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Ladies' Home Journal
July, 1937, p. 11

While They Dance

Howard Melvin Fast

I was twenty, and it was the first real ball of the season, and it was for me - for my birthday. The gown was a Paris import, and Paris imports were hard to come by then, with the Yankee privateers covering the sea from Halifax to the Indies. But this was a beautiful gown - seven hundred dollars - silver mesh with the lowest and most daring bodice in the city.

When it came, Harley and Joan, my colored girls, put it on me, and I walked back and forth in front of the mirror.

"Like an angel," Harley said.

I didn't say no. Why? When I looked into the glass, I knew that I was beautiful. I kept looking at my light brown hair, piled high on my head, and thinking what kind of comb I would use in it tonight. I knew there was no hair like that on this side of the Atlantic.

"You'll be lovely enough to take the general's heart," Joan said.

"I don't want it," I said. "He's fat and old." I looked at myself again. "But the young officers-"

They were making up the house for the ball when I drove down the Bloomingdale Road to the city. Father was with me, holding in the grays. Whenever we drove, people stopped to look at our grays, which were certainly the best horses in the city. Father had told me often enough that few families in those times could hold on to such horses.

"Because we're well out of this rebellion," father said.

"Sometimes I wonder," I said. "What are they fighting for?"

"For their Yankee insolence," father muttered. "There's not one first-rate family - here or on Long Island - that's in it."

Spring was coming - here already, almost - and the trees along the road were all yellow-green. Sometimes, through the trees, we could catch a glimpse of the river. I kept on thinking of the gown, how it would look that evening. The winter past, I had a coat of Canadian mink. Mink was rare now, since the war had ruined father's fur trade. The gown, father said, was fit for a queen.

When we reached Battery Park, the troops were reviewing. Most people said that New York was not as lively as Philadelphia, where the English had established a miniature court, but it was nice, anyway, nicer than before the war. Father drew up the grays, and I spread my sunshade and watched. They moved very nicely, their uniforms all bright scarlet and sparkling in the sun.

Afterward, Captain Schyler came over to speak to us.

"We're expecting you tonight," father told him.

"I'll be there," he nodded, looking at me.

Captain Schyler came from a Long Island family, but he had spent a good many years in England before the war. He had only recently been stationed in New York. Long ago, he and his brother and I used to play together.

"You can't expect entertainment of English quality in the Colonies," father said. "But we'll do our best."

"Whatever the Colonies lack," Captain Schyler smiled, "it is not beautiful women."

"Gallant," I agreed, "but is it true?"

"It comes from the heart," he said.

Driving back, father pointed with his whip to a brown hulk that lay in the river. "Cunningham's stable," he murmured. "Not the best thing in gaols, but a fit place for Yankee fools."

"I hear it's rather horrible," I said.

"They made it for themselves."

In the house, colored servants still moved around, fixing the decorations and laying out glass on the tables. The floor was being polished for the dancing, and a hundred new candles were set in their holders.

Marcel, our cook, called father into the kitchen to sample the punch. After father had gone, Marcel lingered.

"I hope that even thing will go smoothly," I said.

"Yes - why not?"

I knew he wanted to tell me something. "What is it. Marcel?" I said.

"We're short-handed inside."

"How is that?"

"They took Henry today - just walked in and took him away. I didn't want to tell your father." Henry was Marcel's assistant.

"Who took him?" I asked him.

"Some British soldiers, ma'am. It seems he's been sending messages to General Washington for almost a year now - gave them to a boy who took them through the Brooklyn woods to the sea. I guess they'll hang him."

"Hang him?" I tried to think of it all at once and understand it, but I couldn't. Henry had been with us always. When l was just a child, he used to give me cakes. Anyway, Henry was an old man. Why would an old man be such a fool? "Why?" I asked Marcel.

He shrugged his shoulders. "I thought maybe there was something you could do, knowing most of the officers."

I went upstairs then; I kept thinking of Henry, wondering why he would do something like that. I was sitting in my room when father came in. He walked over and put a hand on my shoulder.

"You heard about Henry?" he asked me.

"Yes."

"Don't bother your head. What the old fool gets, he deserves."

"But aren't you going to do anything? They'll hang him."

"I can't do anything. If I did, it would turn suspicion on us."

"Is that all a man's life means?" I said slowly.

