When Susan’s engagement had been approved at home, and made public to any one who took an interest in it at the hotel — and by this time the society at the hotel was divided so as to point to invisible chalk-marks such as Mr. Hirst had described, the news was felt to justify some celebration — an expedition? That had been done already. A dance then. The advantage of a dance was that it abolished one of those long evenings which were apt to become tedious and lead to absurdly early hours in spite of bridge.
Two or three people standing under the erect body of the stuffed leopard in the hall very soon had the matter decided. Evelyn slid a pace or two this way and that, and pronounced that the floor was excellent. Signor Rodriguez informed them of an old Spaniard who fiddled at weddings — fiddled so as to make a tortoise waltz; and his daughter, although endowed with eyes as black as coal-scuttles, had the same power over the piano. If there were any so sick or so surly as to prefer sedentary occupations on the night in question to spinning and watching others spin, the drawing-room and billiard-room were theirs. Hewet made it his business to conciliate the outsiders as much as possible. To Hirst’s theory of the invisible chalk-marks he would pay no attention whatever. He was treated to a snub or two, but, in reward, found obscure lonely gentlemen delighted to have this opportunity of talking to their kind, and the lady of doubtful character showed every symptom of confiding her case to him in the near future. Indeed it was made quite obvious to him that the two or three hours between dinner and bed contained an amount of unhappiness, which was really pitiable, so many people had not succeeded in making friends.
It was settled that the dance was to be on Friday, one week after the engagement, and at dinner Hewet declared himself satisfied.
“They’re all coming!” he told Hirst. “Pepper!” he called, seeing William Pepper slip past in the wake of the soup with a pamphlet beneath his arm, “We’re counting on you to open the ball.”
“You will certainly put sleep out of the question,” Pepper returned.
“You are to take the floor with Miss Allan,” Hewet continued, consulting a sheet of pencilled notes.
Pepper stopped and began a discourse upon round dances, country dances, morris dances, and quadrilles, all of which are entirely superior to the bastard waltz and spurious polka which have ousted them most unjustly in contemporary popularity — when the waiters gently pushed him on to his table in the corner.
The dining-room at this moment had a certain fantastic resemblance to a farmyard scattered with grain on which bright pigeons kept descending. Almost all the ladies wore dresses which they had not yet displayed, and their hair rose in waves and scrolls so as to appear like carved wood in Gothic churches rather than hair. The dinner was shorter and less formal than usual, even the waiters seeming to be affected with the general excitement. Ten minutes before the clock struck nine the committee made a tour through the ballroom. The hall, when emptied of its furniture, brilliantly lit, adorned with flowers whose scent tinged the air, presented a wonderful appearance of ethereal gaiety.
“It’s like a starlit sky on an absolutely cloudless night,” Hewet murmured, looking about him, at the airy empty room.
“A heavenly floor, anyhow,” Evelyn added, taking a run and sliding two or three feet along.
“What about those curtains?” asked Hirst. The crimson curtains were drawn across the long windows. “It’s a perfect night outside.”
“Yes, but curtains inspire confidence,” Miss Allan decided. “When the ball is in full swing it will be time to draw them. We might even open the windows a little. . . . If we do it now elderly people will imagine there are draughts.
Her wisdom had come to be recognised, and held in respect. Meanwhile as they stood talking, the musicians were unwrapping their instruments, and the violin was repeating again and again a note struck upon the piano. Everything was ready to begin.
After a few minutes’ pause, the father, the daughter, and the son-in-law who played the horn flourished with one accord. Like the rats who followed the piper, heads instantly appeared in the doorway. There was another flourish; and then the trio dashed spontaneously into the triumphant swing of the waltz. It was as though the room were instantly flooded with water. After a moment’s hesitation first one couple, then another, leapt into mid-stream, and went round and round in the eddies. The rhythmic swish of the dancers sounded like a swirling pool. By degrees the room grew perceptibly hotter. The smell of kid gloves mingled with the strong scent of flowers. The eddies seemed to circle faster and faster, until the music wrought itself into a crash, ceased, and the circles were smashed into little separate bits. The couples struck off in different directions, leaving a thin row of elderly people stuck fast to the walls, and here and there a piece of trimming or a handkerchief or a flower lay upon the floor. There was a pause, and then the music started again, the eddies whirled, the couples circled round in them, until there was a crash, and the circles were broken up into separate pieces.
