Jonnie Comet15 July 2000
’Tis an old maxim in the Schools,
That Flattery’s the food of Fools;
Yet now and then your men of wit
In block-heeled shoes too heavy for her frame she traipses up to the house, having slyly bade her mother leave her at the kerb. Ringing the bell she is greeted by the housemaid who comments on how lovely she looks. It’s an oft-heard comment and fairly given; yet she blushes more today that ordinarily. She’s attired herself most presentably this afternoon in the maturest of her party-going wardrobe, though it is hardly the first time she’s made the effort. In fact this is hardly the first time she’s been here. Familiarity doth breed contempt in all but the most virtuous of maidens; in their case it doth breed quite the opposite.
When the housemaid conveys to her that the girls are off on a hike and not likely to be back before dinner, she responds, ‘Oh!’ –only shallowly feigning disappointment. For she had suspected, or hoped, that her own sister and the motherless young mistress of the house who are close friends would be busy in girlish pursuits elsewhere. Asking after the master of the house she is shown below stairs to where he is mixing some passage of digital video in the studio.
He is surprised but obviously not displeased to see her, for the moment withholding the comments that might have been appropriate about her pretty dress and the tinge of makeup which her sweet young face scarcely wants. ‘I brought the paper you said you would help me with,’ she says carefully, tentatively lowering the school bag to the floor. ‘If... you have time.’
He nods. ‘This may take a while.’ He thinks better of that. ‘How long are you able to stay?’
That question! –she gathers her composure and remembers her station, saying carefully, ‘As long as my sister can.’
It is agreed without words: she is staying for dinner. Demurely she sits beside him at the console, studying the screen intently, and, as usual, they are at once teacher-and-student and co-learners together. She listens to his side comments about piano tuning and visits to Europe and the origin of some Shakespeare quote, fascinated, amused, receptive. Her eager mind and willingness to demonstrate its fruits make her an efficient co-worker; and over the next hour the video is satisfactorily mixed down onto tape for later broadcast in the sitting room. She receives a credit in the end-title sequence as ‘Assistant to the Producer’, which she regards much less whimsically than does the one who dared call himself ‘Producer’ on the homemade basement production of his child’s acting. It is an accolade for her, a memory of the afternoon she spent in company one-to-one with him, working not merely as coworkers but as friends, even– and she dares only carefully to contemplate the word– as peers.
Up in the house the children return and find this twosome sitting at the library table, he pouring earnestly over her writing assignment whilst she poises herself as close beside him as her decorously crossed knees in the skirt will allow. Of course he has criticisms for her, and she will bear them well; but he pronounces it a solid piece of work ‘for a first draught’ –and then, with the audacity only a former schoolteacher can muster, directs her to sit there at the table and rewrite the whole thing. He even provides her with the proper lined paper from a drawer. And then she is alone, but only in the room; his comments scribbled in the margins and the knowledge of his genuine interest in her achievements, however sophomoric they truly are, abide genially in her head and her heart.
Anyone else who heard, ‘Nice effort– now change all of this and rewrite it,’ might have balked at once, cursed the accuser, and tossed the only draught upon the fire. Perhaps if anyone else had told her so, she herself might have done the same. But now, in the intimate, greying light of the library, she scrawls away, striving to include all his suggestions in the context intended whilst deliberately maintaining her most delicate, feminine hand, beautiful in its adolescent elegance, the odd misspelling and misplaced modifier notwithstanding. It is the handwriting she would use for a love letter; though she has never written one– that is, before now.
Dinner, typically sedate for father and daughter alone, becomes something to anticipate tonight with two young guests to table. Still there is a solemnity to entering the candlelit dining room, deep red and bright white, with the expanse of mahogany table spread out before them, its islands of white lace and bone china seeming leagues apart. The young mistress of the house takes her place three metres from her father and her confidante to her right, so that the place of honour is left to the second eldest of the party, across from her sister and at the right hand of the host. As he seats her in the way he might have seated any other guest she blushes, knowing no boy in her class would ever have made the effort.
Indeed she must scavenge up every scrap of etiquette learnt from her mother and grandmother from the depths of a will too often diluted by what passes for protocol among teenagers. But she knows the occasion calls for it; and having been so genteelly treated today she will not disappoint. The linen napkin is spread open in her lap, draping over her legs farther than is covered by her own skirts. She breaks her bread to butter it, sips from the spoon with nary a sound, and compliments the soup. Her host initiates a lively discussion of the video and she cheerfully participates, true to her age in owning a little too much of the production credit for herself. But in the next quiet moment she effects a more elegant air, much too transparent to everyone but herself, and remarks sincerely that dinner by candlelight is so charmingly old-fashioned. Her host smiles, pleased that any young person in this day and age would admit such an anachronistic sensibility. ‘I could eat like this every night,’ she says offhandedly; and, whilst genuine, it is also a thinly-veiled invitation to be invited back. For those at the table there is no doubt that she will be.
The big television set makes a rare appearance, switched on solely for the purpose of airing the video mixed down this afternoon. The two younger girls cheer and gloat over their own performances, teasing each other and begging to have parts played back again and again. The best friend’s sister is reluctantly caught up in their humour; she is drawn out by the host’s jokes and participation in the fun but only guardedly. For this evening she is a young lady in a short skirt and makeup who will not compromise her dignity for childish antics.
