Friday, 1 June 2007

A little tale of long ago

Rose Mountjoy called here yesterday; teetering up the garden path on her three-inch heels, perfectly dressed, and coiffed, and made-up as usual. I was reminded of something I’d heard Lady Macauley say about her: that it remains one of life’s mysteries to Belle and her, that feat of transformation by which Rose manages to make sixty look like forty every morning, from the application of something she gets out of jars and bottles. Privately, Lady Macauley is glad there’s no longer a husband in the case - since she fears it must involve some rather startling disclosures at bedtime.

I had time to think of this while I waited for Rose; she having first spotted Bill at work in his vegetable garden, and called blithely across to him to come and join us for coffee in the kitchen. She is a woman quite without any of the ordinary scruples in life, and can make these large assumptions. She was quite oblivious of the look of pure dislike Bill cast in her direction; and nor did it seem to have occurred to her that I might not have wished to be broken in upon unannounced, at ten o’clock in the morning. She wanted to mull the party over with me; which was sufficient grounds for her. So that, having been rather brusquely dismissed by Bill, she simply teetered on up the path to me anyway, settling herself on her favourite kitchen stool, as if for the duration.

Not that she didn’t finally make it worth my while to give up my morning to her, mind you. She has a breezy style of conversation, and is in possession of all the facts. She told me that Pamela is nursing a wounded spirit, having felt herself and Roland rather snubbed at Lady Macauley’s party. Roland doesn’t think they ought to accept, the next time an invitation comes, apparently. “Which is quite a joke of course” Rose observed. “ since they were only ever invited at all at my special invocation, and it’s a feat I’m unlikely to be able to accomplish a second time.” She also told me why it was that Frances and Mr Porteous had not attended the party. “We don’t go everywhere we are invited” was what Frances had said, in answer to Rose’s direct question on the subject. Rose had thought it just a little stiff, for Frances. “She speaks with his voice now, you’ll note” she observed. “She expresses his very sentiments.” It’s Rose’s idea that the invitation had in fact arrived rather late, affronting Mr Porteous’s ideas about what is due to Frances as lady of the manor. “Not to mention those that he thinks are due to himself!” she added; “In whatever capacity it is he now sees himself in occupancy there!”

All this was sufficiently indiscreet - and just sufficiently interesting - to make me feel my morning was not being entirely ill-spent. Though I did experience a certain culpability, in consenting to discuss Frances like that, with Rose. And I was glad Bill was not there to hear it, since I feared he might have felt impelled to pull us both up rather short. I’m not sure how we made the transition from Frances to the Macauleys. But make it we somehow did, and swiftly; so that I was suddenly hearing a rather remarkable little story about the early Jack Macauley, and my attention was engaged at once.

“You know of course that Theodora wasn’t Jack Macauley’s first or greatest love, don’t you….?” was the way that Rose embarked on her story. I hadn't known, but was eager to do so; and what followed was a little tale of such piquancy – such poignancy almost – that I can do no better than try to reproduce it here word for word, just as she told it to me…

“ Oh no, his great love had come much earlier, when he was only a boy. He was a poor boy, a miner’s son – that much all the world knows, so it’s nothing new. But what the world doesn’t generally know is the little love story that probably kicked-off his rise to riches. His father was incapacitated in the mines when Jack was only twelve, you see; and he, as the eldest of six, was obliged to leave school and find work that would support the family. His mother resisted the idea of his going down the mines himself, so he was apprenticed to the local grocer instead. He started as errand boy, in which capacity he had to make up the baskets for delivery each morning, and then cycle about the village on a large bicycle with an oversized basket in front, to dispatch them in the afternoons. He had never owned a bicycle before, so there was a certain glamour about it at first – though he soon came to hate it, for the foolish figure it seemed to make of him..."

"One of his regular deliveries was to the rectory, a big house on the outskirts of the village, where lived the local rector and his wife and daughter. The rector himself was of the old school, and rather grand - quite the Trollopian sort, I believe. But he’d married beneath himself; carried away in a moment of madness, or so the story goes, by the golden ringlets and winning smiles of the prettiest and silliest of little local girls. Little Miss Ringlets carried him off, and in no time acquired all the airs and graces she thought befitted a rector’s wife. So that by the time it came Jack Macauley’s lot to fall in her way, she was quite the finest, proudest, most condescending woman in the village.”

