Read CHAPTER XXIV - FLATTERERS AND BORES. of Collections and Recollections, free online book, by George William Erskine Russell, on ReadCentral.com.

Can a flatterer be flattered? Does he instinctively recognize the commodity in which he deals? And if he does so recognize it, does he enjoy or dislike the application of it to his own case? These questions are suggested to my mind by the ungrudging tributes paid in my last chapter to Lord Beaconsfield’s pre-eminence in the art of flattery.

“Supreme of heroes, bravest, noblest, best!”

No one else ever flattered so long and so much, so boldly and so persistently, so skilfully and with such success. And it so happened that at the very crisis of his romantic career he became the subject of an act of flattery quite as daring as any of his own performances in the same line, and one which was attended with diplomatic consequences of great pith and moment.

It fell out on this wise. When the Congress of the Powers assembled at Berlin in the summer of 1878, our Ambassador in that city of stucco palaces was the loved and lamented Lord Odo Russell, afterwards Lord Ampthill, a born diplomatist if ever there was one, with a suavity and affectionateness of manner and a charm of voice which would have enabled him, in homely phrase, to whistle the bird off the bough. On the evening before the formal opening of the Congress Lord Beaconsfield arrived in all his plenipotentiary glory, and was received with high honours at the British Embassy. In the course of the evening one of his private secretaries came to Lord Odo Russell and said, “Lord Odo, we are in a frightful mess, and we can only turn to you to help us out of it. The old chief has determined to open the proceedings of the Congress in French. He has written out the devil’s own long speech in French and learnt it by heart, and is going to fire it off at the Congress to-morrow. We shall be the laughing-stock of Europe. He pronounces epicier as if it rhymed with overseer, and all his pronunciation is to match. It is as much as our places are worth to tell him so. Can you help us?” Lord Odo listened with amused good humour to this tale of woe, and then replied: “It is a very delicate mission that you ask me to undertake, but then I am fond of delicate missions. I will see what I can do.” And so he repaired to the state bedroom, where our venerable Plenipotentiary was beginning those elaborate processes of the toilet with which he prepared for the couch. “My dear Lord,” began Lord Odo, “a dreadful rumour has reached us.” “Indeed! Pray what is it?” “We have heard that you intend to open the proceedings to-morrow in French.” “Well, Lord Odo, what of that?” “Why, of course, we all know that there is no one in Europe more competent to do so than yourself. But then, after all, to make a French speech is a commonplace accomplishment. There will be at least half a dozen men at the Congress who could do it almost, if not quite, as well as yourself. But, on the other hand, who but you can make an English speech? All these Plenipotentiaries have come from the various Courts of Europe expecting the greatest intellectual treat of their lives in hearing English spoken by its greatest living master. The question for you, my dear Lord, is-Will you disappoint them?” Lord Beaconsfield put his glass in his eye, fixed his gaze on Lord Odo, and then said, “There is much force in what you say. I will consider the point.” And next day he opened the proceedings in English. Now the psychological conundrum is this-Did he swallow the flattery, and honestly believe that the object of Lord Odo’s appeal was to secure the pleasure of hearing him speak English? Or did he see through the manoeuvre, and recognize a polite intimation that a French speech from him would throw an air of comedy over all the proceedings of the Congress, and perhaps kill it with ridicule? The problem is well fitted to be made the subject of a Prize Essay; but personally I incline to believe that he saw through the manoeuvre and acted on the hint. If this be the true reading of the case, the answer to my opening question is that the flatterer cannot be flattered.

We saw in my last chapter how careful Lord Beaconsfield was, in the great days of his political struggles, to flatter every one who came within his reach. To the same effect is the story that when he was accosted by any one who claimed acquaintance but whose face he had forgotten he always used to inquire, in a tone of affectionate solicitude, “And how is the old complaint?” But when he grew older, and had attained the highest objects of his political ambition, these little arts, having served their purpose, were discarded, like the green velvet trousers and tasselled canes of his aspiring youth. There was no more use for them, and they were dropped. He manifested less and less of the apostolic virtue of suffering bores gladly, and though always delightful to his intimate friends, he was less and less inclined to curry favour with mere acquaintances. A characteristic instance of this latter manner has been given to the world in a book of chit-chat by a prosy gentleman whose name it would be unkind to recall.

This worthy soul narrates with artless candour that towards the end of Lord Beaconsfield’s second Administration he had the honour of dining with the great man, whose political follower he was, at the Premier’s official residence in Downing Street. When he arrived he found his host looking ghastly ill, and apparently incapable of speech. He made some commonplace remark about the weather or the House, and the only reply was a dismal groan. A second remark was similarly received, and the visitor then abandoned the attempt in despair. “I felt he would not survive the night. Within a quarter of an hour, all being seated at dinner, I observed him talking to the Austrian Ambassador with extreme vivacity. During the whole of dinner their conversation was kept up; I saw no sign of flagging. This is difficult to account for.” And the worthy man goes on to theorize about the cause, and suggests that Lord Beaconsfield was in the habit of taking doses of opium which were so timed that their effect passed off at a certain moment!