When this had happened about five times, Hirst, who leant against a window-frame, like some singular gargoyle, perceived that Helen Ambrose and Rachel stood in the doorway. The crowd was such that they could not move, but he recognised them by a piece of Helen’s shoulder and a glimpse of Rachel’s head turning round. He made his way to them; they greeted him with relief.
“We are suffering the tortures of the damned,” said Helen.
“This is my idea of hell,” said Rachel.
Her eyes were bright and she looked bewildered.
Hewet and Miss Allan, who had been waltzing somewhat laboriously, paused and greeted the newcomers.
“This is nice,” said Hewet. “But where is Mr. Ambrose?”
“Pindar,” said Helen. “May a married woman who was forty in October dance? I can’t stand still.” She seemed to fade into Hewet, and they both dissolved in the crowd.
“We must follow suit,” said Hirst to Rachel, and he took her resolutely by the elbow. Rachel, without being expert, danced well, because of a good ear for rhythm, but Hirst had no taste for music, and a few dancing lessons at Cambridge had only put him into possession of the anatomy of a waltz, without imparting any of its spirit. A single turn proved to them that their methods were incompatible; instead of fitting into each other their bones seemed to jut out in angles making smooth turning an impossibility, and cutting, moreover, into the circular progress of the other dancers.
“Shall we stop?” said Hirst. Rachel gathered from his expression that he was annoyed.
They staggered to seats in the corner, from which they had a view of the room. It was still surging, in waves of blue and yellow, striped by the black evening-clothes of the gentlemen.
“An amazing spectacle,” Hirst remarked. “Do you dance much in London?” They were both breathing fast, and both a little excited, though each was determined not to show any excitement at all.
“Scarcely ever. Do you?”
“My people give a dance every Christmas.”
“This isn’t half a bad floor,” Rachel said. Hirst did not attempt to answer her platitude. He sat quite silent, staring at the dancers. After three minutes the silence became so intolerable to Rachel that she was goaded to advance another commonplace about the beauty of the night. Hirst interrupted her ruthlessly.
“Was that all nonsense what you said the other day about being a Christian and having no education?” he asked.
“It was practically true,” she replied. “But I also play the piano very well,” she said, “better, I expect than any one in this room. You are the most distinguished man in England, aren’t you?” she asked shyly.
“One of the three,” he corrected.
Helen whirling past here tossed a fan into Rachel’s lap.
“She is very beautiful,” Hirst remarked.
They were again silent. Rachel was wondering whether he thought her also nice-looking; St. John was considering the immense difficulty of talking to girls who had no experience of life. Rachel had obviously never thought or felt or seen anything, and she might be intelligent or she might be just like all the rest. But Hewet’s taunt rankled in his mind —”you don’t know how to get on with women,” and he was determined to profit by this opportunity. Her evening-clothes bestowed on her just that degree of unreality and distinction which made it romantic to speak to her, and stirred a desire to talk, which irritated him because he did not know how to begin. He glanced at her, and she seemed to him very remote and inexplicable, very young and chaste. He drew a sigh, and began.
“About books now. What have you read? Just Shakespeare and the Bible?”
“I haven’t read many classics,” Rachel stated. She was slightly annoyed by his jaunty and rather unnatural manner, while his masculine acquirements induced her to take a very modest view of her own power.
“D’you mean to tell me you’ve reached the age of twenty-four without reading Gibbon?” he demanded.
“Yes, I have,” she answered.
“Mon Dieu!” he exclaimed, throwing out his hands. “You must begin to-morrow. I shall send you my copy. What I want to know is —” he looked at her critically. “You see, the problem is, can one really talk to you? Have you got a mind, or are you like the rest of your sex? You seem to me absurdly young compared with men of your age.”
Rachel looked at him but said nothing.
“About Gibbon,” he continued. “D’you think you’ll be able to appreciate him? He’s the test, of course. It’s awfully difficult to tell about women,” he continued, “how much, I mean, is due to lack of training, and how much is native incapacity. I don’t see myself why you shouldn’t understand — only I suppose you’ve led an absurd life until now — you’ve just walked in a crocodile, I suppose, with your hair down your back.”
The music was again beginning. Hirst’s eye wandered about the room in search of Mrs. Ambrose. With the best will in the world he was conscious that they were not getting on well together.
“I’d like awfully to lend you books,” he said, buttoning his gloves, and rising from his seat. “We shall meet again. “I’m going to leave you now.”
He got up and left her.
