Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923)
188 A Cup of Tea
Rosemary Fell was not exactly beautiful. No, you couldn’t have called her beautiful. Pretty? Well, if you took her to pieces… But why be so cruel as to take anyone to pieces? She was young, brilliant, extremely modern, exquisitely well dressed, amazingly well read in the newest of the new books, and her parties were the most delicious mixture of the really important people and… artists—quaint creatures, discoveries of hers, some of them too terrifying for words, but others quite presentable and amusing.
Rosemary had been married two years. She had a duck of a boy. No, not Peter—Michael. And her husband absolutely adored her. They were rich, really rich, not just comfortably well off, which is odious and stuffy and sounds like one’s grandparents. But if Rosemary wanted to shop she would go to Paris as you and I would go to Bond Street. If she wanted to buy flowers, the car pulled up at that perfect shop in Regent Street, and Rosemary inside the shop just gazed in her dazzled, rather exotic way, and said: “I want those and those and those. Give me four bunches of those. And that jar of roses. Yes, I’ll have all the roses in the jar. No, no lilac. I hate lilac. It’s got no shape.” The attendant bowed and put the lilac out of sight, as though this was only too true; lilac was dreadfully shapeless. “Give me those stumpy little tulips. Those red and white ones.” And she was followed to the car by a thin shop-girl staggering under an immense white paper armful that looked like a baby in long clothes….
One winter afternoon she had been buying something in a little antique shop in Curzon Street. It was a shop she liked. For one thing, one usually had it to oneself. And then the man who kept it was ridiculously fond of serving her. He beamed whenever she came in. He clasped his hands; he was so gratified he could scarcely speak. Flattery, of course. All the same, there was something…
“You see, madam,” he would explain in his low respectful tones, “I love my things. I would rather not part with them than sell them to someone who does not appreciate them, who has not that fine feeling which is so rare…” And, breathing deeply, he unrolled a tiny square of blue velvet and pressed it on the glass counter with his pale finger-tips.
To-day it was a little box. He had been keeping it for her. He had shown it to nobody as yet. An exquisite little enamel box with a glaze so fine it looked as though it had been baked in cream. On the lid a minute creature stood under a flowery tree, and a more minute creature still had her arms round his neck. Her hat, really no bigger than a geranium petal, hung from a branch; it had green ribbons. And there was a pink cloud like a watchful cherub floating above their heads. Rosemary took her hands out of her long gloves. She always took off her gloves to examine such things. Yes, she liked it very much. She loved it; it was a great duck. She must have it. And, turning the creamy box, opening and shutting it, she couldn’t help noticing how charming her hands were against the blue velvet. The shopman, in some dim cavern of his mind, may have dared to think so too. For he took a pencil, leant over the counter, and his pale, bloodless fingers crept timidly towards those rosy, flashing ones, as he murmured gently: “If I may venture to point out to madam, the flowers on the little lady’s bodice.”
“Charming!” Rosemary admired the flowers. But what was the price? For a moment the shopman did not seem to hear. Then a murmur reached her. “Twenty-eight guineas, madam.”
“Twenty-eight guineas.” Rosemary gave no sign. She laid the little box down; she buttoned her gloves again. Twenty-eight guineas. Even if one is rich… She looked vague. She stared at a plump tea-kettle like a plump hen above the shopman’s head, and her voice was dreamy as she answered: “Well, keep it for me—will you? I’ll…”
But the shopman had already bowed as though keeping it for her was all any human being could ask. He would be willing, of course, to keep it for her for ever.
The discreet door shut with a click. She was outside on the step, gazing at the winter afternoon. Rain was falling, and with the rain it seemed the dark came too, spinning down like ashes. There was a cold bitter taste in the air, and the new-lighted lamps looked sad. Sad were the lights in the houses opposite. Dimly they burned as if regretting something. And people hurried by, hidden under their hateful umbrellas. Rosemary felt a strange pang. She pressed her muff against her breast; she wished she had the little box, too, to cling to. Of course the car was there. She’d only to cross the pavement. But still she waited. There are moments, horrible moments in life, when one emerges from shelter and looks out, and it’s awful. One oughtn’t to give way to them. One ought to go home and have an extra-special tea. But at the very instant of thinking that, a young girl, thin, dark, shadowy—where had she come from?—was standing at Rosemary’s elbow and a voice like a sigh, almost like a sob, breathed: “Madam, may I speak to you a moment?”
“Speak to me?” Rosemary turned. She saw a little battered creature with enormous eyes, someone quite young, no older than herself, who clutched at her coat-collar with reddened hands, and shivered as though she had just come out of the water.
“M-madam, stammered the voice. Would you let me have the price of a cup of tea?”
“A cup of tea?” There was something simple, sincere in that voice; it wasn’t in the least the voice of a beggar. “Then have you no money at all?” asked Rosemary.
“None, madam,” came the answer.
