NaNo makes one bold: my WIPNaNo: November being writing month, all stops are out, all bets are off. I’m writing again. I can say that with a feeling of relief, a feeling of awe that the Muse is still sitting somewhere in my corner and that some days She is actually enjoying coming and whispering in my ear.
One of the rules of NaNo is that one writes and DOES NOT EDIT until the required minimum wordcount of 50,000 words (or end of novel, if that adds up to more) is reached. But for your sake, dear Reader, I have edited a little. Corrected spelling and typos. Otherwise it is open to revision and redoing in December
This, therefore, for good or for ill, is an excerpt from my work-in-progress: or NaNo WIP.
I hope you enjoy. It’s a miracle to witness the continuing flow, I can tell you.
Horses and carriages stood at the gates, a long line of opulence and conspicuous wealth, each waiting its turn to process down the shady lime avenue which heralded the last mile of approach to the house.
Not a family in Aberdeenshire had been ignored. Invitations sent in January by messenger, hand delivered to Clubs and castles throughout the shire ensured that the assembled gathering would be the greatest affair in the social calendar for a generation. John Ramsay Irvine was going to make sure his daughter’s marriage was witnessed by them all. Grooms and stablehands were lined up at the curved façade to help ladies down awkward steps as consorts and cousins and brothers assisted with the finery, petticoats and layers of taffeta and veils billowing in the slight breeze.
The day was glorious: mid June brilliance with a scent of abundance in the air.
A phalanx of footmen ushered ladies into the house to powder noses, while gentlemen were escorted to the gigantic marquée set on the lawn, hands charged with a glass of champagne immediately they stepped under the awning. Butlers and footmen manfully shouldered silver trays groaning under the weight of crystal brimming with bubbles. Chatter was loud but festive. The ladies would join them in a moment. For now the tent was dominated by menfolk catching up with colleagues, discussing the week’s affairs, arrangements for the shooting season in late summer, and whose house-party already had its quota of family and summertime guests.
When the first of the ladies emerged from downstairs boudoirs and stepped into the light of the terrace, a hush descended on the crowd. Every one of them, matron, maid, young miss was adorned in finery, as if they individually were to be the bride: tiaras appeared glinting in the sun: getting a summer airing from safes and velvet boxes they’d nestled in since Christmas or for parties at Hogmanay. Pearls and rubies shone and sapphire necklaces extracted from bank vaults for this special occasion reflected blue light from the lake.
Brother Hugh stood alone, apart from the jostling crowd, waiting for a signal from his mother’s window that Catherine would soon be ready to take his arm; for him to proceed with her to the little chapel across the lawn to the glade of trees down by the lake. But carriages were still appearing, stopping at the great entrance to unload more adorned maidens with doting brothers or fiancés, and trundling slowly off to the Home Farm where grooms and drivers would wait to be summoned again after it was all over. A long procession still stretched down the lime avenue as far as Hugh could see. There was no rush yet to summon Catherine and her maids.
In the upstairs chamber with its four-poster usually reserved for her mother, Catherine stood radiant. She was to wear Great-grandfather’s South Seas pearls and the ruby necklace brought with him from Russia when he was a successful merchant plying Baltic waters to Danzig. It was now family tradition that these, the first glittering evidence of John Ramsay’s fortune, should be worn by every bride since 1758, the year that the adventurer purchased the Straloch estate from the famous cartographer, Robert Gordon of Straloch. It had been Ramsay’s fortune which built the grand mansion in its grounds.
Today Catherine felt like a swan gazing in her mother’s long dress-mirror at the sparkling jewels round her white neck. There was something about these new continental gowns, the low ’empire’ line made fashionable by the ladies of Napoleon’s court . The British may have defeated the dictator, but his ladies’ fashion sense lingered on. The high bosom and low neckline made her feel dizzy in the shafts of sunlight glancing through the gauze curtains. It danced and shifted, casting a pool of light at her feet. She allowed herself to peer over her sudden perky breasts at the pompom slippers of maroon silk which peeped out below the vanilla silk hem of her gown. Mother was right. This new line may be a little too daring for such a backwater as Aberdeenshire, but it was just the most beautiful creation she had ever seen and she was standing in it, allowing its long pointed sleeves to hug her delicate wrists, the tight waistband to nip her small frame even more closely than she ever would have dared at a normal party.
‘Everything is allowed for a wedding, my dear. Even daring narrow waists and low necklines.’ If her mother’s voice had a hint of disapproval, it was covered by laughter. Tones tinkled in pride at the sight of her daughter’s surprise.
“We may be of merchant stock, but Grandfather knew a jewel or two. And I must say they do add a je ne sais quoi to your already fabulous beauty.’ Her mother laughed again. ‘I may not be the one to say, but it does run in the family.’
She reached out her own silk-gloved hand to caress the folds at the rear of her daughter’s gown, smoothing an imaginary crease.
