Little Women (Chapter 37)
At three o’clock in the afternoon, all the fashionable world at Nice may be seen on the Promenade des Anglais—a charming place, for the wide walk, bordered with palms, flowers, and tropical shrubs, is bounded on one side by the sea, on the other by the grand drive, lined with hotels and villas, while beyond lie orange orchards and the hills. Many nations are represented, many languages spoken, many costumes worn, and on a sunny day the spectacle is as gay and brilliant as a carnival. Haughty English, lively French, sober Germans, handsome Spaniards, ugly Russians, meek Jews, free-and-easy Americans, all drive, sit, or saunter here, chatting over the news, and criticizing the latest celebrity who has arrived—Ristori or Dickens, Victor Emmanuel or the Queen of the Sandwich Islands. The equipages are as varied as the company and attract as much attention, especially the low basket barouches in which ladies drive themselves, with a pair of dashing ponies, gay nets to keep their voluminous flounces from overflowing the diminutive vehicles, and little grooms on the perch behind.
Along this walk, on Christmas Day, a tall young man walked slowly, with his hands behind him, and a somewhat absent expression of countenance. He looked like an Italian, was dressed like an Englishman, and had the independent air of an American—a combination which caused sundry pairs of feminine eyes to look approvingly after him, and sundry dandies in black velvet suits, with rose-colored neckties, buff gloves, and orange flowers in their buttonholes, to shrug their shoulders, and then envy him his inches. There were plenty of pretty faces to admire, but the young man took little notice of them, except to glance now and then at some blonde girl in blue. Presently he strolled out of the promenade and stood a moment at the crossing, as if undecided whether to go and listen to the band in the Jardin Publique, or to wander along the beach toward Castle Hill. The quick trot of ponies’ feet made him look up, as one of the little carriages, containing a single young lady, came rapidly down the street. The lady was young, blonde, and dressed in blue. He stared a minute, then his whole face woke up, and, waving his hat like a boy, he hurried forward to meet her.
“Oh, Laurie, is it really you? I thought you’d never come!” cried Amy, dropping the reins and holding out both hands, to the great scandalization of a French mamma, who hastened her daughter’s steps, lest she should be demoralized by beholding the free manners of these ‘mad English’.
“I was detained by the way, but I promised to spend Christmas with you, and here I am.”
“How is your grandfather? When did you come? Where are you staying?”
“Very well—last night—at the Chauvain. I called at your hotel, but you were out.”
“I have so much to say, I don’t know where to begin! Get in and we can talk at our ease. I was going for a drive and longing for company. Flo’s saving up for tonight.”
“What happens then, a ball?”
“A Christmas party at our hotel. There are many Americans there, and they give it in honor of the day. You’ll go with us, of course? Aunt will be charmed.”
“Thank you. Where now?” asked Laurie, leaning back and folding his arms, a proceeding which suited Amy, who preferred to drive, for her parasol whip and blue reins over the white ponies’ backs afforded her infinite satisfaction.
“I’m going to the bankers first for letters, and then to Castle Hill. The view is so lovely, and I like to feed the peacocks. Have you ever been there?”
“Often, years ago, but I don’t mind having a look at it.”
“Now tell me all about yourself. The last I heard of you, your grandfather wrote that he expected you from Berlin.”
“Yes, I spent a month there and then joined him in Paris, where he has settled for the winter. He has friends there and finds plenty to amuse him, so I go and come, and we get on capitally.”
“That’s a sociable arrangement,” said Amy, missing something in Laurie’s manner, though she couldn’t tell what.
“Why, you see, he hates to travel, and I hate to keep still, so we each suit ourselves, and there is no trouble. I am often with him, and he enjoys my adventures, while I like to feel that someone is glad to see me when I get back from my wanderings. Dirty old hole, isn’t it?” he added, with a look of disgust as they drove along the boulevard to the Place Napoleon in the old city.
“The dirt is picturesque, so I don’t mind. The river and the hills are delicious, and these glimpses of the narrow cross streets are my delight. Now we shall have to wait for that procession to pass. It’s going to the Church of St. John.”
