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   Chapter 38 MARY IN MAYFAIR

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 21280

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


On the night which our hero spent by the side of the river, with the results detailed in the last chapter, there was a great ball in Brook-street, Mayfair. It was the height of the season, and of course, balls, concerts, and parties of all kinds were going on in all parts of the Great Babylon, but the entertainment in question was the event of that evening. Persons behind the scenes would have told you at once, had you happened to meet them, and enquire on the subject during the previous ten days, that Brook-street was the place in which everybody who went anywhere ought to spend some hours between eleven and three on this particular evening. If you did not happen to be going there, you had better stay quietly at your club, or your home, and not speak of your engagements for that night.

A great awning had sprung up in the course of the day over the pavement in front of the door, and as the evening closed in, tired lawyers and merchants, on their return from the City, and the riders and drivers on their way home from the park, might have seen Holland's men laying red drugget over the pavement, and Gunter's carts coming and going, and the police "moving on" the street boys and servant maids, and other curious members of the masses, who paused to stare at the preparations.

Then came the lighting up of the rooms, and the blaze of pure white light from the uncurtained ballroom windows spread into the street, and the musicians passed in with their instruments. Then, after a short pause, the carriages of a few intimate friends, who came early at the hostess's express desire, began to drive up, and the Hansom cabs of the contemporaries of the eldest son, from which issued guardsmen and Foreign-office men, and other dancing-youth of the most approved description. Then the crowd collected again round the door-a sadder crowd now to the eye of anyone who has time to look at it; with sallow, haggard looking men here and there on the skirts of it, and tawdry women joking and pushing to the front, through the powdered footmen, and linkmen in red waistcoats, already clamorous and redolent of gin and beer, and scarcely kept back by the half-dozen constables of the A division, told off for the special duty of attending and keeping order on so important an occasion.

Then comes a rush of carriages, and by eleven o'clock the line stretches away half round Grosvenor Square, and moves at a foot's-pace towards the lights, and the music, and the shouting street. In the middle of the line is the comfortable chariot of our friend Mr. Porter-the corners occupied by himself and his wife, while Miss Mary sits well forward between them, her white muslin dress looped up with sprigs of heather spread delicately on either side over their knees, and herself in a pleasant tremor of impatience and excitement.

"How very slow Robert is to-day, mamma! We shall never get to the house."

"He can not get on faster, my dear. The carriage in front of us must set down you know."

"But I wish they would be quicker. I wonder whether we shall know many people? Do you think I shall get partners?"

Not waiting for her mother's reply, she went on to name some of her acquaintance who she knew would be there, and bewailing the hard fate which was keeping her out of the first dances. Mary's excitement and impatience were natural enough. The ball was not like most balls. It was a great battle in the midst of the skirmishes of the season, and she felt the greatness of the occasion.

Mr. and Mrs. Porter had for years past dropped into a quiet sort of dinner-giving life, in which they saw few but their own friends and contemporaries. They generally left London before the season was at its height, and had altogether fallen out of the ball-giving and party going world. Mary's coming out had changed their way of life. For her sake they had spent the winter at Rome, and, now that they were at home again, they were picking up the threads of old acquaintance, and encountering the disagreeables of a return into habits long disused and almost forgotten. The giver of the ball was a stirring man in political life, rich, clever, well-connected, and much sought after. He was an old school-fellow of Mr. Porter's, and their intimacy had never been wholly laid aside, notwithstanding the severance of their paths in life. Now that Mary must be taken out, the Brook-street house was one of the first to which the Porters turned, and the invitation to this ball was one of the first consequences.

If the truth must be told, neither her father nor mother were in sympathy with Mary as they gradually neared the place of setting down, and would far rather have been going to a much less imposing place, where they could have driven up at once to the door, and would not have been made uncomfortable by the shoutings of their names from servant to servant. However, after the first plunge, when they had made their bows to their kind and smiling hostess, and had passed on into the already well filled rooms, their shyness began to wear off, and they could in some sort enjoy the beauty of the sight from a quiet corner. They were not long troubled with Miss Mary. She had not been in the ball-room two minutes before the eldest son of the house had found her out and engaged her for the next waltz. They had met several times already, and were on the best terms; and the freshness and brightness of her look and manner, and the evident enjoyment of her partner, as they laughed and talked together in the intervals of the dance, soon attracted the attention of the young men, who began to ask one another, "Who is Norman dancing with?" and to ejaculate with various strength, according to their several temperaments, as to her face, and figure, and dress.

