Our First Ball
Eric stayed nearly eight weeks instead of three. Yet I let him go away without a word about the radical change that had come over a life outwardly the same.
* * *
That was the year I was eighteen. But I still did lessons with my mother--French and German, and English history. I asked her to let me leave off history, and allow me to work by myself a little. I wanted to surprise her, by-and-by, so she was not to question me.
I studied a great deal harder than she knew. When we sat down to breakfast at half-past eight I would usually have three hours of work behind me. Often when Bettina and I were both supposed to be at the Helmstones, I had stayed behind in the copse "to read." This would be when I knew Ranny Dallas was not at the Hall.
I still thought that, like all the other young men who came there, he was attracted by Hermione. But I could not forget that Bettina "liked
him best"--liked him more than the man she had allowed to kiss her, and who had not cared for her at all.
I did my best to make Betty see that even if a man as young as Ranny Dallas were to think of marrying at present, it would be the Hermione sort of person he would think of. For we knew that since his elder brother's death a great deal was expected of Ranny.
All that I could get out of Betty just then was that he was not so young as he looked. But I heard, presently, that he had told her he was "chucking the army." His father was growing feeble, and wanted his son to settle down and nurse the family constituency. I remember how annoyed Betty was at my saying that, whether Ranny was old enough to think of marrying or not, I certainly couldn't imagine such a boy being a Member of Parliament. Betty quoted Hermione. Hermione, who knew much more about such things than I did, had said she was sure that Ranny would get into the House at the very next by-election. And Hermione had clinched this by adding: "Ranny Dallas always gets everything he wants."
I made up my mind that for Betty's sake I must keep my eyes open. All that I had seen in him so far was a fair, rather chubby young man, who was not really very good-looking, but who somehow made the impression of being so--chiefly, I think, because he looked so extraordinarily clean. And he had that smile which makes people feel that the world must be a nicer place than they had thought. Then, too, there was something rather nice in the way his hair simply would curl in wet weather, for all the plastering down. His round, blunt-featured face was clean-shaven; and if I had wanted to tease Ranny, I should have told him I was sure he hadn't long "got over" dimples. But Betty was right; he was older than he looked.
I tried to be with her whenever he was about. But this became more and more difficult. For often he came down without any warning. If they couldn't have him at the Hall, he would put up at the inn. And he seemed quite as content walking those two miles to the links, or clanking up and down the hilly road on a ramshackle bicycle he had found at the inn. Our jobbing gardener was overheard to say that he wouldn't be seen rid-
ing such a bicycle-- "no, not on a dark night!" Ranny, as we knew, had two motor-cars of his own, and was very particular about their every detail. But he said all that the much-abused "bike" needed was a brake. Even without a brake it was "a lot better," he said, "than having to think about the shover-chap."
After all, whether Ranny was nominally at the inn, or staying with the Helmstones, he spent most of his time with them--and, for all I could do, he spent a good deal of the time with Bettina.
I still couldn't make up my mind whether he amused himself more with her or with Hermione. But there was no doubt in Lord Helmstone's mind. He used to chaff Hermione when Ranny wasn't there, and when he was there Ranny got the chaffing.
"What! you here again?" his lordship would say. "Why, I thought you'd only just gone." Then he'd ask, with a business-like briskness, what he'd come for.
"Why, to play a game o' golf with your lordship."
"Can't think what a boy of your age is doing with golf." Then he would say to us: "Here's
a fella usen't to care a doit for golf--and now this passion!"
When Lord Helmstone said that--which, in the way of facetious persons secure from criticism, he did a great many times--a colour like a girl's would sometimes overspread Ranny's face, in spite of the implication being so little of a novelty. Then Lord Helmstone would call attention to Ranny's being "very sunburnt," and he would chuckle and rattle his keys. "You ought to run away and play cricket. Eh--?"
"In this weather?"
"Well, go deer-stalking, then. Or play polo. Something more suitable to your years than pottering about golf-links. Something vigorous. Keep down superfluous tissue. Eh--what?"
People liked teasing Ranny. He took it so charmingly.
When I admitted that much to Betty, she said he did take chaffing well, but she sometimes thought he got more than his share. Lord Helmstone, she said, never ventured to treat Mr. Annan in that way.
