Chapter 16




XVI

I must say, to the credit of the Americans, that although the eating and drinking among them appear gross enough to an Altrurian, you are not revolted by the coarse stories which the English sometimes tell as soon as the ladies have left them. If it is a men's dinner, or more especially a men's supper, these stories are pretty sure to follow the coffee; but when there have been women at the board, some sense of their presence seems to linger in the more delicate American nerves, and the indulgence is limited to two or three things off color, as the phrase is here, told with anxious glances at the drawing-room doors, to see if they are fast shut.

I do not remember just what brought the talk back from these primrose paths to that question of American society forms, but presently some one said he believed the church-sociable was the thing in most towns beyond the apple-bee and sugar-party stage, and this opened the inquiry as to how far the church still formed the social life of the people in cities. Some one suggested that in Brooklyn it formed it altogether, and then they laughed, for Brooklyn is always a joke with the New-Yorkers; I do not know exactly why, except that this vast city is so largely a suburb, and that it has a great number of churches and is comparatively cheap. Then another told of a lady who had come to New York (he admitted, twenty years ago), and was very lonely, as she had no letters until she joined a church. This at once brought her a general acquaintance, and she began to find herself in society; but as soon as she did so she joined a more exclusive church, where they took no notice of strangers. They all laughed at that bit of human nature, as they called it, and they philosophized the relation of women to society as a purely business relation. The talk ranged to the mutable character of society, and how people got into it, or were of it, and how it was very different from what it once was, except that with women it was always business. They spoke of certain new rich people with affected contempt; but I could see that they were each proud of knowing such millionaires as they could claim for acquaintance, though they pretended to make fun of the number of men-servants you had to run the gantlet of in their houses before you could get to your hostess.

One of my commensals said he had noticed that I took little or no wine, and, when I said that we seldom drank it in Altruria, he answered that he did not think I could make that go in America, if I meant to dine much. "Dining, you know, means overeating," he explained, "and if you wish to overeat you must overdrink. I venture to say that you will pass a worse night than any of us, Mr. Homos, and that you will be sorrier to-morrow than I shall." They were all smoking, and I confess that their tobacco was secretly such an affliction to me that I was at one moment in doubt whether I should take a cigar myself or ask leave to join the ladies.

The gentleman who had talked so much already said: "Well, I don't mind dining, a great deal, especially with Makely, here, but I do object to supping, as I have to do now and then, in the way of pleasure. Last Saturday night I sat down at eleven o'clock to blue-point oysters, consommé, stewed terrapin—yours was very good, Makely; I wish I had taken more of it—lamb chops with peas, redhead duck with celery mayonnaise, Nesselrode pudding, fruit, cheese, and coffee, with sausages, caviare, radishes, celery, and olives interspersed wildly, and drinkables and smokables ad libitum; and I can assure you that I felt very devout when I woke up after church-time in the morning. It is this turning night into day that is killing us. We men, who have to go to business the next morning, ought to strike, and say that we won't go to anything later than eight-o'clock dinner."

"Ah, then the women would insist upon our making it four-o'clock tea," said another.

Our host seemed to be reminded of something by the mention of the women, and he said, after a glance at the state of the cigars, "Shall we join the ladies?"

One of the men-servants had evidently been waiting for this question. He held the door open, and we all filed into the drawing-room.

Mrs. Makely hailed me with, "Ah, Mr. Homos, I'm so glad you've come! We poor women have been having a most dismal time!"

"Honestly," asked the funny gentleman, "don't you always, without us?" "Yes, but this has been worse than usual. Mrs. Strange has been asking us how many people we supposed there were in this city, within five minutes' walk of us, who had no dinner to-day. Do you call that kind?"

"A little more than kin and less than kind, perhaps," the gentleman suggested. "But what does she propose to do about it?"

He turned towards Mrs. Strange, who answered, "Nothing. What does any one propose to do about it?"

"Then, why do you think about it?"

"I don't. It thinks about itself. Do you know that poem of Longfellow's,
'The Challenge'?"

"No, I never heard of it."

"Well, it begins in his sweet old way, about some Spanish king who was killed before a city he was besieging, and one of his knights sallies out of the camp and challenges the people of the city, the living and the dead, as traitors. Then the poet breaks off, apropos de rien:

'There is a greater army
That besets us round with strife,
A numberless, starving army,
At all the gates of life.
The poverty-stricken millions
Who challenge our wine and bread
And impeach us all for traitors,
Both the living and the dead.
And whenever I sit at the banquet,
Where the feast and song are high,
Amid the mirth and the music
I can hear that fearful cry.

And hollow and haggard faces
Look into the lighted hall,
And wasted hands are extended
To catch the crumbs that fall.
For within there is light and plenty,
And odors fill the air;
But without there is cold and darkness,
And hunger and despair.
And there, in the camp of famine,
In wind and cold and rain,
Christ, the great Lord of the Army,
Lies dead upon the plain.'"

"Ah," said the facetious gentleman, "that is fine! We really forget how fine Longfellow was. It is so pleasant to hear you quoting poetry, Mrs. Strange! That sort of thing has almost gone out; and it's a pity."



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