Penelope's English Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part First--In Town.
Chapter XI. The ball on the opposite side.
We are all three rather tired this morning,--Salemina, Francesca, and I,--for we went to one of the smartest balls of the London season last night, and were robbed of half our customary allowance of sleep in consequence.
It may be difficult for you to understand our weariness, when I confess that the ball was not quite of the usual sort; that we did not dance at all; and, what is worse, that we were not asked, either to tread a measure, or sit out a polka, or take 'one last turn.'
To begin at the beginning, there is a large vacant house directly opposite Smith's Private Hotel, and there has been hanging from its balcony, until very lately, a sign bearing the following notice:-
THESE COMMANDING PREMISES WITH A SUPERFICIAL AREA OF 10,000 FT. AND 50 FT. FRONTAGE TO DOVERMARLE ST. WILL BE SOLD BY AUCTION ON TUESDAY, JUNE 28TH, BY MESSRS. SKIDDY, YADDLETHORPE AND SKIDDY LAND AGENTS AND SURVEYORS 27 HASTINGS PLACE, PALL MALL.
A few days ago, just as we were finishing a late breakfast, an elderly gentleman drove up in a private hansom, and alighted at this vacant house on the opposite side. Behind him, in a cab, came two men, who unlocked the front door, went in, came out on the balcony, cut the wires supporting the sign, took it down, opened all the inside shutters, and disappeared through some rear entrance. The elderly gentleman went upstairs for a moment, came down again, and drove away.
"The house has been sold, I suppose," said Salemina; "and for my part I envy the new owner his bargain. He is close to Piccadilly, has that bit of side lawn with the superb oak-tree, and the duke's beautiful gardens so near that they will seem virtually his own when he looks from his upper windows."
At tea-time the same elderly gentleman drove up in a victoria, with a very pretty young lady.
"The plot thickens," said Francesca, who was nearest the window. "Do you suppose she is his bride-elect, and is he showing her their future home, or is she already his wife? If so, I fear me she married him for his title and estates, for he is more than a shade too old for her."
"Don't be censorious, child," I remonstrated, taking my cup idly across the room, to be nearer the scene of action. "Oh, dear! there is a slight discrepancy, I confess, but I can explain it. This is how it happened: The girl had never really loved, and did not know what the feeling was. She did know that the aged suitor was a good and worthy man, and her mother and nine small brothers and sisters (very much out at the toes) urged the marriage. The father, too, had speculated heavily in consorts or consuls, or whatever-you-call- 'ems, and besought his child not to expose his defalcations and losses. She, dutiful girl, did as she was bid, especially as her youngest sister came to her in tears and said, 'Unless you consent we shall have to sell the cow!' So she went to the altar with a heart full of palpitating respect, but no love to speak of; that always comes in time to heroines who sacrifice themselves and spare the cows."
"It sounds strangely familiar," remarked Mr. Beresford, who was with us, as usual. "Didn't a fellow turn up in the next chapter, a young nephew of the old husband, who fell in love with the bride, unconsciously and against his will? Wasn't she obliged to take him into the conservatory, at the end of a week, and say, 'G-go! I beseech you! for b-both our sakes!'? Didn't the noble fellow wring her hand silently, and leave her looking like a broken lily on the-"
"How can you be so cynical, Mr. Beresford? It isn't like you!" exclaimed Salemina. "For my part, I don't think the girl is either his bride or his fiancee. Probably the mother of the family is dead, and the father is bringing his eldest daughter to look at the house: that's my idea of it."
This theory being just as plausible as ours, we did not discuss it, hoping that something would happen to decide the matter in one way or another.
"She is not married, I am sure," went on Salemina, leaning over the back of my chair. "You notice that she hasn't given a glance at the kitchen or the range, although they are the most important features of the house. I think she may have just put her head inside the dining-room door, but she certainly didn't give a moment to the butler's pantry or the china closet. You will find that she won't mount to the fifth floor to see how the servants are housed,--not she, careless, pretty creature; she will go straight to the drawing- room."
And so she did; and at the same instant a still younger and prettier creature drove up in a hansom, and was out of it almost before the admiring cabby could stop his horse or reach down for his fare. She flew up the stairway and danced into the drawing-room like a young whirlwind; flung open doors, pulled up blinds with a jerk, letting in the sunlight everywhere, and tiptoed to and fro over the dusty floors, holding up her muslin flounces daintily.
"This must be the daughter of his first marriage," I remarked.
"Who will not get on with the young stepmother," finished Mr. Beresford.
"It is his youngest daughter," corrected Salemina,--"the youngest daughter of his only wife, and the image of her deceased mother, who was, in her time, the belle of Dublin."
