It was the Major General’s wont to invite the young men under his command round for dinner to his house. He felt it was his duty as father to introduce all deserving young men of his acquaintance to his daughters, to keep a steady supply of admirers flowing. After all, young girls loved to dance and flirt and be courted, and he was a doting father.
This evening, only one young man had been added to the dinner table. He was, Mabel observed, highly educated, polite and well-spoken.
Conversation turned to the ball they would all go to the next evening. “I realize I am rather late”, the young man said with an apologetic smile. “But is there, by any chance, some place left on Miss Mabel’s dance card?”
Had he really said her name?
“Oh, I am sure she has some space for you.” Kate answered in her stead, when Mabel hesitated too long. “Is that not so, Mabel?”
It was not without some embarrassment that Mabel handed him her dance card, which was glaringly empty.
Her newly acquired admirer wrote his name on the very last line, the line her sisters usually saved for their favourites.
As he thanked her prettily, Mabel could not help but feel that she should thank him instead – but the rules of etiquette were not such that this would be appropriate.
At this ball, she had a much better time than at all the others before. She had something to look forward to.
So she happily saw to it that her father had a drink whenever he returned from dancing with some or the other lady of consequence, made conversations with the mothers and matrons who weren’t dancing, and occasionally glanced to the clock at the head of the room.
It was, she figured, good that he had chosen the last dance in that it was a great compliment, and also in that it gave her something to look forward to for the whole evening, but it was testing her patience.
While she sat down at the side of the room, she overheard the conversation of two young men.
“I have asked three ladies already, their dance cards are all full. It is most vexing!” said one.
“Oh, you could always ask Miss Mabel”, the other suggested.
She perked up. Oh yes, he could ask her!
“Miss Mabel? No, no, I am not that desperate.”
“Hush! Watch what you say about the Major General’s daughter! They say she’s his favourite, no less!”
It was all Mabel could do not to sob into her handkerchief. Still, she had to use it to dry some few tears.
However, she reflected, it was not as bad tonight as it would have any other evening. After all, she had something to look forward to.
Finally, finally, the time for the last dance came, and her partner ... limped towards her.
“I am so very sorry, Miss Mabel”, he said. “But I have sprained my ankle in the second-to-last dance. I shall need to see a doctor. Words cannot express how sorry I am, truly ...”
“Oh! How terrible! You should go and see a doctor at once, indeed!”
On the way home, her father observed that she was unusually silent, but she claimed it was all because of her disappointment about not getting to dance after all. She didn’t mention the conversation she had overheard, after all, they had thought their words to be strictly between the both of them, and it would not be decent to bring this insult to her father’s attention.
When she went to sleep, Mabel was almost consoled. Maybe, maybe, the young man would ask again when the next ball drew close. He had been so devastated about not being able to keep his promise, after all.
Early in the morning, Mabel awoke and could not get to sleep again, so she donned her riding dress, saddled her mare Daffodil and went for a ride.
As it turned out, some young men had had the same idea. It was only because Daffodil, ever the clever horse, turned her head towards them and raised her ears that Mabel noticed them.
“You really shouldn’t go riding with that sprained ankle of yours”, a deep voice said, then laughed.
“Oh, shush! It was most ingenious of me, don’t you think?”
“Asking General Stanley for a promotion after asking his favourite daughter to dance, and then pretend to have sprained your ankle? Why, yes, most ingenious, just a tad bit dishonest. And also most suspicious. If you had sprained your ankle in the middle of the evening, it would have been more believable. How terribly convenient, that you got to dance almost all evening!”
Daffodil whinnied, and danced impatiently. She must have noticed Mabel’s distress, dear horse.
Tears flowing, Mabel pressed her ankles into the mare’s sides. “Home”, she whispered. “Take me home.”
Back in the stable, she sobbed shamelessly and cried into Daffodil’s mane so much that she had to dry it with a towel afterwards.
She had to treat her eyes with a cold metal piece of the reins to remove the redness and swelling before she was fit to be seen by anyone again.
“My dear Daffodil”, she whispered. “You are my only friend in the world.” Sure, she dearly loved her sisters and father, but they were not friends – they had to put up with her because they were family.
And she knew that other girls only sought her company because she was no competition – and because she was the Major General’s daughter.
She looked at herself in the broken mirror she had placed there so that she would not return from riding with her hair in inacceptable disarray.
Yes, her eyes were quite normal again, and her hair had not loosened.