does not make any of us more or less a true woman. I could name you over a dozen or more in my circle of acquaintance, who move in what is called the highest rank; who, in all that truly constitutes a woman, are incomparably below Mrs. Clayton; who, if thrown with her among perfect strangers, would be instantly eclipsed. Come then, Mrs. Marygold, lay aside all these false standards, and estimate woman more justly. Let me, to begin, introduce both yourself and Melinda to the young ladies this evening. You will be charmed with them, I know, and equally charmed with their mother when you know her.”
“No, ma’am,” replied Mrs. Marygold, drawing herself up with a dignified air. “I have no wish to cultivate their acquaintance, or the acquaintance of any persons in their station. I am surprised that Mrs. Harwood has not had more consideration for her friends than to compel them to come in contact with such people.”
No reply was made to this; and the next remark of Mrs. Florence was about some matter of general interest.
“Henry Florence has not been here for a week,” said Mrs. Marygold to her daughter Melinda, some two months after the period at which the conversation just noted occurred.
“No; and he used to come almost every evening,” was Melinda’s reply, made in a tone that expressed disappointment.
“I wonder what can be the reason?” Mrs. Marygold said, half aloud, half to herself, but with evident feelings of concern. The reason of her concern and Melinda’s disappointment arose from the fact that both had felt pretty sure of securing Henry Florence as a member of the Marygold family–such connection, from his standing in society, being especially desirable.
At the very time the young man was thus alluded to by Mrs. Marygold and her daughter, he sat conversing with his mother upon a subject that seemed, from the expression of his countenance, to be of much interest to him.
“So you do not feel inclined to favor any preference on my part towards Miss Marygold?” he said, looking steadily into his mother’s face.
“I do not, Henry,” was the frank reply.
“There is something too common about her, if I may so express myself.”
“Too common! What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that there is no distinctive character about her. She is, like the large mass around us, a mere made-up girl.”
“Speaking in riddles.”
“I mean then, Henry, that her character has been formed, or made up, by mere external accretions from the common-place, vague, and often too false notions of things that prevail in society, instead of by the force of sound internal principles, seen to be true from a rational intuition, and acted upon because they are true. Cannot you perceive the difference?”
“O yes, plainly. And this is why you use the word ‘common,’ in speaking of her?”
“The reason. And now my son, can you not see that there is force in my objection to her–that she really possess any character distinctively her own, that is founded upon a clear and rational appreciation of abstractly correct principles of action?”
“I cannot say that I differ from you very widely,” the young man said, thoughtfully. “But, if you call Melinda ‘common,’ where shall I go to find one who may be called ‘uncommon?'”
“I can point you to one.”
“You have met Fanny Clayton?”
“Fanny Clayton!” ejaculated the young man, taken by surprise, the blood rising to his face. “O yes, I have met her.”
“She is no common girl, Henry,” Mrs. Florence said, in a serious voice. “She has not her equal in my circle of acquaintances.”
“Nor in mine either,” replied the young man, recovering himself. “But you would not feel satisfied to have your son address Miss Clayton?”
“And why not, pray? Henry, I have never met with a young lady whom I would rather see your wife than Fanny Clayton.”
“And I,” rejoined the young man with equal warmth, “never met with any one whom I could truly love until I saw her sweet young face.”
“Then never think again of one like Melinda Marygold. You could not be rationally happy with her.”
Five or six months rolled away, during a large portion of which time the fact that Henry Florence was addressing Fanny Clayton formed a theme for pretty free comment in various quarters. Most of Henry’s acquaintance heartily approved his choice; but Mrs. Marygold, and a few like her, all with daughters of the “common” class, were deeply incensed at the idea of a “common kind of a girl” like Miss Clayton being forced into genteel society, a consequence that would of course follow her marriage. Mrs. Marygold hesitated not to declare that for her part, let others do as they liked, she was not going to associate with her–that was settled. She had too much regard to what was due to her station in life. As for Melinda, she had no very kind feelings for her successful rival–and such a rival too! A mere schoolmaster’s daughter! And she hesitated not to speak of her often and in no very courteous terms.
When the notes of invitation to the wedding at length came, which ceremony was to be performed in the house of Mr. Clayton, in Sycamore Row, Mrs. Marygold declared that to send her an invitation to go to such a place was a downright insult. As the time, however, drew near, and she found that Mrs. Harwood and a dozen others equally respectable in her eyes were going to the wedding, she managed to smother her indignation so far as, at length, to make up her mind to be present at the nuptial ceremonies. But it was not until her ears were almost stunned by the repeated and earnestly expressed congratulations to Mrs. Florence at the admirable choice made by her son, and that too by those whose tastes and opinions she dared not dispute, that she could perceive any thing even passable in the beautiful young bride.
Gradually, however, as the younger Mrs. Florence, in the process of time, took her true position in the social circle, even Mrs. Marygold could begin to perceive the intrinsic excellence of her character, although even this was more a tacit assent to a universal opinion than a discovery of her own.
As for Melinda, she was married about a year after Fanny Clayton’s wedding, to a sprig of gentility with about as much force of character as herself. This took place on the same night that Lieut. Harwood, son of Mrs. Harwood before alluded to, led to the altar Mary Clayton, the sister of Fanny, who was conceded by all, to be the loveliest girl they had ever seen–lovely, not only in face and form, but loveliness itself in the sweet perfections of moral beauty. As for Lieut. Harwood, he was worthy of the heart he had won.