Rachel looked round. She felt herself surrounded, like a child at a party, by the faces of strangers all hostile to her, with hooked noses and sneering, indifferent eyes. She was by a window, she pushed it open with a jerk. She stepped out into the garden. Her eyes swam with tears of rage.
“Damn that man!” she exclaimed, having acquired some of Helen’s words. “Damn his insolence!”
She stood in the middle of the pale square of light which the window she had opened threw upon the grass. The forms of great black trees rose massively in front of her. She stood still, looking at them, shivering slightly with anger and excitement. She heard the trampling and swinging of the dancers behind her, and the rhythmic sway of the waltz music.
“There are trees,” she said aloud. Would the trees make up for St. John Hirst? She would be a Persian princess far from civilisation, riding her horse upon the mountains alone, and making her women sing to her in the evening, far from all this, from the strife and men and women — a form came out of the shadow; a little red light burnt high up in its blackness.
“Miss Vinrace, is it?” said Hewet, peering at her. “You were dancing with Hirst?”
“He’s made me furious!” she cried vehemently. “No one’s any right to be insolent!”
“Insolent?” Hewet repeated, taking his cigar from his mouth in surprise. “Hirst — insolent?”
“It’s insolent to —” said Rachel, and stopped. She did not know exactly why she had been made so angry. With a great effort she pulled herself together.
“Oh, well,” she added, the vision of Helen and her mockery before her, “I dare say I’m a fool.” She made as though she were going back into the ballroom, but Hewet stopped her.
“Please explain to me,” he said. “I feel sure Hirst didn’t mean to hurt you.”
When Rachel tried to explain, she found it very difficult. She could not say that she found the vision of herself walking in a crocodile with her hair down her back peculiarly unjust and horrible, nor could she explain why Hirst’s assumption of the superiority of his nature and experience had seemed to her not only galling but terrible — as if a gate had clanged in her face. Pacing up and down the terrace beside Hewet she said bitterly:
“It’s no good; we should live separate; we cannot understand each other; we only bring out what’s worst.”
Hewet brushed aside her generalisation as to the natures of the two sexes, for such generalisations bored him and seemed to him generally untrue. But, knowing Hirst, he guessed fairly accurately what had happened, and, though secretly much amused, was determined that Rachel should not store the incident away in her mind to take its place in the view she had of life.
“Now you’ll hate him,” he said, “which is wrong. Poor old Hirst — he can’t help his method. And really, Miss Vinrace, he was doing his best; he was paying you a compliment — he was trying — he was trying —” he could not finish for the laughter that overcame him.
Rachel veered round suddenly and laughed out too. She saw that there was something ridiculous about Hirst, and perhaps about herself.
“It’s his way of making friends, I suppose,” she laughed. “Well — I shall do my part. I shall begin —’Ugly in body, repulsive in mind as you are, Mr. Hirst —”
“Hear, hear!” cried Hewet. “That’s the way to treat him. You see, Miss Vinrace, you must make allowances for Hirst. He’s lived all his life in front of a looking-glass, so to speak, in a beautiful panelled room, hung with Japanese prints and lovely old chairs and tables, just one splash of colour, you know, in the right place — between the windows I think it is — and there he sits hour after hour with his toes on the fender, talking about philosophy and God and his liver and his heart and the hearts of his friends. They’re all broken. You can’t expect him to be at his best in a ballroom. He wants a cosy, smoky, masculine place, where he can stretch his legs out, and only speak when he’s got something to say. For myself, I find it rather dreary. But I do respect it. They’re all so much in earnest. They do take the serious things very seriously.”
The description of Hirst’s way of life interested Rachel so much that she almost forgot her private grudge against him, and her respect revived.
“They are really very clever then?” she asked.
“Of course they are. So far as brains go I think it’s true what he said the other day; they’re the cleverest people in England. But — you ought to take him in hand,” he added. “There’s a great deal more in him than’s ever been got at. He wants some one to laugh at him. . . . The idea of Hirst telling you that you’ve had no experiences! Poor old Hirst!”
They had been pacing up and down the terrace while they talked, and now one by one the dark windows were uncurtained by an invisible hand, and panes of light fell regularly at equal intervals upon the grass. They stopped to look in at the drawing-room, and perceived Mr. Pepper writing alone at a table.
“There’s Pepper writing to his aunt,” said Hewet. “She must be a very remarkable old lady, eighty-five he tells me, and he takes her for walking tours in the New Forest. . . . Pepper!” he cried, rapping on the window. “Go and do your duty. Miss Allan expects you.”
