She had been a warehouse girl in Adams's lace factory before she was married. Sam Adams was her employer. He was a bachelor of forty, growing stout, a man well dressed and florid, with a large brown moustache and thin hair. From the rest of his well-groomed, showy appearance, it was evident his baldness was a chagrin to him. He had a good presence, and some Irish blood in his veins.
His fondness for the girls, or the fondness of the girls for him, was notorious. And Elsie, quick, pretty, almost witty little thing - she SEEMED witty, although, when her sayings were repeated, they were entirely trivial - she had a great attraction for him. He would come into the warehouse dressed in a rather sporting reefer coat, of fawn colour, and trousers of fine black-and-white check, a cap with a big peak and a scarlet carnation in his button-hole, to impress her. She was only half impressed. He was too loud for her good taste. Instinctively perceiving this, he sobered down to navy blue. Then a well-built man, florid, with large brown whiskers, smart navy blue suit, fashionable boots, and manly hat, he was the irreproachable. Elsie was impressed.
But meanwhile Whiston was courting her, and she made splendid little gestures, before her bedroom mirror, of the constant-and- true sort.
That was her song. Whiston was made that way, so there was no need to take thought for him.
Every Christmas Sam Adams gave a party at his house, to which he invited his superior work-people - not factory hands and labourers, but those above. He was a generous man in his way, with a real warm feeling for giving pleasure.
Two years ago Elsie had attended this Christmas-party for the last time. Whiston had accompanied her. At that time he worked for Sam Adams.
She had been very proud of herself, in her close-fitting, full- skirted dress of blue silk. Whiston called for her. Then she tripped beside him, holding her large cashmere shawl across her breast. He strode with long strides, his trousers handsomely strapped under his boots, and her silk shoes bulging the pockets of his full-skirted overcoat.
They passed through the park gates, and her spirits rose. Above them the Castle Rock looked grandly in the night, the naked trees stood still and dark in the frost, along the boulevard.
They were rather late. Agitated with anticipation, in the cloak- room she gave up her shawl, donned her silk shoes, and looked at herself in the mirror. The loose bunches of curls on either side her face danced prettily, her mouth smiled.
She hung a moment in the door of the brilliantly lighted room. Many people were moving within the blaze of lamps, under the crystal chandeliers, the full skirts of the women balancing and floating, the side-whiskers and white cravats of the men bowing above. Then she entered the light.
In an instant Sam Adams was coming forward, lifting both his arms in boisterous welcome. There was a constant red laugh on his face.
"Come late, would you," he shouted, "like royalty."
He seized her hands and led her forward. He opened his mouth wide when he spoke, and the effect of the warm, dark opening behind the brown whiskers was disturbing. But she was floating into the throng on his arm. He was very gallant.
"Now then," he said, taking her card to write down the dances, "I've got carte blanche, haven't I?"
"Mr Whiston doesn't dance," she said.
"I am a lucky man!" he said, scribbling his initials. "I was born with an amourette in my mouth."
He wrote on, quietly. She blushed and laughed, not knowing what it meant.
"Why, what is that?" she said.
"It's you, even littler than you are, dressed in little wings," he said.
"I should have to be pretty small to get in your mouth," she said.
"You think you're too big, do you!" he said easily.
He handed her her card, with a bow.
"Now I'm set up, my darling, for this evening," he said.
Then, quick, always at his ease, he looked over the room. She waited in front of him. He was ready. Catching the eye of the band, he nodded. In a moment, the music began. He seemed to relax, giving himself up.
"Now then, Elsie," he said, with a curious caress in his voice that seemed to lap the outside of her body in a warm glow, delicious. She gave herself to it. She liked it.
He was an excellent dancer. He seemed to draw her close in to him by some male warmth of attraction, so that she became all soft and pliant to him, flowing to his form, whilst he united her with him and they lapsed along in one movement. She was just carried in a kind of strong, warm flood, her feet moved of themselves, and only the music threw her away from him, threw her back to him, to his clasp, in his strong form moving against her, rhythmically, deliriously.
