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Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party'

This beautifully written short story contains a devastating critique of the hypocrisy of bourgeois society.


Katherine Mansfield, 1888 - 1923

The mother in Katherine Mansfield’s famous short story The Garden Party, published in 1921 and printed below, behaves like a child.  Throughout this fierce critique of middle-class ruthlessness, the apparently charming retreat into childish insouciance, made by almost all the characters, is portrayed as a grotesque cover for their brutality, though never satirised beyond the bounds of realism. 

 “My dear child, it’s no use asking me… Forget I am your mother,”  the mother says, when asked for help in organising a garden party to take place in the evening.  Later she says:  “My darling child, you wouldn’t like a logical mother would you?”  Not only the mother, but the sisters of the story’s young heroine Laura are utterly self-absorbed, refusing to take anything seriously – except themselves: 

             “But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men.  She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek.  Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.”

            While they are empty and conventional, Laura is presented as a freer spirit, and it is largely through her eyes we view the events of the story.  Laura seems to be a portrait of Mansfield herself, the artist as a young girl: 

            “‘You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.’” 

            Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread and butter.  It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors…”

 As Laura greets the workmen who’ve come to erect the marquee for the party, she tries to copy her mother’s haughty tone in dealing with her social “inferiors” but can’t sustain it, asking bashfully:  “Oh-er-have you come-is it about the marquee?”  Uncertain of her class position, she thinks:

 “What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue!  And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too.  ‘Cheer up, we won’t bite,’ their smile seemed to say.  How very nice workmen were!” 

 We are led inside Laura’s innocent point of view and at the same time shown how patronising it is.  Mansfield gives us an objective view of an unformed girl learning her allotted role, yet longing for something else.  Here Laura is again, closely observing one of the workers:

 “He was pale.  He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court.  What was he thinking?” 

 And when one of the men smells some lavender, Laura wonders at it: 

 “How many men that she knew would have done such a thing.  Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought?  Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with…?” 

 Like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley (1928), Laura despises her own class.  She hates “these absurd class distinctions” which she claims not to feel.  Yet the author shows us that she does.  When Laura hears one man address another as “matey” she thinks: 

 “‘Matey!’  The friendliness of it, the-the- Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing.  She felt just like a work-girl.” 

 This is funny, at Laura’s expense, though not cruel.  It simply exposes her.  The slippage between her point of view, which is limited though struggling against the constraints imposed on her, and the author’s, which is broader, provides the comedy.  Later on this same technique will give the story its punch.

 The fact that Laura is not yet spoilt is underlined by the suggestion that the mother was once innocent too.  Her mother having ordered a huge array of lilies for the party, Laura does something strange in response: “She put her arm round her mother’s neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother’s ear.’”  Her gesture is as natural as an animal’s, and is not rebuffed by her mother who clearly retains faint vestiges of her past innocence.  The close mother-daughter bond is important in the story as it suggests what Laura is doomed to become like her mother.

            When she sees the flowers Laura is overwhelmed:  “she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.”   Her romantic sensibility is swept away by the beauty, but  the lilies, a symbol of death, come back in later when Laura is about to take the flowers to the house of a dead workman.  The strange image of flowers growing in her breast hints at Laura as a corpse and prefigures the end of the story when we understand that she’s finally succumbed to the death-in-life of bourgeois hypocrisy.

             It’s into a light-hearted atmosphere, in which Jose, Laura’s sister, sings a song – a decadent one whose first line is, “This Life is Wee-ary” - and cream puffs are being delivered from the local bakery Godber’s, that a dark note is introduced: the baker’s delivery man brings news that a working class neighbour has been killed in an accident that morning.  Laura’s response is a moral one:  “‘Jose!’  she said, horrified,  ‘however are we going to stop everything?’” Jose’s reaction is the opposite: 

            “‘Stop the garden party?  My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd.  Of course we can’t do anything of the kind.  Nobody expects us to.  Don’t be so extravagant.’”

             Jose’s eyes are hard as she says:  “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental.”  In her shock, Laura goes upstairs to her mother for succour, but her mother’s reaction is the same: 

             “‘Mother, a man’s been killed.’

            ‘Not in the garden?’  interrupted her mother.

            ‘No, no!’

