Friday, 9 November 2007

The gauntlet thrown - and taken up

Some alterations in human affairs take weeks and months, or even years to accomplish - others happen in the blinking of an eye. Just so, it seemed to me, did the friendship between Lady Macauley and Rose Mountjoy audibly crack, and then begin to disintegrate before my own eyes the other day, at the entrance to the Macauley long gallery.

Several days have now passed since that momentous encounter, and my account of what followed Lady Macauley’s opening remarks will no doubt benefit to some extent from hindsight. But that a challenge was made, and taken up, there was not the smallest doubt; and what the immediate consequences will be, I am unable at present to predict. My recollections of the exchange itself, and its immediate consequences, are actually rather vague; I having been too much caught up in the unexpected drama of it at the time, to be capable of taking it in objectively.

But I do remember that Rose was momentarily caught off guard by Lady Macauley’s opening challenge. She had not expected to be brought quite so summarily to account, and my recollection is that she opened and closed her mouth several times, before finding presence of mind to reply. I believe she knew that what she said next would make or break her relations with Lady Macauley, and that the whole history of her association with the family probably flashed before her eyes in that instant. She had come a long way from Rosie Betts to Mrs Mountjoy, after all; she had invested most of what she had in becoming Lady Macauley’s trusted friend, and she must have seen that cherished status recede before her even as she opened her mouth to speak.

I actually found it in my heart to feel sorry for her: she had much to lose, and only the flimsiest possible hope of personal gain. I would not have been surprised to see her gulp, and hurriedly back down. She might still have retrieved the situation if she would – it required only a conciliatory word or two on her part, and the moment of peril would have passed. But she evidently felt she had already gone too far for that. And since she is in any case never so bold as when in possession of an idea – and since it must still have seemed to her that the idea she had was rather a good one... she took a deep breath, and uttered the words which she knew would seal her fate.

“Oh well...” was what she finally brought out – and if there was concession in it, and a brave little smile, there was defiance too; so that Lady Macauley could have been in little doubt as to the stand she meant to take. “We only thought, you know, that you might not like to hold the party here. I believe we thought we were acting entirely out of consideration for you. And for Will too a little, of course - he having promised a party, and being so anxious to try to keep his word...”

Lady Macauley’s look showed what she thought of this. She swept Rose up and down with it, and seemed, for a moment, to be going to move on, without even troubling to reply. She smiled up at Bill with perfect confidence, and went so far as to adjust the pressure of her arm in his, as a sign that she wished him to continue with her along the room. But then she apparently had another thought – and it seemed to me she had never thought so quickly, or to quite such remarkable effect. She paused a moment, looking back over her shoulder at Rose.

“It’s very good of you to think of so many people all at once” she said. “And I’m sure we’re all very grateful to you. But oh, my poor dear Rose, there was always going to be a party, you know – only we prefer on the whole to call it a ball. Such a pity you didn’t think to wait a little, before hiring the village hall. I take it the hall is already hired.....? Oh well, you must let me know the date of your own little party - it will be the greatest misfortune if the two dates should happen to coincide! But there you are, these things do happen, even in the best-arranged affairs...”

So there it was. She had picked up the gauntlet thrown all inadvertently by Rose. She had looked at it a moment, had found it an incriminating object on the whole, then tossed it back. After which she continued with her queenly progress down the room; nodding and smiling to people right and left as she went, but pausing nowhere, until she reached the group around the piano, where she embraced her son (without enthusiasm, I thought), before sinking down against the cushions of an armchair which somebody had hastily vacated for her.

“Do play on dear” she very sweetly said to Imogen Porteous, who had jumped up from the piano stool at her approach. “A soft song to soothe the nerves I think – there are some rather jangled ones here just now. And then it will be time for tea. You must rest from your labours a while then, and sit down here beside me, to tell me what you plan to wear to the ball....”

The subdued murmur of the party continued to rise and fall for at least another hour after that, but my recollections of it have become indistinct. I remember that I trailed rather uncomfortably in Lady Macauley’s wake after she had left the group by the door; but that I was detained as I went, first by Pamela, who wanted to know, in shocked tones, what Lady Macauley had said to Rose, and was there “really going to be a rumpus – and a ball....?” ; and then by Alice Macauley, who drew me aside and kept me full ten minutes, attempting to elicit from me whatever she could about what “mother-in-law could possibly be proposing to do now?” It was the first she had heard of any ball, she told me – did I really believe the old lady meant to go through with it; and was it possible that an engagement was expected to be announced? But since it was also the first that I, or to the best of my knowledge anyone else had heard of a ball, or any possible announcement, I was unable to satisfy her curiosity on either count.

