Castle BarebaneJoan Aiken
Also by Joan Aiken
and available from Bello
The Embroidered Sunset
The Butterfly Picnic
Voices in an Empty House
The Five-Minute Marriage
Jane Austen Novels
Emma Watson: The Watsons Completed
The Youngest Miss Ward
Paget Family Series
The Smile of the Stranger
The Weeping Ash
The Girl from Paris
This ae night, this ae night
Every night and alle
Fire and sleet and candle-light
And Christ receive thy soule . . . .
If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon
Every night and alle
Sit thee down and put them on
And Christ receive thy soule
If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every night and alle
The whins shall prick thee to the bare bane
And Christ receive thy soule
This ae night, this ae night
Every night and alle
Fire and sleet and candle-light
And Christ receive thy soule.
The planning of her wardrobe and the subject of clothes had never, for Valla Montgomery, occupied more than a tiny, unregarded corner of her mind. Since completing her education she had bought the garments that seemed most practical and durable, warm in winter, cool in summer, and that was the end of the matter, so far as she was concerned. Fashion was of no interest to her, except in the professional sphere. Occasionally her father might admire a cut or a colour: “You remind me of your dear grandmother in that”; occasionally, glancing in her glass as she swiftly pinned on her hat before darting off to some appointment, she had been visited by the fleeting notion that she could, without exaggeration, be called a handsome girl. But as for clothes—of what importance were they? So long as they fitted, and did not outrageously offend decency, what difference could be made by the trivial details of material, trimmings, flouncing—what importance could these things possibly have?
Now, suddenly glancing round her in a panic, at the evening party with dancing which was being given by his family to celebrate the announcement of her engagement to Benet Allerton, Valla discovered that she had been wrong all her life, and that she had reached a complete culmination of wrongness at the present juncture.
“What should I wear?” she had asked Benet—she had at least possessed that much sense—and he had gaily answered, “Oh, full rig, sweetheart; dress right up to the hilt. All the old things will have dug out their Cluny and Valenciennes for the occasion, I daresay.”
She had really meant to go to a dressmaker. But the three previous weeks had been unusually busy; two of her colleagues had been away, and there had been a congressional election, an agricultural convention, and a complicated scandal regarding the new city gas supply. She had never found time. And it wasn’t, after all, as if she did not possess an evening toilette: she had one all-purpose dress for wearing to the various after-dark events—hospital galas, charity concerts, political buffet suppers—fashionable affairs which were considered the province of a lady reporter. The dress was made of dark grey velvet, a good fit but very plainly cut with hardly any bustle so that, if necessary (as it frequently had been) she could wear it under a thick, inconspicuous traveling coat and could ride without too much remark in train or streetcar or hackney cab. The dress was a good dependable dress which had stood her in excellent stead on plenty of occasions; it was comfortable and suited her. With its high, plain collar against her too-long neck, and the dark, silvery folds of the skirt falling composedly around her, she felt exactly herself, armed, cap-à-pie, ready to meet all comers.
Or had until this evening.
On the day before the party she had known a half-hour’s uncertainty. Perhaps the dress was a fraction severe? Should she consult Benet’s mother? His sister Delia? But they were such a silly pair; she had no faith in their judgment. Acting on a hasty impulse, she had run from the office of the New York Inquirer over to Fifth Avenue and bought a couple of yards of wide lemon-yellow moiré ribbon, which, that evening, she had sewed around under the collar and allowed to hang loose in two fishtails down the back of the dress. Now she wished that she had not done so. In her mind’s eye she saw the two pale-yellow streamers flowing behind her like the decorations of some farmhorse groomed for a fair. Had she, indeed, caught a whisper, faint, behind somebody’s fan, as she stood near the top of the stairs, “My dear! She looks exactly like a Percheron! Big as one, too.”
It was of course bad luck that Benet’s mother and sister, receiving guests at the stairhead, should be, unlike him, both so small: vivacious little plump ladies, the pair of them, their hair done in clusters like bunches of grapes, their lace tuckers pouting above tight, well-packed satin, their fat little feet on stilted heels among forests of petticoats incapable of carrying them at more than a toddle. Valla towered over them. One stride, and she was half way across the first reception room with its white marble Italian mantel and rosy flock wallpaper.
She stepped back uncertainly and caught the whisper once more.
“Who is she?”
“My darling, nobody! Her father was one of those newspaper people—edited the Philadelphia Weekly Interviewer or some such thing—and then I believe Pargeter’s Review—dead, now, I think, luckily. No, no other family. Just as well for the Allertons.”
“They seem to be putting a brave face on it.”
“But it must really—” The fan obscured the rest of the sentence.
Valla had a fan of her own; a big, beautiful one, made from eagles’ feathers. Benet had given it to her, together with her irreproachable fifteen-button kid gloves. She slowly wafted it, twice, to cool the angry sting of her cheek, and then held it as a barrier between her and the intrusive whispers; she would not yield them the advantage of glancing in their direction.
