CHAPTER FIVE

 

The room Lord Handon spoke of was not as small as one might have supposed, but it was still smaller than the drawing-room in which his guests had sat prior to dinner.  There was certainly ample space for ten people to exercise their legs, and, at a guess, one would have said it could accommodate at least fifty people in that regard.

     Situated on the south wing of Rothermore House, one entered a rectangular room brightly lit by three cut-glass chandeliers and warmly heated by a large open fire which blazed fiercely from its hearth in seeming anticipation of the dance.  Doubtless the servants had just prepared the room.  For it also contained a copiously-stocked wine cabinet, similar to the one in the drawing-room, on top of which stood a variety of wine bottles de-corked and ready for use.  Yet 'ballroom' was hardly the word one would have applied to the room on first entering it.  For not only was the floor covered by a bright-red carpet of seemingly immaculate condition, but there were also a number of armchairs and a couple of large settees spread along the length of its cream-coloured walls at various points, thereby giving the overall impression of a lounge or even a sitting-room.  And the walls were not adorned with mirrors, as one might have expected, but with various-sized glossy paintings, mostly by minor Italian or French artists of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which were of a decidedly romantic cast.  Added to which, the familiar spectacle of fluted pilasters spaced in solitude at regular distances apart, plus a few statuette-prone niches and one more or less had the 'ballroom' in a nutshell.  Yet there was still some exquisitely carved stucco on the ceiling, reminiscent of Robert Adam, and more than a hint of rococo panelling along the lower section of one of the walls, thus endowing the room with a stylistic eclecticism as charming as it was unusual.

     However, all this detail had relatively little significance for Timothy Byrne, as he followed the other guests across the threshold in a somewhat perplexed state-of-mind.  For he was more concerned with the ominous prospect of having to dance than with the stylistic nature of the ballroom itself, and hardly noticed his surroundings.  Who-on-earth would he be expected to dance with, he wondered?  And what dance to - the Foxtrot, Charleston, Two-Step, Waltz, Twist, Tango, or Boston?  He wasn't a dancing man by habit or temperament and scarcely knew how to - at least not in any passably-accomplished fashion.  Yet perhaps he wouldn't be alone in this respect?  Perhaps one or two of the other guests, like Nigel Townley and Irene Myers, wouldn't be any more, or less, qualified than him?  It was a slightly comforting thought, at any rate, and he needed all the comfort he could get, now that Lord Handon had gone across to the large stereo in the far corner of the room and begun to hunt among the sizeable collection of long-playing records there for something suitable to play.  In a minute the worst would be revealed, thought Timothy, though, for the time being, he was relatively content, like most of the others, to avail himself of a soft seat in one of the many available armchairs to-hand.  The few glasses of port he had imbibed, earlier that evening, had quite conclusively gone to his head by now, making him feel somewhat drowsy and slightly unsteady on his legs.  If most of the other guests were feeling the same, then it seemed to him that he needn't worry too much about having to exert himself in the dance.  Perhaps, after all, it wouldn't happen?

     But this vague and slightly dishonourable hope was quickly dashed, as Lord Handon cried out, with a certain roguish gusto it seemed to Timothy: "Choose your partners!" and then proceeded to advance towards the centre of the room, where his wife was already waiting, impatient, no doubt, for the dancing to begin.

     "Oh hell!" sighed Timothy, as he heard the first strains of a gentle Two-Step descend on his ears from high up in opposite corners of the room, and realized that the challenge was on.    

     “Well, my dear young lady," said Lawrence Gowling on a note of enforced bravado, "may I have the privilege of your arm?"  He was standing near the seated figure of Geraldine Handon who, on seeing his outstretched hand, blushed graciously and rose to her feet, eager, it appeared, to comply with the artist's exigent request.

     For a moment Timothy almost envied Gowling his choice, but was soon distracted from that as he heard Girish O'Donnell saying: "I think it's about time you and I put feet together, Irene," and the ample figure of the sculptress duly rose from her seat, to accompany the director of the world's first and, to-date, only voice museum unsteadily across the carpet.

     "Two down, two to go," sighed Timothy, as he was left face-to-face with his own blank irresolution.  Perhaps the choice would be made simpler if Nigel...?

     At that very moment Townley did in fact feel it incumbent upon himself to offer an arm to the nearest solitary female, who, to Timothy's manifest relief, accepted it without demur and set off with Scotch gusto towards the centre of the room.  So that left only one, and she, still dressed in a dark-green tapering minidress and matt stockings, happened to be the opera singer Sarah Field, who smiled encouragingly at Timothy while he extended a tentative arm and stammered a gratuitous invitation.

