The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXVII

Contains some Ball-practising

Under some calico draperies in the shady embrasure of a window, Arthur Pendennis chose to assume a very gloomy and frowning countenance, and to watch Miss Bell dance her first quadrille with Mr. Pynsent for a partner. That gentleman was as solemn and severe as Englishmen are upon such occasions, and walked through the dance as he would have walked up to his pew in church, without a smile upon his face, or allowing any outward circumstance to interfere with his attention to the grave duty in which he was engaged. But Miss Laura’s face was beaming with pleasure and good-nature. The lights and the crowd and music excited her. As she spread out her white robes, and performed her part of the dance, smiling and happy, her brown ringlets flowing back over her fair shoulders from her honest rosy face, more than one gentleman in the room admired and looked after her; and Lady Fogey, who had a house in London and gave herself no small airs of fashion when in the country, asked of Lady Rockminster who the young person was, mentioned a reigning beauty in London whom, in her ladyship’s opinion, Laura was rather like, and pronounced that she would “do.”

Lady Rockminster would have been very much surprised if any protegee of hers would not “do,” and wondered at Lady Fogey’s impudence in judging upon the point at all. She surveyed Laura with majestic glances through her eyeglass. She was pleased with the girl’s artless looks, and gay innocent manner. Her manner is very good, her ladyship thought. Her arms are rather red, but that is a defect of her youth. Her tone is far better than that of the little pert Miss Amory, who is dancing opposite to her.

Miss Blanche was, indeed, the vis-a-vis of Miss Laura, and smiled most killingly upon her dearest friend, and nodded to her and talked to her, when they met during the quadrille evolutions, and patronised her a great deal. Her shoulders were the whitest in the whole room: and they were never easy in her frock for one single instant: nor were her eyes, which rolled about incessantly: nor was her little figure:— it seemed to say to all the people, “Come and look at me — not at that pink, healthy, bouncing country lass, Miss Bell, who scarcely knew how to dance till I taught her. This is the true Parisian manner — this is the prettiest little foot in the room, and the prettiest little chaussure too. Look at it, Mr. Pynsent. Look at it, Mr. Pendennis, you who are scowling behind the curtain — I know you are longing to dance with me.”

Laura went on dancing, and keeping an attentive eye upon Mr. Pen in the embrasure of the window. He did not quit that retirement during the first quadrille, nor until the second, when the good-natured Lady Clavering beckoned to him to come up to her to the dais or place of honour where the dowagers were — and whither Pen went blushing and exceedingly awkward, as most conceited young fellows are. He performed a haughty salutation to Lady Rockminster, who hardly acknowledged his bow, and then went and paid his respects to the widow of the late Amory, who was splendid in diamonds, velvet, lace, feathers, and all sorts of millinery and goldsmith’s ware.

Young Mr. Fogey, then in the fifth form at Eton, and ardently expecting his beard and his commission in a dragoon regiment, was the second partner who was honoured with Miss Bell’s hand. He was rapt in admiration of that young lady. He thought he had never seen so charming a creature. “I like you much better than the French girl” (for this young gentleman had been dancing with Miss Amory before), he candidly said to her. Laura laughed, and looked more good-humoured than ever; and in the midst of her laughter caught a sight of Pen, and continued to laugh as he, on his side, continued to look absurdly pompous and sulky. The next dance was a waltz, and young Fogey thought, with a sigh, that he did not know how to waltz, and vowed he would have a master the next holidays.

Mr. Pynsent again claimed Miss Bell’s hand for this dance; and Pen beheld her, in a fury, twirling round the room, her waist encircled by the arm of that gentleman. He never used to be angry before when, on summer evenings, the chairs and tables being removed, and the governess called downstairs to play the piano, he and the Chevalier Strong (who was a splendid performer, and could dance a British hornpipe, a German waltz, or a Spanish fandango, if need were), and the two young ladies, Blanche and Laura, improvised little balls at Clavering Park. Laura enjoyed this dancing so much, and was so animated, that she even animated Mr. Pynsent. Blanche, who could dance beautifully, had an unlucky partner, Captain Broadfoot, of the Dragoons, then stationed at Chatteris. For Captain Broadfoot, though devoting himself with great energy to the object in view, could not get round in time: and, not having the least ear for music, was unaware that his movements were too slow.

So, in the waltz as in the quadrille, Miss Blanche saw that her dear friend Laura had the honours of the dance, and was by no means pleased with the latter’s success. After a couple of turns with the heavy dragoon, she pleaded fatigue, and requested to be led back to her place, near her mamma, to whom Pen was talking; and she asked him why he had not asked her to waltz, and had left her for the mercies of that great odious man in spurs and a red coat?

