Forester, by Maria Edgeworth

The Ball.

Henry seized the moment when Forester was softened by the mixed effect of Dr. Campbell’s raillery and Flora’s good humour, to persuade him, that it would be perfectly consistent with sound philosophy to dress himself for a ball, nay, even to dance a country-dance. The word reel, to which Forester had taken a dislike, Henry prudently forbore to mention; and Flora, observing, and artfully imitating her brother’s prudence, substituted the word hays instead of reels in her conversation. When all the party were ready to go to the ball, and the carriages at the door, Forester was in Dr. Campbell’s study, reading the natural history of the elephant.

“Come,” said Henry, who had been searching for him all over the house, “we are waiting for you; I’m glad to see you dressed — come!”

“I wish you would leave me behind,” said Forester, who seemed to have relapsed into his former unsociable humour, from having been left half an hour in his beloved solitude; nor would Henry probably have prevailed, if he had not pointed to the print of the elephant5. “That mighty animal, you see, is so docile, that he lets himself be guided by a young boy,” said Henry; “and so must you.”

As he spoke he pulled Forester gently, who thought he could not show less docility than his favourite animal. When they entered the ball-room, Archibald Mackenzie asked Flora to dance, whilst Forester was considering where he should put his hat. “Are you going to dance without me? I thought I had asked you to dance with me. I intended it all the time we were coming in the coach.”

Flora thanked him for his kind intentions; whilst Archibald, with a look of triumph, hurried his partner away, and the dance began. Forester saw this transaction in the most serious light, and it afforded him subject for meditation till at least half a dozen country-dances had been finished. In vain the Berwick Jockey, the Highland Laddie, and the Flowers of Edinburgh, were played; “they suited not the gloomy habit” of his soul. He fixed himself behind a pillar, proof against music, mirth, and sympathy: he looked upon the dancers with a cynical eye. At length he found an amusement that gratified his present splenetic humour; he applied both his hands to his ears, effectually to stop out the sound of the music, that he might enjoy the ridiculous spectacle of a number of people capering about, without any apparent motive. Forester’s attitude caught the attention of some of the company; indeed, it was strikingly awkward. His elbows stuck out from his ears, and his head was sunk beneath his shoulders. Archibald Mackenzie was delighted beyond measure at his figure, and pointed him out to his acquaintance with all possible expedition. The laugh and the whisper circulated with rapidity. Henry, who was dancing, did not perceive what was going on till his partner said to him, “Pray, who is that strange mortal?”

“My friend,” cried Henry: “will you excuse me for one instant?” And he ran up to Forester, and roused him from his singular attitude. “He is,” continued Henry, as he returned to his partner, “an excellent young man, and he has superior abilities; we must not quarrel with him for trifles.”

With what different eyes different people behold the same objects! Whilst Forester had been stopping his ears, Dr. Campbell, who had more of the nature of the laughing than of the weeping philosopher, had found much benevolent pleasure in contemplating the festive scene. Not that any folly or ridicule escaped his keen penetration; but he saw every thing with an indulgent eye, and, if he laughed, laughed in such a manner, that even those who were the objects of his pleasantry could scarcely have forborne to sympathize in his mirth. Folly, he thought, could be as effectually corrected by the tickling of a feather, as by the lash of the satirist. When Lady Margaret M’Gregor, and Lady Mary Macintosh, for instance, had almost forced their unhappy partners into a quarrel to support their respective claims to precedency, Dr. Campbell, who was appealed to as the relation of both the furious fair ones, decided the difference expeditiously, and much to the amusement of the company, by observing, that, as the pretensions of each of the ladies were incontrovertible, and precisely balanced, there was but one possible method of adjusting their precedency — by their age. He was convinced, he said, that the youngest lady would with pleasure yield precedency to the elder. The contest was now, which should stand the lowest, instead of which should stand the highest, in the dance: and when the proofs of seniority could not be settled, the fair ones drew lots for their places, and submitted that to chance which could not be determined by prudence.

