by Wilkie Collins
WE hear a great deal of lamentation nowadays, proceeding mostly from elderly people, on the decline of the Art of Conversation among us. Old ladies and gentlemen with vivid recollections of the charms of society fifty years ago, are constantly asking each other why the great talkers of their youthful days have found no successors in this inferior present time. Where--they inquire mournfully--where are the illustrious men and women gifted with a capacity for perpetual outpouring from the tongue, who used to keep enraptured audiences deluged in a flow of eloquent monologue for hours together? Where are the solo-talkers, in this degenerate age of nothing but choral conversation?
The solo-talkers have vanished. Nothing but the tradition of them remains, imperfectly preserved in books for the benefit of an ungrateful posterity, which reviles their surviving contemporaries, and would perhaps even have reviled the illustrious creatures themselves as Bores. If they could rise from the dead, and wag their unresting tongues among us now, would they win their reputations anew, just as easily as ever? Would they even get listeners? Would they be actually allowed to talk? I venture to say, decidedly not. They would surely be interrupted and contradicted; they would have their nearest neighbors at the dinner-table talking across them; they would find impatient people opposite, dropping things noisily, and ostentatiously picking them up; they would hear confidential whispering, and perpetual fidgeting in distant corners, before they had got through their first half dozen of eloquent opening sentences. Nothing appears to me so wonderful as that none of these interruptions (if we are to believe report) should ever have occurred in the good old times of the great talkers. I read long biographies of that large class of illustrious individuals whose fame is confined to the select circle of their own acquaintance, and I find that they were to a man, whatever other differences may have existed between them, all delightful talkers. I am informed that they held forth entrancingly for hours together, at all times and seasons, and that I, the gentle, constant, and patient reader, am one of the most unfortunate and pitiable of human beings in never having enjoyed the luxury of hearing them; but, strangely enough, I am never told whether they were occasionally interrupted or not in the course of their outpourings. I am left to infer that their friends sat under them just as a congregation sits under a pulpit; and I ask myself amazedly (remembering what society is at the present day), whether human nature can have changed altogether since that time. Either the reports in the biographies are one-sided and imperfect, or the race of people whom I frequently meet with now--and whom I venture to call talk-stoppers, because their business in life seems to be the obstructing, confusing, and interrupting of all conversation--must be the peculiar and portentous growth of our own degenerate era.
Perplexed by this dilemma, when I am reading in long biographies about great talkers, I do not find myself lamenting, like my seniors, that they have left no successors in our day, or doubting irreverently, like my juniors, whether the famous performers of conversational solos were really as well worth hearing as eulogistic report would fain have us believe. The one invariable question that I put to myself under these circumstances runs thus: Could the great talkers, if they had lived in my time, have talked at all? And the answer I receive is: In the vast majority of cases, certainly not.
Let me not unnecessarily mention names, but let me ask, for example, if some such famous talker as, say--the Great Glib--could have discoursed uninterruptedly for five minutes together in the presence of my friend Colonel Hopkirk?
The colonel goes a great deal into society; he is the kindest and gentlest of men; but he unconsciously stops, or confuses conversation everywhere, solely in consequence of his own sociable horror of ever differing in opinion with anybody. If A should begin by declaring black to be black, Colonel Hopkirk would be sure to agree with him before he had half done. If B followed, and declared black to be white, the colonel would be on his side of the question before he had argued it out; and, if C peaceably endeavored to calm the dispute with a truism, and trusted that every one would at least admit that black and white in combination made gray, my ever-compliant friend would pat him on the shoulder approvingly all the while he was talking; would declare that C's conclusion was, after all, the common sense of the question; and would set A and B furiously disputing which of them he agreed or disagreed with now, and whether on the great Black, White and Gray question, Colonel Hopkirk could really be said to have any opinion at all.
