PUBLIC DINNERS

At a public dinner the photographer said, “The people at the bottom
tables buy the photos, the people at the top table steal the pencils.”

Half the public dinners are attended by women nowadays, and yet women
did not even dine at the tables of their lords and masters in the
eighteenth century. They then took a back seat. Now in the twentieth
century women with common interests bind themselves together into
societies, recognising that “union is strength,” and they too follow
the tradition of ages, and preserve the sacred English habit of
organising dinners.

Is there any more thoroughly British custom, institution, or act of
national feeling, than a dinner? Heroes, potentates, benefactors to
mankind, are given a mighty Guildhall feast by the Chief Representative
of our great capital—the mightiest in the world. Other nations hold
banquets, but with them wreaths and ribbons are more to the fore than
turtle soup and barons of beef.

One public dinner that afforded me personally special pleasure was
given by the New Vagabond Club, on my return from my first visit to
Mexico, when a great compliment was paid me. Following their custom,
the Vagabonds had singled out two writers of recent books to be
honoured. The one, Sir Gilbert Parker, as author of his great novel
_The Right of Way_, as their guest, and myself in the chair, because
_Mexico as I saw It_ was kindly considered (to quote the cards of
invitation) “one of the best travel-books of the year.” We numbered
three hundred. Modesty forbids repetition of the speeches. Obituary
notices and speeches are always laudatory.

At another New Vagabond Dinner held at the Hotel Cecil, I remember
being much amused by a young officer of the Königin Augusta Garde in
Berlin, who was my guest. We had barely taken our seats when a deep
sonorous voice roared forth:

“Pray, silence for his Lordship the Bishop of ——.”

“What a splendid voice that gentleman has,” exclaimed my German friend.

“It is the toast-master,” I replied.

“Toast?” he said, “but that is something to eat,” and before further
explanation was possible the Bishop began to say grace, and everyone
stood up.

“Is this the King’s health?” asked the Baron, lifting his empty glass.

“No, it’s grace,” I answered.

“What is grace? It seems like a prayer.”

“So it is, for your good behaviour,” I said.

“Do you always have it?”

“Yes, when we go out to dinner.”

“And not at home?”

“Oh no, we are only good like that and enjoy all that official ceremony
at public dinners.”

He was much tickled at the idea, and likewise relieved that the King’s
health was not being toasted with empty glasses.

Another public feast—the Dinner of the Society of Authors, in 1907—gave
me still more food for mirth, besides intellectual and other enjoyment.

My seat at the top table placed me between Mr. Bernard Shaw and Lord
Dunsany. Exactly opposite was one of the fork tables that filled the
room, and gave accommodation to about two hundred and fifty guests. In
the corner facing us sat a nice little old lady. Somehow she reminded
me of a cock-sparrow. She was _petite_ and fragile, with a perky little
way, and her iron-grey hair was cut short. She looked at my neighbour
on my left, consulted her programme, on which she read the name of
Bernard Shaw, smiled with apparent delight, preened herself, and then
the following conversation began:

Old Lady (beaming across table): “I do love your writing.”

Grey-bearded Gentleman (bowing): “Thank you very much.”

Old Lady: “One sees the whole scene so vividly before one.”

The grey-bearded gentleman bowed again.

Old Lady (bending a little nearer): “They live and move. The characters
almost dance before one.”

Grey-bearded Gentleman (evidently rather pleased): “It’s good of you to
say so. So few people read my sort of stuff as a rule.”

Old Lady: “They are works of inspiration! By the by, how does
inspiration come to you?”

Grey-bearded Gentleman: “Well, it’s rather difficult to say. Anywhere,
I think. An idea often flashes through my mind in a crowd, or even when
someone is talking to me.”

Old Lady (flapping her wings with delight, and evidently hoping _she_
was an inspiration): “Would you be so very kind as to sign my autograph
book?”

