Thursday, 16 August 2007

After the party

Hortense has gone away again, to loud farewells and in a flutter of drapery. Back to what we are told are the echoing chambers and chilly corridors of her house in Suffolk; having first extracted from us a promise that we would go down and visit her just as soon as we could.

Lady Macauley was not sorry to see her go. “Well thank goodness for that!” was what she in fact said, after the black cab had borne Hortense away. “I can remove my ear-plugs now. My favourite cousin’s child she may be, but she grows more preposterous with every year that passes. I never was able to understand a word she said, not even when she was a child - and nor I think were her unfortunate parents, whom I suspect of believing there must have been some sort of foul play or accident surrounding the circumstances of her birth.”

Several days have passed since Lady Macauley’s birthday party. The sunshine has vanished again, and squally rain returned; it has been the most dismal of summers. And Bill: is Bill in a blissful dreamlike state over his declared and newly consummated love? Well, yes and no, is the only answer I can give. He suffers no afterthoughts or pangs of doubt; he has made a commitment at last, and he says that it feels better, and wiser, than anything he's done in many years. But Bill is not a patient man, nor one who likes to have to try to conceal his intentions. It has taken him precisely three days to grow impatient with what he calls ‘hiding in cupboards to try to dodge the old lady’; he has begun muttering imprecations against her, and threatens to stage a confrontation just as soon as a suitable moment presents.

I have advised him against it. Unless, that is, he should have reached the sort of understanding with Belle that would make it the natural thing to do?

“An understanding to marry her – I suppose that’s what you mean?” He was bellowing at me now, in a way to which I had been accustomed since our early childhood, but which could still make it necessary for me to hold on to something solid within reach, just to stand my ground. Then as now though, the storm was quick to pass; and it wasn’t many minutes before he was quiet again, assuring me that of course he would do nothing violent that would make life difficult for Belle - but that it was a ‘damned awkward’ thing for all that, and a grotesquely invidious position in which to find oneself, when the wealth of the woman one loved was so vastly in excess of one’s own!

I saw his dilemma, and admitted that it was deep. But all the same I said, I had an idea that Belle would give it all up tomorrow, if it meant the difference between being with him, or not.

“She’s not to inherit anyway” I said. “She has told me so herself. The house, and all the companies and business interests will pass to Jack – and after him to his son Will. And there are several sons and grandsons on what Lady Macauley calls ‘the other side’ besides - by which I have always taken her to mean the offspring of Sir Jack’s first marriage - who will stand to inherit before she does.”

Bill conceded that this was so – but that it still left Flory, Lady Macauley’s family home in Suffolk, which he happened to know had been pledged to Belle.

“And you know as well as I do, Bea” he added. “that with dynasties of this sort there are always assets and properties hidden away. There’s a house in Italy for a start - and that's just the one we know about. And then think of all the millions which must have accrued in companies and shares over the years! No, which ever way you look at it, Belle is an exceedingly wealthy woman – so that if anyone is to propose marriage, it’s probably going to have be her!”

He did take my point though – and agreed that to stage a rumpus with the old lady now would be the most invidious thing of all. What would it look like after all – if not the tantrum of a callow youth who was out to grab the goods? Even the wily parson would have found a better way of proceeding than that! At which point he stomped off with Monty to the Common, where I didn’t doubt he would be meeting Belle in some degree of privacy and comfort; and I went in another direction with my own dog Florence, so as to avoid the risk of intruding upon them.

Bill’s resolve was to be put to a stern test later that afternoon however. Lady Macauley had phoned to ask us to come over on a matter of some importance; and no sooner had we arrived, finding her seated in the little panelled parlour with Belle and Rose, than she saw fit to treat us to one of her more provocative remarks.

“Belle is looking peculiarly radiant just at present, don’t you think?” she observed; thereby directing all our eyes toward Belle, who did indeed have a radiance about her, and had exchanged her usual trousers for a pretty dress. “ I have been asking myself about its possible cause. And wonder if she has perhaps taken Mr Porteous for her lover at last?”

Bill uttered an explosive sound, and seemed likely to break out; so that I prepared myself for the confrontation which, despite his best intentions, must surely now follow. But Belle had kept her head, if no-one else had. She was sharply embarrassed, but she cast the kind of imploring look at Bill which stayed his hand; and so the perilous moment passed. It was observed at all in fact only by Rose, who laughed – rather immoderately, I thought – and remarked that if Belle and Mr Porteous were lovers, they had a curious way of showing it, since she happened to know that David had gone off two days ago on a short visit to his old parish.

