We came from all over London for the first rehearsal of the Ranee’s orchestra. We curled our hair and rouged our necks and collarbones. Our parents and guardians watched and sweated in our doorways as we prepared. They remembered the Ranee as a menace to polite society as a child and a young woman, and they read about her in the papers now. The queen of a postage-stamp colony in Borneo, internationally renowned for her wild parties—palm trees and swimming pools full of gin drinks and headhunters. Our parents were nervous to send us, their sweet unmarried daughters, to the town house of a scandalous woman who’d spent almost three decades with free reign over a country seven thousand miles from the natural prophylactic of their gossip. But the Ranee held a double handful of eligible bachelors, three truly royal sons, the scent of which was fairly wafted to us by the invitations. And it was only a young ladies’ orchestra, on English soil. And our parents were overburdened with daughters. So they gave their consent and merely hovered, nervous.
Some of us were more stylish than others, and so we arrived as a mosaic of changing fashions—the boyish drape of the abandoned ’20s blooming into handkerchief hemlines and butterfly sleeves and empire waists. We smoothed our varied skirts and looked sidelong at one another in the Ranee’s parlor. We waited.
We had been certain from the beginning that the Ranee had only organized the orchestra to find wives for her three sons. The invitations might as well have said so, we had agreed in whispers—our heads bowed over them at panicked luncheons in the days after we received them, cream cheese and coffee dripping on the embossed letters.
The Ranee claimed she wanted to start an orchestra for the edification of young ladies. With her own infamous devotion to music, especially the big-band dance popular in America, and her collection of instruments from around the world, she would teach us the music of Europe and the decent parts of Borneo.
The goal, she wrote, was that we eventually perform pieces written by her sons.
We’d all seen the newspaper stories, tight columns of text in the gossip pages, about how the Ranee had infected her children with the musical bug on a visit to America. She’d bought Sterling—the oldest and heir apparent—a whole jazz club in New York, and (rumor had it) hired an extra bandleader just to teach him and his brothers the tricks of the trade. The papers said the three brothers had been writing pieces that called for a full band, love songs and dance numbers, and now they were back in England for the summer—the first time in over a decade, the first time since the boys had grown—and they had no royal orchestra to play their pieces.
No local acquaintances either, we read between the lines. No young ladies with whom to socialize.
The Ranee’s sons. “The princes,” we had called them at first, and Mary Crawford had to remind us that that wasn’t right. “They’re called too-ans or something over there,” she said around a mouthful of sandwich. We traded glances across the table, trying to decide if that was the same.
Maybe some of us decided that it was, but most of us came to first meeting of the orchestra because we could not decide. Who could know for sure about something so strange, the idea of marrying into such a family? Living in the jungle and liaising with the Colonial Office? We decided we would wait and discover our feelings.
The Ranee entered noisily, swishing and clattering and shouting “at last a little music!” from rooms away. We had time to be alarmed, and then to recompose ourselves in strange positions we imagined to look candid.
The Ranee was short and not beautiful. Had she been born to a different class, her face would not have inspired gallantry in passing men. But she was crafty. She had only been seventeen when she had met her husband, then a weedy, tweedy boy next in line—the Rajah Muda—to rule the jungle kingdom gifted to his grandfather by the King. She had treated him, our mothers had told us, with no respect at all. Like a toy.
Dorothy Bucknell’s mother had seen the moment the future Ranee had hooked the Rajah Muda for good—by pulling him away from a party and forcing him to learn to roller skate. “She stuffed a pillow down the back of his trousers and pushed him across the floor in the upstairs drawing room,” Mrs. Bucknell had told us during one of her salons, over her third gin sling of the afternoon. “We could all hear them from downstairs, the clacking and whirring and crashing like thunder.” She pointed at her own ceiling and traced a ghostly path. “Cheeky girl. The Rajah was just sick with wanting someone to boss him. If only the rest of us had had more of the despot in us, we might have gotten him first. But your young Mrs. Ranee was the most eager to abuse.” Here Mrs. Bucknell had taken a long draw on her cigarette, and left behind a flake of tobacco on the wet curve of her lip. We were none of us brave enough to point it out to her, not even Dorothy herself.
We could tell looking at the Ranee that she had not thought about Mrs. Bucknell or any one of our mothers in twenty-five years. She had the air of a person who measured everyone by either their power over her or their usefulness to her, and had mapped her life according to the decrease of others’ power and the increase of their usefulness. How else is there to say it: she was a queen. And the entire British Empire and the nervous young Rajah slipping on his roller skates had only been technicalities necessary to correct her label in the encyclopedia of human life.
