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A TALK AT A DANCE.
Immediately after the Assembly had so narrowly confirmed Mr. Medland's position, it adjourned for a fortnight in order to allow time for the reorganisation of the Government, and the preparation of its legislative projects. The Governor seized the opportunity and started on a shooting expedition, accompanied by his wife. His absence somewhat diminished the éclat of Sir John Oakapple's dance, but nevertheless it was agreed to be a very brilliant affair. Everybody came, for Sir John's position invited hospitality to all parties alike, and the host, as became a well-to-do bachelor, provided a sumptuous entertainment. Even Mr. Medland was there, for it was his daughter's first public appearance, and he and Sir Robert Perry had interchanged some friendly remarks on the existing crisis.
"I suppose I mustn't ask who you're going to give us instead of your deserters," said Sir Robert jokingly.
"Oh," answered Medland, "I'm going to fill up with Labour men. I haven't quite fixed on the men yet."
"Then you'll be all one colour--all red? But I must congratulate you on your daughter's début. She and Miss Derosne are the belles of the evening."
Then Sir Robert, in his pretty way, must needs be led up to Daisy Medland and dance a quadrille with her, apologising politely to Dick Derosne, who had arranged to sit out the said quadrille with the same lady, and became a violent anti-Perryite on the spot.
Alicia passed on Mr. Coxon's arm, and stopped for a moment to condole.
"I didn't know Premiers danced," she said, and perhaps her glance conveyed a shy invitation to Medland.
"If I ask you now, I shall have another secession," he replied, smiling at Coxon. "Besides, I can't dance."
"You must sit out with me then," she said, growing bolder. "You don't mind, do you, Mr. Coxon?"
Coxon and Dick were left to console one another, and Alicia sat down with Medland. At first he was silent, watching his daughter. When the quadrille ended, he rose and said,
"Come into the garden."
"But my partner for the next won't be able to find me."
"Well, supposing he can't?" said the Premier.
"It makes one very conceited to be a Premier," thought Alicia, but she went into the garden.
Then began what she declared to herself was the most interesting conversation to which she had ever listened. From silence, the Premier passed to a remark here and there, thence to a conversation, thence, as the evening went on and they strolled further and further away from the house, into a monologue on his life and aims and hopes. Young man after young man sought her in vain, or, finding the pair, feared to intrude and retired in discontent, while Medland strove to draw the picture of that far-off society whose bringing-near was his goal in public life. She wondered if he talked to other women like that: and she found herself hoping that he did not. His gaunt form seemed to fill and his sunk eyes to spring out to meet the light, as he painted for her the time when his dreams should have clothed themselves with the reality which his persuasive imagination almost gave them now.
Then he suddenly turned on himself.
"And I might have done something," he said; "but I've wasted most of my life."
"Wasted it?" she echoed in a wondering question.
"I don't know why I talk about it to-night, still less why I talk about it to you. I talked about it last to--to my wife."
"Ah! But your daughter?"
"Daisy!" he laughed tenderly. "Poor little Daisy! I don't bother her with it all." Then he added, "Really I've no business to bother you either, Miss Derosne. I break out sometimes. I'm afraid I'm not 'a silent, strong man.' Does it bore you?"
"You know--you know--" Alicia stammered.
"And now," he said, rising in his excitement, "even now, what have I? The place--the form--the name of power; and these creatures hold me back and hang on my flank and--I can do nothing." He sank back on the bench where she sat.
Alicia put her hand out and drew it back. Then she stretched it out again, and laid it on his arm.
"I am so sorry," she said, and her voice faltered. "Oh, if I could--but how absurd!"
Medland turned suddenly and looked her in the face.
"You will help some one," he answered, "some better man. And I--I beg your pardon. Come."
Alicia asked herself afterwards if she ought to be ashamed of what she did then. She caught the Premier by the arm, and said,
"But I want to stay with you." And then she sat trembling to hear his answer.
For a moment he did not answer. He passed his hand over his brow; then he smiled sadly.
"Nearly twenty years ago a woman said that to me," he said. "But she--well, it wasn't to talk politics."
"Oh, to call it talking politics!" she answered, with a little gasping laugh.
With another swift turn of his head, he bent his eyes on hers. She turned her head away, and neither spoke. Alicia played nervously with one glove which she had stripped off, while Medland gravely watched her face, beautiful in its pure outline and quivering with unwonted emotions. With a start he roused himself.
"Come," he said imperiously, offering his arm. She took it, and, without more words, they turned towards the house.
They had not gone far, when Eleanor Scaife met them. She was walking quickly, looking round as she went, as though in search. When she saw them she started, and cried,
"Oh, I want you, Alicia."
