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    Chapter 10

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    Chapter 10
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    ONLY FOR TO-NIGHT!

    On the evening of the 4th of July, Professor Valeyon and Cornelia got
    into the wagon, and drove off, behind Dolly, to the boarding-house. It
    was a warm, breathless night, and the stars looked brighter and more
    numerous than usual.

    The boarding-house was one of the largest buildings in town--an
    accidental sort of structure, painted white, green-blinded, and
    protected, from the two roads at whose intersection it stood, by a
    white-washed board-fence, deficient in several places. The house
    expanded into no less than four large bay-windows, affording an outlook
    to three small rooms upon the ground-floor. The four or five other
    larger apartments were forced to pass a gloomy existence behind a
    loop-hole or two apiece, which could not have measured over three feet
    in any direction.

    The two largest rooms lay corner to corner, at right angles to one
    another, and communicating by a passage-way through their point of
    contact. Who the original genius was who discovered the admirable
    facilities this else preposterous arrangement afforded for dances will
    remain forever unknown; but the experiment once tried became an
    institution as permanent as Abbie herself.

    The small triangle of space between the two rooms, which to utilize had
    theretofore been an unsolved problem, served admirably as a station for
    the band; they could be heard in either apartment equally well. The
    small boudoirs, nooks, and corners, which were scattered here and there
    with lavish hand, did excellent duty as flirtation-boxes for those of
    the dancers who needed that refreshment; the only drawback being that
    one was never quite sure of privacy, on account of the complicated
    system of doors and entries that prevailed.

    But, in spite of all objections, a dance at Abbie's was the rallying-cry
    of the community. All the respectable people in town put on their newest
    clothes--and if they were new it did not so much matter what the style
    might be--and thronged, on foot or in wagon, to the boarding-house door.
    They came to have a good time, and they always succeeded in their
    object. What pigeon-wings were performed! what polkas perpetrated! what
    waltzes wrecked! How the long lines of the Virginia Reel, or "On the
    Road to Boston," extended through the hall from end to end, and how the
    couples twisted, whirled, and scooted between them! How the call-man,
    with his violin under his chin, stopped playing to vociferate his
    orders, or anathematize some bewildered pair! How the old folks, sitting
    on chairs and benches along the walls, nodded and smiled and mumbled to
    one another as the ruddy faces of their descendants passed and repassed
    before them, and spoke to one another of like scenes thirty, or forty,
    or fifty years ago! How happy everybody was, and what a jolly noise they
    made!

    As Cornelia and her papa approached the house, every window was alight,
    above and below. The door was thrown hospitably open, and the lamplight
    streamed forth and ran down the steps, and lay in a long rectangular
    pool upon the road. Abbie stood near the entrance, directing the ladies
    one way and the gentlemen another. Punctuality at an affair of this kind
    being among the village virtues, the whole company was present within a
    surprisingly short time of the appointed hour.

    "Good-evening, Professor Valeyon; good-evening, my dear; how well-you
    look! Step up-stairs--the first room on the right."

    "My pupil is to be here to-night, isn't he?" inquired the professor, as
    his daughter vanished.

    "Yes, he said he'd be down. He doesn't seem to be used to society. Miss
    Cornelia told me she thought it would do him good to begin, so I went up
    the other day and asked him."

    "Oh! humph!" said the old gentleman, who had vainly endeavored to catch
    Abbie's eye while she was speaking. He stood silent a few moments, and
    then moved off to the gentlemen's dressing-room, taking a pair of
    white-kid gloves from his pocket as he went.

    Cornelia, having removed her hood, put on her slippers, shaken out her
    skirt, touched her hair with the tips of her gloved fingers, and settled
    the ribbon at her throat, descended to the reception-room--as that part
    of the entrance-hall where Abbie stood was styled--and found her papa
    awaiting her. She was about to take his arm, when the hostess touched
    her on the shoulder.

