Monday, 31 December 2007

End Piece

Three months have passed since those dreadful hours that followed the ball. It is almost April now, and we have passed, ourselves, through every kind of emotion, beginning with the naked shock and grief of the first hours, ranging through disbelief, and the recurring bouts of self recrimination, in which we have reproached ourselves over and over again with our failure to recognise the signs, and perhaps forestall the awful event - and only now, with the arrival of another year, another Spring, have we reached that state of quiet acceptance in which we feel able to take up our lives again, and carry on.

We were sustained, at first, by the sheer impetus of everything there was to do. There was never an hour in which we could sit down and indulge our grief; since scarcely had we got through the funeral, which was a large and joyous affair, as such occasions often are, than we were required to decide what to do with the house, in the light of Lady Macauley’s own hastily made arrangements with the National Trust. I remember how we returned to the house at nightfall on the afternoon of the funeral, only to find that Lady Macauley’s own presence had already left it, just as she had said it would. We were shocked, yet somehow borne up by this fact, since it enabled us to go about the business of emptying the house of her possessions without too much distress; and then of leaving it, a week later – more or less just locking the door and walking away - to whatever future it might have in the hands of its new owners.

That its new ownership included a residual family interest, in the persons at present of Jack and Alice, but ultimately in those of Will, as legatee - this aspect of it brought us some consolation: we were content to leave it in their hands, and they had picked up the burden of it without complaint. For ourselves, for Bill and Belle and me, there was nothing to do but return to the gatehouse for a bewildered day or two – after which we retreated together to Flory, which had become Belle’s own, and where we celebrated Christmas as best we could.

It is not my intention to dwell further on those bleak, early weeks. We huddled together at Flory a good deal in the beginning, I seem to remember; though we had collected quite a large party around us for the Christmas week, and were sustained by the presence of Pamela and Roland, of Frances and her excellent Tomek – and more surprisingly perhaps, by the resourceful Cousin Hortense, who had come across from her own house nearby, bringing a large and colourful group of assorted struggling artists, and musicians, and aspiring writers with her. We have reason to feel a lasting gratitude to the good Hortense in fact – since it was largely through her loud and unremitting cheerfulness, and that of her curiously assorted little band of artistic followers (her ‘ragbag of hangers-on’, as we seemed to hear Lady Macauley calling them, which always raised a smile among us) - it was largely through Hortense’s efforts, that we were able to get through Christmas and the new year with some degree of festive spirit.

Jack and Alice had been invited to join us at Flory, but had opted, when once the closing of the house had been accomplished, to return to their own beloved castle, where they were joined for the holiday period by Will and Imogen – Alice having ‘come round’ to Imogen, as we have since been reliably informed, to such an extent that an early summer wedding at the castle is already in the planning stage. We have reason to believe that Alice’s having come round to Imogen has not yet extended so far as to her having also drawn Imogen’s father into the fold - though Pamela tells us now that she is sure this will follow; since not even Alice would be so heartless as to exclude the girl’s closest living relative from her wedding ceremony.

It is to be quite a year for weddings, as it turns out. Bill and Belle are to be married in early summer, at the little church on the hill in Tuscany, flying in as many friends and family for the occasion as the villa, and the tiny church will accommodate. And Frances and Tomek will marry in the summer too. Very quietly, they say; though with a reception to be held in the manor house garden, and a considerable Polish contingent expected, the quietness of that occasion seems somewhat in doubt.

To the wedding which has already taken place – to that one conducted in Richmond Register Office, in which David Porteous took Rose Mountjoy unto himself as his bride, only Pamela herself, and Roland, consented to go along as representatives of the old circle. Pamela tells us that it was an affair of somewhat muted joyfulness, and that the newly wed pair were in no apparent hurry to leave the scene of their nuptials – the honeymoon having already been accomplished, as she put it, months ago!

