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Mr. Benjamin Franklin Gish's Ball by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis

 

“I'LL do it! I'll do it!” exclaimed Mr. Gish, aloud. But the mere thought of what he was about to do made him so light-headed and faint that he had to cling for support to the spear-like points of the low iron fence; the music took on a confused, far-away sound; the forms of the dancers gliding past the long, open windows became hazy and indistinct, as if suddenly enveloped in mist. He came to himself in a spasm of fright lest the policeman leaning idly against the gate, or the liveried coachmen lolling on the box-seats of the waiting carriages, might have heard his outburst. Apparently his indiscretion had passed unnoticed, and he took heart to repeat more emphatically still, but in an inaudible whisper, “As sure as my name is Benjamin Franklin Gish, I'll do it!”

It was a soft Southern winter night. The large, many-galleried residence in front of which he stood was brilliantly illuminated. Within, the dancers were weaving intricate and symmetrical figures to the airy music of a band stationed behind a screen of palms; women in trailing robes and men in faultless evening dress loitered in groups about the wide, old-fashioned halls, and sauntered up and down the lantern-hung verandas; a few couples had ventured down into the large garden, where Duchesse roses bloomed in great dewy clusters, and straggling sprays of sweet-olive scented the air. A tall girl in a fluffy pink gown even strayed along the flower-bordered walk by the fence; she leaned lightly upon the arm of her companion; her round, bare shoulder brushed Mr. Gish's worn coat-sleeve in passing.

The little man on the banquette heaved a profound sigh. It was a sigh of unutterable longing.

Mr. Gish—christened Benjamin Franklin, though his employers called him Gish, his fellow-clerks “B.F.,” and his family Benjy (they even wrote it Bengie)—was an assistant bookkeeper in the office of T. F. Haley &Co., cotton-buyers. He was short, fat, and quite bald, being in fact a bachelor nearing his fifties. He had been brought up (by his mother, relict of the late Samuel Gish, Esq.) to regard dancing as a frivolous, not to say sinful, amusement. Naturally timid and retiring, he had from his boyhood avoided all gatherings which included the element that, with bashful, antiquated courtesy, he called “the fair sex.” Two or three times, indeed, in earlier years, in company with his sisters, the six Misses Gish, he had attended a church sociable or a conversation party. But his sufferings on these occasions had been so great that he had mildly but firmly declined to expose himself to a repetition of them. Year in and year out, always at the same hour of the morning, he walked down to the office of Haley &Co., where he worked methodically over his ledgers until business hours were over, when he went home—in a street-car—to his late dinner. Once a week, on Monday evenings, he escorted his mother and “the girls” to prayer-meeting. On Sundays he sat with the oldest Miss Gish in the choir. He did not sing; the habit dated from the time when—a boy in roundabouts—he blew the bellows of the long-discarded wind-organ. The neighbors were unanimous in the opinion that Mr. Benjy was an exemplary son, a good brother, and a consistent church-member.

Latterly, however, Mr. Gish's feelings had undergone a mysterious change. He could not himself have explained the phenomenon, but he could lay his finger, as he often declared to himself, upon the exact moment when the idea first took hold of him. They were coming home from Monday-night prayer-meeting; his mother was on his arm; the girls trailed along behind, two and two. A light streamed out from the wide-open windows of a house set well back from the street and embowered in roses; a rhythmic strain of waltz music pulsated on the air; couples embracing each other moved down the long room, floating, floating, as if borne on unseen wings. It was but a flash, a momentary glance; “but that done it,” groaned Mr. Gish, inwardly, “and I've never been the same man since.” He continued to blush and tremble if by chance he encountered one of the fair sex. But a new and strange fever burned in his veins. An extraordinary passion haunted him day and night. The truth is, Mr. Gish was beset with an overwhelming desire to dance. His mother, had she been aware of this shameless ambition of her only son, would no doubt have declared that Benjy was being tempted of the devil. But she did not know. He kept it to himself, gloating over it in secret; taking it out, so to speak, when he was alone, and turning it over and over in his mind, stealthily, as a girl counts her trinkets and shoves them hurriedly back into the box when she hears some one coming. Standing at his high desk in the office of Haley & Co., his mild blue eyes fixed on the columns of figures, his finger slipping mechanically from line to line, his heart would give a sudden thump, and a vision would swim before his eyes—a marvel of radiant beings swaying, wheeling, advancing, retreating, winding in and out in squares and rings and loops, to the music of unheard melodies!

