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Lenore glances across apprehensively at her lover, to see whether he has caught his own name; but no-he is not looking at her. With grave interest, he and his blue neighbour are together consulting the mystic French secrets of the carte. Bah! how greedy the best of men are !
“Was it good manners," continues Scrope, growing more excited at each word,“ to shrug your shoulders so perceptibly, and exclaim so audibly, 'Too bad !' because your hand had to rest on my coat-sleeve for the tenth part of a minute ?”
“I never pretend to good manners,” replies Lenore, shortly.
"He will sit into your pocket ail this evening; he will sit into your pocket," says the young man (making use of an audacious figure), “all the rest of your life. Need you have grudged me my miserable half-hour's innings ?”
Again Lenore glances hurriedly across; still he is not thinking of her. She looks at Scrope : his blue eyes are always bright, but the champagne, bad as it is, has made them sparkle more brightly than ever. With his straight nose and soft gold moustache, most women would have thought him distractingly handsome. An innocent, cherubic, yet stalwart beauty, such as some men manage to preserve through half-a-dozen seasons, Scrope looks as if he had said his prayers and gone to bed at eight o'clock every night of his life.
“For one half-hour forget that there is such a person,” says the young man, entreatingly. “At cheese-time I will give you leave to remember him again.'
“ You are very good. Till then
“Till then-bah !" cries he, with a reckless laugh ; " let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die, or-marry, which is worse.
“ The one is at least optional, which the other is not," says Lenore, with a demure but rather wicked look at him from under her eyes.
Paul has abandoned the carte; he has discovered what the word that puzzled him was. “It is · Topinenbourgs,'” he says to his neighbour; and then he leans wearily back, and thinks that he will refresh himself with a look at his beautiful sweetheart. He does so just in time to witness the glance that she is bestowing on his rival: it is the only look with the slightest tendency to coquetry in it that she has given him during dinner, and it is the only one that Paul intercepts. Pouf ! is not that ill-luck for you?
WHAT THE AUTHOR SAYS.
The men are left to themselves—left to work their wicked will upon the walnuts, and to ravin amongst the candied fruits, of whose existence, as long as the women were in the room, they pretended to be unaware. And the women, meanwhile, stand, gently rustling, softly chattering, about the drawing-room fire; sipping coffee, holding gossamer handkerchiefs between their pretty pink faces and the flame, and mentally pricing and depreciating each other's gowns. Sylvia is very happy: she has, indisputably, a longer tail and a thicker silk than any one else present; her toilette happily hits the golden mean between the mournful and the magnificent, and she is almost sure that, as she left the dining-room, she heard some man ask who she was. Presently every one sinks into chairs, and upon ottomans and sofas; breaking up into groups of twos and threes, as similarity of tastes in point-lace, dressmakers, and children prompts. Lenore forms part of no grouptakes part in no chat. The night is cold, and the room not particularly well warmed; yet she chooses an easy-chair apart from the rest of the company, and unsocially sitting by itself in a little recess. Lenore deposits herself upon it, and bides her time. When the walnuts, candied fruits, and ungodly after-dinner stories are done, that time comes.
Paul is determined not to be checkmated a second time; he may dislike to be pointed at as an engaged man, but he dislikes still more to have Mr. Scrope pointed at as such. He walks straight up to Lenore.
“Do you know what I have got hidden here?” asks the girl, looking up at him, while her whole face laughs—not only mouth, but eyes, dimples, cheeks—as she points to the wide spread of her gown. “Guess!"
“I have not an idea.” She sweeps away her skirts, and discloses a tiny light cane-chair.
“Sit down! You are an unfortunately big person, but I think, judiciously sat upon, it may bear you.”
He had meant to scold her: well, the scolding will keep; it may be carried over, and added to the next account. He sits down, and his jealousy goes to sleep.
"I was determined to have no more mal-entendus to-night," says the girl, gravely. “If any one had come this way, I meant to have looked at them with my own scowl—the one you used to admire so much-and say, 'This is Mr. Le Mesurier's chair.'”
" Lenore" (looking round with a sense of lazy wellbeing), is there any one in the room that is not a Webster ?”
Hardly anybody; they are all directs or collaterals. That tall old
woman whose forehead has goodnaturedly gone round to look for the back of her head, who is ambling about saying indistinct civilities to everybody, is Mrs. Webster, the head and front of all the others; she always reminds me of Agag—she 'goes so delicately.'”
“I know her, the old cat !” says Paul, resentfully. "Serve her right if she were drowned in a butt of her own gooseberry, and I cannot wish her a worse fate."
" The old young woman who never stops smiling is Miss Webster; we call her the savoury omelette,' because she is so green and yellow! Does not she smile?- it makes one's face ache to look at her." Paul laughs. “ Paul, if you jilt me, and no one else takes compassion on me, you think I shall ever get to the pitch of smiling like that? If I thought so, I would have the corners of my mouth sewn up.”
“Prevention is better than cure : I would.”
"The man with the red beard is Major Webster: do you see how short and broad he is? His brother officers say that he has swallowed a box: is not it a delicious idea ?-it quite invigorates me."
Paul laughs again: after dinner, it is pleasanter to be amused than to be amusing.
"Apropos of beards," says Lenore, turning from the company to a subject that interests her more, yours has not disappeared yet, Paul?”
“Why, did you think it would ? Did you suppose I moulted, like the birds ?"
“I thought, perhaps, you might have moulted voluntarily, to please me,” replies she, with a slight pout.
