It came to be voted by public acclamation that Rachel Ray was the belle of the evening. I think this was brought about quite as much by Mrs Butler Cornbury’s powerful influence as by Rachel’s beauty. Mrs Butler Cornbury having begun the work of chaperon carried it on heartily, and talked her young friend up to the top of the tree. Long before supper her card was quite full, but filled in a manner that was not comfortable to herself — for she knew that she had made mistakes. As to those spaces on which the letter R was written, she kept them very sacred. She was quite resolved that she would not stand up with him on all those occasions — that she would omit at any rate two; but she would accept no one else for those two dances, not choosing to select any special period for throwing him over. She endeavoured to explain this when she waltzed with him, shortly before supper; but her explanation did not come easy, and she wanted all her attention for the immediate work she had in hand. “If you’d only give yourself to it a little more eagerly,” he said, “you’d waltz beautifully.”
“I shall never do it well,” she answered. “I don’t suppose I shall ever try again.”
“But you like it?”
“Oh yes; I like it excessively. But one can’t do everything that one likes.”
“No; I can’t. You won’t let me do what I like.”
“Don’t talk in that way, Mr Rowan. If you do you’ll destroy all my pleasure. You should let me enjoy it while it lasts.” In this way she was becoming intimate with him.
“How very nicely your house does for a dance,” said Mrs Cornbury to Mrs Tappitt.
“Oh dear — I don’t think so. Our rooms are so small. But it’s very kind of you to say so. Indeed, I never can be sufficiently obliged —”
“By the by,” said Mrs Cornbury, “what a nice girl Rachel Ray has grown.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Mrs Tappitt.
“And dances so well! I’d no idea of it. The young men seem rather taken with her. Don’t you think so?”
“I declare I think they are. I always fancy that is rather a misfortune to a young girl — particularly when it must mean nothing, as of course it can’t with poor Rachel.”
“I don’t see that at all.”
“Her mother, you know, Mrs Cornbury — they are not in the way of seeing any company. It was so kind of you to bring her here, and really she does look very nice. My girls are very good-natured to her. I only hope her head won’t be turned. Here’s Mr Tappitt. You must go down, Mrs Cornbury, and eat a little bit of supper.” Then Mr Tappitt in his blue waistcoat led Mrs Cornbury away.
“I am a very bad hand at supper,” said the lady.
“You must take just one glass of champagne,” said the gentleman. Now that the wine was there, Mr Tappitt appreciated the importance of the occasion.
For the last dance before supper — or that which was intended to be the last — Rachel had by long agreement been the partner of Walter Cornbury. But now that it was over, the majority of the performers could not go into the supper-room because of the crowd. Young Cornbury therefore proposed that they should loiter about till their time came. He was very well inclined for such loitering with Rachel.
“You’re flirting with that girl, Master Walter,” said Mrs Cornbury,
“I suppose that’s what she came for,” said the cousin.
“By no means, and she’s under my care; therefore I be you’ll talk no nonsense to her.”
Walter Cornbury probably did talk a little nonsense to her, but it was very innocent nonsense. Most of such flirtations if they were done out loud would be very innocent. Young men are not nearly so pointed in their compliments as their elders, and generally confine themselves to remarks of which neither mothers nor grandmothers could disapprove if they heard them. The romance lies rather in the thoughts than in the words of those concerned. Walter Cornbury believed that he was flirting and felt himself to be happy, but he had uttered nothing warmer to Rachel than a hope that he might meet her at the next Torquay ball.
“I never go to public balls,” said Rachel.
“But why not, Miss Ray?” said Walter.
“I never went to a dance of any description before this.”
“But now that you’ve begun of course you’ll go on.” Mr Cornbury’s flirtation never reached a higher pitch than that.
When he had got as far as that Luke Rowan played him a trick — an inhospitable trick, seeing that he, Rowan, was in some sort at home, and that the people about him were bound to obey him. He desired the musicians to strike up again while the elders were eating their supper — and then claimed Rachel’s hand, so that he might have the pleasure of serving her with cold chicken and champagne.
