Read CHAPTER X of Muslin, free online book, by George Moore, on ReadCentral.com.

During the whole of the next week, until the very night of the ball, the girls hadn’t a moment they could call their own.  It was impossible to say how time went.  There were so many things to think of ­to remind each other of.  Nobody knew what they had done last, or what they should do next.  The principle on which the ball had been arranged was this:  the forty-five spinsters who had agreed to bear the expense, which it was guaranteed would not exceed L3 10s. apiece, were supplied each with five tickets to be distributed among their friends.  To save money, the supper had been provided by the Goulds and Manlys, and day after day the rich smells of roast beef and the salt vapours of boiling hams trailed along the passages, and ascended through the banisters of the staircases in Beech Grove and Manly Park.  Fifty chickens had been killed; presents of woodcock and snipe were received from all sides; salmon had arrived from Galway; cases of champagne from Dublin.  As a wit said, ’Circe has prepared a banquet and is calling us in.’

After much hesitation, a grammar-school, built by an enterprising landlord for an inappreciative population that had declined to support it, was selected as the most suitable location for the festivities.  It lay about a mile from the town, and this was in itself an advantage.  To the decoration of the rooms May and Fred diligently applied themselves.  Away they went every morning, the carriage filled with yards of red cloth, branches of evergreen, oak and holly, flags and Chinese lanterns.  You see them:  Fred mounted on a high ladder, May and the maid striving to hand him a long garland which is to be hung between the windows.  You see them leaning over the counter of a hardware shop, explaining how oblong and semicircular pieces of tin are to be provided with places for candles (the illumination of the room had remained an unsolved problem until ingenious Fred had hit upon this plan); you see them running up the narrow staircases, losing themselves in the twisty passages, calling for the housekeeper; you see them trying to decide which is the gentlemen’s cloakroom, which the ladies’, and wondering if they will be able to hire enough furniture in the town to arrange a sitting-room for the chaperons.

As May said, ’We shall have them hanging about our heels the whole evening if we don’t try to make them comfortable.’

At last the evening of the ball arrived, and, as the clocks were striking eight, dressed and ready to start, Alice knocked at May’s door.

‘What! dressed already?’ said May, as she leaned towards the glass, illuminated on either side with wax candles, and looked into the whiteness of her bosom.  She wore a costume of Prussian-blue velvet and silk; the bodice (entirely of velvet) was pointed back and front, and a berthe of moresque lace softened the contrast between it and the cream tints of the skin.  These and the flame-coloured hair were the spirits of the shadowy bedchamber; whereas Alice, in her white corded-silk, her clear candid eyes, was the truer Madonna whose ancient and inferior prototype stood on her bracket in a forgotten corner.

‘Oh! how nice you look!’ exclaimed May; ’I don’t think I ever saw anyone look so pure.’

Alice smiled; and, interpreting the smile, May said: 

‘I am afraid you don’t think so much of me.’

’I am sure, May, you look very nice indeed, and just as you would like to look.’

To May’s excitable mind it was not difficult to suggest a new train of thought, and she immediately proceeded to explain why she had chosen her present dress.

’I knew that you, and Olive, and Violet, and Lord knows how many others would be in white, and, as we shall all have to wear white at the Drawing-Room, I thought I’d appear in this.  But isn’t the whole thing delightful?  I am engaged already for several dances, and I have been practising the step all day with Fred.’  Then, singing to herself, she waltzed in front of the glass at the immediate risk of falling into the bath: 

         ’"Five-and-forty spinsters baked in a pie! 
          When the pie was opened the maids began to sing,
          Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King!”

‘Oh, dear, there’s my garter coming down!’ and, dropping on to the sofa, the girl hitched up the treacherous article of dress.  ’And tell me what you think of my legs,’ she said, advancing a pair of stately calves.  ‘Violet says they are too large.’

’They seem to me to be all right; but, May dear, you haven’t got a petticoat on.’

’You can’t wear petticoats with these tight dresses; one can’t move one’s legs as it is.’

