Saturday, 7 July 2007

Progress of the party

“Oh good lord, just look at Mummy now!” cried Belle Macauley, as she and Frances and I carried our trays out into the garden on the afternoon of my tea-party last week. “First she gate-crashed your party, and now she seems to have appropriated it –and is behaving just as if she thought it were her own!”

It was true that in the fifteen minutes or so during which we had been busy in the kitchen, Lady Macauley had succeeded not only in acquainting herself with most of my guests, but also in collecting what had all the appearance of a little coterie around her, at the table in the gazebo. David Porteous was there, and so were his daughters. Amy, the pretty fair-haired younger one was seated beside her on the right, listening, and smiling, and doing her best to seem at ease; while her sister Imogen, dark-eyed and sharply glancing, sat looking distinctly uncomfortable on her left. Imogen at least seemed unmoved by anything that Lady Macauley was saying to her; and there was that about her expression which seemed to say she would exert herself, conversationally, for no old woman, not even the very grandest or most presumptuous; and that she had almost certainly been dragged there by her father entirely against her will.

Imogen’s skirt was very short and her legs, by contrast, very long. So that none of the men present knew quite what to do with their eyes. I noticed Bill’s eyes, and those of the Brigadier, being drawn, and riveted a moment, before they collected themselves, and sharply looked away. Even poor Roland was affected – though a severe sideways glance from Pamela soon pulled him up, and restored his gaze to a more proper contemplation of a clump of trees in the middle distance. Imogen herself seemed oblivious of the attention she was receiving. Or if she saw it, which I thought likely, chose to disregard it; doubtless telling herself there were better ways to spend an afternoon than sitting about in somebody’s garden being ogled by a group of rather dreadful old men.

Rose was in the gazebo too; sitting somewhat behind the others, and looking a little stiff, I thought, as if she believed her rightful place had on this occasion been usurped. She was doing her best to engage the attention of David Porteous; but I could see it was a losing battle, for he was leaning back in his seat with his customary meditative look, and evidently had eyes and ears, and the occasional small, carefully measured smile, only for Lady Macauley and his daughters. Most of my other guests, among whom were Pamela and Roland, stood about in little groups just outside the gazebo, chatting among themselves as apparently nonchalantly as they could, but glancing inwards all the while, as if they hoped at any moment to receive the call to climb the steps and join the inner circle.

Lady Macauley looked up at our approach, and called blithely to us. “I think I’m going to like your Mr Porteous after all!” she cried. “He has all the priestly virtues and none of the drawbacks so far as I can see. Only think of it – we have been together full ten minutes, and he hasn’t raised the question of my immortal soul once!”

Belle winced, and her sigh of resignation was long and deep. “What can you do with her?” she softly wailed. “The fact is, I gave up trying long ago – and can only hope you’ll excuse her impertinence on the grounds of her extreme old age. Though the truth is she has been impertinent all her life, and age has really nothing whatever to do with it!”

Neither Frances nor I knew quite how to respond to this, and were glad to be spared the effort of attempting it, by the arrival in our midst of David Porteous, and Bill, and Bill’s brigadier, who had come to insist upon relieving us of our trays. The trays disposed, and tea laid out, a little flurry of introductions followed. David brought Frances forward to be presented to Lady Macauley, who looked hard at her a moment, before extending a languid hand and murmuring something vague which seemed to contain a reference to her engagement, and her grandmother... This caused a momentary awkwardness: producing on Frances’s part a deep blush, and on Belle’s, another sharp intake of breath. For as each of them knew only too well, there had existed between the Macauleys and Frances’s grandmother, a fierce mutual animosity that had soured relations from the first moment, and had never been resolved.

