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Narrative of an Escape from the Conflagration of Paris
A TALE IN THREE PARTS.
By RHODA BROUGHTON, AUTHOR OF "COMETH UP AS A FLOWER,” ETC.
WHAT THE AUTHOR BAYS.
It is afternoon tea-time, and that high festival is always held in the hall. Scrope knows that there is no hope of bézique to-night, and Paul sees that a tête-à-tête is unlikely. They have therefore retired to the smoking-room, and, with their enmity temporarily smothered, and their friendskip as temporarily re-born, are smoking the pipe of peace together. Only the three sisters lounge round the fire in easy-chairs ; the fire, in burning, makes the low quiet noise that is fire's talk.
“How I ever shall bring myself to call him 'Paul,' I am sure I do not know,” says Sylvia, gently waving to and fro the hand-screen with which she is shading her face. “If it were a three or even a two-syllabled name -Augustus, or Reginald, or Henry—it would not sound half so familiar; but Paul ! there is something so abrupt and uncompromising about it; however, I managed to bring it out at luncheon. I said, 'Paul, will you cut me some partridge ?' Did you hear? He looked so pleased.”
“I do not think he heard,” says Jemima, maliciously. tell Lenore that he is like Dr. Johnson-deaf while he is eating.”
“Oh, but he did, though!" retorts Sylvia, quickly, getting rather pink. “I knew it by his face; one can always tell by a man's face when he is rubbed the right way.”
Jemima looks across sceptically at Lenore, who smiles lazily back.
"Do you remark that he never calls me anything but ‘Mre. Prodgers’ ?" continues Sylvia, complacently;“ many a man would have taken advantage of his situation to Sylvia'me at once. I think it so
“ How can
particularly gentlemanlike of him, and I shall tell him so as soon as
*I do not think it has anything to say to gentlemanlikeness,'
'Impossible !" cries Sylvia, now thoroughly nettled.
“What a trial the Websters are !” says Jemima, groaning. “To
“And such a regiment of us going, too !" says Lenore, sitting up in her chair, and pushing back the restive hair-pins that her reclining attitude has displaced. “One, two, three, four, five-like a flock of ducks waddling into the room one after another.”
“I do not see why we need waddle !” says Sylvia, with dignity.
“I do hate visiting in a patriarchal manner with all my tribe !" returns Lenore, energetically.
Her betrothed is quite of her mind; suavity of manner is never his forte ; but he has difficulty in manifesting even bis usual amount of complaisance, when he discovers what his fate is to be.
“Oh, Mrs. Prodgers, could not you leave Lenore and me at home? We should never be missed out of such a multitude,” he says, vainly hoping for a reprieve at the last moment. “There is something so appalling in being trotted out as two people who are going to commit matrimony; an engaged couple are always everybody's legitimate butt.”
“I do not think you need be afraid of that,” says Sylvia, speaking with the happy mixture of sisterliness and coquetry with which she always addresses her future connection. “You see you have never been seen with us before, and Char—, I mean Mr. Scrope, has always been en évidence. I think he is generally looked upon as the happy man. Lenore, would not Paul have laughed the other night to see the way in which the Ansons manquvred to let you have the morning-room to yourselves? If they are there to-night, we may have quite a pleasant little mystification.”
At the conclusion of this speech, Scrope smiles oddly, Jemima reddens, Lenore rushes headlong into a remark that has neither head, tail, nor middle, and Paul-Paul is putting on his overcoat; his face is turned away-one cannot see it.
They look to themselves-or rather to some of themselves—an inordinately long string, as they file into the Websters' drawing-room : three long-tailed ladies, two swallow-tailed men. The light is very subdued, even more so than people usually have it in the five minutes before dinner. Paul gives up the idea of making out the Webster family in detail till dinner; then Lenore will explain them to him sufficiently to prevent his descanting on the ugliness of a wife to a husband, or making disparaging remarks about a child to a parent. As he stands near the fire, furnishing the room, in company with half a dozen other men—whom he regards with the innate distrust and thinly-veiled suspicion with which every Englishman regards every other Englishman who has the misfortune to be unknown to him-his spirit soothes itself. The drive was the worst part, and that is over : not allowed to decline into comfortable silence and semi-sleep by Sylvia, next whom he sat, and obliged by the noise the omnibus made to say "What?" and " I beg your pardon, I did not catch what you said,” in answer to all her low-murmured prettinesses.