For nearly two years past he had been accustomed to loiter at night about the great mansions in the Garden District; the echo of dance music from any point whatsoever drew him as a magnet draws the needle, from the tall, narrow tenement-house on a side street where the Gishes lived, to stately avenues, where he leaned for hours, as he was now doing, jostled by a rabble of small boys, elbowed by unkempt idlers, and gazed into open windows, or stood out in the middle of the street watching the moving shadows on drawn shades. Now, at last, a resolution which had been slowly gathering in his brain for many weeks had taken definite shape. “Yes! I'll do it,” he repeated a third time, as he turned away and hurried homeward; for he was supposed at such times to be overworked by the sordid and avaricious firm of Haley & Co.—for shame, Benjy!—and his mother always sat up until he came in.

A day or two later a good-humored, bustling crowd thronged the streets, for the holiday-loving old town was making ready for one of its great annual holidays. Mr. Gish came out of the office about noon and walked down towards Canal Street. His round, clean-shaven face wore an unwonted look of excitement. He seemed to be searching, in a covert sort of way, for some one or some thing. He paused at the street corners, casting hurried glances in either direction; once he made a few steps towards a knot of boys gathered in front of a peanut-stand, but he changed his mind, a pink flush mounting to his cheeks as he moved hastily on.

His conference, far down in the French quarter, with a slim, dark, foreign-looking gentleman who wore immense hoops of gold in his ears, and whose shoulders went up and down in incessant shrugs, was an animated one. Mr. Gish talked a good deal, and seemed to be giving minute directions. The foreign-looking gentleman listened attentively, and nodded understandingly from time to time. Presently they walked together, threading the crowd, across Canal Street, and a few squares up Carondelet. From the opposite sidewalk Mr. Gish pointed out the office of his employers. There was a quick movement from hand to hand, and they separated. “All-a rright-a!” said the gentleman, showing his beautiful white teeth. Around the corner he stopped to examine the crisp bill; he grinned, and puckered his lips into a whistle, slapping his knee. The transaction was evidently a business one, and the shabby little accountant had not been niggardly.

The next day was the eve of the festival. “Mr. Haley,” said Mr. Gish, looking up from his books as the senior partner was about quitting the office, “I—I think, sir, I will come back tonight and finish this piece of work.”

“Very well, Gish,” said Mr. Haley, carelessly, from the doorway. “It is of no great importance; you can let it stand over if you like.”

“You'd better come along and have a blowout with the boys, B. F.,” remarked Bob Haight, shaking himself into his overcoat and watching for the look of horror which these unseemly suggestions always brought into that modest gentleman's face.

“No, I thank you, Mr. Haight,” Mr. Gish replied, nervously, the blood rushing into his cheeks; “I—I have made other arrangements.”

Haight stared at him a moment in amazement. “Blest if I don't believe old B. F. is sowing some oats on his own account!” he muttered to himself. But he forbore any comment.

The assistant bookkeeper left the office a little late. He walked rapidly up the street some four or five blocks and turned to the right, plunging, a few doors from the corner, into a small, dingy shop, whence a minute later he reappeared, carrying under his arm a good-sized bundle done up in thick brown paper.

In the crowded car he held the bundle carefully on his knees; but when he alighted he hugged it to his breast, folding his overcoat closely about it, and stole along the street, devoutly hoping to gain his own room without being seen. It was twilight when he reached the gate and slipped across Miss Charlotte's trim little flower-garden to the front door. He let himself in as softly as he could with his latchkey. Fortunately the narrow hall was dark and deserted. He bolted up the stair, his heart beating like a trip-hammer, his knees trembling beneath him. Inside the small hall room where he slept he drew a long breath of relief. But the troubled look returned to his face as he cast about for a safe hiding-place for the brown-paper package. He had at first thought of slipping it between the mattresses of his bed, but he drew back in sudden terror. Sister Mary-Lou would certainly sniff it out when she came up to take off the ruffled day pillows and turn down the covers. He dropped it into the flat clothes-basket and threw some soiled linen carelessly over it; it bulged frightfully, and Mary-Lou's eyes were so keen! The rickety old armoire, which contained, besides his own well-worn best coat, sundry articles belonging to the girls, was not to be thought of. After much hesitation, and with many qualms, he laid the bundle in the top drawer of the high bureau, and—for the first time in his life—turned the key in the lock and put it in his pocket. Then he went guiltily down to dinner.

