“What do you say to sitting it out? The rooms are most awfully crowded, and you dance too well for one; besides, one’s anxious to hear your impressions of a London ball.”
“One must wait till the ball is over. So far I can’t deny that I’m enjoying myself in spite of the crush. But I should rather like to sit out for once, though you needn’t be sarcastic about my dancing.”
“Well, then, where’s a good place?”
“There’s a famous corner in the conservatory; it should be empty now that a dance is just beginning.”
It was. So it became occupied next moment by Tiny Luttrell and her partner, who allowed that the dimly illumined recess among the tree-ferns deserved its fame. Tiny’s partner, however, was only her brother-in-law, Mr. Erskine Holland.
The Luttrells had been exactly a fortnight in England. It was in the earliest hour of the month of July that Christina sat out with her brother-in-law at her first London party; and if she had spent that fortnight chiefly in visiting dressmakers and waiting for results, she had at least found time to get to know Erskine Holland very much better than she had ever done in Melbourne. There she had seen very little of him, partly through being away from home when he first called with an introduction to the family, but more by reason of the short hurdle race he had made of his courtship, marriage, and return to England with his bride. He had taken the matrimonial fences as only an old bachelor can who has been given up as such by his friends. Mr. Holland, though still nearer thirty than forty, had been regarded as a confirmed bachelor when starting on a long sea voyage for the restoration of his health after an autumnal typhoid. His friends were soon to know what weakened health and Australian women can do between them. They beheld their bachelor return within four months, a comfortably married man, with a pleasant little wife who was very fond of him, and in no way jealous of his old friends. That was Mrs. Erskine’s great merit, and the secret of the signal success with which she presided over his table in West Kensington, when Erskine had settled down there and returned with steadiness to the good, safe business to which he had been virtually born a partner. For his part, without being enslaved to a degree embarrassing to their friends, Holland made an obviously satisfactory husband. He was good-natured and never exacting; he was well off and generous. One of a wealthy, many-membered firm driving a versatile trade in the East, he was as free personally from business anxieties as was the hall porter at the firm’s offices in Lombard Street. There Erskine was the most popular and least useful fraction of the firm, being just a big, fair, genial fellow, fond of laughter and chaff and lawn tennis, and fonder of books than of the newspapers — an eccentric preference in a business man. But as a business man the older partners shook their heads about him. Once as a youngster he had spent a year or two in Lisbon, learning the language and the ropes there, the firm having certain minor interests planted in Portuguese soil on both sides of the Indian Ocean; and those interests just suited Erskine Holland, who had the handling of them, though the older partners nursed their own distrust of a man who boasted of taking his work out of his head each evening when he hung up his office coat. At home Erskine was a man who read more than one guessed, and had his own ideas on a good many subjects. He found his sister-in-law lamentably ignorant, but quite eager to improve her mind at his direction; and this is ever delightful to the man who reads. Also he found her amusing, and that experience was mutual.
A Londoner himself, with many reputable relatives in the town, who rejoiced in the bachelor’s marriage and were able to like his wife, he was in a position to gratify to a considerable extent Mrs. Erskine’s social desires. That he did so somewhat against his own inclination (much as in Melbourne his father-in-law had done before him) was due to an acutely fair mind allied with a thoroughly kind and sympathetic nature. His own attitude toward society was not free from that slight intellectual superiority which some of the best fellows in the world cannot help; but at least it was perfectly genuine. He treated society as he treated champagne, which he seldom touched, but about which he was curiously fastidious on those chance occasions. He cared as little for the one as for the other, but found the drier brands inoffensive in both cases. The ball to-night was at Lady Almeric’s.
“Not a bad corner,” Erskine said as he made himself comfortable; “but I’m afraid it’s rather thrown away upon me, you know.”
“Far from it. I wish I had been dancing with you the whole evening, Erskine,” said Christina seriously.
“That’s rather obsequious of you. May I ask why?”
“Because I don’t think much of my partners so far, to talk to.”
“Ha! I knew there was something you wouldn’t think much of,” cried Erskine Holland. “Have they nothing to say for themselves, then?”
“Oh, plenty. They discover where I come from; then they show their ignorance. They want to know if there is any chance for a fellow on the gold fields now; they have heard of a place called Ballarat, but they aren’t certain whether it’s a part of Melbourne or nearer Sydney. One man knows some people at Hobart Town, in New Zealand, he fancies. I never knew anything like their ignorance of the colonies!”
