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Girls and Women Part 10

Most of what is called society is no doubt poor and weak, and not worth much time or trouble. I think the girls whose pathway does not lead directly through it are perhaps to be congratulated. It is to be hoped that most women who reach the age of twenty-five will find something better to do than to give themselves up entirely to society. But though, as now constituted, its exactions are so heavy that it often seems as if it must be all or nothing, it need not inevitably be so. Society could be so conducted as to be a beautiful recreation instead of a business, and those who see this clearly can help to bring it about.

Society ought to give enjoyment in a refined way. Beautiful houses, beautiful dresses, music, cultivated voices in conversation, delicate wit, smiling faces, graceful dancing, all these things would make up an attractive picture to most of us if we could forget ourselves, and not feel that our shadow was the most prominent part of it. It could not take the place of our serious daily life, but it ought to supplement it.

The French writer Amiel has given the most beautiful description of ideal society, and I will quote it here. It would, I think, be a good plan for every girl who wishes to give up society to consider this picture well. If society were always like this, would you wish to give it up? If it is not like this, may it not be possible for you to help to make it so? Is there any better work laid ready to your hand? If so, do it, by all means. If not, is not this well worth doing?

It is thus that Amiel describes a small evening party: "Thirty people of the best society, a happy mingling of sexes and ages. Gray heads, young people, _spirituelle_ faces. All framed in tapestries of Aubusson which gave a soft distance and a charming background to the groups in full dress.... In the world it is necessary to have the appearance of living on ambrosia and of being acquainted with only noble cares. Anxiety, want, passion do not exist. All realism is suppressed as brutal. In a word, what is called _le grand monde_ presents for the moment a flattering illusion, that of being in an ethereal state and of breathing the life of mythology. That is the reason that all vehemence, every cry of nature, all true suffering, all careless familiarity, all open marks of passion, shock and jar in this delicate _milieu_, and destroy in a moment the whole fabric, the palace of clouds, the magic architecture raised by the consent of all.

"It is like the harsh cock-crow which causes all enchantment to vanish and puts the fairies to flight. These choice _reunions_ act unconsciously towards a concert of eye and ear, towards an improvised work of art. This instinctive accord is a festival for the mind and taste, and transports the actors into the sphere of the imagination. It is a form of poetry, and it is thus that cultivated society renews by reflection the idyl which has disappeared....

"Paradoxical or not, I believe that these fleeting attempts to reconstruct a dream which pursues beauty alone are confused recollections of the age of gold which haunts the human soul, or rather of aspirations towards the harmony of things which daily reality refuses to us, and to which we are introduced only by art."

XV.

NARROW LIVES.

What is a narrow life? Its causes almost always lie in character. One either has a narrow nature, or is subject to some tyrant who has a narrow nature. In such cases there is little hope of remedy.

But in general circumstances are not responsible for a narrow life.

Illness and poverty indeed are hard to resist, nevertheless I hope to show by actual examples that broad lives are lived by the sick and poor.

Once at the wish of a friend I was visiting I went to carry some comforts to a neglected almshouse on a Western prairie. In the insane ward I found a poor young fellow suffering from epilepsy. There had been some brutal treatment in the almshouse and he had tried to escape. Being overtaken he had fought for his liberty, and in consequence he was afterwards fastened with a chain and ball of many pounds' weight. He could not be cared for elsewhere, as his family was very poor, and though usually perfectly sane he had dangerous intervals. The management of the almshouse was culpably bad, and though about this time benevolent persons began to bestir themselves, and there was some amelioration of conditions, yet this young man was certainly placed in as narrowing circumstances as could surround a human being. He was poor to the degree of pauperism, he had an incurable disease and he was almost absolutely in the power of tyrants. Remembering that my friend wished to lend some books to those of the poor creatures who could read, I asked him if he liked to read. He said yes, that he was very fond of reading, but could not get any books. I asked him what kind of books he would like. "Well," he said slowly, "I should be glad of anything; but I think I should like best stories or biographies which would tell me how people who were put in hard places met their lives. For," he added pathetically, "I want to make the most I can of my life." I felt as he spoke that these were the most heroic words I had ever heard or that I ever should hear. I left the town in a few days, and my friend at the same time changed her residence, so I have never known his fate. But I am sure no circumstances could make a life inspired with such a feeling a narrow one.

