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"How does she do it?"
That is what the European girl wants to know. The American girl! She comes over here, and, as a British matron, reduced to slang by force of indignation, once exclaimed to me: "You'd think the whole blessed show belonged to her." The European girl is hampered by her relatives. She has to account for her father: to explain away, if possible, her grandfather. The American girl sweeps them aside:
"Don't you worry about them," she says to the Lord Chamberlain. "It's awfully good of you, but don't you fuss yourself. I'm looking after my old people. That's my department. What I want you to do is just to listen to what I am saying and then hustle around. I can fill up your time all right by myself."
Her father may be a soap-boiler, her grandmother may have gone out charing.
"That's all right," she says to her Ambassador: "They're not coming. You just take my card and tell the King that when he's got a few minutes to spare I'll be pleased to see him."
And the extraordinary thing is that, a day or two afterwards, the invitation arrives.
A modern writer has said that "I'm Murrican" is the Civis Romanus sum of the present-day woman's world. The late King of Saxony, did, I believe, on one occasion make a feeble protest at being asked to receive the daughter of a retail bootmaker. The young lady, nonplussed for the moment, telegraphed to her father in Detroit. The answer came back next morning: "Can't call it selling--practically giving them away. See Advertisement." The lady was presented as the daughter of an eminent philanthropist.
It is due to her to admit that, taking her as a class, the American girl is a distinct gain to European Society. Her influence is against convention and in favour of simplicity. One of her greatest charms, in the eyes of the European man, is that she listens to him. I cannot say whether it does her any good. Maybe she does not remember it all, but while you are talking she does give you her attention. The English woman does not always. She greets you pleasantly enough:
"I've so often wanted to meet you," she says, "must you really go?"
It strikes you as sudden: you had no intention of going for hours. But the hint is too plain to be ignored. You are preparing to agree that you really must when, looking round, you gather that the last remark was not addressed to you, but to another gentleman who is shaking hands with her:
"Now, perhaps we shall be able to talk for five minutes," she says. "I've so often wanted to say that I shall never forgive you. You have been simply horrid."
Again you are confused, until you jump to the conclusion that the latter portion of the speech is probably intended for quite another party with whom, at the moment, her back towards you, she is engaged in a whispered conversation. When he is gone she turns again to you. But the varied expressions that pass across her face while you are discussing with her the disadvantages of Protection, bewilder you. When, explaining your own difficulty in arriving at a conclusion, you remark that Great Britain is an island, she roguishly shakes her head. It is not that she has forgotten her geography, it is that she is conducting a conversation by signs with a lady at the other end of the room. When you observe that the working classes must be fed, she smiles archly while murmuring:
"Oh, do you really think so?"
You are about to say something strong on the subject of dumping. Apparently she has disappeared. You find that she is reaching round behind you to tap a new arrival with her fan.
She has the Art of Listening.
Now, the American girl looks at you, and just listens to you with her eyes fixed on you all the time. You gather that, as far as she is concerned, the rest of the company are passing shadows. She wants to hear what you have to say about Bi-metallism: her trouble is lest she may miss a word of it. From a talk with an American girl one comes away with the conviction that one is a brilliant conversationalist, who can hold a charming woman spell-bound. This may not be good for one: but while it lasts, the sensation is pleasant.
Even the American girl cannot, on all occasions, sweep from her path the cobwebs of old-world etiquette. Two American ladies told me a sad tale of things that had happened to them not long ago in Dresden. An officer of rank and standing invited them to breakfast with him on the ice. Dames and nobles of the plus haut ton would be there. It is a social function that occurs every Sunday morning in Dresden during the skating season. The great lake in the Grosser Garten is covered with all sorts and conditions of people. Prince and commoner circle and recircle round one another. But they do not mix. The girls were pleased. They secured the services of an elderly lady, the widow of an analytical chemist: unfortunately, she could not skate. They wrapped her up and put her in a sledge. While they were in the garde robe putting on their skates, a German gentleman came up and bowed to them.
He was a nice young man of prepossessing appearance and amiable manners. They could not call to mind his name, but remembered having met him, somewhere, and on more than one occasion. The American girl is always sociable: they bowed and smiled, and said it was a fine day. He replied with volubility, and helped them down on to the ice. He was really most attentive. They saw their friend, the officer of noble family, and, with the assistance of the German gentleman, skated towards him. He glided past them. They thought that maybe he did not know enough to stop, so they turned and skated after him. They chased him three times round the pond and then, feeling tired, eased up and took counsel together.
"I'm sure he must have seen us," said the younger girl. "What does he mean by it?"
"Well, I have not come down here to play forfeits," said the other, "added to which I want my breakfast. You wait here a minute, I'll go and have it out with him."
He was standing only a dozen yards away. Alone, though not a good performer on the ice, she contrived to cover half the distance dividing them. The officer, perceiving her, came to her assistance and greeted her with effusion.
