Convincing recollections of honourable people at the Pride & Prejudice Ball as presented by We Make History.
From the journal of Lt. Christopher Francis, HMS Victory
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The realization descends upon the Lieutenant as he is barely a mile away from his temporary quarters. On other occasions, he might dwell not upon the oversight, but circumstances and courtesies extend to his fingertips. He turns about and retrieves the needed accouterments, hoping the delay will not result in a untimely arrival.
Walking into the grand hall, his gate is halted by the number of ladies in their bright gowns, all of pastel colour, milling about and seeking refreshment. The gentlemen are represented but a mere shadow in the assembled elegance.
The Host greets the young seaman, “Captain in His Majesty's Navy.” The gold-trimmed bicorn certainly conveys that impression. The Lieutenant is of the persuasion not to make corrections this evening, owing to his own aspirations of commanding the ship, the HMS Victory, beyond carrying out the orders of his superiors.
So many ladies, he wonders to himself. His eyes drift towards a particularly fashionable group seated to his side, dressed in sparkling satin, a few adorned with stylish plumes. The Lieutenant wastes no time bowing to them in a regal manner, chapeau in his arm.
“A fine display of beauty,” he remarks.
Yet he seeks another.
“Has anyone seen Madame Noire?” he inquires.
“Yes, she is here,” a lady replies.
Searching a few moments more, he finds her wearing a bright white gown topped in a lace wrap. She is elegant and yet protective of her modesty, admitting to the Lieutenant that her best labours are still in need of correction. He does not care. He persuades her not to dwell upon any errant stitches. She is mannered, kind and honourable towards him, and that is what he desires most.
Gradually, the multitudes drift from the grand hall into the ballroom, some a bit anxious, others laughing in anticipation. A scattered couple practices a few stately steps. In a corner, couples pose in front of a mechanical picture-making device recently developed in Germany, handled with precision by the Hostess, who persuades one and all to let the curious device record their glowing countenances.
Across the room, a lady tends to the flowing locks of a naval officer in a blue-and-gold uniform. He sits with trepidation, perhaps a bit distressed over the scene, but smiles as his attendant ties a ponytail to compliment his huge and fashionable bicorn.
The Host calls the gathered forth to pay tribute to Our Nation, and then invites all to join him and a young princess in the Grand Promenade. He parades barely the length of the ballroom before the eager guests join in, a bit premature but not dishonourable in the least.
“They do not need to be persuaded to dance,” the Lieutenant remarks.
Indeed, the Host reminds the gentlemen to do their duties when ladies are in want of a dance, not “standing about stupidly” in the manner of a certain Mr. Darcy.
The line of couples envelopes the perimeter of the room, and the Host executes a few naval maneuvers in leading the procession into a spiral and out again. As the couples loop around one another, the Lieutenant and his superior meet face to face.
“Admiral,” the young officer greets.
“Captain,” the other corrects with a smile of friendship.
Indeed, everyone is dressed above themselves. A group of enthusiastic young players, desiring to improve their art in the theatre, show their desire for elegance as they step forth.
One circle, then two, then three are formed for the first dance of the evening, a mixer by the curious name of “I Care Not For These Ladies.” The Lieutenant and Madame advance to the most inner circle – “Peers only!” -- and prepare to make merry.
The Host explains the steps, and the gathered walk through them, leading up to an elegant but complex figure: a half-turn with one hand to the partner, followed by another half-turn to a partner beyond, followed by a full turn with two hands to another partner beyond that. Many are unsure of the progression, and the Host leads them through it several times.
Even the Lieutenant, himself a veteran of both battle and ballroom, finds himself a bit confused. He follows the motions, arriving face to face with a lady who also reveals her unease. “Do not worry, My Lady,” he reassures. “We shall learn together. Enjoy the dance and each other's company.”
A few more rehearsals, and the Lieutenant and Madame are satisfied they are ready to progress. Yet the Host is unconvinced that all are comfortable with the figures. He is persuaded that perhaps the evening should begin with something rudimentary yet elegant.
“A different dance,” he announces. “Hole In The Wall!”
Disappointment of not completing the dance disappears at once for the Lieutenant and his lady. “I love ‘Hole In The Wall!’” she smiles as the couples rearrange themselves into long sets.
The sailor persuades himself to volunteer for head couple of one set, sensing experience is in need. A ragged line of couples forms behind them. When the Host calls on the young sailor to assemble his “crew,” he turns in shock to find two long sets of couples both trying to share him and Madame as head. He hastily waves and gestures down the line, straightening the dancers as best he can while realizing many have never danced in a set before now.
Once again, the Host leads through the figures: first couples casting off around the second couples, second couples casting back around the first, and then some changing of places before a circle halfway round and another cast-off by the first couples to progress. This time, the motions take root with the gathered, and soon they are dancing to music in happy elegance. Most every available space for dancing is occupied. Couples casting off carefully squeeze between others with as much courtesy as possible.
They progress all the way up and down the set, learning the mechanics of their journey as the Host steadfastly announces every move over the melodies of the flute and violin. No one shall be lost or in need of a prompt. When he accidentally skips a figure, the dancers continue on with the correct step, to the delight of the caller: “You are smarter than me!”
