‘Meet ‘em ‘alf-way,’ she said, ‘same as I do.’
This was Mrs. Hodges, a little woman of five-and-forty, with badly dyed hair; she had a yellow face with a network of small red veins all over it, and yellow whites to her pale blue eyes. She took a fancy to Philip and called him by his Christian name before he had been in the shop a week.
‘We’ve both known what it is to come down,’ she said.
She told Philip that her real name was not Hodges, but she always referred to ‘me ‘usband Misterodges;’ he was a barrister and he treated her simply shocking, so she left him as she preferred to be independent like; but she had known what it was to drive in her own carriage, dear—she called everyone dear—and they always had late dinner at home. She used to pick her teeth with the pin of an enormous silver brooch. It was in the form of a whip and a hunting-crop crossed, with two spurs in the middle. Philip was ill at ease in his new surroundings, and the girls in the shop called him ‘sidey.’ One addressed him as Phil, and he did not answer because he had not the least idea that she was speaking to him; so she tossed her head, saying he was a ‘stuck-up thing,’ and next time with ironical emphasis called him Mister Carey. She was a Miss Jewell, and she was going to marry a doctor. The other girls had never seen him, but they said he must be a gentleman as he gave her such lovely presents.
‘Never you mind what they say, dear,’ said Mrs. Hodges. ‘I’ve ‘ad to go through it same as you ‘ave. They don’t know any better, poor things. You take my word for it, they’ll like you all right if you ‘old your own same as I ‘ave.’
The social evening was held in the restaurant in the basement. The tables were put on one side so that there might be room for dancing, and smaller ones were set out for progressive whist.
‘The ‘eads ‘ave to get there early,’ said Mrs. Hodges.
She introduced him to Miss Bennett, who was the belle of Lynn’s. She was the buyer in the ‘Petticoats,’ and when Philip entered was engaged in conversation with the buyer in the ‘Gentlemen’s Hosiery;’ Miss Bennett was a woman of massive proportions, with a very large red face heavily powdered and a bust of imposing dimensions; her flaxen hair was arranged with elaboration. She was overdressed, but not badly dressed, in black with a high collar, and she wore black glace gloves, in which she played cards; she had several heavy gold chains round her neck, bangles on her wrists, and circular photograph pendants, one being of Queen Alexandra; she carried a black satin bag and chewed Sen-sens.
‘Please to meet you, Mr. Carey,’ she said. ‘This is your first visit to our social evenings, ain’t it? I expect you feel a bit shy, but there’s no cause to, I promise you that.’
She did her best to make people feel at home. She slapped them on the shoulders and laughed a great deal.
‘Ain’t I a pickle?’ she cried, turning to Philip. ‘What must you think of me? But I can’t ‘elp meself.’
Those who were going to take part in the social evening came in, the younger members of the staff mostly, boys who had not girls of their own, and girls who had not yet found anyone to walk with. Several of the young gentlemen wore lounge suits with white evening ties and red silk handkerchiefs; they were going to perform, and they had a busy, abstracted air; some were self-confident, but others were nervous, and they watched their public with an anxious eye. Presently a girl with a great deal of hair sat at the piano and ran her hands noisily across the keyboard. When the audience had settled itself she looked round and gave the name of her piece.
‘A Drive in Russia.’
There was a round of clapping during which she deftly fixed bells to her wrists. She smiled a little and immediately burst into energetic melody. There was a great deal more clapping when she finished, and when this was over, as an encore, she gave a piece which imitated the sea; there were little trills to represent the lapping waves and thundering chords, with the loud pedal down, to suggest a storm. After this a gentleman sang a song called Bid me Good-bye, and as an encore obliged with Sing me to Sleep. The audience measured their enthusiasm with a nice discrimination. Everyone was applauded till he gave an encore, and so that there might be no jealousy no one was applauded more than anyone else. Miss Bennett sailed up to Philip.