     So there they were - ten pairs of legs shuffling about the centre of the carpet as the music set the pace in rather quaintly old-fashioned terms.  At first Timothy's legs seemed unwilling to work, but persisted in an awkward stiffness, which brought more than a gentle frown to his ordinarily impassive brow!  For he had quite forgotten how to dance a Two-Step and was afraid of stepping on Sarah's vulnerably-exposed toes and not only causing her physical discomfort, but making a thorough fool of himself, to boot!  He shuffled about the carpet begrudgingly, as though incapable of spontaneous movement, and, to be sure, an impartial observer might have supposed him dancing on stilts or wooden legs, so stiff would his technique have appeared!  Fortunately for him, however, there was no-one to fit that description in the room at present, since those there were all on their feet and endeavouring, as best they could, to keep time with the music and avoid bumping into one another.  It wasn't even possible to fear that the servants might be secretly enjoying themselves at one's expense.  For they had apparently been forbidden entry to the room and were thus on duty elsewhere - presumably in the region of the kitchens and dining-room.  Well, that was a relief too, and a sufficient incentive for one to loosen up a bit.  Which, to his surprise, Timothy gradually found himself doing, as the music began to get the better of his self-consciousness and to instil a certain complacency, partly born of reduced sensibility, into his mind.

     Not that he didn't have to struggle against himself in the process.  But, somehow, Sarah's self-confidence began to make an impression on him and encouraged him to take that redemptive plunge with her, when their two bodies would unite in a single movement and flow into each other, like two streams meeting in a single river.  As yet, he was just on the brink, still stiffly apart and uncertain.  But the temptation to merge with her was pressing upon him with greater insistence, becoming impossible to ignore.  His steps were less tentative now, more assured of their placings, and he had ceased to frown with virtually every move.  He felt her body press against him with greater frequency and ease now, whereas previously they had been almost afraid to touch each other.  She was smiling with a fresh candour, and the sweet scent of her perfume was insinuating itself into his slightly-dilated nostrils, causing his head to swim with aromatic pleasure.  Was this really what he had been afraid of before the dance started, this subtle pleasure in sensual gratification?  He smiled his incredulity at the thought of it and, suddenly, as though by the wave of a magic wand, the old world of distinctions had slipped away and he was at one with Sarah in the rhythm of the dance, had lost his self-consciousness and passed over into a world of transpersonal unity.  All in a flash, like that 'click' which descends upon people who are socially and sexually right for each other, heralding the start of a compatible relationship.  He was all of a sudden in that other world and Sarah's smile seemed more endearing to him than ever, her perfume still sweeter.  He had little time or inclination to notice what stage everybody else was at, though if he had bothered to look around him, he would have seen that all but Gowling and Geraldine had left their self-consciousness behind and were lifted up in the swirling movement of the dance, transported, as it were, to another realm.  They would follow suit later, but at present both of them were still struggling with their egos - particularly Geraldine, who danced rather primly with the taller figure of Gowling.

     And so the music continued as the couples circled around one another with greater facility, becoming increasingly part of one large twenty-legged creature with ten heads.  But then, almost without their expecting it, the old record reached the end of its scratchy duration, and suddenly a chilling silence descended upon the room, disrupting the orgy of blissful self-forgetfulness.  There were a few appropriate sighs of disappointment from the more ardent dancers and then, as if in gratitude for what they had experienced, a number of smiles, hand claps, and tersely eulogistic comments.  Their faces had already become quite flushed, especially Lord Handon's, whose high blood-pressure and age undoubtedly had something to do with it.  But he had no intention of allowing things to flag and duly hurried across to the record-player, where he proceeded to turn the disc over and set its other side in motion.

     "Well," said Sarah to her dancing partner, "it looks as though we're going to be kept busy tonight, doesn't it?"

     "It does indeed!" Timothy agreed, and, once more, he put his arm round the opera singer's waist and set her in graceful motion.  To his delight, she smiled more endearingly than ever as their bodies drew gently together, making him feel newly confident.  He wanted, if possible, to draw still closer to her, but realized that the propriety of the dance precluded it.  Besides, he couldn't very well allow himself to become too ardent in the company of the others, particularly Lord and Lady Handon, who now danced, it seemed to him, with a certain measure of constraint, as though they were approaching the end of their quota of energy or were secretly more intent upon surveying the proceedings around them.

     "Oh, so sorry!" cried Townley above the music, as he collided with Timothy and well-nigh sent his slender body sprawling across the carpet.  "I'm not used to this sort of thing," he added by way of excuse.

     "Neither am I, actually," the writer confessed, before the swirling throng engulfed him afresh.

