The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

4

Sandbourne Pier — Road to Wyndway — Ball-Room in Wyndway House

The last light of a winter day had gone down behind the houses of Sandbourne, and night was shut close over all. Christopher, about eight o’clock, was standing at the end of the pier with his back towards the open sea, whence the waves were pushing to the shore in frills and coils that were just rendered visible in all their bleak instability by the row of lights along the sides of the jetty, the rapid motion landward of the wavetips producing upon his eye an apparent progress of the pier out to sea. This pier-head was a spot which Christopher enjoyed visiting on such moaning and sighing nights as the present, when the sportive and variegated throng that haunted the pier on autumn days was no longer there, and he seemed alone with weather and the invincible sea.

Somebody came towards him along the deserted footway, and rays from the nearest lamp streaked the face of his sister Faith.

‘O Christopher, I knew you were here,’ she said eagerly. ‘You are wanted; there’s a servant come from Wyndway House for you. He is sent to ask if you can come immediately to play at a little dance they have resolved upon this evening — quite suddenly it seems. If you can come, you must bring with you any assistant you can lay your hands upon at a moment’s notice, he says.’

‘Wyndway House; why should the people send for me above all other musicians in the town?’

Faith did not know. ‘If you really decide to go,’ she said, as they walked homeward, ‘you might take me as your assistant. I should answer the purpose, should I not, Kit? since it is only a dance or two they seem to want.’

‘And your harp I suppose you mean. Yes; you might be competent to take a part. It cannot be a regular ball; they would have had the quadrille band for anything of that sort. Faith — we’ll go. However, let us see the man first, and inquire particulars.’

Reaching home, Christopher found at his door a horse and wagonette in charge of a man-servant in livery, who repeated what Faith had told her brother. Wyndway House was a well-known country-seat three or four miles out of the town, and the coachman mentioned that if they were going it would be well that they should get ready to start as soon as they conveniently could, since he had been told to return by ten if possible. Christopher quickly prepared himself, and put a new string or two into Faith’s harp, by which time she also was dressed; and, wrapping up herself and her instrument safe from the night air, away they drove at half-past nine.

‘Is it a large party?’ said Christopher, as they whizzed along.

‘No, sir; it is what we call a dance — that is, ’tis like a ball, you know, on a small scale — a ball on a spurt, that you never thought of till you had it. In short, it grew out of a talk at dinner, I believe; and some of the young people present wanted a jig, and didn’t care to play themselves, you know, young ladies being an idle class of society at the best of times. We’ve a house full of sleeping company, you understand — been there a week some of ’em — most of ’em being mistress’s relations.’

‘They probably found it a little dull.’

‘Well, yes — it is rather dull for ’em — Christmas-time and all. As soon as it was proposed they were wild for sending post-haste for somebody or other to play to them.’

‘Did they name me particularly?’ said Christopher.

‘Yes; “Mr. Christopher Julian,” she says. “The gent who’s turned music-man?” I said. “Yes, that’s him,” says she.’

‘There were music-men living nearer to your end of the town than I.’

‘Yes, but I know it was you particular: though I don’t think mistress thought anything about you at first. Mr. Joyce — that’s the butler — said that your name was mentioned to our old party, when he was in the room, by a young lady staying with us, and mistress says then, “The Julians have had a downfall, and the son has taken to music.” Then when dancing was talked of, they said, “O, let’s have him by all means.”’

‘Was the young lady who first inquired for my family the same one who said, “Let’s have him by all means?”’

‘O no; but it was on account of her asking that the rest said they would like you to play — at least that’s as I had it from Joyce.’

‘Do you know that lady’s name?’

‘Mrs. Petherwin.’

‘Ah!’

‘Cold, sir?’

‘O no.’

Christopher did not like to question the man any further, though what he had heard added new life to his previous curiosity; and they drove along the way in silence, Faith’s figure, wrapped up to the top of her head, cutting into the sky behind them like a sugar-loaf. Such gates as crossed the roads had been left open by the forethought of the coachman, and, passing the lodge, they proceeded about half-a-mile along a private drive, then ascended a rise, and came in view of the front of the mansion, punctured with windows that were now mostly lighted up.

‘What is that?’ said Faith, catching a glimpse of something that the carriage-lamp showed on the face of one wall as they passed, a marble bas-relief of some battle-piece, built into the stonework.

‘That’s the scene of the death of one of the squire’s forefathers — Colonel Sir Martin Jones, who was killed at the moment of victory in the battle of Salamanca — but I haven’t been here long enough to know the rights of it. When I am in one of my meditations, as I wait here with the carriage sometimes, I think how many more get killed at the moment of victory than at the moment of defeat. This is the entrance for you, sir.’ And he turned the corner and pulled up before a side door.

They alighted and went in, Christopher shouldering Faith’s harp, and she marching modestly behind, with curly-eared music-books under her arm. They were shown into the house-steward’s room, and ushered thence along a badly-lit passage and past a door within which a hum and laughter were audible. The door next to this was then opened for them, and they entered.

