Friday, 23 November 2007

Eve of the Ball

We returned from Flory yesterday, to find everything at the Macauley house in a state of chaos. Well, not quite everything perhaps: Tomek and his team have wrought wonders in the Orangery, where a thousand coloured lights bounce down upon the newly laid floor, and the caterers and florists come and go already, unloading gilded chairs and tables, and filling the air with the headiness of rose, and orange blossom, and jasmine. No, the chaos is largely in my own head, I think – though a good deal, too, in the steady stream of solemnly suited men who have been coming and going all day to consult with Lady Macauley; and in the fact that Roland Baines, who has remained closeted with them almost constantly, is looking even more than usually portentous. Something is very definitely ‘in the air’; and Pamela, who alone among us all must have an inkling of what it is - Pamela is keeping her own counsel with surprising rectitude.

Jack and Alice had remained at Flory until this evening, which made things a little easier for us here; since young Will seems to have no other occupation at present than to drift rather unhappily about the house in the wake of Imogen Porteous - who herself, though still busy with her restoration work, and plying her needle with what seems to be a remarkably steady hand, has nonetheless the look about her of a girl who nurses a lovely secret, which she is resolved for the moment to keep strictly to herself.

I had been personally requested by Alice before we left, to ‘tackle Will’. “Find out what he’s been up to if you can, and report back’ was her brief to me; and though it’s perfectly clear that what he’s been ‘up to’, has been to fall headlong in love with Imogen, and almost certainly to have pledged that emotion with more than just a snatched embrace or two, in corners of the house ... though it’s clear as day that those two have arrived at an understanding with one another, yet off Will went at two o’clock this afternoon just the same; to keep an assignation with Angelica that ‘for the life of him’, as he put it to me with woeful countenance, he didn’t see how he could possibly break. “She has been buying a dress for the ball and all that kind of thing” he explained. “And I’m sure her mother has too. They’ve gone to no end of trouble and expense - I’d have to be the very worst sort of brute to desert them now.”

It is my fate of course as narrator of these events, to be relating them always in retrospect. I have often felt the disadvantage of this – though never quite so acutely as I do today, when things have moved at such speed, and so unpredictably, that I haven’t yet managed to come properly to grips with any of them. It’s late evening now, and I am back in the gatehouse, alone with my disordered thoughts. I have not yet had heart or opportunity to phone Alice with any kind of report of Will. What could I have told her indeed, save that he has apparently fallen hopelessly in love with one girl, only to feel himself still inextricably linked with another? That even loving Imogen as he does, he still seems likely to be dragooned into announcing his engagement to Angelica, tomorrow at the ball – could I have told his mother that? No, decidedly I could not. Nor have I - events having since then taken such a turn in other directions anyway, as to put possible engagement announcements entirely out of my head.

What happened in fact, was that at four o’clock this afternoon, Lady Macauley summoned the three of us, Belle and Bill and me, to her rooms; where, having seen off the last of the solemnly suited men, and in presence only of a still more solemnly visaged Roland Baines, she announced to us that she was in a position at last to reveal what she had been doing all day; to explain, in short, the arrangements she had just now put in place for securing the house against what she called ‘possible predators in the future’.

“I have been in consultation all this day” she told us – and it may have been my imagination, but it seemed to me she suppressed a tear with difficulty as she spoke; ”with representatives from the National Trust. I should perhaps have consulted first with you, who are nearest and dearest to me, but it seemed better this way.... You will understand why I have felt it necessary to act, and will have no objection, I’m sure – when you hear that what I have done this afternoon is simply to have signed the papers which will put in motion the procedure by which the house and all its contents will pass – well, to the Nation you know, on my death. Please try not to be shocked – it is something that has been in my mind for many years. It has always seemed to me that the house was Jack’s, and mine therefore, only because of him - and that when we are both gone, so will the spirit of the place have departed too; and it will be better that someone else should have the responsibilty of deciding its future....”

