Mrs Butler Cornbury was a very pretty woman. She possessed that peculiar prettiness which is so often seen in England, and which is rarely seen anywhere else. She was bright, well-featured, with speaking lustrous eyes, with perfect complexion, and full bust, with head of glorious shape and figure like a Juno — and yet with all her beauty she had ever about her an air of homeliness which made the sweetness of her womanhood almost more attractive than the loveliness of her personal charms. I have seen in Italy and in America women perhaps as beautiful as any that I have seen in England, but in neither country does it seem that such beauty is intended for domestic use. In Italy the beauty is soft, and of the flesh. In America it is hard, and of the mind. Here it is of the heart, I think, and as such is the happiest of the three. I do not say that Mrs Butler Cornbury was a woman of very strong feeling; but her strongest feelings were home feelings. She was going to Mrs Tappitt’s party because it might serve her husband’s purposes; she was going to burden herself with Rachel Ray because her father had asked her; and her greatest ambition was to improve the worldly position of the Squires of Cornbury Grange. She was already calculating whether it might not some day be brought about that her little Butler should sit in Parliament for his county.
At nine o’clock exactly on that much to be remembered Tuesday the Cornbury carriage stopped at the gate of the cottage at Bragg’s End, and Rachel, ready dressed, blushing, nervous, but yet happy, came out, and mounting on to the step was almost fearful to take her share of the seat. “Make yourself comfortable, my dear,” said Mrs Cornbury; “you can’t crush me. Or rather I always make myself crushable on such occasions as this. I suppose we are going to have a great crowd?” Rachel merely said that she didn’t know. She supposed there would be a good many persons. Then she tried to thank Mrs Cornbury for being so good to her, and of course broke down. “I’m delighted — quite delighted,” said Mrs Cornbury “It’s so good of you to come with me. Now that I don’t dance myself, there’s nothing I like so much as taking out girls that do.”
“And don’t you dance at all?”
“I stand up for a quadrille sometimes. When a woman has five children I don’t think she ought to do more than that.”
“Oh, I shall not do more than that, Mrs Cornbury.”
“You mean to say you won’t waltz?”
“Mamma never said anything about it, but I’m sure she would not like it. Besides —”
“I don’t think I know how. I did learn once, when I was very little; but I’ve forgotten.”
“It will soon come again to you if you like to try. I was very fond of waltzing before I was married.” And this was the daughter of Mr Comfort, the clergyman who preached with such strenuous eloquence against worldly vanities! Even Rachel was a little puzzled, and was almost afraid that her head was sinking beneath the waters.
There was a great fuss made when Mrs Butler Corbury’s carriage drove up to the brewery door, and Rachel almost felt that she could have made her way up to the drawing-room more comfortably under Mrs Rule’s mild protection. All the servants seemed to rush at her, and when she found herself in the hall and was conducted into some inner room, she was not allowed to shake herself into shape without the aid of a maidservant. Mrs Cornbury — who took everything as a matter of course and was ready in a minute — had turned the maid over to the young lady with a kind idea that the young lady’s toilet was more important than that of the married woman. Rachel was losing her head and knew that she was doing so. When she was again taken into the hall she hardly remembered where she was, and when Mrs Cornbury took her by the arm and began to walk upstairs with her, her strongest feeling was a wish that she was at home again. On the first landing — for the dancing-room was upstairs — they encountered Mr Tappitt, conspicuous in a blue satin waistcoat; and on the second landing they found Mrs Tappitt, magnificent in a green Irish poplin. “Oh, Mrs Cornbury, we are so delighted. The Miss Fawcetts are here; they are just come. How kind of you to bring Rachel Ray. How do you do, Rachel?” Then Mrs Cornbury moved easily on into the drawing-room, and Rachel still found herself carried with her. She was half afraid that she ought to have slunk away from her magnificent chaperon as soon as she was conveyed safely within the house, and that she was encroaching as she thus went on; but still she could not find the moment in which to take herself off. In the drawing-room — the room from which the carpets had been taken — they were at once encountered by the Tappitt girls, with whom the Fawcett girls on the present occasion were so intermingled that Rachel hardly knew who was who. Mrs Butler Cornbury was soon surrounded, and a clatter of words went on. Rachel was in the middle of the fray, and some voices were addressed also to her; but her presence of mind was gone, and she never could remember what she said on the occasion.
