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Professor Ufford favored the loveliest woman at the revel with a condescending smile. "I suppose you subscribe to the popular fallacy that Henry the Eighth introduced Morris dancing to England."
Sarah Kelling Bittersohn shook her head, not only in denial but also to make sure the underpinnings of her hennin hadn't come loose. "Why should I? Wasn't it John of Gaunt?"
"Er—probably." The professor switched off his smile and turned on a supercilious sneer. "The theory that the dance may have been inspired by the Morisco, or Spanish fandango, is of course absurd. My most recently published book offers conclusive arguments for a Flemish origin. Do I gather that you've been reading Terpsichore Totters?"
"Because I happen to know about John of Gaunt?" Now quite sure of her hennin, Sarah tilted back her head to give Professor Ufford the kind of smile her Aunt Emma had been seen to give a guest who slopped red wine on her white damask tablecloth. "Doesn't everyone?"
That was nasty. Sarah herself happened to be informed on the subject only because her Cousin Lionel had backed her into a corner at Aunt Appie's Easter luncheon and talked about Morris dancing until she could think of a nonviolent way to stop him, which was no small task with Lionel.
Anyway, she'd managed to stop Professor Ufford. He touched the wide, circular brim of his black straw hat and wandered off, perhaps to find another pretty lady who hadn't yet heard about John of Gaunt.
Sarah could have told Ufford where he'd got the idea for his costume, too. That hat, with its crown shaped into a truncated cone wrong end up, had appeared in van Hyde's portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. She couldn't think why the professor had chosen a style that suited him so ill. It hadn't suited Arnolfini all that well, either.
There was some excuse for Arnolfini, since the costume had no doubt been all the rage back in 1432. But why had the professor gone to so much trouble and expense to get himself up like a pregnant giraffe? His long neck and longer, bonier head stuck up in an almost grotesque continuum above the bulky calf-length cloak. Far too much of his stringy shins stuck out below. The green stretch tights he'd pulled over them were a forceful argument for a middle-aged man's keeping his trousers on.
Perhaps Sarah simply hadn't yet adjusted to the mediaeval mystique. This was the first year she and her husband, Max, had attended the Billingsgates' annual Renaissance Revel. Bill and Abigail were close friends of her Uncle Jeremy Kelling. Normally Jem would have been here instead of the Bittersohns. This year, however, Jem was yachting with a different set of cronies. Sarah and Max were here on business, though nobody was supposed to know.
The Billingsgates' problem was an unusual one for them to become involved with. Stolen paintings, jewelry, and objets d'art were their specialty. This was the first time they'd ever been asked to track down a missing 1927 New Phantom Rolls Royce.
The crux of the matter was that the Phantom shouldn't have vanished at all, considering the lengths to which Bill had gone to keep his precious antique safe. Only somebody closely connected with the family, it seemed, could have got the car away. That was why Nehemiah Billingsgate, to give him his proper name as almost nobody ever did, had put in a frantic last-minute call to Jem's niece and nephew-in-law instead of to the police.
The Renaissance Revel had provided a perfect excuse to get the Bittersohns on the scene and introduce them to the family's inner circle, along with a good many circumferentials. As soon as they got a chance, they'd have to get together with their host and employer to sort out who was who. For now, Sarah and Max had set themselves to mingle.
Max was taking the assignment as something of a joke, so far. He'd insisted on entering this nest of affluent WASPs as the Merchant of Venice's business rival. His own academic robe, which he'd bought when he got his PhD and now wore when he had to speak in front of learned gatherings, as he was increasingly asked to do, made an acceptable costume for Shylock. He'd added his father's black yarmulke and suggested carrying a salami to symbolize the contested pound of flesh. Sarah had drawn the line at the salami.
"I am not going to the Billingsgates' with a man who smells like a delicatessen. It's unprofessional. Besides, Abigail might think you were afraid she wouldn't give you enough to eat."
The contrast between a typical Kelling party spread and the amount of food considered minimal at even the smallest Bittersohn family affair had been a source of wonderment between them ever since they'd met. Max often had to stop for a hamburger upon leaving the former, and Sarah usually went on a two-day diet after the latter. Even Max's mother, though, couldn't have thought anybody likely to starve at the Billingsgates'.
Their house was one of those architectural vagaries that used to be indulged in sometimes during the golden age of cheap labor and no income tax by romantic millionaires with Miniver Cheevyesque yearnings. Max and Sarah had arrived to find red and yellow pennons flapping from the turrets and a red-and-white striped pavilion set up outside the portcullis. Under this vast canopy were long trestle tables already laden with cates and dainties to keep body and soul together until such time as the revelers might get down to serious feeding.
