Her First Ball
by Katherine Mansfield
EXACTLY when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to
say. Perhaps her first real partner was the cab. It did not matter
that she shared the cab with the Sheridan girls and their brother.
She sat back in her own little corner of it, and the bolster on which
her hand rested felt like the sleeve of an unknown young man's
dress suit; and away they bowled, past waltzing lamp-posts and
houses and fences and trees.
"Have you really never been to a ball before, Leila? But, my
child, how too weird—" cried the Sheridan girls.
"Our nearest neighbour was fifteen miles," said Leila softly,
gently opening and shutting her fan.
Oh dear, how hard it was to be indifferent like the others! She
tried not to smile too much; she tried not to care. But every single
thing was so new and exciting . . . Meg's tuberoses, Jose's long
loop of amber, Laura's little dark head, pushing above her white
fur like a flower through snow. She would remember for ever. It
even gave her a pang to see her cousin Laurie throw away the
wisps of tissue paper he pulled from the fastenings of his new
gloves. She would like to have kept those
wisps as a keepsake, as a
remembrance. Laurie leaned forward and put his hand on Laura's
"Look here, darling," he said. "The third and the ninth as usual.
Oh, how marvellous to have a brother! In her excitement Leila
felt that if there had been time, if it hadn't been impossible, she
couldn't have helped crying because she was an only child and no
brother had ever said "Twig?" to her; no sister would ever say, as
Meg said to Jose that moment, "I've never known your hair go up
more successfully than it has to-night!"
But, of course, there was no time. They were at the drill hall
already; there were cabs in front of them and cabs behind. The
road was bright on either side with moving fan-like lights, and on
the pavement gay couples seemed to float through the air; little
satin shoes chased each other like birds.
"Hold on to me, Leila; you'll get lost," said Laura.
"Come on, girls, let's make a dash for it," said Laurie.
Leila put two fingers on Laura's pink velvet cloak, and they
were somehow lifted past the big golden lantern, carried along the
passage, and pushed into the little room marked "Ladies." Here the
crowd was so great there was hardly space to take off their things;
the noise was deafening. Two benches on either side were stacked
high with wraps. Two old women in white aprons ran
down tossing fresh armfuls. And everybody was pressing forward
trying to get at the little dressing-table and mirror at the far end.
A great quivering jet of gas lighted the ladies' room. It couldn't
wait; it was dancing already. When the door opened again and
there came a burst of tuning from the drill hall, it leaped almost to
Dark girls, fair girls were patting their hair, tying ribbons again,
tucking handkerchiefs down the fronts of their bodices,
smoothing marble-white gloves. And because they were all
laughing it seemed to Leila that they were all lovely.
"Aren't there any invisible hair-pins?" cried a voice. "How most
extraordinary! I can't see a single invisible hair-pin."
"Powder my back, there's a darling," cried some one else.
"But I must have a needle and cotton. I've torn simply miles and
miles of the frill," wailed a third.
Then, "Pass them along, pass them along!" The straw basket of
programmes was tossed from arm to arm. Darling little
pink-and-silver programmes, with pink pencils and fluffy tassels.
Leila's fingers shook as she took one out of the basket. She wanted
to ask someone, "Am I meant to have one too?" but she had just
time to read: "Waltz 3. Two, Two in a Canoe. Polka 4. Making the
Feathers Fly," when Meg cried, "Ready, Leila?" and they pressed
their way through the
crush in the passage towards the big double
doors of the drill hall.
Dancing had not begun yet, but the band had stopped tuning,
and the noise was so great it seemed that when it did begin to play
it would never be heard. Leila, pressing close to Meg, looking over
Meg's shoulder, felt that even the little quivering coloured flags
strung across the ceiling were talking. She quite forgot to be shy;
she forgot how in the middle of dressing she had sat down on the
bed with one shoe off and one shoe on and begged her mother to
ring up her cousins and say she couldn't go after all. And the rush
of longing she had had to be sitting on the veranda of their
forsaken up-country home, listening to the baby owls crying
"More pork" in the moonlight, was changed to a rush of joy so
sweet that it was hard to bear alone. She clutched her fan, and,
gazing at the gleaming, golden floor, the azaleas, the lanterns, the
stage at one end with its red carpet and gilt chairs and the band in
a corner, she thought breathlessly, "How heavenly; how simply
All the girls stood grouped together at one side of the doors, the
men at the other, and the chaperones in dark dresses, smiling
rather foolishly, walked with little careful steps over the polished
floor towards the stage.
"This is my little country cousin Leila. Be nice to her. Find her
partners; she's under my wing," said Meg, going up to one girl
Strange faces smiled at Leila—sweetly, vaguely. Strange voices
answered, "Of course, my dear." But Leila felt the girls didn't really
see her. They were looking towards the men. Why didn't the men
begin? What were they waiting for? There they stood, smoothing
their gloves, patting their glossy hair and smiling among themselves. Then, quite suddenly, as if they had only just made up their
minds that that was what they had to do, the men came gliding
over the parquet. There was a joyful flutter among the girls. A tall,
fair man flew up to Meg, seized her programme, scribbled something; Meg passed him on to Leila. "May I have the pleasure?" He
ducked and smiled. There came a dark man wearing an eyeglass,
then cousin Laurie with a friend, and Laura with a little freckled
fellow whose tie was crooked. Then quite an old man—fat, with a
big bald patch on his head—took her programme and murmured,
"Let me see, let me see!" And he was a long time comparing his
programme, which looked black with names, with hers. It seemed
to give him so much trouble that Leila was ashamed. "Oh, please
don't bother," she said eagerly. But instead of replying the fat man
wrote something, glanced at her again. "Do I remember this bright
little face?" he said softly. "Is it known to me of yore?" At that
moment the band began playing; the fat man disappeared. He was
tossed away on a great wave of music that came flying over the
gleaming floor, breaking the groups
up into couples, scattering
them, sending them spinning. . . .
Leila had learned to dance at boarding school. Every Saturday
afternoon the boarders were hurried off to a little corrugated iron
mission hall where Miss Eccles (of London) held her "select" classes. But the difference between that dusty-smelling hall—with
calico texts on the walls, the poor, terrified little woman in a
brown velvet toque with rabbit's ears thumping the cold piano,
Miss Eccles poking the girls' feet with her long white wand—and
this was so tremendous that Leila was sure if her partner didn't
come and she had to listen to that marvellous music and to watch
the others sliding, gliding over the golden floor, she would die at
least, or faint, or lift her arms and fly out of one of those dark
windows that showed the stars.
"Ours, I think—" Someone bowed, smiled, and offered her his
arm; she hadn't to die after all. Someone's hand pressed her waist,
and she floated away like a flower that is tossed into a pool.
"Quite a good floor, isn't it?" drawled a faint voice close to her
"I think it's most beautifully slippery," said Leila.
"Pardon!" The faint voice sounded surprised. Leila said it again.
And there was a tiny pause before the voice echoed, "Oh, quite!" and she was swung round again.
He steered so beautifully. That was the great difference
between dancing with girls and men, Leila
decided. Girls banged
into each other and stamped on each other's feet; the girl who was
gentleman always clutched you so.
The azaleas were separate flowers no longer; they were pink
and white flags streaming by.
"Were you at the Bells' last week?" the voice came again. It
sounded tired. Leila wondered whether she ought to ask him if he
would like to stop.
"No, this is my first dance," said she.
Her partner gave a little gasping laugh. "Oh, I say," he protested.
"Yes, it is really the first dance I've ever been to." Leila was most
fervent. It was such a relief to be able to tell somebody. "You see,
I've lived in the country all my life up till now. . . . "
At that moment the music stopped and they went to sit on two
chairs against the wall. Leila tucked her pink satin feet under and
fanned herself, while she blissfully watched the other couples
passing and disappearing through the swing doors.
"Enjoying yourself, Leila?" asked Jose, nodding her golden
Laura passed and gave her the faintest little wink; it made Leila
wonder for a moment whether she was quite grown up after all.
