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

The day of the ball

The day of the ball began before dawn, with Belle coming into my room with stricken face at four o’clock (I having spent that night at the Macauley house), to tell me that her mother had ‘had some kind of turn’: had cried out her husband’s name in her sleep; had then wakened, insisted upon dressing fully - and was at present emptying all the drawers in her bedroom in frantic search of an old photograph that she said Jack had used to carry his wallet.

“She’s quite beside herself!” Belle urgently whispered, as I struggled to try to remember where I was, and what was happening. “She knows it’s somewhere; she put it somewhere very carefully herself, years ago – and now she must find it, or the ball can’t go ahead, the Orangery will have to be dismantled, and everything will be ruined!”

It took me several moments, but I was finally able to bring to mind that old story: the one about the young Jack Macauley, and the girl called Milly, whom he had worshipped from afar in the days when he was still an awkward grocer’s boy, ashamed of his clumsy boots. I struggled to recall the detail of it; how Jack Macauley had carried an old newspaper photograph of Milly in his wallet for years afterwards; and how Theodora, as his young bride, had stumbled on it, never admitting the fact to him, but remaining haunted by it, at intervals, ever since. I had assumed it must have gone away, years ago; yet here was Belle now, in deep distress, bringing it sharply back into the present, and leaving me wondering what on earth there was that I could usefully say.

“And does it still exist, do you think...?” was the best I could manage, in my still only half-awake state. But “Oh good heavens, no!” Belle exclaimed in reply. “Daddy himself destroyed it years ago. He had gone looking for Milly you see, years afterwards. He had happened to be on business in the area, and he looked her up. Not because he still had feelings for her, but just because he needed to lay that particular ghost. It was idiocy on the part of a grown man, he said, to carry about with him the image of a girl he had once supposed he loved! But he found her grown fat and frumpy anyway! A silly, garrulous woman; not a trace left of that disdainful girl who had stalked his dreams! So that there was no longer the smallest need to keep her picture, and he tore it up. I remember how he laughed at his own foolishness, and said that there was no need to trouble Mummy about it.”

“But did you never tell her this yourself?” was my next, rather inadequate offering. To which Belle replied that no, she never had: supposing, mistakenly as it now turned out, that it would be better if her mother didn’t know that Jack had gone off in search of his long- lost Milly.

“Well, I think you probably ought to tell her now” I suggested. “How else, after all, can you possibly put her mind at rest?”

Bill was up now; had come stumbling into my room to know what the rumpus was; and being apprised of the state of things, agreed with my suggestion; so that together we went to Lady Macauley, and calming her as best we could, put the whole story before her. She listened in silence, unable at first to believe we weren’t making the whole thing up. We were trying to humour a silly old woman, she cried: it was quite the cruellest form of deception! But then she suddenly seemed to think that, yes, that would be just the way it would have been likely to happen! Jack would have felt himself bound to act - and in acting, would have found the truth. The effect was near miraculous. Her face, which had been contorted with grief the moment before, relaxed suddenly; she uttered the longest sigh, and said simply “Oh, thank God then - it was me he loved after all!”

We said all the things that people do say, in such situations. We said that of course he had loved her – only her. How could he not have loved her, when she was everything that Milly had been, and a thousand better things as well!

“He adored you Mummy, as you well know” Belle ended by assuring her. “No woman was ever adored as you were – he thought you just the most beautiful, most perfect woman in the world. And I at least know for sure that he never gave Milly another thought, from that day on.”

It was enough. We could start the day of the ball now; and we started it with a cheerful breakfast of coffee and toast, taken there together in Lady Macauley’s room, while a cold grey dawn slipped in through the slats of the window blinds. We three remained troubled though, by Lady Macauley’s earlier collapse; and Bill at least, was all for calling a doctor – just to make perfectly sure that all was well. But Lady Macauley insisted that no such thing was necessary; she would not hear of it, was perfectly well and calm - and we should see what she was able to accomplish during the course of this day, before the ball began.

What she accomplished was indeed remarkable. She had another long list of people with whom she wished to talk; beginning with Will, alone, at nine o’clock, and progressing, at intervals during the morning, with Jack and Alice, with the Baineses, with Imogen – and even with Frances and Tomek, whom she summoned last; wishing, she said, to thank them for the part they had played in bringing matters to a head, and to entreat them to come to the ball. She spent an hour with Frances and Tomek, in fact – and Frances herself emerged at the end of it quite flushed with happiness, at the hand of friendship that had been extended to her at last..

Lady Macauley would have liked too, to talk with Mrs Wilmot and her daughter. She had become reconciled to them at last, she said. Oh, not that she saw the girl as a contender for Will’s hand – never that! But simply that she saw their part in all this as suddenly rather heroic.

“She stood her ground against all the odds, poor woman!” she observed, of the formerly impossible Mrs Avril Wilmot. “It can’t have been easy for her, received with hostility as she was, on all sides. She must know by now besides, that she too has been the dupe of Rose’s nasty little plot. I want to let her know that I understand that – and that I respect her courage, at least... But perhaps after all it will do better to wait for the ball – when I shall be able to single her out, choose her over Rose, you know, and let her down as gently as I can. Will must speak to her of course - I have told him that. He has created this mess and now he must extricate himself from it. Together, we shall enable that unfortunate woman and her daughter to make their exit with dignity intact - and Rose shall see that every plan of hers has gone hideously awry!”

We wished her to rest then, and she said she would. Just as soon as she had made her last inspection of the Orangery, and seen for herself that everything was just as perfect as it could be for the events that were to unfold. She had earlier dispensed with the idea of a separate venue for youthful dancing. No marquee had after all been erected - the young must make shift with the old, she had decided: there were not so many of them after all - she just hoped that some at least of them, would have learnt how to waltz! We went then in solemn procession to the Orangery, where darkness had wrought a magical effect. Everything was beautifully in its place: the instruments for the orchestra stood covered on a dais at the top of the larger of the two adjoining rooms; the new floor sparkled, with the thousand reflected lights - and all the little gilded chairs and tables, the flowers, the scented stillness of the air itself, seemed poised and waiting, for the night’s events to begin...

Friday, 23 November 2007

Eve of the Ball

We returned from Flory yesterday, to find everything at the Macauley house in a state of chaos. Well, not quite everything perhaps: Tomek and his team have wrought wonders in the Orangery, where a thousand coloured lights bounce down upon the newly laid floor, and the caterers and florists come and go already, unloading gilded chairs and tables, and filling the air with the headiness of rose, and orange blossom, and jasmine. No, the chaos is largely in my own head, I think – though a good deal, too, in the steady stream of solemnly suited men who have been coming and going all day to consult with Lady Macauley; and in the fact that Roland Baines, who has remained closeted with them almost constantly, is looking even more than usually portentous. Something is very definitely ‘in the air’; and Pamela, who alone among us all must have an inkling of what it is - Pamela is keeping her own counsel with surprising rectitude.

