Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Lady Mavourneen On Her Travels

An essay by George William Curtis

Lady Mavourneen On Her Travels

Title:     Lady Mavourneen On Her Travels
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

THE passenger in the crowded street railway car is often disturbed by the conscious absorption of his masculine neighbors in their newspapers when a woman enters and looks for a seat. If she be young and pretty, there are apparently seats enough, however great the crowd, and even if a man is slow to rise, he may yet, with Mr. Readywit, exhort his son sitting upon his knee to get up and give the lady his seat. The impatient passenger, in his indignation at the want of courtesy upon the part of others, sometimes forgets, indeed, to rise himself. But there is always some Nathan comfortably seated farther away whose amused look says to the impatient but stationary David, "Thou art the man."

It would be very unfair to generalize from this frequent situation that the American is uncourteous. On the contrary, he is the most truly polite man among men of all nations. Lady Mavourneen, who is familiar with the society and the manners of many countries, and who has been always accustomed to hear Americans in Europe described everywhere and with pungent emphasis as "those Americans," was amazed upon coming here to find universal courtesy. "In the street or at the railway station," she said, "if I ask anybody any question, I receive the most prompt and polite reply. Everybody is at my service, not with much bowing or flourishing, but heartily and honestly. I have never seen such universal courtesy." When she was asked whether she had observed the absorption of the street-car passengers in their newspapers, she smiled and said that she had never been obliged to stand, because some one was sure to rise. But in Paris she said that often as she was passing to a seat Monsieur Crapeaud, raising his hat politely, and saying, warmly, Pardon! pressed by and secured the seat.

Lady Mavourneen, who tells a little story with great humor, described a scene in a crowded church in Paris. An apparent lady was disturbing everybody by pushing along toward a distant chair in the row, when Lady Mavourneen arose to allow her to pass more easily, and the apparent lady immediately slipped into my lady's chair, and held it fast, saying only, in reply to her earnest remonstrance: "Madame, you left the chair; I took it. You have lost it. Voilà!" A vagabond of this kind took the seat of a gentleman who had risen to help a lady off a street car. When the gentleman returned he mentioned to the interloper that it was his seat. The interloper shrugged his shoulders, remarked that it was an empty seat when he took it, and that he should continue to occupy it. "If you don't get out of that seat, I'll take you out," was the rejoinder of the gentleman, whose shoulders were broad. The squatter scowled and abdicated.

Lady Mavourneen found, what every lady will find, that she could travel everywhere in "the States" alone, with entire safety and surrounded by the utmost courtesy. The word "lady" with which she will be accosted by hackmen and porters and conductors is spoken with kindly respect, and even if some person in a lady's garb thrusts herself into the cue of passengers slowly advancing to the window of the ticket office to buy tickets, there may be sour looks and amazed stares, but she will generally have her way. So great is our courtesy that we honor the counterfeit claim. The source of the most serious objection to the demand of suffrage for women is the secret apprehension that men will lose their sincere deference, and treat women as they treat other men, thus robbing life of the tender romance of chivalric courtesy. Emerson says of the successful lover and his mistress, "She was heaven, while he pursued her as a star; can she be heaven if she stoops to such an one as he?"

Yet, while this feeling is frequent, and seems to many very plausible, it is the true respect of the American for women which is the real strength of this very movement. The European sentiment for woman is still somewhat mediæval. She is still the goddess of the troubadours and the minnesingers, but a goddess who is treated as the South-sea Islanders treat their gods, beating them when they are not propitious. To the American she is Wordsworth's "Phantom of Delight" seen upon nearer view, and it is idle to prattle about her "sphere," as if she did not instinctively know it more truly than men. The universal courtesy which Lady Mavourneen remarked is essential respect and kindliness of feeling, which no more permits a man to gild his selfishness with a "Pardon" and a touching of his hat than it permits him to strike a woman.

Yet although courtesy is essentially in the heart, and is kind feeling rather than respectful manner, it is not worth while to despise the manner. If we must choose between the good heart and suavity of address, between Boythorne and Lovelace, of course we shall choose Boythorne. But why not both? Why not the mens sana in corpore sano? In "The Iron Pen," Longfellow says:

"And in words not idle and vain
I shall answer and thank you again
For the gift, and the grace of the gift,
O beautiful Helen of Maine!"

It is not only the gift, it is the grace in giving which completes the charm.

The young American of to-day puffs his cigarette in the face of his partner on the balcony, in the boat, or in the wagon, and smiles at the frilled Lothario of yesterday bowing in his flowered coat and paying stately compliments as stiff as her brocade to the dame whom he addresses. The youth is right in saying that the flowered coat and the stately compliment were the dress and the speech of an old sinner. But he would be right also if he remembered that familiarity breeds contempt, and that he may wisely distrust his feeling for any woman who does not put him upon his good behavior. The courtesy which Lady Mavourneen observed in the railway station and in the street was plain, but it was genuine. Respect naturally produces courtesy. Good manners are the cultivation of natural courtesy: the gift and the grace of the gift.

This was the chief remembrance, and it was a unique and precious treasure, which Lady Mavourneen carried back to Europe from America.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Lady Mavourneen On Her Travels