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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 21597

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

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REVERSING the usual order of things, each first Monday in November saw the sporting inmates of Tantivy Castle emerge from the chrysalis into the butterfly state of existence. His lordship's green-duck hunter and drab caps disappeared, and were succeeded by a spic-and-span span new scarlet and white top; Mr. Roggledike's last year's pink was replaced by a new one, his hat was succeeded by a cap; and the same luck attended the garments of both Swan and Speed. The stud-groom, the pad-groom, the sending-on groom, all the grooms down to our little friend, Cupid-without-Wings, underwent renovation in their outward men. The whole place smelt of leather and new cloth. The Castle itself on this occasion seemed to participate in the general festivity, for a bright sun emblazoned the quarterings of the gaily flaunting flag, lit up the glittering vanes of the lower towers, and burnished the modest ivy of the basements. Every thing was bright and sunny, and though Dicky Boggledike did not "zactly like" the red sunrise, he "oped the rine might keep off until they were done, 'specially as it was a show day." Very showy indeed it was, for all the gentlemen out of livery,-those strange puzzlers-were in full ball costume; while the standard footmen strutted like peacocks in their rich blue liveries with rose-coloured linings, and enormous bouquets under their noses, feeling that for once they were going to have something to do.

The noble Earl, having got himself up most elaborately in his new hunting garments, and effected a satisfactory tie of a heart's-ease embroidered blue satin cravat, took his usual stand before the now blazing wood and coal fire in the enormous grate in the centre of his magnificent baronial hall, ready to receive his visitors and pass them on to Mrs. Moffat in the banqueting room. This fair lady was just as fine as hands could make her, and the fit of her rich pale satin dress, trimmed with swan's-down, reflected equal credit on her milliner and her maid. Looking at her as she now sat at the head of the sumptuously-furnished breakfast table, her plainly dressed hair surmounted by a diminutive point-lace cap, and her gazelle-like eye lighting up an intelligent countenance, it were hardly possible to imagine that she had ever been handsomer, or that beneath that quiet aspect there lurked what is politely called a "high spirit," that is to say, a little bit of temper.

That however is more the Earl's look-out than ours, so we will return to his lordship at the entrance hall fire.

Of course this sort of gathering was of rather an anomalous character,-some coming because they wanted something, some because they "dirsn't" stay away, some because they did not know Mrs. Moffat would be there, some because they did not care whether she was or not. It was a show day, and they came to see the beautiful Castle, not Mrs. Anybody.

The first to arrive were the gentlemen of the second class, the agents and dependents of the estate,-Mr. Cypher, the auditor, he who never audited; Mr. Easylease, the land agent; his son, Mr. John Easylease, the sucking land agent; Mr. Staple, the mining agent; Mr. James Staple, the sucking mining agent; Mr. Section, the architect; Mr. Pillerton, the doctor; Mr. Brick, the builder; &c., who were all very polite ard obsequious, "your lordship" and my "my lording" the Earl at every opportunity. These, ranging themselves on either side of the fire, now formed the nucleus of the court, with the Earl in the centre.

Presently the rumbling of wheels and the grinding of gravel was succeeded by the muffled-drum sort of sound of the wood pavement of the grand covered portico, and the powdered footmen threw back the folding-doors as if they expected Daniel Lambert or the Durham Ox to enter. It was our old friend Imperial John, who having handed his pipeclayed reins to his ploughman-groom, descended from his buggy with a clumsy half buck, half hawbuck sort of air, and entered the spacious portals of the Castle hall. Having divested himself of his paletot in which he had been doing "the pride that apes humility," he shook out his red feathers, pulled up his sea-green-silk-tied gills, finger-combed his stiff black hair, and stood forth a sort of rough impersonation of the last year's Earl. His coat was the same cut, his hat was the same shape, his boots and breeches were the same colour, and altogether there was the same sort of resemblance between John and the Earl that there is between a cart-horse and a race-horse.

Having deposited his whip and paletot on the table on the door-side of a tall, wide-spreading carved oak screen, which at once concealed the enterers from the court, and kept the wind from that august assembly, John was now ready for the very obsequious gentleman who had been standing watching his performances without considering it necessary to give him any assistance. This bland gentleman, in his own blue coat with a white vest, having made a retrograde movement which cleared himself of the screen, John was presently crossing the hall, bowing and stepping and bowing and stepping as if he was measuring off a drain.

His lordship, who felt grateful for John's recent services, and perhaps thought he might require them again, advanced to meet him and gave him a very cordial shake of the hand, as much as to say, "Never mind Miss de Glancey, old fellow, we'll make it right another time." They then fell to conversing about turnips, John's Green Globes having turned out a splendid crop, while his Swedes were not so good as usual, though they still might improve.