Jack and Alice had remained at Flory until this evening, which made things a little easier for us here; since young Will seems to have no other occupation at present than to drift rather unhappily about the house in the wake of Imogen Porteous - who herself, though still busy with her restoration work, and plying her needle with what seems to be a remarkably steady hand, has nonetheless the look about her of a girl who nurses a lovely secret, which she is resolved for the moment to keep strictly to herself.

I had been personally requested by Alice before we left, to ‘tackle Will’. “Find out what he’s been up to if you can, and report back’ was her brief to me; and though it’s perfectly clear that what he’s been ‘up to’, has been to fall headlong in love with Imogen, and almost certainly to have pledged that emotion with more than just a snatched embrace or two, in corners of the house ... though it’s clear as day that those two have arrived at an understanding with one another, yet off Will went at two o’clock this afternoon just the same; to keep an assignation with Angelica that ‘for the life of him’, as he put it to me with woeful countenance, he didn’t see how he could possibly break. “She has been buying a dress for the ball and all that kind of thing” he explained. “And I’m sure her mother has too. They’ve gone to no end of trouble and expense - I’d have to be the very worst sort of brute to desert them now.”

It is my fate of course as narrator of these events, to be relating them always in retrospect. I have often felt the disadvantage of this – though never quite so acutely as I do today, when things have moved at such speed, and so unpredictably, that I haven’t yet managed to come properly to grips with any of them. It’s late evening now, and I am back in the gatehouse, alone with my disordered thoughts. I have not yet had heart or opportunity to phone Alice with any kind of report of Will. What could I have told her indeed, save that he has apparently fallen hopelessly in love with one girl, only to feel himself still inextricably linked with another? That even loving Imogen as he does, he still seems likely to be dragooned into announcing his engagement to Angelica, tomorrow at the ball – could I have told his mother that? No, decidedly I could not. Nor have I - events having since then taken such a turn in other directions anyway, as to put possible engagement announcements entirely out of my head.

What happened in fact, was that at four o’clock this afternoon, Lady Macauley summoned the three of us, Belle and Bill and me, to her rooms; where, having seen off the last of the solemnly suited men, and in presence only of a still more solemnly visaged Roland Baines, she announced to us that she was in a position at last to reveal what she had been doing all day; to explain, in short, the arrangements she had just now put in place for securing the house against what she called ‘possible predators in the future’.

“I have been in consultation all this day” she told us – and it may have been my imagination, but it seemed to me she suppressed a tear with difficulty as she spoke; ”with representatives from the National Trust. I should perhaps have consulted first with you, who are nearest and dearest to me, but it seemed better this way.... You will understand why I have felt it necessary to act, and will have no objection, I’m sure – when you hear that what I have done this afternoon is simply to have signed the papers which will put in motion the procedure by which the house and all its contents will pass – well, to the Nation you know, on my death. Please try not to be shocked – it is something that has been in my mind for many years. It has always seemed to me that the house was Jack’s, and mine therefore, only because of him - and that when we are both gone, so will the spirit of the place have departed too; and it will be better that someone else should have the responsibilty of deciding its future....”

To say that we were stunned by this announcement, is not to come even near to what we actually experienced at that moment. Belle I think, was stricken with twenty painful emotions all at once – and Bill was silent too, for simple want of knowing what to say. Yet scarcely had we even tried to absorb its import - and then listened for another five minutes to Roland, who was deputed to explain to us the corollary facts, which seemed to have to do with accompanying bequests to the Trust for future upkeep, and the provision of a residual family interest, which would enable ‘Jack Macauley or his legatee’ (whom we understood to be Will), to continue to inhabit a part of the house... Hardly had we time to take in any of this, before Lady Macauley’s mood took a sudden swing in another direction; and she told us, with tears falling freely this time, that though the hour was late, and darkness had already fallen, she would like, if we would be so kind as to assist her, to visit her husband’s grave, for the purpose of explaining to him why she had acted in the way she had just done.

It was a strange, sad, silent and bewildered group, who made the short car journey to the cold little nearby churchyard, where Jack Macauley had lain buried for more than twenty five years. Lady Macauley had visited his grave before of course; had come there regularly every month in fact – but never before so impulsively, or in such strange conditions as these. We three stood back in darkness, holding a torch for her while she made her murmured explanation over the grave of her beloved Jack. She took full ten minutes over it; and looked close to death herself, when finally she had said all she wished, and we were able to lead her, weeping and shivering, back to the waiting car. Strangely too, her mood on the way home suddenly lightened; she became almost buoyant again, and was able to tell us, smiling now, that she was quite sure Jack would have approved of what she had done.

“He’ll have seen the need” she said. “He always saw the need of things, when once I’d been able to explain them to him. He was very fond of Rose – but he wouldn’t have liked her for what she is trying to do now.”

We passed a rather pleasant evening after that. Lady Macauley was in better spirits than we have seen her for many days; we enjoyed a rather splendid meal, which she gaily described as an eve-of-the ball event. And even Alice, who had returned with Jack from Flory while we were in the churchyard, and had been told nothing yet about the day’s events - even Alice was unable to spoil the mood, with her constantly reiterated anxieties over Will.

I returned home an hour ago; it is almost midnight now, and the day of the ball will shortly dawn. I have tried and tried to foresee what will happen there – whether Will Macauley will end the night with this girl or that, or neither; and what Rose will do, and if there will be an ugly scene....?

But just for the moment I give it up. I leave it in the lap of the gods, as the saying goes, and shall go gladly to my rest.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

She SHALL come to the ball

Lady Macauley thinks that all things considered, we will probably do best to let Rose come to the ball believing her secret is still safe.

“She has done her worst” she remarked yesterday, sitting in her private room upstairs with Bill and Belle and me; Frances having already called another cab, and fled the scene; and Jack and Alice being relegated on this occasion to taking tea alone, downstairs in the drawing room. “And I agree her worst is very bad..... though if it ends in her having assisted me in bringing Will and Imogen together, well, all cannot be said to have been entirely lost.”

She had seemed to take the news of Rose’s double-dealing rather well; had scarcely gulped or blinked indeed - though there had been a moment, just one, and just after the full facts had been put before her, when she had covered her face with her hands, and looked as if she might be going to be crushed by it. Bill had warned us to be on our guard against just such a reaction. “We must never forget how old she is” he had reminded Belle and me, while we waited for Lady Macauley herself to come and join us. “I agree it’s not always easy to see her that way, given her tremendous fighting spirit. But that’s what she is nonetheless – an old lady approaching ninety. And we should be wary of delivering the blow that fells her.”

Bill had earlier exploded with rage himself. Not on his own account, as he furiously pointed out to Frances and me, when we had given him our account of how matters stood. Not even, particularly, on that of Lady Macauley, who might be disturbed, and even a little hurt by it all, but who had after all not been personally attacked, and who would find her relief in swift retaliation anyway. No, his rage was all for Belle, who would see in this an act of treachery against a friendship she had believed was based on long affection and mutual trust. I have seldom seen him so angry – and Frances, who never has, was actually rather alarmed by what she seemed to have set in motion.