To say that we were stunned by this announcement, is not to come even near to what we actually experienced at that moment. Belle I think, was stricken with twenty painful emotions all at once – and Bill was silent too, for simple want of knowing what to say. Yet scarcely had we even tried to absorb its import - and then listened for another five minutes to Roland, who was deputed to explain to us the corollary facts, which seemed to have to do with accompanying bequests to the Trust for future upkeep, and the provision of a residual family interest, which would enable ‘Jack Macauley or his legatee’ (whom we understood to be Will), to continue to inhabit a part of the house... Hardly had we time to take in any of this, before Lady Macauley’s mood took a sudden swing in another direction; and she told us, with tears falling freely this time, that though the hour was late, and darkness had already fallen, she would like, if we would be so kind as to assist her, to visit her husband’s grave, for the purpose of explaining to him why she had acted in the way she had just done.

It was a strange, sad, silent and bewildered group, who made the short car journey to the cold little nearby churchyard, where Jack Macauley had lain buried for more than twenty five years. Lady Macauley had visited his grave before of course; had come there regularly every month in fact – but never before so impulsively, or in such strange conditions as these. We three stood back in darkness, holding a torch for her while she made her murmured explanation over the grave of her beloved Jack. She took full ten minutes over it; and looked close to death herself, when finally she had said all she wished, and we were able to lead her, weeping and shivering, back to the waiting car. Strangely too, her mood on the way home suddenly lightened; she became almost buoyant again, and was able to tell us, smiling now, that she was quite sure Jack would have approved of what she had done.

“He’ll have seen the need” she said. “He always saw the need of things, when once I’d been able to explain them to him. He was very fond of Rose – but he wouldn’t have liked her for what she is trying to do now.”

We passed a rather pleasant evening after that. Lady Macauley was in better spirits than we have seen her for many days; we enjoyed a rather splendid meal, which she gaily described as an eve-of-the ball event. And even Alice, who had returned with Jack from Flory while we were in the churchyard, and had been told nothing yet about the day’s events - even Alice was unable to spoil the mood, with her constantly reiterated anxieties over Will.

I returned home an hour ago; it is almost midnight now, and the day of the ball will shortly dawn. I have tried and tried to foresee what will happen there – whether Will Macauley will end the night with this girl or that, or neither; and what Rose will do, and if there will be an ugly scene....?

But just for the moment I give it up. I leave it in the lap of the gods, as the saying goes, and shall go gladly to my rest.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

She SHALL come to the ball

Lady Macauley thinks that all things considered, we will probably do best to let Rose come to the ball believing her secret is still safe.

“She has done her worst” she remarked yesterday, sitting in her private room upstairs with Bill and Belle and me; Frances having already called another cab, and fled the scene; and Jack and Alice being relegated on this occasion to taking tea alone, downstairs in the drawing room. “And I agree her worst is very bad..... though if it ends in her having assisted me in bringing Will and Imogen together, well, all cannot be said to have been entirely lost.”

She had seemed to take the news of Rose’s double-dealing rather well; had scarcely gulped or blinked indeed - though there had been a moment, just one, and just after the full facts had been put before her, when she had covered her face with her hands, and looked as if she might be going to be crushed by it. Bill had warned us to be on our guard against just such a reaction. “We must never forget how old she is” he had reminded Belle and me, while we waited for Lady Macauley herself to come and join us. “I agree it’s not always easy to see her that way, given her tremendous fighting spirit. But that’s what she is nonetheless – an old lady approaching ninety. And we should be wary of delivering the blow that fells her.”

Bill had earlier exploded with rage himself. Not on his own account, as he furiously pointed out to Frances and me, when we had given him our account of how matters stood. Not even, particularly, on that of Lady Macauley, who might be disturbed, and even a little hurt by it all, but who had after all not been personally attacked, and who would find her relief in swift retaliation anyway. No, his rage was all for Belle, who would see in this an act of treachery against a friendship she had believed was based on long affection and mutual trust. I have seldom seen him so angry – and Frances, who never has, was actually rather alarmed by what she seemed to have set in motion.