‘But don’t you think you’ll feel cold ­catch cold?’

’Not a bit of it; no danger of cold when you have shammy-leather drawers.’

Then, overcome by her exuberant feelings, May began to sing:  ‘Five-and-forty spinsters baked in a pie,’ etc.  ‘Five-and-forty,’ she said, breaking off, ’have subscribed.  I wonder how many will be married by this time next year?  You know, I shouldn’t care to be married all at once; I’d want to see the world a bit first.  Even if I liked a man, I shouldn’t care to marry him now; time enough in about three years’ time, when one is beginning to get tired of flirtations and parties.  I have often wondered what it must be like.  Just fancy waking up and seeing a man’s face on the pillow, or for ­’

’No, no, May; I will not; you must not.  I will not listen to these improper conversations!’

’Now, don’t get angry, there’s a dear, nice girl; you’re worse than Violet, ’pon my word you are; but we must be off.  It is a good half-hour’s drive, and we shall want to be there before nine.  The people will begin to come in about that time.’

Mrs. Gould was asleep in the drawing-room, and, as they awoke her, the sound of wheels was heard on the gravel outside.  The girls hopped into the carriage.  Mrs. Gould pulled herself in, and, blotted out in a far corner, thought vaguely of asking May not to dance more than three times with Fred Scully; May chattered to Alice or looked impatiently through the misted windows for the familiar signs; the shadow of a tree on the sky, or the obscure outline of a farm-building that would tell how near they were to their destination.  Suddenly the carriage turned to the right, and entered a sort of crescent.  There were hedges on both sides, through which vague forms were seen scrambling, but May humorously explained that as no very unpopular landlord was going to be present, it was not thought that an attempt would be made to blow up the building; and, conscious of the beautiful night which hung like a blue mysterious flower above them, they passed through a narrow doorway draped with red-striped canvas.

’Now, mother, what do you think of the decorations?  Do say a word of praise.’

‘I’ve always said, May, that you have excellent taste.’

The school-hall and refectory had been transformed into ball and supper rooms, and the narrow passages intervening were hung with red cloth and green garlands of oak and holly.  On crossing threads Chinese lanterns were wafted luminously.

‘What taste Fred has!’ said May, pointing to the huge arrangement that covered the end wall.  ’And haven’t my tin candelabra turned out a success?  There will be no grease, and the room couldn’t be better lighted.’

‘But look!’ said Alice, ’look at all those poor people staring in at the window.  Isn’t it dreadful that they, in the dark and cold, should be watching us dancing in our beautiful dresses, and in our warm bright room?’

‘You don’t want to ask them in, do you?’

‘Of course not, but it seems very sinister; doesn’t it seem so to you?’

’I don’t know what you mean by its being sinister; but sinister or not sinister, it couldn’t be helped; for if we had nailed up every window we should have simply died of heat.’

‘I hope you won’t think of opening the windows too soon,’ said Mrs. Gould.  ’You must think of us poor chaperons, who will be sitting still all night.’

Then, in the gaping silence, the three ladies listened to the melancholy harper and the lachrymose fiddlers who, on the estrade in the far corner, sat tuning their instruments.  At last the people began to come in.  The first were a few stray blackcoats, then feminine voices were heard in the passages, and necks and arms, green toilettes and white satin shoes, were seen passing and taking seats.  Two Miss Duffys, the fattest of the four, were with their famous sister Bertha.  Bertha was rarely seen in Galway; she lived with an aunt in Dublin, where her terrible tongue was dreaded by the debutantes at the Castle.  In a yellow dress as loud and as hard as her voice, she stood explaining that she had come down expressly for the ball.  Opposite, the Honourable Miss Gores made a group of five; and a few men who preferred consideration to amusement made their way towards them.  The Brennans ­Gladys and Zoe ­as soon as they saw Alice, asked after Lord Dungory; and all the girls were anxious to see Violet, who they feared would seem thin in a low dress.

