8. THE PARTY
Adrian went to the great barn and threw open the doors He noticed, as he did so, that mingling with the sweet smell of hay there was another, more pungent scent. He frowned and wrinkled his nose: the smell was very familiar, but he could not place it.
“Rosy?” he called. There was silence in the darkened barn. He was not greeted by the shrill squeal of pleasure that Rosy always gave at the sound of his voice.
“Rosy?” he called again anxiously. “Rosy, are you there?”
The silence was suddenly broken by a loud but extremely dignified hiccup. A terrible suspicion entered Adrian’s mind, and at the same moment he realised what the fragrant odour was: it was rum. Picking up a lantern he hurried into the barn, and there he found Rosy. She was leaning elegantly against the wall, hiccupping gently to herself and pensively rolling a small but empty bottle to and fro with her foot. Adrian stared at her aghast. How she had obtained the rum he could not think, but while gaiety and conviviality were reigning in the house, Rosy in her lonely barn had undoubtedly been consoling herself with a quiet nip. To say that she was in no condition to appear in public would have been an understatement. She was as satisfactorily drunk as any human being Adrian had ever seen. As he watched her she picked up a wisp of hay and, after one or two abortive attempts, managed to stuff it into her mouth. She chewed meditatively, and then uttered a small lady-like belch. Suddenly a great feeling of relief flooded over Adrian. Of course! This was the answer! Dear, kind, sweet Rosy—Rosy the inimitable—had saved him at the eleventh hour! If it had occurred to him, he thought, he would have given her the rum himself. He hurried out of the barn to where Lord Fenneltree was waiting.
“You’ll have to give it up now,” said Adrian in triumph. “She’s tight.”
“Tight?” said his lordship, bewildered. “What d’you mean, tight?”
“Tight . . . drunk . . . pickled . . . stewed,” said Adrian. “She’s got a bottle of rum from somewhere and she’s drunk the lot.”
“My dear chap,” gasped his lordship, “what a catastrophe. You mean she can’t appear?”
“No,” said Adrian bluntly. “She can’t even stand.”
“Ruination, ruination, after all our hard work,” moaned his lordship. “Couldn’t we sort of prop her up a bit, if I got the gardeners on each side of her?”
“No,” said Adrian. “I tell you she can’t even walk.”
At that moment Rosy lumbered casually out of the barn, kicking the bottle in front of her.
“By Jove!” said his lordship, “she’s recovered!”
Rosy was undergoing one of those strange, momentary flashes of semi-sobriety that come to people who are deep in their cups, but Adrian found it impossible to persuade Lord Fenneltree of this. While they were arguing acrimoniously Rosy spotted her costume and with a pleased—if slightly off-key—squeak shambled over to it and lay down to be dressed.
“There you are,” said his lordship triumphantly. “What did I tell you? She’s perfectly all right. I told you, dear boy, you worry too much.”
“I tell you,” Adrian said savagely, “she’s as tight as a tick. If you take her into that ballroom I won’t be responsible.”
Lord Fenneltree approached Rosy and patted her affectionately on the head.
“Good old Rosy,” he said. “You’ll do it, won’t you?”
Rosy hiccupped in reply. In spite of Adrian’s protests the great sequined cloth was draped over Rosy’s back, and the howdah hauled up and fastened in position. Then his lordship climbed up the ladder and settled himself comfortably inside.
“Come on, dear boy, don’t dawdle,” he said to Adrian. “This is the great moment.”
Feeling as if he were mounting the scaffold, Adrian took up his position on Rosy’s neck. There was just the faintest chance, he thought, that he might be able to steer Rosy rapidly in and out of the ballroom, thus satisfying his lordship and removing Rosy from the scene with the utmost dispatch. It was fortunate that Rosy was a good-natured drunk. In response to Adrian’s cries of encouragement she clambered heavily to her feet and stood swaying pensively for a moment or so. Then they set off down the drive that led round the house to the terrace outside the ballroom. Rosy’s tendency to stagger created havoc in several flowerbeds as she passed, but they eventually reached the great doors where the butler and the footman waited, their hands on the latches.
“Now, my lord?” enquired the butler in a hushed voice.
“Now,” said Lord Fenneltree, adjusting his turban and lying back regally in the howdah. The butler and the footman pushed open the doors and, at this signal, the band stopped playing. The couples, who had been waltzing merrily around, came to a standstill. Looking down the great room they saw, framed in the doorway, a splendid, if slightly inebriated, spectacle of eastern pomp. With admiring cries they left the floor and formed two lines along the walls, clapping their hands and chattering excitedly.
