Story type: Essay
“Charmed. Very hot weather we’ve been having of late–I mean cold. Let me see, I did not quite catch your name just now. Thank you so much. Yes, it is a bit close.” And a silence falls, neither of us being able to think what next to say.
What has happened is this: My host has met me in the doorway, and shaken me heartily by the hand.
“So glad you were able to come,” he has said. “Some friends of mine here, very anxious to meet you.” He has bustled me across the room. “Delightful people. You’ll like them–have read all your books.”
He has brought me up to a stately lady, and has presented me. We have exchanged the customary commonplaces, and she, I feel, is waiting for me to say something clever, original and tactful. And I don’t know whether she is Presbyterian or Mormon; a Protectionist or a Free Trader; whether she is engaged to be married or has lately been divorced!
A friend of mine adopts the sensible plan of always providing you with a short history of the person to whom he is about to lead you.
“I want to introduce you to a Mrs. Jones,” he whispers. “Clever woman. Wrote a book two years ago. Forget the name of it. Something about twins. Keep away from sausages. Father ran a pork shop in the Borough. Husband on the Stock Exchange. Keep off coke. Unpleasantness about a company. You’ll get on best by sticking to the book. Lot in it about platonic friendship. Don’t seem to be looking too closely at her. Has a slight squint she tries to hide.”
By this time we have reached the lady, and he introduces me as a friend of his who is simply dying to know her.
“Wants to talk about your book,” he explains. “Disagrees with you entirely on the subject of platonic friendship. Sure you’ll be able to convince him.”
It saves us both a deal of trouble. I start at once on platonic friendship, and ask her questions about twins, avoiding sausages and coke. She thinks me an unusually interesting man, and I am less bored than otherwise I might be.
I have sometimes thought it would be a serviceable device if, in Society, we all of us wore a neat card–pinned, say, upon our back– setting forth such information as was necessary; our name legibly written, and how to be pronounced; our age (not necessarily in good faith, but for purposes of conversation. Once I seriously hurt a German lady by demanding of her information about the Franco-German war. She looked to me as if she could not object to being taken for forty. It turned out she was thirty-seven. Had I not been an Englishman I might have had to fight a duel); our religious and political beliefs; together with a list of the subjects we were most at home upon; and a few facts concerning our career–sufficient to save the stranger from, what is vulgarly termed “putting his foot in it.” Before making jokes about “Dumping,” or discussing the question of Chinese Cheap Labour, one would glance behind and note whether one’s companion was ticketed “Whole-hogger,” or “Pro-Boer.” Guests desirous of agreeable partners–an “agreeable person,” according to the late Lord Beaconsfield’s definition, being “a person who agrees with you”–could make their own selection.
“Excuse me. Would you mind turning round a minute? Ah, ‘Wagnerian Crank!’ I am afraid we should not get on together. I prefer the Italian school.”
Or, “How delightful. I see you don’t believe in vaccination. May I take you into supper?”
Those, on the other hand, fond of argument would choose a suitable opponent. A master of ceremonies might be provided who would stand in the centre of the room and call for partners: “Lady with strong views in favour of female franchise wishes to meet gentleman holding the opinions of St. Paul. With view to argument.”
An American lady, a year or two ago, wrote me a letter that did me real good: she appreciated my work with so much understanding, criticised it with such sympathetic interest. She added that, when in England the summer before, she had been on the point of accepting an invitation to meet me; but at the last moment she had changed her mind; she felt so sure–she put it pleasantly, but this is what it came to–that in my own proper person I should fall short of her expectations. For my own sake I felt sorry she had cried off; it would have been worth something to have met so sensible a woman. An author introduced to people who have read–or who say that they have read–his books, feels always like a man taken for the first time to be shown to his future wife’s relations. They are very pleasant. They try to put him at his ease. But he knows instinctively they are disappointed with him. I remember, when a very young man, attending a party at which a famous American humorist was the chief guest. I was standing close behind a lady who was talking to her husband.
“He doesn’t look a bit funny,” said the lady.
“Great Scott!” answered her husband. “How did you expect him to look? Did you think he would have a red nose and a patch over one eye?”
“Oh, well, he might look funnier than that, anyhow,” retorted the lady, highly dissatisfied. “It isn’t worth coming for.”
We all know the story of the hostess who, leaning across the table during the dessert, requested of the funny man that he would kindly say something amusing soon, because the dear children were waiting to go to bed. Children, I suppose, have no use for funny people who don’t choose to be funny. I once invited a friend down to my house for a Saturday to Monday. He is an entertaining man, and before he came I dilated on his powers of humour–somewhat foolishly perhaps– in the presence of a certain youthful person who resides with me, and who listens when she oughtn’t to, and never when she ought. He happened not to be in a humorous mood that evening. My young relation, after dinner, climbed upon my knee. For quite five minutes she sat silent. Then she whispered:
“Has he said anything funny?”
“Hush. No, not yet; don’t be silly.”
Five minutes later: “Was that funny?”
“No, of course not.”
“Because–can’t you hear? We are talking about Old Age Pensions.”
“Oh, it’s–oh, never mind now. It isn’t a subject on which one can be funny.”
“Then what’s he want to talk about it for?”
She waited for another quarter of an hour. Then, evidently bored, and much to my relief, suggested herself that she might as well go to bed. She ran to me the next morning in the garden with an air of triumph.
“He said something so funny last night,” she told me.
“Oh, what was it?” I inquired. It seemed to me I must have missed it.
