Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XXXV. The Hunt Ball.
By this time your humble servant, the chronicler of these Gylingden annals, had taken his leave of magnificent old Brandon, and of its strangely interesting young mistress and was carrying away with him, as he flew along the London rails, the broken imagery of that grand and shivered dream. He was destined, however, before very long, to revisit these scenes; and in the meantime heard, in rude outline, the tenor of what was happening--the minute incidents and colouring of which were afterwards faithfully communicated.
I can, therefore, without break or blur, continue my description; and to say truth, at this distance of time, I have some difficulty--so well acquainted was I with the actors and the scenery--in determining, without consulting my diary, what portions of the narrative I relate from hearsay, and what as a spectator. But that I am so far from understanding myself, I should often be amazed at the sayings and doings of other people. As it is, I behold in myself an abyss, I gaze down and listen, and discover neither light nor harmony, but thunderings and lightnings, and voices and laughter, and a medley that dismays me. There rage the elements which God only can control. Forgive us our trespasses; lead us not into temptation; deliver us from the Evil One! How helpless and appalled we shut our eyes over that awful chasm.
I have long ceased, then, to wonder why any living soul does anything that is incongruous and unanticipated. And therefore I cannot say how Miss Brandon persuaded her handsome Cousin Rachel to go with her party, under the wing of Old Lady Chelford, to the Hunt Ball of Gylingden. And knowing now all that then hung heavy at the heart of the fair tenant of Redman's Farm, I should, indeed, wonder inexpressibly, were it not, as I have just said, that I have long ceased to wonder at any vagaries of myself or my fellow creatures.
The Hunt Ball is the great annual event of Gylingden. The critical process of 'coming out' is here consummated by the young ladies of that town and vicinage. It is looked back upon for one-half of the year, and forward to for the other. People date by it. The battle of Inkerman was fought immediately before the Hunt Ball. It was so many weeks after the Hunt Ball that the Czar Nicholas died. The Carnival of Venice was nothing like so grand an event. Its solemn and universal importance in Gylingden and the country round, gave me, I fancied, some notion of what the feast of unleavened bread must have been to the Hebrews and Jerusalem.
The connubial capabilities of Gylingden are positively wretched. When I knew it, there were but three single men, according even to the modest measure of Gylingden housekeeping, capable of supporting wives, and these were difficult to please, set a high price on themselves--looked the country round at long ranges, and were only wistfully and meekly glanced after by the frugal vestals of Gylingden, as they strutted round the corners, or smoked the pipe of apathy at the reading-room windows.
Old Major Jackson kept the young ladies in practice between whiles, with his barren gallantries and graces, and was, just so far, better than nothing. But, as it had been for years well ascertained that he either could not or would not afford to marry, and that his love passages, like the passages in Gothic piles that 'lead to nothing,' were not designed to terminate advantageously, he had long ceased to excite, even in that desolate region, the smallest interest.
Think, then, what it was, when Mr. Pummice, of Copal and Pummice, the splendid house-painters at Dollington, arrived with his artists and charwomen to give the Assembly Room its annual touching-up and bedizenment, preparatory to the Hunt Ball. The Gylingden young ladies used to peep in, and from the lobby observe the wenches dry-rubbing and waxing the floor, and the great Mr. Pummice, with his myrmidons, in aprons and paper caps, retouching the gilding.
It was a tremendous crisis for honest Mrs. Page, the confectioner, over the way, who, in legal phrase, had 'the carriage' of the supper and refreshments, though largely assisted by Mr. Battersby, of Dollington. During the few days' agony of preparation that immediately preceded this notable orgie, the good lady's countenance bespoke the magnitude of her cares. Though the weather was usually cold, I don't think she ever was cool during that period--I am sure she never slept--I don't think she ate--and I am afraid her religious exercises were neglected.
Equally distracting, emaciating, and godless, was the condition to which the mere advent of this festival reduced worthy Miss Williams, the dressmaker, who had more white muslin and young ladies on her hands than she and her choir of needle-women knew what to do with. During this tremendous period Miss Williams hardly resembled herself--her eyes dilated, her lips were pale, and her brow corrugated with deep and inflexible lines of fear and perplexity. She lived on bad tea--sat up all night--and every now and then burst into helpless floods of tears. But somehow, generally things came pretty right in the end. One way or another, the gay belles and elderly spinsters, and fat village chaperones, were invested in suitable costume by the appointed hour, and in a few weeks Miss Williams' mind recovered its wonted tone, and her countenance its natural expression.
The great night had now arrived. Gylingden was quite in an uproar. Rural families of eminence came in. Some in old-fashioned coaches; others, the wealthier, more in London style. The stables of the 'Brandon Arms,' of the 'George Inn,' of the 'Silver Lion,' even of the 'White House,' though a good way off, and generally every vacant standing for horses in or about the town were crowded; and the places of entertainment we have named, and minor houses of refection, were vocal with the talk of flunkeys, patrician with powdered heads, and splendent in variegated liveries.
