A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter VI
No one who has followed me thus far can accuse me of having tried to make myself attractive to my readers. My later experiences have taught me that girls who despise what are generally acknowledged to be the pleasures of girlhood, will get but little sympathy in this world. Perhaps that is as it should be. I must have been eccentric.
I remember that I once heard a young man who had been dancing with a corsetless maiden, a believer in the laws of health, declare that such girls ought not to be allowed in a ball-room. To be accepted by society, you must follow the laws it prescribes. The right to be eccentric must be earned—and it takes time to earn it. What right had a chit like myself to declare that I found the young men whom I was called upon to meet, undesirable and uninteresting? Who put such ideas into my head? I cannot lay the blame upon anybody. The ideas were there. Topsy-like, I suspect "they growed."
The subject I now have to deal with is my engagement. I had grown to like Arthur Ravener very much. I thought we had a great deal in common. I never felt that a woman was a silly chattering doll when I was with him. He would talk upon any subject with me, and never once in all our intercourse did he pay me a single compliment. He never showed that he admired me. All he ever said was that he liked talking to a sensible girl who looked upon the world very much as he did himself.
One evening as I was sitting alone at a detestable "musicale and dance," and wondering as usual why girls wasted their best years in training themselves to shine at such entertainments, I noticed Arthur Ravener and Captain Dillington enter the room. The former looked anxiously around—for me, of course, I knew that; the latter remained standing at the door, where he could see all that was going on. The reception accorded Damon and Pythias was always polite, but never cordial. The men seemed to avoid Captain Dillington, and he usually tacked him« self to the skirts of some plump old matron, who talked of nothing more exciting than servants and other domestic relaxations. I imagine that Arthur Ravener must have pursued a similar course before he met me—but then my imagination always did go a long way.
"How do you do, Miss Bouverie?" Arthur Ravener in evening dress was extremely comely, but I could have found it in my heart to wish that he were not so pretty.
"I am so glad you have come, Mr. Ravener, to raise me from the Slough of Despond. I was going gradually down—down—down."
He smiled. I wondered if the little curl in his moustache were natural, or, if not, how he managed to bring it to such perfection. He did not seem to be in a talkative humor, so I felt called upon to make a little conversation. I looked around the room. Of course I knew I could say it was very warm That is always a safe remark of an evening. It would also not have been out of the way to suggest that there were a great many present.
Ah, there was a good subject for conversation in the young couple opposite, a bride and bridegroom, a couple three months old—matrimonially old, I mean. They were evidently very much enamored and they sickened me. It was very rude of me to take them all in; but they had no idea I was staring at them, so it was all right. I saw him take up her dance programme, and scan the names with a frown, she all the time glancing at him with pride and admiration. Then he whispered something in her ear, taking care to brush it with his moustache, and she put one dainty gloved finger on his lip. He sat down beside her and for five minutes they talked so earnestly that I am quite convinced they forgot the fact that they were "in society." I am ashamed to say I listened to them. It was not an edifying conversation. He declared that an evening spent away from her was a terrible ordeal. She asserted that it was a good thing to dance with other men, as the contrast between them and her own dear husband showed her how immeasurably superior he was.
And all this time I forgot I was to amuse my companion. I looked at him. He was listening to the bride and bridegroom also. Shame upon us both.
"Does that interest you?" he asked.
"It disgusts me," I answered emphatically.
"Ah!"—I fancied he had awaited my answer a little anxiously. He looked satisfied.
"I do not believe in such demonstrative devotion," I went on. "There is nothing beautiful in it to me."
"No," he said. "It will never last. In two years it will take a very great effort on her part to keep him at her side. She will by that time probably think the effort not worth making."
I was silent. Perhaps at that moment something told me that my ideas were morbid. It is possible that quick as a flash of lightning my womanhood asserted itself. I say it is possible, and that is all.
It was the first time he had uttered my Christian name. There was nothing at all tender in the way he pronounced it. I blushed slightly and looked a little conscious. Of course I could make no answer. I sat silent and eyed my gloves (which were rather soiled, by the bye, and not worth eyeing).
