‘That Dress’

Queen-Maria-Anna-of-Spain-in-a-red-dress-_art

It was only by chance that I was present at the Ball when the daughters of the House Senton were introduced to society. House Senton is a family of the old aristocracy, they were here before Port Naain was built, and they do things differently, please themselves, and largely care little about what the city thinks of them. But it was at this ball where I was introduced to the Lady Senton in her full regalia.

To an extent I was invited by accident. I knew old Viper Senton well enough and whilst he’s hardly a patron of the arts, he and I would occasionally meet at some of the leading society occasions. He had been dragooned into going because his wife felt he ought to ‘get out more’ and ‘mix with the right sort of people’. Thus he was bored. I tended to attend them without bothering the hosts for an invitation because they’re excellent venues for meeting people who might well consider becoming one of the patrons of the leading poet of his generation.

On one occasion I discovered that burly footmen were closing in on me and that I was inevitably going to be unceremoniously ejected. (I cannot abide that, I feel that if you are to be ejected, there ought to be a certain formality, a degree of ceremony, concomitant upon the fact that with my leaving, the event declines from being one where literary culture abounds, to a collection of clods discussing the marital prospects of the offspring of bankers, actuaries and local political luminaries.)

But as I was saying, I was about to be ejected. Old Viper had, in his own words, ‘A damned good eye for a tactical situation.’ He should have, he led his own condottiere company for two or more decades. He swooped, took my arm, greeting me as a long lost family member and led me off to the buffet table. Obviously the footmen had to go back to doing whatever footmen do when they’re not officiously plotting to eject honest poets and Old Viper and I proceeded to dispose of several excellent bottles of the host’s red wine.

Since then, we’ll always chat together if we’re at the same event. He recommends me to acquaintances and I strive to ensure that the evening remains interesting for him. Admittedly that once involved having Benor take him on a tour of local roof tops, which they both enjoyed immensely. Still, as you see, it is a strangely mix-matched friendship, but real enough for all that.

Then I got a note from him. Shena and I were sitting quietly minding our own business on the barge when there’s a knock on the door. I opened it to discover a horseman in full mail, armed to the teeth, proffering me a letter. Obviously he didn’t have his horse with him, but I knew he was a horseman by his long boots and spurs. The cavalier just said “He’ll want an answer.”

I opened the letter, the old chap had invited both Shena and I to a ball he was giving for his two daughters. One was seventeen, the other fifteen and I think it had been decided that they’d have one ball for the pair of them.

Obviously we went. I thought it would cost me a fortune but Shena merely commented that there was no way she could outspend the other ladies attending so she’d just find something nice she could wear again.

It was when we arrived that we were formally introduced to Lady Senton, old Viper’s wife. She was arrayed in all her formal splendour and was seated in pride of place. Frankly it was the most ghastly outfit. The hair style was unlike anything I’ve seen, sticking about a foot’s length each side of her head, ornamented with pearls, bells, lace and all sorts of other bizarre materials. The dress was in a red fabric, heavy and tightly woven. Viper confessed to me that as a boy he’d crept into the room where it was stored and fired a quiver full of arrows at it from his child’s hunting bow. None of them penetrated the fabric.

Old Viper also told me the secret of the dress. It was kept ‘set up’ on a frame with a mesh of wires and struts to keep everything in place. On the day before the event the staff would wheel it down from the storeroom, dust it off inside and out, and generally ensure it was presentable. Then an hour before the event started, the current Lady Senton, her own hair clipped short and dressed only in her shift and small clothes would climb into the dress by the back door. The headpiece would be lowered to fit and when it was finally in place, it would be hooked in place, fastening to her ear-rings and also at the back where nobody could see it. She would then sit in the dress for the next five or six hours, or however long the event would last, barely able to eat and certainly not daring to drink.

I asked Viper how the tradition came about. It seems that one of his predecessors noted that his mother, like her mother before her, was prone to keeping too close an eye on her offspring at the great balls the family held. As soon as that redoubtable lady saw a son seem to be paying too close attention to a girl considered unsuitable, mother would step in. If a daughter was laughing too enthusiastically at the sallies of a young man the mother regarded as an ill-bred interloper, mother would intervene to break things up.

So when he married he started the tradition. Viper feels that it has been the salvation of the family. Over the centuries it has saved them a fortune. Because of it the Ladies’ Senton have insisted on keeping formal entertaining to an absolute minimum. The family bloodline has been kept strong, due to the sons marrying everything from the daughters’ of sea captains to chorus girls, and the daughters of the Senton line seem to have managed to find themselves perfectly adequate husbands without maternal oversight. Although in this case Viper did confess to running an eye over men attending and any that he had his doubts about, he’d have one of his horsemen deal with. If the young man managed to thrash the horseman, then Viper was broadminded enough to admit he’d probably misjudged the lad.

Oh, and I’ve been pestered by sundry persons who insist I remind you both that I’ve got my own Amazon Author Page

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B01ADOTKT4/

But also there are a number of stories out there that I appear in. The wise reader who immediately hasten away and purchase a copy of ‘Flotsam or Jetsam’

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flotsam-Jetsam-Jim-Webster-ebook/dp/B011VHS21Y/

 

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