Masked Ball at Broxley Hall
written by Rhys Bowen — narrated by Katherine Kellgren

Rannoch House
Belgrave Square, London W.1
October 1929

“Two letters have just come in the post for Georgiana!” My sister-in-law Fig sounded amazed, and a trifle annoyed too, as she took the envelopes from the silver salver the butler was holding. “And they look as if they might be invitations.”

We had been drinking coffee in the morning room of our London house—the easiest room to keep warm on a bleak October day. My brother—Hamish Albert Henry, Duke of Rannoch, usually known as Binky, had been reading the newspaper. I was curled on the window seat, looking out at the gardens in Belgrave Square, watching nannies pushing impressive prams and elderly colonels walking dogs and wondering what on earth I was going to do with myself all day. My brother, Binky, looked up from the Times with a mild display of interest.

I tried not to cross the room too eagerly to take the letters from her outstretched hand. Invitations had been few and far between recently. It was the end of my season. I had been presented at court (and nearly catapulted onto Their Majesties by mistake when I’d caught my heel in the train of my gown). I had been to balls, to Ascot, and done all the things a deb with severely limited funds could do. But I hadn’t found the man of my dreams. In fact I hadn’t even received one proposal—not from a halfway decent sort of chap anyway. At nineteen I feared I was destined to become an old maid.

I perched on the window seat and opened the first envelope, conscious of Fig’s and Binky’s eyes on me.

“It is an invitation,” I said excitedly. “To a masked Halloween ball at Broxley Manor.”

Fig’s jaw dropped in a most unladylike manor. “Broxley? Isn’t that the home of Lord Merriman?”

I glanced at the invitation and nodded. “That’s right. It says ‘Lord and Lady Merriman invite you.’”

“How on earth do you know Lord Merriman?” Fig sounded positively vexed now.

“I don’t. Never met the Merrimans.”

“Then why would they invite you of all people to a ball? They only mix with beautiful people.”

“Oh, Georgie’s not too bad,” Binky said, making my self-esteem sink even lower. “Maybe not beautiful but she’s a healthy-looking kind of girl.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Fig said. “Really, Binky, you are so clueless. I meant the smart set. You know, the Prince of Wales and his chums. Nobody like Georgie.”

“She is the Prince of Wales’s cousin, old bean,” Binky reminded her. It was always a sore spot to my sister-in-law that Binky and I were related to the royals and she wasn’t.

“Yes, but she doesn’t move in the same circles, does she? Monte Carlo and yachts on the Med and that kind of thing.”

“I have no idea why I was invited,” I said.

“Maybe they’ve invited all of this year’s debutantes,” Fig said, obviously trying to come up with an answer that would satisfy her. If I were just one of a crowd she could handle it. “Although I’ve never heard of anyone celebrating Halloween with a ball,” she added with a sniff.

“Lady Merriman is American, remember,” Binky put in. “They make a big thing of it over there.”

“Pagan feast, isn’t it? One step away from devil worship.” She took a long sip from her coffee cup.

“Steady on, old fruit. That’s a bit thick,” Binky said. “I’m sure it will be a fun and respectable ball and Georgie will have a wonderful time. She may even meet a chap, you never know.”

“She’s had all season to meet a chap,” Fig said coldly. She turned her reptilian gaze back to me. “So who is the other invitation from?”

I was about to open it when I noticed the royal crest embossed into the envelope. “I think it comes from the palace,” I said. I tore open the envelope with unseemly haste. “It does. ‘Their Majesties request the presence of Lady Georgiana Rannoch at a reception in honor of Prince Rupert and Prince Otto of Prussia.’”

“A reception? At Buck House? In honor of a couple of Prussian princes?” Fig’s voice had risen dangerously now.

“The war is long over, old bean,” Binky said. “Forgive and forget and all that, you know. And the kaiser is our cousin, after all. So that makes two second or third cousins, doesn’t it? I expect it’s a little family do.”

“Then why is Georgie invited to a little family do when we aren’t?” Fig was positively glaring at me now with undisguised hatred.

Binky shrugged. “It’s up to the king and queen to invite whom they want, Fig.”

“We don’t get out and about enough, Binky. That is our problem.” Fig rose from her chair and paced the room. “Their Majesties probably don’t even know we’re in London. We are not seen in society. They’ll think we’ve gone home to shoot.”

“We don’t get out and about because it costs money to be seen in society, Fig, and you know we have very little.” He paused. “Pretty much zero, actually.”

“We seemed to manage to fund Georgie’s season,” she said bitterly.

“We had to do the right thing for my sister,” Binky said. “She had to come out into society. Surely you agree to that, Fig.”

“And now she’s being invited to Buck House and we’re not.” She glared at me. “Do you know either of these Prussian princes, Georgiana?’

“Never met either of them,” I said. “I’ve never been to Germany.”

“Rupert is one of the kaiser’s younger sons,” Binky said. “I met them when they came over once before the war.”

“Wasn’t Otto the mad one?” Fig asked. “Didn’t they have to lock him away?”

