Thursday, 13 December 2007

When the music stopped

What I have to tell you now must be told quickly, for I have not words or emotions left to tell it any other way. The ball has ended and everyone has gone home; and we are huddled here together in the house in the icy chill of a December dawn - Bill and Belle and I; Jack and Alice and Will. We have neither slept nor eaten, and we have nothing whatever to say to one another at this moment, so recent and so violent has been the shock which encompassed us in the night. For what has happened is that the ball has been over these seven hours – and Lady Macauley herself has lain lifeless on her bed for four of them.

Yes, she has died; and here, to the utmost of my ability to tell it to you, is how it happened. We had come back so happily across the garden, all of us in the highest possible spirits, and looking forward to a quiet hour discussing the evening’s events, before the others joined us for a final brandy. We had even joked a little, over the idea that Mrs Wilmot might perhaps have been persuaded to drag herself away from the scene of her daughter’s triumphs, and join us in that final drink...

“She will have to come back at some point I daresay” Lady Macauley had herself said with much amusement. “Since how on earth else is she to be got home, if not in the car with Bill?”

We had been content to leave that matter hanging temporarily unresolved however; and in any case, as Belle had pointed out, they could always in the last resort spend what remained of the night here, in the bedrooms they had occupied before. On we went then, just about as pleased with everything as we could be. And though it’s true Lady Macauley did stumble momentarily, on the steps leading up to the south terrace door, she was quick to recover herself, and neither she, nor we thought anything more about it.

That we ought to have done so; that we ought to have seen it as a sign of what was to come is now all too terribly clear. If we had called the ambulance then perhaps, we might have fore-stalled the major attack which was to occur little more than an hour later. We have reproached ourselves with that, over and over again. But after all, how could we have guessed, when she had seemed to be in such wonderful spirits, and in the very best of health? Belle had made coffee, and we were drinking it together in Lady Macauley’s favourite little panelled parlour when, on getting up to help herself to more milk, she stumbled again, this time uttering a little cry, and falling seemingly lifeless in a heap of crumpled silvery drapery on the floor. Nobody moved at first; each of us was frozen into immobility for a moment. But then Bill cried to Belle to call an ambulance at once, and himself gathered Lady Macauley in his arms and carried her to the nearest sofa, where he with infinite carefulness laid her down.

The ambulance was slow in coming, and while we waited for it Lady Macauley rallied a little, seeming to be regaining consciouness, and finally opening her eyes. She smiled at us once, a beautiful, lingering smile, in which she seemed to embrace us all. “You have all made me so very happy” she said. After which she relapsed again, and was still for what can only have been five minutes, though it felt to us like several hours. It was in a moment of sudden stillness a little later - we only realized afterwards that it was the moment at which the music from the ball had finally stopped – that she opened her eyes again, and sitting bolt upright all at once, seemed staring into the darkness near the door. After which she put out both her hands, and cried in a loud voice “Is that you Jack....?”

We had heard her ask that question before – but this time there was no answer to it; and what she was looking at in the darkness near the door was something that none of us could see. She had gone in that moment, though we didn’t grasp the fact at first. We tried every desperate way we could to revive her, but nothing could do so. And by the time the ambulance arrived, she had gone far beyond the help of human hands.

It is bright morning now. There will be sunshine later – but what is sunshine to us now, when Lady Macauley has gone? She lies at present perfectly serene, upon the bed she shared with Jack for all those many years. Bill himself carried her up there; we knew it was where she would want to be, and we arranged her as tenderly as we could. And now we sit in silence round her bed; each of us trying to grasp the impossible, and asking ourselves hopelessly now and then, just how it is we are going to be able to carry on our lives without her?.

For those of you who have perhaps not caught up with this comment I left on the previous post, here are my closing remarks:
And now I am about to post the very bleak penultimate piece, and I hope that some of you at least will be able to forgive me.

It was always going to have to end this way - and I tried every way I could to prepare you for it.

But perhaps after all I failed, and you will be as shocked and saddened as I have been these last several days, as I tried to find the courage to do it at last.

