May 19th, 1925. Eighteen-year-old Leslie Beckford, the adopted daughter of Aristo Beckford sat in the back of the Hispano-Suiza with her father. They were on their way to Buckingham Palace to attend the Queen Charlotte’s Ball. It was a debutante ball which took place once every few months of the year. Leslie was old enough to know that the evening after the ball, she would be expected to participate in social gatherings and eventually find herself a husband.
“Are you nervous, Leslie?” asked Mr. Beckford.
“A little…” replied Leslie as she entwined her gloved fingers on her lap, “I’m just a little worried about what society will think of me...”
“Leslie,” said Mr. Beckford as he placed his hand on top of hers. “Blood-related or not, you are my daughter no matter what.”
Leslie felt some weight being lifted off her shoulders when she heard this. She remembered the time when she first met Mr. Beckford at the orphanage fourteen years ago. The moment they met, he rushed up to embrace her as though he had just found his long lost child.
His wife, Margaret Beckford, also took an instant liking to Leslie. Like her husband, she also treated her like her own daughter. She had suffered a miscarriage due to her frail health and was advised to refrain from trying to have another child.
Sadly, Mrs. Beckford eventually succumbed to her illness and passed away when Leslie was six. Mr. Beckford did not remarry afterwards. He raised her unspoilt, but when she became a teenager, Leslie began to notice how sad her father would sometimes look whenever he saw her.
“You look beautiful tonight,” Mr. Beckford then spoke. “But most importantly,” he added. “You do not need to be pressured to find a suitor. All you need to do is to enjoy the party and make friends.”
New friends, huh? Thought Leslie to herself. This caused her to recall an unpleasant memory where she experienced betrayal with someone she thought would be her friend for life. Could she really make new friends? Very recently, Mr. Beckford’s friends had started remarking on how her eyes were very similar to his. This in turn, had stirred up endless gossip about how she could be in fact, his illegitimate daughter.
“We have arrived!” exclaimed Mr. Beckford when the Hispano-Suiza pulled through the main gates.
Leslie glanced out of the window, and her emerald-coloured eyes widened in amazement at the sight of Buckingham Palace’s grand entrance. The Hispano-Suiza pulled up at the entrance and a chauffeur opened the door, allowing them to climb out. Mr. Beckford stepped out first, then extended his hand to Leslie whom he helped out of the car.
He handed his invitation to the host who permitted both the father and daughter entry into the palace. Leslie gazed around in admiration as she took her father’s arm, allowing him to escort her inside. A part of Leslie was excited to finally be granted her social freedom, and to experience the joy of music and dancing. However, in the back of her mind, she could not help but worry about what society would think of her because of the rumours of her being illegitimate born.
Arriving in the ballroom, Leslie and her father greeted the host and hostess, King George V and his wife, Princess Mary of Teck. The ballroom was lively with the orchestra, the men and women dancing, and the champagne tower. Leslie was then separated from her father to join the other young ladies who were also making their debut.
“Why, if it isn’t Miss Leslie Beckford!” exclaimed a familiar voice that pierced Leslie’s ears.
Leslie found herself face-to-face with the last face she would have liked to see. Jezebel Doncaster. She was her former childhood friend whom she had fallen out with four years ago. Since that incident, they had never spoken to one another ever again.
“It has been a while, Miss Doncaster,” replied Leslie, hiding her resentment. “You look well.”
“Won’t you call me Jez like before?” whined Jezebel, “Please don’t tell me you’re still harbouring a grudge over some petty idle talk.”
“I do not wish to address you so familiarly Miss Doncaster,” said Leslie firmly. “Please call me Miss Beckford. I would have forgiven you if you had taken back what you said at that time. But no, I was too late to realise the woman you had become. I do not regret ending my friendship with you.”
Jezebel smirked when she heard this. “So you’re pinning the blame on me?” she asked, “Whose fault is it that an adopted daughter happens to bear resemblance to her adoptive father? What are you going to do if you are proven to be illegitimate born?”
Leslie froze when she heard this as Jezebel along with a few other debutantes chuckled at her. However, Leslie could tell by the body language and facial expressions of the other debutantes that they were only taking Jezebel’s side to appease her. This was also due to the fact that she was the niece of Lady Helena Doncaster, one of the highest-ranking women in the upper society. She had also heard that Jezebel was an up-and-coming actress who had played supporting roles in various stage plays and films.
The thought of Lady Helena Doncaster calmed Leslie’s mind down. Despite falling out with Jezebel, she had remained on good terms with Jezebel’s aunt who had been like a mother figure to her. Her recollection was interrupted when the orchestra began to play and the dancing commenced.
