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CHAPTER XVII.—IN THE LITTLE GOLD GALLERY.
HE night for the first Dancing Assembly had come, and old Peter, John Thomas’s father and the janitor of the Assembly room, had done more work in the last week than in all the whole five months between the two seasons of social gayety. In an hour now it would be time for the guests to arrive, and, arrayed in his best coat and knee-breeches, and with nothing further to do, Peter sat on a three-legged stool at one end of the hall, surveying his work with evident satisfaction.

Presently there was the sound of several pairs of feet on the flight of stairs that led up to the Assembly rooms, and Peter, craning his neck, tried to make out who it might be without taking the trouble to get up, for his old knees were very stiff from the unwonted exertions of the week.

Who it might be was quickly determined, for in a flash there stood before him what seemed to him a veritable crowd of children, though in point of fact there were only the two Marberrys, Hazel, Starlight, and Flutters.

“What you chilluns doin’ heah? Dis heah ain’t no place fur chilluns. You better go right ‘long home agin, I reckon.”

Peter tried to speak gruffly, but they were not in the least intimidated, knowing that it was all assumed.

“Peter, we have a great favor to ask of you,”’ said Hazel, who seemed to be the ringleader of the little party.

“‘Tain’t no sort o’ use, Miss Hazel; can’t ‘low it no how;” for Peter knew well enough what the favor was; “if I let you chilluns into dat gall’ry, you’ll keep up such a snickerin’ and gigglin’, you’ll ‘sturb the whole Assembly. No, Miss Hazel; can’t t’ink of it; can’t ‘low it no how.”

“Peter,” said Hazel, looking at him very searchingly, “are you going to let anybody in there?”

“Not a soul, Miss Hazel—dat is, not a soul ‘ceptin’ my John Thomas.”

“Ah! I thought so,” said Hazel, exultingly; “and it isn’t fair, Peter, to do for Thomas what you won’t do for us. We’ve come all the way into town just to see the dancing, ‘cause mother said she was sure there wouldn’t be any objection to our peeping through the gallery railing.”

“Did she say dat, sure ‘nuff, Miss Hazel?” And Peter put his head on one side, and looked at Hazel in a very suspicious manner.

“Yes, she did,” said Tilly Marberry, coming to the rescue; “I heard her myself; and, Peter, we’ll promise not to snicker.”

“Nor giggle, either,” said Tilly’s other self.

“Which of you is which?” said Peter, slowly looking at the twins with knitted eyebrows.

“Oh, Peter, please don’t stop to bother ‘bout that now,” pleaded Hazel, impatient of any digression from the main point; “but you will let us in, won’t you?” whereupon the other children chimed in with such imploring entreaties that the old janitor relented, and, getting on to his feet with an evident twinge in his rheumatic knees, felt in his coat-tail pocket for the coveted gallery keys. The good deed had its reward then and there, in the beaming and grateful faces of the troupe of little beggars.

The gallery in question was a sort of balcony, projecting from the wall at one end of the hall, midway between floor and ceiling, and to which access was had by a steep little spiral stairway. This gallery was intended for the musicians only; but between its gilded, bulging front and the part of the platform on which they sat was a space where half a dozen children might be comfortably accommodated. More than once, when some reception or dance was in progress, Hazel, with a few chosen friends in her train, had begged her way into this most desirable retreat, and that was why Peter knew “what was up” the moment he saw her.

When they entered the little gallery, they found John Thomas there before them, complacently installed in the most desirable place; but they were far too thankful to have gotten in at all to grudge him his privileged position.

It was a funny sight to see the little company established in a row behind the heavy gilded stucco work, which completely concealed them, yet offered such convenient little loop-holes and crannies, from which everything going on on the floor below could be plainly viewed. To be sure, the arrangement of the platform obliged them all to sit tailor fashion—rather a constrained position for those unaccustomed to it—but what did it matter about one’s legs and back when one’s eyes were to be feasted with lovely ladies and gallant gentlemen and the music they were to dance to would be ringing in one’s ears.

“Doesn’t the hall look lovely?” said Hazel, when at last she had adjusted her lower extremities as comfortably as circumstances would admit.

“Lovely!” answered the Marberrys, each with a sigh of deep appreciation, for it had not been an easy thing for them to gain permission to accompany Hazel, and this was to be their first introduction to the glories of a dancing assembly.

“How everything shines!” said Flutters, quite lost in admiration of the glittering brass sconces, with their bevelled mirrors and beautiful red candles, and wondering greatly how any floor could ever be brought to such a high state of polish.

