PRIVATE DINNERS

My dinner slips and their history would fill a volume, therefore
they must be laid aside just now. Suffice it to say that as a bride
I conceived the idea of asking celebrated men and women to sign my
tablecloths. Now after twenty years there are over four hundred names
upon these cloths, including the signatures of some of the most
prominent men and women in London at the end of the nineteenth and the
beginning of the twentieth centuries. All the men on _Punch_ have drawn
a little picture, twenty Academicians have done likewise. Specialists,
such as Marconi, Sir Hiram Maxim, Sir Joseph Swan, Sir William Crookes,
or Sir William Ramsay, have drawn designs showing their own inventions.
Others have made sketches or caricatures of themselves. Among them are
Sir A. Pinero, Harry Furniss, Solomon J. Solomons, William Orpen, John
Lavery, E. T. Reid, Weedon Grossmith, Forbes Robertson, Thompson Seton,
Max Beerbohm, W. K. Haselden. A possession truly, and a record of many
valued friendships. It has its comic side too, for sometimes when I am
out at dinner and my name is heard my partner turns to me and says:

“Are you the lady who has the famous tablecloth?”

I own I am, and try to forget the fact that I ever wrote a book.

And—yes, that is the point—they have all been signed at my own table
and I have embroidered them myself.

How did a “worker” manage to continue to give little dinners, may be
asked by other workers who find hospitality a difficult task rather
than a pleasure. Well, with a little forethought and care it can be
done.

During all those thirteen years I don’t suppose I bought a first-class
ticket in Britain thirteen times. That was one of my many economies,
enabling me to save a few pounds here and there, just as bus fares
saved cab fares, and with these little savings I could enjoy the
privilege of having friends to tea or dinner. We appreciate most what
has caused us a little self-sacrifice, and I certainly appreciate my
friends far more than any personal inconvenience, besides I had a home
well filled with linen, glass, china, and silver.

It is snobbish to offer what we can’t afford, and honest to give what
we can. Anyone can open a restaurant, and always have it filled with
diners, but it requires a little personality to make and keep a home.
When a woman is poor and friends rally round, she has the intense joy
of knowing it is for herself they come and not for what she can lavish
on her guests. The man or woman who only comes to one’s house to be fed
is no friend, merely a sponger on foolish good-nature.

How hateful it is of people to be late. What a lot of temper and time
is wasted. Surely unpunctuality is a crime. People with nothing to do
seem to make a cult of being behind time, just as busy persons consider
punctuality a god. The folk, who sail into a dinner-party twenty
minutes after they were invited, ought to find their hosts at the first
entrée. One of the most beautiful and charming women who ever came to
London, the wife of a diplomat, took the town by storm; she was invited
everywhere, but by the end of the season her reign had ceased, and why?

“Because,” explained a man well known for hospitality, “she has spoilt
more dinners in London during the last three months than anyone I know.
Personally, I shall never ask her inside my door again.”

The punctuality of kings is proverbial. So is their punctilious way of
answering invitations, making calls, and keeping up _la politesse_ of
Society. ’Tis vulgar to be late, bourgeois not to answer invitations by
return of post, and casual to omit to leave a card when there is not
time for a visit.

Some people seem too busy to think and too indifferent to care. Marcus
Aurelius maintained that life was not theory, but action. What a pity
we don’t have a little more action in the realms of politeness and
consideration.

We owe our host everything. He gives, we take. Let us anyway accept
graciously, punctiliously, and considerately, not as if _we_ were
doing the favour; the boot is on the other foot.

Only eight or nine weeks before her death, Miss Mary Kingsley had dined
with me on the eve of her departure from England, full of health and
spirits, laughingly saying that she did not quite know why she was
going out to South Africa, excepting that she felt she must. She wanted
to nurse soldiers; she wished to see war; and, above all, she desired
to collect specimens of fish from the Orange River.

