The hero of the fete, with the dark-eyed little beauty upon his arm, reached the top of the second flight of stairs; and here, beyond a spacious landing, where two proud-like darkies tended a crystalline punch bowl, four wide archways in a rose-vine lattice framed gliding silhouettes of waltzers, already smoothly at it to the castanets of "La Paloma." Old John Minafer, evidently surfeited, was in the act of leaving these delights. "D'want 'ny more o' that!" he barked. "Just slidin' around! Call that dancin'? Rather see a jig any day in the world! They ain't very modest, some of 'em. I don't mind that, though. Not me!"
Miss Fanny Minafer was no longer in charge of him: he emerged from the ballroom escorted by a middle-aged man of commonplace appearance. The escort had a dry, lined face upon which, not ornamentally but as a matter of course, there grew a business man's short moustache; and his thin neck showed an Adam's apple, but not conspicuously, for there was nothing conspicuous about him. Baldish, dim, quiet, he was an unnoticeable part of this festival, and although there were a dozen or more middle-aged men present, not casually to be distinguished from him in general aspect, he was probably the last person in the big house at whom a stranger would have glanced twice. It did not enter George's mind to mention to Miss Morgan that this was his father, or to say anything whatever about him.
Mr. Minafer shook his son's hand unobtrusively in passing.
"I'll take Uncle John home," he said, in a low voice. "Then I guess I'll go on home myself--I'm not a great hand at parties, you know. Good-night, George."
George murmured a friendly enough good-night without pausing. Ordinarily he was not ashamed of the Minafers; he seldom thought about them at all, for he belonged, as most American children do, to the mother's family--but he was anxious not to linger with Miss Morgan in the vicinity of old John, whom he felt to be a disgrace.
He pushed brusquely through the fringe of calculating youths who were gathered in the arches, watching for chances to dance only with girls who would soon be taken off their hands, and led his stranger lady out upon the floor. They caught the time instantly, and were away in the waltz.
George danced well, and Miss Morgan seemed to float as part of the music, the very dove itself of "La Paloma." They said nothing as they danced; her eyes were cast down all the while--the prettiest gesture for a dancer--and there was left in the universe, for each, of them, only their companionship in this waltz; while the faces of the other dancers, swimming by, denoted not people but merely blurs of colour. George became conscious of strange feelings within him: an exaltation of soul, tender, but indefinite, and seemingly located in the upper part of his diaphragm.
The stopping of the music came upon him like the waking to an alarm clock; for instantly six or seven of the calculating persons about the entry-ways bore down upon Miss Morgan to secure dances. George had to do with one already established as a belle, it seemed.
"Give me the next and the one after that," he said hurriedly, recovering some presence of mind, just as the nearest applicant reached them. "And give me every third one the rest of the evening."
She laughed. "Are you asking?"
"What do you mean, 'asking'?"
"It sounded as though you were just telling me to give you all those dances."
"Well, I want 'em!" George insisted.
"What about all the other girls it's your duty to dance with?"
"They'll have to go without," he said heartlessly; and then, with surprising vehemence: "Here! I want to know: Are you going to give me those--"
"Good gracious!" she laughed. "Yes!"
The applicants flocked round her, urging contracts for what remained, but they did not dislodge George from her side, though he made it evident that they succeeded in annoying him; and presently he extricated her from an accumulating siege--she must have connived in the extrication--and bore her off to sit beside him upon the stairway that led to the musicians' gallery, where they were sufficiently retired, yet had a view of the room.
"How'd all those ducks get to know you so quick?" George inquired, with little enthusiasm.
"Oh, I've been here a week."
"Looks as if you'd been pretty busy!" he said. "Most of those ducks, I don't know what my mother wanted to invite 'em here for."
"Oh, I used to see something of a few of 'em. I was president of a club we had here, and some of 'em belonged to it, but I don't care much for that sort of thing any more. I really don't see why my mother invited 'em."
"Perhaps it was on account of their parents," Miss Morgan suggested mildly. "Maybe she didn't want to offend their fathers and mothers."
"Oh, hardly! I don't think my mother need worry much about offending anybody in this old town."
"It must be wonderful," said Miss Morgan. "It must be wonderful, Mr. Amberson--Mr. Minafer, I mean."
"What must be wonderful?"
"To be so important as that!"
"That isn't 'important," George assured her. "Anybody that really is anybody ought to be able to do about as they like in their own town, I should think!"
