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(ii)

FORLORN! A sound, chiming with that word in his thought, brought him back again to his sole self. It was a movement, a rustle. He said, smoothing hair dishevelled by his own plunged fingers, instinctively tweaking down his waistcoat in the dark:

“Who's that, who's there?”

The sound shifted upwards, a stair creaked. He moved after, stretching his hand before him into darkness, and closed it round an ankle; closed it completely, thumb and finger-tip just meeting. A good beginning anyway, thought the young man, coming out of his melancholy with the rush proper to his age; let us discover more.




  ― 135 ―

“Don't be frightened. Why are you here? This is a silk stocking, it ought to be under one of the tables.”

The unseen person gave a brief laugh, but pulled in her breath after it. He went on, fingering the flounces of the dress:

“Muslin. Worked in sprigs. What will it look like after these stairs? How could you use a poor muslin so?”

The unknown retreated a step higher, pulling her dress out of his grasp, and fairly ran upwards, her slippers hardly sounding, but all the petticoats and their frills swishing like the last lap of a wave spreading its lace on a beach. He followed, two stairs at a time, and caught her as she wrestled with a door-handle. His fingers closed over hers, which were cool and rough. He had not expected that roughness, it checked him a little, so that she was able to twist the door open without further interference; when she tried to bang it, however, his foot was in the way.

He looked with interest at his quarry. An oil-lamp swung in the centre of the room—it was an office, fly-blown, its sole beauty the square of window framing stars—and this showed a young girl, short, frail, her dark hair atrociously sown with gum flowers, looking at him resentfully. She had a small pointed face like an animal, much too wide between the eyes, the mouth much too large; she had been crying.

“What did I tell you?” said he, nodding at her flounces. “You're all cobwebs. Mab could dress Moth, Mustardseed, her whole court off you.”




  ― 136 ―

The unknown at this for the first time broke silence with a solitary syllable, disconcerting him:

“Who?”

“The fairy queen; Titania, Mab. Don't they have fairies in this country?”

She looked at him uncomprehending.

“What business have you got sneaking after me?”

Poor child, thought Adare. The voice was rough as her hands when it could be heard in a whole sentence. He said:

“I thought perhaps I might help you——”

“Bender!” interrupted the girl with entire scorn. He could interpret this. The three assigned women, that odd team of harpies which he drove by alternating flattery with boxes on the ear, constantly used the expression to imply dissent or incredulity. Oh yes, I'll make haste—bender. We'll all marry lords—bender.

“I did, though,” he repeated. “You were crying, weren't you?”

“What of it?” said the girl, drawing her hand defiantly beneath her nose. “Can't I cry if I want?”

“Not at a ball,” Adare said gently. “It's not the thing. No, you certainly mustn't cry at a ball.”

“A lot you know,” said the girl, again with that laugh drawn in like a sob. She turned her back on him. “I don't want anybody, see? Go away.”

Adare shut the door, then came behind her. For curiosity, and because a medley of sentiments were stirring in him that he could not interpret, he took her


  ― 137 ―
wrist as before he had taken her ankle, between finger and thumb. The finger overlapped this time by an inch or two. When she shook her arm to escape, he let her go at once.

“Why d'you touch me? That's gentlemen for you.”

“I beg your pardon,” said the young man. “I didn't mean to annoy you.”

“Why do you do it, then? Why are you after me like this? Let me alone, I tell you.”

She kept her shoulders turned to him, picking to pieces, as though she hated it, an ugly flower that had dropped from her hair.

“Is there anyone I can bring to you?”

He meant any relative, any comfortable person on whose shoulder, should she feel so disposed, she might cry, and he was astonished to see the curve of her cheek turn red as though he had slapped it. She faced him.

“I don't want your charity. I don't want partners.”

“Well, then, madam, if it isn't unreasonable to ask, what do you come to a ball for?”

“Oh, get out,” she answered roughly. “I've told you before I don't want you.”

This was no way to address a young man whose spirit was up; a young man, moreover, beginning to assess the sullen eyes and mouth at a value by no means low.

“Are you sure?” said he.

The girl was silent, new to this kind of impudence. He liked the colour across her cheek-bones; she had the


  ― 138 ―
sallow skin of all currencynote women, and the patches of red became her.