When they came to the windows of the ballroom, the swing of the dancers and the lilt of the music was irresistible.
“Shall we?” said Hewet, and they clasped hands and swept off magnificently into the great swirling pool. Although this was only the second time they had met, the first time they had seen a man and woman kissing each other, and the second time Mr. Hewet had found that a young woman angry is very like a child. So that when they joined hands in the dance they felt more at their ease than is usual.
It was midnight and the dance was now at its height. Servants were peeping in at the windows; the garden was sprinkled with the white shapes of couples sitting out. Mrs. Thornbury and Mrs. Elliot sat side by side under a palm tree, holding fans, handkerchiefs, and brooches deposited in their laps by flushed maidens. Occasionally they exchanged comments.
“Miss Warrington does look happy,” said Mrs. Elliot; they both smiled; they both sighed.
“He has a great deal of character,” said Mrs. Thornbury, alluding to Arthur.
“And character is what one wants,” said Mrs. Elliot. “Now that young man is clever enough,” she added, nodding at Hirst, who came past with Miss Allan on his arm.
“He does not look strong,” said Mrs. Thornbury. “His complexion is not good. — Shall I tear it off?” she asked, for Rachel had stopped, conscious of a long strip trailing behind her.
“I hope you are enjoying yourselves?” Hewet asked the ladies.
“This is a very familiar position for me!” smiled Mrs. Thornbury. “I have brought out five daughters — and they all loved dancing! You love it too, Miss Vinrace?” she asked, looking at Rachel with maternal eyes. “I know I did when I was your age. How I used to beg my mother to let me stay — and now I sympathise with the poor mothers — but I sympathise with the daughters too!”
She smiled sympathetically, and at the same time rather keenly, at Rachel.
“They seem to find a great deal to say to each other,” said Mrs. Elliot, looking significantly at the backs of the couple as they turned away. “Did you notice at the picnic? He was the only person who could make her utter.”
“Her father is a very interesting man,” said Mrs. Thornbury. “He has one of the largest shipping businesses in Hull. He made a very able reply, you remember, to Mr. Asquith at the last election. It is so interesting to find that a man of his experience is a strong Protectionist.”
She would have liked to discuss politics, which interested her more than personalities, but Mrs. Elliot would only talk about the Empire in a less abstract form.
“I hear there are dreadful accounts from England about the rats,” she said. “A sister-in-law, who lives at Norwich, tells me it has been quite unsafe to order poultry. The plague — you see. It attacks the rats, and through them other creatures.”
“And the local authorities are not taking proper steps?” asked Mrs. Thornbury.
“That she does not say. But she describes the attitude of the educated people — who should know better — as callous in the extreme. Of course, my sister-in-law is one of those active modern women, who always takes things up, you know — the kind of woman one admires, though one does not feel, at least I do not feel — but then she has a constitution of iron.”
Mrs. Elliot, brought back to the consideration of her own delicacy, here sighed.
“A very animated face,” said Mrs. Thornbury, looking at Evelyn M. who had stopped near them to pin tight a scarlet flower at her breast. It would not stay, and, with a spirited gesture of impatience, she thrust it into her partner’s button-hole. He was a tall melancholy youth, who received the gift as a knight might receive his lady’s token.
“Very trying to the eyes,” was Mrs. Eliot’s next remark, after watching the yellow whirl in which so few of the whirlers had either name or character for her, for a few minutes. Bursting out of the crowd, Helen approached them, and took a vacant chair.
“May I sit by you?” she said, smiling and breathing fast. “I suppose I ought to be ashamed of myself,” she went on, sitting down, “at my age.”
Her beauty, now that she was flushed and animated, was more expansive than usual, and both the ladies felt the same desire to touch her.
“I am enjoying myself,” she panted. “Movement — isn’t it amazing?”
“I have always heard that nothing comes up to dancing if one is a good dancer,” said Mrs. Thornbury, looking at her with a smile.
Helen swayed slightly as if she sat on wires.
“I could dance for ever!” she said. “They ought to let themselves go more!” she exclaimed. “They ought to leap and swing. Look! How they mince!”
“Have you seen those wonderful Russian dancers?” began Mrs. Elliot. But Helen saw her partner coming and rose as the moon rises. She was half round the room before they took their eyes off her, for they could not help admiring her, although they thought it a little odd that a woman of her age should enjoy dancing.
