“For men must work”
She was ready at last, the last bow tied, the last strengthening pin in place, and they said to her — Auntie Cha and Miss Biddons — to sit down and rest while Auntie Cha “climbed into her own togs”: “Or you’ll be tired before the evening begins.” But she could not bring herself to sit, for fear of crushing her dress — it was so light, so airy. How glad she felt now that she had chosen muslin, and not silk as Auntie Cha had tried to persuade her. The gossamer like stuff seemed to float around her as she moved, and the cut of the dress made her look so tall and so different from everyday that she hardly recognised herself in the glass; the girl reflected there — in palest blue, with a wreath of corn-flowers in her hair — might have been a stranger. Never had she thought she was so pretty . . . nor had Auntie and Miss Biddons either; though all they said was: “Well, Dolly, you’ll DO.” and: “Yes, I think she will be a credit to you.” Something hot and stinging came up her throat at this: a kind of gratitude for her pinky-white skin, her big blue eyes and fair curly hair, and pity for those girls who hadn’t got them. Or an Auntie Cha either, to dress them and see that everything was “just so.”
Instead of sitting, she stood very stiff and straight at the window, pretending to watch for the cab, her long white gloves hanging loose over one arm so as not to soil them. But her heart was beating pit-a-pat. For this was her first real grown-up ball. It was to be held in a public hall, and Auntie Cha, where she was staying, had bought tickets and was taking her.
True, Miss Biddons rather spoilt things at the end by saying: “Now mind you don’t forget your steps in the waltz. One, two, together; four, five, six.” And in the wagonette, with her dress filling one seat, Auntie Cha’s the other, Auntie said: “Now, Dolly, remember not to look too SERIOUS. Or you’ll frighten the gentlemen off.”
But she was only doing it now because of her dress: cabs were so cramped, the seats so narrow.
Alas! in getting out a little accident happened. She caught the bottom of one of her flounces — the skirt was made of nothing else — on the iron step, and ripped off the selvedge. Auntie Cha said: “My DEAR, how clumsy!” She could have cried with vexation.
The woman who took their cloaks hunted everywhere, but could only find black cotton; so the torn selvedge — there was nearly half a yard of it-had just to be cut off. This left a raw edge, and when they went into the hall and walked across the enormous floor, with people sitting all round, staring, it seemed to Dolly as if every one had their eyes fixed on it. Auntie Cha sat down in the front row of chairs beside a lady-friend; but she slid into a chair behind.
The first dance was already over, and they were hardly seated before partners began to be taken for the second. Shyly she mustered the assembly. In the cloakroom, she had expected the woman to exclaim: “What a sweet pretty frock!” when she handled it. (When all she did say was: “This sort of stuff’s bound to fray.”) And now Dolly saw that the hall was full of LOVELY dresses, some much, much prettier than hers, which suddenly began to seem rather too plain, even a little dowdy; perhaps after all it would have been better to have chosen silk.
She wondered if Auntie Cha thought so, too. For Auntie suddenly turned and looked at her, quite hard, and then said snappily: “Come, come, child, you mustn’t tuck yourself away like that, or the gentlemen will think you don’t want to dance.” So she had to come out and sit in the front; and show that she had a programme, by holding it open on her lap.
When other ladies were being requested for the third time, and still nobody had asked to be introduced, Auntie began making signs and beckoning with her head to the Master of Ceremonies — a funny little fat man with a bright red beard. He waddled across the floor, and Auntie whispered to him behind her fan. (But she heard. And heard him answer: “Wants a partner? Why, certainly.”) And then he went away and they could see him offering her to several gentlemen. Some pointed to the ladies they were sitting with or standing in front of; some showed their programmes that these were full. One or two turned their heads and looked at her. But it was no good. So he came back and said: “Will the little lady do ME the favour?” and she had to look glad and say: “With pleasure,” and get up and dance with him. Perhaps she was a little slow about it . . . at any rate Auntie Cha made great round eyes at her. But she felt sure every one would know why he was asking her. It was the lancers, too, and he swung her off her feet at the corners, and was comic when he set to partners — putting one hand on his hip and the other over his head, as if he were dancing the hornpipe — and the rest of the set laughed. She was glad when it was over and she could go back to her place.
Auntie Cha’s lady-friend had a son, and he was beckoned to next and there was more whispering. But he was engaged to be married, and of course preferred to dance with his fiancee. When he came and bowed — to oblige his mother — he looked quite grumpy, and didn’t trouble to say all of “May I have the pleasure?” but just “The pleasure?” While she had to say “Certainly,” and pretend to be very pleased, though she didn’t feel it, and really didn’t want much to dance with him, knowing he didn’t, and that it was only out of charity. Besides, all the time they went round he was explaining things to the other girl with his eyes . . . making faces over her head. She saw him, quite plainly.
After he had brought her back — and Auntie had talked to him again — he went to a gentleman who hadn’t danced at all yet, but just stood looking on. And this one needed a lot of persuasion. He was ugly, and lanky, and as soon as they stood up, said quite rudely: “I’m no earthly good at this kind of thing, you know.” And he wasn’t. He trod on her foot and put her out of step, and they got into the most dreadful muddle, right out in the middle of the floor. It was a waltz, and remembering what Miss Biddons had said, she got more and more nervous, and then went wrong herself and had to say: “I beg your pardon,” to which he said: “Granted.” She saw them in a mirror as they passed, and her face was red as red.