“How extraordinary!” Rosemary peered through the dusk and the girl gazed back at her. How more than extraordinary! And suddenly it seemed to Rosemary such an adventure. It was like something out of a novel by Dostoevsky, this meeting in the dusk. Supposing she took the girl home? Supposing she did do one of those things she was always reading about or seeing on the stage, what would happen? It would be thrilling. And she heard herself saying afterwards to the amazement of her friends: “I simply took her home with me,” as she stepped forward and said to that dim person beside her: “Come home to tea with me.”
The girl drew back startled. She even stopped shivering for a moment. Rosemary put out a hand and touched her arm. “I mean it,” she said, smiling. And she felt how simple and kind her smile was. “Why won’t you? Do. Come home with me now in my car and have tea.”
“You—you don’t mean it, madam,” said the girl, and there was pain in her voice.
“But I do,” cried Rosemary. “I want you to. To please me. Come along.”
The girl put her fingers to her lips and her eyes devoured Rosemary. “You’re—you’re not taking me to the police station?” she stammered.
“The police station!” Rosemary laughed out. “Why should I be so cruel? No, I only want to make you warm and to hear—anything you care to tell me.”
Hungry people are easily led. The footman held the door of the car open, and a moment later they were skimming through the dusk.
“There!” said Rosemary. She had a feeling of triumph as she slipped her hand through the velvet strap. She could have said, “Now I’ve got you,” as she gazed at the little captive she had netted. But of course she meant it kindly. Oh, more than kindly. She was going to prove to this girl that—wonderful things did happen in life, that—fairy godmothers were real, that—rich people had hearts, and that women were sisters. She turned impulsively, saying’. “Don’t be frightened. After all, why shouldn’t you come back with me? We’re both women. If I’m the more fortunate, you ought to expect…”
But happily at that moment, for she didn’t know how the sentence was going to end, the car stopped. The bell was rung, the door opened, and with a charming, protecting, almost embracing movement, Rosemary drew the other into the hall. Warmth, softness, light, a sweet scent, all those things so familiar to her she never even thought about them, she watched that other receive. It was fascinating. She was like the rich little girl in her nursery with all the cupboards to open, all the boxes to unpack.
“Come, come upstairs,” said Rosemary, longing to begin to be generous. “Come up to my room.” And, besides, she wanted to spare this poor little thing from being stared at by the servants; she decided as they mounted the stairs she would not even ring to Jeanne, but take off her things by herself. The great things were to be natural!
And “There!” cried Rosemary again, as they reached her beautiful big bedroom with the curtains drawn, the fire leaping on her wonderful lacquer furniture, her gold cushions and the primrose and blue rugs.
The girl stood just inside the door; she seemed dazed. But Rosemary didn’t mind that.
“Come and sit down,” she cried, dragging her big chair up to the fire, “in this comfy chair. Come and get warm. You look so dreadfully cold.”
“I daren’t, madam,” said the girl, and she edged backwards.
“Oh, please,”—Rosemary ran forward—”you mustn’t be frightened, you mustn’t, really. Sit down, when I’ve taken off my things we shall go into the next room and have tea and be cozy. Why are you afraid?” And gently she half pushed the thin figure into its deep cradle.
But there was no answer. The girl stayed just as she had been put, with her hands by her sides and her mouth slightly open. To be quite sincere, she looked rather stupid. But Rosemary wouldn’t acknowledge it. She leant over her, saying:
“Won’t you take off your hat? Your pretty hair is all wet. And one is so much more comfortable without a hat, isn’t one?”
There was a whisper that sounded like “Very good, madam,” and the crushed hat was taken off.
“And let me help you off with your coat, too,” said Rosemary.
The girl stood up. But she held on to the chair with one hand and let Rosemary pull. It was quite an effort. The other scarcely helped her at all. She seemed to stagger like a child, and the thought came and went through Rosemary’s mind, that if people wanted helping they must respond a little, just a little, otherwise it became very difficult indeed. And what was she to do with the coat now? She left it on the floor, and the hat too. She was just going to take a cigarette off the mantelpiece when the girl said quickly, but so lightly and strangely: “I’m very sorry, madam, but I’m going to faint. I shall go off, madam, if I don’t have something.”
“Good heavens, how thoughtless I am!” Rosemary rushed to the bell.
“Tea! Tea at once! And some brandy immediately!”
The maid was gone again, but the girl almost cried out: “No, I don’t want no brandy. I never drink brandy. It’s a cup of tea I want, madam.” And she burst into tears.
It was a terrible and fascinating moment. Rosemary knelt beside her chair.
“Don’t cry, poor little thing,” she said. “Don’t cry.” And she gave the other her lace handkerchief. She really was touched beyond words. She put her arm round those thin, bird-like shoulders.
Now at last the other forgot to be shy, forgot everything except that they were both women, and gasped out: “I can’t go on no longer like this. I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it. I shall do away with myself. I can’t bear no more.”