“With pleasure,” was the reply. And thereupon she produced a tiny
little almanac from her pocket and a stylographic pen, and with a
beaming smile remarked:

“Under your name, please write _Man and Superman_!”

He turned to her with a puzzled look, and then this is what ensued:

“That is my favourite play.”

“Is it?”

“Don’t you love it the best?”

“Never read it in my life.”

“What! never read your own masterpiece!”

“No, madam. I am afraid you have made a mistake.”

“What! You do not mean to say that you are not Bernard Shaw?”

“No. I’m only Lewis Morris, the poet.”

Momentary collapse of the old lady, and amusement of my neighbour. By
this time I was in fits. Shaw having telegraphed he would not come in
till the meat course was over, Sir Lewis Morris had asked me if he
might take his place.

Old Lady (collecting herself): “Never mind. You had better sign your
autograph, all the same.”

And, not knowing whether to laugh or scowl, Sir Lewis Morris put on his
glasses and wrote his name, then turning to me, said:

“Well, that was a funny adventure.”

Bernard Shaw himself arrived a little later, and sitting near us,
waited for the moment when he was to get up and reply for the drama.
Being a vegetarian, he had avoided the first part of the dinner.

A merry twinkle hung round his eye all the time he talked, and with
true Irish brogue he duly pronounced all his _wh_’s as such, and mixed
up _will_ and _shall_! His red beard was almost grey, and his face has
become older and more worn since success weighed him down, and wealth
oppressed him so deeply.

I could not agree with Lewis Morris’s self-depreciatory remark that
few people “read my sort of stuff,” for I learnt on very excellent
authority that publishers have sold more than forty-five thousand
copies of his _Epic of Hades_—not bad for poetic circulation—and that
this and the _Songs of Two Worlds_ shared between them sixty editions.

Poor Lewis Morris died a few months after this little comedy occurred.

To continue with G. B. S., here may be given the recollection of a
luncheon at his home one day.

From dinners to a luncheon!—well, that is no great digression. Longer,
certainly, than from luncheon to dinner, with five o’clock tea thrown
in. To part from Bernard Shaw is too impossible.

“_Mrs. Bernard Shaw_” is the name upon the little oak gate across the
stairway leading to the second-floor flat near the Strand.

Below are a club, offices, and other odds and ends, above and beyond
the gate the great G. B. S. is to be found. “Bring your man to lunch
here,” was the amusing reply I received to a note asking the Shaws to
dine and meet “George Birmingham” (the Rev. James Hannay), the famous
Irish novelist.

Accordingly, to lunch “my man” and I repaired. Everything about George
Bernard Shaw is new. The large drawing-room overlooking the Thames
is furnished in new art—a modern carpet, hard, straight-lined, white
enamelled bookcases, a greeny yellow wall—a few old prints, ’tis
true—and over the writing-table, his own bust by Rodin, so thin and
aristocratic in conception, that it far more closely resembles our
mutual friend Robert Cunninghame Graham. No curtains; open windows;
sanitation; hygiene; vegetarianism; modernism on every side. Bernard
Shaw has no reverence for age or custom, antiquity or habit—a modern
man, his is a modern home, only rendered homelike by the touch of a
charming woman. It is wonderful how loud-talking Socialism succumbs to
calm, peaceful, respectable comfort. Since his marriage the Socialist
has given up much of the practice of his theories, and is accepting the
daily use of fine linen and silver, the pleasures of flowers and dainty
things; he politely owns himself the happier for them; but then Mrs.
Bernard Shaw is a refined and delightful woman.

George Bernard Shaw comes from Dublin, his wife from far-away Cork. She
is well-connected, clever, and tactful, and the sheet-anchor of G. B. S.

Shaw was at his best. He ate nuts and grapes while we enjoyed the
pleasures of the table. I told him I had first heard of him in Berlin,
in 1892, long before he had been talked of here. I had seen _Arms and
the Man_ in the German capital—that, eight years later, I was haunted
by _Candida_ in America, and then came back to find him creeping into
fame in England. That delighted him.