There had already been a dance — the commencing operation of the night’s work — a thin quadrille, in which the early comers had taken part without much animation, and to which they had been driven up unwillingly. At its close the Fawcett girls had come in, as had now Mrs Cornbury, so that it may be said that the evening was beginning again. What had been as yet done was but the tuning of the fiddles before the commencement of the opera. No one likes to be in at the tuning, but there are those who never are able to avoid this annoyance. As it was, Rachel, under Mrs Cornbury’s care, had been brought upon the scene just at the right moment. As soon as the great clatter had ceased, she found herself taken by the hand by Cherry, and led a little on one side. “You must have a card, you know,” said Cherry handing her a ticket on which was printed the dances as they were to succeed each other. “That first one is over. Such a dull thing. I danced with Adolphus Griggs, just because I couldn’t escape him for one quadrille.” Rachel took the card, but never having seen such a thing before did not in the least understand its object. “As you get engaged for the dances you must put down their names in this way, you see,’— and Cherry showed her card, which already bore the designations of several cavaliers, scrawled in hieroglyphics which were intelligible to herself. “Haven’t you got a pencil? Well, you can come to me. I have one hanging here, you know.” Rachel was beginning to understand, and to think that she should not have very much need for the pencil, when Mrs Cornbury returned to her, bringing a young man in her wake. “I want to introduce my cousin to you, Walter Cornbury,” said she. Mrs Cornbury was a woman who knew her duty as a chaperon, and who would not neglect it. “He waltzes delightfully,” said Mrs Cornbury, whispering, “and you needn’t be afraid of being a little astray with him at first. He always does what I tell him.” Then the introduction was made; but Rachel had no opportunity of repeating her fears, or of saying again that she thought she had better not waltz. What to say to Mr Walter Cornbury she hardly knew; but before she had really said anything he had pricked her down for two dances — for the first waltz, which was just going to begin, and some not long future quadrille. “She is very pretty,” Mrs Butler Cornbury had said to her cousin, “and I want to be kind to her.” “I’ll take her in hand and pull her through,” said Walter. “What a tribe of people they’ve got here, haven’t they?” “Yes, and you must dance with them all. Every time you stand up may be as good as a vote.” “Oh,” said Walter, “I’m not particular — I’ll dance as long as they keep the house open.” Then he went back to Rachel, who had already been at work with Cherry’s pencil.
“If there isn’t Rachel Ray going to waltz with Walter Cornbury,” said Augusta to her mother. Augusta had just refused the odious Griggs, and was about to stand up with a clerk in the brewery, who was almost as odious.
“It’s because she came in the carriage,” said Mrs Tappitt; “but I don’t think she can waltz.” Then she hurried off to welcome other comers.
Rachel had hardly been left alone for a minute, and had been so much bewildered by the lights and crowd and strangeness of everything around her, that she had been unable to turn her thoughts to the one subject on which during the last week her mind had rested constantly. She had not even looked round the room for Luke Rowan. She had just seen Mary Rowan in the crowd, but had not spoken to her. She had only known her from the manner in which Cherry Tappitt had spoken to her, and it must be explained that Rachel had not seen young Rowan since that parting under the elm-trees. Indeed, since then she had seen none of the Tappitt family. Her mother had said no word to her, cautioning her that she had better not seek them in her evening walks; but she had felt herself debarred from going into Baslehurst by all that her sister had said, and in avoiding Luke Rowan she had avoided the whole party from the brewery.
Now the room was partially cleared, the non-dancers being pressed back into a border round the walls, and the music began. Rachel, with her heart in her mouth, was claimed by her partner, and was carried forward towards the ground for dancing, tacitly assenting to her fate because she lacked words in which to explain to Mr Cornbury how very much she would have preferred to be left in obscurity behind the wall of crinoline.
“Pray wait a minute or two,” said she, almost panting.
“Oh, certainly. There’s no hurry, only we’ll stand where we can get our place when we like it. You need not be a bit afraid of going on with me. Patty has told me all about it, and we’ll make it right in a brace of turns.” There was something very good-natured in his voice, and she almost felt that she could ask him to let her sit down.
“I don’t think I can,” she said.
“Oh yes; come, we’ll try!” Then he took her by the waist, and away they went. Twice round the room he took her, very gently, as he thought; but her head had gone from her instantly in a whirl of amazement! Of her feet and their movements she had known nothing; though she had followed the music with fair accuracy, she had done so unconsciously, and when he allowed her to stop she did not know which way she had been going, or at which end of the room she stood. And yet she had liked it, and felt some little triumph as a conviction came upon her that she had not conspicuously disgraced herself.