We were glad though, that we had taken the precaution of catching him alone first; since we were able, by that means, not only to calm his rage, and prevent his immediately rushing home to strike a blow at Rose and her ‘damnable parson’ – but also to suggest to him that there were some aspects of the story that would be better withheld from Belle. He was all in agreement with that - there was no earthly reason why she should be burdened with every sorry detail! He would be *******d for example (my apologies; but Bill’s expletives, which tend to be of the old-fashioned sort, have nonetheless no proper place on these pages, and so you must conjure them for yourself) .... Bill would be damned anyway – put it no more violently than that - if he’d let Belle know of the part that had been designed for her to play in this sordid affair! There was evidence enough to heap against the duplicitous pair, God knew, without recourse to anything as hideously wounding as that.

And so it was, that with Frances gone home again, and the story wholly in our own hands, Bill and I were able to present a reasonably calm concerted front when relaying it, first to Belle, and then to Lady Macauley, half an hour later. Belle was indeed hurt and bewildered, even by the censored version, and had found at first nothing to say - save for the rather wan observation that “it would be a pity if the daughter had to suffer for the father’s sins – especially since Imogen is so very much Mummy’s favourite contender too”. Her mother however, whose first reaction had suggested possible collapse, was quick to rally, and come up with what appeared to be her considered response.

“She is a great deal more devious than I ever suspected” she finally, somewhat meditatively said. “And it’s true I suspected her of many things. I always knew she was self-seeking of course; always playing some little game that reflected her own best interests most of all. But I had supposed, at least, that she was playing them one at a time – so it comes as quite a shock to know she was playing so many, all at once! I probably even knew that she secretly detested me. There was that frigid little smile she always had, at moments of severest personal trial – I always understood, I think, that if she hadn’t been smiling at me so assiduously, she’d have been getting her knife out, ready to plunge it in my back. That, I have always been able to live with – so long as she continued to amuse, and make herself useful to me. I am not such a good woman myself – I believe I am in many respects a very bad one - as to have right to the moral high ground where others are concerned. But that she should have hated Belle too – or should at least have thought so little of their long friendship as to be prepared to sacrifice it at the altar of her own avarice – well, that is not to be forgiven; and I for one am not prepared to let it pass without a fight. Now she shall see what we can do by way of redress. Or call it for civility’s sake, if you like - since I believe we are on the whole a civilised people - quid pro quo.”

Lady Macauley had in fact a great deal more than that to say. That we should take the time to consider this thing very carefully from every angle, was her first concern; especially in light of the fact that Alice, when she was told – as one supposed she must be, at some point - would undoubtedly put some very different construction on it all.

“Alice will want to cancel the ball and send the whole lot packing”she decided. “Which will not serve my purposes - oh, not at all! No, the ball must go ahead just as planned. And everyone must be there, including Rose. Including even the Wilmots, who must be brought to see the absurdity of their own plan, and be persuaded to go home! I think we shall all breathe a little more easily when that foolish, and largely irrelevant pair has gone.”

She told us to leave her then. She would have her own tea brought up to her there; she had much thinking to do, and she would do it best alone. We should go down to the drawing room and do what we could to keep Alice from discovering the truth of what had just transpired.

“You won’t do anything precipitate Mummy, like phoning Rose....?” Belle had wanted to be assured of that, before she would consent to leave. But Lady Macauley had only the highest disdain for such an idea.

“What kind of a foolish old woman do you think I am, that you should suspect me of any such thing?” she fairly snapped back at Belle. “Do you think me likely to blow my own cover before I have even properly worked out what it’s going to be? No, of course I won’t be phoning Rose! Though it’s possible I might have to phone the Baineses...... I believe there is something I can do you see, to stop Rose and David Porteous in their tracks. But I shall need Roland’s help to put it in motion.... I shall probably need the help of several other people too; I’ll give you a list of their names, when I have thought them out. Meantime, there is much to be done – and the ball might have to be postponed by a day ....”

She dismissed us then; having not the slightest further need, as she put it, for our presence. We must go downstairs and do what we could to keep Alice from interfering. And with that, just for the moment, we had to be content.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

A rather shocking revelation

The rain had stopped, and half-hearted sunshine begun to filter into the rather cavernous Barton Flory kitchen, by the time Frances had drunk her tea and become composed enough to resume her story. I found the sunshine an intrusion on the whole: I had a feeling this was going to be a tale I’d have preferred to hear while rain was falling.

Frances was beginning to have misgivings about it all herself now, it seemed. There were some things one ought to have been strong enough to keep to oneself perhaps, she saw that now. Burdening others with one’s own misfortunes – it was the coward’s way, wasn’t it? She might have done very wrong in rushing down here like this with her sorry tale. Since when all was said and done, it hadn’t been Rose’s, or Lady Macauley’s, or anyone else’s fault, if she had herself been just too dull, to hold David Porteous to her as a lover!

“I ought to have known from the start.” She finally came right out and acknowledged that. “I ought to have understood that even though he had agreed to marry me, he would have had sooner or later to look elsewhere for his - well, his bodily fulfilments you know... I just didn’t know that he had looked so soon!”

I had begun to see where this was taking us, and my own heart had taken a sharp downward lurch at the sheer unpleasantness of what I feared I was about to hear. I told her she was going to have to help me though, since for the life of me, I still hadn’t quite been able to guess.

“You mean you really didn’t know – you didn’t see?” Frances was genuinely incredulous: it seemed to give her the courage she required.

“I think it happened very early in my friendship with David ...” she finally continued – but reflectively, sadly, as if she were still trying to grasp all the facts herself. “Perhaps even before we had become friends? I have thought and thought about it, and it sometimes seems to me they might have planned it all beforehand – might have decided, you know, that though their own combined circumstances were not enough to marry on – not enough for them, that is.... they might still have had each other, whilst making a convenience of me.... And then of course I made it so very easy for them, just wanting him on any terms as I did!”

She made a long pause; she quite saw how foolish she had been, but was resolved to do the situation all the justice that she could. For my own part, I was thinking that in all my life I had probably never felt quite as uncomfortable as I did at that moment. I had the strongest possible aversion to hearing more - yet still, I knew I had to try to help her out.

“You mean to say that all the time you were making marriage plans with David Porteous, he was ...” I began to say it, then stopped: there were words here that I found it almost impossible to pronounce. Frances supplied them for me however; she was perfectly in command of her story by now.

“Sleeping with Rose?” She at least was able to bring it out: there was even a kind of quiet triumph for her in being able to state the truth at last. “Yes, that precisely. Oh, he was sleeping with me too of course. Now and then, for appearances’ sake - it didn’t involve so very much effort after all: I was content with very little. But she was his lover and his love, and that was the way it was always going to be.”

"But how... and when....?” I heard myself stammering foolishly. It seemed to me there were still many more questions unanswered here, than I could properly comprehend.

“Oh well, practically all the time" Frances replied. "Certainly at the time we announced our engagement – and probably well before that too.....”

