Intrigue and Parasol Duelling at the Savoy!
This story is the very first time that Parasol Duelling ever appeared in our Roleplaying group, the Airship’s Messdeck.
The official Parasol Duelling rules hadn't even been drafted yet, but these Ladies still had a good time playing out an episode during a Parasol Duelling event at the Savoy Hotel in London. I have distilled the role play text a bit to make it easier to read.
If you have been following my serialized story from the Messdeck you will recognize one of the characters. Lt Beulah Bueckert, Miss BB to the crew, is the communications officer on the HMAS Velvet Brush who, along with Lt Cmdr MacDonald-Smythe and other members of the crew, are currently on their way to Scapa Flow in the dead of Winter. This episode takes place several months before that story.
The two other crew members present are not Navy personnel but passengers. Madame Saffron Taxus-Hemlock (Yes, THAT Madame Saffron!) and her maid Miss Maddie Hatter. The fourth character is Lady Mary Formingham, the wife of the former head of the Royal Navy's Experimental Airship Division, the EAD, Sir Gordon Formingham. Sir Gordon has been posted to bleak and lonely Scapa Flow due to a scandal involving the design and construction of the Velvet Brush.
Miss BB is a brilliant communications officer. She comes from a rural background and is still very naive when it comes to the "big city" that is London in Queen Victoria's time. Fond of "medicine," she would never touch “alcohol”. Oddly capable of winning any game of chance, she would never “gamble”. She is a simple soul and much beloved by the crew for her forthright commentary on nearly everything. This is the first time she has been exposed to Parasol Duelling.
Madame Saffron Taxus-Hemlock, officially a professor of "applied botany", is in reality related to many of the crowned heads of Europe. She is not above indulging in espionage on behalf of her powerful family as well as her friends in the crew of the HMAS Velvet Brush. Madame is also a "Black Sash" Parasol Duelist and has recently judged the Flirtation trials at this very event.
Madame's Maid, Miss Maddie Hatter, has a secret past. She has obviously been trained in Parasol Duelling, as most well born Ladies of the time would be, however she is clearly nervous about being recognized by the grand Ladies in attendance. (Maddie has her own adventures in "Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond" by Jayne Barnard, from Tyche Books.)
We join these Ladies as Madame Saffron arrives to meet with Lady Mary Formingham under the cover of attending the finals of the Parasol Duelling event at the Savoy.
An episode from the Airship's Messdeck
Compiled by Kevin Jepson
|The Grand Ballroom of the Savoy Hotel|
Madame steps into the lobby of the Savoy and looks around. Will she recognize Lady Mary Formingham, only met once over tea many months ago? But that lady is easily spotted, pacing an 8-foot square while a maid watches peaceably, her back to a column.
Madame sails forward, hand outstretched. “Lady Mary, how lovely to see you again!”
The Grand Ballroom has been readied for the Freestyle Finals of the Greater London Ladies’ Parasol Duelling Society. Some argument has taken place between the waiters, who had orders to put in as many tables as possible, and the organizing committee, who were determined to leave a generous space in the middle to comply with the international standard and avoid accidental damage to spectators and judges.
Madame leads her guest into the ballroom and looks over the throng of excited young ladies and staid matrons, hoping to spot Miss BB already installed. She had sent Maddie on ahead to make sure the Comms Officer was served promptly. Waiters could be snobbish but Maddie’s handling of them is so adept she might have been born to a life of servants instead of servitude.
Miss BB’s brightly hued parasol waves wildly in a corner, threatening the hats of several nearby ladies. If she isn’t careful, she’ll inadvertently challenge someone to a duel. Since it is doubtful she has ever participated in formal training, she is more likely to smack someone over the head as she has done to rats, voles, cockroaches and possibly a few villainous humans over the past several months.
Miss BB shouts out "Oooo ooooo oooo They are here, they are here. ooo ooo ooo." Then she wonders to herself, "I wonder if I have to get up when they get here? There is hardly any room for our skirts with the tables all pushed together the way they are. We should move them out."
Miss Maddie sits with her back to the wall pretending to be interested in a very dull potted fern.
BB says, "Miss Maddie, Miss Maddie, did you get a new parasol in honour of this occasion? I did. Do you want to see it?" BB swings the bright parasol across the table, narrowly missing the chimney of the little table lamp in the middle of the flowers forcing Maddie to duck. "Ooops. Sorry, but it is quite beautiful."
Maddie smiles at Miss BB's exuberance, "Oh no, I am afraid no new one for me. I couldn't frequent the old shops, and one can never trust a black market parasol. Often they are weighted incorrectly. One could get hurt."