The new Mr and Mrs David Porteous are currently living in Rose’s house, but are negotiating the sales of both their homes, in order to set up married life in something altogether more suited to their needs. They mean to remain in the district however, and they hope that in the fullness of time, all their old friends will begin to drift back to them. I daresay I shall call on them myself at some point. Curiosity itself will drive me, I’m not ashamed to admit it. And in any case, I seem to hear Lady Macauley’s voice, gleefully urging me on. “Belle must stay away of course” I have fancied I hear her saying; “But you can go. Go for me dear – oh, do go! Just to see how they get along!” She expresses my own sentiments precisely – though just for the moment, I have no heart for visiting them, or even for thinking about them very much, but am content to leave them to whatever they can find of married bliss.

We removed ourselves from the immediate scene shortly after Christmas anyway. We left Flory at the end of January to come to Tuscany, where Bill has already thrown himself with tremendous gusto into his new role as custodian of the little wine and olive farm, and where Belle is happily involved with transforming the villa into the kind of homely place in which she and Bill can spend the rest of their days in perfect contentment. Their own married bliss seems assured – and it’s just the oddest thing, that Lady Macauley’s presence, so swift to leave the house in Ham, seems to have established itself very happily here; so that although she has gone, yet we see and hear her everywhere, and find nothing but solace in the fact.

I speak of “we” – as if I were going to be content to make a third person in this happy marriage! And though it’s true that Bill and Belle have offered me a home with them there, and at Flory – and have even put a little Tuscan gate lodge, and a cottage entirely at my disposal - I have no intention of intruding upon them more often, or longer, than for the duration of a little holiday now and then. I have returned to the gatehouse, and here I mean to stay. And if I tell you that the present occupant of Bill’s old quarters is my own recovered Cesare; that Cesare is taking the heartiest possible pleasure in ‘learning how to be an Englishman’, and that he and I will probably be married later in the summer too.... you will understand perhaps that he has been there in the background for me all along, and that the reason for my reticence is that this was never really my own story I was telling, at all.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Just in Passing....

If any of you have been watching the BBC's recent dramatisation of "Cranford" it might be of some little interest to you to know that I have been watching it too. With great delight - not least because it has suggested that there is still a fondness for that sort of thing, which is also, to a certain modest extent, my sort of thing...

That wasn't actually what I wanted to tell you though. What I actually wanted to tell you was that in watching Francesca Annis's splendid portrayal of Lady Ludlow, it began to seem to me that here was the face and manner I had always somehow had in mind for my own Lady Macauley!

So, if it would please you to be able to envisage her at all, that is what I believe she would have looked like, and that her demeanour......

I shall be back later to end the story on a happier note. In the meantime, I can tell you that they have buried the poor old lady in the cold ground of the little churchyard where Jack has lain these almost thirty years - and are now gone down to Flory, where they mean to try to celebrate their first Christmas without her. In the spring, they will go to Tuscany.....

Thursday, 13 December 2007

When the music stopped

What I have to tell you now must be told quickly, for I have not words or emotions left to tell it any other way. The ball has ended and everyone has gone home; and we are huddled here together in the house in the icy chill of a December dawn - Bill and Belle and I; Jack and Alice and Will. We have neither slept nor eaten, and we have nothing whatever to say to one another at this moment, so recent and so violent has been the shock which encompassed us in the night. For what has happened is that the ball has been over these seven hours – and Lady Macauley herself has lain lifeless on her bed for four of them.

Yes, she has died; and here, to the utmost of my ability to tell it to you, is how it happened. We had come back so happily across the garden, all of us in the highest possible spirits, and looking forward to a quiet hour discussing the evening’s events, before the others joined us for a final brandy. We had even joked a little, over the idea that Mrs Wilmot might perhaps have been persuaded to drag herself away from the scene of her daughter’s triumphs, and join us in that final drink...

“She will have to come back at some point I daresay” Lady Macauley had herself said with much amusement. “Since how on earth else is she to be got home, if not in the car with Bill?”

We had been content to leave that matter hanging temporarily unresolved however; and in any case, as Belle had pointed out, they could always in the last resort spend what remained of the night here, in the bedrooms they had occupied before. On we went then, just about as pleased with everything as we could be. And though it’s true Lady Macauley did stumble momentarily, on the steps leading up to the south terrace door, she was quick to recover herself, and neither she, nor we thought anything more about it.

