Chapter 17




AN UNINVITED GUEST.


Vavasor had not heard of the gathering. In part from doubt of his sympathy, in part from dislike of talking about doing, Hester had not mentioned it. When she lifted her eyes at the close of her ballad, not a little depressed at having failed to secure the interest of her audience, it was with a great gush of pleasure that she saw near the door the face of her friend. She concluded that he had heard of her purpose and had come to help her. Even at that distance she could see that he was looking very uncomfortable, annoyed, she did not doubt, by the behavior of her guests. A rush of new strength and courage went from heart to brain. She rose and advancing to the front of the little stage, called out, in a clear voice that rang across the buzz and stilled it.

"Mr. Vavasor, will you come and help me?"

Now Vavasor was in reality not a little disgusted at what he beheld. He had called without a notion of what was going on, and seeing the row of lights along the gallery as he was making for the drawing-room, had changed his direction and followed it, knowing nothing of the room to which it led. Blinded by the glare, and a little bewildered by the unexpectedness of the sight, he did not at first discern the kind of company he had entered; but the state of the atmosphere was unaccountable, and for a moment it seemed as if, thinking to enter Paradise, he had mistaken and opened the left-hand door. Presently his eyes coming to themselves, confirmed the fact that he was in the midst of a notable number of the unwashed. He had often talked with Hester about the poor, and could not help knowing that she had great sympathy with them. He was ready indeed as they were now a not unfashionable subject in some of the minor circles of the world's elect, to talk about them with any one he might meet. But in the poor themselves he could hardly be said to have the most rudimentary interest; and that a lady should degrade herself by sending her voice into such ears, and coming into actual contact with such persons and their attendant disgusts--except indeed it were for electioneering purposes--exposing both voice and person to their abominable remarks, was to him a thing simply incomprehensible. The admission of such people to a respectable house, and the entertainment of them as at a music hall, could have its origin only in some wild semi-political scheme of the old fellow, who had more crotchets in his head than brain could well hold! It was a proceeding as disgraceful as extraordinary! Puh! Could the tenth part of the air present be oxygen? To think of the woman he worshipped being in such a hell!

The woman he could honor little by any worship he gave her, was far more secure from evil eyes and evil thoughts in that company than she would have been in any drawing-room of his world. Her angel would rather see her where she was.

But the glorious tones ceased, the ballad was at an end, and the next moment, to his dismay, the voice which in its poetry he had delighted to imagine thrilling the listeners in a great Belgravian drawing-room came to him in prose across the fumes of that Bloomsbury music hall, clear and brave and quiet, asking him, the future earl of Gartley, to come and help the singer! Was she in trouble? Had her father forced her into the false position in which she found herself? And did she seek refuge with him the moment he made his appearance? Certainly such was not the tone of her appeal! But these reflections flashing through his brain, caused not a moment's delay in Vavasor's response. With the perfect command of that portion of his being turned towards the public on which every man like him prides himself, and with no shadow of expression on his countenance beyond that of a perfect equanimity, he was instantly on his way to her, shouldering a path in the gentlest manner through the malodorous air.

"This comes," he said to himself as he went, "of her foolish parents' receiving so little company that for the free exercise of her great talent she is driven to such as this! For song must have audience, however unfit! There was Orpheus with his! Genius was always eccentric! If he could but be her protection against that political father, that Puritan mother, and that idiotic brother of hers, and put an end to this sort of thing before it came to be talked about!"

He grew bitter as with smiling face but shrinking soul he made his way through that crowd of his fellow-creatures whose contact was defilement. He would have lost them all rather than a song of Hester's--and yet that he would on occasion have lost for a good rubber of whist with certain players!

He sprang on the stage, and made her a rather low bow.

"Come and sing a duet with me," she said, and indicated one on the piano before her which they had several times sung together.

He smiled what he meant to look his sweetest smile, and almost immediately their duet began. They sang well, and the assembly, from whatever reason--I fancy simply because there were two singing instead of one, was a little more of an audience than hitherto. But it was plain that, had there been another rondo of the duet, most would have been talking again.

Hester next requested Vavasor to sing a certain ballad which she knew was a great favorite with him. Inwardly protesting and that with vehemence against the profanation, he obeyed, rendering it so as could not have failed to please any one with a true notion of song. His singing was, I confess, a little wooden, as was everything Vavasor did: being such himself, how could he help his work being wooden? but it was true, his mode good, his expression in the right direction. They were nevertheless all talking before he had ended.

After a brief pause, Hester invited a gentleman prepared for the occasion to sing them something patriotic. He responded with Campbell's magnificent song, "Ye Mariners of England!" which was received with hearty cheers.

He was followed by another who, well acquainted with the predilections of his audience, gave them a specially sentimental song about a chair, which was not only heard in silence but followed by tremendous cheering. Possibly it was a luxury to some who had no longer any grandfather to kick, to cry over his chair; but, like the most part of their brethren, the poor greatly enjoy having their feelings gently troubled.

Thus the muse of the occasion was gradually sinking to the intellectual level of the company--with a consequence unforeseen, therefore not provided against.




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