Mr. Holland tugged a smile out of his mustache. “Can you tell me how to address a letter to Montreal — is it Quebec or Ontario?” he asked her, as if interested and anxious to learn.
“Goodness knows,” replied Christina innocently.
“Then that’s rather like their ignorance of the colonies, isn’t it? There’s not much difference between a group of colonies and a dominion, you see. I’m afraid your partners are not the only people whose geography has been sadly neglected.”
“My education’s been neglected altogether, if it comes to that. As you’re taking me in hand, perhaps you’ll lend me a geography, as well as Ruskin and Thackeray. Nevertheless, Australia’s more important than Canada, you may say what you like, Erskine; and your being smart won’t improve my partners.”
“Oh! but I thought it was only their conversation?”
“You force me to tell you that their idea of dancing seems limited to pushing you up one side of the room, and dragging you after them down the other. Sometimes they turn you round. Then they’re proud of themselves. They never do it twice running.”
“That’s because there are so many here.”
“There are far too many here — that’s what’s the matter! And I’m a nice person to tell you so,” added Tiny penitently, “when it’s you and Ruth who have brought me here. But you know I don’t mean that I’m not enjoying it, Erskine; I’m enjoying it immensely, and I’m very proud of myself for being here at all. I can’t quite explain myself — I don’t much like trying to — but there’s a something about everything that makes it seem better than anything of the kind that we can do in Melbourne. The music is so splendid, and the floor, and the flowers. I never saw such a few diamonds — or such beauties! Even the ices are the best I ever tasted, and they aren’t too sweet. There’s something subdued and superior about the whole concern; but it’s too subdued; it needs go and swing nearly as badly as it needs elbow-room — of more kinds than one! I’m thinking less of the crowd of people than of their etiquette and ceremony, which hamper you far more. But it’s your old England in a nutshell, this ball is: it fits too tight.”
“Upon my word,” said Erskine, laughing, “I don’t think it’s at all bad for you to find the old country a tight fit! I’m obliged to you for the expression, Tiny. I only hope it isn’t suggested by personal suffering. I have been thinking that you must have a good word to say for our dressmakers, if not for our dancing men.”
Christina slid her eyes over the snow and ice of the shimmering attire that had been made for her in haste since her arrival.
“I’m glad you like me,” she said, smiling honestly. “I must own I rather like myself in this lot. I didn’t want to disgrace you among your fine friends, you see.”
“They’re more fine than friends, my dear girl. Lady Almeric’s the only friend. She has been very nice to Ruth. Most of the people here are rather classy, I can assure you.”
He named the flower of the company in a lowered voice. Christina knew one of the names.
“Lady Mary Dromard, did you say?” said she, playing idly with her fan.
“Yes; do you know her?”
“No, but her brother was in Melbourne once as aid-decamp to the governor. I knew him.”
“Ah, that was Lord Manister; he wasn’t out there when I was.”
“No, he must have come just after you had gone. He only remained a few months, you know. He was a quiet young man with a mania for cricket; we liked him because he set our young men their fashions and yet never gave himself airs. I wonder if he’s here as well?”
“I don’t think so. I know him by sight, but I haven’t seen him. I’m glad to hear he didn’t give himself airs; you couldn’t say the same for the sister who is here, though I only know her by sight, too.”
“He was quite a nice young man,” said Christina, shutting up her fan; and as she spoke the music, whose strains had reached them all the time, came to its natural end.
The conservatory suffered instant invasion, Christina and Mr. Holland being afforded the entertainment of disappointing couple after couple who came straight to their corner.
“We’re in a coveted spot,” whispered Erskine; and his sister-in-law reminded him who had shown the way to it. It was less secluded than remote, so the present occupiers found further entertainment as mere spectators. The same little things amused them both; this was one reason why they got on so well together. They were amused by such trifles as a distant prospect of Ruth, who was innocently enjoying herself at the other end of the conservatory, unaware of their eyes. Erskine might have felt proud, and no doubt he did, for many people considered Ruth even prettier than Christina, with whom, however, they were apt to confuse her, though Holland himself could never see the likeness. He now sat watching his wife in the distance while talking to her sister at his side until a new partner pounced upon Ruth, and bore her away as the music began afresh.
