Ultimately, Jim let his innate skill with people and cards carry him along in the game of whist, not much noticing whether he ended up behind or ahead on the night (ahead, as it happened. Schrute had a distinct tendency to underbid, only bidding what he was certain to take, while Malone seemed to care very little for the quality of his hand, as long as the numbers involved amused him—Jim noted at the end of the evening that Malone had personally won just under 70 tricks all night). Instead he spent his attention on Miss Beesly. Her hair. Her face. The way her shoulders shuddered under her shawl when a comment amused her. How her eyes glowed when she won the deciding trick. When they were partners, this attention served him well, and they worked together easily; when they were paired with the others, he tended to neglect winners from her partner’s hand, being too drawn in to her. He noticed a similar pattern on her part, and was thankful that the luck of the draw placed them opposite more than not. It certainly would not have done to have lost what little he had left at whist while at the ball that was intended to make, not mar, his fortunes.
At the end of a sufficient number of rounds to be polite but not so many as to deprive the others of whatever other entertainment they might have sought out, he rose calmly and extended his hand across the table. The calm was a ruse; this moment was more fraught for him than any other this night, even the moment before entering the ball when he despaired of making any social connection at all. After lightly acknowledging the other two and suggesting they settle up (a task Schrute fell to with almost alarming acumen) his eyes rose to Miss Beesly’s face and he asked the question he had been waiting to ask since Colonel Scott first dropped him in her path.
“Miss Beesly, would you do me the honour of a dance?”
A smile. “But Mr. Halpert, there is nothing playing.” A giggle.
How had he not noticed that? He ducked his head and essayed a grin in her general direction while hoping that his faux pas had passed unnoticed by their furiously tabulating tablemates.
“Are you sure? I could have sworn there was.”
“Why, Mr. Halpert, succumbing to fancy so soon? It usually takes Colonel Scott’s guests months to imagine music playing in a silent room. I’m afraid he has that effect on people, but I felt sure you hadn’t spent sufficient time in his company to have been overcome as yet.”
“Well, Miss Beesly, I always was a quick study.”
Malone harrumphed into their conversation in a manner that suggested he had only been listening with half an ear, which—albeit it was a half more than Jim would have preferred—was in its own way a relief.
“True, true. Always caught on quick in Vienna, didn’t you Halpert? Could tell what the Frogs wanted before they knew themselves. Here’s your winnings, m’boy. Good on you. If you’ll pardon me, I’m off to the buffet. Scott may be mad as a hatter but he knows his way around food. I hear there’s iced cream and cakes.” He stuffed a few notes and coins into Jim’s extended hand and waddled away.
As Malone rose, Schrute did too, unceremoniously snatching his own small pile of coins departing with a snappish “Halpert. Miss Beesly.”
This left Jim staring at Pam, whose amusement had only deepened at seeing Malone fill his hand so unceremoniously. She noticed him watching her and ducked her head down to the table, where she picked up another pile of winnings and spoke.
“It looks like Lord Malone was quite generous this evening to us all.”
“Indeed, it’s rare to see three winners stand up from a table of four.”
“You should check that with Lieutenant Schrute. I’m sure he would say, despite our slightly heavier pocketbooks, we all stood up losers compared to him.”
“I do find myself at a loss about him, I will concede.”
“Don’t be alarmed, he strikes most people that way. You will get used to him, if you remain long in the Colonel’s company.”
“I will indeed then, for the company is most exquisitely charming.” His eyebrow rose.
Hers rose to match it. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Halpert.”
“Naturally not. My tutors at Oxford were quite insistent on the point: the eye cannot see itself.”
She blushed, but rallied. “An Oxford man? I’m not sure I can be seen with you. We Beeslys are strictly Cambridge folk. An old family habit, I’m afraid.”
“Well, I will endeavour not to hold it too much against you. One’s upbringing is hardly under one’s control, after all.”
“Perhaps so, but I cannot help but imagine that you had some influence on your own attendance at that second-rate school, Mr. Halpert, which makes it difficult to forgive your educational faux pas so easily.”
“I can only beg your leniency, Miss Beesly, under the circumstances. Halperts are always Balliol men, and I dare not disappoint my forefathers.”
“I suppose I might, though it surprises me to hear that you are of Balliol. I had thought, from your temper, to find you rather at Magdalen.”
“A low blow, Miss Beesly, low indeed. But putting this aside for the moment, if you are amenable—I hear the strains of a new song beginning to build, and I wonder if I might have that dance that was mentioned a few moments ago?”
“Hmm…I do believe you are right. And since you ask so nicely, and the song happens to be a particular favorite of mine, I believe I shall accept your offer.”
“I am most happy to hear it. But I am afraid I do not recognize the song; perhaps it became popular while I was abroad in Austria. What is it called?”
“I am unsure of the title, but I know the composer. In fact, I do much wonder that you have not heard it before if you indeed came directly to us from Austria, for he is himself a northern Italian, from one of the Venetian satellites. A Mr. Enrico Cugino—his waltzes in the Viennese style are all the rage. The waltz is quite the done thing.”
“Well, if it is the done thing it must be done—Cugino’s it is.”