On Going To A Party by Charles S Brooks

Story type: Essay

Although I usually enjoy a party when I have arrived, I seldom anticipate it with pleasure. I remain sour until I have hung my hat. I suspect that my disorder is general and that if any group of formal diners could be caught in preparation midway between their tub and over-shoes, they would be found a peevish company who might be expected to snap at one another. Yet look now at their smiling faces! With what zest they crunch their food! How cheerfully they clatter on their plates! Who would suspect that yonder smiling fellow who strokes his silky chin was sullen when he fixed his tie; or that this pleasant babble comes out of mouths that lately sulked before their mirrors?

I am not sure from what cause my own crustiness proceeds. I am of no essential unsociability. Nor is it wholly the masquerade of unaccustomed clothes. I am deft with a bow-knot and patient with my collar. It may be partly a perversity of sex, inasmuch as we men are sometimes “taken” by our women folk. But chiefly it comes from an unwillingness to pledge the future, lest on the very night my own hearth appear the better choice. Here we are, with legs stretched for comfort toward the fire–easy and unbuttoned. Let the rain beat on the glass! Let chimneys topple! Let the wind whistle to its shrill companions of the North! But although I am led growling and reluctant to my host’s door–with stiffened paws, as it were, against the sill–I usually enjoy myself when I am once inside. To see me across the salad smiling at my pretty neighbor, no one would know how churlish I had been on the coming of the invitation.

I have attended my share of formal dinners. I have dined with the magnificent H—-s and their Roman Senator has announced me at the door; although, when he asked my name in the hall, I thought at first in my ignorance that he gave me directions about my rubbers. No one has faced more forks and knives, or has apportioned his implements with nicer discrimination among the meats. Not once have I been forced to stir my after-dinner coffee with a soup spoon. And yet I look back on these grand occasions with contentment chiefly because they are past. I am in whole agreement with Cleopatra when she spoke slightingly of her salad days–surely a fashionable afternoon affair at a castle on the river Nile–when, as she confessed, she was young and green in judgment.

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It is usually a pleasure to meet distinguished persons who, as a rule, are friendly folk who sit in peace and comfort. But if they are lugged in and set up stiffly at a formal dinner they are too much an exhibition. In this circumstance they cannot be natural and at their best. And then I wonder how they endure our abject deference and flabby surrender to their opinions. Would it not destroy all interest in a game of bowling if the wretched pins fell down before the hit were made? It was lately at a dinner that our hostess held in captivity three of these celebrated lions. One of them was a famous traveler who had taken a tiger by its bristling beard. The second was a popular lecturer. The third was in distemper and crouched quietly at her plate. The first two are sharp and bright and they roared to expectation. But I do not complain when lions take possession of the cage, for it reduces the general liability of talk, and a common man, if he be industrious, may pluck his bird down to the bone in peace.

A formal reception is even worse than a dinner. One stands around with stalled machinery. Good stout legs, that can go at a trot all day, become now weak and wabbly. One hurdles dispiritedly over trailing skirts. One tries in conversation to think of the name of a play he has just seen, but it escapes him. It is, however, so nearly in his grasp, that it prevents him from turning to another topic. Benson, the essayist, also disliked formal receptions and he quotes Prince Hal in their dispraise. “Prithee, Ned,” says the Prince–and I fancy that he has just led a thirsty Duchess to the punchbowl, and was now in the very act of escaping while her face was buried in the cup–“Prithee, Ned,” he says, “come out of this fat room, and lend me thy hand to laugh a little!” And we can imagine these two enfranchised rogues, easy at heart, making off later to their Eastcheap tavern, and the passing of a friendly cup. But now, alas, today, all of the rooms of the house are fat and thick with people. There is a confusion of tongues as when work on the tower of Babel was broken off. There is no escape. If it were one’s good luck to be a waiter, one could at least console himself that it was his livelihood.

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The furniture has been removed from all the rooms in order that more persons may be more uncomfortable. Or perhaps the chairs and tables, like rats in a leaky ship, have scuttled off, as it were, now that fashion has wrecked the home. A friend of mine, J—-, resents these entertainments. No sooner, recently, did he come into such a bare apartment where, in happier days his favorite chair had stood, than he hinted to the guests that the furniture had been sold to meet the expenses of the day. This sorry jest lasted him until, on whispering to a servant, he learned that the chairs had been stored in an upper hall. At this he proposed that the party reassemble above, where at least they might sit down and be comfortable. When I last saw J—- that evening he was sitting at the turn of the stairs behind an exotic shrubbery, where he had found a vagrant chair that had straggled behind the upper emigration.