It didn’t get cool again either, for she had to go on sitting out, and she felt sure he was spreading it that SHE couldn’t dance. She didn’t know whether Auntie Cha had seen her mistakes, but now Auntie sort of went for her. “It’s no use, Dolly, if you don’t do YOUR share. For goodness sake, try and look more agreeable!”
So after this, in the intervals between the dances, she sat with a stiff little smile gummed to her lips. And, did any likely-looking partner approach the corner where they were, this widened till she felt what it was really saying was: “Here I am! Oh, PLEASE, take ME!”
She had several false hopes. Men, looking so splendid in their white shirt fronts, would walk across the floor and SEEM to be coming . . . and then it was always not her. Their eyes wouldn’t stay on her. There she sat, with her false little smile, and HER eyes fixed on them; but theirs always got away . . . flitted past . . . moved on. Once she felt quite sure. Ever such a handsome young man looked as if he were making straight for her. She stretched her lips, showing all her teeth (they were very good) and for an instant his eyes seemed to linger . . . really to take her in, in her pretty blue dress and the corn-flowers. And then at the, last minute they ran away — and it wasn’t her at all, but a girl sitting three seats further on; one who wasn’t even pretty, or her dress either — But her own dress was beginning to get quite tashy, from the way she squeezed her hot hands down. in her lap.
Quite the worst part of all was having to go on sitting in the front row, pretending you were enjoying yourself. It was so hard to know what to do with your eyes. There was nothing but the floor for them to look at — if you watched the other couples dancing they would think you were envying them. At first she made a show of studying her programme; but you couldn’t go on staring at a programme for ever; and presently her shame at its emptiness grew till she could bear it no longer, and, seizing a moment when people were dancing, she slipped it down the front of her dress. Now she could say she’d lost it, if anyone asked to see it. But they didn’t; they went on dancing with other girls. Oh, these men, who walked round and chose just who they fancied and left who they didn’t . . . how she hated them! It wasn’t fair . . . it wasn’t fair. And when there was a “leap-year dance” where the ladies invited the gentlemen, and Auntie Cha tried to push her up and make her go and said: “Now then, Dolly, here’s your chancel” she shook her head hard and dug herself deeper into her scat. She wasn’t going to ask them when they never asked her. So she said her head ached and she’d rather not. And to this she clung, sitting the while wishing with her whole heart that her dress was black and her hair grey, like Auntie Cha’s. Nobody expected Auntie to dance, or thought it shameful if she didn’t: she could do and be just as she liked. Yes, to-night she wished she was old . . . an old old woman. Or that she was safe at home in bed this dreadful evening, to which she had once counted the days, behind her. Even, as the night wore on, that she was dead.
At supper she sat with Auntie and the other lady, and the son and the girl came, too. There were lovely cakes and things, but she could not eat them. Her throat was so dry that a sandwich stuck in it and nearly choked her. Perhaps the son felt a little sorry for her (or else his mother had whispered again), for afterwards he said something to the girl, and then asked HER to dance. They stood up together; but it wasn’t a success. Her legs seemed to have forgotten how to jump, heavy as lead they were . . . as heavy as she felt inside . . . and she couldn’t think of a thing to say. So now he would put her down as stupid, as well.
Her only other partner was a boy younger than she was — almost a schoolboy — who she heard them say was “making a positive nuisance of himself.” This was to a VERY pretty girl called the “belle of the ball.” And he didn’t seem to mind how badly he danced (with her), for he couldn’t take his eyes off this other girl; but went on staring at her all the time, and very fiercely, because she was talking and laughing with somebody else. Besides, he hopped like a grass-hopper, and didn’t wear gloves, and his hands were hot and sticky. She hadn’t come there to dance with little boys.
They left before anybody else; there was nothing to stay for. And the drive home in the wagonette, which had to be fetched, they were so early, was dreadful: Auntie Cha just sat and pressed her lips and didn’t say a word. She herself kept her face turned the other way, because her mouth was jumping, in and out as if it might have to cry.
At the sound of wheels Miss Biddons came running to the front door with questions and exclamations, dreadfully curious to know why they were back so soon. Dolly fled to her own little room and turned the key in the lock. She wanted only to be alone, quite alone, where nobody could see her . . . where nobody would ever see her again. But the walls were thin, and as she tore off the wreath and ripped open her dress, now crushed to nothing from so much sitting, and threw them from her anywhere, anyhow, she could hear the two voices going on, Auntie Cha’s telling and telling, and winding up at last, quite out loud, with: “Well, I don’t know what it was, but the plain truth is. she didn’t TAKE!”
Oh, the shame of it! . . . the sting and the shame. Her first ball, and not to have “taken,” to have failed to “attract the gentlemen”— this was a slur that would rest on her all her life. And yet . . . and yet . . . in spite of everything, a small voice that wouldn’t be silenced kept on saying: “It wasn’t my FAULT . . . it wasn’t my fault!” (Or at least not except for the one silly mistake in the steps of the waltz.) She had tried her hardest, done everything she was told to: had dressed up to please and look pretty, sat in the front row offering her programme, smiled when she didn’t feel a bit like smiling . . . and almost more than anything she thought she hated the memory of that smile (it was like trying to make people buy something they didn’t think worth while.) For really, truly, right deep down in her, she hadn’t wanted “the gentlemen” any more than they’d wanted her: she had only had to pretend to. And they showed only too plainly they didn’t, by choosing other girls, who were not even pretty, and dancing with them, and laughing and talking and enjoying them. — And now, the many slights and humiliations of the evening crowding upon her, the long repressed tears broke through; and with the blanket pulled up over her head, her face driven deep into the pillow, she cried till she could cry no more.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59