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TEA-TABLE TALK (chapter4)

2006-09-08 21:04

    CHAPTER IV

    "What is the time?" asked the Girton Girl.

    I looked at my watch. "Twenty past four," I answered.

    "Exactly?" demanded the Girton Girl.

    "Precisely," I replied.

    "Strange," murmured the Girton Girl. "There is no accounting for it, yet it always is so."

    "What is there no accounting for?" I inquired. "What is strange?"

    "It is a German superstition," explained the Girton Girl, "I learnt it at

    school. Whenever complete silence falls upon any company, it is always

    twenty minutes past the hour."

    "Why do we talk so much?" demanded the Minor Poet.

    "As a matter of fact," observed the Woman of the World, "I don't think

    we do——not we, personally, not much. Most of our time we appear to be listening to you."

    "Then why do I talk so much, if you prefer to put it that way?" continued the Minor Poet. "If I talked less, one of you others would have to talk more."

    "There would be that advantage about it," agreed the Philosopher.

    "In all probability, you," returned to him the Minor Poet. "Whether as a happy party we should gain or lose by the exchange, it is not for me to say, though I have my own opinion. The essential remains- -that the stream of chatter must be kept perpetually flowing. Why?"

    "There is a man I know," I said; "you may have met him, a man named Longrush. He is not exactly a bore. A bore expects you to listen to him. This man is apparently unaware whether you are listening to him or not. He is not a fool. A fool is occasionally amusing—— Longrush never. No subject comes amiss to him. Whatever the topic, he has something uninteresting to say about it. He talks as a piano-organ grinds out music steadily, strenuously, tirelessly. The moment you stand or sit him down he begins, to continue ceaselessly till wheeled away in cab or omnibus to his next halting-place. As in the case of his prototype, his rollers are changed about once a month to suit the popular taste. In January he repeats to you Dan Leno's jokes, and gives you other people's opinions concerning the Old Masters at the Guild-hall. In June he recounts at length what is generally thought concerning the Academy, and agrees with most people on most points connected with the Opera. If forgetful for a moment——as an Englishman may be excused for being——whether it be summer or winter, one may assure oneself by waiting to see whether Longrush is enthusing over cricket or football. He is always up-to-date. The last new Shakespeare, the latest scandal, the man of the hour, the next nine days' wonder——by the evening Longrush has his roller ready. In my early days of journalism I had to write each evening a column for a provincial daily, headed 'What People are Saying.' The editor was precise in his instructions. 'I don't want your opinions; I don't want you to be funny; never mind whether the thing appears to you to be interesting or not. I want it to be real, the things people ARE saying.' I tried to be conscientious. Each paragraph began with 'That.' I wrote the column because I wanted the thirty shillings. Why anybody ever read it, I fail to understand to this day; but I believe it was one of the popular features of the paper. Longrush invariably brings back to my mind the dreary hours I spent penning that fatuous record."

    "I think I know the man you mean," said the Philosopher. "I had forgotten his name."

    "I thought it possible you might have met him," I replied. "Well, my cousin Edith was arranging a dinner-party the other day, and, as usual, she did me the honour to ask my advice. Generally speaking, I do not give advice nowadays. As a very young man I was generous with it. I have since come to the conclusion that responsibility for my own muddles and mistakes is sufficient. However, I make an exception in Edith's case, knowing that never by any chance will she follow it."

    "Speaking of editors," said the Philosopher, "Bates told me at the club the other night that he had given up writing the 'Answers to Correspondents' personally, since discovery of the fact that he had been discussing at some length the attractive topic, 'Duties of a Father,' with his own wife, who is somewhat of a humorist." "There was the wife of a clergyman my mother used to tell of," said the Woman of the World, "who kept copies of her husband's sermons. She would read him extracts from them in bed, in place of curtain lectures. She explained it saved her trouble. Everything she felt she wanted to say to him he had said himself so much more forcibly."

    "The argument always appears to me weak," said the Philosopher. "If only the perfect may preach, our pulpits would remain empty. Am I to ignore the peace that slips into my soul when perusing the Psalms, to deny myself all benefit from the wisdom of the Proverbs, because neither David nor Solomon was a worthy casket of the jewels that God had placed in them? Is a temperance lecturer never to quote the self-reproaches of poor Cassio because Master Will Shakespeare, there is evidence to prove, was a gentleman, alas! much too fond of the bottle? The man that beats the drum may be himself a coward. It is the drum that is the important thing to us, not the drummer."

    "Of all my friends," said the Woman of the World, "the one who has the most trouble with her servants is poor Jane Meredith."

    "I am exceedingly sorry to hear it," observed the Philosopher, after a slight pause. "But forgive me, I really do not see——"

    "I beg your pardon," answered the Woman of the World. "I thought everybody knew 'Jane Meredith.' She writes 'The Perfect Home' column for The Woman's World."

    "It will always remain a riddle, one supposes," said the Minor Poet. "Which is the real ego——I, the author of 'The Simple Life,' fourteenth edition, three and sixpence net——"

    "Don't," pleaded the Old Maid, with a smile; "please don't."

    "Don't what?" demanded the Minor Poet.

