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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 22176

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

THE room, as we said before, being crammed, and our fair friend Miss Willing taking some time to pass gracefully down the line of chair-backs, many of whose late occupants were now swinging their arms about in all the exertion of tying up their mouths, and fighting their ways into their over-coats, Mr. Pringle, as he followed, had a good opportunity of examining her exquisite tournure, than which he thought he never saw anything more beautifully perfect. He was quite proud when a little more width of room at the end of the table enabled him to squeeze past a robing, Dutch-built British-lace-vending pack-woman, and reclaim his fair friend, just as a gentleman does his partner at the end of an old country dance. How exultingly he marched her through the line of inn hangers-on, hostlers, waiters, porters, post-boys, coachmen, and insatiable Matthews-at-home of an inn establishment, "Boots," a gentleman who will undertake all characters in succession for a consideration. How thankful we ought to be to be done with these harpies!

Bouncible, either mistaking the rank of his guests, or wanting to have a better look at the lady, emerged from his glass-fronted den of a bar, and salaam'd them up to the dirty coach, where the highly-fee'd coachman stood door in hand, waiting to perform the last act of attention for his money. In went Billy and the beauty, or rather the beauty and Billy, bang went the door, the outsiders scrambled up on to their perches and shelves as best they could. "All right! Sit tight!" was presently heard, and whip, jip, crack, cut, three blind 'uns and a bolter were again bumping the lumbering vehicle along the cobble-stoned street, bringing no end of cherry cheeks and corkscrew ringlets to the windows, to mark that important epoch of the day, the coach passing by.

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Original Size

Billy, feeling all the better for his dinner, and inspirited by sundry gulps of wine, proceeded to make himself comfortable, in order to open fire as soon as ever the coach got off the stones. He took a rapid retrospect of all the various angels he had encountered, those who had favoured him, those who had frowned, and he was decidedly of opinion that he had never seen anything to compare to the fair lady before him. He was rich and thriving and would please himself without consulting Want-nothin'-but-what's-right Jerry, Half-a-yard-of-the-table Joe, or any of them. It wasn't like as if they were to be in Co. with him in the lady. She would never come into the balance sheets. No; she was to be all his, and they had no business with it. He believed Want-nothin'-but-what's-right would be glad if he never married. Just then the coach glid from the noisy pavement on to the comparatively speaking silent macadamised road, and Billy and the lady opened fire simultaneously, the lady about the discomforts of coach-travelling, which she had never tried before, and Billy about the smack of the Teneriffe, which he thought very earthy. He had some capital wine at home, he said, as everybody has. This led him to London, the street conveniences or inconveniences as they then were of the metropolis, which subject he plied for the purpose of finding out as well where the lady lived as whether her carriage would meet her or not; but this she skilfully parried, by asking Billy where he lived, and finding it was Doughty Street, Russell Square, she observed, as in truth it is, that it was a very airy part of the town, and proceeded to expatiate on the beauty of the flowers in Covent Garden, from whence she got to the theatres, then to the opera, intimating a very considerable acquaintance as well with the capital as with that enchanted circle, the West-end, comprising in its contracted limits what is called the world. Billy was puzzled. He wished she mightn't be a cut above him-such lords, such ladies, such knowledge of the court-could she be a maid-of-honour? Well, he didn't care. No ask no have, so he proceeded with the pumping process again. "Did she live in town?"

Fair Lady.-"Part of the year."

Billy.-"During the season I 'spose?"

Fair Lady.-"During the sitting of parliament."

"There again!" thought Billy, feeling the expectation-funds fall ten per cent, at least. "Well, faint heart never won fair lady," continued he to himself, considering how next he should sound her. She was very beautiful-what pretty pearly teeth she had, and such a pair of rosy lips-such a fair forehead too, and such nice hair-he'd give a fipun note for a kiss!-he'd give a tenpun note for a kiss!-dashed if he wouldn't give a fifty-pun for a kiss. Then he wondered what Head-and-shoulders Smith would think of her. As he didn't seem to be making much progress, however, in the information way, he now desisted from that consideration, and while contemplating her beauty considered how best he should carry on the siege. Should he declare who and what he was, making the best of himself of course, and ask her to be equally explicit, or should he beat about the bush a little longer and try to fish out what he could about her.

They had a good deal of day before them yet, dark though the latter part of it would be; which, however, on second thoughts, he felt might be rather favourable, inasmuch as she wouldn't see when he was taken aback by her answers. He would beat about the bush a little longer. It was very pleasant sport.

"Did you say you lived in Chelsea?" at length asked Billy, in a stupid self-convicting sort of way.

"No," replied the fair lady with a smile; "I never mentioned Chelsea."

"Oh, no; no more you did," replied Billy, taken aback, especially as the lady led up to no other place.

