They danced. Mr. Dowling should have found other forms of exercise and pastime.
Nature has not designed everyone for dancing, though sometimes those she has denied are the last to discover her niggardliness. But the round young man was at least vigorous enough—too much so, when his knees collided with Alice's—and he was too sturdy to be thrown off his feet, himself, or to allow his partner to fall when he tripped her. He held her up valiantly, and continued to beat a path through the crowd of other dancers by main force.
He paid no attention to anything suggested by the efforts of the musicians, and appeared to be unaware that there should have been some connection between what they were doing and what he was doing; but he may have listened to other music of his own, for his expression was of high content; he seemed to feel no doubt whatever that he was dancing. Alice kept as far away from him as under the circumstances she could; and when they stopped she glanced down, and found the execution of unseen manoeuvres, within the protection of her skirt, helpful to one of her insteps and to the toes of both of her slippers.
Her cheery partner was paddling his rosy brows with a fine handkerchief. “That was great!” he said. “Let's go out and sit in the corridor; they've got some comfortable chairs out there.”
“Well—let's not,” she returned. “I believe I'd rather stay in here and look at the crowd.”
“No; that isn't it,” he said, chiding her with a waggish forefinger. “You think if you go out there you'll miss a chance of someone else asking you for the next dance, and so you'll have to give it to me.”
“How absurd!” Then, after a look about her that revealed nothing encouraging, she added graciously, “You can have the next if you want it.”
“Great!” he exclaimed, mechanically. “Now let's get out of here—out of THIS room, anyhow.”
“Why? What's the matter with——”
“My mother,” Mr. Dowling explained. “But don't look at her. She keeps motioning me to come and see after Ella, and I'm simply NOT going to do it, you see!”
Alice laughed. “I don't believe it's so much that,” she said, and consented to walk with him to a point in the next room from which Mrs. Dowling's continuous signalling could not be seen. “Your mother hates me.”
“Oh, no; I wouldn't say that. No, she don't,” he protested, innocently. “She don't know you more than just to speak to, you see. So how could she?”
“Well, she does. I can tell.”
A frown appeared upon his rounded brow. “No; I'll tell you the way she feels. It's like this: Ella isn't TOO popular, you know—it's hard to see why, because she's a right nice girl, in her way—and mother thinks I ought to look after her, you see. She thinks I ought to dance a whole lot with her myself, and stir up other fellows to dance with her—it's simply impossible to make mother understand you CAN'T do that, you see. And then about me, you see, if she had her way I wouldn't get to dance with anybody at all except girls like Mildred Palmer and Henrietta Lamb. Mother wants to run my whole programme for me, you understand, but the trouble of it is—about girls like that, you see well, I couldn't do what she wants, even if I wanted to myself, because you take those girls, and by the time I get Ella off my hands for a minute, why, their dances are always every last one taken, and where do I come in?”
Alice nodded, her amiability undamaged. “I see. So that's why you dance with me.”
“No, I like to,” he protested. “I rather dance with you than I do with those girls.” And he added with a retrospective determination which showed that he had been through quite an experience with Mrs. Dowling in this matter. “I TOLD mother I would, too!”
“Did it take all your courage, Frank?”
He looked at her shrewdly. “Now you're trying to tease me,” he said. “I don't care; I WOULD rather dance with you! In the first place, you're a perfectly beautiful dancer, you see, and in the second, a man feels a lot more comfortable with you than he does with them. Of course I know almost all the other fellows get along with those girls all right; but I don't waste any time on 'em I don't have to. I like people that are always cordial to everybody, you see—the way you are.”
“Thank you,” she said, thoughtfully.
“Oh, I MEAN it,” he insisted. “There goes the band again. Shall we?”
“Suppose we sit it out?” she suggested. “I believe I'd like to go out in the corridor, after all—it's pretty warm in here.”
