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The Vanishing Curtsey


'Tis impossible not to regret the dying out of the ancient, quaintly-
pretty custom of curtseying in rural England; yet we cannot but see the
inevitableness of it, when we consider the earthward drop of the body--
the bird-like gesture pretty to see in the cottage child, not so
spontaneous nor pretty in the grown girl, and not pretty nor quaint,
but rather grotesque (as we think now) in the middle-aged or elderly
person--and that there is no longer a corresponding self-abasement and
worshipping attitude in the village mind. It is a sign or symbol that
has lost, or is losing, its significance.

I have been rambling among a group of pretty villages on and near the
Somerset Avon, some in that county, others in Wiltshire; and though
these small rustic centres, hidden among the wooded hills, had an
appearance of antiquity and of having continued unchanged for very many
years, the little ones were as modern in their speech and behaviour as
town children. Of all those I met and, in many instances, spoke to, in
the village street and in the neighbouring woods and lanes, not one
little girl curtseyed to me. The only curtsey I had dropped to me in
this district was from an old woman in the small hill-hidden village of
Englishcombe. It was on a frosty afternoon in February, and she stood
near her cottage gate with nothing on her head, looking at the same
time very old and very young. Her eyes were as blue and bright as a
child's, and her cheeks were rosy-red; but the skin was puckered with
innumerable wrinkles as in the very old. Surprised at her curtsey I
stopped to speak to her, and finally went into her cottage and had tea
and made the acquaintance of her husband, a gaunt old man with a face
grey as ashes and dim colourless eyes, whom Time had made almost an
imbecile, and who sat all day groaning by the fire. Yet this worn-out
old working man was her junior by several years. Her age was eighty-
four. She was very good company, certainly the brightest and liveliest
of the dozen or twenty octogenarians I am acquainted with. I heard the
story of her life,--that long life in the village where she was born
and had spent sixty-five years of married life, and where she would lie
in the churchyard with her mate. Her Christian name, she mentioned, was
Priscilla, and it struck me that she must have been a very pretty and
charming Priscilla about the thirties of the last century.

To return to the little ones; it was too near Bath for such a custom to
survive among them, and it is the same pretty well everywhere; you must
go to a distance of ten or twenty miles from any large town, or a big
station, to meet with curtseying children. Even in villages at a
distance from towns and railroads, in purely agricultural districts,
the custom is dying out, if, for some reason, strangers are often seen
in the place. Such a village is Selborne, and an amusing experience I
met with there some time ago serves to show that the old rustic
simplicity of its inhabitants is now undergoing a change.

I was walking in the village street with a lady friend when we noticed
four little girls coming towards us with arms linked. As they came near
they suddenly stopped and curtseyed all together in an exaggerated
manner, dropping till their knees touched the ground, then springing to
their feet they walked rapidly away. From the bold, free, easy way in
which the thing was done it was plain to see that they had been
practising the art in something of a histrionic spirit for the benefit
of the pilgrims and strangers frequently seen in the village, and for
their own amusement. As the little Selbornians walked off they glanced
back at us over their shoulders, exhibiting four roguish smiles on
their four faces. The incident greatly amused us, but I am not sure
that the Reverend Gilbert White would have regarded it in the same
humorous light.

Occasionally one even finds a village where strangers are not often
seen, which has yet outlived the curtsey. Such a place, I take it, is
Alvediston, the small downland village on the upper waters of the
Ebble, in southern Wiltshire. One day last summer I was loitering near
the churchyard, when a little girl, aged about eight, came from an
adjoining copse with some wild flowers in her hand. She was singing as
she walked and looked admiringly at the flowers she carried; but she
could see me watching her out of the corners of her eyes.

"Good morning," said I. "It is nice to be out gathering flowers on such
a day, but why are you not in school?"

"Why am I not in school?" in a tone of surprise. "Because the holidays
are not over. On Monday we open."

"How delighted you will be."

"Oh no, I don't _think_ I shall be delighted," she returned. Then
I asked her for a flower, and apparently much amused she presented me
with a water forget-me-not, then she sauntered on to a small cottage
close by. Arrived there, she turned round and faced me, her hand on the
gate, and after gazing steadily for some moments exclaimed, "Delighted
at going back to school--who ever heard such a thing?" and, bursting
into a peal of musical child-laughter, she went into the cottage.

One would look for curtseys in the Flower Walk in Kensington Gardens as
soon as in the hamlet of this remarkably self-possessed little maid.
Her manner was exceptional; but, if we must lose the curtsey, and the
rural little ones cease to mimic that pretty drooping motion of the
nightingale, the kitty wren, and wheatear, cannot our village pastors
and masters teach them some less startling and offensive form of
salutation than the loud "Hullo!" with which they are accustomed to
greet the stranger within their gates?

I shall finish with another story which might be entitled "The Democrat
against Curtseying." The scene was a rustic village, a good many miles
from any railroad station, in the south of England. Here I made the
acquaintance and was much in the society of a man who was not a native
of the place, but had lived several years in it. Although only a
working man, he had, by sheer force of character, made himself a power
in the village. A total abstainer and non-smoker, a Dissenter in
religion and lay-preacher where Dissent had never found a foothold
until his coming, and an extreme Radical in politics, he was naturally
something of a thorn in the side of the vicar and of the neighbouring
gentry.

But in spite of his extreme views and opposition to old cherished ideas
and conventions, he was so liberal-minded, so genial in temper, so
human, that he was very much liked even by those who were his enemies
on principle; and they were occasionally glad to have his help and to
work with him in any matter that concerned the welfare of the very poor
in the village.

After the first bitterness between him and the important inhabitants
had been outlived and a _modus vivendi_ established, the vicar
ventured one day to remonstrate with the good but mistaken man on the
subject of curtseying, which had always been strictly observed in the
village. The complaint was that the parishioner's wife did not curtsey
to the vicaress, but on the contrary, when she met or passed her on the
road she maintained an exceedingly stiff, erect attitude, which was not
right, and far from pleasant to the other.

"Is it then your desire," said my democratic friend, "that my wife
shall curtsey to your wife when they meet or pass each other in the
village?"

"Certainly, that is my wish," said the vicar.

"Very well," said the other; "my wife is guided by me in such matters,
and I am very happy to say that she is an obedient wife, and I shall
tell her that she is to curtsey to your wife in future."

"Thank you," said the vicar, "I am glad that you have taken it in a
proper spirit."

"But I have not yet finished," said the other. "I was going to add that
this command to my wife to curtsey to your wife will be made by me on
the understanding that you will give a similar command to your wife,
and that when they meet and my wife curtseys to your wife, your wife
shall at the same time curtsey to my wife."

The vicar was naturally put out and sharply told his rebellious
parishioner that he was setting himself against the spirit of the
teaching of the Master whom they both acknowledged, and who commanded
us to give to everyone his due, with more to the same effect. But he
failed to convince, and there was no curtseying.

It was sometimes pleasant and amusing to see these two--the good old
clergyman, weak and simple-minded, and his strong antagonist, the
aggressive working man with his large frame and genial countenance and
great white flowing beard--a Walt Whitman in appearance--working
together for some good object in the village. It was even more amusing,
but touching as well, to witness an unexpected meeting between the two
wives, perhaps at the door of some poor cottage, to which both had gone
on the same beautiful errand of love and compassion to some stricken
soul, and exchanging only a short "Good-day," the democrat's wife
stiffening her knee-joints so as to look straighter and taller than
usual.

W. H. Hudson