A more potent wheel-roll than John's now attracted his lordship's attention, and through the far windows he saw a large canary-coloured ark of a coach, driven by a cockaded coachman, which he at once recognised as belonging to his natural enemy Major Yammerton, "five-and-thirty years master of haryers," as the Major would say, "without a subscription." Mr. Boggledike had lately been regaling his lordship with some of the Major's boastings about his "haryars" and the wonderful sport they showed, which he had had the impudence to compare with his lordship's fox hounds. Besides which, he was always disturbing his lordship's covers on the Roughborough side of the country, causing his lordship to snub him at all opportunities. The Major, however, who was a keen, hard-bitten, little man, not easily choked off when he wanted anything, and his present want being to be made a magistrate, he had attired himself in an antediluvian swallow-tailed scarlet, with a gothic-arched collar, and brought his wife and two pretty daughters to aid in the design. Of course the ladies were only coming to see the Castle.

The cockaded coachman having tied his reins to the rail of the driving-box, descended from his eminence to release his passengers, while a couple of cerulean-blue gentlemen looked complacently on, each with half a door in his hand ready to throw open as they approached, the party were presently at the hall table, where one of those indispensable articles, a looking-glass, enabled the ladies to rectify any little derangement incidental to the joltings of the journey, while the little Major run a pocket-comb through a fringe of carroty curls that encircled his bald head, and disposed of a cream-coloured scarf cravat to what he considered the best advantage. Having drawn a doeskin glove on to the left hand, he offered his arm to his wife, and advanced from behind the screen with his hat in his ungloved right hand ready to transfer it to the left should occasion require.

"Ah Major Yammerton!" exclaimed the Earl, breaking off in the middle of the turnip dialogue with Imperial John. "Ah, Major Yammerton, I'm delighted to see you" (getting a glimpse of the girls). "Mrs. Yammerton, this is indeed extremely kind," continued he, taking both her hands in his; "and bringing your lovely daughters," continued he, advancing to greet them.

Mrs. Yammerton here gave the Major a nudge to remind him of his propriety speech. "The gi-gi-girls and Mrs. Ya-Ya-Yammerton," for he always stuttered when he told lies, which was pretty often; "the gi-gi-girls and Mrs. Ya-Ya-Yammerton have done me the honour-"

Another nudge from Mrs. Yammerton.

"I mean to say the gi-gi-girls and Mrs. Ya-Ya-Yammerton," observed he, with a stamp of the foot and a shake of the head, for he saw that his dread enemy, Imperial John, was laughing at him, "have done themselves the honour of co-co-coming, in hopes to be allowed the p-p-p-pleasure of seeing your mama-magnificent collection of pi-pi-pictors." the Major at length getting out what he had been charged to say.

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"By all means!" exclaimed the delighted Earl, "by all means; but first let me have the pleasure of conducting you to the refreshment-room;" saying which his lordship offered Mrs. Yammerton his arm. So passing up the long gallery, and entering by the private door, he popped her down beside Mrs. Moffatt before Mrs. Yammerton knew where she was.

Just then our friend Billy Pringle, who, with the aid of Rougier, had effected a most successful logement in his hunting things, made his appearance, to whom the Earl having assigned the care of the young ladies, now beat a retreat to the hall, leaving Mrs. Yammerton lost in astonishment as to what her Mrs. Grundy would say, and speculations as to which of her daughters would do for Mr. Pringle.

Imperial John, who had usurped the Earl's place before the fire, now shied off to one side as his lordship approached, and made his most flexible obeisance to the two Mr. Fothergills and Mr. Stot, who had arrived during his absence. These, then, gladly passed on to the banqueting-room just as the Condor-like wings of the entrance hall door flew open and admitted Imperial Jane, now the buxom Mrs. Poppyfield. She came smiling past the screen, magnificently attired in purple velvet and ermine, pretending she had only come to warm herself at the "'All fire while Pop looked for the groom, who had brought his 'orse, and who was to drive her 'ome;" but hearing from the Earl that the Yammertons were all in the banqueting-room, she saw no reason why she shouldn't go too; so when the next shoal of company broke against the screen, she took Imperial John's arm, and preceded by a cloud of lackeys, cerulean-blue and others, passed from the hall to the grand apartment, up which she sailed majestically, tossing her plumed head at that usurper Mrs. Moffatt; and then increased the kettle of fish poor Mrs. Yammerton was in by seating herself beside her.

