Chapter XV. Hell and Heaven
 

The events of the afternoon, stirring as they had been, were soon dismissed from Sandy's mind. The approaching hop possessed right of way over every other thought.

By the combined assistance of Mrs. Hollis and Aunt Melvy, he had been ready at half-past seven. The dance did not begin until nine; but he was to take Annette, and the doctor, whose habits were as fixed as the numbers on a clock, had insisted that she should attend prayer-meeting as usual before the dance.

In the little Hard-Shell Baptist Church the congregation had assembled and services had begun before Mr. Meech arrived. He appeared singularly flushed and breathless, and caused some confusion by giving out the hymn which had just been sung. It was not until he became stirred by the power of his theme that he gained composure.

In the front seat Dr. Fenton drowsed through the discourse. Next to him, her party dress and slipper-bag concealed by a rain-coat, sat Annette, hot and rebellious, and in anything but a prayerful frame of mind. Beside her sat Sandy, rigid with elegance, his eyes riveted on the preacher, but his thoughts on his feet. For, stationary though he was, he was really giving himself the benefit of a final rehearsal, and mentally performing steps of intricate and marvelous variety.

"Stop moving your feet!" whispered Annette. "You'll step on my dress."

"Is it the mazurka that's got the hiccoughs in the middle?" asked Sandy, anxiously.

Mr. Meech paused and looked at them over his spectacles in plaintive reproach.

Then he wandered on into sixthlies and seventhlies of increasing length. Before the final amen had died upon the air, Annette and Sandy had escaped to their reward.

The hop was given in the town hall, a large, dreary-looking room with a raised platform at one end, where Johnson's band introduced instruments and notes that had never met before.

To Sandy it was a hall of Olympus, where filmy-robed goddesses moved to the music of the spheres.

"Isn't the floor g-grand?" cried Annette, with a little run and a slide. "I could just d-die dancing."

"What may the chalk line be for?" asked Sandy.

"That's to keep the stags b-back."

"The stags?" His spirits fell before this new complication.

"Yes; the boys without partners, you know. They have to stay b-back of the chalk line and b-break in from there. You'll catch on right away. There's your d-dressing-room over there. Don't bother about my card; it's been filled a week. Is there anyb-body you want to dance with especially?"

Sandy's eyes answered for him. They were held by a vision in the center of the room, and he was blinded to everything else.

Half surrounded by a little group stood Ruth Nelson, red-lipped, bright-eyed, eager, her slender white-clad figure on tiptoe with buoyant expectancy. The crimson rose caught in her hair kept impatient time to the tap of her restless high-heeled slipper, and she swayed and sang with the music in a way to set the sea-waves dancing.

It was small matter to Sandy that the lace on her dress had belonged to her great-grandmother, or that the pearls about her round white throat had been worn by an ancestor who was lady in waiting to a queen of France. He only knew she meant everything beautiful in the world to him,--music and springtime and dawn,--and that when she smiled it was sunlight in his heart.

"I don't think you can g-get a dance there," said Annette, following his gaze. "She is always engaged ahead. But I'll find out, if you w-want me to."

"Would you, now?" cried Sandy, fervently pressing her hand. Then he stopped short. "Annette," he said wistfully, "do you think she'll be caring to dance with a boy like me?"

"Of course she will, if you k-keep off her toes and don't forget to count the time. Hurry and g-get off your things; I want you to try it before the crowd comes. There are only a few couples for you to bump into now, and there will be a hundred after a while."

O the fine rapture of that first moment when Sandy found he could dance! Annette knocked away his remaining doubts and fears and boldly launched him into the merry whirl. The first rush was breathless, carrying all before it; but after a moment's awful uncertainty he settled into the step and glided away over the shining floor, counting his knots to be sure, but sailing triumphantly forward behind the flutter of Annette's pink ribbons.

He was introduced right and left, and he asked every girl he met to dance. It made little difference who she happened to be, for in imagination she was always the same. Annette had secured for him the last dance with Ruth, and he intended to practise every moment until that magic hour should arrive.

But youth reckons not with circumstance. Just when all sails were set and he was nearing perfection, he met with a disaster which promptly relegated him to the dry-dock. His partner did not dance!

When he looked at her, he found that she was tall and thin and vivacious, and he felt that she must have been going to hops for a very long time.

"I hate dancing, don't you?" she said. "Let's go over there, out of the crowd, and have a nice long talk."

Sandy glanced at the place indicated. It seemed a long way from base.

"Wouldn't you like to stand here and watch them?" he floundered helplessly.

"Oh, dear, no; it's too crowded. Besides," she added playfully, "I have heard so much about you and your awfully romantic life. I just want to know all about it."

As a trout, one moment in mid-stream swimming and frolicking with the best, finds himself suddenly snatched out upon the bank, gasping and helpless, so Sandy found himself high and dry against the wall, with the insistent voice of his captor droning in his ears.

She had evidently been wound and set, and Sandy had unwittingly started the pendulum.

