The Honourable George Amberson was a congressman who led cotillions-- the sort of congressman an Amberson would be. He did it negligently, tonight, yet with infallible dexterity, now and then glancing humorously at the spectators, people of his own age. They were seated in a tropical grove at one end of the room whither they had retired at the beginning of the cotillion, which they surrendered entirely to the twenties and the late 'teens. And here, grouped with that stately pair, Sydney and Amelia Amberson, sat Isabel with Fanny, while Eugene Morgan appeared to bestow an amiable devotion impartially upon the three sisters-in-law. Fanny watched his face eagerly, laughing at everything he said; Amelia smiled blandly, but rather because of graciousness than because of interest; while Isabel, looking out at the dancers, rhythmically moved a great fan of blue ostrich feathers, listened to Eugene thoughtfully, yet all the while kept her shining eyes on Georgie.
Georgie had carried out his rehearsed projects with precision, he had given Miss Morgan a nod studied into perfection during his lengthy toilet before dinner. "Oh, yes, I do seem to remember that curious little outsider!" this nod seemed to say. Thereafter, all cognizance of her evaporated: the curious little outsider was permitted no further existence worth the struggle. Nevertheless, she flashed in the corner of his eye too often. He was aware of her dancing demurely, and of her viciously flirtatious habit of never looking up at her partner, but keeping her eyes concealed beneath downcast lashes; and he had over-sufficient consciousness of her between the dances, though it was not possible to see her at these times, even if he had cared to look frankly in her direction--she was invisible in a thicket of young dresscoats. The black thicket moved as she moved and her location was hatefully apparent, even if he had not heard her voice laughing from the thicket. It was annoying how her voice, though never loud, pursued him. No matter how vociferous were other voices, all about, he seemed unable to prevent himself from constantly recognizing hers. It had a quaver in it, not pathetic--rather humorous than pathetic--a quality which annoyed him to the point of rage, because it was so difficult to get away from. She seemed to be having a "wonderful time!"
An unbearable soreness accumulated in his chest: his dislike of the girl and her conduct increased until he thought of leaving this sickening Assembly and going home to bed. That would show her! But just then he heard her laughing, and decided that it wouldn't show her. So he remained.
When the young couples seated themselves in chairs against the walls, round three sides of the room, for the cotillion, George joined a brazen-faced group clustering about the doorway--youths with no partners, yet eligible to be "called out" and favoured. He marked that his uncle placed the infernal Kinney and Miss Morgan, as the leading couple, in the first chairs at the head of the line upon the leader's right; and this disloyalty on the part of Uncle George was inexcusable, for in the family circle the nephew had often expressed his opinion of Fred Kinney. In his bitterness, George uttered a significant monosyllable.
The music flourished; whereupon Mr. Kinney, Miss Morgan, and six of their neighbours rose and waltzed knowingly. Mr. Amberson's whistle blew;' then the eight young people went to the favour-table and were given toys and trinkets wherewith to delight the new partners it was now their privilege to select. Around the walls, the seated nonparticipants in this ceremony looked rather conscious; some chattered, endeavouring not to appear expectant; some tried not to look wistful; and others were frankly solemn. It was a trying moment; and whoever secured a favour, this very first shot, might consider the portents happy for a successful evening.
Holding their twinkling gewgaws in their hands, those about to bestow honour came toward the seated lines, where expressions became feverish. Two of the approaching girls seemed to wander, not finding a predetermined object in sight; and these two were Janie Sharon, and her cousin, Lucy. At this, George Amberson Minafer, conceiving that he had little to anticipate from either, turned a proud back upon the room and affected to converse with his friend, Mr. Charlie Johnson.
The next moment a quick little figure intervened between the two. It was Lucy, gaily offering a silver sleighbell decked with white ribbon.
"I almost couldn't find you!" she cried.
George stared, took her hand, led her forth in silence, danced with her. She seemed content not to talk; but as the whistle blew, signalling that this episode was concluded, and he conducted her to her seat, she lifted the little bell toward him. "You haven't taken your favour. You're supposed to pin it on your coat," she said. "Don't you want it?"
"If you insist!" said George stiffly. And he bowed her into her chair; then turned and walked away, dropping the sleighbell haughtily into his trousers' pocket.
The figure proceeded to its conclusion, and George was given other sleighbells, which he easily consented to wear upon his lapel; but, as the next figure 'began, he strolled with a bored air to the tropical grove, where sat his elders, and seated himself beside his Uncle Sydney. His mother leaned across Miss Fanny, raising her voice over the music to speak to him.