The Republican Idea in practice.
"Oh," said the lady, who was feeling indignant, "I thought maybe you had left your glasses at home."
"I am sorry," said the officer, "but it is impossible."
"What's impossible?" demanded the lady.
"That I can be seen speaking to you," declared the officer, "while you are in company with that--that person."
"What person?" She thought maybe he was alluding to the lady in the sledge. The chaperon was not showy, but, what is better, she was good. And, anyhow, it was the best the girls had been able to do. So far as they were concerned, they had no use for a chaperon. The idea had been a thoughtful concession to European prejudice.
"The person in knickerbockers," explained the officer.
"Oh, that," exclaimed the lady, relieved: "he just came up and made himself agreeable while we were putting on our skates. We have met him somewhere, but I can't exactly fix him for the moment."
"You have met him possibly at Wiesman's, in the Pragerstrasse: he is one of the attendants there," said the officer.
The American girl is Republican in her ideas, but she draws the line at hairdressers. In theory it is absurd: the hairdresser is a man and a brother: but we are none of us logical all the way. It made her mad, the thought that she had been seen by all Dresden Society skating with a hairdresser.
"Well," she said, "I do call that impudence. Why, they wouldn't do that even in Chicago."
And she returned to where the hairdresser was illustrating to her friend the Dutch roll, determined to explain to him, as politely as possible, that although the free and enlightened Westerner has abolished social distinctions, he has not yet abolished them to that extent.
Had he been a commonplace German hairdresser he would have understood English, and all might have been easy. But to the "classy" German hairdresser, English is not so necessary, and the American ladies had reached, as regards their German, only the "improving" stage. In her excitement she confused the subjunctive and the imperative, and told him that he "might" go. He had no wish to go; he assured them--so they gathered--that his intention was to devote the morning to their service. He must have been a stupid man, but it is a type occasionally encountered. Two pretty women had greeted his advances with apparent delight. They were Americans, and the American girl was notoriously unconventional. He knew himself to be a good-looking young fellow. It did not occur to him that in expressing willingness to dispense with his attendance they could be in earnest.
There was nothing for it, so it seemed to the girls, but to request the assistance of the officer, who continued to skate round and round them at a distance of about ten yards. So again the elder young lady, seizing her opportunity, made appeal.
What the Soldier dared not do.
"I cannot," persisted the officer, who, having been looking forward to a morning with two of the prettiest girls in Dresden, was also feeling mad. "I dare not be seen speaking to a hairdresser. You must get rid of him."
"But we can't," said the girl. "We do not know enough German, and he can't, or he won't, understand us. For goodness sake come and help us. We'll be spending the whole morning with him if you don't."
The German officer said he was desolate. Steps would be taken--later in the week--the result of which would probably be to render that young hairdresser prematurely bald. But, meanwhile, beyond skating round and round them, for which they did not even feel they wanted to thank him, the German officer could do nothing for them. They tried being rude to the hairdresser: he mistook it for American chic. They tried joining hands and running away from him, but they were not good skaters, and he thought they were trying to show him the cake walk. They both fell down and hurt themselves, and it is difficult to be angry with a man, even a hairdresser, when he is doing his best to pick you up and comfort you.
The chaperon was worse than useless. She was very old. She had been promised her breakfast, but saw no signs of it. She could not speak German; and remembered somewhat late in the day that two young ladies had no business to accept breakfast at the hands of German officers: and, if they did, at least they might see that they got it. She appeared to be willing to talk about decadence of modern manners to almost any extent, but the subject of the hairdresser, and how to get rid of him, only bored her.
Their first stroke of luck occurred when the hairdresser, showing them the "dropped three," fell down and temporarily stunned himself. It was not kind of them, but they were desperate. They flew for the bank just anyhow, and, scrambling over the grass, gained the restaurant. The officer, overtaking them at the door, led them to the table that had been reserved for them, then hastened back to hunt for the chaperon. The girls thought their trouble was over. Had they glanced behind them their joy would have been shorter-lived than even was the case. The hairdresser had recovered consciousness in time to see them waddling over the grass. He thought they were running to fetch him brandy. When the officer returned with the chaperon he found the hairdresser sitting opposite to them, explaining that he really was not hurt, and suggesting that, as they were there, perhaps they would like something to eat and drink.
The girls made one last frantic appeal to the man of buckram and pipeclay, but the etiquette of the Saxon Army was inexorable. It transpired that he might kill the hairdresser, but nothing else: he must not speak to him--not even explain to the poor devil why it was that he was being killed.
Her path of Usefulness.
It did not seem quite worth it. They had some sandwiches and coffee at the hairdresser's expense, and went home in a cab: while the chaperon had breakfast with the officer of noble family.
The American girl has succeeded in freeing European social intercourse from many of its hide-bound conventions. There is still much work for her to do. But I have faith in her.
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