Hers was the charm of an infinite fragility.  The bosom, whose curves were so faint that they were epicene, was set in a bodice of white broche, joining a skirt of white satin, with an overskirt of tulle, and the only touch of colour was a bunch of pink and white azaleas worn on the left shoulder.  And how irresistibly suggestive of an Indian carved ivory were the wee foot, the thin arm, the slender cheek!

‘How sweet you look, Violet,’ said Alice, with frank admiration in her eyes.

’Thanks for saying so; ’tisn’t often we girls pay each other compliments.  But you, you do look ever so nice in that white silk.  It becomes you perfectly.’  And then, her thoughts straying suddenly from Alice’s dress, she said: 

’Do you see Mr. Burke over there?  If his brother died he would be a marquis.  Do you know him?’

‘Yes; I met him at dinner at Dungory Castle.’

‘Well, introduce him to me if you get a chance.’

‘I am afraid you will find him stupid.’

’Oh, that doesn’t matter; ’tis good form to be seen dancing with an Honourable.  Do you know many men in the room?’

Alice admitted she knew no one, and, lapsing into silence, the girls scanned the ranks for possible partners.  Poor Sir Richard, already very drunk, his necktie twisted under his right ear, was vainly attempting to say something to those whom he knew, or fancied he knew.  Sir Charles, forgetful of the family at home, was flirting with a young girl whose mother was probably formulating the details of a new emigration scheme.  Dirty Mr. Ryan, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his baggy trousers, whispered words of counsel to Mr. Lynch:  a rumour had gone abroad that Captain Hibbert was going to hunt that season in Galway, and would want a couple of horses.  Mr. Adair was making grotesque attempts to talk to a lady of dancing.  On every side voices were heard speaking of the distances they had achieved:  some had driven twenty, some thirty miles.

Already the first notes of the waltz had been shrieked out by the cornet, and Mr. Fred Scully, with May’s red tresses on his shoulder, was about to start, when Mrs. Barton and Olive entered.  Olive, in white silk, so tightly drawn back that every line of her supple thighs, and every plumpness of her superb haunches was seen; and the double garland of geraniums that encircled the tulle veiling seemed like flowers of blood scattered on virgin snow.  Her beauty imposed admiration; and, murmuring assent, the dancers involuntarily drew into lines, and this pale, uncoloured loveliness, her high nose seen, and her silly laugh heard, by the side of her sharp, brown-eyed mother, passed down the room.  Lord Dungory and Lord Rosshill advanced to meet them; a moment after Captain Hibbert and Mr. Burke came up to ask for dances; a waltz was promised to each.  A circling crowd of black-coats instantly absorbed the triumphant picture; the violinist scraped, and the harper twanged intermittently; a band of fox-hunters arrived; girls had been chosen, and in the small space of floor that remained the white skirts and red tail coats passed and repassed, borne along Strauss’s indomitable rhythms.

An hour passed:  perspiration had begun to loosen the work of curling-tongs; dust had thickened the voices, but the joy of exercise was in every head and limb.  A couple would rush off for a cup of tea, or an ice, and then, pale and breathless, return to the fray.  Mrs. Manly was the gayest.  Pushing her children out of her skirts, she called upon May: 

’Now then, May, have you a partner?  We are going to have a real romp ­we are going to have Kitchen Lancers.  I’ll undertake to see everybody through them.’

A select few, by signs, winks, and natural instinct, were drawn towards this convivial circle; but, notwithstanding all her efforts to make herself understood, Mrs. Manly was sadly hampered by the presence of a tub-like old lady who, with a small boy, was seeking a vis-a-vis.

’My dear May, we can’t have her here, we are going to romp; anyone can see that.  Tell her we are going to dance Kitchen Lancers.’

