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It was the most ambitious affair that had been attempted in Prouty--this function at the Prouty House. The printed invitations had made a deep impression; besides, wild rumors were flying about as to the elaborate costumes that were to be worn by the socially prominent.
It was whispered that Mrs. Abram Pantin, wife of the wealthy capitalist from Keokuk, now "settled in their midst," was to be seen in electric blue silk with real lace collar and cuffs; while Mrs. Sudds, wife of a near-governor, who had moved to Prouty from another part of the state, was to appear in her lansdowne wedding dress. Mrs. Myron Neifkins, too, if report could be believed, was to be gowned in peach-blow satin worked in French knots.
He was a dull clod indeed who could not feel the tremors in the air that momentous Saturday and by night there was not tying space at any hitching rack.
If the ball loomed so large to the townfolks, it may be assumed that Kate's anticipation was no less. As a matter of fact, she could scarcely sleep for thinking of it. She did not know much about God--Mormon Joe was not religious--but she felt vaguely that she must have Him to thank for this wonderful happiness. It was the most important happening since she had run, terrified, from home that black night three years ago.
There had not been a night since Hughie had given her the invitation that she had not lain awake for hours staring at the stars with a smile on her lips as she visualized situations. She saw herself dividing dances as belles did in books, taking her part in lively conversations, the center of merry groups. Oh, no, life would never be the same again; she was certain of it.
Hughie had kept his word and ridden over several times to teach her the steps, and they had practised them on the hard-trodden ground in front of the cook tent, where the dust could be kept down by frequent sprinkling. If the waltz and the polka and schottische sent her blood racing under such adverse conditions, what must it be like on a real floor with real music, she asked herself ecstatically. These dancing lessons were provocative of much merriment and teasing from the Toomeys. While Hugh did not resent it or defend Kate, he did not join in their ridicule of her. She was "green," he could not deny that, yet not in the sense the Toomeys meant. Naïve, ingenuous, he felt were better words. She knew nothing of social usages, and she was without a suspicion of the coquetry that he looked for in girls before they had begun to do up their hair. She spoke with startling frankness upon subjects which he had been taught were taboo. He admired and was accustomed to soft, helpless, clinging femininity, and it grated upon him to see Kate at the woodpile swinging an axe in a matter-of-fact way.
"It's because there's no one else around," he told himself, to explain the eagerness with which he rode over while he was teaching Kate to dance.
The boy was intelligent enough to recognize the fact that, however unschooled Kate might be in the things that counted in the outside world, she was not ignorant when it came to those within her ken. She knew the habits and peculiarities of wild animals and insects, every characteristic of sheep, and she was a nearly unfailing weather prophet through her interpretation of the meaning of wind and sky and clouds. Her knowledge of botany was a constant surprise to him, for she seemed to know the name and use of the tiniest plant that grew upon the range.
But, after all, he demanded of himself, what did a girl want to know such things for? He would have liked better to see her in the shade with an embroidery hoop.
* * * * * Restraining their trembling haste, yet fearing that they might miss something, the initiated townfolks managed to stay away from the Prouty House until the fashionably late hour of eight, but the simpler rural guests having eaten at six were ready and holding down the chairs in the office before "the music" had arrived. There was a flutter of puzzled inquiry among the Early Birds when Mrs. Abram Pantin, Mrs. Sudds and Mrs. Myron Neifkins with an air of conscious importance stationed themselves in a row at the door opening into the dining room, which was now being noisily cleared of tables and chairs.
Mrs. Pantin, as gossip had surmised, wore electric blue with collar and cuffs of lace that presumably was real, while angular Mrs. Sudds looked chaste, if somewhat like a windmill in repose, in her bridal gown. Mrs. Neifkins, too, came up to expectations in her peach-blow satin.
For a while the ladies of the receiving line found their position somewhat of a sinecure, for nobody knew what they were standing there for until Mrs. Rufus Webb, the wife of Prouty's new haberdasher, arrived. Mrs. Webb had been called home to her dying mother's bedside, but fortunately had been able to return from her sad errand in time for the function at the Prouty House. When she laid aside her wrap it was observed that she had gone into red.
