Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 8 - How I stopped the Brownes from asking me "To come in the evening"

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READER,  if thou art titled, wealthy, or agreeable beyond the common, thou hast never known, thou canst never know, the misery which forms the subject of this touching narrative. If thou hast a country-house with but so much as one spare room in it, or a villa residence by the sea, or a cottage ornée by the banks of Thames, so evil a thing can never happen to thee as to be asked "to come in the evening." No man - nay, not even woman, would dare to do it. Or, if thou art related to any peer, if even he be Irish, yea, if thou art but first-cousin to a baronet, so that thy host may say in well-selected pause at table, [-19-] "And how is Sir Charles when you last heard of him?" this humiliation can ne'er be thine. Or, if thou hast the gift for wit, and understandest how to "lift" the talk that hangs and flags sometimes even at a rich man's board, thou art saved and spared.
    Nevertheless, O favoured of fortune, it is for thee I write these words. List, list, O list to the complaint of one that is less happy in his social circumstances, who is poor, who is dull, whose name is Mr. Thomas Smith - uncompromising, pure and simple Smith, unredeemed either by y or e. If thou hast tears for a wrong that never can be thine, prepare to shed them now. It has doubtless often happened to thee that, after feasting at a friend's, and filling thy sleek skin with pleasant viands and generous drinks, thou hast wondered, upon joining the ladies in the drawing-room, to see me sitting among them. Entering the apartment like a conquering Bacchus, with that careless freedom which can only result from having well dined, with thy lips yet parted with the smile [-20-] evoked by the last mot among thy male companions, thou hast, I say, often started upon beholding me. Thou hast said to thyself, "I have drunk much, but I have not drunk too much. There were but four of us men at table yonder, but To, I behold a fifth! Steady, Brain, steady, and do not let us commit ourselves. It may be a phantasm born of that too delicious cucumber, or it may not. Let us see whether anybody speaks to it, for if not, I will sit down upon the very spot it seems to occupy, as recommended by Dr. Abernethy in his anecdotes of Indigestion."
    Many and many a time have I watched these weird reflections pass athwart the countenance of a Dined man. I have seen the glass of astonishment - nay, sometimes double ones-raised to contemplate my mysterious form. By one fat, insolent man, I was once even snorted at. That son of Mammon - he was a banker fellow - made, I repeat, a nasal noise, exactly like that of a horse who first discovers an inferior fellow-creature in his pasture-ground. Few of these incomers get [-21-] over their surprise sufficiently to enter into conversation with the being that has thus excited it, and if they do so, they do not wish to cultivate his acquaintance. It is obvious that I am not an eligible individual. The host shakes hands with me (three fingers to my five), and asks in a low tone after my grandmother (who is not at all in society), and after that I drop hopelessly hack again upon the governess. She is brought down from somewhere above stairs after dinner, and given over to me by the rest of the ladies, as by common consent, upon my joining the feminine circle. The pampered menial who opens the front door, and regards me scornfully as I strive to separate myself from my goloshes in the hall, announces me superciliously. The hostess remarks how kind it is of me to come, and I reply that it gives me the greatest conceivable pleasure to be able to do so. I then perceive that my arrival has interrupted some interesting female conversation, probably (since it is not resumed) of a scandalous nature ; and the weather, for the [-22-] second time that evening, as regards the rest of the company, is brought forward in all its dreariness, and dilated upon with an affectation of interest, which in its hollowness is appalling. Presently appear the supercilious males. Society, to whom myself and my fellow-unfortunates are usually introduced about 9.30, has ordered its carriages at 10.15, so that we have just three-quarters of an hour to produce a favourable impression upon it.