Assenting cheerfully, Dowling conducted her to a pair of easy-chairs within a secluding grove of box-trees, and when they came to this retreat they found Mildred Palmer just departing, under escort of a well-favoured gentleman about thirty. As these two walked slowly away, in the direction of the dancing-floor, they left it not to be doubted that they were on excellent terms with each other; Mildred was evidently willing to make their progress even slower, for she halted momentarily, once or twice; and her upward glances to her tall companion's face were of a gentle, almost blushing deference. Never before had Alice seen anything like this in her friend's manner.
“How queer!” she murmured.
“What's queer?” Dowling inquired as they sat down.
“Who was that man?”
“Haven't you met him?”
“I never saw him before. Who is he?”
“Why, it's this Arthur Russell.”
“What Arthur Russell? I never heard of him.” Mr. Dowling was puzzled. “Why, THAT'S funny! Only the last time I saw you, you were telling me how awfully well you knew Mildred Palmer.”
“Why, certainly I do,” Alice informed him. “She's my most intimate friend.”
“That's what makes it seem so funny you haven't heard anything about this Russell, because everybody says even if she isn't engaged to him right now, she most likely will be before very long. I must say it looks a good deal that way to me, myself.”
“What nonsense!” Alice exclaimed. “She's never even mentioned him to me.”
The young man glanced at her dubiously and passed a finger over the tiny prong that dashingly composed the whole substance of his moustache.
“Well, you see, Mildred IS pretty reserved,” he remarked. “This Russell is some kind of cousin of the Palmer family, I understand.”
“Yes—second or third or something, the girls say. You see, my sister Ella hasn't got much to do at home, and don't read anything, or sew, or play solitaire, you see; and she hears about pretty much everything that goes on, you see. Well, Ella says a lot of the girls have been talking about Mildred and this Arthur Russell for quite a while back, you see. They were all wondering what he was going to look like, you see; because he only got here yesterday; and that proves she must have been talking to some of 'em, or else how——”
Alice laughed airily, but the pretty sound ended abruptly with an audible intake of breath. “Of course, while Mildred IS my most intimate friend,” she said, “I don't mean she tells me everything—and naturally she has other friends besides. What else did your sister say she told them about this Mr. Russell?”
“Well, it seems he's VERY well off; at least Henrietta Lamb told Ella he was. Ella says——”
Alice interrupted again, with an increased irritability. “Oh, never mind what Ella says! Let's find something better to talk about than Mr. Russell!”
“Well, I'M willing,” Mr. Dowling assented, ruefully. “What you want to talk about?”
But this liberal offer found her unresponsive; she sat leaning back, silent, her arms along the arms of her chair, and her eyes, moist and bright, fixed upon a wide doorway where the dancers fluctuated. She was disquieted by more than Mildred's reserve, though reserve so marked had certainly the significance of a warning that Alice's definition, “my most intimate friend,” lacked sanction. Indirect notice to this effect could not well have been more emphatic, but the sting of it was left for a later moment. Something else preoccupied Alice: she had just been surprised by an odd experience. At first sight of this Mr. Arthur Russell, she had said to herself instantly, in words as definite as if she spoke them aloud, though they seemed more like words spoken to her by some unknown person within her: “There! That's exactly the kind of looking man I'd like to marry!”
In the eyes of the restless and the longing, Providence often appears to be worse than inscrutable: an unreliable Omnipotence given to haphazard whimsies in dealing with its own creatures, choosing at random some among them to be rent with tragic deprivations and others to be petted with blessing upon blessing.
In Alice's eyes, Mildred had been blessed enough; something ought to be left over, by this time, for another girl. The final touch to the heaping perfection of Christmas-in-everything for Mildred was that this Mr. Arthur Russell, good-looking, kind-looking, graceful, the perfect fiance, should be also “VERY well off.” Of course! These rich always married one another. And while the Mildreds danced with their Arthur Russells the best an outsider could do for herself was to sit with Frank Dowling—the one last course left her that was better than dancing with him.
