Monday, 3 December 2007

Before the ball we dined in state

By six o’clock that evening the Macauley house was alive with lights, and with the low excited murmur of the twenty invited guests who were to attend the formal dinner in the gallery that was to precede the ball. I had dressed early, so as to be on hand with Belle, to assist Lady Macauley in her own preparations; and I have to admit that I did not feel especially fine, or festive. My gown was perfunctory at best: something which, unable on this occasion to face the horrors of the dress-shop, I had resurrected from the depths of an old trunk in the attic, and had expensively cleaned. It had a stately, if rather antique look; and I had told myself it would do. Belle though – Belle was glorious in midnight blue satin, cut low to carry off the family sapphires and diamonds, and falling into an elegant little train at the back. Belle had drawn the line at a tiara, but wore a row of matching sapphires, woven into the intricate upsweep of her hair; and if my own gasp of admiration was not enough – or her mother’s warmly approving embrace – she had Bill’s look of purest pride and adoration, to tell her that tonight she was beautiful, as she had perhaps never been before.

Alice was be-jewelled too; overwhelmingly so, I thought. She seemed to me almost weighed-down by priceless gems: she was brooched, and braceleted, and necklaced, and tiara-ed, within an inch of her life. Though in her case the jewels were diamonds alone, to offset the elaborate dress of ivory lace that, exposing a quite breath-taking expanse of almost equally ivory bosom, she so magnificently wore. Pamela and I exchanged wry glances over the diamonds: we are in company here to which we can’t personally aspire, we mutely said – but we shall hold our heads up nonetheless, just as bravely as we can.

Pamela was on this occasion faultlessly attired in smooth black velvet, that somehow managed to glide over her ample curves without accentuating them. She owned few jewels, so hadn’t tried: nor was her admirably coiffed head adorned by anything more theatrical than a nodding flower or two. She had learnt much from her association with the Macauleys, I saw that now – and even Roland had acquired a certain stature, from his position as Lady Macauley's honorary counsellor, and his exemplary black tie. Frances was there; and Frances too wore family jewels, and a shining new gown. But Frances’s chief adornment was her broadly beaming Tomek, who with his height and his bulk, and his ever so slightly exaggerated Polish gallantry, came near to eclipsing every other man there. Save of course, in my eyes at least - and still more in those of Belle – for our own unsurpassable Bill.

Bill’s role it was to appear last, with Lady Macauley on his arm – though a concession had been made to family on this occasion, and Jack Macauley, splendid too in his black tie, had been allowed to take her other arm. Lady Macauley’s entrance had been timed to occur only when everyone else was seated. She wore finest silvery aquamarine - her naiad look, as Jack had used to call it. It was the colour she had worn when he first saw her, and she shimmered tonight, almost ethereally. She was very beautiful, and her face had lost every sign of the strain it had worn earlier in the day. She had accomplished everything she needed to accomplish, it seemed to say; and she paused, queenlike, a moment, at the top of the gallery, before making her slow progress along the ranks of smiling, nodding guests, to take her seat between Bill and Jack, at the farthest end of the glittering table.

We dined merrily, and long. Course after course appeared, and though the hour of the ball approached, and we began to hear sounds of instruments being tuned in the Orangery, nobody was in any hurry to depart the table, and begin the ball. It occurred to me that Lady Macauley herself was waiting for something, though I had not as yet discovered what it was. Cars had been coming and going in the forecourt in the last half hour; we had seen their lights, and heard their engines slowly silencing as we dined. People were already arriving for the ball, it was clear; but since lady Macauley herself seemed in no hurry to end the dinner, we took our cue from her and laughed, and ate and drank, and chatted on.

Not until eight o’clock, and at a sign from Bill, who seemed to have received a message on his mobile phone, did Lady Macauley rise from the table, and make a short announcement to the effect that dinner must now end, and would people please be kind enough to make their way, first to the cloakrooms that had been provided for them, and then across the lighted garden to the Orangery, where in fifteen minutes' time, the ball would begin. She did not herself go immediately to the Orangery however, but to a small room opening out of the gallery, where she was to rest a while. Bill and Belle and I were to accompany her there – she had just one last essential thing to do, she said.

Jack and Alice on the other hand, who had earlier received their starters’ orders, were to hurry across to the Orangery in advance of all the others, and to stand in the receiving line of guests, in Lady Macauley’s stead. The exodus from the gallery was not hurried. People had dined well, and were in mellow mood. The cloakrooms provided were luxurious, moreover; they would take their time, and saunter pleasantly across to the Orangery, to join all those others, who had not been dinner guests.

Only Alice had a rather stiff look for her mother-in-law as, evidently feeling herself unduly ordered about – and perhaps excluded from something important that was to happen in the ante-room in her absence - she took Jack’s arm, and more or less stalked across the garden to the ball...