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Chapter 37 – New Impressions

Louisa May AlcottJun 23, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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At three o’clock in the afternoon, all the fashionable world at Nice
may be seen on the Promenade des Anglais – a charming place, for the
wide walk, bordered with palms, flowers, and tropical shrubs, is
bounded on one side by the sea, on the other by the grand drive,
lined with hotels and villas, while beyond lie orange orchards and
the hills. Many nations are represented, many languages spoken, many
costumes worn, and on a sunny day the spectacle is as gay and
brilliant as a carnival. Haughty English, lively French, sober
Germans, handsome Spaniards, ugly Russians, meek Jews, free-and-easy
Americans, all drive, sit, or saunter here, chatting over the news,
and criticizing the latest celebrity who has arrived – Ristori or
Dickens, Victor Emmanuel or the Queen of the Sandwich Islands. The
equipages are as varied as the company and attract as much
attention, especially the low basket barouches in which ladies drive
themselves, with a pair of dashing ponies, gay nets to keep their
voluminous flounces from overflowing the diminutive vehicles, and
little grooms on the perch behind.

Along this walk, on Christmas Day, a tall young man walked
slowly, with his hands behind him, and a somewhat absent expression
of countenance. He looked like an Italian, was dressed like an
Englishman, and had the independent air of an American – a combination
which caused sundry pairs of feminine eyes to look approvingly
after him, and sundry dandies in black velvet suits, with
rose-colored neckties, buff gloves, and orange flowers in their
buttonholes, to shrug their shoulders, and then envy him his inches.
There were plenty of pretty faces to admire, but the young man took
little notice of them, except to glance now and then at some blonde
girl in blue. Presently he strolled out of the promenade and
stood a moment at the crossing, as if undecided whether to go and
listen to the band in the Jardin Publique, or to wander along the
beach toward Castle Hill. The quick trot of ponies’ feet made him
look up, as one of the little carriages, containing a single
young lady, came rapidly down the street. The lady was young,
blonde, and dressed in blue. He stared a minute, then his whole
face woke up, and, waving his hat like a boy, he hurried forward
to meet her.

"Oh, Laurie, is it really you? I thought you’d never come!"
cried Amy, dropping the reins and holding out both hands, to the
great scandalization of a French mamma, who hastened her daughter’s
steps, lest she should be demoralized by beholding the free manners
of these ‘mad English’.

"I was detained by the way, but I promised to spend Christmas
with you, and here I am."

"How is your grandfather? When did you come? Where are you
staying?"

"Very well – last night – at the Chauvain. I called at your
hotel, but you were out."

"I have so much to say, I don’t know where to begin! Get
in and we can talk at our ease. I was going for a drive and
longing for company. Flo’s saving up for tonight."

"What happens then, a ball?"

"A Christmas party at our hotel. There are many Americans
there, and they give it in honor of the day. You’ll go with us,
of course? Aunt will be charmed."

"Thank you. Where now?" asked Laurie, leaning back and
folding his arms, a proceeding which suited Amy, who preferred
to drive, for her parasol whip and blue reins over the white
ponies backs afforded her infinite satisfaction.

"I’m going to the bankers first for letters, and then to
Castle Hill. The view is so lovely, and I like to feed the peacocks.
Have you ever been there?"

"Often, years ago, but I don’t mind having a look at it."

"Now tell me all about yourself. The last I heard of you,
your grandfather wrote that he expected you from Berlin."

"Yes, I spent a month there and then joined him in Paris,
where he has settled for the winter. He has friends there and
finds plenty to amuse him, so I go and come, and we get on capitally."

"That’s a sociable arrangement," said Amy, missing something
in Laurie’s manner, though she couldn’t tell what.

"Why, you see, he hates to travel, and I hate to keep still,
so we each suit ourselves, and there is no trouble. I am often
with him, and he enjoys my adventures, while I like to feel that
someone is glad to see me when I get back from my wanderings. Dirty
old hole, isn’t it?" he added, with a look of disgust as they drove
along the boulevard to the Place Napoleon in the old city.

"The dirt is picturesque, so I don’t mind. The river and the
hills are delicious, and these glimpses of the narrow cross streets
are my delight. Now we shall have to wait for that procession to
pass. It’s going to the Church of St. John."