Kate was an unconscionable time in dressing, Hugh thought, as he waited in the office, considering that the flour sack tied behind her saddle had seemed to contain her wardrobe easily enough.
His attention was focused upon Mrs. Neifkins, whom he had last seen in a wrapper and slat sunbonnet, when a lull in the hubbub that became a hush caused him to look up. His eyes followed the gaze of every other pair of eyes to the head of the stairs that came down from the floor above into the office. He saw Kate--dreadful as to clothes as a caricature or a comic valentine! She had a wreath of red paper roses in her hair and a chain of them reached from one shoulder nearly to the hem of her skirt on the other side. The dress itself was made without regard to the prevailing mode and of the three-cent-a-yard bunting bought by sheepmen by the bolt to be used for flags to scare off coyotes in lambing time. The body of the dress was blue, trimmed with the same material in red. The sleeves were elbow length, and she wore black mitts. But the crowning horror, unless it was the wreath, was the string of red wild-rose seed pods around her neck.
Kate had cut out her gown without a pattern and with no mirror to guide her, the skirt was several inches shorter behind than in front, and a miscalculation put the gathers chiefly in one spot.
She was not recognized at first, for her visits to Prouty had been made at too long intervals for her to be known save by a few. Then, quickly--"Mormon Joe's Kate!" was whispered behind hands and passed from mouth to mouth.
The girl's eager glowing face was the one redeeming thing of her appearance. Half way down the stairs she stopped involuntarily and looked with an expression of wondering inquiry into the many staring eyes focused upon herself. Then a titter, nearly inaudible at first, grew into a general snicker throughout the room.
They were laughing at her! There was no mistake about that. Kate shrank back as though she had been struck; while the radiance faded from her face, and it turned as white as the wall at her back.
What was the matter? What had she done? Wasn't she all right? she asked herself, while her heart gave a great throb of fear. She gripped the bannister while her panic-stricken eyes sought Hughie in the crowded office. Where was he? Did he mean to leave her alone? It seemed minutes that she stood there, though it was only one at most.
In spite of his worldly air and social ease, Disston was only a boy after all, with a boy's keen sensitiveness to ridicule, and this ordeal was something outside the experience of his nineteen years. The worst he had expected was that she would be frumpish, or old-fashioned, or commonplace like these other women standing about, but it had not occurred to him that she might be conspicuously grotesque.
There was a moment of uncertainty which seemed as long to the boy as it did to Kate, and then the chivalry of his good southern blood responded gallantly to the appeal in her eyes. His dark face was dyed with the blood that rushed to the roots of his hair, and his forehead was damp with the moisture of embarrassment, but he rose from his seat and went to meet her with a welcoming smile.
"Oh, Hughie!" she gasped tremulously in gratitude and relief as she ran rather than walked down the remaining stairs.
The grinning crowd parted to let them pass as, self-conscious and stiffly erect, they walked the length of the office towards the dining room. Figuratively speaking, Prouty stood on tip-toe to see what sort of reception they would meet from the receiving line. It was tacitly understood that lesser social lights would take their cue from them.
Of its kind, it was as thrilling a moment as Prouty had experienced. Mrs. Myron Neifkins had recognized Kate immediately and passed the word along to Mrs. Pantin who, although a comparative stranger, had been properly supplied with information as to the community's undesirables. "Mormon Joe's Kate," the daughter of the notorious Jezebel of the Sand Coulee Roadhouse, naturally was included in the list.
Hugh, who had met these ladies previously and found them as amiable as any one could wish--particularly Mrs. Pantin, who had regarded him as somebody to cultivate because of his connection with the exclusive Toomeys of the Scissor Ranch--now had something of the sensation of a person who had stepped into the frigid atmosphere of a cold storage plant.
