Thursday, 29 November 2007

Author's Note

I can only offer my profound apology to readers, for subjecting them to yet another ‘eve of the ball’ instalment! I had thought I could do it in one – but there’s just too much to ‘get in’. I hadn’t thought it properly through, and there’s the truth of it. It being one of the penalties of the blog-method of telling a story, that things don’t always happen as quickly, or in the kind of orderly sequence that one would wish.

And for those readers for whom the story of Jack Macauley’s Milly may not be entirely clear, I can only suggest that the latter part of the instalment dated 05/27- 06/03, “A Little Tale of Long Ago” may assist in shedding the necessary light

The day of the ball

The day of the ball began before dawn, with Belle coming into my room with stricken face at four o’clock (I having spent that night at the Macauley house), to tell me that her mother had ‘had some kind of turn’: had cried out her husband’s name in her sleep; had then wakened, insisted upon dressing fully - and was at present emptying all the drawers in her bedroom in frantic search of an old photograph that she said Jack had used to carry his wallet.

“She’s quite beside herself!” Belle urgently whispered, as I struggled to try to remember where I was, and what was happening. “She knows it’s somewhere; she put it somewhere very carefully herself, years ago – and now she must find it, or the ball can’t go ahead, the Orangery will have to be dismantled, and everything will be ruined!”

It took me several moments, but I was finally able to bring to mind that old story: the one about the young Jack Macauley, and the girl called Milly, whom he had worshipped from afar in the days when he was still an awkward grocer’s boy, ashamed of his clumsy boots. I struggled to recall the detail of it; how Jack Macauley had carried an old newspaper photograph of Milly in his wallet for years afterwards; and how Theodora, as his young bride, had stumbled on it, never admitting the fact to him, but remaining haunted by it, at intervals, ever since. I had assumed it must have gone away, years ago; yet here was Belle now, in deep distress, bringing it sharply back into the present, and leaving me wondering what on earth there was that I could usefully say.

“And does it still exist, do you think...?” was the best I could manage, in my still only half-awake state. But “Oh good heavens, no!” Belle exclaimed in reply. “Daddy himself destroyed it years ago. He had gone looking for Milly you see, years afterwards. He had happened to be on business in the area, and he looked her up. Not because he still had feelings for her, but just because he needed to lay that particular ghost. It was idiocy on the part of a grown man, he said, to carry about with him the image of a girl he had once supposed he loved! But he found her grown fat and frumpy anyway! A silly, garrulous woman; not a trace left of that disdainful girl who had stalked his dreams! So that there was no longer the smallest need to keep her picture, and he tore it up. I remember how he laughed at his own foolishness, and said that there was no need to trouble Mummy about it.”

“But did you never tell her this yourself?” was my next, rather inadequate offering. To which Belle replied that no, she never had: supposing, mistakenly as it now turned out, that it would be better if her mother didn’t know that Jack had gone off in search of his long- lost Milly.

“Well, I think you probably ought to tell her now” I suggested. “How else, after all, can you possibly put her mind at rest?”

Bill was up now; had come stumbling into my room to know what the rumpus was; and being apprised of the state of things, agreed with my suggestion; so that together we went to Lady Macauley, and calming her as best we could, put the whole story before her. She listened in silence, unable at first to believe we weren’t making the whole thing up. We were trying to humour a silly old woman, she cried: it was quite the cruellest form of deception! But then she suddenly seemed to think that, yes, that would be just the way it would have been likely to happen! Jack would have felt himself bound to act - and in acting, would have found the truth. The effect was near miraculous. Her face, which had been contorted with grief the moment before, relaxed suddenly; she uttered the longest sigh, and said simply “Oh, thank God then - it was me he loved after all!”

We said all the things that people do say, in such situations. We said that of course he had loved her – only her. How could he not have loved her, when she was everything that Milly had been, and a thousand better things as well!

“He adored you Mummy, as you well know” Belle ended by assuring her. “No woman was ever adored as you were – he thought you just the most beautiful, most perfect woman in the world. And I at least know for sure that he never gave Milly another thought, from that day on.”

It was enough. We could start the day of the ball now; and we started it with a cheerful breakfast of coffee and toast, taken there together in Lady Macauley’s room, while a cold grey dawn slipped in through the slats of the window blinds. We three remained troubled though, by Lady Macauley’s earlier collapse; and Bill at least, was all for calling a doctor – just to make perfectly sure that all was well. But Lady Macauley insisted that no such thing was necessary; she would not hear of it, was perfectly well and calm - and we should see what she was able to accomplish during the course of this day, before the ball began.

What she accomplished was indeed remarkable. She had another long list of people with whom she wished to talk; beginning with Will, alone, at nine o’clock, and progressing, at intervals during the morning, with Jack and Alice, with the Baineses, with Imogen – and even with Frances and Tomek, whom she summoned last; wishing, she said, to thank them for the part they had played in bringing matters to a head, and to entreat them to come to the ball. She spent an hour with Frances and Tomek, in fact – and Frances herself emerged at the end of it quite flushed with happiness, at the hand of friendship that had been extended to her at last..

Lady Macauley would have liked too, to talk with Mrs Wilmot and her daughter. She had become reconciled to them at last, she said. Oh, not that she saw the girl as a contender for Will’s hand – never that! But simply that she saw their part in all this as suddenly rather heroic.

“She stood her ground against all the odds, poor woman!” she observed, of the formerly impossible Mrs Avril Wilmot. “It can’t have been easy for her, received with hostility as she was, on all sides. She must know by now besides, that she too has been the dupe of Rose’s nasty little plot. I want to let her know that I understand that – and that I respect her courage, at least... But perhaps after all it will do better to wait for the ball – when I shall be able to single her out, choose her over Rose, you know, and let her down as gently as I can. Will must speak to her of course - I have told him that. He has created this mess and now he must extricate himself from it. Together, we shall enable that unfortunate woman and her daughter to make their exit with dignity intact - and Rose shall see that every plan of hers has gone hideously awry!”

We wished her to rest then, and she said she would. Just as soon as she had made her last inspection of the Orangery, and seen for herself that everything was just as perfect as it could be for the events that were to unfold. She had earlier dispensed with the idea of a separate venue for youthful dancing. No marquee had after all been erected - the young must make shift with the old, she had decided: there were not so many of them after all - she just hoped that some at least of them, would have learnt how to waltz! We went then in solemn procession to the Orangery, where darkness had wrought a magical effect. Everything was beautifully in its place: the instruments for the orchestra stood covered on a dais at the top of the larger of the two adjoining rooms; the new floor sparkled, with the thousand reflected lights - and all the little gilded chairs and tables, the flowers, the scented stillness of the air itself, seemed poised and waiting, for the night’s events to begin...