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Poem: "To Attend a Ball" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "To Attend a Ball"

This is the linkback perk poem for the October 2, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl.  dreamwriters hosted it here during the fishbowl.  Linkers include: dreamwriters, aldersprig, marina_bonomi, rix_scaedu, janetmiles, DW user jjhuntercatsittingstillmdlbear

This poem belongs to the series The Steamsmith, and you can find the other poems via the Serial Poetry page.  It also fills the "Ball/Dance/Prom" square on my first Cottoncandy_bingo card.  All 20 verses have been posted.  You can reveal more verses by linking to a favorite poem from the October fishbowl.

To Attend a Ball

Maryam was sitting in the lounge of the Steamsmith Guild,
her brown fingers curled over the bowl of an ivory pipe,
as Old Henry twiddled with the gears on his own
until it produced a wavery rhomboid smoke ring.
"That's progress," she declared.  "It'll come square someday."

George Cavendish and William Percy
huddled together in a nearby nook,
poring over plans for tunneling and earthworks.
Someone else had a watch partially disassembled on the table,
showing an eager apprentice how to repair a minor flaw --
typical for an afternoon at the Steamsmith Guild.

Then the ornate walnut doors opened
and the Duke of Devonshire swept into the lounge.
Cavendish immediately abandoned his papers
to complain, "Father!  You promised not to come here!"
"Except as a last resort, which this is," the Duke replied.

"If there's a problem with the steamworks at Devonshire House,
I'm sure we can figure it out," Maryam offered.
"Ah, no, not the steamworks -- it's about this ball we had planned,"
the Duke explained.  "We invited many young ladies and gentlemen,
but some quarrel started up on the Continent, and the Army
decided to stage maneuvers.  So there went half of our gentlemen."

"Father, this is where I come to get away  from Society,"
Cavendish protested.  He was rather drowned out
by the enthusiastic response of other young men who would,
under ordinary circumstances, never rate such an invitation.

"A gentleman does not disappoint a lady
who wishes to dance or to attend an event,"
Maryam said smoothly.  "Of course those of us
with space in our calendars will be delighted to come."
The Duke glanced down at Maryam's sleek trousers;
his eyebrows climbed, but he nodded his acceptance.

"I don't pursue the height of the London season these days,"
Old Henry said.  "I'm sure that I have time for your fine ball."
So Cavendish was forced to capitulate at last,
and retreated to his nook with Percy, while the Duke
plied the room with invitation cards and handshakes all around.

Maryam consulted with her valet Ned,
who was tall and thin with ebony skin and a solemn manner,
deciding the best outfit for a spring ball on rather short notice.
So Ned dressed Maryam in a black frock coat over a white shirt
with a silver waistcoat embroidered with peacocks
and peacock-green gloves over her long clever hands.
Not for her the fanciful dresses of the Society ladies;
Maryam found it far more comfortable, as a steamsmith, to take
a man's role and wear the garments that suited her straight body.

When she arrived at Devonshire House, Maryam took a moment
to admire it, for she rarely traveled in such high circles
except when accompanying her father on business with his peers.
Pastel wallpaper stretched between ornate doorways,
the walls hung with splendid paintings, for the Duke was an apt collector.
The ballroom was a wonder of smooth parquet flooring
under soaring ceilings whose swirled carvings were leafed in gold.
Then she spent rather longer than a moment admiring
the phos  lanterns set in sconces all along the walls, (1)
and the vast chandeliers sparkling with crystal and light.

The young ladies swirled softly in their colorful dresses,
like a garden of flowers stirred by a spring breeze.
Maryam counted heads and realized that there were still
more women than men, then calculated the most useful response.
So she went about the corners of the room, and invited
the wallflowers out to dance, the shy girls and plain girls
and the ones who always trod upon their partner's feet.
She also partnered the elegant old ladies who served as chaperones.

When the musicians paused for an intermission,
Old Henry towed Maryam to where the Cavendish family
and some of their friends had gathered at the end of the ballroom.
Maryam obligingly admired the event and exchanged small talk,
then turned again to the young ladies -- here, George's younger sister
Charlotte, with her golden hair piled in ringlets atop her head, and
William Percy's younger sister Margaret with fiery copper curls,
between them another girl with straight blond hair and cloudy blue eyes.

Maryam intuited that a blind girl would gather few offers,
so promptly asked her to the next dance -- and was delighted
to discover Cecily a charming partner, light as a feather and
easy to guide, trusting Maryam to steer them clear of other couples.
Cecily whispered gossip and tips and brilliant observations into her ear,
and Maryam realized that the girl probably heard everything  around her.

After the dance, Maryam returned Cecily to the exact same spot,
where the rosepetal pink of her dress set off the bright green
of Margaret's.  Charlotte, as one of the hostesses,
danced with everyone that she could, and
gamely made herself available to Maryam.

Charlotte wore a ball gown of gold shot with bronze,
and amongst the bronze were threads of orange and scarlet
so that the whole thing shimmered like flame under the chandeliers.
The bodice hung off her shoulders, with a wide band of ivory lace
about the neckline and short sleeves ending in more lace.
The long skirt swung gracefully like the bell of a tulip, and she had
gloves of pure gold silk buttoned at the wrists with pearls.

She danced with grace and flair, not so light as Cecily,
but claiming her own space within the dancing frame
in a manner that required Maryam to dance with  her
instead of merely guiding her through the steps.
It was gratifying in an altogether different way,
and Maryam wished that their mutual obligations
might have spared them more than a single turn
about the beautifully patterned floor of the ballroom.

