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THE BEAUTIFUL MISS BROOKE
SOME PRESS OPINIONS
Of “Z. Z.’s” Previous Work.
The Beautiful Miss Brooke
The World and a Man, Etc.
D. Appleton and Company
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY.
THE BEAUTIFUL MISS BROOKE.
The opening bars of a waltz sounded through the house above the irregular murmur of conversation, bearing their promise and summons along festal corridors and into garlanded nooks and alcoves. Paul Middleton drew a breath of relief as the girl to whom he had been talking was carried off to dance, for she had bored him intolerably. The refreshment room, crowded a moment ago, was thinning down, and, glad of the respite, he took another sandwich and slowly sipped the remainder of his coffee. His humour was of the worst. If his hostess had not been his mother’s oldest friend, he would never have allowed himself to be persuaded to accept her invitation after he had once decided to decline it. Why had his mother so persisted, when she knew very well he was looking forward to playing in an important chess match? Certainly the evening so far had not compensated him for the pleasure he had thus missed.
He had been chafing the whole time, and intermittently he had played with the idea of slipping out and taking a hansom down to the chess club. But he had ticked off five dances on Celia’s programme—Celia was of course Celia—and he was to take her to supper. Moreover, on his arrival at the small-and-early, Mrs. Saxon had led him round—he feeling that his amiable expression made him a hypocrite—and, mechanically repeating his request for the pleasure of a dance, he had scrawled his name on several programmes with scarcely a glance at their owners. It was, however, more particularly his engagements with Celia, and one or two other girls he knew well, that had made him stay on. Once more he glanced at his watch. It was getting well on towards midnight now, and the issue of the chess match must already have been decided. After some speculation as to the winning side, he resigned himself to finishing the evening where he was.
At the best of times Paul Middleton’s interest in the ballroom was only lukewarm. He frankly professed not to care about it at all, and, though he was in the habit of dancing every dance, he looked upon himself more as a spectator than a participator on such rare occasions as he accepted cards for. He had no favourite partners. Into the inner and intimate life of that circle of light made for human pleasure he could never enter; he had always shrunk from exploring its labyrinth of flirtation, coquetry, and petty manœuvring, the very thought of the intricacies of which affrighted his plain-sailing temperament. To him one girl in a ballroom was much the same as another—a green, white, or pink gown with sometimes an eye-glass attached. He knew very well, though—if only from his mother having instilled it into him—that no such indifference attached to him, a young man of twenty-three, who was absolute master of at least eleven thousand pounds a year, and not without claim to other merits.
Becoming aware that the music was in full swing upstairs, he began to think it was high time to look for his partner. But the name “Brooke” on his programme, which he made out with some difficulty, called up no picture, no living personality. He could not even recollect the moment when he had written it, and it did not appear he had made any note to help him identify the girl. His last partner had had to be pointed out to him by Mrs. Saxon, and he did not care to trouble her again. “Besides,” he reflected, “this Miss Brooke, whoever she is, will most likely be hidden away in some nook or other and will be only too glad not to be hunted up.”
He had almost made up his mind to skip the dance when there came into the room an old schoolfellow, more or less a friend of his. The two interchanged a word. Thorn, it appeared, wanted a whisky and soda before going home. He had to turn in early to be in good form for the morrow’s cricket. It was the first match of the season, and he was anxious to do brilliantly. Paul took the opportunity of asking him if, by any chance, he knew or had danced with a Miss Brooke.
“The beautiful Miss Brooke you mean, don’t you?” asked Thorn.
“Well, if the one you mean, or don’t mean, is the one I mean, she’s just outside the door talking to a big Yankee chap. I never heard of her before to-night, but she’s a stunning girl. She’s the daughter of some American millionaire, a railway king, or something of that sort—at least everybody says so. I tried to get a dance with her, but I wasn’t in luck. I envy you. Good-night, old boy!”
“I suppose, then, I must consider myself in luck,” thought Paul, staying yet a moment as he caught sight of his full reflection in a glass. It was a medium, slightly built figure that met his gaze, easy and graceful of carriage. The face was fair with a tiny light beard—the silken hair cut short, the features intelligent, the eyes grey, the teeth beautiful. A suspicion of a freckle here and there did not seem unsuited to the type of complexion. The survey seemed to please him, and he stepped forward with the intention of taking possession of “the beautiful Miss Brooke.”