“I thought spurs and scarlet were the most fascinating objects in the world to young ladies,” Pen answered. “I never should have dared to put my black coat in competition with that splendid red jacket.”

“You are very unkind and cruel and sulky and naughty,” said Miss Amory, with another shrug of the shoulders. “You had better go away. Your cousin is looking at us over Mr. Pynsent’s shoulder.”

“Will you waltz with me?” said Pen.

“Not this waltz. I can’t, having just sent away that good Captain Broadfoot. Look at Mr. Pynsent, did you ever see such a creature? But I will dance the next waltz with you, and the quadrille too. I am promised, but I will tell Mr. Poole that I had forgotten my engagement to you.”

“Women forget very readily,” Pendennis said.

“But they always come back, and are very repentant and sorry for what they’ve done,” Blanche said. “See, here comes the Foker, and dear Laura leaning on him. How pretty she looks!”

Laura came up, and put out her hand to Pen, to whom Pynsent made a sort of bow, appearing to be not much more graceful than that domestic instrument to which Miss Amory compared him.

But Laura’s face was full of kindness. “I am so glad to have come, dear Pen,” she said. “I can speak to you now. How is mamma? The three dances are over, and I am engaged to you for the next, Pen.”

“I have just engaged myself to Miss Amory,” said Pen; and Miss Amory nodded her head, and made her usual little curtsey. “I don’t intend to give him up, dearest Laura,” she said.

“Well, then, he’ll waltz with me, dear Blanche,” said the other. “Won’t you, Pen?”

“I promised to waltz with Miss Amory.”

“Provoking!” said Laura, and making a curtsey in her turn she went and placed herself under the ample wing of Lady Rockminster.

Pen was delighted with his mischief. The two prettiest girls in the room were quarrelling about him. He flattered himself he had punished Miss Laura. He leaned in a dandified air, with his elbow over the wall, and talked to Blanche: he quizzed unmercifully all the men in the room — the heavy dragoons in their tight jackets — the country dandies in their queer attire — the strange toilettes of the ladies. One seemed to have a bird’s nest in her head; another had six pounds of grapes in her hair, besides her false pearls. “It’s a coiffure of almonds and raisins,” said Pen “and might be served up for dessert.” In a word, he was exceedingly satirical and amusing.

During the quadrille he carried on this kind of conversation with unflinching bitterness and vivacity, and kept Blanche continually laughing, both at his wickedness and jokes, which were good, and also because Laura was again their vis-a-vis, and could see and hear how merry and confidential they were.

“Arthur is charming to-night,” she whispered to Laura, across Cornet Perch’s shell-jacket, as Pen was performing cavalier seul before them, drawling through that figure with a thumb in the pocket of each waistcoat.

“Who?” said Laura.

“Arthur,” answered Blanche, in French. “Oh, it’s such a pretty name!” And now the young ladies went over to Pen’s side, and Cornet Perch performed a pas seul in his turn. He had no waistcoat pocket to put his hands into, and they looked large and swollen as they hung before him depending from the tight arms in the jacket.

During the interval between the quadrille and the succeeding waltz, Pen did not take any notice of Laura, except to ask her whether her partner, Cornet Perch, was an amusing youth, and whether she liked him so well as her other partner, Mr. Pynsent. Having planted which two daggers in Laura’s gentle bosom, Mr. Pendennis proceeded to rattle on with Blanche Amory, and to make jokes good or bad, but which were always loud. Laura was at a loss to account for her cousin’s sulky behaviour, and ignorant in what she had offended him; however, she was not angry in her turn at Pen’s splenetic mood, for she was the most good-natured and forgiving of women, and besides, an exhibition of jealousy on a man’s part is not always disagreeable to a lady.

As Pen would not dance with her, she was glad to take up with the active Chevalier Strong, who was a still better performer than Pen; and being very fond of dancing, as every brisk and innocent young girl should be, when the waltz music began she set off, and chose to enjoy herself with all her heart. Captain Broadfoot on this occasion occupied the floor in conjunction with a lady of proportions scarcely inferior to his own; Miss Roundle, a large young woman in a strawberry-ice coloured crape dress, the daughter of the lady with the grapes in her head, whose bunches Pen had admired.

