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    Chapter 11

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    Chapter 11
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    The stairway was crowded as he descended; and as he looked down upon the heads and shoulders of the throng below, in Julia's hall, the thought came to him that since he had the first and last dances and supper engaged with Julia, the hostess, this was almost the next thing to being the host. It was a pleasing thought, and a slight graciousness now flavoured his salutations.

    At the foot of the stairs he became part of the file of young people who were moving into one of the large rooms where Julia stood to "receive." And then, between two heads before him, he caught a first glimpse of her;--and all the young birds fluttering in his chest burst into song; his heart fainted, his head ballooned, his feet seemed to dangle from him at the ends of two strings.

    There glowed sapphire-eyed Julia; never had she been prettier.

    The group closed, shutting out the vision, and he found himself able to dry his brow and get back his breath before moving forward in a cold and aristocratic attitude. Then he became incapable of any attitude--he was before her, and she greeted him. A buzzing of the universe confused him: he would have stood forever, but pressure from behind pushed him on; and so, enveloped in a scented cloud, he passed into a corner. He tried to remember what he had said to her, but could not; perhaps it would have discouraged him to know that all he had said was, "Well!"

    Now there rattled out a challenge of drums; loud music struck upon the air. Starting instantly to go to Julia, Noble's left leg first received the electric impulse and crossed his laggard right; but he was no pacer, and thus stumbled upon himself and plunged. Still convulsive, he came headlong before her, and was the only person near who remained unaware that his dispersal of an intervening group had the appearance of extreme unconventionality. Noble knew nothing except that this was his dance with Her.

    Then heaven played with him. She came close and touched him exquisitely. She placed a lovely hand upon his shoulder, her other lovely cool hand in one of his. The air filled with bursting stars.

    They danced.

    Noble was conscious of her within his clasping arm, but conscious of her as nothing human. The fluffy white bodice pressed by his hand seemed to be that of some angel doll; the charming shoulder that sometimes touched his was made of a divine mist. Only the pretty head, close to his, was actual; the black-sapphire eyes gave him a little blue-black glance, now and then, and seemed to laugh.

    In truth, they did, though Julia's lips remained demure. So far as Noble was able to comprehend what he was doing, he was floating rhythmically to a faint, far music; but he was almost unconscious, especially from the knees down. But to the eye of observers incapable of perceiving that Noble was floating, it appeared that he was out of step most of the time, and danced rather hoppingly. However, these mannerisms were no novelty with him, and it cannot be denied that girls at dances usually hurried impulsively away to speak to somebody when they saw him coming. One such creature even went so far as to whisper to Julia now, during a collision: "How'd you get caught?"

    Julia was loyal; she gave no sign of comprehension, but valiantly swung onward with Noble, bumped and bumping everywhere, in spite of the most extraordinary and graceful dexterity on her part.

    "That's one reason she's such a terrible belle," a damsel whispered to another.

    "What is?"

    "The way she'll be just as nice to anybody like Noble Dill as she is to anybody," said the first. "Look at her now: she won't laugh at him a bit, though everybody else is."

    "Well, I wouldn't laugh either," said the other. "Not in Julia's position. I'd be too busy being afraid."

    "What of?"

    "Of getting a sprained ankle!"

    It is well that telepathy remains, as a science, lethargic. Speculation sets before us the prospect of a Life Beyond in which every thought is communicated without the intervention of speech: a state wherein all neighbours and neighbourhoods would promptly be dispersed and few friendships long endure, one fears. If to Noble Dill's active consciousness had penetrated merely the things thought about him and his dancing, in this one short period of time before the music for that dance stopped, he might easily have been understood if he had hurried forth, obtained explosives, and blown up the place, himself indeed included. As matters providentially were in reality, when the music stopped he stood confounded: he thought the dance had just begun.

    His mouth remained open until the necessary gestures of articulation intermittently closed it as he said: "Oh! That was divine!"

    Too-gentle Julia agreed.

    "You said I could have part of some in between the first and last," he reminded her. "Can I have the first part of the next?"

    She laughed. "I'm afraid not. The next is Mr. Clairdyce's and I really promised him I wouldn't give any of his away or let anybody cut in."

    "Well, then," said Noble, frowning a little, "would you be willing for me to cut in on the third?"

    "I'm afraid not. That's Newland Sanders', and I promised him the same thing."

    "Well, the one after that?"

    "No, that one's Mr. Clairdyce's, too."

    "It is?" Noble was greatly disturbed.

    "Yes."

    "Two that quick with old Baldy Clairdyce!" he exclaimed, raising his voice, but unaware of the fervour with which he spoke. "Two with that old----"

    "Sh, Noble," she said, though she laughed. "He isn't really old; he's just middle-aged, and only the least bit bald, just enough to be distinguished-looking."

    "Well, you know what I think of him!" he returned with a vehemence not moderated. "I don't think he's distinguished-looking; I think he's simply and plainly a regular old----"

    "Sh!" Julia warned him again. "He's standing with some people just behind us," she added.

    "Well, then," said Noble, "can I cut in on the next one after that?"

    She consulted a surreptitious little card. "I'm afraid you'll have to wait till quite a little later on, Noble. That one is poor Mr. Ridgely's. I promised him I wouldn't----"

    "Then can I cut in on the next one after that?"

    "It's Mr. Clairdyce's," said Julia--and she blushed.

    "My goodness!" said Noble. "Oh, my goodness!"

    "Sh! I'm afraid people----"

    "Let's go out on the porch," said Noble, whose manner had suddenly become desperate. "Let's go out and get some air where we can talk this thing over."

    "I'm afraid I'd better not just now," she returned, glancing over her shoulder. "You see, all the people aren't here yet."

