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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 12796

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

THIS way, sir,-please, sir,-yes, sir," bowed the now obsequious Ben, guiding Billy by the light of a chamber candle through the intricacies of the half-lit inner entrance. "Take care, sir, there's a step, sir," continued he, stopping and showing where the first stumbling-block resided. Billy then commenced the gradual accent of the broad, gently-rising staircase, each step increasing his conviction of the magnitude of the venture, and making him feel that his was not the biggest house in town. As he proceeded he wondered what Nothin'-but-what's-right Jerry, or Half-a-yard-of-the-table Joe, above all Mrs. Half-a-yard-of-the-table, would say if they could see him thus visiting at a nobleman's house, it seemed more like summut in a book or a play than downright reality. Still there was no reason why a fine lady should not take a fancy to him-many deuced deal uglier fellows than he had married fine ladies, and he would take his chance along with the rest of them-so he laboured up after Ben, hoping he might not come down stairs quicker than he went up.

The top landing being gained, they passed through lofty folding-doors into the suite of magnificent but now put-away drawing-rooms, whose spectral half collapsed canvas bags, and covered statues and sofas, threw a Kensal-Green-Cemetery sort of gloom over Billy's spirits; speedily, however, to be dispelled by the radiance of the boudoir into which he was now passed through an invisible door in the gilt-papered wall. "Mr. William Pringle, ma'm," whispered Ben, in a tone that one could hardly reconcile to the size of the monster: and Miss Willing having risen at the sound of the voice, bowing, Billy and she were presently locked hand in hand, smiling and teeth-showing most extravagantly. "I'll ring for tea presently," observed she to Ben, who seemed disposed to fuss and loiter about the room. "If you please, my lady," replied Ben, bowing himself backwards through the panel. Happy Billy was then left alone with his charmer, save that beetroot-coloured Ben was now listening at one door on his own account, and Pheasant-feathers at the other on Miss Willing's.

Billy was quite taken aback. If he had been captivated in the coach what chance had he now, with all the aid of dress, scenery, and decorations. He thought he had never seen such a beauty-he thought he had never seen such a bust-he thought he had never seen such an arm! Miss Titterton-pooh!-wasn't to be mentioned in the same century-hadn't half such a waist. "Won't you be seated?" at length asked Miss Willing, as Billy still stood staring and making a mental inventory of her charms. "Seat"-(puff)-"seat" (wheeze), gasped Billy, looking around at the shining amber-coloured magnificence by which he was surrounded, as if afraid to venture, even in his nice salmon-coloured shorts. At length he got squatted on a gilt chair by his charmer's side, when taking to look at his toes, she led off the ball of conversation. She had had enough of the billing and cooing or gammon and spinach of matrimony, and knew if she could not bring him to book at once, time would not assist her. She soon probed his family circle, and was glad to find there was no "mamma" to "ask," that dread parent having more than once been too many for her. She took in the whole range of connection with the precision of an auctioneer or an equity draftsman.

There was no occasion for much diplomacy on her part, for Billy came into the trap just like a fly to a "Ketch-'em-alive O!" The conversation soon waxed so warm that she quite forgot to ring for the tea; and Ben, who affected early hours in the winter, being slightly asthmatical, as a hall-porter ought to be, at length brought it in of his own accord. Most polite he was; "My lady" and "Your ladyship-ing" Miss Willing with accidental intention every now and then, which raised Billy's opinion of her consequence very considerably. And so he sat, and sipped and sipped, and thought what a beauty she would be to transfer to Doughty Street. Tea, in due time, was followed by the tray-Melton pie, oysters, sandwiches, anchovy toast, bottled stout, sherry and Seltzer water, for which latter there was no demand.

A profane medicine-chest-looking mahogany case then made its appearance, which, being opened, proved to contain four cut-glass spirit-bottles, labelled respectively, "Rum," "Brandy," "Whiskey," "Gin," though they were not true inscriptions, for there were two whiskey's and two brandy's. A good old-fashioned black-bottomed kettle having next mounted a stand placed on the top bar, Miss intimated to Ben that if they had a few more coals, he need not "trouble to sit up;" and these being obtained, our friends made a brew, and then drew their chairs together to enjoy the feast of reason and the flow of soul; Miss slightly raising Alderman Boozey's son's bran-new wife's bran-new emerald-green velvet dress to show her beautiful white-satin slippered foot, as it now rested on the polished steel fender.

The awkwardness of resuming the interrupted addresses being at length overcome by sundry gulphs of the inspiring fluid, our friend Mr. Pringle was soon in full fervour again. He anathematised the lawyers and settlements, and delay, and was all for being married off-hand at the moment.

Miss, on her part, was dignified and prudent. All she would say was that Mr. William Pringle was not indifferent to her,-"No," sighed she, "he wasn't"-but there were many, many considerations, and many, many points to be discussed, and many, many questions to be asked of each other, before they could even begin to talk of such a thing as immediate-"hem"-(she wouldn't say the word) turning away her pretty head.

