Ma Dulcinée

LONDON – 1917

Lord Augustus Davenport was a rather officious man. Portly at five feet six, he had a swallow complexion. His aquiline nose protruded haughtily from his jowled face, at times giving his moustache a lopsided appearance. The distinctly nasal inflection in his voice often left him breathless at the end of particularly lengthy sentences. 

There was quite a story behind his name. To anyone who would listen, Lord Davenport would pompously inform, “I was named after the great Gaius Octavious*, Julius Creaser’s adopted son and heir who not only succeeded him on the throne but also formed the ‘second triumvirate’ to defeat the assassins of Caesar.” For fear of being snagged into an extended conversation with him, no one dared question why it was that he was named Augustus if he was named after Gaius Octavious. The truth was that he had been born on the morning of August 1st after a prolonged and difficult labour. So debilitated was his mother by the time she delivered his chubby, ruddy self that eschewing custom, she simply commemorated the month of August and stuck him with the name Augustus. That was thirty five years back.

Lord Davenport harboured the misguided notion that he was a learned man and was fond of attending gatherings to hobnob with the ‘August’ gentry. One of his ambitions in life was to be a published, no actually, a publicly acclaimed poet. His love for poetry was second only to his love for the fine arts. He considered himself quite the connoisseur of the same and could often be spotted in London attending gallery openings, shows and such.

 There was however one thing that distinguished Lord Davenport from other art patrons of his age – he was stinking rich. He was descended from a long line of land holding barons and in the absence of another male heir, his father’s fortune – land, possessions and money, had been bequeathed to him. Along with the considerable wealth he had also gained the title. So, at the age of thirty two ‘Augustus Davenport’ had become ‘Lord Augustus Davenport’.

“I’m 23rd in line to the throne,” he often boasted to anyone within earshot. It was actually his money that the penurious purveyors of art loved for he donated generously to the British Literary Society, an organization that promoted literature. That was the reason why when he commandeered the stage at the ‘August’ gatherings, he was welcomed. Poor Lord Davenport however thought it was solely because his brethren were in awe of his literary talent. 

The British Literary Society, taking up a ballroom sized area, was located on the 2nd floor of a quaint Victorian building in London called St James Court.  The remainder of the floor was occupied by “Artistry”, the acclaimed international art appraisers and auctioneers. The ground and first floor were taken up by the British Medical Association. Every Friday evening, the British Literary Society held their weekly poetry and prose recitation event; one of the ‘August’ gatherings that Lord Davenport patronized.

It was on one such evening, as his Lordship made his way up the ornately balustraded marble staircase at St James Court that he saw her. His heart skipped a beat.  Oxygen seemed to deplete from his environs. Slack jawed, he stopped mid-step and ogled. Never, ever had he seen a woman quite so beautiful. She was a shimmering vision of beauty on the arm of a man who was huffing his way up the stairs, a few steps ahead. His eyes locked with hers momentarily. Deep set brown, hooded with a fringe of dark lashes, they spoke silent volumes. Her porcelain kissed skin was all ivory with hints of rosy coral on the cheeks. Her lips, full and luscious like a ripe plum, were painted a deep crimson, complimenting her maroon silk dress. A dainty feathered fascinator* was perched atop her head. Her golden tresses were loosely, almost carelessly held at the nape and cascaded down her back like gold spun on a sunlit morning. Lord Davenport was thunderstruck. In all of that moment, he knew that he was utterly and irrevocably in love.

There was a weeklong gala commencing the next evening at ‘Artistry’ and he watched them disappear into the auction house’s art gallery. Although he panted up the stairs after them, hustling as best he could, he could not find them again.

 The preparations for the gala were under way. Workers scurried about hanging up paintings and displaying artefacts. Gallery staff bustled around instructing a few haplessly overworked support staff. The weeklong festivities included displaying the works of various impressionist masters, culminating in an art auction. It was to be a big event, touted to be the best in Europe.

 So, it was no surprise that Lord Davenport lost sight of his new found lady love in such a melee. He did attempt to question a gallery employee but was rather brusquely shooed out saying, “Can’t you see we are busy. Come back tomorrow after we open.”

