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A hard act to follow

WHEN the King of England abdicated his throne for an American commoner and they became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the news rocked Perris, Calif. At least it astonished my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Pridney, and positively dazzled Rosemary Huxtable, who sat two rows away and hardly ever spoke to me.

Miss Pridney was pretty dull when it came to parts of speech and the multiplication tables, but she could get sort of interesting about the American Revolution, and this wedding got her excited about The Mother Country. Homework was 10 whole pages about Queen Elizabeth I.

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Miss Pridney never claimed that Sir Walter Raleigh was knighted for gallantly throwing his cloak down over a puddle to save the Queen's velvet and gold embroidered shoes, but she felt that it made him almost as romantic as the new Duke of Windsor.

This chivalrous act was made much of, we boys receiving that stern ``now hear this'' look. I thought of my corduroy jacket only just beginning to be outgrown and sighed. Rosemary Huxta-ble did condescend to give me one of those ``see'' looks. Rosemary's house had the biggest eucalyptus tree in town, and with large bows in her yellow hair she was judgmental of boys. Particularly this boy.

In dry, puddleless Perris, Sir Walter was a hard act to follow. Miss Pridney carried on so about it I think because only the year before she had had her picture taken with a famous Shakespearean actor of the day, Maurice Evans, back in Buffalo, N.Y.

Elizabethans dressed to kill, or at least do one another in with envy. No Tudor garden maze was more complicated than the Londoners' get-up. They put their money on their backs, and they must have had plenty of money.

After the Queen's death it was noted, perhaps by a slightly jealous lady-in-waiting, that she left ``thousands of dresses and hundreds of wigs. . . .''

Pulpits trembled and thundered with outraged admonitions. Excess, vanity, fickleness, and folly were words often used. Even the Queen had issued an edict against hauteur in accoutrements, being careful herself to disregard it. Everyone was so lavishly arrayed that the good ministers could not tell, just by looking, ``who was worshipful, who was a gentleman, and who was not.'' It got that bad.

Hair was rarely anybody's own. Ownership was by purchase as much as by nature. This crowning glory often came from horses, the hair dyed to match the illusions of the lady, or from poor women hungry enough to sell their own. Elaborate wigs were curled, waved, undulated, and convoluted in an effort to achieve windproof works of art. The masterpiece never finished until just a few more jewels, buckles, pins, and gewgaws were tastefully added.

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On top of all this, a hat was a necessity. Peculiar shapes were the rage, and anguished thought was expended on velvet, satin, and taffeta. Bagatelles and feathers could be counted on to complicate the decisionmaking process.

Beneath these expensive items was, of course, the face. The face had to be as white as a cloud over Coventry. Pencils and craft traced the splendid lines of eyes, eyebrows, and lips, but a heavier substance than any cloud helped with the face: white lead. Another mainstay for the pale face was an unguent made of peeled gourd seeds and bitter almonds. The alchemists were kept busy and the popularity of the youthful blush easily withstood the still palpitating pulpits. The looking glasses, cracked or not, were always in use.

Collars and ruffs originated in Spain and were as popular as perfume. Once upon a time an overworked cook had invented starch, probably a failed pudding, and when that did not control the huge ruffs, wire was a last resort.

Today's fashion folk, the Ralph Laurens and Calvin Kleins, would love to stroll through the garment district of the Queen's London. All those stitchers, all that embroidery and fancy work. Jewels hither and thither, silver and golden thread, miles of ribbon, fluffy lace from France and Madeira, cloth from Cathay. And not one worker on overtime, either.

That wonderfully erect look we are familiar with in the portraits of the daughter of old Henry VIII was helped with wooden boards delicately placed in the bodice. Certainly between the Queen's undoubtedly strong backbone and the board in the bodice, it is little wonder the Spanish Armada took fright.

The fingers that played with ropes of pearls were well decorated with rings from thumb to little, and gloves gave the good people still another chance to exploit all that English silver and Spanish gold.

The menfolk were as guilty as the ladies, receiving their full portion of pulpit preachments. Rich, heavy garments, doublets stuffed and quilted, swords and boots and that famous cloak that might have been mainly red or green, perhaps purple or violet, maybe a delicious tawny black, certainly with tassels of gold. Even Sir Walter must have had quite a time getting up from that precarious puddle.

His shoes, if he wasn't just booted and spurred that day, would have been as well crafted as the Queen's, looking not unlike her own elegant heeled and tapering footwear. Red leather would have been a favorite, or possibly black velvet.

Had they happened to be on their way to dinner that rainy morning, let's hope they were hungry. Dinners started before noon and sometimes lasted until time for supper.

Tables were loaded with roast chicken, venison pasty, salmon, lobster, dishes of always elaborately decorated tarts, rashers of bacon, fricassee of rabbit, legs of boiled mutton, sides of lamb, roasted pigeons, lamprey pie, along with salads and fruit, if they ever got that far.

Rosemary and I did not learn all these delicious details from Miss Pridney. It was to be years later in London that I got to the British Museum.

No, Miss Pridney had been interested in knights-errant.

And no, I never walked Rosemary home with her books, even on a dry day. But the next semester I did help her home with TinCan. TinCan was her pet goat, and it had been the sensation of that week's Show and Tell.

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