Chapter 18




CATASTROPHE.


For the tail of the music-kite--the car of the music-balloon rather, having thus descended near enough to the earth to be a temptation to some of the walkers afoot, they must catch at it! The moment the last-mentioned song was ended, almost before its death-note had left the lips of the singer, one of the friends' friends was on his feet. Without a word of apology, without the shadow of a request for permission, he called out in a loud voice, knocking with his chair on the floor,

"Ladies an' gen'lemen, Mr. William Blaney will now favor the company with a song."

Thereupon immediately a pale pock-marked man, of diminutive height, with high retreating forehead, and long thin hair, rose, and at once proceeded to make his way through the crowd: he would sing from the stage, of course! Hester and Vavasor looked at each other, and one whisper passed between them, after which they waited the result in silence. The countenance approaching, kindled by conscious power and anticipated triumph, showed a white glow through its unblushing paleness. After the singing one sometimes hears in drawing-rooms, there is little space for surprise that some of less education should think themselves more capable of fine things than they are.

Scrambling with knee and hand upon the stage, for the poor fellow was feeble, the moment he got himself erect with his face to the audience, he plunged into his song, if song it could be called, executed in a cracked and strained falsetto. The result, enhanced by the nature of the song, which was extremely pathetic and dubiously moral, must have been excruciation to every good ear and every sensitive nature. Long before the relief of its close arrived Hester had made up her mind that it was her part to protect her guests from such. It was compensation no doubt to some present to watch the grotesque contortions of the singer squeezing out of him the precious pathos of his song--in which he screwed his eyes together like the man in Browning's "Christmas Eve," and opened his mouth in a long ellipse in the middle of one cheek; but neither was that the kind of entertainment she had purposed. She sat ready, against the moment when he should end, to let loose the most thunderous music in her mental repertoire, annoyed that she had but her small piano on the stage. Vanity, however, is as suspicious of vanity as hate is of hate, and Mr. Blaney, stopping abruptly in the middle of the long last note, and in doing so changing the word, with ludicrous result, from a song to a spoken one, screeched aloud, ere she could strike the first chord,

"I will now favor the company with a song of my own composure."

But ere he had got his mouth into its singing place in his left cheek, Hester had risen and begun to speak: when she knew what had to be done, she never hesitated. Mr. Blaney started, and his mouth, after a moment of elliptic suspense, slowly closed, and returned, as he listened, to a more symmetrical position in his face.

"I am sorry to have to interfere," said Hester, "but my friends are in my house, and I am accountable for their entertainment. Mr. Blaney must excuse me if I insist on keeping the management of the evening in my own hands."

The vanity of the would-be singer was sorely hurt. As he was too selfish for the briefest comparison of himself with others, it had outgrown all ordinary human proportion, and was the more unendurable that no social consideration had ever suggested its concealment. Equal arrogance is rarely met save in a mad-house: there conceit reigns universal and rampant.

"The friends as knows me, and what I can do," returned Mr. Blaney with calmness, the moment Hester had ended, "will back me up. I have no right to be treated as if I didn't know what I was about. I can warrant the song home-made, and of the best quality. So here goes!"

Vavasor made a stride towards him, but scarcely was the ugly mouth half screwed into singing-place, when Mr. Raymount spoke from somewhere near the door.

"Come out of that," he shouted, and made his way through the company as fast as he could.

Vavasor drew back, and stood like a sentinel on guard. Hester resumed her seat at the piano. Blaney, fancying he had gained his point, and that, if he began before Mr. Raymount reached him, he would be allowed to end in peace, again got his mouth into position, and began to howl. But his host jumping on the stage from behind, reached him at his third note, took him by the back of the neck, shoved him down, and walked him through the crowd and out of the room before him like a naughty boy. Propelling him thus to the door of the house, he pushed him out, closed it behind him, and re-entering the concert-room, was greeted by a great clapping of hands, as if he had performed a deed of valor. But, notwithstanding the miserable vanity and impudence of the man, it had gone to Hester's heart to see him, with his low visage and puny form, in the mighty clutch of her father. That which would have made most despise the poor creature the more, his physical inferiority, made her pity him, even to pain!

The moment silence was restored, up rose a burly, honest-looking bricklayer, and said,

"I beg your pardon, miss, but will you allow me to make one remark!"

"Certainly, Mr. Jones," answered Hester.

"It seems to me, miss," said Jones, "as it's only fair play on my part as brought Blaney here, as I'm sorry to find behave himself so improper, to say for him that I know he never would ha' done it, if he hadn't have had a drop as we come along to this 'ere tea-party. That was the cause, miss, an' I hope as it'll be taken into account, an' considered a lucidation of his conduct. It takes but very little, I'm sorry to say, miss, to upset his behavior--not more'n a pint at the outside.--But it don't last! bless you, it don't last!" he added, in a tone of extreme deprecation; "there's not a morsel of harm in him, poor fellow--though I says it as shouldn't! Not as the guv'nor do anything more'n his duty in puttin' of him out--nowise! I know him well, bein' my wife's brother--leastways half-brother--for I don't want to take more o' the blame nor by rights belong to me. When he've got a drop in his nob, it's always for singin' he is--an' that's the worst of him. Thank you kindly, miss."

"Thank you, Mr. Jones," returned Hester. "We'll think no more of it."

Loud applause followed, and Jones sat down, well satisfied: he had done what he ought in acknowledging the culprit for his wife's sake, and the act had been appreciated.

The order of the evening was resumed, but the harmony of the assembly once disturbed, all hope of quiet was gone. They had now something to talk about! Everyone that knew Blaney felt himself of importance: had he not a superior right of opinion upon his behavior? Nor was he without a few sympathizers. Was he not the same flesh and blood? they said. After the swells had had it all their own way so long, why shouldn't poor Blaney have his turn? But those who knew Hester, especially the women of them, were indignant with him.

Hester sang again and again, but no song would go quite to her mind. Vavasor also sung several times--as often, that is, as Hester asked him; but inwardly he was disgusted with the whole affair--as was natural, for could any fish have found itself more out of the water than he? Everything annoyed him--most of all that the lady of his thoughts should have addressed herself to such an assembly. Why did she not leave it to him or her father! If it was not degrading enough to appear before such a canaille, surely to sing to them was! How could a woman of refinement, justifiable as was her desire for appreciation, seek it from such a repulsive assemblage! But Vavasor would have been better able to understand Hester, and would have met the distastes of the evening with far less discomposure, if he had never been in worse company. One main test of our dealings in the world is whether the men and women we associate with are the better or the worse for it: Vavasor had often been where at least he was the worse, and no one the better for his presence. For days a cloud hung over the fair image of Hester in his mind.

He called on the first possible opportunity to inquire how she was after her exertions, but avoided farther allusion to the events of the evening. She thanked him for the help he had given her, but was so far from satisfied with her experiment, that she too let the subject rest.

Mr. Raymount was so disgusted, that he said nothing of the kind should ever again take place in his house: he had not bought it to make a music-hall of it!

If any change was about to appear in Vavasor a change in the fortunes of the Raymounts prevented it.

What the common judgment calls luck seems to have odd predilections and prejudices with regard to families as well as individuals. Some seem invariably successful, whatever they take in hand; others go on, generation after generation, struggling without a ray of success; while on the surface appears no reason for the inequality. But there is one thing in which pre-eminently I do not believe--that same luck, namely, or chance, or fortune. The Father of families looks after his families--and his children too.




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