"Impudent woman," thought Mrs. Yammerton, "if I'd had any idea of this I wouldn't have come;" and she thought how lucky it was she had put the Major up to ask

ing to see the "pictors." It was almost a pity he was so anxious to be a magistrate. Thought he might be satisfied with being Major of such a fine regiment as the Featherbedfordshire Militia. Nor were her anxieties diminished by the way the girls took the words out of each other's mouths, as it were, in their intercourse with Billy Pringle, thus preventing either from making any permanent impression.

The great flood of company now poured into the hall, red coats, green coats, black coats, brown coats, mingled with variously-coloured petticoats. The ladies of the court, Mrs. Cypher, Mrs. Pillerton, Mrs. and the Misses Easylease, Mrs. Section, and others, hurried through with a shivering sort of step as if they were going to bathe. Mr. D'Orsay Davis, the "we" of the Featherbedfordshire Gazette, made his bow and passed on with stately air, as a ruler of the roast ought to do. The Earl of Stare, as Mr. Buckwheat was called, from the fixed protuberance of his eyes-a sort of second edition of Imperial John, but wanting his looks, and Gameboy Green, the hard rider of the hunt, came in together; and the Earl of Stare, sporting scarlet, advanced to his brother peer, the Earl, who, not thinking him an available card, turned him over to Imperial John who had now returned from his voyage with Imperial Jane, while his lordship commenced a building conversation with Mr. Brick.

A lull then ensuing as if the door had done its duty, his lordship gave a wave of his hand, whereupon the trained courtiers shot out into horns on either side, with his lordship in the centre, and passed majestically along to the banqueting-room.

The noble apartment a hundred feet long, and correspondingly proportioned, was in the full swing of hospitality when the Earl entered. The great influx of guests for which the Castle was always prepared, had at length really arrived, and from Mrs. Moffatt's end of the table to the door, were continuous lines of party-coloured eaters, all engaged in the noble act of deglutition. Up the centre was a magnificent avenue of choice exotics in gold, silver, and china vases, alternating with sugar-spun Towers, Temples, Pagodas, and Rialtos, with here and there the more substantial form of massive plate, èpergnes, testimonials, and prizes of different kinds. It was a regular field day for plate, linen, and china.

The whole force of domestics was now brought to bear upon the charge, and the cerulean-blue gentlemen vied with the gentlemen out of livery in the assiduity of their attentions. Soup, game, tea, coffee, chocolate, ham, eggs, honey, marmalade, grapes, pines, melons, ices, buns, cakes, skimmed and soared, and floated about the room, in obedience to the behests of the callers. The only apparently disengaged person in the room, was Monsieur Jean Rougier, who, in a blue coat with a velvet collar and bright buttons, a rolling-collared white vest, and an amplified lace-tipped black Joinville, stood like a pouter pigeon behind Mr. Pringle's chair, the beau ideal of an indifferent spectator. And yet he was anything but an indifferent spectator; for beneath his stubbly hair were a pair of little roving, watchful eyes, and his ringed ears were cocked for whatever they could catch. The clatter, patter, clatter, patter of eating, which was slightly interrupted by the entrance of his lordship was soon in full vigour again, and all eyes resumed the contemplation of the plates.

Presently, the "fiz, pop, bang" of a champagne cork was heard on the extreme right, which was immediately taken up on the left, and ran down either side of the table like gigantic crackers. Eighty guests were now imbibing the sparkling fluid, as fast as the footmen could supply it. And it was wonderful what a volubility that single glass a-piece (to be sure they were good large ones) infused into the meeting; how tongue-tied ones became talkative, and awed ones began to feel themselves sufficiently at home to tackle with the pines and sugar ornaments of the centre. Grottoes and Pyramids and Pagodas and Rialtos began to topple to their fall, and even a sugar Crystal Palace, which occupied the post of honour between two flower-decked Sèvres vases, was threatened with destruction. The band and the gardeners were swept away immediately, and an assault on the fountains was only prevented by the interference of Mr. Beverage, the butler. And now a renewed pop-ponading commenced, more formidable, if possible, than the first, and all glasses were eagerly drained, and prepared to receive the salute.

All being ready, Lord Ladythorne rose amid the applause so justly due to a man entertaining his friends, and after a few prefatory remarks, expressive of the pleasure it gave him to see them all again at the opening of another season, and hoping that they might have many more such meetings, he concluded by giving as a toast, "Success to fox-hunting!"-which, of course, was drunk upstanding with all the honours.

