Posted on 2014-10-06
Frederick and Anne sat in the breakfast room in her father's home on the Royal Crescent in Bath. The annual visit was not their favorite time of the year, it must be admitted, but Anne felt a certain amount of obligation to her father in spite of everything. They managed to avoid the worst of things by keeping their normal Navy hours, which was to say rising and going to bed rather early, while Sir Walter and Elizabeth--now a confirmed spinster--stayed out till dawn and arose just before visiting hours began. Thus it was now six o'clock in the morning and Anne and Frederick were enjoying the first of what they hoped would be four or five hours of peace and quiet before the domestic hurricane of the Elliot household commenced.
Just as Frederick raised his spoon full of boiled egg to his lips, a great commotion arose at the front door. There was shouting and banging and it was unfortunately rather evident that the source of it all was Sir Walter Elliot, Baronet. Frederick raised his head in alarm, and Anne leapt up and said she would take care of it. Frederick raced to follow, serviette in one hand and egg spoon in the other.
Sir Walter stood in the entryway in a grand but rather old-fashioned purple velvet frockcoat and breeches, with torn stockings and a smear of dirt on his cheek. The coat had "AA" embroidered over the left breast in gold Gothic script. He was breathing hard. It was all rather astounding.
"They set the dogs on me! Have they no decency, this new generation?" he huffed and puffed.
"Oh, dear, not again. Are you all right, father?" said Anne, all sympathy.
Frederick was by now mightily confused. "What? Someone set dogs on you? Why are you just coming home at six in the morning?" In his astonishment he forgot to maintain his usual dignified distance from his father-in-law.
Anne called to the butler to fetch Sir Walter's man, Greene, and helped her father to sit on one of the garish Louis XVI chairs by the front door. Sir Walter wheezed down to a sitting position, buttons bulging, before removing his tricorn hat and peering with suspicion at the now rather ragged lilac plume attached to it. He had to hold it at full arm's length before he finally got a good look at it. Frederick stood astounded, spoon and serviette forgotten but still dangling from his hands.
Sir Walter looked askance at Frederick. "Well, I suppose I owe you some kind of explanation," he said, aggrieved, and with no little distaste. "After all, I added your name to the family entry in the Baronetage only yesterday." This had long been a source of tension, since Frederick had become his son-in-law more than eight years previously.
And thus, in a most grudging, haughty, and condescending manner, unfolded the most unlikely account Frederick had ever heard. And this was saying something, considering he had spent most of his youth and all of his adulthood amongst the tall tale-tellers, truth-stretchers, yarn-spinners, and outright liars of the Royal Navy.
It all began when he was a young man. After the horrible events of 1789, and worse,1792, when the French mob had gone insane and turned the world upside down and separated King Louis, chosen by God but dem him to hell for being French, from his head, Sir Walter came to the realization that something had to be done to right those wrongs and to make sure that everyone knew their proper place in the world.
One day he heard about the Scarlet Pimpernel, supposedly an English nobleman who felt as he did and had the nerve and brains to take action. Sir Walter, by then newly married and with three young daughters, knew himself well enough to realize that he could never do as the Scarlet Pimpernel did and have daring exploits over in France. Walter did not, as he had said earlier, care for those Frenchies much at all, except that they did have a way with a sauce. His own strengths, he knew, were his youth and beauty and impeccably good taste. How could he employ these strengths to make sure that the unruly masses in England did not follow their French counterparts and prevent a gentleman like himself from being able to wear short pants, silk stockings, and a fine fall of lace at his neck and cuffs? It was frightful, when one thought of it. How dare they force aristocrats to wear the long pants of working men, and those abominable hats with those tasteless cockades?
By Jove, maybe the clothing was indeed the key to it all. He knew something about that, and he felt a responsibility to protect the rights of men to dress like dandies, men who had wealth and power and panache, élan and good looks. And dem those Frenchies for having all the best words pertaining to fashion.
He would do his part to defend the decent draperies of life, the great chain of being that let a gentleman know where he belonged, right there near the top of the ladder. He would accomplish it by making sure that true gentlemen were dressed in the latest styles, the most luxurious fabrics, all topped by a carefully sculpted hairstyle. Conversely, he would make sure that others did not encroach on this lordly prerogative to wear velvet, brocade, and charmeuse. He would become...he would become...the Aubergine Amaryllis. Aubergine was the color of royalty, and the amaryllis symbolized drama, which was just what he wanted to see in clothing. Yes, that was it! Topping. Capital.
He had his haberdasher create a disguise for him, the most opulent and outrageous of the time. Oh, the furs, the jewels, the silk and satin, the velvet, the starched cuffs, the towering coiffures and enormous hats!
Thus costumed, most evenings Sir Walter, er the Aubergine Amaryllis, went out to police the fashions of the highborn and the aspiring nouveau riche alike. No one, of course, knew of his secret.
His trademark move was to use his fine kid gloves to slap the cheeks of a lowly merchant who was overstepping the bounds of class by wearing mechelin lace or red-heeled shoes, and shouting "Fie! Know your place, man! Dress according to your station!" He would tear off the offending item and, with a great swoop of his cape, would dash off into the foggy night, leaving behind only a small slip of paper with the seal of the Aubergine Amaryllis.
