Saturday, 6 October 2007

Wrongly Dressed in Tuscany - and What Rose has in Mind

Rose has evidently decided to keep her present intentions a secret. From me at least: for the first time ever I have found myself in the position of waiting for a visit from her, and feeling disappointed when it doesn’t come. I had begun to think I must have imagined it, that conspiratorial look she gave me on leaving Lady Macauley the other day. I was playing my usual game perhaps, of ascribing motive, sniffing subterfuge, where none existed. I had read too much into Rose’s uncharacteristic silence on the subject of Jack and Alice Macauley, and was doomed to find that even she has limits when it comes to plotting acts of sweet revenge... But then I met Pamela on the high street yesterday and the truth - or her interpretation of it at least - was unravelled. I had to wait for it though. Nothing ever occurs in quite straightforward sequence, where Pamela is concerned, and she had a good deal else of which to disburden herself first.

“Well, the knives are out now and no mistake!” was however her first dark observation - which gave me grounds to hope that all was about to be revealed. She had hustled me into a high street cafe and ordered tea and buns before I could protest that the afternoon was warm, and I would really very much rather have had an iced drink. She has been wearing a rather wounded air of late, it seems to me; she appears to think that a week of feeling wrongly dressed in Tuscany was probably too heavy a price to have had to pay for basking in the light of Lady Macauley’s favour –never mind about any little personal remuneration Roland might have expected to receive, for acting as her unofficial adviser.

“Of course we haven’t seen a penny yet” she said. “And Roland thinks it’s entirely on the cards we never will. The honour of the association is supposed to be all in such cases, he believes. Lady Macauley has probably convinced herself, besides, that a holiday in Tuscany was recompense enough, and that we would feel it demeaning to be offered money as well. But it doesn’t seem to us that there can be anything demeaning about receiving payment for services honestly rendered – and just between you and me, the Tuscan experience was a very mixed blessing. You had left by the time we arrived of course, so you missed the worst of it (why did you hurry away like that by the way? We have wondered and wondered about that...). But you can’t think what a bizarre lot they were who wound up the hill every evening in their antiquated limousines! Dripping jewels, and with every kind of trumped-up-looking foreign medal on the men – and this despite the fact that we were supposed to be dining al fresco, and quite informally. Roland found it quite a feat of endurance just to sit it all out, and I must say I was inclined to agree with him. So that what with one thing and another dear, I don’t mind telling you it will be a very long time before we accept another invitation to the Macauley villa!”

I had begun to feel by now that Pamela must have entirely forgotten her opening remark about the knives being out, but she finally made the switch effortlessly enough - digressing only once more, and then only momentarily, to tell me how very smoothly David Porteous and his daughters had been able to adapt themselves to Tuscan conditions.

“You had to marvel at it!” She was prepared to concede that much. “He had all those haughty old dames eating out of his hands in five minutes flat. And his girls were scarcely better – or worse, depending on the way you looked at it. But as Roland said, he was glad it was Imogen Porteous, and no daughter of his who snatched the limelight every evening by talking about Leonardo Da Vinci! She was touching up the frescoes in the porch you know. Making a rather undistinguished job of it, I thought - though to hear her talk about the problems of working before the plaster dried, you’d have thought she must have had studied personally under Leonardo herself... .”

I had heard about all this before of course, from Rose. I mentioned the fact, hoping it would act as a trigger; and when it did not, I went further, coming right out and remarking that Rose had evidently been somewhat dismayed at the prospect of seeing Jack Macauley again.

“Dismayed?” Pamela feelingly replied. “Yes, you could say that – and then go on to magnify it a hundred-fold. She’s all in pieces about it, as a matter of fact. She doesn’t see how she is to get through it at all. He is supposed to have been the great love of her life, you know. You must have heard her talk about it – how each of her husbands was measured against Jack Macauley, and not one of them came even near! The old lady was quick to nip that little affair in the bud. Jack was packed off somewhere abroad immediately; in connection with family business, or so it was said - but it gave Alice her chance to step in. There was a kind of poetic justice about that, I always thought – since in disposing of Rose, the old lady got Alice, whom she never could abide. But it was very unpleasant at the time, I gather, and Rose took it hard. She has been taking it hard for years, if you ask me. She has never forgotten it - and only now, with this new girl coming along for Will, does she see her chance to settle old scores.”