How could the Great Glib hold forth in the company of such a man as this? Let us suppose that delightful talker, with a few of his admirers (including, of course, the writer of his biography), and Colonel Hopkirk, to be all seated at the same table; and let us say that one of the admirers is anxious to get the mellifluous Glib to discourse on capital punishment for the benefit of the company. The admirer begins, of course, on the approved method of stating the objections to capital punishment, and starts the subject in this manner: "I was dining out, the other day, Mr. Glib, where capital punishment turned up as a topic of conversation--"
"Ah!" says Colonel Hopkirk, "a dreadful necessity--yes, yes, yes, I see--a dreadful necessity--eh?"
"And the arguments for its abolition," continues the admirer, without noticing the interruption, "were really handled with great dexterity by one of the gentlemen present, who started, of course, with the assertion that it is unlawful, under any circumstances, to take away life--"
"Unlawful, of course!" cries the colonel. "Very well put. Yes, yes--unlawful--to be sure--so it is--unlawful, as you say."
"Unlawful, sir?" begins the Great Glib, severely. "Have I lived to this time of day, to hear that it is unlawful to protect the lives of the community by the only certain means--?"
"No, no--oh dear me, no!" says the compliant Hopkirk, with the most unblushing readiness. "Protect their lives, of course--as you say, protect their lives by the only certain means--yes, yes, I quite agree with you."
"Allow me, colonel," says another admirer, anxious to assist in starting the great talker, "allow me to remind our friend, before he takes this question in hand, that it is an argument of the abolitionists that perpetual imprisonment would answer the purpose of protecting society--"
The colonel is so delighted with this last argument that he bounds on his chair, and rubs his hands in triumph. "My dear sir!" he cries, before the last speaker can say another word, "you have hit it--you have, indeed! Perpetual imprisonment--that's the thing--ah, yes, yes, yes, to be sure--perpetual imprisonment--the very thing, my dear sir--the very thing!"
"Excuse me," says a third admirer, "but I think Mr. Glib was about to speak. You were saying, sir--?"
"The whole question of capital punishment," begins the delightful talker, leaning back luxuriously in his chair, "lies in a nutshell." ("Very true," from the colonel.) "I murder one of you --say Hopkirk here." ("Ha! ha! ha!" loudly from the colonel, who thinks himself bound to laugh at a joke when he is only wanted to listen to an illustration.) "I murder Hopkirk. What is the first object of all the rest of you, who represent the community at large?" ("To have you hanged," from the colonel. "Ah, yes, to be sure! to have you hanged. Quite right! quite right!") "Is it to make me a reformed character, to teach me a trade, to wash my bloodstains off me delicately, and set me up again in society, looking as clean as the best of you? No!" ("No!" from the compliant colonel.) "Your object is clearly to prevent me from murdering any more of you. And how are you to do that most completely and certainly? Can you accomplish your object by perpetual imprisonment?" ("Ah! I thought we should all agree about it at last," cries the colonel, cheerfully. "Yes, yes-- nothing else for it but perpetual imprisonment, as you say.") "By perpetual imprisonment? But men have broken out of prison." ("So they have," from the colonel.) "Men have killed their jailers; and there you have the commission of that very second murder that you wanted to prevent." ("Quite right," from the compliant Talk-Stopper. "A second murder--dreadful! dreadful!")"Imprisonment is not your certain protective remedy, then, evidently. What is?"
"Hanging!!!" cries the colonel, with another bound in his chair, and a voice that can no longer be talked down. "Hanging, to be sure! I quite agree with you. Just what I said from the first. You have hit it, my dear sir. Hanging, as you say--hanging, by all manner of means!"
Has anybody, ever met Colonel Hopkirk in society? And does anybody think that the Great Glib could possibly have held forth in the company of that persistently-compliant gentleman, as he is alleged, by his admiring biographer, to have held forth in the peculiar society of his own time? The thing is clearly impossible. Let us leave Glib, congratulating him on having died when the Hopkirks of these latter days were as yet hardly weaned; let us leave him, and ascertain how some other great talker might have got on in the society of some other modern obstructer of the flow of eloquent conversation.