That we ought to have done so; that we ought to have seen it as a sign of what was to come is now all too terribly clear. If we had called the ambulance then perhaps, we might have fore-stalled the major attack which was to occur little more than an hour later. We have reproached ourselves with that, over and over again. But after all, how could we have guessed, when she had seemed to be in such wonderful spirits, and in the very best of health? Belle had made coffee, and we were drinking it together in Lady Macauley’s favourite little panelled parlour when, on getting up to help herself to more milk, she stumbled again, this time uttering a little cry, and falling seemingly lifeless in a heap of crumpled silvery drapery on the floor. Nobody moved at first; each of us was frozen into immobility for a moment. But then Bill cried to Belle to call an ambulance at once, and himself gathered Lady Macauley in his arms and carried her to the nearest sofa, where he with infinite carefulness laid her down.

The ambulance was slow in coming, and while we waited for it Lady Macauley rallied a little, seeming to be regaining consciouness, and finally opening her eyes. She smiled at us once, a beautiful, lingering smile, in which she seemed to embrace us all. “You have all made me so very happy” she said. After which she relapsed again, and was still for what can only have been five minutes, though it felt to us like several hours. It was in a moment of sudden stillness a little later - we only realized afterwards that it was the moment at which the music from the ball had finally stopped – that she opened her eyes again, and sitting bolt upright all at once, seemed staring into the darkness near the door. After which she put out both her hands, and cried in a loud voice “Is that you Jack....?”

We had heard her ask that question before – but this time there was no answer to it; and what she was looking at in the darkness near the door was something that none of us could see. She had gone in that moment, though we didn’t grasp the fact at first. We tried every desperate way we could to revive her, but nothing could do so. And by the time the ambulance arrived, she had gone far beyond the help of human hands.

It is bright morning now. There will be sunshine later – but what is sunshine to us now, when Lady Macauley has gone? She lies at present perfectly serene, upon the bed she shared with Jack for all those many years. Bill himself carried her up there; we knew it was where she would want to be, and we arranged her as tenderly as we could. And now we sit in silence round her bed; each of us trying to grasp the impossible, and asking ourselves hopelessly now and then, just how it is we are going to be able to carry on our lives without her?.

For those of you who have perhaps not caught up with this comment I left on the previous post, here are my closing remarks:
And now I am about to post the very bleak penultimate piece, and I hope that some of you at least will be able to forgive me.

It was always going to have to end this way - and I tried every way I could to prepare you for it.

But perhaps after all I failed, and you will be as shocked and saddened as I have been these last several days, as I tried to find the courage to do it at last.

I shall return one more time (in 'real time': perhaps before Christmas, perhaps just after) - and try to restore some little bit of happiness to the scene.

In the meantime, I can only say a heartfelt thank to you all, for supporting me so faithfully and so well. I could never have come all this way without you.

And, if it's not in the very worst possible taste at such a moment, I wish a very Merry Christmas to you all!

It has only been a story after all...

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

At the ball; part two

What happened next was that the lull in the dancing continued, to allow us to complete our progress across the hall to the table that had been reserved for us; and that our way took us past Rose, and David Porteous, who had indeed decided to brazen it out in public, and who had managed to get up some kind of a little party of their own, in an effort no doubt, to deflect attention from the fact that they were no longer of that one which contained Lady Macauley. That this was a situation entirely unprecedented for Rose, and that she had been made deeply uncomfortable by it, was evidenced by her unusually high colour, and the fact that there was a little glitter of something like defiance in her eyes, as she did her best to glance nonchalantly at us as we passed.

Lady Macauley had paused a moment beside their table, and seemed on the point of saying something; but had evidently decided against it, and moved on, having vouchsafed nothing more by way of recognition than the smallest, coldest little inclination of her head. Belle did stop however; Belle looked directly at Rose, and her voice it was that rang out with perfect clarity in a moment of silence to say, in what seemed to me an almost perfect replication of what her mother’s tone might have been, “How you must have hated us all these years – to have felt it necessary to go to such lengths to deceive us!”