“That’s charming,” said he. She essayed to speak a word in answer, but her want of breath did not as yet permit it.
“Charming!” he went on. “The music’s perhaps a little slow, but we’ll hurry them up presently.” Slow! It seemed to her that she had been carried round in a vortex, of which the rapidity, though pleasant, had been almost frightful. “Come; we’ll have another start,” said he; and she was carried away again before she had spoken a word. “I’d no idea that girl could waltz,” said Mrs Tappitt to old Mrs Rule. “I don’t think her mother would like it if she saw it,” said Mrs Rule. “And what would Mrs Prime say?” said Mrs Tappitt. However the ice was broken, and Rachel, when she was given to understand that that dance was done, felt herself to be aware that the world of waltzing was open to her, at any rate for that night. Was it very wicked? she had her doubts. If anybody had suggested to her, before Mrs Cornbury’s carriage had called for her, that she would waltz on that evening, she would have repudiated the idea almost with horror. How easy is the path down the shores of the Avernus! but then — was she going down the shores of the Avernus?
She was still walking through the crowd, leaning on her partner’s arm, and answering his good-natured questions almost in monosyllables, when she was gently touched on the arm by a fan, and on turning found herself confronted by Luke Rowan and his sister. “I’ve been trying to get at you so long,” said he, making some sort of half apology to Cornbury, “and haven’t been able; though once I very nearly danced you down without your knowing it.”
“We’re so much obliged to you for letting us escape,” said Cornbury; “are we not. Miss Ray?”
“We carried heavy metal, I can tell you,” said Rowan. “But I must introduce you to my sister. Where on earth have you been for these ten days?” Then the introduction was made, and young Cornbury, finding that his partner was in the hands of another lady, slipped away.
“I have heard a great deal about you, Miss Ray,” said Mary Rowan.
“Have you? I don’t know who should say much about me.” The words sounded uncivil, but she did not know what words to choose.
“Oh, from Cherry especially — and — and from my brother.”
“I’m very glad to make your acquaintance,” said Rachel.
“He told me that you would have been sure to come and walk with us, and we have all been saying that you had disappeared.”
“I have been kept at home,” said Rachel, who could not help remembering all the words of the churchyard interview, and feeling them down to her finger-nails. He must have known why she had not again joined the girls from the brewery in their walks. Or had he forgotten that he had called her Rachel, and held her fast by the hand? Perhaps he did these things so often to other girls that he thought nothing of them!
“You have been keeping yourself up for the ball,” said Rowan. “Precious people are right to make themselves scarce. And now what vacancies have you got for me?”
“Vacancies!” said Rachel.
“You don’t mean to say you’ve got none. Look here, I’ve kept all these on purpose for you, although twenty girls have begged me to dispose of them in their favour.”,
“Oh Luke, how can you tell such fibs?” said his sister.
“Well — here they are,” and he showed his card.
“I’m not engaged to anybody,” said Rachel; “except for one quadrille to Mr Cornbury — that gentleman who just went away.”
“Then you’ve no excuse for not filling up my vacancies — kept on purpose for you, mind.” And immediately her name was put down for she knew not what dances. Then he took her card and scrawled his own name on it in various places. She knew that she was weak to let him thus have his way in everything; but he was strong and she could not hinder him.
She was soon left with Mary Rowran, as Luke went off to fulfil the first of his numerous engagements. “Do you like my brother?” said she. “But of course I don’t mean you to answer that question. We all think him so very clever.”
“I’m sure he is very clever.”
“A great deal too clever to be a brewer. But you mustn’t say that I said so. I wanted him to go into the army.”
“I shouldn’t at all like that for my brother — if I had one.”
“And what would you like?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I never had a brother — perhaps to be a clergyman.”
“Yes; that would be very nice; but Luke would never be a clergyman. He was going to be an attorney, but he didn’t like that at all. He says there’s a great deal of poetry in brewing beer; but of course he’s only quizzing us. Oh, here’s my partner. I do so hope I shall see you very often while I’ m at Baslehurst.” Then Rachel was alone, but Mrs Tappitt came up to her in a minute. “My dear,” said she, “Mr Griggs desires the honour of your hand for a quadrille.” And thus Rachel found herself standing up with the odious Mr Griggs. “I do so pity you,” said Cherry, coming behind her for a moment. “Remember, you need not do it more than once. I don’t mean to do it again.”
