The Hotel Dull, Food Indifferent project is a weekly fiction series that, for legal purposes, charts various uncomfortable meals hosted by the nameless second wife – let’s call her Mrs. de Summer — of a wealthy Cornish landowner.
The previous chapter can be found here: “One takes tea from a waiter in much the same way as one formerly took it from one’s housekeeper. But the housekeeper receives in change a home for life, a family’s dignity to add to her own, keys to each room of the house, and someone to pour her own tea at five; God alone knows where waiters go at the end of the day. A housekeeper has one mistress, for good or for ill – even an indifferent mistress is still her mistress, to be managed or placated or pleased or outmaneuvered as best she can. All housekeepers are Mrs. Somebody, although they’re likelier to be single than not. One might well say she has eliminated the middleman and married the house directly.”
I did always imagine Rebecca as a kind of companion for me, especially at meals, if only to have something to measure myself against. Max refused to be taken as a reference of any kind. I suppose it was a point of family pride. To act as a standard implies the possibility of standardization, replication even. Then, of course, there is something approaching rudeness about a wife making a study of her husband over dinner, of dragging anyone back into private communication during an hour devoted to training one’s attention steadily outward. During dinner all married couples must expect to be sat apart. But at breakfast, certainly — at any rate, the rudeness did not originate with me. The enemy of the successful dinner party is not the couple form but partiality, demonstrating a marked particularity for one person’s company over another, for the whispered joke, the huddling away in corners, the refusal to turn at the hostess’ signal.
If no one else would brook Rebecca’s removal from the table, neither would I. I made a sort of game of it. How might she hold her spoon, how might she cover her teeth during conversation without appearing to cover them, how might she abridge the queasy silence that sometimes springs up between unamiable table-mates, signal the removal of the salad, that sort of thing. Then I might race to match her, and so be spurred on to greater success. Max would not have thought of any meal, or any party, in terms of success, any more than he might have thought of a chair or a pair of shoes. Either they suited his purposes, or they didn’t; either they were fitted to their place or they needed to moving. This had the unfortunate effect of doubling my failures, because wishing to become a success in the first place was itself the wrong aim. Falling short of a bad mark, and so eager to please that I lacked the ability, the desire even, to discern just who were worth pleasing and on what subjects. I am very different now, of course. I have sat through so many meals with a wife and husband beside me for guidance; Rebecca, insubstantial yet immediate, at my left hand, Max a little less accessible and directly opposite. One to spin out, one to measure, one to cut — Max measuring twice, first with Rebecca, later with me, and cutting exactly once, precisely, in the predetermined spot.
I know what impression I made upon him at first. Straight, bobbed hair and a youthful, unpowdered face, in an awkwardly-fitting coat and a too-thick skirt, trailing in Mrs. Van Hopper’s wake. She would precede me in to lunch, always, which afforded me an opportunity to project an air of well-bred humiliation, an air singularly suited to trailing. A modern companion is less courtier than court dwarf, paid to draw local attention to scale. I happened to droop well, which did suit Mrs. Van Hopper, who had the look of a ship’s figurehead about her. Always surging forward, I mean, first from hip to bosom and then again from her high forehead to the crown of her chignon, and always framed by something foaming and unbecoming. I expect she liked having me around by way of comparison, and as a reminder that youth was not always paired with beauty. She did like it, I believe, or else she would not have lugged me like an engagement-diary all over Europe, she who was so fond of abandoning dinner plans and dogs when something more interesting presented itself. Max liked it too, both the contrast and the novelty of a youthful dowd.
Her first move, upon seizing the menu from someone else’s waiter, was to gasp in horror at all the alkaline dishes on offer, favoring as she did the Hay reducing-taboos at the time. She swore Man Ray did the same, which may even have been the truth. Inevitably she would settle on a chop and clear soup, or a chop and boiled vegetables, or a consommé and a lecture about the perils of potatoes and acid-neutralizers for anyone with hardened arteries, which according to Mrs. Van Hopper was anyone who looked near 30. She was fascinated by anything innardly; the various pumpings and secretions of the pancreas and gastritic glands had as instant a hold on her as any of the goings-on of her acquaintance in Monte. But what she liked most was to be subverted — for just a hint of sullen rebellion, enough to merit the careful grinding of her thumb, but not much more exertion than that. I made a game of that, too.
If she was in an invalidish mood, she wanted to be presented with a suite of carefully-neutral dishes to reject; tomato juice to proclaim tinny, toast to tear apart, grapefruit of uncertain provenance, all arrayed before her on a tray like vitamins. In such a mood I might make a show of nibbling her castoffs as though I were inexpertly waiting for her to stop watching me, for her benefit. If she had something to celebrate, if she was in a gay mood and ordered champagne, it fell to me to develop a headache. The cold buffet, the second-most inexpensive entrée, all came under my claim; to flinch when she addressed the wine-steward too loudly, to fret and never have a pocketbook at the right moment. She had a healthy appetite for humiliation, so I sometimes made sure to hint at a pretension in need of depressing, a longing to pin down and extinguish, a fear of shop-clerks or the otherwise-harmless personnel who make up the service arm of the grand hotels that required only partial consciousness on her part to identify and press forth. And I would always finish her clear soups when they failed to appeal to her higher self. You must remember we had nothing like garbage disposals in those days, but there was always a market for a woman who could prove her grandparents were somebody and was amenable to suffering public degradation. Max and Mrs. Van Hopper had the same appetites as everybody else in that way.