    "Wait a moment," said she, with a peculiar grave smile; "I'll bring you
    your _protégé_."

    Bressant was standing in the door-way of an inner room, leaning with the
    elbow of one arm in the hand of the other, as he pulled at his mustache
    and twisted the beard on his chin. He looked ill at ease, and as if he
    rather regretted his intrepidity in coming down. Had he been what is
    called a student of human nature, he might have been interested in the
    quaint people and customs which an occasion like this would bring to
    light. But he believed that all the traits and elements of mankind at
    large were comprised, in a superior form, within himself, and that,
    knowing himself, he would virtually know the world. This somewhat
    exclusive creed had, doubtless, been aided and abetted by his deafness,
    which, even had he been otherwise inclined by nature, must have thrown
    him back, in great measure, upon himself; or, possibly, the dogma may
    have been but an outgrowth of the physical defect: he fights hard and
    well, in this world, who counteracts the bias given by bodily infirmity.
    In any case, however, since such was the position of his mind, he could
    scarcely be expected to derive much entertainment from a social occasion
    like the present. It is even uncertain whether he would not actually
    have repented and taken to flight, had not Abbie come up at the critical
    moment, and carried him off to Cornelia.

    "I wanted to have the pleasure of presenting Mr. Bressant to you
    myself," said she, with the same peculiar smile; and so left them
    together.

    The young man stood confronting the young woman, who, besides being
    dressed with great taste, looked, owing to the whimsical circumstances
    in which she was placed, every bit of beauty she had. Bressant stared
    at her in astonishment.

    One woman's beauty cannot be contrasted with another's; as well compare
    a summer valley with the white clouds sailing over it; each is to be
    enjoyed in its own way. But Cornelia's loveliness carried with it a
    peculiar quality, which not only gratified the eye, but went further,
    and seemed to touch a vital chord in the beholder, jarring throughout
    his being with a sweet distribution of effect, and causing heart and
    voice to vibrate. It made Bressant conscious in every fibre that he was
    man and she woman. Whence came the influence he could not tell, and
    meanwhile it gained ever stronger and deeper hold upon him. Was it from
    the eyes, a-sparkle with the essence of youth and health? or from the
    mouth, with its red warmth of full yet delicate curves? the gates of
    what sweetness of breath! or from the crisp, dark, lustreless luxuriance
    of the hair? or from the curved shadows melting on the cheeks, and
    nestling beneath the chin? He could trace it to no single one of these
    various elements--yet how lovely all were! Whence, then, was it? In a
    bottle of wine there are many drops, alike in color, shape, flavor, and
    sparkle; in which one, of all, lurks the intoxication? The only way to
    make sure of the drop is to drink the bottle; and, even then, though
    there will be no doubt about the intoxication, its precise origin may
    still be disputed.

    As Bressant bowed to Cornelia, who courtesied grandly in return, the
    band struck up a waltz, which seemed to be at once reflected in her face
    and manner. She was particularly sensitive to musical impressions, and
    instinctively looked up to Bressant's face for sympathy, forgetting at
    the moment that his infirmity would probably debar him from sharing her
    enjoyment. However that might be, he was certainly not indifferent to
    the silent music of her beauty; he was gazing down upon her with an
    intensity which caused her to droop her eyes, and draw an uneven breath
    or two. There was in him all a man's fire, strangely mingled with the
    freshness of a boy.

    "Take my arm," said he, offering it to her. After an instant's
    hesitation, more mental, however, than physical, she laid her graceful
    hand within it, and they moved toward the dancing-room.

    But at the instant of contact an electric pulsation seemed to pass
    through Cornelia's blood, imbuing it with a powerful ichor, alien to
    herself, yet whose potency was delicious to her. She fancied, also, that
    she herself went out in the same way to her companion, establishing a
    magnetic interchange of personalities, so that each felt and shared the
    other's thoughts and emotions.

