Part three of The Last McCulloch

enter-amelia-binghamThe dance.

It is one of the most vivid of all my memories.

It was held in the Great Hall of the Castle, illuminated by two massive chandeliers, which between them, I imagine, cannot have held much less than a hundred candles. There were also candles on tables and sideboards. The Great Hall is not, in fact, as vast as its name makes it sound, though it is made to seem far larger by its enormous height. It is two stories high, and surrounded on three sides by a balcony, off which open most of the upstairs rooms of the castle. To reach the Hall from my room, it was necessary to come down the great double staircase that descended from the centre of the balcony. Already, on our return to the Castle, I had seen it decorated ready for the dance, great tables laid out along the walls for food and drinks.

At first I slept lightly, recovering from the strain and excitement of our day in Edinburgh. Then I began to worry about the dance. I was nervous about descending the stairs in full view, and very nervous about my clothes. Should I be able to wear them correctly, and comport myself properly in them, or should I look hopelessly gauche before the other guests? And who would they be? Every now and then, I was struck by a wave of sheer disbelief about the entire thing. Was there really going to be an entire roomful of people dressed in crinolines and—and whatever the men would wear? It seemed almost more reasonable to think that the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke being played upon me. But then I remembered how real it had felt when I had tried on my crinoline.

Round and round swirled these thoughts in my half-awake mind, until a knock upon the door brought me fully to my senses.

“Come in,” I called. It was Dolly.

“Time to be getting ready, ma’am,” she said.

“Thank you, Dolly,” I replied. She made no move to leave.

“I am to lady’s maid for you, ma’am,” she said.

Suddenly, the whole business of preparing myself for the dance was taken out of my hands. Cool, precise, respectful, and capable, Dolly was now in charge, brushing my hair, polishing my nails and tightening my stays until I cried out that I could hardly breathe.

“Dinnae worry, ma’am, I shall nae pull them tight, being as it’s your first time.”

She seemed to treat me as though I was very young, but then I was going to my first real dance. She kept plying me with advice, for which I was extremely grateful.

“Of course, Madam will not remove her shawl and gloves until the second half of the evening.”

Like everybody, I suppose, I have dressed up for a party or a concert before, and know that special feeling of no longer being one’s everyday self, but a specially prepared Sunday-best version. But imagine that feeling magnified a hundred times, and you will understand how I felt that evening. Minutely groomed from head to toe, tightly encased from breast to waist, and blossoming from there like some full-blown tropical flower, I felt that no part of me belonged to my ordinary self, or as if I were a tiny creature, hiding somewhere within this new, magnificent and untouchable figure which I had become. The final touch was a pair of ringlets on either side of my face, deftly created by Dolly with a pair of hot iron curling tongs—heated on the peat-burning kitchen range.

I was staring at myself in the full-length mirror of my wardrobe, when Amelia knocked and entered.

“Are we ready? ” she called as she sailed through the door, and then stopped as if silenced by the sight of me.

“Stars in heaven,” she cried. “She’s a very fine swan indeed.” She stepped forward to kiss my hand, as I had seen her do once before with Natasha Ovlonsky.

A thrill ran through me as I realized that she was really much impressed, but an impulse to coquetry made me withdraw my hand a little and say, “Why, Miss Bingham, do you mean that I was an ugly duckling before?”

“Beside your present self,” replied Amelia, “Vivien Leigh would be an ugly duckling.”

“My, how you do run on,” I returned, giving her my hand. “But I am sure I cannot look in any way as impressive as yourself.” For indeed, she looked quite magnificent in her rich maroon velvet dress, cut away at the front to reveal an equally rich underskirt of the same green with which her bodice was trimmed. Her jewelry was very simple, and it suddenly occurred to me that if I had ever thought her evening wear a shade ostentatious in the past, how plain it must have seemed to her, if this was what she regarded as the ‘real thing ’.

She extended her arm, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to take it and allow her to escort me down the stairs.

