BEING A CHAPTER OF HOOPS, FEATHERS, AND BRILLIANTS, AND BUCKS AND FIDDLERS.
It was a mighty grand affair, this ball of the Royal Irish Artillery. General Chattesworth had arrived that morning, just in time to preside over the hospitalities—he could not contribute much to the dancing—and his advent, still a little lame, but looking, as his friends told him, ten years younger for his snug little fit of the gout at Buxton, reinstated Aunt Becky in her place of power, to the secret disappointment of Madame Strafford, who had set her heart on doing the honours, and rehearsed for weeks, over her toilet, and even in bed, her little speeches, airs, and graces.
Lord Castlemallard was there, of course—and the gay and splendid Lady Moira—whom I mention because General Chattesworth opened the ball in a minuet with her ladyship—hobbling with wonderful grace, and beaming with great ceremonious smiles through his honourable martyrdom. But there were more than a score of peers there beside, with their peeresses in tall feathers, diamonds, and monstrous hoops. And the lord lieutenant was very near coming—and a lord lieutenant in those days, with a parliament to open, and all the regalia of his office about him, was a far greater personage than, in our democratic age, the sovereign in person.
Captain Cluffe had gone down in a chair to Puddock's lodgings, to borrow a pair of magnificent knee-buckles. Puddock had a second pair, and Cluffe's own had not, he thought, quite recovered their good looks since that confounded ducking on the night of the serenade. The gallant captain, learning that Puddock and Devereux intended walking—it was only a step across to the barrack-yard—and finding that Puddock could not at the moment lay his hand upon the buckles, and not wishing to keep the chair longer—for he knew delay would inflame the fare, and did not like dispensing his shillings—
'Hey! walk? I like the fancy,' cried the gay captain, sending half-a-crown down stairs to his 'two-legged ponies,' as people pleasantly called them. 'I'd rather walk with you than jog along in a chair by myself, my gay fellows, any day.'
Most young fellows of spirit, at the eve of a ball, have their heads pretty full. There is always some one bright particular star to whom, even as they look on their own handsome features in the mirror, their adoration is paid.
Puddock's shoe-buckles flashed for Gertrude Chattesworth, as he turned out his toes. For her his cravat received its last careless touch—his ruffles shook themselves, and fell in rich elegance about his plump little hands. For her his diamond ring gleamed like a burning star from his white little finger; and for her the last fragrance was thrown over his pocket-handkerchief, and the last ogle thrown upon his looking-glass. All the interest of his elaborate toilet—the whole solemn process and detail—was but a worship of his divinity, at which he officiated. Much in the same way was Cluffe affected over his bedizenment in relation to his own lady-love; but in a calmer and more long-headed fashion. Devereux's toilet most of the young fellows held to be perfection; yet it seemed to trouble him less than all the rest. I believe it was the elegant and slender shape that would have set off anything, and that gave to his handsome costume and 'properties' an undefinable grace not their own. Indeed, as he leaned his elbow upon the window sash, looking carelessly across the river, he did not seem much to care what became of the labours of his toilet.
'I have not seen her since I came; and now I'm going to this stupid ball on the chance of meeting her there. And she'll not come—she avoids me—the chance of meeting her—and she'll not come. Well! if she be not kind to me, what care I for whom she be? And what great matter, after all, if she were there. She'd be, I suppose, on her high horse—and—and 'tis not a feather to me. Let her take her own way. What care I? If she's happy, why shouldn't I—why shouldn't I?'
Five minutes after:—
'Who the plague are these fellows in the Phoenix? How the brutes howl over their liquor!' said Devereux, as he and Puddock, at the door-steps, awaited Cluffe, who was fixing his buckles in the drawing-room.
'The Corporation of Tailors,' answered Puddock, a little loftily, for he was not inwardly pleased that the precincts of the 'Phoenix' should be profaned by their mechanical orgies.
Through the open bow window of the great oak parlour of the inn was heard the mighty voice of the president, who was now in the thick of his political toasts.
'Odds bud!' lisped little Puddock, 'what a stentorian voice!'
'Considering it issues from a tailor!' acquiesced Devereux, who thought he recognised the accents, and hated tailors, who plagued him with long bills and dangerous menaces.
'May the friends of the Marquis of Kildare be ever blessed with the tailor's thimble,' declaimed the portentous toast master. 'May the needle of distress be ever pointed at all mock patriots; and a hot needle and a burning thread to all sewers of sedition!' and then came an applauding roar.
'And may you ride into town on your own goose, with a hot needle behind you, you roaring pigmy!' added Devereux.
'The Irish cooks that can't relish French sauce!' enunciated the same grand voice, that floated, mellowed, over the field.
'Sauce, indeed!' said Puddock, with an indignant lisp, as Cluffe, having joined them, they set forward together; 'I saw some of them going in, Sir, and to look at their vulgar, unthinking countenances, you'd say they had not capacity to distinguish between the taste of a quail and a goose; but, by Jove! Sir, they have a dinner. You're a politician, Cluffe, and read the papers. You remember the bill of fare—don't you?—at the Lord Mayor's entertainment in London.'
Cluffe, whose mind was full of other matters, nodded his head with a grunt.
'Well, I'll take my oath,' pursued Puddock, 'you couldn't have made a better dinner at the Prince of Travendahl's table. Spanish olea, if you please—ragou royal, cardoons, tendrons, shellfish in marinade, ruffs and rees, wheat-ears, green morels, fat livers, combs and notts. 'Tis rather odd, Sir, to us who employ them, to learn that our tailors, while we're eating the dinners we do—our tailors, Sir, are absolutely gorging themselves with such things—with our money, by Jove!'