    "Don't ridicule it——make fun of it, even though it may happen to be your own. There are parts of it I know by heart. I say them over to myself when—— Don't spoil it for me." The Old Maid laughed, but nervously.

    "My dear lady," reassured her the Minor Poet, "do not be afraid. No one regards that poem with more reverence than do I. You can have but small conception what a help it is to me also. I, too, so often read it to myself; and when—— We understand. As one who turns his back on scenes of riot to drink the moonlight in quiet ways, I go to it for sweetness and for peace. So much do I admire the poem, I naturally feel desire and curiosity to meet its author, to know him. I should delight, drawing him aside from the crowded room, to grasp him by the hand, to say to him: 'My dear——my very dear Mr. Minor Poet, I am so glad to meet you! would I could tell you how much your beautiful work has helped me. This, my dear sir——this is indeed privilege!' But I can picture so vividly the bored look with which he would receive my gush. I can imagine the contempt with which he, the pure liver, would regard me did he know me-me, the liver of the fool's hot days."

    "A short French story I once read somewhere," I said, "rather impressed me. A poet or dramatist——I am not sure which——had married the daughter of a provincial notary. There was nothing particularly attractive about her except her dot. He had run through his own small fortune and was in some need. She worshipped him and was, as he used to boast to his friends, the ideal wife for a poet. She cooked admirably——a useful accomplishment during the first half- dozen years of their married life; and afterwards, when fortune came to him, managed his affairs to perfection, by her care and economy keeping all worldly troubles away from his study door. An ideal Hausfrau, undoubtedly, but of course no companion for our poet. So they went their ways; till, choosing as in all things the right moment, when she could best be spared, the good lady died and was buried.

    "And here begins the interest of the story, somewhat late. One article of furniture, curiously out of place among the rich appointments of their fine hotel, the woman had insisted on retaining, a heavy, clumsily carved oak desk her father had once used in his office, and which he had given to her for her own as a birthday present back in the days of her teens.

    "You must read the story for yourselves if you would enjoy the subtle sadness that surrounds it, the delicate aroma of regret through which it moves. The husband finding after some little difficulty the right key, fits it into the lock of the bureau. As a piece of furniture, plain, solid, squat, it has always jarred upon his artistic sense. She too, his good, affectionate Sara, had been plain, solid, a trifle squat. Perhaps that was why the poor woman had clung so obstinately to the one thing in the otherwise perfect house that was quite out of place there. Ah, well! she is gone now, the good creature. And the bureau——no, the bureau shall remain. Nobody will need to come into this room, no one ever did come there but the woman herself. Perhaps she had not been altogether so happy as she might have been. A husband less intellectual——one from whom she would not have lived so far apart——one who could have entered into her simple, commonplace life! it might have been better for both of them. He draws down the lid, pulls out the largest drawer. It is full of manuscripts, folded and tied neatly with ribbons once gay, now faded. He thinks at first they are his own writings—— things begun and discarded, reserved by her with fondness. She thought so much of him, the good soul! Really, she could not have been so dull as he had deemed her. The power to appreciate rightly- -this, at least, she must have possessed. He unties the ribbon. No, the writing is her own, corrected, altered, underlined. He opens a second, a third. Then with a smile he sits down to read. What can they be like, these poems, these stories? He laughs, smoothing the crumpled paper, foreseeing the trite commonness, the shallow sentiment. The poor child! So she likewise would have been a litterateure. Even she had her ambition, her dream.

    "The sunshine climbs the wall behind him, creeps stealthily across the ceiling of the room, slips out softly by the window, leaving him alone. All these years he had been living with a fellow poet. They should have been comrades, and they had never spoken. Why had she hidden herself? Why had she left him, never revealing herself? Years ago, when they were first married——he remembers now——she had slipped little blue-bound copybooks into his pocket, laughing, blushing, asking him to read them. How could he have guessed? Of course, he had forgotten them. Later, they had disappeared again; it had never occurred to him to think. Often in the earlier days she had tried to talk to him about his work. Had he but looked into her eyes, he might have understood. But she had always been so homely-seeming, so good. Who would have suspected? Then suddenly the blood rushes into his face. What must have been her opinion of his work? All these years he had imagined her the amazed devotee, uncomprehending but admiring. He had read to her at times, comparing himself the while with Moliere reading to his cook. What right had she to play this trick upon him? The folly of it! The pity of it! He would have been so glad of her."

    "What becomes, I wonder," mused the Philosopher, "of the thoughts that are never spoken? We know that in Nature nothing is wasted; the very cabbage is immortal, living again in altered form. A thought published or spoken we can trace, but such must only be a small percentage. It often occurs to me walking down the street. Each man and woman that I pass by, each silently spinning his silken thought, short or long, fine or coarse. What becomes of it?"

    "I heard you say once," remarked the Old Maid to the Minor Poet, "that 'thoughts are in the air,' that the poet but gathers them as a child plucks wayside blossoms to shape them into nosegays."

    "It was in confidence," replied the Minor Poet. "Please do not let it get about, or my publisher will use it as an argument for cutting down my royalties."