The Host offers up another set dance, “The Doubtful Shepherd.” Not wanting to neglect his gentlemanly duties, the officer seeks out a young lady. The prospective dancers are not hard to spot, standing on the side of the ballroom, eyes wandering back and forth yet showing no hint of longing or desperation… at least, not yet.
“Would you honour me with a dance?” the Lieutenant offers with a bow, sweeping off his bicorn and hoping the strands of hair upon his head do not fall over his face. His new partner accepts graciously, and they are soon cavorting in a three couple set, the gentlemen and ladies taking turns prancing around each other in a line between stately turns.
During a pause for refreshments, the Lieutenant locates the Captain to pay him regards.
“So glad you are able to join us for this diversion given the battle versus that scoundrel Napoleon!” the young officer greets.
The Captain pays him regard, noting that he shall be victorious, “if they don’t sink my ship.”
They feel little persuasion to share tales of epic sea battles as they stand near several admiring ladies.
“Is there a vicar of the Church of England here?” the Host asks, having announced the engagements of two young couples. Seeing none -- as Mr. Collins is nowhere to be found -- he proceeds to honour them with the next dance: “Haste To The Wedding.”
The Lieutenant and Madame spring to the head of a set, the officer warm with anticipation of a dance he learned long ago in the former colony of Virginia. The couples link into stars of four and circles, then passing around each other before clapping hands and casting off down the line. Some continue clapping to the rhythm as others cast off.
“Come, Let’s Be Merry,” is the title of the next dance, although one of the honoured couples suggest that title be changed to “Come, Let’s Be Married.” Here, the Lieutenant is torn. He wishes to offer a dance to other ladies but his heart persuades him to share another of his favourites with Madame. They head up a set of three, soon to be joined by the two honoured couples in what promises to be a quite lively arrangement. The Host notices a set of experienced dancers is before him, and he encourages them to come onto the stage.
Madame and the Lieutenant exchange glances. He knows she is a bit uneasy at the notion of demonstrating her moves before the entire ballroom, but she offers no protest and trusts in her partner’s skill to lead her through.
And so, the Host directs the attention of the assembled to the demonstration set, namely the first gentleman, the “one with the hat,” as the Lieutenant faces upwards and takes hands with his lady, backing up to turn her around to face the other couples. They give honours, bowing and curtsying before facing up again, and then turning around and backing up once more to repeat the honours.
“Cast off to the middle,” the Host directs, “and then to the bottom.”
The Lieutenant and Madame follow through and prepare for the next stately step up the center: either a graceful lead with inside hands joined or a sashay, or perhaps a waltzing round. The young officer chooses the first method, and his lady learns the steps with little difficulty. They cast off again to the middle of the set and circle round with the others before turning with two hands back to place, leaving the dance to begin anew.
The Host calls for the music, and soon all are following the leads of the dancers on stage.
“Let us pick up the tempo,” the Host directs to the pair of musicians.
Once more the couples turn and bow, cast and lead, circle and turn.
“Let us pick up the tempo a little more.”
The Lieutenant and his friends in the dance concentrate on their moves, tarrying not to study the efforts of those on the floor below them. They are setting the example, and it is successful, as the Host calls for another increase in tempo until all are satisfied and merry beyond measure.
A waltz follows, as does more merriment. Some students of the dance practice their box step. Others favour the round and twirl about. A few choose two steps and no more. The sailor and his lady decide to offer a symphony of close steps and twirling capers, turning round about and setting to each other before drawing towards one another for a graceful coda.
The Lieutenant lets no dance pass him by, seeking more young ladies for “Christ Church Bells” and “The Fields Of Frost And Snow.” One partner displays an almost acrobatic skill of turning and casting off, leaving the officer to twirl about to mirror her liveliness all the way down the long line. Gentility may be in fashion, but youth begets exuberance, and he strives to recall that time of his life when he could cast all worry to the wind.
Indeed the wind might be carrying off some of the assembled, as several names drawn for prizes of chocolate and literature have not a claimant in sight. The Host wonders if the “Press Gangs” of His Majesty’s Navy are forcibly persuading a few more conscripts in the ongoing fight against Napoleon.
“I push, I don’t press!” the Lieutenant replies aloud.
All are present for the Pumpkin Dance, however. The standard calls for a lady or a gentleman to pass the pumpkin off to someone by his side before sashaying off. In practice, many choose to pass the pumpkin to those waiting in line before skipping off in groups of three. It matters not to the Host, who at last enjoys an opportunity to partake of a dance.
As the ladies and gentlemen catch their breaths, the moment of the final waltz is upon them. Their energy is not muted, and many of the young continue to prance about even as the music suggests otherwise. They could dance all night, the Lieutenant observes. They would if given the opportunity, eventually slowing into the last figures of genteel charm before streaming back into the world they know a world that has failed to notice them in many ways, failed to take note of their honour. And yet, it is there, and it is offered as a gift for others who wish to receive it. No British officer can instill it; it must be desired.
The young officer thinks of this when a group of modern-day ladies spot his uniform and approach him in the night during the journey to a post-ball feast.
“Can we take a picture with you?” they persuade.
He thinks for a moment.
“Let me retrieve my bicorn.”
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NEXT: The Free And The Brave