Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XXXVI. The Ball Room.
Rachel Lake, standing by the piano, turned over the leaves of the volume of 'Moore's Melodies' from which the artist in black whiskers and white waistcoat had just entertained his noble patroness and his audience.
Everyone has experienced, I suppose for a few wonderful moments, now and then, a glow of seemingly causeless happiness, in which the earth and its people are glorified--peace and sunlight rest on everything--the spirit of music and love is in the air, and the heart itself sings for joy. In the light of this celestial illusion she stood now by the piano, turning over the pages of poor Tom Moore, as I have said, when a low pleasant voice near her said--
'I was so glad to see that Dorcas had prevailed, and that you were here. We both agreed that you are too much a recluse in that Der Frieschutz Glen--at least, for your friends' pleasure; and owe it to us all to appear now and then in this upper world.'
'Excelsior, Miss Lake,' interposed dapper little Mr. Buttle, with a smirk; 'I think this little bit of music--it was got up, you know, by that old quiz, Dowager Lady Chelford--was really not so bad--a rather good idea, after all, Miss Lake. Don't you?'
Poor Mr. Buttle did not know Lord Chelford, and thus shooting his 'arrow o'er the house,' he 'hurt his brother.' Chelford turned away, and bowed and smiled to one or two friends at the other side of the room.
'Yes, the music was very pretty, and some of the songs were quite charmingly sung. I agree with you--we are very much obliged to Lady Chelford--that is her son, Lord Chelford.'
'Oh!' said Buttle, whose smirk vanished on the instant in a very red and dismal vacancy, 'I--I'm afraid he'll think me shockingly rude.' And in a minute more Buttle was gone.
Miss Lake again looked down upon the page, and as she did so, Lord Chelford turned and said--
'You are a worshipper of Tom Moore, Miss Lake?'
'An admirer, perhaps--certainly no worshipper. Yet, I can't say. Perhaps I do worship; but if so, it is a worship strangely mixed with contempt.' And she laughed a little. 'A kind of adoring which I fancy belongs properly to the lords of creation, and which we of the weaker sex have no right to practise.'
'Miss Lake is pleased to be ironical to-night,' he said, with a smile.
'Am I? I dare say. All women are. Irony is the weapon of cowardice, and cowardice the vice of weakness. Yet I think I was naturally bold and true. I hate cowardice and deception even in myself--I hate perfidy--I hate fraud.'
She tapped a little emphasis upon the floor with her white satin shoe, and her eyes flashed with a dark and angry meaning among the crowd at the other end of the room, as if for a second or two following an object to whom in some way the statement applied.
The strange bitterness of her tone, though it was low enough, and something wild, suffering, and revengeful in her look, though but momentary, and hardly definable, did not escape Lord Chelford, and he followed unconsciously the direction of her glance; but there was nothing there to guide him to a conclusion, and the good people who formed that polite and animated mob were in his eyes, one and all, quite below the level of tragedy, or even of melodrama.
'And yet, Miss Lake, we are all more or less cowards or deceivers--at least, to the extent of suppression. Who would speak the whole truth, or like to hear it?--not I, I know.'
'Nor I,' she said, quietly.
'And I do think, if people had no reserves, they would be very uninteresting,' he added.
She was looking, with a strange light upon her face--a smile, perhaps--upon the open pages of 'Moore's Melodies' as he spoke.
'I like a little puzzle and mystery--they surround our future and our past; and the present would be insipid, I think, without them. Now, I can't tell, Miss Lake, as you look on Tom Moore there, and I try to read your smile, whether you happen at this particular moment to adore or despise him.'
'Moore's is a daring morality--what do you think, for instance, of these lines?' she said, touching the verse with her bouquet.
Lord Chelford read--
I ask not, I know not, if guilt's in thy heart I but know that I love thee, whatever thou art.'
'Very passionate, but hardly respectable. I once knew,' he continued a little more gravely, 'a marriage made upon that principle, and not very audaciously either, which turned out very unhappily.'
