Penelope's English Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part First--In Town.
Chapter XII. Patricia makes her debut.
For three days we had been overseeing the details. Would they approve the result? Would they think the grand piano in the proper corner? Were the garlands hung too low? Was the balcony scheme effective? Was our menu for the supper satisfactory? Were there too many lanterns? Lord and Lady Brighthelmston had superintended so little, and we so much, that we felt personally responsible.
Now came musicians with their instruments. The butler sent four melancholy Spanish students to the balcony, where they began to tune mandolins and guitars, while an Hungarian band took up its position, we conjectured, on some extension or balcony in the rear, the existence of which we had not guessed until we heard the music later. Then the butler turned on the electric light, and the family came into the drawing-rooms.
They did admire them as much as we could wish, and we, on our part, thoroughly approved of the family. We had feared it might prove dull, plain, dowdy, though wellborn, with only dear Patricia to enliven it; but it was well-dressed, merry, and had not a thought of glancing at the windows or pulling down the blinds, bless its simple heart!
The mother entered first, wearing a grey satin gown and a diamond crown that quite established her position in the great world. Then girls, and more girls: a rose-pink girl, a pale green, a lavender, a yellow, and our Patricia, in a cloud of white with a sparkle of silver, and a diamond arrow in her lustrous hair.
What an English nosegay they made, to be sure, as they stood in the back of the room while paterfamilias approached, and calling each in turn, gave her a lovely bouquet from a huge basket held by the butler.
Everybody's flowers matched everybody's frock to perfection; those of the h'orphan nieces were just as beautiful as those of the daughters, and it is no wonder that the English nosegay descended upon paterfamilias, bore him into the passage, and if they did not kiss him soundly, why did he come back all rosy and crumpled, smoothing his dishevelled hair, and smiling at Lady Brighthelmston? We speedily named the girls Rose, Mignonette, Violet, and Celandine, each after the colour of her frock.
"But there are only five, and there ought to be six," whispered Salemina, as if she expected to be heard across the street.
"One--two--three--four--five, you are right," said Mr. Beresford. "The plainest of the lot must be staying in Wales with a maiden aunt who has a lot of money to leave. The old lady isn't so ill that they can't give the ball, but just ill enough so that she may make her will wrong if left alone; poor girl, to be plain, and then to miss such a ball as this,--hello! the first guest! He is on time to be sure; I hate to be first, don't you?"
The first guest was a strikingly handsome fellow, irreproachably dressed and unmistakably nervous.
"He is afraid he is too early!"
"He is afraid that if he waits he'll be too late!"
"He doesn't want the driver to stop directly in front of the door."
"He has something beside him on the seat of the hansom."
"The tissue paper has blown off: it is flowers."
"It is a piece! Jove, this is a rum ball!"
"What is the thing? No wonder he doesn't drive up to the door and go in with it!"
"It is a harp, as sure as I am alive!"
Then electrically from Francesca, "It is Patricia's Irish lover! I forget his name."
"Hush!" she exclaimed at this chorus of Hibernian Christian names, "it is Patricia's undeclared impecunious lover. He is afraid that she won't know his gift is a harp, and afraid that the other girls will. He feared to send it, lest one of the sisters or h'orphan nieces should get it; it is frightful to love one of six, and the cards are always slipping off, and the wrong girl is always receiving your love-token or your offer of marriage."
"And if it is an offer, and the wrong woman gets it, she always accepts, somehow," said Mr. Beresford; "It's only the right one who declines!" and here he certainly looked at me pointedly.
"He hoped to arrive before any one else," Francesca went on, "and put the harp in a nice place, and lead Patricia up to it, and make her wonder who sent it. Now poor dear (yes, his name is sure to be Terence), he is too late, and I am sure he will leave it in the hansom, he will be so embarrassed."
And so he did, but alas! the driver came back with it in an instant, the butler ran down the long path of crimson carpet that covered the sidewalk, the first footman assisted, the second footman pursued Terence and caught him on the staircase, and he descended reluctantly, only to receive the harp in his arms and send a tip to the cabman, whom of course he was cursing in his heart.
"I can't think why he should give her a harp," mused Bertie Godolphin. "Such a rum thing, a harp, isn't it? It's too heavy for her to 'tote,' as you say in the States."
"Yes, we always say 'tote,' particularly in the North," I replied; "but perhaps it is Patricia's favourite instrument. Perhaps Terence first saw her at the harp, and loved her from the moment he heard her sing the 'Minstrel Boy' and the 'Meeting of the Waters.'"
"Perhaps he merely brought it as a sort of symbol," suggested Mr. Beresford; "a kind of flowery metaphor signifying that all Ireland, in his person, is at her disposal, only waiting to be played upon."
"If that is what he means, he must be a jolly muff," remarked the Honourable Arthur. "I should think he'd have to send a guidebook with the bloomin' thing."
We never knew how Terence arranged about the incubus; we only saw that he did not enter the drawing room with it in his arms. He was well received, although there was no special enthusiasm over his arrival; but the first guest is always at a disadvantage.