Everybody else was wearing silk or satin, tulle or damask; in the triple series of rooms leading to the Allertons’ big second-floor ballroom—which was a sign of their eminent respectability and well-foundness, for what other New York family in these times could afford to keep a room of that size unused and shut up for three hundred and sixty-three days in the year?—the dresses shimmered and glimmered, catching the light from the newfangled gas chandeliers, and returning it in soft mistinesses and uncertainties; the women all rustled, the numerous layers of their silk underskirts keeping up a constant susurrus as they swished about. Only Valla, solitary in the crowd, stood tall and soundless, a dark poplar amid a froth of mimosa blossom, an obelisk surrounded by a flock of hummingbirds; it
might be comic if it were not so dreadful.
Now Benet was bringing up two more ladies to be introduced.
“Valla dear—my cousins Mrs. and Miss Chauncey—Adelaide and Maria.”
A tall hostility in feuille-morte taffeta, immensely flounced, with cascades of black lace, and a slighter, thinner hostility in a gauzy Directoire web of no doubt ancestral embroidered India mull, with crystal-spangled feathers in her piled hair. Their four eyes pierced Valla like hatpins. What has Benet let himself in for, said their combined stare; how could the Allertons have allowed it to happen?
“So happy to make your acquaintance, Miss—”
“Montgomery,” Benet reminded his cousin.
“Montgomery, of course—” but there was a hint of doubt in her tone as if she were audibly wondering how much right Valla had to such a respectable-sounding name. “And is this your first visit to New York, Miss Montgomery?”
“Oh, no indeed.” Val tried to keep her own rather deep voice quite colourless, without any touch of either defensiveness or irony. “In fact I was born here; I’ve lived in New York most of my life.”
“Really? How very interesting.” Are you sure? the tone suggested. For if you were in New York, in whatever bohemian or unfashionable corner, somewhere up north of Fortieth Street, I suppose, how is it that my vigilant hawk’s eye never spotted you going about your lower-class concerns? Everything that happens in New York is known to me.
“But you and Benet did not meet here, I believe?”
“No, Cousin Adelaide, we met in Chicago,” Benet said easily. “When I was defending in that Cottonmaster Trust case.”
“Oh indeed.” Mrs. Chauncey’s manner dismissed any part of the United States west of Washington. “Do your family reside in Chicago then, my dear?”
“No.” Valla could hardly believe that Benet’s second cousin was not well informed already about the Montgomery background but she obliged with what was evidently the required answer. “I was working in Chicago at the time when I met Benet, writing a series of articles about women in industry for the New York Inquirer.”
“Oh dear me,” Mrs. Chauncey said. “I see. How very interesting. It is really remarkable—is it not—the things that young women do nowadays. The Inquirer—just fancy—of course we don’t see it—only the Times—but I understand it is a very good sort of paper. Come, Maria, we must pay our respects to Cousin Benjamin Babcock. So glad to have made your acquaintance, Miss Montgomery.”
Inclining her plumed head briefly to Val, she twitched the arm of her child, who was showing a tendency to regard Benet’s fiancée with large-eyed astonishment, almost bordering on respect. They moved away—a guinea fowl with duckling in tow.
Val smiled ruefully at Benet.
“I’ve made a terrible mistake, haven’t I? I’m dressed all wrong for this occasion.”
“You look beautiful,” said Benet loyally. “To me, whatever you wear seems right on you. Everyone else looks overdressed and fussy.”
A surge of warm feeling for him refreshed her sinking spirits. What a comfort he was, what a support in the midst of this fashionable idiocy. Though she was bound to admit, studying him with detachment, that he himself presented as fashionable an appearance as any of the men present, from his patent leathers to his impeccable waistcoat. But there was so much more to Benet than mere fashion. He was large and calm—massively built even, overtopping the tall Valla—but nevertheless light on his feet, with an athlete’s economy of movement. Not that he was lazy: his observant grey eye went everywhere, watching and recording. In that he certainly resembled his cousin Adelaide. But in all other particulars, how different! Benet’s fresh-coloured, clean-featured, clean-shaven face instilled observers with immediate confidence; his expression was invariably urbane, good-humoured, and receptive; nothing ever seemed to disturb his air of cheerful equanimity. Though he was nobody’s fool; the wide thoughtful brow under his beautifully cut thick brown hair gave true indication of an alert, well-stocked mind. He was certainly not handsome, but there was something so wholesome and attractive about his air and appearance that whenever she saw him anew, Valla was reinforced all over again in the certainty of her good fortune in having secured his regard.
Now he tucked his warm, firm hand comfortably under her grey-velvet elbow.
“Don’t worry. You look distinguished, my dear. All the other women seem like dressed-up fashion models.”
Valla knew sadly that this was not so.
