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- The Potiphar Papers - 10/24 -
it--for peace. It's all over. When I came home from China I was the desirable Mr. Potiphar, and every evening was a field-day for me, in which I reviewed all the matrimonial forces. It is astonishing, now I come to think of it, how skilfully Brigadier-General Mrs. Pettitoes deployed those daughters of hers; how vigorously Mrs. Tabby led on her forlorn hope; and how unweariedly, Murat-like, Mrs. De Famille charged at the head of her cavalry. They deserve to be made Marshals of France, all of them. And I am sure, that if women ought ever to receive honorary testimonials, it is for having "married a daughter well."
That's a pretty phrase! The mammas marry, the misses are married.
And yet, I don't see why I say so. I fear I am getting sour. For certainly, Polly's mother didn't marry Polly to me. I fell in love with her, the rest followed. Old Gnu says that it's true Polly's mother didn't marry her, but she did marry herself, to me.
"Do you really think, Paul Potiphar," said he, a few months ago, when I was troubled about Polly's getting a livery, "that your wife was in love with you, a dry old chip from China? Don't you hear her say whenever any of her friends are engaged, that they 'have done very well!' and made a 'capital match!' and have you any doubt of her meaning? Don't you know that this is the only country in which the word 'money' must never be named in the young female ear; and in whose best society--not universally nor without exception, of course not; Paul, don't be a fool--money makes marriages? When you were engaged, 'the world' said that it was a 'capital thing' for Polly. Did that mean that you were a good, generous, intelligent, friendly, and patient man, who would be the companion for life she ought to have? You know, as well as I do, and as all the people who said it know, that it meant you were worth a few hundred thousands, that you could build a splendid house, keep horses and chariots, and live in style. You and I are sensible men, Paul, and we take the world as we find it; and know that if a man wants a good dinner he must pay for it. We don't quarrel with this state of things. How can it be helped? But we need not virtuously pretend it's something else. When my wife, being then a gay girl, first smiled at me, and looked at me, and smelt at the flowers I sent her in an unutterable manner, and proved to me that she didn't love me by the efforts she made to show that she did, why, I was foolishly smitten with her, and married her. I knew that she did not marry me, but sundry shares in the Patagonia and Nova Zembla Consolidation, and a few hundred house lots upon the island. What then? I wanted her, she was willing to take me,--being sensible enough to know that the stock and the lots had an incumbrance. _Voila tout,_ as young Boosey says. Your wife wants you to build a house. You'd better build it. It's the easiest way. Make up your mind to Mrs. Potiphar, my dear Paul, and thank heaven you've no daughters to be married off by that estimable woman."
Why does a man build a house? To live in, I suppose--to have a home. But is a fine house a home? I mean, is a "palatial residence," with Mrs. Potiphar at the head of it, the "home" of which we all dream more or less, and for which we ardently long as we grow older? A house, I take it, is a retreat to which a man hurries from business, and in which he is compensated by the tenderness and thoughtful regard of a woman, and the play of his children, for the rough rubs with men. I know it is a silly view of the case, but I'm getting old and can't help it. Mrs. Potiphar is perfectly right when she says:
"You men are intolerable. After attending to your own affairs all day, and being free from the fuss of housekeeping, you expect to come home and shuffle into your slippers, and snooze over the evening paper--if it were possible to snooze over the exciting and respectable evening journal you take--while we are to sew, and talk with you if you are talkative, and darn the stockings, and make tea. You come home tired, and likely enough, surly, and gloom about like a thundercloud if dinner isn't ready for you the instant you are ready for it, and then sit mum and eat it; and snap at the children, and show yourselves the selfish, ugly things you are. Am _I_ to have no fun, never go to the opera, never go to a ball, never have a party at home? Men are tyrants, Mr. Potiphar. They are ogres who entice us poor girls into their castles, and then eat up our happiness and scold us while they eat."
Well, I suppose it is so. I suppose I am an ogre and enticed Polly into my castle. But she didn't find it large enough, and teased me to build another. I suppose she does sit with me in the evening, and sew, and make tea, and wait upon me. I suppose she does, but I've not a clear idea of it. I know it's unkind of me, when I have been hard at work all day, trying to make and secure the money that gives her and her family everything they want, and which wearies me body and soul, to expect her to let me stay at home, and be quiet. I know I ought to dress and go into Gnu's house, and smirk at his wife, and stand up in a black suit before him attired in the same way, and talk about the same stocks that we discussed down town in the morning in colored trowsers. That's a social duty, I suppose. And I ought to see various slight young gentlemen whirl my wife around the room, and hear them tell her when they stop, that it's very warm. That's another social duty, I suppose. And I must smile when the same young gentlemen put their elbows into my stomach, and hop on my feet in order to extend the circle of the dance. I'm sure Mrs. P. is right. She does very right to ask, "Have we no social duties, I should like to know?"
