Chapter III. A Ball, a Snowstorm, and a Snowball
 

Axcester's December Ball was a social event of importance in South Somerset. At once formal and familiar--familiar, since nine-tenths of the company dwelt close enough together to be on visiting terms--it nicely preluded the domestic festivities of Christmas, and the more public ones which began with the New Year and culminated in the great County Balls at Taunton and Bath. Nor were the families around Axcester jaded with dancing, as those in the neighbourhood of Bath, for example; but discussed dresses and the prospects of the Ball for some weeks beforehand, and, when the day came, ordered out the chariot or barouche in defiance of any ordinary weather.

The weather since Dorothea's visit to the Orange Room had included a frost, a fall of snow with a partial thaw, and a second and much severer frost; and by Wednesday afternoon the hill below Bayfield wore a hard and slippery glaze. Endymion, however, had seen to the roughing of the horses. Thin powdery snow began to fall as the Bayfield barouche rolled past the gates into the high road; and Narcissus, who considered himself a weather-prophet, foretold a thaw before morning. Unless the weather grew worse, the party would drive back to Bayfield; but the old caretaker in the Town House had orders to light fires there and prepare the bedrooms, and on the chance of being detained. Dorothea had brought her maid Polly.

In spite of her previous visit, the Orange Room gave her a shock of delight and wonder. The litter had vanished, the hangings were in place; fresh orange-coloured curtains divided the dancing-floor from the recess beneath the gallery, and this had been furnished as a withdrawing-room, with rugs, settees, groups of green foliage plants, and candles, the light of which shone through shades of yellow paper. The prisoners, too, had adorned with varicoloured paperwork the candelabra, girandoles and mirrors which drew twinkles from the long waxed floor, and softened whatever might have been garish in the decorations. Certainly the panels took a new beauty, a luminous delicacy, in their artificial rays; and Dorothea, when, after much greeting and hand-shaking, she joined one of the groups inspecting them, felt a sort of proprietary pleasure in the praises she heard.

Had she known it, she too was looking her best tonight--in an old- maidish fashion, be it understood. She wore a gown of ashen-grey muslin, edged with swansdown, and tied with sash and shoulder-knots of a flame-hued ribbon which had taken her fancy at Bath in the autumn. Her sandal-shoes, stockings, gloves, cap--she had worn caps for six or seven years now,--even her fan, were of the same ash-coloured grey.

Dorothea knew how to dress. She also knew how to dance. The music made her heart beat faster, and she never entered a ball-room without a sense of happy expectancy. Poor lady! she never left but she carried home heart-sickness, weariness, and a discontent of which she purged her soul, on her knees, before lying down to sleep. She had a contrite spirit; she knew that her lot was a fortunate one; but she envied her maid Polly her good looks at times. With Polly's face, she might have dancing to her heart's content. Usually she dropped some tears on her pillow after a night's gaiety.

At Bath, at Taunton, at Axcester, it had always been the same, and with time she had learnt to set her hopes low and steel her heart early to their inevitable disappointment. So tonight she took her seat against the wall and watched while the first three contre-danses went by without bringing her a partner. For the fourth--the "Soldier's joy"-- she was claimed by an awkward schoolboy, home for the holidays; whether out of duty or obeying the law of Nature by which shy youths are attracted to middle-aged partners, she could not tell, nor did she ask herself, but danced the dance and enjoyed it more than her cavalier was ever likely to guess. Such a chance had, before now, been looked back upon as the one bright spot in a long evening's experience. Dorothea loved all schoolboys for the kindness shown to her by these few.

She went back to her seat, hard by a group to which Endymion was discoursing at large. Endymion's was a mellow voice, of rich compass, and he had a knack of compelling the attention of all persons within range. He preferred this to addressing anyone in particular, and his eye sought and found, and gathered by instinct, the last loiterer without the charmed circle.

"Yes," he was saying, "it is tasteful, and something more. It illustrates, as you well say, the better side of our excitable neighbours across the Channel. Setting patriotism apart and regarding the question merely in its--ah--philosophical aspect, it has often occurred to me to wonder how a nation so expert in the arts of life, so--how shall I put it?--"

"Natty," suggested one of his hearers; but he waved the word aside.

"--of such lightness of touch, as I might describe it,--I say, it has often occurred to me to wonder how such a nation could so far mistake its destiny and the designs of Providence (inscrutable though they be) as to embark on a career of foreign conquest which can only--ah-- have one end."

"Come to grief," put in Lady Bateson, a dowager in a crimson cap with military feathers. She was supposed to cherish a hopeless passion for Endymion. Also, she was supposed to be acting as Dorothea's chaperon tonight; but having with little exertion found partners for a niece of her own, a sprightly young lady on a visit from Bath, felt that she deserved to relax her mind in a little intellectual talk. Endymion accepted her remark with magnificent tolerance.