"Have you ever been to Chicago, Mr. Kilday? No? It is such a dear place; I simply adore it. I'm on my way home from there now. All my men friends begged me to stay; they sent me so many flowers I had to keep them in the bath-tub. Wasn't it darling of them? I just love men. How long have you been in Clayton, Mr. Kilday?"

He tried to answer coherently, but his thoughts were in eager pursuit of a red rose that flashed in and out among the dancers.

"And you really came over from England by yourself when you were just a small boy? Weren't you clever! But I know the captain and all of them made a great pet of you. Then you made a walking tour through the States; I heard all about it. It was just too romantic for any use. I love adventure. My two best friends are at the theological seminary. One's going to India,--he's a blond,--and one to Africa. Just between us, I am going with one of them, but I can't for the life of me make up my mind which. I don't know why I am telling you all these things, Mr. Kilday, except that you are so sweet and sympathetic. You understand, don't you?"

He assured her that he did with more vehemence than was necessary, for he did not want her to suspect that he had not heard what she said.

"I knew you did. I knew it the moment I shook hands with you. I felt that we were drawn to each other. I am like you; I am just full of magnetism."

Sandy unconsciously moved slightly away: he had a sudden uncomfortable realization that he was the only one within the sphere of influence.

After two intermissions he suggested that they go out to the drug-store and get some soda-water. On the steps they met Annette.

"You old f-fraud," she whispered to Sandy in passing, "I thought you didn't like to sit out d-dances."

He smiled feebly.

"Don't you mind her teasing," pouted his partner; "if we like to talk better than to dance, it's our own affair."

Sandy wished devoutly that it was somebody else's. When they returned, they went back to their old corner. The chairs, evidently considering them permanent occupants, assumed an air of familiarity which he resented.

"Do you know, you remind me of an old sweetheart of mine," resumed the voice of his captor, coyly. "He was the first real lover I ever had. His eyes were big and pensive, just like yours, and there was always that same look in his face that just made me want to stay with him all the time to keep him from being lonely. He was awfully fond of me, but he had to go out West to make his fortune, and he married before he got back."

Sandy sighed, ostensibly in sympathy, but in reality at his own sad fate. At that moment Prometheus himself would not have envied him his state of mind. The music set his nerves tingling and the dancers beckoned him on, yet he was bound to his chair, with no relief in view. At the tenth intermission he suggested soda-water again, after which they returned to their seats.

"I hope people aren't talking about us," she said, with a pleased laugh. "I oughtn't to have given you all these dances. It's perfectly fatal for a girl to show such preference for one man. But we are so congenial, and you do remind me--"

"If it's embarrassing to you--" began Sandy, grasping the straw with both hands.

"Not one bit," she asserted. "If you would rather have a good confidential time here with me than to meet a lot of silly little girls, then I don't care what people say. But, as I was telling you, I met him the year I came out, and he was interested in me right off--"

On and on and on she went, and Sandy ceased to struggle. He sank in his chair in dogged dejection. He felt that she had been talking ever since he was born, and was going to continue until he died, and that all he could do was to wait in anguish for the end. He watched the flushed, happy faces whirling by. How he envied the boys their wilted collars! After eons and eons of time the band played "Home, Sweet Home."

"It's the last dance," said she. "Aren't you sorry? We've had a perfectly divine time--" She got no further, for her partner, faithful through many numbers, had deserted his post at last.

Sandy pushed eagerly through the crowd and presented himself at Ruth's side. She was sitting with several boys on the stage steps, her cheeks flushed from the dance, and a loosened curl falling across her bare shoulder. He tried to claim his dance, but the words, too long confined, rushed to his lips so madly as to form a blockade.

She looked up and saw him--saw the longing and doubt in his eyes, and came to his rescue.

"Isn't this our dance, Mr. Kilday?" she said, half smiling, half timidly.

In the excitement of the moment he forgot his carefully practised bow, and the omission brought such chagrin that he started out with the wrong foot. There was a gentle, ripping sound, and a quarter of a yard of lace trailed from the hem of his partner's skirt.

"Did I put me foot in it?" cried Sandy, in such burning consternation that Ruth laughed.

"It doesn't matter a bit," she said lightly, as she stooped to pin it up. "It shows I've had a good time. Come! Don't let's miss the music."

He took her hand, and they stepped out on the polished floor. The blissful agony of those first few moments was intolerably sweet.

She was actually dancing with him (one, two, three; one, two, three). Her soft hair was close to his cheek (one, two, three; one, two, three). What if he should miss a step (one, two, three)--or fall?

He stole a glance at her; she smiled reassuringly. Then he forgot all about the steps and counting time. He felt as he had that morning on shipboard when the America passed the Great Britain. All the joy of boyhood resurged through his veins, and he danced in a wild abandonment of bliss; for the band was playing "Home, Sweet Home," and to Sandy it meant that, come what might, within her shining eyes his gipsy soul had found its final home.

When the music stopped, and they stood, breathless and laughing, at the dressing-room door, Ruth said:

"I thought Annette told me you were just learning to dance!"

"So I am," said Sandy; "but me heart never kept time for me before!"

When Annette joined them she looked up at Sandy and smiled.

"Poor f-fellow!" she said sympathetically. "What a perfectly horrid time you've had!"