“Miss Ray is going into supper with me,” said Cornbury.
“But supper is not ready,” said Rowan, “and Miss Ray is engaged to dance with me.”
“Quite a mistake on your part,” said Cornbury.
“No mistake at all,” said Rowan.
“Indeed it is. Come, Miss Ray, we’ll take a turn down into the hall, and see if places are ready for us.” Cornbury rather despised Rowan, as being a brewer and mechanical; and probably he showed that he did so.
“Places are not ready, so you need not trouble Miss Ray to go down as yet. But a couple is wanted for a quadrille, and therefore I’m sure she’ll stand up.”
“Come along, Rachel,” said Cherry. “We just want you. This will be the nicest of all, because we shall have room.”
Rachel had become unhappy seeing that the two men were in earnest. Had not Cherry spoken she would have remained with Mr Cornbury, thinking that to be her safer conduct; but Cherry’s voice had overpowered her, and she gave her arm to young Rowan, moving away with slow, hesitating step.
“Of course Miss Ray will do as she pleases,” said Cornbury.
“Of course she will,” said Rowan.
“I am so sorry,” said Rachel, “but I was engaged, and it seems I am really wanted.” Walter Cornbury bowed very stiffly, and there was an end of his flirtation. “That’s the sort of thing that always happens when a fellow comes among this sort of people!” It was thus he consoled himself as he went down solitary to his supper.
“That’s all right,” said Rowan; “now we’ve Cherry for our vis-à-vis, and after that we’ll go down to supper comfortably.”
“But I said I’d go with him.”
“You can’t now, for he has gone without you. What a brick Cherry is! Do you know what she said of you?”
“No; do tell me.”
“I won’t. It will make you vain.”
“Oh, dear no; but I want Cherry to like me, because I am so fond of her.”
“She says you’re by far — But I won’t tell you. I hate compliments, and that would look like one. Come, who’s forgetting the figure now? I shouldn’t wonder if young Cornbury went into the brewery and drowned himself in one of the vats.”
It was very nice — very nice indeed. This was her third dance with Luke Rowan, and she was beginning to think that the other two might perhaps come off without any marked impropriety on her part. She was a little unhappy about Mr Cornbury — on his cousin’s account rather than on his own. Mrs Cornbury had been so kind to her that she ought to have remained with Walter when he desired it. So she told herself — but yet she liked being taken down to supper by Luke Rowan. She had one other cause of uneasiness. She constantly caught Mrs Tappitt’s eye fixed upon herself, and whenever she did so Mrs Tappitt’s eye seemed to look unkindly at her. She had also an instinctive feeling that Augusta did not regard her with favour, and that this disfavour arose from Mr Rowan’s attentions. It was all very nice; but still she felt that there was danger around her, and sometimes she would pause a moment in her happiness, and almost tremble as she thought of things. She was dividing herself poles asunder from Mrs Prime.
“And now we’ll go to supper,” said Rowan. “Come, Cherry; do you and Boyd go on first.” Boyd was a friend of Rowan’s. “Do you know, I’ve done such a clever trick? This is my second descent among the eatables. As I belong in a manner to the house I took down Miss Harford, and hovered about her for five minutes. Then I managed to lose myself in the crowd, and coming up here got the music up. The fellows were just going off. We’ve plenty of time now, because they’re in the kitchen eating and drinking. I contrived all that dodge that I might give you this glass of wine with my own hands.”
“Oh, Mr Rowan, it was very wrong!”
“And that’s my reward! I don’t care about its being wrong as long as it’s pleasant.”
“What shocking morality!”
“All is fair in — Well, never mind, you’ll own it is pleasant.”
“Oh, yes; it’s very pleasant.”
“Then I’m contented, and will leave the moral of it for Mr Cornbury. I’ll tell you something further if you’ll let me.”
“Pray don’t tell me anything that you ought not.”
“I’ve done all I could to get up this party on purpose that we might have you here.”