“Yes, I insist on rehearsing every line of my own plays whenever it is
possible—if I can’t, well, they do as they like.”

I told him I had seen Ibsen’s slow, deliberate way of rehearsing, and
W. S. Gilbert’s determined persuasion. What did he do?

“I like them to read their parts the first time. Then I can stop them,
and give them _my_ interpretations, and when they are learning them at
home, my suggestions soak in. If they learn their words first, they
also get interpretations of their own, which I may have to make them
unlearn. I hate rehearsals; they bore me to death; sometimes I have
forty winks from sheer _ennui_; but still I stick there, and, like the
judge, wake up when wanted.”

“Do you get cross?”

“No. I don’t think so. I correct, explain why, and go ahead. I never
let them repeat; much better to give the correction, and let them think
it out at home; if one redoes the passage they merely become more and
more dazed, I find.”

“Speaking of Ibsen, do you think his influence was so great?” I asked.

“Undoubtedly. But the movement was in the air. I had written several
of my plays which, when they appeared, the critics said showed Ibsen’s
influence, and yet at that time I had never read a word of Ibsen. He
emphasised and brought out what everyone was feeling; but he never got
away from the old idea of a ‘grand ending,’ a climax—a final curtain.”

“Plays are funny things,” he continued. “A few years ago I received a
letter from a young man in the country. He said his people were strict
Methodists, he had never been in a theatre in his life, he had not even
been allowed to read Shakespeare, but _Three Plays_ by Shaw had fallen
into his hands, and he had read them. He felt he must write a play.
He had written one. Would I read it? I did. It was crude, curious,
middle-aged, stinted, and yet the true dramatic element was there. He
had evolved a village drama from his own soul. I wrote and told him to
go on, and showed him his faults, but never heard any more of him.

“Once a leading actor-manager of mine took to drink. I heard it; peril
seemed imminent. I wrote and told him I had met a journalist, named
Moriarty, who had found him drunk in the street; explained that under
the influence of alcohol he had divulged the most appalling things,
which, if true, would make it necessary for me to find someone else to
play the part. Terrible despair! Many letters at intervals. I continued
to cite Moriarty, and all went well. One fine day a letter came, saying
my manager had met the tale-bearer. He had happened to call at a lady’s
house, and there Moriarty stood. The furious manager nearly rushed at
his enemy’s throat to kill him; but being in a woman’s drawing-room, he
deferred his revenge. Nevertheless, he would, by Jove, he would do it
next time, if he heard any more tales. Vengeance, daggers!

“Then I quaked. I had to write and say my ‘Moriarty’ was a myth, so
he had better leave the unoffending personage alone.” And G. B. S.
twinkled merrily through those sleepy grey eyes as he told the tale.

Once I was inveigled into editing and arranging a souvenir book for
University College Hospital, of which more anon. I asked Mr. Shaw to
do something for the charity. This is his characteristic reply, written
on a post card:

[Illustration:

10 ADELPHI TERRACE W.C.

15ᵗʰ. Feb. 1909.

No, Mʳˢ. Alec.

NO.

NO.

NO.

I never do it, not even for my best friends. I loathe bazaars

G. B. S.]

Yet another public dinner stands out prominently in my memory.

Quite a crowd attended the Women Journalists’ Dinner of November,
1907. Mrs. Humphry Ward was in the chair. Next to her was the Italian
Ambassador, the Marquis di San Giuliano, and then myself. My neighbour
was especially interesting as the descendant of an old Sicilian family,
Lords of Catania since the time of the Crusades, and also because he
himself had earned a considerable name in literature. Later he left
London for the Embassy in Paris, and is now in Rome, as Minister for
Foreign Affairs.

Taking up my card, his Excellency exclaimed:

“Why, are you the lady who wrote that charming book on Sicily?”

I nodded.

“I am a Sicilian, and I thank you, madam,” he said. In fact, in the
exuberance of his spirits, he shook and re-shook me by the hand.