She was able by now to dismiss it almost with a shrug - and to take pity on me in my desperate struggle to understand.

“It was David who finally broke our engagement, you know. Oh, he allowed me to seem to have done it myself – he could afford that much generosity. But he had had another idea by then. Or Rose had – it was hard to know which of them was doing the thinking, they had become so very close ... They had seen that he might have a chance with Belle, at any rate. She had seemed to like him at one time – and her mother had shown herself not entirely opposed to the idea. They might have gone along together perfectly comfortably with that, Rose and he - Belle would probably have been as grateful as I was, for any little scraps of affection he threw her way. But then Bill stepped in. Dear Bill – I never loved or thanked him as much as I did at that moment! Though I had to love and thank him without saying a word – there was the pity of it. But I somehow thought that he at least, must have had some inkling of what was going on.”

I saw it all now; and in seeing, understood why Frances must have marvelled so, at our combined failure to comprehend. I thought I could vouch for Bill’s complete ignorance, however.

“I don’t believe Bill can have seen any of this” I told her. “Oh, he saw how the land lay with David Porteous and Belle of course – had it not been for that, I don’t think he would have been anything like so quick to declare himself. But of an affair between Rose and David, I’m sure he guessed nothing. We none of us knew, or dreamt any such thing. Certainly Lady Macauley herself can’t have done so, or she’d have had them both out of the house at once!”

So many things had suddenly become clear – grotesquely so. And though I had thought I knew the depths to which Rose’s cynicism would take her, I confess I hadn’t thought of this; and much less had I supposed that a former clergyman would have sunk so low! There remained one important thing still unexplained however: I could understand Frances’ wishing to unburden herself at last – but why at this particular moment?

Frances had asked herself the same question, apparently; and was not entirely sure, even now, that she had done the right thing as a consequence.

But: “I had talked to Tomek about it at length. He’s very wise, and we have become close... We shall probably be married quite soon - without any kind of publicity; I have quite done with that sort of thing. And then you see, Tomek had been working at the house, and had opportunity to see what was developing there between Will Macauley and Imogen. And then I heard that Lady Macauley was planning to hold a ball, and was probably deciding to promote Imogen Porteous herself – and all the while in total ignorance of the fact that that was precisely what Rose and David were promoting too! So I thought I really must come down and tell her – though I was very fearful about it of course, and am profoundly relieved to have been able to tell you first. You will be able to talk it over with Bill and Belle perhaps – and then decide together what is the best way to proceed from here...?”

But Frances had gone one step ahead of me again, and still I struggled to understand.

“But I thought it was Angelica whom Rose was promoting...?” I must have sounded very foolish. I felt very foolish indeed - and nor do I believe I improved my position much, by adding that Pamela had told me of Rose’s secret plan for exacting revenge upon Lady Macauley...

“As I understood it" I nonetheless rather lamely went on; "Rose was to have taken the girl and her mother in hand. Advised Angelica in all sorts of clever little ways. Dressed her up and made her irresistible - just so that Will would insist upon engaging himself to her! That, at least, was the way that I, and I think everyone else, had understood it to have been...”

Frances’s reply, when it came, was not triumphant, as it might have been in any other woman, but only rather sad.

“That was what they wanted everyone to think” she explained. “I thought it myself, for a while. But after all, what would there have been for them, in that? No, they had something altogether better in mind - the Wilmots were mere pawns in their game, just as I had been myself. And you have to admit they have been rather clever. You have only got to think about it after all - that where the daughter goes, the father must be expected to follow. And if Imogen got Will, and Will got the Macauley inheritance and the house - well, you can see for yourself where they saw themselves as going with that!”

I saw, and in seeing was shocked, as I think I have never been before. But it was suddenly too much for me to try to handle alone. And in my usual fashion, I decided to call Bill, and let him decide what we ought to consider doing next..

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The calm before the storm

“Do you mean to tell me you knew that girl would be coming and going every day – and Will left quite alone there with her, in the house?”

The question was Alice Macauley’s, directed with some sharpness at her mother-in-law this afternoon, as we sat over a late lunch at Barton Flory, Lady Macauley’s childhood home in the Suffolk countryside, to which we have retreated for what Lady Macauley herself calls ‘a few days of rest and composure before the storm’. The ‘storm’, as we all now understand it, being the ball; preparations for which are in fact already in full swing back at the Macauley house. It is to be held in the Orangery – and in an adjoining marquee: Lady Macauley having thought it desirable to provide one venue for the youthful contingent to “perform whatever it is they call a dance these days”; and another for the “more venerable among us, who still enjoy a waltz”. A team of half a dozen men has been set to work there in our absence; their foreman, rather surprisingly, being none other than Frances’s faithful Polish Tomek, whom Lady Macauley has been advised is quite the most reliable pair of hands, when it comes to erecting a marquee, and strengthening an Orangery floor.

Lady Macauley has made no attempt to disguise the fact that the idea of the ball was entirely a spur of the moment thing on her part. She had been stung into producing it, she acknowledges that; but having done so, is resolved to see it through to a spectacular conclusion. It is to be the ball to end all balls; no expense or effort will be spared to make it one of the most successful ever held at the house. An orchestra is to be engaged, and what seems likely to be almost an entire florist’s shop commandeered for the occasion - Rose will see to what heights an old woman is still able to rise, when provoked.

“And will Rose herself be invited to attend?” Alice wanted to know that much, at least. “Given that she has announced her intention of staging an alternative affair.”

But Lady Macauley sets little store by Rose’s alternative affair. That too had been produced entirely out of Rose’s hat, in her opinion. “She had to think of something, and came up with that. Oh, she thinks fast, I’ll grant her that ... But on this occasion she thought to very little purpose – since I had thought faster, and to more immediately realisable effect. And we shall see what becomes of half-baked intentions and village halls, when something altogether more magnificent is in the offing!”

“She will be invited, and she will come” was however her considered judgment of Rose’s likely response. “Bringing her Wilmots with her, I don’t doubt. Though if any of them gets up to try to make an announcement – especially one that has to do with an engagement - she will find her path securely blocked.”

Alice seemed to think that this disposed satisfactorily enough of the question of the ball – and indeed of that of the importunate Mrs Mountjoy, whom she had never yet condescended to speak of as Rose, and whose recent put-down at her mother-in-law’s hands she had evidently found not altogether displeasing. But on that other question, the one which concerned her son’s present proximity to Imogen Porteous (of whom she “personally knew nothing – or nothing at any rate that she found especially encouraging”), she remained resolutely unappeased.

“I’d like to know just what it was you were thinking of, mother-in-law?” she inquired next. “When you left them alone in the house together for a period of several days? If it was your idea that she might succeed in wresting him away from the other girl, then of course I can see your point. Though I confess I don’t think it a specially good one - since so far as I have been able to see there is little to choose between the two. The Porteous girl is if anything more dangerous than the Wilmot one – as being a good deal more likely to succeed!”