Bridesmaids in the ante room behind the pillar giggled and, seeing Catherine’s mother smile and beckon, fell into the room in a huddle of lace and satin and pink pumps.
‘Careful, girls. We don’t want any accidents.’
All four glanced at each other and then at their hostess and giggled again.
‘I wish it were all over. No, of course I don’t but Hugh said he’d start the procession at least by two. It must be close to three.’ Catherine’s small face crinkled in a fleeting frown, scanning her mother’s profile. One of the house maids popped her head round the door.
‘Carriages still coming, m’lady,’ she said, bobbing a hasty curtsey. ‘Master Hugh says another glass of champagne should settle the gentlemen. He wants to know if you would like some up here.’
‘Most certainly not. Thank you, Rose. Tell the Master we shall wait for his signal.’ The maid’s head disappeared again.
‘I can see the end of the carriages.’ A tiny gloved hand holding its regulation posy of roses dropped the long curtain at the window and one of the Burnett girls burst into a fit of giggles. Another grabbed the curtain and then she too dropped it with a guilty look. She turned to the other bridesmaids and whispered
‘It’ll be the bridegroom in the very last carriage.’
‘I heard that.’
Catherine was nervous as a kitten. The last thing she wanted to know was news that that her darling, handsome husband-to-be was the last to arrive. She swept the thought aside. Henry was like her brother Hugh: so strong and brave. Such a pity Father was no longer well enough to sit up, far less be wheeled to the ceremony. But until she became Henry’s, Hugh would be her rock. He would more than make up for her father’s infirmity.
Hugh had turned out like his grandfather: he’d continued the work begun by Great-grandfather in the 244 acre estate after he built the palladian mansion, just as father and grandfather had done. Nowadays there was talk in Society of how rash a move it had been, in the time of King George III, to pull down a 13th century building and put up a Georgian palace. But Great-grandfather was an innovator. He knew all the tricks and turns used by wealthy European royalty in his day and his palace was built to the scale and proportions of the great Italian architect, Palladio, whose style thereafter became the fashion.
Straloch had been revolutionary for its time. Now in the early 19th century, It was considered ‘all the rage.’ For a wedding ceremony and breakfast attended by all the County’s best families, its size and style were totally inkeeping. It had precisely the required number of public rooms, a grand ballroom, drawing room, morning room and a dining salon that none could rival. It had outlived its ‘foreignness’ and become a style which other families copied. Burnetts and Forbeses and Irvines all had since pulled down ancient towers and put up a palladian edifice in its place: at Colpy and Keig and Pittodrie, palaces were erected where cramped medieval towers had been. The Ramsay fashion had become the norm. And in Aberdeenshire, a county renowned for its conservatism, that was saying something.
Hugh was more like father in the way he cared for and tended the trees of the avenue, the stately park specimens getting most of his love and attention. And he had recently started a programme of planting the new fashion in trees: beech.
If you listened to Hugh on the endless variety of beeches one could plant… he could bore anyone to tears. It was enough to make her yawn just to think of it. Some day, of course all this would be Hugh’s. Catherine was just fortunate to be able to have such a beautiful backdrop for her Big Day. And as for father’s being an invalid and not really able to know what was going on, was something one just had to be philosophical about. He seemed more himself when she’d spoken to him this morning, wanting to share with him the excitement to come, the huge numbers who would attend. He looked at her through watery eyes, propped himself up on one elbow from the cushions on his daybed and whispered:
‘Be still in the candlelight, Darling.’
She had not the faintest idea what he meant, but she nodded her head and kissed him on the forehead.
Suddenly Annie Farquharson jumped up and down at the window, her pink slippers doing ballet turns.
‘It’s Hugh. He’s signalling to be ready. He’s pulling out his fob watch and pointing. I think he means it’s time.’
‘All right, all right, girls. No need to lose our heads. Now, we all remember the order. When Hugh comes to the door, you four go first. Ahead of him. Follow Catherine’s cousin Jamie to the head of the stairs and wait. Do you hear me? Wait until I get there.’
There came a chorus of ‘yes’.
‘He’s coming. He’s coming,’ Annie bobbed up and down more frantic than ever.
‘All right, Annie. Now into your special order, please girls. We do this as we practiced it. All right?’
Catherine felt remarkably calm. If Hugh was ready, it meant her dear beautiful wonderful sweet loving kind fiancé Henry was already down in the woodland glade by the lake; at this very moment entering the little chapel and waiting for her. The thought made her faint with pleasure. Annie’s sister June had the presence-of-mind to prop her up. She tut-tutted her support.
There was a knock at the door and Hugh was ushered in by a dressing maid. He whispered something in Mother’s ear and looked over at his sister:
‘Ready my sweet princess? I’ve never seen you more glorious than today. Really. And I’m not being brotherly. I really mean it. You could not look more perfect. I think you are right about these new styles. It’s going to be the wedding of the century.
That’s pretty bold, she thought. This is only 1822. Surely newer fashions will one day make all this seem out of date and from a different world. Again, she brushed the unruly thought aside like a wisp of stray hair in her eye, took a step towards him and grasped his outstretched hand.