"Did she like the country?" at length asked he, thinking to try and fix her locality there, if he could not earth her in London.

"Yes, she liked the country, at least out of the season-there was no place like London in the season," she thought.

Billy thought so too; it was the best place in summer, and the only place in winter.

Well, the lady didn't know, but if she had to choose either place for a permanency, she would choose London.

This sent the Billy funds up a little. He forgot his intention of following her into the country, and began to expatiate upon the luxuries of London, the capital fish they got, the cod and hoyster sauce (for when excited, he knocked his h's about a little), the cod and hoyster sauce, the turbot, the mackerel, the mullet, that woodcock of the sea, as he exultingly called it, thinking what a tuck-out he would have in revenge for his country inn abstinence. He then got upon the splendour of his own house in Doughty Street-the most agreeable in London. Its spacious entrance, its elegant stone staircase; his beautiful drawingroom, with its maroon and rose-coloured brocaded satin damask curtains, and rich Toumay carpet, its beautiful chandelier of eighteen lights, and Piccolo pianoforte, and was describing a most magnificent mirror-we don't know what size, but most beautiful and becoming-when the pace of the vehicle was sensibly felt to relax; and before they had time to speculate on the cause, it had come to a stand-still.

"Stopped," observed Billy, lowering the window to look out for squalls.

No sooner was the window down, than a head at the door proclaimed mischief. The tête-à-tête was at an end. The guard was going to put Pheasant-feather bonnet inside. Open sesame -W-h-i-s-h. In came the cutting wind-oh dear what a day!

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"Rum for a leddy?" asked the guard, raising a great half-frozen, grog-blossomy face out of the blue and white coil of a shawl-cravat in which it was enveloped,-"Git in" continued he, shouldering the leddy up the steps, without waiting for an answer, and in popped Pheasant-feathers; when, slamming-to the door, he cried "right!" to the coachman, and on went the vehicle, leaving the enterer to settle into a seat by its shaking, after the manner of the omnibus cads, who seem to think all they have to do is to see people past the door. As it was, the new-comer alighted upon Billy, who cannoned her off against the opposite door, and then made himself as big as he could, the better to incommode her. Pheasant-feathers, however, having effected an entrance, seemed to regard herself as good as her neighbours, and forthwith proceeded to adjust the window to her liking, despite the eyeing and staring of Miss Willing. Billy was indignant at the nasty peppermint-drop-smelling woman intruding between the wind and his beauty, and inwardly resolved he would dock the guard's fee for his presumption in putting her there. Miss Willing gathered herself together as if afraid of contamination; and, forgetting her role, declared, after a jolt received in one of her seat-shiftings, that it was just the "smallest coach she had ever been in." She then began to scrutinise her female companion's attire.

A cottage-bonnet, made of pheasant-feathers; was there ever such a frightful thing seen,-all the colours of the rainbow combined,-must be a poacher's daughter, or a poulterer's. Paste egg-coloured ribbons; what a cloth pelisse,-puce colour in some parts,-bath-brick colour in others,-nearly drab in others,-thread-bare all over. Dare say she thought herself fine, with her braided waist, up to her ears. Her glazy gloves might be any colour-black, brown, green, gray. Then a qualm shot across Miss Willing's mind that she had seen the pelisse before. Yes, no, yes; she believed it was the very one she had sold to Mrs. Pickles' nursery governess for eighteen shillings. So it was. She had stripped the fur edging off herself, and there were the marks. Who could the wearer be? Where could she have got it? She could not recollect ever having seen her unwholesome face before. And yet the little ferrety, white-lashed eyes settled upon her as if they knew her. Who could she be? What, if she had lived fellow-(we'll not say what)-with the creature somewhere. There was no knowing people out of their working clothes, especially when they set up to ride inside of coaches. Altogether, it was very unpleasant.

Billy remarked his fair friend's altered mood, and rightly attributed it to the intrusion of the nasty woman, whose gaudy headgear the few flickering rays of a December sun were now lighting up, making the feathers, so beautiful on a bird, look, to Billy's mind, so ugly on a bonnet, at least on the bonnet that now thatched the frightful face beside him. Billy saw the fair lady was not accustomed to these sort of companions, and wished he had only had the sense to book the rest of the inside when the coach stopped to dine. However, it could not be helped now; so, having ascertained that Pheasant-feathers was going all the way to "Lunnnn," as she called it, when the sun sunk behind its massive leadeen cloud, preparatory to that long reign of darkness with which travellers were oppressed,-for there were no oil-lamps to the roofs of stage-coaches,-Billy being no longer able to contemplate the beauties of his charmer, now changed his seat, for a little confidential conversation by

her side.