“He was all right when I met him,” Binky said. “We played trains under the table and he wasn’t foaming at the mouth or anything. Of course I was only about five at the time. He spoke English quite well too, I remember. He had an English governess.”

“He’s obviously not foaming now or Their Majesties wouldn’t have invited people to a reception to meet him,” Fig said dryly. “But we do know that insanity runs in all the royal families. That’s the one thing Georgiana can be thankful for—that her father married a commoner.”

I was surprised she even acknowledged my mother, who had been a famous actress and was now a famous bolter, having run off with an absolute string of men across the globe.

“Of course the Prussian lot are not in power anymore,” Binky said, going back to his newspaper. “They are only princes in name. Although I understand that there is some talk of restoring the monarchy to keep out the communists.”

“Don’t tell me the communists are threatening to take over Germany now,” Fig said. “Surely the Germans aren’t silly enough to think that Russia is a good role model for anyone.”

“The communists are everywhere, Fig. Even in England. Anywhere where there is discontent among the masses, and Germany certainly has its share of that at the moment. We must stamp them out before they can do real damage. I hear that Rupert especially is in very thick with the new National Socialists. Now they seem to have the right idea.”

Fig was clearly disinterested in politics. “So when is this reception at the palace, Georgiana?” she asked, examining her face in the looking glass over the mantelpiece.

“Next Tuesday, and then the ball is in Hampshire on Saturday. Golly, what a busy week.”

“And what on earth will you wear?” she asked. “You don’t exactly have the right wardrobe for a place like Broxley.”

“My white deb’s gown should be suitable for the reception, shouldn’t it? And my tiara, since it’s royalty. But as for the ball, I don’t think I’ve got anything smart enough.” I looked at the invitation again. “Wait a minute,” I said. “It’s a masked ball.”

“Does that mean just masks or does it mean fancy dress costumes?” Fig asked, looking at Binky for the answer.

“Blowed if I know, old bean.” He looked up over his newspaper. “Never been to a bally masked ball. Never want to go. Not a ball-going type of chap. Why don’t you telephone Broxley and ask them?”

“Telephone?” Fig demanded. “All the way to Hampshire? Binky, you talk as if we were made of money. Georgiana will have time to write to them, and receive a reply, all for the cost of a postage stamp.”

“I’ll go and write to them immediately,” I said, sliding off the window seat. “If I have to provide a costume, I’ll need enough time to get something together.”

As I went upstairs I heard Fig mutter to Binky, “She gets invited to the palace and to places like Broxley Manor and yet nobody has proposed to her yet. What on earth is wrong with her? We’ll have an old maid on our hands if we’re not careful.”

“Oh, steady on, old bean. She is only nineteen,” I heard Binky say as I ran up the second flight of stairs. The conversation made me feel sick and hollow inside. Since my brother had inherited the title and estate after our father died, he was now Duke of Rannoch and owned the family homes. And his wife constantly made it clear that she wasn’t thrilled about having me around. But I had nowhere else to go—no money and no skills to survive on my own. Besides, the world was in the throes of a great depression and even people with qualifications a mile long were standing in breadlines. It was a discouraging thought to realize that my only option in life was to make a good marriage. If only I had looks and talent like my mother, I could have gone on the stage, but my only talent was being a passably good horsewoman. And I was too tall to be a jockey. I sighed and opened my wardrobe, staring at my meager collection of clothes. I was doomed either way. If it was a costume ball, my homemade effort would never compare with the smart designer costumes of the Prince of Wales’s set. If it was not . . . I held out a taffeta ball gown, made by our gamekeeper’s wife, and shuddered.

I almost sat down and replied that Lady Georgiana Rannoch regretted that she could not attend their ball. But then I told myself that I would be a fool to turn down a chance to go to a do at Broxley. I still had no idea why I had been invited, but if it made Fig feel miffed, then I was definitely going to go.

* * *

I waited with poorly concealed anticipation for an answer from Broxley to arrive in the post. Two days passed and no letter came. Tuesday arrived and I was in a flurry of nerves as I prepared for the reception at Buckingham Palace. You’d think that someone related to the royals would feel quite at home going to the palace. Absolutely not true. I tend to be a trifle clumsy when I’m in a difficult situation and I’m always scared I’ll break a piece of royal china, or knock red wine over a visiting diplomat. I looked at the white gown that Fig’s maid had ironed for me. Oh, golly, was white a sensible color? What if I dripped some kind of sauce down my front? I wasn’t very good at eating in public, especially in royal circles. At least we’d removed the train so I didn’t have that to trip over.

I was about to try on the dress when our butler, Hamilton, tapped on my bedroom door.

“You are wanted on the telephone, my lady,” he said.

I went downstairs, mystified. Nobody ever telephoned me. Perhaps the reception had been canceled? I felt a wave of relief flood over me.

I picked up the mouthpiece. “Hello,” I said cautiously.

“Is that Lady Georgiana?” an American voice said. “Honey, this is Dottie Merriman. You’re coming to our ball, and I just wanted to tell you that we’ve ordered a whole rack of costumes and masks, so don’t worry about bringing a thing. It seems that nobody in Britain stocks proper Halloween costumes—no skeletons or vampires or anything terrifying and ripping fun, so I had a whole trunk-load shipped over from the States. I do insist that my guests look creepy. Which train are you catching, honey? I’ll have Cavendish meet you at the station.”