“And if she should succeed, what then?” Lady Macauley tossed it back at her with something that looked suspiciously like positive enjoyment: it seemed to me entirely on the cards she might have staged the whole thing, just on the off-chance of its annoying Alice. “You can have no objection to the girl herself that I can see. She’s quite as good as he in every respect – she’s better in some, in my opinion. She’s a great deal more talented, for a start. There’s almost nothing she couldn’t accomplish, artistically - given her head, and just a little material support.”

But this was going altogether too far for Alice.

“And is it also your idea that we should be the means of supplying her with the material support she requires?” she very coldly asked.. “You take my breath away if so. I would do much, as you know, to remove my son from the clutches of the Wilmot girl. I have come down here at all, it might be said, very much for that purpose alone. But if in doing so I should succeed only in throwing him into the arms of another - who by your own admission would probably ruin us all with her artistic requirements - why, there I would simply have to draw the line!”

Where Alice’s drawing the line might have taken us – and what Lady Macauley’s spirited response to it might have been – was unfortunately denied us, by the arrival at that moment of a contingent of late luncheon guests; in the flurry of seating and introducing whom, all other conversational threads were lost, and Lady Macauley in fact had herself quietly spirited away to her rooms by Bill and Belle. It was left to me therefore, and even more to Jack Macauley (Alice having icily dissociated herself from further conversation for the moment) to see the luncheon through to some kind of hospitable conclusion.

It was several hours later, when everyone else had gone to their rooms to rest, and I had found a quiet window-seat in which to relax, while looking out over the pleasant gardens where sullen rain had begun to fall... it was while I sat there, reflecting upon what had earlier been said, and where it was likely to take us all, that I saw a taxi from the village pull up in the driveway, and a distracted-looking Frances Fanshawe get out, struggling to put up a large umbrella. I hurried out to greet her; she was cold and tired, and obviously very much distressed and agitated by what she called the “outlandishness of her coming down all unannounced and uninvited like this!” She would hardly have dared to come at all, she attempted to explain, all in a rush as is her way when there is much on her mind. She would certainly have phoned ahead to announce her intention, at least - had she not something of so much gravity to tell me, that she hadn’t seen how it could possibly wait another hour!

She had alarmed me somewhat, I confess it. I couldn’t imagine what it could be that had driven her to taking what was, for her, so unprecedented a step as to come all the way down here, alone and unannounced. She was all for embarking upon her tale at once, right there in the wet driveway; she went so far as to demand of me, all incoherently, whether after all I “hadn’t guessed what was going on under my nose all this long while.....?”

But I had guessed nothing – and had discovered besides that, suddenly, I didn’t want to hear. There had been enough shocks for one day, it seemed to me – one more, and the whole edifice might be in danger of tumbling down. Frances’s own distress was such, in any case, that I insisted she should come into the house and warm herself a little, before embarking upon whatever it was she had come all the way down here to tell me.

“There’s nobody else about” I assured her. “Everyone is upstairs resting – we have the whole place entirely to ourselves. And you shall have a cup of tea at least, before you say another word....”

Friday, 9 November 2007

The gauntlet thrown - and taken up

Some alterations in human affairs take weeks and months, or even years to accomplish - others happen in the blinking of an eye. Just so, it seemed to me, did the friendship between Lady Macauley and Rose Mountjoy audibly crack, and then begin to disintegrate before my own eyes the other day, at the entrance to the Macauley long gallery.

Several days have now passed since that momentous encounter, and my account of what followed Lady Macauley’s opening remarks will no doubt benefit to some extent from hindsight. But that a challenge was made, and taken up, there was not the smallest doubt; and what the immediate consequences will be, I am unable at present to predict. My recollections of the exchange itself, and its immediate consequences, are actually rather vague; I having been too much caught up in the unexpected drama of it at the time, to be capable of taking it in objectively.

But I do remember that Rose was momentarily caught off guard by Lady Macauley’s opening challenge. She had not expected to be brought quite so summarily to account, and my recollection is that she opened and closed her mouth several times, before finding presence of mind to reply. I believe she knew that what she said next would make or break her relations with Lady Macauley, and that the whole history of her association with the family probably flashed before her eyes in that instant. She had come a long way from Rosie Betts to Mrs Mountjoy, after all; she had invested most of what she had in becoming Lady Macauley’s trusted friend, and she must have seen that cherished status recede before her even as she opened her mouth to speak.

I actually found it in my heart to feel sorry for her: she had much to lose, and only the flimsiest possible hope of personal gain. I would not have been surprised to see her gulp, and hurriedly back down. She might still have retrieved the situation if she would – it required only a conciliatory word or two on her part, and the moment of peril would have passed. But she evidently felt she had already gone too far for that. And since she is in any case never so bold as when in possession of an idea – and since it must still have seemed to her that the idea she had was rather a good one... she took a deep breath, and uttered the words which she knew would seal her fate.

“Oh well...” was what she finally brought out – and if there was concession in it, and a brave little smile, there was defiance too; so that Lady Macauley could have been in little doubt as to the stand she meant to take. “We only thought, you know, that you might not like to hold the party here. I believe we thought we were acting entirely out of consideration for you. And for Will too a little, of course - he having promised a party, and being so anxious to try to keep his word...”

Lady Macauley’s look showed what she thought of this. She swept Rose up and down with it, and seemed, for a moment, to be going to move on, without even troubling to reply. She smiled up at Bill with perfect confidence, and went so far as to adjust the pressure of her arm in his, as a sign that she wished him to continue with her along the room. But then she apparently had another thought – and it seemed to me she had never thought so quickly, or to quite such remarkable effect. She paused a moment, looking back over her shoulder at Rose.

“It’s very good of you to think of so many people all at once” she said. “And I’m sure we’re all very grateful to you. But oh, my poor dear Rose, there was always going to be a party, you know – only we prefer on the whole to call it a ball. Such a pity you didn’t think to wait a little, before hiring the village hall. I take it the hall is already hired.....? Oh well, you must let me know the date of your own little party - it will be the greatest misfortune if the two dates should happen to coincide! But there you are, these things do happen, even in the best-arranged affairs...”

So there it was. She had picked up the gauntlet thrown all inadvertently by Rose. She had looked at it a moment, had found it an incriminating object on the whole, then tossed it back. After which she continued with her queenly progress down the room; nodding and smiling to people right and left as she went, but pausing nowhere, until she reached the group around the piano, where she embraced her son (without enthusiasm, I thought), before sinking down against the cushions of an armchair which somebody had hastily vacated for her.

“Do play on dear” she very sweetly said to Imogen Porteous, who had jumped up from the piano stool at her approach. “A soft song to soothe the nerves I think – there are some rather jangled ones here just now. And then it will be time for tea. You must rest from your labours a while then, and sit down here beside me, to tell me what you plan to wear to the ball....”

