A Tea Party
Just before three one sunny afternoon, Barbara, Rachel and Luda walked down the old brick sidewalk of Brattle Street. The unseasonably warm streak was continuing, so they went without coats. However, they were otherwise fully equipped with dresses, high heels, fake pearls, little hats, and little white gloves. Rachel had had to borrow a good deal of her costume from other girls, but, apart from shoes that were a little too big, she was managing well. Barbara, citing an agreement she had reached with Rachel, said that this invitation from Luda would be a good chance to practice their social skills. She herself had had some experience with her mother's tea parties, but knew that Rachel had not. She opined to the others, "More things than you'd think get decided at ladies' tea parties."
Luda replied, "That may be. The food doesn't seem to be the main attraction. In this case, it'll consist of little octagonal pieces of bread with a single cucumber and mayonnaise on each."
Rachel, turning to Barbara, said, "This sounds truly bizarre. I'm glad you're with us."
It was a big brick house, set back behind a large lawn with big old trees. The whole monstrosity looked to Barbara to be a couple of hundred years old. Luda charged up the walk, her heels clicking and clacking on the stones, while Rachel tried to keep up in her teetery shoes and Barbara followed. Mrs. Howard, having seen them coming, threw open the door and welcomed them with widespread arms. Her reaction to Rachel seemed to be,
Their hostess, 'call me Joan', led them into the tea party room. As she jokingly pointed out a couple of ‘rummage sale purchases’ there was an intensity and nervous channeling of energy about her that reminded Barbara of Rachel’s mother. Her speech was much better than that of Mrs. Howe, but she did tend to speak of the same level of reality, just one populated with more expensive objects. Instead of a new coffee table from Filene's, there was an antique writing table acquired advantageously at an estate auction. Joan obviously liked to bid on things, and Barbara was pretty sure that Mrs. Howe would be a tiger at an auction.
Luda was entirely comfortable in the surroundings, even striking up a conversation with the maid who appeared with the cucumber sandwiches. The conversation then took a more serious turn as Joan told about her plans to return to the classroom as an auditor. She said, "I've spent years pursuing things that happened to interest me at the time, but without much overall purpose. Since I’m here, a few blocks from one of the world's great universities. I can do better!"
Looking at Rachel, Barbara could see a puzzled expression on her face. Joan was her first rich lady, and the thought of being able to do anything, or nothing, was probably new to her. When Joan asked for advice as to courses, Rachel said, "I'm auditing one now in metaphysics. It's really just a comparison of different world views, and, with each one, the course starts anew. You could jump in there."
"Would I be able to understand it?"
"Sure. It's full of big ideas. Some of the arguments get involved, but the instructor, D. C. Williams, is lots of fun. He has one concept he calls the space-time worm."
"What on earth is that?"
"It's an ordinary thing, like a tree, that twists its shape as time passes and things happen to it. Hence a worm."
Joan laughed and replied, “Worms in the garden are actually good, so we should probably have more different sorts of them.”
Rachel added, "He's also the cuddliest professor I've come upon."
Barbara explained to Joan, "We've already learned not to take Harvard professors too seriously. Some of them do win Nobel prizes, but, in class, you have to be prepared for eccentricity, and even confusion."
As they talked of other courses, it seemed to Barbara that all three of the guests felt more at home in Joan's home than Joan did. It was Joan who was trying desperately to make the tea party a success. While Luda might have some sort of vested interest in the proceedings, she and Rachel, with little to gain or lose, were simply along for the ride.
In the next little bit, it turned out that Joan read a lot, went to plays, art openings, and concerts. Barbara wasn't sure that she was smarter than the quite smart Mrs. Howe, but she certainly got around more and lived in a much bigger world. As the tea party then proceeded in the direction that tea parties were meant to proceed, Joan gradually relaxed and laughed spontaneously.
Not unnaturally, the conversation switched to places that Rachel and Luda might like to go, particularly restaurants. Lotte, sitting down with them, said pleasantly, “I won’t go out with a guy unless he promises to feed me well.”
It turned out that she didn’t demand an expensive restaurant, but one that served good solid well-prepared food. Joan said, “Lotte and I like Durgin-Park the best. It’s in the North End right upstairs from the meat markets. It doesn’t even have a sign, but an old flag that looks as if it’s been hanging there for thirty years. You sit at long tables, and the butchers come up to eat with blood still on their aprons.”
Rachel looked rather shocked, but Barbara, who had been there, explained, “It’s a Boston institution, probably a hangover from the clipper-ship days. Boston was a rough sailor town, and the leading citizens rubbed shoulders with the toughs.”
Joan was enthusiastic, and said, “We also go to an even older place, the Union Oyster House. It’s in a building that’s been a school, a revolutionary meeting place, and everything else. Lotte can eat quahogs by the bucket-full.”
Lotte replied, “Some of Joan’s friends won’t go to places where the last customer might have left some crumbs on the table, but I’m always ready.”