Already several of the guests were present, and, surveying the scene from above as we descended, several things struck me at once. The first was how much the scene was like a mid-Victorian ball, and the second was how much it was unlike a mid-Victorian ball. The crinolines were not so pronounced as in their Victorian heyday, and among the company were several bobbed heads. If I had expected them to look outlandish in crinolines, I should have been wrong. With the bob seemed to go a special sort of collar, standing several inches high, and splaying away from the face, which set off the short hair well, and gave an appearance which was almost futuristic, though in no way modern. Collars were generally high, and the decolletage of mid-Victorian evening wear was rarely to be seen.

The other thing to strike me was that there were no gentlemen present. I began to wonder with whom all these ladies had come and with whom they proposed to dance, but it soon became clear that it was quite the custom for ladies to dance with each other.

I was introduced to a number of people, but stayed, for the most part, with those I knew, dancing with Amelia and Miss Duncan and Miss Caroline. I have never taken the lead in a dance, but that did not matter, for Amelia led naturally and gracefully, and Miss Duncan briskly and almost forcefully. I must say that she cut a very impressive figure in her crinoline. With Miss Caroline it was a little more embarrassing, since neither of us took to the leading part at all naturally.

It was while Amelia, Miss Caroline and I were taking a rest from the dancing, enjoying grouse drumsticks and an excellent Clicquot, that we were approached by a figure I had not met so far. For a moment, I thought it was a gentleman, but then I realized it was a lady, her jet black hair bobbed very close to her head, the two points curling with exaggerated sharpness, and lying against her cheeks as if they had been glued in place. She wore a cutaway coat, severely waisted, a white linen shirt and a grey silk cravat, secured with a single pearl. Her long dark skirt was her main concession to femininity, but showed very little concession to the crinoline style. She wore a monocle, and when she spoke I found her voice as intriguing as her appearance.

“Ah, Binks,” she said, “g’devenin’. Just been givin’ me apologies to Miss Findlay. Unavoidably delayed, as they say.”

Amelia turned to me. “Miss Hypatia Chevender,” she said, “allow me to introduce Miss Beatrix Leigh Parker.” Trixilee clicked her heels and bowed deeply. She adjusted her monocle and looked at me for a moment and then said, “Miss Chevender, rumour has not done you justice, but what can we expect of rumour when poetry itself must stand in mute admiration.”

“You are too kind, sir,” I replied. I do not know what made me say it, but, thankfully, I did not appear to have said the wrong thing. Trixilee merely laughed.

“Dress like a lady for the occasion and she sees through me right off,” she said. “P ’raps I shan’t trouble next time. But I’m so nervous after what happened at the Guides.”

“What did happen ? ” I asked.

“Y’mean they ain’t told you? ” She produced a fine silver snuff box and took a pinch of snuff. “Binks, you’re the soul of discretion, m’dear. At the last Guides ball, I wore me very finest breeches and silk hose. Turned me away, egad. Y’know they have a rule against trousers. ‘These ain’t trousers,’ I told ’em. ‘They’re bifurcated garments,’ said the gel at the door, ‘that makes ‘ em underwear. No persons admitted in underwear.’ Dashed embarrassin’ to go home in ’em after that, what? ”

“Did you have to go home? ” I asked sympathetically.

“Well, no. Makes a good story, but it wouldn’t be true. I keep a room there, so I just popped up and changed into something more fittin’. Ah, the tyranny of fashion, Miss Chevender. But I suppose you ladies enjoy it, what?”

At this point Miss Duncan joined us, and was greeted by the newcomer. The one bowed, and the other dropped a beautiful curtsey. Miss Duncan’s prim precision now looked almost demure, and with but a few words, they quickly took the floor. I noticed that this time, Miss Duncan gracefully fell into the following part.

“Shall we?” asked Amelia, and we glided forth to the strains of the Sleeping Beauty Waltz.

“Is she always like that?” I asked.

“Trixilee, you mean? No. It is merely one of her poses.”

“I think she is the most unconventional person I have ever met.”

