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- The Potiphar Papers - 5/24 -
The best sermon ever preached upon society, within our knowledge, is "Vanity Fair." Is the spirit of that story less true of New York than of London? Probably we never see Amelia at our parties, nor Lieutenant George Osborne, nor good gawky Dobbin, nor Mrs. Rebecca Sharp Crawley, nor old Steyne. We are very much pained, of course, that any author should take such dreary views of human nature. We, for our parts, all go to Mrs. Potiphar's to refresh our faith in men and women. Generosity, amiability, a catholic charity, simplicity, taste, sense, high cultivation, and intelligence, distinguish our parties. The statesman seeks their stimulating influence; the literary man, after the day's labour, desires the repose of their elegant conversation; the professional man and the merchant hurry up from down town to shuffle off the coil of heavy duty, and forget the drudgery of life in the agreeable picture of its amenities and graces presented by Mrs. Potiphar's ball. Is this account of the matter, or "Vanity Fair," the satire? What are the prospects of any society of which that tale is the true history? There is a picture in the Luxembourg gallery at Paris, "The Decadence of the Romans," which made the fame and fortune of Couture, the painter. It represents an orgie in the court of a temple, during the last days of Rome. A swarm of revellers occupy the middle of the picture, wreathed in elaborate intricacy of luxurious posture, men and women intermingled; their faces, in which the old Roman fire scarcely flickers, brutalized with excess of every kind; their heads of dishevelled hair bound with coronals of leaves, while, from goblets of an antique grace, they drain the fiery torrent which is destroying them. Around the bacchanalian feast stand, lofty upon pedestals, the statues of old Rome, looking with marble calmness and the severity of a rebuke beyond words upon the revellers. A youth of boyish grace, with a wreath woven in his tangled hair, and with red and drowsy eyes, sits listless upon one pedestal, while upon another stands a boy, insane with drunkenness, and proffering a dripping goblet to the marble mouth of the statue. In the corner of the picture, as if just quitting the court--Rome finally departing--is a group of Romans with care-worn brows, and hands raised to their faces in melancholy meditation. In the foreground of the picture, which is painted with all the sumptuous splendor of Venetian art, is a stately vase, around which hangs a festoon of gorgeous flowers, its end dragging upon the pavement. In the background, between the columns, smiles the blue sky of Italy--the only thing Italian not deteriorated by time. The careful student of this picture, if he has been long in Paris, is some day startled by detecting, especially in the faces of the women represented, a surprising likeness to the women of Paris, and perceives, with a thrill of dismay, that the models for this picture of decadent human nature are furnished by the very city in which he lives.
OUR NEW LIVERY, AND OTHER THINGS.
A LETTER FROM MRS. POTIPHAR TO MISS CAROLINE PETTITOES.
NEW YORK, _April._
MY DEAR CAROLINE,--Lent came so frightfully early this year, that I was very much afraid my new bonnet _à l'Imperatrice_ would not be out from Paris soon enough. But fortunately it arrived just in time, and I had the satisfaction of taking down the pride of Mrs. Croesus, who fancied hers would be the only stylish hat in church the first Sunday. She could not keep her eyes away from me, and I sat so unmoved, and so calmly looking at the Doctor, that she was quite vexed. But, whenever she turned away, I ran my eyes over the whole congregation, and would you believe that, almost without an exception, people had their old things? However, I suppose they forgot how soon Lent was coming. As I was passing out of church, Mrs. Croesus brushed by me:
"Ah!" said she, "good morning. Why bless me! you've got that pretty hat I saw at Lawson's. Well, now, it's really quite pretty; Lawson has some taste left yet; what a lovely sermon the Doctor gave us. By the by, did you know that Mrs. Gnu had actually bought the blue velvet? It's too bad, because I wanted to cover my prayer-book with blue, and she sits so near, the effect of my book will be quite spoiled. Dear me! there she is beckoning to me; good-bye, do come and see us; Tuesdays, you know. Well, Lawson really does very well."
I was so mad with the old thing, that I could not help catching her by her mantle and holding on while I whispered loud enough for everybody to hear:
"Mrs. Croesus, you see I have just got my bonnet from Paris. It's made after the Empress's. If you would like to have yours made over in the fashion, dear Mrs. Croesus, I shall be so glad to lend you mine."
"No, thank you, dear," said she, "Lawson won't do for me. Bye-bye."
And so she slipped out, and, I've no doubt, told Mrs. Gnu that she had seen my bonnet at Lawson's. Isn't it too bad? Then she is so abominably cool. Somehow, when I am talking with Mrs. Croesus, who has all her own things made at home, I don't feel as if mine came from Paris at all. She has such a way of looking at you, that it's quite dreadful. She seems to be saying in her mind, "La! now, well done, little dear." And I think that kind of mental reservation (I think that's what they call it) is an insupportable impertinence. However, I don't care, do you?
