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Chapter 15

It was the day of the garden-party. The weather was too
cloudy to be called perfect, but it was as sultry as the most
thinly-clad young lady could desire. Great trouble had been
taken by Paula to bring the lawn to a fit condition after the
neglect of recent years, and Somerset had suggested the design
for the tents. As he approached the precincts of the castle
he discerned a flag of newest fabric floating over the keep,
and soon his fly fell in with the stream of carriages that
were passing over the bridge into the outer ward.

Mrs. Goodman and Paula were receiving the people in the
drawing-room. Somerset came forward in his turn; but as he
was immediately followed by others there was not much
opportunity, even had she felt the wish, for any special mark
of feeling in the younger lady's greeting of him.

He went on through a canvas passage, lined on each side with
flowering plants, till he reached the tents; thence, after
nodding to one or two guests slightly known to him, he
proceeded to the grounds, with a sense of being rather lonely.
Few visitors had as yet got so far in, and as he walked up and
down a shady alley his mind dwelt upon the new aspect under
which Paula had greeted his eyes that afternoon. Her black-
and-white costume had finally disappeared, and in its place
she had adopted a picturesque dress of ivory white, with satin
enrichments of the same hue; while upon her bosom she wore a
blue flower. Her days of infestivity were plainly ended, and
her days of gladness were to begin.

His reverie was interrupted by the sound of his name, and
looking round he beheld Havill, who appeared to be as much
alone as himself.

Somerset already knew that Havill had been appointed to
compete with him, according to his recommendation. In
measuring a dark corner a day or two before, he had stumbled
upon Havill engaged in the same pursuit with a view to the
rival design. Afterwards he had seen him receiving Paula's
instructions precisely as he had done himself. It was as he
had wished, for fairness' sake: and yet he felt a regret, for
he was less Paula's own architect now.

'Well, Mr. Somerset,' said Havill, 'since we first met an
unexpected rivalry has arisen between us! But I dare say we
shall survive the contest, as it is not one arising out of
love. Ha-ha-ha!' He spoke in a level voice of fierce
pleasantry, and uncovered his regular white teeth.

Somerset supposed him to allude to the castle competition?

'Yes,' said Havill. 'Her proposed undertaking brought out
some adverse criticism till it was known that she intended to
have more than one architectural opinion. An excellent stroke
of hers to disarm criticism. You saw the second letter in the
morning papers?'

'No,' said the other.

'The writer states that he has discovered that the competent
advice of two architects is to be taken, and withdraws his
accusations.'

Somerset said nothing for a minute. 'Have you been supplied
with the necessary data for your drawings?' he asked, showing
by the question the track his thoughts had taken.

Havill said that he had. 'But possibly not so completely as
you have,' he added, again smiling fiercely. Somerset did not
quite like the insinuation, and the two speakers parted, the
younger going towards the musicians, who had now begun to fill
the air with their strains from the embowered enclosure of a
drooping ash. When he got back to the marquees they were
quite crowded, and the guests began to pour out upon the
grass, the toilets of the ladies presenting a brilliant
spectacle--here being coloured dresses with white devices,
there white dresses with coloured devices, and yonder
transparent dresses with no device at all. A lavender haze
hung in the air, the trees were as still as those of a
submarine forest; while the sun, in colour like a brass
plaque, had a hairy outline in the livid sky.

After watching awhile some young people who were so madly
devoted to lawn-tennis that they set about it like day-
labourers at the moment of their arrival, he turned and saw
approaching a graceful figure in cream-coloured hues, whose
gloves lost themselves beneath her lace ruffles, even when she
lifted her hand to make firm the blue flower at her breast,
and whose hair hung under her hat in great knots so well
compacted that the sun gilded the convexity of each knot like
a ball.

'You seem to be alone,' said Paula, who had at last escaped
from the duty of receiving guests.

'I don't know many people.'

