Thursday, 15 November 2007

A rather shocking revelation

The rain had stopped, and half-hearted sunshine begun to filter into the rather cavernous Barton Flory kitchen, by the time Frances had drunk her tea and become composed enough to resume her story. I found the sunshine an intrusion on the whole: I had a feeling this was going to be a tale I’d have preferred to hear while rain was falling.

Frances was beginning to have misgivings about it all herself now, it seemed. There were some things one ought to have been strong enough to keep to oneself perhaps, she saw that now. Burdening others with one’s own misfortunes – it was the coward’s way, wasn’t it? She might have done very wrong in rushing down here like this with her sorry tale. Since when all was said and done, it hadn’t been Rose’s, or Lady Macauley’s, or anyone else’s fault, if she had herself been just too dull, to hold David Porteous to her as a lover!

“I ought to have known from the start.” She finally came right out and acknowledged that. “I ought to have understood that even though he had agreed to marry me, he would have had sooner or later to look elsewhere for his - well, his bodily fulfilments you know... I just didn’t know that he had looked so soon!”

I had begun to see where this was taking us, and my own heart had taken a sharp downward lurch at the sheer unpleasantness of what I feared I was about to hear. I told her she was going to have to help me though, since for the life of me, I still hadn’t quite been able to guess.

“You mean you really didn’t know – you didn’t see?” Frances was genuinely incredulous: it seemed to give her the courage she required.

“I think it happened very early in my friendship with David ...” she finally continued – but reflectively, sadly, as if she were still trying to grasp all the facts herself. “Perhaps even before we had become friends? I have thought and thought about it, and it sometimes seems to me they might have planned it all beforehand – might have decided, you know, that though their own combined circumstances were not enough to marry on – not enough for them, that is.... they might still have had each other, whilst making a convenience of me.... And then of course I made it so very easy for them, just wanting him on any terms as I did!”

She made a long pause; she quite saw how foolish she had been, but was resolved to do the situation all the justice that she could. For my own part, I was thinking that in all my life I had probably never felt quite as uncomfortable as I did at that moment. I had the strongest possible aversion to hearing more - yet still, I knew I had to try to help her out.

“You mean to say that all the time you were making marriage plans with David Porteous, he was ...” I began to say it, then stopped: there were words here that I found it almost impossible to pronounce. Frances supplied them for me however; she was perfectly in command of her story by now.

“Sleeping with Rose?” She at least was able to bring it out: there was even a kind of quiet triumph for her in being able to state the truth at last. “Yes, that precisely. Oh, he was sleeping with me too of course. Now and then, for appearances’ sake - it didn’t involve so very much effort after all: I was content with very little. But she was his lover and his love, and that was the way it was always going to be.”

"But how... and when....?” I heard myself stammering foolishly. It seemed to me there were still many more questions unanswered here, than I could properly comprehend.

“Oh well, practically all the time" Frances replied. "Certainly at the time we announced our engagement – and probably well before that too.....”

She was able by now to dismiss it almost with a shrug - and to take pity on me in my desperate struggle to understand.

“It was David who finally broke our engagement, you know. Oh, he allowed me to seem to have done it myself – he could afford that much generosity. But he had had another idea by then. Or Rose had – it was hard to know which of them was doing the thinking, they had become so very close ... They had seen that he might have a chance with Belle, at any rate. She had seemed to like him at one time – and her mother had shown herself not entirely opposed to the idea. They might have gone along together perfectly comfortably with that, Rose and he - Belle would probably have been as grateful as I was, for any little scraps of affection he threw her way. But then Bill stepped in. Dear Bill – I never loved or thanked him as much as I did at that moment! Though I had to love and thank him without saying a word – there was the pity of it. But I somehow thought that he at least, must have had some inkling of what was going on.”

I saw it all now; and in seeing, understood why Frances must have marvelled so, at our combined failure to comprehend. I thought I could vouch for Bill’s complete ignorance, however.

“I don’t believe Bill can have seen any of this” I told her. “Oh, he saw how the land lay with David Porteous and Belle of course – had it not been for that, I don’t think he would have been anything like so quick to declare himself. But of an affair between Rose and David, I’m sure he guessed nothing. We none of us knew, or dreamt any such thing. Certainly Lady Macauley herself can’t have done so, or she’d have had them both out of the house at once!”