It was the sort of throwaway reaction that one has come to expect of Rose, and I confess I didn’t like her any the better for it. But it was enough to defuse the situation. The air in the room, which had seemed suspended for a moment, resumed its natural progress; I breathed again, and so did Bill. And Lady Macauley herself had dismissed the whole thing from her mind the next moment, and was telling us what it was that she had really called us over to talk about.

“I have grown weary of all this rain and want some sunshine” she announced, addressing herself to Bill. “So we have decided to go to Italy, Belle and Rose and I; and would very much like it if you and Bea would join us for a week or two. There’s a villa we have in Tuscany, you know. It’s quite a plain affair – no painted ceilings or anything of that sort. But it’s very spacious, and there’s a pool in the garden. It’s up in the hills above Florence, so the air is pleasant and the views are good. We leave tomorrow – but you can take your own time about arriving, if only you’ll agree to come.... “

So there it is. It required just four minutes for treacherous situations to be by-passed; and the moment of possible confrontation has gone away, at least for the moment. And we have already made our flight plans, and are to go up into the hills of Tuscany on Saturday, by way of Gatwick, Pisa and Florence....

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Moving Figures in a Garden ( with guest appearance by Cousin Hortense)

That was the way it composed itself for me, yesterday’s unexpected little party in the garden of the Macauley house. The late afternoon sunshine was of that exquisite pale gold sort that comes in early Autumn, and the shadows were long on the smooth lawn. The strolling guests seemed to me like figures in a painting, sometimes still, sometimes moving imperceptibly from their positions in one group to make up different, but equally picturesque formations in another - though from where I sat, with Lady Macauley in a flowered pavilion just below the terrace, the moving figures were blurred by distance, making it hard for me to know precisely who was who, and where in particular at any given moment Bill was, especially in his possible proximity to Belle.

If Bill had come rushing home from Darwin with the idea of wresting Belle from out of the clutches of David Porteous (and it’s my belief he had), he was to find little opportunity for doing so on this occasion. Belle herself had phoned us the evening before, to say that her mother was holding a little impromptu party in the garden to celebrate her birthday ( we were not permitted to inquire which one); and that, having heard Bill had returned, was especially anxious to know that he would be there.

“She has invited everyone we know, and a good many we don’t” Belle explained. “ And she insists that she will need Bill there to see her through. My cousin Hortense is here on a visit you see, and Mummy feels that it will require a large company to dilute her presence, and drown what she calls her extraordinary great owl's-hoot of a voice.”

Hortense’s voice was the first that Bill and I heard indeed, as we passed through the arched gate which separates the kitchen garden from the formal south lawn, and saw the large company assembled there. Hortense had called loudly, before swooping down upon us from a distance like some great bird, with wings out-stretched and colourful plumage flying. I say she called to us, but really her cry was for the company at large: uttered, as Lady Macauley says she utters everything, as if from a great height – from a belfry, say, or a high tower - and for the benefit of a breathless audience probably seated below.

“Raise high the roofbeam, carpenters!” was Hortense's theatrical cry. “Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man!”

Lady Macauley was irritated by this outburst. “What in the world is she talking about?” she grumbled, after we had both leant down to receive her welcoming embrace. “She really is the most absurd creature. She should be in vaudeville - or a circus! But even she ought to know better than to bellow at poor Bill like that, about bridegrooms!”

“Don’t worry Aunt, it’s only a quotation – and probably a poorly rendered one at that!” Hortense had entered the pavilion by now; had enveloped first me, then Bill in extravagant embrace. After which she held Bill off from her a long moment, as if to drink deep of every remembered physical aspect of him with her eyes. “But Bill knows his Sappho and his Song of Songs, I’m sure!" she went on. " Not to mention his Salinger - he knows everything. And understands my ways by now, besides; so that he knows I mean no personal threat to him with my quotations. I am sick with love of him of course – oh but my dear good people, simply prostrate! But I also know that he can never be mine.”

“You’d do very much better then to keep your more bizarre quotations to yourself!” Lady Macauley sharply returned. "Sappho indeed - you torment and embarrass the poor man beyond belief! You torment and embarrass me, if you want to know – which is a quite intolerable thing to have to suffer at one’s own party!” But Hortense had drifted away out of earshot by then; drawing Bill’s arm within her own and taking him off with her across the wide expanse of lawn to join the other guests. So that Lady Macauley’s last words were lost beneath the receding rise and fall of her continuing monologue.