She said no more than that, and she waited for no reply. But it seemed as if everyone in the room must have heard her – and though it may have been my imagination, I thought I saw Rose flinch, and David Porteous cast a look of sharp annoyance, almost of dislike, in her direction, at what was perhaps, for him, the most audible, and calculated public snub to which he had ever been subjected. Lady Macauley turned to give Belle a smile of approval; she was surprised, but evidently thought that on the whole it had been well said. Mrs Wilmot had heard it too, and uttered a little gasp, more of admiration than alarm. She was in strange company, it seemed to say; but she was sailing high, oh high indeed, and she wouldn’t have missed a minute of it! Bill and I had meantime exchanged the kind of quick glance which said that those two, Rose Mountjoy and David Porteous, had made their bed, and were probably going to have to lie in it together for the rest of their days – but that the pleasure of it was unlikely to be entirely unalloyed, for either of them.

It hardly seemed necessary to think much more about either of those two, after that. Even though their group contained Imogen of course; and Imogen was looking svelte and stunning in a silver gown that Mrs Wilmot let it be known Rose had helped her choose. Imogen was the centre of much attention among the younger contingent whom Will himself had invited along; she laughed, and danced, and shone; she was determined to carry everything before her - and Will Macauley’s despairing glance was constantly being dragged in her direction, in spite of all his grandmother’s strictures.

Will himself danced dutifully with this one and that. With Angelica, uncomfortably, at first; until she too was discovered by the younger group, and his attentions were no longer required; and after that with his grandmother, his aunt, his mother – and with me. Poor Will’s personal penance involved his dancing even with Mrs Wilmot; upon whom however, the music, and the occasion - her daughter’s sudden success among the elegantly turned-out young men, and several glasses of good champagne - had together wrought such an effect that she was evidently prepared to forgive him everything. Lady Macauley’s little strategy was working perfectly. Mrs Wilmot, whom everybody was suddenly, and with some degree of awkwardness, calling Avril – Mrs Wilmot was quite simply having the time of her life. She had been elevated all at once to the ranks of the grand and glorious; she was being danced-with by Bill, and Jack Macauley, and Tomek; she consented even to stand up with Roland Baines, who did his modest best by her - and every last shred of her resistance had fallen away.

We were all having a splendid time of it in fact; Mrs Wilmot was not the only one to be carried away. Ours was the largest, merriest party of all, and we quite gave ourselves up to the joyousness of the occasion. Pamela fairly swooped about the floor in the majesty of her black velvet; somehow carrying Roland with her, in her almost intoxicating sense of their being on this occasion, distinguished guests. Jack and Alice were obviously enjoying themselves heartily too – Alice, relaxed and happy, came as near to being charmingly convivial as I think it could have been possible for her, in her mother-in-law’s company, to do. And Bill and Belle, Frances and Tomek, none of whom had yet received the blessing of a marriage ceremony, yet danced as honeymooning lovers might; with eyes, and ears, and rapt attention, entirely for each other. Lady Macauley herself was in sparkling form; and though after the first few dances – with her son, her grandson, and then with Bill – she pleaded the weariness of age, and said she would happily sit out the rest; still, her pleasure in the occasion remained undimmed, and she vowed to remain until midnight at least.

I too was enjoying myself without reserve, and somehow managing to find a partner for almost every dance. And if there was a low point in the evening for me, it came at supper time when, in a moment at which our table was temporarily deserted, even by Lady Macauley, who had been assisted away to the table in the next room, I found myself being invited to dance by David Porteous. He had come up to me quietly from behind, and he gave what almost amounted to a low bow before me as, solemnly, though in no kind of spirit of compunction, he asked if in spite of everything I would do him the honour of consenting to dance with him.

I agreed in spite of myself. To have done otherwise would have seemed somehow petty, and out of the spirit of the occasion. I was not comfortable about it though: I had never before been in such close proximity to him, and I felt the impact of his presence with all the old unease. Gabble foolishly in his presence again however, I would not; and so we danced in silence, until at last he found the words to express what was obviously weighing heavy on his mind.

