Without staying to prove my premises I take it for granted nobody will dispute that what it pleases me to call impromptu hospitality is an out-of-date virtue.
In the very olden time there were those who were backward in the practice of it. Else the fisherman Apostle would not have enjoined upon the "strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Gala-tia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia," to "use hospitality, one to another, without grudging."
An ancient writer says: "The primitive Christians made one principal part of their duty to consist in the exercise of hospitality; and they were so exact in the practice of it that the very heathens admired them for it."
From which we gather that the Apostolic admonition had fallen into good soil and brought forth much fruit.
It would be interesting to know when the quid pro quo element entered into and defiled the noble virtue. The primitive Christians aforesaid had no knowledge of this alloy, while the recollection of the Master's teaching was fresh in their minds:
"For if ye lend to them of whom you hope to receive, what thank have ye?"
and sleep under my roof who can return the favor in kind, or be useful in turn to me in some way, is barter, not hospitality.
When I give a feast - be it afternoon tea, or the gravest of social functions, a dinner party - to five hundred, or to five people who have invited me at some time to their houses - and because of the obligation under which their invitations have laid me - I may be honest. I am not generous. I pay a debt. I do not exercise a grace.
The former times were not better in all respects than these. But for divers reasons they were more hospitable times. It was inevitable that private houses should keep open doors when taverns, and even houses of entertainment, were few and far apart upon main-traveled roads, and utterly wanting to the traveler who pushed his way into the back country unknown except to the pioneer. If the stranger were not welcomed to the home of him whose house stood nearest to the wayside, he was shelterless in night or storm. There is the less need for the exercise of undis-criminating hospitality when inn and hotel "blaze" the track into the wilderness.
There is none the less occasion for asking our friends to enter our homes and to partake of the food which is a symbol of the good-will we have for them, our disposition to share with them the best blessings granted to man in this world - home loves and home joys. True hospitality but widens the circle and makes the guest "at home." Artificial hospitality seeks or accepts a convenient season for making the everyday life of the home seem what it is not to the stranger within our gates.
Our forbears said: "Come in and take pot-luck with us."
An old Virginian told me that, as a boy, he was a visitor in a country house in the central part of the state, when a carriage drove up to the gate, and James Madison, then president of the United States, alighted. The lady of the manor was sitting upon the front porch, a bit of needle-work in hand. She arose, cordial and dignified, to receive her guest. As her chief butler, a far more consequential personage than his mistress, bustled out with a footman or two at his heels to see what could be done for the distinguished arrival, she said to him in a gentle "aside," audible to the boy visitor: "James! see that a plate is put upon the table for Mr. Madison."
Southern hospitality was a proverb then and for many a year thereafter. In her book, "The Voice of the People," Miss Glasgow tells a story, which I can certify is not exaggerated, of an old aunt who came to her nephew's house on a visit of a week and stayed twenty years, guarded by the viewless, but potent, aegis of hospitality. A plate was put upon the table for the poor relation in town and country house in that lavish land, as freely as for the chief magistrate, and was filled as bountifully.
When relative, acquaintance or stranger tarried but a night, the householder, in the homely speech of his fathers, asked in gentle sarcasm, "if he had come for a chunk of fire?"
In his father's day, lucifer matches were unknown. When the fire went out upon the kitchen hearth of plantation or cabin, a swift runner was sent across fields to borrow a live brand from the nearest neighbor. He must hurry back before it went out.
We invite people to come to us at a stated time and for a given period. When the time is up, we tell them graciously that we have enjoyed their visit, and hope we shall meet again before long. When the carriage that takes them to the station is out of sight, we say, "That is well over!" and make a note to that effect in our visiting book.
Leaving the general view of our subject for individual illustration:
If satirists and grumbling wives are to be believed, a husband can hardly do a more imprudent thing than to bring home an unexpected guest to dinner, or luncheon, or supper.
The ill-used wife contends that he always does this - as if with malice aforethought - at the most inconvenient times and seasons. From her standpoint he might have recollected - it seems incredible that he could have forgotten - that it is washing or ironing day, or Thursday, which is the cook's afternoon out, and that the housemaid is not equal to a regular dinner. When the mistress has planned to have a "pick-up" composite of the substantial meal required by a man after his day's work, and the tea and toast which are supposed to meet the temporal needs of the feminine system - the apparition of an impromptu guest, and that guest a man, is like a boulder rolled upon the track before the domestic engine. The train is derailed, conductor and engineer "rattled," and badly shaken up.