Fortunately few people are so hemmed in by circumstances. But some of us think a single misfortune enough to crush us. How, for instance, is a woman prostrated by disease to make anything of the little life within her four walls?

I remember a woman who broke down at school and suffered so frequently from violent hemorrhages all her life, which was prolonged till she was nearly fifty, that she was seldom able to leave her room. Her home was on a farm a long distance from the village, so that it at first seemed as if she could not have even the ordinary alleviation of cheerful society in her more comfortable days. Another aggravation in her case was that she had an active temperament and strong mind. She had been fitting herself to be a teacher, and she had just the qualities which would have made her an admirable teacher, a clear intellect, quick observation, firm will, love of children, and a perfectly serene temper.

She had wished to teach, partly because she thought she should find it an inspiring work, and partly because she wished to help the family. She saw this was not to be, that in spite of herself she must be a burden on the family. She met her altered circumstances with the same firm will and cheerful temper she had shown from childhood. If she must be a burden on others she would make that burden as light as she could. She would not suggest that any one should sit in her darkened room all day, however lonely she might be. She would not call upon others for the hundred little services not absolutely necessary, but still so very agreeable to one who is weak and helpless. On the other hand, she would not exert herself rashly in the vain endeavor to wait on herself when such an exertion was likely to injure her, and in the end to bring more care on other people. She always spoke cheerfully even when her voice could not rise above a whisper. She was ready to admit the sunshine the moment she could bear the light. As she lay alone she tried to think of some pleasant thing to say or do when any one should come in, and in this way she beguiled the tedious hours.

Of course she had her reward. No one could be unwilling to take care of one so unexacting. Moreover, although she often unavoidably taxed the strength of her friends, she did so much to make them happy that nursing her was a pleasant task. Her mother and sisters wished to be in her room as much as possible, not for her sake, but for their own enjoyment. She never asked them to read aloud to her, for instance, but she was such an appreciative listener that they could never be quite satisfied with reading any interesting book to themselves. They enjoyed it doubly with her wise and witty comments. She had a keen sense of humor which it has always seemed to me goes a long way in broadening any life,--and naturally everybody saved the best jokes to relate in her room. She was frequently too ill to laugh without danger of a hemorrhage, but she soon learned to control herself so that she laughed with her eyes alone. The girls from the village, instead of feeling it a duty to visit her in her sickness, considered it a privilege to be admitted to her room.

When she was able to sit up they would come by twos and threes and bring their work and chat until she was tired. She had the kind of character which made gossip impossible with her, so that she always got at the very best her visitors had to give, and the _very best_ of even a shallow girl is often worth something. Her friends, however, felt it was she who gave to them because of her uplifting power.

She was sometimes able to read and she carried on her education systematically, though necessarily with many interruptions. She had a gift for drawing and amused herself often in that way, though, it was always a sorrow to her that she had had too little instruction to produce anything of value to others. She was not altogether shut out from beauty. Her room gave her a view of the sunset every day, and she purposely left her curtain up for an hour in the evening to watch the march of the stars. She had the unspotted beauty of the snow in the winter, and of the grass and flowers in the summer. Sometimes she was even able to walk about the dooryard a little and gather flowers for herself. She always had a few house plants in which she took a strong interest, and which accordingly flourished.

She was a public-spirited woman and was glad to be made one of the trustees of the Public Library. She was one of the most efficient members of the board, though she was seldom strong enough to be driven as far as the library building.

