Monday, October 23, 2006

Pride Goeth Before A Ball

A We Make History celebration recounted by Mr. C. Francis with photos by Mr. Michael C.
(and with apologies and tribute to Jane Austen)

(As always, click any picture for a larger view!)

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man who desires a memorable evening with fine ladies must put forth an impression in both manner and style.

“So are you going to be prideful or prejudiced?” a colleague of the television producer inquired of him in jest.

“Prideful,” the producer returned with a grin which concealed the truth.

A man of four and thirty years, he knew not what role he should play in this approaching evening of elegant dance and diversion. A review of the literature and photoplay revealed no congruent characters. He fancied himself neither the prideful and disagreeable Mr. Darcy nor the comically inappropriate Mr. Collins. Perhaps the solution could be found somewhere between their two personalities, but the problem did not alarm him greatly, and especially not in comparison to the dilemma of style.

An entire day was spent perusing the various shoppes that, for a modest fee, might lend him quality Regency attire. It was a dismaying exercise, a search which planted thoughts of an entire period of history overlooked, a timeline skipping decades after Colonial America and before Victorian England. However, the search did not end without a satisfactory result: a regimental coat of red, white and blue, although the regiment it belonged to would give him pause. He completed his outfit with garments of his own, attempting to bring himself as close to the edge of fashion.

* * *

As his carriage rolled near the designated hall, the eager guest noticed a veil of white smoke pouring from a nearby house. An instant of observation revealed it not as fire but fog, perhaps a product of an overzealous neighbour enthralled with the October season of supernatural festivities. He had not seen anything like it, and he wondered for a moment, if it might be some sign, some signal beyond the obvious. But no, he concluded.

Once inside, he spent an hour acquainting himself with friends and newcomers, and admiring the splendour of the ladies as they arrived in colourful frocks. Being among the first in the room was more than a device of punctuality.

The host, Lord Scott, circulated among them with words of welcome in a soft voice and many bows, his hat more in his hand than on his head as the room filled with eager guests.

The man in the regimental coat spotted a sign required by the authorities as to the maximum capacity of the establishment.

“Anything more will not be tolerated by the fire department,” he quipped to the young man beside him whom he had engaged in conversation. “Anything less will not be tolerated by the host.”

At one point in the many sentences, a man asked him who was he portraying.

“A Frenchman lent me this coat,” came the answer, a product of labourious thought and necessary invention. “Although I fear he might have been playing a cruel joke on me.”

His costume consternation found roots in reality as the ball commenced with announcements from the host noting “that scoundrel Napoleon” had added to his conquests.

The man in the red, white, and blue uniform knew he could no longer deny the obvious danger in a room full of English ladies and gentlemen. The coat cast him as a French regimental, and a resemblance to the scoundrel himself required little exertion of mind. He had known this from the minute he came across the garment, but the need for suitable period dress had outweighed matters of war and peace.

During the opening promenade, as the couples circled the room to the virtuoso musicians on piano, violin, and flute following the notes of a bagpiper, the lady who had accepted his invitation to dance inquired further.

“So how long have you been with the military?”

“Several months,” replied the regimental. “I am still learning the various formations.”

“What do you think of Napoleon?”

“A scoundrel,” he replied, satisfied he would end any speculations as to his loyalty.

Her next question dissolved in the music. He thought he had answered it correctly but immediately felt the need to amplify it.

“I shall die with my sword in my hand for England,” he declared with resolution, hoping the question settled at last.

Indeed it was, as the dancing progressed through a mixer where he shared turns with half the ladies in the room, greeting them with a courteous nod and a “hello,” especially to the hostess, Lady Scott, who expressed excitement that he had made a long journey in fine form. No allegiances were questioned or rank flaunted. First impressions glistened with warmth among the guests.

Uneasiness gave way to comfort. A woman nudged a girl towards the regimental, the young lady smiling yet shy, obviously unsure how to indicate her desire for a dance. He bowed to her and they quickly found a place in the set for a round of “Christ Church’s Bells.”

“This is one of my favourite dances,” he said to her.

Yet their chance to learn and practice their footwork required patience, as they found themselves at the end of the set, the place where the logistics of English Country Dance temporarily marooned them while the other couples progressed through the steps.