I realized I hadn’t managed to say a single word until now. “I planned to arrive about five o’clock,” I said. “And after the ball, is one expected to stay the night?”

She had a delightfully musical laugh. “Honey, the ball will end with breakfast as the sun comes up. We never do things by halves at Broxley. See you on Saturday then. I know you’re going to have a ball.” And she burst into laughter as she hung up, leaving me breathless.

Reassured that I wouldn’t have to put together a costume, I rang for Fig’s maid to dress me for the reception. By the time I was secured into the white dress and my hair was arranged around the family tiara, which had been a gift from Queen Victoria to her daughter (my grandmother), I actually looked the part. I didn’t feel very regal inside as the taxicab dropped me at the visitors’ entrance to the palace and I was escorted up the grand staircase. In fact my knees were shivering violently under that thin white dress, and it had nothing to do with the temperature of the room. A footman appeared offering champagne. A small orchestra played Strauss waltzes in the far corner. Other people stood about in little groups, chatting awkwardly. I looked around desperately for anyone I might know, but the other guests all seemed to be my parents’ age or older. And my white dress stood out horribly.

There was no sign of Their Majesties nor of any of their children. A large red-faced man, his uniform dripping in medals, slunk up beside me.

“I say, hello, you delectable creature,” he said. “Don’t tell me. You’re the token sacrificial virgin.”

He laughed a hearty haw haw. I gave him what I hoped was a cold stare.

“Which one is the Hun then?” he asked.

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” I said.

“Rum do this, what? Doesn’t seem that long ago that we were fighting the blighters and now we’re welcoming them with open arms.” He moved closer to me and slid a finger down my bare arm. “I say, you’re an attractive little filly. If it turns out to be too frightfully boring why don’t we just pop off somewhere alone? I know a quiet little nightclub where we could be very cozy.”

At that moment trumpets sounded the fanfare; the national anthem was played. A hush fell on the company as double doors opened and Their Majesties came in, the queen on the arm of a large, portly and very Germanic-looking man wearing more braid and medals than my obnoxious companion. They came forward, nodding and smiling through the room, pausing to chat here and there, until they stopped beside me.

“Georgiana, dear. How good of you to come,” the queen said, holding out her hand as I managed a curtsy without falling over. (As if one refused a queen!) She turned to her escort. “Rupert, may I introduce our young cousin Georgiana Rannoch.”

He took my hand, clicked his heels, then, to my horror, he drew my hand up to his lips. “Delighted,” he said. “Zis is the young lady of whom vee vere speaking, ja? My cousin too, I believe.” He looked at the king and queen for confirmation.

“That’s right,” the king said. “Her father and I were first cousins, just as we were with your father the kaiser.”

“Bertie Rannoch. I remember him. Good fellow,” Prince Rupert said. “And now his daughter is grown up. Charming.” He looked around with annoyance. “And where is Otto? Not here when his father needs and commands him to be present. Most disrespectful. Sons today do not know zat zey must obey their fathers.”

“We are well aware of that,” the queen said, turning to her husband. “Aren’t we, George?”

“You mean the Prince of Wales, don’t you? Confounded boy. Won’t get married,” King George snapped. “Can’t force him. Would if I could.”

“I expect young Otto will turn up eventually,” the queen said. “We must greet the rest of our guests.”

She gave me a knowing sort of nod that I couldn’t quite interpret. My only satisfaction was that the red-faced man beside me had turned distinctly green, realizing he’d been about to seduce the king’s cousin. I smiled at him. “Jolly party, isn’t it?” I said and deliberately trod on his toe as I moved away.

Other people came into the salon. The Duke and Duchess of York came over to greet me and I asked about their little daughters.

“So Prince Otto hasn’t put in an appearance,” the duchess muttered to me. “His father is not well pleased with him. Just as Bertie’s father is not pleased with David. Heaven knows where he is tonight. Or with what type of woman.”

“From what one gathers Otto and David have a lot in common,” the Duke of York said. I noticed that when he chatted with someone he knew, he hardly stuttered at all. “Both of them refusing to grow up and accept responsibility.”

I saw Prince Rupert glancing at the entrance from time to time but Otto did not appear by the time the reception ended, the king and queen retired and the rest of us went home. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the taxicab that it finally struck me. “Oh, crikey,” I muttered out loud. I realized why I had been invited to the reception: they were trying to hitch me up with Prince Otto!

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. I was only a very minor royal, only thirty-fourth in line to the throne, but the king had no more daughters to dispose of and it was obviously a good idea to reestablish ties with postwar Germany. So I had been the sacrificial virgin after all. I wondered what Otto was like. I wouldn’t have minded marrying my cousin the Prince of Wales. He was rather dashing, and fun too, even if he was shorter than me. I remembered what Fig had said. Were they trying to foist Otto on me because he was actually mad? I was glad he hadn’t shown up. Who knows, they might have had a priest waiting in the anteroom.

 

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