“Nothing that Jack Macauley brought in his basket was ever good enough for the discerning Mrs Rector. She would make him stand holding his bicycle while she peered into boxes and examined eggs and carrots - and as often as not her young daughter peered and examined right along with her, quite as impossible to please as she. The girl’s own look told Jack clearly enough what she thought of him – that he was a great gallumphing ungainly fellow, and probably smelt bad, to boot. She would draw her little skirts about her to avoid contact with him if he came too near. And when she was not busying herself with finding fault with his groceries, she would cast scornful glances at his out-at-the-elbow jacket, and big, scuffed, horribly over-sized boots..."

"The little girl’s name was Milly - though I’ve always somehow seen her as Estella from Great Expectations … it seems she had just that same proud disdainful air … But she also had her mother’s enchantingly light blue eyes, and a head of shining ringlets tied with ribbons; she wore the crispest, prettiest little dresses, and a pair of tiny lace-up boots. And big, shambling, tongue-tied Jack Macauley was smitten from the first moment, worshipping her from afar...”

“He would lie awake at nights, trying to think of ways in which he might appear more manly in Milly’s eyes. He would have a haircut, acquire a better pair of boots….. But somehow there was never money enough left over, and so he must shamble on, ill-shod and despised. This state of affairs lasted for about a year – after which a new errand boy was taken on, and Jack Macauley progressed to slicing bacon, and serving behind the counter of the shop. He seldom saw Milly after that, though he always looked for her, and hoped that one day she would come into the shop … "

"It was an infatuation that was never to leave him. And there are those who say that his later success was founded entirely on that. It can certainly have been no accident that the first articles of his manufacture were boots and shoes – and that only later did he move into the world of department stores. He was always hoping that Milly and her mother might come into one of his stores one day, and find something there that was good enough for them at last…”

Rose had got up from her stool at this point, to pour herself another cup of coffee. But she quickly climbed up again to resume her tale; and I was not disposed to do anything to stop her.

“It sounds an improbable story perhaps – and yet I’ve never thought it so myself. A man could construct an empire on something rather less than the want of a pair of shiny boots, it seems to me – though whether Milly or her mother ever did walk into one of his stores to be impressed, remains unknown. And Jack Macauley himself moved on at speed after that of course. His stores covered five counties in the end - there must have come a day when he thought himself good enough even for proud Milly and her mother!"

"But by then it was too late. Milly had grown up and married, and gone away. Jack Macauley himself was married too, soon after that - to his childhood sweetheart from the same village. But he carried the image of Milly all his life. He was always more or less looking for her – and when, more than thirty years later, a man of vast fortune and considerable substance by then, he caught sight of the young Theodora in somebody’s drawing room one night, it was not her face, but that of his lost, remembered Milly that he saw. That was why he pursued her so, you see. She had the very look, the very eyes, of Milly. So that in the face of no matter what obstacles, he must have her. He was a big enough man to do it now – and he wasn’t going to let fate cheat him of his prize a second time…”

So absorbed had I become in Rose’s story that it came as a jolt to me, when suddenly she broke off from it, turning to me with her own, everyday, rather superior smile. There was just one more thing I had to know though, before I could let her move on to other things.

“Does Lady Macauley herself know all this?” I asked her - conscious as I did so that I had been moved beyond the realms of ordinary speech by her story, and probably sounded all agog and foolish.

Rose though, was well enough acquainted with it all to be able to be quite blase about it by now. “Oh yes, she knows it well enough!” she said. “It has haunted her every day of her married life, and since. She was never able to be absolutely sure you see, whether it was herself or Milly that he loved. A man with a dream is an uncomfortable sort to live with though – and it’s my belief that Theodora never quite knew, even at the moment of his death, if Jack had quite relinquished his.”

