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CHAPTER V.
"AND THE CHILD-CHEEK BLUSHING SCARLET FOR THE VERY SHAME OF BLISS."

People who were familiar with the Talbot Hotel, Lostwithiel, in its everyday aspect would hardly have recognized the old-fashioned hostelry to-night, under the transforming hand of the Hunt Club, with Lord Lostwithiel and Vansittart Crowther on the committee. The entrance hall, usually remarkable only for various cases of stuffed birds, and a monster salmon—caught in the Lerrin river in some remote period of history—was now a bower of crimson cloth and white azaleas. In the ball-room and ante-room, tea-room and supper-room, were more flowers, and more crimson cloth, while on every side brushes and vizards against the crimson and white panelling testified to the occasion. The dancing-room was very full when Mrs. Baynham's party made their entrance, the matron in her historical black velvet—which had formed part of her trousseau thirteen years before, when she left the family residence in the chief street of Truro, and all those privileges which appertained to her as the only daughter of a provincial banker, to grace Dr. Baynham's lowlier dwelling. The black velvet gown had been "let out" from time to time, as youth expanded into maturity: and there had been a new bodice and a real Maltese lace flounce within the last three years, which constituted a second incarnation; and Mrs. Baynham walked into the Talbot ball-room with the serene demeanour that goes with a contented mind. She was satisfied with herself, and she was proud of her party, the two fresh, rosy-cheeked girls in sky-blue tulle, Isola, looking like a Mary lily in her white satin raiment, and the village surgeon, who always looked his best in his dress clothes, newly-shaven, and, as it were, pulled together in honour of the occasion.

The room was full, and very full; but Lostwithiel was not there. Isola had an instinctive consciousness that he was[Pg 62] missing in that brilliant crowd. People came buzzing round her, and she was made room for upon a raised bench opposite the gallery where a military band was playing a polka in which the brasses predominated to an ear-splitting extent.

The Glenaveril party made their entrance ten minutes later. The Crowther girls were not afraid of wanting partners. Most young men are glad to dance with half a million of money. There is always an off chance of a good thing, just as there is a chance of breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. Belinda looked superb in a cloud of tulle, like a goddess. Alicia looked too well on horseback to look well off. Her spare straight figure and sharp elbows were not at their best in evening dress. She wore black, and an infinity of bugles, and flashed and glittered more than any one else in the room, though she wore never a jewel.

"Worth, my dear," said Mrs. Baynham to a blue niece, in a mysterious whisper; "I know his style."

There was a buzz of conversation on that raised divan where the matrons were sitting with those newly arrived maidens who were like ships waiting to slide out of their cradles and float away to sea. Isola and the sky-blue nieces had not long to wait; especially Isola. Men were entreating the stewards to introduce them to that lovely fragile-looking creature in white satin—the best men in the neighbourhood, or those wandering stars from distant counties, or the London galaxy, "men with handles to their names," as Mr. Baynham told Mrs. Crowther, resplendent in salmon brocade, and Venetian point.

"My presentation gown," she informed the doctor's wife; "the Court mantle is ruby velvet, lined with salmon satin. The weight of it almost pulled me backwards when I curtsied to the royalties—such a lot of them, and I'm afraid I curtsied rather too low to one of the Princesses, for I caught her taking me off when she returned my curtsy."

Isola danced through the lancers as one in a dream. When the heart of a man is oppressed with care, "Ta-rarra, ta-rarra, ta-rà, ta-rà!" What foolishness it all seemed.[Pg 63] And her husband in Burmah, hemmed round by murderous dacoits!

She went back to her seat among the matrons, after almost curtly refusing either refreshment or a promenade through the rooms. Mrs. Crowther was saying solemnly, "I do believe Lord Lostwithiel is not coming after all, and yet he worked so hard on the committee, my husband said, and took such pains about the flowers, and what not."

The tall, slim figure cut its way through the crowd two or three minutes later, and Lostwithiel was standing in front of Isola, and the two matrons.

He wore a pink coat, as became a member of the Lostwithiel Hunt, and the vivid colour accentuated the pallor of his long thin face. He talked to all the ladies on the divan; to the sky-blue nieces even, hoping that their cards were full.

"If not, I must bring you some men I know," he said. "You mustn't miss a dance."

They blushed and trembled with delight, never before having been thus familiarly addressed by a peer of the realm. He asked Isola for her programme, with well-simulated indifference, yet with that air of profound respect with which he talked to all women.

"I hope you can spare me some waltzes," he said.

"She is only just come," said Mrs. Baynham.

"And yet her card is almost full. People have been very officious. Here is a poor little waltz—number seven. May I have that, and number eleven, and number——"

"Please don't put down your name for anything later than number eleven. I shall be gone long before those late dances."

"Oh, surely, you don't mean to desert us early. Remember this is the one festive occasion of our lives as a sporting community. All our other meetings are given up to carking care, financial difficulties, and squabbling. I shall put down my name in these tempting blanks, and if you disappoint me—well—it will only be like my previous experiences as a fox-hunter."

[Pg 64]

He gave her back her programme, with all the blanks filled in, and at the bottom a word written, and triply underscored,

?ΝΑΓΚΗ.

They had talked of Victor Hugo's romantic story—that romance which the great man so despised in after years that he was almost offended if any one presumed to praise it in his hearing, although in the half-century that has gone since Victor Hugo was a young man this story of Notre Dame has been unsurpassed as an example of the romantic novel. Lostwithiel had praised the book, and had talked of the monk Frollo, and his fatal love—and that word Fatality, graven upon the wall of his cell, and burnt into his soul.

Isola knew what those Greek letters meant. She dropped the little white and gold programme as if it had been an adder. He went away to a duty dance with a great lady of the district—a lady whose diamonds made a light about her wherever she moved; and then he waltzed with Belinda Crowther, to the admiration of the young lady's mother, and of two or three other matrons on the divan by the door. Were they not a splendid couple, she so brilliantly fair, he dark and pale, bronzed slightly with exposure to the sun in warmer climates than this—not positively handsome, but with such an interesting countenance. So, and so, and so prosed the matrons, until various middle-aged cavaliers came to invite them to the tea-room, where there was the usual drawback in the shape of a frightful draught from open windows, which the dancers, coming in flushed and heated, voted delicious.

"This will be a good night's work for me," said Dr. Baynham, cheerfully, although he considered it his duty to warn his patients of their danger.

Conscience thus satisfied, he could look on complacently as they eat ices, and selected cool corners of the refreshment-room to flirt in.

"Next to a juvenile party, I don't know anything better—from a professional point of view—than a public ball," he[Pg 65] said. "Your canvas corridors, decorated with flowers and bunting, are a fortune to a family practitioner."

Isola danced every dance. She hardly knew who her partners were. She had only a sense of floating in a vortex of light and colour, to some swinging melody. Everything was dream-like—but not horrible, as in her dream by the fireside at home. This was a happy dream, as of a creature with wings, who knew not of care in the present or a soul to be saved in the future. And then came her waltz with Lostwithiel, and that strong arm was round her, bearing her up as a flower is borne upon a rushing tide, so that she had no consciousness of movement on her own part, only of floating, floating, floating, to that languid three-time melody.

It was the last popular waltz they were playing—a waltz that had been last summer's delight in the arid gardens of South Kensington—"Il n'y a que toi;" a waltz with a chorus which the band trolled out merrily, at intervals, in the French of Stratford atte Bow.

"Il n'y a que toi," whispered Lostwithiel, with his lips close to the soft brown hair above the white forehead. "Not a bad name for a waltz when one is waltzing with just one person in the world."

Out in the cool night there was a little knot of people as merry after their homelier fashion as town and county in the ball-room. One of the windows had been opened at the top for ventilation, and this opening had been turned to advantage. A large, substantial kitchen table had been placed in front of the window, and upon this improvised platform stood Tabitha, Susan, the head chamber-maid, and the ostler's wife—this last on sufferance, and evidently not in society—looking on at the ball. The window was under a verandah, that sloped above these spectators' heads. They were thus in dense shadow, and unseen by the occupants of the lamp-lit room.

Susan was exuberant in her delight.

