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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Tortures of Week-end Visiting

Guest Blogger: Robert Benchley.


THE PRESENT LABOR SITUATION shows to what a pretty pass things may come because of a lack of understanding between the parties involved. I bring in the present labor situation just to give a touch of timeliness to this thing. Had I been writing for the Christmas number, I should have begun as follows: “The indiscriminate giving of Christmas presents shows to what a pretty pass things may come because of a lack of understanding between the parties involved.”

Illustration by Gluyas Williams
The idea to be driven home is that things may come to a pretty pass by the parties involved in an affair of any kind if they do not come to an understanding before commencing operations.

I hope I have made my point clear. Especially is this true, (watch out carefully now, as the whole nub of the article will be coming along in just a minute), especially is this true in the relations between host and guest on week-end visits. (There, you have it! In fact, the title to this whole thing might very well be, “The Need for a Clearer Definition of Relations between Host and Guest on Week-end Visits,” and not be at all overstating it, at that.)

The logic of this will be apparent to any one who has ever been a host or a guest at a week-end party, a classification embracing practically all Caucasians over eleven years of age who can put powder on the nose or tie a bow-tie. Who has not wished that his host would come out frankly at the beginning of the visit and state, in no uncertain terms, the rules and preferences of the household in such matters as the breakfast hour? And who has not sounded his guest to find out what he likes in the regulation of his diet and modus vivendi (mode of living)? Collective bargaining on the part of labor unions and capital makes it possible for employers to know just what the workers think on matters of common interest. Is collective bargaining between host and guest so impossible, then?

Take, for example, the matter of arising in the morning. Of course, where there is a large house-party the problem is a simple one, for you can always hear the others pattering about and brushing their teeth. You can regulate your own arising by the number of people who seem to be astir. But if you are the only guest there is apt to be a frightful misunderstanding.

“At what time is breakfast?” you ask.

“Oh, any old time on Sundays,” replies the hostess with a generous gesture. “Sleep as late as you like. This is ‘Liberty Hall.’”

The sentiment in this attitude is perfectly bully, but there is nothing that you can really take hold of in it. It satisfies at the time, but in the morning there is a vagueness about it that is simply terrifying.

Let us say that you awake at eight. You listen and hear no one stirring. Then, over on the cool pillow again until eight-twenty. Again up on the elbow, with head cocked on one side. There is a creak in the direction of the stairs. They may all be up and going down to breakfast! It is but the work of a moment, to bound out of bed and listen at the door. Perhaps open it modestly and peer out. Deathlike silence, broken only, as the phrase goes, by the ticking of the hall clock, and not a soul in sight. Probably they are late sleepers. Maybe eleven o’clock is their Sunday rising hour. Some people are like that.

Shut the door and sit on the edge of the bed. More sleep is out of the question. Let’s take a look at the pictures in the guest-room, just to pass the time. Here’s one of Lorna Doone. How d’e do, Lorna? Here’s a group—taken in 1902—showing your host in evening clothes, holding a mandolin. Probably a member of his college musical-club. Rather unkempt looking bunch, you must say. Well, how about this one? An etching, showing suspicious-looking barges on what is probably the Thames. Fair enough, at that.

Back to the door and listen again. Tick-tock-tick-tock. Probably, if you started your tub, you’d wake the whole house. Let’s sit down on the edge of the bed again.

Hello, here are some books on the table. “Fifty Famous Sonnets,” illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. Never touch a sonnet before breakfast. “My experiences in the Alps,” by a woman mountain-climber who has written on the fly-leaf, “To my good friends the Elbridges, in memory of many happy days together at Chamounix. October, 1907.” That settles that. “Essay on Compensation” in limp leather, by R.W. Emerson, published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Oh, very well! You suppose they thought that would be over your head, did they? Well, we’ll just show them! We’ll read it just for spite. Opening, to the red ribbon:

“Of the like nature is that expectation of change which instantly follows the suspension of our voluntary activity. The terror of cloudless noon—”

By the way, it must be nearly noon now! Ten minutes past nine, only! Well, the only thing to do is get dressed and go out and walk about the grounds. Eliminate the tub as too noisy. And so, very cautiously, almost clandestinely, you proceed to dress.

And now, just to reverse the process. Suppose you are the host. You have arisen at eight and listened at the guest’s door. No sound. Tip-toe back and get dressed, talking in whispers to your wife (the hostess) and cramming flannel bears into the infant’s mouth to keep him from disturbing the sleeper.

“Bill looked tired last night. Better let him sleep a little longer,” you suggest. And so, downstairs on your hands and knees, and look over the Sunday papers. Then a bracing walk on the porch, resulting in a terrific appetite.

