Jim could never tell anyone, even himself, later how long the song was—only that it felt like both an eternity and an instant wrapped within each other. It was eternal in that he was transported beyond himself in a daze of delight to have Miss Beesly clipped within his arms. It was an instant in that it was over all too soon, and he found himself not so curiously unwilling to let his hands fall back to his sides. Only the thought of his mother’s face if she knew he had so dishonoured the family as to practically canoodle a woman not his wife in public forced him to release his hands and let them drop.
It must have been his imagination that she looked almost as reluctant as he, and that her arms lingered on his waist in a similar if not identical manner. He looked down on her with bated breath wondering what to say, what to do—how to express that which he had been firmly instructed under no circumstances to express, much less to someone he had been acquainted with for such a comparatively short amount of time, less still in such an unprivate and exposed setting. Just as he was beginning to square his shoulders and steel himself to disclose a certain set of inclinations that history tells us the English are singularly unready to disclose, the object of his inner musings looked up at him through laughing lashes and spoke first.
“Thank you for the dance, Mr. Halpert.”
How strange, Jim thought in retrospect, that such a simple speech should so disturb his inner workings as to distance him completely from the ability to respond. It was, he reflected, a distinct example of the unfairness of the world that the very conversation he wished to have was blocked to him by some unknown force within himself. As he stared down at the entrancing figure of Miss Beesly, the thought occurred to him that what he had thought was time standing still was, in point of fact, not—that she had been standing waiting for a response to a completely innocuous comment for what was probably a most ridiculous length of time. He stirred himself.
“You are of course most welcome, Miss Beesly.”
“Am I so welcome? It seems to me, Mr. Halpert, that perhaps you are, in the inimitable fashion of your sex, searching for a way to politely tell me that I should perhaps stand further off, lest I tread your feet so much they turn to wine.”
“No, indeed, Miss Beesly, not so indeed. For if I were so cruel and misguided as you imagine my entire sex to be—a recrimination for which I am not entirely sure I should forgive you—to think that you should be anywhere but where you are, I should on no account have given you the slightest inclination thereof. In fact, it might be better said that the very fact that I have given you cause to imagine so—for which I would be, in any other case, profoundly sorry to have so misled you—might stand as evidence that no such thought ever did or could have passed my mind. For it would be most ungentlemanlike for a man such as myself to lead a lady such as you—if there are indeed any ladies such as you, for you seem quite singular to me—to know the truth of his mind so bluntly as that.”
“Ah, but here I have you caught in a misprision, Mr. Halpert, and a great error it is. For if you imagine me singular, you must have but small experience of the social life of the Capital, or indeed of any social scene whatever, for I can assure you, Mr. Halpert, I am not as you seem, in your too-kind character, to have painted me. And as I am not, I must conclude you are as innocent of experience in these matters as you are kind to speak of me so, and therefore sufficiently untutored to speak just as you think—and that, in turn, returns me to the thought that you have found me stepping on your toes during the dance and are by your very innocence too kind to tell me so, but not so smooth as to avoid the thought.”
“I confess you have defeated me, Miss Beesly—I stand before you all disarmed and unarmored against the press of your unanswerable wit. I can only plead leniency in that you caught me merely in a brown study, and not at all imagining you would believe my inattention—unfortunate as it might be—any commentary on your skills either social or terpsichorean. I beg forgiveness, madam, humbly so, and throw myself upon your mercy.”
“And how can I fail to forgive such a speech? Let us let by the question of my feet, your toes, and our respective explanations, and turn to the remaining question.”
“And what is that?”
“Why, what are we to do next? For the Colonel charged me to entertain you until his return, and now that the Dowager Duchess is here I fear we cannot expect that for some hours yet.”
The thought of spending the next several hours in the company of Miss Beesly was anything but unpleasant to Jim, but he knew it would be imprudent and impolitic to explicitly suggest such a thing. It was not beyond the pale, however, for him to gently suggest that they turn their joint attentions to the hors d’oeuvres that the Colonel had set out—or, as Miss Beesly corrected him, that she and her associate (a Miss Martin he had not yet had the pleasure of encountering) had set out on the Colonel’s instructions. And so they turned from the dance floor with a flourish to find that Lord Malone’s anticipation had not gone wrong: there was indeed cake, and it was glorious.