"Precisely." He inclined towards her. "You have hit it precisely."

Dorothea stole a glance at her brother. Military and hunt uniforms were de rigueur at these Axcester balls, and a Major of Yeomanry more splendid than Endymion Westcote it would have been hard to find in England. He stood with a hand negligently resting on his left hip-- the word hip,--his right foot advanced, the toe of his polished boot tapping the floor. His smile, indulgent as it hovered over Lady Bateson, descended to this protruded leg and became complacent, as it had a right to be.

"Well, I've always said so from the start," Lady Bateson announced, "and now I'm sure of it. I don't mind Frenchmen as Frenchmen; but what I say is, let them stick to their fal-de-rals."

"That is the side of them which, in my somewhat responsible position, I endeavour to humour. You see the result." He swept his hand towards the painted panels. "One thing I must say, in justice to my charges, I find them docile."

Dorothea had confidence in her brother's tact and his unerring eye for his audience. Yet she looked about her nervously, to make sure that of the few prisoners selected for invitation to the ball, none was within earshot. The Vicomte de Tocqueville, a stoical young patrician, had chosen a partner for the next dance, and was leading her out with that air of vacuity with which he revenged himself upon the passing hour of misfortune. "Go on," it seemed to say, "but permit me to remind you that, so far as I am concerned, you do not exist." Old General Rochambeau and old Rear-Admiral de Wailly-Duchemin, in worn but carefully-brushed regimentals, patrolled the far end of the room arm-in-arm. The Admiral seemed in an ill humour; and this was nothing new, he grumbled at everything. But the General's demeanour, as he trotted up and down beside his friend (doubtless doing his best to pacify him), betrayed an unwonted agitation. It occurred to Dorothea that he had not yet greeted her and paid his usual compliment.

"Miss Westcote is not dancing tonight?"

The voice was at her elbow, and she looked up with a start--to meet the gaze of M. Raoul.

"Excuse me"--she wished to explain why she had been startled--"I did not expect--"

"To see me here! It appears that they have given the scene-painter a free ticket, and I assume that it carries permission to dance, provided he does not display in an unseemly manner the patch in the rear of his best tunic."

He turned his head in a serio-comic effort to stare down his back. Dorothea admitted to herself that he made a decidedly handsome fellow in his blue uniform with red facings and corded epaulettes; nor does a uniform look any the worse for having seen a moderate amount of service.

"But Mademoiselle was in a--what do you call it?--a brown study, which I interrupted."

"I was wondering why General Rochambeau had, not yet come to speak with me."

"I can account for it, perhaps; but first you must answer my question, Mademoiselle. Are you not dancing tonight?"

"That will depend, sir, on whether I am asked or no."

She said it almost archly, on the moment's impulse; and, the words out, felt that they were over-bold. But she did not regret them when her eyes met his. He was offering his arm, and she found herself joining in his laugh--a happy, confidential little laugh. Dorothea cast a nervous glance towards her brother, but Endymion's back was turned. She saw that her partner noted the look, and half-defiantly she nodded towards the gallery as the French musicians struck into a jolly jigging quick- step with a crash at every third bar.

"Mais cela me rend folle," she murmured.

"Do you know the air? It's the 'Bridge of Lodi,' and we are to dance 'Britannia's Triumph' to it. Come, Mademoiselle, since the 'Triumph' is nicely mixed, let your captive lead you."

Those were days of reels, poussettes, ladies' chains, and figure dancing; honest heel-and-toe, hopping and twisting, hands across and down the middle--an art contemned now, worse than neglected, insulted by the vulgar caricature of "kitchen lancers"; but then seriously practised, delighting the eye, bringing blood to the dancers' cheeks. For five minutes and more Dorothea was entirely happy. M. Raoul-- himself no mean performer--tasted, after his first surprise, something of the joy of discovery. Who could have guessed that this quiet spinster, who, as a rule, held herself and walked so awkwardly, would prove the best partner in the room? He had not the least doubt of it. Others danced with more abandonment, with more exuberant vigour-- "romped" was his criticism--but none with such elan perfectly restrained, covering precision with grace. Hands across, cast off and wheel; as their fingers met again he felt the tense nerves, the throb of the pulse beneath the glove. Her lips were parted, her eyes and whole face animated. She was not thinking of him, or of anyone; only of the swing and beat of the music, the sway of life and colour, her own body swaying to it, enslaved to the moment and answering no other call.

"I understand why they call it the Triumph," he murmured, as he led her back to her seat. She turned her eyes on him as one coming out of a dream.

