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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Elsie at the Sprowle “Party”
By Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)
 
From ‘Elsie Venner’

THE CONVERSATION rose into one of its gusty paroxysms just then…. All at once it grew silent just round the door, where it had been loudest,—and the silence spread itself like a stain, till it hushed everything but a few corner duets. A dark, sad-looking, middle-aged gentleman entered the parlor, with a young lady on his arm,—his daughter, as it seemed, for she was not wholly unlike him in feature, and of the same dark complexion.  1
  “Dudley Venner,” exclaimed a dozen people, in startled but half-suppressed tones.  2
  “What can have brought Dudley out to-night?” said Jefferson Buck, a young fellow who had been interrupted in one of the corner duets which he was executing in concert with Miss Susy Pettingill.  3
  “How do I know, Jeff?” was Miss Susy’s answer. Then, after a pause,—“Elsie made him come, I guess. Go ask Dr. Kittredge: he knows all about ’em both, they say.”…  4
  Jefferson Buck was not bold enough to confront the doctor with Miss Susy’s question, for he did not look as if he were in the mood to answer queries put by curious young people. His eyes were fixed steadily on the dark girl, every movement of whom he seemed to follow.  5
  She was indeed an apparition of wild beauty, so unlike the girls about her that it seemed nothing more than natural that when she moved, the groups should part to let her pass through them, and that she should carry the centre of all looks and thoughts with her. She was dressed to please her own fancy, evidently, with small regard to the modes declared correct by the Rockland milliners and mantua-makers. Her heavy black hair lay in a braided coil, with a long gold pin shot through it like a javelin. Round her neck was a golden torque, a round, cord-like chain, such as the Gauls used to wear; the Dying Gladiator has it. Her dress was a grayish watered silk; her collar was pinned with a flashing diamond brooch, the stones looking as fresh as morning dew-drops, but the silver setting of the past generation; her arms were bare, round, but slender rather than large, in keeping with her lithe round figure. On her wrists she wore bracelets: one was a circlet of enameled scales, the other looked as if it might have been Cleopatra’s asp, with its body turned to gold and its eyes to emeralds.  6
  Her father—for Dudley Venner was her father—looked like a man of culture and breeding, but melancholy and with a distracted air, as one whose life had met some fatal cross or blight. He saluted hardly anybody except his entertainers and the doctor. One would have said, to look at him, that he was not at the party by choice; and it was natural enough to think, with Susy Pettingill, that it must have been a freak of the dark girl’s which brought him there, for he had the air of a shy and sad-hearted recluse.  7
  It was hard to say what could have brought Elsie Venner to the party. Hardly anybody seemed to know her, and she seemed not at all disposed to make acquaintances. Here and there was one of the older girls from the Institute, but she appeared to have nothing in common with them. Even in the school-room, it may be remembered, she sat apart by her own choice, and now in the midst of the crowd she made a circle of isolation round herself. Drawing her arm out of her father’s, she stood against the wall, and looked, with a strange cold glitter in her eyes, at the crowd which moved and babbled before her.  8
  The old doctor came up to her by-and-by.  9
  “Well, Elsie, I am quite surprised to find you here. Do tell me how you happened to do such a good-natured thing as to let us see you at such a great party.”  10
  “It’s been dull at the mansion-house,” she said, “and I wanted to get out of it. It’s too lonely there,—there’s nobody to hate since Dick’s gone.”  11
  The doctor laughed good-naturedly, as if this were an amusing bit of pleasantry; but he lifted his head and dropped his eyes a little, so as to see her through his spectacles. She narrowed her lids slightly, as one often sees a sleepy cat narrow hers,—somewhat as you may remember our famous Margaret used to, if you remember her at all,—so that her eyes looked very small but bright as the diamonds on her breast. The old doctor felt very oddly as she looked at him; he did not like the feeling, so he dropped his head and lifted his eyes and looked at her over his spectacles again.  12
  “And how have you all been at the mansion-house?” said the doctor.  13
  “Oh, well enough. But Dick’s gone, and there’s nobody left but Dudley and I and the people. I’m tired of it. What kills anybody quickest, doctor?” Then, in a whisper, “I ran away again the other day, you know.”  14
  “Where did you go?” The doctor spoke in a low, serious tone.  15
  “Oh, to the old place. Here, I brought this for you.”  16
  The doctor started as she handed him a flower of the Atragene Americana; for he knew that there was only one spot where it grew, and that not one where any rash foot, least of all a thin-shod woman’s foot, should venture.  17
  “How long were you gone?” said the doctor.  18
  “Only one night. You should have heard the horns blowing and the guns firing. Dudley was frightened out of his wits. Old Sophy told him she’d had a dream, and that I should be found in Dead Man’s Hollow, with a great rock lying on me. They hunted all over it, but they didn’t find me,—I was farther up.”  19