'Yes: I thought of that while I was in the drawing-room. But
I could not get out before. I am now no longer a responsible
being: Mrs. Goodman is mistress for the remainder of the day.
Will you be introduced to anybody? Whom would you like to
know?'

'I am not particularly unhappy in my solitude.'

'But you must be made to know a few.'

'Very well--I submit readily.'

She looked away from him, and while he was observing upon her
cheek the moving shadow of leaves cast by the declining sun,
she said, 'O, there is my aunt,' and beckoned with her parasol
to that lady, who approached in the comparatively youthful
guise of a grey silk dress that whistled at every touch.

Paula left them together, and Mrs. Goodman then made him
acquainted with a few of the best people, describing what they
were in a whisper before they came up, among them being the
Radical member for Markton, who had succeeded to the seat
rendered vacant by the death of Paula's father. While talking
to this gentleman on the proposed enlargement of the castle,
Somerset raised his eyes and hand towards the walls, the
better to point out his meaning; in so doing he saw a face in
the square of darkness formed by one of the open windows, the
effect being that of a highlight portrait by Vandyck or
Rembrandt.

It was his assistant Dare, leaning on the window-sill of the
studio, as he smoked his cigarette and surveyed the gay groups
promenading beneath.

After holding a chattering conversation with some ladies from
a neighbouring country seat who had known his father in bygone
years, and handing them ices and strawberries till they were
satisfied, he found an opportunity of leaving the grounds,
wishing to learn what progress Dare had made in the survey of
the castle.

Dare was still in the studio when he entered. Somerset
informed the youth that there was no necessity for his working
later that day, unless to please himself, and proceeded to
inspect Dare's achievements thus far. To his vexation Dare
had not plotted three dimensions during the previous two days.
This was not the first time that Dare, either from
incompetence or indolence, had shown his inutility as a house-
surveyor and draughtsman.

'Mr. Dare,' said Somerset, 'I fear you don't suit me well
enough to make it necessary that you should stay after this
week.'

Dare removed the cigarette from his lips and bowed. 'If I
don't suit, the sooner I go the better; why wait the week?' he
said.

'Well, that's as you like.'

Somerset drew the inkstand towards him, wrote out a cheque for
Dare's services, and handed it across the table.

'I'll not trouble you to-morrow,' said Dare, seeing that the
payment included the week in advance.

'Very well,' replied Somerset. 'Please lock the door when you
leave.' Shaking hands with Dare and wishing him well, he left
the room and descended to the lawn below.

There he contrived to get near Miss Power again, and inquired
of her for Miss De Stancy.

'O! did you not know?' said Paula; 'her father is unwell, and
she preferred staying with him this afternoon.'

'I hoped he might have been here.'

'O no; he never comes out of his house to any party of this
sort; it excites him, and he must not be excited.'

'Poor Sir William!' muttered Somerset.

'No,' said Paula, 'he is grand and historical.'

'That is hardly an orthodox notion for a Puritan,' said
Somerset mischievously.

'I am not a Puritan,' insisted Paula.

The day turned to dusk, and the guests began going in relays
to the dining-hall. When Somerset had taken in two or three
ladies to whom he had been presented, and attended to their
wants, which occupied him three-quarters of an hour, he
returned again to the large tent, with a view to finding Paula
and taking his leave. It was now brilliantly lighted up, and
the musicians, who during daylight had been invisible behind
the ash-tree, were ensconced at one end with their harps and
violins. It reminded him that there was to be dancing. The
tent had in the meantime half filled with a new set of young
people who had come expressly for that pastime. Behind the
girls gathered numbers of newly arrived young men with low
shoulders and diminutive moustaches, who were evidently
prepared for once to sacrifice themselves as partners.