Mrs. Gish and the six Misses Gish were already at table. The Misses Gish, with the exception of Miss Martha, the youngest, just turned of thirty-nine, all “took after” their mother, who was tall and spare, and very brisk and alert in spite of her seventy-five years. Miss Martha was short and plump, like her brother, with a round, fresh face and a dimpled chin. Time was when Benjamin Franklin came, or believed he came, fourth in due order of age in the family circle. Certain it is that the names of Caroline, Amelia, and Mary-Lou preceded his own in the list recorded on the yellowed register of the big family Bible, while those of Jane, Charlotte, and Martha came after. But, by some occult calculation on their part, he had found himself suddenly, half a score of years ago, older than Mary-Lou and Amelia. A year or two later he had stepped above Charlotte herself, and now bore himself as became the first-born and the head of the house. This, however, by the way.

“Benjy,” said his mother, passing him a plate of thin soup, “you are late. It is almost time for the first bell.”

Sure enough! it was Monday night!

Benjy turned scarlet. “I'm s-sorry,” he mumbled, with his face in the napkin, “but I have to go back to the office—a little business—”

Mrs. Gish shook her head mournfully. She had her opinion of the hardened and inhuman taskmasters who were “working the life” out of Benjy.

“I am sure,” said Miss Martha, rebelliously, pushing away her plate, “I don't pity Benjy! I'd a great deal rather add up figures than go to prayer-meeting! I hate prayer-meeting.”

A shiver of horror went around the table. Mrs. Gish dropped her knife and fork and stared aghast at Miss Martha, who threw up her head defiantly, then dropped it and burst into tears.

Benjamin Franklin did not hear the storm of reproach which followed. A wild scheme revolved in his brain as he gazed absently at the culprit.

“I did not know Martha was so—so nice!” he murmured. “I'll ask her to go with me. But no,” he added, after a moment's reflection, “I could never manage it. Poor Martha!”

He watched them trooping off to prayer-meeting, a forlorn and straggling procession, with the penitent Miss Martha bringing up the rear. A slight pang of remorse stirred within him, but he stiffened himself against it. Indeed, no sooner were they out of sight than he went boldly out into Miss Charlotte's flower-garden and began cutting her cherished roses with his pocket-knife. He looked uneasily over his shoulder during the operation, it is true; he even had a prophetic vision of Delphy, the fat black cook, undergoing suspicion, arraignment, perhaps dismissal, on account of the crime he was committing. But he did not desist until he had a generous handful of dewy, long-stemmed buds. To these he added cluster after cluster of scarlet and pink geranium blossoms, snipped recklessly from Miss Charlotte's well-trimmed borders.

He hurried up to his room, closing and locking the door behind him. When he had lighted the smoky lamp, he took the bundle from the drawer and spread its contents on the bed. It was an evening suit of black cloth—coat, vest, and trousers. A smaller parcel within contained a pair of dancing-pumps, a white silk handkerchief, a white tie, and a small round cap.

Mr. Gish contemplated these things for a moment in abstracted silence. Then, with a sort of feverish haste, he began to put them on.

The low-cut vest gave him a queerish sensation; the coat made him blush. He pulled uneasily at the claw-hammer tails, with much the same feeling that a ballet-girl may be supposed to have when she dons her short skirts for the first time. But, twisting and squirming in front of the tilted looking-glass, with the lamp on the floor, he passed abruptly from gloom and anxiety to rapture. The coat wrinkled between the shoulders, and the gentleman who had hired the suit last had bagged the trousers at the knee. These, however, were but trifles.. Mr. Gish had undergone a transformation! He swelled with pride as he surveyed himself from head to foot, and from foot to head again.