“‘Course it shines,” said John Thomas. “It ought to shine. My father hasn’t been reachin’ and rubbin’, and kneelin’ and polishin’ fur free weeks fur nuffin, I reckon.”

“Did you help him?” asked Flutters, with admiration.



0149

“No, sah, I did not. I hasn’t no time for polishin’. I assists in Colonel Hamilton’s law office,” and John Thomas proudly drew himself up till his woolly head grazed the ridge of the gallery rail above him.

“What,” said Starlight’, “are you the boy in Colonel Hamilton’s office?”

“I assists Colonel Hamilton,” John Thomas repeated, not being willing to bring himself down to Starlight’s offensive way of putting things.

“Yes, I’ve heard about you!’ said Starlight, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“W’at you heard, I’d like to know!”

“John Thomas,” came a voice from below, “don’t let me hear anoder word from you dis ebenin’, else home you go to mammy right smart, I can tell you, and de oder chiliuns long wid you too.” Old Peter had shambled out to the middle of the floor to take one more satisfactory view of things in general, and just in time to hear John Thomas’s excited tones. His words had the desired effect; the little gallery instantly relapsed into absolute silence, the six children fairly holding their breath for fear of the threatened banishment. People were beginning to come now. A few gentlemen were already on the floor, and the musicians, who had taken their places on the gallery platform, were drawing instruments, which would look funny enough to-day, from the depths of clumsy green baize bags, and beginning to “tune up.”

“Tell me w’at you heard?” demanded John Thomas of Starlight, as soon as he dared to speak again.

“Oh, John Thomas, please don’t!” begged Milly Marberry, putting her little hand most beseechingly on his sleeve; “we’ve never been to an Assembly before. We’d cry our eyes out if your father sent us home.”

John Thomas yielded to this entreaty, but sullenly, as though he meant to have it out with Starlight some day or other. Any slur upon his character was just one thing that that young gentleman was determined not to endure, and the sooner Job Starlight and the rest of the world came to that wise conclusion, why, so much the better for everybody concerned—at least, so thought john Thomas.

It was a pity that at the commencement of the Assembly Hazel, Milly, and Tilly could not have been in two places at once, for while only an occasional couple strolled on to the dancing floor, the dressing-rooms were crowded. There would have been a peculiar pleasure for those little lovers of finery to see the pretty toilets gradually emerge from the concealment of long cloaks and shawls, and to have studied the charming vanities of peak-toed, high-heeled little slippers as the protecting pattens were shaken off into the hands of maids, upon their knees before their “ladies.” But at last the Assembly floor offered more attractions than the dressing-room, and a long line of couples, constantly reinforced by new arrivals, were promenading in stately fashion around the hall.

“There come the Van Vleets,” exclaimed Starlight, as Miss Francesca and Miss Heide entered, each on the arm of an escort.

“And if there isn’t Miss Pauline,” whispered Tilly Marberry; “does she dance?”

“Dance!” said Starlight; “well, I guess you’ll think so when you see her. She’s just as graceful as a fairy.”

“She’s just as queer as a fairy, too,” remarked Flutters. “I wouldn’t care to be the one to dance with her; there’d be no telling what she might fly off and do next.”

“It’s very distressing about Miss Pauline,” said Hazel, reprovingly; “and, Flutters, you have no occasion to speak like that.” Hazel always seemed to be specially successful in mustering large words when she felt called upon to administer any reproof to this little servant of hers.

“No occasion!” said Flutters, significantly, for the recollection of an apple-tree and a crying maiden was not so far removed as to lose any of its poignancy.

“What do you mean?” questioned Hazel, with a puzzled frown.

“Oh, nothing particular,” Flutters said, quickly, seeing what an explanation might lead up to, and then he succeeded in changing the subject by announcing the arrival of Captain and Mrs. Boniface.

“Oh, doesn’t mamma look lovely!” and Hazel’s happy little face flushed with pride.

“Yes; and just look at Josephine!” sighed the Marberrys, simultaneously, for those little women were so overcharged with delight as scarce to be able either to speak or breathe in quite regular and commonplace fashion.

“Ah! she’s the girl,” said Starlight, who, whether from honest admiration or a spirit of mischief, never lost an opportunity for extolling the virtues and attractions of Hazel’s older sister.

“And she’s drawn Harry Avery,” added Hazel, for once in her life adroit enough not to betray any annoyance; “I don’t believe she minds, either.”

“Well, Harry doesn’t mind, I know that much. Shouldn’t wonder myself if he managed to have it come that way.” Starlight evidently spoke from knowledge of facts, for, like as not, Cousin Harry had foolishly taken that small boy somewhat into his confidence.

