Lord Silverbridge made up his mind that as he could not dance with Miss Boncassen he would not dance at all. He was not angry at being rejected, and when he saw her stand up with Dolly Longstaff he felt no jealousy. She had refused to dance with him not because she did not like him, but because she did not wish to show that she did like him. He could understand that, though he had not quite followed all the ins and outs of her little accusations against him. She had flattered him — without any intention of flattery on her part. She had spoken of his intelligence and had complained that he had been too sharp to her. Mabel Grex when most sweet to him, when most loving, always made him feel that he was her inferior. She took no trouble to hide her conviction of his youthfulness. This was anything but flattering. Miss Boncassen, on the other hand, professed herself almost to be afraid of him.
‘There shall be no tomfoolery of love-making,’ she had said. But what if it were not tomfoolery at all? What if it were good, genuine, earnest love-making? He certainly was not pledged to Lady Mabel. As regarded his father there would be a difficulty. In the first place he had been fool enough to tell his father that he was going to make an offer to Mabel Grex. And then his father would surely refuse his consent to a marriage with an American stranger. In such case there would be no unlimited income, no immediate pleasantness of magnificent life such as he knew would be poured out upon him if he were to marry Mabel Grex. As he thought of this, however, he told himself that he would not sell himself for money and magnificence. He could afford to be independent, and gratify his own taste. Just at this moment he was of the opinion that Isabel Boncassen would be the sweeter companion of the two.
He had sauntered down to the place where they were dancing and stood by, saying a few words to Mrs Boncassen. ‘Why are you not dancing, my Lord?’ she asked.
‘There are enough without me.’
‘I guess you young aristocrats are never overfond of doing much with your own arms and legs.’
‘I don’t know about that; polo, you know, for the legs, and lawn-tennis for the arms, is hard work enough.’
‘But it must always be something new-fangled; and after all it isn’t of much account. Our young men like to have quite a time at dancing.’
It all came through her nose! And she looked so common! What would the Duke say to her, or Mary, or even Gerald? The father was by no means so objectionable. He was a tall, straight, ungainly man, who always wore black clothes. He had dark, stiff, short hair, a long nose, and a forehead that was both high and broad. Ezekiel Boncassen was the very man — from his appearance — — for a President of the United States; and there were men who talked of him for that high office. That he had never attended to politics was supposed to be in his favour. He had the reputation of being the most learned man in the States, and reputation itself often suffices to give a man a dignity of manner. He, too, spoke through his nose, but the peculiar twang coming from a man would be supposed to be virile and incisive. From a woman, Lord Silverbridge thought it to be unbearable. But as to Isabel, had she been born within the confines of some lordly park in Hertfordshire, she could not have been more completely free from the abomination.
‘I am sorry that you should not be enjoying yourself,’ said Mr Boncassen, coming to his wife’s rescue.
‘Nothing could have been nicer. To tell the truth, I am standing idle by way of showing my anger against your daughter, who would not dance with me.’
‘I am sure she would have felt herself honoured,’ said Mr Boncassen.
‘Who is the gentleman with her?’ asked the mother.
‘A particular friend of mine — Dolly Longstaff.’
‘Dolly!’ ejaculated Mrs Boncassen.
‘Everybody calls him so. His real name I believe to be Adolphus.’
‘Is he — is he — just anybody?’ asked the anxious mother.
‘He is a very great deal — as people go here. Everybody knows him. He is asked everywhere, but he goes nowhere. The greatest compliment paid to you here is his presence.’
‘Nay, my Lord, there are the Countess Montague, and the Marchioness of Capulet, and Lord Tybalt, and —’
‘They go everywhere. They are nobodies. It is a charity to even invited them. But to have Dolly Longstaff once is a triumph for life.’
‘Laws!,’ said Mrs Boncassen, looking at the young man who was dancing. ‘What has he done?’
‘He never did anything in his life.’
‘I suppose he’s very rich.’
‘I don’t know. I should think not. I don’t know anything about his riches, but I can assure you that having him down here will quite give a character to the day.’
In the meantime Dolly Longstaff was in a state of great excitement. Some part of the character assigned to him by Lord Silverbridge was true. He very rarely did go anywhere, and yet was asked to a great many places. He was a young man — though not a very young man — with a fortune of his own and the expectation of future fortune. Few men living could have done less for the world than Dolly Longstaff — and yet he had a position of his own. Now he had taken into his head to fall in love with Miss Boncassen. This was an accident which had probably never happened to him before, and which had disturbed him much. He had known Miss Boncassen a week or two before Lord Silverbridge had seen her, having by some chance dined out and sat next to her. From that moment he had become changed, and had gone hither and thither in pursuit of the American beauty. His passion having become suspected by his companions had excited their ridicule. Nevertheless he had persevered; — and now he was absolutely dancing with the lady out in the open air. ‘If this goes on, your friends will have to look after you and put you somewhere,’ Mr Lupton had said to him in one of the intervals of the dance. Dolly had turned round and scowled, and suggested that if Mr Lupton would mind his own affairs it would be as well for the world at large.