Armed with some introductions, which I was able to give her, she
departed, declaring with her merry laugh she would only be away a few
months, and would probably return to collect some more specimen-jars
and butterfly-nets before going on to West Africa to continue her
studies there. She had only been a few weeks at the Cape when she
was taken ill and died. She was a woman of strong character, great
determination, a hard worker in every sense of the word, one who had
struggled against opposition and some poverty, and the death of Mary
Kingsley was a loss to her country.

The intrepid explorer was thirty before she had ever been away from our
shores. She had up to that time nursed her invalid mother at Cambridge.
But the spirit of adventure, the desire to travel, were burning within
her; and as soon as the opportunity came she went off by herself to the
wild, untrammelled regions of West Africa, and has left a record of her
experiences in some interesting volumes.

Mary Kingsley made money as a lecturer, but the odd thing was that
she was by no means good at the art. She possessed a deep and almost
manly voice, but being far too nervous to trust to extemporaneous
words, she always read what she had to say, and in her desire to read
slowly and to be clear and distinct, she adopted an extraordinary
sing-song, something like the prayers of a Methodist parson. This was
all very well when she was telling a funny story, as it only heightened
its effect, but when one had to listen for an hour and a half to
this curious monotone, it became tiring. All who knew her, however,
recognised her as a brilliant conversationalist. Sir William Crookes
once truly said:

“Mary Kingsley on the platform, and Mary Kingsley in the drawing-room,
are two entirely different personalities.”

This woman who accomplished and dared so much, who braved the climate
and the blacks of Africa alone, whose views on West African politics
were strongly held and strongly expressed, was the very antithesis of
what one would expect from a strong-minded female. She was small and
thin, her light hair was parted in the middle, and she wore a hard
black velvet band across the head in quite a style of her own, never
seen nowadays on anyone except the little girl in the nursery. She had
all the angular ways, and much of the determination, of the male, when
put to the test, although to look at her one might think a puff of wind
would blow her away.

Mary Kingsley was the niece of Charles Kingsley, and the daughter
of Dr. Henry Kingsley. The woman, who would face a whole tribe of
natives alone and unprotected, was in the society of her own people a
shrinking, nervous little creature. Indeed, one marvelled and wondered
however she kept the strength of will and the physical courage which
she displayed on so many notable occasions during her adventurous
travels. Once she wrote to me:

“MY DEAR MRS. ALEC,

“Thank you very much. I will come if I possibly can. I have an
uncle ill just now that uses up my time considerably and makes me
dull and stupid and unfit for society, but he is on the mend.

“It is very good of you to have had me on Friday. I always feel I
have no right to go out to dinner. I cannot give dinners back, and
I am used only to the trader set connected with West Africa, so
that going into good society is going into a different world, whose
way of thinking and whose interests are so different that I do not
know how to deal with them. If I were only just allowed to listen
and look on it would be an immense treat to me.

“Ever yours truly,

“M. H. KINGSLEY.”

An amusing little incident happened at dinner in my house, when I sent
her a message down the table, accompanied by a pencil, asking her to
sign her name on the tablecloth under that of Paul du Chaillu. She was
covered with confusion, and when my husband told her to write it big,
as it was difficult otherwise to work it in, she said, with a blush:

“Please don’t look at me, for you will make me so nervous I shall not
be able to write it at all.”

Maybe this nervousness was the result of a bad attack of influenza from
which she was just then recovering. “Oh yes, I get influenza here,” she
said, “though I never get fever in Africa, and I am only waiting for
my brother to go off on some expedition to pack up my bundles and do
likewise myself.”

She found herself among several friends that evening, the great Sir
William Crookes was also one of the dinner guests, and she had read
a paper at the British Association a few months before, when he had
been President. Then she knew Mr. Bompas, the brother-in-law of Frank
Buckland, and by a stroke of good luck I was able to introduce her to
Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, who was afterwards appointed Director of the
Natural History Museum at Kensington. They had not met before, and
seemed to find in zoology many subjects of mutual interest.

