Dressed as Little Bo-Peep

Suzanne Slayton on December 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

“You’ve met Lavinia, of course,” prompted the dowager. “And this is Cynthia Smythe, Muriel’s other bridesmaid.”

Cynthia, who was dressed as Little Bo-Peep, gushed her way towards her hostess and was followed by a man with knees glearning like carriage lamps who bent obsequiously over Minna’s hand, clouting her with bis lyre as he did so.

But now the Earl of Wester­holme carne forward, escorting her fiancée. Rupert’s instruc­tions to his butler to “for heaven’s sake find him some­thing to wear” had yielded a perfect replica, used in theatri­cals years ago, of the costume that his disreputable ancestor, Sir Montague Frayne, had worn to be painted . in by Romney. The velvet breeches, the ruffied shirt and high stock suited him to perfection and Minna, seeing him come, thought she had never seen him look as hand­some—or as tired.

But it- was Muriel, the guest of honor, who rightly drew all eyes. Muriel’s dress was of blue and silver, the colours that the Sun King used above all others for the glory of Versailles. A myriad bows glittered on the satin bodice: the elaborately flounced overskirt was sewn with tiny bunches of gauze roles and forget-me-nots. Price­less lace edged the sleeves and the low décolleté, diamonds sparkled un the high, white wig and in the heels of her silver slippers. And round her throat, perfectly matching the blue of the dress and of her eyes, she wore the sapphires that were the bridegroom’s present to the bride. If Muriel looked pleased with herself she had every right to do so for these was a Pompa­dour to silence all beholders.

“Petya, I beg of you,” whis­pered Anna, and added a few words of entreaty in Russian, imploring him to leave her.

The certainty, the joy drained visibly from the boy’s face. He looked at the hostile woman in the silver dress. at Anna’s des­perate eyes . . . Had he made a mistake? Was it possible . . . but it couldn’t be! Uncle Kolya, he knew, was a doorman at the Ritz. But Anna!

And just then, Hawkins, wait­ing to announce the next guests by the double doors, sent- an irate signal to Charles. Now, the first footman approached, his face as purple as his livery. What was the wretched girl doing? She’d been hours serving drinks and now she was actually talking to the guests.

Lord Byrne, with his bluff kindness, prepared to intervene. It was unnecessary. Anna, too, had seen her brother’s face. Her head went up, she turned­and as the bullying footman approached she said with a serene and charming smile : “Ah, Charles. How kind! You have come to relieve me of my burden.”

And before he knew what was happening, the footman, responding instinctively to the practised authority in her voice, was holding the loaded tray.

“Well, what are you hanging round for?” said Lord Byrne to the goggling Charles. “You heard what the Countess said. Take the thing away.”

“Ah, that’s better!” Anna had shaken out her skirt, straightened her apron, tilted her cap—and suddenly it was obvious that she was in fancy dress. “How good it will be to dance again!”

“With me?” said Petya ex­citedly.

“Of course, galubchik.”

“No,” said Tom Byrne. “First with me.”

“I’M sorry,” said the Earl, “but as Anna’s host at Mersham I undoubtedly have first claim on her.”

Rupert turned to Anna. “May have the pleasure of the first dance, Countess?”

She lifted her face to his, not even trying to hide her blazing joy. “You may, my lord.”

And so they went together finto the ballroom to dance for the first and last time in their lives, the Valse des Fleurs.

To this waltz, born in a dis­tant, snowbound country out of longing for just such a flower­scented summer night as Ibis, Rupert and Anna danced. They were under no illusions. The glittering chandeliers, the gold mirrors with their draped acanthus leaves, the plangent violins, might be the stuff of romance but this was no romance. It was a moment in a lifeboat before it sank beneath the waves; a walk across the sunlit courtyard towards the firing squad. This waltz would be all they had.

So they danced and neither of them spoke. As the music began and his arms closed round her, he had felt her shiver. Then the melody caught her and she moved with him, so light, so completely one with him that he could guide her with a finger. Yet as he held her he had no thought of thistledown or snow­flake. Here was tempered steel, was flame . .

But now the music was gathering itself up, manoeuvring for the climax. Mr Bartorolli had done all he could. With bis fine social antennae he had un­derstood exactly what was happening. The ball might be for the stiff, white-wigged lady in silver but it was about the young girl with her ardour and her Byzantine eyes. So he had played the first repeat, the second; demanded—to the sur­prise of his orchestra—a reprise. But now there was nothing more to be done. For the last time, the melody soared towards its ful­filment, the dancers turned faster, faster . . . and with a last crescendo, the music ceased.