Lady Macauley chose to ignore old feuds today however; though it was clear that Frances herself held very little interest for her, and she had turned, the next moment, to call Belle over to be introduced to David Porteous. This was the moment Belle had dreaded, of course. I felt for her acutely, and had just time, before moving on to welcome and talk to other guests, to witness her response to it. I had wondered how she would fare beneath that particular considered scrutiny, and I hoped her nerve would hold. I believe it did; though I could not help but see how taken aback she was, by the unexpectedly powerful physical presence of the man. I believe that the momentary touch of his hand produced little shocks in her, just as it had once done in me - and that it had suddenly become of vital importance to her that she should not stumble in his presence, or say anything which he might consider dull, or foolish.

It is the lot of the hostess though, to be able to involve herself only peripherally in her own party. I was obliged to leave the group in the gazebo at that point, to move about among my other guests. Tea must be served, and everyone made as welcome, and as much at their ease as it was in my power to do. Bill helped where he could – especially with Pamela, for whose sake, in a sense, the party had been convened; and with whom he in fact took the kind of trouble that I knew he couldn’t possibly be enjoying. I saw him engaged in long and earnest conversation with Roland, for example – for which act of heroic self-denial I vowed to repay him with especial acts of sisterly kindness in the future.

I was able to return now and then to the gazebo, where Lady Macauley continued to hold court with David Porteous and his daughters. I was glad to see that Frances was now of the group, and that David leant towards her confidingly enough at regular intervals, evidently doing his best to keep her involved in what was mostly Lady Macauley’s conversation. I caught only disjointed snatches of that conversation myself; though was able to observe that Lady Macauley was taking a good deal of trouble with Imogen Porteous, and that the girl herself was perceptibly, if still somewhat reluctantly, unbending. They appeared at one point to be talking about the excitement of living at what Lady Macauley had called ‘the throbbing centre of that great heart, the capital’...

“It must be very thrilling” I heard Lady Macauley say to the girl. “ I can quite see how for a young girl there could be no other life that could match it. Rose is a great one for the capital, you know. She goes up to Covent Garden to the opera constantly – I’m always trying to get my own poor Belle to go with her. The opera is so uplifting, don’t you think? One always comes away from it somehow feeling like Carmen or Violetta....”

Imogen Porteous seemed uncertain of how she ought to respond to this. Her look seemed to say that she had never felt especially like Carmen or Violetta herself – though she murmured something to the effect that she was sure it was very uplifting, but that she seldom found the time herself – much less the hundred pounds – that one seemed to require for going to hear it. It was not much, but it was a beginning,it seemed to me. The girl had not been altogether ungracious in her reply, and I could see that for Lady Macauley at least, there was something here which she thought it would probably amuse her to try to cultivate.

Pamela remained my primary pre-occupation though. I had resolved to grant her an audience with Lady Macauley if I could – the only difficulty lay in finding a way to achieve it without appearing too eager, or too obvious. Bill it was in fact, who finally had the inspiration that was to bring it off. He told me later that it had suddenly come to him that there must be some recompense for having listened for half an hour to Roland Baines drone on about the inequity of the country’s taxation policy, and all the little ruses he’d devised for getting round it... And then it had come to him. Only put them together, he’d thought: Lady M with her obsession about being robbed, posthumously, by the taxman - and Roland Baines with all his dry-as-dust little formulae for avoiding it!

The miracle was, it worked. It involved a kind of gate-crashing of the gazebo on Bill’s part of course. But then Bill has gate-crashed more perilous places than a gazebo in an English garden. And in any case there is nothing in the world that Bill can do that will not bring the light of amusement to Lady Macauley’s eyes. She suffered the curious intrusion of Bill with a Baines on either arm more or less without turning a hair. She did raise a quizzical eyebrow for a moment; but she nonetheless sat perfectly still and listened for a full ten minutes; and it was clear that, dull as he was, she found every word of Roland’s very much to her purpose. She ended almost by enveloping the astonished man in a lavender-scented embrace.

“What an impossibly clever creature you are to have thought-up all that!” she cried. “You have probably saved me more thousands than you can ever imagine, and I and my descendents will have cause to sing your praises forever!”