    Let us briefly recapitulate. In the first place, we have to remove the sense of wrongful intrusion, which our appearance cannot fail to have excited in every bosom. Secondly, we have to pass through that preliminary weather-stage which has been already accomplished by others, and to return to which induces loathing. And, thirdly, our name being Smith simple, our social position being. (obviously) undesirable, and our intelligence below the average, we have to make our favourable impression. Mr. ,John Wilkes himself could never have accomplished this, whose boast was, "Ugly [-23-] though I be, I am only a quarter of an hour behind the handsomest man in England."
    Why, then, I demand, in the name of our common humanity (which is the only thing that is common to the two parties), are we asked to "come in the evening," to meet people that have dined? Flushed, I do not say with Wine, but with the Victories of the Table, with mots, with anecdotes, with scandal, with agreeable banter, the original guests ride rough-shod over us interlopers, almost unconscious of our feeble resistance. Compared to us, they are as regular soldiery to a mere rabble armed with scythes. They have confidence in one another; they have been accustomed to act in concert; and they have watch-words and countersigns of which we know nothing at all. The faintest hint, the most monosyllabic allusion, is the open sesame to peals of laughter among these persons, while we, who know nothing of what has foregone in another place - the dining-room - "stare with great eyes, and laugh with alien lips, and know not what is meant."
    [-24-] Do the host and hostess, who thus invite us to the fag-ends of their entertainments, believe that they are conferring a favour? If so, why do they not sometimes gratify my Lord Tom Noddy, Mr. Munny Bag, and that eminent satirist, Eppy Gram, Esq., in a similar manner. Is it possible that they persuade themselves that any one of us really have, or can have "pleasure in accepting their kind invitation for Tuesday evening ?" If so, let them dismiss that notion from their minds at once as illusory in the very highest degree. We abominate the gilded insult. For my part, I would far rather receive the invitation-card of those less aristocratic circles which are said to have Gin and Tripe neatly engraved in the left-hand corner of it, instead of Dancing. Some elegances may of course be wanting in such a case, but at all events everybody starts fair. Nobody, I presume, is asked to come in the evening after that entertainment. Believe me, my fashionable friends, to array one's self in gorgeous apparel merely for three-quarters of an hour of your drawing-room [-25-] tittle-tattle, is, as the young lady of limited education observed with respect to learning the Alphabet, to go through a great deal for a very small result. O why, O why not ask us to dinner upon some "off-day" instead, and give us mutton-chops? These are only a shilling a pound, and we should be comparatively grateful; whereas, under the present circumstances, you are but sowing slights and reaping hatred. You may indeed carry this sort of thing a little too far, and in my case you have actually done it. This paper is nothing less than a public exposure of post-amphitryonism - the iniquitous system of compelling inoffensive persons to "come in the evening." You take advantage - look you, my cheaply hospitable friends - of your superior wealth or station to degrade us. We are the mere captives of your triumphs; the helots of your drawing-rooms; the "walking-gentlemen" of your after-dimmer stage, who do not even get their shilling a night. On the contrary, it costs us two shillings and threepence apiece (for the cheaper ones split across the back), in those indis-[-26-]pensable decorations of the social sacrifice, our white kid gloves. Why do we come at all, then? do you ask. Nay, you know very well that we are under obligations to you, and, believe me, you have chosen for us a very sure, though, alas, not a speedy method of liquidating the same. Now, let me not be misunderstood. Evening-parties are very different affairs from those I speak of, and I believe are even liked by many persons. Those gatherings also which are called "receptions," that take place after some stupendous banquet, offer probably some peculiar advantages in the way of supper. Moreover, there are occasions when a really hospitable soul - a man who asks one to dinner - may give way, through mistaken benevolence, to the post-amphitryonic system, and yet not be absolutely criminal. But the wretches whom I now have in my mental eye are not to be excused on any of those grounds. They have two sets of acquaintances, one of which they ask to dinner, and one to "come in the evening. " I know it
    [-27-] The Brownes of Piccadilly, for instance, had me down in that second list for half-a-dozen seasons, and let this narration of how I at last got out of it be a warning to other Brownes. Browne senior lent me money once upon a time; or he became answerable for me when I was made Treasurer to the Society of Goldfinches; or he gave my second brother a presentation to Christ's Hospital; or he laid me under some similar obligation, of which we were both quite sensible. Each of us, I say, was well aware of our mutual relation, but Browne did not know after how many invitations to "come in the evening" an obligation begins to lie upon the other side. Browne never asked me to dinner - never, never, never! In the season, or out of the season, when salmon was dear, or when salmon was cheap, I never once sat at that man's board - for a tray with ices upon it is not a board at which one can sit down.