As they were returning towards Mrs. Porter, Norman was pulled by the sleeve more than once, and begged to be allowed to introduce first one and then another of his friends.

Mary gave herself up to the fascination of the scene. She had never been in rooms so perfectly lighted, with such a floor, such exquisite music, and so many pretty and well-bred looking people, and she gave herself up to enjoy it with all her heart and soul, and danced and laughed and talked herself into the good graces of partner after partner, till she began to attract the notice of some of the ill-natured people who are to be found in every room, and who cannot pardon the pure, and buoyant, and unsuspecting mirth which carries away all but themselves in its bright stream. So Mary passed on from one partner to another, with whom we have no concern, until at last a young lieutenant in the guards who had just finished his second dance with her, led up a friend whom he begged to introduce. "Miss Porter-Mr. St. Cloud;" and then after the usual preliminaries, Mary left her mother's side again and stood up by the side of her new partner.

"It is your first season I believe, Miss Porter?"

"Yes, my first in London."

"I thought so; and you have only just come to town?"

"We came back from Rome six weeks ago, and have been in town ever since."

"But I am sure I have not seen you anywhere this season until to-night. You have not been out much yet?"

"Yes, indeed. Papa and mamma are very good-natured, and go whenever we are asked to a ball, as I am fond of dancing."

"How very odd! and yet I am quite sure I should have remembered it if we had met before in town this year."

"Is it so very odd?" asked Mary, laughing; "London is a very large place; it seems very natural that two people should be able to live in it for a long time without meeting."

"Indeed, you are quite mistaken. You will find out very soon how small London is-at least how small society is, and you will get to know every face quite well-I mean the face of everyone in society."

"You must have a wonderful memory!"

"Yes, I have a good memory for faces, and, by the way, I am sure I have seen you before; but not in town, and I cannot remember where. But it is not at all necessary to have a memory to know everybody in society by sight; you meet every night almost; and altogether there are only two or three hundred faces to remember. And then there is something in the look of people, and the way they come into a room or stand about, which tells you at once whether they are amongst those whom you need trouble yourself about."

"Well, I cannot understand it. I seem to be in a whirl of faces, and can hardly ever remember any of them."

"You will soon get used to it. By the end of the season you will see that I am right. And you ought to make a study of it, or you will never feel at home in London."

"I must make good use of my time then. I suppose I ought to know everybody here, for instance?"

"Almost everybody."

"And I really do not know the names of a dozen people."

"Will you let me give you a lesson?"

"Oh, yes; I shall be much obliged."

"Then let us stand here, and we will take them as they pass to the supper-room."

So they stood near the door-way of the ball-room, and he ran on, exchanging constant nods and remarks with the passers by, as the stream flowed to and from the ices and cup, and then rattling on to his partner with the names and short sketches of the characters and peculiarities of his large acquaintance. Mary was very much amused, and had no time to notice the ill-nature of most of his remarks, and he had the wit to keep within what he considered the most innocent bounds.

"There, you know him of course," he said, as an elderly, soldier-like looking man with a star passed them.

"Yes; at least, I mean I know him by sight. I saw him at the Commemoration at Oxford last year. They gave him an honorary degree on his return from India."

"At Oxford! Were you present at the Grand Commemoration, then?"

"Yes. The Commemoration Ball was the first public ball I was ever at."

"Ah! that explains it all. I must have seen you there. I told you we had met before. I was perfectly sure of it."

"What! were you there, then?"

"Yes. I had the honor of being present at your first ball, you see."

"But how curious that you should remember me!"

"Do you really think so? Surely there are some faces which, once seen, one can never forget."

"I am so glad that you know dear Oxford."

"I know it too well, perhaps, to share your enthusiasm."

"How do you mean?"

"I spent nearly three years there."

"What, were you at Oxford last year?"

"Yes. I left before Commemoration; but I went up for the gaieties, and I am glad of it, as I shall have one pleasant memory of the place now."

"Oh, I wonder you don't love it! But what college were you of?"

