A New Mapp & Lucia Story
I am aware that some people dismiss the continuation of an old story as the worst kind of literary sacrilege. They are eager to defend the author’s original ideas, so eager, in fact, that they refuse to see how new writers breathe life into those ideas and put them into the reach of a new generation. I don’t know what E. F. Benson would think of my stories, or whether he would approve of them, but I can’t help loving his characters. So much that I want to send them on new adventures whilst giggling to myself about a ridiculous comeback that I was lucky enough to think up. There’s so much to love about Benson’s Tilling. Why stop with reading?
However, note that the following is very silly indeed. But since I enjoyed writing it so much, I decided to share it with whoever is willing to spend the time to read it.
‘Well, dear, it’s not my fault that he has only eyes for her. She is the rising star from outer space (that sleepy Riseholme, mind!), benevolent enough to bathe us poor Tillingites in her light of infinite wisdom and high culture. Pah! Fake Italian and baby-talk. She’s nothing but a fraud, that’s what I call it. There’s something shady about her, I tell you. And we are supposed to be thankful! Just think of it. A few months ago she was nothing but a tourist, and now she’s settled for good. Beethoven and tomatoes. I can’t think of what’s to come!’
Elizabeth turned to face the window. She paced up and down in front of it, which she believed to be the thoughtful strides of the lady of the house. It did, however – due to limited space – look rather like a fox in the zoo that had been caged for too long.
It took a while until Elizabeth’s theatrical reciprocating seemed to have any effect on the guest she was entertaining just now. The young lady sat in an ungainly manner, with her elbows resting on her knees and the face half buried in her hands. She was indeed thinking, almost meditating, and took no notice of her host. Her frock was midnight blue and very simple, yet her height and figure allowed her to look elegant in whatever she chose to wear. She had a pale face with round eyes and pink cheeks, not distinctly beautiful, but certainly charming. When she spoke, it came as a perfect shock to Elizabeth.
‘You do like him, don’t you, Auntie?’
‘Whom, dear? Who are you talking about?’
‘The Major, of course. You’ve always liked him. Once you mentioned in a letter that he called you ‘Miss Elizabeth’ for the first time. I could almost see you blush between the lines.’
And she did so now, although it was hardly noticable behind the healthy colour introduced to her cheeks by that fiery talk about Lucia.
‘I augur from your silence, dear Auntie, that there is something in it. I won’t torment you. And I’m glad that I have, as usual, an ace up my sleeve to sort it all out. But you need to play your part in making it a success. It’s your love life, after all.’
‘Really, Ruthie! I don’t think –.’
‘No, Auntie, dearest. Leave that to me. Your poor head must be aching already from all the conspiracies you’re conjuring up all the time. Say no more. I’ll go upstairs and will be back in a second. Don’t move. I said don’t move!’
And off she went, climbing the stairs at surprising speed. The long legs surely played their part, thought Elizabeth with a slight pang of envy.
Back she came, with a pile of boxes towering dangerously high up to her nose. She managed to balance them as long as she was on the stairs, but finally threw them on the table and the floor, wherever they chose to come to a stop.
‘Now see what a mess you’ve made!’, said Elizabeth with playful indignation.
‘Oh, I’m sure nothing’s broken. The perfume is wrapped in loads of paper and so are the compacts. Don’t worry. But let’s have a look at this one first.’
Ruth digged up a box, a flat square one with some golden lettering on it. She lifted up the lid and flipped over the sheets of tissue paper covering the garment inside. Without any warning, she took it out and it unfolded in the air in one gracious sweep. Elizabeth held her breath. It was a dress, and what a dress! Silk, to be sure, of the finest quality and in a light blue colour just like the sea on a beautiful morning. Narrow at the waist, with short butterfly sleeves, a slightly flared skirt and a little train. It looked daringly fashionable.
‘Yours’, said Ruth with a telling smile.
Elizabeth opened her mouth, changed her mind and closed it again.
‘Go on, try it! I was not sure about the size, so I phoned Diva and pretended I wanted to have one of mummy’s dresses altered for you because she believes the print isn’t right for her. She gave me her own measurements and told me to add a few inches here and there… Well, don’t pull such a face! You’ll look wonderful, I’m sure. Now go upstairs and put it on. I’ll come up when you are ready, just give me a scream.’
Elizabeth felt that there was no use in contradicting. So she took the ravishing garment and went upstairs to put it on. She turned away from the mirror, just in case it was too horrible, but against all odds, it fitted. She even managed to close it at the back, but she simply couldn’t turn around. Her hair was a mess now, anyway, she was hot and felt not very much like herself. It was obvious that Ruth (although she was not her niece) was related to her; she most certainly shared her relentless vigour and Elizabeth herself seemed to be the victim. The terrible girl was climbing up the stairs just now and entered the room without knocking.