I've so many things to tell you that I hardly know where to begin. The great thing is the livery, but I want to come regularly up to that, and forget nothing by the way. I was uncertain for a long time how to have my prayer-book bound. Finally, after thinking about it a great deal, I concluded to have it done in pale blue velvet, with gold clasps, and a gold cross upon the side. To be sure, it's nothing very new. But what _is_ new now-a-days? Sally Shrimp has had hers done in emerald, and I know Mrs. Croesus will have crimson for hers, and those people who sits next us in church (I wonder who they are; it's very unpleasant to sit next to people you don't know; and, positively, that girl, the dark-haired one with large eyes, carries the same muff she did last year; it's big enough for a family) have a kind of brown morocco binding. I must tell you one reason why I fixed upon the pale-blue. You know that aristocratic-looking young man, in white cravat and black pantaloons and waistcoat, whom we saw at Saratoga a year ago, and who always had such a beautiful sanctimonious look, and such small white hands; well, he is a minister, as we supposed, "an unworthy candidate, and unprofitable husbandman," as he calls himself in that delicious voice of his. He has been quite taken up among us. He has been asked a good deal to dinner, and there was hope of his being settled as colleague to the Doctor, only Mr. Potiphar (who can be stubborn, you know) insisted that the Rev. Cream Cheese, though a very good young man, he didn't doubt, was addicted to candlesticks. I suppose that's something awful. But, could you believe anything awful of him? I asked Mr. Potiphar what he meant by saying such things.
"I mean," said he, "that he's a Puseyite, and I've no idea of being tied to the apron-strings of the Scarlet Woman."
Dear Caroline, who _is_ the Scarlet Woman? Dearest, tell me, upon your honor, if you have ever heard any scandal of Mr. Potiphar?
"What is it about candlesticks?" said I to Mr. Potiphar. "Perhaps Mr. Cheese finds gas too bright for his eyes; and that's his misfortune, not his fault.
"Polly," said Mr. Potiphar, who _will_ call me Polly, although it sounds so very vulgar, "please not to meddle with things you don't understand. You may have Cream Cheese to dinner as much as you choose, but I will not have him in the pulpit of my church."
The same day Mr. Cheese happened in about lunch-time, and I asked him if his eyes were really weak.
"Not at all," said he, "why do you ask?"
Then I told him that I had heard he was so fond of candlesticks.
Ah! Caroline, you should have seen him then. He stopped in the midst of pouring out a glass of Mr. P.'s best old port, and holding the decanter in one hand, and the glass in the other, he looked so beautifully sad, and said in that sweet low voice:
"Dear Mrs. Potiphar, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Then he filled up his glass, and drank the wine off with such a mournful, resigned air, and wiped his lips so gently with his cambric handkerchief (I saw that it was a hem-stitch), that I had no voice to ask him to take a bit of the cold chicken, which he did, however, without my asking him. But when he said in the same low voice, "A little more breast, dear Mrs. Potiphar," I was obliged to run into the drawing room for a moment, to recover myself.
Well, after he had lunched I told him that I wished to take his advice upon something connected with the church, (for a prayer-book _is,_ you know, dear,) and he looked so sweetly at me, that, would you believe it, I almost wished to be a Catholic, and to confess three or four times a week, and to have him for my confessor. But it's very wicked to wish to be a Catholic, and it wasn't real much, you know; but somehow I thought so. When I asked him in what velvet he would advise me to have my prayer-book bound, he talked beautifully for about twenty minutes. I wish you could have heard him. I'm not sure that I understood much of what he said--how should I?--but it was very beautiful. Don't laugh, Carrie, but there was one thing I did understand, and which, as it came pretty often, quite helped me through: it was, "Dear Mrs. Potiphar;" you can't tell how nicely he says it. He began by telling me that it was very important to consider all the details and little things about the church. He said they were all Timbales or Cymbals--or something of that kind; and then he talked very prettily about the stole, and the violet and scarlet capes of the cardinals, and purple chasubles, and the lace edge of the Pope's little short gown; and--do you know it was very funny--but it seemed to me, somehow, as if I was talking with Portier or Florine Lefevre, except that he used such beautiful words. Well, by and by, he said:--
"Therefore, dear Mrs. Potiphar, as your faith is so pure and childlike, and as I observe that the light from the yellow panes usually falls across your pew, I would advise that you cymbalize your faith (wouldn't that be noisy in church?) by binding your prayer-book in pale blue; the color of skim-milk, dear Mrs. Potiphar, which is so full of pastoral associations."
Why did he emphasize the word "pastoral?" Do you wonder that I like Cream Cheese, dear Caroline, when he is so gentle and religious--and such a pretty religion too! For he is not only well-dressed, and has such aristocratic hands and feet, in the parlor, but he is so perfectly gentlemanly in the pulpit. He never raises his voice too loud, and he has such wavy gestures. Mr. Potiphar says that may be all
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