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Chapter 15

There was to be a hop at the Grand Union that night, and I had got tickets for it in virtue of my relation to Every Other Week. I must say the clerk who gave them me was very civil about it; he said they were really only for the hotel guests, but he was glad to give them to outsiders who applied with proper credentials; and he even offered me more tickets than I asked for.

Miss Gage was getting a dress for the hop, and it was to be finished that day. I think women really like the scare of thinking their dresses will not be done for a given occasion, and so arrange to have them at the last moment. Mrs. March went with the girl early in the afternoon to have it tried on for the last time, and they came home reporting that it was a poem. My wife confided to me that it was not half done—merely begun, in fact—and would never be finished in time in the world. She also assured Miss Gage that she need not be the least uneasy; that there was not an hour's work on the dress; and that the dress-maker's reputation was at stake, and she would not dare to fail her. I knew she was perfectly sincere in both these declarations, which were, indeed, merely the expression of two mental attitudes, and had no relation to the facts.

She added to me that she was completely worn out with anxiety and worry, and I must not think of her going to the hop. I would have to do the chaperoning for her, and she did hope that I would not forget what I was sent for, or get talking with somebody, and leave Miss Gage altogether to Kendricks. She said that quite likely there might be friends or acquaintances of his at the hop—such a large affair—whom he would want to show some attention, and I must take charge of Miss Gage myself, and try to find her other partners. She drilled me in the duties of my position until I believed that I was letter-perfect, and then she said that she supposed I would commit some terrible blunder that would ruin everything.

I thought that this was very likely, too, but I would not admit it.

The dress came home at nine o'clock, and operated a happy diversion from my imaginable shortcomings; for it appeared from Mrs. March's asides to me that it was a perfect horror in the set, and that everybody could see that it had been simply SLUNG together at the last moment, and she would never, as long as the world stood, go to that woman for anything again.

I must say I could not myself see anything wrong about the dress. I thought it exquisite in tint and texture; a delicate, pale-greenish film that clung and floated, and set off the girl's beauty as the leafage of a flower heightens the loveliness of a flower. I did not dare to say this in the face of Mrs. March's private despair, and I was silent while the girl submitted to be twirled about for my inspection like a statue on a revolving pedestal. Kendricks, however, had no such restrictions upon him, and I could see him start with delight in the splendid vision before he spoke.

"ISN'T it a poem?" demanded Mrs. March. "Isn't it a perfect LYRIC?"

"Why should you have allowed her to be transported altogether into the ideal? Wasn't she far enough from us before?" he asked; and I found myself wishing that he would be either less or more articulate. He ought to have been mute with passion, or else he ought to have been frankly voluble about the girl's gown, and gone on about it longer. But he simply left the matter there, and though I kept him carefully under my eye, I could not see that he was concealing any further emotion. She, on her part, neither blushed nor frowned at his compliment; she did nothing by look or gesture to provoke more praise; she took it very much as the beautiful evening might, so undeniably fine, so perfect in its way.

She and the evening were equally fitted for the event to which they seemed equally dedicated. The dancing was to be out of doors on a vast planking, or platform, set up in the heart of that bosky court which the hotel incloses. Around this platform drooped the slim, tall Saratogan trees, and over it hung the Saratogan sky, of a nocturnal blue very rare in our latitude, with the stars faint in its depths, and by and by a white moon that permitted itself a modest competition with the electric lights effulgent everywhere. There was a great crowd of people in the portico, the vestibule, and the inner piazzas, and on the lawn around the platform, where "the trodden weed" sent up the sweet scent of bruised grass in the cool night air. My foolish old heart bounded with a pulse of youth at the thought of all the gay and tender possibilities of such a scene.

But the young people under my care seemed in no haste to mingle in it. We oldsters are always fancying youth impatient, but there is no time of life which has so much patience. It behaves as if it had eternity before it—an eternity of youth—instead of a few days and years, and then the frosty poll. We who are young no longer think we would do so and so if we were young, as women think they would do so and so if they were men; but if we were really young again, we should not do at all what we think. We should not hurry to experience our emotions; we should not press forward to discharge our duties or repair our mistakes; we should not seize the occasion to make a friend or reconcile an enemy; we should let weeks and months go by in the realisation of a passion, and trust all sorts of contingencies and accidents to help us out with its confession. The thoughts of youth are very long, and its conclusions are deliberate and delayed, and often withheld altogether. It is age which is tremulously eager in these matters, and cannot wait with the fine patience of nature in her growing moods.