Forester stood beside Dr. Campbell whilst all this passed, and wasted a considerable portion of virtuous indignation upon the occasion. “And look at that absurd creature!” exclaimed Forester, pointing out to Dr. Campbell a girl who was footing and pounding for fame at a prodigious rate. Dr. Campbell turned from the pounding lady to observe his own daughter Flora, and a smile of delight came over his countenance: for “parents are apt to be partial”— especially those who have such daughters as Flora. Her light figure and graceful agility attracted the attention even of many impartial spectators; but she was not intent upon admiration: she seemed to be dancing in the gaiety of her heart; and that was a species of gaiety in which every one sympathized, because it was natural, and of which every one approved, because it was innocent. There was a certain delicacy mixed with her sportive humour, which seemed to govern, without restraining, the tide of her spirits. Her father’s eye was following her as she danced to a lively Scotch tune, when Forester pulled Dr. Campbell’s cane, on which he was leaning, and exclaimed, “Doctor, I’ve just thought of an excellent plan for a tragedy!”

“A tragedy!” repeated Dr. Campbell, with unfeigned surprise; “are you sure you don’t mean a comedy?”

Forester persisted that he meant a tragedy, and was proceeding to open the plot. “Don’t force me to your tragedy now,” said Dr. Campbell, “or it will infallibly be condemned. I cannot say that I have my buskin on! and I advise you to take yours off. Look, is that the tragic muse?”

Forester was astonished to find, that so great a man as Dr. Campbell had so little the power of abstraction; and he retired to muse upon the opening of his tragedy in a recess under the music gallery. But here he was not suffered long to remain undisturbed; for, near this spot, Sir Philip Gosling presently stationed himself; Archibald Mackenzie, who left off dancing as soon as Sir Philip entered the room, came to the half-intoxicated baronet; and they, with some other young men, worthy of their acquaintance, began so loud a contest concerning the number of bottles of claret which a man might, could, or should drink at a sitting, that even Forester’s powers of abstraction failed, and his tragic muse took her flight.

“Supper! Supper! thank God!” exclaimed Sir Philip, as supper was now announced. “I’d never set my foot in a ballroom,” added he, with several suitable oaths, “if it were not for the supper.”

“Is that a rational being?” cried Forester to Dr. Campbell, after Sir Philip had passed them.

“Speak a little lower,” said Dr. Campbell, “or he will infallibly prove his title to rationality by shooting you, or by making you shoot him, through the head.”

“But, sir,” said Forester, holding Dr. Campbell fast, whilst all the rest of the company were going down to supper, “how can you bear such a number of foolish, disagreeable people with patience?”

“What would you have me do?” said Dr. Campbell. “Would you have me get up and preach in the middle of a ball-room? Is it not as well, since we are here, to amuse ourselves with whatever can afford us any amusement, and to keep in good humour with all the world, especially with ourselves? — and had we not better follow the crowd to supper?”

Forester went down-stairs; but, as he crossed an antechamber, which led to the supper-room, he exclaimed, “If I were a legislator, I would prohibit balls.”

“And if you were a legislator,” said Dr. Campbell, pointing to a tea-kettle, which was on the fire in the antechamber, and from the spout of which a grey cloud of vapour issued —“if you were a legislator, would not you have stoppers wedged tight into the spouts of all tea-kettles in your dominions?”

“No, sir,” said Forester; “they would burst.”

“And do you think that folly would not burst, and do more mischief than a tea-kettle in the explosion, if you confined it so tight?”

Forester would willingly have stayed in the antechamber, to begin a critical dissection of this allusion; but Dr. Campbell carried him forwards into the supper-room. Flora had kept a seat for her father; and Henry met them at the door.

“I was just coming to see for you, sir,” said he to his father. “Flora began to think you were lost.”

“No,” said Dr. Campbell, “I was only detained by a would-be Cato, who wanted me to quarrel with the whole world, instead of eating my supper. What would you advise me to eat, Flora?” said he, seating himself beside her.

“Some of this trifle, papa;” and as she lightly removed the flowers with which it was ornamented, her father said, “Yes, give me some trifle, Flora. Some characters are like that trifle — flowers and light froth at the top, and solid, good sweetmeat, beneath.”

Forester immediately stretched out his plate for some trifle. “But I don’t see any use in the flowers, sir,” said he.

“Nor any beauty,” said Dr. Campbell.