“But I have. I have cared about it just because it would enable me to say one word to you — and now I’m afraid to say it.”
She was sitting there close to him, and she couldn’t go away. She couldn’t run as she had done from the stile. She couldn’t show any feeling of offence before all those who were around her; and yet — was it not her duty to do something to stop him? “Pray don’t say such things,” she whispered.
“I tell you that I’m afraid to say it. Here; give me some wine. You’ll take some more. No? Well; shall we go? I am afraid to say it.” They were now out in the hall, standing idly there, with their backs to another door. “I wonder what answer you would make me!”
“We had better go upstairs. Indeed we had.”
“Stop a moment, Miss Ray. Why is it that you are so unwilling even to stay a moment with me?”
“I’m not unwilling. Only we had better go now.”
“Do you remember when I held your arm at the stile?”
“No; I don’t remember anything about it. You ought not to have done it. Do you know, I think you are very cruel?” As she made the accusation, she looked down upon the floor, and spoke in a low, trembling voice that almost convinced him that she was in earnest.
“Cruel!” said he. “That’s hard too.”
“Or you wouldn’t prevent me enjoying myself while I am here, by saying things which you ought to know I don’t like.”
“I have hardly thought whether you would like what I say or not; but I know this: I would give anything in the world to make myself sure that you would ever look back upon this evening as a happy one.”
“I will if you’ll come upstairs, and —”
“And go on without — without seeming to mind me so much.”
“Ah, but I do mind you. Rachel — no; you shall not go for a minute. Listen to me for one moment.” Then he tried to stand before her, but she was off from him, and ran upstairs by herself. What was it that he wished to say to her? She knew that she would have liked to have heard it — nay, that she was longing to hear it. But she was startled and afraid of him, and as she gently crept in at the door of the dancing-room, she determined that she would tell Mrs Cornbury that she was quite ready for the carriage. It was impossible that she should go through these other two dances with Luke Rowan; and as for her other engagements, they must be allowed to shift for themselves. One had been made early in the evening with Mr Griggs. It would be a great thing to escape dancing with Mr Griggs. She would ask Cherry to make her apologies to everybody. As she entered the room she felt ashamed of herself, and unable to take any place. She was oppressed by an idea that she ought not to be walking about without some gentleman with her, and that people would observe her. She was still very near the door when she perceived that Mr Rowan was also coming in. She determined to avoid him if she could, feeling sure that she could not stop him in anything that he might say, while so many people would be close around them. And yet she felt almost disappointment when she heard his voice as he talked merrily with someone at the door. At that moment Mrs Cornbury came up to her, walking across the room on purpose to join her.
“What, all alone! I thought your hand was promised for every dance up to five o’clock.”
“I believe I’m engaged to someone now, but I declare I don’t know who it is. I dare say he has forgotten.”
“Ah, yes; people do get confused a little just about this time. Will you come and sit down?”
“Thank you, I should like that. But, Mrs Cornbury, when you’re ready to go away, I am — quite ready.”
“Go away! Why I thought you intended to dance at least for the next two hours.”
In answer to this, Rachel declared that she was tired. “And, Mrs Cornbury, I want to avoid that man,” and she pointed out Mr Griggs by a glance of her eye. “I think he’ll say I’m engaged to him for the next waltz, and — I don’t like him.”
“Poor man; he doesn’t look very nice, certainly; but if that’s all I’ll get you out of the scrape without running away.” Then Mr Griggs came up, and, with a very low bow, struck out the point of his elbow towards Rachel, expecting her immediately to put her hand within it.
“I’m afraid, sir, you must excuse Miss Ray just at present. She’s too tired to dance immediately.”
Mr Griggs looked at his card, then looked at Rachel, then looked at Mrs Cornbury, and stood twiddling the bunch of little gilt playthings that hung from his chain. “That is too hard,” said he; “deuced hard.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Rachel.
“So shall I be — uncommon. Really, Mrs Cornbury, I think a turn or two would do her good. Don’t you?”