"I have never enjoyed a dance so much in my life," she said seriously.

He laughed.

"It must have been an inspiration--" he began, and checked himself, with a glance over his shoulder at the painted panel behind them.

"You were saying--" She looked up after a moment.

"Nothing. Listen to the Ting-tang!"

He drew aside one of the orange curtains, and Dorothea heard the note of a bell clanging in a distant street. "Time for all good prisoners to be in bed, and Heaven temper the wind to the thin blanket! It is snowing--snowing furiously."

"Do they suffer much in these winters?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"They die sometimes, though your brother does his best to prevent it. It promises to be a hard season for them."

"I wish I could help; but Endymion--my brother does not approve of ladies mixing themselves up in these affairs."

"Yet he has carried off half-a-dozen to the supper-room, where at a side table three of my compatriots are vending knick-knacks, to add a little beef to their ragouts."

"Is it that which has annoyed General Rochambeau?"

She had recognised the phrase, but let it pass.

"It is."

She understood. For some reason her brain was unusually clear tonight. At any other time she would have defended, or at least excused, her brother. She knew it, and found time to wonder at her new practicality as she answered:

"I must think of some way to help."

She saw his brow clear--saw that had risen in his esteem--and was glad.

"To you, Mademoiselle, we shall find it easy to be grateful."

"By helping them," she explained, "I may also be helping my brother. You do not understand him as I do, and you sharpen your wit upon him,"

"Be assured it does not hurt him, Mademoiselle."

"No, but it hurts me."

He bowed gravely.

"It shall not hurt you, again. Whom you love, you shall protect."

"Ah! M. Raoul!" Endymion Westcote hailed him from the doorway and crossed the room with Narcissus in tow. "My brother is interested in your panel of Bacchus and Ariadne; he will be glad to discuss it with you. Br-r-r-!"--he shivered--"I have been down to the door, and it is snowing viciously. Some of our friends will hardly find their homes tonight. I hope, by the way, you have brought a great-coat?"

Raoul ignored the question.

"I fear, sir, your learning will discover half-a-dozen mistakes," said he, addressing Narcissus and leading the way towards the panel.

"But whilst I think of it," Endymion persisted, "I saw half-a-dozen old baize chair-covers behind the cloak-room door. Don't hesitate to take one; you can return it to-morrow or next day." Dorothea being his only audience, he beamed a look on her which said: "They come to us in a hurry, these prisoners--no time to collect a wardrobe; but I think of these little things."

"Rest assured, sir, I will turn up my coat-collar," said Raoul; and Dorothea could see him, a moment later, shaking his head good- naturedly, though the Commissary still protested.

Dorothea, left to herself, watched them examining and discussing the panel of Bacchus and Ariadne. The orchestra started another contre- danse, but no partner approached to claim her. The dance began. It was the "Dashing White Sergeant," and one exuberant couple threatened to tread upon her toes. She stood up and, for lack of anything better to do, began to study the panel behind her.

A moment later her hand went up to her throat.

It was the panel on which M. Raoul had sketched an imaginary board with his thumb-nail--the Garden of the Hesperides. But the Perseus was different; he wore the face of M. Raoul himself. And beneath the throat of the nymph on the right, half concealed in the folds about her bosom, hung a locket--a small enamelled heart, edged with brilliants. Just such a trinket--a brooch--had pinned the collar of her close habit three days before, when she and M. Raoul had stood together discussing the panel. It was a legacy from her mother.

Hastily she put out a hand and drew the edge of the orange curtain over nymph and locket.

Soon after supper Endymion Westcote informed his sister that it was hopeless to think of returning to Bayfield. The barouche would convey her back to the Town House; but already the snow lay a foot and a half deep, and was still falling. He himself, after packing her off with Narcissus, would remain and attend to the comfort of the guests, many of whom must bivouac at "The Dogs" for the night as best they could.

At midnight, or a little later, the barouche was announced. It drew up close to the porch, axle-deep in snow. Upstairs the orchestra was sawing out the strains of "Major Malley's Reel," as Endymion lifted his sister in and slammed the door upon her and Narcissus. The noise prevented his hearing a sash-window lifted, immediately above the porch.

"Right away!"

The inn-servant who had accompanied the Westcotes turned back to trim a candle flaring in the draughty passage. But it so happened that, in starting, the coachman entangled his off-rein in the trace-buckle. Endymion, in his polished hessians, ran round to unhitch it.

On the window-sill above, two deft hands quickly scooped up and moulded a snowball.

"He should turn up his coat-collar, the pig! V'Ian pour le Commissaire!"

Endymion Westcote did not hear the voice; but as the vehicle rolled heavily forward, out of the darkness a snowball struck him accurately on the nape of the neck.