The front of the Town Hall resounded with the ring of horse-hoofs, the crack of whips, the bawling of coachmen, the clank of carriage steps and clang of coach doors. A promiscuous mob of the plebs and profanum vulgus of Gylingden beset the door, to see the ladies--the slim and the young in white muslins and artificial flowers, and their stout guardian angels, of maturer years, in satins and velvets, and jewels--some real, and some, just as good, of paste. In the cloak-room such a fuss, unfurling of fans, and last looks and hurried adjustments.
When the Crutchleighs, of Clay Manor, a good, old, formal family, were mounting the stairs in solemn procession--they were always among the early arrivals--they heard a piano and a tenor performing in the supper-room.
Now, old Lady Chelford chose to patronise Mr. Page, the Dollington professor, and partly, I fancy, to show that she could turn things topsy-turvy in this town of Gylingden, had made a point, with the rulers of the feast, that her client should sing half-a-dozen songs in the supper-room before dancing commenced.
Mrs. Crutchleigh stayed her step upon the stairs abruptly, and turned, with a look of fierce surprise upon her lean, white-headed lord, arresting thereby the upward march of Corfe Crutchleigh, Esq., the hope of his house, who was pulling on his gloves, with his eldest spinster sister on his lank arm.
'There appears to be a concert going on; we came here to a ball. Had you not better enquire, Mr. Crutchleigh; it would seem we have made a mistake?'
Mrs. Crutchleigh was sensitive about the dignity of the family of Clay Manor; and her cheeks flushed above the rouge, and her eyes flashed severely.
'That's singing--particularly loud singing. Either we have mistaken the night, or somebody has taken upon him to upset all the arrangements. You'll be good enough to enquire whether there will be dancing to-night; I and Anastasia will remain in the cloak-room; and we'll all leave if you please, Mr. Crutchleigh, if this goes on.'
The fact is, Mrs. Crutchleigh had got an inkling of this performance, and had affected to believe it impossible; and, detesting old Lady Chelford for sundry slights and small impertinences, and envying Brandon and its belongings, was resolved not to be put down by presumption in that quarter.
Old Lady Chelford sat in an arm-chair in the supper-room, where a considerable audience was collected. She had a splendid shawl or two about her, and a certain air of demi-toilette, which gave the Gylingden people to understand that her ladyship did not look on this gala in the light of a real ball, but only as a sort of rustic imitation--curious, possibly amusing, and, like other rural sports, deserving of encouragement, for the sake of the people who made innocent holiday there.
Mr. Page, the performer, was a plump young man, with black whiskers, and his hair in oily ringlets, such as may be seen in the model wigs presented on smiling, waxen dandies, in Mr. Rose's front window at Dollington. He bowed and smiled in the most unexceptionable of white chokers and the dapperest of dress coats, and drew off the whitest imaginable pair of kid gloves, when he sat down to the piano, subsiding in a sort of bow upon the music-stool, and striking those few, brisk and noisy chords with which such artists proclaim silence and reassure themselves.
Stanley Lake, that eminent London swell, had attached himself as gentleman-in-waiting to Lady Chelford's household, and was perpetually gliding with little messages between her ladyship and the dapper vocalist of Dollington, who varied his programme and submitted to an occasional encore on the private order thus communicated.
'I told you Chelford would be here,' said Miss Brandon to Rachel, in a low tone, glancing at the young peer.
'I thought he had returned to Brighton. I fancied he might be--you know the Dulhamptons are at Brighton; and Lady Constance, of course, has a claim on his time and thoughts.'
Rachel smiled as she spoke, and was adjusting her bouquet, as Dorcas made answer--
'Lady Constance, my dear Radie! That, you know, was never more than a mere whisper; it was only Lady Chelford and the marchioness who talked it over--they would have liked it very well. But Chelford won't be managed or scolded into anything of the kind; and will choose, I think, for himself, and I fancy not altogether according to their ideas, when the time comes. And I assure you, dear Radie, there is not the least truth in that story about Lady Constance.'
Why should Dorcas be so earnest to convince her handsome cousin that there was nothing in this rumour? Rachel made no remark, and there was a little silence.
'I'm so glad I succeeded in bringing you here,' said Dorcas; 'Chelford made such a point of it; and he thinks you are losing your spirits among the great trees and shadows of Redman's Dell; and he made it quite a little cousinly duty that I should succeed.'
At this moment Mr. Page interposed with the energetic prelude of his concluding ditty. It was one of Tom Moore's melodies.
Rachel leaned back, and seemed to enjoy it very much. But when it was over, I think she would have found it difficult to say what the song was about.
Mr. Page had now completed his programme, and warned by the disrespectful violins from the gallery of the ball-room, whence a considerable caterwauling was already announcing the approach of the dance, he made his farewell flourish, and bow and, smiling, withdrew.