Mary Kingsley had a keen humour. In her case the spirit of fun did not
override the etiquette of good taste as it is so often inclined to do.

Just before dinner one February night in 1907, I was expecting friends;
but when turning on the drawing-room lights a fuse went, and half of
the lamps were extinguished.

It was an awkward moment. I telephoned to the electrician, who could
only send a boy. Visitors arrived, and my agitation was becoming rather
serious, for the fuse refused to be adjusted, when Sir William and Lady
Ramsay were announced.

I rushed at the former.

“Can you put in an electric fuse?” I asked.

“Certainly,” was the reply.

“For Heaven’s sake, go down to the kitchen,” I continued. “There is
a hopeless boy there who evidently cannot manage it, and we are in
comparative darkness.”

Down the steps the great chemist bounded, followed by the parlourmaid,
and landed, much to the surprise of everybody, at the kitchen door.
There seemed to be barely time for him to have reached the electric
box, before the light sprang into being. Then he washed his hands and
came to dinner, smiling.

What a contrast to the fumbling of the British workman was the
dexterity of the scientific man.

Two evenings later, Sir Joseph Swan, the inventor of the incandescent
burner, was dining at my house and I told him the story.

“I have no doubt Ramsay had often done it before,” he said; “for when
electric light first came in I never seemed to go to any house that I
wasn’t asked to attend to the light. In fact, I quite looked upon it as
part of the evening’s entertainment to put things in order before the
proceedings began. But I think _you_ have inherited your father’s gift
as a _raconteur_, and that is paying you a high compliment, for he was
one of the best I ever knew. Only the other day I was retailing some of
his stories about Ruskin.” And then he reminded me of the following:

Ruskin and my father were great friends, and several times the latter
stayed at Brantwood. On his first visit he had been touring in the
English Lakes, and having a delightful invitation from Ruskin,
he gladly accepted; but there was no mention of my mother, and
consequently, rather than suggest that she should join him, it was
arranged that she and my small sister—then about eight—should go to the
neighbouring hotel.

That night Ruskin asked my father whether he liked tea or coffee before
he got up.

“A cup of tea,” he replied.

“Why don’t you choose coffee?”

“Well, to tell the truth, I have lived so much abroad that I don’t
fancy English coffee, it is generally so badly made.”

His host said nothing. The next morning my father was awakened and a
strong smell of coffee permeated the room, and turning to the servant,
he asked, “Is that my cup of tea?”

“No, sir, it is Mr. Ruskin’s coffee.”

“Mr. Ruskin’s coffee! What do you mean?”

“The master was up early, he roasted the coffee himself, he ground the
coffee himself, and he made the coffee himself, and he hopes you will
like it.”

So much for Ruskin….

During the course of the day it slipped out that my mother was at the
hotel. Ruskin was furious.

“How could you be so unfriendly?” he said.

“Well, you see my little girl is also with her,” my father replied,
“and as we are on our way to Scotland they could not very well go back
to London, and I really could not ask you to house so many.”

Ruskin did not answer, but rang the bell. When the servant arrived he
proceeded:

“Get such-and-such a room ready, and see the sheets are properly aired,
for a lady and little girl are coming to stop. Tell the coachman I want
the carriage at such-and-such an hour.”

Then turning to my father he remarked:

“At that time, Dr. Harley, you can amuse yourself. I am going to fetch
your wife.”

Ruskin loved children. He and my sister Olga became tremendous friends;
they used to walk out together hand in hand for hours and hours, while
he explained to her about beetles, flowers, and birds, and all things
in Nature which appealed to him.

Sir Joseph Swan told me an incident in Carlyle’s life which will be
new to worshippers of the Sage. “So many stories,” he said, “are
told of Carlyle which show him as a terribly bearish person that I
take pleasure in finding in this incident that there was another and
kindlier side of his nature.” It related to a young friend some thirty
years before, now a middle-aged and distinguished man:

The youth was a divinity student in a Birmingham College, preparing
himself for the duties of a dissenting minister. He used to make
occasional visits to London, and during one of these he haunted the
neighbourhood of Chelsea in the hope of meeting Carlyle, then the
subject of his hero-worship. Carlyle was “shadowed,” his goings out and
his comings in were watched for days together, in the far-off hope that
some moment would “turn up” which would bring them into contact.

