The Dinner Party
by Mona Gardner
The country is India. A colonial official and his wife are giving a large dinner party. They are
seated with their guests—army officers and government attachés and their wives, and a visiting
American naturalist—in their spacious dining room, which has a bare marble floor, open rafters and wide glass doors opening onto a veranda.*
A spirited discussion springs up between a young girl who insists that women have outgrown
the jumping-on-a-chair-at-the-sight-of-a-mouse era and a colonel who says that they haven’t.
“A woman’s unfailing reaction in any crisis,” the colonel says, “is to scream. And while a
man may feel like it, he has that ounce more of nerve control than a woman has. And that last
ounce is what counts.”
The American does not join in the argument but watches the other guests. As he looks, he
sees a strange expression come over the face of the hostess. She is staring straight ahead, her
muscles contracting slightly. With a slight gesture she summons the native boy standing behind
her chair and whispers to him. The boy’s eyes widen: he quickly leaves the room.
Of the guests, none except the American notices this or sees the boy place a bowl of milk on
the veranda just outside the open doors.
The American comes to with a start. In India, milk in a bowl means only one thing—bait for
a snake. He realizes there must be a cobra in the room. He looks up at the rafters—the likeliest
place—but they are bare. Three corners of the room are empty, and in the fourth the servants are
waiting to serve the next course. There is only one place left—under the table.
His first impulse is to jump back and warn the others, but he knows the commotion would
frighten the cobra into striking. He speaks quickly, the tone of his voice so arresting that it sobers
“I want to know just what control everyone at this table has. I will count to three
hundred—that’s five minutes—and not one of you is to move a muscle. Those who move will
forfeit fifty rupees. Ready!”
The twenty people sit like stone images while he counts. He is saying “. . . two hundred and
eighty. . .” when, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the cobra emerge and make for the bowl of
milk. Screams ring out as he jumps to slam the veranda doors safely shut.
“You were right, Colonel!” the host exclaims. “A man has just shown us an example of
“Just a minute,” the American says, turning to his hostess. “Mrs. Wynnes, how did you know
that cobra was in the room?”
A faint smile lights up the woman’s face as she replies: “Because it was crawling across my
Copyright © by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. All rights reserved.
“The Dinner Party” by Mona Gardner from The Saturday Review of Literature, vol. 25, no. 5, January 31,
1941. Copyright © 1941 by General Media Communications, Inc. Reprinted by permission of The