IT makes me blush pink all over to think about it, but, none the less, I have brought the tale to you, confident that you will imderstand. An invitation to tea arrived at my address. The English are very peculiar people about their tea. They don’t seem to understand that it is a function at which any one who is passing down the Mall may present himself. They issue formal cards—just as if tea-drinking were like dancing. My invitation said that I was to tea from 4:30 till 6 p.m., and there was never a word of lawn-tennis on the whole of the card. I knew the English were heavy eaters, but this amazed me. “What in the wide world,” thought I, “will they find to do for an hour and a half? Perhaps they’ll play games, as it’s near Christmas time. They can’t sit out in the verandah, and chabutras are impossible,”
Wherefore I went to this house prepared for anything. There was a fine show of damp wraps in the hall, and a cheerful babble of voices from the other side of the drawing-room door. The hostess ran at me, vehemently shouting: “Oh, I am so glad you have come. We were all talking about you.” As the room was entirely filled with strangers, chiefly female, I reflected that they couldn’t have said anything very bad. Then I was introduced to everybody, and some of the people were talking in couples, and didn’t want to be interrupted in the least, and some were behind settees, and some were in difficulty with their tea-cups, and one and all had exactly the same name. That is the worst of a lisping hostess.
Almost before I had dropped the last limp hand, a burly rufiian, with a beard, rumbled in my ear: “I trust you were satisfied with my estimate of your powers in last week’s Concertina?”
Now I don’t see the Concertina because it’s too expensive, but I murmured: “Immense! immense! Most gratifying. Totally undeserved.” And the ruffian said: “In a measure, yes. Not wholly. I flatter myself that——”
“Oh, not in the least,” said I. “No sugar, thanks.” This to the hostess, who was waving Sally Lunns under my nose. A female, who could not have been less than seven feet high, came on, half speed ahead, through the fog of the tea-steam, and docked herself on the sofa just like an Inman liner.
“Have you ever considered,” said she, “the enormous moral responsibility that rests in the hands of one who has the gift of literary expression? In my own case—but you surely know my collaborator.”
A much huger woman arrived, cast anchor, and docked herself on the other side of the sofa. She was the collaborator. Together they confided to me that they were desperately in earnest about the amelioration of something or other. Their collective grievance against me was that I was not in earnest.
“We have studied your works—all,” said the five-thousand-ton four-master, “and we cannot believe that you are in earnest,” “Oh, no,” I said hastily, “I never was.” Then I saw that that was the wrong thing to say, for the eight-thousand-ton palace Cunarder signalled to the sister ship, sajring; “You see, my estimate was correct.”
“Now, my complaint against him is that he is too savagely farouche” said a weedy young gentleman with tow hair, who ate Sally Lunns like a workhouse orphan. “Faroucherie in his age is a fatal mistake.”
I reflected a moment on the possibility of getting that young gentleman out into a large and dusty maidan and gently chukkering him before chota hazri. He looked too sleek to me as he then stood. But I said nothing, because a tiny-tiny woman with beady-black eyes shrilled: “I disagree with you entirely. He is too much bound by the tradition of the commonplace. I have seen in his later work signs that he is afraid of his public. You must never be afraid of your public.”
Then they began to discuss me as though I were dead and buried under the hearth-rug, and they talked of “tones” and “notes” and lights” and “shades” and tendencies.
“And which of us do you think is correct in her estimate of your character?” said the tiny-tiny woman when they had made me out (a) a giddy Lothario; (b) a savage; (c) a pre-Rafaelite angel; (d) co-equal and co-eternal with half a dozen gentlemen whose names I had never heard; (e) flippant; (f ) penetrated with pathos; (g) an open atheist; (h) a young man of the Roman Catholic faith with a mission in life.
I smiled idiotically, and said I really didn’t know.
Then a man entered whom I knew, and I fled to him for comfort. “Have I missed the fun?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
I explained, snorting, what had befallen.
“Ay,” said he quietly, “you didn’t go the right way to work. You should have stood on the hearth-rug and fired off epigrams. That’s what I did after I had written Down in the Doldrums, and was fed with crumpets in consequence.”
A woman plumped down by my side and twisted her hands into knots, and hung her eyes over her cheek-bones, I thought it was too many muffins, till she said: “Tell me, oh, tell me, was such-and-such in such a one of your books—was he real? Was he quite real? Oh, how lovely! How sweet! How precious!” She alluded to that drunken ruffian Mulvaney, who would have driven her into fits had he ever set foot on her doorstep in the flesh. I caught the half of a wink in my friend’s eye as he removed himself and left me alone to tell fibs about the evolution of Private Mulvaney. I said anything that came uppermost, and my answers grew so wild that the woman departed.
Then I heard the hostess whispering to a girl, a nice, round, healthy English maiden. “Go and talk to him,” she said. “Talk to him about his books.”
I gritted my teeth, and waited till the maiden was close at hand and about to begin. There was a lovely young man at the end of the room sucking a stick, and I felt sure that the maiden would much have preferred talking to him. She smiled prefatorily.
“It’s hot here,” I said; “let’s go over to the window”; and I plumped down on a three-seated settee, with my back to the young man, leaving only one place for the maiden. I was right. I signalled up the man who had written Down in the Doldrums, and talked to him as fast as I knew how. When he had to go, and the young man with him, the maiden became enthusiastic, not to say gushing. But I knew that those compliments were for value received. Then she explained that she was going out to India to stay with her married aunt, wherefore she became as a sister unto me on the spot. Her mamma did not seem to know much about Indian outfits, and I waxed eloquent on the subject.
“It’s all nonsense,” I said, “to fill your boxes with things that can be made just as well in the country. What you want are walking-dresses and dinner-dresses as good as ever you can get, and gloves tinned up, and odds and ends of things generally. All the rest, unless you’re extravagant, the dharzee can make in the verandah. Take underclothing, for instance.” I was conscious that my loud and cheerful voice was ploughing through one of those ghostly silences that sometimes fall upon a company. The English only wear their outsides in company. They have nothing to do with underclothing. I could feel that without being told. So the silence cut short the one matter in which I could really have been of use.
On the pavement my friend who wrote Down in the Doldrums was waiting to walk home with me. “What in the world does it all mean?” I said. “Nothing,” said he. “You’ve been asked there as a small deputy lion to roar in place of a much bigger man. You growled, though.”
“I should have done much worse if I’d known,” I grunted. “Ah,” said he, “you haven’t arrived at the real fun of the show. Wait till they’ve made you jump through hoops and your turn’s over, and you can sit on a sofa and watch the new men being brought up and put through their paces. You’ve nothing like that in India. How do you manage your parties?”
And I thought of smooth-cut lawns in the gloaming, and tables spread under mighty trees, and men and women, all intimately acquainted with each other, strolling about in the lightest of raiment, and the old dowagers criticising the badminton, and the young men in riding-boots making rude remarks about the claret cup, and the host circulating through the mob and saying: “Hah, Piggy,” or Bobby or Flatnose, as the nickname might be, “have another peg,” and the hostess soothing the bashful youngsters and talking khitmatgars with the Judge’s wife, and the last new bride hanging on her husband’s arm and saying: “Isn’t it almost time to go home, Dicky, dear?” and the little fat owls chuckling in the bougainvilleas and the horses stamping and squealing in the carriage-drive, and everybody saying the most awful things about everybody else, but prepared to do anything for anybody else just the same, and I gulped a great gulp of sorrow and homesickness.
“You wouldn’t understand,” said I to my friend lets go to a pothouse where cabbies call and drink something.