She greeted us that morning in an elaborately draped sarong, the deep green that signified royalty in her kingdom. Queendom. We had all seen the newsprint photos of her processing under a royal umbrella, the captions that assured us it was green. There was a thrill in seeing the colour for ourselves. Like a special language, a special sight more vibrant and elite than that of garden variety paper-readers.
The sarong gapped at one place above the Ranee’s rolling hip. She watched us notice—or did we imagine it?—and smiled. In that moment we remembered different stories we’d overheard about her—ones our fathers told each other almost silently, in chuckles around cigar stubs and eyebrows raised over the rims of port glasses.
“Welcome!” the Ranee said. She spread her arms and elephant-tusk bracelets clacked against one another. She tucked her hair and veil behind one ear. She settled sideways on a fainting couch and draped one plump arm over the curve of its back. “Where are my birds?” she called, pouting.
We looked at one another. If the silence had stretched longer, one of us might have grasped at an answer. But almost at once a servant entered with two green budgerigars perched on his wrist. He cocked his hand by the Ranee’s shoulder and the birds shuffled to her. She cooed at them and then finally turned to face us, the crowd of young womanhood overstuffed onto her furniture. She was smug and silent, still at last.
“So,” she said. “My lovely musicians. Thank you for coming to rescue us. Sterling will be so happy.” We straightened slightly at the mention of the Rajah Muda, this strange carnival’s grand prize.
“We’re going to have such fun,” she said, brows high and eyes wide as if we were children in her charge. “Do you like music?”
We nodded. “Oh, yes,” one of us said, a bright voice from a corner.
“What kinds?” The Ranee unfolded and refolded her legs under the sarong, her budgies fluttering at the movement and coming in again to land. She looked at us one at a time, held our gazes until we broke contact. “Hmm? The symphony? Piano etudes?” She waggled her shoulders, upsetting the birds again. “Jazz?”
This time our nods were uneven, the quiet in the room deeper, its meaning less certain.
“I love jazz,” the Ranee said, flashing her teeth. “And I just bet you will too, when you get to know it. My sons”—she flashed a conspiratorial smile; some of us would swear ever after that she winked—“they were stubborn boys—us stodgy old English! But you should see the swing club I’ve conquered in New York. Dancing at all hours!”
We lacquered polite smiles on our faces and swam through her words, trying to find her sons in the chaotic scene she painted. Trying to discover anything about them we could use.
“What are your instruments?” the Ranee asked.
In the silence one of the budgies swooped to the rim of the water pitcher and began bathing, splashing noisily, droplets beading on its feathers. It fluffed itself and sent a shower of mist as far as Eleanor Lincoln, who winced as if she’d been spattered with oil. “I’ve had viola lessons,” she gasped, as if to make the bird stop.
“Wonderful,” the Ranee said, turning to face Eleanor. She leaned on one fist so her cheek bunched under her crimped curls. “The viola. So soulful.”
Eleanor reddened as if the Ranee had promised her Sterling on the spot. Some of the rest of us, silent and unmusical, prickled. A soulful instrument says nothing about its owner, the more jealous among us thought. Eleanor must have felt it, the shift in the air of the room against her, like a wind changing.
“Anyone else?” the Ranee asked. There was a muted splat from the bird by the water pitcher. Eleanor gasped. A few girls raised cautious hands to confess to long-since forgotten piano lessons in girlhood. Otherwise, we were silent. We had to be.
“Good,” the Ranee said, toothy. “It’s more fun to start fresh.” In the corners of our eyes we saw Eleanor wilt. “We’ll go to the music room,” the Ranee said, “and you’ll pick for yourselves.” She pushed herself upright on the couch and, unflinching, poured herself a glass of water from the bird’s bath pitcher. She raised it high. Some of us thought she was toasting us; we felt the kindling snap of competition in our hearts. Others thought they saw the Ranee tilt the glass this way and that, her gaze short and appraising—as if checking the coat of lipstick on her half-reflected ghost.
We fanned after the Ranee into the thick-carpeted music room and surveyed the decadent forest of brass and lacquer, instruments both familiar and foreign. Some were propped on stands for display; others lay pillowed on ottomans and window seats as though they’d just been played. The suggested ghosts of the Ranee’s sons, as if they’d fled the room just ahead of us. Still more instruments lay in ankle-high drifts around the room, in apparently careless piles of ukuleles and drums and shining horns. Too many to arrange with any sense. Gifts from other monarchs; souvenirs from world travels. The spoils of a manic eccentric’s shopping sprees.
Looking at the sonorous riches around us, we began to calculate. We made silent, strategic choices. “Just choose what looks fun!” the Ranee said, leaning against a mantelpiece. Her birds began to flit around the room, swooping about the edges of the scene as if looking for an exit and yet stubbornly neglecting the door. “We can make sure the parts all shake out evenly later.”