            ‘Oh, what a fright you gave me!’  Mrs Sheridan sighed with relief…’

             When Laura presses her point that the party must be cancelled out of common decency and respect, her mother, like Jose, quickly loses her feyness:

             “‘You are being very absurd, Laura,’  she said coldly.  “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us.’

             Her mother’s reaction, which deliberately recalls Lady Macbeth’s, “What?  In our house?” appals Laura, as does the frivolous way her mother tries a hat on Laura and hands her a mirror.  Laura “couldn’t look at herself…” 

             But Laura’s morality is quickly overcome as she catches sight of herself in another mirror and is charmed.  She begins to waver.  “Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house.  But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.  I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided.”  This is the moment of her corruption.  When her beloved elder brother Laurie (bearing a similar name denoting closeness) sees her in her hat, he compliments her and, tellingly, she fails to tell him of the death.

             The party goes off perfectly, but afterwards the father brings up the death once again.  The mother feels he’s been tactless in doing so, but suddenly has “one of her brilliant ideas.”  Looking at the “leftover  sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all un-eaten, all going to be wasted”, she says:  “‘Let’s send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food.’”

             Laura makes a feeble objection; she’s confused.  “‘But mother, do you really think it’s a good idea?’

  Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all.   To take scraps from their party.  Would the poor woman really like that?” 

She senses vaguely that something is wrong as she heads for the dead man’s cottage with her basket, but can only think about the party.  “Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn’t realise it.   Why couldn’t she?  She stopped a minute.  And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her.  She had no room for anything else.  How strange!  She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was,  ‘Yes, it was the most successful.’

             As she enters the working class lane, she becomes horribly self-conscious: 

 “How her frock shone!  And the big hat with the velvet streamer - if only it was another hat!  Were the people looking at her?  They must be.  It was a mistake to have come…”

 She is shown into the kitchen and suddenly sees herself as the grieving widow must see her:  “What did it mean?  Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket?”  Her empathy is real this time, not like her patronising gaze at the workmen earlier on.  For a moment she regains some humanity.  She feels shame, which reaches a crescendo as she is led into the room where the dead man is lying.  Her trivial life seems suddenly absurd in the face of death.

          “What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him?  He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful.  While they were laughing and while the band played, this marvel had come to the lane.  Happy… happy… All is well, said the sleeping face.”

 Death seems to her the only power that can resolve the class contradiction.  Her awe in the face of death is her way of trying to escape her own and her family’s moral degradation, but it’s shown to be an evasion, her feeling of transcendence a turning away from an acknowledgement of the bitter reality.  Yet even now, she is not entirely damned, still capable of genuine fellow-feeling: 

 “But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him.  Laura gave a loud childish sob.

            ‘Forgive my hat,’  she said."

 Returning home, she runs into her brother, Laurie.  She is inarticulate, unable to express her feelings.  Her consciousness is left flapping around for words, and her loving brother’s quickness to understand seems to us suddenly repulsive, like a trap, claiming her back into the fold as one of the living dead, who shun the light of reality and take refuge in vagueness: 

 “But Laurie-’  She stopped, she looked at her brother.  ‘Isn’t life,’  she stammered, ‘isn’t life-‘’  But what life was she couldn’t explain.  No matter.  He quite understood.

Isn’t it, darling?’  said Laurie.

 The gap between the author’s views and Laura’s has become crucial here to our understanding of the story.  The fluffy tone adopted by the family, and by much of the story itself, serves to reinforce the dark content.  Katherine Mansfield, as a scrupulously honest bourgeois writer, shows a girl groping for knowledge and consciousness and failing, pulled back by the inanity and viciousness of her class.


 

THE GARDEN PARTY

 by Katherine Mansfield

 

And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.

    Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.

    "Where do you want the marquee put, mother?"

    "My dear child, it's no use asking me. I'm determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest."

    But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.

    "You'll have to go, Laura; you're the artistic one."

    Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It's so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.

    Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn't possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.

    "Good morning," she said, copying her mother's voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, "Oh--er--have you come--is it about the marquee?"

    "That's right, miss," said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her. "That's about it."

    His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue! And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too. "Cheer up, we won't bite," their smile seemed to say. How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning! She mustn't mention the morning; she must be business-like. The marquee.

    "Well, what about the lily-lawn? Would that do?"

