Loyalties – The Grand Ballroom

copyright 2017

Susan had hardly ever gone inside the Grand Ballroom, as her aunt called the large salon off of her dining room. Once in a while, she had gone in there to dust when she was helping Ramona with housework. Her aunt had insisted that Susan would do chores and learn alongside their maid and cook. She did not want her niece to become a useless lady accustomed to being waited upon, especially as the war grew worse. It would only be a matter of time before there was no more hired help, her Aunt Julietta had bemoaned, and no more permanently indentured servants. A woman ought to be able to keep her own house, she had decreed. Susan would at least know what it was that her servants did and know how hard they worked for her.

There had never been any balls since Susan had come to live with her spinster aunt after the death of her parents. Julietta had hardly ever hosted any at all – the ballroom had been built by her grandfather, who had loved hosting lavish parties to show off his newly-gained wealth, and had been redecorated by her mother, who had enjoyed entertaining and hosting annual festivities for the New Year. Julietta had simply striven to keep the room from getting too dusty. They had hosted Susan’s parents’ wedding feast in the Grand Ballroom, and she reckoned that was the last real party that had taken place there.

Since the war had begun, the windows on the one side of the ballroom had been smashed by a mob of patriot vandals and subsequently boarded up. Julietta had drawn the curtains across the wood and there had never been any sunlight in the room again. Still, they had cleaned the room twice a year. Gradually, the furniture was removed and relocated to other rooms of the house, including the harpsichord, which was now in the parlour for Susan to play. Only a few chairs remained in the ballroom – most of them had been reluctantly broken apart for firewood. The velvet covers had been used to mend Susan’s dresses as she had grown.

Today, she wore one such dress – burgundy red velvet patches on the elbows of blue wool. It was her housework clothing – not really befitting a ballroom.

It was the sunlight inside that she noticed at first. Since the windows had been covered, the ballroom had been dark and they had cleaned it by lamplight. At first, she thought that vandals might have come along and bashed in the wood, but she soon realised that only a small piece had been removed. That one piece – wet through and rotten – let in a large beam of light that illumined the beautifully-painted floor.

Susan gasped. She had not realised how intricately the floor had been painted. Flowers and vines circled her great-grandfather’s giant family crest in the middle. It was indeed grand!

“Who’s there?” she squeaked. Someone was moving the curtains.

Well, the curtains were moving – clearly, someone had decided to hide behind them when they had heard her approaching.

The movement stopped at her voice.

“I know someone’s in there – the wood might have fallen off by itself, but I can see you in the curtains! I’m not that blinded by the sunlight.”

The curtains gingerly peeled back to reveal behind them an embarrassed fifteen-year-old boy with a black eye.

“Miss Susan? I’m sorry – I was just looking around. I didn’t pull back the plank!”

Davey was the type of boy who attracted mischief no matter what he did. He had the black eye from an altercation in the market earlier that week, which was why he had now stayed behind while the rest of his family purchased supplies for their journey. Susan was thus sceptical that he had not been tinkering with the windows, but she decided to believe him. What would it matter anyhow? They were going to leave.

“I never said you did. Besides, the ballroom needs sunlight. I’ve never seen the floor sparkle like that! And it hasn’t even been swept or polished!”

“Ballroom?” Davey’s one good eye grew wide. “This here is a ballroom?”

“Yes, this here’s a ballroom. Hasn’t had any grand balls in it for a long time, though. Never been to one myself.”

“Me neither,” he replied quickly, although his never having been to a ball did not surprise Susan. Davey was a farm lad – a well-to-do one, or at least he had been – but still a farmer’s son, and a young one at that.

She herself might have been just barely old enough to attend such a fancy affair had one been organized, but she had the suspicion that her aunt would forbid it. There were too many soldiers in the city looking for a quick night.

“The harpsichord used to be in here – and there were music stands, so there must have been musicians. They’d have been hired for the night, I suppose. And the chairs along the side, the food and drink served in the dining room…” She gestured toward the large doors on the wall opposite the windows, which opened into the dining room that they ate in for special occasions.

“Must have been something!” Davey agreed, following her wistful gaze. “There’s sure lots of room to dance in here, even with musicians, I’d wager.”

Susan nodded, involuntarily giggling nervously. Looking around, she could not help thinking of how empty the rest of the house was. Her aunt was in her private parlour on the second floor; Davey’s family was at the market, along with her aunt’s manservant; and the maid was in the kitchen. Susan and Davey were very much alone in the ballroom.

“Were you sent to fetch me for something?” Davey asked. “Do you need my help?”

She shook her head and tried to keep her eyes focused on the crest in the middle of the floor.

“I just saw the sunlight, ‘tis all. I was curious.”

