Authors: Booth Tarkington
Tags: #General, #Business & Economics
"I can't eat dead violets," he explained. "So don't keep tryin' to make me do it."
This had the effect he desired, and subdued her; she abandoned her unsisterly coquetries, and looked beamingly about her, but her smile was more mechanical than it had been at first.
At home she had seemed beautiful; but here, where the other girls competed, things were not as they had been there, with only her mother and Miss Perry to give contrast. These crowds of other girls had all done their best, also, to look beautiful, though not one of them had worked so hard for such a consummation as Alice had. They did not need to; they did not need to get their mothers to make old dresses over; they did not need to hunt violets in the rain.
At home her dress had seemed beautiful; but that was different, too, where there were dozens of brilliant fabrics, fashioned in new ways--some of these new ways startling, which only made the wearers centers of interest and shocked no one. And Alice remembered that she had heard a girl say, not long before, "Oh, ORGANDIE! Nobody wears organdie for evening gowns except in midsummer." Alice had thought little of this; but as she looked about her and saw no organdie except her own, she found greater difficulty in keeping her smile as arch and spontaneous as she wished it. In fact, it was beginning to make her face ache a little.
Mildred came in from the corridor, heavily attended. She carried a great bouquet of violets laced with lilies of-the-valley; and the violets were lusty, big purple things, their stems wrapped in cloth of gold, with silken cords dependent, ending in long tassels. She and her convoy passed near the two young Adamses; and it appeared that one of the convoy besought his hostess to permit "cutting in"; they were "doing it other places" of late, he urged; but he was denied and told to console himself by holding the bouquet, at intervals, until his third of the sixteenth dance should come. Alice looked dubiously at her own bouquet.
Suddenly she felt that the violets betrayed her; that any one who looked at them could see how rustic, how innocent of any florist's craft they were "I can't eat dead violets," Walter said. The little wild flowers, dying indeed in the warm air, were drooping in a forlorn mass; and it seemed to her that whoever noticed them would guess that she had picked them herself. She decided to get rid of them.
Walter was becoming restive. "Look here!" he said. "Can't you flag one o' these long-tailed birds to take you on for the next dance? You came to have a good time; why don't you get busy and have it? I want to get out and smoke."
"You MUSTN'T leave me, Walter," she whispered, hastily. "Somebody'll come for me before long, but until they do----"
"Well, couldn't you sit somewhere?"
"No, no! There isn't any one I could sit with."
"Well, why not? Look at those ole dames in the corners. What's the matter your tyin' up with some o' them for a while?"
"PLEASE, Walter; no!"
In fact, that indomitable smile of hers was the more difficult to maintain because of these very elders to whom Walter referred. They were mothers of girls among the dancers, and they were there to fend and contrive for their offspring; to keep them in countenance through any trial; to lend them diplomacy in the carrying out of all enterprises; to be "background" for them; and in these essentially biological functionings to imitate their own matings and renew the excitement of their nuptial periods. Older men, husbands of these ladies and fathers of eligible girls, were also to be seen, most of them with Mr. Palmer in a billiard-room across the corridor. Mr. and Mrs. Adams had not been invited. "Of course papa and mama just barely know Mildred Palmer," Alice thought, "and most of the other girls' fathers and mothers are old friends of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, but I do think she might have ASKED papa and mama, anyway--she needn't have been afraid just to ask them; she knew they couldn't come." And her smiling lip twitched a little threateningly, as she concluded the silent monologue. "I suppose she thinks I ought to be glad enough she asked Walter!"
Walter was, in fact, rather noticeable. He was not Mildred's only guest to wear a short coat and to appear without gloves; but he was singular (at least in his present surroundings) on account of a kind of coiffuring he favoured, his hair having been shaped after what seemed a Mongol inspiration. Only upon the top of the head was actual hair perceived, the rest appearing to be nudity. And even more than by any difference in mode he was set apart by his look and manner, in which there seemed to be a brooding, secretive and jeering superiority and this was most vividly expressed when he felt called upon for his loud, short, lop-sided laugh. Whenever he uttered it Alice laughed, too, as loudly as she could, to cover it.