While Laurie listlessly watched the procession of priests under their canopies, white-veiled nuns bearing lighted tapers, and some brotherhood in blue chanting as they walked, Amy watched him, and felt a new sort of shyness steal over her, for he was changed, and she could not find the merry-faced boy she left in the moody-looking man beside her. He was handsomer than ever and greatly improved, she thought, but now that the flush of pleasure at meeting her was over, he looked tired and spiritless—not sick, nor exactly unhappy, but older and graver than a year or two of prosperous life should have made him. She couldn’t understand it and did not venture to ask questions, so she shook her head and touched up her ponies, as the procession wound away across the arches of the Paglioni bridge and vanished in the church.
“Que pensez-vous?” she said, airing her French, which had improved in quantity, if not in quality, since she came abroad.
“That mademoiselle has made good use of her time, and the result is charming,” replied Laurie, bowing with his hand on his heart and an admiring look.
She blushed with pleasure, but somehow the compliment did not satisfy her like the blunt praises he used to give her at home, when he promenaded round her on festival occasions, and told her she was ‘altogether jolly’, with a hearty smile and an approving pat on the head. She didn’t like the new tone, for though not blase, it sounded indifferent in spite of the look.
“If that’s the way he’s going to grow up, I wish he’d stay a boy,” she thought, with a curious sense of disappointment and discomfort, trying meantime to seem quite easy and gay.
At Avigdor’s she found the precious home letters and, giving the reins to Laurie, read them luxuriously as they wound up the shady road between green hedges, where tea roses bloomed as freshly as in June.
“Beth is very poorly, Mother says. I often think I ought to go home, but they all say ‘stay’. So I do, for I shall never have another chance like this,” said Amy, looking sober over one page.
“I think you are right, there. You could do nothing at home, and it is a great comfort to them to know that you are well and happy, and enjoying so much, my dear.”
He drew a little nearer, and looked more like his old self as he said that, and the fear that sometimes weighed on Amy’s heart was lightened, for the look, the act, the brotherly ‘my dear’, seemed to assure her that if any trouble did come, she would not be alone in a strange land. Presently she laughed and showed him a small sketch of Jo in her scribbling suit, with the bow rampantly erect upon her cap, and issuing from her mouth the words, ‘Genius burns!’.
Laurie smiled, took it, put it in his vest pocket ‘to keep it from blowing away’, and listened with interest to the lively letter Amy read him.
“This will be a regularly merry Christmas to me, with presents in the morning, you and letters in the afternoon, and a party at night,” said Amy, as they alighted among the ruins of the old fort, and a flock of splendid peacocks came trooping about them, tamely waiting to be fed. While Amy stood laughing on the bank above him as she scattered crumbs to the brilliant birds, Laurie looked at her as she had looked at him, with a natural curiosity to see what changes time and absence had wrought. He found nothing to perplex or disappoint, much to admire and approve, for overlooking a few little affectations of speech and manner, she was as sprightly and graceful as ever, with the addition of that indescribable something in dress and bearing which we call elegance. Always mature for her age, she had gained a certain aplomb in both carriage and conversation, which made her seem more of a woman of the world than she was, but her old petulance now and then showed itself, her strong will still held its own, and her native frankness was unspoiled by foreign polish.
Laurie did not read all this while he watched her feed the peacocks, but he saw enough to satisfy and interest him, and carried away a pretty little picture of a bright-faced girl standing in the sunshine, which brought out the soft hue of her dress, the fresh color of her cheeks, the golden gloss of her hair, and made her a prominent figure in the pleasant scene.
As they came up onto the stone plateau that crowns the hill, Amy waved her hand as if welcoming him to her favorite haunt, and said, pointing here and there, “Do you remember the Cathedral and the Corso, the fishermen dragging their nets in the bay, and the lovely road to Villa Franca, Schubert’s Tower, just below, and best of all, that speck far out to sea which they say is Corsica?”