She looked at him critically from under her shading lashes--but her eyes grew gentler almost at once. In truth, they became more appreciative than critical. George's imperious good looks were altogether manly, yet approached actual beauty as closely as a boy's good looks should dare; and dance-music and flowers have some effect upon nineteen-year-old girls as well as upon eighteen-year-old boys. Miss Morgan turned her eyes slowly from George, and pressed her face among the lilies-of-the-valley and violets of the pretty bouquet she carried, while, from the gallery above, the music of the next dance carolled out merrily in a new two-step. The musicians made the melody gay for the Christmastime with chimes of sleighbells, and the entrance to the shadowed stairway framed the passing flushed and lively dancers, but neither George nor Miss Morgan suggested moving to join the dance.
The stairway was draughty: the steps were narrow and uncomfortable; no older person would have remained in such a place. Moreover, these two young people were strangers to each other; neither had said anything in which the other had discovered the slightest intrinsic interest; there had not arisen between them the beginnings of congeniality, or even of friendliness--but stairways near ballrooms have more to answer for than have moonlit lakes and mountain sunsets. Some day the laws of glamour must be discovered, because they are so important that the world would be wiser now if Sir Isaac Newton had been hit on the head, not by an apple, but by a young lady.
Age, confused by its own long accumulation of follies, is everlastingly inquiring, "What does she see in him?" as if young love came about through thinking--or through conduct. Age wants to know: "What on earth can they talk about?" as if talking had anything to do with April rains! At seventy, one gets up in the morning, finds the air sweet under a bright sun, feels lively; thinks, "I am hearty, today," and plans to go for a drive. At eighteen, one goes to a dance, sits with a stranger on a stairway, feels peculiar, thinks nothing, and becomes incapable of any plan whatever. Miss Morgan and George stayed where they were.
They had agreed to this in silence and without knowing it; certainly without exchanging glances of intelligence--they had exchanged no glances at all. Both sat staring vaguely out into the ballroom, and, for a time, they did not speak. Over their heads the music reached a climax of vivacity: drums, cymbals, triangle, and sleighbells, beating, clashing, tinkling. Here and there were to be seen couples so carried away that, ceasing to move at the decorous, even glide, considered most knowing, they pranced and whirled through the throng, from wall to wall, galloping bounteously in abandon. George suffered a shock of vague surprise when he perceived that his aunt, Fanny Minafer, was the lady-half of one of these wild couples.
Fanny Minafer, who rouged a little, was like fruit which in some climates dries with the bloom on. Her features had remained prettily childlike; so had her figure, and there were times when strangers, seeing her across the street, took her to be about twenty; they were other times when at the same distance they took her to be about sixty, instead of forty, as she was. She had old days and young days; old hours and young hours; old minutes and young minutes; for the change might be that quick. An alteration in her expression, or a difference in the attitude of her head, would cause astonishing indentations to appear--and behold, Fanny was an old lady! But she had been never more childlike than she was tonight as she flew over the floor in the capable arms of the queer-looking duck; for this person was her partner.
The queer-looking duck had been a real dancer in his day, it appeared; and evidently his day was not yet over. In spite of the headlong, gay rapidity with which he bore Miss Fanny about the big room, he danced authoritatively, avoiding without effort the lightest collision with other couples, maintaining sufficient grace throughout his wildest moments, and all the while laughing and talking with his partner. What was most remarkable to George, and a little irritating, this stranger in the Amberson Mansion had no vestige of the air of deference proper to a stranger in such a place: he seemed thoroughly at home. He seemed offensively so, indeed, when, passing the entrance to the gallery stairway, he disengaged his hand from Miss Fanny's for an instant, and not pausing in the dance, waved a laughing salutation more than cordial, then capered lightly out of sight.
George gazed stonily at this manifestation, responding neither by word nor sign. "How's that for a bit of freshness?" he murmured.
"What was?" Miss Morgan asked.
"That queer-looking duck waving his hand at me like that. Except he's the Sharon girls' uncle I don't know him from Adam."
"You don't need to," she said. "He wasn't waving his hand to you: he meant me."
"Oh, he did?" George was not mollified by the explanation. "Everybody seems to mean you! You certainly do seem to've been pretty busy this week you've been here!"
She pressed her bouquet to her face again, and laughed into it, not displeased. She made no other comment, and for another period neither spoke. Meanwhile the music stopped; loud applause insisted upon its renewal; an encore was danced; there was an interlude of voices; and the changing of partners began.