“I can’t say I do. She says she would rather not, and of course you won’t press her.”
“I don’t see it in that light — I really don’t. A gentleman has his rights you know, Mrs Cornbury. Miss Ray won’t deny —”
“Miss Ray will deny that she intends to stand up for this dance. And one of the rights of a gentleman is to take a lady at her word.”
“Really, Mrs Cornbury, you are down upon one so hard.”
“Rachel,” said she, “would you mind coming across the room with me? There are seats on the sofa on the other side.” Then Mrs Cornbury sailed across the floor, and Rachel crept after her more dismayed than ever. Mr Griggs the while stood transfixed to his place, stroking his moustache with his hand, and showing plainly by his countenance that he didn’t know what he ought to do next. “Well, that’s cool,” said he; “confounded cool!”
“Anything wrong, Griggs, my boy?” said a bank clerk, slapping him on the back.
“I call it very wrong; very wrong, indeed,” said Griggs; “but people do give themselves such airs! Miss Cherry, may I have the honour of waltzing with you!”
“Certainly not,” said Cherry, who was passing by. Then Mr Griggs made his way back to the door.
Rachel felt that things were going wrong with her. It had so happened that she had parted on bad terms with three gentlemen. She had offended Mr Cornbury and Mr Griggs, and had done her best to make Mr Rowan understand that he had offended her! She conceived that all the room would know of it, and that Mr Cornbury would become ashamed of her. That Mrs Tappitt was already very angry with her she was quite sure. She wished she had not come to the ball, and began to think that perhaps her sister might be right. It almost seemed to herself that she had not known how to behave herself. For a short time she had been happy — very happy; but she feared that she had in some way committed herself during the moments of her happiness. “I hope you are not angry with me”, she said, “about Mr Griggs?” appealing to her friend in a plaintive voice.
“Angry! — oh dear, no. Why should I be angry with you? I should be angry with that man, only I’m a person that never gets angry with anybody. You were quite right not to dance with him. Never be made to dance with any man you don’t like; and remember that a young lady should always have her own way in a ballroom. She doesn’t get much of it anywhere else; does she, my dear? And now I’ll go whenever you like it, but I’m not the least in a hurry. You’re the young lady, and you’re to have your own way. If you’re quite in earnest, I’ll get someone to order the carriage.” Rachel said that she was quite in earnest, and then Walter was called. “So you’re going, are you?” said he. “Miss Ray has ill-treated me so dreadfully that I can’t express my regret.” “Ill-treated you, too, has she? Upon my word, my dear, you’ve shown yourself quite great upon the occasion. When I was a girl, there was nothing I liked so much as offending all my partners.” But Rachel was red with dismay, and wretched that such an accusation should be made against her. “Oh, Mrs Cornbury, I didn’t mean to offend him! I’ll explain it all in the carriage. What will you think of me?” “Think, my dear? — why, I shall think that you are going to turn all the young men’s heads in Baslehurst. But I shall hear all about it from Walter tomorrow. He tells me of all his loves and all his disappointments.”
While the carriage was being brought round, Rachel kept close to her chaperon; but every now and again her eyes, in spite of herself, would wander away to Mr Rowan. Was he in any way affected by her leaving him, or was it all a joke to him? He was dancing now with Cherry Tappitt, and Rachel was sure that all of it was a joke. But it was a cruel joke — cruel because it exposed her to so much ill-natured remark. With him she would quarrel — quarrel really. She would let him know that he should not call her by her Christian name just when it suited him to do so, and then take himself off to play with others in the same way. She would tell Cherry, and make Cherry understand that all walks and visiting and friendly intercommunication must be abandoned because this young man would take advantage of her position to annoy her! He should be made to understand that she was not in his power! Then, as she thought of this, she caught his eye as he made a sudden stop in the dance close to her, and all her hard thoughts died away. Ah, dear, what was it that she wanted of him?