'Yours, Puddock, not mine,' said Devereux. 'I haven't paid a tailor these six years. But, hang it, let's get on.'
So, in they walked by the barrack-yard, lighted up now with a splendid red blaze of torches, and with different emotions, entered the already crowded ball-room.
Devereux looked round the room, among nodding plumes and flashing brilliants, and smirking old bucks, and simpering young ones, amidst the buzz of two or three hundred voices, and the thunder and braying of the band. There were scores of pretty faces there—blondes and brunettes—blue eyes and brown—and more spirit and animation, and, I think, more grace too, in dance and talk, than the phlegmatic affectation of modern days allows; and there were some bright eyes that, not seeming to look, yet recognised, with a little thrill at the heart, and a brighter flush, the brilliant, proud Devereux—so handsome, so impulsive, so unfathomable—with his gipsy tint, and great enthusiastic eyes, and strange melancholy, sub-acid smile. But to him the room was lifeless, and the hour was dull, and the music but a noise and a jingle.
'I knew quite well she wasn't here, and she never cared for me, and I—why should I trouble my head about her? She makes her cold an excuse. Well, maybe yet she'll wish to see Dick Devereux, and I far away. No matter. They've heard slanders of me, and believe them. Amen, say I. If they're so light of faith, and false in friendship to cast me off for a foul word or an idle story—curse it—I'm well rid of that false and foolish friendship, and can repay their coldness and aversion with a light heart, a bow, and a smile. One slander I'll refute—yes—and that done, I'll close this idle episode in my cursed epic, and never, never think of her again.'
But fancy will not be controlled by resolutions, though ne'er so wise and strong, and precisely as the captain vowed 'never'—away glided that wild, sad sprite across the moonlit river, and among the old black elms, and stood unbidden beside Lilias. Little Lily, as they used to call her five years ago; and Devereux, who seemed to look so intently and so strangely on the flash and whirl of the dancers, saw but an old fashioned drawing-room, with roses clustering by the windows, and heard the sweet rich voice, to him the music of Ariel, like a far-off dirge—a farewell—sometimes a forgiveness—and sometimes the old pleasant talk and merry little laugh, all old remembrances or vain dreams now.
But Devereux had business on his hands that night, and about eleven o'clock he had disappeared. 'Twas easy to go and come in such a crowd, and no one perceive it.
But Puddock was very happy and excited. Mervyn, whom he had once feared, was there, a mere spectator, however, to witness that night's signal triumph. He had never danced so much with Miss Gertrude before, that is to say, at a great ball like this at which there was a plenty of bucks with good blood and lots of money; and indeed, it seemed to favour the idea of his success that Aunt Rebecca acknowledged him only with a silent and by no means gracious courtesy.
She was talking to Toole about Lilias, and saying how much better she had looked that evening.
'She's not better, Ma'am; I'd rather she hadn't the bright flush you speak of, there's something, you see, not quite right in that left lung, and that bright tint, Madam, is hectic—she's not better, Madam, not that we don't hope to see her so—Heaven forbid—but 'tis an anxious case;' and Toole shook his head gravely.
When Aunt Becky was getting on her hood and mantle, she invariably fell into talk with some crony who had a story to tell, or a point to discuss. So as she stood listening to old Colonel Bligh's hard, reedy gabble, and popping in her decisive word now and then, Gertrude, equipped for the night air, and with little Puddock for her escort, glided out and took her place in the great state coach of the Chattesworths, and the door being shut, she made a little nod and a faint smile to her true knight, and said with the slightest possible shrug—
'How cold it is to-night; my aunt, I think, will be obliged for your assistance, Lieutenant Puddock; as for me, I must shut up my window and wish you good-night.'
And with another smile she accordingly shut up the window, and when his best bow was accomplished, she leaned back with a pale and stricken countenance, and a great sigh—such a one as caused Lady Macbeth's physician, long ago, to whisper, 'What a sigh is there! the heart is sorely charged.' The footmen were standing by the open door, through which Aunt Becky was to come, and there were half a dozen carriages crowded side by side, the lackeys being congregated, with links lighted, about the same place of exit; and things being so, there came a small sharp tapping at the far window of the carriage, and with a start Gertrude saw the identical mantle, and the three-cocked-hat with the peculiar corners, which had caused certain observers so much speculation on another night, and drawing close to the window, whereat this apparition presented itself, she let it down.
'I know, beloved Gertrude, what you would say,' he softly said; 'but be it frenzy or no, I cannot forbear; I am unalterable—be you the same.'
A white, slender hand glided in and seized hers, not resisting.
'Yes, Mordaunt, the same; but, oh! how miserable!' said Gertrude, and with just the slightest movement in the fingers of her small hand, hardly perceptible, and yet how fond a caress!
'I'm like a man who has lost his way among the catacombs—among the dead,' whispered this muffled figure, close to the window, still fervently holding her hand, 'and sees at last the distant gleam that shows him that his wanderings are to end. Yes, Gertrude, my beloved—yes, Gertrude, idol of my solitary love—the mystery is about to end—I'll end it. Be I what I may you know the worst, and have given me your love and troth—you are my affianced bride; rather than lose you, I would die; and I think, or I am walking in a dream, I've but to point my finger against two men, and all will be peace and light—light and peace—to me long strangers!'
At this moment Aunt Becky's voice was heard at the door, and the flash of the flambeaux glared on the window. He kissed the hand of the pale girl hurriedly, and the French cocked-hat and mantle vanished.
In came Aunt Rebecca in a fuss, and it must be said in no very gracious mood, and rather taciturn and sarcastic; and so away they rumbled over the old bridge towards Belmont.