"Why, you talk like a graduate. I was of St. Ambrose."

"St. Ambrose! That is my college!"

"Indeed! I wish we had been in residence at the same time."

"I mean that we almost lived there at the Commemoration."

"Have you any relation there, then?"

"No, not a relation, only a distant connexion."

"May I ask his name?"

"Brown. Did you know him?"

"Yes. We were not in the same set. He was a boating man, I think?"

She felt that he was watching her narrowly now, and had great difficulty in keeping herself reasonably composed. As it was she could not help showing a little that she felt embarrassed, and looked down; and changed colour slightly, busying herself with her bouquet. She longed to continue the conversation, but somehow the manner of her partner kept her from doing so. She resolved to recur to the subject carelessly, if they met again, when she knew him better. The fact of his having been at St. Ambrose made her wish to know him better, and gave him a good start in her favor. But for the moment she felt that she must change the subject; so, looking up, she fixed on the first people who happened to be passing, and asked who they were.

"Oh, nobody, constituents probably, or something of that sort."

"I don't understand."

"Why, you see, we are in a political house to-night. So you may set down the people whom nobody knows, as troublesome ten-pounders, or that kind of thing, who would he disagreeable at the next election, if they were not asked."

"Then you do not include them in society?"

"By no manner of means."

"And I need not take the trouble to remember their faces?"

"Of course not. There is a sediment of rubbish at almost every house. At the parties here it is political rubbish. To-morrow night, at Lady Aubrey's-you will be there, I hope?"

"No, we do not know her."

"I am sorry for that. Well, there we shall have the scientific rubbish; and at other houses you see queer artists, and writing people. In fact, it is the rarest thing in the world to get a party where there is nothing of the kind, and, after all, it is rather amusing to watch the habits of the different species."

"Well, to me the rubbish, as you call it, seems much like the rest. I am sure these people were ladies and gentlemen."

"Very likely," he said, lifting his eyebrows; "but you may see at a glance that they have not the air of society. Here again, look yourself. You can see that these are constituents."

To the horror of St. Cloud, the advancing constituents made straight for his partner.

"Mary, my dear!" exclaimed the lady, "where have you been? We have lost you ever since the last dance."

"I have been standing here, mamma," she said; and then, slipping from her late partner's arm, she made a demure little bow, and passed into the ball-room with her father and mother.

St. Cloud bit his lip, and swore at himself under his breath as he looked after them. "What an infernal idiot I must have been not to know that her people would be sure to turn out something of that sort!" thought he. "By Jove, I'll go after them, and set myself right before the little minx has time to think it over!" He took a step or two towards the ball-room, but then thought better of it, or his courage failed him. At any rate, he turned round again, and sought the refreshment-room, where he joined a knot of young gentlemen indulging in delicate little raised pies and salads, and liberal potations at iced claret or champagne cup. Amongst them was the guardsman who had introduced him to Mary, and who received him, as he came up, with-

"Well, St. Cloud, I hope you are alive to your obligations to me."

"For shunting your late partner on to me? Yes, quite."

"You be hanged!" replied the guardsman; "you may pretend what you please now, but you wouldn't let me alone till I had introduced you."

"Are you talking about the girl in white muslin with fern leaves in her hair?" asked another.

"Yes what do you think of her?"

"Devilish taking, I think. I say, can't you introduce me? They say she has tin."

"I can't say I think much of her looks," said St. Cloud, acting up to his principle of telling a lie sooner than let his real thoughts be seen.

"Don't you?" said the guardsman. "Well, I like her form better than anything out this year. Such a clean stepper! You should just dance with her."

And so they went on criticizing Mary and others of their partners, exactly as they would have talked of a stud of racers, till they found themselves sufficiently refreshed to encounter new labors, and broke up returning in twos and threes towards the ball-room.

St. Cloud attached himself to the guardsman, and returned to the charge.

"You seem hit by that girl," he began; "have you known her long?"

"About a week-I met her once before to-night."

"Do you know her people? Who is her father?"

"A plain-headed old party-you wouldn't think it to look at her-but I hear he is very solvent."

"Any sons?"

"Don't know. I like your talking of my being hit, St. Cloud.

There she is; I shall go and try for another waltz."