While Laurie listlessly watched the procession of priests
under their canopies, white-veiled nuns bearing lighted tapers,
and some brotherhood in blue chanting as they walked, Amy watched
him, and felt a new sort of shyness steal over her, for he was
changed, and she could not find the merry-faced boy she left in
the moody-looking man beside her. He was handsomer than ever and
greatly improved, she thought, but now that the flush of pleasure
at meeting her was over, he looked tired and spiritless – not sick,
nor exactly unhappy, but older and graver than a year or two of
prosperous life should have made him. She couldn’t understand it
and did not venture to ask questions, so she shook her head and
touched up her ponies, as the procession wound away across the
arches of the Paglioni bridge and vanished in the church.

"Que pensez-vous?" she said, airing her French, which had
improved in quantity, if not in quality, since she came abroad.

"That mademoiselle has made good use of her time, and the
result is charming," replied Laurie, bowing with his hand on
his heart and an admiring look.

She blushed with pleasure, but somehow the compliment did
not satisfy her like the blunt praises he used to give her at
home, when he promenaded round her on festival occasions, and
told her she was ‘altogether jolly’, with a hearty smile and an
approving pat on the head. She didn’t like the new tone, for
though not blase, it sounded indifferent in spite of the look.

"If that’s the way he’s going to grow up, I wish he’d stay
a boy," she thought, with a curious sense of disappointment and
discomfort, trying meantime to seem quite easy and gay.

At Avigdor’s she found the precious home letters and, giving
the reins to Laurie, read them luxuriously as they wound up the
shady road between green hedges, where tea roses bloomed as freshly
as in June.

"Beth is very poorly, Mother says. I often think I ought to
go home, but they all say ‘stay’. So I do, for I shall never have
another chance like this," said Amy, looking sober over one page.

"I think you are right, there. You could do nothing at home,
and it is a great comfort to them to know that you are well and
happy, and enjoying so much, my dear."

He drew a little nearer, and looked more like his old self as
he said that, and the fear that sometimes weighed on Amy’s heart
was lightened, for the look, the act, the brotherly ‘my dear’,
seemed to assure her that if any trouble did come, she would not
be alone in a strange land. Presently she laughed and showed him
a small sketch of Jo in her scribbling suit, with the bow rampantly
erect upon her cap, and issuing from her mouth the words, ‘Genius
burns!’.

Laurie smiled, took it, put it in his vest pocket ‘to keep it
from blowing away’, and listened with interest to the lively letter
Amy read him.

"This will be a regularly merry Christmas to me, with presents
in the morning, you and letters in the afternoon, and a party at
night," said Amy, as they alighted among the ruins of the old fort,
and a flock of splendid peacocks came trooping about them, tamely
waiting to be fed. While Amy stood laughing on the bank above him
as she scattered crumbs to the brilliant birds, Laurie looked at her
as she had looked at him, with a natural curiosity to see what
changes time and absence had wrought. He found nothing to perplex
or disappoint, much to admire and approve, for overlooking a few
little affectations of speech and manner, she was as sprightly and
graceful as ever, with the addition of that indescribable something
in dress and bearing which we call elegance. Always mature for her
age, she had gained a certain aplomb in both carriage and conversation,
which made her seem more of a woman of the world than she was, but
her old petulance now and then showed itself, her strong will still
held its own, and her native frankness was unspoiled by foreign
polish.

Laurie did not read all this while he watched her feed the peacocks,
but he saw enough to satisfy and interest him, and carried
away a pretty little picture of a bright-faced girl standing in the
sunshine, which brought out the soft hue of her dress, the fresh
color of her cheeks, the golden gloss of her hair, and made her a
prominent figure in the pleasant scene.

As they came up onto the stone plateau that crowns the hill,
Amy waved her hand as if welcoming him to her favorite haunt, and
said, pointing here and there, "Do you remember the Cathedral and
the Corso, the fishermen dragging their nets in the bay, and the
lovely road to Villa Franca, Schubert’s Tower, just below, and best
of all, that speck far out to sea which they say is Corsica?"