Mrs. Pantin's eyes had all the warm friendliness of two blue china knobs and her thin lips were closed until her mouth looked merely a vivid scratch. Yet, somehow, the boy managed to say with his manner of deferential courtesy: "Mrs. Pantin, do you know Miss Prentice?"
Ordinarily, a part of Mrs. Pantin's society manner was a vivacious chirp, but now she said coldly between her teeth: "I haven't that pleasure." She gave Kate her extreme finger tips with such obvious reluctance that the action was an affront.
Disston glanced at Mrs. Sudds in the hope of finding friendliness. That lady had drawn herself up like an outraged tragedy queen. No one would have dreamed, seeing Mrs. Sudds at the moment with her air of royal hauteur, that in bygone days she had had her own troubles making twelve dollars a week as a stenographer.
His glance passed on to Mrs. Neifkins, who was picking at a French knot in a spasm of nervousness lest Kate betray the fact that they had met.
Disston was aware that Mrs. Neifkins knew Kate and his lip curled at her cowardice. He raised his head haughtily; he would not subject his partner to further rebuffs.
"Come on, Katie," he said, curtly, and they passed into the dining room.
The girl's cheeks were flaming as they sat down on the chairs ranged against the wall.
"Hughie," her fingers were like ice as she clasped them together in her lap. "What's the matter? Do I look--queer?"
He answered shortly: "You're all right."
They sat watching the crowd file in. Suddenly Hughie exclaimed in obvious relief: "There's Teeters, and Maggie Taylor and her mother! Wait here--I'll bring them over."
He went up to them with assurance, for their friendliness and hospitality had been marked upon the several occasions that he had accompanied Teeters, who always had some transparent excuse for stopping at their ranch.
Mrs. Taylor, with her backwoods' conceit and large patronizing manner, had been especially amusing to Hughie, but now in this uncomfortable situation she looked like a haven in a storm as he saw her towering by nearly half a head above the tallest in the crowd.
It was Mrs. Taylor's proud boast that she came of a race of giants. Even upon ordinary occasions she bore a rather remarkable resemblance to a mountain sheep, but to-night the likeness was further increased by a grizzled bunch of frizzled hair that stood out on either temple like embryo horns. Mrs. Taylor looked, as it were, "in the velvet." She wore a brown sateen basque secured at the throat by a brooch consisting of a lock of hair under glass. It was observed, also, that for the evening she had removed the string which she commonly wore around her two large and widely separated front teeth, and which were being drawn together by this means at about the rate the earth is cooling off.
Mrs. Taylor dated events from the time "Mr. Taylor was taken," though there was always room for doubt as to whether Mr. Taylor was "taken" or quite deliberately went.
Miss Maggie was tall and sallow and was anticipating matrimony with an ardor that had made the maiden one of the country's stock jokes, since the sharer of it seemed to be of secondary importance to the fact. All her spare change and waking hours were spent buying and embroidering linen for the "hope chest" that spoke of her determined confidence in the realization of her ambition.
The three greeted Hughie warmly. Miss Maggie flashed her dazzling teeth; Teeters reached out and smote him with his fist between the shoulder blades; Mrs. Taylor laid her hand upon his arm with her large smug air of patronizing friendliness, and, stooping, beamed into his face.
"We were not looking for you here. Did Mr. and Mrs. Toomey come? Are you alone?"
"I brought Katie Prentice--she's sitting over there."
"Oh!" Mrs. Taylor's expression changed.
The boy looked at her pleadingly as he added: "She has so few pleasures, and she would so like to have acquaintances--to make friends."
"I dare say," dryly.
"She--she doesn't know any one. Won't you--all come and join us?" There was entreaty in the boy's voice.
Mrs. Taylor rose out of her hips until she looked all of seven feet tall to Hughie.
"You must excuse me, Mr. Disston." She hesitated, then added in explanation: "When we came West I told myself that I must not allow myself to deteriorate in rough surroundings, and I have made it a rule never to mingle with any but the best, Mr. Disston. My father," impressively, "was a prominent undertaker in Philadelphia, and as organist in a large Methodist church in that city I came in contact with the best people, so you understand," blandly, "don't you, why I cannot--"
The boy was red to the rim of his ears as he bowed formally to mother and daughter.