A glance at the watch shows nine o’clock. Sunday breakfast is usually at eight-thirty. The warm aroma of coffee creeps in from the kitchen and, somewhere, some one is baking muffins. This is awful! You suppose it feels something like this to be caught on an ice-floe without any food and so starve to death. Only there you can’t smell coffee and muffins. You sneak into the dining-room and steal one of the property oranges from the side-board, but little Edgar sees you and sets up such a howl that you have to give it to him. The hostess suggests that your friend may have the sleeping-sickness. Weakened by hunger, you hotly resent this, and one word leads to another.

“Oh, very well, I’ll go up and rout him out,” you snarl.

‘Hello. Bill,’ you say flatly.

Upstairs again, and poise, in listening attitude, just in front of the guest’s door. Slowly the door opens, inch by inch, and, finally his head is edged cautiously out toward yours.

“Hello, Bill,” you say flatly, “what are you getting up this time of the morning for? Thought I told you to sleep late.”

“Morning, Ed,” he says, equally flatly, “hope I haven’t kept you all waiting.” Then you both lie and eat breakfast.

Such a misunderstanding is apt to go to almost any length. I once knew of a man on a week-end visit who spent an entire Sunday in his room, listening at his door to see if the family were astir, while, in the meantime, the family were, one by one, tip-toeing to his door to see if they could detect any signs of life from him.

Each thought the other needed rest.

Along about three in the afternoon the family threw all hospitality aside and ate breakfast, deadening the sound of the cutlery as much as possible, little dreaming that their guest was looking through the “A Prayer for Each Day” calendar for the ninth time and seriously considering letting himself down from the window on a sheet and making for the next train. Shortly after dark persistent rumors got abroad that he had done away with himself, and every one went up and sniffed for gas. It was only when the maid, who was not in on the secret, bolted into the room to turn down his bed for the night, that she found him tip-toeing about, packing and unpacking his bag and listening eagerly at the wall. (Now don’t ask how it happened that the maid didn’t know that his bed hadn’t been made that morning. What difference does it make, anyway? It is such questions as that, that blight any attempt at individual writing in this country.)

Don’t think, just because I have taken all this space to deal with the rising-hour problem that there are no other points to be made. Oh, not at all. There is, for instance, the question of exercise. After dinner the host says to himself: “Something must be done. I wonder if he likes to walk.” Aloud, he says: “Well, Bill, how about a little hike in the country?”

A hike in the country being the last thing in the world that Bill wants, he says, “Right-o! Anything you say.” And so, although walking is a tremendous trial to the host, who has weak ankles, he bundles up with a great show of heartiness and grabs his stick as if this were the one thing he lived for.

After about a mile of hobbling along the country-road the host says, hopefully: “Don’t let me tire you out, old man. Any time you want to turn back, just say the word.”

The guest, thinking longingly of the fireside, scoffs at the idea of turning back, insisting that if there is one thing in all the world that he likes better than walking it is running. So on they jog, hippity-hop, hippity-hop, each wishing that it would rain so that they could turn about and go home.

Here again the thing may go to almost tragic lengths. Suppose neither has the courage to suggest the return move. They might walk on into Canada, or they might become exhausted and have to be taken into a roadhouse and eat a “$2 old-fashioned Southern dinner of fried chicken and waffles.” The imagination revolts at a further contemplation of the possibilities of this lack of coöperation between guest and host.

Illustration by Gluyas Williams
So on they jog . . . Each wishing that it would rain.

I once visited a man who had an outdoor swimming-pool on his estate. (Consider that as very casually said.) It was in April, long before Spring had really understood what was expected of her. My first night there my host said:

“Are you a morning plunger?”

Thinking that he referred to a tub plunge in a warm bathroom, I glowed and said: “You bet.”

“I’ll call for you at seven in the morning, then,” he said, “and we’ll go out to the pool.”

It was evidently his morning custom and I wasn’t going to have it said of me that a middle-aged man could outdo me in virility. So, at seven in the morning, in a dense fog (with now and then a slash of cold rain), we picked our way out to the pool and staged a vivid Siberian moving picture scene, showing naked peasants bathing in the Nevsky. My visit lasted five days, and I afterward learned, from one to whom my host had confided, that it was the worst five days he had ever gone through, and that he has chronic joint-trouble as a result of those plunges. “But I couldn’t be outdone by a mere stripling,” he said, “and the boy certainly enjoyed it.”

All of this might have been avoided by the posting of a sign in a conspicuous place in my bedroom, reading as follows: “Personally, I dislike swimming in the pool at this time of the year. Guests wishing to do so may obtain towels at the desk.” How very simple and practical!

The sign system is the only solution I can offer. It is crude and brutal, but it admits of no misunderstanding. A sign in each guest-room, giving the hours of meals, political and religious preferences of the family, general views on exercise, etc., etc., with a blank for the guest to fill out, stating his own views on these subjects, would make it possible to visit (or entertain) with a sense of security thus far unknown upon our planet.

Vanity Fair, February 1917

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