Directly Helen was left alone for a minute she was joined by St. John Hirst, who had been watching for an opportunity.
“Should you mind sitting out with me?” he asked. “I’m quite incapable of dancing.” He piloted Helen to a corner which was supplied with two arm-chairs, and thus enjoyed the advantage of semi-privacy. They sat down, and for a few minutes Helen was too much under the influence of dancing to speak.
“Astonishing!” she exclaimed at last. “What sort of shape can she think her body is?” This remark was called forth by a lady who came past them, waddling rather than walking, and leaning on the arm of a stout man with globular green eyes set in a fat white face. Some support was necessary, for she was very stout, and so compressed that the upper part of her body hung considerably in advance of her feet, which could only trip in tiny steps, owing to the tightness of the skirt round her ankles. The dress itself consisted of a small piece of shiny yellow satin, adorned here and there indiscriminately with round shields of blue and green beads made to imitate hues of a peacock’s breast. On the summit of a frothy castle of hair a purple plume stood erect, while her short neck was encircled by a black velvet ribbon knobbed with gems, and golden bracelets were tightly wedged into the flesh of her fat gloved arms. She had the face of an impertinent but jolly little pig, mottled red under a dusting of powder.
St. John could not join in Helen’s laughter.
“It makes me sick,” he declared. “The whole thing makes me sick. . . . Consider the minds of those people — their feelings. Don’t you agree?”
“I always make a vow never to go to another party of any description,” Helen replied, “and I always break it.”
She leant back in her chair and looked laughingly at the young man. She could see that he was genuinely cross, if at the same time slightly excited.
“However,” he said, resuming his jaunty tone, “I suppose one must just make up one’s mind to it.”
“There never will be more than five people in the world worth talking to.”
Slowly the flush and sparkle in Helen’s face died away, and she looked as quiet and as observant as usual.
“Five people?” she remarked. “I should say there were more than five.”
“You’ve been very fortunate, then,” said Hirst. “Or perhaps I’ve been very unfortunate.” He became silent.
“Should you say I was a difficult kind of person to get on with?” he asked sharply.
“Most clever people are when they’re young,” Helen replied.
“And of course I am — immensely clever,” said Hirst. “I’m infinitely cleverer than Hewet. It’s quite possible,” he continued in his curiously impersonal manner, “that I’m going to be one of the people who really matter. That’s utterly different from being clever, though one can’t expect one’s family to see it,” he added bitterly.
Helen thought herself justified in asking, “Do you find your family difficult to get on with?”
“Intolerable. . . . They want me to be a peer and a privy councillor. I’ve come out here partly in order to settle the matter. It’s got to be settled. Either I must go to the bar, or I must stay on in Cambridge. Of course, there are obvious drawbacks to each, but the arguments certainly do seem to me in favour of Cambridge. This kind of thing!” he waved his hand at the crowded ballroom. “Repulsive. I’m conscious of great powers of affection too. I’m not susceptible, of course, in the way Hewet is. I’m very fond of a few people. I think, for example, that there’s something to be said for my mother, though she is in many ways so deplorable. . . . At Cambridge, of course, I should inevitably become the most important man in the place, but there are other reasons why I dread Cambridge —” he ceased.
“Are you finding me a dreadful bore?” he asked. He changed curiously from a friend confiding in a friend to a conventional young man at a party.
“Not in the least,” said Helen. “I like it very much.”
“You can’t think,” he exclaimed, speaking almost with emotion, “what a difference it makes finding someone to talk to! Directly I saw you I felt you might possibly understand me. I’m very fond of Hewet, but he hasn’t the remotest idea what I’m like. You’re the only woman I’ve ever met who seems to have the faintest conception of what I mean when I say a thing.”
The next dance was beginning; it was the Barcarolle out of Hoffman, which made Helen beat her toe in time to it; but she felt that after such a compliment it was impossible to get up and go, and, besides being amused, she was really flattered, and the honesty of his conceit attracted her. She suspected that he was not happy, and was sufficiently feminine to wish to receive confidences.
“I’m very old,” she sighed.
“The odd thing is that I don’t find you old at all,” he replied. “I feel as though we were exactly the same age. Moreover —” here he hesitated, but took courage from a glance at her face, “I feel as if I could talk quite plainly to you as one does to a man — about the relations between the sexes, about . . . and . . . ”
In spite of his certainty a slight redness came into his face as he spoke the last two words.