“Well, go on,” hissed Lord Fenneltree. “Take her in.” Offering up a brief prayer Adrian tapped Rosy smartly with his heels and awaited results. It had taken Rosy a moment or two to adjust her eyes to the glare of the huge chandeliers, but now, through a haze of rum, she saw a vast and colourful conglomeration of people who were forming what she imagined to be a ring in which she could perform. Rosy was not an old trouper for nothing. She uttered a pleased squeal gathered herself together and entered the ballroom at a smart trot. This was her undoing.
The surface of the ballroom, polished to a mirror-like gloss, would not have offered much of a foothold to a sober elephant, let alone one in Rosy’s condition. Her hind legs (not under the best of control) swept from under her and she sat down suddenly and startlingly on her bottom. All would have been well, even at this Juncture, if it had not been for the speed with which she had entered the ballroom, for she proceeded to toboggan forward over the smooth parquet, while Adrian clutched at her ears and pulled frantically in a vain endeavour to stop her headlong progress. Lord Fenneltree, almost upside down in the howdah, was shouting inarticulate instructions, but there was nothing that anyone could do. The screams of the ladies and the cries of alarm from the gentlemen filled the ballroom as Rosy, glittering like a great pile of diamonds, roared with ever increasing speed down the room on her bottom and hit the long trestle tables at the far end of the room. The floor was awash with punch, champagne and eight different vintages of wine. Haunches of venison bespattered with ice-cream were scattered over the parquet, together with fruit, lobster, eels and salmon. The splintering crash of Rosy coming to a standstill shook the very house to its foundations. Then there was a long, shocked silence, only broken by Rosy, who hiccupped gently to herself.
Lady Fenneltree was indeed, for possibly the only time in her life, bereft of speech. Her husband had promised her something original, but a large, jewel-bedecked elephant sliding out of control down the ballroom accompanied by two Asiatic gentlemen was something that she had never imagined, even in her wildest dreams. The shock of Rosy’s impact had snapped the lashings that secured the howdah to her back, and it had fallen to the floor. Lord Fenneltree struggled from the interior, looking rather like a brilliant butterfly emerging from a cocoon. With a sudden shock Lady Fenneltree recognised him, and immediately her powers of speech came flooding back.
“Rupert!" she bellowed. “What is the meaning of this?” It was a difficult question to answer, but Lord Fenneltree did his best.
“Surprise!” he panted, smiling nervously and waving his hands at the food and drink-encrusted chaos that surrounded him. “This is the surprise I told you about, my love.”
Lady Fenneltree quivered like an overstrung harp.
“Surprise?” she said in a strangled voice.
“Yes, my love. After all, no other ball in the district has had an elephant.”
“And I can fully comprehend the reason for that omission,” boomed Lady Fenneltree savagely. “Will you get that animal out of here?”
Until now Rosy had been placidly sitting on her bottom. As far as she was concerned the slight bruising she had sustained was more than compensated for by the fact that she had apparently skidded into an elephant’s paradise. On every side of her there were pools of delicious and intoxicating liquids, interspersed with various edible items such as lobster, ice-cream and game pie, which had no; hitherto, entered her experience. Happily she stretched out her trunk and sampled everything within reach, ignoring Adrian who, still perched on her neck, was making desperate endeavours to get his prot'eg'ee to stand up. Presently, however, Rosy remembered her manners. These kind and generous people had arranged this delicious repast for her, and so the least she could do was to entertain them. She sucked up a trunkful of champagne to sustain her, and tried to remember all the tricks that had so delighted the crowds in her circus days. After due reflection she decided to sit up and beg.
It was an unfortunate choke. Luckily, Adrian leapt to safety at the crucial moment, for under the influence of alcohol Rosy’s sense of balance had been somewhat impaired, and she fell backwards on to the floor with a resounding crash that dislodged one of the gigantic chandeliers. This dropped and burst into a thousand tinkling, glittering fragments that showered all over the ballroom. As the chandelier bad contained no less than three hundred and fifty large candles the conflagration that this caused on the parquet floor was quite spectacular. The guests, now completely bewildered, were milling to and fro in an aimless fashion, uttering plaintive cries. The women kept fainting, coming to and then fainting again, with monotonous regularity, so the men were fully occupied catching them as they fell.
