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XVIII The Ball

EDWARD SHAW was my cicerone to the ball. At a little after nine o'clock we entered the court-grounds. Two armed sentries, formidable looking men, were posted at the gates, but we passed without a challenge; they were merely ornaments. The drive from the gates to the house was strung with Chinese lanterns; it was like a road in fairyland. We alighted from the cab beneath a big square portico, and boldly advanced into a wide and brightly-illumined hall. We left our overcoats and hats in a man-crowded cloakroom, and proceeded through a twisting corridor to a great, richly-curtained door beside the stairs. Shaw handed our cards to a gorgeous person in livery, and the curtains slipping aside, we were ushered into a room. Our names were recited behind us, and a sweet-looking woman standing just within extended to us her hand. Shaw bowed deeply as he reverently touched it with his fingers. I followed suit. Next moment we had traversed the room, and entered a second apartment,


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whose splendid mural decorations and wide, smooth floor proclaimed the ballroom. It was tenanted with splendidly apparelled women and black-coated men. I had never witnessed a scene half so brilliant or magnificent. Here and there flitted officers in scarlet coats and bright dangling swords, which clattered as they strode. I envied them profoundly; they looked so insolent and beautiful. I was fearfully shy and diffident; my heart had fallen to my very shoes. Shaw looked round him carelessly, bowing right and left to his acquaintances. He was very handsome, and seemed entirely at his ease. Presently he smiled and nodded, then, turning, caught my arm. “Mrs. Clare has signalled me to take you to her, Lucas; you must ask her for a dance! She is interested in you. I told her about your adventure with the Push.”

I felt embarrassed. I knew Mrs. Clare by repute; she was a middle-aged woman, supposed to be beautiful and smart, and a leader of society. Her husband was almost a millionaire.

She was standing amid a group of younger women, some of whom were pretty, but she was like a queen compared with them. She was tall and generously fashioned, exquisitely gowned. Her thick masses of hair were of a dark auburn colour, shot with both black and gold. I caught a glimpse of a pair of brilliant dark eyes, a small straight nose, gleaming teeth, and soft oval cheeks; then I bowed before her.

“Mrs. Clare—allow me—my friend Mr. Lucas Rowe,” said Edward Shaw.

I looked up, and our eyes met. She smiled entrancingly, and gave me her hand. She was fearfully décolletée. I simply dared look no lower than her eyes; but she was very beautiful. She said softly, “I have been wishing to meet you, Mr. Rowe.”

“I am overwhelmed to hear it!” I replied. To my deep astonishment, she moved a little round, and put her hand within my arm. “Do take me to a window,” she murmured, “it is dreadfully hot here.”

We left the others and crossed the ballroom, but she was the guide. All whom we encountered stared at me. We


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reached a French glass door, the handle of which I turned; she smiled as we passed out upon a stone verandah. The harbour lay beneath us glittering like a jewel, for the moon was just rising over the heights opposite. The music of a band struck up suddenly within the ballroom. I felt horribly stupid, for I could think of nothing to say to the beautiful creature at my side.

“May I beg the honour of a dance?” I said, desperately, after a moment of simple torture.

She handed me her programme card; it seemed already full. “There is not one left,” I stammered.

She laughed. “I have kept two for you. Mr. Shaw told me you were coming; give me your card.”

I handed it to her, lost in amaze. “How sweet of you!” I muttered.

“Was it? for my own sake, then!”

I said to myself, “All women are flirts. I must pay this one a compliment.” Then aloud and very seriously, “If I thought you meant that, I should be the happiest man in the world.”

“Why should I not mean it? let me tell you, Mr. Rowe, that everyone is talking about you; you are quite the lion of the evening.”

“But how can that be?”

She smiled archly. “Ah, Mr. Rowe, are you so used to deeds of valour that you have already forgotten your exploit with the larrikins—a month past?”

I felt my face burn. “It was nothing!” I stammered.

“Nothing!” she echoed.

“I am wrong,” I cried, quickly. “It was much, for it has given me the happiness of knowing you!”

She shook her finger at me. “That is a compliment—already, Mr. Rowe.”

I looked at her ardently. “Yes, but it is true.”

She smiled. “Another!”

The door behind us opened, and an officer stepped out who wore a coloured sash across his uniform.

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Clare—but, his Excellency——”

“I had forgotten,” she replied; then, smiling to me, she murmured “à bientot,” took the officer's arm, and moved


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away. A moment afterwards I saw her dancing with the Governor. As the whirling crowd swept past, I perceived Amber Eyes, with the officer who had taken Mrs. Clare from me. Her face was brilliantly animated. She was dressed in white satin; a red rose in her hair. Her shoulders, neck and bosom were a revelation. I was consumed with rage to think that all who cared to look might see. It seemed a damnable sacrilege! I slipped into the ballroom, and cautiously made my way around the wall, until I reached an open door opposite. It led to a long conservatory of palms and ferns; luxurious seats and lounges interspersed the plants, but all were shaded and half-concealed, as though arranged for tête-à-têtes, and the place was only lit with coloured glow-lamps. I sank into a chair, and listened to the music of the band in a fever of wild, unreasoning jealousy. When the music ceased, I rose and hurried down the room, anxious to hide or to escape. I passed through a curtained alcove, into another room, then out into a corridor. Suddenly I came face to face with a lackey. “Where is the smoking-room?” I demanded. He led me to a room. I was completely lost by this. Edward Shaw was there smoking a cigarette; also a lot of other men.

“Why are you not dancing?” I enquired.

“Not a dancing man!” he responded, lazily.

In ten minutes I had smoked three cigarettes.

“What's the matter with you—you look wild about something?” demanded Edward.

“I'm nervous, that's all.”

