‘I thought so. I shouldn’t be afraid of her, you know.
Although you seem very much the new girl round here.’
‘Of' course. Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’
‘It has entered her soul.’
‘But we aren’t allowed to die here.’
He threw back his head and laughed.
‘But isn’t that sad ?’ she asked doubtfully.
She had noticed earlier while they were drinking sherry that he did not seem to have many friends: the few people whom he introduced to Mrs Palfrey had not the sort of bonhomie to match his own; in fact, their eyes almost at once began to range the room for some escape. Rather like a small boy, he had shown off, overdone the familiarity, button-holed men he hardly knew. He was not snubbed; but he was not encouraged. Mrs Palfrey was sorry for him about this and tried to make up for it by giving him her whole attention.
Rolled-up fillets of sole masked with a pinkish sauce followed the soup. The wine, Mr Osmond assured Mrs Palfrey, would not upset her. ‘It is quite a far cry from some we have been obliged to drink. This is one of the things I know about,’ he said, in a tone that implied that there were many others.
Mrs Palfrey’s neighbour turned and boomed a few observations at her between courses, while buttering pieces of bread.
Roast duck was served with frozen peas and whirls of duchesse potatoes.
Occasionally, the toast-master would bawl at them that their Worshipful Master and his Lady wished to take wine with the visitors, or old friends from Potters Bar, or a contingent all the way from Ramsgate.
‘I think you must allow there’s not much wrong with this,’ Mr Osmond said, meaning the claret.
‘I’m afraid the Claremont doesn’t prepare us for such enormous feasts,’ Mrs Palfrey said, striving not to flag..
‘What do you make of that?’ the man on her right asked her, pointing to the menu. ‘Péches Denise, avec crépes dentelle. All Greek to me, I fear.’
‘Denise is the name of our hostess,’ Mr Osmond said across Mrs Palfrey, who drew back her bust a little as he did so.
They looked at the two figures in the centre of the top table -who appeared remote like Royalty, her pink bouquet placed before her. To have a pudding named after one! Mrs Palfrey marvelled. It was their big evening, those two. They had been rhythmically clapped in (it was rather like a savage rite, Mrs Palfrey had thought), and now presided. She had folded back long white kid gloves off her hands and, from Mrs Palfrey’s distance, looked as if her arms were clumsily bandaged.
The pudding in her honour was no more than half a tinned peach sitting on sherry-soaked sponge-cake, and covered with a scoop of ice-cream. From all sides, waitresses came hastening with it.
The Queen; the coffee; Mrs Palfrey declined a crime de meat/2e, which Mr Osmond’s late wife had been partial to, he said. She had also liked petits fours, and always said that was the best part of the meal. ‘Fish bored her,’ Mr Osmond said.
This was really unanswerable, and Mrs Palfrey was glad that the toast-master suddenly banged on the table for the beginning of the speeches.