The Penalty of Poise
MY wife has an impenetrable poise. I have n’t. Nobody has ever successfully challenged her social omniscience. Nobody has ever, even ironically, accused me of possessing the most remote or elementary knowledge of the principles of social equilibrium. I am blunt, and brutal. There is nothing tenuous or delicate or skillful in my handling of a social problem. Smash! Bang! I ‘m in it or out of it, all in a minute, and the gwath I cut is as clean as if a well-directed bolt of lightning had cleared a path before and behind me. My wife picks her way daintily, with utmost charm, discretion, and skill.
A dear old lady whose face was familiar, but only vaguely, came up to her the other day and, in that irresistible and ingratiating manner old ladies have who want to be slightly risque and confidential, said: ‘I don’t blame you for being so fond of my grandson! I am, too!’ There was not the slightest trace of alarm or anxiety or puzzlement on my wife’s serene countenance when she said, ‘He is a dear, is n’t he?’ She had n’t the slightest notion who he was, but there was no betrayal of that or of her lack of affection for him. ‘ He is so like my son whom I lost at just his age,’ the fond grandmother said, and her willing and accomplished conspirator took her first cue from the feeling of emotion she got through the emphasis the old lady put upon the age of her grandson. He must have been a promising youth, prematurely and perhaps blessedly lost before the flirtations of a slightly older woman had lured him too far. With a conscience utterly free from guile, but with frank knowledge of the charm a ‘slightly older woman’ has for an inexperienced and impressionable boy, she began to search her mind for her recent victims of a tender age. A procession passed before her, and she quickly and adroitly made a composite picture of them, drawing upon miscellaneous recollections in order to have a representative background for her next observation.
She might have saved all this mental effort, by saying at once, ‘ Which grandson?’ to the old lady; but then, she might have had only one. That would have been unpardonable in my wife’s code. She might have said, ‘ I am almost equally fond of all your grandsons,’ but that would not have met the grandmother’s fine discrimination in grandsons with so prompt and equal appreciation. I suppose she had to say, ‘He is a dear, ‘ and then pick her way daintily and dangerously. She was definitely compromised. She acknowledged her fondness for one particular grandson. Now was time for a moment’s reconnoitring. She plays generalities very skillfully.
Following the note of age innocently admitted by the reminiscing grandmother, my talented wife said, ‘It’s a fascinating age.’ This made her feel aloof and secure. It might be an age she could look down upon. Whatever age it was, she conveyed definitely that she was an indulgent and harmless patroness, not a participant in any contemporary pastimes or pleasures. ‘I’m afraid sometimes he is too frequent a visitor at your house,’ the cautious old lady said; and there might have been a note of reproach, gentle as she was. This was helpful. There were certainly not many impressionable youths, of a dangerous age, who paid visits often enough to make their dear old grandmothers anxious. She could think of a few, but pairing them off with grandmothers and checking the grandmothers against t he accusing one in front of her was too much even for her practised art. There was nothing to do for the moment but deprecate the old lady’s anxiety and say that his visits were always enjoyable and never too frequent. There was a slight risk, but it had to be taken. It turned out to be a veritable trap — for the acute though gentle old lady said that it did n’t worry her so much as it did his mot her. This was a decidedly uncomfortable attitude for her to take, and my immaculately hospitable and cordial wife began to think the whole conversation was a well-planned piece of malice and meanness. ‘And his mother would n’t mind his coming so much, if he were n’t quite so informal.’ It was now time to stop such insinuations. She would be saying words like ‘intimate’ next. So my resourceful wife brought me into the conversation in the smoothest, most natural way.
The mere mention of my name cast at once an atmosphere of propriety over the incident and immediately established all those trembling elements like loyalty, trust, confidence, frankness, in their proper conjugal places. She said,
‘ My husband is just as fond of him as I am, you know, and he probably takes great delight in his informality. Nothing shocks him, you know.’ This was a very congenial turn, and with it soon came complete relief. It seems that both the old lady and her grandson approved of me enthusiastically, and when she said ‘Billy adores him,’ my highly strung social diplomat felt that the ultimate solution was not far off. A ‘ Billy ‘ and one who adored me — simple enough, no matter who he was, what his age, or who his grandmother was. ‘And I think the thing that won his heart was the cunning little rake your husband made for him. He loves to rake leaves.’
‘Billy’s a great help, Mrs. Allen, and the most charming little boy of six I ever knew. We both love him dearly.’ Her poise is impenetrable, but its penalties are exacting. She had to confess to me that she had had another narrow squeak and she had to listen, not to my compliments upon her intricate and admirable handling of a treacherous situation, but to an intricate and equally admirable explanation of how I should have gone about it in my manner. This always leaves her with that imponderable question in her mind: Is poise a social grace of absolute beauty and, like virtue, its own reward, or is it a trap that sooner or later will catch the wariest?