A tale told in flickerings of darkness and lamplight on damp pavements . . .
The Lord-by-the-Sea rushed in to the old Chapel in the Sands. He sat and beckoned the Pilgrim Woman downstairs.
‘Make tonight’s peppercorn story snappy,’ he told her as she sat, ‘ I have an important meeting at my club tonight and I cannot be delayed.’
‘Go now, then,’ she said and turned to smile at her listeners. ‘The tale will be as long as it needs to be. No need to check up on me – I tell my tales whether you are here or not.’
The servant from his mansion nodded her head at that. The Lord-by-the-Sea frowned.
‘There must be some magic in them – or these people would not come out here.’
‘Each of my beloved listeners brings their own magic.’ She tapped the space between her eyebrows. Her bangles tinkled. ‘Each bring their own imagination.’
She bowed her head toward the crowd and began:
The sky on the night of the Prince’s Ball hung dripping softly with rain. Umbrellas jostled in gleaming wet bouquets outside every door to the Assembly Rooms. Between each chime from a gilded clock, they shook and folded. Scores of rolled-up oiled silk points sank into zinc vases to protect the marble floors.
Thus it was that no-one noticed her arrival. So many hoods over headdresses. So many capes and cloaks to be hung up. So much velvet and lace and whalebone. One more lady than expected was of no account. And who was counting?
Her entry into the Ballroom did occasion remarks. As if a handsome yet tattered moth had flitted into a glade of butterflies, or a raven joined a dance of turtle-doves. Whispering swirled below the cloud-and-cherub painted ceiling.
‘Does she not see her bulges and chin-hairs?’ asked the shining ones behind their painted fans.
‘Does she know nothing of this season’s colours?’ queried those with magazines on their laps.
I wish I had the courage thought others, but kept it to themselves. With their nerves and girdles and make-up, they hardly dared breathe.
The moth-gowned woman took a glass to the balcony. She made the waiter pour until it held a red moon of wine. The ladies of the court huddled and conferred.
‘What is she wearing?’
‘Something cobbled together from spider webs and beetle wings.’
‘But such bearing – an obscure and ruined duchess, perhaps?’
‘The wicked stepmother!’
A flock of giggles rose to the chandeliers. It seemed no-one could place her outlandish manner of speech, no-one recognised her unfettered laughter nor the outdated seamstress of her huge and sweeping skirts. It was also noted that she talked with the gentlemen with neither introduction nor chaperone..
‘A widow, one supposes.’
‘From a place with little etiquette.’
‘Proof, if it were needed, that the male sex have little taste – that personage is loud and poor and vulgar – and yet they seem fascinated.’
The gilded clock began the last chimes of the day. Without a word of farewell, the lady of moths-and-ravens left. She passed down the grand staircase, ignored a shining fallen shoe. No carriage awaited her – such dark cloth soon melds into shadows.
Soon she faded from their memories – a brief wonder recalled with amusement or pity. Across the city in a narrow room, a cleaning lady kept a shelf of treasures. In the middle, the invitation she had claimed for herself gleamed with gold ink and glamour.
. . . the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.
Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting