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  Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

VII. An International Exposition

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AT the celebrated Oldport ball for the French officers, the merit of each maiden was estimated by the number of foreigners with whom she could talk at once, for there were more gentlemen than ladies, and not more than half the ladies spoke French. Here Emilia was in her glory; the ice being once broken, officers were to her but like so many school-girls, and she rattled away to the admiral and the fleet captain and two or three lieutenants at once, while others hovered behind the circle of her immediate adorers, to pick up the stray shafts of what passed for wit. Other girls again drove two-in-hand, at the most, in the way of conversation; while those least gifted could only encounter one small Frenchman in some safe corner, and converse chiefly by smiles and signs.

On the whole, the evening opened gayly. Newly arrived Frenchmen are apt to be so unused to the familiar society of unmarried girls, that the most innocent share in it has for them the zest of forbidden fruit, and the most blameless intercourse seems almost a bonne fortune. Most of these officers were from the lower ranks of French society, but they all had that good-breeding which their race wears with such ease, and can unhappily put off with the same.

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The admiral and the fleet captain were soon turned over to Hope, who spoke French as she did English, with quiet grace. She found them agreeable companions, while Emilia drifted among the elder midshipmen, who were dazzling in gold lace if not in intellect. Kate fell to the share of a vehement little surgeon, who danced her out of breath. Harry officiated as interpreter between the governor of the State and a lively young ensign, who yearned for the society of dignitaries. The governor was quite aware that he himself could not speak French; the Frenchman was quite unaware that he himself could not speak English; but with Harry's aid they plunged boldly into conversation. Their talk happened to fall on steam-engines, English, French, American; their comparative cost, comparative power, comparative cost per horse power,--until Harry, who was not very strong upon the steam-engine in his own tongue, and was quite helpless on that point in any other, got a good deal astray among the numerals, and implanted some rather wild statistics in the mind of each. The young Frenchman was far more definite, when requested by the governor to state in English the precise number of men engaged on board the corvette. With the accuracy of his nation, he beamingly replied, "Seeshun-dredtousand."

As is apt to be the case in Oldport, other European nationalities beside the French were represented, though the most marked foreign accent was of course to be found among Americans just returned. There were European diplomatists who spoke English perfectly; there were travellers who spoke no English at all; and as usual each guest sought to practise himself in the tongue he knew least. There was the usual eagerness among the fashionable vulgar to make acquaintance with anything that combined broken English and a title; and two minutes after a Russian prince had seated himself comfortably on a sofa beside Kate, he was vehemently tapped on the shoulder by Mrs. Courtenay Brash with the endearing summons: "Why! Prince, I didn't see as you was here. Do you set comfortable where you be? Come over to this window, and tell all you know!"

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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