After that she was allowed to sit still while a polka was being performed. Mrs Cornbury came to her saying a word or two; but she did not stay with her long, so that Rachel could think about Luke Rowan, and try to make up her mind as to what words she should say to him. She furtively looked down upon her card and found that he had written his own name to five dances, ending with Sir Roger de Coverley at the close of the evening. It was quite impossible that she should dance five dances with him, so she thought that she would mark out two with her nail. The very next was one of them, and during that she would explain to him what she had done. The whole thing loomed large in her thoughts and made her feel anxious. She would have been unhappy if he had not come to her at all, and now she was unhappy because he had thrust himself upon her so violently — or if not unhappy, she was at any rate uneasy. And what should she say about the elm-trees? Nothing, unless he spoke to her about them. She fancied that he would say something about the arm in the cloud, and if so, she must endeavour to make him understand that — that — that — She did not know how to fix her thoughts. Would it be possible to make him understand that he ought not to have called her Rachel?
While she was thinking of all this Mr Tappitt came and sat beside her. “Very pretty; isn’t it?” said he. “Very pretty indeed, I call it.”
“Oh yes, very pretty. I had no idea it would be so nice.” To Mr Tappitt in his blue waistcoat she could speak without hesitation. Ah me! It is the young men who receive all the reverence that the world has to pay — all the reverence that is worth receiving. When a man is turned forty and has become fat, anybody can speak to him without awe!
“Yes, it is nice,” said Mr Tappitt, who, however, was not quite easy in his mind. He had been into the supper room, and had found the waiter handling long-necked bottles, arranging them in rows, apparently by the dozen. “What’s that?” said he, sharply. “The champagne, sir! there should have been ice, sir, but I suppose they forgot it.” Where had Mrs T. procured all that wine? It was very plain to him that she had got the better of him by some deceit. He would smile, and smile, and smile during the evening; but he would have it out with Mrs Tappitt before he would allow that lady to have any rest. He lingered in the room, pretending that he was overlooking the arrangements, but in truth he was counting the bottles. After all there was but a dozen. He knew that at Griggs’s they sold it for six shillings. “Three pounds!” he said to himself. “Three pounds more; dear, dear!”
“Yes, it is nice!” he said to Rachel. “Mind you get a glass of champagne when you go in to supper. By the by, shall I get a partner for you? Here, Buckett, come and dance the next dance with Miss Ray.” Buckett was the clerk in the brewery. Rachel had nothing to say for herself; so Buckett’s name was put down on the card, though she would rather not have danced with Buckett. A week or two ago, before she had been taken up into Mrs Cornbury’s carriage, or had waltzed with Mrs Cornbury’s cousin, or had looked at the setting sun with Luke Rowan, she would have been sufficiently contented to dance with Mr Buckett — if in those days she had ever dreamed of dancing with anyone. Then Mrs Cornbury came to her again, bringing other cavaliers, and Rachel’s card began to be filled. “The quadrille before supper you dance with me,” said Walter Cornbury. “That’s settled, you know.” Oh, what a new world it was, and so different from the Dorcas meetings at Miss Pucker’s rooms!
Then came the moment of the evening which, of all the moments, was the most trying to her. Luke Rowan came to claim her hand for the next quadrille. She had already spoken to him — or rather he to her; but that had been in the presence of a third person, when, of course, nothing could be said about the sunset and the clouds — nothing about that promise of friendship. But now she would have to stand again with him in solitude — a solitude of another kind — in a solitude which was authorised, during which he might whisper what words he pleased to her, and from which she could not even run away. It had been thought to be a great sin on her part to have remained a moment with him by the stile; but now she was to stand up with him beneath the glare of the lights, dressed in her best, on purpose that he might whisper to her what words he pleased. But she was sure — she thought that she was sure, that he would utter no words so sweet, so full of meaning, as those in which he bade her watch the arm in the clouds.
Till the first figure was over for them he hardly spoke to her. “Tell me,” said he then, “why has nobody seen you since Saturday week last?”
“I have been at home.”
“Ah; but tell me the truth. Remember what we said as we parted — about being friends. One tells one’s friend the real truth. But I suppose you do not remember what we said?”
“I don’t think I said anything, Mr Rowan.”
