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The atmosphere of the Treadwell home was charged, for the next few days, with electric currents. Graciella knew that her aunt was engaged to Colonel French. But she had not waited, the night before, to hear her aunt express the wish that the engagement should be kept secret. She was therefore bursting with information of which she could manifest no consciousness without confessing that she had been eavesdropping--a thing which she knew Miss Laura regarded as detestably immoral. She wondered at her aunt's silence. Except a certain subdued air of happiness there was nothing to distinguish Miss Laura's calm demeanor from that of any other day. Graciella had determined upon her own attitude toward her aunt. She would kiss her, and wish her happiness, and give no sign that any thought of Colonel French had ever entered her own mind. But this little drama, rehearsed in the privacy of her own room, went unacted, since the curtain did not rise upon the stage.
The colonel came and went as usual. Some dissimulation was required on Graciella's part to preserve her usual light-hearted manner toward him. She may have been to blame in taking the colonel's attentions as intended for herself; she would not soon forgive his slighting reference to her. In his eyes she had been only a child, who ought to go to school. He had been good enough to say that she had the making of a fine woman. Thanks! She had had a lover for at least two years, and a proposal of marriage before Colonel French's shadow had fallen athwart her life. She wished her Aunt Laura happiness; no one could deserve it more, but was it possible to be happy with a man so lacking in taste and judgment?
Her aunt's secret began to weigh upon her mind, and she effaced herself as much as possible when the colonel came. Her grandmother had begun to notice this and comment upon it, when the happening of a certain social event created a diversion. This was the annual entertainment known as the Assembly Ball. It was usually held later in the year, but owing to the presence of several young lady visitors in the town, it had been decided to give it early in the fall.
The affair was in the hands of a committee, by whom invitations were sent to most people in the county who had any claims to gentility. The gentlemen accepting were expected to subscribe to the funds for hall rent, music and refreshments. These were always the best the town afforded. The ball was held in the Opera House, a rather euphemistic title for the large hall above Barstow's cotton warehouse, where third-class theatrical companies played one-night stands several times during the winter, and where an occasional lecturer or conjurer held forth. An amateur performance of "Pinafore" had once been given there. Henry W. Grady had lectured there upon White Supremacy; the Reverend Sam Small had preached there on Hell. It was also distinguished as having been refused, even at the request of the State Commissioner of Education, as a place for Booker T. Washington to deliver an address, which had been given at the town hall instead. The Assembly Balls had always been held in the Opera House. In former years the music had been furnished by local Negro musicians, but there were no longer any of these, and a band of string music was brought in from another town. So far as mere wealth was concerned, the subscribers touched such extremes as Ben Dudley on the one hand and Colonel French on the other, and included Barclay Fetters, whom Graciella had met on the evening before her disappointment.
The Treadwell ladies were of course invited, and the question of ways and means became paramount. New gowns and other accessories were imperative. Miss Laura's one party dress had done service until it was past redemption, and this was Graciella's first Assembly Ball. Miss Laura took stock of the family's resources, and found that she could afford only one gown. This, of course, must be Graciella's. Her own marriage would entail certain expenses which demanded some present self-denial. She had played wall-flower for several years, but now that she was sure of a partner, it was a real sacrifice not to attend the ball. But Graciella was young, and in such matters youth has a prior right; for she had yet to find her mate.
Graciella magnanimously offered to remain at home, but was easily prevailed upon to go. She was not entirely happy, for the humiliating failure of her hopes had left her for the moment without a recognised admirer, and the fear of old maidenhood had again laid hold of her heart. Her Aunt Laura's case was no consoling example. Not one man in a hundred would choose a wife for Colonel French's reasons. Most men married for beauty, and Graciella had been told that beauty that matured early, like her own, was likely to fade early.
One humiliation she was spared. She had been as silent about her hopes as Miss Laura was about her engagement. Whether this was due to mere prudence or to vanity--the hope of astonishing her little world by the unexpected announcement--did not change the comforting fact that she had nothing to explain and nothing for which to be pitied. If her friends, after the manner of young ladies, had hinted at the subject and sought to find a meaning in Colonel French's friendship, she had smiled enigmatically. For this self-restraint, whatever had been its motive, she now reaped her reward. The announcement of her aunt's engagement would account for the colonel's attentions to Graciella as a mere courtesy to a young relative of his affianced.
With regard to Ben, Graciella was quite uneasy. She had met him only once since their quarrel, and had meant to bow to him politely, but with dignity, to show that she bore no malice; but he had ostentatiously avoided her glance. If he chose to be ill-natured, she had thought, and preferred her enmity to her friendship, her conscience was at least clear. She had been willing to forget his rudeness and be a friend to him. She could have been his true friend, if nothing more; and he would need friends, unless he changed a great deal.
When her mental atmosphere was cleared by the fading of her dream, Ben assumed larger proportions. Perhaps he had had cause for complaint; at least it was only just to admit that he thought so. Nor had he suffered in her estimation by his display of spirit in not waiting to be jilted but in forcing her hand before she was quite ready to play it. She could scarcely expect him to attend her to the ball; but he was among the subscribers, and could hardly avoid meeting her, or dancing with her, without pointed rudeness. If he did not ask her to dance, then either the Virginia reel, or the lancers, or quadrilles, would surely bring them together; and though Graciella sighed, she did not despair. She could, of course, allay his jealousy at once by telling him of her Aunt Laura's engagement, but this was not yet practicable. She must find some other way of placating him.
Ben Dudley also had a problem to face in reference to the ball--a problem which has troubled impecunious youth since balls were invented--the problem of clothes. He was not obliged to go to the ball. Graciella's outrageous conduct relieved him of any obligation to invite her, and there was no other woman with whom he would have cared to go, or who would have cared, so far as he knew, to go with him. For he was not a lady's man, and but for his distant relationship would probably never have gone to the Treadwells'. He was looked upon by young women as slow, and he knew that Graciella had often been impatient at his lack of sprightliness. He could pay his subscription, which was really a sort of gentility tax, the failure to meet which would merely forfeit future invitations, and remain at home. He did not own a dress suit, nor had he the money to spare for one. He, or they, for he and his uncle were one in such matters, were in debt already, up to the limit of their credit, and he had sold the last bale of old cotton to pay the last month's expenses, while the new crop, already partly mortgaged, was not yet picked. He knew that some young fellows in town rented dress suits from Solomon Cohen, who, though he kept only four suits in stock at a time, would send to New York for others to rent out on this occasion, and return them afterwards. But Ben would not wear another man's clothes. He had borne insults from Graciella that he never would have borne from any one else, and that he would never bear again; but there were things at which his soul protested. Nor would Cohen's suits have fitted him. He was so much taller than the average man for whom store clothes were made.
He remained in a state of indecision until the day of the ball. Late in the evening he put on his black cutaway coat, which was getting a little small, trousers to match, and a white waistcoat, and started to town on horseback so as to arrive in time for the ball, in case he should decide, at the last moment, to take part.
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