The debutantes and Leslie were quickly paired up and took to the dance floor. As she was twirled by her dance partner, she caught sight of her father who quietly applauded her. Every corner and space of the ballroom she turned, Leslie started to feel suffocated when she felt a lot of eyes staring at her. Older women partially hiding behind their fans and whispering to one another, and men huddled in groups with a champagne glass in each of their hands. She could not tell whether they were whispering about her or something else.
Mercifully, the music came to an end and Leslie separated from her dance partner. She headed to the table where she took a champagne glass from the tower. A familiar tap on her shoulder caused Leslie to relax as she turned around to find herself face-to-face with Lady Helena Doncaster.
“Miss Leslie,” exclaimed Lady Doncaster. “It has been a while. Are you enjoying the ball?”
“Very much so,” replied Leslie shyly. “I happened to run into your niece earlier before my first dance. I apologise if I had said anything that may have offended her. However, I am very glad to see that she is thriving in her career.”
“Oh please do not worry about my niece,” chuckled Lady Doncaster. “I do have to take responsibility for how I raised her. I may have spoilt her a bit too much when she was younger, probably to help her overcome the trauma when she lost her parents.”
Leslie clearly remembered how she and Jezebel used to be such good friends when they were children. Lady Doncaster and Mr. Beckford were friendly with each other as well. The only reason they got along with each other at that time was; they both lost their parents, so they understood how they had felt.
“I would love to talk more, but I just remembered that Sir Godric Chynoweth wanted a word with me,” said Lady Doncaster. “Please do visit me whenever you have the chance, and perhaps we could talk more over tea and cakes.”
Leslie nodded as she waved a polite goodbye to Lady Doncaster. Just as she took a small sip from her champagne glass, she was approached by a young man who looked quite familiar to her.
“I apologise for approaching you so suddenly,” he told Leslie. “But, I could not take my eyes off you the moment I saw you.”
Leslie’s heart pounded when she heard this. Glancing at the man’s face, her emerald eyes widened in surprise as though she had finally recognised him.
“You’re Edgar Allan!” she exclaimed, “The renowned photographer who is known for exploring females in everyday settings! I’ve read all about you in the art magazines. They call you the Brueghel of Photography!”
“I’m flattered to hear you say this,” chuckled Mr. Allan as he tugged as his shirt collar. “If you would like to see more of my artwork, please visit the National Portrait Gallery in between September and October. My work is going to be exhibited there during that period.”
“It was honour to meet you Mr. Allan,” said Leslie as she extended her hand.
“Please, call me Edgar next time we meet,” said Mr. Allan as he returned Leslie’s handshake. “Well, I’d better be on my way now.”
After Mr. Allan left, Leslie noticed that the members of the orchestra were preparing to start the next song. She quickly gulped down her champagne, placing her now empty glass on the silver tray of a passing waiter. This time, it was hard for her to find a partner, having been away from the dance floor for quite a long time now.
Glancing at her surrounding, Leslie spotted a young man who looked a few years older than her up against the wall. Is he not used to attending social events? She wondered. After remembering her father telling her to use her debut as an opportunity to make friends or connections, Elise decided to approach the young man. Upon seeing Leslie, the man was surprised as she curtsied before him.
“Good evening sir,” said Leslie shyly. “Would you care to have a dance with me?”
Looking up, she noticed how flushed and awkward the young man looked. Was I a bit too overconfident? Thought Leslie to herself. Well, she did randomly approach him after all.
“I… uh… would… be honoured!” replied the young man awkwardly.
He extended his hand to Leslie who placed her hand into his. The young man then escorted Leslie to the dance floor, joining the other men and women just as the music started.
“Thank you… for inviting me… for this dance,” said the young man as he twirled Leslie. “This is the first time… I’ve been approached by someone.”
“Are you perhaps not used to attending social events?” asked Leslie out of curiosity.
“No!” he exclaimed, “It’s not that! It’s just that I’m a bit cautious around people I socialise with… and they tend to avoid the awkward ones like myself.”
“Don’t say that!” Leslie uttered suddenly, “I think you’re fine the way you are. It’s alright to feel awkward rather than trying to put up a front just to fit in. Just have a bit of confidence and be yourself! That way, you will eventually meet the right people who will accept you.”
“This is the first time someone has ever told me this,” said the young man. “You really are something, Miss…?”
“Miss Beckford,” she responded quickly. “Miss Leslie Beckford.”
“Ernest,” said the young man. “Ernest Gravetye.”
It was not long until the music came to an end. Leslie curtsied and Ernest bowed as they parted ways. She then went to join her father, who praised her for making a new acquaintance.
“I am proud of you Leslie,” he told her. “You truly have become such a refined young woman. If my wife was alive, I am sure she would be proud of you as well.”
“Yes, father!” beamed Leslie.
However, little did she know what fate awaited her until two months later…