Along with the food there were punches and possets, but mostly there was mead. Mead was a big thing at the Billingsgates'. They brewed it in their cellar from honey gathered by Abigail's thousands upon thousands of bees. Most of the potent product was sold to entrepreneurs who ran mediaeval feasts on a commercial basis, but Abigail and Bill kept their choicest bottlings for themselves and their friends.
Today, the bees had all been lured off to distant fields. Abigail was trying to convince her guests that they could go where they chose without running the risk of getting stung. Some were strolling along the nearer garden paths, but few were bothering to risk the apian panzer divisions in the back acres. Here by the pavilion, the grass was like plush and the entertainment was lively enough.
A space had been cordoned off with ropes for dancing. Nearby, another miniature pavilion had been set up for the musicians. Lorista, daughter-in-law of the Billingsgates' good friends the Dorks and sister to Sarah's aforementioned Cousin Lionel's wife, Vare, was in her glory here. She'd left her dulcimer at home, to Sarah's relief, but brought her recorder. Instead of playing the instrument she was conducting with it while an assortment of kindred spirits tooted their crumhorns, twanged their lutes, or thumped their tabors.
All were in Renaissance garb, loosely speaking. Lorista herself was the most renascent of the lot, as might have been expected from a woman who hadn't even been able to sing "Eentsy-Meentsy Spider" to her infant daughter without first getting herself up in seven petticoats and thick white stockings cross-gartered to the knees. The aim of the consort's amalgamated discords was to provide an accompaniment to a group of men in green hose, scarlet doublets with dagged and slittered edges, and bright yellow liripipe hoods. Each had a string of bells tied garterlike below each knee. At the moment, each was carrying two beribboned white batons which he clicked against other men's sticks. The men's movements were precise and spirited. John of Gaunt would have been pleased. As Sarah paused to watch, Max dodged a passing farthingale and came over to join her.
"Is that Lionel? I didn't know he danced."
"He told me he did, but I hadn't realized he was so good," Sarah replied. "Who are the others, do you know?"
"The one beside Lionel must be Dork the Younger," Max said. "He looks just like his father, poor guy. The tall one in the middle's the Billingsgates' son-in-law."
"Lucky Melisande. He is good-looking, I must say. You don't suppose his name is Pelleas?"
"Who knows? His last name's Purbody. He told me to call him Tick when I came out here yesterday. There must be a few Whets and Tolbathys in the bunch, they always hang together. Too bad Jem's on the high seas. Or half seas over, more likely. He'd know who's which."
"And he'd tell them all what we're here for, once he'd got his nose in the mead," Sarah added.
She didn't have to worry about being overheard. The jangling and clacking combined with the twanging and tooting and thumping to produce a fairly high noise level. Whoever the dancers might be, they were taking their fun with the same dogged concentration as the musicians.
"They do flutter a lot," she went on. "What do you bet Lorista designed the costumes?"
"Stands to reason," Max agreed. "By the way, did you get a chance to call Miriam?" His sister was baby-sitting the youngest Kelling, since their housekeeper had the day off.
"Yes, dear. She says Davy finished his bottle, ate every bite of his carrots, and hasn't cried once since we left. He doesn't miss us a bit." Sarah tried not to sound disappointed, but didn't quite manage.
"Ah, he's just putting on a brave front," Max consoled her. "Come on, I'll buy you a sack posset."
"Ugh, no thanks. I'd adore a cup of tea but I suppose it's out of period. Shouldn't we mingle some more?"
"I suppose so. I'll mingle right and you mingle left. That means you get to mingle with your Aunt Appie."
"Max, you beast! Where is she? I can't see over all those padded headdresses."
"She's under that big tree, talking with some woman wearing a Queen Mary hat."
"Good heavens, I'll bet that's Aunt Bodie. I didn't know she was coming. Are you sure my hennin's on straight?"
"Looks perfect to me. You're far and away the best-dressed woman here."
Max spoke with only a modicum of prejudice. Considering that Sarah and her sister-in-law had whipped together her costume only the night before, after she'd learned they were expected to show up in mediaeval dress, Sarah did look totally delightful. She'd constructed her tall conical headdress from a sheet of heavy watercolor paper that she'd painted in a millefleurs design. A piece of green mosquito netting borrowed from Cousin Brooks, the family naturalist, floated from the tip and could be whisked into use should Abigail's bees decide after all to join in the festivities.
Her gown was, in confidence, a pink satin nightie she'd bought for her honeymoon and never been given a chance to wear. Over it she wore a sumptuous pale green houppelande made from a pair of brocaded draperies Miriam had picked up at a yard sale ages ago. The sleeves reached almost to the ground and were a heavy responsibility, as was the short train wagging after her, but the effect was so enchanting that everybody who caught sight of her turned around to look again. As she swept across the close-clipped lawn, Apollonia Kelling hailed her with rapture.