She might well have been that, we all agreed; for this young beauty was quite the Irish type, such black hair, grey-blue eyes, and wonderful lashes, and such a merry, arch, winsome face, that one loved her on the instant.
She was delighted with the place, and we did not wonder, for the sunshine, streaming in at the back and side windows, showed us rooms of noble proportions opening into one another. She admired the balcony, although we thought it too public to be of any use save for flowering plants; she was pleased with a huge French mirror over the marble mantle; she liked the chandeliers, which were in the worst possible taste; all this we could tell by her expressive gestures; and she finally seized the old gentleman by the lapels of his coat and danced him breathlessly from the fireplace to the windows and back again, while the elder girl clapped her hands and laughed.
"Isn't she lovely?" sighed Francesca, a little covetously, although she is something of a beauty herself.
"I am sorry that her name is Bridget," said Mr. Beresford.
"For shame!" I cried indignantly. "It is Norah, or Veronica, or Geraldine, or Patricia; yes, it is Patricia,--I know it as well as if I had been at the christening.--Dawson, take the tea-things, please; and do you know the name of the gentleman who has bought the house on the opposite side?"
"It is Lord Brighton, miss." (You would never believe it, but we find the name is spelled Brighthelmston.) "He hasn't bought the 'ouse; he has taken it for a week, and is giving a ball there on the Tuesday evening. He has four daughters, miss, and two h'orphan nieces that generally spends the season with 'im. It's the youngest daughter he is bringing out, that lively one you saw cutting about just now. They 'ave no ballroom, I expect, in their town 'ouse, which accounts for their renting one for this occasion. They stopped a month in this 'otel last year, so I have the honour of m'luds acquaintance."
"Lady Brighthelmston is not living, I should judge," remarked Salemina, in the tone of one who thinks it hardly worth while to ask.
"Oh, yes, miss, she's alive and 'earty; but the daughters manages everythink, and what they down't manage the h'orphan nieces does. The 'ouse is run for the young ladies, but m'ludanlady seems to enjoy it."
Dovermarle Street was so interesting during the next few days that we could scarcely bear to leave it, lest something exciting should happen in our absence.
"A ball is so confining!" said Francesca, who had come back from the corner of Piccadilly to watch the unloading of a huge van, and found that it had no intention of stopping at Number Nine on the opposite side.
First came a small army of charwomen, who scrubbed the house from top to bottom. Then came men with canvas for floors, bronzes and jardinieres and somebody's family portraits from an auction-room, chairs and sofas and draperies from an upholsterer's.
The night before the event itself I announced my intention of staying in our own drawing-room the whole of the next day. "I am more interested in Patricia's debut," I said, "than anything else that can possibly happen in London. What if it should be wet, and won't it be annoying if it is a cold night and they draw the heavy curtains close together?"
But it was beautiful day, almost too warm for a ball, and the heavy curtains were not drawn. The family did not court observation; it was serenely unconscious of such a thing. As to our side of the street, I think we may have been the only people at all interested in the affair now so imminent. The others had something more sensible to do, I fancy, than patching up romances about their neighbours.
At noon the florists decorated the entrance with palms, covered the balcony with a gay awning, and hung the railing with brilliant masses of scarlet and yellow flowers. At two the caterers sent silver, tables, linen, and dishes, and a Broadwood grand piano was installed; but at half-past seven, when we sat down to dinner, we were a trifle anxious, because so many things seemed yet to do before the party could be a complete success.
Mr. Beresford and his mother were dining with us, and we had sent invitations to our London friends, the Hon. Arthur Ponsonby and Bertie Godolphin, to come later in the evening. These read as follows:-
Private View The pleasure of your company is requested at the coming-out party of The Hon. Patricia Brighthelmston July --- 189- On the opposite side of the street. Dancing about 10-30. 9 Dovermarle Street.
At eight o'clock, as we were finishing our fish course, which chanced to be fried sole, the ball began literally to roll, and it required the greatest ingenuity on Francesca's part and mine to be always down in our seats when Dawson entered with the dishes, and always at the window when he was absent.
An enormous van had appeared, with half a dozen men walking behind it. In a trice, two of them had stretched a wire trellis across one wall of the drawing-room, and two more were trailing roses from floor to ceiling. Others tied the dark wood of the stair railing with tall Madonna lilies; then they hung garlands of flowers from corner to corner and, alas! could not refrain from framing the mirror in smilax, nor from hanging the chandeliers with that same ugly, funereal, and artificial-looking vine,--this idea being the principal stock-in-trade of every florist in the universe.
We could not catch even a glimpse of the supper-rooms, but we saw a man in the fourth story front room filling dozens of little glass vases, each with its single malmaison, rose, or camellia, and despatching them by an assistant to another part of the house; so we could imagine from this the scheme of decoration at the tables.--No, not new, perhaps, but simple and effective.
