This was its author’s first book, and it immediately established her reputation as a writer of vivid and finished style. At the time of its publication no piece of fiction had so well presented the differences in English and American character, manners and social creeds.
LATE in the autumn of 1873, Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher, wealthy and refined Americans, re-turned to England after an extended tour on the Continent and decided to spend the winter in Cheltenham, one of the gayest and most agreeable of the English watering-places.
Mr. Fletcher was obliged to “run over to New York ” to put his affairs upon a footing that would permit him to prolong his remain abroad for another year; but during her husband’s absence Mrs. Fletcher was not forced to languish alone. She had for company a rather low-spirited mother-in-law, a cheerful sister, named Lucy, and a pretty and accomplished cousin, named Jenny Meredith, all of whom had been compagnons de voyage of her husband and herself. Mr. Fletcher was a typical American husband, “who ought always to be painted with a nimbus about his head.” This good soul is seldom allowed to travel abroad with only the wife of his bosom for his companion; for when a trip is decided upon, and the plan is unfolded to their joint families, the news is usually responded to in this wise:
“How perfectly splendid! It would be so nice for Sister Lucy to go “; or “Kate has a wonderful voice, which must be cultivated”; or “Mother has always wanted to go abroad”; or ” Jack ought really to be sent to Heidelberg.”
And consequently the American husband, after one or two feeble remonstrances, sails on the Scythia or the Russia, with a full complement of petticoated barnacles, and wears his neck-lace of millstones ever after with the beautiful unconscious grace of the hero and none of the airs of a martyr; and hosts of foreigners hold up their hands and puzzle their heads over the strange spectacle.
Before leaving his family, Mr. Fletcher ensconced them comfortably in a furnished house on the Promenade. The establishment was perfect in every detail, provided with every luxury and comfort, and included a staff of well-trained servants as noiseless as the white cats of the fairy-tale.
First and most important of these was Walton, the butler, whose dignified air and impressive manner completely awed the newcomers.
“I am glad I am going home,” said Mr. Fletcher, “instead of staying here in the trying role of master to that very superior domestic, Walton. I couldn’t do it; he would find me out in a week. I should never dare to be helped thrice to anything, unless it was `cold boiled missionary,’ of which he might approve, for he looks like an archbishop. I felt that he was my master the moment he took my overcoat down-stairs. I lost confidence in my tailor on the spot. I felt as if I had come home from school for the holidays, or had done something that I could atone for only by assuming an apologetic attitude and entering upon a course of systematic propitiation.”
“Nonsense, Ned! how absurd you are!” exclaimed his wife. “Besides, he who propitiates under such circumstances is lost.”
“Oh, you may be sure I didn’t give way to the impulse. I frowned, and looked as if my temper were bad, and got up-stairs as soon as possible. I shouldn’t in the least mind meeting the Prince of Wales, or the Lord Chancellor; but there is something inexpressibly awe-inspiring about the British flunky. Deny it as we may, very few Americans can honestly say that they feel themselves a match for the majestic, inscrutable creature.”
In the course of the following week the Fletchers presented their letters of introduction to two influential families, and were received with the kindness which characterizes English hospitality.
Invitations to functions of every sort poured in upon them, and Walton was kept busy “shuffling cards” for several weeks.
As a family they met with general favor, and the two girls became immediately very popular, Jenny creating a furor with her beauty and accomplishments.
Among their new friends were Sir Robert Heathcote, a well-preserved man of sixty-five, with the prosperous air which an inherited income of thirty thousand pounds never fails to impart, and his nephew and heir, Arthur Heathcote. The latter was an extremely good-looking young fellow of the conventional London type, knowing full well his advantages as a bon parti and prepared not to be taken alive by any matron in the land, be she never so skilful. Another friend was a quiet young barrister named Lindsay, who became an admirer of the fascinating Jenny, while an important factor in their circle was a sweet and gentle little English girl named Mabel Vane.
Mabel, whose father was a poor clergyman, lived very quietly and economically with her mother in lodgings, and, in spite of being well connected, saw very little of the gay world of society.