So few of us wanted to put in the time to master a wind or string instrument. And even worse, to end up red-faced and huffing or knit in concentration when the princes—tuans—arrived. (When would they arrive? Would they skip this first, nascent rehearsal? Would they miss the first glimpses of their own future brides? We caught each other craning around corners, inspecting shadowy doorways, listening for approaching footsteps.)
Eleanor, moving with the slouch of the heartbroken, dragged herself to the viola. Jane Avalon drifted inexplicably toward a trombone as big as she was, her lifelong absentmindedness as always armoring her against analysis. Well, there goes Jane, we thought. She traced the burnished curve of the trombone’s bell. We’ll never know if she meant to choose the instrument or just to wander by, to know it briefly by touch like a child or a blind woman. But the Ranee saw her and said “Oh, look at that—the trombone for Jane!” and with that Jane’s future notched cleanly into its slot, by royal decree made law. Jane looked up, startled, and closed her hand around the delicate brass bell.
The rest of us stilled completely, even our breath. We teetered. And then in a flurry we all took quick, purposeful steps across the music room. We kept our hands in full view and laid them cleanly on our choices.
In the aftermath, it happened that some of us had chosen the smaller instruments—ukuleles; flutes. They were petite and delicate, built for thin fingers and slender arms. The rest of us understood their choices, and we respected them. But they were the minority—for the most part we were a phalanx of percussion. Nearly a full band of timpani and bongo, triangle and snare. There was a moment’s standoff between the would-be drummers, each of us clutching our tambourine or shaker, wondering who would claw through whom to keep her place. But the Ranee laughed and clapped her hands and prodded us to our seats, and so the next lines of the day were written. The ladies’ orchestra was to begin as a ragamuffin drum circle.
“How shall we start?” Dorothy ventured, settling into a chair with a miniature stringed something, cousin to a guitar or balalaika. “Have the tuans left music for us?” There was a hopeful lilt in her voice, the suggestion that the Ranee might fetch her sons from wherever they were hiding, pursuing their royal business or royal leisure. That she might let them get a look at us.
The Ranee responded and yet seemed not to have heard. She snatched a tambourine from atop a nearby pile. “In our kingdom,” she said, taking a spinning step, sweeping the train of her sarong behind her. “In our kingdom, music comes from within!” She held the tambourine up beside her ear and stutter-scraped it with one thumb, her eyes closed. She beat the drum with the heel of her hand and its bits of hammered metal jangled against one another. Her elephant bracelets clacked. Her foot escaped the hem of her sarong and we saw with a collective start her naked foot, her toenails painted a bloody red. The bare foot, the nail lacquer—these were like notarized documents, reminding us of the Ranee’s pedigree. She was wild, new, and she held the keys to a wild and new monarchy. We had only to play along with her eccentricity to earn a place in it.
We began, softly, to test our instruments. And with them, our wills to take part. Beads fell gently within maracas that we shook as though afraid of breaking them. Ukuleles were strummed so lightly that they could not be heard over the Ranee’s single tambourine. Jane put her lips to the trombone’s mouthpiece and blew too softly for the instrument’s sails to fill and catch into a note—from the bell came only a hiss of air like steam escaping.
“In our kingdom,” the Ranee said again, louder than the first outburst. She danced faster, sometimes beating the tambourine on a raised knee. Some of us were embarrassed. Some of us began to stare intently at the budgerigars as they made their panicked circuits of the room, or else dug our fingers into our palms as a distraction. Some of us decided the tuans were not in the house, perhaps not in England at all. Some of us regretted our decisions to come. “In our kingdom,” the Ranee said, “we make the world anew from music every morning!” She hopped and spun and smashed the drumhead against her rolling hip. Her hair bounced, fighting its tight curls. Our hands stilled; our hands moved; our hands stilled. Our mouths hung open.
“Mother,” came a voice from the doorway, and everything might have been different if the Ranee had not stopped when she heard it. But she did, her arms falling to her sides with a gentle rush of fabric and the last death rattle of the tambourine. A budgie squawked. The Ranee turned to Sterling.
He was silhouetted weirdly in the doorway, hand raised against a flare of sunlight off a brass bell. He was tall and broad-shouldered, so young but already silvering at the temples and moustaches. Our mothers had told us this meant wisdom. He wore a suit with wide lapels and a velvet waistcoat and an expression more disapproving than Mrs. Bucknell’s, more disapproving than any of our parents’ as they had hovered in our doorways that morning. He looked—English; as English and familiar in his power in the Ranee looked exotic in hers. She seemed suddenly queer beyond measure, her wild excesses not the cultural mores of a distant land but one woman’s odd vulgarity.
