WHEN I was a boy, nobody in our neighborhood served afternoon tea, but only gave a tea. I mean that a tea was a social function to which one was invited, while tea was served with a meal. In our house we seldom drank it at all except at Sunday evening ‘supper,’ as we called the cold victuals that served as a frail bridge between the sumptuous Sunday dinner and the ordinary dietary of week days.
On our block there was, it is true, a retired English sea captain whose wife served tea — or had a tea, as we said — every day at half-past four in the afternoon. I remember attending only once and being astonished at the quantity of buttered toast, muffins, scones, or crumpets consumed, with marmalade. The captain’s three daughters hovered about and in and out of the room after more hot water or toast and ran after ‘jugs’ of milk or hot water, while his wife, in black silk, lace collar, and ‘water waves,’ presided at the little table and poured and poured and poured. I was shocked to see the captain, a burly man with a voice capable of subduing mutiny, drink three cups, for I had always supposed that tea was a woman’s drink. His doing so was the more surprising because in the same room hung an oil painting of a blue ship on a green ocean, tossing about upon angular waves before an almost visible hurricane; and this ship — the Sarah Jane — was, I knew, the last ship the captain had commanded, and it had been wrecked off Cape Hatteras. He had been rescued in a breeches buoy!
I have no doubt, nevertheless, that the first thing the captain did on landing was to shout for tea.
The ways of the world have changed in the intervening years, and now even American sea captains, still in active service, do not hesitate to drink tea in the cabin with their passengers. And all over the world, wherever it is possible to muster ten English inhabitants, there is a tea shop.
Only the other day, as I was riding along the Italian coast, there where a stairway of rocks rose steeply from the road in a lonely place was a sign that read, ‘Tea and Buns’ — only that, and nothing more. Somewhere above us on the cliff was a little shop, no doubt, where, in majolica ware and on blue tables with orange legs, one would be served with those viands that appear to have supplanted the roast beef which, we used to be told, had made England great. Here, in tweed knickers or walking skirts and sensible walking shoes, and carrying stout walking sticks, Englishmen and Englishwomen — with not a few Americans, who have adopted English customs — drank that beverage which certainly does not inebriate, whatever else it may do to the drinker.
For tea is, of course, a vile drink. Served with lemon, it becomes only a spoiled lemonade; with milk, something the domestic cat would turn away from; clear, a medical brew, of the same family as those concoctions of camomile, eupatorium, or sassafras which country mothers used to administer to their children in spring. And yet ‘that monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,’ has singled it out, erected its dispensing into a rite, invented a ritual with holy vessels and elaborate libations. A group of seasoned tea drinkers is a soul-shaking spectacle, with their peeping into the pot, calling for hot water, discussing the respective virtues of China and Ceylon, black and green, prognosticating with tea leaves, carefully skimming off bubbles which they call ‘money,’ pouring in more hot water, pitying any of their number who does not like tea, and classifying themselves as one-cup, two-cup, and three-cup drinkers. They are as superior as married persons toward a bachelor. They are the same kind of people as those who love cats. Some of them are even said to drink tea in bed before they get up, and then to drink it for breakfast, and after tennis, and during sea bathing, and between races, and in the intervals of cricket, and out of vacuum bottles on walking tours, and as a basis for punch. I have heard of a tea cocktail!
During the past year, in Europe, I have talked with many Englishmen, voluntary expatriates, who, no doubt because they drink tea, can no longer endure their native climate; and they have one and all agreed in ascribing the ‘perilous state’ of Britain to Ramsay MacDonald and the Labor Party. I have not had the courage to suggest to them that all England needs is to dump all her tea into the Channel or the Irish Sea and learn to make coffee.
Anyone who has tasted their coffee is not surprised that they prefer anything else — even tea.
There can be no doubt that Englishmen cannot have been diluting their blood for two centuries with impunity. The eighteenth-century physique could cope with even six cups of tea at a sitting without depleting the vital forces. Dr. Johnson used to drink tea by the gallon, — though no doubt the acridity of his temper was the result of the habit, — and yet remained virile.
But the twentieth-century physique — unless, like G. K. C., it drinks beer, or, like G. B. S., it drinks nothing but water — cannot look at the world with courage and pugnacity when its eyes are tea-ry.
There is something pathetic in watching the English and Anglophile Americans rally round the teapot, in Nice, Florence, or Rome. They have staggered through the day somehow, thinking of buttered scones and muffins, and at half-past four, evincing a pale reflection of jollity, like the twilight of an English November day, they pull up their chairs, fix their gaze on the pourer, and wait in palpitating silence for the first cup. The aroma, like that of wet straw, ascends to their nostrils and awakens sentimental memories of drenched English lawns, the Strand and Piccadilly, Crosse and Blackwell’s, and Eno’s Fruit Salts. The scalding of the steaming water in their œsophagi titillates their vertebræ and makes them almost loquacious. They very nearly chatter. At least they become quite chatty.
Up and down the street and around the corner are French or Italian shops where one can have just as good tea and much better cake for half the price; but one must listen to happy people prattling French or Italian. But these very seldom drink tea. A craze for an execrable drink called café expressé or caffè espresso has swept over Europe during the past few years. It is concocted by forcing live steam through ground coffee, is sweetened with from two to six lumps of sugar, and is drunk out of a little cup. Some add cognac or anisette. All drink it with anchovy sandwiches or little cakes of almond paste or marchpane. It has made the Germans recover from the war, the French the only nation in Europe free from unemployment, the Italians Fascists. What it will do to America, if it ever arrives on our shores, is a nice speculation. I cannot like it — perhaps because the Europeans drink South American coffee and burn it in the roasting and then, like as not, mix it with ground chicory or dried figs; but it has a kick like that of a Kentucky mule and makes one ready to do and dare — for about half an hour. After that, if one’s digestion can withstand it, it is time for another. As caffè latte, it is mixed with milk, which makes it, if anything, worse. At best, courage is required to drink it. And yet the Latin peoples appear able to drink it at all hours, from breakfast to midnight, perhaps because it is a trifle less deadly than their vins ordinaires, which nowadays taste like acetic acid flavored with tin.
A Florentine tradeswoman said the other day: ‘We like the Americans because they laugh. We laugh a great deal, too. The English, they don’t laugh.’ I had never thought of this, and yet I am not surprised. One can laugh on coffee, even caffè espresso; but on tea? ‘It is a question to be asked.’
But I am afraid that nothing I can say will wean the Englishman from his teapot. I have a vision of the day when England (dear old England, for I really love her), who has been declining and falling so long that her declining and falling appear to have become chronic — when England shall have at last really declined and fallen. And I see her last inhabitant and his wife sitting on the ruins of the Tower of London, viewing the remains; but they will view them over the edge of a teacup, from which the fumes, as of wet straw, will ascend to their nostrils, and one may be sure that even in that dim day they will conduct themselves with decorum. The last Englishman’s last wife’s last words will be: ‘My dear, can I pour you another cup?’