Chapter 28 - Inconsistencies
 

The dinner had been unusually long and the summer evening warm. During the wait before the dancing began I must have dropped asleep in the dark corner of the piazza where I had installed myself, to smoke my cigar, away from the other men and their tiresome chatter of golf and racing. Through the open window groups of women could be seen in the ball-room, and the murmur of their conversation floated out, mingling with the laughter of the men.

Suddenly, in that casual way peculiar to dreams, I found myself conversing with a solemn young Turk, standing in all the splendor of fez and stambouline beside my chair.

"Pardon, Effendi," he was murmuring. "Is this an American ball? I was asked at nine o'clock; it is now past eleven. Is there not some mistake?"

"None," I answered. "When a hostess puts nine o'clock on her card of invitation she expects her guests at eleven or half- past, and would be much embarrassed to be taken literally."

As we were speaking, our host rose. The men, reluctantly throwing away their cigars, began to enter the ball-room through the open windows. On their approach the groups of women broke up, the men joining the girls where they sat, or inviting them out to the lantern-lit piazza, where the couples retired to dim, palm-embowered corners.

"Are you sure I have not made a mistake?" asked my interlocutor, with a faint quiver of the eyelids. "It is my intention, while travelling, to remain faithful to my harem."

I hastened to reassure him and explain that he was in an exclusive and reserved society.

"Indeed," he murmured incredulously. "When I was passing through New York last winter a lady was pointed out to me as the owner of marvellous jewels and vast wealth, but with absolutely no social position. My informant added that no well-born woman would receive her or her husband.

"It's foolish, of course, but the handsome woman with the crown on sitting in the centre of that circle, looks very like the woman I mean. Am I right?"

"It's the same lady," I answered, wearily. "You are speaking of last year. No one could be induced to call on the couple then. Now we all go to their house, and entertain them in return."

"They have doubtless done some noble action, or the reports about the husband have been proved false?"

"Nothing of the kind has taken place. She's a success, and no one asks any questions! In spite of that, you are in a society where the standard of conduct is held higher than in any country of Europe, by a race of women more virtuous, in all probability, than has yet been seen. There is not a man present," I added, "who would presume to take, or a woman who would permit, a liberty so slight even as the resting of a youth's arm across the back of her chair."

While I was speaking, an invisible orchestra began to sigh out the first passionate bars of a waltz. A dozen couples rose, the men clasping in their arms the slender matrons, whose smiling faces sank to their partners' shoulders. A blond mustache brushed the forehead of a girl as she swept by us to the rhythm of the music, and other cheeks seemed about to touch as couples glided on in unison.

The sleepy Oriental eyes of my new acquaintance opened wide with astonishment.

"This, you must understand," I continued, hastily, "is quite another matter. Those people are waltzing. It is considered perfectly proper, when the musicians over there play certain measures, for men to take apparent liberties. Our women are infinitely self-respecting, and a man who put his arm around a woman (in public) while a different measure was being played, or when there was no music, would be ostracized from polite society."

"I am beginning to understand," replied the Turk. "The husbands and brothers of these women guard them very carefully. Those men I see out there in the dark are doubtless with their wives and sisters, protecting them from the advances of other men. Am I right?"

"Of course you're not right," I snapped out, beginning to lose my temper at his obtuseness. "No husband would dream of talking to his wife in public, or of sitting with her in a corner. Every one would be laughing at them. Nor could a sister be induced to remain away from the ball-room with her brother. Those girls are `sitting out' with young men they like, indulging in a little innocent flirtation."

"What is that?" he asked. "Flirtation?"

"An American custom rather difficult to explain. It may, however, be roughly defined as the art of leading a man a long way on the road to - nowhere!"

"Women flirt with friends or acquaintances, never with members of their family?"

"The husbands are those dejected individuals wandering aimlessly about over there like lost souls. They are mostly rich men, who, having married beautiful girls for love, wear themselves out maintaining elaborate and costly establishments for them. In return for his labor a husband, however, enjoys but little of his wife's society, for a really fashionable woman can rarely be induced to go home until she has collapsed with fatigue. In consequence, she contributes little but `nerves' and temper to the household. Her sweetest smiles, like her freshest toilets, are kept for the public. The husband is the last person considered in an American household. If you doubt what I say, look behind you. There is a newly married man speaking with his wife, and trying to persuade her to leave before the cotillion begins. Notice his apologetic air! He knows he is interrupting a tender conversation and taking an unwarrantable liberty. Nothing short of extreme fatigue would drive him to such an extremity. The poor millionnaire has hardly left his desk in Wall Street during the week, and only arrived this evening in time to dress for dinner. He would give a fair slice of his income for a night's rest. See! He has failed, and is lighting another cigar, preparing, with a sigh, for a long wait. It will be three before my lady is ready to leave."

