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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1704/Be What You Are

From Sunday at Home.


Many years ago, when lucifer matches were yet unknown, and the tinder-box, with its flint and steel, formed the only domestic instrument for obtaining a light, a little old man used to walk about in one of the suburbs of London holding in his hand a fan-shaped bunch of matches, made, as usual, in those days, of splinters of resinous pine wood tipped with brimstone. He never offered his goods, except by a silent gesture, nor did he make them an excuse for asking charity as many others were in the habit of doing. The good-natured servant girls who saw him pass their windows would run up from the area with a smile and a halfpenny, and call out, "Master, some timber;" but they never spoke of matches. "Timber, madam?" the old man would say; "yes, madam;" and with a grave face and a courteous bow would take their money and supply their want. It was reported that the old gentleman had seen better days; perhaps he had at some former time dealt in pine logs, and carried on business on a large scale: now he called himself a "small timber merchant," and if any one addressed him as the "match-man," or asked him for a half-pennyworth of brimstones, he would take no notice of the speaker, but turn away in disgust, as if it were impossible for him to have any dealings with such a customer. Of course the poor old man was crazy, and those who knew him humored and pitied him. But how many people are there in these days crazy after the same fashion, without being aware of it themselves or suspected of it by their neighbors! How common it is for men, and women too, to represent themselves as something greater or of more importance than they really are! The small tradesman carrying on business in some by-lane calls himself a merchant, his shop an emporium, his back kitchen a warehouse, and his cellar a depot; the bricklayer or carpenter is a contractor; the hairdresser is a professor; the wig-maker is an artist in hair; and the milkman, a purveyor; while the dressmaker presides over the mysteries of her art in a magasin des modes. The same spirit shows itself here and there among all classes. In answer to an advertisement for a hospital-matron a "lady-superior" offers herself; and if a mistress is wanted for an infant-school, applications are made, not always grammatically expressed, for the post of "governess." A father brings his daughter to the house of a lady who has been inquiring for a housemaid. She wears an imitation fur jacket, imitation gold earrings, and an imitation chignon, or plait, made of cotton or hemp by some new patent process of this imitation age, with a curious bunch of gauze, feathers, ribbons, grapes, and flowers, hung on behind by way of a bonnet; her hands are encased in lavender-colored kid gloves, and she carries a light parasol in her hand, though the day is overcast, and an umbrella would be much more to the purpose. She makes an imitation bow when the mistress of the house enters the room; and her father, who is proud of her appearance and manners, introduces her with the appropriate words, "This is the young lady, ma'am, as is open to an engagement for your situation." The owner of the house, who has no intention of resigning her situation, but only wants a housemaid, declines the application. There are pretensions of a worse kind than this. A well-educated youth, for instance, leaves school and is placed in an office or under articles, with a view to his future profession. His fellow-clerks or fellow-students appear to him by their costumes and conversation to be "great swells."

He does not wish to be thought inferior to them, and very soon learns to imitate their style and adopt their manners. He hears them talking largely of their parentage, of their exploits and their extravagances; and he wishes to be thought as rich, as gay, and as reckless as the best (or worst) of them. If they smoke, he must do the same; if they drink, he will drink with them; if they behave like heathens and talk disgracefully and vilely, he affects to admire their conduct and to enjoy their conversation. All this may at first be very much against his better instincts, but he fears to be ridiculed; and, in a word, would rather be accepted for what he is not, and ought not to be, than be esteemed for what he is. Every kind of pretence is bad: to pretend to be better than we are, is hypocrisy; to pretend to be greater than we are, is vanity and folly; but to pretend to be worse than we are, for the sake of winning favor with those whose favor is not worth having, is at once the worst and silliest pretence of all. Whatever a man's position or calling may be, if it be a thing to be ashamed of, let him abandon it; but if it be not wrong or disgraceful in itself, let him never be ashamed of it.