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Half A Crown
By Jo Walton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2008 Jo Walton
All rights reserved.
A week before she was due to bring me out, I overheard Mrs. Maynard saying I was "not quite ..." That's just how she said it. "Elvira's not quite ..."
When she let her voice trail off like that I knew precisely what she meant. I knew it in the pit of my stomach. I had been coming down the stairs to join them in the drawing room when I heard her speaking, and stopped dead, clutching the handrail in my left hand and the bunched seersucker of my skirt in the other. It was 1960 and skirts in the spring collections were long enough that they had to be lifted a little to avoid stepping on them on the stairs.
Mrs. Maynard's friend, Lady Bellingham, made a little sound of inarticulate sympathy. There could be no question what Mrs. Maynard meant, no way that I could think — or that anyone could think — she meant not quite ready, or not quite well, though I knew if I challenged her that's what she would say. "Not quite out of the top drawer" is what she really meant; "not quite a lady." I was still "not quite up to snuff," despite eight years in the best and most expensive girls' schools in England and a year in Switzerland being "finished." At eighteen I still had two distinct voices: the voice that went with my clothes and my hair, the voice that was indistinguishable in its essentials from Betsy Maynard's, and then the much less acceptable voice of my childhood, the London Cockney voice. My past was never to be forgotten, not quite, however hard I tried.
"Then why ever are you bringing her out with Betsy?" Lady Bellingham asked, her voice positively oozing sympathy the way an eclair oozes cream.
"Well her uncle, you know," Mrs. Maynard said. "He's the head of the Watch. One doesn't like ..."
Spending time with Mrs. Maynard, you get used to trailing sentences with everything explicit but nothing spelled out. I could have run down the stairs and pushed into the drawing room and shouted that it wasn't anything like so simple. Mrs. Maynard was bringing me out because her daughter Betsy had begged me to go through with it. "I can't face being a deb without you!" she had said. Betsy and I were friends because, in the alphabetically arranged classroom at Arlinghurst, "Elizabeth" and "Elvira" happened to fall next to each other, and Betsy and I had both felt like misfits and clung to each other ever since. I didn't give more than half a damn about coming out and being presented to the Queen. What I wanted was to go to Oxford. You may think it was an odd ambition. Half the people I met did. Going by my born social status rather than my acquired one I couldn't even hope to be admitted. Still, I had been interviewed and accepted at St. Hilda's and had only the summer to wait before I went up. It was April already. Most girls I knew would have hated the idea of grinding away at their books, but I'd always found that side of things easy; it was parties that bored me. But Betsy and Uncle Carmichael had set their hearts on my coming out, so I had agreed I would do that first.
Besides all that, Mrs. Maynard was bringing me out because my uncle, who wasn't really my uncle at all, was paying for me and subsidizing Betsy. However County the Maynards might be, they never had much money to spare, at least by their own standards. By the standards I'd grown up with they were impossibly rich, but by those of the people they moved among, they were struggling to keep up appearances. Anyway, people with money are often horribly mean; that was the first thing I'd learned when I'd started to move among them. But, sickeningly, none of that got a mention. Mrs. Maynard's trailing off made it sound as if she was bringing me out despite my deficiencies because she was afraid of my uncle.
"Might I trouble you for a little more tea, dear?" Lady Bellingham asked.
The banisters were Victorian and rounded, like chair legs, with big round knobs on the newel posts. Between them I could see down into the hall, the faded cream wallpaper, the top of the mahogany side table, and a crystal vase of pinky-white carnations. The house was narrow, like all Victorian London houses. I could see the drawing room door, which was open, but I couldn't see in through it, so I didn't know if Betsy was sitting there too. It seemed terribly important to find out if she was listening to all this without protest. I let go of my handful of skirt and slipped off my shoes, feeling absurd, knowing that while I was fairly safe from Mrs. Maynard, the servants could come out of the back part of the house at any time and catch me. They probably wouldn't give me away, but it would still be frightfully embarrassing. I ran one hand lightly down the banister rail and tiptoed gingerly down the strip of carpet in the center of the stairs to the half-landing, where I could see through the drawing room door if I stretched a bit.
I took a good grip, leaned out, and craned my neck. Mrs. Maynard was eating a cream cake with a fork. She was not seen to advantage from above, as she had a squashed-up face like a pug and wore her graying brown hair in a permanent wave so rigid it looked like a helmet. Her afternoon dress was a muslin patterned with roses, that made her stocky figure look as upholstered as the chair she sat in. Lady Bellingham, on the sofa and reaching towards the tea trolley for a sandwich, looked softer, thinner, and altogether more fashionable. I had just determined to my satisfaction that they were alone, when with no warning at all the front door opened.
Of course they saw me at once. They couldn't help it. Mr. Maynard, Betsy's father, took me in with one rapid glance, raised his eyebrows, and looked away. The other man with him was a complete stranger with a dark piratical beard and a perfectly normal bowler hat. I felt myself turn crimson as I pulled myself back onto the half-landing and slipped my shoes back on.
