Subjects of Conversation by Unknown

Subjects of conversation are sometimes exceedingly difficult to be had. I have known many a company of well dressed men and women feel themselves most awkwardly situated for want of something to talk about. The weather, which is said to be a never failing subject, cannot hold out above a few minutes at a time. It will stand a round or two rounds, but not more. It is then knocked up for the evening, and cannot with decency be again brought forward. Being thus disposed of, the subject of "news" is tabled; but, as a matter of course, there being "no news stirring," "not a word," "nothing in the papers," that subject is also soon dispatched. If there happen to be any very remarkable occurrence worth talking of, what a blessing it is on such occasions! It is food for the company a whole night, and may be again and again brought above board for their amusement. But it much more frequently happens that there is no exciting event to talk about, and then the condition of the company is truly miserable. There being ladies present, or there being two factions in the room, politics are proscribed; and even if they could be brought forward, the question of reform immediately comes in with all its tiresomeness, and is put down by general consent. Every attempt at getting up a topic failing, the company look into the fire, or in each others faces, or begin to examine with much interest the pattern of the carpet; and the silence which ensues is truly terrific. A slight whisper is the only sound in the apartment, and is caught at or watched by the company, for it may chance to be the commencement of a conversation in which they may join, without exciting particular attention. But it, too, dies away. It was only a passing under-current of remark between the two married ladies in the blue and white turbans, on the dearth of coals, the difficulty of getting good servants, or the utility of keeping children muffled in flannel nightgowns from October till March. At length some good soul makes an effort to brush away his diffidence. He projects a remark across the room towards the little man with the smirking countenance, about Mr. This, or Miss That, or Signor Such-a-thing, who are at present enlivening the town with their exhibitions. The remark is in itself a very ordinary remark, but it has its use; it quickens the intellects of those who hear it, and the tongues of a number of individuals are set a-going upon the subject of theatrical amusements, singing in the Assembly Rooms, Pasta, Paganini, and private parties, so that the original remark is lost sight of, and the company go on pretty well with what it has produced, for perhaps half an hour. All these topics being exhausted, another horrible silence ensues. The company again look into the fire, or in one another's faces, and once more examine the carpet. What is to be said next? All think upon saying something, yet nobody speaks. The national mauvaise honte is now displayed to the height of its perfection. The agony of the company, however, approaches its crisis.—The awful stillness is broken, and in a most natural and unexpected manner. The young man in the starched cravat sitting in the corner of the room, near the end of the piano, who has been thinking what he shall say or do for the last half hour, takes heart of grace; he rises and snuffs the candles, going through the self-imposed duty in as neat and elegant a style as he can possibly affect. The snuffing of the candles is an operation which every member of the company has seen performed ten thousand times; but it affords interest for even the ten thousandth and first time. It may not intrinsically be worth heeding, yet in a case of this nature, it is of very great importance. It suggests a new theme, and that is exactly what is wanted, for one subject invariably leads to the discussion of half a dozen others. The operation of snuffing the candles therefore induces some one to remark, how beautiful gas light is. Then this brings on a disquisition on the danger of introducing it into private houses; ils cost in comparison with oil is next touched upon; then follows an observation about the last illumination; which leads to reminiscences of similar displays on the occasions of the great naval victories—the victories lead to Nelson—Nelson to his biographer, Southey—Southey, to poetry—poetry, to Byron—and Byron, to Greece. This whirl of conversation, however, also runs out; an accident jars it, and it is all over. Suddenly the speakers pause, as if they had received a galvanic shock; one small voice is alone left prominent above the silence; but finding itself unsupported, it is immediately lowered to a whisper, and the whisper subsides to a dead silence.

I have often pitied the host or hostess on occasions of this nature; but I could not help blaming them for not providing against such dismal pauses in the conversation of the parties. To guard against these occurrences, I would recommend them to bring forward what I have remarked to be never-failing sources of conversational entertainment, namely, a tolerably good-looking cat, a lap-dog or a child. The last is the best, it ought to be about two years of age, and be able to walk. If adroitly played off, or permitted to play, it will amuse the party for an hour at least. It must be placed on the hearth-rug, so as to attract all eyes; and while in the room, no other subject of discourse will be thought of. Any endeavour to draw off attention, by the relation of some entertaining anecdote, will be deemed sedition against the majesty of the household. If a cat, a dog, or an interesting child, cannot be conveniently had, I would advise the invitation of some one who has a loud voice and the happy effrontery of speaking incessantly, however ridiculously, on all subjects; a person who can speak nonsense to any extent, and has the reputation of being a most agreeable companion. This man is of vast use in tabling subjects; for he has no diffidence or modesty, and has a knack of turning every observation to account. His voice also serves as a cover to much bye conversation; there being hundreds who speak fluently enough, provided a bag-pipe were kept playing beside them, or who could have their voices drowned by some other species of noise. The loud and voluble talker is therefore an excellent shelter for those of weaker nerves, and will be found a useful ingredient in all mixed companies.

The difficulty of starting subjects of conversation, as well as the difficulty of sustaining them, is often as observable when two acquaintances meet in the street, as when a roomful of company is collected. The unhappy pair exhaust all that they can remember they ought to say to each other, in the space of a minute and a half, and another minute may be consumed in going through the process of taking a pinch of snuff; the next half minute is spent in mutual agony. Neither knows how to separate. As the only chance of release, one of the parties at last brings in a joke, or what is meant to be such, to his aid. The other, of course, feels bound to laugh, and both seizing the opportunity, escape in different directions under cover of the witticism.