My little bald friend, the monologist, seemed at first to have entirely lost his accustomed garrulity when he dined at my hotel table last evening. His manner was strangely subdued.
If my experience of him, his demeanor, character and known habits did not utterly deride the fact, I should have said he was suffering from a New Year "hang over." His eye - if such were possible in such a man - held a hang-dog and furtive expression, and his usual calm self-assurance seemed utterly to have deserted him.
When the wine-waiter approached with the wine card, my little bald friend waved him petulantly aside.
"A little Vichy Water, George," he said, "and a small slice of lemon."
Then he glanced quietly and furtively at me to see if I had noted the significance of his unusual order.
After that he remained silent for an unusually long time, eating with his accustomed appetite and meticulous attention to the minutest detail of etiquette.
Conversation, he had often told me, he regarded both as an appetiser and an aid to good digestion. If this is so, he allowed his listeners to give little assistance to either appetite or assimilation.
At long last, even with more abruptness that usual, he broke the long silence.
"It was Chesterton who said it, was it not?" he asked with customary vagueness and without expecting an answer continued:-
"I mean those lines about 'stretching the folly of youth to be the shame of age.' It goes something like this:-
God grant we shall not go again to ape an ancient rage, Not stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age . . .
"I very much fear that my recent behaviour has been even worse than that. My own youth knew nothing of the folly of alcoholic excess. In fact, I never tasted alcohol until I was nearly 30 years of age. Then I was fortunate in meeting a man who not only possessed keen judgment and knowledge of the world's wines, but knew also the extreme value of temperance if one wished to reap the full enjoyment of what, after all, is a real blessing if used with careful moderation - always and absolutely with extreme moderation.
"My own indulgence, as you know, amounts to only two or three small bottle per week of the best obtainable."
He paused for a moment, as if hesitating as to how he should continue. "The younger generation," he resumed, "are an utter mystery to me. I neither condemn nor praise them. I simply fail to understand their ways of life or point of view.
"Therefore, when a young friend of mine suggested that I should attend a New Year's Eve party of what is known, I believe, as 'The Younger Set,' my first impulse was to refuse hastily on any pretext. Then, remembering how lonely I should be, and seeing an opportunity to study at close quarters this mysterious younger generation, I accepted and I went.
"The party at first interested me, but very soon cocktails were handed round.
"Cocktails, sir, I have always regarded as utterly nauseous concoctions, invented by imps and brewed in the nethermost cauldrons of Tophet. A witches' brew worse than any thing of which the ancients dreamed.
"After I had refused several, an attractive young lady - indeed an extremely attractive young lady - pressed me to try some particular mixture which, she assured me, was extremely pleasant and mild. To please the lady I sipped the drink, and, much to my surprise, found it not only palatable, but with a pleasant bouquet, a smooth quality and an alcoholic content that seemed almost negligible.
"I needed little pressing to partake of a second. I think it was myself who suggested a third, and, within the hour, I think I had consumed at least seven.
"I was delighted to find that their effect upon me was hardly negligible.
"At least, there was no effect for quite a few minutes. Then a strange, and, I admit even now, a most delicious glow seemed to creep through my veins. I began to think I knew and loved all modern youth - admired them tremendously. In fact, I myself was intensely modern and youthful. My eyes were opened to my long years of inanity and the folly of my assumption of an elderly wisdom that was more ludicrous than folly itself.
"Sir, I will spare you the shameful, the humiliating details of that evening. I danced with the attractive young lady. I even danced solo, in the middle of the floor, to the rhythmic clapping of hands. I wore an absurd paper cap. I even sang a song called, I believe, "Champagne Charlie," the words of which I remembered imperfectly. At the stroke of midnight promiscuous kissing was indulged in. I kissed the attractive young lady the - ah - extremely attractive young lady. In fact, I seem to remember that I kissed her in all some five times - perhaps it was six.
"And then, sir, the worst of all calamities of that calamitous evening occurred. I invited the attractive young lady to dinner - at this very hotel, sir, on next Saturday evening, and she accepted!
"Sir," he concluded with immense feeling, "I am a man of some repute in this city. I have many right-thinking friends with old-fashioned views and a very proper regard for decent decorum, and I am greatly troubled. You will, I am sure, appreciate my position and - er - and - er - perhaps sympathise a little. I wish you, sir, what I despair of enjoying myself, a very good evening.
My bald friend rose, with none of his usual briskness, and went toward the door on feet that very palpably bore a man deeply troubled.
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002-04|