“We have reached a most unfortunate impasse”he said. “I fear that relations between ourselves and Lady Macauley have irretrievably broken down – though I’m not without hope that time will somehow find a way of enabling us to be friends again. I have been judged severely for breaking with Frances perhaps – though I think everyone would have to agree that her obvious new happiness with her builder, must be seen as ample justification for that. I'm delighted for her of course, as who would not be? There is however one important matter which remains unresolved - and that is the attachment which has grown up lately between my own Imogen, and Will Macauley. I hope Lady Macauley will find it in her heart to overlook differences, at least in their case. She seemed fond of Imogen at one time - I hope she will not hold her father’s perceived indiscretions against her ... Though I rather fear that even if she does so, true love will find its way, and those two will be together in spite of everything...”

Had he put it almost any other way, I might have felt obliged to offer him a word or two of comfort. But since he seemed both to have put his question, and answered it too – and because his inflexion over the word ‘builder’ had been so objectionable to me - I felt no such obligation. I merely replied that I could not answer for Lady Macauley, and nor could I promise to put his case before her – since to have done so would have been to spoil for her what had been the happiest possible evening.

The music stopped at that moment, and the dance was ended. He conducted me back to my seat, and relinquished me, with marked stiffness; and I had the small but considerable satisfaction of seeing him return to his own table, and to Rose, thoroughly displeased and unsatisfied. He had cast a blight over my evening nonetheless, and I was not sorry when, half an hour later, Lady Macauley admitted fatigue at last, and our little party broke up. Will decided to come back to the house with us; he had evidently had enough of watching Imogen go from triumph to triumph - and even Angelica had no need of him any longer. Jack and Alice, and all the others, elected to stay on a while; promising to return in time to drink a last glass of brandy with us, before we retired for the night. Mrs Wilmot thought she would stay right on till the end however, if we didn’t mind - since her darling girl was having such an absolutely splendid time!

Monday, 10 December 2007

At the ball; part one

In the little green ante-room to which Lady Macauley led Bill and Belle and me at the end of the dinner sat Will Macauley all alone; looking rather charmingly dishevelled in his young man’s version of the dinner jacket and black tie - but also looking distinctly woeful.

“I can see from your face that you have done what you had to do” his grandmother observed – adding, for our benefit, that Will had been required to go and explain himself to the Wilmots, mother and daughter, and that from the look of him, he had not been made any happier by the experience. “But have you convinced them of your change of heart?” she demanded to know next. “And more to the point, have you managed to bring them back here with you?”

Will said that he had; they were waiting downstairs in the library. “But they’re not a bit happy about it. They’re about as unhappy as they can be, in fact. Angelica cried awfully - and her mother was very fierce. She said the whole thing has been a shame and a sham – especially now they know that Mrs Mountjoy has been working against them too! Mrs W. wanted to know how much I had known about all that. Had I been deceiving them too - and what did I think could possibly be achieved by bringing them back here to face the enemy all over again?”

But Lady Macauley was equal to the unhappiness of the Wilmots. She was equal to almost anything in her present exhilarated state. She thought it a pity they had lumped her, too, into the category of the enemy; but that it was not to be wondered at perhaps, and that she would in any case go downstairs herself, in just a moment, to fetch them. It might take her another ten minutes or so to bring them round - but she thought she knew how it was to be done; and if we would only wait there for her another short while all would be well, and we should be able to make our combined entrance to the ball in triumph – and in the face of Rose’s more or less complete mortification.

“Rose will think there is to be an engagement announcement after all!” she almost gleefully cried. “It will do me no end of good to see her face. And that of her secret lover too of course. Though I can’t say it doesn’t sadden me a little, to have to give him up to her – I believe we might have made something of him, had he only stayed with us. Still, it will be amusing to see if they try to keep up their little secret – or whether they’ll have decided to brazen it out in the open at last.”