“Are you sure you won't let me offer you an arm, and escort you downstairs, and find the wing of a chicken for you? Why do you keep me here among the cobwebs? A bottle is the only right place for cobwebs——”

“I keep you here!” she said, helplessly angry. “I keep you!

“Put it to yourself, now, is it likely I'll go away and leave you to cry all alone? Even to be angry is better; more becoming, too. It is my duty to stay here and torment you till you come to a better frame of mind. Besides, I am a committee-man, the success of this ball is my affair, I am affronted when the prettiest of all St. Patrick's patrons runs off in a corner to snivel.”

“You don't get round me that way.”

“What way, then? Tell me, and I'll march round and round you like those old Bible fellows at Jericho. Tell me how I can make you endure me.”

“Very funny,” said the girl.

“It was not meant for a joke. It is only my way of talking.”

“Why can't you go and talk to all the swells where you belong?”

“How do you know where I belong?” She did not answer. “I believe you know my name. I believe you've had your eye on me all the evening, if the whole truth were told.”




  ― 139 ―

“Oh, go away, go away!”

“Listen,” said he, changing his tone instantly, “I don't know what's troubling you, but there is something that's certain. If I can help, tell me. If I can't, I promise I'll go.”

“You can't. Nobody can.”

He bowed without the satirical flourish he had at first intended, and said, looking at her eyes, dark-set, but blue perhaps by daylight:

“Good night, then, madam.”

On the words, they both became aware of a change in the quality of those sounds which had run beneath their talk. The bourdon of conversation, human noise, had been steadily sustained; above it flickered, in sharp differentiation, noises inanimate, chinks and clashes of glasses and knives. Now for a moment all these died, a single voice could be heard calling something not to be distinguished. Immediately the human voice rose, again, and another inanimate sound with it, a rumbling of wood upon wood, chairs being pushed hastily back, while the voices took a higher pitch. It might have been only a loyal toast, and the ending of supper, but for some reason neither of the listeners in the office could think so. As they stood, a scent crept to them, carrying warning.

“Wait,” quietly said Adare to the girl.

He opened the door. The smell of smoke was not to be mistaken. He went quickly downstairs past the ventilator, through which he caught a glimpse of people moving with the slow urgency of a blocked throng; he reckoned up and rejected this opening as a chance


  ― 140 ―
of escape—too small, the drop on the farther side too great. The smoke was thick, he had difficulty in breathing in the darkness, but he reached the door at the stairs' foot and opened it. A blast of fire rushed in upon him, so that he threw up his hands instinctively to shelter his face. He had one thought; I must get back to her. He pulled the door to, shoving his hand through flame, and fled upstairs through the smoke, holding his breath lest he should cough and so stifle before he reached the upper room. He reached the top, gasping, and shut that door too before he looked for her, and saw a white shape at the window blocking out blue darkness.

“Don't,” he called. “Wait. Give me a moment—the smoke——”

She turned her head, and to his astonishment, almost his indignation, saw that she was laughing. She spoke out the window:

“That's the way, mister. Set it up, we can drop to it.”

A man's voice outside said something, which she answered with a sudden screech of laughter, and a colloquial:

“That's right.”

“What is it?”

Adare was beside her, whooping the fresh air into his lungs. Staring down, he could make out a square-covered cart below, drawn by a pony. A man was standing upon its top, setting a ladder against their wall. He could hear the shoulders of the ladder scrape upon bricks four feet or so below the window.




  ― 141 ―

“A danna-drag,” she answered. “Are you any the wiser?”

He was not; when a further witticism came from the rescuer, and was answered, still he was at a loss.

“You go first,” the girl ordered; “it's nothing of a drop. Hold by the sill.”

“Pardon me,” Adare answered, humour coming back to him with his breath, “but which of us two is the damsel in distress?”

She laughed again at that—she was excited, the red still barred her cheek-bones—and took the oil lamp from its suspensory ring, holding it so as to illuminate the window; for the first time she looked at her gallant, dishevelled, stock pulled undone, and eyebrows burnt off.

“Looks as if it's you,” said she, grinning. “Go on, show the way.”

“I'm damned if I do. Women and children first.”

“Well,” said the girl, judicially, “there's plenty time. Hold the lamp, then.”