Her essay, ostensively her reason for coming today, is read again and pronounced a success. It will never be perfect; yet both principal players have different reasons for believing why not. One is too much a perfectionist about writing; the other too passionate about making personal positions known. Neither has entirely succeeded in the self-assigned missions of the day; yet neither will pronounce it a failure.
At eight her mother comes to collect them; and her sister makes some foolishly immature attempt to hide and prolong the visit by such means as she can, abetted of course by the mistress of the house herself. But the senior dinner guest levels her chin and rises to her full height in the block-heeled shoes, extending her hand to her host and complimenting him on the hospitality. ‘Thank you for inviting me,’ she says graciously. They both know she had more invited herself; but both too are convinced she always be welcome in future.
Her mother waves from the car, grateful for a family friend who will gladly deign to entertain and chaperon her children on the long summer days of school vacation. He says it is no bother; he enjoys their company. How much of an understatement this is may be anyone’s guess– he surely will never confess it aloud.
But why should our wearied old friend not claim some satisfaction from the attentions of such a delightful young companion? To be sure, she is everything lovely, beyond merely young; she is affable, intelligent, fair, generous, virtuous, eager to learn, and respectful and admiring of his experience and opinions. She might draw many kinds of attention from many kinds of males– and surely does– yet she chooses to dwell on him alone, considering what he is to be worthy of her time and efforts to impress. It is impossible to overlook– in all her efforts to appear casual, she is gravely serious; in trying to appear artless, she is shamelessly cunning; in her ladylike aloofness she is single-minded even to the point of entertaining implausible fantasies. To be the object of this is high favour indeed; and our friend must tread a tightrope between the healthiest limits of encouragement, to keep her in his care, and restraint, to keep her at a safe distance.
On one hand his young admirer is fragile– the wrong sort of response would ruin her, his child’s friendship with her sister, his friendship with her parents. The love innate in all these relationships is what has earned the unwavering trust. But on the other hand she is more than just a friend, a child’s friend, a friend’s child. Her brave attention to him is validation of everything he means to be for all young people to behold– a kind of model for them all of what ought to be a man in this world. She is all teenaged girls everywhere, who are precious in what they are and stand for, at once both engagingly nubile and yet blithely naïve.
This is what young people are about; and their emotional or physical desecration at the hands of one who knows better is itself the demise of a Christian society. The mission of every adult must be to nurture them towards responsible, virtuous, Godly adulthood, demonstrating what appropriate relationships are in all their stages and guises. If she, tabla rasa, has invested in him her impressionable innocence, it is his moral duty to uphold that trust, taking care to impart to her those lessons which only an honourable man who is not her father can ever teach her without ever going past the demarcation of propriety.
It is a delicate balance; but as she honours him he must in turn honour her by being the very best he can be, demanding of himself attributes which only the most carefully cultured, educated, ethical man can put into proper perspective. Fortunately, this is our friend’s God-given forte. His affinity for the company of young people is well known. His reputation for being appropriate and more fatherly than friendly with them is above reproach. His faith that the closest of his friends know this is unwavering. His sense of obligation to them is sacrosanct. The trust they place in him so often for the best welfare of their children is his greatest honour. To acknowledge some small degree of satisfaction from an afternoon and evening so innocently and respectably passed is therefore to him the height of ecstasy. After all she is by now a dear friend of his own; he welcomes, entertains, teases, teaches, values her in the ways that he ought to. They will never be lovers; but she shall be cherished in his heart forever.
His young admirer may not understand the half of it. What her innocent heart knows is that he is a man, one of the best of the species, entertaining, warm, caring, noble and virtuous. He is a safe object for her interest– he seeks to educate and entertain, not debase her nor demand anything onerous from her. What she does not know is that for her this is only a practice before the real thing, that, one day when this all seems like silly schoolgirl stuff, she will have seen enough of the world to regard him as a role model by which she might gauge adult men in general, to help her determine the one she will wish to spend her eternity with. No fourteen-year-old boy will ever be able to fill that role for her. One can only hope that some day, inspired by the standards of a young lady sure of what she wants and resolute about what she is willing to do for it, some former fourteen-year-old shall.
It can be considered an admission of either the basest pride or the sublimest satisfaction for a mentor to delight in the success of a pupil. Our friend will readily acknowledge that he has taught only what was always good, and that his young charge has chosen to follow the good path and done well in it only of her own volition. That she has become so universally charming is only proof of her own predisposition towards virtue; and he is only the more honourable to acknowledge it without shame. After all it is natural that a young lady should investigate men, and the more she seeks him, the more good he can do for her. Through her burgeoning interest she tests her own identity and, receiving the right sort of attention, learns what she is and what a man ought to be as well. In the hands of the right sort of idol she will be respected, valued, taught and bettered for it and, in due time, come to value herself more for having known him– and that is the greatest joy he can derive from having known her.
So, cynics, call him a flattered fool who condescends to delusions that he might be striking enough to be sought by a young charge. Question his pride, that he might think himself worthy of her heart’s attention and responsible for her mind’s education. Accuse him of indulging his own special fantasies; suspect that they might be improper. Yet the irreproachable will accept the truth, that as an Idealist, humble and honourable, his most earnest fancy will always be that the whole world might be as innocent of guile as his young admirer’s interest and as true to virtue as his response to it has been. For the fact shall ever remain– that only a true gentleman deserves to inspire a true lady.
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epigram - ’Tis an old... take a bit - Swift; Cadenus & Vanessa; 1713