She reassured him at once by the laugh with which she exclaimed, “I should hope so!”
He looked at her with real cordiality, and the lines which were drawn about his nose and lips slackened for the first time.
“Thank God!” he exclaimed. “Now we can behave like civilised human beings.”
Certainly a barrier which usually stands fast had fallen, and it was possible to speak of matters which are generally only alluded to between men and women when doctors are present, or the shadow of death. In five minutes he was telling her the history of his life. It was long, for it was full of extremely elaborate incidents, which led on to a discussion of the principles on which morality is founded, and thus to several very interesting matters, which even in this ballroom had to be discussed in a whisper, lest one of the pouter pigeon ladies or resplendent merchants should overhear them, and proceed to demand that they should leave the place. When they had come to an end, or, to speak more accurately, when Helen intimated by a slight slackening of her attention that they had sat there long enough, Hirst rose, exclaiming, “So there’s no reason whatever for all this mystery!”
“None, except that we are English people,” she answered. She took his arm and they crossed the ball-room, making their way with difficulty between the spinning couples, who were now perceptibly dishevelled, and certainly to a critical eye by no means lovely in their shapes. The excitement of undertaking a friendship and the length of their talk, made them hungry, and they went in search of food to the dining-room, which was now full of people eating at little separate tables. In the doorway they met Rachel, going up to dance again with Arthur Venning. She was flushed and looked very happy, and Helen was struck by the fact that in this mood she was certainly more attractive than the generality of young women. She had never noticed it so clearly before.
“Enjoying yourself?” she asked, as they stopped for a second.
“Miss Vinrace,” Arthur answered for her, “has just made a confession; she’d no idea that dances could be so delightful.”
“Yes!” Rachel exclaimed. “I’ve changed my view of life completely!”
“You don’t say so!” Helen mocked. They passed on.
“That’s typical of Rachel,” she said. “She changes her view of life about every other day. D’you know, I believe you’re just the person I want,” she said, as they sat down, “to help me complete her education? She’s been brought up practically in a nunnery. Her father’s too absurd. I’ve been doing what I can — but I’m too old, and I’m a woman. Why shouldn’t you talk to her — explain things to her — talk to her, I mean, as you talk to me?”
“I have made one attempt already this evening,” said St. John. “I rather doubt that it was successful. She seems to me so very young and inexperienced. I have promised to lend her Gibbon.”
“It’s not Gibbon exactly,” Helen pondered. “It’s the facts of life, I think — d’you see what I mean? What really goes on, what people feel, although they generally try to hide it? There’s nothing to be frightened of. It’s so much more beautiful than the pretences — always more interesting — always better, I should say, than that kind of thing.”
She nodded her head at a table near them, where two girls and two young men were chaffing each other very loudly, and carrying on an arch insinuating dialogue, sprinkled with endearments, about, it seemed, a pair of stockings or a pair of legs. One of the girls was flirting a fan and pretending to be shocked, and the sight was very unpleasant, partly because it was obvious that the girls were secretly hostile to each other.
“In my old age, however,” Helen sighed, “I’m coming to think that it doesn’t much matter in the long run what one does: people always go their own way — nothing will ever influence them.” She nodded her head at the supper party.
But St. John did not agree. He said that he thought one could really make a great deal of difference by one’s point of view, books and so on, and added that few things at the present time mattered more than the enlightenment of women. He sometimes thought that almost everything was due to education.
In the ballroom, meanwhile, the dancers were being formed into squares for the lancers. Arthur and Rachel, Susan and Hewet, Miss Allan and Hughling Elliot found themselves together.
Miss Allan looked at her watch.
“Half-past one,” she stated. “And I have to despatch Alexander Pope to-morrow.”
“Pope!” snorted Mr. Elliot. “Who reads Pope, I should like to know? And as for reading about him — No, no, Miss Allan; be persuaded you will benefit the world much more by dancing than by writing.” It was one of Mr. Elliot’s affectations that nothing in the world could compare with the delights of dancing — nothing in the world was so tedious as literature. Thus he sought pathetically enough to ingratiate himself with the young, and to prove to them beyond a doubt that though married to a ninny of a wife, and rather pale and bent and careworn by his weight of learning, he was as much alive as the youngest of them all.
“It’s a question of bread and butter,” said Miss Allan calmly. “However, they seem to expect me.” She took up her position and pointed a square black toe.
