“Noblesse Oblige” his mother had always said. This was usually followed by the lecture about privilege bringing responsibility, and the necessity for good manners and graciousness. “Even with the most tiresome of persons,” she had once said to him, after a newspaper report about him being “boorish”. To be fair she didn’t nag, but had her two weapons of choice, the lecture and the look, and even though he was a grown-up now, he didn’t care to be on the receiving end of either. She was also possibly the only – well, person, whom he knew who regularly said persons rather than people. It wasn’t an affectation. It came entirely naturally.

     Noblesse Oblige he reminded himself, as that irritating girl turned her besotted, beseeching eyes on him. His friend Sebastian had referred to her (and it was always hard to tell whether Sebastian was serious or in jest) as his doe-eyed beauty, but he thought that even though, looked at objectively, she did have nice eyes, the expression was more like a cow pleading to be milked. Now don’t be ungallant, he told himself. 

     He couldn’t remember her being invited, but that was not so surprising at the New Year’s Ball. There were people who most definitely had to be there, and people who were to be excluded at all costs (preferably in advance rather than at the palace gates, but their security staff were efficient and discreet) but they had staff to see to things like that, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if his cousin Alexandra hadn’t invited this girl along as one of her projects. She maintained she only kept her title because it helped her with her projects (she was very particular about not using the word “charity” as that was condescending) and perhaps she even believed it herself at times.

     And as for that outfit – he had heard whispers about it, and though he knew very little about fashion, especially women’s fashion, he knew it was frankly embarrassing.

     Oh, even he knew quality when he saw it, and knew that the silk and velvet and jewels were real enough. Even his redoubtable Grandmother couldn’t have said it was “tarty” – there was nothing plunging or see-through, or cut up to the thigh. Her modesty was entirely preserved and there would be no wardrobe incident, intentional or otherwise. But he was reminded of those outfits his little niece Margaret had liked to deck her dolls out in until she had decided a few months back that they were all going to be atomic physicists or show jumping champions. Or both. The skirt took up more space than any skirt had a right to, and he was reminded of the flounced and beribboned lampshades that Aunt Louise had in her grace and favour apartment. At least those lampshades were in fairly tasteful shades of cream and the palest primrose yellow. This girl’s skirt flashed vivid pink and twinkling turquoise and – yes, it did, indeed, have little lights on it that danced as she danced. She had actually asked him, in that breathless, slightly simpering voice of hers, “Isn’t it fantastic, sir?”

     “No need to call me sir. And it’s – certainly unusual.” That was one of his mother’s standby phrases, and he had to admit it came in handy. 

     She wasn’t a great dancer, though the fact that she was very slim and light (though the skirt didn’t help) meant she could, most of the time, be steered round the dance floor without it ending in disaster. 

     He did his best not to wrinkle up his nose. The girl – well, she smelt odd! Oh, he had known several girls of the “too posh to wash” type, and in all fairness, she wasn’t one of them. There was not the slightest hint of sweat or body odour or the like. But he was reminded of the smell he detected on himself when he’d been working on his estates for several days. A smell of animals, and earth, and yes, it could be the very devil to shift. He suspected this girl had been trying, but it still hung and clung, and there was a hint of ashes. They still sometimes had blazing open fires at the palace, though there wasn’t one in the ballroom, and he loved them, and it took him back to his childhood and crumpets toasted on forks. But even though they burnt fragrant logs of apple wood, after the fire had died, and before it had been cleared away and before it could be reborn, there was an acrid tint in the air, and sometimes, even in the depths of winter they had to open a window so it could dissipate. He suspected that the fire this girl had been tending had not been one of fragrant apple wood.

     She made no secret at all of her humble background, and of course, he told himself, hurriedly, he didn’t think any the worse of her for that, just the opposite. Even his mother respected people who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps”, though he was never quite sure what a bootstrap was. And she didn’t talk about it that much, didn’t try to win the “sympathy vote”.

     The thing was, he would have preferred that. “They” had decided recently that it was definitely time to make much of his “Man of the People” image, and though he admitted to himself in the wee small hours that they might be a tad facile, his regard and interest were genuine enough. He had been guest of honour at a Christmas lunch at an old people’s day care centre only ten days ago, and his first engagement of the New Year was at a scheme to clean up a river. He quite looked forward to that, though he rather feared that the lingering odour might be worse than the farmyard one.

     He even tried to prompt this girl with her outlandish name to talk about her life, but either she was not versed in the skills of picking up subtle prompts, or had no wish to discuss it at any great length, or both.

     He wasn’t quite sure at exactly which point he began to doubt her sanity. It probably wasn’t the talk of the godmother. He could even relate to that. He was very attached to his own godmother, who had spoilt him rotten when he was a child, and, sadly, was no longer around. And he was very fond of animals, too, and as a child he had often thought he could relate to them more than people. All the same ….. “Yes, sometimes you can almost imagine they can talk,” he said, turning beseeching eyes of his own on Margaret, who was observing from an amused distance, and knowing full well she would interpret it, correctly, as “Rescue me!” – though whether she would act on it was another matter.

     It was the pumpkin that did it. “Yes, we had pumpkins here, at Halloween, all of them with candles flickering in them,” he said, “And it looked amazing, though Grandmama thought it was a bit heathenish.”

     But this is not Halloween, he thought, this is New Year’s Eve, and this girl is not talking about making an atmospheric forest of Jack O’ Lanterns.

     Inevitably, it crossed his mind that she was “on” something. But both through his friends and his charity work, he had a fairly good eye, instinct, and nose for those who had partaken of substances of questionable legality and would have sworn she had not. 

     It would have been preferable. She is not just slightly eccentric with a vivid imagination, and questionable dress sense, he realised. She is quite, quite mad. True, she seemed harmless, but that didn’t necessarily signify.

     He had to be honest, it was an intense relief to realise that she was no longer by his side, though he couldn’t help wondering just where she was.

     “Looking for your mystery woman?” Margaret asked, knocking back another champagne cocktail and remaining stone-cold sober. She took after their grandmother and had “hollow legs”. 

     “Fat lot of help YOU were!”

     “Oh, you know me, never one to come between a couple of love birds. Well, if you’re really desperate to chase after her, she disappeared out of the front door, running like a scared cat. I was about to tell her we DID have inside toilets, but doubt I could have caught up with her, not in these shoes. Mind you, hers were worse. Thank God she didn’t tread on your toes when you were dancing or you’d have a puncture wound – oh – look – the poor thing shed a shoe on the steps!”

     He looked out to the brightly lit drive and scrunching up his eyes could see that she was right. One of her dainty, lethal, crystal dancing shoes was on the broad sweep of granite steps.

     He could hear the sonorous long-case clock in the hallway, and the chime of the village church, and, loudest, and, he suspected, most accurate, the booming notes of Big Ben from a TV someone had switched on. It was those, that sound from London across the airwaves, that everyone at the palace joined in with.

     One, Two, Three, Four …….

January 02, 2020 09:01

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