“Every one of those dresses comes from Paris. I didn’t work on the Butterick’s Pattern page for six months without learning the difference between Fifth Avenue and the Rue de la Paix. Look, that’s a Doucet.”
A white-silk dress went dipping past them, its purity offset by one broad black diagonal satin stripe, swept up to an elaborately swathed series of overlappings and flounces at the rear, culminating in a big black bow.
“Cousin Lydia Babcock,” he said indifferently. “The silliest woman in New York.”
“And look at your grandmother in her black damask and Venetian point—if I’d had any intelligence I’d have asked her advice.”
“You’d never have been able to get at her. She keeps herself shut in that castle of hers like the Old Man of the Mountains. Come and talk to her. And meet Cousin James Dexter.”
He took Val’s kid-gloved hand in his and led her through two more of the drawing rooms, one sea-green, one white-and-gilt, to where old Mrs. Allerton sat in state. A spare middle-aged man stood easily at her elbow.
Fully aware that this pair were the arbiters of opinion for the whole clan, Val accompanied Benet with feelings of trepidation mingled with annoyance. Why had she been fool enough to let herself in for this ordeal? Why could not the engagement have been announced in some less formal way? She guessed this large party was the Allertons’ banner of defiance. But why should I, she thought rebelliously, have to be nailed to their social mast?
She had not met Benet’s grandmother before. Old Mrs. Allerton practically never descended on New York, but remained in stately isolation at Bridgewater, the family house on the Hudson. Cousin James, on the contrary, was a New Yorker to the ends of his elegant fingernails; witty, discreet, suave, erudite, and unmarried, he graced every dinner party in the select circles of society between Gramercy Park and Washington Square; but he had been away on a seven-months’ European tour, and this was the first engagement he had accepted since his return; indeed the ball had been deferred until Cousin James could be there to give it the accolade of his presence.
Benet made the introductions with formal politeness and then stood lightly holding Val’s arm, with the intention, she knew, of instilling confidence in her by his touch.
Old Mrs. Allerton’s complexion was soft and unhealthy-looking, like bread dough, and the flat lappets of her hair, under the magnificent widow’s lace, might have been a wig, so dry and strawlike did they look. But her eye was sharp and raking as a fisherman’s knife, and her voice was startlingly deep and harsh.
“Valhalla—what kind of a name is that, pray?”
“My mother gave it to me,” Val said mildly. “I understand she was going through a romantic enthusiasm for Norse mythology at the time. But my father shortened it to Valla.”
“Well, young lady—I hear you write for the newspapers, isn’t that it? One of these clever young women who aren’t satisfied to stay home and see to the housekeeping—eh? Isn’t that so? But how did Benet ever become involved with you, may I ask? Benet’s not clever.” She darted a needle glance at him.
“Oh, but he is,” protested Val. “He’s a very clever lawyer. Have you never heard him in court, Mrs. Allerton?”
Benet’s grandmother completely ignored this remark; Val was at once made to feel that she had been unsuitably forward, even impertinent.
“How do you think you’ll ever manage to settle down in this family, pray? None of the
Allertons or the Chaunceys or Babcocks can be called clever; not the least bit of brain among them. The Dexters—well, now, it’s true they know enough to come in out of the rain, eh, James?”
She turned from Val to the elderly man beside her. Mrs. Allerton was like, Val thought, a stout, diminutive owl, encased in her whaleboned damask, crested with cream-coloured lace. Huge sparkling watery diamonds added handsomely to her air of authority. Her small firm mouth and chin were supported on concentric ramparts of subsidiary chins; her small bright eyes, like those of some predator, glanced this way and that without registering favour or disfavour. But when she turned to James Dexter, the rigid line of her mouth eased fractionally into what might have been taken for a smile. Mr. Dexter received her pleasantry with an imperturbable air.
“I am gratified that you consider me clever, my dear Sarah,” he said calmly. But he smiled at Val, who smiled immediately, warmly, in return. Her smile was quenched at once, however, when she met the eyes of the old lady; their cold and steady scrutiny did not soften; Val felt as if an icy wall of rebuff and exclusion would forever stand between her and any contact with Benet’s grandmother.
“The Chaunceys and Babcocks and Allertons never had any time for writing or poetry or any of those fancy activities,” old Mrs. Allerton continued. “No, no, we don’t go in for that sort of thing.”
“Mightn’t have done any harm if you had,” Val thought to herself but she had the good sense to remain silent.
“Mmm, your father, now—he edited a newspaper—was that it?”
“Indeed he did, and very well too,” James Dexter put in. “He was a great and distinguished journalist. I met him several times, Miss Montgomery, and formed the very highest opinion of him. We have had some extremely interesting discussions. I was grieved when I heard of his death. A year ago, was it?”
“Two years.” Turning gratefully to Cousin James, Val felt the warmth of tears in her eyes, and opened them wide, to let the tears drain back into their sockets. She would sooner be boiled in oil than betray weakness in front of that old bird of prey.