"Well," he said. "How long we goin' to stand here? My feet are sproutin' roots."
Alice took his arm, and they began to walk aimlessly through the rooms, though she tried to look as if they had a definite destination, keeping her eyes eager and her lips parted;--people had called jovially to them from the distance, she meant to imply, and they were going to join these merry friends. She was still upon this ghostly errand when a furious outbreak of drums and saxophones sounded a prelude for the second dance.
Walter danced with her again, but he gave her a warning. "I don't want to leave you high and dry," he told her, "but I can't stand it. I got to get somewhere I don't haf' to hurt my eyes with these berries; I'll go blind if I got to look at any more of 'em. I'm goin' out to smoke as soon as the music begins the next time, and you better get fixed for it."
Alice tried to get fixed for it. As they danced she nodded sunnily to every man whose eye she caught, smiled her smile with the under lip caught between her teeth; but it was not until the end of the intermission after the dance that she saw help coming.
Across the room sat the globular lady she had encountered that morning, and beside the globular lady sat a round-headed, round-bodied girl; her daughter, at first glance. The family contour was also as evident a characteristic of the short young man who stood in front of Mrs. Dowling, engaged with her in a discussion which was not without evidences of an earnestness almost impassioned. Like Walter, he was declining to dance a third time with sister; he wished to go elsewhere.
Alice from a sidelong eye watched the controversy: she saw the globular young man glance toward her, over his shoulder; whereupon Mrs. Dowling, following this glance, gave Alice a look of open fury, became much more vehement in the argument, and even struck her knee with a round, fat fist for emphasis.
"I'm on my way," said Walter. "There's the music startin' up again, and I told you----"
She nodded gratefully. "It's all right--but come back before long, Walter."
The globular young man, red with annoyance, had torn himself from his family and was hastening across the room to her. "C'n I have this dance?"
"Why, you nice Frank Dowling!" Alice cried. "How lovely!"
They danced. Mr. Dowling should have found other forms of exercise and pastime.
Nature has not designed everyone for dancing, though sometimes those she has denied are the last to discover her niggardliness. But the round young man was at least vigorous enough--too much so, when his knees collided with Alice's--and he was too sturdy to be thrown off his feet, himself, or to allow his partner to fall when he tripped her. He held her up valiantly, and continued to beat a path through the crowd of other dancers by main force.
He paid no attention to anything suggested by the efforts of the musicians, and appeared to be unaware that there should have been some connection between what they were doing and what he was doing; but he may have listened to other music of his own, for his expression was of high content; he seemed to feel no doubt whatever that he was dancing. Alice kept as far away from him as under the circumstances she could; and when they stopped she glanced down, and found the execution of unseen manoeuvres, within the protection of her skirt, helpful to one of her insteps and to the toes of both of her slippers.
Her cheery partner was paddling his rosy brows with a fine handkerchief. "That was great!" he said. "Let's go out and sit in the corridor; they've got some comfortable chairs out there."
"Well--let's not," she returned. "I believe I'd rather stay in here and look at the crowd."
"No; that isn't it," he said, chiding her with a waggish forefinger. "You think if you go out there you'll miss a chance of someone else asking you for the next dance, and so you'll have to give it to me."
"How absurd!" Then, after a look about her that revealed nothing encouraging, she added graciously, "You can have the next if you want it."
"Great!" he exclaimed, mechanically. "Now let's get out of here--out of THIS room, anyhow."
"Why? What's the matter with----"
"My mother," Mr. Dowling explained. "But don't look at her. She keeps motioning me to come and see after Ella, and I'm simply NOT going to do it, you see!"
Alice laughed. "I don't believe it's so much that," she said, and consented to walk with him to a point in the next room from which Mrs. Dowling's continuous signalling could not be seen. "Your mother hates me."
"Oh, no; I wouldn't say that. No, she don't," he protested, innocently. "She don't know you more than just to speak to, you see. So how could she?"
"Well, she does. I can tell."