“I remember. It’s not much changed,” he answered without enthusiasm.
“What Jo would give for a sight of that famous speck!” said Amy, feeling in good spirits and anxious to see him so also.
“Yes,” was all he said, but he turned and strained his eyes to see the island which a greater usurper than even Napoleon now made interesting in his sight.
“Take a good look at it for her sake, and then come and tell me what you have been doing with yourself all this while,” said Amy, seating herself, ready for a good talk.
But she did not get it, for though he joined her and answered all her questions freely, she could only learn that he had roved about the Continent and been to Greece. So after idling away an hour, they drove home again, and having paid his respects to Mrs. Carrol, Laurie left them, promising to return in the evening.
It must be recorded of Amy that she deliberately prinked that night. Time and absence had done its work on both the young people. She had seen her old friend in a new light, not as ‘our boy’, but as a handsome and agreeable man, and she was conscious of a very natural desire to find favor in his sight. Amy knew her good points, and made the most of them with the taste and skill which is a fortune to a poor and pretty woman.
Tarlatan and tulle were cheap at Nice, so she enveloped herself in them on such occasions, and following the sensible English fashion of simple dress for young girls, got up charming little toilettes with fresh flowers, a few trinkets, and all manner of dainty devices, which were both inexpensive and effective. It must be confessed that the artist sometimes got possession of the woman, and indulged in antique coiffures, statuesque attitudes, and classic draperies. But, dear heart, we all have our little weaknesses, and find it easy to pardon such in the young, who satisfy our eyes with their comeliness, and keep our hearts merry with their artless vanities.
“I do want him to think I look well, and tell them so at home,” said Amy to herself, as she put on Flo’s old white silk ball dress, and covered it with a cloud of fresh illusion, out of which her white shoulders and golden head emerged with a most artistic effect. Her hair she had the sense to let alone, after gathering up the thick waves and curls into a Hebe-like knot at the back of her head.
“It’s not the fashion, but it’s becoming, and I can’t afford to make a fright of myself,” she used to say, when advised to frizzle, puff, or braid, as the latest style commanded.
Having no ornaments fine enough for this important occasion, Amy looped her fleecy skirts with rosy clusters of azalea, and framed the white shoulders in delicate green vines. Remembering the painted boots, she surveyed her white satin slippers with girlish satisfaction, and chasseed down the room, admiring her aristocratic feet all by herself.
“My new fan just matches my flowers, my gloves fit to a charm, and the real lace on Aunt’s mouchoir gives an air to my whole dress. If I only had a classical nose and mouth I should be perfectly happy,” she said, surveying herself with a critical eye and a candle in each hand.
In spite of this affliction, she looked unusually gay and graceful as she glided away. She seldom ran—it did not suit her style, she thought, for being tall, the stately and Junoesque was more appropriate than the sportive or piquante. She walked up and down the long saloon while waiting for Laurie, and once arranged herself under the chandelier, which had a good effect upon her hair, then she thought better of it, and went away to the other end of the room, as if ashamed of the girlish desire to have the first view a propitious one. It so happened that she could not have done a better thing, for Laurie came in so quietly she did not hear him, and as she stood at the distant window, with her head half turned and one hand gathering up her dress, the slender, white figure against the red curtains was as effective as a well-placed statue.
“Good evening, Diana!” said Laurie, with the look of satisfaction she liked to see in his eyes when they rested on her.
“Good evening, Apollo!” she answered, smiling back at him, for he too looked unusually debonair, and the thought of entering the ballroom on the arm of such a personable man caused Amy to pity the four plain Misses Davis from the bottom of her heart.
“Here are your flowers. I arranged them myself, remembering that you didn’t like what Hannah calls a ‘sot-bookay’,” said Laurie, handing her a delicate nosegay, in a holder that she had long coveted as she daily passed it in Cardiglia’s window.
“How kind you are!” she exclaimed gratefully. “If I’d known you were coming I’d have had something ready for you today, though not as pretty as this, I’m afraid.”
