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The dining room, doing service as a dressing room, was a hive of activity. Before a cheval glass stood Frédérique van Erlevoort, her hair loose and flowing, looking very pale under a light dusting of rice powder, her eyebrows darkened with a single brushstroke of black.
“Do hurry up, Paul! We shall never be ready in time!” she fretted, glancing at the clock.
[private]Kneeling before her was Paul van Raat, his fingers flying as he draped a long, gauzy veil of gold and crimson about her waist, making the fabric billow over her pink underskirt; her bare shoulders and arms were snowy white with powder and all ashimmer with doubled and twisted necklaces and chains.
“Oh, there’s such a draught! Do keep that door shut, Dien,” grumbled Paul as the old housemaid departed with an armful of dresses. The open door offered a glimpse of the guests proceeding along the potted palms and aralias on their way from the hall to the large reception suite, the men in evening dress and the ladies in light-coloured apparel, all peering into the dining room as they passed by.
There was much merriment behind the scenes, with only Frédérique retaining some form of composure, as befitted the majesty of her role as a queen of antiquity.
“Please be quick, Paul,” she pleaded. “It’s gone half-past eight already!”
“Yes, yes, Freddie, don’t worry, you’re almost done!” he responded, deftly pinning some jewels among the gauzy folds of her drapery.
“Ready?” asked Marie and Lili Verstraeten as they emerged from the room where the stage had been set—a mysterious elevation that was barely distinguishable in the dim light.
“Ready!” answered Paul. “And now let’s all calm down!” he pursued, raising his voice commandingly.
He had good reason to admonish them, for the youngsters acting as wardrobe assistants—three boys and five girls—were cavorting about the cluttered room, laughing, shrieking and causing the utmost disorder, while Lili struggled in vain to wrest a golden cardboard lyre from the hands of the twelve year-old son of the house, and the two rowdy cousins set about climbing a large white cross, which was already teetering under their onslaught.
“Come down from that cross, Jan and Karel! Give me that lyre at once, other Jan!” roared Paul. “Do take them in hand, Marie. And now—Bet and Dien, come over here, will you? Bet, you hold the lamp, and you, Dien, stand beside the sliding door. Everybody else out of the way! There won’t be enough room, so some people will have to go out into the garden and watch through the window. They’ll have a splendid view from there. Come along Freddie, careful now, here’s your train.”
“You’ve forgotten my crown.”
“I’ll put it on your head when you’ve taken up your pose.
Come on now.”
The three banished maids scurried away, the boys crouched down in a corner where they would be invisible to the audience, and Paul helped Freddie to ascend the stage.
Marie, who like Lili was not yet in costume, spoke through the closed window to the fireman outside, wrapped in his greatcoat, waiting to set off the Bengal lights in the snowy garden. A large reflector stood beside him like a pallid, lustreless sun.
“First white, then green, then red!” instructed Marie, and the fireman nodded.
The room was dark but for the lamp held aloft by Bet, while Dien stood by the door to the now deserted dressing room.
“Careful, Freddie, careful!” cautioned Paul.
Frédérique arranged herself carefully among the cushions on the couch whereupon Paul adjusted her draperies, necklaces, hair and diadem, tucking in a flower here and there.
“Is this all right?” she asked with a tremor in her voice, taking up her well-rehearsed pose.
“You look ravishing. Come along Marie and Lili, your turn now!”
Lili threw herself on the floor and Marie reclined against the couch with her head at Frédérique’s feet. Paul quickly draped both girls in brightly coloured shawls and veils, and wound strings of beads around their arms and in their hair.
“Now Marie and Lili, you must look distraught! A bit more writhing with the arms, Lili! More anguish, much more anguish! Freddie, we want more despair from you—keep your eyes on the ceiling and turn down your mouth a bit more.”
Marie dissolved into giggles.
“Yes, that’s better! Do keep still, Marie, are you ready?”
“Ready,” said Marie.
Paul continued to add finishing touches, readjusting a fold here, a flower there, doubtful whether all was perfect.
“Come, let’s get started,” said Lili, who lay in a most awkward position.
“Bet, take the lamp away, and then you and Dien come over here and stand on either side of the sliding doors!”
Finally they all found themselves in total darkness, their hearts pounding. Paul rapped on the window, then ran to join the boys in the corner.
After a slow, sputtering start, the Bengal light flared up against the reflector; the sliding doors parted grandly, and a dazzling white blaze lit up the tableau.
A hush descended on the reception suite and conservatory as the smiling guests pressed forwards, blinded by the burst of colour and light. Gentlemen stepped aside to make room for a pair of laughing girls, and young people at the back stood up on chairs for a better view.
“La Mort de Cléopâtre,” Betsy van Raat read out to Madame van Erlevoort, who had passed her the programme.
Cries of “Wonderful! Magnifique!” sounded on all sides.
In the white glow of the Bengal light, ancient Egypt came to life. Beyond the sumptuous draperies there were glimpses of an oasis, blue sky, some pyramids and a grove of palm trees, while on a couch borne by sphinxes reclined a waning Cleopatra with cascading tresses, an adder coiled round her arm and two slave girls prostrate with grief at her feet. Thus, before the gaze of a modern soirée, the poetry of antiquity was evoked by a lavish vision of oriental splendour lasting only a few seconds.
“That’s Freddie! As pretty as a picture,” said Betsy, pointing out the dying queen to Madame van Erlevoort, who was so nonplussed by all this opulence that it took her a moment to recognise the lovely motionless maiden as her own daughter.
“And there is Marie, and the other one, oh, that’s Lili! You’d never know, would you? What splendid costumes; they went to so much trouble! You see that drapery of Lili’s, the violet with silver? I lent them that.”
“How do they do it?” murmured the old lady.
The light flickered and guttered down; the doors slid shut.
“Lovely, Aunt, just lovely!” Betsy exclaimed to the hostess, Madame Verstraeten, as she passed by.
Twice more the dream was reprised, first in a flood of seagreen, then in fiery red. Freddie, with her adder, lay perfectly immobile; only Lili could not help twitching in her contorted pose. Paul watched from the side, beaming—all was going well.
“How can Freddie keep so still? And it’s all so lavish and yet not overdone! Just like that painting by Makart!” said Betsy, opening her feather fan.
“Your honourable daughter must be exceedingly world-weary, dear lady!” drawled young de Woude van Bergh, bending towards Madame van Erlevoort, Freddie’s mama.
Written by Louis Couperus and translated by Ina Rilke.[/private]
Louis Couperus was born in the Hague in 1863. His first novel Ecstasy was published in 1892, followed by Psyche in 1898 and Inevitable in 1900—all available from Pushkin Press. A renowned raconteur and commentator, Couperus continued to write until his death in 1923.
Ina Rilke was born in Mozambique and grew up in Portugal, speaking Dutch, English and Portuguese. For the past twenty years she has concentrated on literary translation from Dutch and French into English, for which she has won the Vondel Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Flemish Culture Prize.