Anthony Powell at the ball

We excerpt from ``A Buyer's Market'' (1952), volume 2 of Anthony Powell's 12-volume ``A Dance to the Music of Time,'' a tragicomedy of manners that spans the 20th century. Widmerpool, whose date has lost her patience, reappears regularly, as in a dance, in different guises.

As it was, she merely said: `Why are you so sour tonight? You need some sweetening.'

She turned to the sideboard that stood by our table, upon which plates, dishes, decanters, and bottles had been placed out of the way before removal. Among this residue stood an enormous sugar castor topped with a heavy silver nozzle. Barbara must suddenly have conceived the idea of sprinkling a few grains of this sugar over Widmer-pool, as if in literal application of her theory that he `needed sweetening,' because she picked up this receptacle and shook it over him. For some reason, perhaps because it was so full, no sugar at first sprayed out. Barbara now tipped the castor so that it was poised vertically over Widmerpool's head, holding it there like the sword of Damocles above the tyrant. However, unlike the merely minatory quiescence of that normally inactive weapon, a state of dispensation was not in this case maintained, and suddenly, without the slightest warning, the massive silver apex of the castor dropped from its base, as if severed by the slash of some invisible machinery, and crashed heavily to the floor: the sugar pouring out on to Widmerpool's head in a dense and overwhelming cascade.

More from surprise than because she wished additionally to torment him, Barbara did not remove her hand before the whole contents of the vessel - which voided itself in an instant of time - had descended upon his head and shoulders, covering him with sugar more completely than might have been thought possible in so brief a space. Widmerpool's rather sparse hair had been liberally greased with a dressing - the sweetish smell of which I remembered as somewhat disagreeable when applied in France - this lubricant retaining the grains of sugar, which, as they adhered thickly to his skull, gave him the appearance of having turned white with shock at a single stroke; which, judging by what could be seen of his expression, he might very well in reality have done underneath the glittering incrustations that enveloped his head and shoulders. He had writhed sideways to avoid the downpour, and a cataract of sugar had entered the space between neck and collar; yet another jet streaming between eyes and spectacles.

Barbara was, without doubt, dismayed by the consequences of what she had done; not, I think, because she cared in the least about covering Widmerpool with sugar, an occurrence, however deplorable, that was hard to regard, with the best will in the world, as anything other than funny at that moment. This was the kind of incident, however, to get a girl a bad name; a reputation for horseplay having, naturally, a detrimental effect on invitations. So far as everyone else, among those sitting near us, were concerned, there was a great deal of laughter. Even if some of the people who laughed may also have felt sorry for Widmerpool in his predicament, there was no escape from the fact that he looked beyond words grotesque. The sugar sparkled on him like hoar-frost, and, when he moved, there was a faint rustle as of snow falling gently from leaves of a tree in some wintry forest. Excerpt from ``A Buyer's Market'' by Anthony Powell as published in ``A Dance to the Music of Time'' by Anthony Powell. Copyright 1962 by Anthony Powell. By permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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