She was determined that her sisters' lives should not be trammeled by her weakness. The fact that she could not go to a place was all the more reason why her sisters should go and tell her about it. One sister was a teacher who at first wished to take the neighboring district school rather than a much finer position in a distant city simply for the sake of being constantly with the beloved invalid. But the latter would not allow this. "I shall never be able to go West myself, you know," she said cheerfully, "but if you go and I have your letters every week, I shall know exactly what it is like. And you will be so much more entertaining in vacations than if you stay at home."

By the same course of reasoning the sick sister persuaded the teacher to go abroad to study a year when the opportunity came. "The photographs you bring home will mean a great deal more to me than any I could buy,"

she said. "I shall almost feel as if I had seen the pictures themselves." Every letter which came from the absent sister did inclose some imponderable unmounted photograph, with comments. The sister at home, studying these one by one, learned almost more of the meaning of the pictures than the one who saw their visible beauty. One of my friends says, "There is nothing which so destroys the aesthetic sense as to see too many beautiful pictures at once." This truth, perhaps, explains why so many people see all the great paintings of the world and yet have so little appreciation of any of them. At all events, our invalid did gain both happiness and spiritual insight from the hints of beauty she found in these humble little photographs.

I have before said that she was not left without companions. She also had friends in the highest sense. Having the leisure to make friendship a chief business of life she was able to be so much to her friends that however busy they might be they could not afford to neglect her. The day of leisurely letter writing seems to have passed by. But she had long hours by herself when she could write out the good and pleasant things she was thinking about. Her letters were lovely, and strong, and helpful, and each was written with such exquisite penmanship, with such easy lines of beauty, that it was like a work of art in itself.

She was not obliged even to forego the happiness of love. She had a young lover at the time her health failed. He would not believe at first that there was no cure for her. Her instinct had been so true that she had chosen a perfectly loyal lover whose love could not be shaken by misfortune. At last he was himself attacked by a terrible disease, and it was seldom possible for the two to meet after that. But they faced their trouble together. They said that if the time should ever come when they could be married they should rejoice; but if it never came they would be all they could to each other. Sometimes even letters were impossible between them, but their perfect reliance upon each other was a constant source of strength and happiness, and their rare interviews were true radiant points in their lives.

Of course no one would think of calling this woman's life a narrow one, and yet the only reason it was not so lay in herself.

I know another woman whose poverty would seem to many people an effectual bar to any breadth of life. As poverty is a relative term, I will state definitely that she receives less than three hundred dollars a year for teaching a difficult village school, and that the whole support of her frail and delicate mother has fallen upon her except that the two together own their heavily mortgaged little home. A servant being out of the question, she rises very early in the morning to do as much of the heavier housework as possible. Her washing, of course, has to be done on Saturday. Some of us in such a case would be content with a low standard of cleanliness--but she has an ideal, and her house and herself fairly sparkle with neatness. Her exquisite cooking is a special grace of economy, for it makes it possible that a frugal table should seem to be richly spread. Of course she and her mother must do their own sewing, and they do it so well that they always have the air of being dressed as ladies, with great simplicity, to be sure, but with excellent taste.

At this point, I fancy my readers will make one of two comments. They will say, "She must have an iron constitution," or "She must spend all her time on material things. She cannot have a moment for books or society or travel."

Now she has not an iron constitution. She suffered in her youth from a wasting disease, and her physician says she was nearer death than any person he ever knew to recover. This disease has left its traces upon her. There is hardly a year when she does not have to be out of school a week or two for illness, and of course sick headaches and trifling ailments of that kind have to be met every few days.

Nor is it true that the daily necessities absorb her whole life.

