Fraternity hall was a study on the evening of the banquet. As carriage after carriage drove up and their occupants alighted and tripped into the hall, they looked, and without doubt were, the equals in appointments and bearing of any Americans. The ladies were attired in evening costume; the men wore the conventional black. Here was to be seen the Afro-American at his best. The absence of flashy dress and cheap, showy jewelry, so often attributed to the Negro as a necessity on all public occasions, was nowhere to be seen. This is evidently not the class from which the usual American writer draws his characters, when moralizing upon the peculiarities of the Afro-American. The unprejudiced observer would have seen nothing in the appearance of the happy assembly congregated in Fraternity Hall, complexion excepted, to indicate that he was among a strange people. The banquet, in style and arrangements, was model of the highest rather than the lowest class of American affairs.
The average Afro-American has little inclination to copy the pace of those of his own financial class, but at heart he is an aristocrat and imitates the bluest blood of the land.
The ladies were there in all their glory, and as they promenade or whirl through the figures of the dance, what a picture for cosmopoly! Women as fair as the lily cling to the arms of their ebony Othello's with an air of entire satisfaction. Here is seen in happy association the union of every family of men an ocular demonstration of the fact that from one blood God hath made all the nations of the earth. The social standards adopted by these people and the link that holds together a race so varied in appearance and origin, is character. The mind, not the man; the heart, not the features. Nor does this distinction argue that all social lines in Afro-America are obliterated. Among these people, as elsewhere, the marks of class difference are severely drawn; but worth, not complexion, forms the barrier of demarcation. It is from the point of public observation that writers like W. D. Howells and others fall into excusable error.
As all classes of Afro-Americans seem to mingle indiscriminately at public functions, it is often concluded that no line of separation exists. The initiated know better. It was noticeable on this occasion, as it is in all public gatherings, that the same persons made up a given set after each interval of the dance. There was indeed a change of partners, but no change of the company. Frequently one or two sets, but especial arrangement, interchanged partners. This then, is the fine shading of distinction unostentatiously made, that is entirely unnoticed by the casual observer. Each company of dancers form in themselves a social world undoubtedly satisfactory to themselves, but as free from invasion from without as if the dance was being conducted in a private parlor. Nothing is done or said which would lead a looker-on to suppose that a whit's difference between any one of these sets and the score of others that surrounded them; but should someone beyond the pale of the social world attempt to inflict his company upon them, the dancers would become promenaders, and the dancing in that part of the hall become a thing of the past.
The merrymakers were in the full tide of enjoyment when Lucile and Regenia, chaperoned by Mrs. Levitt, arrived at the hall. Clement St. John, seated in the balcony, for the first time during the conclave, was taking notes of the occasion. Notices of the banquet could not be copied from other papers. The racy descriptions of costumes and those who wore them required the skill of someone who not only viewed the proceedings, but enjoyed a personal acquaintance with the tastes and peculiarities of the persons described. He was well aware that the patrons of his paper would be more interested in a detailed account of the doings of the last evening than in all that preceded it. Lotus Stone, as if to make up for the time lost in the afternoon, was determined not to miss a number. After looking in vain for Lucile and Regenia, who were to come, by preference, under the care of Mrs. Levitt, Lotus had concluded that they would not be present, and giving wings to his longings entered heartily into the pleasures of the evening. Clement, also, had despaired of the appearance of his much-expected friends and busily observing a gentleman, from his dress, a representative of the cloth, he failed to see the party from the "Elms" come in and seat themselves immediately behind the quill-driver. It was evident to Clement that the man wanted to talk, so, closing his note book, he concluded to engage him.
"I suppose you are enjoying this sight, Elder, in common with the rest of us Philistines," said Clement, smiling quizzically.
"I am here, but I cannot say I enjoy anything so foolish as dancing," rejoined the Elder, in his deepest chest tones.
"If you do not enjoy it, why are you here?" asked Clement, still smiling.
"I am here, sir, for the banquet. What I think is there: there should be no dancing until the supper is over, so that those to whom dancing is insulting, sir, yes, I repeat it, insulting, sir," he said as Clement raised his eyebrows slightly, "could go about their business and leave Ephraim to his idols," he concluded with a snort.