Lucy and Jenny, having taken an especial fancy to Mabel, decided to do what they could to bring a little more pleasure into her quiet existence, which they considered “a case of destitution in the upper classes.”
The Fletchers received cards for a very exclusive ball, and though the invitations were very difficult to obtain, they succeeded in securing an extra one for Mabel, who was overjoyed at the prospect of attending so grand a function. Before the evening in question the Fletchers were surprised by an arrival from the homeland, who was announced by Walton in an in-tensely respectful manner.
“If you please, ‘m, there is a party” (here he coughed discreetly behind his hand), “a person describin’ himself as a relative of the familyfrom America, which I was to say the name is KetchumMr. Job Ketchum is what I was told.”
Walton made little pauses between his clauses. He felt that he was impressive. Having finished, he cast one swift glance around the group, caressed thoughtfully his luxuriant side-whiskers, and dropped his eyes again, waiting for orders.
” Job Ketchum!” cried Mrs. Fletcher, senior, in a tone of horrified amazement.
“Cousin Job!” echoed her daughter-in-law feebly. “What on earth”can have brought him here? she was about to say, but, catching Walton’s deferential eye, she changed it into”can have prevented his telegraphing or writing us to expect him?” After greeting as cordially as possible the newcomer, who proved to be a cousin from the wild and woolly West, Mrs. Fletcher asked him where his luggage was, as she took it for granted he would remain with them.
“That’s all the luggage I’ve brought,” said he, pointing to a shiny black portmanteau on the hall floor. “I didn’t want to bother with more, just for a flying trip. I knew I could rig myself out over here if I needed anything; but I guess I’ll do as I am. When did you hear from your husband?” he continued, mounting the stairs as he spoke. Then over his shoulder to Walton: “Here! bring that along up to my room, and get me some water.”
The ladies winced at this peremptory way of addressing “the archbishop,” and were prepared for a revolt; but Walton said, with his usual respectful air, “Yes, sir. At once, sir,” and, seizing the bag, disappeared into the back premises.
When Mr. Job Ketchum rejoined his relatives in the drawing-room he entertained them with a vivacious account of his experiences. He explained that he had recently prospered in business, having made “a hundred thousand dollars at a clip,” and had decided to leave Tecumseh, Michigan, and go “abrard,” to see whether there was anything there worth seeing.
Mrs. Fletcher tried in a tactful way to show Mr. Ketchum that his wardrobe would need replenishing to meet the requirements of his present position; but he did not take kindly to her suggestions, and he finally lost his temper and said hotly: “Damn it! I am an American, and I shall do as I please.”
This outburst was rapidly repented of, and Job apologized handsomely and agreed to go to a tailor the following morning to be fitted out in a suitable manner.
Job, on meeting Mabel Vane, was greatly taken with her pretty face and gentle ways, and made up his mind that he would aid the Fletchers in giving her a good time at the ball. When the night arrived he sent her a huge bouquet, and he also loaded her with attentions at the ball.
Mabel, who had had little experience with the other sex, was much pleased with Job’s attentions and he was entirely captivated by the “little English daisy,” and decided to make every effort to win her for his wife.
Under Job’s rough exterior was a warm and generous heart, and his kindly nature and sterling character were recognized by all those that really knew him.
As Job’s attentions to Mabel became more and more marked, Mrs. Vane, who was a weak and worldly woman, decided that it was time to ask him what were his intentions.
A characteristic interview took place between her and Job, in which the latter, who saw plainly through the mother’s apparent solicitude for her daughter’s welfare, got very much the better of the situation. Before closing the interview, Mrs. Vane remarked to job that he had done her daughter a great wrong, had blighted her future and kept off other men.
To which Job replied: “I don’t want to crowd the mourners; if she wants any fellow to take my place, I’m ready to take a back seat.”
This act did not prove necessary, as Mabel wholly reciprocated Job’s affection, and he and she were soon happily married. After the wedding Job made such large settlements on his blushing bride that she was quite overcome by his generosity, and Mrs. Vane also was handsomely provided for.
During Job’s courtship the Fletchers had continued their enjoyable experiences, which terminated abruptly with the arrival of Mr. Fletcher with the tidings that it was necessary for them all to return home at once.