But the old lady could not be made to understand, and it was with difficulty that she was disentangled from the sixteen.  At that moment the appearance of a waiter with a telegram caused the dancers to pause.  Mr. Burke’s name was whispered in front of the messenger; but he who, until that evening, had been Mr. Burke, was now the Marquis of Kilearney.  The smiling mouth drooped to an expression of fear as he tore open the envelope.  One glance was enough; he looked about the room like one dazed.  Then, as his eyes fell upon the vague faces seen looking through the wet November pane, he muttered:  ’Oh! you brutes, you brutes! so you have shot my brother!’

Unchecked, the harper twanged and the fiddler scraped out the tune of their Lancers.  Few really knew what had happened, and the newly-made marquis had to fight his way through women who, in skin-tight dresses, danced with wantoning movements of the hips, and threw themselves into the arms of men, to be, in true kitchen-fashion, whirled round and round with prodigious violence.

Nevertheless, Lord Dungory and Lord Rosshill could not conceal their annoyance; both felt keenly that they had compromised themselves by remaining in the room after the news of so dreadful a catastrophe.  But, as Mrs. Barton was anxious that her daughter’s success should not be interfered with, nothing could be done but to express sympathy in appropriate words.  Nobody, Lord Dungory declared, could regret the dastardly outrage that had been committed more than he.  He had known Lord Kilcarney many years, and he had always found him a man whom no one could fail to esteem.  The earldom was one of the oldest in Ireland, but the marquisate did not go back farther than the last few years.  Beaconsfield had given him a step in the peerage; no one knew why.  A very curious man ­most retiring ­hated society.  Then Lord Rosshill related an anecdote concerning an enormous water-jump that he and Lord Kilcarney had taken together; and he also spoke of the late Marquis’s aversion to matrimony, and hinted that he had once refused a match which would have relieved the estates of all debt.  But he could not be persuaded; indeed, he had never been known to pay any woman the slightest attention.

’It is to be hoped the present Marquis won’t prove so difficult to please,’ said Mrs. Gould.  The remark was an unfortunate one, and the chaperons present resented this violation of their secret thoughts.  Mrs. Barton and Mrs. Scully suddenly withdrew their eyes, which till then had been gently following their daughters through the figures of the dance, and, forgetting what they foresaw would be the cause of future enmity, united in condemning Mrs. Gould.  Obeying a glance of the Lady Hamilton eyes, Lord Dungory said: 

On cherche l’amour dans les boudoirs, non pas dans les cimetières, madame.’  Then he added (but this time only for the private ear of Mrs. Barton), ’La mer ne rend pas ses morts, maïs la tombe nous donne souvent les écussons.’

‘Ha! ha! ha!’ laughed Mrs. Barton, ’ce Milord, il trouve l’esprit partout;’ and her light coaxing laugh dissipated this moment of ball-room gloom.

And Alice?  Although conscious of her deficiency in the trois temps, determined not to give in without an effort, she had suffered May to introduce her to a couple of officers; but to execute the step she knew theoretically, or to talk to her partner when he had dragged her, breathless, out of the bumping dances, she found to be difficult, so ignorant was she of hunting and of London theatres, and having read only one book of Ouida’s, it would be vain for her to hope to interest her partner in literature.  The other girls seemed more at home with their partners, and while she walked with hers, wondering what she should say next, she noticed behind screens, under staircases, at the end of dark passages, girls whom she had known at St. Leonards incapable of learning, or even understanding the simplest lessons, suddenly transformed as if by magic into bright, clever, agreeable girls ­capable of fulfilling that only duty which falls to the lot of women:  of amusing men.  But she could not do this, and must, therefore, resign herself to an aimless life of idleness, and be content in a few years to take a place amid the Miss Brennans, the Ladies Cullen, the Miss Duffys, the Honourable Miss Gores, those whom she saw sitting round the walls ‘waiting to be asked,’ as did the women in the old Babylonian Temple.

