The Last McCulloch Part 1: Crinoline Time

A story from Enter Amelia Bingham
enter-amelia-binghamNOTE: While this story is complete in itself, it follows on from the story before it in the book

We all ate a heartier breakfast knowing that the blackmail business had been cleared up. I felt that the sense of relief had even communicated itself to Miss Findlay, as she seemed particularly happy, but her words quite took me aback.

“Well, Amelia,” she said, “I think we had best consult your Miss Sleep as quickly as possible, so that our financial affairs may be put into some respectable sort of order. It would certainly be unwise to allow any further mishaps.”

“But Mummie,” exclaimed Miss Caroline, “I thought you knew nothing about—— ”

“Dear me, child,” said Miss Findlay in a matter-of-fact way, “do you really suppose that anything of importance takes place in my house without my knowing of it, or that Andrew accepts instructions from a child in matters of great weight without ensuring that they are in accordance with the will of his mistress ?” She took a sip of tea. “But I must congratulate you on the whole affair. Well done, dear. And very educational. Education can take many forms, you know.”

“I do wish I understood what we are all talking about,” said Miss Barratt, “I always used to feel that I was on a level with Caroline, but since she went to St. Bride’s she seems to have become so very clever. I am sure this whole conversation is quite above my head.”

“You understand all the things that really matter, my dear,” said Miss MacDonald.

“Exactly so,” said Miss Findlay, “ and it is time we turned our minds to them. We really must have a proper party while Amelia and Miss Chevender are with us, and we must certainly invite Miss Duncan. She is quite ready by now.”

“Ah, yes, Miss Duncan,” said Amelia, “ I’ve been meaning to ask you about her. Met her the other day and hardly recognised her. Recognised your handiwork at once, of course. What have you been doing with her ? ”

“Simply her, dear, that is all. I have had my eye upon her since she was a child. Such precision, such sharpness. And then she went into the library. Was it not perfect ? Is she not the utter archetype ? ”

“Rather!” said Amelia. “ She is a joy to behold; a work of art; but I must admit I’d never have spotted it in the raw. I mean she had just a touch of that about her when I met her last, but on the whole I thought her rather ordinary.”

“Ah, but you did not have my advantage, Amelia. I do not lay claim to any special discernment. I simply had the privilege of seeing her as a child. At eleven years she was a masterpiece in the sculpting; not fully formed, of course, but not a line out of place. At fifteen she was in many ways still more perfect, but beginning to show certain flaws, probably from the coarsening influence of television culture and that strange noise which is foisted upon the gullible young as music. Then she went to college, and returned like a piece of fine silver filigree, dulled, and blackened with tarnish. The fine lines were still discernible, but perhaps only to one who had seen the piece in its former state.

“I suppose she had been laughed at for her primness and precision, made to go to those strange dances where they gyrate like gibbons and lose all sense of what one might call bodily integrity; and generally to blunt her crystalline intricacy into everything that is most dull, common and uninspired. That, my dear Amelia, is the Miss Duncan whom you met a few years ago—or rather, you met her when she was still on the downward path, for she was at that time yet at college.

“To call the changes that have taken place in her since that time my handiwork is really giving me more credit than I could possibly deserve. Really the most important thing I have done is to release her. To free her from the restraints that have been placed upon her by the tyranny of the mediocre.

“She was afraid of becoming a stereotype. I explained that while unintelligent copying of style and manner can lead to a second-rate persona (which is certainly better than none), no true artist can create without a preconceived model or pattern.

“She was afraid of becoming artificial, but I explained that a personality is like a garden. Tended, cultivated, planned and weeded, it becomes a thing of great beauty and individual perfection. Left to grow naturally without care or attention, it becomes a boring jungle, indistinguishable from any similar jungle. I asked her to look about her at the unweeded personalities at her college. Did she see anything there to admire or to emulate ?

“She returned to college and looked about her, perhaps for the first time, with a critical eye. Or perhaps it was merely the first time that she allowed her criticisms to take form, even within her own mind. I had freed her to evaluate, rather than slavishly to accept, the ways of the majority around her. To ask not whether she conformed to its standards, but whether it conformed to hers. She found that it did not.

“After that, her development, which had been impeded from the age of fifteen and arrested at the age of eighteen, began to proceed again. What had I to do with that ? Well, I gave her such advice as she wanted, introduced her to the right people and helped her to choose her wardrobe. I taught her to appreciate good music and Caroline, I regret to say, taught her to appreciate bad music, but at any rate she utterly repudiated that grotesque parody of music which savages the smooth breast and gives so many modern souls the surface of sandpaper.”

“What about the bobbed hair ? ” asked Amelia, “I’m sure she didn’t acquire that on your advice.”

“Hardly,” said Miss Findlay. “I believe she was somewhat influenced by Miss Trixie Leigh Parker.”

 “Trixilee !” exclaimed Amelia. “My, but the little librarian does move in exalted circles, doesn’t she ?”

“Miss Leigh Parker has an eye for everything that is excellent of its kind,” replied Miss Findlay, “and Miss Duncan is, in her own way, a portion of genius.”

 “Well, who am I to deny it ? ” said Amelia.

I had myself heard of Trixie Leigh Parker, although I had never met her. Her name was mentioned from time to time at the Guides. She was always referred to as Trixilee, as if it were a single word. I gathered that she was quite a character, though exactly what sort of character I had never quite understood.

Miss Findlay’s eyes had a twinkle. “If I may give away one of my little secrets,” she said, “I have a hope that Miss Leigh Parker may be present at our party. She is in Edinburgh at the moment.”

“May we play the new records, Mummie ? ” asked Miss Caroline.

“Well, not your favourite ones, dear,” said Miss Findlay. “It is to be a crinoline party. I trust you have brought crinolines, Amelia and Miss Chevender? ”

“But of course,” said Amelia. I opened my mouth to say something, but a knowing smile from Amelia silenced me.

“Have you a crinoline with you ? ” I asked Amelia somewhat incredulously as soon as I had the opportunity.

“Certainly,” said Amelia. “ Would you care to see it ?” I followed her to her room, where she opened one of the doors of a large double-fronted wardrobe. That entire half of the wardrobe was taken up by a magnificent Victorian-looking ball-frock.

“The crinoline itself is just a petticoat worn underneath it,” said Amelia, “with hoops, you know. The very wide ones are not in fashion these days.”

It was difficult to know how to respond to this. Eventually, I said: “I call it a bit unfair, Amelia, really. You said to me, ‘Oh, just bring something for the country and something for the evening ’, and look, you’ve come outfitted like a maharani.”

“Would you have had a crinoline to pack if I had mentioned it? ” asked Amelia.

“Well, no—— ” I admitted.

“ ’Course not,” said Amelia. “You’d probably have been scared off coming, and think of all the fun you would have missed. I said we could get anything else we needed in Edinburgh, and so we can.”

“A crinoline? ” I asked, rather doubtfully. “ Where would one get a crinoline in Edinburgh ? Oh, at a fancy dress place, I suppose.”

“Fancy dress place, my eyelash. You leave the arrangements to me, young Pash, and enjoy a nice day out at Edinburgh.”

More from Enter Amelia Bingham:
News Travels Fast in the Jungle
The Sorceress’s Apprentice

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Needless to say, the term “grooming” did not have any unsavory connotations at the time this story was written.