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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 13845

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

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ONSIDERING that Billy Pringle, or Fine Billy, as his good-natured friends called him, was only an underbred chap, he was as good an imitation of a Swell as ever we saw. He had all the airy dreaminess of an hereditary high flyer, while his big talk and off-hand manner strengthened the delusion.

It was only when you came to close quarters with him, and found that though he talked in pounds he acted in pence, and marked his fine dictionary words and laboured expletives, that you came to the conclusion that he was "painfully gentlemanly." So few people, however, agree upon what a gentleman is, that Billy was well calculated to pass muster with the million. Fine shirts, fine ties, fine talk, fine trinkets, go a long way towards furnishing the character with many. Billy was liberal, not to say prodigal, in all these. The only infallible rule we know is, that the man who is always talking about being a gentleman never is one. Just as the man who is always talking about honour, morality, fine feeling, and so or never knows anything of these qualities but the name.

Nature had favoured Billy's pretensions in the lady-killing way. In person he was above the middle height, five feet eleven or so, slim and well-proportioned, with a finely-shaped head and face, fair complexion, light brown hair, laughing blue eyes, with long lashes, good eyebrows, regular pearly teeth and delicately pencilled moustache. Whiskers he did not aspire to. Nor did Billy abuse the gifts of Nature by disguising himself in any of the vulgar groomy gamekeepery style of dress, that so effectually reduce all mankind to the level of the labourer, nor adopt any of the "loud" patterns that have lately figured so conspicuously in our streets. On the contrary, he studied the quiet unobtrusive order of costume, and the harmony of colours, with a view of producing a perfectly elegant general effect. Neatly-fitting frock or dress coats, instead of baggy sacks, with trouser legs for sleeves, quiet-patterned vests and equally quiet-patterned trousers. If he could only have been easy in them he would have done extremely well, but there was always a nervous twitching, and jerking, and feeling, as if he was wondering what people were thinking or saying of him.

In the dress department he was ably assisted by his mother, a lady of very considerable taste, who not only fashioned his clothes but his mind, indeed we might add his person, Billy having taken after her, as they say; for his father, though an excellent man and warm, was rather of the suet-dumpling order of architecture, short, thick, and round, with a neck that was rather difficult to find. His name, too, was William, and some, the good-natured ones again of course, used to say that he might have been called "Fine Billy the first," for under the auspices of his elegant wife he had assumed a certain indifference to trade; and when in the grand strut at Ramsgate or Broadstairs, or any of his watering-places, if appealed to about any of the things made or dealt in by any of the concerns in which he was a "Co.," he used to raise his brows and shrug his shoulders, and say with a very deprecatory sort of air, "'Pon my life, I should say you're right," or "'Deed I should say it was so," just as if he was one of the other Pringles,-the Pringles who have nothing to do with trade,-and in noways connected with Pringle & Co.; Pringle & Potts; Smith, Sharp & Pringle; or any of the firms that the Pringles carried on under the titles of the original founders. He was neither a tradesman nor a gentleman. The Pringles-like the happy united family we meet upon wheels; the dove nestling with the gorged cat, and so on-all pulled well together when there was a common victim to plunder; and kept their hands in by what they called taking fair advantages of each other, that is to say, cheating each other, when there was not.

Nobody knew the ins and outs of the Pringles. If they let their own right hands know what their left hands did, they took care not to let anybody else's right hand know. In multiplicity of concerns they rivalled that great man "Co.," who the country-lad coming to London said seemed to be in partnership with almost everybody. The author of "Who's Who?" would be puzzled to post people who are Brown in one place, Jones in a second, and Robinson in a third. Still the Pringles were "a most respectable family," mercantile morality being too often mere matter of moonshine. The only member of the family who was not exactly "legally honest,"-legal honesty being much more elastic than common honesty,-was cunning Jerry, who thought to cover by his piety the omissions of his practice. He was a fawning, sanctified, smooth-spoken, plausible, plump little man, who seemed to be swelling with the milk of human kindness, anxious only to pour it out upon some deserving object. His manner was so frank and bland, and his front face smile so sweet, that it was cruel of his side one to contradict the impression and show the cunning duplicity of his nature. Still he smirked and smiled, and "bless-you, dear" and "hope-your-happy," deared the women, that, being a bachelor, they all thought it best to put up with his "mistakes," as he called his peculations, and sought his favour by frequent visits with appropriate presents to his elegant villa at Peckham Rye. Here he passed for quite a model man; twice to church every Sunday, and to the lecture in the evening, and would not profane the sanctity of the day by having a hot potato to eat with his cold meat.

He was a ripe rogue, and had been jointly or severally, as the lawyers say, in a good many little transactions that would not exactly bear inspection; and these "mistakes" not tallying with the sanctified character he assumed, he had been obliged to wriggle out of them as best he could, with the loss of as few feathers as possible. At first, of course, he always tried the humbugging system, at which he was a great adept; that failing, he had recourse to bullying, at which he was not bad, declaring that the party complaining was an ill-natured, ill-conditioned, quarrelsome fellow, who merely wanted a peg to hang a grievance upon, and that Jerry, so far from defrauding him, had been the best friend he ever had in his life, and that he would put him through every court in the kingdom before he would be imposed upon, by him. If neither of these answered, and Jerry found himself pinned in a corner, he feigned madness, when his solicitor, Mr. Supple, appeared, and by dint of legal threats, and declaring that if the unmerited persecution was persisted in, it would infallibly consign his too sensitive client to a lunatic asylum, he generally contrived to get Jerry out of the scrape by some means or other best known to themselves. Then Jerry, of course, being clear, would inuendo his own version of the story as dexterously as he could,

always taking care to avoid a collision with the party, but more than insinuating that he (Jerry) had been infamously used, and his well-known love of peace and quietness taken advantage of; and though men of the world generally suspect the party who is most anxious to propagate his story to be in the wrong, yet their number is but small compared to those who believe anything they are told, and who cannot put "that and that" together for themselves.