“One day he followed Carlyle from his house, and across the Bridge into
Battersea Park. Mr. Allingham was with him. Presently the two sat down
together on one of the Park seats. No one was about, and the couple of
old gentlemen were in no way occupied except with their own thoughts.
My young friend nervously watched them as they sat, wondering how near
he might venture. At last he mustered up courage enough to walk softly
behind Mr. Allingham, and to say to him almost in a whisper:

“‘Mr. Allingham, do you think Mr. Carlyle would allow me to shake hands
with him?’

“‘Mr. Carlyle,’ said Mr. Allingham, ‘here is a young man who wishes to
speak to you.’

“Carlyle, roused from his reverie, stood up facing the young student
almost savagely, and said very sharply:

“‘Who are you, and what do you want?’

“The brusqueness of the challenge drove the youth’s shyness away—he
answered jestingly:

“‘I’m a Black Brunswicker from Birmingham.’

“Carlyle’s attitude completely changed. He laughed, and repeated:

“‘A Black Brunswicker from Birmingham!’ Then he added: ‘Tell us who you
are, and all about you.’

“This led to my friend giving Carlyle his name and a good deal of his
history. The Sage asked him many questions with evident interest and
kindly intention, and they were about to part when Carlyle not only
shook hands with his admirer, but gave him his blessing, putting a hand
on his head and saying with solemn earnestness:

“‘May the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac go with the lad!’“

We were sitting one evening under the electric light, steadily burning
in the Swan lamps. I asked Sir Joseph how he came to think of devising
the lamp which has made his name familiar all over the world. So
complicated a topic for the non-expert is the electric light that I am
glad not to have to rely upon memory. Sir Joseph kindly undertook to
put the matter in writing for me, and here is the narrative in his own
words:

“The question you have put to me—although in itself simple—is not
easy to answer. The genesis of ideas is often a puzzling matter,
and it is so to a considerable extent in the case of my electric
lamp. The germ was, I believe, implanted by a lecture on electric
lighting that I heard when I was about seventeen. That was in 1845.

“The lecturer was W. E. Staite, one of the first inventors of a
mechanically-regulated electric lamp. He illustrated his discourse
by brilliant experiments, and was confident in his prediction that
electric light would shortly be used for lighthouse illumination.
Mr. Staite in his lecture also slightly touched on the production
of small electric lights, suitable for house-lighting, and
he described and showed how much lighting could be done by
electrically heating a wire of Iridium. The experiment he showed
to illustrate this point was simply the heating to a white heat a
short piece of iridium wire stretched nakedly in the air between
two conducting pillars.

“The lecturer was careful to explain that means would have to
be provided for regulating the current of electricity, so that
the temperature of the wire should not vary, for if too little,
the light would be dull, if too much, the wire would melt. I
quite clearly remember that while I admired the ingenuity of the
mechanism of Staite’s lighthouse lamp, I was not at all satisfied
with the too elementary device he proposed for small electric
lights.

“As far as it is possible to ‘track suggestion to her inmost cell,’
the train of thought which led, long years after, to the evolution
of my electric lamp had its beginning in seeing Mr. Staite’s very
simple and very inefficient attempt to produce electric light _on a
small scale_, for I then _saw_ how essential it was that _the unit
of light must be small_ and the means of producing it _simple_ for
electricity ever to become a widely used means of illumination.

“That is my answer—a very restricted and imperfect answer—to your
kindly intended question.

“I have always felt indebted to Mr. Staite for the inspiration he
gave me. Unfortunately he did not live to see any great development
of electric lighting; he was distinctly an inventor in advance of
his time.

