Breaking the Ice

When William Larker irrevocably made up his mind to take Mary Kuchenbach
to the great county picnic at Blue Bottle Springs he did not tell his
father, as was his custom in most matters. To a straight-laced Dunkard
like Herman Larker, the very thought of attendance on such a carousal,
with its round dancing and square dancing, would have seemed impiety.
Henry Kuchenbach was likewise a member of that strict sect, but he was
not quite so narrow in his ideas as his more pious neighbor. Yet to
him, also, the suggestion of his daughter being a participant in such
frivolity would have met with scant approval.

But William was longing to dance. For many years he had fondly cherished
the belief that he was possessed of much inborn ability in that art–a
genius compelled to remain dormant, by the narrowness of his family’s
views. Many a rainy afternoon had he given vent to his desire by swinging
corners and _deux-et-deux-ing_ about his father’s barn-floor, with
no other partner than a sheaf of wheat and no other music than that
produced by his own capacious lips.

So one beautiful July day, when, attired in his best, he stepped into his
buggy, tapped his sleek mare with the whip and started at a brisk pace
toward the Kuchenbach farm, his stern father believed that he was going
to the great bush-meeting, twelve miles up the turnpike and was devoutly
thankful to see his son growing in piety. William’s best was a black
frock coat, with short tails, trousers of the same material reaching
just below his shoe-tops, a huge derby, once black but now green from
long exposure to the elements, and a new pair of shoes well tallowed.
As he drove up to the gate of the neighboring farm Mary was waiting for
him, looking very buxom and rosy and neat in her plain black dress, the
sombreness of which was relieved by a white kerchief at the neck and the
gray poke bonnet of her sect. As she took the vacant place beside him in
the buggy and the vehicle rattled away, Henry Kuchenbach called after
them, “Don’t fergit to bring back some o’ the good things the brethren
sais.” And good Mrs. Kuchenbach threw up her hands and exclaimed, “Ain’t
them a lovely pair?”

“Yais,” said her husband grimly, “an’ fer six year they’ve ben keepin’
comp’ny an’ he ain’t yit spoke his mind.”

The buggy sped along the road, the rattle of its wheels, the clatter of
the mare’s hoofs and the shrill calls of the killdeer skimming over the
meadows, being the sole sounds to break the silence of the country.

A mile was gone over. Then the girl said falteringly, “Beel, a’n’t it
wrong?”

In response William gave his horse a vicious cut with the whip and
replied, “It don’t seem jest right to fool ’em, but you’ll fergit all
about it ’hen we git dancin’.”

There was silence between them–a silence broken only at rare intervals
when one or the other ventured some commonplace remark which would be
rewarded with a laconic “Yais” or “Ye don’t say.”

Up hill and down rattled the buggy, following the crooked road across
the valley, over three low wooded ridges, then up the broad meadows that
border the river, until at length the grove in which lies Blue Bottle
Spring was reached. The festivities had already begun. The outskirts
of the wood were filled with vehicles of every description–buggies,
buckboards, spring-wagons, omnibuses and ancient phaetons. The horses
had been unhitched and tied to trees and fences, and were munching at
their midday meal, gnawing the bark from the limbs, snatching at the
leaves or kicking at the flies while their masters gave themselves up
to the pursuit of pleasure. Having seen his mare comfortably settled at
a small chestnut, William Larker took his lunch basket on one arm and
his companion on the other and proceeded eagerly to the inner part of
the grove, whence came the sounds of the fiddle and cornet. They passed
through the outer circle of elderly women, who were unpacking baskets
and tastefully arranging their contents on table-cloths spread on the
ground–jars of pickles, cans of fruit, bags of sandwiches, bottles of
cold tea, layer cakes of wondrous size and construction, and the scores
of other dainties necessary to pass a pleasant day with nature. They went
through a second circle of venders of peanuts, lemonade and ice-cream,
about whose stands were gathered many elderly men discussing the topics
of the day and exchanging greetings.