“Thank you. It isn’t what it should be, but you have improved it,” he added, as she snapped the silver bracelet on her wrist.
“I thought you liked that sort of thing.”
“Not from you, it doesn’t sound natural, and I like your old bluntness better.”
“I’m glad of it,” he answered, with a look of relief, then buttoned her gloves for her, and asked if his tie was straight, just as he used to do when they went to parties together at home.
The company assembled in the long salle a manger, that evening, was such as one sees nowhere but on the Continent. The hospitable Americans had invited every acquaintance they had in Nice, and having no prejudice against titles, secured a few to add luster to their Christmas ball.
A Russian prince condescended to sit in a corner for an hour and talk with a massive lady, dressed like Hamlet’s mother in black velvet with a pearl bridle under her chin. A Polish count, aged eighteen, devoted himself to the ladies, who pronounced him, ‘a fascinating dear’, and a German Serene Something, having come to supper alone, roamed vaguely about, seeking what he might devour. Baron Rothschild’s private secretary, a large-nosed Jew in tight boots, affably beamed upon the world, as if his master’s name crowned him with a golden halo. A stout Frenchman, who knew the Emperor, came to indulge his mania for dancing, and Lady de Jones, a British matron, adorned the scene with her little family of eight. Of course, there were many light-footed, shrill-voiced American girls, handsome, lifeless-looking English ditto, and a few plain but piquante French demoiselles, likewise the usual set of traveling young gentlemen who disported themselves gaily, while mammas of all nations lined the walls and smiled upon them benignly when they danced with their daughters.
Any young girl can imagine Amy’s state of mind when she ‘took the stage’ that night, leaning on Laurie’s arm. She knew she looked well, she loved to dance, she felt that her foot was on her native heath in a ballroom, and enjoyed the delightful sense of power which comes when young girls first discover the new and lovely kingdom they are born to rule by virtue of beauty, youth, and womanhood. She did pity the Davis girls, who were awkward, plain, and destitute of escort, except a grim papa and three grimmer maiden aunts, and she bowed to them in her friendliest manner as she passed, which was good of her, as it permitted them to see her dress, and burn with curiosity to know who her distinguished-looking friend might be. With the first burst of the band, Amy’s color rose, her eyes began to sparkle, and her feet to tap the floor impatiently, for she danced well and wanted Laurie to know it. Therefore the shock she received can better be imagined than described, when he said in a perfectly tranquil tone, “Do you care to dance?”
“One usually does at a ball.”
Her amazed look and quick answer caused Laurie to repair his error as fast as possible.
“I meant the first dance. May I have the honor?”
“I can give you one if I put off the Count. He dances divinely, but he will excuse me, as you are an old friend,” said Amy, hoping that the name would have a good effect, and show Laurie that she was not to be trifled with.
“Nice little boy, but rather a short Pole to support…
A daughter of the gods,
Devinely tall, and most divinely fair,”
was all the satisfaction she got, however.
The set in which they found themselves was composed of English, and Amy was compelled to walk decorously through a cotillion, feeling all the while as if she could dance the tarantella with relish. Laurie resigned her to the ‘nice little boy’, and went to do his duty to Flo, without securing Amy for the joys to come, which reprehensible want of forethought was properly punished, for she immediately engaged herself till supper, meaning to relent if he then gave any signs penitence. She showed him her ball book with demure satisfaction when he strolled instead of rushed up to claim her for the next, a glorious polka redowa. But his polite regrets didn’t impose upon her, and when she galloped away with the Count, she saw Laurie sit down by her aunt with an actual expression of relief.
That was unpardonable, and Amy took no more notice of him for a long while, except a word now and then when she came to her chaperon between the dances for a necessary pin or a moment’s rest. Her anger had a good effect, however, for she hid it under a smiling face, and seemed unusually blithe and brilliant. Laurie’s eyes followed her with pleasure, for she neither romped nor sauntered, but danced with spirit and grace, making the delightsome pastime what it should be. He very naturally fell to studying her from this new point of view, and before the evening was half over, had decided that ‘little Amy was going to make a very charming woman’.