“Mr. Hewet, you bow to me.” It was evident at once that Miss Allan was the only one of them who had a thoroughly sound knowledge of the figures of the dance.
After the lancers there was a waltz; after the waltz a polka; and then a terrible thing happened; the music, which had been sounding regularly with five-minute pauses, stopped suddenly. The lady with the great dark eyes began to swathe her violin in silk, and the gentleman placed his horn carefully in its case. They were surrounded by couples imploring them in English, in French, in Spanish, of one more dance, one only; it was still early. But the old man at the piano merely exhibited his watch and shook his head. He turned up the collar of his coat and produced a red silk muffler, which completely dashed his festive appearance. Strange as it seemed, the musicians were pale and heavy-eyed; they looked bored and prosaic, as if the summit of their desire was cold meat and beer, succeeded immediately by bed.
Rachel was one of those who had begged them to continue. When they refused she began turning over the sheets of dance music which lay upon the piano. The pieces were generally bound in coloured covers, with pictures on them of romantic scenes — gondoliers astride on the crescent of the moon, nuns peering through the bars of a convent window, or young women with their hair down pointing a gun at the stars. She remembered that the general effect of the music to which they had danced so gaily was one of passionate regret for dead love and the innocent years of youth; dreadful sorrows had always separated the dancers from their past happiness.
“No wonder they get sick of playing stuff like this,” she remarked reading a bar or two; “they’re really hymn tunes, played very fast, with bits out of Wagner and Beethoven.”
“Do you play? Would you play? Anything, so long as we can dance to it!” From all sides her gift for playing the piano was insisted upon, and she had to consent. As very soon she had played the only pieces of dance music she could remember, she went on to play an air from a sonata by Mozart.
“But that’s not a dance,” said some one pausing by the piano.
“It is,” she replied, emphatically nodding her head. “Invent the steps.” Sure of her melody she marked the rhythm boldly so as to simplify the way. Helen caught the idea; seized Miss Allan by the arm, and whirled round the room, now curtseying, now spinning round, now tripping this way and that like a child skipping through a meadow.
“This is the dance for people who don’t know how to dance!” she cried. The tune changed to a minuet; St. John hopped with incredible swiftness first on his left leg, then on his right; the tune flowed melodiously; Hewet, swaying his arms and holding out the tails of his coat, swam down the room in imitation of the voluptuous dreamy dance of an Indian maiden dancing before her Rajah. The tune marched; and Miss Allen advanced with skirts extended and bowed profoundly to the engaged pair. Once their feet fell in with the rhythm they showed a complete lack of selfconsciousness. From Mozart Rachel passed without stopping to old English hunting songs, carols, and hymn tunes, for, as she had observed, any good tune, with a little management, became a tune one could dance to. By degrees every person in the room was tripping and turning in pairs or alone. Mr. Pepper executed an ingenious pointed step derived from figure-skating, for which he once held some local championship; while Mrs. Thornbury tried to recall an old country dance which she had seen danced by her father’s tenants in Dorsetshire in the old days. As for Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, they gallopaded round and round the room with such impetuosity that the other dancers shivered at their approach. Some people were heard to criticise the performance as a romp; to others it was the most enjoyable part of the evening.
“Now for the great round dance!” Hewet shouted. Instantly a gigantic circle was formed, the dancers holding hands and shouting out, “D’you ken John Peel,” as they swung faster and faster and faster, until the strain was too great, and one link of the chain — Mrs. Thornbury — gave way, and the rest went flying across the room in all directions, to land upon the floor or the chairs or in each other’s arms as seemed most convenient.
Rising from these positions, breathless and unkempt, it struck them for the first time that the electric lights pricked the air very vainly, and instinctively a great many eyes turned to the windows. Yes — there was the dawn. While they had been dancing the night had passed, and it had come. Outside, the mountains showed very pure and remote; the dew was sparkling on the grass, and the sky was flushed with blue, save for the pale yellows and pinks in the East. The dancers came crowding to the windows, pushed them open, and here and there ventured a foot upon the grass.
“How silly the poor old lights look!” said Evelyn M. in a curiously subdued tone of voice. “And ourselves; it isn’t becoming.” It was true; the untidy hair, and the green and yellow gems, which had seemed so festive half an hour ago, now looked cheap and slovenly. The complexions of the elder ladies suffered terribly, and, as if conscious that a cold eye had been turned upon them, they began to say good-night and to make their way up to bed.