‘You didn’t scream, Auntie, so I just came up. I hope you’re not – Oh my! Let me have a proper look at you, come on, turn around. Oh, Auntie Liz, you look splendid! It shows just what it’s supposed to show and secretly hides the rest. I’m a genius! Come on, now I’ll do your hair. You’ll be just in time for Lucia’s party.’
‘Oh, I won’t be going there!’
‘Why not? I thought you were invited. Anyway, everyone’s going, even Irene. That reminds me, I’d love to have a chat with her about her latest painting, but I can’t stay.’
‘What’s that, Ruthie? You’ve only just arrived yesterday afternoon!’
‘Oh, you know what I’m like. I can’t stand all those social obligations. Give me a book and a cup of tea in the garden and I shall be content. At least at the moment. I should really be writing, and instead I’m going up to London to shop for you. You see, it’s all your fault! But do say hello to all the dear Tillingites. I’ll stay longer next time, I promise. And now sit down and let me do your hair. You shall have a nice set of curls if I do everything right. And lipstick of course, rouge and something on the eyes. Don’t look at me like that! I know what I’m doing.’
Ruth giggled, which wasn’t exactly reassuring, but she did indeed seem to know her way around things. Elizabeth decided that it was best to let her do as she liked; she could always wipe it all off or pretend to have a cold. She didn’t care much for Lucia’s gathering anyway. There wouldn’t be enough food and at some point the insufferable hostess would come up with her inevitable Beethoven. If there was any reason for her to show up at all, it was Tilling pride and… Major Benjy would be there. They hadn’t spoken much of late and she didn’t like it. It was all Lucia’s doing, to lure him away with selfish intentions. Elizabeth was sure that Lucia didn’t value his company half as much as she herself did and only wanted to snatch him away from her. She had already taken everything that was dear to her, so why not Major Benjy as well? She could coo, and she could smile and toss her head and play the piano with that disgusting far-away look. That was all the men saw in her, they would never have suspected her of making a bid for power. She was convincing, an actress and a fraud. As Elizabeth was waiting for Ruth to finish her work of art, she realised that Lucia had already usurped her throne. And now she wanted the Major as her Prince Consort!
‘Over my dead body’, she suddenly said.
‘Sounds like you’ve uncovered a new conspiracy! What is it this time? Anything to do with Lucia by any chance?’
‘She won’t have him. She only wants him to annoy me. Intimate dinners and such. But I won’t be toyed with.’
‘Do I take it that you want to go to the party after all?’
‘I most certainly will. And now let me see what you’ve done!’
‘Not just yet. I’ll go fetch the compacts. Why on earth have I taken them down in the first place? Search me! But don’t you dare to turn around!’
Elizabeth waited until Ruth returned to finish what she had begun. Finally, she allowed her to face the mirror. And so she did.
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. She hadn’t expected the transformation to be so thorough. In fact, she hardly recognised herself. Ruth had been right, the dress showed just what it was supposed to show and secretly hid away the rest. And her hair! Those curls, as modern as could be, framing a pretty face, yes, pretty, with elegant red lips and sparkling eyes. She took a deep breath and smiled at Ruth.
‘Thank you, dear. I was considering to wipe it all off again, but I believe that wouldn’t be wise at all.’
‘You go to Lucia’s tonight and show them all! Now I really must be off, there’s a necklace and a pair of earrings in the little jewellery box on your dressing table. Just send me a letter with the money. Bye-bye, Auntie!’. She kissed her on the cheek and left the room, waving her hand vaguely in Elizabeth’s direction.
She could still hear her laughing in the hall, saying goodbye to Withers. She put on the jewellery and a dash of perfume before she dared to steal in front of the mirror again. Astonishing! But it was high time to get on. She slipped into her shoes (thank God they disappeared under the dress, old things that they were) and went downstairs to say goodbye to Withers herself. The parlourmaid was bustling around, taking no notice of her.
‘Well, Withers, I’m on my way, if you care to see me off. Ah, well, there you are. I might be late, there’s no need to wait for me. Do you hear?’
Withers turned around, facing Elizabeth, and her jaw dropped. As she recovered, she could manage a little nod.
‘Very well, then. Goodbye.’
Withers found her tongue again. ‘Have – have a nice evening, Miss.’
‘I most certainly will, Withers!’. And off she went.
When she stepped into the street, she heard the Major’s voice roaring from his house next door. She couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he seemed to be in a hurry. Elizabeth smiled to herself. She wasn’t too late. He wouldn’t come to meet her, but it didn’t matter as long as they arrived together. Lucia had to be taught a lesson. How she was looking forward to it!