    "I have always remembered it," answered the Old Maid. "It seemed so true. A thought suddenly comes to you. I think of them sometimes, as of little motherless babes creeping into our brains for shelter."

    "It is a pretty idea," mused the Minor Poet. "I shall see them in the twilight: pathetic little round-eyed things of goblin shape, dimly luminous against the darkening air. Whence come you, little tender Thought, tapping at my brain? From the lonely forest, where the peasant mother croons above the cradle while she knits? Thought of Love and Longing: lies your gallant father with his boyish eyes unblinking underneath some tropic sun? Thought of Life and Thought of Death: are you of patrician birth, cradled by some high-born maiden, pacing slowly some sweet garden? Or did you spring to life amid the din of loom or factory? Poor little nameless foundlings! I shall feel myself in future quite a philanthropist, taking them in, adopting them."

    "You have not yet decided," reminded him the Woman of the World, "which you really are: the gentleman we get for three and sixpence net, or the one we are familiar with, the one we get for nothing."

    "Please don't think I am suggesting any comparison," continued the Woman of the World, "but I have been interested in the question since George joined a Bohemian club and has taken to bringing down minor celebrities from Saturday to Monday. I hope I am not narrow-minded, but there is one gentleman I have been compelled to put my foot down on."

    "I really do not think he will complain," I interrupted. The Woman of the World possesses, I should explain, the daintiest of feet.

    "It is heavier than you think," replied the Woman of the World. "George persists I ought to put up with him because he is a true poet. I cannot admit the argument. The poet I honestly admire. I like to have him about the place. He lies on my drawing-room table in white vellum, and helps to give tone to the room. For the poet I am quite prepared to pay the four-and-six demanded; the man I don't want. To be candid, he is not worth his own discount."

    "It is hardly fair," urged the Minor Poet, "to confine the discussion to poets. A friend of mine some years ago married one of the most charming women in New York, and that is saying a good deal. Everybody congratulated him, and at the outset he was pleased enough with himself. I met him two years later in Geneva, and we travelled together as far as Rome. He and his wife scarcely spoke to one another the whole journey, and before I left him he was good enough to give me advice which to another man might be useful. 'Never marry a charming woman,' he counselled me. 'Anything more unutterably dull than "the charming woman" outside business hours you cannot conceive.'"

    "I think we must agree to regard the preacher," concluded the Philosopher, "merely as a brother artist. The singer may be a heavy, fleshy man with a taste for beer, but his voice stirs our souls. The preacher holds aloft his banner of purity. He waves it over his own head as much as over the heads of those around him. He does not cry with the Master, 'Come to Me,' but 'Come with me, and be saved.' The prayer 'Forgive them' was the prayer not of the Priest, but of the God. The prayer dictated to the Disciples was 'Forgive us,' 'Deliver us.' Not that he should be braver, not that he should be stronger than they that press behind him, is needed of the leader, but that he should know the way. He, too, may faint, he, too, may fall; only he alone must never turn his back."

    "It is quite comprehensible, looked at from one point of view," remarked the Minor Poet, "that he who gives most to others should himself be weak. The professional athlete pays, I believe, the price of central weakness. It is a theory of mine that the charming, delightful people one meets with in society are people who have dishonestly kept to themselves gifts entrusted to them by Nature for the benefit of the whole community. Your conscientious, hard-working humorist is in private life a dull dog. The dishonest trustee of laughter, on the other hand, robbing the world of wit bestowed upon him for public purposes, becomes a brilliant conversationalist."

    "But," added the Minor Poet, turning to me, "you were speaking of a man named Longrush, a great talker."

    "A long talker," I corrected. "My cousin mentioned him third in her list of invitations. 'Longrush,' she said with conviction, 'we must have Longrush.' 'Isn't he rather tiresome?' I suggested. 'He is tiresome,' she agreed, 'but then he's so useful. He never lets the conversation drop.'"

    "Why is it?" asked the Minor Poet. "Why, when we meet together, must we chatter like a mob of sparrows? Why must every assembly to be successful sound like the parrot-house of a zoological garden?"

    "I remember a parrot story," I said, "but I forget who told it to me."

    "Maybe one of us will remember as you go on," suggested the Philosopher.

    "A man," I said——"an old farmer, if I remember rightly——had read a lot of parrot stories, or had heard them at the club. As a result he thought he would like himself to be the owner of a parrot, so journeyed to a dealer and, according to his own account, paid rather a long price for a choice specimen. A week later he re-entered the shop, the parrot borne behind him by a boy. 'This bird,' said the farmer, 'this bird you sold me last week ain't worth a sovereign!' 'What's the matter with it?' demanded the dealer. 'How do I know what's the matter with the bird?' answered the farmer. 'What I tell you is that it ain't worth a sovereign——'tain' t worth a half a sovereign!' 'Why not?' persisted the dealer; 'it talks all right, don't it?' 'Talks!' retorted the indignant farmer, 'the damn thing talks all day, but it never says anything funny!'"

    "A friend of mine," said the Philosopher, "once had a parrot——"

    "Won't you come into the garden?" said the Woman of the World, rising and leading the way.

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