This short story was submitted to and rejected from Voiceworks issue 105: Nerve.
Beatrice and the God-Awful Guests
I have often found that the success of that veriest social function; the dinner party, really quite depends upon the aptitude of the host. In the impending case however, that of Beatrice, the dinner party is invariably governed by the absurdity of the husband’s relatives that frequent it.
As I am really quite learned on the subject of dinner parties (having published many an essay on its remarkable intricacies), it is fortunate indeed that you should hear of the event in question, under my documentation. Now, there are, of course, quite a number of ways that one is found to be among the guests of such a pillar of societal congregation. The most common, in my experience, is by the invite of the host.
There are however, quite a number of other perfectly acceptable reasons to find yourself standing among the company of a dinner party, and I shall name them in order of most to least common: for the meeting of new circles (and the many benefits and pleasures of new acquaintance), to cure boredom, to practise that invaluable ability to converse, by coercion, by blackmail, by force (these last three having subtle differences) and finally, the very last purpose of the dinner party is, paradoxically, to have dinner.
These are the perfectly acceptable reasons. Of course, there are many unacceptable reasons, but I shall only name one of them as it is relevant to the story. If you are reading this at a dinner party, have a look about you. I can almost guarantee that there is someone among you, some perfidious, intolerable, abhorrent husk of a being with no morals or civility that has, regrettably…invited himself.
So, you can certainly guess what I am to say of the two persons that have come to take advantage of Beatrice’s hospitality. Yes, both of them have invited themselves.
Now, let me describe the hosts a little. If here I am to talk of the features of the young Beatrice, I may easily do so. I would tell you of that delicate politeness of face and that edginess of teeth, brought about by the holding in of one’s opinions. If here, however, I am to recount the features of her husband, Mr John Warlington, I tell you for the life of me I could not.
John’s features will remain quite unknown because a newspaper perpetually featured in front of them. In fact, if he were to stay still a moment longer he might very well attain that long-matured verdigris of Rodin’s bronze statue. His nose never did rise for anything slightly sensible nor for anything wholly sensible, like his wife.
“M-my dear,” said she. “It must be enormously necessary that you see the importance of hospitality. A dinner party is so unlike the other functions of our time. Indeed, if there is one place that truth of character is displayed it is at the dinner party.”
John grunted from behind the monochrome lines of his face.
“If only you were lively for the half hour following the arrival of our guests, your agreeableness should very much be known to all. Yes, you would do so well to talk to Edward, that nervous nephew of yours. And I am sure your Aunt Helga will delight in having your attention. Oh, and I hope you have not forgotten my situation, dear? Have I not told you? Well, it is either this day or the next that we are to expect the Mrs Margaret Everton-Fulham of the National Propriety Trust. She is come to judge my eligibility into their coterie of well-mannered gentle ladies. What feeling I have of her arriving every moment! Today of all days. I really do suspect they sniff out a dinner party as a hound does game.”
Again, John mumbled.
“My dear, won’t you liven a little? In any case, I must leave you to organise yourself. Your trousers from Ellingtons are just there, laid out, and your shoes are by the door just there. Yes, yes over there, my dear.”
Beatrice left the room to find Hugh, the butler. He was found precisely where she had left him. Together they stood in front of Lady Gertrude the pig and Dame Felicity the chicken.
There is another matter concerned with the success of the evening’s dinner that I have not yet discussed with you. You are by now well aware that Edward and Aunt Helga will soon drive the most sensible woman into a torment, but, this matter, that of the pig and the chicken, that matter should never have been left to Hugh’s direction.
It was quite well known in the last four houses that the butler served in that Hugh was profoundly indecisive. This is a characteristic of all men who are given the opportunity to think for themselves. I have often known a man to make himself dizzy in thought about modes of transport or selecting shotguns in market places. In this particular instance, Hugh was having a rather hard time deciding which animal should be killed and cooked for the evening’s meal.
“Hugh,” said Beatrice. “I am quite reliant on you.”
“Yes, you must come to a decision. Have I not told you? I expect Mrs Margaret Everton-Fulham of the National Propriety Trust to arrive every moment.”
“I am quite aware ma’am.”
“Well, I am determined of her not thinking twice on the matter of my admittance. It is quite necessary, therefore, that you choose and choose quickly.”
“Yes of course. Certainly. But, I haven’t narrowed in on the proper decision. You see, if I settle on Lady Gertrude, well, then we will have no entrant for this spring’s Annual Pig Show in Worcestershire, where, as you know, our Lady Gertrude has won a first and two second places in the nine shows she has partaken in. And then there is Dame Felicity, who is our best bet in beating that horrid show chicken in the Plontoon’s Summer Festival, you know the one? She is owned by that insipid Lord Celery, proprietor of Burghley House over yonder. So you see ma’am, that it is not a simple matter. It is quite the opposite. It is as perfect a conundrum as knowing which shoe to tie first.”
