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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 20630

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

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THE PRINGLES of course were furious when they read the announcement of Billy's marriage. Such a degradation to such a respectable family, and communicated in such a way. We need scarcely say that at first they all made the worst of it, running Mrs. William down much below her real level, and declaring that Billy though hard enough in money matters, was soft enough in love affairs. Then Mrs. Half-a-yard-of-the-table Joe, who up to that time had been the belle of the family, essayed to pick her to pieces, intimating that she was much indebted to her dress-that fine feathers made fine birds-hoped that Billy would like paying for the clothes, and wondered what her figure would be like a dozen years thence. Mrs. Joe had preserved hers, never having indeed having been in the way of spoiling it. Joe looked as if he was to perpetuate the family name. By-and-by, when it became known that the Countess Delacey's yellow carriage, with the high-stepping greys and the cocked-up-nose beet-root-and-cherry-coloured Johnnies, was to be seen astonishing the natives in Doughty Street, they began to think better of it; and though they did not stint themselves for rudeness (disguised as civility of course), they treated her less like a show, more especially when Billy was present. Still, though they could not make up their minds to be really civil to her, they could not keep away from her, just as the moth will be at the candle despite its unpleasant consequences. Indeed, it is one of the marked characteristics of Snobbism, that they won't be cut. At least, if you do get a Snob cut, ten to one but he will take every opportunity of rubbing up against you, or sitting down beside you in public, or overtaking you on the road, or stopping a mutual acquaintance with you in the street, either to show his indifference or his independence, or in the hope of its passing for intimacy. There are people who can't understand any coolness short of a kick. The Pringles were tiresome people. They would neither be in with Mrs. William, nor out with her. So there was that continual knag, knag, knagging going on in the happy united family, that makes life so pleasant and enjoyable. Mrs. William well knew, when any of them came to call upon her, that her sayings and doings would furnish recreation for the rest of the cage. It is an agreeable thing to have people in one's house acting the part of spies. One day Mrs. Joe, who lived in Guildford Street, seeing the Countess's carriage-horses cold-catching in Doughty Street, while her ladyship discussed some important millinery question with Mrs. William, could not resist the temptation of calling, and not being introduced to the Countess, said to Mis. William, with her best vinegar sneer, the next time they met. She "'oped she had told her fine friend that the vulgar woman she saw at her 'ouse was no connection of her's." But enough of such nonsense. Let us on to something more pleasant.

Well, then, of course the next step in our story is the appearance of our hero, the boy Billy--Fine Billy, aforesaid. Such a boy as never was seen! All other mammas went away dissatisfied with theirs, after they had got a peep of our Billy. If baby-shows had been in existence in those days, Mrs. Billy might have scoured the country and carried away all the prizes. Everybody was struck in a heap at the sight of him, and his sayings and doings were worthy of a place in Punch. So thought his parents, at least. What perfected their happiness, of course, operated differently with the family, and eased the minds of the ladies, as to the expediency of further outward civility to Mrs. William, who they now snubbed at all points, and prophesied all sorts of uncharitableness of. Mrs., on her side, surpassed them all in dress and good looks, and bucked Billy up into a very produceable-looking article. Though he mightn't exactly do for White's bay-window on a summer afternoon, he looked uncommonly well on "'Change," and capitally in the country. Of course, he came in for one of the three cardinal sources of abuse the world is always so handy with, viz., that a man either behaves ill to his wife, is a screw, or is out-running the constable, the latter, of course, being Billy's crime, which admitted of a large amount of blame being laid on the lady, though, we are happy to say, Billy had no trial of speed with the constable, for his wife, by whose permission men thrive, was a capital manager, and Billy slapped his fat thigh over his beloved balance-sheets every Christmas, exclaiming, as he hopped joyously round on one leg, snapping his finger and thumb, "Our Billy shall be a gent! Our Billy shall be a gent!" And he half came in to the oft-expressed wish of his wife, that he might live to see him united to a quality lady: Mr. and Lady Arabella Pringle, Mr. and Lady Sophia Pringle, or Mr. and Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Pringle, as the case might be.