    And she pointed to the lily-lawn with the hand that didn't hold the bread- and-butter. They turned, they stared in the direction. A little fat chap thrust out his under-lip, and the tall fellow frowned.

    "I don't fancy it," said he. "Not conspicuous enough. You see, with a thing like a marquee," and he turned to Laura in his easy way, "you want to put it somewhere where it'll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me."

    Laura's upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him.

    "A corner of the tennis-court," she suggested. "But the band's going to be in one corner."

    "H'm, going to have a band, are you?" said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?

    "Only a very small band," said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn't mind so much if the band was quite small. But the tall fellow interrupted.

    "Look here, miss, that's the place. Against those trees. Over there. That'll do fine."

    Against the karakas. Then the karaka-trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?

    They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that--caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.

    It's all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn't feel them. Not a bit, not an atom...And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, "Are you right there, matey?" "Matey!" The friendliness of it, the--the--Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and- butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.

    "Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!" a voice cried from the house.

    "Coming!" Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch. In the hall her father and Laurie were brushing their hats ready to go to the office.

    "I say, Laura," said Laurie very fast, "you might just give a squiz at my coat before this afternoon. See if it wants pressing."

    "I will," said she. Suddenly she couldn't stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. "Oh, I do love parties, don't you?" gasped Laura.

    "Ra-ther," said Laurie's warm, boyish voice, and he squeezed his sister too, and gave her a gentle push. "Dash off to the telephone, old girl."

    The telephone. "Yes, yes; oh yes. Kitty? Good morning, dear. Come to lunch? Do, dear. Delighted of course. It will only be a very scratch meal--just the sandwich crusts and broken meringue-shells and what's left over. Yes, isn't it a perfect morning? Your white? Oh, I certainly should. One moment--hold the line. Mother's calling." And Laura sat back. "What, mother? Can't hear."

    Mrs. Sheridan's voice floated down the stairs. "Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday."

    "Mother says you're to wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday. Good. One o'clock. Bye-bye."

    Laura put back the receiver, flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall. "Huh," she sighed, and the moment after the sigh she sat up quickly. She was still, listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.

    The front door bell pealed, and there sounded the rustle of Sadie's print skirt on the stairs. A man's voice murmured; Sadie answered, careless, "I'm sure I don't know. Wait. I'll ask Mrs Sheridan."

    "What is it, Sadie?" Laura came into the hall.

    "It's the florist, Miss Laura."

    It was, indeed. There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies--canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.

    "O-oh, Sadie!" said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.

    "It's some mistake," she said faintly. "Nobody ever ordered so many. Sadie, go and find mother."

    But at that moment Mrs. Sheridan joined them.

    "It's quite right," she said calmly. "Yes, I ordered them. Aren't they lovely?" She pressed Laura's arm. "I was passing the shop yesterday, and I saw them in the window. And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse."

    "But I thought you said you didn't mean to interfere," said Laura. Sadie had gone. The florist's man was still outside at his van. She put her arm round her mother's neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother's ear.

    "My darling child, you wouldn't like a logical mother, would you? Don't do that. Here's the man."

    He carried more lilies still, another whole tray.

    "Bank them up, just inside the door, on both sides of the porch, please," said Mrs. Sheridan. "Don't you agree, Laura?"

    "Oh, I do, mother."

    In the drawing-room Meg, Jose and good little Hans had at last succeeded in moving the piano.

    "Now, if we put this chesterfield against the wall and move everything out of the room except the chairs, don't you think?"

    "Quite."

    "Hans, move these tables into the smoking-room, and bring a sweeper to take these marks off the carpet and--one moment, Hans--" Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama. "Tell mother and Miss Laura to come here at once.

    "Very good, Miss Jose."

    She turned to Meg. "I want to hear what the piano sounds like, just in case I'm asked to sing this afternoon. Let's try over 'This life is Weary.'"

    Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose's face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.

"This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear--a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear--a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then ...Good-bye!"

    But at the word "Good-bye," and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.

    "Aren't I in good voice, mummy?" she beamed.

"This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream--a Wa-kening."

    But now Sadie interrupted them. "What is it, Sadie?"

    "If you please, m'm, cook says have you got the flags for the sandwiches?"

    "The flags for the sandwiches, Sadie?" echoed Mrs. Sheridan dreamily. And the children knew by her face that she hadn't got them. "Let me see." And she said to Sadie firmly, "Tell cook I'll let her have them in ten minutes.