     And so it went on, with Lord Handon taking sole charge of the stereo and, until his retirement through fatigue about an hour-and-a-half later, effectively leading the dance.  Thereafter the host and hostess sat watching the younger people amuse themselves in the centre of the room, not more than a few yards from the blazing open fire which Lord Handon judiciously topped-up, from time to time, with a small log or two from the pile of chopped logs that lay conveniently close to-hand in the spacious hearth.  And every time the prevailing record reached the last of its tiny grooves, up he would get to initiate a change of melody and sometimes even a change of dance, thereby throwing his guests into fresh confusion.  Thus Timothy found himself obliged to improvise a variety of ballroom dances on-the-spot, including the Boston and the Tango, which caused him not a little embarrassment at times.  The viscount was deriving a degree of sadistic pleasure, it seemed, from the confusions to which his activity gave rise, and not only as regards Timothy!  For O'Donnell and Townley were also finding the different dances difficult to negotiate at first, and could only manage a comically rudimentary approximation to them.  Even Lawrence Gowling, who was more acquainted with ballroom dancing than any of his fellow-guests, was hard-pressed to maintain anything like a consistent performance in the face of Lord Handon's musical directing, and stepped on young Geraldine's toes more often than she could have liked!

     But, still, the proceedings were generally fun, and everybody had imbibed too much alcohol to care unduly about the quality of their performance.  Even the host, who had drained more glasses than anybody else, appeared not to take much interest in it after a while, but slumped into his armchair with bowed head, as if in response to an overpowering tiredness, quite oblivious of his surroundings.  In the next armchair, his wife stared ruefully at the fire or cast a beady and rather abstracted gaze round the room, occasionally bringing her attention to rest on one of the small romantic paintings which were intended both to avoid the usual ballroom cliché of mirrors and to serve a mildly aphrodisiac role.  She appeared not to want to see the dancers, as though their presence was an inconvenience, a reminder of her long-past youth and current lack of stamina.  Yet youth and stamina were not exactly the leading attributes of Girish O'Donnell and his plump dancing partner either, and before long, at Irene's prompting, they also dropped out of the limelight, leaving the floor to the less bulky individuals.

     So now there were only three couples in motion, who danced on oblivious of everyone else, or seemingly so.  For Timothy, especially, had not quite regained that self-confidence of the preceding hour and was beginning to weary a little, despite the ever-enchanting proximity of Sarah Field, whom he resolutely clung to from fear that, if someone else were to intervene, he would be irrevocably plunged back into his old self-consciousness again.  Better this than that, even if, with all that alcohol swirling round in his head, he was now the victim of a downward self-transcendence, a transcendence such as his logical reasoning mind would ordinarily have deemed inferior to upward self-transcendence.  Unfortunately this was neither the time nor the place for the hallucinogenic trip of divine illumination!  Like it or not, one had to persist in the folly of Lord Handon's tastes and give way to the Diabolic to a greater or lesser extent.  Such was the situation.  Such it had been for centuries.  And such, in all probability, it would continue to be for ... centuries to come?  Perhaps and perhaps not.  Who could say for sure?

     So they danced on, and now it was Geraldine who led them, the very same person who, when the dancing had first begun, was the least willing to part with her self-consciousness.  Strange in a sense, but more indicative of her adolescent shyness in the imposing company of Lawrence Gowling, who towered manfully above her, than anything else.  Now, by contrast, she appeared to tower above him - at least in terms of her commitment to the dance.  For she smiled up at his handsome face in intoxicated abandon and pressed herself against him in a manner hardly guaranteed to win her parents' approval!  Perhaps that was the main reason why Lady Handon now sought to avoid looking at the dancers?  Perhaps she couldn't stomach the sight of Geraldine's coquetry or the way her daughter was showing off?  At least she had nothing to fear from Gowling, who, in spite of the considerable sensual pressures being put upon him at this moment, behaved quite gentlemanly, under the circumstances.

     Indeed, the more abandoned Geraldine became the less abandoned he appeared to be, so that he was now dancing with a degree of constraint which, in contrast to his partner's freedom, assumed an incongruous and semi-humorous aspect.  He had gone noticeably stiff and become somewhat self-conscious, occasionally bumping into the other couples, and this in spite of the fact that they now had more room in which to manoeuvre than before.  He must have cursed Lord Handon's eccentricity, at such moments, for depriving the dancers of mirrors and thereby increasing their chances of colliding, despite the limited utilitarian value of mirrors in a crowded ballroom, the difficulty of gauging perspective not rendered any easier by alcoholic somnolence in relation to the speed of the dance and the number of couples involved.  Doubtless the old devil had private motivations of his own for doing so!

