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Worldly Ways and Byways (chapter 35)

2006-07-09 20:36

  CHAPTER    35 - Living on your Friends

  THACKERAY devoted a CHAPTER  in “Vanity Fair” to the problem  “How to Live Well on Nothing a Year.” It was neither a very new nor a  very ingenious expedient that “Becky” resorted to when she discounted  her husband's position and connection to fleece the tradespeople and cheat  an old family servant out of a year's rent. The author might more justly  have used his clever phrase in describing “Major Pendennis's” agreeable  existence. We have made great progress in this, as in almost every other  mode of living, in the latter half of the Victorian era; intelligent individuals  of either sex, who know the ropes, can now as easily lead the existence of  a multi- millionaire (with as much satisfaction to themselves and their  friends) as though the bank account, with all its attendant worries, stood in  their own names. This subject is so vast, its ramifications so far-reaching  and complicated, that one hesitates before launching into an analysis of it.  It will be better simply to give a few interesting examples, and a general  rule or two, for the enlightenment and guidance of ingenious souls.

  Human nature changes little; all that our educational and social  training has accomplished is a smoothing of the surface. One of the most  striking proofs of this is, that here in our primitive country, as soon as  accumulation of capital allowed certain families to live in great luxury,  they returned to the ways of older aristocracies, and, with other wants, felt  the necessity of a court about them, ladies and gentlemen in waiting, pages  and jesters. Nature abhors a vacuum, so a class of people immediately felt  an irresistible impulse to rush in and fill the void. Our aristocrats were not  even obliged to send abroad to fill these vacancies, as they were for their  footmen and butlers; the native article was quite ready and willing and,  considering the little practice it could have had, proved wonderfully  adapted to the work.

  When the mania for building immense country houses and yachts (the  owning of opera boxes goes a little further back) first attacked this country,  the builders imagined that, once completed, it would be the easiest, as well

  as the most delightful task to fill them with the pick of their friends, that  they could get all the talented and agreeable people they wanted by simply  making a sign. To their astonishment, they discovered that what appeared  so simple was a difficult, as well as a thankless labor. I remember asking a  lady who had owned a “proscenium” at the old Academy, why she had  decided not to take a box in the (then) new opera-house.

  “Because, having passed thirty years of my life inviting people to sit in  my box, I intend now to rest.” It is very much the same thing with yachts.  A couple who had determined to go around the world, in their lately  finished boat, were dumbfounded to find their invitations were not eagerly  accepted. After exhausting the small list of people they really wanted, they  began with others indifferent to them, and even then filled out their  number with difficulty. A hostess who counts on a series of house parties  through the autumn months, must begin early in the summer if she is to  have the guests she desires.

  It is just here that the “professional,” if I may be allowed to use such  an expression, comes to the front. He is always available. It is indifferent  to him if he starts on a tour around the world or for a winter spree to  Montreal. He is always amusing, good- humored, and can be counted on at  the last moment to fill any vacant place, without being the least offended  at the tardy invitation, for he belongs to the class who have discovered  “how to live well on nothing a year.” Luxury is as the breath of his nostrils,  but his means allow of little beyond necessities. The temptation must be  great when everything that he appreciates most (and cannot afford) is  urged upon him. We should not pose as too stern moralists, and throw  stones at him; for there may enter more “best French plate” into the  composition of our own houses than we imagine.

  It is here our epoch shows its improvement over earlier and cruder  days. At present no toad-eating is connected with the acceptance of  hospitality, or, if occasionally a small “batrachian” is offered, it is so well  disguised by an accomplished CHEF, and served on such exquisite old  Dresden, that it slips down with very little effort. Even this rarely occurs,  unless the guest has allowed himself to become the inmate of a residence  or yacht. Then he takes his chance with other members of the household,

  and if the host or hostess happens to have a bad temper as a set-off to their  good table, it is apt to fare ill with our friend.