He then, after a few comforting remarks, not very flattering to Pheasant-feathers' beauty, resumed his expatiations about his splendid house in Doughty Street, Russell Square, omitting, of course, to mention that it had been fitted up to suit the taste of another lady, who had jilted him. He began about his dining-room, twenty-five feet by eighteen, with a polished steel fender, and "pictors" all about the walls; for, like many people, he fancied himself a judge of the fine arts, and, of course, was very frequently fleeced.

This subject, however, rather hung fire, a dining-room being about the last room in a house that a lady cares to hear about, so she presently cajoled him into the more genial region of the kitchen, which, unlike would-be fine ladies of the present day, she was not ashamed to recognise. From the kitchen they proceeded to the store-room, which Billy explained was entered by a door at the top of the back stairs, six feet nine by two feet eight, covered on both sides with crimson cloth, brass moulded in panels and mortise latch. He then got upon the endless, but "never-lady-tiring," subject of bed-rooms-his best bed-room, with a most elegant five-feet-three canopy-top, mahogany bedstead, with beautiful French chintz furniture, lined with pink, outer and inner valance, trimmed silk tassel fringe, &c., &c., &c. And so he went maundering on, paving the way most elaborately to an offer, as some men are apt to do, instead of getting briskly to the "ask-mamma" point, which the ladies are generally anxious to have them at.

To be sure, Billy had been bowled over by a fair, or rather unfair one, who had appeared quite as much interested about his furniture and all his belongings as Miss Willing did, and who, when she got the offer, and found he was not nearly so well off as Jack Sanderson, declared she was never so surprised in her life as when Billy proposed; for though, as she politely said, every one who knew him must respect him, yet he had never even entered her head in any other light than that of an agreeable companion. This was Miss Amelia Titterton, afterwards Mrs. Sanderson. Another lady, as we said before (Miss Bowerbank), had done worse; for she had regularly jilted him, after putting him to no end of expense in furnishing his house, so that, upon the whole, Billy had cause to be cautious. A coach, too, with its jolts and its jerks, and its brandy-and-water stoppages, is but ill calculated for the delicate performance of offering, to say nothing of having a pair of nasty white-lashed, inquisitive-looking, ferrety eyes sitting opposite, with a pair of listening ears, nestling under the thatch of a pheasant-feather bonnet. All things considered, therefore, Billy may, perhaps, stand excused for his slowness, especially as he did not know but what he was addressing a countess.

And so the close of a scarcely dawned December day, was followed by the shades of night, and still the jip, jip, jipping; whip, whip, whipping; creak, creak, creaking of the heavy lumbering coach, was accompanied by Billy's maunderings about his noble ebony this, and splendid mahogany that, varied with, here and there, a judicious interpolation of an "indeed," or a "how beautiful," from Miss Willing, to show how interested she was in the recital; for ladies are generally good listeners, and Miss Willing was essentially so.

The "demeanour of the witness" was lost, to be sure, in the chancery-like darkness that prevailed; and Billy felt it might be all blandishment, for nothing could be more marked or agreeable than the interest both the other ladies had taken in his family, furniture, and effects. Indeed, as he felt, they all took much the same course, for, for cool home-questioning, there is no man can compete with an experienced woman. They get to the "What-have-you-got, and What-will-you-do" point, before a man has settled upon the line of inquiry-very likely before he has got done with that interesting topic-the weather.

At length, a sudden turn of the road revealed to our friends, who were sitting with their faces to the horses, the first distant curve of glow-worm-like lamps in the distance, and presently the great white invitations to "try warren's," or "day and martin's blacking," began to loom through the darkness of the dead walls of the outskirts of London. They were fast approaching the metropolis. The gaunt elms and leafless poplars presently became fewer, while castellated and sentry-box-looking summer-houses stood dark in the little paled-off gardens. At last the villas, and semi-detached villas, collapsed into one continuous gas-lit shop-dotted street. The shops soon became better and more frequent,-more ribbons and flowers, and fewer periwinkle stalls. They now got upon the stones. Billy's heart jumped into his month at the jerk, for he knew not how soon his charmer and he might part, and as yet he had not even ascertained her locality. Now or never, thought he, rising to the occasion, and, with difficulty of utterance, he expressed a hope that he might have the pleasure of seeing her 'ome.

"Thank you, no," replied Miss Willing, emphatically, for it was just the very thing she most dreaded, letting him see her reception by the servants.

"Humph!" grunted Billy, feeling his funds fall five-and-twenty per cent.-"Miss Titterton or Miss Bowerbank over again," thought he.

"Not but that I most fully appreciate your kindness," whispered Miss Willing, in the sweetest tone possible, right into his ear, thinking by Billy's silence that her vehemence had offended him; "but," continued she, "I'm only going to the house of a friend, a long way from you, and I expect a servant to meet me at the Green Man in Oxford Street."

