A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter III
Four weeks later, after a weary round of festivities (so called), I was sitting discontentedly in Lady Burlington's tawdry drawing-room, wondering why it was that the time passed so slowly. Miss Angelina Fotheringay was singing "Voi che sapete," with a hideous Italian accent, and in a gratingly harsh voice. When she began I was anxious to see how she would conduct herself with regard to the high notes in the song, and was prepared to respect her if she would calmly and delicately evade them. Such a proceeding, however, was evidently far from her intentions. She went over them neck and crop, landing in the midst of a heart-rending shriek, but placidly pursuing her course uninjured. My nerves were shocked. I had an ear for music and was therefore clearly out of place.
I wonder why girls will sing Italian and French songs which they cannot pronounce, when there are so many pretty English ballads which are within their scope. French people laugh at our rendering of their songs, and make most unflattering allusions to our efforts. They have a right to make these allusions. You will very rarely, if ever, hear a Frenchwoman attack an English song. She prefers a field in which she knows she will be at home.
"Thanks, so much, dear," I heard Lady Burlington bleat as the songstress concluded amid a volley of applause. I applauded, too, because I was glad the song was at an end.
"I know I am dreadfully importunate," continued my hostess, "but won't you give us one more song? It is such a treat to hear you. Do, dear," pursued Lady Burlington, as Angelina became coy. "There's that pretty little thing you sing so sweetly, let me see—what is it? Ah, I remember 'Angels ever bright and fair.'"
"Angels ever bright and fair," a pretty little thing! Ye gods!
Miss Fotheringay sat down at the piano again, and having hooked a vapid-looking youth to turn over the pages for her, proceeded to request those unhappy angels to take, oh, take her to their care. She concluded with an operatic flourish, and then without being asked favored the company with a little something in variations, of which I shall never know the name.
I felt positively ill, and when Lady Burlington requested me to play, pettishly declined. As I have already said I had a stock of drawing-room pieces which my fashionable professor had selected; but I hated them. I was thoroughly cross, and longed for something or somebody to distract my mind.
No sooner had I expressed this longing to myself than I noticed two young men enter the drawing-room. They attracted my attention at once. The younger was a tall, slightly built man, about twenty-five years of age. His features were so regular, and his complexion so perfect, that if you had shaven off the small golden moustache which adorned his upper lip, and dressed him in my garments, I felt that he would have done them much more eredit than I could ever hope to do. He was extremely pretty. His clothes were faultless, his light hair was carefully brushed, and his appearance altogether irreproachable.
I cannot say as much for his companion, who must have been some ten years his senior. This gentleman had a puffy face, with thick red lips, and beady black eyes, something like those of a canary, but not as clear. He had the most unpleasant looking mouth I have ever seen, and as he wore no moustache whatever, it was very visible.
The two new arrivals sat down together during the progress of a song. Then they made their greetings in a quietly dignified manner, and were soon separated in the crowd. I noticed that the younger man looked continually after his friend when the latter went his way. I was still wondering who the two gentlemen were, when I saw Letty Bishop energetically steering her way in my direction, followed closely by the younger.
"Ah, I've been looking for you, Elsie," she said impulsively, regardless of etiquette. "I want to introduce you to Mr. Arthur Ravener. My friend, Miss Bouverie, Mr. Ravener."
Mr. Ravener took the vacant seat beside me, and on closer inspection I found his complexion quite as perfect and his features quite as regular as they had seemed when there was distance between us.
"You do not appear to be enjoying yourself, Miss Bouverie," he said in soft, musical tones.
"I am not indeed," I answered, vexed that he had been able to read my feelings so easily. "I think musical evenings are detestable."
"Query: Is this a musical evening?" Mr. Ravener sank his voice to a whisper, and I laughed outright. The ice was broken.
We entered upon a conversation which was thoroughly delightful, to me at any rate. I found that Arthur Ravener was fond of music, and understood it thoroughly. He asked who were my favorite composers. I told him that I had never been allowed to have any favorites. I had been dosed with Brinley Richards, Sydney Smith and Kuhe, and the effect had been extremely injurious. I liked to hear classical music. It did not weary me in the least; in fact, if I had been properly educated, I might have proved a fairly competent musician.
He was drawing me out, actually. I had not said as much since I left school to any new acquaintance. Here I was talking to a man with as much ease as though he were one of my beloved feminine school-friends. Mr. Ravener listened to me very attentively. He interposed soft "Oh, indeeds," and "Ah's" in a very pleasant manner, and appeared to be interested. He was very serious and extremely deferential. His face showed none of the changes that steal involuntarily over the features of most men when they speak to young girls. He talked to me as unconcernedly as though I were a man. I became as confidential as though he were a woman. I said presently, "if you are so fond of music, how is it you come to evenings like this?"
"May I address the same question to you?" he asked.
"Oh, that's another thing," I replied. "Girls can't do as they like, you know. They have to follow in the paths their fathers and mothers make for them. But I should have thought it would have been different with men.'