    Browne's house in Piccadilly looks out upon time Green Park, and has a frontage of I don't know [-28-] know many feet. It does not run back, indeed, so far as my friend Browne (and especially Mrs. B.) would have it appear, but it is altogether a very fine mansion. The drawing-room (and no man knows it better than I) is gorgeously furnished in the style of Louis XIV. There are no less than three other apartments en suite with it, getting smaller and smaller, like a drawn-out telescope, until they end in what looks like a very handsome china closet. There is not an article of vertu, nor splendidly bound volume, nor statuette, nor ornament of any kind, in those four dazzling chambers that I have not stared at, sphinx-like, with a concentrated indifference, scores and scores of times. On one occasion only did I ever feel any glow of excitement there (for a sense of humiliation, unless you have the courage to resent it, is not excitement), when I had the misfortune to crack a Dresden china figure of about five feet high, which must have cost a mint of money. This was early in my acquaintance with the Brownes of Piccadilly, but, as I never confessed to having [-29-] committed the mischief, that could not have been the cause why they never asked me to dinner. How wretched that poor governess of theirs and I have been amid that splendid waste! How often have I heard vinous laughter upon the stately stair without, and seen that gilded door admit the arrogant Dined!
    How long I should have gone on accepting Mr. and Mrs. Browne's obliging invitations, I cannot tell. Six years of more or less of them had already elapsed, and I obeyed them still, submissive and subordinate. Tompkins and Jones and I were a triumvirate who always met in that Piccadilly drawing-room, and our common wrongs had at length endeared us to each other. It was with genuine pleasure therefore (although I do not say without a pang of envy), that we heard that Tompkins's uncle had died at last, and left him his long-expected ten thousand pounds. This happened at the end of the Season; and at the beginning of the next, the hated three-cornered notes of evening welcome arrived as usual from [-30-] the Brownes of Piccadilly-arrived, that is, to Jones and me, but not to Tompkins. Tompkins's legacy had lifted him out of their No. 2 list, and placed him in No. 1. Tompkins was invited to dinner. Now this Jones and I felt to be quite intolerable. To have seen Tompkins come in at that gilded door with the self-satisfied and superior look which was only just endurable in strangers, would have been too much indeed. We didn't write back to express our sincere regrets that we were otherwise engaged - we were too indignant for that - but we both fully made up our minds that we would not be trampled under Tompkins's chariot-wheels. The Juggernaut of genuine fashion had indeed made a highway of our bodies for six years, but we were not yet a public tram-road for ordinary conveyances.