“It has always been a pleasure to me to think that Faraday had
the joy of seeing ripen some of the first-fruit of his great work
in his department of applied science. In his old age he had the
gratification of seeing the North Foreland Lighthouse lighted by
means of electricity generated in economical manner made possible
by his magneto-electrical discoveries. Would that he might have
seen their greater results that we see to-day!

“Most sincerely yours,

“JOSEPH SWAN.”

At a charming dinner at Sir James Mackay’s,[7] I sat between Prince
d’Arenberg, an old friend (who is best known publicly as the Chairman
of the Suez Canal) and Lord Morley; both elderly gentlemen, both
scholars, leaders of men, both small, concise, and full of strength.

Not long afterwards, I heard Lord Morley lecture on English Language
and Literature. He has a nervous manner, with thin, refined hands
and fidgety ways. It was no doubt an ordeal to face such an enormous
audience, but it was curious to see the nervousness of the accustomed
speaker. He took out his watch, unthreaded the long chain from the
buttonholes, and laid it on the table before him, drank three whole
tumblers of water by way of a preliminary canter, stood up, received a
perfect ovation, pulled at the lapels of his coat, and looked unhappy.

In clear black writing on half-sheets of note-paper, the lecture was
apparently written. The light was good and the lecture desk high, and
he was practically able to read without appearing to do so. Sometimes
one could see he was interlarding his prepared material with impromptu
lines, but the bulk of the material was delivered as it was prepared.
And it was a brilliant achievement. A thin, small voice and yet so
accustomed to use, that it could be heard all over the hall. As a rule
he spoke quietly, but sometimes he became emphatic, and thumped his
right hand on his left. Sometimes he folded his hands on his chest,
at others he folded them behind his back. In fact, one would dub him
a thoroughly good speaker from habit rather than circumstance. He has
not got a sufficiently commanding presence, nor is his voice strong
enough for effect, but being an absolute master of his subject and from
the practice of fifty years of public life, he knows how to catch an
audience and keep it interested.

Having referred to his nervousness, it is only fair to say it lasted
but a minute. Before he turned the first page of his manuscript it had
flown, and so accustomed was he to speak that he evidently prepared a
speech of one hour’s duration, and exactly as the clock pointed to the
hour he ceased. It was a scholarly production rendered in a masterly
way.

In 1911 the late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and other friends were
dining with me in York Terrace, when Arthur Bourchier’s name turned up
in conversation.

“How splendid he is as _Henry VIII._,” remarked the veteran
Academician, who had just celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, and
who was still as hale, hearty, full of jokes as ever, and rattled off
new stories with every fresh course.

Taking up his name card as he spoke, he drew a little square box, and
in another instant, a few more lines had turned the box into the figure
of Bourchier as _Henry VIII._

“Have you seen Bourchier’s beard off the stage?” I asked.

“No, I do not think I have,” he replied, and then I told him of the
silly little remark I had made at a public dinner and which someone
must have overheard, as it appeared in endless newspapers the following
week.

Here it is, headed:

“MR. BOURCHIER’S REJOINDER

“When Mrs. Alec Tweedie a few days ago met Mr. Arthur Bourchier,
who was wearing, of course, his fiery red dyed Henry VIII. beard,
she exclaimed: ‘Why, I thought you were Bernard Shaw, with a
swollen face!’ ‘What an impossible conception—Bernard Shaw with any
part of his head swollen,’ replied the Garrick manager.”

Chaffing Mr. Bourchier about this a week or two later at a luncheon
given by Mr. Somerset Maugham at the Carlton, I said:

“I really believe your beard is redder than ever.”

“Quite so,” he replied; “to-day is dye-day, Monday.”

“Oh, is it? I always thought it was wash-day?”

“With me it is dye-day, and every Monday morning I am steeped in
henna,” he replied.

“Why did you start that beard?” I asked.