Dejected, he made his way to the opposite end of the passage, to the British Literary Society and swung the doors open. 

“There he is mates, the pompous ass,” sniggered a wannabe writer to others in his group as Lord Davenport entered.

“He doesn’t seem to be his usual arrogant git,” said another. He could see a change in his Lordship’s demeanour. Usually Lord Davenport strutted into the meetings with his chest puffed out, spouting absolute balderdash in the name of poetry. But, today there seemed to be the slightest stoop and sag to his shoulders. He seemed reticent and preoccupied.

“Has something happened then?” asked a third, joining the other two.

“Let’s go ask. Let’s have some fun chaps, what say?”

“Ha, ha. Aye, do lets,” all agreed heartily. After all, an opportunity beckoned. 

“Good evening Lord Davenport,” they said clustering around him. “Are you quite all right? You look a bit peckish?”

“Ermm…yes, yes, I’m fine lads. Tip-top, my chappies,” he mumbled, roused from his dreamy state.

“Shall we begin then?” asked the coordinator for the night’s event.

“Yes, we should, of course, no question,” said Lord Davenport. 

“Well. Right then, your Lordship, would you like to go first?” he offered, even though he knew that Lord Davenport always hogged the stage first.

“Err..No, no. Go ahead chaps,” replied his Lordship. 

Amazed, the coordinator looked at him. A few others raised their eyebrows in mock query. This was unprecedented. 

However, it was too good a chance to pass up so the coordinator hurried off before Lord Davenport could change his mind. The evening began per usual but his Lordship did not participate in the recitations that night. In fact, he seemed lost, often gazing towards the closed doors of the room. If the others were befuddled by his behaviour, they never let on. They were too glad to get a chance to share their work before an equally glad audience.

“Make hay while the sun shines, eh chaps?” said one to the other. 

The evening ended soon enough. 

Back home that night, sleep eluded his Lordship. He was plagued by thoughts of the lady. Her alabaster skin, her silken locks all seemed to taunt him as he tossed in bed, restlessly. He was consumed by a raw passion, most unlike his basic nature.  As dawn broke and he still had not slept a wink, he realized that the only way to put this to bed was to declare his intentions for the lady in question. 

Thus resolved and greatly relieved on the decided course of action, he dozed off till noon.

**********************

That evening brought the merest hint of rain.

 Brandishing his umbrella, Lord Davenport once more huffed his way up the stairs of the St. James Court. He entered the gallery. The gala was in full swing. Stewards curtsied and bobbed to guests, offering champagne flutes. Couples strolled arm in arm, admiring the display. Several distinguished gentlemen roamed often stopping to doff their hats at the ladies present.

Lord Davenport looked for his new found ladylove but could not see her. “Blimey!” he thought, “I was sure she would be here.”

He ambled along aimlessly for a bit, peering from alcove to alcove until…there she was near the rear wall, surrounded by a bevy of other beauties. But, to his enamoured eyes, none could compare. She was a rare orchid amid the country lilies. Their eyes locked again. Lord Davenport imagined a hint of a smile play on her lips.

A couple of distinguished looking gentlemen stood discussing something in earnest near the ladies. Lord Davenport retreated a few steps. It would not do to declare his interest in her now when there were other gentlemen vying for her. 

“No, no…I reckon, I shall have to be cautious,” he mused, his brows drawn in concentration. 

He accosted the gallery manager. “Er, excuse me, who is…I mean, I want to know…those gentlemen…ermm, the lady…” he could not continue. He had never done this before. He had never slunk around trying to get details on a lady. His stature in society was such that people usually imparted information on their own. But then, he had never before been in love. The employee must have read his discomposure.

“My Lord, do you mean the lady near the far wall? The one in red?” he asked cocking his head in the general direction.

“Ermm..yes, yes the very one.” 

“Aah! Yes I see why you are so taken. Indeed, I do, I do,” he said smothering a chuckle. “She is a vision of beauty, our Mademoiselle Beauchamp.”

“Our?”

“Why, yes, my Lordship. The gala is in her honour. You could even call it her debut to British society.” He informed. “That is why there are so many gentlemen vying for her.”

“Hmmm….I see.”

Lord Davenport had an epiphany just then. Suffused with a sudden sense of purpose, he knew what he had to do. It was quite simple really.

