I try to look as if I do not mind sitting out the first dance. There are a couple more young women than young men present AND, one or two youths fail in their duty and do NOT dance. So, I am not the ONLY wallflower.
HE leads out Meg Crawford.
Who is ‘he’? For the past few months – since I arrived in this town – ‘he’ has meant Alex Heyes. I am thoroughly exasperated with myself for this foolishness.
What do I know about him?
He – reads.
I have seen books in his pocket – and once, when he was waiting for a horse to be shod, I walked past and saw the title of the volume open in his hand – ‘Donne’, no less.
He talks well – and intelligently.
About two months ago – after church – I heard him discussing the ‘manifest destiny’ speeches, the opportunity and adventures to be had as the West is settled. A fortnight ago I heard him argue the merits and shortfalls of Hawthorne as a writer with Doctor Cooper.
You are not deceived are you? I thought not.
Yes, he is handsome.
Dark hair, melting brown eyes. A smile to entice a shy nightingale from its branch and – the dimples.
It is immaterial. I might as well love a bright particular star. Alex Heyes has never done more than touch his hat to me. If I am any judge – this time next year he will be happily married to pretty, laughing, engaging Meg Crawford – who appears to share my opinion of his charms.
Meg flutters with enjoyment at this party her father is hosting for her nineteenth birthday. When I arrived, she could not help prinking the skirts of her obviously new dress.
“How do I look?” she asked.
“You’ll teach the torches to burn bright,” I said. She looked confused, then – as I smiled, she smiled back.
It would delight my family if I married Meg Crawford. Her father – who lacks a male heir – has dropped a subtle hint he seeks a son-in-law he can trust to make his precious only daughter happy and continue his thriving business. He is past sixty and, I suppose, wants grandchildren sooner rather than later.
I am NOT planning to marry a girl just for her expectations. However, it would be foolishly quixotic to find Meg LESS attractive because she is – a good match.
She is sweet tempered, extremely pretty and – very appealing. I often muse on how pleasant folding Meg in my arms and kissing her would be. More than pleasant. Delightful.
Arrogant ass! I hear you mutter. He obviously thinks this girl is his for the asking! Maybe she has other ideas, young man!
No…ungallant though it may sound, I suspect Meg might yelp, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” before I get past, “Will you…?”
She has neither said nor done anything immodest – but, her eyes light up when she sees me. If I did not realise Meg has been ‘in love’ with me for many weeks I would be a fool. I am NOT a fool.
Or, I would be preternaturally modest. You may have gathered – I am not that either!
I bend my head to catch what Meg says, as we walk to the punch bowl. I make her laugh. She sparkles with happiness.
One or two other men try to attract her attention – Meg is friendly, but her eyes return to me. She gazes up, then flushing, she drops her lashes. At that moment, she seems – irresistible. What – I think – am I waiting for?
Alex Heyes leads Rebecca Cooper to the floor. She is more than pretty. In my opinion – she is the handsomest woman here. Striking titian hair, truly elegant figure and a graceful dancer. Alex’s charming smile flashes at her, as he talks. He makes her laugh. His eyes follow her as the movement of the set separates them. She glances back and smiles.
I still decorate the wall. However, I reflect philosophically, this is a small party – only two or three sets standing up. Good manners dictate the available men must circulate. I will get my share of courtesy dances.
Rebecca Cooper is led back to her seat.
Oh! I can add to the list of Alex Heyes’ virtues.
Well read. Intelligent – AND – good-natured and well brought up. HE is coming over.
“Miss Worsley,” I too am treated to the smile – and the dimples, “…may I have the pleasure?”
Dancing, though delightful in itself, is not conducive to getting better acquainted. Conversation is necessarily interrupted – and so tends to consist of the ‘usual civilities’.
Alex Heyes pays me the ‘usual civilities’.
At a pause, I ask, “Would you like me to remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples?” I smile, “Both topics are at my fingertips, Mr. Heyes.”
I am not disappointed. He recognises the source – his dark eyes crinkle with amusement as he looks at me.
“Either will do,” he responds. “I plan to observe that private parties are pleasanter than public dances in …” he purses his lips in pretended reflection, “…oh, three to four minutes. So…” he smiles, “…no hurry, huh?”
Supper is almost over. I sit neither next to, nor opposite Alex Heyes. Daniel Broomfield leans back, twitches aside the curtain and looks out into the dark, wet streets.
“Turning into a rough night,” he remarks. With a grin at Maria Cox – they are recently betrothed – and with a voice lowered to suggest foreboding, he says, “We should be telling ghost stories!”