"Sarah, how too utterly utter! Isn't she too ravishing for words, Bodie?"
"I can't imagine your ever finding anything too anything for words, Appie."
Boadicea Kelling wasn't being consciously rude, merely stating the facts as she saw them. "I daresay you could use that redingote affair for a negligee afterward, Sarah, if you shortened the sleeves and took up the hem. You don't plan to waste so much expensive material, of course."
"Why not?" Sarah answered brazenly, glancing back to make sure her train was disposed to best advantage. "One never knows when one might need a houppelande. Besides, my daughter might like to dress up in it someday."
"But you don't have a daughter," Boadicea Kelling reminded her. "David Josiah is a boy."
"Yes, thank you, I had noticed that. But Max and I are thinking we might try again sometime, now that we've got the knack. How are you, Aunt Bodie?"
"Well as always, thank you. My blood pressure stays at 130 over 80, I still do my brisk four-mile walk each day, and my weight hasn't varied by more than a pound and a half during the past thirty-six years."
"Ah, but it will have by the time we get up from the banquet," crowed Appie.
Boadicea shook her Queen Mary toque. Sarah knew the hat well. When she was a little girl, it had been a rich purple color. Gradually the velvet had changed to a strange bronzy taupe, now it was almost cream. Boadicea had become too much a Kelling to fuss over trifles like that.
"I realize the custom is for guests to gorge themselves to the limit, but I have no intention of doing so. The leftover food won't go to waste, I've already verified that point with Abigail. She and Bill are having their respective Sunday School classes over tomorrow, to eat up the perishables and stage their own modest version of a Renaissance revel. This will be an educational experience for the young people. They are expected to improvise their own costumes. Otherwise, you could have left yours for one of them to wear, Sarah."
"No, I couldn't. I didn't bring anything else to put on."
Her aunt refrained from commenting on Sarah's lack of foresight. Her niece would know better another time, now that she'd been made aware of her shortcoming. Boadicea never nagged, she merely pointed out the proper course of action and assumed thenceforth it would be followed. She had read Norman Vincent Peak's book The Power of Positive Thinking as a young woman and never forgotten its message. She was thus able to find a positive word for Lorista and her consort, even though Lorista had now begun singing a ballad about the ratcatcher's wife and the fiddle-de-dee.
"Such diligence is commendable. I assume the musicians are donating their services. Bill assures me they're going to stop soon. He's scheduled a program of uninterrupted Renaissance music to be played over his local radio station during the banquet."
"Dear me, can one do that?" cried Apollonia. "I must get hold of WCRB about our church bazaar. Bach and Purcell, don't you think?"
"Nonsense, Appie." Boadicea spoke crisply because one really had to be crisp with Apollonia Kelling. "Bill can choose his own program for the reason that he owns the station. His object is to allow the listening audience to share our enjoyment of the auditory portion of the revel, thereby furthering the spirit of universal brotherhood to which he and Abigail are so laudably dedicated."
"But the audience won't know we're reveling and they won't get any mead." Appie investigated her own pewter flagon and discovered it to be empty. "I believe I'll wander off and see if I can find a serving wench, or do I mean potboy? Shall I get some for you, Bodie?"
"Thank you, no. I'm fine for the moment. We must concede, Sarah," Boadicea added as the other aunt took herself off wenchward, "that Appie's point is well taken. Some of the experiments Bill performs with those radio stations of his seem to presuppose a higher level of rapport with his public than may in fact exist. With regard to the mead, however, delivering their fair share to the listeners would be difficult to achieve and quite possibly a violation of the alcoholic beverage distribution laws. It's as well Bill abstained from making the attempt. I do hope Appie doesn't break her neck tripping over that skirt."CHAPTER 2
Most of the revelers had obliged their hosts by showing up in mediaeval or Renaissance costumes. Sarah wasn't enough of a scholar to sort out which was which and didn't suppose it mattered. Even experts could be ambiguous as to exactly when the Middle Ages left off and the rebirth of culture began. A few seemed to be of the opinion that the Renaissance was still going on. This left plenty of latitude for choice and the guests had used it all.
Some would have simply rented appropriate garb for the day. Others, like Professor Ufford, must have had authentic costumes made to order at no small expense. Spectacular outfits such as his had probably been gracing the Billings gates' revels already for some years and would no doubt appear again and again, so the expense would be amortized over a long period. Then there were those who'd chosen to improvise, of whom Apollonia Kelling was definitely one.
Excerpted from The Silver Ghost by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1988 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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