Vainglorious ambition! After an inordinate kidney supper, poor Billy was found dead in his chair. Great was the consternation among the Pringle family at the lamentable affliction. All except Jerry, who, speculating on his habits, had recently effected a policy on his life, were deeply shocked at the event. They buried him with all becoming pomp, and then, Jerry, who had always professed great interest in the boy Billy-so great, indeed, as to induce his brother (though with no great opinion of Jerry, but hoping that his services would never be wanted, and that it might ingratiate the nephew with the bachelor uncle,) to appoint him an executor and guardian-waited upon the widow, and with worlds of tears and pious lamentations, explained to her in the most unexplanatory manner possible, all how things were left, but begging that she would not give herself any trouble about her son's affairs, for, if she would attend to his spiritual wants, and instil high principles of honour, morality, and fine feeling into his youthful mind, he would look after the mere worldly dross, which was as nothing compared to the importance of the other. "Teach him to want nothin' but what's right," continued Jerry, as he thought most impressively. "Teach him to want nothin' but what's right, and when he grows up to manhood marry him to some nice, pious respectable young woman in his own rank of life, with a somethin' of her own; gentility is all very well to talk about, but it gets you nothin' at the market," added he, forgetting that he was against the mere worldly dross.

But Mrs. Pringle, who knew the value of the article, intimated at an early day, that she would like to be admitted into the money partnership as well, whereupon Jerry waxing wroth, said with an irate glance of his keen grey eyes, "My dear madam, these family matters, in my opinion, require to be treated not only in a business-like way, but with a very considerable degree of delicacy," an undisputed dogma, acquiring force only by the manner in which it was delivered. So the pretty widow saw she had better hold her tongue, and hope for the best from the little fawning bully.

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The melancholy catastrophe with which we closed our last chapter found our hero at a preparatory school, studying for Eton, whither papa proposed sending him on the old principle of getting him into good society; though we believe it is an experiment that seldom succeeds. The widow, indeed, took this view of the matter, for her knowledge of high life caused her to know that though a "proud aristocracy" can condescend, and even worship wealth, yet that they are naturally clannish and exclusive, and tenacious of pedigree. In addition to this, Mrs. Pringle's experience of men led her to think that the solemn pedantic "Greek and Latin ones," as she called them, who know all about Julius C?sar coming, "summa diligentia," on the top of the diligence, were not half so agreeable as those who could dance and sing, and knew all that was going on in the present-day world; which, in addition to her just appreciation of the delicate position of her son, made her resolve not to risk him among the rising aristocracy at Eton, who, instead of advancing, might only damage his future prospects in life, but to send him to Paris, where, besides the three R's,-"reading, riting, and rithmetic,"-he would acquire all the elegant accomplishments and dawn fresh upon the world an unexpected meteor.

This matter being arranged, she then left Dirty Street, as she called Doughty Street, with all the disagreeable Pringle family espionage, and reminiscences, and migrated westward, taking up her abode in the more congenial atmosphere of Curtain Crescent, Pimlico, or Belgravia, as, we believe the owners of the houses wish to have it called. Here she established herself in a very handsome, commodious house, with porticoed doorway and balconied drawing-rooms-every requisite for a genteel family in short; and such a mansion being clearly more than a single lady required, she sometimes accommodated the less fortunate, through the medium of a house-agent, though both he and she always begged it to be distinctly understood that she did not let lodgings, but "apartments;" and she always requested that the consideration might be sent to her in a sealed envelope by the occupants, in the same manner as she transmitted them the bill. So she managed to make a considerable appearance at a moderate expense, it being only in the full season that her heart yearned towards the houseless, when of course a high premium was expected. There is nothing uncommon in people letting their whole houses; so why should there be anything strange in Mrs. Pringle occasionally letting a part of one? Clearly nothing. Though Mrs. Joe did say she had turned a lodging-house keeper, she could not refrain from having seven-and-sixpence worth of Brougham occasionally to see how the land lay.

It is but justice to our fair friend to say that she commenced with great prudence. So handsome unprotected a female being open to the criticisms of the censorious, she changed her good-looking footman for a sedate elderly man, whose name, Properjohn, John Properjohn, coupled with the severe austerity of his manners, was enough to scare away intruders, and to keep the young girls in order, whom our friend had

consigned to her from the country, in the hopes that her drilling and recommendation would procure them admission into quality families.

