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"I reckon that that Mr. Brooks who's down here lookin' arter mill
property, got up the dance. He's bin round town canvassin' all the
women folks and drummin' up likely gals for it. They say he
actooally sent an invite to the Widder Wade," remarked another
lounger. "Gosh! he's got cheek!"

"Well, gentlemen," said the proprietor judicially, "while we don't
intend to hev any minin' camp fandangos or 'Frisco falals round
Santa Any--(Santa Ana was proud of its simple agricultural
virtues)--I ain't so hard-shelled as not to give new things a fair
trial. And, after all, it's the women folk that has the say about
it. Why, there's old Miss Ford sez she hasn't kicked a fut sence
she left Mizoori, but wouldn't mind trying it agin. Ez to Brooks
takin' that trouble--well, I suppose it's along o' his bein'
HEALTHY!" He heaved a deep dyspeptic sigh, which was faintly
echoed by the others. "Why, look at him now, ridin' round on that
black hoss o' his, in the wet since daylight and not carin' for
blind chills or rhumatiz!"

He was looking at a serape-draped horseman, the one the widow had
seen on the previous night, who was now cantering slowly up the
street. Seeing the group on the veranda, he rode up, threw himself
lightly from his saddle, and joined them. He was an alert,
determined, good-looking fellow of about thirty-five, whose smooth,
smiling face hardly commended itself to Santa Ana, though his eyes
were distinctly sympathetic. He glanced at the depressed group
around him and became ominously serious.

"When did it happen?" he asked gravely.

"What happen?" said the nearest bystander.

"The Funeral, Flood, Fight, or Fire. Which of the four F's was
it?"

"What are ye talkin' about?" said the proprietor stiffly, scenting
some dangerous humor.

"YOU," said Brooks promptly. "You're all standing here, croaking
like crows, this fine morning. I passed YOUR farm, Johnson, not an
hour ago; the wheat just climbing out of the black adobe mud as
thick as rows of pins on paper--what have YOU to grumble at? I saw
YOUR stock, Briggs, over on Two-Mile Bottom, waddling along, fat as
the adobe they were sticking in, their coats shining like fresh
paint--what's the matter with YOU? And," turning to the
proprietor, "there's YOUR shed, Saunders, over on the creek, just
bursting with last year's grain that you know has gone up two
hundred per cent. since you bought it at a bargain--what are YOU
growling at? It's enough to provoke a fire or a famine to hear you
groaning--and take care it don't, some day, as a lesson to you."

All this was so perfectly true of the prosperous burghers that they
could not for a moment reply. But Briggs had recourse to what he
believed to be a retaliatory taunt.

"I heard you've been askin' Widow Wade to come to your dance," he
said, with a wink at the others. "Of course she said 'Yes.'"

"Of course she did," returned Brooks coolly. "I've just got her
note."

"What?" ejaculated the three men together. "Mrs. Wade comin'?"

"Certainly! Why shouldn't she? And it would do YOU good to come
too, and shake the limp dampness out o' you," returned Brooks, as
he quietly remounted his horse and cantered away.

"Darned ef I don't think he's got his eye on the widder," said
Johnson faintly.

"Or the quarter section," added Briggs gloomily.

