There was a large dinner-party at the merchant's. The judge had made a speech in honour of the home-coming of the student, the eldest son of the house, and the merchant had replied with another in honour of the judge; so far all was well and good.
And yet one could see that the host was disquieted about something.
He answered inconsequentially, decanted Rhine wine into port, and betrayed absence of mind in all manner of ways.
He was meditating upon a speech—a speech beyond the scope of the regulation after-dinner orations. This was something very remarkable; for the merchant was no speaker, and—what was still more remarkable—he knew it himself.
When, therefore, well on in the dinner, he hammered upon the table for silence, and said that he must give expression to a sentiment that lay at his heart, everybody instantly felt that something unusual was impending.
There fell such a sudden stillness upon the table, that one could hear the lively chatter of the ladies, who, in accordance with Norse custom, were dining in the adjoining rooms.
At length the silence reached even them, and they crowded in the doorway to listen. Only the hostess held back, sending her husband an anxious look.
'Ah, dear me!' she sighed, half aloud, 'he is sure to make a muddle of it.
He has already made all his speeches; what would he be at now?'
And he certainly did not begin well. He stammered, cleared his throat, got entangled among the usual toast expressions, such as 'I will not fail to—ahem—I am impelled to express my, my—that is, I would beg you, gentlemen, to assist me in—'
The gentlemen sat and stared down into their glasses, ready to empty them upon the least hint of a conclusion. But none came.
On the contrary, the speaker recovered himself.
For something really lay at his heart. His joy and pride over his son, who had come home sound and well after having passed a respectable examination, the judge's flattering speech, the good cheer, the wine, the festive mood—all this put words into his mouth.
And when he got over the fatal introductory phrases, the words came more and more fluently.
It was the toast of 'The Young.' The speaker dwelt upon our responsibility towards children, and the many sorrows—but also the many joys—that the parents have in them.
He was from time to time compelled to talk quickly to hide his emotion, for he felt what he said.
And when he came to the grown-up children, when he imagined his dear son a partner in his business, and spoke of grandchildren and so on, his words acquired a ring of eloquence which astonished all his hearers, and his peroration was greeted with hearty applause.
'For, gentlemen, it is in these children that we, as it were, continue our existence. We leave them not only our name, but also our work.
And we leave them this, not that they may idly enjoy its fruits, but that they may continue it, extend it—yes, do it much better than their fathers were able to.
For it is our hope that the rising generation may appropriate the fruits of the work of the age, that they may be freed from the prejudices that have darkened the past and partially darken the present; and, in drinking the health of the young, let us wish that, steadily progressing, they may become worthy of their sires—yes, let us say it—outgrow them.
'And only when we know that we leave the work of our generation in abler hands, can we calmly look forward to the time when we shall bid adieu
to our daily task, and then we may confidently reckon upon a bright and glorious future for our dear Fatherland. A health to the Young!'
The hostess, who had ventured nearer when she heard that the speech was going on well, was proud of her husband; the whole company was in an exhilarated humour, but the gladdest of all was the student.
He had stood a little in awe of his father, whose severely patriarchal principles he well knew. He now heard that the old man was extremely liberal-minded towards youth, and he was very glad to be enabled to discourse with him upon serious matters.
But, for the moment, it was only a question of jesting; à propos of the toast, there ensued one of those interesting table-talks, about who was really young and who old.
After the company had arrived at this witty result, that the eldest were in reality the youngest, they adjourned to the dessert-table, which was laid in the ladies' room.
But, no matter how gallant the gentlemen—especially those of the old school—may be towards the fair sex, neither feminine amiability nor the most recherché dessert has power to stop them for long on their way to the smoking-room.
And soon the first faint aroma of cigars, so great a luxury to smokers, announced the beginning of that process which has obtained for our ladies the fame of being quite smoke-dried.
The student and a few other young gentlemen remained for a time with the young ladies—under the strict surveillance of the elder ones.
But little by little they also were swallowed up in the gray cloud which indicated the way that their fathers had taken.
In the smoking-room they were carrying on a very animated conversation upon some matter of social politics.
The host, who was speaking, supported his view with a number of 'historical facts,' which, however, were entirely unreliable.
His opponent, a solicitor of the High Court, was sitting chuckling inwardly at the prospect of refuting these inaccurate statements, when the student entered the room.
He came just in time to hear his father's blundering, and, in his jovial humour, in his delight over the new conception of his father that he had acquired after the toast, he said, with a cheery bluntness:
'Excuse me, father, you are mistaken there. The circumstances are not at all as you state. On the contrary—'
He got no further: the father laughingly slapped him on the shoulder, and said:
'There, there! are you, too, trifling with newspapers! But really, you must not disturb us; we are in the middle of a serious discussion.'
The son heard an irritating sniff from the gray cloud; he was provoked at the scorn implied in his interposition being regarded as disturbing a serious conversation.
He therefore replied somewhat sharply. A Dinner 1
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