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Properjohn had been spoiled for high service by an attack of the jaundice, but his figure was stately and good, and she sought to modify his injured complexion by a snuff-coloured, Quaker-cut coat and vest, with claret-coloured shorts, and buckled shoes. Thus attired, with his oval-brimmed hat looped up with gold cord, and a large double-jointed brass-headed cane in his hand, he marched after his mistress, a damper to the most audacious. Properjohn, having lived in good families until he got spoiled by the jaundice, had a very extensive acquaintance among the aristocracy, with whom Mrs. Pringle soon established a peculiar intercourse. She became a sort of ultimate Court of Appeal, a Cour de Cassation, in all matters of taste in apparel,-whether a bonnet should be lilac or lavender colour, a dress deeply flounced or lightly, a lady go to a ball in feathers or diamonds, or both-in all those varying and perplexing points that so excite and bewilder the female mind: Mrs. Pringle would settle all these, whatever Mrs. Pringle said the fair applicants would abide by, and milliners and dress-makers submitted to her judgment. This, of course, let her into the privacies of domestic life. She knew what husbands stormed at the milliners' and dress-makers' bills, bounced at the price of the Opera-box, and were eternally complaining of their valuable horses catching cold. She knew who the cousin was who was always to be admitted in Lavender Square, and where the needle-case-shaped note went to after it had visited the toy-shop in Arcadia Street. If her own information was defective, Properjohn could supply the deficiency. The two, between them, knew almost everything.

Nor was Mrs. Pringle's influence confined to the heads of houses, for it soon extended to many of the junior members also. It is a well known fact that, when the gorgeous Lady Rainbow came to consult her about her daughter's goings on with Captain Conquest, the Captain and Matilda saw Mamma alight from the flaunting hammer-clothed tub, as they stood behind the figured yellow tabaret curtains of Mrs. Pringle's drawing-room window, whither they had been attracted by the thundering of one of the old noisy order of footmen. Blessings on the man, say we, who substituted bells for knockers-so that lovers may not be disturbed, or visitors unaccustomed to public knocking have to expose their incompetence.

We should, however, state, that whenever Mrs. Pringle was consulted by any of the juveniles upon their love affairs, she invariably suggested that they had better "Ask Mamma," though perhaps it was only done as a matter of form, and to enable her to remind them at a future day, if things went wrong, that she had done so. Many people make offers that they never mean to have accepted, but still, if they are not accepted, they made them you know. If they are accepted, why then they wriggle out of them the best way they can. But we are dealing in generalities, instead of confining ourselves to Mrs. Pringle's practice. If the young lady or gentleman-for Mrs. Pringle was equally accessible to the sexes-preferred "asking" her to "Asking Mamma," Mrs. Pringle was always ready to do what she could for them; and the fine Sèvres and Dresden china, the opal vases, the Bohemian scent-bottles, the beautiful bronzes, the or-molu jewel caskets, and Parisian clocks, that mounted guard in the drawing-room when it was not "in commission" (occupied as apartments), spoke volumes for the gratitude of those she befriended. Mrs. Pringle was soon the repository of many secrets, but we need not say that the lady who so adroitly concealed Pheasant Feathers on her own account was not likely to be entrapped into committing others; and though she was often waited upon by pleasant conversationalists on far-fetched errands, who endeavoured to draw carelessly down wind to their point, as well as by seedy and half-seedy gentlemen, who proceeded in a more business-like style, both the pleasant conversationalists and the seedy and the half-seedy gentlemen went away as wise as they came. She never knew anything; it was the first she had heard of anything of the sort.

Altogether, Mrs. Pringle was a wonderful woman, and not the least remarkable trait in her character was that, although servants, who, like the rest of the world, are so ready to pull people down to their own level, knew her early professional career, yet she managed them so well that they all felt an interest in elevating her, from the Duke's Duke, down to old quivering-calved Jeames de la Pluche, who sipped her hop champagne, and told all he heard while waiting at table-that festive period when people talk as if their attendants were cattle or inanimate beings.