    They now stood in the principal dancing-hall, where several couples, who
    had already taken the floor, were revolving with various degrees of
    awkwardness. The music had flowed into Cornelia's ears until she was
    full of the rhythmical harmony. She glanced up once more at her partner,
    this time with a lustrous look of confidence. Was it possible that he
    had become inspired through her? Certainly it seemed as if the feeling
    of the tune were discernible in his face as well as hers; it was even
    betokened by the lightsome pose of his figure, and a scarcely subdued
    buoyancy in his step. Moment by moment did the occult sympathy between
    one another and the cadence of the music grow more assured and complete;
    and at length--though precisely how it came about neither Cornelia nor
    Bressant could have told--they were conscious of floating through the
    room, mutually supporting and leading on each other, mind and motion
    pulsating with the beat of the tune, amid a bright, half-seen chaos of
    lights, faces, and forms, dancing a waltz!

    Neither felt any surprise at what, but a few moments before, both would
    have deemed an impossibility. The easy, whirling sweep of the motion,
    not ending nor beginning, seemed, to Bressant as well as to Cornelia,
    the most natural thing in the world. Beautifully as she danced, he was
    no whit her inferior. They moved in complete accord. Years of practice
    could not have made the harmony more perfect.

    The charm of dancing, although nothing is easier than to experience it,
    is something that eludes statement. It is the language of the body,
    graceful and significant. It has that in it which will make it live and
    be loved so long as men and women exist as such. The fascination of the
    motion, the magic of the music, the hour, the lights; the nearness, the
    touch of hands, the leaning, the support, the starting off in fresh
    bewilderments; the trilling down the gamut of the hall; the pauses and
    recommencements; even the little incidents of collision and escape; the
    trips, slips, and quick recoveries; the breathless words whispered in
    the ear, and the laughter; the dropped handkerchief, the crushed fan,
    the faithless hair-pin--these, and a thousand more such small elements,
    make dancing imperishable.

    Presently--and it might have been after a minute or an hour, for all
    they could have told--Bressant and Cornelia awoke to a sense of four
    bare walls, papered with a pattern of abominable regularity, a floor of
    rough and unwaxed boards, a panting crowd of country girls and bumpkins.
    The music had ceased, and nothing remained in its place save a fiddle, a
    harp, and an inferior piano.

    "Come out to the door!" said Bressant, "the air here is not fit for us
    to breathe."

    They went, Cornelia leaning on his arm, silent; their minds inactive,
    conscious only of a pleasant, dreamy feeling of magnetic communion. Both
    felt impelled to keep together--to be in contact; the mere thought of
    separation would have made them shudder.

    The door stood open, and they emerged through it on to the wooden steps.
    At first their eyes, dazzled by the noisy glare of the house, could
    distinguish nothing in the silent darkness without. But, by-and-by, a
    singular gentle radiance began to diffuse itself through the soft night
    air, as if a new moon had all at once arisen. They looked first at each
    other, and then upward at the sky. Cornelia pressed her companion's arm,
    and caught her breath.

    From the north had uprisen a column of light, of about the apparent
    breadth of the Milky Way, but far more brilliant, and defined clearly at
    the edges. Higher and higher it rose, until it reached the zenith.
    Pausing a moment there, it then began to slide and lengthen down the
    southern slope of the sky, lower and lower, till its extreme limit
    seemed to mingle with the haze on the horizon. Having thus completed its
    stupendous sweep, it remained, brightening and paling by turns, for
    several minutes. Finally, it slowly and imperceptibly faded away,
    vanishing first at the loftiest point of all, and lingering downward on
    either side, till all was gone.

    "What a glorious arch!" exclaimed Cornelia.

    "It was put there for us, was it not?" rejoined Bressant.