The very envelope that contains a formal invitation bears a forbidding look. It is massive and costly to the eye. It is much larger than a letter, unless, perhaps, one carries on a correspondence with a giant from Brobdingnag. You turn it round and round with sad premonition. The very writing is coldly impersonal without the pinch of a more human hand. It practices a chill anonymity as if it contains a warrant for a hanging. At first you hope it may be merely an announcement from your tailor, inasmuch as commerce patterns its advertisements on these social forms. I am told that there was once a famous man–a distinguished novelist–who so disliked formal parties but was so timid at their rejection that he took refuge in the cellar whenever one of these forbidding documents arrived, until he could forge a plausible excuse; for he believed that these colder and more barren rooms quickened his invention. The story goes that once when he was in an unusually timid state he lacked the courage to break the seal and so spent an uneasy morning upon the tubs, to the inconvenience of the laundress who thought that he fretted upon the plot. At last, on tearing off the envelope, he found to his relief that it was only a notice for a display of haberdashery at a fashionable shop. In his gratitude at his escape he at once sought his desk and conferred a blushing heiress on his hero.

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But perhaps there are persons of an opposite mind who welcome an invitation. Even the preliminary rummage delights them when their clothes are sent for pressing and their choice wavers among their plumage. For such persons the superscription on the envelope now seems written in the spacious hand of hospitality.

But of informal dinners and the meeting of friends we can all approve without reserve. I recall, once upon a time, four old gentlemen who met every week for whist. Three of them were of marked eccentricity. One of them, when the game was at its pitch, reached down to the rungs of his chair and hitched it first to one side and then to the other, mussing up the rugs. The second had the infirmity of nodding his head continuously. Even if he played a trivial three spot, he sat on the decision and wagged his beard up and down like a judge. The third sucked his teeth and thereby made hissing noises. Later in the evening there would be served buttermilk or cider, and the sober party would adjourn at the gate. But there were two young rascals who practiced these eccentricities and after they had gone to bed, for the exquisite humor of it, they nodded their heads, too, and sucked their teeth with loud hissing noises.

No one entertains more pleasantly than the S—- family and no one is more informal. If you come on the minute for your dinner, it is likely that none of the family is about. After a search J—- is found in a flannel shirt in his garden with a watering-can. “Hello!” he says in surprise. “What time is it? Have you come already for dinner?”

“For God’s sake,” you reply–for I assume you to be of familiar and profane manners–“get up and wash yourself! Don’t you know that you are giving a party?”

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J—- affects to be indignant. “Who is giving this party, anyway?” he asks. “If it’s yours, you run it!” And then he leads you to the house, where you abuse each other agreeably as he dresses.

Once a year on Christmas Eve they give a general party. This has been a custom for a number of years and it is now an institution as fixed as the night itself. Invitations are not issued. At most a rumor goes abroad to the elect that nine o’clock is a proper time to come, when the children, who have peeked for Santa Claus up the chimney, have at last been put to bed. There is a great wood fire in the sitting-room and, by way of andirons, two soldiers of the Continental Army keep up their endless march across the hearth. The fireplace is encircled by a line of leather cushions that rest upon the floor, like a window-seat that has undergone amputation of all its legs.

But the center of the entertainment is a prodigious egg-nog that rises from the dining table. I do not know the composition of the drink, yet my nose is much at fault if it includes aught but eggs and whiskey. At the end of the table J—- stands with his mighty ladle. It is his jest each year–for always there is a fresh stranger who has not heard it–it is his jest that the drink would be fair and agreeable to the taste if it were not for the superfluity of eggs which dull the mixture.

No one, even of a sour prohibition, refuses his entreaty. My aunt, who speaks against the Demon, once appeared at the party. She came sniffing to the table. “Ought I to take it, John?” she asked.

“Mildest thing you ever drank,” said John, and he ladled her out a cup.

My aunt smelled it suspiciously.

“It’s eggs,” said John.

“Eggs?” said my aunt, “What a funny smell they have!” She said this with a facial expression not unlike that of Little Red Ridinghood, when she first saw the old lady with the long nose and sharp eyes.

“Nothing bad, I hope,” said John.

“N-no,” said my aunt slowly, and she took a sip.

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“Of course the eggs spoil it a little,” said John.

“It’s very good,” said my aunt, as she took another sip.

Then she put down her glass, but only when it was empty. “John,” she said, “you are a rogue. You would like to get me tipsy.” And at this she moved out of danger. Little Red Ridinghood escaped the wolf as narrowly. But did Little Red Ridinghood escape? Dear me, how one forgets!

But in closing I must not fail to mention an old lady and gentleman, both beyond eighty, who have always attended these parties. They have met old age with such trust and cheerfulness, and they are so eager at a jest, that no one of all the gathering fits the occasion half so well. And to exchange a word with them is to feel a pleasant contact with all the gentleness and mirth that have lodged with them during the space of their eighty years. The old gentleman is an astronomer and until lately, when he moved to a newer quarter of the town, he had behind his house in a proper tower a telescope, through which he showed his friends the moon. But in these last few years his work has been entirely mathematical and his telescope has fallen into disorder. His work finds a quicker comment among scientists of foreign lands than on his own street.

It is likely that tonight he has been busy with the computation of the orbit of a distant star up to the very minute when his wife brought in his tie and collar. And then arm and arm they have set out for the party, where they will sit until the last guest has gone.

Alas, when the party comes this Christmas, only one of these old people will be present, for the other with a smile lately fell asleep.

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