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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Freddy Croft: And the Lynshire Ball
By William Edward Norris (1847–1925)
 
From ‘Matrimony’

THIS history is less the result of personal observation than of information received at various times and from divers trustworthy sources; and if, in writing it, I had to confine myself to the relation of such incidents as I could swear to in a court of justice, I should not only be obliged to cut out many scenes of a most interesting and pathetic nature, but some of the characters who will make their appearance in due course would have to be omitted altogether. As for this yeomanry ball, I saw little more of it than did Lord Courtney, whose august countenance was withdrawn from the assembly after a short quarter of an hour. The truth is, that my dancing days are over; and I was able to retire early, with the happy conviction that nobody would notice my absence.  1
  Before midnight the greater part of the ladies and gentlemen present had done likewise; for it is not, or rather used not to be, considered the thing to linger over-long at these entertainments, which are intended rather for the amusement of the men than of their superiors. Lady Lynchester, a thin, washed-out looking person, who had never been heard to laugh in her life, rose from her seat at the end of the room as soon as her lord signaled to her that she was free to go; and the Beachborough contingent, ever scrupulous in the strict observance of etiquette, hastened to follow her ladyship’s lead. The landowners from distant parts of the country, who had a long drive between themselves and home, collected their respective wives and daughters, and trooped off in a body; the departure of some stragglers, loitering near the doorway in hopes of seeing a little of the fun, being hastened by Lord Lynchester, who began to stalk about with his hands behind his back, wondering audibly what the deuce those people were sticking there for.  2
  But when the last of these had disappeared, there still remained a few of what the noble and gallant Colonel called “the right sort,”—privileged persons, who were known to entertain no objection to a romp, and could be relied upon to tell no tales next day. Conspicuous among the latter was Miss Croft, “a downright jolly girl, with no stuck-up nonsense about her,” to use Lord Lynchester’s words; “just like her brother, only more so, you know,”—a description so terse and accurate that no further space need be taken up in introducing her to the reader. Miss Lambert, although an outsider, was included in the circle of choice spirits, probably because she carried her credentials in her face; and there were three or four young ladies besides, whose names it is unnecessary to record.  3
  During the early part of the evening, an unspoken convention had divided the ball-room into two halves, the officers and their friends sitting and dancing at the upper end of it, while the larger and humbler portion of the assemblage disported itself at the lower; but now this imaginary barrier was swept away, together with all irksome class distinctions, and the whole floor was at the disposition of the dancers. Now, when we dance in Lynshire, we do it with a will: not skimming languidly and dreamily over the polished surface, nor lurching heavily round and round on the same spot, like humming-tops tottering to their fall, as the fashion of some effeminate citizens is; but taking a firm grip of our partner’s waist and hand, putting down our heads, and starting off at a pace as good as we can make it, helter-skelter, every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost. The consequences of this energetic method, when adopted by some seventy couples in a long and narrow room, may be easily imagined. Before the first waltz was at an end, many a stalwart yeoman had measured his length upon the well-waxed floor, and the elbows of more than one fair maiden were scratched and bruised. Every now and then a faint shriek rose from the midst of the mêlée, or a manly voice was heard to expostulate for a moment; but the predominant sound was that of laughter, and hard knocks seemed to be distributed pretty evenly all round, upon an amicable give-and-take principle. Fat little Wilkins the butcher, pounding blindly ahead, and sawing the air with outstretched arm, brought his fist down with a thump on the middle of Lord Lynchester’s back, and instead of turning pale and trembling, as he would have done at any other time after such a mishap, bobbed off again as merrily as ever with a “Beg pardon, m’ lord. Didn’t see yer—haw, haw, haw!” For indeed the supper-room had been open for half an hour, and it is not on every day of the year that a man can drink the best of champagne and pay nothing for it.  4
  “All right, Wilkins!” shouted Lord Lynchester after him; “I’ll make it hot for you in a minute.”  5