    Some of the other guests had come out in time to see the latter part of
    this spectacle, as it trembled athwart the heavens. They "Oh'd" and
    "Ah'd" in vast astonishment and admiration; and one of them humorously
    asserted that it had been engaged, at a huge expense, to celebrate the
    anniversary of American Independence. So the celestial arch vanished in
    the echo of a horse-laugh. But Bressant and Cornelia, as they stood
    silently arm-in-arm, felt as if it were rather the presage of an
    emancipation of their own selves. From, or to what, they did not ask;
    nor did the old superstition, that such signs foretell ruin and
    disaster, recur to their minds until long afterward.

    Dancing was now recommenced, but, by an unuttered agreement, the two
    refrained from participating again. The enjoyment had been too entire to
    risk a repetition. They sat down in one of the small boudoirs, which,
    through a demoralized corridor, commanded a view of the extremity of one
    of the dancing-rooms.

    From this vantage-ground they could see the distinctive features of the
    assembly pass before their eyes. Girls who danced well striving to look
    graceful in the arms of men who danced ill, or floundering women
    bringing disgrace and misery upon embracing men. Dancers of the old
    school, whose forte lay in quadrilles and contra-dances, cutting strange
    capers, with faces of earnest gravity. People smiling whenever spoken
    to, and without hearing what was said; and on-lookers smiling, by a sort
    of photographic process, at fun in which they had no concern.
    Introductions, where the lady was self-possessed and bewitching, the
    gentleman monosyllabic and poker-like; others, where he was off-hand,
    ogling, and facetious; she, timid, credulous, and blushing. All kinds of
    costumes, from the solitary dress-coat, and low-necked ball-dress, worn
    respectively by Mr. and Mrs. Van Brueck from Albany, to the mixed tweed
    sack and trousers, and the checked gingham, adorning the Browne boy and
    girl.

    "How foolish it all seems when you're not doing it yourself!" remarked
    Cornelia at last, laughing softly.

    "But very wise when you are."

    "How beautifully you danced! I didn't know you could."

    "I never did before--I couldn't, with any one but you. As soon as we
    touched each other, I felt every thing through you."

    "It was very strange, wasn't it? and yet I don't wonder at it, somehow."

    "It would have been stranger not to have been so."

    "Why, how have you been hearing what I said?" suddenly exclaimed
    Cornelia, looking at him in surprise; "I've been almost whispering all
    this time!"

    "Have you? It sounded loud enough to me. But I could hear you think
    to-night, I believe. Will it be so to-morrow, do you suppose?"

    "To-morrow!" repeated Cornelia. "Dear me! to-morrow is my last day
    here."

    "The last day!" echoed Bressant, in a tone of dismay. "Shall we find one
    another the same as to-night when you come back?"

    "Why not?" responded she, with a resumption of cheerfulness. "I sha'n't
    be gone but three months."

    So the conversation lingered along, until gradually the greater part of
    it was supported by Bressant, while Cornelia sat quiet and listened--a
    thing she had never done before. But the young man's way of expressing
    himself was picturesque and piquant, keeping the attention thoroughly
    awake. His ideas and topics were original. He plunged into the midst of
    a subject and talked backward and forward at the same time, yet conveyed
    a marvelously clear idea of his meaning. Sometimes the last word was the
    key-note that rendered the whole intelligible. And he had the bearing of
    a man all unaccustomed to deal with women--ignorant of the traditional
    arts of entertainment which society practises upon itself. He talked to
    Cornelia as he might have done to a man, and yet his manner showed a
    subtle difference--a lack of assurance--a treading in a pleasant garden
    with fear of trespassing--the recognition of the woman. To Cornelia it
    had the effect of the most soothing and delicious flattery; had he been
    as worldly-wise as other men, he could not have been so delicate.

    He, for his part, gave himself wholly up to be fascinated and absorbed
    by the lovely woman at his side. Did a thought of danger intrude, the
    whisper, "Only for to-night, only for to-night!" sufficed to banish it.
    Yet another day, and he would return to the old life once more.
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    Chapter 10
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