“You shan’t have to. I’ll look after you. Don’t cry any more. Don’t you see what a good thing it was that you met me? We’ll have tea and you’ll tell me everything. And I shall arrange something. I promise. Do stop crying. It’s so exhausting. Please!”
The other did stop just in time for Rosemary to get up before the tea came. She had the table placed between them. She plied the poor little creature with everything, all the sandwiches, all the bread and butter, and every time her cup was empty she filled it with tea, cream and sugar. People always said sugar was so nourishing. As for herself she didn’t eat; she smoked and looked away tactfully so that the other should not be shy.
And really the effect of that slight meal was marvelous. When the tea-table was carried away a new being, a light, frail creature with tangled hair, dark lips, deep, lighted eyes, lay back in the big chair in a kind of sweet languor, looking at the blaze. Rosemary lit a fresh cigarette; it was time to begin.
“And when did you have your last meal?” she asked softly.
But at that moment the door-handle turned.
“Rosemary, may I come in?” It was Philip.
He came in. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said, and stopped and stared.
“It’s quite all right,” said Rosemary, smiling. “This is my friend, Miss—”
“Smith, madam,” said the languid figure, who was strangely still and unafraid.
“Smith,” said Rosemary. “We are going to have a little talk.”
“Oh yes,” said Philip. “Quite,” and his eye caught sight of the coat and hat on the floor. He came over to the fire and turned his back to it. “It’s a beastly afternoon,” he said curiously, still looking at that listless figure, looking at its hands and boots, and then at Rosemary again.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Rosemary enthusiastically. “Vile.”
Philip smiled his charming smile. “As a matter of fact,” said he, “I wanted you to come into the library for a moment. Would you? Will Miss Smith excuse us?”
The big eyes were raised to him, but Rosemary answered for her: “Of course she will.” And they went out of the room together.
“I say,” said Philip, when they were alone. “Explain. Who is she? What does it all mean?”
Rosemary, laughing, leaned against the door and said: “I picked her up in Curzon Street.
Really. She’s a real pick-up. She asked me for the price of a cup of tea, and I brought her home with me. ”
“But what on earth are you going to do with her?” cried Philip.
“Be nice to her,” said Rosemary quickly. “Be frightfully nice to her. Look after her. I don’t know how. We haven’t talked yet. But show her—treat her—make her feel—”
“My darling girl,” said Philip, “you’re quite mad, you know. It simply can’t be done.”
“I knew you’d say that,” retorted Rosemary. Why not? I want to. Isn’t that a reason? And besides, one’s always reading about these things. I decided—”
“But,” said Philip slowly, and he cut the end of a cigar, “she’s so astonishingly pretty.”
“Pretty?” Rosemary was so surprised that she blushed. “Do you think so? I—I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Good Lord!” Philip struck a match. “She’s absolutely lovely. Look again, my child. I was bowled over when I came into your room just now. However… I think you’re making a ghastly mistake. Sorry, darling, if I’m crude and all that. But let me know if Miss Smith is going to dine with us in time for me to look up The Milliner’s Gazette.”
“You absurd creature!” said Rosemary, and she went out of the library, but not back to her bedroom. She went to her writing-room and sat down at her desk. Pretty! Absolutely lovely! Bowled over! Her heart beat like a heavy bell. Pretty! Lovely! She drew her check-book towards her. But no, checks would be no use, of course. She opened a drawer and took out five pound notes, looked at them, put two back, and holding the three squeezed in her hand, she went back to her bedroom.
Half an hour later Philip was still in the library, when Rosemary came in.
“I only wanted to tell you,” said she, and she leaned against the door again and looked at him with her dazzled exotic gaze, “Miss Smith won’t dine with us to-night.”
Philip put down the paper. “Oh, what’s happened? Previous engagement?”
Rosemary came over and sat down on his knee. “She insisted on going,” said she, “so I gave the poor little thing a present of money. I couldn’t keep her against her will, could I?” she added softly.
Rosemary had just done her hair, darkened her eyes a little and put on her pearls. She put up her hands and touched Philip’s cheeks.
“Do you like me?” said she, and her tone, sweet, husky, troubled him.
“I like you awfully,” he said, and he held her tighter. “Kiss me.”
There was a pause.
Then Rosemary said dreamily: “I saw a fascinating little box to-day. It cost twenty-eight guineas. May I have it?”
Philip jumped her on his knee. “You may, little wasteful one,” said he.
But that was not really what Rosemary wanted to say.
“Philip,” she whispered, and she pressed his head against her bosom, “am I pretty?”
- A term of endearment, often applied to things as well as people, “a duck of a fellow.” ↵
- A smart and fashionable street in London’s exclusive Mayfair district, known for shops that are both elegant and expensive. ↵
- Another major shopping street in London’s West End. ↵
- Another fashionable street in Mayfair. ↵
- An old British coin, valued at 21 shillings, or one shilling more than the pound, which was worth 20 shillings. ↵
- Influential novelist and philosopher. Novels such as Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) reflect the political, social and spiritual conflicts of his society. ↵