Ankling, bloomers and fanning oh my!
Here is Part II of my compilation of the very first time Parasol Duelling appeared in our Role Playing group The Airship's Messdeck.
In Part I Madame Saffron Taxus-Hemlock, her maid Maddie Hatter, and the Comms Officer of the HMAS Velvet Brush Lt Beulah Bueckert (Miss BB) meet Lady Mary Formingham at a Parasol Duelling event at the Savoy Hotel in London. Lady Mary is the wife of the former head of the Royal Navy's Experimental Airship Division (the EAD) now posted to the bleak and isolated navy base at Scapa Flow due to a scandal involving the design and construction of the experimental airship the Velvet Brush.
I have been serializing a set of stories from our adventures as crew and passengers on that ship. You can follow Lt Cmdr(E) Maxwell MacDonald-Smythe, aka Max (me), Miss BB and other members of the crew, in our adventures starting here.
The events portrayed below took place several months before the events in my serial story.
We join the Ladies as the Parasol Duelling continues.
Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.
An episode from the Airship's Messdeck
Compiled by Kevin Jepson
While appearing to watch the elegant sweep and motion of the expert parasol duelists competing in the middle of the Grand Ballroom of London's Savoy Hotel, Madame Saffron Taxus-Hemlock ponders all that Lady Mary Formingham has revealed of her interest and knowledge in the designs of the HMAS Velvet Brush.
"Lady Mary,” says Madame, “you must have been a great help to your husband through his career. Or did your social life keep you too busy for dry science and technological advances?"
Mary, taking advantage of a lull while the judges argue a ruling, says, "I don’t have a great deal of social life. At school, I was the odd one out, always. When Sylvia came to the school, she too was left out, though that was because of her family. Or rather its lack. Girls can be rather beastly to those who do not fit the correct mold of young womanhood.
The duelling continues and then is suddenly stopped. Madame exclaims, "Gracious! Did you see that? The one in blue tried the Hungarian sideways stab. She'll surely be disqualified now."
Miss BB watches the commotion around the duel closely. "That lady in the stripy outfit is very fast to have jumped out of the way." Then, referring back to their previous conversation about pants, "I have some pants." says BB, "I got them in Africa. They are really good for riding camels."
"Ew camels, don't they spit?" Maddie says, once again a bit too loudly. Heads turn.
Miss BB says, "Camels are very spitty, and stinky. More stinky than spitty. I got a blister on my bum when I rode one for a whole day."
Maddie laughs, "I think that's what happened to the young queen when learning to parasol duel. The blister that is."
As the next pair of Duelists take their places and begin Maddie says, "Hmmm, very clever tactic. It's really a mind game, the parasol duel."
"When she pretended to move one way and then went the other?" BB asks, staring hard at the duel.
Madame claps her hands. "Oh, well played. Maddie, did you note that very forceful snub? And just where one would have expected a reverse twirl!” She leans back to Mary. “Did Sylvia share your interest in aeronautics?"
"Snubs, snubs, I could do a snub I bet," says BB.
Mary claps as a bout comes to an end with the loser weeping gracefully into a lacy hankie. "Sylvia? No. She thinks of nothing but the houses and keeping the lower servants in line. When she used to come out with us – me and Max and William Macleod – it was in part because I needed a chaperon. Then she fancied the Macleod, who returned her regard for a time. But nothing came of it in the end. She was not at all interested in anything to do with the ships they were on, or their dreams of joining the airship navy. The EAD was very small in those days, you see, and not all sailors were suited for it."
Maddie says, "My parasoling coach said my twirls were inspired."
"Can you teach me the twirl? I would love to twirl," says BB.
Madame is watching the crowd. "I say, is that Lady Grantham’s oldest daughter? I had no idea she was a duelist.” She looks at Maddie. “You’ve gone white again dear. Are you not well today?"
Miss BB looks at Maddie with concern. "Oh, you are very white. Like a sheet. Would a drink of medicine help you? Like the Doctor's Medicine?"
Maddie, slinks further behind the greenery. "Am I? Perhaps it's all the excitement."
Madame watches Maddie for moment, then calls, "Waiter! A very small brandy for the young lady. The excitement is too much for her."
Looking for the lady Madame mentioned, BB asks, "Do you mean the really tall one? With the ugly dress? Should we wave at her?"
“No!” gasps Maddie, grabbing BB’s arm.
