The Bell Tower, Chapter Four: The Ball
"Matty, dear, would you please sit still?" Mrs. Lee asked in exasperation.
Matty cast a guilty look up at her mother. "Sorry," she said, knotting her fingers in the leaf-green skirt of her gown in an attempt to control her fidgets. "Nerves."
Mr. Lee, sitting on the other side of the carriage and very dashing indeed in his fashionable waistcoat and long-tailed jacket, only laughed. "Let her be, dear," he told his wife. "It's not as if she's done this sort of thing before." A shadow crossed his face. "Another reason to celebrate – though I'm not certain the Mayor's house is the appropriate place for such a celebration."
Mrs. Lee shook her head at him. "None of your politics tonight," she said. "This is the most important ball of the season, and even if everyone else decides to waste it with all of this Watchmen talk, I refuse."
Matty's ears pricked. "Watchmen?" she asked.
Mr. Lee straightened his cravat and smiled at her. "Nothing to worry about tonight," he said. "Your mother is quite correct. This is an evening for me to show off my beautiful wife and daughter – nothing else."
The carriage slowed, and Matty heard the coachman's voice outside.
"I think we've arrived," Mr. Lee said. "Now, Matty – you stay near your mother or me all evening, alright? I don't want to have to search for you all over the Mayor's mansion when we decide to leave. The place is a labyrinth."
She hoped it would be too labyrinthine – she wanted to have something to tell Amos tomorrow. Not that she expected to find a workshop with another Machine – she shuddered to imagine that – but perhaps someone would know about Valentine the Mechanician. Or…or something.
The carriage door opened, and Mr. Lee climbed out, turning back to help first his wife and then his daughter down. Under a sky that was turning lavender as dusk fell, the strains of string music flowed from inside and mingled with the muffled chatter of guests and the closer, sharper sounds of horses chuffing and shuffling their feet. Matty straightened her skirts – a bell-shaped affair under a cream-colored jacket and embroidered all over with tiny golden circles – and followed her parents up the broad, shallow steps at the front of the Mayor's mansion. Warm light spilled over the trim lawn from windows almost as tall as the trees that surrounded the house.
A footman at the door took Mr. Lee's card and led them into the light, announcing: "Mr. and Mrs. Lee, and daughter." No one seemed to really pay much attention, and the man's voice didn't go much further than the people right around the door, but Matty saw a few men look up at her father from the dance floor and give small nods.
The room was spinning with people – women in ornate gowns and men in suits and jackets. Matty kept close to her mother, but couldn't help but gape at the riot of color and movement around her.
"Mrs. Lee!" a woman called out. She swept toward them in a dress covered in so many watch chains that it jingled when she moved. They swept from her waist in a curtain of golden links over a scarlet skirt, and more were woven in her coifed hair. Matty could only guess how much the skirt must weigh – but the woman glided up with pink cheeks the only evidence of exertion. "Mrs. Lee, darling, we've been waiting for you," she said, clasping Mrs. Lee's hand in her own. She cast an appraising glance at Matty, and smiled. "Is this your daughter, then?"
Mrs. Lee smiled. "Indeed. Matty, this is Lady Ruthine Millsmith. And of course, Lady Millsmith, you know my husband."
"Lovely evening to you, m'lady," Mr. Lee said.
“Mr. Lee.” A blond man with a trim, reddish beard clapped a hand on Matty’s father’s shoulder.
“Ah, Sir Michaels,” Mr. Lee greeted him.
The man tugged at his silken ascot and nodded toward a group of men in the corner of the room. One of them, a fellow wearing a dark blue suit and holding a walking cane tucked under his arm, tipped his hat at the ladies before turning back to his conversation.
“Glad I caught you,” Sir Michaels said. “The others are over there.” He looked down at Matty and smiled. Reaching into the pocket of his long velvet overcoat, he pulled out a small silver case and flipped it open, revealing a row of colorful candies. “Jelly Baby?” he offered.
Matty looked at her father, who nodded. "Thank you," she said, picking a red, sugar-dusted sweet from the case.
Mr. Lee bowed to Lady Millsmith. "I must excuse myself," he said. Then, with a wink at his wife, "But don't think you're getting out of dancing this evening."
He and the blond man moved away, conversing in low tones.
Mrs. Lee sighed. "So like a man," she said, but it was a fond complaint. She and Lady Millsmith began moving toward a corner of the massive ballroom, where a table full of women waited. Matty followed, keeping in the wake of their skirts and trying to drink in everything at once: the high ceilings painted with pastel-colored murals of shepherdesses and cherubs, the string orchestra playing in one corner, the dance floor in the center of the room that was a whirl of color and sound… She was so engrossed in her surroundings that she never saw the man until she tripped over his foot.
"Hey, there," he exclaimed, catching her arm before she could fall. "Careful now, lass." His eyes twinkled, and there was a broad smile behind his bushy red beard.
Matty blushed. "I'm so sorry," she began – and then froze.
The tiny head of a monkey was peeking out from behind the man's head.