"I don't in the least," he replied, coldly.
The pain in Kate's eyes hurt him when he returned to his seat and she asked.
"They wouldn't come?"
He hesitated, then answered bluntly: "No."
"H-had we better stay?"
"Yes," he replied, doggedly, "we'll stay."
Their efforts at conversation were not a success, and it was a relief to them both when Hiram Butefish, as Floor Manager, commanded everybody to take partners for a waltz.
Hughie arose and held out his hands to Kate.
"Hughie, I can't," she protested, shrinking back. "I'm--afraid."
"Yes, you can," determinedly. "Don't let these people think they can frighten you."
"I'll try because you want me to," she answered, "but it's all gone out of my head, and I know I can't."
"You'll get it directly," as he took her hand. "Just remember and count. One, two, three--now!"
The bystanders tittered as she stumbled. The sound stung the boy like a whip, his black eyes flashed, but he said calmly enough: "You make too much of it, Katie. Put your mind on the time and count."
She tried once more with no better result. She merely hopped, regardless of the music.
"I tell you I can't, Hughie," she said, despairingly. "Let's sit down."
"Never mind," soothingly as he acquiesced, "we'll try it again after a while. The next will very likely be a square dance and I can pilot you through that."
"You're so good!"
He looked away to avoid her grateful eyes. What would she say if she knew the reason he had brought her there? On a bet! He had seen only what appeared to be the humorous side. Hughie's own pride enabled him to realize how deep were the hurts she was trying so pluckily to hide. But why did they treat her so? Even her dreadful get-up seemed scarcely to account for it.
The next number, as he surmised, was a square dance.
"Take your pardners fer a quadrille!"
There was a scrambling and a sliding over the floor, accompanied by much laughter, to the quickly formed "sets."
"There's a place, Kate--on the side, too, so you have only to watch what the others do."
She hesitated, but he could see the longing in her eyes.
He taunted boyishly, "Don't be a 'fraidy cat,'" at which for the first time they both laughed with something of naturalness.
Mr. Scales of the Emporium and his plump bookkeeper were there, and the willowy barber with the stylish operator of the new telephone exchange, while Mr. and Mrs. Neifkins made the third couple, and Hugh and Kate completed the set.
There was an exchange of looks as the pair came up. The stylish operator lifted an eyebrow and drew down the corners of her mouth. The bookkeeper said, "Well!" with much significance,--but it remained for Mrs. Neifkins to give the real offense. The expression on her vapid face implied that she was aghast at their impudence. Gathering the fullness of her skirt as though to withdraw it from contamination she laid the other hand on her husband's arm: "There's a place over there, Myron, where we can get in."
"It's nearer the music," said Neifkins with an apologetic grin to the others.
Those who stayed had something of the air of brazening it out. In vain Mr. Butefish called sternly for, "One more couple this way!"
It was Scales of the Emporium who said, finally: "Looks like we don't dance--might as well sit down."
Every one acted on the suggestion with alacrity save Kate and Hughie. When he turned to her, he saw that she was swallowing hard at the lump that was choking her.
"It's on account of me that they act so, Hughie! You stay if you want to; I'm going."
"Stay here?" he cried in boyish passion. "You're the only lady in the room so far as I can see! What would I stay for?"
The citizens of Prouty were still deeply impressed by each other's pretensions, as the reputations the majority had left in their "home towns" had not yet caught up with them. Therefore, being greatly concerned about what his neighbor thought of him, no one would have dared be friendly to the ostracized couple even if he had the disposition.
Kate and Hughie walked out, very erect and looking straight ahead, followed by a feeling of satisfaction that this opportunity had presented itself for the new order to show where it stood in the matter of accepting doubtful characters on an equal social footing. It had properly vindicated itself of the charge that western society was lax in such matters. That they had hurt--terribly hurt--another, was of small importance.