Suggested Listening: “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, 1935
The orchestra played as she entered Belvoir Castle, setting the scene for some enchanted evening. Regency towers and turrets guarded the Duke of Rutland’s unbroken acreage and ancestral line, dating back nearly one thousand years.
“Belvoir,” she murmured in conversational French, unable to disguise her charming smile; a “beautiful view” of the Midlands, now blanketed by nightfall. Her eyes sparkled in the glow of scones, chandeliers, and candelabras as she gazed about the grand hall. Two delicate fingers released the oversized button of her white wool cape, and a butler accepted the cloak. The dazzling young woman thanked the man and flowed across the polished floor toward the ballroom.
Her white gown shimmered in the candlelight when she entered the crowded room. She took the glass of Dom Pérignon offered on a silver tray. Her two lips touched the rim of the crystal, the first sip of a 1955 vintage she recognized.
She offered genuine “hellos” and “it’s so good to see you” to those she knew. Taking another sip of champagne, she cast her eyes across those gathered. In the midst of those introductions set to music, she saw him first, engaged in light-hearted conversation with several men. He caught her glance, now paused, to offer a smile and a courteous nod, a mutual attraction unexpected but found.
They’d seen each other once or twice before, moving in the same social circles of the well-to-do. He’d changed from the Oxford days, she considered. He’d matured. Dashing. Debonair. Now, he was a man about town, trim in his white tie and black coattails, taking morning laps in the pool of a London gentlemen’s club — no doubt. A reflection was cast from his gold cufflink — an inheritance — as he raised a glass to toast her from afar.
“Since those early days,” he thought back, “she has debuted.”
Cocktails over, she placed her sequined clutch next to the others, aligned on a marble mantel, taking a moment to touch her coifed hair and admire herself in a gilded mirror.
Shifting the gathers of her gown aside, she took her seat at a demure table draped in cloth before the centered fireplace — aglow. Her bare back to his, she lit an unfiltered cigarette. He did so, too.
The lavish dinner was served, the first course caviar on petit toasts with crème fraîche. The guests dined on raw oysters, pheasant, and pigeons raised on the estate. With each genuine laugh, he turned aside, admiring the clasp of her necklace adorning her long neck. Her dark hair was pulled up and back, ornamented with a spray of fresh cabbage roses.
The floral perfume was intoxicating. He imagined himself removing the pearls in a private moment, three clustered stands set onto a nightstand before he pulled her close. Satin pumps and nylon stockings in a soft pile beside an inviting bed, but she was a jewel — the veneer of a woman — he could never own.
The dessert plates at long last cleared, he could steal one precious moment. He moved his chair before the fireplace to face her. She pushed hers back and away. Guests relaxed on some enchanted evening, warmed by alcohol. Mannered but uninhibited, they were carefree and easy into the night, free to reassemble at will. And so they did. White-gloved ladies set their chins in hand and listened, offering opinions on Doctor Zhivago and North By Northwest.
He wondered if she’d seen A Summer Place at the cinema but dared not ask. She slid a monogrammed cigarette case into her hand and slipped another unfiltered cigarette into a gold holder. He pulled a cigarette case from the inner pocket of his dinner jacket and a gold monogrammed lighter. His hands cupped around hers, they shared a spark.
His silk cummerbund tight around a trim waist, his blonde hair groomed back, he offered a witty comment to entice. She crossed a leg in his direction — an invitation — and tilted her head. They shared a deeper attraction and a laugh — a well-choreographed dance. Still, the veneer of a woman and wealth could disguise the heartbreak every woman had felt and would eventually face again.
Between them hung a second guess; good manners unable to free the spirit as much as either would like. For a moment, he wondered. She wondered, too. Theirs was the introductory game of push and pull. The push away. The pull of money and power. There were roles to play and veneers to maintain. Lives so charmed and unwritten contracts to uphold.
But there was hope. Hope — and romance — was never a breach of contract. Hope was eternal. Still, hope was a risk and one he was willing on that enchanted evening to take. He slid a Baccarat ashtray across the white damask. She tapped a cigarette against the crystal, her varnished nails red as the blood pulsing through their veins.
Those were the glamorous days and glittering nights before the new decade rang in at midnight. One suspended moment, a moment they hoped to remember for a lifetime.
They’d forgotten about the photographer who captured the spark of attraction on film.
Unaware, he leaned close to ask her to dinner. As though on a conductor’s cue, the orchestra played. And those soft words were spoken against the opening measures of “Begin the Beguine.” Their fated dance of an enchanted life.
Gracious, she stood. A gentleman, he reached for her clutch, its placement he’d memorized when she admired her reflection in that gilded mirror. His hand at the small of her back, they nodded their goodbyes to the amused.
Taking her cape, he draped the garment over her bare shoulders, all the while thinking “mink” — not to buy her, but for that glamorous warmth on the nights he envisioned himself away. Delicate, she gripped the short cape’s collar, decorum maintained should someone capture their departure.
Her fears were unfounded as they left the castle into the fresh night air. He dismissed the valet, who tossed him the keys to his ’58 Aston Martin.
“This way,” he led her across a long, graveled drive toward the motorcar parked in the courtyard. He opened the door. Patient — though not — he waited for her to slip into the vehicle. With a swift brush of his open palm down the front of his dinner jacket, he bounced the keys in his hand before taking his place behind the steering wheel.
They would drive for what seemed hours into the glorious night, headed toward the coast of the North Sea, arriving at daybreak. She removed her satin shoes, carrying the heels while they crossed the gentle sands, water at first light shimmering like glass.
A cummerbund left behind in the car, a white tie loose, a top button undone for comfort, they settled into the hope of companionship, the first of many lingering kisses shared at sunrise.
Across another ocean, Fidel Castro had overtaken an island nation only hours earlier. But for now, some enchanted evening was theirs, captured for eternity in black and white.
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