“There goes my chaperon,” remarked Christina resignedly.
“Who’s your partner now? I’m sorry to say I see mine within ten yards of me,” whispered Erskine in some anxiety.
Tiny consulted her card. “It’s Herbert,” she said.
“Herbert!” said Mr. Holland dubiously. “I’m afraid Herbert’s going it; he’s deeply employed with a girl in red — I think an American. Shall I take you to Lady Almeric?” His eyes shifted uneasily toward his expectant partner.
“No, I’ll wait here for Herbert. Mayn’t I? Then I’m going to. You’re sure to see him, and you can send him at once. Don’t blame Ruth. What does it matter? It will matter if you don’t go this instant to your partner; I see it in her eye!”
He left her reluctantly, with the undertaking that Herbert should be at her side in two minutes. But that was rash. Christina soon had the conservatory entirely to herself, whereupon she came out of her corner, so that her brother might find her the more readily. Still he kept her waiting, and she might as well have been lonely in the corner. It was too bad of Herbert to leave her standing there, where she had no business to be by herself, and the music and the throbbing of the floor within a few yards of her. These awkward minutes naturally began to disturb her. They checked and cooled her in the full blast of healthy excitement, and that was bad; they threw her back upon herself straight from her lightest mood, and this was worse. She became abnormally aware of her own presence as she stood looking down and impatiently tapping with her little white slipper upon the marble flags. Even about these there was the grand air which Christina relished; she might have seen her face far below, as though she had been standing in still water; but her thoughts had been given a rough jerk inward, her outward vision fell no deeper than the polished surface, while her mind’s eye saw all at once the dusty veranda boards of Wallandoon. She stood very still, and in her ears the music died away, and through three months of travel and great changes she heard again the night-horse champing in the yard, and the crickets chirping further afield. And as she stood, her head bowed by this sudden memory, footsteps approached, and she looked up, expecting to see Herbert. But it was not Herbert; it was a young man of more visible distinction than Herbert Luttrell. It is difficult to look better dressed than another in our evening mode; but this young man overcame the difficulty. He stood erect; he was well built; his clothes fitted beautifully; he was himself nice looking, and fair-haired, and boyish; and, even more than his clothes, one admired his smile, which was frank and delightful. But the smile he gave Christina was followed by a blush, for she had held out her hand to him, and asked him how he was.
“I’m all right, thanks. But — this is the most extraordinary thing! Been over long?”
He had dropped her hand.
“About a fortnight,” said Christina.
“But what a pity to come over so late in the season! It’s about done, you know.”
“Yes. I thought there was a good deal going on still.”
“There’s Henley, to be sure.”
“I think I’m going to Henley.”
“Going to the Eton and Harrow?”
“I am not quite sure. That was your match, wasn’t it?”
The young man blushed afresh.
“Fancy your remembering! Unfortunately it wasn’t my match, though; my day out was against Winchester.”
“Oh, yes,” said Tiny, less knowingly.
“And how are you, Miss Luttrell?”
This had been forgotten, Tiny reported well of herself. Her friend hesitated; there was some nervousness in his manner, but his good eyes never fell from her face, and presently he exclaimed, as though the idea had just struck him:
“I say, mayn’t I have this dance, Miss Luttrell — what’s left of it?”
“Thanks, I’m afraid I’m engaged for it.”
“Then mayn’t I find your partner for you?”
Now this second request, or his anxious way of making it, was an elaborate revelation to Christina, and wrote itself in her brain. “Do you remember Herbert?” she, however, simply replied. “He is the culprit.”
“Your brother? Certainly I remember him. I saw him a few minutes ago, and made sure I had seen him somewhere before; but he looks older. I don’t fancy he’s dancing. He’s somewhere or other with somebody in red.”
“So I hear.”
“Then mayn’t I have a turn with you before it stops?”
She hesitated as long as he had hesitated before first asking her; there was not time to hesitate longer. Then she took his arm, and they passed through a narrow avenue of ferns and flowers, round a corner, up some steps, and so into the ball room.
