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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

Two Wonderful Old Ladies

Title:     Two Wonderful Old Ladies
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

It is a pity that our language has no other word to indicate that one has lived seventy, eighty, or ninety years, than the word "old"; for the word "old" carries with it implications of "senility" and decrepitude, which many merely chronologically "old" people very properly resent. The word "young," similarly, needs the assistance of another word, for we all know individuals of thirty and forty, sometimes even only twenty, whom it is as absurd to call "young" as it is to call those others of seventy, eighty, or ninety, "old."

"Youth" is too large and rich a word to serve the limited purpose of numbering the years of undeveloped boys and girls. It should stand rather for the vital principle in men and women, ever expanding, and rebuilding, and refreshing the human organism, partly a physical, but perhaps in a greater degree a spiritual energy.

I am not writing this out of any compliment to two wonderful "old" ladies of whom I am particularly thinking. They would consider me a dunce were they to suspect me of any such commonplace intent. No! I am not going to call them "eighty years young," or employ any of those banal euphemisms with which would-be "tactful" but really club-footed sentimentalists insult the intelligence of the so-called "old." Of course, I know that they are both eighty or thereabouts, and they know very well that I know. We make no secret of it. Why should we? Actually though the number of my years falls short of eighty, I feel so much older than either of them, that it never occurs to me to think of them as "old," and often as I contemplate their really glowing energetic youth, I grow melancholy for myself, and wonder what has become of my own.

They were schoolgirls together. Luccia married Irene's brother--for they allow me the privilege of calling them by their Christian names--and they have been friends all their lives. Sometimes I see them together, though oftener apart, for Luccia and her white-haired poet husband--no "older" than herself,--are neighbours of mine in the country, and Irene lives for the most part in New York--as much in love with its giant developments as though she did not also cherish memories of that quaint, almost vanished, New York of her girlhood days; for she is nothing if not progressive.

But I will tell about Luccia first, and the first thing it is natural to speak of--so every one else finds too--is her beauty. They say that she was beautiful when she was young (I am compelled sometimes, under protest, to use the words "young" and "old" thus chronologically) and, of course, she must have been. I have, however, seen some of her early portraits, before her hair was its present beautiful colour, and I must confess that the Luccia of an earlier day does not compare with the Luccia of today. I don't think I should have fallen in love with her then, whereas now it is impossible to take one's eyes off her. She seems to have grown more flower-like with the years, and while her lovely indestructible profile has gathered distinction, and a lifelong habit of thinking beautiful thoughts, and contemplating beautiful things, has drawn honeyed lines as in silver point about her eyes and mouth, the wild-roses of her cheeks still go on blooming--like wild-roses in moonlight. And over all glow her great clear witty eyes, the eyes of a _grand dame_ who has still remained a girl. Her humour, no doubt, has much to do with her youth, and I have seen strangers no little surprised, even disconcerted, at finding so keen a humour in one so beautiful; for beauty and humour are seldom found together in so irresistible a combination. Is it to be wondered at that often on summer days when I feel the need of a companion, I go in search of Luccia, and take tea with her on the veranda? Sometimes I will find her in the garden seated in front of her easel, making one of her delicate water-colour sketches--for she was once a student in Paris and has romantic Latin-quarter memories. Or I will find her with her magnifying glass, trying to classify some weed she has come upon in the garden, for she is a learned botanist; and sometimes we will turn over the pages of books in which she hoards the pressed flowers gathered by her and her husband in Italy and Switzerland up till but a year or two ago, memorials of a life together that has been that flawless romance which love sometimes grants to his faithful servants.

