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January 2013

The Lady Lavinia

Suzanne Slayton on January 19, 2013 in Uncategorized
But the fault had not been the ballerina’s. A tall and avid­looking girl covered in scales had cannoned into her, en route for the open French window through which she now vanished. There was a short pause, then with assorted exclamations of fury, four more girls in an extra­ordinary collection of clothes raced after her.

“Dróle!” said La Slavina, raising her eyebrows. Then she tucked her arm through Anna’s and led her entourage towards the supper room.

Anxious to avoid the servants’ hall with its backbiting and gos­síp, Sergei had spent the even­ing in the King’s Head down in the village. Now he was smoking a quiet cigarette in the paddock which adjoined the stable yard until he should be summoned to take the Lady Lavinia and her fellow brides­maid back to Mersham.

“Sergei ! Sergei ! Where are you?”
“Here, my lady.”
The Lady Lavinia, in full tilt, careered round the corner of the stables and panted up to him. Her scales caught the moon­light; an even fiercer glítter lit up her eyes.
“Do you wish to leave early, my lady? The car is ready.”
“No, no Sergei ! The night is young !” She carne closer. “But I’m very cross with you, Sergei ! Very, very cross,” said Lavínia, waggling a bony finger in his face.
Sergei looked round for a way of escape but short of simply leaping the fence and racing away across the paddock there was nothing he could do.
“Why didn’t you tell us your real name?” said Lavinia, now fixing his arm in a vice-like grip.
“But I did, my lady.”
“No, you didn’t ! Not all of it !”
“I’m afraid I don’t under­sta nd.”

“Oh, naughty, naughty !” said Lavinia, entranced by her proximity to Ibis devastating man. “What about the Prince, hey?” You didn’t tell us that!” “Lavvy! Where are you?” The pack was closing in. Furious at Lavinia’s head start, her sisters had rushed off down the terrace steps in hot pursuit. Unfortunately Salome’s ankle bangle had caught in the turned­up spike of Cleopatra’s golden sandal, eliminating the Ladies Hermione and Priscilla who rolled down the remaíning steps in a vituperative and flaying tangle. But Gwendolyn, and the headless daffodil that now was Beatrice, had reached the stable yard.

“Ah, there you are! You’ve found him. You’re a crafty one, Lavvy! Just as soon as you found out he was a prince you carne running after him. Don’t Cake any notice, Sergei.”

But Sergei now had had enough. His accent very pro­nounced. he bowed and said: “Ladies, I have two things to say to you. Firstly, as from this moment I resign absolutely my post as chauffeur to your family and you may tell the Duke and Duchess this. Secondly, I am engaged to be married.”
And before the girls could recover themselves, he had vaulted over the five-bar gate and vanished into the trees. After the arrival of the Rus­sians, no-one could doubt that the ball was a triumph. But at its heart was not Muriel Hard­wicke, stiff and disapprovíng in her elaborate dress: at its heart, her escape cut off, was Anna. Anna dancing a tango with Lapin, Anna drinking cham­pagne with Mr Bartorolli, Anna and Vladimir demonstrating a polonaise . . . Anna besieged by partners and never, not for one minute, looking at Rupert who never, for one minute, looked at her.

“That girl seems determined to make an exhibition of her­self,” said Muriel, frigidly executing a two-step in the arms of her fiancé. “I hope you don’t expect me to have her back at Mersham after this?”

Rupert did not answer. Anna had paused at the end of her dance to thank her partner and straighten the flower in her tumbled hair. Caught off his guard for an instant, Rupert gazed at her just as her control, snapped and she raised her eyes, brilliant with fatigue and excitement, to his.
And at that moment it became clear to him with an absolute and blinding certainty that he could not live without her and that he must break his engage­ment even if it meant disgrace and ruin—and that he must break it that very night.

Sergei had taken refuge in the Italian Garden whose statues and arbours gave shelter even in the bright moonlight. Here he would wait quietly till the Nettleford girls returned to the ballroom and then pick up his things from the coach house and make his way to the station.

He was just beginning to make his way back when he heard a sound : forlorn and small and infinitely sad; the sound of someone resolutely not crying. And turning aside he saw, framed by a trellis of jasmine, a girl sitting on the rim of a foun­tain, her head in her hands. A girl whose pose, whose slender outline, seemed heart-rendingly familiar.

Rupert’s glance had cut through Anna’s mood like a sword, and excusing herself from her latest partner she had slipped away, wanting, now, only that this long night should end at last.
“Annoushka! Mylienkaya! Eto ti?”

The voice, known and loved since childhood, the tender Rus­sían words, brought her to her feet— and into the arms of the tall man coming towards her. “Seriosha!”