‘I’m sure you play or sing, Mr. Carey,’ she said archly. ‘I can see it in your face.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t.’
‘Don’t you even recite?’
‘I have no parlour tricks.’
The buyer in the ‘gentleman’s hosiery’ was a well-known reciter, and he was called upon loudly to perform by all the assistants in his department. Needing no pressing, he gave a long poem of tragic character, in which he rolled his eyes, put his hand on his chest, and acted as though he were in great agony. The point, that he had eaten cucumber for supper, was divulged in the last line and was greeted with laughter, a little forced because everyone knew the poem well, but loud and long. Miss Bennett did not sing, play, or recite.
‘Oh no, she ‘as a little game of her own,’ said Mrs. Hodges.
‘Now, don’t you begin chaffing me. The fact is I know quite a lot about palmistry and second sight.’
‘Oh, do tell my ‘and, Miss Bennett,’ cried the girls in her department, eager to please her.
‘I don’t like telling ‘ands, I don’t really. I’ve told people such terrible things and they’ve all come true, it makes one superstitious like.’
‘Oh, Miss Bennett, just for once.’
A little crowd collected round her, and, amid screams of embarrassment, giggles, blushings, and cries of dismay or admiration, she talked mysteriously of fair and dark men, of money in a letter, and of journeys, till the sweat stood in heavy beads on her painted face.
‘Look at me,’ she said. ‘I’m all of a perspiration.’
Supper was at nine. There were cakes, buns, sandwiches, tea and coffee, all free; but if you wanted mineral water you had to pay for it. Gallantry often led young men to offer the ladies ginger beer, but common decency made them refuse. Miss Bennett was very fond of ginger beer, and she drank two and sometimes three bottles during the evening; but she insisted on paying for them herself. The men liked her for that.
‘She’s a rum old bird,’ they said, ‘but mind you, she’s not a bad sort, she’s not like what some are.’
After supper progressive whist was played. This was very noisy, and there was a great deal of laughing and shouting, as people moved from table to table. Miss Bennett grew hotter and hotter.
‘Look at me,’ she said. ‘I’m all of a perspiration.’
In due course one of the more dashing of the young men remarked that if they wanted to dance they’d better begin. The girl who had played the accompaniments sat at the piano and placed a decided foot on the loud pedal. She played a dreamy waltz, marking the time with the bass, while with the right hand she ‘tiddled’ in alternate octaves. By way of a change she crossed her hands and played the air in the bass.
‘She does play well, doesn’t she?’ Mrs. Hodges remarked to Philip. ‘And what’s more she’s never ‘ad a lesson in ‘er life; it’s all ear.’
Miss Bennett liked dancing and poetry better than anything in the world. She danced well, but very, very slowly, and an expression came into her eyes as though her thoughts were far, far away. She talked breathlessly of the floor and the heat and the supper. She said that the Portman Rooms had the best floor in London and she always liked the dances there; they were very select, and she couldn’t bear dancing with all sorts of men you didn’t know anything about; why, you might be exposing yourself to you didn’t know what all. Nearly all the people danced very well, and they enjoyed themselves. Sweat poured down their faces, and the very high collars of the young men grew limp.
Philip looked on, and a greater depression seized him than he remembered to have felt for a long time. He felt intolerably alone. He did not go, because he was afraid to seem supercilious, and he talked with the girls and laughed, but in his heart was unhappiness. Miss Bennett asked him if he had a girl.
‘No,’ he smiled.
‘Oh, well, there’s plenty to choose from here. And they’re very nice respectable girls, some of them. I expect you’ll have a girl before you’ve been here long.’
She looked at him very archly.
‘Meet ‘em ‘alf-way,’ said Mrs. Hodges. ‘That’s what I tell him.’
It was nearly eleven o’clock, and the party broke up. Philip could not get to sleep. Like the others he kept his aching feet outside the bed-clothes. He tried with all his might not to think of the life he was leading. The soldier was snoring quietly.