“SHYNESS is common,” Rhoda’s mother insisted. “I was never allowed to be shy when I was a girl. Your grandparents would soon have put a stop to that.”
The stressed words sounded so peevish. Between each sentence she refreshed herself with a sip of invalid’s drink, touched her lips with her handkerchief, and then continued.
“Self-consciousness it was always called when I was young, and that is what it is. To imagine that it shows a sense of modesty is absurd. Modesty. Why, I have never known a truly modest person to be the least bit shy.”
The jaundice, which had discoloured her face and her eyes, seemed as well to wash all her words in poison.
“It’s all right for you, Mother,” Rhoda said. “You can drink. Then anyone can talk.”
Mrs. Hobart did not like to be reminded that she drank at all: that she drank immoderately, no one—she herself least of all—would ever have dared to remind her.
Rhoda, who was sitting by the window, nursing her cat, stared down at the gardens in the square and waited huffily for an indignant rebuke. Instead, her mother said wearily: “Well, you will have a drink, too, before the banquet, and no nonsense. A ‘girl of eighteen.’ ”
“I hate the taste.”
“I, I, I. I hate this; I loathe that. What do you think would have happened if I had considered what I liked through all these years. Or the Queen,” she added. “The poor girl! The rubbish she’s been forced to eat and drink in foreign countries. And never jibbed.”
“You and the Queen are different kettles of fish from me,” Rhoda said calmly. Then she threw up the window from the bottom and leant out and waved to her father, who was crossing the road below.
“Please shut that window,” Mrs. Hobart said. “Leaning out and waving, like a housemaid. I despair.” She put the glass of barley-water on one side and said again: “I despair.”
“There is no need. I will do my best,” said Rhoda. “Though no one likes to be frightened in quite such a boring way.”
She sat in the train opposite her father and wedged in by business-men. In books and films, she thought, people who go on train journeys always get a corner seat.
In a corner, she could have withdrawn into her day-dreaming so much more completely; but she was cramped by the fat men on either side, whose thighs moved against hers when they uncrossed and recrossed their legs, whose newspapers distracted her with their puzzling headlines—for instance “Bishop Exorcises £5,000 Ghost,” she read. Her father, with his arms folded neatly across his chest, dozed and nodded, and sometimes his lips moved as if he were rehearsing his speech for that evening. They seemed to have been in the train for a long time, and the phlegmy fog, which had pressed to the windows as they left London, was darkening quickly. The dreadful moment of going in to dinner was coming nearer. Her father suddenly woke up and lifted his head. He yawned and winked a watery eye at her, and yawned and yawned again. She sensed that to be taking his daughter instead of his wife to what her mother called the Trade Banquet made it seem rather a spree to him and she wished that she could share his light-heartedness.
Like sleepwalkers, the other people in the compartment, still silent and drowsy, began now to fold their newspapers, look for their tickets, lift down their luggage from the racks. The train’s rhythm changed and the lights of the station came running past the windows. All that Rhoda was to see of this Midlands town was the dark, windy space between the station entrance and the great station hotel as they followed a porter across the greasy paving-stones and later, a glimpse from her bedroom window of a timber-yard beside a canal.
When she was alone in the hotel bedroom, she felt more uncertain than ever, oppressed by the null effect of raspberry-coloured damask, the large intolerable pieces of furniture and the silence, which only sounds of far-away plumbing broke, or of distant lifts rising and falling.
She shook out her frock and was hanging it in a cavernous wardrobe when somebody in the corridor outside tapped on the door. “Is that you, Father?” she called out anxiously. A waiter came in, carrying a tray high in the air. He swirled it round on his fingers and put down a glass of sherry.
“The gentleman in number forty-five ordered it,” he explained.
“Thank you,” Rhoda said timidly, peeping at him round the wardrobe door, “very much,” she added effusively.
The waiter said, “Thank you, madam,” in a quelling voice, and went away.
Rhoda sniffed at the sherry, and then tipped it into the wash-basin. “I suppose Father’s so used to Mamma,” she thought. She knew the bedroom imbibing that went on, as her mother moved heavily about, getting dressed: every time she came back to her mirror, she would take a drink from the glass beside it.
The hotel room was a vacuum in which even time had no reality to Rhoda. With no watch to tell her, she began to wonder if she had been there alone for ten minutes or an hour and in sudden alarm she ran to the bathroom and turned on taps and hurriedly unpacked.
She put on a little confidence with her pretty frock; but, practising radiant smiles in the looking-glass, she was sure that they were only grimaces. She smoothed on her long white gloves and took up her satin bag, then heard a distant clock, somewhere across the roofs of high buildings, strike the half-hour and knew that she must wait all through the next, matching half-hour for her father to come to fetch her.
As she waited, shivering as she paced about the room, growing more and more goose-fleshed, she saw the reasonableness in her father’s thought about the sherry and wished that she had not wasted it and, even more, that she had lain twenty minutes longer in her warm bath.
He came as the clock struck out the hours and, when she ran and opened the door to him, said: “Heavens, ma’am, how exquisite you look!”
They descended the stairs.