“I have to beat the other men vying for her.” he thought, bobbing his head. “Yes, yes, that is what I must do. I simply must make her mine. She belongs with me only.”

 It did not look like he would get a chance alone with her on the opening night, so his Lordship gracefully departed from the venue. 

Back home and still mooning over the beautiful Mlle. Beauchamp, he pulled out a sheaf of papers and wrote an ode to her unsurpassed beauty. 

Thy beauty rare like a flower

My love on you I shall shower

O’ Mlle. Beauchamp, be mine

O’ luminescent moon do shine.

As usual the poem was subpar, a pithy attempt at best but to Lord Davenport it was his heart in verse. Satisfied with his attempt, he slept like a baby that night, dreaming about his Mlle. Beauchamp. 

**********************************

The next day, his Lordship appeared at the gallery just as they opened their doors to the public. Only the gallery employees were in attendance along with a few overzealous patrons. But, she was there, by herself, near the far wall again. Purposefully he made his way towards her.

“I say is that you Augustus, old chap?” a voice intruded.

Lord Davenport stifled a groan. He knew the voice. It was his father’s geriatric friend Duke Archibald of Ellington. The man could talk an entire nation to slumber in a matter of minutes. He would have ignored the Duke but for the fact that in the British hierarchy a Duke placed second only to Queen. Both social rank and his manners dictated that he acknowledge the greeting.

“Your Lordship, I am delighted to meet you,” he said turning and bowing to the Duke. 

Needless to say, a lengthy conversation ensued which gave Lord Davenport little chance to make his escape. By the time he could make his excuses and extricate himself from the painful company, his ladylove was once more surrounded by a mob of people. 

“It’s futile. I cannot be alone with her tonight,” he thought, ruefully. 

Dejected he once more made his way home thinking, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’ll come back and put this to bed.”

**********************

Sadly, the next few days demanded his Lordship’s attention at his country estate. Sunday morning saw him depart for Middleton and it was Friday again before he got back to London. But, undeterred, the same evening he made his way back to Artistry, intent on seeking a solitary audience with his lady. 

As he wheezed his way and reached the second floor doors of Artistry, he was sighted by his peers from the British Literary Society.

“Eh, where’s he going mate?” commented a member to another. “Has he forgotten which door it is to the society?” 

“Lord Davenport, where are you going?” called out a third. 

“Ahem!” slightly nonplussed at being caught his Lordship said, “er..I was just coming in.” Truth was he had been hoping to slink away into the art gallery, unnoticed. The less the number of people that knew about his lady, the better. 

That evening he found little opportunity to escape as the recitations and subsequent discussions ran on longer than usual.

“Darn it! Looks like everyone wrote something this week,” he lamented, irritated. 

 By the time he could free himself, the gallery was shut and there was no one about. So rather morosely, he once more returned home. 

“I simply must see her tomorrow,” he determined that night, “come what may.” 

That night sleep came fitfully. Time was passing by and he still had not declared his intentions towards Mlle. Beauchamp. If he did not exhibit any interest soon, she would be lost to one of the other pursuers. There was no dearth of them in British society. 

******************************

The next evening again saw Lord Davenport at the gallery. But, alas, like always there was a throng of people around Mlle. Beauchamp. Spying him staring at the lady from afar, the gallery manager walked up.

“Good evening Lord Davenport. I hope you have been able to declare your intent for the fair lady?” 

“Errm…no, no…not yet.”

“Really! Why I had hoped that by now you would have communicated something,” he said surprised. 

His Lordship blushed red. “Ahem, no, no….I, ugh…I did not get a chance yet.” 

“Well you must hasten. There are others, you know? And, Mlle. Beauchamp will be gone after the auction tomorrow night.”

Deeply distressed by the news Lord Davenport cast a look of longing at the lady and said, “Oh no! I fear I shall never be able to find the right time.”

“Well, she is going to be in attendance at the art auction tomorrow evening. So, perhaps his Lordship would like to attend?” suggested the manager, a sly glint in his eye. Deep pockets always helped fetch higher prices at the auction and Lord Davenport was loaded.

“Of course! Yes! I will definitely attend the auction tomorrow.”