"Elsie," he said, "you criticise the conversation of that young couple opposite. But put yourself in her place. Would you prefer your husband to sit calmly by your side, and talk,—perhaps as you and I have talked so often,—quietly, undemonstratively, and sensibly. Would you be satisfied to marry a man who absolutely declined to be the conventional lover, writing ballads to your eyebrows, and extolling your virtues, real and imaginary, while the love fever lasted?"
His face was very pale, and his hands nervously clutched the side of my chair, as he leaned slightly towards me.
"Yes, I would be satisfied," I said
At that moment I felt acutely happy. Of course I knew to what he was coming. I always laugh when I read novels in which the heroines "look up with large surprised eyes," or "innocently wonder" what a proposing lover means. A girl always knows when a man is asking her to marry him. If he expressed himself in Chinese or Hindostanee she would understand him just as well.
I felt I could be happy with Arthur Ravener. He was entirely different to any other man I had met, and the difference seemed to me, then, to be in his favor.
"Elsie," he said, in very agitated tones, "you have remarked very often that you despised these demonstrative beings. When we first met, you told me frequently that I was different—that you found pleasure in my company. I have seen your face brighten when I approached, and, Elsie, I am emboldened by these signs of your esteem, to ask you to be my wife."
I put my hand quietly in his. You, readers, who have perhaps disapproved of my flippancy, will be astonished to hear that for the moment it left me completely. I was deeply moved by Arthur Ravener's proposal. I was delighted. I really believe I felt as an engaged girl ought to feel,—full of admiration for the man who had honored her, and keenly alive to the fact that this world was after all a good place in which to be.
I looked at Arthur. His face was livid. Its startling pallor gave me a shock. I forgot everything for the moment in my anxiety for his present welfare.
"You are ill?" I said.
He looked at me in surprise.
"No," he replied in a low tone. "I am well. Should I not be well"—with a great effort and a strained smile—"when you have just accepted my—my suit?"
Have you ever experienced the unpleasant sensation of knowing that somebody was staring at you, and been impelled to look in their direction? Of course you have. So you will not be surprised if I tell you that I turned from Arthur Ravener and glanced toward the door. Captain Dillington had been staring at me. He looked confused, I am glad to say, when I returned his stare with interest. In fact he tinned immediately away, and began an animated conversation with one of his favorite plump matrons.
"Arthur," I said, impulsively, "I know you and Captain Dillington are such great friends that I want to ask you if he likes me?"
There was no coquetry veiled in this question. I sincerely wished to know how I stood (to use a commercial expression) with the bosom friend of my affianced husband.
Arthur Ravener positively started at my question. For a few seconds he seemed unable to answer.
"I—I am sure he does," he stammered at last. "Yes, Elsie, Captain Dillington does like you. I—I am sure of it. Set your mind at rest."
"Pooh!" said I, inelegantly, feeling that Richard was himself again. "My mind is quite at rest. I'm not going to marry you both, you know"—a remark that was neither pretty nor funny, but vulgar. My carriage had been announced and Arthur was fastening my "sortie de bal" around me. In the hall stood Captain Dillington. He bowed and then extended his hand to me.
"May I congratulate you, Miss Bouverie?" he asked.
"You may," I answered blushingly. Then it occurred to me that it was rather strange Captain Dillington should know anything about my engagement. Arthur had not left my side since I had accepted him as my future husband. Then I reflected that Arthur and the Captain were great friends; that the Captain probably knew that Arthur intended asking me to be his wife; that he had seen us in earnest conversation, noticed my "happy expression," and put two and two together—an arithmetical process practiced by many. Still, I was not quite satisfied, although I decided that it would be better to appear so.
"I trust we shall see a great deal of each other"—after a pause—"later."
He had made this identical speech the other day, I remembered.
"I hope so," said I. I would try and like him for Arthur's sake, though I was perfectly convinced I should not succeed. The hall door was open. Arthur came down the steps with me. He was still pale.
"Good-night, Arthur," I said, extending my hand.
His fingers scarcely closed around mine. I had shaken hands with him a dozen times during our acquaintance, and had always told him he ought to take lessons in the art. But his salutation had never been so coldly inexpressive as to-night it seemed to me. I shivered slightly, then drew myself into the obscurity of the carriage and rolled home.