For all that, the eventful evening came, with many lights in the
staring, undraped windows of the hotel, coldly bright bunting on
the still damp walls of the long dining-room, and a gentle downpour
from the hidden skies above. A close carryall was especially
selected to bring Mrs. Wade and her housekeeper. The widow
arrived, looking a little slimmer than usual in her closely
buttoned black dress, white collar and cuffs, very glistening in
eye and in hair,--whose glossy black ringlets were perhaps more
elaborately arranged than was her custom,--and with a faint coming
and going of color, due perhaps to her agitation at this tentative
reentering into worldly life, which was nevertheless quite virginal
in effect. A vague solemnity pervaded the introductory proceedings,
and a singular want of sociability was visible in the "sociable"
part of the entertainment. People talked in whispers or with that
grave precision which indicates good manners in rural communities;
conversed painfully with other people whom they did not want to talk
to rather than appear to be alone, or rushed aimlessly together like
water drops, and then floated in broken, adherent masses over the
floor. The widow became a helpless, religious centre of deacons and
Sunday-school teachers, which Brooks, untiring, yet fruitless, in
his attempt to produce gayety, tried in vain to break. To this
gloom the untried dangers of the impending dance, duly prefigured by
a lonely cottage piano and two violins in a desert of expanse, added
a nervous chill. When at last the music struck up--somewhat
hesitatingly and protestingly, from the circumstance that the player
was the church organist, and fumbled mechanically for his stops, the
attempt to make up a cotillon set was left to the heroic Brooks.
Yet he barely escaped disaster when, in posing the couples, he
incautiously begged them to look a little less as if they were
waiting for the coffin to be borne down the aisle between them, and
was rewarded by a burst of tears from Mrs. Johnson, who had lost a
child two years before, and who had to be led away, while her place
in the set was taken by another. Yet the cotillon passed off; a
Spanish dance succeeded; "Moneymusk," with the Virginia Reel, put a
slight intoxicating vibration into the air, and healthy youth at
last asserted itself in a score of freckled but buxom girls in white
muslin, with romping figures and laughter, at the lower end of the
room. Still a rigid decorum reigned among the elder dancers, and
the figures were called out in grave formality, as if, to Brooks's
fancy, they were hymns given from the pulpit, until at the close of
the set, in half-real, half-mock despair, he turned desperately to
Mrs. Wade, his partner:--

"Do you waltz?"

Mrs. Wade hesitated. She HAD, before marriage, and was a good
waltzer. "I do," she said timidly, "but do you think they"--

But before the poor widow could formulate her fears as to the
reception of "round dances," Brooks had darted to the piano, and
the next moment she heard with a "fearful joy" the opening bars of
a waltz. It was an old Julien waltz, fresh still in the fifties,
daring, provocative to foot, swamping to intellect, arresting to
judgment, irresistible, supreme! Before Mrs. Wade could protest,
Brooks's arm had gathered up her slim figure, and with one quick
backward sweep and swirl they were off! The floor was cleared for
them in a sudden bewilderment of alarm--a suspense of burning
curiosity. The widow's little feet tripped quickly, her long black
skirt swung out; as she turned the corner there was not only a
sudden revelation of her pretty ankles, but, what was more
startling, a dazzling flash of frilled and laced petticoat, which
at once convinced every woman in the room that the act had been
premeditated for days! Yet even that criticism was presently
forgotten in the pervading intoxication of the music and the
movement. The younger people fell into it with wild rompings,
whirlings, and clasping of hands and waists. And stranger than
all, a corybantic enthusiasm seized upon the emotionally religious,
and those priests and priestesses of Cybele who were famous for
their frenzy and passion in camp-meeting devotions seemed to find
an equal expression that night in the waltz. And when, flushed and
panting, Mrs. Wade at last halted on the arm of her partner, they
were nearly knocked over by the revolving Johnson and Mrs. Stubbs
in a whirl of gloomy exultation! Deacons and Sunday-school
teachers waltzed together until the long room shook, and the very
bunting on the walls waved and fluttered with the gyrations of
those religious dervishes. Nobody knew--nobody cared how long this
frenzy lasted--it ceased only with the collapse of the musicians.
Then, with much vague bewilderment, inward trepidation, awkward and
incoherent partings, everybody went dazedly home; there was no
other dancing after that--the waltz was the one event of the
festival and of the history of Santa Ana. And later that night,
when the timid Mrs. Wade, in the seclusion of her own room and the
disrobing of her slim figure, glanced at her spotless frilled and
laced petticoat lying on a chair, a faint smile--the first of her
widowhood--curved the corners of her pretty mouth.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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