It was at this moment, precisely an hour and a quarter before the arranged commencement of the party, that the barouche of John’s Aunt Helga was sighted, coming down the drive. In order to meet her respectably by the door, both Beatrice and Hugh would have to run imprudently from the yard, through the house, and wait by the door of the reception room. That, without a doubt, is what they did, and as Beatrice went to stand by John (and newspaper) who was now there, Aunt Helga, who wasn’t at all out of breath, was shewn in.
“Mrs Helga Poppywop, ma’am.”
“Oh, how delightful it is to see you again,” cried Beatrice.
“You are quite right,” said Aunt Helga. “It must be awfully delightful to see me.”
Aunt Helga immediately placed herself down into an armchair. Hugh was about to close the door when Aunt Helga’s obsequious pooch waltzed in and joined it’s mistress on the armchair. Hugh eyed the pooch thoroughly, inquisitively, before leaving off to attend to his matter of which to cook first; the chicken or the pig?
“Your husband and children,” carried on Beatrice, “are awfully kind to have parted from you so soon during the day. We were not expecting you for another hour and quarter.”
“My dear,” said Aunt Helga. “I believe you wish to tell me that a lady of my position should not have left her husband and children so soon. Yes, but you see, I am the niece of the Earl of Fartington; as well bred as they come. Indeed, as a well bred woman I am able to do away with the certain domestic particulars that are in natural leagues with my sex. Cleaning, child raising; these aren’t for a well bred woman to bear. So, what is there for me to do at home other than spread my opinions? Certainly that is why I must leave off home and travel round the country. My opinion is required everywhere!”
“Aunt Helga-” cried Beatrice, trying to silence her. For once Aunt Helga started to talk, she will say something most improper (which also tended to be something horribly truthful.)
“Why must one hold in their thoughts?” continued Aunt Helga, undeterred. “I tell you, it is that ubiquitous nature of politeness that upsets all. And how sonorous that usurper the aristocracy, who plagues everyone with ideas on how to behave! That unrelenting nerve of some; to speak exactly what they are thinking, that, my dear, is a result of politeness. Indeed, they must be defined together.”
Let me comment on the last matter before Aunt Helga drowns you in it. Whether in fact it was beneficial for Aunt Helga to say exactly what she was thinking cannot be justly decided by the likes of me. But let me tell you of the ‘nerve’ she speaks of; it is one that runs through every society, in all worlds, in all cultures. You can count on this little thing being held above all; it is that need to be polite. Even when all events account for something being horrifically, dreadfully, irreversibly wrong, one must be polite.
Think only a little on how one is meant to act and how you are described of having ‘nerve’ if you do not act this way. You need only manipulate this triviality of good society and anything you dream of is yours, dear reader. So you see, Aunt Helga might be able to do away with her domestic duties, but to also say precisely what she was thinking… indeed that must be a step too far! It is sheer nerve!
“Your curtains dear, are profoundly ugly,” continued Aunt Helga. “I would much like to pull my eyeballs through the bottom of my spine than to have to look at them. Dear pooch and I have come across very similar ones in our travels, haven’t we little pooch-kins?”
The little dog licked at her face.
“I do not understand why they are in fashion so. It might be that some sort of educated person has said that they are, but educated people are always wrong, dear…”
At that moment, precisely an hour before the dinner party was due to commence, John’s nephew Edward burst through the door of the reception room and restored the door to its frame so harshly that the noise silenced Aunt Helga.
“Edward?” gasped Beatrice.
Hugh ran into the room, out of breath once more.
“Mr Edward Warlington, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Hugh.” said Beatrice, curtly.
“You’re welcome, ma’am.”
This time, before Hugh left the room, he eyed Beatrice suggestively. He was in need of her assistance.
“Edward,” Beatrice continued, unlocking eyes with Hugh. “How delightful! We were not expecting you until the next hour.”
Edward took off his hat and crumpled it beneath his fingers. “I do not travel by night, Aunt Beatrice. No, that is not in my capability. One must be immensely brave to try such a thing. I do not recommend it, especially for young people like me, what with those highwaymen attacking that woman just last week on the road outside the university.”
“Are you educated are you?” chimed in Aunt Helga.
“Quite,” said Edward. “Oxford ma’am. I would come to shake your hand but I do not shake people’s hands. You never know what another’s hand may do. You see, how do I know you are not concealing a knife for instance, and when I wish to shake your hand you might dispatch me instead.”
“Yes, certainly,” said Aunt Helga. “We were just discussing how deluded educated people are.”
“Will you excuse me a moment.”
Beatrice left to find Hugh. It was all the more crucial that the butler should decide. For now both guests had arrived early and Beatrice was expecting Mrs Margaret Everton-Fulham of the National Propriety Trust every moment.
“Hugh, I’m expecting Mrs Margaret Everton-Fulham of the National Propriety Trust every moment.”
“Yes, ma’am. I am aware. Only, I haven’t yet come to a decision. Tell me, which looks more desirable now, Lady Gertrude the pig, or Dame Felicity the chicken?”