“Because, dear lady, when we began _Henry VIII._ it was winter, and I
had not the pluck to face gumming on a beard for eight performances a
week in the cold weather, tearing it off again, and shaving daily. I
should have had no face left by now. It would have been raw meat. The
only way was to grow a beard, and as the beard would come grey, the
only way to master it was to dip it in the dye-pot.” And he laughed
that merry chuckle which has become so familiar in his impersonation of
bluff King Hal.

Everyone liked Tadema with his genial personality. It is a curious
thing that though of Dutch descent, he was really born in Wimpole
Street, London. He lived more or less in Holland until he was sixteen,
when he went to Belgium to study Art, but he never drew his pictures,
except in his mind’s eye; he painted straight on the canvas. He was the
first exponent of art and archæology in combination. When he returned
to Holland they assured him that he was no longer Dutch, and if he
wished to be considered so, he must be naturalised. “Ridiculous,” he
said, “I shall do nothing of the kind, and if your rules are so absurd,
I shall have nothing more to do with Holland.” “I was annoyed and I
left, and England has been my home ever since,” he continued as he was
relating this to me. “The funny part is, that when I wear my uniform
to go to a Levée, I am always taken for an English admiral. You see I
am short and fat, and have a beard, and the man in the street seems to
associate that with the commander of the sea. Anyway, I have so often
been taken for an admiral, that I sometimes forget I am a painter.”

If Tadema looked like an admiral instead of a painter, Somerset Maugham
looks like a smart London young man rather than a medico who has taken
to the drama.

What a strange career! A young doctor, in a small practice, he spent
his spare time writing plays. For eight years _Lady Frederick_ was
refused a hearing. Then one day he heard that Ethel Irving wanted a
comedy in a hurry—looked up his book, saw Mary Moore had had it for a
year, dashed off in a hansom (there weren’t many taxis in 1905), made
her unearth it, went on in the hansom, left it with Ethel Irving, and
within twenty-four hours it was accepted. She was great in the part.
Success followed. _Mrs. Dot_ had been refused by managers for five
years. Once accepted, it roped money in. Success number two.

In 1910 he laughingly told me he had just used up the last of his
stock of plays, and would then (having made a fortune in the old ones)
have to begin something new. He owned he had altered and written them
all up a bit, but they were the same plays that all the managers had
previously refused.

When an artist paints a portrait, he leaves out the disagreeable
traits, when a photographer takes a photo he rubs out the wrinkles,
and when an author writes a personal book he leaves out all the most
personal touches.

The longer I live the more convinced I am that each tiny act has a
wider reaching result. For instance, I wrote _Iceland_ for fun. Ten
years afterwards that girlish diary was selling on the bookstalls at a
time when I badly wanted the money it brought in. Once I wrote a thing
I hated. I wavered, but finally published it, and that wretched article
has turned up again and again to annoy me and jeer at me.

We make a friend of good social standing, perhaps a little way above
us intellectually and socially, that friendship leads to others of a
similar kind. By chance we become acquainted with someone below our
own sphere and usual standard. He is right enough in his way; but
his friends fasten upon us. Without being positively rude various
undesirable people are foisted upon us. We do a kind act. Years
afterwards that kindness is unexpectedly returned with interest. We
do a cruel deed and that deed haunts us along life’s path by its
consequences. Everything counts in the game of life, and yet nothing
counts but an easy conscience.

A thick veil, therefore, covers many most striking episodes and
events. Diplomats have met at my house to discuss important world-wide
questions. Politicians have talked over knotty points in my
drawing-room hidden away from the eyes of the reporter. My little home
has witnessed striking interviews, and the walls have heard wondrous
tales of world-wide repute unfolded and discussed. I have often been of
use in this way, and am proud of the strange confidences that have been
placed in me, but such trust cannot be betrayed, and although I could
tell many wondrous facts, my readers must not be disappointed that they
should be withheld. Discretion is not a vice.

Silence is often golden.

Hence I may disappoint the many in these pages; but I hope to earn the
gratitude of the few, by respecting their important confidences.

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