At the present crisis Dolly was very much excited. When the dance was over, as a matter of course, he offered the lady his arm, and as a matter of course she accepted it. ‘You’ll take a turn; won’t you?’ he said.
‘It must be a very short turn,’ she said — ‘as I am expected to make myself busy.’
‘Oh, bother that.’
‘It bothers me; but it has to be done.’
‘You have set everything going now. They’ll begin dancing again without your telling them.’
‘I hope so.’
‘And I’ve got something I want to say.’
‘Dear me; — what is it?’
They were now on a path close to the riverside, in which there were many loungers. ‘Would you mind coming up to the temple?’ he said.
‘Oh such a beautiful place. The Temple of the Wind, I think they call it; or Venus; — or — or — Mrs Arthur de Bever.’
‘Was she a goddess?’
‘It was something built to her memory. Such a view of the river! I was here once before and they took me up. Everybody who comes here goes and see Mrs Arthur de Bever. They ought to have told you.’
‘Let us go then,’ said Miss Boncassen. ‘Only it must not be long.’
‘Five minutes will do it all.’ Then he walked rather quickly up a flight of rural steps. ‘Loverly spot, isn’t it?’
‘That’s Maidenhead Bridge; — that’s somebody’s place; — and now, I’ve got something to say to you.’
‘You’re not going to murder me now you’ve got me up here alone,’ said Miss Boncassen, laughing.
‘Murder you!’ said Dolly, throwing himself into an attitude that was intended to express devoted affection. ‘Oh no!’
‘I am glad of that.’
‘Mr Longstaff! If you sigh like that you’ll burst yourself.’
‘I’ll — what?’
‘Burst yourself!’ and she nodded her head at him.
Then he clasped his hands together, and turned his head away from her towards the little temple. ‘I wonder whether she knows what love is,’ he said, as though he were addressing himself to Mrs Arthur de Bever.
‘No, she don’t,’ said Miss Boncassen.
‘But I do,’ he shouted, turning back towards her. ‘I do. If any man were ever absolutely, actually, really in love, I am the man.’
‘Are you indeed, Mr Longstaff? Isn’t this pleasant?’
‘Pleasant; — pleasant? Oh, it could be so pleasant.’
‘But who is the lady? Perhaps you don’t mean to tell me that.’
‘You mean to say you don’t know?’ ‘Haven’t the least idea in life.’
‘Let me tell you then that it could only be one person. It never was but one person. It never could have been but one person. It is you.’
‘Me!’ said Miss Boncassen, choosing to be ungrammatical in order that he might be more absurd.
‘Of course it is you. Do you think that I should have brought you all the way up here to tell that I was in love with anybody else?’
‘I thought I was brought up here to see Mrs de Somebody, and the view.’
‘Not at all,’ said Dolly emphatically.
‘Then you have deceived me.’
‘I will never deceive you. Only say that you will love me, and I will be as true to you as the North Pole.’
‘Is that true to me?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘But if I don’t love you?’
‘Yes, you do!’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Dolly. ‘I didn’t mean to say that. Of course a man shouldn’t make sure of a thing.’
‘Not in this case, Mr Longstaff; because really I entertain no such feeling.’
‘But you can if you please. Just let me tell you who I am.’
‘That will do no good whatever, Mr Longstaff.’
‘Let me tell you at any rate. I have a very good income of my own as it is.’
‘Money can have nothing to do with it.’
‘But I want you to know that I can afford it. You might perhaps have thought that I wanted your money.’
‘I will attribute nothing evil to you, Mr Longstaff. Only it is quite out of the question that I should — respond as I suppose you wish me to; and therefore, pray, do not say anything further.’
She went to the head of the little steps but he interrupted her. ‘You ought to hear me,’ he said.
‘I have heard you.’
‘I can give you as good a position as any man without a title in England.’
‘Mr Longstaff, I rather fancy that wherever I may be I can make a position for myself. At any rate I shall not marry with a view of getting one. If my husband were an English Duke I should think myself nothing, unless I was something as Isabel Boncassen.’
When she said that she did not bethink herself that Lord Silverbridge would be in the course of nature an English Duke. But the allusion to an English Duke told intensely on Dolly, who had suspected that he had a noble rival. ‘English Dukes aren’t so easily got,’ he said.
‘Very likely not. I might have expressed my meaning better had I said an English Prince.’
‘That’s quite out of the question,’ said Dolly. ‘They can’t do it — by Act of Parliament — except in some hugger-mugger left-handed way, that wouldn’t suit you at all.’
‘Mr Longstaff — you must forgive me — if I say — that of all the gentlemen — I have ever met in this country or in any other — you are the — most obtuse.’ This she brought out in little disjointed sentences, not with any hesitation, but in a way to make every word she uttered more clear to an intelligence which she did not believe to be bright. But in this belief she did some injustice to Dolly. He was quite alive to the disgrace of being called obtuse, and quick enough to avenge himself at the moment.
