Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 15

In Which Eileen Sees Kilts and Swords

When last we heard from me, I’d just been told(along with 300 of my closest European friends and Sally Hawkes) to gather on the steps of the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels to enjoy the military entertainment portion of the show. And just as I settled in alongside a lovely old thing who reminded me of a well-to-go Michael Gambon(Dumbledore#2), who should step right in front of me, but the British Ambassador, and the Duke and Duchess of Wellington? I admit I got quite a kick out of that. I’m not sure if the duchess was so sanguine, since I spent a lot of time peering closely at the large diamonds circling her neck and dripping from her ears.

IMG951392Fortunately, just about that time, there was the rillĀ  of a military drum, and another shouted order. Then trumpets, tubas, clarinets…and red-jacketed bandmembers marching out of the far archway in precise order playing martial music. It actually gave me a thrill. The brass echoed around those old marble walls, punctuated by the rhythmic stamp of booted feet. The drum major(I know there’s a military term I’m missing) with his great gold baton swinging up and down, his posture ramrod straight, led the band into a few complex maneuvers, the most moving being the hesitation step(Dumbledore assured me that that was a particularly difficult move. In fact, he whispered it in my ear, as if we were having a tryst)(but then, he tended to do that to everyone he talked to–if he wasn’t smacking them on the arm and laughing, anyway). As the band played, an audience gathered outside the palace fence, and I could see them holding onto the railings like children watching a party they weren’t invited to (was it terrible of me that I felt a bit smug, since I was on the right side of the fence?).

Well, they played and marched and created geometric shapes on the cobblestones for a good half hour as we all stood there, still as statues. And oh, howdy, did my feet ache(they still do). I don’t do high heels much anymore, and especially these, the sandals I bought to go along with my sari. I thought of getting flats, but if I did, how could anyone see my Barbara-Childe-Tribute-Gold-Painted-Toenails? So I stood, champagne(well, English sparkling wine) glass in my hand, grinning like an idiot because I couldn’t believe I was positioned there with the Duke of Wellington listening to the kind of music that made him straighten into a military rest position, hands tucked behind his hips, fingers gently fisted as if he were about to swing into a huge, boot-stomping salute.

And then something inexplicable happened. I’m still trying to figure out the logic behind it. From martial music the likes that you know accompanied men as they marched down dusty roads everywhere from the Iberian Pensinsula to the Malay one, the band suddenly swung into a completely anachronistic piece. I admit it took me a few minutes to believe what I was hearing. That was because it was Duke Ellington’s Caravan. From a military band. At the anniversary ceremonies linked to a war that had nothing to do with the US, except for the fact that according to the Brits, we were on the wrong side. In fact, we were responsible for them not having their full contingent of experienced troops available for Waterloo. And if that’s so, then what the hell were they doing playing an American jazz piece for a British/Belgian/Dutch celebration? I asked Jeremy, the guy who helped me get my money transferred for my ticket. I asked the old guy who was pounding on my arm telling me that I had to pay attention to the guy in a full uniform kit on my other side. “Important lot, that,” he whispered. “Look at all the decoration.” Decoration meaning, we later realized, the huge diamonded cross on his chest and the blue enamel one around his neck that signified the Order of the Bath. The old guy didn’t even know who Duke Ellington was. (he was probably trying to figure out if he was a royal duke or just your run-of-the-mill-your-great-great-great-grandfather-won-a-big-battle kind of duke). It is still a mystery, but I am determined to get an answer. Watch this space.

And of course, after that, the band part concluded with a selection of national anthems; Dutch, Belgian and British. You’ll be very proud of me. When they started playing God Save the Queen, I did not sing out “My Country Tis of Thee”. At least out loud. I might have mouthed the words. I remember the lovely trumpet flourishes as I mouthed “…from sea to shining sea.” Quite moving.

IMG951403But the surprises weren’t over yet. The drum major slammed to attention right in front of the Ambassador, asking permission to dismiss his band. She gave it, so he had them play themselves out the same way they came in. We were all about to turn back upstairs towards the bar, when once again we heard the skirl and snap of a pipe band(well, pipe trio, actually). And out steps four men in Gordon Highlander uniforms, swords held high. My mouth actually went dry. Now, if you know anything about the actual Duchess of Richmond ball, one of the most notable moments was when the Gordon Highlanders did a sword dance, kilts whirling, arms up, feet tapping over and around the crossed blades in the center of the floor as the pipes moaned them on. The legend is that every one of those dancers was dead by the end of the next day at Quatres Bras.

IMG951404For some reason I never thought this committee of charitable organizers would think to include such a famous incident. I wasn’t really sure anybody would…well, get it. They did. The pipes paused. The men took up positions. And, chills chasing down my back like sleds on a snowy hill, I watched Gordon Highlanders recreating the famous sword dance, right there in the courtyard of the Palais d’Egmont(I know it was probably supposed to be done inside to remain completely accurate, but what do you bet the Palais officials suggested that their pristine wooden floors and Oriental rugs simply weren’t made for swords and tapdancing). No matter the anachronism, it was a very moving moment. And I was watching it at the shoulder of the Duke of Wellington. In a beautiful Regency gown, white gloves and tiara(me, not the duke. He was actually in rather pedestrian evening clothing. It would have been kind of anticlimactic if his wife hadn’t been sporting all those diamonds). Not something I ever anticipated in my entire life. (not something anyone who’s ever met me would have anticipated in my entire life). I think it might have been enough right there. But wait! There’s more! Which I will share tomorrow. So stay tuned.


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