Forester picked the troublesome flowers out of his trifle, and ate a quantity of it sufficient for a Stoic. Towards the end of the supper, he took some notice of Henry, who had made several ineffectual efforts to amuse him by such slight strokes of wit as seemed to suit the time and place. Time and place were never taken into Forester’s consideration: he was secretly displeased with his friend Henry for having danced all the evening instead of sitting still; and he looked at Henry’s partner with a scrutinizing eye. “So,” said he, at last, “I observe I have not been thought worthy of your conversation to-night: this is what gentlemen, polite gentlemen, who dance reels, call friendship!”

“If I had thought that you would have taken it ill I should dance reels,” said Henry, laughing, “I would have made the sacrifice of a reel at the altar of friendship; but we don’t come to a ball to make sacrifices to friendship, but to divert ourselves.”

“If we can,” said Forester, sarcastically: here he was prevented from reproaching his friend any longer, for a party of gentlemen began to sing catches, at the desire of the rest of the company.

Forester was now intent upon criticising the nonsensical words that were sung; and he was composing an essay upon the power of the ancient bards, and the effect of national music, when Flora’s voice interrupted him: “Brother,” said she, “I have won my wager.” The wager was, that Forester would not during supper observe the geranium that was placed in the middle of the table.

As soon as the company were satisfied, both with their supper and their songs, Henry, whose mind was always present, seized the moment when there was silence to turn the attention of the company towards the object upon which his own thoughts were intent. The lady-patroness, the mistress of the canary-bird, had performed her promise: she had spoken to several of her acquaintance concerning the tyrannical schoolmistress; and now, fixing the attention of the company upon the geranium, she appealed to Henry Campbell, and begged him to explain its history. A number of eager eyes turned upon him instantly; and Forester felt, that if he had been called upon in such a manner he could not have uttered a syllable. He now felt the great advantage of being able to speak, without hesitation or embarrassment, before numbers. When Henry related the poor little girl’s story, his language and manner were so unaffected and agreeable, that he interested every one who heard him in his cause. A subscription was immediately raised; every body was eager to contribute something to the child, who had been so ready, for her old grandmother’s sake, to part with her favourite geranium. The lady who superintended the charity-school agreed to breakfast the next morning at Dr. Campbell’s, and to go from his house to the school precisely at the hour when the schoolmistress usually set her unfortunate scholars to their extra task of spinning.

Forester was astonished at all this; he did not consider that negligence and inhumanity are widely different. The lady-patronesses had, perhaps, been rather negligent in contenting themselves with seeing the charity-children show well in procession to Church, and they had not sufficiently inquired into the conduct of the schoolmistress; but, as soon as the facts were properly stated, the ladies were eager to exert themselves, and candidly acknowledged that they had been to blame in trusting so much to the reports of the superficial visitors, who had always declared that the school was going on perfectly well.

“More people who are in the wrong,” said Dr. Campbell to Forester, “would be corrected, if some people who are in the right had a little candour and patience joined to their other virtues.”

As the company rose from the supper-table, several young ladies gathered round the geranium to admire Flora’s pretty flower-pot. The black stains, however, struck every eye. Forester was standing by rather embarrassed. Flora, with her usual good-nature, refrained from all explanation, though the exclamations of “How was that done?”—“Who could have done that?” were frequently repeated.

“It was an accident,” said Flora; and, to change the conversation, she praised the beauty of the geranium; she gathered one of the fragrant leaves, but, as she was going to put it amongst the flowers in her bosom, she observed she had dropped her moss-rose. It was a rarity at this time of year: it was a rose which Henry Camphell had raised in a conservatory of his own construction.

“Oh, my brother’s beautiful rose!” exclaimed Flora.