It was a lively scene, for soon the spirit of the social season took possession of everyone, and Christmas merriment made all faces shine, hearts happy, and heels light. The musicians fiddled, tooted, and banged as if they enjoyed it, everybody danced who could, and those who couldn’t admired their neighbors with uncommon warmth. The air was dark with Davises, and many Joneses gamboled like a flock of young giraffes. The golden secretary darted through the room like a meteor with a dashing French-woman who carpeted the floor with her pink satin train. The serene Teuton found the supper-table and was happy, eating steadily through the bill of fare, and dismayed the garcons by the ravages he committed. But the Emperor’s friend covered himself with glory, for he danced everything, whether he knew it or not, and introduced impromptu pirouettes when the figures bewildered him. The boyish abandon of that stout man was charming to behold, for though he ‘carried weight’, he danced like an India-rubber ball. He ran, he flew, he pranced, his face glowed, his bald head shown, his coattails waved wildly, his pumps actually twinkled in the air, and when the music stopped, he wiped the drops from his brow, and beamed upon his fellow men like a French Pickwick without glasses.
Amy and her Pole distinguished themselves by equal enthusiasm but more graceful agility, and Laurie found himself involuntarily keeping time to the rhythmic rise and fall of the white slippers as they flew by as indefatigably as if winged. When little Vladimir finally relinquished her, with assurances that he was ‘desolated to leave so early’, she was ready to rest, and see how her recreant knight had borne his punishment.
It had been successful, for at three-and-twenty, blighted affections find a balm in friendly society, and young nerves will thrill, young blood dance, and healthy young spirits rise, when subjected to the enchantment of beauty, light, music, and motion. Laurie had a waked-up look as he rose to give her his seat, and when he hurried away to bring her some supper, she said to herself, with a satisfied smile, “Ah, I thought that would do him good!”
“You look like Balzac’s ‘Femme Peinte Par Elle-Meme‘,” he said, as he fanned her with one hand and held her coffee cup in the other.
“My rouge won’t come off.” and Amy rubbed her brilliant cheek, and showed him her white glove with a sober simplicity that made him laugh outright.
“What do you call this stuff?” he asked, touching a fold of her dress that had blown over his knee.
“Good name for it. It’s very pretty—new thing, isn’t it?”
“It’s as old as the hills. You have seen it on dozens of girls, and you never found out that it was pretty till now—stupide!”
“I never saw it on you before, which accounts for the mistake, you see.”
“None of that, it is forbidden. I’d rather take coffee than compliments just now. No, don’t lounge, it makes me nervous.”
Laurie sat bold upright, and meekly took her empty plate feeling an odd sort of pleasure in having ‘little Amy’ order him about, for she had lost her shyness now, and felt an irrestible desire to trample on him, as girls have a delightful way of doing when lords of creation show any signs of subjection.
“Where did you learn all this sort of thing?” he asked with a quizzical look.
“As ‘this sort of thing’ is rather a vague expression, would you kindly explain?” returned Amy, knowing perfectly well what he meant, but wickedly leaving him to describe what is indescribable.
“Well—the general air, the style, the self-possession, the—the—illusion—you know”, laughed Laurie, breaking down and helping himself out of his quandary with the new word.
Amy was gratified, but of course didn’t show it, and demurely answered, “Foreign life polishes one in spite of one’s self. I study as well as play, and as for this”—with a little gesture toward her dress—”why, tulle is cheap, posies to be had for nothing, and I am used to making the most of my poor little things.”
Amy rather regretted that last sentence, fearing it wasn’t in good taste, but Laurie liked her better for it, and found himself both admiring and respecting the brave patience that made the most of opportunity, and the cheerful spirit that covered poverty with flowers. Amy did not know why he looked at her so kindly, nor why he filled up her book with his own name, and devoted himself to her for the rest of the evening in the most delightful manner; but the impulse that wrought this agreeable change was the result of one of the new impressions which both of them were unconsciously giving and receiving.