"I remember. It’s not much changed," he answered without
enthusiasm.

"What Jo would give for a sight of that famous speck!" said
Amy, feeling in good spirits and anxious to see him so also.

"Yes," was all he said, but he turned and strained his eyes to
see the island which a greater usurper than even Napoleon now made
interesting in his sight.

"Take a good look at it for her sake, and then come and tell
me what you have been doing with yourself all this while," said
Amy, seating herself, ready for a good talk.

But she did not get it, for though he joined her and answered
all her questions freely, she could only learn that he had roved
about the Continent and been to Greece. So after idling away an
hour, they drove home again, and having paid his respects to Mrs.
Carrol, Laurie left them, promising to return in the evening.

It must be recorded of Amy that she deliberately prinked that
night. Time and absence had done its work on both the young people.
She had seen her old friend in a new light, not as ‘our boy’, but as
a handsome and agreeable man, and she was conscious of a very natural
desire to find favor in his sight. Amy knew her good points, and
made the most of them with the taste and skill which is a fortune to
a poor and pretty woman.

Tarlatan and tulle were cheap at Nice, so she enveloped herself
in them on such occasions, and following the sensible English fashion
of simple dress for young girls, got up charming little toilettes
with fresh flowers, a few trinkets, and all manner of dainty devices,
which were both inexpensive and effective. It must be confessed
that the artist sometimes got possession of the woman, and indulged
in antique coiffures, statuesque attitudes, and classic draperies.
But, dear heart, we all have our little weaknesses, and find it
easy to pardon such in the young, who satisfy our eyes with their
comeliness, and keep our hearts merry with their artless vanities.

"I do want him to think I look well, and tell them so at home,"
said Amy to herself, as she put on Flo’s old white silk ball dress,
and covered it with a cloud of fresh illusion, out of which her
white shoulders and golden head emerged with a most artistic effect.
Her hair she had the sense to let alone, after gathering up the
thick waves and curls into a Hebe-like knot at the back of her head.

"It’s not the fashion, but it’s becoming, and I can’t afford to
make a fright of myself," she used to say, when advised to frizzle,
puff, or braid, as the latest style commanded.

Having no ornaments fine enough for this important occasion,
Amy looped her fleecy skirts with rosy clusters of azalea, and
framed the white shoulders in delicate green vines. Remembering
the painted boots, she surveyed her white satin slippers with
girlish satisfaction, and chassed down the room, admiring her
aristocratic feet all by herself.

"My new fan just matches my flowers, my gloves fit to a charm,
and the real lace on Aunt’s mouchoir gives an air to my whole dress.
If I only had a classical nose and mouth I should be perfectly happy,"
she said, surveying herself with a critical eye and a candle in
each hand.

In spite of this affliction, she looked unusually gay and
graceful as she glided away. She seldom ran – it did not suit her
style, she thought, for being tall, the stately and Junoesque was
more appropriate than the sportive or piquante. She walked up and
down the long saloon while waiting for Laurie, and once arranged
herself under the chandelier, which had a good effect upon her
hair, then she thought better of it, and went away to the other
end of the room, as if ashamed of the girlish desire to have the
first view a propitious one. It so happened that she could not
have done a better thing, for Laurie came in so quietly she
did not hear him, and as she stood at the distant window, with
her head half turned and one hand gathering up her dress, the
slender, white figure against the red curtains was as effective
as a well-placed statue.

"Good evening, Diana!" said Laurie, with the look of satisfaction
she liked to see in his eyes when they rested on her.

"Good evening, Apollo!" she answered, smiling back at him,
for he too looked unusually debonair, and the thought of
entering the ballroom on the arm of such a personable man
caused Amy to pity the four plain Misses Davis from the bottom
of her heart.

"Here are your flowers. I arranged them myself, remembering
that you didn’t like what Hannah calls a ‘sot-bookay’," said
Laurie, handing her a delicate nosegay, in a holder that she
had long coveted as she daily passed it in Cardiglia’s window.

"How kind you are!" she exclaimed gratefully. "If I’d
known you were coming I’d have had something ready for you today,
though not as pretty as this, I’m afraid."

"Thank you. It isn’t what it should be, but you have improved it,"
he added, as she snapped the silver bracelet on her wrist.