They packed up immediately, much to the regret of their many friends; and Arthur Heathcote would not be satisfied with Jenny’s refusal of his repeated offers until at last she confessed that somebody else was waiting for her in New York.
Mrs. Fletcher’s greatest regret in breaking up her English establishment was the parting with Walton, her “perfect treasure.” Throughout her housekeeping experiences he had been her right-hand man on every occasion, and had made himself absolutely invaluable.
Even their packing could never have been accomplished without Walton’s efficient services. He ordered, selected, and packed with incomparable judgment and despatch the Fletchers’ personal effects, verified the inventory of the house and replaced what was missing, took notes, left cards, and did a thousand last things, as no one else could have done them. Mr. Fletcher was so charmed that he offered him a large advance on his wages if he would go to the United States with them, but he respectfully refused, with many expressions of gratitude for the esteem in which he was held.
“What do you think of doing, Walton?” asked Mrs. Fletcher.
“I’m going abroad, ‘m; I have heard of something there that will suit,” he replied, and they reluctantly forbore to press him further about remaining in their service.
When they finally tore themselves away from the charming town in which they had grown to feel at home, and where they had received great kindness and hospitality, Walton accompanied them as far as Liverpool, was useful up to the last moment, and went down the Mersey with them in the tug, in charge of their smaller pieces of luggage, and especially of one dressing-bag of Mrs. Fletcher’s that contained several thousand dollars’ worth of diamonds and a quantity of other valuables. Each member of the party tipped him handsomely, and parted from him with effusionalmost tearfully, indeed, knowing that they should ne’er look upon his like again until they returned to Europe. As he was stepping on the tug, Mr. Fletcher said to him :
“What did you do with that bagthe bag, Walton?” “If you please, sir, I gave it to Mrs. Fletcher.”
“Oh, all right! Good-by, again!”
Ten minutes before, Mrs. Fletcher had made the same inquiry, and he had made the same response, except that-in the confusion of the moment, doubtlesshe had substituted Mr. for Mrs. Fletcher. When they were well out to sea, Kate asked her husband what he had done with her bag, and, after a long discussion, ending in a quarrel, they concluded that there had been some dreadful mistake, which Walton would be sure to rectify, and that they must telegraph as soon as they reached New York.
Is it necessary to say that the Fletchers never got back that bag? and, after much telegraphing and writing and the employment of the best detective talent, they traced Walton only as far as Spain and found that the dignified, able, incomparable “perfect treasure” was a ticket-of-leave man! Before entering the Fletchers’ service he had been for two years in the service of an English officer, who thought as highly of him as they had.
“I shall never get over it, never!” exclaimed jenny. “The foundations of society are completely broken up for me. I wouldn’t trust Cardinal Newman now, or Mr. Gladstone, or Charles Francis Adams!”
Five years later, Mr. and Mrs. Job Ketchum, settled in their luxurious home in Kalsing, Michigan, received word that their English friend, Sir Robert Heathcote, was soon to make a tour of the United States, accompanied by several traveling companions. In his party, besides his nephew and his niece, Ethel, were his sister, Miss Noel, Mrs. Sykes, who had attached her-self to the company without being urged, and Mr. Ramsay, a friend of Arthur’s. The last mentioned, being a younger son with no special prospects, had decided to leave his mother country indefinitely and settle in the United States, where he under-stood fortunes could be acquired in the most rapid manner.
Mrs. Sykes was a very disagreeable person, who prided her-self upon being as rude as possible to everybody with whom she came in contact; and Miss Noel was a sweet and gentle little woman who was entirely helpless without her faithful maid, Parsons, who had served her for many years.
Ethel was a typical English girl with a pleasant face, but without style, and with no idea how to wear her clothes. On one occasion, when descending the stairs with the agreeable consciousness of being well-dressed, she was confronted by her brother Arthur, who greeted her with the words : “What is the matter with you, Ethel? There is something wrong with you, but I can’t tell what it is. You seem to wear the same things that American women wear, but you don’t look as they do.”
