The Duchess of Gloucester’s Ball, a function which no one could very well miss, had been fixed for this late date owing to the Duchess’s announced desire to prolong the season and so help the hackney cabmen; and though everybody sympathized, it had been felt by most that it would be simpler to go away, motor up on the day of the Ball, and motor down again on the following morning. And throughout the week by which the season was thus prolonged, in long rows at the railway stations, and on their stands, the hackney cabmen, unconscious of what was being done for them, waited, patient as their horses. But since everybody was making this special effort, an exceptionally large, exclusive, and brilliant company reassembled at Gloucester House.
In the vast ballroom over the medley of entwined revolving couples, punkahs had been fixed, to clear and freshen the languid air, and these huge fans, moving with incredible slowness, drove a faint refreshing draught down over the sea of white shirt-fronts and bare necks, and freed the scent from innumerable flowers.
Late in the evening, close by one of the great clumps of bloom, a very pretty woman stood talking to Bertie Caradoc. She was his cousin, Lily Malvezin, sister of Geoffrey Winlow, and wife of a Liberal peer, a charming creature, whose pink cheeks, bright eyes, quick lips, and rounded figure, endowed her with the prettiest air of animation. And while she spoke she kept stealing sly glances at her partner, trying as it were to pierce the armour of that self-contained young man.
“No, my dear,” she said in her mocking voice, “you’ll never persuade me that Miltoun is going to catch on. ‘Il est trop intransigeant’. Ah! there’s Babs!”
For the girl had come gliding by, her eyes wandering lazily, her lips just parted; her neck, hardly less pale than her white frock; her face pale, and marked with languor, under the heavy coil of her tawny hair; and her swaying body seeming with each turn of the waltz to be caught by the arms of her partner from out of a swoon.
With that immobility of lips, learned by all imprisoned in Society, Lily Malvezin murmured:
“Who’s that she’s dancing with? Is it the dark horse, Bertie?”
Through lips no less immobile Bertie answered:
“Forty to one, no takers.”
But those inquisitive bright eyes still followed Barbara, drifting in the dance, like a great waterlily caught in the swirl of a mill pool; and the thought passed through that pretty head:
“She’s hooked him. It’s naughty of Babs, really!” And then she saw leaning against a pillar another whose eyes also were following those two; and she thought: “H’m! Poor Claud—no wonder he’s looking like that. Oh! Babs!”
By one of the statues on the terrace Barbara and her partner stood, where trees, disfigured by no gaudy lanterns, offered the refreshment of their darkness and serenity.