Vanity Fair, January 1915
THE CHARMS OF COUNTRY LIFE
By P. G. Wodehouse
THE ART OF COUNTRY CONVERSATION
YOU have to go to the country to learn the art of conversation.
I think it must be the telephone which has made it a lost art in the city. The telephone practically necessitates brevity. Your main aim is to say as much as you can before you are cut off, or before your partner in the chat develops either deafness or that high throaty voice which sounds as if he were dropping something rapidly on a sheet of tin. Here in the country, when we want to talk, we walk a few miles, take a seat, and give the morning and early afternoon to it.
I suppose it must be the rural quiet which causes it, but every topic of conversation seems so exciting in Hopeville. In the city I am rather easily bored by subjects in which I have no immediate personal interest. But here I can sit, day after day, listening to my next-door neighbour talking about his kitchen-range, and enjoy every minute of it.
It does not sound a very promising subject, a kitchen-range, but these things depend entirely on treatment. This man treats it broadly. He tells me what his father thought of the kitchen-range, what his wife said about it last week, how the hired girl behaved when she first saw it, and ever so many other things. He has never run dry on the subject of the kitchen-range, and I feel that he never will. There is a glint in his eye which tells me that he is prepared to talk it out on these lines if it takes all winter. Up to now he has, I am convinced, merely touched the fringe of the great topic. He has things to say about the kitchen-range which are undream’t of in my philosophy. Besides which, he has so far only repeated all his remarks three times, and I am very much mistaken if he considers a remark a remark until it has gone into at least twelve editions.
That is the key to the art of conversation, and it is that which is so neglected in urban circles. When you have told the tired business-man two or three times what you said to your mother about the kitchen-range, he begins to look at his watch and jerk his head towards those rude signs you see in business offices—“Talk Quick,” “Check it with your hat,” and the like.
My neighbour would be lost in such an atmosphere.
ECONOMY is the theme which inspires another neighbour of mine in Hopeville. He will talk for a whole morning with an almost lyrical fervour of methods of securing bacon a cent cheaper than the ordinary man would have believed possible. The limited nature of our acquaintance has prevented me from probing his religious views as deeply as I could wish: but I feel sure that his idea of Heaven is a place where you can get bacon a cent cheaper than at the local grocer’s. I still thrill at the dramatic way in which he told me the story of how, by walking four miles into a neighbouring town, he bought a dozen eggs for forty-eight cents,—eggs, mark you, differing in no way from those which the local robbers are selling at fifty cents a dozen. The way he worked the thing up, starting with his first flash-like vision that there might be a place where eggs were only forty-eight cents a dozen, describing his journey—with all its hopes and fears—and culminating in the great moment when the man in the town assured him officially that forty-eight cents a dozen was the price, made the story of Columbus’ little venture seem like the tentative effort of a timid novice.
The recital takes more than an hour every time he tells it, but it stirs the blood like some old saga.
One reason why we are such pre-eminent conversationalists in the country is that we do not gabble. We talk slow. We chew our words. We specialise in Macready pauses. I have waited sometimes for over a minute while an unfortunate noun hung in mid-air without visible support until its verb slowly emerged and held it up. That is one of the things which make the charm of country conversation. In the city, if you let your attention wander for an instant, the talk has whizzed past you: but here you can go out and feed the chickens and play with the dog and plant a bulb or two, and come back and find the conversation pretty much where you left it.
A FEW THOUGHTS ON COUNTRY CHARITY
THE incident of the proposed wooden leg for John Harrison Wilbur has left me with a deeper respect for the importance in the scheme of things of those colored Lotties, gray-eyed Mollies, and yellow-haired Huldas, who are such common objects of the wayside in the metropolis, than I have ever had, greatly as I have always appreciated the efforts of the New York maid to minister to my comfort. In the city a maid is a mere convenience,—a something outside ourselves that makes for meals at regular hours. Here, in the country, she is an essential, a life-saver.
For some reason I have not yet been able to secure a maid. Those in the know tell me that after the middle of the month maids will inundate me. Almost everyone in the village knows somebody who would “do for” me, and they will send her up this evening. Yet somehow maids never materialise; and, when a ring comes at the door, I have to answer it myself.
If I had had a maid, I should never have heard of John Harrison Wilbur. The maid would have interviewed the shock-headed youth in the red sweater and routed him with the information that the master, or “He,” or “His Nibs,” as the case might be, was too busy to be disturbed. As it was, I went to the door, and the youth, without a word, thrust a paper into my hand.
