Wednesday, 31 October 2007

"Let battle begin"

The remark was Bill’s, delivered to me in the hall of the Macauley house this afternoon, just before I made my way upstairs to the long gallery, where I had been told that tea was shortly to be served. He had been down in the kitchen helping Belle prepare the tea-trays, but had dashed upstairs to the hall when he saw me coming, just to prepare me for what I was likely to find.

"The two opposing sides are gathered.” he told me. Which was to say, apparently, that Alice Macauley sat queen-like and immovable in her corner, and Mrs Avril Wilmot, doggedly knitting, in hers. A stretch of something like twenty feet of gallery floor separated the two: it was symbolic, Bill said, of the ideological gulf which lay between them; Mrs Wilmot having resolved that her girl should have the promised ‘dance', come what may - and Alice being equally determined that she shouldn’t. Lady Macauley hadn’t yet appeared; but she had made up her mind to do so at last, and in fact Belle had just that moment gone upstairs to fetch her. Bill guessed that when she did come, it would be to take up station somewhere in the middle; since, although her loyalties might be thought to have lain with Alice in this affair, she’d have the deepest possible aversion to acknowledging the fact, and would be at pains to make it clear that she aligned herself with neither side.

Bill seems to take the jocular view of the situation on the whole. Well, what else in the world could a fundamentally peace-loving man do, he wanted to know, when beset by warring women on every side? The old lady had drafted in a contingent of relative outsiders for today’s occasion, he went on to tell me; presumably in the belief that her greatest safety lay in numbers, and that the dreadful Mrs Wilmot might actually take fright, and run away. For his own part, Bill thought this highly unlikely. “She has sat it out these seven days” he observed; “She has weathered befriendment by Rose Mountjoy, and church with David Porteous - she sure as hell isn’t going to give the game up now.” He seemed to have formed a sneaking admiration for Mrs Avril Wilmot; who, though out-gunned and out-numbered on every front, had nevertheless kept staunchly to her post. “She’s nothing if not a trooper” he laughed. “She sees the glittering prize still within her grasp, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to give it up without a fight.”

I told him that I thought his levity rather misplaced on this occasion. “There is the happiness of two young people at stake here after all” I reminded him. “It’s not just some game got up for your personal amusement.“

But “Oh come now Bea, don’t go all judgmental on me now!” was all he had to say to that. “There have to be some perks you know. Especially when you consider that if it were not for this little shindig of the old lady’s, Belle and I might have been married by now – and all at our ease in Tuscany, seeing the grapes brought in! I tell you, it takes a lot to keep me sitting here watching which way this contentious woman or that might jump! And for what purpose in the end, after all? Since it’s entirely on the cards that young Will himself will get bored with the whole thing, and take up with some other girl entirely.”

I confessed that I hadn’t seen in quite that light myself, but that after all there was probably something in what he said - though I wondered if he had any other girl in particular, in mind? I didn’t want to quarrel with him over it anyway – and especially not at the very moment in which I must go up and confront the scene in question myself. I had just one last thing to ask him before I took the plunge and went upstairs: I wanted to know if he hadn’t found an ally in Jack Macauley? Another man, after all – had there not been solidarity of a sort, in that? But Bill replied that he thought he could probably look for little support from Jack; who though a thoroughly affable fellow, and one who seemed very well contented with his lot in life, had nevertheless discovered that to take sides in a family like this was without exception fatal, and had long ago settled for a quiet life.

“He’ll take the line of least resistance, sensible man” was Bill’s view of the position of Jack Macauley. “Which means that whatever he might think in private, he’ll agree publicly in every essential with his wife.”

He said he must leave me at that point; he had tea-trays to see to – for to just such banalities as those, had his life been temporarily reduced! He said it with good humour though; and I could see that, much like Jack Macauley, he was not entirely discontented with his present lot. For my own part, nothing remained but that I must climb the stairs and brave the confrontation. I had just time, before making my way across the series of empty rooms that led to the long gallery, to reflect that Bill’s account of the Jack Macauley marriage had differed in several important respects from the one I had received yesterday, from Rose.

Rose seldom visits me these days, for reasons which I understand only too well; but she did call yesterday, awash with indignation at what she called ‘the emasculation of poor Jack by Alice’. She had always known it would happen of course, she was quick to tell me that. With women like Alice – high-handed, possessive women who gobbled up their men ... with women of that sort a man must either sink or swim; and she knew of few who, once seized, had ever made it back to shore. But she could weep, she said, to see all Jack’s youthful ‘gorgeousness’, all that glamour and splendid joie de vivre, reduced to this! What ‘this’ was, she hadn’t heart quite to particularise for me: I would see it soon enough for myself, she said. But she wanted me to know that the Jack Macauley who sat stolidly in his mother’s drawing room today (“he’s grown rather portly, you know!”) was but a sad remnant of the young man she had known and adored.

Of Alice herself, Rose had had little to say – save that she had aged, as one would have expected her to do, ‘pretty well’. “The perfect cheekbones don’t collapse” as Rose put it. “And the fair hair turns grey imperceptibly – so that you can’t tell if she colours it or not. And then, what has she ever had to trouble her after all? She has all that she ever wanted in life; which is to say her husband, her castle, and her son – in that order!”

Only on the question of Alice’s attitude to Mrs Wilmot and Angelica, did Rose’s account bear any resemblance to Bill’s. “She’s quite as implacably opposed to the match as her mother-in-law is” was Rose’s view. “And she means to see it through to the bitter end. Oh, she’ll do nothing violent, that’s not her way. But she’ll see the Wilmots routed, or she’ll be damned!”

It was with these words of Rose’s echoing in my ears, and with the knowledge that I should require every ounce of courage and diplomacy I might possess, that I finally pushed open the door of the long gallery, and entering, took the measure of the assembled guests.