Monday, February 26, 2007


The Day's Progress - Monday Edition

A good day, as I managed to get through quite a bit of action, a murder, and an investigation.

Today, I got to the Devonshire House Ball, which has been a key part of End of the Century since I stumbled upon it by accident last spring (though I've since learned that MI8 was apparently not headquartered at the later Devonshire House during WWII, despite what some online sources report). There are an amazing wealth of resources online about this one party, and the Times article that ran the next day was particularly useful. Have I mentioned lately that I love the internet...
In short order, Blank and Miss Bonaventure were rushed round to the servant’s entrance at the rear of the house, and outfitted in appropriate costume. They were reunited, moments later, Blank in the guise of a musketeer from the days of Louis XIII, a rapier at his side, and Miss Bonaventure as an Egyptian maiden, her eye lined with kohl, a beaded wig on her head. Her wide silver bracelet with its lenticular gem at the end of her bared arm seemed to fit the motif, offering a counterpoint to the broad collar she wore, from which depended a scarab encrusted with jewels of paste.

“Why, Blank, don’t you cut a dashing figure?”

Blank swept the broad-brimmed hat from his head, and bowed low. “Cleopatra at her finest was never as lovely.” He offered her his arm. “Shall we, O Vision of the Nile?”

They stepped through the side door, and found themselves at the foot of the well-known Crystal Staircase, its bronze-scrolled handrail gently spiraling around the glass newel. At the head of the staircase stood the Duke of Devonshire, in the dress of Charles V, and wearing a genuine collar and badge of the Golden Fleece lent to him by the Prince of Wales. At his side was the Duchess, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, a grand tiara above her brow. The pair wore painted smiles, unable to completely hide their unease from the seven hundred or so guests who crowded the Great Ballroom.

The guests had been arriving for nearly an hour, though the quoted arrival time of half-past ten had only just struck, and crowded now in the ballroom, lit by two huge chandeliers hanging from ornamented rosettes, from which radiated delicate floral motifs. The walls to either side were broken up into panels of white and yellow brocade, with long mirrors between the windows, doubling and redoubling the swelling crowd within. The reflections helped to accentuate the unreal nature of the gathering, which looked for all the world as if someone had torn down the walls of time, and from all epochs of history men and women had been thrown together. Italians of the Renaissance, French princes and princesses, Napoleons and Josephines, Cavaliers and Puritans, Orientals of lands far away and long gone, and more, and more. In the far corner, a makeshift studio had been assembled, and the partygoers one by one had their images immortalized in photograph.

It was clear that the costumiers of London had been worked to a frazzle, these last weeks. As had been explained to Blank and Miss Bonaventure, the invitations specified that party-goers should appear “in an allegorical or historical costume dated early than 1820. ” Not a guest, nor a musician, nor a herald or servant, or even the waiting maids who helped the ladies in the cloak room was permitted to appear in a dress later than the beginning of the current century, hence the pair’s need for a change of costume upon arrival. In the cloak room, they’d heard that an uninvited interloper in modern dress had been spotted early on, but had been quickly ejected by the Duke’s servants.

It was whispered that this would be the grandest fancy dress ball in nearly a quarter century, since the Prince of Wales’s famous ball at Marlborough House in 1874, in which guests arrived in the costume of one of a number of distinct quadrilles, this group costumed in the manner of the Venetian court, that one in the style of the Vandyck, even one costumes as characters from a pack of cards. In the Duchess of Devonshire’s ball, by contrast, there were a number of different “courts,” each headed by a well-known lady, attended by “princes” and “courtiers.” The Austrian Court of Maria Theresa, Empress Catherine’s Court, the Queen of Sheba’s retinue, the Italian Procession, the Doge, even two competing courts of Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table.

What the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire wanted very much to keep from the party-goers, and in particular from the Prince of Wales and the rest of the royal party, who were due to arrive in another half hour, was the fact that one of the Courts was without a sovereign, and that a queen lay dead in the garden.

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