A gathering at Rothchild Manor to celebrate the Baroness’s ninetieth birthday is a very grim prospect for all visitors, not least her own family. Her cold, vindictive nature and sharp tongue are notorious.
Her loyal stepson, Richard bore the unenviable burden of arranging a party and rallying guests. He posted invitations, many of which were ignored, and he was very aware of the ill feeling towards his stepmother who displayed the temper of an angered hornet and the vocabulary of a fire breathing dragon.
The Baroness had inherited most of her husband’s wealth and it was widely believed that she had driven him to an early grave.
Upon this fateful evening the guests arrived, filed in, and assembled inside The Great Hall before being summoned to the dining room. Among them are her resentful daughter Ophelia, her anxious grandson Archie, Aunt Claudia, Councilor Ripley, Lord Bath, Lady Smythe and Viscount Winsworth.
Richard noted that not one of them were accompanied by husbands, wives, or partners and this added testament to the bitter resolve of anyone to participate.
The dining table was set to accommodate a great feast and no expense was spared. It appeared to Richard, who was even himself used to a very comfortable and at times luxurious lifestyle that the food which the kitchen staff had decorated the table with for his stepmother’s party was disgustingly extravagant and could indeed satisfy a third world famine.
Guests were seated according to placed name-cards, presumably at the request of the Baroness. Her daughter, Ophelia, being a vegetarian had been deliberately seated in front of a large slab of roast beef and she looked very ill. Very ill indeed. Richard thought that perhaps she was attempting to hold her breath.
Her grandson, Archie had been seated next to the Baroness and being very aware of his nervousness verging on extreme anxiety, she remained his most feared torturer to this day, presumably traumatized by her every day since he was born.
Aunt Claudia would naturally sit to the left of the host because she also suffered a long history of victimisation from the Baroness of which much amusement was to be sought again tonight. Richard thought her to be an absolute martyr.
Councilor Ripley, Lord Bath, Lady Smythe and Viscount Winsworth were seated opposite each other even though they were all complete strangers. They each had an air of pompousness, yet silently there was another attitude they all shared. They all hated the Baroness. Yet despite this they were each indebted to her. The Baroness, being filthy rich maintained strong ties with their Bank Manager, whom they all possessed large business loans endorsed by her.
‘Baroness Rothchild,’ the Butler announced as she entered the room, walking with a pointed stick. This was followed by a deep feeling of dread that pervaded the entire room, much like when the head schoolteacher has come to check your homework, but you haven’t done it.
The Baroness had the hooded expression of an old crow with long, hooked nose and deep-set beady eyes beneath an intense frown. Her grotesquely lacquered bouffant of white hair piled up terrifyingly high on her head and her mouth wrinkled tightly in a miserly pout, turning down dramatically at the corners in rigid defiance.
She took her place and studied the room with intense scrutiny as the kitchen staff poured wine into long glasses. You could have cut the air with a knife.
Her thin lips turned sharply downwards as she spoke and her voice creaked, brittle-toned and venomous. ‘More wine!’ she demanded.
‘At once Milady’ said the startled Butler and he motioned scornfully to the staff who shuffled nervously to the wine cellar to obtain more bottles of Chateau du Rouge.
‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ she scorned impatiently. ‘Dinner will be cold!’ The guests were served a first course, attended by the chef and several kitchen staff. They ate earnestly, happy for the distraction. Ophelia however, still looked very pale and looked down at her plate nauseously.
The Baroness’s wine glass appeared to contain an alternative vintage to the other guests and Richard surmised how the color might resemble the blood of his stepmother’s previous tortured victims. She drank it down in large gulps and licked her crooked teeth with a forked tongue.
‘Ophelia, you skinny sickly child,’ she taunted. You need to get some meat on your bones. You’ll never find a husband looking like that.’
Ophelia stared blankly in a daze and she dug her fingernails tightly into her palms. She could feel her stomach twisting into a knot.
‘Councilor Ripley,’ she announced. ‘He would make a fine suitor for you’ Wouldn’t you say, Councilor?’ she slithered. This was amusing, she thought as the Councilor lived alone and was for all intents and purposes, gay.
