Florindo and Lindora had come to the end of another winter in town, and had packed up for another summer in the country. They were sitting together over their last breakfast until the taxi should arrive to whirl them away to the station, and were brooding in a joint gloom from the effect of the dinner they had eaten at the house of a friend the night before, and, "Well, thank goodness," she said, "there is an end to that sort of thing for _one_ while."
"An end to _that_ thing," he partially assented, "but not that _sort_ of thing."
"What do you mean?" she demanded excitedly, almost resentfully.
"I mean that the lunch is of the nature of the dinner, and that in the country we shall begin lunching where we left off dining."
"Not instantly," she protested shrilly. "There will be nobody there for a while--not for a whole month, nearly."
"They will be there before you can turn round, almost; and then you women will begin feeding one another there before you have well left off here."
"We women!" she protested.
"Yes, you--you women. You give the dinners. Can you deny it?"
"It's because we can't get you to the lunches."
"In the country you can; and so you will give the lunches."
"We would give dinners if it were not for the distance, and the darkness on those bad roads."
"I don't see where your reasoning is carrying you."
"No," she despaired, "there is no reason in it. No sense. How tired of it all I am! And, as you say, it will be no time before it is all going on again."
They computed the number of dinners they had given during the winter; that was not hard, and the sum was not great: six or seven at the most, large and small. When it came to the dinners they had received, it was another thing; but still she considered, "Were they really so few? It's nothing to what the English do. They never dine alone at home, and they never dine alone abroad--of course not! I wonder they can stand it. I think a dinner, the happy-to-accept kind, is always loathsome: the everlasting soup, if there aren't oysters first, or grape-fruit, or melon, and the fish, and the entree, and the roast and salad, and the ice-cream and the fruit nobody touches, and the coffee and cigarettes and cigars--how I hate it all!"
Lindora sank back in her chair and toyed desperately with the fragment of bacon on her plate.
"And yet," Florindo said, "there is a charm about the first dinner of autumn, after you've got back."
"Oh, yes," she assented; "it's like a part of our lost youth. We think all the dinners of the winter will be like that, and we come away beaming."
"But when it keeps on and there's more and more of our lost youth, till it comes to being the whole--"
"Florindo!" she stopped him. He pretended that he was not going to have said it, and she resumed, dreamily, "I wonder what it is makes it so detestable as the winter goes on."
"All customs are detestable, the best of them," he suggested, "and I should say, in spite of the first autumnal dinner, that the society dinner was an unlovely rite. You try to carry if off with china and glass, and silver and linen, and if people could fix their minds on these, or even on the dishes of the dinner as they come successively on, it would be all very well; but the diners, the diners!"
"Yes," she said, "the old men are hideous, certainly; and the young ones--I try not to look at them, poking things into the hollows of their faces with spoons and forks--"
"Better than when it was done with knives! Still, it's a horror! A veteran diner-out in full action is certainly a hideous spectacle. Often he has few teeth of his own, and the dentists don't serve him perfectly. He is in danger of dropping things out of his mouth, both liquids and solids: better not look! His eyes bulge and roll in his head in the stress of mastication and deglutition; his color rises and spreads to his gray hair or over his baldness; his person seems to swell vividly in his chair, and when he laughs--"
"Don't, Florindo! It _is_ awful."
"Well, perhaps no worse than the sight of a middle-aged matron tending to overweight and bulking above her plate--"
"Yes, yes! That's dreadful, too. But when people are young--"
"Oh, when people are young!" He said this in despair. Then he went on in an audible muse. "When people are young they are not only in their own youth; they are in the youth of the world, the race. They dine, but they don't think of the dinner or the unpleasantness of the diners, and the grotesqueness of feeding in common. They think--" he broke off in defect of other ideas, and concluded with a laugh, "they think of themselves. And they don't think of how they are looking."
"They needn't; they are looking very well. Don't keep harping on that! I remember when we first began going to dinners, I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. I don't mean when I was a girl; a girl only goes to a dinner because it comes before a dance. I mean when we were young married people; and I pinned up my dress and we went in the horse-cars, or even walked. I enjoyed every instant of it: the finding who was going to take me in and who you were; and the going in; and the hovering round the table to find our places from the cards; and the seeing how you looked next some one else, and wondering how you thought I looked; and the beads sparkling up through the champagne and getting into one's nose; and the laughing and joking and talking! Oh, the talking! What's become of it? The talking, last night, it bored me to death! And what good stories people used to tell, women as well as men! You can't deny it was beautiful."