Certainly her partner did not say very much. He coughed, tucked
his handkerchief away, pulled down his waistcoat, took a minute
thread off his sleeve. But it didn't matter. Almost immediately the
started and her second partner seemed to spring from the
"Floor's not bad," said the new voice. Did one always begin with
the floor? And then, "Were you at the Neaves' on Tuesday?" And
again Leila explained. Perhaps it was a little strange that her
partners were not more interested. For it was thrilling. Her first
ball! She was only at the beginning of everything. It seemed to her
that she had never known what the night was like before. Up till
now it had been dark, silent, beautiful very often—oh yes—but
mournful somehow. Solemn. And now it would never be like that
again—it had opened dazzling bright.
"Care for an ice?" said her partner. And they went through the
swing doors, down the passage, to the supper-room. Her cheeks
burned, she was fearfully thirsty. How sweet the ices looked on
little glass plates and how cold the frosted spoon was, iced too!
And when they came back to the hall there was the fat man
waiting for her by the door. It gave her quite a shock again to see
how old he was; he ought to have been on the stage with the
fathers and mothers. And when Leila compared him with her
other partners he looked shabby. His waistcoat was creased, there
was a button off his glove, his coat looked as if it was dusty with
"Come along, little lady," said the fat man. He scarcely troubled
to clasp her, and they moved away
so gently, it was more like
walking than dancing. But he said not a word about the floor.
"Your first dance, isn't it?" he murmured.
"How did you know?"
"Ah," said the fat man, "that's what it is to be old!" He wheezed
faintly as he steered her past an awkward couple. "You see, I've
been doing this kind of thing for the last thirty years."
"Thirty years?" cried Leila. Twelve years before she was born!
"It hardly bears thinking about, does it?" said the fat man
gloomily. Leila looked at his bald head, and she felt quite sorry for
"I think it's marvellous to be still going on," she said kindly.
"Kind little lady," said the fat man, and he pressed her a little
closer and hummed a bar of the waltz. "Of course," he said, "you
can't hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o," said the fat
man, "long before that you'll be sitting up there on the stage,
looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will
have turned into little short fat ones, and you'll beat time with
such a different kind of fan—a black bony one." The fat man
seemed to shudder. "And you'll smile away like the poor old dears
up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next
to you how some dreadful man tried to kiss her at the club ball.
And your heart will ache, ache"—the fat man squeezed her closer
still, as if he really was sorry for that
poor heart—"because no one
wants to kiss you now. And you'll say how unpleasant these
polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh,
Mademoiselle Twinkletoes?" said the fat man softly.
Leila gave a light little laugh, but she did not feel like laughing.
Was it—could it all be true? It sounded terribly true. Was this first
ball only the beginning of her last ball, after all? At that the music
seemed to change; it sounded sad, sad; it rose upon a great sigh.
Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn't happiness last for
ever? For ever wasn't a bit too long.
"I want to stop," she said in a breathless voice. The fat man led
her to the door.
"No," she said, "I won't go outside. I won't sit down. I'll just
stand here, thank you." She leaned against the wall, tapping with
her foot, pulling up her gloves and trying to smile. But deep inside
her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed. Why
had he spoiled it all?
"I say, you know," said the fat man, "you mustn't take me
seriously, little lady."
"As if I should!" said Leila, tossing her small dark head and
sucking her underlip. . . .
Again the couples paraded. The swing doors opened and shut.
Now new music was given out by the bandmaster. But Leila didn't
want to dance any more. She wanted to be home, or sitting on the
veranda listening to those baby owls. When
she looked through
the dark windows at the stars they had long beams like wings. . . .
But presently a soft, melting, ravishing tune began, and a young
man with curly hair bowed before her. She would have to dance,
out of politeness, until she could find Meg. Very stiffly she walked
into the middle; very haughtily she put her hand on his sleeve. But
in one minute, in one turn, her feet glided, glided. The lights, the
azaleas, the dresses, the pink faces, the velvet chairs, all became
one beautiful flying wheel. And when her next partner bumped
her into the fat man and he said, "Pardon," she smiled at him more
radiantly than ever. She didn't even recognise him again.