The reader will now have the goodness to consider our friend, Fine Billy, established with his handsome mother in Curtain Crescent-not Pimlico, but Belgravia-with all the airs and action described in our opening chapter. We have been a long time in working up to him, but the reader will not find the space wasted, inasmuch as it has given him a good introduction to "Madam," under whose auspices Billy will shortly have to grapple with the "Ask Mamma" world. Moreover, we feel that if there has been a piece of elegance overlooked by novelists generally, it is the delicate, sensitive, highly-refined lady's-maid. With these observations, we now pass on to the son He had exceeded, if possible, his good mother's Parisian anticipations, for if he had not brought away any great amount of learning, if he did not know a planet from a fixed star, the difference of oratory between Cicero and Demosthenes, or the history of Cupid and the minor heathen deities, he was nevertheless an uncommonly good hand at a polka, could be matched to waltz with any one, and had a tremendous determination of words to the mouth. His dancing propensities, indeed, were likely to mislead him at starting; for, not getting into the sort of society Mrs. Pringle wished to see him attain, he took up with Cremorne and Casinos, and questionable characters generally.

Mrs. Pringle's own establishment, we are sorry to say, soon furnished her with the severest cause of disquietude; for having always acted upon the principle of having pretty maids-the difference, as she said, between pretty and plain ones being, that the men ran after the pretty ones, while the plain ones ran after the men-having always, we say, acted upon the principle of having pretty ones, she forgot to change her system on the return of her hopeful son; and before she knew where she was, he had established a desperate liaison with a fair maid whose aptitude for breakage had procured for her the sobriquet of Butter Fingers. Now, Butter Fingers, whose real name was Disher-Jane Disher-was a niece of our old friend, Big Ben, now a flourishing London hotel landlord, and Butter Fingers partook of the goodly properties and proportions for which the Ben family are distinguished. She was a little, plump, fair, round-about thing, with every quality of a healthy country beauty.

Fine Billy was first struck with her one Sunday afternoon, tripping along in Knightsbridge, as she was making her way home from Kensington Gardens, when the cheap finery-the parasol, the profusely-flowered white gauze bonnet, the veil, the machinery laced cloak, the fringed kerchief, worked sleeves, &c., which she kept at Chickory the greengrocer's in Sun Street, and changed there for the quiet apparel in which she left Mrs. Pringle's house in Curtain Crescent-completely deceived him; as much as did the half-starting smile of recognition she involuntarily gave him on meeting. Great was his surprise to find that such a smart, neat-stepping, well-set-up, bien chaussée beauty and he came from the same quarters. We need not say what followed: how Properjohn couldn't see what everybody else saw; and how at length poor Mrs. Pringle, having changed her mind about going to hear Mr. Spurgeon, caught the two sitting together, on her richly carved sofa of chaste design, in the then non-commissioned put-away drawing room. There was Butter Fingers in a flounced book-muslin gown with a broad French sash, and her hair clubbed at the back à la crow's-nest. It was hard to say which of the three got the greatest start, though the blow was undoubtedly the severest on the poor mother, who had looked forward to seeing her son entering the rank of life legitimately in which she had occupied a too questionable position. The worst of it was, she did not know what to do-whether to turn her out of the house at the moment, and so infuriate the uncle and her son also, or give her a good scolding, and get rid of her on the first plausible opportunity. She had no one to consult. She knew what "Want-nothin'-but-what's-right Jerry" would say, and that nothing would please Mrs. Half-a-yard-of-the-table Joe more than to read the marriage of Billy and Butter Fingers.

Mrs. Pringle was afraid too of offending Big Ben by the abrupt dismissal of his niece, and dreaded if Butter Fingers had gained any ascendancy over William, that he too might find a convenient marrying place as somebody else had done.

Altogether our fair friend was terribly perplexed. Thrown on the natural resources of her own strong mind, she thought, perhaps, the usual way of getting young ladies off bad matches, by showing them something better, might be tried with her son. Billy's début in the metropolis had not been so flattering as she could have wished, but then she could make allowances for town exclusiveness, and the pick and choice of dancing activity which old family connections and associations supplied. The country was very different; there, young men were always in request, and were taken with much lighter credentials.

If, thought she, sweet William could but manage to establish a good country connection, there was no saying but he might retain it in town; at all events, the experiment would separate him from the artful Butter Fingers, and pave the way for her dismissal.

To accomplish this desirable object, Mrs. Pringle therefore devoted her undivided attention.

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