Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Ball in High Life
By Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler (1849–1892)
From ‘A Rescuing Angel’: Translation of Olga Flinch

THE COUNSELOR’S wife sat down on the sofa with her hands folded in her lap. Arla remained standing a little farther away, so that the green lamp-shade left her face in shadow.  1
  “My little girl,” began her mother in a mild voice, “do not feel hurt, but I must make a few remarks on your behavior to-night. First of all, you will have to hold yourself a little straighter when you dance. This tendency to droop the head looks very badly. I noticed it especially when you danced with Captain Lagerskiöld—and do you know, it looked almost as if you were leaning your head against his shoulder.”  2
  Arla blushed; she did not know why, but this reproach hurt her deeply.  3
  “The dancing-teacher always said that to dance well one must lean toward one’s partner,” she objected in a raised voice.  4
  “If that is so, it is better not to dance so well,” answered her mother seriously. “And another thing. I heard you ask Mr. Örn to excuse you. And you danced the cotillon after all.”  5
  “I suppose one has a right to dance with whom one pleases.”  6
  “One never has a right to hurt others; and besides, you said to Mr. Örn that you were tired out and not able to dance again. How could you then immediately after—”  7
  “Captain Lagerskiöld leads so well,” she said, lifting her head, and her mother saw that her eyes were shining. “To dance with him is no exertion.”  8
  Her mother seemed inclined to say something, but hesitated.  9
  “Come a little nearer,” she said. “Let me look at you.”  10
  Arla came up, knelt down on a footstool, hid her face in her mother’s dress, and began to cry softly.  11
  “I shall have to tell you, then,” said her mother, smoothing her hair. “Poor child, don’t give yourself up to these dreams. Captain Lagerskiöld is the kind of a man that I should have preferred never to have asked to our house. He is a man entirely without character and principles—to be frank, a bad man.”  12
  Arla raised her tear-stained face quickly.  13
  “I know that,” she said almost triumphantly. “He told me so himself.”  14
  Her mother was silent with astonishment, and Arla continued, rising, “He has never had any parents nor any home, but has always been surrounded with temptations. And,” she went on in a lower voice, “he has never found any one that he could really love, and it is only through love that he can be rescued from the dark powers that have ruled his life.”  15
  She repeated almost word for word what he had said. He had expressed himself in so commonplace a way, and she was so far from suspecting what his confession really meant, that she would not have been able to clothe them in her own words. She had only a vague impression that he was unhappy and sinful—and that she should save him. Sinful was to her a mere abstract idea: everybody was full of sin, and his sin was very likely that he lived without God. He had perhaps never learned to pray, and maybe he never went to church or took the communion. She knew that there were men who never did. And then perhaps he had been engaged to Cecilia, and had broken the engagement when he saw that he did not really love her.  16
  “And all this he has told you already!” exclaimed her mother, when she got over her first surprise. “Well then, I can also guess what he said further. Do you want me to tell you? You are the first girl he has really loved—you are to be his rescuing angel—”  17
  Arla made a faint exclamation.  18
  “You do not suppose I have been listening?” asked her mother. “I know it without that; men like this always speak so when they want to win an innocent girl. When I was young I had an admirer of this kind—that is not an uncommon experience.”  19
  Not uncommon! These words were not said to her only; other men had said the same before this to other young girls! Oh! but not in the same way, at any rate! thought Arla. As he had said them—with such a look—such a voice—no, nobody else could ever have done that.  20
  “And you didn’t understand that a man who can make a young girl a declaration of love the first time he sees her must be superficial and not to be trusted?” continued her mother.  21
  “Mamma does not know what love is,” thought Arla. “She does not know that it is born in a moment and lasts for life. She has of course never loved papa; then they would not be so matter-of-fact now.”  22
  “And what did you answer?” asked her mother.  23
  Arla turned away. “I answered nothing,” she said in a low voice.  24
  The mother’s troubled face grew a little brighter.  25
  “That was right,” she said, patting her on the cheek. “Then you left him at once.”  26
  Arla was on the point of saying, “Not at once,” but she could not make this confession. Other questions would then follow, and she would be obliged to describe what had happened. Describe a scene like this to her mother, who did not know what love was! That was impossible! So she said yes, but in so weak and troubled a voice that her mother at once saw it was not true. This was not Arla’s first untruth; on the contrary, she had often been guilty of this fault when a child. She was so shy and loving that she could not stand the smallest reproach, and a severe look was enough to make her cry; consequently she was always ready to deny as soon as she had made the slightest mistake. But when her mother took her face between her hands and looked straight into her eyes, she saw at once how matters stood, for the eyes could hide nothing. And since Arla grew older she had fought so much against this weakness that she had almost exaggerated her truthfulness. She was now as quick to confess what might bring displeasure on herself, as if she were afraid of giving temptation the slightest room.  27