Hugh had placed show ribbons round each of the animal’s necks.
“Ribbons do quite a number of extraordinary things to an animal, do they not?” he continued. “Though pink is certainly not Lady Gertrude’s colour. We can view it however, as a good estimate of what a nice vermillion would do for her. But here I was thinking the ribbons should ease my decision, only they have not. In order to judge them properly I should need the opinion of the common person, or as many common people as possible. I see how that might be a problem at the present…”
Beatrice’s face had turned as pink as the show ribbons. Hugh had noticed this perhaps a little too late into his speech.
“In any case ma’am. I shall have a meal for you before Mrs Madgery Everlyn-Fullstop arrives. I am determined I shall!”
Beatrice turned on her heel and stormed back into the house. Her guests and John (with newspaper) had removed themselves to the dining room. Pooch had been transported there in a perambulator and was stationed at the table near her mistress.
“Aunt Beatrice!” called Edward. “I wish to tell you that I will be staying here the night. As I have said, one cannot travel after the evening, but more than that, I simply cannot be left alone. My fellow has left the college for the weekend and if one is alone, they are more at risk of being attacked in their own dwelling. So I will stay with you, in a high room if you please, so that if we are set upon during the night I will be roused at their attacking you first.”
Beatrice was quite put out by this.
“Of course, Edward. We shall be most glad to have you stay with us! I will have Hugh see to it that you have the north room.”
Beatrice’s face began to tremble. Now it was more crucial for Hugh to have made a decision. Indeed, she would make the decision herself! The chicken it shall be! And she shall have the whole dinner party prepared. And the guests will leave the dining room before Mrs Margaret Everton-Fulham could even appear. She left the dining room to tell Hugh as much.
But at this moment, when she walked toward the yard to confront him, Hugh was leading a party of animals through the house; Lady Gertrude and Dame Felicity following along. Beatrice and Hugh missed each other; each walking through a different part of the house. And when Beatrice could not find a trace of Hugh in the yard or the garden or the kitchens, she walked back through the house, into the dining room where Hugh was now parading the two animals in ribbons on top of the table.
“How dangerous, sir!” cried Edward.
“How extraordinary!” exclaimed Aunt Helga.
“How improper…” muttered Beatrice.
“Ribbons do quite a number of extraordinary things to animals, do they not?” said Aunt Helga, over Edward’s whimpering. “Though pink is undoubtedly not Lady Gertrude’s colour.”
“How marvellous,” said Hugh. “That is precisely what I said!”
Beatrice turned to John in the hope that the horrible scene would have roused him into action.
“Oh, how I require your good opinion Mrs Helga Poppywop! If we only put our heads together, I am sure we will come to such a remarkable conclusion.”
“How right you are, dear,” said she, in a fancy. “Beatrice, you have not told me how pleasant your butler is!”
“In all honesty, madam,” said Hugh. “I cannot quite continue our judgement on the matter of dinner. You see, not all our options are on the table. It has quite recently occurred to me that there is a rather pleasant looking animal that we have not yet considered.”
“Oh, bring the beast out!” cried Aunt Helga. “Let us see it in ribbons and then surely we will know which is best for this evening!”
“Why, I have the thing right here!”
Hugh turned, holding a dog in front of him. Pink ribbons had been tied around her neck. I dare say, ribbons did indeed do quite a number of things, because no one had noticed that Aunt Helga’s pooch was missing from the perambulator for a good five seconds. If there is one thing that I have learnt in all of this, it’s that ribbons do entirely transform an animal.
Aunt Helga did inevitably notice that the dog Hugh was considering for dinner was her dear little pooch-kins. She turned enormously purple.
“How dare you!” she bellowed.
“Oh no,” Edward cowered.
“I have known many a butler in my time. But I tell you this,” she yelled. “I have never met someone so inane, psychotic, so portentously devoid of all sense, you irreverent, inept porcupine of a man…”
There was a loud knock at the dining room door. They all paused and looked over. Beatrice’s eyes widened. Hugh cautiously walked toward the door… they watched as he opened it, awaiting the announcement…
“Mrs Margaret Everton-Fulham of the National Propriety Trust, ma’am.”
The lady nosed her way into the room. Pig, chicken and dog on table.
At this moment, John, or who they thought was John, lowered the newspaper and eyed the newcomer expertly…
“She is not Mrs Margaret Everton-Fulham.” said John. “I am Mrs Margaret Everton-Fulham!”
Beatrice looked petrified and, finally, snapped– “W-WHERE IS MY HUSBAND?!” she demanded of the John impersonator. “A-AND WHO ARE YOU?!” she flailed at the newcomer.
They all turned toward the woman at the door.
“…I am a highwayman,” said she.
Thank you for reading my short story, hopefully the ending was not too abrupt for you. If you would like to leave some feedback you can do so in the comments or you can contact me over on my twitter by clicking the link here and magically apparating there. Any thoughts of yours are much appreciated.
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