Rosy was faintly surprised.. She could never remember her begging trick being received with such enthusiasm. She rolled over, heaved herself upright and beamed round the devastated ballroom. Everyone, it appeared, was helping her in the act. Adrian had seized a large silver bucket full of iced water and had hurled it over the pile of merrily blazing candles. This successfully put out the fire, but clouds of acrid smoke started to drift across the ballroom. Lady Fenneltree, by now almost apoplectic with rage, had seized his lordship by the lapels of his elegant coat and was shaking him to and fro, a sight so diverting that several of the ladies who had fainted recovered to watch.
As far as Rosy was concerned it was a splendid party, just as it should be, with plenty to eat and drink and everyone joining in the fun. She took a quick sip at a trickle of port that happened to pass her, and wondered whether to try her begging trick again. She decided, on reflection, that with such a good audience it was a pity to overdo things, and tried to stand on her head. This was no more successful than her begging trick, and she fell heavily on to her side. She lay there for a moment, hiccupping gently, wondering where she had gone wrong.
It was perhaps unfortunate that the band should choose this precise moment to strike up again. They had been severely shaken by the carnage below them, but if this was the way his lordship wanted to behave, who were they to complain? But they were all old and valued family retainers and the sight and sound of his lordship and her ladyship locked in battle, uttering phrases that should only be used in the seclusion of the bedroom, was more than they could bear. Clearly something had to be done to save the day, and so they burst forth into a gay Viennese waltz. They were not to know that in her circus days one of the highlights of Rosy’s act had been her waltz. Clasping a somewhat fleshy but attractive blonde in her trunk Rosy had been wont to waltz round and round the ring with great skill and aplomb. The strains of the familiar melody floated down to where she was lying and turned her thoughts along these lines. She scrambled to her feet and peered round blearily. Again, it was unfortunate that the first person her eye happened to focus on was Lady Fenneltree.
In the middle of a complicated and derogatory exploration of Lord Fenneltree’s family tree, during which she had only got as far back as the fifteenth century, she suddenly found herself lifted into the air and whirled away in what Rosy fondly imagined to be an exhilarating waltz. Lady Fenneltree’s piercing screams for help, Rosy misinterpreted as cries of approbation, and so she waltzed happily on. She was pleased with herself. Never, she thought, had she danced so well. True, she fell heavily on several occasions, but she held Lady Fenneltree high so that she should come to no harm. She had accomplished one rather uneven circuit of the ballroom, followed by the rapt and horror-stricken gaze of the assembled company, when the band, realising suddenly that they were aiding and abetting rather than soothing the elephant, stopped playing. Rosy was glad. She was not as young as she used to be, the ballroom was large and Lady Fenneltree was heavy. She decided that she had done enough to entertain the guests and could now round off her act. She deposited the unconscious Lady Fenneltree on a haunch of venison, fourteen bottles of champagne and the remains of a salmon, raised her trunk proudly in the air and uttered a long and imperious trumpet. The effect of this on the company was curious and instantaneous. They decided that this monstrous beast, having tasted the blood of Lady Fenneltree, was now about to attack in earnest. For a moment they remained rooted to the spot with terror, and then all broke and ran. They scattered across the ballroom like hares and, such is the confusion that affects the human mind in moments of crisis, some of them, instead of running away from Rosy, actually ran towards her. Among them, putting on a pretty turn of speed for one of his corpulence, was the Master of the Monkspepper Hunt. Even in her condition Rosy recognised him. She beamed with pleasure, for was he not the kind man who bad helped her with her act when she performed in the meadow? Uttering a small squeal of delight she fielded him with some dexterity with her trunk as he passed, and lifted him aloft. Adrian, fearing that the Master might meet the same fate as Lady Fenneltree, decided to intervene.
“Rosy!” he roared above the pandemonium. “Put him down!” Rosy was somewhat surprised, for she had not nearly finished with the Master. She had intended, as a finishing touch, to drop him into the minstrels’ gallery. But she was beginning to feel tired, and if Adrian told her to drop the Master, who was she to disobey? So she uncurled her trunk and all seventeen stone of the Master of the Monkspepper Hunt hit the parquet with a resounding crash. Adrian closed his eyes and prayed for death. Then he opened them again. Lord Fenneltree was standing by him, plucking his sleeve.
“Dear boy,” said his lordship, “I fear you were right. The whole thing has been a mistake.”
Looking round at the wrecked ballroom, at the screaming, hysterical guests, at Lady Fenneltree unconscious with her head pillowed on a salmon, at the Master of the Monkspepper Runt lying unconscious—possibly dead—on the floor, Adrian could not find it in his heart to disagree.