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exorbitant prices for apples, and while still haggling with the wrinkled Eve who had tempted me, I became suddenly aware of a carriage approaching, and, indeed, already close by. I raised my eyes, still munching an apple which I held in one hand, while the other grasped my walking-stick (true to my instincts of dinner-guests, as young women to a passing wedding or old ones to a funeral), and beheld Aurelia!
Old in this kind of observation as I am, there was something so graciously alluring in the look that she cast upon me, as unconsciously, indeed, as she would have cast it upon the church, that, fumbling hastily for my spectacles to enjoy the boon more fully, I thoughtlessly advanced upon the apple-stand, and, in some indescribable manner, tripping, down we all fell into the street, old woman, apples, baskets, stand, and I, in promiscuous confusion. As I struggled there, somewhat bewildered, yet sufficiently self-possessed to look after the carriage, I beheld that beautiful woman looking at us through the back window (you could not have done it; the integrity of your shirt-collar would have interfered), and smiling pleasantly, so that her going around the corner was like a gentle sunset, so seemed she to disappear in her own smiling; or-if you choose, in view of the apple difficulties—like a rainbow after a storm.
If the beautiful Aurelia recalls that event, she may know of my existence; not otherwise. And even then she knows me only as a funny old gentleman, who, in his eagerness to look at her, tumbled over an apple-woman.
My fancy from that moment followed her. How grateful I was to the wrinkled Eve's extortion, and to the untoward tumble, since it procured me the sight of that smile. I took my sweet revenge from that. For I knew that the beautiful Aurelia entered the house of her host with beaming eyes, and my fancy heard her sparkling story. You consider yourself happy be
cause you are sitting by her and helping her to a lady-finger, or a macaroon, for which she smiles. But I was her theme for ten mortal minutes. She was my bard, my blithe historian. She was the Homer of my luckless Trojan fall. She set my mishap to music, in telling it. Think what it is to have inspired Urania; to have called a brighter beam into the eyes of Miranda, and do not think so much of passing Aurelia the mottoes, my dear young friend.
There was the advantage of not going to that dinner. Had I been invited, as you were, I should have pestered Prue about the buttons on my white waistcoat, instead of leaving her placidly piercing adolescent trousers. She would have been flustered, fearful of being too late, of tumbling the garment, of soiling it, fearful of offending me in some way (admirable woman!), I, in my natural impatience, might have let drop a thoughtless word, which would have been a pang in her heart and a tear in her eye, for weeks afterward.
As I walked nervously up the avenue (for I am unaccustomed to prandial recreations), I should not have had that solacing image of quiet Prue, and the trousers, as the background in the pictures of the gay figures I passed, making each, by contrast, fairer. I should have been wondering what to say and do at the dinner. I should surely have been very warm, and yet not have enjoyed the rich, waning sunlight. Need I tell you that I should not have stopped for apples, but instead of economically tumbling into the street with apples and apple-women, whereby I merely rent my trousers across the knee, in a manner that Prue can readily, and at little cost, repair, I should, beyond peradventure, have split a new dollar-pair of gloves in the effort of straining my large hands into them, which would, also, have caused me additional redness in the face, and renewed fluttering. Above all, I should not have seen Aurelia passing in her car
riage, nor would she have smiled at me, nor charmed my memory with her radiance, nor the circle at dinner with the sparkling Iliad of my woes. Then at the table, I should not have sat by her. You would have had that pleasure; I should have led out the maiden aunt from the country, and have talked poultry, when I talked at all. Aurelia would not have remarked me. Afterward, in describing the dinner to her virtuous parents, she would have concluded, "and one old gentleman, whom I didn't know."
No, my polished friend, whose elegant repose of manner I yet greatly commend, I am content, if you are. How much better it was that I was not invited to that dinner, but was permitted, by a kind fate, to furnish a subject for Aurelia's wit.