He hesitated a moment before he could make up his mind to put on the little silk cap, but he ended by setting it rather jauntily on his bald head. He got gingerly into his light overcoat, and drew on his overshoes—a precaution he never neglected in any kind of weather— and tiptoed out, carrying the flowers wrapped in a bit of newspaper.

He left the car a few blocks above the office of Haley & Co., and walked down, keeping well in the shadow of the tall buildings.

There were noise and bustle enough a stone's-throw away; here the street was quite deserted. But a woman was sitting on the lowest step of the long, dark stairway that led up to the office. She had a child in her arms, and a little bundle of rags with its head on her knees was sobbing in its sleep.

“I can walk home,” muttered Mr. Gish. He dropped his only remaining coin in her lap, and groped his way up the stair.

He unlocked the door, and refastened it on the inside. When he had removed his overcoat and overshoes, he lighted the gas, every jet of it, turning up each tongue of yellow flame as high as possible. He pushed the chairs and office stools against the wall, and thrust the roses into a dusty glass that stood on the head bookkeeper's desk. Finally he threw open the three large windows that looked down upon the street. Then he seated himself gravely in Mr. Haley's revolving arm-chair and waited.

The hands of the small clock over his own desk pointed to a quarter of nine.

The minute-hand moved slowly. The big bell in a church steeple not far away boomed nine.

Mr. Gish began to fidget. A cold perspiration gathered on his forehead. “Can it be possible,” he whispered, with his eyes glued to the clock, “that there has been a mistake?”

The disappointment was too great. He covered his face with his pudgy hands and groaned. Half-past nine. Ten. He got up slowly and began to turn out the lights, one by one.

Suddenly his face cleared; a hand-organ sounded in the street below. The preliminary notes of “The Maiden's Prayer” floated up on the night wind, which came in a little chill through the wide windows. Mr. Gish hastily relighted the gas, and, crossing to the farther side of the room, he faced about with a low bow, smiling and extending his hand.

And then, he danced!

The repertory of the somewhat rickety organ consisted of five “tunes,” including “The Maiden's Prayer.” The others were “The Evergreen Waltz,” “The Tower Song,” from Trovatore, “Monastery Bells,” and “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny.” To all of these, and to each one of them over and over, did Benjamin Franklin Gish dance. He glided, he leaped, he bounded, he swung corners, he chasséd, he fanned an imaginary partner, he ogled her as he pranced back and forrth with her, he gazed down a her with a blissful smile as he revolved slowly and laboriously with her in a supposed waltz.

At the conclusion of each set of tunes he walked about, red and panting, but delicately mindful of the (imaginary) tall girl in a fluffy pink gown whose hand rested on his arm.

Once there was an abrupt break in the music. Mr. Gish looked at the clock, and then ran to the window, dizzy with apprehension. A spirited dialogue was going on between the organ-grinder in the street below and an occupant of one of the rooms of the lofty building across the way. A head was thrust out of an upper window and a string of impotent missiles whizzed downward. But the sash presently dropped, and the cheery notes of “Carry Me Back” rang once more on the air.

Mr. Gish was no longer young; he was fat and short-winded. As the evening wore on he took fewer steps; he sat down between dances, mopping his face with his handkerchief; and it must be confessed that he became at times a little forgetful of his partner. But when the big bell struck twelve and the music broke off with a jerk in the midst of a strain, a pang shot through his heart. He stared blankly about him, and choked down a mournful sigh.

The ball was at an end.

“I must contrive somehow to pay for the gas,” he muttered, as he turned off the last jet.

The long tramp homeward was dreary enough. His feet were bruised and blistered, his knees trembled, his arms hung limp from his shoulders, his back ached, his temples throbbed, and his eyes burned. But all this was a trifle as compared with the state of his mind. A moral reaction had set in. The thought of his mother sitting up for him hung on him like a weight, and he groaned outright as he approached the gate. He opened the door cautiously and slipped in. His foot was already on the stair.

“Benjy!” called his mother from the little sitting-room.

“Yes, 'm,” he gasped. The perspiration broke out anew on his forehead as he limped slowly down the hall.