I would have liked to have gone off with them. I had spotted Belle at last, walking slowly along a shaded path with David Porteous; stopping at intervals to admire the flowers, and to turn towards one another to exchange what seemed to be pleasantly comfortable remarks. I was disturbed by the apparent increase of intimacy between them, and anxious to see if Bill would find her. But Bill had gone off in another direction with Hortense; they had passed into a hedged and secluded area at the far end of the garden that was called the Wilderness, and were presently obscured from view.

It was evidently to be my lot to remain closeted with Lady Macauley inside the flowered tent, where she had collected about her the usual little group of carefully selected guests. Rose was there of course, immaculate in cream linen; Imogen Porteous was there, looking prettier and more relaxed than I remembered - and so, surprisingly, were Roland Baines; and Pamela, leaning attentively in her hostess’s direction, benignly smiling beneath a nodding hat.

It must have been three quarters of an hour that passed pleasantly enough in general conversation, with most of the entertainment coming from bright exchanges between Lady Macauley and Imogen Porteous, who seemed to have perfected quite a line in lively banter with the old lady since I’d seen her last. Rose was not altogether pleased with this development; seeing in it perhaps some erosion of her own position as Court Favourite. She looked bored in fact – she yawned openly at one point; and then found opportunity to lean close to my ear and whisper that Pamela was quite ‘the chosen one’ these days. “It’s because of Roland” she added; “Lady M thinks he’s quite the most astonishingly useful little man to have about. It’s like having a trusty calculator always to hand, she says; so that one no longer has to do any of the difficult sums oneself. She doesn’t see how she could ever have managed without him!”

Lady Macauley seemed to have caught the tail end of this whispered aside, but if she were annoyed by it, chose to give no sign. She had been telling Pamela and Roland about the marvels that ‘clever Imogen and her equally clever sister’ were working with the tapestries; but she was suddenly weary of it all; she had remembered that there was to be a little ceremony with candles and champagne at six o’clock, and she was looking about for Bill.

“What can he have been doing down there in the wilderness with Hortense all this time?” she wanted to know. “ It's not as if they can have been making love after all, is it? I don't believe that, with that extraordinary husband of hers now gone, there can be a man left in the world who could possibly achieve the feat of making love to poor Hortense! I do think it’s too bad of her just the same, to have carried him off like that! She knew I particularly wished to have him with me for the cutting of the cake.”

She wanted Belle too. Belle was to have brought the cake and lit the candles; and with six o'clock drawing near, Rose was dispatched to go and find them both, and bring them back. I thought it fortunate that Rose had gone off in quite the wrong direction. Not having been attentive, as I had, to the changing patterns of people on the lawn, she had missed the moment at which Bill had emerged with Hortense from behind the hedges of the wilderness, to join Belle and David Porteous, and a group of others, beside the roses. Nor had Rose caught the moment, as I had, when Bill had drawn Belle aside, then detaching her from the group, moved off with her slowly in the direction of the house. That had happened at least half an hour earlier, and I hadn’t seen them since; so I suggested to Lady Macauley that two seekers would be better than one, and that I would therefore go off in the opposite direction from Rose, and see if I could locate them somewhere else.

I found them coming out of the house together, carrying between them the tall cake, and another tray with glasses, and several bottles of iced champagne. They looked ordinary, unconspiratorial enough; but it was clear to me that something momentous had occurred between them in that short half hour of their absence. They were close, close. Not touching just then, obviously, on account of the trays they carried, yet together in a way which suggested that nothing would ever separate them again. Bill looked – not triumphant exactly, that was not his style; but buoyant somehow, happy and light of heart, in a way which I hadn’t seen him look for years. And Belle was lovely, suddenly. Her eyes and skin were glowing (she has her mother’s eyes – why hadn’t I noticed that before?). She was smiling too, as if she thought she would never be able to stop - so that I wondered how anyone could ever have thought her plain!

They had a plea to make to me, for all that. They could see I had guessed what had passed between them, and they admitted they couldn’t be happier, and knew that I would be happy for them too. But would I please, just for the moment, keep that knowledge to myself? “We’re not sure how Mummy will take it, you see” Belle explained. “ She has been accustomed to think of Bill as her own – it will be hard for her to have to let go. And besides, we want to enjoy it all in private for as long as we possibly can....”

I promised, of course; I had the greatest possible joy in doing so. And the ceremony of cake and candles passed off without sign that anything remarkable had happened. It did seem to me however that Lady Macauley glanced rather sharply once or twice at Belle’s altered countenance. And that David Porteous had guessed, and was gravely discountenanced. And Hortense did take me aside to whisper ( well, hoot sotto voce would be a fairer description), that if she couldn’t have Bill herself, then there wasn’t a woman in the world she’d rather see him with, than her cousin Belle!