I’ve always enjoyed reading Somerset Maugham
and especially his short stories from the Far East and the Pacific Islands. He writes about class division, racial difference, adultery, personal competitiveness, and human nature in reaction to fate. The strong thread running through the stories is alienation and contrast – between people and cultures. People who are regarded as sane and level-headed, reliable and “well brought-up” show their unexpected real character in a crisis, their inner workings become exposed in reaction to surprise events. The exceptional circumstances are about being away from the England of law and order in a wild, unfathomable foreign country.
Another main thread is keeping appareances at all costs. The short story “Before the party” is a good example.
The upper-class Skinner family is preparing to attend a party. Among them is the silent older daughter Millicent, a widow with a young child since her husband, a colonial administrator, died of fever eight months earlier while they were living in Borneo. She and her child have returned home to England to live with her parents and her sister, Kathleen. While the Skinners are gathering to leave, after one question too many from her younger sister, who’s heard a rumour that her brother-in-law was a drinker and didn’t die of fever after all, Millicent tells the true story of her husband’s death.
”The light from the window fell on the widow’s heavy face as she advanced silently, but Katleen stood with her back to it.
’Millicent there’s something I want to say to you’, she said. ’I was playing golf with Gladys Heywood this morning.’
’Did you beat her?’ asked Millicent
’ She said something about you which I think you ought to know.’
’The bishop says that Harold committed suicide.’
Mrs Skinner gave a startled cry, but her husband put out a deprecating hand.
’Is it true, Millicent?’
’But why didn’t you tell us?’
Millicent paused for an instant, She fingered idly a piece of Brunei brass, which stood on the table by her side. That too had been a present from Harold.
’I thought it better for Joan that her father should be thought to have died of fever. I didn’t want her to know anything about it.’
’You’ve put us in an awfully akward position,’ said Kathleen, frowning a little. ’Gladys Heywood said she thought it rather nasty of me not to have told her the truth. I had the greatest difficulty in getting her to believe that I knew absolutely nothing about it. She said her father was rather put out. He says, that after all the years we’ve known one another, and considering that he married you, and the terms we’ve ben on, and all that, he does think we might have had confidence in him. And at all events, if we didn’t want to tell him the truth we needn’t have told him a lie.’
’I must say I sympathize with him there,’ said Mr. Skinner, acidly.
’The bishop says he cut his throat.’
Mrs Skinner gasped and she went impulsively up to her bereaved daughter. She wanted to fold her in her arms.
’My poor child,’ she sobbed.
But Millicent withdrew herself.
’Please, don’t fuss me, mother. I really can’t stand being mauled about.’
’Really, Millicent,’ said Mr Skinner with a frown.
He didn’t think she was behaving very nicely.
Mrs Skinner dabbed her eyes carefully with her hankerchief and with a sigh and a little shake of her head returned to her chair. Kathleen fidgeted with the long chain she wore around her neck.
’It does seem rather absurd that I have to be told the details of my brother-in-law’s death by a friend. It makes us all look such fools. The Bishop wants very much to see you, Millicent, he wants to tell you how much he feels for you.’ she paused, but Millicent did not speak. ’He says that Millicent had been away with Joan and when she came back she found poor Harold lying dead on his bed.’
’It must have been a great shock,’ said Mr Skinner.
Mrs Skinner began to cry again, but Kathleen put her hand gently on her shoulder.
’Don’t cry, mother,’ she said. ‘It’ll make your eyes red and people will think it so funny.’
’There’s something else I ought to tell you,’ said Kathleen.
Millicent looked at her sister again, without haste, and her eyes were heavy but watchful. She had the look of a person who is waiting for a sound which he is afraid of missing.
’I don’t want to say anything to wound you, dear,’ Kathleen went on, ’but there’s something else and I think you ought to know it. The bishop says that Harold drank.’
’Oh my dear, how dreadful!’ cried Mrs Skinner. ’What a shocking thing to say. Did Gladys Heywood tell you? What did you say?’
’I said it was untirely untrue.’
’This is what comes of making secrets of things,’said Mr Skinner, irritably. ’It’s always the same. If you try and hush a thing up all sorts of rumours get about which are ten times worse than the truth.’
‘They told the bishop in Singapore that Harold had killed himself when suffering from delirium tremens. I think for all our sakes you ought to deny that, Millicent!’