“We’re sorry,” smiled the couple next to them upon noting the predicament.

“Do not fret,” reassured the girl’s dancing partner.

The opportunity to rejoin them would come. When it did, his partner did her best, and he did his best to encourage her with a smile and a word or two of motivation, ignoring mistakes, including his own as he concentrated on making the whole affair joyous. He ended by honoring her with a bow befitting a monarch.

Patience and nerves would be tested mere moments later, when technology failed to carry the dance caller’s voice across the room with clarity, leaving instructions on a new dance mired in confusion. The regimental, his new partner, and the others in the set on the other side of the room puzzled relentlessly. When the dance started, they moved about one another in an uncertain happiness, worried about the steps they were making, whether they were wrong or right. At times, the regimental and his partner would stand silently and smile in their positions, not wanting to plunge into disaster and disrupt others who might have actually known what they were doing as they listened to the caller, not even remarking about the size of the room or the number of couples.

Other couples improvised their own steps, even substituting a few anachronistic motions, focused on enjoying company and salvaging some grace. But by the time the regimental and his partner agreed upon this course, the number had ended.

The trouble had not gone undetected. The host and a detachment of volunteers urgently sought out substitutes for the apparatuses of amplification. After a break and some adjustments in volume, the quality of the caller’s voice improved.

The dancing recommenced through some old favorites of the regimental: “Come, Let’s Be Merry,” and “The Willow Tree,” and he added a new dance to that list, “The Queen’s Jig,” one which ironically required little or no jigging.

Several, however, would come upon that opportunity later in the prize drawing, where those who could not entertain the guests with the presentation of an historical fact or brief dramatic interpretation would humor them with a solo dance for ten seconds. One young prize winner went so far as to share the dance with her father, a moment of comic beauty sure to be cherished for years to come, along with other moments of great significance announced by the host: two birthdays; and to everyone’s joy, an engagement among one of the attended couples.

The beloved Pumpkin Dance returned, known to others as the Fan Dance or Pinapple Dance, but the result remained the same -- multiple lines of laughing, sashaying couples in the heights of happiness.

"Encore, encore!" the host cried with the backing of the crowd, and the musicians granted the request with nary a hesitation.

And once again, the regimental let fly with the word he gathered was becoming a trademark outburst.


One couple had traveled from Utah for the express purpose of attending the ball on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary. Neither one had partaken in such a night of merriment before, and the scene bedazzled the wife with its costume and spectacle. Her husband, who fancied history, had talked her into attending, but for both of them, the night became unforgettable. Before they left, they promised they would return for another evening.

And before the evening ended, the regimental shared one final waltz with a charming young lady, as was his personal hope and the tradition of many balls before.

“You danced with my sister,” she complimented.

“I have danced with a lot of people’s sisters tonight,” he observed with a smile of gratitude as he led her in simple steps. Their eyes met for many moments, but they could not resist noticing the fine pairings of young ladies and gentlemen sharing the floor with them.

With so many diversions vying for their attention, the regimental thought, they had chosen this one. They had chosen the classical versus the contemporary, the elegant versus the commonplace, and the mannered versus the informal. They were the young people no one noticed enough, he lamented, through the strife and stories of rebellious youth and lives gone wrong. Part of himself wished he were their age again, wanting to have journeyed down the path of the gentleman much earlier.

But age mattered not, he reminded himself, as long as he was on that path now.

* * *

The evening over, the regimental turned his attention to some new garments for sale: shirts, deep blue and regally embroidered with the symbol of We Make History.

He observed the placement of the symbol, the lions representing courage, integrity and steadfastness; the crown and cross representing honour, responsibility, dignity, and greatness through service; and the pineapple, representing hospitality, generosity and kindness.

“Over the heart,” he said. “How appropriate.”

Pride, the regimental thought, was indeed a virtue, if it was a pride in serving others. Let no one be prejudiced towards that.

More words and happy memories from Lord Scott and the many guests!
More LIFE & TIMELINES -- The continuing story of my uplifting journeys into the past.

NEXT MONTH: Standing for Liberty as a Patriot Volunteer at the American Heritage Festival.

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