"I was never at a ball before," she said. "Oh, ain't it[Pg 66] lovely? Don't I wish I could dance like that? Lor, do look at that fat old party, spinning round like a teetotum! Well, I never did! Don't she perspire!" exclaimed Susan, indulging in a running commentary which left much to be desired in the matter of refinement.

This unsophisticated damsel heartily admired youth and beauty, and the smart frocks and flashing gems; but she was cruelly hard upon those dancers whose charms were on the wane, or whose frocks were inferior or ugly.

"Well, I wouldn't," said Susan, "I wouldn't go to a ball like this if I couldn't have everythink nice. Look at that tall girl in yeller. Did you ever see such a scarecrow? I'd ever so much rather stay at home, or stand outside, like this. I should feel it better became me."

Tabitha made no such remarks. She was singularly silent and thoughtful, as she stood looking down at the crowded room from her point of vantage on the kitchen table. She had only eyes for one figure—the willowy form in the glistening white satin gown, with the feathery Japanese chrysanthemums, a little crushed and faded by this time; or perhaps it may be said for two figures, since one followed the other as the shadow follows the substance. She saw them waltzing together, when supper was in full progress, and the room comparatively clear. She saw the graceful head inclining towards his shoulder, the slender waist held in his firm embrace; and it seemed to her that the waltz was an invention of the Arch Enemy. She thought of it very much as people thought seventy years ago when Byron wrote his poetical denunciation of the new dance. She saw those two moving slowly towards an adjacent ante-room, where banks of flowers, and a couple of sofas and low easy-chairs made a retreat which was half boudoir, half conservatory. She saw them moving side by side, talking to each other in tones so confidential that his head bent low over hers each time she spoke; and then she watched them sitting just within the doorway, at an angle where she could see their faces, and attitudes, still in the same confidential converse, she with downcast eyes,[Pg 67] and he leaning forward with his elbow on his knee, and looking up at her as he talked.

"It is too bad of him," muttered Tabitha, writhing at that spectacle. "Does he think what a child she is, and what harm he may be doing? It is wicked of him, and he knows it; and other people must notice them—other people must see what I see—and they will be talking of her, blighting her good name. Oh, if I could only get her away at once before people begin to notice her!"

She could see her young mistress's face distinctly in the lamplight. Isola was very pale, and her face was full of trouble; not the face of a woman amusing herself with an idle flirtation, playing with fire without the least intention of burning her fingers. There were plenty of flirtations of that order going on in the Talbot ball-room; but this was not one of them. This meant peril of some kind. This was all evil. That pale face, those heavy eyelids, shrouding eyes which dared not look up. That tremulous, uncertain movement of the snowy ostrich fan! All these were danger signals.

"If I get her safe at home presently, I'll open her eyes for her," thought Tabitha. "I'll talk to her as if I was her mother. God knows I should be almost as sorry as ever her mother could be if she came to any harm."

If she came to any harm. What harm was there to fear for her, as she sat there, with Lostwithiel lounging across the low chair beside the sofa where she sat, leaning forward to look into her downcast face? What harm could come to her except that which meant destruction—death to peace, and gladness, and womanly fame? If there were danger it was a desperate danger, and Tabitha shuddered at the mere thought of that peril.

"But, lor, she's little more than a child," mused Tabitha. "She means no wrong, and she knows no wrong. She's too innocent to come to any harm."

Yet in the landlady's snuggery, by-and-by, seated at the comfortable round table, with its spotless damask and bright[Pg 68] glass and silver, Tabitha was quite unable to do justice to that snack which Mr. Tinkerly had ordered in her honour—a chicken and lobster-salad from the supper-room, and three parts of a pine-apple cream. Susan and the foreman fully appreciated these dainties; but Tabitha only munched a crust and sipped a tumbler of beer.

"I'm a little bit out of sorts to-night," she said.

"I hope you haven't taken cold, Mrs. Thomas," said the polite Tinkerly. "Perhaps we ought to have brought another rug?"

"No, it isn't that. I've been quite warm and comfortable. Eat your supper, Mr. Tinkerly, and don't bother about me. I've been interested in looking on, and I'm too much took up with what I've seen to be able to eat."