There is one other advantage in sending your fancy to dinner, instead of going yourself. It is, that then the occasion remains wholly fair in your memory. You, who devote yourself to dining out, and who are to be daily seen affably sitting down to such feasts, as I know mainly by hearsay-by the report of waiters, guests, and others who were present-you cannot escape the little things that spoil the picture, and which the fancy does
For instance, in handing you the potage à la Bisque, at the very commencement of this dinner to-day, John, the waiter, who never did such a thing before, did this time suffer the plate to tip, so that a little of that rare soup dripped into your lapjust enough to spoil those trousers, which is nothing to you, because you can buy a great many more trousers, but which little event is inharmonious with the fine porcelain dinner-service, with the fragrant wines, the glittering glass, the beautiful guests, and the mood of mind suggested by all of these. There is, in fact, if you will pardon a free use of the vernacular, there is a grease-spot upon your remembrance of this dinner.
Or, in the same way, and with the same kind of mental result, you can easily imagine the meats a little tough; a suspicion of smoke somewhere in the sauces; too much pepper, perhaps, or too little salt; or there might be the graver dissonance of claret not properly attempered, or a choice Rhenish below the average mark, or the spilling of some of that Arethusa Madeira, marvelous for its innumerable circumnavigations of the globe, and for being as dry as the conversation of the host. These things are not up to the high level of the dinner; for wherever Aurelia dines, all accessories should be as perfect in their kind as she, the principal, is in hers.
That reminds me of a possible dissonance worse than all. Suppose that soup had trickled down the unimaginable berthe of Aurelia's dress (since it might have done so), instead of wasting itself upon your trousers! Could even the irreproachable elegance of your manners have contemplated, unmoved, a grease-spot upon your remembrance of the peerless Aurelia?
You smile, of course, and remind me that that lady's manners are so perfect that, if she drank poison, she would wipe her mouth after it as gracefully as ever. How much more then, you say, in the case of such a slight contretemps as spotting her dress, would she appear totally unmoved.
So she would, undoubtedly. She would be, and look, as pure as ever; but, my young friend, her dress would not. Once I dropped a pickled oyster in the lap of my Prue, who wore, on the occasion, her sea-green-silk gown. I did not love my Prue the less; but there certainly was a very unhandsome spot upon her dress. And although I know my Prue to be spotless, yet, whenever I recall that day, I see her in a spotted gown, and I would prefer never to have been obliged to think of her in such a garment.
Can you not make the application to the case, very likely to
happen, of some disfigurement of that exquisite toilet of Aurelia's? In going down-stairs, for instance, why should not heavy old Mr. Carbuncle, who is coming close behind with Mrs. Peony, both very eager for dinner, tread upon the hem of that garment which my lips would grow pale to kiss? The august Aurelia, yielding to natural laws, would be drawn suddenly backward-a very undignified movement-and the dress would be dilapidated. There would be apologies, and smiles, and forgiveness, and pinning up the pieces, nor would there be the faintest feeling of awkwardness or vexation in Aurelia's mind. But to you, looking on, and, beneath all that pure show of waistcoat, cursing old Carbuncle's carelessness, this tearing of dresses and repair of the toilet is by no means a poetic and cheerful spectacle. Nay, the very impatience that it produces in your mind jars upon the harmony of the moment.
You will respond, with proper scorn, that you are not so absurdly fastidious as to heed the little necessary drawbacks of social meetings, and that you have not much regard for “the harmony of the occasion" (which phrase I fear you will repeat in a sneering tone). You will do very right in saying this; and
is a remark to which I shall give all the hospitality of my mind, and I do so because I heartily coincide in it. I hold a man to be very foolish who will not eat a good dinner because the table-cloth is not clean, or who cavils at the spots upon the sun. But still a man wno does not apply his eye to a telescope, or some kind of prepared medium, does not see those spots, while he has just as much light and heat as he who does.
So it is with me. I walk in the avenue, and eat all the delightful dinners, without seeing the spots upon the table-cloth, and behold all the beautiful Aurelias without swearing at old Carbuncle. I am the guest who, for the small price of invisibility, drinks only the best wines, and talks only to the most