At a Christmas Ball (Alice MacDonald Fleming, 1892)
[Published in Black and White Christmas Edition, December 1892]
“Then will you promise to give me the seventh, eighth and ninth dances at the ball this time next year?” “But Mr. Hastings, it seems absurd to promise so long before-hand; only think how many things may happen between now and then.”
“Yes I know, you may be married and I may be dead, or gone to Burmah, but somehow I feel quite certain that we shall meet here next year. Do promise me those three dances, I want them awfully.”
“Very well, I will; but why three running?”
“The numbers are easier to remember together."
Consie Meyton wrote on the back of her programme “At the club Ball next year, 7,8, 9, Mr. Hastings,” and began to laugh. “There, doesn’t it look funny? And it will be fun to see which one of us forgets, or if we both do, which is very likely.”
“I shall remember, and I’ll ask your sister to keep one for me; perhaps she will remind you.”
“Yes, Ida has a very good memory, but that won’t make much difference if you are in Burmah at the time.”
“Look here, Miss Meyton, I vow that, wherever I may be next year, I’ll manage to come to this ball and claim my dances with you, and ask you for as many more as you will give me.”
“We will settle that momentous question next year,” said Consie laughed.
She was a pretty girl, slight and fair, and she had not been long enough in India to lose her fresh English bloom. Her partner, Ted Hastings, was in the Artillery, and very much like many other brown-eyed, pleasant-looking young subalterns. Everyone knew that he was very poor and very popular, and everyone said that he was very much in love with Consie Meyton. People in India are generally well acquainted with their neighbours’ concerns, their debts, their pay and prospects--all that is theirs, in fact; and in this particular case everyone’s surmise was absolutely correct.
Hastings’ battery was marching to a station in the North-West, but he had contrived to make his way back to Maidanpore, which is not far from the Punjab frontier, for the Christmas Races; and everyone knew why he had come.
Two days of racing, a large ‘cricket lunch,’ a tennis tournament, a ‘Cinderella’ dance and several dinner parties had given Hastings numerous chances of seeing Consie during the space of five days; but nothing of importance had been said, and the evening of the ball found him with his fate still undecided. His poverty intimidated him. Consie looked at once so delicate and so radiant in her soft white dress, with moonstone stars shimmering in her fair hair, that he was afraid to ask her to share the life of comparative privation and hardship that lay before him. She seemed too far above him in her bright radiance, and the love that shone in his brown eyes was forbidden any other expression.
Consie had been happily certain that this ball would mark a crisis in her life, and in his. The answer that Hastings longed for was ready in her heart, but there was no question to summon it to her lips. She felt the change in his manner without in the least degree understanding it, and her fear that she had attached too much importance to what he might consider a mere flirtation, stiffened and chilled every word she said. It was only towards the end of the evening, when he asked for three dances at the ball next year, that they began to be themselves again. At last, when the fourth extra was over, and Mrs. Meyton had succeeded in finding her two daughters, Hastings was enriched by a yard of white ribbon from Consie’s fan, and Consie’s small fingers were tingling from the close clasp of the hand that held hers, while he said: “Now, you won’t forget my dances next year; but if I’ve any luck I shall come up to Simla next hot weather, and remind you of your promise.”
"That was something for them both to remember, but it was not very much."
“Well?” asked Ida Meyton meaningly, as soon as she was alone with her sister.
“I enjoyed it immensely. Wasn’t it all lovely?” replied Consie, with an unnecessarily brilliant smile.
“He didn’t?” continued Ida, trying to turn her sister’s face to the light.
“Oh, I’m so tired, do let me go to bed now and we’ll talk to-morrow.”
“Good-night, then, you poor old dear,” and Ida’s kiss was closer and more tender than the occasion seemed to warrant; but Connie understood. She was more interested in the arrival of the post during the next few weeks than she had ever been before. Among her memories of the ball there was an unfinished sentence, and an expression in a pair of brown eyes which she half expected a letter would complete and explain; but nothing came, and presently she gave up hoping with a keen little prick of shame.
Early in April the hot weather began in all its fury, and Mrs. Meyton took her two daughters to Simla.
About the middle of June Ida found a piece of interesting news in the Pioneer, and Connie, who had seen the paper and hour before and quietly rejoiced over it, was duly surprised to hear that Lieut. E. F. Hastings, R.A., had obtained two months leave.
“I wonder where he’ll spend it,” said Ida.
“Naini Tal, of course; it’s much the nearest hill station where he is,” suggested Consie; but she looked a little mischievous, and very well pleased, and the girls laughed together.
A few days later Mrs. Meyton and Ida went out calling, leaving Connie to write home letters, and she was in the midst of a description of the latest Gymkhana, when the post was brought in. there were no letters for her, but she stopped to glance at the Pioneer and was startled by seeing a familiar name on the front page.