“I should think she is the only unconventional person you have ever met.”

“I have always thought you a little unconventional, Amelia.”

“Thank you, but it is not so. I behave conventionally in an unconventional world. Actually it is impossible to be unconventional in an unconventional world, just as it is impossible to provide light relief in a comedy. Trixilee is unconventional in a conventional world. The formality of this dance, say, or of the Guides is the life-blood of Trixilee’s genius. She thrives upon it. A formal world enjoys the delights of both formality and eccentricity. An informal world enjoys neither.”

“I should hardly have called the Guides formal.”

“Ah, but then you hardly know the Guides. What at first appear to be random eccentricities all form part of a greater pattern.”

As the dance ended we returned to our former place by one of the refreshment tables to join Trixilee in conversation with Miss Duncan.

“The Foreign Legion!” exclaimed the latter, sounding more Scots than ever in her incredulity. “Whyever did you leave it ? ”

“Sand, m’dear, sand,” replied Trixilee. “I didn’t mind the floggin’s or the forced marches, not at all. They added a certain piquance to life. But sand in the lobster bisque ; ’pon my soul, ma’am it was more than flesh and blood could stand.

“Ah, Binks. I was just invitin’ Miss Duncan to join me in Edinburgh tomorrow evenin’ . Hopin’ you would come too, and Miss Chevender. Makin’ up quite a little party. There’s a passably good performance of Antony and Cleopatra in town.”

“You have tempted me,” replied Amelia. “I consider Antony and Cleopatra to be the finest of all Shakespeare’s plays.”

“Then you’re wrong, Binks, because that’s King Lear. But I’m glad to have tempted you. That was the whole idea. I’m sure I can persuade you to stay for a day or two. Entice you up with Shakespeare and then gradually lure you into gamblin’ and all manner of other vices. Not a bad plan, eh?”

At this point we were interrupted by what seemed almost to be a ghost. One minute there were the four of us, and the next minute, without sound or apparent approach, a fifth was standing respectfully beside Trixilee. She was a slender oriental woman, dressed all in black, the lower half of her face concealed by some form of black veil. She whispered a few words to Trixilee, whereupon she said : “Dash and bother. Duty calls. I must be off just as the party was beginnin’ to warm. See you tomorrow, gels. My hotel. Seven-thirty.”

“Who was that? ” I asked as Trixilee went off to bid her farewells to the household.

“That is Tori,” replied Amelia, “Trixilee’s maidservant.”

“She looks more like some Oriental spy or assassin,” I remarked.

“Well, I believe she has done a little work along those lines,”  said Amelia. Trixilee passed us again on her departure, and Amelia hailed her.

“Ho, Trixilee,” she cried, “Young Miss Chevender would like an introduction to Tori. She thinks she looks dangerous.”

“Very wise,” replied Trixilee. “Better that she knows you. Tori is apt to kill first and ask questions later, aren’t you Tori?”

“Yes, madam,” replied Tori, bowing and looking deadly serious.

“Don’t worry,” said Trixilee, noticing my expression, “she would never harm a lady, would you, Tori?”

“No, madam,” replied Tori, bowing again. This time her face was suddenly transformed by a smile that was obvious even with half her face veiled.

“Well, now we really must make a noise like a hoop and bowl along,” said Trixilee.

“I wonder what business they might have at this time of night,” I mused as they took their leave.

“What indeed? ” said Amelia, a dreamy look coming into her eyes. “Some more vigorous work than I have known these last few years, perhaps.”

“What, were you in the Foreign Legion with her? ” I teased.

“Foreign Legion, indeed! ” Amelia chuckled. “Dear old Trixilee ! What a whimsical way of putting it!” For a full minute her eyes seemed focused beyond me, creased with mirth at Miss Parker’s little pleasantry, and, so it seemed, musing on things gone by. Then she fixed me with that cool, frank, open gaze of hers.

“Yes, Pash,” she said. “I was.”

Continue to Part 4: Masterpiece

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

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