This “drawing” that Hazel spoke of was a queer custom of the olden days. Partners for the evening were chosen by lot; they danced, walked, and chatted with no one else, and when the dancing was over partook together of such modest refreshment as rusks and tea. This arrangement was most advantageous for the young ladies who were not specially attractive, for by means of it the fairest and the plainest were treated exactly alike. Now, for all this information, and much more beside, as I told you in the preface, we are indebted to that delightful first chapter of Mr. McMasters’s History; but although you may not be old enough to care to read that chapter for yourself, nor half old enough to be allowed to attend a Dancing Assembly, nor fortunate enough to gain entrance to a little mid-air gallery, where you could watch all the fine goings on unobserved, yet I believe you are quite old enough to understand one thing—and that is that the pleasure of those old-time assemblies must have depended altogether upon the partner that fell to one’s lot. A wretched sort of a time, or an indifferent sort of a time, or a very good time indeed—all lay within the possibilities of that one little chance. So do you wonder very much, or do you blame them very much, if those old-fashioned beaux, with their powdered hair, velvet knee breeches, and silver shoe-buckles, “sometimes managed things,” as Starlight said? At any rate, Harry Avery was supremely happy to have Josephine Boniface fall to his lot, and if he hadn’t been guilty of “managing things” at all, why, all that remains to be said is that he was a very lucky fellow. Miss Pauline formed the only exception to this rigidly observed rule, as it was always an understood thing that her brother Hans should be her partner, but being, as Starlight said, “as graceful as a fairy,” and quite as light on her feet, it often happened that some friend of the Van Fleets would beg a dance of Pauline, and give the faithful brother a chance for “a turn” with his partner in exchange.

“Why, there’s Aunt Frances,” exclaimed Starlight, suddenly spying her seated in a chair at the farther corner of the room. “Did she come in with the Van Vleets?”

“Yes, I think so; and doesn’t she look a picture!” said Hazel, fairly feasting her eyes upon that much-loved lady. “And her dress, girls! isn’t it lovely!” and Hazel, in her eagerness, gave Tilly Mar-berry, who sat next to her, a good hard hug. “When I am forty or fifty, or whatever age Aunt Frances is, I shall wear black velvet and soft old lace about my neck just like that. Now I shouldn’t wonder”—Hazel spoke slowly, as if really giving the matter most thoughtful consideration—“I shouldn’t wonder if Aunt Frances was as pretty as Josephine when she was a real young lady.”

“I half believe I think she’s as pretty now,” answered Starlight, notwithstanding his constant championship of Josephine’s superior charms.

“Who’s she talking to, Starlight?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Starlight.

“Why, dat’s Major Potter, a lawyer what practices down our way,” volunteered John Thomas, “and dere! dere comes my Colonel and Lady Hamilton. Isn’t she a booty? Where’s your Aunt Frances now, Mars Starlight?”

“Just where she was before, John Thomas, the loveliest-looking lady in the room. Lady Hamilton is very handsome, though.”

“Handsome! well, you’d better believe it; and de Colonel! now jus’ look at him, chilluns. Isn’t he just too elegant! He jus’ ought to be a king, Colonel Hamilton ought ter, and he’s dat kind, he wouldn’t speak cross to de laziest pickaninny in de land.”

“Then I suppose he never speaks cross to you, John Thomas,” said Hazel, significantly.

“Dere ain’t neber no ‘casion, Miss Hazel,” and John Thomas looked as though he considered her remark altogether uncalled for.

“Ain’t dere neber no ‘casion?” asked Starlight, perfectly imitating the darkey dialect. “How ‘bout dat mornin’ when you upset de trash basket in de middle of de office flo’?”

“Dat mornin’ was a ‘ception, Mars Starlight, and it seems to me your cousin, Mr. Avery, might fin’ somethin’ better to talk ‘bout dan to be detailin’ de little events of de office.”

It was great fun to hear John Thomas go on in this fashion. He had the reputation of being the most amusing little darkey in the city, and when they were not completely absorbed in watching the dancing, Hazel and Starlight managed between them to keep him “going,” to the delighted amusement of the Marberrys.

Meantime the minute hand of the great white-faced clock at the end of the hall was marking quarter to eight in no uncertain characters, and Hazel had faithfully promised that at eight o’clock her little party should turn their backs on the festivities, no matter how alluring and absorbing they might happen to be at that particular moment. But it sometimes happens that matters of considerable importance come to pass within the limits of fifteen minutes—often, in fact, in much shorter time than that, and this was true of the particular fifteen minutes in question.

And now, as this is already a pretty long chapter, I propose that we stop right where we are, make a new one, and call it——


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