Somerset felt something of a thrill at the sight. He was an
infrequent dancer, and particularly unprepared for dancing at
present; but to dance once with Paula Power he would give a
year of his life. He looked round; but she was nowhere to be
seen. The first set began; old and middle-aged people
gathered from the different rooms to look on at the gyrations
of their children, but Paula did not appear. When another
dance or two had progressed, and an increase in the average
age of the dancers was making itself perceptible, especially
on the masculine side, Somerset was aroused by a whisper at
his elbow--

'You dance, I think? Miss Deverell is disengaged. She has
not been asked once this evening.' The speaker was Paula.

Somerset looked at Miss Deverell--a sallow lady with black
twinkling eyes, yellow costume, and gay laugh, who had been
there all the afternoon--and said something about having
thought of going home.

'Is that because I asked you to dance?' she murmured. 'There-
-she is appropriated.' A young gentleman had at that moment
approached the uninviting Miss Deverell, claimed her hand and
led her off.

'That's right,' said Somerset. 'I ought to leave room for
younger men.'

'You need not say so. That bald-headed gentleman is forty-
five. He does not think of younger men.'

'Have YOU a dance to spare for me?'

Her face grew stealthily redder in the candle-light. 'O!--I
have no engagement at all--I have refused. I hardly feel at
liberty to dance; it would be as well to leave that to my
visitors.'

'Why?'

'My father, though he allowed me to be taught, never liked the
idea of my dancing.'

'Did he make you promise anything on the point?'

'He said he was not in favour of such amusements--no more.'

'I think you are not bound by that, on an informal occasion
like the present.'

She was silent.

'You will just once?' said he.

Another silence. 'If you like,' she venturesomely answered at
last.

Somerset closed the hand which was hanging by his side, and
somehow hers was in it. The dance was nearly formed, and he
led her forward. Several persons looked at them
significantly, but he did not notice it then, and plunged into
the maze.

Never had Mr. Somerset passed through such an experience
before. Had he not felt her actual weight and warmth, he
might have fancied the whole episode a figment of the
imagination. It seemed as if those musicians had thrown a
double sweetness into their notes on seeing the mistress of
the castle in the dance, that a perfumed southern atmosphere
had begun to pervade the marquee, and that human beings were
shaking themselves free of all inconvenient gravitation.

Somerset's feelings burst from his lips. 'This is the
happiest moment I have ever known,' he said. 'Do you know
why?'

'I think I saw a flash of lightning through the opening of the
tent,' said Paula, with roguish abruptness.

He did not press for an answer. Within a few minutes a long
growl of thunder was heard. It was as if Jove could not
refrain from testifying his jealousy of Somerset for taking
this covetable woman so presumptuously in his arms.

The dance was over, and he had retired with Paula to the back
of the tent, when another faint flash of lightning was visible
through an opening. She lifted the canvas, and looked out,
Somerset looking out behind her. Another dance was begun, and
being on this account left out of notice, Somerset did not
hasten to leave Paula's side.

'I think they begin to feel the heat,' she said.

'A little ventilation would do no harm.' He flung back the
tent door where he stood, and the light shone out upon the
grass.

'I must go to the drawing-room soon,' she added. 'They will
begin to leave shortly.'

'It is not late. The thunder-cloud has made it seem dark--see
there; a line of pale yellow stretches along the horizon from
west to north. That's evening--not gone yet. Shall we go
into the fresh air for a minute?'

She seemed to signify assent, and he stepped off the tent-
floor upon the ground. She stepped off also.

The air out-of-doors had not cooled, and without definitely
choosing a direction they found themselves approaching a
little wooden tea-house that stood on the lawn a few yards
off. Arrived here, they turned, and regarded the tent they
had just left, and listened to the strains that came from
within it.

'I feel more at ease now,' said Paula.

'So do I,' said Somerset.

'I mean,' she added in an undeceiving tone, 'because I saw
Mrs. Goodman enter the tent again just as we came out here; so
I have no further responsibility.'

'I meant something quite different. Try to guess what.'