And now taking his time, and with his fair partner Blanche hanging lovingly on the arm which encircled her, Mr. Arthur Pendennis set out upon his waltzing career, and felt, as he whirled round to the music, that he and Blanche were performing very brilliantly indeed. Very likely he looked to see if Miss Bell thought so too; but she did not or would not see him, and was always engaged with her partner Captain Strong. But Pen’s triumph was not destined to last long; and it was doomed that poor Blanche was to have yet another discomfiture on that unfortunate night. While she and Pen were whirling round as light and brisk as a couple of opera-dancers, honest Captain Broadfoot and the lady round whose large waist he was clinging, were twisting round very leisurely according to their natures, and indeed were in everybody’s way. But they were more in Pendennis’s way than in anybody’s else, for he and Blanche, whilst executing their rapid gyrations, came bolt up against the heavy dragoon and his lady, and with such force that the centre of gravity was lost by all four of the circumvolving bodies; Captain Broadfoot and Miss Roundle were fairly upset, as was Pen himself, who was less lucky than his partner Miss Amory, who was only thrown upon a bench against a wall.

But Pendennis came fairly down upon the floor, sprawling in the general ruin with Broadfoot and Miss Roundle. The Captain, though heavy, was good-natured, and was the first to burst out into a loud laugh at his own misfortune, which nobody therefore heeded. But Miss Amory was savage at her mishap; Miss Roundle placed on her seant, and looking pitifully round, presented an object which very few people could see without laughing; and Pen was furious when he heard the people giggling about him. He was one of those sarcastic young fellows that did not bear a laugh at his own expense, and of all things in the world feared ridicule most.

As he got up Laura and Strong were laughing at him; everybody was laughing; Pynsent and his partner were laughing; and Pen boiled with wrath against the pair, and could have stabbed them both on the spot. He turned away in a fury from them, and began blundering out apologies to Miss Amory. It was the other couple’s fault — the woman in pink had done it — Pen hoped Miss Amory was not hurt — would she not have the courage to take another turn?

Miss Amory in a pet said she was very much hurt indeed, and she would not take another turn; and she accepted with great thanks a glass of water which a cavalier, who wore a blue ribbon and a three-pointed star, rushed to fetch for her when he had seen the deplorable accident. She drank the water, smiled upon the bringer gracefully, and turning her white shoulder at Mr. Pen in the most marked and haughty manner, besought the gentleman with the star to conduct her to her mamma; and she held out her hand in order to take his arm.

The man with the star trembled with delight at this mark of her favour; he bowed over her hand, pressed it to his coat fervidly, and looked round him with triumph.

It was no other than the happy Mirobolant whom Blanche had selected as an escort. But the truth is, that the young lady had never fairly looked in the artist’s face since he had been employed in her mother’s family, and had no idea but it was a foreign nobleman on whose arm she was leaning. As she went off, Pen forgot his humiliation in his surprise, and cried out, “By Jove, it’s the cook!”

The instant he had uttered the words, he was sorry for having spoken them — for it was Blanche who had herself invited Mirobolant to escort her, nor could the artist do otherwise than comply with a lady’s command. Blanche in her flutter did not hear what Arthur said; but Mirobolant heard him, and cast a furious glance at him over his shoulder, which rather amused Mr. Pen. He was in a mischievous and sulky humour; wanting perhaps to pick a quarrel with somebody; but the idea of having insulted a cook, or that such an individual should have any feeling of honour at all, did not much enter into the mind of this lofty young aristocrat, the apothecary’s son.

It had never entered that poor artist’s head, that he as a man was not equal to any other mortal, or that there was anything in his position so degrading as to prevent him from giving his arm to a lady who asked for it. He had seen in the fetes in his own country fine ladies, not certainly demoiselles (but the demoiselle Anglaise he knew was a great deal more free than the spinster in France), join in the dance with Blaise or Pierre; and he would have taken Blanche up to Lady Clavering, and possibly have asked her to dance too, but he heard Pen’s exclamation, which struck him as if it had shot him, and cruelly humiliated and angered him. She did not know what caused him to start, and to grind a Gascon oath between his teeth.

But Strong, who was acquainted with the poor fellow’s state of mind, having had the interesting information from our friend Madame Fribsby, was luckily in the way when wanted, and saying something rapidly in Spanish, which the other understood, the Chevalier begged Miss Amory to come and take an ice before she went back to Lady Clavering. Upon which the unhappy Mirobolant relinquished the arm which he had held for a minute, and with a most profound and piteous bow, fell back. “Don’t you know who it is?” Strong asked of Miss Amory, as he led her away. “It is the chef Mirobolant.”

“How should I know?” asked Blanche. “He has a croix; he is very distingue; he has beautiful eyes.”

“The poor fellow is mad for your beaux yeux, I believe,” Strong said. “He is a very good cook, but he is not quite right in the head.”

“What did you say to him in the unknown tongue?” asked Miss Blanche.

“He is a Gascon, and comes from the borders of Spain,” Strong answered. “I told him he would lose his place if he walked with you.”

“Poor Monsieur Mirobolant!” said Blanche.

