Friday, 12 October 2007

Surprised at tea-time

A little learning, they say, is a dangerous thing – but too much, I discover, is considerably worse. I’m feeling very uncomfortable about knowing things concerning Rose of which nobody else at the Macauley house appears to have the slightest inkling – not even Bill, who generally has a rather good ear for distant rumblings. Rose herself gives no sign of her duplicitous intentions when in company with Lady Macauley. So entirely matter-of-fact and and usual is she indeed, that I begin to wonder if I perhaps – or Pamela – could have dreamt the whole thing up?

It’s perfectly possible of course, or so I tell myself. But then I look across at Rose; I listen to her talking endlessly with Lady Macauley about the days when ‘darling Jack‘ was still here, and still their own (it’s difficult sometimes to know which Jack they mean, but I have taken it that for present purposes at least, it’s Jack the son who most preoccupies them).... and I have to concede that if she has insurrection in mind, she's doing a very good job of concealing the fact. And after all, it's not so hard to put oneself in Rose’s place. Would I not myself, for example, if I had loved desperately and been spurned; would I not, had I nursed a grievance for years and years, then seen at last the perfect opportunity for redress... would not I too, in such circumstances, be capable of plotting acts of sabotage?

Fortunately, it’s not a question I’m absolutely obliged to answer just now. And meantime, the teacups come out as usual every afternoon, and the talk, when it is not of how, and where to accommodate five extra persons at a moment’s notice, turns irresistibly to Jack. Bill is seldom present at these occasions, I notice. Lady Macauley had spoken of tea-time as a ceremony reserved for herself and Belle and Bill alone, but it’s surprising how often Bill seems to have found cause to absent himself from it. He hasn’t said as much, but I somehow hear him mutter that though life is good, and love bears him up no end, there is nonetheless just so much women’s talk a man can stand without breaking out in some particularly violent fashion - and so tea-time usually turns out to be the time at which he must walk the dogs, or work on a speech, or supervise the men who are currently installing an extra bathroom on the second floor, for the convenience of the expected guests.

In Bill’s place as often as not comes David Porteous, who has been continuing with his rearrangement of the books in the library, and whose presence at tea-time Lady Macauley seems to regard as some sort of substitute for Bill’s. I continue to find that presence disconcerting – though without being able to provide any very satisfactory reason why. He is on the face of it the best possible companion for a group of women at tea-time. He follows the ebb and flow of conversation with ease and apparent enjoyment; leaning forward to listen intently where he ought (folding his hands and looking contemplative a good deal, it’s true: his ‘prayerful look’, I seem to remember Pamela calling it, in the days when he still enjoyed her patronage) - but regularly brightening proceedings with timely little interjections of his own. He is especially good at providing punch-lines - biblical ones, for the most part, but none the less pertinent, and often rather pithy, for that.

Only Rose seems impervious to the Porteous effect. I have often puzzled over that. I would somehow have expected her, if not to have succumbed precisely, for Rose is not the woman easily to succumb to anything, and least of all to any man who seemed to have set himself up to charm, or impress her ... if not to have succumbed, then to have given merit where merit was due at least, and pronounced him just about as admirable as everyone said. But Rose will pronounce no such thing; and if called upon to give an opinion of the man, or his daughters (which Lady Macauley frequently makes it imperative for her to do), will only remark that they are “very well so far as they go – but where are they going?”, that’s the question she’s always asking herself.

I have no particular quarrel with that of course – it’s a question I have often wanted to ask myself. But all the same, it has sometimes produced a jarring note - so that I can’t help but wonder if he has at some time said, or done something which she has found offensive? These are not the sorts of questions to which answers can easily be found over the tea-cups in Lady Macauley’s presence however. The talk at such times is directed by the old lady herself, and her attention these days is altogether taken up with the idea of the visit to come, and more importantly, with what Alice is likely to have ‘done’ to her unfortunate Jack.

She fears she will find him sadly changed; she doesn’t see how a man could have lived with a woman of Alice’s sort all these years without collapsing somewhere. "Round the middle most likely" she said today: she thinks he will almost certainly have grown portly, and dull....

“And to think of what he was!” she fell to lamenting in the next breath. “Before Alice got her hands on him, that was...“ She seemed lost a moment in contemplation of the awfulness of the likely metamorphosis; and she turned to Rose, for reiteration of the splendid figure he had cut in his youth.

“He was a kind of magnet, wasn’t he, for everything thrilling?” she reflected. “He seemed to bring the wide world with him whenever he entered a room. Some sort of a light went out the day Jack left for Scotland; something bright and, yes, glamorous, vanished forever......... But there they still are at any rate, Alice and he. They tell me they live in perfect domestic bliss - they write now and then, and telephone; they even e-mail Belle, I believe. Everyone e-mails these days, it’s an act of wizardry I haven’t yet accomplished......... I hardly know what it is founded upon however, their domestic bliss; since Jack gave up all active interest in Macauley affairs the day he married. Still, the money trickles in, I daresay. There are shares, and other assets - I hardly know what there is, I see so little of it myself!"

"I’m told though, that they have so far compromised their ideals as to make something rather commercial of their own, out of the castle and its lands....... They make honey from the heather, I believe. Or the bees do. The bees up there are said to be better than other people’s bees, you see.... They have entered into an arrangement with one of the major supermarkets to buy their honey. They have a very pretty label, with the castle pictured on it, and a sprig of heather in the foreground. They send us a pot each Christmas. Castle Nectar, they call it: Belle eats it I think, I never touch it myself – but it’s hard to see how anyone could be more commercial than that! And then of course they hire out a part of the castle, for weddings and other functions – it must be galling indeed, to Alice, to have to open up her doors and let hoi polloi come tramping in!"

"They’ve also made something commercial out of the fishing and the game, I believe - it seems as if my poor boy has had to become a sort of toytown laird: dressing up in tartan, you know, and putting on a show for the benefit of visiting Americans........It’s not what his father had in mind for him. He was to have carried the Macauley banner into the second generation. And into London - there’s a store in Kensington which languishes for want of someone to take an interest in it, you know - and an up and coming sort of grandson on what we call the ‘other side’ (my husband’s first family, that is), who seems to have it in mind to try to turn its fortunes round. I daresay we’ll have to give it up to him in the end, the poor old shop - unless Will should see fit to step in on our account at last...”

It’s hard to know where this line of reminiscence might have taken us. Lady Macauley appeared to have gone somewhere very far away, and was, I believe, rather close to tears. Belle and I had been smiling, and Rose nodding our affirmation of all these virtues of Jack’s, probably gone forever. David Porteous had got so far as to fold his fingertips, and look as if he were about to say something rather meaningful – when all at once the door to the drawing room opened wide, and Imogen Porteous came in, accompanied by a tall young man whom she said she had found wandering in the forecourt.

“Here is your grandson come to visit you, Lady Macauley” she said, with her brightest smile. “I found him stranded at the front door - he has been ringing and ringing, but nobody heard.”

Lady Macauley uttered a little cry, as if she thought it must be an apparition that had appeared. “Is that you Jack...?” she vaguely murmured. “How little you have altered after all...”

It was the first time any of us had seen her come near to confusion and collapse. It pulled us up short; seeming as it did to portend future shocks, and adjustments which she might perhaps be going to find it impossible to make. But she had collected herself the next moment; had sat up very straight, and smiling wryly, beckoned the young man to come and receive her embrace.

“And after all it’s only Will” she turned to tell us. “Grown uncommonly like his father it’s true - but only Will. And how is it you have left it so long before coming to see your poor old Granny, you bad young man...?”