"Well, it was a pretty sight," exclaimed Tinkerly, enthusiastically; "but I don't think I ever saw such a mort of plain women in my life."

"Lor, Mr. Tinkerly," cried Susan, with a shocked air. "Why, look at our young mistress, and at Miss Crowther, and Miss Spenthrop from Truro, and Mrs. Pencarrow, and Lady Chanderville."

"Well, I don't say they're all ugly. Some of 'em are handsome enough, and there's plenty of thorough-breds among 'em, but there's a sight of plain-headed ones. There's quite as much beauty in your spear as there is among the county folks, Miss Susan. I'll answer for that."

The night was waning. Isola had ordered her carriage for half-past two: but three o'clock had struck from the church tower of Lostwithiel, and the dance was still at its height—at its best, the dancers said, now that the sensual attractions of the supper-room drew off a good many people, and left the floor so much clearer than before supper, when bulky middle-aged gentlemen, talking to the matrons seated upon the divan, had projected their ponderous persons into the orbit of the waltzers.

Isola and Lostwithiel had danced only two waltzes, but[Pg 69] since two o'clock they had sat out several dances, Mrs. Disney having cancelled all her engagements after that hour by declaring that she would dance no more.

"I am dreadfully tired," she told her partners piteously, and her pallor gave force to the assertion. "Please get some one else for our dance, Captain Morshead," and so on, and so on, to half a dozen disappointed suitors.

Perhaps some of those who happened to be experienced in such complications may have divined which way the wind blew, for no one offered to sit out the promised dances, and Isola and Lostwithiel were left pretty much to themselves among the palms and orange-trees in the ante-room. They were not unobserved, however; and among the eyes which marked them with no friendly notice were the fine, steel-blue eyes of Miss Crowther.

"Is that a flirtation?" she asked Captain Morshead, glancing in the direction of the ante-room where those two were sitting, as she and Isola's cast-off partner waltzed past the muslin-draped doorway.

"They seem rather fond of talking to each other, don't they? Who was she? She's uncommonly pretty."

"Oh, her people were army, I believe—as poor as church mice—buried alive in Dinan."

"At Dinan—and now she lives at Trelasco, she tells me. It seems scarcely worth while to have exhumed her in order to bury her again. Such a girl as that ought to be in London enjoying life."

"Oh, but she's a grass widow, don't you know. Her husband is in Burmah. I don't think it's quite nice in her to be here to-night; only as my too good-natured mother sent her a ticket, I suppose I oughtn't to say anything about it. Perhaps if mother sees the way she goes on with Lord Lostwithiel she'll rather regret that ticket."

What was Lostwithiel saying all this time in that gentle baritone, which was heard only by one listener? He was asking forgiveness for his indiscretion of the afternoon, and[Pg 70] in that prayer for pardon was repeating his offence. Isola was less inclined to be angry, perhaps, now. The magic of the dance was still upon her senses, the dance which had brought them nearer than all the days they had met; than all their long confidential conversations on the heights above the harbour, or on the river path, or dawdling on the bridge. She had felt the beating of his heart against her own, breath mingling with breath, the thrilling touch of his encircling arm; and it was as if he had woven a spell around her which made her his. She had never danced with her husband, who had no love of that heathenish art. In all their brisk, frank courtship there had been no intoxicating hours. She hardly knew what dancing meant till she waltzed with Lostwithiel, who had something of the fiery ardour of a Pagan worshipping his gods in wild gyrations upon moonlit mountain or in secret cave. She let him talk to her to-night—let him pour out the full confession of his unhappy love. He spoke not as one who had hope; not with that implied belief in her frailty which would have startled her into prompt resistance. His accents were the accents of despair, his love was a dark fatality.

?ΝΑΓΚΗ

"Why did you write that word?" she asked.

"Why? Because I could not give you back that card without some token of my passion—with only commonplace entries which Jones, Brown, and Robinson might write there. I want you to feel that you belong to me, somehow, in some way, as the spirits of the dead and the souls of the living belong to each other sometimes, by links which none can see. When I am at the other end of the earth I want to feel that there is something, if it were only a word, like a masonic sign, between us; if it were only a promise that in such or such a phase of the waning moon we would each look up and breathe the other's name."