For a moment they stood locked together in an embrace of homesickness and love. If there was one person in the world that Anna needed at this hour it was the cousin who was now brother and father, friend and protector. If there was one person who could make him think well again of women, it was thís girl with her steadfast­ness and courage, her spiritual grace.
It was thus that Rupert, look­ing for Anna in the garden, found them. Leaning against each other as if they were one substance, the man bending over her, holding her close, while she turned to him in total trust­and her long dark hair, now loosened by the dance, streamed across them both.

In the garden

Suzanne Slayton on January 6, 2013 in Uncategorized
“How dare you!” Tom had seized her shoulders; he was shaking her. hurting her. The famous Byrne temper, scourge of his red-haired ancestors since Domesday. blazed in his eyes. “How dare you talk to me like that! You are insulting me!” “What do you mean?”
“How dare you suppose that 1 don’t know who you are or what you are? It is unspeak­able! You could weigh as much as a hippopotamus and shave your head and wear a wig and it wouldn’t make any difference to me. I never said you were beautiful. I never thought it. I said that you were you.”

SUS1E loosened his hands. Then she smiled. The wise, tender smile that made nonsense of her ugliness. “Well. in that case we must just hope that our children don’t inherit your awful temper. Or my nose.” “Oi, Gewalt!” said the Noble Spanish Lady, Susie’s mother, seeing their faces as they re­turned to the ballroom. “Look, Leo ! It has happened ! What shall 1 tel! Moshe and Rachel? And Cousin Steffi? You know she wanted Susie for her Isaac !” “To mind their own business,” said that stout bullfighter, Leo Rabinovich, hitching up his cummerbund.
Anna stayed for a while in the garden, standing with her back to a great cedar as though thereby she could draw in some of its strength.

Rupert had gone. She must live without him. It was done. There were just a few things to do, still, before she slipped away. Explain to the dowager that she was leaving. thank the Byrnes, say goodbye to 011ie . . . And after that, Mersham, to pick up her things and wait for the milk trajo to London.

But first, Petya. She had promised him a dance.
He had been searching for her. “Ah, there you are, Annoushka.” he said, beginning to talk ex­citedly in Russian. “You’ve missed such an exciting thing! Tom is engaged to marry Susie Rabinovich and they stopped the music and announced it and everyone clapped. Tom’s very happy and Susie’s really nice and there’s going to be lots and lots of champagne. And Lady Byrne’s going to ask you to stay here instead of Mersham—she says you’ve been there long enough as a guest and it’s her turn to have you, so do come, ‘Noushka, because they’re so nice and their horses are fabulous!”

“Petya, 1 must go back to town,” said Anna.
“Oh, no! We’d have such fun! There’s the wedding too—you must stay for that!”
“1 can’t, love. Maybe I’ll come back,” she liad, “but it’s Pinny’s birthday next week and you know 1 like to be there for that : she’s done so much for us. So now let’s have our dance and then l’II slip away quietly. Listen, it’s a polka! We’ll show them how to dance!-
And they did. But when it was over and Anna, under cover of the supper break, tried to gain the double doors, she was sud­denly prevented—for sweeping into the ballroom carne the Ballet Russe!

They came in costumes bor­rowed from Firebird and Sche­herazade and immediately all the other costumes looked drab and uninteresting. They came as guests, not performers, but in­stantly all eyes were on them, such was their vitality, their “otherness”. There was La Slavina, darling of the Maryin sky for two decades and still, in her forties, a woman from whom it was almost impossible to avert one’s eyes. There was the ineffable stylish designer, Lapin, with drooping eyes and a white streak in hisjet-black hair.

THEY surged forward to greet their hostess, em­bracing everybody in their path, seizing glasses of cham­pagne from the passing footmen —and the temperature of the party soared. Then La Slavina paused, threw out an arm, and let out a small scream.

“Mon Dieu! C’est la petite Grazinsky!”
“You look charming, Coun­tess,” said Lapin approvingly, “But not, 1 think, the cap. One wishes only to suggest a cos­turne.” He unpinned Anna’s cap. Tossed it away, plucked a white poppy from an urn and tucked it unerringly into her hair.
“You have lost everything, I have heard?” said La Slavina. Anna shrugged. “We’re all right.”
“Ah, you have courage. And a fine brother.” She pinched Petya’s cheek. “Tell me . . .” Her voice, this time, dropped half an octave, her splendid boudoir eyes became veiled in a pro­found and personal nostalgia. “What has happened to your so beautiful Cousin Sergei?”
“He is working in the north, somewhere,” said Anna cautiously.
“As a chauffeur, I have heard! C’est possible?”