    It is astonishing how free and happy we both felt after this valiant determination. Instead of that Friday evening casting before us a social gloom too oppressive to be called a shadow, we looked forward to it as to the declaration of our [-31-] independence - our 4th of July. We determined to dine together at the Club; to hold high festival in celebration of that first occasion on which the Brownes had asked us to "come in the evening," and we didn't mean to go. We dined at the very same hour at which Tompkins was to dine in Piccadilly, and we had six courses exclusive of the cheese. It was the commencement of an epoch, and we both agreed that expense should not be considered. After the Sauterne, and Sherry, and Champagne, the Claret tasted very refreshingly. We were in comfortable morning costume, with easy boots on, but it would now have been the hour, if we had not thrown off the yoke, when each must have given himself up to purgatorial pains - tight boots, tight cravats, tight  gloves - and meekly gone in Hansoms to be offered up at Fashion's shrine, opposite the Green Park. We pictured to ourselves the High-Priestess waiting for her victims, and drank the health of the female Browne, sardonically, in the second bottle. It was about this period that a slight disagreement [-32-] arose between Jones and myself upon the subject of the ceiling of the club dining-room; the one contending that it was honey-combed, and the other that it was tesselated, and neither feeling at all inclined to give up his opinion. We stared at it so long and fixedly that at last it actually appeared to both of us to be in motion, and this optical phenomenon prevented, of course, any satisfactory conclusion being arrived at. Jones, indeed, was for sending for the waiter to decide the question, but I declined to submit to any such authority. If Mr. Ruskin's opinion could be procured, said I, well and good; but otherwise, I would give in to nobody's; I had not come to that Club to be dictated to, for if such had been my object, I should have gone to the Brownes of Piccadilly. Jones replied, with pretended frankness, that he was the last man to wish to quarrel, although the ceiling was most certainly "desolated" (he had had, I am sorry to say, quite enough wine), and that we lmad better drop the subject, and go up to the smoking-room. As a further proof that my [-33-] companion was not in a fit state to give his opinion upon artistic subjects, I may mention that when the waiter came with the bill, he answered superciliously that he had "nothing for him," and added, that it was contrary to the regulations of the Club to give gratuities to any one, except at least (recollecting himself) to members of the commitee and the Honorary Sec.
However, the fresh air of the smoking-room quite restored him, and we had an interesting, though rather desultory metaphysical discussion. which lasted through two cigars.
    "By the by," observed Jones, a propos de bottes, "have you ever tasted Knickerbocker?"
    "Knickerbocker," returned I; "why, that is boots and trousers unless it is some Dutch liqueur, 1 cannot conceive the nature of it."
    "Come along, then," exclaimed he with vivacity, and snatching up the nearest hat; "you have something to live for yet, my Smith, though you have lost the Brownes of Piccadilly. Let us go to the American Bar - not that to which Mr. [-34-] Edwin James has gone, but where there is every kind of Fancy Drink on draught-Private Smiles and Silent Nods, Yankee Whispers, Ladies' Blushes!"
    "Sir," said I, not without some dignity, "I am a person of good morals; what is it you mean?"
    "I mean The Neverfailing Sodawater Cocktail; 'Smashes' and' Slings' of all kinds, and especially Moral Suasion."
    "And what is that?" inquired I, for the name sounded respectable among so many hideous appellations - an oasis of good English in a desert of Slang.
    "When the Maine Law fanatics carried that iniquitous Liquor measure," explained Jones, condescendingly, "they boasted that it had been accomplished by moral suasion. Whereupon, the other party, to restore the balance of power, invented an enchanting drink, and called it by that identical name, that Moral Suasion might be upon their side also. It is, therefore, well worthy of our attention, if only from its historical value. Mint [-35-] Julep, on the other hand, has almost a celestial birth. The divine Milton has even given us, in his Comus, the recipe for concocting that delicious compound, which it seems he preferred before all others, for 'first,' says he,

            Behold this cordial julep here,
That flames and dances in his crystal bounds,
With spirits of balm and fragrant syrups mixed. '"

    "My dearest Jones," said I, "you are the Enchanter himself, and I fear I am not so virtuous as the Lady. Lead on, then, with all my heart, to the American Bar."
    The Transatlantic gentleman who presided over this famous Institution was affable and attentive in the highest degree. We placed ourselves, at his own suggestion, entirely in his hands, and agreed to take whatever compound the nature of our condition (or complaint, as he humorously termed it) seemed to him to demand. He prepared a Stone Fence (price one shilling) in the first instance, but observing afterwards that we were "tighter than he had thought we were " - an [-36-] Americanism which I did not understand - he substituted for that a Corpse Reviver. As I watched the liquid fly from one crystal vessel to another in his nimble hands, I perceived that milk was an ingredient, and my heart sank within me. He promised, however, that a tumbler of this would make another man of each of us, and, in a certain limited sense, he was right. The immediate effect of the Corpse Reviver was to fill us with an extraordinary courage and determination. Our self-esteem rose fifty per cent., and with it our indignation at the conduct of the Brownes of Piccadilly.