The subdued murmur of the party continued to rise and fall for at least another hour after that, but my recollections of it have become indistinct. I remember that I trailed rather uncomfortably in Lady Macauley’s wake after she had left the group by the door; but that I was detained as I went, first by Pamela, who wanted to know, in shocked tones, what Lady Macauley had said to Rose, and was there “really going to be a rumpus – and a ball....?” ; and then by Alice Macauley, who drew me aside and kept me full ten minutes, attempting to elicit from me whatever she could about what “mother-in-law could possibly be proposing to do now?” It was the first she had heard of any ball, she told me – did I really believe the old lady meant to go through with it; and was it possible that an engagement was expected to be announced? But since it was also the first that I, or to the best of my knowledge anyone else had heard of a ball, or any possible announcement, I was unable to satisfy her curiosity on either count.

I didn’t care for Alice, who has the kind of cold, bland, superior air that I have always found off-putting in a certain kind of Englishwoman. I’m not proud to admit it, but women like Alice Macauley have always had a rather intimidating effect on me, ever since my first days as a colonial newly arrived in London. And though I have learnt to see through them, and even to parry their innate condescension to some extent, I have never been able to like them very much. I could quite see why Lady Macauley had always resisted her daughter-in-law so very fiercely. Jack’s ‘fine cold Alice’, she had always called her – though with them, as I now saw and understood, it was more a case of like opposing like than anything else.

Her husband Jack on the other hand, I found delightful. He had early settled himself in the group surrounding Imogen Porteous and her piano, and there he had remained, enjoying himself tremendously. It’s hard to see in him now the gorgeous youth whom Rose had adored. He has grown stout, just as his mother said; he looks well-fed, substantial, rather than glamorous - but it's clear that his capacity for honest, jovial enjoyment of life has remained intact. Had Rose been looking for cracks in his marriage to Alice though, I believe she’d have been hard-pressed to find them; for he gives every appearance of being entirely, and entirely comfortably devoted to her, and perfectly happy to defer to her at every turn.

It was only in the last ten minutes of the party that I suddenly noticed the chairs at the entrance end of the gallery had been vacated, and that Rose, with Mrs Wilmot and Angelica, had gone. Lady Macauley had noticed it too: “I see the birds have flown....” she said. But she said it distractedly; being too much preoccupied just then with present company, to mind too much. She had all her favourite men around her: she had Bill, and Jack – and even David Porteous and Will Macauley had somehow managed to detach themselves from the other group, and were circulating happily around her, along with everyone else.

And if there was a surprise at the end of it all, it was only to be expected perhaps, in a party that had started out so very badly. It certainly came as a shock to me, and I believe to Lady Macauley too, who had spotted it even at the moment I did so myself. It was just this – that young Will Macauley, who had half an hour ago been hopelessly entwined with the lovely Angelica, appeared now to have eyes and ears for no-one but Imogen Porteous, grown vivid suddenly, in her very red dress...

Though where that leaves, or is likely to lead us, I have neither wit nor words at present to try to foretell.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

The opening skirmish

The scene which greeted me when I finally entered the long gallery the other day, bore very little resemblance to a battlefield. Few scenes could have been more pleasant indeed, few pictures have composed themselves more charmingly, than did that elongated room, where the small groups of softly murmuring people seemed to have been put there by an artistic hand, and the late sun made golden pools of light at one end, the reddening western sky cast rosy shadows on dark panelling, at the other. I was reminded of something Bill once said – how it was that in his experience most things, no matter how large or small or potentially life-changing, were finally decided, not on the battlefield but over the teacups; that wars are waged and won or lost, but that sooner or later the opposing sides must meet and talk, and everything comes down to tea and biscuits in the end. I trusted that this would be the case today. Bill had told me to expect a battle – but had omitted to add that the missiles involved would after all be only words, the weapons mostly teaspoons. Very little harm could come to anyone here, I thought - though doubtless somebody would have to win something, somewhere, and somebody lose.

The low hum of conversation ceased a moment at my entrance, and everyone seemed to have turned to look my way. They had evidently been expecting Lady Macauley, and the smiles of welcome they had prepared for her subsided awkwardly, before they turned to one another again, and resumed what I saw now was their rather desultory talk. There were a good many people there whom I didn’t know, but a quick glance around revealed Pamela and Roland, imprisoned in a pair of vast armchairs somewhere in the middle. They looked uncomfortable, I thought; and were in not altogether easy conversation with a tall, elegantly dressed woman who seemed to be responding to them but vaguely, whose own glance was directed at some point above, and beyond them, and whom I took to be Alice Macauley. Following her glance to its source, I found the man who must be her husband Jack. He was part of a largeish group which had gathered at the far end of the room; he was leaning over the piano there, and singing lustily, while at the same time very happily engaged in turning the pages for Imogen Porteous, who wore a vivid red dress, and was playing a lively tune.

This was quite the jolliest group of all, and the one towards which any sensible person would have gravitated, I thought. I was instantly drawn to it myself, and would have made my way down there as quickly and discreetly as I could - had not the one which contained Mrs Avril Wilmot and her daughter stood immediately in my way. There they sat, on a pair of armless chairs just inside the door; flanked on one side by Will Macauley, and on the other by Rose and - more surprisingly perhaps - David Porteous; so that anybody entering must pause to talk with them a while, or seem to have delivered a resounding snub. Rose stood to introduce me – Will would have jumped to his feet too, I thought, and did give me the friendliest possible smile; but was so much intertwined at that moment with Angelica, who had snuggled as close to him as she could, a good deal more on his seat than her own... that the physical act of rising to greet me was temporarily beyond his powers.

Mrs Wilmot gave me a tight little ‘how do you do?’, and something which passed for her as a smile; then closed her lips again, looked down, and resumed her knitting. It was not an encouraging beginning, and had seemed to tell me more clearly than further words could do, that she supposed, from the look of me, I must be of the enemy brigade; that I found her more or less marooned there in hostile territory, but that after all she was not entirely without allies - she had Mrs Mountjoy, and Mr Porteous in her camp for a start; and was in any case prepared to stand her ground until she had got what she had come for.

What she had come for was still the dance that Will had promised her, apparently; though it fell to Rose to give me an account of how matters stood on that particular front at present. They had evidently been talking it over before I arrived, and had reached their own conclusions as to what would be the best way forward now. Rose had a bright little spot of colour in either cheek, and a peculiarly steely glitter in her eyes. David Porteous, sitting immediately behind her, had for once nothing whatever to say; though had folded his hands in the customary manner, and wore his most contemplative smile. Angelica had wriggled a little closer to Will if that were possible; she was pretty, I thought – oh, startlingly so: she had the bluest eyes, the purest, loveliest complexion. But it seemed to me she was the clinging, simpering sort; she would cloy in time, I thought – and I wondered if Rose had perhaps decided against taking her in hand, for the purpose of exacting revenge? Of them all, only Will Macauley – kind, well-meaning, but ultimately rather blundering Will - had the grace to look just a little discomfited by it all. His smile held a kind of mute apology, and seemed to tell me he would put matters right at once, if only he knew how.