“Well, what DO you want to talk about?” he inquired.
“Nothing,” she said. “Suppose we just sit, Frank.” But a moment later she remembered something, and, with a sudden animation, began to prattle. She pointed to the musicians down the corridor. “Oh, look at them! Look at the leader! Aren't they FUNNY? Someone told me they're called 'Jazz Louie and his half-breed bunch.' Isn't that just crazy? Don't you love it? Do watch them, Frank.”
She continued to chatter, and, while thus keeping his glance away from herself, she detached the forlorn bouquet of dead violets from her dress and laid it gently beside the one she had carried.
The latter already reposed in the obscurity selected for it at the base of one of the box-trees.
Then she was abruptly silent.
“You certainly are a funny girl,” Dowling remarked. “You say you don't want to talk about anything at all, and all of a sudden you break out and talk a blue streak; and just about the time I begin to get interested in what you're saying you shut off! What's the matter with girls, anyhow, when they do things like that?”
“I don't know; we're just queer, I guess.”
“I say so! Well, what'll we do NOW? Talk, or just sit?”
“Suppose we just sit some more.”
“Anything to oblige,” he assented. “I'm willing to sit as long as you like.”
But even as he made his amiability clear in this matter, the peace was threatened—his mother came down the corridor like a rolling, ominous cloud. She was looking about her on all sides, in a fidget of annoyance, searching for him, and to his dismay she saw him. She immediately made a horrible face at his companion, beckoned to him imperiously with a dumpy arm, and shook her head reprovingly. The unfortunate young man tried to repulse her with an icy stare, but this effort having obtained little to encourage his feeble hope of driving her away, he shifted his chair so that his back was toward her discomfiting pantomime. He should have known better, the instant result was Mrs. Dowling in motion at an impetuous waddle.
She entered the box-tree seclusion with the lower rotundities of her face hastily modelled into the resemblance of an over-benevolent smile a contortion which neglected to spread its intended geniality upward to the exasperated eyes and anxious forehead.
“I think your mother wants to speak to you, Frank,” Alice said, upon this advent.
Mrs. Dowling nodded to her. “Good evening, Miss Adams,” she said. “I just thought as you and Frank weren't dancing you wouldn't mind my disturbing you——”
“Not at all,” Alice murmured.
Mr. Dowling seemed of a different mind. “Well, what DO you want?” he inquired, whereupon his mother struck him roguishly with her fan.
“Bad fellow!” She turned to Alice. “I'm sure you won't mind excusing him to let him do something for his old mother, Miss Adams.”
“What DO you want?” the son repeated.
“Two very nice things,” Mrs. Dowling informed him. “Everybody is so anxious for Henrietta Lamb to have a pleasant evening, because it's the very first time she's been anywhere since her father's death, and of course her dear grandfather's an old friend of ours, and——”
“Well, well!” her son interrupted. “Miss Adams isn't interested in all this, mother.”
“But Henrietta came to speak to Ella and me, and I told her you were so anxious to dance with her——”
“Here!” he cried. “Look here! I'd rather do my own——”
“Yes; that's just it,” Mrs. Dowling explained. “I just thought it was such a good opportunity; and Henrietta said she had most of her dances taken, but she'd give you one if you asked her before they were all gone. So I thought you'd better see her as soon as possible.”
Dowling's face had become rosy. “I refuse to do anything of the kind.”
“Bad fellow!” said his mother, gaily. “I thought this would be the best time for you to see Henrietta, because it won't be long till all her dances are gone, and you've promised on your WORD to dance the next with Ella, and you mightn't have a chance to do it then. I'm sure Miss Adams won't mind if you——”
“Not at all,” Alice said.
“Well, I mind!” he said. “I wish you COULD understand that when I want to dance with any girl I don't need my mother to ask her for me. I really AM more than six years old!”
