In Which Eileen sups with the Duke of Wellington: Part I
Okay, so I didn’t eat WITH him. But we were at the same party. And I have to admit, it was quite a show. It’s the next morning now, and my feet hurt, my hair looks like I’ve been cross-bred with a poodle, and my tiara is back in its bag(that was the hardest part. I only remembered to take it off when I tried to get my CPap mask over it). I feel like Cinderella trying to tuck herself back into the kitchen after the shoe came off. And really. Who could have in their wildest imagination thought they’d hear me say that?
As for the Duchess of Richmond Anniversary Ball itself, I admit that I’m still feeling overwhelmed. It was fantasyland start to finish, with enough amazing moments for this historical girl to last her a lifetime. And all of them in an actual palace, with the portraits of the original owners fifteen feet tall and recognizable from history books. The lowpoint of the evening was struggling into the support garments that allowed me to so comfortably wear my beautiful bespoke Regency ballgown–okay, maybe the lowpoint was actually seeing my hair burned to the curling iron Sally brought. Evidently it wasn’t dual-voltage. This morning my hair looked a bit ragged. It did hold a curl, though, which looked perfect with my tiara(although at first I thought I was going to look more like Prinny than the duchess), dress and white gloves. Again I have to thank Matti’s Millinery and Costumes on Etsy for making me such an exquisite gown in only 2 weeks, along with a stole long enough to wrap dead bodies in and a reticule that fit in not only my wallet but my i-phone and book postcards(it’s amazing how many I handed out last night. Evidently there weren’t a lot of authors attending stuff like that). The only thing I’m sorry about is that I was so busy trying to record everything around me, I didn’t get a good shot of my jewelry, which were antique gold and coral pieces from my great-grandmother and my dear friend Joy Jalbert, and my tiara, which fit a bit too neatly into the brand new curls to be easily seen.
It’s amazing the looks you get on the streets of Brussels, even when you come out of a great historic hotel like the Metropole, when you’re dressed up like Jane Austen and ask to go to a palace. One lady asked if we were going to the opera(now I know what to wear when I’m going to the opera in Europe). And then, of course, we got the cab driver who didn’t know where the Palais d’Egmont was. He knew where the Petite Sablon was, which was the neighborhood. So when we got there, we kept looking for the palace, until Sally tapped me on the shoulder and pointed left. Yeah. That would be the place. The one with the door flanked by gentlemen in period Guards attire, standing at attention as women in ballgowns passed by.
So we walked through the archway and gave our names to the nice young man at the desk, who pointed us toward the inner courtyard. The minute we stepped through, we heard a drum and pipe salute. We looked around, but it was just for us as we passed along a line of men in period uniforms at attention. We just got to the steps of the actual palace and received our glass of champagne, when there was a command barked, the men snapped to rigid attention and saluted, and another fanfare echoed through the courtyard. And there, walking in just behind us, were the Duke and Duchess of Wellington. We could tell not just because we’d seen his picture when his father died this winter, but because of the salute and all of the other party-goers who immediately straightened skirts and evening jackets before rushing forward to meet him. And that included the British Ambassador and all of the party committee(you could tell because they’d actually pinned little badges with the DoRB logo on their good clothing). Everybody was very kind and a lot more friendly than you’d think, especially considering the fact that they all looked like they’d just seen each other at Ascot the week before.
I have to say that the general attire was magnificent. What it wasn’t, was period(which the officials had asked for, even though they didn’t wear it either). Except for Sally and me, there were only about 3 or 4 other women in period dress(one of which looked like she’d just unpacked her gr-gr-gr-grannie’s evening attire from the trunk. It was some serious silk and lace), and several of the men. Two very senior military gentlemen were in full dress kit, one with his Order of the Bath paraphernalia (we know because we looked it up this morning), and several more were in formal kilts. But for the most part, everybody was in the same clothing they could have worn to last year.s ball or the one next year. Exquisite ball gowns, white tie and tails, uniforms. (Well, all right, there was one kid who went full Brideshead Revisited and had on an evening jacket with horizontal black and white stripes that made me think he’d repurposed Sheldon’s Dopplar Effect Halloween costume from Big Bang Theory). He was joined by a good dozen beautiful young men, the kind you imagine down from Oxford for the Proms or a boating party, all moving in a solid group, like a murmuration of swallows. The difference between the formal attire here than anywhere else I’d worn it was that this stuff had serious designer labels, and the big, gaudy diamonds were just that. Big, gaudy diamonds. Oh, and one perfectly lovely briolette emerald that had the owner casting a wary eye on my own covetous glances. I was close enough to the Duchess of Wellington to almost get a loup on hers, and they were amazing. And genuinely old. Not “I found them at a second-hand shop” old. I was imagining Georgiana tucked into those bad boys, and it wouldn’t have been a stretch. (We did get quite a few lovely comments on our attire, however. Everyone seemed most impressed).
The palace itself was exquisite, with the kind of look that made you think Audrey Hepburn would come floating down the twin marble staircase and Ronald Colman would greet you at the door. Flowers everywhere, crystal chandeliers, and free-flowing English sparkling wine(which cannot by law be called champagne, just as only Scottish whiskey should be spelled with the e–but excellent nonetheless. I know, because they kept refilling our glasses). There was a very nice lady playing a harp as you walked in, and the welcoming committee to…well, welcome you. There weren’t a lot of people there when we arrived(thinking we were late), but when the duke and duchess showed up, it was like the dinner bell had gone off. Suddenly we were surrounded by chattering upperclass accents in English, French and Dutch. (that’s Belgian French. I don’t think the other kind showed up).
I learned an important lesson at that point. We were waylaid by another lady in period attire, who turned out to be a Belgian journalist named Margery, who offered to show us how to take pictures on our i-phones with gloves on. “You have to press with something organic,” she said. “And if you can’t manage with your gloves, you use your tongue.” At which point, she exhibited the technique. Sally and I, deciding discretion being the better part of valor(and afraid of getting tossed out for behavior unbecoming a ball attendee), simply took off one glove. Because in fact, it is damn near impossible to get your i-phone to behave with gloves on.
Part one of our story ends with the announcement that we were all invited back out into the lovely evening air(the weather was too perfect to believe: high, blue sky, soft breeze, temps in the low 80s) so we could enjoy the band that was about to perform. That being the Royal Engineers marching band(did you know engineers wore stirrups on their boots?). We all trooped back out and backed up right against the palace steps where we could see and not interfere. I, of course, was in the front line, since everybody could see over me, and then, somebody stepped directly in front of me, and stayed. But since it was the English ambassador, the Belgian ambassador and the Duke and Duchess of Wellington, who am I to argue? (how I got close enough to assess the value of the duchess’s jewelry. I don’t even want to attempt an evaluation of the cost. It was some serious bling).
Tomorrow, the band and what they have in common with Duke Ellington, or Eileen almost gives herself away as an American.