Councilor Ripley shuddered and smiled nervously before looking most concerned. It would be just another moment before she found her next victim.
‘Claudia, what are you wearing,’ she renounced with distain. The color is quite revolting. It looks like something the cat threw up. Rags, I tell you.’
Aunt Claudia looked down at her elegant dinner dress. The room seemed to close in around her and she felt herself dying inside. ‘For the last time,’ she thought.
The Baroness next focused her shrewd, misery-inflicting attention on her grandson, Archie who she insisted on calling Archibald, much to his distress.
‘Archibald. Will you follow your grandfather in the legal profession, I wonder?’ She studied him carefully. ‘Speak up boy. Cat got your tongue?!’
‘I…I…well,’ he mumbled.
‘Richard, you need to teach this boy some etiquette. He is quite pathetic. A delicate flower. Just like his mother,’ she said venomously.
Richard said nothing. Today of all days he would be extraordinarily patient.
‘Lord Bath,’ she said. ‘I hear there are some strange comings and goings from your estate. Women friends of yours perhaps. Visitors from that Madame townhouse, I imagine. Pray tell me, what price does one pay for such company these days?’
‘Lies. Slander!’ Lord Bath muttered under his breath, mopping his brow with a white handkerchief vigorously as he attempted to regain his composure.
Then the Baroness turned her bial towards Lady Smythe who she knew to be a very prideful woman. ‘Lady Smythe, I understand your son is to marry a servant girl. How can you stand such a disgrace?’
Lady Smythe’s face turned a bright shade of beetroot. Then she stood up, lifting her head high and swiftly left the room which amused the Baroness so much that it almost produced a reptilian-like smile.
Viscount Winsworth looked very uncomfortable, perhaps in thinking that he would be next in line.
It wasn’t long before the Baroness then inquired about Richard’s daughter. ‘Where is Elizabeth?’
‘She…has a chill,’ Richard replied.
Such a poorly child like her mother, I suppose. A child of poor stock. It appears your wife was such a poor choice. You have chosen poorly, Richard. Children are vile little monsters and she will amount to nothing. You mark my words.’
The Dinner was over quickly, and guests appeared very eager to depart but the evening was not over yet. Far from it. Next, came the ringing of a bell, followed by the doorman’s announcement. The arrival of a visitor calling.
‘Ah, the Entertainment,’ Richard said.
The Baroness surveyed him curiously. ‘What manner of entertainment…?’ she snapped suspiciously. ‘Not a clown, I hope. I have no patience for such witless imbeciles,’ She ranted for a few minutes about the peculiarities of circus folk before returning coldly to Richard. ‘So, what have you wrought?’ she inquired.
‘A surprise’ Richard smiled.
‘I loathe surprises,’ she retorted venomously.
Richard clapped his hands. ‘If you will, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ he announced. Please join us in the Main Hall for some evening entertainment.’
The guests commuted to the Main Hall where there appeared to contain a large narrow box, on wheels in the middle of the room. Aunt Claudia sat at a grand piano and began to play a quirky classical piece.
The Baroness sat in a large chair, which Lord Bath felt certain to have once belonged to Buckingham Palace.
Just as the guests began to settle, Aunt Claudia stopped playing and the Hall fell silent for a moment.
Suddenly without warning, a figure sprang up out of the box. And there he appeared. An elegantly dressed man stood in a dashing pinstriped suit wearing a top hat. His thin moustache curled upwards at the corners as he shared a warm smile.
‘A Magician!’ whispered Ophelia amusedly.
The Magician spoke articulately in rhyme as if he were Shakespeare himself.
“If you will wonder to find Magic, you will find a life less tragic
Discovering the unforeseen, O’ to live per chance to dream.”
He began to showcase a series of performances. A card trick. A slight of hand. Something from his hat. First a transparent glass ball, then a flick of the wrist to reveal two, then three. A shake of the fist and then all three are coloured… blue, red, and green. Then a rabbit. The guests watched with much amusement when the rabbit hopped in the direction of the kitchen as the Butler scuttled after him.