"It is not, however," said Mr. Ravener, quietly, and I suppose he thought that settled it, as he dropped the subject. I noticed that he seemed to be eagerly searching for some one in the crowd, and at last I saw his eyes rest upon his unprepossessing friend.
"Are you afraid your friend is not enjoying himself?" I asked, rather cheekily I admit.
He reddened slightly. "Captain Dillington always enjoys himself," he said quietly. "He is very happy in society."
I remembered Letty's story of Damon and Pythias, and longed to know something of these two young men, one of whom at least was different from the ordinary drawing-room specimen. Arthur Ravener was certainly attractive, and I felt I was going to be interested in him, so I must be excused if I showed too much curiosity.
"How rarely you find two really sincere friends," I remarked, rather sentimentally. "The present time seems to be wonderfully unsuited to such a tie."
"That is true"—very laconically.
"I think there is nothing so beautiful as friendship," I went on, with persistence.
"You have heard of Damon and Pythias," he said quickly, reading me like a book. I blushed deeply and was then furiously angry with myself. "I don't mind," he went on. "Make all the fun of us you like."
"Mr. Ravener," I protested, "I assure you that when I heard of the friendship existing between you and Captain Dillington, I became interested in you." (A pretty little declaration to make.) "I don't see where any fun comes in. I am tired of the stupid men I meet at such gatherings as these. They have not enough feeling about their composition to allow them to make friends. Far from feeling amused at Damon and Pythias, I am deeply interested in them."
Arthur Ravener looked pleased. I went on gushing like the school-girl I was. "I can think a great deal better of a young man who is capable of being sincerely attached to a companion, than I can of those foolish chatterboxes over there, who are forever telling me I have pretty eyes, pretty hair and a pretty figure, as though I had not been intimately acquainted with myself for the last seventeen years. Don't think I laugh at you, Mr. Ravener, I am very much interested." Then, so ingenuously that it could hardly be considered rude, "I should like to hear all about Captain Dillington, and how you came to know him?"
"There surely can be nothing to tell," he said in strained tones. "What is the friendship between two young men that you should deem it worth discussing?"
"It is worth discussing," I impulsively asserted. "What are we going to talk about? You are not going to tell me about my sylph-like form, or compare my charms with those of my less fortunate friends?"
"No," he replied gravely, "you will find that is not my style when you know me better. I trust we shall know each other better, Miss Bouverie," he remarked quietly.
"Yes." I blushed in my prettiest manner, and cast my eyes down. I was determined to impress Arthur Ravener favorably. I looked extremely well when my long fringed lids could be seen advantageously. Picture my disgust and annoyance when, looking up again, I found I was alone, and just in time to see Arthur Ravener vanishing from the room with Captain Dillington. Even my acquiescence in his wish for our better acquaintance had not been sufficiently interesting to keep him at my side.
He was gone. "Well," I said to myself, "the claims of friendship are great. He is not very polite, but let him go"—which was extremely kind of me, as he had already gone.
Later in the evening I saw the two young men again. Arthur Ravener did not approach me, but bowed in an astonishingly friendly manner, and I, anxious not to seem piqued, returned the nod, accompanied by a smile.
I was subsequently made acquainted with Captain Dillington, for whom, after I had been in his society five minutes, I felt an overwhelming dislike. I cannot say what it was that induced the impression, but Captain Dillington reminded me of a toad, from his beady little eyes, to his sleek, smooth shaven face. He was conspicuously and effusively polite, which I always consider an unpleasant feature in any man's behavior. Though he paid me no compliments, I was uneasy in his society; again I say I do not know why. We discussed various subjects; he in his oily, complacent manner, I in my superficial, gushing way. I was delighted when he left me, but I could not recover my previous serenity.
It was now the hour when departures were expected with resignation; in fact, Lady Burlington was yawning most openly—if I were in a flippant mood, I should consider that a tolerably decent pun—and I could see the poor thing thought she had entertained us sufficiently.
"Good-night, dear Lady Burlington," I said affectionately, with a smile which mamma would have given six years of her life to see; "I have spent a delightful evening."
May I be forgiven that sin, and the thousands of others of a like nature which I have committed, rebelling as I have rebelled against their absurdity. May all who sin in a like manner be forgiven. May only society that knows these words are mostly sins, and that yet accepts them, be unforgiven! That is what I wish.
"How did you like them?" asked Letty Bishop, as I stood in the hall being cloaked, while I silently vowed to myself that I would tell no more lies to my hostesses.
"Who's them?" I inquired ungrammatically and peevishly, for I was tired.
"Arthur Ravener and Captain Dillington."
"I don't know," I answered. "Mr. Ravener was away from me before I could make up my mind whether I liked him or not. I forgive him freely."
"Ah!" said Letty, with such detestable unction that, friend though I was, I could have enjoyed boxing her ears, "he doesn't pay you compliments. I expect the amiability was all on your side."
I made no answer, but with a hasty "goodnight," I jumped into the carriage which was awaiting me and was borne homewards.