I shall return one more time (in 'real time': perhaps before Christmas, perhaps just after) - and try to restore some little bit of happiness to the scene.

In the meantime, I can only say a heartfelt thank to you all, for supporting me so faithfully and so well. I could never have come all this way without you.

And, if it's not in the very worst possible taste at such a moment, I wish a very Merry Christmas to you all!

It has only been a story after all...

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

At the ball; part two

What happened next was that the lull in the dancing continued, to allow us to complete our progress across the hall to the table that had been reserved for us; and that our way took us past Rose, and David Porteous, who had indeed decided to brazen it out in public, and who had managed to get up some kind of a little party of their own, in an effort no doubt, to deflect attention from the fact that they were no longer of that one which contained Lady Macauley. That this was a situation entirely unprecedented for Rose, and that she had been made deeply uncomfortable by it, was evidenced by her unusually high colour, and the fact that there was a little glitter of something like defiance in her eyes, as she did her best to glance nonchalantly at us as we passed.

Lady Macauley had paused a moment beside their table, and seemed on the point of saying something; but had evidently decided against it, and moved on, having vouchsafed nothing more by way of recognition than the smallest, coldest little inclination of her head. Belle did stop however; Belle looked directly at Rose, and her voice it was that rang out with perfect clarity in a moment of silence to say, in what seemed to me an almost perfect replication of what her mother’s tone might have been, “How you must have hated us all these years – to have felt it necessary to go to such lengths to deceive us!”

She said no more than that, and she waited for no reply. But it seemed as if everyone in the room must have heard her – and though it may have been my imagination, I thought I saw Rose flinch, and David Porteous cast a look of sharp annoyance, almost of dislike, in her direction, at what was perhaps, for him, the most audible, and calculated public snub to which he had ever been subjected. Lady Macauley turned to give Belle a smile of approval; she was surprised, but evidently thought that on the whole it had been well said. Mrs Wilmot had heard it too, and uttered a little gasp, more of admiration than alarm. She was in strange company, it seemed to say; but she was sailing high, oh high indeed, and she wouldn’t have missed a minute of it! Bill and I had meantime exchanged the kind of quick glance which said that those two, Rose Mountjoy and David Porteous, had made their bed, and were probably going to have to lie in it together for the rest of their days – but that the pleasure of it was unlikely to be entirely unalloyed, for either of them.

It hardly seemed necessary to think much more about either of those two, after that. Even though their group contained Imogen of course; and Imogen was looking svelte and stunning in a silver gown that Mrs Wilmot let it be known Rose had helped her choose. Imogen was the centre of much attention among the younger contingent whom Will himself had invited along; she laughed, and danced, and shone; she was determined to carry everything before her - and Will Macauley’s despairing glance was constantly being dragged in her direction, in spite of all his grandmother’s strictures.

Will himself danced dutifully with this one and that. With Angelica, uncomfortably, at first; until she too was discovered by the younger group, and his attentions were no longer required; and after that with his grandmother, his aunt, his mother – and with me. Poor Will’s personal penance involved his dancing even with Mrs Wilmot; upon whom however, the music, and the occasion - her daughter’s sudden success among the elegantly turned-out young men, and several glasses of good champagne - had together wrought such an effect that she was evidently prepared to forgive him everything. Lady Macauley’s little strategy was working perfectly. Mrs Wilmot, whom everybody was suddenly, and with some degree of awkwardness, calling Avril – Mrs Wilmot was quite simply having the time of her life. She had been elevated all at once to the ranks of the grand and glorious; she was being danced-with by Bill, and Jack Macauley, and Tomek; she consented even to stand up with Roland Baines, who did his modest best by her - and every last shred of her resistance had fallen away.