When it was over, he was pleased and his eyes had a curious gleam which thrilled her and yet had nothing to do with her. Yet it held her. He did not speak to her. He only looked straight into her eyes with a curious, gleaming look that disturbed her fearfully and deliriously. But also there was in his look some of the automatic irony of the roué. It left her partly cold. She was not carried away.
She went, driven by an opposite, heavier impulse, to Whiston. He stood looking gloomy, trying to admit that she had a perfect right to enjoy herself apart from him. He received her with rather grudging kindliness.
"Aren't you going to play whist?" she asked.
"Aye," he said. "Directly."
"I do wish you could dance."
"Well, I can't," he said. "So you enjoy yourself."
"But I should enjoy it better if I could dance with you."
"Nay, you're all right," he said. "I'm not made that way."
"Then you ought to be!" she cried.
"Well, it's my fault, not yours. You enjoy yourself," he bade her. Which she proceeded to do, a little bit irked.
She went with anticipation to the arms of Sam Adams, when the time came to dance with him. It WAS so gratifying, irrespective of the man. And she felt a little grudge against Whiston, soon forgotten when her host was holding her near to him, in a delicious embrace. And she watched his eyes, to meet the gleam in them, which gratified her.
She was getting warmed right through, the glow was penetrating into her, driving away everything else. Only in her heart was a little tightness, like conscience.
When she got a chance, she escaped from the dancing-room to the card-room. There, in a cloud of smoke, she found Whiston playing cribbage. Radiant, roused, animated, she came up to him and greeted him. She was too strong, too vibrant a note in the quiet room. He lifted his head, and a frown knitted his gloomy forehead.
"Are you playing cribbage? Is it exciting? How are you getting on?" she chattered.
He looked at her. None of these questions needed answering, and he did not feel in touch with her. She turned to the cribbage-board.
"Are you white or red?" she asked.
"He's red," replied the partner.
"Then you're losing," she said, still to Whiston. And she lifted the red peg from the board. "One - two - three - four - five - six - seven - eight - Right up there you ought to jump - "
"Now put it back in its right place," said Whiston.
"Where was it?" she asked gaily, knowing her transgression. He took the little red peg away from her and stuck it in its hole.
The cards were shuffled.
"What a shame you're losing!" said Elsie.
"You'd better cut for him," said the partner.
She did so, hastily. The cards were dealt. She put her hand on his shoulder, looking at his cards.
"It's good," she cried, "isn't it?"
He did not answer, but threw down two cards. It moved him more strongly than was comfortable, to have her hand on his shoulder, her curls dangling and touching his ears, whilst she was roused to another man. It made the blood flame over him.
At that moment Sam Adams appeared, florid and boisterous, intoxicated more with himself, with the dancing, than with wine. In his eyes the curious, impersonal light gleamed.
"I thought I should find you here, Elsie," he cried boisterously, a disturbing, high note in his voice.
"What made you think so?" she replied, the mischief rousing in her.
The florid, well-built man narrowed his eyes to a smile.
"I should never look for you among the ladies," he said, with a kind of intimate, animal call to her. He laughed, bowed, and offered her his arm.
"Madam, the music waits."
She went almost helplessly, carried along with him, unwilling, yet delighted.
That dance was an intoxication to her. After the first few steps, she felt herself slipping away from herself. She almost knew she was going, she did not even want to go. Yet she must have chosen to go. She lay in the arm of the steady, close man with whom she was dancing, and she seemed to swim away out of contact with the room, into him. She had passed into another, denser element of him, an essential privacy. The room was all vague around her, like an atmosphere, like under sea, with a flow of ghostly, dumb movements. But she herself was held real against her partner, and it seemed she was connected with him, as if the movements of his body and limbs were her own movements, yet not her own movements - and oh, delicious! He also was given up, oblivious, concentrated, into the dance. His eye was unseeing. Only his large, voluptuous body gave off a subtle activity. His fingers seemed to search into her flesh. Every moment, and every moment, she felt she would give way utterly, and sink molten: the fusion point was coming when she would fuse down into perfect unconsciousness at his feet and knees. But he bore her round the room in the dance, and he seemed to sustain all her body with his limbs, his body, and his warmth seemed to come closer into her, nearer, till it would fuse right through her, and she would be as liquid to him, as an intoxication only.