We became great friends, and he often came in to have a talk about his
native land.

A Sicilian, he sat in the Italian Parliament for many years, and was
three years in the Ministry; then, in 1905, he was asked to come to
London as Ambassador. He had never been in the diplomatic service,
and had only visited Great Britain as a tourist; in fact, he feared
the climate, on account of rheumatism, which at fifty-two had nearly
crippled him. But pressure was brought to bear, so he came to St.
James’s.

He declared England to be most hospitable, the people were so kind
and opened their doors so readily; and he loved the climate. He was
delighted he had come.

“In Sicily,” he said, “you are right in saying that we are still in
the seventeenth century. We have much to learn. I believe in women
having equal rights with men in everything. I think they ought to have
the suffrage. Your women in England are far more advanced than in
Italy, and I admire them for it. I have the greatest respect and love
and admiration for women. My wife came from Tuscany. She was advanced
for an Italian, and she first opened my eyes to the capabilities of
women. I hope before I die to see them in a far better position than
they already hold. They have helped us men through centuries and they
deserve reward.”

What a delight the Marquis di San Giuliano will be to the suffragists
among his own countrywomen if ever they attain to the advancement of
our own Parliament Square agitators.

He lunched with me one day early in January, 1908, and afterwards drove
me down to the Pfeiffer Hall of Queen’s College, Harley Street, where,
with Sir Charles Holroyd as chairman, he had promised to deliver a
lecture to the Dante Society. Its subject was the twenty-sixth canto
of the _Inferno_, the whole of which the Ambassador read in Italian.
Then he went on to comment upon the text in English, and explained the
symbolical meaning of Ulysses’s voyage and wreck.

I was struck by a theory which the lecturer advanced: that the canto
was possibly one of the factors that helped to produce the state of
mind in Christopher Columbus which prepared him for his immortal
discovery. In the inventory of the estate of a Spaniard who was a
comrade of Columbus, one of the items named was a copy of Dante’s poem.
It was probable that Columbus, an Italian, and much more educated than
this officer, was in the habit of reading the book. It was known that
a certain astronomer who was one of Columbus’s foremost inspirers, was
a keen Dante student. Probably Columbus’s track, as far as the Canary
Isles, varied but little from that of Ulysses. Certainly in Columbus’s
speech to his wavering crew is found an echo of Ulysses’s exhortation.

On the drive to Queen’s College the Marquis wore a thick fur coat, and
it was a mild day; I remarked upon it.




“I always _transpire_ so, when I speak, that I am afraid of catching
cold,” he replied.

What a trouble all these oddities of our language must be to
foreigners. I remember a more amusing slip from the talented wife of
a very public man, who speaks the English tongue with perfect grace
and charm. I had asked if her husband wore his uniform when performing
annually a great historic ceremony.

“Oh no, he wears his nightdress,” she replied, meaning his dress
clothes.

Apropos of the Milton Centenary the Italian Ambassador was asked to
speak at the Mansion House on “Milton in connection with Dante.” He
motored down to my mother’s house in Buckinghamshire, where I was
staying, and together we explored Milton’s cottage, where the poet
wrote _Paradise Regained_ and corrected _Paradise Lost_. We spent
some time looking over manuscripts and photographs, in order that he
should be saturated with the subject, and the next night he went to the
Mansion House full of his theme.

“I got up,” said His Excellency, “referred to Milton, then to
Dante, knowing that this was only my preliminary canter to personal
reminiscences to come. What were those reminiscences? I gazed at that
vast audience. I pondered. I knew there was something very important I
had to say. I returned to the dissimilarity of the two men’s work. I
wondered what my great point was, and finally with a graceful reference
to poetry, I sat down.

“Then, and not till then, did I remember I had cracked the nut, and
left out a description of Milton’s home, the kernel of my speech.”

This man is a brilliant speaker in Italian and French, and quite above
the average in English and German. Which of us who has made a speech
has not, on sitting down, remembered the prized sentence has been
forgotten?