  The mother, who with deep joy had noticed her many little victories over herself, was painfully impressed by this relapse. She could not now treat Arla as she had done when she was a little girl. Instead of this, she opened the Bible by one of the many book-marks, with a somewhat trembling hand.  28
  “Although it is late, shall we not read a chapter together, as we always do before we go to bed?” she asked, and looked up at her daughter.  29
  Arla stepped back, and cast an almost frightened glance at the little footstool where she had been sitting at her mother’s knee every evening since she was a little girl. All this seemed now so strange—it was no longer herself, it was a little younger sister, who used to sit there and confess to her mother all her dreams and all her little sorrows.  30
  “I don’t want to—I cannot read to-night.”  31
  Her mother laid the book down again, gave her daughter a mild, sad look and said, “Then remember, my child, that this was the consequence of your first ball.”  32
  Arla bent her head and left the room slowly. Her mother let her go; she found it wisest to leave her to herself until her emotion had somewhat worn itself out. Arla would not go into her own room; she dreaded Gurli’s chatter; she had to be alone to get control over her thoughts. In the drawing-room she found her father.  33
  “Is mamma in her room?” he asked.  34
  “Yes.”  35
  “Is she alone? Are the children asleep?”  36
  “Yes, mamma is alone.”  37
  “Well! Good-night, my girl.” He kissed her lips and went into the bedroom.  38
  Arla opened a window in the drawing-room to let out the hot air, and then began to walk up and down wrapped in a large shawl, enjoying the clear cold winter moonlight, which played over the snow and hid itself behind the trees in the park outside the window. There they were to meet to-morrow! Oh, if only he had said now, at once! If only she could slip out now in her thin gown, and he could wrap his cape around her to keep her warm—she did not remember that the men of to-day did not wear capes like Romeo—and if then they could have gone away together—far, far away from this prosaic world, where nobody understood that two hearts could meet and find each other from the first moment.  39
  She was not left alone long; a door was opened, light steps came tripping, and a white apparition in night-gown stood in the full light of the moonbeam.  40
  “But Arla, are you never, never coming?”  41
  “Why, Gurli dear, why aren’t you asleep long ago?”  42
  “Eh? do you think I can sleep before I have heard something about the ball? Come in now; how cold it is here!”  43
  She was so cold that she shivered in her thin night-gown, but clung nevertheless to her sister, who was standing by the window.  44
  “Go; you are catching cold.”  45
  “I don’t care,” she said, chattering. “I am not going till you come.”  46
  Arla was, as usual, obliged to give in to the younger sister’s strong will. She closed the window and they went into their room, where Gurli crept into bed again and drew the cover up to her very chin. Arla began to unfasten her dress and take the flowers out of her hair.  47
  “Well, I suppose you had a divine time,” came a voice from the bed behind chattering teeth. There was nothing to be seen of Gurli but a pair of impatient dark eyes, under a wilderness of brown hair.  48
  Arla was sitting at the toilet-table, her back to her sister.  49
  “Oh yes,” she said.  50
  “I see on your card that you danced two dances with Captain Lagerskiöld. I suppose he dances awfully well, eh?”  51
  “Do you know him?” asked Arla, and turned on the chair.  52
  “Oh yes, I do. Didn’t he ask for me?”  53
  “Yes, now I remember. He said he had seen you with the children on the coasting-hill. You must have been a little rude to him?”  54
  The whole head came out above the cover now.  55
  “Rude! how?”  56
  “He said something about your being so pert.”  57
  “Pert? Oh, what a fib you do tell!” cried Gurli, and sat up in bed with a jump.  58
  “I don’t usually tell stories,” said Arla with wounded dignity, but blushed at the same time.  59
  “Oh yes, you do now, I am sure you do. I don’t believe you, if you don’t tell me word for word what he said. Who began talking of me? And what did he say? And what did you say?”  60
  “You had better tell me why you are so much interested in him,” said Arla in the somewhat superior tone of the elder sister.  61
  “That is none of your business. I will tell you that I am no longer a little girl, as you seem to think. And even though I am treated like a child here at home, there are others who—who—”  62
  “Are you not a child?” said Arla. “You are not confirmed yet.”  63
  “Oh, is that it? That ‘confirmation’ is only a ceremony, which I submit to for mamma’s sake. And don’t imagine that it is confirmation which makes women of us; no indeed, it is something else.”  64
  “What then?” asked Arla, much surprised.  65
  “It is—it is—love,” burst out Gurli, and hid her head under the covers.  66
  “Love! But Gurli, how you do talk! What do you know about that? You, a little schoolgirl!”  67
  “Don’t say ‘little schoolgirl’—that makes me furious,” cried Gurli, as she pushed the cover aside with both hands and jumped out on the floor. “Then you are much more of a schoolgirl than I. Is there perhaps any man who has told you that he loves you? Is there?”  68
  “Oh, but Gurli, what nonsense,” said Arla laughing outright. “Has really one of Arvid’s friends—”  69
  “Arvid’s friends!” repeated Gurli with an expression of indescribable contempt. “Do you think such little boys would dare? Ph! I would give them a box on the ear,—that would be the quickest way of getting rid of such little whipper-snappers. No indeed; it is a man, a real man—a man that any girl would envy me.”  70
  She was so pretty as she stood there in her white gown, with her dancing eyes and thick hair standing like a dark cloud around her rosy young face, that a light broke on Arla, and a suspicion of the truth flashed through her mind.  71