’It’s such a dreadful thing to have said about anyone who’s dead,’ said Mrs Skinner. ’And it’ll be so bad for Joan when she grows up.’
’But what is the foundation of this story, Millicent?’ asked her father. ’Harold was always very abstemious.’
’Here,’ said the widow.
’Did he drink?’
’Like a fish.’
The answer was so unexpected and the tone so sardonic, that all three of them were startled.
Mr Skinner stopped in front of Millicent and faced her.
’Of course I see why you told us Harold had died of fever. I think it was a mistake, becuse that sort of thing is bound to come out sooner and later. I don’t know how far what the bishop has told the Heywoods coincides with the facts., but if you will take my advice you will tell us everything as circumstantially as you can, then we can see. We can’t hope that it will go no further now that Canon Heywood and Gladys know. In a place like this people are bound to talk. It will make it easier for all of us if we at all events know the exact truth.’
Mrs Skinner and Kathleen thought he put the matter very well. They waited for Millicent’s reply. She had listened with an impassive face; that sudden flush had disappeared and it was once more, as usual, pasty and sallow.
’I don’t think you’ll much like the truth if I tell it to you,’ she said.
’You must know that you can count on our sympathy and understanding,’ said Kathleen gravely.
Millicent gave her a glance and a shadow of a smile flickered across her set mouth. She looked slowly at the three of them. Mrs Skinner had an uneasy impression that she looked at them as though they were mannequins at a dressmaker’s. She seemed to live in a different world from theirs and to have no connection with them.
’You know, I wasn’t in love with Harold when I married him,’ she said reflectively.
Mrs Skinner was on the point of making an exclamation when a rapid gesture of her husband, barely indicated, stopped her. Millicent went on. She spoke with a level voice, slowly, and there was little change of expression in her tone.
’I was twenty-seven, and no one else semmed to want to marry me. It’s true he was forty-four and it seemed rather old, but he had a good position, hadn’t he? I wasn’t likely to get a better chance.’
Mrs Skinner felt inclined to cry again, but she remembered the party.”
Maugham goes on to describe their first time in Borneo after marriage. Millicent continues her narrative:
’ People were very nice to me at Kuala Solor,’ she said. Kuala Solor was the chief town of the state of Sembulu. ’We stayed with the Resident and everyone asked us to dinner. Once or twice I heard men ask Harold to have a drink, but he refused. He said he had turned over a new leaf now he was a married man. I didn’t know why they laughed. Mrs Gray, the Resident’s wife, told me they were all so glad Harold was married. She said it was dreadfully lonely for a bachelor on one of the outstations. When we left Kuala Solor Mrs Gray said goodbye to me so funnily that I was quite surprised. It was if she was solemnly putting Harold in my charge.’
’It wasn’t till I went back to Kuala Solor a year and a half later, that I found out why their manner had seemed so odd.’ Mildred gave a queer little sound like the echo of a scornful laugh. ’I knew than a good deal that I hadn’t known before. Harold came to England that time in order to marry. He didn’t much mind who it was. Do you remember how we spread ourselves out in order to catch him, mother? We needn’t have taken so much trouble.’
’I don’t know what you mean, Millicent,’ said Mrs Skinner, not without acerbity, for the insinuation of scheming didn’t please her. ’I saw he was attracted by you.’
Millicent shrugged her heavy shoulders.
’He was a confirmed drunkard. He used to go to bed every night with a bottle of whiskey and empty it before morning. The Chief Secretary told him he’d have to resign unless he stopped drinking. He said he’d give him one more chance. He could take his leave then and go to England. He advised him to marry so that when he got back he’d have someone to look after him. Harold married me because he wanted a keeper. They took bets in Kuala Solor on how long I’d make him stay sober.’
She goes on telling the true story about what really happened. Her parents and sister are aghast, but the overall impression is that her family is stunned not so much by what happened but by the impropriety of her narrative.
*I can’t go to the party now,’ cried Mrs Skinner with horror. I’m far too upset. How can we face the Heywoods? And the Bishop will want to be introduced to you.’
Millicent made a gesture of indifference. Her eyes held their ironical expression.
’We must go, mother,’ said Kathleen. ’It would look so funny if we stayed away.’ She turned on Millicent furiously. ’Oh, I think the whole thing is such frightfully bad form.’
Mr Skinner turned around and looked petulantly at Millicent.
’ I ought never to have been told,’ he said. ’I think it was most selfish of you.’