“When my beard moults," retorts he gaily, with an expressive glance at the sleek but unnaturally luxuriant twists that bind her head, “I shall expect your (or rather the unknown dead person's) plaits to moult too.
Lenore shrugs. 'Que voulez vous ? Look at Sylvia. She has at least five pounds' worth on her head ; I have certainly not more than £2 10s. on mine. Nowadays, without a chignon of some sort, one's head looks mutilated and indecent."
" Then I like mutilation and indecency."
“Do you know, Paul” (with a pretty air of candour), “ without my plaits I hardly look handsome at all ?”
"I do not believe it," replies Paul, with warmth ; "I would stake my existence that you look infinitely handsomer, sweeter, modester! Why cannot you be content to wear your hair as Nature meant itflat to your head, and low down on your ears and cheeks ?"
“ Merciful Heavens!” cries Lenore, expressively casting up hauds and eyes to heaven. “Paul !" (with a sudden suspicion), “have you been seeing any one lately with her hair dressed like that?"
To her searching eyes, he seems to redden ever so slightly.
“No-0, nobody particular.”
Well” (with a sigh) “ to return to your beard-Bah! what does the old woman want with us now? Apropos of beards, look at hers ! Has not she a “menton d'une fertilité désolante, as Gustave Droz says?"
“So sorry to disturb you, but we are going to play Dumb Scrambo.” This is Mrs. Webster's errand.
And what is Dumb Scrambo ?” askes Paul, with a disgusted intonation, when, hunted out of their cold and quiet alcove, and the hostess having moved on to collect fresh recruits, he and Lenore advance to join the rest of the company.
" It is not bad fun," answers the girl —"a sort of silent charade, you know: did you never see it ? Oh, you must have done !" “ But I have not."
Oh, you know, the audience think of a word. You will be audience, will not you? I am sure that you can no more act than a tom-cat."
“ Well ?”
“And then, do not you know—they give the actors another word that rhymes with it; and then they—the actors, I mean-have to act in dumb-show all the other words that rhyme with it, till they hit upon the right one. "
At this lucid explanation, given with surprising rapidity, Paul looks a good deal mystified. Mrs. Webster has some difficulty in collecting a troupe. Sylvia is among those who positively decline.
“Oh no, indeed—thanks, Mrs. Webster-I really could not : I am so childishly nervous that the feeling that everybody's eyes were fixed upon me would make every word I had to say go out of my head.”
“But you have no words to say; it is all dumb-show.”
"Oh, thanks ! but that really would not make any difference; I should have the same dreadful feeling that everybody was looking at me."
It being useless to try and convince hier that some of the other actors might divert a portion of the dreaded public notice from her, Mrs. Webster desists.
Paul declines too, with that decisive brevity which forbids pressing. He is angry with Lenore for not having done likewise; but she is firm.
Impossible, my dear boy,” she says, in a smiling aside. "If they were to ask me to walk on my head to-night, I should have to try and do it. Have not they given us a huge family teapot, and is not this part-payment ?"
He is the more displeased when he sees Mr. Scrope march off, with the rest of the performers, into the dining-room, which opens out of the hall, and is converted into a temporary green-room.
It is a pretty old house, oak-floored; a step here, a step there, in
and out of the rooms. The audience have disposed themselves about the ball-fire, in chairs set a-row for them. The leading spirits amongst them have fixed upon a word, a very little one indeed, but which they hope will prove puzzling: it is jet. The word that rhymes with it, which they have given to the performers, is net. In the interval of waiting, until these latter shall be prepared to be dumbly funny, they beguile the time with talk.
“ I always envy people who have aplomb enough to act, and do all those sort of things that make one conspicuous,” says Sylvia, leaning back in her chair, biting the top of her black fan, and looking pensively over it at Paul, who happens to be her neighbour. “I am afraid I am not quite like other people, but I should feel ready to sink into the earth, don't you know. Now, Lenore has none of that feeling.”
“Evidently not,” replies Paul, drily.
His eyes are fixed on the dining-room door: it is a little ajar, and, through the chink left, he sees a dim vision of green. Lenore has a green dress; he is straining his eyes to see whose are the legs that are in juxtaposition with that green gown.
· Last time we were here,” continues Sylvia, “ they acted the word ' tail;' and all the ladies fastened long boas to their dresses behind, and walked about the stage wagging them. You can have no conception how droll it looked."
Further talk is stopped by the opening of the dining-room door, and appearance of the performers. Mr. Scrope makes his entry on his hands and knees, crawling awkwardly along. It is plain that he is meant to represent a horse; his gait much more nearly resembles a cross between that of a bear and a monkey, but the equine intention is evident; it is rendered the more so by the fact of Major Webster being seated astride on his back, with a tall hat on his head, and a dog-whip in his hand: with this latter he pleasantly flogs him round the stage. Then another Webster enters--a heavy fellow, who has been distinguishing himself by making stupid and impossible suggestions—comes up, and feels his legs. Mr. Scrope lashes smartly out at him, and then continues his victorious course, kicking and plunging round the room. It entails fearful exertion, and feelings verging on apoplexy; but he is rewarded by the plaudits of his fellows. Having unhorsed Major Webster, and sent that gallant officer rolling on the oak-floor, to the great benefit of his dress-clothes, the cortège retires, amid laughter and well-deserved hisses.
“How good for the knees of his trousers!” says Paul, who, with a mind relieved from the apprehension of seeing Lenore in some grotesquely affectionate, or affectionately grotesque, attitude with Scrope, is able to laugh as heartily as the others.
“Poor man! did not he look as if all the blood in his body had rushed to his head ?” says a young lady, compassionately.