‘Hmmpph! Just illusion, smoke and mirrors,’ snorted the Baroness.
The Magician turned majestically to the Baroness and smiled.
‘Perhaps something more spectacular,’ he suggested. He gestured towards the large, narrow box that he had appeared from in the centre of the hall.
‘I require a volunteer,’ he said. There was silence for a moment.
‘I… shall volunteer,’ announced a voice among the guests. Lord Bath stepped forward.
‘Good sir, will you please get inside,’ said the Magician, gesturing again towards the large, narrow box.
‘Certainly!’ said the Lord, pompously, though looking slightly worried. ‘This isn’t one of those swords and daggers tricks is it?’ he asked suspiciously.
‘No. Not at all,’ assured the Magician.
Lord Bath climbed inside the box and laid himself down as the Maestro closed the lid. Then, tapping the sides of the box with a wand he uttered the words
“Never fear, cry no tears, all your troubles, disappear.”
Then he opened the lid of the box. It was empty. The guests gasped in astonishment. Councilor Ripley and Viscount Winsworth stepped forward and inspected the box carefully. The Councilor tapped the sides of the box hard with his walking stick, searching for a secret compartment.
‘He’s gone!’ proclaimed the Councilor. Viscount Winworth looked slightly confused, shaking his head but then looked up and nodded agreeably.
The Baroness looked intrigued.
‘But not for good,’ announced the Magician. He closed the lid and began to tap the sides of the box.
“Never fear, cry no tears, all your troubles re-appear.”
There was silence for a moment. Then a bump, followed by a moan. The lid rose to reveal a very perplexed Lord Bath. The guests clapped and cheered approvingly.
Then the Magician turned to the Baroness. ‘I require another volunteer,’ he said. ‘Perhaps, your Grace…?’
The Baroness scowled. ‘You’re nothing but a court jester!’ she said.
‘Would your Grace, please grant my wish?’ he asked daringly. ‘Perhaps with the promise of a special indulgence.’ Then he took off his hat and tapped it with his wand. Reaching inside he produced a beautiful necklace, shining with precious diamonds. ‘Crown jewels,’ he said.
The Baroness’s dark, beady eyes bulged at the beauty of the dazzling jewels dangling before her. They began to sway like a pendulum as the Magician quietly chanted a few words. Was it a trick of the light or an effect of the wine? It was hard to be sure, but the Baroness closed her eyes and slumped into her chair.
‘Thank you, your Grace,’ said the Magician. ‘We have a volunteer,’ he announced. Then looking across at The Lord and Viscount he gestured them. ‘Gentlemen…’
The two men instinctively walked over and picked up the Baroness who appeared to be under some sort of hypnotic spell. They carried, then lifted her into the large, narrow box.
The Maestro closed the lid. Then, tapping the sides of the box with his wand he uttered the words;
“Never fear, cry no tears, all your troubles, disappear.”
There was a silent pause and the entire room of guests seemed to be holding their breath. Then after a few moments the Magician opened the lid.
‘Gone but not forgotten,’ he said. Then he appealed to his audience. ‘Friends. Who shall join me to conjure the return of her Grace?’
The room fell very silent. It seemed to fall silent for the longest time, almost as though time had stood still.
Then, a voice. ‘Perhaps… it is time to call it an evening,’ Richard suggested.
A few nodded. Then some looked at each other in astonishment but soon the entire room nodded in unanimous agreement and slowly they began to leave.
And that was that.
But the Baroness? You might ask. Nobody cared. Neither the Magician nor the Baroness were ever seen again, of course.
There may have been a few secret handshakes and money changing hands behind closed doors perhaps but in the absence of a final Will and Testament; that had mysteriously vanished, the house and possessions were fairly divided up amongst the family.
Archie, her anxious, traumatized grandson later married a very kind-hearted, self-made businesswoman and he is barely recognisable today. In fact, he is a changed man. Which goes to show that kindness is a very desirable quality and unkindness… isn’t.