Obviously, she cannot be a great reader, or rather it is fortunate she is not so, for if she spent all her little leisure over books, she would miss much that is inspiring in her life. But she does care for books, and particularly for the best books, though her school education was limited. She reads a tiny daily paper and always takes a leading magazine. She owns Shakespeare and Scott and Shelley, and knows them almost by heart. She borrows the best of her friends' books, and occasionally buys a cheap classic. She always has some volume of biography or travel from the Public Library, which she reads leisurely with her mother perhaps. It may take her a month to read some little volume of two or three hundred pages--such a volume as Bradford Torrey's "Rambler's Lease," or Dr. Emerson's memoir of his father--and possibly she may not be able in the end to quote any more fluently from these books than another who reads them through in an afternoon, although I think she usually is able, but her advantage is that she thoroughly enjoys the flavor of every sentence; her reading stimulates and encourages her and makes her happy.

She was one of the founders of the Book Club in the village, and as the Public Library grew out of that, there was considerable work to be done by some of the members, and of this she did much more than her share.

She is one of the most active members also of the Reading Club and the Natural History Club, two organizations which combine culture and society quite as effectually as the more ambitious circles in our cities. Her house is always hospitably open to either of these clubs, for she loves society and wishes to make the most of all the intelligent people in the place who belong to one or the other of them. Her sociability, however, carries her farther. She knows everybody in the town well enough for a bow and smile in passing, and that is no small achievement in a modern village where the population is so fluctuating.

I would suggest that we try for a moment to recall the difference it makes in the cheerfulness of our day whether all the people we meet have a pleasant word for us or not; and then, I think, we shall see that her influence is by no means slight or worthless. Perhaps it is a little candle, but it throws its beams far.

She likes to go to see her friends, and she faithfully returns the semi-formal calls which cannot be avoided even in the most unfashionable centres. She makes her own callers heartily welcome, and even invites a friend or two to tea now and then. She is always hospitably ready to entertain visitors from a distance, and consequently she often has the pleasant variety of going away on a visit herself.

She likes to go to the public entertainments of the village. A sewing society, a Sunday-school picnic, or a fair attracts her. These are simple pleasures, but taken with such a spirit as hers, they are innocent and wholesome, even if they seem barren to an outsider.

She always does her part at all such gatherings. She is ready to serve on any committee. She will make delicious cake for a Grand Army supper, or sell flowers in aid of the Village Improvement Society. One would hardly expect her to have time for such duties, but one of the strong points in her character is that she never has any inclination to shirk a responsibility that belongs to her, and she is generous in her interpretation of her responsibilities. It has always interested me to see the persistency with which she pays the extra fraction of a cent when any expense is to be divided among several people. She knows the full value of a cent, for she has to count the cost of everything; but she evidently takes a brave pride in always doing a little more rather than a little less than justice requires her to do. She has perhaps too great a scorn of receiving help from anybody. She once acted as a substitute in school for a friend who was ill. The obliged friend insisted that she should receive the ten dollars which would otherwise have been paid to herself. But the independent young lady instantly took the money and invested it all in a beautiful piece of lace which she sent as a present to the convalescent. I know of no one who acts more thoroughly on the rule, "If you have but sixpence to spend, spend it like a prince, and not like a beggar."

She is a true lover of nature, without pretense or cant of any kind. She has an eye for flowers,--indeed her little garden is the delight of the neighborhood,--and she finds harebells on Thanksgiving Day and ferns in midwinter. She knows the minerals in the stone-walls, and likes to trace the course of old glaciers across the farms beyond the village. And she likes, too, to stroll through the woods, or to float in her dory on the river, without a thought of mineralogy or botany while she softly repeats poetry for which she has a real love.

Of course she has not a large margin of income for luxuries, but she does take a journey now and then, and she enjoys her journeys with a zest which would surprise many travelers.

She has not much money to give away; and yet she often adds a modest contribution to a subscription paper for some unfortunate neighbor. And she has lent her boat a hundred times to people who otherwise could not have one to use. More than that, she will go herself and row for some child or old person who cannot manage the oars, but who stands on the bank and looks wishfully at the river. I have never known anybody who owned a carriage to give half so much pleasure to other people with it, as she gives with her boat. She is always ready to "lend a hand." She has watched with a great many sick people, for instance. Most of her kindnesses are unobtrusive, and she forgets them the next day, but they make a definite addition to the comfort and happiness of the world.

