On Making Calls
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
I KNOW a boy who dislikes to make calls. Making a call, he says, is ‘just sitting on a chair.’
I have had the same feeling, although I had never defined it so nicely. One ‘just sits on a chair’ — precariously, yet with an odd sense of unhappy security, of having grown to and become part of that chair, as if one dreaded to fall off, yet strongly suspected that any real effort to get up and go away would bring the chair up and away with him. He is, so to speak, like a barnacle on a rock in an ocean of conversation. He may exhibit unbarnacle-like activity, cross and uncross his legs, fold and unfold his arms, twiddle his useful fingers, incline his tired head this way and that to relieve the strain on his neck, assume (like an actor) expressions of interest, amusement, surprise, pleasure, or what not. He may even speak or laugh. But he remains sitting on his chair. He is more and more certain that he cannot get up.
He is unlike the bottoms of his own trousers. Calmly, quietly, and by imperceptible degrees they get up. Higher and higher they ascend kneeward; they have an ambition to achieve the waist. Every little while he must unostentatiously, and with an easy, careless, indifferent, well-bred, and even blasé gesture, manage to pull them down.
I am referring, you understand, to the mature, married male. Between boyhood and maturity there is a period (without which there would be fewer marriages, and perhaps none at all) when a call is a personal adventure, and it often happens that the recipient of the call, rather than the caller himself, fears that somehow or other he and his chair have grown together. But my boy friend, as I think you will agree when you consider his situation, does not, strictly speaking, call: he is taken to call. And just so is it with the average mature, married male; the chief difference — and even this does not invariably hold good — is that he dresses himself. He has become part and parcel (particularly parcel) of what is presumably a wise and necessary division of life in which the social end is taken over by a feminine partner. She is the expert. She knows when and where to call, what to say, and when to go home. A man, happily married, has no further responsibilities in this business — except to come cheerfully and sit on his chair without wriggling. Sometimes, indeed, he takes a pleasure in it, but that is only when he has momentarily forgotten that he is making a call. These are his rewarding moments; and then, the first thing he knows, somebody is ‘making signs’ that it is time to go home!
The wise man, noticing these ‘signs,’ comes home. He stands not upon the order of his coming, but comes at once.
A call, says Herbert Spencer, in his Principles of Sociology, is ‘evidently a remote sequence of that system under which a subordinate ruler had from time to time to show loyalty to a chief ruler by presenting himself to do homage.’ The idea is plausible: was it not for this very reason that Cleopatra galleyed dowm the Cydnus to call on Antony,—a call that would probably have had a different effect on history if the lady had brought a husband, —and Sheba cameled across the desert to call on Solomon? The creditor character of the visitation survives in the common expression ‘ paying a call.’ In both these cases, however, the calls took on a lighter and brighter aspect, a more reciprocally admiring and well-affected intimacy, than was strictly necessary to an act of political homage. One is, after all, human: and the absence of marital partners, whose presence is always a little subduing, must be taken into consideration. ‘But Solomon,’ you say, ‘Solomon?’ Sir and madam, I rise to your question. In such a situation a man with seven hundred wives is as good as a bachelor; and I think the fact that Solomon had seven hundred wives proves it.
Later the Feudal System provided natural scope for innumerable calls of this nature; visits, as we should now term them, because it was customary for the callers to bring their nighties — or would have been if the callers had had any. The Dark Ages, curiously enough, lacked this garment. But it was only after the Feudal Period that the call, as we now know and practice it, became a social custom; and even to-day feudalism, in an attenuated form, rules society, and the call is often enough an act of homage to the superior social chief. One might argue (except for the fact that Sheba gave as well as exhibited her treasure to Solomon) that Mrs. Jones is following historic precedent when she brings and exhibits Mr. Jones to Mrs. Smith. Or, again, it might be pointed out that both Cleopatra and Sheba brought their slaves. There is, apparently, more than one sequence (as Mr. Spencer would say), but there is also a wide divergence from original type. Only partly and occasionally an act of homage, the call has become, broadly speaking, a recognition of exact social equality, as if the round, dignified American cheese in Grocer Brown’s ice-box should receive and return a call from the round, dignified American cheese in Grocer Green’s ice-box.