I have just been reading the Life, Letters, Labors, Opinions, and Table-Talk of the matchless Mr. Oily; edited--as to the Life, by his mother-in-law; as to the Letters, by his granddaughter's husband; and as to the Labors, Opinions, and Table-Talk, by three of his intimate friends, who dined with him every other Sunday throughout the whole of his long and distinguished life. It is a very pretty book in a great many volumes, with pleasing anecdotes--not only of the eminent man himself, but of all his family connections as well. His shortest notes are preserved, and the shortest notes of others to him. "My dear O., how is your poor head? Yours, P." "My dear P., hotter than ever. Yours, O." And so on. Portraits of Oily, in infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, old age active, and old age infirm, concluding with a post-mortem mask, abound in the book--so do fac-similes of his handwriting, showing the curious modifications which it underwent when he occasionally exchanged a quill for a steel pen. But it will be more to my present purpose to announce for the benefit of unfortunate people who have not yet read the Memoirs, that Oily was, as a matter of course, a delightful and incessant talker. He poured out words, and his audience imbibed the same perpetually three times a week from tea-time to past midnight. Women especially reveled in his conversation. They hung, so to speak, palpitating on his lips. All this is told me in the Memoirs at great length, and in several places; but not a word occurs anywhere tending to show that Oily ever met with the slightest interruption on any one of the thousand occasions when he held forth. In relation to him, as in relation to the Great Glib, I seem bound to infer that he was never staggered by an unexpected question, never affronted by a black sheep among the flock, in the shape of an inattentive listener, never silenced by some careless man capable of unconsciously cutting him short and starting another topic before he had half done with his own particular subject. I am bound to believe all this--and yet, when I look about me at society as it is constituted now, I could fill a room, at a day's notice, with people who would shut up the mouth of Oily before it had been open five minutes, quite as a matter of course, and without the remotest suspicion that they were misbehaving themselves in the slightest degree. "What (I ask myself), to take only one example, and that from the fair sex--what would have become of Oily's delightful and incessant talk, if he had known my friend Mrs. Marblemug, and had taken her down to dinner in his enviable capacity of distinguished man?
Mrs. Marblemug has one subject of conversation--her own vices. On all other topics she is sarcastically indifferent and scornfully mute. General conversation she consequently never indulges in; but the person who sits next to her is sure to be interrupted as soon as he attracts her attention by talking to her, by receiving a confession of her vices--not made repentantly, or confusedly, or jocularly--but slowly declaimed with an ostentatious cynicism, with a hard eye, a hard voice, a hard--no, an adamantine--manner. In early youth, Mrs. Marblemug discovered that her business in life was to be eccentric and disagreeable, and she is one of the women of England who fulfills her mission.
I fancy I see the ever-flowing Oily sitting next to this lady at dinner, and innocently trying to make her hang on his lips like the rest of his tea-table harem. His conversation is reported by his affectionate biographers as having been for the most part of the sweetly pastoral sort. I find that he drove that much-enduring subject, Nature, in his conversational car of triumph, longer and harder than most men. I see him, in my mind's eye, starting in his insinuating way from some parsley garnish round a dish of lobsters--confessing, in his rich, full, and yet low voice (vide Memoirs) that garnish delights him, because his favorite color is green--and so getting easily on to the fields, the great subject . from which he always got his largest conversational crop. I imagine his tongue to be, as it were, cutting its first preliminary capers on the grass for the benefit of Mrs. Marblemug; and I hear that calmly-brazen lady throw him flat on his back by the utterance of some such words as these:
"Mr. Oily, I ought to have told you, perhaps, that I hate the fields. I think Nature in general something eminently disagreeable--the country, in short, quite odious. If you ask me why, I can't tell you. I know I'm wrong; but hating Nature is one of my vices."
