Comforts of Home


8. At Home In The Guest Chamber

ABOUT twenty-five years ago the late F. Marion Crawford came to lecture in a New England city: he was entertained in one of the most charming houses, given an afternoon reception, and led to the guest chamber, where he was left alone to rest until it should be time to appear at the lecture hall. It was an impressive guest chamber, furnished in rare colonial mahogany; but the day after, the family looked at it and suddenly wondered, with misgivings, how Mr. Crawford had managed his resting. He was an unusually tall, large man. Had he, they asked each other, rested on the dignified four-poster bed?--and if so, how considerately he had removed all traces of his little holiday! Or had he rested on either of the rare old colonial chairs--or both together, using one for his feet? They were a joy to look at, but hard, straight-backed, and unpromising resting places for a large literary man storing energy to deliver a lecture. Had he rested on the floor? It was a refulgently polished floor, but Mr. Crawford might have softened it by putting two of the rugs together and rolling up a third for a pillow. If so, how courteously he had restored the rugs to their normal positions! The final conclusion was that he had rested sitting bolt upright on one rare old colonial chair until he could bear it no longer, and then sitting bolt upright on the other. He never came back; but it was decided in the family that the next distinguished person left alone to rest in the guest chamber should at least have a rocking-chair.

At that period guests were not expected to stay in a guest chamber longer than was necessary to sleep, wash their faces and hands, brush their hair, and change their clothes. It was, literally, a spare room. If you came to visit, you were supposed to come because you wished to be with the family as much as possible, and only the most needful provision was made for your separate existence. If you were a lady, you might retire for a while in the daytime, and lie down on the bed. But no gentleman had this privilege: only at bedtime could he go to bed, unless unexpectedly taken so ill that he had to be put there, and the doctor sent for. The guest who left behind a suspicion of tobacco smoke in the lace curtains left also the suspicion that this was no gentleman--still more, no lady! Stern neatness and tidy utilitarianism characterized the guest chamber: its double bed must be comfortable, its bureau commodious, its wash-stand provided with fresh towels and a new cake of pleasingly scented soap. As for pictures and bric-à-brac--it was a fine place to store a present without offending the kind-hearted giver.

But this period is passing away: a new thought has come in, that the guest should feel at home, day or night, in the guest chamber, and human ingenuity is making the place so comfortable that it may soon be difficult to tempt guests out of it except at meal-times. Already, in some cases, it has become necessary to serve breakfast in the guest chamber. It is a home within a home, an apartment (with breakfast) of one or more rooms and bath, in which the temporary tenant pays no rent, lunches and dines with the family, and is expected (following the apartment hotel custom) to tip the house servants. There is, to use a shocking but expressive figure, one fly in his ointment--the extra and superfluous twin bed. He cannot escape from it. In the daytime it is a constant reminder that he is, after all, a stranger in a strange place; nor can he deceive himself with the idea that he keeps this extra cot for company. He is the company. In the night, if he happens to awake and turn on that side, it surprises and startles him with its suggestion of a ward in a hospital.

But do not try to eliminate the extra bed by rolling the twins together. Sleeping, you will forget. And when, instinctively, you seek the middle of your luxurious couch, the twins (unless you have thought to bind them leg to leg with a couple of neckties) will separate, and you will be rather emphatically reminded of what you have done, by falling out of bed between them.

I remember a guest chamber of the earlier régime in which the literary interests of the guest were catered to by an engraving of the desk at which Dickens wrote as it looked after Dickens was dead. Nowadays this is not sufficient. Books there must be, as well as a desk for the guest to write at while he is still alive, with plenty of stamps and stationery, ink, pens, pencils, rubbers, calendar, blotters, a bottle of mucilage, sealing-wax, candle, seal, dictionary, Thesaurus, and Mr. Bartlett's Book of Quotations. Here, indeed, is a little library in itself; but the books unfortunately are not such as the average guest is likely to pick up, with an exclamation of delight, and take to the fireside. Nor, if we confess the truth, does the guest often take much pleasure in the classical literature which his host often provides for him: he prefers his own meditations to those of Marcus Aurelius. Many persons can not read classical literature; and there is no little truth in the conclusion of the poet (first published in 'The Mother's Assistant, The Young Lady's Friend, and Family Manual,' Boston, 1852),--

When Caesar was a conqueror the Giraffe first was tamed,
And for processions long and gay this creature then was famed;
But no domestication kind could make him fit for use,
And Nature's laws for us to thwart is manifest abuse.