It seemed to Barbara that Joan was a pleasant eccentric in partial rebellion to a wealthy family. She was on first-name terms with her maid, went exploring with her, and did other things that Barbara’s own mother would have thought unwise.
Luda was not so keen on hidden little restaurants in Boston’s meaner districts, and spoke of the Copley-Plaza. Joan remarked, “My husband takes his business associates there, but one of them is a horrid Saudi Arabian who buys expensive cars in every color of the rainbow for some crazy reason. I’m always reminded of him when I go there.”
Barbara said, “I gather you were there with him.”
“Oh yes. One of very few times I’ve agreed to join Bert on these outings. I couldn’t wait to get away.”
“I’ve heard that there are sons of Arab princes at Harvard, but they seem not to be conspicuous.”
“Probably in reaction against their fathers.”
Finally, there was talk of clothing. Compliments flew through the air in all directions, and there was some speculation as to how so-and-so would look in such-and-such. Barbara could see how it might lead to the giving away of dresses.
As they went back along Brattle Street, Rachel said, "I expected to be nervous and ill-at-ease, but our hostess seemed to be more nervous than I."
Luda asked, "Did you like her?"
"Sure. There's nothing about her to dislike. But I did get the feeling that, if she ever got settled down, she might want to mother me."
“Millions of women would want to mother you, Rachel."
"I'm not sure if my mother is one of them."
Barbara replied, "That may be a mixed blessing."
Rachel nodded in agreement. Luda then said to her, "It happens that your mother is smarter than Joan."
"Really? You just had a quick go-round with my mother, didn't you?"
"I could tell. You probably got at least some of your ability from her. Joan went to Radcliffe, but it was when it was really separate from Harvard, and was less demanding. If she does come to that class with you, she'll may have difficulty."
"I guess I expected a rich lady to run all kinds of charities and organize benefit dinners."
"Some do, don't they, Barbara?"
"Yes, it's quite the thing."
"I think Joan mainly has to please her husband's business associates. She's actually quite a pretty woman, and she has good taste in clothing. I suspect that she just lets herself be flirted with."
That reminded Rachel of something else, "I've read that a certain sort of Parisian woman just wears good perfume, sits close to men while giving them little touches, and has only two words, 'fantastique' and 'formidable.'"
Luda laughed and replied, "An exaggeration, but not by that much. I met a couple like that in my travels. I don't think Joan tells men that they're fantastic and formidable."
"'Formidable' probably has a different meaning in French despite the same spelling."
"It may be some sort of backhand compliment to a man's sexual powers. Anyhow, I think with Joan it would be a shy little smile."
Rachel asked, "Could that be taken for a secret smile with a promise?"
"Ah, Rachel, you're learning too much too fast.”
"I don't think I'm learning fast enough. I may be advanced intellectually, but my only worldly experience has been being double-promoted in school. That cut me off from the kids my own age, and I've hardly even had any friends until you and Barbara."
"Sooner late than never. You're making it up."
"In some ways, but there was something weird about that tea party that I haven’t caught on to."
"If you'll come back another time, she'll be more relaxed."
With that, Luda turned off for Harvard Square to do some errands.
Barbara, resisting, at least for the moment, the urge to talk about the departed Luda, said, "I may come around to your metaphysics class myself. That'll help me decide whether I do want to major in philosophy."
"One trouble with philosophy is that it doesn't seem to lead to a job."
"Most girls marry and let some man make money while they produce screaming children. I'm afraid I'll be one of them."
"I've assumed that I'll be able to get some kind of job."
"Yes. Good ones are rare for women, but you're brilliant enough to get one. At worst, you'd wind up teaching in a women's college."
"Which wouldn't be too bad. Or perhaps a coed one. But, you never know. Places like Harvard may some day have female professors."
"For you, that's a reasonable hope. Probably not for me. I don't know about Luda."
"She told me. Arrangements here and there. Facilitated by women like Joan and their husbands."
Barbara asked, "Is Cynthia involved?"
"Probably will be. She seems to be the queen of arranging arrangements."
"Luda says she's a spy."
"Could well be."
"There's one thing I've caught out. She pretends to be thoroughly American, but she's really English."
"How do you know?"
"My family is full of anglophiles, and I've spent two summers in England. Cynthia has the upper-class English manner, and there are some things about her intonation. More important, her choice of words. When she wants to say that someone's really smart, she says that they're clever."
"I'd use that word for someone who's good at fixing things."
"Right. You don't say that Einstein is clever. But Cynthia does."
"What about her supposed childhood in Boston?"
"She didn't say much about it when we were with her, but it didn't sound right to me."
"Well, you ought to know."
"The other thing is how hard she works at being American. People like my mother can't tell you Ted Williams' batting average."
"All that is the opposite of what most English people do in America. Like Diana down the hall, they're more likely to advertize being English."
“Yes. So, if she's a spy, she's an English one. I guess we should tell Luda"
"It seems, Barbara, that we're half-way involved."
"I think it's a ladylike way of spying."
"I hope not!"