Reginald on House-Parties by Saki

The drawback is, one never really knows one’s hosts and hostesses.  One gets to know their fox-terriers and their chrysanthemums, and whether the story about the go-cart can be turned loose in the drawing-room, or must be told privately to each member of the party, for fear of shocking public opinion; but one’s host and hostess are a sort of human hinterland that one never has the time to explore.

There was a fellow I stayed with once in Warwickshire who farmed his own land, but was otherwise quite steady.  Should never have suspected him of having a soul, yet not very long afterwards he eloped with a lion-tamer’s widow and set up as a golf-instructor somewhere on the Persian Gulf; dreadfully immoral, of course, because he was only an indifferent player, but still, it showed imagination.  His wife was really to be pitied, because he had been the only person in the house who understood how to manage the cook’s temper, and now she has to put “D.V.” on her dinner invitations.  Still, that’s better than a domestic scandal; a woman who leaves her cook never wholly recovers her position in Society.

I suppose the same thing holds good with the hosts; they seldom have more than a superficial acquaintance with their guests, and so often just when they do get to know you a bit better, they leave off knowing you altogether.  There was rather a breath of winter in the air when I left those Dorsetshire people.  You see, they had asked me down to shoot, and I’m not particularly immense at that sort of thing.  There’s such a deadly sameness about partridges; when you’ve missed one, you’ve missed the lot—at least, that’s been my experience.  And they tried to rag me in the smoking-room about not being able to hit a bird at five yards, a sort of bovine ragging that suggested cows buzzing round a gadfly and thinking they were teasing it.  So I got up the next morning at early dawn—I know it was dawn, because there were lark-noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night—and hunted up the most conspicuous thing in the bird line that I could find, and measured the distance, as nearly as it would let me, and shot away all I knew.  They said afterwards that it was a tame bird; that’s simply silly, because it was awfully wild at the first few shots.  Afterwards it quieted down a bit, and when its legs had stopped waving farewells to the landscape I got a gardener-boy to drag it into the hall, where everybody must see it on their way to the breakfast-room.  I breakfasted upstairs myself.  I gathered afterwards that the meal was tinged with a very unchristian spirit.  I suppose it’s unlucky to bring peacock’s feathers into a house; anyway, there was a blue-pencilly look in my hostess’s eye when I took my departure.

Some hostesses, of course, will forgive anything, even unto pavonicide (is there such a word?), as long as one is nice-looking and sufficiently unusual to counterbalance some of the others; and there are others—the girl, for instance, who reads Meredith, and appears at meals with unnatural punctuality in a frock that’s made at home and repented at leisure.  She eventually finds her way to India and gets married, and comes home to admire the Royal Academy, and to imagine that an indifferent prawn curry is for ever an effective substitute for all that we have been taught to believe is luncheon.  It’s then that she is really dangerous; but at her worst she is never quite so bad as the woman who fires Exchange and Mart questions at you without the least provocation.  Imagine the other day, just when I was doing my best to understand half the things I was saying, being asked by one of those seekers after country home truths how many fowls she could keep in a run ten feet by six, or whatever it was!  I told her whole crowds, as long as she kept the door shut, and the idea didn’t seem to have struck her before; at least, she brooded over it for the rest of dinner.

Of course, as I say, one never really knows one’s ground, and one may make mistakes occasionally.  But then one’s mistakes sometimes turn out assets in the long-run: if we had never bungled away our American colonies we might never have had the boy from the States to teach us how to wear our hair and cut our clothes, and we must get our ideas from somewhere, I suppose.  Even the Hooligan was probably invented in China centuries before we thought of him.  England must wake up, as the Duke of Devonshire said the other day; wasn’t it?  Oh, well, it was someone else.  Not that I ever indulge in despair about the Future; there always have been men who have gone about despairing of the Future, and when the Future arrives it says nice, superior things about their having acted according to their lights.  It is dreadful to think that other people’s grandchildren may one day rise up and call one amiable.

There are moments when one sympathises with Herod.

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