Rose spoke at last, and her tone was brisk. “Avril and Angelica have decided to come to me for a day or two” she informed me. “They are packed and ready, and will make the move directly after tea. We thought it better that way. Not everyone here is in favour of the dance, you see – but Will has given his promise on it, and so of course it must take place. We propose to hire the village hall if necessary, and hold it there – so that people may attend or not, just as they see fit.”

As declarations of open warfare went, I thought it breath-taking. I was uncertain of how to respond to it however, and must have stood gaping a little - but was spared the necessity of an immediate reply by the arrival at that moment of Bill, and Belle, and Lady Macauley, who came in splendid procession, with the Meades, and tea-trays following.

“And what is it, pray, that people may attend or not as they see fit....?” Lady Macauley had caught the last part of Rose’s remarks, and her answering challenge came clear as a bell for all the room to hear. There was a sudden hush, even the notes of Imogen Porteous’s piano abruptly fading away. I’m not sure that I had ever felt as fond, or as proud of Lady Macauley as I did at that moment. She was the oldest person there, and must have seen herself as suddenly beleaguered in her own house. It can only have come as an unpleasant shock to her to know that David Porteous, and even Rose, had apparently decamped to the other side; but if she felt it she gave no sign, and stood proud, and indomitable as any queen.

The hush in the room was of but a moment’s duration, before people resumed their positions and began discreetly murmuring to one another again. David Porteous stepped gallantly forward to relieve the Meades of one or another of their trays; Mrs Wilmot knitted fiercely on, while Rose, who had winced a little at the direct assault, seemed girding herself for a bold response. Belle was mortified - and Alice Macauley, at a distance, had thrown looks of deep annoyance, first at her husband, then her son. Angelica wound an arm through Will’s, and did her best to hold him captive with her lovely eyes....

And Bill - I can’t be absolutely sure of this, but it seemed to me he looked my way, and broadly winked.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

"Let battle begin"

The remark was Bill’s, delivered to me in the hall of the Macauley house this afternoon, just before I made my way upstairs to the long gallery, where I had been told that tea was shortly to be served. He had been down in the kitchen helping Belle prepare the tea-trays, but had dashed upstairs to the hall when he saw me coming, just to prepare me for what I was likely to find.

"The two opposing sides are gathered.” he told me. Which was to say, apparently, that Alice Macauley sat queen-like and immovable in her corner, and Mrs Avril Wilmot, doggedly knitting, in hers. A stretch of something like twenty feet of gallery floor separated the two: it was symbolic, Bill said, of the ideological gulf which lay between them; Mrs Wilmot having resolved that her girl should have the promised ‘dance', come what may - and Alice being equally determined that she shouldn’t. Lady Macauley hadn’t yet appeared; but she had made up her mind to do so at last, and in fact Belle had just that moment gone upstairs to fetch her. Bill guessed that when she did come, it would be to take up station somewhere in the middle; since, although her loyalties might be thought to have lain with Alice in this affair, she’d have the deepest possible aversion to acknowledging the fact, and would be at pains to make it clear that she aligned herself with neither side.

Bill seems to take the jocular view of the situation on the whole. Well, what else in the world could a fundamentally peace-loving man do, he wanted to know, when beset by warring women on every side? The old lady had drafted in a contingent of relative outsiders for today’s occasion, he went on to tell me; presumably in the belief that her greatest safety lay in numbers, and that the dreadful Mrs Wilmot might actually take fright, and run away. For his own part, Bill thought this highly unlikely. “She has sat it out these seven days” he observed; “She has weathered befriendment by Rose Mountjoy, and church with David Porteous - she sure as hell isn’t going to give the game up now.” He seemed to have formed a sneaking admiration for Mrs Avril Wilmot; who, though out-gunned and out-numbered on every front, had nevertheless kept staunchly to her post. “She’s nothing if not a trooper” he laughed. “She sees the glittering prize still within her grasp, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to give it up without a fight.”

I told him that I thought his levity rather misplaced on this occasion. “There is the happiness of two young people at stake here after all” I reminded him. “It’s not just some game got up for your personal amusement.“

But “Oh come now Bea, don’t go all judgmental on me now!” was all he had to say to that. “There have to be some perks you know. Especially when you consider that if it were not for this little shindig of the old lady’s, Belle and I might have been married by now – and all at our ease in Tuscany, seeing the grapes brought in! I tell you, it takes a lot to keep me sitting here watching which way this contentious woman or that might jump! And for what purpose in the end, after all? Since it’s entirely on the cards that young Will himself will get bored with the whole thing, and take up with some other girl entirely.”

I confessed that I hadn’t seen in quite that light myself, but that after all there was probably something in what he said - though I wondered if he had any other girl in particular, in mind? I didn’t want to quarrel with him over it anyway – and especially not at the very moment in which I must go up and confront the scene in question myself. I had just one last thing to ask him before I took the plunge and went upstairs: I wanted to know if he hadn’t found an ally in Jack Macauley? Another man, after all – had there not been solidarity of a sort, in that? But Bill replied that he thought he could probably look for little support from Jack; who though a thoroughly affable fellow, and one who seemed very well contented with his lot in life, had nevertheless discovered that to take sides in a family like this was without exception fatal, and had long ago settled for a quiet life.

“He’ll take the line of least resistance, sensible man” was Bill’s view of the position of Jack Macauley. “Which means that whatever he might think in private, he’ll agree publicly in every essential with his wife.”

He said he must leave me at that point; he had tea-trays to see to – for to just such banalities as those, had his life been temporarily reduced! He said it with good humour though; and I could see that, much like Jack Macauley, he was not entirely discontented with his present lot. For my own part, nothing remained but that I must climb the stairs and brave the confrontation. I had just time, before making my way across the series of empty rooms that led to the long gallery, to reflect that Bill’s account of the Jack Macauley marriage had differed in several important respects from the one I had received yesterday, from Rose.

Rose seldom visits me these days, for reasons which I understand only too well; but she did call yesterday, awash with indignation at what she called ‘the emasculation of poor Jack by Alice’. She had always known it would happen of course, she was quick to tell me that. With women like Alice – high-handed, possessive women who gobbled up their men ... with women of that sort a man must either sink or swim; and she knew of few who, once seized, had ever made it back to shore. But she could weep, she said, to see all Jack’s youthful ‘gorgeousness’, all that glamour and splendid joie de vivre, reduced to this! What ‘this’ was, she hadn’t heart quite to particularise for me: I would see it soon enough for myself, she said. But she wanted me to know that the Jack Macauley who sat stolidly in his mother’s drawing room today (“he’s grown rather portly, you know!”) was but a sad remnant of the young man she had known and adored.

Of Alice herself, Rose had had little to say – save that she had aged, as one would have expected her to do, ‘pretty well’. “The perfect cheekbones don’t collapse” as Rose put it. “And the fair hair turns grey imperceptibly – so that you can’t tell if she colours it or not. And then, what has she ever had to trouble her after all? She has all that she ever wanted in life; which is to say her husband, her castle, and her son – in that order!”