The young Dunkards had now arrived at the center of interest, the
platform, and joined the crowd that was eagerly watching the course of
the dance. An orchestra of three pieces, a bass-viol, a violin and a
cornet, operated by three men in shirt sleeves, sent forth wheezy strains
to the time of which men and women, young and old, gaily swung corners
and partners, galloped forward and back, made ladies’ chains, winding in
and out, then back and bowing, until William Larker and his companion
fairly grew dizzy.

The crowd of dancers was a heterogeneous one. There were young men from
the neighboring county town, gorgeous in blazers of variegated colors,
and young farmers whose movements were not the less agile for the reason
that they wore heavy sombre clothing and high-crowned, broad-brimmed felt
hats. There were three particularly forward youths in bicycle attire, and
three gay young men from a not far distant city, whose shining silk hats
and dancing pumps made them centers of admiration and envy. The women,
likewise, went to both extremes. Gaily flowered, airy calico, cashmere
and gingham bobbed about among glistening, frigid satins and silks.

“Oh, ain’t it grand?” cried Mary Kuchenbach, clasping her hands.

“That’s good dancin’, I tell ye,” replied her companion with enthusiasm.

She had seated herself on a stump, and he was leaning against a tree at
her side, both with eyes fixed on the platform.

Now in seemingly inextricable chaos; now in perfectly orderly form, six
sets bowing and scraping; now winding into a dazzling mass of silk,
calico, high hats, felt hats, flower-covered bonnets and blazers, then
out again went the dancers.

“Good dancin’, I should say!” William exclaimed. “Jest look at them
th’ee ceety fellys, with them shiny hats, a-swingin’ corners. Now, a’n’t
they cuttin’ it? Next comes ‘a-la-man-all.’ Watch ’em–them two in the
fur set–the way they th’ow their feet–the gal in pink with the felly
in short pants an’ a stripped coat. Now back! Thet there is dancin’,
I tell ye, Mary! ‘Gents dozy-dough’ next. Thet ’ere felly don’t call
figgers loud ’nough. There they goes–bad in the rear set–thet’s better.
See them ceety fellys agin, swingin’ partners. Grand chain! Good all
’round–no–there’s a break. See thet girl in blue sating–she turned too
soon. Thet’s better. T’other way–bow yer corners–now yer own. What! so
soon? Why, they otter kep’ it up.”




The music had stopped. The dancers, panting from their exertions, mopping
and fanning, left the platform and scattered among the audience.

William Larker’s eyes were aglow. His companion, seated upon the stump,
gazed curiously, timidly, at the gay crowd about her, while he stood
frigidly beside her mentally picturing the pleasure to come. He was to
dance to real music with a flesh-and-blood partner after all those years
of secret practise with a wheat sheaf in the seclusion of his father’s
barn. He was to put his arms around Mary Kuchenbach. His feet could
hardly keep still when a purely imaginary air floated through his brain
and he fancied himself “dozy-doughing” and “goin’-a-visitin’” with the
rosy girl at his side.

The man with the bass-viol was rubbing resin on his bow, the violinist
was tuning up and the cornetist giving the stops of his instrument the
usual preliminary exercise when the floor-master announced the next
dance. One after another the couples sifted from the crowd and clambered
on to the platform.

“Two more pair,” cried the conductor.

“Come ’long, Mary. Now’s our chancet,” whispered the young Dunkard to his
companion.

“Oh, Beel, really I can’t. I never danced in puberlick afore.”

“But you kin. It ain’t hard. All ye’ll hev to do is to keep yer feet
a-movin’ an’ mind the felly thet’s callin’ figgers.”

The girl hesitated.

“One more couple,” roared the floor-master.

William was getting excited.

“You can dance with the best of ’em. Come ’long.”

“Really now, Beel, jest a minute.”