At that moment they got up to go away. Such a person as Mrs Butler Cornbury could not, of course, escape without a parade of adieux. Mr Tappitt was searched up from the little room in which the card-party held their meeting in order that he might hand the guest that had honoured him down to her carriage; and Mrs Tappitt fluttered about, profuse in her acknowledgments for the favour done to them. “And we do so hope Mr Cornbury will be successful,” she said, as she bade her last farewell. This was spoken close to Mr Tappitt’s ear; and Mrs Cornbury flattered herself that after that Mr Tappitt’s vote would be secure. Mr Tappitt said nothing about his vote, but handed the lady downstairs in solemn silence.
The Tappitt girls came and clustered about Rachel as she was going. “I can’t conceive why you are off so early,” said Martha. “No, indeed,” said Mrs Tappitt; “Only of course it would be very wrong to keep Mrs Cornbury waiting when she has been so excessively kind to you.” “The naughty girl! It isn’t that at all,” said Cherry. “It’s she that is hurrying Mrs Cornbury away.” “Goodnight,” said Augusta very coldly. “And, Rachel,” said Cherry, “mind you come up tomorrow and talk it all over; we shall have so much to say.” Then Rachel turned to go, and found Luke Rowan at her elbow waiting to take her down. She had no alternative — she must take his arm; and these they walked downstairs into the hall together.
“You’ll come up here tomorrow,” said he.
“No, no; tell Cherry that I shall not come.”
“Then I shall go to Bragg’s End. Will your mother let me call?”
“No, don’t come. Pray don’t.”
“I certainly shall — certainly, certainly! What things have you got? Let me put your shawl on for you. If you do not come up to the girls, I shall certainly go down to you. Now goodnight. Goodnight, Mrs Cornbury.” And Luke, getting hold of Rachel’s reluctant hand, pressed it with all his warmth.
“I don’t want to ask indiscreet questions,” said Mrs Cornbury; “but that young man seems rather smitten, I think.”
“Oh, no,” said Rachel, not knowing what to say.
“But, I say — oh, yes; a nice good-looking man he is too, and a gentleman, which is more than I can say for all of them there. What an escape you had of Mr Griggs, my dear!”
“Yes, I had. But I was so sorry that you should have to speak to him.”
“Of course I spoke to him. I was there to fight your battles for you. That’s why married ladies go to balls. You were quite right not to dance with him. A girl should always avoid any intimacy with such men as that. It is not that he would have done you any harm; but they stand in the way of your satisfaction and contentment. Balls are given specially for young ladies; and it is my theory that they are to make themselves happy while they are there, and not sacrifice themselves to men whom they don’t wish to know. You can’t always refuse when you’re asked, but you can always get out of an engagement afterwards if you know what you’re about. That was my way when I was a girl.” And this was the daughter of Mr Comfort, whose somewhat melancholy discourses against the world’s pleasures and vanities had so often filled Rachel’s bosom with awe!
Rachel sat silent, thinking of what had occurred at Mrs Tappitt’s; and thinking also that she ought to make some little speech to her friend, thanking her for all that she had done. Ought she not also to apologise in some way for her own conduct? “What was that between you and my cousin Walter?” Mrs Cornbury asked, after a few moments.
“I hope I wasn’t to blame,” said Rachel. “But —”
“But what? Of course you weren’t to blame — unless it was in being run after by so many gentlemen at once.”
“He was going to take me down to supper — and it was so kind of him. And then while we were waiting because the room downstairs was full, there was another quadrille, and I was engaged to Mr Rowan.”
“Ah, yes; I understand. And so Master Walter got thrown once. His wrath in such matters never lasts very long. Here we are at Bragg’s End. I’ve been so glad to have you with me, and I hope I may take you again with me somewhere before long. Remember me kindly to your mother. There she is at the door waiting for you.” Then Rachel jumped out of the carriage, and ran across the little gravel path into the house.