Father didn't answer me; he walked out. Then I sat for a long time, just thinking. I had never thought a great deal about it before. The war went on, and you got used to it. Somewhere, a rabble was fighting; they called it a war of independence, but the best families still had their balls and dinners and dances. And we didn't lack a great deal because of the war. The British officers kept saving that it would soon be over, any day now. Things would be put right again. Then why would a man like Henry-

Harley came in. I glanced up and saw that it was dark outside. "Time to dress, Miss Betty," Harley said.

"I suppose so."

Then she came close to me and whispered, "They're a-hangin' Henry."

"Please don't talk about it."

"Yes'm, but it seems strange. One day man's a-walkin'-"

"Don't talk about it," I said.

"Yes'm."

Later, when I had my gown on and Joan was doing my hair, I decided that I would not allow this to spoil my evening. All in all, my father was right. When you came down to it, Henry was a spy; you get to realize that hanging is expected.

"You look like a little angel," Harley said again.

"Do you think Captain Schyler will agree?"

"You mean that tall man - he come last evening?"

"Yes."

"He sure handsome." Harley smiled.

When Harley had finished, I turned and curtsied in front of the glass. It was a full-length mirror, and when I looked at myself I stood back, and then looked at myself again. Joan patted my hair and set the comb in it. There was no gainsaying that I was beautiful; so many men had told me so, and now I looked at myself and wondered whether it was conceit that made me agree. If it was conceit, it was no more than the truth, and I was eager to have Captain Schyler see me the way I was. I said:

"Last night - he said he loved me."

Harley stared.

"I told him not to see me again - but he's coming tonight." I plucked at one of my puffed sleeves; then I flirted my skirt, and watched the light shimmer over the heavy folds. "I think I'll go down now," I told them.

I had waited and timed my entrance. Oh, I guess you know how those things are; I knew there were not many faces like mine, and I loved to see the knowledge in other men's eyes. And I felt all the surge of power when I stood on top of the staircase and looked down into the reception room, already half full of British officers and beautifully gowned ladies. But there was no gown like mine.

Half in the dark I waited until I saw their eyes turn up to me, and then I stepped into the blaze of candlelight. Captain Schyler raised his glass; some of the others did too. Then I dropped a curtsy, and went down the steps.

I saw father standing to one side, watching me proudly; he was talking to Colonel Billings, and he kept his eyes on me as I went from person to person, greeting them. When I came to Captain Schyler, he looked straight into my eyes. His glass was still raised.

"I haven't tasted it yet," he said.

"Then do."

"To us, then."

"I thought it would be for me," I said.

"No - for us. You see, my pretty little fool, I love you. More than anything else on earth."

"You forget yourself," I said coldly. I started to walk away, when he grasped my arm. "Captain-"

"I can't forget that I love you."

I avoided him. All evening I avoided him. until the cotillion began. I think that I hated him then. Why he went out of his way to insult me, I did not know. Maybe I loved him. I tried to be gay; I tried to show him that I would be gay. Once I thought of old Henry. When a man dies-

But they were dying. All these beautiful scarlet uniforms meant a war. Somewhere, it was going on - men lying over their muskets and dying. But here we danced the cotillion.

He danced splendidly. "Do you fight as well?" I said to him once, for some reason I did not quite understand. But it struck home, and I saw the red creep from under his collar.

"So you have claws," he smiled.

"No - but I was thinking tonight. Is that strange? Did you mean it when you called me a pretty little fool? I believe you were right."

"Forgive me."

"Why? Outside somewhere, a man I knew all my life is dying."

When the dance was over, I couldn't stay there. Now the servants were coming out with glittering trays of food. I slipped past them and into the kitchen. Marcel was bent over his pots. While I stood there, he turned around slowly and stared at me.

"Henry is dead," he said, slowly and quietly. "Joe saw him hung."

I nodded; it seemed to me that I had known. I wondered how Joe, who was our stable boy, had felt, seeing a man he had known for so long die.

"Joe says he wasn't afraid, Miss Betty. I see a lot of men die once - in Canada, when I fight with Montcalm; but they are used to see death. Henry, he don't see nothing and he is an old man But Joe say he stand and smile and say he is glad he don't cook on, like fat old Marcel."

"Yes," I whispered.

"He was old anyway," Marcel said.

"But why did he do it - why?"

"They all have reason." Marcel shrugged. "Maybe he think it would be better if there are no English in New York - but who knows?"

"But it is their land."

Marcel looked at me; he didn't say anything.