He greeted the young ladies as if he were in the habit of meeting them often, but when he came to Patricia, well, he greeted her as if he could never meet her often enough; there was a distinct difference, and even Mrs. Beresford, who had been incredulous, succumbed to our view of the case.
Patricia took him over to the piano to see the arrangement of some lilies. He said they were delicious, but looked at her.
She asked him if he did not think the garlands lovely.
He said, "Perfectly charming," but never lifted his eyes higher than her face.
"Do you like my dress?" her glance seemed to ask.
"Wonderful!" his seemed to reply, as he stealthily put out his hand and touched a soft fold of its white fluffiness.
I could hear him think, as she leaned into the curve of the Broadwood and bent over the flowers-
'Have you seen but a bright lily grow Before rude hands have touched it? Have you marked but the fall of the snow Before the soil hath smutched it? Have you felt the wool of beaver? Or swan's down ever? Or have smelt o' the bud o' the brier? Or the nard i' the fire? Or have tasted the bag of the bee? Oh, so white! oh, so soft! oh, so sweet is she!'
A footman entered, bearing the harp, which he placed on a table in the corner. He disclaimed all knowledge of it, having probably been well paid to do so, and the unoccupied girls gathered about it like bees about a honeysuckle, while Patricia and Terence stayed by the piano.
"To think it may never be a match!" sighed Francesca, "and they are such an ideal pair! But it is easy to see that the mother will oppose it, and although Patricia is her father's darling, he cannot allow her to marry a handsome young pauper like Terence."
"Cheer up!" said Bertie Godolphin reassuringly. "Perhaps some unrelenting beggar of an uncle will die of old age next and leave him the title and estates."
"I hope she will accept him to-night, if she loves him, estates or no estates," said Salemina, who, like many ladies who have elected to remain single, is distinctly sentimental, and has not an ounce of worldly wisdom.
"Well, I think a fellow deserves some reward," remarked Mr. Beresford, "when he has the courage to drive up in a hansom bearing a green harp with yellow strings in his arms. It shows that his passion has quite eclipsed his sense of humour. By the way, I am not sure but I should choose Rose, after all; there's something very attractive about Rose."
"It is the fact that she is promised to another," laughed Francesca somewhat pertly.
"She would make an admirable wife," Mrs. Beresford interjected-- absent-mindedly; "and so of course Terence will not choose her, and similarly neither would you, if you had the chance."
At this Mrs. Beresford's son glances up at me with twinkling eyes, and I can hardly forbear smiling, so unconscious is she that his choice is already made. However, he replies: "Who ever loved a woman for her solid virtues, mother? Who ever fell a victim to punctuality, patience, or frugality? It is other and different qualities which colour the personality and ensnare the heart; though the stodgy and reliable traits hold it, I dare say, when once captured. Don't you know Berkeley says, 'D--n it, madam, who falls in love with attributes?'"
Meantime Violet and Celandine have come out on the balcony, and seeing the tinkling musicians there, have straightway banished them to another part of the house.
"A good thing, too!" murmured Bertie Godolphin, "making a beastly row in that 'nailing' little corner, collecting a crowd sooner or later, don't you know, and putting a dead stop to the jolly little flirtations."
The Honourable Arthur glanced critically at Celandine. "I should make up to her," he said thoughtfully. "She's the best groomed one of the whole stud, though why you call her Celandine I can't think."
"It's a flower, and her dress is yellow, can't you see, man? You've got no sense of colour," said the candid Bertie. "I believe you'd just as soon be a green parrot with a red head as not."
And now the guests began to arrive; so many of them and so near together that we hardly had time to label them as they said good evening, and told dear Lady Brighthelmston how pretty the decorations were, and how prevalent the influenza had been, and how very sultry the weather, and how clever it was of her to give her party in a vacant house, and what a delightful marriage Rose was making, and how well dear Patricia looked.
The sound of the music drifted into the usually quiet street, and by half-past eleven the ball was in full splendour. Lady Brighthelmston stood alone now, greeting all the late arrivals; and we could catch a glimpse now and then of Violet dancing with a beautiful being in a white uniform, and of Rose followed about by her accepted lover, both of them content with their lot, but with feet quite on the solid earth.
Celandine was a bit of a flirt, no doubt. She had many partners, walked in the garden with them impartially, divided her dances, sat on the stairs. Wherever her yellow draperies moved, nonsense, merriment, and chatter followed in her wake.
Patricia danced often with Terence. We could see the dark head, darker and a bit taller than the others, move through the throng, the diamond arrow gleaming in its lustrous coils. She danced like a flower blown by the wind. Nothing could have been more graceful, more stately. The bend of her slender body at the waist, the pose of her head, the line of her shoulder, the suggestion of dimple in her elbow--all were so many separate allurements to the kindling eye of love.
Terence certainly added little to the general brilliancy and gaiety of the occasion, for he stood in a corner and looked at Patricia whenever he was not dancing with her, 'all eye when one was present, all memory when one was gone.'