And woe betide the baronet or country squire who did not distinguish himself sartorially. He, too, received a slap of the kid gloves and a reminder to do his duty to the Crown by displaying his status as resplendently as possible. "More jewels! Do something with that cravat! Try some Gowland's on that ghastly skin! Would it kill you to put a curl in that hair, by God!" It bothered Sir Walter that there was nothing he could do to set straight the viscounts, earls, and dukes who did not dress so finely and ostentatiously as they ought given their rank. But he was only the son of a baronet, and one had to respect hierarchy. That was the whole point, after all.
Once he inherited the title, Sir Walter had to limit his superhero activities to the area around Kellynch, where they now lived year-round. Society was confined, of course. As the highest-ranking man in the area, though, he had a particular interest in keeping all of the other men who dared approach his level of sartorial sophistication in their place. How else could he demonstrate his superiority? So he continued his activities, slipping into social gatherings too demeaning for him to attend as himself, and seeing to it that the low-born dressed appropriately.
"My only regret," said Sir Walter, looking down his nose at Frederick, "is that I have no son to whom to pass this legacy. Elizabeth has the proper values and an excellent fashion sense, but of course it would not be seemly for her to attend the events and gatherings where I do my best work. As for Anne..." He shook his head in disgust just looking at her. As usual, she was dressed like a scullery maid.
As she always did, Anne took it all in stride and got to the heart of the matter. "But what happened this morning? Or last evening, I mean."
"Bah. Times are changing, perhaps. So few people know their place any longer, and they no longer accept my corrections as they once did."
It was true. The poor and the working class were no longer standing by passively. In just the previous two years, there had been conspiracies and protests by those opposed to Sir Walter's beloved way of life.
"But worst of all, by far the worst thing really," Sir Walter went on, "is these terrible, dull fashions nowadays. I fear that a gentleman can no longer dress the part, not with these upstarts and their drab, workaday styles. I said my piece to one outrageous fellow, reeking of manufacture but daring to wear a diamond as big as my fist, and he chased me right out of that card party! How dare he! Who was his father, the cur? I spent several hours hiding from him and his gang of middle-class thieves. Hmmph. Perhaps it is time for the Aubergine Amaryllis to fade away into the mists of time."
He sighed. Clearly he wanted them to say he was wrong.
Frederick stood dumbstruck, flabbergasted, while Anne smiled at her father, serene and silent.
Greene arrived to break the awkward silence at last and helped Sir Walter to his feet.
"We'll just go back to our breakfast, then, father," she said as she turned and returned to the morning room.
"Did you know about this?" Frederick asked, hot on her heels.
"Oh, of course I did. Everyone does," Anne said mildly, sitting back down at her place. Frederick joined her at the table. He dug back into his egg.
"They do? And you never said anything?"
"What could anyone say? He never bothers people of higher rank, and those of lower rank do not dare say a word. To be sure, I thought he had given it up."
Just then their son Peter, age six, and his nanny, Mrs. Higgins, arrived in the breakfast room.
He ran to his mummy and daddy to kiss them good morning.
To Mrs. Higgins, Anne said, "Sir Walter has just returned. I hope he did not frighten Peter in the hallway."
"No, indeed, ma'am. The young master and I happened to notice a flock of very interesting birds outside just then. He missed that, erm, other matter entirely."
"Lovely. He is at it again, as you doubtless know," Anne nodded.
"Yes, ma'am." Mrs. Higgins served Peter some rice pudding.
"You and everyone downstairs all know about this, then?" Frederick stirred his coffee a bit too vigorously and it slopped over into his saucer.
"Why, yes sir. Gentlemen all have their follies and foibles, you know."
Frederick reached for his kidney pie in a perplexed silence.
Anne finished her meal presently. She stood and said, "Well, then, I think I shall ready myself to visit Mrs. Smith, and then we shall go together to the home." Whenever they were in Bath, she made a point of visiting the home for women and girls that she and her unfortunate friend had helped to start, in aid of others who, like Mrs. Smith herself, had been betrayed or left by unscrupulous husbands and fathers.
Frederick nodded and stood to kiss her cheek. She hugged Peter and kissed him as well before making her way to the door.
"There goes the real superhero in this family, Peter," Frederick announced, as the door closed silently behind her.
"Yes, daddy," said Peter, nodding in vigorous agreement. She was. She was marvelous indeed.
After a few minutes, Mrs. Higgins looked inquiringly at Frederick before excusing herself and leaving father and son to finish their breakfast.
Frederick cleared his throat. "Well, then, Peter. After you finish your porridge, nip on up to your room and fetch your mask and your singlet. I think there are some rogues and rascals down on the wharf who are ready to be snatched up by Captain Fidelius and his trusty sidekick. Have you chosen a name yet, by the way? A good name is the key to a secret identity, you know, second only to a good cape. We shall stop by the tailor's shop along the way to pick yours up. And if you do a bang-up job like last time, you shall have a sweet at Molland's on the way home."The End