Never in my life have I seen such wonderful eyes! One might construct a whole astronomy out of them. Every changeful mood was there reflected; so I have called them “Eyes like the Sea.”
When first I met pretty Bessy, we were both children. She was twelve years old, I was a hobbledehoy of sixteen. We were learning dancing together. A Frenchman had taken up his quarters in our town, an itinerant dancing-master, who set the whole place in a whirl. His name was Monsieur Galifard. He had an extraordinarily large head, a bronzed complexion, eyebrows running into each other, and short legs; and on the very tip of his large aquiline nose was a big wart. Yet, for all that, he was really charming. Whenever he danced or spoke, he instantly became irresistible. All our womankind came thither on his account; all of them I say, from nine years old and upwards to an age that was quite incalculable. I recall the worthy man with the liveliest gratitude. I have to thank him for the waltz and the quadrille, as well as for the art of picking up a fallen fan without turning my back upon the lady.
Bessy was the master’s greatest trouble. She would never keep time; she would never take to the elegant “pli,” and he could never wean her from her wild and frolicsome ways. Woe to the dancer who became her partner!
I, however, considered all this perfectly natural. When any one is lovely, rich, and well-born, she has the right to be regarded as the exception to every rule. That she was lovely you could tell at the very first glance; that she was rich anybody could tell from the silver coach in which she rode; and by combining the fact that every one called her mother “Your Ladyship” with the fact that even the “country people” kissed her hand, you easily arrived at the conclusion that she must be well-born. Her lady-mother and her companion, a gentlewoman of a certain age, were present at every dancing lesson, as also was the girl’s aunt, a major’s widow in receipt of a pension. Thus Bessy was under a threefold inspection, the natural consequence of which was that she could do just as she liked, for every one of her guardians privately argued, “Why should I take the trouble of looking after this little girl when the other two are doing the same thing?” and so all three were always occupied with their own affairs.
The mother was a lady who loved to bask on the sunny side of life; her widowhood pined for consolation. She had her officially recognised wooers, with more or less serious intentions, graduated according to rank and quality.
The companion was the scion of a noble family. All her brothers were officers. Her father was a Chamberlain at Court; his own chamber was about the last place in the world to seek him in. The young lady’s toilets were of the richest; she also had the reputation of being a beauty, and was famed for her finished dancing. Still, time had already called her attention to the seriousness of her surroundings; for Bessy, the daughter of the house, had begun to shoot up in the most alarming manner, and four or five summers more might make a rival of her. Her occupation during the dancing hour was therefore of such a nature as to draw her somewhat aside lest people should observe with whom and in what manner she was diverting herself, for there is many an evil feminine eye that can read all sorts of things in a mere exchange of glances or a squeeze of the hand, and then, of course, such things are always talked to death.
But it was the aunt most of all who sought for pretexts to vanish from the dancing-room. She wanted to taste every dish and pasty in the buffet before any one else, and well-grounded investigators said of her, besides, that she was addicted to the dark pleasure of taking snuff, which naturally demanded great secrecy. When, however, she was in the dancing-room, she would sit down beside some kindred gossiper, and then they both got so engrossed in the delight of running down all their acquaintances, that they had not a thought for anything else.
So Bessy could do what she liked. She could dance csárdás3 figures in the Damensolo; smack her vis-à-vis on the hands in the tour de mains, and tell anecdotes in such a loud voice that they could be heard all over the room; and when she laughed she would press both hands between her knees in open defiance of Monsieur Galifard’s repeated expostulations.
3 The national dance of Hungary.]
One evening there was a grand practice in the dancing-room. With the little girls came big girls, and with the big girls big lads. Such lubbers seem to think that they have a covenanted right to cut out little fellows like me. Luckily, worthy Galifard was a good-natured fellow, who would not allow his protégés to be thrust to the wall.
“Nix cache-cache spielen, Monsieur Maurice. Allons! Walzer geht an. Nur courage. Ne cherchez pas toujours das allerschlekteste Tänzerin! Fangen sie Fräulein Erzsike par la main. Valsez là.”4 And with that he seized my hand, led me up to Bessy, placed my hand in hers, and then “ein, zwei.”
4 “Don’t play hide-and-seek, Master Maurice. Off you go! ’Tis a waltz, remember. Come, come! courage. Don’t always pick out the worst partner. Take Miss Bessy by the hand. Waltz away!”]
Now, the waltzes of those days were very different from the waltzes we dance now. The waltz of today is a mere joke; but waltzing then was a serious business. Both partners kept the upper parts of their bodies as far apart as possible, whilst their feet were planted close together. Then the upper parts went moving off to the same time, and the legs were obliged to slide as quickly as they could after the flying bodies. It was a dance worthy of will-o’-the-wisps.
The master kept following us all the time, and never ceased his stimulating assurances: “Très bien, Monsieur Maurice! Ça va ausgezeiknet! ‘Alten sie brav la demoiselle! Nix auf die Füsse schauen. Regardez aux yeux. Das ist riktig. Embrassiren ist besser als embarrasiren! Pouah! Da liegst schon alle beide!”5
5 “Very good, Master Maurice! That’s capital! Hold the lady nicely! Don’t look at your feet. Look at her eyes. That’s right! To embrace is better than to embarrass. Pooh! There, they both are together!”]
No, not quite so bad as that! I had foreseen the inevitable tumble, and in order to save my partner I sacrificed myself by falling on my knees, she scarcely touched the floor with the tip of her finger. My knee was not much the worse for the fall, but I split my pantaloons just above the knee. I was annihilated. A greater blow than that can befall no man.
Bessy laughed at my desperate situation, but the next moment she had compassion upon me.
“Wait a bit,” said she, “and I’ll sew it up with my darning-needle.” Then she fished up a darning-needle from one of the many mysterious folds of her dress, and, kneeling down before me, hastily darned up the rent in my dove-coloured pantaloons, and in her great haste she pricked me to the very quick with the beneficent but dangerous implement.
“I didn’t prick you, did I?” she asked, looking at me with those large eyes of hers which seemed to speak of such goodness of heart.
“No,” I said; yet I felt the prick of that needle even then.
Then we went on dancing. I distinguished myself marvellously. With a needle-prick in my knee, and another who knows where, I whirled Bessy three times round the room, so that when I brought her back to the garde des dames, it seemed to me as if three-and-thirty mothers, aunts, and companions were revolving around me.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52