I said that was quite different, and we very
nearly had a serious quarrel. When I saw that Betty really couldn't see the vast difference between making fun of that boy and making fun of a man like Eric Annan, I began to feel more anxious than ever about Betty.
This was the first year the Helmstones kept Christmas in the South.
They filled the great house full to overflowing for a dance on New Year's Eve. We had only our white muslin summer frocks to wear. But not even Bettina minded, and we had a most heavenly time. Hermione had taught us the new dances. She said she "never in all her born days knew anybody so quick as Bettina at learning a new step."
Even I danced every dance, and Bettina had to cut some of hers in two. There were several new young men in the house-party. Two were brothers, and both sailors. The oldest one danced better than any man we had ever seen, and he would have liked to dance with Bettina the whole night long. It was our first ball, and Betty was only sixteen. So perhaps it was not very strange that the music and the motion and all the admiration went to Betty's head. For she did behave
rather badly to Ranny. When she had danced three times with the oldest sailor--Captain Gerald Boyne--Ranny took her into a corner and remonstrated. I saw he looked pretty serious, but I didn't know till she and I were undressing in our own room that night, or rather morning--I didn't know how strongly he had spoken.
We had found our mother waiting for us, and we were both a little remorseful for being so late when we saw how tired she looked. "But you know we asked you if we might stay to the end." Then, I told her they had all begged us to wait for one or two more dances after the musicians went away, and how a friend of Lady Helmstone's played waltzes for us.
My mother thought it a pity to keep London hours in the country. We were to get to bed now as quickly as possible, and tell her "all about it in the morning."
So we took the candle and went away to our own room. It suddenly looked different to me--this room Bettina and I had shared all our lives. The ceiling seemed to have dropped a foot. But all the same it looked very white and kind in the dim light. Bettina ran and pulled back one of the
dimity curtains. Yes, the moon was brighter than ever! Betty threw open the window and leaned out. Oh, what a pity to go to bed when the world was looking like this!
We had had a green Christmas, and the wind that blew in was not cold; but I thought how horrified my mother would be to see Betty leaning out of a window in January, with the night-wind blowing on her neck. We quarrelled a little, very softly, about shutting the window. Bettina was still flushed and a good deal excited. Rather anxious, too, about what had happened at the ball. But she defended herself. She overdid her air of justification-- "Such perfect nonsense Ranny's making all that fuss, just because a person naturally likes to waltz with a man who dances so divinely!"
I asked what, precisely, Ranny had said.
"Oh, he said he had hoped I would care to dance with him. And, of course, I said I did. I had already given him the first polka, and I had promised him--" She broke off. Nobody had ever been quite so reasonable as she, or so unreasonable as Ranny. He had tried to prevent her dancing at all with Captain Boyne.
"But you had already danced three times with Captain Boyne," I reminded her.
"Well, what of that?" she demanded, in a quite un-Betty-like way. And instead of undressing she followed me about the room, her cheeks very bright as she told me how that unreasonable Ranny had "kept saying that he 'made a point of it.' Then my partner for the mazurka came, and I saw Ranny go over to you. What did he say?" she asked, so eagerly that she forgot to keep her voice down.
My mother knocked on the wall. "Go to sleep, children," she called.
We both answered "Yes," and I began hurriedly to undo Betty's gown. But she never stopped twisting her head round: "Go on, tell me. What did he say?"
I told her, a little impatiently, that he hadn't said anything in particular--he hadn't tried to make himself the least agreeable, and he danced badly.
"Danced badly?" said Bettina, as though it were quite a new idea. "I think that must have been your fault. He dances quite well with me."
"Yes, I admitted, "he does dance best with you."
Then she told of the part Hermione had played. Nothing escaped Hermione, and as soon as she got wind of what was happening, she egged Betty on. Hermione had laughed out, in the most meaning way, when she saw Ranny coming towards Betty in the interval with "blood in his eye," as she expressed it. She whispered to Betty that Ranny was far too used to having his own way. "'But you'll see, you'll have to give in,'" Hermione said, and went off laughing just as Ranny came up.
And he began badly: "'you've told Boyne he can't have this waltz?'"