  And presently, sure enough, his Lordship, having secured an efficient partner in Miss Croft, darted off in pursuit of the delinquent, and proceeded to waltz round and round him in an ever-contracting circle till he reduced him to such a state of giddiness that he was fain to lean against the wall and gasp. Then with a deft and rapid thrust in the ribs, which caused the luckless butcher to exclaim aloud, “O lord!” he returned to his starting-point, and throwing himself down upon a bench, gave way to a peal of merriment in which Miss Croft joined heartily.  6
  Claud Gervis looked on at all this horse-play with rather wide-opened eyes. Was it in this manner that the aristocracy of Great Britain was accustomed to take its relaxation? he wondered. Of the manners and habits of his native land he was almost entirely ignorant. At Eton he had, of course, associated with many young sprigs of nobility; but rank is not recognized among boys, and Claud’s impression of an English lord, which was that commonly current in foreign countries, had received confirmation from such specimens of the race as Lord Courtney and an occasional ambassador or minister plenipotentiary who had come in his way.  7
  “What are you thinking of?” inquired his partner, that pretty Miss Flemyng of whom mention has already been made. “You look quite horrified.”  8
  “No, I am not horrified,” the young man said; “but I am rather surprised, I admit. It is all so very different from what I expected. I did not think we English were ever so—so uproarious. Surely it is not usual at a ball to try and knock down as many people as one can.”  9
  “Well, hardly,” answered Miss Flemying laughing. “But this is a yeomanry ball, you must remember; and besides, all the quiet, respectable people are supposed to be gone away.”  10
  “But Lady Croft is still here, and Miss Lambert—not to mention present company.”  11
  “Lady Croft is here because Florry won’t go away; and Miss Lambert is here because she is Miss Lambert, I suppose; and I am here because I came with the Crofts. You need not say anything about it when papa comes to call upon you, by the way. He is like you—rather easily shocked.”  12
  “I am not easily shocked,” returned Claud, resenting such an imputation with the natural fervor of a very young man.  13
  “No? I thought you looked so. I am sure I should be shocked myself, if I had lived abroad all my life, and had made my first acquaintance with English society to-night. But you mustn’t suppose that Lynshire always conducts itself like this. We can behave as nicely as any one else in London; only when we find ourselves all together in our own part of the world, we think we may put on our country manners. And we are all rather savages, as you see.”  14
  Miss Flemyng did not look at all like a savage. Claud, who was rather more observant of trifles than most men, had noticed that the dress she wore was assuredly not the handiwork of a provincial artist, and that her abundant brown locks were arranged in accordance with the latest mode. She moved and held herself in the indescribable style which only a woman of the world can acquire: her manner was perfectly easy and natural, and she seemed to be upon terms of the friendliest familiarity with the young men who spoke to her, from time to time, as she stood watching the dance; but she was not loud, like her friend Miss Croft, nor did she make use of the schoolboy’s slang which formed so large a portion of that young lady’s conversation. Her chief claim to beauty, setting aside those of a neat, well-proportioned little figure and a general air of finish, consisted in a pair of dark-gray eyes, which had been turned innocently upon Claud’s more than once in the course of the evening, and had not failed to produce a certain impression upon him. He was glad to hear that Miss Flemyng lived within a few miles of Beachborough, for he thought he would decidedly like to see more of her.  15
  “I am not going to dance any more,” she said, after she and her partner had completed one perilous circuit of the room: “it’s too hot and dusty and disagreeable. Do you think there is a balcony beyond that window, where the ferns are? If there is, we might go and sit there.”  16
  “I know there is,” answered Claud, “because I was there earlier in the evening. And there is a particularly comfortable sofa there too, where we can sit and watch the sea; which after all is a much pleasanter thing to look at on a hot night than those fat yeomen.”  17
  And now an awkward incident took place, which shows how thoughtless it is of people to bounce unexpectedly into dark corners. Claud pushed open the half-closed French window to let Miss Flemyng pass, and following closely upon her heels—“Here is the sofa,” said he.  18
  There it was, sure enough; and there also were two persons seated upon it. Moreover, one of these persons happened to be in the very act of kissing the other. And then, as fate would have it, at that precise moment the moon emerged from behind a cloud, and threw a fine flood of silvery light upon the figures of Freddy Croft and Miss Lambert. The situation was a somewhat embarrassing one; and Claud did not mend matters by hastily whisking round and gazing out to the sea, with an utterly unsuccessful pretense of having seen nothing.  19