Such was her criticism of life as she sat wearily answering Mrs. Gould’s tiresome questions, not daring to approach her mother, who was laughing with Olive, Captain Hibbert, and Lord Dungory.  Waltz after waltz had been played, and her ears reeked with their crying strain.  One or two men had asked her ‘if they might have the pleasure’; but she was determined to try dancing no more, and had refused them.  At last, at the earnest request of Mrs. Gould, she had allowed Dr. Reed to take her in to supper.  He was an earnest-eyed, stout, commonplace man, and looked some years over thirty.  Alice, however, found she could talk to him better than with her other partners, and when they left the clattering supper-room, where plates were being broken and champagne was being drunk by the gallon, sitting on the stairs, he talked to her till voices were heard calling for his services.  A dancer had been thrown and had broken his leg.  Alice saw something carried towards her, and, rushing towards May, whom she saw in the doorway, she asked for an explanation.

’Oh, nothing, nothing! he slipped down ­has broken or sprained his ankle ­that’s all.  Why aren’t you dancing?  Greatest fun in the world ­just beginning to get noisy ­and we are going it.  Come on, Fred; come on!’

To the rowdy tune of the Posthorn Polka the different couples were dashing to and fro ­all a little drunk with emotion and champagne; and, as if fascinated, Alice’s eyes followed the shoulders of a tall, florid-faced man.  Doing the deux temps, he traversed the room in two or three prodigious jumps.  His partner, a tiny creature, looked a crushed bird within the circle of his terrible arm.  Like a collier labouring in a heavy sea, a county doctor lurched from side to side, overpowered by the fattest of the Miss Duffys.  A thin, trim youth, with bright eyes glancing hither and thither, executed a complex step, and glided with surprising dexterity in and out, and through this rushing mad mass of light toilettes and flying coat-tails.  Marks, too, of conflict were visible.  Mr. Ryan had lost some portion of his garment in an obscure misunderstanding in the supper-room.  All Mr. Lynch’s studs had gone, and his shirt was in a precarious state; drunken Sir Richard had not been carried out of the room before strewing the floor with his necktie and fragments of his gloves.  But these details were forgotten in the excitement.  The harper twanged still more violently at his strings, the fiddler rasped out the agonizing tune more screechingly than ever; and as the delirium of the dance fevered this horde of well-bred people the desire to exercise, their animal force grew irresistible, and they charged, intent on each other’s overthrow.  In the onset, the vast shoulders and the deux temps were especially successful.  One couple had gone down splendidly before him, another had fallen over the prostrate ones; and in a moment, in positions more or less recumbent, eight people were on the floor.  Fears were expressed for the tight dresses, and Violet had shown more of her thin ankles than was desirable; but the climax was not reached until a young man, whose unsteady legs forbade him this part of the fun, established himself in a safe corner, and commenced to push the people over as they passed him.  This was the signal for the flight of the chaperons.

‘Now come along, Miss Barton,’ cried Mrs. Barton, catching sight of Alice; ‘and will you, Lord Dungory, look after Olive?’

Lord Rosshill collected the five Honourable Miss Gores, the Miss Brennans drew around Mrs. Scully, who, without taking the least notice of them, steered her way.

And so ended, at least so far as they were concerned, the ball given by the spinsters of the county of Galway.  But the real end?  On this subject much curiosity was evinced.

The secret was kept for a time, but eventually the story leaked out that, overcome by the recollections of still pleasanter evenings spent under the hospitable roof of the Mayo bachelor, Mr. Ryan, Mr. Lynch and Sir Charles had brought in the maid-servants, and that, with jigs for waltzes, and whiskey for champagne, the gaiety had not been allowed to die until the day was well begun.  Bit by bit and fragment by fragment the story was pieced together, and, in the secrecy of their bedrooms, with little smothered fits of laughter, the young ladies told each other how Sir Charles had danced with the big housemaid, how every time he did the cross-over he had slapped her on the belly; and then, with more laughter, they related how she had said:  ’Now don’t, Sir Charles, I forbid you to take such liberties.’  And it also became part of the story that, when they were tired of even such pleasures as these, the gentlemen had gone upstairs to where the poor man with the broken leg was lying, and had, with whiskey and song, relieved his sufferings until the Galway train rolled into Ballinasloe.