    "It would only serve them right," observed Jones, defiantly, "since they have asked us so often to 'come in the evening,' when we had rather have stopped at home, if we were to pay them a visit for once when they didn't want us. Suppose, now, we go to the Brownes to-night, after all. They said they were hoping to have the honour of our company; let them have it, then. What say you, my Smith?"
    [-37-] I applauded this heroic resolution, although not without some little, misgiving. Our boots were already muddy, so that there was no use in taking a cab; and besides, we felt that motion and fresh air were absolutely essential to the favourable development of the effects of the Transatlantic elixir. It had not so much revived as galvanised us. If we once gave way to the "coma" which we felt impending, we had a presentiment that it would be all over with us. What we required was excitement; lights, music, jewels, fashionable conversation, and furniture of Louis Quatorze - the reception-room of the Brownes in Piccadilly was, in fact, the very place for us.
    "We are not in evening-dress, my friend," observed Jones, stopping suddenly, and laying his hand affectionately upon a lamp-post.
    I took no notice of this little mistake of identity, but replied from the other side of him, as though he had appealed to myself, as had been his intention.
    "That is very true, my Jones, but what does it [-38-] matter? They ask for the pleasure of our company, not for that of our polished leather boots. Let us say that we knew what really hospitable people they were, and how glad they would be to see us drop in, in a family way. Browne will like that, I am sure."
    The great house loomed rather awfully upon us as we approached its portals, and a little hesitation came over me, which caused me to ring the area-bell instead of that devoted to visitors. Jones, however, applied himself to the other with a compensatory vehemence, which brought the footman to the front-door upon the instant.
    "Mrs. Browne at home?" inquired I, giving him my hat, but not making any effort to take off my great-coat, because I saw that Jones was failing in that endeavour signally.
    "There is a party to-night, gentlemen," observed the footman, regarding our personal appearance with some misgiving.
    "Yes," said I, "a dinner-party and an evening- party; we belong to the evening-party, we do; ha! ha!"
    [-39-] It was a curious and striking illustration of the proverbial insolence of the pampered menials of Fashion that this footman, assisted by other retainers, did absolutely and by force prevent my Jones from going upstairs. They said that it was impossible that he could do such a thing with his great-coat on, nor would they permit him to prove that the thing was really practicable by doing it. I sat on one of the hall chairs, and watched the fracas without much interest; lack of interest in all sublunary (or indeed in any) matters, being, as I found, the chief feature of the Corpse Reviver after the first twenty minutes. I only drummed with my heels upon the hall floor (which, being of polished oak, was fortunately reverberatory), and shouted at the top of my voice for Tompkins. My conciliatory and peaceful conduct shone out, I flatter myself, by contrast with that of my companion. If Tompkins would come, said I, all would be forgotten and forgiven, but otherwise they must take the consequences. The commotion connected with Jones [-40-] at last communicated itself throughout the palatial residence ; the cry for Tompkins penetrated into the four reception rooms Old Browne himself came down in an awful state of excitement, but I did not pay the slightest attention to him. I wanted my Tompkins, and at last my Tompkins came. Then I reproached him with his conduct in coming to dinner that day, and leaving his old friends to "come in the evening," till I think he looked rather ashamed of himself.
    As for Browne of Piccadilly, my last memorable words to him were these: "Now, don't you go asking my friend Jones again, nor me, to come to any of these after dinner-parties of yours, for we don't like 'em; so, let this be a warning to you."
    And I suppose that it was a warning to him, for the Brownes of Piccadilly have never asked either of us "to come in the evening" from that day to this. Verbum sap.