Sunday, June 26, 2005

A Gathering at Bleak House


I've had to spend an inordinate amount of time at the family home lately, and it's one bother after another, as it always is. I couldn't duck the traditional evening do with the various neighbors, generally held once a month, damn it all. But fortunately many could not attend. The chap from Bly, a decent enough fellow from my limited acquaintance was, as ever, in town, and sent his regrets. Hill House is unoccupied these days, at least for the moment; but I expect they'll be back to milking the research grant cash cow soon enough, and they'll have semi-fraudulent "experts" running about the place shreiking, as usual, shortly. Hell House -- God, how I hate these precious names given to second-rate estates! -- had some sort of machinery blow up or something a while back, and a few fatalitities (academic twits, I shouldn't wonder) -- but word has it there's a new herd of walleyed stooping "scientists" due in by September. The people at Usher are rebuilding (yet again), but the place is uninhabitable for the nonce; there are rumors flying about that they hope to construct some sort of private psychiatric hospital there, but I expect that this originated as a rather poor jest.

Arabella was confined to her room last night; she has ways of amusing herself, to judge from the laughter, and can usually be counted on not to intervene, as she's frightened to death of "the flesh people." Isabella had on some ghastly thing she found in an old trunk, and it trailed dust and smelled of mildew. The worst part was that the dress was cut to expose the bosom, and she'd rouged her nipples. I didn't mind about the frightful wig and overdone make-up -- if she wants to look like a catatonic harlequin, that's her business -- but I wouldn't stand for this, and made her change, after ignoring the customary tears and imprecations. She finally dressed like something out of Little Bo Peep. This wasn't a costume ball, but she had worn me down, and I had to comfort myself that at least most of her bodily parts were decently covered. Uncle Decibel had fallen into a coma again, so he wouldn't be glaring blankly from his favorite chair tonight; damned if I know what differentiates his comatose state from his normal one, except that the latter takes place in the chair, but Dr. Praetorius, who arrived early, advised keeping him in bed until he starts blinking again.

The orchestra never arrived, and I'll have to berate my booking agent again; they often claim to have "gotten lost" on their way to Bleak House. For several days, no less. And then expect to be paid. They should at least come up with a vaguely plausible story.

Hence, I had to play at the grand piano again. The thing had just been tuned, fortunately, but the echo in the hall is perfectly dreadful, and there are times when I hear the first movement of a sonata abruptly ringing in my ears when I'm halfway through the second. And I hate playing piano. On the plus side, I didn't have to circulate much among the guests, who are the same tiresome lot that have been turning up with the insistent regularity of cellar spiders for every damned little social event. I began by playing a foxtrot medley -- "Smile, Darn Ya! Smile," "Would You Like to Take a Walk?", "You're the Cream in my Coffee," and "I'm a Believer," if memory serves. I moved smoothly into one of Medtner's "Forgotten Melodies" -- except the bits I've forgotten, ha ha. I'd been working on a duo-piano version of Hindemith's last symphonic metamorphosis, and went quickly into that -- it's easy to fake four hands if you're not averse to flagrant trickery -- which proved quite popular. At last I banged out "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales," which sent the few bewildered souls still fox-trotting staggering from the floor.

Reverend Squalor was there, looking febrile and disapproving, and consuming sufficient quantities of brandy to float a small navy. Dr. Praetorius vanished, as was his custom, after half an hour, as did Daisy Wallfleur, precisely ten minutes later, as though anyone were deceived by this regular farce. I just hope they stayed clear of Uncle Dec's bedchamber, where they were interrupted more than once on previous occasions, "in full embrace," as I think the euphemism has it. Beau Triste was hovering everywhere, waving his monocle, laughing at his own "witticisms," smoking those thin black cigars, and talking to ladies' bosoms; he seems oddly popular. He's been romantically linked with each of the Salonica twins, possibly with both. But Veronica and Betty clung to each other all evening, never venturing far from the laudanum punch; they're no longer joined at the hip -- messy operation -- but they're still inseparable. Miss Mole was ravishing...But I bore you.

Things were beginning to break up when Arabella wandered into the room, still wearing that same nightgown; at least she left that skull in her room. Isabella attempted to intercept her, but before anyone knew what was happening she was seated at the harp and she was wildly singing, "After the ball is over...after the break of dawn...many a heart has been broken..." until she dissolved into a keening wail that soon became a scream. Dr. Praetorius, who had returned ten minutes in advance of Daisy, managed to sedate her eventually, but not before she'd made quite the scene.

It had all broken up by midnight, mercifully, and I fed the plants, injected myself, and retired to the chapel to work on my requiem for organ -- cheap hackwork, but a fellow must keep occupied.