When I went back to the reception room, they were dancing a minuet. I stood to one side of the room and watched. Father came over to me.

"You're not enjoying yourself," he said.

"But I am."

Captain Schyler came toward us, and father nodded at him and said, "Will you bring a smile to my daughter's face, captain?"

"More than that." Father left us, and the captain went on: "Please forgive me for what I said before."

"You were right."

I WAS'NT - but sometimes, when I think of what's going on out there-

He waved a hand.

"What, captain?"

"You wouldn't understand. But I saw them hang a man today."

"He was our servant," I said.

"I see."

There was a low mutter then, like distant thunder. A colored man, who was crossing the floor with a tray, let it drop abruptly. It fell to the floor with a crash, fruit and cakes scattering. An apple rolled to my feet and, without thinking, I picked it up. The thunder rolled again; the colored man stood where he was, his hands out.

"Clumsy ass," someone said.

The minuet had stopped. Most of the dancers were staring at the colored man; some of the officers looked at the general.

"What was that?" I asked Captain Schyler.

"What?" He seemed to be thinking of something else.

"It sounded like thunder."

It came again, low, like an iron wheel being dragged over stone. The band struck up, and the minuet began. The dancers moved back and forth, slow, graceful, bending and curtsying. But some of the officers had detached themselves, and they were speaking to the general.

"What is it?"

THEN Captain Schyler appeared to remember me, and he turned to face me. There was a strange expression upon his face, a look in his eves that I remembered long after.

"That sound?" he said.

"Yes - it sounded like thunder." I stared at the apple in my hand, as if I didn't know it was there at all. Then I laid it carefully on the table.

"Cannon," he said. "Some poor devil escaped from Cunningham's charnel house. They fire the cannon as an alarm. They'll pick him up soon enough, specially if he's on the Manhattan shore.... Shall we dance?"

"An escaped prisoner," I whispered. "You mean he's somewhere out there - running? An American soldier?"

"Probably a Continental."

He held out his hand for me, and we began to dance. I tried not to think: I tried to lose myself in the dance, in the swaying line of beautifully gowned and uniformed bodies. All beauty. A hundred candles were burning in that room; I tried to remember that. But somewhere out in the night a man was running, hiding, slipping from tree to tree; and already a line of British bayonets was combing the island. On my right an officer bowed, his epaulets tinkling. The women were smiling, laughing. Across the room I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror; I was very beautiful.

YOU'RE not minding the minuet," Captain Schyler scolded.

"No - I was thinking."

"You are very beautiful - when you think."

"Yes? . . . What will they do when they catch him?"

"Very beautiful. . . . .Who?"

"The man - the man who escaped."

"Shoot him down."

"I see." I noticed two officers leaving the room. "They're going to the hunt," I said.

"Yes - I guess so. I shouldn't worry though. They've probably gotten the poor beggar already."

"Yes." I was thinking of a time, the year past, when we went to the Flushing meadows to hunt quail. They beat the grass, a long line of men; and then we shot the quail when they broke cover. I remember feeling a little sick at a broken and torn quail someone handed me.

"If you'd rather not dance-"

"I'm just a little tired," I said. I saw Harley standing at the hall entrance, her dark face round and excited. "You'll excuse me," I begged the captain. Then I almost ran to Harley. I noticed my father laughing over a cup of punch. He waved a hand at me. "What is it?" I whispered.

"Come up to your room," Harley said excitedly. "Please, Miss Betty - come up to your room."

"But I can't leave like that, Harley. I'm the hostess here."

"I know, ma'am - but come. We can't talk here."

I nodded, and together we slipped up the staircase. I remember that Captain Schyler glanced after me curiously.

At the top of the stairs, out of the candlelight, we paused. Harley was shivering; I could feel that, just holding onto her arm. As we went forward she began to sob.

"Stop it!" I said sharply. "What's come over you? Are you frightened?"

"Suppose they catch us, Miss Betty."

"What are you talking about? Nobody will catch us." I went forward to my room and threw open the door. Marcel was standing there, to one side of the bed, holding a candle in his hand; at first I didn't notice what was on the bed.

"What does this mean?" I began.

Marcel turned around slowly - and looked at me. There was no expression upon his face that meant anything, no expression at all, only the round, placid countenance of a cook who knew no more than his cooking. But his small blue eyes glittered.

THEN I stepped forward and saw the man who was lying on my bed. His eyes were open, but they were dull and staring, and they turned to me slowly, almost mechanically. There were bloodstains all over the ivory-damask spread, an almost priceless counterpane from Morocco.

