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A TALE IN THREE PARTS.
BY RHODA BROUGHTON, AUTHOR OF "COMETH UP AS A FLOWER," ETC.
WHAT THE AUTHOR SAYS.
T is time to go to the ball; all are ready; all are in the hall save Lenore. The men have each two pairs of white kid gloves in their pocket; one has plain gold studs, the other diamond and black enamel ; but, oh, how poor, how small are man's highest adornments compared to woman's! At his best, in his dress of greatest ceremony, he is but a scrimping, black-forked biped, compared to the indefinite volume, the many-coloured majesty, of beflounced, belaced, beflowered woman.
"Did you tell her we were all waiting ?" asks Sylvia, in a tone of impatience.
"I did," replies Jemima, stepping leisurely downstairs with a large mat, which her train has carried down from the upper regions, attached to her tail.
"And what did she say?"
"She said, 'Hurry no man's cattle!'”
"Was she nearly ready?"
I don't know."
"What was she doing?"
"She was advancing and retreating before her long glass, ascertaining whether her petticoats were all of a length."
"There is plenty of time," says Scrope; "not ten yet. I remember once going to a ball in the country, and finding myself the first person there. It was an awful sensation!"
'Are you sure that I should not look better with a fichu?" says
Sylvia, in an anxious aside, to her sister, getting out of earshot of the men, and craning her throat to get a view, over her shoulderblades, at the back of her own neck. Am I too décolletée behind? You know that there is nothing in life I have such a horror of as being called a frisky matron!"
"It does look rather juvenile, perhaps," replies Jemima, unkindly saying the exact reverse of what she knows is expected of her. Sylvia's countenance falls a little.
"Juvenile! Oh, that was not what I meant in the least! I asked Charlie Scrope what he thought" (smiling a little), "and he said, 'You look awfully jolly!' He said it quite loud. I am sure I don't know what Paul could have thought. I suppose one ought not to have asked him his opinion, poor boy, because he always thinks one looks nice, whatever one has on."
"Does he ?" "Jemima," (lowering her voice, and speaking with eager sincerity,) "promise to tell me everything that you hear anybody say of me to-night, and I will promise to tell you everything I hear anybody say of you."
Jemima does not answer; her eyes are fixed on the stairs, on which a vision has appeared, above whose head two lady's-maids are triumphantly holding flat candlesticks, to aid the bright gaslight which is already illumining her; a vision, like a summer night, dark, yet softly splendid. Lenore, all in black, with great silver lilies starring her hair, shining on her breast, garlanding her skirts. As she comes stepping daintily down, she does not look conscious-very handsome people seldom do; it is a prerogative reserved for faintly and doubtfully pretty ones. In her hand she carries a huge bouquet of white and purple flowers. All stare at her; but she seems to see only Paul. She goes straight up to him, her eyes shining like soft lamps, and her cheeks all rosy with happiness.
"Thank you so much," she says in a low voice. "I was surprisedand yet not surprised-when Nicholls came to my room and said, 'Here's a bouquet for you, ma'am.' I knew in a minute, of course. I did not even take the trouble to ask whom it was from; I knew, naturally."
As she talks, Paul's complexion varies and his countenance changes; but she goes on, without giving him time to speak.
"How did you come to know all my favourite flowers? was it intuition, or did I ever tell you? I forget. Violets, Roman narcissi, white hyacinths-all the scents that I am most wild about. There!" (holding up the bouquet to his face) "you may have one sniff, one little sniff at it-only a little one, mind!"
"Lenore," says Paul in a mortified voice, looking red and miserable, "it was not I. I know nothing about it. To tell you the truth, I never thought of such a thing!"
Had they been alone he would have added fond apologies; would have told her what was the truth-that had he thought they would have given her pleasure, he would have bought her a thousand bouquets, each much bigger than a haystack; would have sent to Kamschatka for them, did bigger fairer flowers grow there than here; but, as three people are by, his pride restrains him.
"Not you?" repeats Lenore, in a blank voice, as her arm and the now valueless posy drop to her side. "Who was it, then? Oh, of course," (following Scrope, who has turned to the fire to hide the scarlet tinge that has spread from the crown of his head to the nape of his neck) "it was you! I am right this time! Thanks so much for thinking of me."
She stretches out her hand to him, but her voice quivers.
These little disappointments are sometimes acute, as a needle, though but a small weapon, can give a sharp prick.
There is nothing further to delay the cloaking and shawling, which forthwith takes place. Paul and Lenore stand together alone for a minute.
"They have no longer the same smell," says the girl, eyeing her nosegay with a disenchanted look; "the narcissi's petals are already beginning to yellow and the maiden hair to shrivel. Oh, you bad, bad Paul! just as I began to think that you must really be getting a little fond of me !"
"Don't talk such nonsense," replies Paul, brusquely; "cannot you see with half an eye, that I am in a greater rage with myself than you can possibly be with me? But Lenore" (hesitating a little), "now that you know that I-fool that I was-did not get it for you, are you still going to take it ?"
"Of course I am," replies Lenore, decisively, "though it is the bouquet of disappointment it gives a nice finish to one's toilet; if" (with coquettish pout)" one is not provided with legitimate bouquets one must console oneself with illegitimate ones."