  “It is not possible that you mean—of course you don’t mean—him—that you just spoke of—Captain Lagerskiöld?”  72
  “And what if it were he!” cried Gurli, who in her triumph forgot to keep her secret. Arla’s usual modest self-possession left her completely at this news.  73
  “Captain Lagerskiöld has told you that he loves you!” she cried with a sharp and cutting voice, unlike her usual mild tone. “Oh, how wicked, how wicked!”  74
  She hid her face in her hands and burst out crying.  75
  Gurli was frightened at her violent outbreak. She must have done something awful, that Arla, who was always so quiet, should carry on so. She crept close up to her sister, half ashamed and half frightened, and whispered:—“He has only said it once. It was the day before yesterday, and I ran away from him at once—I thought it was so silly, and—”  76
  “Day before yesterday!” cried Arla and looked up with frightened, wondering eyes. “Day before yesterday he told you that he loved you?”  77
  “Yes; if only you will not be so awfully put out, I will tell you all about it. He used to come up to the coasting-hill a great deal lately, and then we walked up and down in the park and talked, and when I wanted to coast he helped me get a start, and drew my sleigh up-hill again. At first I did not notice him much, but then I saw he was very nice—he would look at me sometimes for a long, long time—and you can’t imagine how he does look at one! And then day before yesterday he began by saying that I had such pretty eyes—and then he said that such a happy little sunbeam as I could light up his whole life, and that if he could not meet me, he would not know what to do—”  78
  “Gurli!” cried Arla, and grasped her sister’s arm violently. “Do you love him?”  79
  Gurli let her eyes wander a little, and looked shy.  80
  “I think I do—I have read in the novels Arvid borrowed in school—only don’t tell mamma anything about it; but I have read that when you are in love you always have such an awful palpitation of the heart when he comes—and when I merely catch sight of him far off on the hill in Kommandörsgatan, I felt as if I should strangle.”  81
  “Captain Lagerskiöld is a bad, bad man!” sobbed Arla, and rushed out of the room, hiding her face in her hands.  82
  The counselor’s wife was still up and was reading, while her husband had gone to bed. A tall screen standing at the foot of the bed kept the light away from the sleeper. The counselor had just had a talk with his wife, which most likely would keep her awake for the greater part of the night; but he had fallen asleep as soon as he had spoken to the point.  83
  “You must forgive me that I cannot quite approve your way of fulfilling your duties as hostess,” he had said when he came in to her.  84
  His wife crossed her hands on the table and looked up at him with a mild and patient face.  85
  “You show your likes and dislikes too much,” he continued, “and think too little of the claims of social usage. For instance, to pay so much attention to Mrs. Ekström and her daughters—”  86
  “It was because nobody else paid any attention to them.”  87
  “But even so, my dear, a drawing-room is not a charity institution, I take it. Etiquette goes before everything else. And then you were almost rude to Admiral Hornfeldt’s wife, who is one of the first women in society.”  88
  “Forgive me; but I cannot be cordial to a woman for whom I have no respect.”  89
  The counselor shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of great impatience.  90
  “I wish you could learn to see how wrong it is to let yourself be influenced by these moral views in society.”  91
  His wife was silent; it was her usual way of ending a conversation which she knew could lead to no result, since each kept his own opinion after all.  92
  “Did you notice Arla?” asked the counselor.  93
  “Yes. Why?”  94
  “Did you not see that she made herself conspicuous by taking such an interest in this outlived Lagerskiöld?”  95
  “I asked you not to invite Captain Lagerskiöld,” said his wife mildly.  96
  “The trouble is not there,” interrupted her husband; “but the trouble is that your daughter is brought up to be a goose who understands nothing. That is the result of your convent system. Girls so guarded are always ready to fall into the arms of the first man who knows somewhat how to impress them.”  97
  This was the counselor’s last remark before he fell asleep. It awakened a feeling of great bitterness and hopelessness in his wife. Her heart felt heavy at the thought of all the frivolity, all the impurity into which her girls were to be thrown one after another. When Arla, in whose earnestness and purity of character she had so great a confidence, had shown herself so little proof against temptation, what then would become of Gurli, who had such dangerous tendencies? And the two little ones who were now sleeping soundly in the nursery?  98
  “To what use is then all the striving and all the prayers?” she asked herself. “What good then does it do to try to protect the children from evil, if just this makes them more of a prey to temptation?”  99
  She laid her arms on the table and rested her forehead on her hands. The awful question “What is the use of it? what is the use of it?” lay heavy upon her.  100
  Then there came a soft knock at her door; it was opened a little, and a timid voice whispered, “Is mamma alone? May I come in?”  101
  A ray of happiness came into the mother’s face.  102
  “Come in, my child,” she whispered, and stretched out her hands toward her. “Papa sleeps so soundly, you need not be afraid of waking him.”  103
  Arla came in on tiptoe, dressed in white gown and dressing-sack and with her hair loose. There were red spots on her cheeks, and her eyes were swollen from crying. She knelt down gently beside her mother, hid her face in her mother’s dress, and whispered in a voice trembling with suppressed tears, “Will you read to me now, mamma?”  104

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