‘Am I?’ said he. ‘How humble-minded you must be when you think me a fool because I have fallen in love with such a one as yourself.’
‘I like you for that,’ she replied laughing, ‘and withdraw the epithet as not being applicable. Now we are quits and can forget and forgive; — only let there be the forgetting.’
‘Never!’ said Dolly, with his hand again on his heart.
‘Then let it be a little dream of your youth — that you once met a pretty American girl who was foolish enough to refuse all that you would have given her.’
‘So pretty! So awfully pretty!’ Thereupon she curtsied. ‘I have seen all the handsome woman in England going for the last ten years, and there has not been one who has made me think that it would be worth me while to get off my perch for her.’
‘And now you would desert your perch for me?’
‘I have already.’
‘But you can get up again. Let it be all a dream. I know men like to have had such dreams. And in order that the dream may be pleasant the last word between us shall be kind. Such admiration from such a one as you is an honour — and I will reckon it among my honours. But it can be no more than a dream.’ Then she gave him her hand. ‘It shall be so; — shall it not?’ Then she paused. ‘It must be so, Mr Longstaff.’
‘That and no more. Now I wish to go down. Will you come with me? It will be better. Don’t you think it is going to rain?’
Dolly looked up at the clouds. ‘I wish it would with all my heart.’
‘I know you are not so ill-natured. It would spoil it all.’
‘You have spoiled all.’
‘No, no. I have spoiled nothing. It will only be a little dream about “that strange American girl, who really did make me feel queer for half an hour”. Look at that. A great big drop — and the cloud has come over us as black as Erebus. Do hurry down.’ He was leading the way. ‘What shall we do for carriages to get us to the inn?’
‘There’s the summer-house.’
‘It will hold about half of us. And think what it will be to be in there waiting till the rain shall be over! Everybody has been so good-humoured and now they will be so cross!’
The rain was falling in big heavy drops, slow and far between, but almost black with their size. And the heaviness of the cloud which had gathered over them made everything black.
‘Will you have my arm?’ said Silverbridge, who saw Miss Boncassen scudding along, with Dolly Longstaff following as fast as he could.
‘Oh dear no. I have got to mind my dress. There; — I have gone right into a puddle. Oh dear!’ So she ran on, and Silverbridge followed close behind her, leaving Dolly Longstaff in the distance.
It was not only Miss Boncassen who got her feet into a puddle and splashed her stockings. Many did so who were not obliged by their position to maintain good-humour under misfortunes. The storm had come on with such unexpected quickness that there had been a general stampede to the summer-house. As Isabel had said, there was comfortable room for not more than half of them. In a few minutes people were crushed who never ought to be crushed. A Countess for whom treble-piled sofas were hardly good enough was seated on the corner of a table till some younger and less gorgeous lady could be made to give way. And the Marchioness was declaring she was as wet through as though she had been dragged in a river. Mrs Boncassen was so absolutely quelled as to have retired into the kitchen attached to the summer-house. Mr Boncassen, with all his country’s pluck and pride, was proving to a knot of gentlemen round him on the verandah, that such treachery in the weather was a thing unknown in his happier country. Miss Boncassen had to do her best to console the splashed ladies. ‘Oh Mrs Jones, is it not a pity! What can I do for you?’
‘We must bear it, my dear. It often does rain, but why on this special day should it come down in buckets?’
‘I never was so wet in all my life,’ said Dolly Longstaff, poking in his head.
‘There’s somebody smoking,’ said the Countess angrily. There was a crowd of men smoking out on the verandah. ‘I never knew anything so nasty,’ the Countess continued, leaving it in doubt whether she spoke of the rain, or the smoke, or the party generally.
Damp gauzes, splashed stockings, trampled muslins, and features which have perhaps known something of rouge and certainly encountered something of rain may be made, but can only, by supreme high breeding, be made compatible with good-humour. To be moist, muddy, rumpled and smeared, when by the very nature of your position it is your duty to be clear-starched up to the pellucidity of crystal, to be spotless as the lily, to be crisp as the ivy-leaf, and as clear in complexion as a rose — is it not, O gentle readers, felt to be a disgrace? It came to pass, therefore, that many were now very cross. Carriages were ordered under the idea that some improvement might be made at the inn which was nearly a mile distant. Very few, however, had their own carriages, and there was jockeying for the vehicles. In the midst of all this Silverbridge remained near to Miss Boncassen as circumstances would admit. ‘You are not waiting for me,’ she said.
‘Yes I am. We might as well go up to town together.’
‘Leave me with father and mother. Like the captain of a ship, I must be the last to leave the wreck.’
‘But I’ll be the gallant sailor of the day, who always at the risk of his life sticks to the skipper to the last moment.’
‘Not at all; — just because there will be no gallantry. But come and see us tomorrow and find out whether we have got through it alive.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14