All parties having gradually subsided into their seats after this uncomfortable performance, a partial lull ensued, which was at length interrupted by his lordship giving Imperial John, who sat on his left, a nod, who after a loud throat-clearing hem! rose bolt upright with his imperial chin well up, and began, "Gentlemen and Ladies!" just as little weazeley Major Yammerton commenced "Ladies and gentlemen!" from Mrs. Moffatt's end of the table. This brought things to a stand still-some called for Hybrid, some for Yammerton, and each disliking the other, neither was disposed to give way. The calls, however, becoming more frequent for Yammerton, who had never addressed them before, while Hybrid had, saying the same thing both times, the Earl gave his Highness a hint to sit down, and the Major was then left in that awful predicament, from which so many men would be glad to escape, after they have achieved it, namely,-the possession of the meeting.

However, Yammerton had got his speech well off, and had the heads of it under his plate; so on silence being restored, he thus went away with it:-

"Ladies and gentlemen,-(cough)-ladies and gentlemen,-(hem) I rise, I assure you-(cough)-with feelings of considerable trepidation-(hem)-to perform an act-(hem)-of greater difficulty than may at first sight appear-(hem, hem, haw)-for let me ask what it is I am about to do? ("You know best," growled Imperial John, thinking how ill he was doing it.) I am going to propose the health of a nobleman-(applause)-of whom, in whose presence, if I say too much, I may offend, and if I say too little, I shall most justly receive your displeasure (renewed applause). But, ladies and gentlemen, there are times when the 'umblest abilities become equal to the occasion, and assuredly this is one-(applause). To estimate the character of the illustrious nobleman aright, whose health I shall conclude by proposing, we must regard him in his several capacities-(applause)-as Lord-Lieutenant of the great county of Featherbedford, as a great and liberal landlord, as a kind and generous neighbour, and though last, not least, as a brilliant sportsman-(great applause, during which Yammerton looked under his plate at his notes.)-As Lord-Lieutenant," continued he, "perhaps the greatest praise I can offer him, the 'ighest compliment I can pay him, is to say that his appointments are so truly impartial as not to disclose his own politics-(applause)-as a landlord, he is so truly a pattern that it would be a mere waste of words for me to try to recommend him to your notice,-(applause)-as a neighbour, he is truly exemplary in all the relations of life,-(applause)-and as a sportsman, having myself kept haryers five-and-thirty years without a subscription, I may be permitted to say that he is quite first-rate,-(laughter from the Earl's end of the table, and applause from Mrs. Moffatt's.)-In all the relations of life, therefore, ladies and gentlemen,"-continued the Major, looking irately down at the laughers-"I beg to propose the bumper toast of health, and long life to our 'ost, the noble Earl of Ladythorne!"

Whereupon the little Major popped down on his chair, wondering whether he had omitted any thing he ought to have said, and seeing him well down, Imperial John, who was not to be done out of his show-off, rose, glass in hand, and exclaimed in a stentorian voice,

"Gentlemen and Ladies! Oi beg to propose that we drink this toast up standin' with all the honours!-Featherbedfordshire fire!" upon which there was a great outburst of applause, mingled with demands for wine, and requests from the ladies, that the gentlemen would be good enough to take their chairs off their dresses, or move a little to one side, so that they might have room to stand up; Crinoline, we should observe, being very abundant with many of them.

A tremendous discharge of popularity then ensued, the cheers being led by Imperial John, much to the little Major's chagrin, who wondered how he could ever have sat down without calling for them.

Now, the Earl, we should observe, had not risen in the best of moods that morning, having had a disagreeable dream, in which he saw old Binks riding his favourite horse Valiant, Mazeppa fashion, making a drag of his statue of the Greek slave, enveloped in an anise-seeded bathing-gown; a vexation that had been further increased when he arose, by the receipt of a letter from his "good-natured friend" in London, telling him how old Binks had been boasting at Boodle's that he was within an ace of an Earldom, and now to be clumsily palavered by Yammerton was more than he could bear.

He didn't want to be praised for anything but his sporting propensities, and Imperial John knew how to do it. Having, however, a good dash of satire in his composition, when the applause and the Crinoline had subsided, he arose as if highly delighted, and assured them that if anything could enhance the pleasure of that meeting, it was to have his health proposed by such a sportsman as Major Yammerton, a gentleman who he believed had kept harriers five-and-thirty years, a feat he believed altogether unequalled in the annals of sporting-(laughter and applause)-during which the little Major felt sure he was going to conclude by proposing his health with all the honours, instead of which, however, his lordship branched off to his own department of sport, urging them to preserve foxes most scrupulously, never to mind a little poultry damage, for Mr. Boggledike would put all that right, never to let the odious word Strychnine be heard in the country, and concluded by proposing a bumper to their next merry meeting, which was the usual termination of the proceedings. The party then rose, chairs fell out of line, and flying crumpled napkins completed the confusion of the scene.

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