"No." Madame nods across the room. "Miss Grantham’s the dark-haired one with the haughty expression."
Miss BB spots the lady in question and hrumphs. “Her dress is ugly too.” She puts her hand to her mouth. "But I shouldn't say such things. Maybe I need some medicine as well. We should all have medicine."
"I would benefit from some brandy as well," says Mary.
BB shakes her head. "I can't drink brandy, only medicine."
Again half hidden by fern fronds, Maddie says to herself, "I cannot believe that girl made it as a duelist, her prancing was dreadful and her twirls were weak at best."
"So Sylvia is still with you, Lady Mary?" Madame inquires.
Mary waves to the waiter in a manner more suited to a tavern than the Savoy Ballroom. "Yes, as my housekeeper. She travels between all the small farms and estates that Sir Gordon and I both have inherited, terrifying the staff into obedience. Just now she is off on the Welsh border, I think, worried that the kitchens there would not have prepared properly for any early lambs that must be raised by the hearth on account of being born into the inclement weather they have on those mountains. I’m sure the staff would have done it, being bred up in those very mountains and coming to us from those very farms and crofts, but Sylvia has a will of her own in these matters, and I long ago gave her leave to attend to the estates as she chooses."
Madame says to BB, "It's the same medicine, Miss BB. Only here they keep it in nicer bottles."
Maddie chuckles. "And charge a nicer price!"
Madame explains, "Crystal ones, like the chandeliers up there. No, don't point with your parasol, dear. You could have taken out the Duchess of Devonshire's eye."
Maddie, anxiously watching the crowd from behind her fern, thinks to herself, "Oh wouldn't that just be the thing, to be found out and found to be drinking as well."
BB looks shocked. "Oh no, it can't be the same stuff. I can't drink brandy, only medicine. They must be different. I would go to hell for sure if I drank brandy."
Maddie hoots from behind her plant. "Hey are you blind? That was intentional fanning!"
"Can you teach me fanning? That looked oh so clever." says BB.
Maddie explains, "Strictly against the rules, fanning is. It involves opening and closing your parasol quickly to create a breeze. Also called bellowing. Dust could blow in your opponent’s eye, giving you an advantage."
All the room hushes as a particularly well orchestrated Free-Style duel begins between two past champions. After the Mayfair Duelist raps her opponent’s ankle and ladders her stocking, a move for which no penalty can be grave enough, the displeased crowd emphatically rattles their teacups in their saucers, and turns their backs until the disgraced duelist is removed from the ballroom.
The waiter, taking advantage of the rustle of shoulders turning, slips between tables with a crystal decanter and several elegant, though very small, glasses.
"I wonder where she got those stockings," says BB. "They sure are nice ones. Before they were laddered."
"There is a penalty for that laddering, Miss BB. The offender will lose her parasol AND her previous champion's glove," says Madame.
"Well! Bunch of wimps. They would never make it on the farm," says BB, shaking her head. "But I could learn fanning, and laddering. Just in case I mean. It could save my life one day. And maybe the life of baby sheeps."
"Have some medicine, Miss BB," says Mary. "They will start the next duel in a moment."
"Oooo. medicine. I don't mind if I do. These glasses are very small."
Lady Mary once more leans toward Madame Saffron, saying softly, "These documents. Please, can you advise me what to do with them?”
Madame leans in close. "I don’t know if the Commander passed along this suggestion, but I could readily arrange for the documents to be ‘found’ aboard the ship by an EAD worker, as if they had been shoved into a corner and forgotten, perhaps while the ship was being repaired after the Portsmouth explosion."
Miss BB mutters, "Cute baby sheeps."
Another pair of duellists, very evenly matched in style, fight all three duels to a draw.
"There is not a winner there? That is not very exciting," says Miss BB.
"Agreed," says Maddie, "but parasol duelling is meant to be a 'dance' of wills as much as combat."
"Oh, like being a lady. That takes a lot of will." says BB.
Madame, watching Maddie behind her fern, says, "Maddie, have you been reading Mrs. Radcliffe's treatise on duelling?"
"Oh yes that's very true, BB." says Maddie. "I've heard of it, Madame, but I haven't read that one yet. Pretty radical ideas, are there?"
"I believe the most radical was that women should dispense with parasols and use swords, like the rowdier sort of gentlemen do. She holds firmly that mere social censure is not sufficient incentive for the losers in this more slovenly age, and a good cut across the hand would teach better discipline."