In the reception-room, another waiter circled with a tray of filled glasses. Four people stood drinking by the fire—two middle-aged men, one wearing a mayoral chain, the other a bosomful of medals; and two middle-aged women, stiffly corseted, their hair set in tight curls and ridges. Diamonds shone on their freckled chests and pink carnations slanted heads downwards across their bodices. They look as if they know the ropes, thought Rhoda, paralysed with shyness. They received her kindly, but in surprise. “Why, where is Ethel?” they asked her father, and they murmured in concern over the jaundice and said how dreary it must be to be on the waggon. “Especially for her,” the tone of their voices seemed to Rhoda to suggest.
A bouquet was taken from a little side table and handed to Rhoda, who held it stiffly at her waist where it contended fiercely with the colour of her dress.
The six of them were, in their importance, shut off from a crowded bar where other guests were drinking cocktails: on this side of the door there was an air of confidence and expectation, of being ahead of the swim, Rhoda thought. She wished passionately, trying to sip away her sherry, that she might spend the entire evening shut away from the hordes of strangers in the bigger room but, only too soon, a huge toast-master, fussing with his white gloves, brought the three couples into line and then threw wide the doors; inclining his head patronisingly to guest after guest, he bawled out some semblance of the names they proffered. As the first ones came reluctantly forward from the gaiety of the bar, Mr. Hobart leant towards Rhoda and took the glass from her hand and put it on the tray with the others. “How do you do,” she whispered, shaking hands with an old gentleman, who was surprised to see that her eyes were filled with tears. “You are deputising for your dear mother?” he asked. “And very charmingly you do it, my dear,” he added, and passed on quickly, so that she could brush her wet lashes with her gloved hand.
“Good-evening, Rhoda.” The bracing mockery of this new voice jolted her, the voice of Digby Lycett Senior, as she always called him in her mind—the mind which for months had been conquered and occupied by Digby Lycett Junior. This unexpected appearance was disastrous to her. She felt indignantly that he had no right to be there, so remotely connected was he with the trade the others had in common. “Nice of you to come,” her father was now telling him. They were old business friends. It was Digby Lycett who sold her father the machinery for making Hobart’s Home-made Cookies. It was loathsome of you to come, Rhoda thought, unhappily.
She took one gloved hand after another, endlessly—it seemed—confronted by pink carnations and strings of pearls. But the procession dwindled at last—the stragglers, who had lingered over their drinks till the last moment, were rounded up by the toast-master and sent resignedly on their way to the banqueting-hall, where an orchestra was playing “Some Enchanted Evening” above the noise of chairs being scraped and voices mounting in volume like a gathering wave.
In the reception-room, the Mayor straightened the chain on his breast. One duty done, he was now prepared to go on to the next. All of his movements were certain and automatic; every evening of his life, they implied, he had a hall full of people waiting for him to take his seat.
As she moved towards the door a sense of vertigo and nausea overcame Rhoda, confronted by the long walk to her place and the ranks of pink faces turned towards her. With bag and bouquet and skirt to manage, she felt that she was bundling along with downcast eyes. Before a great heap of flowers on the table, they stopped. The Mayor was humming very softly to the music. He put on his spectacles, peered at the table and then laid his hand on the back of a gilt chair, indicating that here, next to him, Rhoda was to be privileged to sit.
At the doors, waitresses crowded ready to rush forward with hors d’oeuvres. The music faded. Without raising her eyes, instinctively, wishing to sink out of sight, Rhoda slid round her chair and sat upon it.
Down crashed the toast-master’s gavel as the Mayor, in a challenging voice, began to intone Grace. Mr. Hobart put his hand under Rhoda’s elbow and brought her, lurching, as she could not help doing, to her feet again. The gilt chair tipped, but he saved it from going over, the bouquet shot under the table and Rhoda prayed that she might follow it.
“Please God, let me faint. Let me never have to look up again and meet anybody’s glance.”
“Now you can, young lady,” the Mayor said, helping her down again. Then he turned quickly to the woman on his other side and began a conversation. Rhoda’s father had done the same. Sitting between them, she swallowed sardines and olives and her bitter, bitter tears. After a time, her isolation made her defiant. She lifted her head and looked boldly and crossly in front of her, and caught the eye of Digby Lycett Senior, just as he raised a fork to his mouth, and smiled at her, sitting not far across the room, at right angles to her table, where he could perfectly observe her humiliation and record it for his son’s interest and amusement later. “Poor old Rhoda”—she could hear the words, overlaid with laughter.
She ate quickly, as if she had not touched food for weeks. Once, her father, fingering a wine-glass restlessly, caught and held as he was in conversation by the relentless woman at his side, managed to turn his head for a moment and smile at Rhoda. “All right?” he asked, and nodded his own answer, for it was a great treat for a young girl, he implied—the music, the flowers, the pretty dress, the wine.