He took the lamp, holding it awkwardly in his scorched hand. She hesitated, turned half from him, a tribute to modesty, and unhooked, untied, somehow loosed her flounces, which dropped round her feet. She jerked her head at them, advancing to the window.

“Drop 'em after me.”

Then with a neat swift movement she was over the sill, and he saw her two little red hands strongly clutching for a second while her feet searched in air. They loosened


  ― 142 ―
their grip, disappeared; leaning out, he saw that she was almost down. He picked up the petticoats and sprigged skirt, waited till she had her footing and was looking up, then tossed them. The man on the cart, receiving one soft drift of white, found something jocose to say which Adare, in a puzzle with his lamp, did not hear. At last he put it out, straddled the sill, easily found the ladder and descended to the cart's flat top. There the rescuer, an individual who smelt unpleasantly, could be heard saying, between hiccups of laughter:

“Done for a jump, mister! Well, that's a new one. That's plummy, that is. First time anyone's due to have a medal for knapping a jacob.note You was on toast without it, though; you was, proper.”

Adare agreed to as much as he comprehended of this speech, and sought the darkness for his companion.

“Are you quite unharmed?” he called. “Miss——” but what the devil was her name? “Are you safe?”

“Ha!” commented the man of the cart, with an indescribable weeping snort. “S'help us, her in her kickseys and he don't know her name.”

Adare hit him as decisively as darkness and the uncertain footing would allow. The man cursed and fell backwards to the ground, where he lay. Adare leapt down beside him.

“Come, get up out of there. That's for what you said. Here's for what you did.”




  ― 143 ―

“Eh?” said the man, bewildered. “You'd no call to do a thing like that, mister. You was on toast——”

“I know, I know. Where's your hand?”

The man rose grumbling; two half-guineas, the only coins Mr. Adare's pocket contained, were pressed into his hand, and he heard his assailant-cum-benefactor say, on top of a shrill whistle:

“Why, damn it, my fist's grilled like an underdone steak!”

The cart's pony, which during this interlude had budged no more than a sphinx, seemed to wake from a doze and moved forward. His owner, feeling the weight and milling of the two coins in the dark, called out the tribute money can always command:

“You're a gentleman, mister.” He added, as an after-thought: “No offence, I hope.”

“Where's the lady?” said Adare, peering as the cart moved, and its conductor ran to hook his ladder to the back.

“She won't be far,” returned the man, and burst into another laugh. “Fancy, it ain't what I'm used to collecting, by no means, not of a night.”

Slowly, clanking, the cart moved off, and Adare could discover no girl behind it. One petticoat lay where it had fallen, but she had assumed the rest of her attire and fled. Adare picked up the petticoat idly, then with a start recollected the reason and occasion of its discarding. Fire, fire! He could hear, coming from the other side of the building, the unmistakable confused echoes that are


  ― 144 ―
waked by that cry; and throwing the petticoat over his shoulder, impulsively ran.

Into George Street the fine ladies and their escorts were herding, while from the steps of the Temperance Hall officers cried, in parade-ground voices, reports and reassurances which nobody heeded. In the poor light of coach lanterns and half a dozen street lamps the crowd eddied, unwilling to disperse and leave a clear way for soldiers with pails of water; bound by half a dozen different spells the dancers lingered, by a shawl left in the cloakroom, a husband not yet seen safe, desire to miss no excitement, expectation of some spectacular rescue. Pickpockets, upon whose hopes such a gathering descended like manna, filched with neatness every fob, handkerchief, snuff-box or purse to which Mercury guided their fingers. There were one or two feminine faintings, with masculine bawls of “Stand back there!” Coachmen sardonically looked down from their boxes. In the windows of the circumferent public-houses lights sprang up mockingly, and persons arrayed with no thought for propriety were displayed leaning out. The only thing lacking to this scene was that which had, presumably, set it in motion. There were no flames, though from a window or two smoke listlessly eddied. Voices near Adare were suggesting that the whole affair was a plant of the tinny-hunters.note All at once he remembered Lady Henrietta, his creation, his triumph in a velvet gown.




  ― 145 ―

“Is everyone out?” he asked his neighbour.

“Everyone, I couldn't say,” the neighbour returned, in the sardonic currency voice Adare could never get used to. “The fire is.”

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