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An essay by George William Curtis

Reception To The Japanese Ambassadors At The White House

Title:     Reception To The Japanese Ambassadors At The White House
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Herr Teufelsdrockh informs those who read his famous book, the Tailor Sewer Over; or, the Philosophy of Clothes, that Mr. Pellum announces, among other canons regulating human apparel, that it is permitted to mankind, under certain conditions, to wear white waistcoats. But it now appears that, under certain conditions also, straw-colored gloves are not only permissible, but imperative. When a Japanese ambassador appears, and the white flag with the orb of day in its centre is unfurled, straw-color, as to the hands, is the only wear. Therefore, when the reception was to take place in Washington the deeply initiated held hands of that mystic color. The only chagrin was that nobody seemed to know the significant fact nor to care for it; and one honorable gentleman asked with interest whether it would not be extremely orthodox to wear a straw-hat. But these levities were ill becoming the august occasion.

The feast of the straw-colored gloves in honor of the Japanese ambassadors fell upon an evening when the poetic policeman thought of every belle who stepped from her carriage,

"The bleak winds of March
Made her tremble and shiver."

But he thought it only; he did not say it. Yet the bleak wind of the cold night had little chance at the guests, for a pavilion was laid to the very curb-stone, and everybody stepped out into friendly shelter. Then up the steep stairs, just as the illustrious guests were passing from the cloak-room to the hall. As they entered it the crowd, swelling upward from the door below, made for the ladies' room, or for the little hole in a corner into which the gentlemen were to thrust their coats, in the vague hope that they might be recovered. Some of the Japs who at a later hour were buffeting the crowd and struggling towards the aperture must have been impressed, if they were philosophers, with the fact that a nation of so many happy contrivances as they fondly believe us to be has not yet learned how to take charge of overcoats at public feasts. It would not be very difficult to avoid the fierce crush at the cloak-room; but it is not avoided, and it is as good-humored as it is disagreeable and unnecessary.

But who cared for the crush at the door of the opera-house on a Jenny Lind night, when coat skirts strewed the pavement, and the most elaborately tied cravats were undone? Not otherwise was this pressure when the door was passed and the pretty hall entered. Was this also an opera? And had the curtain risen? For the first impression of the brilliant scene was that of the trilling and warbling of canaries in clusters of cages hung high overhead, and for a moment giving a sense of enchanted gardens and rose bowers upon Bendermere's stream. Was this impression disturbed when from their tiring-room the nymphs and dames emerged powdered, beflowered, effulgent? There were toilets of all kinds. There were even ladies in bonnets, as if they had run in neighborly to hobnob an hour with Iwakura. There were others in the very extreme of fashion. There was every kind of tasteful and rich and beautiful and plain and grotesque attire. And now and then behold! the ineffable calm of the lady--not one, but many--of whom Mr. Emerson tells the excellent story that she said to feel herself perfectly well dressed imparted a tranquil happiness that religion itself could not bestow.

The hall was very light, draped and festooned simply with the American and two Japanese flags intertwined, the whole giving a certain gauzy effect, which was pretty, if not fairy-like nor magnificent. Upon a little platform at the end of the hall stood the guest and other distinguished ministers. The space in the middle of the hall, between improvised columns, was kept clear for some time, so that the picture was charming. The throng pressed slowly up one side of the room towards the platform, and, passing across it in front of the various members of the embassy, were received by the Secretary of State and the Japanese minister, and by the latter presented to Iwakura. He was dressed, with all his associates, in the sad sables with which Western nations mourn their own gayety. Instead of some glittering cloth of gold, in which, whatever the fact may have been at the White House, we might have expected an ambassador from Zipango or El Dorado to be arrayed, we had the familiar and useful black broadcloth coat and trousers of civilization. But when Sir Philip Sidney, in flowered velvet, was presented to the great William of Orange, William was clad in a plain serge coat, and Sir Philip probably did not know it, or forgot it. And as the gallant Sidneys at this feast were presented to the chief ambassador, they doubtless saw the man and not his clothes.