I didn’t care for Alice, who has the kind of cold, bland, superior air that I have always found off-putting in a certain kind of Englishwoman. I’m not proud to admit it, but women like Alice Macauley have always had a rather intimidating effect on me, ever since my first days as a colonial newly arrived in London. And though I have learnt to see through them, and even to parry their innate condescension to some extent, I have never been able to like them very much. I could quite see why Lady Macauley had always resisted her daughter-in-law so very fiercely. Jack’s ‘fine cold Alice’, she had always called her – though with them, as I now saw and understood, it was more a case of like opposing like than anything else.

Her husband Jack on the other hand, I found delightful. He had early settled himself in the group surrounding Imogen Porteous and her piano, and there he had remained, enjoying himself tremendously. It’s hard to see in him now the gorgeous youth whom Rose had adored. He has grown stout, just as his mother said; he looks well-fed, substantial, rather than glamorous - but it's clear that his capacity for honest, jovial enjoyment of life has remained intact. Had Rose been looking for cracks in his marriage to Alice though, I believe she’d have been hard-pressed to find them; for he gives every appearance of being entirely, and entirely comfortably devoted to her, and perfectly happy to defer to her at every turn.

It was only in the last ten minutes of the party that I suddenly noticed the chairs at the entrance end of the gallery had been vacated, and that Rose, with Mrs Wilmot and Angelica, had gone. Lady Macauley had noticed it too: “I see the birds have flown....” she said. But she said it distractedly; being too much preoccupied just then with present company, to mind too much. She had all her favourite men around her: she had Bill, and Jack – and even David Porteous and Will Macauley had somehow managed to detach themselves from the other group, and were circulating happily around her, along with everyone else.

And if there was a surprise at the end of it all, it was only to be expected perhaps, in a party that had started out so very badly. It certainly came as a shock to me, and I believe to Lady Macauley too, who had spotted it even at the moment I did so myself. It was just this – that young Will Macauley, who had half an hour ago been hopelessly entwined with the lovely Angelica, appeared now to have eyes and ears for no-one but Imogen Porteous, grown vivid suddenly, in her very red dress...

Though where that leaves, or is likely to lead us, I have neither wit nor words at present to try to foretell.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

The opening skirmish

The scene which greeted me when I finally entered the long gallery the other day, bore very little resemblance to a battlefield. Few scenes could have been more pleasant indeed, few pictures have composed themselves more charmingly, than did that elongated room, where the small groups of softly murmuring people seemed to have been put there by an artistic hand, and the late sun made golden pools of light at one end, the reddening western sky cast rosy shadows on dark panelling, at the other. I was reminded of something Bill once said – how it was that in his experience most things, no matter how large or small or potentially life-changing, were finally decided, not on the battlefield but over the teacups; that wars are waged and won or lost, but that sooner or later the opposing sides must meet and talk, and everything comes down to tea and biscuits in the end. I trusted that this would be the case today. Bill had told me to expect a battle – but had omitted to add that the missiles involved would after all be only words, the weapons mostly teaspoons. Very little harm could come to anyone here, I thought - though doubtless somebody would have to win something, somewhere, and somebody lose.

The low hum of conversation ceased a moment at my entrance, and everyone seemed to have turned to look my way. They had evidently been expecting Lady Macauley, and the smiles of welcome they had prepared for her subsided awkwardly, before they turned to one another again, and resumed what I saw now was their rather desultory talk. There were a good many people there whom I didn’t know, but a quick glance around revealed Pamela and Roland, imprisoned in a pair of vast armchairs somewhere in the middle. They looked uncomfortable, I thought; and were in not altogether easy conversation with a tall, elegantly dressed woman who seemed to be responding to them but vaguely, whose own glance was directed at some point above, and beyond them, and whom I took to be Alice Macauley. Following her glance to its source, I found the man who must be her husband Jack. He was part of a largeish group which had gathered at the far end of the room; he was leaning over the piano there, and singing lustily, while at the same time very happily engaged in turning the pages for Imogen Porteous, who wore a vivid red dress, and was playing a lively tune.