So Jerry went on robbing and praying and passing for a very proper man. Some called him "cunning Jerry," to distinguish him from an uncle who was Jerry also; but as this name would not do for the family to adopt, he was generally designated by them as "Want-nothin'-but-what's-right Jerry," that being the form of words with which he generally prefaced his extortions. In the same way they distinguished between a fat Joe and a thin one, calling the thin one merely "Joe," and the fat one "Joe who can't get within half a yard of the table;" and between two clerks, each bearing the not uncommon name of Smith, one being called Smith, the other "Head-and-shoulders Smith,"-the latter, of course, taking his title from his figure.

With this outline of the Pringle family, we will proceed to draw out such of its members as figure more conspicuously in our story.

With Mrs. William Pringle's (née Willing) birth, parentage, and education, we would gladly furnish the readers of this work with some information, but, unfortunately, it does not lie in our power so to do, for the simple reason, that we do not know anything. We first find her located at that eminent Court milliner and dressmaker's, Madame Adelaide Banboxeney, in Furbelow Street, Berkeley Square, where her elegant manners, and obliging disposition, to say nothing of her taste in torturing ribbons and wreaths, and her talent for making plain girls into pretty ones, earned for her a very distinguished reputation. She soon became first-hand, or trier-on, and unfortunately, was afterwards tempted into setting-up for herself, when she soon found, that though fine ladies like to be cheated, it must be done in style, and by some one, if not with a carriage, at all events with a name; and that a bonnet, though beautiful in Bond Street, loses all power of attraction if it is known to come out of Bloomsbury. Miss Willing was, therefore, soon sold up; and Madame Banboxeney (whose real name was Brown, Jane Brown, wife of John Brown, who was a billiard-table marker, until his wife's fingers set him up in a gig), Madame Banboxeney, we say, thinking to profit by Miss Willing's misfortunes, offered her a very reduced salary to return to her situation; but Miss Willing having tasted the sweets of bed, a thing she very seldom did at Madame Banboxeney's, at least not during the season, stood out for more money; the consequence of which was, she lost that chance, and had the benefit of Madame's bad word at all the other establishments she afterwards applied to. In this dilemma, she resolved to turn her hand to lady's-maid-ism; and having mastered the science of hair-dressing, she made the rounds of the accustomed servant-shops, grocers, oilmen, brushmen, and so on, asking if they knew of any one wanting a perfect lady's-maid.

As usual in almost all the affairs of life, the first attempt was a failure. She got into what she thoroughly despised, an untitled family, where she had a great deal more to do than she liked, and was grossly "put upon" both by the master and missis. She gave the place up, because, as she said, "the master would come into the missis's room with nothing but his night-shirt and spectacles on," but, in reality, because the missis had some of her things made-up for the children instead of passing them on, as of right they ought to have been, to her. She deeply regretted ever having demeaned herself by taking such a situation. Being thus out of place, and finding the many applications she made for other situations, when she gave a reference to her former one, always resulted in the ladies declining her services, sometimes on the plea of being already suited, or of another "young person" having applied just before her, or of her being too young (they never said too pretty, though one elderly lady on seeing her shook her head, and said she "had sons"); and, being tired of living on old tea leaves, Miss Willing resolved to sink her former place, and advertise as if she had just left Madame Banboxeney's. Accordingly she drew out a very specious advertisement, headed "to the nobility," offering the services of a lady's-maid, who thoroughly understood millinery, dress-making, hair-dressing, and getting up fine linen, with an address to a cheese shop, and made an arrangement to give Madame Banboxeney a lift with a heavy wedding order she was busy upon, if she would recommend her as just fresh from her establishment.

This advertisement produced a goodly crop of letters, and Miss Willing presently closed with the Honourable Mrs. Cavesson, whose husband was a good deal connected with the turf, enjoying that certain road to ruin which so many have pursued; and it says much for Miss Willing's acuteness, that though she entered Mrs. Cavesson's service late in the day, when all the preliminaries for a smash had been perfected, her fine sensibilities and discrimination enabled her to anticipate the coming evil, and to deposit her mistress's jewellery in a place of safety three-quarters of an hour before the bailiffs entered. This act of fidelity greatly enhanced her reputation, and as it was well known that "poor dear Mrs. Cavesson" would not be able to keep her, there were several great candidates for this "treasure of a maid." Miss Willing had now nothing to do but pick and choose; and after some consideration, she selected what she called a high quality family, one where there was a regular assessed tax-paper establishment of servants, where the butler sold his lord's wine-custom to the highest bidder, and the heads of all the departments received their "reglars" upon the tradesmen's bills; the lady never demeaning herself by wearing the same gloves or ball-shoes twice, or propitiating the nurse by presents of raiment that was undoubtedly hers-we mean the maid's. She was a real lady, in the proper acceptation of the term.

This was the beautiful, and then newly married, Countess Delacey, whose exquisite garniture will still live in the recollection of many of the now bald-headed beaux of that period. For these delightful successes, the countess was mainly indebted to our hero's mother, Miss Willing, whose suggestive genius oft came to the aid of the perplexed and exhausted milliner. It was to the service of the Countess Delacey that Miss Willing was indebted for becoming the wife of Mr. Pringle, afterwards "Fine Billy the first,"-an event that deserves to be introduced in a separate chapter.

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