There were a great many other questions I would have liked to put to Rose about this rather extraordinary story. But she was suddenly bored with it; had looked at her watch and cried “Heavens where has the morning gone? I ought to have been at Pamela’s half an hour ago!” - had collected her bag, and left.

All this took place yesterday, but I’m still very much pre-occupied with it. I’m not sure that I’m altogether happy to have been acquainted with Lady Macauley’s most intimate secrets. I think she would deeply dislike the idea herself - and it will certainly affect my response to her when next we meet. Rose’s indiscretions know no bounds, it seems to me: I was glad to hear her story, but all the same, she ought to have kept it to herself!

Yet now that I know it, what in the world am I to do with it? And how, come to that, am I to explain it all to Bill?

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

It rained tremendously on Lady Macauley's parade

Not even Lady Macauley can command the British bank holiday weather, it seems. But, having failed to still the wind and stop the ceaseless deluge, she turned right round anyway, and commanded her team of caterers and marquee-erectors to perform internal sleights of hand by way of recompense. Into the gloom of the Macauley house came two hundred twinkling candles therefore; came boxloads of fragrant roses, and a host of lilies, five feet tall, to stand on gilded pedestals in every corner. Twenty white-clothed tables and eighty matching chairs arrived; and a small army of smartly uniformed staff to mount guard over them. Garlands of white and yellow roses lit the ancient entrance cloister; spilling over into the hall, where stood Lady Macauley herself, who had been meant to shimmer in the garden in sea-green silk beneath a matching parasol, but had made splendid shift with softest ivory merino, instead.

The sky was dark indeed for all that, when guests began arriving at one o’clock. The heavens opened with a downpour on the hour, so that there was a great deal of scraping of feet and shedding of unceremonious mackintoshes to be got through, before the out-stretched hand of Lady Macauley could be reached. Standing beside her beneath the arch of roses throughout all the little ceremony of greeting stood my own Bill, wearing his broadest smile. So that nobody, admiring him, could have guessed at the string of oaths I’d had to hear an hour earlier, whilst harrying him into his smartest suit. Lady Macauley had asked him to arrive early for that specific purpose. She needed the arm of a big man with a hearty laugh to lean upon if she was to get through it all alive, she said; and he was the nearest equivalent it had been her good fortune to discover, since the day that Jack had left her twenty five years before.

I meanwhile had been left to arrive alone, fifteen minutes later. And I experienced a moment of panic at the door, which had very little to do with the shabby raincoat I wore – or even with the fact that I, too, had been obliged to abandon the little silk tea dress, lately and with stress acquired, in favour of something altogether more unfestive, in well-worn navy-blue wool. I felt seriously under-dressed, it’s true – but then I always do. The source of my anxiety though, lay elsewhere. I was examining Lady Macauley’s head for signs of adornment - having earlier been quite severe with Mrs Baines who, ever optimistic on the hat front, had been out the week before and bought what I can only call a perfect stonker; and who, when I’d ventured to discourage her from that, had wondered if 'a little arrangement of flowers and fernery – like the Queen wore, at Prince Edward’s wedding' might more elegantly fit the bill?

This had seemed to me, if anything, even worse. But I stood my ground and told her that I didn’t believe Lady Macauley went in for flowery arrangements on the head; and that what might have served for an afternoon wedding in Windsor Castle was probably unsuited to lunch in the garden, even at such a fine affair as this. Better, I told her, to err on the side of understatement, and go hatless, as I meant to do myself. I was not absolutely sure of my ground however; and it was not until I actually reached the door, and could confirm that Lady Macauley’s head was free from either flowers or fernery (bore only a gleaming pearl or two), that I was able to feel my caution had been justified, and Pamela could arrive at this, her first Macauley state occasion, without causing any kind of sartorial stir.