It was exquisite. When it was over, she was dazed, and was scarcely breathing. She stood with him in the middle of the room as if she were alone in a remote place. He bent over her. She expected his lips on her bare shoulder, and waited. Yet they were not alone, they were not alone. It was cruel.
"'Twas good, wasn't it, my darling?" he said to her, low and delighted. There was a strange impersonality about his low, exultant call that appealed to her irresistibly. Yet why was she aware of some part shut off in her? She pressed his arm, and he led her towards the door.
She was not aware of what she was doing, only a little grain of resistant trouble was in her. The man, possessed, yet with a superficial presence of mind, made way to the dining-room, as if to give her refreshment, cunningly working to his own escape with her. He was molten hot, filmed over with presence of mind, and bottomed with cold disbelief.
In the dining-room was Whiston, carrying coffee to the plain, neglected ladies. Elsie saw him, but felt as if he could not see her. She was beyond his reach and ken. A sort of fusion existed between her and the large man at her side. She ate her custard, but an incomplete fusion all the while sustained and contained her within the being of her employer.
But she was growing cooler. Whiston came up. She looked at him, and saw him with different eyes. She saw his slim, young man's figure real and enduring before her. That was he. But she was in the spell with the other man, fused with him, and she could not be taken away.
"Have you finished your cribbage?" she asked, with hasty evasion of him.
"Yes," he replied. "Aren't you getting tired of dancing?"
"Not a bit," she said.
"Not she," said Adams heartily. "No girl with any spirit gets tired of dancing. - Have something else, Elsie. Come - sherry. Have a glass of sherry with us, Whiston."
Whilst they sipped the wine, Adams watched Whiston almost cunningly, to find his advantage.
"We'd better be getting back - there's the music," he said. "See the women get something to eat, Whiston, will you, there's a good chap."
And he began to draw away. Elsie was drifting helplessly with him. But Whiston put himself beside them, and went along with them. In silence they passed through to the dancing-room. There Adams hesitated, and looked round the room. It was as if he could not see.
A man came hurrying forward, claiming Elsie, and Adams went to his other partner. Whiston stood watching during the dance. She was conscious of him standing there observant of her, like a ghost, or a judgment, or a guardian angel. She was also conscious, much more intimately and impersonally, of the body of the other man moving somewhere in the room. She still belonged to him, but a feeling of distraction possessed her, and helplessness. Adams danced on, adhering to Elsie, waiting his time, with the persistence of cynicism.
The dance was over. Adams was detained. Elsie found herself beside Whiston. There was something shapely about him as he sat, about his knees and his distinct figure, that she clung to. It was as if he had enduring form. She put her hand on his knee.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" he asked.
"EVER so," she replied, with a fervent, yet detached tone.
"It's going on for one o'clock," he said.
"Is it?" she answered. It meant nothing to her.
"Should we be going?" he said.
She was silent. For the first time for an hour or more an inkling of her normal consciousness returned. She resented it.
"What for?" she said.
"I thought you might have had enough," he said.
A slight soberness came over her, an irritation at being frustrated of her illusion.
"Why?" she said.
"We've been here since nine," he said.
That was no answer, no reason. It conveyed nothing to her. She sat detached from him. Across the room Sam Adams glanced at her. She sat there exposed for him.
"You don't want to be too free with Sam Adams," said Whiston cautiously, suffering. "You know what he is."
"How, free?" she asked.
"Why - you don't want to have too much to do with him."
She sat silent. He was forcing her into consciousness of her position. But he could not get hold of her feelings, to change them. She had a curious, perverse desire that he should not.
"I like him," she said.
"What do you find to like in him?" he said, with a hot heart.
"I don't know - but I like him," she said.
She was immutable. He sat feeling heavy and dulled with rage. He was not clear as to what he felt. He sat there unliving whilst she danced. And she, distracted, lost to herself between the opposing forces of the two men, drifted. Between the dances, Whiston kept near to her. She was scarcely conscious. She glanced repeatedly at her card, to see when she would dance again with Adams, half in desire, half in dread. Sometimes she met his steady, glaucous eye as she passed him in the dance. Sometimes she saw the steadiness of his flank as he danced. And it was always as if she rested on his arm, were borne along, upborne by him, away from herself. And always there was present the other's antagonism. She was divided.