“Buck up, old chap! How many dances has Mrs. Clare given you?”

“Two.”

“Which are they?”

I glanced at my card. “Third and eighth—lancers and the supper waltz!”

He whistled. “May is keeping the supper waltz for you!”

I brightened up. “That is good of her. I shall excuse myself to Mrs. Clare.”

“And make an enemy for life?”

“You don't mean to say?” I cried.




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“Of course I do! But come and have a drop of whiskey.”

It was the first glass of spirit I had ever tasted. Its effects were magical. I lost all diffidence; I forgot my jealousy; I felt happy, elated, triumphant. Shaw took me back to the ball-room and procured partners for me. I danced every dance, but I do not remember one of my partners, except Mrs. Clare. Amber Eyes I did not see at all, although I looked for her; but I did not know where to look. Mrs. Clare was very kind; she said I waltzed perfectly, and she ate a tremendous supper. So did everyone but myself. They ate as ravenously as if they had been starving for weeks, and they drank champagne as though it were water. I watched couple after couple return again and again to the tables, and for the rest of the evening the supper-room wore the appearance of a crowded bar, all the waiters being kept furiously busy between dances in attempting to satisfy the apparently inexhaustible appetites of Sydney's hungry élite. It was really a disgusting spectacle.

“One need not go to the Zoo to see animals feed!” observed Mrs. Clare, disdainfully.

It was true, but it was also true that she disposed of as substantial a meal as anyone else. I heard one old lady whisper to her daughter: “Really, Dora, you should not eat so much! Remember you are a guest!”

The girl replied: “Nonsense, mother! Whose money pays for it, I should like to know? It's really all ours. I enjoy a tuck-in here, 'cause it's like getting back some of the taxes poor pa has to pay!”

Perhaps the same spirit animated the others; certainly, they seemed to make it a point of honour to cram themselves to repletion, only they did not ever appear able to arrive at quite that point. I pitied the Governor profoundly for being obliged to entertain such gluttons. I came upon Amber Eyes at last in the conservatory; she was eating an ice, and talking to an officer; but she signed to me. I had just left Mrs. Clare. I went up to her. The officer courteously departed, in obedience to Miss Denton's nod of dismissal. I sank into the chair he had vacated. Miss Denton's eyes were very angry.




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“How dare you neglect me like this!” she muttered.

“Have you kept me a waltz, May?”

“No.”

“That was unkind!”

“You never once came near me.”

“I could not find you. I looked everywhere.”

“You danced twice with Mrs. Clare!”

“True!”

“If you go near her again to-night, I shall never speak to you again!”

“I won't, then.”

“I have kept you one waltz,” she presently admitted.

“Which?”

“The next.”

The band struck up the first bars of the “Blue Danube.” I arose and offered her my arm. We entered the room, and I put my arm around her waist. She was like a fairy, light as air, lissome as a sprite. All through the waltz she gazed into my eyes. I was in a dream. When the music ceased I led her to the door, and we passed into the garden.

“You should have taken me to aunty!” she murmured.

“Hang your aunt!” I muttered, beneath my breath.

We found a seat in the midst of a bamboo clump.

“She is very pretty,” said Miss Denton.

“Very!” I agreed.

“But very fast.”

“Is she?”

“She is old enough to be your mother, Lucas!”

“Do her justice, May!”

“She is—you know she is!” Her tones were hard and cold.

“You are not jealous?” I muttered.

“But I am.”

“Absurd!”

“Lucas, do you love me?”

“You know I do.”

“Then do something to prove it.”

“Well?”

“Go home—go now, at once! that is, when I leave you.”

“I can't do that, May!”




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“I knew you did not love me!” she cried, angrily, and moved quickly away from me.

“May! May! What a strange girl you are! Why do you want me to go?”

To my despair, she commenced to weep, and between her sobs she muttered out—

“I knew how it would be. I was a fool to make you come. I wanted my first ball to be so happy, and—and now you won't let me. I am just miserable.”

“But why?”

“Because you'll go to that woman again, and she will have you, and I won't enjoy myself a bit.”

“Selfish child that you are—will you be happy if I go?”

She swept up to me on instant. “Lucas, will you really?” and pressed her tear-wet face against my cheek.

“On one condition!”

“Yes, yes!”

“That you kiss me.”

She uttered a little cry and next instant was sitting on my knees, her white arms wound around my neck, her dewy lips on mine. It was the most perfect moment of my life. I cannot write of it, except to say that in that lingering sweet kiss it was love and not passion that inspired my delight. Afterwards I put her from me and passion came. In a sort of fever I knelt beside her and covered her with kisses, from her dainty slippered feet up to her dark crowned hair. I kissed her shoes, her dress, her arms, her neck, her shoulders, her eyes, and lips. I was mad! She rested still, but she panted like a thing in deadly fear, and I could hear her heart-beats. When at last I stood before her, trembling and dizzy with rapture, she hid her face in her hands, even though I could not see it for the dark, and she seemed to sob.

“You are mine!” I said, triumphantly; “mine by your promise, by your oath! You have kissed me, you have let me kiss you! I am the man you love!”

She sprang to her feet and stood for a moment swaying like a reed.

“Oh!” she cried; “I did not think. What have I done, what have I done?”




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Next instant she was gone. She glided from me like a shadow and vanished flying on the lawn.

I sank upon the bench half swooning. Voices roused me, the voices of women. One said: “He is good-looking, certainly, but a stick, slow as a funeral!”

“Well, you ought to know!” replied the other.

“I should think so!” said the first speaker. “I had him for half an hour in the conservatory and he never even put his arm round my waist.”

The second woman's voice was tinged with satire.

“That, my dear, proves it; the man must be a stick!”

I got up and stealthily escaped from my retreat. An hour later I was in bed.

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