Miss BB looks closely at her parasol "Weighted? I thought they were just for keeping the sun off?"
Maddie says, "Oh yes, but not a fighting parasol. Strict rules."
"Oooo, fighting, can you teach me about the fighting?"
With everyone seated, served, and the preliminary speeches beginning before the judges’ table, Lady Mary leans close and puts a hand on Madame Saffron’s arm. “Max er... Commander MacDonald-Smythe, tells me you are to be trusted, and already know about the documents I sent him from my husband’s study. May I confide in you? I’m very troubled.”
Madame is surprised by Mary touching her arm. Winning the younger woman’s confidence is not going to be a problem, apparently.
"Of course you may say anything to me. I will not wantonly repeat your confidences, and the others, as crew members on the Velvet Brush with me, would not, even if they felt inclined, discuss anything touching our ship with anyone outside it. I think they are not paying much attention in any case. Such a great crowd. I think they will not pay us much mind at all."
Mary leaning close to Madame says softly, "Thank you, Madame. I only took the designs because I feared for Max, up there with no proper warning that the ship’s technologies are largely untested. There have been prior ships destroyed in this program, that I do know from Gordon. My husband, that is. Sir Gordon Formingham. He was head of the EAD until very recently." She looks down, clearly troubled, "And Max is a dear, very old friend... of both myself and Sir Gordon."
Maddie, talking to Miss BB says, "Apparently the strict rules are due to an unfortunate mishap the queen had in her younger days. A splinter of bamboo, if I am not mistaken."
Miss BB shakes her head "That sounds most uncomfortable. To have a splinter of bambooooo. Where did she have it?"
Miss Maddie, watching the crowd, says, "In the courtyard I believe..."
Miss BB ponders Maddie's comment for a second then says, "In her courtyard? How can that be?”
Maddie looks back at Miss BB and says, "I beg your pardon? Oh you mean ... Oh dear..."
But Miss BB has already turned to Madame. "Is the Doctor coming tonight to the parasolling? I do so like her."
Madame says, "I fear Her Grace is remaining at Davaar. There is much to settle in a newly rebuilt home."
"Oh yes, I hope she had lecticity put in during the rebuild."
"I believe that was her intent." If the rumours of testing up north are true, Madame thinks, the crew may see the electric lights of Davaar blazing up in the night sky on their way past.
Miss BB turns back to watching the throng of Ladies filling the room and mutters quietly to herself, "eelectric, eelectric..."
Madame claps for the speech of which she has not attended a single word. "Oh, look, the duelists! Did you ever see so many ruffles and flounces, Miss BB? They aren’t allowed to have lace on their cuffs, or puffs to their sleeves, so they make up for it everywhere else on the gown."
Miss BB opens her eyes wide at the sight. "Oh my, I would dearly love to have a gown like that."
Madame smiles at Miss BB. "But surely not in these pale colours, Miss BB? She would look entirely unlike herself, would she not, Maddie?"
Miss BB watches the contestants parade before the judges. "Do they have to be pale colours? Really?"
Miss Maddie says, "It's considered bad form to wear distracting colours."
"Bah, pale is distracting," says Miss BB with a hrmph. "Oh... they are tall ones and short ones. Which ones will do the best?"
Miss Maddie, watching the Ladies, says, "I've heard they even go to the trouble of weighting their practice gowns so that they will feel lighter on game day."
Madame gives Maddie another keen glance, and then pats Mary’s arm. "You may tell me anything, Lady Mary." And I very much hope you will, she adds to herself.
"Is that the same way that they weight their parasols?" BB asks.
Madame says, "They think weighted tips make the parasol twirl better. But it is not encouraged."
"Why is that one lady fluffing out her hem that way? It looks like she is ready to kick. I like the yellow one best. She looks the strongest. We should make bets. Can we make bets?"
Miss Maddie, watching the first duelists, says, "Hmmm ankling, I wonder if the moderator has noticed?"
Mary, tugging Madame's sleeve to get her attention, whispers "Max says they – the documents touching the Velvet Brush - must be returned, that I, and he, and anyone else who is found with them, will be at terrible trouble with Admiral Chicheley.” She shivers. “She’s a formidable power, and she already suspects my husband of doing awful things with that horrid Sir Joshua. But I’m sure she’s wrong. Gordon is simply absent-minded. He could never betray his country and the Navy. Did my taking those documents for Max bring all this trouble down on Gordon?"
Miss BB, overhearing Mary, says, "Oh Miss Mary, how is Admiral Chicheley? She sure looks mean sometimes. And frowny. But she has very nice outfits."
Miss Maddie mutters under her breath, "She probably would be less frowny if the corset in her nice outfits fit."
