The old Baron probably said all of this and much more in a lordly way, occupying a longer or shorter time, without ever dreaming that he was making a speech. It was his ordinary after-dinner talk to those whom chance or fortune brought within his walls. Or, if he prided himself upon being a man of few words, scorning these as fit only for women and minstrels, he would simply remind the guest that he was now at liberty to give such an account of himself, and to prefer such requests as seemed agreeable to him.
The guest was then expected to respond, though this by no means was the rule. The host might wish first to call out more of his own intellectual treasures. This he would do by having other occupants of the castle speak further words of welcome, or would call upon a minstrel to sing a song or relate some deed of chivalry.
When the guest at last rises to speak, it is still the two pronouns with slightly changed emphasis that play a conspicuous part. The “we” may become “I;” but this is no essential change. Where “I” or “we” have been; what “I” have done, suffered, or enjoyed; how and why “I” came here; how glad “I” am to be here; what “I” have known and heard of “you;” how “we” may help each other; what great enterprises “we” can enter upon; how thankful for the good cheer and good words “we” hear.
In the baronial hall, which foreshadowed the family fireside of later days, the drinking was free and copious whilst the other portions of the entertainment were of a general character and quite protracted. Mirth, song, the rude jest, anecdotes of the chase or of a battle, or a rehearsal of the experiences of every-day life, were all in place. Sometimes, the guests, overpowered by their libations, are said to have fallen under the table and to have slumbered there till surprised by the pale morning light. There was little need of ceremony in such feasts, and there is little need of formality or constraint in the far different festal occasions of the present time.
When no guest, either by chance or invitation came to the castle, less variety could be given to the after-dinner entertainment, and many expedients were required to pass the long hours that sometimes hung heavily on their hands. Then the use of “Toasts” became an important feature. The drinking also was expected to arouse interest, but if it went on in silence and gloom or amid the buzz of trivial conversation in different parts of the hall the unity of the hour was marred and the evening was voted dull–the lord himself then having no more honor than his meanest vassal. But the toast–no matter how it originated–remedied all this. A compliment and a proverb, a speech and a response, however rude, fixed the attention of every one at the table, and enabled the lord to retain the same leadership at the feast that he had won in the chase or in battle. He might himself propose a toast of his own choice or give another permission to propose it. He might then designate some humorous or entertaining clansman to respond; he might either stimulate or repress the zeal of the guests, and give unity to each part of the entertainment and to the whole feast. For these reasons the toast rose into popularity, and is now often used–possibly it might be said generally used if our own country alone be considered–even when no drinking at all is indulged in.
Let us now take a look at an after-dinner hour of the present day; one of the very latest and most approved pattern. The contrast will not be without interest and value. The fare at the dinner is always inviting. The company is large. Good speakers are secured in advance. Each is given an appropriate toast, either to propose or respond to. Suppose it is a New England society celebrating Forefathers’ Day in New York. The chairman (who is usually the president of the society) rises, and by touching a bell, rapping on the table, or in some other suitable manner, attracts all eyes to himself. He then asks the meeting to come to order, or if he prefers the form, to give attention. Then he utters a few graceful commonplaces, and calls upon a guest to offer the leading toast–not always the chief or most interesting one. When one is reached in which there is a lively interest, some distinguished person such as Chauncey M. Depew, the prince of after-dinner speakers, comes to the front. We give an outline of one of his addresses on Forefathers’ Day, delivered December 22d, 1882, in response to the toast, “The Half Moon and the Mayflower.”
In reading this address the “We” and “You” cannot fail to be noted. Mr. Depew said he did not know why he should be called upon to celebrate his conquerors. The Yankees had overcome the Dutch, and the two races are mingled. The speaker then introduced three fine stories–one at the expense of the Dutch who are slow in reaching their ends. A tenor singer at the church of a celebrated preacher said to Mr. Depew, “You must come again, the fact is the Doctor and myself were not at our best last Sunday morning.” The second related to the inquisitiveness of a person who expressed himself thus to the guide upon the estate of the Duke of Westminster: “What, you can’t tell how much the house cost or what the farm yields an acre, or what the old man’s income is, or how much he is worth? Don’t you Britishers know anything?” The third story, near the close, set off Yankee complacency. A New England girl mistook the first mile-stone from Boston for a tombstone, and reading its inscription “1 M. from Boston,” said “I’m from Boston; how simple; how sufficient.”