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THE BOODLES' BALL.
I think it a most objectionable proceeding, and I repeat that it is my wish that you do not go !'
He who spoke was a grim, gaunt, grizzled personage, with a voice that grated on your nerves like a handsaw; with thin, bloodless lips and freezing, steel-blue eyes; clothed in severe evening-dress; in a choking collar and a creaking cravat, and a decidedly bad temper. He was Jeffrey Marsden, banker, of Lombard Street and Roehampton; and, having managed to catch her alone for five minutes in the Dane Court drawing-room before the expedition started for the Boodles' ball, he was haranguing the fair-haired child whom he counted on having in another fortnight undisputed right to harangue for the rest of her natural life, in his most autocratic manner, though with hardly the same effect as usual.
Hilda stood where he had stopped her, rather pale, and with her little gloved hands clasped tight upon each other; but neither trembling nor submissive.
My wish, my request, that you give up this ball, under the circumstances!' enunciated the Croesus, after an emphatic pause, and setting down his empty coffee cup.
'Give up this ball?' Hilda repeated -and he was vaguely conscious that she spoke in a different way somehow, to her usual one towards himself'Why?'
Marsden looked at her over the creaking cravat as one who finds a difficulty in understanding what he hears; or fancies he can scarcely hear aright.
I beg your pardon,' he said in his most icily-rasping tone; you asked me?
'I asked you why I should give up this ball?'
She met his hard eyes quite steadily. He looked at her in real surprise.
Did you not hear me say it was my wish, my request? You can require no better reason.'
A plainer one, at all events.'
• Hilda !'
He had never called her by her name half a dozen times in his life; he was only startled into doing so now. What had come to her that she dared speak in this way; dared meet his rebuking glance so-yes, so defiantly? He must put an end to this once for all.
His thin lips shut close together once
or twice. Then he said, with his most offensively authoritative air:
You oblige me to lay my commands upon you not to go.'
He was preparing to stalk gravely to a chair, or out of the room, when she spoke again, still in that same changed voice.
You have no right to do that!' Hilda said.
No right?' he repeated, mechanically.
No. No right to "command" me not to go. No right to "command' me at all. No right to speak to me rs you do speak. No right to tell me at the last moment that I am not to go to-night, for no better reason than to parade your authority over me-an authority to which you have no right either.'
He turned very white, but stood speechless. She went on.
An authority you claim, I know; but which you have done nothing to gain. What have you ever been at the pains to win from me? And now you "command" me! It is too late!'
Flat rebellion this, beyond question. Fool that he was to try and crush it with the heavy hand as he thought he could do!
Enough, if you please!' he said, with what he flattered himself was irresistible severity; I can listen to no more of this. Once more, and for the last time, I distinctly and formally forbid your going to this ball to-night. Be good enough to let that suffice.'
How little he knew what he was really doing at that moment! Couldn't he almost see, though, in the face she turned towards him?
It shall suffice!' she said. 'Distinctly and formally I refuse to be forbidden. For the last time, as you say.'
Before he could find his voice again, there came a sound of other voices from beyond the portières. The other women had come down. This pleasant little tête-à-tête was going to be interrupted. And she had defied him! This penniless child he thought he had broken so thoroughly to his hand had defied him, Jeffrey Marsden, the millionaire, who had actually condescended to ask her to be his wife! What did it mean? What could have come to her? And what was he to do? She had set his express commands at naught; she evidently was determined to have her own way and go.
His cold blood ran almost warni under the sense of his defeat. But he was so utterly taken by surprise that he could only mutter awkwardly enough
something about 'Lady Hope,' and 'tomorrow,' before the others were in the room. To-morrow! He remembered afterwards the smile that crossed the girl's pale face when he talked of that.
'What's been the matter, Mignonne? Helen whispered as she came up to Hilda by the fire, and Marsden stalked away stridently in his varnished boots. 'Have you told him?"
Hilda shook her head.
'He has been telling me that I wasn't to go to-night, that's all,' she answered. Ordered me not to go. And, as he said, for the last time!'
'Now then!' Dick Jocelyn broke in; 'come and be wrapped up, you two. Lady Jocelyn's carriage stops the way. Perhaps you'll give my lady your arm, Marsden. Don and I will see after the girls.'
Really, Richard,' began that 'faded beauty of the baths,' Lady Hope, 'I think they'd better let the carriage come back for them!'
'Wait till it gets there, first, chère tante! You don't know what the roads are like to-night. Better let us come back for you. But don't keep the horses standing, if you mean to go, I advise you. Now, Marsden, look alive, will you? the irreverent youth went on. Ah! here's Don, in his Canadian get up.'
Rawdon came in with a fur pelisse over his ball dress, and another over his arm.
I think this won't crush you very much, Miss Jocelyn,' he said, in his tranquil way, going straight up to Hilda; it's very warm, and very light. Let me put it on for you.' He wrapped the glossy seal skins about her tenderly, under Marsden's hostile eyes and my lady's.