IT seemed from the paper that someone named John Harrison Wilbur had recently lost a leg, and it was proposed to supply him with a wooden substitute. The shock-headed youth’s attitude implied that my co-operation might be taken for granted, and that the only question was how much was I good for.
I scanned the list. One subscriber, probably a millionaire manufacturer of wooden legs, had come across with a whole dollar. Others had gone as low as ten cents. I had in my possession, at the moment, five cents.
I fingered my five cents, and put it back.
True, from one point of view, it was rather handsome of me to be even nickelly sympathetic with a man whom I had never seen, and whose very existence I rather doubted. But, with the production of that list, the thing had become competitive. The wooden leg had receded into the background, and the main point at issue was whether I was or was not a piker.
I put myself down for a quarter, and told him to call again and collect. Since then John Harrison Wilbur’s wooden leg has spread like a miasma, poisoning my whole life.
The next time he called, I had a ten-dollar bill, but no quarter. The situation then was not so embarrassing. In this hamlet it is recognised that to possess only a ten-dollar bill is to be temporarily without funds. The grocer can sometimes change a five-dollar bill, but anything higher is waste paper. I told the boy to call again.
Life moves slowly in these parts. Each of his visits during the next week found me still with the un-negotiable bill. I told him to call again.
THE real embarrassment set in at his next appearance. I had a dollar, and from the glint in his eye I could see that he thought that now we had arrived somewhere. Two schools of thought were represented on my front porch that winter afternoon. The shock-headed youth belonged to the school which held that, after all, what was the difference between a dollar and a quarter of a dollar to a man like me. I belonged to the opposite school, the main plank in whose platform was that I was hanged if I was going to squander a whole dollar on what was a sheer luxury, to wit, the supplying of John Harrison Wilbur with a wooden leg.
We faced each other silently.
It was awkward. I was practically telling this youth that I didn’t care seventy-five cents whether one who was probably a boyhood chum of his ever walked again or not. In effect I was saying to him, “For seventy-five cents I could set this chum of yours bounding about the country-side like a mustang of the prairie, but I withhold that seventy-five cents.” It was most unpleasant.
Then the injustice of the thing stirred me. It was not my fault if John Harrison Wilbur had lost a leg. Why should I be penalised for his carelessness? I told the boy to call again.
But it is useless to try and soothe oneself by logic in affairs of this kind. John Harrison Wilbur’s wooden leg haunts me like a specter. Lying awake at night I have visions of John Harrison Wilbur hopping sorrowfully about on one foot. It is becoming intolerable. I know perfectly well that, next time the shock-headed youth calls, I shall have half a dollar in my pocket, and that he will get it out of me. And a portion of my mind still clings to the belief that there is no John Harrison Wilbur, and that my fifty cents will simply go towards maintaining the shock-headed youth in the style to which he has been accustomed.
A maid would have saved me all this. I must get a maid at once. I have just met a man who says that he has heard of a girl in Yaphank. This sounds promising. I have never visited Yaphank, but, from the sound of it, it should be even more rural than my present abode. Probably a girl in Yaphank would look on Hopeville as a maelstrom of vivid incident. I seem to see her revelling in the fierce rush of life outside the post-office (only a mile and a half from my door). Her face is a little flushed with the mad whirl of it all. I see her jostling her way through the dense crowd of two boys and a dog at the corner by the drug-store, a little dazed by the stream of traffic (a bicycle and the grocer’s cart), but loving every moment of it. “This is the life!” I seem to hear her cry. “This is certainly the life.”
Wodehouse and his new bride Ethel had moved to Bellport, Long Island, a few miles south of Yaphank, in October 1914. “Hopeville” seems to be a pseudonym for the town.
talk it out on these lines: General Ulysses S. Grant wired to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 11, 1864: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
philosophy: Hamlet (I, v): “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
walking four miles: In The Little Warrior, Jill’s Uncle Elmer, another of Wodehouse’s Long Island skinflints, saves three cents a pound on bacon by walking four miles from Brookport to Patchogue.
Macready pause: William Macready (1793–1873), British actor-manager, was famous for his hesitations designed to make blank-verse dialogue seem less rhythmic and more natural.
maintaining . . . in the style to which he has been accustomed: humorously adapting a phrase usually heard in the context of divorce and alimony. “Our cases are replete with language that a divorced woman is entitled to be maintained in the style of life to which she became accustomed during coverture.” (Turner v. Turner, 158 N.J. Super. 313)