“Well, I can’t exactly ‘member it,” she explained, “not just at the moment. But it was so funny. I dreamed it, you know.”
For folks not Lions, but closely related to Lions, introductions must be trying ordeals. You tell them that for years you have been yearning to meet them. You assure them, in a voice trembling with emotion, that this is indeed a privilege. You go on to add that when a boy –
At this point they have to interrupt you to explain that they are not the Mr. So-and-So, but only his cousin or his grandfather; and all you can think of to say is: “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
I had a nephew who was once the amateur long-distance bicycle champion. I have him still, but he is stouter and has come down to a motor car. In sporting circles I was always introduced as “Shorland’s Uncle.” Close-cropped young men would gaze at me with rapture; and then inquire: “And do you do anything yourself, Mr. Jerome?”
But my case was not so bad as that of a friend of mine, a doctor. He married a leading actress, and was known ever afterwards as “Miss B- ‘s husband.”
At public dinners, where one takes one’s seat for the evening next to someone that one possibly has never met before, and is never likely to meet again, conversation is difficult and dangerous. I remember talking to a lady at a Vagabond Club dinner. She asked me during the entree–with a light laugh, as I afterwards recalled–what I thought, candidly, of the last book of a certain celebrated authoress. I told her, and a coldness sprang up between us. She happened to be the certain celebrated authoress; she had changed her place at the last moment so as to avoid sitting next to another lady novelist, whom she hated.
One has to shift oneself, sometimes, on these occasions. A newspaper man came up to me last Ninth of November at the Mansion House.
“Would you mind changing seats with me?” he asked. “It’s a bit awkward. They’ve put me next to my first wife.”
I had a troubled evening myself once long ago. I accompanied a young widow lady to a musical At Home, given by a lady who had more acquaintances than she knew. We met the butler at the top of the stairs. My friend spoke first:
“Say Mrs. Dash and–“
The butler did not wait for more–he was a youngish man–but shouted out:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dash.”
“My dear! how very quiet you have kept!” cried our hostess delighted. “Do let me congratulate you.”
The crush was too great and our hostess too distracted at the moment for any explanations. We were swept away, and both of us spent the remainder of the evening feebly protesting our singleness.
If it had happened on the stage it would have taken us the whole play to get out of it. Stage people are not allowed to put things right when mistakes are made with their identity. If the light comedian is expecting a plumber, the first man that comes into the drawing-room has got to be a plumber. He is not allowed to point out that he never was a plumber; that he doesn’t look like a plumber; that no one not an idiot would mistake him for a plumber. He has got to be shut up in the bath-room and have water poured over him, just as if he were a plumber–a stage plumber, that is. Not till right away at the end of the last act is he permitted to remark that he happens to be the new curate.
I sat out a play once at which most people laughed. It made me sad. A dear old lady entered towards the end of the first act. We knew she was the aunt. Nobody can possibly mistake the stage aunt–except the people on the stage. They, of course, mistook her for a circus rider, and shut her up in a cupboard. It is what cupboards seem to be reserved for on the stage. Nothing is ever put in them excepting the hero’s relations. When she wasn’t in the cupboard she was in a clothes basket, or tied up in a curtain. All she need have done was to hold on to something while remarking to the hero:
“If you’ll stop shouting and jumping about for just ten seconds, and give me a chance to observe that I am your maiden aunt from Devonshire, all this tomfoolery can be avoided.”
That would have ended it. As a matter of fact that did end it five minutes past eleven. It hadn’t occurred to her to say it before.
In real life I never knew but of one case where a man suffered in silence unpleasantness he could have ended with a word; and that was the case of the late Corney Grain. He had been engaged to give his entertainment at a country house. The lady was a nouvelle riche of snobbish instincts. She left instructions that Corney Grain when he arrived was to dine with the servants. The butler, who knew better, apologised; but Corney was a man not easily disconcerted. He dined well, and after dinner rose and addressed the assembled company.
“Well, now, my good friends,” said Corney, “if we have all finished, and if you are all agreeable, I shall be pleased to present to you my little show.”
The servants cheered. The piano was dispensed with. Corney contrived to amuse his audience very well for half-an-hour without it. At ten o’clock came down a message: Would Mr. Corney Grain come up into the drawing-room. Corney went. The company in the drawing- room were waiting, seated.
“We are ready, Mr. Grain,” remarked the hostess.
“Ready for what?” demanded Corney.
“For your entertainment,” answered the hostess.
“But I have given it already,” explained Corney; “and my engagement was for one performance only.”
“Given it! Where? When?”
“An hour ago, downstairs.”
“But this is nonsense,” exclaimed the hostess.
“It seemed to me somewhat unusual,” Corney replied; “but it has always been my privilege to dine with the company I am asked to entertain. I took it you had arranged a little treat for the servants.”
And Corney left to catch his train.
Another entertainer told me the following story, although a joke against himself. He and Corney Grain were sharing a cottage on the river. A man called early one morning to discuss affairs, and was talking to Corney in the parlour, which was on the ground floor. The window was open. The other entertainer–the man who told me the story–was dressing in the room above. Thinking he recognised the voice of the visitor below, he leant out of his bedroom window to hear better. He leant too far, and dived head foremost into a bed of flowers, his bare legs–and only his bare legs–showing through the open window of the parlour.
“Good gracious!” exclaimed the visitor, turning at the moment and seeing a pair of wriggling legs above the window sill; “who’s that?”
Corney fixed his eyeglass and strolled to the window.
“Oh, it’s only What’s-his-name,” he explained. “Wonderful spirits. Can be funny in the morning.”