"Well, but let me see you to the"-(puff, gasp)-"Green Man," ejaculated Billy, the funds of hope rising more rapidly than his words.

"It's very kind," whispered Miss Willing, "and I feel it very, very much, but"-

"But if your servant shouldn't come," interrupted Billy, "you'd never find your way to Brompton in this nasty dense yellow fog," for they had now got into the thick of a fine fat one.

"Oh, but I'm not going to Brompton," exclaimed Miss Willing, amused at this second bad shot of Billy's at her abode.

"Well, wherever you are going, I shall only be too happy to escort you," replied Billy, "I know Lunnun well."

"So do I," thought Miss Willing, with a sigh. And the coach having now reached that elegant hostelry, the George and Blue Badger, in High Holborn, Miss showed her knowledge of it by intimating to Billy that that was the place for him to alight; so taking off her glove she tendered him her soft hand, which Billy grasped eagerly, still urging her to let him see her home, or at all events to the Green Man, in Oxford Street.

Miss, however, firmly but kindly declined his services, assuring him repeatedly that she appreciated his kindness, which she evinced by informing him that she was going to a friend's at No. -, Grosvenor Square, that she would only be in town for a couple of nights; but that if he really wished to see her again,-"really wished it," she repeated with an emphasis, for she didn't want to be trifled with,-she would be happy to see him to tea at eight o'clock on the following evening.

"Eight o'clock!" gasped Billy. "No. --, Gruvenor Square," repeated he. "I knows it-I'll be with you to a certainty-I'll be with you to a"-(puff)-"certainty." So saying, he made a sandwich of her fair taper-fingered hand, and then responded to the inquiry of the guard, if there was any one to "git oot there," by alighting. And he was so excited that he walked off, leaving his new silk umbrella and all his luggage in the coach, exclaiming, as he worked his way through the fog to Doughty Street, "No.--, Gruvenor Square-eight o'clock-eight o'clock-No.--, Gruvenor Square-was there ever such a beauty!-be with her to a certainty, be with her to a certainty." Saying which, he gave an ecstatic bound, and next moment found himself sprawling a-top of a murder!-crying apple-woman in the gutter. Leaving him there to get up at his leisure, let us return to his late companion in the coach.

Scarcely was the door closed on his exit, ere a sharp shrill "You don't know me!-you don't know me!" sounded from under the pheasant-feather bonnet, and shot through Miss Willing like a thrill.

"Yes, no, yes; who is it?" ejaculated she, thankful they were alone.

"Sarey Grimes, to be sure," replied the voice, in a semi-tone of exultation.

"Sarah Grimes!" exclaimed Miss Willing, recollecting the veriest little imp of mischief that ever came about a place, the daughter of a most notorious poacher. "So it is! Why, Sarah, who would ever have thought of seeing you grown into a great big woman."

"I thought you didn't know me," replied Sarah; "I used often to run errands for you," added she.

"I remember," replied Miss Willing, feeling in her reticule for her purse. Sarah had carried certain delicate missives in the country that Miss Willing would now rather have forgotten, how thankful she was that the creature had not introduced herself when her fat friend was in the coach. "What are you doing now?" asked Miss Willing, jingling up the money at one end of the purse to distinguish between the gold and the silver.

Sarey explained that being now out of place (she had been recently dismissed from a cheesemonger's at Lutterworth for stealing a copper coal-scoop, a pound of whitening, and a pair of gold spectacles, for which a donkey-travelling general merchant had given her seven and sixpence), the guard of the coach, who was her great-uncle, had given her a lift up to town to try what she could do there again; and Miss Willing's quick apprehension seeing that there was some use to be made of such a sharp-witted thing, having selected a half-sovereign out of her purse, thus addressed her:

"Well, Sarah, I'm glad to see you again. You are very much improved, and will be very good-looking. There's half a sovereign for you," handing it to her, "and if you'll come to me at six o'clock to-morrow evening in Grosvenor Square, I dare say I shall be able to look out some things that may be useful to you."

"Thanke, mum; thanke!" exclaimed Sarey, delighted at the idea. "I'll be with you, you may depend."

"You know Big Ben," continued Miss Willing, "who was my lord's own man; he's hall-porter now, ring and tell him you come for me, and he'll let you in at the door."

"Certainly, mum, certainly," assented Pheasant-feathers, thinking how much more magnificent that would be than sneaking down the area.

And the coach having now reached the Green Man, Miss Willing alighted and took a coach to Grosvenor Square, leaving Miss Grimes to pursue its peregrinations to the end of its journey.

And Billy Pringle having, with the aid of the "pollis," appeased the basket-woman's wrath, was presently ensconced in his beautiful house in Doughty Street.

So, tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,-down goes the curtain on this somewhat long chapter.

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