"I don't; and I don't deny that the forms of dining are still charming. It's the dining itself that I object to."
"That's because your digestion is bad."
"Of course it is. What has that got to do with it?"
"It seems to me that we have arrived at what is called an _impasse_ in French." He looked up at the clock on the wall, and she gave a little jump in her chair. "Oh, there's plenty of time. The taxi won't be here for half an hour yet. Is there any heat left in that coffee?"
"There will be," she said, and she lighted the lamp under the pot. "But I don't like being scared out of half a year's growth."
"I'm sorry. I won't look at the clock any more; I don't care if we're left. Where were we? Oh, I remember--the objection to dining itself. If we could have the forms without the facts, dining would be all right. Our superstition is that we can't be gay without gorging; that society can't be run without meat and drink. But don't you remember when we first went to Italy there was no supper at Italian houses where we thought it such a favor to be asked?"
"I remember that the young Italian swells wouldn't go to the American and English houses where they weren't sure of supper. They didn't give supper at the Italian houses because they couldn't afford it."
"I know that. I believe they do, now. But--
'Sweet are the uses of adversity,'
and the fasting made for beauty then more than the feasting does now. It was a lovelier sight to see the guests of those Italian houses conversing together without the grossness of feeding or being fed--the sort of thing one saw at our houses when people went out to supper."
"I wonder," Lindora said, "whether the same sort of thing goes on at evening parties still--it's so long since I've been at one. It was awful standing jammed up in a corner or behind a door and eating _vis-a-vis_ with a man who brought you a plate; and it wasn't much better when you sat down and he stood over you gabbling and gobbling, with his plate in one hand and his fork in the other. I was always afraid of his dropping things into my lap; and the sight of his jaws champing as you looked up at them from below!"
"Yes, ridiculous. But there was an element of the grotesque in a bird's-eye view of a lady making shots at her mouth with a spoon and trying to smile and look _spirituelle_ between the shots."
Lindora as she laughed bowed her forehead on the back of her hand in the way Florindo thought so pretty when they were both young. "Yes," she said, "awful, awful! Why _should_ people want to flock together when they feed? Do you suppose it's a survival of the primitive hospitality when those who had something to eat hurried to share it with those who had nothing?"
"Possibly," Florindo said, flattered into consequence by her momentary deference, or show of it. "But the people who mostly meet to feed together now are not hungry; they are already so stuffed that they loathe the sight of the things. Some of them shirk the consequences by frankly dining at home first, and then openly or covertly dodging the courses."
"Yes, and you hear that praised as a mark of high civilization, or social wisdom. I call it wicked, and an insult to the very genius of hospitality."
"Well, I don't know. It must give the faster a good chance of seeing how funny the feeders all look."
"I wonder, I _do_ wonder, how the feeding in common came to be the custom," she said, thoughtfully. "Of course where it's done for convenience, like hotels or in boarding-houses--but to do it wantonly, as people do in society, it ought to be stopped."
"We might call art to our aid--have a large tableful of people kodaked in the moments of ingulfing, chewing, or swallowing, as the act varied from guest to guest; might be reproduced as picture postals, or from films for the movies. That would give the ten and twenty cent audiences a chance to see what life in the exclusive circles was."
She listened in dreamy inattention. "It was a step in the right direction when people began to have afternoon teas. To be sure, there was the biting and chewing sandwiches, but you needn't take _them_, and most women could manage their teacups gracefully."
"Or hide their faces in them when they couldn't."
"Only," she continued, "the men wouldn't come after the first go off. It was as bad as lunches. Now that the English way of serving tea to callers has come in, it's better. You really get the men, and it keeps them from taking cocktails so much."
"They're rather glad of that. But still, still, there's the guttling and guzzling."
"It's reduced to a minimum."
"But it's there. And the first thing you know you've loaded yourself up with cake or bread-and-butter and spoiled your appetite for dinner. No, afternoon tea must go with the rest of it, if we're going to be truly civilized. If people could come to one another's tables with full minds instead of stomachs, there would be some excuse for hospitality. Perhaps if we reversed the practice of the professional diner-out, and read up at home as he now eats at home, and-- No, I don't see how it could be done. But we might take a leaf from the book of people who are not in society. They never ask anybody to meals if they can possibly help it; if some one happens in at meal-times they tell him to pull up a chair--if they have to, or he shows no signs first of going. But even among these people the instinct of hospitality--the feeding form of it--lurks somewhere. In our farm-boarding days--"
"Don't speak of them!" she implored.