'So I should conjecture,' she said, rising from her chair, rather drearily and abstractedly, 'and there is good old Lady Sarah. I must go and ask her how she does.' She paused for a moment, holding her bouquet drooping towards the floor, and looking with her clouded eyes down--down--through it; and then she looked up suddenly, with an odd, fierce smile, and she said bitterly enough--'and yet, if I were a man, and capable of loving, I could love no other way; because I suppose love to be a madness, and the sublimest and the most despicable of states. And I admire Moore for that flash of the fallen angelic--it is the sentiment of a hero and a madman--too base and too noble for this cool, wise world.'
She was already moving away, nebulous in hovering folds of snowy muslin. And she floated down like a cloud upon the ottoman, beside old Lady Sarah, and smiled and leaned towards her, and talked in her sweet, low, distinct accents. And Lord Chelford followed her, with a sad sort of smile, admiring her greatly.
Of course, non cuivis contigit, it was not every man's privilege to dance with the splendid Lady of Brandon. It was only the demigods who ventured within the circle. Her kinsman, Lord Chelford, did so; and now handsome Sir Harry Bracton, six feet high, so broad-shouldered and slim-waisted, his fine but not very wise face irradiated with indefatigable smiles, stood and conversed with her, with that jaunty swagger of his--his weight now on this side, now on that, squaring his elbows like a crack whip with four-in-hand, and wagging his perfumed tresses--boisterous, rollicking, beaming with immeasurable self-complacency.
Stanley Lake left old Lady Chelford's side, and glided to that of Dorcas Brandon.
'Will you dance this set--are you engaged, Miss Brandon?' he said, in low eager tones.
'Yes, to both questions,' answered she, with the faintest gleam of the conventional smile, and looking now gravely again at her bouquet.
'Well, the next possibly, I hope?'
'I never do that,' said the apathetic beauty, serenely.
Stanley looked as if he did not quite understand, and there was a little silence.
'I mean, I never engage myself beyond one dance. I hope you do not think it rude--but I never do.'
'Miss Brandon can make what laws she pleases for all here, and for some of us everywhere,' he replied, with a mortified smile and a bow.
At that moment Sir Harry Bracton arrived to claim her, and Miss Kybes--elderly and sentimental, and in no great request--timidly said, in a gobbling, confidential whisper--
'What a handsome couple they do make! Does not it quite realise your conception, Captain Lake, of young Lochinvar, you know, and his fair Helen--
So stately his form and so lovely her face--
'That never a hall such a galliard did grace.
Is not it?'
'So it is, really; it did not strike me. And that "one cup of wine"--you recollect--which the hero drank; and, I dare say it made young Lochinvar a little noisy and swaggering, when he proposed "treading the measure"--is not that the phrase? Yes, really; it is a very pretty poetical parallel.'
And Miss Kybes was pleased to think that Captain Lake would be sure to report her elegant little compliment in the proper quarters, and that her incense had not missed fire.
When Miss Brandon returned, Lake was unfortunately on duty beside old Lady Chelford, whom it was important to propitiate, and who was in the middle of a story--an extraordinary favour from her ladyship; and he had the vexation to see Lord Chelford palpably engaging Miss Brandon for the next dance.
When she returned, she was a little tired, and doubtful whether she would dance any more--certainly not the next dance. So he resolved to lie in wait, and anticipate any new suitor who might appear.
His eyes, however, happened to wander, in an unlucky moment, to old Lady Chelford, who instantaneously signalled to him with her fan.
'-- the woman,' mentally exclaimed Lake, telegraphing, at the same time, with a bow and a smile of deferential alacrity, and making his way through the crowd as deftly as he could; what a ---- fool I was to go near her.'
So the captain had to assist at the dowager lady's supper; and not only so, but in some sort at her digestion also, which she chose should take place for some ten minutes in the chair that she occupied at the supper table.
When he escaped, Miss Brandon was engaged once more--and to Sir Harry Bracton, for a second time.
And moreover, when he again essayed his suit, the young lady had peremptorily made up her mind to dance no more that night.