So many things had suddenly become clear – grotesquely so. And though I had thought I knew the depths to which Rose’s cynicism would take her, I confess I hadn’t thought of this; and much less had I supposed that a former clergyman would have sunk so low! There remained one important thing still unexplained however: I could understand Frances’ wishing to unburden herself at last – but why at this particular moment?

Frances had asked herself the same question, apparently; and was not entirely sure, even now, that she had done the right thing as a consequence.

But: “I had talked to Tomek about it at length. He’s very wise, and we have become close... We shall probably be married quite soon - without any kind of publicity; I have quite done with that sort of thing. And then you see, Tomek had been working at the house, and had opportunity to see what was developing there between Will Macauley and Imogen. And then I heard that Lady Macauley was planning to hold a ball, and was probably deciding to promote Imogen Porteous herself – and all the while in total ignorance of the fact that that was precisely what Rose and David were promoting too! So I thought I really must come down and tell her – though I was very fearful about it of course, and am profoundly relieved to have been able to tell you first. You will be able to talk it over with Bill and Belle perhaps – and then decide together what is the best way to proceed from here...?”

But Frances had gone one step ahead of me again, and still I struggled to understand.

“But I thought it was Angelica whom Rose was promoting...?” I must have sounded very foolish. I felt very foolish indeed - and nor do I believe I improved my position much, by adding that Pamela had told me of Rose’s secret plan for exacting revenge upon Lady Macauley...

“As I understood it" I nonetheless rather lamely went on; "Rose was to have taken the girl and her mother in hand. Advised Angelica in all sorts of clever little ways. Dressed her up and made her irresistible - just so that Will would insist upon engaging himself to her! That, at least, was the way that I, and I think everyone else, had understood it to have been...”

Frances’s reply, when it came, was not triumphant, as it might have been in any other woman, but only rather sad.

“That was what they wanted everyone to think” she explained. “I thought it myself, for a while. But after all, what would there have been for them, in that? No, they had something altogether better in mind - the Wilmots were mere pawns in their game, just as I had been myself. And you have to admit they have been rather clever. You have only got to think about it after all - that where the daughter goes, the father must be expected to follow. And if Imogen got Will, and Will got the Macauley inheritance and the house - well, you can see for yourself where they saw themselves as going with that!”

I saw, and in seeing was shocked, as I think I have never been before. But it was suddenly too much for me to try to handle alone. And in my usual fashion, I decided to call Bill, and let him decide what we ought to consider doing next..

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The calm before the storm

“Do you mean to tell me you knew that girl would be coming and going every day – and Will left quite alone there with her, in the house?”

The question was Alice Macauley’s, directed with some sharpness at her mother-in-law this afternoon, as we sat over a late lunch at Barton Flory, Lady Macauley’s childhood home in the Suffolk countryside, to which we have retreated for what Lady Macauley herself calls ‘a few days of rest and composure before the storm’. The ‘storm’, as we all now understand it, being the ball; preparations for which are in fact already in full swing back at the Macauley house. It is to be held in the Orangery – and in an adjoining marquee: Lady Macauley having thought it desirable to provide one venue for the youthful contingent to “perform whatever it is they call a dance these days”; and another for the “more venerable among us, who still enjoy a waltz”. A team of half a dozen men has been set to work there in our absence; their foreman, rather surprisingly, being none other than Frances’s faithful Polish Tomek, whom Lady Macauley has been advised is quite the most reliable pair of hands, when it comes to erecting a marquee, and strengthening an Orangery floor.

Lady Macauley has made no attempt to disguise the fact that the idea of the ball was entirely a spur of the moment thing on her part. She had been stung into producing it, she acknowledges that; but having done so, is resolved to see it through to a spectacular conclusion. It is to be the ball to end all balls; no expense or effort will be spared to make it one of the most successful ever held at the house. An orchestra is to be engaged, and what seems likely to be almost an entire florist’s shop commandeered for the occasion - Rose will see to what heights an old woman is still able to rise, when provoked.

“And will Rose herself be invited to attend?” Alice wanted to know that much, at least. “Given that she has announced her intention of staging an alternative affair.”

But Lady Macauley sets little store by Rose’s alternative affair. That too had been produced entirely out of Rose’s hat, in her opinion. “She had to think of something, and came up with that. Oh, she thinks fast, I’ll grant her that ... But on this occasion she thought to very little purpose – since I had thought faster, and to more immediately realisable effect. And we shall see what becomes of half-baked intentions and village halls, when something altogether more magnificent is in the offing!”

