Side Talks with Girls/Chapter 4

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THE country girl, by whom I mean the girl who lives outside of the large cities, has always been very dear to me, because it has not been so very many years since I knew what life in a small town meant, and when, although I was only six miles from a large city, I delighted in calling myself "a country girl." Nowadays the country girl seems to have an idea that in some way her city cousin is superior to her. But my experience among both city and country girls has taught me that the country girl has untold advantages. In the first place she has more time, her life is not so complex, and she has the leisure, I am judging from her letters, to educate her mind, strengthen her body, and keep herself delightfully feminine.

When the city cousin comes to seek green fields and pastures new, she is, I am afraid, inclined to be a little arrogant; not intentionally, but because her life in the city has made her feel that she knows all that is worth knowing, and it seems to her that the social laws of her small circle govern the world. Right is right everywhere and at all times, but what would be counted a breach of etiquette in the city may be nothing but a neighborly kindness in the country, and no thought of wrong is given to it until the city girl suggests it. Long ago she was told that it was not correct for her to go driving with a young man alone; her cousin in the country feels very grateful when a neighbor who is going to the nearest town, stops and takes her in his buggy, and gives her time to do her shopping at the country store, and then brings her back home; there is not a thought of anything wrong about this, and Chevalier Bayard could not be more courteous than is her neighbor. I think the city girl very often forgets that the country is not environed by an iron railing with a plot of grass behind it and a back yard. Lilies grow in country gardens, and country girls are very often as ignorant of evil as the lilies themselves.


A question that is continually asked by the girl who is far off from the picture galleries, the libraries, and the great centres of civilization is, how she shall improve her mind. She does not wish to be ignorant of what is going on in the world, and yet perhaps she meets no one who has absolutely come in contact with the busy world itself. Now, the best thing for her to do is to see the world as in a looking-glass, that is, to read good newspapers, as many of the magazines as possible, and, best of all, to discuss with someone else the questions of the day; it may be with her father, her brother, or her mother. She can keep herself well informed in this way, I am positively certain; many a country girl does, I am equally certain. Then, too, whenever there is an opportunity it will be wise for her to blot out the petty gossip that exists in her own particular set, and gently, but easily, interest her companions in events and things in the outside world rather than the affairs of the neighborhood. The country girl who will think out, as she works away at her daily tasks, that which is of interest to the whole world, is armed to go anywhere and to meet anybody, for she is feeding her mind with a diet that will strengthen and widen it. Don't, my dear girl, as I said before, let yourself drift into the personalities of the neighborhood, for as sure as you do you will become quite as narrow as the city cousin, who thinks that what we do in "our set" is as important as the actions of Mr. Gladstone.


The country girl is very apt to be decided in her views: she has had time to think them over and to form them, and she has, as the darkies down South say, "made up her mind." But she must not force her opinions on other people. That is to say, because she believes one thing she must not conclude that every one who differs with her is wrong. She may refuse to do what she does not think right, but she has no right to do it in such a manner that she is a wet blanket upon everybody else. What is one man's meat is distinctly another man's poison, and difference in education, in surroundings, and in habits, may make what is wrong to her right to somebody else. While she would be horrified at her city cousin dancing a Virginia reel, her city cousin would be amazed at seeing her play a kissing game at a church picnic. This is just one comparison, but it gives an idea of what I mean.


That country girl is wise who, remembering that the blue of the skies and the green of the trees form her background, elects that during the summer she shall wear pretty cottons daintily made, and wide-brimmed, somewhat fantastic straw hats. She would be entirely out of place in stuffy woollens or elaborate silks, and yet each one of you knows that this mistake is sometimes made. For the morning she can have the simplest ginghams or lawns, and for the evening a somewhat more elaborate, but still a cotton, costume. She is unwise in imitating her city cousin, who nine times out of ten looks over-dressed when she is in the country. I wish I could make the country girl understand exactly the charm, the restful charm that there is in her simplicity, and I wish I could make her content. I know it is in the heart of every girl to long for pretty gowns, and a much betrimmed silk frock may look very charming to the girl who has not one, while to the unprejudiced observer it seems absolutely out of place.


When the city cousin comes, and the girls who are to have tea with you are all together, don't ask questions about the silly habits of the town, and above all things, if you hear of some silly habit affected by a so-called fashionable woman, don't attempt to imitate her in her folly. Induce your city cousin to tell you about the things worth seeing and hearing about: of the great paintings, of the wonderful naval show, and how our American ships contrasted with those of other nations, of the flower-market, and how it interests city women, while you country girls have so many flowers you scarcely seem to set any value on them. But do not ask about little vices, and do not believe that well-bred women in the cities do many of the ill-bred things that are described—that they smoke cigarettes, that their gowns are cut immodestly, that they are slaves to drink or opium, that they are offensively free in their language—there may be such women, such women are everywhere. But, my dear child, a gentle-woman is always the same, be she in the city or the country, and she is not addicted to anything that takes away from her womanliness. Talk about frocks if you like, there is no harm in that; hear pretty ones described, they are a pleasure and a delight to the eyes; but if you feel the little demon of envy biting at your heartstrings, change the subject right away. You think the city girl, as she talks about amusements and admirers, must have a very good time in life. It is not as good as yours, for she does not have plenty of fresh air, she does not know the joys of the singing birds, she cannot tell the flower or the bloom of the tree that announces the coming of spring, and her world is, curiously enough, a much smaller one than yours.