  Dr. Kittredge looked cloudy and worried while she was speaking, but forced a pleasant professional smile as he said cheerily, and as if wishing to change the subject:—  20
  “Have a good dance this evening, Elsie. The fiddlers are tuning up. Where’s the young master? has he come yet? or is he going to be late, with the other great folks?”  21
  The girl turned away without answering, and looked toward the door.  22
  The “great folks,” meaning the mansion-house gentry, were just beginning to come; Dudley Venner and his daughter had been the first of them….  23
  Mr. Bernard came in later than any of them: he had been busy with his new duties. He looked well, and that is saying a good deal; for nothing but a gentleman is endurable in full dress. Hair that masses well, a head set on with an air, a neckerchief tied cleverly by an easy, practiced hand, close-fitting gloves, feet well shaped and well covered,—these advantages can make us forgive the odious sable broadcloth suit, which appears to have been adopted by society on the same principle that condemned all the Venetian gondolas to perpetual and uniform blackness. Mr. Bernard, introduced by Mr. Geordie, made his bow to the colonel and his lady, and to Miss Matilda, from whom he got a particularly gracious curtsy, and then began looking about him for acquaintances. He found two or three faces he knew, many more strangers. There was Silas Peckham—there was no mistaking him; there was the inelastic amplitude of Mrs. Peckham; few of the Apollinean girls, of course, they not being recognized members of society,—but there is one with the flame in her cheeks and the fire in her eyes, the girl of vigorous tints and emphatic outlines, whom we saw entering the school-room the other day. Old Judge Thornton has his eyes on her, and the colonel steals a look every now and then at the red brooch which lifts itself so superbly into the light, as if he thought it a wonderfully becoming ornament. Mr. Bernard himself was not displeased with the general effect of the rich-blooded schoolgirl, as she stood under the bright lamps fanning herself in the warm, languid air, fixed in a kind of passionate surprise at the new life which seemed to be flowering out in her consciousness. Perhaps he looked at her somewhat steadily, as some others had done; at any rate, she seemed to feel that she was looked at, as people often do, and turning her eyes suddenly on him, caught his own on her face, gave him a half-bashful smile, and threw in a blush involuntarily which made it more charming.  24
  “What can I do better,” he said to himself, “than have a dance with Rosa Milburn?” So he carried his handsome pupil into the next room and took his place with her in a cotillon. Whether the breath of the Goddess of Love could intoxicate like the cup of Circe,—whether a woman is ever phosphorescent with the luminous vapor of life that she exhales,—these and other questions which relate to occult influences exercised by certain women we will not now discuss. It is enough that Mr. Bernard was sensible of a strange fascination, not wholly new to him, nor unprecedented in the history of human experience, but always a revelation when it comes over us for the first or the hundredth time, so pale is the most recent memory by the side of the passing moment with the flush of any new-born passion on its cheek. Remember that Nature makes every man love all women, and trusts the trivial matter of special choice to the commonest accident.  25
  If Mr. Bernard had had nothing to distract his attention, he might have thought too much about his handsome partner, and then gone home and dreamed about her, which is always dangerous, and waked up thinking of her still, and then begun to be deeply interested in her studies, and so on through the whole syllogism which ends in Nature’s supreme quod erat demonstrandum. What was there to distract him or disturb him? He did not know,—but there was something. This sumptuous creature, this Eve just within the gate of an untried Paradise, untutored in the ways of the world but on tiptoe to reach the fruit of the tree of knowledge,—alive to the moist vitality of that warm atmosphere palpitating with voices and music, as the flower of some diœcious plant which has grown in a lone corner, and suddenly unfolding its corolla on some hot-breathing June evening, feels that the air is perfumed with strange odors and loaded with golden dust wafted from those other blossoms with which its double life is shared,—this almost over-womanized woman might well have bewitched him, but that he had a vague sense of a countercharm. It was perhaps only the same consciousness that some one was looking at him which he himself had just given occasion to in his partner. Presently, in one of the turns of the dance, he felt his eyes drawn to a figure he had not distinctly recognized though he had dimly felt its presence, and saw that Elsie Venner was looking at him as if she saw nothing else but him. He was not a nervous person, like the poor lady teacher; yet the glitter of the diamond eyes affected him strangely. It seemed to disenchant the air, so full a moment before of strange attractions. He became silent and dreamy.  26
 
 
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