"It was very good of you to partner Cecily," said Charlotte.
"My pleasure," Maryam said honestly.  "She is exquisite,
and she told me the most fascinating news about people."
Charlotte's turquoise eyes widened.  "She likes you, then,
for Cecily doesn't share her gleanings with just anyone.
Not everyone has the wit to listen, though," Charlotte said.
"A gentleman informs himself on matters of importance,"
Maryam said.  "One does not learn without listening."

Under the eye of a silently fuming George,
who clearly disapproved his sister's enchantment with a rival,
Maryam bowed lightly over Charlotte's hand and released her.
Afterward, Charlotte whispered something to Margaret,
of which Maryam caught only the end, "... really, though,
you simply must have a go -- what a darling." 
So Maryam led Margaret onto the floor, emerald satin swishing.

Margaret was reserved but civil, and Maryam was satisfied
with that, because sometimes people got downright rude.

Maryam made ready to depart at a respectable hour,
only to be caught by the butler's soft call of, "Lord Carrington."
That turned her head, because not many people
paid heed to her courtesy title of Baron Carrington,
her father's wishes notwithstanding.  "Yes?" she said.

The butler offered a set of calling cards, adding,
"His Grace noted your diligence in filling your dance card,
and wondered if you might consider future engagements."
Which was a polite way of saying, He noticed that you
made sure everyone who wanted to dance got to do so,
and PLEASE do it again because the boys are selfish louts. 
There in her palm lay a gilded calling card from the Duke,

a similar one from Charlotte, and the butler's far plainer card.
"I would be honored," Maryam agreed.

So that was how Maryam earned the Duke's favor
and invitations to a rather finer sort of event,
simply by minding her father's advice about
how gentlemen ought to behave,
in the company of young men who generally didn't.

* * *

1) phos -- light; a molecule consisting of one atom of aer  (Air) and one of pyra  (Fire).  Alchemical phos  lanterns provide excellent but very expensive illumination.

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14 comments or Leave a comment
thnidu From: thnidu Date: October 5th, 2012 12:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Very nice! -- although something went slight awry in the armature of the (most welcome*) footnote:

1) phos</span> ...

Edited at 2012-10-05 12:40 am (UTC)
thnidu From: thnidu Date: October 5th, 2012 12:45 am (UTC) (Link)


Because while the Doctor† is on familiar speaking terms with a great many roots, including φῶς, he has never studied alchemy of our history, much less that of the Steamsmiths.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 5th, 2012 01:09 am (UTC) (Link)


Thanks for catching this.
thnidu From: thnidu Date: October 5th, 2012 02:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Fixed!

(tips hat)

Urk! Somebody's Law applies here: I left the "-ly" off "slightly" (and can't put it in because somebody [me] has replied to the comment). Oh, well. I have more important things to do, like cuddle the cat, keep her off the keyboard, and get myself into bed.
janetmiles From: janetmiles Date: October 8th, 2012 10:54 am (UTC) (Link)
Aw, good for Maryam. And good for her father, for teaching her useful lessons.
siege From: siege Date: October 8th, 2012 07:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are always too many boys, and not enough gentlemen. It nearly always pays to fill the empty role.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 8th, 2012 09:21 pm (UTC) (Link)


That is often true, and Maryam is good at it. People who focus on social roles as performative tend to like her very much. People who take a more generative approach tend to sulk over all the ways she doesn't fit what the nature of a gentleman is "supposed" to be. I am endlessly intrigued by this contrast.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 8th, 2012 08:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I have found her father to be a fascinating guide in how to be a gentleman.
mdlbear From: mdlbear Date: October 8th, 2012 03:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
A tip of the top-hat -- I enjoyed this a lot.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 8th, 2012 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)


*bow, flourish* Happy to be of service.
(Deleted comment)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 8th, 2012 08:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

Yes, Maryam is good at that. She is a gentleman's gentleman, genderbent classbent racebent status notwithstanding. It's kind of the reverse of the trope where the white dude goes into some native culture and outdoes the locals at their own game.
From: technoshaman Date: April 16th, 2013 07:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Way to go Maryam! Show'em how it's done, and show'em up!

Hmmmmm. The duke and duchess have gilded calling cards. The butler's is plain (that he has one is interesting!)...

Reckon what Maryam's looks like, and also what a gentleman, of some status but with no title, would give out?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 21st, 2013 09:00 am (UTC) (Link)


>> Way to go Maryam! Show'em how it's done, and show'em up! <<

She is good at that.

>> Hmmmmm. The duke and duchess have gilded calling cards. <<

The fancier ones are typical of nobility or other rich people.

>> The butler's is plain (that he has one is interesting!)... <<

Pretty much anyone who can afford these things has them. A butler is the head of the male household belowstairs, and this one's serving in a high house, so within his own circle of acquaintances he's probably a popular fellow. Usually he'd network servant-to-servant, though.

I suddenly have to wonder if he clocked Maryam as being socially bifocal, rather than just meaning "Give this to your man so he can make arrangements with me regarding your appearances."

>> Reckon what Maryam's looks like, and also what a gentleman, of some status but with no title, would give out? <<

There are no formal rules for calling cards, but there are informal ones, because the degree and style of decoration function kind of like clothing to signal means and interest. I'd bet on Maryam having a masculine-styled card, on the plain side, with something to show her skill set. Maybe the steamsmith emblem in foil.
kaylin881 From: kaylin881 Date: March 15th, 2015 05:36 pm (UTC) (Link)

Drawn back to this by strange coincidence...

I read this series a while ago, and today I was browsing YouTube and found a song that very much reminded me of Maryam, especially this story: "The Bullpen", by Dessa. One line in particular stuck out to me:
"But in a room of thugs and rap veterans
Why am I the only one
Who's acting like a gentleman?"

I just thought it fit, and the rest of the song does too, being about a woman trying to carve out her way through a man's world. What do you think?
14 comments or Leave a comment