By the time we had finished our entree, which happened to be lamb cutlets and green peas, and had begun our roast, which was chicken and ham, I remember, they had put wreaths at all the windows, hung Japanese lanterns on the balcony and in the oak-tree, and transformed the house into a blossoming bower.
At this exciting juncture Dawson entered unexpectedly with our sweet, and for the first and only time caught us literally 'red- handed.' Let British subjects be interested in their neighbours, if they will (and when they refrain I am convinced that it is as much indifference as good breeding), but let us never bring our country into disrepute with an English butler! As there was not a single person at the table when Dawson came in, we were obliged to say that we had finished dinner, thank you, and would take coffee; no sweet to-night, thank you.
Willie Beresford was the only one who minded, but he rather likes cherry tart. It simply chanced to be cherry tart, for our cook at Smith's Private Hotel is a person of unbridled fancy and endless repertory. She sometimes, for example, substitutes rhubarb for cherry tart quite out of her own head; and when balked of both these dainties, and thrown absolutely on her own boundless resources, will create a dish of stewed green gooseberries and a companion piece of liquid custard. These unrelated concoctions, when eaten at the same moment, as is her intention, always remind me of the lying down together of the lion and the lamb, and the scheme is well-nigh as dangerous, under any other circumstances than those of the digestive millennium. I tremble to think what would ensue if all the rhubarb and gooseberry bushes in England should be uprooted in a single night. I believe that thousands of cooks, those not possessed of families or Christian principles, would drown themselves in the Thames forthwith, but that is neither here nor there, and the Honourable Arthur denies it. He says, "Why commit suicide? Ain't there currants?"
I had forgotten to say that we ourselves were all en grande toilette, down to satin slippers, feeling somehow that it was the only proper thing to do; and when Dawson had cleared the table and ushered in the other visitors, we ladies took our coffee and the men their cigarettes to the three front windows, which were open as usual to our balcony.
We seated ourselves there quite casually, as is our custom, somewhat hidden by the lace draperies and potted hydrangeas, and whatever we saw was to be seen by any passer-by, save that we held the key to the whole story, and had made it our own by right of conquest.
Just at this moment--it was quarter-past nine, although it was still bright daylight--came a little procession of servants who disappeared within the doors, and, as they donned caps and aprons, would now and then reappear at the windows. Presently the supper arrived. We did not know the number of invited guests (there are some things not even revealed to the Wise Woman), but although we were a trifle nervous about the amount of eatables, we were quite certain that there would be no dearth of liquid refreshment.
Contemporaneously with the supper came a four-wheeler with a man and a woman in it.
Sal. "I wonder if that is Lord and Lady Brighthelmston?"
Mrs. B. "Nonsense, my dear; look at the woman's dress."
W.B. "It is probably the butler, and I have a premonition that that is good old Nurse with him. She has been with family ever since the birth of the first daughter twenty-four years ago. Look at her cap ribbons; note the fit of the stiff black silk over her comfortable shoulders; you can almost hear her creak in it!"
B.G. "My eye! but she's one to keep the goody-pot open for the youngsters! She'll be the belle of the ball so far as I'm concerned."
Fran. "It's impossible to tell whether it's the butler or paterfamilias. Yes, it's the butler, for he has taken off his coat and is looking at the flowers with the florist's assistant."
B.G. "And the florist's assistant is getting slated like one o'clock! The butler doesn't like the rum design over the piano; no more do I. Whatever is the matter with them now?"
They were standing with their faces towards us, gesticulating wildly about something on the front wall of the drawing-room; a place quite hidden from our view. They could not decide the matter, although the butler intimated that it would quite ruin the ball, while the assistant mopped his brow and threw all the blame on somebody else. Nurse came in, and hated whatever it was the moment her eye fell on it. She couldn't think how anybody could abide it, and was of the opinion that his ludship would have it down as soon as he arrived.
Our attention was now distracted by the fact that his ludship did arrive. It was ten o'clock, but barely dark enough yet to make the lanterns effective, although they had just been lighted.
There were two private carriages and two four-wheelers, from which paterfamilias and one other gentleman alighted, followed by a small feminine delegation.
"One young chap to brace up the gov'nor," said Bertie Godolphin. "Then the eldest daughter is engaged to be married; that's right; only three daughters and two h'orphan nieces to work off now!"
As the girls scampered in, hidden by their long cloaks, we could not even discover the two we already knew. While they were divesting themselves of their wraps in an upper chamber, Nurse hovering over them with maternal solicitude, we were anxiously awaiting their criticisms of our preparations.