IN the catalogue of Flirts this variety has many representatives. England is a country of large families; all the girls in a family cannot be pretty, and it will often happen that amongst half a dozen sisters, one only has any pretensions to comeliness. This one is called 'the Beauty,' and she becomes in a household what the 'favourite' is in a racing-stable. All the family hopes are centred upon her, and she is expected to win good matrimonial stakes for herself, that she may provide well for her sisters afterwards.
Her sisters do not much like her as a rule how should they? She eclipses them whenever they appear together: she is a butterfly, and they so many grey moths. Nevertheless Beauty is not treated in the Cinderella fashion, for that is a style which has grown antiquated. Nowadays Cinderella's ugly sisters would have calculated the advantages of possessing a relative who could bring them to great honour, and comfort them on every side.
Besides, Beauty often has a mother who keeps the ugly sisters in subjection. Appraising with maternal shrewdness the perfections of the one child who is the living image of what she herself was, or thinks herself to have been, the judicious parent gives out that Beauty is delicate, and requires special petting - that she is also a very sensitive child, and must not be teased. With more or less good grace, the sisters submit to see Beauty lie in bed longer than they, wear prettier dresses, and drink a glass of port-wine every day at luncheon. Jealousy goads them to snub the favoured one now and then with tart speeches, or to pinch her slyly in corners and plead provocation - which does not save them from correction at the maternal tongue or hands.
It is more pleasing to reflect that in frequent cases the ugly sisters join quite as cordially as their mother in the recognition of Beauty's queenship. If they be a well-taught good-natured family in straitened circumstances - say, the daughters of a country clergy-man - it becomes evident to them that they cannot all go up to London to enjoy themselves at balls and flower-show; so they get to feel a sort of pride in the sister who is to wear the family colours, and, whilst enjoying her winsome face, wish it luck for their own sakes. These are beauties who have been passionately loved and admired by their ill-favoured kin.
In any case, Beauty is sure to be spoiled by the family acknowledgment of her charms; and by the time she is consigned to the London aunt or godmother who has undertaken to bring her out, she has formed rather rosy anticipations of the triumphs that await her. Nobody has exactly told her that she has been sent to London to catch a husband; but she understands what hopes have been placed upon her, and feels that she is not intended to return home unengaged. However, her first parties in town cause her a sharp disappointment. She passes unnoticed among the crowd of other beauties; she is jostled on staircases; her chaperon has actually to finesse in order to find her partners; and these, far from being overwhelmed by her charms, treat her with remarkable composure, and talk a drawling persiflage which she does not understand.
All this is very different from what Beauty had expected, on the faith of a society experience derived from three-volume novels. She had pictured well-dressed men of title and fortune thronging round her in circles five deep; and a particular one, dark, very tall, calm, muscular, sardonic towards men and gentle as a lamb towards herself, who should do violent things in her honour, and eventually win her hand by cowing all his rivals like a very lion-tamer. A country Flirt has always to unlearn a great deal when she comes up to town; and the intermediary period between the discarding of old ideas and the acquisition of new puts her in much the same shivering plight as moulting birds, when their worn feathers have gone and the fresh brilliant plumage is growing. This morally denuded plight is also one full of peril.
Beauty may let herself be caught unawares by a sapient fowler, whose snares were too cunning to be suspected. Feeling that even the smooth places of society are strange to her tread, how can she guess its pitfalls? The jargon of ballrooms; the indifference which everybody seems to express towards everything; the competition with other beauties whom she sees to be prettier, sprightlier, gayer than herself; and, above all, the bewildering whirl of new faces: these things abash her. It appears to her as though she never met the same persons twice. Every day brings fresh introductions; so that a partner whom she chances to encounter at three different houses in the course of a fortnight gladdens her like an old friend. This partner is a fowler, and in Beauty's artless welcome of him lies his chance.
But the chaperon is watchful. Beauty is warned that the partner is a Detrimental, and so learns her first lesson of the dangers of town. If she escapes the danger by treating Detrimental guardedly on the fourth occasion of their meeting, she is in a manner seasoned, and walks thenceforth with a securer foot.