It would be a lie to say we saw her suddenly from outside the fog of Empire, the colonial spirit cracking and falling from us in a rush of enlightenment. That day was still far away; for many of us it would never come. But we did see the Ranee as a woman costumed falsely in customs that were not her own, perhaps her identity not even borrowed but wholly invented. For here was another resident of the distant nation she ruled, and we recognized him as one of the men we moved among every day.
“Mother,” Sterling said. “Are you—what are you—” He crossed the floor to her and turned her toward the wall, their backs to us, charcoal jacket and green sarong. “What are you doing?”
Ah. We understood.
“We are having a rehearsal!” the Ranee said, spinning to face us. Her grin was watery, her voice too loud for the suddenly pathetic room. She spread her arms and brought them together again, clutching at the tambourine. Its muted jangle echoed.
Sterling worked his jaw. We crouched behind our instruments and watched his face change shape. “Don’t you think,” he said, “this is a bit—” He scrubbed eyes with both hands, emerged mottled.
“Ladies,” he said, leaning, forward and sweeping his gaze across our assembly. The gesture was familiar, in our own language, so we were surprised to feel ourselves harden against it. Some of us could not help but bow in return. Some of us could not help but refrain. “Good morning, Rajah Muda,” came one voice from among us, but it rang sour and we wished collectively that we could retract it.
Sterling smiled, after a fashion—a tightening of his face and reforming of his moustache. Then he returned to his mother. “I think you’ll find,” he said, “that this is not the way to silence the tabloids.”
“Oh, nonsense,” the Ranee’s voice was more quaver than sound. “We’re having a lovely—a lovely party.”
Sterling reached for the Ranee, his fingertips on her arm not firm enough to bruise but firm enough to steer her if she cooperated. Another gesture we recognized. “Could I speak to you?” he asked. He pointed the Ranee at the door. “Just a moment, ladies,” he said, and drove his mother ahead of him into the hallway. We looked at her for a signal as she went, but she raised her hand to pat at her hair, and her face was hidden.
For a moment, we thought we couldn’t hear. Then the voices came, muffled and indistinct but clear in tone. Sterling scolding and gruff, a bassy rumble; the Ranee in choking fits and starts, interruptions running roughshod. The occasional jangle of the tambourine mapping the shape of her gestures. Occasional words filtered through, inappropriate and fun and reputation.
We looked at each other, trapped. “What are we—” Dorothy began, and was interrupted by a terrifying BLAT.
We all jumped, necks and bells of instruments twanging in startled collisions. Jane looked shocked by her own outburst, staring at the trombone in her hands as though it had made the sound without her. But she raised it to her lips again and blew, a buzzing honk that made Eleanor wince and steer the bell away from her face with one hand. Jane began experimenting with the slide, the pitch of her noise glissing up and down as she moved it.
We were transfixed.
Eleanor, the only one of us confident in her instrument, was the first to join. She quickly gave up trying to harmonize her viola with Jane’s efforts and began playing some concerto or etude, something she must have memorized for a recital and that lived in her body as a muscle memory. Runs of sonorous sixteenth notes and cadences that satisfied deep in the listener’s bones.
There was no way to know if the voices in the hallway had stopped or if Jane and Eleanor were drowning them out. There was no way to know if Sterling or the Ranee or both were still outside the door at all.
We joined in. We strummed our ukuleles and guitars furiously, inexpert but fierce. The strings grated our nails and knuckles and we hammered through the pain. We smashed our bodhráns and sawed our güiros. We beat bongos until our palms stung. The budgerigars swooped and dove, searching either for their mistress or for escape.
As the din rose we cast about for new instruments, making substitutions or else playing two at once. Dorothy held two maracas in each hand and beat them against each other. Mary plucked a coronet from its stand and coaxed a single shrill note from it, her face red and straining against its tiny mouthpiece.
It lasted only a few minutes, but for those minutes we suspended thoughts of the futures we had learned to wish for—yearly allowances and titles and weddings announced in the Court Circular—and the unimagined futures, better or worse or the same, that we would come to have—Boston marriages with our friends’ sisters; world travels and world ignorance; loveless or loving marriages to rich men or poor; death in our sleep at eighty-one or death by the Blitz at twenty-six or death by our own hands at forty. For those minutes we concentrated only on making noise, and on listening into the hallway, hopeful for the sound of a tambourine coming to join us.
Olivia Wolfgang-Smith holds an MFA from Florida State University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Common, Necessary Fiction, The Common, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been longlisted for Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a novel.