Mrs. Gish sat in a low rocking-chair in front of the grate, where the handful of coals had long ago fallen to ashes. Her head and shoulders were wrapped in an old-fashioned black-and-white plaid shawl. Her slim old hands were crossed over the Bible which rested on her knees. When Benjamin Franklin entered she looked up, and began, severely, “Do you know, Benjy, that it is after one o'—” But at sight of his woe-begone face her voice changed. “Why, my son,” she cried, “what is the matter?”

Benjy had no heart for further concealments. He dropped on his knees and hid his face in his mother's lap, like a boy, and there fairly sobbed out the whole story. He went over it all with simple directness —the first fleeting vision of the dance, the long evenings spent in gazing through open windows at the airy inhabitants of another world, the growing desire to taste this unknown and forbidden joy, the final resolution, the bargain with the organ-grinder, the hiring of the dress-suit, even the surreptitious clipping of Miss Charlotte's roses, and then the ball, the delight of those untaught steps! He told it all, or nearly all. His dream of the tall girl in a fluffy pink gown, with red lips and laughing eyes, that he kept to himself.

“Benjamin Franklin,” said Mrs. Gish, when he had finished, “stand up.”

He got upon his feet. Something unwonted in his mother's voice penetrated his troubled senses and gave him a curious thrill.

“Take off your overcoat,” she added, peremptorily, “and let me look at you.”

He obeyed, giving the tails of the claw-hammer a vigorous pull towards the front.

The old lady put out a thin, blue-veined hand, and turned him slowly around and around.

“La, Benjy,” she exclaimed at last, “how han'some you are! You look exactly like your pa did the night me and him stood up to be married!”

Benjy stared at her in blank amazement. She had risen to her feet and dropped the shawl from her shoulders. Her white old head went up proudly; her sunken eyes flashed. “As for dancin',” she cried, “there wa'n't a lighter foot in Pike County than Sam Gish! He could dance all night without losin' his breath, Sam could! And when me and him led off together”—she paused to chuckle softly—“the balance of the girls and boys had to stand back, I tell you! La, Sam—Benjy, I mean—it's been a long time since I've heard a fiddle talk. But I believe in my soul if I was to hear 'Rabbit in the Cotton Patch,' or 'Granny, does yo' Dog Bite?' I couldn't no more keep my foot off the floor than I could when I was Polly Weathers and Sam Gish was holdin' out his hand!”

She laughed so gayly that Benjy, whose heart was wellnigh bursting with relief, caught the infection and laughed too. The sound of their mirth penetrated the thin partition and echoed through the next room, where Miss Charlotte and Miss Martha were sleeping. Miss Martha turned upon her pillow, half awake, and a wistful smile flitted ghost-like over her round face.

“I'd like to have seen you at the ball, Benjy,” the old lady went on, with a youthful ring to her cracked voice. “I'll be bound you stepped out like your pa.”

All Benjamin Franklin's weariness had vanished. His face was beaming. He tossed away his tear-wet handkerchief, glided backward, laid his hand on his heart, and bent his short body in a graceful bow. A roguish gleam shot into his mother's dark eyes. She shook out her scant black skirts, and sank nearly to the floor in a sweeping courtesy, extending her finger-tips as she rose to lay them on Benjamin Franklin's arm. Thus, slowly and with measured steps she made the circuit of the dim little room, halting near the fireplace with another wonderful reverence. Then, softly humming a by-gone tune, she tripped lightly through the mazy turnings of an old-fashioned reel. Mr. Gish, radiant, bobbed after her, clumsily imitating her mincing steps. Her tall, erect figure had an almost girlish grace; a smile hovered about her thin lips; her small feet in their loose felt slippers fairly twinkled. More than once she held up a warning finger and glanced over her shoulder, fearful lest the girls should awake. At last, with a quaint little twirl, she stopped, her hands set saucily upon her hips, and looked at her son with laughter-wet eyes.

“Go 'long to bed, Benjy,” she said, presently, giving him an affectionate little shove; “it's high time the chickens was crowin' for day!”

He kissed her, and ran, breathlessly, up to the little hall bedroom, the happiest assistant bookkeeper that ever gave a ball.

 
 
 

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