* * * *

Scarcely had Faith, or Christopher either, ever beheld a more shining scene than was presented by the saloon in which they now found themselves. Coming direct from the gloomy park, and led to the room by that back passage from the servants’ quarter, the light from the chandelier and branches against the walls, striking on gilding at all points, quite dazzled their sight for a minute or two; it caused Faith to move forward with her eyes on the floor, and filled Christopher with an impulse to turn back again into some dusky corner where every thread of his not over-new dress suit — rather moth-eaten through lack of feasts for airing it — could be counted less easily.

He was soon seated before a grand piano, and Faith sat down under the shadow of her harp, both being arranged on a dais within an alcove at one end of the room. A screen of ivy and holly had been constructed across the front of this recess for the games of the children on Christmas Eve, and it still remained there, a small creep-hole being left for entrance and exit.

Then the merry guests tumbled through doors at the further end, and dancing began. The mingling of black-coated men and bright ladies gave a charming appearance to the groups as seen by Faith and her brother, the whole spectacle deriving an unexpected novelty from the accident of reaching their eyes through interstices in the tracery of green leaves, which added to the picture a softness that it would not otherwise have possessed. On the other hand, the musicians, having a much weaker light, could hardly be discerned by the performers in the dance.

The music was now rattling on, and the ladies in their foam-like dresses were busily threading and spinning about the floor, when Faith, casually looking up into her brother’s face, was surprised to see that a change had come over it. At the end of the quadrille he leant across to her before she had time to speak, and said quietly, ‘She’s here!’

‘Who?’ said Faith, for she had not heard the words of the coachman.

‘Ethelberta.’

‘Which is she?’ asked Faith, peeping through with the keenest interest.

‘The one who has the skirts of her dress looped up with convolvulus flowers — the one with her hair fastened in a sort of Venus knot behind; she has just been dancing with that perfumed piece of a man they call Mr. Ladywell — it is he with the high eyebrows arched like a girl’s.’ He added, with a wrinkled smile, ‘I cannot for my life see anybody answering to the character of husband to her, for every man takes notice of her.’

They were interrupted by another dance being called for, and then, his fingers tapping about upon the keys as mechanically as fowls pecking at barleycorns, Christopher gave himself up with a curious and far from unalloyed pleasure to the occupation of watching Ethelberta, now again crossing the field of his vision like a returned comet whose characteristics were becoming purely historical. She was a plump-armed creature, with a white round neck as firm as a fort — altogether a vigorous shape, as refreshing to the eye as the green leaves through which he beheld her. She danced freely, and with a zest that was apparently irrespective of partners. He had been waiting long to hear her speak, and when at length her voice did reach his ears, it was the revelation of a strange matter to find how great a thing that small event had become to him. He knew the old utterance — rapid but not frequent, an obstructive thought causing sometimes a sudden halt in the midst of a stream of words. But the features by which a cool observer would have singled her out from others in his memory when asking himself what she was like, was a peculiar gaze into imaginary far-away distance when making a quiet remark to a partner — not with contracted eyes like a seafaring man, but with an open full look — a remark in which little words in a low tone were made to express a great deal, as several single gentlemen afterwards found.

The production of dance-music when the criticizing stage among the dancers has passed, and they have grown full of excitement and animal spirits, does not require much concentration of thought in the producers thereof; and desultory conversation accordingly went on between Faith and her brother from time to time.

‘Kit,’ she said on one occasion, ‘are you looking at the way in which the flowers are fastened to the leaves? — taking a mean advantage of being at the back of the tapestry? You cannot think how you stare at them.’

‘I was looking through them — certainly not at them. I have a feeling of being moved about like a puppet in the hands of a person who legally can be nothing to me.’

‘That charming woman with the shining bunch of hair and convolvuluses?’

‘Yes: it is through her that we are brought here, and through her writing that poem, “Cancelled Words,” that the book was sent me, and through the accidental renewal of acquaintance between us on Anglebury Heath, that she wrote the poem. I was, however, at the moment you spoke, thinking more particularly of the little teacher whom Ethelberta must have commissioned to send the book to me; and why that girl was chosen to do it.’

‘There may be a hundred reasons. Kit, I have never yet seen her look once this way.’

Christopher had certainly not yet received look or gesture from her; but his time came. It was while he was for a moment outside the recess, and he caught her in the act. She became slightly confused, turned aside, and entered into conversation with a neighbour.

It was only a look, and yet what a look it was! One may say of a look that it is capable of division into as many species, genera, orders, and classes, as the animal world itself. Christopher saw Ethelberta Petherwin’s performance in this kind — the well-known spark of light upon the well-known depths of mystery — and felt something going out of him which had gone out of him once before.

Thus continually beholding her and her companions in the giddy whirl, the night wore on with the musicians, last dances and more last dances being added, till the intentions of the old on the matter were thrice exceeded in the interests of the young. Watching the couples whirl and turn, advance and recede as gently as spirits, knot themselves like house-flies and part again, and lullabied by the faint regular beat of their footsteps to the tune, the players sank into the peculiar mesmeric quiet which comes over impressionable people who play for a great length of time in the midst of such scenes; and at last the only noises that Christopher took cognizance of were those of the exceptional kind, breaking above the general sea of sound — a casual smart rustle of silk, a laugh, a stumble, the monosyllabic talk of those who happened to linger for a moment close to the leafy screen — all coming to his ears like voices from those old times when he had mingled in similar scenes, not as servant but as guest.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:22