At other times we will talk politics, and I wish you could hear the advanced views of this "old" lady of eighty. Indeed, generally speaking, I find that nowadays the only real progressives are the "old" people. It seems to be the fashion with the "young" to be reactionary. Luccia, however, has been a radical and a rebel since her girlhood, and, years before the word "feminist" was invented, was fighting the battle of the freedom of woman. And what a splendid Democrat she is, and how thoroughly she understands and fearlessly faces the problems and developments of the moment! She is of the stuff the old Chartist women and the women of the French Revolution were made of, and in her heart the old faith in Liberty and the people burns as brightly as though she were some young Russian student ready to give her life for the cause. When the revolution comes to America, stern masculine authority will be needed to keep her--her friend Irene too--from the barricades.

"Stern masculine authority"! As I write that phrase, how plainly I can hear her mocking laughter; for she is never more delightful than when pouring out her raillery on the magisterial pretensions of man. To hear her talk! The idea of a mere man daring to assume any authority or direction over a woman! Yet we who know her smile and whisper to ourselves that, for all her witty tirades, she is perhaps of all women the most feminine, and really the most "obedient" of wives--a rebel in all else save to the mild tyranny of the poet she has loved, honoured, and yes! obeyed, all these wonderful years.

Perhaps in nothing is the reality of her youthfulness so expressive as in her adorable gaiety. Like a clear fresh spring, it is ever brimming up from the heart into her mischief-loving eyes. By her side merely technically young people seem heavy and serious. And nothing amuses her more than gravely to mystify, or even bewilderingly shock, some proper acquaintance, or some respectable strangers, with her carefully designed mock improprieties of speech or action. To look at the loveliest of grand-mothers, it is naturally somewhat perplexing to the uninitiated visitor to hear her talk, with her rarely distinguished manner, of frivolous matters with which they assume she has long since done.

A short while ago, when I was taking tea with her, she had for visitor a staid old-maidish lady, little more than half her age, whom she had known as a girl, but had not seen for some years. In the course of conversation, she turned to her guest, with her grand air:

"Have you done much dancing this season?" she asked.

"O indeed no," answered the other unsuspiciously, "my dancing days are over."

"At your age!" commented Luccia with surprise. "Nonsense! You must let me teach you to dance the tango. I have enjoyed it immensely this winter."

"Really?" gasped the other in astonishment, with that intonation in the voice naturally so gratifying to the "old" suggesting that the person talking with them really regards them as dead and buried.

"Of course, why not?" asks Luccia with perfect seriousness. "I dance it with my grandsons. My husband doesn't care to dance it. He prefers the polka."

Not knowing what to think, the poor old maid--actually "old" compared with Luccia--looked from her to the beautiful venerable figure of her polka-dancing husband seemingly meditating over his pipe, a little withdrawn from them on the veranda, but inwardly shaken with mirth at the darling nonsense of her who is still the same madcap girl he first fell in love with so many years ago.

When the guest had departed, with a puzzled, questioning look still lingering on her face, Luccia turned to me, her eyes bright pools of merriment:

"It was quite true, wasn't it? Come, let us try it."

And, nimble as a girl, she was on her feet, and we executed quite a passable tango up and down the veranda, to the accompaniment of her husband's--"Luccia! Luccia! what a wild thing you are!"