This freedom from self-knowledge which bores enjoy is one of their most striking characteristics. One of the principal clubs in London has the misfortune to be frequented by a gentleman who is by common consent the greatest bore and buttonholer in London. He always reminds me of the philosopher described by Sir George Trevelyan, who used to wander about asking, “Why are we created? Whither do we tend? Have we an inner consciousness?” till all his friends, when they saw him from afar, used to exclaim, “Why was Tompkins created? Is he tending this way? Has he an inner consciousness that he is a bore?”

Well, a few years ago this good man, on his return from his autumn holiday, was telling all his acquaintances at the club that he had been occupying a house at the Lakes not far from Mr. Ruskin, who, he added, was in a very melancholy state, “I am truly sorry for that,” said one of his hearers. “What is the matter with him?” “Well,” replied the buttonholer, “I was walking one day in the lane which separated Ruskin’s house from mine, and I saw him coming down the lane towards me. The moment he caught sight of me he darted into a wood which was close by, and hid behind a tree till I had passed. Oh, very sad indeed.” But the truly pathetic part of it was one’s consciousness that what Mr. Ruskin did we should all have done, and that not all the trees in Birnam Wood and the Forest of Arden combined would have hidden the multitude of brother-clubmen who sought to avoid the narrator.

The faculty of boring belongs, unhappily, to no one period of life. Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety. Middle life is its heyday. Perhaps infancy is free from it, but I strongly suspect that it is a form of original sin, and shows itself very early. Boys are notoriously rich in it; with them it takes two forms-the loquacious and the awkward; and in some exceptionally favoured cases the two forms are combined. I once was talking with an eminent educationist about the characteristic qualities produced by various Public Schools, and when I asked him what Harrow produced he replied, “A certain shy bumptiousness.” It was a judgment which wrung my Harrovian withers, but of which I could not dispute the truth.

One of the forms which shyness takes in boyhood is an inability to get up and go. When Dr. Vaughan was Head Master of Harrow, and had to entertain his boys at breakfast, this inability was frequently manifested, and was met by the Doctor in a most characteristic fashion. When the muffins and sausages had been devoured, the perfunctory inquiries about the health of “your people” made and answered, and all permissible school topics discussed, there used to ensue a horrid silence, while “Dr. Blimber’s young friends” sat tightly glued to their chairs. Then the Doctor would approach with Agag-like delicacy, and, extending his hand to the shyest and most loutish boy, would say, “Must you go? Can’t you stay?” and the party broke up with magical celerity. Such, at least, was our Harrovian tradition.

Nothing is so refreshing to a jaded sense of humour as to be the recipient of one of your own stories retold with appreciative fervour but with all the point left out. This was my experience not long ago with reference to the story of Dr. Vaughan and his boy-bores which I have just related. A Dissenting minister was telling me, with extreme satisfaction, that he had a son at Trinity College, Cambridge. He went on to praise the Master, Dr. Butler, whom he extolled to the skies, winding up his eulogy with, “He has such wonderful tact in dealing with shy undergraduates.” I began to scent my old story from afar, but held my peace and awaited results. “You know,” he continued, “that young men are sometimes a little awkward about making a move and going away when a party is over. Well, when Dr. Butler has undergraduates to breakfast, if they linger inconveniently long when he wants to be busy, he has such a happy knack of getting rid of them. It is so tactful, so like him. He goes up to one of them and says, ‘Can’t you go? Must you stay?’ and they are off immediately.” So, as Macaulay says of Montgomery’s literary thefts, may such ill-got gains ever prosper.

My Dissenting minister had a congener in the late Lord P -, who was a rollicking man about town thirty years ago, and was famous, among other accomplishments, for this peculiar art of so telling a story as to destroy the point. When the large house at Albert Gate, which fronts the French Embassy and is now the abode of Mr. Arthur Sassoon, was built, its size and cost were regarded as prohibitive, and some social wag christened it “Gibraltar, because it can never be taken.” Lord P - thought that this must be an excellent joke, because every one laughed at it; and so he ran round the town saying to each man he met-“I say, do you know what they call that big house at Albert Gate? They call it Gibraltar, because it can never be let. Isn’t that awfully good?” We all remember an innocent riddle of our childhood-“Why was the elephant the last animal to get into the Ark?”-to which the answer was, “Because he had to pack his trunk.” Lord P-asked the riddle, and gave as the answer, “Because he had to pack his portmanteau,” and was beyond measure astonished when his hearers did not join in his uproarious laughter. Poor Lord P ! he was a fellow of infinite jest, though not always exactly in the sense that he intended. If he had only known of it, he might with advantage have resorted to the conversational device of old Samuel Rogers, who, when he told a story which failed to produce a laugh, used to observe in a reflective tone, “The curious part of that story is that stupid people never see the point of it,” and then loud, though belated, guffaws resounded round the table.