Quenrede Comes Out

The Saxon family celebrated Christmas at the bungalow with mixed feelings. As Ingred said, it was like the curate’s egg⁠—parts of it were very nice. It was the first Christmas they had spent all together for many years, and if they could only have forgotten Rotherwood, and their altered circumstances, they would have enjoyed it immensely. Mrs. Saxon, the unfailing sunshine-radiator of the household, tried to ignore the tone of discontent in her husband’s voice, the grumpy attitude of Egbert, Quenrede’s fit of the blues, and Athelstane’s rather martyred pose. She insisted on bundling everybody out for a blow on the moors.

“If we’d been living in Grovebury,” she remarked, “we should probably have taken a jaunt to Wynch-on-the-Wold as a special treat. Let us think ourselves lucky in being on the spot and only having to turn out of our own door to be at once in such lovely scenery. It’s like having a country holiday at Christmas instead of midsummer⁠—a thing I always hankered after and never got before!”

Certainly winter on the wold held a charm of its own. The great waste of brown moor stretching under the gray sky showed rich patches where yellow grass and rushes edged dark boggy pools, the low-growing stems of sallows and alders were delicate with shades of orange and mauve; here and there a sprig of furze lingered in flower, and black flights of starlings and fieldfares, driven from colder climates in quest of food, swept in long lines across the horizon. The weather was open for the time of year, the wind strong but not too keen, and had it not been for the lowness of the sun in the sky the day might have been autumn instead of December. It was glorious to walk to the top of Wetherstone Heights and see, miles away, the spire of Monkswell Church and the gleam of the distant river, then to hurry back in the gloaming with the rising mists creeping up like advancing specters, and to find the lamps lighted and tea ready in the cheery bungalow. Nobody wanted to quarrel with Yule cake and muffins, and even Mr. Saxon temporarily forgot his worries and relapsed into quite amusing reminiscences of certain adventures in France.

If only our spirits would keep up to the point to which, with much effort, we screw them, all would be well: unfortunately they often have a tiresome knack of descending with a run. When tea was finished and cleared away Mr. Saxon found the presence of his family a hindrance to reading, and at a hint from their mother the younger members of the party took themselves off into the little drawing-room. Here, round a black fire, which, despite Hereward’s poking, refused to burn brightly, the grumble-cloud that had been lowering all day burst at last.

“If we’d only got the Rotherwood billiard table there’d be something to do!” groused Egbert gloomily.

“There isn’t a corner in this poky hole where a fellow can fiddle with photography,” chimed in Athelstane, “even if there was time to do it. When I get back from Birkshaw it’s nothing but grind, grind, grind at medical books all the evening.”

“Rather have your job than mine, though,” said Egbert. “You haven’t to sit under the Pater’s eye all day long, and have him down on you like a cartload of bricks if you make the slightest slip. I’m the worst off of the whole lot of us!”

“What about me at that odious Grammar School?” asked Hereward, pressing his claims to the palm of dissatisfaction.

“Or me at the hostel!” urged Ingred, not to be outdone.

“I don’t think you, any of you, realize how slow it is just to stop at home!” sighed Quenrede. “There were sixteen dozen things I’d made up my mind to do, and I can’t do one of them. It’s going to be a hateful New Year for all of us⁠—just a New Year of going without and scraping and saving and economizing⁠—ugh! What a life!”

“Life’s mostly what we make it,” said Mother, who had quietly joined the circle. “After all, what we think we want doesn’t always give the greatest happiness. Suppose each of us tries to let this be the best year we’ve ever had? Very little in the way of material wealth may come to us, but the other kind of wealth is far better worth working for. I think this hard time gives us the chance to show what we’re made of. During the fighting, the lads at the front went steadily through severe privations, and the women at home worked in the same brave, cheery fashion. Now the strain of the war is over, are we going to let all this splendid spirit drop? Suppose we fight our own battles as we fought our country’s? Let me feel I’ve still got a family of soldiers to be proud of.”

“You’re the Colonel, then, of the new corps,” said Egbert, with an affectionate bear-hug to the slight figure that was already making the black fire break into a blaze. “You’ve pluck enough for the whole clan, little Mother o’ mine! You shall sound your slogan and lead the attack on Fate till we get back to Rotherwood! There!”

“I’m aiming at higher things than Rotherwood, darling boy!” said his mother gravely.

I know!” whispered Quenrede, squeezing the dear hand that reached out and clasped her own. “I won’t be a selfish beast any more. I won’t indeed. Economizing shall be my New Year’s cross!”

“If we’re going to count up crosses,” proclaimed Athelstane humorously, “the orphan’s fine voice while I’m studying is mine!”

“But she probably counts it her choicest blessing!” exclaimed Ingred.

And then the whole family broke out laughing, and Mother’s little lecture ended in fun. It made its impression upon individual members all the same.

The six miles which separated the Saxons from Grovebury seemed to have set up an effectual barrier between them and the old world in which they had moved before. Many people who had been friendly in the Rotherwood days did not trouble to come so far as Wynch-on-the-Wold to pay calls, and the numerous invitations which had formerly been extended to the young folks decreased this Christmas to very few.

