When Christmas came that year, Joanna was inspired to celebrate it with a party. The Christmas before she had been in mourning, but in her father’s day it had been usual to invite a few respectable farmers to a respectable revel, beginning with high tea, then proceeding through whist to a hot supper. Joanna would have failed in her duty to “poor father” if she had not maintained this custom, and she would have failed in consistency with herself if she had not improved upon it—embellished it with one or two ornate touches, which lifted it out of its prosaic rut of similarity to a dozen entertainments given at a dozen farms, and made it a rather wonderful and terrible occasion to most dwellers on the Marsh.
To begin with, the invitations were not delivered, according to custom, verbally in the churchyard after Morning Prayer on Sunday—they were written on cards, as Mrs. Saville of Dungemarsh Court wrote them, and distributed through the unwonted and expensive medium of the post. When their recipients had done exclaiming over the waste of a penny stamp, they were further astonished to see the word “Music” written in the corner—Joanna had stuck very closely to her Dungemarsh Court model. What could the music be? Was the Brodnyx Brass Band going to play? Or had Joanna hired Miss Patty Southland, who gave music lessons on the Marsh?
She had done neither of these things. When her visitors assembled, stuffed into her two parlours, while the eatables were spread in a kitchen metamorphosed with decorations of crinkled paper, they found, buttressed into a corner by the freshly tuned piano, the Rye Quartet, consisting of the piano-tuner himself, his wife, who played the ’cello, and his two daughters with fiddles and white pique frocks. At first the music was rather an embarrassment, for while it played eating and conversation were alike suspended, and the guests stood with open mouths and cooling cups of tea till Mr. Plummer’s final chords released their tongues and filled their mouths with awkward simultaneousness. However, after a time the general awe abated, and soon the Rye Quartet was swamped in a terrific noise of tongues and mastication.
Everyone was staring at Joanna’s dress, for it was Low—quite four inches of her skin must have shown between its top most frill and the base of her sturdy throat. The sleeves stopped short at the elbow, showing a very soft, white forearm, in contrast with brown, roughened hands. Altogether it was a daring display, and one or two of the Miss Vines and Southlands and Furneses wondered “how Joanna could do it.”
Proudly conscious of the eyes fixed upon her, she moved—or rather, it must be confessed, squeezed—about among her guests. She had put on new manners with her new clothes, and was full of a rather mincing civility.
“Pray, Mrs. Cobb, may I get you another cup of tea?”—“Just one more piece of cake, Mr. Alce?”—“Oh, please, Miss Prickett—just a leetle bit of ham.”