The time came for her to dance with Adams. Oh, the delicious closing of contact with him, of his limbs touching her limbs, his arm supporting her. She seemed to resolve. Whiston had not made himself real to her. He was only a heavy place in her consciousness.
But she breathed heavily, beginning to suffer from the closeness of strain. She was nervous. Adams also was constrained. A tightness, a tension was coming over them all. And he was exasperated, feeling something counteracting physical magnetism, feeling a will stronger with her than his own, intervening in what was becoming a vital necessity to him.
Elsie was almost lost to her own control. As she went forward with him to take her place at the dance, she stooped for her pocket- handkerchief. The music sounded for quadrilles. Everybody was ready. Adams stood with his body near her, exerting his attraction over her. He was tense and fighting. She stooped for her pocket- handkerchief, and shook it as she rose. It shook out and fell from her hand. With agony, she saw she had taken a white stocking instead of a handkerchief. For a second it lay on the floor, a twist of white stocking. Then, in an instant, Adams picked it up, with a little, surprised laugh of triumph.
"That'll do for me," he whispered - seeming to take possession of her. And he stuffed the stocking in his trousers pocket, and quickly offered her his handkerchief.
The dance began. She felt weak and faint, as if her will were turned to water. A heavy sense of loss came over her. She could not help herself anymore. But it was peace.
When the dance was over, Adams yielded her up. Whiston came to her.
"What was it as you dropped?" Whiston asked.
"I thought it was my handkerchief - I'd taken a stocking by mistake," she said, detached and muted.
"And he's got it?"
"What does he mean by that?"
She lifted her shoulders.
"Are you going to let him keep it?" he asked.
"I don't let him."
There was a long pause.
"Am I to go and have it out with him?" he asked, his face flushed, his blue eyes going hard with opposition.
"No," she said, pale.
"No - I don't want to say anything about it."
He sat exasperated and nonplussed.
"You'll let him keep it, then?" he asked.
She sat silent and made no form of answer.
"What do you mean by it?" he said, dark with fury. And he started up.
"No!" she cried. "Ted!" And she caught hold of him, sharply detaining him.
It made him black with rage.
"Why?" he said.
Then something about her mouth was pitiful to him. He did not understand, but he felt she must have her reasons.
"Then I'm not stopping here," he said. "Are you coming with me?"
She rose mutely, and they went out of the room. Adams had not noticed.
In a few moments they were in the street.
"What the hell do you mean?" he said, in a black fury.
She went at his side, in silence, neutral.
"That great hog, an' all," he added.
Then they went a long time in silence through the frozen, deserted darkness of the town. She felt she could not go indoors. They were drawing near her house.
"I don't want to go home," she suddenly cried in distress and anguish. "I don't want to go home."
He looked at her.
"Why don't you?" he said.
"I don't want to go home," was all she could sob.
He heard somebody coming.
"Well, we can walk a bit further," he said.
She was silent again. They passed out of the town into the fields. He held her by the arm - they could not speak.
"What's a-matter?" he asked at length, puzzled.
She began to cry again.
At last he took her in his arms, to soothe her. She sobbed by herself, almost unaware of him.
"Tell me what's a-matter, Elsie," he said. "Tell me what's a- matter - my dear - tell me, then - "
He kissed her wet face, and caressed her. She made no response. He was puzzled and tender and miserable.
At length she became quiet. Then he kissed her, and she put her arms round him, and clung to him very tight, as if for fear and anguish. He held her in his arms, wondering.
"Ted!" she whispered, frantic. "Ted!"
"What, my love?" he answered, becoming also afraid.
"Be good to me," she cried. "Don't be cruel to me."
"No, my pet," he said, amazed and grieved. "Why?"
"Oh, be good to me," she sobbed.
And he held her very safe, and his heart was white-hot with love for her. His mind was amazed. He could only hold her against his chest that was white-hot with love and belief in her. So she was restored at last.