The cannon sounded again, like far-off thunder.

"Close the door," I said to Harley. "Don't stand there whimpering like an idiot. Close the door."

"You see, mam'selle," Marcel was explaining, "there is no other place for him that is safe." He spread his hands. "I have ruin' your cloth."

"Never mind," I said.

He came close to me and added in a whisper, "I think he is dying. He does not speak - just look at me."

"Nonsense," I said. I went to the bed and bent over the man. I had to repress a shudder, and I felt sick through and through. His clothes were only rags, and his body and face were covered with filth. I had never seen anything like that before; I had never known that there could be anything like that.

He was trying to speak.

"Bring the candle over, Marcel," I said.

"See - his wound. They shot him." Marcel shook his head sadly.

"Harley," I cried, "don't stand there mumbling. Go down to the kitchen and get a basin of warm water and some cloth. And don't look as if you are going to a funeral. If anyone asks you, tell them that you were sick and that you had to clean up."

Harley went out. I told Marcel to light another candle and then I asked him to help me take the man's torn shirt off.

"But you can't do this," Marcel protected.

"I can though."

THE man was still trying to speak. Then he got out a few words. "Who are you?" he whispered. "Who the devil are you? I told Cunningham-"

"You're safe here - don't you see?"

Rolling his eyes, he lay back. Then he sighed and closed them. Marcel tapped his head meaningly.

"Too much. You had better go and leave me with him."

"I'll stay."

We took off his shirt. Part was clotted to his skin with blood. I had to force myself to go on. Then Harley came back and set down the water, trembling so that she spilled some of it.

"Your father asked."

"Did you tell him anything?"

"What you said."

Dipping a cloth in water. I began to wash the blood from his chest, and as I washed away the clotted part it began to run again, slowly. The hole was low down and to one side - a torn wound, the kind a musket makes. I made a pack of warm cloth and bound it over the wound.

"You are very brave," Marcel whispered.

"I am a little fool, Marcel. How is it you never told me? How did he get in here? You're sure he is the prisoner? Anyway, he's safe here for a while. If my father knew-"

Marcel sighed. "Look," he whispered, "under the filth he is just a boy. I found him in the stable. I knew you would not say to me no. But what will we do? He must leave the city."

The boy opened his eyes. They were blue, but bloodshot and tired, as if he had not slept for days. He kept looking for me, and once his fingers reached up and touched the pad on his chest. His eyes were still dull, but it seemed that he was seeing more clearly.

"Nothing to be afraid of," Marcel told him.

Harley began to whimper again. The boy looked straight at me and said:

"You are like an angel, do you know?"

"Wait for me - I'll be back," I said to Marcel. I had to get out of the room; I almost ran.

OUT in the hall I leaned against the wall, half sobbing, trying to keep my body from trembling, trying to think of what I would do next. I had to have someone - go to someone; but to whom?

Forcing myself to walk to the steps, I stood there and looked down into the reception room. They were dancing again; almost like laughter, the wavering music of the minuet drifted up. It was like a large, animated painting: the British officers in their scarlet-and-gold uniforms; the grand loyal dames of Long Island and New York; the musicians, bent over their instruments; the green garlands hung across the room and across again.

Father spied me. Smiling, I went down the steps. He came over to me and said, "Where the devil is that fat pig of a cook?"

"In the cellar, probably, with one of the girls."

Father strode off, growling, and I continued across the floor. The general was at the punch bowl again, now he turned and toasted me. "To beauty," he said. Two more young officers lifted their glasses. I smiled and dropped a curtsy. Then I saw Captain Schyler moving through the throng, toward me. He took my hand and led me into an alcove at the other side of the room.

"I missed you," he said. He held my hand in his, and now he was looking at it curiously. He raised it, so that it was more in the light.

"You said before-"

"There is blood on your hand," he murmured.

"Yes. You said that you loved me. Could you love a little fool?"

STILL looking at my hand he replied, "I do love you. That's the truth; I've never loved anyone before the way I love you. I would do anything for you."

"Anything?"

"Yes, whatever you ask."

I looked at him and he stared back, a curious smile on his face. Perhaps he knew already. Things were making us, and those things were bigger than we were.

"Come with me, then," I said.

"I'll hold your hand - the blood, you know."