The paragraph was a very short one, but it was a long time before she could take her eyes from it and realise or believe what it told.
The substance of it was that Lieut. E. F. Hastings, R.A., had died at Umballa, on his way to Simla, from cholera which he must have contracted during the journey, as the cantonment he had left was free from it. The last sentence pronounced him to have been a promising and deservedly popular young office, and remarked that his early death would cause regret to a large circle of friends.
When Mrs. Meyton and Ida returned two hours later, Consie was still sitting, the newspaper before her, rocking slowly to and fro with a white face and eyes that seemed to see nothing. The doctor who attended her for more than a month said that she was suffering from very severe fever, and this served as excuse and explanation for the weak, white, listless creature she was all the rest of the season. After they went back to Maidanpore she grew both stronger and brighter, and, to her mother’s great relief, began to go about again and to take some interest in the ordinary affairs of life.
The Christmas Ball given by the Club that year might more aptly have been called the New Year Ball, for it was found necessary to postpone it to the 31st of December.
Consie promised to go without needing any persuasion, though at Simla, since the month of June, she had shrunk from gaieties of all kinds. She even took an interest in the dress she was to wear, and became almost like her old self again.
The sisters were to wear white, as usual, and Ida contrived, with some difficulty--for it was a flowerless time of year--to get roses, white and palest pink, enough for them both.
While Ida arranged her roses, daintily mingling white and pink with delicate green sprays, Consie took a bouquet frame and fastened flowers in it, almost without looking at them.
"That won’t look well," said, Ida, “you’ve taken no pink roses, and you haven’t even edged it with green. It’s almost ugly like that.”
“I want it to be all white,” said Connie.
“Oh, Connie, cried Ida, a few minutes after, “You mustn’t tie it with black ribbon. I’ll give you some white.”
“This is just what I want, thanks, dear.”
“Black ribbon and white roses! You funny girl, it looks like a funeral. Oh, that reminds me. Do you remember poor Mr. Hastings coming up for this ball last year, and asking you to give him a lot of dances at this very one we are going to to-night. Poor fellow. He asked me to keep one for him too, because I was your sister. Isn’t it eerie to think that I promised him number five? One feels that he might come and claim it.”
“Please don’t talk about it,” said Consie.
“Of course I’m talking nonsense, but I could not help thinking about it.”
“I can’t tell you how much I have thought of it, but I can’t bear to speak of it,” said Consie, so quickly that her sister only half heard, and then she went away.
That evening Consie was as white as her roses, and her eyes shone with such unusual brightness that Mrs. Meyton was frightened.
“My child, you look tired to death, and your hands are as cold as clay; don’t you think you had better stay at home?”
“Please not, I would not miss this ball for the world,” said Consie, with surprising eagerness.
When the girls were putting on their cloaks Ida turned quickly to her sister. “Dear, do forgive me for what I said about Mr. Hastings. I am so sorry that I reminded you of him, it was horrible of me. Of course it’s very sad, but you know it would make no difference to him, poor fellow, if we stayed away.”
“But I want to go very much indeed,” said Consie, taking up the white bouquet with its black streamers, and hiding the programme, which had been sent her the day before in the front of her dress. No one could see that against the seventh, eight, and ninth dances, she had written the name of a man who had been lying in his grave, in the Umballa cemetery, for six months.
When the band struck up for the fifth dance, Ida’s partner was surprised to find that after a couple of turns, she suddenly gave a start, and stood quite still, looking at a doorway, with widely opened eyes.
“I’m very sorry,” she said, as he drew her to one side, asking if anything was the matter, “it was very stupid of me to stop like that, but I thought I saw--someone--and I was startled. I see I was mistaken.”
She spoke slowly, hesitating between her words; the truth was she felt certain she had seen coming through a doorway, with the air of a man looking for his partner--Ted Hastings. Of course, there were dozens of tall, brown-haired young men in Artillery mess dress, there that night, and she felt she must have been startled by a momentary likeness. After all, it was only natural that she should think of him during the fifty dance, the dance she had promised him last year.
As the music ceased and the couple melted away, she looked across the room and saw clearly among a little group of men, not one who looked like Ted Hastings. He stood in brilliant light, just below a chandelier; his face was turned away from her; no one seemed to speak to him or look at him.
“Who is that in gunner’s uniform standing by Captain Polfax?” she asked very quickly.
“Whereabouts?” said her partner, looking in the wrong direction.
“There--about half-way up the room. Now they’re beginning to move.”
“Oh, yes; but I can’t say I see much R.A. uniform. Are you sure you don’t mean the doctor’s get-up. Lots of ladies mistake that for gunner’s uniform.”