“Oh no, Daniel!” she shivers, exaggeratedly; “…I’d be frightened.” He whispers something. Probably some promise to hold her hand.
“Oh let’s!” smiles Meg Crawford. “I love being scared!”
Her father – our host – smiles indulgently at his daughter. Clearly, ghost stories it is.
“You’ll need to turn down a few lamps if you want to be properly scared,” Rebecca Cooper enthuses. “And…gather around the fire.”
Without, I hope, making it too obvious, I look over at Alex Heyes. He looks keen. No – more than keen. Almost – smug. I glance down to hide my grin. He expects to shine at this!
Older guests with no taste for this entertainment, retire to play cards, or just nod as they digest. I and the other young men set chairs in a semi circle. We dim the oil lamps until we achieve the correct flickering of shadows cast from the fire. The girls gather. There is giggling – and, a certain surreptitious jockeying for position. I do not join this. Firstly, the chance to hold Meg’s hand in the dark has attractions, however, it would imply a proposal is imminent. Secondly, the best seat if you are good at this kind of thing – remember I made no claims to being ‘modest as the morning’ – is not next to, but facing your audience.
“Are we taking turns at whole stories?” asks Rebecca Cooper, “…Or passing the baton?” Meg looks confused. “If you pass the baton,” explains Rebecca, “…you break off at an exciting point – and choose someone to carry on.”
“That sounds – hard,” she demurs.
“It’s easy,” I reassure her, with a smile, “…besides – you can always pass it quickly again. If – inspiration fails.” She smiles back at me. Those honey coloured lashes drop shyly to the soft cheeks.
“I don’t know we have a baton,” says her father. “But…” another indulgent smile at Meg, “…I suppose anything will do?” He looks around, takes an apple from the bowl and passes it to me.
While Alex must appreciate the compliment from his host – I suspect he feels the implicit assumption being made is – perhaps – premature. I may, of course – be wrong. I am not a neutral observer.
One young man, who tried and failed to win Meg Crawford’s notice earlier, is clearly put out that Alex be favoured with ‘first turn’.
“Oh,” he says, “…I think it should be – ladies first!”
“Not a problem,” replies Alex. He tosses up the apple – catches it and grins. “Whom shall I choose?” Dark eyes go to each lady in turn. “Now I know how Paris felt!”
A wry smile twists my face. He sees this – and is clearly pleased someone appreciated the mild joke. Meg Crawford merely looked confused.
Of course, he passes the apple to her. He says, “As it’s Miss Crawford’s birthday – and indeed her party – just as with the dancing, she should lead off.”
“I can’t,” she protests, “…er… I can’t think of anything.” Another giggle. She is quite correct. She cannot think of anything.
Alex has the apple. He is in full flow.
“…if there’s pleasure in this, while we snugly cuddle in the chimney corner, where no spectre dares show its face, it is pleasure dearly bought by the terrors we face as we walk homewards. Fearful shapes and shadows will beset our path, amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a winter night! We will tremble – appalled by spectres! Shrink with curdling awe at the sound of our own steps on the frosty crust beneath our feet. Howling in the hollow trees will harrow us! Imagine our dread to look over our shoulder, lest we behold …”
Once more, he passes to Meg. Her eyes were wide, listening to him. Now she blinks. She giggles. A flicker of impatience crosses Alex’s face. I suspect – mine too.
“Lest we behold – a ghost!” Giggling still, she gives the apple to young Mr. Thatcher.
“…It was a dark and stormy night…” Jim Thatcher starts. He flashes an annoyed glance at me, as my mouth tightens, suppressing a grin. There is also a smothered sound from Miss Worsley. SHE has not had the baton at all. Disconcerted and disgruntled he says, “I think Miss Worsley and Mr. Heyes both think they can do better’n dark and stormy,” He passes the apple to Sarah Worsley.
She pauses, until she has the group’s settled attention. Then, without any trace of self-consciousness, “It was night – the dreadful dead of dark midnight! Night, the furnace of foul-reeking smoke…”
She passes to me. A tip-tilted smile lifts one thin cheek.
“A hateful, vaporous, foggy night…” I say, “…No comfortable star did lend his light…”
The apple passes back.
“…A seeling night…” comes her voice. Low – sweet – melodic. “No noise but owls’ and wolves’ death boding cries…”
“…darkness did the face of earth entomb…” I contribute.
“…dark night did strangle the travelling lamp…”
“…night’s black agents to their preys did rouse…”
“… A black stage for tragedies and murders fell!” caps Miss Worsley. I grin. I do not retake the apple. Instead, I touch my brow in salute. She won that round.
She allows quiet to fall. A slim hand curves upwards… she captures our eyes. Her voice sinks.