She seemed to think that on the whole they were likely to brazen it out. What other option was there for them after all, now that the whole thing had been exposed? She sent Will down to the library ahead of her to pave the way with the Wilmots, and when he was safely out of earshot, took another moment to regret with us the fact that her victory over Rose would after all be only partial...

“We are backing the same girl of course, which is a pity. We each mean Imogen to succeed - for very different reasons of course, and I could have wished it might have been almost any other way. But there it is, she’s the right girl in spite of everything. Will himself is convinced of it: he’s almost stupefied with love of her at present, unfortunate boy - and even Alice will be brought to accept her in the end. Will has promised to forswear her company for the duration of the ball however. He is neither to dance, nor talk with, nor even look at her – the Wilmots are to be spared that final ignominy at least. And Rose will fear that in spite of all her mystifications, her most cherished plot has failed!”

It took Lady Macauley rather longer than the promised ten minutes to persuade the Wilmots; but they emerged at last, the mother evidently only partially placated, the daughter somewhat red-eyed still, and avoiding Will with what might in any other girl have been called a flounce, but was with her the merest little flutter of residual indignation. We made a rather awkward party, crossing the lamplit garden in virtual silence – though Bill did his best with Mrs Wilmot, whom he had personally taken under his wing, and whose defensive stance seemed to be crumbling a little, with every step they took.

Our entry to the ballroom coincided with the last moments of a lively Scottish reel, and we were all caught up at once by the brightness of the lights, the almost breathless thrill in the air - and the way in which the ranks of dancers fell away to make a path for us, as we crossed to our table at the far end of the room. Poor Mrs Wilmot can never before have found herself in such a situation. To be a member of what must have seemed to her the presiding, the regal party: to be made way for, and deferred to – and find that all the glittering personages present had turned their heads to stare, as if she were suddenly being perceived as the elect, the chosen companion of Lady Macauley! She was almost rigid with the honour, the sheer publicity it, and required the steadying hand of Bill, just to hold her up.

I turned to glance at her, and believe I caught the moment when the last of her defences fell away. I had seen this sort of thing happen before of course – but never perhaps so swiftly, or to such startling effect. Mrs Wilmot had meant to stand her ground to the end. She had been wronged - oh grievously; and she had intended that everyone there should know it. But she was no match for the smoothness of an operation of this kind: she had been rendered harmless from the moment when, swept into the room in Lady Macauley’s wake, she had suddenly found herself at the centre of a rapt attention. She had become Lady Macauley’s entirely willing votary – and everything that happened afterwards was simply to consolidate, and indeed intensify that effect....

It has not been my intention to prolong matters in this way. I am almost ashamed of myself indeed. But this is the way it has seemed to happen - and I promise a denouement as quickly as possible, in the entirely unpremeditated part two.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Before the ball we dined in state

By six o’clock that evening the Macauley house was alive with lights, and with the low excited murmur of the twenty invited guests who were to attend the formal dinner in the gallery that was to precede the ball. I had dressed early, so as to be on hand with Belle, to assist Lady Macauley in her own preparations; and I have to admit that I did not feel especially fine, or festive. My gown was perfunctory at best: something which, unable on this occasion to face the horrors of the dress-shop, I had resurrected from the depths of an old trunk in the attic, and had expensively cleaned. It had a stately, if rather antique look; and I had told myself it would do. Belle though – Belle was glorious in midnight blue satin, cut low to carry off the family sapphires and diamonds, and falling into an elegant little train at the back. Belle had drawn the line at a tiara, but wore a row of matching sapphires, woven into the intricate upsweep of her hair; and if my own gasp of admiration was not enough – or her mother’s warmly approving embrace – she had Bill’s look of purest pride and adoration, to tell her that tonight she was beautiful, as she had perhaps never been before.

Alice was be-jewelled too; overwhelmingly so, I thought. She seemed to me almost weighed-down by priceless gems: she was brooched, and braceleted, and necklaced, and tiara-ed, within an inch of her life. Though in her case the jewels were diamonds alone, to offset the elaborate dress of ivory lace that, exposing a quite breath-taking expanse of almost equally ivory bosom, she so magnificently wore. Pamela and I exchanged wry glances over the diamonds: we are in company here to which we can’t personally aspire, we mutely said – but we shall hold our heads up nonetheless, just as bravely as we can.