"You are going away?"

"What else can I do? Can I stay? You tell me I made[Pg 71] you miserable by what I said this afternoon. That means we must meet no more. I can't be sorry for my offence. I cannot answer for myself. My love has passed the point of sanity and self-control. I have no option. I must offend you, or I must leave you."

"You need not leave Trelasco," she said gently. "I am going away to-morrow."

"Going away! Where?"

"To London first, and then to India."

"To Burmah? Impossible!"

"If not to the front, to the nearest convenient station. I am going to my husband; as nearly as I can reach him; and as quickly as I can make the journey."

"You are dreaming."

"No, I have quite made up my mind. I hated to be left behind last year; and now that his return is deferred my only chance of happiness is to go to him. Some one called me a grass widow the other day. What a detestable name!"

"Give me this one waltz?" he asked, without any comment upon her intended journey.

"Impossible. I told them all I shouldn't dance any more."

"Oh, your partners are all in the supper-room, I dare say. The dancing men go in last. Hark! it's the Myosotis. Just one turn—only one."

He had risen from his low seat, and she rose involuntarily at the sound of the opening bars. He put his arm round her gently, and drew her into the ball-room, waltzing slowly as they went, and then, with the sudden impetus of an enthusiastic dancer, he was whirling her round the room, and she know nothing, cared for nothing, in the confusion of light and melody.

"Think of me sometimes when you are far away!" he whispered, with his lips almost touching her forehead.

She did not resent that whisper. Already, within a dozen hours of his first offence, she had grown accustomed[Pg 72] to his words of love. It seemed to her as if they had loved each other for years—had loved and had despaired long ago, in some dim half-remembered past. A passion of this kind is like a dream, in which an instant gives the impression of half a lifetime, of long memories and old habit.

The room was much clearer now.

"Is it very late?" asked Isola.

"About four."

"So late—and I told the flyman half-past two. It is dreadful. Let us stop, please."

He obeyed, and went with her towards the cloak-room. The seats were nearly empty now where the matrons had sat in their velvet and brocade, a gorgeous background to the clouds of tulle and sylph-like figures of the dancers. Mrs. Baynham was nowhere to be seen, and the diminished bundles of tabby-cat cloaks and Shetland shawls in the cloak-room indicated that a good many people had left. Isola put on her soft white shawl hurriedly, and went out into the hall, where Lostwithiel had gone to look for her carriage.

People were going away very fast, and through the open doorway there was a sound of voices and wheels; but, in spite of footmen, constables, and hangers-on, there seemed a prodigious difficulty in getting any particular carriage to the door.

It was a mild, misty night, and the moon, which had been counted on for the return home, was hidden behind a mass of black clouds—or in the expressive phraseology of one of the foxhunters, had gone to ground. Mrs. Disney waited near the door while Lostwithiel searched for her fly. There were several departures of other muffled figures, features undistinguishable behind Shetland wraps, or furry hoods, as the men hustled their womenkind into the carriages. It seemed an age to Isola, waiting there alone in the corridor, and seeing no mortal whom she knew among those passersby, before Lostwithiel came, hurried and breathless, to say that her carriage was just coming up to the door.

[Pg 73]

"Wrap your shawl round your head," he said quickly, as he gave her his arm. "There's a nasty damp fog—so," muffling her, almost to blindness. "Come along."

She looked at the carriage, with its lamps shining red against the grey mistiness like great fiery eyes, and then, glancing at the horse, she cried suddenly, "I'm afraid that's the wrong fly. I think mine had a grey horse."

"No, no, it's all right. Pray don't loiter in this chilling air."

The carriage door was open, the constable standing by, bull's-eye in hand, a pair of horses snorting close behind, another carriage coming up so near that the pole threatened destruction. There was no time for loitering. Everybody was in a hurry to get home. Isola stepped lightly into the brougham, which drove slowly off.

"Next carriage, Mrs. Brune Prideaux," roared the constable. "Mrs. Prideaux' carriage stops all the way."


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