Penelope's English Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part First--In Town.
Chapter II. The powdered footman smiles.
Salemina is so English! I can't think how she manages. She had not been an hour on British soil before she asked a servant to fetch in some coals and mend the fire; she followed this Anglicism by a request for a grilled chop, 'a grilled, chump chop, waiter, please,' and so on from triumph to triumph. She now discourses of methylated spirits as if she had never in her life heard of alcohol, and all the English equivalents for Americanisms are ready for use on the tip of her tongue. She says 'conserv't'ry' and 'observ't'ry'; she calls the chambermaid 'Mairy,' which is infinitely softer, to be sure, than the American 'Mary,' with its over-long a; she ejaculates 'Quite so!' in all the pauses of conversation, and talks of smoke- rooms, and camisoles, and luggage-vans, and slip-bodies, and trams, and mangling, and goffering. She also eats jam for breakfast as if she had been reared on it, when every one knows that the average American has to contract the jam habit by patient and continuous practice.
This instantaneous assimilation of English customs does not seem to be affectation on Salemina's part; nor will I wrong her by fancying that she went through a course of training before she left Boston. From the moment she landed you could see that her foot was on her native heath. She inhaled the fog with a sense of intoxication that the east winds of New England had never given her, and a great throb of patriotism swelled in her breast when she first met the Princess of Wales in Hyde Park.
As for me, I get on charmingly with the English nobility and sufficiently well with the gentry, but the upper servants strike terror to my soul. There is something awe-inspiring to me about an English butler. If they would only put him in livery, or make him wear a silver badge; anything, in short, to temper his pride and prevent one from mistaking him for the master of the house or the bishop within his gates. When I call upon Lady DeWolfe, I say to myself impressively, as I go up the steps: 'You are as good as a butler, as well born and well bred as a butler, even more intelligent than a butler. Now, simply because he has an unapproachable haughtiness of demeanour, which you can respectfully admire, but can never hope to imitate, do not cower beneath the polar light of his eye; assert yourself; be a woman; be an American citizen!' All in vain. The moment the door opens I ask for Lady DeWolfe in so timid a tone that I know Parker thinks me the parlour- maid's sister who has rung the visitors' bell by mistake. If my lady is within, I follow Parker to the drawing-room, my knees shaking under me at the prospect of committing some solecism in his sight. Lady DeWolfe's husband has been noble only four months, and Parker of course knows it, and perhaps affects even greater hauteur to divert the attention of the vulgar commoner from the newness of the title.
Dawson, our butler at Smith's private hotel, wields the same blighting influence on our spirits, accustomed to the soft solicitations of the negro waiter or the comfortable indifference of the free-born American. We never indulge in ordinary democratic or frivolous conversation when Dawson is serving us at dinner. We 'talk up' to him so far as we are able, and before we utter any remark we inquire mentally whether he is likely to think it good form. Accordingly, I maintain throughout dinner a lofty height of aristocratic elegance that impresses even the impassive Dawson, towards whom it is solely directed. To the amazement and amusement of Salemina (who always takes my cheerful inanities at their face value), I give an hypothetical account of my afternoon engagements, interlarding it so thickly with countesses and marchionesses and lords and honourables that though Dawson has passed soup to duchesses, and scarcely ever handed a plate to anything less than a baroness, he dilutes the customary scorn of his glance, and makes it two parts condescending approval as it rests on me, Penelope Hamilton, of the great American working class (unlimited).
Apropos of the servants, it seems to me that the British footman has relaxed a trifle since we were last here; or is it possible that he reaches the height of his immobility at the height of the London season, and as it declines does he decline and become flesh? At all events, I have twice seen a footman change his weight from one leg to the other, as he stood at a shop entrance with his lady's mantle over his arm; twice have I seen one stroke his chin, and several times have I observed others, during the month of July, conduct themselves in many respects like animate objects with vital organs. Lest this incendiary statement be challenged, levelled as it is at an institution whose stability and order are but feebly represented by the eternal march of the stars in their courses, I hasten to explain that in none of these cases cited was it a powdered footman who (to use a Delsartean expression) withdrew will from his body and devitalised it before the public eye. I have observed that the powdered personage has much greater control over his muscles than the ordinary footman with human hair, and is infinitely his superior in rigidity. Dawson tells me confidentially that if a footman smiles there is little chance of his rising in the world. He says a sense of humour is absolutely fatal in that calling, and that he has discharged many a good footman because of an intelligent and expressive face.
I tremble to think of what the powdered footman may become when he unbends in the bosom of the family. When, in the privacy of his own apartments, the powder is washed off, the canary-seed pads removed from his aristocratic calves, and his scarlet and buff magnificence exchanged for a simple neglige, I should think he might be guilty of almost any indiscretion or violence. I for one would never consent to be the wife and children of a powdered footman, and receive him in his moments of reaction.