‘Thank you my darling Hugh. I would not be able to do this without you.’
He smiled and led her to the door.
On cue, the piper at the front door thrummed up his bagpipes and began a low drone. Catherine could see outside sunlit faces turn from the awning towards the front door.
It was beginning.
She held Hugh’s arm in a tight grasp.
‘You’ll be wonderful,’ he whispered.
She smiled up at him, wishing she could say something in return, but her eyes filled with tears and she swallowed instead.
Six pages rushed past carrying golden candelabra from the drawing room to stand in two rows down the great staircase. As one of them came abreast of her and Hugh, he tripped and looked at her wildly as if to apologize for his clumsy nervousness. His companion bent over to help him fix one of the candles which was beginning to work itself loose from its holder, its flame still alight, but shaking. As one page righted himself, the other’s grasp on his own candlestick slipped.
Catherine and Hugh could only stand and watch. In slow motion, the triple glow of golden light wrapped in cherubs and foiled bacchanalian wreaths, began a downward curve towards the staircase. Hugh grabbed his sister tightly, starting to swing her torso out of the way of the falling light. For a moment all Catherine saw was light: a small flame, so tiny it could do no harm, its glow wanting so much to add to the perfection of her day. Its fall was broken by the solid mahogany ball-and-claw knob of the bannister at the head of the stairs. Instead of cascading flame-first down the stairwell into the abyss below stairs, the dislodged candle bounced back and – oh so excruciatingly slowly – turned its menacing beam on Catherine.
Bridesmaids leapt to left and right, each trying to avoid what must happen: the staircase was in disarray. Other candles started to shake and falter.
‘Hold your lights, there’. It was Hugh’s voice, so close to her ear, but it sounded a million miles away.
Her eyes were glued to the falling candle. Why was it taking so long? It should have landed by now. By now she should be able to jump sideways and out of harm’s way. But Hugh’s arm held her tight. She was immobilized. All she could do was watch, frozen in time as the dislodged candle made a soft thump – such a simple sound – and hit the top of the staircase. Candle wax spilled in all directions, some of it sparking with a flame. One tiny spark of wax fell on the hem of her gown and she stared – her eyes wide now, her mouth open in a silent scream of terror – as flames engulfed her vanilla silk underskirts.
One of the butlers held a tray. He stood crouching back by the open door of the room they had left a moment ago. Hugh let go her arm, made a couple of strides across the landing and grabbed two champagne glasses, throwing the contents at her. He missed and the liquid splashed her arm.
‘Bring me a carafe,’ he ordered, his voice sounding more like a general in Napoleon’s army than her own gentle brother.
He grabbed another two glasses and threw. This time they hit their mark, but in the few seconds’ delay, the fire had caught hold. It was burning her silk stockings. She felt heat sear her legs. It seemed to penetrate right through to the bone. Her tears couldn’t help her. Her brother’s champagne rescue was doing a little but not enough. The candle, so small and innocent a flame, was doing its worst.
Fire raged up the front of her skirt, smoke engulfing her face, her neck, the pearl and ruby necklace. A page stumbled towards Hugh carrying a bedroom ewer, its enormous weight of water slowing him down. Hugh grabbed the jug and poured its contents down her uncomplaining front. His left hand held her steady, in case she fell from the sudden mass of water. Nobody spoke. The other pages stood motionless, still in position lining the staircase. Of four bridesmaids, two were crying and two were holding gloved hands in anguish over their open mouths. Mother had stopped rigid in her tracks halfway down the staircase. She and the pages created a flimsy barrier between Catherine and the jostling crowd of onlookers beginning to push into the main entrance hall.
All could see now: she was the centre of attention: this tragic apparition, her faultless coiffure still crowning a face ravaged by tears, sleeves and gloved hands soaking wet but intact.
Rubies glittered as if they knew red was not only a colour but a flame.
And below the waist – nothing – it was all gone. She was naked except for two charred shivering legs, a vestige of maroon slippers looking like something from the Black Death. She collapsed to the floor just as Annie rushed to cover her nakedness with her vanilla stole. The last thing she heard was her mother’s voice:
‘Give her some air. Let her breathe.’
But it was father’s words which she heard in her mind:
‘Be still in the candlelight, Darling. Be still.’
November 19, 2009 - Posted by siderealview | authors, crystalline, culture, Muse, novel, writing | 1822, 19th century, Aberdeenshire, architecture, Baltic, Black Death, bridal gown, bridesmaids, Burnett, candelabra, candle flame, candlelight, cartographer, champagne, County, Danzig, empire-line, estate, Farquharson, Forbes, Georgian, gold, Hogmanay, Irvine, mansion, marquee, Nano, Napoleon, palace, Palladian, Palladio, pearls, Ramsay, rubies, sapphire, silk, tiara, velvet, wedding, wedding breakfast, WIP, Work-in-progress, writing
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