'How can Dorcas endure that man,' thought Rachel, as she saw Sir Harry lead her to her seat, after a second dance. 'Handsome, but so noisy and foolish, and wicked; and is not he vulgar, too?'
But Dorcas was not demonstrative. Her likings and dislikings were always more or less enigmatical. Still Rachel Lake fancied that she detected signs, not only of tolerance, but of positive liking, in her haughty cousin's demeanour, and wondered, after all, whether Dorcas was beginning to like Sir Harry Bracton. Dorcas had always puzzled her--not, indeed, so much latterly--but this night the mystery began to darken once more.
Twice, for a moment, their eyes met; but only for a moment. Rachel knew that a tragedy might be--at that instant, and under the influence of that very spectacle--gathering its thunders silently in another part of the room, where she saw Stanley's pale, peculiar face; and although he appeared in nowise occupied by what was passing between Dorcas Brandon and Sir Harry, she perfectly well knew that nothing of it escaped him.
The sight of that pale face was a cold pang at her heart--a face prophetic of evil, at sight of which the dark curtain which hid futurity seemed to sway and tremble, as if a hand from behind was on the point of drawing it. Rachel sighed profoundly, and her eyes looked sadly through her bouquet on the floor.
'I'm very glad you came, Radie,' said a sweet voice, which somehow made her shiver, close to her ear. 'This kind of thing will do you good; and you really wanted a little fillip. Shall I take you to the supper-room?'
'No, Stanley, thank you; I prefer remaining.'
'Have you observed how Dorcas has treated me this evening?'
'No, Stanley; nothing unusual, is there?' answered Rachel, glancing uneasily round, lest they should be overheard.
'Well, I think she has been more than usually repulsive--quite marked; I almost fancy these Gylingden people, dull as they are, must observe it. I have a notion I sha'n't trouble Gylingden or her after to-morrow.'
Rachel glanced quickly at him. He was deadly pale, with his faint unpleasant smile; and he returned her glance for a second wildly, and then dropped his eyes to the ground.
'I told you,' he resumed again, after a short pause, and commencing with a gentle laugh, 'that she liked that fellow, Bracton.'
'You did say something, I think, of that, some time since,' said Rachel; 'but really----'
'But really, Radie, dear, you can't need any confirmation more than this evening affords. We both know Dorcas very well; she is not like other girls. She does not encourage fellows as they do; but if she did not like Bracton very well indeed, she would send him about his business. She has danced with him twice, on the contrary, and has suffered his agreeable conversation all the evening; and that from Dorcas Brandon means, you know, everything.'
'I don't know that it means anything. I don't see why it should; but I am very certain,' said Rachel, who, in the midst of this crowded, gossiping ball-room, was talking much more freely to Stanley, and also, strange to say, in more sisterly fashion, than she would have done in the little parlour of Redman's Farm; 'I am very certain, Stanley, that if this supposed preference leads you to abandon your wild pursuit of Dorcas, it will prevent more ruin than, perhaps, either of us anticipates; and, Stanley,' she added in a whisper, looking full in his eyes, which were raised for a moment to hers, 'it is hardly credible that you dare still to persist in so desperate and cruel a project.'
'Thank you,' said Stanley quietly, but the yellow lights glared fiercely from their sockets, and were then lowered instantly to the floor.
'She has been very rude to me to-night; and you have not been, or tried to be, of any earthly use to me; and I will take a decided course. I perfectly know what I'm about. You don't seem to be dancing. I have not either; we have both got something more serious, I fancy, to think of.'
And Stanley Lake glided slowly away, and was lost in the crowd. He went into the supper-room, and had a glass of seltzer water and sherry. He loitered at the table. His ruminations were dreary, I fancy, and his temper by no means pleasant; and it needed a good deal of that artificial command of countenance which he cultivated, to prevent his betraying something of the latter, when Sir Harry Bracton, talking loud and volubly as usual, swaggered into the supper-room, with Dorcas Brandon on his arm.