She teasingly demurred, finally breaking the silence by
saying, 'The rain is come at last,' as great drops began to
fall upon the ground with a smack, like pellets of clay.

In a moment the storm poured down with sudden violence, and
they drew further back into the summer-house. The side of the
tent from which they had emerged still remained open, the rain
streaming down between their eyes and the lighted interior of
the marquee like a tissue of glass threads, the brilliant
forms of the dancers passing and repassing behind the watery
screen, as if they were people in an enchanted submarine
palace.

'How happy they are!' said Paula. 'They don't even know that
it is raining. I am so glad that my aunt had the tent lined;
otherwise such a downpour would have gone clean through it.'

The thunder-storm showed no symptoms of abatement, and the
music and dancing went on more merrily than ever.

'We cannot go in,' said Somerset. 'And we cannot shout for
umbrellas. We will stay till it is over, will we not?'

'Yes,' she said, 'if you care to. Ah!'

'What is it?'

'Only a big drop came upon my head.'

'Let us stand further in.'

Her hand was hanging by her side, and Somerset's was close by.
He took it, and she did not draw it away. Thus they stood a
long while, the rain hissing down upon the grass-plot, and not
a soul being visible outside the dancing-tent save themselves.

'May I call you Paula?' asked he.

There was no answer.

'May I?' he repeated.

'Yes, occasionally,' she murmured.

'Dear Paula!--may I call you that?'

'O no--not yet.'

'But you know I love you?'

'Yes,' she whispered.

'And shall I love you always?'

'If you wish to.'

'And will you love me?'

Paula did not reply.

'Will you, Paula?' he repeated.

'You may love me.'

'But don't you love me in return?'

'I love you to love me.'

'Won't you say anything more explicit?'

'I would rather not.'

Somerset emitted half a sigh: he wished she had been more
demonstrative, yet felt that this passive way of assenting was
as much as he could hope for. Had there been anything cold in
her passivity he might have felt repressed; but her stillness
suggested the stillness of motion imperceptible from its
intensity.

'We must go in,' said she. 'The rain is almost over, and
there is no longer any excuse for this.'

Somerset bent his lips toward hers. 'No,' said the fair
Puritan decisively.

'Why not?' he asked.

'Nobody ever has.'

'But!--' expostulated Somerset.

'To everything there is a season, and the season for this is
not just now,' she answered, walking away.

They crossed the wet and glistening lawn, stepped under the
tent and parted. She vanished, he did not know whither; and,
standing with his gaze fixed on the dancers, the young man
waited, till, being in no mood to join them, he went slowly
through the artificial passage lined with flowers, and entered
the drawing room. Mrs. Goodman was there, bidding good-night
to the early goers, and Paula was just behind her, apparently
in her usual mood. His parting with her was quite formal, but
that he did not mind, for her colour rose decidedly higher as
he approached, and the light in her eyes was like the ray of a
diamond.

When he reached the door he found that his brougham from the
Quantock Arms, which had been waiting more than an hour, could
not be heard of. That vagrancy of spirit which love induces
would not permit him to wait; and, leaving word that the man
was to follow him when he returned, he went past the glare of
carriage-lamps ranked in the ward, and under the outer arch.
The night was now clear and beautiful, and he strolled along
his way full of mysterious elation till the vehicle overtook
him, and he got in.

Up to this point Somerset's progress in his suit had been,
though incomplete, so uninterrupted, that he almost feared the
good chance he enjoyed. How should it be in a mortal of his
calibre to command success with such a sweet woman for long?
He might, indeed, turn out to be one of the singular
exceptions which are said to prove rules; but when fortune
means to men most good, observes the bard, she looks upon them
with a threatening eye. Somerset would even have been content
that a little disapproval of his course should have occurred
in some quarter, so as to make his wooing more like ordinary
life. But Paula was not clearly won, and that was drawback
sufficient. In these pleasing agonies and painful delights he
passed the journey to Markton.

Thomas Hardy