The Marquis gave some delightful dinners in Grosvenor Square. I met
Princes, Dukes, authors, artists, actors, and even Labour Members of
Parliament, at his table. He was interested in all sides of life, and
all the time he was in England he continued to take lessons in our
language.

I first met Mr. Cecil Rhodes in December, 1894, at a dinner-party which
was notable for its Africans, Dr. Jameson and H. M. Stanley being there
as well. A woman’s impression of a much-talked-of man may not count
for much. He sat next me. I was fairly young and maybe attractive,
I suppose, so he talked to me as if I were a baby or a doll. To be
candid, I took a particular dislike to Rhodes from the moment I first
saw him. A tall, some might say a handsome, man, his face was round and
red, and not a bit clever so far as appearances went. He looked like an
overfed well-to-do farmer, who enjoyed the good things of this life. He
seemed self-opinionated, arrogant, petulant, and scheming—no doubt what
the world calls “a strong man.” There seemed no human or soft side to
his character at all. Self, self, ambition. And self again marked every
word he uttered.

Of course he was masterful. Even his very Will denoted that. It was
hard, cool-headed, calculating, and less generous to his family than it
might have been.

Still Rhodes did great things, and was it not he who said, “It is a
good thing to have a period of adversity”? Mighty true—but strangely
disagreeable.

Although outwardly so indifferent to everyone and everything, Cecil
Rhodes was not above the vanities. He and a friend of mine had been
boys together, and Rhodes became godfather to one of the latter’s
children, a post which he considered held serious responsibilities. He
wished to make his godson a valuable present. It was the proud parent’s
idea to ask the great African to let the gift be his portrait.

“Of course I will,” said Cecil Rhodes; “arrange the artist and terms,
and tell me when I am to sit, and I’ll go.”

So matters were settled. An artist was asked to undertake the
commission, and one fine day my friend took Rhodes round to the studio
for the first sitting.

The artist decided to paint him side face. Rhodes petulantly refused
to be depicted anything but full face. Discussion waxed warm, and,
naturally, my poor friend felt very uncomfortable. However, the artist,
claiming the doctor’s privilege of giving orders and expecting to be
obeyed, began his work on his own lines.

Cecil Rhodes gave only the first sitting and one other. Then, finding
the picture was really being painted side face, like a child he
became furious. He refused ever to sit again, and on his return from
the studio wrote a cheque for the stipulated sum, and sent it to the
artist, asking him to forward the picture to him as it was.

The brush-man guessed that his object was to destroy the canvas, so,
instead of sending the picture, he returned the cheque. Thus the
portrait—unfinished, indeed, hardly begun—remained hidden away in
the studio; and now that the sitter is dead, it should possess some
interest.

A man who knew Cecil Rhodes very well once told me:

“He was a muddler. I was one of his secretaries. When he went away
we sorted his correspondence, ‘One,’ ‘Two,’ ‘Three.’ ‘One’ included
the letters requiring first attention. ‘Two’ those not so important,
and so on. When he came back from Bulawayo, we gave him the letters.
Three months afterwards, he had never looked at one of them. ‘Leave
them alone, they will answer themselves,’ he said; but that was a most
dangerous doctrine, and sometimes nearly cost C. R. his position.
He made endless enemies through this extraordinary, selfish, lazy
indifference.”

As stated above, Stanley was at this dinner of which I have been
writing, and I often met him later. He always appeared to me shy,
reticent, almost to moroseness on occasions. He was a small man with
white wavy hair, round face, and square jaw, dark of skin—probably more
dark in effect than reality, in contrast to the hair. He was broadly
made and inclined to be stout. His face was much lined, but a merry
smile spread over his countenance at times.

At one of my earliest dinners with the Society of Authors I sat between
him and Mr. Hall Caine. No greater contrast than that between these
two men could be found, I am sure—the latter quick and sharp; Henry
Stanley, on the other hand, stolid in temperament and a person not
easily put out or disturbed.