"Did you not know that there would be dancing to-night?" asked Clement.
"What puzzles me," said Clement slowly, "is why you ministers accept complimentary tickets to affairs of this kind, well knowing that your feelings will be outraged, and then have the impoliteness to come here and mar the pleasure of everyone who comes in contact with you by your caustic criticism of the management. If you are opposed to this sort of thing, why trifle with your conscience by coming, and then raise the devil after you get here because you did come?"
"Young man, your observations are insulting, insulting, sir, in the extreme," said the elder, rising.
"They are true, all the same," said Clement, "and you are under no compulsion to hear to more of them."
"I am cognizant of that," replied the now exasperated elder, as he beat a hasty retreat to repeat his tale of woe to more sympathizing ears.
"You are very severe," said Lucile, leaning over his shoulder.
"Ah, ladies, said Mr. St. John, now the very pink of politeness, "I did not know that such distinguished auditors graced my little tilt with the elder."
"Your directness left no doubt of your meaning. The elder could not accuse you of a want of clearness," said Regenia, laughing at the picture which the Rev. Mr. Foggs made as he left Clement in high disgust.
"Well, I was, perhaps, a trifle too outspoken, but I hate hypocrisy in any garb. If ministers will pervade what they are pleased to style the precincts of Satan, they must accept the courtesies which obtain there. I hold if a man accepts an invitation to attend a social gathering, he is under obligations to conduct himself in keeping with the laws of good form. He need not participate in what passes if his conscience or inclination forbids, but he ought either to contribute to the good cheer of those who invited him, or stay at home. Impoliteness is as sinful as dancing."
"Is dancing a sin?" asked Regenia.
"That is a question for theologians, not newspaper men; I refer you to Elder Foggs," said Clement, smiling at his own wit.
"Are you not a believer, Mr. St. John?" asked Mrs. Levitt, with considerable warmth.
"I should be sorry if I were not, Mrs. Levitt. If there is nothing beyond this world, life at its best is a disappointing farce. But I am far from an authority upon matters of the soul," he added lightly.
"The good elder would agree with you, I dare say, upon your last proposition," said Regenia.
"Mr. Stone has forgotten that is was partly through his solicitations that we are here to-night. 'Out of sight, out of mind,' is the motto of your men the world over," said Lucile.
"Do you mean me, or is present company the honorable exception?" Clement asked.
"Are you a man?" she asked, laughingly.
"I pose for one on election day," replied Clement.
"Mr. Stone is enjoying himself, and he is right. We do not have a banquet every evening," observe Regenia.
"Lotus is a devoted dancer, but I fear he would lose his fondness if he knew how fortunate and happy I am, stowed away beyond the sullying influence of the maddened multitude."
"You many be happy, but by the way you glance down at your unfinished notes, you do not have that appearance," laughed Lucile.
"Mr. St. John must finish his notes when he has more leisure; for the present he is our captive and although we may bore him, we are determined to appropriate him for the rest of the evening," said Regenia with more boldness than usual.
"Was ever man a more willing captive? You are only to demand, I await your pleasure," said Clement. "What will you have me do? Only suggest something sufficient difficult to make my efforts equal the labors of Hercules."
"Little things well done, give to life its spice," said Regenia.
"First tell Regenia who the petite beauty is, with whom Mr. Stone is dancing so entrancingly?" queried Lucile, with a provoking smile at Regenia.
"You are to satisfy Lucile's curiosity, I have no interest in the matter," said Regenia.
"Oh, yes you have, dear. You can not dream of the awful looks you have been casting in that direction for the last five minutes. Tell her, Mr. St. John, she is dying to know."
"Lucille is more anxious than I am. Tell her and I will admit that I am not at all averse to listening," said Regenia blushing.
Clement informed them of the person in question, and also of the other ladies in the circle of which Lotus Stone formed the central figure, throwing in such scraps of personal knowledge as he knew or could invent. As he chatted away in his interesting way, the music suddenly ceased, and from the stir among the lookers on, it was evident that the procession was about to be formed to make a raid upon the supper room.