Miss BB giggles and says, "Ya. Maybe she needs to go shopping with us?"
Madame smiles "I think you should invite her, Miss BB."
Miss BB, always up for a shopping trip, claps her hands, "We should invite her, do you think she would come? Maybe she would?"
The next pair of competitors start their duel.
Maddie, forgetting herself, shouts too loudly, "Aw ankling! Come on that was nearly knee!"
Miss BB still thinking of shopping with the Admiral, "I think I will next time I see her. Or maybe I should send her a message. Do you think she would want to come to poker as well? I bet she would."
Madame says, "I would not back you against Avis Chicheley, Miss BB. She has played poker in some of the worst dens in Africa and the Far East and won. And come out alive, which is always tricky."
Heads begin to turn towards Maddie as she shouts out, "Aw, come on! Is this a duel or a brothel?"
Miss BB says, "Oh, my, that was close to the knee. I like her bloomers. The pink ones. Did you see how they had pleats at the bottom? What's a brothel?"
Maddie, suddenly feeling nervous at the attention, turns to BB and says, "Ah, It's where ladies are um... paid to um... well show more than their ankles."
Miss BB ponders this for a moment then asks, "Like their arms and stuff? Who would pay to see arms?"
Miss Maddie, sliding behind yet another very uninteresting fern, looks askance at Miss BB "Ah yes, kind of."
Madame, clapping for the intervention of the moderator, turns to look at Mary Formingham.
"I’m sure the documents were the least of the Navy’s worries,” she says. “Sir Joshua seems to have been a very crooked businessman, and anyone who worked with him, as your husband did, would have to be investigated very thoroughly. They did not dismiss Sir Gordon, so he must have been found, if not innocent entirely, then innocent of ill intent. Admiral Chicheley is indeed formidable, both as a woman and as a power in the Navy. Has she been very stern with you, my dear?”
Mary, follows Madame’s lead in clapping, "Yes, she has come to the house almost every evening this week, although Gordon is far away up in Scapa Flow. I’m sure she suspects the whole household is in on it. But that’s impossible. Nobody but me understands anything about airships.”
"Are they finished duelling?” says BB. “But they didn't even hit each other."
"Oh no," Maddie says quietly from behind the plant, "There is no hitting in a forum like this. But in Eastern European countries there are some fights to see."
"Hmmm, I bet the Hungarians are better at bonking rats than the British." Miss BB thinks for a moment "Ooooo, can we go sometimes? That would be most interesting."
"British Standard Rules, Miss BB." says Madame "No contact is permitted. In Hungarian Imperial, now... bones can be broken but no blades or honed points… these days.” She gives Mary a keen glance. “Oh, you understand airships? As well as your husband?"
Mary, blushing, has completely ignored the duels. Maybe she has seen too many, or prefers tea duelling, "Oh, no. Not that well. Only, I grew up in an unconventional family, and was permitted to study anything that took my fancy, which turned out to be the new science of aeronautics. My father gave me a modified communications balloon large enough to allow me to float – tethered, naturally – high above our Scottish estate, to conduct experiments in wind and temperature effects on the balloon’s lift.” She laughs softly. “You can imagine I did not fit in well at the young ladies’ academy my mother eventually insisted I attend."
Maddie, overhearing Mary, adds, "You're lucky to have such an understanding of airships. I have been floating about for a year now and still haven't a notion how it's done."
Miss BB's eyes go wide "Oooo Miss Mary, can I go up in your weather balooon? Do you still have it?"
"My husband won't let me have one any more. He says it's not seemly for the wife of an Admiral to expose her underskirts that way over any naval base."
Miss BB nods sagely "You could wear pants, couldn't you? Shuure you could."
Maddie says, "I would."
Mary says, "I might try that, while my husband is away for the winter. Pants must be warmer, don't you think?"
Madame, claps for the next pair of duelists, and ponders what Mary has just revealed: that she has the intellect to comprehend far more about the Velvet Brush than anyone else in the household save Sir Gordon himself. It is too bad Max has already spoken freely to Mary. If she is indeed the person behind the attempts against the Velvet Brush, she may be taking this afternoon’s event to try to coax Madame to believe her innocence, and eventually allay Avis’s undoubted suspicions. How did it all become so complicated?
Continued in Part II here.
Thanks to Jayne Barnard, Monica Willard, and Karen Siemens for being great shipmates and co-creators of our world.
To find out more about this great sport go to:
Madame Saffron Hemlock’s Parasol Duelling League for Steampunk Ladies
Click here for information on the history and development of Parasol Duelling
or click the Parasol Duelling tag.
The Rules for Parasol Duelling are here.