Side Talks with Girls/Chapter 1

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THE girl who is sitting near you or me, working with an immense amount of industry on a dainty tea-cloth, and putting a great deal of energy in the pushing in of her needle by the little gold thimble, which, she will tell you with a smile, the favored man gave her at Christmas, is the "average girl." In years she is between eighteen and twenty-four; she is whole-hearted, happy, generous, pretty and pleasant to look upon, and very anxious to do what is right. She lives in a small country town, or maybe on a farm, and last summer you enjoyed the long golden days spent in the country with her. Now she is returning your visit, and you, being a polite woman, are making her have as good a time as possible. To-day she is with me, and she knows me well enough and likes me well enough to tell me of her ignorance about certain things. She troubles herself about these rather more than is necessary, for good manners are the same all the world over. And while the average girl may not be fully acquainted with the minor details of social life she is gently bred and kind of heart, and it is impossible for her to make any very great mistake. On a piece of paper she has written about the little things that trouble her, and I am going, as far as I can, to explain them to her so that she may feel less ill-at-ease than she does.


The other day she was invited to a luncheon by a friend of her hostess, and when the time came she had to go alone because her hostess had a severe cold. She had never seen a table as elaborately spread as the one at that luncheon, and she soon realized that she had made a mistake at the very beginning. When she went upstairs to remove her wrap she took off her bonnet also, and when she came down found that she was the only woman, except the hostess and the friends who were staying in the house, whose head was bare. Not a great error, but then the average girl likes to be correct, and with a handsome silk visiting dress proper for this two o'clock luncheon, she should have retained her bonnet and her gloves, removing the latter as soon as she was seated at the table.

Glancing at her place she saw that the two-pronged fork was for her oysters, and realized that if she took up each fork in the order in which it was placed she would get the right one for each course.

The average girl once made a great mistake. Having been invited for half-past one o'clock she arrived at one, to find that the hostess was not dressed, and the drawing-room not lighted. One is asked at a certain time and expected to arrive not earlier than five minutes before it, or, better still, exactly on the minute. She felt embarrassed because she was introduced to nobody. Now, my dear, that you will find customary in most houses, the English idea of a "roof" introduction being deemed sufficient. Where one is an entire stranger, a thoughtful hostess will mention the names of the women between whom one sits, but generally one hears the name mentioned by acquaintances, and conversation is easy. Remember this: Never ask a servant for anything except bread; usually the French roll laid on one's napkin suffices, but if you should wish more bread it may be asked for, or a glass of water. But a second helping is an unknown quantity at a formal affair.

At home the average girl is well acquainted with what is called "high tea" in the city, that is, the serving, about eight o'clock, of hot meats, with dishes of salads and sweets, and where all sit down—a pleasant way to entertain when the late dinner is not a custom. However, the card you have got for the afternoon tea is not of that sort. The tea card invites you to come between four and seven, and you wonder what you should do. You need write no acknowledgment of this invitation, but to be correct you will appear about half-past five, gowned in your handsomest visiting dress, the pretty black silk with its trimmings of velvet and jet, and the little bonnet in harmony with it. If, for any reason, you are unable to go, then in the morning you send by post as many of your visiting cards as there are hostesses, that is, hostesses whose names are on the invitation. These cards are inclosed in the usual card envelope, addressed to the lady of the house, and sealing-wax is omitted.


When you enter you shake hands with your hostess, and with any of the ladies receiving with her with whom you are acquainted, or to whom she introduces you. You are asked by one of the receiving party if you will not go into the tea-room, and there you enjoy a cup of tea, of bouillon, a bit of delicate cake or an ice, which is the most that is ever served, even at a formal tea. Unless you should meet many friends, ten or fifteen minutes is quite long enough for you to stay. It is not necessary for you to remove your gloves, and, if you are fortunate enough to have come in a carriage, you will find it more convenient to leave your wraps there, and so be able to make your entrance at once, than if you went to the room dedicated to the caring for one's outer garments. We are all getting to be such good walkers, however, that it is the exceptional woman who, going from house to house, can make her entrance right from her carriage to the drawing-room. Cultivate, for afternoon use especially, a quantity of small talk, about the charm of the hostess, the beauty of the flowers, that blessing to all humanity—the weather, and the last entertainment counted of worth. Never mind if you do say the same thing to everybody you meet, as long as it makes you avoid personalities; there is always wisdom in saying that which makes conversation and wounds nobody's feelings.


You have never been to one before, and so your cousin, with whom you are staying, suggests the proper frock. It is a light-colored silk made simply, cut out just enough at the neck, and having for sleeves enormous puffs finished by frills of chiffon that come just below the elbow. Your gloves go up under these ruffles, and are, of course, immaculate. Your hair is prettily dressed, and, following the picture fashion, you have put a white rose just at one side of it. A little heart-shaped brooch fastens your bodice at the neck, and a string of small gold beads is about your throat. You know that, even if you possess them, it would be in bad taste for an unmarried woman to wear diamonds or expensive jewels of any kind. In the dressing-room, after the maid has taken off your wrap and straightened out your skirt, you start to go downstairs, walking just behind your chaperon. The gentleman who is to take you in to dinner has been informed of this in the dressing-room by receiving a card with your name upon it, and so your thoughtful hostess presents him to you, and you have a chat of a minute or two before taking his arm and joining the formal procession to the dining-room. Your name card is at your place, and after the little flutter of getting seated you pick up and look at the bunch of violets that is before you, and, unless you are willing to risk staining your skirt with them or crushing them, you put them on the table just in front of your plate, while your escort fastens in his buttonhole the single orchid intended for him.