“I walk for two hours every day of my life,” said Stanley. “Unless I
get my six or seven miles’ stretch, I feel as if I would explode, or
something dreadful happen to me. So every afternoon after lunch I sally
forth, generally into Hyde Park, where, in the least-frequented parts,
I stretch my legs and air my thoughts. I live again in Africa, in the
solitude of those big trees, and I conjure up scenes of the dark forest
and recall incidents the remembrance of which has lain dormant for
years. Taking notes, going long walks, studying politics, compose the
routine of my daily life.

“I am a Liberal-Unionist, and shocked that you should say you are a
Radical—no lady should ever hold such sentiments.”

And he really appeared so terribly shocked I could not help telling him
a little story of how on one occasion an old gentleman was introduced
to take me down to dinner. Some remark on the staircase made me say, “I
am a Radical.” “Ma’am!” he replied, almost dropping my arm, and bending
right away from me. “Are you horrified? Do you think it dreadful to be
a Radical?” I asked. “Yes, ma’am, I am indeed shocked that any lady—and
let alone a young lady—should dare to hold such pernicious views!”
Really, the old gentleman was dreadfully distressed, seemed to think
me not even respectable, and, although I did my best to soothe him with
the soup, to chat to him on other topics with the fish, it was not
until dessert was reached that he was really happy or comfortable in
his mind that his young neighbour was fit society to be next to him at
a dinner-party.”

Stanley laughed.

I asked him if he had any desire to go back to Africa.

“None,” he replied. “I may go some day, but not through any burning
desire; for, although I have been a great wanderer, I don’t mind much
if I never wander again.”

During the evening he proposed the health of the late Mr. Moberly Bell,
our chairman, whom he had known for twenty-eight years. Stanley had a
tremendously strong voice, which filled the large hall, and seemed to
vibrate through my head with its queer accent. He spoke extremely well,
without the slightest nervousness or hesitation; his language was good
and his delivery excellent.

It was not till I read his _Life_, when it first came out in 1909,
that I realised what a struggle his had been. Reared in a workhouse,
this maker of the Congo (which we muddled and allowed the Belgians to
take for their own) was indeed a remarkable man. He attained position,
wealth in a minor degree, a charming lady as a wife, and a title. His
self-education and magnificent strength of purpose secured all this
unaided, even by good fortune. His _Life_ reads like an excellent
novel. In these Socialistic days one receives with interest his remark,
“Individuals require to be protected from the rapacity of Communities.
Socialism is a return to primitive conditions.”

Yes. Stanley was a great man. Seven thousand miles across unknown
Africa, amidst slave-traders, cannibals, and wild beasts, his
expedition “tottered its way to the Atlantic, a scattered column of
long and lean bodies; dysentery, ulcers, and scurvy fast absorbing the
remnant of life left by famine.” So he crossed from East to West, and
traversed hundreds of miles of the river Congo.

My other neighbour at that dinner—Hall Caine—had much in common with
me, and we discussed Iceland, where, of course, we had both been;
Norway, which he knew in summer and I in winter; and then Nansen.

The Manxman is an interesting companion, his nervous intensity throws
warmth and enthusiasm into all his sayings and makes his subjects
appear more interesting than they really are, perhaps. There is a
magnetic influence in him. Physically delicate, a perfect bundle of
nerves, there is an electric thrill in all he says, in spite of the
sad, soft intonation of his voice.

He ponders again and again over his scenes, throws himself heart and
soul into his characters, himself lives all the tragic episodes and
terrible moments that the men and women undergo, with the result that
by the time the book is completed he is absolutely played out, mind and
body.

Certainly, to sum up, my dinner neighbours have often been, and often
are, most interesting, and frequently delightful as well.

Nothing in the world is more bracing than contact with brilliant minds.
Brilliancy begets brilliancy just as dullness makes thought barren.

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