After a silence of some minutes, during which he appeared to be turning these remarks over in his mind, the young Oriental resumed: "The single men who absorb so much of your women's time and attention are doubtless the most distinguished of the nation, - writers, poets, and statesmen?"

I was obliged to confess that this was not the case; that, on the contrary, the dancing bachelors were for the most part impecunious youths of absolutely no importance, asked by the hostess to fill in, and so lightly considered that a woman did not always recognize in the street her guests of the evening before.

At this moment my neighbor's expression changed from bewilderment to admiration, as a young and very lovely matron threw herself, panting, into a low chair at his side. Her decollete was so daring that the doubts of half an hour before were evidently rising afresh in his mind. Hastily resuming my task of mentor, I explained that a decollete corsage was an absolute rule for evening gatherings. A woman who appeared in a high bodice or with her neck veiled would be considered lacking in politeness to her hostess as much if she wore a bonnet.

"With us, women go into the world to shine and charm. It is only natural they should use all the weapons nature has given them."

"Very good!" exclaimed the astonished Ottoman. "But where will all this end? You began by allowing your women to appear in public with their faces unveiled, then you suppressed the fichu and the collarette, and now you rob them of half their corsage. Where, O Allah, will you stop?"

"Ah!" I answered, laughing, "the tendency of civilization is to simplify; many things may yet disappear."

"I understand perfectly. You have no prejudice against women wearing in public toilets that we consider fitted only for strict intimacy. In that case your ladies may walk about the streets in these costumes?"

"Not at all!" I cried. "It would provoke a scandal if a woman were to be seen during the daytime in such attire, either at home or abroad. The police and the law courts would interfere. Evening dress is intended only for reunions in private houses, or at most, to be worn at entertainments where the company is carefully selected and the men asked from lists prepared by the ladies themselves. No lady would wear a ball costume or her jewels in a building where the general public was admitted. In London great ladies dine at restaurants in full evening dress, but we Americans, like the French, consider that vulgar."

"Yet, last winter," he said, "when passing through New York, I went to a great theatre, where there were an orchestra and many singing people. Were not those respectable women I saw in the boxes? There were no moucharabies to screen them from the eyes of the public. Were all the men in that building asked by special invitation? That could hardly be possible, for I paid an entrance fee at the door. From where I sat I could see that, as each lady entered her box, opera-glasses were fixed on her, and her `points,' as you say, discussed by the crowd of men in the corridors, who, apparently, belonged to quite the middle class."

"My poor, innocent Padischa, you do not understand at all. That was the opera, which makes all the difference. The husbands of those women pay enormous prices, expressly that their wives may exhibit themselves in public, decked in jewels and suggestive toilets. You could buy a whole harem of fair Circassians for what one of those little square boxes costs. A lady whose entrance caused no sensation would feel bitterly disappointed. As a rule, she knows little about music, and cares still less, unless some singer is performing who is paid a fabulous price, which gives his notes a peculiar charm. With us most things are valued by the money they have cost. Ladies attend the opera simply and solely to see their friends and be admired.

"It grieves me to see that you are forming a poor opinion of our woman kind, for they are more charming and modest than any foreign women. A girl or matron who exhibits more of her shoulders than you, with your Eastern ideas, think quite proper, would sooner expire than show an inch above her ankle. We have our way of being modest as well as you, and that is one of our strongest prejudices."

"Now I know you are joking," he replied, with a slight show of temper, "or trying to mystify me, for only this morning I was on the beach watching the bathing, and I saw a number of ladies in quite short skirts - up to their knees, in fact - with the thinnest covering on their shapely extremities. Were those women above suspicion?"

"Absolutely," I assured him, feeling inclined to tear my hair at such stupidity. "Can't you see the difference? That was in daylight. Our customs allow a woman to show her feet, and even a little more, in the morning. It would be considered the acme of indecency to let those beauties be seen at a ball. The law allows a woman to uncover her neck and shoulders at a ball, but she would be arrested if she appeared decollete on the beach of a morning."

A long silence followed, broken only by the music and laughter from the ball-room. I could see my dazed Mohammedan remove his fez and pass an agitated hand through his dark hair; then he turned, and saluting me gravely, murmured:

"It is very kind of you to have taken so much trouble with me. I do not doubt that what you have said is full of the wisdom and consistency of a new civilization, which I fail to appreciate." Then, with a sigh, he added: "It will be better for me to return to my own country, where there are fewer exceptions to rules."

With a profound salaam the gentle youth disappeared into the surrounding darkness, leaving me rubbing my eyes and asking myself if, after all, the dreamland Oriental was not about right. Custom makes many inconsistencies appear so logical that they no longer cause us either surprise or emotion. But can we explain them?