Hand in hand, we moved through the room. That last picture remains more vivid than anything else, the color and the smiles, all the smiles for the daughter of the wealthiest fur trader in America. At the door of my room I stopped.

"If you wish to go back, you can go back," I told him.

HE SMILED, opened the door, and stepped in. I went after him; closed the door behind me. Harley saw his uniform and stifled a scream; Marcel's mouth dropped open, and the wounded man turned his head and stared at Captain Schyler.

The captain went over to the bed. He didn't say anything; his smile had gone; he just stared at the man in the bed, and the man kept his eyes fixed upon the captain.

"He is just a boy," Marcel pleaded.

"It's all right," I said to Marcel. "It's all right, I tell you."

But the captain said nothing; he seemed to have forgotten us entirely, forgotten everything but the wounded boy on the bed.

"You're not Cunningham," the boy whispered.

"No - I'm not."

"I thought I knew you."

The captain bent over and touched some long red welts that crossed the boy's chest. I had noticed them before, but had not known what they were. Terribly gentle, the captain touched them, then brushed a lock of hair from the boy's face.

"Whipped-"

"Cunningham's a devil," the boy murmured. "You'll send me back."

"No - we won't send you back."

The boy nodded. "Like old times," he whispered.

"Yes," Captain Schyler said.

Then the boy closed his eyes; he seemed to be sleeping. But then he muttered, "They were to have a boat - a mile above the ferry landing, at the point. They're waiting on the Jersey shore."

CAPTAIN SCHYLER glanced at me, and I nodded. "We can't keep him here. Harness the grays, Marcel. They'll walk away from anything on the island," I explained.

With Harley and myself, Captain Schyler carried the boy down the back landing. As we left the house the faint strains of music followed us. Marcel was waiting, holding in the grays. On the other side of the horses Joe stood, quivering with excitement.

"All set," Joe called. "But there's a sentry at the gate."

We laid the boy in the carriage and covered him with the rug. Captain Schyler climbed up and took the reins. He looked at me.

"I'm going," I said.

"You can't."

"But I am."

He shrugged, and whipped the horses The grays scattered the gravel on the road. At the gate Captain Schyler waved to the sentry, and the man passed him through. A couple in the garden glanced at us and laughed. Then we were on the Bloomingdale Road. Below and to our right the river lay, glistening silver and black through the trees. There was a full, heavy moon in the sky.

After we left the house we went on slowly. Once a patrol of dragoons stopped us, but Captain Schyler spoke a few words to them, and they grinned and let us through.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I had to."

"I know."

Farther on, we turned off onto a little side road that led to the point. In a little open space at the water's edge Captain Schyler stopped the horses. We got down and he lifted the boy from the carriage, laid him on the ground. I pointed to the boat, drawn up on the land.

Captain Schyler knelt and put his arm around the boy's shoulder. "All right," he said, "you're all right now, old fellow."

"No, I'm not, Charley. But I'm glad you took me with you. I'm glad you didn't leave me alone."

"No - no more. I'm going across with you, and I'm going to stay with you."

"Are you ? What about the uniform - family and all that? The girl?"

He looked at me, but I couldn't say anything. I just stared at him and shook my head.

"You're a lucky devil, Charley," he whispered.

"Both of us," Captain Schyler said. "We're together now; that's what matters."

The boy was muttering. "Across the river - you know the old cliff road Charley. They're waiting in the grove. You didn't think I was that important, did you, Charley? A captain-

The boy closed his eyes and lay back. I wanted to scream, to cry, but I didn't say anything. I just stood there and watched Captain Schyler cover him with the robe. Then the captain stood up and turned to me.

"You can drive the grays back," he said tonelessly.

"Where are you going?"

He pointed to the river. "Over there, they're waiting. He's my brother - he was. Did you know that?"

"I knew," I said.

"Good-by, then."

I pointed at the small dress sword that hung at his waist. Slowly he unbuckled it, and laid it by his brother's side. Then he walked over to the boat. When he saw me still by his side, he said:

"Why don't you go back?"

"Because I'm going with you."

"You're mad," he whispered, ''mad entirely. You're a woman - and I don't know what they'll do with me. Maybe they'll shoot me."

"Then they'll shoot me. They need women - don't I know how wounded men need women? I know why they're fighting now."

"Go back," he said hopelessly.

"You see, I love you, Charley."

The last thing we saw, before the Manhattan bank faded into the night, was the body of his brother, the slim dress sword leaning against his shoulder.


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