And it has become divisible into as many varieties as Mr. Heinz’s pickles. —The call friendly (‘Let us go and call on the Smiths: I’d like to see them’); the call compulsory (‘We really must make that call on the Smiths’); the call curious (‘I wonder if it’s so, what I heard yesterday about the Smiths’); the call convenient (‘As we have n’t anything better to do this evening, we might call on the Smiths’); the call proud (‘Suppose we get out the new motor, and run round to the Smiths’); and so forth, and so forth, But, however we look at it, the call is dependent upon feminine initiative. Our mature, married male, unless he has had already a call to the ministry, has no call, socially speaking, to make calls. It is his wife’s business. As the British soldiers sang at one period of the war, ‘He’s there because he’s there, because he’s there, because he’s there.’ But it is his plain duty to sit on his chair. I do not. hold it legitimate in him to ‘sneak off’ with Mr. Smith — and smoke.
Fortunately, however, once he is there, little else is expected of him — and nothing that a man should not be willing to do for his wife. A smile, an attentive manner, the general effect of having combed his hair and washed behind his ears, a word now and then to show that he is awake (I am assuming that he controls the tendency to wriggle on his chair) —and no more is needed. He is a lay figure, but not necessarily a lay figure of speech. I do not know why he is there, unless to prove to their little world that he still loves his wife; that he is, in short, attached to her, so that wherever she goeth there he goeth also.
Unless a man who is taken to call is of an abnormally lively conversational habit, quick to think of something that may pass for a contribution to current thought, and even quicker to get it out, he had best accept his position as merely decorative, and try to be as decorative as possible. Either he must be so quick that the first words of his sentence have leaped into life before he is himself aware of what is to come hurrying after them, or he must be so slow that the only sentence he has is still painfully climbing to the surface long after the proper time for its appearance has passed and been forgotten. Swallow it, my dear sir, swallow it. Silence, accompanied by a wise, appreciative glance of the eye, is better; for a man who has mastered the art of the wise look does his wife credit, and is taken home from a call with his faculties unimpaired and his self-respect undiminished: he is the same man as when he was taken out. But not so the man who starts, hesitates, and stops, as if he actually said, ‘Hold-onthere-I-’ve-got-a-fine-idea — but — er — on second thought — er — I — er — that is — I guess — er — it is n’t —worth hearing.’
Such a man, I say, adds little to the pleasure of himself or the company; he attracts attention only to disappoint: and others are kind as well as sensible to ignore him. He should have kept on rapidly and developed his fine idea to the bitter end. Nor is it wise to attempt to shine, to dazzle, to surprise with a clever epigram, thoughtfully composed and tested by imaginary utterance before an imaginary charmed circle while dressing; for nothing so diminishes confidence in an epigram as successive failures to get it into circulation. In calling, one must jump on the train of thought as it speeds through a way station; and there is no happy mean between jumping on a passing train and standing still on the platform — except, as I have suggested, a pleasant wave of the hand as the train passes.
‘There are not many situations,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘more incessantly uneasy than that in which the man is placed who is watching an opportunity to speak without courage to take it when offered, and who, though he resolves to give a specimen of his abilities, always finds some reason or other for delaying to the next minute.’
I know that resolve; and yet how often have I, too, failed at the crucial moment to give the hoped-for specimen of my abilities! ‘Not yet,’ I said to myself, ‘not yet. The time is not ripe.’ And so I waited, incessantly uneasy,— as Dr. Johnson so well puts it, — but always finding some reason or other to postpone the fireworks. I was beset by a kind of gross selfishness — an unwillingness to give anybody a specimen of my abilities. Let them chatter! Little do they guess — and never will they know—the abilities sitting on this chair! Give them a specimen! Yet I must confess also that my specimen seemed somehow isolated and apart from my environment. It was all right in itself, but it needed a setting; it was like a button without a coat, like an eye without a face, like a kiss without a companion.
And so I come back to my young friend Humphrey; and it seems to me that, with respect to calls, the life of man is in three stages. At first he is a child, and is taken to call by his mother, and he ‘just sits on a chair.’ But sometimes in that family there is another child — it may be a boy child or a girl child; and so, presently, he finds a little playmate, and begins to play, until his mother decides it is time the call was over, and she takes him home. Then he grows older; he makes calls all by himself; and so impressed is he (being at the impressionable age) by the satisfaction derived from certain of these calls that he marries the young woman, God willing, and makes the call permanent. After that, his wife takes him to call and he ‘just sits on a chair.’ But it sometimes happens, even as when he was a child, that he finds a little playmate: and then, when all is well and he has quite forgotten that he is making a call, his wife decides it is time that the call was over.
And she takes him home.