A certain reputation for "wildness," a savour of innocent Bohemianism, has clung to Luccia, and Irene too, all through their lives, as a legacy from that far-off legendary time when, scarcely out of their girlhood, they were fellow art-students together in Paris. Belonging both to aristocratic, rather straitlaced New England families, I have often wondered how they contrived to accomplish that adventure in a day when such independent action on the part of two pretty young ladies was an adventure indeed. But it was the time when the first vigorous spring of feminine revolt was in the air. Rosa Bonheur, George Eliot, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other leaders were setting the pace for the advanced women, and George Sand was still a popular romancer. As a reminiscence of George Sand, Luccia to this day pretends that she prefers to smoke cigars to cigarettes, though, as a matter of fact, she has never smoked either, and has, indeed, an ultra-feminine detestation of tobacco--even in the form of her husband's pipe. She only says it, of course, for the fun of seeming "naughty"; which recalls to my mind her shocking behaviour one day when I went with her to call on some very prim cousins in New York. It was a household of an excessively brown-stone respectability, just the atmosphere to rouse the wickedness in Luccia. As we sat together in an upright conversation that sounded like the rustling of dried leaves in a cemetery, why! Luccia, for all her eighty years, seemed like a young wild-rose bush filling the tomb-like room with living light and fragrance. I could see the wickedness in her surging for an outburst. She was well aware that those respectable connections of hers had always looked upon her as a sort of "artistic" black sheep in the family. Presently her opportunity came. As our visit dragged mournfully towards its end, the butler entered, in pursuance of the early Victorian ritual on such occasions, bearing a tray on which was a decanter of sherry, some tiny wine-glasses, and some dry biscuits of a truly early Victorian dryness. This ghostly hospitality was duly dispensed, and Luccia, who seldom drinks anything but tea, instead of sipping her sherry with a lady-like aloofness, drained her glass with a sudden devil-may-care abandon, and, to the evident amazement even of the furniture, held it out to be refilled. Such pagan behaviour had never disgraced that scandalized drawing-room before. And when to her action she added words, the room absolutely refused to believe its ears. "I feel," she said, with a deep-down mirth in her eyes which only I could suspect rather than see, "I feel today as if I should like to go on a real spree. Do you ever feel that way?"

A palpable shudder passed through the room.

"Cousin Luccia!" cried out the three outraged mummies; the brother with actual sternness, and the sisters in plain fear. Had their eccentric cousin really gone out of her mind at last?

"Never feel that way?" she added, delighting in the havoc she was making. "You should. It's a wonderful feeling."

Then she drained her second glass, and to the evident relief of all three, rose to go. How we laughed together, as we sped away in our taxicab. "It's as well to live up to one's reputation with such people," she said, that dear, fantastic Luccia.

_A propos_ that early Parisian adventure, Rosa Bonheur had been one of Luccia's and Irene's great exemplars, and one might say, in one particular connection,--heroes. I refer to the great painter's adoption of masculine costume. Why two unusually pretty young women should burn to discard the traditional flower-furniture of their sex, in exchange for the uncouth envelopes of man, is hard to understand. But it was the day of Mrs. Bloomer, as well as Rosa Bonheur; and earnest young "intellectuals" among women had a notion, I fancy, that to shake off their silks and laces was, symbolically, at all events, to shake off the general disabilities of their sex, and was somehow an assertion of a mental equality with man. At all events, it was a form of defiance against their sex's immemorial tyrant, which seems to have appealed to the imaginations of some young women of the period. Another woman's weakness to be sternly discarded was that scriptural "glory" of her hair. That must be ruthlessly lopped. So it is easy to imagine the horror of such relatives as I have hinted at when our two beautiful adventuresses returned from Paris, and appeared before their families in great Spanish cloaks, picturesque, coquettish enough you may be sure, veiling with some show of discretion those hideous compromises with trousers invented and worn by the strong-minded Mrs. Bloomer, and wearing their hair after the manner of Florentine boys. To face one's family, and to walk New York streets so garbed, must have needed real courage in those days; yet the two friends did both, and even for a while accepted persecution for vagaries which for them had the dead-seriousness of youth.

Passionate young propagandists as they were, they even preferred to abandon their homes for a while--rather than their bloomers--and, taking a studio together in New York, started out to earn their own living by the teaching of art. Those were the days of the really brave women.

But to return to the less abstract topic of the bloomers, I often tease Luccia and Irene about them, seeking for further information as to why they ever came to retrograde from a position so heroically taken, one of such serious import to human progress, and to condescend once more to don the livery of feminine servitude, and appear, as they do today, in delicate draperies which the eye searches in vain for any hint of sanguinary revolution. Luccia always looks shamefaced at the question. She still feels guilty, I can see, of a traitorous backsliding and occasionally threatens to make up for it by a return to masculine costume--looking the most exquisite piece of Dresden china as she says it. I have seen that masculine tyrant of hers smiling knowingly to himself on such occasions, and it has not been difficult to guess why and when those historic bloomers disappeared into the limbo of lost causes. There is little doubt that when Love came in by the door, the bloomers went out, so to speak, by the window.