"Could we have a parasol in one hand and sword in the other? That would be ... excellent." says BB.
Maddie smiles. "If it’s discipline she wants, maybe she should try a nice tight corset."
Mary tugs Madame's sleeve again. "You could put the documents back? To help me and my poor Gordon? If that mystery is not solved, he may spend the rest of his career marooned at Scapa Flow, where nothing of any import will ever happen again. They don’t even have a laboratory where he might work on some hobby in the long winter evenings."
Madame says, "Well, I can’t promise it will bring Sir Gordon home, but I can promise you to get those documents safely found at the earliest opportunity. That will give Admiral Chicheley other people to frown upon, and you may have your evenings to yourself again." Except that I will send someone to watch you, my dear woman, whether Avis ceases to do so or not.
BB says quietly to Miss Maddie, "Why does she always tug? Madame won't have any sleeve left after tonight." Then, giggling, "Or they will be very long, down to the floor. Like sleeves for those gorillas we saw in Africa."
Maddie starts giggling too. "Well that would definitely rule out applying the Picard manoeuvre."
Maddie and Miss BB try to restrain their giggles at the thought of Madame with sleeves long enough for a gorilla.
Madame looks out over the feathered and flowery hats. "And here we are at the final match already. My, how the time has flown. Did anyone see a girl in plain pink? I meant to watch her after her solid showing at the Flirtation Finals the other day."
"The Flirtation Finals, Madame? I've never seen those," says Mary. "That was not part of our finishing school curriculum."
BB says, "I saw one lady with pink bloomers. Was that her?"
Madame shakes her head. "This one was wearing leopard print the other day. With gold lace. I thought that old Lord Annesley, who was one of the judges, would expire of a coronary event right there."
Maddie laughs. "I can imagine! Leopard! Shocking!"
Miss BB nods sagely. "Animal prints are the best thing ever. Ever. I would wear them every day if I could. And with gold lace, oh that would be wonderful."
Mary flips open her fan and plies it. "You… ladies... of the airship crew are quite the most liberated of my acquaintance. How I envy you!"
Miss BB asks, "Are there more cakes?"
Maddie, watching the duelists and the crowd carefully, says, "But for duelling, that seems like a shady tactic to me. This game seems to have evolved since my days."
"Miss Mary, you could liberate. You could start by getting pants," says BB.
"Oh yes pants are most liberating," says Maddie.
"And then go up in your balooooon too," says BB.
Mary looks shocked. "You have experience with pants too? Am I the only woman here who has not worn them?"
"As Admiral Chicheley might tell you, not only have I worn pants, but at least once they were harem trousers of a shockingly sheer material." Madame grins briefly, then turns to Maddie, who is watching the last set of duelists avidly. "I would be most interested to hear of your past duelling experience, Maddie. There are duties that, as my assistant, I could assign to you were I convinced of your having the requisite skills."
"Red!" Maddie shouts from beside the now defoliated fern. "Red bloomers! Did you see that! And shine, was that silk?"
Miss BB looks to see what Maddie is talking about. "Oh, red. I think it was silk. That is not a pale colour."
"You're not serious!" says Madame. "Red silk in competition? Does she think this is a harem? She does not deserve the title if she cannot win without such distractions."
Mary quietly finishes her glass of brandy and reaches for the crystal decanter.
Miss BB mutters, "What's a harem? I think I need some red bloomers. Maybe not silk, but they should be red."
Madame frowns. "A true lady does not need such false allure. A true lady could distract with a flutter of her eyelashes. What are these young girls coming to?"
"At least my sleeves are all the same length," says Miss BB with a smile.
As the contest comes to an end, with the winner being - by unanimous vote among the judges - NOT the young lady with the red silk bloomers, Lady Grantham's daughter passes by on her way to her mother's table. She stops, staring at Maddie, and even takes a small step back, the better to look at the face that is now almost inside the potted fern.
Maddie turns, stands, and raises her sleeve in a manner as fast and graceful as any of the duelists, and dashes for the door, murmuring something about fetching a hansom cab for the party.
Madame watches her go and, as the crowd begins to thin, turns to say mildly to Mary, "You may leave all to me, dear Lady Mary. I trust you have enjoyed your afternoon with us. Can we drop you back at your house, or do you have errands to run?"
A fascinating afternoon, thinks Madame, and much to ponder upon indeed.