They had collected, inevitably, a crowd—and, among its mem­bers, the Nettlefords who had closed ranks after the dreadful news of Tom’s engagement and were conveying a stunned Lavinia to the supper room. La Slavina threw out an arm to include the company. “Ah, if you could see the Prince! Never, never have 1 seen a man so ‘andsome. And fearless, too.” She broke off to say with her enchanting smile : “I beg your pardon, mademoiselle.”

Dazed by the silence

Suzanne Slayton on January 2, 2013 in Uncategorized
They drew apart and for a moment Anna stood looking up at him, dazed by the silence.
Then, for the last time, she curtsied.
If it hadn’t been for that curtsy, Rupert would have left her then and there. But what she made of that gesture, combining her former respect and humility with the elegance, the lightness of the ballroom—yet all of it, somehow, heartbreakingly on a dying fall—was more than he could bear.
“Come outside for a moment.” She shook her head. “No, Rupert.”
He did not hear the denial, only that she had used his Christian name—and followed by every pair of eyes in the room he led her out, still pro­testing, through the French windows, and onto the terrace. Nor did he stop there but, as familiar with Heslop as with Mersham, led her down a flight of shallow stone steps to an arbour wíth a lily pond and a stone bench, protected by a high, yew hedge.
“Anna,” he said, guiding her to the seat, “I shall do what is right. I shall not jilt Muriel. The mistake is my mistake and I will live by it. But if you have any merey tell me just once that you feel as I do. That if things had been different . . .” He drew breath, tried again. “That you love me, Anna?”
She was silent, and suddenly he was more frightened than he had ever been. Then she turned towards him and gave him both her hands to hold and said very quietly : “I have no right to tell you, you belong to someone elle. But I will tell you. Only I will tell you in my own language so that you will not understand.”
And Anna spoke. In the wonderful, damnable language that separated yet joined them, with its caressing rhythm, its wildness and searing tenderness. He was never to know what she said but it seemed to him one of the great love speeches of the world.

“Have you understood?” she asked when she had finished.
“I have understood,” said Rupert when he could trust him­self to speak.
Then he bent to kiss her once very lightly on the lips and went back to find his bride.
TOM had been assiduous in performing his duties. He detested dressing up but he was wearing the navy sweater and bell-bottoms of a sailor in His Majesty’s Navy. He was indifferent to dancing but he had waltzed with the detestable Lady Lavinia and snatched Muriel Hardwicke from Dr Lightbody’s arms when the music ceased so as to give Rupert a few last minutes of happiness.

Now, however, he felt entitled to some solace and this for Tom meant the company of the plump and bespectacled Susie Ra binovich.

He found her with her mother, making easier by her uncomplicated presence the first emotional meeting between Hannah and the dowager since the day at Maidens Over.

“I should have known,” Hannah was saying. “I should have known that Miss Hard­wicke’s note had nothing to do with you. It was so foolish—but Chis particular thing . . . we make jokes about it but for us it is like a deep, black hole, always there.”

“Oh, my dear.” The dowager was deeply shaken by what she had just learnt about her son’s fiancée. “What a wretched tangle it all is—” She broke off. “Ah. here comes Tom! Have you come to claim Susie for a dance?”

“To claim her at all events. I thought she might like some lemonade.”
Susie smiled and followed him. But she was destined to get no lemonade that night. Tom led her out of the ballroom, through the Great Hall, and finto an anteroom.
“Susie,” said Tom, and she saw that he was in an unusually grim and serious mood. “How many times have I asked you to marry me?”

“I think seventeen,” said Susie in her quiet, pedantic voice, looking up at him and wishing yet again that he wasn’t quite so handsome. “But it may only be sixteen; I’m not com­pletely sure.”
“Susie, are you really going to ruin our happiness because of your parents’ wretched religious prejudices? Even though I’ve told you a hundred times that you can bring up our children in any way you like?”

Susie hesitated. “It’s not that. My parents aren’t so orthodox any more. They’d moan a little but there’s no question of them disowning me or saying a kad­dish over me. They’re far too concerned for my happiness.” Tom stared at her, amazed. “But why, then, Susie? Why do you keep on saying no?”

Susie studied him carefully. “Tom, have you ever looked at me? At me? Not someone you’ve imagined?”

She stepped forward so that the overhead light shone full on her face. The gypsy dress, as she well knew, was extremely un­becoming to her and she was flushed from the hect.
“I’m plump now,” she con­tinued in her leve!. unemotional voice. “In ten years be fat however much 1 diet. 1 have a hooked nose; most of the time 1 need glasses. My hair is frizzy and my ears—”