At the best houses what used to be known as "dinner millinery," which included strips of ribbon and jars of sweets—jars frequently of expensive china intended to be taken home—is no longer seen, for it is counted as vulgar to appear to have to bribe people to come to one's house. Chat with your neighbors on either side, giving the most attention, however, to your escort; but err on the side of shyness rather than of self-satisfaction. Many a nervous girl, bright and witty, is over-eager to be entertaining, and unconsciously raises her voice until it is heard above everybody else's, and her high, shrill, exciting laugh is a horror to the women, who blame her while they pity her. A dinner-party is a formal function, and specially demands dignity of manner. If the Continental fashion is followed, and ladies and gentlemen leave the dining-room at the same time, you go out as you came in. If the English fashion obtains, and the gentlemen remain to smoke and talk, rise when your hostess gives the signal, stand quite still until you see your chaperon, and then fall in line behind her, passing, not too quickly, the gentlemen, who are all standing up and allowing you to walk out before them. Learn to walk well and not to "trot." A dinner invitation should be acknowledged within three hours, and the changing of one's mind about it is never permitted. A witty Frenchman said, "Only death is an excuse for not keeping a dinner engagement, and even then a polite man would send the undertaker to apologize for him."


I know it to be true that when you came to town you had for a visiting-card a faintly tinted stiff one, on which was written your name, "Elinor Pegram," in a fine Italian hand heavily shaded. Fortunately for you, your hostess saw this and kept you from making a faux pas. In the place of those rose-tinted ones, happily consigned to their proper resting-place, the waste-basket, you now have rather thin white cards, almost square, with, as you are the oldest daughter, and as your middle name is your mother's maiden one, "Miss Cholmondeley Pegram," engraved upon them. Your visiting-card represents you, and consequently it must be in good taste. This form is desirable because, seeing it, old friends who knew your mother as "pretty Elinor Cholmondeley," will recognize you as her daughter, and make an effort to show you some special courtesies. When visiting leave a card for the lady of the house and for each daughter in society. When you cannot go to a reception or a tea your cards represent you. When you do go you leave your card either with a servant who holds out a silver salver for it, or you put it on the table prepared for cards. This is done because, seeing many people, your hostess may not remember all who were there, and the little bits of thin pasteboard tell of her visitors and warn her of those to whom she owes either a personal visit or a return card. You called one day on a friend who lives very quietly, and who opened the door for you. For her a card must be left also, and as you are a bright girl you can either do it before her, reminding her that you do not intend to let her forget that you came to see her, or you can leave it in the hall when you are alone, for your hostess does not accompany you further than the drawing-room door.


You sat and wondered about your sweetheart. As yet your engagement is a secret. When you came to town you let him know where you were, and you expected that he would call that first night, ask specially for you, and that a tête-à-tête would be the result. But he is a well-bred young man who understands the rules of society, and so he did what was correct. He called about five o'clock in the afternoon, asked for your hostess, her daughter and you, and one of them went down with you to see him. When he wished to take you to see a great actor he invited your hostess and you, and he never went to any place with you alone. There were only a few stolen moments when you could say to him just what you wished, but he was acting as society in the city demanded, and showing by his formal behavior his respect for you. When he sent you a bunch of flowers there was one for your cousin, and you were a bit foolish not to value yours as much as you would if he had not sent another. What he did was right, and he would have been counted singularly gauche and awkward if he had done as you wished, and so called forth criticisms in which the words "bad-mannered" would have been most conspicuous.

Do not make the very great mistake of counting elderly women as of no use socially. Of course, you are respectful to them, but you have thought that at social functions they were out of place. My dear girl, the matron is the power behind the throne. She decides whether you are desirable, whether you shall receive an invitation to the most exclusive affair and whether her daughter shall count you among her intimates. It is she to whom the young men go for introductions, and your doom is sealed if she says: "I don't think you would care for Miss Pegram, she is not a girl of good manners." With the passing of youth power comes as a recompense.


It seems to you that there is a great deal of formality necessary even about the pleasant times. There is, and it is right that it should be so. If society permitted free and easy manners, lack of punctuality and general thoughtlessness, the whole social structure would tumble over, and, worst of all, woman would not receive the respect and consideration due her. Our little talk about ways and manners will, I hope, be some help to that dear average girl all over the country, who, being an American, has the quickness and brightness making her able to do everything just right, provided the method of doing is suggested to her. She will be, socially, a great success, if being genteel (I like that old-fashioned word) in her manners and her dress, she should be equally genteel in her speech, in her voice, and in her choice of acquaintances. If she is wise she will imitate nobody, and especially will she refrain from imitating the very loud girl who may attract attention, but for whom no gentleman ever has any serious liking.