"Ah, Elvira," Mr. Maynard said, with no inflection whatever. I didn't know him well. He did something boring and diplomatic to which I'd never paid much attention and which seemed to take up a great deal of his time. On holidays I'd spent with Betsy he'd never paid much attention to me. "Sir Alan, this is my daughter's friend Elvira Royston, whom my wife is bringing out with Betsy this summer. Elvira, this is Sir Alan Bellingham."
"Delighted to meet you," I said, coming down the stairs and extending my hand as I had been so painstakingly taught.
Sir Alan ignored my fading blushes and shook hands firmly. He was almost exactly my height, and looked me in the eye. "Charmed," he murmured. "I don't suppose you know if my mother is here?"
"She's taking tea with Mrs. Maynard in the drawing room," I said, blushing again.
"And Betsy?" Mr. Maynard asked.
"I don't know where she is," I said, honestly. "I haven't seen her since lunchtime."
"See if you can rustle her up, there's a good girl. I'm sure she'd be glad to see Sir Alan. You'll take a cup of tea, Sir Alan, while you wait for your mother to be ready?"
Sir Alan smiled at me. Because of the beard, I couldn't tell how old he was. At first I had thought he was Mr. Maynard's age, but when he smiled I thought he was much younger, maybe no more than thirty.
"I'll find her if she's at home," I said, and turned and went back upstairs to look for Betsy.
I tapped on her door.
"Who is it?" she called.
"Me," I said, opening the door. Betsy was lying on the bed in a green check dress that looked distinctly rumpled. "Your father wants you to come down and drink tea, but you'd better tidy yourself up first."
She sighed and sat up. "Who's here?"
"That bitch Lady Bellingham, and a mysterious stranger called Sir Alan who seems to be her son."
Betsy lay down again and put her pillow on her head. "He's not a mysterious stranger, he's my father's idea of a suitable son-in-law," she said, her voice rather muffled. "Do go down and tell them I'm mortally wounded and not likely to make it."
"Don't be a ninny," I said, pulling off the pillow. "They can't make you marry a man with a beard."
"Ghastly Lady B. is Mummy's best friend, and her son's frightfully rich and doing things with the government that seem likely to make him even more frightfully rich, and powerful as well. And he's very polite, which makes him perfect in Mummy's eyes. You don't know how lucky you are being an orphan, Elvira."
In fact, my mother was alive and well and running a pub in Leytonstone, but I thought it better never to mention her in my daily life. She certainly wasn't going to interfere. She hadn't wanted me when she ran off with her fancy man when I was six, and she hadn't wanted me when my father died when I was eight, so she wasn't likely to want me now. I hardly remembered her, but my aunt Ciss, my real aunt, my father's sister, kept me up to date with gossip about her. Aunt Ciss would have taken me in, even though she had five children of her own, but she thought having Uncle Carmichael take an interest in me and offering to send me to Arlinghurst was a great opportunity for me to make something of myself. I'd thought it a funny phrase then, like making stew of a neck of lamb, or a fruit cobbler of two bruised apples and a squashy pear. What they had hoped to make of me was a lady, and I'd been too young to question why anyone thought this would be better than what I would have grown into if let alone. It was only in the last year or so I had wondered about this at all, as I'd grown old enough to consider what they had made of me so far and what I might want to make of myself, given the opportunity.
"Put on a clean dress and come down, do," I said. "I'll do my best to draw the cross fire."
That made her smile. It was, of course, Bogart's famous line from the end of The Battle of Kursk. She stood up and pulled her dress off over her head. "I met Sir Alan the other night when you were having dinner with your uncle," she said. "Oh, how I loathe this whole dreary business. Men. Dancing. Coming out. And on Wednesday, fittings for our Court dresses, which cost a fortune and which we'll wear for one night next week, to make our curtsey to the Queen, as if it makes any difference at all to anything." She dropped the green dress heedlessly on the floor and opened her wardrobe. "What should I wear?"
"What do you want to look like?"
"I want to look like Elizabeth instead of Betsy." This was her newest enthusiasm. I found it very hard to comply with, and nobody else tried at all. "And I want to look like someone who doesn't need to have her parents drag home a husband for her. I swear Daddy's expression is just like Tigrath's when she's dragged home a mouse and dropped it proudly on my pillow."
I laughed. "Why not the cream seersucker thing with the gold ribbon we bought in Paris?"
"Because we don't want to look like twins," she said. "It only makes me look worse."
I smoothed the ribbon at my neck self-consciously. I can't help being prettier than Betsy. She never cared before Zurich.
She pulled out a forest green dress patterned with leaves so dark you could hardly see them except when the light was angled just right, another of her Paris purchases. Somebody, probably her mother, had once told Betsy that redheads ought to wear green. In my opinion it did nothing for her. "What about this?" she asked.