First and foremost amongst these scanty festivities came Mrs. Desmond’s dance. It was a grownup affair, and she had sent printed invitations to Egbert, Athelstane and Quenrede. The latter, who only knew the Desmonds slightly and was always overwhelmed in their presence, developed a sudden and acute fit of shyness and implored to be allowed to refuse.

“If it had been the Browns’ or Lawrences’ I’d have loved it,” she urged, “but you know, Mumsie, how Mrs. Desmond absolutely withers me up! I never can say six words when she’s there. I’d run five miles to avoid meeting her: you know I would! She’s so starchy.”

“You see very little of your hostess at a dance. Don’t be silly, Queenie!” insisted Mrs. Saxon. “I say you’re to go, so there’s an end of it.”

“I’ll go for an evening’s martyrdom, then, not for enjoyment!” wailed her daughter dolefully.

A first grownup dance is often a terrible ordeal to a girl of eighteen, and Quenrede, though she had put on a few airs to impress the schoolgirls at the Rainbow League sale, was at bottom woefully bashful. She was still in the stage when her newly-turned-up hair looked as if it were unaccustomed to be coiled round her head; she had a painful habit of blushing, and had not yet acquired that general savoir faire which comes to us with the passing of our teens. To be plunged for a whole evening into the society of a succession of strangers seemed to her anything but an exhilarating prospect.

“If I could just dance with our own boys!” she sighed.

“I’d pity you if you did!” declared Ingred, pausing in an effort to make Athelstane’s steps more worthy of a ballroom. “Why, half the fun will be your different partners. I only wish I’d your chance and was ‘coming out’ too!”

“I’m sure you’re welcome to go instead of me,” proclaimed Quenrede petulantly.

All the same she watched the preparations for the event with considerable girlish interest. Mother, whose ambitions at first had run to a dress from town, regretfully decided that the family finances could only supply a homemade costume, and set to work with fashion book and sewing-machine to act amateur dressmaker, a thrilling experience to unaccustomed fingers, for paper patterns are sometimes difficult to understand, seams do not fit together as they ought, and the bottom hem of a skirt is the most awkward thing in the world to make hang perfectly straight. Quenrede, standing on the table, revolved slowly while Mrs. Saxon and Ingred stuck in pins and debated whether a quarter of an inch here and there should be raised or lowered. Ingred showed far more cleverness in sewing than her sister; her natty fingers could contrive pretty things already in the shape of collars and blouses.

“You’d make an admirable curate’s wife!” Quenrede laughingly assured her. “I shall have to marry a rich man and get my things from London.”

“It will probably be the other way,” declared Mother. “Stand still, Queenie, I can’t measure properly if you will dance about!”

Though she was ready with a joke, as a matter of fact Quenrede was having a severe struggle not to be snappy. For years and years she had planned her “coming out,” and she had decided upon a ball at Rotherwood, and an absolute creation of a gown that was to be sent for from Paris. There would have been some éclat then in emerging from the chrysalis stage of the schoolroom and becoming a butterfly of society. To make her first grownup appearance at Mrs. Desmond’s dance and in a homemade dress seemed not so much a “coming out” as an “oozing out.” There are degrees in butterflies, and she feared her appearance would resemble not the gorgeous “Red Admiral” or “Painted Lady,” but the “Common White Cabbage.” If it had not been for the New Year’s resolution, some traces of her disappointment would have leaked out, but she kept the secret bravely to herself. The family indeed knew she was not anxious to go, but set her unwilling attitude down to mere shyness. Her mother never guessed at the real reason.

There was a tremendous robing on the evening of January the ninth, with Mother and Ingred for lady’s-maids, and “The Orphan” hovering about, offering to bring pins or hot water on the chance of getting a peep at the proceedings. Mrs. Saxon stepped back, when all was complete, and viewed the result somewhat in the spirit of an artist who has finished a picture. It is an event in a mother’s life when her first little girl grows up and becomes a young lady. Tonight Quenrede was to be launched on the stream of society. Looked at critically, her appearance was very satisfactory. Though the new dress might not be up to the level of a fashion-plate, it certainly became her, and set off the pretty fair face, white neck, and coils of gleaming flaxen hair.

“Your gloves and shoes and stockings are all right, and you’ve got a nice handkerchief, and your fan,” reviewed Mother, wrapping an evening cloak round her handiwork. “Goodbye, my bird! Enjoy yourself, and don’t be silly and shy.”

“I shall keep awake till you come back!” Ingred assured her.

It was something at any rate to be going with Egbert and Athelstane. Among the stream of strangers there would be at least two home objects upon which she might occasionally cast anchor. The thought of that buoyed her up as the taxi whirled them down hill to Grovebury.

The Desmonds were giving the dance as a coming-out for one of their own daughters, and their house was en fête. An awning protected the porch, red cloth carpeted the steps, a marquee filled the lawn, and a stringed band from Birkshaw had been engaged to play the latest dance music.