Then comes her bright time, when she discovers that the position of a belle during the London season is not quite what she had dreamed. It is nevertheless a pleasant position after all. Her aunt need take no trouble now to find partners for her. The circle of her acquaintance gradually expands, till it includes nearly a couple of hundred unmarried men, whose names she cannot remember, and of whom she knows nothing more than what they have told her about themselves between the figures in a quadrille or during the panting halts of a waltz. Not having memory enough to recollect all these physiognomies, she is often surprised when a man whom she had taken for a stranger comes up and asks her to dance, on the strength of an introduction at a previous ball. Some partners - officers, government clerks, or young barristers - have the polite effrontery to tell her, in so many words, that she is an uncommonly pretty girl. The first time she turns scarlet; but perceiving her complementer whisper, a few minutes afterwards, in the ear of another pretty girl, who merely giggles, she takes such free-and-easy banter for what it is worth, and learns to be surprised at nothing.
Meanwhile, from out of the two hundred men who have been presented to her, a dozen or so, who habitually move within her aunt's 'set,' turn up more often than others; and among these, again, some half dozen are pronounced by her aunt to be 'very nice,' which, in her phraseology, means 'eligible.' London lives much in sets, and Beauty has to cure herself of the delusion that her range of choice is unlimited. Towards the end of the season she gets somehow to see that she may really have the pick of three out of the eligible six, and that the result of three months' dancing, dressing, and sight-seeing, is that she must choose at short notice whether she will marry a junior partner in an indigo firm, a solicitor of forty in rising practice, or a shy squire of thirty, who looks down at the carpet and traces patterns on it with the point of his boot while he is speaking to her.
Good-bye to visions of dashing earls with commissions in the Guards, to tall dark muscular men with lamb-like manners, and to all the big prizes in the marriage lottery! The plain fact has to be faced that Beauty's aunt cannot afford to take charge of her for a second season; and that the girl must make her selection and seal her fate before society 'goes out of town;' failing which she will have to return home and shift for herself as she can amongst those ugly sisters of hers.
It is really a very trying moment, and it seems to the girl as though events had rolled with such steam-like rapidity that the end of the season has come before she has had time to look about her. Nobody has won her heart, and it does not strike her that either of the three gentlemen above mentioned evinces the signs of a violent passion towards herself. Her aunts hints that the rising solicitor is an admirable man, so prudent, wise, and well-to-do; but Beauty prefers the shy squire, because he seems kind and manageable, which the solicitor does not.
The lawyer soon perceives this, and, having no time to waste, retires from the contest in a huff, which so piques the aunt that she reads Beauty a sharp lesson upon giddiness; whereon Beauty, feeling miserable, vents her wretchedness by a fit of sulking towards the squire, who, taking fright after one particularly depressing tete-a-tete, retires also.
These calamities leave only the indigo partner in the field; but Beauty cannot rally in time to snatch at this man without knowing anything of his character, as she says. He seems pert and perky; he talks of everything with disparagement; and Beauty does not think she could be happy with him, at least not till she has had time to study him a little more. So at a final garden-party she neglects to give him the necessary amount of encouragement; the next day he leaves a p.p.c. card;* and the aunt informs Beauty, with a mixture of anger and pity, that the season is over now, and her chance at an end. 'I've done my best for you, my dear; but girls nowadays are not what they were in my time. We always knew when to be serious. We were aware that men can't be trifled with, for pretty faces are as plentiful as blackberries; and it is quite a mistake for a girl to suppose that if she flirts with a man, he can't go away and find just as good as herself anywhere.'
[* P.P.C. (pour prendre congé), To Take Leave. For leave-taking; sometimes written on the address cards of persons about to leave a locality when they pay their farewell visits. In English, 'paid parting call.' E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.]
Beauty is surprised to hear that she has been flirting. It appears to her as though the swift round of society amusements had left her no leisure to do anything half so deliberate. She goes home disconsolate enough; and perhaps two years later, after having in the meantime eked out the weariest of existences with her ugly sisters, she marries a farmer or a curate. But to the end of her life the recollection of her one London season lingers in her mind as a phantasmagoria, a whirligig, a dervish dance, and she decides that she did not get fair play in being blamed for not having chosen a husband in the so rare intervals of thought that were left her between one pleasure and another. Country beauties cling a long time to the fallacy that husband-choosing is a matter for reflection, wherein they differ from their town sisters.
|About Flirts||Flirt's Power||Season Flirt||Example And Precept|
|Plain Sisters||Ecclesiastical Flirt||Home Regimental Flirts||Foreign Regimental Flirt|
|Seaside Flirt||Tourist Flirt||Country-Town-House Flirts||Sentimental Flirt|
|Taken from original text, as written. May contain OCR errors.|