"Well," said George finally, "I must say you don't seem to be much of a prattler. They say it's a great way to get a reputation for being wise, never saying much. Don't you ever talk any?"
"When people can understand," she answered.
He had been looking moodily out at the ballroom but he turned to her quickly, at this, saw that her eyes were sunny and content, over the top of her bouquet; and he consented to smile.
"Girls are usually pretty fresh!" he said. "They ought to go to a man's college about a year: they'd get taught a few things about freshness! What you got to do after two o'clock to-morrow afternoon?"
"A whole lot of things. Every minute filled up."
"All right," said George. "The snow's fine for sleighing: I'll come for you in a cutter at ten minutes after two."
"I can't possibly go."
"If you don't," he said, "I'm going to sit in the cutter in front of the gate, wherever you're visiting, all afternoon, and if you try to go out with anybody else he's got to whip me before he gets you." And as she laughed--though she blushed a little, too--he continued, seriously: "If you think I'm not in earnest you're at liberty to make quite a big experiment!"
She laughed again. "I don't think I've often had so large a compliment as that," she said, "especially on such short notice--and yet, I don't think I'll go with you.
"You be ready at ten minutes after two."
"No, I won't."
"Yes, you will!"
"Yes," she said, "I will!" And her partner for the next dance arrived, breathless with searching.
"Don't forget I've got the third from now," George called after her.
"And every third one after that."
"I know!" she called, over her partner's shoulder, and her voice was amused--but meek.
When "the third from now" came, George presented himself before her without any greeting, like a brother, or a mannerless old friend. Neither did she greet him, but moved away with him, concluding, as she went, an exchange of badinage with the preceding partner: she had been talkative enough with him, it appeared. In fact, both George and Miss Morgan talked much more to every one else that evening, than to each other; and they said nothing at all at this time. Both looked preoccupied, as they began to dance, and preserved a gravity, of expression to the end of the number. And when "the third one after that" came, they did not dance, but went back to the gallery stairway, seeming to have reached an understanding without any verbal consultation, that this suburb was again the place for them.
"Well," said George, coolly, when they were seated, "what did you say your name was?"
"Everybody else's name always is."
"I didn't mean it was really funny," George explained. "That's just one of my crowd's bits of horsing at college. We always say 'funny name' no matter what it is. I guess we're pretty fresh sometimes; but I knew your name was Morgan because my mother said so downstairs. I meant: what's the rest of it?"
He was silent.
"Is 'Lucy' a funny name, too?" she inquired.
"No. Lucy's very much all right!" he said, and he went so far as to smile. Even his Aunt Fanny admitted that when George smiled "in a certain way" he was charming.
"Thanks about letting my name be Lucy," she said.
"How old are you?" George asked.
"I don't really know, myself."
"What do you mean: you don't really know yourself?"
"I mean I only know what they tell me. I believe them, of course, but believing isn't really knowing. You believe some certain day is your birthday--at least, I suppose you do--but you don't really know it is because you can't remember."
"Look here!" said George. "Do you always talk like this?"
Miss Lucy Morgan laughed forgivingly, put her young head on one side, like a bird, and responded cheerfully: "I'm willing to learn wisdom. What are you studying in school?"
"At the university! Yes. What are you studying there?"
George laughed. "Lot o' useless guff!"
"Then why don't you study some useful guff?"
"What do you mean: 'useful'?"
"Something you'd use later, in your business or profession?"
George waved his hand impatiently. "I don't expect to go into any 'business or profession."
"Certainly not!" George was emphatic, being sincerely annoyed by a suggestion which showed how utterly she failed to comprehend the kind of person he was.
"Why not?" she asked mildly.
"Just look at 'em!" he said, almost with bitterness, and he made a gesture presumably intended to indicate the business and professional men now dancing within range of vision. "That's a fine career for a man, isn't it! Lawyers, bankers, politicians! What do they get out of life, I'd like to know! What do they ever know about real things? Where do they ever get?"
He was so earnest that she was surprised and impressed. Evidently he had deep-seated ambitions, for he seemed to speak with actual emotion of these despised things which were so far beneath his planning for the future. She had a vague, momentary vision of Pitt, at twenty-one, prime minister of England; and she spoke, involuntarily in a lowered voice, with deference:
"What do you want to be?" she asked.
George answered promptly.
"A yachtsman," he said.