We were glad though, that we had taken the precaution of catching him alone first; since we were able, by that means, not only to calm his rage, and prevent his immediately rushing home to strike a blow at Rose and her ‘damnable parson’ – but also to suggest to him that there were some aspects of the story that would be better withheld from Belle. He was all in agreement with that - there was no earthly reason why she should be burdened with every sorry detail! He would be *******d for example (my apologies; but Bill’s expletives, which tend to be of the old-fashioned sort, have nonetheless no proper place on these pages, and so you must conjure them for yourself) .... Bill would be damned anyway – put it no more violently than that - if he’d let Belle know of the part that had been designed for her to play in this sordid affair! There was evidence enough to heap against the duplicitous pair, God knew, without recourse to anything as hideously wounding as that.

And so it was, that with Frances gone home again, and the story wholly in our own hands, Bill and I were able to present a reasonably calm concerted front when relaying it, first to Belle, and then to Lady Macauley, half an hour later. Belle was indeed hurt and bewildered, even by the censored version, and had found at first nothing to say - save for the rather wan observation that “it would be a pity if the daughter had to suffer for the father’s sins – especially since Imogen is so very much Mummy’s favourite contender too”. Her mother however, whose first reaction had suggested possible collapse, was quick to rally, and come up with what appeared to be her considered response.

“She is a great deal more devious than I ever suspected” she finally, somewhat meditatively said. “And it’s true I suspected her of many things. I always knew she was self-seeking of course; always playing some little game that reflected her own best interests most of all. But I had supposed, at least, that she was playing them one at a time – so it comes as quite a shock to know she was playing so many, all at once! I probably even knew that she secretly detested me. There was that frigid little smile she always had, at moments of severest personal trial – I always understood, I think, that if she hadn’t been smiling at me so assiduously, she’d have been getting her knife out, ready to plunge it in my back. That, I have always been able to live with – so long as she continued to amuse, and make herself useful to me. I am not such a good woman myself – I believe I am in many respects a very bad one - as to have right to the moral high ground where others are concerned. But that she should have hated Belle too – or should at least have thought so little of their long friendship as to be prepared to sacrifice it at the altar of her own avarice – well, that is not to be forgiven; and I for one am not prepared to let it pass without a fight. Now she shall see what we can do by way of redress. Or call it for civility’s sake, if you like - since I believe we are on the whole a civilised people - quid pro quo.”

Lady Macauley had in fact a great deal more than that to say. That we should take the time to consider this thing very carefully from every angle, was her first concern; especially in light of the fact that Alice, when she was told – as one supposed she must be, at some point - would undoubtedly put some very different construction on it all.

“Alice will want to cancel the ball and send the whole lot packing”she decided. “Which will not serve my purposes - oh, not at all! No, the ball must go ahead just as planned. And everyone must be there, including Rose. Including even the Wilmots, who must be brought to see the absurdity of their own plan, and be persuaded to go home! I think we shall all breathe a little more easily when that foolish, and largely irrelevant pair has gone.”

She told us to leave her then. She would have her own tea brought up to her there; she had much thinking to do, and she would do it best alone. We should go down to the drawing room and do what we could to keep Alice from discovering the truth of what had just transpired.

“You won’t do anything precipitate Mummy, like phoning Rose....?” Belle had wanted to be assured of that, before she would consent to leave. But Lady Macauley had only the highest disdain for such an idea.

“What kind of a foolish old woman do you think I am, that you should suspect me of any such thing?” she fairly snapped back at Belle. “Do you think me likely to blow my own cover before I have even properly worked out what it’s going to be? No, of course I won’t be phoning Rose! Though it’s possible I might have to phone the Baineses...... I believe there is something I can do you see, to stop Rose and David Porteous in their tracks. But I shall need Roland’s help to put it in motion.... I shall probably need the help of several other people too; I’ll give you a list of their names, when I have thought them out. Meantime, there is much to be done – and the ball might have to be postponed by a day ....”

She dismissed us then; having not the slightest further need, as she put it, for our presence. We must go downstairs and do what we could to keep Alice from interfering. And with that, just for the moment, we had to be content.