Tuesday, 23 October 2007

"A thin little, grim little woman with a penchant for knitted skirt suits"

That was Pamela’s account of the appearance and character of Mrs Avril Wilmot, whose arrival at the Macauley house two days ago has upset Lady Macauley to such an extent that she has taken to her rooms threatening not to re-emerge, not even for the occasional tea-time. She hopes there will not be too many tea-times for anyone to have to endure, in fact. She can’t see how she has been brought to such a strait, and she holds Jack and Alice entirely responsible for it. It is like Alice, she says, to have introduced a horror into somebody else’s house, and then taken her own sweet time about coming down to pick up the burden of it. But until she does; until, that is, she deigns to appear herself, and take this preposterous personage off one’s hands - well, Lady Macauley declines to have any further part in it, and means to keep strictly to her own apartments.

It’s hard to see how such an impasse could have been reached so quickly; but Pamela believes it was probably accomplished within the first five minutes, shortly after Mrs Wilmot had stationed herself beside her small wheel-along suitcase at the foot of the stairs, and then looked about as if she expected to see a host of servants come running to try to wrest it from her. Pamela doesn’t know what it can have contained – the family silver, she had supposed, from the manner in which Mrs Wilmot had clung to it, insisting upon trying to bump it up the stairs herself, and then only with extreme reluctance being persuaded to give it up to Bill.

Nor were her opening remarks calculated to endear her to her hostess – she having seemed to sniff the air in the hall and find it objectionable on the whole; before casting a sceptical eye from floor to ceiling and up the stairs, and remarking, to no-one in particular, that it must be “very cold and inconvenient” to inhabit such a house; and that for her own part, a house with the ordinary number of living and bedrooms had always seemed quite sufficient.

“She wonders why she has been invited there at all” Pamela tells me. And I should point out that Pamela did not actually witness any of these events herself. She was not a member of the welcoming party for Mrs Wilmot and her daughter, and has had to take her impressions second hand from Rose. Which makes one marvel at her apparent omniscience, whilst at the same time doubting its absolute veracity.... Still, for what her remarks are worth, I give them to you; they being at present all I have.

“She doesn’t say as much of course” Pamela went on, quite as if she had been privy to it all herself. “She doesn’t have to, apparently - her sniffs, and the fierce offended air she maintains at lunch, and tea tables, saying it all for her.... But she conducts constant stage-whispered conversations with her daughter behind her hands; she glares at poor Will at every opportunity, as if challenging him to tell her what he has meant by introducing her and her innocent girl into this hostile house – and altogether she creates the impression that she hasn’t yet got so far as to unpack her bags, and is ready to leave at a moment’s notice and in the highest possible dudgeon, if matters don’t soon improve.

Will has been very rash and foolish, according to Pamela; making all kinds of promises he can’t possibly hope to see fulfilled. “He’s clearly quite besotted with the girl, and determined to get himself engaged to her - it was probably the only way he could see of getting her mother to bring her there at all!“ He had promised them among other things, ‘a dance’, apparently; and Mrs Wilmot had come there altogether in the expectation of that. Rather, Pamela fears, in the manner of one who had supposed that the visit was to be a kind of old-fashioned debutante affair, and she the mother of the most promising girl.... Pamela suspects that her little suitcase is probably stuffed with clothes for every kind of magnificent occasion. For Angelica, at least: Angelica, as heroine of the hour, must shine with unsurpassable radiance – whilst for Angelica’s mother, well, the ubiquitous little knitted skirt suit (“she has one in every colour; she has almost certainly has knitted them herself”)... the 'rather horrid little knitted skirt suit' must suffice.

It had begun to seem to me by now, that whilst I knew a good deal about Will Macauley, and most of what there was to know about Mrs Avril Wilmot, of the girl herself I had heard very little. I ventured a question or two therefore. Was she as pretty as everyone said, I wanted to know? And did Pamela feel that she returned Will’s affection?

“Oh well ....” Pamela had a rather conspiratorial look for it now. “She is extremely pretty of course, I’ll give her that. She has a head of fluffy blonde curls, and the kind of complexion that makes you want to look, and look again. Rose puts it down to expert makeup – and Rose should know! She’s one of those girls who intimidates you from behind the cosmetics counter in Selfridges you know – it was there that Will found her in fact: he was looking for something to buy for his mother.... But, so far as returning his affection goes – well, returning it is one thing, Rose says; demonstrating the fact quite another...”

“I have only Rose’s word for it of course, having witnessed none of it for myself...” Pamela was thoroughly into her conversational stride by now, and would clearly have been impervious to any interjections of mine. “But Rose is positively of the opinion – and just between you and me, was rather coarse about it in fact... Rose has somehow got hold of the idea that Angelica is withholding her favours until marriage itself. ‘Playing the Anne Boleyn card’, Rose calls it. Leading poor, lovelorn, lusting Will the kind of dance that can end only in marriage - or nothing whatever. She has taken some kind of a vow of virginity, Rose thinks. She wears a little bracelet to that effect – it’s a current craze among young girls apparently; especially those who have taken up with the Evangelical belt.... Rose thinks it likely that Mrs Wilmot belongs to an evangelical movement of one kind or another. It would be the sort of thing she’d do – though it’s hard to see her engaging in the happy, clappy sort of thing required...“

“Rose thinks it rather clever of the girl, at any rate. Or, clever of her mother, if such a thing could be thought possible – which Rose is inclined to doubt. Very much more likely, in her view, that Mrs Wilmot takes the jaded, or in her case simply the sceptical view of men’s intentions generally, and of Will Macauley’s in particular. She has probably been badly used by some man herself – she has that look, and to date there has been no mention of a Mr Wilmot! She has raised her daughter with the idea that all men are ‘after one thing and one only’, and has urged her to ‘hold out’. Till marriage itself, if possible; but at least until an announcement has been made, and she has a ring very firmly on her finger.“

It occurred to me at this point to wonder what Rose's own intentions might be? If, that was, she still meant to take Mrs Wilmot and Angelica under her wing, for the purpose of wreaking revenge upon Lady Macauley? It was an intriguing question. But on the whole, I thought I had probably learnt enough at second (or call it third) hand for one day. There was a degree of prurience about it, to my mind; I had a sudden need to hear it from a different angle – preferably from Bill’s. My cold is very much better, besides; I have been judged fit to go into Lady Macauley’s presence again, and tomorrow, I shall doubtless see some of these wonderful things enacted, and be in a position to judge them for myself.