I doubt that Roland Baines has been the recipient of such extravagant praise from such a source in his life before; and I doubt still more that he will ever receive anything of the kind again. He positively beamed in the glow of it though, and so did Pamela. And if my little party achieved nothing else, it achieved this: that Pamela now has a perfect bi-line for any luncheon party she ever attends. “Dear Lady Macauley!“ she will be in a position to say with perfect impunity wherever she goes; “Such a friend of mine you know – especially since Roland saved her such a deal of money on the question of her inheritance tax...”

So far as Mr Porteous and his daughters are concerned – well, I believe they have already received their first invitation to go to tea at the Macauley house. Whether Imogen will consent to go or not, I can’t be sure - and I confess I’m even less sure about how all this will affect Belle's equanimity, or Frances's engagement. But on the whole I think I can claim that my little party achieved most of its desired ends. And after all, one can’t expect to have got absolutely everything right at just one attempt, can one?

I have amended the text to show that Part One now ends with this instalment rather than with the other, earlier one. Part Two will therefore begin with the next instalment.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Lady Macauley meets Mr Porteous

When Lady Macauley met David Porteous for the first time in my garden one day last week, Bill said it was as if the earth had lurched a moment on its axis, then collecting itself, made a grinding sound and started turning again. I said I thought this far-fetched, even for him; and he admitted that he might have exaggerated a bit. But all the same, he insisted that it had been an arresting moment; during which the assembled company, if not perhaps the earth itself, had held its breath to see which way this particular pair was going to jump.

That Lady Macauley had jumped first, I was not surprised to learn. Nor that she had put out her hand and with a smile that withheld more than it conferred, said “So you are the famous Mr Porteous? I had been wondering what you would look like, and now I see that reports have not been exaggerated. I hope you will come and visit me one day, and tell me what a man does who has given up the Cloth to go adventuring, and abandoned his dog collar for a silk tie.”

I found it difficult to credit that even Lady Macauley could have gone so far as that in the first moments of a meeting. But Bill assured me that it was so – give or take an embellishment or two of his own for the sake of dramatic effect. “The gist of what she said was just as I give it to you. She took the wind right out of his sails for a minute – though I admit that some of the imagery is probably invented, and probably my own. She stood her ground at any rate, and he stood his. I don’t remember precisely what it was he said in reply. Only that he gave her his most effective grey-eyed look, and somehow managed to convey the impression that she might like or dislike him as she would; it was all the same to him, since her approval was not absolutely essential to his happiness.”

I received the distinct impression that Bill had felt a grudging admiration for David Porteous at the moment he described. He would never admit to it of course: he would insist that his personal dislike of the man remained unaltered. But there is something in Bill which delights above all in the irony of a thing - and it was clear to me there had been a moment of exquisite pleasure for him, in seeing Lady Macauley being taken on so effectively at her own game. “What’s obvious is that they will be friends of sorts” he ended by telling me. “It will be something of a battlefield of course - and poor Belle will doubtless be caught in the crossfire. That aspect of it saddens me immeasurably. But all the same, as spectator sports go, it promises to keep us entertained for weeks to come.”

I was glad he'd had the grace at least to think of Belle’s likely discomfort. It proved he was not entirely without heart or scruple, I told him. I only wondered if he had also thought to ask himself how all this was going to affect poor Frances – and am glad to be able to report that at this reminder, his gaiety received a visible check. That Frances must also be rendered uncomfortable by the association was clear even to him. But then everything about this engagement of hers was uncomfortable to Frances, he said; and the only thing we could do was continue to stand by her, and try to see her though whatever events should follow.

All this took place on the one fine afternoon we had last week. It had rained incessantly; we have so far had the most miserable summer. And now the ugly spectre of terrorism has raised its head again, in the form of explosive devices left in cars in London and Glasgow.... Happily, the devices were discovered before harm was done; and in any case it is not of them I mean to write today (or any day) ... The potential bombs were there, but horrible as they were, can hardly be allowed to intrude on the story. All that need concern us here is that on the one afternoon last week upon which I had invited a small group of friends to tea in the garden, the rain was merciful. It ceased for an hour or two, the sun came out and we were able to gather in the garden in the vicinity of what I persist in regarding as ‘David Porteous’s gazebo’.