Our housewife has reason on her side, and a good deal of it. It is all very fine to say, she urges, that her table should always be neat and orderly; that what is nice enough for her husband in the way of food and appointments should content the president, should he chance to drop in. Everybody sings that song in the same key, and it is stale bosh! For everybody knows that in the best regulated families we do make special provision for company. John comprehends that the best china can not be used every day, if we would have it remain even "good." The second-best is excellent in quality, and pretty. Yet what housekeeper is superior to the wish to show outsiders that she has a Minton fish set; Coalport meat dishes and plates; silver vegetable dishes; Sevres after-dinner coffee-cups? To set out her table as tastefully as she can afford to do is an offering due to the stranger within her gates - a visible token of hospitable intent. She is, in a measure, defrauded in all this when a surprise-visit is sprung upon her.
John is sensible, and does not object to left-overs now and then, when flavorously put together. Today's salmi, or salad, or croquette is, to him, a reminiscence of yesterday's roast. The oyster-stew made by his wife to spare servants wearied by laundry work, is as satisfactory to him, once in several whiles, as a six-course dinner would be. He sees in an Irish stew, supported by browned potatoes, hot biscuits, home-made cake and a capital cup of coffee, a feast fit for the gods as represented by his hungry self and any fellow he may have corralled and brought in to "take pot-luck."
"I ask yer honors if that is anny sort of a shkull to take to Donnybrook Fair!" cried an Emeralder who had killed his man "in a bit of a foight," when the defense produced the broken skull of the deceased in court to prove that the "frontal, parietal and occipital segments were extraordinarily thin."
Mary submits to a jury of her peers if she has not a right to be "put about" when Johnny comes marching home serenely with a guest in tow, who, for the lack of time to make anything else ready, must be set down to left-over oyster, or Irish stew.
"When a man is asked to dinner, he expects a dinner!" she asserts in justifiable vexation. "And when all is said and done, the fact remains that one's husband is not a visitor for whom one must mind her p's and q's."
Yet - and a "yet" that might fill a whole line if its importance were considered - there is, also, much to be said on John's side. Any bachelor can ask the old friend who looks in upon him in business hours and places, to lunch or dine with him at a chop house or hotel. The guest knows what he would get there. Just such a meal as he can buy for dollars and cents at fifty other "eating joints" all over the country. A meal, eaten in the presence of from twenty to one hundred other feeders, amid the babble of voices, the rattle of crockery and the click of knives and forks.
"A Pick-Up Dinner"
It is the married man alone who can offer the wayfarer a taste - and a generous taste - of home. The dear old fellow thrills in every inch of body and soul when he claps an ancient chum on the back with "Now you must see my wife and babies, old man!" or says to a business acquaintance in town for the day: "Mrs. Johannes and I would be charmed to have you take a family dinner with us. I am just going home now. Come with me!"
If malcontent Mary but knew it, he pays the highest possible compliment to her, as woman and housekeeper, by taking her welcome for granted.
I heard a man say the other day of another:
"He is a royally good fellow, and, I take it, is happily married. He begged me to dine with him when I called at his office, and without giving his wife notice. A fellow doesn't take such liberties with his wife unless he is pretty sure of her and her housekeeping. I couldn't accept the invitation, but the impression left upon my mind was most agreeable."
It is worth Mary's while to score a point in her favor with her husband's friends and to strengthen her hold upon him by meeting the unexpected guest with frank cordiality, and in every other way making the best of the situation.
She keeps the house, and has the work and worry that go with the keeping. John pays for the material part of the home. How much it signifies to him the best of wives does not always know. It is his stimulus, his hope, his sheet anchor, when all the waves and billows of business trouble go over his soul - his haven of refuge - the nearest approach to Heaven he can find on this side of the dark river. He has a lien - in legal phrase - upon all the benefits accruing therefrom.
The exercise of spontaneous hospitality is not the least of these.