“Did you see the look he gave Pendennis?”— Strong asked, enjoying the idea of the mischief —“I think he would like to run little Pen through with one of his spits.”

“He is an odious, conceited, clumsy creature, that Mr. Pen,” said Blanche.

“Broadfoot looked as if he would like to kill him too, so did Pynsent,” Strong said. “What ice will you have — water ice or cream ice?”

“Water ice. Who is that odd man staring at me — he is decore too.”

“That is my friend Colonel Altamont, a very queer character, in the service of the Nawaub of Lucknow. Hallo! what’s that noise? I’ll be back in an instant,” said the Chevalier, and sprang out of the room to the ballroom, where a scuffle and a noise of high voices was heard.

The refreshment-room, in which Miss Amory now found herself, was a room set apart for the purposes of supper, which Mr. Rincer the landlord had provided for those who chose to partake, at the rate of five shillings per head. Also, refreshments of a superior class were here ready for the ladies and gentlemen of the county families who came to the ball; but the commoner sort of persons were kept out of the room by a waiter who stood at the portal, and who said that was a select room for Lady Clavering and Lady Rockminster’s parties, and not to be opened to the public till supper-time, which was not to be until past midnight. Pynsent, who danced with his constituents’ daughters, took them and their mammas in for their refreshment there. Strong, who was manager and master of the revels wherever he went, had of course the entree — and the only person who was now occupying the room was the gentleman with the black wig and the orders in his button — hole; the officer in the service of his Highness the Nawaub of Lucknow.

This gentleman had established himself very early in the evening in this apartment, where, saying he was confoundedly thirsty, he called for a bottle of champagne. At this order the waiter instantly supposed that he had to do with a grandee, and the Colonel sate down and began to eat his supper and absorb his drink, and enter affably into conversation with anybody who entered the room.

Sir Francis Clavering and Mr. Wagg found him there, when they left the ballroom, which they did pretty early — Sir Francis to go and smoke a cigar, and look at the people gathered outside the ballroom on the shore, which he declared was much better fun than to remain within; Mr. Wagg to hang on to a Baronet’s arm, as he was always pleased to do on the arm of the greatest man in the company. Colonel Altamont had stared at these gentlemen in so odd a manner, as they passed through the ‘Select’ room, that Clavering made inquiries of the landlord who he was, and hinted a strong opinion that the officer of the Nawaub’s service was drunk.

Mr. Pynsent, too, had had the honour of a conversation with the servant of the Indian potentate. It was Pynsent’s cue to speak to everybody (which he did, to do him justice, in the most ungracious manner); and he took the gentleman in the black wig for some constituent, some merchant captain, or other outlandish man of the place. Mr. Pynsent, then, coming into the refreshment-room with a lady, the wife of a constituent, on his arm, the Colonel asked him if he would try a glass of Sham? Pynsent took it with great gravity, bowed, tasted the wine, and pronounced it excellent, and with the utmost politeness retreated before Colonel Altamont. This gravity and decorum routed and surprised the Colonel more than any other kind of behaviour probably would: he stared after Pynsent stupidly, and pronounced to the landlord over the counter that he was a rum one. Mr. Rincer blushed, and hardly knew what to say. Mr. Pynsent was a county Earl’s grandson, going to set up as a Parliament man. Colonel Altamont on the other hand, wore orders and diamonds, jingled sovereigns constantly in his pocket, and paid his way like a man; so not knowing what to say, Mr. Rincer said, “Yes, Colonel — yes, ma’am, did you say tea? Cup a tea for Mr. Jones, Mrs. R.,” and so got off that discussion regarding Mr. Pynsent’s qualities, into which the Nizam’s officer appeared inclined to enter.

In fact, if the truth must be told, Mr. Altamont, having remained at the buffet almost all night, and employed himself very actively whilst there, had considerably flushed his brain by drinking, and he was still going on drinking, when Mr. Strong and Miss Amory entered the room.

When the Chevalier ran out of the apartment, attracted by the noise in the dancing-room, the Colonel rose from his chair with his little red eyes glowing like coals, and, with rather an unsteady gait advanced towards Blanche, who was sipping her ice. She was absorbed in absorbing it, for it was very fresh and good; or she was not curious to know what was going on in the adjoining room, although the waiters were, who ran after Chevalier Strong. So that when she looked up from her glass, she beheld this strange man staring at her out of his little red eyes. “Who was he? It was quite exciting.”

“And so you’re Betsy Amory,” said he, after gazing at her. “Betsy Amory, by Jove!”

“Who — who speaks to me?” said Betsy, alias Blanche.

But the noise in the ballroom is really becoming so loud, that we must rush back thither, and see what is the cause of the disturbance.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07