Mr. Oily eloquently remonstrates. Mrs. Marblemug only says, "Yes, very likely--but, you see, it's one of my vices." Mr. Oily tries a dexterous compliment. Mrs. Marblemug only answers, "Don't! I see through that. It's wrong in me to see through compliments, being a woman, I know. But I can't help seeing through them, and saying I do. That's another of my vices." Mr. Oily shifts the subject to Literature, and thence, gently but surely, to his own books--his second great topic after the fields. Mrs. Marblemug lets him go on, because she has something to finish on her plate--then lays down her knife and fork--looks at him with a kind of wondering indifference, and breaks into his next sentence thus:
"I'm afraid I don't seem quite so much interested as I know I ought to be," she says; "but I should have told you, perhaps, when we first sat down, that I have given up reading."
"Given up reading?" exclaims Mr. Oily, thunderstruck by the monstrous confession. "You mean only the trash that has come into vogue lately; the morbid, unhealthy--"
"No, not at all," rejoins Mrs. Marblemug. "If I read anything, it would be morbid literature. My taste is unhealthy. That's another of my vices."
"My dear madam, you amaze--you alarm me --you do, indeed!" cries Mr. Oily, waving his hand in graceful deprecation and polite horror.
"Don't!" says Mrs. Marblemug; "you'll knock down some of the wine-glasses, and hurt yourself. You had better keep your hand quiet--you had, indeed. No; I have given up reading, because all books do me harm--the best--the healthiest. Your books even, I suppose, I ought to say; but I can't, because I see through compliments, and despise my own, of course, as much as other people's! Suppose, we say, I don't read, because books do me harm --and leave it there. The thing is not worth pursuing. You think it is? Well, then, books do me harm, because they increase my tendency to be envious (one of my worst vices). The better the book is, the more I hate the man for being clever enough to write it --so much cleverer than me, you know, who couldn't write it at all. I believe you call that Envy. Whatever it is, it has been one of my vices from a child. No, no wine--a little water. I think wine nasty, that's another of my vices-- or, no, perhaps, that is only one of my misfortunes. Thank you. I wish I could talk to you about books; but I really can't read them--they make me so envious."
Perhaps Oily (who, as I infer from certain passages in his Memoirs, could be a sufficiently dogged and resolute man on occasions when his dignity was in danger) still valiantly declines to submit and be silent, and, shifting his ground, endeavors to draw Mrs. Marblemug out by asking her questions. The new effort, however, avails him nothing. Do what he will, he is always met and worsted by the lady in the same quiet, easy, indifferent way; and, sooner or later, even his distinguished mouth is muzzled by Mrs. Marblemug, like the mouths of all the degenerate talkers of my own time whom I have ever seen in contact with her. Are Mr. Oily's biographers not to be depended on, or can it really be the fact that, in the course of all his long conversational career, that illustrious man never once met with a check in the shape of a Mrs. Marblemug? I have no tender prepossession in favor of the lady; but when I reflect on the character of Mr. Oily, as exhibited in his Memoirs, I am almost inclined to regret that he and Mrs. Marblemug never met. In relation to some people, I involuntarily regard . her as a dose of strong moral physic; and I really think she might have done my distinguished countryman some permanent good.
To take another instance, there is the case of the once brilliant social luminary, Mr. Endless-- extinguished, unfortunately for the new generation, about the time when we were most of us only little boys and girls.