Sooner or later some enterprising publisher will bring out the Guest-Chamber Book-Shelf, or Twenty-five Best Books for the Best Bedroom. Such a list would, of course, begin with the Bible and Shakespeare, and could then conscientiously settle down to business with twenty-three places left. A book of home exercises, illustrated with photographs of the same persistent gentleman in forty or fifty more or less ridiculous and amusing positions, is always interesting. A book of nature essays will hit some guests, and miss others. A book of poems to digest will sometimes entertain a guest. There should be several books of short stories by authors who appeal to different publics. And (I should say) the book you are now reading. Humor and novels might wisely be omitted. In the one case the guest may yield to a natural temptation, and retell at dinner, in his own words, the humorous narrative he has just been reading; and in the other there is a possibility that the visit will end before the novel. It becomes more difficult than ever to get the guest out of the guest chamber. As for magazines, they are desirable--but not too many of them, or the first glimpse of your guest chamber may unhappily remind the newcomer of the waiting room at his doctor's or dentist's.

'My chamber,' wrote Washington Irving, describing in the 'Sketch Book' a contemporary English home, 'was in an old part of the house, the ponderous furniture of which might have been fabricated in the days of the giants. The room was panelled, with cornices of heavily carved work, in which flowers and grotesque faces were strangely intermingled, and a row of black-looking portraits stared mournfully at me from the walls. The bed was of rich, though faded damask, with a lofty tester, and stood in a niche opposite the bow-window.... The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement, partially lighting up the antiquated apartment.'

It is an odd thing about the guest chamber of the past, as we enter it by the door of literature, that it was so often gloomy: it is almost as if there has been a historic sequence of guest chambers: (1) those in which the guest was afraid to sleep; (2) those in which he was willing to sleep; (3) those in which he was delighted to sleep. If there was a ghost on the premises, it was always likely to butt in (as we say nowadays) in the guest chamber. If there had been a particularly undesirable ancestor in the family, they always hung his portrait (probably to get rid of it) over the guest-chamber fireplace, where the moon could light it, and his sinister eye, too natural to be painted, could watch the guest trying to count himself to sleep. The guest-chamber chimney was peculiarly constructed: always the wind, carefully imitating its idea of a lost soul, sighed and wailed and shrieked in it. The floor was laid with a board that creaked aloud if but a mouse stepped on it; and the ivy was trained to tap-tap-tap like a finger on the window-pane. Often the guest chamber was the ghost chamber: and I, for one, am glad that it is not so any longer. For in proportion as the guest feels at home in the guest chamber, the ghost doesn't. And the complete at-homeyness--except for that one fly in the ointment, the extra twin bed--of our modern guest chamber makes the guest ghost-proof. He goes to bed and sleeps without a thought of ghosts, just as an English lady visiting an American family put her shoes outside the guest-chamber door, slept, and took them in again, with never a thought of her kind host polishing them in the cellar. He is haunted only by the thought that every minute brings him nearer the end of his visit.

For go he must! The hour was set, the train selected, even before his arrival; and, to make assurance doubly sure, another guest was probably invited. Truly I spoke without thinking when I said there was but one fly in his ointment: this Inexorable Fact is another and bigger one. Formerly the length of the visit took care of itself. The guest, always with the family except when asleep or dressing, reached the human limit of visiting at about the same time that the family reached the human limit of having him visit. Now and then an exception caused pain and embarrassment; but ordinarily they all reached their human limits with reasonable unanimity. A day came when the guest said he 'must go' to-morrow: the family said 'must he go' to-morrow--and to-morrow he went.

It is not so nowadays. The guest being settled in the guest chamber,--with its private bath and probably, sooner or later, its kitchenette,--he and the family are merely pleasantly conscious of each other: he might stay on and on, in a kind of informal and happy adoption, until death or matrimony intervened and took him away. But the family, unless they kept on adding to the house, would have no guest chamber: and other things being equal, constant building is an annoyance. And so, wisely, the host or hostess specifies in advance the length of the visit; and the extra little twin bed is a useful symbol and reminder of its impermanency. (End)