“Perhaps this schedule will be of help,” said the manager handing him a pamphlet with the following evening’s programme. “Mlle. Beauchamp shall be on the dais tomorrow when the rarer pieces of impressionist art go under the hammer.”

Gratefully Lord Davenport shook hands with the man and made his exit. He had plans to make. It was tomorrow or never. He had to come up with a strategy or she would be lost to him even before he could declare his interest.

*************************

The next day, the day of the auction, Lord Davenport was restless. At dusk, he hailed a hackney* and was off. He did not want to be late. He planned to reach early to grab a seat in the front row at the auction, directly in line of sight of Mlle. Beauchamp. Fortunately, his early arrival accomplished that.

The auction began. Lot after lot streamed through the dais in the first hour. Most were cheaper pieces and were quickly snapped up by vintage business owners. The room was crammed with art aficionados holding placards. The atmosphere was highly charged, electric with excitement. 

The expensive and rare collectibles were scheduled to come under the hammer towards the later part of the evening. That was when the more serious and wealthy collectors would bid. Lord Davenport waited impatiently for his ladylove to take the dais. 

And, he was not disappointed for she came up on the dais just as the auctioneer announced, “the next item for consideration is a splendid work by French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Manet dating back to 1778. This coveted oil on canvas, titled ‘Ma dulcinée’* is the artist’s dedication to his ladylove, rumoured in history to be the most beautiful woman of her time.”

 Lord Davenport was deaf to the auctioneer’s words. Like a love struck puppy he sat and gaped at Mlle. Beauchamp, on the dais. 

 “Aaah! She is so beautiful. I swear, I can smell her perfume if I close my eyes,” he imagined happily to himself.

“Bidding starts at a quarter of a million pounds.” the auctioneer announced. “Do I have a bid?”

A few hands were raised and the bidding war began in earnest. More the takers, higher goes the price so it soon shot up from a quarter million to a half million pounds. Lord Davenport only continued to gaze at his ladylove, lost to the world. 

Then, “a million pounds,” bid a collector from the back row.

His Lordship was jolted out of his reverie. Cognizant now, he hurriedly appraised the situation and raised his placard saying, “two million pounds,” in a clear yet adenoidal voice.

“Do I have a bid for over two million?” asked the auctioneer. 

His query was met with silence. No other placards were raised. Two million was just too high a price. 

“Well then, going once, going twice,” said the auctioneer before banging his gavel, “and sold to Lord Davenport; the painting titled ‘Ma dulcinée’ depicting Mlle. Beauchamp, the painter’s ladylove, rumoured in history to be the most beautiful woman of her time.”

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AUTHOR’S NOTE – This story is a work of fiction and is not intended to hurt the sentiments of any particular community or its peoples. The locations and societies described are purely fictional, as is the name of the painting and the painter.

An auction is a process of buying and selling goods or services by offering them up for bid, taking bids, and then selling the item to the highest bidder. Participants bid openly against one another, with each subsequent bid required to be higher than the previous bid.  An auctioneer may announce prices; bidders may call out their bids themselves (or have a proxy call out a bid on their behalf).

GLOSSARY

Gaius OctaviousAugustus was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus. He was adopted by his maternal great-uncle Julius Caesar and was named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir. Along with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, he formed the Second Triumvirate to defeat the assassins of Caesar. The Roman Senate granted him the additional name, ‘Augustus’.  Historians use this name to refer to him from 27 BC until his death in AD 14.

FascinatorA fascinator is a formal headpiece for women, the term refers to a type of formal headwear worn as an alternative to the hat; it is usually a large decorative design attached to a band or clip.

Hackney – A hackney or hackney carriage (also called a cab, black cab, hack or London taxi) is a carriage or car for hire.

Ma dulcinée – Meaning ‘My Ladylove’ in French.
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Sonal Singh

Sonal Singh is the Founder/Director of a manpower search firm called Rian Placements. She dabbles in travel and writing. She believes that life is a repertoire of anecdotes strung together in a colourful array, like a beaded necklace. The various situations that we encounter, the many incidents of every day, make life a melange of tales and conversational tidbits. And, this is what she attempts to capture through her writing.

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