As soon, even, as I was in the hotel I was impatient to press through to the place where the dancing was, and where I already heard the band playing. I knew very well that when we got there I should have to sit down somewhere on the edge of the platform with the other frumps and fogies, and begin taking cold in my dress-coat, and want to doze off without being able to, while my young people were waltzing together, or else promenading up and down ignoring me, or recognising me by the offer of a fan, and the question whether I was not simply melting; I have seen how the poor chaperon fares at such times. But they, secure of their fun, were by no means desirous to have it over, or even to have it begin. They dawdled through the thronged hotel office, where other irresponsible pairs were coming and going under the admiring eyes of the hotel loungers, and they wandered up and down the waste parlours, and sat on tete-a- tetes just to try them, apparently; and Miss Gage verified in the mirrors the beauty which was reflected in all eyes. They amused themselves with the extent of the richly-carpeted and upholstered desolation around them, where only a few lonely and aging women lurked about on sofas and ottomans; and they fell to playing with their compassion for the plebeian spectators at the long verandah windows trying to penetrate with their forbidden eyes to the hop going on in the court far beyond the intermediary desert of the parlours.

When they signified at last that they were ready for me to lead them on to the dance, I would so much rather have gone to bed that there are no words for the comparison. Then, when we got to the place, which I should never have been able to reach in the world if it had not been for the young energy and inspiration of Kendricks, and they had put me in a certain seat with Miss Gage's wraps beside me where they could find me, they went off and danced for hours and hours. For hours and hours? For ages and ages! while I withered away amid mouldering mothers, and saw my charges through the dreadful half- dreams of such a state whirling in the waltz, hopping in the polka, sliding in the galop, and then endlessly walking up and down between the dances, and eating and drinking the chill refreshments that it made my teeth chatter to think of. I suppose they decently came to me from time to time, though they seemed to be always dancing, for I could afterward remember Miss Gage taking a wrap from me now and then, and quickly coming back to shed it upon my lap again. I got so chilled that if they had not been unmistakably women's wraps I should have bundled them all about my shoulders, which I could almost hear creak with rheumatism. I must have fallen into a sort of drowse at last; for I was having a dispute with some sort of authority, which turned out to be Mrs. March, and upbraiding her with the fact that there were no women's wraps which would also do for a man, when the young people stood arm in arm before me, and Miss Gage said that she was tired to death now, and they were going.

But it appeared that they were only going as far as the parlours for the present; for when they re-entered the hotel, they turned into them, and sat down there quite as if that had been the understanding. When I arrived with the wraps, I was reminded of something, and I said, "Have you two been dancing together the whole evening?"

They looked at each other as if for the first time they now realised the fact, and Kendricks said, "Why, of course we have! We didn't know anybody."

"Very well, then," I said; "you have got me into a scrape."

"Oh, poor Mr. March!" cried the girl. "How have we done it?"

"Why, Mrs. March said that Mr. Kendricks would be sure to know numbers of people, and I must get you other partners, for it wouldn't do for you to dance the whole evening together."

She threw herself back in the chair she had taken, and laughed as if this were the best joke in the world.

He said hardily, "You see it HAS done."

"And if it wouldn't do," she gasped, "why didn't you bring me the other partners?"

"Because I didn't know any," I said; and this seemed to amuse them both so much that I was afraid they would never get their breath.

She looked by and by at her dancing-card, and as soon as she could wipe the tears from her eyes she said, "No; there is no other name there"; and this seemed even a better joke than the other from the way they joined in laughing at it.

"Well, now," I said, when they were quiet again, "this won't do, my young friends. It's all very well for you, and you seem to like it; but I am responsible for your having passed a proper evening under my chaperonage, and something has got to be done to prove it." They saw the reasonableness of this, and they immediately became sober. "Kendricks," I asked, "can't you think of something?"

No, he said, he couldn't; and then he began to laugh again.

I applied to her in the same terms; but she only answered, "Oh, don't ask ME," and she went off laughing too.

"Very well, then," I said; "I shall have to do something desperate, and I shall expect you both to bear me out in it, and I don't want any miserable subterfuges when it comes to the point with Mrs. March. Will you let me have your dancing-card Miss Gage?" She detached it, and handed it to me. "It's very fortunate that Mr. Kendricks wrote his name for the first dance only, and didn't go on and fill it up."

"Why, we didn't think it was worth while!" she innocently explained.

"And that's what makes it so perfectly providential, as Mrs. March says. Now then," I went on, as I wrote in the name of a rising young politician, who happened just then to have been announced as arriving in Saratoga to join some other leaders in arranging the slate of his party for the convention to meet a month later, "we will begin with a good American."

I handed the card to Kendricks. "Do you happen to remember the name of the young French nobleman who danced the third dance with Miss Gage?"

"No," he said; "but I think I could invent it." And he dashed down an extremely probable marquis, while Miss Gage clapped her hands for joy.

"Oh, how glorious! how splendid!"

I asked, "Will you ever give me away the longest day you live?"

"Never," she promised; and I added the name of a South American doctor, one of those doctors who seem to be always becoming the presidents of their republics, and ordering all their patients of opposite politics to be shot in the plaza.

Kendricks entered a younger son of an English duke, and I contributed the hyphenated surname of a New York swell, and between us we soon had all the dances on Miss Gage's card taken by the most distinguished people. We really studied probability in the forgery, and we were proud of the air of reality it wore in the carefully differenced handwritings, with national traits nicely accented in each.

William Dean Howells

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