"These poor abraded butterflies of the stage appear half-immaterialised,
and with a glamour that is theirs but for this short moment."
Daily Telegraph critic reviewing
Walter Sickert's painting,
Brighton Pierrots, 1916
Alix stood at the back of the crowd, anonymous, a sensation as alien to her as poverty. On her lips she could still taste sulphur from her daily cure, a tincture of gunsmoke. She watched the crowd watching tired performing dogs, feeling uncomfortable in her borrowed clothes. The hounds danced on back legs, barking for poorly concealed treats, scratching paws against ill fitting ruffs.
It would not take long before her presence here was revealed. Someone would talk; a maid, a waitress or bellboy. Threats or bribes never worked. She was the most famous woman in three empires; the daughter of one, grand-daughter to another. Bride to the empire of the white wastes.
Alix turned her back and walked on, further into the gardens. She walked alone. A flâneur in her heavy black coat. Unobserved yet attentive. Mayblossom crowned the manicured lawns where it had fallen in the late spring breeze, a carpet of rotting snow.
Other entertainments capered for loose coins. Jugglers gazed up to the bright May sun catching falling clubs and wheels. Fire eaters consumed the most lifelike element.
Around the old bandstand the crowd became dense again, seaweed caught on a paint peeled rock. Alix moved round trying to see past feathered hats and parasols to the performers beyond.
"I care not what others may say,
I'm in love with Oyuchasan
The act was bawdy, refugees from the prom washed up in spring gardens. The monochrome outfits marked the performers out as children of the Commedia. Drunken cousins who molest the servants. The act was uncomplicated. At one side a female Pierrot sat behind a dark walnut piano, while another, much taller, member of the troupe sang. Large fronded black buttons pulsed and swam.
"I'm in love with Oyuchasan,
"We're in love with Oyuchasan."
Alix wondered what her husband to be would think if he could see from his palace of Faberge and glass. Would he scowl, creasing his brow at the low jokes and risqué songs? Have the performers taken to the prison she knew he maintained in his palaces, see them beaten for offending the morals of his bride to be? More likely he would try to hide a smile, maintain the composure of his rank, before collapsing in fits of giggles in their private rooms.
The black petalled flower appeared under Alix's chin. Her eyes came up to the crowd gazing back, and the black and white clown stood, eyes turned down in mock sadness. From this distance she could see runs in his heavy make-up and smell the sweat from the heavy cotton outfit.
Keeping her composure Alix took the long stemmed flower from his hands. Pale yellow pollen fell, collecting on the back of her glove. She nodded her head, a dismissive act, as second nature to her as breathing. The clown stayed, staring. A moment hung balanced. Alix glanced down, noticed his hand emerging from a billowing sleeve, a lead asking a follow to the dancefloor.
Caught off guard, feeling her neck flush, she reached out, letting him take her fingers. He caressed her engagement ring through the kid leather. For a moment she thought theft was hidden behind his heavily kholed eyes. Then, fixing her gaze, he lowered his head. With an artist touch he unfastened the single button, removed her glove, finger by finger, and kissed her hand, leaving a black impression of his lips, tacky to the touch.
Alix pulled away, trying to ignore the giggles of the audience. With those two acts the Pierrot had dressed her in black and white, brought her in to the troupe; made her part of the act. She turned on her heel, borrowed coat cutting into her arms, and walked down the path towards town. Footsteps broke through the cloud of her embarrassment, their rhythm wrong. Staccato. She stopped and turned. He crouched on the floor like a beggar, dragging himself behind her. By now a wave of laughter broke over her, the audience revelling in her discomfort.
He pursued her, gambolling, crawling, walking on his hands, past the performing dogs and wellheads, across the blossom carpets and gravelled paths. His hands reached up, imploring, stuck with grit and skeletal leaves. He produced flower after flower. Roses, tulips, daffodils all black with white stamen. Alix ignored the proffered gifts till he pressed them into her palms. With a dismissive wave she dropped them in the gutter, ignoring his face creasing at her rejection.
Finally, Alix reached the gates. With a flourish the Pierrot removed his hat, bowed low, and pirouetted back up to where the rest of the troupe played bawdy sea shanties to an eager crowd.
The embarrassment burned Alix's face hot and red. She pulled her hat down, shadowing her face, and walked quickly to put distance between her and the scene of her humiliation. She could inform her grandmother's constabulary. Have them haul the actor away from the comfort of the stage to the mould and damp of a cell. Or the crushing labour of the workhouse. In her head she planned many revenges, played out in anonymous stone rooms across the continent. One question burned at the centre of all of them. Why her? Had this gymnastic, white caked creature recognised her profile from the wedding announcements, heard rumours of her attendance to take the waters?
Alix turned the corner and walked toward her lodgings. The crowd must have numbered three hundred. They sat in small groups, families sharing picnics and men clinking bottles of beer. Someone had spoken, shattering her anonymity like a wine glass on a tiled floor. She pushed through, keeping her head turned down and away. Children touched the hem of her coat, and women tried to shake her hand.
The door to her guest house opened. Her landlord appeared, pushing his way down to rescue her from the pressing, inquisitive mass. No longer individuals, the crowd mutated into a single, multi-headed hydra, breathing alcohol fumes and crude questions.
Alix let herself be guided up the stairs. Her landlord took her coat and led her to a seat.
"I'm sorry for that Your Highness. Don't know how they found out. None of our staff talked. Can promise you that. Maybe someone at the Spa. Don't pay them enough. They're always looking for an extra bob or two."
She nodded, to agree, to get him to stop talking.
Standing, she walked down the hall and up the stairs. He went to help her, but she waved his hand away.
"I am going to rest in my room. Please do not disturb me," she said over her shoulder.
"Do you want waking for dinner, Your Highness?" he asked.
She shook her head and carried on up the stairs.