We were all having a splendid time of it in fact; Mrs Wilmot was not the only one to be carried away. Ours was the largest, merriest party of all, and we quite gave ourselves up to the joyousness of the occasion. Pamela fairly swooped about the floor in the majesty of her black velvet; somehow carrying Roland with her, in her almost intoxicating sense of their being on this occasion, distinguished guests. Jack and Alice were obviously enjoying themselves heartily too – Alice, relaxed and happy, came as near to being charmingly convivial as I think it could have been possible for her, in her mother-in-law’s company, to do. And Bill and Belle, Frances and Tomek, none of whom had yet received the blessing of a marriage ceremony, yet danced as honeymooning lovers might; with eyes, and ears, and rapt attention, entirely for each other. Lady Macauley herself was in sparkling form; and though after the first few dances – with her son, her grandson, and then with Bill – she pleaded the weariness of age, and said she would happily sit out the rest; still, her pleasure in the occasion remained undimmed, and she vowed to remain until midnight at least.

I too was enjoying myself without reserve, and somehow managing to find a partner for almost every dance. And if there was a low point in the evening for me, it came at supper time when, in a moment at which our table was temporarily deserted, even by Lady Macauley, who had been assisted away to the table in the next room, I found myself being invited to dance by David Porteous. He had come up to me quietly from behind, and he gave what almost amounted to a low bow before me as, solemnly, though in no kind of spirit of compunction, he asked if in spite of everything I would do him the honour of consenting to dance with him.

I agreed in spite of myself. To have done otherwise would have seemed somehow petty, and out of the spirit of the occasion. I was not comfortable about it though: I had never before been in such close proximity to him, and I felt the impact of his presence with all the old unease. Gabble foolishly in his presence again however, I would not; and so we danced in silence, until at last he found the words to express what was obviously weighing heavy on his mind.

“We have reached a most unfortunate impasse”he said. “I fear that relations between ourselves and Lady Macauley have irretrievably broken down – though I’m not without hope that time will somehow find a way of enabling us to be friends again. I have been judged severely for breaking with Frances perhaps – though I think everyone would have to agree that her obvious new happiness with her builder, must be seen as ample justification for that. I'm delighted for her of course, as who would not be? There is however one important matter which remains unresolved - and that is the attachment which has grown up lately between my own Imogen, and Will Macauley. I hope Lady Macauley will find it in her heart to overlook differences, at least in their case. She seemed fond of Imogen at one time - I hope she will not hold her father’s perceived indiscretions against her ... Though I rather fear that even if she does so, true love will find its way, and those two will be together in spite of everything...”

Had he put it almost any other way, I might have felt obliged to offer him a word or two of comfort. But since he seemed both to have put his question, and answered it too – and because his inflexion over the word ‘builder’ had been so objectionable to me - I felt no such obligation. I merely replied that I could not answer for Lady Macauley, and nor could I promise to put his case before her – since to have done so would have been to spoil for her what had been the happiest possible evening.

The music stopped at that moment, and the dance was ended. He conducted me back to my seat, and relinquished me, with marked stiffness; and I had the small but considerable satisfaction of seeing him return to his own table, and to Rose, thoroughly displeased and unsatisfied. He had cast a blight over my evening nonetheless, and I was not sorry when, half an hour later, Lady Macauley admitted fatigue at last, and our little party broke up. Will decided to come back to the house with us; he had evidently had enough of watching Imogen go from triumph to triumph - and even Angelica had no need of him any longer. Jack and Alice, and all the others, elected to stay on a while; promising to return in time to drink a last glass of brandy with us, before we retired for the night. Mrs Wilmot thought she would stay right on till the end however, if we didn’t mind - since her darling girl was having such an absolutely splendid time!

Monday, 10 December 2007

At the ball; part one

In the little green ante-room to which Lady Macauley led Bill and Belle and me at the end of the dinner sat Will Macauley all alone; looking rather charmingly dishevelled in his young man’s version of the dinner jacket and black tie - but also looking distinctly woeful.

“I can see from your face that you have done what you had to do” his grandmother observed – adding, for our benefit, that Will had been required to go and explain himself to the Wilmots, mother and daughter, and that from the look of him, he had not been made any happier by the experience. “But have you convinced them of your change of heart?” she demanded to know next. “And more to the point, have you managed to bring them back here with you?”