Iwakura is about fifty years old; not a large man; of great dignity and serenity of character and manners, with a high-bred and elegant air, and a face of clear intelligence and refinement. He bowed courteously to every guest, with a subtile distance of salutation without offence which is peculiar to many men of high self-respect. Hand-shaking is the most religiously observed of all the social rites in Washington, and especially and amusingly by the diplomatic corps, who evidently constrain themselves to observe punctually this sacred habit; but Iwakura did not offer his hand, yet did not refuse to engage in the ceremony when it was unavoidable. Beyond him in the line were the chief ladies of the occasion, the wives of the Vice-President, of the Secretary of State, of the Speaker, and of the other secretaries. It was simply a republican court, recalling the days when President Washington and his wife stood upon a slightly raised dais at the end of the hall, there being about those three inches of monarchy left at the beginning of the republic, before Thomas Jefferson, alighting from his horse, hitched him by the bridle to the fence, and then went into the Capitol to be inaugurated President.

Descending from the immediate presence, the guests gathered in lines along the hall, or slowly promenaded, engaged in watching and in criticising each other. Meanwhile the band played, and the canaries, excited by the music and the lights, sang loud and clear. Not so sweetly sang the gossips, as they whispered and exclaimed at each other's fresh oddity or extravagance of attire. Gently, good gossips! gently! for even at this moment is the Scripture fulfilled, and ye who judge are judged. "In a world where Martin Farquhar Tupper passes to the thirty-seventh edition," said Thackeray, in a company of authors, "let us all think small-beer of ourselves." When to the eye of men the dress of the fairer sex is altogether bewildering, and certainly not, as Professor Teufelsdrockh would say, unbeautiful, why should the good gossip invidiously discriminate? Peace, peace! The sober matron at whom you smile wears the plain dress because she preferred to pay her boy's college bills with the money that would have arrayed her in Parisian robes had he stayed at home. And you, dear madam, daughter of Fortunatus and heiress of his purse, you wear those ponderous diamonds and nudge your neighbors to look and laugh with you.

Hark the soft prelude of the waltz. What is the mysterious pathos of that long pulsing strain? Why is that measure, moving to which the joy and the hope of youth celebrate their triumph, of all measures the most passionately sad? One after another the partners glide into the dance. They swim, they float, they circle, they move in music and to music. And what is this, and who is here? this comet, this meteor of a couple, who come pumping and dashing through the throng. Are her hands really laid upon his shoulders? Do his hands clasp her elbows, or is it an extraordinary dream? No wonder that Japan draws to the edge of the dais and gazes in wonder, for America also looks on in amazement. The amused incredulity of the foreign guests as they watch the dancing is interesting to see. Iwakura regards the scene with smiling gravity. To him the spectacle seems a thousandfold more against nature than the vision of a woman voting can possibly be to the most conservative American. Yet the ambassador will find that the loveliest woman may waltz with a man and still be womanly, and the conservative American may go and do likewise. The fashions of a time and the traditions of a nation are not the final laws of nature, and even Horatio's philosophy does not exhaust the things in heaven and earth that are yet to be.

The ambassadors are still gazing, the band is still playing, and the birds are still singing over the happy dancers as we come away. There is a desperate but brief struggle at the orifice in the corner, whence, to our delight, our coats emerge. We have a glimpse into the ladies' tiring-room, where, like bright-winged birds, they are pluming themselves for flight. Upon the steep staircase, where they stand waiting for their carriages, there is tranquillity and order, so excellent are the arrangements. Scores of sentences are left in fragments upon the stairs, for in the midst of a remark the cry resounds, "The Honorable Mr. Iago's carriage, Mrs. Bluebeard's, The Ambassador from San Salvador, Mr. Smith-Jones's carriage!" And instantly the bright-winged birds are flown, and rose-buds and violets go home to happy dreams.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Reception To The Japanese Ambassadors At The White House