    "You've got an aunt here," said Noble, "and a sister-in-law and a little niece: I saw 'em. They can----"

    "I'm afraid I'd better stay indoors just now," she said persuasively. "We can talk here just as well."

    "We can't!" he insisted feverishly. "We can't, Julia! I've got something to say, Julia. Julia, you gave me the first dance and the last dance, and of course sitting together at supper, or whatever there is, and you know as well as I do that means it's just the same as if you weren't giving this party but it was somewhere else and I took you to it, and it's always understood you never dance more with anybody else than the one you went with, when you go with that person to a place, because that's the rights of it; and other towns it's just the same way; they do that way there, just the same as here; they do that way everywhere, because nobody else has got a right to cut in and dance more with you than the one you go with, when you goes to a place with that one. Julia, don't you see that's the regular way it is, and the only fair way it ought to be?"

    "What?"

    "Weren't you even listening?" he cried.

    "Yes, indeed, but----"

    "Julia," he said desperately, "let's go out on the porch. I want to explain just the way I feel. Let's go out on the porch, Julia. If we stay here, somebody's just bound to interrupt us any minute before I can explain the way I----"

    But the prophecy was fulfilled even before it was concluded. A group of loudly chattering girls and their escorts of the moment bore down upon Julia, and shattered the tete-a-tete. Dislodged from Julia's side by a large and eager girl, whom he had hated ever since she was six years old and he five, Noble found himself staggering in a kind of suburb; for the large girl's disregard of him, as she shouldered in, was actually physical, and too powerful for him to resist. She wished to put her coarse arm round Julia's waist, it appeared, and the whole group burbled and clamoured: the party was perfictly glorious; so was the waxed floor; so was Julia, my dear, so was the music, the weather, and the din they made!

    Noble felt that his rights were being outraged. Until the next dance began, every moment of her time was legally his--yet all he could even see of her was the top of her head. And the minutes were flying.

    He stood on tiptoe, thrust his head forward over the large girl's odious shoulder, and shouted: "Julia! Let's go out on the porch!"

    No one seemed to hear him.

    "Julia----"

    Boom! Rackety-Boom! The drummer walloped his drums; a saxophone squawked, and fiddles squealed. Hereupon appeared a tall authoritative man, at least thirty-two years old, and all swelled up with himself, as interpreted by Noble and several other friends of Julia's--though this, according to quite a number of people (all feminine) was only another way of saying that he was a person of commanding presence. He wore a fully developed moustache, an easy smile, clothes offensively knowing; and his hair began to show that scarcity which Julia felt gave him distinction--a curious theory, but natural to her age. What really did give this Clairdyce some air of distinction, however, was the calmness with which he walked through the group that had dislodged Noble Dill, and the assurance with which he put his arm about Julia and swept her away in the dance.

    Noble was left alone in the middle of the floor, but not for long. Couples charged him, and he betook himself to the wall. The party, for him, was already ruined.

    Sometimes, as he stood against the wall, there would be swirled to him, out of all the comminglements of other scents, a faint, faint hint of heliotrope and then Julia would be borne masterfully by, her flying skirts just touching him. And sometimes, out of the medley of all other sounds, there would reach his ear a little laugh like a run of lightly plucked harp strings, and he would see her shining dark hair above her partner's shoulder as they swept again near him for an instant. And always, though she herself might be concealed from him, he could only too painfully mark where she danced: the overtopping head of the tall Clairdyce was never lost to view. The face on the front part of that disliked head wore continuously a confident smile, which had a bad effect on Noble. It seemed to him desecration that a man with so gross a smile should be allowed to dance with Julia. And that she should smile back at her partner, and with such terrible kindness--as Noble twice saw her smile--this was like a calamity happening to her white soul without her knowing it. If she should ever marry that man--well, it would be the old story: May and December! Noble shuddered, and the drums, the fiddles, the bass fiddle, and the saxophone seemed to have an evil sound.

    When the music stopped he caromed hastily through the room toward Julia, but she was in a thicket of her guests when he arrived, and for several moments Mr. Clairdyce's broad back kept intervening--almost intentionally, it seemed. When Noble tried to place himself in a position to attract Julia's attention, this back moved, too, and Noble's nose but pressed black cloth. And the noise everybody made was so baffling that, in order to be heard, Julia herself was shouting. Finally Noble contrived to squirm round the obtrusive back, and protruded his strained face among all the flushed and laughing ones.

    "Julia, I got to----" he began.

    But this was just at the climax of a story that three people were telling at the same time, Julia being one of them, and he received little attention.

    "Julia," he said hoarsely; "I got something I want to tell you about----"

    He raised his voice: "Julia, come on! Let's go out on the porch!"

    Nobody even knew that he was there. Nevertheless, the tall and solid Clairdyce was conscious of him, but only, it proved, as one is conscious of something to rest upon. His elbow, a little elevated, was at the height of Noble's shoulder, and this heavy elbow, without its owner's direct or active cognizance, found for itself a comfortable support. Then, as the story reached its conclusion, this old Clairdyce joined the general mirth so heartily as to find himself quite overcome, and he allowed most of his weight to depend upon the supported elbow. Noble sank like feathers.

    "Here! What you doin'?" he said hotly. "I'll thank you to keep off o' me!"

    Old Baldy recovered his balance without being aware what had threatened it, while his elbow, apparently of its own volition, groped for its former pedestal. Noble evaded it, and pushed forward.

    "Julia," he said. "I got to say some----"

    But the accursed music began again, and horn-rimmed Newland Sanders already had his arm about her waist. They disappeared into the ruck of dancers.

    "Well, by George!" said Noble. "By George, I'm goin' to do something!"
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