Will said that he had; they were waiting downstairs in the library. “But they’re not a bit happy about it. They’re about as unhappy as they can be, in fact. Angelica cried awfully - and her mother was very fierce. She said the whole thing has been a shame and a sham – especially now they know that Mrs Mountjoy has been working against them too! Mrs W. wanted to know how much I had known about all that. Had I been deceiving them too - and what did I think could possibly be achieved by bringing them back here to face the enemy all over again?”

But Lady Macauley was equal to the unhappiness of the Wilmots. She was equal to almost anything in her present exhilarated state. She thought it a pity they had lumped her, too, into the category of the enemy; but that it was not to be wondered at perhaps, and that she would in any case go downstairs herself, in just a moment, to fetch them. It might take her another ten minutes or so to bring them round - but she thought she knew how it was to be done; and if we would only wait there for her another short while all would be well, and we should be able to make our combined entrance to the ball in triumph – and in the face of Rose’s more or less complete mortification.

“Rose will think there is to be an engagement announcement after all!” she almost gleefully cried. “It will do me no end of good to see her face. And that of her secret lover too of course. Though I can’t say it doesn’t sadden me a little, to have to give him up to her – I believe we might have made something of him, had he only stayed with us. Still, it will be amusing to see if they try to keep up their little secret – or whether they’ll have decided to brazen it out in the open at last.”

She seemed to think that on the whole they were likely to brazen it out. What other option was there for them after all, now that the whole thing had been exposed? She sent Will down to the library ahead of her to pave the way with the Wilmots, and when he was safely out of earshot, took another moment to regret with us the fact that her victory over Rose would after all be only partial...

“We are backing the same girl of course, which is a pity. We each mean Imogen to succeed - for very different reasons of course, and I could have wished it might have been almost any other way. But there it is, she’s the right girl in spite of everything. Will himself is convinced of it: he’s almost stupefied with love of her at present, unfortunate boy - and even Alice will be brought to accept her in the end. Will has promised to forswear her company for the duration of the ball however. He is neither to dance, nor talk with, nor even look at her – the Wilmots are to be spared that final ignominy at least. And Rose will fear that in spite of all her mystifications, her most cherished plot has failed!”

It took Lady Macauley rather longer than the promised ten minutes to persuade the Wilmots; but they emerged at last, the mother evidently only partially placated, the daughter somewhat red-eyed still, and avoiding Will with what might in any other girl have been called a flounce, but was with her the merest little flutter of residual indignation. We made a rather awkward party, crossing the lamplit garden in virtual silence – though Bill did his best with Mrs Wilmot, whom he had personally taken under his wing, and whose defensive stance seemed to be crumbling a little, with every step they took.

Our entry to the ballroom coincided with the last moments of a lively Scottish reel, and we were all caught up at once by the brightness of the lights, the almost breathless thrill in the air - and the way in which the ranks of dancers fell away to make a path for us, as we crossed to our table at the far end of the room. Poor Mrs Wilmot can never before have found herself in such a situation. To be a member of what must have seemed to her the presiding, the regal party: to be made way for, and deferred to – and find that all the glittering personages present had turned their heads to stare, as if she were suddenly being perceived as the elect, the chosen companion of Lady Macauley! She was almost rigid with the honour, the sheer publicity it, and required the steadying hand of Bill, just to hold her up.

I turned to glance at her, and believe I caught the moment when the last of her defences fell away. I had seen this sort of thing happen before of course – but never perhaps so swiftly, or to such startling effect. Mrs Wilmot had meant to stand her ground to the end. She had been wronged - oh grievously; and she had intended that everyone there should know it. But she was no match for the smoothness of an operation of this kind: she had been rendered harmless from the moment when, swept into the room in Lady Macauley’s wake, she had suddenly found herself at the centre of a rapt attention. She had become Lady Macauley’s entirely willing votary – and everything that happened afterwards was simply to consolidate, and indeed intensify that effect....

It has not been my intention to prolong matters in this way. I am almost ashamed of myself indeed. But this is the way it has seemed to happen - and I promise a denouement as quickly as possible, in the entirely unpremeditated part two.