In the hubbub that followed, Cherry caught Hester by the arm and whispered—–
“Why I clean forgot ’twas Midsummer Eve! We’ll try our fortun’s afterwards. Aw, no need to look puzzled—I’ll show ’ee. Here, feyther, feyther!...” Cherry ran down the passage and returned, haling forth Mr. Mayow with his fiddle.
And then—as it seemed to Hester, in less than a minute—empty packing-cases came flying from half-a-dozen doors—from the cooper’s, the grocer’s, the ship-chandler’s, the china-shop, the fruit-shop, the “ready-made outfitter’s,” and the Cheap Jack’s caravan; were seized upon, broken up, the splinters piled in a heap, anointed with naphtha and ignited almost before Mr. Mayow had time to mount an empty barrel, tune his “A” string by the piano, and dash into the opening bars of the Furry Dance. And almost before she knew it, Hester’s hands were caught, and she found herself one of the ring swaying and leaping round the blaze. Cherry held her left hand and an old waterman her right. The swing of the crowd carried her off her feet, and she had to leap with the best. By-and-by, as her feet fell into time with the measure, she really began to enjoy it all—the music, the rush of the cool night air against her temples, even the smell of naphtha and the heat of the flames on her face as the dancers paused now and again, dashed upon the fire as if to tread it out, and backed until the strain on their arms grew tense again; and, just as it grew unbearable, the circular leaping was renewed. Always in these pauses the same face confronted her across the fire: the face of a young man in a blue jersey and a peaked cap, a young man with crisp dark hair and dark eyes, gay and challenging. In her daze it seemed to Hester that, when they came face to face, he was always on the side of the bonfire nearest the water; and the moon rose above the farther hill as they danced, and swam over his shoulder, at each meeting higher and higher.
It was all new to her and strange. The music ceased abruptly, the dancers unclasped their hands and fell apart, laughing and panting. And then, while yet she leaned against the Mayows’ door-post, the fiddle broke out again—broke into a polka tune; and there, in front of her stood the young man in the blue jersey and peaked cap.
He was speaking. She scarcely knew what she answered; but, even while she wondered, she had taken his arm submissively. And, next, his arm was about her and she was dancing. She had never danced before; but, after one or two broken paces, her will surrendered to his, her body and its movements answered him docilely. She felt that his eyes were fixed on her forehead, but dared not look up. She saw nothing of the crowd. Other dancers passed and re-passed like phantoms, neither jostling nor even touching—so well her partner steered. She grew giddy; her breath came short and fast. She would have begged for a rest, but the sense of his mastery weighed on her—held her dumb. Suddenly he laughed close to her ear, and his breath ruffled her hair.