What a talker this sparkling creature must have been, if one may judge by that racy anonymous publication (racy was, I think, the word chiefly used in reviewing the book by the critics of the period), "Evenings with Endless, by A Constant Listener!" "I could hardly believe," I remember the Listener writes, "that the world was the same after Endless had flashed out of this mortal scene. It was morning while he lived--it was twilight, or worse, when he died. I was very intimate with him. Often has the hand that writes these trembling lines smacked that familiar back --often have those thrilling and matchless accents syllabled the fond diminutive of my Christian name. It was not so much that his talk was ceaseless (though that is something), as that it moved incessantly over all topics from heaven to earth. His variety of subject was the most amazing part of this amazing man. His fertility of allusion to topics of the past and present alike, was truly inexhaustible. He hopped, he skipped, he fluttered, he swooped from theme to theme. The butterfly in the garden, the bee in the flower-bed, the changes of the kaleidoscope, the sun and shower of an April morning, are but faint emblems of him." With much more to the same eloquent purpose; but not a word from the first page to the last to hint even that Endless was ever brought to a full stop, on any single occasion, by any one of the hundreds of enchanted listeners before whom he figured in his wonderful performances with the tongue from morning to night.
And yet there must surely have been Talk-Stoppers in the world, in the time of the brilliant Endless--talk-stoppers, in all probability, possessing characteristics similar to those now displayed in society by my exasperating connection by marriage, Mr. Spoke Wheeler.
It is impossible to say what the consequences might have been if my relative and Mr. Endless had ever come together. Mr. Spoke Wheeler is one of those men--a large class, as it appears to me--who will talk, and who have nothing whatever in the way of a subject of their own to talk about. His constant practice is to lie silently in ambush for subjects started by other people; to take them forthwith from their rightful owners; turn them coolly to his own uses, and then cunningly wait again for the next topic, belonging to somebody else, that passes within his reach. It is useless to give up, and leave him to take the lead--he invariably gives up, too, and declines the honor. It is useless to start once more, seeing him apparently silenced--he becomes talkative again the moment you offer him the chance of seizing on your new subject--disposes of it without the slightest fancy, taste, or novelty of handling, in a moment--then relapses into utter speecklessness as soon as he has silenced the rest of the company by taking their topic away from them. Wherever he goes, he commits this social atrocity with the most perfect innocence and the most provoking good-humor, for he firmly believes in himself as one of the most entertaining men who ever crossed a drawing-room or caroused at a dinner-table.
Imagine Mr. Spoke Wheeler getting an invitation to one of those brilliant suppers which assisted in making the evenings of the sparkling Endless so attractive to his friends and admirers. See him sitting modestly at the table with every appearance in his face and manner of being the most persistent and reliable of listeners. Endless takes the measure of his man, as he too confidently believes, in one bright glance--thinks to himself, Here is a new worshiper to astonish; here is the conveniently dense and taciturn human pedestal on which I can stand to let off my fireworks--plunges his knife and fork, gayly hospitable, into the dish before him (let us say a turkey and truffles, for Endless is a gastronome as well as a wit), and starts off with one of those "fertile allusions" for which he was so famous.
"I never carve turkey without thinking of what Madame de Pompadour said to Louis the Fifteenth," Endless begins, in his most off-hand manner. "I refer to the time when the superb Frenchwoman first came to court, and the star of the fair Chateauroux waned before her. Who remembers what the Pompadour said when the king insisted on carving the turkey?"
Before the company can beg Endless, as usual, to remember for them, Mr. Spoke Wheeler starts into life and seizes the subject.
"What a vicious state of society it was in the time of Madame De Pompadour!" he says, with moral severity. "Who can wonder that it led to the French Revolution?"
Endless feels that his first effort for the evening is nipped in the bud, and that the new guest is not to be depended on as a listener. He, however, waits politely, and every one else waits politely to hear something more about the French Revolution. Mr. Spoke Wheeler has not another word to say. He has snatched his subject--has exhausted it--and is now waiting, with an expectant smile on his face, to lay hands on another. Disastrous silence reigns, until Mr. Endless, as host and wit, launches a new topic in despair.