The man gave a half-bow. "Mr. C. Sperry, at your service," he said. "And this little lady is Travesuras." The monkey, hearing its name, leaped to the top of Mr. Sperry's head and executed a clever bow.
Matty laughed, surprised. "She's wonderful!"
The red-bearded man looked rueful. "She certainly thinks she is." Something caught his eye behind Matty. "I believe your mother is trying to get your attention," he said.
Matty turned, and saw Mrs. Lee gesturing toward a saved seat. "Sorry again for bumping into you, Mr. Sperry—" she looked back to say. But the red-bearded man and his monkey were gone, vanished into the swirl of the crowd.
Matty joined her mother and Lady Millsmith at the table, and Mrs. Lee made the introductions. There was Lady Thomas, all in brown leather and gold wirework, a Ms. Julie in a skirt the color of the evening sky and a violet waistcoat, and beside Matty sat a smiling woman who introduced herself only as Millicent and said softly, "Mr. Sperry's monkey is the life of the party. Her name means "mischief" in Espanian."
The conversation quickly turned to a discussion of this season's hats and a lively argument about a play showing in the Pearl Theater, and Matty tuned it out. She was content to watch the partygoers for the moment – and to watch for her opportunity to do some snooping.
But as the evening wore on – the ladies from their table taking their turns on the dance-floor, platters of finger food passing from table to table, the orchestra taking a break and returning again – Matty began to realize that if she was going to get an opportunity, she was going to have to make it herself.
Fortunately, nature provided an excuse.
"Mama," she said in a low voice, touching her mother's arm.
Mrs. Lee leaned in close to hear her. "Yes, dear?"
"I need to find the necessary."
Mrs. Lee nodded and pointed with a delicate hand. "See those doors?" She pointed toward the other end of the ballroom. "There's a private room for the ladies just through there."
"Thanks, I'll be back in a bit." Matty stood, trying not to look too eager, and began to edge her way around the dance floor. She had to make her way past several groups of guests clustered against the wall, deep in conversations, gossip, or politics. More than once, she overheard the word "Watchmen" – and once, as she was waiting for the dancers to move so she could squeeze past a trio of men, one of them spotted her standing there and gestured to his companions. They stopped talking and gave her an odd look.
"Excuse me," she muttered, finally able to slip past. Her face was warm, but she was also curious. She'd have to see if Butler knew anything about this "Watchmen" business – or perhaps there were some of the last few weeks' newspapers in Mr. Lee's study she could peruse.
Finally free of the dance floor, she escaped into the much-cooler and quieter hall. A maid stationed inside gave her a bright smile.
"Looking for the necessity?" she asked. Her thick black hair was pulled back in a ribbon, and she was barely any taller than Matty – though several years older. "It's through here."
Matty thanked her, pushing through the curtain that hung over the door and entering the parlor on the other side. Several small chambers had been created with folding screens, offering privacy.
When she emerged, the maid was still standing outside, her eyes fixed on the guests in the ballroom.
"Quite a party," Matty said, wondering if she could distract the maid long enough to sneak down the hall in the opposite direction, deeper into the bowels of the Mayor's mansion.
"It is," the maid agreed. She smiled at Matty. "Quite a few handsome men out there, don't you agree?"
Matty looked out at the shifting mass of wealthy citizens, all done up in their finery and their manners, and she was reminded of the blank-faced mannequins in the Undercity. "I suppose."
The maid opened her mouth to say something else, but just then the music came to an end, and a trumpet blew a short blast. Matty had to crane her neck to see over the heads of the crowd, but she could just see the stairs at the other end of the ballroom – and she could hear just fine. And the voice she heard sent chills racing down her arms like an army of ants, an army that then set up camp in her belly.
He held up his hands for silence. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he said, his voice carrying over the heads of the assembly. Matty closed her eyes and tried not to think about the Machine or Henry or struggling with the Mayor in the darkness of the Undercity.
"We are gathered here tonight to celebrate the return of our City's prosperity," the Mayor continued. "But for me, this is also a night to celebrate the return of my son."
A murmur ran through the crowd, and Matty opened her eyes again. She remembered hearing about the Mayor's son William, who had been in a terrible carriage wreck when he was very young. The Mayor's wife had died in the accident, but the son had lived – if you could call spending the next thirteen years unconscious and kept alive only by well-paid doctors and their machines "living."
"It's the most wonderful thing," the maid whispered to Matty. "A few months back, he just woke up one day. Couldn't really talk, couldn't feed himself, but awake. A miracle."
The Mayor was still talking. "For thirteen years I have hoped and prayed that William would recover, and at last my dreams have come true. And now they have. Please join me in celebration as we welcome William home."
The room exploded into applause, and Matty glanced over her shoulder. Would the maid even notice if she just slipped off into the shadows? Somewhere in this house, there had to be some kind of evidence of the Mayor's schemes.
Then she heard something that made the ants camped in her stomach burst into flames.
"Thank you, Father," said a boy's voice. "And thank you all for coming tonight. I am honored."
Her eyes snapped back to the front of the room, and the name burst from her throat like a scream.