    Sadie went.

    "Now, Laura," said her mother quickly, "come with me into the smoking-room. I've got the names somewhere on the back of an envelope. You'll have to write them out for me. Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant. Do you hear me, children, or shall I have to tell your father when he comes home to-night? And--and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you? I'm terrified of her this morning."

    The envelope was found at last behind the dining-room clock, though how it had got there Mrs. Sheridan could not imagine.

    "One of you children must have stolen it out of my bag, because I remember vividly--cream cheese and lemon-curd. Have you done that?"

    "Yes."

    "Egg and--" Mrs. Sheridan held the envelope away from her. "It looks like mice. It can't be mice, can it?"

    "Olive, pet," said Laura, looking over her shoulder.

    "Yes, of course, olive. What a horrible combination it sounds. Egg and olive."

    They were finished at last, and Laura took them off to the kitchen. She found Jose there pacifying the cook, who did not look at all terrifying.

    "I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches," said Jose's rapturous voice. "How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?"

    "Fifteen, Miss Jose."

    "Well, cook, I congratulate you."

    Cook swept up crusts with the long sandwich knife, and smiled broadly.

    "Godber's has come," announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.

    That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber's were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.

    "Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl," ordered cook.

    Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn't help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.

    "Don't they carry one back to all one's parties?" said Laura.

    "I suppose they do," said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. "They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say."

    "Have one each, my dears," said cook in her comfortable voice. "Yer ma won't know."

    Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.

    "Let's go into the garden, out by the back way," suggested Laura. "I want to see how the men are getting on with the marquee. They're such awfully nice men."

    But the back door was blocked by cook, Sadie, Godber's man and Hans.

    Something had happened.

    "Tuk-tuk-tuk," clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans's face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber's man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.

    "What's the matter? What's happened?"

    "There's been a horrible accident," said Cook. "A man killed."

    "A man killed! Where? How? When?"

    But Godber's man wasn't going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.

    "Know those little cottages just below here, miss?" Know them? Of course, she knew them. "Well, there's a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed."

    "Dead!" Laura stared at Godber's man.

    "Dead when they picked him up," said Godber's man with relish. "They were taking the body home as I come up here." And he said to the cook, "He's left a wife and five little ones."

    "Jose, come here." Laura caught hold of her sister's sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. "Jose!" she said, horrified, "however are we going to stop everything?"

    "Stop everything, Laura!" cried Jose in astonishment. "What do you mean?"

    "Stop the garden-party, of course." Why did Jose pretend?

    But Jose was still more amazed. "Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don't be so absurd. Of course we can't do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don't be so extravagant."

    "But we can't possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate."

    That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.

    "And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman," said Laura.

    "Oh, Laura!" Jose began to be seriously annoyed. "If you're going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you'll lead a very strenuous life. I'm every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic." Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. "You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental," she said softly.

    "Drunk! Who said he was drunk?" Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, "I'm going straight up to tell mother."

    "Do, dear," cooed Jose.

    "Mother, can I come into your room?" Laura turned the big glass door-knob.

    "Of course, child. Why, what's the matter? What's given you such a colour?" And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.

    "Mother, a man's been killed," began Laura.

    "Not in the garden?" interrupted her mother.

    "No, no!"

    "Oh, what a fright you gave me!" Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.

    "But listen, mother," said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. "Of course, we can't have our party, can we?" she pleaded. "The band and everybody arriving. They'd hear us, mother; they're nearly neighbours!"

    To Laura's astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously.

    "But, my dear child, use your common sense. It's only by accident we've heard of it. If some one had died there normally--and I can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes--we should still be having our party, shouldn't we?"

    Laura had to say "yes" to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother's sofa and pinched the cushion frill.

    "Mother, isn't it terribly heartless of us?" she asked.

    "Darling!" Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. "My child!" said her mother, "the hat is yours. It's made for you. It's much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!" And she held up her hand-mirror.

    "But, mother," Laura began again. She couldn't look at herself; she turned aside.

    This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.

    "You are being very absurd, Laura," she said coldly. "People like that don't expect sacrifices from us. And it's not very sympathetic to spoil everybody's enjoyment as you're doing now."

    "I don't understand," said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan...