  Miss Flemyng was less taken aback. She calmly surveyed the luckless couple for a second, which must have seemed to them an age; and then, stooping to pick up the train of her long dress, stepped quietly back into the ball-room.  20
  She was laughing a little when her partner rejoined her.  21
  “How too ridiculous!” she exclaimed. “I shall never forget poor Freddy’s face. I hope you are discreet, and can keep a secret, Mr. Gervis.”  22
  “Of course I can,” answered Claud. “I wish it had not happened, though. Croft will think it so stupid of me; and really it almost looked as if we had done it on purpose.”  23
  “Oh, he won’t mind,” said Miss Flemyng placidly. “Freddy is always kissing people, and always getting caught. I daresay Miss What’s-her-name won’t mind much either: she looks as if she was quite accustomed to that kind of thing.”  24
  “She may be engaged to be married to him, you know,” remarked Claud, feeling bound to say a word for the unfortunate lady whom his awkwardness had compromised.  25
  “Oh, I do hope not. Poor dear little fellow! I should be so very sorry if he were to fall into such a trap as that. He and I have known one another since we were children, and he generally tells me about all his love affairs; but I have been away, and have never seen that monstrosity of a girl till this evening. You don’t think there is really any danger, do you?”  26
  Without knowing why, Claud felt vaguely annoyed by the anxious ring of Miss Flemyng’s voice. “I can’t tell anything about it,” he answered rather shortly. “He seems to admire her very much, and they are always together.”  27
  “Well, I wish they were not together now; or at least that they were together anywhere except in the one cool place in the building,” remarked Miss Flemyng with a laugh. “We shall have to take refuge on the staircase, I suppose.”  28
  To the staircase they accordingly betook themselves; and in that pleasant, untrammeled intercourse which is apt to arise between young men and women under such circumstances, and which, remote though it may be from serious love-making, is generally sweetened by some of the charms which attach to the unknown and the possible, Claud soon forgot all about Freddy Croft and his destinies. But when the last dance was over, and Claud was putting on his coat in the hall, his friend joined him with a face preternaturally long, and said in a solemn voice:—  29
  “I say, Gervis, let me walk a bit of the way with you, will you? I want to speak to you.”  30
  “Come along,” said Claud. “Will you have a cigar?”  31
  “Oh no,” Freddy answered, shaking his head lugubriously: “I don’t want to smoke.”  32
  He kept silence until he and his companion had reached the outskirts of the town, and then began:—  33
  “Do you know, Gervis, I have made an everlasting fool of myself.”  34
  “Ah! I can guess what you mean. I saw you doing it, didn’t I?”  35
  “I suppose you did. At least you saw me kissing the girl. But dear me, that was nothing, you know.”  36
  “Wasn’t it?”  37
  “I mean, of course, it was all right. I knew you and Nina Flemyng were safe enough; and really it was the sort of thing that might have happened to anybody. But by George, sir!” continued Freddy impressively, “do you know what that girl did as soon as you were gone?”  38
  “Burst into tears?” suggested Claud.  39
  “Not she! Began to laugh, and said that now we had been so neatly caught, the best thing we could do was ‘to give out our engagement at once.’ I thought she was chaffing at first; but she wasn’t—deuce a bit! She was as serious as I am now.”  40
  “I can quite believe it.”  41
  “Well, but, my dear fellow,” resumed Freddy impatiently, “don’t you see what a horrid mess I am in? I never meant anything of that kind at all; and how was I to suppose that she did? I don’t want to marry anybody; and Miss Lambert of all people! She’s a very jolly girl, and a first-rate dancer, and all that; but as for spending the rest of one’s life with her— Oh, I’m simply done for, and I shall go and drown myself in the harbor.”  42
  “I don’t think I would decide upon doing that quite yet,” remarked the other young man pensively.  43
  “What would you do, if you were in my place?”  44
  “I should run away, I think. Have you committed yourself to anything definite?”  45
  “Oh no. In point of fact, I rather tried to laugh the whole thing off; but she wouldn’t have that at any price. And the worst of it is, I’m afraid she has told her mother. The old girl gave me a very queer sort of look when I put her into her carriage, and said she would expect to see me to-morrow afternoon.”  46
  “And what did you say to that?”  47
  “I? Oh, I said ‘Good-night.’”  48
  “That was vague enough, certainly,” observed Claud laughing. “Well, I have an idea. I think I can get you out of this. Only you must promise me not to see Mrs. or Miss Lambert till you hear from me again. Most likely I shall be with you before the afternoon.”  49
  “My dear fellow, I won’t stir out of my bedroom,” answered the affrighted baronet earnestly. “I’ll stay in bed, if you like. Oh, if only I escape this time, not another woman under sixty years of age do I speak to!”  50
 
 
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