“I will a tale unfold,” she begins, “… to harrow the soul and freeze your young blood. To make cold fingers trace your nape, as each particular hair does stand on end.” Our storyteller pauses, we wait. The flexible voice starts again – regret yearning through the words. “And yet – my tale tells of a wedding – and of a lovely bride. No bells will ring in joy at the end – but a funeral knell. The bridegroom is he who waits us all – his sepulchral smile a harbinger – all fear – all cold – all lost.” She lets the fire crackle in the silence, before continuing. “Dark groves of pine and mountain ash encompassed the lonely mansion beside the Merrimack. Seldom was its gloom enlivened by the cheering sunshine of heaven…”
I begin the ‘Bride’s Tale’, adding variations of my own. One or two of my audience may recognise it, though – I hope – have seldom heard it told so well. I – insignificant, little Sarah Worsley – hold them in the hollow of my hand. It is, however – a game. So, after a minute or so, I offer the apple to Daniel Broomfield. He smiles and shakes his head, indicating I should continue.
“…the stranger never told of love, but looked it in his words, in the insinuating tone of his tongue, in the slumbering softness of his smile. When he saw her pure heart yield – a sneer of diabolical meaning spoke for an instant and died again on the dark, enticing face…”
How could I have ever thought her plain? The mobile face flickers with the changing emotions of the characters. The turn of her throat, the lift of her lip is – enchanting.
Alex is listening, rapt by the tale. Am I a fool? No, I am not a fool. Nor is he. He is seeing me – seeing me properly for the first time.
“…bring me delicate evergreen, sweet flower that blossoms throughout the year. I will say, as I wreathe my hair, “The violets bloomed and died – the roses flourished and decayed; but the evergreen is young still and – so is the love of my maiden heart!”
I hand the apple to Alex Heyes. As our fingers touch our eyes meet – hold for a moment. He continues on.
I glance at Meg Crawford. She looks confused, the happy, girlish sparkle gone. I am sorry – but, but, but…
Alex too holds the audience. His deep voice savours the words.
“…I have wooed my fair bride bravely. I claim you, mine forever. Mine in life, and mine in death…”
It is time to let someone else have a turn. No single part of me wants to pass to anyone but Sarah. It will, however, make it all too clear we now play a game within a game. I hear my voice flow on. Anyone but Sarah will spoil the magic being woven.
No single part of me doubts Alex WANTS to pass the apple back to me. But – will he? His voice holds us – listening, watching.
“… the hour of sunset…” his tone caresses the words, “…the soft, the beauteous hour, when hearts of lovers are happy…”
Alex’s eyes catch those of his host. Mr. Crawford looks at me, then at his daughter, then back at Alex. He, like Meg, is – bewildered.
Again, I feel a pang. Meg is – young. This will be a passing sadness. In six months – maybe less – it will be forgotten. But, time passes slowly when you are so very – very young. Poor girl.
Or – am I fooling myself?
“…the dresses and guests are ready, the church bell has tolled, the priest is at the altar, but where is my affianced bride?…”
After the breath of a heartbeat, Alex passes the apple to – me.
I watch Sarah’s eyes shine and speak. Is there any beauty to compare with a woman’s eyes? The flickering light plays over her skin. She glows in the soft ruddiness. Still storytelling…
“… as long as seasons move – as long as lightning shall flash, and thunders roll, thy fate is sealed. Look, look! Behold – she for whom thou art destined…”
Her lips, they are a scarlet thread. Her words, they are enchanting. How beautiful she is and how delightful. She pushes back a straying lock of hair. I am – captive in her tresses.
Maybe this is just the firelight, just the winter’s tale, just – the passing mood of an evening. She – my mind already calls her ‘the beloved’ – meets my gaze. What I feel now, is what I want to feel for – my love, my bride, my own.
Warm, affectionate, fondness is a true blessing. But, it is not – this.
Knowing yourself – loved – is a treasure to prize. But, it is not – this.
Satisfying the hopes of kind friends and family is pleasant indeed. But cannot compare to – this.
This – this deserves I give and hazard all I have.
I do not look at Meg. I am not so stupid, as not to realise I will disappoint a blameless girl. Not so much a hypocrite, I do not acknowledge she has – some – reason to reproach me with raising hopes I will not fulfil. Nor – quite so conceited, as to believe she will pine for long.
Sarah passes the baton. Her gaze – those speaking eyes – holds mine.
She – the beloved – knows well enough I am adapting the tale, as I say,
“…I will cling to thee forever in the tempest and in the calm, in the day and in the night, in sickness and in sorrow, in life and in death…”