    Lunch was over by half-past one. By half-past two they were all ready for the fray. The green-coated band had arrived and was established in a corner of the tennis-court.

    "My dear!" trilled Kitty Maitland, "aren't they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf."

    Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.

    "Laurie!"

    "Hallo!" He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. "My word, Laura! You do look stunning," said Laurie. "What an absolutely topping hat!"

    Laura said faintly "Is it?" and smiled up at Laurie, and didn't tell him after all.

    Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans' garden for this one afternoon, on their way to--where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.

    "Darling Laura, how well you look!"

    "What a becoming hat, child!"

    "Laura, you look quite Spanish. I've never seen you look so striking."

    And Laura, glowing, answered softly, "Have you had tea? Won't you have an ice? The passion-fruit ices really are rather special." She ran to her father and begged him. "Daddy darling, can't the band have something to drink?"

    And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.

    "Never a more delightful garden-party ..." "The greatest success ..." "Quite the most ..."

    Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over.

    "All over, all over, thank heaven," said Mrs. Sheridan. "Round up the others, Laura. Let's go and have some fresh coffee. I'm exhausted. Yes, it's been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!" And they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.

    "Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag."

    "Thanks." Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone. He took another. "I suppose you didn't hear of a beastly accident that happened to-day?" he said.

    "My dear," said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her hand, "we did. It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off."

    "Oh, mother!" Laura didn't want to be teased about it.

    "It was a horrible affair all the same," said Mr. Sheridan. "The chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say."

    An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father...

    Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted. She had one of her brilliant ideas.

    "I know," she said. "Let's make up a basket. Let's send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be the greatest treat for the children. Don't you agree? And she's sure to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all ready prepared. Laura!" She jumped up. "Get me the big basket out of the stairs cupboard."

    "But, mother, do you really think it's a good idea?" said Laura.

    Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?

    "Of course! What's the matter with you to-day? An hour or two ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now--"

    Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by her mother.

    "Take it yourself, darling," said she. "Run down just as you are. No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies."

    "The stems will ruin her lace frock," said practical Jose.

    So they would. Just in time. "Only the basket, then. And, Laura!"--her mother followed her out of the marquee--"don't on any account--"

    "What mother?"

    No, better not put such ideas into the child's head! "Nothing! Run along."

    It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn't realize it. Why couldn't she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, "Yes, it was the most successful party."

    Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men's tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer--if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?

    No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.

    Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, "Is this Mrs. Scott's house?" and the woman, smiling queerly, said, "It is, my lass."

    Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, "Help me, God," as she walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those staring eyes, or to be covered up in anything, one of those women's shawls even. I'll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan't even wait for it to be emptied.

    Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.

    Laura said, "Are you Mrs. Scott?" But to her horror the woman answered, "Walk in please, miss," and she was shut in the passage.

    "No," said Laura, "I don't want to come in. I only want to leave this basket. Mother sent--"

    The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. "Step this way, please, miss," she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.

    She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.

    "Em," said the little creature who had let her in. "Em! It's a young lady." She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, "I'm 'er sister, miss. You'll excuse 'er, won't you?"

    "Oh, but of course!" said Laura. "Please, please don't disturb her. I--I only want to leave--"

    But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn't understand why Laura was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor face puckered up again.

    "All right, my dear," said the other. "I'll thenk the young lady."

    And again she began, "You'll excuse her, miss, I'm sure," and her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.

    Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.

    "You'd like a look at 'im, wouldn't you?" said Em's sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. "Don't be afraid, my lass,"--and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet--"'e looks a picture. There's nothing to show. Come along, my dear."

    Laura came.

    There lay a young man, fast asleep--sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy...happy...All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

    But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn't go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.

    "Forgive my hat," she said.

    And this time she didn't wait for Em's sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.

    He stepped out of the shadow. "Is that you, Laura?"

    "Yes."

    "Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?"

    "Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!" She took his arm, she pressed up against him.

    "I say, you're not crying, are you?" asked her brother.

    Laura shook her head. She was.

    Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. "Don't cry," he said in his warm, loving voice. "Was it awful?"

    "No," sobbed Laura. "It was simply marvellous. But Laurie--" She stopped, she looked at her brother. "Isn't life," she stammered, "isn't life--" But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood.

    "Isn't it, darling?" said Laurie.


 

The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield, is published by Penguin Books, £7.99 (£6.39 from Amazon).