"I always like to have Miss Amidon come in to spend the evening", said a nervous, critical, intellectual man, most of whose life had been passed among far more pretentious people in large cities, "there is such a sunny atmosphere about her."

Where does Miss Amidon get the strength to do so many good things? She is not a common woman of course, and yet there is nothing striking about her. She does nothing great. I have no reason to suppose that her teaching even is above the average. I think the rare quality in her character, however, is that she spends the little strength and money she has on _essentials_, and so there is always something to show for them.

I once had a friend who was told by several physicians that she had an incurable disease. Her own home was gone, and she did not wish to be dependent upon others. She had been a teacher, and she resolved to go on teaching. There would be months at a time when she would be obliged to rest, but then, with unfailing courage, she went back to her work. Once, when she was only able to sit up a few hours in the day, she took a position in a boarding-school, where her board was but a trifle, and was given to her for her instruction of one or two small classes which could recite in her room where she was propped up in an easy-chair.

She had a religious nature, and thought calmly of death, while she felt that in this world her plain duty was to make the most of her life. She bore her suffering without complaint, did not allow herself to be anxious, took all measures she could to alleviate her pain and to improve her health, and was then free to enjoy the few pleasures still within her reach. As a result, she grew better, and for half a dozen years was able to support herself well by teaching in a difficult school. In order to do this, however, she had to live within very narrow lines. Her disease was of such a nature, that her diet had to be confined almost entirely to one article. This made it seem best for her to live in a hotel where she could have little home life. And such a diet at times became almost nauseating. It was necessary for her to save all her strength for her daily work, so she had to put aside even the few pleasures otherwise within her reach. What made this the harder was that she had never taught from love of the work, though her fine intelligence and conscientiousness made her an excellent teacher.

"First, I have to consider my health," she said. "Then I must think of my work. And that does not leave much room for other things."

But for her determined and heroic observance of the laws of health, her life must have been a wreck. Her strong good sense not only saved her from being a burden to others, but enabled her to do a really valuable work for her scholars, which I have seldom known any one capable of doing so well. And all her friends were strengthened by the spectacle of her cheerful courage. The few years she won for herself by her steadfast struggle would have been well worth living, even if she had had no alleviations of her lot. But she gladly took such little pleasures as were in her pathway. She chose a pleasant room in the hotel with a wide outlook over the sea. She spent some happy hours with her favorite German books, and in a quiet, friendly way she made the acquaintance of any congenial people who came to the hotel. All this was not very much, perhaps, but yet it seems fine to me. So many of us would have spent our strength in mourning our hard fate! I am sure that all of us who had the privilege of knowing her must always think of her with reverence.

I know a woman whose deafness shuts her out from ordinary conversation, and who is nevertheless such an interesting talker and such an appreciative listener that her friends do not find it a task to spend hours in talking through her ear-trumpet. Of course each friend brings only his best to her ears. The very circumstance which would have narrowed her life if her nature had been narrow, has simply shut off much that is low from her and left full room for the expansion of all that is high.

I knew two women on whom blindness fell in middle life. One with morbid grief stayed always in her own room. She became totally dependent on others and wore away her years in sorrow. The other gave up the luxurious rooms she occupied in a hotel, took a lodging-house, which she was able largely to manage herself, made it a delightful home for every inmate, and kept herself usefully busy and happy. Each of these women had an only sister entirely devoted to her. One of them narrowed and the other broadened her sister's life.

I am almost tempted to say there are no narrow lives except for narrow natures. But there are many timid and loving women who are forced to lead restricted lives by domestic tyrants,--a despotic father or husband, or even sometimes an imperious mother or sister,--and who yet under other circumstances might expand like a flower. The only help for such women is in cultivating courage. And it is necessary to remember that the self-sacrifice which helps others to be their best is good, while that which suffers them to be tyrants is bad.

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