Worldly Color-Blindness by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Myriads of people have no ear for music and derive but little pleasure from sweet sounds. Strange as it may appear, many gifted and sensitive mortals have been unable to distinguish one note from another, Apollo’s harmonious art remaining for them, as for the elder Dumas, only an “expensive noise.”

Another large class find it impossible to discriminate between colors. Men afflicted in this way have even become painters of reputation. I knew one of the latter, who, when a friend complimented him on having caught the exact shade of a pink toilet in one of his portraits, answered, “Does that dress look pink to you? I thought it was green!” and yet he had copied what he saw correctly.

Both these classes are to be pitied, but are not the cause of much suffering to others. It is annoying, I grant you, to be torn asunder in a collision, because red and green lights on the switches combined into a pleasing harmony before the brakeman’s eyes. The tone-deaf gentleman who insists on whistling a popular melody is almost as trying as the lady suffering from the same weakness, who shouts, “Ninon, Ninon, que fais-tu de la vie!” until you feel impelled to cry, “Que faites-vous, madame, with the key?”

Examinations now keep daltonic gentlemen out of locomotives, and ladies who have lost their “keys” are apt to find their friends’ pianos closed. What we cannot guard against is a variety of the genus homo which suffers from “social color-blindness.” These well-meaning mortals form one of the hardest trials that society is heir to; for the disease is incurable, and as it is almost impossible to escape from them, they continue to spread dismay and confusion along their path to the bitter end.

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This malady, which, as far as I know, has not been diagnosed, invades all circles, and is, curiously enough, rampant among well-born and apparently well-bred people.

Why is it that the entertainments at certain houses are always dull failures, while across the way one enjoys such agreeable evenings? Both hosts are gentlemen, enjoying about the same amount of “unearned increment,” yet the atmosphere of their houses is radically different. This contrast cannot be traced to the dulness or brilliancy of the entertainer and his wife. Neither can it be laid at the door of inexperience, for the worst offenders are often old hands at the game.

The only explanation possible is that the owners of houses where one is bored are socially color-blind, as cheerfully unconscious of their weakness as the keyless lady and the whistling abomination.

Since increasing wealth has made entertaining general and lavish, this malady has become more and more apparent, until one is tempted to parody Mme. Roland’s dying exclamation and cry, “Hospitality! hospitility! what crimes are committed in thy name!”

Entertaining is for many people but an excuse for ostentation. For others it is a means to an end; while a third variety apparently keep a debit and credit account with their acquaintances-in books of double entry, so that no errors may occur-and issue invitations like receipts, only in return for value received.

We can rarely tell what is passing in the minds of people about us. Some of those mentioned above may feel a vague pleasure when their rooms are filled with a chattering crowd of more or less well-assorted guests; if that is denied them, can find consolation for the outlay in an indefinite sensation of having performed a duty,-what duty, or to whom, they would, however, find it difficult to define.

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Let the novice flee from the allurements of such a host. Old hands know him and have got him on their list, escaping when escape is possible; for he will mate the green youth with the red frump, or like a premature millennium force the lion and the lamb to lie down together, and imagine he has given unmixed pleasure to both.

One would expect that great worldly lights might learn by experience how fatal bungled entertainments can be, but such is not the case. Many well-intentioned people continue sacrificing their friends on the altar of hospitality year after year with never a qualm of conscience or a sensation of pity for their victims. One practical lady of my acquaintance asks her guests alphabetically, commencing the season and the first leaf of her visiting list simultaneously and working steadily on through both to “finis.” If you are an A, you will meet only A’s at her table, with perhaps one or two B’s thrown in to fill up; you may sit next to your mother-in-law for all the hostess cares. She has probably never heard that the number of guests at table should not exceed that of the muses; or if by any chance she has heard it, does not care, and considers such a rule old-fashioned and not appropriate to our improved modern methods of entertaining.

One wonders what possible satisfaction a host can derive from providing fifty people with unwholesome food and drink at a fixed date. It is a physical impossibility for him to have more than a passing word with his guests, and ten to one the unaccustomed number has upset the internal arrangements of his household, so that the dinner will, in consequence, be poor and the service defective.

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A side-light on this question came to me recently when an exceedingly frank husband confided to a circle of his friends at the club the scheme his wife, who, though on pleasure bent, was of a frugal mind, had adopted to balance her social ledger.

“As we dine out constantly through the year,” remarked Benedict, “some return is necessary. So we wait until the height of the winter season, when everybody is engaged two weeks in advance, then send out our invitations at rather short notice for two or three consecutive dinners. You’d be surprised,” he remarked, with a beaming smile, “what a number refuse; last winter we cancelled all our obligations with two dinners, the flowers and entrées being as fresh on the second evening as the first! It’s wonderful!” he remarked in conclusion, “how simple entertaining becomes when one knows how!” Which reminded me of an ingenious youth I once heard telling some friends how easy he had found it to write the book he had just published. After his departure we agreed that if he found it so easy it would not be worth our while to read his volume.

Tender-hearted people generally make bad hosts. They have a way of collecting the morally lame, halt, and blind into their drawing-rooms that gives those apartments the air of a convalescent home. The moment a couple have placed themselves beyond the social pale, these purblind hosts conceive an affection for and lavish hospitality upon them. If such a host has been fortunate enough to get together a circle of healthy people, you may feel confident that at the last moment a leper will be introduced. This class of entertainers fail to see that society cannot he run on a philanthropic basis, and so insist on turning their salons into hospitals.

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It would take too long to enumerate the thousand idiosyncrasies of the color-blind; few, however, are more amusing than those of the impulsive gentlemen who invite people to their homes indiscriminately, because they happen to feel in a good humor or chance to be seated next them at another house,-invitations which the host regrets half an hour later, and would willingly recall. “I can’t think why I asked the So-and-sos!” he will confide to you. “I can’t abide them; they are as dull as the dropsy!” Many years ago in Paris, we used to call a certain hospitable lady’s invitations “soup tickets,” so little individuality did they possess.

The subtle laws of moral precedence are difficult reading for the most intelligent, and therefore remain sealed books to the afflicted mortals mentioned here. The delicate tact that, with no apparent effort, combines congenial elements into a delightful whole is lacking in their composition. The nice discrimination that presides over some households is replaced by a jovial indifference to other persons’ feelings and prejudices.

The idea of placing pretty Miss Débutante next young Strongboys instead of giving her over into the clutches of old Mr. Boremore will never enter these obtuse entertainers’ heads, any more than that of trying to keep poor, defenceless Mrs. Mouse out of young Tom Cat’s claws.

It is useless to enumerate instances; people have suffered too severely at the hands of careless and incompetent hosts not to know pretty well what the title of this paper means. So many of us have come away from fruitless evenings, grinding our teeth, and vowing never to enter those doors again while life lasts, that the time seems ripe for a protest.

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If the color-blind would only refrain from painting, and the tone-deaf not insist on inviting one to their concerts, the world would be a much more agreeable place. If people would only learn what they can and what they can’t do, and leave the latter feats alone, a vast amount of unnecessary annoyance would be avoided and the tiresome old grindstone turn to a more cheerful tune.

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