“Did you not? Then I must have been dreaming. I thought you promised me your friendship.” He pause for her answer, but she said nothing. She could not declare to him that she would not be his friend. “But you have not told me yet why it was that you remained at home. Come — answer me a fair question fairly. Had I offended you?” Again she paused and made him no reply. It seemed to her that the room was going round her, and that the music made her dizzy. If she told him that he had not offended her would she not thereby justify him in having called her Rachel?
“Then I did offend you?” said he.
“Oh, Mr Rowan — never mind now; you must go on with the figure,” and thus for a moment she was saved from her difficulty. When he had done his work of dancing, she began hers, and as she placed both her hands in his to make the final turn, she flattered herself that he would not go back to the subject.
Nor did he while the quadrille lasted. As they continued to dance he said very little to her, and before the last figure was over she had almost settled down to enjoyment. He merely spoke a word or two about Mrs Cornbury’s dress, and another word about the singular arrangement of Mr Griggs’s jewellery, at which word she almost laughed outright, and then a third word laudatory of the Tappitt girls. “As for Cherry,” said he, “I’m quite in love with her for her pure good-nature and hearty manners; and of all living female human beings Martha is the most honest and just.”
“Oh! I’ll tell her that,” said Rachel. “She will so like it.”
“No, you mustn’t. You mustn’t repeat any of the things I tell you in confidence.” That word confidence again silenced her, and nothing more was said till he had offered her his arm at the end of the dance.
“Come away and have some negus on the stairs,” he said. “The reason I like these sort of parties is, that one is allowed to go into such queer places. You see that little room with the door open. That’s where Mr Tappitt keeps his old boots and the whip with which he drives his grey horse. There are four men playing cards there now, and one is seated on the end of an upturned portmanteau.”
“And where are the old boots?”
“Packed away on the top of Mrs Tappitt’s bed. I helped to put them there. Some are stuck under the grate because there are no fires now. Look here; there’s a seat in the window.” Then he placed her in the enclosure of an old window on the staircase landing, and brought her lemonade, and when she had drunk it he sat down beside her.
“Hadn’t we better go back to the dancing?”
“They won’t begin for a few minutes. They’re only tuning up again. You should always escape from the hot air for a moment or two. Besides, you must answer me that question. Did I offend you?”
“Please don’t talk of it. Please don’t. It’s all over now.”
“Ah, but it is not all over. I knew you were angry with me because — shall I say why?”
“No, Mr Rowan, don’t say anything about it.”
“At any rate, I may think that you have forgiven me. But what if I offend in the same way again? What if I ask permission to do it, so that it may be no offence? Only think; if I am to live here in Baslehurst all my life, is it not reasonable that I should wish you to be my friend? Are you going to separate yourself from Cherry Tappitt because you are afraid of me?”
“But is not that what you have done during the last week, Miss Ray — if it must be Miss Ray?” Then he paused, but still she said nothing. “Rachel is such a pretty name.”
“Oh, I think it so ugly.”
“It’s the prettiest name in the Bible, and the name most fit for poetic use. Who does not remember Rachel weeping for her children?”
“That’s the idea, and not the name. Ruth is twice prettier, and Mary the sweetest of all.”
“I never knew anybody before called Rachel,” said he.
“And I never knew anybody called Luke.”
“That’s a coincidence, is it not? — a coincidence that ought to make us friends. I may call you Rachel, then?”
“Oh, no; please don’t. What would people think?”
“Perhaps they would imagine that I called you so because I liked you. But perhaps they might think also that you let me do so because you liked me. People do make such mistakes.”
At this moment up came to them, with flushed face, Mr Buckett —“I have been looking for you everywhere,” said he to Rachel. “It’s nearly over now.”
“I am so sorry,” said Rachel, “but I quite forgot.”
“So I presume,” said Mr Buckett angrily, but at the same time he gave his arm to Rachel and led her away. The fag end of some waltz remained, and he might get a turn with her. People in his hearing had spoken of her as the belle of the room, and he did not like to lose his chance. “Oh, Mr Rowan,” said Rachel, looking back as she was being led away. “I must speak one word to Mr Rowan.” Then she separated herself, and returning a step or two almost whispered to her late partner —“You have put me down for ever so many dances. You must scratch out two or three of them.”
“Not one,” said he. “An engagement is an engagement.”
“Oh, but I really can’t.”
“Of course I cannot make you, but I will scratch out nothing — and forget nothing.”
Then she rejoined Mr Buckett, and was told by him that young Rowan was not liked in the brewery at all. “We think him conceited, you know. He pretends to know more than anybody else.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14