There are several hostesses who are famous for the delicious tea they give their friends, acquaintances, and such enemies as may be included under the latter heading.
Not only is the beverage itself unimpeachable, but the accompaniments are well chosen, and the surroundings are of an order to tempt the appetite by suggesting refined and intelligent arrangements, consequently inspiring perfect confidence in one's hostess.
The room is neither overheated nor disagreeably cold. There are screens available for avoiding the scorching glare of the fire while yet enjoying its beneficent warmth. If it be daylight, there is a softening shade of blind or drapery interposed between its trying candour and complexions not capable of defying it. If the light be artificial, it shines through the softening medium of pale pink or amber shades, tints to which beauty itself should be grateful, while those who do not possess it have even more cause for thankfulness.
Flowers, too, should be scattered about the room, and, in fact, they generally are. They must be, of course, fresh and dainty. Some people are peculiarly sensitive to the odour of stale water in which flowers have been left for days. Many of us are not so particular as we might be with regard to this point.
Very strongly perfumed blossoms are disagreeable to some among us, though to others they are the medium of a sensuous pleasure. We are meant to enjoy the fragrance of flowers, and it is a sign of an imperfectly balanced organisation when we fail to do so. There are women who faint if too long in proximity to such flowers as the tuberose, orange blossom, or auratum lily. There are other women who feel inspired to mental effort by these very perfumes; who paint better, write better, work better for the companionship of such flowers as these.
But the careful hostess, however she may enjoy these olfactory delights, will see to it that when friends drop in to tea the blossoms are quietly sent into banishment until she regains her solitude.
There are servants who can be trusted to make good tea. They are extremely rare, very much more rare than those who can make good coffee. The ideal hostess makes tea herself in the drawing-room. A table is equipped with spirit-lamp and shining kettle of silver, aluminium, brass, or copper, and dainty caddy, all laid ready upon a teacloth as fine and as elaborately embroidered as may suit the taste and means of the household. It gives one a feeling of perfect confidence to see this table laid in readiness, and to note that the preparations are complete, even to the little silver strainer which prevents the leaves from entering the cups.
At many such tables there are three or four infuser spoons for the use of those who like tea made in the cup. In these days of mal-digestion there are many who regard a teapot as a fount of possible disaster, as, indeed, it sometimes is, when the tea is left so long upon the leaves as to extract all their tannin.
Hot cakes are served really hot, and freshly toasted, in the house of the perfect hostess. Late comers are not offered them in a discouraging condition, dried up and hardened round the edges by having been kept hot in the oven. The oven is no place for hot cakes. Small plates are left ready for such as like to eat these cakes by the aid of the pretty little knives and forks made expressly for use at tea. Some callers still prefer the saucer only, according to Victorian etiquette. Hot toast, brown all over and well buttered, is indispensable to a good tea in cold weather. In summer its place is taken by strawberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, or whatever fruit may be in season. Fruit knives and forks are laid in a little heap ready for anyone choosing fruit.
Sandwiches of various sorts and bread-and-butter, brown and white, are the indispensable portions of the fare provided. Cakes, petits fours, and delicate little sweet biscuits come next, and the thoughtful chatelaine will not neglect to provide the plain, dry biscuits to which so many of her friends are limited by medical advice, or by the counsels of their beauty doctor.
At some houses a choice of China or of Indian tea is offered, for there is a marked difference of taste in the matter of flavour. To those accustomed to Indian tea, China tea seems weak and flavourless. Doctors, however, recommend China tea to all whose digestive organs are in an imperfect condition.
When the hostess makes tea with her own hands-it is impossible in the case of a large party of friends-she usually has two teapots at hand, so that she may make a fresh brew when there are new arrivals. The maid takes the discarded teapot away, and then returns it, ready for use when its turn comes ronnd again.