He will be very kind to Lenore to-night. Hitherto he has made her Christmas Day rather tearful, poor child! Well, she shall have a thoroughly happy evening, if he can compass it; after all, perhaps, he will have better chances of private commune with her, of sweet grave talk, and sweeter looks into her lovely loving eyes, than he would have had in the small home-party, with Jemima and Sylvia staring at him.
These thoughts are interrupted by the approach of an old lady in a yellow gown (to whom he has a dim idea of having been introduced as hostess), who leads him up to a plain girl in blue, presents him, and leaves him beside her, with a wbispered request that he will take her in to dinner.
In a moment afterwards that festival is announced. Paul sees men and women, all equally unknown to him, paired together, marching solemnly off. Presently a couple, of whom neither man nor woman is unknown to him, sweep by–Lenore and Scrope.
“This is part of the pleasant little mystification, I suppose,” he thinks, setting his teeth. “ Who knows if Lenore were not a party to it?" But the ungenerous thought is no sooner formed than he is disabused of it by the expression of the beautiful face, that, unhappily for itself, can never keep its own secrets. She looks at him over her shoulder with a look of unaffected angry disappointment, shrugs her shoulders almost imperceptibly, while her lips frame words which he rather feels than hears to be, "Too bad !”
On the very smallest encouragement she would outrage propriety by dropping Scrope's arm and running to him. Perhaps, after all, he may be able to sit on the other side of her. He catches
his ugly blue fate in a hurry, and hastens off with her in pursuit; but it is too late-another couple have struck in and occupied the coveted place; he has to content himself with being nearly opposite.
There is a great deal of holly and mistletoe about the room. Most of the women have holly in their hair ; it does not look particularly pretty, and scratches their heads and necks. Altogether, there is a great affectation of Christmas cheer and jollity. But the entrées are cold, the champagne is all froth and sweetness, and the sherry is not to be named in the same breath with Mrs. Prodgers's.
Scrope has no idea of allowing his neighbour to lapse into sentimental silence and wistful gazes across the table. He has got her now to himself for a full hour and a half; except under pretext of a bleeding nose, or improbably sudden indisposition, she cannot get away from him.
“Miss Lenore, the expression of your face reminds me of a scene in • The Taming of the Shrew': 'Enter Horatio, with his head broken.'
Lenore declines to smile.
“It is not my fault that Mrs. Webster has not entered with her head broken,” she answers, with perfect gravity.
“Why so ?-for giving us such drink as this? Well, it is filthy stuff !”
“For making such a stupid mistake as to send me out to dinner with you."
He bows his blonde curled head ceremoniously. “Thanks.”
“Engaged people always go in to dinner together,” says Lenore, trenchantly.
“On what principle, I never could divine. With a whole lifetime to get sick of each other in, why they should be crammed down each other's throats before there is any legal necessity, I never could see."
“That is their affair."
“Mrs. Webster was aware of the barbaric custom,” says Scrope, growing as red as any girl. “She was good enough to imagine that it was I that was engaged to you.”
Lenore reddens, and turns down the corners of her mouth.” “What could have put so grotesque an idea into her head ?”
“There is nothing grotesque about it," replies the young man, coolly. “Internally, 'we may be conscious of how distasteful to, and dissimilar from, each other we are; but outwardly, we are rather suitable."
“I do not see it” (very içily).
“Miss Lenore” (turning round and bending over her, to speak low and eagerly), “why do you thrust your happiness so obtrusively under my nose? Do I deny your bliss? Do I pretend to be as happy as you ?" She is silent. “We cannot all be Paul Le Mesuriers, you know,” says Scrope, with a rather jarring laugh. “Of course, we would if we could, but, as we cannot, you must bear with us.”