And when we have performed these social duties in Gnu's house, how mean it is, how "it looks," not to build a larger house for him and Mrs. Gnu to come and perform their social duties in. I give it up. There's no doubt of it.
One day Polly said to me:
"Mr. Potiphar, we're getting down town."
"What do you mean, my dear?"
"Why, everybody is building above us, and there are actually shops in the next street. Singe, the pastry-cook, has hired Mrs. Croesus's old house."
"I know it. Old Croesus told me so some time ago; and he said how sorry he was to go. 'Why, Potiphar,' said he, 'I really hoped when I built there, that I should stay, and not go out of the house, finally, until I went into no other. I have lived there long enough to love the place, and have some associations with it; and my family have grown up in it, and love the old house too. It was our _home_. When any of us said 'home' we meant not the family only, but the house in which the family lived, where the children were all born, and where two have died, and my old mother, too. I'm in a new house now, and have lost my reckoning entirely. I don't know the house; I've no associations with it. The house is new, the furniture is new, and my feelings are new. It's a farce for me to begin again, in this way. But my wife says it's all right, that everybody does it, and wants to know how it can be helped; and, as I don't want to argue the matter, I look amen.' That's the way Mr. Croesus submits to his new house, Mrs. Potiphar."
She doesn't understand it. Poor child! how should she? She, and Mrs. Croesus, and Mrs. Gnu, and even Mrs. Settum Downe, are all as nomadic as Bedouin Arabs. The Rev. Cream Cheese says, that he sees in this constant migration from one house to another, a striking resemblance to the "tents of a night," spoken of in Scripture. He imparts this religious consolation to me when I grumble. He says, that it prevents a too-closely clinging affection to temporary abodes. One day, at dinner, that audacious wag, Boosey, asked him if the "many manthuns" mentioned in the Bible, were not as true of mortal as of immortal life. Mrs. Potiphar grew purple, and Mr. Cheese looked at Boosey in the most serious manner over the top of his champagne-glass. I am glad to say that Polly has properly rebuked Gauche Boosey for his irreligion, by not asking him to her Saturday evening _matinees dansantes_.
There was no escape from the house, however. It must be built. It was not only Mrs. Potiphar that persisted, but the spirit of the age and of the country. One can't live among shops. When Pearl street comes to Park Place, Park Place must run for its life up to Thirtieth street. I know it can't be helped, but I protested, and I will protest. If I've got to go, I'll have my grumble. My wife says:
"I'm ashamed of you, Potiphar. Do you pretend to be an American, and not give way willingly to the march of improvement? You had better talk with Mr. Cream Cheese upon the 'genius of the country.' You are really unpatriotic, you show nothing of the enterprising spirit of your time." "Yes," I answer. "That's pretty from you; you are patriotic aren't you, with your liveries and illimitable expenses, and your low bows to money, and your immense intimacy with all lords and ladies that honor the city by visiting it. You are prodigiously patriotic with your inane imitations of a splendor impossible to you in the nature of things. You are the ideal American woman, aren't you, Mrs. Potiphar?"
Then I run, for I'm afraid of myself, as much as of her. I am sick of this universal plea of patriotism. It is used to excuse all the follies that outrage it. I am not patriotic if I do not do this and that, which, if done, is a ludicrous caricature of something foreign. I am not up to the time if I persist in having my own comfort in my own way. I try to resist the irresistible march of improvement, if I decline to build a great house, which, when it is built, is a puny copy of a bad model. I am very unpatriotic if I am not trying to outspend foreign noblemen, and if I don't affect, without education, or taste, or habit, what is only beautiful, when it is the result of the three.
However, this is merely my grumble. I knew, the first morning Mrs. Potiphar spoke of a new house, that I must build it. What she said was perfectly true; we were getting down town, there was no doubt of the growing inconvenience of our situation. It was becoming a dusty noisy region. The congregation of the Rev. Far Niente had sold their church and moved up town. Now doesn't it really seem as if we were a cross between the Arabs who dwell in tents and those who live in cities, for we are migratory in the city? A directory is a more imperative annual necessity here than in any other civilized region. My wife says it is a constant pleasure to her to go round and see the new houses and the new furniture of her new friends, every year. I saw that I must submit. But I determined to make little occasional stands against it. So one day I said:
"Polly, do you know that the wives of all the noblemen who will be your very dear and intimate friends and models when you go abroad, always live in the same houses in London, and Paris, and Rome, and Vienna? Do you know that Northumberland House is so called because it is the hereditary town mansion of the Duke, and that the son and daughter-in-law of Lord Londonderry will live after him in the house where his father and mother lived before him? Did that ever occur to you, my dear?"
"Mr. Potiphar," she replied, "do you mean to go by the example of foreign noblemen? I thought you always laughed at me for what you call 'aping.'"
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