That this group included Frances, and therefore Mr Porteous, had somehow seemed to dictate that it could not also include Lady Macauley and Belle. It was unfortunate, but inescapable; Belle having herself on several occasions expressed her misgivings about Mr Porteous’s likely impact on her mother, and the awful repercussions it would almost certainly have for her. No amount of his being engaged to someone else would deter her mother, Belle feared, if she should take it into her head that he would be an amusing new acquaintance – or worse, a suitable man for Belle to try to captivate! Belle had been down this road before, many times; and could only entreat us, heart in mouth, to try to keep them apart as long as possible.

It hadn't seemed a great deal to ask. Besides which, neither Bill nor I had reason to wish to promote David Porteous’s cause in the village – though we were at pains not to seem to demote it either of course, for Frances’s sake. My little party had been got together largely in Pamela’s interests, if the truth be known. I had been conscious for some time that she was feeling rather side-lined these days, by the closeness of Bill’s and my new association with the Macauleys. I disliked the idea that factions had grown up in the village; and that to consent to belong to one group, seemed necessarily to preclude one’s also belonging to any other. I had wanted Pamela to see that my friendship with Belle Macauley and her mother in no way interfered with that longer-standing one I had with her; and so I had invited her and Roland to tea in the garden, along with three other couples; among whom, of course, were Frances and David Porteous.

David’s daughters had happened to be staying at the manor house at the time, so Frances had phoned ahead to ask if she might bring them too; and so it was a group of a dozen persons that was gathered in the garden at the moment when the Macauley Daimler pulled up in the road outside. It seemed to hover there a moment; during which Lady Macauley herself peered out, and was seen to enter into some sort of heated discussion with Belle, who was driving. After which the car swung round abruptly, and proceeded to reverse slowly into our little forecourt.

I was in the kitchen with Frances preparing tea at the time, so was able to view proceedings only through the window, and from a distance of something like twenty five yards. But I saw Lady Macauley climb out of the car and make her way without assistance – with considerable speed and agility indeed – through the front gate and all the way along the length of the garden to the spot, right at the bottom, where the little group of my guests was assembled. What happened at the moment of her finally reaching the group was obscured for me by Bill’s pergola, now in splendid full bloom of roses and jasmine. And in any case, Belle herself had suddenly appeared in the kitchen in a state of acute mortification. She was overcome with embarrassment, poor woman; so that I was obliged to turn away from the garden, and give all my attention to her.

"Mummy has done it again!" she cried. ”She has gate-crashed your party, and I hardly know what to say in excuse of her! She would have me pull up outside, just to see if anything was ‘going on’, as she put it.... And then she saw the people gathered, and heard laughter and talk, and that was it. She said she was sure you wouldn’t mind if we came in to join your party – and was halfway up the path before I’d even had a chance to stop the engine! I’ve never seen her gallop off at such speed – it shows she can do it when she wishes! But Rose has followed her in - and will head her off and bring her back, if you’d really much rather we shouldn’t stay...”

In the face of such sincere embarrassment, what could I say, what do – except of course insist that nothing would give me greater pleasure than that they should all stay and join the party? Which in a sense was true. I had a sort of fatalistic feeling about it now, and had come to think that this was a meeting that was bound to have happened sooner or later anyway. I introduced Frances; adding, rather awkwardly I thought, that they were probably acquainted with one another very well by sight, yet had perhaps never quite met... And then I asked Belle if she would mind carrying one of the trays we had prepared, and come down with us to the gazebo to join the other guests....

Alas though, the word count has already exceeded my allotted fifteen hundred! There is no Google ruling that I know of, to limit the number of words one may post – but I am nervous of exhausting the patience of possible readers, and so I pause here; hoping to return tomorrow or thereabouts, to finish relating this really rather pivotal part of the story....