A frown appeared upon his rounded brow. "No; I'll tell you the way she feels. It's like this: Ella isn't TOO popular, you know--it's hard to see why, because she's a right nice girl, in her way--and mother thinks I ought to look after her, you see. She thinks I ought to dance a whole lot with her myself, and stir up other fellows to dance with her--it's simply impossible to make mother understand you CAN'T do that, you see. And then about me, you see, if she had her way I wouldn't get to dance with anybody at all except girls like Mildred Palmer and Henrietta Lamb. Mother wants to run my whole programme for me, you understand, but the trouble of it is--about girls like that, you see well, I couldn't do what she wants, even if I wanted to myself, because you take those girls, and by the time I get Ella off my hands for a minute, why, their dances are always every last one taken, and where do I come in?"
Alice nodded, her amiability undamaged. "I see. So that's why you dance with me."
"No, I like to," he protested. "I rather dance with you than I do with those girls." And he added with a retrospective determination which showed that he had been through quite an experience with Mrs. Dowling in this matter. "I TOLD mother I would, too!"
"Did it take all your courage, Frank?"
He looked at her shrewdly. "Now you're trying to tease me," he said. "I don't care; I WOULD rather dance with you! In the first place, you're a perfectly beautiful dancer, you see, and in the second, a man feels a lot more comfortable with you than he does with them. Of course I know almost all the other fellows get along with those girls all right; but I don't waste any time on 'em I don't have to.
like people that are always cordial to everybody, you see--the way you are."
"Thank you," she said, thoughtfully.
"Oh, I MEAN it," he insisted. "There goes the band again. Shall we?"
"Suppose we sit it out?" she suggested. "I believe I'd like to go out in the corridor, after all--it's pretty warm in here."
Assenting cheerfully, Dowling conducted her to a pair of easy-chairs within a secluding grove of box- trees, and when they came to this retreat they found Mildred Palmer just departing, under escort of a well-favoured gentleman about thirty. As these two walked slowly away, in the direction of the dancing- floor, they left it not to be doubted that they were on excellent terms with each other; Mildred was evidently willing to make their progress even slower, for she halted momentarily, once or twice; and her upward glances to her tall companion's face were of a gentle, almost blushing deference. Never before had Alice seen anything like this in her friend's manner.
"How queer!" she murmured.
"What's queer?" Dowling inquired as they sat down.
"Who was that man?"
"Haven't you met him?"
"I never saw him before. Who is he?"
"Why, it's this Arthur Russell."
"What Arthur Russell? I never heard of him." Mr. Dowling was puzzled. "Why, THAT'S funny! Only the last time I saw you, you were telling me how awfully well you knew Mildred Palmer."
"Why, certainly I do," Alice informed him. "She's my most intimate friend."
"That's what makes it seem so funny you haven't heard anything about this Russell, because everybody says even if she isn't engaged to him right now, she most likely will be before very long. I must say it looks a good deal that way to me, myself."
"What nonsense!" Alice exclaimed. "She's never even mentioned him to me."
The young man glanced at her dubiously and passed a finger over the tiny prong that dashingly composed the whole substance of his moustache.
"Well, you see, Mildred IS pretty reserved," he remarked. "This Russell is some kind of cousin of the Palmer family, I understand."
"Yes--second or third or something, the girls say. You see, my sister Ella hasn't got much to do at home, and don't read anything, or sew, or play solitaire, you see; and she hears about pretty much everything that goes on, you see. Well, Ella says a lot of the girls have been talking about Mildred and this Arthur Russell for quite a while back, you see. They were all wondering what he was going to look like, you see; because he only got here yesterday; and that proves she must have been talking to some of 'em, or else how----"
Alice laughed airily, but the pretty sound ended abruptly with an audible intake of breath. "Of course, while Mildred IS my most intimate friend," she said, "I don't mean she tells me everything--and naturally she has other friends besides. What else did your sister say she told them about this Mr. Russell?"
"Well, it seems he's VERY well off; at least Henrietta Lamb told Ella he was. Ella says----"
Alice interrupted again, with an increased irritability. "Oh, never mind what Ella says! Let's find something better to talk about than Mr. Russell!"