The twang of the fiddle commenced and the cracked, quavering notes of the
horn arose above the buzz of conversation.

“Bow yer corners–now yer own,” cried the leader.

And the young man sat down on the stump in disgust.

“We’ll hev to git in the next,” he said. “Why, it’s eesy. You see this
here’s only a plain quadreel. Ye otter see one thet ain’t plain–one o’
them where they hes sech figgers ez ‘first lady on the war-dance,’ like
they done at the big weddin’ up in Raccoon Walley th’ee year ago. These
is plain. I never danced ’em afore meself, but I’ve seen ’em do it an’
I’ve ben practisin’. All ye’ll hev to do is to mind me.”

So the following dance found them on the platform among the first.
The girl was trembling, blushing and self-conscious; the young man
self-conscious but triumphant and composed.

“Bow yer partners,” cried the floor-master when the orchestra had started
its scraping.

Down went the gray poke bonnet. Down went the great derby, and a smile of
joy overspread the broad face beneath it.

“Swing yer partners!”

The great arms went around the plump form, lifting it from its feet;
their owner spun about, carefully replaced his burden on the floor,
bowed, smiled and whispered, “Ain’t it grand?”

“Corners!”

The young woman in blue satin gave a slight scream that was metamorphosed
into a giggle, as she felt herself swung through space in the arms of the
muscular person toward whom she had careened. Her partner, one of the
city men with silk hats, grinned and whispered in her ear, “Oatcake.”

“Leads for’a’d an’ back!”

William Larker seized his partner’s plump hand and bounded forward,
bowing and twisting, his free arm gesticulating in unison with his legs
and feet. He was in the thick of the dance now; in it with his whole
heart. Whenever there was any “dozy-doughing” to be done, William did
it. If a couple went “visitin’,” he was with them. When “ladies in the
center” was called, he was there. In every grand chain he turned the
wrong way. He gripped the women’s hands until they groaned inwardly. He
tramped on and crushed the patent leather pumps of a young city man, and
in response to a muttered something smiled his unconcern, bolted back to
his corner, swung his partner and murmured, “Ain’t it grand?” The young
women giggled and winked at their acquaintances in the next set; the
forward youth in a bicycle suit talked about roadsweepers, and the city
man said again, “Oatcake.”

But the young Dunkard was unconscious of it all to the end–the end that
came most suddenly and broke up the dancing.

“Swing yer partners!” bawled the floor-master.

William Larker obeyed. A ragged bit of the sole of his shoe caught in a
crack and over he went, off the high platform, with his partner clasped
tight in his arms.

When he recovered his senses he found himself lying by the spring, the
center of all eyes. His first glance fell upon Mary, who was seated at
his side, weeping heartily, despite the efforts of a large crowd of
sympathizing women to allay her fears.

Next his eyes met those of the young woman in blue satin, and he saw her
laugh and turn and speak to the crowd. He thought that he noticed a
silk hat and heard the word “Oatcake.” And then and there he resolved to
return to and never again depart from the quiet ways of his fathers.

William and Mary drove back in the early evening. They had crossed the
last ridge and were looking out over the broad valley toward the dark
mountain at whose foot lay their homes, when the first word was spoken.

“Beel,” said the girl with a sidelong glance, “ain’t dancin’ dangerous?”

The young man cut the mare with the whip and flushed.

“Yais, kind o’,” he replied. “But I’m sorry I drug you off o’ the
platform like thet.”

She covered her mouth with her hand. William just saw the corner of one
of her eyes as she looked up at him from under the gray bonnet.

“Oh, I didn’t min’ thet,” she said. “It was jes’ lovely tell we hit.”

The mare swerved to one side, toward the fence. The driver seized the
rein he had dropped and pulled her back into the beaten track. Then the
whip fell from his hands, and he stopped and clambered down into the road
and recovered it. But when he regained his place in the buggy he wrapped
his reins twice around the whip, and the intelligent beast trotted home
unguided.