The dancers were all children–little girls of all ages from eight to fourteen, in pretty frocks of muslin–pink, blue, and white; with a sprinkling of awkward boys in various fashion of evening dress. On his way back, having lit his cigar, he paused for a longer look. The piano was tinkling energetically, the company dancing a polka, and with a will. The boys were certainly an awkward lot, so the Colonel decided, and forthwith remembered his own first pair of white kid gloves and the horrible self-consciousness he had indued with them. He went back to the room where the waiter had laid his coffee.
The polka, as it proved, was the last dance on the programme; for the colonel had scarcely settled himself again before the piano strummed out ‘God save the Queen’–which, as has been said, was one of the tunes he knew. He stood erect, alone in the empty room, and so waited gravely for the last bar. A rush of feet followed; a pause for robing; then childish voices in the courtyard wishing each other ‘Good-night!’ and ‘A merry Christmas!’ Then a very long pause, and the colonel supposed that all the young guests were gone.
But they were not all gone; for as he resumed his seat, and reached out a hand for his case, to choose another cigar, he happened to throw a glance towards the doorway. And there, in the shadow of a heavy curtain draping it, stood a little girl.
She might have passed for a picture of Red Riding-Hood; for she wore a small scarlet cloak over her muslin frock, and the hood of it had been pulled forward and covered all but a margin of hair above the brows. The colour of her hair was a bright auburn, that of her eyebrows so darkly brown as to seem wellnigh black; and altogether she made a remarkable little figure, standing there in the doorway, with a pair of white satin dancing-shoes clutched in her hand.
‘Oh!’ said the colonel. ‘Good-evening!’
‘O-o-oh!’ answered the child, and with a catch, as it were, and a thrill in the voice that astonished him. Her eyes, fixed on his, grew larger and rounder. She came a pace or two towards him on tiptoe, halted, clasped both hands over her dancing-shoes, and exclaimed, with a deeper thrill than before:–
‘You are Colonel Baigent!’
‘Eh?’ The colonel sat bolt upright.
‘Yes; and Aunt Louisa will be glad!’
He put a hand up to the crown of his head. ‘Good Lord!’ he murmured, staring wildly around the room, and then slowly fastening his gaze upon the child–at most she could not be more than nine years old– confronting him. ‘Good Lord! Will she?’
‘Yes; and so am I!’ She nodded, and her eyes seemed to be devouring while they worshipped him. ‘But wasn’t it clever of me to know you at once?’
‘It’s–it’s about the cleverest thing I’ve come across in all my born days,’ stammered Colonel Baigent, collapsing into his chair, and then suddenly clutching the arms of it and peering forward.
‘But, of course, I’ve known you for ever so long, really,’ she went on, and nodded again as if to reassure him.
‘Oh! “of course,” is it? I–I say, won’t you sit down and have a nut or two–or a fig?’
‘Thank you.’ She gave him quite a grown-up bow, and seated herself. ‘I’ll take a fig; nuts give you the indigestion at this time of night.’ She picked up a fig demurely, and laid it on a plate he pushed towards her. ‘I hope I’m behaving nicely?’ she said, looking up at him with the most engaging candour; ‘because Aunt Louisa says you always had the most beautiful manners. In fact, that’s what made her take to you, long–oh! ever so long–before you became famous. And now you’re the Bayard of India!’