Mr. and Mrs. Ketchum had found their matrimonial venture a grand success, and Mabel, who adored her husband, had adopted American customs with unusual cheerfulness and amiability.
They had been blessed with a son and heir, whose name was Jared Ponsonby, the first part of the appellation being for Job’s father, and the latter chosen in accordance with Mabel’s wishes.
The Ketchum household comprised, besides the immediate family, the two mothers-in-law and an indigent German fralein¬, who, being homeless and without friends, was included in their number by the kind-hearted Job.
When installing the two mothers in their home, Job talked the matter over with his wife in this wise:
“Your ma has had a hard life of it, and so has mine, arid they both are getting old, and I am determined that they shall have everything they want. I’ve got plenty to do it with, arid we’ll just all live along together here as snug as sardines. I ain’t a-going to make any difference between them, down to a paper of pins, and I know you ain’t the woman to do it either.”
In accordance with these views, Mr. Ketchum gave both ladies exactly the same allowance of pin-money, christened them facetiously “Mother and T’other,” put one on his right hand and one on his left at table, and behaved with the most absolute fairness and the Most admirable kindness in every-thing, from the greatest to the smallest question that came up. Mabel, who loved and admired her husband’s generosity, imitated it as well, and never was less room given for jealousy or heart-burning in any household that ever was organized. Mr. Ketchum himself saw to their comfortstheir bedroom fires, port, steaks, tonics, and what notand Mrs. Ketchum was an affectionate, respectful daughter to both alike, anxious to consult their tastes, anticipate their wishes, and obey their very distracting and somewhat imperious commandsfor their advice and counsels were apt to take the latter shape.
A more complete and ideal paradise for two weary old women, who had been battling with poverty and misfortune respectively for sixty and sixty-five years, it would be impossible to conceive; yet, such is the perversity of human nature, neither of them was satisfied, happy, or particularly grateful. One would have supposed that there was no room for the serpent to wriggle in, try as he might, yet he was there, in envy and jealousy, malice and all uncharitableness, pride and love of dominion. All Mr. Ketchum’s thoughtfulness, generosity, and benefactions were poisoned to each by the thought that the other shared them. Did he bring home a box of particularly fine grapes for Mrs. Vane, that lady was certain that its counter-part was reserved for her rival. Did he surprise his mother by sending her up a handsome silk dress of superior quality, she knew quite well that another dress had been cut from the same piece for Mrs. Vane. And so the honest fellow got but tepid thanks, and went delicately, like King Agag, fearing to tread on one or the other of the sensitive plants, whose “feelings” would hardly bear breathing upon, though they had small care for the feelings of others. And Mabel was ever gentle and good and patient, yet the two foolish women squabbled over every-thing that came up, and made themselves very ridiculous and very miserable. The usual attitude of the belligerents was one of ill-repressed sniffs and sneers; the warfare was illogical and deathless, though rarely did it find vent in open outbreaks. These, when they came, occurred always when Mr. Ketchum’s restraining influence was removed, for, with all his indulgence, he was emphatically master of his own house, and could, as he expressed it, “put his foot down,” indeed, plant both feet firmly and squarely and stamp on other feet that got in his way. Once at table, when Mrs. Ketchum, senior, had openly taunted Mrs. Vane with being a dependent on her son’s bounty, and Mrs. Vane had taken the ground that the third cousin of an English earl conferred an honor in accepting anything at the hands of social inferiors who were only too glad to purchase good blood at any price, Mr. Ketchum had got into one of his rare rages, and had frightened them so thoroughly and rebuked them so sternly that for a month afterward all was as beautifully calm and bright as moonlight in the tropics.
The English travelers arrived in New York and went at once to a hotel, not kept on the European plan, where Sir Robert faced “that great American fountain of absolute authority and irresponsible power,” the clerk, with the unconscious courage that animates a boy in his first battle. He did not know the danger, and so knew no fear, and had no idea of what he was doing, when, after saying particularly that he wished a room with a southern exposure, and being assigned one with a northern exposurea fact ascertained by taking his bearings with a pocket compass as soon as he was installedhe marched down-stairs and boldly rebuked the gorgeous young man with the solitaire pin who had betrayed his confidence, and who, paralyzed perhaps by such audacity, forgot either to threaten or to command, but called a servant and bade him “take that there lord’s things up to thirty-six from twenty-four, and be quick about it, too.”