This was quite the jolliest group of all, and the one towards which any sensible person would have gravitated, I thought. I was instantly drawn to it myself, and would have made my way down there as quickly and discreetly as I could - had not the one which contained Mrs Avril Wilmot and her daughter stood immediately in my way. There they sat, on a pair of armless chairs just inside the door; flanked on one side by Will Macauley, and on the other by Rose and - more surprisingly perhaps - David Porteous; so that anybody entering must pause to talk with them a while, or seem to have delivered a resounding snub. Rose stood to introduce me – Will would have jumped to his feet too, I thought, and did give me the friendliest possible smile; but was so much intertwined at that moment with Angelica, who had snuggled as close to him as she could, a good deal more on his seat than her own... that the physical act of rising to greet me was temporarily beyond his powers.

Mrs Wilmot gave me a tight little ‘how do you do?’, and something which passed for her as a smile; then closed her lips again, looked down, and resumed her knitting. It was not an encouraging beginning, and had seemed to tell me more clearly than further words could do, that she supposed, from the look of me, I must be of the enemy brigade; that I found her more or less marooned there in hostile territory, but that after all she was not entirely without allies - she had Mrs Mountjoy, and Mr Porteous in her camp for a start; and was in any case prepared to stand her ground until she had got what she had come for.

What she had come for was still the dance that Will had promised her, apparently; though it fell to Rose to give me an account of how matters stood on that particular front at present. They had evidently been talking it over before I arrived, and had reached their own conclusions as to what would be the best way forward now. Rose had a bright little spot of colour in either cheek, and a peculiarly steely glitter in her eyes. David Porteous, sitting immediately behind her, had for once nothing whatever to say; though had folded his hands in the customary manner, and wore his most contemplative smile. Angelica had wriggled a little closer to Will if that were possible; she was pretty, I thought – oh, startlingly so: she had the bluest eyes, the purest, loveliest complexion. But it seemed to me she was the clinging, simpering sort; she would cloy in time, I thought – and I wondered if Rose had perhaps decided against taking her in hand, for the purpose of exacting revenge? Of them all, only Will Macauley – kind, well-meaning, but ultimately rather blundering Will - had the grace to look just a little discomfited by it all. His smile held a kind of mute apology, and seemed to tell me he would put matters right at once, if only he knew how.

Rose spoke at last, and her tone was brisk. “Avril and Angelica have decided to come to me for a day or two” she informed me. “They are packed and ready, and will make the move directly after tea. We thought it better that way. Not everyone here is in favour of the dance, you see – but Will has given his promise on it, and so of course it must take place. We propose to hire the village hall if necessary, and hold it there – so that people may attend or not, just as they see fit.”

As declarations of open warfare went, I thought it breath-taking. I was uncertain of how to respond to it however, and must have stood gaping a little - but was spared the necessity of an immediate reply by the arrival at that moment of Bill, and Belle, and Lady Macauley, who came in splendid procession, with the Meades, and tea-trays following.

“And what is it, pray, that people may attend or not as they see fit....?” Lady Macauley had caught the last part of Rose’s remarks, and her answering challenge came clear as a bell for all the room to hear. There was a sudden hush, even the notes of Imogen Porteous’s piano abruptly fading away. I’m not sure that I had ever felt as fond, or as proud of Lady Macauley as I did at that moment. She was the oldest person there, and must have seen herself as suddenly beleaguered in her own house. It can only have come as an unpleasant shock to her to know that David Porteous, and even Rose, had apparently decamped to the other side; but if she felt it she gave no sign, and stood proud, and indomitable as any queen.

The hush in the room was of but a moment’s duration, before people resumed their positions and began discreetly murmuring to one another again. David Porteous stepped gallantly forward to relieve the Meades of one or another of their trays; Mrs Wilmot knitted fiercely on, while Rose, who had winced a little at the direct assault, seemed girding herself for a bold response. Belle was mortified - and Alice Macauley, at a distance, had thrown looks of deep annoyance, first at her husband, then her son. Angelica wound an arm through Will’s, and did her best to hold him captive with her lovely eyes....

And Bill - I can’t be absolutely sure of this, but it seemed to me he looked my way, and broadly winked.