     But the dancing wasn't to last much longer now.  For as Nigel Townley and Sheila Johnston dropped out, more through fatigue than lack of ability, a sudden self-consciousness descended on the two remaining couples, who feared that they would become the cynosure of too many pairs of critical or envious eyes.  The smooth bright carpet on which they slid and twisted suddenly seemed naked, and the dancing area itself stretched away on every side, causing them to feel somewhat isolated in the centre of it.  Still they danced, however, more out of pride than enjoyment, and when, a few minutes later, Timothy and Sarah simultaneously pulled out of the fray, even Geraldine had to admit defeat and relinquish her hold on Gowling, to the latter's evident relief.

     There was perfunctory clapping all round, as the last couple abandoned their feet for the enticing comfort of the nearest vacant armchairs, slumping into them with a well-earned sigh apiece.

     "Well done!" cried Lord Handon, raising himself a little in his seat the better to survey the couple in question.  "You managed to bring the beast out of my daughter, Lawrence," he added, with a roguish chuckle.  It was a comment, however, that his wife didn't appear to appreciate.  For, at that moment, she frowned sullenly and shook her head - more, it seemed, for her own benefit than anyone else's.  But this gesture generally passed unnoticed.

     It was now quite late, however, and most of the guests were feeling the lure of sleep, particularly those who had danced the longest.  Their bedrooms awaited them on the first floor where, after midnight, they were free to retire.  In the meantime, the remaining ten minutes left to the old year had to be passed downstairs, until, with the singing of Auld Lang Syne at midnight, the New Year's Eve party reached its climax.  So a few more celebratory gestures were called for and, true to form, Lord Handon saw to it that the remaining time wasn't wasted ... by personally serving as butler to his guests, refilling their empty wine glasses with a 'Knockout round', as he facetiously put it, of bubbly champagne, which, of course, they politely accepted - some, like Gowling, happily; others, like Timothy, less happily; but all, without exception, in a spirit of obliging acquiescence.

     "This is the last drink you'll get this year," their host facetiously declared, as he returned the empty champagne bottle to the wine cabinet, "so you'd better make the most of it!"  And that, ironically, was what they all endeavoured to do, Timothy almost literally so.  For he half-feared that the viscount would go back on his word and fish out another bottle from the wine cabinet's far from empty interior.

     Mercifully, that was not to be the case.  For no sooner had he quaffed back his share of the champagne and stubbed-out the smouldering remains of an expensive-looking cigar, than Lord Handon staggered over to the stereo in order to hunt out, from among the dozens of displaced records there, a recorded version of Auld Lang Syne with which to facilitate their own rendering of it in due course.  By the time he actually found the disc, however, midnight was already striking, and not only in the ballroom but in virtually every other downstairs room throughout the great house as well, creating a furious uproar which quite precluded any attempt at simultaneous singing.

     "Better late than never, I suppose," Lord Handon averred, as he fumbled the record onto the turntable and, with evident difficulty, strove to align the stylus with the first of its worn grooves.  After one or two false starts, during which one heard snatches of the music prematurely, he succeeded in his objective and, staggering to his feet again, gestured with outstretched arms that he wanted everyone to join him in the centre of the room for the traditional singing.  Such was the peremptory nature of his gesture that drinks were left unconsumed as everyone, including Lady Handon, converged on the chosen spot like vultures upon a rotting carcass.  They had scarcely arrived there and formed themselves into an approximate circle, however, when the music started-up, obliging them to join-in regardless.  To everyone's dismay, Lord Handon lost his footing and fell forwards into the centre of the ring, dragging his long-suffering wife down with him.  Thereafter a general confusion reigned during which, whilst endeavouring to sing Auld Lang Syne, efforts were made by one or two of the male guests to get the drunken peer and his startled wife back on their unsteady feet again.  Eventually success ensued in this regard, but not before the record had virtually run its course and brought proceedings to an embarrassing halt.  Nevertheless, Lord Handon defiantly rallied his forces about him for a final onslaught on the vocal cords and initiated a belated though rousing performance of the song once more, largely, it seemed, for the servants' benefit.  Then, as though following the roar of a loud explosion, the room fell into a deathly quiet, broken only be the intermittent sound of laughter, sighs, snivels, and coughs.  The party was over and, almost to a man, the revellers quietly dispersed to the fringes of the room, to finish off their drinks or wipe their brows or slump into a welcome armchair.  Now at last they were in the New Year, and it was as though the significance of this fact had only just begun to dawn on them, necessitating a slight readjustment of psychological perspective.

 

 

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