Thorn’s indication proved correct. To his surprise Miss Brooke seemed to recognise him as he approached, for she welcomed him with a smile, from which he deduced, moreover, that she must have been waiting for him. He had a general sense of enchantment and diaphanousness, of a delicate harmony of colour-tones; an impression as of an idealised figure that had stepped out of a decorative painting. He wondered how he had escaped the impression at the time of his introduction to her, and, despite her smile, he was chilled by a doubt that it might, after all, be some other Miss Brooke on whose programme he had written. Of the man she had been talking to he scarcely took any note at all, beyond verifying he was a “big Yankee.” He took her up to the dancing-room, and they began waltzing. Paul considered himself a pretty good dancer, and there were even moments when he could conscientiously say he was enjoying himself. But somehow he found himself going badly with Miss Brooke. Things seemed to be wrong at the very start. There was an uncomfortable drag. Paul was compelled to take enormous steps to counteract it, and after a dozen turns both agreed to give it up.
“You dance the English step, of course, Mr. Middleton,” she observed as they sauntered round. Her American accent was of the slightest, and few as were the words she had so far spoken, they seemed to Paul subtly to vibrate with a pleasant friendliness. Her voice was sweet and clear, with an under-quality of softness and caress. The suggestion that there were waltz steps other than the one he was wont to dance was new to him.
“Oh, yes. We Americans really waltz, whilst you English just go round and round and round, with your stiff legs for all the world like a pair of compasses.”
Paul could not agree with her, and patriotically proceeded to defend the English waltz, surprised to find himself expending oratory on so trivial a subject. He asserted it was not the mere monotonous turning to which Miss Brooke would reduce it, but that a spirit went with it; whereupon Miss Brooke shook her head, declaring she had shown the American step to a good many English people, and, no matter how sceptical before, they had vowed, one and all, never to dance the English step again.
They had wandered away from the mass of rotating figures and taken possession of a couple of seats in a corner outside the dancing-room. Paul had now an opportunity of observing Miss Brooke more narrowly. Other partners he had already forgotten. He could hardly have identified them again. So far as he was concerned, they had got completely lost in the crowd from which they had temporarily emerged. But of Miss Brooke he felt sure a perfectly definite picture would remain in his mind. What struck him most at once was a certain spirit of frank good humour that seemed to exhale from her, that made him feel, even with her first few words, as if she were merely resuming an interrupted conversation with him. Her manner suggested the natural falling-into-step by the side of an established friend, overtaken en route, and it was hard for him to realise this was really their first talk together.
Paul had never danced with an American girl before, else he would have been aware of the incompatibility of their steps. His notions of the American girl—or at least the American girl that comes to Europe—were of the vaguest. He had in the course of his existence met perhaps two or three of the class, but he had never really talked to them. He had heard the American girl spoken of—praised, damned, or tolerated; he had read about her push and businesslike qualities; and a short time since he had seen the type portrayed on the stage—a dashing, masterful creature, a piece of egotism incarnate, with a twang as pronounced as her self-assertiveness, a terrible determination, and an equally terrible assurance of carrying it through. But he had never thought about her coherently; never consciously crystallized these more or less contradictory notions of her that had come to him in so scattered and chaotic a fashion. It was quite certain, however, that Miss Brooke had nothing in common with the monstrosity that had given so much delight to that English audience, and raised in it a due consciousness of its own virtue of modest moderation. Nor could he associate her with the dreadfully improper and unabashable person he had heard more than one British matron declare the American girl to be.
Miss Brooke did not address her words to the floor, but sitting with her chair at an angle to his, looking straight at him as she spoke. Paul found the ordeal a fascinating but sufficiently trying one. He had no chance against this wonderful girlish face, with its sparkling blue eyes and its subtle quality of sincerity and spirituality; tantalising by the charm of its smile, which suggested moments of wickedness and kissing, and provoking by its air of unawareness of its calm-destroying powers. He was conscious, too, of a long, white neck rising above a pair of well-knit shoulders, out of a mass of white fluffy trimmings, in which were set with careless art a few deep-red velvet flowers. On her forehead lay two roguish curls that moved freely, and each temple was covered by a bewitching lock, whose end curled inwards toward the ear. At the back her hair was drawn right up into curls, leaving the whole neck free, and showing the contour of the gracefully-poised head. Her white gown seemed woven of some fairy substance, embroidered with myriad gold spots, and encircled round the waist with three golden bands. The pink, round flesh of the upper arm showed firm and cool through the web of the sleeve that met the long white glove at the elbow. The bodice followed closely the modelling of the bust, and the skirt swept downwards, ending in a mass of foam-like fluff amid which nestled the tips of two neat shoes. Altogether a superb girl, dainty and supple, without any suggestion of fragility.
“Now, tell me, Mr. Middleton,” she asked, after enthusiastically descanting on the pleasure and grace of the “long glide,” “haven’t I really converted you?”
“I want very much to be converted, but your waltz seems formidable. I am afraid of it.”
“I’m sure it would not take you long to learn. Cannot I really coax you into a promise to try it? I enjoy making converts—I have missionary tendencies in the blood.”