I expressed surprise. I was surprised indeed; having been unaware, until then, that all these things had run so very deep with Rose. I only wondered how it was that she planned to put the scheme in motion?

“Oh well, that’s simple enough!” Pamela’s response was heartfelt, though delivered with a rather unpleasant little laugh. “She means to take the girl in hand. Promote her cause you know, in a hundred clandestine little ways. She will advise her about her clothes, and her hair, and her deportment. She might take the mother on, even: she doesn’t think the poor woman can be quite beyond one’s help."

Rose 'knew the form by now', as Pamela went on to explain to me. “She hasn’t deferred and curtseyed all these years after all, without learning a thing or two. She will befriend the pair, conferring upon them all the wisdom of her own hindsight. She’ll tell them which forks to use, when to fall gracefully silent, and when speak out. She means to endow them with all the little airs and graces she only learnt herself, too late - she’ll polish them up, in short, and show them how to marry a Macauley, in Lady Macauley’s teeth!”

There seemed to me very little one could say in response to all this, so I didn’t try. Pamela’s narration had come to its natural end, and she seemed to be experiencing a little moment of triumph of her own. Which made me wonder if she perhaps meant to take advantage of the situation, for settling scores of her own and Roland’s? I didn’t voice this however, and we parted shortly after that; I having contributed nothing more useful to the conversation than the light-hearted observation that I hoped we weren’t about to see real social violence enacted between the walls of the Macauley house. It was lame of me, I knew; it was timid and inadequate. I ought to have had the courage of my convictions, and come down on one side or the other – but for the life of me, right there on the spot, I wasn’t able to decide which one.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Intimations of change

And after all, I have had little time in which to dwell upon present and future loneliness. I have been taken up by Lady Macauley myself indeed; to the extent that, by virtue of my close connection to Bill, who has been unofficially crowned its head, I am now considered a member of the immediate family, and must be consulted at every moment, about every one of the old lady’s current preoccupations. Chief of these just now is the marriage of Belle and Bill, which she thinks ought to take place sooner rather than later, and which must of course be just as magnificent an affair as our combined imaginations can contrive to make it. Belle quails at the prospect of so much magnificence, and has been doing her best to rein her mother in. Bill on the other hand finds it all rather entertaining, and believes they might just as well give the old lady her head. Since so long as she’s making plans, she isn’t acting, he maintains – and they will end by having the wedding they want themselves in any case.

It had occurred to me that the chief interest of the thing would be in watching to see which of these two conflicting view-points would prevail. I was inclined to put my money on Bill, who wasn’t easy to shift when once he’d made up his mind to something, as I very well knew. Though Lady Macauley would undoubtedly put up a spirited fight; and in the interim, it did seem as if we were likely to go on in this comfortably inconclusive way for many weeks to come. But something occurred on Saturday which changed all that, causing much perturbation in the Macauley household, and sending Lady Macauley’s preoccupations lurching off in quite another direction. Bill phoned me directly after breakfast, and said I had better come over at once – he wouldn’t go into it now, but everything was in uproar at the house, and the wedding plans had been summarily suspended. I found them all sitting in Belle’s little panelled parlour over coffee; Rose was there too, which made me feel that events must have taken a serious turn indeed.

“Ah there you are at last!” Lady Macauley’s greeting to me was rather peremptory, I thought; as if she had read into my absence some calculated attempt at disturbing, or at least delaying proceedings. She gave me a glance of some disapproval; after which, scarcely waiting for me to seat myself, and receive my cup of coffee from Belle, she launched at once into an account of the fresh trials that had come along to beset her.