The guardsman was successful, and carried off Mary from her father and mother, who were standing together watching the dancing. St. Cloud, after looking them well over, sought out the hostess, and begged to be introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Porter, gleaning, at the same time, some particulars of who they were. The introduction was effected in a minute, the lady of the house being glad to get anyone to talk to the Porters, who were almost strangers amongst her other guests. She managed, before leaving them, to whisper to Mrs. Porter that he was a young man of excellent connexions.

St. Cloud made the most of his time. He exerted himself to the utmost to please, and, being fluent of speech and thoroughly satisfied with himself, had no shyness or awkwardness to get over, and jumped at once into the good graces of Mary's parents. When she returned after the waltz, she found him, to her no small astonishment, deep in conversation with her mother, who was listening with a pleased expression to his small talk. He pretended not to see her at first, and then begged Mrs. Porter to introduce him formally to her daughter, though he had already had the honour of dancing with her.

Mary put on her shortest and coldest manner, and thought she had never heard of such impertinence. That he should be there talking so familiarly to her mother after the slip he had made to her was almost too much even for her temper. But she went off for another dance, and again returned and found him still there; this time entertaining Mr. Porter with political gossip. The unfavourable impression began to wear off, and she soon resolved not to make up her mind about him without some further knowledge.

In due course he asked her to dance again, and they stood in a quadrille. She stood by him looking straight before her, and perfectly silent, wondering how he would open the conversation. He did not leave her long in suspense.

"What charming people your father and mother are, Miss Porter!" he said; "I am so glad to have been introduced to them."

"Indeed! You are very kind. We ought to be flattered by your study of us, and I am sure I hope you will find it amusing."

St. Cloud was a little embarrassed by the rejoinder, and was not sorry at the moment to find himself called upon to perform the second figure. By the time he was at her side again he had recovered himself.

"You can't understand what a pleasure it is to meet some one with a little freshness"-he paused to think how he should end his sentence.

"Who has not the air of society," she suggested. "Yes, I quite understand."

"Indeed you quite mistake me. Surely you have not taken seriously the nonsense I was talking just now?"

"I am a constituent, you know-I don't understand how to take the talk of society."

"Oh, I see, then, that you are angry at my joke, and will not believe that I knew your father perfectly by sight. You really cannot seriously fancy that I was alluding to anyone connected with you;" and then he proceeded to retail the particulars he had picked up from the lady of the house, as if they had been familiar to him for years, and to launch out again into praises of her father and mother. Mary looked straight up in his face, and, though he did not meet her eye, his manner was so composed, that she began to doubt her own senses, and then he suddenly changed the subject to Oxford and the commemoration, and by the end of the set could flatter himself that he had quite dispelled the cloud which had looked so threatening.

Mary had a great success that evening. She took part in every dance, and might have had two or three partners at once, if they would have been of any use to her. When, at last, Mr. Porter insisted that he would keep his horses no longer, St. Cloud and the guardsman accompanied her to the door, and were assiduous in the cloak room. Young men are pretty much like a drove of sheep; anyone who takes a decided line in certain matters, is sure to lead all the rest.

The guardsman left the ball in the firm belief, as he himself expressed it, that Mary "had done his business for life;" and, being quite above concealment, persisted in singing her praises over his cigar at the club, to which many of the dancers adjourned; and from that night she became the fashion with the set in which St. Cloud lived.

The more enterprising of them, he amongst the foremost, were soon intimate in Mr. Porter's house, and spoke well of his dinners. Mr. Porter changed his hour of riding in the park at their suggestion, and now he and his daughter were always sure of companions. Invitations multiplied, for Mary's success was so decided, that she floated her astonished parents into a whirl of balls and breakfasts. Mr. Porter and his wife were flattered themselves, and pleased to see their daughter admired and enjoying herself; and in the next six weeks Mary had the opportunity of getting all the good and the bad which a girl of eighteen can extract from a London season.

The test was a severe one. Two months of constant excitement, of pleasure-seeking pure and simple, will not leave people just as they found them; and Mary's habits, and thoughts, and ways of looking at and judging of people and things, were much changed by the time that the gay world melted away from Mayfair and Belgravia, and it was time for all respectable people to pull down the blinds and shut the shutters of their town houses.

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