Pamela was on this occasion faultlessly attired in smooth black velvet, that somehow managed to glide over her ample curves without accentuating them. She owned few jewels, so hadn’t tried: nor was her admirably coiffed head adorned by anything more theatrical than a nodding flower or two. She had learnt much from her association with the Macauleys, I saw that now – and even Roland had acquired a certain stature, from his position as Lady Macauley's honorary counsellor, and his exemplary black tie. Frances was there; and Frances too wore family jewels, and a shining new gown. But Frances’s chief adornment was her broadly beaming Tomek, who with his height and his bulk, and his ever so slightly exaggerated Polish gallantry, came near to eclipsing every other man there. Save of course, in my eyes at least - and still more in those of Belle – for our own unsurpassable Bill.

Bill’s role it was to appear last, with Lady Macauley on his arm – though a concession had been made to family on this occasion, and Jack Macauley, splendid too in his black tie, had been allowed to take her other arm. Lady Macauley’s entrance had been timed to occur only when everyone else was seated. She wore finest silvery aquamarine - her naiad look, as Jack had used to call it. It was the colour she had worn when he first saw her, and she shimmered tonight, almost ethereally. She was very beautiful, and her face had lost every sign of the strain it had worn earlier in the day. She had accomplished everything she needed to accomplish, it seemed to say; and she paused, queenlike, a moment, at the top of the gallery, before making her slow progress along the ranks of smiling, nodding guests, to take her seat between Bill and Jack, at the farthest end of the glittering table.

We dined merrily, and long. Course after course appeared, and though the hour of the ball approached, and we began to hear sounds of instruments being tuned in the Orangery, nobody was in any hurry to depart the table, and begin the ball. It occurred to me that Lady Macauley herself was waiting for something, though I had not as yet discovered what it was. Cars had been coming and going in the forecourt in the last half hour; we had seen their lights, and heard their engines slowly silencing as we dined. People were already arriving for the ball, it was clear; but since lady Macauley herself seemed in no hurry to end the dinner, we took our cue from her and laughed, and ate and drank, and chatted on.

Not until eight o’clock, and at a sign from Bill, who seemed to have received a message on his mobile phone, did Lady Macauley rise from the table, and make a short announcement to the effect that dinner must now end, and would people please be kind enough to make their way, first to the cloakrooms that had been provided for them, and then across the lighted garden to the Orangery, where in fifteen minutes' time, the ball would begin. She did not herself go immediately to the Orangery however, but to a small room opening out of the gallery, where she was to rest a while. Bill and Belle and I were to accompany her there – she had just one last essential thing to do, she said.

Jack and Alice on the other hand, who had earlier received their starters’ orders, were to hurry across to the Orangery in advance of all the others, and to stand in the receiving line of guests, in Lady Macauley’s stead. The exodus from the gallery was not hurried. People had dined well, and were in mellow mood. The cloakrooms provided were luxurious, moreover; they would take their time, and saunter pleasantly across to the Orangery, to join all those others, who had not been dinner guests.

Only Alice had a rather stiff look for her mother-in-law as, evidently feeling herself unduly ordered about – and perhaps excluded from something important that was to happen in the ante-room in her absence - she took Jack’s arm, and more or less stalked across the garden to the ball...

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Author's Note

I can only offer my profound apology to readers, for subjecting them to yet another ‘eve of the ball’ instalment! I had thought I could do it in one – but there’s just too much to ‘get in’. I hadn’t thought it properly through, and there’s the truth of it. It being one of the penalties of the blog-method of telling a story, that things don’t always happen as quickly, or in the kind of orderly sequence that one would wish.

And for those readers for whom the story of Jack Macauley’s Milly may not be entirely clear, I can only suggest that the latter part of the instalment dated 05/27- 06/03, “A Little Tale of Long Ago” may assist in shedding the necessary light