“She will be invited, and she will come” was however her considered judgment of Rose’s likely response. “Bringing her Wilmots with her, I don’t doubt. Though if any of them gets up to try to make an announcement – especially one that has to do with an engagement - she will find her path securely blocked.”

Alice seemed to think that this disposed satisfactorily enough of the question of the ball – and indeed of that of the importunate Mrs Mountjoy, whom she had never yet condescended to speak of as Rose, and whose recent put-down at her mother-in-law’s hands she had evidently found not altogether displeasing. But on that other question, the one which concerned her son’s present proximity to Imogen Porteous (of whom she “personally knew nothing – or nothing at any rate that she found especially encouraging”), she remained resolutely unappeased.

“I’d like to know just what it was you were thinking of, mother-in-law?” she inquired next. “When you left them alone in the house together for a period of several days? If it was your idea that she might succeed in wresting him away from the other girl, then of course I can see your point. Though I confess I don’t think it a specially good one - since so far as I have been able to see there is little to choose between the two. The Porteous girl is if anything more dangerous than the Wilmot one – as being a good deal more likely to succeed!”

“And if she should succeed, what then?” Lady Macauley tossed it back at her with something that looked suspiciously like positive enjoyment: it seemed to me entirely on the cards she might have staged the whole thing, just on the off-chance of its annoying Alice. “You can have no objection to the girl herself that I can see. She’s quite as good as he in every respect – she’s better in some, in my opinion. She’s a great deal more talented, for a start. There’s almost nothing she couldn’t accomplish, artistically - given her head, and just a little material support.”

But this was going altogether too far for Alice.

“And is it also your idea that we should be the means of supplying her with the material support she requires?” she very coldly asked.. “You take my breath away if so. I would do much, as you know, to remove my son from the clutches of the Wilmot girl. I have come down here at all, it might be said, very much for that purpose alone. But if in doing so I should succeed only in throwing him into the arms of another - who by your own admission would probably ruin us all with her artistic requirements - why, there I would simply have to draw the line!”

Where Alice’s drawing the line might have taken us – and what Lady Macauley’s spirited response to it might have been – was unfortunately denied us, by the arrival at that moment of a contingent of late luncheon guests; in the flurry of seating and introducing whom, all other conversational threads were lost, and Lady Macauley in fact had herself quietly spirited away to her rooms by Bill and Belle. It was left to me therefore, and even more to Jack Macauley (Alice having icily dissociated herself from further conversation for the moment) to see the luncheon through to some kind of hospitable conclusion.

It was several hours later, when everyone else had gone to their rooms to rest, and I had found a quiet window-seat in which to relax, while looking out over the pleasant gardens where sullen rain had begun to fall... it was while I sat there, reflecting upon what had earlier been said, and where it was likely to take us all, that I saw a taxi from the village pull up in the driveway, and a distracted-looking Frances Fanshawe get out, struggling to put up a large umbrella. I hurried out to greet her; she was cold and tired, and obviously very much distressed and agitated by what she called the “outlandishness of her coming down all unannounced and uninvited like this!” She would hardly have dared to come at all, she attempted to explain, all in a rush as is her way when there is much on her mind. She would certainly have phoned ahead to announce her intention, at least - had she not something of so much gravity to tell me, that she hadn’t seen how it could possibly wait another hour!

She had alarmed me somewhat, I confess it. I couldn’t imagine what it could be that had driven her to taking what was, for her, so unprecedented a step as to come all the way down here, alone and unannounced. She was all for embarking upon her tale at once, right there in the wet driveway; she went so far as to demand of me, all incoherently, whether after all I “hadn’t guessed what was going on under my nose all this long while.....?”

But I had guessed nothing – and had discovered besides that, suddenly, I didn’t want to hear. There had been enough shocks for one day, it seemed to me – one more, and the whole edifice might be in danger of tumbling down. Frances’s own distress was such, in any case, that I insisted she should come into the house and warm herself a little, before embarking upon whatever it was she had come all the way down here to tell me.

“There’s nobody else about” I assured her. “Everyone is upstairs resting – we have the whole place entirely to ourselves. And you shall have a cup of tea at least, before you say another word....”