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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 60/65 -
and because the girl had the supple lines of a wood nymph and the eyes of young antelope she had evolved that which expressed her as a petal expresses its rose. Robin locked her door and took the dress down and found the silk stockings and slippers which belonged to it. She put them all on standing before her long mirror and having left no ungiven last touch she fell a few steps backward and looked at herself, turning and balancing herself as a bird might have done. She turned lightly round and round.
"Yes. I AM--" she said. "I am--very!"
The next instant she laughed at herself outright.
"How silly! How silly!" she said. "Almost EVERYBODY is--more or less! I wonder if I remember the new steps." For she had been taught the new steps--the new walking and swayings and pauses and sudden swirls and swoops. And her new dress was as short as other fashionable girls' dresses were, but in her case revealed a haunting delicacy of contour and line.
So before her mirror she danced alone and as she danced her lips parted and her breast rose and fell charmingly, and her eyes lighted and glowed as any girl's might have done or as a joyous girl nymph's might have lighted as she danced by a pool in her forest seeing her loveliness mirrored there.
Something was awakening as something had awakened when Donal had kissed a child under the soot sprinkled London trees.
The whole day before the party was secretly exciting to Robin. She knew how much more important it seemed to her than it really was. If she had been six years old she might have felt the same kind of uncertain thrills and tremulous wonders. She hid herself behind the window curtains in her room that she might see the men putting up the crimson and white awning from the door to the carriage step. The roll of red carpet they took from their van had a magic air. The ringing of the door bell which meant that things were being delivered, the extra moving about of servants, the florists' men who went into the drawing-rooms and brought flowers and big tropical plants to re-arrange the conservatory and fill corners which were not always decorated--each and every one of them quickened the beating of her pulses. If she had belonged in her past to the ordinary cheerful world of children, she would have felt by this time no such elation. But she had only known of the existence of such festivities as children's parties because once a juvenile ball had been given in a house opposite her mother's and she had crouched in an almost delirious little heap by the nursery window watching carriages drive up and deposit fluffy pink and white and blue children upon the strip of red carpet, and had seen them led or running into the house. She had caught sounds of strains of music and had shivered with rapture--but Oh! what worlds away from her the party had been.
She found her way into the drawing-rooms which were not usually thrown open. They were lofty and stately and seemed to her immense. There were splendid crystal-dropping chandeliers and side lights which she thought looked as if they would hold a thousand wax candles. There was a delightfully embowered corner for the musicians. It was all spacious and wonderful in its beautiful completeness--its preparedness for pleasure. She realized that all of it had always been waiting to be used for the happiness of people who knew each other and were young and ready for delight. When the young Lothwells had been children they had had dances and frolicking games with other children in the huge rooms and had kicked up their young heels on the polished floors at Christmas parties and on birthdays. How wonderful it must have been. But they had not known it was wonderful.
As Dowie dressed her the reflection she saw in the mirror gave back to her an intensified Robin whose curved lips almost quivered as they smiled. The soft silk of her hair looked like the night and the small rings on the back of her very slim white neck were things to ensnare the eye and hold it helpless.
"You look your best, my dear," Dowie said as she clasped her little necklace. "And it is a good best." Dowie was feeling tremulous herself though she could not have explained why. She thought that perhaps it was because she wished that Mademoiselle could have been with her.
Robin kissed her when the last touch had been given.
"I'm going to run down the staircase," she said. "If I let myself walk slowly I shall have time to feel queer and shy and I might seem to CREEP into the drawing-room. I mustn't creep in. I must walk in as if I had been to parties all my life."
She ran down and as she did so she looked like a white bird flying, but she was obliged to stop upon the landing before the drawing-room door to quiet a moment of excited breathing. Still when she entered the room she moved as she should and held her head poised with a delicately fearless air. The Duchess--who herself looked her best in her fine old ivory profiled way--gave her a pleased smile of welcome which was almost affectionate.
"What a perfect little frock!" she said. "You are delightfully pretty in it."
"Is it quite right?" said Robin. "Mademoiselle chose it for me."