"Georgie, nobody will be able to see you here. You'll not be favoured. You ought to be where you can dance."
"Don't care to," he returned. "Bore!
"But you ought--" She stopped and laughed, waving her fan to direct his attention behind him. "Look! Over your shoulder!"
He turned, and discovered Miss Lucy Morgan in the act of offering him a purple toy balloon.
"I found you!" she laughed.
George was startled. "Well--" he said.
"Would you rather 'sit it out?'" Lucy asked quickly, as he did not move. "I don't care to dance if you--"
"No," he said, rising. "It would be better to dance." His tone was solemn, and solemnly he departed with her from the grove. Solemnly he danced with her.
Four times, with not the slightest encouragement, she brought him a favour: 'four times in succession. When the fourth came, "Look here!" said George huskily. "You going to keep this up all' night? What do you mean by it?"
For an instant she seemed confused. "That's what cotillions are for, aren't they?" she murmured.
"What do you mean: what they're for?"
"So that a girl can dance with a person she wants to?"
George's huskiness increased. "Well, do you mean you--you want to dance with me all the time--all evening?"
"Well, this much of it--evidently!" she laughed.
"Is it because you thought I tried to keep you from getting hurt this afternoon when we upset?"
She shook her head.
"Was it because you want to even things up for making me angry--I mean, for hurting my feelings on the way home?"
With her eyes averted--for girls of nineteen can be as shy as boys, sometimes--she said, "Well--you only got angry because I couldn't dance the cotillion with you. I--I didn't feel terribly hurt with you for getting angry about that!"
"Was there any other reason? Did my telling you I liked you have anything to do with it?"
She looked up gently, and, as George met her eyes, something exquisitely touching, yet queerly delightful, gave him a catch in the throat. She looked instantly away, and, turning, ran out from the palm grove, where they stood, to the dancing-floor.
"Come on!" she cried. "Let's dance!"
He followed her.
"See here--I--I--" he stammered. "You mean--Do you--"
"No, no!" she laughed. "Let's dance!"
He put his arm about her almost tremulously, and they began to waltz. It was a happy dance for both of them.
Christmas day is the children's, but the holidays are youth's dancingtime. The holidays belong to the early twenties and the 'teens, home from school and college. These years possess the holidays for a little while, then possess them only in smiling, wistful memories of holly and twinkling lights and dance-music, and charming faces all aglow. It is the liveliest time in life, the happiest of the irresponsible times in life. Mothers echo its happiness--nothing is like a mother who has a son home from college, except another mother with a son home from college. Bloom does actually come upon these mothers; it is a visible thing; and they run like girls, walk like athletes, laugh like sycophants. Yet they give up their sons to the daughters of other mothers, and find it proud rapture enough to be allowed to sit and watch.
Thus Isabel watched George and Lucy dancing, as together they danced away the holidays of that year into the past.
"They seem to get along better than they did at first, those two children," Fanny Minafer said sitting beside her at the Sharons' dance, a week after the Assembly. "They seemed to be always having little quarrels of some sort, at first. At least George did: he seemed to be continually pecking at that lovely, dainty, little Lucy, and being cross with her over nothing."
"Pecking?" Isabel laughed. "What a word to use about Georgie! I think I never knew a more angelically amiable disposition in my life!"
Miss Fanny echoed her sister-in-law's laugh, but it was a rueful echo, and not sweet. "He's amiable to you!" she said. "That's all the side of him you ever happen to see. And why wouldn't he be amiable to anybody that simply fell down and worshipped him every minute of her life? Most of us would!"
"Isn't he worth worshipping? Just look at him! Isn't he charming with Lucy! See how hard he ran to get it when she dropped her handkerchief back there."
"Oh, I'm not going to argue with you about George!" said Miss Fanny. "I'm fond enough of him, for that matter. He can be charming, and he's certainly stunning looking, if only--"
"Let the 'if only' go, dear," Isabel suggested good-naturedly. "Let's talk about that dinner you thought I should--"
"I?" Miss Fanny interrupted quickly. "Didn't you want to give it yourself?"
"Indeed, I did, my dear!" said Isabel heartily. "I only meant that unless you had proposed it, perhaps I wouldn't--"
But here Eugene came for her to dance, and she left the sentence uncompleted. Holiday dances can be happy for youth renewed as well as for youth in bud--and yet it was not with the air of a rival that Miss Fanny watched her brother's wife dancing with the widower. Miss Fanny's eyes narrowed a little, but only as if her mind engaged in a hopeful calculation. She looked pleased.