Just now, the Major’s door opened and he came out, terribly red in the face but otherwise looking very smart in his tails and white tie.
‘Good evening, Major Benjy!’, she cooed. He startled and turned around.
‘On your way to Grebe? So am I!’, she said with her most impressive smile.
He didn’t say a word but stared at her, his mouth half open and an empty expression crossing his face. Then he swallowed and stepped towards her. He cleared his throat and put on a forced smile.
‘Well – um – good evening, Miss Elizabeth! Will you’, he cleared his throat again, ‘will you do me the honour of accompanying me?’
She had waited for this, but blushed anyway.
‘Oh, thank you, Major, how very kind!’
He offered her his arm and she accepted with a girlish giggle. They walked in silence for a while, taking in the fresh spring air, until the Major didn’t seem to be comfortable anymore.
‘Nice evening, isn’t it? Reminds me of the mild nights at Benares, quite splendid.’
‘Oh, does it indeed’, Elizabeth said in a low voice. It didn’t remain without effect. Major Benjy cleared his throat again, twice this time, before he found his voice.
‘Not as chilly as the last nights, I believe.’
‘No, not at all.’ She looked at him. He kept steadily ahead, although his eyes were twitching in her direction. The colour had not yet left his cheeks. Or was he just blushing again? The streets were perfectly empty and Elizabeth felt that it was high time to do something about her pitiful position.
‘It’s beautiful – with all the little birds singing and the lovely trees in bloom. And being in such pleasant company, too!’, she added with a coy look through her lashes.
The Major cleared his throat, three times, and it struck Elizabeth that all the stories about him conquering the Pride of Poona might just have been a product of his imagination. He was just about to take her bait and she tightened her grip on his arm.
‘I’m quite alone in my dear little Mallards sometimes, you see. Of course there’s always something to do, and our sweet gatherings to go to, but in the end, it’s just poor little me sitting in the window on my own…’
She glanced at him. He had taken a bright red colour and looked as if he’d give anything to be on his own just now. But suddenly, a different expression was crossing his face and to her surprise, he slowed his pace and finally stopped to look at her.
‘Forgive me for saying this, Miss Elizabeth, but you look charming tonight.’ His eyes met hers and she felt the blood flushing into her cheeks until she was physically incapable of holding his gaze any longer.
‘Oh, Major Benjy… How very kind.’
She looked up again and saw that he was smiling. He was still horribly red around the nose, but something about his expression had quite changed.
‘I’d be honoured if you’d join me for dinner tomorrow. And a little round of golf afterwards, just like the old days.’
‘What a nice idea, thank you.’
They stood opposite each other now, trying to avoid each other’s gaze with some effort, but in vain. At last, the Major took heart – and her hand. When she felt his fingers closing around hers, her lids flickered and her heart beat vigorously against her ribs. She looked at him. And she saw that the pompous campaigner had gone and there was just a man with kind eyes who held her hand in his. She knew that her facade was crumbling, that it had, in fact, vanished completely and she didn’t care in the least. She was not the defeated Queen of Tilling anymore. She had won something that was worth much more. And she so wanted it to be enough.
‘I had meant to tell you before, Major Benjy, alas! I never thought it was my place to do so.’ She took a deep breath.
‘What is it, Miss Elizabeth?’, he asked patiently, stroking her fingers ever so slightly.
‘I-I am very glad to call you my friend’, she said, looking down again. There it was and she couldn’t possibly step back anymore. Not that she wanted to.
She hadn’t expected an answer, and there was none. Instead, he drew her closer towards him, gently taking both of her hands in his. She failed to meet his gaze, afraid it would be the end of her, and looked at her own toes only to find that they were invisible under the hem of her outrageous gown. Her heart beat so fast that she could hardly breathe. There, out of nowhere, she felt a finger lifting up her chin and she didn’t resist but looked straight into his eyes. There was a distant fire sparkling in their depths. He smiled.
‘Thank you, Miss Elizabeth.’
‘Not at all.’ She smiled, too, and felt quite silly. She was talking like a business man! He chuckled a little, but not in an unpleasant way. No, not at all – instead, he lifted her hands towards him and kissed them. And with that, she threw all caution to the winds and pressed a little kiss on his hands as well. He chuckled again, and so did she, it was really too silly. But so very enjoyable!
‘You are beautiful’, he said. She had thought she couldn’t blush any more, and was proven wrong instantly.
‘And you are a rogue, Major’, she laughed. There, he kissed her hands again. She couldn’t help but giggle and he caught a curl that had fallen into her forehead and gently stroked it back.
‘There’, he said, ‘nobody will suspect a thing.’ She kissed his hands once more before they linked arms to continue on their way. Grebe was, after all, still a long way off.