"We once went to an evening party," he pursued, "where raw apples and cold water were served."
"I thought I should die of hunger. And when we got home to our own farmer's we ravaged the pantry for everything left from supper. It wasn't much. There!" Lindora screamed. "There _is_ the taxi!" And the shuddering sound of the clock making time at their expense penetrated from the street. "Come!"
"How the instinct of economy lingers in us, too, long after the use of it is outgrown. It's as bad as the instinct of hospitality. We could easily afford to pay extra for the comfort of sitting here over these broken victuals--"
"I tell you we shall be left," she retorted; and in the thirty-five minutes they had at the station before their train started she outlined a scheme of social reform which she meant to put in force as soon as people began to gather in summer force at Lobster Cove.
He derided the notion; but she said, "You will see!" and in rather more time than it takes to tell it they were settled in their cottage, where, after some unavoidable changes of cook and laundress, they were soon in perfect running order.
By this time Lobster Cove was in the full tide of lunching and being lunched. The lunches were almost exclusively ladies' lunches, and the ladies came to them with appetites sharpened by the incomparable air of those real Lobster Cove days which were all cloudless skies and west winds, and by the vigorous automobile exercise of getting to one another's cottages. They seized every pretext for giving these feasts, marked each by some vivid touch of invention within the limits of the graceful convention which all felt bound not to transcend. It was some surprising flavor in the salad, or some touch of color appealing to the eye only; or it was some touch in the ice-cream, or some daring substitution of a native dish for it, as strawberry or peach shortcake; or some bold transposition in the order of the courses; or some capricious arrangement of the decoration, or the use of wild flowers, or even weeds (as meadow-rue or field-lilies), for the local florist's flowers, which set the ladies screaming at the moment and talking of it till the next lunch. This would follow perhaps the next day, or the next but one, according as a new cottager's claims insisted or a lady had a change of guests, or three days at the latest, for no reason.
In their rapid succession people scarcely noticed that Lindora had not given a lunch, and she had so far abandoned herself to the enjoyment of the others' lunches that she had half forgotten her high purposes of reform, when she was sharply recalled to them by a lunch which had not at all agreed with her; she had, in fact, had to have the doctor, and many people had asked one another whether they had heard how she was. Then she took her good resolution in both hands and gave an afternoon, asking people by note or 'phone simply whether they would not come in at four sharp. People were a good deal mystified, but for this very reason everybody came. Some of them came from somebody's lunch, which had been so nice that they lingered over it till four, and then walked, partly to fill in the time and partly to walk off the lunch, as there would be sure to be something at Lindora's later on.
It would be invidious to say what the nature of Lindora's entertainment was. It was certainly to the last degree original, and those who said the worst of it could say no worse than that it was queer. It quite filled the time till six o'clock, and may be perhaps best described as a negative rather than a positive triumph, though what Lindora had aimed at she had undoubtedly achieved. Whatever it was, whether original or queer, it was certainly novel.
A good many men had come, one at least to every five ladies, but as the time passed and a certain blankness began to gather over the spirits of all, they fell into different attitudes of the despair which the ladies did their best to pass off for rapture. At each unscheduled noise they started in a vain expectation, and when the end came, it came so without accent, so without anything but the clock to mark it as the close, that they could hardly get themselves together for going away. They did what was nice and right, of course, in thanking Lindora for her fascinating afternoon, but when they were well beyond hearing one said to another: "Well, I shall certainly have an appetite for my dinner _to-night_! Why, if there had only been a cup of the weakest kind of tea, or even of cold water!"
Then those who had come in autos gathered as many pedestrians into them as they would hold in leaving the house, or caught them up fainting by the way.
Lindora and Florindo watched them from their veranda.
"Well, my dear," he said, "it's been a wonderful afternoon; an immense stride forward in the cause of anti-eating--or--"
"Don't _speak_ to me!" she cried.
"But it leaves one rather hungry, doesn't it?"
"_Hungry!_" she hurled back at him. "I could eat a--I don't know what!"
Return to the William Dean Howells library , or . . . Read the next short story; A Foolish Man, Philosopher, and Fanatic