"What about the gray one?" I countered. It was the same cut, and almost the same fabric only in gray with the leaf pattern in black.
"I hate the gray one," she said, pulling it out. "All the same, I'll wear it, because I hate Sir Alan too. He's such a fascist."
"We're all fascists now, surely?" I asked. "And anyway, what's wrong with fascism? It's fun!"
"I find fascists just too sick-making," Betsy said, pulling on the gray dress and belting it viciously tight. It fell precisely just above her ankles. She looked all right. Most people are neither beautiful nor ugly, they fall somewhere in the range of the middle. If I tried, and trying was what we'd been taught at our expensive Swiss finishing school, I could get into the top end of that range. All right was about as good as poor Betsy could manage.
I passed her her hairbrush, silver-backed with her initials engraved, a present from her father when she turned eighteen. "You're just saying that to be shocking. It's your mother makes me sick. She said I was 'not quite.'" I tried to say it lightly, but my voice let me down.
"That's ghastly. To Lady B.?" Betsy asked, dragging the brush through her hair much too hard.
I nodded. "Just now. I'd finished studying for the time being and I was coming down the stairs in search of tea and I overheard them."
"She was probably trying to make sure Sir Alan didn't fall for you instead of me," Betsy said.
"Oh Bets — Elizabeth!" I said. "That's ridiculous. As if he'd look at me when I'm nobody, and about to be an undergraduette too. And anyway, he has a beard!"
"I believe it doesn't impede one's sex life," Betsy said, and we both giggled. "Do my necklace up?"
She ran her hands through the little silver box on her dressing table and fished out a thin gold chain hung with a half circle of seed pearls. I lifted her hair and fastened the clasp. It sat nicely on her skin above the neckline of the dress. "That's pretty," I said. "Where did you get it?"
"My aunt Patsy gave it to me. It was hers when she came out, and she felt it brought her luck. It's a funny length, but I like it." She straightened it. "Do you want something?"
"I'd better not; I can't trust your mother not to say something if I borrow your jewelry. Besides, there's this ribbon." I smoothed it again.
"I'm sure your uncle will give you something of your own soon now," Betsy said. "I expect that's what he's going to do when he takes you out on Thursday, take you to Cartier and let you choose."
"I don't think he has any idea I ought to have something. He has no wife, no daughters of his own, no sister even. I can't really tell him. He's been so good to me already, paying for all this nonsense, and for Oxford too," I said. "But I'm sure that's not what we'll be doing on Thursday. That's our annual date to go down to Kent to look at the primroses, in memory of my father."
Betsy hugged me. "I'd forgotten," she said. "Well, you're welcome to anything of mine any time, whenever Mummy isn't looking. Come on. We'd better go down, or they'll be sending out search parties."
We went down to the drawing room together. There was a much better than normal selection of tea, several kinds of sandwiches, and a whole plate of cream cakes from Gunter's, as well as the usual fruitcake and digestive biscuits. I took an eclair and a cup of tea and retreated towards the wing chair by the window. Sir Alan was on the sofa by his mother, and Mr. Maynard on the other wing chair. "Cross fire," Betsy mouthed, as she cut me off from the wing chair, leaving me the place that had clearly been left for her, at the other end of the sofa. I sat there and sipped my tea. No matter how hard I tried, I thought, these people would never truly accept me. If they did, if I managed to fool some of them for a little while, someone who knew, like Mrs. Maynard, would be sure to tell them that I wasn't "quite." This was why I wanted to go to Oxford. Even in the little glimpse I'd had of it so far, I could tell that standards were different; intellectual attainments still mattered more there than who your parents were.
But "not quite" had stung. I might want to turn my back on this world, I didn't want to be rejected by it as not good enough. I'd made so much effort already, worrying about clothes and hair and jewelry. It was just over a week until we made our debut, and then there would be a round of balls and parties over the summer. April, May, June, July, August, September. Then, in October, I could begin my real life. Six months.
The silence in the drawing room now everyone had settled was a little uncomfortable. I leaned towards Sir Alan. "So, Sir Alan, Betsy tells me you're a fascist?" I said.
"Betsy's too kind," Sir Alan replied. "And you, Miss Royston, are you fond of fascism?"
"Oh yes, I think it's the most terrific fun," I said.
Mrs. Maynard winced a little and exchanged a sympathetic glance with Lady Bellingham. The thing was that fascism, while all very well in its place, was in Mrs. Maynard's eyes something to look down on just the tiniest bit, as being very useful of course, and something that did very well for keeping Them in place, but was actually not quite ... After all, it was open to everyone, except Jews of course.
My reply seemed to please Sir Alan, who nodded and smiled. "Fun, yes, absolutely. Have you ever been to an Ironsides rally?" he asked.
Excerpted from Half A Crown by Jo Walton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2008 Jo Walton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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