“Me too. Well, guess you already figured that out!”

Davey was like a cat – always exploring. It was how he ended up getting into mischief no matter what he intended. He was a sweet, kind-hearted boy, Susan had observed over the weeks that his family had been staying in her aunt’s house, though he did have the strong will to fight.

“That I did.”

For a long time, it seemed that neither of them spoke.

“Did you learn to dance?” Davey asked suddenly.

“Yes, Aunt Julietta insisted that I learn to dance every kind of dance that she knew. She would sing and teach me the steps, and then she would play the harpsichord and I would dance for her. It was one of the ways that she would cheer me up when I was little, whenever I got to missing my papa.”

Without meaning to, Susan burst into tears.

“I’m sorry, Miss Susan! I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Just thinking about being little again, how simple things seemed. A silly girl sort of thing to get teary about.” She wiped her eyes with her apron.

“I learned to dance a bit,” Davey continued, trying to cheer her up. “Mother taught us children – sometimes she would dance with me, sometimes my brother, and the other one of us would be stuck with Becca, who never liked dancing much. We all had to sing at the same time too! Becca just screamed, mostly. ‘Course, she was pretty little. She got better as she got bigger and could move her toes out of the way.”

“Sure, that would have gone over well at a ball!”

“A bawl at a ball?” Davey grinned and would have been handsome were it not for the black eye.

Susan managed to stop crying in order to laugh.

“I’m sorry, you must think me hideous,” Davey noted her averted eyes.

“You must think I’m awfully forward! I just never been alone with a strange young man before so it seems hard to look you in the eyes.”

“Oh, I’m a strange young man?” Davey fully unravelled himself from the curtains and stood up straighter. Clearly, he had taken note of her calling him a man, even if she did also call him strange.

“Well, you’re not family and we’re close in age.” She looked up at him and smiled demurely. “You’re not hideous at all, either. I’d say you’re three-quarters right handsome!”

“Handsome? Well, no one’s ever called me handsome before. Not even Mother! Though she’s said that about Jamie sometimes.”

“Well, he’s older, I suppose.”

“Right.” He shifted awkwardly. “I guess I should be going.”

“Do you want to dance?” Susan had blurted out the question before she knew it, stopping Davey mid-step.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s just…it’s just that this is probably the last time we’re in the grand ballroom and it doesn’t seem right to leave it without any more dancing! Who knows what will become of Aunt Julietta’s house once we’re gone?”

We’re gone? I didn’t think you and your aunt would be leaving.”

The tears were welling up in her eyes again as she nodded.

“Aunt Julietta called me up to her parlour and told me. She’s going with you – at least as far as Nova Scotia, maybe not to the same town. She said I was free to stay here and she would leave the household to me, but I told her that I didn’t want to stay alone. So I’m going too.”

Davey’s face lit up, though he tried to hide it.

“And here I was thinking you would be hosting all these parties in this grand ballroom!”

He bowed to her and held out his hand.

“A dance, Miss Susan?”

She curtseyed and nervously clasped her fingers around his.

“What sort of dance? A quadrille with only two of us?”

“I don’t see why not. But can you start the singing?”

Tearfully giggling, Susan began to warble out a tune.

It was not really a fitting last dance in her great-grandfather’s Grand Ballroom, she thought as Davey spun her around. There should have been musicians, instead of her nervous singing that sounded like a songbird occasionally interrupted by a croaking frog. The ballroom should have been filled with many dancing couples. Her Aunt Julietta ought to have presided over the festivities like a queen in her palace. There should have been punch, ale, and wine; the table in the dining room should have been laden with meat, cheese, and fruit. Perhaps there still would be more parties to be hosted by whoever bought the house, but it would not be the same.

“You know, you do sound a bit like a fiddle and a harpsichord,” Davey remarked. “Are you still crying?”

“Aren’t you nervous? Or sad?”

“Very nervous indeed – I’m dancing with you! But that sure don’t make me sad.”

Susan smiled.

“Yes, dancing with you don’t make me sad either! Shall we have another song, then?”

Davey grinned in response.

“Sure as I haven’t let go of you yet.”

After they finished another dance, they stood facing each other in the middle of ballroom. The sunlight was drifting toward the door, gradually blanketing them in darkness once again.

“Do you think we have time for one last dance?” Susan wheezed, out of breath from singing.

Glancing at the window and then listening for noise elsewhere in the house, Davey nodded.

“One last dance in the ballroom…but maybe not the last dance for us?”

She just smiled.

“I wouldn’t have asked you to dance otherwise.”

***

For further posts in this collection:

Loyalties – Part 1
Loyalties – Part 2
Loyalties – Part 3
Poems: By the Water; Meditations By a Grave; Let the Snow Fall; Blizzard Born

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