Poor Pamela was to find that she created very little stir of any kind in that company, sad to say. Large as she is, and stately; irreproachably chiffoned and with Roland always at her side, she still managed more or less to vanish in the crowd in the first moment, and was not seen again (by me at least), until four o’clock when, having found a liveried minion to collect her rain-cloak, and with Roland firmly gathered, made the stateliest kind of exit that she could. I’m not sure that her first venture into elevated circles can have been entirely to her liking; she looked seriously discountenanced when she left. And I fully expect a phone call from her tomorrow, in which she will tell me that she was rather disappointed with Lady Macauley’s arrangements; that almost everybody there was eighty five at least, that the house was cold and unwelcoming for all the candles, and that Roland’s sorrel soup, when finally he’d got it, was if anything colder still.

Pamela’s discomfort aside, it was a splendid occasion. We stood a while for drinks and canapes in the hall, serenaded by a group of musicians installed in the open gallery above, who made none but the sweetest, softest sounds. So that Lady Macauley, firmly attached to a beaming Bill, could circulate just as softly and sweetly, staying no more than a moment or two with each group, but smiling charmingly to every one; before the moment came at which a gong was sounded in some deep recess, and we must all ascend the rose-strewn staircase to the long gallery, where the twenty tables and eighty chairs had been arranged.

Lunch itself was a formal affair of several courses – and I have to say that my own sorrel soup was exquisite, and of a temperature perfectly judged. Not that Pamela hadn’t got a point, mind you, when she said that everyone there was eighty five at least. My own table companions were an elderly diplomat and his wife; he hard of hearing, so that I was required to lean towards him a good deal over my soup; and she, impressive in moth-balled velvet, of a turn of conversation I could only think to describe as statuesque, like herself. There was a fourth person at our table, a solitary lady whose name I didn’t catch; who wore a kind of jewelled bandana on her head, and whose conversation - save that she turned to me at one moment and observed that the band played very sweetly, did it not? - consisted largely of inaudible murmurs about ‘dear Sir Jack and the good old days’. To the end of my life, I daresay, I shall never discover precisely who that lady was, or from whence she sprang.

Lunch over, we were somehow gathered into several smaller groups, to circulate about the other rooms. I lost my diplomat and his velvet lady at this point – and the other, the one with the bandana, had somehow evaporated, never to be seen again. Belle Macauley it was, with Rose, and another nameless elderly couple, who gave us the tour of what she said were largely still the rooms of state, into which she and her mother seldom cared to venture these days. “We live almost entirely downstairs now” Belle explained. “It wasn’t like this in my father’s day of course. Then, the old bedsteads and the old pictures were stowed away in basements - Daddy couldn't abide the bosomy duchesses for a start! And every room was furnished for comfort and everyday living. But somehow, the old things have managed to creep back... Mummy had some sort of idea that we might open these rooms to the public at some point. Though she can’t bear the thought of it now, and says we might as well leave them to the ghosts.”

It seemed to me a melancholy account to give, and I wondered, again, how it was they could manage to eke out their existence in this echoing place - taking shelter, it was true, largely in ground-floor rooms and sunny basements; but with all the canopied bedsteads, all the spectral cabinets and glowering, painted duchesses, looming above them nevertheless. I was glad when at last another gong sounded, and we were summoned to the gallery again, for coffee and liqueurs. Here, brightness returned with the flickering candles, and even Jack Macauley's bosomy duchesses were subdued. And here too, after a suitable interval, and intensely to my astonishment, Bill rose to his full height from his position on the right-hand of Lady Macauley, to make a gracious, and only moderately humorous little speech of appreciation for the occasion.

After which Lady Macauley herself rose, to bid a final farewell, and leaning heavily upon Bill, was conducted away to her own apartments to rest. The party began to disperse then. Slowly, in groups of two or three, the band still playing, and with a good deal of subdued chatter at the door whilst coats were collected, everyone began to drift away. Until there were only Belle, and Rose Mountjoy and I left , standing beneath the dripping roses in the cloister to wave.

I took my own leave soon after that. Without Bill, who had been detained somewhere in impenetrable regions with the old lady (I do believe he’s halfway in love with her already, for all her advanced years!). It was only when I was home again in the gatehouse, that it occurred to me that Frances and Mr Porteous had not been present at the occasion. I was sure they had been invited, and I wondered why it was they had declined to attend …