The Lombard Street plutocrat cared as much, I verily believe, for the girl as he could care for anything but himself; though to form her for his wife he had, in his eternal self-assertion, tyrannized over her till she simply hated him; and, seeing another perform what should have been his duty-watching her face when she met Rawdon's looka feeling of simple dislike he had always been conscious of for the Sabreur grew sharply into a stronger, and to him a very strange one-jealousy. Yes; Jeffrey Marsden hated the man jealously now. Was it he who had undermined his authority over his future wife? Did he actually dare
He tries to stifle that half-formed thought his overweening pride revolted at so angrily.
But there shall be no more of this!' he said to himself as he led Lady Hope out to the carriage. The Pierrepoint women and the other four followed.
Dick was right about the night; it was splendid. Clear, calm, moonlit; with the thermometer down a dozen degrees below zero. A sparkling snow mantle covered the deer-park and the hills beyond; feather flakes of snow draped every tree. Just the night for a sleigh drive, as Dick remarked.
The two sleighs were waiting just behind my lady's family ark of a carriage. Lucia's silver collar-bells rang out musically as the mare tossed her head and snorted, hearing her master's voice.
Keep close to us, Richard,' my lady said, as she settled herself in her corner; ' and take care of Hilda, mind! The family ark moved on a little and then waited till the others were ready.
Dick Jocelyn lifted his charge in his strong arms and carried her down the steps to her place in his own sleigh, and rolled the great buffalo-robe round her. Miss Carew followed, on the foot-cloth, under Don's escort.
All right?' Dick inquired, taking his reins.
All right!' came from the rear. 'Go on, Johnson! And the expedition started.
The great ark lumbered along, with a tortoise-like deliberation; the two sleighs slid smoothly after. Down the Long Avenue, through the Lodge gates, out into the iron-bound road, with a wall of snow a dozen feet high on either side, stretching and winding away yonder like a narrow white riband.
In the ark, the Pierrepoint women did all the talking; my lady was sulky with cold, and Marsden sulky with wrath.
Well, Mignonne!' Dick said presently to his silent companion; it's all settled, ain't it?'
You will, though!' was the wise youth's mental reply.
And so, my dear Miss Carew,' was how Don finished a long answer to certain objections-urged, half of them, it must be confessed, merely pro forma— which Helen had raised. And so, I really don't see what else we are to do. Do you now? Hilda's no chance with my lady if she stays here; nor have I. They'll marry her to this--this man, Marsden. Think what that would be for both of us! My plan saves us both. Everything's arranged. If she says yes, you won't say no?'
I don't think Miss Carew did. In due time the Dane Court expedition arrived at Boodle Park.
Three A.M. The Boodles' ball began to manifest symptoms of dissolution. Paterfamilias, with a ten or fifteen-mile drive before him through cross-country roads where the snow was up to his horses' withers in places, began to growl and look at his watch; Materfamilias, supped and sleepy, began to cluck impatiently to gather her brood round her out of the mêlée. The circle was getting freer, and the pace too. The band of the County Crushers,' rather wild and uncertain in its tempo, had just commenced attacking the last valse, number nineteen.
Rawdon and Dick Jocelyn were standing together near the doorway. Marsden had that moment stalked out between them. They could hear him asking about Lady Hope's carriage in the hall; my lady was going.
'Ain't much time to lose, Don,' Dick said in the other's ear; 'my lady'll carry her off directly. Better go and get your valse, hadn't you? She's looking for you, you know?'
Hilda was looking for him, as, pale with some unusual excitement, she stood beside my lady, with her trembling little hand clinging secretly to Helen's. The three were at the upper end of the room, where Marsden had left them to order up the ark; and couldn't see Don in the doorway.
'Time enough," the latter replied, coolly, to Dick's suggestion; 'I'm waiting for-ah! here it is-a despatch from Fyle.'
A servant gave him an envelope, sealed, and with his name scrawled upon it in pencil.
Boy's just brought this for you from Ashbridge, sir.' George explained: You were to have it immediate, he said,'
don't want to have to wait at Ashbridge, you understand. Now, look here-you have the sleigh all ready at the halfhour. At five-and-twenty past, just show yourself here in this doorway. I shall be waltzing with her, and looking out for you. When I see you I'll stop, and get her out of the room in the general scrimmage without being noticed. Then on with those sealskin swaddlingclothes; into the sleigh; and-fouette cocher! We ought to be half-way to Calais before any one but you and Miss 'Carew's the wiser. Understand?'
'All right!' Dick nodded. 'But, I say, Don, she won't hang back at the last moment, eh? It's now or never for you, you know. You won't get a chance like this again. And women are queer cattle.'
'I don't think she will,' Rawdon said, looking up the room towards her. 'She might under other circumstances, perhaps; but not now. Marsden has managed matters too well for that. The pompous bully would drive a woman to anything. He was hectoring her about coming here to-night before we started, just as if she didn't hate him already! The man's been playing my game all through: my last move will checkmate him. It's time to play it. You've ten minutes to see to the sleigh; and I to dance number nineteen. Go along, old boy!'