Only on the question of Alice’s attitude to Mrs Wilmot and Angelica, did Rose’s account bear any resemblance to Bill’s. “She’s quite as implacably opposed to the match as her mother-in-law is” was Rose’s view. “And she means to see it through to the bitter end. Oh, she’ll do nothing violent, that’s not her way. But she’ll see the Wilmots routed, or she’ll be damned!”

It was with these words of Rose’s echoing in my ears, and with the knowledge that I should require every ounce of courage and diplomacy I might possess, that I finally pushed open the door of the long gallery, and entering, took the measure of the assembled guests.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

"A thin little, grim little woman with a penchant for knitted skirt suits"

That was Pamela’s account of the appearance and character of Mrs Avril Wilmot, whose arrival at the Macauley house two days ago has upset Lady Macauley to such an extent that she has taken to her rooms threatening not to re-emerge, not even for the occasional tea-time. She hopes there will not be too many tea-times for anyone to have to endure, in fact. She can’t see how she has been brought to such a strait, and she holds Jack and Alice entirely responsible for it. It is like Alice, she says, to have introduced a horror into somebody else’s house, and then taken her own sweet time about coming down to pick up the burden of it. But until she does; until, that is, she deigns to appear herself, and take this preposterous personage off one’s hands - well, Lady Macauley declines to have any further part in it, and means to keep strictly to her own apartments.

It’s hard to see how such an impasse could have been reached so quickly; but Pamela believes it was probably accomplished within the first five minutes, shortly after Mrs Wilmot had stationed herself beside her small wheel-along suitcase at the foot of the stairs, and then looked about as if she expected to see a host of servants come running to try to wrest it from her. Pamela doesn’t know what it can have contained – the family silver, she had supposed, from the manner in which Mrs Wilmot had clung to it, insisting upon trying to bump it up the stairs herself, and then only with extreme reluctance being persuaded to give it up to Bill.

Nor were her opening remarks calculated to endear her to her hostess – she having seemed to sniff the air in the hall and find it objectionable on the whole; before casting a sceptical eye from floor to ceiling and up the stairs, and remarking, to no-one in particular, that it must be “very cold and inconvenient” to inhabit such a house; and that for her own part, a house with the ordinary number of living and bedrooms had always seemed quite sufficient.

“She wonders why she has been invited there at all” Pamela tells me. And I should point out that Pamela did not actually witness any of these events herself. She was not a member of the welcoming party for Mrs Wilmot and her daughter, and has had to take her impressions second hand from Rose. Which makes one marvel at her apparent omniscience, whilst at the same time doubting its absolute veracity.... Still, for what her remarks are worth, I give them to you; they being at present all I have.

“She doesn’t say as much of course” Pamela went on, quite as if she had been privy to it all herself. “She doesn’t have to, apparently - her sniffs, and the fierce offended air she maintains at lunch, and tea tables, saying it all for her.... But she conducts constant stage-whispered conversations with her daughter behind her hands; she glares at poor Will at every opportunity, as if challenging him to tell her what he has meant by introducing her and her innocent girl into this hostile house – and altogether she creates the impression that she hasn’t yet got so far as to unpack her bags, and is ready to leave at a moment’s notice and in the highest possible dudgeon, if matters don’t soon improve.

Will has been very rash and foolish, according to Pamela; making all kinds of promises he can’t possibly hope to see fulfilled. “He’s clearly quite besotted with the girl, and determined to get himself engaged to her - it was probably the only way he could see of getting her mother to bring her there at all!“ He had promised them among other things, ‘a dance’, apparently; and Mrs Wilmot had come there altogether in the expectation of that. Rather, Pamela fears, in the manner of one who had supposed that the visit was to be a kind of old-fashioned debutante affair, and she the mother of the most promising girl.... Pamela suspects that her little suitcase is probably stuffed with clothes for every kind of magnificent occasion. For Angelica, at least: Angelica, as heroine of the hour, must shine with unsurpassable radiance – whilst for Angelica’s mother, well, the ubiquitous little knitted skirt suit (“she has one in every colour; she has almost certainly has knitted them herself”)... the 'rather horrid little knitted skirt suit' must suffice.

It had begun to seem to me by now, that whilst I knew a good deal about Will Macauley, and most of what there was to know about Mrs Avril Wilmot, of the girl herself I had heard very little. I ventured a question or two therefore. Was she as pretty as everyone said, I wanted to know? And did Pamela feel that she returned Will’s affection?

“Oh well ....” Pamela had a rather conspiratorial look for it now. “She is extremely pretty of course, I’ll give her that. She has a head of fluffy blonde curls, and the kind of complexion that makes you want to look, and look again. Rose puts it down to expert makeup – and Rose should know! She’s one of those girls who intimidates you from behind the cosmetics counter in Selfridges you know – it was there that Will found her in fact: he was looking for something to buy for his mother.... But, so far as returning his affection goes – well, returning it is one thing, Rose says; demonstrating the fact quite another...”

“I have only Rose’s word for it of course, having witnessed none of it for myself...” Pamela was thoroughly into her conversational stride by now, and would clearly have been impervious to any interjections of mine. “But Rose is positively of the opinion – and just between you and me, was rather coarse about it in fact... Rose has somehow got hold of the idea that Angelica is withholding her favours until marriage itself. ‘Playing the Anne Boleyn card’, Rose calls it. Leading poor, lovelorn, lusting Will the kind of dance that can end only in marriage - or nothing whatever. She has taken some kind of a vow of virginity, Rose thinks. She wears a little bracelet to that effect – it’s a current craze among young girls apparently; especially those who have taken up with the Evangelical belt.... Rose thinks it likely that Mrs Wilmot belongs to an evangelical movement of one kind or another. It would be the sort of thing she’d do – though it’s hard to see her engaging in the happy, clappy sort of thing required...“

“Rose thinks it rather clever of the girl, at any rate. Or, clever of her mother, if such a thing could be thought possible – which Rose is inclined to doubt. Very much more likely, in her view, that Mrs Wilmot takes the jaded, or in her case simply the sceptical view of men’s intentions generally, and of Will Macauley’s in particular. She has probably been badly used by some man herself – she has that look, and to date there has been no mention of a Mr Wilmot! She has raised her daughter with the idea that all men are ‘after one thing and one only’, and has urged her to ‘hold out’. Till marriage itself, if possible; but at least until an announcement has been made, and she has a ring very firmly on her finger.“

It occurred to me at this point to wonder what Rose's own intentions might be? If, that was, she still meant to take Mrs Wilmot and Angelica under her wing, for the purpose of wreaking revenge upon Lady Macauley? It was an intriguing question. But on the whole, I thought I had probably learnt enough at second (or call it third) hand for one day. There was a degree of prurience about it, to my mind; I had a sudden need to hear it from a different angle – preferably from Bill’s. My cold is very much better, besides; I have been judged fit to go into Lady Macauley’s presence again, and tomorrow, I shall doubtless see some of these wonderful things enacted, and be in a position to judge them for myself.