"Ask away, then!" exclaimed Billy, helping himself to another beaker of brandy-for he saw he was approaching the "Ketch-'em-alive O." Miss then put the home-question whether his family knew what he was about, and finding they did not, she saw there was no time to lose; so knocking off the expletives, she talked of many considerations and points, the main one being to know how she was likely to be kept,-whether she was to have a full-sized footman, or an under-sized stripling, or a buttony boy of a page, or be waited upon by that greatest aversion to all female minds, one of her own sex. Not that she had the slightest idea of saying "No," but her experience of life teaching her that a

ll early grandeur may be mastered by footmen, she could very soon calculate what sort of a set down she was likely to have by knowing the style of her attendant. "Show me your footman, and I will tell you what you are," was one of her maxims. Moreover, it is well for all young ladies to have a sort of rough estimate, at all events, of what they are likely to have,-which, we will venture to say, unlike estimates in general, will fall very far short of the reality. Our friend Billy, however, was quite in the promising mood, and if she had asked for half-a-dozen Big Bens he would have promised her them, canes, powder, and all.

"Oh! she should have anything, everything she wanted! A tall man with good legs, and all right about the mouth,-an Arab horse, an Erard harp, a royal pianoforte, a silver tea-urn, a gold coffee-pot, a service of gold-eat gold, if she liked," and as he declared she might eat gold if she liked, he dropped upon his salmon-coloured knees, and with his glass of brandy in one hand, and hers in the other, looked imploringly up at her, a beautiful specimen of heavy sentimentality; and Miss, thinking she had got him far enough, and seeing it was nearly twelve o'clock, now urged him to rise, and allow her maid to go and get him a coach. Saying which, she disengaged her hand, and slipping through the invisible door, was presently whispering her behests to the giggling Pheasant-feathers, on the other side of the folding ones. A good half-hour, however, elapsed before one of those drowsy vehicles could be found, during which time our suitor obtained the fair lady's consent to allow him to meet her at her friend Mrs. Freemantle's, as she called her, in Cowslip Street, May Fair, at three o'clock in the following afternoon; and the coach having at length arrived, Miss Willing graciously allowed Mr. Pringle to kiss her hand, and then accompanied him to the second landing of the staircase, which commanded the hall, in order to check any communication between Pheasant-feathers and him.

The reader will now perhaps accompany us to this famed milliner, dress and mantle-maker's, who will be happy to execute any orders our fair ones may choose to favour her with.

Despite the anathemas of a certain law lord, match-forwarding is quite the natural prerogative and instinct of women. They all like it, from the duchess downwards, and you might as well try to restrain a cat from mousing as a woman from match-making. Miss Freemantle (who acted Mrs. on this occasion) was as fond of the pursuit as any one. She looked Billy over with a searching, scrutinising glance, thinking what a flat he was, and wondered what he would think of himself that time twelvemonths. Billy, on his part, was rather dumb-foundered. Talking before two women was not so easy as talking to one; and he did not get on with the immediate matrimony story half so well as he had done over-night. The ladies saw his dilemma, and Miss Willing quickly essayed to relieve him. She put him through his pleadings with all the skill of the great Serjeant Silvertougue, making Billy commit himself most irretrievably.

"Mamma" (Miss Freemantle that is to say) then had her innings.

She was much afraid it couldn't be done off-hand-indeed she was. There was a place on the Border-Gretna Green-she dare say'd he'd heard of it; but then it was a tremendous distance, and would take half a lifetime to get to it. Besides, Miss p'raps mightn't like taking such a journey at that time of year.

Miss looked neither yes nor no. Mamma was more against it than her, Mamma feeling for the countess's coming contest and her future favours. Other difficulties were then discussed, particularly that of publicity, which Miss dreaded more than the journey to Gretna. It must be kept secret, whatever was done. Billy must be sworn to secrecy, or Miss would have nothing to say to him. Billy was sworn accordingly.

Mamma then thought the best plan was to have the banns put up in some quiet church, where no questions would be asked as to where they lived, and it would be assumed that they resided within the parish, and when they had been called out, they could just go quietly and get married, which would keep things square with the countess and everybody else. And this arrangement being perfected, and liberty given to Billy to write to his bride, whose name and address were now furnished him, he at length took his departure; and the ladies having talked him over, then resolved themselves into a committee of taste, to further the forthcoming tournament. And by dint of keeping all hands at work all night, Miss Willing was enabled to return to the countess with the first instalment of such a series of lady-killing garments as mollified her heart, and enabled her to sustain the blow that followed, which however was mitigated by the assurance that Mr. and Mrs. William Pringle were going to live in London, and that Madam's taste would always be at her ladyship's command.

We wish we could gratify our lady readers with a description of the brilliant attire that so completely took the shine out of the Countess of Honiton as has caused her to hide her diminished head ever since, but our pen is unequal to the occasion, and even if we had had a John Leech to supply our deficiencies, the dresses of those days would look as nothing compared to the rotatory haystacks of the present one.

What fair lady can bear the sight of her face painted in one of the old poke bonnets of former days? To keep things right, the bonnet ought to be painted to the face every year or two.

But to the lovers.

In due time "Mamma" (Miss Freemantle) presented her blooming daughter to the happy Billy, who was attended to the hymeneal alter by his confidential clerk, Head-and-shoulders Smith. Big Ben, who was dressed in a blue frock coat with a velvet collar, white kerseymere trousers, and varnished boots, looking very like one of the old royal dukes, was the only other person present at the interesting ceremony, save Pheasant-feathers, who lurked in one of the pews.

The secret had been well kept, for the evening papers of that day and the morning ones of the next first proclaimed to the "great world," that sphere of one's own acquaintance, that William Pringle, Esquire, of Doughty Street, Russell Square, was married to Miss Emma Willing, of-the papers did not say where.

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