"Please don’t."

"I thought you liked that sort of thing."

"Not from you, it doesn’t sound natural, and I like your
old bluntness better."

"I’m glad of it," he answered, with a look of relief, then
buttoned her gloves for her, and asked if his tie was straight,
just as he used to do when they went to parties together at home.

The company assembled in the long salle a manger, that
evening, was such as one sees nowhere but on the Continent. The
hospitable Americans had invited every acquaintance they had
in Nice, and having no prejudice against titles, secured a few
to add luster to their Christmas ball.

A Russian prince condescended to sit in a corner for an
hour and talk with a massive lady, dressed like Hamlet’s mother
in black velvet with a pearl bridle under her chin. A Polish
count, aged eighteen, devoted himself to the ladies, who pronounced
him, ‘a fascinating dear’, and a German Serene Something,
having come to supper alone, roamed vaguely about, seeking what
he might devour. Baron Rothschild’s private secretary, a large-nosed
Jew in tight boots, affably beamed upon the world, as if
his master’s name crowned him with a golden halo. A stout
Frenchman, who knew the Emperor, came to indulge his mania for
dancing, and Lady de Jones, a British matron, adorned the scene
with her little family of eight. Of course, there were many
light-footed, shrill-voiced American girls, handsome, lifeless-looking
English ditto, and a few plain but piquante French demoiselles,
likewise the usual set of traveling young gentlemen
who disported themselves gaily, while mammas of all nations
lined the walls and smiled upon them benignly when they danced
with their daughters.

Any young girl can imagine Amy’s state of mind when she
‘took the stage’ that night, leaning on Laurie’s arm. She
knew she looked well, she loved to dance, she felt that her
foot was on her native heath in a ballroom, and enjoyed the
delightful sense of power which comes when young girls first
discover the new and lovely kingdom they are born to rule by
virtue of beauty, youth, and womanhood. She did pity the
Davis girls, who were awkward, plain, and destitute of escort,
except a grim papa and three grimmer maiden aunts, and she
bowed to them in her friendliest manner as she passed, which
was good of her, as it permitted them to see her dress, and
burn with curiosity to know who her distinguished-looking
friend might be. With the first burst of the band, Amy’s
color rose, her eyes began to sparkle, and her feet to tap the
floor impatiently, for she danced well and wanted Laurie to
know it. Therefore the shock she received can better be
imagined than described, when he said in a perfectly tranquil
tone, "Do you care to dance?"

"One usually does at a ball."

Her amazed look and quick answer caused Laurie to repair
his error as fast as possible.

"I meant the first dance. May I have the honor?"

"I can give you one if I put off the Count. He dances
devinely, but he will excuse me, as you are an old friend," said
Amy, hoping that the name would have a good effect, and show
Laurie that she was not to be trifled with.

"Nice little boy, but rather a short Pole to support . . .

A daughter of the gods,

Devinely tall, and most devinely fair,"

was all the satisfaction she got, however.

The set in which they found themselves was composed of
English, and Amy was compelled to walk decorously through a
cotillion, feeling all the while as if she could dance the
tarantella with relish. Laurie resigned her to the ‘nice little
boy’, and went to do his duty to Flo, without securing Amy for
the joys to come, which reprehensible want of forethought was
properly punished, for she immediately engaged herself till
supper, meaning to relent if he then gave any signs penitence.
She showed him her ball book with demure satisfaction when he
strolled instead of rushed up to claim her for the next, a
glorious polka redowa. But his polite regrets didn’t impose
upon her, and when she galloped away with the Count, she saw
Laurie sit down by her aunt with an actual expression of relief.

That was unpardonable, and Amy took no more notice of him
for a long while, except a word now and then when she came to
her chaperon between the dances for a necessary pin or a
moment’s rest. Her anger had a good effect, however, for she
hid it under a smiling face, and seemed unusually blithe and
brilliant. Laurie’s eyes followed her with pleasure, for she
neither romped nor sauntered, but danced with spirit and
grace, making the delightsome pastime what it should be. He
very naturally fell to studying her from this new point of
view, and before the evening was half over, had decided that
‘little Amy was going to make a very charming woman’.

