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An essay by George William Curtis

Mrs. Grundy And The Cosmopolitan

Title:     Mrs. Grundy And The Cosmopolitan
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Mrs. Grundy was lately astonished by the remark of a cheerful cosmopolitan whom she proposed to introduce to a very rich man. She seemed to catch her breath as she spoke of his exceeding great riches in the tone of admiring awe which betrays the devout snob. The cosmopolitan listened pleasantly as Mrs. Grundy spoke with the air of proposing to him the greatest of favors and blessings.

"You say he is very rich?" he asked.

"Enormously, fabulously," replied Mrs. Grundy, as if crossing herself.

"Will he give me any of his money?"

Mrs. Grundy gazed blankly at the questioner. "Give you any of his money? What do you mean?"

"Mean?" answered the cheerful cosmopolitan; "my meaning is plain. If I am introduced to a scholar, he gives me something of his scholarship; a traveller gives me experience; a scientific man, information; a musician plays or sings for me; and if you introduce me to a man whose distinction is his riches, I wish to know what advantage I am to gain from his acquaintance, and whether I may expect him to impart to me something of that for which he is distinguished."

Mrs. Grundy, who is easily discomposed by an unexpected turn in the conversation, looked confused, but said, presently, "Why, you will dine with the Midases and the Plutuses."

"But they are merely the same thing," said the cosmopolitan, gayly. "You know the story: Mr. and Mrs. MacSycophant, Miss MacSycophant, Miss Imogen MacSycophant, Mr. Plantagenet MacSycophant, Miss Boadicea MacSycophant--and more of the same. One MacSycophant is as good as twenty, Mrs. Grundy; and as I know the Midases already, and find them amusingly dull, why should I know the Plutuses, who are probably even duller?"

Mrs. Grundy looked as if transfixed.

"Oh," continued the cosmopolitan, laughing, "I do not deny that money is an excellent thing. I am glad that I am not in want of it. But it is a dangerous thing to handle. If you don't manage it well it exposes you terribly. Great riches are like an electric light--like a noonday sun; they reveal everything. If a man stands in a ridiculous attitude, or is clad scantily, the intense light displays him remorselessly to every beholder. Great riches do the same. I saw you at the Midases', dear Mrs. Grundy. Did you ever see a more sumptuous entertainment or a more splendid palace? What pictures and statues and vases! what exquisite and costly decoration! what gold and glass! what Sevres and Dresden! But the more I admired the beautiful works of art, the more I thought of the enthusiasm and devotion of the artist, the more I was touched by the grace and delicacy of color and form around me; and the more I heard Midas talk, the more clearly I saw that he did not see, or feel, or understand anything of the real value and significance of his own _entourage_. The more beautiful it was, the more plainly it displayed his total want of perception of beauty.

"His house is a magnificent museum. It is full of treasures. But they all dwarf and deride him. They are so many relentless lights turned on to show how completely he is not at home in his own house. He is as much out of place among them as a horse in a studio. He has all the proper books of a gentleman's library, and all superbly bound. What does he know about them? He never read a book. He has marvellous pictures. What does he know of pictures? He doesn't know whether Gainsborough was a painter or a potter, or whether Giotto was a Greek or a Roman. He has books and pictures merely because he has money enough to buy them, and because it is understood that a fine house should have a library and a gallery. Is it otherwise with his glass and porcelain? What do you think that he could tell you of Dresden china--its history, its masters, its manufacture? You say that very few people could tell you much about it. Granted; but if a man surrounds himself with it, and forces it upon your attention, you have a right not only to ask such questions, but to expect answers.

"My dear Mrs. Grundy, when I was a young man on my travels, and was introduced at a London club, the porter, or the major-domo, or the door-keeper, or whatever he was, seemed to me like a peer of the realm. He was faultlessly dressed, and he had most tranquil manners. Well, our good friend Midas is that gentleman. He is the curator of a fine museum. He opens the door to a well-furnished club. But he is in no proper sense master of his house. The master of such a house, as Goethe said of the picture-owner, is the man to whom you can say, 'Show me the best.' Poor Midas could only show us the costliest. Eh, Mrs. Grundy?"

That excellent lady's eyes had expanded, during these remarks, until they were fixed in a round, stony stare at the cheerful cosmopolitan.

"And this, you see, my good lady, is the reason that all this display is called vulgar. It represents nothing but money. It does not represent taste, or intelligence, or talent, in the possessor, and the sole relation between him and his possessions is his ability to pay for them. You drink his superior wines. But even you, Mrs. Grundy, are not quite sure that he could distinguish between the finest madeira and a common sherry. That is no fault, surely, but there is a great difference between wines.

"When you kindly offer to present me to a gentleman of whom you can say only that he is very rich, and I ask you if he will give me some of his money, you look surprised and shocked. But I am not a misanthrope, and I ask a question which you can answer affirmatively. He will give me some of his money in giving me some of the pleasure which is derivable from what his money buys. For that I am grateful. I tip the custode with my sincere thanks. I bow to the door-keeper with hearty acknowledgment. I shall go again and again with great pleasure. But I shall not make the singular mistake of supposing that he bears the same relation to his possessions that the musician bears to his music, and the scholar to his knowledge, and the traveller to his shrewd observation.

"You think that I am basely looking a gift horse in the mouth. Not at all. I am only declining to believe the porter to be a peer of the realm merely because he wears a white cravat and has tranquil manners. If Midas is a dull man, all the money in the world does not make him interesting. But if he has accumulated beautiful and interesting things, I shall gladly go to his house and see them. Now, my dear Mrs. Grundy, that is very different from going to his house to see the Plutuses. They are not the possessions that make his house desirable. My young friend Hornet says that if the only way to drink Midas's gold-seal Johannisberger is to take Mrs. Plutus down to dinner, he will not hesitate to pay the price, as he is willing to pay the price of sea-sickness if he wishes to see the Vatican. Does my dear Mrs. Grundy comprehend?"

--But the good lady was gone. She could draw but one conclusion from such a strain of remark about people with fabulous incomes. The cheerful cosmopolitan must have been dining with Mr. Midas, and must have sat much too long at table. What a pity that so pleasant a man should permit himself such excesses! There was, however, but one course for a self-respecting woman to pursue--Mrs. Grundy had left him alone.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Mrs. Grundy And The Cosmopolitan