"Now tread me a measure, quoth young Lochinvar,"' hummed Dick, as he turned to go. Wonder whether he's ever heard of that song, old Ah! beg your pardon, Marsden,' he ejaculated with unwonted civility, as he ran against the Croesus, returning from his hunt for Lady Hope's carriage. 'Hope I didn't hurt you? All right, Don!'
And the Guardsman moved off to fulfil his part in the plot, chuckling at intervals over old Jeff's approaching discomfiture. Rawdon went straight towards Hilda. Marsden followed.
'Well, dear,' Helen whispered in her cousin's ear rather anxiously, 'will you?' A pressure of the hand she clung to was all the other's answer. Then Helen felt her start nervously, and saw her turn pale, and then flush feverishly. She had caught sight of Don making his way round the outside of the circle to where they three were still standing. Miss Carew's own pulse quickened sharply. The decisive moment was all but come.
'Where can Mr. Marsden be?' snapped Lady Hope, querulously. What a time he is, seeing about the carriage! Ah! there he is, at last.'
There he was, close behind Rawdon; whom Lady Hope overlooked till she hear him speaking to Hilda.
Number nineteen,' Don was saying; our valse. you know, Miss Jocelyn.'
Poor child! How much those quiet, commonplace words meant to her! The crisis had arrived. If she took his arm now she gave consent to that plan for saving her he had proposed. If she refused it-what was left to her?
"You had better let me take you to the cloak-room, I think,' rasped Marsden's saw of a voice, wonderfully à propos; the carriage will be ready directly, I believe,' it added, as the speaker turned to my lady.
Then we had better go,' Lady Hope assented. Will you take Hilda ?'
This was pointedly at Rawdon, who showed no signs of giving way. Marsden advanced a little. It was with his most insufferable air of proprietorship that he thought fit to say
Excuse me, Major Daringham. Now, Hilda, come!' And he put his arm out stiffly for her to take.
As Don had said, the man couldn't help playing his opponent's game. That tête-à-tête in the drawing-room at Dane Court just now, even, hadn't taught him better than to take this tone to the girl a second time that night. He fancied, perhaps, that with my lady to back him, she must submit to him this time, and give him a pleasant triumph over the man he hated. So his tone and manner towards her were simply unbearable. If she ever had hesitated, hesitation was past now. If he ever could have kept her, he had lost her in that moment. She lifted her head; her eyes met Don's; and Don read her decision plainly in them.
A light came suddenly into his; but it was in his usual impassible fashion that he struck in, sure of winning now. Afraid I can't forego my engagement, and lose number nineteen, if Miss Jocelyn decides for me,' he said.
I don't think the carriage can get up for ten minutes or so, you know, Lady Hope,' he added, blandly; and so"Excuse me,' Marsden said, with his severest, iciest hauteur; but Miss Jocelyn really cannot
Hilda put her hand on Rawdon's arm
at the cannot.'
'I decide for number nineteen, at all events,' she answered, just in the way she had answered him before the ball. The child's blue eyes looked at him again in that defiant way that had so angered him then. Marsden bit his thin lips, and looked at my lady. My lady looked fairly astonished for once.
Really, Hilda--' she was beginning in her punishment' tone.
Hilda shook her head.
I have promised, mamma. It is too late.'
Then a quick whisper in Helen's ear: Good-bye, darling Nell!' And before the others could speak again Rawdon had carried her off.
'My own Hilda now?' he said to her when his arms were round her in that
last valse. You will trust yourself to me, darling?'
'Oh! Don, take me away!' she answered, passionately. Take me away from him. Anywhere with you!'
He made no reply, in words; and she had no more to tell him after that.
Round and round they swept; past my lady's angry eyes, and Marsden's scowling face, again and again. Each time they went by the doorway, Rawdon looked for Dick Jocelyn's signal that all was ready for the raid. At last, Dick appeared.
Now for it!' muttered Don. He checked his partner, and brought her up close to where Jocelyn was waiting. It was a trying moment; fortunately it was but a moment. All passed so quickly that poor trembling little Hilda had no time to break down.
Rawdon got her through the little crowd near the door without notice. Then she was in the hall, and Dick was wrapping the furs about her.
Good-bye, my pet!' he said to her, rather touched at the sight of her white, wistful face: 'Good-bye, Mignonne! Take care of her, Don !'
Then she was going down the steps into the icy air, holding Don's arm. Out of the ruck of carriages, the sleigh and Lucia were waiting. Then Don, muffled in his pelisse, was lifting her into her seat; then Lucia (without her silver grelots this time) was whirling her swiftly down the frozen drive; and Daringham of Ours' had fairly carried off old Marsden's fiancée. Dick, on the steps, turned to his own man, who, suspecting nothing, was watching Rawdon's raid, mechanically.
'You'd better get my sleigh up, Tom,' he remarked; we shall all be starting directly. Well! it's done,' he soliloquized, as the man went off on his errand; I'm devilish glad of it. She'll be now happy with Don; and old Jeff' will be
'Richard!' my lady's voice said sharply behind him, as he crossed the hall. Where's Hilda?'
There stood my lady and Marsden; Helen, looking about her anxiously, a little in the rear,