The visitors were greeted cordially and entertained royally by many friends, both old and new, much to the appreciation of all members of the party, with the exception of Mrs. Sykes, who thought she was being run after, and conducted herself accordingly. She made the rudest remarks imaginable at every opportunity, and insulted her hosts and hostesses indiscriminately, much to the mortification of her companions. On one occasion, while the party was being entertained at the pretty country home of Mrs. DeWitt, who before her marriage was Jenny Meredith, Mrs. Sykes was seen to be staring fixedly at a handsome silver epergne on the table near her.
“Dear me ! ” said she, alertly. ” Can that be a crest that I see?”
“On the epergne?” asked Mrs. DeWitt. “Yes. My husband’s. An old family piece, which has quite recently come into our possession through the kindness of a friend, who, strange to say, found it at a jeweler’s in Charleston, and rescued it just in time to prevent its being melted down and converted into teaspoons.”
“An old piece, you say? How very extraordinary! I thought Americans had no grandfathers,” said Mrs. Sykes, restoring her glass to its place, her brows still keeping the arch of surprise.
Mrs. DeWitt flushed, and was about to retaliate, but, remembering that she was in her own house, stopped. She caught Miss Noel’s uneasy look, and felt repaid for her self-control.
Among Mrs. DeWitt’s guests was a charming cousin of hers from Baltimore, named Edith Bascome, who had inherited an equal share of the family beauty and was a close rival to Jenny in fascination and charm.
Heathcote, who never had seen any girl who could fill the place of Jenny Meredith in his affections, was much pleased with Miss Bascome and immediately decided to visit Baltimore.
After seeing New York, the travelers visited Washington, where they were much astonished at many of the American customs; and when on one occasion Miss Noel was attending the President’s reception, and discovered her maid Parsons in the line ahead of her, her amazement and indignation knew no bounds. She ordered the offending Parsons home at once, and was strongly tempted to discharge her on the spot, but after further consideration decided to pardon her, as it was her first offense.
After “doing” the capital, Sir Robert and his party set out for the West and in due time arrived at their destination, the hospitable home of Mr. and Mrs. Ketchum. On the journey the visitors had their first introduction to a sleeping-car, and did not find the experience one of unalloyed pleasure. One of their fellow-travelers was a loquacious man, who retailed his entire family history to a neighbor in a loud tone.
This was too much for the endurance of Mrs. Sykes, and after bouncing about in fury behind her curtains for a while she suddenly sent forth these words in a stentorian voice, with an aggressively British accent:
“Would you be good enough, whoever you are and wherever you are, to keep yourself and your affairs to yourself, and allow an English lady, who doesn’t care a pin about you, or your wife, or your daughter, or anything connected with you, to go to sleep?” She thought of and spoke for herself alone, but so admirably expressed the general exasperation that a loud laugh followed.
The stay with Mr. and Mrs. Ketchum proved most enjoy-able, and when it was completed the travelers continued their tour, visited California and New Orleans, and took a trip to Havana.
While staying at the Ketchums Mr. Ramsay progressed rapidly in his friendship with Miss Bijou Brown, a very pretty and wealthy young girl whom he had met in New York. He left her without declaring himself, much to her mortification and grief; but she learned later, when he returned to her after receiving a legacy from his aunt, that his silence was caused by his impecuniousness, and she accordingly forgave him.
Arthur Heathcote found Baltimore and Miss Bascome even more fascinating than he had anticipated, and when the latter informed him that she would never live in England, he made up his mind to make his future home in the United States. Sir Robert purchased an attractive old estate in Virginia which had greatly taken his fancy, and put it into the hands of his nephew, who planned there an ideal home in which to install his bride.
The visiting party being now depleted of two of its members, and also being minus Mrs. Sykes, who had forsaken it, set sail for its native land, carrying back most delightful memories of the American trip.