  So far, I have spoken of this class in the masculine, which is an error,  as the art is successfully practised by the weaker sex, with this shade of  difference. As an unmarried woman is in less general demand, she is apt to  attach herself to one dear friend, always sure to be a lady in possession of  fine country and city houses and other appurtenances of wealth, often of  inferior social standing; so that there is give and take, the guest rendering  real service to an ambitious hostess. The feminine aspirant need not be  handsome. On the contrary, an agreeable plainness is much more  acceptable, serving as a foil. But she must be excellent in all games, from  golf to piquet, and willing to play as often and as long as required. She  must also cheerfully go in to dinner with the blue ribbon bore of the  evening, only asked on account of his pretty wife (by the bye, why is it  that Beauty is so often flanked by the Beast?), and sit between him and the  “second prize” bore. These two worthies would have been the portion of  the hostess fifteen years ago; she would have considered it her duty to  absorb them and prevent her other guests suffering. MAIS NOUS AVONS  CHANGE TOUT CELA. The lady of the house now thinks first of  amusing herself, and arranges to sit between two favorites.

  Society has become much simpler, and especially less expensive, for  unmarried men than it used to be. Even if a hostess asks a favor in return  for weeks of hospitality, the sacrifice she requires of a man is rarely  greater than a cotillion with an unattractive debutante whom she is trying  to launch; or the sitting through a particularly dull opera in order to see her  to the carriage, her lord and master having slipped off early to his club and  a quiet game of pool. Many people who read these lines are old enough to  remember that prehistoric period when unmarried girls went to the theatre  and parties, alone with the men they knew. This custom still prevails in our  irrepressible West. It was an arrangement by which all the expenses fell on  the man - theatre tickets, carriages if it rained, and often a bit of supper  after. If a youth asked a girl to dance the cotillion, he was expected to send  a bouquet, sure to cost between twenty and twenty-five dollars. What a  blessed change for the impecunious swell when all this went out of fashion!

  New York is his paradise now; in other parts of the world something is still  expected of him. In France it takes the form of a handsome bag of bonbons on New Year's Day, if he has accepted hospitality during the past  year. While here he need do absolutely nothing (unless he wishes to), the  occasional leaving of a card having been suppressed of late by our  JEUNESSE DOREE, five minutes of their society in an opera box being  estimated (by them) as ample return for a dinner or a week in a country  house.

  The truth of it is, there are so few men who “go out” (it being  practically impossible for any one working at a serious profession to sit up  night after night, even if he desired), and at the same time so many women  insist on entertaining to amuse themselves or better their position, that the  men who go about get spoiled and almost come to consider the obligation  conferred, when they dine out. There is no more amusing sight than poor  paterfamilias sitting in the club between six and seven P.M. pretending to  read the evening paper, but really with his eve on the door; he has been  sent down by his wife to “get a man,” as she is one short for her dinner this  evening. He must be one who will fit in well with the other guests; hence  papa's anxious look, and the reason the editorial gets so little of his  attention! Watch him as young “professional” lounges in. There is just his  man - if he only happens to be disengaged! You will see “Pater” cross the  room and shake hands, then, after a few minutes' whispered conversation,  he will walk down to his coupe with such a relieved look on his face.  Young “professional,” who is in faultless evening dress, will ring for a  cocktail and take up the discarded evening paper to pass the time till eight  twenty-five.

  Eight twenty-five, advisedly, for he will be the last to arrive, knowing,  clever dog, how much eCLAT it gives one to have a room full of people  asking each other, “Whom are we waiting for?” when the door opens, and  he is announced. He will stay a moment after the other guests have gone  and receive the most cordial pressures of the hand from a grateful hostess  (if not spoken words of thanks) in return for eating an exquisitely cooked  dinner, seated between two agreeable women, drinking irreproachable  wine, smoking a cigar, and washing the whole down with a glass of

  brandy, or some priceless historic madeira.

  There is probably a moral to be extracted from all this. But frankly my  ethics are so mixed that I fail to see where the blame lies, and which is the  less worthy individual, the ostentatious axe-grinding host or the interested  guest. One thing, however, I see clearly, viz., that life is very agreeable to  him who starts in with few prejudices, good manners, a large amount of  well-concealed “cheek” and the happy faculty of taking things as they  come.

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