Forester, who had been much pleased by her good-nature about the stains on the flower-pot, now, contrary to his habits, sympathized with her concern for the loss of her brother’s moss-rose. He even exerted himself so far as to search under the benches and under the supper-table. He was fortunate enough to find it; and eager to restore the prize, he with more than his usual gallantry, but not with less than his customary awkwardness, crept from under the table, and, stretching half his body over a bench, pushed his arm between two young ladies into the midst of the group which surrounded Flora. As his arm extended his wrist appeared, and at the sight of that wrist all the young ladies shrank back, with unequivocal tokens of disgust. They whispered — they tittered; and many expressive looks were lost upon our hero, who still resolutely held out the hand upon which every eye was fixed. “Here’s your rose! Is not this the rose?” said he, still advancing the dreaded hand to Flora, whose hesitation and blushes surprised him. Mackenzie burst into a loud laugh; and in a whisper, which all the ladies could hear, told Forester, that “Miss Campbell was afraid to take the rose out of his hands, lest she should catch from him what he had caught from the carter who had brought him to Edinburgh, or from some of his companions at the cobbler’s.”

Forester flung the rose he knew not where, sprung over the bench, rushed between Flora and another lady, made towards the door in a straight line, pushing every thing before him, till a passage was made for him by the astonished crowd, who stood out of his way as if he had been a mad dog.

“Forester!” cried Henry and Dr. Campbell, who were standing upon the steps before the door, speaking about the carriages, “what’s the matter? where are you going? The carriage is coming to the door.”

“I had rather walk — don’t speak to me,” said Forester; “I’ve been insulted: I am in a passion, but I can command myself. I did not knock him down. Pray let me pass!”

Our hero broke from Dr. Campbell and Henry with the strength of an enraged animal from his keepers; and he must have found his way home by instinct, for he ran on without considering how he went. He snatched the light from the servant who opened the door at Dr. Campbell’s — hurried to his own apartment — locked, double-locked, and bolted the door — flung himself into a chair, and, taking breath, exclaimed, “Thank God! I’ve done no mischief. Thank God! I didn’t knock him down. Thank God! he is out of my sight, and I am cool now — quite cool: let me recollect it all.”

Upon the coolest recollection, Forester could not reconcile his pride to his present circumstances. “Archibald spoke the truth — why am I angry? why was I angry, I mean!” He reasoned much with himself upon the nature of true and false shame: he represented to himself that the disorder which disfigured his hands was thought shameful only because it was vulgar; that what was vulgar was not therefore immoral; that the young tittering ladies who shrunk back from him were not supreme judges of right and wrong; that he ought to despise their opinions, and he despised them with all his might for two or three hours, as he walked up and down his room with unremitting energy. At length our peripatetic philosopher threw himself upon his bed, determined that his repose should not be disturbed by such trifles: he had by this time worked himself up to such a pitch of magnanimity, that he thought he could with composure meet the disapproving eyes of millions of his fellow-creatures; but he was alone when he formed this erroneous estimate of the strength of the human mind. Wearied with passion and reason, he fell asleep, dreamed that he was continually presenting flowers, which nobody would accept; awakened at the imaginary repetition of Archibald’s laugh, composed himself again to sleep, and dreamed that he was in a glover’s shop, trying on gloves, and that, amongst a hundred pair which he pulled on, he could not find one that would fit him. Just as he tore the last pair in his hurry, he awakened, shook off his foolish dream, saw the sun rising between two chimneys many feet below his windows, recollected that in a short time he should be summoned to breakfast, that all the lady-patronesses were to be at this breakfast, that he could not breakfast in gloves, that Archibald would perhaps again laugh, and Flora perhaps again shrink back. He reproached himself for his weakness in foreseeing and dreading this scene: his aversion to lady-patronesses and to balls was never at a more formidable height; he sighed for liberty and independence, which he persuaded himself were not to be had in his present situation. In one of his long walks he remembered to have seen, at some miles’ distance from the town of Edinburgh, a gardener and his boy, who were singing at their work. These men appeared to Forester to be yet happier than the cobbler, who formerly was the object of his admiration; and he was persuaded that he should be much happier at the gardener’s cottage than he could ever be at Dr. Campbell’s house.

“I am not fit,” said he to himself, “to live amongst idle gentlemen and ladies; I should be happy if I were a useful member of society; a gardener is a useful member of society, and I will be a gardener, and live with gardeners.”

Forester threw off the clothes which he had worn the preceding night at the fatal ball, dressed himself in his old coat, tied up a small bundle of linen, and took the road to the gardener’s.

5 Cabinet of Quadrupeds.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54