"It is quite right. 'Frightfully right,' George would say. George will sit near you at dinner. He is my grandson--Lord Halwyn you know, and you will no doubt frequently hear him say things are 'frightfully' something or other during the evening. Kathryn will say things are 'deevy' or 'exquig'. I mention it because you may not know that she means 'exquisite' and 'divine.' Don't let it frighten you if you don't quite understand their language. They are dear handsome things sweeping along in the rush of their bit of century. I don't let it frighten me that their world seems to me an entirely new planet."
Robin drew a little nearer her. She felt something as she had felt years ago when she had said to Dowie. "I want to kiss you, Dowie." Her eyes were pools of childish tenderness because she so well understood the infinitude of the friendly tact which drew her within its own circle with the light humour of its "I don't let them frighten ME."
"You are kind--kind to me," she said. "And I am grateful--GRATEFUL."
The extremely good-looking young people who began very soon to drift into the brilliant big room--singly or in pairs of brother and sister--filled her with innocent delight. They were so well built and gaily at ease with each other and their surroundings, so perfectly dressed and finished. The filmy narrowness of delicate frocks, the shortness of skirts accentuated the youth and girlhood and added to it a sort of child fairy-likeness. Kathryn in exquisite wisps of silver-embroidered gauze looked fourteen instead of nearly twenty--aided by a dimple in her cheek and a small tilted nose. A girl in scarlet tulle was like a child out of a nursery ready to dance about a Christmas tree. Everyone seemed so young and so suggested supple dancing, perhaps because dancing was going on everywhere and all the world whether fashionable or unfashionable was driven by a passion for whirling, swooping and inventing new postures and fantastic steps. The young men had slim straight bodies and light movements. Their clothes fitted their suppleness to perfection. Robin thought they all looked as if they had had a great deal of delightful exercise and plenty of pleasure all their lives.
They were of that stream which had always seemed to be rushing past her in bright pursuit of alluring things which belonged to them as part of their existence, but which had had nothing to do with her own youth. Now the stream had paused as if she had for the moment some connection with it. The swift light she was used to seeing illuminate glancing eyes as she passed people in the street, she saw again and again as new arrivals appeared. Kathryn was quite excited by her eyes and eyelashes and George hovered about. There was a great deal of hovering. At the dinner table sleek young heads held themselves at an angle which allowed of their owners seeing through or around, or under floral decorations and alert young eyes showed an eager gleam. After dinner was over and dancing began the Duchess smiled shrewdly as she saw the gravitating masculine movement towards a certain point. It was the point where Robin stood with a small growing circle about her.
It was George who danced with her first. He was tall and slender and flexible and his good shoulders had a military squareness of build. He had also a nice square face, and a warmly blue eye and knew all the latest steps and curves and unexpected swirls. Robin was an ozier wand and there was no swoop or dart or sudden sway and change she was not alert at. The swing and lure of the music, the swift movement, the fluttering of airy draperies as slim sister nymphs flew past her, set her pulses beating with sweet young joy. A brief, uncontrollable ripple of laughter broke from her before she had circled the room twice.
"How heavenly it is!" she exclaimed and lifted her eyes to Halwyn's. "How heavenly!"
They were not safe eyes to lift in such a way to those of a very young man. They gave George a sudden enjoyable shock. He had heard of the girl who was a sort of sublimated companion to his grandmother. The Duchess herself had talked to him a little about her and he had come to the party intending to behave very amiably and help the little thing enjoy herself. He had also encountered before in houses where there were no daughters the smart well-born, young companion who was allowed all sorts of privileges because she knew how to assume tiresome little responsibilities and how to be entertaining enough to add cheer and spice to the life of the elderly and lonely. Sometimes she was a subtly appealing sort of girl and given to being sympathetic and to liking sympathy and quiet corners in conservatories or libraries, and sometimes she was capable of scientific flirtation and required scientific management. A man had to have his wits about him. This one as she flew like a blown leaf across the floor and laughed up into his face with wide eyes, produced a new effect and was a new kind.
"It's you who are heavenly," he answered with a boy's laugh. "You
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