He spoke with too much vehemence, and Mrs. Dowling at once saw how to have her way. As with husbands and wives, so with many fathers and daughters, and so with some sons and mothers: the man will himself be cross in public and think nothing of it, nor will he greatly mind a little crossness on the part of the woman; but let her show agitation before any spectator, he is instantly reduced to a coward's slavery. Women understand that ancient weakness, of course; for it is one of their most important means of defense, but can be used ignobly.
Mrs. Dowling permitted a tremulousness to become audible in her voice. “It isn't very—very pleasant—to be talked to like that by your own son—before strangers!”
“Oh, my! Look here!” the stricken Dowling protested. “I didn't say anything, mother. I was just joking about how you never get over thinking I'm a little boy. I only——”
Mrs. Dowling continued: “I just thought I was doing you a little favour. I didn't think it would make you so angry.”
“Mother, for goodness' sake! Miss Adams'll think——”
“I suppose,” Mrs. Dowling interrupted, piteously, “I suppose it doesn't matter what I think!”
Alice interfered; she perceived that the ruthless Mrs. Dowling meant to have her way. “I think you'd better go, Frank. Really.”
“There!” his mother cried. “Miss Adams says so, herself! What more do you want?”
“Oh, gracious!” he lamented again, and, with a sick look over his shoulder at Alice, permitted his mother to take his arm and propel him away. Mrs. Dowling's spirits had strikingly recovered even before the pair passed from the corridor: she moved almost bouncingly beside her embittered son, and her eyes and all the convolutions of her abundant face were blithe.
Alice went in search of Walter, but without much hope of finding him. What he did with himself at frozen-face dances was one of his most successful mysteries, and her present excursion gave her no clue leading to its solution. When the musicians again lowered their instruments for an interval she had returned, alone, to her former seat within the partial shelter of the box-trees.
She had now to practice an art that affords but a limited variety of methods, even to the expert: the art of seeming to have an escort or partner when there is none. The practitioner must imply, merely by expression and attitude, that the supposed companion has left her for only a few moments, that she herself has sent him upon an errand; and, if possible, the minds of observers must be directed toward a conclusion that this errand of her devising is an amusing one; at all events, she is alone temporarily and of choice, not deserted. She awaits a devoted man who may return at any instant.
Other people desired to sit in Alice's nook, but discovered her in occupancy. She had moved the vacant chair closer to her own, and she sat with her arm extended so that her hand, holding her lace kerchief, rested upon the back of this second chair, claiming it. Such a preemption, like that of a traveller's bag in the rack, was unquestionable; and, for additional evidence, sitting with her knees crossed, she kept one foot continuously moving a little, in cadence with the other, which tapped the floor. Moreover, she added a fine detail: her half-smile, with the under lip caught, seemed to struggle against repression, as if she found the service engaging her absent companion even more amusing than she would let him see when he returned: there was jovial intrigue of some sort afoot, evidently. Her eyes, beaming with secret fun, were averted from intruders, but sometimes, when couples approached, seeking possession of the nook, her thoughts about the absentee appeared to threaten her with outright laughter; and though one or two girls looked at her skeptically, as they turned away, their escorts felt no such doubts, and merely wondered what importantly funny affair Alice Adams was engaged in. She had learned to do it perfectly.
She had learned it during the last two years; she was twenty when for the first time she had the shock of finding herself without an applicant for one of her dances. When she was sixteen “all the nice boys in town,” as her mother said, crowded the Adamses' small veranda and steps, or sat near by, cross-legged on the lawn, on summer evenings; and at eighteen she had replaced the boys with “the older men.” By this time most of “the other girls,” her contemporaries, were away at school or college, and when they came home to stay, they “came out”—that feeble revival of an ancient custom offering the maiden to the ceremonial inspection of the tribe. Alice neither went away nor “came out,” and, in contrast with those who did, she may have seemed to lack freshness of lustre—jewels are richest when revealed all new in a white velvet box. And Alice may have been too eager to secure new retainers, too kind in her efforts to keep the old ones. She had been a belle too soon.
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