Someone must talk to me, she thought, for it seemed to her that, through lack of conversation, her expression was growing sullen. She tried to reorganise her features into a look of animation or calm pleasure. She drank a plate of acid-tasting, red soup to its dregs. Chicken followed turbot, as her mother had assured her was inevitable. The Mayor, who went through the same menu nearly every evening, left a great deal on his plate; he scattered it about for a while and then tidied it up: not so Rhoda, who, against a great discomfort of fullness, plodded painstakingly on.
At last, as she was eating some cauliflower, the Mayor turned his moist, purple face towards her. She lifted her eyes to the level of the chain on his breast and agreed with him that she was enjoying herself enormously.
“It is my first visit to Norley,” she said gaily, conscious of Digby Lycett Senior’s eyes upon her. She hoped that he would think from her expression that some delicious pleasantry was in progress. To keep the Mayor in conversation she was determined. He should not turn away again and Digby Lycett, Senior or Junior, should not have the impression that she sat in silence and disgrace from the beginning to the end.
“But I have a cat who came from here,” she added.
The Mayor looked startled.
“A Burmese cat. A man in Norley—a Doctor Fisher—breeds them. Do you know Doctor Fisher?”
“I can’t say that I do.”
He was plainly unwilling for her to go on. On his other side was feminine flattery and cajolery and he wished to turn back for more, and Rhoda and her cat were of no interest to him.
“Have you ever seen a Burmese cat?” she asked.
He crumbled some bread and looked cross and said that as far as he knew he never had.
“He came to London on the train all by himself in a little basket,” Rhoda said. “The cat, I mean, of course. Minkie, I call him. Such a darling, you can’t imagine.”
She smiled vivaciously for Digby Lycett Senior’s benefit; but, try as she might, she could not summon the courage to lift her eyes any higher than the splendid chain on the Mayor’s breast, for she shrank from the look of contempt she was afraid he might be wearing.
“They are rather like Siamese cats,” she went on. “Though they are brown all over and have golden eyes, not blue.”
“Oh?” said the Mayor. He had to lean a little nearer to her as a waitress put a dish of pistachio ice-cream over his left shoulder.
“But rather the same natures, if you know what I mean,” said Rhoda.
“I’m afraid I don’t care for cats,” said the Mayor, in the voice of simple pride in which this remark is always made.
“On all your many social commitments,” the woman on his other side said loudly, rescuing him, “which flavour of ice-cream crops up most often?”
He laughed and turned to her with relief. “Vanilla,” he said jovially. “In a ratio of eight to one.”
“Enjoying yourself?” Rhoda’s father asked her later, as they danced a foxtrot together. “I dare say this is the part of the evening that appeals to you—not all those long-winded speeches.”
It appealed to Rhoda because it was nearer to the end, and for no other reason.
“You seemed to be getting on well with the Mayor,” Mr. Hobart added.
The Mayor had disappeared. Rhoda could see no sign of his glittering chain and she supposed that he disliked dancing as much as he disliked cats. She prayed that Digby Lycett Senior might not ask her to do the Old Fashioned Waltz which followed. She was afraid of his mocking smile and, ostrich-like, opened her bag and looked inside it as he approached.
Another middle-aged man stepped forward first and asked to have the pleasure in a voice which denied the possibility of there being any. Rhoda guessed that what he meant was “May I get this duty over and done with, pursued as it is as a mark of the esteem in which I hold your father.” And Rhoda smiled as if she were enchanted, and rose and put herself into his arms, as if he were her lover.
He made the waltz more old-fashioned than she had ever known it, dancing stiffly, keeping his stomach well out of her way, humming, but not saying a word to her. She was up against a great silence this evening: to her it was the measure of her failure. Sorting through her mind for something to say, she rejected remarks about the floor and the band and said instead that she had never been to Norley before. The observation should have led somewhere, she thought; but it did not: it was quite ignored.
“But I have a cat who came from here,” she added. “A little Burmese cat.”
When he did not answer this, either, she thought that he must be deaf and raised her voice. “There is a doctor here who breeds them. Perhaps you have come across him—a Doctor Fisher.”
“No, I can’t say that I have.”
“He sent the kitten to London by train, in a little basket. So pretty and gay. Minkie, I call him. Have you ever seen a Burmese cat?” She could not wait for his answers, lest they never came. “They are not a usual sort of cat at all. Rather like a Siamese in many ways, but brown all over and with golden eyes instead of blue. They are similar in nature though, if you can understand what I mean.”
He either could not, or was not prepared to try and at last, mercifully, the music quickened and finally snapped off altogether. Flushed and smiling, she was escorted back to her father who was standing by the bar, looking genial and indulgent.
Her partner’s silence seemed precautionary now. He handed her over with a scared look, as if she were some dangerous lunatic. Her father, not noticing this, said: “You are having quite a success with your Mayor, my dear.”
She turned quickly and looked after the man who had just left her. He was talking to a little group of people; they all had their heads together and were laughing.
“He took that chain off then?” she said, feeling sick and dazed. It was all she had had to distinguish him from the rest of the bald-headed and obese middle-aged men.
“You couldn’t expect him to dance with that hanging round his neck—not even in your honour,” her father said. “And now, I shall fetch you a long, cool drink, for you look as if the dancing has exhausted you.”