Rachel, though robbed of her audience, had gone on playing to herself. From John Peel she passed to Bach, who was at this time the subject of her intense enthusiasm, and one by one some of the younger dancers came in from the garden and sat upon the deserted gilt chairs round the piano, the room being now so clear that they turned out the lights. As they sat and listened, their nerves were quieted; the heat and soreness of their lips, the result of incessant talking and laughing, was smoothed away. They sat very still as if they saw a building with spaces and columns succeeding each other rising in the empty space. Then they began to see themselves and their lives, and the whole of human life advancing very nobly under the direction of the music. They felt themselves ennobled, and when Rachel stopped playing they desired nothing but sleep.
Susan rose. “I think this has been the happiest night of my life!” she exclaimed. “I do adore music,” she said, as she thanked Rachel. “It just seems to say all the things one can’t say oneself.” She gave a nervous little laugh and looked from one to another with great benignity, as though she would like to say something but could not find the words in which to express it. “Every one’s been so kind — so very kind,” she said. Then she too went to bed.
The party having ended in the very abrupt way in which parties do end, Helen and Rachel stood by the door with their cloaks on, looking for a carriage.
“I suppose you realise that there are no carriages left?” said St. John, who had been out to look. “You must sleep here.”
“Oh, no,” said Helen; “we shall walk.”
“May we come too?” Hewet asked. “We can’t go to bed. Imagine lying among bolsters and looking at one’s washstand on a morning like this — Is that where you live?” They had begun to walk down the avenue, and he turned and pointed at the white and green villa on the hillside, which seemed to have its eyes shut.
“That’s not a light burning, is it?” Helen asked anxiously.
“It’s the sun,” said St. John. The upper windows had each a spot of gold on them.
“I was afraid it was my husband, still reading Greek,” she said. “All this time he’s been editing Pindar.”
They passed through the town and turned up the steep road, which was perfectly clear, though still unbordered by shadows. Partly because they were tired, and partly because the early light subdued them, they scarcely spoke, but breathed in the delicious fresh air, which seemed to belong to a different state of life from the air at midday. When they came to the high yellow wall, where the lane turned off from the road, Helen was for dismissing the two young men.
“You’ve come far enough,” she said. “Go back to bed.”
But they seemed unwilling to move.
“Let’s sit down a moment,” said Hewet. He spread his coat on the ground. “Let’s sit down and consider.” They sat down and looked out over the bay; it was very still, the sea was rippling faintly, and lines of green and blue were beginning to stripe it. There were no sailing boats as yet, but a steamer was anchored in the bay, looking very ghostly in the mist; it gave one unearthly cry, and then all was silent.
Rachel occupied herself in collecting one grey stone after another and building them into a little cairn; she did it very quietly and carefully.
“And so you’ve changed your view of life, Rachel?” said Helen.
Rachel added another stone and yawned. “I don’t remember,” she said, “I feel like a fish at the bottom of the sea.” She yawned again. None of these people possessed any power to frighten her out here in the dawn, and she felt perfectly familiar even with Mr. Hirst.
“My brain, on the contrary,” said Hirst, “is in a condition of abnormal activity.” He sat in his favourite position with his arms binding his legs together and his chin resting on the top of his knees. “I see through everything — absolutely everything. Life has no more mysteries for me.” He spoke with conviction, but did not appear to wish for an answer. Near though they sat, and familiar though they felt, they seemed mere shadows to each other.
“And all those people down there going to sleep,” Hewet began dreamily, “thinking such different things — Miss Warrington, I suppose, is now on her knees; the Elliots are a little startled, it’s not often they get out of breath, and they want to get to sleep as quickly as possible; then there’s the poor lean young man who danced all night with Evelyn; he’s putting his flower in water and asking himself, ‘Is this love?’— and poor old Perrott, I daresay, can’t get to sleep at all, and is reading his favourite Greek book to console himself — and the others — no, Hirst,” he wound up, “I don’t find it simple at all.”
“I have a key,” said Hirst cryptically. His chin was still upon his knees and his eyes fixed in front of him.
A silence followed. Then Helen rose and bade them good-night. “But,” she said, “remember that you’ve got to come and see us.”
They waved good-night and parted, but the two young men did not go back to the hotel; they went for a walk, during which they scarcely spoke, and never mentioned the names of the two women, who were, to a considerable extent, the subject of their thoughts. They did not wish to share their impressions. They returned to the hotel in time for breakfast.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01