Betty said "No."
"'Why not? Why haven't you told him?'"
"He would ask for a reason."
"'Very well, give it.'"
"'I don't know any reason,'" Betty said.
"'The reason is . . . ' Then he stopped, and seemed to change his mind. He began again: 'The reason is, you are going to sit out with me.' And then," Betty ended nervously, "Gerald Boyne came, and--we waltzed that time too."
"Yes," I said severely, "everybody was saying, 'Those two again!' And I didn't see you dance with Ranny at all after that."
No; but it wasn't her fault. "It was quite understood he was to have the cotillion."
"Then it was very wrong of you to dance the cotillion with Captain Boyne. It was making yourself conspicuous."
She protested again that it wasn't her fault. "I kept them all waiting as it was. You saw how I kept them waiting for Ranny, till everyone was furious. And as he didn't come, I had to dance with whoever was there."
"I suppose what made him angry was my going off for that horrid waltz after he had said he 'made a point of it'--I wasn't to dance again with 'that fellow.' And then, what do you think I said?" Bettina took hold of my arm, so I couldn't go on braiding my hair. "I said he was jealous of Captain Boyne, or why should he call him 'that fellow'? Even at the moment I felt how horrid that was of me; for it's not a bit like Ranny to be jealous in a horrid way, calling people 'fellows.' So I said: 'If the Boynes aren't nice, why are they here?' And Ranny said: 'Oh,
Gerald Boyne's people are all right. His brother is all right. But I shouldn't want you to dance with Gerald if you were my sister. And if you were my wife, I should forbid it.'"
"'But,' I said, 'I'm not your sister!' --Betty tossed her head, laughing softly-- 'and I'm not your wife--'"
I asked her if she had said it like that?
Yes, she had. "And I said, too--I said it was 'fortunate.'" Then without the least warning, poor Betty sat down on the foot of her bed and began to cry.
I put my arm round her. And she pulled her bare shoulders away. "You needn't think I'm crying about Ranny," she said. "I suppose it's being so angry makes me cry."
"You are crying because you are over-tired," I said, and I began to take off her shoes and stockings.
"I'm not crying because I'm tired, but because" --she wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her nightgown-- "it's a disappointment to see anyone so silly . . . making 'points' of such things as waltzes."
When she was ready for bed, she stood medi-
tating a moment. And then: "Ranny has never struck me as one of the horrid, unforgiving sort of people. Has he you?"
"Oh, no," I said, and I made her get into bed. I covered her up. But it was no use; she threw back the eiderdown, and sat bolt upright.
"--asking me like that, at a ball, if I liked Captain Boyne best--a man I'd never seen before--don't you call it very rude?"
"No; only a little foolish--"
Another knock on the communicating door. "If you children keep on talking I shall have to come in."
We promised we wouldn't say another word. But more than once Betty began: "Ranny--"
"Sh!" I said.
The quarrel about the window had ended in our leaving it a couple of inches open, and the curtains looped back. As we lay there, the room grew brighter; so bright that every little treasure on the long, narrow shelf above each bed could be plainly seen. All the small vases and pictures and china animals--all the odds and ends we had cherished most since we were babies.
While Bettina had come in that night, the first
thing she did was to clear a space for her cotillion favours. The moonlight showed the brilliant huddle of fan and bonbon-basket tied with rose-colour, and, most conspicuous of all, the silver horn hung with parti-coloured ribbons.
When we had lain quiet in our beds for ten minutes or so, Bettina pulled out a pillow from under her head, and propped it so that the moon couldn't shine any longer on the be-ribboned horn. And neither could Betty's eyes rest on it any more. She lay still for some time, and I was falling asleep, when I heard her bed creak. She had pulled herself half out of the covers, and was leaning over the pillow-barrier. She took the horn and the other favours, one by one, and with much gravity thrust them under the bed.
A sigh of satisfaction and a settling down again. I turned and smiled into my pillow. It was so exactly the sort of thing Bettina used to do when she was in the nursery--punishing her toys when things went wrong.
What a blessing, I said to myself, that I was coming to like Ranny Dallas. For, quite certainly, he was going to be my brother-in-law.
End Chapter XII
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