Of course you believe in him. But still you have quite a funny little heartbeat when you see his eyes open wide with admiration as he looks at your city cousin, who, in a ribbon-trimmed gown of summer silk, seems like a Dresden statuette. It is useless to say you are foolish. But you are. If he is worth anything, if he is worth the having, he will never give you up for the city cousin, and any courtesy he may show her will probably be not only because she interests him, but especially because he loves you. Sweethearts, my dear, are much truer than we give them credit for, and if you want to keep yours believe in him, and that belief will make belief. If his so-called love has only been the fancy of a moment, then be thankful that by the appearance of the city cousin you discovered in time that what you thought was pure gold was not even silver gilt.

Some country girls tell me of little liberties they allow their sweethearts, and which can really not be called wrong, but I wish I could make them understand how much more what a man cannot get, is to him, than what is given to him as if it were of no worth. No, my dear country girl, I do not think you ought to let your sweetheart kiss you whenever he wishes. A kiss from you should mean so much that it should be an event, and then he will be certain that nobody else is getting your treasures, and that you are hoarding great expressions of affection for the time when you shall be his very own. The city girl, in keeping her sweet-heart at a little distance is very wise, and the country girl should be equally wise. I do not mean there should be no love-making—I like that old- fashioned word—but I do believe that a little too much freedom is a speck on the perfect fruit of love, and it is one which it is in the power of the girl to prevent.


The country girl away from home is a bit troubled. She doubts her gowns, she doubts whether she knows the ways and manners of the people, and she is apt to be unhappy. She asked me the other day if a book of etiquette would help her. I say to her, "No." The great book of etiquette is the world, and it is read, like the smaller book, with the eyes. Having been properly trained you are not likely to make any great mistakes, and the smaller customs that differ in every town are easily acquired by watching what other people do and imitating them, only do not imitate the wrong people. If you are in a hotel, and the woman opposite you uses a toothpick and walks out of the room with one in her mouth, don't follow her example. If the man next to you piles his fork with vegetables by means of his knife, as if he were loading a coal wagon, don't follow his example, and if somebody else near you tucks in her napkin like a bib, do not think that well-bred people do such things. If a dish that you have never eaten is put before you, chat pleasantly with your neighbor until you see how she eats it. If, very properly, you do not care for wine, and are at a table where wine is served, simply signify in some unobtrusive manner to the waiter that you do not wish any. Don't be afraid of yourself in conversation. That is to say, the chances are you can talk as well as any girl in the room, but if you begin to stammer and get nervous you will never be able to say anything, and you will be credited with knowing nothing.


Because a man lives in the city, which is his misfortune and not his fault, it must not be supposed that he is a black sheep roaming round seeking whom he may devour. Though, by the by, from what I have seen of sheep they devour in a very quiet and polite fashion. Men are better than they are credited with being, and one seldom says or does anything to an innocent girl that is not quite right. Of course there are ill-mannered men, just as there are vulgar women. The country girl who is visiting in town must use that fine wand of self-protection to discover the one from the other. Gentlemen are never over-dressed, are never boisterous, and are never effusive. It is best, if possible, to avoid making enemies, and so the country girl must use a little tact.

I do not think the country girl needs to be told, she must never accept an invitation from a man who is not a relation to go with him alone to any place. If he wishes to do her any honor he will make up a party, properly chaperoned, and then she can have a thoroughly good time. The country girl looks at me and wonders if I think she would do anything wrong. I do not. I not only believe in her, but I believe in the American man, yet in most large cities there are certain social laws that must be observed, and the protection of a young girl by an older woman is one of the most important. It is true that the girl's mother may have gone to a concert, to drive, or to supper with a young man, that all her friends did it, and that in those days it was considered quite proper. But we have grown older as a people, and we have got that wisdom which teaches us that to keep our young girls perfectly protected is the greatest of all. I know that a girl who desires to do wrong can do so whenever she wishes; she can say the improper word, or she can act improperly when she knows her chaperon is not looking. But I am thankful that among American girls this type is unusual, and that most of them are glad to have with them an older woman, who suggests the pleasantest ways out of difficulties, and who places near to each other the people she thinks are attracted the one to the other.


When my country girls are reading this I shall be off where the grass is green, where the sweetest flowers in the world bloom, and where a lazy river runs beside a very old-fashioned town, and there I will meet the girl I am very fond of—the country girl. And we will gossip in good faith about books and pictures, and she will tell me lovely stories about the flowers and the woods, and she will take me to drive just before the sun sets, and we will stop at a farmhouse and get a drink of milk, and then when I get back home I shall feel so delightfully tired. The river will sing me to sleep, and after I have said my prayers, and asked a blessing upon all my girls, I will unconsciously add to the fervent "Amen," "God made the country and man made the town."