“A letter from Alice has arrived this morning, would you believe it?” she announced. “It would be an event to be cherished of course in the normal run of things, so rarely does it occur. But what she tells us this time is that they mean to come down to us at any moment, in connection with some entirely impossible girl to whom young Will is threatening to get himself engaged. Nothing but a crisis of that dimension would have driven Alice to the extremity of coming down to us of course, and she’ll be taking it hard. She’ll have had to muster all her resources, just to endure the thought of it – never mind about what it’s going to require of her to drive off the unfortunate girl! But they expect to avail themselves of some of our resources too. They ask to stay with us - I believe the girl herself, and her mother, are expected to come here too, at some point: Alice evidently wants to have them under her eye, the better to demonstrate their awfulness to Will….”

“Heaven alone knows where we’ll put them all, of course!" she went on, after the shortest of pauses for breath. "Or what we’ll give them to eat - or simply do with them, while they’re here! The Mama is certain to be a horror for a start. I can just see her, can’t you? All hair-do, and shiny skirts, and unpleasant little sling-back shoes. She’ll want to tell us how everything here is just like something else she has at home – and will turn the plates up, over luncheon, just to show her knowledge of the makers’ marks. It will be too dreadful ... And the girl will stick like glue! Impossible girls always do - they are born with that accomplishment, and few others that one can think of….. So that in short, Bea dear, and Rose, we’re thrown all in a heap at the prospect before us, Belle and Bill and I, and will be looking to you both at every turn, just to see us through!”

I found this rather a lot to try to take in all at once. I hardly knew at first who Alice was – until I remembered that she was the girl who had ‘marched away’, as Lady Macauley was fond of putting it, with her adored only son, Jack, and had kept him incarcerated at her Scottish castle ever since. This was intriguing – but more intriguing still was watching Rose’s immediate reaction. Rose had a small, tight smile upon her face, and seemed to be thinking hard. She was evidently seeing in all this things which nobody else saw: she had been in love with the younger Jack Macauley herself at one time, after all – and she too had been judged the impossible girl. I thought it likely she was hatching some little plot of her own. I should find out what it was in due time, of course; nothing was more certain than that. But in the meantime, I had the strongest possible suspicion that it would turn out to be something that Lady Macauley wasn’t going to like!

I knew that some direct response was required of me however, so I remarked, as brightly as I could, that perhaps the girl and her mother would turn out not to be quite so bad as Lady Macauley feared? I went further, and suggested that since, as I understood it, she and her daughter-in-law had seldom found agreement over anything, they would be likely to differ in this too – and Lady Macauley might find that in fact she rather liked the girl! It was a bold move, and might have back-fired badly. But I had learnt by now that the old lady liked best those people who seemed least afraid of her, so I stood my ground, smiling as bravely as I could. Astonishingly, she seemed to think that there might be something in what I said. She considered it a while, and then agreed that Alice and she would doubtless see things very differently – and though she remained determined to deplore the mother, she might stretch a point perhaps, and give the girl herself a chance.

She decided that the only way forward now, was to go all over the house together, to see if there were any out-of-the way corners, or closets – or cupboards if it came to that! - in which we could conceivably accommodate all these importunate people. For herself, there was only one stipulation, but it was written in stone – that their rooms should be as far removed as possible from her own. She would join them for dinner at nights, sometimes, she said; and now and then possibly even for luncheon. But at all other times and repasts - and especially over tea, which had become a little ceremony consecrated to Bill and Belle and herself, alone - they would have to shift for themselves.

Having delivered herself of which injunction, and apparently feeling very much more settled about it all, she took hold of Bill’s arm happily enough, and set off for her tour of the house. She seemed to have forgotten my presence by then, so I slipped quietly away. And so did Rose – though not without the kind of meaningful backward glance at me, as we parted, that told me she would be over at the gatehouse giving me her view of the situation, before many hours had passed.