It is an Infirmary Ball; one of those balls, therefore, at which, in theory, gentle and simple meet and frolic with happy equality and unity; at which, in practice, the gentle glide gracefully about at the top of the room, and the simple plunge and caper at the bottom. There is more air, more space, more everything that is desirable, at the lower end near the doors, but to remain at that end is to confess an affinity with the butchers, the bakers, the haberdashers, of the good city of Norley. At the expense of any amount of elbowing, pushing, bruising, one must work one's way up to where one's peers sit enthroned on red-cloth benches. They are rather late. Slowly they work up. Paul escorts Lenore; Scrope, Sylvia; Jemima, herself. A galop is playing, and a hundred, two hundred people, are floundering, flying, and bounding round, as nature and their dancing-master have
taught them. Little women burying their noses in big men's coatsleeves; big women trying not to rest their chins on the top of little men's heads; men who hold their partner's hand out, like a pumphandle, sawing the air with it up and down; men who hold their partner's hand on their own hip, describing an acute angle with the elbow; men who hug their partners like polar bears; men who hold their partners uncomfortably tumbling out of their arms, as if they were afraid of coming near them; men who run round their partners, men who kick, men who scratch, men who knock knees;—every variety, in fact, of the human animal, rushing violently round, doing their best to make themselves giddy and tear their clothes.
"Are you going to dance this with me, or are you not?" asks Lenore, impatiently; "because, if not, I will ask some one else-I mean, I will make some one else ask me."
"Of course I am."
"What are you waiting for then? why don't you start? I am mad to begin! Tum te tum! if they play this air when I am in my coffin, I shall jump up and galop in my shroud."
In a second more, the black and silver gown has joined the merry mad rout of reds and blues and greens and whites. After half a dozen turns Lenore pants a little, and says, "Stop."
That means that I dance badly," says Paul, releasing her from his arms.
"It means that I am never long-winded; doctors often say that I ought not to dance."
Not really?" incredulously looking at her cheeks, carnationed by the movement of the dance-at her great clear eyes. "I say, Lenore, do I dance very atrociously? It is a thing that I do not do once in a month of Sundaye."
"Not very," replies Lenore, rather slowly; "you have not quite got into my step yet, but that will come." (Then, seeing him look a little mortified,) "You are not like Major Webster, who leaps his own height in the air every step he takes, and gets round the room in three bounds, like a kangaroo."
Paul laughs. "That is modest praise."
Meanwhile Sylvia has been safely piloted to the top of the room, and enthroned between Mrs. Webster and another diamonded dowager. Jemima and Miss Webster remain standing. To take a seat is virtually to confess yourself shelved; to remain standing, is an advertisement that you are still to be had.
You won't take a turn, I suppose ?" Scrope says to Mrs. Prodgers, as he prepares to saunter away.
She has so often announced her intention of not dancing that he thinks the invitation-in itself dissuasively worded-may be safely hazarded. But human prescience is often at fault.
"Would you mind holding my bouquet for me, dear Mrs. Webster?" says Sylvia, getting down with some alacrity from her bench. "Thanks so much! You see" (with a little affected shrug), "I am fated not to be left in peace. It seems a little hard upon the girls, doesn't it? but one cannot pass on one's partners, can one? they would not like it. I assure you I had no more idea of dancing-but one gets so tired of saying No,' 'No,' 'No,'-such an old friend too-you need not smilehe is, really!"
"Quite right, my dear, quite right!" replies Mrs. Webster, nodding good-humouredly. She is very comfortably perched herself, and she has long given up her daughter as a bad job. "I only wish that Miss Jemima could find a partner too-where is James?" (standing up on the raised footboard, whence she can get a commanding view over the company's heads); "he was here a minute ago, and he had no partner then his had thrown him over-I am sure he would be most happy!"
"Oh! no, no, no, thanks!" replies Jemima, in a frenzy at the thought of being crammed down James' unwilling throat. "I am quite happy, I assure you! I like looking on; it amuses me, and some one will be sure to turn up just now."
Miss Webster smiles; she always does: she has smiled through eight and thirty years of hope deferred. Callow boys and fat old married men are her sheet-anchor, and she is on the look out for such
The dance ends; the sound of scampering and shuffling ceases suddenly; people's voices drop from bawling pitch to their natural key; everybody streams to the doors. The house seems to have been built for the express purpose of furthering love-making. From the ballroom long corridors diverge in every direction, dimly lit; and out of these corridors open many quiet rooms, also dimly lit.
"Let us go into the passages!" cries Lenore, " and I will show you all the holes and corners, where I perpetrated my worst atrocities in flirtation last year."
"On the same principle, I suppose," replies Paul, laughing, "which makes a man always take his second wife to visit the tomb of his first ?" They find a bench, retired, yet not lonely, where, in shade themselves, they can see men and girls, men and girls, men and girls, go trooping by couples flirting, couples not flirting, couples trying to flirt, couples trying not to flirt. It is a bench that only holds two people; well armed, well cushioned, where, half hidden behind Lenore's spread fan, they lean together and whisper gaily.
"Paul! Paul! do you see that girl?—how dirty the body of her dress is ?"
"Cannot say that I remarked it.”
"It is, though; as dirty as the ground, She and her sisters