“No, no. He’s looking this way now; surely you see,” and Ida grasped her fan in both hands, shattering its frail ivory sticks, as she saw what seemed to her the strong, handsome face of the man who had died last June.
Her partner only saw an Army doctor, a Staff Corps Captain and three or four subalterns of the line talking together; but as he was very young and wished to be credited with knowing everyone in the Punjab--he replied boldly:--
“Oh, of course--that’s Moffatt--how awfully stupid of me not to see at once--I didn’t know he was in the station”--and changed the subject.
Ida gladly believed him, especially as she saw no more of this haunting likeness, which she resolved not to mention to Consie.
Number seven was a square, and as Mrs. Meyton was led forth by a large and elderly General to tread a measure, she ordered Consie to make her next partner sit out that she might rest.
“Yes we mean to,” said Consie, whose white cheeks had changed to burning crimson.
A little later two or three people noticed that Consie was walking across the ball-room alone, her fan and bouquet both held in her right hand and her head inclined a little towards the left: “as though she were listening and looking up at some one,” a fanciful lady said afterwards. No one spoke to her.
“I didn’t think it was the custom in India for young ladies to sit out dances in black holes, no I mean kala juggers, all by themselves,” said a youthful globe-trotter to the wife of the Deputy-Commissioner, when the lancers were over.
“If it was a real kala jugger there wouldn’t be light enough for you to see if any one was there at all, she replied briskly,” but we don’t have those sorts of things here; besides if you mean the girl in white, sitting near that window, she’s not alone. Didn’t you see a man in gunner’s uniform, rather the reverse of far off?”
“No, I only saw the girl, but then I’m so wretchedly blind without my glasses,” he answered with an air of modest pride. He was proud of many things, especially of his settled views about India, which he was travelling to confirm; he made a point of seeing exactly what he had expected to see, and thus he simplified matters and saved himself from the fatigue of new impressions.
“Dear me, do you know it’s quite like a real ball,” he said condescendingly, as the next waltz began and the large hall was filled by a crowd of pretty frocks and bright uniforms.
“I suppose you expected to find us wearing flannel shirts and cotton wrappers, and dancing in a barn, with hookahs and brandy pawnee as the only refreshments,” suggested his partner sweetly.
“By Jove,” said Captain Polfax to his partner, “did you notice that man talking to the eldest Miss Meyton? He is the very image of poor Hastings. I wonder who he is. I never saw such a likeness before.”
“I didn’t notice, but then I never saw Mr. Hastings.”
The ninth dance ended, Consie still sat in the shadowed corner, and the couples passed by. Some did not notice her. A few people who had known Ted Hastings thought that two figures were sitting there, and others wondered why she was alone. Her next partner looked for her till the clashing strains of the ‘Go-ahead Polka” were half over; then he turned to Captain Polfax, who had a peculiar talent for knowing the whereabouts of everybody.
“Have you seen the eldest Miss Meyton anywhere?” She can’t have gone home yet.”
“Gone home! Not a bit of it. She’s been sitting near the window to that passage away to the right, for the last half-hour. I daresay neither she nor the man she’s with will be particularly glad to see you, but that’s your affair.”
“I’ll risk it, anyhow.”
He found Connie, with an empty chair drawn close to hers, in the shadowed corner.
“Our dance, I think, Miss Meyton. I’m so sorry not to have managed to find you sooner. Have you been deserted long?”
He was going to sit down by her, but she spring up and pushed him away, saying:
“Not there--don’t you see?” Then a change came over her face, and her eyes grew terrified as she looked at the empty chair. The bouquet fell from her hand, and she shivered. “Oh, Ted, Ted!” she said and fell back fainting.
Some one always faints at a big ball, it is a contingency that is provided for, but it was a long time before the usual remedies had any effect on Consie. When she was well enough to be taken home, Ida insisted on going too, spite of the appeals of her deserted partners. She tried to believe that Consie had fainted only from fatigue, and the heat of the room; but a vague fear oppressed her, and the memory of the fifth dance made her long to escape from the sight and sound of dancing.
As they drove away she looked back at the little knot of men under the portico. She saw a tall, slender man who stood in the shadow, apart from the others, holding a white bouquet; but she had hardly time to guess who it might be before they were out of sight. Consie’s eyes were closed, and Mrs. Meyton was bending over her; they had not looked back, and Ida said nothing.
In Umballa next morning, little Mrs. Colin went out very early, to take a New Year’s wreath to her baby’s grave.
“Do you remember that poor boy who died of cholera here last hot weather?” she asked her husband at breakfast. “I was so glad to see that his grave has not been forgotten. The headstone is not put up yet, but some one has put flowers there; not a wreath, but a regular bouquet, made of nothing but white roses, and tied with black ribbon.”