Mrs Ray had been waiting up for her daughter, and had been listening eagerly for the wheels of the carriage. It was not yet two o’clock, and by ball-going people the hour of Rachel’s return would have been considered early; but to Mrs Ray anything after midnight was very late. She was not, however, angry, or even vexed, but simply pleased that her girl had at last come back to her. “Oh, mamma, I’m afraid it has been very hard upon you, waiting for me!” said Rachel; “but I did come away as soon as I could.” Mrs Ray declared that she had not found it at all hard, and then — with a laudable curiosity, seeing how little she had known about balls — desired to have an immediate account of Rachel’s doings.
“And did you get anybody to dance with you?” asked the mother, feeling a mother’s ambition that her daughter should have been “respectit like the lave”.
“Oh, yes; plenty of people asked me to dance.”
“And did you find it come easy?”
“Quite easy. I was frightened about the waltzing, at first.”
“Do you mean that you waltzed, Rachel?”
“Yes, mamma. Everybody did it. Mrs Cornbury said she always waltzed when she was a girl; and as the things turned out I could not help myself. I began with her cousin. I didn’t mean to do it, but I got so ashamed of myself that I couldn’t refuse.”
Mrs Ray still was not angry; but she was surprised, and perhaps a little dismayed. “And did you like it?”
“Were they all kind to you?”
“You seem to have very little to say about it; but I suppose you’re tired.”
“I am tired, but it isn’t that. It seems that there is so much to think about. I’ll tell you everything tomorrow, when I get quiet again. Not that there is much to tell.”
“Then I’ll wish you goodnight, dear.”
“Goodnight, mamma. Mrs Cornbury was so kind — you can have no idea how good-natured she is.”
“She always was a good creature.”
“If I’d been her sister she couldn’t have done more for me. I feel as though I were really quite fond of her. But she isn’t a bit like what I expected. She chooses to have her own way; but then she is so good-humoured! And when I got into any little trouble she —”
“Well, what else did she do; and what trouble had you?”
“I can’t quite describe what I mean. She seemed to make so much of me — just as she might have done if I’d been some grand young lady down from London, or any, any — You know what I mean.”
Mrs Ray sat with her candle in her hand, receiving great comfort from the knowledge that her daughter had been “respectit”. She knew well what Rachel meant, and reflected, with perhaps a pardonable pride, that she herself had “come of decent people”. The Tappitts were higher than her in the world, and so were the Griggses. But she knew that her forbears had been gentlefolk, when there were, so to speak, no Griggses and no Tappitts in existence. It was pleasant to her to think that her daughter had been treated as a lady.
“And she did do me such a kindness. That horrid Mr Griggs was going to dance with me, and she wouldn’t let him.”
“I don’t like that young man at all.”
“Poor Cherry! you should hear her talk of him! And she would have stayed ever so much longer if I had not pressed her to go; and then she has such a nice way of saying things.”
“She always had that, when she was quite a young girl.”
“I declare I feel that I quite love her. And there was such a grand supper. Champagne!”
“I got some cold turkey. Mr Rowan took me down to supper.” These last words were spoken very mildly, and Rachel, as she uttered them, did not dare to look into her mother’s face.
“Did you dance with him?”
“Yes, mamma, three times. I should have stayed later only I was engaged to dance with him twice more; and I didn’t choose to do so.”
“Was he —? Did he —?”
“Oh, mamma; I can’t tell you. I don’t know how to tell you. I wish you knew it all without my saying anything. He says he shall come here tomorrow if I don’t go up to the brewery; and I can’t possibly go there now, after that.”
“Did he say anything more than that, Rachel?”
“He calls me Rachel, and speaks — I can’t tell you how he speaks. If you think it wrong, mamma, I won’t ever see him again.”
Mrs Ray didn’t know whether she ought to think it wrong or not. She was inclined to wish that it was right and to believe that it was wrong. A few minutes ago Rachel was unable to open her mouth, and was anxious to escape to bed; but, now that the ice was broken between her and her mother, they sat up for more than an hour talking about Luke Rowan.
“I wonder whether he will really come?” Rachel said to herself, as she laid her head upon her pillow —“and why does he want to come?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55