Irene seems to have held out longer, and, doubtless, scornful of her more frivolous comrade's defection, steadfastly kept the faith awhile unsupported, walking the world in bloomered loneliness--till a like event overtook her. Such is the end of every maid's revolt! But Irene, to this day, retains more of her student seriousness than her more worldly-minded friend. Her face is of the round cherubic type, and her large heavy-lidded eyes have a touch of demureness veiling humour no less deep than Luccia's, but more reflective, chuckling quietly to itself, though on occasion I know no one better to laugh with, even giggle with, than Irene. But, whereas Luccia will talk gaily of revolution and even anarchy for the fun of it, and in the next breath talk hats with real seriousness, Irene still remains the purposeful revolutionary student she was as a girl; while Luccia contents herself with flashing generalizations, Irene seriously studies the latest developments of thought and society, reads all the new books, sees all the new plays and pictures, and has all the new movements of whatever kind--art, philosophy, and sociology--at her finger ends; and I may add that her favourite writer is Anatole France. Whenever I need light on the latest artistic or philosophic nonsense calling itself a movement (cubism, futurism, Bergsonism, syndicalism, or the like) I go to her, certain that she will know all about it. Nothing is too "modern" for this wonderful "old" lady of seventy-nine; and, whenever I am in town, we always go together to the most "advanced" play in the newest of new theatres.

_A propos_ our theatre-going together, I must not forget a story about her which goes back to that bloomer period. A little while ago, calling to take tea with her, I found her seated with a fine soldierly white-haired "old" man, and they were in such merry talk that I felt that perhaps I was interrupting old memories. But they generously took me into the circle of their reminiscence. They had been laughing as I came in--"Shall I tell him, General?" she said, "what we were laughing about?" Then she did. She and the General had been girl and boy together, and as they came to eighteen and nineteen had been semi-serious sweethearts. The embryo General--no doubt because of her pretty face--had taken all her student vagaries with lover-like seriousness, and had, on one occasion, assisted in a notable enterprise. The bloomers had not been definitely donned at that time, but they were on the way, glimmering ahead as a discussed ideal. Whether it was as a preliminary experiment, or only in consequence of a "dare," I am not quite sure. I think it was a little of both, and that the General had dared Irene to go with him to the opera (in the gallery) dressed in boy's clothes. She accepted the challenge, borrowing a suit of clothes from her brother for the purpose. Her figure, according to the General's account, had looked anything but masculine, and her hair, tucked up under her boy's hat as best she could, was a peculiar peril. How her heart had almost stopped beating as a policeman had turned upon the youthful pair a suspicious scrutiny, how they had taken to their heels at his glance, how she had crimsoned at the box-office, and hid her face behind a fat man as they had scurried past the ticket-attendant, and how during the whole performance a keen-faced woman had glanced at her with a knowing persistency that seemed to threaten her with imminent exposure and arrest, and how wonderful the whole thing had been--just to be in boy's clothes and go in them to the theatre with one's sweetheart. O youth! youth! youth!

As I looked at the General with his white hair, and Irene with her quaint little old lady's cap over her girlish face, and visualized for myself those two figures before me as they had appeared on the night of that escapade, I realized that the real romance of life is made by memory, and that for these two old friends to be able thus to recall together across all those years that laughing freak of their young blood was still more romantic than the original escapade. But as I went on looking at Irene, with the bloom of her immortal youth upon her, I grew jealous of the General's share in that historic night. Well, never mind, it is I who take her to the theatre nowadays--and, after all, I think I prefer her to go dressed just as she is.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Two Wonderful Old Ladies