With serious misgivings that he had forgotten entirely the ladies from the "Elms," Clement glanced wistfully over the hall for Lotus.
"Shall we go down," he at last asked. "I think we would better if we wish to even see the tables."
"I do not care for the supper, but I should liked to have seen the tables," said Regenia, her very tone indicating her disappointment.
"If I had Lotus, I think I could teach him some sense," Clement thought. He said: "Why not go down? The sight of four hundred guests is worth seeing, because so rare."
Mrs. Levitt signifies her intention of remaining where she is. "I have eaten one supper, and do not care to eat again," she said.
"Pardon me," Clement heard in the low tones of Lotus, as he turned for a last look for his friend. "I know I do not deserve your forgiveness, but have you been here long?"
"Only about two hours," said Clement, with a visible touch of irony.
"So long?" asked Lotus. "Come let us get our places in the ranks and I will explain my seeming perfidy as we march," he remarked to Regenia, nothing abash.
The officers of the Grand Commandery and their ladies, placed according to rank, preceded the procession. Clement, representing the press, came just behind them. He did not, therefore hear what explanation Lotus made of his apparent neglect, but before the doors of the supper room were opened, he noticed Regenia talking as gaily as if the affair, of which he was ready to make a cause of war, had never happened.
After marching and countermarching several times around the room, the procession is at last formed. The Eminent Grand Commander, escorting the mayor, leads the way. As they approach the banquet hall, the doors are thrown open and the guests pass in, seating themselves at the long tables, the Grand Commander at the head of the first table, the mayor of Mt. Clare at his right. At a given signal, a tall white-haired man, in the uniform of the Knights, eloquently gives thanks. Regenia was delighted. She had never seen so many Afro-Americans under similar circumstances and, judging from the sparkle of her eyes and the tinge of her cheeks, the introduction was at least pleasing. Mr. Stone, keenly cognizant of an apparent want of gallantry, exerted himself to make amends. It was well for Regenia that her first contact with Afro-American society was under circumstances so felicitous. It was a rare combination of sparkling wit, brilliant humor and biting sarcasm which sat that night about the Eminent Grand Commander's end of the table. Gallant Sir Knights all, they were men of influence known and respected throughout the land.
She is yet to see the other side where ignorance is as pronounced as absence of it was conspicuous in the gay circle which surrounded her.
As everything comes to an end, so the feasting was at last finished. The toast master, taking his station, began to read the toasts of the evening. They were such as are customary upon such occasions. The responses, with a few noteworthy exceptions were listened to with indifference, if not to say impatience.
Mr. St. John spoke for the press. His effort was happily conceived, uniquely delivered and well received.
Lotus Stone made an ideal post-prandial address. "The ladies, God bless them," was the toast. Regenia sat throughout the address in a maze of happy surprises. Such a torrent of mellifluous rhapsodies flowed from the lips of Mr. Stone that the audience interrupting, burst forth time and again in uproarious applause. He closed with a glowing burst of eloquence, complimentary to the noble, self-sacrificing women of his race, in such pleasing contrast to the airy nothingness strung out on such occasions, that every woman listening left thankful for his earnest advocacy of their cause. Mr. Stone was surrounded by the ladies as he made his way back to the ball room. Congratulations greeted him on every side. Regenia alone seemed to have lost her tongue. From the moment Lotus Stone charmed and delighted that audience, compelled attention where older and more experienced men had signally failed, the world contained for Regenia Underwood but one man, and that fortunate creature, if he could only have known it, was the her of the hour.
Soon after supper the party from the "Elms" returned home. Lotus and Clement escorted them to their carriage. As the carriage whirled around the corner, shutting out forever the glow of electric lights, streaming from the hall, Regenia softly sighed. It occurred to her that years would come and go before the streets of Mt. Clare would again echo with the tramp of marching knights. As they drove homeward, an unaccountable silence seemed to settle over them all. Even Lucile was quieter.
Was it a premonition of the future, looking backward and infringing its shadow upon the present?
Chapter 6 -- Chapter 8