It was a lively scene, for soon the spirit of the social
season took possession of everyone, and Christmas merriment made
all faces shine, hearts happy, and heels light. The musicians
fiddled, tooted, and banged as if they enjoyed it, everybody
danced who could, and those who couldn’t admired their
neighbors with uncommon warmth. The air was dark with Davises,
and many Joneses gamboled like a flock of young giraffes. The
golden secretary darted through the room like a meteor with
a dashing frenchwoman who carpeted the floor with her pink satin
train. The serene Teuton found the supper-table and was happy,
eating steadily through the bill of fare, and dismayed the
garcons by the ravages he committed. But the Emperor’s friend
covered himself with glory, for he danced everything, whether
he knew it or not, and introduced impromptu pirouettes when the
figures bewildered him. The boyish abandon of that stout man
was charming to behold, for though he ‘carried weight’, he
danced like an India-rubber ball. He ran, he flew, he pranced,
his face glowed, his bald head shown, his coattails waved wildly,
his pumps actually twinkled in the air, and when the music
stopped, he wiped the drops from his brow, and beamed upon his
fellow men like a French Pickwick without glasses.

Amy and her Pole distinguished themselves by equal enthusiasm
but more graceful agility, and Laurie found himself
involuntarily keeping time to the rhythmic rise and fall of the
white slippers as they flew by as indefatigably as if winged.
When little Vladimir finally relinquished her, with assurances
that he was ‘desolated to leave so early’, she was ready to
rest, and see how her recreant knight had borne his punishment.

It had been successful, for at three-and-twenty, blighted
affections find a balm in friendly society, and young nerves
will thrill, young blood dance, and healthy young spirits rise,
when subjected to the enchantment of beauty, light, music, and
motion. Laurie had a waked-up look as he rose to give her his
seat, and when he hurried away to bring her some supper, she
said to herself, with a satisfied smile, "Ah, I thought that
would do him good!"

"You look like Balzac’s ‘Femme Peinte Par Elle-Meme‘,"
he said, as he fanned her with one hand and held her coffee
cup in the other.

"My rouge won’t come off." and Amy rubbed her brilliant
cheek, and showed him her white glove with a sober simplicity
that made him laugh outright.

"What do you call this stuff?" he asked, touching a fold
of her dress that had blown over his knee.

"Illusion."

"Good name for it. It’s very pretty – new thing, isn’t it?"

"It’s as old as the hills. You have seen it on dozens of
girls, and you never found out that it was pretty till now –
stupide!"

"I never saw it on you before, which accounts for the mistake,
you see."

"None of that, it is forbidden. I’d rather take coffee
than compliments just now. No, don’t lounge, it makes me nervous."

Laurie sat bold upright, and meekly took her empty plate
feeling an odd sort of pleasure in having ‘little Amy’ order
him about, for she had lost her shyness now, and felt an
irrestible desire to trample on him, as girls have a delightful
way of doing when lords of creation show any signs of subjection.

"Where did you learn all this sort of thing?" he asked with
a quizzical look.

"As ‘this sort of thing’ is rather a vague expression, would
you kindly explain?" returned Amy, knowing perfectly well what he
meant, but wickedly leaving him to describe what is indescribable.

"Well – the general air, the style, the self-possession, the –
the – illusion – you know", laughed Laurie, breaking down and helping
himself out of his quandary with the new word.

Amy was gratified, but of course didn’t show it, and demurely
answered, "Foreign life polishes one in spite of one’s self. I
study as well as play, and as for this" – with a little gesture
toward her dress – "why, tulle is cheap, posies to be had for
nothing, and I am used to making the most of my poor little things."

Amy rather regretted that last sentence, fearing it wasn’t in
good taste, but Laurie liked her better for it, and found himself
both admiring and respecting the brave patience that made the most
of opportunity, and the cheerful spirit that covered poverty with
flowers. Amy did not know why he looked at her so kindly, nor
why he filled up her book with his own name, and devoted himself
to her for the rest of the evening in the most delightful manner;
but the impulse that wrought this agreeable change was the result
of one of the new impressions which both of them were unconsciously
giving and receiving.

 

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