The waltz was indeed half over, but the second half of it Christina and her fortuitous partner danced together, without a rest, and also without a word. He led her a more enterprising measure than those previous partners who had questioned her concerning Australia. The name of Australia had not crossed this one’s lips. As Tiny whirled and glided on his arm she saw a good many eyes upon her: they made her dance her best; and her best was the best in the room, though her partner was uncommonly good, and they had danced together before. Among the eyes were Ruth’s, and they were beaming; the others were mostly inquisitive, and as strange to Christina as she evidently was to them; but once a turn brought her face to face with Herbert, on his way from the conservatory, and alone. He was a lanky, brown-faced, hook-nosed boy, with wiry limbs and an aggressive eye, and he followed his sister round the room with a stare of which she was uncomfortably conscious. He had looked for her too late, when forced to relinquish the girl in red to her proper partner, who still seemed put out. Christina was put out also, by her brother’s look, but she did not show it.
“You are staying in town?” her partner said after the dance as they sat together in the conservatory, but not in the old corner.
“Yes, with my sister, Mrs. Holland; you never met her, I think. We are in town till August.”
“Where do you go then?”
“To the country for a month. My sister and her husband have taken a country rectory for the whole of August. They had it last year, and liked the place so much that they have taken it again; it is a little village called Essingham.”
“Essingham!” cried Christina’s partner.
“Yes; do you know it?”
“I know of it,” answered the young man. “I suppose you will go on the Continent after that?” he added quickly.
“Well, hardly; my brother-in-law has so little time; but he expects to have to go to Lisbon on business at the end of October, and he has promised to take us with him.”
“To Lisbon at the end of October,” repeated Tiny’s friend reflectively. “Get him to take you to Cintra. They say it’s well worth seeing.”
Yet another dance was beginning. Christina was interested in the movements of a young man in spectacles, who was plainly in search of somebody. “He’s hunting for me,” she whispered to her companion, who was saying:
“Portugal’s rather the knuckle end of Europe, don’t you think? But I’ve heard Cintra well spoken of. I should go there if I were you.”
“We intend to. Do you mind pulling that young man’s coat tails? He has forgotten my face.”
“Yes, I do mind,” said Tiny’s partner with unexpected earnestness. “I may meet you again, but I should like to take this opportunity of explaining ——”
Tiny Luttrell was smiling in his face.
“I hate explanations!” she cried. “They are an insult to one’s imagination, and I much prefer to accept things without them.” There was a gleam in her smile, but as she spoke she flashed it upon the spectacles of her blind pursuer, who was squaring his arm to her in an instant.
And that was the last she saw of the only partner for whom she had a good word afterward, and he had come to her by accident. But it was by no means the last she heard of him. The next was from Herbert, as they drove home together in one hansom, while Ruth and her husband followed in another. The morning air blew fresh upon their faces; the rising sun struck sparks from the harness; the leaves in the park were greener than any in Australia, and the dew on the grass through the railings was as a silver shower new-fallen. But the most delicious taste of London that had yet been given her was poisoned for Christina by her brother Herbert.
“To have my claim jumped by that joker!” said he through his nose.
“But you had left it empty,” said Tiny mildly. “I was all alone.”
“It isn’t so much that,” her brother said, shifting the ground he had taken in preliminary charges; “it’s your dancing with that brute Manister!”
“My dear old Herbs,” said Miss Luttrell with provoking coolness, “Lord Manister asked me to dance with him, and I didn’t see why I should refuse. I certainly didn’t see why I should consult you, Herbs.”
“By ghost,” cried Herbert, “if it comes to that, he once asked you to marry him!”
“Now you are a treat,” said the girl, before the blood came.
“And then bolted! I should be ashamed of myself for dancing with him if I were you. He said I was a larrikin, too. I’d like to fill his eye for him!”
“He’ll never say a truer thing!” Christina cried out; but her voice broke over the words, and the early sun cut diamonds on her lashes.
Now this was Herbert: he was rough, but not cowardly. His nose had become hooked in his teens from a stand-up fight with a full-grown man. There is not the least doubt that in such a combat with Lord Manister that nobleman, though otherwise a finer athlete, would have suffered extremely. But it was not in Herbert to hit any woman in cold blood with his tongue. Having done this in his heat to Christina, his mate, he was man enough to be sorry and ashamed, and to slip her hands into his.
“I’m an awful beast,” he stammered out. “I didn’t mean anything at all — except that I’d like to fill up Manister’s eye! I can’t go back on that when — when he called me a larrikin!”
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16