If you are one of those lucky people whose motor is not numbered (as mine is) 19 or 11 or 22, it does not really matter where your host for the evening prefers to live; Bayswater or Battersea or Blackheath–it is all the same to your chauffeur. But for those of us who have to fight for bus or train or taxicab, it is different. We have to say to ourselves, “Is it worth it?” A man who lives in Chelsea (for instance) demands more from an invitation to Hampstead than from an invitation to Kensington. If such a man were interested in people rather than in food, he might feel that one actor-manager and a rural dean among his fellow-guests would be sufficient attraction in a Kensington house, but that at least two archbishops and a revue-producer would have to be forthcoming at Hampstead before the journey on a wet night would be justified. On the other hand, if he were a vulgar man who preferred food to people, he would divide London up into whisky, burgundy, and champagne areas according to their accessibility from his own house; and on receiving an invitation to a house in the outer or champagne area (as it might be at Dulwich), he would try to discover, either by inquiry among his friends or by employing a private detective, whether this house fulfilled the necessary condition. If not, of course, then he would write a polite note to say that he would be in the country, or confined to his bed with gout, on the day in question.
I am as fond of going out to dinner as anyone else is, but there is a moment, just before I begin to array myself for it, when I wish that it were on some other evening. If the telephone bell rings, I say, “Thank Heavens, Mrs. Parkinson-Jones has died suddenly. I mean, how sad,” and, looking as solemn as I can, I pick up the receiver.
“Is that the Excelsior Laundry?” says a voice. “You only sent back half a pair of socks this week.”
I replace the receiver and go reluctantly upstairs to dress. There is no help for it. As I dress, I wonder who my partner at the table will be, and if at this moment she is feeling as gloomy about the prospects as I am. How much better if we had both dined comfortably at home. I remember some years ago taking in a Dowager Countess. Don’t think that I am priding myself on this; I realize as well as you do that a mistake of some sort was made. Probably my hostess took me for somebody else–Sir Thomas Lipton, it may have been. Anyway the Dowager Countess and I led the way downstairs to the dining-room, and all the other guests murmured to themselves, “Who on earth is that?” and told each other that no doubt I was one of the Serbian Princes who had recently arrived in the country. I forgot what the Countess and I talked about; probably yachts, or tea; but I was not paying much attention to our conversation. I had other things to think about.
For the Dowager Countess (wisely, I think) was dieting herself. She went through the evening on a glass of water and two biscuits. Each new dish on its way round the table was brought first to her; she waved it away, and it came to me. There was nothing to be done. I had to open it.
My partciular memory is of a quail-pie. Quails may be all right for Moses in the desert, but, if they are served in the form of pie at dinner, they should be distributed at a side-table, not handed round from guest to guest. The Countess having shuddered at it and resumed her biscuit, it was left to me to make the opening excavation. The difficulty was to know where each quail began and ended; the job really wanted a professional quail-finder, who might have indicated the point on the surface of the crust at which it would be most hopeful to dig for quails.
As it was, I had to dig at random, and, being unlucky, I plunged the knife straight into the middle of a bird. It was impossible, of course, to withdraw the quail through the slit I had thus made in the pastry, nor could I get my knife out (with a bird sticking on the end of it) in order to make a second slit at a suitable angle. I tried to shake the quail off inside the pie, but it was fixed too firmly. I tried pulling it off against the inside of the crust, but it became obvious that if I persisted in this, the whole roof would come off. The footman, with great presence of mind, realized my difficulty and offered me a second knife. Unfortunately, I misjudged the width of quails, and plunging this second knife into the pie a little farther on, I landed into the middle of another quail no less retentive of cutlery than the first. The dish now began to look more like a game than a pie, and, waving away a third knife, I said (quite truly by this time) that I didn’t like quails, and that on second thoughts I would ask the Dowager Countess to lend me a biscuit.
Fortunately, dinner is not all quail-pie. But even in the case of some more amenable dish, the first-comer is in a position of great responsibility. Casting a hasty eye round the company, he has to count the number of diners, estimate the size of the dish, divide the one by the other, and take a helping of the appropriate size, knowing that the fashion which he inaugurates will be faithfully followed. How much less exacting is the position of the more lowly-placed man; my own, for instance, on ordinary occasions. There may be two quails and an egg-cup left when the footman reaches me, or even only the egg-cup, but at least I have nobody but myself to consider.
But let us get away from food for the body, and consider food for the mind. I refer to that intellectual conversation which it is the business of the guests at a dinner-party to contribute. Not “What shall we eat?” but “What shall be talk about?” is the question which is really disturbing us as we tug definitely at our necktie and give a last look at ourselves in the glass before following the servant upstairs.
“Will you take in Miss Montmorency?” says our hostess.
We bow to Miss Montmorency hopefully.
“Er–jolly day it’s been, hasn’t it?”
No, really, we can’t say anything about the weather. We must be original.
“Er–have you been to any theatres lately?”
No, no, everybody says that. Well, then, what can we say? Let us try again.
“How do you do. Er–I see by the paper this evening that the Bolsheviks have captured Omsk.”
“Omsk.” Or was it Tomsk? Fortunately it does not matter, for Miss Montmorency is not the least interested.
“Oh!” she says.
I hate people who say “Oh!” It means that you have to begin all over again.
“I’ve been playing golfsk–I mean golf–this afternoon,” we try. “Do you play at all?”
Then it is no good telling her what our handicap is.
“No doubt your prefer tennis,” we hazard.
“I mean bridge.”
“I don’t play any game,” she answers.
Then the sooner she goes away and talks to somebody else the better.
“Ah, I expect you’re more interested in the theatre?”
“I hardly ever go to the theatre.”
“Well, of course, a good book by the fireside–“
“I never read,” she says.
Dash the woman, what does she do? But before we can ask her, she lets us into the great secret.
“I like talking,” she says.
Good Heavens! What else have we been trying to do all this time?
However, it is only the very young girl at her first dinner-party whom it is difficult to entertain. At her second dinner-party, and thereafter, she knows the whole art of being amusing. All she has to do is to listen; all we men have to do is to tell her about ourselves. Indeed, sometimes I think that it is just as well to begin at once. Let us be quite frank about it, and get to work as soon as we are introduced.
“How do you do. Lovely day it has been, hasn’t it? It was on just such a day as this, thirty-five years ago, that I was born in the secluded village of Puddlecome of humble but honest parents. Nestling among the western hills…”
And so on. Ending, at the dessert, with the thousand we earned that morning.