Medland immediately drew aside, and with a bow took his way. Alicia, calming herself with an effort, asked what was the matter.
"Why, it's that wretched brother of yours. I really do not know what Mary will say. I shall be afraid----"
"But what has Dick done?"
"Done? Why he's danced six dances out of eight with that Medland child. The whole room's talking about them."
"Eight dances? There can't have been eight dances?"
"Don't be silly," said Eleanor sharply. "I suppose you danced? No! I remember I didn't see you. Where have you been?"
"I--I've been sitting out."
"Not--not--Alicia, with one man? Worse and----"
"Mr. Coxon, then, I hope? At least he's safe."
"I don't know why you should ask----"
"Alicia! Was it--?" exclaimed Eleanor, with a gesture towards where she had found her friend.
"Mr. Medland? Yes," answered Alicia. And, in her effort to exclude timidity, she infused into her voice a note of defiance.
Eleanor sat down on the nearest seat. Surprise dominated her faculties. Dick's behaviour was reprehensible, but, given such creatures as young men, natural. But Alicia? The thing was too surprising to cause uneasiness.
"Well, you are a queer child! Here's all the room looking for you to dance with you, and you go and sit in the garden with a politician of five-and-forty! What in the world were you doing?"
"Talking politics," said Alicia, now quite calmly.
"And you've been here since----?"
"The first quadrille."
"Six mortal dances!" said Eleanor, in an envious tone. Alicia had had a grand opportunity. "Did you remember to ask him about that description of the Cabinet meetings in Tomes? You remember we agreed to?"
"I'm afraid I forgot, dear."
"Oh, how stupid of you! If I'd been--but good gracious! I forgot Dick. Do come, Alicia, and get him away from her. We seem to have nothing but Medlands to-night!"
The first person they met inside the ball-room was Mr. Coxon. He was enveloped in gloom. Alicia's conscience smote her.
"Oh!" she cried, "I forgot Mr. Coxon! I must go and scold him for not coming for me. Nonsense, Eleanor! I can't help about Dick," and, shaking off Miss Scaife's detaining hand, she went to play the usual imposture.
Eleanor looked round in bewilderment. Seeing Lady Perry, she was struck with an idea, crossed the room, and joined the ex-Premier's smiling, pleasant wife. Lady Perry had noticed enough to be au fait with the situation at a word. She rose and went to where Medland was now leaning listlessly against the wall. She spoke a word to him; he started, smiled, and shrugged his shoulders.
"I know you'll forgive me. One can't be too careful," she urged. "No one can be father and mother both."
Mr. Medland beckoned to his daughter; she came to him, Dick standing a few feet off.
"Whenever, Daisy," said Medland, "a thing is pleasant, one must not, in this world, have much of it. Is that the gospel, Lady Perry?"
"You'll make young Mr. Derosne too conceited, my dear," whispered Lady Perry, very kindly; but she favoured Dick, who knew well that he was a sinner, with a severe glance.
Thus Eleanor Scaife, having rid her party of the Medlands--for the moment, as she impatiently added--was at liberty to listen to the conversation of Mrs. Puttock. Mrs. Puttock was always most civil to any of the Government House party, and she entertained Eleanor, who resolutely refused all invitations to dance, with plenty of gossip. Amidst their talk and the occasional interruptions of men who joined and left them, the evening wore away, and Eleanor had just signed to Alicia to make ready to go, when Mrs. Puttock touched on the Premier, who was visible across the room, chatting merrily with his host, and laughing heartily at the Chief Justice's stories.
"The Premier seems in good spirits," said Mrs. Puttock, a little acidly.
"Oh, I expect he's only bearing up in public," laughed Eleanor. "But there certainly is a great change in him since I first recollect him."
"Indeed, Miss Scaife."
"Yes," said Eleanor, rising, for she saw Alicia approaching under Captain Heseltine's escort. "It was about the Jubilee time. He seemed then quite overcome with grief at the loss of his wife. Ah, here's Alicia!"
"Wife!" exclaimed Mrs. Puttock, bestowing on Eleanor a look of deep significance. "It's my belief he never had a wife."
"What do you mean?" she began, but she checked herself when she found that Alicia was close beside her. She hastily bade Mrs. Puttock good-night.
"I mean what I say," observed that lady, with an emphatic nod. Eleanor escaped in bewilderment.
"Who never had a wife?" asked Alicia, with a laugh, as they were putting on their cloaks.
After a moment's pause, Eleanor answered,
"Sir John Oakapple," and she excused this deviation from truth by the sage reflection that girls like Alicia must not be told everything.
"We all know that," commented Alicia, contemptuously. "I hoped it was something interesting."
Eleanor enjoyed a smile in the sheltering gloom of the carriage. She felt very discreet.
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