"Don't forget the salad, gentlemen," he exclaims. "The emblem, as I always fancy, of human life. The sharp vinegar corrected by the soft oil, just as the misfortune of one day is compensated by the luck of another. Heigh-ho! let moralists lecture as they will, what a true gambler's existence ours is, by the very nature of it! Love, fame, wealth, are the stakes we all play for; the world is the table; Death keeps the house, and Destiny shuffles the cards. According to my definition, gentlemen, man is a gambling animal, and woman--" Endless pauses for a moment, and lifts the glass to his lips to give himself a bacchanalian air before he amazes the company with a torrent of eloquence on the subject of woman. Unhappy man! in that one moment Mr. Spoke Wheeler seizes on his host's brilliant gambling metaphor, and runs away with it as his own property immediately.
"The worst of gambling," he says, with a look of ominous wisdom, "is, that when once a man takes to it, he can never be got to give it up again. It always ends in ruin. I know a man whose son is in the Fleet, and whose daughter is a maid of all work at a lodging-house. The poor devil himself once had twenty thousand pounds, and he now picks up a living by writing begging-letters. All through gambling. Degrading vice, certainly; ruins a man's temper and health, too, as well as his property. Ah! a very degrading vice--very much so, indeed!"
"I am afraid, my dear sir, you have novices," says Endless, getting angry and sarcastic as a fresh pause follows this undeniable commonplace. "The bottle stands with you. Do you abjure even that most amiable of human failings--the cheerful glass? Ha!" exclaims Endless, seeing that his guest is going to speak again, and vainly imagining that he can cut him short this time, "Ha! what a debt we owe to the first man who discovered the true use of the grape! How drunk he must have got in making his immortal preliminary experiments! How often his wife must have begged him to consider his health and his respectability, and give up all further investigations! How he must have shocked his family with perpetual hiccoughs, and puzzled the medical men of the period with incurable morning headaches! To the health of that marvelous, that magnificent, that inestimable human being, the first toper in the world! The patriarchal Bacchus quaffing in his antediluvian vineyard! What a picture, gentlemen; what a subject for our artists! Scumble, my dear friend," continues Endless, breathlessly, feeling that Mr. Spoke Wheeler has got his topic again, and anxious to secure assistance in preventing that persistent gentleman from making any use of the stolen property-- "Scumble, your pencil alone is worthy of the subject. Tell us, my prince of painters, how would you treat it?"
The prince of painters has his mouth full of turkey, and looks more puzzled than flattered by this complimentary appeal. He hesitates, and Mr. Spoke Wheeler darts into the conversation on the subject of drunkenness forthwith.
"I'll tell you what," says the Talk-Stopper, "we may all joke about drunkenness as much as we please--I'm no saint, and I like a joke as well as anybody--but it's a deuced serious thing for all that. Seven-tenths of the crime in this country is owing to drunkenness; and of all the incurable diseases that baffle the doctors, delirium tremens is (next to hydrophobia) one of the worst. I like a cheerful glass myself--and this is uncommonly good wine we are drinking now--but there's more than you think for to be said on the temperance side of the question; there is, indeed!"
Will even the most indiscriminate of the surviving admirers of Endless, and of the great talkers generally, venture to assert that he, or they, could have shown off with the slightest approach to success in the company of Mr. Spoke Wheeler, or of Mrs. Marblemug, or of Colonel Hopkirk, or of any of the other dozens on dozens of notorious talk-stoppers whose characters I refrain from troubling the reader with? Surely not! Surely I have quoted examples enough to prove the correctness of my theory, that the days when the eminent professors of the Art of Conversation could be sure of perpetually attentive audiences, have gone by. Instead of mourning over the loss of the great talkers, we ought to feel relieved (if we have any real regard for them, which I sometimes doubt) by their timely departure from the scene. Between the members of the modern generation who would not have listened to them, the members who could not have listened to them, and the members who would have confused, interrupted, and cut them short, what extremities of compulsory silence they must have undergone if they had lasted until our time! Our case may be lamentable enough in not having heard them; but how much worse would theirs be if they came back to the world now, and tried to show us how they won their reputations!