Quenrede passed calmly enough through the ordeals of leaving her cloak in the dressing-room (where a crowd of girls were prinking, and there was no room for even a glance in the mirror), and the greeting from her host and hostess in the drawing-room. It was in the ballroom afterwards that her agony began. Egbert and Athelstane were whisked away from her to be introduced to other girls, and utter strangers, whose names she seldom caught, were brought to her, took her program, recorded their initials and passed on to book other partners. The few people in the marquee whom she knew were too far away or too occupied to speak to her, so she stood alone, and heartily wished herself at home.

It was better when the dancing began, though her partners scared her horribly. They all made exactly the same remarks about the excellence of the floor, the taste of the decorations, and the beauty of the music, and asked her if she had been to the pantomime, and whether she played golf. Small talk is an art, and though Quenrede had many interests, and in ordinary circumstances could have discussed them, tonight she felt tongue-tied, and let the ball of conversation drop with a “yes” or “no” or “very.” Dances with strangers who expected her to talk were bad enough, but the gaps in her program were worse. No doubt Mrs. Desmond tried to look after all her guests, but several gentlemen had disappointed her at the last minute, and there were not quite partners enough to go round. At a young people’s party Quenrede would have cheerily danced with some other girl in like plight, but at this stiff grownup gathering she dared not suggest such an informality, and remained a wallflower. She caught glimpses occasionally of Egbert and Athelstane, the former apparently enjoying himself, the latter looking as solemn as if he were in church.

“I know the poor boy’s counting his steps and trying not to tread on anybody’s toes!” thought Quenrede. “Ingred said his partners would have to pull him around somehow.”

Supper was a diversion, for she was taken in by quite a nice redheaded boy, a little younger than herself, who, after a manful effort to talk up to her supposed level, thankfully relapsed into details of football-matches. Being a nephew of the house, he proved an adept in attracting the most tempting dishes of fruit or trifle to their particular table, and even basely commandeered other people’s crackers for her benefit. She bade him goodbye with regret.

“I say, I wish my card wasn’t full! I’d have liked a dance with you!” he murmured wistfully as they left the supper-room.

If only she had known people better, and the atmosphere had not seemed so stiff and formal, and she had not been so miserably shy, Quenrede might have enjoyed herself. As it was she began counting the hours. In one of the wallflower gaps of her program she took a stroll into the conservatory. It looked like fairyland with the colored lanterns hanging among the palms and flowers. Somebody else was apparently enjoying the pretty effect⁠—somebody who turned round rather guiltily as if he were caught; then at sight of her smiled in relief.

“I thought you were one of my hostesses come to round me up to do my duty,” he confessed. “I’m a duffer at dancing, so I’ve taken cover in here. I see you don’t remember me, but we’ve met before⁠—at Red Ridge Barrow. My name’s Broughten.”

“Why, of course! You had a piece of candle and showed us inside the mound. I ought to have known you again, but⁠—you look so different⁠—”

“In evening dress! So do you; but I recognized you in a minute. Look here” (in sudden compunction), “am I keeping you from a partner?”

“No more than I am keeping you!” twinkled Quenrede, pointing to the empty line on her program. “I’m not dancing this, so I came here to⁠—to enjoy myself.”

Her companion laughed in swift comprehension.

“I don’t know how other people may find it,” he confided, “but hour after hour of this sort of thing gets on my nerves. A tramp over the moor is far more my line of amusement. I was wishing I might go home!”

“So was I!”

“But there’s still at least another hour and a half.”

“With extras, more!” admitted Quenrede.

He held out his hand for her program. “I’m an idiot at dancing, but would you mind sitting out a few with me?”

“If you won’t talk about the floor and the decorations and the band, and ask me whether I’ve been to the pantomime, or if I like golf!”

“I promise that those topics shall be utterly and absolutely taboo. I’m sick of them myself.”

Quenrede’s shyness, which was only an outer casing, had suddenly disappeared in the presence of a fellow-victim of social conventions, and conversation came easily, all the more so after being pent-up all the evening. Henry Desmond, wandering into the conservatory presently, remarked to his partner, sotto voce:

“That Saxon girl’s chattering sixteen to the dozen now! Couldn’t get a word out of her myself!”

When Quenrede, sometime about five o’clock in the morning, tried to creep stealthily to bed without disturbing her sister, Ingred, refreshed by half a night’s sleep, sat up wide awake and demanded details.

“Sh! Sh! Mother said we weren’t to talk now, and I must tell you everything afterwards. Oh, I got on better than I expected, though most of the people were rather starchy. How did my dress look? Well⁠—promise you won’t breathe a word to darling Mother⁠—it was just passable, and that’s all. Some girls had lovely things. I didn’t care. The second part of the evening was far nicer than the first, and I enjoyed the dances that I sat out the most. The conservatory was all hung with lanterns. There; I’m dead tired and I want to go to sleep. Good night, dear!”

“But you’ve ‘come out!’ ” said Ingred with satisfaction as she subsided under her eiderdown.

“Oh yes, I’m most decidedly ‘out,’ ” murmured Quenrede.